Category Archives: Science

Includes all things science, natural and social. Process and philosophy, results and facts.

Marduk and the Abstract

As we study the ancients, we find ourselves revising our own understanding of what was known when. This became quite evident from a study published in January in Science.

In the study, astroarcheologist Mathieu Ossendrijver studied the texts of Babylonian tablets from 350-50 BCE. This Science video and articles from the NY Times and Washington Post show the beautiful tablets with the cuneiform writing.

To his surprise, and upending established history of science, Ossendrijver found a very abstract application of geometry.

Geometry is a very intuitive science

It is used to understand the distance between cities, the extent of pastureland or fields, or volumes of oil and wine.

However the text on these clay tablets dealt with nothing so tangible. They compared speed and time, as is done in calculus.

But calculus was not developed until the mid 17th C, by Leibniz and Newton.

What is calculus?

The word calculus comes the Latin for a small stone or pebble—the kind one might use to count, or in an abacus.

Marduk, integral
Estimating the area under a curve. Image from WyZant Resources.

In mathematics, calculus is the study of change. One can estimate the rate of change, in what is known as differential calculus. The reverse process finds the net accumulation due to change, integral calculus.

Integral calculus deals with quantifying the area under a curve.

What did the Babylonians do?

Ossendrijver had long studied several small clay tablets from the British Museum. These tablets spoke of deriving the area of a trapezoid, but there was no context as to what the trapezoid represented. Thanks to an additional clue provided from photos of another tablet from a retired archeologist, he realized that the Babylonians were referring to the planet Jupiter.

Taken all together, the tablets prescribed how to find the area of the trapezoid formed beneath the curve of Jupiter’s velocity against time. Integrating this area gives the distance that the planet has moved during the time period, namely the first one hundred and twenty days following Jupiter’s appearance.

This procedure was thought to have been first used in the 14th C by researchers working out of Merton College in Oxford, England and by the French philosopher, economist, and mathematician Nicholas Oresme.

Why did the Babylonians want to know the position of Jupiter?

It isn’t altogether clear whether the position of Jupiter was necessary for a specific ritual, but Jupiter was identified with the Marduk, god of the city of Babylon.

Given the relative positions of  the planetary orbits, shortly after Jupiter appears from the other side of the sun, Earth catches up with Jupiter. Therefore, as seen from Earth, Jupiter’s velocity appears to slow and to reverse itself.

This crossing period or transition point (or Nibiru) could have been an important religious marker for the Babylonians.

Who is Marduk anyway?

Marduk, in the Musée du Louvre. Photo by Rmashhadi, via Wikimedia Commons.

As is the case of many ancient deities, and especially with fragmented records, Marduk morphed over time: from god of thunderstorms to ruler of the cosmos to god of order and fate. At at one time he was known as the god of fifty names.

After vanquishing Tiamat, the monster of chaos, he became the Lord of the Gods of Heaven and Earth. This is just one more of the many cases where patriarchal gods overcame the ancient ones, but that’s a story for another time.

Ancient Greek astronomers used similar geometric methods as seen in these tablets

However, as noted in Ossendrijver’s original article, the Babylonians weren’t calculating the area of a tangible physical object.

The area defined by speed relative to time is abstract. There is no record of similar sophistication until fourteen hundred years later.

The ruler of the cosmos, vanquisher of chaos, wouldn’t have expected anything less.









Leap day, or how to keep time on track

Monday, February 29, was a leap day, an intercalary day: a day inserted into the calendar.

Leap day represents a fudge factor to reconcile the fact that the year—or the time for the earth to revolve around the sun—and the day—the time that it takes the earth revolve around its axis—bear no connection.

As we all learned in school, the solar year is longer than 365 days, by 0.2422 days, such that almost every four years we add a day. The ‘almost’ comes from the fact that the extra time is less than a quarter of a day.

As for months, the moon orbits the earth relative to the sun in 29.5 days in what is called a synodic month.

