Science Saturday

[Note: While the timestamp on this post is January 13, 12:59AM, it was actually posted EST, 11:59PM on January 12. Technically, it is Saturday. Just sayin.]

messengerorbita_sm.jpgMercury Rising NASA returns to Mercury for the first time in more than three decades on Monday. The Messenger spacecraft will do a flyby 124 miles above the planet’s surface. Scientists expect the Messenger will capture images of large, never before seen portions of the Sun’s closest neighbor. According to a press release from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the “encounter will provide a critical gravity assist needed to keep the spacecraft on track for its 2011 orbit insertion around Mercury.”

The last time NASA visited Mercury was Mariner 10’s third and final flyby on March 16, 1975. Only one hemisphere was visible. The press release notes, “Messenger is slightly more than halfway through a 4.9-billion mile journey to Mercury orbit that includes more than 15 trips around the Sun. It has already flown past Earth once (August 2, 2005) and Venus twice (October 24, 2006, and June 5, 2007).” Among the mission’s goals are to map Mercury’s surface elements and minerals, and determine the planet’s magnetic field and gravitational field structures. You can count down to Messenger’s ultimate orbit mission at the project’s official web site.

cartographia.jpgBack on Earth Every now and then I find myself watching Book TV. While surfing through cable the other day, I stumbled across this episode, featuring Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations by Vincent Virga. Virga, a picture editor, waded through the Library of Congress’ 4.8 million maps and 60,000 atlases, whittling his selection down to 200 images, to compile this history of maps and to contemplate how humans mark territory over time.

I love maps and globes and atlases. Partly, I like knowing where I stand in the world. I also find the colors—pale blue and sand, surrounded by pinks and greens—soothing. And the names of places—Kamchatka, Lhasa, Siam, Valencia, Addis Ababa, Perth—place names, some going back thousands of years, that define our tribes, our villages, our states.

Publishers Weekly wrote,

“Virga upends our notion of maps as two-dimensional representations of physical spaces by presenting depictions of imaginative or spiritual territory: a 17th-century map of the soul has five entry points, each corresponding to one of the five senses. And while we’re accustomed to maps being oriented north, Islamic and some other cartographers oriented their maps south…Virga provides historical, sociological and anthropological background to each map…This is one of those rare coffee-table books that deserves to be read, that repeatedly delights the eye while informing the mind about the rich variety of humans’ attempts to orient themselves in the world.”

I can’t wait to buy this book.

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