Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Eagle-Winged Northern Lights

The Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest is hosted by National Maritime Museum, part of the Royal Museums Greenwich in Britain. In 2022, the competition was run for the 14th time. This shortlisted photo by Alexander Stepanenko didn’t win the award for auroae, as astounding as it is:

Colossal Alexander Stepanenko Winged Aurora orig Sm

Stepanenko’s shot was taken in Murmansk, Murmansk Oblast, Russia, and was highly commended by the jury.

Spectacular, isn’t it? As a Finn who grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle, I’ve seen my share of northern lights, but never this, hm, I guess curvy is the right word. I know they undulate and can therefore make fancier shapes; I’ve only managed to see them fairly linear, though, or curving over quite a large swath of the sky, just like I haven’t seen any purple or yellow ones myself.

Come to think of it, there is a thin lining of white and purple at the right edge of this aurora. Wow! Is it any wonder that natural scenes like these have lead the earlier hominids and humans to think of magic and gods?

Image by Alexander Stepanenko, found via Colossal.

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Living in the Science-Fictional Now: Flying Cars Are Closer than Ever

Flying cars have been dreamed of as long as cars have been around. If certain projects or companies are to be believed, flying cars will actually become available soon. For certain values of soon, anyway, and for certain values of car.

Current designs are as varied as the propulsion technologies and terminologies: flying cars, hovercars, gyrocopters, passenger drones, quadcopters, VTOL aircraft, eVTOL, maglev cars, personal air vehicles… Whatever you call them, aircraft that look less like airplanes and more like other small personal vehicles do seem be closer than ever to everyday reality.

Klein Vision AirCar in Flight Sm

For example, Volocopter’s air taxis have been demonstrated in Singapore (2019). The Dutch PAL-V Liberty gyroplane has not only test flown (2012) but also been approved for road use in Europe (2022). The AirCar by Klein Vision (pictured above) has completed a test flight between two cities(!) in Slovakia (2021) and received a certificate of airworthiness from the Slovak Transport Authority (2022). Reportedly, recent projects are also ongoing in Turkey and China. And, related to flying cars, a smart city and tourist destination being built in northwestern Saudi Arabia—dubbed Neom—has been planned for rail traffic and air taxis according to some reports.

Now, I’d assume all of the above is predicated on plentiful energy. How P*tin’s attempted extortion of Europe’s energy market (which has wider ripple effects, I’m sure) affects the development of flying cars will remain uncertain for some time yet.

I have to say, if flying cars do become common enough to be relatively easily available, I am tempted to get a pilot’s license (whatever kind might be required)—if I’m not too old by that time. (Planes are too high a hurdle, but small personal vehicles might just do for me.)

As a linguist, though, I’m mostly engaged with the question of a handy everyday name. That, too, is likely to be wrangled over at least as much as the technology side of their development.

Image: AirCar by Klein Vision

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Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Sandy Pyrenees

Now that it’s cold again in the northern hemisphere, it doesn’t feel wrong to post about this phenomemon.

I discovered that in March 2022, storms in Sahara threw a lot of dust into the atmosphere, and winds carried it hundreds of miles away. Here’s a photo from a ski resort in the French Pyrenees, where the slopes were covered with a layer of reddish sand:

Twitter BBC Weather Saharan Dust in Pyrenees

An amazing sight, isn’t it?

Although, as someone who’s grown up using sand and gravel on snow to stop motion, I do have to wonder at one thing: how on earth are you able to ski down these slopes?

(Being the wrong kind of Master of Science, I can only guess it has to do with the skier’s weight pushing the skis below the surface of the snow, therefore escaping the sand friction and still enabling skiing, but I don’t know.)

Image by BBC Weather on Twitter

Out There highlights intriguing art, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Minoan Mugs as Handsome as Modern Ones

It’s a common misconception that the further you go in history, the poorer the materials and decorations used were. Materials were simpler, yes; complex metal alloys, synthetic textile fibres, or clean rooms, for example, were a long way in the future.

But the more we study extant material remains, the clearer it is that humans have always appreciated beauty in their surroundings and—if they possessed the means—decorated both themselves and their everyday environment. Case in point: Minoan mugs from ca. 1,500 BCE.

Flickr George Plakides Minoan Mugs

Mugs in similar shapes can easily be found in modern tea shops, even if we don’t use exactly the same decorative motifs in the same combinations or colors anymore.

