Space ‘Firsts:’ New Horizons, Chang’e-4

It’s been a month for space exploration ‘firsts,’ and a ‘farthest.’

Ultima Thule became the most distant object visited by a probe on January 1, with the New Horizons flyby.

A few days later, China’s Chang’e-4 mission landed in the von Kármán crater, part of the moon that’s not visible from Earth. It’s the first lunar farside landing, and the first time plants sprouted on the moon.


(From Camille Flammarion, “L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire;” via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

It’s been years since I saw that picture used an example of medieval beliefs. Maybe word got around that the illustration can’t be traced back further than Camille Flammarion’s 1888 “L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire.”

I’ll grant that the Flammarion picture seems to show ‘Biblical’ cosmology. Particularly “the mighty dome of heaven” in Psalms 150:1. The first Genesis creation story tells where the dome fits into God’s creation:

“Then God said: Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.
“God made the dome, and it separated the water below the dome from the water above the dome. And so it happened.
“God called the dome ‘sky.’ Evening came, and morning followed—the second day.”
(Genesis 1:68)

It sounds a lot like part of a Sumerian creation story. 19th century Scholars uncovered that shocker when they started translating the Epic of Gilgamesh.

I could get upset that parts of Genesis might seem familiar to folks who knew about Nammu and An, Enlil and Enki. Or troubled, at least.

Some folks apparently are, judging from a few items I found online. I’m not.

The domes in Genesis and Psalms, pillars of the earth in 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 9:6, and the ‘Biblical’ cosmology’s surrounding waters look like elements in Sumerian beliefs and literature.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Later Mesopotamian civilizations had their own names for Sumerian deities and ideas, adding or changing them while keeping the underlying imagery.

Hebrews lived in that part of the world. It’d be odd if they hadn’t been aware of the regional culture.

I see “the mighty dome of heaven” and “pillars of the earth” in 1 Samuel as poetic imagery. Not evidence that the Bible is basically Sumerian.1 (January 19, 2018; March 24, 2017)

I’m not sure where Flammarion got his picture’s caption:

“A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”
(From Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire,” p. 163 (1888) (Translation via Wikipedia))

It fits the idea that a “medieval missionary” might go looking for earth’s edge. And might help explain Ernst Zinner’s 1957 statement that it came from the German Renaissance.

Imagining that medieval Europeans thought Earth is flat made sense, sort of, in the 18th through mid-20th centuries.

Seeing the millennium separating the Roman Empire and Renaissance as a dark age got traction during the Enlightenment. The occasional Flat Earth enthusiasm probably helped.2

So, arguably, did post-Darwin faith-based meltdowns. Belief that faith and reason, religion and science, are mutually exclusive is still popular in some circles. (January 19, 2018; August 13, 2017; October 28, 2016)

I figure folks who are convinced that using our God-given brains upsets an irritable Almighty are sincere. So, most likely, are folks who seem to view religion, Christianity in particular, as nonsense.

Since I’m a Catholic, using reason isn’t an option. It’s a requirement. So is reading and understanding the Bible. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 154155, 101133)

It’s not ‘just the Bible and me.’ My faith is an individual thing, in the sense that it’s my personal relation ship with God. In another sense, It’s about me being part of a community. A big one. (Catechism, 299, 751770, 954959)

Getting back to the Bible, Catholicism isn’t a roll-your-own faith. The Bible is important. But I’ve also got the accumulated wisdom of millennia for guidance. (Catechism, 7495, 890, 2033)

“Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”

We’ve been learning that this universe isn’t nearly as small and new as some folks thought.

How someone sees humanity’s growing knowledge depends, I think, on attitude.

I like living in an era when much of we know has been uncovered since my youth.

That’s just as well, since I’m supposed to willingly embrace all truth. Including truth we find in the natural world. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 142150, 2500)

I don’t have a problem with that, since I think all truth comes from God. (Catechism, 215217)

Embracing all truth is one thing. Understanding it is another. Sometimes we need time to figure out how what’s being discovered fits with what we’ve known before.

I think Pope Leo XIII was right:

“…Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

Chang’e-4 Landing

(From CNSA/CLEP, via The Planetary Society, used w/o permission.)
(Chang’e-4 on Earth’s moon: January 3, 2019; before the rover’s deployment ramps (at top) were lowered.)

Chang’e-4 deploys rover on far side of the Moon
Jason Davis, The Planetary Society (January 3, 2018)

“Following an historic first landing on the far side of the Moon earlier today, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft is already hard at work. The lander’s first order of business was deploying its rover, which is named Yutu-2, China’s space agency announced. The rover rolled down its ramp at 14:22 UTC to begin exploring Von Kármán crater….”

China’s lunar exploration program is named after Chang’e, a moon goddess.

That’s arguably more appropriate than naming America’s moon program after Apollo.

The Olympian deity’s portfolio included music, poetry, arts, oracles, archery, herds and flocks. Also diseases, healing, light, sun, knowledge and protection of young. The moon, not so much.

Maybe the program’s public relations folks figured Apollo sounded better than Artemis, Luna or Selene.3 And lacked Luna’s mockery potential.

Symbolism and Fifties Fears

I’ve read that Chinese mission planners picked Von Kármán crater for at least two reasons, aside from being a fairly flat place to land.

Scientists figure the crater’s rock and soil will tell them more about what’s inside Earth’s moon.

There’s also a symbolic reason for picking Von Kármán crater.

It’s named after Theodore von Kármán,4 Qian Xuesen’s PhD advisor. Qian founded his homeland’s space program in the mid-20th century, retiring in 1991.

I don’t know what Qian would have done here in America, if he’d been allowed to keep working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

JPL’s origins go back to the 1930s, when Qian and other California Institute of Technology (Caltech) graduate students tested an alcohol-fueled rocket.

Along with Theodore von Kármán, they set up what would become the JPL.

The group got its current name in 1943, when it became an Army facility run by the university.

Someone, somewhere, said Qian was a communist. US Army Intelligence knew about the claim, but didn’t suspend his security clearance.

Time passed. Anti-communist enthusiasm grew, getting presidential approval in 1947.

In 1950, someone in America’s national government said Qian was a communist sympathizer. His security clearances were promptly suspended.

His colleagues at JPL tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the feds that he wasn’t a threat.

With no reasonable hope of finding professional work in America, Qian decided to go home. That resulted in his being detained for about five years. Then, being useful as a hostage, he was allowed to leave America.5

Small wonder Qian isn’t particularly famous on this side of the Pacific. Or fond of my country’s government.

That wasn’t among America’s shining hours. Or the only time folks let views hamper judgement. I’ve talked about political correctness, the Popish Plot and blame games before. (June 1, 2018; November 17, 2017; June 25, 2017)

Von Kármán Crater: Science

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Miljkovic, used w/o permission.)
(Lunar crust thickness, from NASA’s GRAIL data.)

Earth’s moon keeps one face pointed toward us as it orbits.

Pretty much, anyway. Librations, science-speak for wobbles, let astronomers get glimpses of about 18% of the far side.

I don’t think anyone seriously expected spectacularly different terrain on the unseen 38%. Certainly not something along the lines of Burroughs’ habitable moon.6

We got our first, fuzzy, look at the lunar farside from the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 in 1959. America’s Lunar Orbiter missions filled in some details from 1966 to 1967.

Folks at the IAU have assigned names to the major landmarks and many smaller features.

I have mixed feelings about that. Colorful names, like “Dracula Planet” for TrES-2B, probably won’t get approved. But I’ll grant that having one name for something is easier than remembering that the Charles V comet and Great Comet of 1556 are the same thing: C/1556 D1. (October 13, 2017)

Which reminds me, about the NASA map’s KREEP Terraine. The acronym comes from K, potassium’s atomic symbol; and REE, for rare-earth elements.

Now, back to why landing in Von Kármán crater makes sense.

