Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for September, 2010

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Gliese 581 may be small as stars go, but it looms huge in the vision field of planetfinders.  As of yesterday, measurements indicate the system has six planets of which three are Earth-size and -type, within the star’s habitable zone, with stable, near-circular orbits.

The Gliese 581 system has a persistent will-o-the-wisp quality.  Almost each of its planets (c, d, e and now g) has been pronounced in turn to pass the Goldilocks test, only to have expectations shrink when the data get analyzed further.  The first frisson of excitement arose when 581c was determined to be Earth-type, which quickened the usual speculations: atmosphere? water? life?  We don’t know yet and our current instruments cannot detect biosignatures at that distance (short of an unencrypted request for more Chuck Berry).  But there are some things we do know.

Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, a BY Draconis variable.  This makes it long-lived; on the minus side, it may produce flares and is known to emit X-rays.  Planets in its habitable zone are so close to it that they are tidally locked, always presenting the same face to their star.  The temperature differentials resulting from the lock imply hurricane-force winds and tsunami-like tides.  Gliese 581g, like 581c, is large enough to retain an atmosphere; the hope is that, unlike 581c or Venus, its specific circumstances have not resulted in a runaway greenhouse effect.

The real paradigm shift is the discovery that this solar system has many earth-size rocky planets, in contrast to the hot-Jupiter/hot-Neptune preponderance in most others.  The second enticing attribute of Gliese 581 is its relative closeness — a distance of merely 20 light years.  It is still millennia away by our present propulsion systems.  But I nurse the dream that if we see anything remotely resembling a biosignature, we will strive to reach it.  In the meantime, I suggest we give it a name that fires the imagination.  Perhaps Yemanjá, the Yoruba great orisha of the waters, in the hope that the sympathetic magic of the name will work.  Perhaps Kokopelli, the trickster piper of the American Southwest cultures, who may entice us thither.  I will conclude with the final words of my first article on Gliese 581:

“Whether Gliese 581c [g] is so hospitable that we could live there or so hostile that we could only visit it vicariously through robotic orbiters and rovers, if it harbors life — even bacterial life, often mistakenly labeled “simple” — the impact of such a discovery will exceed that of most other discoveries combined. Unless supremely advanced Kardashev III level aliens seeded the galaxy like the Hainish in Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen, this life will be an independent genesis, enabling biologists to define which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial.

At this point, we cannot determine if Gliese 581c [g] has an atmosphere, let alone life signatures. If it has non-technological life, without a doubt it will be so different that we may not recognize it. Nor is it a given, despite our fond dreaming in science fiction, that we will be able to communicate with it if it is sentient. In practical terms, a second life sample may exist much closer to home — on Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus. But those who are enthusiastic about this discovery articulate something beyond its potential seismic impact on biology and culture: the desire of humanity for companions among the sea of stars, a potent myth and an equally potent engine for exploration.”

Images: Top, comparison of the Sun and Gliese 581 habitable zones (the diagram is by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux; the image of 581g was originally created for 581c by Ginny Keller); bottom, Kokopelli playing his flute.

Note: This article has been reprinted on Huffington Post.

Slowly Ripening Apples

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

As the days grow golden and the nights deepen, many things are quietly fermenting in the back of my mind. I’m thinking of autumnal cultures, such as Vulcans and Elves; I’m thinking of language as a uniter and a divider; I’m thinking of the travails of stem cell research.

The most urgently bubbling vat is a long-suspended story close to my heart. Those who watched me create the Embers/Spider Silk universe have seen an early draft of its beginning. For those who read Planetfall, its hero — and I use the male form on purpose — is the nameless first-person narrator in Night Whispers, the last section of that story.

When I write about that world I live in it: it fills my head, it haunts my dreams. So all else will have to wait, in the cricket-filled hush of early fall, until The Wind Harp sings.

Image: Rest at Journey’s End by Heather D. Oliver, depicting the end of Night Whispers.

Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Stone Telling magazine went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, it is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. It contains an introduction by Rose, fourteen poems, three non-fiction articles and a round-table contributor interview.

Among the poems is my dear friend Calvin Johnson’s eloquent and thought-provoking Towards a Feminist Algebra. Among the articles is A (Mail)coat of Many Colors, my discussion of the songs of the Akrítai, the Byzantine border guards — poetry of a time, place and language that is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world.

Yet Hellenes still sing these songs… and they still reverberate in the popular imagination in subtle but powerful ways. As the accompanying image shows, Antoine Fuqua’s Sarmatian border guards in Roman England hearken back to the Akrítai of Byzantine Anatolia. Too, real amazons lived and fought in the lands of the Akrítai — a liminal zone where all kinds of boundaries were crossed and history survived as tales and songs.

The poems in Stone Telling open wondrous windows to the world. And if that is not the best purpose of poetry, what is?

Image: Left, the Byzantine warrior saint Merkourios, a Scythian by birth (fresco by Manuíl Pansélinos, Mt. Athos, 1360 AD); right, Ioan Gruffudd as a Sarmatian border guard in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur.

Ashes from Burning Libraries

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, Artemis

In the last few weeks, I’ve been watching the circus show of the (now postponed) Qu’ran burning with disbelief. Christians and Muslims have been playing variants of “If you don’t pay attention to my tantrums, I will shoot this dog” that was done far better by the National Lampoon. Government officials and media pundits are seriously suggesting that burning of a book that exists in millions of copies by a sad clown will touch off jihads. Yes, symbols are powerful — but fundamentalists will use any excuse for mayhem and bloodshed, whether they are white supremacists or the Taliban.

