Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

The 1920s’ View of the Future

January 10, 2021

I found this fascinating video on the ‘1920s Channel’ on YouTube. It’s about the decades view of the future, taken from the pulp magazine, Science and Invention, founded and edited by Hugo Gernsbach. Gernsbach is one of the major figures in 20th century SF. An immigrant to America from Luxembourg, he was passionately enthusiastic about science and technology and founded the first the first SF pulp magazines. He also wrote an SF novel, Ralph 124C41 + A Romance of the Year 2660, and coined the term ‘scientifiction’ to describe the new genre. This was shortened and altered by his successors and rivals to become the modern term.

The channel’s main man says he’s interested in 1920s futurism because it falls between the ‘Steam Punk’ predictions of the Victorians and the ‘Atom Punk’ of the 1950s and 1960s, although it also has some elements of the ‘Diesel Punk’ of the 1940s. He states that the 1920s and the 1950s were similar decades, in that both followed major wars but were periods of optimism. Most of the illustrations were by Frank R. Paul, Gernsbach’s artist, who is now justly respected as one of the foremost pioneers of SF art. Among the inventions and developments the magazine predicted are massive, skyscraper cities now a staple of SF in such classic films as Metropolis and Blade Runner. But the magazine also predicted underground cities, as well as improved scientific instruments like astronomical telescopes, devices for signalling Mars, bizarre machines for taking care of one’s health, like the ‘sun shower’ and health meter. There are new entertainment media, like television and a cinema with four screens, as well as new musical instruments like the Theremin. This last creates sound through the alteration of a magnetic field by the player’s hands. It’s one of the many instruments played by the hugely talented Bill Bailey. The magazine also looked at the vehicles of the future. These included moving walkways, cars and railways. Cars wouldn’t be confined to the road, but would fly, and the magazine also showed the new aircraft of the future. Humanity would master anti-gravity and fly beyond Earth into space. At the same time, new ships and flying boats would cross the oceans, while people would venture underneath the seas in diving suits that somewhat resemble the metallic suits created to withstand the crushing pressures of the ocean depths. And the magazine also predicted that SF staple, the robot. One of these was to be a ‘police automaton’, like Robocop.

The illustrations are taken from worldradiohistory.com, where they’re available for free, and the video is accompanied by some of the music of the period, so be warned!

Futurism Of The 1920s – YouTube

It’s interesting watching the video to see how much of modern SF was formed in the decade, and to compare its predictions with reality. Most of these predictions haven’t actually become reality. Flying cars are still waiting to happen, we don’t have zeppelin aircraft carriers and skyscraper cities haven’t quite become the dominant urban form. Nor do we have truly intelligent machines and robots. On the other hand, I think the ideas and devices Gernsbach and Paul discussed and portrayed in the magazine still have the power to inspire, and think that they would make a great source of ideas for future, aspiring SF writers.

Radio 4 on the Lunar Eclipse at Christ’s Crucifixion

January 1, 2021

Radio 4 yesterday morning had a piece about eclipses, with the host, who sounded like Melvin Bragg, talking to a group of astronomers, one of whom was a lady solar astronomer. They talked about how exciting eclipses were, how they were inspired in childhood to study them, and how important eclipses were in astronomy. They mostly talked about solar eclipses and how they were originally believed to be a supernatural being eating the Sun. The earliest records of solar eclipses were kept by the ancient Chinese, who believed they were omens from the gods. The Babylonians, however, began to realise that they occurred regularly, and passed this knowledge on to the Greeks. Aristotle realised that the Earth must be circular from watching the Earth’s shadow fall across the Moon during lunar eclipses. The Earth’s shadow was circular, therefore, he reasooned, the Earth itself must also be circular. The astronomers also made the extremely important point that you should never look directly at the Sun. If you were looking at it, you should use special lenses to protect your eyes. Alternatively, you could poke holes through a piece of card to act as a pinhole camera, which would project the Sun’s image.

But what I found really interesting was what they said about eclipses possibly being responsible for the darkness that fell at noon when Christ was crucified. One of the astronomers said that it has been suggested that this darkness was caused by a solar eclipse. However, solar eclipses occur regularly, and there would have been no such eclipse at the time Christ is believed to have been crucified. However, there was an eclipse of the Moon on Friday, 6th April, 33 AD. Which sounds very much like the date of Our Lord’s passion. The astronomers and the host described this as ‘spooky’. It is. If you’re a Christian, it does make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It seems to corroborate somewhat the description of the events of Christ’s death in the Gospels, but it must be said that an eclipse of the Moon wouldn’t cause the darkness earlier in the day. Nevertheless, it does suggest a connection.

