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10 Mysterious Biblical Figures No One Can Explain






listverse.com

The canonical Bible is filled with mysterious characters, many of whom drop in for a cameo, do their thing, and then slide out, never to be heard from again. Some are merely extras, but some have a contextual presence that begs further examination. And some are, well, just weird.

10  Melchizedek

01
 

Probably the single most mysterious figure in the Bible, Melchizedek was a priest-king of Salem (later known as Jerusalem) in the time of Abram (Abraham), suggesting a religious organization, complete with ritual and hierarchy, that predated the Jewish nation and their priestly lineage from the tribe of Levi. He is only portrayed as active in one passage, although he is alluded to once in Psalms, and several times in the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews.
Some Jewish disciplines insist that Melchizedek was Shem, Noah’s son. He is thought of, in Christian circles, as a proto-messiah, embodying certain traits later given to Christ. New Testament writings assert that Christ was “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek,” indicating an older and deeper covenant with God than the Abrahamic-Levite lineage.
Hebrews 7, though presents him in a more unusual light. In verses 3 and 4:
“Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.”
Not only do these verses grant Melchizedek a hierarchical level above the most important Jewish patriarch, they assign him mystical qualities. Some take this to mean an earlier incarnation of Christ. Others see it as an ancient manifestation of the Holy Spirit. His identity, role, and theological function have long been debated.
The paucity of scriptural references have added to the mystery, making him a somewhat spectral figure. As such, newer spiritual traditions, as well as New Age quacks, have taken liberties with his persona. Gnostics insisted he became Jesus, and he is cited as a high-level priest in Masonic and Rosicrucian lore. Joseph Smith wrote that he was the greatest of all prophets, and Mormons still trace their priesthood back to him. The Urantia, a 20th-century pseudo-Bible that claims to merge religion, philosophy, and science, insists he’s the first in an evolutionary succession of deification manifestations, with Abraham being his first convert.
There is even a school of thought that Melchizedek is a title or assumed character name, sort of a theological 007, played by a series of Judeo-Christian James Bonds. 

The lore of Melchizedek is confusing but deep and fascinating. Apocryphal books give us more details, some cryptic, some relatively mundane. The Second Book of Enoch is particularly informative, insisting Melchizedek was born of a Virgin. When his mother Sophonim (the wife of Noah’s brother Nir) died in childbirth, he sat up, clothed himself, and sat beside her corpse, praying and preaching. After 40 days, he was taken by an archangel to the Garden of Eden, protected by angels and avoiding the Great Flood without passage on Uncle Noah’s ark.

9  Cain’s Wife

02
 

Cain was, according to Genesis, the first human ever born. He later killed his younger brother Abel in a hissy fit over his sacrifice of meat being more favored than Cain’s sacrificial fruit basket. God put a mark on Cain and cursed the ground he farmed, forcing him into a life as a wandering fugitive. 

That part of the story is fairly well known. Later, though, we read that he settled in the Land of Nod, and, all of a sudden, he has a wife. Absolutely nothing else is mentioned about her. We don’t even know where she came from. In fact, the question of where Cain got his wife, when his immediate family were apparently the only people in the world, has sent many a perceptive young Sunday schooler down the road of skepticism. 

Some have posited a mysterious other tribe of people, maybe created after Adam and Eve, maybe even another race or species. But the standard response is that Adam and Eve had many other sons and daughters to populate the Earth. The only way to keep the human race going would be to mate with siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins. 

In fact, though the Holy Bible is silent on her identity, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees tells us exactly who was Cain’s wife: his sister Awan, who bore his son Enoch.

8  Joseph Barsabbas

03
 

After Judas Iscariot turned in his resignation by selling out his boss, Jesus’s disciples rushed to fill the open position and bring the number back up to a more theologically apt 12. The remaining disciples, including the newly convinced Thomas, looked over the candidates from the 120 or so adherents who followed Jesus. Then they cast lots to pick who would fill the position. 

It went to Matthias, a fairly mysterious character himself. We don’t know where he came from or his previous occupation. Some think he was actually the diminutive Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbed a sycamore tree to get a better glimpse of Jesus’s ride on the donkey.
The man who lost out was Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Joseph Justus. We know nothing solid about him, even less than we know about Matthias.
There is, however, one bit of interesting speculation. A list of names presented in Mark 6:3 includes some of Christ’s earliest and most loyal adherents. One of these is a man named Joses, and another is James the Just. Biblical scholar Robert Eisenman suggests that James carried on Jesus’s work, and the writer of the Book of Acts assigned him an alias to minimize his importance.

7  The Beloved Disciple

04
 

In the Gospel of John, several references are made to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This particular favorite is present at the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and after the resurrection. The writer of the Gospel of John even states that the testimony of this disciple is the basis for the text. But there is considerable debate over the identity of this mystery figure.
The most obvious nominee is John the Apostle, one of Christ’s inner circle of 12 and the namesake of the Gospel. But none of the 12 apostles were present at the crucifixion, so that crosses him off the list. Lazarus, resurrected by Christ, is also considered. He seems to have been present at the cited events and is referred to specifically, in the story of His death and resurrection, as “he whom Thou lovest.”
Mary Magdalene, Judas, Jesus’s brother James, or an unnamed disciple, possibly even a Roman or governmental official, have all been considered. There is even a school of thought that John is an interactive gospel, with the reader being the beloved disciple.

