Thursday, 27 May 2021
Friday, 30 April 2021
Friday, 23 April 2021
Saturday, 10 April 2021
As a creature of the Seventies’, I have always had a thing for the colour purple. Even in the middle of the finest summer, I loved getting out of toxic sunlight and into the dark heart of a boutique, pulsating strobe lighting and rock music by turns, and finding that perfect purple handbag, preferably made of suede and alive with fringing. Or a jacket of aubergine wet-look plastic. Or a pair of purple wedgies to match either accessory – ah! What’s not to love? In the longer term, it came as a surprise to learn that purple dye, as we know it, came not from the imagination of a hyper-aware hippy, but from the laboratory of one William Henry Perkin. In the mid-nineteenth century, he was trying to synthesize the malaria drug, quinine, normally extractable from the bark of the exotic cinchona tree, in a glass flask. But the experiment failed and the only result was a black solid. Perkin tried to clean out his flask with alcohol, and it was the resulting solution that gave the world mauveine, or synthetic mauve. With it, a whole new Victorian cult of purple was born. The fashion for purple has waxed and waned ever since. It became very popular in the 1970s, being regarded by the 'new agers' of the time because of its associations with higher consciousness.
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Now that Perseverance is beaming back Earth-like pictures of Martian landscapes, the age-old question raises its head: could man and woman ever go there? The answer is, very definitely yes. The next question is: could man colonize Mars? Again, the answer is positive: it is perfectly possible. There are a number of practical challenges to overcome first, however. There are differences between Earth and Mars, but also a number of similarities. The Red Planet, so-called because the abundance of iron oxide or haematite on its surface gives off a reddish light in space, has polar ice caps. It spins on a single axis and there are roughly twenty-four hours in its day. Mars has Earth-like seasons and in addition to iron oxide, the planet surface is abundant in minerals like magnesium, sodium, potassium and chlorine, all essential for plant growth.
Phobos and Deimos
However, liquid water cannot exist on its surface. This is explained partly by the low atmospheric density, due to a weak gravitational pull. Mars has only about half the diameter of Earth, but only marginally less surface area. However, the 'mass' of the planet is much less dense, which accounts for the low gravity. The planet core is made of iron, also magnesium, calcium, silicon and oxygen. Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a polar magnetic field. Scientists believe that the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, are "captured' asteroids, and they do not have the stabilising effect on the spin of the planet that the moon has upon Earth. Because Mars is further from the sun, a Martian year is 687 days, nearly twice as long as an Earth year. By implication, Martian seasons are twice as long as ours. The Martian environment is not a friendly one, its average surface temperature being minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Its atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide while that of Earth has only 0.039% carbon dioxide and 21% oxygen. In preparation for the human colonisation of Mars, seeds and organic matter would have to be transported from Earth to begin growing plants and establishing a food supply.
Super-sized Bees and Mars Bars
An unmanned mission could utilise Perseverance-type vehicles to drill for water in the subsurface aquifers that scientists believe are there, and channel it to 'growing hubs' or 'growing bubbles' or 'grubbles', where plants could grow. Again, an unmanned mission could construct these. The grubbles would have transparent walls to let in light and activate photosynthesis. The walls would also serve to contain respired water. Condensation would trickle down the grubble walls and into collection channels. The 'rain' would be recycled for watering. Plants need pollinators as well as water, and the best pollinator on Earth is the humble bee - and entire hives would be transported to Mars. Once there, the insects would be let loose among the grubble-bound plants. However, without natural predators, they could grow very large, indeed.
The scientists who initially colonise Mars could find themselves having to deal with super-sized bees. However, all kinds of other, interesting things will be happening. When the scientists have established a food supply within the grubbles, they can experiment with growing them in a pure Martian environment. By now, road building will have been established and scientists can travel to and from work in cute little Martian buggies. At weekends, they will go on excursions up mountains and down into valleys. Slowly, automated building machines will establish a network of small settlements. For relaxation, there will be the public house - the Mars Bar?