The Saturn/Jupiter Conjunction and the Star of Bethlehem

December 30, 2020

One of the interesting pieces of astronomical news this past month was that of a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Conjunctions are when two planets appear next to each other in the sky. This conjunction was particularly interesting, not just because it’s a comparatively rare astronomical event, but also because a similar conjunction 2000 years ago may have been behind the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. In the Bible, the wise men who came to honour Christ at His birth were led to Him by a star. One of the theories that people have devised to explain this is that it may have been another conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred around 3 BC, which many scholars believe is the real date of Christ’s birth. The wise men, magi, were probably mobeds, Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Iran. It’s a dualist faith, holding that the universe was created by two gods, the good god Ahura Mazda or Ormuzd, and Ahriman, the evil god. However, they believe that at the End Time a saviour shall appear, the Saoshyant, who will overcome Ahriman and the forces of evil, Ormuzd will triumph, the Earth will be transformed and new age of eternal peace, justice and goodness will begin. The Zoroastrian priests were also astrologers, and in Babylonian astrology the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn represented the birth of a king. Hence it’s possible that the Persian priests, observing the celestial event, may well have gone westwards seeking the new king it heralded.

That’s one theory. There are others, but this story provided a bit of suitably seasonal material for the media. I don’t know which king’s birth has been announced by this latest conjunction. It certainly isn’t Joe Biden’s, and definitely not Trump, though I don’t doubt that the Orange Generalissimo would have claimed it was had it appeared four years earlier at the start of his term. But Trump is definitely on his way, assuming they can prise him our of the White House. Unfortunately, I see nothing in the stars or anywhere else that suggests we’re going to get a better set of politicians or government in this coming year. Rather the opposite. But still, we live in hope!

Silver Monoliths and the Great UFO Ball Invasion

December 30, 2020

I hope everyone’s having a great Christmas, despite the outbreak of an even more virulent strain of the Coronavirus, the consequent lockdown and Boris’ farcical deal with the EU. I haven’t posted anything over the past few days partly because I wanted to enjoy Christmas, and didn’t feel like dealing with all the misery Johnson’s coterie of thugs and entitled bandits and looters, and partly because I simply don’t find much of the news that’s surfaced over the past few days at all inspiring. I was intending only to publish odd, cheerful or uplifting stuff over the holiday period for a change, more in keeping with Christmas as the season of peace and goodwill. Well, that’s gone out the window, as I do intend to blog about serious issues. But for now here’s something far less grim than the faces and policies of BoJob, Gove, Priti Patel, Starmer and Rayner.

Among the serious news there have been reports over the last few weeks of a mysterious silver monolith appearing around the world. It first appeared in America, then disappeared, only to re-emerge in Britain, on the Isle of Wight or somewhere. It disappeared again and then moved to somewhere else in the globe. It’s a pity that some of the urban folklore magazines of the 1990s aren’t still around, as this is the kind of event they loved. Small press magazines like Dear Mr Thoms/ Letter to Ambrose Merton, Folklore Frontiers and the academic Contemporary Legend used to follow similar stories. Like the stolen garden gnomes that went around the world, sending their former owners postcards from whichever new location they turned up in. This is somewhat like that. But it most closely resembles a British UFO hoax from the early 1980s which was covered, I believed, by that venerable journal of the weird, the Fortean Times. I’ve forgotten quite when it all happened, but sometime in the early 1980s or perhaps the late ’70s, a number of silver spheres appeared around Britain making beeping noises. They were designed to appear like alien objects from a UFO. The silver monolith also looks to me like it’s intended to resemble the alien monoliths from Kubrick and Clarke’s classic SF film, 2001, but with the difference that theirs was pitch black. As far as I know, no-one has claimed responsibility for the supposedly alien spheres, although I think it was suggested they were the work of students. I think it’s highly unlikely that either spheres or the recent monolith are the work of aliens. However, latter did appear at the same time as an unexplained signal was received from Proxima Centauri. This is the nearest star to ours, at about four light years away. Scientists were excited about it because Proxima Centauri is believed to have two planets. One is a Jupiter-sized gas giant, but the other is a rocky planet like Earth. So there have been videos on YouTube asking whether what was picked up was another ‘WOW signal’, like the burst of radio noise from Eta Carinae in the 1970s that astonished radio astronomers. It was so close to what they expected a signal from an alien civilisation to be like, that someone wrote ‘Wow’ next to the printout of it. It’s been a matter of debate since whether it really did come from aliens or was natural. The signal was never repeated, like the recent signal from Proxima Centauri, so I think most scientists believe it’s almost certainly natural. I think the Proxima signal will probably prove natural too. But you never know, and we live in hope.

As for hoaxes and stunts like the silver monolith and beeping spheres, while they aren’t remotely the real UFO landing people hope for, they do no harm and keep people amused. And in these grim times, we definitely need everything we can get to keep our spirits up.

MechaRandom on Israeli Space General’s Claim that the Aliens Really Are Here

December 9, 2020

Here’s a piece about Israel, which doesn’t involve them maltreating the Palestinians. But are they really in touch, along with the US, with beings from another planet?

