21 May, 2008
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Europe was in turmoil. Napoleon had marched his army across the continent and in 1798 had invaded Egypt. The French had marveled at the Pyramids and looked on the antiquities that seemed to be everywhere in this ancient land. It became a matter of national pride to ‘rescue’ much of the ancient gold and gemstones from this barbaric land and bring them back to Europe. Meanwhile in Italy, the French had taken Rome and a young Italian by the name of Giovanni Belzoni fled north to escape being drafted by the French army. He studied hydraulics in the Netherlands before moving to Britain in 1803. It was here that he met Sarah Banne who was to become his wife, and here that he embarked on his career in the circus.
Belzoni (known as The Great Belzoni on flyers for the circus) was a great showman. He performed many strongman acts and his prodigious strength and size served him well in attracting the crowds. He also acted (including a stint as Macbeth), played the glass harmonica and went on stage with a live bear. After over a decade of entertaining in Britain Belzoni, his wife Sarah, and their servant James Curtin left England to seek a better fortune. Belzoni was drawn to Cairo where he built a new and efficient water-wheel which he presented to the Pasha. His demonstration did not go well – the wheel was deemed ‘too dangerous’ after some locals played a prank with the machine which nearly killed James Curtin. Looking for work again, Belzoni was employed by the British Consul to travel up the Nile to Luxor and retrieve the head of a statue that no one had been able to move.
The head and upper torso of a once complete statue had broken off long ago and lay in the sand near a temple complex. The head, known as “The Younger Memnon” by those who had recently found it, weighed over 7 tons – one of the reasons no one had been able to move it. The French a few years ago had bored a hole into the chest of the statue and planned to use dynamite to separate the head from the torso, but fortunately they did not go through with the plan. The French were still in Luxor when Benzoli arrived in 1815 and one in particular, Bernadino Drovetti, the French Consul-General and antiquities collector, was to become a rival of the strongman. Belzoni set to work on transporting the head – hiring local workmen proved difficult, but eventually a team was assembled. Moving the statue required reusing ancient techniques – a wooden sledge was built on top of logs and the statue pushed over onto the sledge. Then the sledge would be pulled over the logs in a painstakingly slow process. After much work and many trials (labour shortages, bribery, blackmail) the head was brought to the Nile and ready for transport.
The temple where the statue had lain for thousands of years was once visited by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who wrote in the first century BCE about one of the statues in the area:
It is … marvelous because of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of its stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not one single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription on it runs: ‘King of Kings I am, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass my works.’
Not much was known about this Ozymandias even in Belzoni’s time. But Belzoni now had a few weeks on his hands before the boat would arrive to take his statue back to Cairo and on to the British Museum. Searching the local area for more finds for the Museum was proving difficult – Drovetti had claim to almost anything that appeared – so instead Belzoni and his wife traveled even further south. They passed beyond the ancient temple at Philae and into Nubia where, on a tip from the explorer Burckhardt, they found the ancient Temple of Abu Simbel. And it was here that Belzoni went further than Burckhardt and managed to uncover the entrance to the Temple which had been buried by sand for hundreds of years. Previously only the tops of 20m tall statues were visible. Inside was truly a masterpiece of engineering. It had been built to celebrate the military victory of the same Pharaoh who was represented by the Younger Memnon statue. At the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun shines right through the massive Temple, which was carved out of the rock-face itself, and illuminates three gods sitting in the depths of the building. One of these gods is the Pharaoh himself. The greatest of all the Pharaohs, he built and restored temples, made war and forged peace treaties with other superpowers, and reigned for longer than any other known ancient Egyptian ruler. His works had been forgotten for thousands of years, but now he would be revealed to the world. Ramses the Great had returned, brought on the back of a circus strongman.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
15 May, 2008
Spotting a black hole can be quite difficult. As the name implies, they’re black, and against the darkness of space this gives them a bit of camouflage. In addition they have this well known property of being so massive that close to the black hole nothing can escape from their gravitational field, not even light. So if the black hole itself isn’t emitting anything that can escape from it, how on earth do we spot them? Fortunately, black holes sometimes leave a bit of a mess behind.
A black hole acts like any other object with mass. It attracts other things with mass, and this gravitational interplay works the same for a black hole as it would for, say, a star. If our Sun was suddenly replaced by an equal mass black hole then (apart from it getting very dark during the day and some altered tidal forces) things would continue as normal on the Earth – and the Earth would stay in its orbit around the black hole.
When a mass is affected by a nearby black hole it has one of three fates. It could just be deflected from its course. Dragged closer to the black hole the object will have been affected, but will head away into the depths of space once again. Or, if the object is on a different path it may be sucked straight in to the black hole, if it is already traveling in its direction.
Finally the object could head into an orbit around the black hole. This may well be an unstable orbit, slowly falling towards the black hole, circling (ellipticing?) many times before finally being sucked in. If there are enough other objects out there, then chances are some of them will be in orbit as well. And the more there are, the greater the chances of collisions. For a black hole in a gas cloud, or near a star and stripping it of its outer layers there will be a *lot* of material and a lot of collisions. All this falling matter gets backed up, pushed and squashed together.
