Thursday, July 30, 2015

The female James Bond

In comments on a friend's Facebook status, I brought up the question of "Favorite Bond?" The topic wasn't Bond, it was dumb e-dating questions.

He responded "Uma Thurman hasn't been given the role yet." My first thought was to say Idris Elba will be Bond before a woman (and I very much like the idea of Idris Elba as Bond). Then my mind did a quick ricochet off of "what would a female Bond be like?" and decided there cannot be a female Bond. James Bond is a misogynistic womanizer. Once you remove that, you've created a different character. It would be silly to call her Bond. So, which woman in spy literature is strong enough to be a female Bond?

Meanwhile, my fingers pointed out that Uma Thurman already has played a stylish spy: Emma Peel. We both paused a moment to drool over the memory of Diana Rigg's Emma Peel. As that reverie began to fade and various threads of thought I was having began to come together (including the realization that my mustache smelled like teriyaki, though this was not part following Hegelian synthesis), I thought, "Emma Peel!"

In The Avengers, Emma Peel and John Steed were partners, but neither was fully dependent on the other. Steed was clearly older and probably her mentor. There was no deep emotional bond (no pun intended) beyond than that held by any team members who must depend on each other for their safety*. This theory is supported by the fact that Rigg's Peel replaced Honor Blackman as Catherine Gale and was followed by Linda Thorson as Tara King and, in The New Avengers by Joanna Lumley as Purdey.

Where did Peel go? The only version I ever saw was the Rigg/Peel so I have no idea if they ever explained that. I'm assuming they didn't. If they did, we're going to ignore it. Let's assume, as a well trained agent, she went off on solo missions. There's your female Bond.

Let's cast the first of movie of the Emma Peel franchise. Obviously, casting Peel is at the top of the list, but we need to cast other recurring characters, villains, and so on.

* Diana Riggs agrees with this interpretation, the late Patrick Macnee did not. His interpretation amounted to "Well, look at her!!!" I will leave a modern feminist analysis of that to you, dear reader. Keep in mind he just died. So cut him some slack.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The mammoths of Niederweningen

During the summer of 1890, a work crew employed by the Swiss Northeastern Railway labored to extend a short spur up a valley from Zurich to the far side of the tiny hamlet of Niederweningen. As they approached their goal in July, they found convenient a layer of gravel on the south side of the tracks. The layer of gravel was nothing surprising. Switzerland was well processed during the ice ages and strata of glacial till were common in the valleys. What was surprising was the bones they found beneath it.

Unlike many stories I've told here, there was no mystery about the bones. By 1890, the ice age, extinction, and Pleistocene giants were completely accepted by European intellectuals. The workers, or at least their supervisors, knew the bones were something special that needed to be preserved. The railroad might even have had a formal policy about such things. They carefully collected each bone and took it to the local inn for storage. By the beginning of August, it was clear that there were a lot of bones there. The minister of the church in nearby Dielsdorf, Pastor Schluep (I can't find his first name), sent a telegram to the president of the Zurich Antiquarian Society telling him about the find.

The telegram arrived on August 2, a Saturday. Before the day was over, Arnold Lang was in Niederweningen eager to examine the site. As soon as business opened on Monday, he met with local authorities and the management of the railway and arranged formal permission to examine the site. In a mere two weeks he organized an conducted a full excavation of the site. During that time he not only collected bones, he brought in experts to examine the geological situation and botanical remains associated with the bones. In his account, he spends more words thanking the the people who helped him than in describing the actual work—something that is personally classy but frustrating to later historians and paleontologists. The following year Lang organized a second formal excavation. Remarkably, with all time he had to plan, they found little to add to his first, tiny, improvised season.

Lang thought mammoths were the most important part of the find. In his 1892 article, he cited mammoths in his title. The description of the find was buried deep within a historical essay on mammoth discoveries. Lang writes that they identified bones from six individual mammoths (modern paleontologists say seven), one so small he thought it might be a fetus. There were also bones from wolves, horses, birds, rodents, and a woolly rhinoceros that Lang calls "the constant companion of the extinct mammoths."

Herr Dreyer, one of the experts Lang recruited, used bones from all the adult mammoths to assemble a composite skeleton which was mounted and displayed in the zoology museum at the University of Zurich. Lang's drawing shows something remarkable about Dreyer's preparation. He put the tusks on the wrong sides. This wasn't a personal quirk of his; many paleontologists thought that was the proper mounting. Look carefully at some of the artwork from the time. Though mammoths are usually shown in profile, if you study the shading you'll see that the artists were portraying outward facing tusks. Unfortunately, art directors, even at scientific magazines, still use these illustrations. This is something of a pet peeve of mine.

The Niederweningen mammoth of 1892 (source)

The paleontologists and artists of the time labored under a certain disadvantage with respect to mammoths. No one had ever recovered a skull with the tusks still attached. In Siberia, where most mammoth remains were found, the finders were allowed to take and sell the ivory before notifying the authorities. And most of them preferred not to tell the authorities at all. In Europe, skulls didn't have a very good survival rate. The skulls of elephants and mammoths are very fragile. Though they look solid, they are actually made of of thin plates of bone honeycombed with sinuses. This makes them lighter. When the skulls were dug from the ground by farmers and railroad laborers, they frequently fell apart before scientists could arrive to examine them.

But, given all the possible arrangements, why did they choose one that looks so patently absurd to us? To be fair, they didn't all believe that. The proper placement was, as we say, controversial. Several placements had been suggested. By the 1890s, quite a few had come around to the right placement. At the root of it all was a conceptual problem. Western naturalists believed that all horns, antlers, fangs, and tusks had to be functional weapons. A moose's antlers might be over-engineered because the ladies love a good rack, but, in the end, they still need to be able to give a good thrashing to any challengers. The French word for an elephant's tusks is "défenses." In fact, modern elephants don't stab with their tusks; they swing sideways and hit with them.