MechaRandom42 is a vlogger, who talks about SF/Fantasy film, TV and comics, especially Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr. Who. She’s very critical about recent treatment of these classic series and film franchises, which she and many other fans believe have been ruined for explicitly ideological reasons. For example, popular, long-standing male characters in her view have been deliberately humiliated and undermined in order to give centre stage to poorly written and unlikeable female characters in order to preach an explicit and simplistic feminist message. At the same time gay and trans characters are also included in popular film franchises and TV series, like Batwoman, but the treatment given them is also simplistic. It’s tokenism, and this forced diversity comes at the expense of creating genuinely well-crafted, popular characters or intelligent, coherent and involving plots and stories. She’s also critical of recent Star Trek series, like Star Trek Picard, for abandoning the utopian optimism of previous series, like Classic Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and so forth, for a darker, dystopian future that’s robbed the series of its soul and reduced it to a generic SF show which just uses the settings and characters of Trek. She also laments the series’ decline in their ability to treat issues like racism, sexism and gayness. Previous series of Trek did so intelligently and from the perspective that humanity had already transcended these problems. The series often had an explicit message, but it took the trouble to explain them to the audience and didn’t patronise or insult them if they disagreed. Now their treatment is much cruder, reasoned argument is replaced by shrill preaching and there’s an underlying attitude that everyone who disagrees with the message must be an ‘-ist’ or a ‘-phobe’. This has resulted in these once popular film franchises, TV series and comics losing viewers and readers. And it’s one of the reasons the last series of Dr. Who catastrophically lost viewers.

It’s a controversial view, but one shared by a number of other Youtubers and fans of these genres. Some of this criticism comes from people on the political right, but it has also been expressed by peeps on the other side of the political spectrum. They argue that there have always been a concern with these issues in popular entertainment, and that there hasn’t been a shortage of strong female characters in SF. The Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley is a classic example. The problem is that these issues aren’t being intelligently handled, but instead have been taken over by creators who are ideologically intolerant and seem intent on alienating their audience rather than winning them other.

In this video, however, she moves away from this to discuss the claims of Haim Eshad, a retired Israeli general, professor and former head of their Space Security Force, that the US and Israel really have made contact with aliens. According to the Jerusalem Post, citing another Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot, the two countries have made contact with the Galactic Federation, and they’re operating an underground base on Mars jointly with the aliens. Donald Trump was on the verge of announcing the extraterrestrial presence on Earth, but was stopped from doing so. The aliens don’t which to cause mass panic, and believe we are not ready for them just yet. He’s also got a book coming out, which he says contains more details and evidence.

MechaRandom compares this with the Star Trek universe and its theme of whether humanity is sufficiently evolved to meet aliens. She believes that we aren’t, and that this is due to the way society has dumbed down so we don’t use our ability to do Maths. This is the area we need to be concentrating on, in her opinion, if we are to meet aliens. She also wonders whether the retired military gentleman really is telling the truth, or if he’s ‘a crazy old guy’. He’s 87.

Aliens & The Galactic Federation Are Real For Reals This Time? – YouTube

To people with more than a superficial knowledge of Ufolore, this is very familiar stuff. Ever since Kenneth Arnold made his sighting of them over the Rockies in the 1947, there have been tales of secret government pacts with aliens, underground bases and so on. And there have been a string of Contactees, like George Adamski, who claimed that they had personally made contact with aliens, who had given them a message for humanity. These aliens also claimed to come from some kind of galactic or interplanetary federation, and their messages reflected the pressing global concerns of the day. In the 1950s this was the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s and 1990s this was the threat to the environment, mirroring the rise of the Green movement. Whole religions have been built on such claimed contact, like the Raelians, UNARIUS and the Aetherius Society. This was set up in the 1950s by taxi driver George King, who heard a voice in his kitchen one day telling him that he should ‘prepare to be the voice of interplanetary parliament’. The Society claimed that King was in touch with an alien, Aetherius, on Venus, where Jesus was also alive and well, as well as Mars Sector 6.

There have been rumours of underground bases since at least the 1980s, as well as various newspaper and magazine articles and books written by government or military officials like Donald Keyhoe, Nick Pope, and the pseudonymous ‘Commander X’. The British hoax TV programme, Alternative 3, broadcast in the 1970s as an April Fool’s joke, also claimed that the Americans and Russians were secretly operating bases on the Moon and Mars, to which people were being kidnapped for use as slave labour in the event of global environmental collapse and the extinction of terrestrial humanity.

There are also stories that President Truman made contact with aliens when they landed at Holloman AFB in the ’40s or ’50s. JFK is also supposed to have been about to reveal the truth about the aliens, which is why he was assassinated. Ronald Reagan is also supposed to have been privy to this information, as shown by his remark to Steven Spielberg during a screening of ET at the White House: ‘Only five people in this room know how true all this is’.

You get the picture. Nothing Eshad has said, at least according to the Jerusalem Post article, is original. If anything, it’s curiously dated. The Contactee Howard Menger claimed to have seen Americans and Russians cooperating together on a secret base on the Moon when the space brothers took him there on one of his extraterrestrial jaunts. Menger was not a military man, but a barber. Hence the title of one of his books was Hairdresser to the Space People, or something like it.

Is Eshad telling the truth, or is he deluded or actually lying? My guess it’s one of the last two. Age and the pressures of holding such a senior command in the tense, war-torn Middle East could have taken their toll on the old boy’s mental health. It might also be that he may have personally had some kind of UFO sighting or experience, like some of the US astronauts. Or had UFO reports from the service personnel under him passed up for his comments. Researching the subject, he’s come across all the tall tales and rumours, and managed to convince himself they’re true.

