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It Works for the Turks: A Colour for Each Direction
Turkish cardinal directions? I didn't even know they had cardinals in Turkey!
What colour is the sea? Why, blue of course (1). Unless you're Homer. In which case your numerous references to the Aegean as the "wine-dark sea" will puzzle scholars for centuries to come (2).
There are other curious exceptions. If you're Turkish, the question What colour is the Mediterranean? is its own answer. The Turks call that body of water Akdeniz, which literally means: the White Sea.
Some maps, like this late-19th-century serio-comic map of Europe, take the Black Sea's name literally.
But then of course English also has its coloured seas – four, to be precise, although none of the toponyms is native to the English language. One also is a White Sea, though not quite blessed with the same balmy climate as its Turkish namesake. A direct translation from the original Russian (3), the white in this sea's name refers to the ice floes that block shipping to and from Arkhangelsk, the region's major port, for at least half the year.
The Yellow Sea is another direct translation. Called Huánghǎi (黄海) in Chinese, the sea gets its name from the sand particles that travel down the Yellow River, or Huánghé (黄河), from the Gobi Desert, and can turn the sea's surface golden yellow.
Another popular literalist representation, this time of the Red Sea.
The Black Sea is rich in iron sulfide, allowing very little else but sulfur bacteria to thrive. Hence the darkness of the sea's sediment, and of its waters when stirred. The oldest recorded name for the sea, dating from around 500 BC, already refers to its colour: the Achaemenids called it Axšaina, (Persian for 'black').
A proposed alternative flag for Turkey, composed of the colours associated by Turkish with the cardinal directions.
Greek popular etymology transformed the Persian word into axeinos ('inhospitable') when Greek settlers first arrived on the sea's shores, and into euxinos ('hospitable') when they became more numerous in and familiar with the region.
The last coloured body of water is the Red Sea, separating Africa from Arabia. The Greeks already called it Red Sea, or Erythra Thalassa (Ερυθρὰ Θάλασσα) (4). One theory is that the red of the name refers to the seasonal blooming near the water's surface of a red-coloured cyanobacterium called Trichodesmium erytrhaeum – sometimes also known as sea sawdust.
The traditional Chinese colour/direction scheme seems to match the Turkish one.
But there is another theory. Certain Asiatic languages use colours to refer to cardinal directions. In his Histories, Herodotus on one occasion refers to the “Erythrean or southern” sea, using the terms interchangeably. Could it be that the Red Sea owes its name to something else than bacteria - and perhaps the Black Sea too?
Let's go back to the curious Turkish name for the Mediterranean. Turkish is one of several languages and cultures to associate the cardinal directions with colours. White, you guessed it, is linked to west, as the Mediterranean lies to the west of Asia Minor, homeland of the Turks. Two other names also fall into place: north is black, south is red. And indeed: the Black Sea – Karadeniz – is to the north of Turkey, the Red Sea – Kizildeniz – to the South.
Sea the sights: a Turkish colour scheme for the Middle East.
What about east? In Turkish, that direction is associated with blue. But there is no Gökdeniz ('Blue Sea') to the east of Turkey. The likeliest candidate is the Caspian Sea, landlocked between Russia in the north and Iran in the south, flanked by the Caucasus region in the west and the 'stans in the east. But it is called Hazar denizi in modern Turkish. Literally translated, the 'Khazar Sea', after the disappeared Turkic tribe that famously converted to Judaism around the 9th century.
The Blue Sea - an atrophied Turkish toponym?
However, on Emanuel Bowen's 1747 Map of Iran, a northern inlet of the Caspian Sea is labelled the Blue Sea. The area has been known afterward as Tsesarevich Bay and, in communist times, as Komsomolets Bay. It is currently called Dead Kultuk. Could its former name be a residue of an older Turkish toponym, one that covered the entire sea? Then again, other sources seem to suggest that the Aral Sea may have been the Turks' orlginal Gökdeniz.
