Saturday, May 30, 2015

What We're Sending to Europa

NASA has announced the instruments it plans to send to study Jupiter's moon Europa when it launches a spacecraft in that direction in the early 2020s. Like Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan, Europa seems to have an enormous ocean sealed under its icy crust, kept warm by tidal forces. The instruments are:

  • an "imaging system," i.e., a camera;
  • radar calibrated to measure the thickness of the icy crust and the ocean underneath; 
  • sensitive magnetometers, also intended to study the crust
  • a "mapping imaging spectrometer" to study the chemical composition of the surface
  • a thermal imaging system to look for plumes of water erupting into space
  • an ultraviolet spectrograph to do the same, and to study the chemical composition of the plumes
  • a mass spectrometer to study the moon's extremely thin atmosphere;
  • a dust analyzer to study the composition of small particles ejected from the surface

The idea behind most of these instruments is that if Europe is regularly ejecting plumes of water into space, we can study the composition of its ocean by sampling those plumes, without having to drill through miles of ice. Two approaches are planned: to study gases released by the plumes as they dissipate into space, by flying through them; and to examine the surface hoping that deposits have been left there by the plumes. The fantasy would be finding organic molecules in the plumes that point toward life under the surface. But even if the ocean is sterile, it is still an alien ocean of unknown chemistry, so knowing what is in it would be cool.

A Walk Across Northwest Washington

I submitted a proposal today, an since the client's office was only eight blocks from my own I decided to walk it over rather than pay FedEx to do it. So, a brief tour of the sights between my office and theirs. Above, a doorway.

A lovely azalea.

Dragons at the American Microbiology Society.

Monument to Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy.

Daniel Webster glowers down from his monument, and rants to the Senate.


Proud to be a Democrat.

A bit of baroque.


A gate. And then back to work.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Creeping Liberalism

Gallup finds that over the past 15 years Americans have trended leftward on just about every social issue.

On the other hand there is still a broad streak of conservatism; consider that 29% of Americans don't think divorce is "morally acceptable," and 32% say the same about extra-marital sex.

The wide gap between acceptance of "suicide" vs. "doctor assisted suicide" is a bit of a puzzle. I imagine that most people are thinking, not about the presence of an MD, but whether we're talking about a dying person.

Auguste Ottin, Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea

Added to the Medici Fountain in Paris in 1866

Veni, Creator Spiritus

Blessed is He who came to Earth as a Bull
And ravished our virgin mother and ran with her
Astride his back across the plains and mountains
Of the whole world. And when He came to Ocean,
He swam across with our mother on his back.
And in His wake the people of the world
Sailed trafficking in salt, oil, slaves and opal.
Hallowed by His name, who blesses the nations:
From Europe, Dante and the Middle Passage.
Shiva his lieutenant, and by His commandment
Odysseus brought the palm tree to California,
Tea to the Britons, opium to the Cantonese,
Horses, tobacco, tomatoes and gonorrhea
Coursed by His will between Old Worlds and New.
In the Old Market where children once were sold,
Pirated music and movies in every tongue,
Defying borders as Algebra trans-migrated
From Babylon to Egypt. At His beck
Empire gathers, diffuses, and in time disperses
Into the smoky Romance of its name.
And after the great defeat in Sicily
When thousands of Athenians were butchered
Down in the terrible quarries, and many were bound
And branded on the face with a horse's head,
Meaning this man is a slave, a few were spared
Because they could recite new choruses
By the tragedian Euripides, whose works
And fame had reached to Sicily -- as willed
By the Holy One who loves blood sacrifice
And burnt offerings, commerce and the arts.

--Robert Pinsky
from his Selected Poems (2011), a book that contains many verses I found strangely stilted but much that I found delightful


David Brooks has been soliciting responses to the question, what is your purpose in life and how did you find it? He seems most interested in the people who have shunned big goals and focused on small things. This reminds me of one of the first things I put in my commonplace book, a line from John Wesley:
If one is to do good, it must be done in minute particulars.
Of the responses Brooks has received from readers, I like this the best:
I have always wanted to be effortlessly kind. I wanted to raise children who were kind. 
Thinking this over, I remember two compliments I have received in my life that I treasure above all the others:
You sure are a loyal friend.
I learn something from you almost every day.
Of such things is my own happiness made.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Worst Graphic Ever Produced

The mind boggles at the sort of person who thinks this is rational advice for life.

Just out of curiosity, why do you have to be paid for something for it to be a "purpose"?

And why "the world needs it"? What's wrong with supplying things that the world just wants, like music or blog posts?

And why can't you find meaning in something you're just ok at?

And no, I don't think this sort of thing is harmless; I think millions of people suffer real pain because their lives fall short of  this kind of exalted goal. I believe that happiness comes much  more from acceptance of reality than striving for the impossible. If you're one of the people who can get paid for pursuing your passions, great, go for it. But the rest of us need different ways of thinking about life.