On the other hand, he could very well be spinning yarns himself. He could be telling these stories as some kind of personal joke and to make a buck on the side from the sales of his forthcoming book. Or there may be something far more sinister going on here. There’s a large amount of evidence that the US intelligence agencies have been deliberately spreading disinformation about alien contact, crashed spacecraft and secret underground bases for their own purposes. Some of this might be destabilise the UFO community, which they have often viewed as a security threat because of the interest taken in secret aircraft and the air force and other bases, which are supposed to hide alien spacecraft and bodies. Some UFO sightings have been of American spy planes. These were often flown from US airbases in Britain and elsewhere, but were so secret that the Americans didn’t tell their allies in the host nations. It might be that Eshad is telling these tales of alien contact in order to have everyone looking in the wrong direction and so ignoring something that his country is really doing in space. At present the militarisation of space is banned under international law. Trump wants to break this and set up an American Space Force. Perhaps Israel is considering doing the same, but wants everyone to disregard it on the grounds that people think that what they’ve seen are alien spacecraft, and only nutters believe in UFOs and aliens.

And you could go on speculating. We really don’t know he’s telling these stories about secret contact with aliens, and can only guess at his motives. But I’m certain that aliens aren’t here, that Trump wasn’t going to spill the beans about them and that there definitely isn’t a secret US-alien base on Mars.

Have Astronomers Found Traces of Life on Venus?

September 19, 2020

The big story on Tuesday was that astronomers had discovered traces of a gas, phosphine, in the atmosphere of Venus. The gas is produced by living organisms, and so it’s discovery naturally leads to the possibility that the second planet from the Sun may be the abode of life.

The I’s edition for 15th September 2020 reported the discovery in an article by David Woods entitled, ‘Forget Mars, a startling discovery may mean there’s life on Venus’. This ran

Alien life could be thriving in the clouds above Venus: a team of astronomers detected a rare gas in its atmosphere, according to a study involving British researchers.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, has a surface temperature of 500o C, and 96 per cent of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. But the discovery of phosphine, around 31 miles (50Km) from the planet’s surface, has indicated that life could prosper in a less hostile environment.

On Earth phosphine – a molecule of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms – is associated with life. It is found in places that have little oxygen, such as swamps, or with microbes living in the guts of animals.

A group of British, American and Japanese scientists – led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University – first identified Venus’s phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The presence of the gas was confirmed at an astronomical observatory of 45 telescopes in Chile. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Professor Greaves said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock.” Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, a Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer, who was part of the research team, added: “This was an incredibly difficult observation to make. We still have a long way to go before we can confirm how this gas is being produced but it is definitely an exciting time for science.”

The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a particular part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. While the clouds above Venus have temperatures of around 30oC, they are made from 90 per cent sulphuric acid – a major issue for the survival of microbes.

Professor Emma Bunce, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, has called for a new mission to Venus to investigate the findings.

This reminds me somewhat of the excitement in the 1990s when scientists announced that they may have discovered microfossils of Martian bacteria in a meteorite from the Red Planet found in Antarctica. The above article was accompanied by another piece by Woods, ‘Nothing found since claims awed Clinton’, which described how former president Clinton had made an official announcement about the possibility of life on Mars when the putative microfossils were found. The article states that confirmation that these are indeed fossils is lacking. It also notes that 4,000 exoplanets have also now been found, and that some of them may have life, but this has also not been confirmed. Astronomers have also been searching the skies for radio messages from alien civilisations, but these haven’t been found either.

Dr Colin Pillinger, the head of the ill-fated Beagle Project, a British probe to the Red Planet, also argued that there was life there as traces of methane had been found. This looked like it had been produced by biological processes. In a talk he gave at the Cheltenham Festival of Science one year, he said that if a Martian farted, they’d find it.

A few years ago I also submitted a piece to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that there might be life in Venus’ clouds. It was based on the presence of organic chemicals there, rather similar, I felt, to those on Saturn’s moon, Titan, which at one time was also considered a possible home of alien life. I got a letter stating that the Journal was going to run it, but in the end they didn’t. I think it may have been because another, professional astronomer published an article about it just prior to the proposed publication of my piece. I think I threw out the Journal’s letter years ago while clearing out the house, and so I don’t have any proof of my claim. Which is obviously disappointing, and you’ll have to take what I say on trust.

The possibility that there’s life on Venus is interesting, and undoubtedly important in its implications for the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos if true. But I think that, like the Martian microfossils, there isn’t going to be any confirmation for a very long time.

History Debunked Refutes Ethnomathematics/Rehumanizing Mathematics

September 8, 2020

This is another video from History Debunked. In it, youtuber and author Simon Webb attacks Ethnomatics, sometimes also called Rehumanizing Mathematics. This is a piece of modern pseudo-scholarship designed to help Black children tackle Maths. The idea is that Blacks perform poorly compared at Maths compared to other ethnic groups. This is held to be because Maths is the creation of White men, and this puts Blacks off studying and mastering it.

