Reader John Conoboy went to Africa and photographed some birds. Weird birds. Here are his photos, with his notes indented:
We saw a lot of birds. Here are a few pics of my favorites.
First is the Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori struthiunculus). These were pretty common and although they are the largest flying bird in Africa, they were always on the ground. Males display by puffing up their necks (gular pouches) creating a large white throat balloon. This guy seems to be slightly puffed up, but he is not going to get the girls like this.
There was a tree near our camp in the Serengeti that was a roosting spot for Marabou Storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). Every night we were treated to this lovely view. Joe Dickinson had a nice shot of a Marabou in his Africa photos. Folks can check out his photo and see why this bird is listed as one of ugly five you see on a safari. Personally, I did not find any of the animals we saw as ugly.
Next is a Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum). It is listed as endangered.
Finally, my favorite bird, the Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). The Secretary Bird struts along and periodically stomps on its prey and after eating moves on to find something else. It is great fun to watch them. Like the bustard, they can fly but we always saw them on the ground.
Here’s one of them stomping a venomous snake to death. Be sure to watch the last half of the video, which shows how much force this bird can impart in its stomps:
I recently wrote about the historical question of whether or not a person names Jesus existed and is the same person referenced in the New Testament. My bottom line conclusion was that the historical evidence is thin.
This post sparked an interesting conversation that brought out a lot of nuance, and also, I think, exposed some weaknesses in how I framed the original discussion. The comments are still very active, indicating there is a lot of interest in this question, so I wanted to reframe the discussion a bit and hopefully clarify my position.
Part of what I think happened, which happens frequently in my experience, is that people tend to assume your position falls within a preexisting camp. In the historicity of Jesus question there are two main camps, the mainstream position and the mythicist position. Therefore anyone saying anything to question the mainstream position is immediately accused of being a mythicist. Likewise, endorsing the mainstream position can be mischaracterized as endorsing Christianity.
Let me state my position up front and then go into more detail. First, I am not endorsing any of the mythicist positions. I do not think that any mythicist makes a strong positive case for their alternate hypothesis of how the Jesus story emerged.
Second, I understand the reasons that mainstream historians use to argue that it is more likely than not that Jesus existed. I simply think they are overstating their confidence and neglecting reasons to argue that we simply don’t know.
The Mainstream Position
I won’t be able to do justice to a complex issue about which many books have been written, but I am going to try. From my reading it seems that there are two main pillars on which the mainstream position that Jesus probably existed rests. First, the facts, about which there is little disagreement:
There is no direct evidence that Jesus existed. There is no archaeological evidence, he left behind no personal writing, there are no first-person accounts, and his disciples left behind no writing. The first mention of Jesus in the historical record are the letters of Paul starting 20 years or so after the crucifixion of Jesus (I will simply reference the timeline without adding caveats each time). Seven of the letters are considered genuine, and the others were from other authors who probably used Paul’s name to lend credibility to their writing.
Paul never met Jesus. He primarily refers to visions he had of Jesus. He does claim to have met James, the brother of Jesus, and two of the disciples. He also refers to Jesus as if he were an actual person.
The Gospels were written beginning about 60 years after Jesus. They were the result of complex conflicting oral traditions that were eventually written down in order to codify the tradition for a specific community. There were many gospels with many conflicting details. Around three centuries after Jesus, after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the church settled on four gospels as canon, and everything else became heresy.
The gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew are the synoptic gospels and clearly emerge from one common oral tradition, or may have shared an unknown written reference. The gospel of John clearly represents a separate oral tradition, with very little overlap in details with the other three.
There are also two important historians that refer to Jesus, Josephus and Tacitus. Josephus refers to Jesus twice. One reference is definitely a partial forgery, but historians make a good case for why it is not a complete forgery. These historians were writing about a century after Jesus, and the question is – did they have a reliable source for their references, or were they just recounting what was believed at the time?
That is a quick summary of the basic facts, again mostly not in dispute. The argument is about how to make the best inference from these facts.
Historians use two bits of logic to make their inference that Jesus probably existed. The first is the argument from embarrassment. They argue that there are details in the Jesus story that are inconvenient to early Christians. If they were inventing the story out of whole cloth they would not have included these details, therefore they are there because they derive from a real historical person.
So, Jesus was said to be from Nazareth, a small town of no reputation or religious significance. However, the prophesies say the messiah will come from Bethlehem. Therefore the gospels invent a story for why the parents of Jesus had to make a trip to Bethlehem just in time for Jesus to be born there and fulfill prophesy. If the entire story were made up, they would have just made him come from Bethlehem. There is no theological or narrative reason for the town of Nazareth to enter the story at all, unless it was a detail describing a real person.
