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Cassini is preparing for its final few orbits before its death plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant Saturn on September 15th. To prepare humankind for this spectacular demise, NASA has been releasing some “greatest hits” photos including these astonishing images taken April 26th which show the 2000 kilometer (1,250-mile) wide hexagonal storm on the north pole of the planet. Cassini was 267,000 kilometers (166,000 miles) above the ringed world when it snapped these photos of the vortex (and a secondary counter vortex orbiting the mail eye). I am getting ready for the end of the journey, I guess, but Cassini was amazing in every way. It is worth really looking at these pictures and thinking about the astonishing nature of reality.

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There was a huge thunderstorm in New York City this afternoon. Enormous black thunderheads loomed up above the skyscrapers and great peals of thunder echoed down the concrete canyons of Wall Street. Then a wall of water fell out of the sky. It was no easy matter getting up to Alphabet City to meet my friend after work, however when we stepped out of the restaurant, suddenly the clouds lifted for a second and the whole world glowed with an unholy and alien mauve. That is when I noticed a rainbow leading to this weirdly garish (and rather lovely) building across the street. Sadly my phone is not very good and you can barely see the rainbow–but it was there…pointing to the pot of gold that is somewhere here in New York. Or maybe it is a pride rainbow. At any rate it was splendid and I wish I had managed to take a better picture.

winter snow

There is a big blizzard somewhat improbably named “Jonas” hitting New York right now, so I thought I would walk around Brooklyn and get some photos of the storm. For once, there was almost no traffic, so it was like paradise, but…somehow it wasn’t quite like paradise (maybe because of the driving wind filled with stinging sheets of snow). It was, however very beautiful which I tried to capture before my lens got all wet.

streetwinter dark

This entry is really for my tropical and desert readers. I guess anyone from a temperate area knows all about storms—or anyone in the Northeast Corridor can just walk outside and look at the storm. If it were 1816 we would probably all be doomed, but sitting inside with the radiator banging and my lights blazing as I pet the cat and communicate with the world from my computer, it is sort of peaceful…at least for the moment.

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The tree in front of my house right now (you’ll have to imagine the roaring)

Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street.  The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo.  This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses.  The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.

A London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia) at Vassar College

For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.”  I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores.   Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives.  The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.

The trees really are beautiful.  Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes.  The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.

London plane trees at Union Square Park (NYC)

Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city.  Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.

Support NYC Parks!

The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace.  The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds.  The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree.  I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).

In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology.  Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists.  Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim.  However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants.  The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir.  He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).

Frost Giant (from "Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology" by Mary Foster)

Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated.  many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.

Loki

The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous.  Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead.  Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength.  Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.

Odin and Gunnlöd

The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead.  The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together.  Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry.  The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth.  All poetry we have is sour and ersatz.  Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…

Giantess Gunnlöð, daughter of Suttung (Anders Zorn, oil on canvas)

Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, the seventh planet in our solar system is named for the Greek deity Uranus, the original skygod of the Greek cosmology.  In classical myth Uranus was castrated and supplanted by his youngest son Cronus (Saturn) who then fell before Zeus (Jupiter) and indeed, the third largest planet in our solar system (in volume) is often overlooked by astronomers, whose eyes are trained on the dramatic gas-giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Only one mission has flown by Uranus–Voyager II, which captured the following undramatic photo in 1986 as it whipped through on its way to Neptune.

Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyage II in 1986 (not a cue ball!)

All of this is a shame, Uranus is not only the first ice-giant planet but it is unique in the solar system for rotating vertically rather than horizontally (probably thanks to some apocalyptic super collision long ago in the planet’s history). From our perspective, the moons of Uranus orbit around it like a clock’s hands and its sporty red rings sometimes give it the appearance of a target.  Uranus has an incredibly long rotation around the sun.  One Uranus year equals 84 Earth years.  Because it spins vertically rather than horizontally, one pole is cast in a super winter which lasts twenty of our earth years (remember the poles of Uranus are on the equator).  Voyager flew by during the deep freeze of winter to get that boring photo up there, but now the seasons are changing and spring is coming to Uranus’ northern pole while fall is coming to the south (I wish there were a different name for the side poles—this is really confusing to write about).

