Of Droughts and Flooding Rains

Twenty-four hours ago, I was making immediate preparations to head north, drive as far as I could, then simply stop, find the nearest place where it made sense to pitch in and help out in any way possible. I was prepared to do whatever I could do that would be helpful to someone for about a week, then come back and do some necessary things that will be happening here, then later, when I will be absolved of some local responsibilities, head straight back north.

Circumstances got in the way, and it wasn’t to be. Instead of heading north and doing whatever I can for strangers trusting that other people will be helping in the communities where I have people I love, I’m sitting here in my community, worrying-the-hell out of myself whenever I don’t hear from one or another northerly friend for a few hours. I’ve already sent away money that I would normally squander in the course of the fortnight (my “me money”), plus money that others have offered me, divided between the official flood appeal and a direct bank transfer to a friend whose husband and children were away on school holidays when it all got out of control, and who is trying desperately to leave town to join them, one of the people I haven’t heard from for a while.

They have a horse stud and a few acres under crops: the water has already destroyed this next year’s income for them. If I can find the money she needs for the vehicle to move a few of her more valuable animals before she leaves, then that is at least something saved for them to use when the clean-up is over and they have to start all over again, but the bulk of it is going to the relief fund where it will be distributed between total strangers on the basis of need: I may be aware of the suffering of some people, but by no means all, and I trust humans to display basic humanity in times of crisis and be evenhanded and fair with aid.

Earlier this afternoon I was talking to an elderly Jewish Romanian woman who fled the pogroms of forties and fifties. Even her children are old now, one of them in a local aged-care facility. I think she is fairly lonely now, and while she has never done anything so formal as to visit me, she certainly makes it her business to pop out of doors at about the time of morning I’m likely to be out the front watering my raised vegetable patch (or recycled box-trailer), and have a chat to me. This morning it was pretty difficult to avoid talking about the floods. She is a good Jewish woman, and I know a friend picks her up on the Sabbath and takes her to the prayer meeting of her choice – the nearest synagogue apparently is too far away.

This morning she was shaking her head from side to side. I had just told her that I had been trying to go north to help out, but hadn’t succeeded, and was reduced to doing whatever I could do from a distance. I had not mentioned religion at all – hers or mine – when she turned to me, looked me hard in the eye and said something like: “You talk about God. God? Hah! How can you expect me to believe in God after this? When I was just a girl I had to leave my country because God would not stop the brutes, and I thought God was testing my faith. But now God does this? After taking my husband? I have always been careful. I have always prayed. I have always followed the Laws. And God does this? It is all too much. God is not testing our faith. No, this is proof that God doesn’t exist at all! How can I believe, hmm? If there was a God, He would stop all this.”

This struck me as being terribly, terribly sad. Her love of the Torah and her faith in God had nourished her through a lifetime, probably a longer lifetime than I’ll ever have. It had sustained her through years of unthinkable brutality, through having to start up in a new country where she knew no one and nothing, not a person, not the language, not even the food. It helped her raise children in exile, and sustained her when they grew up and left her, one by one. It helped her when her life-partner grew old, grew ill, and died. Her faith survived all of that, burning steadily like a well-stoked furnace, not flickering feebly like a candle near an open window.

But suddenly, with the floods, she crumbled. I asked, and no, she had no relatives or close friends involved. She herself was as bewildered as I was that after a lifetime of being strong, she suddenly crumbled. I suppose it was just one last tragedy in a long line of tragedies, one last straw on that overloaded camel of parable and cliche. She stood there near my vegetable patch, straight and proud, until I impulsively reached out a hand and touched her shoulder. That was just too much – she collapsed into tears on me. I held her until she got a hold of herself, walked her home, made sure she went inside, and extracted a promise that she would ring her daughter and ask her to come over. Then I walked away. I felt bad, but I had things to do, and her daughter would understand her better than I ever could.

After that, I knew I had to renew my efforts: I made more phone calls, this time to friends and acquaintances who were two (or more) car families, seeking to borrow a larger vehicle. But no, I seemed destined to stay here. I did some banking, had an extreme luxury – an iced coffee – with my own daughter, and did other things I needed to do.