They make the same argument for the baptism. If Jesus were the Christ, then he would not have to be baptized because he had no sins to wipe away. But the story includes the detail that he was baptized by John the Baptist. This is an inconvenient story element that the gospels deal with in different ways. In the synoptic gospels Jesus simply makes a comment to John about how he will let him baptize him just to follow protocol. In John, Jesus is simply not baptized. Jesus meets John the Baptist, who then baptizes other people, but not Jesus.
The final inconvenience for the Christian mythology was the crucifixion. Being attached to a tree or wood was abhorrent to Jews of the time. The notion that their messiah was crucified was an embarrassment and a source of mockery. An oral tradition untethered to an actual historical figure would never have included this major story element.
I think this is a reasonable like of argument that is logically valid. However, I don’t find it as compelling as historians apparently do. It is partly an argument from ignorance – they can’t think of another reason why those story elements would be included so they must be real. What I have not read (but would be open to if it is out there) are clear historical examples where this type of story element is a marker for veracity. How predictive is the fact that there are inconvenient story elements?
Perhaps I am more informed by my skeptical background and knowledge of modern myths, that contain lots of quirky details for quirky reasons. People don’t appear to have a problem making ad hoc adjustments to convoluted stories in order to make them work for their purposes. If those details entered the oral tradition for some reason, because someone heard that some guy from Nazareth did something amazing, for example, that detail would not necessarily be later purged. It could easily be accommodated.
It seems that the mainstream arguments are falling a bit for a false dichotomy – was the story invented, and derived from a real person. But there is a third possibility, the story evolved organically and was neither crafted nor lifted from one real person.
The second major line of argument I encounter is the argument from silence. The early church was a hot bed of disagreement. They disagreed about every major element of their emerging religion, including basic stuff like whether or not Jesus was divine. They did not, however, disagree about whether or not Jesus existed. There may have been individual doubters, but mostly everyone at the time took for granted that Jesus was a real person.
Again, I don’t dispute this fact, but I am not as compelled by their interpretation of it. If the story was that Jesus was an actual person, I don’t find it surprising that this was accepted uncritically. People tend to believe stories and underestimate (grossly underestimate) the degree to which stories can be wrong in major details. It simply may not have occurred to anyone that the very existence of Jesus could have been a made up detail.
The Mythicist Positions
There are various mythicist positions, none of which I think are very compelling. After reading mainstream criticism of them, they all appear to have major holes that they cannot adequately explain. One position is that early Christians did not believe Jesus was a real person, just a spiritual being. He was later “historicized” into a real person. While Jesus may have been a historicized myth, there is no evidence that early Christians did not believe he was real, and there is good evidence that they did. The letters of Paul make it clear that he thought Jesus was a real person.
Another hypothesis is that the character Jesus was an amalgamation of many contemporary prophets. While this is a viable hypothesis, there is no specific evidence for the sources of the amalgamation. Further, this doesn’t explain the inconvenient story elements, which, historians argue, would not have been cherry picked from various individuals.
Others argue that the Jesus story was simply lifted from other traditions of the time. I think this confuses two questions – the historicity of Jesus and the mythology of Jesus. The details of the Jesus story, specifically the inconvenient elements, were not lifted from any other legend or story of the time. They are new and unique to Jesus.
However, the mythology of Jesus was fully in the tradition of messiah stories of the time. The mythological elements, such as fulfilling prophesy, a miraculous birth, being theologically precocious, performing miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead, and making a heroic sacrifice in order to save their community, are all established messiah myth elements.
I would also add that many mythicists use as a major pillar of their position that there was little mention of Jesus outside of early Christians for a century, until you get to the scant mentions by Josephus and Tacitus, and they could easily have just been referring to the belief in Jesus of the Christians (although admittedly this is disputed). This is their own argument from silence.
However, I think this is a wash, it is neither evidence for or against the historicity of Jesus. Scholars argue that it makes perfect sense there was no mention of a poor preacher from Judea. We have scant evidence of anyone from that time. Many comparisons are made to other ancient historical characters who are not controversial but have similar levels of evidence that they existed.
I don’t think this argument gets either side anywhere. It makes sense that there is no direct evidence for Jesus whether he existed or not. It neither supports nor refutes his historicity.
Scholarship Cuts Both Ways
Where does all this leave us? I would make a few conclusions:
First, there is no smoking-gun direct evidence that Jesus was a historical person. This does not prove he did not exist, but it is simply a fact that the conclusion that Jesus probably existed is simply a best inference from the scant evidence we do have.
