Saturday, June 25, 2016

Assyrian Ancient Astronauts?

Once again, I'm caught between two conflicting desires.  On the one hand, I want to write about something weirdly oddball and unique -- something special to me, something that seems to have no other home on the internet that I can find.  On the other hand, I don't want to make it look like I'm making fun of this strange little cultural artifact.

(Above, I said "once again" because I've done this dance before.  I'm still not sure I should have written about the infamous Alphabet of Neptune.)

Sigh.  I'll proceed, hopefully with enough caveats to show that I don't want to belittle anyone's beliefs or put down the creativity of a hardworking writer.

What's this all about?  The UFO craze from the 1950s to the 1980s led to some interesting publications.  As a teen growing up in northern New Jersey, we saw a lot of colorful pulp magazines from New York City that I'm not sure made it to other parts of the country.  I couldn't get enough of "Official UFO," which often contained long-form treatises about how to spot hidden aliens, Elvis' posthumous life in hiding, and all forms of visitations and abductions.  But something in the April 1980 issue of spinoff magazine "Ancient Astronauts" caught my eye...

See that blurb at the bottom?  "Cosmic mystery of the Assyrian poem!"  The article inside talked about a recently discovered clay tablet, translated by esteemed archaeologist Irwin Wilson (of whom the internet has no memory), and which proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the ancients had astronomical knowledge only obtainable from contact with space-faring beings.

I'm being snarky.  Apologies.  My teenage brain kind of believed it (i.e., really wanted to believe it), while simultaneously realizing it must be a pure fake.  I kept the hopeful dissonance alive for several years.  As a result, it's been firmly lodged in the back of my mind for three decades.  Seeing it nowhere else on the web, I feel the need to preserve it.  Like a clay tablet buried beneath the shifting sands, maybe?  I won't reproduce the whole article, but I will show a scan of the first page, then transcribe the actual poem with some astronomical commentary on each part.

Click to enlarge

The "poem" is a list of ten children and their characteristics.  The idea is that they're metaphors for the planets in our solar system.  There were things there that ancient humans couldn't have known, but were only discovered "recently" (by 1980).  The kicker would be to find things in the poem that weren't known in 1980, but are now.  Let's search!

The first child, fleet and warped, shall by his mother be consumed in flame.

Mercury is the fastest moving planet.  I don't think it's particularly "warped" in shape, but its orbit is modified by the gravitational warping of spacetime so near the sun.  We're pretty sure that in 5 billion years or so, it will be the first planet to be engulfed by the dying sun.  All this was known in 1980.  :-)

The second child, though known as beauty, shall be found a cursed thing. Poison and strangulation shall lie under her diaphanous gown. Liar is her name.

A little harsh on poor Venus, don't you think?  Sure, its atmosphere turned out to be dense and highly toxic.  But before that, all we had was Edgar Rice Burroughs and his phantastical dreams of a tropical paradise under all those clouds.

The third child, brother to them all...

Interesting choice for Earth to be gendered male, while the Sun is female.  Note that this line tags the word "brother" to refer elsewhere to humanity and its home.

The fourth child, angry eye of war, shall be a disappointment. No kin of kin to brother after long hope. His face is broken, four boils shall wash his face with tears.  Yet, he shall one day be known as hope.

I guess the Viking missions to Mars in the late 1970s were a bit of a let-down to baby boomers, for whom the terms "space alien" and "Martian" were almost synonyms.  The 1970s also saw the first detailed maps of Martian geography, which included the Tharsis plateau and its four huge volcanos (boils).  "Hope?" Nah, he shall one day be known as Mark Watney.

The fifth brother, lost to his brother, was by his mother most joyously born. All blessings and gladness did he receive and he shall be long remembered by _______ (The name or term cannot be translated -- I.W.) He is broken now and his body has been eaten by his kin -- to their delight or despair. His memory shall one day return.

Now it gets interesting.  The fifth brother seems to be the putative progenitor of the asteroid belt, which some used to call Phaëton.  Trouble is, the astronomers have pretty much come to universal agreement that the asteroids were never all joined into a single planet.  They just are remnants of the original "planetesimals" that were there at the start of the solar system.  Maybe asteroid mining will someday help bring all this rapturous joy back to the brother!

The sixth child is father to the mother and will rage like her. His children offer much hope to the brother, a link to _______. In the years he will feed his brother. He shall wear a crown but lightly, a mock to brother next. He apes his mother and so he must burn.

Big burly Jupiter is often thought of as a "failed star," but it's really nowhere near massive enough to "rage" like the sun.  The Voyager probes visited Jupiter in 1979, and found all sorts of surprises on its moons -- from ice floes on top of water oceans (Europa) to the most active volcanos in the solar system (Io).  Voyager also discovered a faint, dinky ring system.  Nothing in comparison to Saturn's crown, of course.

The seventh child, both fat and squat, bears a glorious crown and shall be loved by his brother for his first child. The child is faith to brother and will give up treasures to all. Blessed be the child of the seventh! He shall quench the angry eye of war and melt the tarnished sword.  The seventh keeps his child warm.

