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It’s April 12th, “Yuri’s Night” when humankind comes together to celebrate our achievements in space…and to brainstorm about where we will go next.   Of course at this precise moment we are having some temporary setbacks in space—but we’ll post about NASA’s space telescope trouble tomorrow.  Today is about the glory and magnificence of space exploration.  And there are plenty of news stories about that too.  SpaceX has finally “stuck the landing” on one of its reusable rockets (and the past year’s drama of watching them nearly land on a raft and then blow up was pretty thrilling in its own right).  A private firm is building an inflatable module for the International Space Station.  NASA is moving forwards with its plans to build a space probe to touch the sun! And that is not to mention the many man robot probes running around the Solar System.

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Solar Probe Plus (NASA)

However, today is also a day when we whisper our heart’s dearest wishes to the stars.  The Economist has abandoned its fusty articles about central banking to lovingly describe a feasible interstellar space craft!  Visionary engineers keep grinding ahead with plans for a space elevator (the brainchild of a different Yuri— Yuri Artsutanov).   Tech billionaires are working on their asteroid mining project (at least on paper)… and NASA continues to talk of a Mars mission.

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Yet all of this pales beside my near-future space vision—a plan which is as simple as it is breathtaking and incomprehensible.  I want us to come together and hang a new society in the distant skies over Venus.  At first it will be a crude plastic bouncy city, but, as we drop energy transfer cables down into the atmosphere and skyhooks down to harvest raw materials from the surface things should start to get more elaborate fast.  We can make floating farms, forests, and oceans.  All we need to do is get a plastics factory over to Venus and uh, solve the pesky problem of shielding our new society from deadly solar winds (a real problem on Venus, since it has no magnetosphere to speak of).

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(Artwork by Don Dixon)

With this in mind, it is time to take a much closer look at Venus.  So this is my Yuri’s Night resolution.  We will be revisiting our sister planet at this site and reviewing everything we know about it.  Since the first humans looked up in the morning sky and saw it as the brightest star up until now Venus has always been in our hearts—but these days we know some real and meaningful things about the morning star (wisdom which did not come easily).   It’s time to review that information and find out more about our closest planetary neighbor.  So hang on to your (heat resistant) helmets and get ready to visit this beautiful hellish sister world!

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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

Nüwa

Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).

When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys.  Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste.  On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation.  On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth.  On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses.  On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection.  She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself.  As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother.  All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning.  To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud.  Then she flicked the mud across the lands.  Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable.  Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship).  She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse.  Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping.  There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people.  However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril.  The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.

Nüwa in serpent guise

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