Earth Day


With the Planet This Hot,
What’s There to Celebrate?

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Heavenly Palace


As Tiangong Crashes Down,
Star Dreams Remain Aloft

Has the world gone mad? A camelback rider could’ve said that about the Sphinx in 2550, then under construction. And so could a tourist during the rare pink snowstorm that blanketed Europe the other week. Some may say it about the Chinese space station’s plunge into Earth.
It’s reassuring to see that reality can still top whatever buffoonery the orange rerun of Mr. T. may come up with. What? NASA is inviting people to add their name to the cargo of that soon-to-be launched sun probe? Well, nature has a couple of penguins taking selfies for you.
Not all is fun and cookies however, in the realm of the bizarre and out of whack. Like some nut, high on proving that god existed, who crashed her car on a pole on purpose, with her two kids strapped in the back seat. They all lived but god’d better not help her get back the children.
Or a guy who ran the cops to the ground, and beat a record that shall not speak its name (or get on the Guinness Book): he spent 47 days without going to the bathroom. They wanted to recover some drugs they say he’d swallowed, but after watching him on the throne for six weeks straight, they couldn’t take it anymore and just gave up.
Guess what science came up with, just so we’re clear we have no idea what we carry around in our bowels? Not one but two unknown human organs in less than a year: the mesentery and the interstitium. They’re with us since our bodies got the latest upgrade, circa 30,000 years ago, among the biggest organs in the body. But only now got their own billing.

WE WILL BE LIVING AMONG STARS
The man sitting on the White House toilet, tweeting, is quickly running out of tricks to cover up his con, but life, in the words of that great Jurassic Park philosopher, will always find fresh ways to shock and awe us. Even when it takes, say, a couple of thousand years. Or we’re unaware of its wonders.
Shorter and much more recent is our history building space stations. Since way before the Skylab ended six years of watching over us and precipitously rained in pieces over the Australian town of Esperance, of all places, in 1979, we’ve been trying to stay aloft each time longer.
Mir, which lasted 15 years and managed to survive the breakup of the Soviet Union, before breaking up itself and falling back to Earth in 2001, upped the ante. And the beloved International Space Station, the current title holder that completes 20 years in orbit this November, is still sitting pretty on the night sky.

THE FALLING BROKENDOWN PALACE
Do not blame the Chinese for trying. Here’s a land where the impossible takes place everyday. For millennia. From building a quasi-replica of Paris to having a number of metropolises sitting on empty, awaiting its much slowed down population growth, China gets it. But Tiangong 1, its first space station, is coming back to Earth.
Where? No one knows. The prototype was not supposed to last pass the two-year mark, in 2013, anyway. These things cost a lot to maintain. They say the next one will be bigger and better than this small but highly-sophisticated space bus. Still, a refrigerator-sized leftover chunk may surviving reentry. So look out.
Even if what goes up has to come down, eventually, whatever happens above has been considerably better, and nobler, that what’s going on down here. For to keep people up there takes our best and the absolutely limit of our capacity as living beings. Astronauts make us proud.

CHERISH THE FRESH & THE UNEXPECTED
Yes, the world has gone completely insane. But just as it’s crucial to know all about thorns, let’s not forget to caress the petals. The fiery universe, or universes, are expanding to the speed of life, but we’ve been given a bubble to breathe in and grow. We’re the guardians of the guardians that protect us.
We’re not excelling at it, that’s for sure. But let’s not confuse (more)
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Albert’s Pie

