This Just in: World Doesn’t End in 2012 (or, the ROM and the Maya)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.

Palenque

The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.

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Stuart Clark Makes Kepler and Galileo Live Through Fiction

Doctor Stuart Clark, Image courtesy of Simon Wallace, www.meltingpotpictures.co.uk

Image courtesy of Simon Wallace, http://www.meltingpotpictures.co.uk

The way Stuart Clark describes the fascinating lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, he could almost be talking about the plot of a novel.

Oh, wait – he is. Clark recently gave a talk at the Isobel Bader Theatre in Toronto, promoting his new novel, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, the first in a trilogy about the lives of perception-changing scientists. Clark didn’t do a reading, but just described the facts behind the events in the book. And despite a dose of jet lag (he’d just flown in from London, England), he kept the audience riveted. Did you know it was Kepler’s interest in astrology that led him to the discovery of his three laws of planetary motion? Did you know Tycho Brahe kept a pet elk in his castle, free to roam the entire place and eat from the table??

Clark, a well-known astronomy journalist with a PhD in astrophysics, has planned his trilogy not merely to try interest people in science and those who practise it. He wants to illustrate just how dramatically society’s entire view of what the universe is and how it works was changed by a few pivotal scientists. So in his next novel, The Sensorium of God, he’ll feature Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, and The Day Without Yesterday will complete the trilogy with the lives of Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and George Lemaitre.

Clark frames the explorations of Kepler and Galileo as part of the quest for the Theory of Everything. Any lay person who follows popular science through books, articles, or documentaries will recognize that phrase. Scientists today are still trying to find that one, all-encompassing theory that will explain everything from the behaviour of the most fundamental particles of which the universe is made, all the way up to the behaviour of gigantic galaxies and stars.

But when Kepler and Galileo began, their society believed they already had the Theory of Everything: astrology. Kepler was trying, in fact, to establish principles for the movement of heavenly bodies so astrologers would have better data with which to work. And many other scientists who studied the stars were working to an extremely religious agenda, trying to find a way to sync their imperfect calendars with the actual seasons, so the dates of religious events and rituals would occur at the right time of year. As Clark told his audience, when Galileo was forced to read a prescribed recantation, he refused to read the part where he confessed to being a bad Catholic. He simply was not, and the church ultimately agreed.

Picture of front cover of The Sky's Dark LabyrinthClark described both the times and surroundings these two scientists lived in, as well as the development of their thought. He moved from events to theory, and back again, with delightful ease. And all his explanations were easy to understand, no matter what he described. It’s not hard to see why he moved away from the world of academic research into that of astronomy writing. He brings alive the subjects he describes, so almost anyone can understand them. He currently writes for the European space Agency as the senior editor for space science, was formerly the editor of Astronomy Now, and regularly writes articles for such publications as The Times, New Scientist, and BBC Sky at Night.

Clark is in Toronto (with a few days in Montreal) for two reasons. First, he did this talk and a colloquium as part of the outreach of the newly-established Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. The institute does experimental research, but also conducts outreach into the community, to educate and share the passion of astronomy. It’s a testament to Dr. Clark’s qualifications and his skill in handling his subject that a work of fiction would be considered an opportunity for scientific outreach.

He’s also here for the International Festival of Authors, to promote The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth simply as a work of fiction. Whatever discussions he might engage in, or whatever readings he might do, his audience is due for a treat. His novel straddles science and and fiction the way he himself straddles science and journalism. And on either side of that divide, his writing makes the subject intriguing and understandable.

Chemistry Lecture a Compound of Several Strands in Science World

Families of blood cells

Families of blood cells

Doctor Robert Morris may have illustrated more about the scientific world than he intended, in last Wednesday’s lecture, “Chemists Have Solutions.”

There’s a divide amongst scientists who want to get the public to recognize the value of what they do. (Read this book review of Don’t be SUCH a Scientist for a more detailed discussion.) Some like to use a lot of pizazz when they talk to a general audience. Others prefer to lay out all the detailed scientific information and “let the facts speak for themselves.” The criticism of the “pizazz” approach is that it often means using flashy graphics and doing a lot of pep talking at the expense of some scientific detail. On the other hand, a dry recitation of every pertinent fact tends to put an audience to sleep, and their appreciation for the value of the work is not enhanced.

As he presented his lecture at the Toronto Reference Library, Morris was clearly aware that you have to do something to grab your audience’s attention, so they’re keen to hear what you’ll say next. He started by mixing three liquids in a lab flask, promising an interesting result after it “cooked” for a while. And he made liberal use of slides, and interspersed the occasional trivia question, making a point of letting a child in the front row give one of the answers.

