Apocalypse Then

05 19 four horsemen of the apocalypse vasili korenApocalyptic scare stories have probably been around for as long as people have had the time to sit about making them up. They might be caused by anything from the general awfulness of humans to an unforeseen computer glitch. The earliest reference I could find comes from an Assyrian clay tablet that dates from around 2800 BC. It has this to say:

“Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

Sound familiar? Humanity has been clearly on a downward trajectory for around five thousand years. So it really is quite remarkable that we’re all still here. I’ve mentioned a few apocalyptic visionaries over the course of the last ten months and none of them have done very well out of it. Yet still they keep coming. Today I want to tell you about something that didn’t happen on this day in 1910. On this day no one was poisoned by Halley’s Comet. This will of course, come as no surprise to you. But it was once a genuine concern for quite a lot of people.

05 19 halley's cometHalley’s comet is named after Sir Edmund Halley who was first able to successfully predict its return in 1758, using his friend Isaac Newton’s newly discovered laws of gravity and by searching historical records. Now that we know the comet returns regularly, every seventy-five years or so, we can see that it has heralded several significant events. It appeared just before the Battle of Hastings and features on the Bayeaux Tapestry. William the Conqueror took it as a sign of his victory. Maybe King Harold thought the same thing, I don’t know, history is written by the victors. The appearance of the comet in 1222, heading westward across the sky, may have encouraged Genghis Khan to follow in its wake and invade Europe. Perhaps the comet was the original Star of Bethlehem. Even if it wasn’t, its appearance in 1301 probably inspired this painting of the nativity by Giotto di Bondone.

05 19 adoration of the magi giotto

In 1910 the comet was predicted to come so close to the Earth that our planet would actually pass through its tail. By then, scientists were able to make a spectroscopic analysis of the comet. They concluded that one of the substances present in the comet’s tail was a poisonous gas called cyanogen. An astronomer, named Camille Flammarion, told everyone he thought that the gas would extinguish all life on Earth. Other astronomers were quick to disagree, but it was too late. Churches held all night vigils. People panic bought every gas mask they could find. They stopped up their doors and windows in an effort to keep the gas out. In Rome, people panic bought oxygen so they could keep themselves alive until the earth passed through the comet’s poisonous tail. In the months leading up to the event it was possible to buy anti-comet umbrellas, even anti-comet pills that were supposed to provide protection from the worst of the radiation. Of course, no one died of comet poisoning. Some people were arrested for cashing in and selling worthless sugar pills, but were not charged, as their victims actually campaigned for their release. Flammarion still insisted though, that he had been able to smell the gas in the comet’s tail. He said it smelled of burning vegetables, or a marsh , or of acetylene.

The poisonous gas was not the only thing people were worried about back in 1910. There was a person who wrote to the Royal observatory who was concerned that the comet would cause the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to swap places, flooding the Americas and the Sahara desert. Apparently an unspecified shepherd in Washington State went mad in an unspecified way. I did try to research this, but all I came up with was a report that six people in Washington had been arrested after they went a bit comet-happy and a picture of a German Shepherd dog in a gas mask. But then there was a gold prospector in Southern California named Sam. He thought that the comet had been sent by God to punish mankind. Sam sought atonement in suffering. He set up a cross at the entrance to his mine and began to nail himself to it. He nailed both of his feet and one of his hands, but then he had a bit of a problem. He begged his fellow miners to nail up his remaining hand, but no one would help him. Instead, they pulled out the other nails and packed him off to hospital for a bit of a rest.

Two year’s later, an astronomer named Sze zuk Chang Chin-liang, began to worry, somewhat belatedly, that the comet might be a transparent object. He thought that it had no tail at all, and that what we could see were the sun’s rays shining through it. His problem was, that it might act a bit like a magnifying glass and focus the rays from the sun on our planet and burn us all up. Halley’s Comet is due to return in 2061. So far, no one seems to have suggested that it will kill us all. But I predict that someone will.

Heavenly Choir

03 09 ivan ivanovitchGoodness, March is turning out to be quite the month for space travel. On this day in 1961,the Russians launched their spacecraft Sputnik 9. At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a huge race between Russia and the United States to be the first nation to launch a human into space. Everyone needed to learn a lot about space flight; what it would do to a human body, how to make a successful landing, and they needed to learn it quickly. Sputnik 9 was not a manned space flight, but it was an important and interesting step along the way. On March 9th 1961, a dummy was launched into space. He was named Ivan Ivanovich which is the Russian equivalent of ‘John Doe’ or ‘Joe Bloggs’.