Saturn is the most oblate (slightly hamburger shaped) of the known large planets.  But what's all this about its first child, Titan?  Our Assyrian friends heap so much praise on this little moon!  In the 1970s we knew about its thick atmosphere, but it wasn't until 2004 that its liquid hydrocarbon lakes and rivers began to be mapped.  What it's got to do with Mars (the angry eye of war), I have no idea.

The eighth child, merriest of them all, shall turn his bald pate to his mother. Tipsy, he shall dance with his children where he lays.  He shall be crowned, but lightly.  His name shall be mystery.  Beyond sight of brother ... to follow his turning to the right star.  Immortal is his form.

Oh, come on.  Uranus is just merry because of the infinite puns made about its name.  It does orbit around an axis tilted at roughly 90 degrees from where it ought to be -- and it's got a faint set of rings -- but we knew that stuff in the 1970s, too.  Uranus was the first of the "modern" planets discovered via telescope, so it's only "beyond sight of brother" to the naked eye.

The bits about "to follow his turning to the right star," and immortality, intrigued me a lot.

The ninth child, terrible is his name, is the step but last to infinity. Lost of crown, lost of son, he shall be eclipsed by child stolen by broken kin. At his end shall be found by brother the new beginning...

The ninth is Neptune, and his "lost son" is probably meant to be Pluto.  I'm pretty sure the idea that some cosmic collision resulted in Pluto's ejection from Neptune's gravity was being talked about prior to 1980.  Pluto's weird orbit sometimes takes it closer to the sun than Neptune.

"Lost of crown?"  Nope, it turns out Neptune does have a faint ring system like the other gas giants.  Wikipedia says it was first discovered in 1968, but I don't think it was widely known until much later.

The tenth child, cold be his name, is slow and blind.  No heat there is for him.  Tiny are his children.  He wears no crown.  For many ages unknown will he be to brother.  He throws combs at his mother for her ingratitude. His brother shall know him when he takes his eyes from his face.

Here's Planet X.  Or, maybe Planet IX now that we've renumbered.  In the last year or so, there have been some tantalizing hints that there really may be a massive planet way out there, though the idea of it has been in circulation for almost a century.  If it exists, it may alter the orbits of some other asteroids, but it's not the same thing as the Oort Cloud (which does appear to send "combs" into the inner solar system).  "Eyes from his face" may refer to space telescopes?

The eleventh child...  (Here the manuscript breaks off.)

Oh, those Assyrian teases.

In hindsight, yes, this was hokey and silly.  It doesn't really pass the basic test of predicting things that weren't known in 1980 but are known now.  If only it talked about hexagonal clouds on Saturn, dried river beds on Mars, heart-shaped blemishes on Pluto, or pillars of salt on Ceres!

However, I've got to give it to the writer (listed as "Mark Matthews," but I wouldn't doubt pseudonyms were common) for assimilating so many contemporary astronomical discoveries into the world of myth.  This helped my teenage mind soar into the outer heliosphere, that's for sure!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Alchemy: can an app make art?

I've talked a bit about the dream of making a real-world version of Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game.  The goal of this game is essentially to make art out of art... and out of science, and just about anything else.

In order to juxtapose and transform ideas of all kinds, one needs a common language.  Hesse was vague about the symbols and glyphs he imagined the Game Players using (i.e., definitely not literal beads!), but he knew the game's "language" had to be able to describe just about anything:
"A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game's symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations."

Some modern-day Game designers have tried to punt on this issue in a clever way.  In our internetworked age, don't we already have a universal language?  Consider computerized 1's and 0's:  they can be combined to form ASCII characters, or full-color bitmapped JPGs, or nice-sounding MP3's.  Any existing work of art or scientific theorem can be reproduced with just the right combination of on's and off's.

That may be the practical answer, but it doesn't seem like the most elegant one.  I guess I'm still hearing the same inner voices that compelled Leibniz and Wilkins back in the 1600s.  Couldn't there be a universal way of more directly symbolizing all the disparate ideas that the human mind can dream up?

The reason I'm writing this post is that I've come across something kind of new (but also kind of ancient) that has me thinking more about this issue.  Insight has come from an Android app!

Someone named Andrey "Zed" Zaikin created Alchemy, a game in which
"You have only four basic elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Combine them and their products to get more than 300 new elements. You can create a Life, Beer, Vampires, Skyscrapers and much more."
(Note: this post is not an advertisement.  Although I've searched for many details about this game, I haven't yet downloaded or played it.  I can't vouch for the product itself.)

It's such a simple concept, but it's a fantastic example of building an ontology of ideas out of just 4 fundamental concepts.  At the risk of "spoilers," let me just give a few examples of the successive build-up of complexity that it allows:

lava = earth + fire
stone = lava + air
sand = stone + air
beach = sand + water

Of course, you can eventually get to Gold -- as well as Yoda, Batman, and the Kama Sutra -- but I won't say how.

However, I'm not quite sure where to go from here.  (I guess I say that a lot in these kinds of posts!)  I'd pay good money for a dictionary of thousands of concepts, each constructed in the above way.  Especially if those concepts included the basics of music theory, narrative tension, postulates of pure math, foundations of modern science, and so on!  Am I up for writing such a thing myself?  Probably not...

...barring any future thunderbolts of polyfugual enlightenment, of course!  :-)