Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Skinwalker story 1

About 18 years ago, my buddy Kyle and I went canoeing down in south Georgia during the summer. The first part of the trip took us down the Satilla, a beautiful black water river with white sandy beaches. That part of the vacation was uneventful. The trip through the Okefenokee Swamp was not, however.

Even at the age of 17 we were fairly experienced campers. Every weekend we would hike or float down a river. We never left without first plotting a detailed map and we had the best equipment a couple of teenagers could afford. We always planned for the unexpected and made sure to take an extra couple of days worth of supplies. The trip into the swamp was only going to be a short day trip, leaving early in the morning and returning before dusk. We were totally unprepared for what happened.

We set off into the swamp early Saturday morning, leisurely paddling along the well marked canoe trail. We took in the sights of the gorgeous landscape, the beautiful plants and of course we marveled at the alligators. The two of us were loving every minute of our trek. Nearing midday, we became hungry so we paddled away from the trail a short distance, tied up to a tree, and made lunch.

After eating our ramen noodles and jerky we relaxed in the canoe, and soon both of us fell asleep. We woke up a couple of hours later and started paddling back to the main path. We thought so, anyway.

It didn't take us long to realize that we were lost. Neither of us felt any panic or distress. We had been in worse situtations and never failed to get through them. We were both confident we would soon find our way out of the maze in which we found ourselves.

The hours passed and the sun was getting lower in the sky. Still far from panicking, we were growing a bit anxious. We were just chalking it up to another 'Scott and Kyle Adventure'.

The sky continued to darken. At this point, we realized that we were going to have to spend the night in the swamp. Again, it was nothing we were really all that concerned about. We knew that the park rangers would be out looking for us the next day since our return time had come and gone. Kyle's family was staying in a nearby lodge, and even though we knew they naturally worried about us, we also knew that they were confident in our abilities and outdoor skills.

In the Okefenokee, camping is allowed only on platforms built above the water. That way the gators can't get ya. Obviously, we didn't have the luxury of a platform, so we tied up to another tree and just made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the boat.

We passed the time by eating, fishing, and watching the gators. Soon the sun had completely decended and it was night. It was eerily beautiful, and it seemed that Mother Nature had cranked up the volume to 11. The birds, frogs, insects and other swamp creatures became louder and louder. We talked about the sort of things that teenage boys talk about. We laughed and just enjoyed the moments.

THUMP. Something hit the bottom of our boat. THUMP THUMP. Again, something hit our boat. Kyle raised our small lantern and we saw what had to have been the largest alligator in the whole freaking swamp swim past. If it was less than 15 feet long I would be surprised. It turned around and came straight at us, hitting the boat again. Kyle grabbed his oar and smacked the water, hoping to scare the damn thing away. The gator seemed to grow even more brazen and aggressive and once again made a pass at our boat, really hitting it hard and rocking it a good bit. I felt like I was in an alligator version of 'Jaws'. We needed a bigger boat, indeed! I too grabbed an oar and we both began beating the hell out of the water. The gator went under us, REALLY knocked the shit out of the boat, and swam away. We thought it had left for good, but it returned after about 5 minutes. We repeated this entire cycle about 4 times. We were really getting scared that this fucker wanted to kill us. It swam away again, and we waited for it to make another strike.

Then everything went silent. Instantly. And by silent, I mean there was NOTHING making a sound. Not a fucking peep. Even the mosquitos that had been pestering us by buzzing around our faces had suddenly disappeared. We both looked at each other; our puzzled faces were illuminated by the dim lantern. Neither of us wanted to say anything to break the silence. I don't really think either of us could have said anything, anyway.

SPLASH. SPLISH SPLASH. The sound was off to our right, probably 20-30 yards away. That damn gator again, I thought. Thankfully the eerie silence was giving way to some sort of activity. Nope, nothing else made a sound. SPLAAASH. This one sounded heavier; more violent. I told myself it was still just the gator.

