Nocturne


If the Night + Number
Eight Equals Infinity

A completely unscientific survey shows that, in some languages, the word night is made up by the letter ‘N’ and the number eight. Thus, eight night, in English, ocho noche, in Spanish, huit nuit, French, acht nacht, German, otto notte, Italian, oito noite, Portuguese.
Given that N is the mathematical symbol of infinite, and eight also means the same, those who pay attention to that sort of thing (conspiracists?) believe that night must have something to do with the void, the end, the dark. Which seems obvious. Or not. Whatever.
It’s all coincidence, say those who need a bit more of scientific basis before jumping into Philology assumptions. That list of languages, they say, which also should include Hindi (aat raath), are all derived from the Indo-European branch, so they are all related. Bummer.
And then, of course, they proceed to demolish the argument by mentioning all the hundreds of other languages in which the words night and eight have no way of knowing anything about each other, so to speak. Linguists of all accents were ecstatic, and so were everyone who simply can’t stand another pseudo Synchronicity.
No wonder so many tongues are disappearing. By the way, the fact that many false theories percolating the Internet these days would be easily dismissed if more of us would’ve paid a bit more attention in school is just a small consolation. In this case, however, is also a bit sad.
That’s because the theory was so elegant, we’d have loved if it’d make any sense. Even as it doesn’t, the implicit imagery of the flawed link between the word, which rules when the sun is away, and the number that’s essentially two stacked up zeroes, soothes our jaded minds.

THE NIGHT HAS EYES
Is it the fact that, squeezed in there somewhere, there’s also the concept of slumber, dreaming, and even the Big Sleep itself, with its closing of the eyes and cessation of all possible senses? Or is just our own grey matter, again playing the tricks it learned once it no longer relied on its Reptilian past?
We’d add two other, completely unrelated and also as unscientific as they come, arguments to justify if not the illusory link, then our own volition to go along with it: one, we’re lazy. Secondly, we’ve been searching for a (noble?) excuse to publish these three amazing pictures. Yes, there you have it.
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* Wide Asleep, Short Awaken

The Earth at Night (top), a cloud-free composite picture that NASA has put together out of over 400 satellite images of nighttime lights, has become one of the space agency’s most downloaded images, and that’s saying a lot. It was originally compiled to ‘study weather around urban areas.’
Greg GibbsCapturing the Night (middle) shows the Milk Way rising over the Australian horizon, next to the Magellanic Clouds. It’s part of a collection of stunning pics of the night sky, whose inspiration dates back to the Comet Halley’s second visit to the 20th century, in 1986.

Jason Hatfield‘s Exploring the Night depicts our home galaxy rising above a hiker, him, and the Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, as sole witnesses. The proportion between observers and the observed is almost accurate. The shot was a Smithsonian‘s annual contest finalist.
We could’ve called this post Below the Horizon, or Why Not Talk About Nine, or even Why Six Is So Afraid of Seven. But they all would skim over what the night does to every living being, and the tides, and nature itself. Also, they all ignore something else entirely: the Moon.
But as for the infinite, we really know nothing about it.

(*) Originally published on March 3, 2013.

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Farewell Dive

Cassini Bids Bye Bye With Last
Jump Into the Rings of Saturn

The spacecraft that’s been orbiting Saturn for the past 13 years, is executing its final dive today. It’ll be a grand finale, fireworks and all, as it’ll crash while taking the last of thousands of pictures and videos it already took from the ringed giant.
It was a risky triumph for NASA, for the $3.4 billion, plutonium-powered probe swung up close by us, in 1999, to use Earth’s gravity to shoot up towards Saturn. A mishap could’ve been disastrous, but it was worth: we’ve learned so much with the little probe that will die today.
These expensive and far-reaching missions always prompt questions as to their validity. It’s no different with Cassini. Many doubted its science, and to some politicians its cost-to-dividend ratio could never be compared to, say, another monstrous taxpayer-funded sports arena.
Since it’s hard to quantify the exact impact Cassini‘s will have on our knowledge – apart from, well, so much more than we knew before -, projects like these may be on their way out. While it traveled to Saturn, nanotechnology, for instance, experienced a quantum leap.
Advances in computer science and robotics, as well as the entry of private enthusiasts in the field of space exploration, may assign a different role to organizations such as NASA, and the European and Italian space agencies, that collaborated to make the Cassini project an astounding success.