Yet for all that, Morris is still clearly of the “lay out all the facts” school. Most of the first half hour was about the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto. We heard how many faculty there were, how many grad students they teach, how many awards they had won, where they were ranked compared to other university Chemistry departments…we heard it all. And then, since it’s the International Year of Chemistry, we also heard about and saw slides from events held several months ago. Yes, it’s really too bad the Toronto press didn’t properly publicize or cover those events, but they really weren’t that interesting — in the present — to an audience  for whom attendance was now impossible.

I suspect what the public really wanted to hear about was new chemical breakthroughs that allowed the production of cool new gadgets or processes. Forget how many grad students are in the university department! Show us that piece of cloth made with nanotechnology, which repels dirt and water and can never get soiled!

Morris did actually show slides of a couple of those breakthroughs, later on. The most intriguing was the Lab on a Chip — a tiny computer chip that can do medical analysis of an even tinier drop of blood placed on it. When that chip becomes common, no lab tech will ever take four vials of blood from us again, for tests. And instead of waiting five hours for results, we’ll have them in twenty minutes. We also learned about a newly developed process that can send antibodies into a person with leukemia, to target the specific family of blood cells causing the disease.

And that liquid compound Morris had made at the beginning? It provided a “traffic light” type of display. It had turned to amber while it sat, but with a little shaking, it turned red. And with much more shaking, it turned green. So there were a few of the “Wow, that’s cool”!” moments. Just not enough of them.

Doctor Morris was a great guy who was clearly excited about the work he and the other faculty and grad students were doing. His department deserves its high world rank, and is making a significant contribution in many areas. But in trying to get a general audience excited about chemistry, he may not be the person to grab their attention and keep it.

k.d. lang Makes Luminato Fans Yell “Hallelujah!”

kd lang

Hallelujah, what a voice!

I think k.d. lang could coax music out of a rock. Watching and hearing her coax and tease each note from a quiet, tender song, and then belt out a ballad with such pure voice and power, you start to wonder if there’s anything, musically, that she can’t do. I admit, though, that my own favourite moment in last night’s free concert for Toronto’s Luminato arts festival was when Ms. lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

I confess that I’ve always disliked that song, feeling like it was melodically kind of boring. But when lang did it on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album, all of that changed. For me, it typifies how she puts her whole soul into a song, pulling every nuance of meaning and emotion from it and sharing it with the audience. I stood in David Pecuat Square, downtown, under the stars with several thousand others, and listened literally in tears.

Once a year, for ten days, Luminato fills Toronto with art, music, and literature. Some of the events in other venues can get pricey, but the festival makes sure that there are plenty of free events too, so no arts lover is left out. And clearly, they  don’t skimp at all, even for events that are free. From Halifax alternative band, The Joel Plaskett Emergency, to Arabic fusion with Yemen Blues and the Sultans of String, to k.d. lang last night, the concerts at David Pecaut Square have been of the best quality — and the greatest fun.

The American band, the Belle Brigade,  who are currently supporting lang on her tour, got us all warmed up with some great folk rock music. But of course the square was primarily  packed with fans of lang’s music, and every one of us responded to her the same way. We swayed to “Hallelujah,” and we clapped and danced to the more lively songs, pulled by lang’s personality and artistry into what felt like an intimate circle of friends. (As she remarked at one point, “Many of you, especially of the female persuasion, may feel yourself drawn toward the stage. I want you to know…this is normal.”)

And when lang and her band, the Siss Boom Bang, burst into a hard rock version of “Constant Craving” (which had been released in a more country style originally), that was the crown of the evening for me. To combine one of my favourite k.d. lang songs with my love of hard rock, well, it made the night perfect. And again — musically speaking, there’s apparently nothing she can’t do.

Even the weather cooperated, being warm but not oppressive. And after the concert, everyone seemed relaxed and fulfilled, strolling and chatting along the streets on the way to their cars or public transit. This great festival is almost over for another year, with just this weekend remaining. But Ms. lang and the Siss Boom Bang made sure that it’s going out with a bang indeed.

Can I get a “Hallelujah?”

Creating your Container Garden Plan

container garden on the patio

Container garden on the Patio (thomas pix)

The Victoria Day weekend is quickly approaching in Canada, as is the Memorial Day long weekend in the U.S. These are weekends when most gardeners in Canada and the northern American states plant their gardens. So if you’re an apartment-dweller, perhaps you’ve finally stopped looking with longing at other people’s yard gardens, and decided to start container gardening on your balcony or patio.

