Skygazers ready for rare Mercury sighting

PARIS (AFP): Earthlings will witness Mercury make a rare passage between our planet and the Sun Monday, appearing as a black dot tracking the surface of the star we share with the solar system’s smallest planet. Mercury completes an orbit every 88 days, and passes between the Earth and the Sun every 116 days, according to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). But its orbit is tilted in relation to Earth’s, which means it usually appears — from our perspective — to pass above or below the Sun. Thirteen times each century, however, the two orbits align such that even amateur astronomers can see the tiny planet tens of millions of kilometres away. “It is always exciting to see rare astronomical phenomena such as this transit of Mercury,” RAS president Martin Barstow said in a statement. “They show that astronomy is a science that is accessible to everyone.” But be warned: looking directly at the phenomenon can result in permanent eye damage, as only a very small part of the Sun will be blocked out. One option is to use a telescope or binoculars to project the image onto a white surface. An image of the Sun is captured by the main, front lens and projected backward, out through the eyepiece.

 The Sun will appear as a white disk on the card, and Mercury as a black dot crawling over it. Stargazers can also observe the event through a telescope with a strong filter. According to the RAS, large parts of the world — most of Western Europe, the western parts of North and West Africa, eastern North America, and most of South America — will be able to view the entire transit, which will last from 1112 GMT to 1842 GMT. The rest of north and south America, the eastern Pacific, the remainder of Africa and most of Asia, will see parts of the event.

Observers in east and southeast Asia and Australasia, however, will miss out entirely.

French astronomer Pierre Gassendi was the first person to observe a Mercury transit through a telescope in 1631, two decades after the instrument was invented.

German astronomer Johannes Kepler had correctly predicted that transit, but died in 1630 before he could witness the event.

The last Mercury orbit was 10 years ago, and the next will be in 2019.

Mercury is the planet nearest to the Sun. Its elliptical orbit brings it as close to the earth as 46 million kilometres (28.5 million miles), and no further away than 70 million kilometres.

It rotates so slowly — three times for every two orbits — that, bizarrely, Mercury’s day is twice as long as its year.


China winning war of the worlds  in giant Paris art show

PARIS (AFP): Monumental modern art doesn’t come much more spectacular than this. The finishing touches were being put Friday to a breathtaking installation about power by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping which has a 133-ton snake threatening a triumphal arch made from shipping containers topped with a giant Napoleon hat. It is easy to see “Empires” - which opens to the public Monday - as a metaphor for China’s massive economic muscle dethroning the old great powers of the West. But the artist best known for putting scorpions, tarantulas and other creepie crawlies in a glass case and letting them fight it out in his controversial “Theatre of the World”, told AFP “there are several levels” to his enormous new show. “It is about history, art and philosophy too,” he insisted, saying that he also wanted it to have a wow factor for “the general public”. Curator Jean de Loisy said it is one of the most spectacular works ever shown in France’s annual Monumenta show, when an artist is given free rein of the vast domed Grand Palais in Paris. “Nothing has changed the world more in the last two decades than the Internet and shipping containers.”

They are the motors of global capitalism,” he said.

“This show has an ambition that you will not see in many places in the world,” said De Loisy, who runs the Palais de Tokyo modern art museum in the French capital.

He said the show confronted people with the enormity of the forces shaping our world.

“The moment you walk in you are faced by a huge cliff of containers, stacked seven high, which shows how small we are in relation to global industrial power,” the curator said.

He said Huang had created a “complete symbolic landscape” with the giant skeleton of a 254-metre-long (833-feet) snake wrapping itself around the containers, with its fanged head menacing Napoleon’s bicorne hat, an exact, scaled-up replica of the one he wore at the Battle of Eylau in 1807 when he was at the peak of his power.

“It was the battle that most shook Napoleon because of the huge number of dead,” said De Loisy. “In that moment you sense the vulnerability of his supremacy.”

The five-metre-high hat faces Les Invalides where the general is buried, and also lines up with the seat of French presidential power, the Elysee palace.

But it is clearly slipping from the top of its arch of containers, the curator pointed out, under the threat from the snake — which he said symbolises change and the crushing power of capitalism.

“The snake with its aggressive head is the power of industry on the march, of geo-economic forces... China has made the choice of global economic power while America has made the choice of military might,” De Loisy said.

He said Huang makes no “moral judgements” about the system which sees “containers making the great fortunes of the world but also providing a hiding place for the most unfortunate, the migrants who are smuggled in them.

“This ambivalence is crucial,” he said. “We can do no more about the forces shaping our world in his view than you can about tectonic plates bumping up against each other or a volcano erupting.”

Huang had also arranged the containers in a nod to the traditional Chinese board game of mahjong, he said.

“He feels the relationship between the West and China is also comparable to that between (the game of) Go and chess, symbolised by Napoleon’s hat — which is why we don’t understand each other well enough.”

Huang left China for France at the time of the Tiananmen protests in 1989. “Empires” runs until June 18.


Spain reports first case of Zika

BARCELONA (AFP) - Spanish health authorities say they have detected the country’s first known case of the microcephaly birth defect in the foetus of a pregnant woman infected with the Zika virus.

“A pregnant woman was infected by Zika and dengue and the foetus has shown various defects,” the health authority of the Catalonia region said in a statement late Thursday. This was Spain’s first case of Zika-related microcephaly, a severe form of brain damage where babies are born with abnormally small heads. It is the second known case of its kind in Europe, after traces of Zika were found in the brain of an aborted foetus in Slovenia that had severe microcephaly. “The anomalies were identified between the 19th and 20th weeks of pregnancy,” a Catalonia health official told reporters Friday, confirming that the foetus had shown “several anomalies, including microcephaly”.  Authorities declined to identify the woman in order to protect her privacy, but local media said she had decided against an abortion. “These symptoms cause serious difficulties, but do not usually lead to the death of the foetus,” said gynaecologist Elena Carreras. A total of 105 people in Spain have been infected with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, according to official statistics from May 3.

Spanish authorities have said all the infection cases — including 13 pregnant women — are “imported cases” found in people either “from, or who have visited affected countries” in Latin America.

More than a fifth of foreign residents in Spain are of Latin American or Caribbean origin, the area hit by the epidemic.

The current Zika outbreak began in early 2015 in Brazil, where some 1.5 million infections have been reported. Since then, the epidemic has spread to several other countries in the Americas.

Scientists believe the virus to be responsible for a surge in Brazilian infants born with microcephaly.

There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, which in most people causes only mild symptoms — a rash, joint pain or fever.

Despite a flurry of research, very little is known about Zika, including the full list of diseases and disorders it may cause.

Recent scientific consensus is that the virus causes microcephaly in babies and adult-onset neurological problems such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can cause paralysis and death.