Are you ready for a remake of the Christmas Star story? Depending on how much stock you put in historical hypotheses, this year’s solstice on Dec. 21 could bring a replay of the phenomenon that the Three Kings saw in the Gospel of Matthew.
That’s when Jupiter and Saturn can be seen incredibly close together in the night sky. If the skies are clear, the two planets will be hard to miss in southwest skies just after sunset, as seen from mid-northern latitudes. Jupiter will sparkle brighter, and Saturn will be shining only a tenth of a degree to the upper right. With a small telescope, you might be able to see both planets and their moons in a single field of view.
“Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star, and others say the two planets will form a double planet,” NASA says in a blog posting about the Dec. 21 conjunction. “To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!”
Three hot rods on the moon are now official Washington state historic landmarks, thanks to a unanimous vote by a state commission.
The thumbs-up, delivered on Friday during a virtual public hearing organized by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, provided state landmark status to the rovers that Boeing built at its facilities in Kent, Wash., and that NASA sent to the moon for the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.
California and New Mexico set the precedent for declaring landmarks on the moon. Those states laid claim to the Apollo 11 site, by virtue of their connection to the scores of artifacts left behind at Tranquility Base.
Washington state’s connection to the rovers widens the range of lunar landmark locales to the Hadley-Apennine region (Apollo 15 in 1971), the Descartes Highlands (Apollo 16 in 1972) and the Taurus-Littrow region (Apollo 17 in 1972).
Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate is getting ready to send explorers down to survey the wreck of the Titanic in its own custom-made submersible, but sometimes coping with the coronavirus pandemic can seem as challenging as diving 12,500 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean’s surface.
“They had to send a hazmat team into the facility,” OceanGate’s founder and CEO, Stockton Rush, recalled today. “This was in March, and we got our material and our equipment out. I don’t believe NASA is back up and operating even now.”
In hindsight, sending in the hazmat team “was the right thing to do” despite the hassle and expense, Rush said, because that kept OceanGate’s hull fabrication process on track for next summer’s scheduled dives to the Titanic.
Now that process is well underway at Electroimpact and Janicki Industries, two companies north of Seattle that are better-known as aerospace contractors.
Rush said the experience taught him a lesson that other startup CEOs can apply as they cope with the pandemic’s effects: “Being nimble and not waiting is the only way to survive,” he said.
Such stories helped ancient peoples get a grip on the workings of the natural world — and set the celestial stage for millennia of scientific advances. But ironically, those advances may be leading to the extinction of the stories, as well as the fading of the night sky.
As a species, Homo sapiens is exceptionally skilled at recognizing, replicating and creating patterns out of raw data. In her book, Marchant traces how ancient cultures connected the star patterns they saw in the sky with the natural cycles they had to deal with on Earth, and how those connections evolved in the ages that followed.
Our proclivity for finding patterns can sometimes get us into trouble, as illustrated by the attraction to the Face on Mars — or, more recently, QAnon conspiracy theories. But in the main, it’s a good thing: An argument could be made that the scientific method boils down to the ability to identify patterns that knit together data, and verify that those patterns apply to subsequent occurrences.
“I’m interested in how we built the scientific view, but I’m also interested in what have we lost,” Marchant said. “Does it matter that we no longer see the stars? We know from light pollution that most people in Europe and the U.S. can no longer see the Milky Way, for example. With artificial lighting and heating, and air travel, and our computers and phones, we’re living in a way that’s more disconnected from the cycles of the sun and moon than ever before.”
An overreliance on our devices, and on perspectives that are divorced from the natural world, could leave us unaware about emerging risks from climate change and viral spillovers. It could also rob us of the emotional response that pushed our ancestors toward discoveries: a sense of awe about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.
“One of the most common ways that scientists use to trigger awe in studies is to show people pictures or videos of the starry sky, and they’re finding that when people feel awe, it makes them more curious, more creative, less stressed, happier, even weeks later,” Marchant said.
Exercising your sense of awe can also have a beneficial social effect. “People make more ethical decisions,” Marchant said. “They’re more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet. They feel more connected to other people and the Earth as a whole.”
Can we heal our social and political divisions and unite to solve environmental challenges just by looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? If only it were that easy. Marchant said we’re sorely lacking in the kinds of stories that knit together the human and the natural world.
“Now we have this view of a physical universe out there — the scientific universe, if you like, made of particles and forces, and we’re separate observers of that,” she said.
Even those sagas are more about all-too-human affairs rather than our connections with the heavens. The long-ago, faraway galaxy of Star Wars, for example, primarily serves as a new stage for war-movie drama, just as Lucian’s 1,850-year-old sci-fi novel served to satirize his own society.
When I asked what kind of sci-fi came closest to capturing the cosmic connection Marchant was looking for, she pointed to “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 2009 movie about the clash between naturalistic aliens and machinery-mad humans. (Due to coronavirus-related delays, the sequels are now scheduled for release between 2022 and 2028.)
“I think it makes a difference, having people up in space rather than just machines,” Marchant said. “It’s kind of going back to that ancient view of the heavens, of seeing these characters and people in the stars, in the skies. … There’s also that perspective of looking back down on Earth, which has been so influential — that view of Earth from space.”
Astronauts have long talked about the Overview Effect, a deep sense of oneness with the Earth that arises when seeing its full disk from space, paired with a heightened desire to protect the planet from harm.