Another argument was that the final inward curve of an old mammoth's tusks would have blocked their vision. The growth of an a mammoth's tusks begins downward and outward. They then curve forward and the outward growth ceases. By the time they seriously curve upward, they also begin to curve inward. In some old bulls, the tips actually cross in front of their faces. And that was the problem. Some naturalists, who weren't that familiar with elephant anatomy, thought this would dangerously obstruct their vision. However, an elephants eyes are not on the front of their skull. Like most herbivores, their eyes are on the side. The line of sight that these naturalists thought would be obstructed was already a blind spot for mammoths. Still, I am charmed by the image of old, cross-eyed mammoths staggering around the tundra supported by their woolly rhinoceros buddies.

During the 2003 and 2004 excavation seasons, new digs were conducted in Niederweningen. One of them was conducted at the same site as the 1890-1 dig. Like Lang, the organizers of these digs included botanists and geologists in their teams. They also took advantage of cores drilled during the eighties that revealed the geologic strata down to the bedrock twenty meters below the village. What they discovered was that the ice age before the most recent one scoured the valley clean. During the last glacial maximum, the ice didn't reach the future site of Niederweningen. For over 130,000 years, the valley has been home to alternating lakes and peat bogs.

Lang reported that the mammoths and other bones were discovered just beneath the gravel that the railroad desired and on top of a layer of peat. His geologists dug through the peat to reveal a layer of clay and silt—lake sediment—below it. Modern geologists interpret the gravel as glacial till washed down from the surrounding mountains at the end of the last ice age. The date the transition from peat bog to alluvial plain is uncertain. There is evidence of some erosion just above the boundary. The bones have been dated to 33-34 thousand years old while the peat just below it is six to eight thousand years older. Lang found some pits in the peat that he thought might have been mammoth footprints. Of they were, they weren't from any of the mammoths he found.

Dreyer's composite skeleton is still in Zurich (they have since fixed the tusks). Many of the other bones, including the woolly rhinoceros and the baby mammoth remained in Niederweningen. The 2004 dig discovered over half of a mammoth including the jaw, tusks, most of the limb bones, and part of the pelvis. The good citizens of Niederweningen promptly built a museum for their new mammoth. Due to the richness of the site, there will certainly be future digs there. I look forward to hearing about them.

The new Niederweningen mammoth (source)

Friday, July 24, 2015

I'm the best and why that sucks

Well, that was anticlimactic. At 3:00 I was sitting in my cubicle making progress writing something that fixed a bit of text I had been very unsatisfied with. The woman I reported to came by to thank me for my excellent work and say goodbye. I was more than a little shocked. After staring at her for a few weeks while I tried to find some way other than the obvious one to interpret what she was saying, I finally said "am I done?" She said yes, she thought that all the details been taken care of and I knew I was done. This was supposed to be a six to eight week job and today was the end of week three.

I filled out my last timesheet, cleaned up my corner, and went through my document, filling in placeholders with clear notes on what I had planned to put there. I wrote to the agency telling them what had happened and asking them what I should do next. Then I turned everything off, put on my hat, and started walking home.

About halfway there--after stopping to tell the police about a couple of people I had passed arguing over a gun--my phone rang and I dipped into a parking lot to take the call. As I expected, it was the person at the agency who had hired me. She apologized and said she had sent me an email yesterday morning, explaining the situation, but apparently it bounced off their servers. This is almost certainly true. When I filled out my timesheet, I tried to mail it to myself from the scanner and found I no longer had an email account at the place I was working. Looking over the last few days, I saw the the only emails I had received yesterday and today were company-wide reports and announcements.

So, what happened? It seems I'm just so good at what I do that I finished eight weeks of work in three. The client looked over my work on Wednesday and thought it looked so close to what they had been expecting that they figured I was winding things up. They called the agency and told them to close out the contract. In fact, I figured I was going to finish it next week and was hoping they would find other projects for me work on for the other four weeks.

There's a political lesson to be learned from this. Many people think (or, from what they say and advocate, appear to think) that the unemployed are just lazy. Or that unemployment is caused by greedy unions--and laziness. Or that unemployment is caused by undocumented immigrants--and laziness. Or that unemployment is caused by crafty foreigners--and laziness. In any case, the unemployed are contemptible and deserve no compassion or help--or help qualified by humiliation. The unspoken part of this belief is that the reason enemployment goes up must be because millions of gainfully employed American workers suddenly get lazy, quit their jobs, and refuse to go back to work.

Even if every part of that is true (and it's not), it's only half of the story. We could achieve full employment and be begging for foreigners to come work here if were weren't so damn productive. American workers put in more hours per year than any other developed country, with the exception of South Korea. As for productivity during those hours, we're number three (South Korea is near the bottom of that list). Those two statistics combined make us the most productive workers in the developed world. You can pick different bench marks and crunch the numbers in different ways, but you'll still find out that we're very good. You'd have to work really hard, and hate America, to give us an even moderately bad rating.

Since 1980, American productivity has risen about eighty percent while pay has risen about ten percent. If the wealth created by that productivity isn't going to the people who did the creating, where is it going? I can't say, because that would be engaging in class warfare.

Jeb Bush, a multi-millionaire who has done squat to create wealth or jobs for anyone outside his immediate family and friends, says American workers need to be more productive. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt on the "work more hours" part of that comment and focus on the "be more productive" part. Why should we be more productive? None of that created wealth comes to us. The very upper middle class are the only ones who actually make back the results of working harder. Everyone below them barely hangs on while all their wealth production goes to those above the upper middle class. Oh dear, I'm veering into class warfare again.

Though I impressed some people on this job, I'm not sure I impressed the right people. The agency that placed me expected to collect their share of my wealth creation for at least six weeks and only got three. I actually feel a little guilty about that and hope it doesn't work against me.

Let's get back to my situation. I just screwed myself out of 62.5% of the expected pay for this job by being so productive. The client was willing to pay for eight weeks for me to meet their expectations. I did that in three weeks. What I wanted to give them would have taken four weeks. To put it another way: If I had had my way, I would have exceeded expectations while coming far under budget and ahead of schedule.

