Universal Holidays

City life is, by definition, noisy, and Oakland is certainly no exception. Not only that, but according to our local news source, Oaklandside, the neighborhood where I live in is the East Bay’s hot spot for going out.

But beginning in mid-afternoon on Sunday, December 24, and continuing through all day on December 25, it was so quiet around here that I kept looking outside just to see if anyone at all was around. When I went for a walk I discovered all the restaurants and bars were closed; only the drug and convenience stores stayed open and they weren’t doing much business.

Despite this being a city with an ethnically diverse population and despite the polite references to the “holiday season,” the truth is that everything shuts down for Christmas.

And while I love the idea of having occasional holidays when most everything is closed, it bothers me that the day when it is most absolute is a very distinctly Christian one. Even if you want to argue that U.S. Christmas is at heart a secular holiday – and giving the focus on shopping days and “the economy” that is not an unreasonable argument – it is still far from universal.

People who aren’t invested in Christmas accommodate themselves to the holiday in various ways, some by strictly following their own traditions, others by adopting some form of celebration that elides over the religious part. I know a lot of people who put a huge store by the holiday who are in not religious in any significant way.

Now I was raised Episcopalian in a very U.S. and Christian culture, so celebrating Christmas is in no way alien for me. But the fact that the whole city shuts down for something that is, in fact, not universal still leaves me unsettled.

If I were still religious, I might not even notice. But I am not. It is not that I am “lapsed,” but rather that I realized that I do not believe in any kind of god. And while I have quite a bit of respect for the teachings of Jesus, I don’t think he’s the “Son of God.”

My connection to Christmas, once I outgrew Santa Claus, was always religious. It was church and ritual and music – especially the music. Yes, we had family gatherings and gifts and fancy meals, but what I miss from that time is choir practice and midnight services.

For years after I left religion behind I would seek out church over Christmas just for nostalgia, but I’ve reached my limit with that. I can tell a story of something I loved in my past with the best of them, but nostalgia can lead to the slippery slope of pining for the good old days even though we all know they weren’t good for many.

I’m nostalgic for a better future, not for the experiences of the past.

The thing is, I want a holiday that means something to me, not just an excuse for a fancy meal or a family gathering. And I want that holiday to mean something – perhaps many different things – to everyone. Continue reading “Universal Holidays”

New Evidence on How the Dinosaurs Died

Such a cool article from Universe Today, I think it merits a post all to itself!

Devastating Clouds of Dust Helped End the Reign of the Dinosaurs

When a giant meteor crashed into Earth 66 million years ago, the impact pulverized cubic kilometers of rock and blasted the dust and debris into the Earth’s atmosphere. It was previously believed that sulfur from the impact and soot from the global fires that followed drove a global “impact winter” that killed off 75% of species on Earth, including the dinosaurs.

A new geology paper says that the die-off was additionally fueled by ultrafine dust created by the impact which filled the atmosphere and blocked sunlight for as long as 15 years. Plants were unable to photosynthesize and global temperatures were lowered by 15 degrees C (59 F).

Most scientists agree the disaster started with an asteroid impact, where an asteroid at least 10 kilometers wide struck the Chicxulub region in the present-day Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The impact released 2 million times more energy than the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated.

The devastation created layer of ash sandwiched between layers of rock, known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary, formerly known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K-T) boundary, which is found across the world in the geologic record. It includes a layer of iridium, an element common in asteroids but rare on Earth. It was this ‘iridium anomaly’ that first revealed the extinction event as an asteroid strike to geologists more than three decades ago.

What has been debated is what created conditions for the post-impact winter. The leading candidates were sulphur from the asteroid’s impact, or soot from global wildfires that ensued after the impact. Both would have blocked out sunlight and plunged the world into a long, dark winter, collapsing the food chain and creating a chain reaction of extinctions.  

Overview of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary in North Dakota (USA). The sediments indicate a river and swamp-like environment at the end of the age of the dinosaurs. The pink-brown layer yields ejecta debris derived from the Chicxulub impact event and the grain-size data from this interval were used as input parameters for the paleoclimate modeling study (photo: Pim Kaskes).