Planet Uranus is seen in this composite image by the Keck II Telescope at near-infrared wavelengths. (Lawrence Sromovsky, UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center)

Because of the seasonal change, huge storms (the size of a continent on Earth) are tearing through the Uranian atmosphere with 500 kilometer-per-hour methane winds.  Keep in mind that Uranus has the coldest atmosphere in the solar system, probably because the collision which knocked it on its side dissipated its primordial heat (although nobody really knows). Temperatures there get down to a chilly –224 °C.  Brrr!

A similar bright spot photographed by Hubbel in 2005 just before the vernal equinox

The spring storms are apparently dramatic and fierce enough to be seen from Earth.  Yesterday astronomers reported the appearance of a huge white speck with an albedo ten times that of the planet.  This methane storm probably looks like an immense immense thundercloud spreading above the usually placid blue cloud cover of the ice world.  Saturn has been going through its own cycle of super storms recently (in addition to the great hexagonal storm raging on its north pole).  Its tempting to adapt the folksy mannerisms of country smalltalk and suggest that weather in the solar system has been bad lately–but humankind is probably only just now able to apprehend such phenomena!

The surface area of Earth is about 510 million square kilometers.  That number adds some perspective to the giant storm which has been raging on Saturn since December and now covers approximately 4 billion square kilometers of the gas giant planet.

The Storm Raging on Saturn (photo from the Cassini probe, NASA)

Saturn’s atmosphere is usually calm and tranquil–although powerful storms have been observed by telescope in the past. Now however Saturn is being closely observed by NASA’s Cassini space probe which is in orbit around the planet and we have some precise details.  At the storm’s height, Cassini detected over 10 lightning strikes per second.  Additionally, these lightning bursts can emit 10,000 times the amount of electrical energy as a typical lightning burst on Earth.  Saturnian meteorologists (or whatever weather scientists for the great ringed planet are called) speculate that this super lightning is so powerful because of the juxtaposition of layers of water ice with layers of crystallized ammonia.

A Detailed False Color Picture of the Storm (NASA)

Saturn’s weather is known to fluctuate with the change of the season on the frigid planet and the huge rings are presumed to affect the weather in unknown and unpredictable ways. The current giant storm is taking place in the northern hemisphere of Saturn, which is entering spring.

Although Saturn’s storms are not as well-known as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, the planet’s north pole does feature a hexagonal storm which has persisted for at least 25 years.  Named for Jupiter/Zeus’ father (who was known as Cronus to the Greeks), the planet Saturn is the second largest in the solar system with a surface area of 4.27 x 1010 square km.  The planet is orbited not only by its famous rings but also by at least 62 known moons including Titan, the only known satellite with a dense atmosphere, and Mimas, which features the largest known impact crater.

In this time of blizzards and tornadoes, yet another winter storm passed over the East Coast yesterday and last night. Here is a picture of my garden this morning, followed by a photo of the neighbor’s angry Norway Maple bare of leaves and subdued under a coat of snow.  It’s hard to believe that all of the crocuses, tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are sleeping beneath the drifts.  Since I’m leaving before Spring and won’t get to appreciate the bulbs I planted, maybe it’s best not to think about them and to picture the garden this way from now on.  I can just imagine it as forever free from aphids and leaf rot and imperfection–permanently suspended under a pristine coat of white…

Argh no, it’s still a frustrating picture.  What is the point of gardening or painting or toymaking or starting anything?  It’s all just going to get ruined by the ineluctible forces of entropy.

Stupid winter!

Park Slope Garden on January 27th, 2011

The neighbor's Norway maple--for once not actively trying to kill all the plants around it

A Frost Giant pushing to end the world of order and crush all things under an endless cascade of ice...wait, a minute, how did this picture get in here?