If millions of people like me would goof off more, the totality of American society would be better off. Millions of other people like me would be employed. Those above the upper middle class would still do well, just not quite as well while Americans below the upper middle class would do anywhere for somewhat better to life-savingly better.

If I wasn't so damn good at what I do, I'd still have a job.

Note 1: So what is it that I do? I'm a writer. I'm a damn good writer. If you've read archy or any of my social media postings for any length of time, you've probably figured out that I'm chronically depressed and that my self-confidence and self-respect are in the toilet of the sub-sub-basement. Even from there, I have enough perspective to know that I'm a damn good writer and that I'm a damn good value for any any employer.

Note 2: Well, if I'm so good and such a great value, why don't I have a job? FUCK YOU! Fuck the horse you rode in on and fuck anyone who looks like you! This is the same as asking, if you're so smart, why aren't you rich? Once and for all, being skilled, talented, or brilliant in one thing does not mean you are the best in all other things. Einstein wasn't even close to being the richest man in the world. Bill Gates isn't close to being the smartest man in the world. But, they were each the best in what they did. I'm damn good at the thing I do, which is ferret out information and explain it in terms that are relevant to the people who need it. However, one of the things that I'm worst at is selling myself and maintaining the social connections necessary to do that. In other terms, I'm great at working, I'm awful at getting work.

Note 3: That wealth production thing, my example is one present-time event; other than statistics can I give you another real life example? Yes I can. My bid on this contract was two thirds what I was making for the same work fourteen years ago. Even adding in the agency's share, this is a huge transfer of wealth from the wealth creators to the wealth collectors (whatever you want to call them that isn't class warfare). As recently as when we lost the house, Clever Ex-wife thought two dollars more than this per hour for what we do was a humiliation. Several months ago, I thought I was a sure winner on a bid where I asked ten percent less than I made in 2001. The winner asked almost half what I did. Was he, she, or it going to be half as productive as I was fourteen years ago? Of course not. They planned to give it their best. I would have given better, but I can't communicate that. So good for them on winning the contract.

Note 4: I really need a job. I live in Alaska, but I'm a great telecommuter. And I'm really good at what I do. Really.

Update: I guess I'm done publicly wallowing in self-pity for now. What's the next Kubler-Ross stage?

Monday, July 20, 2015

I just signed a contract with a literary agent


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On Planets X and Naming Names

This is a minor rewrite of a post I wrote in 2008. I have not updated it to include the controversy over demoting Pluto from planet to some other category. What to call and how to define that category is another story. Nor have I included the amazing KPO discoveries of Mike "Pluto Killer" Brown. Who knows, if I put it all together, I might have my next book.

In 2008, Scientists at Kobe University proposed that a Mars-sized planet still waited to be discovered in the outer solar system. Ever since the discovery of Neptune in 1846, scientists have debated whether another planet and its gravity were necessary to account for the observed motions of the other bodies in the solar system. Their prediction was based on a computer model of the evolution of the Kuiper Belt, that group of thousands of asteroids and mini planets that includes Pluto as its best known member.

The composer William Herschel and his sister Caroline in 1781 were the first people to discover a new planet. The idea of finding an unknown planet was so novel at the time that for months the Herschels thought they had discovered a comet and were puzzled by its orbit and refusal to develop a tail. When it finally dawned on them what they had discovered, they knew it need a better name than Comet Herschel. They called it George, after the insane king of England.

Understandably, continental astronomers were less than thrilled to accept a name chosen to flatter a foreign political figure. Several of their countries were at war with England at the time in support of the American rebellion. French astronomers graciously pushed for calling the planet Herschel. Johann Bode, a Prussian publisher of ephemeris tables, suggested a compromise. Since all of the other planets had names out of Greco-Roman mythology, why not continue the pattern and name it after a mythological figure? He suggested Uranus, the father of Saturn, as an appropriate name, not realizing how the mere heating of that name would cause English-speaking adolescent boys to fall into fits of giggles.

Bode's suggestion for the distant planet was adopted outside England and France, where astronomers stuck to their own names for another sixty years before finally giving in to the usage of the rest of the this planet. Bode's name was especially popular among other Germans. In 1789, a Berlin chemist, Martin Klaproth, isolated a new element found in pitchblende ore. Recalling the alchemical traditions of making connections between minerals and planets, he named his new element after the new planet, calling it Uranium. He has a crater on the moon named after him.

Herschel wasn't the first to use celestial discoveries to curry favor with his economic betters. When Galileo discovered the four major moons of Jupiter in 1610, he decided to name them after his former math student Cosimo de'Medici, who had since become the powerful Grand Duke of Tuscany. Galileo first thought to name them the Cosmican Stars, but then thought better of it. The name was too close to Cosmic Stars and the significance might be lost on the object of his up sucking. In Sidereus Nuncius, his little book announcing the discovery, he called the moons the Medicean Stars, a name unsubtle enough that even a busy Grand Duke would take notice. The attempt was successful; a few months later, Cosimo offered Galileo a high paying job that the the math teacher quickly accepted. Not that Galileo needs any more honors than he already has in order to be remembered, but the four giant moons of Jupiter are collectively known as the Galilean moons.

Four years after Galileo published his description of the Medicean Stars, a German astronomer, Simon Marius, published a work claiming to have discovered the moons before Galileo. He couldn't offer any convincing proof for his claim, so history has sided with Galileo. Marius' observations were, however, of high quality and he gave us something Galileo did not: individual names for the moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, all lovers of Jupiter in mythology). The French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc suggested that the four moons be named after the four Medici brothers, something Galileo may also have had in mind, but the suggestion was not taken up by the budding international astronomical community.

