Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Flotsam and jetsam

One of the topics I keep coming back to here at Skeptophilia is the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence.  I have to admit, it's a bit of an obsession with me, and has been ever since I watched Lost in Space and the original Star Trek as a kid.

As with so many things, though, this fascination runs headlong into my staunch commitment to rationality, hard evidence, and the scientific method.  The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program has, to date, found no particularly good candidates for a signal from an alien race.  The Fermi paradox -- Enrico's famous question that if the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is so high, then "where is everyone?" -- brings us to the rather depressing answer of the three f's, about which I wrote in detail a couple of years ago.

UFO aficionados point toward all of the sightings of alleged alien spacecrafts, and the more skeptical of them rightly insist that even if it's only a small fraction of them that aren't dismissible because of the usual explanations (hoaxes, camera glitches, natural phenomena mistaken for UFOs, etc.), those few are still worth investigating.  Physicist Michio Kaku, who has gained a bit of a reputation for being out in the ionosphere on the topic, said, "You simply cannot dismiss the possibility that some of these UFO sightings are actually sightings from some object created by an advanced civilization… on the off chance that there is something there, that could literally change the course of human history."

But the fact remains that at present we have zero scientifically admissible evidence for the existence of ET. 

Not so fast, says physicist B. P. Embaid, of Central University in Venezuela, in a paper available at arXiv (but not yet peer reviewed).  Embaid has been studying minerals found in meteorites, and he found two -- heideite and brezinaite -- that he says are superconductors that can only be synthesized in a laboratory.

And therefore, the meteorites in which they were found are fragments of a wrecked spaceship.

In Embaid's favor is the fact that heideite and brezinaite are weird minerals, and have never been found in a single natural terrestrial sample.  Brezinaite was created in 1957 by carefully layering chromium and sulfur; heideite eleven years later, by chemically combining chromium, iron, sulfur, and titanium.  Since their first synthesis, both minerals have been found in meteorites, but they have never been seen otherwise, even in ore samples rich in the constituent elements.

So, Embaid says, these are technosignatures -- relics from a technological civilization.

Predictably, my response is:


But I reluctantly must add that I need a good bit more than this to land myself squarely in Embaid's camp.  There's an important word I left out of my statement regarding heideite and brezinaite never showing up in terrestrial samples -- yet.  Recall that the element helium was first discovered on the Sun, from its characteristic spectral lines, long before it was detected in Earth's atmosphere.  I'm also reminded of the discovery in a meteorite of nonperiodic quasicrystals, a form of matter not thought to be naturally occurring anywhere, by a team led by physicist Paul Steinhardt (and which was the subject of his fascinating book The Second Kind of Impossible, which I highly recommend).  It's always tempting to assume that what we know now represents the final, definitive answer, and forget that nature has a way of surprising us over and over.

So could the discovery of two odd superconducting minerals in meteorites mean that we're looking at the flotsam and jetsam of a wrecked extraterrestrial spacecraft?  Sure.  We shouldn't dismiss that possibility simply because the bent of a lot of scientists is to scoff at UFOlogy; that is in itself a bias.  But based on what we currently have, it is way premature to conclude that the anomalous meteorites are technosignatures.  

Now, if a meteorite contained some superconducting materials laid out in a pattern reminiscent of a circuit board, then you might have me convinced.  That, after all, is how the Tenth Doctor figured out what was going on in "The Fires of Pompeii:"


And hey, if a piece of evidence is good enough for the Doctor, it's good enough for me.

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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Lost beneath the waves

Ever heard of the Kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod?

If not, I hadn't either. Those of you with a linguistic bent might surmise from the name that the kingdom had something to do with Wales, and you'd be right.  The sad tale of the lost Kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod is one of the dozens of inundation myths (although using that last word may be inappropriate, as you'll see in a moment), including the Breton city of Ys and the Arthurian legend of the Kingdom of Lyonesse.  Both were allegedly destroyed for their wickedness by drowning in the ocean.  If this puts you in mind of J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional land of Númenor, that's no coincidence; Ys and Lyonesse were part of the inspiration for Tolkien's doomed kingdom of the Second Age of Middle Earth.

