Saturday, July 16, 2022
Monday, July 11, 2022
I know we tend to spend a lot of time worrying about a lot of things that seem to be important. To us, they are: income, health, quality of life for ourselves and those we care about make up how we spend most of our time here on this planet. But then you step back and take a look at the larger picture.
I mean that literally. This is a photo from the new James Webb Space Telescope.
It’s human nature to think of ourselves as the most important person, or our country as the greatest in the world, or whatever. But if this picture doesn’t give you a new perspective on exactly where we fit in the universe, then keep looking at that picture. Then do what you have to to make this little corner of space a little better. Everybody else here — and out there — will appreciate it.
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Looking Up and Forward – J. Tynan Burke, aka Major Major Major Major, at Balloon Juice.
From the aboriginal Australians to the Zuni people, human civilizations have celebrated the winter solstice for as long as we’ve comprehended the seasons. It is a time for optimism, hope, miracles, and light. Even before we understood the solar system, we knew the basics: at a certain point, less sun gives way to more. These days, we’ve figured out a lot more about our place in the universe, but that doesn’t make this moment any less special. Humans look up, and forward; it’s who we are.
This morning’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope got me thinking about where we’re at as a species. We live in an age of wonders, but it doesn’t always feel that way. For better and worse, we’ve atomized; we don’t have as many universals as we used to; sometimes it seems like solstice celebrations are one of the few things we have in common any more. We’ve broken down a lot of old structures and sources of meaning, which has been great for a lot of people, but we sort of forgot to replace them with anything. People report having fewer friends than they used to. Deaths of despair have skyrocketed in this country, and lots of people feel lonely and isolated, a situation that the last two years have not improved. Maybe it’s all a big coincidence that we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other, but I’m not so sure. People need communities and shared goals and things bigger than themselves.
Which brings me back to thinking about that telescope, about the thousands of people who worked together for decades to build a device which, if it works, might revolutionize our understanding of reality. If we want to find meaning in something, work together, and better ourselves, we could do worse than focusing on space. It’s how we will press forward with figuring out what the universe is; it’s how we will defend our planet from species-destroying asteroids; it’s how we will find extraplanetary life. These represent big tasks and big questions. Space exploration is broadly popular, too, and it’s not even that expensive, in the grand scheme of things–the James Webb telescope only cost $10 billion.
There’s something deeply humbling about cosmology and space exploration; something awesome, in the old sense of the term. They inspire feelings in me that a less atheistic person might find in religion. Carl Sagan had it right when he convinced NASA to turn Voyager 1 around and take one last picture: Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
So I guess my message on the darkest week of the year is: there are worse directions to look than up!
Doonesbury — Get it right.
Monday, May 24, 2021
From the Washington Post:
In 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid called his colleagues Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye to a specially secured room in the Capitol where highly classified information was discussed.
Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, and Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, controlled funding for supersecret Pentagon operations. Reid wanted to put an idea on their radar, one that needed to be kept hush-hush not just for national security but because it was, as Reid’s aides told him, kind of crazy.
He wanted the Pentagon to investigate UFOs.
“Everyone told me this would cause me nothing but trouble,” said Reid, a Democrat who represented Nevada, home of the military’s top-secret Area 51 test site, a central attraction of sorts for UFO hunters. “But I wasn’t afraid of it. And I guess time has proven me right.”
That’s because official Washington is swirling with chatter — among top senators, Pentagon insiders, and even former CIA directors — about UFOs. What was once a ticket to the political loony bin has leaped off Hollywood screens and out of science-fiction novels and into the national conversation. There are even new government acronyms.
For some Navy pilots, UFO sightings were an ordinary event: ‘Every day for at least a couple years’
“This used to be a career-ending kind of thing,” said John Podesta, who generally kept his interest in UFOs to himself when he was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. “You didn’t want to get caught talking about it because you’d be accused of walking out of an ‘X-Files’ episode.”
But now there isn’t just talk.
Last summer, the Defense Department issued a news release with the following headline: “Establishment of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.” The mission of the UAPTF, an acronym mouthful, “is to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security,” according to the Pentagon.
A few months later, as part of President Donald Trump’s spending and pandemic relief package, the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), included a provision calling for the director of national intelligence to help produce an unclassified report on everything government agencies know about UFOs, including scores of unusual sightings reported by military pilots.
That report is due sometime next month.
I have no doubt that there are other forms of life out in the universe who have evolved to sentient beings in some form or another — perhaps humanoid, perhaps not — and that they have also evolved to the point of space travel. The odds are a trillion to one that we are not alone, based solely on the number of stars and galaxies in the universe and the fact that we’re already seeing planets orbiting nearby stars. What’s keeping them from actually contacting us in the manner depicted in science fiction may have to do with the distance — it’s a few light years to the nearest star — or that they have determined we’re not worthy of contacting. In the Star Trek universe, explorers on the Enterprise wouldn’t conduct first contact with a civilization until they had achieved faster-than-light space travel. We’re not there yet because of Einstein’s theory that nothing can travel faster than light.
If somehow these emissaries have achieved faster-than-light capabilities and we are actually contacted by them, it would certainly change things. But if they’ve been listening in on our radio and television transmissions — the only signals we have generated that travel at the speed of light — I’m afraid we’d have a lot of explaining to do about the events of the last 100 years.
Maybe the best thing it could do is convince us to clean up and grow up so as not to appear to be so primitive and tacky to the people next door.
Friday, February 19, 2021
Best wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery for the people of Texas who had to suffer through not only a severe cold snap and snow storm that curtailed power, froze the water pipes, and killed a number of people, but they also have to put up with the bullshit that their elected officials threw at them by blaming wind turbines (less than 7% of their power source) or just plain lit out for the beach at Cancun, only to be shamed into coming back home even though there’s not much a senator can do about it. It’s all in the appearances, and Ted Cruz is a Gorgon as far as that’s concerned.
It has given us a good reason to hope that at last we’re going to have Infrastructure Week.
Meanwhile, NASA is doing what NASA does best.
NASA rover Perseverance landed safely Thursday on Mars to begin an ambitious mission to search for signs of past Martian life and obtain samples of soil and rock that could someday be hauled back to Earth for study in laboratories.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” announced Swati Mohan, the guidance and control operations lead for the mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Cheers, clapping and fist-pumps erupted in the control room, which was half-empty because of the coronavirus pandemic. Someone shouted: “TRN, TRN,” referring to the terrain relative navigation system that allowed Perseverance to land in a rugged area full of natural hazards.
Perseverance, the first multibillion-dollar NASA mission to Mars in nine years, quickly produced two low-resolution images of the landing site — a forlorn landscape pocked with small craters. Dust kicked up by the landing covered the glass shields on the cameras. The pair of photos showed the rover casting a shadow on the Martian landscape.
Throwing a dart 128 million miles and hitting the bullseye is really worth celebrating. The new Mars rover Perseverance did exactly what it was supposed to do. It landed, softly, in the Jezero Crater, which is probably an ancient river delta and now, for the next two years, it will look for fossilized pond scum, which would be the most important pond scum in the history of pond scum, which goes back to the beginning of time, both here and there.
It’s hard to explain to people too young to have lived through it what it was like when what was then called The Space Race was going on. It wasn’t just the astronauts, although they certainly commanded the stage. It was all the failed attempts to land anything on the moon, all those Pioneers and Lunas that failed to achieve Earth orbit or flamed out if they did. Finally, on September 12, 1959, the Russian Luna 2 hit the moon, which was all it was supposed to do. It took another five years for the U.S. to match that feat, when this country managed to hit the moon with Ranger 4. In 1966, Surveyor 1 landed and sent data back for two months before going dark.
And there were adventures elsewhere, too. Mariner 2 flew by Venus while, in 1970, the Russians landed a probe there. Mariner 4 flew by Mars and Mariner 10 flew by Mercury. By 1988, the USSR had collapsed, and the U.S. had the cosmos to itself. The Pioneers and Voyagers explored Jupiter and beyond. The machines always took the back seat to men, but the machines were our eyes in so many distant, wonderful places. We often need prompting to lift our eyes to the sky, but we almost never regret it when we do.
I remember when I was in grade school in the early 1960’s they would wheel in a TV on a cart to the gym so we could watch the grainy black-and-white pictures of the launch of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, when going to space was still the stuff of science fiction. We made it to the moon, and then turned our dreams of space travel over to Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. But NASA and JPL and the proud nerds who devote their lives to searching for signs of ancient life in the dried-up ponds on our next-door neighbor are continuing the mission we as humans have always had: looking for life, and even if all we find is fossilized microbe poop, it’s evidence that that we’re not just a one-time knock-off; that we’re not alone, even if they can’t answer back.
Tuesday, December 8, 2020
From the Jerusalem Post:
Has the State of Israel made contact with aliens?
