Wednesday Wonders: Equinox

Welcome to September 22, the date in 2021 when the Earth stands up straight and faces the Sun head on. Well, side on. The point is that on this date the Earth’s poles point at exact right angles to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, so it marks a change of season. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, this is the first day of fall, and days will begin to grow shorter as the north pole starts to tilt away from the Sun. Meanwhile, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, today is the first day of spring, as the south pole starts to tilt toward the Sun. Oh, don’t worry, though. It’s not like the Earth is literally rolling over. The actual angle of its axis is always the same — it’s just its position relative to the Sun that changes, depending upon which quarter of its orbit it’s in. Today, though, magic happens, as the length of day and night everywhere on the planet is the same — but it’s not 12 hours, because a day is not quite 12 hours. Rather, one day is 23 hours and 56 minutes, so on this day each side of the globe receives 11 hours and 58 minutes of daylight. Close to 24, but no cigar. Each day is missing four minutes, and yes, over the year, the time on your clock technically gains because of this, but that is part of why we have leap years and all that shit in the first place. And the fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted and the apparent height of the Sun in the sky plus the length of day changing regularly is probably what led to human civilization in the first place. As soon as people noticed that the spots on the horizon where the Sun rose and set day-to-day changed, and then started to notice how high it did or did not make it into the sky by noon got folk to taking notes. Next up would have been timing the periods between its rise and set over the course of… well, it’s not defined yet. Figuring out the timing might have been tricky when there was no way to actually tell time, so maybe those first experiments just meant tracking the length of an object’s shadow right as the Sun rose and when it set, them recording the length of each one and comparing it to each subsequent day. This wouldn’t give you a length in terms of hours per se, but it could tell you, for example, how long the shadow on a particular day was. Since the Sun doesn’t cast shadows at night, this gives you length of daylight, and you can then compare that length to the length on other days. This will tell you the rate of change per day, as well as give you the relative lengths of longest and shortest days. Repeat the experiment until the pattern starts to repeat — i.e., you hit the same shadow length you started with and see the same lengths appear over the next, say, dozen measurements, and now you suddenly know how many day/night periods there are before the Sun returns to where it started. People may not have understood the concept of orbits yet and probably thought the Earth was at the center of everything, but only because that’s exactly what it does look like from down here, but it did give them a starting point from which to be able to predict the regular course of the Sun. Finally, key these measurements into the seasons, as in when is it cold, when is it time to plant, when does it flood, and when can we harvest? Eventually, over time, ta-da: You’ve created the calendar, and the basic parameters of Earth-Sun dynamics, plus axial tilt dictate the creation of four annual divisions; call them seasons. Of course, some cultures, who tended to not be agricultural, watched the Moon instead, and also divided the year into months (literally named for moons in many different languages) although not seasons. However, since the lunar month wound up much shorter than the solar month after one Earth orbit was divided appropriately, lunar calendars would always lag behind. This is why, for example, the Hebrew calendar has to add in an entire month every so often instead of just a day, and why Jewish and Islamic holidays seem to slip around the Gregorian calendar. Here’s a nice irony, though. The ultimate holiday for once-a-year Catholics, Easter, is itself set based upon a lunar calendar. The date of Easter is set as the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. If that equinox is on a Sunday itself, then Easter is the next Sunday. Why this is the case, I have no idea — but events in the Islamic Calendar, as well as things like the Chinese New Year, are also set based on a particular New Moon, although they are all at different times of the year. If you’re part of the early agricultural movement, though — which led to permanent settlements and cities and irrigation, and all kinds of fancy shiz — then your city is probably going to have a nice observatory, but it wouldn’t be bristling with telescopes, which would not be invented for thousands of years. Rather, it would be a prominent building or even a temple-like structure — think Stonehenge — with very specific architectural features designed to align with the movement of the Sun, Moon, and possibly certain stars to become one giant indicator of when those significant dates passed. For example, a slit in one wall might direct sunrise light on the first day of summer onto a specific plinth or marker, or maybe even a mural or statue depicting the god or goddess of the season. Likewise, the same slit would hit a different marker for the first day of winter. Those two are easy because the sun will be at its northernmost point when summer starts and its southernmost when winter starts, which is why you can use the same slit. Spring and fall, being equinoxes, both come in at the same angle, so the light would hit the same place. However, the good news is that if you know which one was the last season, then you know what’s coming, so spring always follows winter and fall comes after summer. Somewhere around these times, these early astronomers may have even figured out the concept of the analemma and begun tracking it. This is the huge figure-8 pattern that the Sun, when recorded at the same time each day (usually noon) makes over the course of a year. Tracking the Moon would probably allow for the ability to predict solar and lunar eclipses — at the time, probably more useful as a political/religious function over anything else. “The Moon is going to die on Tuesday, and it will be your fault unless you pay us tribute and fealty, peons!” Ewww. Out front would be a huge sundial to impress and mystify the populace who, of course, would never be allowed inside such a sacred space. Same as it ever was. Except… We do have access to this knowledge now, and the short version of it is this. The Sun is the center of our Solar System, mostly by virtue of having 99% of its mass, and holding everything else in its thrall via gravity because of that. There are two planets closer to the Sun than Earth — Mercury and Venus — and both of those are barely titled. Mercury is off-axis by barely 3 hundredths of a degree, while Venus is inclined at 2.6 degrees. However, since Mercury is tidally locked with one side boiling and the other frozen, it’s not likely to benefit at all if it suddenly tilted. As for Venus — this is our solar system’s true shit-hole planet, with the hottest temperature and thickest atmosphere, a hellscape where it rains sulfuric acid constantly. If we look at the rest of the solar system, the only planets that come close to having the same axial tilt are Mars (25.19º), Saturn (26.73º) and Neptune (28.32º). Meanwhile, the planet Uranus has the most extreme tilt in the solar system, with its axle rolled over a full 97.77 º, which indicates that, at some point in the past, Uranus must have gotten rammed pretty hard by some asteroid or even a small planet. The end result is that Uranus always keeps its pole pointed at the Sun, alternating between north and south so that its seasons basically travel sideways — although those seasons aren’t much to speak of there, because the surface is pretty much a nearly featureless ball of methane with some lighter clouds in high latitudes (or is that high longitudes?) and, as recent studies have determined, there is also a big, dark spot on Uranus. Of course, we wouldn’t even know about the other planets and stars and so in if we hadn’t started looking up to figure out what was going on with our own Sun and Moon in the first place, and Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (not a planet) were not even discovered until modern times. Uranus wasn’t even named until the late 18th Century, but the convention of naming planets over Roman gods carried on, and the place got its name at the suggestion of German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. Whether or not he knew about the comedy potential in English of that name choice is anyone’s guess, but officials agreed. And although it’s properly pronounced “OO-ra-noos,” almost no one says it that way, and so stories about the sixth planet are always unintentionally hilarious. And it all started in ancient days, when the first farmers started to pay attention to the change of seasons and tried to learn whether the gods had left them in clues in the heavens above, eventually leading to an understanding of the cosmos that required no gods at all but adhered to its own inexorable set of laws that were an intrinsic property of reality itself. Thanks, farmers! Images: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Friday Free for all #51: Shows, knowledge, tribes, lifespan

