If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Friday, March 25, 2016

How Scientists Imagine Aliens

Scientists imagine that life on other planets would develop along the same evolutionary principles as that on earth:
1. Life forms should fill a niche in a balanced ecosystem, based on a food chain of eating and being eaten.
2. Life forms should naturally converge on the safest, most beneficial environments for them.
3. Having said that, any environment that can support life, will eventually support life. Even a harsh environment, like extremely hot and cold places on Earth, provide an advantage to life forms, in that any lichens and microbes that can survive there are safe from other predators that can't.
4. Life forms should naturally optimise their biology to fit their environment. This means forming an optimal size, speed, lifespan, an optimal number of offspring, an optimal daily food intake, an optimal metabolism, and an optimal intellect. This is why so many animals survive for millions of years without improving their intellect.
5. Life forms should mate in such a way as to pair the strongest, healthiest couples to produce the strongest offspring. Offspring should have mutations that over time will make their species stronger and more resilient.
Scientists also consider how an alien planet might differ from Earth, and how this would affect wild life. They ask:
1. What kind of sun is there? How strong is it? A planet is dependent on its sun for the energy required to power life. So any planet would adapt to its sun. Red dwarf suns give off less heat and light, so any plants growing on a planet might appear black, to absorb as much energy as possible.
2. Is the planet in the "goldilocks" distance from the sun? This means it's not too hot, not too cold, but just right for liquid water, or at least liquid something.
3. Another option for a goldilocks environment would be the moon of a very large planet, like Jupiter. Jupiter and Saturn's moons are constantly stretched and squashed in their elliptical orbits, causing a great deal of friction and heat. So, even though there's no atmosphere, and it's quite far from the sun, it can still have warm zones, even on surface. Jupiter's Io has warm spots around its many volcanoes.
4. Is the planet close enough to the sun so that it's "tidally locked", meaning that one side always faces the sun, while the other is always in darkness. Our moon is tidally locked to Earth, which is why we always see the same face on it. This would create fearsome winds on an alien planet.
5. Does the solar system have a large planet like Jupiter to pull away all the asteroids and comets that would otherwise bombard it, killing all life forms?
6. Are there large amounts of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen? Are they present in an atmosphere? These are all required for life, as we know it.
7. Are there oceans of liquid at a stable temperature (preferably water)? How deep are they? Is the entire planet made of liquid? Scientists regard liquid as necessary, in order to mix various elements in ways that create life - single celled organisms.
8. What's the gravity there? Lower gravity can allow for larger creatures. Higher gravity may require animals with many legs to move around.
9. What's the density of the atmosphere? This determines the possibility of flight, and the size of wingspans necessary for flight. The denser an atmosphere, the easier it is to fly and float.
10. What's the oxygen level in the atmosphere? More oxygen also allows for larger creatures. It also increases the risk of fires.
Based on these concepts, the aliens that scientists most expect to find will be:
1. Micro organisms, Viruses, Bacteria: These are the most likely forms of life. On Earth, they survive in dry deserts, lakes of arsenic, cave walls full of sulphuric acid, and miles underground, some of whom don't even need oxygen to live.
2. fungus
3. simple plants and trees: On Earth, we separate plants and animals, but on alien worlds, there might be life forms that combine aspects of both. On a water world, these plants may have gaseous bladders to keep them buoyant, so they don't sink to the bottom. On a world with a very thick atmosphere, these same plants might use gaseous bladders to float in the air.
4. herbivores, possibly grouping in herds
5. carnivores that hunt them, possibly solitary, almost certainly more intelligent than its prey. Some will hunt in packs in order to corner and ambush prey. Some may even work as a hive.
6. flying creatures similar to birds.
7. If there are oceans of water, scientists expect fish-like creatures, as they are the most efficient shape in water.
8. If a planet commonly experiences high winds, there might be "land whales," an animal that filters micro-organisms from the air, in much the same way that whales do in water. Combine this with a dense atmosphere, and you could have "sky whales," swimming through the air much like how our whales swim in water.

The Cultural Significance of Gold

    Gold has long been treasured for its beauty and permanence. Any item made of gold will look just as beautiful in a thousand years as the day it was made, because it doesn't oxidise.