I agree that the conclusion Jesus was a real person is a reasonable, and probably the simplest, inference from the evidence.
However, I think it is more accurate to conclude that we don’t know. The inference is thin, and rests on an argument from ignorance. I think it also underestimates the ability of communities to rapidly evolve myths out of very little raw material or even nothing, confusing myth for history and then basing further myths on that false history. Someone makes up or massively confuses a story, that story is treated as if it is real and then becomes a reference point.
Modern myths inform this position tremendously. I already mentioned in my previous article the Roswell incident. There were no flying saucers or aliens at Roswell, yet we have books written about the incident as if there were. Think about our modern “fake news” culture in which a made up story becomes its own reference.
Today we have reporters reporting on the existence of a story, and their reporting then being used as a citation to support the reality of that story. I think it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that 2000 years ago we had similar things taking place, even to the point that historians were reporting on stories, and then being used as evidence for the story.
Without hard evidence or first hand corroboration, we should not underestimate the power of storytelling.
I would further conclude that while some mythicist critics have legitimate points to make about the weaknesses in the evidence for a historical Jesus, they do not make a valid positive case for their specific alternate hypotheses.
Finally, for those who would argue that the mainstream consensus opinion is that the best inference from the evidence is that there was a guy named Jesus who came from Nazareth, was baptized and crucified, you have to also acknowledge that the mainstream consensus opinion, based upon the exact same historical reasoning, is that none of the other New Testament story elements are historical.
For example, the same historians who say Jesus was probably crucified also say that the story of the tomb is almost certainly not historical. If you apply the same logic and inference from the available evidence, all of the story elements that are not consistent among the various oral traditions, that are in line with prior myth and not inconvenient, and for which there was debate among early Christians are probably not real historical events.
You can’t have it both ways, invoking the consensus opinion of historians for the things you like and rejecting the consensus for the things you don’t like.
Happy Thursday, April 27, 2017: National Prime Rib Day (make mine rare!). In South Africa it’s Freedom Day, commemorating the first elections after apartheid ended, held on April 27, 1994. And reader Dom just informed me that it’s World Tapir Day, which it indeed is. There are four species! Here’s a question: why the odd coloration of both adult and baby Malayan tapirs (Tapirus indicus), and why the developmental change? Baby looks like a watermelon, adults have a black-and-white pandalike pattern:
On this day in 1667, the blind and penurious John Milton sold the rights of Paradise Lost for just £10. And on April 27, 1945, Benito Mussolini was captured trying to escape in disguise, soon to be shot and his corpse suspended upside down tied to a lamppost. Finally, three years ago Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized on the same day.
Notables born on this day include Edward Gibbon (1737), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759), Ulysses S. Grant (1822), Walter Lantz (1899), Coretta Scott King (1927), and Arielle Dombasle (1953). Those who died on this day include Ferdinand Magellan (1521) and Edward R. Murrow (1965). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Andrzej and Hili appear to share a tender moment, but it’s deceptive:A: What are you looking for? Hili: Your wallet was here somewhere. In Polish: Ja: I czego tam szukasz?
Gus took the tape test to see if he’d sit in a square on the floor made of tape, but failed. As his staff tells us:
Here’s a Gus pic. I tried the tape thing, but Gus was too suspicious and chose to sit on my books and look warily at the tape instead. Oh well.
And up in Wroclawek, Leon is cracking jokes:
Leon: Is watering place an equivalent of a cafe?
Finally, lagnaippe from reader Pyers:
In recent years, multiple space agencies have shared their plans to return astronauts to the Moon, not to mention establishing an outpost there. Beyond NASA’s plan to revitalize lunar exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA), Rocosmos, and the Chinese and Indian federal space agencies have also announced plans for crewed missions to the Moon that could result in permanent settlements.
As with all things in this new age of space exploration, collaboration appears to be the key to making things happen. This certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the ESA’s respective plans for lunar exploration. As spokespeople from both agencies announced this week, the CNSA and the ESA hope to work together to create a “Moon Village” by the 2020s.
The announcement first came from the Secretary General of the Chinese space agency (Tian Yulong). On earlier today (Wednesday, April 26th) it was confirmed by the head of media relations for the ESA (Pal A. Hvistendahl). As Hvistendahl was quoted as saying by the Associated Press:
“The Chinese have a very ambitious moon program already in place. Space has changed since the space race of the ’60s. We recognize that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we do international cooperation.”
Yulong and Hvistendahl indicated that this base would aid in the development of lunar mining, space tourism, and facilitate missions deeper into space – particularly to Mars. It would also build upon recent accomplishments by both agencies, which have successfully deployed robotic orbiters and landers to the Moon in the past few decades. These include the CNSA’s Chang’e missions, as well as the ESA’s SMART-1 mission.
