Socialism in one galaxy? Star Trek.

Fifty years after it debuted on network television, Nicole Colson considers the legacy of Star Trek–and the idea of a society that meets the needs of the many, not just the few.

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren"

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”

ON SEPTEMBER 8, 1966, a new show debuted on American television.

Billed by creator Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train in space,” for its loyal viewers–and legions more to come over the following five decades–the voyage of the starship Enterprise and its 23rd century crew, as it carried out its mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [one] has gone before,” would permanently alter the landscape of popular culture.

Star Trek‘s cultural staying power came despite its failure to last on television. The “five-year mission” of the Enterprise lasted just three years–until 1969, when the show was canceled by NBC because of low ratings after 79 episodes.

In fact, the show barely made it to the air at all: In 1964, NBC passed on the first attempt at a pilot, declaring it “too cerebral.” A second attempt was filmed in 1965 when comedy legend Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that employed creator Rodenberry as a producer, personally intervened to persuade NBC to give the series another shot.

Despite its cancelation, the series–which was worked on by some of the premiere science fiction writers of the day–became a hit in broadcast syndication, firing the imagination of a wide audience.

Today, the original series continues to inspire legions of Trekkers, one of the most rabidly loyal fandoms in all of popular culture. It has spawned four syndicated spin-offs (with a fifth planned for next year)–and endless debates about the relative merits of each show’s captain in comparison to William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk.

Along with 13 movies (and counting), a complete language, and a rather unique brand of fan fiction, Star Trek stands as a testament to the desire of people for a vision of the future which is both recognizable to them, and better than the present.

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STAR TREK’S vision of the future was, in a word, cool. Geek toys and tech like tricorders, replicators and transporters suggest a future where technology has been harnessed to make life vastly better for the majority of people.

But as Wired.com noted, the reason Star Trek continues to inspire such devotion 50 years after its premiere is because of what it says about people, not technology:

The original show’s most visionary aspects were social, not scientific, and that had everything to do with the times. The country was in turmoil, embroiled in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement. Roddenberry said later that these events influenced many of the themes, as well as the multicultural makeup of the crew.

For a 1960s audience, the 23rd century world envisioned aboard the Enterprise was immediately notable for the fact that it was multiracial and included women in positions of importance among the crew.

In the original series, despite the roles for women being somewhat limited–with the exception of Lt. Uhura, they are primarily nurses, junior officers and scantily clad alien and human love interests for Kirk–a vision of the future in which women are defined primarily through their work as opposed to their husbands, children or home-making abilities was rare on television.

(It has to be admitted, however, that the female crewmembers’ uniforms were utterly sexist, as even Roddenberry’s partner Majel Barrett would later concede.)

At the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War, the fact that a show could assert that a superior, advanced human society was one in which white Americans lived and worked side by side on a mission of peaceful exploration with not only aliens, but Russians (Chekov) and people of Japanese descent (Sulu), as well as African Americans (Uhura), mattered in the larger cultural context.

According to Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the impact of being able to see Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was life-changing. “[W]hen I was 9 years old, Star Trek came on,” Goldberg said. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!”

Martin Luther King himself considered Nichols’ Uhura to be “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” When Nichols was thinking of leaving the show for Broadway, it was King who convinced her to stay with Star Trek. As Nichols recounted:

Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”…I saw that this was bigger than just me.

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ONLY THE willfully ignorant could pretend not to see the message Roddenberry was intent on sending, as he frequently and gleefully pushed buttons. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode broadcast in 1968, Nichols and Shatner shared what is widely cited (though the matter is hotly debated) as the first interracial kiss on U.S. television.

Skittish network executives worried about the audience reaction and tried to squash the kiss, but Shatner hilariously ruined all of the alternative takes with his famous! punctuated! delivery! and even, in one take, crossed his eyes to ruin the shot. Nichols recounted in her autobiography:

Knowing that Gene was determined to air the real kiss, Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, “I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!”

It was absolutely awful, and we were hysterical and ecstatic. The director was beside himself, and still determined to get the kissless shot…

The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable…I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.

Critics today sometimes declare the scene a “cop out”–since the kiss isn’t a result of genuine desire, but of aliens telepathically forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will. But that misses the larger context of what it took to even get it on the air at a time when the Supreme Court decision striking down bans on interracial marriage had only just been handed down the year before.

Other episodes, like “Space Seed,” which introduced the character of Khan Noonien Singh–a genetically engineered “ubermensch” who, the show tells us, was part of “Eugenics wars” that broke out on Earth in the late 20th century–raise the specter of racism as a threat to the continued existence of humanity.

(While Kirk fails the “of course you should kill Hitler if you have the chance, you dummy” test, since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gifted us with one of the best moments of scenery-chewing ever committed to film, however, he can perhaps be forgiven.)

Another episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” famously featured Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV’s Batman) in a story about a species divided into two races–and mortal enemies–by skin color. Resembling alien black-and-white cookies, one race has a left side that is white and a right side that is black. The colors are reversed for the other race.

As Roddenberry explained, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

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BUT IF Star Trek’s vision of an inclusive society, in which various races live and work side by side without the specter of racism, is one of its main strengths, its conception of race overall is, paradoxically, sometimes also a weakness. Often, Star Trek–not only the original series, but spinoff series as well–slips dangerously close to essentialist notions of race.

