Discrete Auroras on Mars in New, Impressive Images

Recent images taken by the Hope spacecraft launched by the United Arab Emirates show an improved view of auroras on Mars.

The auroras on Mars don’t just appear over the poles, however, but all around the planet. The Emirates Mars Mission didn’t discover these discrete auroras, but Hope’s images are, apparently, the most impressive captured so far.

Nature EMM Hope Discrete Auroras

Left: a spectrometer image captured by Hope; right: an artist’s impression of discrete auroras on Mars’s night side, both by Emirates Mars Mission via Springer Nature Ltd

As a fan of aurora borealis, I find it fascinating to get to see them on a neighboring planet. Yay, science!

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Flexible Roman Glass?

Did an ancient Roman inventor come up with flexible glass? That’s one possible interpretation of a curious anecdote told by several Roman sources.

A Roman drinking glass

The evidence

There is no archaeological evidence for flexible Roman glass; nothing like it has turned up in any excavation. All the evidence we have is literary, three mentions from various sources. Here is what we have (my own translations):

In the reign of Tiberius, a kind of glass was invented that was concocted in such a way that it was flexible, but the entire workshop of its inventor was destroyed so that the price of bronze, silver, and gold would not be brought down (a rumor that has for a long time had more repetition than credibility).

Pliny, Natural History 36.66

There was once an artisan who made a glass drinking up that was unbreakable. When he was given an audience with the emperor to show off his invention, he made the emperor hand the cup back to him, then hurled it to the stone floor. The emperor could not have been more alarmed. The man picked the cup up off the ground, and it was dented just like a bronze cup, but he produced a small hammer from his pocket and with very little effort he made the cup good as new. With this performance, he thought he was in the throne of Jupiter.

The emperor then asked: “No one else knows how to make glass like this, do they?”

Now, look what happened. When the man answered “No,” the emperor ordered him beheaded, because if knowledge of this invention got out, we would treat gold like mud.

Petronius, Satyricon 51

[An engineer comes up with a novel way of renovating a collapsing building, for which the emperor Tiberius jealously exiles him.] Later this man came to the emperor as a supplicant and deliberately let a glass drinking cup fall to the floor in front of him, and although the cup was somehow damaged, after rubbing and beating it with his hands on the spot he showed the emperor that it was unbroken. He was aiming to get himself a pardon, but the emperor ordered him executed.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.21

Could it be true?

There are a few reasons to think these stories might be true, if not in all details then at least in the most interesting one: that some Roman crafter figured out how to make a material that looked like glass but didn’t shatter like it.

The fact that we have this story from three different sources gives it some credibility, especially since two of those sources, Pliny and Petronius, are roughly contemporary with the emperor Tiberius under whom the unbreakable glass was supposed to have been invented.

Flexible kinds of glass exist today, but they are recent developments. It is unlikely that a Roman glassmaker, even if they had stumbled on the right chemical formula, would have had a furnace capable of high enough temperatures with precise enough control to have achieved the same result. It is more possible to imagine that a Roman artisan came up with something like modern plastic. Early plastics developed in the 1800s used materials that would have been available to the Romans, such as cellulose from wood, the resin of the sweetgum tree, and proteins derived from milk, eggs, and blood. Some of the plastics derived from these materials are translucent and flexible, and might have appeared to onlookers unfamiliar with their source as flexible glass.

Despite these considerations, though, there are much stronger reasons to think that nothing like flexible glass was ever created in antiquity.

Probably not

First of all, we have to look at our sources critically. None of them is very good as evidence. Pliny straight out tells us that he doesn’t believe the story he is relating. Petronius puts the story into the mouth of a boorish and narcissistic fictional character, far from a reliable narrator. And Cassius Dio was writing about two centuries later and seems to have garbled this story with the tale of a later emperor, Hadrian, and his jealousy of a famous architect. Although it is interesting that we have versions of this story from three different sources, all that means is that, as Pliny notes, it was a tale widely told, not necessarily that there was any truth to it.

