Adult Onset Atheist

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mercury Retrograde April 9 - May 3

This is yet another essay on Mercury going retrograde today.

I thought of Mercury going retrograde as I drove down a street in the "Avenues" district of Salt Lake City.  The sun was setting a brilliant orange back-lighting the capitol and reflecting across the Great Salt Lake itself.  Behind me a moon rose that was all but (an app on my iPhone would tell me it was 1 day and 3 hours away from) full.  

For a the briefest of moments I was more aware than is possible of this careening spinning crazy ride through the gravity wells of curved spacetime that all the inhabitants of earth share in, and it was amazing, and then that moment was followed by another.  I liked that one and followed it with a few more and then I was driving alongside I-80 and the surface of the Great Salt Lake was a mirror reflecting an gigantic ball of nuclear fire a million times larger than the planet I was driving across the surface of (Sun's volume is 1.4X10E18 km^3, and the Earth's volume is 1X10E12 km^3) and I liked it till the sun disappeared behind a range of snow covered mountains and the sky became dark enough to see the stars.  And stars are really cool.

Perhaps it was the great weekend that had left me with the feeling that I was soaring through a universe that wanted to act like I was noticing it in new and thrilling ways? 

Supposedly cell phones are going to glitch (more than normal) and other technology and communications are going to go awry. Some well meaning people recommend just curling up and cocooning as the “crazy” caused by Mercury’s retrograde passes.

I can only imagine that the wonderful full moon contributes to the mystical happenings. 

Gala Darling” describes some of the effects of Mercury going retrograde as “It’s like everyone you know has suddenly gone mad! You might find yourself getting into bizarre arguments about nothing at all, being unable to finish sentences or barely even able to form a coherent thought.” Imagine the effect on people who regularly lack the desire or ability to form coherent thoughts?!?

So, what makes this madness happen?

Mercury orbits the sun every 88 days, and it is common knowledge that the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days. This means that every Earth year mercury laps the Earth around the sun slightly more than four times.

Mercury orbits the sun the fastest of all the planets.  As one travels out from the sun the planetary orbits become longer and longer. Venus orbits the sun every 225 days, and so it laps the earth every other year; sometimes twice in a year.

The planets farther from the sun than earth are lapped by the earth. Saturn orbits the earth only once every 29 years so the earth laps it almost every year.

To the casual observer the planets appear like slightly brighter specks of light against a scattering of bright specs of light in the night sky. They do not appear to be billions of times closer. We can deduce that they are closer because the angle we see them at changes as we move around the sun, and we move around the sun at an incredibly high rate of speed (30 km/s) so even though the planets are far away they can appear to be in different places almost every night. Because the orbits are roundish the planets will appear back at almost their starting place after some multiple of the ratio of the two orbit durations. Ancient astronomers used to squint up at the night sky and make surprisingly accurate predictions of the orbit times for all the planets they could see by measuring things like how long it took them to pass back through some particular constellation.

The geometry that defines the retrograde motion is not difficult, but it is cumbersome to the point of being tedious. I will spare you this time. Even more complex is the model Ptolemy used to describe the motions of the planets given a geocentric model of the solar system. The model includes orbits looping about orbits and the complete trace is much like something one could create with a Spirograph set. I always loved Spirograph so it is unfortunate that the model apparently fails after a while. That is one of the problems with overly complex models; they hide failures in late iterations.
By James Ferguson (1710-1776), based on similar diagrams by Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) and Dr Roger Long (1680-1770); engraved for the Encyclopaedia by Andrew Bell. - Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771; facsimile reprint 1971), Volume 1, Fig. 2 of Plate XL facing page 449., Public Domain,

I saw at least one YouTube video created with the intensity of a WTC7 conspiracy theorist about how retrograde motion in Mercury proves that the Sun orbits the Earth. I am sure the government is hiding this from us because we re all some sort of “sheeple”, but I did not watch it that long.

Because the planets are all traveling in the same direction about the sun they mostly appear to travel in the same direction across the night sky. Venus and Mercury, being on the sun side of the earth most of the time, do not really travel across the night sky, but the little they can be observed to move they go in one direction mostly. Because all the planets either lap or are lapped by the Earth this apparent motion across the sky also changes direction for short (relative to the orbit of the earth) period of time. That change in direction is called apparent retrograde motion, or in astrology terms “being in retrograde”.

Wikepedia has a great picture that shows the apparent retrograde motion to an observer on earth of an outer planet.
By Rursus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I tried to do something similar for Mercury, but, the changes in angle are so big it is hard to contain them in a graphic. Here is one picture I made which has the Earth going about a quarter of the way around the sun and Mercury going all the way around the sun. I’ve numbered where the parallax puts the apparent location of Mercury against the backdrop of apparently unmoving stars.

If you look you can see how the order of the numbered observations changes between observations 2 and 3, then goes in back in the same direction for the sequence of observations 3,4, and 5. The retrograde motion would occur between observations 2 and 3. One of the other things this picture make kind of obvious is that most of the observations occur during daytime on Earth when Mercury is not visible to the naked eye.