In the 23rd century, racism no longer exists in the advanced civilization of the United Federation of Planets–yet time and again, species like the Klingons are portrayed as “naturally” warlike and violent; the Ferengi are “naturally” greedy; Romulans are “naturally” calculating and contemptuous of difference.

These species-wide characteristics are then used to set the species up as villains–and, more troubling, the audience is told in several instances that such “differences,” whether culturally ingrained or biological, should be respected.

This is where the contradictions at the heart of the Star Trek universe become most pronounced. (Though in the case of Deep Space Nine series, later seasons did at least examine this when it came to the characterization of the Ferengi and the Klingons.)

If Star Wars movies are essentially about the threat of space fascism and the resistance to it, then Star Trek is, at heart, about the hope for a sort of “space socialism”–a liberal, military-style socialism, but nevertheless one in which society is so technologically advanced that the material needs of the Federation’s inhabitants are met, allowing for the free and full development of individuals.

In the world of Star Trek, the availability of replicator technology generally means that anything you need can be beamed into existence. Yet because of the “Prime Directive”–the guiding principle of the Federation, which prohibits its members from interfering in the development of technologically backward alien societies–the Federation ostensibly ignores oppression, slavery and other horrors in less-developed societies, on the theory that working through these processes is part of a society’s internal development.

Since our heroes would never actually condone such oppressions, episodes often hinge on finding a way to skirt the letter of the Prime Directive–or in some cases, to justify inaction when individuals and even entire races, societies or planets face extinction.

The various Star Trek series broadly offer a critique of war and militarism even as they extol the Federation’s brand of liberal military intervention–a kind of United Nations in space. (In fact, the Charter of the United Federation of Planets actually drew text and inspiration from the UN Charter, as well as other sources.)

Though its internal logic is often convoluted or inconsistent–while replication technology has eliminated the need for money, there still are outposts, like that depicted in Deep Space Nine, which are run on a partially capitalist basis and where small businesses thrive, for example–Star Trek presents a vision of the future that is hopeful in its inclusivity and its suggestion of the possibility of a society free of deprivation and want.

As Captain Picard of The Next Generation series explains to several cryogenically frozen survivors of the 20th century when they are awoken onboard the Enterprise in the 24th century: “A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy…We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

In the Star Trek universe, without capitalist class relations to put the same kinds of strictures on people, individuals are free to develop themselves as they see fit. It’s one reason why the Borg–the most compelling villain from the Picard-era series–are so frightening. The Borg also provides for the material needs of its collective component worker members–but extinguishes all individuality among them. Individuals are assimilated, reduced to their work function as part of the hive–and nothing more.

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AS RODDENBERRY once explained, the show’s creators resisted the idea that TV audiences were too stupid or backward to appreciate the show’s message:

We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television, too…

What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.

But that creates a problem: How to create compelling characters and stories when the foundation of so much drama is precisely the kind of petty conflict that supposedly doesn’t have a place in the Star Trek universe?

As Manu Saadia, author of the recent book Trekonomics, explained to Wired’s “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast:

[The characters] are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption…You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature–the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to…

I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on [The Next Generation], said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.

That’s similar to what Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology about the ways in which capitalism constrains human activity by alienating workers from their labor:

For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In the Star Trek universe, I can be a ship’s captain in the morning, a detective in the afternoon, a winemaker in the evening, and a flute player after dinner (assuming my ship doesn’t get attacked by hostile Romulans that day, that is).

As the eminently logical Mr. Spock might have put it, the Star Trek universe is one in which humanity has determined that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” (percent, that is).

“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential,” Gene Roddenberry said, “and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”

It’s up to the audience to go boldly–and make it so.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/09/15/socialism-in-one-galaxy

Potentially Earth-like planet found in habitable zone of nearest star

By Don Barrett
27 August 2016

A team of 31 astronomers from 13 institutions around the globe have announced the discovery of a planet slightly more massive than Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of the nearest star to our Solar System. The results were published in Nature on 25 August.

The planet, Proxima b, was discovered by ground-based observations using what is known as the radial velocity method. This method takes advantage of the fact that starlight is a composite of a whole spectrum of colors and that the gravitational tug of a planet on a parent star produces distinct fingerprints in the emitted light that can be observed from Earth. Essentially, one can watch how the motion of a star is influenced by an orbiting planet. (See: Earth-sized planet in a star’s habitable zone confirmed)

Proxima Centauri in the sky of the Southern hemisphere. Credit: European Southern Observatory

This method is different from how the Kepler spacecraft discovers exoplanets, which instead looks at periodic drops in the intensity of light coming from a star to infer the existence of a planet, which passes between the star and the observer in its orbit, blocking some of the light. However, the two techniques are complementary. While Kepler indicates roughly an exoplanet’s size, a study of the changing spectrum of a star tells us the lower limit of an exoplanet’s mass.

As a result of this, the astronomers calculated that Proxima b is at least 1.3 times the Earth’s mass, though we have no knowledge yet of its size, its composition or the nature of its atmosphere (if any). Our limited knowledge of solar systems suggests that such a planet would be of rocky composition and retain some sort of atmosphere.

What makes this system most unlike the Earth and Sun is the parent star. Proxima Centauri is a star only 12 percent the mass of the Sun, a “red dwarf”, and this low mass is reflected in vastly different physical characteristics. The star is about 12 percent the Sun’s size, half its temperature and a fraction of its brightness. Despite the fact that it is the nearest star to our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is 100 times too faint to see with the naked eye.

