Under Pressure

30 December, 2007

VenusIn 1965 the Venera 3 space probe crashed into Venus. It was the first spacecraft to arrive on another planet, and even though it failed to return any useful data the Soviets would follow this mission with many more, some of which would survive the tremendous difficulties in landing on the surface of the Hell that is Venus. Long associated in ancient cultures with beauty, Venus was the planet that finally brought the evidence that showed that the geocentric view of the solar system (with the earth in the centre) had to be wrong. Galileo saw the varying phases of Venus through his telescope and this observation matched the prediction of the Copernican system and proved incorrect the old geocentric idea. At the dawn of the telescope age Venus was adding to our scientific knowledge. But alas, even as telescopes improved, Venus remained mysterious due to it being entirely and continually covered in clouds. This lead some to speculate in the early 20th century that Venus was a swamp filled world possibly similar to the ancient Earth with giant lizards roaming it’s steamy plains. With the 1960’s space probes, humanity inched forward to peer at Venus.

Many of the probes failed but along with radar imaging from Earth these probes gathered more data and our view of Venus changed. Thanks to it’s cloud cover and a runaway greenhouse effect the surface temperature of Venus is on average 480 °C, and the pressure is over 90 times that on Earth. If you were standing on the surface you would be crushed and boiled at the same time. Oh yes, and it rains sulfuric acid. Small wonder that it took immense engineering skill to finally get spacecraft to land on Venus. But unlike the robotic probes on Mars which often lasted for many years longer than expected, no Venusian lander survived long in those harsh conditions. Probe lifetimes were measured in hours, not months. In 1990 the spacecraft Magellan arrived at Venus and sat in orbit around this devastating planet. Sitting safely above the clouds Magellan used radar imaging to map 98% of the planet over four years before plunging into the atmosphere and finding a hot and squishy death.

Now that we have maps of Venus we can see that there are no lush jungles, no large dinosaurs walking the swamps of a sister planet. But the developments in technology required to send probes into high pressure areas that occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s did not just help with Venus. Here on Earth there were unexplored places where pressure was proving a problem. The ocean deeps would crush any normal submarine and specially designed explorers were needed to journey to the crushing depths away from the continental shelves. Hundreds of metres below the surface, the ocean floor does not have the abundance of life of shallower waters due to the lack of sunlight. Plants cannot exist that deep and so many of the animals live off debris from dead creatures that float down from above. The ocean deep looked to be a desert, until a startling discovery was made near the Galapagos Islands.

In the deep sea, where no light can reach, thermal vents called Black Smokers were found. Superheated water breaks through the Earth’s crust bringing rich sulfide minerals, and extreme temperatures. The water was 400 °C, and would have boiled were it not for the immense pressure. The water was acidic, and yet here, there was an abundance of life. Bacteria which thrived on the heat and sulfides were the basis for a mini eco system that had no need of the sun at all. The bacteria was incorporated into clams, and sea worms. Blind fish patrolled the darkened depths, enough food here for shoals. At the same time as we discovered that Venus looked to be uninhabitable, we discovered that one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, hot and under pressure, was teeming with life.


Myths and Fundamentalists

28 December, 2007

BatmanI’m a bit of a fundamentalist. Or at least, I like getting back to basics, and when it comes to myths getting back to the basics often leads us to something new. Rather than use the academic meaning of myth (involving origins of the world and so on), I use mythical to refer to stories or characters that are used by many authors and where it is often assumed that the reader is very aware of the overall myth. Thus I would place Batman and Superman as mythical alongside Agamemnon and Gilgamesh, but would exclude Gandalf or Harry Potter. I think Doctor Who would slip in as mythical too. One of the great pleasures of reading these mythical tales is that our knowledge of the story lets us read it again with a different slant. Authors can keep with the basic plots but change viewpoints and open up new ideas within us. The decision to make Agamemnon sympathetic or psychopathic changes how we react to his story, much as a similar choice in the portrayal of Batman does.

