Dante's Position

November 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

In an attempt to better understand how we orient ourselves in life, I turn to Dante.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante begins nearly every canto by determining his location. This works twofold as it locates the reader as well as the narrator. The reader first meets Dante in a dark wood where he is surprised by a scary and threatening creature. Afraid, he stands and explains, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh.... I cannot rightly say how I entered it, I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way”. From the very beginning, the reader understands that this is not the average journey through rugged mountains, but something more existential, something personal and revelatory. This journey which promises to take Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is a spiritual journey. In other words, Dante's internal path was lost and this is his attempt to find his better self.

I can absolutely see how, politically speaking, he had lost his way. Born in Florence in 1265, Dante participated in and witnessed the devastating results of political and religious factions that tore apart his community, family, friends and city. The Guelph faction supported the Pope, whereas the Ghibelline faction supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelph families tended to be aristocratic or wealthy, whereas the wealth of the Ghibelline party was focused in agriculture. Therefore, Dante was born into a great deal of political strife that ripped apart the seams of Florence, and medieval Italy. In this growing divide, he witnessed all manner of sin, even from those leaders who were sworn to pursue truth. Dante turned his growing disillusionment with politics and religion into The Divine Comedy in which he lambastes all sinners. Many of the people he places in hell are of high religious orders. He spares no one on this journey – himself included.

How does one locate the self within society? How do we find direction that comforts and guides us? Dante clearly relied upon the church – but the moral depravity of some church figures made him question his own leaders. It is in this state of mind that he enters the dark forest. Lucky for Dante, his idol Virgil comes to rescue him. Virgil has been sent, of course by Beatrice. First of all, I love the idea of the reverse fairy tale – Beatrice saves Dante and not the reverse. And second, I love that they physically lead him to Heaven through the use of dialogue and his own two feet. Though he regards Virgil and Beatrice in a highly idealized state, they do, for the most part, make him earn the light.

Of course, this virtual tour of heaven and hell comes with constant reminders about navigation. Dante orients himself by using: stars, terrain, height and depth, light and dark, and of course, Virgil and Beatrice. Location is of great importance to everyone in the work. Dante introduces each figure by understanding what region and family they are from. This technique, of course, would have resonated with his readers. There is a mathematical precision to his work which relies upon place, date, astrology, religion and symbolism.

Sight is of extreme importance in this orientation. Dante seeks approval before approaching shades (in the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio") and lights (those in "Paradiso"). Both Virgil and Beatrice make eye contact as a way of acceptance or rejection. The juxtaposition of eye contact is made stronger in the Inferno, in which people are often backwards, upside down or sumberged in some pit. In "Paradiso", Dante always looks to Beatrice for approval and receives it from her glowing eyes. She smiles often, unlike those in the painful regions below. As he reaches the highest realms of Paradise, joy also heightens, reflected in the constant orientation towards light. We see how this light acts as a compass in the following few examples:

“And now the life of that holy light had turned again to the Sun which fills it, as to that Good which is sufficient to all things. Ah, souls deceived and creatures impious, who from such Good turn away your hearts, directing your brows to vanity!

“And lo! Another of those splendors made toward me and by brightening outwardly was signifying its wish to please me. Beatrice's eyes, fixed on me as before, made me assured of dear assent to my desire.” (Par., Canto IX)

“[F]rom the heart of one of the new lights there came a voice which made me seem as the needle to the star in turning me to where it was” (Par., Canto XII)

“Let him imagine, who would rightly grasp what I now beheld (and, while I speak, let him hold the image firm as a rock), fifteen stars which in different regions vivify the heaven with such great brightness that it overcomes every thickness of the air; let him imagine that Wain for which the bosom of our heaven suffices night and day so that with the turning of the pole it does not disappear; let him imagine the mouth of that Horn which begins at the end of the axle on which the first wheel revolves – all to have made of themselves two signs in the heavens like that which the daughter of Minos made when she felt the chill of death; and one to have its rays within the other, and both to revolve in such manner that one should go first and the other after; and he will have as it were a shadow of the true constellation, and of the double dance, which was circling round the point where I was; for it is as far beyond our experience as the motion of the heaven that outspeeds all the rest is beyond the motion of the Chiana.” (Par., Canto XIII)

This last passage is particularly difficult for the modern reader unfamiliar with astronomy, mythology or medieval Italy. The notes supply the fact that Wain = Big Dipper, the Horn = the last two stars of the hornlike Little Dipper (Ursa Minor); the daughter of Minos was Ariadne whose crown was turned into a constellation; and finally, Chiana is a river in Tuscany.