6  Simon Magus

05
 

“Simony” is the selling of church position or privilege. It is named for Simon Magus, or Simon the Magician, who makes only a brief appearance in the Bible, in Acts 8:9–24. Simon has since become synonymous with heretical thought, and religious exploitation.
He is presented as a powerful magician with a large following of in Samaria, who converts to Christianity and wishes to learn from apostles Peter and Phillip. When he sees the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues and an ecstatic spiritual state, he offers the men money if they will give him the secret to passing these gifts to others. They are not amused.
Apocryphal texts reveal quite a bit more, like his alleged ability to levitate and even fly, emphasizing that he was something akin to a cult leader in his hometown. It is suggested that his conversion is more for economic purposes than spiritual, and he set himself up as a messianic figure himself, competing for the Jesus dollar with his own homespun theology.
He is thought by some to be a founder of Gnosticism, a patchwork of various religious systems that relied heavily on Judaic and Christian symbolism.

5  Onan

06
 

Not unlike Simon Magus, Onan’s brief appearance inspired a name for a particular action.
He was the second son of Abraham’s grandson Judah, the patriarch and namesake of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. His older brother, Er (yes, just “Er”) was “wicked in the sight of the Lord,” so God killed him. What he did to deserve such an execution remains a mystery.
Tradition at the time dictated that Er’s widow, Tamar, become Onan’s wife. Onan had to impregnate her to keep the lineage alive, but he was not as wild about the idea. Maybe it was the thought of impending fatherhood, or Tamar just wasn’t his type. So, taking matters into his own hands, he committed the first recorded act of coitus interruptus. Or, as Genesis 38:9 so poetically put it: “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.” God was displeased and slew Onan.
The whole tale gets even more sordid. Onan had a younger brother, Shelah. Customarily, he would have been next in line to impregnate Tamar, but Judah forbade it. Tamar, rather than graciously accepting forced spinsterhood, seduced Judah and (became pregnant) by the old man. Judah fathered twins Zerah and Perez, the latter of whom was listed by Matthew as an ancestor of Jesus’s earthly father Joseph...
Some have even suggested that Onan’s death warns that sex is meant only for purposes of reproduction, and not for pleasure.

4  Nicodemus

07
 

Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of men who ruled on Jewish law and governance. He became a friend, follower, and intellectual foil for Jesus, whose egalitarian teachings often ran counter to the Sanhedrin’s rigid decrees. He was also a Pharisee, a leader within the Jewish community who toadied up to the Roman government at the time of Christ’s arrest and subsequent crucifixion.
He is mentioned three times in the New Testament, all in the Gospel of John. He subtly defends Jesus as the Pharisees discuss His impending arrest. Later, he helps prepare Jesus’s body for burial, indicating he had become an adherent to Christ and His teachings.
The first time he is mentioned, however, is in dialogue with Jesus, and these conversations reveal some of the most important aspects of Christian theology, such as the notion of being “born again” and the most famous reference to the divinity of Christ, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This detailed conversation explores the divide between the Old Covenant’s dogmatic and exclusive Jewish Law and the New Covenant’s spiritually inclusive concepts. But for a vital contributor to such an important passage of the New Testament, Nicodemus remains a mysterious figure. Some scholars have suggested he may be Nicodemus ben Gurion, a Talmudic figure of wealth and mystical power. Christian tradition suggest he was martyred, and he is venerated as a saint. His name has come to be synonymous with seekers of the truth and is used as a character in many works of biblically inspired fiction.

3  James The Just

08
 

He is considered, next to Paul and Peter, the most important apostolic figure in the Church’s history. The Book of Acts specifically names him the head of the Christian church in Jerusalem, and he is frequently cited, both scripturally and apocryphally, as being consulted by both Paul and Peter. So who is he?
Traditionally, he is thought of as Jesus’s brother (or, more precisely, His half-brother). Jesus is listed, in the Gospels, as having siblings, some younger than Him. One was named James.
But James was a common name, and there are several mentioned in the Bible. Two of the 12 disciples were named James, but both are listed as having different fathers than Jesus, and neither went on to become James the Just. James the son of Zebedee went on to be known as James the Great, and James the son of Alphaeus was called James the Less.
It is known that he was a contemporary of Jesus, although he seems to have had no real inner-circle status during Christ’s ministry. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas says Christ Himself designated James to lead the movement upon His death. The Apostle Paul initially seems respectful, even subservient, to “James the Lord’s brother,” calling him a “pillar” of the movement, even though he was later to disagree with him on matters of doctrine.
Some, though, have suggested the “brother” designation was spiritual, rather than physical. St. Jerome, among others, suggested that the doctrine of perpetual virginity indicated James could be a cousin, which, given the tribal associations and clannishness of the Jewish community of the time, seems valid. Such a relationship would indicate a certain social proximity without necessarily being a true sibling.

2  Simon The Zealot

09
 

Of Christ’s 12 disciples, none are more mysterious than Simon the Zealot. His name was meant to differentiate him from Simon Peter and has come to symbolize, for some, that he was a member of a similarly named political movement that advocated Jewish defiance to Roman law. Some have speculated that he acted, within Christ’s inner circle, as a political adviser. His presence then indicated that Jesus had a revolutionary political agenda.
The truth is much less exciting. The “Zealot” movement did not take place until long after the time that Christ would have given Simon his sobriquet, and there has never been any serious evidence that Simon, despite the designation, was a political radical. The name, and the word upon which it is based, did not take on those aggressive undertones until the movement itself was in full swing. More than likely, Simon was given his name because of intense spiritual devotion, rather than any radical political stance.
Nothing else is known of him, at least not with any surety. The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions him as possibly being a brother or cousin of Jesus, with no real evidence. The Eastern Orthodox tradition says he developed his zeal when Jesus attended his wedding and changed water into wine. Some legends say he was martyred; the philosopher Justus Lipsius somehow got it into his head that he was sawed in half.

