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The facade of St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

The facade of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

Hey! Does your heart yearn for the unrestrained majesty of Gothic architecture, yet you don’t have the time or money to travel to the heart of some expensive ancient European nation where you will be overtaxed and abundantly cared for?  Never fear! It seems like it has been a ridiculously long time since we enjoyed Gothic aesthetics, so today I am featuring Gothic brickwork buildings from around the world.

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden,  Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden, Germany

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany (germanyja.com)

Hey! This is a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Hey! This is actually a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Now in my head Gothic buildings are made of ponderous gray stone (or possibly wood or gingerbread), but the great medieval brickwrights of Northern Europe found ways to build lavish and spectacular cathedrals, castles, and town halls out of plain red bricks.  Some of these brick edifices are equal in splendor to the most beautiful stonework.

This style seems to have been particularly prominent in Northern Germany/Southern Poland.  Ever since Gunter Grass died, my mind has been unexpectedly flitting off to his Gdansk of glowering facades and dank magic.  Imagine my delight to find that so many of the ancient buildings there (and throughout Poland) are Gothic brick.

Gdańsk University of Technology

Gdańsk University of Technology

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Brickwork Gothic also crossed the Atlantic during the Victorian era when Gothic Revival buildings were in fashion, and the style remained current as many American Universities were being built.  That is how a building which would not look out of place in a Medieval Baltic port city ended up in the middle of Oklahoma!

 Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing.   In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically.  Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures.  Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started.  Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist).   SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).

The grasshopper blasts off--or maybe lands?

The grasshopper blasts off–or maybe lands?

The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper).  If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year.   As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court.  Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!

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!

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