The less-famous Kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod has some striking parallels.  Originally made up of a broad, fertile valley west of Wales, the land was swallowed up by the sea and now lies beneath Cardigan Bay.  Instead of the sinfulness that did in Ys, Lyonesse, and Númenor, Cantre'r Gwaelod was supposedly destroyed by negligence; in the Black Book of Carmarthen, a thirteenth-century document that is the earliest surviving manuscript written entirely in Welsh, the unfortunate kingdom met its doom because a maiden named Mererid who had been tasked with tending a well fell asleep, and the well overflowed and flooded the entire land.

What, exactly, Mererid was supposed to do about a well that was flowing so fast that it could inundate a whole country while someone was taking an afternoon nap is uncertain.  But in the legend, the poor girl got the blame, and so the matter has stood.

But what separates Cantre'r Gwaelod from other lost-lands myths, including the most famous one -- Atlantis -- is that the Welsh version may actually have some basis in fact.

The Gough Map [Image is in the Public Domain]

Two researchers, Simon Haslett, Professor of Physical Geography at Swansea University, and David Willis, Professor of Celtic History at the University of Oxford, found evidence on one of the earliest maps of Great Britain of two low-lying islands in what is now Cardigan Bay.  The document, called the Gough Map after its last owner prior to its donation to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, dates back to the fourteenth century, although many historians believe it to be a copy of an earlier map.  And it indicates that parts of Cardigan Bay were once dry land, and further, that the contours and terrain of these islands are reminiscent of the descriptions of Cantre'r Gwaelod from the Black Book of Carmarthen:

This study investigates historical sources, alongside geological and bathymetric evidence, and proposes a model of post-glacial coastal evolution that provides an explanation for the ‘lost’ islands and a hypothetical framework for future research: (1) during the Pleistocene, Irish Sea ice occupied the area from the north and west, and Welsh ice from the east, (2) a landscape of unconsolidated Pleistocene deposits developed seaward of a relict pre-Quaternary cliffline with a land surface up to ca. 30 m above present sea-level, (3) erosion proceeded along the lines of a template provided by a retreating shoreline affected by Holocene sea-level rise, shore-normal rivers, and surface run-off from the relict cliffline and interfluves, (4) dissection established islands occupying cores of the depositional landscape, and (5) continued down-wearing, marginal erosion and marine inundation(s) removed the two remaining islands by the 16th century.  Literary evidence and folklore traditions provide support in that Cardigan Bay is associated with the ‘lost’ lowland of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

So it looks like we may have here another example of a legend with some basis in fact.  A good many of the inundation myths -- including, very possibly, the Great Flood in the Bible -- might have come from the fact that at the end of the last Ice Age, the seas were rising, and previously dry land such as Beringia (between Russia and Alaska) and Doggerland (between England and continental Europe) were drowned.  Cantre'r Gwaelod, perhaps, was a victim of the same sea level rise -- but unlike the others, we appear to have a map showing exactly where it lay.

And maybe once and for all we can absolve poor Mererid of any responsibility for its demise.

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Friday, September 30, 2022

The nose knows

The first few years my wife and I were married, we had a dog named Doolin.

At least I think Doolin was a dog.  The story is that she was born to the unholy union between a border collie and a bluetick coonhound, but there's credible evidence she was an alien infiltrator from the planet K-9, sent to study humans by pretending to be a humble house pet.  My observations suggested that she was far smarter than humans but had only recently mastered pretending to be a dog.  She is, far and away, the weirdest dog I've ever met, and I've had dogs pretty much my whole life.  She figured out how to unlatch our gates (and let herself out) by watching us; we ultimately had to put carabiners on the latches to stop her from going on walkies by herself.  She valiantly attempted to herd our four cats, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful.  Of her many odd habits, one of the funniest was that she was never without her favorite toy, a plush jack that she carried around in her mouth -- always pointing the same way.  (We tested this by taking it from her and sticking it in her mouth the other way 'round.  She dropped it, looked at us as if we'd lost our minds, and picked it up from the other direction.)

Doolin, with her jack toy sticking out of the right side of her mouth, as it obviously should be

One of Doolin's most curious traits was an extraordinary sensitivity to us, particularly to Carol.  She seemed to watch us continuously for cues about what was going on, and sensed when one of us was upset or feeling unwell.  Most strikingly, Doolin always knew when Carol was about to get a migraine.  Starting about a half-hour before the symptoms began, Doolin followed Carol around like her shadow, and if Carol sat down, Doolin smushed herself right up against her.  It got to be that Carol knew when to prep for a migraine once she saw Doolin acting weird (well, weirder than usual, which was admittedly a pretty high bar).