Since Proxima Centauri is so dim, its habitable zone, the orbit where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, is much closer to the star than the Sun’s. Proxima b, which orbits its star at 5 percent the distance between the Earth and Sun, about 4.6 million miles, falls within that zone. It receives about 60 percent of the radiation that Earth does.

Such a close world would find its rotation locked to its orbit over a timescale short compared to the life of the system—just as Mercury is locked to our Sun and the Moon to the Earth. Depending on the nature of the lock, it could be that only one hemisphere is illuminated, the other remaining in perpetual darkness, just as the Moon shows only one face to the Earth.

A comparison of the Proxima Centauri system to our own Solar System. Credit: European Southern Observatory

Another possibility is that the orbit and rotation are intertwined such that the same face of the planet is aligned to the star during the planet’s closest approach. This would mean that if liquid water exists, it may occur only near the Equator or towards the center of a perpetually sunlit hemisphere.

The close orbit produces another challenge to potential habitability: while the star, even so near, provides less heat than the Sun, it can irradiate the planet’s surface irregularly with ultraviolet and x-ray bursts 400 times that delivered by the Sun to Earth. The impact on the planet’s atmosphere over the long term is unknown.

If human beings set foot on Proxima b, they will find the view of the sky considerably different from that on Earth. Proxima would appear three times the Sun’s size in the sky. The nearby binary components of Alpha Centauri A and B would outshine our own Venus by a factor of 10, and appear to the eye as a barely resolvable star-like pair. Other stars would be invisible from the star-lit side of the planet.

The discovery of Proxima b comes 21 years after the first detection of a planet around another ordinary star. In that time, over 3,500 such planets have been found. Nearly 1 billion stars have now been cataloged, but detection of the smaller, lighter and immensely fainter planets around them represents a considerable technical challenge. This is true for all methods of finding exoplanets.

The nearness of Proxima b means it stands as a sterling target for further inquiry toward an understanding of Earth-like worlds. It has also ignited the imagination of millions of people around the world as they wonder at a planet potentially like Earth that is, with some esoteric but feasible ideas for space travel, not so far away.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/08/27/prox-a27.html

Astronomers detect gravitational waves predicted by Einstein

By Will Morrow
12 February 2016

Astronomers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Collaboration have published the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space and time. The announcement comes almost exactly a century after Albert Einstein, in mid-1916, predicted the existence of the waves on the basis of his Theory of General Relativity.

The findings were announced at a press conference at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning. They open up a new era in humanity’s efforts to investigate the universal laws of the motion of matter. Until now, there has been no way to directly detect the subtle gravitational vibrations which pass continuously through Earth as they do throughout the Universe. Now, however, a new spectrum of gravitational wave astronomy has begun, allowing scientists to examine regions of the cosmos previously excluded from study.

The detected wave was generated by the merger of two black holes more than one billion light years from Earth. Today’s announcement, therefore, contains two separate discoveries: the detection of gravitational waves and the first-ever observation of a black-hole binary merger, an event which had been theoretically predicted, but never seen. Black holes are so gravitationally strong that even light cannot escape their pull, which has prevented us from directly observing them until now.

The three stages of the collision of two black holes – inspiral, merger and ringdown – illustrated above. The signal detected by the two LIGO instruments is superimposed across the bottom. Credit: LIGO, NSF, Aurore Simonnet (Sonoma State U.)

The paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters is titled, “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger.” It is jointly authored by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and another gravitational wave detector team, the VIRGO Collaboration. A second paper has also been published outlining the astrophysical implications of the discovery. In total, twelve publications have resulted from this discovery with many more to come.

According to the first paper, the wave passed through Earth on September 14, 2015, at 09:50:45 UTC. This was just two days into the first three-month run by the LIGO detectors after they had received a major upgrade over the previous five years. The two detectors are located in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, both in the United States. The wave was observed at both detectors, with a seven millisecond delay between the two.

The most intense part of the wave passed in a fleeting quarter of a second. In this time, the wave frequency increased from 35 to 150 Hz, as the relative velocity of the black holes sped up to half the speed of light. Just before merging, they were orbiting each other seventy five times per second and separated by just 350 kilometres. Nothing other than black holes would be compact enough to reach such speeds at this proximity.

The two black holes weighed approximately 29 and 36 times the mass of our Sun before the merger. But the final black hole weighs just 62 solar masses—three less than the sum of its constituents. The missing three solar masses were radiated away as energy in gravitational waves, distorting and bending the surrounding spacetime.

Put another way, in the last moments of the collision, the power radiated away by gravitational waves peaked at more than fifty times greater than the combined visible radiation of every star and gas cloud in the Universe. It is the most energetic event ever detected.

A computer simulation of the collision of two black holes. Time has been slowed down one hundred times to more clearly observe the inspiral, merger and ringdown. Credit: SXS Project

When speaking about gravitational waves, the obvious question is: what is “waving?”

The existence of these waves flowed from the new equations of gravity which Einstein developed in 1915. The classical theory of gravity, which had been established by Isaac Newton, described it as a force acting instantaneously at a distance between any two objects with mass. Moreover, gravitational interactions were seen to take place against a completely fixed backdrop of space and time, itself completely independent from the motion of matter.

