You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘stars’ tag.

5d8d0ba72e22af0a797c3cc8

After posts about giant hornets which can dissolve flesh with their stings,  a huge asteroid passing by Earth, and a mass cemetery in New York City, it is hard to know what to write about next… Thankfully, astronomers are way ahead of me!  This week featured the announcement that scientists have discovered a black hole “right in our backyard.”

unnamed (1)

Fortunately, what counts as our backyard to astronomers is not really our backyard by any quotidian definition.  Located in the southern constellation Telescopium, the newfound black hole is 1,000 light-years away: although it is the closest black hole to Earth discovered thus far, it is still 9.5 quadrillion kilometers away (5.88 quadrillion miles).  We probably won’t blunder into it by accident when we sneak downstairs for a midnight snack.

Black holes, as you know, are deformed patches of spacetime where gravity is so strong that all proximate matter and electronic radiation (like light) are pulled into the gravity well.  Black holes form when exceedingly massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle:  they become more massive as additional matter accretes into them.   For example the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is believed to have the mass of 431 million suns!

Space Black Hole Nearby

The black hole’s orbit in the star system is marked in red

The newly discovered Telescopium black hole is nothing like that though.  Scientists estimate its mass to be mere 4 to 5 times that of the sun.  Astronomers were able to discover the object only because the other two stars in its solar system (which they were studying in order to better understand binary stars) were not orbiting each other in a comprehensible fashion.  Some massive third party was implicated…yet nothing was visible. Ergo, a black hole.  There are believed to be hundreds of millions or even billions of these invisible horrifying objects in our galaxy alone, but they are nearly impossible to find unless there are nearby objects for them to interact with (yet which have not been slurped down into the ravenous maw).

I wonder where the actual closest black hole to Earth is located? Maybe we don’t really want to find out…

Tiara_of_the_Stars

Today’s post features a true oddball in the world of royal headpieces.  This strange yet compelling crown is “the diadem of the stars.” It was made in 1863 for Maria Pia of Savoy, wife of King Luís I of Portugal.   Although the piece was made in the mid-19th century its minimalist lines and weird geometric pentagons have a distinctly modern appearance.

I love space art (a category which I will reluctantly go ahead and put this crown under), but I am not sure I care for the diadem’s look in comparison with more traditional arch-and-cross type crowns.  The white. pink, and yellow diamonds do make me yearn for the stars though (a feeling which I wish more of us would embrace) so maybe the Queen Consort was onto something.

1280px-Flag_of_Brazil.svg.png

I have been trying not to write about flags too much…ever since an impassioned plea for blogging feedback revealed surprising anti-flag sentiments among our general readership.  Yet, Brazil’s flag features outer space AND a golden rhombus.  How could I not write about such a thing?

Flag_of_Empire_of_Brazil_(1822-1870).svg.png

The basis of the modern Brazilian flag is the flag of the Brazilian empire.  That flag had all sorts of classical medieval trappings of empire: a laurel wreath, a world-girding cross, a green shield, and big fat green & gold crown, however the backdrop—a bright yellow rhombus on a Kelly green field–was meant to be seen from a distance, and so it had a robust minimalist appearance.

When the First Brazilian Republic supplanted the empire in 1889, the flag changed by getting rid of all the regal trappings and replacing them with vault of the heavens.  The particular stars represent the night sky over Rio De Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when the First Brazilian Republic was born.  The motto “Ordem e Progresso” means “order and progress” (that’s exactly what I would have guessed…hey, do I secretly know Portuguese?).

Brazilflags-blog.png

There were however other options on the table and some of them are pretty fascinating.  Look at the weird dark mirror of the American flag which was proposed…or that strange black and white monstrosity which looks like it was printed at Kinkos to be handed out by street people.

On the whole though, the Brazilian flag is quite splendid!  Its bold color scheme stands out among all of the hundreds of flags of the world and perfectly represents the glowing dynamism of the Amazon and of the young nation!  Hooray for Brazil!

Brazil-People

Previously discovered dwarf satellite galaxies (in blue) and the newly discovered candidates (in red)  (Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler (KIPAC/SLAC))

Previously discovered dwarf satellite galaxies (in blue) and the newly discovered candidates (in red) (Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler (KIPAC/SLAC))

We have some new galactic neighbors! Well, actually maybe “new” is not the right term: they have been there for a long time but we only just now noticed. Astronomers are reporting the discovery of nine dwarf satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way like remoras stuck to a cosmic shark. These nine miniature galaxies are additional to the well-known Large and Small Magellanic Clouds—two dwarf galaxies which are located right next to the Milky Way (being respectively 160,000 and 200,000 light years away).