According to retired Israeli general and current professor Haim Eshed, the answer is yes, but this has been kept a secret because “humanity isn’t ready.”
The 87-year-old former space security chief gave further descriptions about exactly what sort of agreements have been made between the aliens and the US, which ostensibly have been made because they wish to research and understand “the fabric of the universe.” This cooperation includes a secret underground base on Mars, where there are American and alien representatives.
If true, this would coincide with US President Donald Trump’s creation of the Space Force as the fifth branch of the US armed forces, though it is unclear how long this sort of relationship, if any, has been going on between the US and its reported extraterrestrial allies.
But Eshed insists that Trump is aware of them, and that he was “on the verge” of disclosing their existence. However, the Galactic Federation reportedly stopped him from doing so, saying they wished to prevent mass hysteria since they felt humanity needed to “evolve and reach a stage where we will… understand what space and spaceships are,” Yediot Aharonot reported.
As for why he’s chosen to reveal this information now, Eshed explained that the timing was simply due to how much the academic landscape has changed, and how respected he is in academia.
“If I had come up with what I’m saying today five years ago, I would have been hospitalized,” he explained to Yediot.
He added that “today, they’re already talking differently. I have nothing to lose. I’ve received my degrees and awards; I am respected in universities abroad, where the trend is also changing.”
Eshed provided more information in his newest book, The Universe Beyond the Horizon – conversations with Professor Haim Eshed, along with other details such as how aliens have prevented nuclear apocalypses and “when we can jump in and visit the Men in Black.” The book is available now for NIS 98.
While it is unclear if any evidence exists that could support Eshed’s claims, they did come just ahead of a recent announcement by SpaceIL, the group behind Israel’s failed attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon in 2019.
Uploaded to social media with the text “Ready to get excited again?,” the announcement contained a 15-second video of the moon with text saying “Back to the Moon,” followed by the date of December 9, 2020.
It is likely that this is a follow up to the Beresheet spacecraft, which crashed after engineers lost contact with it just minutes before it was due to land. However, the follow up project, titled Beresheet 2, is expected to take three years to be ready.
But sadly, we may never know the truth.
The Jerusalem Post was unable to reach out to this supposed Galactic Federation for comment.
Joan Rivers once said that a flying saucer would never land in a Jewish neighborhood because everyone would turn it over to see who made it. (Hey, she said it, not me.)
Via Adam L. Silverman at Balloon Juice:
Sunday, August 23, 2020
Words of Warning — Mike Murphy in the Washington Post.
After three hard years of fuming over President Trump, it has been a reassuring summer for Democrats. The Biden campaign had a strong convention, capped by a best-of-career speech by Joe Biden. Party fundraising is surging, and the polls look excellent. But a good campaign is a paranoid campaign, especially 70 days before an election.
So even though I think Biden is likely to win, I’m spending my time worrying about how he could lose. Here is what could go wrong:
Biden could still fumble the definition war. Opinions of Trump are etched in stone; we love him or we hate him. Right now, the haters are in the majority and polls show the country is itching to fire him. Trump could try to improve his image, but his braying tone and clumsy tactics never change. Don’t count on the Donald to heal himself. But if Trump is well defined, Biden and Kamala Harris are not. Heading into next week, the Trump strategy is brutally simple: change the focus from firing Trump to fearing Biden and Harris.
The Republicans will pound away at Biden and Harris with all the golden oldies that worked for them before. I was there when Republicans did a nasty new paint job on the once shiny Michael Dukakis. Whether they want to or not, Americans will be watching Fox News-style programming next week as the GOP tries to recast “Pop and Momala” as wild tax-and-spenders, enemies of private health insurance, dangerously soft on illegal immigration, destroyers of the suburbs and purveyors of vote fraud.
Democrats may scoff at this, but these attacks will take a toll. (And truth be told — a rarity in GOP politics these days — the ideological critique isn’t imaginary; Harris in particular has a notably liberal voting record.) Barack Obama used the same define-him-first playbook to end Mitt Romney’s White House hopes in 2012.
The debates worry me, too. So far, the election has mostly been Trump vs. covid-19, and the virus has won every round. Biden’s terrific convention speech smashed Trump’s dire hints about Biden’s mental acuity, but now that he’s a proven home-run hitter, Biden will face much higher expectations. As a Motor City native, I greatly enjoyed Biden’s new video with his classic Corvette. Now get back to debate prep, Joe.
One more worry. I fear a black-swan scenario based on the most reliable force of all: human nature.
We know covid-19 is the true special feature of this election. It has crushed the president’s poll numbers. It has hurt millions of Americans, flattened the economy and made the electorate fearful and uneasy. The fatigue we all share is powerful, draining, exhausting; Americans desperately crave some good news.
Which means you can count on our cornered and unrestrained president to try to manufacture some. He’s already tried with phony cures including old malaria drugs, Clorox and the healing power of ultraviolet fish tank cleaning lights. But in a few weeks, Dr. Trump may “discover” a far more powerful elixir: Tens of thousands of patients are already in advanced trials for experimental vaccines. Whatever the ultimate outcome of these trials, it is certain that murky, highly preliminary news will leak.
Even a whiff of promising results, regardless of how premature they might be, will spark a surge of euphoria. The breathless media of our digital age will erupt. A cure is on the way! Markets will rocket higher and businesses will rush to open, as a huge wave of relief envelops a country sick of wearing masks. It’s all based on our understandable hunger for something good to happen.
This could make for an interesting October.
Trump will move fast to exploit this moment with the full power of his office. Whether any of it is scientifically true will be irreverent [sic] to Trump. It will be also be irrelevant to many voters; as every dodgy operator knows, people just want to believe; be it a Bernie Madoff scam, a magic diet book, a Trump University hustle or any other of the cons, large and small, in human history. Trump, of course, understands that all too well.
I still think Biden beats Trump. I’d bet money on it. But not too much money. Only about 7 or 8 percent of the vote is really in play. Some will be convinced that Biden and Harris are too risky a choice. And if only half of the rest feel the cure craze and change their minds, everything can change. Don’t underestimate manias. The most famous example comes from wealthy 17th-century Holland. As most people know, in one particularly speculative moment, the price of a tulip exploded from virtually nothing to the price of a house. How long did it take for reason to go out the window? About 75 days.
It was probably a crazy time. But what would you call this?
See you in November.
Look to the Skies — An asteroid is heading to Earth just in time for Election Day.
(CNN) Well, 2020 keeps getting better all the time.
Amid a pandemic, civil unrest and a divisive US election season, we now have an asteroid zooming toward us.
On the day before the presidential vote, no less.
Yep. The celestial object known as 2018VP1 is projected to come close to Earth on November 2, according to the Center for Near Earth Objects Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Its diameter is 0.002 km, or about 6.5 feet, according to NASA’s data. It was first identified at Palomar Observatory in California in 2018.
NASA says there are three potential impacts, but “based on 21 observations spanning 12.968 days,” the agency has determined the asteroid probably — phew! — won’t have a deep impact, let alone bring Armageddon.
The chance of it hitting us is just 0.41%, data show.
CNN has reached out NASA for any additional or updated information but has not heard back.
Doonesbury — Everybody wants to get in on the act.
Sunday, July 26, 2020
A Lesson on Decency — David Remnick in The New Yorker.
One could be forgiven for thinking that rhetorical dynamism long ago vanished from the hallways and chambers of the United States Congress. It has been a hundred and sixty-four years, for example, since Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery Republican from Massachusetts, rose in the humid air of the Old Senate Chamber to unleash a five-hour, fully memorized onslaught against the idea of Kansas joining the Union as a slave state. Along the way, Sumner paused to lash two of his Senate colleagues, calling Stephen Douglas, of Illinois, a “noisome, squat, and nameless animal,” and accusing Andrew Butler, of South Carolina, of taking up with a “polluted” mistress—“I mean the harlot, Slavery.” You can still hear such acidic flourishes in other legislatures around the globe, but the language of the U.S. Congress is rarely so vivid. Generally, it is as flavorless as day-old gum.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term Democrat from New York, provided a rare exception Thursday as she stepped to the microphone in the House chamber to make a hash of Ted Yoho, a veterinarian, Tea Party member, and veteran Republican from Florida.
The story began earlier this week, when Yoho reportedly approached Ocasio-Cortez on the Capitol steps to inform her that she was, among other things, “disgusting” and “out of your freaking mind.” His analysis was directed at her (hardly novel) public statements that poverty and unemployment are root causes of the recent spike in crime rates in New York. On matters of criminal-justice reform, Yoho is of a decidedly conservative bent. Not long ago, he voted against making lynching a federal hate crime, saying that such a law would be a regrettable instance of federal “overreach.”
According to a reporter for The Hill, Yoho did not cease in his expressive disdain for Ocasio-Cortez even as she walked away. Once he believed her to be out of hearing range, Yoho reportedly described his colleague as a “fucking bitch.”
