Seasons of Planets

Montage of planets and Jovian moons imaged by the Voyager mission, Image Credit: NASA

Four Haiku for Planets

Shy Mercury peeks
Flowers tickle its south pole
In young frosty air

Venus flashes Earth
Nubile dome-draping bright orb
Nude in the warm dusk

Jupiter dons stripes
Gas-lit hues of dying leaves
Cast through harvest breeze

Saturn trims the black
Storefront with icy china
Glints on Old Man’s breath

Poet’s Notes

The above represent more completed homework assignments from my journey through Stephen Fry’s wonderful book The Ode Less Travelled.

For my previous foray into planetary haiku, please read this post.

And lastly, I hope you are having a good National Poetry Month.

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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Can footsteps be literature?

Literature may come as pamphlets and books. Literature nowadays may arrive as blog posts and status updates. But can literature be expressed as measured footsteps, trudging over space and time in a quest to celebrate cosmic scale? If a physical activity can be defined as literature, then I say planet walks are literature.

Jupiter, as it appears on the Foster Planet Walk at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I decided to feature my Jupiter portrait in honor of NASA’s Juno mission, currently orbiting the gas giant.

After visiting family in western Michigan this weekend, I stopped by Aquinas College. There, for the third time, I did the Foster Planet Walk. By walking a carefully measured route marked with boulders, this walk allows you to experience the scale of our solar system. Following a map available on the college’s website, you walk from planet to planet in about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace. You begin at Mercury on the south side of campus and wind up all the way out at dwarf planet Pluto in the distant Kuiper Belt (aka the north side of campus).

For my third visit, I measured time. Standing around 6’1″ tall and walking at an average speed, here is how long it took me to stroll from planet to planet. Notice how the elapsed time dramatically increases beginning with the walk to Jupiter:

  • Mercury to Venus – 7 seconds
  • Venus to Earth – 7 seconds
  • Earth to Mars – 5 seconds
  • Mars to Jupiter – 36 seconds
  • Jupiter to Saturn – 1 minute 2 seconds
  • Saturn to Uranus – 1 minute 48 seconds
  • Uranus to Neptune – 3 minutes 6 seconds
  • Neptune to Pluto – 4 minutes

Mining Wilson’s “Black Astronomy”

If I asked you to read a poem titled “Black Astronomy,” what would you think it was about?

Recently I encountered a poem so titled. Published in 1930, the poem was new to me. So was the poet, John Minnich Wilson. I admit, coaxed on by present-day social and political tensions, I assumed the poem would focus on race. And why not? I’m game for poetry that simultaneously tackles racial and scientific themes. But Wilson’s “Black Astronomy” delves into a topic other than race.

Coal miner in Kentucky, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, NYPL

I recommend “Black Astronomy” as a gritty rendering of the literal underworld. The poem is short, accessible, and to the point. You can read a free digital copy on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

Black Astronomy

“Black Astronomy” pulses with cadence, delivered via the taunting words You, I, A, and Come, but most powerfully with You. The poet Wilson worked as a coal miner, even coming to be known as the Mining Poet. Certainly, the poem’s subject material brought him pain and darkness at times. But it also brought him revelation covered in star stuff.

Like scientists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wilson invites the reader to a place of intimacy with the cosmos: “Come with me into the core / of yesterday…” Though it might be more accurate to say the poem’s gruff tone taunts astronomers. The cultural gap between elite academics and working class coal miners seems overt, even if specific motivations for it are left unspoken by the poet. Still, this makes for a dynamic and readable poem.

Questions for Comment

  1. I used the word “gruff” to describe the tone of “Black Astronomy.” How would you characterize the poem?
  2. What images in Wilson’s verse struck you the strongest? Why?

Further Reading

Indiana State University Library has an electronic copy of Wilson’s poem “Emancipation.” Similarly themed to “Black Astronomy,” it blends astronomical imagery with strong religiosity.

If you’d like to explore another science-themed poem, read my previous post:

Poe Sonnet Spins Science as a Buzzkill

Jupiter: a king crowned with auroras

“Even across the 400 million miles of empty space the planet projects its grandeur. An enormous world, hanging in the interplanetary sunlight. King of the universe.”

–Michael Byers, Percival’s Planet

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester).
For more information about this image and Jupiter’s auroras, read NASA’s full story.