The mythological names were not, in fact, Marius' first choice. His first idea was an awkward system of naming moons after the Sun's planets (i.e. the Mercury of Jupiter, the Venus of Jupiter). At the time there was no reason not to assume that smaller moons might be orbiting the bigger moons and so on. This might have led to names like the Saturn of the Mars of the Mercury of Jupiter. Clearly, a bad idea. Maris humbly credited Johannes Kepler with the much better suggestion of classical mythology. Kepler is famous for enough else that is vital for the development of astronomy; let's let Marius be remembered for publicizing the suggestion.

In 1655 Christiaan Huygens discovered a moon orbiting Saturn. He cleverly called it Saturn's Moon. When Giovanni Cassini discovered four more moons around Saturn, he followed Galileo's example and named them Sidera Lodoicea ("the stars of Louis") to honor his employer Louis XIV of France. He did not give his new moons individual names and, oddly, neither did anyone else. For most of the next two centuries, astronomers simply called them by numbers.

A century and a half later, following the Herschel's discovery of Uranus, other astronomers put their telescopes to work seeking out new Georges to name after their own political patrons. In 1801 a Sicilian astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, was the first to strike gold. Spotting an object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter and determining it not to be a comet, he announced that he had found a tiny planet, and named it Ceres Ferdinandea. The name seemed to cover all the bases, it had an element from classical mythology (Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture) and it sucked up to his king. Unfortunately, his king, Ferdinand of Sicily, had recently been overthrown by Napoleon and no one went along with naming a celestial object after a powerless refugee. Other mythological names were suggested, but eventually everyone accepted the Ceres part of Piazzi's suggestion.

As astronomers began looking at the region in which Ceres had been found, they promptly found three more tiny planets. These were named Pallas, Juno, and Vesta. Naming planets after kings had proved to be a non-starter, so the astronomers went straight classical mythology. On the other hand, naming elements after planets was very popular. Soon after the four tiny planets between Mars and Jupiter ere announced, chemists isolating the elements gave us Cerium and Palladium. Juno already had a month named after her, but poor Vesta didn't get squat, which is a shame because Vestanite would be a much cooler name than Rutherfordium or some of the other lame names given the transuranian elements.

Bode had predicted a planet in the region where the new mini-planets were found based on a pattern he, and other astronomers, perceived in the distances between the planets. This pattern is now called the Titus-Bode Law. However, the tiny new planets in that position bothered astronomers. They were smaller than any of the known moons. William Herschel suggested not letting these insignificant objects into the august club of planets. He coined a new word, "asteroid" (star like), to describe them. The little planets remained in limbo until the 1840s when a new generation of more powerful telescopes led to the discovery of more tiny bodies between Mars and Jupiter. Facing the prospect of dozens or more new planets, the international astronomical community adopted Herschel's suggestion and demoted the asteroids to a separate category apart from the planets.

The Herschels had discovered two moons to go with their new planet. These would later be named, on the suggestion of William's son John, after characters in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." While not strictly classical mythology, Shakespeare's fairies were close enough to satisfy Bode's mythology principle and the names were never seriously challenged. The Herschels also discovered two more moons around Saturn, bringing the known total to seven. Up until the 1840s, astronomers had simply referred to the Saturnian satellites by numbers counting out from the planet, not in the order of their discovery. This meant the names were subject to change every time a new moon was discovered. The largest moon had already been called Saturn II, IV, and VI. This couldn't continue. John suggested a classical mythology solution by naming the moons after the Titans, the brothers and sisters of Saturn, reserving the name Titan for the first discovered because it was so titanic. The named Saturnian moons are really no more than Titan and the Titans, which might be a decent name for a surf guitar band.

For their contributions, the Hershels had a well deserved number of objects named after them. Sir William had a crater on the moon, an impact basin on Mars, a crater Mimas (a Saturnian moon which he and Caroline discovered and which John named), and an asteroid named after him. Caroline has a lunar crater and an asteroid. John has a crater on the moon.

At about the same time that the word asteroid and the naming patterns for the moons of Saturn and Uranus were adopted, the search was on for another planet beyond Uranus. Based on a half century of observing Uranus' orbit and a search through older observations for potential Uranus sightings (stop giggling) some astronomers had come to believe that the gravity of another large body must be affecting it, causing it to move faster than expected till 1822 and slower afterwards. By the 1840s astronomers had a rough idea where to look for the mystery planet. In 1846 Urbain Le Verrier calculated and published the exact location and observers in three countries had no problem finding the planet soon after that. British astronomers had calculated the correct location before Le Verrier, but did not publish and were thus denied the glory of being part of the discovery.

Some French astronomers wanted to call the eighth planet Le Verrier, pointing out that naming a planet after its discoverer had a precedent, since they still called Uranus Herschel. Le Verrier at first suggested the name Neptune, after the god of the sea. For a while he also flirted with naming it after himself, but the name Neptune caught on beating out the other classical names Janus and Oceanus. The god of the sea was especially compelling because Neptune appeared very blue.

The new planet also got its commemorative element, thought this time it took longer. Neptunium was assembled, not refined, by scientists at Berkeley in 1940. It was the first synthetic element to be built by bombarding another element, in this case Uranium, with neutrons. Glenn Seaborg, who led the Berkeley project eventually got an element of his own for his work, Seaborgium, but he didn't get a celestial object... yet.

A mere seventeen days after the location of Neptune was confirmed, William Lassell, an English brewer, announced his discovery of a large moon. Since the astronomical community was busy arguing over the name of the planet, you would think that they would also get hot under the collar over a name for the moon. You would be wrong. Once again, naming the was forgotten. It carried the dull name Neptune's Moon for over thirty years. In 1880, Camille Flammarion suggested Triton, the name of Neptune's son, for the moon. He also named one of Jupiter's newly discovered minor moons, Amalthea, in 1892. For his contribution he has had a lunar crater, a Martian crater, and an asteroid named after him.