Days just don’t fit neatly into years or months. So arbitrary conventions are required. Like months of twenty-eight, thirty, and thirty-one days.

Civilizations need calendars

For the bulk of human history, we needed calendars to know when to plant and when to harvest. We needed calendars to know when to attend fairs to trade our goods, and when to go to holy sites to partake in rituals.

Given the regularity of the moon and the sun, it is only natural that mankind looked to the heavens to define time.

Think a leap day is bad, imagine two months…

Because days don’t fit into months or years evenly, all calendars require a ‘fix’ to avoid migrating away from the sun. For some it is a day every four years, for others a month, for others five days at the end of the year.

When Julius Caesar tried to sort out the drift associated with a 365-day year, he added two months to the year. 46BCE had 445 days and was known as annus confusionis, the Year of Confusion.

The LA Times calculated that if we’d ignored leap year corrections as made since 46BCE, we would currently find ourselves in mid-July.

Defining time

The quest to improve timekeeping is one of mankind’s oldest pursuits, and has essentially been a search to find better oscillators. — NIST Primary Frequency Standards and the Realization of the SI Second.

Earth’s rotation on its axis—the succession of night and day—is an oscillator that is hard to ignore, so naturally the second was originally defined as a fraction of the day. Of course day length varies with latitude and season. It is even affected by large weather patterns.

The increased temperatures and shifts in atmospheric pressure associated with El Niño have been observed to slow the speed of rotation by 0.05 to 0.1 milliseconds.

Day length is also over time increasing due to friction from the tides. Global warming will also have a measurable impact.

The period of revolution around the sun is more stable than day length. In 1956, the standard second was defined as 1/31 556 925.9747 of the tropical year 1900. But this is impractical for real-time activities, such as synchronizing satellites.

Enter the atomic clock 

Instead of looking out to the cosmos to define time, the current standard for the second comes from the oscillation resulting from electrons shifting levels within an atom of cesium: 9,192,631,770 periods to be precise.

The year is now defined in function of the atomic clock. We have gone from peering at the heavens to looking inside an atom.

But the historical and cultural weight of astronomical timekeeping is so great that the two are kept in sync. And thus we have leap seconds, during which the universal time defined by cesium pauses for solar time to catch up.

Since 1972, 26 leap seconds have been introduced.

Why are they called leap days, or leap seconds, when nothing is being skipped?

Notwithstanding the fabulous photos of leaping animals on from National Geographic, a leap day is an extra day introduced into our calendars. There is no jumping involved.

Apparently the term has been in use since at least the 13th C. It is thought to refer to how calendar dates move from one day of the week to the next day on the following year. But on leap years, those that fall after February 29th move two days.

How did you use your extra day this year?

 There is little fuss and fanfare around the intercalary day, which I think is a mistake.

A leap day calls attention to the arbitrary nature of calendars. It is a clerical correction to a solar system where planetary rotation and revolution aren’t neatly linked.

Wouldn’t it make sense to use leap day as an actual extra day, a gift from the heavens to take the time to look above or deep inside?

leap day

On First Lines

The first line of a novel can be a curtain sliding apart, or a door that is thrown open. It can be a whispered call to attention, or it can be trumpets and cymbals. First lines aim to draw you in, or in some cases to drag you in to the world of the story.

Here is a random selection of brilliant first lines:

When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.”

Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night


At twenty-four the ambassador’s daughter slept badly through the warm, unsurprising nights.

Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown


I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer


This story—like most stories in the history of the world—begins far away from Des Moines, Iowa.

Elizabeth McCracken, Niagara Falls All Over Again


One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

The scientific community published a first line of sorts today:

Gravitational waves have been detected for the first time.

On September of 2015 a signal was registered at both sites of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (also known as LIGO). The characteristics suggest that it resulted from the collision of two massive black holes about 1.2 billion years ago. You can hear the gravitational wave, as a rising chirp, at ‘The World According To Sound.’

