On This Day

When a Supernova
Sent Us Its Lights

The most recent collapse, visible by the naked eye, of a blue supergiant star into the SN 1987A Supernova happened 29 years ago today. Or rather, the light of its explosion reached us in 1987; the event took place 168,000 light years from Earth.
It didn’t change anything, except advancing our knowledge of the universe, just as Kepler’s Supernova had done, back in 1604. Galileo Galilei observed that explosion using an instrument that became known as a telescope only a few years after that.
Neither George Frederic Handel, W.E.B.DuBois, Peter Fonda, or Johnny Winter, all born on this day, were particularly affected by the 1987A. In fact, even including those left out of this list, mankind remains mostly oblivious to what’s going on above us.
How could it be any different? Heaven is so vast that, even considering our herculean efforts to populated it with myths and legends, paradise and hell, it remains so utterly powerful as to be touched only by our flawed, ever so dimmed, eyes.
And yet we try, century after labored century, to uncover the veil of ancient secrets, only to be challenged by new mysteries, to forge personal connections, even if they’re one-sided, self-attributed fantasies, bound to be unmasked.
The year of that supernova also marked a personal ephemeris of my own, as I picked New York as my coordinates on this world. And today’s date, as it’s been for decades, signals that I’m one year older and none the wiser. So it is in our mostly small existence.
The stardust that we all share with galaxies and clusters, with nebulae and quasars, will in time turn into ashes too. Except that we mostly wilt and pass away, while they explode into spectacular cosmic energy, seen across the millennia.
Supernovae will keep on popping up, even if we can’t see or record them. But our footprints will fade and be washed away by the elements. It doesn’t matter; what really counts is what happens between our first and last step. I’m closer now, I’ll get there.
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Marble & Heavenly Bodies

Michelangelo’s Grocery
List & the Finger of Galileo

What if future generations would wind up knowing famous people not for what we celebrate them for, but for something entirely unexpected? What if, in the big scheme, that’s what’s all about, or rather, how would you like to be known a century from now?
Michelangelo Buonarroti and Galileo Galilei, whose mastery of arts and sciences summarizes much of mankind’s greatness, may be safe from such a vexing fate. Nevertheless, recent news about them did make us wonder, over 400 years after their time.
When Illinois-based weapons maker ArmaLite outfit Michelangelo’s masterpiece David with an assault rifle, it committed not just an indignant act of vandalism for profit, but also insulted four centuries of enlightenment and aspirations to transcend our destructive nature.
Almost as offensive to any human who’s ever contemplate the size of the universe, let alone Galileo‘s memory, was a National Science Foundation study, that found that one in four Americans, or some 80 million of us, simply doesn’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun.

It’s very likely that both ArmaLite and those millions of our fellow voters remain unaware that Michelangelo died 450 years and a month ago last Tuesday, exactly three days after Galileo was born, both in the same region known today as Italy. Or even what greatness we’re talking about here.
After all, it’s really a coincidence that they were joined by such a happenstance of date and place. But it’s no casual fact that they both defined their age and set the standards to all others that followed it, in ways that still resonate with our world today.
And it’s a bit petty to castigate people for caring little whether Michelangelo’s art makes us a bit more deserving of the wonders of our own time, or that Galileo’s telescope introduced us to the stars, from which we inherited the dust that makes up our bodies.
But times, alas, are no longer open to wonders and enigmas and marvels of the physical world. While the Renaissance bred geniuses like Galileo and Michelangelo, and they, in return, doted us with their indelible foresight and imagination, we got used to ignoring every star above us, as the song goes.
We seem content to juxtapose the sublime with the abhorrent, like David with a gun, and relish on the comfort of long discredited beliefs, like placing the Earth at the center of the universe. No wonder they Continue reading

The Heavenly & the Disturbing

Venus’s Last Trip Across the Sun (in a
Century) & the Annual Dead Duck Day

It’s not unusual for two scientifically relevant events to happen in the same day. But while the transit of Venus in front of the Sun is the rarest of the two, the anniversary of Dead Duck Day packs a surprisingly, chock-full-of-meanings punch.
Venus won’t be seen in this neck of the Solar System before everybody alive today, and probably their immediate children, will be long dead. But what happened to a dead duck, 17 years ago, has became the holy grail to a whole branch of animal behavior research.
Beyond sharing the same date, though, these events have little else in common. But as astronomers and biologists expect to learn a bit more about the orbits of heavenly bodies and the life of mallard ducks, we should all benefit from their insights.
Before we too learn something about what’s happening today in the sky, where thousands will be tracking the rendezvous of Venus with the Sun, and at least in the Netherlands, where those fateful ducks met, a few words of caution.
First, about the Sun. The tragic Greek hero Icarus perished because his feather and wax wings melted as he flew too close to it. Well, for us, flightless mortals, we can’t even look at the Sun. So protect your eyes if Continue reading

Worlds Away

New Earth-Like Planet May
Have Everything But a Moon

It’s almost as warm as our planet. It may have liquid water on its surface. It orbits a twin of our own sun. Kepler-22b, the newest exoplanet found by NASA’s space hunter mission Kepler, is but one of hundreds already found that could harbor life. But it’s somewhat unique in what its size is comparable to earth’s in ways many before it aren’t.
No astrophysicist is hyper ventilating about it just yet, though. The observations are based in a lot of assumptions and, at this point, we have no idea whether the new discovery is a rocky or a gaseous body. There’s also no word yet on whether it has a moon.
The Kepler mission has accelerated a thousand-fold the hunt to find a place fit for life as we know it, and a few obscenely massive black holes to boot.
In fact, the mission’s findings will be combined with observations made by the S.E.T.I. project, one of the oldest searches for alien life that was recently revived.
It’ll now direct the eyes of its system observatories to the same area in the sky that Kepler has been pointed to.
As for us, in the meantime, all we have managed was to multiply threats to the environment and to our own survival on this planet.
But no one is ready to pack and board the first rocket to the unknown just yet. In fact, we’re far to even being able to consider the possibility of a mass exodus from earth as a viable survival option to our species.
Never mind diminishing budgets and interest in space travel, as sad as it may be. Or the creeping malaise of conformism and settling for the Continue reading