But in this new research, scientists from the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB) studied new sediment samples taken from the Tanis fossil site in North Dakota in the US, which captures a 20-year period during the aftermath of the asteroid impact. Analysis of the samples revealed evidence of silicate dust particles, particles that were ejected into the atmosphere and eventually settled back down on the planet.

“We specifically sampled the uppermost millimeter-thin interval of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary layer,” said Pim Kaskes  from the Archaeology, Environmental Changes & Geo-chemistry (AMGC) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA), who was also involved in the study. “This interval revealed a very fine and uniform grain-size distribution, which we interpret to represent the final atmospheric fall-out of ultrafine dust related to the Chicxulub impact event. The new results show much finer grain-size values than previously used in climate models and this aspect had important consequences for our climate reconstructions.”

Based on their findings, the scientists also created a new paleoclimate computer model that evaluated the roles of sulfur, soot, and silicate dust on the post-impact climate.

Conceptual model of the Chicxulub impact plume showing different stages of (a) production, and (b) transport and deposition of the impact-generated ejecta (not to scale). (c) Paleoclimate model simulations showcasing the time evolution of the dust-induced photosynthetic active radiation flux across the planet following the Chicxulub impact 66 million years ago (modified from Senel et al., 2023; Nature Geoscience).

“The new paleoclimate simulations show that such a plume of micrometric silicate dust could have remained in the atmosphere for up to 15 years after the event, contributing to global cooling of the Earth’s surface by as much as 15 °C in the initial aftermath of the impact,” said Cem Berk Senel from ROB, the lead author of the study.

But while the dust was a contributor to the catastrophic conditions, the sulfur and soot were also a factor.

“We suggest that, together with additional cooling contributions from soot and sulfur, this is consistent with the catastrophic collapse of primary productivity in the aftermath of the Chicxulub impact,” the researchers wrote.

The prolonged disruption in photosynthesis would pose severe challenges for both terrestrial and marine habitats and mass extinctions would occur in groups not adapted to survive the dark, cold, and food-deprived conditions for at least two years. The researchers said this matches the paleontological records, which show that any plants or animals that could enter a dormant phase (for example, through seeds, cysts, or hibernation in burrows) and were able to adapt to an omnivorous diet, or weren’t dependent on one particular food source generally better survived the K-Pg event.

Continue reading “New Evidence on How the Dinosaurs Died”


I’m a day ahead of most of my readers. Mostly, this doesn’t matter. Today, it matters a lot. I’m writing my Monday post and for many people who read it instantly, it’s Christmas. If this is you, I hope you have a lovely Christmas. Me, I spent the day in bed due to thunderstorms that never stopped. That kind of thunderstorm gives me a lot of pain, so I slept it off. Not a problem, except I’ve a lot of work to catch up on.

This brings us to what is, for most people, Boxing Day. My today. 26 December.

My father was born on Boxing Day, so we always celebrated his birthday then. This year, he would have been 100. He died when I was 26. The biggest grief fades with time, but I never don’t miss him. Today on Facebook I did two things – I reached out to all my other friends who miss parents, and I asked friends to share their worst jokes. I do this every year, but this year, I need more. Even though Dad didn’t even make 2/3 of the way to 100, I want to remember him today. I’m having an online get-together in his name tonight (from about 8 pm UTC+11 for about four hours). If you’d like to join me, ask for a link in the comments or email me directly, or, if you’re friends with me on Facebook, pop into Facebook and find the link there. It won’t be a big crowd – most of the world is still doing Christmas and its aftermath. And we mostly won’t be talking about my father! But bad jokes will be welcome.

I hope every one of you who has lost parents and others who are close to you have happy memories you can focus on today. For me, you see, Boxing Day is all about remembering the good time and the wonder of people I love. Not just my father. My BFF, my aunts, my uncles, my cousin David… so many people I miss. For me, today is their day.