Actually the announcement was more of a second line, because the true first line was given to us in 1915 as part of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A hundred years for confirmation may seem a very long time, but at extremes of physical scale far from human dimensions—elementary particles and universes—verification is no easy matter because observation represents a daunting challenge.

Dennis Overbye at The New York Times provides a wonderfully clear explanation of gravitational waves and of LIGO in his article and accompanying video.

This wonderful finding isn’t the final word. Another approach to studying gravitational waves is already underway in space using the LISA Pathfinder satellite.

And in case you wondered, gravitational waves are not the same as gravity waves. Gravitational waves had never been observed before while gravity waves include wind-induced waves on the ocean or a lake or atmospheric waves in the wake of mountain ranges.

We’re rather lucky to be surrounded by wonderful first, and second, lines. Sometimes it’s up to us to provide the following ones.

DSCN1003 copy_063

Liar liar! Odysseus, the unreliable narrator

Like a Russian matryoshka doll, or like the Arabian nights, the story of The Odyssey contains within it stories narrated by its characters.

Menelaos tells Telemachus the tale of his own return from Troy and that Odysseus is being held captive by Calypso. In Phaeacia, the blind singer Demodocus recounts the ruse of the horse that ended the Trojan war.

With regards to the adventures of Odysseus, Homer reports directly on the time with Calypso, the arrival to the island of the Phaeacians, the return to Ithaca, and the events with the suitors.

Odysseus himself is the sole source for ten adventures. He spins them as yarns at the court of Phaeacian King Alcinous, and he summarizes them to Penelope in Ithaca.

Funerary Amphora showing Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Polyphemus. Detail of the neck. Around 660 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Funerary Amphora showing Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Polyphemus. Did it really happen or is it a fib of Odysseus? Around 660 BCE. Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The lotus eaters, the cyclops Polyphemus, Circe, visiting the dead, Scylla and Charybdis, the winds, the cattle of Helios.

All are stories recounted by Odysseus within the story.

Why do we believe them?

After all, Odysseus lies constantly. When he first arrives to Phaeacia, he claims to be a merchant from Crete. He tells this to Penelope, to his son, to his father, and even to Athena.

These are not just casual attempts at misdirection.

He tells detailed and involved adventures that are all lies.

We know Odysseus was from Ithaca and was never a merchant.

Odysseus tells them he hails from Crete 

Which is a bit of a joke, because the Cretans had a reputation in antiquity for lying.

Epimenides, a 6th C BCE Cretan philosopher, famously said:

Cretans always tell lies.

This statement is known as the paradox of Epimenides, as it appears to be a contradiction.

It isn’t really a paradox because there is no contradiction if it isn’t true.

Since Epimenides is Cretan, the statement is likely a lie. If it is a lie that Cretans always lie, then it follows that at least one Cretan has spoken truly at some point.

Not Epimenides in this statement, but someone.

A closely related statement is a paradox

This is a lie.

If the statement is true, then what is stated is untrue. If the statement is false, then what is stated is not an untruth.

I told you it was a paradox

The above statement and ones like it are called the liar paradox. (Though sometimes confused with the paradox of Epimenides, they are distinct.)  

The liar paradox refers to binary elements (such as truth/falseness) and is self-referential. It has been subject of discussion by philosophers and mathematicians for over 2000 years.
The Treachery of Images (1948) by Rene Magritte plays with an image-referential statement, challenging the viewer to question “reality.” Source WikiPaintings under fair use principles.

Mathematician Raymond Smullyan has written several delightful books of logical puzzles that play with the liar paradox. They’re quite fun if you like that sort of thing. (I do.)

Odysseus lies repeatedly, is characterized as a liar and says he comes from a land of liars

He has great potential to be an unreliable narrator.

The epithets of Odysseus refer to his deviousness and cunning. He is tricky. When things went wrong on their voyage home, quite frequently he was taking a nap.


