science

Where Every Day Is Everyone’s Birthday

One thing sure to boggle my mind is an extraordinary planetary fact, and I forgot to mention one picked up from the podcast about planet Venus.

A day on Venus is slightly longer than its year.


The image is a Gif made to illustrate the Transit of Venus last seen from Earth on 8th June 2004 – basically stop-frame animation. The online app – ezgif.com – also allows resizing the finished image. This avoids having to use the WP image editor which rarely works well for me. Time permitting, I could refine it but…life’s too short.

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History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.


During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.


I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!


It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.

Metaphors

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble, or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

This is Sir Isaac Newton reflecting on his life’s work. The great ocean of truth is a fairly good metaphor something which to my observation is as rare as a hen’s teeth. Mostly metaphors are employed to exaggerate or embellish the fact, occasionally playing it down as in the simile of the boy-like Newton playing on the beach. He didn’t see himself as struggling with mathematical and scientific problems. Of course, he believed he had help,

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The metaphor of human intellectual progress being viewed as dwarves standing on giants, implicitly themselves standing on bigger giants, and so on all the way down to ground zero, is attributed to Bernard de Chartres, a 12th Century French scholar and a man of some intellectual standing, I imagine.

And so what of the poor soul carrying the burden of the whole world on their shoulders? Should they imagine themselves as the mightiest giant of all rather than the smallest of dwarfs? Either way, it’s likely to be a metaphoric exaggeration.


See, these two metaphors walk into a bar and the one says to the other,

I feel this bar reflects our world, the drinks on offer are our opportunities; we must drink sensibly but also show an adventurous spirit in our choices. Shall we try an ouzo from that bottle at the back of the shelf?

The other metaphor peers at the dusty, grey, half-empty bottle and after short consideration replies,

Nah, I’ll just have my usual – and a packet of dry roasted mixed nuts.


A guy walks into the bar and asks, Do you serve metaphors?

Sure!, says the barman, What’ll it be?

The guy looks at the the row of bottles and finally says, What’s that one like?

The barman says, Sorry, that’s a simile.


Written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge – Week #55 – Metaphors

Strap yourself in, please, you’re the passenger now

This may come across as a bit of a moan – and I’m deeply sorry for that – but actually it’s just vaguely related stuff that pin-balled around the old noggin today. Maybe try reading it while humming Iggy Pop’s The Passenger? Otherwise, just wait a while and they’ll be another post along shortly…


I had half an eye on the telly the other night when a Star Trek movie came on, and I watched it long enough to see how ridiculous it has become compared to the original. What I saw was an over-the-top action movie, set in space, of course, but all the science is superficial. It’s just a fantasy war film.

Given the real trajectory of technological progress in evidence, it seems unlikely that the final frontier will be patrolled by a military class of slightly maverick warriors. If people are in attendance, I think they will more likely be scientists and academics, possibly a few diplomats, but they will be travelling through the cosmos as passengers. Computer technology will be driving the ship and evading potential dangers and hostilities, even though the risk from alien adversaries is slight.

But, no doubt, movies in the future will still show seemingly intelligent beings destroying each other in balls of flame and, lastly and when all else fails, good old fashioned hand to hand combat. No one sits down to watch the grass grow.


This week, a nice engineer took time to explain to me the procedure for getting an add-on piece of software to calculate some element sizes. Basically, it amounted to putting your faith in the code writer’s unseen algorithm and clicking a “button”. I did ask some questions: whether it took into account this or that, really. In short, how it performed the calculations. After all, it should be ultra-accurate and comprehensive if anything, otherwise what’s the point? The engineer didn’t know. Faith is blind.

Okay, I used to be one of the old school guys who had to work everything out from basic principles. I didn’t do it out of love, there wasn’t a choice. Drawings, calculations, all done long-handed with equations and reference tables. When they came along, I was one of the first in my firm to use a computer; I really took to it. As an undergrad., I could easily have swapped courses and tried computer programming instead had I not been sponsored by my firm specifically to study the course I was on. Computers offered speed and efficiency over hand drawing and calculations, their place is indisputable. But in later years, I’ve begun to miss the old school methods; I think they made you think more, and thinking, as Descartes suggested, is crucial to human identity. Pressing a button, any fool, or even non-human, can do.


It’s coming to the time when we’re thinking about replacement cars. We have one each but, if I quit work, we may only need the one. My wife suggested an “automatic”. Apparently, all her friends are looking into them. Coincidentally, my Dad told me he was thinking about getting one too. Why?

My wife said, with an automatic, you don’t have to think about changing gears. Okay, but with a manual (stick shift), I don’t have to think about changing gears either, I just do it – automatically. She wasn’t impressed. Still, soon we’ll all be getting into driverless cars and you know what that’ll mean: we’ll all be passengers.


images:

Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, (1950 – 67), created by Frank Hampson.

America’s Power Companies’ advert for driverless car, from 1956.

The Passenger by Iggy Pop (youtube)

When we eat

I am a breakfast man. It gives me great pleasure, when holidaying, to find a good spread put on for our morning meal. The best of these must have been the chain hotel we stayed in in Stockholm a few years ago. It was a buffet breakfast, eat as much as you like, and I was like a kid given a free pass in a sweet shop.

Though not formally so, I made it a five course meal: Fresh fruit salad;, Muesli and yoghurt; bacon, egg, mushrooms and tomatoes; Toast and marmalade; Sweet Pastries to go. And, of course, orange juice and fresh coffee refills. I also like the regional variations you sometimes find: lavabread, black puddings, smoked fish, cheeses, hams and charcuterie.

It’s a pity our conventional timetable, in England and much of the West, doesn’t allow the leisure of a good breakfast every day of the week. Instead, our main meal is shunted to the far end of the day, along with most of our leisure time. I am told the Industrial Revolution is to blame for this convention, and how it caused everyone to toe this line against the previous millennia of human evolution. And all subsequent technological advancements, business strategies and politics went along with the trend, alienating ourselves from our nature.

I saw today on a BBC news site, there’s a thing called Chrono-nutrition which is basically studying what time it’s best to eat. What do you know, they reckon it might be the morning – breakfast! Our evening meal, whether restaurant dining or family sit together, is looking a bit bad. It appears our circadian clocks don’t want to know late in the day.

It’s all very well but how on earth are we supposed to turn this drifting oil tanker around? Should we even try? Don’t get me wrong, I said I love a grand breakfast, but I also love a good dinner too. And I won’t pass up a decent lunch come to that. There’s something these nutritional articles and studies never seem to take into account when telling us what is good or bad for us: pleasure. We are human beings, not merely biological machines.


BBC News: Are we eating at the wrong time?