There’s always someone who pops up and suggests that All Soul’s Day is the right day for such memories. Well, it is… for many Christians. The rest of us have other days, and my day is 26 December.

Insurrectionists and the Supreme Court

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled by a vote of 4-3 that Donald Trump cannot appear on the Republican primary ballot in that state because he is disqualified under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The relevant part of the 14th Amendment says:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector
of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military,
under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously
taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United
States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or
judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United
States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the
same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress
may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

It’s a long ruling – 134 pages for the majority opinion alone – and very thorough. It even quotes a ruling by Justice Gorsuch from back when he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Of course, it’s only the opinion of one state supreme court out of fifty.

Even the legal analysts who think the Colorado court is right are pretty sure the U.S. Supreme Court is going to overturn it. And many of them are also arguing that even if the Colorado court is right on the facts and on its interpretation of the Amendment – and I think they are – it would still be better to defeat Trump’s authoritarian extremism at the ballot box rather than in the courts.

They have a point, but I disagree. I don’t think it’s good for the country to allow a vote on its destruction and that is precisely what we get if Trump is allowed to run.  Our fundamental democracy should not be put up for a vote.

We settled this matter by putting down the rebellion in our Civil War that ended in 1865. We passed the 14th amendment after that to make sure that those who were part of an insurrection could not hold political office. We also passed it, along with the 13th and 15th, to change some of the fundamental rules of our country that were adopted in compromise with enslavers when the Constitution was first written.

We should not have to fight that battle again. The fact that we are struggling with these issues 150 years after the decisive victory over the rebel states in the Civil War is due to our politicians and our courts not following through on either Reconstruction or those three significant amendments that expand the rights of all Americans. Continue reading “Insurrectionists and the Supreme Court”

Shakespeare is Another Country

For a couple of months, my younger brother and I have been having a discussion about Shakespeare. It is not acrimonious, but there is some increasing frustration on both sides. On my side–well, Shakespeare is not my favorite writer, but he’s right up there, and I enjoy his work and particularly enjoy it because, in the course of my education, I learned something of the world in which it was written–his influences, his commercial competitors, the world in which he was writing. Also: I’m a big nerd, and knowing this stuff makes me happy.

My brother–at the age of 68–is wrestling with Shakespeare, and seems to be increasingly frustrated, maybe even irritated, that he’s not getting it. “Why does he have to write like that? It’s incomprehensible!” My brother is a smart guy. He’s also the kind of guy who reads the Bible for fun, and he does not shy away from archaic language (for my money I’d rather read Shakespeare–the plots make more sense). But he seems to run aground with William S.

I’m visiting my brother and his wife, and last night coming back from a very nice joint birthday dinner–we’re both December babies–the subject of Shakespeare came up. “Well, why the hell did he write in verse? People don’t speak like that.” “I just don’t get the language.” “It’s just incomprehensible!!!” The more we talked, the more frustrated we both got. I pointed out to him that Shakespeare may not be his cup of tea, and there’s no dishonor in that. He counters with the fact–which I don’t deny–that thousands of people over more than 400 years have found Shakespeare’s plays, and his poetry, compelling. So why doesn’t he? “What am I not getting!”

The problem, as I see it, is that my brother wants Shakespeare to write differently, in order to be more accessible to him. Shakespeare, having been dead for more than 400 years, is unlikely to do this.

Shakespeare was writing for an audience that expected plays to be in verse. He was writing for an audience that shared what my husband calls CBK: common body of knowledge. He was writing in a unique political and social time (writing, say, the Henry tetralogy–Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V–took some fancy dancing, because any part of it could have been taken as a criticism of the reigning queen, Elizabeth, who necessarily took a dim view of stories about nobles usurping power from monarchs to become monarchs themselves. Criticism of the reigning queen could be terminally hazardous to your health). He was writing in dialogue with his contemporaries, particularly with Kit Marlowe. He was writing for an audience that was a mix of upper and lower class, educated and not so educated, and so he mixed up the high and low in all of his plays. He was writing for a culture that–while largely non-literate–enjoyed getting punch-drunk on words as well as plot, and admired a well-turned phrase. He was not writing plays he expected to outlive him, certainly not to become part of the spine of English literature. And I suspect that, if Shakespeare could put his prickly writer’s ego aside (we all have them, honestly) he might have told my brother “not everyone is gonna like everything I write, and that’s cool.” (Though he doubtless would have said it better).

