Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.

Plain Floods

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Floods are the stuff of legends. In fact, one of the most pervasive myths of all times is the world-wide flood. While some would see this as “evidence” that such an impossible flood actually occurred (some believing so fervently as to build replicas of imaginary arks), others recognize the flood as a basic human dilemma. We require water, and therefore we build our cities near a source of it. Rivers worldwide are prone to floods. While recently stuck in a holding pattern waiting for space for our flight to land at Newark, floodplains were more than evident from high above. My hometown regularly experienced floods when ice jammed the Allegheny River during the spring thaws. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were, literally, epic-making. A piece in the Washington Post rather surprisingly reports “Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.” The story by Sarah Kaplan demonstrates the universality of unruly water.

I know little of Chinese history and mythology. There’s no reason, however, to doubt that stories of ancient floods were as common there as elsewhere. The flood is, pardon the Christianization, the baptism of civilization. Things have to be washed clean before “civilization” can begin. In this case, according to the story, Yu, the founder of China’s first dynasty, tamed the flood. Now scientists are finding flood deposits from the Yellow River that match the 1900 BCE time-frame of this mythical founding. We can be certain that some will latch onto this date noting how Abraham was said to have emerged shortly after the flood (Genesis chronology says Noah was still alive when Abraham was born) and therefore this is proof of the Biblical flood. Even Sir Leonard Woolley advertised that he’d found the biblical flood in the river deposits of Mesopotamia. When it comes to literalism, any old flood will do.

No doubt many ancient flood stories go back to some historical event. The world was never completely covered with water in human times (before that nobody was here to see), but it’s easy to understand how people might have believed it could have happened. Our view tends to be local, often at the expense of universal costs. Consider global warming, for example. It’s difficult for us to see something that impacts us as such a distance. Taking care of the planet is so hard when we realize just how big it is. Our neglect, however, will definitely cause floods to come. Our denial makes myths for future generations. Headlines millennia down the road, if anyone’s left to read them, will, I’m sure announce with surprise that the devastating floods we’re creating now were indeed real.

Le sacrifice humain

The thought of lying tied to an altar while you know someone is about to murder you is a terrifying one. For several reasons. Clearly, you don’t want to die. A more potent fear, however, may be that a darkly savage deity lies behind the dead. An angry, demanding god who desires nothing less than your annihilation. A story in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan suggests new findings by anthropologists now suggest a much more frightening rationale behind the world-wide phenomenon of human sacrifice. Kaplan reports that the article in Nature suggests human sacrifice was a means of social stratification. Maintaining control. Surely it must be obvious that those sacrificed are never the powerful and elite, unless, in a reversal of power structures, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the might that makes right. Think of England’s King Charles I, for example. The societies scrutinized in this study, however, are less “civilized” and human sacrifice is a means to remind people who’s in charge.

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What I find interesting about this is how easily the discussion slips into religion being part of the mix. Those of us who’ve spent our professional youths earning advanced degrees in the field have long realized that there is a political element to religion. Temples, yes, were built to the glory of their gods. They were also built to help finance the monarchies in power. Even the temple in Jerusalem was only erected after the monarchy was finally entrenched. Priests supported kings and kings supported priests. They were the elites of society. As Nathan so aptly pointed out, you don’t sacrifice your own lamb when you’re rich. You take someone else’s. Thus it has always been with the exercise of power.

The Nature study examines stratified and egalitarian societies. Human sacrifice is most pronounced in the most stratified. Those where—let’s not be too blunt here—the top one percent want to demonstrate their obvious control over the rest, human sacrifice is most common. Is it really religious? I think the answer is obvious. The gods people worship are those that are most like themselves. The difference is largely one of power. Might, despite all protestations to the contrary, does make right. Or at least right-wing. Human sacrifice still occurs. If the new study is right (and who can argue with science?) there is only one way to avoid being at the wrong end of the sacrificial knife. Or stone. Or torch. And it is to sacrifice the potential to become rich in order to ensure true equality.