It has been a while since I posted anything about my garden.  Late spring’s great suffusion of roses is long gone.  My roommate pulled up my last toad lily during a one day reign of terror.  She also killed the hapless iris, pulled up the tulips, and unpotted several unlucky caladiums (however that terrible incident is now long passed).  Currently the garden’s plants seem wearied and wilted by July’s melting heat.  All of them are quiescent except for one: the mighty and sovereign king of the garden is unfazed by hundred degree heat and blazing sun.  Neither drought nor inundation can touch it.  It is the main feature of my garden (even if it is technically in the neighbor’s yard) so I have decided to blog about the hateful but extraordinary Norway maple tree (Acer platanoides).

I was unable to take a good picture because it is too big to fit in the frame (and I was unable to move farther away).

The maple is magnificent.  It is taller than the four story brick townhouses around it and it spreads as wide as it is tall.  From March to December it is covered with big beautiful yellow-green leaves.  It has a strong handsome trunk and a lovely shape.  But, to quote Wikipedia, “Unfortunately, despite its good looks and urban hardiness, [the Norway maple] releases chemicals to discourage undergrowth which tends to create bare, muddy run-off conditions immediately beneath the tree.”  That ‘area beneath the tree” compromises the majority of my flower garden—and the tree doesn’t stop with herbicidal chemicals.  Throughout the entire year it drops all sorts of stuff.  First it drizzles a layer of sticky sap in spring, followed by bushy chartreuse flowers, and then by countless thousands of helicopter seeds.  The seeds burst into life everywhere and must be constantly weeded out of all pots and beds. In autumn the maple drops enough yellow leaves to smother the garden outright.  Winter brings showers of twigs and limbs.

The trees around the Norway maple are afraid of it and are trying to escape.  The black cherry in my yard is bending away from the maple and trying to escape through the neighbor’s workshop roof.  Next door, a little ornamental tree is leaning away at a 45 degree angle.  All smaller plants within twenty feet of it that are not in pots wind up dead.  Every time I have put a trowel in the ground I have uncovered one or more of the tree’s roots.  I imagine it in slow motion over the years, wracking surrounding stone and concrete and leaving the lesser trees dead or growing away from it as best they can.  Its as though a fifty foot tall green Viking sprouted up over the course of a decade.

The wild cherry tree in my backyard is trying to escape through the neighbors mystery shed.

Naturally the Norway maple is an invader.  People brought it from Europe and Southwest Asia where it is one of the dominant trees.  They planted it here until it suddenly dawned on them what a mean & aggressive plant it truly is.  Now it is banned in several states.

The Norway Maple's wild range: continental Europe & beyond....

Though seemingly impervious to diseases, insects, and other plants, the mighty maple has two implacable enemies.  Summer thunder storms are capable of breaking its huge limbs as are the nor’easters which range up and down the Atlantic coast later in the year. A bough dislodged by a virulent winter gale smashed the fence to bits last winter.  Finally humans are a threat to the tree: dodgy electricians (I’m not saying ConEd) ran a big electric wire right through its central fork.  Whenever the maple sways in the wind, it blackens and sparks around the wire.  I worry that someday the electric company and the elements will conspire to bring the whole thing smashing down in a maelstrom of rock hard limbs and sizzling wires.

An immense hexagonal storm twice the diameter of earth is locked around the north pole of Saturn.  Humankind discovered the feature by means of the Voyager 1 space probe in 1980 and we continue to study it with our Cassini space probe.  So far, aside from hurricanes on Earth, this is the only eyewall atmospheric feature scientists have found in the solar system (an eyewall is a cloud formation where towering clouds swirl around an empty still center).  Each of the sides of this feature is 8,575 miles long and the eyewall towers 20 to 45 miles tall.  The eyewall clouds do not shift in longitude like the other striations in Saturn’s visible atmosphere.  The huge honeycomb shape rotates every 10 hours 39 minutes and 24 seconds–the same period of rotation as that of the planet’s radio emissions (which is therefore assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s icy interior).  Saturn’s south pole has no comparable feature–although there is a prominent hot spot there.

Nightime movie of the storm taken from the Cassini probe (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

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