If my brother is unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to become or pretend to be part of one of those constituencies, then maybe Shakespeare really is not for him, and not all his “but I should understand” protestations will change that. Thinking of this last night after our conversation, I realized that he reminded me of a woman I roomed with in Paris on my first visit abroad. A middle-aged teacher from Ohio, she had very adventurously decided to come to Europe on her own, and she was very excited to be there. But every night, for the three nights I shared a room with her, she complained about the French. No one was speaking English. “I know they know how. At least some of them must. But no one even tries.” I attempted to point out that it was their country, English was not their language, and it was… odd to expect that they would speak it to her regardless. Even odder to feel that the French were deliberately being difficult in not doing so.* Increasingly, my brother sounds like he feels that Shakespeare was deliberately being difficult by being, well, Shakespeare.

I don’t think there’s any way I can help him with that.

* I found, on that trip and subsequent trips, that if I made a good faith effort to speak at least a little of the language of a country I was visiting, it engendered a great amount of goodwill (the Greeks positively glowed when I tried out my 10-15 phrases in Greek when I was there). This includes the French, who have always suffered my attempts to speak their language with patience and good humor.

Not-Christmas and not-weather (mostly, sorta)

At this time of year I hear a lot about snow and sleet and the need for egg nogs to get through winter cold and gloom, and it’s very tempting to counter this with stories of the flooding in Northern Queensland and the heat and the incoming storms. The incoming storms today might mean we have a tolerable weekend, which is very important for those who are having big parties over said weekend. The storms, when they’re over, will be good for me because I am not a summer heat kind of person.

I want to talk about the weather for about two hours, because I’m in the mood for it, but I shall stop here, because I’m so very kind. Also because I would like people to give me merely a paragraph on the state of winter darkness before moving on to more interesting topics in their own writings in this season. If I would like this then I should give you a mere paragraph on summer heat before moving on.

So… let me talk about the weekend. Weekends are always good to talk about.
I’ve been advised to avoid all the places where there are marches for this whole season, because there is often a component of people in those marches who are not entirely safe for anyone Jewish, so I have already done most things for the next week. I do not need to go to shops or near big streets where folks demonstrate politically.

This time of year is mostly a period of intense work for me, with a few really, really nice exceptions. 2023 is classic for me in this regard.

School and university (except for research students who don’t do Christmas) have already finished for the year. Both the calendar year and the academic year, in fact. We’re about to get the annual shutdown of most things. Everyone’s frantically preparing or on a plane to somewhere cool – I mean the latter literally. So many of my friends are heading north into winter.

This year, because I can see friends if we’re all careful (I’m COVID-vulnerable) I will have visits from friends who are on holiday but not headed north. I have chocolate to feed them, in case it’s too hot to cook. Much chocolate will be consumed. I’m thinking of getting some mint and making big jugs of iced tea (without sugar, because Australians are not so big on sweet things, on the whole) but that will have to start next week. I refuse to encounter crowds just for mint.

I celebrate Christmas for the same friends who celebrate my New Year. We’re kinda extended family for each other. I’ve already made sure that two lots of presents and some very nice port is at their place, because while they cook, I will finish a chapter. My personal race with time is that chapter – if I complete it I get the afternoon and evening of 24 December off.

That morning is the last market day in the year and I’m going to the market with one of my friends to make sure we have all the things needed both for the dinner and for the few days after. Me, I’m making sure there are lots of cherries. Cherries are so important for the whole end-of-year period. When I was in Canada for Christmas/New Year people had poinsettias, which weren’t the same at all. Mind you, they also had snow. Which was, of course, exotic.

