Nightfall

A couple of months ago, I discovered the science fiction/horror classic The Nightland by William Hope Hodgson. The Night is a poignant story of love and adventure set in a dying world millions of years in the future. In the Nightland the Sun has long ago gone out and the world is shrouded in an eternal night without even the Moon or stars to relieve the darkness of the night sky. The surface of the Earth is frozen and uninhabitable and life is only possible at the bottom of a canyon hundreds of miles deep where there is still some warmth from the Earth’s cooling core. There the last remnant of humanity survives in a gigantic pyramid-shaped Last Redoubt besieged by monsters and eldritch forces of evil. There is no chance for humanity to break the siege or defeat the evil forces arrayed against it. They can only wait until the Earth Current which powers the defenses of the Last Redoubt fail at last and the evil forces destroy them.

This story has made quite an impression on me and lately, I find myself thinking about endings. Maybe it is because I am getting older and can see the end coming, Maybe current events seem to be pointing towards the decline and fall of the American Empire as we watch. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking about the end of all things.

The Nightland was written in 1912 and so the science in the book is more than a little dated. We now know that the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion, not by gravitational collapse, and is going to continue burning for billions rather than millions of years. We also know that the Sun will grow hotter and brighter as it exhausts its hydrogen, that it will become a red giant and will swallow Mercury, Venus, and probably Earth before settling down to become a white dwarf slowly cooling down to become a black dwarf. The Earth, assuming it survives, will have long since become uninhabitable, and the human race, unless we have colonized other star systems, will be extinct.

But what about the universe as a whole? Assuming we have learned to travel the vast distances between the stars and made new homes on other planets, how long can we expect to survive. How long will the universe last? Will the world in fire or ice, as the poet said?

Well, the universe certainly began in fire, according to current scientific theory. To be less poetic, the universe began in a state of extreme temperature and density being very much smaller than it is at present, perhaps even beginning as a singularity of infinite density and infinitesimal size. From this point, the big bang, the universe began to expand very rapidly in the process, creating the matter that currently makes up the universe.

Since the big bang, the universe has continued to expand, becoming ever larger and cooler. The question of whether the universe will end in fire or ice depends on whether that expansion will continue forever or whether at some point it will stop and the universe will begin contracting back to a hotter, denser state, perhaps all the way back into a singularity. Maybe the history of the universe is a never-ending cycle of expansion and contraction. Maybe the universe will end in fire to rise again from its own ashes like the phoenix

That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. The does not seem to be enough matter in the universe to slow its expansion and in fact, the rate of expansion seems to be accelerating due to a mysterious force scientists call. dark energy. If current theories are true, the universe will end in ice. We are living in a universe that will grow ever larger, colder, darker, and emptier without any definite end. The stars will die out as they exhaust their nuclear fuel and after some time there will not be not hydrogen gas in space to create new stars. The galaxies will be filled with the corpses of stars, bodies of degenerate matter such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes.

Over the limitless eons, the black holes will attract most of the matter in the universe to themselves with their immense gravitational pull, and eventually, the universe will consist almost entirely of black holes.

This is not quite the end, though. Black Holes do not last forever. According to Stephen Hawking, black holes are not entirely black. For complicated reasons having to do with quantum mechanics, black holes actually emit a small amount of thermal or black body radiation. As they emit this radiation, black holes slowly lose mass, until eventually a black hole is unable to hold itself together with its gravity and it explodes. Paradoxically, larger black holes emit less such radiation than smaller ones. At present, a black hole will take in far more matter and radiation than it could possibly lose through Hawking radiation, but as the universe grows cooler and emptier, black holes will begin to lose mass. This will only happen in the far, distant future and the process of black hole evaporation will take an inconceivably long time, but we are talking about such immense stretches of time that all the thirteen billion years from the big bang to the present is just an eyeblink.

The last events that anyone will observe, if any observers exist, will be the very occasional, perhaps once every billion years, death of a black hole. After the last black hole is gone then night will fall and the universe will be shrouded in darkness, eternal and inescapable. Even matter itself, as we know it will no longer exist if protons decay, as some theories suggest.