A Victim of Violence, 430,000 Years Old

Here is the oldest human yet to be convincingly identified as the victim of violence from other humans. Those two wounds above the eye were caused by blows from a pickax or some similar implement, wielded by another person; that there are two implies intention. (A person might fall on a sharp rock, but probably not two sharp rocks one after the other.) The skull comes from a Spanish cave where it was intentionally buried around 430,000 years ago.

Etruscan Art, Part II: Classical and Hellenistic

In the classical period Etruscan art gradually merged with the broader tradition of the Greco-Roman world. After the Etruscan towns were absorbed by the growing Roman state in the 3rd century BCE, their art became only a local variant of Mediterranean styles. But much beautiful art was made in Etruria, so let us celebrate it. These are the famous winged horses of Tarquinia, a masterpiece of terracotta sculpture, c. 350 BCE.

The Etruscan and especially the people of Vulci were master metal workers, and their bronze cauldrons, mirrors and other objects were much sought after in Iberia, Gaul, and elsewhere. This is the handle from a bronze strainer, 5th century BCE.

Many frescoes painted in tombs survive from later Etruscan times; this is a particularly famous one showing a funeral dance.

Two warriors, c. 480-470 BCE.

Drinking cup showing a hippogriff.

The Etruscans kept up their artistic celebration of marriage; here is a Hellenistic version of the his-and-hers sarcophagus.

Painted ceramic nymph, 4th century BCE.

Handle of a bronze vessel in the form of a lasa nymph, c. 300 BCE.

These small urns for ashes were a major art form, and there are hundreds in museums around the world.

Balsamarium or perfume jar, c. 250 BCE.

More tomb dancers.

Solar god, c. 300 BCE.

Terracotta antefix or roofing tile.My post on older Etruscan art is here.

The Collapse of Order in the Middle East

Tom Friedman is worried about events in the Middle East:
The Arab world is a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the ability to manage and embrace differences peacefully. As such, the Middle East’s pluralistic character — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Alawites, Jews, Copts, Yazidis, Turkmen and an array of tribes — has long been managed by iron fists from above. But after we removed the fists in Iraq and Libya, without putting a new bottom-up order in place, and the people themselves tried to remove the fists in Syria and Yemen, without putting a new live-and-let-live order in place, a horrifying war of all against all has exploded.
I have to think that this chaos is temporary by its very nature; human societies have a strong tendency toward order, and order will eventually reassert itself. Friedman himself point toward the example of Lebanon, where "the civil war ended after 14 years by reconciliation-through-exhaustion."

But in the meantime there is going to be a whole lot of misery, no matter what we do.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gold and Drugs from a Scythian Mound

Back in 2013, Russian archaeologist Andrei Belinski began exploring a burial mound that happened to be in the path of a new electric power line. The main burial chamber had been thoroughly looted. But beneath it the archaeologists noticed a suspicious layer of clay, different from the natural soil. They dug through the false floor into an untouched chamber lined with flat stones. There they found this hoard of gold objects, with a total weight of 7 pounds (3.2 kg). The hoard was deposited around 400 BCE.

Inside the vessels was a black residue. Belinski scraped some out and sent it to a police drug lab, where it tested positive for cannabis and opium. Scythian religion was essentially shamanistic, and their journeys to the other world were fueled by drugs.

The discovery was kept secret until the excavations were complete, so as not to draw looters. But now that the archaeologists feel certain everything has been removed from the mound, they have let the rest of us in on their amazing find.

Reassembling the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard is an astonishing trove of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, full of beauty. But most of it was hacked to pieces before it went into the ground -- it looks like the fruits of looting the battlefield after a mighty clash in which one side was completely slaughtered. Instead of taking whole swords or helmets, the victors just cut off the jeweled bits and stuffed them in bags. British conservators working with those fragments have started to figure out how some of the bits went together. Above is a sword pommel, newly reassembled from several pieces; below is the decorative band from a helmet.

As to why these marvelous weapons were hacked apart, that remains mysterious. After all, an intact sword with a jeweled pommel would have been worth much more than the damaged pieces of the pommel in isolation. Two possibilities present themselves: either the victorious army was itself on the run from some even larger force and had to travel light, or the loot had been dedicated to God and the monks who were to be the immediate recipients wanted no weapons to violate their holy shrine.

What If Global Warming is Postponing a New Ice Age?

The combination of atmospheric physics and historical geology seems to prove that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the planet. How much may depend on particular circumstances, but the basic effect does not seem in doubt. So the current, historically high level of atmospheric CO2 is reason to worry; we don't know how hot the earth might get over the next century, or how much of the polar ice will melt.