Congratulations! But before you get started, remember that it’s not enough just to buy a bag of soil and some annuals or vegetables, slap them into containers, and stick them outside. To garden successfully, you should set up a container garden plan in advance. Acquire your knowledge and materials ahead of time, and you’ll have a better chance of making a lush, prosperous garden in those balcony pots.

The first step in your container garden plan is to look at the spots where you plan to locate the containers. What are the conditions there? Does your balcony get full shade most of the day, with only a bit of sunshine in a four or five hour span? A container vegetable garden with plants needing full sun all day is pretty much ruled out. Or is there a mix of very sunny spots and those that get just few hours of sun each day? Choose your plants accordingly. Even a steadily blowing breeze will affect your choice of plants and garden planter. Those plants that really need moisture and dry out quickly in normal circumstances will probably not survive the extra air movement causing even more water to evaporate from the soil. Don’t choose your plants and then try to squeeze them into less than ideal conditions. Look at the conditions first, and discover which plants best fit them.

Consult your store or garden center as you create your container garden plan, and get an idea of what plants will even be available there. If you know what plants they’re bringing in, you can do advance research about the growing conditions they need. It’s true that pots give you an advantage, in that you can move plants around and test if they’ll grow better in one spot than another. But if you buy container gardening annuals that normally grow in certain conditions, yet your patio never experiences those conditions, you can hardly expect the plants to succeed.

The next step in your container garden plan is to learn what type of soil each plant needs. You can put several different plants in one container, but be sure they complement each other. For example, putting potatoes, tomatoes, or peppers in the same pot will drain the soil of nutrients very quickly. All of those plants are in the nightshade family, and need similar nutritional elements. The growing environment will succeed and soil replenishment will occur if one plant discards what the other needs, or if they are drawing different nutritional compounds from the soil. Take a look at fertilizers as well, and learn the daily or weekly needs of each plant.

Even your choice of garden planter is important. For example, carrots need a pot deep enough to accommodate the fully grown plant with space to spare, and wide enough to grow several carrot plants. Potatoes and garlic need different sized pots. Containers of herbs need other sizes. All of these factors need to be taken into account when creating your container garden plan.

You can concentrate solely on container gardening annuals, or you might major on vegetables and herbs. But the look and atmosphere of your garden will benefit from a mixture of flowers, vegetables, and herbs. A tomato plant in the corner might look nice with some pots of white petunias in front  and a stand of basil and rosemary containers beside it. Your container garden plan extends to the look and feel of your garden almost as much as creating the right growing conditions. Even if your emphasis is vegetables, a few pots of flowers will brighten things. And don’t worry about using up all your herbs; you can cut and dry sprigs as summer goes on, and use them in the winter.

Tim Flannery: We May Save the Planet Yet. Or Not.

Here on Earth, by Tim FlanneryEnvironmentalists, take heart. Sure, the world may be about to end – but not yet. And if Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery is right, there’s actually time to save it, and there’s even a strong likelihood we’re going to. This is the message of Flannery’s latest book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, and that’s what he told an appreciative audience recently at the Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library. Interviewed by journalist and TVO host Allan Gregg, Flannery acknowledged the foreboding evidence he described in his earlier book, The Weather Makers, but he’s seen and done a lot of things since he wrote it, and has found astonishing reasons for hope.

It’s all because evolution isn’t “survival of the fittest,” after all, says Flannery. Rather, the evolutionary mechanism is more cooperative and collaborative. This view may contradict Darwin’s to some degree, but it has just as long a history. Alfred Russell Wallace, who developed evolutionary theory at the same time as Darwin, saw nature not as a bloody competition but as a system of cooperation and collaboration. And James Lovelock, who more recently propounded the Gaia Philosophy, sees things the same way. The world is a system that self-regulates, each part of it collaborating to create the optimum conditions for life, and survival.

This means, Flannery says, that the world is more like a body than a competition. And after all, you don’t really find the bladder, spleen, and lungs competing viciously to see which can defeat the others and be the last organ standing. Instead, they all work together so all will survive. As Gregg suggested, “Evolution is on our side, then.”

And we are gradually seeing the development of that kind system, where the world is the body and we ourselves are the brain. As Flannery says, there’s a great coming-together in our economics, our slowly unifying belief systems, connections in communication – and even our genetics will slowly merge as we continue traveling and intermarrying. Humans are emerging out of a “warring tribes” state and evolving into the world of an integrated “superorganism.”