The fact that this story is connected with Tiberius also points to it being unreliable. Pliny, Petronius, and Cassius Dio were all part of the Roman elite, who generally disliked Tiberius. As the second emperor of Rome after the beloved Augustus, Tiberius had big sandals to fill and little of his predecessor’s charisma and social grace. The accounts of Tiberius as emperor that have come down to us describe him as tactless, cynical, cruel, and prone to paranoia. He also ruled Rome during a time of economic hardship, and his pragmatic concern for financial stability (including worrying about things like the prices of commodities and the steadiness of the gold and silver supply) came off as small-minded stinginess to the rest of the Roman upper crust. The idea of Tiberius responding to a wondrous new invention by destroying both it and the inventor appealed to existing prejudices about him, which helped the story spread. Romans like Pliny and Petronius already believed that Tiberius was cruel when he should have been magnanimous, tight-fisted when he should have been generous, and quick to apply violence to those who did not deserve it. The story of the wondrous glass cup not only made these qualities manifest, it served as a cautionary tale about the foolishness of such behavior. It was, in short, a good story, and good stories spread easily even when they aren’t true.

If there is any kind of truth behind the tale, it may be something less revolutionary. Glassmaking is a skilled art, and in antiquity it practitioners carefully guarded their secrets. To an uninitiated observer, the malleability of hot glass in a glass-blower’s workshop may have seemed quite wondrous, and the story may have spread from there without the crucial understanding that glass only flows so easily when it is fresh from the furnace. Additionally, around the time of Tiberius, new kinds of mold-blown glass were coming onto the Roman market that imitated the shapes of metal vessels. To the average Roman aristocrat shopping for luxury housewares, the idea that a material might exist combining the translucency of glass with the malleability of metal might not seem so far-fetched. If these ideas were already circulating in Roman literary circles, it is not strange to imagine that someone put them together with the existing negative perceptions of Tiberius and concocted a “What if” story that took on a life of its own as gossip and political mudslinging.

In the end, it is unlikely that any Roman artisan ever figured out how to make flexible glass. As interesting as the story is, it tells us more about the perception of Tiberius than it does about any fabulous ancient discoveries.

Further reading:

Champlin, Edward. “Tiberius the Wise.” Historia Bd. 57, H. 4 (2008): 408-425

Keller, Vera. “Storied Objects, Scientific Objects, and Renaissance Experiment: The Case of Malleable Glass.” Renaissance Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2017): 594-632.

Stern, E. Marianne. “Ancient Glass in a Philological Context.” Mnemosyne 4th ser. 60, f. 3 (2007): 341-406.

Image: Roman drinking glass (not flexible), photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Domvs Romana, Mdina, Malta; 1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE; glass)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

They’re Good Dogs, Xenophon

The ancient Greek author Xenophon is best known for writing about the life of the philosopher Socrates and his own experiences in a company of mercenaries in the Persian Empire, but he also wrote a handbook on hunting, full of practical advice for youngsters taking up the sport. He devotes a fair amount of time to the proper care and handling of hunting dogs. Here’s his advice on keeping your dogs in good shape:

It is a good idea to take [dogs] into the mountains frequently, but not so much into farmed fields, for in the mountains they can hunt and track game unimpeded, but fields are not good for these exercises because of the paths. It’s good to take your dogs into rough ground even if they don’t find a hare, for this sort of terrain helps develop their feet and bodies. In summer, let them run out until noon, in winter throughout the day, any time apart from midday during the autumn, and in the evening in the spring, since this is when the temperatures are moderate.

Xenophon, On Hunting, 4.9-11

(My own translation)

Having grown up with a dog and having a number of friends who keep dogs, even if we never used them for hunting, I can’t argue with this advice.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Second Trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The first of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s full-on Asian movies, The Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is coming in three months, and the studio has released a second long trailer.

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Trailer by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

As I wrote in my reaction to the first trailer, if there aren’t enough pre-launch links (no pun intended) to familiar characters or events, I’ll probably skip this movie.

