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‘Alien Jesus’: The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space

A 16th-century monk saw a universe full of Christs.

A few weeks ago on The Toast, Mallory Ortberg wrote a piece called  “Another Lifeless, Empty Planet Found.” Beginning as a faux news report about scientists announcing their discovery of earth-like planets, it ends up sounding like Werner Herzog writing for The Onion:

“In some ways,” Travers said, trying to light a cigarette with stained and trembling fingers, “it’s more of a punch in the gut than ever, finding a sun so much like our own, and a planet that exists well within the conditions to produce life but doesn’t. Like it’s a blind and gleeful mockery of our own existence. Like looking at your own empty grave and seeing your name erased from the headstone.”

She lit a new cigarette from the dying embers of the old one.

“There might be ice, though,” she added hopefully.

Aside from being a clever satire of the “it’s a wonderful universe” school of science writing, it also raises a good question about what we expect from nature. Does everything we learn about the universe have to make us feel good about ourselves?

In many ways, the history of science is the history of humans getting progressively more freaked out by their own cosmic insignificance. Most cultures’ origin stories tend to be about a plucky band of survivors overcoming the odds and becoming the chosen people — or, at least, the people who really matter. Understandings of humanity’s place in nature tended to follow the same pattern: whether we’re being made out of corn by the gods of the Popul Vuh so we can “keep the days” or being given command over all the other animals by Yahweh, we like to see ourselves as being kind of a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Giordano Bruno, a renegade sixteenth-century monk from the Kingdom of Naples, stands out as a true eccentric in this regard. Even today, his ideas sound slightly crazy: just last spring, in fact, I befuddled a lunch table of distinguished scholars at the Huntington Library by inadvisedly bringing up Bruno’s “alien Jesus” theory.

Let me explain.

In his 1584 book On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, Bruno theorized that

there is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite… In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.

This was controversial, but it wasn’t grounds for being declared a heretic. However, Bruno crossed a line when he followed his argument to its logical conclusion: if there are an infinity of worlds, and if some worlds have sentient beings created by God, then wouldn’t these planets also need to be saved by the personification of God? By, well, alien Jesuses? (Bruno, its important to remember, wasn’t an atheist—just a highly unconventional Christian).

Bruno expressed the idea in strong terms: “The Supreme Ruler cannot have a seat so narrow, so miserable a throne, so trivial, so scanty a court, so small and feeble a simulacrum” as our earth alone, he scoffed. Instead, Bruno argued that God must be “glorified not in one, but in countless suns; not in a single earth, a single world, but in a thousand thousand, indeed in an infinity of worlds.”

Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, where his famous memorial statue now stands.

Now that – essentially the theory of an infinite number of intelligent beings worshipping an infinity of extraterrestrial Gods that are the various incarnation of the one Supreme Being – is the sort of thing that got you burnt at the stake in the sixteenth century. Especially if you were a touchy, sarcastic Neapolitan. And so it came to pass.

In fact, though, what Bruno was proposing was actually the feel-good variant of our modern vision of the cosmos. Its fun to believe in aliens, especially if we believe that they are essentially like us. Our own history as a species becomes part of a greater story that gives meaning to our existence. As Ortberg’s piece highlighted, it’s a lot less fun to believe that we’re matter which randomly became sentient amidst an endless void interspersed by icy rocks and balls of shrieking gas.

Artist Jed McGowan recently commemorated the Voyager probe’s journey out of our solar system with a beautiful series of illustrations that evoke this fundamentally lonely vision of space:

Jed McGowan
Jed McGowan

After awhile, you can’t help but empathize with Voyager and admire its WALL-E-esque pluck in the face of adversity, doing its thing out there in the empty wastes:

Jed McGowan
Jed McGowan

Strapped onto Voyager is a letter, a message that its conceivable to imagine being the last surviving artifact of the entire human species (if we accidentally blow up the solar system, say). The author of that letter was effectively serving as the spokesman for every human who has ever lived. If extraterrestrial life ever finds and decodes the message as intended, they may well assume that he was one of the greatest beings of Planet Earth, a paragon of our species and of all that we stand for.

His name was Jimmy Carter.

“This is a present from a small distant world” to an “awesome universe,” Carter wrote in 1977, ever the courteous Southerner. Star Wars had hit theaters a couple months before, and you can detect its influence in the President’s choice of words: “We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations,” he enthused. Carter also assumed the mantle of cosmic DJ, inviting any beings who found Voyager to give its golden LP a spin.

Jimmy Carter’s 1977 message to extraterrestrials. (NASA)

But what happens if there are no other civilizations, no alien Jesuses, no man-bats on the moon (as an 1830s hoaxer claimed), not even any squiggling strands of RNA or single-celled organisms floating in the primordial seas of some other pale blue dot? Does empty space have a history? Or does history only begin when sentient beings push back against the void?

Perhaps we can imagine Voyager as an emissary not only of the human species, but of history itself. By being a human artifact made in a particular place and time—the summer when Luke Skywalker hit theaters, Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” was a hit, and Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan were falling in love—Voyager is a mobile bubble of history.