    Gold is also extremely rare. All the gold in the world could be made into one block, 21.3m cubed.

Gold and Economics

    Gold is considered an economic "canary in the mine." Any time the price of gold goes up, people assume one of three things: economic crisis, a war has started, or it's the beginning of hyperinflation.

    America houses its gold in Fort Knox. But, the companies that control it are banks. The tallest skyscraper in any given city is usually a bank. In Toronto, the Royal Bank building even baked gold leaf into the windows (worth $3.5 million).

    Gold is big business today. It's the most profitable commodity traded in the stock market. People earn billions of dollars a day from it, by manipulating the system. For every 100 ounces (oz.) of gold traded, there may be less than 1 oz. of actual gold.

    This is also true for silver, and there are some unscrupulous companies that sell these commodities to unsuspecting buyers-victims. They promise to keep the gold safe, and charge people expensive storage fees for gold they don't even have.

    Any trader can disrupt the price of these commodities. Here's how you do it:

1.      Wait till most world stock exchanges have closed for the day.

2.      In New York, sell 45,000 commodities contracts very quickly - about 400 contracts per second. Do this anonymously via the Internet.

3.      The price of the commodity will drop, and many other investors will feel they have to sell their contracts too. It creates a panic.

4.      Buy up all their cheap contracts. The process of your rapid buying brings the price of the commodity back up.

5.      Now you have all of it, and it's worth a fortune. You've just earned about $3 billion in one day.

6.      Now, hide it as best you can, because what you did was illegal. :)

    National depositories of gold also have secrets. In 2000 the Bank of England secretly leased a large quantity of gold to private bullion banks. They then sold the gold to refineries in Switzerland who turned it all into jewellery. Legally, the Bank of England still owns it, but if this news had been made public at the time, it could have caused an economic crisis.

    It appears that America has done the same thing, and doesn't have nearly as much gold in reserve as it claims. The last full audit of Fort Knox was in 1954. Meanwhile, when Germany asked to see its gold (which it keeps in America) in 2012, they were refused for "security reasons." Now, they want it back, and it could trigger another crisis.

Gold and Religion

    Gold plays a part in the major religions of the world. There are several golden temples in the world. One is the Hindu temple of Amritsar. Then there's Kashi Vishwanath, Lakshmi Narayani in Vellore, and then there's the Golden Temple in Kyoto.

    One of the earliest stories about gold from the bible describes Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments, only to find his people worshipping a false idol––a golden calf.

    Some quote Jesus as giving us the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But, just as many say this instead, "He who has the gold rules."

Gold and War

    So, gold has been a strategic target for all the biggest empires and armies of the world. Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler all sought gold. When Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia, gold was the first thing he seized.

    Poland managed to hide its gold in France. When Hitler took Paris, he found their bank vaults empty. The bankers had hidden all this gold in 51 different hidden locations around France. After the occupation, they had to sneak as much gold as possible out of Europe to Canada and the US.

    A company named Odyssey Marine searches shipwrecks for lost gold, many coming from ships sunk by German submarines.

    Some of the gold found by these treasure hunters has been claimed by national governments. In 2007 Odyssey Marine found 600,000 gold coins (worth $500 million) off the coast of Portugal. Both Spain and Peru claimed the gold.

    Spain said it came from a Spanish ship that was sunk by the British in 1804. But Peru said it originally came from their country, produced by the millions of native Incans whom Spain enslaved and killed.

    This legal battle was settled in a US court. They ruled that Peru had no right to the gold because they were a Spanish colony at the time. They then agreed to hand the gold over to Spain in exchange for one painting (a Pisarro worth $20 million) that an influential American, Claude Cassirer, claimed belonged to him.

    Odyssey Marine had to give up all the coins, losing $4 million in costs. The coins are now in a Spanish museum.

    A far larger legal battle involved the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, whose families had billions worth of gold deposited in Swiss banks. These banks refused to recognize any of these accounts without impossible documents, like death certificates, which the Nazis never gave, for all the millions of Jews they had killed.
    Meanwhile, these same banks had accepted even more gold from Nazi Germany, Toten Gold (meaning Death Gold), which it stole from the Jews, including jewellery and thousands of pulled teeth. Hitler's dentist even used Toten Gold for his dental work.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Aliens from Outer Space! Myth vs Reality

There are many varieties of alien common to sci-fi films and literature. And, while some are innovative, unique and fascinating, the creativity of Hollywood is miniscule compared to what scientists can come up with. Hollywood studios have limitations--time and money. Most Hollywood aliens have two arms, two legs and a head on top because... well that's what their actors have!

insert joke about money here...