Kyle whispered. "Why is it so quiet?"
I didn't have an answer. Surely, no animal in the swamp was so threatening that even the damn crickets and skeeters shut up. Not even our gator menace had quieted the sounds of the Okefenokee.

Of course, as in all movie thrillers, the lantern went out and we couldn't reignite it. And of course, as in all situations like this, the clouds parted and the moon revealed itself.

And of course, the two teenage boys who up to this point were relatively unrattled nearly pissed themselves.

SPLASH! Something darted through the trees to our right. It was not an animal. Well, if it was an animal it was walking on its hind legs. A bear maybe?

"Christ. What in the fuck was that?!" I said, but not too loudly. Didn't want it to hear me.

"SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS". Something made a sound like air escaping from a tire. The same figure we saw earlier moved through the trees again.

CRACK! THUMP. CRAAACK! The cracks were sharp and violent. The thump was dull and had a hollow tone to it. Still no other sounds in the whole freaking area.

"SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS". There it was again, only a little louder.

Several minutes passed with nothing happening. Our little part of the world was still deathly silent.


Something landed in the water right next to our canoe. PLOP. PLOP PLOP PLOP. It became apparent that the thing was throwing pebbles or something at us.
Okay, now this is getting fucking ridiculous, I thought. Bears don't fucking throw things. Both Kyle and I simultaneously drew our hunting knives from their sheaths, as if that was going to do anything whatsoever.

What happened next was something I will never forget. It is something that both of us wish we had dreamed. It is something that we don't even speak about when we see each other almost 20 years later. Jesus, I'm getting goosebumps and quite nervous even typing this.

CLINK. Something landed in our canoe. CLINK CLINK. Two more somethings landed in our canoe. CLINK CLINK CLINK. Ok, enough with fucking THROWING SHIT INTO OUR CANOE!

It was then we realized that whatever the objects were had come from above, NOT from either side. We looked at each other, our faces so white they rivaled the moon. At the same time, our gazes drew upward.

There it was. Sitting in the tree. OUR TREE. The tree to which we were tied. You know that goat in Jurassic Park that was tied up for the T-Rex to eat? Yeah, we were that goat.

I swear to christ that this thing must have been a child of the moon. The moon seemed to cast down its light on our friend in particular, illuminating it much more clearly than anything else in the area. It was as if the moon wanted us to see this thing in all its glory.

It was humanoid- it had the body of a man with the head of the skull of some kind of animal. It looked kind of like a wolf or coyote or something similar. The eyes glowed yellow, and there was fur covering the shoulders and upper body. This thing was built like a tank, too. Its muscles rippled under its pale skin. It breathed deeply and slowly. In one hand it held some sort of staff that was maybe 3 feet long with a huge knot at one end. Around its neck there was a pouch made from leather.

Oh, one thing I should mention is that this tree had no branches on the lower half of the tree where the creature was. It was grasping the tree with one arm, the staff clutched tightly in that hand. Its feet seemed to be dug into the tree trunk.
With its free hand, he pointed at us. Keep in mind that Kyle and I were in opposite ends of the boat, but each of us swore that it was looking straight into the eyes of each of us. Strangely, our sense of fear went away once it gazed into us. A sense of calm and 'This is gonna be ok' came over us. Slowly, it withdrew its outstretched hand, opened the pouch around its neck, reached two long fingers inside and took something out. It slowly extended its arm again, and dropped the objects into our boat.

"GWAHHHHHHHHHHHHH SSSSSSSSSSSSSKKKKKKKKKKKKKHHHHHH" is the best approximation of the sound it made. It pointed at us again, then pointed off into the distance, to our right.

It leapt from the tree, landed with a very quiet splash, and darted off. The clouds gathered around the moon, and all the swamp's inhabitants began making their music once again.

Of course, we didn't sleep a wink. We sat in silence for the rest of the night, too awed and scared to speak.

The direction it pointed to turned out to be the way back to the trail.

