Category: People

Putting aside the pills!

A fascinating article presents an alternative.

There was a recent item on The Conversation that is being shared with you all today. It is about the role of meditation and mindfulness is keeping one healthy, and I sense this will be a popular article!

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Meditation and mindfulness offer an abundance of health benefits and may be as effective as medication for treating certain conditions

By Hilary A. Marusak

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Wayne State University

Published January 12th, 2023

Many people look to diet trends or new exercise regimens – often with questionable benefit – to get a healthier start on the new year. But there is one strategy that’s been shown time and again to boost both mood and health: meditation.

In late 2022, a high-profile study made a splash when it claimed that meditation may work as well as a common drug named Lexapro for the treatment of anxiety. Over the past couple of decades, similar evidence has emerged about mindfulness and meditation’s broad array of health benefits, for purposes ranging from stress and pain reduction to depression treatments to boosting brain health and helping to manage excessive inflammation and long COVID-19

Despite the mounting body of evidence showing the health benefits of meditation, it can be hard to weigh the science and to know how robust it is.

I am a neuroscientist studying the effects of stress and trauma on brain development in children and adolescents. I also study how mindfulness, meditation and exercise can positively affect brain development and mental health in youth.

I am very excited about how meditation can be used as a tool to provide powerful new insights into the ways the mind and brain work, and to fundamentally change a person’s outlook on life. And as a mental health researcher, I see the promise of meditation as a low- or no-cost, evidence-based tool to improve health that can be relatively easily integrated into daily life. 

Meditation requires some training, discipline and practice – which are not always easy to come by. But with some specific tools and strategies, it can be accessible to everyone.

What are mindfulness and meditation?

There are many different types of meditation, and mindfulness is one of the most common. Fundamentally, mindfulness is a mental state that, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn a renowned expert in mindfulness-based practices, involves “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” 

This means not ruminating about something that happened in the past or worrying about that to-do list. Being focused on the present, or living in the moment, has been shown to have a broad array of benefits, including elevating mood, reducing anxietylessening pain and potentially improving cognitive performance

Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and cultivated over time. The goal is that, with repetition, the benefits of practicing mindfulness carry over into everyday life – when you aren’t actively meditating. For example, if you learn that you aren’t defined by an emotion that arises transiently, like anger, then it may be harder to stay angry for long. 

The health benefits of meditation and other strategies aimed at stress reduction are thought to stem from increasing levels of overall mindfulness through practice. Elements of mindfulness are also present in practices like yoga, martial arts and dance that require focusing attention and discipline.

The vast body of evidence supporting the health benefits of meditation is too expansive to cover exhaustively. But the studies I reference below represent some of the top tier, or the highest-quality and most rigorous summaries of scientific data on the topic to date. Many of these include systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which synthesize many studies on a given topic. 

Stress and mental health

Mindfulness-based programs have been shown to significantly reduce stress in a variety of populations, ranging from caregivers of people living with dementia to children during the COVID-19 pandemic

Meta-analyses published during the pandemic show that mindfulness programs are effective for reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorderobsessive-compulsive disorderattention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and depression – including the particularly vulnerable time during pregnancy and the postnatal period.

Mindfulness-based programs also show promise as a treatment option for anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental disorders, affecting an estimated 301 million people globally. While effective treatments for anxiety exist, many patients do not have access to them because they lack insurance coverage or transportation to providers, for instance, or they may experience only limited relief.

It’s important to note, however, that for those affected by mental or substance use disorders, mindfulness-based approaches should not replace first-line treatments like medicine and psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness strategies should be seen as a supplement to these evidence-based treatments and a complement to healthy lifestyle interventions like physical activity and healthy eating. 

How does meditation work? A look into the brain

Studies show that regular meditators experience better attention control and improved control of heart rate, breathing and autonomic nervous system functioning, which regulates involuntary responses in the body, such as blood pressure. Research also shows that people who meditate have lower levels of cortisol – a hormone involved in the stress response – than those who don’t. 

A recent systematic review of neuroimaging studies showed that focused attention meditation is associated with functional changes in several brain regions involved in cognitive control and emotion-related processing. The review also found that more experienced meditators had stronger activation of the brain regions involved in those cognitive and emotional processes, suggesting that the brain benefits improve with more practice. 

A regular meditation practice may also stave off age-related thinning of the cerebral cortex, which may help to protect against age-related disease and cognitive impairment. 

Limitations of meditation research

This research does have limits. These include a lack of a consistent definition for the types of programs used, and a lack of rigorously controlled studies. In gold-standard randomized controlled trials with medications, study participants don’t know whether they are getting the active drug or a placebo. 

In contrast, in trials of mindfulness-based interventions, participants know what condition they are assigned to and are not “blinded,” so they may expect that some of the health benefits may happen to them. This creates a sense of expectancy, which can be a confounding variable in studies. Many meditation studies also don’t frequently include a control group, which is needed to assess how it compares with other treatments.