With Einstein’s theory, space and time were seen as a unified, dynamic entity. Gravity is the result of the warping of spacetime by the local presence of mass and energy. Moreover, while mass/energy warps spacetime, the curvature of spacetime itself tells matter how to move. (A more comprehensive review of the development and theory of General Relativity can be read here.)

A classic analogy is to consider the four-dimensional spacetime as a two-dimensional flat elastic sheet. Placing a mass on the sheet causes it to bend, and alters the motion of other nearby bodies. Gravitational waves can also be understood with this analogy. Wiggling a very heavy mass very quickly on the sheet will generate ripples, as the membrane seeks to overcome the local build-up of stress by releasing tension outwards. In the case of gravitational waves, what is “wiggling” is the lengths of spacetime.

Albert Einstein in 1921

Before yesterday’s announcement, there had already been strong indirect evidence for gravity waves. Two orbiting neutron stars, discovered in 1974 by Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, were seen to slowly approach one another at the rate predicted by their expected gravitational wave emission.

Direct detection of gravitational waves is far more challenging. Gravity is by far the weakest force, and only enormous masses changing their orientation rapidly can make appreciable waves in spacetime. Why gravity is much weaker than the other fundamental forces in nature remains a central question in physics.

To detect these waves, LIGO uses two lasers shooting down two four-kilometre tracks that are at right angles to each other. As a gravitational wave passes across the tracks, one track lengthens and one track contracts. This is revealed in the interference of the two lasers when they meet at the base of the tracks. But the change is exceedingly small: the detected gravitational wave made each four-kilometre track change in length by less than one thousandth of the width of a proton.

This means the apparatus effectively had to measure the distance between Earth and the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, to the accuracy of the width of a human hair. The experiment is the most precise humans have ever conducted.

The gravitational waves of the inspiraling black holes converted to sound. The lower pitched ‘chirps’ exactly match the frequencies of the gravitational waves. The higher pitched chirps have been generated to better fit human hearing. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

To reach the sensitivity required, the scientists had to develop novel means of suppressing “noise” caused by vibrations of the mirrors from other sources. The detector is sensitive to the crashing of waves on the shore hundreds of kilometres away, wind outside the facility, and thermal vibrations due to heating of the mirrors by the laser itself. As well as using a complicated system of pulleys and magnetic vibrational suppressors, and placing the detectors in a vacuum, the LIGO team also requires that any signal on one detector is seen on the other, to rule out the possibility of a local event being falsely reported as a gravitational wave originating in deep space.

The success of this experiment is the product of more than two decades of scientific collaboration involving researchers from all over the world. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than 1,000 scientists, including contributors from Japan, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, China and Australia, as well as the United States.

The recently upgraded “Advanced” LIGO detector is the most sophisticated of a new generation of gravity interferometers. The original LIGO was first proposed in 1989 and gained funding in 1992, with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of the experiment. New upgrades, based on technologies that would be developed later, were planned from the outset.

Over the same period, increased computational power and techniques have opened up the field of numerical relativity, which was not previously possible due to the enormous computational complexity of Einstein’s equations. These simulations allowed the LIGO team to compare their detection with the theoretically predicted signal from a black hole binary merger.

The binary black hole merger that created GW150914 happened in Earth’s southern hemisphere approximately 1.3 billion light years away. The colored lines are regions where the signal likely originated. The exact location cannot be determined with the data of only two detectors. A third will enter service later this year. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

Other detectors already exist, and are being upgraded or built. These include the VIRGO detector in Italy and the KAGRA detector in Japan. There are also plans for another LIGO detector in India. Earlier this year, the LISA Pathfinder mission was launched into space, with the aim of testing the technologies for a space-based gravitational wave detector. Having an array of detectors will allow astronomers to triangulate the wave signal and pinpoint the source location, meaning astronomers using conventional electromagnetic telescopes can be notified of where to point their detectors.

The opening up of gravitational wave astronomy has vast implications. It will provide for tests of the validity of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in the domain of very strong fields and high speeds, such as around black holes. It also allows us to look into the interior of neutron stars, whose incredible densities offer a physical laboratory that could not be replicated on Earth. Moreover, while dust and other matter obscure our observation of the distant universe using light, gravitational waves—because they interact so weakly with matter—reach us relatively unimpeded.

But as well as providing some answers, the introduction of an entirely new, gravitational spectrum will undoubtedly raise new, and entirely unexpected, questions. As Kip Thorne, a LIGO co-founder and a world expert in relativity theory, commented to Physics World: “LIGO has opened a new window on the universe—a gravitational-wave window. Each time a new window has opened up there have been big surprises—LIGO is just the beginning. Until now, we as scientists have only seen warped space-time, when it’s very calm. It’s as though we’d only seen the surface of the ocean on a very calm day when it’s quite glassy. We had never seen the ocean in a storm, with crashing waves. All of that changed on 14 September 2015. The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time. A storm in which time speeded up and slowed down, speeded up again.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/12/ligo-f12.html

The Martian: A modern Robinson Crusoe

By David Walsh
7 October 2015

Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Veteran director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian is based on the 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir. In the movie’s opening scene the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to abandon their plans and leave the planet when a severe, hurricane-like sandstorm descends on them. Unavoidably left behind is crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed to be dead after being struck by communications equipment and separated from the others during the storm.

