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Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
Right now my face is stuck in the following books...
Paradise Lost   Bring Up the Bodies  
Forest Church   The Geometry of Type  
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Category: science
Cover of the tract Strange Events Forecast for 1982
The vanity of comets

Posted on 15 February 2013, 18:03

Today sees the rooftop-rattling flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14, a 50-metre chunk of space rock half the size of a football pitch. At 7.24pm (UK time) it’s going to miss hitting Earth by just over 17,000 miles, 5,000 miles closer than the SatNav satellites.

To get an idea of why it’s a good thing not to have an asteroid smacking into your planet, a rock the same size gouged out the mile-wide Baringer Crater in Arizona when it dropped from the sky 50,000 years ago, and another exploded in the air over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, flattening 80 million trees in a blast thought to be 1,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima.

Collision with asteroids is a popular form of apocalypse these days, along with zombie attack, neither of which feature very much in the Bible’s versions of Last Things. The 1998 movie Deep Impact, for example, had a 7 mile wide comet steering for Earth to trigger an ‘extinction-level event’.

Talking of comets, the heavens won’t be finished with us when 2012 DA14 flies back off into space tonight. That’s because the comet ISON is set to skim the sun on 28 November.

ISON is currently being touted as a once-in-a-civilisation sort of comet. ‘The comet could outshine the moon,’ muses Brian Cox in The Sun (that noted journal of heavenly bodies), ‘with a spectacular tail sweeping across the night sky.’

Back in 1974 when I was a teenager, I was severely ticked off by comet Kohoutek, which was similarly hyped up but turned out to be a dud. This has given me a lifelong suspicion of the vanity of comets.

The soothsayers of fundamentalism are already pitching ISON as Jesus’s very own firework display in celebration of the second coming. It’s a bizarre meeting of astrology and theology.

WND Faith lists the comet as a ‘celestial sign of things to come’ and links it to four total eclipses of the moon, which are apparently set to happen in 2014 and 15. It’s during one of those eclipses that ‘the Second Coming of Christ will likely occur’. I hope Harold Camping is taking notes as he reads this.

Meanwhile, over on the somewhat excitable Above Top Secret website, the comet will be just one event in the Great Tribulation described in the book of Revelation. The website gives us the schedule: ‘Nov. 16, 2013 kicks off Trumpet 5 and starts the 1st woe. Comet ISON is scheduled for an appearance at this time – this is the false “sign of the son of man in heaven”.’

Comets have been seen from pre-history as terrifying signs of impending change and disaster. Along with eclipses, they pointed to the deaths of kings, the outbreak of plagues or the coming day of doom. They caused fear and panic in the mouths of caves when we still lived in them, and later on the streets of ancient cities from China to Babylon to Rome.

These visceral beliefs were reinterpreted by monotheism as the righteous judgments of God. Because comets disrupt the regularity of the heavens, they must come from the hand of God as portents of disaster on Earth. They’re especially at home in apocalyptic writings – as brought to us by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, the book of Revelation and Jesus himself. Apocalyptic stocks its horror shows with falling stars, blood-red moons, fire from heaven, brimstone falling into the sea, the sun extinguished.

I’ve kept hold of a wonderful tract I found in the late 1970s about the line-up of the planets which took place in 1982 (pictured above). After predicting that the conjunction could cause storms on the sun, earthquakes on earth and even (shudder) disruption to TV programmes, the tract urged the following message on its readers:

‘All this means that the coming of the Lord is drawing very near. By 1982 our world could be feeling the wrath of God in the coming time of tribulation.’

The second coming – that most sci-fi of all Christian beliefs – did not happen on the strength of lined-up planets in 1982. And Jesus will not return riding on comet ISON (like the final scene in Dr Strangelove) in 2013. But that won’t stop Christians from co-opting comets and asteroids into their dark fantasies of doom for the next few months.

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March of the metronomes

Posted on 28 September 2012, 18:02

If you like to think you’re a non-conformist, watch the video above. Things start getting interesting from about 1:05. There is one rebel who holds out past the 2 minute mark (far right, second from the front), but by 2:40 the game is over.

The experiment was filmed by Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan, which studies nonlinear chaotic dynamics.

As seen on BoingBoing.

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Photo of a papyrus fragment from Euclid's Elements of Geometry
Ancient shredded papyrus… and you

Posted on 18 September 2011, 20:08

Zooniverse is a crowdsourcing website which made its name by asking Internet volunteers to help identify galaxies from vast numbers of astronomy photographs. That project, Galaxy Zoo, quickly attracted more than 80,000 volunteers who made short work of 10 million images of galaxies, deciding whether they were rotating clockwise or anticlockwise, for example.

