The Transit of Venus and of Ray Bradbury: June 5, 2012

Venus seen by NASA's Pioneer Spacecraft, 1979.

It had been raining for seven years; thousand upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.

So wrote Ray Bradbury of Venus in 1954, in a heartbreaking yet beautiful short story of less than 2,000 words, “All Summer in a Day” (found in The Stories of Ray Bradbury). In that tale, Venus’ clouds thin once every seven years, just enough for the sun to break through for about an hour.  The native schoolchildren tease one Earth-born classmate who remembers and yearns for the sun. They lock her in a closet as a prank when the magic hour approaches.

It sounds like unpromising fodder, but “All Summer in a Day” is the best short story I have ever read, a gently-written parable with a haunting lesson about bullying that has stayed with me since I first read it in fourth grade.

We now know that the clouds of Venus hide not a monsoon world, but a volcanic hellhole where a runaway greenhouse effect has raised the temperature to nearly 900 degrees,  nearly twice the temperature at which books burn in Bradbury’s watershed novel, Farenheit 451. 

Bradbury wrote several stories set on his rainy Venus, as well as his more famous Chronicles set on Mars. His science fiction stories turned airless worlds into vividly realized landscapes which we yearned to explore. Terra incognita: once Earth’s map was completely charted with no more room for “here be dragons,” Bradbury like many science fiction writers dreamed of dragons on other planets, and in so doing told us stories about ourselves.

A few decades later, space probes built by scientists who grew up on Bradbury’s stories went to Venus and Mars and other parts of our solar system and dismissed his Venusians, his Martians, the mythical places he had described.

But myths are not merely lies, as Joseph Campbell was saying: they are metaphors, tales that contain a kernel of truth conveyed through the art of storytelling, and they can survive when the places are mapped and the bards who told those tales have passed away.

One of my photos of transit of Venus, 2012

On June 5th, 2012, I stood with my telescope in a park in southern California gazing through my homemade solar filter at a little black spot against our sun. It was the transit of the planet Venus crossing exactly between us and the sun in a rare planetary alignment that happens very intermittently: once in 2004 (but not visible in my part of the world) and before that, the last time was in 1882.

In the 19th century, scientists around the world observed the transit of Venus to help them calculate, for the first time, the vast distances between Earth, Venus, and the Sun, and so measure the size of the solar system. (Read about this amazing episode of scientific discovery in Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens). The numbers they discovered were staggering — almost mythic — and humbling. Again, they put paid to many myths about the planets and our cosmos.

Watching Venus inch across the sun’s disc, I shared the event with a New Age shaman who was weaving her own Venus-myth, constructing her own meaningful if not-literally-true stories. I tried to experience this event from her frame of reference as well as the scientific one, putting down my camera and setting my telescope aside to drum and to feel the wind, to celebrate the symbols and myths of Venus/Aphrodite as a source of love, of fertility, of watery intuition. In the Sun’s glare that rendered the mystery invisible to the naked eye, Venus stood juxtaposed against Apollo, the god of rationality, science, reason and light: a small dark globe against a fiery life-giving furnace that will eventually engulf Venus and our own planet in its own declining years.

From my location, the sun set before Venus had quite cleared its blazing rim. At the same moment, less than a hundred miles from where I stood, Ray Bradbury the bard of Venus passed away in his home in Los Angeles. It seemed as if the planets had aligned to mark his passing. Impossible, of course, just like an hour of sunlight that comes only once every seven years, but it happened.

Bradbury’s stories inspired scientists. Science then killed the myths he told. Yet his stories live on, embodied yet not present on a small black dot, twin to our fragile and transitory home.

Sic transit omnia. Sed verba perdurant.

Ray Bradbury August 22, 1920-June 5, 2012

 

Venus transiting sun from satellite

NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory photographs Venus against Sun, June 5, 2012


The Stories of Ray Bradbury

Sand Stories of Kseniya Simonova

Mythos means “a thing told,” an utterance, a story.

Mythology is the art of passing down culture, lessons, ideas through stories which pluck at our souls, our dreams, our emotions, not just our rational minds.