And in honesty I often prefer the newer takes on myths than the older ones. Certainly I would prefer to read a modern Batman comic over one from the 1940’s, and equally I enjoy Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze more than the original Iliad. Of course these modern versions could not exist without what had come before, but when it comes to enjoyment do we need to read the originals when we have more relevant versions to hand?

I would say for enjoyments sake no, it’s not necessary. But what I’ve found is that just as modern versions can take an old known myth and spin it in a new fashion, so too can older texts. We often have our own ideas of the basic shape of a myth and reading the original which is different to that understanding can reveal just as much newness. As an example I have always known the christmas story, and yet would not have realised that there are two completely separate and distinct stories of the nativity in the Bible, one in Matthew, one in Luke. Because of my knowledge of the combined story I would often read in elements that weren’t there, for instance that there should be three wise men (no number is mentioned) or that the wise men go to the stable of an inn. Simply by going back to the sources and reading with fresh eyes a whole new christmas story appears.

And so, like the Fundamentalists who want to go back to the basics, I too like to find out as much about the original stories as possible, not because they are better than a later version, but because they can shine a new light on what we once thought of as old.

Invasion of Mars

24 December, 2007

Mars Rover (concept art)No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that Mars would soon be watched keenly and closely by intelligences as mortal as man. Since the first flyby of Mars by a robotic probe in 1965 there have been a steady stream of mechanical creatures sent by Mars’ neighbouring planet Earth. The first approach of these far off creatures from Earth was the Mariner 4 spacecraft, which flew by the Mars system at high speed, it’s ever watchful eye snapping photographs and sending them back to Earth. These images, up close and personal, showed the distant scientists that Mars was a cold, cratered, dead world.

Over the next years the Earthlings continued to send robots to Mars. Many of these mechanical explorers failed, breaking due to radiation on their way to Mars, or dying in immense seasonal dust storms that covered the entire planet. But some made it through the dangerous months of travel across the solar system. Landers took pictures and soil samples. Word came back from Mars, information that the Earthlings absorbed and incorporated into their newer, more advanced robots.

Now, in 2007, three watchful eyes are in orbit around Mars, scouring the surface in ever closer detail, mapping the planet below and communicating with the Earthlings foot soldiers on the ground. Spirit and Opportunity are advanced reconnaissance rovers roaming the surface of Mars. Due to the dangers of spaceflight and the environment on Mars they were built was incredible redundancy. A stray cosmic ray can flip a bit within a circuit and cause a malfunction with no repairman within millions of kilometers. Triple redundancy in logic gates on the chips within the rovers, safe store backup instructions and more have allowed these robots to continue operations well over the initial three months planned. Nearly four years after their initial landing they are still sending new information back to Earth.

The invasion of Mars goes well for Earth. Knowledge of the Martian landscape, which contains the largest mountain in the solar system, and a canyon 4000 km long that dwarfs the Grand Canyon of Earth, is getting more refined. NASA has announced plans to build a mission that will take a human to the surface of Mars within twenty years. Then the invasion will truly have begun…

(This will make slightly more sense if you read Part 1 first)

Days passed. Peter fasted and healed some blind people while he preached to the returned converts. On the morning of the confrontation Marcellus spoke to Peter. “Oh, Apostle of Christ, I had a vision-dream last night. I saw you on high with a multitude around you. In front of you was a foul woman, Ethiopian by the look of her, filthy, in rags, with a collar around her neck and chains around her feet. She danced and you turned to me saying ‘Marcellus, this dancing woman is the whole of Simon’s power. Kill her.’ And I replied that I could not, for I was a man of peace. Then you said ‘Come then, our true sword, Jesus, will render this evil power dead’. And one like you appeared wielding a sword. He beheaded the woman and then hacked her into pieces, scattering them all around.”