Benefits and wider applications

Compared with medications, mindfulness-based programs may be more easily accessible and have fewer negative side effects. However, medication and psychotherapy – particularly cognitive behavioral therapy – work well for many, and a combination approach may be best. Mindfulness-based interventions are also cost-effective and have better health outcomes than usual care, particularly among high-risk patient populations – so there are economic benefits as well.

Researchers are studying ways to deliver mindfulness tools on a computer or smartphone app, or with virtual reality, which may be more effective than conventional in-person meditation training. 

Importantly, mindfulness is not just for those with physical or mental health diagnoses. Anyone can use these strategies to reduce the risk of disease and to take advantage of the health benefits in everyday life, such as improved sleep and cognitive performance, elevated mood and lowered stress and anxiety. 

Where to get started?

Many recreation centers, fitness studios and even universities offer in-person meditation classes. For those looking to see if meditation can help with the treatment of a physical or mental condition, there are over 600 clinical trialscurrently recruiting participants for various conditions, such as pain, cancer and depression. 

If you want to try meditation from the comfort of your home, there are many free online videos on how to practice, including meditations for sleep, stress reduction, mindful eating and more. Several apps, such as Headspace, appear promising, with randomized controlled trials showing benefits for users

The hardest part is, of course, getting started. However, if you set an alarm to practice every day, it will become a habit and may even translate into everyday life – which is the ultimate goal. For some, this may take some time and practice, and for others, this may start to happen pretty quickly. Even a single five-minute session can have positive health effects.

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This is a comprehensive article on a most important topic.

For whatever is happening in our world it is getting busier especially for those that are a great deal younger than me.

A lost, and found, dog in Utah

A story that was widely reported.

I was short on time yesterday so no pre-amble.

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Search and rescue team save dog near frozen waterfall in Utah 

The dog separated from its owner on Christmas Eve.

By Teddy Grant, December 27, 2022.

A dog that was stranded near a frozen waterfall in Utah on Christmas Eve was saved by search and rescue officials and reunited with her owner.

According to the Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, a local man was hiking near Waterfall Canyon on Saturday when he became separated from his dog Nala.

The unidentified hiker couldn’t find Nala by nightfall and resumed his search the morning of Christmas Day, the sheriff’s office wrote on its Facebook page.

The hiker’s family members contacted authorities around 1:00 p.m., local time, saying he wasn’t responding to their calls or text messages, officials said.

Nala’s owner answered one of the phone calls once he regained cellphone service and was able to let people know that Nala was around the waterfall, but couldn’t reach her because of the steepness and the icy condition of the terrain, according to Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue.

A grab from video posted by Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue shows the dog Nala at Waterfall Canyon in Ogden, Utah, Dec. 25, 2022.

Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue

The search and rescue team responded to the call and were able to save a skittish Nala after a little coaxing, officials said.

“Nala was cold with a few minor injuries, but was able to hike down with the rescuers,” officials wrote. “She is one tough puppy! Once reaching the trailhead parking lot, both human and canine couldn’t have been happier to be reunited.”

According to Waterfall Canyon it is a “moderately challenging,” 2.4-mile trail near Ogden, Utah, according to AllTrails. Ogden is around 38 miles north of Salt Lake City.

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I’m sure you read that the human and the dog were very grateful to be reunited.

Naming the States of America

A fascinating article read recently!

Being born in London and therefore British by birth I have no idea where the American States get their names from. That is why I read with great interest a recent article on the Word Genius blog that explained it all. I wanted to share it with you.

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Every state in America has its own unique culture, flavor, and quirks – including their names. State pride is alive and well from Alabama to Wyoming, but do you know the story of how your state got its name?

While the name etymology for some states is a bit muddled, in general, a good number are derived from Native American tribes and languages, such as Algonquin, Sioux, and Iroquois. Others are nods to the origins of the European settlers who claimed patches of America for their own.

Here’s a guide to where all 50 state names came from – and what they mean!

Origins of State Names

Alabama comes from the Choctaw word albah amo meaning thicket-clearers or plant cutters.

Alaska has ties to the Aleuts and the Russians, with the words alaxsxaq and Аляска, respectively, essentially meaning mainland.

Arizona has ancient roots as the Uto-Aztecan word ali sona-g, which was adopted by the Spaniards as Arizonac, meaning good oaks.

Arkansas is the French pronunciation of an Algonquin name for the Quapaw people, akansa.

California is truly a magical place. So magical in fact, it’s named after a fictional world invented by the author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, which Spanish explorers adopted when setting foot on the gold coast.

Colorado is another Spanish-influenced name that essentially means ruddy or ruddish. The name was first applied to the Colorado River for its distinctive color.

Connecticut, much like Colorado, was named for the river running through it. The word possibly stems from the Native American term quinnitukqut, meaning beside or at the long tidal river.

Delaware is also named for a body of water, but that body of water was named for Baron De la Warr, the first English governor of Virginia. The baron’s name is old French for of the war.

Florida taps into its Spanish roots by referencing Pascua florida, meaning flowering Easter, as Spanish explorers found the lush area during the holiday season. There’s also a tie to the Latin word floridus, meaning strikingly beautiful.