I used to think that people claiming their dogs had a second sense about how they (the owners) were feeling was an example of people anthropomorphizing, or at the very least, exaggerating their pets' intelligence and emotional sensitivity.  Until I had lived for a while with Doolin.

After that, a lot of the stories I'd heard began to seem a good bit more plausible.

Just this week, some research supported the contention with hard evidence.  A team of scientists in Belfast studied the responses of four dogs to breath and sweat samples from thirty-six volunteers, before and after doing a stressful exercise -- counting backwards from 9,000 by intervals of 17, without using calculators or pen and paper.  The researchers laid it on thick, telling the participants that it was very important to the study to do the counting exercise quickly and accurately.  A wrong answer got a shouted "No!", followed by being told the most recent correct response and an instruction to pick up from there.  For most of us, this would be a pretty high-stress activity, and would cause stress hormones (like cortisol and epinephrine) to pour into our bloodstreams.

And the breakdown products of those chemicals end up in our breath, sweat, and urine.  What's remarkable is that the four dogs, which had been conditioned to be able to discern between samples containing those breakdown products from ones which did not, correctly distinguished the post-stress breath and sweat samples from the pre-stress ones 93% of the time.

I know that our current dogs are pretty sensitive as well (although nowhere near the level of acuity that Doolin had).  Cleo, our Shiba Inu rescue, is really keyed in to me especially.  I had a couple of seriously high stress things happen in the last couple of months, and whenever I was really in freak-out mode, Cleo followed me around with a very worried expression on her face.  Her curly tail is like a barometer; the tighter the curl, the happier she is.  And when I was struggling, her tail was sagging.  Clearly an unhappy dog.

Cleo the Wonder Floof

So I guess all this stuff isn't our imagination.  Dogs really do sense our emotional states, not by some kind of canine telepathy, but because of plain old biochemistry coupled with an extraordinary sense of smell.

Although I wonder about Doolin.  I still think she was an alien spy, and was relaying information about us back to the Mother Ship.  Maybe the jack toy was some kind of transmitter, I dunno.

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Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Battle of Blythe Road

I've been interested in the occult since I was a teenager.  It started when I was about fifteen, on one of the annual trips with my dad to Arizona and New Mexico (mostly for hiking and rockhounding, as my father was a lapidary and avid rock collector), and stumbled upon a funky little old used bookstore in the town of Alpine, Texas.  It was there I picked up a book called The Black Arts: A History of Occult Practice by Richard Cavendish, which I devoured (and, incidentally, I still own).

I started collecting Tarot decks (again, which I still own) and other objets de magique, not to mention reading voraciously other books on the occult.  By the time I was in my upper teens I'd already begun to admit to myself that it was all rather ridiculous, but -- to paraphrase the famous poster on Fox Mulder's office wall in The X Files -- dammit, I wanted to believe.

There was a time while I was in college when my attraction for magical thinking did serious war with my training in skeptical, rational hard science, but eventually I had to admit that -- as far as I'd seen -- occult practice stumbles hard over one fact; it simply doesn't work.  There's never been a single rigorous test of magical claims in which the claim has proven to be valid.  It hasn't stopped people from believing in it all, of course.  I can attest that even despite my skepticism, I'm still drawn to it.  It's undoubtedly why I write paranormal fiction; it allows me to exercise, or perhaps exorcise, some very deep-seated desires about the way I'd like the world to work.

Of course, I should interject here that the fact that it hasn't been validated yet doesn't mean it never will.  As I've said many times before about such matters as ghosts and the afterlife and cryptids, all I'd need is scientifically admissible hard evidence, and I'd have no choice but to change my mind.  But from my perspective, the times people have actually tried to do the occult have always devolved into something fruitless, silly, and... well... a bit banal.

And that brings us to the Battle of Blythe Road.

All of you will undoubtedly recognize the names of the major players in this calamitous non-event.  First, there was Irish poet W. B. Yeats; second, Samuel Liddell "MacGregor" Mathers (he added the "MacGregor" part because he was a Celtophile and didn't much like his solidly English-sounding given names); and finally, Aleister Crowley, British occultist and writer and self-styled "Wickedest Man in the World."  