Matt Damon in The Martian

Watney, in fact, survives the disaster and is able to treat his injuries. He finds the living and working quarters the crew had set up (“the Hab”) intact and has enough food for several hundred Martian days, or sols (each sol is some 24 hours, 40 minutes). However, he is alone on the desolate planet, tens of millions of kilometers from home. Watney has no means of communicating with Earth, because of the destruction of the communication gear in the tempest, and the next manned mission is not scheduled for another four years. How can he survive that long and how can he travel to the location of that mission’s landing, some 3,200 kilometers away?

A botanist (and a mechanical engineer, at least in the Weir novel), Watney sets about solving his various problems. He grows potatoes inside the habitat’s artificial environment and begins to modify his only vehicle, a rover, to make possible much longer trips.

Meanwhile, on Earth, satellite photos of Mars make clear to NASA engineers in Houston, Texas that Watney is alive and moving around. NASA director Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to inform the surviving members of the Ares mission, now on board the Hermes spacecraft heading home, that Watney is alive, for fear of distracting them. Watney cleverly locates and digs up the Pathfinder probe, inactive since 1997 and uses it to begin communicating with NASA.

NASA officials and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California debate various plans for rescuing the stranded astronaut. They agree to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet. In their efforts to speed up the process, however, they take shortcuts that result in disaster. Watney experiences his own disaster on Mars, which wipes out his potato crop.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Now what? The Chinese space program then enters the picture, as does a young, brilliant astrodynamicist. The Ares III crew itself has a life-and-death decision to make …

Although The Martian grows tedious from time to time in the course of its two hours and 20 minutes, its central motif—the massive effort, which is eventually followed by masses of people all over the globe, to save one man—is a humane and intriguing one. A large number of people cooperate, and not in pursuit of money or celebrity, to save a single life.

In his novel, Weir writes: “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

It is moving when the film reaches its denouement and Watney’s fate, along with the fate of the rest of the Ares III crew, is decided. One certainly feels for his situation and emphatically hopes for his safe return.

As opposed to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), with its quasi-religious imagery, andInterstellar (Christopher Nolan), with its murky dystopianism, The Martian(aside from one brief flirtation with a crucifix) aspires to be an eminently practical film, with its paean to “Yankee ingenuity” and stick-to-itiveness. Having decided that “I am not going to die on this planet,” Watney sets out his various tasks and performs them, one by one.

Jessica Chastain

The scientific-technical challenges and solutions are interesting, occasionally fascinating: Watney’s agricultural experiments, his discovery of a method to create water, his transformation of his rover vehicle, his retrieval of the Pathfinder probe and his re-establishing of communication with Earth, NASA’s various rescue plans, the final effort to intercept him in space. (The decision to paint the Chinese space program and officials in a positive light, given current US government policies, has to be considered almost an act of bravery.)

Unfortunately, when the film goes beyond the limits of depicting those practical tasks, it falters badly. One of the considerable difficulties The Martian faces is its literary-intellectual source. Weir, the son of an accelerator physicist and an electrical engineer, is a capable organizer-summarizer of materials and problems, and apparently knows his science (according to various publications), but he is not an artistically gifted writer.

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of various physical and chemical processes and Watney’s interventions in those processes, a sort of “How-to” manual for surviving in an enormously hostile environment, interspersed with essentially puerile monologues (Watney’s) or dialogue. The labored “jokiness” is particularly grating.

A few examples:

“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”

“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

“But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

“Back on Earth, universities and governments are willing to pay millions to get their hands on Mars rocks. I’m using them as ballast.”

This sort of wittiness, which is genuinely amusing one-tenth of the time, goes on ad infinitum. Along with references to disco music, Star Wars, Iron Man,The Dukes of Hazzard and Three’s Company. Reading the novel is too much like spending a number of hours with a precocious and especially self-approving undergraduate science student who aspires to be a stand-up comic.

It is hard to believe that any human being could go through the terrifying and life-altering experiences Weir describes and remain so unrelentingly shallow. The various astronauts and cosmonauts to date may not have always been the most articulate or cultured individuals, but one has the impression that they responded with considerable seriousness to the immensity of space and the significance of their own activities.

Jeff Daniels

Why the heavy-handed humor in the original novel? Perhaps Weir felt that only through such an approach could he “make the medicine go down,” i.e., render palatable to the public a complex story about the science of space travel and space survival. If that is the case, then he underestimated his audience.

Perhaps more to the point, the contrast between the remarkable scientific achievements, on the one hand, and the unserious depiction of the human interactions, on the other, speaks to an American malaise at present: technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency.

Although Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, to their credit, have dropped a good deal of the juvenilia and their work has a generally more sober tone than the novel, a portion of the book’s flippancy makes its way into the film too (including at certain critical moments!). Fortunately for the filmmakers, Matt Damon is appealing enough to render some of the silliness unobjectionable.

The screenplay, unhappily, has retained the general flatness of the scenes on Earth, or added its own. Scott has a number of talented performers at his disposal, who struggle to make something of the oddly colorless and often drama-less dialogue and sequences, including Daniels as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s spokesperson. Wiig has almost nothing to do, except occasionally shoot a quizzical or bemused glance at one character or another, in a seeming reference to the comic films she is normally in, but which has nothing to do with The Martian.

In two small parts, Mackenzie Davis (as a satellite planner in NASA’s Mission Control Center) and Donald Glover (as the NASA astrodynamicist) are least touched by the “canned,” bureaucratic character of the NASA-JPL scenes.