Samples from the Apollo missions strongly suggest that asteroid impacts spiked, from 4,100,000,000 to 3,800,000,000 years back. Some scientists started calling it the Late Heavy Bombardment or LHB.

Others aren’t convinced that the LHB happened. Or say maybe it happened, but only in our part of the Solar System. They may be right. Evidence for the LHB comes mostly from Earth’s moon.

The Kármán crater is in the South Pole-Aitken basin. The basin is one of the Solar System’s biggest craters, made by something hitting Earth’s moon roughly 4,000,000,000 years ago. That’d be early in the LHB.

Evidence in Von Kármán crater supporting LHB models, or lack of evidence, will help settle the debate.7

China’s Lunar Communications Network

(From Loren Roberts for The Planetary Society, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The lunar farside doesn’t have as many broad, flat areas as the part visible from Earth. But aside from that, landing on either side is about as safe. Or risky.

Getting signals back from a lander is another matter. That’s why China launched the Quèqiáo communications satellite last year.

Quèqiáo is circling Earth-Moon’s L2, the Lagrange point above the farside’s center. It’s both the Chang’e-4’s link to Earth and the first communication satellite in that location. The first that I know of, anyway.

Two Longjiang microsatellites were launched with Quèqiáo. One of them is in lunar orbit, making very low frequency observations.

The Longjiang satellite probably has at least one radio-astronomy experiment on it. Maybe something for observing the solar corona, too.8

Postcards from the Moon

(From CLEP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“An image of the rover taken with the lander’s terrain camera (TCAM)”
(BBC News))

(From CLEP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“A picture of the lander taken by the rover’s panoramic camera (PCAM)”
(BBC News))

Best Photos From China’s Far Side Moon Landing
Paul Rincon, BBC News (January 11, 2019)

A Chinese rover and lander have taken images of each other on the Moon’s surface.

“The Chinese space agency says the spacecraft are in good working order after touching down on the lunar far side on 3 January.

“Also released are new panoramic images of the landing site, along with video of the vehicles touching down….”

The BBC News article includes at least part of the panorama and a 360-degree azimuth projection from one of the lander’s cameras.

The article also explains why first images from Chang’e-4 showed a reddish lunar surface. What we were seeing were raw images from the lander. Friday’s have been color-corrected.

Or maybe it’s part of a vast conspiracy. Maybe Chang’e-4 really landed on Mars. Or the landing was staged in the America southwest. Or something even more imaginative.

I don’t know why conspiracy theories pop up, or why some folks believe them. They happen often enough for at least one statistical analysis, and that’s another topic.9 (January 5, 2018; September 29, 2017; December 23, 2016)

Looking Ahead

(From CNSA/CLEP, via Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
(Yutu-2 on the lunar farside.)

Best Photos From China’s Far Side Moon Landing
Jason Daley, Smithsonian Magazine (January 7, 2019)

“China’s Chang’e-4 lander reached the Von Kármán crater near the moon’s South Pole on Wednesday, marking the first time a human craft has visited the lunar far side….

“…Because the far side of the moon is shielded from the radio signals coming from Earth, Chang’e-4 will conduct low frequency radio experiments using a new technique. Astronomers plan to connect a radio instrument on the landing craft with one aboard the Queqiao satellite and use the dual-system as a radio telescope—free from noisy radio interference that is common closer to Earth, reports Michael Greshko at National Geographic.

“‘This will allow us for the first time to do radio observation at low frequencies that are not possible from Earth, from close to the moon and on the moon,’ Radboud University astronomer Marc Klein Wolt, who leads the project, tells Greshko. ‘This will pave the way for a future large radio facility on the moon to study the very early universe in the period before the first stars were formed.’…”

(From CLEP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Cotton sprouts seen close-up under a protective cover on board the Moon lander”
(BBC News))

China’s Moon mission sees first seeds sprout
BBC News (January 15, 2019)

Seeds taken up to the Moon by China’s Chang’e-4 mission have sprouted, says China National Space Administration.”

“It marks the first time any biological matter has grown on the Moon, and is being seen as a significant step towards long-term space exploration….

“…Plants have been grown on the International Space Station before but never on the Moon.

“The ability to grow plants on the Moon will be integral for long-term space missions, like a trip to Mars which would take about two-and-a-half years.

“It would mean that astronauts could potentially harvest their own food in space, reducing the need to come back down to Earth to resupply….”

China Focus: Moon sees first cotton-seed sprout
Yu Fei, Gu Xun, Gao Shan; Xinhua (January 15, 2019) via; : ZX, editor

“…After Chang’e-4 landed on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, the ground control center instructed the probe to water the plants to start the growing process. A tube directs natural light on the surface of the moon into the canister to allow the plants to grow….

“…The experiment has ended. The organisms will gradually decompose in the totally enclosed canister, and will not affect the lunar environment, said the China National Space Administration (CNSA)….”

Those cotton sprouts are the first grown on Earth’s moon. That’s a big deal.

As Chongqing University’s Professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer, said: “We had no such experience before. And we could not simulate the lunar environment, such as microgravity and cosmic radiation, on Earth.” (Xinhua)

He also hopes that his plant experiment will get young folks interested in space exploration and popularize science.

The Chang’e-4 cotton sprouts are the first grown on Earth’s moon, but not the first off-Earth plants.

Scientists have grown Chinese cabbage, lettuce, radishes, sunflower and a zinnia on the ISS. Experiments on the Tiangong-2 space lab grew rice and Arabidopsis.

The low Earth orbit experiments brought plants through their full growth cycle. Some of the ISS crops included a harvest, giving the astronauts fresh produce.10

I’m not sure why the Chang’e-4 plant experiment ended soon after sprouting. Maybe we’ll read about that later. Or maybe not.

Folks running China’s space program don’t seem overly anxious to let outsiders know the details of what their vehicles carry.

That’s a bit frustrating. But Chinese leadership’s exaggerated — my viewpoint — ‘privacy’ concerns make writing this post easier. Now that I think about it, maybe ‘privacy’ isn’t the right word. Since it’s a government policy, maybe they’re ‘national security’ concerns. And that’s another topic. Topics.

We do have some information, though. Those remarkable images, for starters. Also Chang’e-4’s hoped-for low frequency radio wave and cosmic ray observations .

I hope they’ll release at least some data. The photos are fascinating, and tell us quite a bit about the lunar surface. But scientists can learn quite a bit from what the mission’s other instruments detect.

The Chang’e-4 radio astronomy experiment(s) may answer some questions about cosmic background radiation. And maybe raise new questions.

My guess is that this won’t be the last bit of radio astronomy done on or over the lunar farside. The advantages are obvious.

Earth’s noisy in radio wavelengths. Human activity accounts for some. The rest comes from natural sources like lightning and the Solar wind meeting Earth’s magnetic field.

Setting up radio and other observatories on the moon won’t be easy. But I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t decide it’s worth the effort, eventually.11

New Horizons: Ultima Thule

(From JHUAPL, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons approaching Ultima Thule, December 31, 2018.)

NASA Spacecraft Reaches Most Distant Target in History
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA News (January 1, 2018)

“NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year’s Day, ushering in the era of exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system….

“…Images taken during the spacecraft’s approach — which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST — revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima’s mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn’t appear to vary as it rotated. The team has still not determined the rotation period….”

Compared to what Chang’e-4 has been sending back, images from the New Horizons Ultima Thule flyby have been underwhelming. I’m hoping that we’ll see more detailed images later. Scientists figure it’ll be late 2020 before they receive all the flyby data.

Even so, they’re better than our first looks at Ultima Thule; like that NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI animation made from images taken 70 and 85 minutes apart, a day before flyby.

New New Horizons was about 1,200,000 miles from Ultima Thule at the time — roughly four times the distance between Earth and our moon. On top of that, the probe’s transmitter strength is a dozen watts. No wonder they’re low-resolution.12

Sunlight on Ultima Thule is dim, too.

