Life On Alien Planets

exopicture

It has been the darling of science fiction; inhabited planets in other solar systems. I started reading SF in my teens and fondly remember the hard-sf of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov in particular. Has science fact finally caught up with SF?

All stars were formed out of huge swirling clouds of gas and it is surmised that most have planets orbiting them. Because of the glare of the host star it is difficult to see any planets directly. Our sun, for example, is 100x the diameter of the Earth so comparative size compounds the problem

Since 1995 astronomers have found firm evidence of exoplanets using indirect methods.

Two of the indirect methods for finding exoplanets are The Transit Method and the Doppler/Radial Velocity Method.

In the Transit Method the faint dimming of a star is recorded as the planet orbits across the star relative to the observer. The occurrence of transits may be very infrequent and only last a short time so multiple data taken over months and years is required. The Hubble Space Telescope has been one of the telescopes used for transit recording. It is possible to determine the size of the planet with this method. The Kepler space telescope is another instrument which has found Earth-like planets and even planets orbiting binary star systems.

Stars called M-Dwarfs have been found too and they have a lower mass than our sun and a longer life so that there is potentially more time for biology to have developed. It has been estimated that these M-Dwarf stars could have five billion Earth-like planets.

The Transit Method relies on sensitive instrumentation so that a star dimming by as little as one percentage of the star’s light can be recorded.

The Doppler Method is possible because in any star-planetary system there is a common centre of gravity which causes the host star to ‘wobble’ around the centre of gravity. This wobble is too small to be seen directly so that is where the Doppler Shift comes in, recorded by special equipment. If the star is moving towards the observer ( that is; the telescope) the wave-lengths of light will be ‘bunched up’ or shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. And if moving away, towards the red end of the spectrum.

If you imagine looking down on our solar system from ‘above’ there would be little movement of the planets towards or away from you. So, for this method to work the star system has to be observed in the equatorial plane which obviously will mean only a small percentage of all systems will be viable.

This ‘radial velocity’ method has been used by the Keck Telescope in Hawaii amongst other instruments looking for exoplanets. The method can be combined with the transit method and with the use of spectroscopy the composition of the planet can be roughly determined.

What about life on these exoplanets? It would seem incredible if ours was the only planet in the universe which has life! Through spectroscopy ‘biomarkers’ can be detected – that is, the gases which may be signs of life such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and water. The James Webb Telescope is the next space-telescope to search for exoplanets in the infra-red spectrum so watch out for news in the coming years.

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Astronomy: Mother of all Sciences?

Insight Lander on Mars – it will drill down into Mars’ crust to analyse the rock

Is the ‘Scientific Method’ Different in Astronomy?

The scientific method is common to all the sciences; however, in astronomy the ‘objects of study’ are often millions of light years distant!

The scientific method, per se, can be illustrated by considering how Galileo used his telescope in 1610. When he aimed it at Jupiter he saw four points of light, rather like stars, strung out in a line from the planet’s disc. Subsequent views showed the star-points in many different positions. Galileo then made a hypothesis to explain the data; he wrote that the objects were orbiting Jupiter and were in fact, moons. He calculated their orbits and predicted their motions.

Although astronomers cannot usually experiment on tangible substances in the laboratory (unlike chemists and biologists) they can, nevertheless, use instruments such as telescopes to make many thousands of observations and make hypotheses to explain the observations. The hypotheses can then be tested by predicting an event, for example, and confirming it. A large part of the method involves rejection or refinement of hypotheses once they have been found in error.

Astronomers nowadays use other types of telescope such as radio, infra red, X-ray – these advances have established that the universe is expanding and that what we can see visually with a telescope is only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Spacecraft have landed on bodies such as our Moon. Instruments on board have been able to do experiments similar to those done by a chemist in a lab. Astronauts have also brought back rock samples from our Moon. Our knowledge of the origins of the solar system has thus increased by these more lab-based analyses. Probes have landed on Mars and other planets and sent back interesting data. For example, a small moon of Jupiter called, Enceladus, was found to have geysers containing sodium. Titan, a large moon of Saturn, has lakes and rivers of methane and ethane. These solar bodies are far from inactive and may even harbour primitive life.

Another huge area that has contributed to astronomical knowledge has been mathematics and its use in theoretical cosmology. Stretching from the Ancient Greek’s measurements of the Earth to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and beyond – we can see how logic, calculation and measurement are embedded in the scientific method. Hipparcus (170-120 BCE ) even measured the length of the year with great accuracy – 365.2467 days, whereas the modern figure is 365.2422 days. A foundation for modern astronomy was laid with feats of calculation such as this.