Aleister Crowley in 1912 [Image is in the Public Domain]

The backdrop of all this is an occult organization called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded and ruled with an iron fist by Mathers, which held its meetings in a building on Blythe Road in London.  The Order had three levels; the lowest was initiatory, and involved study of esoteric philosophy including the Qabalah and other occult writings.  The second was where the good stuff started; once in the second order, you learned alchemy, astral projection, divination, and geomancy, and also (by some accounts) got to participate in some pretty hot-sounding sex rituals.  The third order was only for the crème de la crème, i.e., the people MacGregor Mathers liked.  It had a great many influential members -- not only the ones I've mentioned, but such luminaries as Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker, and Arthur Machen.

The trouble started when Aleister Crowley, who was in the lowest order, demanded to be initiated into the second.  Yeats, who was quite influential in the Order of the Golden Dawn, spoke out very forcefully against Crowley's being allowed to take the step up.  Yeats and Crowley had hated each other pretty much from the get-go; a lot of it apparently stemmed from Yeats criticizing Crowley's poetry, something the latter did not accept lightly.  Yeats, on the other hand, was concerned with more than just literary output.  He took seriously Crowley's penchant for controlling and threatening people, not to mention his habit of having sex with anyone of either gender who would hold still long enough, and told some of the higher-ups that he was concerned that if Crowley learned the secrets of the second order, he'd use them for evil purposes.

So the leaders -- notably, not including Mathers -- told Crowley no deal.

Crowley, predictably, didn't take that well either.  He went to complain to Mathers, who was in Paris at the time, and Mathers sided with Crowley.  He did a solo initiation of Crowley into the second order, and gave him instructions for some spells to use against Yeats and his cronies.  Thus armed, Crowley came to the Golden Dawn headquarters on Blythe Road to open a can of magical whoopass.

What happened was nothing short of comical.  Crowley walked up the stairs, thundering the magic spells he'd learned from Mathers.  Yeats et al. were waiting for him at the top of the stairs.  When he was in range, Yeats simply kicked Crowley until he lost his balance and fell down the stairs.

And thus ended the Battle of Blythe Road.

Crowley retreated in disarray, but recall that he was not a man to admit defeat, and he decided to take revenge on Yeats (magically, of course).  He seduced the Irish artist Althea Gyles and asked her for help casting some spells on Yeats, but Gyles (for reasons unknown, but possibly related to the fact that Crowley was a skeevy sonofabitch) double-crossed him by snipping off a lock of his hair while he was asleep and sending it to Yeats, so the latter could come up with some Crowley-specific counter-spells.  So Crowley's second attempt to kick ass and take names also failed.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn never quite recovered from the infighting.  It splintered into bunches of schismatic offspring, such that at one point there were more secret occult esoteric orders in Britain than there were actual secret occult esotericists.  But what strikes me is that despite all this, the members still seemed to treat their practices with such infernal gravity that the whole situation began to resemble a bunch of little kids playing some kind of super serious game of Let's Pretend.  This, despite the fact that everyone knew that three of the most accomplished adepts -- Yeats, Mathers, and Crowley -- had a massive magical duel that was settled when one of them kicked another one down the stairs.

So anyhow, that's the story of the Battle of Blythe Road.  Like I said before, I would love it if I could report that there was all of this occult stuff done, à la Harry Potter dueling Voldemort, and sparks flew and crazy magic shit happened until the evil guy was vanquished by a powerful spell.  But as my grandma used to tell me, wishin' don't make it so.  More's the pity, because it sure would be fun to live in a world where Tarot decks told you the future and magic wands really worked.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Out of Africa

In a rather startling coincidence, just yesterday I wrote about how much the course of human evolution was constrained by our evolving in a place that had large predators, scarce resources, and seasonal drought, and almost simultaneously a paper was published in Nature Geoscience about exactly that.

A huge interdisciplinary team of geoscientists, sedimentologists, micro-paleontologists, geologists, geographers, geochemists, archaeologists, chronologists, evolutionary biologists, and climate modelers led by Verena Foerster of the University of Cologne set themselves a mammoth task -- to correlate shifts in climate in East Africa over the past 620,000 years with patterns of population growth, evolution, and dispersal amongst the hominin species that lived there. 