A TRANSCENDENTAL STEP IN SPACE
For, however be that as it may, the orbiter, and its hitch-hiker, the Huygens lander, dropped on Titan in 2005, represent a staggering milestone. Its secrets will still challenge us long after everyone alive now is gone. That, by the way, is the only form of immortality that makes sense.
It’s the part when space as a metaphor to the human adventure on this planet resounds the most transcendental. That’s how Italian Giovanni Domenico Cassini, and Dutch Christiaan Huygens, both mathematicians, remain alive and even more relevant today than during their XII century existences.
The Cassini journey has also an added benefit: allowing mankind to witness a complete cycle, which started (more)
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Moon Shadow

Here Comes the Darken Sun,
But Let’s Just Say, It’s Alright

So the great solar eclipse of 2017 is coming to America and we, for ones, are only too glad about it. What, with all that’s going on, the thought of spending time with such a fascinating cosmic event surely beats most of everything one’s been watching on the news lately.
By now, however, every media, the Internet, your close friends, and even your deranged uncle Bob, have already told you all that is to know about it, maybe more. So here’s just a few historical and/or interesting pics to entice and inform you. Call it your personal mini visual tour.
Hover over the photos and click on them and on the links, for data and stories. Eclipses have been teaching us since time immemorial, and while many feared that the sun, or the moon, wouldn’t survive the penumbra, others like Edmond Halley, were open to learn. The one in 1919, for instance, proved Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

The one visible in 1966 at the bottom of South America led NASA to launch 12 rockets from a beach some 30 miles from where a little boy risked losing his eyesight to watch it through a photo negative strip. Luckily, that pair of eyes survived to experience many others since.

All ancient civilizations studied and documented cosmic phenomena. Comets and meteors, supernovas and moon eclipses, all had tremendous impact on our history on this planet. But things heat up considerably whenever the sun is concerned, and when the day turns into night, well, that’s not to be ever taken lightly.

We gaze, therefore we are. To many of us, this may be our very last solar eclipse, so we’d better make it good, just in case. Choose well your eye wear, pick a good spot, and make up a decent excuse to be there. Gee, the way things are going, the sun coming back after just a few hours may be the best news we may be getting for a while.

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* Tomorrow Never Knows

The Undreamed World

Forget Exoplanets. Here’s
the Ninth, the X & the Quirky

When things get rough on the ground, we can always look up. Seven and half billion currently trudging along on this big rock can take solace that the universe is vast and beautiful and always available. It’s also uncaring and violent, but we won’t get into that today.
Part of this soothing feeling is because we don’t know what’s up there. Astronomers wonder if there’s an undiscovered giant orbiting the sun. And another Earth-sized one. And a quirky object too. Or none of the above. We learn a lot by simply not knowing much.
But it’s fun to wonder. Or is it? The cosmos is so disproportionally big that no single mind can wrap itself around it. Large but short of infinity, it baffles and ignores us, while we dream on. Or have nightmares about it. It doesn’t care, but to us, it’s the stuff of, well, you know.
Heard about Nemesis, the sun’s evil twin? Or the identical Earth hidden behind the sun? Both are reasonable guesses, but their currency can only be exchanged at an imaginary box office at the end of the galaxy. One of them is actually a sci-fi movie plot. We may find out some day, but math will probably get there first.
The breakthrough era of exoplanet discoveries and look-alike solar systems has nothing on such suspicions. They date back to the 1800s, when hot-as-the-sun disputes drove many an even-tempered scientist to near madness. Math always gets there first. But even after a century, we’re still way too far behind.

THE SECRET TRANS-NEPTUNIAN COLOSSUS
Planet 9 has been orbiting the slumber of astrophysicists since they first studied the solar system. Something massive has been disturbing Earth’s siblings practically from the universe’s inception and wild youth, back in 2016 minus 4.6 billion years ago. Maybe we’ll find out what.
Mankind owes Percival Lowell the hunt for this ninth planet. His calculations missed the giant but led to the discovery of Pluto, 15 years after his death, a century ago last year. But Pluto can’t explain the orbital disturbances, and that likely doomed it too.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded it to dwarf planet, giving grief to many. That left the spot #9 empty, and astronomers have a hunch that its next occupant resides in the area beyond Neptune, a kind of suburbs of the solar system, if you’d insist.
But we may be still years away from direct detection. After all, those outskirts lay at least 300 times farther from the sun than the Blue Planet, and whatever lurks there it’s simply too hard to spot from our backyard. But we might. Just hold off the welcome B-B-Q for now.