The solution has been to scrutinise African societies for their indigenous Maths, especially the Dogon of Mali. They have been chosen as the chief model for all this, as they possessed extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In the 1970s there was a book, The Sirius Mystery by Robert K.G. Temple, which claimed that they owed this advance knowledge to contact with space aliens. Apparently this claim was subsequently dropped 10 – 15 years later, and the claim made instead that they were just superlative astronomers and mathematicians themselves. But Dogon Maths is held to be different from White, western Maths because it’s spiritual. History Debunked then goes on to demonstrate the type of pseudo-scientific nonsense this has lead to by providing a link to an Ethnomathematics paper and reading out its conclusion. It’s the kind of pretentious verbiage the late, great Jazzman, Duke Ellington, said stunk up the place. It’s the kind of postmodern twaddle that Sokal and Bricmont exposed in their Intellectual Impostures. It’s deliberately designed to sound impressive without actually meaning anything. There’s a lot of talk about expanding cognitive horizons and possibilities, but History Debunked himself says he doesn’t understand a word of it. And neither, I guess, will most people. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just there to sound impressive and bamboozle the reader into thinking that somehow they’re thick because they don’t, while the fault is entirely the writers.

I think History Debunked is a man of the right, and certainly his commenters are Conservatives, some with extremely right-wing views. He’s produced a series of videos attacking the pseudo-history being pushed as Black History, and apparently Seattle in America is particularly involved in promoting this nonsense. But he expects it to come over here in a few years. Given the way Black History month has jumped the Atlantic, I think he’s right.

There’s been a particular emphasis on find ancient Black maths and science for some time I know. For a brief while I got on well with a Black studies group when I was a volunteer at the slavery archives in the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum. That was before I read their magazine and got so annoyed with it and its attitude to Whites that I sent them a whole load of material arguing to the contrary, and pointing out that in places like the Sudan, Blacks were being enslaved and oppressed not by White Europeans, but by the Arabs. I also sent them material about the poor Whites of South Africa, who also lived in grinding poverty thanks to Apartheid. This was stuff they really didn’t want to hear, and I was told that if I wanted to talk to them further, I should do so through someone else. They were also interested in finding examples of Black maths and science. I sent them photocopies and notes I’d made of various medieval Muslim mathematicians. These were Arabs and Persians, like al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to the word algorithm, Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for his Rubayyat, but who was also a brilliant mathematician, al-Haytham, who invented the camera obscura in the 12th century and others, rather than Black. But they were grateful for what I sent them nonetheless, and I thanked me. This was before I blotted my copybook with them.

I’m reposting this piece because, although it comes from the political, it is correct. And you don’t have to be right-wing to recognise and attack this kind of postmodern rubbish. Sokal and Bricmont, the authors of the book I mentioned early attacking postmodernism, were both men of the left. Sokal was a physicist, who taught maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government. They wrote the book because they took seriously George Orwell’s dictum that writing about politics means writing clearly in language everyone can understand. And even if you believe that Black people do need particular help with maths because of issues of race and ethnicity, Ethnomathematics as it stands really doesn’t appear to be it. It just seems to be filling children’s heads with voguish nonsense, rather than real knowledge.

I also remember the wild claims made about the Dogon and their supposed contact with space aliens. Part of it came from the Dogon possessing astronomical knowledge well beyond their level of technology. They knew, for example, that Sirius has a companion star, invisible to the naked eye, Sirius B. They also knew that our solar system had nine planets, although that’s now been subsequently altered. According to the International Astronomical Association or Union or whatever, the solar system has eight planets. Pluto, previously a planet, has been downgraded to dwarf planet, because it’s the same size as some of the planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this in one their books,The Stargate Conspiracy (London: Little, Brown & Company 1999), which claimed that the American intelligence agencies were secretly preparing a fake UFO landing in order to convince everyone that the space gods really had arrived, and set up a one-world dictatorship. This hasn’t happened, and I’ve seen the Fortean Times and other weird magazines trying to explain their book as a high-level hoax which people took too seriously. I don’t believe this, as they seemed very serious at the time. The Dogon believe that the first human ancestors, and some of their gods, came from the sky. Hence Temple’s claim that they were contacted by space aliens. Picknett and Prince, however, sided with sceptics like Carl Sagan. They argued instead ithat the Dogon owed it to a French priest, anthropologist or colonial administrator, I’ve forgotten which, who visited them in the 1920s and who was extremely interested in astronomy. This seems to me to be far more likely than that they either got it from space aliens or that they far better mathematicians and astronomers than they could have been at their level of development.

The Dogon are fascinating as their homes and villages are laid out to be microcosms of the male and female human body and the universe. The book African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder, London: Hamlyn 1967, describes the layout of a Dogon house thus:

The shape of the Dogon house is symbolical. The floor is like the earth and the flat roof like heaven. The vestibule is a man and the central room woman, with store rooms at her sides as arms. The hear at the end is her head. The four posts are the man and woman entwined in union. So the family house represents the unity of man and woman and God and the Earth. This is accompanied by the elevation and ground plan of a typical Dogon house. (p. 49).

There’s also this diagram of an idealised Dogon village:

The caption for the diagrame reads:

Like the house, the Dogon village represents human beings. The smithy is at the head like a hearth in a house. The family houses in the centre and millstones and village represent the sexes. Other altars are the feet. (p. 51).

Truly, a fascinating people and I have no problem anybody wanting to study them. But it should be in anthropology, ethnography or comparative religion, not maths.