Now Zooniverse has launched a new project, Ancient Lives, with the same aim of clearing the in-tray of experts and making new discoveries. This time, volunteers are being asked to transcribe fragments of Greek papyrus recovered in 1897 from a Roman-era town, Oxyrhynchus, which flourished in the Egyptian desert, but has since disappeared into the sands.

The fragments are from the town’s ancient rubbish dumps and include everyday stuff such as contracts, shopping lists and tax returns – but also long-lost books, plays and even gospels. One century on from when they were pulled from the sand, only a small percentage of the half a million scraps of papyrus have been deciphered. The job of identifying Greek handwriting on bits of rubbish that were sent to the dump some 2,000 years ago is much more of a challenge than galaxy-spotting, I think, but this sounds like a great project, especially if it speeds things up. The Ancient Lives website says…


For classics scholars, the vast number of damaged and fragmentary texts from the waste dumps of Greco-Roman Egypt has resulted in a difficult and time-consuming endeavor, with each manuscript requiring a character-by-character transcription… An immense number of detached fragments still linger, waiting to be joined with others to form a once intact text of ancient thought, both known and unknown. The data not only continues to reevaluate and assess the literature and knowledge of ancient Greece, but also illuminates the lives and culture of the multi-ethnic society of Greco-Roman Egypt.

The data gathered by Ancient Lives will allow us to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally studied the collection. After transcriptions have been collected digitally, we can combine human and computer intelligence to identify known texts and documents faster than ever before. For unknown documents, we can isolate them and begin the long process of identification.

Like any other scientific project, the data will require a lengthy process of vetting and analysis. There are no quick answers or discoveries. We want to make sure our findings are accurate. However, instead of just a few scholars going through the collection one fragment at a time, users of Ancient Lives are allowing professionals to process large batches of data at any given time.


Interested in eavesdropping on the citizens of ancient Oxyrhynchus? Visit Ancient Lives.

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Artist's impression of a dark planet
Darkness visible

Posted on 26 August 2011, 5:57

OK, it’s 750 light years away from me, so I’m unlikely ever to encounter it for myself. But there was something to make the blood run slightly colder in last week’s news that a planet orbiting a distant sun is the darkest world ever discovered.

The planet, with the catchy (and French-sounding) name of TrES-2b, only reflects a miserly one per cent of the light that falls on it from its nearby sun. Which means it’s as dark as coal. Close up, it must be hard to see against the blackness of space, and you would only know it was there by the stars it would blot out – which would be rather a lot, given that TrES-2b is the size of Jupiter.

David Spiegel, one of the astronomers to make the discovery, says: ‘It’s not clear what is responsible for making this planet so extraordinarily dark. However, it’s not completely pitch black. It’s so hot that it emits a faint red glow, much like a burning ember or the coils on an electric stove.’

TrES-2b immediately reminded me of one of the stay-with-you episodes in CS Lewis’s Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In it, the Dawn Treader sails into a darkness in the middle of the open, sunlit sea and finds it a place of terror and madness, where escape again into the light seems impossible.

But it also made me reflect on the opening words of Psalm 19...

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

‘Glory’ is a first cousin to the words we use for light, so if the stars of the universe speak of the shining glory of God, then what do the dark objects say about him? The writer of Psalm 19 couldn’t have imagined that the night sky above him contained not just brilliant stars, but also black holes, occult planets and dark matter.

I’m interested in this because Christian theology doesn’t seem to have made much adjustment to the huge amount of new information about the universe that has accumulated in the past century. In the 1920s and 30s, Edwin Hubble and others discovered that the universe doesn’t consist of just our galaxy (as was argued at the time) but countless galaxies – at least 100 billion, according to the Institute of Physics, each containing anything from millions to trillions of stars.

So while it was credible back in the days of Psalm 19 to see the stars as a kind of celestial wallpaper, put there solely for humans to admire and praise the Lord who made them, the vast scale of what is actually out there makes that model look like over-engineering on a cosmic scale. For me, the incredible size of it all and the discovery of objects such as TrES-2b is a severe challenge to the New Testament’s assertion that the human story is critical to the story of the universe as a whole. Our size in the mind-boggling scheme of things is surely too microscopically tiny.

So what does TrES-2b tell us about God? Maybe it speaks of the hidden side of God, the God who ultimately cannot be known, the darkness of God. These themes have been explored by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and other offbeat theologians, but has its roots back in the early books of the Old Testament. On Mt Sinai, for example, ‘Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.’

So here’s to TrES-2b. A dark and unknowable world reflecting nothing but the darkness and mystery of God.

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