Odysseus may be one of the first unreliable narrators, but he certainly isn’t the only one. It is a common device in literature and film.

What makes a narrator unreliable?

We need to acknowledge that narrative reality is distinct from “truth” to discuss unreliable narrators. All fiction aims to suspend disbelief.

A narrator that lives in a world with two suns is not unreliable because there is only one sun on Earth.

An unreliable narrator is one who reports events that are inconsistent within the created reality.

Narrators can be unreliable because they want to hide something or because their perception of “reality” is hindered due to illness or a drug.

Some unreliable narrators include those in Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart or Nabokov’s Lolita. Recent examples are Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.

In other instances an event is seen from multiple points of view, like Rashomon, or The Fact of a Fingerpost. Stories where the narrator wakes after a dream also cast doubt on prior events.

And back to Odysseus

In Zachary Mason’s book The Lost Books of the Odyssey,  we learn of some newly discovered papyri. These reveal alternative stories to those reported by Homer.

Mason’s Odysseus is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

But in fact, he always was.

What can we believe, even within the canonical version of The Odyssey?

The fall of the Land of Cockaigne: a tale of two blues

Four horses were standing in the yard threshing corn with all their might, and two goats were heating the stove, and a red cow shot the bread into the oven.

This surreal excerpt comes from the very short Tale of the Land of Cockaigne  from the Grimm Brothers. There is no plot, simply a recitation of preposterous scenarios.

It s obviously a tall tale, one where the storyteller is self aware, breaking out of the story to ask:

            Have I not told enough lies?

The Land of Cockaigne, a Medieval theme

The Land of Cockaigne, of Plenty, is an Upside Down World.  The established order is subverted: animals do the jobs of peasants, the clergy are punished, the poor are idle and fat. Like El Dorado, it is a land of riches untold, with an added element of humor and the grotesque.  Unlike El Dorado, it remains firmly ensconced in myth and metaphor.

Pieter Brueghel’s The Land of Cockaigne (1563). The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Brueguel the Elder’s 1563 unflattering but humorous portrayal of the Land of Cockaigne is combined with Flemish proverbs. He also makes a humorous and satirical  commentary on the failed revolt against the Spanish in 1560.

The idea of the Land of Cockaigne is found throughout Europe: the Italian Cuccagna, Spanish Cucaña, German Schlaraffenland, and Swedish Lubberland.

A proposed origin of the name is from the Pays de Cocagne

The southwestern region of France around Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassone is still known as Pays de Cocagne. It was home to the production of the most valuable blue in the late Middle Ages: pastel. The cocagnes (in French) were the round balls of paste formed after grinding the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

The traditional process to obtain blue from Isatis tinctoria included two fermentation processes and took over a year. The first fermentation process was accelerated by adding urine. (Natural dyeing processes release ammonia, an early example of noxious industrial emissions. Queen Elizabeth I forbade woad dyeing within five miles of her residences.)

Panoramic view of the hôtel d’Assézat. Construction started in this Renaissance palace in 1555. It now houses an art museum, the Fondation Bemberg. Source by Pom2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The period between mid-fifteenth and mid sixteenth century was known as the Golden Age of Pastel, and led to the construction of Renaissance mansions in Toulouse, such as the hôtel d’Assézat and Beyron.

In search of blue: a costly color

Chaucer mentions three core plants for dyers: woad (blue), madder (red), and weld (yellow). Woad, in the cabbage family, grows throughout Europe. Dyed fabric has been found in burials since the Iron Age (1st century CE).

Julius Cesar’s claim in The Conquest of Gaul that the inhabitants of Britain painted their faces blue has been interpreted to explain the name of the Picts. However, it seems unlikely that he is describing the Picts nor that woad was used as body paint.