It’s not that this definitely will save the planet, you understand. But the conditions are coming into existence in which we finally can. In fact, Flannery says – and this is both thrilling and very frightening – for good or ill, our living generation is the one that will finally choose, and take whatever action we’re going to take. Or not take.

The Weather Makers, by Tim FlanneryThis is a good news/bad news scenario for Canadians, though. While Australians are beginning to make big strides in reducing their carbon footprint, with even the Indians and Chinese starting to move toward green technologies, the same can’t be said forCanada. Gregg asked, “Is our reputation really that bad in the world?” To which the extremely well-travelled Flannery replied, “Sadly, it is.” With Stephen Harper in charge, in fact,Canada’s part in saving the world has not just diminished, but plummeted.

But if Flannery is right, the human race in general may yet save the planet, and just happen to drag Canadaalong with it. That’s the primary message of Here on Earth, and that was his emphasis to the enthralled crowd throughout the interview and the Q&A afterward. It’s possible for humanity to evolve to a point of integration with the earth, to its ultimate salvation, or to continue as we have been, and doom it altogether. And those who are alive today will know what choice humanity made before they pass on.

Mesopotamian Magic, With a Hint of Misogyny

CunEnv

Mesopotamian tablets

It wasn’t the good witches they were after, you understand – it was the bad ones. And yet…were there any good ones in the ancient Mesopotamian world?

Professor Tzvi Abusch, (The Rose B. and Joseph Cohen Professor of Assyriology and Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, Brandeis University) touched on this question and many others when speaking to a keen audience at the most recent lecture hosted by the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies: A Ceremony against Witchcraft: Mesopotamian Magic in Action. Guiding us through a ceremony against witchcraft, Abusch explained the ancient Mesopotamians’ view of magic. They felt it could either be used for good, in the case of herbalists or exorcists, or used for evil by sorcerers and witches. It was all magic; it just depended how you used it. At least, that was how it started.

Abusch took us through excerpts from nine tablets recording an Akkadian ritual conducted through a single night in July or August – the Maqlû, meaning “Burning” – in which a male exorcist worked on behalf of a very ill patient. At the time of these tablets, the view that every person’s fate was determined by the gods had changed to the idea that personal misfortune was caused by another person – a malevolent enemy who could work magic. And the only way to heal oneself was to call upon an herbalist, or in the case of this ritual, an exorcist, who could undo the evil spell and cast it back upon the witch or sorcerer instead. The gods were still very much in evidence – after all, the exorcist could only work by invoking their power – but human action had true significance.

The procedure involved creating a figurine that represented the evildoer, and then ritually burning it in a brazier to break the witch’s power. The flames were doused with water, which both cleansed the victim and carried the evil back to the perpetrator. Specific chants, calling upon the gods, were performed at each stage.

The Akkadian sun god, Shamash

Sun-god, Shamash, who played an important part in the Maqlu ritual

While it was fascinating to go through the ritual step by step and learn what it meant, the real fascination in Abusch’s presentation was what this and similar rituals reveal about the daily life of the ancient Mesopotamians. Incantations like this would have reflected a perceived need in society. In fact, Doctor Abusch took us through two versions of this ritual: an earlier shorter one, and the later nine-tablet version that had become much more elaborate and took much longer to perform. This had to have reflected a greater need to ease the troubles of people who believed they were suffering from the malicious attentions of enemies.

 

Equally as fascinating — though unfortunately predictable — was the status of magic practitioners themselves through Mesopotamian history. In the early stages, magic was regarded as a neutral tool that could be used either for good or evil, by men or women. But over time, it became more genderized: those casting these troubling spells were generally assumed to be women, while all exorcists who undid the evil were men. Herbalists could still be either male or female, and there was still the occasional male sorcerer. But on the whole, this formula became pretty standard: evil women caused the magical trouble, and good men repaired it.

One can ask why this change occurred, and try to follow the texts for hints. But the problem, Abusch said, is that we only have texts from institutional repositories – royal archives or training establishments for exorcists. Neither would retain tablets that contradicted the official view of things. So all we’ve got are tantalizing hints that situations were different and more egalitarian at an earlier time, with existing texts that developed in response to some kind of change whose nature isn’t clear.

Thanks to Doctor Abusch, we were given an intriguing glimpse into the worries occupying the Mesopotamian mind, and the remedies devised to alleviate them. We may think we’ve come a long way since then, though medical science still hasn’t entirely superseded the invoking of deities to solve our ills and punish our enemies. But when we look at how often women are blamed even today for the problems in the world, we might shake our heads and think, “The more things change…”