Welcome Home Taikonauts!

China has made another great leap forward in their space program. At 2:05 GMT today, the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft landed safely in Inner Mongolia.

The capsule contained three Chinese taikonauts (astronauts), including Major Liu Yang, China’s first female taikonaut to go on a mission. The state press has nicknamed Major Liu Yang the “little Flying Knight,” which seems a wee bit condescending for such a brave pioneer.

The crew had been in space for 13 days and had docked with the Tiangong-1 space platform, the nucleus of what will become China’s space station by 2020. Above is a Wikimedia Commons diagram of Shenzhou-9 (right) docked with Tiangong-1 (left). The landing was broadcast live on state television.

As Chinese space missions become more common, the question becomes what to call their crews. The Chinese government doesn’t seem to be able to decide. Depending on the source and the language of the official statement, they’re variously referred to as astronauts, cosmonauts, “tàikōng rén” (“spacemen”) or taikonauts, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a hybrid of the Chinese term taikong (space) and the Greek naut (sailor).” Personally I think taikonaut sounds the coolest.

Want to learn more? Check out the Go Taikonauts! fan page.

Perverted Penguins Perplex Polar Pedestrian

penguins
Dr. George Murray Levick was fascinated with penguin sex. Back in 1911 and 1912, he was the first scientist to stay for an entire mating season in Antarctica in order to study penguin procreation.

What he saw, however, confused him and shocked his traditional English morals. Penguin males were having gay sex, raping females, mounting the corpses of dead females and molesting penguin chicks. When he submitted his report to the Natural History Museum in London, the curators decided it was too shocking and cut those passages out of his report. They did publish an uncensored limited edition of 100 copies to circulate among leading scientists whose morals, supposedly, would not be corrupted by penguins.

Bird expert Douglas Russel explained necrophilia among penguins to the BBC, saying that the males don’t realize the females are dead. But what about the other unusual acts? These sexual variations are worthy of study. Why do animals and humans engage in sex acts that don’t lead to the creation of children? There doesn’t seem to be any practical purpose to it. Or perhaps the assumption that everything in nature has to have a practical purpose is a flawed one.

Dr. Levick was part of Robert Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, an attempt to be the first to trek to the South Pole. The advance party reached their goal but had been beaten by the Norwegian team of Roald Amundsen. Scott and his advance party all died on the journey back. Levick was not in the advance party and survived. Dr. Levick’s notes have just been published in the journal “Polar Record.”

In the age of the Internet, penguin sex just isn’t that shocking anymore.

[Photo courtesy Brocken Inaglory]

St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

St. BrendanToday is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Video: Bones And Art In The Paris Catacombs

You’ve probably seen videos or photos of the famous Paris Catacombs, with their miles of ossuaries holding the bones of some six million Parisians. The catacombs were created in the 18th century from existing underground quarries, and these quarries, tunnels, and other mysterious underground spaces create a network under Paris measuring more than 180 miles. It’s truly a city under the city, with its own secret life.

This video, created by some intrepid urban explorers, shows parts of the Paris Catacombs you won’t see on the official tour: rooms filled with graffiti and giant murals, even a large stone model of a castle. Despite their reputation as burial places, the tunnels and rooms beneath Paris seem to have a lot of life in them.

The Parisians who make these works of art, called cataphiles, also sponsor underground parties, meetings, even a cinema. To learn more about these interesting folks, check out this article.

Visiting The Royal Geographical Society, London

Royal Geographical SocietyWhile London isn’t exactly known as an adventure travel destination, unless you’re crossing Elephant and Castle late at night, it is a place where adventure travelers gather. The British are some of the best explorers in the world and their Royal Geographical Society is a meeting place and resource for those who want more out of travel than a cruise to the Bahamas.

The society was founded in 1830 to further knowledge of the world and its cultures. It has sponsored numerous expeditions, including famous ones led by heroes such as Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary. This work continues today.

I popped in there for the first time earlier this week to use their archives. I’m planning a trip to a remote castle in northern Ethiopia that hasn’t been properly explored since 1868, and of course the folks at the Royal Geographical Society had the original maps! Thanks to them, now I won’t get lost when I head into the Ethiopian highlands – well, hopefully not.

The archives are a great resource for travelers planning their next adventure. There’s also an excellent series of lectures and exhibitions. Currently there’s an exhibition on the castles and monasteries of medieval Serbia.

So if you’re in London but pining to ride an elephant through Borneo or climb the mountains of Antarctica, check out the Royal Geographical Society.