I don’t think that’s as big a factor, though. Apparently daylight on Ultima Thule is nearly as bright as lighting in most American living rooms.

The name, “Ultima Thule,” isn’t official yet. Even its designation, (486958) 2014 MU69, is the Minor Planet Center’s provisional tag.

I’ve read that the New Horizons team will suggest an official name after they know more about Ultima Thule. Then the IAU will decide if it’s okay.

I doubt they’ll suggest “Frosty.” Or “Tenpin,” as a nostalgic nod to early estimates of Ultima Thule’s shape.13

I’d be satisfied with Ultima Thule, which didn’t stop me from suggesting a few unlikely names. Like “Yeti,” the Nepalese abominable snowman. “Isaac” could be a double nod to Newton the astronomer and Snowman the artist.

For those who like classic names, there’s Khione/Chione: which won’t work, since the name’s been used: 6261 Chione.

Ultima Thule Flyby

(From NASA/Bill Ingalls, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons okay, Ultima Thule flyby data successfully collected. January 1, 2019.)

(From James Tuttle Keane/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI, used w/o permission.)
(At right, an educated guess on its shape — based on pre-flyby images.)

NASA Spacecraft Reaches Most Distant Target in History
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA News (January 1, 2018)

“NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year’s Day, ushering in the era of exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system….”

Combining two images from the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) gave scientists a higher-resolution look at Ultima Thule.

They figured it might be shaped like a bowling pin. Or it might be two lumps, probably touching each other.

A day later, we got better look at the Kuiper Belt object.

‘Frosty’ Shape, Reddish Color

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“One of the probe’s instruments recorded the colour (L) of Ultima Thule. This has been laid over the high-resolution B&W image (C) to produce a combination (R)”
(BBC News))

Nasa’s New Horizons: ‘Snowman’ shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (January 2, 2019)

The small, icy world known as Ultima Thule has finally been revealed.

“A new picture returned from Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft shows it to be two objects joined together – to give a look like a ‘snowman’….

“…The new data from Nasa’s spacecraft also shows just how dark the object is. Its brightest areas reflect just 13% of the light falling on them; the darkest, just 6%. That’s similar to potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, the mission’s deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“It has a tinge of colour, however. ‘We had a rough colour from Hubble but now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red,’ added colleague Carly Howett, also from SwRI.

“‘Our current theory as to why Ultima Thule is red is the irradiation of exotic ices.’ Essentially, its surface has been ‘burnt’ over the eons by the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space….”

I like the “potting soil” comparison. It gives me a better impression of Ultima Thule’s appearance than numbers. It’s easier to imagine, at any rate.

I’m not sure that Ultima Thule would seem as bright as those images. Potting soil isn’t very light-colored.

But Earth’s moon looks bright in large part because we mostly see it in the night sky. It reflects about as much light as Ultima Thule, on average; more when it’s a full moon.

On the other hand, Ultima Thule is much farther from our sun than we are.14

With sunlight about as bright as interior lighting, my guess is that Ultima Thule would seem about the color of unusually iron-rich potting soil. Not that its surface is rusty.

Scientists think Ultima Thule is made of stuff that’s liquid or gas at Terrestrial temperatures, like methane, ammonia and water. That seems reasonable, but we won’t be sure until New Horizons transmits more data.

Outward Bound, Looking Back

(From JHU-APL, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons’ position before the Ultima Thule flyby, and a more Kuiper Belt objects.)

New Horizons will be traveling through the Kuiper Belt until the late 2020s, sending back observations until at least April of 2021. That’s when current funding runs out.

Scientists are looking for another Kuiper Belt object, one that’s not far from the probe’s current path.

The probe’s nuclear battery should last until 2030. Maybe longer. How long its propulsion system’s fuel supply holds out depends on how much gets used while turning the spacecraft and changing course.

With or without a second Kuiper flyby, data from New Horizons will tell us more about the heliosphere: a sort of bubble blown by our star’s solar wind.

The last image planned for the LORRI camera is more of a snapshot than a scientific observation.

New Horizons will take a picture of Earth, like Voyager 1’s 1990 Pale Blue Dot.

That’s if all goes well.

If not — that’s why the ‘I can see my house from here’ photo op comes last on LORRI’s task list.

A slight error could put the sun in the field of view would very likely burn out the camera.

New Horizons’ snapshot will, for a time, be our most distant view of Earth.

There’s no science-related reason for getting it. Nothing worth the effort and risk.

But I think it’s a very ‘human’ thing to do. Echoing Mallory’s “because it’s there,” LORRI specialist Andy Cheng said: “It’s just such a great thing to try.”15

Kuiper Belt and Beyond: Charting Solar Borderlands

(From WilyD at English Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Positions for some known Solar System objects on January 1, 2015.)

Clyde Tombaugh’s 1930 discovery of Pluto started speculation that we’d find more trans-Neptunian objects. (TNOs) The area’s named after Gerard Kuiper, one of the scientists who wrote about TNOs.

The “Kuiper belt” name is a bit controversial. Some think it should be the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. Or maybe the Whipple zone.

What Kuiper belt objects should be called is debatable too. Tombaugh suggested kuiperoids. Trans-Neptunian object is another recommended label. I like kuiperoids, myself. I’m not sure why

We’ve found and charted several thousand Kuiper belt objects so far. Or whatever they end up being called. We’ll probably find around 100,000 that are 100 or more kilometers across, and billions smaller objects a kilometer across or larger.

They’re most likely stuff left over from the Solar System’s formation.

Since they’ve been in cold storage ever since, knowing what they’re made of should tell us more about how our planetary system’s development.

The Kuiper belt, distant as it is, isn’t at the Solar System’s edge. It overlaps the scattered disc’s inner reaches.

Beyond both, scientists are pretty sure we’ll find billions of comets-in-waiting.

The Oort cloud is still theoretical, but is the best explanation we’ve got for where some comets come from. The odds are good that we’ll find more bits and pieces of frozen stuff scattered through interstellar space.16

Seeking Knowledge

Sound and fury over religion and science, what I’ve encountered, focuses mostly on evolution and whether Ussher’s chronology is Christianity’s firm foundation. Maybe, when that uproar loses steam, tight-collar folks will dust off Copernican angst. Or maybe not.

In any case, a fair number of folks seem to think someone can either be interested in science or be Christian. Real science, that is, not the post-Sixties “creation science” weirdness. (October 18, 2018; March 31, 2017)

I didn’t see a problem with admiring and studying God’s creation before I became a Catholic. I still don’t.

What’s changed is how much I know about why it’s okay.

God is large and in charge, creating a good, ordered and beautiful universe. (Genesis 1:31; Psalms 115:3; Catechism, 268, 279, 295)

This universe follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 32, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 15; Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

We’re born with a thirst for knowledge. Studying God’s creation can tell us a little about God. (Catechism, 282289, 299, 301)

Seeking knowledge, studying this universe and developing new tools, are part of being human. (Catechism, 22922295)

Knowing that this universe is far more vast and ancient than some of us imagined doesn’t bother me.

I see what we’re learning as new opportunities to admire God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
“the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”
(Psalms 19:2)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.
“For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.”
(Wisdom 11:2224)

“What are mortals? What are they worth?
What is good in them, and what is evil?
“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:811)

Opportunities for admiration:

1 Imagery, literature, assumptions, and Flammarion’s effect on gas mask sales:

2 More assumptions:

3 Names from an earlier time:

4 Newer names:

5 Technology, science and politics:

6 Burroughs’ moon:

7 Earth’s moon:

8 Exploring the lunar farside:

9 Some conspiracies have been real, which gave one physicist data to work with:

10 New harvests:

11 Radio astronomy, background:

12 asdfasdf More about New Horizons:

13 Names and minor planets:

14 Vision and perceptions:

15 Science, technology and being human:

16 The Solar System and beyond:

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Epiphany: Still Shining

While writing about Epiphany, I meandered past Gothic cathedrals, kings and chancellors, and some of what’s happened over the last two millennia.