The thing is, compared to most of the past 2 million years, it is already very warm on the earth. We are what geologists call an interglacial era, a time between ice ages. The cycle seems to be driven by wobbles in the orbit of the earth, so the timing ought to be fairly consistent. And if this interglacial were like the last two, the temperature should be falling by now. But it isn't. Some scientists -- including my only close friend who is a climate expert -- feel certain that our warm period is being extended by human CO2 emissions. To these scientists, the "Little Ice Age" that started around 1250 CE ought to have been the start of a new downward trend in the temperature, but coal burning and forest clearing turned things around and made the planet warm again.

A new study just published in Nature Geoscience makes the argument quantitative. The authors believe that a new Ice Age would certainly begin within the next 1,500 years, but high atmospheric CO2 levels are preventing this. Right now the level is about 390 ppm, and these calculations show that it would have to fall below 240 ppm for the glaciers to resume spreading.

I don't mean by this to dismiss worries about climate change or to argue that it is really a good thing. Compare those numbers: right now the CO2 level is vastly higher than it would have to be to prevent another Ice Age, and it is still rising rapidly; scalding seems like a much more immediate threat than freezing. But it is important to remember that the earth's climate is always changing. Compared to most of the past 2 million years, it is warm on the earth, but compared to most of the 100 million years before that we are a frigid era. On the whole the earth seems to be getting colder, too, with recent Ice Ages colder and longer than they were before. What impact our vast experiment in changing the atmosphere will have on this complex system is very hard to predict, but disaster is certainly within the bounds of the possible.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Problem with Family Friendly Laws

American liberals are pushing for laws to mandate "family friendly" corporate policies: extended maternity and paternity leave, flexible time for new parents, subsidized child care. Several European countries have had such policies for a decade or more, allowing sociologists time to assess their effects. And they are not all benign:
Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.
Claire Cain Miller has a bunch more similar examples at the Times. It seems, as some people feared from the beginning, that such laws help push women onto the "mommy track" where they may have more flexibility but pay a high price in terms of salaries and promotions. Some women choose this path and are probably happy with the trade-offs, so there isn't much to complain about there -- you can't have everything. But some studies have found that these laws make corporations less likely to hire or promote any woman. Nothing reinforces a chauvinist's dismissive attitude toward women like a government mandate requiring special treatment of moms.

I, of course, think that we are all too obsessed with work and salaries and promotions, and I am not sure women passed over for promotion have really lost anything. Certainly nothing that compares to a child. But plenty of women do care about these things, and it is only fair to note that laws benefiting less ambitious women with children can end up having major economic impacts, and may exact a particular toll on the lean-in crowd. Ranting about sexist male managers and hoping they all die is not going to help here; it would be nice if we were all more understanding, but there isn't any way to mandate that, and for the foreseeable future we are stuck with a lot of sexist jerks in leadership roles.

Etruscan Art, Part I: before 500 BCE

The Etruscans lived in the part of Italy that we still call Tuscany, from Rome northward along the west coast and inland to the mountains. They emerged around 800 BCE, joined the Roman state in the 3rd century and had largely lost their distinctiveness by 100 BCE. Their civilization was centered in about a dozen towns, some of them on top of high hills. By the time they entered into recorded history those towns had formed a league that annually elected a single leader to represent their interests, although we have little idea what powers he held and what remained with the towns. (Bronze cauldron, 7th century BCE)

Etruscan civilization was always much entwined with the Greek. They used the Greek alphabet, worshiped some of the same gods, and the stories of Troy figure prominently in their art. Their art is divided by scholars according to the same scheme used for Greek art: geometric, archaic, classical, and finally Hellenistic. We have many surviving examples of their art because they had a habit of burying anyone of prominence in a lavishly appointed tomb; in fact much of our best Greek metalwork and pottery also comes from Etruscan tombs. For 300 years now, looting those tombs has been a successful industry in Italy; quite likely every object displayed here was removed from a tomb. (Horse bit, detail 7th century BCE)

Gold and glass fibula, c. 700 BCE.

Winged lion, stone, c. 550 BCE.

Drinking cup, c. 670 BCE.

Bronze horses, 7th century BCE.

The Etruscans seem to have been very fond of marriage, and several examples survive of sarcophagi that show husbands and wives reclining together. This is a famous example from Cerveti, c. 520 BCE, now in Rome.

Earring disk, 6th century BCE.

Jar, 540-530 BCE. Etruscan pottery was very much influenced by the Greeks, but it retained its own flavor.

Terracotta cup, 565 to 550 BCE.

Gold ring showing a lion, 6th century BCE.

Two small bronze status, a danger and a warrior c. 500 BCE.

Jewelry from a tomb at Vulci, 5th century BCE.

And perhaps the most spectacular example of early Etruscan Art, the bronze chariot now in the Met, c. 575-550 BCE. Such wonderful things -- almost makes me wish I were an Italian tomb robber. Later Etruscan art coming soon.