Could a widening of the Overview Effect restore humanity’s cosmic balance? If so, it’d be a sky story worth retelling for ages to come.
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
After our podcast Q&A, I asked Marchant if she had any recommendations for science fiction worth reading or watching. On the streaming-video front, she talked up “Devs,” an FX/Hulu series that capitalizes on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
“What would the consequences of that be if you could have a computer that could literally predict everything that you were going to do in the future?” she asked. “How would that affect our sense of who we are, and our responsibilities?”
On the book front, Marchant recommended Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight,” a Lovecraftian fantasy tale that’s set in an underwater realm. “It’s a great adventure story, but also she’s looking into themes of power and the divine, and what happens when the gods are taken away,” she said.
Marchant said her favorite part of “Deeplight” was Hardinge’s disclaimer: “The laws of physics were harmed during the making of this book. In fact, I tortured them into horrific new shapes whilst cackling.”
Based on Marchant’s recommendation, I’m designating “Deeplight” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to pop up at used-book stores or your local library. For a list of previous CLUB Club selections going back to 2002, check out last month’s lineup.
A federal judge says RMS Titanic Inc. can go forward with its plan to cut into the Titanic shipwreck and try retrieving the Marconi wireless telegraph machine that sent out distress calls 108 years ago.
In an order issued Monday in Norfolk, Va., District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith said RMS Titanic, the court-designated salvage firm for the Titanic, made its case that the radio had enough historic value to justify sending a specially equipped robot into the wreck. The remotely operated submersible would be equipped with tools to cut through the deckhouse if necessary.
Based on a newly completed expedition, they’ll see a hulk that’s decomposing almost before their eyes.
That’s the word from members of a deep-ocean exploration team who visited the site, nearly 13,000 feet beneath the surface, during a 10-day expedition in late July and early August.
Team leaders included Caladan Oceanic explorer/pilot Victor Vescovo, Titanic historian Parks Stephenson and Rob McCallum of EYOS Expeditions. With the aid of a technical crew from Triton Submarines, they surveyed the wreck during a series of five dives in the DSSV Limiting Factor, a two-person Triton 36,000/2 submersible.
The exploration team captured 4K video footage of the wreck using cameras that were specially adapted for the bone-chilling, high-pressure environment of the deep. The imagery will be used in a forthcoming documentary film by Atlantic Productions – and transformed into photorealistic 3-D models of the Titanic site for augmented-reality and virtual-reality platforms.
Stephenson said he was shocked to see how the wreck has deteriorated. Salt corrosion, metal-eating bacteria and deep currents are contributing to the decay.
“The most shocking area of deterioration was the starboard side of the officer’s quarters, where the captain’s quarters were,” he said in a news release. “The captain’s bathtub is a favorite image among the Titanic enthusiasts, and that’s now gone. That whole deck house on that side is collapsing, taking with it the staterooms, and the deterioration is going to continue advancing.”
One month after offering up archaeological evidence to back up a contested claim about the First Crusade, researchers say they’ve found traces of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in a deeper layer of their excavation on Mount Zion.
The newly reported find demonstrates how the site, just outside the walls of the Old City’s Tower of David citadel, serves as a “time machine” documenting the twists and turns of Jerusalem’s history.
The Babylonian conquest, which dates to the year 587 or 586 BCE, is one of the major moments of Jewish history. As detailed in the biblical Book of Kings, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem for months, eventually broke through the walls and burned “all the houses of Jerusalem,” including Solomon’s Temple.
After the fall of Jerusalem, the Jewish people were sent into exile – an event that Jews commemorate with mourning and fasting every year on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This year’s Tisha B’Av observance began at sundown tonight.
The voyages of the R/V Petrel, funded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, are the focus of a National Geographic documentary premiering on Aug. 12 – and as a prelude to the show, the leader of the Petrel team is talking about what it takes to find historic shipwrecks in the Pacific.
“Our missions have led to discovery of over 30 historically significant shipwrecks, diverse ecosystems and encounters with rare marine species,” Rob Kraft, Vulcan’s director of subsea operations, says in an online Q&A. “The environment we operate in brings inherent dangers, challenges and risk that most people will never experience.”
That all sounds like a natural fit for the next episode of “Drain the Oceans,” a National Geographic series that delves into what we’d find beneath the waves if the world’s oceans could magically disappear.
GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle reports on a significant archaeological find during his Middle East science tour.
JERUSALEM — Exactly 920 years after Jerusalem fell in the First Crusade, archaeologists say they’ve found the first on-the-ground evidence to back up a key twist in the Crusaders’ account of their victory.
A glittering piece of Fatimid Muslim jewelry plays a role in the find. And so does a later chapter in Jerusalem’s history that has overtones of “Game of Thrones.”
The discovery serves as another coup for the Mount Zion Archaeological Project, a decades-long excavation effort that’s being conducted by an international team under the aegis of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. UNC Charlotte’s many-layered dig takes up a wedge of land sandwiched between Jerusalem’s Tower of David citadel and a busy Israeli thoroughfare.
Can a video game reclaim centuries’ worth of lost cultural heritage in the Middle East? Microsoft’s Minecraft Education Edition is being used to do just that, in league with UNESCO and schools around the world.
History Blocks takes advantage of the educationally oriented Minecraft platform to build virtual versions of ancient monuments — starting with sites that were destroyed by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, and by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The project was conceived and developed by Agencia Africa in Brazil, and put to its first test this February at Escola Bosque, a private school in São Paulo.