Scott has now been making feature films long enough, since the late 1970s, that he is referred to in some quarters as a great director. Such a characterization confuses artistic greatness with canniness and box office success. Scott’s films are essentially products of the Hollywood blockbuster era that began in 1975, albeit seasoned with a somewhat “outsider” (British), quasi-artistic sensibility. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, American Gangster and The Counselor are distinguished by their “dark” and “edgy” visual flair, and often excessive brutality, but not by any important thematic confrontation with contemporary life.

In any event, Scott’s new film portrays a manned mission to Mars some time in the not too distant future. Science fiction indeed! No critic or anyone involved in the production has referred to the fact that the US shut down its manned space effort in 2011 for an indefinite period of time, thanks in large part to budget cuts, an event, as the WSWS noted at the time, of “considerable historical significance.”

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration cancelled a project that envisioned a return to the Moon by 2020, followed by a Mars mission using the Moon as a jumping-off point. The WSWS commented that the administration “proposed a manned mission to the asteroid belt by 2025, followed by a Mars flight, but pushed out so far into the future that it amounted to the tacit abandonment of any serious effort at manned space flight.”

The Christian Science Monitor, in July 2014, asked: “Will the US ever have [a] manned space program again?” The article noted that with its Space Launch System, a rocket system designed for launches into deep space, “NASA hopes to take a giant leap into deep space, but the US Government Accountability Office says that the space agency may not have enough money. According to a GAO estimate released Wednesday, NASA may be $400 million short to complete the project.” Billions and billions for the destruction of peoples and societies around the world, but not hundreds of millions for the exploration of space.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/10/07/mart-o07.html

New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/mars-m28.html

Hanging out with the disgruntled guys who babysit our aging nuclear missiles—and hate every second of it.

Death Wears Bunny Slippers

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Along a lonely state highway on central Montana’s high plains, I approach what looks like a ranch entrance, complete with cattle guard. “The first ace in the hole,” reads a hand-etched cedar plank hanging from tall wooden posts. “In continuous operation for over 50 years.” I drive up the dirt road to a building surrounded by video cameras and a 10-foot-tall, barbed-wire-topped fence stenciled with a poker spade. “It is unlawful to enter this area,” notes a sign on the fence, whose small print cites the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, a law that once required communist organizations to register with the federal government. “Use of deadly force authorized.”

I’m snapping photos when a young airman appears. “You’re not taking pictures, are you?” he asks nervously.

“Yeah, I am,” I say. “The signs don’t say that I can’t.”

“Well, we might have to confiscate your phone.”

Maybe he should. We’re steps away from the 10th Missile Squadron Alpha Missile Alert Facility, an underground bunker capable of launching several dozen nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with a combined destructive force 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

Another airman comes out of the ranch house and asks for my driver’s license. He’s followed by an older guy clad in sneakers, maroon gym shorts, and an air of authority. “I’m not here to cause trouble,” I say, picturing myself in a brig somewhere.

“Just you being here taking photos is causing trouble,” he snaps.

An alarm starts blaring from inside the building. One airman turns to the other. “Hey, there’s something going off in there.”
Six hours earlier, I was driving through Great Falls with a former captain in the Air Force’s 341st Missile Wing. Aaron, as I’ll call him, had recently completed a four-year stint at the Alpha facility. Had President Obama ordered an attack with ICBMs, Aaron could have received a coded message, authenticated it, and been expected to turn a launch key.

Also read: “That Time We Almost Nuked North Carolina“—a timeline of near-misses, mishaps, and scandals from our atomic arsenal.

We kept passing unmarked blue pickup trucks with large tool chests—missile maintenance guys. The Air Force doesn’t like to draw attention to the 150 silos dotting the surrounding countryside, and neither does Great Falls. With about 4,000 residents and civilian workers and a $219 million annual payroll, Malmstrom Air Force Base drives the local economy, but you won’t see any missile-themed bars or restaurants. “We get some people that have no idea that there’s even an Air Force base here,” one active-duty missileer told me.

It’s not just Great Falls practicing selective amnesia. The days of duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, and No Nukes protests are fading memories—nowhere more so than in the defense establishment. At a July 2013 forum in Washington, DC, Lt. General James Kowalski, who commands all of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, said a Russian nuclear attack on the United States was such “a remote possibility” that it was “hardly worth discussing.”

But then Kowalski sounded a disconcerting note that has a growing number of nuclear experts worried. The real nuclear threat for America today, he said, “is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Lt. General James Kowalski

Lt. General James Kowalski Air Force

“You can’t screw up once—and that’s the unique danger of these machines,” points out investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, whose recent book, Command and Control, details the Air Force’s stunning secret history of nuclear near-misses, from the accidental release of a hydrogen bomb that would have devastated North Carolina to a Carter-era computer glitch that falsely indicated a shower of incoming Soviet nukes. “In this business, you need a perfect safety record.”

Once the military’s crown jewels, ICBM bases have become “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner.”

And a perfect record, in a homeland arsenal made up of hundreds of missiles and countless electronic and mechanical systems that have to operate flawlessly—to say nothing of the men and women at the controls—is a very hard thing to achieve. Especially when the rest of the nation seems to have forgotten about the whole thing. “The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is abysmal.

Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.

In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.