The objects in our boat? Alligator teeth. Freshly dug out from a recently dead gator.

It was clear that this thing had been watching over us.

Once we got back to the canoe center, we told the story of being lost and the gator to the park rangers and Kyle's family. We left the part about our friend out. After we all settled down a bit, we talked to the rangers about the history of the swamp, hoping to gain some insight into what had happened. They mentioned nothing about ghosts, and scoffed at us when we brought it up. They did say that many indian burial mounds have been found, though... some 4000 years old.

Anyway, Kyle and I talked it about once and only once after it happened. It was so amazing, unbelievable, and awe inspiring that we have no need to discuss it I guess. As for telling the story, no one would believe us anyway.

The Skinwalker

In some Native American legends, a skin-walker is a person with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal he or she desires. Similar lore can be found in cultures throughout the world and is often referred to as shapeshifting by anthropologists.

Navajo skinwalker: the Yenaldlooshii

Possibly the best documented skinwalker beliefs are those relating to the Navajo Yeenaaldlooshii (literally "with it, he goes on all fours" in the Navajo language). A Yeenaaldlooshii is one of several varieties of Navajo witch (specifically an ’ánt’įįhnii or practitioner of the Witchery Way, as opposed to a user of curse-objects (’adagąsh) or a practitioner of Frenzy Way (’azhįtee)). Technically, the term refers to an ’ánt’įįhnii who is using his (rarely her) powers to travel in animal form. In some versions men or women who have attained the highest level of priesthood then commit the act of killing an immediate member of their family, and then have thus gained the evil powers that are associated with skinwalkers.

The ’ánt’įįhnii are human beings who have gained supernatural power by breaking a cultural taboo. Specifically, a person is said to gain the power to become a Yeenaaldlooshii upon initiation into the Witchery Way. Both men and women can become ’ánt’įįhnii and therefore possibly skinwalkers, but men are far more numerous. It is generally thought that only childless women can become witches.

Although it is most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the Yeenaaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need. Witches use the form for expedient travel, especially to the Navajo equivalent of the 'Black Mass', a perverted song (and the central rite of the Witchery Way) used to curse instead of to heal. They also may transform to escape from pursuers.

Some Navajo also believe that skinwalkers have the ability to steal the "skin" or body of a person. The Navajo believe that if you lock eyes with a skinwalker they can absorb themselves into your body. It is also said that skinwalkers avoid the light and that their eyes glow like an animal's when in human form and when in animal form their eyes do not glow as an animal's would.

A skinwalker is usually described as naked, except for a coyote skin, or wolf skin. Some Navajos describe them as a mutated version of the animal in question. The skin may just be a mask, like those which are the only garment worn in the witches' sing.

Because animal skins are used primarily by skinwalkers, the pelt of animals such as bears, coyotes, wolves, and cougars are strictly tabooed. Sheepskin and buckskin are probably two of the few hides used by Navajos; the latter is used only for ceremonial purposes.

Often, Navajos will tell of their encounter with a skinwalker, though there is a lot of hesitancy to reveal the story to non-Navajos, or (understandably) to talk of such frightening things at night. Sometimes the skinwalker will try to break into the house and attack the people inside, and will often bang on the walls of the house, knock on the windows, and climb onto the roofs. Sometimes, a strange, animal-like figure is seen standing outside the window, peering in. Other times, a skinwalker may attack a vehicle and cause a car accident. The skinwalkers are described as being fast, agile, and impossible to catch. Though some attempts have been made to shoot or kill one, they are not usually successful. Sometimes a skinwalker will be tracked down, only to lead to the house of someone known to the tracker. As in European werewolf lore, sometimes a wounded skinwalker will escape, only to have someone turn up later with a similar wound which reveals them to be the witch. It is said that if a Navajo was to know the person behind the skinwalker they had to pronounce the full name, and about three days later that person would either get sick or die for the wrong that they have committed.