At the crosshairs of the four coloured seas: the original Turkey?
The question of coloured cardinal directions is not just of interest from a historical or linguistic point of view. Linking Turkish culture to ancient toponyms provides a proximate location for Turkish ancestral lands. In a region riddled with ancient grudges about territorial loss and conquest, such archaeo-linguistic evidence of residential antiquity is highly valuable.
Many thanks to Luis Alipio for sending me the colour maps of the Black and Red Seas.
The 'serio-comic map' is Das Heutige Europa, published in 1887 by Caesar Schmidt in Zürich for the satirical magazine Nebelspalter ('Fog-cleaver'). Image found here on russianuniverse.org. The Red Sea map is an excerpt from Battista Agnese's 1544 world map, found here on Wikipedia. Alternate Turkish flag found here on the Steampoweredwolf page at Deviantart. Chinese cardinal direction scheme found here on Xue-Hanyu.com. Map of the Caspian Sea by E. Bowen (1747), found here on Wikipedia. Images of the four seas and of the putative Turkish ancestral homeland taken here from the blog Tareh ve Arkeoloji ('History and Archeology').
Strange Maps #770
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) From Blackadder, recall Baldrick's pathetic attempt at lexicography by defining the letter C as: "Big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in".
(2) It has been suggested that Homer was colour-blind, that ancient Greek lacked a word for 'blue', that marine algae gave the Aegean that particular hue, that it referred to dust-induced red sunsets, and even that Greek wine in antiquity was... blue! Indeed, in a 1983 letter to the science journal Nature, two Canadian scientists proposed that the water used by the Greeks to dilute their wine contained alkalines of such quality and in such quantity that it turned the originally red-coloured drink blue. Likeliest still is the standard explanation: that of poetic licence.
(3) Byeloye More (Белое море). Curiously, the related Slavic languages of Serbian and Bulgarian use their equivalent to describe... the Aegean.
(4) Also the origin of the name of the modern state of Eritrea, thus, literally: "Redland".
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
Ancient Mayans have been a continuing source of inspiration for their monuments, knowledge, and mysterious demise. Now a new study discovers some of the drugs they used. For the first time, scientists found remnants of a non-tobacco plant in Mayan drug containers. They believe their analysis methods can allow them exciting new ways of investigating the different types of psychoactive and non-psychoactive plants used by the Maya and other pre-Colombian societies.
The research was carried out by a team from Washington State University, led by anthropology postdoc Mario Zimmermann. They spotted residue of the Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) in 14 tiny ceramic vessels that were buried over a 1,000 years ago on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The containers also exhibited chemical traces of two types of tobacco: Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica. Scientists think the marigold was mixed in with the tobacco to make the experience more pleasant.
"While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored," said Zimmermann. "The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before."
The scientists used a new method based on metabolomics that is able to pinpoint thousands of plant compounds, or metabolites, in residue of archaeological artifacts like containers and pipes. This allows the researchers to figure out which specific plants were utilized. The way plant residue was identified before employed looking for specific biomarkers from nicotine, caffeine, and other such substances. That approach would not be able to spot what else was consumed outside of what biomarker was found. The new way gives much more information, showing the researchers a fuller picture of what the ancient people ingested.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
The containers in the study were found by Zimmerman and a team of archaeologists in 2012.
"When you find something really interesting like an intact container it gives you a sense of joy," shared Zimmermann. "Normally, you are lucky if you find a jade bead. There are literally tons of pottery sherds but complete vessels are scarce and offer a lot of interesting research potential."
The researchers are negotiating with various Mexican institutions to be able to study more ancient containers for plant residues. They also aim to look at organic materials possibly preserved in the dental plaque of ancient remains.
Check out the study published in Scientific Reports.
For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
- The bodies of some Tibetan monks remain "fresh" after what appears to be their death.
- Their fellow monks say they're not dead yet but in a deep, final meditative state called "thukdam."
- Science has not found any evidence of lingering EEG activity after death in thukdam monks.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.