Tag Archives | Space

Girls Just Want To Have Fungi

Definitions can be either theoretical (as when one attempts to express the essence of some already-known phenomenon) or stipulative (as when one simply lays down certain criteria for what is to count as such-and-such). Theoretical definitions have a mind-to-world direction of fit, and can be true or false; stipulative definitions have a world-to-mind direction of fit, and so cannot be false. It’s not always easy to tell of a particular definition which category it falls under, however, since sometimes our stipulative definitions are implicit; hence when a proposed definition seems open to criticism, that might be either because it is theoretical or else because it is an attempt to capture explicitly some implicit stipulative definition. Call the latter kind of attempt an implicit stipulative definition. (Actually there are good Wittgensteinian reasons for thinking that the distinction between theoretical definitions and indirect stipulative definitions is rather fuzzy; this in fact I take to be the real, though not the intended, moral of Alan Sidelle’s Necessity, Essence, and Individuation. But never mind for now.)

Pluto and Charon This brings me to the recent decision to reclassify Pluto as no longer a planet. Is the new definition of “planet” stipulative? Presumably; but I don’t think it’s best understood as directly stipulative. The controversy over the decision was not simply about convenience or sentiment. Rather it was an attempt to identify (and prioritise) the classificatory principles implicit in our existing practice. In that sense it was a “grammatical” inquiry. (I’m agnostic as to whether the answer reached was, or is now, correct. It’s in principle possible for it to have been incorrect and yet now be correct, if the practice of experts plays a role in determining the definition.)

On a vaguely related note, the fictional planet Yuggoth (which I guess is no longer a planet either, since it was supposed to be identical with Pluto) is referenced several times in the work of H. P. Lovecraft, but the fullest description is in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness”:

It is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system – unknown to earthly astronomers as yet. … There are mighty cities on Yuggoth – great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone …. The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples. Light even hurts and hampers and confuses them, for it does not exist at all in the black cosmos outside time and space where they came from originally. To visit Yuggoth would drive any weak man mad …. The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges – things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids – ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen …. that dark world of fungoid gardens and windowless cities ….

But essentially the same picture is offered in two early poems (evidently earlier than the story), though neither explicitly identifies its subject as Yuggoth. One is “The Cats,” where the setting is blurred between Yuggoth (the mention of Pluto, most of the descriptions) and Earth (cats and bats, the reference to the fictional Massachusetts town Arkham):

YUGGOTH! well, Mordor actually Babels of blocks to the high heavens towering,
Flames of futility swirling below;
Poisonous fungi in brick and stone flowering,
Lanterns that shudder and death-lights that glow.

Black monstrous bridges across oily rivers,
Cobwebs of cable to nameless things spun;
Catacomb deeps whose dank chaos delivers
Streams of live foetor that rots in the sun.

Colour and splendour, disease and decaying,
Shrieking and ringing and crawling insane,
Rabbles exotic to stranger-gods praying,
Jumbles of odour that stifle the brain.

Legions of cats from the alleys nocturnal.
Howling and lean in the glare of the moon,
Screaming the future with mouthings infernal,
Yelling the Garden of Pluto’s red rune.

Tall towers and pyramids ivy’d and crumbling,
Bats that swoop low in the weed-cumber’d streets;
Bleak Arkham bridges o’er rivers whose rumbling
Joins with no voice as the thick horde retreats.

Belfries that buckle against the moon totter,
Caverns whose mouths are by mosses effac’d,
And living to answer the wind and the water,
Only the lean cats that howl in the waste.

The other is an excerpt from the poem-cycle Fungi from Yuggoth (which despite the title does not deal exclusively with Yuggoth). Here the reference to “long rows of windows” clashes with the short story’s reference to “windowless cities,” but nevertheless it is clearly once again the same place.

Somewhere in dream there is an evil place
Where tall, deserted buildings crowd along
A deep, black, narrow channel, reeking strong
Of frightful things whence oily currents race.
Lanes with old walls half meeting overhead
Wind off to streets one may or may not know,
And feeble moonlight sheds a spectral glow
Over long rows of windows, dark and dead.

There are no footfalls, and the one soft sound
Is of the oily water as it glides
Under stone bridges, and along the sides
Of its deep flume, to some vague ocean bound.
None lives to tell when that stream washed away
Its dream-lost region from the world of clay.

So what does all this have to do with anything? Not much; I just like those descriptions.

Cleopatra on Mars; or, Our Forgetful Experts

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I remember how, when the Viking lander first began sending photos back from Mars, scientists were amazed to discover that the Martian sky is pink. Initially the sky showed as white, but the Viking project’s scientists quickly noticed that the colour of the lettering on the lander itself was off, and when they corrected the colour, the sky blazed forth in glorious pink – a development which the scientists noted was completely unexpected.

Cleopatra's face on Mars? At the time, the scientists’ astonishment baffled me – because I had learned years before, in elementary school, long before any photos had come back from Mars, that scientists were predicting that the Martian sky would be pink or purple. So how did the scientific community manage to forget its earlier prediction? Why were they surprised by something a fifth-grader in Idaho could have told them?

Beats me. But I lately had a feeling of déja vu over the recent news story concerning the discovery of a coin with Cleopatra’s face on it, revealing a less than beautiful visage. Archaeologists and historians reported with cries of amazement that Cleopatra’s reputation as a great beauty must now be revised.

Their reaction puzzles me in much the same way that the Viking project’s scientists’ reaction to the Martian sky puzzled me.

First: it’s old news that Cleopatra’s charm lay more in her personality than in her physical appearance; I recently quoted Plutarch on my blog to just that effect. Surely all these archaeologists and historians have read Plutarch?

Second: this is not the first time that coins with Cleopatra’s image on them have been discovered. Given my longstanding interest in classical history, I’ve been seeing pictures of Cleopatra coins for years. None of the depictions was especially attractive. So what’s new here? Surely all these archaeologists and historians have seen Cleopatra coins before?

Third: this is nothing unique to Cleopatra. On the contrary, it’s a persistent feature of ancient coins generally that the images on them are less flattering than, say, statues or busts of the same persons. Take a look, for example, at these depictions of Augustus and Tiberius.

Augustus and Tiberius - coin and bust

Is it because the busts were idealised, making the coins a more accurate portrayal? Or is it because the coins were more hastily made (or because the ancients were, famously, better at 3-D representation that at 2-D – or again, better at 2-D front views than at 2-D profiles), making the busts actually more accurate? Or is it (perhaps most likely) some of each? 

Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that looking good in busts and not so good on coins is a pervasive feature of ancient portraiture. So why all the surprise about Cleopatra? And why the leap to the assumption of the coin’s accuracy in this case? Surely all these archaeologists and historians have seen ancient statuary and currency before?

Brother Eye is Watching

Here’s the hotel where I stayed on my last trip to Paris. Notice the red awnings over the main entrance and the smaller red awnings over each window. (The flowers in the window boxes are usually red too, though you can’t see that here.)

Hotel Vendome St. Germain, 8 Rue d'Arras

And here is a satellite photo of the same hotel, courtesy of Google Earth:

Hotel Vendome St. Germain, 8 Rue d'Arras -- from space

Yes, those little awnings (maybe the flowers too) are visible from space.

And yet the U.S. military can’t find Osama bin Laden’s camp?

See also this related story (conical hat tip to Chris Morris). (A few of their coordinates are wrong, however.)

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