According to Navajo legend, skinwalkers can have the power to read human thoughts. They also possess the ability to make any human or animal noise they choose. A skinwalker may use the voice of a relative or the cry of an infant to lure victims out of the safety of their homes.

The legend of the skinwalkers tells of God giving the people a gift of transformation that was used only against their enemies. Over time, the people began to abuse this power, thus bringing God to earth to reclaim it. Some gave the power up and others hid with it and passed the knowledge to others.

Some tribes believe that skinwalkers can use the spit, hair, or shoes and old clothing of a person to make curses that will attack that specific person. For this reason many Navajo will never spit or leave shoes outside. They also take great care to see that any hair or nail clippings are burned. Children are advised that if they urinate outside to kick dirt over the spot so that a skinwalker cannot use it to make a curse against them.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls

Juma was beginning to get nervous. Some of his goats were climbing too high up the cliffs. He decided to climb the face of the cliff himself to bring them back. Little did Juma realize as he began his climb on that January day in 1947 that those straying goats would eventually involve him in “the greatest archaeological discovery in the twentieth century.” Such thoughts were far from his mind when he saw two small openings to one of the thousands of caves that dot those barren cliffs overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.
He threw a rock into one of the openings. The unexpected cracking sound surprised him; what else could be in those remote caves but treasure? He called to his cousins, Khalil and Muhammed, who climbed up and heard the exciting tale. But it was getting late, and the goats had to be gathered. Tomorrow they would return—perhaps their days of following goats would come to an end once the treasure was uncovered!
The youngest of the three, Muhammed, rose the next day before his two fellow “treasure-seekers” and made his way to the cave. The cave floor was covered with debris, including broken pottery. Along the wall stood a number of narrow jars, some with their bowl-shaped covers still in place. Frantically, Muhammed began to explore the inside of each jar, but no treasure of gold was to be found… only a few bundles wrapped in cloth and greenish with age. Returning to his cousins, he related the sad news—no treasure.
No treasure indeed! The scrolls those Bedouin boys removed from that dark cave that day and the days following would come to be recognized as the greatest manuscript treasure ever found—the first seven manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls!
Such was the discovery of a group of manuscripts which were a thousand years older than the then-oldest-known Hebrew texts of the Bible (manuscripts, many of which were written more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus). These manuscripts would excite the archaeological world and provide a team of translators with a gigantic task that even to this day has not been completed.
The story of how those scrolls traveled from the hands of young Bedouin goat herders to be under the scrutinous eyes of international scholars is stranger than fiction. Although all the details of the next few years will probably never be known for sure, this much is clear. After hanging from a pole in a Bedouin tent for a period of time, the seven original scrolls were sold to two separate Arab antiquities dealers in Bethlehem. From there, four were sold (for a small amount) to Athanasius Samuel, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan at St. Mark's Monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem. Scholars at the American School of Oriental Research, who examined them, were the first to realize their antiquity. John Trever photographed them in detail, and the great archaeologist William F. Albright soon announced that the scrolls were from the period between 200 BC and AD 200. The initial announcements were then made that the oldest manuscripts ever discovered had been found in the Judean desert!
Three of the other original scrolls found by the Bedouin boys were sold to E. L. Sukenik, archaeologist at Hebrew University and father of Yigal Yadin (a general in the Israeli army who later became a famous archaeologist and excavator of Masada and Hazor). It should be noted that the drama of these events was heightened because these were the last days of the British Mandate period in Palestine, and tensions between the Arab and Jewish population were great. This made examination of the scrolls by scholars extremely dangerous.
All of the scrolls finally came together at Hebrew University under another strange set of circumstances. After touring the U.S. with his four scrolls and not being able to find an interested buyer, Metropolitan Samuel placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal. By coincidence (or divine providence?) Yigal Yadin happened to be lecturing in New York and saw the advertisement. Through intermediaries, he was able to purchase these priceless scrolls for around $250,000. In February of 1955, the Prime Minister of Israel announced that the State of Israel had purchased the scrolls, and all seven (including the three purchased earlier by Professor Sukenik) were to be housed in a special museum at Hebrew University named the Shrine of the Book, where they can be seen today.
Needless to say, the initial announcement about the scrolls prompted feverish searches in the area of the original discoveries. An official archaeological expedition was begun in 1949 which eventually resulted in the discovery of ten additional caves in the surrounding area also containing scrolls. The archaeologists then directed their attention to a small ruin nearby called "Khirbet (ruins of) Qumran," which had been thought of as the remains of an old Roman fortress. After six seasons of intensive excavation, the scholars were sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the scrolls found their origin in this community which flourished between 125 BC and AD 68. The scrolls had been stored in haste in the caves as the community fled the encroaching Roman army, which was in Judea to put down the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70.
The ruins of Qumran, which can be visited today, revealed that a substantial group of Jewish ascetics inhabited this community. Storehouses, aqueducts, ritual baths and an assembly hall were all uncovered. One of the most interesting rooms uncovered was a scriptorium, identified by two ink wells discovered there along with some benches for scribes. It was in this room that many, if not all, of the discovered manuscripts were copied.

