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Did you all watch Moana? That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something). The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better. That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.
There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie. Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef. Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes. Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past. Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…
Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder). “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.
Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture. I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal. We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.
There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls. The first reason is about making children behave. If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.
Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.
People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation. They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger. It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe. The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories). We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile. Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.
Based on what we are learning from the exoplanet surveys of the past decade, our galaxy is the home of an immense number of Jovian-size gas giant planets. There are countless “hot Jupiters”–gas giants located close to their stars which whip around and around their orbits in ridiculously short “years”. There are frigid slow gas giants and super massive ones—practically brown dwarves– which are larger than Jupiter. There is an endless proliferation of Uranus and Neptune type giants. Imagine them all glittering in strange colors with weird shapes. They are cloaked in alien clouds and covered in mysterious storms. Who knows what lies beneath?
All of these billions of giant planets seem pretty hypothetical to me as I sit here at my cramped & cluttered desk on solid little Earth. Yet they exist. They are out there in numbers too vast to comprehend. However, right now, NASA is conducting the most comprehensive exploration yet of the gas giant we can access. Juno’s mission is just getting underway in earnest, and the largest gas giant in our own backyard should reveal lots about all of the billions which are out of reach.
I am sad that I can neither understand nor convey the loftiness of this crazy ongoing mission. It is an astonishing undertaking—but we are so inundated by with murky political battles and vulgar popular drivel, that it is hard to see the utterly astonishing nature of this undertaking.
Maybe I can put it in perspective somewhat. Imagine back to the year 1609 AD when Henry Hudson was first seeing the river which was later named after him. Before him was an exquisite expanse of islands, bays, and sparkling river. The vast waterway flowed down from unknown mountains into a bay surrounded by lovely islands. The whole expanse was filled with flocks of unknown birds and schools of fish. Beyond the thriving marshes, mysterious forests were filled with moving shadows.
Now multiply that a billion times: replace Henry Hudson with a tiny fragile robot and replace the Hudson River with luminous gas oceans large enough to entirely submerge scores of Earths. That is what is happening right now. As you sit reading this on a little glowing screen, we are making fundamental discoveries about a whole planet.
On August 27, 2016, Juno executed the first of 36 orbital flybys over Jupiter. The doughty spacecraft was only 4,200 kilometers (2,500 miles) above Jupiter’s atmosphere. It sent back the first detailed images of the north pole of Jupiter—and it is unlike the rest of the planet.
The North Pole of Jupiter as seen by Juno [NASA]
To quote Scott Bolton, one of the lead scientists of the Juno mission, “[The] first glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole…it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before….It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to — this image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter. We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”
Jupiter’s clouds contain whole continent-like regions of air which are different than the rest of the planet’s storms and whirls. We don’t yet know why or how, but we are finding out. As we do so, we are peeling back a layer of mystery which surrounds all such worlds.
Solar Radiation Streaming over the North Pole of Jupiter
Happy (belated) Fourth of July! While everyone was out barbecuing and amusing themselves with colorful novelty explosions, there was big news in space exploration: NASA’s Juno probe, which launched from Earth five years ago, has finally reached the gas giant planet and entered orbit. The robot spacecraft, which is about the size of a basketball court, is now dancing nimbly amongst the system of moons and rings and radiation belts around the giant world.
The probe is a remarkable spacecraft. It traveled 2.7 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) to reach the exact orbit which NASA planned for it. The secret behind its astonishing precision (even when traveling at 165,000 mph) is the autonomy of its sophisticated navigational computer. Mission controllers do not have to radio the probe from half-way across the solar system (which would take minutes—or longer. Instead the probe navigates itself. The ship computer is shielded beneath a titanium vault to keep radiation from frying its clever electronic brain.
Among the planets, Jupiter is a sort of greedy eldest child. Scientists who study planetary formation believe that the gas giant formed first of all the planets and it took the lion’s share of available matter left over from the formation of the sun. Jupiter is more than twice as massive as all the other planets in our solar system put together: indeed, it is three hundred and eighteen times more massive than Earth. Yet we know shockingly little about this bruiser. Very basic questions about Jupiter remain unanswered. For example we still do not know whether the planet has a rocky core beneath its vast colorful atmosphere.