We only have to think of the Four Forces in the Universe to sense how much science and theoretical cosmology have developed in the last hundred years. The Four Forces in nature are:

  1. Gravity
  2. Electromagnetism
  3. Strong Nuclear Force – (holds the atomic nucleus together)
  4. Weak Nuclear Force – (radioactive decay)

In this respect – the use of mathematics and making theoretical models– astronomy is no different to the other sciences. And, of course, chemistry, physics, and even biology, play their parts in astronomy. Perhaps that suggests astronomy is the ‘mother’ of all the sciences.

Aliens Have Landed – Really?

Alien-Pyramids-940347

This is a longer version of something I wrote for an online astronomy course I’m doing.

Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, Chacon Canyon and Chichen Itza were clearly built with astronomical functions in mind. There are many alignments in these structures which, when used, predict solstices, equinoxes, moon positions, star positions and even eclipses! Those who argue that they are evidence of alien intervention underestimate the knowledge-base of ancient civilisations.

Knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies was of vital importance. There were so many practical reasons for this knowledge. Firstly, the people needed a calendar in order to carry out activities such as crop planting and hunting in different seasons– the sun was a convenient object which determined the length of daylight in latitudes away from the equator. The moon was also a convenient ‘clock’ which went through phases in a predictable way and formed the time-interval of the month.

Knowledge of how the constellations changed throughout the year would consolidate understanding of time-intervals. Hence, in Ancient Rome, the year was divided up – first of all into ten months and later into the more familiar twelve months. We can see how much the religion of the Romans was incorporated into sky observations by noting the names of the months and days of the week.

Knowledge of the sun’s, moon’s and star’s movements was also important for navigation. The Ancient Greeks used instruments such as the astrolabe which enabled them to predict when a star would rise.

In the northern hemisphere the star named Polaris appears to be stationary and the other stars rotate round it. This would have been observed by prehistoric people and would have been a reliable means of navigation at night. The Great Bear constellation appears to rotate during the night and would also have been used for navigation and time-keeping before the advent of clocks.

Finally we should remember that religious beliefs were part and parcel of astronomical knowledge in ancient times. The structures I mentioned at the beginning were most likely overseen by priest-astrologers. For example, the Aztecs carved a Megalithic calendar stone known as Montezuma’s Watch which is 12 feet in diameter and intricately carved with astronomical details and life-cycles which are concerned with ceremonial ritual as well as astronomical alignments. According to Aztec religion the world passes through five ages and Quetzalcoatl – one of their gods – was the ruler of the second era. The priest-astrologers had to know when was the appropriate time for a human sacrifice!

Recent research has established that Stonehenge was a meeting place for thousands of people who came from as far away as Scotland.1 It was not only an observatory but a social centre for ceremony and feasting.

We may never know the details of our ancestor’s beliefs but we can be sure they included veneration of the sun, moon, stars and planets. There are many puzzles remaining as to the exact function of many of these structures but there is no need to invoke aliens to explain them. Indigenous people were very knowledgeable and there were vast numbers of people with the skills to build these wonders.

What is Real?

quantum Gormley

This is longer version of an essay I wrote for an online course about Modern Art. The artists I contrast Gormley with are ones included in the course.

Quantum Cloud (1999) by Anthony Gormley

Anthony Gormley came to fame with his Angel of the North which stands a few miles from where I live!

Anthony Gormley uses his own body in many of his works, such as the Angel, but he is insistent that his work is not about individual identity. Unlike artists such as Shahzia Sikander or Faith Ringgold, he is not interested in ethnicity or nationality. His concerns are more universal and even metaphysical. In an interview he even refers to himself in this way:

It hasn’t got anything to do with autobiography. I am a metaphysician. In other words, I’m trying to read the physical or find ways of reading the physical in order to find something hidden.

[From an interview quoted in Art Now, 2002, Continuum.]

Gormley was educated by Catholic monks and although he is not a practising Christian he recognises a spiritual dimension to life – for example he meditates. This ‘something hidden’ which he refers to can be thought of as the spiritual, the ineffable, the numinous, or any aspect of human life which cannot be measured. It also includes the metaphorical/poetic stance in opposition to the literal-minded or what William Blake referred to as Single-Vision.