But it struck me that if teachers and educators want to enthuse and inspire young minds with what maths Africans were studying, they could start with ancient Egypt and the great Muslim civilisations of the Sahara and north Africa, like Mali. Aminatta Forna in one of her programmes on these civilisations was shown an ancient astronomical text from the medieval library of one of these towns, which she was told showed that Muslims knew the Earth orbited the sun before Copernicus and Galileo. I doubt that very much. It looks like a form of a combined helio-and geocentric system, first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and then taken up by some medieval astronomers not just in Islam, but also in Christian Europe. In this system, all the other planets when round the Sun, which orbited the Earth. Close to the modern system, but not quite. But it showed that the Black citizens of that civilisation were in contact with the great currents of Muslim science, and that they would have had learnt and taught the same kind of Maths that was being investigated and researcher right across the Muslim world, from India to Morocco and further south to Mali. One of the Black educationalists would like to translate one of these books from Arabic, the learned language of Muslim civilisation, and use it as an example of the kind of maths that was also taught in Black Africa.

Or you could go right back to ancient Egypt. Mathematical texts from the Land of the Nile have also survived in the Moscow and Rhind mathematical papyri. These have various maths problems and their solution. For example, problem No. 7 of the Moscow papyrus is about various calculations for a triangle. This runs

Example of calculating a triangle.

If you are told: A triangle of 2 thousands-of-land, the bank of 2 of 2 1/2;

You are to double the area: result 40 (arurae). Take (it) 2 1/2 times; result [100. Take its square root, namely] 10. Evoke 1 from 2 1/2; what results is 2/5. Apply this to 10; result 4. It is 10 (khet) in length by 4 (khet) in breadth. From Henrietta Midonick, The Treasury of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1965) p. 71.

It’s amazing to think that the boys at the scribal school were being taught all this millennia ago. It gives you a real sense of connection with the ancient schoolkids reading it. You can imagine them, hunched over with their pen and ink, busily cudgeling their brains while the teacher prowls about them. The Babylonians were also renowned as the pioneers of early mathematics. They even uncovered a school when they excavated Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s, complete with the maths and other texts the schoolboys – female education didn’t exist back then, but I’m willing to be corrected – were required to learn. As a schoolboy character in the Fast Show used to say: ‘Brilliant!’ You don’t need to burden modern African societies like the Dogon with spurious pseudo-history and pseudo-science, when the real historic achievements of ancient Egypt and medieval Africa are so impressive.

It struck me that even if you don’t use the original Egyptian maths texts to teach maths – which would be difficult, as their maths was slightly different. Their method of calculating the area of a field of four unequal sides yields far too high a figure, for example – you could nevertheless inspire children with similar problems. Perhaps you could do it with assistance of a child or two from the class. You could bring them out in front of everyone, give them and ancient Egyptian headdress, and then arranged the lesson so that they helped the teacher, acting as pharaoh, to solve it. Or else pharaoh showed them, his scribes, and thus the class. This is certainly the kind of thing that was done when I was a kid by the awesome Johnny Ball on the children’s maths and science programme, Think of a Number. And every week, as well as showing you a bit of maths and science, he also showed you a trick, which you could find out how to do by dropping him a line. It was the kind of children’s programme that the Beeb did very, very well. It’s a real pity that there no longer is an audience for children’s programmes and their funding has subsequently been cut.

Here’s History Debunked’s video attacking Ethnomathematics. He also attacks a piece of ancient baboon bone carved with notches, which he states has been claimed is an ancient prehistoric African calendar. He provides no evidence in this video to show that it wasn’t, and says its the subject of a later video. If this is the one I’m thinking of, then that is a claim that has been accepted by mainstream archaeologists and historians. See Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London: Fontana Press 1998) p. 24.

If you want to know more about ancient and medieval maths, and that of the world’s many indigenous cultures, see the book Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker with an introduction by the man of the crumpled suit and monocle himself, Patrick Moore (London: British Museum Press 1998).

This has chapters on astronomy in Europe from prehistory to the Renaissance, but also on astronomy in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, Islam, China, Korea and Japan, North and South America, traditional astronomical knowledge in Africa and among Aboriginal Australians, Polynesia and the Maori. It can be a difficult read, as it explores some very technical aspects, but it is a brilliant work by experts in their respective fields.

Darren Grimes: Respectable Journalist or Shape-Changing Alien Invader?

September 2, 2020

The Sunday before last, August 23rd 2020, Zelo Street put up a piece reporting the outrage when Sunday Morning Live decided to hold a debate about education. Unfortunately, one of the so-called ‘experts’ they invited on was professional Guido Fawkes windbag was Darren Grimes. A man, who can fairly be said to be one of the most ignorant people in journalism, and that’s against stiff competition like Sarah Vine, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Harry Cole, political editor of the Scum. Way back in the 1930s when the great Surrealist painter Salvador Dali fled to America to escape the Spanish Civil War, he declared that his mission was to cretinise the public. Well, Dali passed away in the late 70s, but he left his great mission to the Tory party. Back in the 1980s Private Eye reviewed one book by the new Tory thinkers that were coming through. I think it was by the late Roger Scruton, but I’m not sure. The book stated that Conservatism, based as it is on tradition, is silent and incoherent until forced into action. This was a clear statement of the anti-intellectualism that’s at the heart of Tory politics. It forced the Eye to ponder whether there was an optimum level of cretinisation. Had Prince Philip reached it? And one those seeming to carry on this mission to misinform the public spreading lies and sheer ignorance is Darren Grimes.