1  Og

10
 

Cited twice specifically, but alluded to frequently in general terms, the Nephilim were a race of violent giants that lived in the pre-Flood world at the same time as humanity. Were they, as some suggest, the offspring of demons and human women? Fallen angels themselves? Or simply the descendants of Seth mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls, a tribe of cranky cases cursed by God for their rebelliousness? Regardless, they evolved and became known by other names, like the Raphaim, and frequently battled humans for land and power.
The most storied of them was Og, the King of Bashan. He was killed, along with his entire army, and his kingdom was ransacked. All of the survivors—men, women, and children—were put to death, and the strongest and most powerful line of Nephilim descendants was eliminated. Some Nephilim bloodlines continued to do battle with the Israelites, though they were becoming less powerful and dying out. One tribe, the Anakim, allied themselves with the human tribes in Philistia. Goliath was thought to have been one of the last few descendants of the Nephilim.
Goliath’s height is given in the earliest manuscripts as 275 centimeters (9′). That’s hardly as awe-inspiring as the creature laying in Og’s bed, which measured, according to Deuteronomy, 400 centimeters (13′ 6″). That’s basically Yao Ming sitting on Shaquille O’Neal’s shoulders.
Biblically, descendants of the Nephilim could not have survived the Flood, even though Og and other giants are post-Flood figures. Some biblical literalists have attributed their later existence to the descendants of Noah’s family hooking up, once again, with demons. Or, being fallen angels and not human, they did survive the flood.
Jewish tradition gets deeper into information about the Nephilim and their descendants, going against the grain of the biblical account. It tells of Og booking passage on the Ark by promising to act as a slave to Noah and his family. Other accounts have him hanging on to the side of the Ark and riding the flood out rodeo-style.

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New Religion and Science Study Reveals ‘Post-Seculars’ Reject Evolution





Excerpt from huffingtonpost.com

(RNS) Meet the “Post-Seculars” — the one in five Americans who no one seems to have noticed before in endless rounds of debates pitting science vs. religion.

They’re more strongly religious than most “Traditionals” (43 percent of Americans) and more scientifically knowledgeable than “Moderns” (36 percent) who stand on science alone, according to two sociologists’ findings in a new study.

“We were surprised to find this pretty big group (21 percent) who are pretty knowledgeable and appreciative about science and technology but who are also very religious and who reject certain scientific theories,” said Timothy O’Brien, co-author of the research study, released Thursday (Jan. 29) in the American Sociological Review.

Put another way, there’s a sizable chunk of Americans out there who are both religious and scientifically minded but who break with both packs when faith and science collide.

Post-Seculars pick and choose among science and religion views to create their own “personally compelling way of understanding the world,” said O’Brien, assistant professor at University of Evansville in Indiana.

O’Brien and co-author Shiri Noy, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Wyoming, examined responses from 2,901 people to 18 questions on knowledge of and attitudes toward science, and four religion-related questions in the General Social Surveys conducted in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Many findings fit the usual way the science-religion divide is viewed:

— Moderns, who stand on reason, scored high on scientific knowledge and scored lowest on religion questions regarding biblical authority and the strength of their religious ties.

— Traditionals, who lean toward religion, scored lower on science facts and were least likely to agree that “the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results.”

However, the data turned up a third perspective – people who defied the familiar breakdown. The authors dubbed them “Post-Secular” to jump past a popular theory that Americans are moving way from religion to become more secular, O’Brien said.

Post-Seculars — about half of whom identify as conservative Protestants — know facts such as how lasers work, what antibiotics do and the way genetics affect inherited illnesses.

But when it comes to three main areas where science and Christian-centric religious views conflict — on human evolution, the Big Bang origin of the universe and the age of the Earth — Post-Seculars break away from the pack with very significantly different views from Traditionals and Moderns.

Areas where the factions are clear:

graphic

The universe began with a huge explosion:
Traditional: 21 percent
Modern: 68 percent
Post Secular: 6 percent

Human beings developed from earlier species of animals:
Traditional: 33 percent
Modern: 88 percent
Post-Secular: 3 percent

The continents have been moving for millions of years and will move in the future:
Traditional: 66 percent
Modern: 98 percent
Post-Secular: 80 percent

“Post-Seculars are smart. They know what scientists think. They just don’t agree on some key issues, and that has impact on their political views,” said O’Brien.

When the authors looked at views on the authority of the Bible and how strongly people said they were affiliated with their religion, Post-Seculars put the most faith in Scripture and were much more inclined to say they were strongly religious. And where science and faith conflict on hot-button issues, they side with the religious perspective.

For example, Moderns are the most supportive of embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights for women, but Post-Seculars, who are nonetheless largely positive about science and society, are more skeptical in both areas, O’Brien said.

Candidates running in the 2016 elections might take note.

Where people fall in these three groups can predict their attitudes on political issues where science and religion both have claims, O’Brien said, even after accounting for the usual suspects — social class, political ideology or church attendance.

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Robots Can Learn to Perform Tasks by “Watching” YouTube Videos


https://i1.wp.com/www.darpa.mil/uploadedImages/Content/NewsEvents/Releases/2015/MSEEresearchers.png?resize=640%2C428
University of Maryland computer scientist Yiannis Aloimonos (center) is developing robotic systems able to visually recognize objects and generate new behavior based on those observations. DARPA is funding this research through its Mathematics of Sensing, Exploitation and Execution (MSEE) program. (University of Maryland Photo)

From darpa.mil

January 29, 2015

DARPA program advances robots’ ability to sense visual information and turn it into action  

Robots can learn to recognize objects and patterns fairly well, but to interpret and be able to act on visual input is much more difficult.  Researchers at the University of Maryland, funded by DARPA’s Mathematics of Sensing, Exploitation and Execution (MSEE) program, recently developed a system that enabled robots to process visual data from a series of “how to” cooking videos on YouTube. Based on what was shown on a video, robots were able to recognize, grab and manipulate the correct kitchen utensil or object and perform the demonstrated task with high accuracy—without additional human input or programming.  

