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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.


If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.


Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).


We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).


I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.


Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.


Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

There is a lot to talk about lately: this dreadful never-ending election, spooky Halloween subjects, the president’s laudable plan to land humans on Mars, the fact that the Olympics have completely moved to East Asia….but, for the moment, let’s ignore all of that to talk about a ghastly dark snowball the size of Iowa.  I am not talking about any old snowball, I am talking about 2014 UZ224, a dwarf planet which was recently discovered by an astronomy team at the University of Michigan.


2014 UZ224 has a diameter of about 530 kilometers (330 miles): it is about half the size of Pluto.  Perhaps it is not even a true dwarf planet—but what else should we call it.  Located deep in the Oort Cloud, the little world is 14 billion kilometers (8.5 billion miles) from the sun (which is something like a thousandth of a light year). It takes 1,100 years to complete a single orbit of our star.  There are many of these Oort Belt objects (Ferrebeekeeper has talked about Sedna, Eris, and Haumea before), but it always special to find a new member of the solar system.  Or maybe not…the news of the world barely seemed to note the little iceball at all. I don’t know whether to be pleased at how mundane such discoveries are becoming, or appalled at how blase and jaded we are.  I bet Herschel would still be excited!

Venera 3 Lander

Venera 3 Probe

This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.

The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.


Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?


Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.


An artist's' conception of the planetary sytem of Wolf 1061C

An artist’s’ conception of the planetary sytem of Wolf 1061C

Today Australian scientists announced the discovery of a very interesting exoplanet—a so-called “super-earth” which orbits around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061.  The rocky planet (Wolf1061c) is actually only one of three worlds so far found in the solar system of Wolf 1061, but it is of particular note because it lies in an orbit which allows for liquid water to exist upon its surface.

Wolf 1061 is tidally locked to its star, so one side always faces the red ball in the heavens. It has a mass about 4.3 times that of Earth—so the surface gravity is nearly twice that of Earth. Its “years” are 18 Earth days long.

Perhaps most excitingly Wolf 1061c is “only” 14 light years away (about 84,000,000,000,000 miles).  It is a neighbor!  Perhaps we can use our best telescopes to assay the atmosphere and find out if anything resembling Earth life is there.

Stromatolites at dawn in Shark Bay, Western Australia

Stromatolites at dawn in Shark Bay, Western Australia

This place really exists! Spend a moment imaging what it is like on the surface.    In my fantasy, one side of the world is a vast red desert while the other is a desolation of black glaciers…yet in a twilight ring between the sides there are sludgy water oceans filled with big green and violet pillows of fabulous squashed shapes—the analogs of stromatolites.  Bubbles of gas pour up from these oddly shaped blobs of bacteria-like cells.  Somewhere among the billions of little multiplying alien organisms, a few peptides have changed and the cells begin to exchange genetic material with one another.  They are beginning to reproduce sexually instead of merely dividing.  Life in the ring oceans of 1061c takes a leap forward.  It is all imagination…and yet it may be so.  The universe is vast.  I wish we could find out more about this entire earthlike planet that we only just found.

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

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.

Artist's conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Dawn spacecraft

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.

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

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!

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.


Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)


Between giant planets and small stars exists a bizarre class of heavenly objects known as brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen elements together as do main sequence stars like the sun, however brown dwarfs larger than 13 Jovian masses are believed to fuse deuterium atoms and large brown dwarfs (65 Jovian masses and up) are believed to fuse lithium.  Since brown dwarfs can be very much like planets or like stars, there is a specific definition to describe the objects: a brown dwarf must have experienced some sort of nuclear fusion as a result of mass and temperature, however it cannot have fused all of its lithium (or it is considered a star or stellar fragment).  A stellar physicist reading this blog might object that medium and large stars have some lithium present in their outer atmosphere, or that a very young white dwarf could still have some unused lithium present, or even that an old heavy brown dwarf could have fused all of its lithium.  That physicist would be correct: she deserves some cookies and a pat on the head for poking holes in unnecessarily simple definitions.

Various Classifications of Brown Dwarfs

Various Classifications of Brown Dwarfs

Brown dwarfs were theorized to exist in the 1960s, but no astronomer managed to discover one until 1988 when a team of University of California astronomers who were studying white dwarfs found a bizarrely cool red spectral signature for a faint companion to the star GD 165.  Since then many brown dwarfs have been discovered and sorted into the major types M, L, T, and Y.  They occupy a strange ambiguous area at the bottom of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram—objects which are luminous and massive in comparison to everything else but tiny and dim compared to real stars.