Or, maybe not. All of this assumes that our current understanding of the laws of nature over the long eons is correct. It may not be. In fact, it is more than a little presumptuous to imagine that we can know what is really going to happen in the distant future. The universe is full of surprises. In particular, not very much is known about the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. The term dark energy seems to me to be a sort of place holder, a short way of saying we don’t know what it is, or anything about it. For all anyone knows, dark energy could reverse itself and cause the universe to contract. Even if our ideas about the future of the universe are correct, they may not be complete. There may be emergent properties in the universe, yet to develop.

To understand what I mean, imagine some form of intelligence arising in the seconds after the big bang. These beings might consider the future of the universe as growing ever colder and darker over such unimaginable lengths of time as days, years, or centuries. They could have no conception that such objects as stars or planets, or even atoms might develop, filling the universe with light and life. In like fashion, it is possible that new forms of matter and energy might develop in the extremely distant future. There could be lifeforms spanning thousands of light-years living for eons who look back on our time as simply the last stage of the big bang, never imagining that anything could live in the dense, hot universe of the past. Perhaps night will not fall, but the universe will continue to be filled with life in forms we cannot imagine.

Maybe the universe will end in fire, maybe in ice, or maybe there will never be an end, just a continual evolution into new and very different forms. Perhaps we will never know.

 

The Nativity According to Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...
The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village at this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage, the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Keppler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today.

 

Leap Day 2020

Since today, a leap day occurs only once every four years, I thought I might like to write a little about why we have leap years and where the idea originated. Our calendar ultimately comes from the calendar used by the Romans. The names of the months and the number of days in each month are basically the same, though the year originally began in March and the Romans did not count the days from the beginning of the month but counted backward from three fixed days, the kalends, the nones, and the ides.

The Roman calendar was, like many ancient calendars, a lunisolar calendar with an intercalary month added at intervals to keep the dates aligned with the seasons. The responsibility for inserting the intercalary month lay with the Pontifex Maximus, the leader of the order of Priests called the Pontiffs. (One of the titles of the Pope is the Pontiff.) Unfortunately, this position was a political one and the Pontiffs got in the habit of inserting the extra month to prolong the terms of their political allies, or not inserting it if their enemies were in office. By the time of Julius Caesar, the date was three months behind the seasons.

In 46 BC, Caesar returned to Rome from Egypt. The Egyptians had long used a solar calendar of 365 days. Caesar brought mathematicians and astronomers from  Alexandria with him and he directed them to reform the Roman calendar. The calendar they developed is called the Julian Calendar. In this new calendar, they changed the first month to January and gave each month the number of days it now contains. Most importantly, they did away with the intercalary months altogether. The Julian calendar was to be solely a solar calendar and the months would have no relation to the moon. Caesar lengthened the year 46 BC to 445 days to bring the date back in alignment with the seasons. This year was called the year of confusion, but it was the last year of confusion as the Julian calendar was adopted throughout the Roman world and is used with some modifications to this day.

Julius Caesar, inventor of the Leap Year

The most important reform the Greek astronomers made was the introduction of the Leap Year. The problem is that the year is not exactly 365 days. Instead, as the astronomers had learned, the year is closed to 365 1/4 days. So, it seemed that an easy way to keep the date aligned was to simply add a day every four years. And so, since Caesar’s reform of the calendar, we have had leap years every four years.

 

The Nativity According to Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...
The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yetdid not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village in this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage, the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Keppler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

The Nativity According to Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...
The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yetdid not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village in this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorsorers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured  is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense,and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Keppler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomonem and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

Cloud City on Venus

With a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, Venus would not seem to be a candidate for manned exploration, but NASA seems to think otherwise, if this article in the Daily Mail is any indication.

Popular science fiction of the early 20th century depicted Venus as some kind of wonderland of pleasantly warm temperatures, forests, swamps and even dinosaurs.

In 1950, the Hayden Planetarium at the American Natural History Museum were soliciting reservations for the first space tourism mission, well before the modern era of Blue Origins, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

All you had to do was supply your address and tick the box for your preferred destination, which included Venus.

Today, Venus is unlikely to be a dream destination for aspiring space tourists.

As revealed by numerous missions in the last few decades, rather than being a paradise, the planet is a hellish world of infernal temperatures, a corrosive toxic atmosphere and crushing pressures at the surface.