In the Quantum Cloud series he uses thousands of metal struts in a three-dimensional arrangement. The human forms within the ‘clouds’ are only revealed when the viewer walks round the cloud and different sight-lines suddenly form a figure. The viewer is therefore co-producer of the work of art. As Gormley says:

The act of looking is the act of making the thing that you’re looking at. You actually have to find it.  It’s a process.

Of course, this is how all perception works; inside our skulls a neurological process occurs whereby the brain selects and builds up a picture of ‘reality’ from constant sensory input. What, I believe  Gormley is doing is drawing attention to that fact. He is very much interested in metaphysical questions such as “What is time?” and “What is it like to be a human being?” and “Is knowledge limited to sensory information?” These kinds of questions are apolitical – the idea of Gormley producing an overtly political work, such as those made by Martha Rosler or Jacob Lawrence for example, is unthinkable, if not laughable.

Gormley himself is fully aware of the irony of attempting to suggest the numinous in such a ‘solid’ medium as sculpture. Nevertheless, as we inhabit solid bodies in a seemingly solid world there is not a contradiction in his aims. The Quantum series, especially, more than hints at the atomic-particle reality underlying our usual experience of a solid world.

All of the mystical traditions agree about one thing: that the ‘skin encapsulated ego’ is a kind of self-illusion. In the genuine mystical experience there is no separation between self and the world. Many traditions also talk of an energy body apart from the physical body. Perhaps the clouds of steel bars convey this idea rather well.

Gormley is one of the few artists today who explores the ‘eternal verities’. While other artists pursue political agendas or explore identity and subjective experiences, Gormley seems to return to the very origins of art. Recently, in a television documentary, he is shown looking at hand-prints in a cave. They are some of the first images made by humankind and Gormley is overwhelmed by them. He talks, in hushed tones, about the miracle of spiritual communication stretching from thousands of years ago to the present time. These prehistoric artists used their bodies to make art in a very tactile, direct way; it is little wonder that Gormley was so moved.

Aristotle, Art & Anguish

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Aristotle’s Four Causes.

Aristotle’s four causes are a way of accounting for the existence of anything in the world. We can ask of anything, how did it come to exist? His scheme can best be understood by describing a concrete example.

This is a painting I did a few months ago. It depicts a traumatic experience from my teenage years. It is almost platitudinous to regard creativity as cathartic nowadays. The profession of art therapy is based on such a premise. Let us see if this applies to this object and also if Aristotle’s four causes can account for its existence.

1. Material Cause

This addresses the question, ‘What is the object made of?’

Hardboard, white primer and acrylic paint mixed with water and applied with brushes and cardboard. I also used a penknife to scrape paint off the hardboard once it had dried.

2. Formal Cause

This answers the question, ‘What gives the material its form?’

An artist gives a work a certain form. The painting was based on sketches which experimented with various compositions. The techniques used were the result of many years’ practice and choices were made about colour, shape and so on. I scratched out the dried paint in sections of the picture. Most paintings can conventionally be described as colour, shape and line on some sort of ‘ground’ – hardboard in my case which was cut to a specific size.

3. Efficient Cause

The reason for the object existing.

I started with an idea and memory of a teenage experience. I also had Edvard Munch’s Scream to study. I did not want to appropriate it, or imitate it, but the underlying feelings of anxiety and terror were something I empathised with. The formal composition was my own although I was influenced by Munch’s other pictures where he has a head and shoulders in the foreground.

4. Final Cause

This deals with the ultimate purpose for the object’s existence.

The final cause brings up many associated ideas, some to do with the purpose of art. Does art such as this have to have an audience or could it serve a purpose limited to the artist? Does the picture represent anything in the ‘real world’? Does the ‘real world’ include mental states only experienced by the artist? Are viewers of art able to empathise with emotions which may not be immediately congenial?

My initial motivation was to explore the past, especially the painful aspects of adolescence. I did not know how the painting would turn out before I was well on with it. The interesting thing about creativity is that it is partially conscious and partially subconscious. If you over-plan a painting you will curtail the imaginative aspects of it. Not only did the formal aspects change during the process of painting but the purpose to which I put the painting also changed. Only as I started another similar-themed painting did I realise that I could do a series of four and the last one could be an epiphany. The set of four could even be seen to illustrate the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Once I’d finished all four I realised there was a website I could submit them to. This final decision shows I wanted an audience for the work. I hoped that viewers could identify with the feelings portrayed. Did I cause it to exist because I wanted to make money? No, but someone else may paint for this reason! Was the process of painting cathartic? Yes, insofar as that to objectify painful feelings is cathartic in itself, as testified by psychotherapy.

