Thursday, December 28, 2006

Advanced astronomy, Mayan-style

There was a time when astronomy was not publically viewed as an abstract intellectual endeavor or a hobby, but was instead one of the bedrocks upon which the greater ancient civilizations relied. Without astronomy, there could be no calendar or accurate time-keeping. Without a calendar, agriculture was much less efficient. Inefficient agriculture lead to slow population growth and vulnerability to famine or conquest, as any player of 4X-style computer games like Civilization know all to well.

The image is of a Mayan calendar, with eighteen 2-day months plus a 5-day extra month, comprising a 365-day year (no leap year). Today is 3 Men 8 Kankin, by the way.

Indeed, Mayan astronomy was very advanced for that period in time, even compared to the middle-eastern civilizations we commonly consider to be the "Great Ancient Civilizations", as was their civilization.

To give you more of a taste for their sophistication, I reproduce below an excerpt from an article at Orcinus - the link to the full article "Bringers of Light and Death" is here (the article discusses the extremely misleading and racist treatment of Mayan civilization portrayed in Mel Gibson's latest film Apocalypto).

Mayan culture featured a complex and fascinating cosmology. Their art was both sublime and beautiful. And their language -- which was so complex and unusual in structure that it only has been deciphered generally in the past 20 years or so, and is still not completely so -- produced a massive literature that included poetic, religious and philosophical works.

However, we only are able to obtain a slight glimpse of this body of work today because those Spanish "saviors," in the two centuries following their arrival, successfully eradicated, through forced burning, nearly the entirety of it. As Michael D. Coe observed in his 1987 book The Maya:
"[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and 'Pilgrim's Progress')."

Their scientific and agricultural achievements were also substantial. Their astronomical observations in particular were extremely accurate; modern scientists note that their lunar and planetary charts are at least the equal of, if not superior to, those produced by any civilization working from the naked eye. And their astronomical achievements also played a role in their architecture; as David E. Stannard explains in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World [p. 38]:
... [I]t is important at least to point out how little we still know of these people. Their involved writing system, combining elements of both phonetic and ideographic script, for example, appears to have been fully expressive of the most intricate and abstract thinking and has been compared favorably to Japanese, Sumerian, and Egyptian -- but it continues to defy complete translation.

Similarly, for many years the absence of a gridwork layout to streets, plazas, and buildings in Maya cities puzzled scholars. Right angles weren't where they logically should have been, buildings skewed off oddly and failed to line up in the expected cardinal directions; everything seemed to twist away from an otherwise northward presentation. Apparently, said some archaeologists, Maya builders were incompetent and couldn't construct simple right angles. Given the exquisite and precise alignment of every other aspect of Maya architecture, however, others thought this to be at best a hasty criticism. And now it is beginning to become evident that these seeming eccentricities of engineering had nothing to do with incompetence.

On the contrary, a complicated and original architectural pattern had always been present -- the same pattern, some began to notice, in city after city after city -- but its conceptual framework was so foreign to conventional Western perception and thought that it remained effectively invisible. Recently the "code," as it were, of Maya engineering and construction has begun to be deciphered, and the story it reveals is mind-boggling. So precise were the Maya calendrical measurements and astronomical observations -- and so central were these cosmic environmental calculations to their ritual and everyday lives -- that the Maya constructed their cities in such a way that everything lined up exactly with specific celestial movements and patterns, particularly as they concerned the appearance and disappearance of the planet Venus in the evening sky.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

COROT launches today

COROT, a small European astronomical satellite designed to perform stellar seismology and detect tell uric (i.e. rocky) planets by the micro-occultations they produce, should be launched today. has the story. COROT is unlikely to find Earth-like planets, but between 10 to 40 larger rocky planets are expected to be discovered during the mission's 2.5 year lifetime.

As of today 182 extra-Solar planets are known, the majority of which are massive gas giants orbit ting much closer to their parent star than the gas giants in our own Solar system do. This class of gas giant are often called hot Jupiters.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Windows Vista "Content" protection and the cost for all computing

Modern astrophysics, if not most sciences, ultimately rely on modern advances in computing power and in the continued growth of cheap computing power (e.g. the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will obtain [and have to process] 30 terabytes of data each and every night [30 TB = 30 000 Gigabytes]). Anything that interferes with current trends in computer speed, cost, reliability or accuracy thus threatens to interfere with the global pace of scientific research.

Unfortunately it appears that the requirements that Microsoft is now asking of software and hardware makers in order to "protect" "premium content" in their new Vista operating system will negatively impact the entire computer industry and all those using computers (and whether or nor you use any of Microsoft's products).

Peter Gutmann, a computer security analyst in New Zealand, provides a particularly clear description of the requirements Microsoft is placing on computer hardware manufacturers for Vista-compatibility and their implications.

The important thing to note is that this will affect you even if you use a different operating system on your PC or server. Yes, even if you only buy Apple Macs! Your hardware will be more expensive, and the software to run on you new hardware more prone to bugs. Worse still, there will be the genuine dangers to human health (e.g. this cartoon) and general safety. Ironically, these changes, while made in the name of "security" ignore genuine issues the public would think important (such as protecting your bank records) and focus ultimately on controlling the way you view the "entertainment" provided by the US movie and TV industry.

It is a long article, but worth reading in its entirety.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Emperors of the US, and elephant-killing lions

As I just got back from 8 days in Honduras (our honeymoon, very nice, thank-you for asking) I'm in the process of catching up with work etc, but here are two interesting things I've learnt in the last 24 hours.

First of all - adult elephants are not free from predation (as is often stated in wildlife programs). The ever-interesting Darren Naish has a post on this over at Tetrapod Zoology. Go read. He also discusses the self-censorship most wildlife programs practice with respect to showing popular animals killing and eating other popular animals.

Secondly. Bet you didn't know that there was an Emperor of the US (and I don't mean GW)?

I'm Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States of America!
Which Historical Lunatic Are You?
From the fecund loins of Rum and Monkey.