Georgia may be known for its southern hospitality, but it’s actually named for King George II from Great Britain.

Hawaii comes from the Polynesian word hawaiki, meaning place of the Gods. It was, however, originally named the Sandwich Islands by James Cook in the late 1700s.

Idaho has notorious roots in the Athabaskan word idaahe, meaning enemy. It was originally applied to part of Colorado before being given to the Gem State.

Illinois has a silent “s” at the end, because it’s of French origin. “Illinois” means “Land of Illini,” giving a nod to the Native American population. “Illini” is the Algonquin word for “man” or “warrior.”

Indiana, as you might expect, stems from the English word Indian. The Latin suffix tacked on the end roughly means “land of the.”

Iowa comes from the Dakota word yuxba, meaning sleepy ones.

Kansas references the Kansa tribe, meaning people of the south wind. Makes sense for tornado alley.

Kentucky is yet another state named for the river running through it, inspired by the Shawnee word for on the meadow.

Louisiana, like Georgia, was named for a regent of the times, specifically, Louis XIV of France.

Maine has uncertain origins. Though it’s worth noting that Maine was also the name of a traditional province in France.

Maryland is a tip of the hat from King Charles I to his wife Henrietta Maria. Some husbands give jewelry; King Charles gave naming rights to an entire state.

Massachusetts comes directly from the Algonquian word Massachusett that references the people living in the area, and means at the large hill.

Michigan is based on the Algonquin word meshi-gami, meaning big lake.

Minnesota, like many other Midwest states, comes from a Native American language. In this case, the Dakota word mnisota means cloudy, milky water.

Mississippi literally means big river in Algonquin Ojibwa, although it’s based on the French variation of the word.

Missouri relates to the Algonquin word wimihsoorita, which translates to people of the big canoes.

Montana has some Spanish flair that links back to the Latin mons, for mountains.

Nebraska stems from the Sioux name for the Platte River, omaha ni braska, meaning flat water.

Nevada comes from the Spanish name for the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain range, which essentially means snowy mountains, or snowcapped.

New Hampshire is the first of many states and cities named as new outposts of other parts of the world. In this case, Hampshire was a county in Southern England.

New Jersey was coined by Sir George Carteret of the Channel Island of Jersey.

New Mexico is self-explanatory and based on the Spanish Nuevo Mexico. Although, did you know the Aztecs coined the word Mexihco for their ancient capital?

New York was named for the Duke of York and the future King James II.

North and South Carolina are named after a monarch, King Charles II, as Carolus is the proper Latin version of Charles. 

North and South Dakota: The word Dakota, of course, describes the Dakota people, but it also means friendly or allies.

Ohio once again comes from a body of water, this time, the Ohio River. The Seneca Native Americans billed it as a good river.

Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw word meaning red people.

Oregon’s origin is less clear, although some scholars point to Algonquin as the source.

Pennsylvania was named after Admiral William Penn, under Charles II. It literally means Penn’s Woods.

Rhode Island has multiple name theories, including the idea that Dutch explorer Adrian Block applied the name Roodt Eylandt, meaning red island, to reflect the red cliffs of the region. Alternatively, it may come from the Greek island of Rhodes.

Tennessee comes from the Cherokee village name ta’nasi, but the meaning is unclear.

Texas is another old Spanish name from the word tejas, meaning friends or allies.

Utah has a short, spunky sound from the Spanish yuta, the name given to indigenous Uto-Aztecan people of the mountains.

Vermont has an elegant French sound and meaning – mont vert means green mountain in French.

Virginia and West Virginia are a Latin nod to sovereign Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.

Washington is named for President George Washington. His surname means estate of a man named Wassa in Old English.

Wisconsin may come from the Miami word meskonsing, which was spelled by the French as mescousingand then shifted to ouisconsin.

Wyoming has origins from the Algonquian chwewamink, meaning at the big river flat. There is another theory, however, that states Wyoming comes from a word for mountains and valleys alternating.

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Fascinating!

I wonder how many Americans, i.e. those that were born in this country, know the origins of the names of the States?

New Years’ Resolutions

Finding one that really works.

Whatever age we are and in many different cultures the New Year holds out so much hope. It seems an opportunity to start anew, to put the habits of last year behind us, to embrace a new start. Yet all the evidence is that a New Year’s Resolution will not make it through to February.

That is why I picked up on a recent article in The Conversation, that they kindly allow to be republished.

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Why you should give the gift of mindfulness this New Year

By Jeremy David Engels

Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State. Published: January 3, 2023.

The late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh leading a meditation walk. Steve Cray/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

The start of another year can feel magical to many of us. Even though the days remain short and dark, the flip of the calendar can make it seem new beginnings with new resolutions are possible. 

Mindfulness scholars and teachers like me call resolutions “habit breakers,” as they can overcome patterns that no longer serve individuals. However, research suggests that many resolutions fail by the end of January. 

But a key to ensuring that resolutions stick is to choose one that will make a meaningful difference in your life. Seeing a real, tangible benefit can provide inspiration to keep going when all of life is telling us to let things go back to how they were before. 

