Posts Tagged ‘Ixion’

Back when I was a kid and home science didn’t include computers or the internet, and required much simpler technology – such as books – I was fascinated by astronomy. In my early teens, the tools of my trade consisted of a cheap telescope, a stand made by my dad out of some old piping he found at the factory where he worked, and The Observer’s Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore. In fact, I still have the book, which is dated 1967 and still hasn’t fallen apart.

Moore, now Sir Patrick, is something of an English icon in the world of amateur astronomy and television. He presents a show called The Sky at Night, and has done so since April 24th, 1957, which makes it older than I am. On the March 16th, 2011, Moore presented the 700th episode, which was attended by Queen guitarist Brian May [1] and popular TV physicist Brain Cox, who was inspired to take up astronomy after reading The Observer’s Book of Astronomy. It makes you wonder just how influential that one little book has been on amateur astronomers in the UK.

For many years I would spend evenings in the back yard of our two-up, two-down terraced house, pointing my telescope over the wall and turning on my flashlight [2] now and again to check my little book. And one of the things I wanted to see was the famous Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion [3]. Sadly my telescope had all the magnification power of a pair of spectacles so I could never see the nebula as it was portrayed in Moore’s book.

Horsehead nebula

Horsehead Nebula

As I became more interested in psychology and then linguistics, I never realized how much the language of astronomy would actually help, with its many words derived from Latin and Greek. And the stories of the constellations undoubtedly contributed to my fascination with the Classics and mythology in general.
In the world of astronomy, the word nebula means;

…an indistinct cloud-like, luminous object seen in the night sky, such as a cluster of distant stars, a galaxy, or a cloud of gas or dust. Now (usually): spec. a mass of gas or dust within a galaxy, typically visible either as a luminous patch or as a dark silhouette against a brighter background.

It comes from the Latin nebula meaning fog, mist, or cloud, which is how the nebula first appeared in early telescopes. This notion of cloudiness is why it was also used in the 5th century CE as a medical term to describe the look of infected urine i.e. cloudy. In the 17th century, it was also used in ophthalmology to describe any thin-film that coated the eye.

At the same time, it began to be used to describe sunspots, or the hazy ring that surrounded a sunspot. But by the beginning of the 18th century, the word was more likely to be applied in general to indistinct, cloudy celestial objects that we not stars or planets. The Horsehead nebula was identified in 1888 and became famous because of its distinctive shape that mimics a horse’s head.

The Greek word for “cloud” or “mist” is nepheli (νεϕέλη) and in mythology, Nephele was a cloud that Zeus shaped into an image of his wife, Hera, with the intent of tricking King Ixion into seducing her. Sadly for Ixion, he was weak and  attempted to rape her, for which he was punished by having to spend eternity in Hades strapped to a burning wheel. It’s never a good idea to piss off a Greek god, especially Zeus.


Ixion on his wheel

In another story, Nephele is the mother of Phrixus and Helle, who were about to be sacrificed when Nephele sent a golden ram to carry them to safety. Ultimately, Phrixus married the daughter of King Aeetes and sacrificed the ram in honor of their nuptials. The King then took this Golden Fleece and hung it on a tree where it was found by Jason and his Argonauts.

It is hypothesized that there is an Indo-European ancestor to the word as we see variations of it in Old High German nebul meaning “mist” and Icelandic njol meaning “night.” It’s worth noting that the word nebule was also used in the 15th century to mean “cloud” or “mist.”

People with asthma and other respiratory illnesses may be familiar with device called a nebulizer, which is used to spray a fine mist of drugs in suspension directly into the lungs. The word nebulizer comes, as you might guess, from nebula.

I no longer spend time as an amateur astronomer. Occasionally I’ll sit out in my back garden and look up at the stars for a few minutes but the old passion has gone. It’s disappeared – just like a cloud in the wind.

[1] Queen fans are well aware that Brian May was part way through a doctoral program in astrophysics before deciding to give it up due to the rising demands of his life as the lead guitarist for the band. After some 35 years of creating a back-catalog of albums that is impressive by anyone’s standards, he completed his Ph.D. and became Dr. May in May 2008.

[2] Although I use the word flashlight now, that’s because I’m bilingual and speak both British and American English fluently. As a kid, I called it a torch, with torch and flashlight being something of a shibboleth that labels you as English or American. When they were invented, they were originally called electric torches to distinguish them from flaming brands but over the years, the electric piece was dropped leaving just torch.

[3] For my younger daughter’s 13th birthday, I bought her a star in the constellation of Orion from the International Star Registry. The star now bears her name and can be found in Orion at right ascension 6h 1m 40s and declination 15 degrees and 57 minutes. Those of you with clever telescopes can check this out. She asked if it really was her star, and I told her that she could go and pick it up any time she liked.

For those of you wanting to buy someone a little something special, it’s well worth going to the International Star Registry and buying a little piece of the cosmos. “But darling, now every time I look at the stars, they remind me of you…”

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As world economies tumble, governments change, people are killed in conflicts across the Middle East, and children die of simple diseases for lack of cheap drugs, it’s nice to know that one area of human enterprise continues to flourish. Apple Corp sales.