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here, are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

This week’s random questions started out rather mundane, but then immediately took a deep turn into the philosophical.

What shows are you into?

It depends on whether we’re talking right now, long time, or all time.

Right now, although it just ended, I got way more into WandaVision than I ever thought I would. I’m not a big fan of comic book movies and have only seen a handful of MCU films. I don’t think I’ve seen any of the DC films at all and have no desire to.

The only recent comic book film I’ve liked — although it’s really a graphic novel film — was Watchmen, and the TV mini-series sequel was also amazing.

Anyway, I went into WandaVision only kind of knowing about Vision from Infinity War, and not really knowing about Wanda at all, but the style and TV sitcoms through the ages conceit pulled me in immediately. But maybe that’s why I was into it — it was not like a typical comic book movie at all, and yet was very much like a comic book.

I’m watching The Mandalorian since I’m a huge Star Wars fan but, honestly, near the latter third of the second season, it’s getting slow and very redundant. Mando wants a thing. Someone can get it for him, but he has to do some impossible mission first. He succeeds, and they either pay up or send him off to someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat. And Grogru is not cute. He’s annoying. But that’s probably the point.

Another series I’m currently into is a slightly older British comedy I just discovered thanks to Amazon Prime called Plebs. It’s set in Rome in 26 B.C.E. and revolves around the lives of three young roommates (well, two roommates and a slave) who’ve just moved to Rome to find fame, fortune, and nookie.