Bards are the purveyors of mythology in many societies. A bard is more than a storyteller, although a bard works through the medium of stories. Traditional bards passed on cultural values, memorialized chieftains and warriors, challenged those in power by raising awareness of problems in society, gave voice to cultural celebrations and local rituals, and inspired with words.

Kseniya Simonova is a bard. She tells tales with sand grains and light instead of words. They are modern myths, although she has also told a Norse-themed sand-poem, the myths of St. Nicholas, and sand animations of many different cultures’ local symbols, heroes and events. Like a modern-day bard, Simonova has performed to honor kings (this one’s beautiful), and she has raised awareness of painful issues of society, like her unforgettable Children of Chernobyl sand story.

It was hard to pick just one of her sand stories, but here’s the first one, the one that made her famous, telling a Ukrainian audience the tale of their people’s experiences during World War II.

Simonova’s sand performances encompass beauty, wonder, joy, tragedy, cultural and political symbolism, and compassion. I urge you to browse her video channel and discover her magic.

What Ancient Art Tells Us About Pinboards

In the midst of an online discussion about the popularity of the new social media network, Pinterest, blogger “2uesday” made a very insightful comment:

Pin boards could also be a way of ‘virtually owning something’ rather than actually buying it.

2uesday is spot on. Let’s take a look at how the “virtual reality” aspect of pictures plays out in both ancient art and the modern web.

Images Are How Our Mind Thinks About Reality

This echoes a larger discussion from the field of depth psychology, the way our mind converts the world around us into images.  A psychological “image” is not necessarily a literal picture: it’s the mental representation of something we’ve experienced, touched, possessed, or interacted with. The key to this “image” concept is the fact that in order to think about something, we can’t jam a physical thing (like a banana) into our heads; we have to convert it into a mental facsimile of it. Therefore, when we think about our possessions, our jobs, even people we know, we experience them and respond to them as mental images of those things.

I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, but the point is this: our minds are programmed to respond to and have feelings about representations of things. That means we can feel a sense of ownership, a sense of connection to, and a sense of reality in a picture of something.

What does this have to do with mythology?

Mythology is a creative way of representing things with images — or, rather, stories — and it often manifests in the form of actual images. Ancient Greeks loved the story of Hercules, and they were fond of serial sculptures representing the 12 labors of Hercules.  Or, for a more modern example, the Superman-myth derives its power mostly from images: when someone says the catch phrase, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” it triggers a mental picture of a muscular flying man wearing a red cape, blue spandex  and an S-logo on his chest.

Lascaux Cavern: A 17,300 Year Old Pinboard?

Lascaux Cave by sailko, Wikimedia Commons

Mythology often manifests in art, and it is often functional art: it doesn’t merely tell a story; it also is supposed to achieve some magical purpose. People feel that images can influence reality, because of the way our minds perceive reality through mental representations.

So, if we feel that a picture of a mammoth is real, then why not create cave paintings showing lots of mammoths (food!) and, perhaps, some arrows sticking in the mammoth expressing our hopes of catching it? Ancient cave art like the famous horses and bulls of Lascaux Cave let the painters connect with the natural world through representations of it, and may have served as a sort of visual magic saying, “let there be lots of horses for us to hunt.”

In the modern world, this impulse manifests online through simulation games like Farmville, or even the whimsical Angry Birds: we’re still working through the impulses to amass stuff, hunt, and collect food, but now we do it with images and points.

Ancient cave art arises from more than just the impulse to collect cool-looking images of horses, bulls, deer and other animals; it’s also an attempt to influence nature through art. Still, there’s certainly a pinboard aspect to the sheer numbers of animal representations in Paleolithic cave art and rock art. Those ancient people kept adding more and more horses, bulls, deer, mammoths — even the occasional penguin! — as time passed, contributing to a group pinboard.

Hand Cave Art: A “Friends” Page

Cueva de las Manos, taken by Mariano Cecowski, CC

Another example of cave art is hand prints. The impulse to sign one’s name, to leave behind a physical trace of oneself, is a very powerful one. We feel that a handprint is a part of a person, just as much as the sound of that person’s voice, because again, our mind can only interact with people in terms of images, representations.