Starting with two 280-meter-long continuous sediment cores from the Chew Bahir Basin in southern Ethiopia, the team was able to analyze not only the sediment geology and chemistry, but such things as pollen and seed types, fossil content, and rate of deposition to infer what the climate was doing at the time.  What they found was that from 620,000 to 275,000 years ago, the climate was amazingly stable -- warm and humid -- but that interspersed through that time were short, abrupt, extreme drought phases.  These "arid pulses" led to sudden habitat fragmentation, as the climatic shifts didn't hit everywhere at once (nor with equal severity).  Some areas remained relatively wetter, while other areas not that far away were experiencing catastrophic drought.

When this happens -- a large swath of relatively uniform habitat becomes unstable and/or patchy -- it generally has two results; (1) animals become more mobile, migrating in search of resources that are now less reliable; (2) organisms less capable of moving undergo strong selective pressure to adapt to "the new normal."  Both of these affected our ancient relatives.  Some began to disperse more widely, presumably seeking out food and water, while others diversified in response to their new local climatic conditions, leading to rapid speciation.

Following this, the East African climate began to undergo more regular oscillations between congenial and hostile.  Wet phases, with abundant vegetation and deep freshwater lakes, alternated with dry phases during which the lakes evaporated almost completely, leaving only highly saline, alkaline ponds.  During this time, the Acheulean hand axe culture of the Lower Paleolithic (associated with our predecessor species Homo ergaster) was superseded by more sophisticated technologies and the emergence of modern Homo sapiens about sixty thousand years ago.

An Acheulean hand axe [Image licensed under the Creative Commons José-Manuel Benito Álvarez (España) —> Locutus Borg, Bifaz cordiforme, CC BY-SA 2.5]

Things only got dicier from there.  Between sixty and ten thousand years ago -- the highest layers of the sediment cores -- East Africa saw the most arid phase in the entire record.  This had two effects -- driving our ancestors out of Africa in search of better conditions, and triggering the extinction of virtually all our near relatives.  We won, apparently, by dint of our mobility and large brains, allowing us to cope with hostile and rapidly fluctuating conditions, eventually leading to our dispersing to every habitable land on Earth.

It's fascinating to me that we owe our own existence to fluctuations in the climate -- that the conditions in one part of the world molded us into the species we currently are.  Now that we have technology to avoid many of the caprices of the environment, we are also shielded from their evolutionary effects; you have to wonder how (or if) our distant descendants will be altered by climate shifts, more specifically those we ourselves are perpetrating.  It once again brings home the truth of the perspective that each species is not a separate entity, but is part of an intricate tapestry of life.  Pull on one thread, and the others will inevitably, and irrevocably change -- for good or ill.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Water worlds

My older son has followed in his old man's footsteps, combining a fascination for astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics with a wild imagination to generate a fantastic universe within which to spin fictional tales.  He is adding a skill I most definitely do not have -- art -- to create a brain-bending saga that I'm sure you will one day see sitting on people's bookshelves.

Just a couple of days ago, we were talking his creation, and were musing about the possibility of alien intelligence, and in particular, the fact that the kind of intelligence we humans evolved was very much driven by the kind of planet we live on.  The tools we create, which facilitated our dominance of the Earth, required availability of metal ores and the ability to make fire to smelt them.  Even our combative, competitive nature may well owe its origins to our having evolved in a place (east Africa) with plentiful large predators, scarce resources, and seasonal drought.

What kind of intelligence might develop on a planet with no dry land?  That intelligence can develop in aquatic life forms is undeniable; by most biologists' estimates whales and dolphins have about the same intelligence as the great apes, and at least some of the vocalizations they make might qualify as actual language.  (That question is currently not settled, but there have been some suggestive recent studies supporting that contention.)

But even though whales and dolphins are intelligent, they're non-technological.  It's entirely imaginable that there could be aquatic life forms that might exceed humans in memory storage, recall, complexity of communication, and flexible problem-solving, and yet they still might not have anything we would call hard technology.  Note that the water-world in the Star Wars universe -- Kamino, the origin of the eponymous clones of the Clone Wars -- still had to have a solid (if floating) surface, made of conventional materials like metals, glasses, and plastics, in order to have a technology similar enough to that in the rest of the canon for the story to be plausible.