The magi, too: the first of many from all nations who recognized and welcomed the good news our Lord brings. That’s in the day’s Gospel reading this year, Matthew 2:112.

Maybe listing this post’s headings will help. Then again, maybe not:

The Magi, Herod — and Three Anxious Days

Epiphany is when we celebrate the Magi’s arrival — first in Jerusalem, then Bethlehem. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528; Angelus, Pope St. John Paul II (January 6, 2002))

Their first stop, in Jerusalem, had consequences. But I don’t blame them. They were looking for a newborn king, so checking in with the regional boss made sense.

Their interview with Herod directed them towards Bethlehem, and obviously impressed the Roman client king.

Herod seemed eager to “do him homage,” as Matthew 2:8 puts it. Maybe Herod wanted to keep his “homage” low-profile.

Whatever he had in mind, Herod waited for the magi’s report.

The magi paid their respects and left their gifts gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)

Acting on information received, they headed for the border after honoring our Lord, not Jerusalem. Joseph, Mary and Jesus headed for Egypt. After sundown.

Lacking the magi’s information, Herod fell back on his usual protocol: killing whoever might become a threat. All the boys in Bethlehem age two or under, in this case.

Not surprisingly, the deaths of a few unimportant kids in a small town didn’t make it into Herodian records. (January 15, 2017)

Our Lord’s family stayed in Egypt until things cooled off a bit back home.

A bit, but not completely. Herod hadn’t gotten around to killing one of his sons.

After Herod’s death, the Roman emperor let Archelaus keep part of his father’s territory: Judea.1 Joseph, Mary and Jesus settled across the border, in Nazareth. Maybe because it’s Mary’s home town. (Matthew 2:923; Luke 1:2627)

Christmas-to-Epiphany Gospel readings aren’t in chronological order. Last Sunday’s was was mostly about three very stressful days for Mary and Joseph, when Jesus was 12.

They’d been in Jerusalem, celebrating Passover. On the way back, a day into the trip, Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t in the caravan. (Luke 2:44)

Any parent might be anxious if their 12-year-old disappeared.

These two were the foster-parents of God’s son, responsible for his welfare. And they’d lost him. Small wonder they experienced “great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48)

That account has a Hollywood ending of sorts.

“And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
(Luke 2:52)

But our faith isn’t all about good times and Hollywood endings. The Feasts of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents follow Christmas in the Church’s yearly cycle.


My language gets “Epiphany” from ancient Greek by way several other languages.

The word’s Greek roots had meanings like “display” and “shine.” “Manifestation,” too.

Folks have called Epiphany the festival of lights, Three Kings’ Day and Little Christmas. And still do.

If Epiphany is about light, how come my culture shows the magi in Bethlehem at night? That gets me back to light.

The magi were following a star.

Not, maybe, a particularly bright one. But a light in the darkness just the same.2

“…Perhaps because the star was not eye-catching, did not shine any brighter than other stars. It was a star – so the Gospel tells us – that the Magi saw ‘at its rising’ (vv. 2, 9). Jesus’ star does not dazzle or overwhelm, but gently invites….”
(Homily, Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2019; Pope Francis)

“…He is the ‘sun that shall dawn upon us from on high’ (Lk 1,78). He is the sun that came into the world to dispel the darkness of evil and flood it with the splendour of divine love. John the Evangelist writes: ‘The true light that enlightens every man came into the world‘ (Jn 1,9)….”
(Homily, Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2002; Pope St. John Paul II)


I’ve run across folks who see Europe’s Middle Ages as the Age of Faith.

For some, all that faith made it the Dark Ages, when ignorance and superstition reigned. Others might see it as an equally-mythical Golden Age.

I see the millennium after the Roman Empire’s decline as another few pages in humanity’s continuing story.

Folks in Europe coped with good times and bad, punctuated by the occasional incident like Charlemagne’s Verden massacre.3 (April 30, 2017)

One of Western Civilization’s more promising periods started a couple centuries later.

Europeans had nice weather from about 950 to 1250.

That gave them time for something other than surviving. Some folks living in Frankish lands designed stone buildings — with walls made mostly of glass.

I think they were perhaps the most innovative architectural engineering Western civilization produced until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Not everyone felt that way. “Gothic” buildings blatantly disregarded Roman architectural norms. That, I suspect, is why Giorgio Vasari used the term “barbarous German style,” and that’s another topic.4

Medieval Legacies

Medieval Europe, or any other place and time, wasn’t all about architecture.

Christianity was increasingly common in Europe, so some of the most notable Gothic buildings are cathedrals.

Schools run by cathedrals and monasteries, and scholastic guilds, became the first universities.

Folks like Saints Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus were laying foundations for today’s science.5

Meanwhile, top-rank warlords had limited control over territories that were becoming today’s nations. I see that as a good news/bad news situation.

On the ‘up’ side, kings occasionally kept their vassals from raiding and pillaging each other’s manors.

On the ‘down’ side, Europe’s national leaders upheld their warlord traditions through centuries of increasingly-destructive warfare.

A little over a century back now, they decided that war wasn’t a particularly good idea. Not between Europe’s rulers, anyway.

Their solution was a network of interlocking treaties. One country in the network attacking another would bring each country’s buddies into the war — then each of the buddies’ allies.

Nobody, they figured, would be stupid or crazy enough to set off a pan-European war. Not with the Edwardian era’s state-of-the art weapons.

It looked good on paper. Then, on June 28, 1914, a student activist of sorts killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia supported Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia.

By the end of August, Europe’s war had spread across Asia and reached the Pacific. Nearly a half-century later, survivors decided that we’d had enough.6

I think they were right. (December 24, 2018; April 15, 2018)

I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s see, where was I? Herod. Magi. Charlemagne, Hildegard of Bingen. Right.

Archbishops and Kings

We don’t hear much about Theobald of Bec these days. That’s probably due to his successor being Thomas Becket.

England’s King Stephen made Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury in 1138.

I’m not sure why. Maybe he figured Theobald would be more cooperative than someone in Stephen’s own family.

Archbishop Theobald wasn’t particularly easygoing. He figured that as Archbishop of Canterbury, he needn’t take orders from the Bishop of Winchester.

I think that makes sense, since Winchester was in the Canterbury archdiocese.

The Bishop of Winchester didn’t. Maybe because he was Henry of Blois, AKA Henry of Winchester, King Stephen’s brother’s son. He’d wanted to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Like most things involving humans, it’s complicated.

Then there was the Council of Reims in 1148. I gather that Reims was an important city at the time.

Reims had been capital of the Remi when Julius Caesar’s troops arrived. The Remi decided that cooperating with the Romans was a good idea. That helped their city become home to between 30,000 and 100,000 folks.

Fast-forward nearly a millennium. Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire was a couple centuries into its millennium-long run. Reims was still an important city, and headquarters for an archdiocese.

Hugh Capet was a king — of the Franks or of France, depending on who you listen to. Either way, he was boss of a territory that’s roughly where France is today. That’s likely why so many folks paid attention when Hugh called the 991 Council of Reims.

A top item on the 991 council’s agenda was the case of Arnulf, Archbishop of Reims, against Hugh.

Hugh said Arnulf was part of a conspiracy against Hugh. The Council went along with Hugh, deposing the archbishop.

Pope John XV didn’t accept the verdict, or the Hugh-friendly chap Hugh’s council said was Reims’ new Archbishop. That mess wasn’t settled until Pope Gregory V’s time.

The Catholic Church was dealing with one of our rough patches around the 10th and 11th centuries.

One of the problems was excessive overlap of royal and church authority.

A reform was in progress. From King Stephen’s viewpoint, it was too successful, partly due to Archbishop Theobald’s work. Again, it’s complicated.