On my way home, walking through the summer heat weighed down with some fruit, I passed the corner of her street, and started thinking of her loss of faith again. And again my heart went out to her, but I also started thinking that she wasn’t giving Deity much credit. After all, imagine being a Supreme Being. There might be some non-physical beings who take a kindly interest in the fates of humans, but they are likely to be local energies. A Supreme Being, responsible for it all, is bigger than that. They set it all in motion by triggering a Big Bang, and allowing the Laws of Physics, the formation of galactic chains and within the chains individual galaxies, stars and planetary systems. They made it possible through the laws of physics for evolution to happen and thus for us to develop; but with so many hundreds of billions of stars in each galaxy which are potentially habitable, and so many hundreds of billions of galaxies around, why would they focus on us? We’d be like the individual atoms found in a single flake in a snow-dome on a window-sill.

Then again, consider Deity-as-Pet-Owner. Assume that Deity is conscious of us as a species, possibly even conscious of us as individuals. I used to have a very large tropical aquarium in my living-room in my old house. I had set up the environment, supplying stones, gravel and river-sand. Supplying plants of different species, filtration and on occasion when necessary, pH balancing. I stocked it with a known number of fish, of several different species. They showed every sign of being aware of my presence when I approached the tank, but continued on their ordinary business when I was in the room but didn’t approach. May I not have appeared like a looming, unknowable God to any of them who might have thought?

I fed them regularly, providing flakes every day and supplementing them regularly with mosquito larvae – they loved hunting down living food. Every so often to keep the environment healthy, I’d drain off about two-thirds of the contents of the tank, and replace it. It was a large tank so I used a thick hose, and this created turbulence. At such times, I’d also move the stones around, checking the plants for damage and rot, and removing dead or unhealthy bits. This would create more turbulence. Would not any fish in the tank have regarded this as we might regard an earthquake, a storm or – yes, a flood, as an “act of god”, causing panic and discomfort, and possibly even death if I wasn’t very careful or the fish chose to swim in the wrong direction for my movements?

I created their whole world. I provided everything they needed in their environment for them to stay alive. Every so often, I’d create enormous and probably terrifying turbulence, in an effort to remove contaminants from their environment. And later, there would come a time when I gave the last of them away, and dismantled their environment for ever. That sounds pretty god-like to me – could it not be happening to us on a grander scale? Like me and my fishes, events that from a local eye seem devastating, might have a long-term effect of cleaning up the bigger-picture situation. We talk about annual seasonal cycles – why don’t we think about longer seasonal cycles, calculated in decades of multiples of decades? They might also be about planetary cleansing, regarding us as either a species whose complaints should be ignored for the greater good, or worse, the actual contaminating organisms that are being cleaned away.

Perhaps, from a Gods Eye View, we are either the source of a lot of problems, or just an irrelevant species that is too numerous for the size of the “aquarium”, anyway. God may have a greater responsibility, to look after the whole of the planet, the whole of the solar system, the whole of the galaxy. All of us agree that mankind has out-bred our resources: that’s why the “average” Australian lifestyle would require seven Earth-sized planets to maintain if we managed to give everyone alive the same standard of living. Why would God have to be seen by religious people to nurture a species that is out of control? Why wouldn’t God prune them slightly, tie them back as a tender gardener ties back pruned wines, keeping the garden more organised and more fruitful that way?

An Exomoon For A Lonely World?

The discovery of alien worlds–exoplanets that dwell beyond our Sun’s family–has now become just “business as usual” for astronomers who hunt for these distant planets throughout our Milky Way Galaxy. The first alien world circling a Sun-like star was discovered back in 1995, and today the list of confirmed exoplanets has grown to approximately 1,000–with many more candidates awaiting confirmation.

But what about exomoons–moons that orbit these remote alien worlds?

In December 2013, a team of astronomers said that they may have spotted a weird system composed of an alien planet and its moon, floating freely in interstellar space, rather than inhabiting the close-knit family of a parent star.

The strange and remote system revealed its presence in a study that made use of a technique termed gravitational microlensing, which searches for the bending of starlight that results from the gravitational pull of an unseen body existing between a distant star and our planet. In this particular case, the massive body could conceivably be an alien world and its bewitching, circling moon. However, the astronomers admit that the signal is not sufficiently clear, and it might instead be coming from a faint star and a lightweight exoworld in orbit around it.

“An alternate star-plus-planet model fits the data almost as well” as an alien world and its moon-companion scenario, the astronomers reported in a study that was published in December 2013 on the preprint site arXiv. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.

We have known since 1995 that our Solar System is far from unique in the Cosmic scheme of things. In fact, astronomers think that our Milky Way Galaxy could be literally swimming with billions upon billions of planets–and an even greater number of moons. Some of these moons could even possess the mysterious and precious recipe that permits them to harbor living things.