Despite this, NASA is currently working on a conceptual manned mission to Venus, named the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept – (HAVOC).

But how is such a mission even possible? Temperatures on the planet’s surface (about 460°C) are in fact hotter than Mercury, even though Venus is roughly double the distance from the sun.

This is higher than the melting point of many metals including bismuth and lead, which may even fall as ‘snow’ onto the higher mountain peaks.

The surface is a barren rocky landscape consisting of vast plains of basaltic rock dotted with volcanic features, and several continent-scale mountainous regions.

It is also geologically young, having undergone catastrophic resurfacing events.

Such extreme events are caused by the build up of heat below the surface, eventually causing it to melt, release heat and re-solidify.

Certainly a scary prospect for any visitors.

Luckily, the idea behind NASA’s new mission is not to land people on the inhospitable surface, but to use the dense atmosphere as a base for exploration.

No actual date for a HAVOC type mission has been publicly announced yet.

This mission is a long term plan and will rely on small test missions to be successful first.

Such a mission is actually possible, right now, with current technology. The plan is to use airships which can stay aloft in the upper atmosphere for extended periods of time.

As surprising as it may seem, the upper atmosphere of Venus is the most Earth-like location in the solar system.

Between altitudes of 50km and 60km, the pressure and temperature can be compared to regions of the Earth’s lower atmosphere.

The atmospheric pressure in the Venusian atmosphere at 55 km is about half that of the pressure at sea level on Earth.

In fact you would be fine without a pressure suit, as this is roughly equivalent to the air pressure you would encounter at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Nor would you need to insulate yourself as the temperature here ranges between 20°C and 30°C.

The atmosphere above this altitude is also dense enough to protect astronauts from ionising radiation from space.

 

HAVOC

 

The greatest disappointment of this space age in which we have learned so much about the planets is that not only is there no life on the other planets but they are all so hostile to life that manned exploration and colonization is going to be much more difficult than the science fiction writers of an earlier age could have imagines. Venus is not the swampy world with dinosaurs they imagined, but a literal inferno. Mars is not the home of an ancient civilization that may be planning to conquer Earth to rejuvenate their dying planet but a small, cold world with a very thin atmosphere. Even other solar systems do not offer much hope. Hot Jupiters seem to be the rule rather than the exception. It is safe to say that the Earth wouldn’t exist it there were a Jupiter in Mercury’s orbit. Nice Earthlike planets seem to be rather rare, though Earth sized planets are not easy to detect.

Well, if it were easy, it wouldn’t worth doing and the fact that colonizing the other planets is more difficult than we might have thought only adds to the glory once we have done it. We really need to establish humanity on other planets. It is never a good idea to carry all one’s eggs in one basket. The sooner we can spread ourselves far and wide across the universe, the better the chances of the long term survival of the species.

I think we ought to take the idea of a floating base for exploration a couple of steps further. Why not floating cities in the atmosphere of Venus? I can imagine a time in which there will be thousands or even millions of people living and working among the clouds of Venus. Perhaps they will be working on terraforming Venus, lowering the planet’s temperature and altering its atmosphere to something breathable. Maybe someday Venus really will be a tropical paradise. In the meantime, living in the clouds will do.

Future Venus colony

 

Personally, though, I’d rather live on Mars.

The Nativity According to Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...
The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yetdid not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village in this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorsorers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured  is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense,and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Keppler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomonem and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

The Nativity According to Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...
The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yetdid not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village in this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi in the Gospel actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured  is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense,and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Kepler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

Basidium

My favorite books when I was in the fifth and sixth grades were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. These books were published back in the 1950’s and so were a little before my time, but fortunately the school library didn’t have a lot of new books. I must have checked out each of the books hundreds of times.

The Mushroom Planet, Basidium, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid orbiting just 50,000 miles away. Although only an asteroid, Basidium is made of a dense substance called Brumblium so it is able to retain an atmosphere and support life. The predominant form of life on Basidium is various forms of mosses and fungi, particularly tree sized mushrooms, hence the name Mushroom Planet. Even the inhabitants of Basidium are mushroom people, though they are humanoid in appearance.