On Wednesday, once the news of the encounter had circulated, Yoho delivered a statement that could best be described as the sort of non-apology apology that begins, “I am sorry if you understood me to be saying. . . .” Yoho began by explaining that he wanted “to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York.”
But his remorse was, at best, confined. “No one was accosted, bullied, or attacked,” he went on. “This was a brief policy discussion, plain and simple, and we have our differences. . . . The fact still remains, I am not going to apologize for something I didn’t say.” With confused logic, Yoho invoked his wife and daughters and said that he objected to Ocasio-Cortez’s views because he had experienced poverty when he was young. “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family, and my country,” he said. It was unclear who had asked him to apologize for his religious faith, his patriotism, or his love of family, but he was ardent all the same.
In all, Yoho’s was at best a deflective, jittery performance that was in no wise enhanced by his spokesman, Brian Kaveney, who e-mailed the Washington Post to say that Yoho “did not call Rep. Ocasio-Cortez what has been reported in the Hill or any name for that matter. . . . Instead, he made a brief comment to himself as he walked away summarizing what he believes her policies to be: bulls—.”
As a first-termer, Ocasio-Cortez has been a star, even if she has had her stumbles, including an initially troubled relationship with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Ocasio-Cortez has been at the forefront of major issues, including climate change, immigration, campaign-finance reform, and income inequality. Her ability to skewer a balky witness in committee hearings has proved as uncanny as it is entertaining. She came to the House floor Thursday to rebut Yoho, insisting that, after delivering a short retort via Twitter, she might have kept her counsel had he not delivered such a lame non-apology. Her speech, which was then echoed by other colleagues from the Democratic caucus, was not in the Charles Sumner category in either length or style—she favored righteous sincerity where Sumner employed florid invective—but the devastation was of a similar scale. The sporting equivalent might be Billie Jean King’s measured yet unmistakable destruction of Bobby Riggs. The video of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech is available online, of course; it should be studied for its measured cadence, its artful construction, and its refusal of ugliness.
She began with narrative, setting the scene: “I was minding my own business, walking up the steps, and Representative Yoho put his finger in my face. He called me ‘disgusting.’ He called me ‘crazy.’ He called me ‘out of my mind.’ And he called me ‘dangerous.’ ” Then she broadened her scope: “This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women and an entire structure of power that supports that.” Ocasio-Cortez made it clear that she was not going to fall down and faint. She had heard it all before, on the subway and as a bartender. But she wasn’t going to let this pass, not from a fellow-member of Congress: “I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse, and worse, to see that. To see that excuse, and see our Congress accept it as legitimate and accept it as an apology and to accept silence as a form of acceptance. I could not allow that to stand.” What’s more, she was not going to allow Yoho, in his clumsy way, to use his family as a “shield” for his barrage.
“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize,” she said. “I am someone’s daughter, too.”
The politics of our moment are dominated by a bully of miserable character, a President who has failed to contain a pandemic through sheer indifference, who has fabricated a reëlection campaign based on bigotry and the deliberate inflammation of division. His language is abusive, his attitude toward women disdainful. Trump is all about himself: his needs, his ego, his self-preservation. Along the way he has created a Republican Party in his own image. Imitators like Ted Yoho slavishly follow his lead. On the House floor Thursday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez exemplified a different sort of character. She defended not only herself; she defended principle and countless women. And all in just a few short minutes on the floor of the House of Representatives.
As Good A Time As Any — Charles P. Pierce on the possibility that we’ve been visited from afar.
OK, 2020, why the hell not?
Pentagon officials will not discuss the program, which is not classified but deals with classified matters. Yet it appeared last month in a Senate committee report outlining spending on the nation’s intelligence agencies for the coming year. The report said the program, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, was “to standardize collection and reporting” on sightings of unexplained aerial vehicles, and was to report at least some of its findings to the public every six months…Eric W. Davis, an astrophysicist who worked as a subcontractor and then a consultant for the Pentagon U.F.O. program since 2007, said that, in some cases, examination of the materials had so far failed to determine their source and led him to conclude, “We couldn’t make it ourselves.” The constraints on discussing classified programs — and the ambiguity of information cited in unclassified slides from the briefings — have put officials who have studied U.F.O.s in the position of stating their views without presenting any hard evidence. Mr. Davis, who now works for Aerospace Corporation, a defense contractor, said he gave a classified briefing to a Defense Department agency as recently as March about retrievals from “off-world vehicles not made on this earth.”
Mr. Reid, the former Democratic senator from Nevada who pushed for funding the earlier U.F.O. program when he was the majority leader, said he believed that crashes of vehicles from other worlds had occurred and that retrieved materials had been studied secretly for decades, often by aerospace companies under government contracts. “After looking into this, I came to the conclusion that there were reports — some were substantive, some not so substantive — that there were actual materials that the government and the private sector had in their possession,” Mr. Reid said in an interview.
We are overdue in this weird, disastrous year for some unalloyed Good Weirdness. Let it all out. If there ever was a time in history to learn we’re not alone, this is it.
Doonesbury — Nice work if you can get it.
Friday, July 17, 2020
Look, up in the sky…
Eager sky watchers are turning to the heavens as Comet NEOWISE, one of the brightest comets in a generation, starts climbing ever higher among the evening stars.
A majority of comets fly through the solar system invisible to humans, usually too small and dim to be seen with the naked eye. The last frozen ice ball that gave us a big show was Hale-Bopp, a comet that was visible for nearly 18 months around its closest approach to Earth in 1997.
Officially designated C/2020 F3, Comet NEOWISE was discovered on March 27 and had until this week been visible only to committed comet viewers willing to wake up in the early pre-dawn hours. But on Monday, NEOWISE tipped into the post-sunset sky and has even been spotted by people living near city centers with all the light pollution.
“It’s the first time in 23 years that this is possible,” said Federica Spoto, an astronomer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “You can watch it from your backyard and you don’t need a telescope.”
To catch NEOWISE yourself, look up at the northwest skies about an hour and a half after sunset. Experts suggest going to the darkest area you can for best viewing. Find the Big Dipper and follow its ladle as it arcs in the direction of the horizon.
NEOWISE will appear under the Big Dipper about 10 degrees above the horizon and be about as bright as that constellation’s stars. If you hold out your arm, 10 degrees is roughly the part of the sky covered by your fist. Over the next few days, NEOWISE will move higher in the sky and be easier to spot, reaching its apex on July 23, when it makes its closest approach to Earth.
Good binoculars will allow you to see more of the comet and its spectacular dust tail. Lucky viewers might even catch the fainter blue ion tail, made from charged particles flying off the comet’s icy nucleus. NEOWISE is visible only to observers in the Northern Hemisphere and should remain bright enough to spot into mid-August.
For those looking to capture a souvenir of their experience, a digital camera placed on a tripod and set to a five- or 10-second exposure could do the trick, said Ernesto Guido, an amateur astronomer in Italy. Many cellphones allow users to change the settings on their cameras and achieve surprisingly good results. Try framing NEOWISE against a nice background such as a tree, Mr. Guido suggested.
Sometimes we need to remember that there are things larger than ourselves and that our time is fleeting. The next time NEOWISE comes by — 68,000 years from now — let’s hope our descendants will be around to see it.
Saturday, November 30, 2019
Think about these ten things, then remember that there’s still some leftover pumpkin pie in the refrigerator.
Saturday, November 16, 2019
A galaxy far, far away…
Saturday, August 17, 2019
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Between the Moon and Woodstock — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on two events in the summer of 1969 that both defined the era.
Anyone old enough to remember the moon landing, fifty years ago today, is also old enough to remember what was said about the moon landing while it was happening. At the time—the very height of the Vietnam War, when the establishment that had sent up the rocket faced a kind of daily full-court-press rebellion, from what had only just been dubbed the “counterculture”—the act of sending three very white guys to the moon seemed, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, like the final, futile triumph of Wasp culture. It was still called that then, to distinguish it from the culture of Italian and Jews and the other “ethnic” whites, who were seen, in Michael Novak’s famous phrase, as “unmeltable ethnics,” not at all as part of the élite caste of white people. (O tempora! O mores!)
Mailer’s book on the topic, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” which was serialized in Life magazine, another long-gone instrument of that culture, was the usual mid-period Mailer mix of eight parts bullshit to two parts very shrewd observation—in some of his earlier books, the shrewd stuff was all the way up to three parts—but its interpretation of the meaning of the moon landing is still potent. The Apollo 11 mission was, he insisted, chilling in its self-evident futility, its enormous orchestrated energy, and its ultimate pointlessness. We went there because we could go there, with the strong implication that this was also, to borrow the title of another Mailer book, why we were in Vietnam; the Wasp establishment had been restless since it got off the Mayflower, and was always seeking new worlds to conquer for no reason.