Description of the Scrolls

As soon as the announcement of the scrolls' discovery was made, the scholarly debates about their origin and significance began. The debates increased when the amazing contents of the scrolls were successively revealed.
The seven original scrolls, from what came to be called “Cave One,” comprised the following:
  1. a well-preserved copy of the entire prophecy of Isaiah—the oldest copy of an Old Testament book ever to be discovered
  2. another fragmentary scroll of Isaiah
  3. a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk—the commentator explained the book allegorically interms of the Qumran brotherhood
  4. the “Manual of Discipline” or “Community Rule”—the most important source of information about the religious sect at Qumran—it described the requirements for those aspiring to join the brotherhood
  5. the “Thanksgiving Hymns,” a collection of devotional “psalms” of thanksgiving and praise to God
  6. an Aramaic paraphrase of the Book of Genesis
  7. the “Rule of War” which dealt with the battle between the “Sons of Light” (the men of Qumran) and the “Sons of Darkness” (the Romans?) yet to take place in the “last days,” which days the men of Qumran believed were about to arrive.
Those seven original scrolls were just the beginning. Over six hundred scrolls and thousands of fragments have been discovered in the 11 caves of the Qumran area. Fragments of every Biblical book except Esther have been found, as well as many other non-Biblical texts.
One of the most fascinating of the finds was a copper scroll which had to becut in strips to be opened and which contained a list of 60 treasures located in various parts of Judea (none of which have been found)! Another scroll, which Israeli archaeologists recovered in 1967 underneath the floor of a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, describes in detail the community's view of an elaborate Temple ritual. This has been appropriately called the “Temple Scroll.”
The contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that their authors were a group of priests and laymen pursuing a communal life of strict dedication to God. Their leader was called the “Righteous Teacher.” They viewed themselves as the only true elect of Israel—they alone were faithful to the Law.
They opposed the “Wicked Priest”—the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem who represented the establishment, and who had persecuted them in some way. This wicked priest was probably one of the Maccabean rulers who had illegitimately assumed the high priesthood between 150-140 BC. Most scholars have identified the Qumran brotherhood with the Essenes, a Jewish sect of Jesus' day described by Josephus and Philo.
Whoever the men of Qumran were, their writings provide us with a marvelous background picture of one aspect of the religious world into which Jesus came. Some have sought to draw parallels between figures in the scrolls and John the Baptist or Jesus, but an objective examination of such parallels reveals that the differences are greater than the similarities. Any contact of Jesus with Qumran is entirely speculative and most improbable. The suggestion that John the Baptist may have spent some time with the Qumran community is possible, since the Gospels tell us that he spent considerable time in the wilderness near the area where the Qumran community is located (Mt. 3:1-3; Mk. 1:4; Lk. 1:80; 3:2-3). John's message, however, differed markedly from that of the Qumran brotherhood. The only real common point was that they both taught that the "kingdom of God" was coming.
One of the most important contributions of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the numerous Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered. Until those discoveries at Qumran, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were copies from the 9th and 10th centuries AD by a group of Jewish scribes called the Massoretes. Now we have manuscripts around a thousand years older than those. The amazing truth is that these manuscripts are almost identical! Here is a strong example of the tender care which the Jewish scribes down through the centuries took in an effort to accurately copy the sacred Scriptures. We can have confidence that our Old Testament Scriptures faithfully represent the words given to Moses, David and the prophets.

Doctrine of the Scrolls

The men of Qumran fervently believed in a doctrine of “last things.” They had fled to the desert and were readying themselves for the imminent judgment, when their enemies would be vanquished and they, God's elect, would be given final victory in accordance with the predictions of the prophets. It was in connection with these end-time events that one of the most fascinating teachings of the sect emerges. The messianic hope loomed large in the thought of the brotherhood. As a matter of fact, evidence shows that they actually believed in three messiahs—one a prophet, another a priest and the third a king or prince.
In the document mentioned earlier called the “Manual of Discipline” or the "Rule of the Community," it is laid down that the faithful should continue to live under the rule "until the coming of a prophet and the anointed ones [messiahs] of Aaron and Israel" (column 9, line 11). These three figures would appear to usher in the age for which the community was making preparation.
In another document found in Cave Four and referred to as the “Testimonia,” a number of Old Testament passages are brought together which formed the basis for their messianic expectations. The first is the citation from Deuteronomy 18:18-19 where God says to Moses: "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee." Next comes a quotation from Numbers 24:15-17, where Balaam foresees the rise of a princely conqueror: "a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab," etc. The third passage is the blessing pronounced by Moses upon the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) in Deuteronomy 33:8-11. The way in which these three quotations are brought together suggests that the writer looked forward to the advent of a great prophet, a great prince and a great priest.
There were three individuals in the Old Testament writings that were referred to as "my anointed ones"—the prophet, the priest and the king (refer to Ex. 29:29; 1 Sam. 16:13, 24:6; 1 Kg. 19:16; Ps. 105:15). Each of these was consecrated to his work by an anointing with oil. The Hebrew word for "anointed" is meshiach, from which we get the word Messiah.
The marvelous truth of the New Testament doctrine of the Messiah is that each of these three offices found fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth! The people were amazed at His feeding of the multitude and said, "This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world" (Jn. 6:14; also Jn. 7:40; Acts 3:22, 7:37). Jesus also was a priest, not from the order of Levi but from the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7), who offered Himself as a sacrifice and appears for us in the presence of His Father (Heb. 9:24-26; 10:11-12). Also, Jesus was announced as the One who will receive "the throne of his father, David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Lk. 1:32-33). He will be acclaimed "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS" (Rev. 19:16).
Thus, we have found an interesting point of contact between Qumran and Christianity—a point of contact which is also a point of cleavage. The Qumran community and the early Christians agreed that in the days of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies there would arise a great prophet, a great priest and a great king. But these three figures remained distinct in Qumran expectation, whereas the New Testament saw them unified in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
One more manuscript that has come to light in recent years provides a fascinating background to the New Testament messianic hope. It has been reconstructed from twelve small fragments, furnishing less than two columns of writing; but this much can be ascertained from its brief contents. It is a prediction of the birth of a Wonderful Child, possibly drawing on Isaiah 9:6-7: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given... and his name shall be called Wonderful." This child will bear special marks on His body and will be distinguished by wisdom and intelligence. He will be able to probe the secrets of all living creatures, and He will inaugurate the new age for which the faithful fervently awaited.
Is it not striking that soon after this manuscript was composed, a child wa sborn who fulfilled the hopes of Israel and inaugurated a new age? Although the men of Qumran were mistaken in the details of their messiah, they did expect one whose general characteristics were strikingly illustrated by Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Messiah. It is not known if some early Christian brought the message of Jesus to this wilderness community. We are left only to speculate on how they would have responded to the Wonderful Child born in Bethlehem who was the Prophet, Priest and King of Israel.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oldest galaxy?