Peter heard the words and smiled. “This is a great omen for us. Truly our living god will be with us today.” The two men and the followers of Christ went then to the Forum where Simon Magus and a crowd were waiting for them. Peter and Simon stepped forward into the ring. The crowd of Romans shouted: “Come Peter, show us your power, for we have seen Simon Magus fly over the walls of the city, but of you we have seen nothing save some odd story about a fish.”

Peter replied: “You say I should prove myself. Behold, Simon remains silent for he knows who I am. It was I, through the power of Christ who drove him from Judea. It was at my feet that Jerusalem fell. It was I who he tried to pay to gain the spirit of the Lord. He knows who I am and he is afraid.”

“Oooooooooooh” said the crowd.

Simon Magus stood his ground, his eyes narrowed. “You talk of gods as if you know them. Can a true god be born, here on this world? Can a true god die? What pettiness, what narrowness your god is. You worship a carpenter and the demiurge, and you shall rot forever in this world.”

“Get on with the fighting!” shouted the crowd, tired of theological debate.

The Prefect then addressed the two spiritual warriors. “Good people, this young man is full of health. Simon Magus, if you can kill him without touching him then truly you are powerful. And Peter, if you can pull him back from death then your god’s power will have been shown.”

A young gullible chap walked into the ring. Simon Magus stepped forward and whispered a killing word in his ear (for he knew the wierding way), and the young man dropped dead. Not to be outdone Peter stepped forward, and raised the boy back to life. A great appluase broke out over the gathering crowd. “This is more like it.” they said to each other.

Then a noble lady who had seen this miracle brought her own dead son, Nicostratus and asked for him to be raised. Simon stepped forward to attempt to bring the man back to life. He put his hands on the body and slowly Nicostratus’ head rose and he looked around. The Prefect was impatient though and pushed Simon to the side whereupon Nicostratus collapsed, looking as dead as when he was brought. “I hadn’t finished.” muttered Simon, whereupon Peter quickly stepped forward and raised Nicostratus fully from realms beyond. The crowd cheered, and the noble lady gave Peter thousands of gold coins. Nicostratus himself then gave thousands of gold coins. All the injured and crippled and those in need of healing rushed to Peter and left Simon Magus alone.

“Wait! People of Rome! I am truly the Son of God! I am He Who Stands, and today I shall stand at the right hand of the true God! Watch as I ascend!” And Simon Magus held out his hands and flew up above Rome, and the people marvelled. The light of heaven shone on Simon Magus, and the clouds parted. The glow of an alternate world fell upon the city and all were caught in awe. All but Peter.

“Lord, dispel the magicks that keep Simon Magus afloat” prayed Peter. And as he prayed, Christ answered, and Simon Magus fell hundreds of feet to the ground. Even so, Simon did not die from such a fall, but his leg was broken in three places. And the fickle crowd, looking at the disgraced Mage lying on the ground grew angry. They picked up stones from around the Forum and threw them at the desperate figure who tried to get away. But his power was held in check by the Lord, and Simon Magus died under a barrage of brick, of stone, of Rock.

“Truly I shall be the Rock of this church” thought Peter. “For I have won the people’s admiration, and you have won only death.”

The apostle Paul had left Rome and travelled to Spain to preach. No sooner had he gone than word went around the city that Simon Magus was coming. The next day Simon appeared at the city gates, and flew over them into the heart of the Roman Empire. All that had followed Paul were amazed and now started to listen to Simon’s teachings. Marcellus, richest of Paul’s disciples, allowed Simon and his new followers to live in his house, where they feasted and talked of many things.

At the same time, in far off Jerusalem, Peter awoke with a start. He had been given a vision of the happenings in Rome, of his old nemesis Simon Magus, and immediately rushed to the dockside where he booked passage on a ship. The Captain of the ship, Theon, was impressed by Peter’s all round brilliance and converted during the voyage. When they eventually arrived at Puteoli, on the coast of Italy, they were met by a worried christian, Ariston. “Thank the Lord you have come Peter, almost all of our brethren in Rome have converted to this new religion that Simon Magus preaches. We must not tarry, we need your power to bring the flock back into the fold!” Leaping into action Peter and Ariston raced along the road until they arrived at the Eternal City and found lodging with the last remaining follower of Paul.