The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011. Ex-missileers told me it went back decades: “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”

The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011, but three former missileers told me it was the norm at Malmstrom when they arrived there back in 2007, and that the practice was well established. (Blair told me that cheating was even common when he served at Malmstrom in the mid-1970s.) Missileers would check each other’s tests before turning them in and share codes indicating the correct proportion of multiple-choice answers on a given exam. If the nuclear program’s top brass, who all began their careers as missileers, weren’t aware of it, the men suggested, then they were willfully looking the other way. “You know in Casablanca, when that inspector was ‘absolutely shocked’ that there was gambling at Rick’s? It’s that,” one recently retired missileer told me. “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”

Cheating is just one symptom of what Lt. Colonel Jay Folds, then the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, called “rot” in the atomic force. Last November, Associated Press reporter Robert Burns obtained a RAND study commissioned by the Air Force. It concluded that the typical launch officer was exhausted, cynical, and distracted on the job. ICBM airmen also had high rates of sexual assault, suicide, and spousal and child abuse, and more than double the rates of courts-martial than Air Force personnel as a whole.

The morale problems were well known to Michael Carey, the two-star general who led the program at the time the cheating was revealed. Indeed, he pointed them out to other Americans during an official military cooperation trip to Moscow, before spending the rest of his three-day visit on a drunken bender, repeatedly insulting his Russian military hosts and partying into the wee hours with “suspect” foreign women, according to the Air Force’s inspector general. He later confessed to chatting for most of a night with the hotel’s cigar sales lady, who was asking questions “about physics and optics”—and thinking to himself: “Dude, this doesn’t normally happen.” Carey was stripped of his command in October 2013.

The embarrassments just keep coming. Last week, the Air Force fired two more nuclear commanders, including Col. Carl Jones, the No. 2 officer in the 90th Missile Wing at Wyoming’s Warren Air Force Base, and disciplined a third, for a variety of leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates. In one instance, two missileers were sent to the hospital after exposure to noxious fumes at a control center—they had remained on duty for fear of retaliation by their commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy “Keith” Brown. This week, the Pentagon is expected to release a comprehensive review of the nuclear program that details “serious problems that must be addressed urgently.”

“Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”

Stung by the recent bad press, the Air Force has announced pay raises, changes to the proficiency tests, and nearly $400 million in additional spending to increase staffing and update equipment. In the long term, Congress and the administration are debating a trillion-dollar suite of upgrades to the nuclear program, which could include replacing the existing ICBMs and warheads with higher-tech versions.

But outside experts say none of the changes will address the core of the problem: obsolescence. “There is a morale issue,” says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, “that comes down to the fundamental question: How is the ICBM force essential? It’s hard to find that

if you sit in the hole out there. Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”

launch switches

A missile commander’s launch switches. National Park Service

Indeed, on my first night in town, over beer and bison burgers, Aaron had introduced me to “Brent,” another recently former missileer who looks more like a surfer now that his military crew cut is all grown out. Brent lost faith in his leaders early on, he told me, when he saw the way they tolerated, if not encouraged, a culture of cheating. He’d resisted the impulse, he said, and his imperfect test scores disqualified him for promotions. But the worst part of the gig, the guys agreed, might be the stultifying tedium of being stuck in a tiny room all day and night waiting for an order you knew would never come. “Any TV marathon you can stumble upon is good,” Brent said. “Even if it’s something you hate. It’s just that ability to zone out and lose time.”

 

CONTINUED:  http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/air-force-missile-wing-minuteman-iii-nuclear-weapons-burnout

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time in 4,000 Years of Cosmigraphics

by

A visual catalog of our quintessential quest to understand the cosmos and our place in it.

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope, antagonizing the church and unleashing a “hummingbird effect” of innovation, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (public library) — a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness.” From glorious paintings of the creation myth predating William Blake’s work by centuries to the pioneering galaxy drawing that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night to NASA’s maps of the Apollo 11 landing site, the images remind us that the cosmos — like Whitman, like ourselves — is vast and contains multitudes. This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

Illustration from Henry Russell’s 1892 treatise ‘Observations of the Transit of Venus.’Courtesy of The Royal Society

The book’s title is an allusion to Italo Calvino’s beloved Cosmicomics, a passage from which Benson deploys as the epigraph:

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

Long before the notion of vacuum existed in cosmology, English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, which depicts multiple chaotic fires subsiding until a central starlike structure becomes visible amid concentric rings of smoke and debris. Even though Fludd believed in a geocentric cosmology, this image comes strikingly close to current theories of solar system formation.Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections

Paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, from 1693–1698. Eimmart’s depictions are based on a 1659 engraving by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the first to confirm that Saturn’s mysterious appendages, which had confounded astronomers since Galileo, were in fact ‘a thin flat ring, nowhere touching.’ What makes Eimmart’s painting unique is that it combines the observations of more than ten astronomers into a depiction of superior accuracy.Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita di Bologna

In 1845, Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, equipped his castle with a giant six-ton telescope, soon nicknamed the ‘Leviathan,’ which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1918. Despite the cloudy Irish skies, Lord Rosse managed to glimpse and draw the spellbinding spiral structures of what were thought to be nebulae within the Milky Way. This print, based on Lord Rosse’s drawing of one such nebula — M51, known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy — became a sensation throughout Europe and inspired Van Gogh’s iconic ‘The Starry Night.’Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