“The MSEE program initially focused on sensing, which involves perception and understanding of what’s happening in a visual scene, not simply recognizing and identifying objects,” said Reza Ghanadan, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Offices. “We’ve now taken the next step to execution, where a robot processes visual cues through a manipulation action-grammar module and translates them into actions.”

Another significant advance to come out of the research is the robots’ ability to accumulate and share knowledge with others. Current sensor systems typically view the world anew in each moment, without the ability to apply prior knowledge.

“This system allows robots to continuously build on previous learning—such as types of objects and grasps associated with them—which could have a huge impact on teaching and training,” Ghanadan said. “Instead of the long and expensive process of programming code to teach robots to do tasks, this research opens the potential for robots to learn much faster, at much lower cost and, to the extent they are authorized to do so, share that knowledge with other robots. This learning-based approach is a significant step towards developing technologies that could have benefits in areas such as military repair and logistics.”

The DARPA-funded researchers presented their work today at the 29th meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. The University of Maryland paper is available here: http://ow.ly/I30im

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Elon Musk drops space plans into Seattle’s lap




Excerpt from seattletimes.com

Elon Musk thought three major trends would drive the future: the Internet, the quest for sustainable energy and space exploration. He’s got skin in all three games.

Of all the newcomers we’ve seen here lately, one of the more interesting is Elon Musk.

The famous entrepreneur isn’t going to live here, at least not yet. But earlier this month he did announce plans to bulk up an engineering center near Seattle for his SpaceX venture. The invitation-only event was held in the shadow of the Space Needle.
If the plan happens, SpaceX would join Planetary Resources and Blue Origin in a budding Puget Sound space hub. With talent from Boeing, the aerospace cluster and University of Washington, this offers fascinating potential for the region’s future.

Elon Musk sounds like the name of a character from a novel that would invariably include the sentence, “he had not yet decided whether to use his powers for good or for evil.”

He is said to have been the inspiration for the character Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the “Iron Man” movies. He’s also been compared to Steve Jobs and even Thomas Edison.

The real Musk seems like a nice-enough chap, at least based on his ubiquitous appearances in TED talks and other venues.

Even the semidishy essay in Marie Claire magazine by his first wife, Justine, is mostly about the challenge to the marriage as Musk became very rich, very young, started running with a celebrity crowd and exhibited the monomaniacal behavior common to the entrepreneurial tribe.

A native of South Africa, Musk emigrated to Canada and finally to the United States, where he received degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School. He left Stanford’s Ph.D. program in applied physics after two days to start a business.
In 1995, he co-founded Zip2, an early Internet venture for newspapers. Four years later, he co-founded what would become PayPal. With money from eBay’s acquisition of PayPal, he started SpaceX. He also invested in Tesla Motors, the electric-car company, eventually becoming chief executive. Then there’s Solar City, a major provider of solar-power systems.

Musk has said that early on he sensed three major trends would drive the future: the Internet, the quest for sustainable energy and space exploration. He’s got skin in all three games.

At age 43, Musk is seven years younger than Jeff Bezos and more than 15 years younger than Bill Gates.

His achievements haven’t come without controversy. Tesla played off several states against each other for a battery factory. Nevada, desperate to diversify its low-wage economy, won, if you can call it that.

The price tag was $1.4 billion in incentives and whether it ever pays off for the state is a big question. A Fortune magazine investigation showed Musk not merely as a visionary but also a master manipulator with a shaky deal. Musk, no shrinking violet, fired back on his blog.

SpaceX is a combination of the practical and the hyperambitious, some would say dreamy.

On the practical side, the company is one of those chosen by the U.S. government to resupply the International Space Station. Musk also hopes to put 4,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide inexpensive Internet access worldwide.

The satellite venture will be based here, with no financial incentives from the state.

But he also wants to make space travel less expensive, generate “a lot of money” through SpaceX, and eventually establish a Mars colony.

“SpaceX, or some combination of companies and governments, needs to make progress in the direction of making life multiplanetary, of establishing a base on another planet, on Mars — being the only realistic option — and then building that base up until we’re a true multiplanet species,” he said during a TED presentation.

It’s heady stuff. And attractive enough to lead Google and Fidelity Investments to commit $1 billion to SpaceX.

Also, in contrast with the “rent-seeking” and financial plays of so many of the superwealthy, Musk actually wants to create jobs and solve practical problems.

If there’s a cautionary note, it is that market forces alone can’t address many of our most serious challenges. Indeed, in some cases they make them worse.

Worsening income inequality is the work of the hidden hand, unfettered by antitrust regulation, progressive taxation, unions and protections against race-to-the-bottom globalization.

If the hidden costs of spewing more carbon into the atmosphere are not priced in, we have today’s market failure exacerbating climate change. Electric cars won’t fix that as long as the distortions favoring fossil fuels remain.

So a broken, compromised government that’s cutting research dollars and failing to invest in education and forward-leaning infrastructure is a major impediment.

The United States did not reach the moon because of a clever billionaire, but through a national endeavor to serve the public good. I know, that’s “so 20th century.” 

Also, as Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon might argue, visionaries such as Thomas Edison grabbed relatively low-hanging fruit, with electrification creating huge numbers of jobs. 

Merely recovering the lost demand of the Great Recession has proved difficult. Another electrificationlike revolution that lifts all boats seems improbable.

I’m not sure that’s true. But it will take more than Iron Man to rescue the many Americans still suffering.

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How 40,000 Tons of Cosmic Dust Falling to Earth Affects You and Me


Picture of The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi is having a "shocking" effect on the surrounding dust clouds in this infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope
In this infrared image, stellar winds from a giant star cause interstellar dust to form ripples. There's a whole lot of dust—which contains oxygen, carbon, iron, nickel, and all the other elements—out there, and eventually some of it finds its way into our bodies.
Photograph by NASA, JPL-Caltech

We have stardust in us as old as the universe—and some that may have landed on Earth just a hundred years ago.