The 991 council’s aftermath, and Theobald’s track record, may explain why King Stephen didn’t want ‘his’ archbishop going to the 1148 Council of Reims.

Theobald was in a bind. His king told him to stay put, the Pope told him to attend.

Theobald attended, talked the Council out of excommunicating his king, that’s yet another topic, but asked the Pope to let Stephen fix the problem.

King Stephen didn’t like that, so he confiscated Theobald’s property and didn’t let him back into England.

The exile didn’t last. Theobald outlived King Stephen, and historians still don’t agree on what sort of person the archbishop was.7

“…This Turbulent Priest?”

Thomas Becket was Theobald of Bec’s Archdeacon of Canterbury, starting in 1154. Theobald added more ecclesiastical jobs to Becket’s job description. Thomas got the work done, which got Theobald’s attention.

The archbishop told King Henry II that Thomas would make a good Lord Chancellor. Henry II gave Thomas that job in 1155.

Becket took his Chancellorship seriously, enforcing the king’s revenue sources — including churches and bishoprics. Like I said, that was one of our rough patches.

Theobald died in 1161.

A royal council of bishops and nobility confirmed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry II let Becket take the position, maybe because he figured Becket would keep his ‘king first’ policy.

Becket didn’t.

He resigned his job as Chancellor and kept doing what Theobald had been doing: unraveling royal control over clergy and churches in England.

Henry II didn’t like that. At all.

A particularly tense situation in 1170 ended with Henry’s now-famous “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Henry II may not have used those exact words. Probably didn’t, since the “turbulent priest” quote is an oral tradition; and my language has changed in the last eight and a half centuries. Another version, in Latin, is far more flowery.

Whatever Henry said, four knights figured their king wanted Thomas out of circulation. They went to Canterbury Cathedral and told Becket that he’d go with them to see Henry.

Becket didn’t cooperate. They left the Cathedral, retrieved their weapons, returned with drawn swords, and vivisected Canterbury’s archbishop.

The bloodstains have long since been cleaned up.

Thomas Becket was recognized as a Saint. Henry II did a high-profile public penance for ordering the hit.

Folks set up a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, marking the spot where Becket died.8

Henry VIII’s Decisions

(From Mike Peel, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A bit of Merton’s Priory, after Henry VIII’s agents did their work.)

Richard the Lionheart was England’s after Henry II. Henries IV through VI reigned during the 1400s. Lancaster’s Henry VI had another go at the throne, followed by York’s two Edwards and a Richard.

The House of Tudor came out ahead in one of England’s civil wars.

That put Henry VII in charge. England’s next king would have been Arthur: the one born in 1486, not the famous one.

Saying that the King Arthur couldn’t have existed caught on, at least as far back as 1925. Mainly because Arthur most likely lived after the Roman Empire pulled out of the British Isles. They’ve got a point. We’ve got precious little British documentation for the generations after from Rome’s pullout.

The now-familiar Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot tales make good melodrama, showed up something like a millennium after Arthur’s day, and that’s yet again another topic.

Back to Henry VII and the 1486 Arthur. Briefly. Briefly for me, that is.

Henry’s heir apparent got sick and died. Henry VIII was the next-oldest legitimate male heir, and England’s next king.

England’s Henry VIII may be most famous for his half-dozen wives.

His reign might have been much less messy if he’d lived well before the 16th century. Or been less concerned with appearances.

Henry’s wife #1 had several kids, including Mary I. Her sons were either stillborn or died shortly after birth.

Maybe Henry VIII figured he’d gotten a defective wife.

What’s more certain is that he told Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage. The Pope refused, one thing led to another, and Henry VIII decided he’d do better with a state-run church.

That’s a huge over-simplification. So is what follows.

State-sponsored churches were becoming popular among northern European leaders. England and Europe had been nominally Christian for centuries. That, and tithing customs, gave high-level Catholic clergy considerable economic and political clout.

The Italian Renaissance was in progress. Wealth from global trade was trickling into northern Europe, but not fast enough for monarchs like Albert, Duke of Prussia and England’s Henry VIII.

The situation arguably led to centuries of region-themed propaganda, the Thirty Years War and the Enlightenment. (January 12, 2018; September 10, 2017; August 4, 2017)

Henry VIII’s decision to nationalize England’s religion did wonders for the royal treasury.

His appraisers traveled the country. Some churches and monasteries were converted to profitable rental properties. Reclamation crews “rescued” books, furniture, lead roofs and anything else with resale value. (October 27, 2017)

Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral lasted until 1538. Henry VIII’s agents had it removed, along with other reminders of the “turbulent priest.”

The nationalized church became a useful part of England’s government.

Purging Thomas Becket’s memory from England wasn’t entirely successful. Folks remembered the spot where Becket was killed. Some have been keeping a candle burning there.9

“The King’s Good Servant…”

These days, Thomas More may be the best-known casualty of Henry VIII’s national church: thanks to Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” and film adaptations of the play.

That picture isn’t More. It’s John Fisher, another Englishman who thought even kings should follow some rules.

Thomas More became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529.

In 1530, he refused to sign a letter to Pope Clement VII, asking that their king’s marriage be annulled. That didn’t endear More to the solid English churchmen and aristocrats who wrote the letter.

A royal decree of 1531 required all English clergy to take an oath, saying that Henry VIII was “supreme head” of the Church of England. English bishops at the 1532 Convocation of Canterbury agreed, after getting the words “as far as Christ law allows” added.

Some bishops in England wouldn’t cooperate. John Fisher was one of them. He was a cardinal by the time he was accused, tried and convicted of treason.

More didn’t take the oath either, and resigned as Lord Chancellor. He might have survived, since he didn’t publicly criticize the king’s actions.

Then More didn’t attend Anne Boleyn’s 1533 coronation. She’s wife #2. That, apparently, was an act of high treason. Thomas More was accused, tried and convicted. It took the jury all of 15 minutes to reach their verdict.

Before his execution, More said he was “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”10

I hope I never have to make the sort of choice Thomas Becket, John Fisher and Thomas More faced. But I think they had their priorities straight.

Simple, Not Easy

Ideally, obeying a national leader and following God’s rules would be easy.

As Jesus said, God’s laws are quite simple:

“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
“This is the greatest and the first commandment.
“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
(Matthew 22:3740)

I should love God and my neighbor. That’s “the whole law and the prophets”

It’s simple. And not at all easy. Particularly since the ‘Samaritan’ story makes it clear that everyone is my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

Those principles don’t change. This natural law is written into each of us. How we apply the principles should change as our cultures and circumstances change. The trick is to make new rules that fit natural law. (Catechism, 19501960)

We’ve learned that societies work better if someone’s in charge. How we pick our leaders is our choice. What’s important is that the system supports the common good, and that we’re comfortable with it. (Catechism, 18971917)

But as I keep saying, we’re not in an ideal world.

Maybe it’d be easier if blindly following whatever the nearest boss says would be okay. It’s not. No king, emperor, or other leader is above the natural law. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)

Reason for Hope

Anguished laments are easy, and fashionable in some circles. What’s being deplored varies. My guess is that climate change is still on the A-list, but American news has been focusing on politics lately.

Don’t get me wrong. I care about what’s happening on Earth, and would prefer more reason and less hysteria in politics. (January 8, 2018; May 26, 2017)

But instead of lamenting the prevalence of angst, I’ll take a quick look at a few things that haven’t gone horribly wrong.

The Industrial Revolution left a mess we’ll be cleaning up for generations. That’s the bad news.

The not-so-bad news is that we’re cleaning up the mess.

We’re still plagued by wars. That’s bad news.

But folks in a few places aren’t slaughtering each other in wholesale lots. Europe is one of those pockets of comparative calm.

European leaders have somehow avoided killing each other’s subjects for nearly three quarters of a century.

That’s reason for hope. So is what I think could be an end to our empire-collapse-rebuild cycle.