How Grimes gets invited onto the Beeb as any kind of authority is something of a mystery. He’s working class, and has something of a chip on his shoulder about his origins, feeling that he is looked down upon because of this and the fact that he has a northern accent. But this is what happens when you support a party run by elite public school types on behalf of elite public school types. They have elocution lesson at school deliberately to lose any regional accent they have. And this automatic connection between received pronunciation and leadership is explicitly stated by the British military. One spokesman for the British army, quoted in an article back in the 1980s stated very clearly that if you want to be a British officer, you should lose your regional accent otherwise you wouldn’t be respected by the troops. I’ve met a lot of squaddies, and in general they don’t respect the officers because of the bullying, sneering attitude so many of them have towards their men and women, along with stories of stupid orders that have led to disaster given by commanders against the advice of their NCOs.

Grimes also feels he’s despised because he didn’t complete his degree. He’s a failed fashion student. Okay, academic intelligence doesn’t automatically equate to being generally well-informed and intelligent. It’s just one form of it. When I was at school we were told that only 5 per cent of the British population went to university. That changed rapidly with the expansion of higher education in the 1990s with the creation of the new universities out of the older colleges and polytechnics. Then came Blair and New Labour, who wanted 50 per cent of the population to attend university. The result is that something like 46 per cent of the school leavers now go on to university. But this also means that there are plenty of older people, who are naturally very intelligent, but didn’t get a chance to go when they were children. Their intelligence shouldn’t be underestimated. But Darren Grimes isn’t one of them either.

In one of his pieces, he praised the Tories for breaking out of the old New Labour Oxbridge elite. It’s another falsehood, and the truth is exactly the opposite of what he said. New Labour senior figures came from a range of different universities. Blair attended Aberdeen, Gordon Brown Edinburgh. Another senior cabinet minister went to Newcastle Upon Tyne, I believe. It is the Tory administrations of Dave Cameron, Tweezer and now Boris Johnson that’s stuffed full of the Oxbridge elite. And then there’s that little incident of Grimes’ interview with David Starkey, in which he let the Tudor historian get away with all manner of racist nonsense. Including the really offensive statement that slavery couldn’t be a holocaust, because there are ‘too bloody many of them’ now around. Grimes’ appearance on Sunday Morning Live resulted in a number of peeps going on Twitter to ask the obvious question: how did someone as stupid and ignorant as Grimes get invited onto the Beeb. Zelo Street quotes a number of them, beginning with Mic Wright, who said  “I studied Education at Cambridge University (2:1). I am a school governor. I have written about education issues for 15 years. I am the first in my family to attend university. I have lots of broadcast experience. And now on [SML] … Darren Grimes, an expert in nothing”. Rosa P asked

What the hell does [Darren Grimes] actually know about anything? Surely you should have some expertise in any area to give an opinion on the BBC. Grimes, you had little to offer to the discussion other than telling us you did an apprenticeship in media studies … Made the mistake of putting [SML] on. Their expert panel discussing education includes Darren Grimes, whose sole qualification is that he once attended a school. I try to defend the BBC but they do themselves no favours with this nonsense”.

‘Pad’ pointed out the hypocrisy of Grimes himself for appearing on the Beeb when he wants to defund it. “Is Brexit gobshite Darren Grimes, whose Twitter header is a photo of him appearing on the BBC and who was, once again, on the BBC this morning talking utter bollocks, still a part of the ‘grassroots’ campaign to [Defund the BBC]?

John Traynor’s answer to this conundrum was succinct: “BBC has arsehole Darren Grimes on because it doesn’t understand balance in broadcasting”.

Zelo Street concluded his article with this:

‘What, one has to ask, is the point of inviting pundits with some expertise, who are prepared to research their subject, just to find they have to debate with Darren Grimes, whose USP is to whine about people calling him an idiot. Because he is one.

Having an opinion is not the same as knowledge. Know the difference, BBC people.’

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/08/bbc-and-darren-grimes-oh-dear.html

 

The mention of Grimes reminded of the very brief description of an evil alien race in Ed McNab’s The Alien Spotter’s Handbook or How to Save the Earth. This was a children’s humorous book published in 1982, which mixed real astronomy with a less than reverent treatment of astrology, as well as Fortean phenomena like frog falls and the Devil’s hoof prints in Devon, the Mary Celeste and so on, with simple stage magic tricks and instructions how to make your own simple telescope and periscope around the fictional narrative that there is an alien plot to take over the world. This was discovered by the fictional Dr. Qwax. Evidence for this malign plot came when experts examined an alien probe that landed in Peterborough. Ostensibly friendly, further investigation revealed that it was far more sinister, with a secret compartment containing computer games like ‘Kill the Human’. It’s written as a guide to uncovering these covert alien invaders, including those who have taken over members of your family, like your dad or granny. There are plenty of the kind of daft jokes children of all ages love, and 2000 AD and the mighty Tharg also get a mention. One of the jokes is a spoof list of pop songs secretly written by aliens. And one of them is The Grymes They Are a-Changin’ by the Metamorphs. This has a footnote helpfully explaining that they are ‘Shape-Changers from a very dense planet. Grymes specilise in Heavy Metal Rock musicians.’