Dyes for cloth made fortunes in SW France

The region’s climate and soil were ideal for woad cultivation and it was widespread already by the XIIth century. Initially centered in Albi in the 14th C, the shift to Toulouse enabled meteoric expansion.

The banking structure was better able to manage the risk associated with the time lag between planting and dye production.  The Garonne also provided a good means for export north and east.

Like so many booms, the pastel economy fell sharply. Many reasons have been proposed to explain the decline in the 1560s. These include a lack of investment back into the industry and dubious practices (adding chalk to the paste). Two years of heavy rainfall with abundant but low-quality harvests wreaked havoc on the pricing. The already precarious trading routes were severely disrupted by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, the easy access to indigo almost made pastel obsolete.

A color found in snails and leaves

The dye chemical produced from the lengthy and smelly procedure to produce pastel is indigo. It is also found, and in greater concentration, in the tropical indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria, from the pea family and native to Asia and India.

Indigo or indigo derivatives are also produced by several snails. In fact the chemical behind the famous Tyrian purple (great animation here) is di-bromine indigo.

Indigo in the left hand, woad in the right. From the blog Root Simple.

The ancients that knew both woad and indigo considered them completely different. Woad led to a different color, probably because the pastel technique didn’t lead to pure pigment. The components of red and yellow add a richness, a shadow to the brighter indigo blue.

Indigo, the devil’s dye

Although indigo had long been known in Europe, it arrived via overland spice caravans in such low quantities it could not compete. However after Vasco de Gama opened the maritime trade route, the Portuguese were importing it in large quantities by 1516.

This led to great consternation in France, Germany and England where the woad industry was a cornerstone of the economy. Its use was punishable by death in France and Germany into the XVII century.  Britain initially also forbade the use of indigo, but by 1634 indigo was one of the mainstays of trade of the East India Company.

Although indigo was cultivated in Spanish and French colonies and in South Carolina in the XVIIIth century, Indian production eclipsed all other sources.

Blue military uniforms

Napoleon tried to revitalize the French pastel industry, establishing an academy and using it for his uniforms in the early XIXth century. However, at the fall of the empire in 1823, indigo took over.

The color blue continued to play a significant role in French military uniforms during WWI with a shift from the bright indigo blue to a lighter shade after high death tolls.

The development of synthetic indigo in 1893 led to the end of large-scale indigo production, but not before the oppressive conditions of indigo plantation workers played a role the independence movement in India.

Today woad is used for its pigment and for medicinal purposes

Natural biodegradable pigments have gained in allure beyond craft dyers. Bleu de Lectoure is researching cultivation and extraction techniques, as well as applications for a sustainable activity. The medicinal properties of woad, long used in traditional Chinese medicine, are also under investigation.

Blue is always with us

It is obviously questionable to aspire to a Land of Cocaigne as there is no free lunch (an expression not shown explicitly in Bruegel’s work). But this story of blue shows that color transcends any sense of frivolous decoration.

It has the power to build empires and to bring them down.

The universe was created last Thursday, and you did it

Some years ago my father, one of the most interesting people I know, created a list of arbitrary subjects, for debating or when conversation lulls. (He hates being bored.)

Me: What’s number 4, Last Thursdayism?

Him: The universe was created last Thursday.

Me (speechless)

Him: It was created chock-full of records of the non-existent past. You know: fossils, historical artifacts, ruins…

Me: But I remember things that happened longer than a week ago.

Him: Ready-made memories came as part of the (new) universe.

Me (walks away)

So much for a flagging conversation…

Since then, I discovered the Church of Last Thursday

They note in their creed that, You, the reader, are the Creator of the universe.

What caught my eye this time was the second-person point of view (POV)  of the doctrine. You created the world, but You don’t remember doing it.

Second-person POV is awkward in fiction

Probably because it addresses the reader directly. Fiction aims to draw us into the story, so we forget we’re reading. In its very directness, second-person POV can be exhortative. It tells the reader what they’ve done or thought. So if the reader isn’t engaged,  it can confront and alienate. Many find it bossy or presumptuous.

