Let there be Law, saith the Universe

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The things we can do because Isaac Newton figured out gravity for us. This graphic depicts the 155-orbit Solstice Mission of the Cassini spacecraft. This multi-year mission has avoided crashing into Saturn, any of its moons, or accidentally hurtling aimlessly into deep space because we can measure and utilize gravity. Image Credit: NASA JPL/Caltech

Right now scientists are spending lots of time and money looking for a “Planet X.” Unseen, possibly non-existent, its presence is being mathematically inferred by researchers thirsty for discovery. The reason their search is not ridiculous is that it has been done before. And it worked!

The planet Neptune was discovered sans telescope. Researchers in 1846 used math coupled with the best observations of known planets at the time. They discovered Neptune by detecting its gravitational influence on planets they could see. I’m reading up on this for use in my creative writing. My chosen book is The Planet Neptune: An Exposition and History, by John Pringle Nichol. (Yes, I’m suddenly thinking about potato chips too.)

“The unity of this great Universe is unbroken; it is the appointed theatre of uninterrupted law: and the power to follow that law through the Heavens, and to discern by its aid the inter-dependence of their most varied and gorgeous phenomena, was the legacy bequeathed to human genius and perseverance by him who, in this sense, has never yet been approached–our own immortal Newton.”

–J.P. Nichol, The Planet Neptune, Part First, Picture of the Solar System

In the first part of Nichol’s book, the rhetoric comes lofty from his pen. I enjoyed sampling his 1847 perspective, more closely tuned to our present-day view than I might have assumed. He speaks of a universe in which the gravity of everything, even a single pebble, affects the gravity of everything else. Had the phrase butterfly effect been in the lexicon at that time, I suspect Nichol would have given that meteorological notion a nod for gravity’s sake.

Nichol revels in the unity, harmony, and especially the complexity of the cosmos, which math and astronomy make decipherable. In describing the apparent oscillation of stars, he all but introduces exoplanet research (which is all the rage today for discovery-thirsty scientists and science journalists). His ultimate refrain, summed up in the above quote, is to praise the virtue of “august Law” at work in the Heavens. Lofty indeed!

Questions for Comment

When expressing your sense of the universe and its movements, what words come to mind? Why are you drawn to these words?

Space Evangelism: Three Tales

The following is a re-post of a piece I wrote back in 2009 on my other blog.

Vignette One: My Good Neighbor

As Judy took the magazine from my hands, she looked at the glossy photos and faltered a little. She found the images unsettling, verging on overwhelming. Judy sat down, took a breath while shaking her head, and then said, “Boy. This…” Her voice cut out. She wasn’t about to faint or cry; however, the photos I’d placed before her were having a disconcerting effect. What were these photos of? Stars, galaxies, and nebulae, all taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

For space enthusiasts, Hubble’s photos are generally inspiring. So I was taken aback to watch my neighbor regard them as upsetting, even a bit disturbing. In hindsight though, I wonder why I presupposed that a galaxy mosaic would surely produce an uplifting response.

For Judy, life has included steady doses of struggle, tragedy, and poor health, underscored by recently being laid off from a factory job. Why did I assume she would enjoy pictures of an impersonal universe where everything is frozen, burning, or subsisting perilously between these extremes? In case you are wondering, I never got around to plugging Mars Direct.

Vignette Two: My Astute Acquaintance

I’ve known Jim for roughly three years. He is a practical man of the earth. Though quite successful in his dual career as an actor and tree care specialist, Jim is neither rich nor famous. He is, however, well read, sharp-witted, and he has no tolerance for arguments that smack of bull crap or wishful thinking.

On July 4th, I found myself visiting with Jim at a cookout. After some enjoyable discussion of Ernest Hemmingway’s short stories, Jim asked what I’d been reading lately. At the time, I was halfway through Buzz Aldrin’s new memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.

Jim decided to quiz me on the merits of human space travel. Given the incredible expense involved, why did I think human space flight was a justified use of tax dollars? I opted to try selling Jim on the idea of building an observatory on the far side of the moon. This merited a slight nod, but I could tell I hadn’t won him over to pursuing human space settlements.

I retreated to the only program that has always made complete sense to me. “We need to develop and test spacecraft that can reach objects crossing Earth’s orbit. And we need to be capable of altering their orbits to avoid collision and disaster. Long term, a Moon or Mars base could be an excellent jumping off point for such missions.”