Excerpt from National Geographic
By Simon Worrall

Astrophysics and medical pathology don't, at first sight, appear to have much in common. What do sunspots have to do with liver spots? How does the big bang connect with cystic fibrosis?
Book jacket courtesy of schrijver+schrijver

Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver, a senior fellow at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, and his wife, Iris Schrijver, professor of pathology at Stanford University, have joined the dots in a new book, Living With the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars.

Talking from their home in Palo Alto, California, they explain how everything in us originated in cosmic explosions billions of years ago, how our bodies are in a constant state of decay and regeneration, and why singer Joni Mitchell was right.

"We are stardust," Joni Mitchell famously sang in "Woodstock." It turns out she was right, wasn't she?

Iris: Was she ever! Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.

That was one of the biggest surprises for us in this book. We really didn't realize how impermanent we are, and that our bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. All the material in our bodies originates with that residual stardust, and it finds its way into plants, and from there into the nutrients that we need for everything we do—think, move, grow. And every few years the bulk of our bodies are newly created.

Can you give me some examples of how stardust formed us?

Karel: When the universe started, there was just hydrogen and a little helium and very little of anything else. Helium is not in our bodies. Hydrogen is, but that's not the bulk of our weight. Stars are like nuclear reactors. They take a fuel and convert it to something else. Hydrogen is formed into helium, and helium is built into carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, iron and sulfur—everything we're made of. When stars get to the end of their lives, they swell up and fall together again, throwing off their outer layers. If a star is heavy enough, it will explode in a supernova.

So most of the material that we're made of comes out of dying stars, or stars that died in explosions. And those stellar explosions continue. We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed here maybe only a hundred years ago. And all of that mixes in our bodies.

Picture of the remnants of a star that exploded in a supernova
Stars are being born and stars are dying in this infrared snapshot of the heavens. You and I—we come from stardust.
Photograph by NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Wisconsin


Your book yokes together two seemingly different sciences: astrophysics and human biology. Describe your individual professions and how you combined them to create this book.

Iris: I'm a physician specializing in genetics and pathology. Pathologists are the medical specialists who diagnose diseases and their causes. We also study the responses of the body to such diseases and to the treatment given. I do this at the level of the DNA, so at Stanford University I direct the diagnostic molecular pathology laboratory. I also provide patient care by diagnosing inherited diseases and also cancers, and by following therapy responses in those cancer patients based on changes that we can detect in their DNA.

Our book is based on many conversations that Karel and I had, in which we talked to each other about topics from our daily professional lives. Those areas are quite different. I look at the code of life. He's an astrophysicist who explores the secrets of the stars. But the more we followed up on our questions to each other, the more we discovered our fields have a lot more connections than we thought possible.

Karel: I'm an astrophysicist. Astrophysicists specialize in all sorts of things, from dark matter to galaxies. I picked stars because they fascinated me. But no matter how many stars you look at, you can never see any detail. They're all tiny points in the sky.

So I turned my attention to the sun, which is the only star where we can see what happens all over the universe. At some point NASA asked me to lead a summer school for beginning researchers to try to create materials to understand the things that go all the way from the sun to the Earth. I learned so many things about these connections I started to tell Iris. At some point I thought: This could be an interesting story, and it dawned on us that together we go all the way, as she said, from the smallest to the largest. And we have great fun doing this together.

We tend to think of our bodies changing only slowly once we reach adulthood. So I was fascinated to discover that, in fact, we're changing all the time and constantly rebuilding ourselves. Talk about our skin.

Iris: Most people don't even think of the skin as an organ. In fact, it's our largest one. To keep alive, our cells have to divide and grow. We're aware of that because we see children grow. But cells also age and eventually die, and the skin is a great example of this.
It's something that touches everything around us. It's also very exposed to damage and needs to constantly regenerate. It weighs around eight pounds [four kilograms] and is composed of several layers. These layers age quickly, especially the outer layer, the dermis. The cells there are replaced roughly every month or two. That means we lose approximately 30,000 cells every minute throughout our lives, and our entire external surface layer is replaced about once a year.

Very little of our physical bodies lasts for more than a few years. Of course, that's at odds with how we perceive ourselves when we look into the mirror. But we're not fixed at all. We're more like a pattern or a process. And it was the transience of the body and the flow of energy and matter needed to counter that impermanence that led us to explore our interconnectedness with the universe.

You have a fascinating discussion about age. Describe how different parts of the human body age at different speeds.

Iris: Every tissue recreates itself, but they all do it at a different rate. We know through carbon dating that cells in the adult human body have an average age of seven to ten years. That's far less than the age of the average human, but there are remarkable differences in these ages. Some cells literally exist for a few days. Those are the ones that touch the surface. The skin is a great example, but also the surfaces of our lungs and the digestive tract. The muscle cells of the heart, an organ we consider to be very permanent, typically continue to function for more than a decade. But if you look at a person who's 50, about half of their heart cells will have been replaced.

Our bodies are never static. We're dynamic beings, and we have to be dynamic to remain alive. This is not just true for us humans. It's true for all living things.

A figure that jumped out at me is that 40,000 tons of cosmic dust fall on Earth every year. Where does it all come from? How does it affect us?

Karel: When the solar system formed, it started to freeze gas into ice and dust particles. They would grow and grow by colliding. Eventually gravity pulled them together to form planets. The planets are like big vacuum cleaners, sucking in everything around them. But they didn't complete the job. There's still an awful lot of dust floating around.

When we say that as an astronomer, we can mean anything from objects weighing micrograms, which you wouldn't even see unless you had a microscope, to things that weigh many tons, like comets. All that stuff is still there, being pulled around by the gravity of the planets and the sun. The Earth can't avoid running into this debris, so that dust falls onto the Earth all the time and has from the very beginning. It's why the planet was made in the first place. 