If the weather is nice, we’ll be outside. If it’s not, we’ll be inside with air monitoring and tiny portable air purifiers. It’s perfectly possible to have nice events with the COVID-vulnerable. We proved it last year and we’re doing it again this. I’m hoping for outside for most of it, however, because a summer day with children is better outdoors. I like the years we go down to the lake and picnic and the black swans come to investigate all the presents, but this year we’re staying home. This means that when I am nicely relaxed and have eaten too much I can wander home and do some work, so that is good, too.

Unlike much of the US, Canberra does a pretty thorough shut-down over Christmas. This means no tradition of Chinese restaurants for anyone Jewish.

What I sometimes do in its stead these days is host an online chat with friends about the Toledoth Yeshuah. 25 December then is a big working day for me, except for an occasional detour via that really interesting by-product of antisemitism. The Toledoth came into being because of other times like this, and it’s interesting to see how we dealt with this stuff (culturally) in times past. So I will be exploring it, but unless anyone asks, I’ll explore it alone. It’s not a comfortable text, nor a comfortable tradition. Hate hurts.

Boxing Day is different. This year it will be my father’s 100th birthday. He died when I was 26, but I miss him and want to celebrate anyhow. I’m just 2 years younger now than he was when he died, which is, I admit, sobering. Friends are coming round to toast him during the day, but only a few friends. I shall watch a really bad comedy he enjoyed, or maybe one of his favourite Doctor Who sequences… I’ll decide on the day.

In my evening, which is morning in Europe and the day before in the US and Canada, I’ll open up a Zoom room where anyone who is at a loose end can drop in and tell bad jokes in honour of my father and generally catch up. If you would like a link to the room, contact me in the next few days and I’ll send it the moment it’s live. Waiting til the last minute means if I am unwell, which happens, I can sneak in some rest and start a bit later. I’m looking at beginning around 8 pm AEST (Australian Eastern Summer Time, which is UTC/GMT+11) and continuing for as long as there are friends who want to hang out.

Let me know if you’d like to be part of anything I do online during this time.

Also, I’d love to know what other people do over the long weekend, if they don’t have a regular Christmas for whatever reason. I’d love to hear about other kinds of Christmas!

What’s in a Word?

I have a poem coming out in the near future at Strange Horizons (pause for congratulations – thank you, thank you) and because they also do a podcast, I read it aloud to my writers group so they could point out any snags in the way I read before I record it.

One of the lines references a grand-jeté, a ballet move. When I read it, I was thinking of both pronouncing it well in French — difficult, because despite years of studying French, my accent is poor — and making it understandable. I suspect I failed at both, because almost everyone mentioned it.

And it was also clear that some in my group didn’t know what a grand-jeté was. It appears that not everyone was forced into ballet classes as a small child.

I first took up ballet because the doctor recommended it due to my weak ankles. It was not a successful form of exercise, since the ballet teacher put me in toe shoes even though I was six, which probably did even more damage to my ankles.

I took ballet again when my sister did, for reasons that are no longer clear to me, though I eschewed the toe shoes and recitals. In truth, even had I been more physically talented — and while I am a person who needs a lot of physical activity, I am not especially talented at it — I had absolutely the wrong body type for ballet.

I am too tall, too large-boned, and at what is a good weight for my body type, far too fat. My height is in my torso, so my legs are relatively short. I’m not very flexible.

Ballet is rigid in many respects, despite the need for dancers to be flexible. Only certain body types need apply, especially when it comes to women. It is certainly unforgiving. And it tears up bodies, particularly women’s bodies, at about the same pace as American football does men’s.

While I have enjoyed watching ballet, I prefer modern dance, which has more respect for the human body in all its diversity. Modern dancers continue dancing into old age; ballet dancers quit in their 30s.

All that said, I have always wanted to be able to do a grand-jeté, which is a great leap in the air with the legs in a split. It looks like flying. It is a glorious move. And landing, particularly in toe shoes, requires great balance.

