Monthly Archives: October 2020

Water on the Moon

It’s confirmed. There is water on the Moon. OK, what’s the big deal? Water is very common in the cosmos and has been seen on the moon before. The difference is that previously it had been been only in craters near the lunar south pole, perpetually in darkness. Now, as the updated NASA announcement said, NASA’s SOFIA Discovers Water on Sunlit Surface of Moon, which will be much more accessible to future explorers.

How significant this is remains to be seen, but it has provided Katie Mack with some inspiration.

Rang Gaeilge, 27ú lá Mí Dheireadh Fómhair 2020

Duinnín agus an Cat

Féirín . . . a reward, a present, a keepsake . . . in a bad sense, a lasting complaint, an affliction ; f. Nodlag, a Christmas box.

Deireadh an scéil
End of the story

Oíche Lae Nollag atá ann. Tá an tAthair Pádraig Ó Duinnín ar an traein dheireanach ó Shráid Amiens ar a shlí abhaile go dtí an bungaló beag cois farraige i bPort Mearnóg mar a bhfuil cónaí air. Tá a hata ard dubh síoda leagtha béal in airde ar a ghlúine mar a mbíonn lámhscríbhinn éigin de ghnáth. Tá sé ag cáitheadh sneachta. Ó am go chéile ardaíonn an Duinníneach an nuachtán atá leagtha ar an hata aige agus féachann sé arís ar an bpiscín cait atá ina chodladh istigh. Agus é ag druidim le stáisiún Phort Mearnóg, crochann sé an ruidín beag dubh san aer le súil go mbeadh cat ó dhuine éigin. Ní fhéachann ceachtar den bheirt eile sa charráiste air féin ná ar an bpiscín. Ligeann sé osna agus cuireann sé síos ina phóca é. Póca doimhin é a shíneann go bun a chóta – maintín, a bhfuil sé cairdiúil léi, a réitigh an póca seo, in aisce, dó – le gur féidir leis rudaí ilghnéitheacha a iompar thart go discréideach. Sháigh an piscín ingne ina láimh agus é á stiúrú isteach go cneasta. ‘Féirín!’ arsa an Duinníneach go grod.

It is Christmas Eve. Pádraig Ó Duinnín on the last train from Amiens Street on his way home to the small seaside bungalow in Portmarnock where he lives. His tall black silk hat is set mouth-high on his knees where some manuscript is usually. It is snowing [lit. “throwing snow”]. Occasionally Dineen raises the newspaper set on his hat and he looks again at the kitten who is sleeping inside. Approaching Portmarnock station, he lifts the little black thing in the air with the hope it be someone’s cat. Neither of the other two in the carriage looks at him or the kitten. He lets out a sigh and puts it down in his pocket. It is a deep pocket that stretches to the bottom of his coat, – a seamstress, with whom he is a friend, made this pocket, for nothing, for him – so that he can carry various things around discreetly. The kitten pushed a claw into his hand while while he was politely steering it in. ‘Gift!’ Said Dineen abruptly.

either, neither [with neg.]
síodasilkmgs síoda
de ghnáthas a rule
druidclose, shut; Move close to, draw near, approach [with le
crochhang; raise up; lift, carryv
osna a ligeansighv
doimhin = domhaindeep
aisceRequest, favour; gift, present.f
in aiscefor nothing, gratis
ilghnéitheachaDiverse, various, heterogeneous
SáighThrust; stab; push, press; dart, lunge
iongaclaw; fingerf pl ingne
stiúrústeering, directing, guiding
cneastaHonest, sincere; Decent, seemly; Mild-mannered
grodShort, sudden; prompt, abrupt

Tus an scéil
Beginning of the story
Léigh tuilleadh

Phosphine on Venus: Not so fast

Last month I posted about a Possible Sign of Life on Venus, which reported on Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus. Earlier this month I mentioned More about phosphine on Venus. The story is not over yet.

A Question of Phosphine links to Re-analysis of the 267-GHz ALMA observations of Venus: No statistically significant detection of phosphine. This team re-analyzed the same data used in the first Phosphine gas paper, but came to the opposite conclusion. So it comes down to a very complicated question of statistical analysis.

Professor Coles also linked to A stringent upper limit of the PH3 abundance at the cloud top of Venus by another team which included Jane Greaves, first author of Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus.

The Archaeology of Armageddon

From 1925 until 1939 The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (OI) conducted an archaeological expedition at Tel Megiddo, in what is now northern Israel. This was literally the Biblical Armageddon and has an archaeological record going back to c. 3500 BCE. Eric Cline’s Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon is a fascinationg account of these excavations. The author interleaves descriptions of the discoveries with the story, which Cline describes as a soap opera, of the participants in the dig.

I discovered the OI back in the 1960’s and it has been a part of my life ever since. However, I had no idea it was such an important player in the archaeological work between the world wars. It is amazing what could be done with Rockefeller money in those days.

The site was occupied almost continuously from about 3500 BCE until about 586 BCE, but a direct connection to King Solomon has yet to be found. What were thought to be Solomon’s stables now seem to date from the reign of Ahab, about 870-850 BCE. Ahab and his father Omri get a terrible press in the Biblical book of 1 Kings, but unlike their predecessors in both Israel and Judah, they are mentioned in contemporary Moabite and Assyrian records. We do not yet have such a verification of the Biblical account for David and Solomon.