What is easy to forget now is that it was a summer balanced between two equally potent national events: the Wasp triumph of the moon landing, answered, almost exactly a month later, by the counterculture triumph of Woodstock. (This reporter recalls standing on a street corner that summer, in Philadelphia, selling copies of an underground weekly, Distant Drummer, with the headline “Woodstock Ushers in Aquarian Age” and nary a word about the moon.) Of the two events, there was no question which seemed more central to anyone under thirty.
Nowadays, of course, if Woodstock were to happen as it happened then—the mud, the squalor, the late shows, the bad acoustics—everyone would complain, and the organizers would all be brought up, so to speak, on Fyre Festival charges. And if we could send a man to the moon again—well, it wouldn’t likely be a man, and almost certainly not one called Buzz, and we wouldn’t talk about a small step for a man or a giant leap for all mankind.
The moon landing is, if anything, more urgently felt as cultural material now. Some of that is due to helpfully revisionist history, which makes the event seem slightly less Waspy, slightly more Woodstockian. The moon mission has yet to be queered, as they say in academia, but it has been re-gendered. The role of women in making the moon landing happen, which back then was presented solely in the images of the tasteful, cautious astronaut wives, has been greatly deepened. (Though one of the virtues of Ron Howard’s fine film “Apollo 13” was to allow, in the character of Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, nicely played by Kathleen Quinlan, the grit in those dutiful space wives to shine through.)
There was, of course, the movie “Hidden Figures,” from 2016, which documented the shamefully under-sung role of three African-American women at NASA in making the Mercury program possible. Another, more eccentric retelling, Nicholas de Monchaux’s terrific book “Spacesuit,” from 2011, describes how Italian-American seamstresses, accustomed to making women’s underthings, made the astronauts’ overthings. It was “a story of the triumph over the military-industrial complex by the International Latex Corporation, best known by its consumer brand of ‘Playtex’—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness.” Most recently, we have been re-instructed in the crucial role of the computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led a team at M.I.T. that wrote the software—though it was not yet often referred to as such—that made the flight possible.
In a larger sense, though, the two landmark events might best be seen as one, since both the moon landing and Woodstock were, above all, tech fests. Though the rhetoric of Woodstock was swooningly pastoral—“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” the great Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t there, sang—the truth is that it was the new Marshall stack of amplifiers that made hearing the music possible. When Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner”—shocking one half of America and delighting the other by turning the anthem into a delirious machine-gun, air-raid-siren shriek—it was on a Marshall 1959 system, with two four-by-twelve-foot cabinets (his “couple of great refrigerators”). That was, in its way, as much a triumph of Anglo-American artisanal tech—Jim Marshall was English, but the Fenders, who made Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitar, were Californian—as the onboard computers. Indeed, the two events were more alike than they seemed then, since both took place in remote, inaccessible settings and became public, above all, through long-distance broadcasts: everyone saw Woodstock in the movies and heard it on records, as they saw the moon landing on television. What no one could have foreseen then was that the two veins would meet in the efflorescence of post-Woodstock high-tech culture—the pop culture of the Steve Jobs generation—that has become the central American preoccupation of the period that came next, our own. Pop culture dependent on new tech and new tech pressed to the uses of pop culture—that’s our anthem, our music.
The curious thing is that, in the midst of our own overkill tech culture, the moon shots suddenly look attractively modest, like a decent, craftsmanlike approach to a problem presented. The most moving cultural representations of NASA and the Apollo missions lie in dramatizations not of the tech triumphs themselves but in the human struggles that made them happen—in, for instance, Ed Harris’s wonderful performance in “Apollo 13,” as the flight director Gene Kranz, who was also the flight director of Apollo 11. When everything goes sideways, and panic is imminent, and all seems lost, Kranz says, simply, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Those words—like the more famous statement attributed to Kranz, “Failure is not an option”—may be apocryphal. But his official, recorded words seem even more apropos. After the catastrophe of Apollo 1, when three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died in a prelaunch rehearsal, Kranz gave a speech to his NASA team. “From this day forward,” he said, “Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough’ and ‘competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do, or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities.” He continued, “Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. . . . Each day, when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
“Tough” and “competent” were, well, echt Wasp words, as Mailer would doubtless have pointed out. (Woodstock words were more often magical-minded: “wild” for charismatic leadership, and “weird,” meaning expert.) But it is worth being reminded of the genuine values those words once held: “tough” for Kranz meant the opposite of showy braggadocio; it meant being accountable and taking responsibility for what we do. “Competent,” in that dialect, meant actually being good at something difficult, and valuing expertise and education above all else. These words could still be the price of admission to a position of leadership, in a broadened and diverse America, as much as they were to the narrowly defined team back then. They might still get us out of the mud, and onto the moon.
John Nichols in The Nation on the 95 who voted for impeachment last week.
”My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” declared Congresswoman Barbara Jordan as she embarked on the work of impeaching a president in 1974.
The Texas Democrat’s use of the word “spectator” was deliberate and vital. Members of the US House of Representatives were afforded the impeachment power not as an option but as a duty. It is an essential instrument of the Constitution, and it should be employed not when it is convenient but when it is necessary.
Ninety-five members of the House decided this week that it was necessary. They voted to consider a resolution from another Texas Democrat, Congressman Al Green, to impeach Donald Trump for using racist language to attack four Democratic congresswomen of color. Many of Green’s fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued for a slower process that would allow congressional inquiries to consider additional evidence of presidential wrongdoing—a process that next week will feature testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller. The opponents of Green’s proposal prevailed.
But the Texan told them they were on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the moment we are now in. Green argued that the issues and the moment were too urgent for any more delays. “The Mueller testimony has nothing to do with his bigotry. Nothing. Zero. Nada,” declared the congressman. “We cannot wait. As we wait, we risk having the blood of somebody on our hands—and it could be a member of Congress.”
Not long after the congressman uttered those words, the president was doubling down on his attacks—naming the names of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Trump announced, “They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.” At the mention of the name of Omar, who came to this country as a refugee from Somalia, wild chants of “send her back” erupted, as a gleeful Trump egged on the crowd.
Trump dismissed Green’s proposal to impeach him as “ridiculous.” In fact, it was a modern variation on a historic article of impeachment against one of the most vile presidents in American history: Andrew Johnson. Faced with objections to his undermining of the post–Civil War work of Reconstruction, his veto of civil rights legislation, and a litany of other concerns regarding his vile statements and obnoxious behavior, Johnson appeared at rallies across the country to rile up his supporters. His language was incendiary. As the University of Virginia’s Miller Center recalls, “Johnson [denounced] the so-called ‘Radical Republicans,’ specifically Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Senator Charles Sumner, and reformer Wendell Phillips, as traitors.”
Johnson accused his congressional rivals of “trying to break up the government.” He appealed to soldiers to “stand by me” in his confrontation with his critics, so that, “God being willing, I will kick them out. I will kick them out just as fast as I can.”
On February 24, 1868, the House voted 126-47 for 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson—including Article 10, which charged him with attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” Johnson would, by a single vote, escape removal from office by the Senate. But the House had done its job. And history reflects far more charitably on the chamber that checked and balanced Johnson, as opposed to the one that allowed the foul pretender to remain in office.
Trump uses different language than Andrew Johnson, But his demonization of his critics, particularly women of color, is straight out of his predecessor’s playbook. And so it was appropriate that Al Green’s response was straight out of the playbook of the Radical Republicans who challenged Johnson on behalf of racial justice and the republic.
The articles of impeachment against the 17th president of the United States took him to task for “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against members of Congress. He deserved to be impeached for that. And he was.
Trump’s go-back-where-you-came-from racism merits an equal response. The full House refused to provide it. But 95 members of Congress, all of them Democrats, answered the call of constitutional responsibility with their votes on July 17, 2019. It is important to record their choice to take up the issue of impeachment, and to do so for this reason. We know that they acted for different reasons: some were ready to impeach immediately, some wanted to have the debate, some wanted to assure that Green’s proposal received proper consideration from the proper committee. What matters is that 95 members refused to go along with the tabling of Green’s resolution.
House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler was one of them, as was Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee chair Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) joined them in voting to explore the prospect of impeaching the president for on the grounds that he has “brought the high office of the President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace, and disrepute, has sown seeds of discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.”
So did Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass (D-CA). Tlaib, a stalwart champion of impeachment, was joined by Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar in voting to have the impeachment debate. They were joined some of the savviest members of the chamber, including Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, the constitutional scholar who has done so much to put the struggle to impeach Johnson in context.
Remember these votes to have the debate on Al Green’s impeachment resolution—these votes to take Donald Trump’s racism as seriously as a previous Congress did Andrew Johnson’s racism.