Aristotle’s four causes are sound and can be used to explain the existence of most things. The final cause explores abstract notions such as human aspiration, poetry, ethics and ontology. The material cause is more factual and is of interest to art historians, for example, when they want to analyse a painting’s medium or date it accurately.

Aristotle’s View of Art as Imitation

Aristotle’s view of art – admittedly mainly poetry and drama – that it imitates life is set out in his Poetics. Here, for example from chapter V (1)

To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy. . . All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation. , . .Hence the pleasure they receive from a picture: in viewing it they learn, they infer, they discover what every object is; that this, for example, is an individual man etc.

Of course, Aristotle did not live to see the likes of Edvard Munch (and, anyway, I may be doing him an injustice in selecting this one quote) but it is clear that art-as-imitation is an extreme simplification of what art is about. In my picture there is no physical object in the physical world (apart from in my painting) which looks like the figure, nor is there a two dimensional oblong, unless someone were to trace over my ‘building’ and cut it out, saying, ‘look it does exist in the real world.’ (But then, aren’t they just copying my ‘representation’?) Perhaps the ‘house-object’ and the figure are re-presentations of real three-dimensional objects in the real world? However we regard the painting, the stubborn fact of its existence is that it is a two-dimensional object – causes 1 &2 in Aristotle’s scheme. Is the painting, then, more about communicating feelings? If so, how can patches of pigment adhering to hardboard convey feelings?

We can examine the nuances of this conundrum by quoting from a seminal book about the purpose of art titled, Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim:

In the Pitti there is a canvas (of Donna Velata) 85cm x 64cm; in the Museao Nazionale, Florence there is a piece of marble 209cm high. It is with these physical objects that those who claim that the Donna Velata and the St George are physical objects would naturally identify them. . . It can be argued that the work of art has properties incompatible with certain properties that the physical object has; alternatively it can be argued that the work of art has properties which no physical object could have: in neither case could the work of art be the physical object.

We say of the St George that it moves with life. Yet the block of marble is inanimate. Therefore the St George cannot be the block of marble.

Similarly with my painting; someone might say it makes them feel anxious yet the physical object is only pigment and hardboard. The crux of the argument comes down to the painting ‘representing’ something within a convention of aesthetics. The convention of painting is thousands of years old and we accept that the object of art can convey complex truths about the human condition. Today we are over-exposed to imagery and perhaps underestimate its power to move us. (Probably the first cave-paintings were regarded as pure magic!) My own interpretation of the painting will include concrete, subjective details no viewer could possibly have; they are to do with the narrative of my teenage years.

A viewer, however will bring their own experience to bear when looking at the painting. Is the work of art then really a symbiotic collaboration between the physical object and the consciousness of the viewer? In this notion, the viewer brings an active mind to the interpretation of the painting. Hopefully, the colour, contorted lines and subject matter of the painting can convey layered meanings – art is not like mathematics; there is never a cut and dried single meaning. And, also, the experience of looking is more akin to living a life; it is a moment-to- moment experience, and should be an active, imaginative process. People sometimes burst into tears when watching a film or reading a moving poem; this is one response any artist would appreciate from his/her audience. (Of course, we can also be moved to joy, or even laughter, when engaging with art.)

Note: Expressionism is defined as – “a deliberate abandonment of the naturalism implicit in Impressionism in favour of a simplification which should carry far greater emotional impact.” An expressionistic style is able to convey feelings, memories and dreams better than a naturalistic approach or style. It is, therefore, supremely able to suggest inner-worlds and states of consciousness such as joy, shame, sorrow, anxiety and modern alienation.

The Visitors

Side view of lonely old woman in wheelchair in front of a glass windows corridor

This piece is based on something that happened to my mother in her old age. This is a stressful time of the year for lots of people especially those who live alone. Our society is dysfuntional in so many ways; the increase in social isolation and the way the elderly are regarded are symptoms of a deep malaise.

 

When you find yourself automatically turning on the television for the six o’clock news, when you become aware once again of the dull throb in the left side of your head, when you stretch your right hand down to rub your aching thigh, when you decide it’s time to shuffle towards the kitchen and see what’s in the fridge, when you scrape off the morning’s coagulated porridge from the saucepan and empty it down the lavatory, when you slowly eat your solitary microwaved meal, when you return to your sofa and continue to watch the television, when you find yourself drifting off to sleep; you come to with a start – then suddenly you feel there is someone standing behind your sofa.