Nowadays, you don't even notice it. But eventually all that stuff, which contains oxygen and carbon, iron, nickel, and all the other elements, finds its way into our bodies.

When a really big piece of dust, like a giant comet or asteroid, falls onto the Earth, you get a massive explosion, which is one of the reasons we believe the dinosaurs became extinct some 70 million years ago. That fortunately doesn't happen very often. But things fall out of the sky all the time. [Laughs]

Many everyday commodities we use also began their existence in outer space. Tell us about salt.

Karel: Whatever you mention, its history began in outer space. Take salt. What we usually mean by salt is kitchen salt. It has two chemicals, sodium and chloride. Where did they come from? They were formed inside stars that exploded billions of years ago and at some point found their way onto the Earth. Stellar explosions are still going on today in the galaxy, so some of the chlorine we're eating in salt was made only recently.

You study pathology, Iris. Is physical malfunction part of the cosmic order?

Iris: Absolutely. There are healthy processes, such as growth, for which we need cell division. Then there are processes when things go wrong. We age because we lose the balance between cell deaths and regeneration. That's what we see in the mirror when we age over time. That's also what we see when diseases develop, such as cancers. Cancer is basically a mistake in the DNA, and because of that the whole system can be derailed. Aging and cancer are actually very similar processes. They both originate in the fact that there's a loss of balance between regeneration and cell loss.

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited genetic disease. You inherit an error in the DNA. Because of that, certain tissues do not have the capability to provide their normal function to the body. My work is focused on finding changes in DNA in different populations so we can understand better what kinds of mutations are the basis of that disease. Based on that, we can provide prognosis. There are now drugs that target specific mutations, as well as transplants, so these patients can have a much better life span than was possible 10 or 20 years ago.

How has writing this book changed your view of life—and your view of each other?

Karel: There are two things that struck me, one that I had no idea about. The first is what Iris described earlier—the impermanence of our bodies. As a physicist, I thought the body was built early on, that it would grow and be stable. Iris showed me, over a long series of dinner discussions, that that's not the way it works. Cells die and rebuild all the time. We're literally not what were a few years ago, and not just because of the way we think. Everything around us does this. Nature is not outside us. We are nature.

As far as our relationship is concerned, I always had a great deal of respect for Iris, and physicians in general. They have to know things that I couldn't possibly remember. And that's only grown with time.

Iris: Physics was not my favorite topic in high school. [Laughs] Through Karel and our conversations, I feel that the universe and the world around us has become much more accessible. That was our goal with the book as well. We wanted it to be accessible and understandable for anyone with a high school education. It was a challenge to write it that way, to explain things to each other in lay terms. But it has certainly changed my view of life. It's increased my sense of wonder and appreciation of life.

In terms of Karel's profession and our relationship, it has inevitably deepened. We understand much better what the other person is doing in the sandboxes we respectively play in. [Laughs]

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The Best Star Gazing Binoculars for 2015




Excerpt from space.com

Most people have two eyes. Humans evolved to use them together (not all animals do). People form a continuous, stereoscopic panorama movie of the world within in their minds. With your two eyes tilted upward on a clear night, there's nothing standing between you and the universe. The easiest way to enhance your enjoyment of the night sky is to paint your brain with two channels of stronger starlight with a pair of binoculars. Even if you live in — or near — a large, light-polluted city, you may be surprised at how much astronomical detail you'll see through the right binoculars!
Our editors have looked at the spectrum of current binocular offerings. Thanks to computer-aided design and manufacturing, there have never been more high-quality choices at reasonable prices. Sadly, there's also a bunch of junk out there masquerading as fine stargazing instrumentation. We've selected a few that we think will work for most skywatchers.
There was a lot to consider: magnification versus mass, field of view, prism type, optical quality ("sharpness"), light transmission, age of the user (to match "exit pupil" size, which changes as we grow older), shock resistance, waterproofing and more. 

The best binoculars for you

"Small" astronomy binoculars would probably be considered "medium" for bird watching, sports observation and other terrestrial purposes. This comes about as a consequence of optics (prism type and objective size, mostly). "Large" binoculars are difficult to use for terrestrial applications and have a narrow field of view. They begin to approach telescope quality in magnification, resolution and optical characteristics.

Most of our Editors' Choicesfor stargazing binoculars here are under $300. You can pay more than 10 times that for enormous binocular telescopes used by elite enthusiasts on special mounts! You'll also pay more for ruggedized ("mil spec," or military standard) binoculars, many of which suspend their prisms on shock mounts to keep the optics in precise alignment.

Also, our Editors' Choices use Porro prism optics. Compact binoculars usually employ "roof" prisms, which can be cast more cheaply, but whose quality can vary widely. [There's much more about Porro prisms in our Buyer's Guide.]
We think your needs are best served by reviewing in three categories.
  • Small, highly portable binoculars can be hand-held for viewing ease.
  • Medium binoculars offer higher powers of magnification, but still can be hand-held, if firmly braced.
  • Large binoculars have bigger "objective" lenses but must be mounted on a tripod or counterweighted arm for stability.
Here's a detailed look at our Editor's Choice selections for stargazing binoculars:

Best Small Binoculars 

Editor's Choice: Oberwerk Mariner 8x40 (Cost: $150)

Oberwerk in German means "above work." The brand does indeed perform high-level optical work, perfect for looking at objects above, as well as on the ground or water. Founder Kevin Busarow's Mariner series is not his top of the line, but it benefits greatly from engineering developed for his pricier models. The Oberwerk 8x40’s treat your eyes to an extremely wide field, at very high contrast, with razor-sharp focus; they are superb for observing the broad starscapes of the Milky Way. Just 5.5 inches (14 cm) from front to back and 6.5 inches wide (16.5 cm), the Mariners are compact and rugged enough to be your favorite "grab and go binoculars." But at 37 ounces, they may be more than a small person wants to carry for a long time.


