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We have a lot to talk about this week, but, as a Monday treat in the December darkness, there is a lot of news (and, yes, inflammatory pseudonews) from outer space.  Let’s get down to it and proceed through this grab bag of tidbits.

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The big headliner is something which has been in the offing since 1977.  According to NASA, the Voyager 2 space probe has left the heliosphere, the protective “bubble” of radiation and charged particles which surrounds the entire solar system, and the craft is now proceeding through interstellar space.  The spacecraft is only the second probe with any working instruments to accomplish this feat (the first was Voyager 1).  Based on telemetry, it seems that Voyager 2 crossed the Heliopause on November 5th (2018).  This occasion gives us reason to look back at the stupendous accomplishments made by the probe during the main stage of its mission. As it traveled through the Solar System, the craft visited all four gas giant planets and discovered 16 moons in addition to mysterious phenomena like Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, previously unknown rings around Neptune and Uranus, and cracks within the ice of Europa.  Perhaps it will provide a few more momentous discoveries as it heads into the great darkness between stars.

A second astonishing space headline is the existence of a recording of the wind on Mars.  NASA’s InSight lander (which we have been following here on this blog) captured the audio a few days ago and the space agency released the clip to the world this past weekend. This is the first recording of sound from a different planet.  You can listen to it here if you want to know what another world sounds like.

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OK…those were great stories, but by now you are probably asking where is the pseudonews which was promised in the opening sentence.  Pseudonews is news-like material designed to evoke a strong emotional response. The stories are actually revealed to be conjecture, opinion, propaganda/public relations material, or just straight-up celebrity dreck. A cursory scan of the top media sights reveals that many—or maybe most–of the most visited and commented upon pieces are exactly this sort of fatuous puffery, so I thought I better throw some into Ferrebeekeeper to see what happens.  For some reason the world can’t get enough of this folderol so let me know what you think!

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The first of these newslike stories is actually pretty interesting…if it is true, and I can’t find much confirmation of that.  Apparently the Southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu has plans to launch an artificial moon in 2020 to obviate the need for streetlights in the metropolis.  This plan is theoretically feasible, in the 1990s the Russians launched the Znamya experiment, which showed that satellites could be used for reflected illumination.  Yet the Znamya experiment didn’t produce much illumination…and the costs (bot known and unknown) of such a solution as Chengdu proposes would be outrageous.  The idea is worthwhile as a fantasy concept about planetary scale engineering, but until we hear more details I am dubious.

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Speaking of dubious, let’s end this article which started with such promise on a truly leaden note.  Professional athletes in America are often famous dullards—these are, after all, adults who are paid astronomical sums for running around playing children’s ball games.  The ignorant, misleading, and inflammatory declarations of athletes are a constant source of amazement and disgust. Which brings us to the story.  Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors (a contemporary basketball team) has announced that humans never visited the moon.  This conspiracy theory is common enough around the country, which is filled with people who lack the inclination or aptitude to assess whether fundamental truths are true or not, but it still makes me angry.  Do big media companies print this stuff so that “Steph” Curry fans will turn their back on the great accomplishments of the space program during the 1960s or does CNN just want people to believe less in science in general?

Of course not, major news sites are reporting this “news” merely for clicks.  I guess technically I am too, although I would be stunned if any Stephen Curry fans read this blog (if you do, please go elsewhere), yet I also have a more noble purpose in talking about this stupid Curry story.  In our age of information saturation, it is becoming more difficult to evaluate news sources.  Educational failures in public schools and political dysfunction have combined with the information revolution to cause ridiculous drivel to proliferate.  The closest analogy I can think of is the era after the printing press became widespread in Europe and crazy tracts appeared everywhere causing wars, confusion, and mayhem (although this previous information breakthrough ultimately led to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment as well).  Society is working through another unruly adolescent growth spurt where we try to figure out how to build society-wide consensus out of all of the new tools and discoveries we have made.  The process is working out pretty unevenly so maybe we should stop publicizing the rantings of willfully ignorant and malevolent actors like Curry as “news stories”, even if they garner ratings. What’s next, a president who doesn’t believe that vaccines help people?  We will revisit these dark fruits of the information era soon, but first there is enormous news from right here on Earth.  Tune in tomorrow when we talk about discoveries made right under our feet.

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There have been some stories bouncing around the world media lately which are highly germane to past Ferrebeekeeper posts (and to some bigger topics too).  We’ll get to them one at a time this week, but let’s start with the most exciting news:  today (11/26/18) NASA’s InSight lander touched down successfully on Mars at 2:47 PM Eastern Time.   The craft is the eighth human-made craft to successfully touch down on the red planet. It’s unwieldy name is a trademark agonizing NASA acronym which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”  To put this in more comprehensible (yet less correct) terms, the lander is a geophysics probe which will examine the interior of the planet.  Of course InSight isn’t really geophysics since it is not studying Earth, but saying “astrophysics” misleads one from the lander’s core mission of assessing Mars’ internal composition and structure.