Sargon’s Akkadian Empire brought a measure of stability to Mesopotamia. Later Mesopotamian civilizations remembered him as a wise and strong leader. Maybe for the same reasons that Lincoln, Washington and Alfred of Wessex seem a bit larger than life.

Four millennia after Sargon, we’re trying something new: an international entity that’s open to all nations. The United Nations is no more perfect than the Sargon’s empire. But I think it’s a good first effort.11

The Best News Ever

Now, about that good news — the best humanity’s ever had.

God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. Each of us. (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:35; Peter 2:34; Catechism, 13, 2730, 52, 1825, 1996)

I thought God’s offer sounded good, and accepted it. That’s why I keep trying love my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. That won’t change the course of history, make war obsolete or solve this world’s problems. But it’s a start.

That’s why I keep suggesting that working together is a good idea, and passing along the best news ever:

This post’s first photo is from ISS036-E-28913; courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center. (….; August 4, 2013)

1 Roman provinces, mostly:

2 About Epiphany:

3 Ages, assumptions, and all that:

4 Architecture, mostly:

5 Mostly medieval:

6 Wars and survivors:

7 Kings and an archbishop

8 Another king and archbishop:

9 16th century politics :

10 Deciding who’s the boss:

11 Efforts, good and otherwise:

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World Day of Peace, 2019

For two dozen centuries, at least, a few folks have said that peace is a good idea. Many others have agreed.

Making peace a practical reality has remained an elusive goal. But I think we’re closer to it than when Chu won the Battle of Bi, or Sparta lost the Battle of Leuctra.1

I’m quite certain that finding an alternative to war is a good idea. No matter how long it takes us to get there.

“…There is no true peace without fairness, truth, justice and solidarity….”
(Message for the celebration of XXXIII World Day of Peace, 13, Pope St. John Paul II (January 1, 2000))

“…But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men….”
(“The Sacred Pipe,” Black Elk (1953) as told to Joseph Epes Brown)

“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
(Jesus, in Matthew 5:9)

“Love and truth will meet;
justice and peace will kiss.
“Truth will spring from the earth;
justice will look down from heaven.”
(Psalms 85-1112)

“Better than a thousand hollow words
“Is one word that brings peace.
“Better than a thousand hollow verses
“Is one verse that brings peace.
“Better than a hundred hollow lines
“Is one line of the law, bringing peace.”
(“Dhammapada,” Verses 100-115, Siddhartha Gautama, translated by Thomas Byrom)

Utopias That Didn’t Work

We had a bumper crop of utopian societies in 19th century America.

Folks from the Harmony Society in Pennsylvania decided to try communal living in the Indiana Territory. They called their town Harmony, lived there from 1814 to 1824, then moved back east.

They gave their Indiana property to Robert Owen, a social reformer and wealthy industrialist. Owen figured the ready-built town was a dandy spot for showcasing Owenism: his version of Enlightenment ideals.

Owen’s New Harmony lasted from 1825 to 1827. That time around, folks decided to chuck their ideology but keep the town. A less utopian, but more durable, New Harmony eventually became part of the Evansville metropolitan area.

Many, but not all, American utopian experiments involved some sort of communal living. Maybe because Americans looking for private property and a chance at prosperity were already living in that sort of society.

Some utopias, like the Harmony Society, apparently thought the ideal community would be communal — and discouraged the process by which we grow new humans. Such communities tended to have trouble lasting more than one generation.2

A Golden Age by Any Other Name – – –

On the other hand, ‘no kids’ outfits like the Trappists have lasted for centuries: as communities within a larger society.

Americans aren’t the only folks who’ve imagined utopias, or tried building one.

Thomas More’s 1516 satire, “Utopia,” added the word to my language. His readers probably realized that More’s “Utopia” meant something in Greek. The prefix ou- means “not,” topos means “place,” and place-names often got the suffix -iā.

“Utopia,” for More, meant “Nowhere:” a place that doesn’t exist. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that “Utopia” means eu-topos: “Goodplace,” sort of.

Maybe because Hesoid’s ‘Golden Age’ is such an enduring dream in Western civilization. Hesoid’s “Works and Days” discusses, among other things, about five Ages of Man.

Apparently Greek myth and folklore of his day had us starting out living carefree lives in a ‘Golden Age.’ And that it’s gotten steadily worse ever since.

Folks in what’s now China have their dàtóng and Peach Blossom Spring.

Another tradition says we cycle through the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga.

I gather that truth typifies the Satya Yuga, and that we’re currently in a Kali Yuga.3

I see parallels between Eden and the apparently-common idea of a ‘good old days’ that we’re not in.

That doesn’t bother me. I’m a Catholic. My obligations include taking Sacred Scripture seriously. Also not assuming that the Bible was written from a particular Western viewpoint. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

More specifically, Hesoid’s Ages of Man remind me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:3145 and Genesis 2:83:19.

I suspect that’s partly because I grew up in a culture that is still mostly ‘European.’ Europeans almost certainly had their own utopian folklore when they heard the Genesis account, and that’s another topic.

‘Discovering’ that the Christian Bible’s origins are in the ancient Middle East has been big lately. So has comparing the Bible to standards that are in vogue at the moment: Freudian psychoanalysis, postmodern dialectics, whatever.

I don’t particularly like that sort of thing. Going ballistic over higher criticism or creation science is an option. But not, I think, a reasonable one.

I’d much rather spend time and energy trying to make sense. (Catechism, 369379, 385412)

And learning what I can from a store of accumulated wisdom that’s older than Western Civilization’s current iteration.4

Europeans also had some distinctly non-Biblical utopian dreams: like Cockaigne and Schlaraffenland, its German counterpart.

Schlaraffenland and Cockaigne looked like reversals of European life in the 1300s.

Instead of wars punctuated by famines, plagues and the Black Death, Cockaigne was a place with no rules, all the food you can eat — and nothing to do all day except see how far gluttony and sloth will take you.

Folks saddled with dubiously-competent landlords and unreasonable production quotas might enjoy Cockaigne dreams. Particularly if they’d heard claims that whatever wasn’t painful was Satanic.5 Some Catholics have that attitude, but it’s not what the Church says. (Ecclesiastes 2:2425; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27, 17181719, 21122114)

Xanadu and Cheesy Rain

Schlaraffenland, Cockaigne and America’s Utopian communities are a pretty small sample from humanity’s long story.

Not enough, I think, to let me give an informed opinion.

That won’t stop me from sharing what I think may be true of at least some wannabe utopias. Or maybe not.

Folks living in 19th century America who wanted to try living with private property and a chance at prosperity didn’t need to go anywhere. The society they were in worked like that.

Schlaraffenland and Cockaigne’s no-rules land of cheesy rain, streets paved with pastry and houses made of barley sugar and cakes — was almost exactly what 14th-century European life wasn’t like. The same goes for America’s 19th century communal utopias.

My statistically-insignificant sample suggests that throughout history, Utopia has been the opposite of whatever’s currently ‘normal.’

Or sometimes, maybe, something in current events: swollen beyond all reason.

“…Force Peace Right Down Their Bloodthirsty Throats!”

I occasionally run into someone with an attitude like Pogo’s Deacon Mushrat.6

It’s not 1952 any more, happily. Or 1969. Quite a few folks, myself included, had gotten thoroughly fed up with warped versions of “peace” by the late Sixties.

“‘…Peace iss vhat ve vant und do have,
Und a piece of anything you have.”
(“Bored of the Rings,” Henry N. Beard, Douglas C. Kenney; Harvard Lampoon (1969) via Google Books)

Mushrat-style malignant virtue has long since been replaced by equally-toxic attitudes. Or the same attitude with different ideology and slogans. (April 11, 2018; February 4, 2018)

The good news is that quite a few folks don’t act like comic strip characters.

Another World Day of Peace

I like nostalgia, but only within reason.

Yearning the ‘good old days’ of my youth isn’t an option. My memory’s too good.