As we learn more about exoplanets which orbit other stars, questions about the formation of solar systems have become more numerous. Astronomers have been particularly perplexed by the number of “hot Jupiters,” giant gas planets which are extremely close to their stars. Was Jupiter such a world at some point before moving to its current location, or is it a huge freak? We simply do not know. Scientists would also like to know more about the unimaginably vast cloudscapes of Jupiter. What dynamics move these huge bands of pressurized gas?
As Jupiter formed, it was bombarded by strange radiation. The depths of Jupiter’s storms must still feature giant lightning strikes. This sort of treatment can cause hydrocarbons and ammonia to form amino acids. Maybe life has a Jovian origin. Maybe Jupiter still has life floating around like aerial zooplankton. Again, we just don’t know much about the giant world…
However, now that Juno has arrived we can start to answer some of these questions. The probe will go through various start-up and test sequences until Oct. 19 when it moves to a 14-day orbit of the planet and really starts scrutinizing our giant neighbor.
Oh, one more thing—NASA has been getting better at PR to make space more accessible and “fun” for us laypeople following at home (as witnessed by the July 4th arrival). Juno also has a crew of three Lego astronauts: Galileo, Jupiter, and Juno herself. This leads me to write about Juno herself, for she is a terrifying figure among the gods. More about her tomorrow!
Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring). When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”). The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be. His armies smote the enemies of China. He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City. He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service. Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter). The peasantry was happy and successful. Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished. It was a glorious golden age for China.
The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting
The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu. During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…
Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter. Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture). The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”). In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew. In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter. In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son. In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).
Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword
So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation. Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk. Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.
This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere. To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world. The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide). They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He). The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols. China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.
As promised we are dedicating today’s post to the New Horizons spacecraft. The unmanned robot probe (which is the size of an unwieldy motorcycle) flew past Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EST, traveling at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour (31,000 mph). At its nearest approach, the craft was only 1200 kilometers (7500 miles) above Pluto’s surface—closer to Pluto than Brooklyn is to Botswana.
Because of the shape and size of the solar system, the telemetry of the mission, and the niceties of radio-communication, NASA did not receive the information dump from the spacecraft until 00:53 GMT Wednesday which is uh…approximately right now! So I haven’t had any time to groom the Pluto data! Today’s post is thus more of a laurel. But the information does exist—the craft survived and completed its mission. We have a trove of knowledge about Pluto to help scientists understand the nature of the solar system—or to conceive of what kinds of new questions to ask about other planetary systems. Maybe I’ll be desperately writing another post tomorrow if scientists unexpectedly find canals on Pluto or discover that Nyx is really a giant egg or something, but most likely this data will take a long time to process and understand. Such is the nature of science (and most worthwhile pursuits). So what is the purpose of this post?
I have never been unduly upset about the designation “dwarf planet” for things like Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Haumea. However I did grow up with “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” (a much snappier mnemonic than “My very educated mother just served us nothing”), and the idea of Pluto as the final planet still holds undeserved weight in my subconscious. I have thus been taking NASA’s self-congratulatory PR announcements seriously when they say “we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets.” That sounds right to me. Humankind has gathered a great deal of information about the solar system. Now it is time to brainstorm some new objectives before the fickle public loses its interest and wanders off.
There is a national consensus that we should be spending all of our money on expensive cell phones and vastly overpriced (yet disturbingly ineffectual) medical care. The space age is reckoned to be over—and space should now be left to the likes of Elon Musk and other James Bond villain-ish mega billionaires. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. Now that we have some ideas about what is out there we should use our hard-won knowledge to do tremendous things! My favorite next step is an atmospheric mission to Venus. Let’s send some cool space blimps to sit in the high atmosphere of our sister planet and maybe launch some weird little drones and smaller balloons into the atmosphere. We could find out whether a floating colony is even feasible. Plus it would be like the Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers all over—on another world!
The idea of a human mission to Mars and a submarine mission to Europa also have great merit—but I see them as more difficult and with less practical purpose. What are your favorite ideas about what to do next? This seems like a good moment to at least talk about the direction we are headed, even as we sip champagne and dance joyously about what we have done.
In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.
Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.
Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!
Outside my window, New York City is experiencing a blizzard. The city is on high alert: the mayor is issuing all sorts of proclamations while, at the grocery store, a horde was stripping the shelves bare. Meteorologists and weather scryers warn that the city could be in for up to 36 inches of snow!