Italo Calvino used second-person POV in If on a winter’s night a traveller  (1979). This postmodern classic is clever and witty, as is all his work. But, while at first I was intrigued by the second-person POV, it eventually grew tiresome.

If the universe was created last Thursday…

Then Calvino’s book and the list of arbitrary subjects are among the many artifacts created at that time. Last Thursdayism is an extreme parody of the idea of a Young Earth.

Taking the Bible as the ultimate authority about all reality, the earth cannot be more than 10,000 years old.

Since the earth is young (according to the ultimate source), the scientific methods that determine age are obviously erroneous. (At least over long time periods, though more recent records may be accepted.)

But what if things that appear old were created to appear old

Then it’s impossible to use observations as evidence.

Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons.
Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons. Giovanni di Paolo gave Adam, Eve and even the angel a navel too.

However this radical position isn’t new, nor is it always meant in satire. In 1857, Philip Gosse  argued in Omphalos that the fossil record was created to make the world appear older. The title (the Greek word for navel) refers to the idea that God created Adam and Eve with navels to prove their human ancestry.

Artists usually represent Adam and Eve with navels, like in the 16th century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Of course, that doesn’t constitute evidence.

Can we prove Last Thursdayism is wrong?

Last Thursdayism and Omphalism aren’t scientific premises, as they can’t be falsified— all evidence is tainted by definition. As Stephen Jay Gould said in The Flamingo’s Smile (1987):

Omphalos is the classical example of an utterly untestable notion, for the world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils and strata are prochronic or products of an extended history.

Last Thursdayism is a straw man argument because its exaggeration misrepresents the position it wishes to critique.

Last Thursdayism can be a little zen

Many Eastern philosophies note that the past is gone and the future may not arrive.

There is in each moment only that moment. Our compulsion to plan our next steps, to fantasize about future events or to worry, and the equally common tendency to ruminate about the past can get in the way of appreciating and living the present.

On the other hand, we can be considered a sum of what happened before, as famously expressed by William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun, 1950):

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

But just maybe, we aren’t obligated by it.

It might not matter. The universe will end next Thursday. (Or in five minutes.)

What’s your experience with second-person POV? Any books where it really worked? Do you think Faulkner’s right? Do you ever fall into obsessive remembering or worrying? 

And, most importantly: where were YOU last Thursday? 

A new galaxy and an old painting tell us about the creation of the universe

On October 24, a team of scientists announced the discovery of a faraway galaxy, called Z8-GND-5296 (Zate for friends). A very faraway galaxy, 30 billion light years away. It’s also quite old, 13.1 billion years old.

Hubble image of Z8-GND-5296. Image credit: V. Tilvi / S.L. Finkelstein / C. Papovich / A. Koekemoer / CANDELS / STScI / NASA. via
Hubble image of Z8-GND-5296. Image credit: V. Tilvi, S.L. Finkelstein, C. Papovich, A. Koekemoer, CANDELS, STScI, NASA; via Science News.

For a little context: the universe is thought to be 13.82 billion years old and our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 13.6 billion years old.

We’ve always wanted to know where we are

Our earliest maps were of the stars: Paleolithic depictions of constellations have been found in caves in France and Spain.  Our ancient forebears had only the naked eye to find our place in the sky.

Today’s scientists are increasingly able to see further as the instruments that look into space improve. The “observable universe” extends about 46 billion light years away from Earth. Here’s an amazing 3-D map of our known universe.

The distance to Zate, 30 billion light years, is the furthest recorded so far for a galaxy.

How can Zate be 30 billion light years away if the universe is 13.8 billion years old and nothing travels faster than light?

The short answer is that the universe is expanding. Objects, especially distant ones, appear to be moving away from us. They aren’t. The space between us is increasing.

Having trouble wrapping your head around it? Yeah, me too.