Mushroom People
Mushroom People

Because Basidium is made of Brumblium, it cannot be detected by telescope without a special filter invented by Tyco M. Bass, himself a member of a race of terrestrial Mushroom people called the Mycetians, descendants of Basidiumites who perhaps travelled to Earth in the form of spores. In “the first book, “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet“, Mr. Bass, with the help of his two young friends David Topman and Chuck Masterson builds a spaceship for the two boys to travel to Basidium and save the natives from a threat to their existence. In later books in the series, Chuck and Dave return to Basidium with a stowaway, meet Tyco Bass’s cousin Theo, and have other adventures.

Tyco Bass

It was a bit silly, I suppose, and the science is woefully out of date, but I really enjoyed reading them and always wished that I could meet Mr. Bass and travel to the Mushroom Planet. For that matter, I still like the books today, though I haven’t actually read them for many years. Too bad there isn’t really a second moon orbiting the Earth, or is there? According to this article in phys.org, maybe there is at least a “quasi-moon”.

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the , this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid—2003 YN107—followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

There is no indications that there are any mushroom people in HO3. Too bad. I guess I won’t be meeting the Great Ta, the king of Basidium and his foolish wise men, Mebe and Oru.

Great Ta and his wise men
Great Ta and his wise men

Growing Crops on Mars

We may have already a taken a step towards the colonization of Mars. Any colony on Mars whether a permanent settlement or a long-term scientific research expedition will have to be largely self-sufficient because of the long travel time from Earth. At the very least, humans living on Mars for any great length of time will have to be able to get food and water on Mars, if possible. Obviously, given Mars’s thin atmosphere, it will not be possible to plant fields of crops out in the open, but it may be possible to create domed habitations in which vegetables can be grown. This would be a lot easier if Martian soil could be used or modified since bringing soil from Earth, or hydroponic equipment would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Mars

It is not clear whether terrestrial plants can grow in Martian soil, given the lack of organic matter and different chemical composition. There is some encouraging news from The Netherlands in this article in phys.org.

Dutch scientists said Thursday crops of four vegetables and cereals grown on soil similar to that on Mars have been found safe to eat, amid plans for the first manned mission to the planet.

Abundant harvests of radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes all grown on the soil were found to contain “no dangerous levels” of heavy metals, said the team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“These remarkable results are very promising,” said senior ecologist Wieger Wamelink.

“We can actually eat the radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes, and I am very curious what they will taste like.”

Future Mars settlers will have to take food supplies with them and then plant crops in order to survive.

So using soil developed by NASA to resemble that of the red planet, the university has been experimenting since 2013 and has managed to raise 10 crops.

But uncertainty remains about whether they would absorb the high levels of heavy metals such cadmium, copper and lead, present in Mars soil.

Further tests are now needed on the remaining six crops, including potatoes, in research which is being backed by a crowd-funding campaign.

NASA plans a manned trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years or so, and similar projects are also being pursued by US billionaire Elon Musk and the Dutch company Mars One, tentatively aiming to set up human colonies on the Red Planet.

The Mars One project has backed the Wageningen experiments and is currently undertaking a third selection to whittle down the remaining 100 candidates hoping to be among their astronauts to 40.

“It’s important to test as many crops as possible, to make sure that settlers on Mars have access to a broad variety of different food sources,” said Wamelink.

When I read the headline, I thought that they had grown the vegetables and grains in actual Martian soil samples and I was a little disappointed to learn that the soil used was Earth soil made to simulate Martian soil. It does show that it is at least possible to use Martian soil, though I think it would be better to obtain actual Martian soil to be sure. No matter how well designed our probes are, there is always a possibility that we have overlooked something that could be only be discovered by human beings in laboratories on Earth.

If the members of a Martian expedition do grow their own food, they will need to bring along bacteria from Earth to add the necessary organic components to make the soil more Earth-like. Such bacteria could be genetically modified to flourish in Martian conditions. No form of terrestrial life can survive on the surface of Mars, at present, the thin atmosphere cannot shield the surface from deadly ultraviolet radiation, but there is no reason Terran life couldn’t survive underground. Conditions wouldn’t that much worse than in Antarctica. This bacteria, adapted for Mars could be the first step in terraforming Mars for human habitation.

So, when can I leave for Mars?

One of these days, I'd like to look out my window and see this.
One of these days, I’d like to look out my window and see this.