There are still problems to overcome, for example, the infamous Martian "dust devils", dust storms that begin when Martian weather is at its hottest. There are also the seasonal "wobbles" to which Mars is prone. Just as on Earth, life will not be perfect. Earthlings are bound to deal with earthquakes and volcanoes, tornados and hurricanes - and this on the one-tenth of the Earth's surface that is actually habitable. Yet, seven billion of us live to tell the tale. Over time, science will settle into the background of life on Mars. Humanity will assert itself and children will be born. These Martians will be like any immigrants to a New World, defensive of their roots, but full of the hubris of having been among the first people born on Mars. They will be creative, establishing a body of Martian art and music, literature and philosophy.
Overcoming Challenges - Opening Possibilities
There will be other challenges to overcome, for instance, the effect on the human body of living in a field of lower gravity. But these are already issues for astronauts living on the International Space Station. There will be grumbles from conservationists about how human activity is going to change the face of Mars. Yes, this could happen, but we must not forget that early plant life changed the oxygen ratio in the Earth's atmosphere, completely. Right now, we ought to welcome the challenges that colonising another planet will bring. The more challenges that we overcome now, the more prepared we will be for moving out of our solar system (comfort zone?) and into the grand, cosmic adventure that is ahead of us.
Saturday, 20 February 2021
Still on matters medieval, my thoughts have turned in recent times to the subject of alchemy. To the majority, the word “alchemist” conjures up the image of a scholarly person in a cap and gown imprinted with cosmic symbols, waving a wand and mumbling jumbo over a variety of everyday substances, in the hope that one of them at least, would transform into shining, yellow gold – aaah, if only! To throw light on the subject, I enter into The Canterbury Tales, that epic work by Geoffrey Chaucer, structured about a group of travellers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Every night as they sit about the fire of whatever inn they stay in, one of the group tells a tale to the others. The entire gamut of medieval professions is represented by the characters present; a Knight, Miller, Reeve, Shipman, Physician and so on,
one instance, Chaucer recounts the tale of the Canon and the Yeoman,
who enter into a dialogue about the secret craft that they practise.
Host asks the Yeoman why, if his master (the Canon) is
truly so sagacious,
then why is he, the Canon, dressed
in gaberdine that is hardly worth a mite, torn
to bits and isn't even clean. The Yeoman hints darkly that
what the Canon works at can
never be successful.
The Canon, he tells them, is clever enough to understand his
to make it succeed. The Yeoman doesn't want to say any more, but the
Host slowly teases more details out of him.
Presently, the Yeoman warns the gathered company against the debt, despair and ruin that practising the craft has brought them. He names the substances we worked upon, among them silver, orpiment, burnt bones and iron filings, ground into finest powder and poured into an earthen pot, followed by salt and pepper, and covered by a sheet of glass. At this point, I wondered if Chaucer were not indulging in a medieval leg-pull, rather than rendering an authentic account of the chemistry of the time. Tradition has it that he himself had sometime practised the "esoteric craft", in addition to being a poet, soldier, knight and Justice of the Peace.
The odder substances mentioned by the
Yeoman, the least of which are the salt and pepper, are likely thrown
in by Chaucer for comic effect - or just to trip up would-be practitioners with.
After all, if Chaucer really did know "the secret", he was
hardly going to give it away. No matter his agenda, there is
enough evidence to demonstrate that the fourteenth-century alchemist
was actually a proto chemist. For example, the Canon's Yeoman lists
his roll-call of substances.
Orpiment, or sulphide of arsenic, made a beautiful yellow paint in illuminated manuscripts, but it is too poisonous for contemporary use. As the Middle Ages ran into the Renaissance, trade rather than alchemy, became the fount of wealth. Out of the crucible of persecution and superstition, the modern chemist, distinct from the miscreant and the mystic, was born. However, I suspect that even the earnest, hard-working, proto chemist of Chaucer’s imagination toiled with gold pieces rather than the betterment of mankind, prominent in his imagination? Whatever, I do urge you to read the wonderful snapshot of medieval England that is The Canterbury Tales.