But none of that is what dawned on me when people commented on the reading. What dawned on me is that I assumed everyone knew what a grand-jeté was.

And they don’t. Continue reading “What’s in a Word?”

Planets and Nebulae and Stars, Oh My!

An embarrassment of riches of science articles:

Want to Find Life? Compare a Planet to its Neighbors

With thousands of known exoplanets and tens of thousands likely to be discovered in the coming decades, it could be only a matter of time before we discover a planet with life. The trick is proving it. So far the focus has been on observing the atmospheric composition of exoplanets, looking for molecular biosignatures that would indicate the presence of life. But this can be difficult since many of the molecules produced by life on Earth could also be produced by geologic processes. A new study argues that a better approach would be to compare the atmospheric composition of a potentially habitable world with those of other planets in the star system.

Since planets form within the debris disk of a young star, they will generally have similar compositions. Because of the migration of certain molecules such as water ice, the outer planets can have a slightly different composition than the inner planets, but overall their composition is similar. For this study, the team looked at the abundance of atmospheric carbon among worlds.

Carbon is not just a primary element for life on Earth, it also absorbs readily in water and can be bound geologically in rocks. So the idea is that if an exoplanet is in the potentially habitable zone of a star and has significantly less atmospheric carbon than similar worlds in its system, then that is a strong indicator of the presence of water and organic life. Take our solar system as an example. Earth, Venus, and Mars are all roughly in the habitable zone of the Sun, but both Venus and Mars have atmospheres comprised mostly of carbon dioxide. In contrast, Earth has an atmosphere of mostly nitrogen and oxygen, and only a fraction of a percent of carbon dioxide. Earth’s atmospheric carbon is so dramatically different from that of Venus and Mars that it stands out as a likely inhabited world.

The Crab Reveals Its Secrets To JWSTThe Crab Nebula – otherwise known as the first object on Charles Messier’s list of non-cometary objects or M1 for short

It has been known that there is a pulsar at the core of the nebula, and it’s this pulsar that is the true remains of the progenitor star.  When it went ‘supernova,’ the core collapsed to form the ultra-dense rotating object that, if you happen to be in the right place in space (hey, that rhymes), then you will see a pulse of radiation as it rotates. The infrared images from JWST reveal synchrotron emissions, which are a direct result of the rapidly rotating pulsar.  As the pulsar rotates, the magnetic field accelerates particles in the nebula to astonishingly high speeds such that they emit synchrotron radiation. As a fabulously lucky quirk of nature, the radiation is particularly obvious in infrared, making it ideal for JWST. 


Uranus Has Infrared Auroras, Too

Auroras happen when charged particles in the solar wind and near-planet environment get trapped by a planet’s magnetic field. They funnel down to the atmosphere and collide with gas molecules. This happens on Earth and we see auroras over the north and south poles of our planet. They also happen at other planets. Astronomers detect them on the other giant planets, and a smaller version of them occurs on Mars. Venus probably doesn’t experience similar types of auroral displays, since it has no intrinsic magnetic field. However, it may experience something like them during particularly gusty solar wind events. At the outer planets, the gas mix is different in the atmospheres. That means their aurorae show up in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths.

Uranus has an interesting magnetic field. It does not originate from the exact center of the planet. It’s also offset by 59 degrees from the rotation axis. That’s tipped 90 degrees from the plane of the solar system. This arrangement means that the Uranian magnetosphere is asymmetric and its field strengths vary depending on location. It connects with the solar wind once every Uranian day (which is 17 hours long). The planet does show some auroral activity, particularly around the poles and Hubble Space Telescope detected some in 2011

Three Planets Around this Sunlike Star are Doomed. Doomed!According to new research we can start writing the eulogy for four exoplanets around a Sun-like star about 57 light years away. But there’s no hurry; we have about one billion years before the star becomes a red giant and starts to destroy them.