People who were working in the space programmes were worried about the effects of the lack of gravity on the human body, about the presence of radiation and also that a human confined in a tiny capsule so far away from earth would succumb to what they called ‘space madness’. As much as they wanted to send a person into space, they wanted that person to come back safe and well. The Russians tested and retested their equipment and their final test was to send something as human as possible in an orbit around the earth.

Ivan was made mostly from metal with bendable joints because they needed to dress him in a space suit. He had a skin of synthetic leather and a detachable head. His head, they decided to make as lifelike as possible. He had eyes and eye brows, even eyelashes. Then they thought about what might happen if he crash landed in a remote area. Someone might think he was a real human, even an alien. So they taped a big label over his face with the word ‘maket’ which means mock-up. To make sure that space travel was as safe as possible for organic life, Ivan had companions. Because space was at a premium inside the capsule, they used cavities inside his body to carry forty white mice, forty black mice, some guinea pigs, various reptiles, human blood cells, human cancer cells, yeast and bacteria. In addition to this, they sent a dog with him called Chernushka, which means ‘Blackie’.

Apart from testing how all these life forms would fare, the safety of the capsule and of the space suit, they also needed to test the ejector seat mechanism that would be used on landing. Sputnik 9, could not land safely, so the pilot would need to be ejected, along with a parachute before the capsule reached the ground. Ivan could also carry, within his body, instruments that measured things like acceleration and radiation levels but they also needed to test communication between the capsule and the ground. For this, Ivan would need a voice. They knew that their transmissions would be picked up by western countries, so they had to think carefully about what Ivan would say. If it sounded like a coded message, people might think they had secretly launched a human into space and that they were being spied upon. Perhaps, they thought, a tape of someone singing a song. This was rejected because anyone who intercepted the transmission might think they had sent up a cosmonaut who had succumbed to space madness. Their solution was simple and rather beautiful. They fitted Ivan with a tape that would play a whole choir singing. There was no way anyone would think that they had sent a whole choir into space inside one tiny capsule.

So, Ivan Ivanovich was first launched into space on March 9th 1961. Sputnik 9 made a single orbit of the Earth in a journey that lasted a little over an hour and a half. The mission was a success, the ejector seat and parachute worked and the dummy was recovered. You’ll be happy to know that Chernushka, the dog, who crash-landed along with the craft also survived.

A second trial was made on March 25th. This time Ivan was accompanied by a dog called Zvezdochka which means ‘little star’. The dog was given this name by Yuri Gagarin who would, less than three weeks later, become the first human in space. This time, they added to the choir recording, a recipe for cabbage soup, either to make the message even more confusing, or because they thought the world needed to know how to make it properly. This flight was also a success and Zvezdochka also survived her trip. This time the recovery team were unable to get to the landing site, in the Ural mountains, for twenty four hours. The local people, who had watched a figure floating down in a parachute, arms and legs flailing, were very surprised when they approached the lifeless figure and opened his helmet, only to see the word ‘maket’ taped across his face.

To Seek Out New Worlds

03 07 kepler spacecraftOn this day in 2009, NASA launched its Kepler space observatory. Its purpose is to identify earth like planets orbiting other stars. It is focused on the Milky Way where there are billions of stars. Its only instrument is a photometer which continually measures the brightness of 145,000 stars. If any of the stars it is looking at dim periodically, that might indicate that there is a planet passing in front of it. So far, it has identified 1039 planets.

As I have been thinking about space travel today and, as I casually mentioned yesterday a seventeenth century bishop who wrote a story about flying to the moon with some swans, I thought I’d take a closer look at that today, along with another story that I didn’t get chance to mention, which heavily influenced Cyrano de Bergerac‘s ‘Other Worlds’. It is ‘True History’ written by Lucian of Samosata some time in the second century.