History will eventually look as favorably on the courageous 95 who moved to hold Trump to account as it does on those who moved against Johnson 151 years ago. As for those who voted to table Al Green’s resolution? Many of them may yet come to embrace their constitutional duty. For now, however, they have chosen not to place a whole faith in the Constitution and, instead, to serve as spectators.
Doonesbury — Place your bets.
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Fifty years ago this morning — Thursday, July 16, 1969 at 9:32 a.m. EDT — Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Canaveral for the moon. I remember the moment vividly. I watched it from a little TV in our kitchen as I got ready to go out to my math class at summer school. I may have been a little late to the 10:00 a.m. class, but I wasn’t going to miss it.
The next day I went up to my grandmother’s place in Michigan where we watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon Sunday night.
What’s amazing is we did it at a time when computing was in its infancy — your average iPhone has more computing power than the Apollo 11 capsule and LEM put together. And we did it in eight years; from the first suborbital flight of Alan Shepard to Tranquility Base despite setbacks and tragedy. Yes, there was the pressure to beat the Russians, but it was also the drive to fulfill a goal that seemed so far out of reach that the only thing to do was to do it.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
John Cassidy in The New Yorker argues that the indictment of Julian Assange is a threat to journalism.
Imagine that, in the summer of 2014, the Justice Department had indicted Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, charging that, in 2010, he engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, to “facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”
How do you think the editorial page of the New York Times would have reacted? (In July, 2010, the Times joined with the Guardian and Der Spiegel to publish tens of thousands of the documents that Manning provided to WikiLeaks.) What about the editorial page of the Washington Post, which published extensive stories about the leaked material? This material included video footage from 2007 of a U.S. Army Apache gunship carrying out an attack in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqi civilians who were working for Reuters.
We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the Times would have published an editorial that said, “The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime.” It also seems unlikely that the Post would have published an editorial that said, “Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.” Both of these statements were contained in editorials that the Times and the Post, respectively, published on Thursday, after Assange was arrested, in London, and Donald Trump’s Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment that federal prosecutors filed in Northern Virginia, last year.
Of course, a great deal has happened since 2014, much of it awful. During the 2016 Presidential election, Assange and WikiLeaks repeatedly published information that was damaging to the Democratic Party and to Hillary Clinton, timing the releases for maximum political damage. Assange denied that the Russian government was the source of this information, but, last summer, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, charged twelve Russian intelligence operatives with hacking D.N.C. servers and the e-mail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. Mueller’s indictment said that the Russian spies “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release additional stolen documents through a website maintained by an organization (‘Organization 1’),” which was WikiLeaks.
Whether he knew it or not, Assange was a key participant in an outrageous Russian effort to sow division inside this country and help Donald Trump. It is understandable that the events of 2016 have heavily colored perceptions of Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to the United States. (“Once in the United States, moreover, he could become a useful source on how Russia orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign,” the Times editorial noted.) But it is important to recognize that the legal charges against him have nothing to do with Russia or the 2016 election. They relate exclusively to his dealings with Manning, in 2010. As numerous media watchdogs and civil-rights groups have already pointed out, they amount to a dangerous attack on the freedom of the press and on efforts by whistle-blowers to alert the public of the actions of powerful institutions, including the U.S. government.
In explaining the charges against Assange, the indictment’s “manners and means of the conspiracy” section describes many actions that are clearly legitimate journalistic practices, such as using encrypted messages, cultivating sources, and encouraging those sources to provide more information. It cites a text exchange in which Manning told Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” and Assange replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” If that’s part of a crime, the authorities might have to start building more jails to hold reporters.
The indictment, and some of the commentary it engendered, also makes much of the fact that Assange offered to try to crack a computer password for Manning. The Department of Justice claims that this action amounted to Assange engaging in a “hacking” conspiracy. Even some independent commentators have suggested that it went beyond the bounds of legitimate journalism—and the protections of the First Amendment.
But did it? On Thursday, my colleague Raffi Khatchadourian, who has written extensively about Assange, pointed out that, as of now, it looks like Assange didn’t do much, if anything, to crack the password once Manning sent the encrypted version. Khatchadourian also pointed out that federal prosecutors have known about this text exchange for many years, and yet the Obama Administration didn’t bring any charges. “As evidence of a conspiracy,” Khatchadourian writes, “the exchange is thin gruel.”
Even if Assange had succeeded in decoding the encryption, it wouldn’t have given Manning access to any classified information she couldn’t have accessed through her own account. “Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers using a username that did not belong to her,” the indictment says. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.” So the goal was to protect Manning’s identity, and Assange offered to assist. But who could argue that trying to help a source conceal his or her identity isn’t something investigative journalists do on a routine basis?
Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the indictment as “deeply troubling” because of the precedent it sets. “With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest,” Mahoney warned.
The editorial in the Times did ultimately acknowledge “that the prosecution of Mr. Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers.” The Post’s editorial didn’t even go that far. Instead, it ended by saying Assange “is long overdue for personal accountability.” Many people would agree with that statement. But it is important not to view absolutely everything through the prism of 2016.
Putting The Picture Together — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on how the pieces came together to get the picture of the black hole.
The picture of a black hole, captured for the first time, shows a ring as radiant as gold against the darkness of space. At its center, the charcoal shadow of a void so powerful, nothing can escape its pull.
The dreamy photograph represents a tremendous technological achievement, assembled using eight radio telescopes in four continents—two each in Hawaii and Chile, and one each in Arizona, Mexico, Spain, and Antarctica—all synced together to scan the skies for several days in a row.
But the picture would not exist without technology much less sophisticated: computer disk drives.
The telescopes’ data had to go to two astronomy institutions to be processed, MIT’s Haystack Observatory in the United States and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. An email attachment wasn’t going to work. The observatories had collected five petabytes of data. The average iPhone has 64 gigabytes of data storage. One million gigabytes are in one petabyte. It would have taken years for the data to cross the internet.
And so the data were carried on hundreds of hard disk drives, shipped to and from the observatories through plain old FedEx. Which is kind of marvelous, when you think about it. In a world where transferring information from one end of the world to another takes only a click, some things still have to be done the old-fashioned way. Humanity owes its first glimpse of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe not to something flashy and high tech, but a technology that has been around since the late 1950s, and transportation methods far older.
And to find out how it’s done, you have to talk with Don Sousa.
Sousa is a computer-support specialist at the Haystack Observatory. He’s also the shipping guy. He handled virtually every shipment for the Event Horizon Telescope, the effort to photograph a black hole.
Sousa grew up a few towns over from Haystack and has the trademark Boston-area accent to prove it. Over decades at the observatory, he has packaged equipment, put in orders, wrangled foreign customs regulations, and filled out reams of paperwork so that all kinds of hardware, from atomic clocks to disk drives, gets where it is needed. Before disk drives became widely available, he shipped reels of magnetic tape. “It’s amazing the differences from the mid-eighties, when I started, to what we do now,” Sousa says.
For the Event Horizon Telescope, Sousa packaged the disk drives in groups of eight. (“These are off-the-shelf hard drives,” he says. “You could buy them for your own personal computer if you wanted.”) The stacks were placed inside custom cases that allowed data to be recorded on all eight drives at once. Each module—eight disks, plus their custom coating—weighed about 23 pounds. Sousa shipped them in boxes labeled fragile and lined with a two-inch layer of foam, with cutouts in the middle to snuggle the modules, like precious jewelry in an antique box.
Sousa says he uses mostly FedEx and UPS. Some routes were trickier than others. Chile and Mexico had stricter rules about what could cross their borders. Sousa had to obtain a special license from the U.S. Department of Commerce to ship a particular piece of equipment to Mexico.
The toughest destination was the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. Without a nation to decide customs law, the continent relies on shipping agencies in Christchurch, New Zealand, which dispatch cargo ships and planes to the ice. Sousa had to coordinate with the National Science Foundation, which operates the research station where the telescope is based. Shipments had to meet very detailed specifications; Haystack had to build a wooden crate to carry the modules, because plastic containers weren’t allowed. “If it gets to Christchurch and something’s wrong, your equipment just sits there,” Sousa says.
The journey to the eight observatories was fine. It was the return trip that was worrisome. There were too much data to go through the burden of making extra copies; the disks that flew out of the stations were the only ones they had. “Going out there, they’re just blank,” says Mike Titus, the researcher who operated the supercomputer that helped synthesize all the data into a single, composite image. “Coming back, they’re precious commodities.”
I asked Titus whether the team considered asking a file-sharing service like Dropbox to build them something capable of transferring all those petabytes. “Don’t tell me that Amazon Cloud and Google Cloud, they wouldn’t love to have our data and store it for us,” Titus said, laughing. But even groundbreaking scientific teams don’t have that kind of budget. “Too much data and too much money—that’s why we don’t do it that way. Nothing beats the bandwidth of a 747 filled with hard disks.”