As part of the Chang’e program, the Chinese landers explored the lunar surface in part to investigate the prospect of mining Helium-3, which could be used to power fusion reactors here on Earth. Similarly, the SMART-1 mission created detailed maps of the northern polar region of the Moon. By charting the geography and illumination of the lunar north pole, the probe helped to identify possible base sites where water ice could be harvested.
While no other details of this proposed village have been released just yet, it is likely that the plan will build on the vision expressed by ESA director Jan Woerner back in December of 2015. While attending the “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration” symposium, Woerner expressed his agency’s desire to create an international lunar base as a successor to the International Space Station.
In addition, its is likely that the construction of this base will rely on additive manufacture (aka. 3-d printing) techniques specially developed for the lunar environment. In 2013, the ESA announced that they had teamed up with renowned architects Foster+Partners to test the feasibility of using lunar soil to print walls that would protect lunar domes from harmful radiation and micrometeorites.
This agreement could signal a new era for the CNSA, which has enjoyed little in the way of cooperation with other federal space agencies in the past. Due to the agency’s strong military connections, the U.S. government passed legislation in 2011 that barred the CSNA from participating in the International Space Station. But an agreement between the ESA and China could open the way for a three-party collaboration involving NASA.
The ESA, NASA and Roscosmos also entered into talks back in 2012 about the possibility of creating a lunar base together. Assuming that all four nations can agree on a framework, any future Moon Village could involve astronauts from all the world’s largest space agencies. Such a outpost, where research could be conducted on the long-term effects of exposure to low-g and extra-terrestrial environments, would be invaluable to space exploration.
In the meantime, the CNSA hopes to launch a sample-return mission to the Moon by the end of 2017 – Chang’e 5 – and to send the Chang’e 4 mission (whose launch was delayed in 2015) to the far side of the Moon by 2018. For its part, the ESA hopes to conduct a mission analysis on samples brought back by Chang’e 5, and also wants to send a European astronaut to Tiangong-2 (which just conducted its first automated cargo delivery) at some future date.
As has been said countless times since the end of the Apollo Era – “We’re going back to the Moon. And this time, we intend to stay!”
I’ll just put this up here without analysis, as I haven’t yet read the paper. But it’s big news if true. A new a new report Nature by Holen et al. (reference below; free access) claims to have found human tools associated with crushed and cracked mastodon bones at a site in southern California, with the date a full 130,000 years ago!
Conventional wisdom puts the arrival of humans in North America about 15,000-20,000 years ago, coming from Siberia across the Bering Strait. These hominins are nearly ten times older, and well older than those individuals who left Africa about 60.000 years ago to colonize the globe.
Who were these hominins? Were they a species that went extinct? Or is it a mistake? If this is true, it’s a remarkable and game-changing discovery. Have a look at the paper, below, but first here’s Nature’s video:
And here are some of the tools:
Holen, S. R., T. A. Deméré, D. C. Fisher, R. Fullagar, J. B. Paces, G. T. Jefferson, J. M. Beeton, R. A. Cerutti, A. N. Rountrey, L. Vescera, and K. A. Holen. 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature 544:479-483.
You might think you’re reading an educational website, where I explain fascinating concepts in space and astronomy, but that’s not really what’s going on here.
What’s actually happening is that you’re tagging along as I learn more and more about new and cool things happening in the Universe. I dig into them like a badger hiding a cow carcass, and we all get to enjoy the cache of knowledge I uncover.
Okay, that analogy got a little weird. Anyway, my point is. Squirrel!
Fast radio bursts are the new cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers, and now we get to take a front seat and watch them move through all stages of process of discovery.
Stage 1: A strange new anomaly is discovered that doesn’t fit any current model of the cosmos. For example, strange Boyajian’s Star. You know, that star that probably doesn’t have an alien megastructure orbiting around it, but astronomers can’t rule that out just yet?
Stage 2: Astronomers struggle to find other examples of this thing. They pitch ideas for new missions and scientific instruments. No idea is too crazy, until it’s proven to be too crazy. Examples include dark matter, dark energy, and that idea that we’re living in a
Stage 3: Astronomers develop a model for the thing, find evidence that matches their predictions, and vast majority of the astronomical community comes to a consensus on what this thing is. Like quasars and gamma ray bursts. YouTuber’s make their videos. Textbooks are updated. Balance is restored.
Today we’re going to talk about Fast Radio Bursts. They just moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Let’s dig in.