As far back as ancient Greece, humanity has wondered if there are other solar systems beyond our own. This idea has not always been greeted with joy by the powers-that-be. For example, in 1584, when the Catholic monk Giordano Bruno declared (among other things) that there are “countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns,” he was accused of heresy by the Church and burned at the stake. Our planet was unceremoniously evicted from its exalted status as the most important body in the Universe early in the 16th century, when Nicolaus Copernicus calculated that Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. His revolutionary concept, although reluctantly and bitterly swallowed at the time, shattered the traditional Judeo-Christian dogma that we and our Earth hold a central, special place in the Universe.

During the past generation, alien worlds have been discovered at a frenetic pace. Since the 1995 discovery of 51 Pegasi b–the first exoplanet to be spotted in orbit around another Sun-like star–astronomers have been finding worlds upon worlds upon worlds dwelling in our majestic, barred-spiral Galaxy.

But What About Moons?

Our own Solar System’s eight major planets possess (at last count) 170 moons. Most of these moons are barren, icy, bodies circling the quartet of frigid, gaseous, giant planets dwelling in the outer limits of our Sun’s family: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. However, a few of these icy jewels may hide living tidbits. For example, Europa of Jupiter, may sport a global subsurface ocean secreted beneath its shattered icy shell, blissfully warmed by tidal flexing into a life-loving, liquid water state. It is possible that primitive tidbits of aquatic life swim around in Europa’s subsurface, salty sea. Titan, of Saturn, possesses an environment eerily similar to that of our Earth before life developed here (prebiotic). Lazy, large raindrops of liquid hydrocarbons float slowly onto the surface of this frigid, tortured moon, forming seas and lakes composed of liquid methane and ethane that play the same role as water does on our planet. It is possible that life, as we do not know it, has evolved there using liquids other than water.

In our own Solar System, moons are becoming major targets for future space missions. Yet, when astronomers peer far beyond our own extended solar family, they are apparently more focused on spotting alien planets than their alien moon-companions. However, as exomoon hunter Dr. David Kipping of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts has noted: “I think exomoons are just as interesting as exoplanets.”

Indeed, now that astronomers know that a multitude of exoplanets are dancing around our Galaxy, exomoons should also abound. However, moons that circle alien worlds are extremely difficult to spot because of their small size and lack of brightness.

If Planets Come, Can Moons Be Far Behind?

The authors of the December 2013 paper, titled A Sub-Earth Mass Moon Orbiting a Gas Giant Primary or a High Velocity System in the Galactic Bulge, explain in their study that gravitational microlensing is a promising new technique for astronomers to use in order to spot moons dwelling beyond the close-in satellites that transit searches are designed to discover. The transit technique–another technique used to spot exoworlds–searches for the tattle-tale dimming of a star’s light that results from a planet or moon passing in front of its fiery, brilliantly incandescent face from Earth’s vantage point.

The study was led by Dr. David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Regardless of whether or not the weird system does turn out to include a distant, dancing moon, “these results indicate the potential of microlensing to detect exomoons,” the authors wrote.

“I was excited by this paper,” said Dr. Jean Schneider in the December 23, 2013 Scientific American. Dr. Schneider is of the Paris Observatory, and was not part of the new research. He continued to note that exomoons have “become fashionable these days,” and are one of his personal “holy grails.” Dr. Schneider authored a paper in 1999 describing how to spot exomoons using the alternative transit technique.

Microlensing is a form of gravitational lensing, an effect on light that was predicted by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity. According to the General Theory of Relativity, massive objects bend–or warp–the Spacetime near them. This means that literally everything, even light, will take a curved path around such massive objects due to Spacetime warpage.

Imagine a child carrying a heavy bowling ball to her trampoline, and tossing it onto its stretchy surface. The bowling ball bends, or warps, the material of the trampoline. Now, the little girl takes a handful of marbles, and throws them onto the trampoline where the bowling ball has caused a dimpling in the fabric. The tossed marbles take curved paths around the bowling ball–instead of the straight paths that they would otherwise take if the bowling ball were not there to warp the material of the trampoline. The material of the trampoline represents Spacetime; the marbles are anything, even light, that must take a curved path, instead of a straight one, because of the warpage induced on Spacetime by a massive object–in this case, the bowling ball.

When light emanating from a brilliant background star wanders past a massive object on its way to the greeting telescopes of astronomers, it shows up as bright circles of warped light that are termed Einstein rings. If the massive object is composed of two objects, such as a planet and its companion moon, the circle will appear to be bulging in spots and broken. Sometimes the Einstein ring is too small for astronomers to resolve the details, but the general effect of gravitational microlensing can be determined from the way the star’s overall brightness changes in time.