It’s just a picture of a hand, but the representation is enough for us to feel that there were people here: in a way, to feel like the hand is the person. Why do these hand prints make us feel a connection with, and the reality of, the people who made them, far more even than the paintings of horses and bulls, which we know were done by people, too? Because our minds represent reality through images in such a way that images of something evoke a hint of the same emotional response, the same thoughts, the same impulses, as if we were looking at that thing.

It’s no coincidence that many social networks use hands or “thumbs” as a representation of how many people like something. It evokes a connection, a sense that real people just like me liked this page. The hand icon turns abstract numbers into a more personal connection.

This also explains why social networks include profile photos. It’s just someone’s head, but somehow their words, their status updates and posts, feel more real because we see a picture of someone looking at us. Most social networks include a friends list which shows icons of all one’s “friends” in a way very reminiscent of these 9,300 hand prints. The face book, or the handprints, makes one feel like part of a community: “these [images] are my friends.”

Egyptian Funerary Art: SimAfterlife

Egyptian Afterlife, from the British Museum

Ushabti Figure, Walters Art Gallery

Moving forward from the stone age to ancient civilizations, we find ever more sophisticated versions of this “mental representation / virtual reality” impulse. Ancient Egyptians were convinced that representations had so much reality that they created images and objects of things they’d like to have in the afterlife. All their funerary art was virtual life insurance: if one’s afterlife lasted forever, one certainly needed to prepare an afterlife kit of food, furniture, clothes, board games, even ushabti figures, representations of the owner that would take care of chores or do any jobs the gods asked the ushabti’s owner to do! The Egyptians were playing a unique mental game: SimAfterlife.

I wrote an article last year on modern examples of functional funerary art: in China, people burn pictures (representations) of things as gifts for their ancestors, and have recently started burning very realistic-looking paper facsimiles of smartphones and iPads.

In the western world, we aren’t quite as certain what the afterlife will be like, so instead our “Sim” games focus on simulating our lives: we’ve got SimCity, SimZoo, and of course The Sims, plus all those new mobile games sprouting up that allow us to simulate pet stores and the mafia (gack!) and, as usual, building towns. It’s just the latest manifestation of the Game of Monopoly. Why are these so satisfying? Once again, our minds have some of the same emotional responses towards these images of possessions, building, and creating ordered lives as we do towards real possessions, buildings, life experiences. But unlike real life, these images cost little to nothing, we can have more of them, and they’re under our control. All of which make them very satisfying, especially during a time of economic uncertainty.

Pinboards are simpler: instead of simulating the process of amassing wealth, growing food, building a city, or hunting, they let us collect virtual representations of the end result: stuff! And while pictures are no substitute for owning the real thing, they provide some of the same satisfaction as actual ownership — without the expense or clutter. Or, in the case of pictures of sunsets, faraway places, or things people like, they provide some of the same satisfaction as actually experiencing it or being there.

Virtual reality is now digital, but its roots go back to the stone age.

Androids, Electronic Sheep, Psychology and Mythology

Actroid DER 2 Robot

Credit: Joe Flood, Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved

Many science fiction authors have written about androids — robotic humans simulating human intelligence with powerful software — and as usual, science fiction (20th century mythology) is becoming reality. The term “android” was popularized, I think, by prominent science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? short story was one of many that explored the concept, “What is human?” Fittingly, he has himself been memorialized with an android facsimile.

The Japanese are generally at the forefront of android technology, having grown comfortable with the myth of robots while westerners are still grappling with myths of Frankenstein, Pygmalion and Galatia, and the Terminator. I suspect Shinto animism gives them much more comfort with the idea of animate, nonhuman beings. Western religious and philosophical traditions about the importance of the human soul, how it’s vulnerable to malignant forces, and how it distinguishes us from animals, make westerners predisposed to worry about souls and humanity.

I’ve just written an article featuring videos of a number of surprisingly lifelike androids, and how they express and challenge our psychological assumptions about humans, gender roles, and sexual roles. Phillip K. Dick is there, as well as an Aiko robot whose relationship with her inventor is eerily like the myth of Galatea, the sculpture who became alive, and Pygmalion, the genius sculptor who created her and fell in love with her. See:

Real Androids Are Here, Proving We Humans Are Creepy!

Once again, mythology helps prepare us and give us a psychological framework for dealing with reality, while also serving as an expression of our psychology. It seems that androids are beginning to serve the same purpose in the 21st century.