In this short paragraph alone, we have a number of orientations that may challenge us. I wonder if these navigation points would have challenged Dante's contemporaries, or only those of us so far removed from the middle ages? In other words, is this work meant to challenge everyone, to unsettle and unseat us, make us uncomfortable with our own knowledge? Regardless of our astrological awareness, I think his point is that, even in connecting with the light, even after visiting with Virgil and Beatrice, forward movement requires a lot of self-evaluation. While it is easy to use GPS in day to day navigation, Dante reminds us how fruitful it can be to focus on points of importance. Our moral compass may depend upon the ways in which we search.

In The Divine Comedy, we are left with the shadow of Dante, much like the shadow of the Argo: “A single moment makes from me greater oblivion than five and twenty centuries have wrought upon the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo. Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed, motionless, and intent, ever enkindled by its gazing. In that Light one becomes such that it is impossible he should ever consent to turn himself from it for other sight; for the good, which is the object of the will, is all gathered in it, and outside of it that is defective which is perfect there” (Par., Canto XXXIII).

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

 Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Numa Creates the Calendar

July 21, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Last week we introduced a couple of less than mainstream calendars . This week, we want to move back into a look at the contemporary calendar, as based upon the Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, of course, attended to the discrepancies in the calendar. Astronomers of each age are challenged to find clever fixes for slight discrepancies, which, over a period of one thousand years, begins to add up. Caesar understood that growing seasons were being negatively affected by these seemingly minor errors and he corrected some of them. But his calendar was not the first Roman calendar. Other Roman emperors tampered with their own versions of a calendar, and often for less respectable reasons than Caesar. Some emperors wanted to place their names into the calendar as a sort of legacy. Others decided to celebrate festivals whenever they wanted, thus changing the custom and the calendar simultaneously.

Numa Pompilius (8th-7th century B.C.) was one of the first Roman emperors to set a fixed calendar. The following text comes entirely from Plutarch's chapter on Numa in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It describes how the calendar came about from Plutarch's point of view. This discussion continues to develop our understanding of the cultural understanding of time, but also of the contemporary cultures who base their calendar on similar features. As societies fanned out, and the Roman civilization fell, threads of their society transferred to many other places. The transformation was not uniform, however, and so this investigation into time is meant simply to know more about the origin of our modern day customs.

“He attempted, also, the formation of a calendar, not with absolute exactness, yet not without some scientific knowledge. During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon; they only kept to the one rule that the whole course of the year contained three hundred and sixty days. Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, ,however, itself, in course of time, came to need other amendments.

“He also altered the order of the months for March, which was reckoned the first, he put into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last, the second. Many will have it, that it was Numa, also, who added the two months of January and February; for in the beginning they had a year of ten months; as there are barbarians who count only three; the Arcadians, in Greece, had but four; the Acarnanians, six. The Egyptian year at first, they say, was of one month; afterwards, of four; and so, though they live in the newest of all countries, they have the credit of being a more ancient nation than any, and reckon in their genealogies, a prodigious number of years, counting months, that is, as years.

“That the Romans, at first, comprehended the whole year within ten, and not twelve months, plainly appears by the name of the last, December, meaning the tenth month; and that March was the first is likewise evident, for the fifth month after it was called Quintilis, and the sixth Sextilis, and so the rest; whereas, if January and February, in this account, preceded March, Quintilis would have been fifth in name and seventh in reckoning. It was also natural that March, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus's first, and April, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called April from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers. The next is called May, from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom it is sacred; then June follows, so called from Juno; some, however, derive them from the two ages, old and young, majores, being the name for older, and juniores for younger men. To the other months they gave denominations according to their order; so the fifth was called Quintilis, Sextilis the sixth, and the rest, September, October, November and December.