Dr. Bennett and his team have observed a two-body system, which they have dubbed MOA-2011-BLG-262, from gravitational microlensing information collected at the Mount John University Observatory located in New Zealand, and the Mount Canopus Observatory in Tasmania.

However, at this time, the astronomers are not certain which of the two bodies is responsible for the brightness fluctuations. The explanation that best explains the observations is an enormous exoplanet, about four times the mass of Jupiter, circled by a companion moon. If this is correct, the exoplanet and its moon would be nearby–by cosmological standards–between 1,000 and 2,000 light years from our planet.

They would also be adrift, lost and alone, in our Milky Way Galaxy, with no star to guide them, rather than being part of the close-knit family of one of our Galaxy’s billions of stars!

Free-floating planets are outcasts–the rejected and ejected children of our Milky Way’s billions of stellar systems. These unlucky planetary orphans were cruelly tossed out to fend for themselves in the frigid blackness of interstellar space, far, far away from the delightful warmth and companionship of their parent stars and planetary siblings. Youthful stellar systems are unruly environments, where violent interactions between newly-forming planets and parent stars can eventually result in the tragic ejection of a doomed baby planet from the system that was its cradle. Our own Solar System may have given rise to many more planets than the eight planets that we now know, and these rejected siblings of our Earth may well be freely floating around in the space between stars with no stellar parent to call their own. Astronomers have predicted the real existence of such orphaned worlds for a long time.

Indeed, our Galaxy could be chock full of Jupiter-size free-floating, orphaned alien worlds–there may be billions of them, wandering their solitary way around the Galactic center, in a way similar to the manner in which our Sun and other stars do.

But some of these free-floating worlds may not be so lonely, after all. They may be orbited by companion moons.

If confirmed, this recent tentative discovery of an alien moon beyond our Solar System, will likely represent only the tip of an enormous iceberg! Furthermore, exomoons are just as alluring as exoplanets–and show just as much promise.

“It seems probable that many thousands, possibly millions, of habitable exomoons exist in the Galaxy and now we can start to look for them,” Dr. Kipping told the press in September 2009.

Assessing David Beckham’s Move To The LA Galaxy

David Beckham has been one of England’s finest ever footballers. He may not have the control and skill of the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho, or Zidane, but his ability to pass the ball over distance, hit a dead ball, and in particular, deliver a cross into a dangerous area, is second to none. His career has taken him from the great treble winning Manchester United side, to the exciting Spanish La Liga winners Real Madrid. These are arguably the two biggest football clubs in the world, and David Beckham has been, and remains, a hero at both.

Becks has ninety-nine England caps to his name, many as captain, and one can only hope that the new England manager, Fabio Capello, his old boss in Madrid, will do the decent thing and allow him to get the one hundredth cap he so richly deserves.

The reason Beckham is so popular is not just his footballing ability or his Hollywood looks, it is the way he dealt with the adversity that his sending off in the 1998 World Cup quarter final against Argentina brought to his door.

English football fans around the country were burning effigies of the footballer and making death threats. He dealt with all that as a very young man, and showed courage and dignity. The sheer weight of his ability and his likable personality won over England and made him a hero.

The questions to answer are, firstly, can he win over America, and secondly, why has he chosen to play there whilst he is still good enough to play at the very top?

In terms of winning over America, I think he can become a popular figure. His marriage to Victoria, making her comeback with the Spice Girls, is big news, and they are likely to become media favorites. Neither Victoria nor David tend to shy away from the limelight and they are sure to prove a hit.

In relation to his footballing decision, I believe Becks may have made the decision too quickly. He agreed to the move when he appeared to have no future at Real Madrid with Capello leaving him out of the side. He made the decision for two reasons. Firstly, the obscene amount of money he was going to get paid, and secondly because Victoria would crave the LA lifestyle. These reasons are perfectly understandable and laudable. They were made with his wife and children at the forefront of his decision making.

What it does mean is that Becks has probably come to the end of his wonderful career as a top player, and whilst he may get that one hundredth cap, he is unlikely to get many, if any, more.

He will enjoy his time with LA Galaxy, and he will prove to be popular with the locals and the media. He will be happy, as will his wife. They will be financially secure forever, his children will grow up in a wonderful place, and he might just manage to raise the profile of the game in the States.

I say ‘Good luck Becks’ and thanks for all you’ve done for England.’