Francis Godwin was born in 1562 and became Bishop of Hereford. His father was the bishop of Bath and Wells. Both of his grandfathers were bishops. His ‘The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither’ was published posthumously under an assumed name in 1638. He may have written it in about 1620. It is about a man called Domingo Gonsales, the book’s supposed author. Domingo has made a fortune in the East Indies but has to flee because he killed someone in a duel. He leaves for his native Spain along with his servant Diego. Ill health forces him to stop at St Helena. There he finds a new variety of swan he calls a ‘gansa’ that he discovers can carry substantial weights. 03 07 the man in the mooneEventually he harnesses some of them together so they can carry the weight of a man and flies around the island. Then, he decides to use the swans to fly him home. Nearing Tenerife he is attacked by British ships and forced to land. Finding the natives hostile, he takes off again. The swans carry him higher and higher. On the first day he meets demons and wicked spirits who give him a package of food for his journey. They promise to see him safely back to Spain if he promises to join them and serve a master who they will not name. He refuses.

Instead, the gansas carry him higher and higher, for twelve days, until he reaches the Moon. Suddenly, he feels hungry and opens his package to find that it contains dry leaves, goat’s hair and animal dung. There is also wine that he says smells like horse piss. He finds that the people who live on the moon are tall Christian people who live in a kind of paradise. He finds out that they maintain their Utopian existence by swapping any delinquent children for children from Earth. Here, he cites an example, the Green Children of Woolpit.

This is a very odd story dating from the twelfth century about two children who suddenly appeared near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. They spoke an unknown language, their clothing was unfamiliar, their skin was green, and they would eat only beans. When they adapted to a normal diet, they lost their green colour. The boy died but the girl survived to adulthood. They couldn’t say how they arrived, only that they had been tending their father’s cattle, there had been a loud noise and suddenly they found themselves in a strange place. There is only one other writer we know of from this time who mentions the story and suggests that they may have come from an extra-terrestrial world. It is Robert Burton in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy‘. This is an interesting piece of information for me as, over the last year, the Anatomy of Melancholy has become one of my favourite books that I’ve never read. But I digress.

After six months of living on the moon, and learning their strange musical language, three of Domingo’s gansas have died and he becomes concerned he will never get back to earth. He sets off for home, but before he leaves, the King of the Moon gives him a gift of three sorts of stones. Poleastis, which can store and generate great quantities of heat, Macbrus, which generates great quantities of light and Ebelus. Holding one side of this stone to you, renders you weightless, touching the other side makes you half as heavy again.

He uses his Ebelus to make himself lighter so that the journey back to Earth is easier for his remaining gansas. He lands in China where he is arrested as a magician. It takes him ages to learn Mandarin so he can explain himself. Eventually he makes contact with some Jesuits who write down his story and promise to send it to Spain. The book ends with him hoping that his adventures will make him famous.

The second century tale written by Lucian of Samosata was intended to be a parody against contemporary and ancient sources which quote obvious myths and legends as if they had really happened. So its title ‘True History’ is a joke. In the story, Lucien and some adventuring heroes sail west beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and come to an island with rivers of wine filled with fish and bears. They also find marks indicating that Heracles and Dionysus have passed that way. On leaving the island they are 03 07 bearsley's space spidersswept up by a whirlwind and, after seven days, deposited on the moon. There, they find a huge war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over who should colonise the Morning Star (Venus). There is a fantastical description of the two armies which includes men who wear long gowns that they use like sails to fly around, dog-faced men riding winged acorns and giant spiders. The armies of the sun are victorious when they build a wall that eclipses the moon. Lucian tells us that there are no women on the moon but that children grow inside the calves of men. This sounds like a weird idea, but it’s one I’m probably going to mention again at Bacchanalia next week.

After returning to Earth, they become trapped inside a 200 mile long whale. There are some amazing things inside the whale; among them, a little garden a lake and a temple dedicated to Neptune. There are also a thousand people who they go to war with. Then they discover a sea of milk and an island of cheese. After that, they sail to the Island of the Blessed. There, they meet the heroes of the Trojan War and Herodotus who is being eternally punished for all the lies he wrote in his own ‘Histories’. Herodotus was responsible for some of the more outlandish beliefs of Pliny the Elder and which persisted into medieval times, such as the belief in a race of dog-headed people. Lucian tells us that he is glad he will never suffer such a fate as he has never told a lie in his life.

Lucian then discovers a chasm in the ocean, which they manage to sail around and he ends his story as they discover a new continent and begin to explore it. It ends with the promise of more to come. No one now has any idea if there ever was more.