The three are Stylax (Joel Fry), Marcus (Tom Rosenthal), and Grumio (Ryan Sampson). Marcus has the hots for a neighbor, Cynthia (Sophie Colquhoun), while Stylax has the hots for everyone female. Grumio is probably asexual. It’s wonderfully anachronistic fun with a Reggae/Ska soundtrack, and each half-hour episode brilliantly weaves together the A and B stories so that the complications of one become the solutions to the other and vice versa.

Moving on to long-time fan brings us, of course, to Doctor Who. I’m principally a fan of the modern revival, having been with it from the beginning — and it’s hard to believe that was about sixteen years ago now. Damn.

I tend to be a fan of British shows and not American ones, so throw Red Dwarf, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, QI, Ab Fab and Are You Being Served? into the mix. The only American shows I can think of that I’ve really watched religiously are some Fox Sunday night animated series — The Simpsons (up to a point), Family Guy, American Dad, and Futurama. Sometimes King of the Hill but never Bob’s Burgers.

While I love Archer, Bob’s Burgers never grabbed me mainly because the aesthetic of it is just so visually unappealing and, dare I say, ugly.

As for live-action American broadcast TV, I’ll always be a fan of SNL through thick and thin, mainly because it’s always existed and even during those seasons it’s been more miss than hit, it’s still just an institution by this point. And it’s just Sofa King funny when it gets it right.

Besides, it’s only 12 years younger than Doctor Who.

Does knowledge have intrinsic value or does it need to have a practical use to have value?

I do believe that knowledge in itself does have intrinsic value, although it’s hard to imagine any bit of knowledge that doesn’t by definition have a practical use. If I tell you that stove burners are hot during and for a while after use and can burn you, you’ll automatically know not to put your hand on one, so there’s the practical use coming directly from the knowledge.

“The square root of 5 is approximately 2.236” might seem like just knowledge for its own sake, but if you ever run across a problem in geometry involving a dimension of 5 units on the side of any quadrilateral or triangle, or as the radius or diameter of a circle, this knowledge can come in handy as a practical shortcut to doing equations based on same.

Knowledge is sort of like DNA in that regard. You can gather it up on its own and store it, but when you need to unpack it, the practical use will reveal itself to have been there all along.

Was the agricultural revolution and the explosion of civilizations that came from it an overall good thing for humans or a negative? In other words, would it have been better or worse for people to stay in small tribes?

It was hands down absolutely a good thing. Tribalism overall is bad for humanity. It divides us into us and them groups, and it’s why the early history of humankind is full of one empire conquering and enslaving another because they worshipped different deities or spoke different languages.

Yes, those were post agricultural societies, but they were dragging traditions from the past with them, and they eventually moved on. For example, while Rome did conquer other territories, they did not do it seeking to destroy the culture. Rather, they would defeat a rival kingdom and make them this offer: “Join us, pay your taxes, and you get to be Roman citizens but keep your local culture and language.”

Kind of an enlightened form of conquer and control, really. Not ideal, but progressive for the time.

But if we had never developed agriculture and built cities, we would have remained wandering tribes battling directly over resources. And without the protection of cities, every tribal group would be wide open to attack by every other one.

So, sure, we had growing pains during the transition, but ultimately we got past the “conquer everything that isn’t us” phase, and cities allowed us to live in safer, larger communities that prospered largely due to economy of scale.

That is, the more stuff you’re able to produce at once and the more people you can distribute it to right away, the cheaper it is per unit to make it. It’s the difference between a carpenter who might make one or two tables a week for specific customers, and so charges the equivalent of two or three days’ wages for each one, and a factory that makes thousands of tables a day to sell to thousands of customers a week, so can afford the machines and workers to bring the cost per table down to maybe two (hu)man-hours each, but also at a much lower hourly rate than the carpenter.

If we’d stayed with small tribes, humanity would have died out five thousand years ago. Of course, we need to move on to the next step desperately — and that is realizing that all human on Earth are part of one tribe only.

We may have different languages, and religions, and customs, but those are just window dressing. Underneath it all, we are one species sharing one planet, and we damn well need to start acting like it.

What we really need are no more borders and the sharing of resources equally around the planet. Think of it as the Roman system on a global scale. You get to be part of Community Earth as long as you pay your taxes, but you get to keep your local languages and customs.

And then everyone and the whole planet benefits.

How would humanity change if all humans’ life expectancy was significantly increased (let’s say to around 500 years)?