In 1919 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was created uniting various national astronomical societies from around the world. One of its main functions was to be the central authority for assigning names to celestial bodies. In general, certain patterns for naming, such as those John Herschel suggested for moons seventy years earlier are voted on and astronomers are allowed to exercise the discoverer's right on naming within those conventions. The IAU must officially accept an astronomer's name before it goes into international use. A system of numeric designations are used for objects as temporary names prior to the announcement of official names. The IAU came in the nick of time. The ideological conflicts of the twentieth century could easily have been fought out in naming conventions. Each power bloc might have adopted its own name for every discovery and changed their names with every revolution. Imagine St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg played out on every comet and crater in the solar system.

In the 1830s, astronomers were convinced that another planet was required to explain Uranus' movements and had begun working on calculations to locate the planet. That planet was Neptune. Even then, some astronomers believed one planet would not be enough. In 1834, a Dutch astronomer, Peter Andreas Hansen, wrote that he was convinced that two planets would be required to explain Uranus' movements. Following the discovery of Neptune, other astronomers agreed, though they did not agree just what was required. By the 1870s, enough data had been collected about Neptune for astronomers the begin making predictions as to where the next planet would be found and how big it should be. Astronomers in various countries began their own searches. None of these predictions matched Le Verrier's and no new planets were found.

Le Verrier himself became involved with the search for a tiny planet between Mercury and the Sun. Mercury's orbit, like Uranus' never quite matched the predictions of astronomers. Beginning in 1859, a number of amateur astronomers claimed to witness the transit of a small body across the sun. Le Verrier examined one such claim and became convinced he had another planet. He announced his discovery to the French Academy and called his second planet Vulcan. Unfortunately, the periodic sightings of a spot on the Sun never resolved into a single planet. After Le Verrier's death Vulcan fell out of fashion and was all but forgotten by the astronomical community. In 1919, the same year that the IAU was founded, Einstein proved the problems with Mercury's orbit were caused by the curving of space so close to the sun and not by the pull of a missing planet. Mysterious dots still are reported from time to time on the face of the sun, but these are usually dismissed as uncharted asteroids, comets, or alien starships, though the latter is decidedly a minority opinion. Although he was wrong about Vulcan, Le Verrier's other contributions earned him craters on the moon, Mars, an asteroid, and a ring around Neptune.

In 1894, Percival Lowell burst onto the astronomy scene. Lowell was the product of old an Boston family with lots of old Boston money. Lowell had traveled extensively in Asia, written several books on Asian culture, and served as foreign secretary and counselor for a special Korean diplomatic mission to the United States. In the nineties he turned his attention and considerable enthusiasm to astronomy. Lowell moved to Flagstaff, Arizona and built a world-class observatory in the high, clear, mountain air. At first, Lowell was obsesses with the planet Mars. He was convinced that the "canali" of Mars, as drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, were indication of life and civilization on our red neighbor. Lowell wrote three books and suffered a nervous breakdown before he let go of that idea and moved on to something else.

That something else was the missing planet beyond Neptune. This was a serious problem, recognized by serious astronomers. Though Lowell was thick-skinned about the mockery directed at him over Mars, years of it had begun to wear on the staff at his observatory. Besides, there was very little more he could do about Mars without a spaceship. Lowell did his own calculations on the Neptune problem and decided a large planet must be lurking in the constellation Gemini. He spent the last eleven years of his life looking for the body he called Planet X, but died without finding it.

After Lowell's death there was a delay of a decade in the search while Lowell's widow, Constance, and the observatory fought over his will. In 1929 with their share of Lowell's wealth assured, the observatory hired a young amateur astronomer from Kansas, Clyde Tombaugh, to take over the search. Tombaugh was an excellent candidate, both hard working and an excellent observer. He carefully went over the calculations for Planet X done by Lowell and by Lowell's competitors before deciding on an area to search. On February 18, 1930, after only a year of searching, Tombaugh discovered his Planet X.

Naming rights belonged to the observatory. They decided to be democratic and hold a vote. Mrs. Lowell sent suggestions of Zeus, Lowell, and her own name Constance. Mrs. Lowell was not the favorite person at the observatory, having almost stopped their work for a decade. Her names were ignored. The choices on the ballot were Minerva, Cronos, and Pluto. Pluto, the god of the underworld, who eternally dwellsin darkness, won unanimously.

While astronomers were excited about the discovery of Pluto, it was clear from the beginning that it was too small to be the longed for Planet X. As time went by, better observations showed that Pluto was even smaller than at first believed--smaller than the Earth's Moon--and that it had an irregular orbit far different that that of any other planet. Pluto, however, had an advantage that Ceres never did in becoming accepted as a planet: mass communication and mass literacy. The discovery of new planet was announced in newspapers and newsreels. The name had been suggested to the observatory by Venetia Burney, an eleven-year-old girl in Oxford, England. Walt Disney introduced a character named Pluto into his Mickey Mouse cartoons later that year. Pluto even got its commemorative element, Plutonium. Like Neptunium, Plutonium was assembled at Berkeley. Pluto wasn't just the business of the astronomical community; Pluto belonged to the masses, particularly to the children.

In the same year that Tombaugh discovered Pluto, Frederick C. Leonard predicted that there was a whole belt of tiny objects beyond Neptune. Sooner or later we would have good enough telescopes to find them and the astronomical community would be faced with the same problem that they had faced with the asteroids: too many and too small to be planets. That day finally came in 1992. Gerard Kuiper was an astrophysicist, who speculated in 1950 that the region beyond Neptune ought to at one time have contained a belt of debris left over from the formation of the solar system, pieces that were neither asteroids nor comets. At the time, when Pluto was still thought to be fairly large, Kuiper believed Pluto would have destroyed the belt by flinging them into new orbits. But as estimates of Pluto's size went down, the probability that the debris belt still survived went up. In the late eighties, astronomers began looking for it. One Pluto like object was discovered in 1992. Five more were identified the next year. Today, over 1000 of these Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) have been discovered.