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The landing was a marvel of aerospace engineering since, in the span of about 6 and a half minutes, the craft was forced to slow from 17,300 kph (10,750 mph) to 8 kph (5 mph). Coincidentally, this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from California…from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where my paternal grandfather used to paint rockets back in the 1950s and 60s! Speaking of which, as always, I am taken aback by the extent to which our interplanetary probes resemble retro UFOs from 1950s science fiction.

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The craft landed on Elysium Planitia an enormous featureless plain famous for its dullness.  You may think “why didn’t they just send the poor thing to Kansas?” but since the craft is designed to examine the interior of Mars, its landing sight was not important (except to make sure the lander arrived in one piece).

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Now that the probe has finally reached its destination, it will begin to utilize a sophisticated array of instruments including a seismic wave reader, a subterranean infrared reader to monitor heat escaping Mars, and a sophisticated radio array to monitor the planet’s core (among other tools).

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It is easy to lose track of the many amazing Martian discoveries being made by robot explorers, but InSight strikes me as truly important since it offers to answer one of the most important question about Mars–how did it go from being a volcanically active world with oceans and an Earthlike atmosphere to being an inactive, desolate desert?  We’ll keep you posted as discoveries (insights?) come rolling in, but, for now, congratulations NASA!

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As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).

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The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).

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Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).

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 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!

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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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Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Once again I have been thinking about the Namib Desert–the world’s oldest desert–which calls to me for reasons I cannot fully explain. I wrote about some of the Namib’s strange animals and plants…but one thing I did not mention was its ergs. This is because I did not know what an erg is, but today I looked it up and the concept is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. An erg is a sea of wind-blown sand. This geographic feature is not unique to the Namib Desert—or indeed to planet Earth—but they do tend to be found only in vast & mighty deserts. Such a landscape is characterized by vast dunes—mountain-like sand hills composed of immense numbers of individual sand grains.

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

Geographers have seemingly fixed certain parameters on how large a sandbed must be to count as an erg—but I will let you look these up on your own—I think the word “sea” covers the scope of ergs. We are not talking about a child’s sandbox here.

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

The word erg derives from an Arabic word “arq” which means dune landscape. The Rub al Kali Desert “the empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia is a vast erg—the world’s largest. There are a multitude of ergs throughout the Sahara (as seen on the map below) and they can also be found in central Asia, the middle of Australia, and the Atacama Desert (which I also really need to write about). Ergs are less common in North America than in Asia and Africa, but there a few notable examples mostly in the Sonoran Desert, but also including the unimaginatively named “Great Sand Dunes” in Colorado.

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The geology of ergs is quite fascinating as the dominant agent of erosion and change is wind rather than water. When wind activity shapes the surface of the Earth (or another planet), geologists describe the varying sorts of erosion, deposition, and weathering as “Aeolian processes” in homage to the ancient Greek god of the winds who crops up in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ergs do not just feature great dunes but also strange sand sculpted rocks and dry river beds.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico

As noted, ergs are not a phenomena exclusive to Earth, but can be found on other planetary bodies too (if they have silica and atmospheres). Ergs have been discovered on Mars where vast erg fields ring the polar caps. The Martian winds blow the ergs into bizarre patterns and shapes (usually I would say “otherworldly”, but that seems too pedestrian a word here). Venus also has ergs (discovered by the Magellan probe) and Cassini’s radar spotted huge parallel ergs on Saturn’s great moon Titan. Indeed ergs may be the dominant surface feature of Titan.

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

I have never been to an erg. There are none in Brooklyn (yet). However I would like to see one…although I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. They do not seem like places for life, and indeed they are among the most lifeless places on all of Earth. Ergs are beautiful but also terrible and dangerous. At least they should stay free of suburban sprawl for long enough for me to visit one (and it will probably be a very long time indeed before we cover the ergs of Titan with strip malls).

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Carnival-colored Honey (Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

Carnival-colored Honey (Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey.  The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists.  They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.

It works surprisingly well as a vivid abstract work made with mixed media.

It works surprisingly well as a vivid abstract work made with mixed media.

Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments.   A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant.  The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb.  French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market.  Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

 

Caput Mortuum Violet

One of the most useful colors in an artist’s palette is one of the last colors anyone else would think.  Only its spooky name would incline your attention towards it.  Caput mortuum, which means dead head or death head, is made of haematite–iron oxide (in fact there are several extremely similar colors made of the same pigment but with slightly different hues and names–particularly mars violet and Indian red—but we will stick to talking about caput mortuum because that’s the variation I use). This unpromising rust color possesses a protean mutability–it could be red, brown, orange, or violet depending on the context.  Although it can stand on its own as a focus of attention, caput mortuum is very easy to paint into a network of subtle shadows:  many painters use it for shadowed flesh or as land cast in darkness (after all a person’s flesh and the red clay of a landscape both take their ruddiness from iron).

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450, oil on panel)

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450)

Though not a flashy color, caput mortuum has a dignity and a beauty to it.  In the middle ages and Renaissance, painters used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting).  Oftentimes when looking at a religious painting, a viewer will notice that Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter–resplendent in gold, white, blue, and red—are joined by an unknown pair of merchants wearing caput mortuum.  These two often have the most realistic and beautifully painted faces in the painting–it is difficult to say what Jesus really looked like but even the most money grubbing burgher knows his own face!

Portrait of a Female Donor (Jan Provost, 1505)

Although there is something somber about the deep color of caput mortuum, its name does not come from an obvious association with blood and corpses.  In addition to meaning “dead head” the Latin phrase also means “worthless remains” and it was used by alchemists to describe the inert residue left over from a chemical reaction.  Apparently this by-product was often a rusty violet color.  Alchemists used a (very) stylized skull to denote the oxidized left-overs.

Caput Mortuum Alchemy Symbol

However it’s more evocative to imagine the pigment being named after a death’s head.  The concept lends art a much needed touch of operatic dark magic.

Vanitas Still Life with a Tulip, Skull and Hour-Glass (Phillip de Champaigne, c. 1671)

A Close-up photo of a Foxglove from "Ledge and Gardens"

The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring).  While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge.  Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove.  I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them!  I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.

Foxgloves in my Brooklyn Garden

Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time.  About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.  The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump.  During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers.  The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.

A Second Photo from the Garden

Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth.  In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother.  Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove.  Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril).  On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”

A Patch of Foxgloves

Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic.  Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights).  Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.

Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”  The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.

Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy.  If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.

Le Café de Nuit (Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas)

 

The Hannover Military Band

The Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially known as the Electorate of Hanover) was a principality within the Holy Roman Empire.  In the mid eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Prince Elector, Georg II.  A series of religious wars and a strange quirk of fate had made the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg the heirs to the British throne.  Prince Elector Georg II was therefore better known to his English subjects and to history as King George II.  In 1755, George II ordered his Hanoverian Guards Regiment to England.  The Hanover Military band went with the Guards.  One of the oboists of the band was named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel.  Friedrich was something of a musical prodigy: he also played the violin, the cello, the harpsichord and the organ.   When the guards came to England, he liked the country and he left the band to move there permanently.  He accepted the position as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra and later became the organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath (a chapel attached to a very fashionable spa).  Throughout his career Frederick William Herschel (for he had anglicized his name) composed a great many musical works including 24 symphonies, numerous concertos, and a large canon of church music.

Frederick’s music is forgotten today, but later in his life he found his true calling.  As his musical career progressed, he became more and more deeply fascinated by lenses and mathematics. At the age of 35, he met the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Herschel began making mirror telescopes for Maskelyne, personally grinding the lenses and mirrors for up to 16 hours a day.  He also looked at the universe through the telescopes he had made and reported his discoveries. What he found made him one of the preeminent scientists in history (he also became extremely wealthy and was granted a knighthood).

The Planet Uranus (or "Georgium sidus" as Herschel originally named it)

Herschel is most famous for discovering Uranus, the first planet to be found since the depths of antiquity.  His other discoveries and ideas are perhaps even more remarkable. He was first to find out that the solar system is moving through space.  He coined the word “asteroid” as a name for such objects.  By observing Mars he determined its axial tilt and found that the Martian ice caps fluctuate in size. His attempts to determine if there was a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate were unsuccessful (because of a lack of data), but formed the basis for successful work concerning both climatology and stellar physics.  Astonishingly, Herschel discovered infrared radiation, the first non-visible electromagnetic radiation to be known.  He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.  He found two new moons of Saturn and two moons of Uranus.  He correctly concluded that the Milky Way is a disk.  He debunked the notion that double stars were optical doubles and showed that they are truly binary stars (thus demonstrating that Newton’s laws extend beyond the solar system).

Sir Frederick William Herschel, 1738 - 1822 (painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1785)

In honor of his amazing career, numerous objects, devices, institutes and features around the solar system and beyond are named after Herschel (including the giant crater on Saturn’s moon Mimas). Few people have contributed so greatly to science or changed the conception of everything as much as this gifted Saxon oboist!

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