Gyrmes/Grimes – this must be it then. Grimes is really a Gryme, a shape-changing alien from a very dense planet, who has disguised himself as a human as part of this insidious alien plot. It has to be! It can’t be because he actually has any real journalistic talent.

Egyptians Issue Polite Invitation to Musk to See that Aliens Didn’t Built the Pyramids

August 4, 2020

Here’s a rather lighter story from yesterday’s I, for 3rd August 2020. Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist and space entrepreneur, has managed to cause a bit of controversy with Egyptian archaeologists. He’s a brilliant businessman, no doubt, but he appears to believe in the ancient astronaut theory that alien space travellers built the pyramids. He issued a tweet about it, and so the head of the Egyptian ministry for international cooperation  has sent him a very polite invitation to come to their beautiful and historic country and see for himself that this is very obviously not the case. The report, ‘Musk invited to debunk alien pyramid theory’, by Laurie Havelock, runs

An Egyptian official has invited Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon, to visit the country and see for himself that its famous pyramids were not built by aliens.

Mr Musk appeared to publicly state his support for a popular conspiracy theory that imagines aliens were involved in the construction of the ancient monuments.

But Egypt’s international co-operation minister corrected him, and said that laying eyes on the tombs of the pyramid builders would be proof enough.

Tombs discovered inside the structures during the 1990s are definitive evidence, experts say, that the structures were indeed built by ancient Egyptians. On Friday, Mr Musk tweeted: “Aliens built the pyramids obv”. which was retweeted more than 84,000 times. It prompoted Egypt’s minister of international co-operation Rania al-Mashat to respond: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you & SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also check out the tombs of the pyramid builders. Mr Musk, we are waiting for you.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass also responded in a short video in Arabic, posted on social media, saying Mr Musk’s argument was a “complete hallucination”.

Hawass used to be head of their ministry of antiquities, and a very senior archaeologist. He was on TV regularly in the 1990s whenever there was a programme about ancient Egypt. And he doesn’t have much truck with bizarre theories about how or why the pyramids were built. ‘Pyramidiots – that what I call them!’ he once declared passionately on screen.

The idea that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because it was all somehow beyond them has been around for some time, as have similar ideas about a lost civilisation being responsible for the construction of other ancient monuments around the world, like Stonehenge, the Nazca lines and great civilisations of South America, Easter Island and so on. Once upon a time it was Atlantis. I think in certain quarters it still is. And then with the advent of UFOs it became ancient astronauts and aliens. One of the illustrations Chris Foss painted for a book cover from the 1970s shows, I think, alien spacecraft hovering around the pyramids.

There’s actually little doubt that humans, not aliens, built all these monuments, and that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids for which their country’s famous. Archaeologists have even uncovered an entire village, Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who worked on them. This has revealed immensely detailed records and descriptions of their daily lives as well as their working environment. One of the documents that has survived from these times records requests from the craftsmen to their supervisors to have a few days off. One was brewing beer – a staple part of the ordinary Egyptians diet – while another had his mother-in-law coming round. I also distinctly remember that one of the programmes about ancient Egypt in the 1990s also proudly showed a tomb painting that at least depicted the system of ramps the workers are believed to have used to haul the vast stones into place. And the great ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories, states very clearly that the pyramids were built by human workers. He includes many tall tales, no doubt told him by tour guides keen to make a quick buck and not to worried about telling the strict truth to an inquisitive foreigner. Some of these are about the spice and rich perfumes traded by the Arab civilisations further west. He includes far-fetched stories about how these exotic and very expensive products were collected by giant ants and other fabulous creatures. But no-one tried telling him that it wasn’t people, who built the pyramids.

On the other hand, the possibility that aliens may have visited Earth and the other planets in the solar system isn’t a daft idea at all. Anton ‘Wonderful Person’ Petrov, a Russian YouTuber specialising in real space and science, put up a video a few weeks ago stating that it’s been estimated that another star passes through the solar system once every 50,000 years. A similar paper was published by a Russian space scientist in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1990s, although he limited the estimated to a star coming within a light-year of Earth. That’s an incredibly small distance, and if there have been other, spacefaring civilisations in our Galaxy, they could easily jump off their solar system to visit or explore ours. We can almost do it ourselves now, as shown by projects that have been drawn up to send light-weight probes by solar sail to Alpha Centauri. In addition to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes to comb the skies for a suitable signal, there is also planetary SETI. This advocates looking for the remains of alien spacecraft or visitors elsewhere in our solar system. It’s advocates are serious scientists, though it suffered a major blow to its credibility with the furore over the ‘Face on Mars’. Which turned out not to be a face at all, but a rock formation as its critics had maintained.

Aliens may well have visited the solar system in the deep past, but it was definitely very human ancient Egyptians, who built the pyramids. Because, as Gene Roddenberry once said about such theories, ‘humans are clever and they work hard.’ Wise words from the man who gave us Star Trek.

Let’s go out in space to seek out new life and new civilisations by all means, but also keep in mind what we humans are also capable of achieving on our own down here.