In this picture I’ve tried to capture observations occurring at a great enough angle as to have Mercury at least visible in the late evening or just around dawn. Unfortunately when I do this the graphic does not capture any retrograde motion. The point being that it is really hard to notice retrograde motion in mercury, even though it happens at a greater frequency than it does for any of the other planets.  In fact this problem with Mercury being obscured by daylight is one of the reasons why it is suggested that the great astronomer Kepler did not ever observe Mercury during his life; let alone observe its retrograde motion.

So those that put stock in the magical meaning of Mercury being “in retrograde” are almost forced to use the calculations and data derived by processes all to rational and specific to make room for the ephemeral magic mumbo jumbo they use them to define.

Mercury will also be retrograde August 13th through September 5th so it will be retrograde during the solar eclipse; I wonder what kind of special magic that will cause?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Brezhnev and Trump's Medals

The other day AYD and I were discussing which former Soviet despot the current president of the US is most like. I thought he might be most like Uncle Joe Stalin because of his anti-science, anti-art and degenerative moral edicts. In fact I was sure, for a short span of minutes, that the Uncle Joe comparison was a slam dunk for best; then AYD outlined her case for Leonid Brezhnev.

Western media at the time of Brezhnev’s reign (1964-1982), and then history, found him to be extremely boring, but the Soviet media hung on his every word and action. Leonid also published numerous books –several autobiographical- that outlined his grand communist ideals, and even told stories of incredible bravery in battle. These were effectively locked behind a wall for me; a wall built partially of a language barrier (I’ve never learned Russian) and partially because I considered Leonid too boring to spend much attention on. Time has made Brezhnev's time in office more interesting; in part because of the reasons he was so easy to dismiss closer to his life. Brezhnev still was boring.

“Our press has so much praise for my latest book, I am becoming curious. I think maybe one day I’ll read some of it myself” - Purported comment by Brezhnev to an aide.

The most exciting things about Brezhnev was his hair and his chest heavy with medals. Trump has interesting hair as evidenced by the amount of time people spend talking about it.  Brezhnev's exciting hair was displayed as a bushy pair of eyebrows that at times would grow into a mega-monobrow. The collection of military medals he wore to public gatherings was so huge as to even inspire at least one rock and roll band to name itself “Brezhnev’s Medals”.

It was the medals that clinched the comparison to Donald Trump. As one of the most powerful humans in the universe Brezhnev could give anyone a medal for whatever he wanted, and he wanted to give himself medals for all sorts of things. He would give himself medals just for having a birthday. It is easy to imagine Donald Trump giving himself a medal for the biggest inauguration crowd ever. By the way, my readers should note that Donald’s birthday is coming up on June 14th, which will just sneak up on you if you don’t watch out.

“Q: What is the difference between the Constitutions of the USA and USSR? Both of them guarantee freedom of speech.
A: Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.” -- Soviet “Armenian Radio” joke

Brezhnev rolled back the cultural reforms that the fiery Khrushchev had tried to put into place. These proposed reforms are widely believed to be the reason Khrushchev was unceremoniously removed from office in 1964. Khrushchev attempted to light the fuse of repressed revolutionary sentiment, and the shadow of that spark is most certainly his secret 1956 speech “О культе личности и его последствиях “ ("On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" ). Shortly after the speech some notable dissidents, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were released from years of harsh imprisonment and exonerated.

"Lenin proved that even female cooks could manage a country.
Stalin proved that just one person could manage a country.
Khrushchev proved that a fool could manage a country.
Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all."
-- Soviet era joke

It is rather ironic that Khrushchev would be replaced by a narcissist due, in part, because of the blowback from a speech about the dangers of personality cults. 

"Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) is tallest building in the Moscow. You can see Siberia from it's basement." – Soviet joke circa 1970

Brezhnev did not so much dispose of the reforms as simply allow operatives in his government to dismantle them and hide the parts. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not re-imprisoned, but he couldn’t publish in the Soviet Union, and he was not allowed to attend the 1970 Nobel Prize ceremonies to pick up his literature medal; they sought to ignore stuff and have it wither away in the blinding lack of attention.

Reporter: "Comrade Brezhnev, is it true that you collect political jokes?"
Brezhnev: "Yes"
Reporter: "And how many have you collected so far?"
Brezhnev: "Three and a half labor camps."
– Soviet Joke circa 1970

Brezhnev’s reign as Soviet Supreme Leader saw incredible deprivations and a weed-like growth of corrupt bureaucracy. To a westerner it appeared as if they were always at war or parading earth-busting missiles through red square to celebrate the coming end of the world.