The return of the disks from the South Pole was particularly welcome. The shipment arrived months after all the rest thanks to the Antarctic winter, which had prevented anyone from flying in. The staff at Haystack was jubilant when FedEx arrived with a truck full of cosmic goodies from the bottom of the Earth. “It’s like they thought we were expecting penguins to jump out of the box or something,” says Nancy Wolfe Kotary, the communications officer at Haystack.
Sousa understood the concern, but he wasn’t too worried himself. “I’ve shipped to every continent,” he says, and in his 32 years on the job, he hasn’t lost one package.
Well, there was one, but it wasn’t his fault, or even the fault of any shipping company. The equipment, bound for a new research station in South Africa, cleared customs in Johannesburg and was loaded onto a truck. On the road, the truck was hijacked, and its contents stolen. “To this day, we figure it’s sitting somewhere on a coffee table as a conversation piece,” Sousa says.
Sousa plans to retire in three years and enter a new phase of his life that doesn’t require checking tracking alerts every day. He doesn’t have a background in science; before joining Haystack, he worked as a police officer for the state of Massachusetts. For him, the photo is the culmination of years’ worth of effort by astronomers and shipping experts alike. But the actual shot, he says, is pretty impressive, too.
Doonesbury — That’s Headley.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
It’s Mueller Time — David Remnick in The New Yorker.
Late last year, Vintage Books reissued “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller from 1965 that seemed to rhyme with the strangeness of our era. The novel centers on a Commander-in-Chief named Mark Hollenbach, who is gradually coming unwound. President Hollenbach is in the habit of summoning confidants to his cabin in the Maryland woods, where, at night, he turns off the lights and rants until dawn about the conspirators encircling him. He rails against pernicious legislators, disloyal appointees, and craven reporters. For no coherent reason, he intends to distance the United States from Western European allies and make common cause with a Kremlin leader named Zuchek. He also wants to tap every telephone in the country, declaring, “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we’re after.” Lacking Twitter, he writes deranged letters. One key character is a Supreme Court Justice by the name of Cavanaugh. The marketers at Vintage shrewdly wrapped the reissue in a black-and-white cover emblazoned with a question intended to play upon the country’s collective jitters: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?”
The author, Fletcher Knebel, wrote a popular syndicated column in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, called “Potomac Fever,” before turning full time to fiction. “Night of Camp David” was published the same year that Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which clarified the procedure for removing a President who is no longer able to carry out his duties. Half a century later, Potomac Fever has reached new heights; for the past two years and two months, it has been hard not to think periodically about that crucial addition to the Constitution.
The Trump Presidency has, from the first, represented a threat to truth, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Donald Trump’s contempt for basic norms of governance is accompanied by a lack of decency, empathy, and psychological stability. This was never more evident than this week, when Trump, seemingly rattled by the imminence of the Mueller report, set off a fusillade of unhinged tweets, called the spouse of one of his senior advisers a “whack job,” raged about the late Senator John McCain in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and pronounced the Democratic Party “anti-Jewish,” deepening, at every turn, the impression that he is unfit for government work.
The perils of such instability are incalculable. Sidney Karper, the wizened Defense Secretary in “Night of Camp David,” says of Hollenbach, “It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery.” In the novel, a self-appointed council of party leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the security establishment secretly deliberates on how to deal with the delusional President, and catastrophe is averted. Hollenbach coöperates in his own removal from office, and, in the end, he is deemed to have “the finest heart in America.”
Current realities offer no such reassurance. Trump has the psyche of an emotionally damaged toddler. You hear this not only from his ideological opponents but from countless departing confidants, lawyers, and advisers. He is devoted not to public service but to feeding the demands of his ego and his appetites.
The pressures on Trump will inevitably increase now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, a raft of investigators on various congressional committees and in outposts of the Justice Department are accelerating their searches into matters including hush-money payments, money laundering, irregular security clearances, foreign interference in the 2016 election, illegal use of inaugural funds, and improper use of foundation money. And yet it is impossible to imagine Trump changing his behavior. He retains the support of the Republican leadership; the odds of his completing his term are considerable. Trump’s affinity for the autocratic likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin suggests that he might refuse—as his former satrap and attorney Michael Cohen warned he would—to give up power without trying to undermine the legitimacy of the American political system. What’s more, given Trump’s skills in the dark arts of campaigning and the general public satisfaction with the economy, no matter its inequities or vulnerabilities, it would be foolhardy to discount his chance of winning reëlection.
The emergency that the Trump Presidency represents leaves the Democratic Party’s cast of candidates with a singular responsibility—to win the election—and two colossal reclamation projects. The first involves the environment. Presidential debates in past elections have largely ignored the costs of climate change. But public opinion on the topic is moving, and there is cause for at least some political optimism in the fact that many Democrats have gotten behind the idea of a New Deal-scale effort to address the issue. Candidates who can best give shape to that impulse and find a plausible way to make it a legislative reality deserve the most urgent attention.
The second reclamation concerns Trumpism. Somehow, sometime, Trump will leave the political stage; but the moral and material corruption he has inflicted will be with us for a long while. Who has the vision and the language to confront xenophobia and white-supremacist ideology? Who has the dexterity and the pragmatism to enact reforms on voting rights, health care, immigration, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, and so strengthen a stressed democracy? Who has the political acumen to argue for policies adequate to resolve our crises and, at the same time, to win back the millions of voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and then shifted to Trump?
Trump will be dropping loaded hooks in the water every day, but Democratic candidates ought not take his bait. He’ll use “socialism,” “Jexodus,” or whatever comes to mind as a means of distraction and division. It is perfectly legitimate to test the candidates and their potential weaknesses: Are Biden and Warren and Sanders too old? Is Beto O’Rourke the second coming of Robert Kennedy, or does he just look like him when you squint? And so on. But the kind of serious campaigns and debates that are never found in political novels are precisely what’s now required.
Spring Elsewhere — Marina Koren in The Atlantic finds out what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.
The season of vibrant flowers lining the sidewalk on the commute home, their gentle fragrance wafting into the air. Of sunshine that calls for a light jacket instead of a bulky coat. Of the passionate urge to clean everything in sight.
Outside The Atlantic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, it’s about 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius)—not warm enough for open-toed shoes, but still more pleasant than, say, a polar vortex. I’ve been longing for this day, and it got me thinking about spring on other planets, and whether it even exists.
We owe the seasons to Earth’s axis, which stays tilted at about 23 degrees as the Earth loops around the sun. But the orientation of the planet’s hemispheres in relation to the sun changes; different parts of the Earth lean toward or away from the sun at different times of the year, and receive varying amounts of sunlight.
But how do other planets work? To find out, and also to procrastinate my spring cleaning, I reached out to some scientists who spend their days thinking about other worlds.
“Mercury doesn’t really have anything approaching spring, or any season for that matter,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University. The planet’s axial tilt, a fraction of a degree, is negligible. “The amount of daylight at a given latitude on Mercury is essentially fixed during the entire year.”
The daylight is relentless and scorching. But the orientation produces a rather cool phenomenon. “It lets Mercury have regions of permanent shadow near its poles that are never sunlit, and lets ice be present in those regions—even on the planet closest to the sun,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
“It’s one weird little planet,” Byrne adds.
“There is no springtime on Venus, nor any other season—no seasons in hell!” says Allan Treiman, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.
It’s difficult to sugarcoat the environment on Venus. Surface temperatures are a sizzling 870 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead, all year round. Like Mercury’s, Venus’s axis isn’t tilted enough to produce a noticeable difference.
But the real reason the planet doesn’t have any seasons is its atmosphere, which is choked with clouds. “The clouds are so thick that its surface gets nearly no light or heat from the sun. Nearly all the sunlight and heat are absorbed by clouds, which then radiate heat down to the surface—the famous greenhouse effect,” Tremain says. “Venus clouds circulate faster than the surface does, so all the greenhouse heat is spread around the planet, whether it’s day or night.”
That’s not all. “To top everything else off, Venus’ day is longer than her year,” says Vicki Hansen, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. (It takes 243 Earth days for Venus to rotate once on its axis, but 225 Earth days for the planet to loop around the sun.) “So if she had spring, it would be hard to say what day it happened.”
Mars’s axis is tilted slightly more than Earth’s—about 25 degrees—which means the planet experiences distinct seasons, too. In fact, like the Northern hemisphere here, the Northern hemisphere on Mars is entering spring now.
“The Northern hemisphere is starting to heat up; the Southern hemisphere cooling off—just like on Earth,” says Don Banfield, a scientist at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science.
Well, not just like on Earth. Orbits affect seasons, too; the Martian year is twice as long as a terrestrial year, so the seasons stretch out longer. There are seasonal trends, such as summer dust storms, “but without rain and plants, they aren’t quite as obvious,” says Banfield.
“Jupiter does not have a springtime,” says Cheng Li, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like Mercury, Jupiter’s axial tilt is too small to matter.