Secret Service Code Names: The Power of Names in Politics

pharaoh ramses royal cartouches

Ramses the Great's multiple ruling names tell who's boss (Photo Credit: Nic McPhee, Creative Commons)

U.S. Secret Service code names have been used to refer to the president and VIPs since the Truman Administration. I find them fascinating, because they are a modern expression of a very old mythological theme, the Magic Name or Secret Name.

Names have power in both mythology and psychology. In many mythologies, speaking a name brings that thing into being, or at least helps reaffirm its existence. For many, one’s secret name or code name is a form of self-affirmation and identity. From the Egyptian sun-god Re to Rumpelstiltskin, the secret “true name” of a person gave you magical power over them. Kings and leaders traditionally adopt special ruling names that signify their ruling identity like a crest or coat of arms. Secret societies use secret, ceremonial names to confer a sense of membership in an elite, “in the know” inner circle. These secret names also convey a sense of taboo, of risk, of danger from those outside.

When secret service names were internal, not known by the general public, they served an almost totemic purpose. The code name meant “important person to be protected.” Those who knew the name were part of a secret society, a Praetorian Guard, a priesthood, committed to the defense of this totem-like (and implicitly defenseless-without-us) individual. The secret name would also serve as a point of focus, a rallying cry, reminding the inner circle that heard that secret name daily who and what their president was and stood for. The code name served as a psychological mantra for that administration.

Once code names became more common knowledge, they became political, distilling the candidate into a mascot, emblem, figurehead, and an embodiment of a certain ideal. The code name can serve as powerful one-word and a coded message to constituents (and opponents). As George Lakoff famously wrote in Don’t Think Of An Elephant!, coded language, shorthand phrases used to evoke political positions and work on people’s unconscious psychology, have been a powerful factor in elections of the last decade.

Code names are selected by the White House Communications Agency, normally consulting with the person who will hold the name. Some of them are surprising choices! Here’s an overview of just a few secret service names:

  • Ironically, Truman went by “General,” while Eisenhower more humbly went by “Providence.” “Providence” is a word with layers of meaning: it may indicate Eisenhower’s faith and his crediting the Almighty with his deeds, or it may show that he viewed the office of “President” as “Provider,” a more active role.
  • Kennedy was “Lancer,” probably an allusion to “Camelot” expressing his vigor and knight-like persona. His other family members, as with most family members of presidents, took names starting with the same letter that were not quite so Arthurian (“Lace” for Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, expresses her fashion sense.)
  • As for LBJ, I would have expected a cowboy name, like Reagan with the macho name “Rawhide,” but in fact Johnson’s was “Volunteer,” which sounds to me like a self-reminder that he was in the country’s service.
  • Jimmy Carter, who recently wrote a Bible commentary, was “Deacon,” a religious name that is both slightly snobbish and humble (no “Warrior” or “Rawhide” or “General” here).
  • Intriguingly, George W. Bush started out (I think?) with “Tumbler” and went to “Trailblazer” for more of a sense of leadership and less of an implication of flexibility (or falling over himself).
  • Birds are common, which is true of mythological names as well: Bill Clinton chose the all-American “Eagle” and John McCain, perhaps referring to his Vietnam ordeal, chose “Phoenix.”
  • “Javelin” probably refers to Mitt Romney’s first car, made by his father’s car company. I have yet to see news sites make the connection with “Lancer,” but a javelin is essentially a throwing lance. (Some have also tied it to Romney’s involvement with the Winter Olympics, but to be strictly accurate, which myths aren’t, javelin was not part of the Winter Olympics.)
  • It’s Santorum’s code name that intrigues me. Obviously, “Petrus” refers to St. Peter, the “Rock” on which Jesus proposed to found his church. But Petrus is medieval Latin, a Latinized corruption of the Greek Petros seen in the New Testament. I suppose I’m being an overeducated “snob” to think he should have used the correct Biblical form, Petros. But the odd spelling made me think of  medieval prophesies foretelling Petrus Romanus as the last pope. The modern apocalyptic 2012 movement refers to Petrus Romanus frequently. I can’t help wondering: is Santorum hinting that he will symbolically fulfill that role?

Photo credit for “Ramses” image above: