Sunday 15 September 2019

Xtremely Queer : Stepping Across the Steppes (Part 1)

In ancient times the steppes of Eurasia were a cross-continental trade route long before the Silk Road from China was developed. When the Silk Road became dominant the steppes route faded away. Apart from a few nomads and settlers not many people ventured that way. It was over 600 years before a Russian explorer, Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-1888), ventured into these forgotten lands.

Today Nikolay Przhevalsky is best known for having a species of small horse named after him. But, although not a naturalist, Nikolay is also commemorated with many other animals and plants being named after him. His exploration into the East Asian deserts and mountains provided much new scientific information and revealed the Europe the sheer natural diversity of this remote region. Nikolay made five full expeditions, and today I’ll tell you about the first few.

Nikolay followed family tradition by going into the army. However, he found military life tedious and he read books on travel and exploration which fired his imagination. He became particularly interested in exploring the wilderness beyond the Eurasian steppes. His military training taught him all aspects of reconnaissance and surveying that all army officers learnt to help them to plan military campaigns. This would help Nikolay to plan his expeditions.

At the military academy Nikolay wrote a dissertation on all that was then known about Amur, the remote East Asian territory annexed by Russia in 1858. The dissertation was so comprehensive that the St. Petersburg Geographical Society made him a member.

In 1867 the authorities funded his first expedition to the Amur region. Nikolay persuaded them to pay for a “personal assistant”. He would have one of these on all his expeditions, always a young man or teenager who would act as his protégé. These young men were the focus of Nikolay’s sexual urges, as evidenced in his letters, and were all probably platonic.

In summer 1867 he set off on his first expedition. It took him across tundra and lakes and down rivers through remote villages and Cossack settlements. The summer frosts thawed and melting mountain snow swelled the rivers. The whole ground was wet and boggy and was a breeding ground for gnats and mosquitos. Camping out in this environment was certainly not very pleasant. The almost constant July rain also made it virtually impossible to dry the plants and animal skins that were collected. Despite these difficulties the expedition was a huge success and Nikolay wrote up his journals into a book. This was to make him famous, allowing more expeditions to be planned.

In 1870 Nikolay’s second expedition went across the Gobi Desert to Beijing through some of the least explored parts of the Mongolian region. More plant and animal specimens were collected and the route was thoroughly mapped. This expedition also instilled in Nikolay a hatred of all things Chinese. He hated the food, he hated the culture. He was blatantly racist and hated anything that wasn’t European. He wrote that “…only the rifles and cannons of the Europeans can do any good here”. In truth, China was in a state of decline and Nikolay never saw the splendour of its heyday.

Nikolay’s third expedition began in 1876. He had ambitious plans including a visit to Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, a city no European had ever seen. The route across Siberia took the expedition through scorching heat to the Altai mountains. Several pack animals died and local guides proved unreliable. The most ambitious section was to cross the Takla Makan, a desert so inhospitable that its name means “you go in, but you don’t come out”. But come out of the desert they did, following a chain of oases.

Eventually Nikolay arrived at the near-mythical lake of Lop Nor, whose existence was only previously recorded by Marco Polo and which had recently been rediscovered. Then the expedition moved west to explore the mountains that separated Takla Makan from Tibet. Nikolay caught an infection and his young protégé developed a fever. Despite this Nikolay carried on. The heat was unbearable. A lot of wells had virtually dried up and scorpions scuttled into their tents at night. Nikolay’s infection worsened and soon riding a horse was too painful because of the itching sores and an abscess on his back-side. The colder autumn eased the itching but Nikolay was so weak by now that a makeshift cart was made to transport him. Even though physically incapacitated he was still very much in charge.

Several other members of the expedition caught the same infection, and then Nikolay learnt of the death of his other during the summer. He and the expedition became depressed and despondent and Nikolay decided to abandon the venture and return home, if for no other reason than to recover fully from his infection.

It wasn’t long before Nikolay organised his next expedition that would take him into Tibet. He set off at the beginning of 1879 and with 23 camels carrying food, provisions, equipment, guns and home-made strawberry jam (a gift for the Dalai Lama), the expedition made its way to the frontier post of Zaysan in the Altai Mountains.

It was there that Nikolay was presented with an animal skin by a local chief. It was the skin of a small horse. Nikolay sent it back to St. Petersburg where it was examined and confirmed as a new species. It was later named after Nikolay – Przhevalsky’s horse. Nikolay finally got to see a living specimen for himself in May 1879.

After resting at Zaysan for a while Nikolay and his expedition began to move towards Tibet and the fabled city of Lhasa. Did he make it? Sorry to keep you in suspense, but I’ll tell you next month.

Sunday 1 September 2019

Out Of This World: Asteroid Update

It’s been a while since I gave a list of asteroids (minor planets) named after members and allies of the lgbt community. So here’s a new selection. The number before each name is the official number designated to that asteroid. The explanation following each name is based on the citations given when the names were published, to which I’ve added information illustrating relevance to the lgbt community. The numerical order of asteroids is not necessarily the same order in which they were either discovered or named.

You may wonder why some asteroids are not named until many years after they were discovered. There’s several reasons for this. Once discovered an asteroid is given a reference number. No asteroid is named until it’s compete orbit has been calculated, and this may take some time because there may be very few observations on which to make an accurate calculation. The final number of the asteroids, the ones you see listed below, were assigned at the same time as their name. Many asteroids are only known by their number for several years until someone decides to give it a name. Some asteroids are named for a specific reasons, as in the case of the one named after Freddie Mercury below.

(65) Cybele
Discovered 8 March 1861.
Named after the Phrygian goddess Cybele shortly after its discovery. Early legends of Cybele relate how she was born intersex and had the name Agdistis. The gods feared this double-gendered deity and castrated her and thus she became Cybele. The asteroid was originally named Maximiliana after King Maximilian II of Bavaria (father of the gay King Ludwig II). At the time asteroids were given ancient classical names, and Maximiliana was regarded as non-classical and was changed to Cybele after protests from the most esteemed astronomers of the day.
(4544) Xanthus
Discovered 31 March 1989. Name published 27 June 1997.
Xanthus is one of the most obscure of the many Greek names of Apollo, the pansexual god of the Sun, archery, healing, prophecy and song. Xanthus means “the Fair”. This asteroid was given one of the names of Apollo because is a member of the Apollo group, asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth and may hit us. (4544) Xanthus last crossed our orbit on 12th August at the point where we will be on 30th November.
(6039) Parmenides
Discovered 3 September 1989. Name published 15 April 1995.
Named after Parmenides of Elea (late 5th century BC), a philosopher. In his lengthy poem “On Nature”, of which only a small part has been preserved, he considered the plurality of things as the appearance of only one eternal reality, whatever that means. He also suggested that the Earth was a sphere, an idea that found few supporters, except from his young protégé and lover Zeno. Parmenides and Zeno were spotted by Socrates as visitors to the Great Panathenaic Games.
(9014) Svyatorichter
Discovered 22 October 1985. Name published 26 July 2000.
Svyatoslav Teofilovich Richter (1915-1997) was a Russian pianist and People’s Artist of the USSR. Then, as now, Russia was homophobic, and though Richter was never openly gay his sexuality was an open secret in the Russian music world who recognised the string of male companions as his lovers.
(11964) Catullus
Discovered 12 August 1994. Name published 9 April 2009.
The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 BC–54 BC) still influences poetry and art to this day. His poem Carmina 16 is notorious for its explicitness. It is one of several poems he wrote which mentions a youth, or Juventius, who is widely regarded as being Catullus’s lover. Catullus also had a girlfriend called Lesbia.
(12607) Alcaeus
Discovered 24 September 1960. Name published 24 November 2007.
Alcaeus (c.620 BC-c.580 BC) was a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. His songs are as famous as those of Sappho (who also has an asteroid named after her). Alcaeus was said to have been Sappho’s lover. He also wrote poems to several of his young male lovers, including Lycos and Menon.
(14505) Barentine
Discovered 12 January 1996, Name published 6 January 2007.
Named after Dr. John Caleb Barentine (b.1976) who served as an observing specialist at the Apache Point Observatory telescope from 2001 to 2006, and then as an observer for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Trained in stellar astronomy, he was introduced to planetary work by his colleagues Gil Esquerdo and Carol Neese, who suggested his name for this asteroid. Dr. Barentine is currently the Director of Conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association. He is also an author on the history of astronomy, and a member of the 500 Queer Scientists organisation.
(17473) Freddiemercury
Discovered 21 March 1991. Name published on 3 September 2016, the 70th anniversary of his birth.
Freddie Mercury (1946–1991) was a British songwriter and the lead singer for the legendary rock group Queen. His distinctive sound and large vocal range were hallmarks of his performance style, and he is regarded as one of the greatest rock singers of all time. The name was suggested by the provisional designation given to this asteroid before its full orbit was calculated – 1991 FM3. The letters FM inspired the choice of Freddie Mercury’s name; 1991, the year it was discovered, was the year Freddie died. Fellow Queen band member and astronomer Brian May and Dr. Joel Parker of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, were instrumental in getting this asteroid named in time for Freddie’s 70th anniversary.
(36445) Smalley
Discovered 23 August 2000. Name published 21 September 2002.
Named after Kyle Smalley (1961-2018), a software developer, amateur astronomer and team member of the Powell Observatory Near-Earth-Object programme. She then went to work as a software developer at the Minor Planet Centre, the official body responsible for the cataloguing and naming of asteroids. It was while working there that she transitioned and lived as Sonia Keys.
(58196) Ashleyess
Discovered 10 March 1992. Name published 20 May 2008.
Ashley Caroline Steel (b.1959) is the sister of Daniel Steel who discovered this asteroid and has been very supportive of his career. Ashley was the vice-chair and global head of transport for KPMG, from which she retired in 2014. Currently she holds non-executive roles on the boards of National Express, GoCo and the BBC. She has been named one of the UK's most influential gay people and appeared on the annual “Pink List” published by The Independent newspaper for several consecutive years from 2006.
(4049) Noragal’
Discover 31 August 1973. Name published 17 March 1995.
Named after Eleonora Yakovlevna Gal'perina (1912-1992), literary critic and translator, well-known under the pseudonym Nora Gal' for her Russian translations of foreign works. She was the grandmother of gay poet Nikolai Kuzmin (b.1968).
(6692) Antonínholý
Discovered 18 April 1985. Name published 2 June 2015.
Dr. Antonín Holý (1936–2012) was a renowned Czech chemist who significantly contributed to the development of antiretroviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV and hepatitis B. He was the author of more than 400 scientific papers and was awarded with honorary degrees from several universities at home and abroad.
(19175) Peterpiot
Discovered 2 August 1991. Name published 8 October 2014.
Dr. Peter Piot (b.1949), a Belgian physician, co-discovered the ebola virus in Zaire in 1976. In addition to providing the foundations of our understanding of HIV infection, he is the author of 16 books and 500 scientific articles. He has been the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine since 2010. He was created a baron by the King of Belgium and an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by Queen Elizabeth II.
(52665) Brianmay
Discovered 30 January 1998, Name published 18 Jun 2008.
Brian May (b.1947) is lead guitarist and songwriter for the rock group Queen which featured Freddie Mercury (for whom Brian campaigned to have an asteroid named). In 2007 Brian received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Imperial College London for a thesis on zodiacal dust. Eight months later he became Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. Brian is also the co-founder of Asteroid Day, the annual observance on June 30th to raise awareness of the possibility of an asteroid (such as Xanthus, one of the Apollo Group mentioned above) hitting Earth. In 2016 Brian May was named Celebrity Straight Ally at the British LGBT Awards. The name for this asteroid was suggested by legendary British astronomer and broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore.
Through all my “Asteroid Updates” I’ve not shown you where any of them are. You may have a vague idea of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Most asteroids orbit there. Only very large telescopes can see them.
This illustration above shows the orbits of three of the asteroids I’ve listed today in relation to the orbits of the major planets of the inner solar system. The illustration isn’t exactly to scale (the Sun would be less than a pixel and not a yellow dot) but the general orbits are in their correct relative position, even down to the fact the Sun is off-centre.
Orbits of the planets are in grey except for the Earth, which is in red. The orbits of (65) Cybele, (4544) Xanthus and (17473) Freddiemercury are shown in different colours.
Cybele is one of the outermost asteroids in the main belt. There are many other asteroids that go beyond which we don’t need to concern ourselves about today. You can probably see that the orbit of Xanthus, as a member of the near-Earth-orbit asteroid of the Apollo group, crosses our orbit twice a year. Just like the asteroid Apollo itself Xanthus could hit us in the far and distant future.