Saturn does have spring: Its axial tilt is similar to that of Earth and Mars.
“Saturn is warm in the summer and cold in the winter,” says Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester. “The clouds and chemicals respond to these changes in sunlight. Perhaps the best example is the color of Saturn’s atmosphere, which shifts from blue hues in the winter—relatively clear skies with very few hazes—to golden hues in summer—a more smoggy atmosphere with lots of hazes.”
Saturnian spring also provides the most visibility for a massive, hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole that has mesmerized scientists for years. Some parts of Saturn can even experience miniature versions of seasons, thanks to its shimmering rings.
“A fixed point in Saturn’s atmosphere would experience additional periods when the rings shade the sun,” says Mike Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We actually have something like this at my house, because the neighboring building has a billboard on top. From a certain date in November to a certain date in February, our roof is in constant shade because the billboard blocks the sun, so our house gets colder.”
With a 98-degree tilt of its axis, Uranus basically spins on its side. This alignment means the planet experiences the most extreme seasonal contrasts in the solar system.
“The poles get a great deal of illumination from an overhead sun that barely seems to move in the sky during local summer and a great deal of darkness in winter,” says Glenn Orton, a scientist at NASA’s JPL. “As spring begins, the sun is virtually always at the horizon for anyone living at the poles and virtually straight overhead for a Uranian in the low-latitude tropics.” (We should clarify: These are fictional Uranian residents. Alien life hasn’t been discovered there.)
During spring, a giant white cap emerges over the north pole, standing out against the planet’s usual blue hues. Scientists suspect the warming temperatures produce atmospheric changes.
This far out in the solar system—where orbits are vastly longer—seasons stretch out for years. A Uranus spring lasts 21.
Spring on Neptune is twice as long. The planet experiences distinct seasons, but “I don’t think we’ve been able to observe Neptune long enough with enough detail to say for sure how spring in one hemisphere differs from any other season in terms of atmospheric activity,” says Anne Verbiscer, a planetary scientist at the University of Virginia.
“Why yes, it’s springtime on Pluto right now, at least in the northern hemisphere!” says David Grinspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “And it has been since 1990.”
(Please don’t overthink the inclusion of Pluto on this list. Scientists have spent years arguing over the correct categorization of this celestial body. For some of them, the 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet is not the final word. We’ll leave the debating to them.)
Pluto’s orbit around the sun is highly elliptical. “The distance to the sun is quite different for the same season in the south versus the north,” Grinspoon says. “This creates asymmetrical and extreme climate behavior where, over the timescale of the seasons—which are many decades long—the atmosphere goes through the magnitude of changes that on other planets we would call climate changes.”
Spring sounds mild compared with colder seasons. Without enough exposure to sunlight, Pluto can get so cold that its atmosphere freezes and falls on the surface. “You can imagine what life would be like if we had that experience on Earth,” says Bob West, a scientist at JPL. “The air we breathe and which sustains all life on the dry land would form crystals of water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide and fall to the ground as snow, leaving a near vacuum where once there was air.”
Wow. A little spring cleaning doesn’t sound so bad now.
Doonesbury — Origin stories.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
No Gift Keeps On Giving — Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic on the no-gifting trend.
This year, Heather Hund and her family will gather in West Texas on December 25 and solidify a new Christmas tradition, in which each relative is randomly assigned to give a gift to another family member and to a house pet. “The rules are basically a regift for the human and then $10 for the pet,” Hund told me. “And my 18-month-old son got put in [the latter] category too, so it’s small humans and small animals.”
Hund and her family downscaled their gift-giving six years ago after considering how much work Christmas shopping was. “I just remember coming home and being super stressed and last-minute trying to run out to the mall or looking online and seeing what I could get shipped in like three days,” said Hund, who’s 35 and works in tech in San Francisco.
Now, with the extra time she and her family have, they paint pottery together, cook, go on runs, and play cards. Plus, they get meaningful presents through the regifting agreement, such as the Led Zeppelin record Hund received from her dad, purchased when he was in high school. The new gifting protocol has been a joy. “The first year I thought I would be sad about it,” she said, “and I really wasn’t.”
Hund is one of the many holiday celebrants who have been questioning and revising their long-held gift-giving traditions—or, in some cases, scrapping them altogether. No single cause unites these opt-outers, but a few motivations regularly pop up: They want to resist consumerism, restore the religious focus of the holidays, and/or avoid harming the environment. Above all, they want to spend less money on things and more time with one another.
According to a recent survey from the personal-finance website Bankrate, almost half of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they’d like to on holiday gifts, with parents especially likely to feel put upon. When presented with a slew of options that might lessen their financial stress, respondents were most willing to entertain the idea of giving gifts only to their immediate family or of seeking out coupons and sales—64 percent and 57 percent, respectively, said those courses of action would be acceptable. Those surveyed rated other alternatives—giving homemade gifts, regifting, or buying things secondhand—as much less enticing. At the very bottom of the list was skipping gifts entirely, which received a tepid 13 percent approval rating.
Still, some people are trying it out. Raagini Appadurai, a 26-year-old educator and social-justice advocate living in Toronto, told me that her family—her two sisters, her parents, and herself—made a no-gifts pact this year. “When we remove material purchasing and consumption from the table, we are forced to question what we are bringing to [the holiday] instead—individually and collectively,” she said. “After our family reflection on this, the answer has been clear: Ourselves, we bring more of ourselves.” She told me that her family’s Christmas-morning plan is to gather around the tree as in years past, whether there are presents underneath it or not.
Some people also consider gift-giving a distraction from the religious significance of the holidays. Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz live in Hyattsville, Maryland, with their 20-month-old daughter. They are Catholic, don’t exchange gifts with one another for Christmas, and give only small presents to their parents. “Advent is supposed to be this quiet, somber, reflective period during which you’re preparing to celebrate the incredible thing that was God sending his son to Earth,” Tricia says. “That goes very poorly with a focus on buying things and merrymaking.”
As families have reconsidered their gift-giving practices, some of them have gotten creative about what to do instead. In 2015, the Orzechowskis, a family living in Washington, D.C., started taking an annual trip together, with their relatives funding different aspects of the vacation (such as admission to a museum in the city they’re visiting) instead of buying physical gifts. And Jennifer Knepper, a 39-year-old nurse, started an “alternative-gift fair” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives. The fair, which has been running for more than 10 years, offers fair-trade foodstuffs and the chance to make gift donations to charities, among other things.
Of course, giving fewer or less-expensive gifts is often not a choice, but a necessity—in the Bankrate survey, people earning less than $30,000 a year were more likely than those in any other income bracket to say that they don’t give holiday gifts. Many of the people I talked with for this article mentioned that they were fortunate to have such a choice, and explained that they amended their celebrations in response to personal reservations or discomfort they had about their gift-giving tradition, not on the recommendation of some celebrity or lifestyle guru.
In particular, many said they were rethinking their gifting in response to the pressures of consumerism around the holidays. David Tucker, a 33-year-old engineer at a software company who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, told me that he and his wife stopped giving gifts three years ago. “It was a mixture of a lot of things,” he said, “but we both started to share a disdain for the holidays” and the marketing involved, especially after a couple financially tight years. They found themselves surrounded by stuff, and not needing any more of it.
So they started donating their annual gift budget to charity, which means that their holiday shopping now takes just a few minutes. Tucker said that this mentality has shaped his habits during the rest of the year—he and his wife now volunteer more at their local food bank. “Why should it stop there?,” he remembered thinking about his holiday donations.
A few advocacy groups encourage people to reevaluate their gift-giving in the way that Tucker and his wife have. One is Buy Nothing Christmas, a movement started by Canadian Mennonites that proudly has “no membership, no fees, no plaques, no club cards.” Its goal, as stated on its website, is to “to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged.”
Another organization is New Dream, a nonprofit devoted to rethinking consumption. New Dream has been running a “Simplify the Holidays” campaign for 13 years, and five years ago launched SoKind, an online gift registry that allows people to share with their loved ones their desire for not just things, but nonmaterial gifts such as music lessons, home-cooked meals, and donations to charity. The platform is meant for any occasion (including weddings and graduations) and features almost 13,000 wish lists.
Other people have the environment in mind when thinking about what to give. Keya Chatterjee, a D.C. resident who runs a climate-focused nonprofit, and her husband only give gifts if they have been used, are made from recycled materials, or will reduce the recipient’s environmental footprint. “On the emissions-reduction side, many people have appreciated (and some have appreciated less) that I generally give people soft lighting LED light bulbs and with a note to ‘have a bright year,’” she wrote in an email. Other gifts she likes to give are solar phone chargers, library books (with a holiday note and the due date), and hot-water bottles (for warming just one’s bed instead of heating the whole house). “Needless to say, not everyone wants our gifts,” she said.