Choose Your Own Adventure

03 06 cyrano de bergeracToday I want to talk about Cyrano de Bergerac. It isn’t going to be very easy, as details of his life are scant. But he does have one, arguably two, totally fictional accounts of his life that I can tell you about.

The real Cyrano was probably baptised in Paris on this day in 1619. He was the son of Abel de Cyrano, lord of Mauvières and Bergerac. He was first educated in the countryside by a parish priest along with his friend Henri Lebret, who later became his biographer. He didn’t pay much attention to his lessons there and sounds like an awful student. His father sent him to Paris to finish his education. I don’t know where, it might have been Collège de Beauvais, because he later wrote a play called ‘The Pedant Tricked’ which made fun of one of the tutors there.

Alternatively, he was not aristocratic at all, but descended from a Sardinian fishmonger. He was the lover of Charles Coypeau d’Assoucy, a burlesque poet, until 1653 when they fell out horribly and wrote lots of rude things about each other. Pick which one you like best. I suppose it is possible that they might both be true to some extent.

03 06 duellersHe enjoyed a life of drinking gambling and duelling and joined the army when he was nineteen. As he wasn’t keen on discipline, war or the death penalty, he didn’t fit in particularly well there. Cyrano was severely wounded twice, he was shot through the body and wounded in the neck with a sword. In 1641, he left the army and began to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi tried to reconcile Christianity with Epicurean atomism, which I don’t have time to look into today, but it must have been odd as Epicurus didn’t believe any gods were watching us at all, ever.

Cyrano de Bergerac died in 1655, either as the result of a wooden beam falling on his head or because he was involved in a botched assassination attempt and suffered from ill health after he was subsequently confined to a private asylum by his brother. Or perhaps it was syphilis. Again, you choose. Or take all of them…

03 06 benoît-constant coquelin dressed as cyrano de bergeracCyrano’s life was fictionalised in the form of a play by Edmond Rosand in 1897. The fictional Cyrano is a renowned duellist and a gifted and joyful poet. He is also crippled by self-doubt because he has a very large nose. So he cannot tell his beautiful cousin, Roxane, that he loves her. She is also loved by a handsome young man called Christian. Just when Cyrano is about to tell Roxane how he feels, she tells him she is in love with someone. At first he thinks, and hopes that she means him But when she describes him as handsome, he finds out it is Christian. Roxane also asks Cyrano to look after Christian, they are both soldiers and she doesn’t want to see Christian hurt. After that, the two men become friends and, because Christian doesn’t have the gift of poetry, Cyrano agrees to write his love letters for him. Now Cyrano can pour out his heart to Roxane without her ever knowing that the words are his. Roxanne falls deeply in love with Christian because of his beautiful words and eventually confesses to Cyrano that the letters mean so much to her that she would love Christian even if he was ugly. Just as Cyrano is about to confess that he is the author Christian is wounded and dies. So Cyrano feels he can now never confess that it was him all along.

Fifteen years later, Roxane is in a convent, still mourning the loss of Christian. Cyrano comes to visit her, but on the way, someone drops a log on his head and he is mortally wounded. He arrives at the convent, knowing it will be the last time he sees her. She asks him to read Christian’s last love letter to her, which he does. But as he is reading it grows dark. As he continues to read even though it is too dark to see, she finally realises that he is the author of the letters. He denies it to his dying breath. He dies saying that he has lost everything, except one important thing his ‘panache’. The play has been performed many times, rewritten and adapted for film. Off the top of my head, there is the one with Gérard Depardieu, a modern day version starring Steve Martin with an upbeat ending and ‘The Truth About Cats and Dogs’ is a gender reversed version of the same story. It is from the original play that the word ‘panache’ first entered the English language.

Cyrano de Bergerac also wrote stories with a hero named Cyrano which were published after his death by his biographer Lebret. But they are not obviously about his life. Cyrano’s Cyrano travels to the moon and the sun. ‘L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune.’ (The other world: states and empires of the Moon) and ‘Les États et Empires du Soleil.’ (The states and empires of the Sun) are, in a way, science fiction novels before there was any such thing as science fiction.