Timeline of the universe, from Big Bang to today. The vertical extent of the funnel is size- which is expanding, and the horizontal is time. Source NASA WMAP site.
Timeline of the universe, from Big Bang to today. The vertical extent of the funnel is size- which is expanding, and the horizontal is time. Source NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Project.

Imagine that Galaxy Zate is on a moving walkway in the airport heading to the gate, while we’re on a walkway to the baggage claim. Zate sent us a paper airplane with a message, but since the distance between us keeps expanding, it took thirteen billion years to arrive.

The walkway is two-dimensional, while space is three-dimensional, and there’s no “center” out of which the universe expands, so the analogy is far from perfect, but it might help.

Did you say that was the short answer?

I did. It turns out that the limitation on objects moving faster than light refers to special relativity, that is to motion through space. There is no such limitation on the expansion of space itself. In case you didn’t click before, for a wonderful, and concise, explanation of the Big Bang and the expanding universe go here.

What can we learn from Zate? 

The new galaxy appears particularly enriched in metals, which result from the formation of stars. Zate is thought to have produced 330 stars with a size equivalent to our sun every year. That’s a hundred times larger than the current rate for the Milky Way.

Zate and galaxies like it are very important to understand the early universe, when it was a mere 700 million years old, when stars and galaxies were being created.

How can you show creation?

Current scientific thought of the evolution of the universe looks something like the NASA schematic shown above.

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise. Source Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons.

Five hundred years ago in Europe, the understanding of creation was largely based on the Bible, but observations also mattered.

A particularly delightful representation of creation is the 1445 panel showing The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise by Giovanni di Paolo (1400-1482) in the Robert Lehman Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Maker, surrounded by blue cherubim, is in the upper left, pointing to a cosmological representation of the universe as a series of concentric spheres. This is known as a thema mundi, a star chart of the world, where the outer ring holds the signs of the zodiac, that is, the constellations at the moment of earth’s creation.

Earth in the center

As asserted by Ptolemy and adapted to accommodate prevailing Christian thought of the time, the earth is central, fixed and unmoving.  Copernicus didn’t publish mathematical foundations for heliocentrism until 1542, though the work had been written ten years earlier.

The innermost sphere, earth, is brown, and the next three spheres represent the remaining three elements (water, air, and fire in red). These are surrounded by the seven “planets:” the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun (white, with remains of a gilded star), Mars (pink), Jupiter (light blue), and Saturn (darker blue). The “fixed stars” that were thought not to move, including the zodiacal constellations, surround Saturn. Finally, God with the angels is in the celestial orb, outside the concentric circles.

Both Medieval and Renaissance

Laurinda Dixon explains in a wonderful article that the artist broke with medieval tradition by showing the earth as a world map.  Though superficially similar to the symbolic mappamundi of the Middle Ages, closely bound by Christian iconography, Giovanni di Paolo was clearly aware of the latest maps of his time. For example, the map’s top is the south instead of the medieval east and it’s not centered on Jerusalem.

However, Giovanni di Paolo’s map is still symbolic. Eden is located atop the Mountain of the Moon, near the headwaters of the Nile. As in medieval mappamundi, the four rivers of paradise flow from Eden, and can also be seen below Paradise in the Expulsion scene.

Our home. “The Blue Marble,” iconic photograph of Earth seen from the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972.

Where we are remains the same

This Earth. This beautiful planet.  But how we define it varies.

Galaxy Zate can tell us about the first hundreds of millions of years of the universe’s existence. It can help confirm or disprove our understanding of things that are hard to imagine. Giovanni di Paolo’s Creation reflects the knowledge from a time straddling the arbitrary periods of Middle Ages and Renaissance.

We’ve always wondered where we come from and we always will. We’ll never have all the answers, but we’ll keep exploring and asking better questions, and then we’ll tell stories about what we learn.

And in this way, we’ll learn even more.