In the morning they went to Marcellus’ house where Simon Magus was residing. Peter knocked on the door and an old man answered. “Good day sir, may I help you?” Peter replied: “Yes, I wish to speak with Simon Magus who has corrupted the good people of Rome.” “Oh, ” said the old man, “he said to tell you that he’s not in.”

Peter was not fooled for a second and decided to show the Power of the Lord of Hosts. Behold, Peter took a passing dog and sent it into the house. The dog walked up to Simon Magus and spoke in the voice of a human “Simon, Peter is outside, come out of here you wicked man.” And Simon was amazed that a dog could speak, but not as amazed as Marcellus who immediately ran out to Peter. “Forgive me, ” Marcellus cried, “I have turned from the true path, but your talking dog has brought me back to the infinite majesty of a forgiving and loving god.” “No worries, ” replied Peter, “You can come with us.”

Meanwhile, inside Simon had a brainwave. He spoke to the dog and said “Go outside and tell Peter that I’m not in. You can take your time, since you will die when Peter is done with you.” The dog was a simple soul and went out and told Peter that Simon had said yet again that he wasn’t in the house. Then the dog died, an ancient Laika. Peter than did some tricks with a fish and returned to his lodging. Marcellus was angry that he had been duped by Simon Magus and rushed into his house. “Get out of here deceiver! I am done with your wicked lies! I have seen the miracle of the talking dog, and some miracle with a dead fish that it’s best not to go into! Begone from my sight and my house!”

Simon left in a huff and travelled to where Peter was staying. He knocked on the door saying “OK, fine, have it your way, let’s settle this once and for all.” Peter heard the commotion and rather than going to answer the door himself he sent a woman with a suckling child. When they opened the door the child, who was but seven months old, spoke: “You were not impressed by a talking dog, perhaps a talking child will get you to understand the immense mysteries of the ineffable sacrificed god. Peter will face you, but not now, on the Sabbath. Therefore leave Rome until then, and speak no more of your mischief.” And Simon was struck dumb, and sulked out of Rome not returning until the Sabbath.

The days passed. In the Forum, scaffolding was raised as word spread of the mighty contest that was to take place. Many had heard that Peter had bested Simon Magus before, and driven him from Judea. Now they awaited the rematch, surely this would be a spectacle that would be remembered for generations. And so the city held it’s breath…


19 December, 2007

In the early second century, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, Marcion was born. An early christian he formed a large following for his brand of christianity and was denounced as a heretic by many of the early christian writers whose works we still have. From his home in Sinope he traveled to Rome and gave a great donation to the formative christian church there [possibly an origin of the story of Simon Magus trying to buy the power of the apostles?], and started his great work. A work of literature to rival the Hebrew Bible.

Marcion had a different view of christianity than the one that would eventually dominate the Roman Empire. He was familiar with the Hebrew Bible and came to believe that the god of the old testament, Yahweh, was an evil creature, and that worshiping this god would lead to ruin. But there was an escape, that by following the Saviour, Jesus, who was the son of the ultimate god of Good, people could receive love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and eternal life. He taught that Jesus was a fully divine creature who had only seemed human. That the laws of Moses were a burden to be cast off (and certainly not adopted if you weren’t already a Jew), and that Jesus had paid in his blood for other people’s sins, to save them from eternal damnation at the hands of Yahweh.