“Afterwards Quintilis received the name of Julius, from Caesar, who defeated Pompey; as also Sextilis that of Augustus, from the second Caesar, who had that title. Domitian, also, in imitation, gave the two other following months his own names, of Germanicus and Domitianus; but, on being slain, they recovered their ancient denominations of September and October. The two last are the only ones that have kept their names throughout without any alteration.

“Of the months which were added or transposed in their order by Numa, February comes from februa; and is as much a Purification month; in it they make offerings to the dead, and celebrate the Lupercalia, which, in most points, resembles a purification. January was so called from Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war.”

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Dazzling Darkness

June 23, 2017

“The strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects. This is the discipline that deals with the universe's divine revolutions, the stars' motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings...for what is more beautiful than heaven?” - Copernicus

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplation of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, or falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” - Carl Sagan


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This is the third of three posts on astronomy. (To access the previous two posts, click here and here). Also, a great thanks to Richard Johnson, amateur astronomer, for supplying all of the photos and much of the content for these astronomy blogs.

As we have prevoiusly discussed, the night sky tells us as much about ourselves as about the stars. For centuries, man has linked the complexity of humans with the starry heavens. As Henri Poincaré explains, “Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand; shows us how small is man's body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony.” Since these images grab our attention and imagination, people continue to develop and enhance tools used in studying space. Last week we discussed the catalog created by Charles Messier, and this week we focus on another catalog created by Edward Barnard, a pioneer of astro-imaging.

 M 42, The Orion Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

M 42, The Orion Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

Edward Barnard was born in Nashville, Tennessee. He received a fellowship to Vanderbilt University, where he spent four years, but never graduated. However he did receive an honorary degree, the only one ever awarded by Vanderbilt. He discovered ten comets during his time at Vanderbilt. He was then appointed to Lick Observatory in California, where he served four years. He then turned to the University of Chicago as a professor of practical astronomy. During these years he was responsible for identifying and cataloging the Dark Nebulae, which was later named the Barnard Catalog, numbering from 1 through 370 (although not all numbers in the sequence were used).

At one time, dark nebulae were thought to be holes in the Milky Way, but this is not so. The dark nebulae are actually interstellar dust clouds blocking or obscuring our view of the Milky Way. These dust clouds may be small, dusty star-forming regions, or they may be portions of larger dark lanes of galactic dust. Because of their darkness, they create interesting images. The following two images and nebula details were supplied by amateur astronomer Richard Johnson.

 IC 434. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

IC 434. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

The Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) is a small dark nebula silhouetted against the glow of the emission nebula IC 434. Barnard 33 is the most interesting feature of a huge region of gas and dust situated 1,600 light years from Earth in the constellation Orion. Only by chance does the dark nebula resemble the head of a horse. But this coincidental appearance has led to its becoming one of the most photographed objects in the sky. The narrow patch of nebulosity extends from the leftmost star in Orion’s Belt, Alnitak. Barnard 33 is a dark globule of dust and non-luminous gas, obscuring the light coming from the moderately bright IC 434 nebula behind it. The red glow of IC 434 originates from ionized hydrogen gas. The Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) is about 900 light years from Earth, and is part of the Orion Molecular Complex, a star forming region that includes the Horsehead Nebula. The Flame Nebula is ionized and made to luminesce by the eastern most star in Orion’s Belt, Alnitak. NGC 2024 glows in a variety of colors, from yellow to orange, though the predominant hue is shell-pink. Additional dark gas and dust lies in front of the bright part of the nebula, and this is what causes the dark network that appears in the center of the glowing gas.

 Barnard 72, The Snake Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

Barnard 72, The Snake Nebula. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

The Snake Nebula (Barnard 72) is about 5 light years across. It is located about 650 light years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). It is a part of the Dark Horse Nebula.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.