Jim began nodding in sincere affirmation. “Now that makes sense to me, Jake. I can see the benefits of doing that.” I’d gotten him onboard, but the conversation was a bummer for me. I hate relying on apocalyptic argument to make my point. Still, if it gets the door open…

Vignette Three: My Wonderful Nephew

Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited family in Kentucky. One of my relatives is an inquisitive four-year-old nephew: Hayden. Ever curious, Hayden’s favorite question is “Why?” Recently, Hayden and his mom enjoyed a picture book about space. Sensing a chance to foster some uncle/nephew bonding, my sister told Hayden that I like space. Thus prompted, Hayden asked me a question. “Uncle Jake, what’s your favorite planet?”

“My favorite planet is Saturn,” I replied. From his mom’s lap, Hayden sat sideways, furrowed his brow, and fired off his favorite question. “Why?” I had to think. What fact might interest a four-year old? Turning to my nephew, I asked, “Hayden, how many moons does Earth have?” He looked down at his little fingers for help, but fell quiet and uncertain. With a little help from his mom, Hayden answered. “One.”

“Well Hayden,” I continued, “Saturn has lots of moons. Some are icy. Some are rocky. Some are big and some are small. But they are all really neat!” Hayden’s young attention span soon left me behind, but for a moment I believe I had him. Hopefully, I nurtured a seed of curiosity that will keep him fascinated with space as he grows up.

Sci-fi: The Charm of the Realm

In the spirit of such neato literary endeavors as William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily a New Hope by Ian Doescher, last year I wrote a poem entitled “Elegy Written for a Country Space Opera.” The poem is adapted from a classic elegy by Thomas Gray: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Wanting to do something special, I also commissioned original artwork by comic book artist Jay P. Fosgitt and posted it on my other blog.

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Encouraged by the latest riveting trailer for Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, I am re-posting the poem here. Mingling Star Wars references with Gray’s elegiac form, it expresses my mixed emotions at seeing the beloved franchise of my childhood taken over by Disney. Such a transfer of ownership brings great uncertainty, but also great promise.

But before I subject you to the poem, here is a delightful short video on a similar theme. This is a great bit with Patton Oswalt and Conan O’Brien. Oswalt explains his dubious–yet wonderfully heartening–attempt to introduce his daughter to Star Wars.  In doing so, he speaks adeptly about the nature of falling under a fanciful realm’s charm.

 

And now, for your consideration and hopefully enjoyment, is my poem.

Elegy Written for a Country Space Opera

Twin sunsets fade like knells of parting day,
As whistling droids whir–steadfast–o’er a dune,
The fanboy starward dreams his leery way,
But leaves that world to Disney all too soon.

Now silence cloaks a landscape raised for mirth,
He treads its gravel waves, rock mem’ry spice,
Like one who shirked the moisture farmer’s worth,
Then nearly perished, sown within Hoth’s ice.

For such, the glimm’ring landscape of the night
Fades out, marked by the telling Mynock shrieks,
Save where a vast white screen now waits for light,
To cast again the Falcon fandom seeks.

Can any reprise hope to freshen lore,
Which strikes back with new lessons harder learned?
Son’s eyes reflected matching suns before,
Tear-glazed, their father’s pyre light returned.

Let not awakened icons wear out joy,
First witnessed as wide grins in Yavin’s nave;
Though medaled hero stood then as a boy,
The paths of sequels lead but to the grave.

So too, the fanboy grays into a man,
No more to pilot drive-in playground swings.
His mind a hermitage, this would-be Han
Now smuggles fondness for his old musings.

Full many a boy of Jedi’s worth now lives,
The dark nonfiction caves of this world bear;
Full many a Leia to drubbed Luke now gives
A savior’s kiss in grounded city air.

Far from the cineplex, this rustic youth,
Who read dire word crawls from a pickup bed,
Was led by Ben Kenobi’s tailored truth;
Delusions grand–Yodaic in his head–

Forbade by life’s rude lot prequels to pen,
This almost-George, no Empire’s rod did sway;
He left the greatest tale of Anakin
Unwritten long ago and far away.

EPITAPH
“Oh, be wan,” gibes Salacious ‘neath the sand.
“Would all could rest their heads on Disney’s hearth,
Who’ve lived within, like each new rebel band,
The bosom of their Father and their Darth.”

