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One of the real surprises to me in college was…bacteria.  Now I had encountered these characters before (I guess everybody has, since more of the cells in a human body are symbiotic bacteria living inside of us than are…well our own actual cells).  However, in college I learned the full history of life on Earth.  It is mostly a history of bacteria:  multicellular creatures only show up for the last 600 million years.  For over 3 billion years, the world belonged to the bacteria alone.  I also learned about extremophiles—bacteria that can live in boiling hot temperatures or in oxygen-free environments.  Some extremophiles can metabolize inorganic things like sulfur and arsenic.  They can live without the light of the sun in the fathomless depths of the ocean on poisonous elements. The oxygen we breath was created as a waste product by these first archaebacteria.  The planet’s atmosphere was once a reducing atmosphere, where paper would not burn (assuming you had any…billions of years before trees plants evolved, much less paper-makers).  Bacteria made it an oxygen world where things burn…including our metabolisms. They changed the world in a fundamental way that we industrial humans with our infernal carbons cannot match.

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The archaebacteria sound like aliens (indeed, there is a real possibility they actually originally were aliens), but they are also our great-great-great ever-so-great-to-the-100th power grandparents.  I don’t need to wonder whether evolution is real: I have seen it in a science lab when we put a pellet of penicillin on a petri dish and watched as the bacteria evolved resistance to it (not really a super-smart experiment in hindsight, but a super-compelling one). I wish I could impress upon you how astonishing bacteria are.  They are the true sacred seed of life–the undisputed masters of Earth.

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However, this is old news.  The new news is that there are so, so many more bacteria than we realized.  The earth beneath our feet is filled with bacteria…but the stone beneath that is filled with bacteria too.  And the weird hot putty beneath that stone (the gabbro) is also filled with bacteria.  There are bacteria in the depths of the world.  Living bacteria have been discovered in the gabbro 1400 meters beneath the basalt floor of the ocean.  There is a barely discovered world of secret life deep beneath our feet—a true underworld of secret unknown species of micro-organisms.  The size of this ecosystem is enormous.

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To quote a news article from..yesterday,  “The record depth at which life has been found in the continental subsurface is approximately 3 miles (5km) while the record in marine waters is 6.5 miles (10.5km) from the ocean surface.”

If these are the true boundaries of the underworld bacteria biome, it means that there is a region of secret life twice as large as all of the world’s oceans combined.  Based on past experience though, it is not unreasonable to doubt that deeper pockets of bacteria will be discovered as our drilling and bio-assaying become more sophisticated.

Most of the super deep bacteria spend enormously long periods in suspended animation.  Sometimes they enter a metabolic suspension so profound that they seem dead or inanimate (which is maybe how we missed them for so long).  At present, scientists and writers are calling them “zombie-bacteria” because of their half-alive status (which seems like an appropriate nomen based on their underworld habitat).

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I wish I could tell you more about this realm of life on Earth, but I can’t.  Not only am I not a bacteriologist or geologist, additionally we (meaning all of humankind) simply don’t know the answers yet.  More research is necessary.  Sadly, it is probably going to be slow to materialize.  Our leaders seem incapable of grasping that surface life needs to continue longer than a few decades (at least if they hope for meaningful long term economic growth).  I shudder to imagine them furrowing their brows at the concept of vast stone oceans of zombie one-celled organisms…and explaining to their constituents why we need to know more about such things.  But we DO need to know.  In the synthetic ecosystems of my youth, the lack of coherent sustainable bacterial communities was the root cause of disastrous failure.  I don’t think our new underworld friends are going to fail or die any time soon, no matter what we surface beings do, yet if we want to take life elsewhere than Earth we are going to need to understand them much better.  Perhaps life did not spring from some pool of irradiated scum or arrive on a comet from beyond the solar system.  Maybe it came from the hot depths.  Maybe we are all underworld beings.

free-photo-purple-orchid-523No doubt you have noticed how different clothing stores have the same color palette for their wares.  If you walk from Banana Republic to Uniqlo to Armani Exchange, you will see remarkably different garments at wildly different prices…and yet the colors are all the same (and the opposing colors suit each other beautifully).  The effect even stretches to kitchen and home goods stores: so if you are particularly obsessed you can probably match your underwear, your blender, and your divan—as long as you buy them in the same year (and also assuming you buy divans). The reason for this phenomenon is that every year the mughals of fashion, trendiness, and color itself get together and proclaim a color palette for the year.

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In practice, international corporations tend to defer to Pantone, a company based in New Jersey for this palette.  Every year Pantone (allegedly) convenes a secret quorum of fashionistas, artists, Illuminati, scientists, sorcerers, and what not in an unknown European capital to choose the color which most accurately expresses the zeitgeist of all human endeavor for a year. [When I was imprisoned in the legal industry, a strange coworker who was really “in the scene” during the eighties confided that what all this really means is that a gay man with a sharp eye chooses the palette, Pantone reviews it, and everyone else gets told what colors to use.  This sounds quite plausible, but I have no way of verifying the truth of the allegation.  Pantone has grown much savvier at marketing nonsense since the eighties…as indeed has everyone except for me, alas].

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Anyway, the official color of the year of 2014 is [insert royal fanfare with horns] “Radiant Orchid” an extremely pretty mid-tone purple/lavender.  To celebrate, I have illustrated this article with radiant orchid pictures (at least to such an extent my computer’s ever changing screen and my own eyes can replicate the hue).  Undoubtedly the other colors you see at shops this year will all perfectly match radiant orchid. Pantone announces the color of the year for free, but if you would like to see the associated palette you will have to order the proprietary information from Pantone View.