The project, which does for space what Cartographies of Time did for the invisible dimension, also celebrates the natural marriage of art and science. These early astronomers were often spectacular draughtsmen as well — take, for instance, Johannes Hevelius and his groundbreaking catalog of stars. As Benson points out, art and science were “essentially fused” until about the 17th century and many of the creators of the images in the book were also well-versed in optics, anatomy, and the natural sciences.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator.Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

De Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, particularly the triangular form and its interplay with the circle.Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

This cryptic and unsettling ‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (1580–1590), made by an unknown artist, appropriates French mathematician and cartographer Oronce Finé’s cordiform, or heart-shaped, projection of the Earth; the world in this iconic image is dressed in a jester’s belled cap, beneath which a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes reads: ‘The number of fools is infinite.’Public domain via Wikimedia

The book is, above all, a kind of conceptual fossil record of how our understanding of the universe evolved, visualizing through breathtaking art the “fits and starts of ignorance” by which science progresses — many of the astronomers behind these enchanting images weren’t “scientists” in the modern sense but instead dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and various rites driven by religion and superstition. (For instance, Isaac Newton, often celebrated as the greatest scientist of all time, spent a considerable amount of his youth self-flagellating over his sins, and trying to discover “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a mythic substance believed to transmute ordinary metals into gold. And one of the gorgeous images in Benson’s catalog comes from a 1907 children’s astronomy book I happen to own, titled The Book of Stars for Young People, the final pages of which have always struck me with their counterblast: “Far out in space lies this island of a system, and beyond the gulfs of space are other suns, with other systems: some may be akin to ours and some quite different… The whole implies design, creation, and the working of a mighty intelligence; and yet there are small, weak creatures here on this little globe who refuse to believe in God.”)

A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested.Courtesy of the Huntington Library

The Nebra Sky Disc (2000–1600 B.C.), excavated illegally in Germany in 1999, is considered to be both humanity’s first-known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known visual depiction of celestial objects.Public domain via Wikimedia

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world’s first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history’s first true moon map.Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Beginning in 1870, French-born artist and astronomer Étienne Trouvelot spent a decade producing a series of spectacular illustrations of celestial bodies and cosmic phenomena. In 1872, he joined the Harvard College Observatory and began using its powerful telescopes in perfecting his drawings. His pastel illustrations, including this chromolithograph of Mare Humorum, a vast impact basin on the southwest side of the Earth-facing hemisphere of the moon, were among the first serious attempts to enlist art in popularizing the results of observations using technology developed for scientific research.Courtesy of the U. of Michigan Library

Étienne Trouvelot’s 1873 engravings of solar phenomena, produced during his first year at the Harvard College Observatory for the institution’s journal. The legend at the bottom reveals that the distance between the two prominences in the lower part of the engraving is one hundred thousand miles, more than 12 times the diameter of Earth. Despite the journal’s modest circulation, such engravings were soon co-opted by more mainstream publications and became trailblazing tools of science communication that greatly influenced public understanding of the universe’s scale.Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

What makes Benson’s project especially enchanting is the strange duality it straddles: On the one hand, the longing to make tangible and visible the complex forces that rule our existence is a deeply human one; on the other, the notion of simplifying such expansive complexities into static images seems paradoxical to a dangerous degree — something best captured by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell when she marveled: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Unable to seize the infinite, are we fooling ourselves by trying to reduce it into a seizable visual representation? At what point do we, like Calvino’s protagonist, begin to mistake the presence or absence of “signs” for the presence or absence of space itself? It calls to mind Susan Sontag’s concern about how photography’s “aesthetic consumerism” endangers the real experience of life, which the great physicist Werner Heisenberg channeled decades earlier in a remark that exposes the dark side of visualizing the universe:

Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by science. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is studying its own picture.

Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ depicting Wright’s trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies.Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

And yet awe, the only appropriate response to the cosmos, is a visceral feeling by nature and thus has no choice but to engage our “aesthetic consumerism” — which is why the yearning at the heart of Benson’s project is a profoundly human one. He turns to the words of the pioneering English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright, whose 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe Benson considers “one of the best-case studies of scientific reasoning through image.” Wright marvels:

What inconceivable vastness and magnificence of power does such a frame unfold! Suns crowding upon Suns, to our weak sense, indefinitely distant from each other; and myriads of myriads of mansions, like our own, peopling infinity, all subject to the same Creator’s will; a universe of worlds, all decked with mountains, lakes, and seas, herbs, animals, and rivers, rocks, caves, and trees… Now, thanks to the sciences, the scene begins to open to us on all sides, and truths scarce to have been dreamt of before persons of observation had proved them possible, invade our senses with a subject too deep for the human understanding, and where our very reason is lost in infinite wonders.

Illuminated solar eclipse prediction tables by German miniaturist Joachinus de Gigantibus, from the 1478 scientific treatise ‘Astronomia’ by Tuscan-Neopolitan humanist Christianus Prolianus.Courtesy of Rylands Medieval Collection, U. of Manchester

NASA’s 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey.Courtesy of USGS/NASA

Illustration from G. E. Mitton’s ‘The Book of Stars for Young People,’ 1907Courtesy of AAVSO

Artist-astronomer Étienne Trouvelot’s drawing of the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, in Wyoming.Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cosmigraphics is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with a tour of parallel facets of humanity’s visual imagination, Umberto Eco’s atlas of legendary lands and Manuel Lima’s visual history of tree-like diagrams, then revisit the little-known story of how Galileo influenced Shakespeare and this lovely children’s book about space exploration.

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/31/cosmigraphics-michael-benson/