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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.

Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.

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Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?

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Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.

Artist's conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

Artist’s conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life.  And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world.  The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury.  Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so).  Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun.  The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals.  The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.

The mission featured a big surprise.  Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury.  This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings.  What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds.  According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering.  Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second).  This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater.  Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury.  Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts.  The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024.  Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!

Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above.  NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will.  Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere?  You should probably ignore that…

An artist’s rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor (by Carl Buell)

An artist’s rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor (by Carl Buell)

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

Years ago, when I first moved to New York and was a bright optimistic young person, I would travel around the city via subway.  Every day I entered and left the same entrance to the same underground train stop.  One day somebody dropped a bag of cheap glitter stars right by the exit.  These stars were different colors and different shapes.  They started as a glittering clump at the top of the stairs but thanks to foot traffic and weather, they quickly got everywhere.   Blocks away one would come upon glistening stars dotted along the sidewalk.

Then the stars began to fade and deteriorate.  Their shininess wore off in the rain. Their arms broke as people walked on them, but every once in a while you would see one that had caught in a protected location and survived.  Eventually there were no glitter stars left at all, but I suppose that the stuff they are made out of—bits of plastic and metal foil—is still out there in a landfill, or running down through drains into the ocean, or just blowing in the wind.

I mention all of this because it is a poignant metaphor for the currently projected fate of the expanding universe.  The ultimate destiny of the universe was once a problem relegated to theologians and mystics (and crazy people).  However, when cosmologists fathomed how the universe began–with the big bang 13 plus billion years ago–the question of how the universe would end became a legitimate scientific topic.   Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe was expanding provided an ominous hint as to the ending.

The way the universe will end is contingent on whether the momentum of the universe’s expansion is greater than the force of gravity (which in turn depends on the amount of matter in the universe and the density of that matter).  The current scientific consensus–based on carefully considered estimates of the universe’s mass density and on the most recently observed rate of cosmic expansion—is that the universe will continue to expand indefinitely.

Physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists therefore now project a rather glum fate for everything that exists. The death of the universe is divided into 4 stages summarized below:

Stelliferous: (Now to 100 trillion years into the future) This is an era teaming with stars: great masses of matter coalesce together into stellar masses and begin fusing together and releasing all sorts of energy as they do so.  Bit by bit though the brightest stars will wink out and only long-lived red dwarfs will remain.

Degenerate (100 trillion to 1037 years in the future) After even the red dwarfs fade into darkness, most of the universe’s mass will remain in the dying husks of stars, or in the remains of more exotic stellar death (black holes left by the destruction of super massive stars,  neutron stars, and white dwarfs). Electromagnetic energy in the Degenerate era will be generated by particle annihilation and proton decay rather than stellar fusion.

Black Hole Era (1038 to 10100 years into the future) After protons all decay away from the universe, the only large objects creating energy will be black holes which will themselves slowly evaporate into exotic matter over a vast expanse of empty time.

Dark Era (10100 years into the future to eternity) Protons and black holes will be gone and only the effluvia radiation from their passing will still exists in the universe.  All that remains will be photons of immense wavelength, neutrinos, positrons, and electrons–sad burned-out remnants which lack any order or meaning.  The universe will be incredibly vast, a horrible dark cold broken thing and it will remain that way forever.

So there you have it.  The fate of the universe is to slowly freeze and decay over trillions and trillions of years and then dissipate away into dark nothingness over eternity.

Of course 10100 years is a very long time indeed.  There is still plenty of time for beach parties and flower gardening, but this is not the end I would have wanted for anything I esteem as much as the universe. There isn’t much I can do about it though, except to hope that some unknown aspect of the cosmos provides a more spectacular and fiery end or that Vishnu intervenes.  Or maybe there is a multiverse in which our cosmos floats like an abstract bubble:  in the past, every time we thought we understood the universe it turned out that we were only looking at a small part of a greater whole.  It wouldn’t surprise me if something still eludes us.

"Vishnu, you out there buddy? Some help?"

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