All of this he wrote [edited existing material?] in the first ‘canon’ of new testament writings. Consisting of ten of the letters attributed to Paul, and having one Gospel, it was the first time that the writings of the growing christian community has been put into a form that was seen to be somewhat official. His Gospel is said to be a cut down version of Luke, and it is possible (though there is not a huge deal of evidence for this) that this cut down version was Mark. Certainly Mark has the Twelve disciples looking rather foolish which would fit in with Marcion’s view that the Jews had missed the point of Jesus. That he wasn’t the Messiah of the Jews, descendant of David who would restore the throne and temple in Jerusalem. Rather he was a saviour for all of mankind. [See the Pre-Nicene New Testament by Robert M. Price for one reconstruction of Marcion’s gospel.]

But Marcion’s viewpoint, though extremely popular, was not the one that eventually came to be orthodox. Sometime after his writings were circulated, a new canon was put out, consisting of four gospels, and a few more letters. This canon was probably published by Polycarp of Smyrna, and was substantially similar to the canonical bible books that exist in most New Testaments today. Marcion may have been deemed a heretic, but the spread of his ideas by use of a canon of books was one that was used by his enemies and led to the bible we know today.

Isis and Osiris

18 December, 2007

Osiris was thrilled to be invited to a banquet that his brother Set was hosting. Banquets were not common enough in his opinion, especially in the south near Ethiopia where everyone knew that the best parties were thrown. Upon arriving at Set’s house Osiris discovered the 72 guests gathered around a remarkable coffin in the centre of the dining room. All the guests were amazed by it’s beauty and splendour. Set explained to those gathered that it had mysteriously appeared that morning. “Alas it is does not fit me, and so I will give this sarcophagus to whoever can fit inside it”. All the assembled guests tried one by one, but none of them would fit comfortably in it. Even Cinderella didn’t manage. Eventually Set looked to his brother. “Osiris, you look like you may fit in the coffin, I remember your dimensions from the last time we met and I suspiciously measured you. Why don’t you try lying in it?”

“It is a nice coffin.” said Osiris and promptly jumped inside. Immediately the rather obvious trap was sprung. Set and his allies slammed the lid closed and nailed it shut. Singing with glee they took the coffin to the river and threw it in. The coffin sailed down the Nile out of sight. “At last, I shall be King.” grinned the fratricidal Set.

Some time later Isis noticed that her husband Osiris (who was also her brother, they were a bit sick in those days) hadn’t returned from the dinner he was going to. Noticing too that Set had declared himself the King of the Gods, Isis went looking for her husband. After many months of searching she finally discovered him embedded in a coffin, inside a Cedar tree in a far off land. She dragged the coffin back to Egypt and set it down in her palace. Prying open the lid she saw the dead body of Osiris. “This wont do, I’d better get my magical oils.” Alas, the spies of Set were everywhere and so he discovered that the body of his brother had returned. While Isis had gone to fetch her oils, Set snuck into her palace and stole the body. Determined not to have Isis find the body again he hacked Osiris into many pieces and scattered them across the land. Finally he fed Osiris’ penis to a passing fish. Well, the fish looked hungry and it was the only bit of food that Set had with him…

Isis returned to the palace and eventually found out what Set had done. In a move reminiscent of many a computer game or bad fantasy novel, Isis travelled around Egypt collecting the parts of her husband. Eventually she recovered them all, all except his penis. Not one to worry, she fashioned a phallus out of gold and wood and placed it on the rejoined body of Osiris. Then she anointed his body and raised him back to life with both the oils she rubbed on him, and the hot steamy sex they immediately had.

Osiris had died and been reborn, but during his death he realised that the underworld was very badly managed, so he left Isis to journey to the afterlife where he sat on his mighty throne and judged the living and the dead. He had not left Isis alone however, for she had conceived a son, Horus, the Sun Hawk, Osiris reborn in the land of the living. The Son of the Father came into the world, to bring light and life and hope.

Set did not do what many others had done, he did not kill all the infants in order to kill the rightful king. This may have been his undoing, for when the Sun Hawk, Horus, came of age, he battled Set and won. Horus was now King of Life, as his father was King of the Dead.