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

'Alien Jesus': The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space 98

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.”

'Alien Jesus': The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space 99
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:

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Jed McGowan
'Alien Jesus': The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space 101
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:

'Alien Jesus': The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space 102
Jed McGowan
'Alien Jesus': The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space 103
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.

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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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Space

In December, Earth’s inhabitants will be able to see a rare cosmic phenomenon

In December, Earth's inhabitants will be able to see a rare cosmic phenomenon 107

At the end of the year, astronomers expect to see a rare cosmic phenomenon dubbed the “Christmas star” in the sky. It will be caused by the fact that Saturn and Jupiter come close to each other at a minimum distance and almost collide to become one super-bright point of light.

These two planets became one straight line in the solar system a few weeks ago, but at the end of December they will be on it for observers from Earth. This will happen on December 21, 2020, on the day of the winter solstice, when the daylight hours are the shortest and the night is the longest. Jupiter and Saturn will look like a “double planet” for the first time since the Middle Ages, Forbes writes.

“The conjunctions of the two planets are extremely rare, but this particular conjunction is especially rare because the planets will be very close to each other,” Patrick Hartigan, astronomer at Rice University, USA said. “In order to observe a closer conjunction of these planets in the night sky, we would have to return on March 4, 1226.”

It is noted that the unusual celestial phenomenon can be observed from anywhere on the planet. The main thing is that the sky is clear. The “Christmas Star” can be seen in the western sky about an hour after sunset when viewed from the northern hemisphere.

“On the evening of their closest approach, December 21, they will appear as a twin planet, separated by less than 1/5 the diameter of the full moon,” Hartigan said. “For most amateur astronomers looking at the night sky through a telescope, both planets and several of their largest satellites will be in the same field of view this evening.”

In December, Earth's inhabitants will be able to see a rare cosmic phenomenon 108

Those who want to see Jupiter and Saturn converge in the sky as close, but will be higher above the horizon, will have to wait until March 15, 2080, Hartigan said. After that, a similar configuration for this planetary pair will not be observed until 2400.

Astronomers are already preparing equipment to analyze in detail the upcoming event. Everything is very serious, because the second such rapprochement between Jupiter and Saturn cannot be expected.

Of course, there will not be a collision of planets. You just get the impression that something terrible is about to happen in the solar system. Astronomers have assured that there is no reason to worry.

Is the “Christmas Star” an omen of things to come? Mark your calendars! 

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Space

A giant asteroid worth $ 17.4 billion is approaching Earth

A giant asteroid worth $ 17.4 billion is approaching Earth 109

NASA announced the imminent flight of a potentially dangerous asteroid will pass the Earth. The website of the Center for the Study of Near-Earth Objects says that a celestial body ranging in size from 370 to 820 meters will approach the planet on November 29.

The asteroid, consisting of nickel, iron and cobalt, is approaching the Earth. The cost of minerals in its composition reaches $ 17.4 billion, with reference to the Asterank database, which contains data on 600 thousand asteroids.

The distance between the asteroid 153201 (2000 WO107) and the Earth will be more than 4 million kilometers, the Space Reference specified with reference to NASA data. It is noted that the distance from the Earth to the Moon is 10 times less, and the asteroid is considered dangerous because it crosses the orbit of our planet.

According to the NASA Center for the Study of Near-Earth Objects, the celestial body will approach the Earth on November 29. 

It is noted that this time the asteroid does not pose a threat to the planet, however, it belongs to the group of potentially dangerous ones, since its trajectory crosses the Earth’s orbit.

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Space

Intrusive buzzing. The Perseverance rover recorded the space sounds of its flight to Mars

Intrusive buzzing. The Perseverance rover recorded the space sounds of its flight to Mars 110

NASA’s new rover is equipped with a microphone to record sounds during landing on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is en route to Mars, has recorded its flight to the planet.

The new rover is equipped with a microphone designed to record sound when entering the atmosphere, descent and landing. The device should arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.

But before the rover reached its destination, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released an audio file recording what the rover “hears” during its interplanetary voyage.

The 60-second recording, posted on SoundCloud, was captured on Oct.19 while checking the rover’s EDL and microphone system.

Experts explain that the buzzing sound comes from a pump that pumps fluid to regulate the rover’s temperature.

NASA compares the new hit for your playlist to the noise you hear on wired headphones when the wire rubs against your clothing. It was these mechanical vibrations that the Perseverance microphone picked up.

“Located at the rear of the starboard side of the Perseverance, the pump is part of the unit’s heat system that maintains operating temperatures for the equipment, even in the coldest locations,” JPL said in a statement.

“I apologize to the person who came up with the slogan for the film” Alien “(” No one in space will hear your scream “- ed.), Perhaps no one will hear the scream, but perhaps a pump to remove heat will be heard,” says a leading engineer at JPL Dave Gruel.

He added that the microphone picks up the hum of the pump through mechanical vibration.

The Perseverance rover is supposed to land on Mars on February 18, 2021 in the Jezero crater – it is believed that a riverbed used to pass through this area. This is one of those places where traces of living organisms on the planet could be preserved.

The main mission of the rover is to detect signs of life in order to advance the study of the ancient history of Mars. In addition, the device will become part of a mission to deliver samples from the surface of the red planet: it will dig out rock at certain points, and then another device will pick them up, which will send them to Earth.

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