It didn’t look like there were any additional links in this trailer, either. However, Andrew Tejada’s writeup at Tor.com did speculate whether two characters have “huge potential connections” to the MCU. One is the Abomination played by Tim Roth in The Incredible Hulk from 2008 (written by Zak Penn and directed by Louis Leterrier with Edward Norton and Liv Tyler leading the cast). I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the character, and even if I had, completely opposite to Mr. Tejada, his return certainly is far, far, far down the list of things that might entice me to the theater.

The action looks gorgeous, yes, not to mention beautifully shot. However, if I wanted to see skilled Asian people perform feats of martial arts on screen, with occasional flares of the fantastic and/or superheroic, I would’ve been watching Hong Kong flicks all along.

What I’m looking for in the MCU is individual stories that connect and interweave in arcs multiple movies wide, impossible to tell in one or two or three movies. So far the Shang-Chi trailers aren’t giving me that. (While I’ll always enjoy origin stories like the first Iron Man, it’s in connecting his story to the rest of the Avengers’ that makes the MCU so special.) And that is a real shame, since I dearly want more of the world outside the Anglo-American one on the MCU screen.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

How Wars Begin: The View from Ancient Greece

Explaining why wars begin is an urgent question for a lot of people: if we knew how they started, maybe we’d figure out how to stop them. It is also an important question for a lot of writers. Many works of fantasy literature are set in times of war, and even if the main characters don’t know or understand how it all started, in order to build the world around the story effectively, the author should have some idea of how and why it began.

Greek vase showing hoplites fighting

In European literature, interest in the causes of wars goes back as far as the literary tradition itself. The first major work of literature written down in the West, the Iliad, is about characters caught in the midst of a war whose origins are so remote as to be beyond human knowledge. Much of the tragedy of the Trojan War myths comes from seeing how people suffer because of the capricious rivalries of the gods. Many other stories of Greek mythology have to do with the causes of war, such as the legends of the “Seven Against Thebes,” which follows the tragic fortunes of Oedipus’ family as they suffer the consequences of his rash and misguided actions as a young man. Works grounded in mythology tend to place the causes of wars in the hands of individuals, whether human, divine, or in between. The mischievous spite of Eris caused the Trojan War, and Oedipus’ hotheadedness embroiled generations of his family in conflicts around Thebes. Many Greeks were happy to apply this same kind of mythical thinking to their own history: the playwright Aeschylus’ account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480, The Persians, focuses on Xerxes’ personal arrogance and irresponsibility.

Early historians shifted their focus away from the personal to look at larger causes. Herodotus, attempting to explain the wars between the Persian Empire and some of the Greek cities, continued to make much of personal motivations, especially when it came to Xerxes. Herodotus expanded on Aeschylus’ portrait of the king, adding more nuance to the image of an overbearing, capricious monarch. At the same time, he was also interested in deeper forces. Herodotus was interested in the idea of balance and reciprocity, and ultimately saw the Persian invasion of Greece as balancing the cosmic scales for the legendary Greek invasion of Troy. He was also interested in how the choices of individuals interacted with and were shaped by the political structures in which they lived, pointing out that Xerxes’ arrogance had such devastating consequences because in a monarchy there was no one who could step in and prevent him from making rash decisions.

Herodotus’ younger contemporary Thucydides witnessed his home city of Athens go to war with Sparta with terrible consequences for both. He dismissed anything that smacked of myth and instead sought explanations in the hard realities of power. Athens, he argued, was becoming more powerful while Sparta was becoming weaker. It was these forces—the results of human actions, but in themselves impersonal and abstract—that led to the conflict, he argued: the Athenians fought out of a desire for more power and wealth, the Spartans out of the fear of losing what they had.

Some centuries later, the historian Polybius, writing at a time when Greece was a newly-conquered province of the Roman Empire, examined the causes of wars with more nuance, using Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire as an example. Polybius distinguished three different elements: what he called the beginning, the cause, and the pretext. The beginning was the first event of a war; when Alexander crossed into Anatolia with his army, that was the beginning of the invasion. It is useful for historians to identify the beginning of a war, Polybius argued, but the actual cause must come first: what was it that led people to decide to take that first action? In Alexander’s case, it was a century of Greek experience on the fringe of the Persian Empire which showed that the Persian position in Anatolia was poorly organized and vulnerable to attack. The third element is the pretext, the statements that people put out in public to justify the actions they have already decided to take. In Alexander’s case, the pretext was revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece generations earlier; Alexander’s own actions later showed that his anti-Persian stance was never more than a front to keep his mostly Greek army unified.