And I know enough about humanity’s story to realize that whatever’s behind our assorted tales of better days long past — it was uncounted ages before our earliest written records.

As an adolescent, I realized that we weren’t living in a perfect world. We aren’t now.

We don’t live in the worst of all possible worlds, either.

If we were, folks around London wouldn’t have responded to senseless killing by saying that love is a good idea.

I think they’re right. Having been one of ‘those crazy kids’ in the 1960s makes accepting the idea easier for me, maybe, than for some. A little easier, anyway.

Like it or not, I should love God and my neighbors. And see everybody as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

That’s what I should do. I don’t, not consistently.

But it’s still a good idea, so I keep trying. I also keep suggesting that loving, or at least not hating, other folks is a good idea.

Forgiving others is another incredibly difficult task, and a good idea.

Maybe, if enough of us start trying to act as if ‘love your neighbor’ matters — and focus on solving problems more than getting even — we’ll get a little closer to experiencing peace.

I think it’ll be worth the effort. And I think we’re making progress. Slow progress.

Today, January 1, is another World Day of Peace. It’s international, but isn’t the International Day of Peace. That’s September 21.

The World Day of Peace is a Catholic thing. Instead of talking about that, I’ll wrap this up with a few more quotes — and an opinion:

“…A great project of peace
“In these days, we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the Second World War. In this context, let us also remember the observation of Pope John XXIII: ‘Man’s awareness of his rights must inevitably lead him to the recognition of his duties. The possession of rights involves the duty of implementing those rights, for they are the expression of a man’s personal dignity. And the possession of rights also involves their recognition and respect by others’….”
(“52nd World Day of Peace 2019 – Good politics is at the service of peace,” Pope Francis (December 8, 2018))

“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

“Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;”
(Romans 14:10)

“Then Peter approaching asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?'”
(Matthew 18:21)

“Wrath and anger, these also are abominations,
yet a sinner holds on to them.
“The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance;
indeed he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Does anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?”
(Sirach 27:3028:3)

Wrath and anger are part of today’s world. Forgiveness is still more an ideal than a reality. But I think we’re making progress: slowly.

Humanity’s plagued with many small wars, but we haven’t had a global conflict for nearly three quarters of a century. A remarkable number of folks say international cooperation makes sense. Some even act as if they believe it.

We don’t have a close approximation to St. John Paul II’s civilization of love.

Getting there will take generations of hard work. Millennia, likely enough. We’ve got an enormous backlog of unresolved injustices to sort out.

But I think working toward that goal is a good idea. And I think it’ll be worth the effort. Eventually.

Remembering peace in 2018:

1 Business as usual and a few good ideas:

2 Utopia lost:

3 ‘We had it made’ around the world:

4 Making sense:

5 Daydreaming and other ideas:

6 Deacon Mushrat, Pogo and Albert:

  • “The Pogo Papers”
    Walt Kelly (1952-1953)
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Peace: Optional

We’ll be hearing Luke 2:114 during the Christmas Mass During the Night. The first half leads with A-list VIPs. The second starts with folks at the other end of society’s ladder.

I’ll be talking about VIPs, shepherds and status. Also remembering what the shepherds heard, and why it still matters.

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.”
(Luke 2:8)

Magi and Farmers

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s not a new idea:

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
“The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”
(Alphonse Karr)

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus; via Plato’s “Cratylus,” Diogenes Laërtius in “Lives of the Philosophers” Book IX, section 8; one of many translations)

My guess is that Heraclitus paraphrased something he’d heard, which in turn had been passed along through uncounted generations. Change happens. Pretty much anyone who pays attention will notice that.

Folks fretting over new tech and new ideas is, likely enough, as old as humanity. (June 1, 2018; March 26, 2018)

Some folks, that is. Others have been making life miserable for testy traditionalists — or contributing to the common good — by finding new solutions to old problems.

My guess is that at least a few folks warned that growing crops instead of hunting and gathering was a bad idea. Agriculture caught on anyway.

Farmers learned that supporting specialists who could accurately predict seasons was a good idea. Several millennia later, that’s still among astronomy’s functions. (January 8, 2017)

“Magi from the east” — we hear about them in Matthew 2:1, Epiphany’s Gospel — weren’t astronomers. Not the sort we’ve had for the last few centuries. They weren’t like today’s astrologers either. (September 29, 2017; June 23, 2017)

There’s nobody quite like them, or Rome’s emperor, today.

“Magi” is my language’s version of the Avestan word “magâunô,” via Old Persian, Greek and Latin.

Avestan was an important religious language when Darius was following a ‘don’t bug me, I won’t bug you’ policy toward different religions. That started with the Achaemenid Empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great.1

Shepherds and Almost-Golden Ages

(From Fredarch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Niniveh’s Mashki Gate, reconstructed. Across the river from Mosul.)

Magâunô and the Achaemenid Empire are long since “one with Nineveh and Tyre.”

But we still have shepherds.

Some preserve a tradition that began long before our Lord’s birth. Or Sargon of Akkad’s, for that matter.

Shepherding started when somebody decided that small bovine critters were useful, and decided to keep a herd or two on hand. We think it was about a dozen millennia back, near the Mediterranean’s east end.

Herding sheep was a long-accepted tradition a few millennia later, when folks started storing data on clay tablets. Sumerians even had a god of shepherds, Dumuzid. The name was Tammuz in Ezekiel 8:14.2

The Axial Age was in progress then, upsetting apple carts at what was probably an alarming rate. (April 15, 2018)

We’ve had a few moderately stable eras since then, like when Shoshenq I and Psamtik I were running Egypt.

Parts of the Han Dynasty were good times too.

And, probably, the Maurya Empire under Ashoka.

The good times didn’t last. Neither did the bad times.

Ashoka died around the time King Zhuangxiang of Qin ruled land between the upper Wei and Yangtze Rivers. Ashoka’s empire lasted another 45 years, more or less.

Sima Yan became the Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wu around the time Roman Senators were trying to solve their problems by assassinating troublemakers like Tiberius Gracchus.

The Roman Republic’s leadership then hailed Tiberius Gracchus as a hero and went back to business as usual. Republican Rome’s problems got worse.

Decades later, another Roman politico threatened the status quo.

A few anxious Senators, seeing his policies and influence as a threat, defended the Republic by killing him.

That, eventually, set off the Final War of the Roman Republic.

The Pax Romana began when Augustus sorted out Republican Rome’s mess.

The next two centuries were arguably closer to a Golden Age than anything we’ve had since. Seen in retrospect, at any rate. At the time, they probably didn’t seem quite so blissful.3

Maybe, a few millennia from now, someone will look back on those idyllic centuries after the Enlightenment — when an educated and rational populace chose the wisest of their number to work for the good of all.

They won’t be entirely wrong.

Overly-selective in their choice of memories, perhaps, but no less accurate than folks who insist on seeing a dark lining in every silver cloud.

Readers Beware!

(From Kaaveh Ahangar, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The Cyrus Cylinder, in British Museum Room 55 / Mesopotamia 1500–539.)

I might be more worried about the destruction of all that is fair and noble in this great nation, if I knew less about humanity’s continuing story.

And didn’t remember my own ‘good old days,’ when angsty op-eds said television and the telephone were ruining America’s youth.

Times, and bogeymen, change.

But not much.

These days it’s social media and the ‘other’ political party causing moral decay, decadence and deplorable stuff like that. (October 22, 2017; August 11, 2017)

On the other hand, I think Plato’s Socrates, as portrayed in “Phaedrus,” had a point. Athenian civilization faced a threat worse than any military menace: a deceptively appealing new information tech, writing.

A disturbing number of Athenians thought Egypt’s upgrade of Mesopotamian cuneiform would help them absorb more knowledge.

Plato’s Socrates warned that reading would lead to ignorance and folly.