The new dwarf galaxies were discovered by a team of astronomers poring over data recovered from the Dark Energy Survey (a super-high resolution digital array which is part of the Victor M Blanco telescope in the Andes). The closest is a mere 97,000 light years from the Milky Way whereas the farthest lies 1.2 million light years away from us. The dwarf galaxies are a billion times fainter than the Milky Way. They are made up of millions (or hundreds of millions or even billions) of stars but are insignificant in size compared to the hundreds of billions of stars which constitute a true galaxy. Scientists believe that there are hundreds of similar miniature galaxies and pseudo-galaxies near the Milky Way, but they are dark and difficult to find (comparitively speaking).

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, near which the satellites were found. (image from European Southern Observatory)

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, near which the satellites were found. (image from European Southern Observatory)

I have been saying “dwarf galaxies” because I like the way it sounds (like the new galaxies live together in the woods in a little hut and work in the mines!), but actually only three of the new companions are definitely dwarf galaxies. The remaining six structures may be dwarf galaxies or they may merely be globular clusters—a far less euphonic phrase which indicates a group of stars which orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Unlike globular clusters, dwarf galaxies are held together by the gravitational mass of large quantities of dark matter (um, assuming it actually exists). Indeed dwarf galaxies seem to contain far greater quantities of dark matter than actual galaxies. This makes the newly discovered galactic neighbors a potentially useful focus for studying the properties of dark matter and refining our model of the universe.

A strangely horrifying illustration of the supermassive black hole located in the middle of the very dense miniature galaxy M60-UCD1

A strangely horrifying illustration of the supermassive black hole located in the middle of the very dense miniature galaxy M60-UCD1

Fifty million light years away from Earth is the dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1. This tiny globular galaxy is 300 light years across–whereas our own beloved spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, is 120,000 light years in diameter! Yet within that 300 million light year sphere, M60-UCD1 is a crazy place. Despite its (comparatively) tiny area, the dwarf galaxy is teaming with stars: astronomers estimate it contains 140 million star systems. If Earth were located in M60-UCDI, the night sky would positively glow with millions of visible tars (as opposed to the measly 4000 which are visible to the naked eye in our present location). This is all quite odd, yet only recently did astronomers discover the strangest thing about M60-UCDI. At the center of the tiny galaxy is a supermassive black hole which weighs more than twenty million suns. To quote the European Space Agency’s website, “The supermassive black hole at the centre of M60-UCD1 makes up a huge 15 percent of the galaxy’s total mass, and weighs five times that of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.”

Messier 60 with M60-UCDI (Composite image from NASA's Hubble & Chandra space telescopes)

Messier 60 with M60-UCDI (Composite image from NASA’s Hubble & Chandra space telescopes)

Astronomers speculate that something went terribly wrong to form this oddball of a galaxy. A prime culprit is Messier 60, a large scary galaxy which lurks near the little dwarf galaxy. The black hole at the center of Messier 60 is 4.5 billion times the size of our Sun! Perhaps once upon a time M60-UCDI was a normal galaxy with billions of stars…till it wandered too close to Messier 60. The larger galaxy tore off the majority of the stars which made up M60-UCDI and added them to itself (while Messier 60’s black hole swallowed up its fair share of star systems). It is a horrifying image of galactic bullying! Why can’t we all get along?

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

179391

Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

QiXiFestival

Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

niulang-zhinv1

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

To celebrate the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the national symbol of the United States and the original alternatives contemplated by the founding fathers (a post which was awesome since it was filled with turkeys, rattlesnakes, killer whales, and eagles).  This year, I concentrate on a national mascot whom we all feel much more ambivalent about.  I am talking, of course, about the somewhat awkward and unsettling figure of Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

The concept of Uncle Sam as a fictional stand-in for the government of the United States emerged during the War of 1812 when a meat supplier stamped his meat crates with “U.S.” and soldiers joked that this meant came from “Uncle Sam” (in fact “Uncle Sam” is mentioned in the Revolutionary-era song “Yankee Doodle” but it is unclear if he is a symbol of the nation or just, you know, somebody’s uncle).   By 1816 Uncle Sam was the subject of humorous political tracts and by the time of the civil war he was a universally known representation of the United States government.   Uncle Sam is traditionally portrayed as a thin patrician man with a snow white chin beard.  He is dressed in a stars & stripe suit complete with an American flag themed hat.  The comic portentousness of the figure has made Uncle Sam popular with America’s supporters and detractors both—so one might see him waving a flag and marching in a patriotic parade in Texas (as at the top) or on Iranian government broadsheets deviously backstabbing the Iranian people for oil.  For example, here he is, portrayed as Yama, devouring the entire world through consumer culture and war.