"He was sentenced to three years, served five, and then he got lucky and was released ahead of time." – Soviet Gulag joke

Great works were attempted. Shortly after Brezhnev entered office (October 1965) they began developing the Soviet manned moonshot program (N1-L3). This program was fast-tracked, and a great deal of effort was spent trying to best the American Apollo (Saturn V) program. Sergei Korolev was the genius behind the N1superlifter design that would become the basis for the N1-L3 moonshot rocket. Like many Stalin-era intellectuals he was imprisoned for years, released and exonerated during Khrushchev, and then suffered during Brezhnev; in the case of Korolev the Brezhnev-era suffering took the form of gulag-induced kidney disease that caused the heart attack that took his life on 14 January 1966. The rockets were eventually built, and on four occasions (21 February 1969, 3 July 1969, 26 June 1971, and 23 November 1972) tested. All the tests were unqualified failures. The second attempt, which occurred a little over two weeks before the Americans would land a man on the moon (20 July 1969), was the most spectacular failure in human space travel; the explosion at Baikonur Cosmodrome would release four Tera joules of energy (1 kiloton), and be one of the largest non-nuclear accidental explosions ever experienced by humans. The Brezhnev media machine would simply deny that the N1-L3 program was ever a reality, and information that described it would not be released until 7 years after Brezhnev’s death.

"With Lenin, it was like being in a tunnel: You‘re surrounded by darkness, but there’s light ahead.
With Stalin, it was like being on a bus: One person is driving, half the people on the bus are sitting and the other half are quaking with fear.
With Khrushchev, it was like at a circus: One person is talking, and everyone else is laughing.
With Brezhnev, it was like at the movies: Everyone’s just waiting for the film to end."
-- Soviet era joke

Brezhnev was not nearly as harsh as Stalin. Trump’s insistence that the inauguration crowds were the biggest ever sounds like it could have been either Brezhnev or Stalin, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have had to bus in people from labor camps to pose in photographic proof that they were the largest crowds ever. Trump's insistence that millions of people voted illegally could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have to nullify the results and publish corrected figures. Trump’s insistence that the hotel he stays at was wiretapped could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but if it was Stalin there would be forced confessions of the people actually installing the wiretaps, and anyone who might suggest there was no wiretapping program might disappear.

Q: What has four legs and forty teeth?
A: An alligator.
Q: And forty legs and four teeth?
A: Brezhnev's Politburo.
-- Soviet era joke

The US has had Presidents that appear, at least in light of history, to be unsuited to the job. Reagan was accused of “sleepwalking through history” while he was in office, and would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before he died. George “W” Bush was widely described as a pawn of Dick “Doctor Evil” Cheney. However, neither of these POTUS suffered from Trump’s brand of pathological Tweet-splattered Narcissism. George W Bush’s twitter feed is “protected”, and Twitter was started (21 March 2006) after Reagan had died (5 June 2004). Meanwhile the current POTUS tweets every day, and each new tweet is just as likely to be an insult aimed at HRC or Obama, or some kind of crazy alt-right emboldened conspiracy theory.

The common western view of Brezhnev’s effect on the Soviet Union is somewhat positive: “Things got so bad that the USSR collapsed”. While this sentiment may contain a grain or two of divine objective truth it ignores the plight of those people in the USSR for whom things “got so bad”. I have begun hearing that trump’s plans will eventually lead though severe dysfunction to a better America. Do we really need to allow tens of thousands of uninsured people to die prematurely in order to create universal healthcare in the US? Do we really need to devalue our currency through rampant inflation in order to reign in the national debt? If modern history has taught any lessons the fact that things can get very bad if you let them is one of the most important.

The comparison with Brezhnev would be severely compromised if Trump declares war or engages in some massive first strike activity. Unless, that is, he gives himself a whole slew of medals just for starting the war while being President Donald Trump.

And remember that Donald’s birthday is on the 14th of June.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Happy Bede-day

The year was 703, and Saint Bede the Venerable had just published his tome on time (“De temporum ratione” or “The Reckoning of Time”). The main purpose of the book was determining a way of calculating when Easter would be, but Bede slipped in a very exact date (18 March 3952 BC) for the incarnation (The day the earth was created on).

Bede became the butt of several raucous drinking songs; a fact that made him rather anxious. He, in one of the two surviving letters he wrote (Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum), would accuse Bishop Wilfrid of accusing him of heresy by allowing one of these songs to be sung at his table.

“Haec tristi mox admistione confudit addendo videlicet quod me audires a lascivientibus rusticis inter hsereticos per pocula decantari” -- Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum

This accusation of heresy is widely reported as being because everyone who was anyone knew that the incarnation occurred in the year 5500 or thereabouts. The Byzantine calendar dated the incarnation to be 1 September 5509.

This puts the creation of the everything about 168 years after Mount Mazama exploded with a force 42 times that of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. That eruption created Crater Lake.

Today many people would make fun of people who insisted that their exact and unverifiable date for the creation of the universe should be taken seriously. I am unaware of any celebrations of the creation of the world on either September 1st or the 18th of March. Part of that is due to the fact that the Bishop Ussher would swoop in and claim that the world was created on 23 October 4004 BC, but we don’t celebrate creation day in October either. Part of that could be due to the change in calendars that occurred shortly after Ussher’s setting the incarnation date; that would have pushed the date to November 6th, but we don’t celebrate on that day either.
Byzantine mosaic of the Creation of Adam on 1 September 5509 from
Byzantine mosaic in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, by way of Wikipedia

My theory is that we don’t celebrate on any of these days because everyone who might throw an interesting party does not believe this crap. I have a feeling that Bede was not invited to many good parties, and probably did not throw very good ones. That in turn might have better explained the drinking songs that made fun of him.