Astronomers believe they've found the oldest thing they've ever seen in the universe: It's a galaxy far, far away from a time long, long ago.
Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That's a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far.
By now the galaxy is so ancient it probably doesn't exist in its earlier form and has already merged into bigger neighbors, said Matthew Lehnert of the Paris Observatory, lead author of the study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Remove Formatting from selection"We're looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age," said California Institute of Technology astronomy professor Richard Ellis, who wasn't part of the discovery team. "In human terms, we're looking at a 4-year-old boy in the life span of an adult."
While Ellis finds the basis for the study "pretty good," there have been other claims about the age of distant space objects that have not held up to scrutiny. And some experts have questions about this one. But even the skeptics praised the study as important and interesting.
The European astronomers calculated the age after 16 hours of observations from a telescope in Chile that looked at light signatures of cooling hydrogen gas.
Earlier this year, astronomers had made a general estimate of 600 to 800 million years after the Big Bang for the most distant fuzzy points of light in the Hubble photograph, which was presented at an astronomy meeting back in January.
In the new study, researchers focused on a single galaxy in their analysis of hydrogen's light signature, further pinpointing the age. Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was the scientist behind the Hubble image, said it provides confirmation for the age using a different method, something he called amazing "for such faint objects."
The new galaxy doesn't have a name — just a series of letters and numbers. So Lehnert said he and colleagues have called it "the high red-shift blob. "Because it takes so long for the light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like 13.1 billion years ago at a time when it was quite young — maybe even as young as 100 million years old — Lehnert said. It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars, he said.
What's most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would have formed not too soon after them.
"We're looking almost to the edge, almost within 100 million years of seeing the very first objects," Ellis said. "One hundred million years to a human seems an awful long time, but in astronomical time periods, that's nothing compared to the life of the stars."

Mayan prophecy pegged to wrong year?

It's a good news/bad news situation for believers in the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. The good news is that the Mayan "Long Count" calendar may not end on Dec. 21, 2012 (and, by extension, the world may not end along with it). The bad news for prophecy believers? If the calendar doesn't end in December 2012, no one knows when it actually will — or if it has already.
A new critique, published as a chapter in the new textbook "Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World" (Oxbow Books, 2010), argues that the accepted conversions of dates from Mayan to the modern calendar may be off by as much as 50 or 100 years. That would throw the supposed and overhyped 2012 apocalypse off by decades and cast into doubt the dates of historical Mayan events. (The doomsday worries are based on the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, much as our year ends on Dec. 31.)
The Mayan calendar was converted to today's Gregorian calendar using a calculation called the GMT constant, named for the last initials of three early Mayanist researchers. Much of the work emphasized dates recovered from colonial documents that were written in the Mayan language in the Latin alphabet, according to the chapter's author, Gerardo Aldana, University of California, Santa Barbara professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies.
Later, the GMT constant was bolstered by American linguist and anthropologist Floyd Lounsbury, who used data in the Dresden Codex Venus Table, a Mayan calendar and almanac that charts dates relative to the movements of Venus.
"He took the position that his work removed the last obstacle to fully accepting the GMT constant," Aldana said in a statement. "Others took his work even further, suggesting that he had proven the GMT constant to be correct."
But according to Aldana, Lounsbury's evidence is far from irrefutable.
"If the Venus Table cannot be used to prove the FMT as Lounsbury suggests, its acceptance depends on the reliability of the corroborating data," he said. That historical data, he said, is less reliable than the Table itself, causing the argument for the GMT constant to fall "like a stack of cards."
Aldana doesn't have any answers as to what the correct calendar conversion might be, preferring to focus on why the current interpretation may be wrong. Looks like end-of-the-world theorists may need to find another ancient calendar on which to pin their apocalyptic hopes. chronicles the daily advances and innovations made in science and technology. We take on the misconceptions that often pop up around scientific discoveries and deliver short, provocative explanations with a certain wit and style. Check out our science videos, Trivia & Quizzes and Top 10s. Join our community to debate hot-button issues like stem cells, climate change and evolution. You can also sign up for free newsletters, register for RSS feeds and get cool gadgets at the LiveScience Store.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