Being forced to live under 3 feet of snow is an alarming prospect to me, but it is nothing for the life forms which were just discovered by a team of scientists exploring the extreme ecosystems of Antarctica. The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project has just drilled through the Ross Ice Shelf—a gigantic sheet of ancient ice which covers an area approximately the size of France. The amazing (albeit stupidly named) WISSARD team drilled through 740 meters (2,430 feet) of shelf ice by means of a specialized hot water drill in order to lower a cylindrical robot submarine into this hidden sea. The insertion point for the probe was near where the ice sheet, the ocean, and the long-buried lands of Antarctica all meet–nearly 850 kilometers (530 miles) from the open ocean. At the converging point of ice, rock, and water, there are vast “grounding lines” of ice which attach the glaciers to the floating Ross sheet. Below the ice, a constant rain of rocks ranging in size from microscopic dust to house size boulders fall upon the sea floor. The temperature of the sea water is 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 degrees Celsius).
The scientists had speculated that fresh melt water from inland would create an estuarial environment beneath the ice. They found no evidence of that, but they did find all sorts of strange lifeforms. The barrage of rocks keep any sessile lifeforms from finding a home in these waters, but hardy motile sea creatures live there including fish, jellyfish, and amphipods (hardy crustaceans which thrive in extreme environments). The newly discovered Ross fish (which yet lack a name) are the southernmost known fish of the world. They are translucent and pink and measure about 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. As with the crazy underground catfish of South America (which live below the water table), the existence of these ice fish raises an immediate question: what do they live on? The sun shines little through half a mile of solid ice, so what do microorganisms as the base of the food chain use for energy? These organisms do not rely on “cold seeps” (which we explored in a previous post), but the answer is not entirely unrelated. Scientists speculate that the geological upheaval releases nutrients in the form of carbon. It seems that an ancient fossilized ecosystem eroding away into the ocean. The strange fish and sundry invertebrates of the Ross Ice shelf may ultimately be reliant on fossil fuels—which makes them our spiritual brothers for, in this era of cheap frack-gas humankind is more tied to fossil fuels than ever [looks at snow outside and turns up heat].
Orion, the giant hunter, is one of the oldest figures in Greek mythology. He is mentioned in the most ancient surviving works of Greek literature (well, aside from linear B tablets). There are various contradictory myths about his birth and about his death (indeed, he seems almost to be from a pre-Ionic generation of gods and heroes), however out of this mish-mash, there is a rough consensus: Orion was an earth-straddling giant, the son of sea-god Poseidon. Alone among gods and mortals, he found romantic favor in the eyes of the exquisite virgin goddess Artemis, but, because of this affection, her jealous brother Apollo murdered him by means of a giant supernatural scorpion. Artemis was bereft, but together with Zeus, and with her contrite brother, they hung the giant in the sky as an eternal memorial and as a challenge to future heroes (and as an unspoken threat). During winter, Orion is arguably the most recognizable constellation from the Northern hemisphere.
There is a famous myth about Orion before he met Artemis and his doom. The king of Chios was attempting to bring agriculture and viniculture to his island people, but the howling of lions, bears, wolves, and other wild animals kept him up all night (this is one of those troubling myths about the distinctions between uncivilized hunters and civilized farmers). The king promised Orion the hand of his gorgeous daughter, Merope, if the hunter could remedy this problem. Night and day, the giant huntsman slaughtered wild beasts until the island was free of big (loud) predators, yet, when Orion applied to the king to wed his promised bride, the recalcitrant monarch kept complaining he could hear nonexistent wolves. Orion was wroth at the broken deal, but the crafty king plied him with flattering words and with wine, wine, wine by the barrel until even the giant was overcome and passed out in a drunken stupor. The king then had his bondsmen blind Orion, who stumbled off into the ocean (which, by the way, he could easily walk upon because of his paternal heritage). Orion wondered here and there across the Mediterranean, lost, until at last he heard the hammers of workshop of the great smith Hephaestus. The kind god took pity upon the blinded giant and lent one of his shop Cyclops to sit on the great hunter’s shoulder and lead him to a cure. With directions from the Cyclops, Orion strode due east until he came to the place of the dawn, whereupon the radiant light of the morning sun cured his blindness.