Chatterjee added that her family “heavily discourage[s] gifts to us,” though notes that it took about a decade for everyone to follow this request. Others I talked with encountered similar resistance from their relatives when expressing their gifting preferences, but for the most part, people came around and were even grateful.
Another contingent that’s thinking deeply about holiday spending is adherents of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which consists of cutting spending to spartan levels to stop working well before one’s 60s. Comment threads on Reddit and the personal-finance blog Mr. Money Mustache document some savers’ attempts to reconcile their commitment to their financial plan with their desire not to be grinchy.
All of the people I talked with for this article seemed committed to their new traditions, though some parents and parents-to-be of young children were aware that their kids might not be so keen on the concept. Heather Hund said she does “really want to stick to it” as her toddler grows up, and David Tucker acknowledged that if he and his wife have children, it’d be a “huge challenge” to keep up their no-gift policy.
This year, Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz will be giving their daughter some used coloring books passed down from a neighbor and perhaps a small stocking stuffer. At the age of 20 months, she hasn’t been briefed on her parents’ gifting philosophy. Later, “if she complains about other people getting lots of stuff,” Tricia says, “I think we’ll tell her, ‘Tough noodles.’”
My family stopped exchanging gifts between ourselves years ago when we were all spread out across the country and then started adding children, in-laws, grandchildren. It got both cumbersome and guilt-ridden with the forced merriment and a rebellion against the consumerism. I still buy gifts for a few friends, but it’s being together that really matters, and I’ll see my family after New Year’s.
One Small Step — Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker goes behind the scenes of Virgin Galatic’s first space mission.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mark Stucky left work early and went to his stepdaughter’s place to hang window blinds. Stucky, the lead test pilot at Virgin Galactic, was expecting to fulfill a lifelong dream—flying a rocket ship into space—the next morning, but he was trying not to make more of it than necessary. And so, after he put up the blinds, he drove home, had an early dinner, soaked in his hot tub, and was asleep by eight.
He was up before his 3 A.M. alarm, not because he was nervous—a bout of butterflies had come and gone earlier in the week—but, as he told me later, “Because I was in the zone.” He ate a cup of yogurt on his way out the door. Sometimes, before test flights, he listened to music. On Thursday, he drove in silence.
Stucky had dreamed of travelling into space since he was three years old, when he and his dad watched on TV as John Glenn orbited Earth. He applied for NASA’s astronaut program several times, and got close, but never made the cut. When, in 2009, he was hired as a test pilot by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company on contract to design, build, and test Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, he thought he might be close. But program delays and a crash, in 2014, which killed his best friend, Mike Alsbury, and left the spaceship in pieces, made Stucky wonder if he would ever get there. Now, at the age of sixty, he was about to attempt to soar two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet, or fifty miles, above the surface of Earth—beyond the boundary of what the U.S. government deems space.
It was a clear, crisp morning in Mojave, California. Nicola Pecile, who was piloting the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, which would carry the rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, up to its release point, spotted a comet in the southwest sky. Venus shone brightly overhead. By 7 A.M., about a thousand people, including officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, had gathered on the flight line. Eleven minutes later, WhiteKnightTwo sped down the runway and took off, with Stucky and his co-pilot, the former NASA astronaut C. J. Sturckow, below, in SpaceShipTwo. George Whitesides, the C.E.O. of Virgin Galactic, said he hadn’t felt as anxious in years: “This is right up there with childbirth in terms of nervousness levels.”
As WhiteKnightTwo climbed, Stucky ran through his final checklists. He had flown five previous powered flights, burning the hybrid rocket motor for just more than thirty seconds, coasting above a hundred thousand feet, but on Thursday he planned to burn the motor for almost a minute—enough, it was hoped, to propel SpaceShipTwo to the fifty-mile boundary.
An hour after takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo, now forty thousand feet above the desert, dropped the spaceship and banked away. Then, on Stucky’s command, Sturckow fired the rocket and they were off. Once they broke the sound barrier, Stucky began trimming the horizontal stabilizers, increasing the vehicle’s pitch, until the nose was pointing nearly straight up. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. Forty seconds. Even though they were pushing into “unknown, uncharted territory,” the longer they burned the rocket motor, the better SpaceShipTwo seemed to perform. “She felt like a thoroughbred,” Stucky said.
After sixty seconds, Sturckow switched off the motor, letting SpaceShipTwo slice through the last remnants of atmosphere. While the sky darkened around them, sunlight filled the cockpit. Absent gravity, Stucky removed his glove and let it float around for a moment.
Back down on the flight line, Enrico Palermo, the president of the Spaceship Company, the subsidiary of Virgin Galactic that built SpaceShipTwo, stood at a lectern onstage, calling out the vehicle’s altitude:
“Two hundred and forty thousand feet.”
“Two hundred and fifty thousand feet.”
“Two hundred and . . .”—he paused, awaiting confirmation from mission control—“two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet.”
The crowd whooped and cheered. “Still going up,” Palermo said. “Apogee: two hundred and seventy-one thousand feet.”
Todd Ericson, one of the test pilots and Virgin Galactic’s vice-president for safety, reached over and gripped Whitesides’s hand. “We’re in space,” Ericson said.
Fifteen minutes later, Stucky and Sturckow landed, stepping out of SpaceShipTwo to enthusiastic applause. Branson, wearing a distressed-leather bomber jacket, took the stage and said, “Who enjoyed that?” The outline of a single tear streaked the side of his face—it was a moment of tremendous joy, catharsis, and relief for him, the team, and their families. Stucky’s wife, Cheryl Agin, shed tears throughout the entire flight.
Stucky and Sturckow joined Branson onstage. Stucky reached into the calf pocket of his flight suit and presented Branson with a blue-and-green stress ball, modelled on the Earth, that had just been in space. He then fished out a small, black jewelry box, which contained an engagement ring that belonged to a flight-test engineer on Stucky’s team named Brandon Parrish. Parrish called his girlfriend, Veronica McGowan, a fellow-engineer, up onto the stage with him and proposed. When she accepted, Stucky popped the cork on a champagne bottle, shook it up, and sprayed the couple. Afterward, one of Parrish’s colleagues said to him, “Way to set the bar too fucking high, bro.”
When the ceremony ended, Stucky, the pilots, and the mission-control team gathered back at the main hangar. The pilots toasted with paper cups of whiskey, and then went to Denny’s for lunch. Stucky and Agin split a hamburger, and the pilots showed one another the latest cockpit photos and read selected tweets aloud. Vice-President Mike Pence tweeted his congratulations: “the 1st crewed flight to launch from US soil in over 7 years!”
Stucky checked his watch and noted that they were due back at the hangar in fifteen minutes for more post-flight reviews. After all, SpaceShipTwo was being tested for regular and repeated missions, and not merely a one-off flight. There was flight data to plug into the models and run through the simulator, Stucky said. “You know, to see if there’s anything more we can learn.” Virgin Galactic could begin commercial service—flying customers to space—as early as late next year.
[Photo by Virgin Galactic]
Doonesbury — Final note.
Saturday, October 6, 2018
Kinda puts the news of today into perspective.
Saturday, September 22, 2018
Where no one has gone before.
Friday, July 20, 2018
Looking back from this distance, it’s still an amazing feat, made even more so by the fact that the technology that got us there was basically one step up from a World War II rocket and computers the size of a garden shed that now dangle from a key ring. There’s more computing power in your average smart phone today than what ran Apollo 11. And it was all bought and paid for through government agencies.
I seriously doubt that we’ll ever mount anything so ambitious in such a short time again. Back then we went from Echo I, a helium balloon in space, to Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility in ten years, and I’ve lived longer than the time it took to get us from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base. What drove us to complete this amazing mission in 1969 wasn’t, as the then-recently cancelled “Star Trek” intoned, our desire “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” It was to beat the Russians and win the propaganda war of capitalism and American spirit over Commie collectivism and scary grainy pictures of mushroom clouds from which we ducked and covered. Yes, there was a spirit of adventure and sci-fi to it, but it was basically an ideological pecker contest, and we won. So there.
We’ve come a long way since that July of 1969 when we set foot on the moon. Going into space turned from adventure to lab work, and the greatest benefit from space-bound technology is that now you can listen to music bounced off a satellite without commercials. By the time the Apollo missions ended in 1972, the launch barely warranted headlines. Only tragedies such as Challenger and Columbia would remind us that going into space was more than just another way to get somewhere else.
Until we prove Einstein wrong and make the jump to hyperspace, we’re stuck on this rock, and chances are no one from anywhere else will come to call, so we’ve got to make the best of it. That means taking care of ourselves, each other, and this pale blue dot adrift in the incalculably huge universe.
So when Neil Armstrong proclaimed “one giant leap for mankind,” perhaps he was challenging us to realize that while exploring and seeking knowledge is in our basic nature, so is being good to where we came from and to each other.