How you approach explaining the origins of the wars in your stories depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If yours is an epic tale about the desires and passions of larger than life heroes, then let mythology guide you: have a war that starts because someone didn’t get invited to a party, or because someone got road rage and picked a fight with the wrong person. If your story is more grounded, but you still want some epic flavor, Herodotus may be a good model: let your war start because of the personal, human decisions made by your characters in the context of grand forces beyond their control. For a gritty, hard-edged story of war, follow Thucydides: people start wars because they think they can get something out of it, or because they’re afraid of losing what they have. In any case, remember Polybius: how people start fighting, why they decided that fighting was worth it, and what they said to justify it are three different things.

Image: Vase painting of hoplites fighting, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; c. 560 BCE; painted pottery; by the Fallow Deer painter)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Placing Heaven in a Bowl

Bowl enameled in green and purple with intricate metalwork
Modern minakari bowl, photograph by Interesting009 via Wikimedia

This gorgeous bowl is an example of a style of enamel work known as minakari (also spelled meenakari or mina-kari), which literally means “to place heaven into an object.”

The style was developed in Persia under the Safavid kingdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE. Artists of that time took enameling techniques from Europe and China and used them to create works whose intricate designs and vivid colors drew on the rich legacy of Persian and Islamic art.

Minakari works are still being produced today, especially in and around the city of Isfahan. “Placing heaven in an object” seems like a good enough description to me.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

More Trailers and Clips for Black Widow

The original release date for the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Black Widow was, unfortunately, eaten up by the pandemic. Out for round two, we have a new long trailer.

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow | New Trailer by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Mostly recycled footage, but a few entirely new clips. Unlike the earlier ones, this trailer seems to underline Natasha’s connection to the Avengers: glimpses gleaned from the rest of the MCU stories are pasted in, and the Avengers’ theme swells in both in the beginning and at the end. I wonder how much the pandemic might have affected the decision to include them?

I also wonder whether the shorter clips linked to below, ranging from half a minute to three quarters, released in June 2021, might have to do with the careful re-opening of our movie theaters and wanting to drum up more interest, yet not going overboard in case theaters need to be closed again? (I certainly do not envy health care officials who have to make those hard calls.)

Let’s Go | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Got This | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Spy | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Control | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Finally, Marvel has uploaded a short film clip titled “In Pursuit”:

“In Pursuit” Film Clip | Marvel Studios’ Black Widow by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Okay, apart from the falling bit, it feels good to see an all-female team chased by an all-female team. The gender of the action heroes shouldn’t matter, if you ask me, but since we still live in a world where it does, I’m going to be rooting for Black Widow

…as long as it’s actually good—2005 Elektra, I’m looking at you!

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

First Trailer for Eternals

The Western world is vaccinating their citizens furiously against covid-19, and societies are clamoring to retun to normal. It’s therefore no surprise that we’re seeing more movie-related news.

The first trailer for Eternals has been out over a month now:

Marvel Studios’ Eternals | Official Teaser by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, it apparently follows a group of immortal, human-shaped beings who’ve lived on Earth for centuries in secret, until something (or someone?) forces them to come out of hiding.

As opposed to the first Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings trailer, there is at least one reference to the rest of the MCU, as bare and uninformative as it is, but I still don’t have a good idea of how these people connect to the rest of the characters we know.

Whether I’ll want to watch this is still up in the air; maybe the second trailer will give us more to go on. A talented, big-name cast should be interesting to see and Ramin Djawadi’s music awesome, if nothing else. Oddly (since I’m not especially keen on the early history of the Near East), one of the things I would enjoy seeing more of is Babylon and the Ishtar Gate, of which we see a short glimpse in the trailer.

At this writing, Eternals is set to release on November 05, 2021.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

A Contradictory Coin

Two faces of an ancient Roman coin, one showing a bearded man wearing a radiate crown, the other showing a young men wearing a wreath.