03 06 bottles of dewCyrano first tries to reach the Moon by strapping bottles of dew to his body. The sun shines on the bottles which become clouds and lift him into the sky. When he comes down again he is in New France (Canada) because the earth has moved round beneath him. He meets a tribe of people who are naked. He, thinking he is in France, wonders how long French people in the provinces have gone about naked but expects that they are equally surprised to meet someone wearing bottles. Eventually he meets the governor of New France and explains to him that all matter is formed inside, and expelled by stars, which is a pretty surprising idea coming from the seventeenth century. He thinks that the reason the Americas have been only recently discovered is that they have only just been put there by the sun.

In his second attempt to reach the moon, he builds a flying machine and launches it off a cliff. It crashes but he escapes from the wreckage. Then some soldiers find it and think if they attach rockets to it, it will fly into the sky and look like a dragon. He catches them and is upset. He climbs into the machine to try to unfasten the rockets and is blasted into space. On the moon he meets people with four legs who have musical voices and weapons that can cook game at the same time as it is being shot. He also meet the ghost of Socrates and a man named Domingo Gonsales. Domingo is a character from an earlier novel by an English bishop, called Francis Godwin, who flies to the Moon in a chariot drawn by swans. They all decide that the concept of God is nonsense and that men have no souls. Cyrano returns to earth and lands in Italy.

03 06 flying machineHe builds a second flying machine that focuses solar energy, using mirrors to create burst of air. It takes him to the sun. He lands on a sun spot and the beings that live there explain to him how the solar system works by comparing it with the movement of atoms. On the sun, he is tried by a court of birds for all the crimes of humanity But luckily, he is saved by a parrot who recognises him. Then he meets an Italian philosopher called Tommaso Campanella. They start to discuss what sex would be like in Utopia and the book pretty much ends there. As I said, it was published posthumously and it is likely that there was more but Lebret was not brave enough to publish it. There may also be a third story about a journey to the stars, but his original work is now lost. So, if you read it, you’ll have to decide how it ends.


12 20 edwin abbott abbottToday is the birthday of Edwin Abbott Abbott, who was born in 1838 in London. The first thing you’ll notice about him, is that his middle name and surname are the same. This is because his mother and father were both called Abbott, they were first cousins. This isn’t the only odd thing about him. Abbott was a schoolmaster who did extremely well at Cambridge in theology and mathematics. This could have been quite dull, but he did something really interesting with it. In 1884, he published a novella called ‘Flatland’.

The first half of Flatland describes a two-dimensional world and the second explores the nature of dimensions. It is often categorised as a science fiction novel, but whoever wrote his wikipedia entry describes it as ‘mathematical fiction’. The narrator of the story is a square, who is sensibly called A. Square. He tells us about his world, where all the men are polygons with various numbers of sides while all the women are just lines. The more sides the men have, the more important they are. The lowest classes and soldiers are all isosceles triangles, middle class men are all equilateral triangles, while the professional, gentleman classes are squares and pentagons. Hexagons are the lowest rank of nobility. The more sides a man has, the closer he is to approaching the perfect shape, a circle. All perfect circles belong to the highest, priestly class.

12 20 flatlandIn a two dimensional world, everyone (apart from the women) has length and width but no height and cannot be viewed from above. This means that the only way to perceive what shape a person had, was to either feel the angles of their corners, or to observe them through a sort of fog, that was quite common in Flatland and see the way their edges faded from view. The women (and Abbott quite rightly received some stick for this) presented a different problem. Being a line, they were quite easily observable from the side, but end on, they were practically invisible. This made them very dangerous, as they were liable to stab people either accidentally or on purpose. For this reason, every Flatlanders house had a separate door for women, just in case. Additionally, all women had to constantly sing a ‘Peace-Cry’ as they moved around so that all the men knew when they were coming.

Flatland society was very rigid and only equal sided polygons were tolerated. A. Square explains that it would be very difficult in Flatland to discern what sort of a person you were dealing with if, what you thought was a perfectly ordinary triangle coming towards you: “drags behind his regular and respectable vertex, a parallelogram of twelve or thirteen inches in diagonal”, if you invited him into your home, he might get stuck in the door. On the whole, they equate irregular polygons with criminality and immorality, which probably says as much about the Victorian world Abbott inhabited as it does about Flatland.