Due to angular momentum the infalling matter flattens out into what is called an accretion disc. The friction generates very high energy X-rays which, not being within the event horizon, can escape out into space. They are so bright that we can see the glare from ancient active galactic nuclei, black holes who pour out more energy than the billions of suns in orbit around them.
Black holes may be difficult to spot out in the depths of space, but once they start eating, the crumbs that they can’t stuff into their event horizons can outshine almost anything else in the Universe.
1 May, 2008
Hephaestus was not the most handsome of the gods. His mother Hera, queen of the Gods, had hurled him from Mount Olympus when she saw how ugly he was. His rather forceful landing left him lame and more than a little upset at his mother. He grew up and planned revenge, eventually trapping Hera on a Golden Throne. Only after much persuasion by the other Gods, and the offer of Aphrodite as a bride, did Hephaestus relent and release his mother. His reward was truly a great one, Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love and none could outshine her beauty. In her honour Hephaestus forged a great palace where they could spend time together. There Aphrodite would spend her time while Hephaestus worked at his forge deep within the bowels of the earth.
As time passed Aphrodite grew tired of her marriage. She was the Goddess of passion, of heartache, of undying love. Her time with Hephaestus while pleasant, was not enough for Aphrodite. Fortunately for her, Ares, the God of War, was prepared to take up the slack. The two immortals began an affair. It wasn’t long though, before someone noticed. Helios, the all seeing sun, was high overhead while Ares and Aphrodite spent a frantic afternoon rolling around the grass playing “hide the war god’s sausage”. After only a few hours of watching the lovers Helios rushed with all haste to tell Hephaestus of what he had seen. Sparing no detail Helios told the Godly Forger of all the X-rated things that his wife had done with Ares. Hephaestus was crushed. He sent Helios away and brooded.
His plan was simple. He had forged a trap in the past for his ungrateful mother, now he would do the same for his ungrateful wife. Working with steel, and gold, and aluminium, and unununium, he created a subtle weave – a chain that was also a net. He worked all day and all night on the net, and only when the rosy-fingered dawn appeared did he finish. By the time he returned to his palace Aphrodite had already risen. He carefully placed the net on their bed and then announced that he would be leaving for a while.
“I must go to Lemnos for a while oh beautiful wife. They spend their time making such wonderful sacrifices to me there, and I haven’t sniffed a good bit of Ox in ages. Don’t get up to anything I wouldn’t do while I am gone!”
“Of course not husband.” Aphrodite replied. She counted as high as ten before sending a messenger bird to Ares. For his part Ares was already lurking about hoping to get down and dirty that afternoon. Upon getting the messenger bird he rushed to the palace and embraced his lover. They quickly disrobed and ran to the bedroom where the trap was waiting. In mid thrust the golden web caught both of the gods in it’s grasp. Hoisted up they dangled above the bed, unable to move, only able to shout for help. Ever watchful Helios heard them and alerted Hephaestus who rushed back to them. Grabbing the net he dragged them up to Mount Olympus.
“Look at this! My unfaithful wife! I demand compensation from her father the almighty Zeus!”
The Goddesses on Mount Olympus were suitably embarrassed and hid indoors. But the Gods saw the naked forms entwined in a net and rushed out to see what was happening. When they saw the mighty War god being pulled along by the lame Hephaestus they burst into laughter. “Poor Ares, beaten by a cripple! Not so mighty now, his ‘sword’ has led him to a sweet trap.”
“Who wouldn’t like to be trapped like that though, if that’s a punishment bring it on!” said Apollo.
“Wrap me up with whatever you want if it means I get wrapped up with her!” cried Hermes.
Hephaestus awaited the outrage and condemnation for his wife’s adultery, but the Gods just laughed and laughed. On they laughed, longer and longer, they couldn’t stop. Like a simile from the Iliad, it starts off gently enough but keeps going, on and on, with no end in sight. A sentence, maybe two, and before long you have forgotten what the simile is even referring to, so caught up in this mini story you have become. That is how long they laughed.
Eventually Poseidon, Earth Shaker, showed up bearing a bit of gravitas. He calmed poor Hephaestus and offered to ensure that Ares would pay the forfeit for his action. Again Hephaestus relented and released the deathless gods from their trap. Red with shame Ares fled to his sacred alter, and Aphrodite fled to hers. The other Gods left one by one, sides sore from their laughing until only Hephaestus was left. He was a pitiful sight, tears of anger and sorrow flowed down his cheeks. But perhaps one of the immortal women who watched from behind slightly open doors would take pity on him? The goddesses did not laugh as the gods did, maybe one would have the compassion to comfort the forging God?
None came out. None comforted him. They thought of Hera and of Aphrodite and none would risk being caught in his next trap…
Picture ”Hephaestus’ Trap’ by Nancy Farmer