The star is Rho Coronae Borealis, a yellow dwarf star like our Sun. It’s in the constellation Corona Borealis, and has almost the same mass, radius, and luminosity as the Sun. The difference is in their ages. The Sun is about five billion years old, but Rho CrB is twice that, which means its red giant phase is imminent, at least in astrophysical terms.

Post main sequence stellar evolution can result in dramatic, and occasionally traumatic, alterations to the planetary system architecture, such as tidal disruption of planets and engulfment by the host star,” Kane writes. Rho Coronae Borealis is both old and bright, making it “… a particularly interesting case of advanced main sequence evolution,” according to Kane. Not only because its similar to the Sun and easily observed, but also because it hosts four exoplanets.


White Dwarfs Could Support Life. So Where are All Their Planets?

Astronomers have found plenty of white dwarf stars surrounded by debris disks. Those disks are the remains of planets destroyed by the star as it evolved. But they’ve found one intact Jupiter-mass planet orbiting a white dwarf.

Are there more white dwarf planets? Can terrestrial, Earth-like planets exist around white dwarfs?

A white dwarf (WD) is the stellar remnant of a once much-larger main sequence star like our Sun. When a star in the same mass range as our Sun leaves the main sequence, it swells up and becomes a red giant. As the red giant ages and runs out of nuclear fuel, it sheds its outer layers as a planetary nebula, a shimmering veil of expanding ionized gas that everybody’s seen in Hubble images. After about 10,000 years, the planetary nebula dissipates, and all that’s left is a white dwarf, alone in the center of all that disappearing glory.

White dwarfs are extremely dense and massive, but only about as large as Earth. They’ve left their life of fusion behind, and emit only residual heat. But still, heat is heat, and white dwarfs can have habitable zones, though they’re very close.

Astronomers are pretty certain that most stars have planets. But those planets are in peril when they orbit a star that leaves the main sequence behind and becomes a red giant. That can wreak havoc on planets, consuming some of them and tearing others apart by tidal disruption. Some white dwarfs are surrounded by debris disks, and they can only be the remains of the star’s planets, ripped to pieces by the star during its red dwarf stage.

But in 2020 researchers announced the discovery of an intact planet among the debris disk in the habitable zone around the white dwarf WD1054-226. If there’s one, there are almost certainly others out there somewhere. Why haven’t we found them? And does the fact that the first one we’ve found is a Jupiter-mass planet mean the WD exoplanet population is dominated by them?

Old Data from Kepler Turns Up A System with Seven PlanetsNASA’s Kepler mission ended in 2018 after more than nine years of fruitful planet-hunting. The space telescope discovered thousands of planets, many of which bear its name. But it also generated an enormous amount of data that exoplanet scientists are still analyzing.

Kepler 385 is similar to the Sun but a little larger and hotter. It’s 10% larger and about 5% hotter. It’s one of a very small number of stars with more than six planets or planet candidates orbiting it.

The two innermost planets are both slightly larger than Earth. According to the new catalogue, they’re both probably rocky. They may even have atmospheres, though if they do, they’re very thin. The remaining five planets have radii about twice as large as Earth’s and likely have thick atmospheres.

On Smiling and on Adjectives

I posted this on Facebook today:

How do I know it’s Chanukah? Because a child has stood in my little corridor, looking at the door of the linen cupboard very intently. As soon as I make myself known, I am asked “May I open the door?”

“No,” I say. ” You will be disappointed if you open the door. Look what the sign says ‘Narnia is not behind this door.'”

One of the less-talked-about differences between being part of an accepted majority culture and of being of a minority one (whether accepted or not accepted, safe or not safe) is that we all have shared jokes and winces with majority culture folks. Think about how deep Christmas resonances are from now. In fact, from two weeks ago. Think now of how few and very limited the resonances are for Chanukah… if you’re in the US. If you’re in Australia they’re fewer and mostly private. There isn’t a broad shared Jewish culture of any kind in Australia that is not mediated by Christian mainstream culture.