Living more mindfully is a common New Year’s resolution. This year, try gifting it to others.

The meaning of mindfulness

Mindfulness has been shown to have a number of meaningful health benefits – it can help reduce anxiety and promote healing in those suffering from long-term chronic illness. 

The practice is based on an insight first described by ancient Buddhist texts that human beings have the capacity to observe experience without being caught up in it. This means, simply and wonderfully, that it is possible to observe ourselves having a craving, or a happy thought, or even a scary emotion, without reacting in the moment in a way that amplifies the feeling or sends the mind spiraling off into thinking about old memories or anticipating events.

This practice can help calm the mind and the body as we learn not to react to experience with likes and dislikes or judgments of good and bad. It does not make us cold or apathetic but more fully present

Mindfulness in a distracted world

One of the challenges of practicing mindfulness in our contemporary world is that there has been a profound transformation in human attention. The artist Jenny Odell argues that in our “attention economy” human attention has been transformed into a commodity that big corporations buy and sell. This economy rests on a technological revolution of mobile phones and social media that makes it possible for corporations to reach us with content that can capture and monetize our focus, at every moment, every day, and no matter where we may be.

The constant need to be checking our phones keeps us from being fully present. Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The needy little devices most people carry in their pockets and wear on their wrists, incessantly beeping and buzzing and chirping, are a perpetual diversion from the present moment. The result is that it can feel as though our ability to focus, and be fully present, has been stolen

But mindfulness can help us resist the attention economy and savor the things that make life special, like being together with those we love. 

The gift of mindfulness

While most mindfulness research focuses on the individual benefits of the practice, scholars like me argue that we not only practice mindfulness for ourselves but that we can also practice it for others. It can help us build stronger, healthier relationships. 

The sad truth is that living in the attention economy, most of us have become bad listeners. However, just as it is possible to watch ourselves having an experience without reacting, it’s possible to watch another person have an experience without getting tied up in reactivity and judgment. It’s possible simply to be present. 

The gift of mindfulness is a practice of listening with compassion to another person describe their experiences. To give this gift means putting away your phone, turning off social media, and setting aside other common distractions. It means practicing being fully present in another person’s presence and listening to them with complete attention, without reacting with judgment, while resisting the urge to make the interaction about you. 

If we judge the value of gifts based on how much they cost, this gift may seem worthless. But in a distracted world, I argue, it is a precious one

It is not a gift that you will wrap, or put inside a card; it’s not one you will have to name as a gift or draw attention to. It’s something you can do right now.

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Professor David Engels is spot on. The number of people who are wedded to their cell phone, especially the younger ones of us, is frightening. Many years ago I was fortunate to have a counsellor who was into mindfulness and some of the good practices have stayed with me.

So, please, if you are thinking that your use of a cell phone is intrusive, even slightly, then let this New Year present a new you!

P.S.

Belinda sent in the following attached to one of her comments. It’s perfect! Thank you, Belinda!

And while we are on the subject of New Year’s Resolutions try this one. It is not a long video but it is extremely important; it concerns our diet and our health!

The James Webb Space Telescope

Talk about looking up at the starry night!

I am sure that many of you have seen the latest images but still for those that have not…

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First the BBC presented a report on the 25th December, 2022. This is part of what they described:

James Webb telescope: Amazing images show the Universe as never before

The Tarantula Nebula: Only 161,000 light years from Earth, this is a place where thousands of stars were born

By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

It was the $10bn gift to the world. A machine that would show us our place in the Universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched exactly a year ago, on Christmas Day. It had taken three decades to plan, design and build.

Many wondered whether this successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope could actually live up to expectations. 

We had to wait a few months while its epic 6.5m primary mirror was unpacked and focused, and its other systems tested and calibrated.

The first thing you have to remember about James Webb is that it is an infrared telescope. It sees the sky at wavelengths of light that are beyond what our eyes are able to discern. 

Astronomers use its different cameras to explore regions of the cosmos, such as these great towers of gas and dust. The Pillars were a favourite target of Hubble. It would take you several years travelling at the speed of light to traverse this entire scene.

Now we go to the NASA site for more of the JWST:

First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope

The dawn of a new era in astronomy has begun as the world gets its first look at the full capabilities of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). The telescope’s first full-color images and spectroscopic data were released during a televised broadcast at 10:30 a.m. EDT (14:30 UTC) on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. These listed targets below represent the first wave of full-color scientific images and spectra the observatory has gathered, and the official beginning of Webb’s general science operations. They were selected by an international committee of representatives from NASA, ESA, CSA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.

Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.

Called the Cosmic Cliffs, Webb’s seemingly three-dimensional picture looks like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening. In reality, it is the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, and the tallest “peaks” in this image are about 7 light-years high. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being prominently featured in the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.

With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Some stars save the best for last.

The dimmer star at the center of this scene has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions, and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is cloaked in dust.

Two cameras aboard Webb captured the latest image of this planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 3132, and known informally as the Southern Ring Nebula. It is approximately 2,500 light-years away.

Webb will allow astronomers to dig into many more specifics about planetary nebulae like this one – clouds of gas and dust expelled by dying stars. Understanding which molecules are present, and where they lie throughout the shells of gas and dust will help researchers refine their knowledge of these objects.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.

The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away.

While the Hubble Space Telescope has analyzed numerous exoplanet atmospheres over the past two decades, as in capturing the first clear detection of water in 2013, Webb’s immediate and more detailed observation marks a giant leap forward in the quest to characterize potentially habitable planets beyond Earth.

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Just a few of the very special photographs. They are remarkable!

December’s issue of the Science magazine had an article in which there was a paragraph that described:

The first data and images beamed back to Earth by JWST suggest it was all worthwhile. They are “beautiful” and ‘mind-blowing,” according to astronomers who have spoken with Science. It was like putting on infrared glasses, one said, and seeing the universe anew.

The GOLDEN EYE, by Daniel Clery

Imagine that just, say, 25 years ago these images and this mission would have been science fiction and now it is a reality.

I will leave you with a quotation from that SCIENCE magazine (16th December): “Politicians and pundits often make up whatever suits their political goals about science, but scientists recognize how little we understand about the Universe. As Kennedy said, “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.“”

The tradition of Christmas

It goes back much further than the Christian church.

Jean and I are atheists and have been all our lives. Therefore we tend to take more notice of the Winter solstice (that is today as the day that I am preparing this post) rather than Christmas Day and our sense that it is a product of Jesus Christ being born on the 25th; or so I thought!

But the tradition of a Christmas tree in particular goes much further back, as this article from The Conversation sets out.

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The Christmas tree is a tradition older than Christmas

Public Christmas trees, like Rockefeller Center’s famous tree, didn’t start appearing in the U.S. until the 20th century. Nicholas Hunt/WireImage via Getty Images

Troy Bickham, Texas A&M University

Why, every Christmas, do so many people endure the mess of dried pine needles, the risk of a fire hazard and impossibly tangled strings of lights?

Strapping a fir tree to the hood of my car and worrying about the strength of the twine, I sometimes wonder if I should just buy an artificial tree and do away with all the hassle. Then my inner historian scolds me – I have to remind myself that I’m taking part in one of the world’s oldest religious traditions. To give up the tree would be to give up a ritual that predates Christmas itself.

A symbol of life in a time of darkness

Almost all agrarian societies independently venerated the Sun in their pantheon of gods at one time or another – there was the Sol of the Norse, the Aztec Huitzilopochtli, the Greek Helios.

The solstices, when the Sun is at its highest and lowest points in the sky, were major events. The winter solstice, when the sky is its darkest, has been a notable day of celebration in agrarian societies throughout human history. The Persian Shab-e Yalda, Dongzhi in China and the North American Hopi Soyal all independently mark the occasion.

The favored décor for ancient winter solstices? Evergreen plants.

Whether as palm branches gathered in Egypt in the celebration of Ra or wreaths for the Roman feast of Saturnalia, evergreens have long served as symbols of the perseverance of life during the bleakness of winter, and the promise of the Sun’s return.

Christmas slowly emerges

Christmas came much later. The date was not fixed on liturgical calendars until centuries after Jesus’ birth, and the English word Christmas – an abbreviation of “Christ’s Mass” – would not appear until over 1,000 years after the original event.

While Dec. 25 was ostensibly a Christian holiday, many Europeans simply carried over traditions from winter solstice celebrations, which were notoriously raucous affairs. For example, the 12 days of Christmas commemorated in the popular carol actually originated in ancient Germanic Yule celebrations.

The continued use of evergreens, most notably the Christmas tree, is the most visible remnant of those ancient solstice celebrations. Although Ernst Anschütz’s well-known 1824 carol dedicated to the tree is translated into English as “O Christmas Tree,” the title of the original German tune is simply “Tannenbaum,” meaning fir tree. There is no reference to Christmas in the carol, which Anschütz based on a much older Silesian folk love song. In keeping with old solstice celebrations, the song praises the tree’s faithful hardiness during the dark and cold winter.

Bacchanal backlash

Sixteenth-century German Protestants, eager to remove the iconography and relics of the Roman Catholic Church, gave the Christmas tree a huge boost when they used it to replace Nativity scenes. The religious reformer Martin Luther supposedly adopted the practice and added candles.

Engraving of adults and children gathered around a desk with a small Christmas tree adorned with candles.
German Protestants sought to replace ornate Nativity scenes with the simpler tree. Wikimedia Commons

But a century later, the English Puritans frowned upon the disorderly holiday for lacking biblical legitimacy. They banned it in the 1650s, with soldiers patrolling London’s streets looking for anyone daring to celebrate the day. Puritan colonists in Massachusetts did the same, fining “whosoever shall be found observing Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.”

German immigration to the American colonies ensured that the practice of trees would take root in the New World. Benjamin Franklin estimated that at least one-third of Pennsylvania’s white population was German before the American Revolution.

Yet, the German tradition of the Christmas tree blossomed in the United States largely due to Britain’s German royal lineage.

Taking a cue from the queen

Since 1701, English kings had been forbidden from becoming or marrying Catholics. Germany, which was made up of a patchwork of kingdoms, had eligible Protestant princes and princesses to spare. Many British royals privately maintained the familiar custom of a Christmas tree, but Queen Victoria – who had a German mother as well as a German grandmother on her father’s side – made the practice public and fashionable.

Victoria’s style of rule both reflected and shaped the outwardly stern, family-centered morality that dominated middle-class life during the era. In the 1840s, Christmas became the target of reformers like novelist Charles Dickens, who sought to transform the raucous celebrations of the largely sidelined holiday into a family day in which the people of the rapidly industrialized nation could relax, rejoice and give thanks.

His 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol,” in which the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge found redemption by embracing Dickens’ prescriptions for the holiday, was a hit with the public. While the evergreen décor is evident in the hand-colored illustrations Dickens specially commissioned for the book, there are no Christmas trees in those pictures.

Drawing of royal family decorating a Christmas tree.
After the London Illustrated News published an image of Queen Victoria’s tree, the public eagerly sought to mimic the tradition. Wikimedia Commons

Victoria added the fir tree to family celebrations five years later. Although Christmas trees had been part of private royal celebrations for decades, an 1848 issue of the London Illustrated News depicted Victoria with her German husband and children decorating one as a family at Windsor Castle.

The cultural impact was almost instantaneous. Christmas trees started appearing in homes throughout England, its colonies and the rest of the English-speaking world. Dickens followed with his short story “A Christmas Tree” two years later.

Adopting the tradition in America

During this period, America’s middle classes generally embraced all things Victorian, from architecture to moral reform societies.

Sarah Hale, the author most famous for her children’s poem “Mary had a Little Lamb,” used her position as editor of the best-selling magazine Godey’s Ladies Book to advance a reformist agenda that included the abolition of slavery and the creation of holidays that promoted pious family values. The adoption of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 was perhaps her most lasting achievement.

Drawing of adults and children gathered around a decorated Christmas tree.
An engraving of Queen Victoria’s tree in Godey’s Ladies Book popularized Christmas trees in the U.S. Godey’s Lady’s Book

It is closely followed by the Christmas tree.

While trees sporadically adorned the homes of German immigrants in the U.S., it became a mainstream middle-class practice when, in 1850, Godey’s published an engraving of Victoria and her Christmas tree. A supporter of Dickens and the movement to reinvent Christmas, Hale helped to popularize the family Christmas tree across the pond.

Only in 1870 did the United States recognize Christmas as a federal holiday.

The practice of erecting public Christmas trees emerged in the U.S. in the 20th century. In 1923, the first one appeared on the White House’s South Lawn. During the Great Depression, famous sites such as New York’s Rockefeller Center began erecting increasingly larger trees.

Black and white photo of people gathered around a tall Christmas tree in Washington, D.C.
A Christmas tree was erected on the White House South Lawn for the first time in 1923. Library of Congress

Christmas trees go global

As both American and British cultures extended their influence around the world, Christmas trees started to appear in communal spaces even in countries that are not predominately Christian. Shopping districts in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Tokyo now regularly erect trees.

The modern Christmas tree is a universal symbol that carries meanings both religious and secular. Adorned with lights, they promote hope and offer brightness in literally the darkest time of year for half of the world.

In that sense, the modern Christmas tree has come full circle.

Troy Bickham, Professor of History, Texas A&M University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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So not a doggie post for today but nevertheless one that I hope will be of interest.

The next post will be a Picture Parade this coming Sunday: December 25th!

Picture Parade Four Hundred and Sixty-Four

Beautiful photographs from Alex!

Last Friday I received an email from my son in which he said: “… bit chilly here -9C (16F) overnight but we heard that some short-eared owls had turned up in a nature reserve near Minehead so have been down there the last few days, here are the pictures.”

He included the many photographs separately as well. If you want to see more then please go here plus I want to credit Alex Handover as the photographer.

Here they are:

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I have no doubt that many of you will find these very exciting!

A very small step.

But an important one!

From the 21st November until the 23rd Sunshine Solar installed a solar panel system. But we were then told to wait until Pacific Power had come to the house to put in a new electricity meter. Last Thursday, 1st December, Brent from Pacific Power called by and replaced our electricity meter. He replaced it with a bi-directional meter that when we were producing more power than we are consuming then the surplus would be ‘banked’ to be used at times when we required the surplus.

This was the result of us investing in a ground-mounted solar system.

We purchased the system from Solar Sunshine after doing a great deal of research. Indeed Brent said that they were a great company.

The other thing that we had no choice over was to install a ground-mounted system some 120 feet from the house. Because neither the house nor the roof face East and therefore are no use for solar. But as Brent pointed out last Thursday the ground-mounted system, despite being more expensive, was a good alternative to the roof system because new roof tiles were irrelevant.

The system consists of 30 individual panels capable of producing a maximum output of 65 amps at 240 volts; in other words 15,600 watts!