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As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, I feel that “the color of the year” is a bit silly (not radiant orchid, which I find very fetching, but the concept itself), yet I do like the idea of a unified palette and I like the fact that favorite colors change with the era in accordance to a larger consensus of human taste.   Perhaps someday we will all smile with bittersweet nostalgia as we think back on 2014 with its mild lavender in the same way that my parents talk about mustard and avocado or my grandparents talk about baby blue.  In the meantime, if purple is your thing you should feel happy, and if not you should start pulling strings right now to influence the mystery color of 2015.

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The Crown of Saint Wenceslas

A large number of the medieval crowns from Central Europe have gone missing over the years. These objects get snatched up and melted down by Prussians–like the crown of Bolesław–or they surreptitiously vanish from history forever like the beautiful crown of Zvonimir. Even the pieces that survive, such as the famous crown of St. Stephen, tend to go on strange adventures and end up in the hands of Jimmy Carter.

Not so the ancient crown of Saint Wenceslas, which was used in the coronation ceremonies for the kings of Bohemia.  That crown is locked up tight in a secret chamber in a secret chapel in the huge cathedral of Saint Vitus.  Seven Czech high officials possess keys—all of which must be used together.  Perhaps it is well that the crown is locked up so tightly—it is said to lie under a magic curse.

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas (a different angle)

The crown was made in 1347 for the eleventh king of Bohemia (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles IV.  It is wrought of extremely pure gold and decorated with 19 sapphires, 44 spinels, 1 ruby, 30 emeralds and 20 pearls.  Charles dedicated the crown to Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and it is believed the Saint cannot abide any usurper to wear the crown (Saint Wenceslas was presumed to harbor a grudge about usurpers, having been murdered for a crown by his own brother).  Allegedly the Saint will smite down any unworthy soul who dons the crown within a year after he puts it on (the usurper that is—not Saint Wenceslas).It is rumored that Reinhard Heydrich, AKA “The Hangman”, the ruthless Nazi official in charge of the annexed portions of Czechoslovakia (which included St. Vitus Cathedral) could not risk the allure of the crown and secretly placed it on his head during a conqueror’s tour of St. Wenceslas Chapel. Heydrich was a favorite of Hitler’s who was heard to remark “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.” But he didn’t have much of a chance for Germanizing anyone–he was mortally wounded by British-trained Czech commandos in the awesomely named “Operation Anthropoid” less than a year after his tour of St. Vitus—a colorful and lurid tale for a colorful and lurid treasure.

The Skull of Saint Wenceslas wearing a Premyslid Eagle Circlet--Patron Saint of Bohemia, Brewing, Fuel-giving, & Nazi-killing

The US Air Force's Automated Space Shuttle X-37B (US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File)

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is currently underway.  Additionally, the X-37B, the “secret” robot space shuttle operated by United States Air Force, just concluded a successful seven month mission last December. The Air Force is primed to launch a second X-37B robot shuttle at 3:39 p.m. (EST) today. This flurry of activity leads to general reflection concerning spaceplanes, crafts designed to operate in outer space, fly back through earth’s atmosphere, and land on ground.  With two in orbit at the same time spaceplanes are now more in use then ever…while simultaneously fading away.

First let’s look at NASA’s space shuttle program. Here’s what NASA’s website has to say about the Discovery:

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

The objective of the current mission is to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Along with water, new personnel, sundry modules, and widgets, Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2.  Despite the misleading number, Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in outer space.

Robonaut 2--wait, what?

When the mission is complete the Discovery is scheduled to go off to some museum. The entire shuttle program is winding down: the program was supposed to end in 2010 but international obligations compelled NASA to tack on a few missions in 2011.  Endeavor is already on the pad for what may be its final flight and Atlantis is on standby.  Enterprise (which never made it to space) is already at the Smithsonian. And, of course, Challenger and Columbia are both gone, lost along with their heroic crews in our first doddering steps into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery Lifting Off (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America)

The shuttles seem so much a part of our culture that it is hard to recognize how revolutionary they were in the seventies and eighties (and still are). It’s true that they are shockingly dangerous but the technology used to create them pushed the limits of materials technology a long way.  For example the thermal shields of the shuttle protect the orbiters from re-entry temperatures that could otherwise reach as high as 1,650 °C (about 3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. The program also advanced rocketry by leaps and bounds.

The American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran

The shuttles were the first spaceplanes to go into orbit.  The only other spaceplanes that are known to have done so were the unmanned Soviet Bor-4 test craft, the Soviet Buran (a space-shuttel knock-off scrapped during the Soviet meltdown after one successful manned fligth), and the OTV-1 and OTV-2. Both of these latter vehicles are Boeing X-37B robot shuttles used by the United States Air Force to test (note to the Air Force and Boeing, please give your robot space planes cooler names).  The X-37B is a automated shuttle with a payload about the size of a Ford Ranger pickup.  Originally a NASA program which was scrapped for budget reasons the robot shuttle was picked up by DARPA and built by the Air Force which claims to use it to test guidance, navigation and control systems.  Since the OTV-1’s mission (which was tracked by amateur astronomers) took the craft over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and China, it is reasonable to speculate that the craft may have reconnaissance purposes as well.


There are a number of suborbital spaceplanes which have managed to reach above the Kármán line but were incapable of going into orbit. Lately private companies have been jockeying to make more of these space hoppers and conventional wisdom asserts that the market will step in and deliver the next generation of spaceplanes. Hopefully private innovators will come up with some bright ideas. Budget and technical constraints have lead NASA to scrap its plans for ramjet scramjet and spaceplanes. There isn’t much else on the drawing board that we know about right now (other than the Japanese Space Program’s origami airplanes which are seemingly designed to be tossed into space for fun pictured below) .  The foreseeable future apparently belong to rockets.

The Japanese Space Program's 29-gram origami shuttle made of treated ricepaper--the future of spaceplanes?

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