While thousands more KBOs are expected to lie beyond the orbit of Pluto, very few astronomers expect to find a large planet out there. For one thing, it's no longer needed. Close measurements provided by Voyager 2's 1989 flyby of Neptune allowed astronomers to more accurately measure the mass of Neptune. According to the current measurements of their masses, Uranus and Neptune orbit exactly as they should. Occasionally, astronomers come up with new reasons for a large planet or even a small star to be lurking in the distant reaches of the solar system, but these no longer have to do with the orbits of the known planets.

This brings us to the Kobe University study. Patryk Lykawka and Tadashi Mukai have determined that a body, Earth sized or just a little smaller, is needed to explain the observed shape of the Kuiper Belt. The rapid discovery of so many KBOs allowed astronomers to map the shape of the belt. To their surprise, the belt abruptly stops at a distance of 50 astronomical units. The belt also appears to have been sorted into several distinct groups of bodies. Lykawka's conclusion is that something fairly large--a new Planet X--was needed to sort and sculpt the belt into the shape we now see.

Close up observation of Saturn's rings have shown that they are herded into shape by complex gravitational forces exerted by Saturn's moons. Lykawka thinks something similar is at work in the Kuiper Belt, but with one difference. In the computer simulations that he and Mukai did, Planet X shapes the belt early in its history and then is thrown into a distant orbit where it has only minor interactions with the belt. After its initial shaping, the main influence on the Kuiper Belt becomes Neptune.

While Lykawka's theory has some sympathetic listeners, it also has some strong critics. Not surprisingly, some of the strongest criticism comes from the proponents of competing theories of the early development of the solar system. The bottom line is that we are just beginning to understand the outer solar system and to come up with plausible scenarios for the evolution of the solar system that account for all of its parts. If Lykawka's theory proves correct and someone finds Planet X, the really important question will be what do we call it. George is still up for grabs.

Epilog: A few hours after I post this, a spaceship from Earth will fly by Pluto gathering data. Pluto as the first and best studied KPO and erstwhile ninth planet is a special object of interest for scientists, children, and former children alike. After Tombaugh discovered Pluto, it seemed to be evaporating. Almost immediately, it was obvious that it wasn't big enough to be the gravitational source needed to explain the peculiarities in Uranus' orbit observed by Nineteenth Century astronomers.

Over estimating Pluto's initially might have been based on wishful thinking. However, increasingly better observations over the next half century undermined that estimate and undermined it again. Originally estimated as larger than Earth, Pluto soon shrank to Mars sized and smaller. When I was in grade school in the early sixties, my science textbooks wanted to give each planet a unique quality. While Pluto and Mercury easily claimed closest and furthest from the sun, they were tied for smallest. By the next edition of those books, it was clear that Pluto was the smallest. Soon it was the size of the moon. Then smaller.

In 1980, Alexander Dessler, and Christopher Russell published a graph of historical estimates of Pluto's size and predicted it would disappear by 1984. It didn't. By then, James Christy of the United States Naval Observatory had discovered a large moon around Pluto. Christy gave it the appropriate name Charon, the boatman who carries the souls of the dead across the river Styx into the realm of Pluto. But Christy wanted the name to be pronounced "Sharon" like his wife's name.

Because Pluto didn't evaporate, NASA took advantage of a rare post-Apollo moment of funding to fire a probe at the children's planet or whatever you want to call it. Since the New Horizons probe was launched, two more moons have been discovered around Pluto. Each was given a name appropriate to the god of the underworld's realm.

And Clyde Tombaugh, what about him? What honors did he get. Tombaugh died in 1997. He had his mortal remains cremated. A portion of his ashes were placed in a small tube and given to NASA. That tube was ataced to the New Horizons probe and will pass within spitting distance of the celestrial object he discovered. In many ways, if you're dead, that's far better than having your name stuck on a map.

Go Clyde! You have no idea how many nerds wish they were there with you.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Kitcher's giants

Athanasius Kircher is perhaps the most interesting mind of the Seventeenth Century. The German born Jesuit wrote over forty books on comparative linguistics, volcanoes, music theory, magnetism, China, diseases, and anything else that crossed his path. He claimed to be able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, he used the newly-invented microscope and suggested that the tiny "animacules" caused plague and other diseases, he was the first European to publish Sanskrit, he coined he word "electromagnetism", he built a museum of mechanical gadgets, and he designed the cat piano. A recent collection of conference papers about him was entitled "The Last Man Who Knew Everything."

The times he lived in and the broad range of his interests ensured that a lot of what he wrote was bunk and, for almost 300 years, he was dismissed as a colorful crank. Lately, that's begun to change. Kircher was an influential figure in his day and it's not possible to write an accurate account of the scientific revolution without taking him into account. Even before his intellectual rehabilitation began, his books had been rediscovered as objects of art. Many of them are illustrated with fantastic illustrations and interesting maps--one shows the location of Atlantis. One of his most frequently reproduced illustrations compares the sizes of famous giants.

Kircher's Giants. Source.

Most cultures have a tradition of giants. I won't say "all", because whenever you say that there will be a cultural anthropologist who will show up to make a liar out of you. But there is quite a rich tradition in what became Western Civilization. The tradition drinks from four fountains. The first, is the mythology of Classical civilizations. This included the Titans, whom the gods of Olympus had to vanquish before they could rule, and the heroes, who must have had a great stature to match their great acts. Next, was the Jewish tradition, which was well known even before Christians made it dogma in the remains of the Roman Empire. This included the Antediluvian giants of Genesis 6; the tribes defeated by Moses, Joshua, and David; and the ancient patriarchs themselves. Third, were the local traditions of Northern regions gradually incorporated in Christendom. Finally, were the actual discoveries of large bones found in caves and plowed up in fields from time to time. By the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the first two fountains had been combined into a kind of standard list. Over the next thousand years, giants from the other two fountains were added to the list.

Kircher's famous illustration is from the second volume of his wonderful book Mundus Subterraneus (The Underground World). It shows five figures all in the same pose. Two are from ancient sources, two are from recent (to him) sources, and one is a normal man. The four on the right ascend from left to right while the one on the far left overshadows them all. His position, out of order, demonstrates his specialness. The point of the illustration is not to provide visual comparison of famous giants; it is to make a point about that particular giant. Kircher, who later writers would call gullible, thinks that giant is ridiculous.

