The Wonder Is Still There, Even if You Have to Dig for It


Long ago, I became fascinated by Heinrich Schliemann, the German dreamer and schemer who, like myself, became fascinated by the ancient stories from Greek mythology—in his case, specifically those events recounted in the Iliad and the Odyssey. It became his obsession to prove the truth behind those legends: that the City of Troy had existed and that there had actually been a Trojan War. Supposedly, Schliemann first declared his intention to find Troy when he was 7 years old…but the only source for that is Schliemann, and he was also something of a bullshit artist and con man. In 1851, for example, he came to California and started a bank in Sacramento that dealt in gold dust. A quick getaway was necessary when some Yosemite Sam accused Schliemann of short-weighting him. Later in his autobiography, Schliemann wrote he said he had dined with President Millard Fillmore in Washington (he hadn't) and that he had witnessed the Great San Francisco Fire of 1851 (he was in Sacramento) in June of that year (the fire was in May).

He was a piece of work, ol’ Heinrich was. But when he went looking for Troy, by god he found it, on a hill called Hissarlik in Turkey. In fact, Schliemann found nine of them, one atop the other. He claimed that one layer, which he called The Burnt City, was the Troy of Homer’s epic. Now, years later, I don't have many places to visit on my bucket list, but Hissarlik is definitely one of them. I want to walk in Schliemann's footsteps and pretend like I'm walking in those of Achilles.


If at first you don’t succeed, Troy, Troy again.

Photo by Bettmann//Getty Images.

Discovery is a wonderful human endeavor. It’s our permanent buffer against complacency and existential boredom. It is the sternest teacher of humility that we have. It teaches us that there is no summit to human knowledge and that much of what we think is the result of our own genius is really the work of the nameless and faceless who came before. It teaches us the truth behind our legends, and that much of what we believe is true is merely legend. Lost amid the noise and clamor of the daily news, this has been a helluva couple weeks for discovery.

For example, in the north of Greenland (from which you can't find much further north) the ravages of the climate crisis have uncovered the oldest DNA ever recovered. From ABC News:

Scientists discovered the oldest known DNA and used it to reveal what life was like 2 million years ago in the northern tip of Greenland. Today, it’s a barren Arctic desert, but back then it was a lush landscape of trees and vegetation with an array of animals, even the now extinct mastodon. “The study opens the door into a past that has basically been lost,” said lead author Kurt Kjær, a geologist and glacier expert at the University of Copenhagen. With animal fossils hard to come by, the researchers extracted environmental DNA, also known as eDNA, from soil samples. This is the genetic material that organisms shed into their surroundings — for example, through hair, waste, spit or decomposing carcasses[...]During the region's warm period, when average temperatures were 20 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 19 degrees Celsius) higher than today, the area was filled with an unusual array of plant and animal life, the researchers reported. The DNA fragments suggest a mix of Arctic plants, like birch trees and willow shrubs, with ones that usually prefer warmer climates, like firs and cedars. The DNA also showed traces of animals including geese, hares, reindeer and lemmings. Previously, a dung beetle and some hare remains had been the only signs of animal life at the site, Willerslev said. One big surprise was finding DNA from the mastodon, an extinct species that looks like a mix between an elephant and a mammoth, Kjær said.

How does this not ignite the imagination? A lush verdant Greenland, 2 million years ago? A Greenland that is actually, you know, green, with mastodons wandering through cedar forests? All because scientists decided to look for DNA left behind when the animals of the time shed, or spit, or died where they stood. And within all the ancient data, a lesson for the rest of us today.

Based on the data available, it’s hard to say for sure whether these species truly lived side by side, or if the DNA was mixed together from different parts of the landscape, said Laura Epp, an eDNA expert at Germany’s University of Konstanz who was not involved in the study. But Epp said this kind of DNA research is valuable to show “hidden diversity” in ancient landscapes. Willerslev believes that because these plants and animals survived during a time of dramatic climate change, their DNA could offer a “genetic roadmap” to help us adapt to current warming.