Palmyrene Antoninianus, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (270-272 CE; bronze and silver)

What’s so contradictory about this coin? Well, there’s a story behind it.

In the third century CE, the Roman Empire wasn’t doing well at all. Between 235 and 284, the empire suffered civil war and political chaos as numerous general claimed the imperial title with the backing of their troops, only to be assassinated and replaced with another general. At the same time there was an economic collapse and an outbreak of deadly disease that depopulated the great cities of the Mediterranean.

In this fifty years of crisis, the emperors were mostly concerned with securing their own power and fighting off rivals. People looked to more local powers to handle the ordinary business of governance. With such chaos and weakness at the top, some of these local powers began to operate as effectively independent states.

One such state was the empire of Palmyra. Palmyra was a city in the eastern Mediterranean, in what is today Syria. It had long been an important stop on caravan routes that connected the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and India beyond. The Palmyrene noble Odaenathus helped to support the Roman position in the region during a flare-up of conflicts with the Parthian Empire to the east. With weakness at the top of the empire, Odaenathus began to rule Palmyra with more and more independence over the course of the 260s. After his death in 267, his wife Zenobia, ruling on behalf of their young son Vaballathus, began an ambitious campaign of conquest that made Palmyra the ruling city of a de facto empire covering much of the Roman East.

While effectively operating as an independent power, Palmyra maintained a show of loyalty to the Roman Emperor at the time, Aurelian. In the early 270s, Zenobia issued coins like this one, bearing the image of Aurelian on one side and Vaballathus on the other. The text of the coin names Aurelian as emperor and calls Vaballathus only a general of the Romans. Since coins could circulate more widely than most other works of public art, these coins represented one of Zenobia’s best efforts to convey the message to Aurelian that she and her son were still loyal.

But the very existence of these coins belies the message they send. The minting of coins was an imperial prerogative, one closely tied to the power of the emperor himself. Rome allowed some of the cities under its rule to mint their own low-value bronze coinage for local trade, essentially small change to make it easier for people to do their day-today business in the market. Palmyra evidently had the right to mint such coins, although surviving evidence suggests that the Palmyrenes had never exercised that right on any large scale.

This coin is different. It is the type of coin known to scholars today as an “Antoninianus.” (We don’t know what, if anything, ancient people called them.) An Antoninianus was a high-value coin typically made of a combination of bronze and silver. Its face value was equivalent to several days’ pay for a legionary (although extreme inflation in the third century seriously eroded the coins’ actual value), and they were largely minted by the emperors to pay the troops who had put them into power. Coins of such value had a strong historical connection to the recruitment and pay of armies.

By minting coins of this type, Zenobia effectively declared her intention to lead armies independently of the Roman emperors. No matter what image she put on the coins, the very act of minting them was tantamount to announcing a rebellion.

Aurelian was not fooled by the display of loyalty. In 272 he attacked Palmyra, captured Zenobia, and reconquered the territory she had claimed. After another outbreak of rebellion in Palmyra the next year, Aurelian captured the city and destroyed it.

An object as seemingly simple as a coin can have complicated and even contradictory intentions behind it.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Beautiful, Breathtaking Planetary Embroidery by Ophélie Trichereau

Scotland-based French artist Ophélie Trichereau illustrates fantastic visions in gouache and watercolor. It is her embroideries, though, that I find most impressive, especially the planetary ones. Below are a few of my favorites.

At this writing, she has two different views of Jupiter available. I like this one:

Etsy Ophelie Trichereau Jupiter

Here’s Callisto:

Etsy Ophelie Trichereau Callisto

Last but certainly not the least, the Sun:

Etsy Ophelie Trichereau Sun Embroidery

So impressive! Every shade of every color is carefully selected, and shapes created with the stiching make the whole even more expressive. The intricacy of the patterns means they can’t be a fast project to create, but, then again, is anything worth doing worth doing sloppily? Trichereau’s effort really shows. Kudos!

See more of Trichereau’s work on Etsy or via LinkTree.

Found via N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.