Stephen Hawking’s Not Having
Pi on Einstein’s 139th Birthday

When Albert Einstein was born on this day in 1879, in Ulm, Germany, the Number Pi, the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter, had about 527 decimals, including the three inicial digits that identify it: 3.14. In 1945, three years after Stephen Hawking’s birth, it had 808.
It’s now 68,719,470,000 digits, a record set in 1999. March 14 is a day to mark how far it’s come, even as few know exactly what to do with its constant expansion; to celebrate Einstein, whose work has enlightened the world; but to also feel sad because Hawking died yesterday, at 76.
As it goes, it’s fitting that they both passed away at the same age, since their lifetime contribution to modern science stand as two crucial brackets of human knowledge: Einstein‘s Theory of Relativity, published in 1905, and Hawking‘s continuous efforts to unify it to Quantum Mechanics.
But he’s better known for advancing our knowledge of black holes, a concept developed from Relativity’s space-time, even if it wasn’t called that way or coined by neither of them. It’s simply become one of Cosmology’s most fascinating sources of research and public amusement.
They were both fascinating and complex figures, who towered over their times. But for all their achievements as scientists, they both imprinted their names on the larger context of humanity’s quest to survive, even as both were so critical of how many ways we’ve been pursuing to annihilate ourselves.
Einstein survived Nazism and, despite his research having led in part to the nuclear power that still threatens the world, was a pacifist and denounced totalitarianism whenever he could. In some ways, we’re glad he’s not here to witness our insane revival of the horrors he faced and fought against.
And Hawking, who at 21, was given five years to live, following an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis diagnosis, beat the odds and became, if not the longest, certainly the most famous survivor of the terminally debilitating disease. Despite the complexity of his mind and life, he became a folk hero of sorts.
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But perhaps the most enduring quality these two giants share was their ability to transcend the obvious, the rational, the expected. They’ve opened paths that mankind will track for centuries to come, and ushered bending-time universes, parallel realities, and galaxy-eating dark stars.
While we improve on the telephone, rather than leaping into tomorrow, we’re left feeling orphans of another age when dreams were not measured by the size of our fears, or could be stopped by the blind inevitability of weapons.
One day, we too will be traveling through the vast beyond, and think about our own event horizon.
We’ll keep on adding to this now stratospheric circle, whose size Archimedes got started crunching around 200 BCE, and William Jones symbolized it in 1706, with a Greek letter, to that 1988 March in San Francisco, when Larry Shaw celebrated it by walking in circles and eating fruit pies.
So today, Happy Birthday, Albert Einstein. Have a Great Trip, Stephen Hawking. So long and thanks for all the pie.

Good Morning to All

Happy Birthday to Ya. Would
That Be Cash or Credit Card?

Minds of the practical kind know it all too well; birthdays can be expensive. And tricky too, specially if it’s your own mate’s, who happens to be picky about that sort of thing. Something else is increasing the overall price of celebrating you being around: the song everybody sings. (Don’t you dare, if you know what’s good for you.)
Good Morning to All, the tune American sisters Patty and Mildred Hill wrote in 1893 for school children to sing, somehow became Happy Birthday to You in the early 1900s, through a very serendipitous journey. Along the way, it changed copyright owners, got thrown into a corporate balance sheet and became very expensive indeed. 
Technically, every time someone sings it, which probably happens worldwide thousands of times a day, someone, or rather, some institution collects some dough. It used to be the estate of Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman, who were given credit for the new lyrics in 1935. Now, rather than pay up, some want this tradition changed.
Which means, there’s a new Happy Birthday song around the block, after a radio station in New Jersey set up a contest and chose a winner to replace the old tune. But it’s unlike that you’ll be hearing it sang by a group of underpaid waiters at your local diner anytime soon. These things take time.
Which is just as well. Nothing to remind you of its passage than that over familiar melody, and those repetitive chorus, which by the way, get different lyrics in different countries, not necessarily only its translation. But in English, it may only underline how old you really are. And that’s almost unbearable.
That could be also what’s behind WFMU‘s idea, when it teamed with the Free Music Archive to replace the copyrighted song. But the main point was to send the new one straight to public domain, so no one would (more)
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Seen From Above

Pictures of Earth at Night From
Space: Stunning Beauty & Concern

Watching Earth from 199 miles up has changed how we see ourselves, our cities and the planet, thanks in part to photos taken from satellite and by the astronauts at the International Space Station. As they’re staying ever longer up there, aerial photography has greatly improved.
All that these recent photos have in common is that they’re all night pictures, but boy, aren’t they striking. They’re also surprisingly revealing and instructive about what’s going on down here. Hopefully, they’ll become valuable tools for raising awareness and change.
Credit should be given to NASA which, despite its current shoestring budget, still manages to wow us with some of their ongoing projects. One such program is the Earth Observatory, which is a comprehensive six-month study, using high-resolution night images of Earth, to ‘gain insight on human activity and poorly understood natural events.’
The now little government agency that still can often works in conjunction with other scientific research teams, such the National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA, as well as the European Space Agency. The ISS is also an integral part of such programs, as it orbits through different patches from satellites.
Whereas the Earth Observatory is a set study, the astronauts are free to photograph Earth following their own instincts. And photograph away they do, to stunning and quite meaningful results. Whether they direct (more)
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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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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.

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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