If the Elon Musks of the world succeed, others will be joining it soon. History’s sphere will expand outside the Earth, and maybe someday outside the Solar System. Anywhere humans or human objects go, we leave traces that will become part of an ever-expanding past.

For now, though, the only material artifacts of human history out there in the void beyond Pluto are a hopeful letter from a Georgia peanut farmer and a mixtape from the 70s.

Keep on trucking, Voyager.

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Bizzare & Odd

This Space Cloud Smells Like Rum And Tastes Like Raspberries

So there’s a giant cloud hanging out in the Milky Way galaxy that smells a little bit like rum and tastes a little bit like raspberries. Here’s why Sagittarius B2 may be the most delicious cloud in space.

Let’s work our way up the ladder on this one. We’ll start at the bottom step, where things are unimaginably tiny. A carboxyl group is a group of atoms that looks like this: (C(O)OH). A carboxylic acid is any acid that has a carboxyl group. Glue one single extra atom of hydrogen on that group and you have formic acid, the most simple carboxylic acid. In fact, this acid is so basic that ants’ bodies can make it. If you have ever been stung or sprayed with ant venom, you have probably felt the sting of formic acid.

Let’s take another step up the ladder and add booze. Mix ethanol with formic acid and you have ethyl formate, which is an ester. Esters are the most famous of the aroma compounds and are responsible for most of the floral, fruit, and wine smells. A good proportion of esters are simply combinations of carboxylic acids and alcohols. To non-chemists who nevertheless paid attention in chemistry class, esters are known as the “smell molecules.”

Ethyl formate has a role to play in both fruit and wine. Drinkers know it as the “scent of rum,” but it comes wafting out of a lot of alcohols from cognac to whisky. Berry pickers will also know ethyl formate if they get their mouth around it; it’s one of the chemicals that gives raspberries their distinctive flavor. So smell it and it smells vaguely of rum; taste it and it tastes vaguely of raspberries.

When we examine ethyl formate on an even larger scale, we get the weird twist — way out in space, a cloud of gas is laden with ethyl formate, which means it smells like rum and tastes like berries.

Or perhaps we have this all the wrong away around. Perhaps we should have started large instead of small, because Sagittarius B2, the dust cloud 400 light-years away from the center of the galaxy, predates both the raspberry and rum. So maybe we should say that rum smells of cosmic dust cloud, and raspberries taste of it.

Source io9.gizmodo.com

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Space

Trump just ordered the Pentagon to establish a Space Force ‘immediately’

The United States seems to have always been pioneers in the space program. They were the first ones to actually walk on the moon, and they created the first ever reusable space vehicle in the space shuttle.

Now if President Donald Trump has his way, the country will again be pioneers when it comes to outer space exploration. Not only does he want to reignite the space program which has more or less been dormant in the country since the space shuttle program was retired, but he wants to create the first ever space force.

In fact, he has gone as far as to make the request of the Pentagon itself to implement this task force. He has gone as far as to tell their Department of Defense to start to put such a force into effect. In a press, In fact, President Trump has been quoted as saying:

“Our destiny beyond the Earth is not only a matter of national identity but a matter of national security, ”

If this program is implemented it will become the sixth branch of the military and actually the only branch of the air force that has been created in 71 years.

According to Trump it is imperative to the nation’s security, but is this really true? Well, we never know what could be lurking in space, and no this isn’t a reference to extraterrestrials, although you never know. But what about asteroids or comets that could have the ability to cause destruction to the earth, and such a task force could help eliminate this problem not only for the United States but the rest of the world as well.

Whatever, the reasons President Trump could have a point that maybe this is not just an idea to consider, but again the United States could get the wheels in motion. So, perhaps the universe imagined by Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek where there is a branch of the military known as Starfleet could actually be to the point of becoming a reality.

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Space

A trip to the ISS will cost you $55 million

Image Credit: Axiom Space

Space tourism firm Axiom Space is offering people the opportunity to spend ten days aboard the space station.

Based in Houston and founded by former International Space Station manager Michael T. Suffredini, the company has plans to not only offer trips to the ISS but to also build and launch its own modules.

Eventually, these will detach and become an independent facility known as the Axiom International Commercial Space Station.

This week the firm has revealed its price for a full ten-day stay aboard the ISS – $55 million – which will cover, not only the orbital stay, but also transportation and a 15-week astronaut training program.

The goal will be to launch the first module in 2019 and the first commercial customers in 2020.

“It is an honor to continue the work that NASA and its partners have begun, to bring awareness to the profound benefits of human space exploration and to involve more countries and private citizens in these endeavors,” Suffredini said in a statement.

The interiors of the new modules will be designed in partnership with French architect Philippe Starck.

“This is a dream project for a creator like me with a genuine fascination for aviation and space exploration,” he said. “The greatest human intelligence in the world focuses on space research.”

Source: Space.com |

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