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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.

An artist's conception of the earthlike world, HD 85512 b (CREDIT: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Today it was reported that HARPS, (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) a device operated from the European Southern Observatory’s station atop Mount la Silla in the Andes, has discovered 50 new exoplanets (planets which orbit stars other than the sun).  Sixteen of these new planets are “super-earths” rocky planets with a mass from 1 to 10 times that of our planet. One of these newly-discovered planets, HD 85512 b, is estimated to be only three-and-a-half times the mass of the Earth and it seems like it is located at the edge of the habitable zone, the orbital belt around a star where water can exist in liquid form.  This is only the second exoplanet discovered within the habitable zone, the first being Gliese 581 d.  Interestingly HARPS has disproved the existence of Gliese 581 g (which I wrote about last year) as a mathematical phantasm–so um, you might want to take that post with a grain of salt. The planet HD 85512 b orbits a star which is is approximately 35 light years from Earth.

In the eight years since the program has started, HARPS has discovered more than 150 exoplanets. HARPS discovers new planets by means of a mind-boggling technology: a spectrograph of stupendous precision is mounted on a 3.6 meter telescope in order to take painstaking observations of numerous nearby stars over a prolonged period of time.  A computer program then compares the tiny variances in the light emitted by these stars.  Stars with planets orbiting them undergo slight changes of radial velocity as the planets’ gravity tugs lightly at the stellar bodies. These shifts can be measured via Doppler shift and compared against the expected spectrographic signature caused by the stars relative drift toward or away from the observatory. Over many years the computer can thereby model the mass and approximate orbit of planets around stars (considering the math and the precise observations required for such calculations makes my hair stand on end).

Kepler, the NASA exoplanet discovery project uses an entirely different technology which involves measuring changes in brightness caused by the transit of a planet across a star’s glowing face.

This is the Ferrebeekeeper’s 300th post! Hooray and thank you for reading! We celebrated our 100th post with a write-up of the Afro-Caribbean love goddess, Oshun.  To celebrate the 300th post (and to finish armor week on a glorious high note), we turn our eyes upward to the stern and magnificent armored goddess, Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Athena of Piraeus (unknown but possibly Euphranor, ca. 360 BC - ca. 340 BC, bronze cult statue)

Athena’s birth has its roots in Zeus’ war with his father Cronus.  In order to win his battle against the ruling race of Titans (and thus usurp his father’s place as the king of the gods), Zeus married the Titan Metis, goddess of cunning and prudence. Her wise counsel and crafty stratagems gave the Olympian gods and edge against the Titans and the latter were ultimately cast down.  Metis was Zeus’ first wife and the secret to his success… but there was a problem.  It was foretold that Metis would bear an extremely powerful offspring:  any son she gave birth to would be mightier than Zeus. To forestall this problem Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly and then he sniffed her up his nose so that he could always have her cunning counsel inside his head. But Metis was already pregnant.  Inside Zeus’ skull she began to craft a suit of armor for her child to wear.  The pounding of her hammer within his temples gave Zeus a terrible headache. Insane with pain, Zeus begged his ally Prometheus (the seer among the Titans) to cure him of this misery through whatever means necessary.  Prometheus seized a labrys (a double headed axe from Crete) and struck open Zeus’ head with a noise louder than a thunderclap. In a burst of radiance Athena sprang forth fully grown and clad in gleaming armor.

Drawing of a Bronze relief depicting the Birth of Athena (shield band panel, 550 BCE)

Athena was Zeus’ first daughter and his favorite child. For his own armor, Zeus had carried an invincible aegis crafted out of the skin of his foster mother, the divine goat Amalthea.  When Athena was born he handed this symbol of his invincible power over to her. Similarly throughout classical mythology Athena is the only other entity whom Zeus trusts to handle his lightning bolts (there is an amazing passage in the first lines of the Aneid where she vaporizes Ajax’s chest with lightning, picks him up with a whirlwind, and impales him on a spire of rock in revenge for an impiety).  Her other symbols were the owl, a peerless predator capable of seeing at night, and the gorgon’s head, a magical talisman capable of  turning humans to stone (which Athena wore affixed to her armor). Although she was first in Zeus’ esteem, Athena did not forget her mother’s fate and she remained a virgin goddess who never dallied with romance of any sort.