The black swan: not just another imaginary animal

What happens when you run into an imaginary animal, who has been used for centuries as a metaphor?

The black swan living near Pont Neuf since at least January 2012 when this lovely video was posted by Andylamen.
My photo of the black swan living near Pont Neuf in Toulouse in September 2013.

I’m fond of metaphors (isn’t everybody?) and I’m particularly fond of imaginary creatures. On a cloudy Sunday I ran into…

a black swan.  This black swan. No, it isn’t Nessie! Really! If you don’t believe me look at the great video posted by Andylamen in January 2012.

Black swans have been used as a metaphor since Roman times through the present.

How come? 

Because they’re very rare. To be precise, there aren’t any. In the northern hemisphere.

Since it was common knowledge that all swans are white, the Roman poet (~55-~138CE) Juvenal used the black swan as the ultimate rare bird in his Sixth Satire:

rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (6:165)

Which translates to

a rare bird in these lands, much like a black swan

For now I’ll ignore the fact that he was referring to “a perfect wife.”   The Sixth Satire is a diatribe against Roman women, and more generally against marriage. It tells us quite a bit about Roman gender roles of the time. More about versions of perfect wives another day.

Juvenal coined several other expressions that are still used today, such as panem et circenses and mens sana in corpore sano.

In much of Europe, black swans were a metaphor of something that didn’t exist. You know, an imaginary creature.

Oops, black swans do exist…

In 1697 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans  in Australia, where they are very common. There are also white swans in Australia, but they’re less common. (Interestingly, of the seven species of swans, the two species from the southern hemisphere have black plumage over all or part of their bodies.)

The assumed non-existence of black swans and their subsequent discovery made them an excellent example to think about what can be verified.

What is a scientific statement?

According to philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1944), a scientific statement is one that can be falsified. Not verified, but falsified.

Because verification and falsification are asymmetric.

“All swans are white” can be falsified, by finding a black swan.

No matter how many white swans we find, we can’t be sure we’ve seen them all. However, as soon as we find one black swan, the statement has been falsified.

Time for another metaphor: black swan events

More recently Nassim Taleb used black swans as a metaphor in his work on uncertainty (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile) .

A black swan is an event that:

  1. is an outlier, far beyond past experience or expectations
  2. has huge impact
  3. is subsequently explained as predictable

Black swans can be positive (like the invention of the internet) or negative (the 9/11 attacks or the Fukushima disaster). Taleb notes that most positive black swans make themselves known gradually — especially compared to the suddenness of negative ones.

As a former earth scientist, I wonder at the relationship between black swans and extreme events, such as intense storms or prolonged drought. Extreme events are very unlikely but have huge impact.

Taleb’s whole point is that normal statistical distributions don’t apply in the realms he discusses, which are human and societal or in the interaction of natural and societal.

Height and wealth

An example he uses is the difference between the distribution of height and of wealth.

Heights follow standard distributions, which he refers to Mediocristan. A valid prediction is possible with partial information in Mediocristan.

But in Extremistan, the few very very large values overwhelm the distribution. The net worth of the very very very rich (the infamous 1% of the Occupy movement) dominate estimates of total wealth.

Our need for cause and effect narratives

I’m particularly intrigued by the post hoc claims of predictability. This goes directly to the common adage of “hindsight is 20/20 vision.” In a nutshell, after something happens, it’s easy to build a causal narrative which conveniently leaves out anything that isn’t consistent with what actually occurred.

The desire for causality is inherent to human nature. It’s why we crave fiction, be it films or novels or television. E. M. Forster’s famous definition of plot versus story alludes directly to causality and the search for meaning.

The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.   Aspects of the Novel (1927)

It’s not quite the same as encountering a unicorn, but by running into a black swan, I was given an excuse to find out more about an (non) imaginary creature and why it’s become a metaphor for thinkers for over 2000 years.

Have you ever run into an imaginary creature? What happened?