12 20 sphere in flatlandIn the second half of the story, Square dreams that he visits a land that has only one dimension, where everyone is a line, but they only observe one another as points as they are unable to see their own length. Then, in the year 1999, on the eve of their millennium, square is visited by a sphere from a world where there are three dimensions, Spaceland. He cannot comprehend what he is looking at because what he observes, as the sphere passes through the plane of his existence is a perfect circle that changes in size. If you’re having trouble grasping this, there’s a great little video narrated by Carl Sagan here. Square is taken by sphere on a journey to a dimension which is unknown to him called ‘up’. From there he can see inside all the houses and inside all the people, he calls this ‘omnividence’. Square tells Sphere that being able to see everything makes him feel like a god. Here is Sphere’s reply:

“… if a pick-pocket or a cut-throat of our country can see everything that is in your country, surely that is no reason why the pick-pocket or cut-throat should be accepted by you as a God. This omnividence, as you call it—it is not a common word in Spaceland—does it make you more just, more merciful, less selfish, more loving? Not in the least. Then how does it make you more divine?”

Sphere takes square to visit Spaceland and, once there, he begins to wonder if it is possible that there is another world above that one, where there is yet another, fourth, dimension and everyone there can look down on Spaceland and see everything. And why not a fifth or a sixth or even more? Sphere dismisses this as a nonsense that is only talked about by madmen and Square is returned to Flatland. There, he dreams that Sphere takes him to a world with no dimensions at all. It is occupied by a single point. Sphere observes: “That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception…” Square tries to communicate with the being but, because it has no concept of anything other than itself, it assumes his words are it’s own thoughts. It is perfectly happy because it is omniscient and omnipresent in its own non-dimensional world, but it has no aspirations.

Back in Flatland Square tries to explain the third dimension to its inhabitants. Meanwhile, it turns out that the priestly class have known about the third dimension all along, but they keeping it to themselves. Square is imprisoned as a madman and it is from prison that he is writing this book.

It was a pretty wild story in the 1880s and was not well received, reviewers just didn’t know what to make of it. The Athenaeum said: “That whimsical book Flatland by a Square (Seeley & Co.), seems to have a purpose, but what that may be it is hard to discover.” While the New York Times said: “It’s a very puzzling book and a very distressing one, and to be enjoyed by about six, or at the outside seven, persons in the whole of the United States and Canada.” Abbott’s strange book was largely forgotten until Einstein published his general theory of relativity. After that, Abbott was hailed as some sort of prophet with his concept of a fourth dimension. His ideas have been much revisited by science fiction writers. It you wanted to read the original for yourself, you can do so here. What I really like about it are his ideas about omnipotent beings who either see everything but just don’t care, or who are so infinitely small that they fail to see anything other than themselves.

They Came From Space

11 30 meteorOn this day, in 1954, a meteorite fell near Sylacauga in Alabama. The largest piece of it which was recovered is known as the Hodges Fragment. It is called this because it hit a woman called Ann Hodges. Ann survived, and was able to walk away from the incident, though she was very badly bruised. The eight and a half pound rock had smashed through her roof, bounced off her large wooden radio and hit her in the side as she lay sleeping on her sofa. It’s a very rare thing for a person to be hit by a meteorite, It has been calculated that, in the US for example, a person will be hit by a meteorite once every 9,300 years. Oddly, her home was just over the road from the an establishment called the ‘Comet Drive-in Theater’.

Many people had observed the meteor in the sky. Over three states, they had heard explosions and seen its fiery trail. Some witnesses closer to the meteorite strike reported seeing a plane flying in the area, which was worrying. In 1954, people were pretty edgy about the Cold War and there was some concern that it might be something to do with the Russians. The meteorite was confiscated by the police and turned over to the United States Air Force for examination.

Once they had proved, beyond all doubt, that it was an extra-terrestrial object and not part of some terrible communist plot, the next problem was: who did the meteorite belong to? Hodges thought it was hers, as she was the person who had been hit by it. The owner of her rented house, Birdie Guy, thought as it had landed on her property, it should belong to her. There was a lot of legal wrangling and, eventually, Hodges paid Guy $500 for the rock. Both sides believed, falsely as it turned out, that there was a fortune to be made out of the meteorite. By the time they had finished deciding who it belonged to, everyone had forgotten about it.