 

The visitors are here again. Although you are not sure if they are the same men as before, you think you recognise the taller one. He has a moustache and black hair. As you get up from the sofa the men turn to face you and edge round the furniture. The smaller of the two, the one with the shaved head, crosses the room to sit in a chair opposite the sofa. You feel agitated and find you cannot focus on the intruders sufficiently. The smaller of the two is speaking and his words sound loudly in your head. You look to see where the tall man is and cannot quite make out a figure in the darkness of the hallway. You decide to speak.

I’m alright you know. You don’t need to worry; I have two sons who visit me and a nurse comes on Fridays.”

The bald man is speaking again in a low voice now. You can only catch some of the words,

Trying to. . worry. .keep the door.. . .safety.”

You have the front door key and can’t understand why the man is talking about the door.

You start to feel anxious and snap,

Get out, get out!”

You see quite clearly the tall man walking past you towards the front door. When you look around for the bald man he is not to be seen. Then you hear a voice but you are not sure who is speaking.

We’ll make sure you are ok.”

This does not make you feel secure and now that the men have left there is an empty silence.

 

You sit down on the sofa with a loud expulsion of breath and notice your right hand is shaking.

Why, why?” you say out loud, and again,

What would Albert think about me talking to strange men?”

You get up with some effort and walk slowly towards the kitchen to put on the kettle. As you fill up the kettle you wonder how the men get inside your flat. You drink the hot tea and wonder if they are from the council, and that you probably forgot that you let them in. You sit down and notice your hand has stopped shaking.

You retire to bed earlier than usual. It is half past nine. You notice you haven’t put the pile of washing in the washer. You tell yourself to do this tomorrow morning and move the pile to the kitchen.

 

It is six o’clock the following evening. You have had your meal of mackerel and mashed potatoes. You are watching the six o’clock news. The body count from Syria doesn’t register and the latest plan for improving the NHS somehow gets mixed up with statistics about prisons. You press the remote control eager to find something less confusing. You find a nature programme about badgers when you hear the doorbell. You get up and see two men in the hall. You wonder if they are from the council. You haven’t seen them before. The tall one has a moustache and black hair. . .

 

 

 

Homeless Again

homeless

It is that time of the year again when politicians will talk of the scourge of homelessness but do little to solve the problem. This is something I wrote a couple of years ago when I was in a writing group: I seem to remember I recited it as a semi-rap. A couple of centuries ago William Blake talked of how the church and state needed the poor so we could feel good dishing out ‘charity.’ An audio file of me reading this is on my FB page.

NOTE: If you see someone sleeping rough and you are concerned phone -0300 500 0914 – in the UK. They should send someone to speak to the person and arrange emergency accommodation.

 

Regeneration

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em;

Lets rally round, lets turn the tide

and restore national pride!

It’s the end of austerity –

so our PM said with due temerity.

So – Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em; lets not be mean.

There’s no room to swing a cat

in a cardboard box but perhaps a rat.

Private development equals – cardboard

encampments along embankments.

Public space isn’t aesthetic– its tragicomic

not economic – there – that’s rhyme,

rhythm, deception, division.

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em.

The recession and no-choice austerity’s

like an infection – not good for your complexion;

a national disgrace – is it too late to save face?

Home is where the heart is -what happened to common land?

House of Commons – fit for purpose? Social Housing for the commoner?

You say they’re scum: I say we need a civilised outcome –

a cool solution to this obscene disconnection,

protection-no-protection and disaffection.

There’s incomprehension- disconsolate empty buildings,

standing there while fattening speculators

go on long self-promotion A-list vacations.

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em.

At number 10 talk of legislation to

dispossess squatters’ rights (desperation)

sick people dying in the shadows

there ain’t no regeneration once your dead.

Save upmarket properties from desecration

while bloated billionaires aren’t there

to see the aggression of the recession

casting shadows in Parliament Square.

We can’t afford to be doctrinaire

but each of us can say a heartfelt prayer.

There are corpses on the street but please don’t stare.

That homeless upstart has a heart – he’d like

a part in this re-gen-er-a-tion just to

live a good life free of temptation,

frustration and consternation –

four walls and roof over his head.

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em.

There’s no re-gen-er-a-tion once you’re dead –

only speculation, desecration and recapitulation.

Let’s restore national pride:

for too long duplicity and iniquity

have despoiled our green and pleasant land.

Please keep our streets clean.