The biggest giant is from the works of the late Medieval satirist Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio was a pivotal figure in Italian literature, but he was also a literary critic and historian. In his Genealogia deorum gentilium (Genealogy of the Gods and gentiles), he tried to make sense of confused and often contradictory accounts of the Greek and Roman pantheons and, as much as possible, tie them into local histories. The giant illustrated by Kircher was a discovery that happened in Sicily during Boccaccio's lifetime. Some writers have said Boccaccio claimed to have been a witness to the discovery. He didn't. He was 400 miles away in Tuscany at the time and only reported what he was told. So, what was he told?

In 1342, near Trepani, on the western end of Sicily, a group of workers, digging the foundation for a new house, uncovered a deep cave. They climbed in and found a great grotto where they saw the figure of a seated man of almost unimaginable size. In his hand he held a staff as large as ship's mast. According to their report, he was 200 cubits tall (300 or 400 feet, depending on your cubit). The workers hurried back to the village of Erice to share the story of their discovery. Soon, a crowd of 300 people armed with torches and pitchforks marched to the work site and entered the cave. Once inside the grotto, they paused, all frightened and awestruck except for one brave man who stepped forward and touched the staff. It disintegrated leaving only dust and some iron pieces. He then touched the leg of the titan who also turned to dust leaving only some enormous teeth.

The teeth were taken to the Church of the Annunciation where they were strung on a wire to be displayed. This was a common practice in the days before museums. Wonders of nature were given to churches to inspire the faithful with the endless wonders of God's creation. Boccaccio does not report what happened to the iron. We can safely assume that the local blacksmith took advantage of the free materials.

There was some debate over the identity of the giant. Some thought he was Eryx, a legendary early king and founder of the village. Although a demigod himself, Eryx was killed in boxing match with his fellow demigod Hercules. The opposing and more popular theory was that he was the cyclops Polyphemus and this was the cave where he was blinded by Odysseus and his crew. In making that claim, they faced some competition. Over the years, a number of villages had discovered a number of caves containing the bones of a number of giants and all had proclaimed their giant to be Polyphemus. Classics scholars, then and now, believed that the Odyssey described an itinerary of real places around the central Mediterranean and that Sicily was the home of Polyphemus. Even the average peasant knew this and was proud of the history of their island. If the local giant wasn't Polyphemus, enough giants had been found that no one doubted that the island had once been home to a whole race of them.

In the early Twentieth Century, the Austrian paleontologist Otheniel Abel wondered if there was more to the story than mere myth . Fifty years earlier, in 1862, Hugh Falconer, one of the first great authorities on the diversity of extinct proboscideans, had presented a paper on the discovery of the remains of a dwarf elephant on the island of Malta. Falconer named it Elephas melitensis. In the years after that, other dwarfed species were found on most of the major Mediterranean islands. All of these species, except one, are believed to descended from Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the straight-tusked elephant. The exception is a dwarf mammoth that lived on Sardinia. Sicily is especially rich in these fossils, having been home to three different species of dwarfed elephants at different times. Abel thought the skeletons explained the origin of the cyclops myth.

Most land mammals share a basic skeletal structure, but proboscieans and humans have some very specific resemblances. These are mostly in the limbs. Both have long straight limbs with short ankles or wrists and five digits. Laying the disarticulated bones of a probosciean out on the ground, it's easy to form something that looks like an enormous, stocky human. Then comes the problem of the skull. Abel pointed out that the most distinguishing feature of the skull, if the tusks are missing, is a huge hole in the middle of the face. This is the nasal cavity with all of the attachments for the trunk. The eye sockets are on the sides of the skull are almost unnoticeable. This would make it very easy for an awestruck discoverer to mistake the nasal cavity for the socket of a single huge eye.

Elephas melitensis. Source.

Other differences in the skulls can be explained by the fact that giants are, by definition, monsters. Add to this the fact that probosciean skulls are not solid and bony. They are made of thin plates, honeycombed with sinuses and, when dried out, tend to fall apart at the first touch leaving nothing to be systematically examined.

Kircher raised some rather sophisticated environmental and bio-mechanical arguments against the possibility of a giant of that size having ever existed. He said it couldn't have been taller than forty feet. His illustration is meant to show how silly the claims of Boccaccio's informants were. Kircher thought the other figures on his illustration were reasonable. Starting next to Boccaccio's monster is the little, tiny figure of a normal human who barely reaches his ankle. Reaching to mid-calf is Goliath of Gath, who normal guy David smote with a stone. The figure on the far right, which Kircher calls the giant of Mauritania, was a skeleton found in Morocco according to the highly respected Roman writer Pliny [actually, it was Plutarch]. To his left was a giant found within the living memory of Kircher's elders and, artistically, the most important influence on his illustration.

When the prominent Basel physician Felix Plater was called to Lucern in 1584 to care for the ailing Colonel Ludwig Pfyffer, he expected to spend his spare time collecting rare plants on the neighboring mountains and visiting with his friend Renward Cysat. He was successful on both counts. He gathered over a hundred samples of plants unknown to him and Cysat had a special treat for him: mysterious bones.

Cysat explained that, seven years earlier, a tremendous storm had buffeted the village of Reyden, a village that Plater had passed through on his way to Lucern. When the brothers of the local monastery came out to inspect the damage, they found that an ancient oak on Kommende Hill had been knocked over. Tangled among it's roots were the bones that Cysat now showed Plater.

Many of the bones were damaged and only a few fragments of the skull remained. Naturally, the workmen were blamed for mishandling them. Plater convinced the city council to let him take them back to Basel with him for study. From the long bones of the arms and legs and, especially, digits that appeared to be a thumb, Plater felt confident in telling the Lucerners that they had the remains of a human giant. By his calculations, it stood fourteen strich tall (nineteen feet) in life. Since giants were not part of any local traditions, he believed that it must have lived and died during some prehistoric time before normal humans arrived in the mountains.