There are some planets which are known to orbit brown dwarfs and there also brown dwarfs known to orbit true stars.  It is beginning to seem that there a great many brown dwarfs out there: perhaps they are as numerous as true stars (or maybe they are even more common than that).  Since they are hard to detect, scientists do not have a very accurate assay of their frequency in the universe.  The question bears somewhat on our understanding of the universe–since a great deal of matter is  not accounted for.

An artist's conception of a brown dwarf seem from a closely orbiting planet

An artist’s conception of a brown dwarf seem from a closely orbiting planet

My mind keeps returning to the fact that some brown dwarfs have planetary systems.  Imagine these melancholic twilight ice worlds forever orbiting a dim glow which will never blaze into a true sun.   It is a melancholy picture, but not without a certain beauty.

A Brown Dwarf with Planet and Moon (painting by Lynette Cook from

A Brown Dwarf with Planet and Moon (painting by Lynette Cook from

The Dwarf Planet Haumea

The Dwarf Planet Haumea

Haumea is a dwarf planet located in the Kuiper belt.  The little planetoid was discovered in December 2004 by a team of Caltech astronomers.  It is about a third the size of Pluto.  The team initially called it “Santa” but, in keeping with the IAU’s naming convention for Kuiper belt objects they eventually named the worldlet after a matronly fertility goddess from Hawaiian mythology.

Artist's conception of Haumea and its pink spot

Artist’s conception of Haumea and its pink spot

Although Haumea is typical of other dwarf planets in the Oort cloud in that it is a hunk of rock covered with ice, there are a couple of very unique things about the body.  Most notably Haumea is shaped like a lozenge (as opposed to being mostly spherical like other planets).   Astronomers believe that Haumea has sufficient gravity to overcome the compressive strength of its material.  In other words it chould be approximately spherical, however the planet is rotating with such velocity that it has become spindle shaped—like a water balloon thrown in a rifling spiral.


The extreme rapidity of Haumea’s rotation is its other defining characteristic.  It rotates more rapidly than any planetlike object with a diameter greater than 100 kilometers.   Haumea rotates completely every 3.9 hours so days there are incredibly short (although its huge orbit takes 283 years to complete—so years are long).  It is believed that Haumea’s breakneck spin comes from a titanic collision with some other Oort belt object.  Haumea’s two dinky moons were probably also created by the impact.  Haumea has a large red spot on it–perhaps because of the presence of minerals–or the fractured perturbance left by an impact.

Artist's Interpretation of Sedna (Credit: Gemini artwork by Jon Lomberg)

After the discovery of Pluto in 1930, there was a long hiatus in discovering objects of comparable size. Then in 2003, a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown of Caltech discovered a distant icy sphere which was quickly heralded as “the tenth planet.”  Mike Brown announced the discovery on his website along with his team’s rationale for naming the object.  He wrote “Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean.

It turns out that Sedna is only one of many similar snowball-like planetoids beyond Neptune.  In fact, Ferrebeekeeper has already described the dwarf planet Eris (named after the Greek goddess of Strife) which is the largest currently known Kuiper belt object.  Sedna was the first to be discovered since Pluto and it sparked a debate about such objects which ultimately resulted in Pluto’s downgrade to dwarf planet.  Sedna also has some unique features which make it remarkable in its own right.

The orbit of Sedna (red) set against the orbits of Jupiter (orange), Saturn (yellow), Uranus (green), Neptune (blue), and Pluto (purple)

Sedna takes 11,400 years to complete its orbit around the sun and its bizarre highly elliptical orbit has given rise to much conjecture among astronomers.  Although some astronomers believe it was scattered into a skewed orbit by the gravitational influence of Neptune, other astronomers believe it originated in the inner Oort cloud and was never close enough to Neptune to be affected by the giant’s gravity.  Some scientists speculate that its lengthy orbit may have been caused by a passing star (perhaps from the sun’s birth cluster).  A few theorists have gone one step further and conjectured that Sedna is from a different solar system and was captured by our Sun billions of years ago.  A final school contends that Sedna is evidence of an unknown giant planet somewhere in the depths of space (!).

A photo of Sedna taken from a powerful telescope on Earth

We don’t know much about Sedna except that is probably 1,200–1,600 km in diameter and that its surface is extremely red.  After Mars, Sedna is one of the reddest astronomical objects in our solar system.  This color comes from the profusion of tholins covering the methane and nitrogen ice of which the little world is formed.  Tholins are large, complex organic molecules created by the interaction of ultraviolet light on methane and other simple hydrocarbons.  It is believed that early Earth (prior to obtaining an oxidizing atmosphere) was rich in Tholins and they are one of the precursors to the rise of life.

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