Yesterday, Cory and Brandon (sp?) came out to the system and checked that it was alright. Plus they gave us an digital application so we could see how much power we were generating, plus more, and they also took some photographs, that I offer you now.

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This last photograph was one taken by yours truly with Cory on the left and Brandon on the right with Jeannie in the middle.

Finally, the ‘app’ is going to be very useful.

Already it shows that last Saturday the array produced 29 kilowatts and then yesterday, the 4th December, the array produced 22.9 kilowatts and these were by no means sunlit days all the time. That brings the total for all 5 days in December, in other words since the system went live, to 91.1 kilowatts as of 15:27 PT on the 5th.

We are most pleased with the company and the installation.

Parkinson’s Disease

It affects so many but it is also a cruel disease.

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is unique to each individual as it is a disease of the brain. Yet there are aspects of the disease that affect most and especially the people who are close to the PD sufferer.

From the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke comes a small extract:

Following Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second-most common neurodegenerative disorder in the United States. Most people diagnosed with PD are age 60 years or older, however, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people with PD are diagnosed before the age of 50. Approximately 500,000 Americans are diagnosed with PD, but given that many individuals go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed the actual number is likely much higher. Some experts estimate that as many as 1 million Americans have PD. Of course, given the progressive nature of the disabilities associated with PD, the disease affects thousands more wives, husbands, children, and other caregivers.

NINDS website

Jean was diagnosed in December, 2015 at the same time as my best friend in England, Richard Maugham.

More than 10 million people worldwide are living with PD!

Here is a video put out by Parkinson’s UK that is introduced as follows:

In this honest and often funny live talk Colin describes his experience with Parkinson’s and his hopes for the future.

So a wish on behalf of those countless other people: May there be a cure soon!

Why is intelligent life so rare?

Maybe it is because of a ‘Great Filter‘.

Like so many others I read many items online. One of the websites that I follow is the EarthSky site because for a long time I have been interested in space.

So when I saw an article on why intelligent life is so rare in our Milky Way I read it fully. And hoped it would be of interest to others.

Here it is:

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What is the Great Filter, and can we survive it?

Posted by

Kelly Kizer Whitt and Deborah Byrd

November 17, 2022

This graphic depicts intelligent civilizations as stars. The vertical lines represent Great Filters that civilizations do or don’t survive. This graphic depicts Earth’s human population (the yellow “star”) approaching its own Great Filter. How would we surpass it, and keep going? Image via NASA/ arXiv.

What is the Great Filter?

Is intelligent life common, or rare in our Milky Way galaxy? If it’s common, why haven’t we encountered it? While discussing UFOs on a walk to lunch in the year 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi is famously said to have asked, “But where is everybody?” Scientists today call that riddle Fermi’s Paradox. Now a new paper by NASA scientists explores one possible answer to the paradox. The answer may be what’s called the Great Filter.

Economist Robin Hanson first proposed the Great Filter, in the late 1990s. It’s the idea of that – even if life forms abundantly in our Milky Way galaxy – each extraterrestrial civilization ultimately faces some barrier to its own survival. The barrier might come from without (for example, an asteroid striking a planet, and wiping out all life forms). Or it might come from within (for example, all-out nuclear war).

Hanson proposed that a Great Filter might be at work within our Milky Way galaxy. He argued – from what we can see here on Earth – life expands to fill every niche. And so, he argued, we should see signs of intelligent life beyond Earth in nearby star systems, perhaps even in our solar system. But we don’t see this.

Is humanity facing a Great Filter?

The authors of the new paper take Hanson’s idea further. They explore the idea that humanity may now be facing a Great Filter. The authors wrote:

We postulate that an existential disaster may lay in wait as our society advances exponentially towards space exploration, acting as the Great Filter: a phenomenon that wipes out civilizations before they can encounter each other … In this article, we propose several possible scenarios, including anthropogenic and natural hazards, both of which can be prevented with reforms in individual, institutional and intrinsic behaviors. We also take into account multiple calamity candidates: nuclear warfare, pathogens and pandemics, artificial intelligence, meteorite impacts, and climate change. 

And they offer solutions, beginning with, as they say:

… a necessary period of introspection, followed by appropriate refinements to properly approach our predicament, and addressing the challenges and methods in which we may be able to mitigate risk to mankind and the nearly 9 million other species on Earth.

In a sense, the authors of the new paper – including lead author Jonathan H. Jiang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – are engaging in a “necessary period of introspection” by the act of writing their paper.

And, with their paper, they’re laying out the challenges we’re facing and methods of addressing them.

We’ve already survived some ‘filters’

The scientists point to life’s resilience. Life on Earth has already survived a number of filters in the form of mass extinction events. The Permian-Triassic extinction – aka the Great Dying – occurred 250 million years ago and nearly ended all life on the planet. This extinction event wiped out about 96% of marine life and 70% of land species. The exact cause of the Great Dying is still a matter of study, but some scientists have said it was a combination of warming temperatures and decreasing oxygen.