What’s also fascinating is that the handles are exquisitely formed, with just about exactly the same range of variations you can find nowadays. These people clearly knew how to make a practical and pretty mug.

Image by George Plakides on Flickr

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The Pyramids of Kush

The pyramids of Egypt may be famous, but they’re not the only pyramids to serve as royal tombs.

The region of Nubia lies along the upper Nile in modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The kingdom of Kush flourished here for a millennium and a half, even dominating Egypt for a century as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Kushites had a long history of war, trade, and diplomacy with Egypt, including incorporating elements of Egyptian art and architecture into their own culture. Like all such cultural borrowings, the Kushites did not simply imitate what they had seen in Egypt but reimagined and innovated on those ideas to suit their own needs.

Pyramids at the northern cemetery at Meroe. The larger pyramids in the background are in ruins, but the two smaller ones in the foreground have been restored in modern times to give an idea of the original shape. Photograph by UNESCO via Wikmedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

In Egypt, Kushite visitors would have seen the massive ancient stone pyramids of the early kings still famous today. They would also have seen small, steep-sided brick pyramids that were popular in later times as tomb markers for wealthy families. In their royal cemeteries in Nubia, Kushite rulers combined these forms to create stone pyramids much larger than the private monuments in contemporary Egypt, though not as large as the great pyramids of early pharaohs. These pyramids had steep sides, rising high over narrow bases. Many also had passages leading inside at ground level marked with monumental gates, a feature not found in Egyptian pyramids. While the major pyramids of Egypt were almost all built for kings, some of the largest Kushite pyramids were built for queens. These tombs drew on Egyptian ideas, but interpreted those ideas in a new way, marking the kings and queens of Kush as both connected to Egypt but also distinct.

Another view of a partially restored pyramid at Meroe. Photograph by Michael Walsh via Wikimedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

The custom of building tombs in this style took hold in Nubia. Despite the depredations of modern treasure hunters, there are, in fact, about twice as many Nubian pyramids still standing today as Egyptian. They are are a remarkable piece of world heritage and a fascinating example of the adaptation and reinvention of one culture’s ideas in the hands of another.

Pyramids at Nuri. Photgraph by Vit Hassan via Wikimedia (Nuri, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE; stone)

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Colorful Ancient Statues at the Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a fascinating new exhibit featuring reconstructions of some ancient works of art that show how they might have originally looked when they were still painted in bright colors. Sadly, I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic now to go and check it out myself, but there’s an excellent online gallery of examples. Here’s a comparison of one original sculpture with its reconstruction to give you an idea of how amazing the work is.

Sphinx finial, original and reconstruction via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Originally Athens, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; c. 530 BCE; marble. Reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkmann)

It’s always wonderful to get a chance to glimpse what the ancient world may have looked like when it wasn’t yet ancient.

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Visual Inspiration: Ruins Don’t Need to Be Grey and Dull

Ruins and abandoned places are often seen as plain and boring. Granted, the color of untreated, inexpensive rock (which the majority of surviving buildings tend to be made from) often isn’t anything to write home about. But in our fiction, ruined areas don’t need to be austere and grim. You can even find real-life ruins in a variety of styles for inspiration.

For example, houses in Herculaneum famously featured colorful mosaics and painted murals. In addition, paint was generously applied elsewhere, like these pillars and external wall from House of the Relief of Telephus show:

Flickr Andy Hay Herculaneum

In Sanzhi, Taipei County, Taiwan, clusters of colorful pod houses or UFO houses once stood:

Flickr mingshah Sanzhi Pod Houses

It’s not always humans who have applied the color onto the ruins either. At the ancient Maya site called Bonampak or Ak’e, in the Chiapas area, Mexico, strikingly orange lichen is taking over building facades:

Flickr Carsten ten Brink Bonampak

(Check out the Bonampak Wikipedia article for a stunning relief carving and a painted mural!)

In Dutch photographer Roman Robroek’s shots we can see that a ruin definitely need not be grey, blocky, and boring. Partly overrun by nature could mean an almost orderly takeover, like in the photo of a Gothic-style former chapel built at the end of 19th century, below:

Robroek Former Gothic Chapel Sm

Beautiful, brightly colored arches among rubble from the childhood house of Lebanese singer Fairuz (who was born in 1934) in Beirut form a striking contrast to the greenery outside:

Robroek Arches House of Fairuz

Finally, a still strikingly turquoise—if peeling—underside of a round staircase:

Robroek Blue Staircase Sm

It vaguely reminds me of peacock feathers! I wish the photographer gave us a little more information about the history of this place. Browse more via Colossal or at Robroek’s website.