Runner-Up: Celestron Cometron 7x50 (Cost: $30)

Yes, you read that price correctly! These Celestron lightweight, wide-field binoculars bring honest quality at a remarkably low price point. The compromise comes in the optics, particularly the prism's glass type (you might see a little more chromatic aberration around the edges of the moon, and the exit pupil isn't a nice, round circle). Optimized for "almost infinitely distant" celestial objects, these Cometrons won't focus closer than about 30 feet (9.1 meters).  But that's fine for most sports and other outdoor use. If you're gift-buying for multiple young astronomers – or you want an inexpensive second set for yourself – these binoculars could be your answer. Just maybe remind those young folks to be a little careful around water; Celestron claims only that the Cometrons are "water resistant," not waterproof. 


Honorable Mention: Swarovski Habicht 8x30 (Cost: $1,050)

From the legendary Austrian firm of Swarovski Optik, these "bins" are perfect. Really. Very sharp. Very lightweight. Very wide field. Very versatile. And very expensive! Our editors would have picked them if we could have afforded them. 

Honorable Mention: Nikon Aculon 7x50 (Cost: $110) 

Nikon's legendary optical quality and the large, 7mm exit pupil diameter make these appropriate as a gift for younger skywatchers. 

Best Medium Binoculars

Editor's Choice: Celestron SkyMaster 8x56 (Cost: $210)

A solid, chunky-feeling set of quality prisms and lenses makes these binoculars a pleasant, 38oz. handful. A medium wide 5.8 degrees filed of view and large 7mm exit pupil brings you gently into a sweet sky of bright, though perhaps not totally brilliant, stars. Fully dressed in a rubber wetsuit, these SkyMasters are waterproof. Feel free to take them boating or birding on a moist morning. Their optical tubes were blown out with dry nitrogen at the factory, then sealed. So you can expect them not to fog up, at least not from the inside. Celestron's strap-mounting points on the Skymaster 8x56 are recessed, so they don't bother your thumbs, but that location makes them hard to fasten. 


Runner-Up: Oberwerk Ultra 15x70 (Cost: $380)

The most rugged pair we evaluated, these 15x70s are optically outstanding. Seen through the Ultra's exquisitely multi-coated glass, you may find yourself falling in love with the sky all over again. Oberwerk's method of suspending their BAK4 glass Porro prisms offers greater shock-resistance than most competitors’ designs. While more costly than some comparable binoculars, they deliver superior value. Our only complaint is with their mass: At 5.5 lbs., these guys are heavy!  You can hand-hold them for a short while, if you’re lying down. But they are best placed on a tripod, or on a counterweighted arm, unless you like shaky squiggles where your point-source stars are supposed to be. Like most truly big binoculars, the eyepieces focus independently; there’s no center focus wheel. These "binos" are for true astronomers. 


Honorable Mention: Vixen Ascot 10x50 (Cost:$165)

These quirky binoculars present you with an extremely wide field. But they are not crash-worthy – don't drop them in the dark – nor are they waterproof, and the focus knob is not conveniently located. So care is needed if you opt for these Vixen optics. 

Best Large Binoculars

Don't even think about hand-holding this 156-ounce beast! The SkyMaster 25x100 is really a pair of side-by-side 100mm short-tube refractor telescopes. Factor the cost of a sturdy tripod into your purchase decision, if you want to go this big.  The monster Celestron comes with a sturdy support spar for mounting. Its properly multi-coated optics will haul in surprising detail from the sky.  Just make sure your skies are dark; with this much magnification, light pollution can render your images dingy. As with many in the giant and super-giant class of binoculars, the oculars (non-removable eyepieces) focus separately, each rotating through an unusually long 450 degrees.  Getting to critical focus can be challenging, but the view is worth it. You can resolve a bit of detail on face of the new moon (lit by "Earthshine") and pick out cloud bands on Jupiter; tha's pretty astonishing for binoculars. 


Runner-Up: Orion Astronomy 20x80 (Cost: $150)

These big Orions distinguish themselves by price point; they're an excellent value. You could pay 10 times more for the comparably sized Steiners Military Observer 20x80 binoculars! Yes, the Orions are more delicate, a bit less bright and not quite as sharp. But they do offer amazingly high contrast; you'll catch significant detail in galaxies, comets and other "fuzzies." Unusually among such big rigs, the Astronomy 20x80 uses a center focus ring and one "diopter" (rather than independently focusing oculars); if you’re graduating from smaller binoculars, which commonly use that approach, this may be a comfort. These binoculars are almost lightweight enough to hold them by hand. But don't do that, at least not for long periods. And don't drop them. They will go out of alignment if handled roughly. 


Honorable Mention: Barska Cosmos 25x100 (Cost: $230)

They are not pretty, but you're in the dark, right? Built around a tripod-mountable truss tube, these Barskas equilibrate to temperature quickly and give you decent viewing at rational cost. They make for a cheaper version of our Editors' Choice Celestron SkyMasters. 

Honorable Mention: Steiner Observer 20x80 (Cost: $1,500)

Not at all a practical cost choice for a beginning stargazer, but you can dream, can't you? These Steiner binoculars are essentially military optics "plowshared" for peaceful celestial observing. 

Why we chose NOT to review certain types

Image stabilized?

Binoculars with active internal image stabilization are a growing breed. Most use battery-powered gyroscope/accelerometer-driven dynamic optical elements. We have left this type out of our evaluation because they are highly specialized and pricey ($1,250 and up). But if you are considering active stabilization, you can apply the same judgment methods detailed in our Buyer's Guide.

Comes with a camera?