Outside Rome last week, archaeologists discovered 24 bronze statues from the Etruscan civilization that preceded Rome on the Italian peninsula. The statues were discovered at an ancient, but still functioning, hot springs that was long ago a sacred spot for both the Etruscan and Roman civilizations. From NPR:

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Starting in 2020, funded by the San Casciano dei Bagni municipality, archaeologists unearthed a large marble pool of the ancient sanctuary. It was decorated with fountains and altars to the gods Apollo, his son Asclepius and Asclepius' daughter Hygeia — whose name is the root of the English word hygiene. The Etruscans had adopted their religion from the Greeks and key elements of the Etruscan religion were later adopted by the Roman Senate. When the Romans later enlarged the sanctuary and made it more opulent, historians say a frequent visitor was the Emperor Augustus.

Mariotti and his colleagues believe that in antiquity, there probably was a blacksmith on site, where people seeking cures from the gods could have their votive offerings forged in bronze. And researchers foundbronze depictions of internal organs — what Mariotti says amount to unique early versions of X-rays: "Something like X-ray but in bronze, a picture of the [insides of the] body in bronze." Asked if the anatomical details are accurate, Mariotti replies, "So accurate... really scientific accurate, really."

But the real value of the discovery is that it may rewrite the history of the encounters between the two civilizations. The sanctuary may represent a small space of peace and harmony between two powers at war almost everywhere else in Italy.

Right to Titan, left to loosen.

Photo by NASA//Getty Images.

Out beyond the planet over a tiny corner of which the Etruscans and Romans once brawled, the new James Webb Space Telescope is becoming a regular dispenser of interplanetary wowsers. In addition to discovering galaxies older than any we've ever seen before, the Webb is also looking deeply into the moons of the giant planets of our own solar system, particularly Saturn's moon, Titan, and Jupiter's moon, Europa—the latter an object of interest for years due to its popularity with novelist Arthur C. Clarke. From CNN:

The Webb telescope observes the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye — on November 5, the telescope spotted a bright cloud in Titan’s northern hemisphere and, soon after, detected a second cloud in the atmosphere. The larger cloud was located over Titan’s northern polar region near Kraken Mare, the largest known liquid sea of methane on the moon’s surface. Titan has Earth-like liquid bodies on its surface, but its rivers, lakes and seas are made of liquid ethane and methane, which form clouds and cause rain from the sky. Researchers also believe Titan has an internal liquid water ocean.

I don't care what the clouds are made of. I am luxuriating in the very notion of Clouds On A Moon Of Saturn. In the distant future, landscape painters are going to have their work cut out for them.


As for Europa, NASA plans to send an exploratory mission there in 2024, although a glitch in that enterprise has surfaced recently.

One instrument, the Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE), is particularly worrying since engineers aren't confident enough to give the instrument a target delivery date. MISE is designed to analyze light reflecting off Europa's ice to map the composition of the surface. But the testing campaign has revealed multiple issues for engineers to work through, Larson said. "That's the one instrument right now where we have open issues that are getting work and we don't have a solid sense yet on how long it will take to get finished up."

I might add that (in fiction at least) Earth missions to Europa do not end the way anyone plans.

"You should recognize that every person you see in a bunny suit is a hero," Curtis Niebur, a project scientist at NASA, said during a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group held on Nov. 16, referring to the protective gear engineers wear in the clean room.

Damn straight. Once, on assignment for this magazine, I spent several days with the people who run the Hubble Space Telescope. This coincided with a chunk of the extended Florida recount hullaballoo of 2000. I was comforted by the joy and wonder these people took in their work. I interviewed a scientist who had dedicated his life to studying some (to me) unfathomable subject related to cosmic radiation. He was visibly transported as he told me about what he was doing—of which I understood approximately zero percent—but I was carried along anyway.

This, I thought, this is where the wonder is found in a world where we now have to look so much harder to find it. Discovery, that great teacher, always lights the way.

FromEsquire US

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About The Author
Charles P. Pierce
Charles P. Pierce, lead for Esquire Politics US, has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently 'Idiot America.' He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.
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