Since they exist in real life, I would be delighted to read about vibrantly colored and visually striking abandoned places in my genre fiction, too.

Images: Herculaneum by Andy Hay via Flickr (CC BY2.0). Sanzhi Pod Houses by mingshah via Flickr. Bonampak by Carsten ten Brink via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Images by Roman Robroek: Former chapel. Arches at the house of Fairuz. Blue staircase.

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Living in the Science-Fictional Now: Solar Canals

Covering canals with something to slow water evaporation is a no-brainer, right? (Or should be.) How about making those covers be solar panels for a two-fer—as apparently is already happening in India—now, that’s outright ingenious.

Smithsonian Magazine Solar Canal System California

And not just India: for example, California has planned a similar system. Its first prototype section, Project Nexus, is about to break ground (in the fall of 2022).

(Incidently, I can recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Water Knife from 2015, in which water rights and covered canals feature strongly. In case you’re interested in that sort of fiction.)

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Image: an artist’s rendering of a solar canal system for California by Solar Aquagrid LLC (CC BY-ND) via Smithsonian Magazine

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Epitaph for a Pig

Carved gravestones with images and short poems celebrating the deceased were common in the ancient world, but it wasn’t just people who got them. This one commemorates a pig who apparently died in some kind of traffic accident. Like other Greek epitaphs, this one is phrased in the first person, as if the pig were narrating its own story.

A little pig, everyone’s friend, a young quadruped, I lie here, after leaving behind the land of Dalmatia to be offered as a gift. I walked through Dyrrachium and Apollonia in my longing, and passed through the whole earth alone untouched. Now, by the violence of wheels, I have left the sunlight behind. I longed to see Emathia and the phallic chariot, but now I lie here, and my debt to death is cleared.

Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecarum 25:711

(My own translation)

The story seems to be that a pig was bought somewhere in Dalmatia (the Balkans) and driven overland toward the plain of Emathia in Macedonia (west of modern-day Thessaloniki), to be offered as a sacrifice in a festival for Dionysus (which often involved a large decorated phallus carried in a procession). The stone was found in Edessa, a city right at the edge of Emathia, and it seems that here the poor pig got run over by a cart.

It’s certainly unusual for an animal to have a gravestone like this. There was a custom of writing joke epitaphs for animals, but few people went to the expense of actually getting them carved in stone. Perhaps this pig was special, or perhaps the gravestone represents a kind of substitute for the religious act of sacrifice that was no longer possible once the pig was killed on the road.

Whatever the case may be, that was clearly some pig.

Image: Copy of pig stela, photograph by Philipp Pilhofer via Wikimedia (Edessa; 2-3 c. CE; carved stone)

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Living in the Science-Fictional Now: Photos from Another Planet Are Trivial

One of the astounding things about living right now is the sheer amount of scientific knowledge and technical skills humanity has gained in the past 100 years or so alone.

These days it’s trivial, for example, to get high-quality photos from a neighboring planet brought to your personal device.

(Ok, it’s not truly trivial in the strictest sense since so many steps and technologies are involved, but at the same time: Photos. From another planet. Automatically delivered. Via the Internet. Which many (if not most) of us in the West have casual access to. Pretty much daily! So yes. Trivial.)

Specifically, I’m talking about the Persevererance Imgage Bot on Twitter. It’s a project by computer engineer Niraj Sanghvi. He has automated image tweeting mostly from NASA/JPL-Caltech sources for an impressive, ever-growing collection.

The photos are purely functional, of course, helping the rover to operate, but some are also quite interesting as photographs. Below are some recent favorite shots.

Twitter PersevereImgBot Rock and Sand
Twitter PersevereImgBot Hilly Landscape
Twitter PersevereImgBot SkyCam and Stars
Twitter PersevereImgBot Smooth Sand

(Click on the image source links below to find more about each photo.)

As a bonus, here’s a short video of a Martian solar eclipse by the moon Phobos taken by Perseverance:

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sees Solar Eclipse on Mars by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on YouTube

Cool. Cool, cool, cool. 🙂

Images by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU via PersevereImgBot on Twitter: Rock and sand. Hilly landscape. SkyCam with stars. Smooth sand.

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