666 – Six Maps of Hell

As any Bible reader, numerologist or Iron Maiden fan worth their salt knows, 666 is the Number of the Beast. It says so in Revelation 13:17-18, in wording enigmatic enough to keep conspiracy theologians guessing as to the Beast's true identity: Nero, the Pope, Mussolini, Obama?

And by stupid perseveranceI've kept numbering blog entries ever since #1 back in September 2006 – 666 is also the Number of this Post.

For once, the serial number isn't just incidental context. A number this special has to be the starting point of a blog post of its own. But in what cartographical setting? The Beast, whether it be the Antichrist or the Devil himself, clearly belongs in hell. So... welcome to New Jersey.

The unknown author of this fine map improves on Sartre's dictum that 'hell is other people' by presuming that everybody who has ever annoyed him/her lives in the Garden State, from the person who puked on my door last night over people who wear white after Labor Day via hippies and preppies to the girls in high school who would inevitably play 'Don't Stop Believing' anytime there was a piano, not to forget Simon Cowell. And even seagulls, poor things. 

But of course hell isn't in New Jersey! It's actually in Norway (and yes, it does freeze over). There's another one on Grand Cayman Island (that one doesn't) and a third one in Michigan. To even things out, there also is a Paradise, Michigan. Apparently, a round trip between both is exactly... 666 miles.

If Dante is to be believed, hell exists underneath Jerusalem, and is a literal Underworld: an inverted cone created by the Fall of Satan, descending into ever increasing agony to reach Hell Central at Earth's core, where the Devil is held in bondage. The Italian poet's Divina Commedia describes a journey from hell through purgatory to heaven – each divided into nine levels. 

At the risk of doing the ornate architecture of Dante's Inferno an injustice, here's a brief description:

In the Vestibule, or hell's antechamber, Dante finds the indifferent: those who, when faced with the choice between good and evil, did nothing. Hello, Pontius Pilate!

After crossing hell's border river the Acheron on Charon's ferry, we enter the First Circle, or Limbo: home to virtuous pagans like Virgil and Avicenna. Unlike all on lower levels, they have not actively sinned. It's rather pleasant, with green fields and a nice castle. But of course it's not Heaven: only for Christians!

The other circles are bunched in three main categories of increasing wickedness: Incontinence (2 to 5), Violence (7) and Fraud (8 and 9).

The Second Circle houses the Lustful. Look here for Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Tristan and others led astray by their carnal desires. In the Third Circle, the Gluttonous suffer for their overindulgence in food and drink. In the Fourth, the Avaricious (i.e. greedy) and Prodigal (i.e. wasteful), while including many cardinals and popes, form an amorphous, unrecognisable mass of people, guarded by Pluto, the pagan god of the Underworld. The Fifth Circle is bounded by another famous underworld river, the Styx. In it, the Wrathful fight each other.

Up til now, the sins punished were passive ones. All lower circles are contained within the walls of the Underworld city of Dis. Beyond here lie punishments for active sins. Heretics populate the Sixth Circle. They include the philosopher Epicurus, and the epicurean Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Guarded by a Minotaur, the Seventh Circle is divided in three rings, each containing a separate class of violent sinners: against their neighbours, against themselves (suicides e.a.) and against God (blasphemers, sodomites and usurers).

To reach the last two circles, Dante crosses the Abyss on the back of Geryon, a three-natured monster. The Eighth Circle is divided in 10 'evil pockets' (Malebolge), each successive one for a worse type of fraudster: Panderers and Seducers, Flatterers, Simonists (i.e. those who sell or buy church offices; Dante includes three Popes), Soothsayers, Grafters (i.e. corrupt politicians), Hypocrites, Thieves, False Counselors (Ulysses is here for that trick he pulled with the Trojan Horse), Sources of Discord (Muhammad's presence here may indicate Dante's view of Islam as heretical Christianity) and Counterfeiters and Falsifiers. 

Guarded by mythical Giants, the Ninth Circle holds the Traitors – the worst kind of sinners – stuck in the frozen lake called CocytusDante then encounters the worst traitor of all: Satan, a winged monster with three heads, chewing on other traitors: Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, and Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Crawling over Satan, Dante escapes to the other side of the world, where the ground displaced by Satan's fall has created a nine-circled hill – Purgatory.

Phew, what a long slog. And that's just the briefest of summaries. Attention spans aren't what they used to be. My guess is that nobody with a smartphone will ever be able to read the Divina Commedia to the finish. Then again, maybe reading is overrated as a means to an end. What if you could game Dante's masterpiece? It already has all those levels. This map has the right idea: a pixel-poor, colour-rich version of the Inferno, looking like each Circle is a game stage to be played through. What Circle of Hell would Mario be stuck at, I wonder?

Dante's rich imagination has impressed itself on our concept of hell, but there are many other such maps, some based on the imagination of other literary greats, like John Milton, who described the Awful Place in his Paradise Lost – famous quotes: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” and: “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

Milton's infernal topography, though less well known than Dante's, contains at least one familiar-sounding place: Pandemonium, the Capital of Hell.

But concepts of hell is not limited to Abrahamic theology. The English word itself predates the great monotheisms, and in pagan times denoted not so much the deplorable fate of wrongdoers, but a more morally neutral destination of the dead in general. This map shows Das Reich der Hel (loosely translatable as 'The Empire of Hell' – although the contemporary German word is Hölle). It attempts to show that, for pagan Germans, Hell was located somewhere in the North Sea.

As far as I can decipher the map, it posits a central point of Isis worship somewhere in in the Teutoburger Forest, close to the source of several rivers (the Lippe and Ems, among others), and from there several corridors towards the North Sea, often via places with names that seem to refer to the Underworld, most notably Helmond, Hellegat, Hellevoet along the Grosse Helweg ('Great Hell Way') due west from the Isis shrine. Others further north include Helsdeur, Helgoland and Halleri.

Several ship symbols on the coast show where ferries would take the dead to hell. The ship identified as Mannigfual is the mythological ship of the giants, so huge that its sides had to be soaped in to pass through the Dover Straits, and even then it just managed to scrape through (accounting for the whiteness of the cliffs on either side).

But where exactly is hell? The legend just above Mannigfual reads Totenreich ('Empire of the Dead'). Was hell just anywhere in (or under) the North Sea? Or was it perhaps at Hekla, outside the map? Hekla is a fearsome Icelandic volcano, which has erupted over a dozen times over the last thousand years. It was considered the gateway to hell – not a giant leap of the imagination about a mountain that breathes fire and spews sulphur. Yeah, that does sound like New Jersey.


The map of the Geography of Hell (New Jersey) found here. The map of Hell, Michigan found here on Pinterest. The map of Dante's Inferno taken here. 'Gaming' Hell found here on prafulla.net. A map of Milton's Hell found here. The Germanic map of Hell found here on Unexplained Mysteries.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.