UFO's over Manhattan

A mysterious shiny object floating high over Manhattan's West Side set off a flurry of reports and wild speculation Wednesday that a UFO was flying over the city.Police and the FAA said they began getting flooded with calls starting at 1:30 p.m. from people reporting a silvery object hovering high over Chelsea.Law enforcement sources said they believed the object was likely some sort of balloon, but as of late Wednesday they had not confirmed exactly what it is.A Daily News reporter could see a tiny, silver dot floating approximately 5,000 feet above 23th St. and Eighth Ave., where dozens of people gathered late in the afternoon to catch a glimpse."It's been hovering there for a while. I'm just kind of baffled," said Joseph Torres, 49, of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, who spotted the object after leaving a movie.

"How can it be ordinary? There is something going on."Despite clear skies, it was not easy to make out the tiny object shimmering overhead."You really have to look up to see it," said one witness, who gave only his first name, Rico. "It's a little crazy. I guess that's why they call it an unidentified flying object because they don't know what it is."Not long after the first sightings, messages began appearing on Twitter linking to a month-old press release announcing the publication of a book by a retired NORAD officer predicting that UFOs would buzz the earth's major cities on Oct. 13.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it received several calls to its operations center but after reviewing radar data, the agency could not find anything out of the ordinary."We re-ran radar to see if there was anything there that we can't account for but there is nothing in the area," said spokesman Jim Peters. "There was some helicopter traffic over the river at that time and we checked with LaGuardia Tower. And they said they had nothing going low at that time.""Nothing that we can account for would prompt this kind of response," he said.Peters said if it was a weather balloon or any kind of organized balloon release, authorities should have been notified in advance. Police officials said they had received no notification.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chinese UFO over Inner Mongolia still a mystery

UFO? Kite? New Chinese military aircraft? Whatever it was last month, it's still hovering in the news.
China's state-run People's Daily reported Sept. 13 (in its "Life & Culture" section) that air traffic controllers "observed with instruments" a UFO about 20 miles from Baotou, the largest city in Inner Mongolia, about 8 p.m. on Sept. 11. Flights were diverted to a secondary airport and three flights were forced to circle to avoid "collisions," a Baotou Airport spokeswoman said. Normal operations resumed after about an hour. The PD offered no details about the UFO.

Yesterday, the UFO reappeared — in the saucy British tabloid The Sun, renewing interest in the night lights over northeastern China. Accompanying a photo, The Sun wrote that a "major" airport "was forced to shut down to prevent packed passenger jets crashing into a UFO." Without citing a source, the paper described the object as, quote, "flat and tubular" (a seeming oxymoron ) and wrote that it "hovered two miles from Bootee" (its transliteration of Baotou). "Astonished officials say it then zoomed in to circle the airport before suddenly vanishing," according to The Sun.

Video shows nothing but an occasional blinking light. UFOs over China are becoming almost routine.

Last month's report was the ninth in three months, with at least eight sightings reported in several provinces between late June and late July. One in July that briefly closed an airport in Hangzhou turned out to be part of a military test at a nearby air base. Another UFO was just jet contrails, and one other was a kite.
The blurry photo in The Sun looks suspiciously like the UFO that disrupted air traffic in Hangzhou for an hour the night of July 7. And the details of that incident also have a familiar, earthly ring.