Columbus and the Flat Earth

Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, by Jeffrey Burton Russell, is the book for the day. Columbus did not show the world that the Earth was round. No educated European in 1492 believed that the Earth was flat. They all knew it was round. As all math geeks know, Eratosthenes of Cyrene had made a good calculation of the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE.

Catholic church authorities did not say that the plan of Columbus to reach the orient by sailing westward was impossible because the Earth was flat. Their scholastic theology was based on the philosophy of Aristotle, who understood perfectly well that the Earth was round.

There are passages in the Bible that suggest a flat Earth, but almost all theologians of ancient and medieval times knew the evidence for a round Earth was overwhelming, and understood the Bible was not to be taken literally in this and similar cases.

The objection to the plans of Columbus was that, thanks to Eratosthenes, people had a good idea of the distance from the west coast of Europe to the east coast of China, and could easily calculate that no ship of the day could possibly carry enough supplies for the voyage.

Columbus, acting like a 21st century Republican, rejected the best science of the day and chose a smaller alternative value for the circumference that suited his purposes. He was just lucky that the Americas happened to be there. As a result their inhabitants were then horribly unlucky.

The story about Columbus and the flat Earth is a 19th century invention, not history.

Also posted on Facebook.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Some quotes from The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather.

“…this book will argue that the view that Rome’s own internal transformations had so weakened it by the fourth century that it was ready to collapse under its own weight in the fifth, has become unsustainable. The roots of fifth-century collapse must be sought elsewhere.” [pp. 14-15]
“‘What we call the fall of the Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand.’ You can only argue this, it seems to me, if you don’t let narrative history dirty your hands. Any attempt to reconstruct fifth-century events brings home just how violent the process was. In my view, it is impossible to escape the fact that the western Empire broke up because too many outside groups established themselves on its territories and expanded their holdings by warfare.” [p. 436]
“All the evils identified in the western system applied equally, if not more, to the eastern. If anything, the Roman east was more Christian, and more given to doctrinal argument. Also, it operated the same kind of governmental system over the same kind of economy. Yet the east survived, when the west fell. This alone makes it difficult to argue that there was something so inherently wrong with the late imperial system that it was bound to collapse under its own weight.” [pp. 443-444]

This reminded that I had seen a similar argument in Arther Ferrill’s The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. As I noted in my Amazon review of that book:

“There is a lot of nonsense in circulation about the Fall of the Western Empire. Ferrill gets past all of it by starting from one obvious but often neglected criterion: Any explanation of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire must also account for the survival of the Byzantine East.”

American Poison Gas in World War II

During World War II the United States was prepared to use poison gas against the German army. 100 tons of mustard gas were shipped to the port of Bari in southern Italy, held by the Allies and far behind the front lines, on the ammunition ship John Harvey. Being an ammunition ship, the John Harvey also carried a full load of conventional explosive munitions. Disaster At Bari tells the story of how, on the night of December 2, 1943, the port of Bari was attacked by 105 Ju 88 Luftwaffe bombers. The attackers achieved complete surprise: the Allied high command did not think the Luftwaffe was still capable of a raid this far behind the front lines. The lights were on in the harbor so that unloading the docked ships could continue during the night. The Luftwaffe pilots and bombardiers made good use of this, and sank 17 cargo and transport ships, with 8 others damaged. One of the targets was the John Harvey. As an ammunition ship it blew up in a huge explosion, spreading mustard gas all around.

Hundreds of victims were taken to hospitals with strange symptoms. Many died and the medical staff had no idea why. The presence of mustard gas on the John Harvey was a closely guarded secret. Eventually a senior medical officer was flown in from Allied headquarters in Algiers. He quickly realized that the men had been exposed to mustard gas. With some difficulty, he was able find out that the John Harvey had mustard gas in its cargo. There 617 military and merchant marine mustard-gas casualities that night. 84 men died. No one knows about the casualties among the Italian civilians. Many lives could have been saved if the presence of mustard gas had been known immediately and proper treatment administered to the victims.

Evidence for Literacy in Ancient Judah

The Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and conquered the biblical kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE. Just before then, c. 600 BCE, Judah maintained a small military outpost at Tel Arad, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. Written inscriptions have been found there on ostraca (pottery fragments), a common writing medium in the ancient world. The fort at Tel Arad was a small place, with a garrison of 20-30 soldiers. Yet a handwriting analysis of 18 incriptions shows that there were least 6 and perhaps as many as 12 authors of these texts. This indicates that literacy was not uncommon in Judah at the time, at least among the army. It was not the exclusive domain a few scribes serving the king.

Given a substantial degree of literacy, it is plausible that some of the books of the Hebrew Bible, e.g. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, were in fact written down before the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.


More about phosphine on Venus

Following up on Possible Sign of Life on Venus. After that announcement some scientists took another look at 1978 data from the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe. At the time nobody was specifically looking for phosphine, but a new analysis of the raw data supports the possibility that there is phospine in the atmosphere of Venus. Details at Is Phosphine in the Mass Spectra from Venus’ Clouds?.

This has happened before in astronomy. After both Neptune and Pluto were discovered, astronomers looked at old records and found that their predecessors had seen both bodies, but had not realized they were significant. In the case of Neptune one of those predecessors was Galileo.