There is a reason I am bringing up the godlike giant Orion (whose likeness hangs so magnificently in the winter sky). And there is likewise a reason I am telling this story of perfidy and blindness at the hands of a greedy king. Tomorrow at 7:05 AM EST, the American space agency NASA will launch its new Orion spacecraft from America’s principal spaceport at Cape Canaveral. Orion is a crew capsule designed for deep-space missions—to take humans to the moon (or a comparable destination). After decades, we are again building vessels which can carry humans into beyond near-Earth orbit.
For tomorrow’s unmanned test flight, Orion will ride a Delta IV heavy rocket into orbit, but for actual manned missions, the capsule will sit atop the planned SLS (space launch system) rocket, a behemoth built for leaving Earth. The capsule will rise to 14 times the height of the International Space Station (which hangs near the Earth) and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a blazing 32,200 kilometers per hour (20,000 miles per hour). Although it is designed to hold 4 astronauts for a 21 day mission, during its test flight, Orion’s crew will consist of symbolic items such as one of Cookie Monster’s cookies, poetry, a rubber duck, and a piece of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
It is high time we return to manned space exploration! The business and political masters of the United States have been busy building monopolies and gaming the financial markets rather than working on science, exploration, and progress. We have been blundering around blind for too long. It’s time to start crafting some long term space goals and working diligently towards them. Orion is a small step, but it is a small step closer to my fondest dream of colonizing the inviting skies of Venus.
Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well. Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise. The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.
In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient. Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums). The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).
Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century. The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster their brief ascendancy to global superpower. During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.
As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade. The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering). The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices. Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).
In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname). Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly. They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production). Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices. The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.
So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks. Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes. The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes. As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.
It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants). In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations. Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.
Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders). Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread. This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna). The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…
Happy Birthday NASA! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began operations on October 1, 1958 barely two months after the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act (which congress approved on July 29, 1958). Since then the space agency has encountered myriad astonishing successes from landing humans on the moon, to leaving the solar system, to building the only working space planes, to exploring the planets and sun with robots (and doing so much else). In order to accomplish these astonishing missions, NASA has spearheaded countless breakthroughs in science. During its 55 year history, the space agency has caused revolutions in fundamental astronomy, physics, aerospace engineering, materials sciences, ecology (and many, many other fields). NASA is a resounding success—it is one of the greatest human institutions for exploring, learning, and innovation.
It is somewhat ironic that today is the space agency’s anniversary because the shutdown of the American government has is deeply hurting the agency. Of NASA’s 18,000 employees, 97% are on unpaid furlough. All projects other than active missions are temporarily suspended. This is serious business, because space projects, like cakes in the oven, do not deal with suspension very well. The more time spacecraft spend here on Earth being shuttled in and out of storage, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong. Also, the universe did not shut down because of funding trouble—so missions with orbital based schedules will potentially have to be held up for years.
For anyone reading this in the far future or from a cave deep beneath the Earth, this is all a by-product of a failure of America’s split legislative houses to pass a budget due to political feuding. Extreme right wing legislators who do not wish for Americans to be able to afford health care (and believe that if the government is defunded it will advance the wealthy business leaders whom they serve) are holding the national budget hostage in the hopes that they can disassemble the Affordable Care Medical Act. Congressional districts in America are laughably gerrymandered (i.e. designed to be perfectly safe for incumbents) so it will be some time before the majority of voters can remove these dangerous and incompetent politicians from office.
Even before the government shutdown, NASA has been having political and funding trouble. The anti-government right-wing caucus in the House of Representatives has been trying to bleed away more and more of its funding (many of the so-called tea party caucus are also religious fundamentalists, so science makes them nervous and unhappy anyway). All of this strikes me as appallingly short-sighted. The legislators who believe the market to be the supreme arbiter of human affairs are clearly being paid to espouse such a short-sighted objective. While, the market is quite good at selling everyone plastic rubbish, crooked equities, and hair loss pills, by itself the system is fundamentally incapable of the sort of research which moves humankind forward. Blue sky research into the unknown is not a job for abusive oligarchs and fat corrupt businessmen. The exploration of the universe and of cutting edge science is a task for the brilliant men and women of NASA–but at present they are at home worrying about their bills and looking at the employment section for less important (but better paying) jobs.