Voyaging through ‘The Interstellar Age’

The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager MissionThe Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this one had broad implications reaching decades ahead to the present day. Voyager 1’s top priority was to image the moon Titan close up. Titan boasted an atmosphere and potentially liquid on the surface. The close flyby meant sacrificing any chance for Voyager 1 to travel on to Pluto (which ended up waiting until 2015 for its first visit). But here’s the part that made me catch my breath. If Voyager 1’s flyby of Titan had failed, there was a plan to have Voyager 2 make a second attempt. If Voyager 2 had been routed to fly by Titan, there would have been no visits to Uranus or Neptune. Such are the ultimatums given by orbital mechanics and the ever changing positions of planets.

The above dilemma plays out in a chapter titled “Drama Within the Rings.” The Voyager missions, like all space missions, generated a great deal of drama. Jim Bell captures it well in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Readers will learn how close we came to missing out on the famed, almost religiously revered, Pale Blue Dot image. Much of the drama comes from the flyby nature of the mission. Every time Voyagers 1 and 2 arrived at a new planet, the science teams back on Earth knew they had only one opportunity to capture images and data. A recurring theme, and word, in this book is “pressure.” No U-turns and few if any second chances.

To a lesser extent, The Interstellar Age is about a budding young scientist: the author. Bell ferreted his way into the mission control center, willing to fetch pizza and coffee for a chance to be near the action. Voyager’s mission has spanned his life heretofore. His book captures both heart-stopping moments and poignant changing of the guards. As scientists and engineers who designed the mission moved on to other missions or retired, younger researchers came onboard.

Bell exhibits a keen awareness, but also an evangelical fondness, for the subject material. Late in the book he unabashedly refers to himself and others as disciples of the late Carl Sagan. I must include myself in that group. Bell’s decision to embark on a career in science holds as a primary inspiration watching Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos series. Of his approach to communicating science, Bell suggests Sagan “was probably the first scientist I had ever encountered who spoke English.

“I mean common English, more like what you’d hear around the dinner table than the jargon and shorthand codes that most scientists typically use when talking about their work. But that plain talk was also laced with metaphor and analogy and evocatively grand cadences, often accompanied by the soaring and romantic electronic music of Vangelis.”

Like Sagan, Bell strives to make his writing conversational and accessible. This is a great read for people wanting to take a grand tour of the Voyager mission. As readers glide through the final pages, the Voyager probes glide toward the edge of the solar system. The primary mission long since completed, Voyager’s greater journey into the galaxy has only just begun.

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Master Poet: “at ease in the never-ending”

“My father spent whole seasons / Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find. / His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise / As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending / Night of space.”

–Tracy K. Smith, excerpt from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

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The Hubble Space Telescope, the oracle-eye of Tracy K. Smith’s poem, pictured here by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009. Image Credit: NASA

The Mormon theology on which I was raised proffered a binary existence: a temporal realm and a spiritual realm, separated by a literal veil. It takes a prophetic eye to see from the temporal into the spiritual. Yet it takes a master writer’s ability to make the resulting vision, with its vast scales and darkly shrouded mysteries, meaningful to readers.

Poet Tracy K. Smith’s “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” originally published in the collection Life on Mars, revels in a similar sort of binary cosmology. Her poem moves back and forth, to and from the realms of science fiction and science reality. In some of the most vivid stanzas, we see the universe through the artful eyes of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Yet the oracle-eye referenced in the above quote is the non-fictional Hubble Space Telescope. Smith’s father spent a great portion of his engineering career bringing Hubble into operation.

I encourage you to read Smith’s poem, available in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website:

My God, It’s Full of Stars

Did you read it? If not, pretty please do. If you did read it, please go back and read it again. Smith’s poem is a classic example of verse that must be read more than once for the fullest appreciation. Reading it only once may leave a casual reader with the mistaken impression the poem is a blur of jumbled images and unresolved themes—a bit like early Hubble images. Repeat readings bring into focus the poem’s excellent craftsmanship and profound implications.

Smith’s poem treats readers to bursts of alliteration and internal rhyme. Gruff mood swings, giving off an odd smoky charm, give way to erotic lyricism (tasteful mind you) with its obvious appeal. The push of patriarchy vies with the pull of matriarchy, both flanking the poem’s cinematic core. Yet the sci-fi world of 2001: A Space Odyssey finds a parallel in the workaday reality of Kubrik’s moviemaking.

If something catches your eye once in this poem, scan around and you will likely find its compliment in another stanza. For instance, the quote I started this post with is the second time the word “bowing” appears in the poem. Find the other use of bowing and revel in the age-old tableau of a single human wondering at the mysterious night sky, juxtaposed with the possibility of many more beings on distant worlds doing the same thing.

Questions for Comment

What images or phrases from the poem grabbed your attention? Why?