This is kind of a nice extension of the previous question, and it reminds me of what Timothy Leary referred to as the SMI2LE program for the future survival of the human race.

SMI2LE was his acronym for Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension, and it was how we were going to leave this Pale Blue Dot and conquer at least the solar system, if not the galaxy.

Ignoring Intelligence Increase for the moment, it’s clear that Space Migration really requires Life Extension. The alternatives are so-called “Generation Ships,” but those would be a very hard sell, because you’d be asking people to sign on, start and raise a family in space, and die knowing that their kids, grandkids, and five or six generations after that will only ever know life on that ship and die before reaching any kind of destination.

It also means somehow managing to support multiple generations and hence more and more people with finite resources on an artificially created world. And the more massive you make it in order to carry supplies or some form of sustainable ecosystem, the more difficult it is to accelerate it to the speeds you need to reach a destination within fewer than a dozen human lifetimes.

So if we did manage to extend the human lifespan to 500 years, we could streamline the process, creating smaller ships designed to carry crews of a couple hundred people instead of thousands or hundreds of thousands, then figure out how to induce sterility in those people until they reached their destination.

We’d also have to figure out how to keep them entertained, keeping in mind that we could only update their onboard data for so long before they were moving away too fast for it to be efficient anymore.

Remember — since we’re talking five hundred year lifespans, we probably have time to almost approach superluminal speeds, but when the ship is moving that fast, we add in a sort of time travel factor. At 99 percent the speed of light, one year in time on the ship would be equal to just over seven years on Earth.

If they hit that point halfway out, at about 250 years, then they’re suddenly going to have lifespans that are technically two millennia as far as Earth is concerned. But by that point, communication with home is impossible.

Well, not entirely. They can send the message, but chances are that the civilization that receives it will be so divorced from the origin that they won’t understand it, if a civilization exists at all.

That’s really one of the downsides of sending off those space pioneers for the long haul, really. We can watch them go for a long time, but then they vanish over the horizon and eventually are forgotten once we can no longer communicate with them.

That even applies if people down here live to be 500 years old, but the time between message and answer stretches to suddenly be weeks, then months, then years.

Not having the advantage of time dilation, the Earth-bound Methuselahs die out while their compatriots in space get another 1500 years. And, even then, there’s no guarantee that they will find either an inhabitable planet at their destination or sentient life with an advanced culture.

Okay, kind of depressing, but there’s this: Just over 500 years ago, our European ancestors grew a set and started exploring. It was dangerous. It took a long time. Lots of people died. But they discovered a new world.

Sure, they brought slaves, killed the natives, and were generally assholes, but the point is that they wouldn’t have known that the place existed if they hadn’t looked.

With a lifespan equivalent to someone having been born a generation or two after Columbus sailed off to rape the New world but surviving to today, we might actually have incentive to dare exploring the much wider and deeper oceans of space that surround our tiny planet in all directions.

The only enemies would be the harshness of space itself and boredom. But considering that it would only take a few petabytes to store all human knowledge and records to date and send it along, I really don’t think that boredom would be a problem.

Hell, it could become a long-form broadcast — pick a starting year about five hundred years before launch, then recap the news and events as known a day at a time, in real time. Fill out with literature, history, and whatever related to those events, ta-da. Instant history, instant education, which brings us back to I2 — intelligence increase.

With all of human knowledge and art readily at hand and so much time to fill, these ships would become flying universities with learning as an ongoing constant. Make them self-sustaining biospheres — which they’d have to be.

Then, use 3D printer manufacturing for food and all manner of implements and art, recycle everything over and over, and don’t forget that food waste can give you organic raw materials to make things like paint, glue, and so on.

Finally, accelerating at a constant 1G will slowly build up tremendous speeds. Meanwhile, everything toward the back of the ship becomes “down” and you have a semblance of gravity.

The tricky part is when you hit half way and begin to decelerate, but this just means that you have to have an “up” and “down” version of everything, because once you start decelerating at 1G, that means that suddenly the front of the shup becomes “down.”

Still, it’s probably better than no semblance of gravity at all, because over that many years, that’s not going to do any human any good. Wall-E had a lot of truth in that regard. People would lose bone and muscle mass and wind up with all kinds of problems from fluid constantly accumulating in their heads and faces.

Not a good look. And if you’re going to live to be 500 or more, the last thing you want to do is look anywhere near that old before maybe the last twenty years or so.

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