Yes, worry not about the coming apocalypse because as long as we have our iPhones and iPads, all must be well with the world. Whatever privations the average Americans are facing, that didn’t stop them buying technology by the bucket-load over Christmas 2011. It may be a little unfair to pick on Apple products because vendors of HD TV’s, gaming machines, and computers also did well. I dare say Bob Cratchit may have been unable to buy a goose for Tiny Tim but I bet he’d have made sure he got his iPad or Microsoft Kinect. “Good bless us, everyone,” said Tim to his online team as he took yet another head off a marauding zombie in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

iPad sales trend - upwards

Personal technology has clearly entered the realm of the fetish, which is;

An inanimate object worshiped by preliterate peoples on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit.

If there’s anything that Apple has done particularly well it’s to create a brand that has all the appearance of being magical. Given enough time, I suspect that the Cult of Apple could become a religion, with St. Steve as the technological messiah and Apple stores as churches. If we measured the dopamine level of true Apple zealots when they talk about their products, I’m betting they’d be close to those found in people undergoing religious euphoria.

Cult of Apple

First Church of Jobs

What makes this all the more fascinating is that if you take some time to read the blogs and websites devoted to the deification of Apple technology, the sense of identification you hear from the Macophiles is almost palpable. If you really want to get a feel for how deeply engrained their devotion is, try posting something that goes against their creed and you can ignite a Jihad of fanatical proportions. Mac-lovers will do anything to defend their products. Anything.

But I’m not sure how defensive they would be over the apps. Back in September 2011, an app called AcneApp was available for $1.99. The creators alleged that you held you iDevice over the affected area and various lights would flash at special frequencies and cure the acne [1]. This was, of course, totally bogus – but over 11,500 people didn’t agree and happily downloaded the software. Following an investigation from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Apple eventually pulled the app [2].

But if you have a headache, you might want to try the BrainWave Headache Relief app from Banzai Labs. This one is free and Apple have not pulled it. Apparently “bogus science” is OK – it’s only if you charge money for it that the FTC will tell Apple will intervene. So much for “ethics” and “evidence-based medicine.” Still, there’s no way to legislate against stupid.

In a more general sense, many pro-Apple types are doing their best to promote the iPad as a technological panacea, which is, according to the OED;

Something used to solve all problems; a practice or course of action adopted in every case of difficulty; a universal cure.

The word makes its first recorded appearance in 1548 in a translation of Erasmus’s The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament.

[That] which they call panacea, a medicine (as they affirme) effectual and of muche vertue, but knowen to no man.

It’s origin can be traced back to the classical Latin panacea, which referred to any plant purported to have curative properties. This in turn comes directly from the Greek “panakeia” (πανάκεια), also a reference to health-imparting plants. In mythology, Panacea was the daughter of Asclepius, the god of healing, who is associated with the Rod of Asclepius – a staff entwined by a serpent. Tragically, poor Asclepius made the mistake of being too good at his job and after bringing a dead person back to life, he was killed by Zeus for his impiety [3].

rod of asclepius

Rod of Asclepius

The earlier Hellenic Greek word “panakis” (πανακής), meant “all-healing,” from the elements “pan” (παν) meaning “all” and “akos” (ἄκος) for “cure.” The notion of a cure-all shifted over the years from a medical reference to include anything that purports to solve a set of problems. So in 1616, we find a quote by the writer Thomas Gainsford in his book Rich Cabinet;

The godly Preacher‥procures the generall panacea of patience, to ease all paines.

Religion is often given as an example of a social panacea, most famously by Karl Marx, who described it as “the opium of the people.” Yet there are other notions of panacea to be found. Money was mentioned as a panacea in 1884 in a law report with the line “There is one panacea which heals every sore in litigation, and that is costs.” Then, in 1917, the poet Ella Wilcox wrote that she hoped “foreign travel… would be a panacea for my troubled mind.” Imperialism was considered by some to be a panacea for conflicts, and in a New Republic article in 1992, we find the following quote:

The panaceas of ‘empowerment’—homeownership, tenant-management schemes, and the like—‥fail to address the gravity of the situation (New Republic 25 May 9/1).

Clearly many things have made claim to being panacean, an adjective that appeared first in 1616. And we can now add to the list the notion of technology being a panacea for… well, whatever Apple wants it to be.

[1] FTC: Treating Acne? No, there is no app for that. September 8th, 2011.

[2] I find this disingenuous because the FDA seem to be happy to let all types of snake-oil cures to be marketed on television, from magnetic bracelets to penis-growth promoters. Why should stupid people using iTunes be penalized whereas stupid TV viewers are allowed to waste as much money as they want on bogus products? If someone is dumb enough to believe they can cure acne with an iApp, then I don’t begrudge someone making money from their stupidity. Caveat emptor.

[3] Along with Asclepius, a number of other humans have suffered at the hands of the gods. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and so Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle could come down daily and peck out his liver. Tantalus allegedly stole ambrosia from the gods, so he was condemned to spend eternity in Tartarus by a pool of water with an apple tree. As he neared the water, it would disappear, and on reaching for an apple, it would move away. This is where the word tantalize comes from. Sisyphus, a Corinthian king, was made to spend his afterlife pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back each night. Mind you, he was guilty of killing and eating his own son, so maybe there’s some justice in the punishment. And Ixion, another king, killed his father-in-law and mated with a cloud, for which he was sent to Tartarus forever to spin on a burning wheel, now known as the Wheel of Ixion.

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