A POSSIBLE BRAND NEW TWIN OF EARTH
Taking about burbs, the Kuiper Belt, an area fraught with debris possibly left over from a planetary explosion, and from where most comets come out shooting, may be the neighborhood of yet another unknown object. But this time, it’s of a cozy, Earth-sized scale.
Astronomers suspect that it’s the source of disturbance of the Belt’s 600 objects they’ve been monitoring. Considerably closer to us, and much smaller than Planet 9, it’s been nicknamed Planet 10, but not everyone wants to be quoted on that or even is on board about it.
The scientific community has a healthy skeptical attitude about new claims, specially something they may missed for so long. Humans love a thrill, however, and the spectacular discovery of a new planet (more)
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World Snatchers

Relax, There’s a Chance It
Will All End Up With a Blast

The danger of normalizing something so terminally outrageous is that it makes us all numb, complacent, vulnerable. Suddenly, yesterday’s inconceivable is today’s inevitable, and what we’ve been resisting against for millennia finally breaks through and flips us all into ashes.
Take meteorites, for instance – what? you thought we were talking about something else? One just zapped by Earth this week and didn’t even make to the front pages. NASA says there may be a couple more with our street address on them, heading our way. What then?
There’s an underfunded agency tracking so-called near Earth objects, sizable enough to cause harm. But size was relative in the dinosaur demise, 65 million years ago. Bigger rocks have hit the planet before and after, with little notice or damage. Luck us.
Still, if the risk is in the angle and substance, not scope or even speed, so be it. Few remember but in 2013, the world was expecting an asteroid to pass at large, when out of the blue, another, unknown, exploded over the skies of Russia. Luck was indeed in the angle.
Call us paranoid but when the eruption of the Vesuvius finally made it to the headlines of the day, it’s likely that the lava was already eating the town by its borders. And even if it caught some overly worried like us in its wake, most of the cautious had already made out of the joint.

THE HARMLESS FLEET & THE UNDETECTED KILLER
The unsettling thing about 2017 FU102, the near-Earth asteroid that zapped by us Sunday, was not that it passed at 0.6 times the mean distance of the Moon, but that it’d been discovered only four days before. Ok, so it was a 10-meter rock, that at the most, would’ve probably smashed a car, if it’d crashed.
But by the same measure of anticipation, had it been a thousand times bigger, even with over a year of advanced notice, there’d still be little for us to do. What, with our current state of affairs, many would’ve likely spent millions trying to prove that it was all NASA’s invention.
At the end of the day, it is the luck of the draw that we haven’t been hit yet. And, to some extent, spending millions trying to come up with a way to divert these civilization killers may not count on many supporters. But the alternative sucks: what to do in the waiting months till the inexorable?

METEOR SHOWERS & THE NEW FIREBALL SEASON
There are many who appreciate regularly scheduled meteor showers, multiple annual night presentations sponsored by nature, going on since before we came into the picture. On the 22nd this month, for example, we’ll have the Lyrid Showers, and who knows what does heaven have in store for us.
But the er big stars of every year is the Perseid, on August, the November Leonid, and the Geminid in December. There are more, some not big enough to have a name. By all accounts, showers are benign and entertaining, when it doesn’t rain, of course. Kids love them, perhaps because they happen late in the evening.
Another thing altogether is dealing with the term Fireball Season, possibly coined by H.R. MacMillan Space Centre astronomer Derek Kief. One can’t help it but to fear the implicit ominousness of such (more)
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Spacing Out

