Wednesday, 3 August 2011

"When the Egyptians want to be precise, they are."

An object long considered a mystery to our modern sensibilities has recently been the subject of some interest in archaeological circles. The ‘decorative case’ from the tomb of the Ancient Egyptian architect Kha resembles an ornate box of unusual design, and most have simply agreed that it is merely that. Of late, however, the idea that it is in fact an early protractor has been put forwards.

While that, in itself, is reasonably interesting, it is not this fact that draws my attention. Rather, in the article discussing the object, there is a marvellous rebuttal:

But Kate Spence, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who specialises in ancient Egyptian architecture, is not convinced and maintains the object is simply a decorative case. She says that unlike those on known measuring instruments, the markings in question are not particularly accurate: "When the Egyptians want to be precise, they are."

What Dr Spence here refers to is in line with my ongoing passion – the device they claim to be a protractor is simply not accurate enough. While it’s entirely possible that it is some sort of crude protractor (and likely the first of its kind), the measurements apparently defined upon its surface are clearly not up to the extraordinary works for which the Ancient Egyptians are famed.

Now, while it is likely there are those who would (foolishly) argue that this proves the ancient peoples of the world could not have built their pyramids, I would reply only that your own school protractor is almost certainly not up to the task either.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Words from Oxyrhynchus

This week, I should like to quickly highlight a marvellous innovation made by scholars at Oxford University: using the internet to help translate an ancient archive of knowledge. On the website, you are able to assist in the documenting of many thousands of manuscripts from the city of Oxyrhynchus.

It may seem a trivial thing to wish to discover what people wrote about many thousands of years before, but recall that in the future, we would doubtless like people to understand what it was that made us as a people.

I can only recommend that you assist these Oxford scholars – the more we understand of our history, the better we can appreciate the magnificence of mankind’s works.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Fourth Moon of Pluto

It was recently announced that a fourth moon of Pluto has been discovered. In these heady days of sky-watching, it has become a surprisingly common thing to read – a new moon, dwarf planet, stars – but I recall in my youth being quite certain of the number and names of all the moons in our solar system.

As a child, I distinctly recall being inordinately pleased with myself for remembering the names and order of Jupiter’s sixteen moons. Three had recently been discovered, and then all was quiet for twenty years. It was a strange thing to discover that our local universe, which we had believed to for so long to have been mapped quite successfully, could conceal not merely surprises, but quite literally dozens of them.

We know now that Jupiter has at least sixty-four moons, and that, including IAU-approved dwarf planets, there are at least thirteen major objects in orbit around our sun. Recent findings have, of course, made astronomers much more reticent to assert numbers, or even upper limits. It is possible, in fact, that our solar system – stretching from the sun to the reaches of the Oort cloud nearly a light year away – could contain several thousand planets, dwarf or otherwise.

How can these enormous objects be concealed, we might ask – but the answer is all too simple: an object the size even of the sun would be a mere pinprick of light from the system’s edge, much as are the stars we see at night. If, at that distance, we struggle to perceive an orb of such luminosity, what chance do we have to see a planet so far away, and so concealed by the dust and asteroids of the Kuiper belt?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A Future Among the Stars

It is a sad time for those of us who see our future beyond the mere limits of our atmosphere. With NASA’s cancellation of the space shuttle programme, we see the slow but inevitable decline in our passion for space. To those at NASA who fought to keep the space shuttle programme running for as long as it has, and also to those who watched with genuine fascination when the shuttles were launched, or waited eagerly for the latest news from orbit, I can only offer my sympathies.

I had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that man would find a path to Mars within my lifetime. As a child, there were many television shows that looked into our future and proposed a vision that, while often ludicrously ambitious, implied that we as a race were upon the cusp of moving beyond our world.

All is not completely lost, however, and DARPA are seeking petitions from private agencies and corporations to look into the problem of long-distance space travel. While this comes with a host of problems – not least the lack of a real financial motive for private concerns – several individuals have stepped forwards already to examine the problems at hand.

Significantly, J. Craig Venter has proposed a method to transmit our genome across the gulf of space, and to thus grow a fresh colony at a great distance. This is comparable in many ways to the work of the Gemini Somatics Corporation, who have proposed just such a method, albeit without reference to DARPA’s latest initiative.

Who knows what manner of man will be the first to set foot among the stars?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Folly of Rose-tinted Spectacles

I was recently informed of a new movement arising – or, rather, the resurgence of an old idea: that the Sun orbits the Earth. In the sixteenth century, Galileo Galilei raised the ire of the Catholic church by suggesting the inverse, and today it is considered a matter of simple fact that he was right – even among the majority of the most staunchly devout Catholics.

Such ideas are akin to those who believe that society should regress to the 1950s, in the mistaken belief that everything was better then. Of course, the 1950s included the rise of the Cold War to the public consciousness, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, and so on, but these are not the images such lovers of antiquity favour. Rather, they seek to re-establish the power systems that once ruled – in the case of those who would see the Earth return to the centre of the universe, they refer to the power that the Catholic church once held.

Naturally, this is foolish. As much as I sing the praises of cultures of old for their remarkable ingenuity, I do not wish to live in a Mayan society, nor among the Babylonians or Polynesian seafarers. I am always aware that, despite my regard for those times, I am quite comfortable living in a society that, aside from occasional glitches such as this, does seem on a perpetual route towards intellectual enlightenment.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Looking for Life Among the Stars

Apologies for my absence of late, but I was in my native Ukraine conducting a lecture tour regarding archaeoastronomy for undergraduates – it is a fascinating field of study, and the more interest we can arouse in the subject, the greater our understanding shall grow.

Something that struck me, however, was the interest in aligning ancient achievements with the interference of extraterrestrials. Had Erich von Däniken not written his fanciful Chariots of the Gods, I wonder if so many people would express an interest in denigrating our ancestors?

It is not hard to look for life beyond our world, nor is it hard to imagine that it does indeed exist – myself, I believe that the universe is large enough and magnificent enough to hide lifeforms in a multitude of places, and that it is reasonably probable that we are not alone among the ‘intelligent’ and ‘advanced’ species of the universe. What is difficult to imagine, however, is the reason why we must seek to assign a higher intelligence to achievements of our own people?

Like the myths of Atlantis, it seems that mankind is perpetually in pursuit of some lost wisdom, granted to us in ancient days by those from beyond our own star. This pursuit is equalled only by the same beliefs that the cataclysm of the end-times is upon us. Following these twin beliefs – perched between a wondrous, forgotten past, and a terrifying oblivion – one must wonder if this is the state of all life in the universe.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Beyond the Orbit of Saturn

Sir William Herschel – one of the truly great astronomers – is little heard-of these days, but tales of his achievements were among the inspirations that led me upon my own path into archaeoastronomy. Much like the Glass Bead Game players in Hesse’s brilliant novel, Herschel approached the sciences and the arts through a combined interest – originally interested in music, its mathematical processions and order led him to study that subject, followed by optics and lenses in particular. This, naturally, led to his interest in astronomy, for which he is best known.

Although his most famous discovery is that of Uranus, this remarkable man also discovered binary and multiple star systems, using a ‘simple’ (by modern standards) optical telescope. His continual and precise observations enabled him to catalogue no fewer than eight hundred such arrangements, which has provided us with much of the background in our current understanding of multiple star systems.

More fascinating than his discoveries, however, is the origin of his interests mentioned in the opening paragraph. A man who can see beyond the raw details and the niches of his line of study can see more of the beauty inherent in the universe than those around him. For a man whose interest in the stars stems from a love of music, the harmonies must be remarkable.