What this means in terms of our everyday is that we have to build those resonances, one step at a time. For me, my resonances for Chanukah include inviting children over and making latkes with them, teaching them how to invent their own rules for dredel (because that’s what my family did when we were young) and so forth. But they also experience my flat in a different way to other visits. Because Chanukah is so enmeshed with experience and fun, they look at things and see things and want to ask questions.

I put that sign on my linen cupboard years ago. I’ve influenced it in my fiction. I’ve told people about it. And yet, even with children who have visited before and know things very well, when they reach a certain age (about Lucy’s age, actually, when she first goes through a door into Narnia) they see that sign on the door and ask the question.

This year A (the child in question) snuck back later and checked out the cupboard. If he tells his family about it and it comes back to me, the question will be whether it is always a linen cupboard. This is what happened when his older sister tried the door a few years ago. His little sister is reading Harry Potter for the first time by herself, so she will have Opinions. It will become a part of “What happens at Gillian’s every Chanukah.” Because he checked it alone, I couldn’t pose that question. They are all asking each other, now, “Did you see the sign? Did you open the door?” The interactions after that and with me are always different, but they’ve become a normal and wonderful part of Chanukah.

Some of the cool things we do because we’re not surrounded by people who do the things we do can be very special. The relationship my adopted nieces and nephews have with this single door is one of the most special of all. It fits in nicely with a chat I had with other friends, later that night. None of the tidy and often accusatory label that are thrown my way fit me at all. I am not, as some of my students used to explain, an adjective: I am a human being. That notice on that door is one of the bits of my life that proclaims this. Anyone who doesn’t see the notice or dream about it at all, is missing some of the best parts of my life.

Another discussion we all have every year is why the spelling of a single word can vary so much. And another, a more adult one, is why the politics of a particular bit of land were so fraught just before 167 BCE. No-one asked why I always tangle the Hasmoneans with their predecessors, which is simply because I am dreadful at names.

Complexity is I herent in Jewish life. These small things are the everyday complexity, like not being able to safely wear anything in public that indicates I’m Jewish. The questions of children and the passionate argument about spelling are so much better than some of the ways we are told to be and to think as Jews.

This coming year, when anyone tells me who I am and what I think because they know so much more about my Jewish self than I could possibly do, I shall think of my honorary nephew, standing outside that cupboard door and wondering if it really could lead to Narnia. And I shall smile with the happy memory. And anyone who genuinely thinks of me as an adjective and not a person will see that smile and be unsettled. My smile will be like that sign on the door. It might lead where the unsettled person thinks, but …

In Praise of Taylor Swift

I have become a fan of the Taylor Swift phenomenon.

This is not fandom in the classic sense. I am in no way a Swiftie. I’ve never seen her perform; in fact, I’d be hard-pressed to recognize one of her songs.

But I love it that she has this huge fan base among women and girls, so huge that she was just named Time’s Person of the Year. And while I’m sure she has fans of other genders as well, even male ones, it is the joy I observe among women that makes this so satisfying.

The point at which I realized Swift was a big deal was when I heard her discussed on podcasts with women lawyers and law professors. These lawyers were going to her shows, some with their daughters, some on their own.

I’m talking about the kind of lawyers who teach constitutional law, which is about as high-powered as you get academically in the legal profession. Women who are up and coming academic powerhouses are not only Swifties, but not afraid to trumpet their fandom.

When I think about how careful the women lawyers of my generation were, especially the ones who aspired to judgeships and high academic posts, I am agog. These women are demanding that you pay attention to their legal thinking and at the same time they’re the embodiment of Cyndi Lauper’s great song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

It thrills me to see it, much in the same way that the Barbie movie thrilled me. Like Swift, Barbie is not really my thing, but the combination of feminism and sheer joy in that movie – a movie about a major commercial toy! – was so damn refreshing.

And since we are still living in capitalistic times, it is worth pointing out that both Swift and the movie make money – big money – out of performances that are squarely aimed at women and girls. Continue reading “In Praise of Taylor Swift”