6a00d8341dad5553ef017c3623f272970b

For a time Uncle Sam stood only for the government whereas the citizenry itself was represented by Brother Jonathan, a long-winded New England tradesman in a frock coat and striped pants (Brother Jonathan himself had begun as a symbol of New England, but gradually came to represent the whole nation).   By mid-nineteenth century Brother Jonathan was subsumed into Uncle Sam, who has remained more-or-less the same since that time (though sometimes he bulks up in muscle or in flab—depending on the cartoonist’s agenda).

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Uncle Sam is frequently bowdlerized to sell cigars, financial vehicles, petrol, or what-have-you.  During the golden age of comics, Uncle Sam even became a sort of nightmarish DC comic book hero: he was an extra-temporal super ghost (summoned by the founding  fathers) who possessed dying patriots with superhuman powers in order to fight fascists and pirates…or something.  Frankly, the concept may have needed some work.

Excuse me?

Excuse me, but, what?

Uncle Sam is used by too many people for too many reasons, and he is just not as magnificent as an Eagle.  Even at his best, he is rather clownlike and awkward.  Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, America was represented by Columbia, a beautiful warrior goddess with a Phrygian cap and a bustier spangled with stars!  Curses!  How did we trade down to end up with a Jefferson Davis lookalike dressed like a pimp?

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business...

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business…

Looking even further back, Columbia herself even seems to be a rip-off of Britannia, the trident-wielding, Minerva-hatted, warrior goddess who has been a symbol of Britain’s suzerainty since Roman times.  Both Cousin Jonathan and Uncle Sam seem like line-extensions of the immensely popular John Bull.  Maybe the idea of personifying nations as people is flawed.  Having a frightening mascot in a strange primary color costume might be the right thing for a minor-league baseball team, but it ill-becomes the glory and complexity of our nation.  Perhaps we should just stick with the majestic eagle which cannot be made to look so absurd….

No!  Darn it!

No! Darn it!

segue2

News of the cosmos frequently involves inconceivably large numbers or gigantic objects beyond human imagination.  This is particularly true of galaxies–gigantic systems of stars, gas clouds, black holes, and exotic unknown dark matter.  Even the tiniest dwarf galaxies have tens of millions of stars and our lovely home galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 300 billion star systems! However the universe is a mysterious place and it frequently refutes conventional wisdom and prior expectations. This week astronomers from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory announced that they had discovered a ridiculously little galaxy with only a thousand stars. The adorable miniature galaxy, which has been dubbed Segue 2 is not a star cluster because it is surrounded by its own halo of dark matter, but it is many orders of magnitude smaller than any known galaxy.  Astronomers are trying to determine whether it is a scrap of a larger galaxy which was ripped apart (!) or whether it is a baby galaxy which never fully coalesced.  Astronomers hope that by learning more about Segue 2 and other hypothesized tiny galaxies they can find out more about the creation of the universe and the formation of elements.

"NO!" --image editors

“NO!” –image editors

Corona Borealis is a semicircular constellation in the northern sky between Hercules and Boötes.  It is of mild interest to astronomers for containing two interesting variable stars: (1) T Coronae Borealis, the so-called “Blaze Star”, which is a recurring nova binary star; and (2) R Coronae Borealis, a yellow supergiant which periodically dims from magnitude 6 to magnitude 14 and then brightens back up (possibly because it is producing carbon).

The constellation is much more interesting to classical artists since a myth about its creation gives artists their symbol for deification.  Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete who became judge of the underworld after his death and Queen Pasiphae (who was herself a daughter of the sun).  The princess fell in love with Theseus, an Athenian hero who was to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who lived in the labrynth beneath the palace.  With the help of the wise artificer, Daedalus, Ariadne rescued Theseus and together they fled from Crete (just barely escaping destruction at the hands of Talos, the giant bronze robot which guarded the island).

Ariadne (John William Waterhouse, 1898, oil on canvas)

Once they had escaped, the faithless Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos.  The sleeping maiden was spied by Dionysus who chose her as a consort. She was given immortality and godhood as soon as she was married and Dionysus hung her wedding crown of stars in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis (maybe it has so many variable stars because it was sacred to the god of intoxication).

Bacchus and Ariadne (Roman sarcophagus ca. 170-180 BC)

This seems like a weird narrative and it probably reflects Greek confusion about the proper status of Ariadne (whom some scholars identify as a Cretan serpent goddess from the Mycenaean era).  But irrespective of her origin or how she came by her divinity Ariadne has proven to be a favorite subject of visual artists from classical times onward.  Many artists prefer to portray her beautiful, naked, and asleep (and you can easily find many such paintings and statues on the web) but nearly as many are fascinated by her apotheosis—the moment she receives her godhood and escapes mortality.

Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian, 1523–24, oil on canvas)

Perhaps the finest of these paintings was created by the peerless hand of Titian for the Alabaster Room in the palace of Duke Alfonso d’Este–who specifically commissioned the world’s finest bacchanal paintings for his room (a project so fascinating and strange that the Alabaster Room has been virtually created online).   The painting shows the moment when Dionysus reveals himself to the bewildered Ariadne with all of his divine retinue.  The beautiful god leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot and flies down towards her as maenads and satyrs wildly revel behind him.  If you aren’t too distracted by the naked wild man covered in snakes, or by the dismembered donkey, or by the beautiful columbines and irises which bloom purple beneath the feet of the god’s inebriated followers, you will notice the constellation Corona Borealis glowing in the sky above Ariadne’s head.

Titian’s vision was so splendid and influential that other artists adopted the crown of stars as a symbol of apotheosis.  The crown of immortality appears in other works as heroes step across the threshold of godhood.  It is a reoccurring representation of our desire to step beyond humanity and become deathless divine beings.

Madonna in Glory (Carlo Dolci, 1670, Oil on canvas)

The London Olympics Stadium

The 2012 Olympics are starting tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to watching (and blogging about) some of the esoteric sports which only get their moment of glory every four years—especially the sailing, boating, and shooting sports which are my favorite.  Before we get to the actual Olympics though, we have to get through the opening ceremonies, which are always a huge sloppy mess.  Like costumed mascots, which fascinate and appall the viewer with a unique combination of human and inhuman elements (in fact the 2012 Summer Olympics already feature completely ludicrous mascots) there is something simultaneously evocative and revolting about such international mass spectacles. If you can tolerate the agonizing kitsch and the eye-wateringly lurid spectacle, there are always insights into the host nation and the larger zeitgeist of each era.

The Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens

Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony

The principle elements of opening ceremonies generally include pyrotechnics, has-been pop stars, dreadful dance routines, strange performance art, posturing politicians, and crazy costumes.  There is also a moral lesson or story (which is meant to be an undercurrent but which is usually fairly overt) presented in a peculiar opera-like mash of dance, cameo celebrity appearances, and moveable sets.

Like all Americans, I boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics opening

Each host nation always manages to bring its own special horrible thing to the opening ceremony–for example the Beijing opening ceremony featured mass dance routines that would put North Korea to shame.  Tens of thousands of majorettes all marched in place for hours in high heeled boots with big fake smiles that said “they have my family!”

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (featuring clapping marching performers)

The overarching message of the Beijing opening ceremony seems to have been that China had a very ancient and superior culture but then fell on hard times (through no fault of its own) before building a brighter & better homogenous society which is poised to take leadership of the world.  During the bombastic (but compelling) performance, the cameras kept cutting to the grandstand filled with world leaders.  Putin stared at the spectacle with icy hatred in his eyes and a hard frown.  George Bush Junior kept slumping over in his seat with disinterest as Laura plucked at his elbow.

Crazy Costumes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony

At least China still envisions a future in outer space (2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony).

England, of course, is not lacking in dried-up rock stars and supernumerary VIPS, but preliminary reports indicate tomorrow’s opening ceremony will also be a chronological morality tale put together by England’s foremost director. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was designed by Danny Boyle, the director of Bollywoodwesque Slumdog Millionaire, zombie horror film 28 Days Later, and heroin-soaked black comedy Trainspotting.  According to The Daily Mirror:

The whole ceremony is based on William Shakespeare’s brilliant play, The Tempest. The title in particular is borrowed from a stirring speech made by the native Caliban to his master Prospero. “Be not afraid,” says Caliban, “for the isle is full of noises. Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

In addition to the bard, Boyle apparently intends to pay homage to England’s agrarian past with a comprehensive cavalcade of live farm animals.  The second act will feature the hardships of the industrial revolution and the amorality of England’s colonial ascendancy—which is meant to provide a dark and upsetting counterpoint to the initial bucolic splendor.  Finally modern England will appear as a land of toleration and rock-and-roll!  [Of course all of this could be wrong. Boyle has been trying to keep his program secret, and this information is based on leaks and speculation.]

2010 Spirit Bear? Does anyone else remember this?

This year is already looking exciting in terms of political drama. Putin will not attend since he is angry with Great Britain (as apparently is President Obama, though nobody has yet fathomed why).  An awkward Mitt Romney will be there, trying [and failing] to fit in with actual world leaders.  But the real excitement will focus on the central performance, a train wreck of public art featuring farm animals, Elton John, industrial grime, James Bond, the Spice girls, and medieval kings.  What does that say about the zeitgeist?  Find out tomorrow!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

December 2020
M T W T F S S
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031