It Could’ve Been Worst,
But Keep Your Eyes Open

Done complaining? you’re actually very lucky. While you were asleep the other night, Earth almost got hit by an asteroid nobody knew about; you were closed to turn into confetti. See, things are not that bad. In fact, as you whine, a lot keeps happening right above you.
For instance, an old satellite just woke up from its slumber and began beeping, just like that. And you should also count your graces for not being a soon-to-meet-its-maker astronaut: they could accuse your deceased body of spreading microbes to outer worlds.
All this proves is that life, a train The Famous Pale Blue Dot Photo of Earth, Taken by the Voyager 1, on Feb. 14, 1990always ready to take off, keeps on tracking, and you’d better stand clear of its closing doors. Don’t want to be dragged down to a dark and narrow tunnel, watching riders go about their business inside, while you’re handed your papers outside it.
Speaking of tunnels, you may live in one and may not know about this, but since Tuesday, Nov. 8, a heavy fog came down, and a lot of people seem stunned, walking like zombies and foaming at their mouth. Something to do with some bad new – the 11/9, the say -, but don’t quote us on that.
The point is, you may think that it’s all unacceptable, unfair, and you won’t put up with it one little bit. Well, good luck with that; the next few years will be very depressing, indeed. You’ll find plenty of reasons to wallow in pools of disappointment and drown in wells of sorrow.
Or, after mourning the missing opportunities for a sec, you could lift up your chin up and catch a glimpse of the sky; it’s amazing how things are busy up there. For a change, that sobering realization that you are, after all, small and barely count, does put things in perspective.

THE MOUNTAIN THAT MISSED EARTH
Even your jubilant Uncle Bob, who can’t wait to corner you at Thanksgiving to tell you, ‘I told you so,’ knows that, among the infinitude of worlds out there, there’s a rock with our address and a clear mission: wipe out zealots and bigots and racists and misogynists with one swapping gulp.
That you don’t consider yourself ‘them’ makes not an iota of difference; you know you’ll be gone too. So, asteroids and meteorites usually top anyone’s list of civilization killers. On Nov. 1, a previously unknown one ‘almost’ became it. 2016 VA zapped within 0.2 times the moon’s distance from us.
It does seem far, but the thing is, either way, we didn’t know about it until it was too late to do anything. Now, put that ‘sobering realization’ in the context of your troubles, and you may catch a whiff of our drift here. Happens all the time. So, as the Brits say, chin up old chap.

THE GHOST SATELLITE THAT WOKE UP
Truth to be told, we track a lot of space rocks, but it’s impossible to track them all. As if we weren’t busy enough with that, we also track over 500 thousand man-made debris, all traveling at top speed, that we sent aloft and now are menaces to our survival out there.
Among them, are some of the Lincoln Experimental Satellite series, like the LES1 that almost immediately after launch, in 1965, malfunctioned and went dormant for 46 years, at the wrong (more)
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Window Seat

In the Vast Universe, There’s
Just One Place for All of Us

Good news for those planning on catching that last rocket out of Earth: you may take my seat. After careful consideration, I decided that I’m not booking that flight. The upside is that I was never really good at packing light. Or committing to a one-way ticket to anywhere.
But don’t get me wrong. Neither I gave up on having a pulse, nor I’m now for comfort over smelling new sights, even it takes smelling bad for months too. Trust me, shreds of my soul would fill the backpacks of those pioneers-slash-refugees boarding the spaceship to a new Terra.
News this past week that not one, but three new exoplanets have potential to surrogate us may have pricked up beaten ears, tired of the minor chords of our final symphony: warmer years, rising tides, growing masses of the starved and homeless. Those who can’t stand this one-note samba, are ready to rock.
I wouldn’t maximize my cards just yet, even if this is no figure of speech: collectors have chased me for years. Also, I’m in no rush to make snide comments about silly fools, hahaha, building a fleet toward a breathable future. For that’s what may wind up actually happening.
One thing seems probable: the last to embark will be the hardest at work to make such exodus an option, not an escape plan. And even as a dwindling bunch – hey, who can put up with so many storms before jumping ship? – their drive tracks closely that of the most hospitable place we’ve ever known: right here.
By the way, I’m not one to believe that we’ll be missed. It’s likely that every species, along with nature itself, will be cheering our departure, and the very conditions that made us possible will heal and thrive once we’re out of the picture. With us, chances are that Earth will look like Mars in less than a century.

LIKE PATCHING UP THE TITANIC
Which is as much faith as I’d put on us as anyone would about a virus: it’s ancient, no one knows where it comes from, it’s lethal, and when it leaves, people throw their hands up and give praise. And yet, even viruses can be beneficial, I know, but tell that to those who got on their way. So, am I saying we’re good as plagues? you damned right I am.
That being said, for as long as a breathe I’ll be partial to those fighting for reversing the clock. They used to practice (more)
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