But these previous filters, or extinction events, have been natural, arising from the evolution of our planet and solar system, including volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts

A Great Filter of our own making

But now, clearly, humanity may be facing a Great Filter of our own making, and one that other intelligent civilizations in the galaxy have faced … and failed to withstand. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the technological advancements humans have achieved might ultimately lead to our undoing. Perhaps that’s nature’s way. As the new paper said:

It seems as though nearly every great discovery or invention, while pushing back the borders of our technological ignorance, is all too quickly and easily turned to destructive ends. Examples such as splitting the atom, biomedical innovations and resource extraction and consumption come to mind with disconcerting swiftness. Still, some have suggested artificial intelligence (AI) as yet another factor, which, pending substantial technical hurdles, may yet have its chance to prove friend or foe.

Here’s a look at some of the issues that might compose Earth’s Great Filter.

Unchecked population growth

One of the factors Earth faces, according to the paper, is unchecked population growth. Earth just passed a milestone on November 15, 2022, when it reached 8 billion human inhabitants. The paper said with our current population figures, Earth has experienced:

… an exponential rise from about 1.6 billion [people] at the start of the 20th century.

Technological advancements in farming, energy production and distribution have made such a large population possible on Earth. But, as the paper said, these advancements cannot:

… indefinitely offset the multifaceted stresses imposed by an ever-escalating population.

When will Earth’s human population reach its peak size? Some projections report that education in developing nations might allow Earth’s population to peak at 10 billion in the 2060s. But, of course, no one really knows.

Nuclear war

While warfare has long been a factor of life on Earth, only in the past century has humanity had a weapon that could destroy all nations, not just those participating in a nuclear war. The scientists said the greater the number of democracies in the world, the better our chances for avoiding nuclear war. The scientist also saw other encouraging signs, including:

Peace agreements in the historically troubled Middle East, a vast reduction in nuclear warheads since the height of the Cold War and a wide coalition of nations rallying their support for the besieged in Eastern Europe.

Pathogens and pandemics

The threat of illness and pandemics continues to grow simply because our world is so interconnected. Spreading diseases have a much easier time in our global society. But on the positive side, advancements in medicine have also given us an edge. The scientists said that having current and reliable data is crucial:

… in predicting how future pandemics will spread, how deadly they will be and how quickly and effectively we will be able to leverage our knowledge of the life sciences to counter this manifestation of the Great Filter.

Artificial intelligence

While true artificial intelligence as a separate sentient being is not yet reality, the authors of the paper urge a proactive plan to peacefully share Earth. They project that computer sophistication will one day rival that of the human mind. The scientists said:

As for whether AI would be benign or otherwise, self-imposing a Great Filter of our own invention, that will depend on the evolving nature and disposition of Earth’s first high-tech species.

Asteroid and comet impacts

Here’s an extinction event from the past that could still spell our doom in the future. While large impacts are exceedingly rare, there is, as the scientists said:

… a non-zero percentage [of asteroids or comets] which are large enough to survive passage through the atmosphere and, impacting the surface, cause catastrophic destruction to our sensitive biosphere.

The odds of a mass extinction level event in the coming years is vanishingly small. But, over time periods extending into the very distant future, the odds increase toward 100%. Meanwhile, with projects such as the DART mission, and given enough lead time, humanity has a way of defending itself.

Climate change

Climate change has become one of the most studied threats to life on Earth. Because the threats from climate change happen on a slower time scale than, say, the time it takes to launch a nuclear weapon, the efforts to curb these effects have not been as rapid as they could have been. The scientists said:

The major impediment to taking more decisive actions, however, are the challenges imposed by transitioning to non-carbon-based energy sources such as solar, wind, nuclear power. Here again, rapidly advancing technologies in areas such as modularized nuclear power plants and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are among the best hopes for avoiding slow-motion ensnarement by this lulling but lethal Great Filter.

Avoiding the Great Filter

So you see there’s not just one possible Great Filter for Earth, but many. Any one of them could be our downfall. These scientists are suggesting something that sounds simple on its face, but is (apparently) hard to do. That is, in order to avoid the Great Filter, humans must work together and recognize the big picture. As the paper said:

History has shown that intraspecies competition and, more importantly, collaboration, has led us toward the highest peaks of invention. And yet, we prolong notions that seem to be the antithesis of long-term sustainable growth. Racism, genocide, inequity, sabotage … the list sprawls.

Meanwhile, we continue to look outward, peering at the dark depths between the stars, hoping for a sign that we aren’t alone in the universe. Ultimately, our quest to find life beyond Earth is part of trying to understand life on our planet and where we fit in. As Carl Sagan said:

In the deepest sense, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.

Bottom line: Scientists say the reason we haven’t found intelligent civilizations in the galaxy is that they may not have survived the Great Filter. And they say we may be facing down our own Great Filter.

Source: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2210/2210.10582.pdf

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We are a funny bunch! As was said just a couple of paragraphs ago we humans must work together and recognise the big picture. But we do not!

Why do we not do that?

I wish I knew the answer to that conundrum! Nevertheless, I hope you enjoyed the article.