“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality….”
(Socrates, in Plato’s “Phaedrus;” Translated by Benjamin Jowett, via

Two dozen centuries later, I see evidence that Plato’s Socrates was right. Some folks apparently read a lot and know very little.

I could say that’s because digital media replaced printed books. Or shows what happens when we abandon hand-lettered and bound manuscripts.

Or maybe the issue isn’t our tech. I suspect that some of Aesop’s neighbors had memorized his fables, Homer’s epic poems — and stopped there.

I figure having facts is one thing. Thinking about them is another, and not necessarily the same as understanding what they mean.

Memorization can be useful. So, I think, is knowing how to use a good index. Or how to make one, when necessary. Research skills also help. So does being willing to use any or all of those abilities.

I’d probably be much better at rote memorization, if I hadn’t learned to read. On the other hand, I almost certainly wouldn’t know about 5th century BC Athenian future shock — if Plato hadn’t written it into a play.

Athenians and others didn’t heed Plato’s dramatic warning. Including, apparently, Plato.

Writing caught on.

So did other technologies.

Cuneiform and hieroglyphs led to Proto-Sinaitic and Cyrillic scripts, and the Latin alphabet my cultural forebears modified for their language.

The pace picked up about five centuries back, with movable type. Destabilizing tech like steam engines, data networks, robots and social media followed. The last three items hit after my youth.

I like living in “the future.” Some don’t.

Using ‘after this, therefore because of this’ reasoning — it sounds cooler in Latin, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” — I could say that learning to read and write doomed Athenian democracy. But I won’t.

Athenian good times ended, assorted empires and kingdoms rose and fell, and sheep remained an important part of life. Some families still see their herds as a measure of their wealth.4

Change Happens

It’s been two millennia since that first Christmas. Times have changed. Again. Still.

Roman, Parthian and Kushan empires flourished and faded. Europeans re-discovered ancient Greek philosophers, learned that Aristotle wasn’t right about everything, and established new empires.

There’s lively debate — several, actually — over what’s happened since Columbus and da Gama, and whose fault it was. I’m not sure that playing the blame game is useful, and that’s another topic.

What’s more certain is that a global war started in 1914.

Most folks see two wars, World Wars I and II, during the next few decades. I’ve suggested calling conflicts from 1914 to 1945 the ‘Colonial War.’ (November 10, 2017)

Many of us survived, and began rebuilding our civilizations.

A remarkable number of leaders decided that trying something new was a good idea.

We may be developing a viable alternative to ancient empire-collapse-rebuild cycles. (April 15, 2018; November 5, 2017)

After so much change, what’s the point in remembering what happened two thousand years ago in one of Rome’s eastern provinces?

Our tech and cultures change.

Human nature doesn’t, not that I can see.

We’re still creatures with a physical body and a soul.

We can decide to help or hurt each other, use our brains or follow our whims. (January 15, 2017)

The house I live in isn’t just like those my ancestors had, a millennium back. The laws I deal with aren’t just like theirs, or Republican Rome’s, or Hammurabi’s. (February 5, 2017; September 25, 2016)

But they’re not all that different. Some things, like theft, are still bad ideas. Good ideas haven’t changed, either. I’ll get back to that.

Paying Attention

Shepherds in Roman Judea had a vital role in society, one with low pay and lower status. They didn’t own sheep. Their job was looking after another person’s herd.

The closest we come to their rung on society’s ladder might be folks who work in turkey barns and poultry plants. Or maybe a factory’s cleaning crew and night watchman.

Let’s imagine folks like Luke’s shepherds, in some American town.

It’s just another night shift. The cleaning crew is at work on the shop floor. The night watchman is doing his rounds.

Then someone’s standing there, on the shop floor; apparently lit up by Klieg lights.

He’s obviously not part of the staff. Probably not even from around here. Make that obviously not.

“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
(Luke 2:910)

Give the shepherds credit. Afraid or not, they didn’t run.

They paid attention.

That’s a good thing — since the angel had a message, the best news humanity’s ever had.

“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“‘Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'”
(Luke 2:1114)

You know what happened next.5

The shepherds went into Bethlehem, found our Lord in a feeding trough.

It was a bit like finding a couple and their newborn infant behind a motel, using a tool box as a cradle. Not exactly four-star accommodations.

The baby grew up. He said and did things that impressed some and bothered others. Folks in the regional A-list had him tortured and executed.

Then, a few days later, our Lord stopped being dead.

That got Mary of Magdala’s attention. And Simon’s. Thomas caught on, too. Eventually. Then our Lord had a final meeting with the 11, gave them standing orders, and left. (Matthew 28:1820; John 20:118, 2429; Luke 24:3043; Acts 1:611)

“…Peace to Those on Whom His Favor Rests”

We’ve been passing along what our Lord told the Apostles ever since.

God loves us. All of us. Each of us. And wants to adopt us. (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:35; Peter 2:34; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 13, 2730, 52, 1825, 1996)

Maybe it sounds too good to be true. There is a catch, sort of.

God wants to adopt each of us. But I decide to accept the offer: or refuse it. It’s a choice everyone makes. (John 1:12; Catechism, 154, 17301730)

I thought God’s offer makes sense. What you decide is up to you.

That makes me ‘part of the family.’ Which isn’t as nifty as it may sound.

I can’t reasonably expect God’s peace if I say ‘I’m God’s’ kid’ — and leave it at that.

Acting like I accept the family values is part of the package. (James 2:1719; Catechism, 18141816)

The family values are quite simple. It’s like our Lord said, when an expert asked which commandment was greatest.

I should love God and my neighbors. All my neighbors. Everyone in the world. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

“…The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
(Matthew 22:3440)

Two millennia later, it’s still simple. Memorization isn’t my strong suit, but remembering those two point isn’t hard.

Acting like I believe them is incredibly difficult. But they’re still good ideas.

‘Loving my neighbor’ means responding when I see a neighbor in trouble. Doing what I can makes sense. Even if all I can do is pray. (Catechism, 25582856)

Recognizing humanity’s “transcendent dignity” makes sense too. It’s in each of us. That doesn’t mean we’re all alike, or that we should be. Individual differences are part of the package. (Catechism, 1929, 19341938)

So are qualities like generosity, kindness, sharing and planning for future generations. Make that ‘should be.’ I’m definitely a work-in-progress. (Catechism, 1734, 18031832, 1937, 2415, 24192442)

Our world is a work in progress, too.

Building a Civilization of Love

Some of us have acted as if loving our neighbors makes sense.

Some haven’t.

I think a 20th century Pope had a good idea:

“…We must overcome our fear of the future. But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together. The ‘answer’ to that fear is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world. The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

About 23 years later, We don’t have a “civilization of love.”6

I’d be astonished if we’d cobbled together an international authority that actually worked in such a short time.

Maybe in 23 decades. That’s how long it’s been since revolutions in a few English colonies plunged Europe’s empires into chaos and confusion.

Or started ‘natives’ thinking about freedom and self-government.

Or it could take something like the 23 centuries since Republican Rome destabilized the Mediterranean world.

Or laid foundations for the Pax Romana’s peace and prosperity.

Either way, I’d rather live now than when the Punic Wars were current events. Or when tea-drinking colonists got fed up with the status quo.

On the whole, I like living in today’s world: even though it’s not perfect.

Humanity has an enormous backlog of injustices and unresolved issues.

We also have folks willing to consider working with others: including others with different backgrounds and viewpoints.

Willingness to work together won’t solve all our problems.

But it’s a start. A good start.

I think seeking justice and practicing mercy will be worth the effort. If we keep working at it. And are willing to be patient.

If not we’re not, God won’t make us accept peace.

It’s our decision:

1 Magi, languages and history:

2 Sheep and perspective:

3 History and nostalgia:

4 Sheep, tech and being human:

5 About Advent and Christmas, mostly:

6 Working toward a “civilization of love:”

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, 23022317
  • Gaudium et Spes,” Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965)
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