Pallas Athena (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, ca. 1655)

Wisdom, humankind’s greatest (maybe our only) strength was Athena’s bailiwick as too were the fruits of wisdom. Athena was therefore the goddess of learning, strategy, productive arts, cities, skill, justice, victory, and civilization.  She is often portrayed as the goddess of justified war in opposition to her half-brother Ares, the vainglorious deity representative of the senseless aspects of war.  In classical mythology Athena never loses.  Her side is always victorious.  Her heroes always prosper. She was the Greek representation of the triumph of creativity and intellect.

The Combat of Mars and Minerva (Jacques Louis David, 1771)

Metis never bore Zeus a son to usurp him–but when I read classical mythology such an outcome always seemed unnecessary.  Not only did Athena wield Zeus’ authority and run the world as she saw fit, but Zeus was perfectly happy with the arrangement (a true testament to her wisdom).  The one slight to the grey eyed goddess is that she does not have a planet named after her (nor after her Roman name Minerva), however I have always thought that astronomers have been secretly saving the name. We can use it when we find a planet inhabited by beings of greater intelligence, or when we travel the stars to a second earth and apotheosize into true Athenians.

Athena of Piraeus (detail)

Bacteria from the surface of a human tongue

For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.

Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them.     Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything.  Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own.  They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together vastly outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined.  They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last, when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.

I should probably write more and think more about bacteria.  We all should. Not only is the planet is theirs, but they are more diverse than all other organisms.  They likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached. They may even live in a shadow biosphere which is based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like.  Who knows?

The Diversity of Life: Bacteria (prokaryotes) are in blue.

Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease.  Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, bacterial illnesses are terrifying.  Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases.  For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol.

However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria.  Humankind discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling.  Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure).  Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.  Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains.  These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread.  Many people in hospitals are dying.  Drug-resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.

A Diagram of Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics

All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance.  They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine).  Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.

Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft advertisements.  The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark.    Your plane is profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists.  The world is safer (for you) than ever.

But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds.  Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.

Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.

An artist's rendition of NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft

Yesterday NASA’s spacecraft MESSENGER entered orbit around Mercury, the least explored of the Solar system’s rocky inner planets.  This is the first time a spacecraft has been in orbit around Mercury and it represents a tremendous engineering achievement. Since gravity becomes more intense the closer one comes to the sun, Messenger had to slingshot back and forth among the inner planets for some time in order to accomplish the tricky feat. The spacecraft had to undertake a 4.9 billion mile (about 7.9-billion kilometer) journey to enter orbit around the closest planet to the sun. Of course that hefty mileage only is equal to 0.00083 light years!

Having survived the grueling trip, the spaceship must now carry out its mission in the blistering bath of solar radiation.  To survive next to the star, Messenger is equipped with a large sun visor which prevents the little craft from frying like a quail egg.

NO! The Messenger spacecraft is not an old lady playing golf!

Messenger will try to determine the planet’s mineralogical composition and learn about its geological history (the surface of Mercury is reckoned to be one of the oldest in the solar system).  The robot probe will fully map Mercury and analyze the planet’s composition.  Like Earth (but unlike Mars and Venus) Mercury has an internal magnetic field.  Additionally, the tiny world is incredibly dense. In order to learn more about the planet’s core Messenger will measure the extent to which the planet wobbles on its rotational axis.  Studying the partially molten interior of Mercury should provide clues about how the planet formed which will help us better understand the creation of all planets (especially in conjunction with the flood of data regarding exoplanets which we are beginning to receive).

Since the craft will be trying to learn the secrets of Mercury’s molten interior, it is worth reflecting on the deity whom the planet is named after.   Although he was worshipped as a messenger, a herald, and a god of commerce, the Greco Roman god Hermes/Mercury was also quietly worshipped as a god of the underworld. The Greeks and Romans regarded him as a psychopomp who guided souls down to Hades with his magical staff. Because (like the somewhat similar African traveling god Eshu) Hermes was able to go anywhere at will he was one of the only entities in the Greco Roman pantheon free to enter and leave the underworld.

Although we are not capable like Mercury of going everywhere at our whim, I think it is a tremendous accomplishment to navigate a robot spacecraft into broiling orbit around the innermost planet.  That we are using the craft to learn the secrets of the fiery underworld of the swift planet seems like a fitting tribute to the god who was slayer of Argus, giver of charms, messenger, schemer, luck bringer, and patron of travelers and wayfarers (even those voyaging to their last end or to places the ancients could never dream of).

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2021