Changing that, in the days before CGI graphics, was a huge and costly challenge, not that the studios didn't try from time to time. Starting in the 80's, films such as E.T. and Star Wars showcased smaller aliens through the development of puppetry.

But, even now, larger aliens are almost always hungry monsters who make very short cameos, where they almost eat the heroes.

Mmmm... crunchy spaceship...

Most alien characters are about the same size and shape as us.

Often, in film, the specifics of what an alien looks like is less important than the story itself - how did humans meet the alien? What does it want? What will it mean for humanity? And then, some films avoid these larger questions, and just go in for clichés--stereotypical alien archetypes that are copied endlessly, avoiding any thought whatsoever:

1. Hostile Alien Predators

(No disrespect to the awe inspiring design of H.R. Giger, or the excellent, question-raising film by Ridley Scott, but this is a plotline that James Cameron completely ruined and exploited.)

These have an animal intelligence. Some hunt for food, and some, like H.R. Giger's iconic Alien, simply kill for pleasure, raising the question of whether they evolved this way or were designed by scientists as a weapon. The shape and size of these aliens can vary, from tiny to monstrous, including giant worms. This also includes giant insects and blobs that simply eat everything around them, growing larger and larger, like an amoeba, sometimes evolving mouths, teeth, and faces.

2. Humanoids/Proto-Humans

these are alien races that closely resemble humans in size and shape, with small physical differences, and often cultural differences as well. This includes most of the aliens on Star Trek and Star Wars. They think and act in mostly human ways. Some are greedier, some are more warlike, and some are more rational. But, they all want to expand and explore the universe in space ships, and form diplomatic relations with their neighbours. In children's movies, these humanoids often feature a sweet, innocent child alien as the starring role. Examples include E.T. and Mac & Me. You could consider Star Trek's Vulcans as "space elves" in that they're smarter and more rational than your average human, and they have pointy ears.

3. Super Humans

Some aliens appear identical to humans, but have special powers, and almost always a much higher, and pacifist intellect. Examples include Superman, Starman, and Kapax.

4. Shape Shifters

Some aliens can change their appearance to appear human, and can switch from one identity to another. One example include Species.

5. Body Snatchers

Some aliens kill people, and snatch, or steal, the body of the victims. They may wear the body as a skin, like in Men In Black, or they may grow "pod people" from giant seeds.

6. Hive Soldiers

These are alien soldiers with a hive mentality. They serve a master or queen, and will follow orders perfectly, to the letter, even dying without fear. As soon as the master control dies, they cease to function, usually falling to the floor. Examples include Star Trek's Borg, and The Avenger's alien invaders in the first film.

7. Little Green Men

These are technologically superior beings that are emotionally stunted and undeveloped. They typically live on Mars, or elsewhere nearby. They're unhappy with their planet and are jealous of Earth, which they try to steal from us. Examples include War of the Worlds, and its parody Mars Attacks.

8. Grey Aliens

These are a variant of little green men. These are the kind most common in conspiracy theories. These grey little aliens are scientists, most interested in studying and experimenting with humans. They abduct innocent people, study and probe them, and sometimes put them back on earth. Stories about this kind of alien try to build suspense through mystery - not knowing what they look like, so often times, you don't even get to see them, just a bunch of bright lights, and then they're gone. Examples include Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, and Paul.

Not all Sci-Fi aliens are thoughtless copies. Sometimes a writer will mix characteristics in interesting ways, for example by combining types, like in Men in Black. Edgar, the villainous alien of the first film, is a giant insect who hates humans - but he snatches their bodies and wears them to fit in as he explores Earth. The effect is hilarious, even though it's hideous.

Another film, District 9, showcases aliens who look like nasty, giant insects, but who are actually more heroic and humane than the people in the story. It's a story where the real enemy is us.

Having said that, here is how real scientist imagine aliens and alien worlds.