The real reason that many Muslims hate the US is because it has bombed two Muslim nations back into the Stone Age, is poised to do so to a third, and continues to pile up civilian casualties at a 100-fold ratio to US soldier deaths, while calling them “collateral damage”. Furthermore, to feed its petroleum addiction the US continues to staunchly support the primary source of militant Islamism: Saudi Arabia, whose deep pockets fund the madrassas that turn discontented, disillusioned Muslims into radical fundamentalists. However, it is equally true that imams and mullahs have issued death fatwas against books and their authors (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist who depicted Muhammad, to list just a few).

A favorite pastime of such militant religious thugs is destruction of knowledge. Islamists, like the self-labeled “man of God” Terry Jones and the medieval Catholics, burn books, burn schools, burn girls who try to attend school. They smash artworks – sculptures and paintings in the Kabul museum, the Bamiyan Buddha statues – following the example of the 9th-century Christian iconoclasts. People of this ilk burned the libraries of Alexandria. In those days of inscribing by hand, many works existed as single-number copies. As a result of this destruction, most ancient writers, scientists and philosophers are known to us only as names or sentence-long fragments.

This loss, in all its enormity and poignancy, has been portrayed only three times in contemporary popular media. It is the center of Fahrenheit 451 and of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a thinking person’s mystery-cum-novel of ideas. It is also depicted in the recent film Agora, a romanticized version of the life of the legendary mathematician and philosopher Hypatia.

Catholic apologists took Agora to task for inaccuracy and “inciting to hatred against Christians”. This advocacy is odd on its face, given that there was no “Catholic” church at the time, and the Alexandrian Patriarchate went into the Orthodox fold after the schism. Nevertheless, the circling of wagons is understandable, especially since Agora came out at the same time that Belgian authorities finally decided to investigate child abuse cases despite the Catholic church’s attempts to stonewall them. Their hodgepodge “arguments” (italicized) include:

Hypatia’s death was “purely” political; it had NOTHING to do with her gender, religion or occupation — which makes you wonder what their definition of political is.

Alexandrian mobs routinely rampaged and she just got caught in the crossfire. This is routinely followed by the directly contradictory she was killed as a reprisal for the execution of the monk Ammonius (who had stoned the prefect Orestes, as shown in the film). In other words, Hypatia’s murder was not random and had everything to do with what she was and represented.

The loss was small in any case, since Hypatia wasn’t THAT great a scientist/philosopher, she just rode on great men’s toga tails. This “reasoning” is very common (read Watson’s original depiction of Rosalind Franklin or Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing). Conveniently, none of Hypatia’s own writings survived the various burnings. From my side, I could use this argument to point out that her loss far outweighed that of the monk.

The REAL Alexandria library had been burned earlier by Caesar’s troops. The Serapeum library, whose destruction is shown in Agora, was unimportant. This shows interesting value judgments. Furthermore, Theodoros Vrettos, in his book Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, presents convincing evidence that the fire in Caesar’s time happened at the harbor, nowhere near where the main library stood.

There are more of these, but you get the gist. Make no mistake, Agora has its share of stiffness and clunk. As far as I’m concerned, its major error is to show Hypatia young at the time of her death. In fact, she was somewhere between fifty and sixty when Christian fanatics flayed her alive. Although the death of someone beautiful and young may pluck harder at heartstrings, the choice served to render older women once again invisible. Also, Rachel Weisz, radiant though she may be, is single-note chirpy whether she’s teaching upperclass youths, figuring out the truth behind the arbitrary Ptolemaic epicycles, or proclaiming her adherence to philosophy. Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling or Lena Olin would have made far more nuanced, haunting Hypatias.

Conversely, I applaud Amenábar’s choice to show Hypatia focused on her work, and not willing to be deflected from it by pretty faces and the security they promise. The fact that all men in full possession of their faculties are shown in love with her is fine with me. It’s a welcome reversal of the usual setting; at least Hypatia deserves such adoration, unlike most male film “heroes”.

However, the film’s title names its true core. Agora means “marketplace”, but it had a more specific meaning in older Greek: it was the place where people met to discuss ideas. The film celebrates love of learning, the beautiful workings of the mind, and laments the fragility of reason at the face of close-minded fanaticism. Hypatia’s death is a coda – as she tells Orestes, the thugs have already won. It is the looting of the library that gives the film its emotional power. It’s the burning of all these irreplaceable scrolls that makes you weep.

In conscious homage to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Agora occasionally zooms out to view earth from space. As it does so, the screams and weapon clashes fade. And that may be the film’s second powerful point: in the vastness of the universe, we are nothing – except what we make of ourselves and our world. We can choose the way of the Taliban, the Teabaggers, the Hareddim, the Inquisitors. Or we can take the path of Hypatia. Between these two alternatives, there is no conciliation or compromise.

Images: top, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) watch the library burn in Agora; middle, book burnings past and present; bottom, a Hypatia figure in Fahrenheit 451.

Note: This article has been reprinted on Huffington Post.

Stone Telling: Speculative Poetry

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

On September 15, editor/writer Rose Lemberg is launching Stone Telling, an online magazine of speculative poetry.  The inaugural issue will contain poems by Ursula Le Guin and Calvin Johnson.  It will also contain an essay by me about songs of the Akrítai — the Byzantine border guards.  An Akritikón sung by the famous Cretan singer and lyre player Nikos Ksilouris will accompany the essay.

Image: the cover for issue 1 of Stone Telling; Friendship (1906) by Mikalojus Konstantinas Chiurlionis