It all comes down to how much the evolution of intelligent life is constrained -- hemmed in by drivers that would likely generate similar forms in all conceivable habitable worlds.  My conclusion is that there are constraints, but they're few in number -- things like having complex sensory organs, having those organs and the central processing unit (brain) located near the anterior end, having some kind of appendages for moving through whatever medium the planet is outfitted with, and having some mechanism for communicating between individuals.  That's about it.  Otherwise... all bets are off as to what we'll find when we first set foot on another planet.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

This significantly complicates the possibility of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life.  There could be a water-world populated by something like super-intelligent dolphins, and they would have no capacity for (nor, likely, any interest in) building radio transmitters and receivers.  So to us, such a planet would appear completely silent and devoid of life.  Our SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) efforts have been confined by necessity to looking for signals of the kind we ourselves send -- which might also restrict us to finding only the life that evolved on planets with conditions extremely similar to Earth.

The result is that we might well miss most of what's out there.  The reason this comes up -- besides my conversation a couple of days ago with Lucas -- is an article by University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey that just appeared in The Conversation.  Impey tells us something that should encourage people like me, who would very much like it if extraterrestrial life exists out there somewhere; that a third of all exoplanets are "super Earths," planets with a mass between that of the Earth and Neptune.  Further, most of these orbit cool dwarf stars, which have a vastly longer life span than Main Sequence stars like the Sun, so there would be a great deal longer for life to evolve and become complex.  Impey says that the "most habitable of all possible worlds" would fall into the super Earth category -- roughly twice the mass of Earth, and twenty to thirty percent larger in volume.  (The reason is that a larger planet would have a thicker atmosphere with a greater heat-storage capacity, and thus be more resistant to the rapid changes in climate that have plagued the Earth since its formation.)

However, if that thicker atmosphere contained water vapor, you might well be looking at planets completely covered by a deep ocean -- a water-world, where any life would evolve along very different pathways that it has here.  In that case, the only way to see that it exists from our perspective here on Earth is by biosignatures, gases in the atmosphere that would be unlikely to exist unless there were life present to create them.  (An example is free oxygen in Earth's atmosphere; it's so reactive that without photosynthesizers like plants and phytoplankton producing it continuously, it would get locked up by chemical reactions and disappear from the atmosphere entirely.)

So despite what you might have seen on Star Trek, the most common intelligent alien life out there might not be bipedal humanoids with rubber facial prostheses.  We smart hairless apes might actually be vastly in the minority -- a possibility I find fascinating but a little mind-boggling.

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Monday, September 26, 2022

Look upwards

Since (surprise!) we've all once again survived the apocalypse, and Saturday September 24, 2022 turned out to be less of a "day to remember" than a "day I've already kind of forgotten," today I'm going to turn to one of my favorite topics, namely: space.

I've been continually wowed by the images coming in from the James Webb Space Telescope.  When it was first deployed, the astronomer and engineers responsible for it told us we were going to be blown away by the quality of the data it would send us, and if anything, that's been an understatement.  We've seen images of astonishing crystal clarity, not only photographs of galaxies further away than anything yet studied but detailed views of objects much closer to home.

It's one of the latter that prompted me to write today's post, because the latest posted image from the JWST is of the planet Neptune.  Just a couple of months ago I did an entire post on how generally weird Neptune is; a lot of our information on it is old, however, having come from the Voyager 2 flyby a little over thirty years ago.  Since then, we've had to study it from farther away, and a lot of what we've learned has raised more questions than answers.

So I was really eager to see what JWST would find out about the eighth planet.  And it's started out with a bang.  Check out this image, showing the planet with its rings and several of its fourteen moons:

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

The rings are made of dark material -- this is actually the first time they've been directly observed since Voyager 2 (even the Hubble Space Telescope didn't have the optical resolution to see them).  The bright spots in the atmosphere are clouds of methane ice; the planet itself is not its usual deep cobalt blue because this image was taken in the near infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

I find it deeply inspiring that despite the continuing turmoil down here on Earth, the scientists still have their eyes trained on deep space.  It also keeps us humble, you know?  Even as a child, when I'd look up at the sky through my little telescope, it always gave me a feeling of awe at how majestic, magnificent, and absolutely huge the universe was.

It reminds me of the words of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, about his experience of seeing the Earth from space: "The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility.  And why, I don’t know.  I don’t know to this day.  I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile."

It's a perspective we all should have.

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