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, or “Furbys” were first detected in 2007 by the astronomer Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University.
He was looking through an archive of pulsar observations. Pulsars, of course, are newly formed neutron stars, the remnants left over from supernova explosions. They spin rapidly, blasting out twin beams of radiation. Some can spin hundreds of times a second, so precisely you could set your watch to them.
In this data, Lorimer made a “that’s funny” observation, when he noticed one blast of radio waves that squealed for 5 milliseconds and then it was gone. It didn’t match any other observation or prediction of what should be out there, so astronomers set out to find more of them.
Over the last 10 years, astronomers have found about 25 more examples of Fast Radio Bursts. Each one only lasts a few milliseconds, and then fades away forever. A one time event that can appear anywhere in the sky and only last for a couple milliseconds and never repeats is not an astronomer’s favorite target of study.
Actually, one FRB has been found to repeat, maybe.
The question, of course, is “what are they?”. And the answer, right now is, “astronomers have no idea.”
In fact, until very recently, astronomers weren’t ever certain they were coming from space at all. We’re surrounded by radio signals all the time, so a terrestrial source of fast radio bursts seems totally logical.
About a week ago, astronomers from Australia announced that FRBs are definitely coming from outside the Earth. They used the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (or MOST) in Canberra to gather data on a large patch of sky.
Then they sifted through 1,000 terabytes of data and found just 3 fast radio bursts. Three.
Since MOST is farsighted and can’t perceive any radio signals closer than 10,000 km away, the signals had to be coming outside planet Earth. They were “extraterrestrial” in origin.
Right now, fast radio bursts are infuriating to astronomers. They don’t seem to match up with any other events we can see. They’re not the afterglow of a supernova, or tied in some way to gamma ray bursts.
In order to really figure out what’s going on, astronomers need new tools, and there’s a perfect instrument coming. Astronomers are building a new telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which is under construction near the town of Penticton in my own British Columbia.
It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes, and its job will be to search for hydrogen emission from distant galaxies. It’ll help us understand how the Universe was expanding between 7 and 11 billion years ago, and create a 3-dimensional map of the early cosmos.
In addition to this, it’s going to be able to detect hundreds of fast radio bursts, maybe even a dozen a day, finally giving astronomers vast pools of signals to study.
What are they? Astronomers have no idea. Seriously, if you’ve got a good suggestion, they’d be glad to hear it.
In these kinds of situations, astronomers generally assume they’re caused by exploding stars in some way. Young stars or old stars, or maybe stars colliding. But so far, none of the theoretical models match the observations.
Another idea is black holes, of course. Specifically, supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant galaxies. From time to time, a random star, planet, or blob of gas falls into the black hole. This matter piles upon the black hole’s event horizon, heats up, screams for a moment, and disappears without a trace. Not a full on quasar that shines for thousands of years, but a quick snack.
The next idea comes with the only repeating fast radio burst that’s ever been found. Astronomers looked through the data archive of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and found a signal that had repeated at least 10 times in a year, sometimes less than a minute apart.
Since the quick blast of radiation is repeating, this rules out a one-time collision between exotic objects like neutron stars. Instead, there could be a new class of magnetars (which are already a new class of neutron stars), that can release these occasional shrieks of radio.
Or maybe this repeating object is totally different from the single events that have been discovered so far.
Here’s my favorite idea. And honestly, the one that’s the least realistic. What I’m about to say is almost certainly not what’s going on. And yet, it can’t be ruled out, and that’s good enough for my fertile imagination.
Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University said the following about FRBs:
“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”
Artificial origin. So. Aliens. Nice.
Loeb and Lingam calculated how difficult it would be to send a signal that strong, that far across the Universe. They found that you’d need to build a solar array with twice the surface area of Earth to power the radio wave transmitter.
And what would you do with a transmission of radio or microwaves that strong? You’d use it to power a spacecraft, of course. What we’re seeing here on Earth is just the momentary flash as a propulsion beam sweeps past the Solar System like a lighthouse.
But in reality, this huge solar array would be firing out a constant beam of radiation that would propel a massive starship to tremendous speeds. Like the Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, but for million tonne spaceships.
In other words, we could be witnessing alien transportation systems, pushing spacecraft with beams of energy to other worlds.
And I know that’s probably not what’s happening. It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens. But in my mind, that’s what I’m imagining.
So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Join us as we watch astronomers struggle to understand what fast radio bursts are. As they invalidate theories, and slowly unlock one of the most thrilling mysteries in modern astronomy. And as soon as they figure it out, I’ll let you know all about it.
What do you think? Which explanation for fast radio bursts seems the most logical to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and wild speculation in the comments.