Plater asked Hans Bock, an artist who happened to be painting his portrait at the time, to prepare large drawings of the bones and an imaginative drawing of the giant as it must have appeared in life. In Boch's reconstruction, the heavily bearded giant stands with one hand on a dead tree, perhaps the oak, naked except for a laurel and a girdle of oak leaves. The beard and garb of leaves make him look like the Green Man and probably indicate his primitive state. Despite Plater's conclusion that the giant and normal people had never lived together, Bock included a modern man, gaping in awe at the giant, for comparison.

The Lucerners were delighted, both with Plater's conclusions and with Bock's drawings. The bones were put on display in the city hall and the giant was made the shield-bearer of the city coat of arms. They had a version of Bock's drawing painted on a tower attached to the city hall with a poem telling the story of his discovery. That wasn't the end of the giant's fame. In the next century, Cysat and members of the city council decided to decorate the three footbridges that connected the two parts of the city across the Reuss River. They hired Hans Heinrich Wägmann, a local artist, to paint triangular panels to be hung inside the bridges attached to the roof trusses. Prominent citizens were encouraged to sponsor panels and in return, their family crests were incorporated into the paintings. Cysat bought panel number one on the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke). For the subject, he chose Bock's giant along with a poem that he composed.

The giant of Reyden displayed on the Kapellbrücke. Source.

Kircher, or his artist, used some version Bock's drawing as the standard giant to illustrate the relative sizes of famous giants and discredit Boccaccio's giant. All six of Kircher's giants have the same posture and attire of Bock's giant. In a modern court of law, that would probably be enough to nail him for plagiarism. In his day, the modern concept of plagiarism was just emerging and the first copyright laws were still a generation in the future. His use of Bock's drawing would have been considered more along the lines of an homage to the original artist than theft.

There were apparently differences among the three original versions of the giant—Bock's drawing, the tower mural, and the Kapellbrücke panel. I only have access to one, but I can make an educated guess at the source of Kitcher's version. Bock's original drawing was sent back to Platter in Basel and ended up in the library of the local Jesuit monastery. Even though Kircher was a Jesuit, he would have had to have visited the monastery to have viewed it. Kircher spend most of his productive life in Italy, rarely going far from Rome. The mural on the tower is gone. After years of neglect, the city decided it was irreparable and had it painted over in the 1860s. I haven't been able to locate any surviving drawings or photographs of it. Later, the stucco was scraped off the tower to reveal the underlying stone walls. In 1993, a fire destroyed most of the Kapellbrücke. Cysat's panel was one only thirty (of the original 158) that was saved. Like Bock's original drawing, Kircher never saw the panel or the tower, though it's possible that he may have seen sketches made by some other traveler. If he did, he didn't mention it.

Kircher's written description of the discovery gives a clue as to where he might have seen the giant. Platter published an account of the discovery in a collection of medical essays in 1614. Kircher's version bears no resemblance to this. Except for short paragraphs before and after, the majority of his account is a long quote of a legal affidavit filed by Cysat in Lucerne. We don't have to look far to discover where found the affidavit.

In 1661, three years before that volume of Mundus Subterraneus appeared, a small book written in German by Cysat's son appeared in Lucern. The book was a history of the city and the surrounding countryside. In the context of describing the towers and bridges of the city, the younger Cysat tells the story of the giant of Reyden. At the center of his narrative is his father's affidavit. He also included the poem from the tower along with a drawing of the giant.

Young Cysat's illustration. Source.

When Platter examined the Reyden bones, the idea of historically real giants was just beginning to be challenged. Because giants are unambiguously mentioned in the Bible, these challenges were in the form of arguments that the Bible used the word giant in an allegorical sense; the giants of the Old Testament were great in their capacity for evil, not in their actual stature. This position did not automatically kill the giants. Writing almost ninety years after the discovery of the Reyden giant, the most Kircher would say was that real giants weren't mush bigger than twenty feet tall. In the early 1700s, the French academy published a flurry of papers arguing both sides of the giant question. As late as 1764, the influential doctor Claude-Nicolas LeCat could receive a polite hearing before the academy while arguing for the historical reality of giants.

What finally did the giants in was the development of the sciences of comparative anatomy and paleontology. When Cysat showed Platter the bones, he had very little to compare them with. He knew whales and elephants were very large animals, but no accurate anatomical information was available to him, not even good drawings. It was only after his death that showmen were able to acquire elephants from India and show them in towns and villages in Europe. The first anatomical studies were in the 1780s, well after Kircher was dead. Paleontology, building on comparative anatomy, took another hundred years to develop.

In 1783, the young naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach traveled through Switzerland. He knew the story of the giant of Reyden and wanted to see what the truth was. In Lucerne, he found that Platter had returned the bones to Cysat who put them back in their place of honor in the Council Hall. By then, only three fragments survived. After an examination, he felt confident identifying them as the bones of an elephant. His confidence was as strong as Platter's and more accurate. Thirteen years later, he was one of the first to decide that the mammoth and mastodon were distinct species, different from the known species of elephants (he was also one of the first to assert that Asian and African elephants were different species).

The last of the Reyden giant. Source

By 2013, only one fragment remained in Lucerne. It now resided in the Lucerne Natural History Museum instead of the Council Hall. That February, the keeper of the museum website and Adelheid Aregger, a journalist with an interest in cultural matters, got into a conversation about the bones. Looking over Blumenbach's account of his visit they realized that he had taken pieces with him when he left. Aregger and her husband continued to look into the story. The Blumenbach collection at Göttingen included quite a few bones. Using isotope analysis, they were able to identify two pieces of mammoth thigh that had come from the same soil as the as the remaining piece in Lucerne. Kircher got blacklight posters and the Lucerne bones didn't. But they're still pretty cool.