A few binoculars are sold with built-in cameras. That seems like a good idea. But it isn't, at least not for skywatching. Other than Earth's moon, objects in the night sky are stingy with their photons. It takes a lengthy, rock-steady time exposure to collect enough light for a respectable image. By all means, consider these binocular-camera combos for snapping Facebook shots of little Jenny on the soccer field. But stay away from them for astronomy.

Mega monster-sized?

Take your new binoculars out under the night sky on clear nights, and you will fall in love with the universe. You will crave more ancient light from those distant suns. That may translate into a strong desire for bigger stereo-light buckets.

Caution: The next level up is a quantum jump of at least one financial order of magnitude. But if you have the disposable income and frequent access to dark skies, you may want to go REALLY big. Binocular telescopes in this class can feature interchangeable matching eyepieces, individually focusing oculars, more than 30x magnification and sturdy special-purpose tripods. Amateurs using these elite-level stereoscopes have discovered several prominent comets.

Enjoy your universe

If you are new to lens-assisted stargazing, you'll find excellent enhanced views among the binocular choices above. To get in deeper and to understand how we picked the ones we did, jump to our Buyer's Guide: How to Choose Binoculars for Sky Watching.

You have just taken the first step to lighting up your brain with star fire. May the photons be with you. Always. 

Skywatching Events 2015

Once you have your new binoculars, it's time to take them for a spin. This year intrepid stargazers will have plenty of good opportunities to use new gear.

On March 20, for example, the sun will go through a total solar eclipse. You can check out the celestial sight using the right sun-blocking filters for binoculars, but NEVER look at the sun directly, even during a solar eclipse. It's important to find the proper filters in order to observe the rare cosmic show. 

Observers can also take a look at the craggy face of the moon during a lunar eclipse on April 4. Stargazers using binoculars should be able to pick out some details not usually seen by the naked eye when looking at Earth's natural satellite.

Skywatchers should also peek out from behind the binoculars for a chance to see a series of annual meteor showers throughout the year.

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Microsoft to help NASA scientists virtually explore Mars with HoloLens





Excerpt from tech.firstpost.com


The US space agency has teamed up with Microsoft to develop a new software that will enable scientists to work on Mars virtually using a wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens.

Developed by Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, the software called OnSight will give researchers a means to plan and, along with the Mars Curiosity rover, conduct science operations on the Red Planet, the US space agency said in a statement.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at Nasa Headquarters in Washington, DC.

OnSight will use real rover data and extend the Curiosity mission’s existing planning tools by creating a 3D simulation of the Martian environment where scientists around the world can meet. Program scientists will be able to examine the rover’s worksite from a first-person perspective, plan new activities and preview the results of their work firsthand.

“We believe OnSight will enhance the ways in which we explore Mars and share that journey of exploration with the world,” added Jeff Norris, JPL’s OnSight project manager.

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Meteorite is ‘hard drive’ from space ~ Researchers decode ancient recordings from asteroid ~ BBC


Pallasite meteorite
The Esquel meteorite consists of gem-quality crystals embedded in metal.



Excert from bbc.com

Researchers have decoded ancient recordings from fragments of an asteroid dating back billions of years to the start of the Solar System. 

They found tiny "space magnets" in meteorites which retain a memory of the birth and death of the asteroid's core.
Like the data recorded on the surface of a computer hard drive, the magnetic signals written in the space rock reveal how Earth's own metallic core and magnetic field may one day die.

The work appears in Nature journal.

Using a giant X-ray microscope, called a synchrotron, the team was able to read the signals that formed more than four-and-a-half billion years ago, soon after the birth of the Solar System.

Start Quote

It's like a cosmic archaeological mission”
Dr James Bryson University of Cambridge
The meteorites are pieces of a parent asteroid that originally came from asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter.
They represents the left-over fragments of a planet that failed to form. The magnetic recording within it traps a signal of the precise moments when an iron-rich core formed in the asteroid as well as when it froze, killing its magnetic field.
The new picture of metallic core solidification in the asteroid provide clues about the magnetic field and iron-rich core of Earth.
Core values "Ideas about how the Earth's core evolved through [our planet's] history are really changing at the moment," lead researcher Dr Richard Harrison, from the University of Cambridge, told BBC News.
"We believe that Earth's magnetic field is linked to core solidification. Earth's solid inner core may have started to form at very interesting time in terms of the evolution of life on Earth.
"By studying an asteroid we get to see this in fast forward. We can see the start of core solidification in the magnetic records as well as its end, and start to think about how these processes work on Earth."

Magnetic fieldThe Earth's magnetic field will likely die off when the core completely freezes
The meteorites studied by the team originally fell to Earth in Argentina, and are composed of gem-quality crystals enclosed in a metallic matrix of iron and nickel. 

Tiny particles, smaller than one thousandth the width of a human hair, trapped within the metal have retained the magnetic signature of the parent asteroid from its birth in the early Solar System.

"We're taking ancient magnetic field measurements in nano-scale materials to the highest ever resolution in order to piece together the magnetic history of asteroids - it's like a cosmic archaeological mission," said Dr James Bryson, the paper's lead author. 

"Since asteroids are much smaller than Earth, they cooled much more quickly, so these processes occur on a shorter timescales, enabling us to study the whole process of core solidification."

Prof Wyn William, from the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the study, commented: "To be able to get a time stamp on these recordings, to get a cooling rate and the time of solidification, is fantastic. It's a very nice piece of work."

The key to the long-lived stability of the recording is the atomic-scale structure of the iron-nickel particles that grew slowly in the asteroid core and survived in the meteorites. 

Making a final comment on the results, Dr Harrison said: "In our meteorites we've been able to capture both the beginning and end of core freezing, which will help us understand how these processes affected the Earth in the past and provide a possible glimpse of what might happen in the future." 

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