The real winner in the Sylacauga meteorite incident was a local farmer called Julius McKinney, who was driving his mule cart when the animals ground to a halt and shied at something in the road. He got down to investigate, expecting to find a snake, but when he found a large black rock, he moved it to the verge and went on his way. When he heard about the Hodges meteorite, he went back, retrieved it and took it home and gave it to his children to play with. After a few days, he mentioned it to a friend who helped him find a buyer from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. We don’t know how much he sold it for, but shortly afterwards he bought himself a house and a car.

11 30 ernst chladniToday is also the birthday of Ernst Chladni, who was born on this day in 1756. I mention him because he happens to be the first person to suggest the meteorites came from space. Before that, everyone thought they must come from volcanoes. Chladni worked mostly with sound experiments and also invented a couple of musical instruments called the euphon and the clavicylinder about which I have been able to find out disappointingly little.

New Moon

08 28 enceladus scaleOn this day in 1789 William Herschel discovered a sixth moon orbiting the planet Saturn. It was eventually named Enceladus. It is named after a giant from Greek mythology who is supposed to be buried underneath Mount Etna. I mentioned buried giants when I wrote about Pliny a few days ago. It isn’t a giant though, it’s tiny, only 310 miles (500 km) across and it sits on the edge one of Saturn’s outer rings, the E ring.

08 28 enceladus polesWe didn’t really know much about Enceladus until in was photographed by the two Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. They showed us that it was a very unusual place. It’s northern hemisphere in pitted with craters, as one would expect of an object that has been subject to impacts for millions of years. It’s southern hemisphere though shows far less damage, suggesting that it is a much younger surface. It is also has deep ridges in its icy surface, similar to the fault lines seen between tectonic plates on earth. This led scientists to realise that the moon must be geologically active and was more than likely the source of much of the material in the E ring.

08 28 enceladus coreIn 2005 another space probe, Cassini, was able to send us much clearer images of the surface of Enceladus. What was discovered were four deep fractures over the south pole. Thermal imaging revealed that the moon’s temperature beneath the ridges was much warmer that elsewhere. Further images showed that huge plumes of vapour were continually spewing out through vents much like a geyser. The vents are throwing out as much as 440 lb (200 kg) of material a second. When tested the vapour was found to be largely water with some salt and a few other minerals. It is this water vapour  that produces the lumps of ice found in Saturn’s E ring. Some of the ice though, falls back to the surface and as it builds up, pushes and folds the icy crust much in the same way that mountain ranges are pushed and folded here on earth. This means that somewhere beneath the surface of the moon there is an ocean of liquid water. The surface temperature of Enceladus is -198 °C, so what is it that heats the ice enough to melt, expand and be pushed out through the vents? And why is it happening at one of the poles, we would expect the warmest temperatures to be found at the equator. Although Enceladus is composed of rock, it is much too small to have a molten core. It is possible that the gravitational pull of Saturn is causing friction inside the moon, that could raise the temperature. But the answer is no one knows yet.

Cassini is still in orbit around Saturn, and we may still find out more about Enceladus. With the presence of liquid water and minerals it is, at the moment, the most likely place in our solar system where we might find evidence of extra-terrestrial life, which would be amazing.

Shooting Stars

08 12 perseidsIf you want to see the Perseids Meteor Shower, then tonight is probably your best bet. If you look towards the north (or towards the constellation of Perseus, if you happen to know where that is) you could see as many as sixty meteors an hour. Another good time to look would be before dawn tomorrow. They are best seen in the northern hemisphere.

These meteorites are fragments from a comet called Swift-Tuttle which passes us by every 133 years. It leaves a trail of tiny pieces of itself all along the path of its orbit. In late July and early August our planet passes through this trail and some of them are drawn into our atmosphere. The fragments are mostly only about the size of a pea and few ever reach the ground. They burn up at a height of around 60 to 80 miles above our heads. What makes them visible is the reaction of the gases in the atmosphere to the friction caused by the meteor falling through it at thousands of miles an hour.

08 12 priapusI mentioned on August 10th that the Perseids are sometimes known as the Tears of Saint Lawrence because they appear around the same time as the saint’s feast day. In earlier times, the Romans believed that the meteor shower was the ejaculation of Priapus, one of their gods of fertility, and that he was fertilising the fields. Priapus is always represented as a man with an enormous erection. He is a rural god who is associated with both agricultural fertility and general protection from the evil eye. For this reason there are many Roman artefacts which represent him. Either that, or the Romans just thought it was funny.