May Pause

Back to posting on Decoration Day, May 30, which happens to be the day after Memorial Day this year. By then I might have seen a thing or two to post about, but no promises.

I picked up a NASA public domain image recently while reading about the spacecraft Cassini’s grand finale. It’s one of those images that’s more beguiling the more you stare at it.

8423_20181_1saturn2016More images of the planet and its moons are here, including one of oddball Iapetus. That moon, and a number of other Saturnian things, come up in a video made featuring Sir Arthur C. Clarke about a year before he died. Glad he lived long enough to see Cassini-Huygens explore Saturn.

 

Into the Silence

When I went to Half Price Books the other day, I knew I’d come away with something. Even more because I had a gift card, though I don’t remember where or when I got it. The code on the back was scratched off, so I couldn’t tell whether it had any value by checking online. I figured the clerk could tell me, and so she did: $15.

More than enough to buy Into the Silence by Wade Davis (2011), subtitled “The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.” That subtitle alone was almost enough to sell me on it. Not that I have a particular interesting in books about mountaineering, though I’ve read a few. But I do have an interest in the Great War and about journeys or expeditions to remote places, during which the participants die or not.

In this case, of course, Mallory and Irvine did not come back from Everest in 1924. Mallory managed to survive the war — which many of his friends did not — but Everest got him. I remember reading about the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999. Irvine has yet to turn up, and no one knows whether they made the summit or not.

Also the fact that Wade Davis wrote the book was a recommendation, though I haven’t read any other books of his, even the one about Voodoo. Not yet. Anyway, he’s an insanely accomplished fellow, so I suspect I’m in for a good read.

Thursday Residuum

Remarkably rainy January so far. Even when it hasn’t been raining these past weeks or so, the skies have looked pregnant with rain. So it’s been a wet January, not an icy one. That was the case at UIUC, as the last of clinging frozen matter thawed, as it might in a normal northern March.

UIUC January 15, 2017

Blame it on climate change? I’d be tempted, but weather isn’t climate. Besides, there’s a blizzard lurking out there in the near future, or at least heavy snow. Winter will not be denied.

A few days ago, I approached a four-way stop to make a left turn. Directly across the intersection another car arrived to make a left turn. To my left, a third car arrived to make a right turn. We all got there at about the same moment. We all made our respective turns concurrently. Can’t remember when that happened before. Had a fourth car to my right wanted to make a right turn, it would have been truly remarkable, but we had to settle for a three-way synch.

At a World Market last week, I saw bottles of Tito’s Handmade Vodka for sale. I couldn’t ever remember actually seeing any before, as opposed to hearing about it, though I don’t go to a lot of liquor stores.

Last month, I heard Tito himself on the radio, pitching his creation. He didn’t quite sound like his high school self, no one would, but it was him all right. I was pretty sure I hadn’t ever heard advertising for Tito’s beyond sponsorships on public radio (the ad I heard was on a commercial station). Maybe Tito’s needed to up his ad budget in the face of competition.

I’m most of my way through the book River of Doubt, about the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition into the deep Brazilian rainforest. Reading it, you think, how did anyone survive that trip? They faced untreatable diseases, looming starvation, dangerous animals, venomous bugs, an extremely hazardous river, a murderer among their crew, and the potential for Indians to attack at any time and wipe them all out. At one point, a very sick Theodore Roosevelt seriously contemplated overdosing on morphine. Not too end his pain, but to avoid being an impediment to the rest of the expedition. His son Kermit wouldn’t allow it.

Amazing how close TR’s bio came to ending with, “Led expedition down the River of Doubt in Brazil, 1914. Never seen again.”

The Air Zoo of Kalamazoo

Mid-week between Christmas and New Year’s, I popped off by myself to Michigan, more specifically to Kalamazoo, the city with the most fun name in the whole state — just repeat it a few times and see — for a look around. One of its main attractions is the Air Zoo. I’ve heard about that place for years, but an air (and space) museum is a moderately hard sell for the family. Not for me. Spacecraft especially, but also aircraft.

The Air Zoo is relatively small, at least with the Museum of the U.S. Air Force still fairly fresh in mind, but it offers an excellent collection, including early airplanes, a lot of WWII aircraft, examples from the age of jet fighters, and a number of space-related objects. The museum is also in the major leagues of aircraft restoration efforts. A number of items that it had restored were on display, and later I read about a WWII dive bomber, a Douglas SBD-2P Dauntless, that was pulled from Lake Michigan recently and which will be restored by the museum.

Here’s a WACO VPF-7, something I’d never heard of, probably because it was only one of six ever built.

According to the museum, the ’30s-vintage aircraft “was designed as a trainer/combat aircraft for the Guatemalan Air Force. As an attack aircraft, the front cockpit would be covered and .30-caliber machine gun pods would be placed under the wings. However, this particular aircraft has no indication of machine guns ever having been attached.”

A Ford Tri-Motor. Also known as a Tin Goose, produced from 1925 to 1933. Indiana Jones got around in these sometimes, I believe.
Air Zoo“The Air Zoo’s 5-AT Ford Tri-Motor (N4819) came off the assembly line in 1929 with serial number 58 and was delivered to National Air Transport, where it probably delivered freight and mail,” the museum says. “It quickly went to Ford Motor Company for modifications and then was sold to Northwest Airways, flying the Minneapolis-St Paul-to-Chicago run. It was one of five Tri-Motors bought by [the company that] would become Northwest Airlines.”

Maybe so, but as a display item, the plane is painted as if it were in service of the U.S. Army. I’ve read that until last year, this very plane was airworthy, and the museum gave rides.

Here’s a B-25, one of almost 10,000 produced during the war.
Air ZooThis particular one made strafing runs with the 489th Bomb Squadron, 345th Bomb Group, according to the museum. I like that paint job.

Modern wars aren’t won just with fighting machines, but by getting materiel here and there as fast as possible. Enter the DC-3.

Air ZooTime flies, there are more wars. Jets do the fighting, such as this F-8 Crusader.
Air ZooThe sign said: “Photo reconnaissance variants of the Crusader flew several dangerous missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then… the F-8 became the first U.S. Navy aircraft to routinely battle North Vietnamese MiGs.”

A small but distinctive collection of space artifacts is on display at the Air Zoo. I take ’em where I can get ’em. Such as this J-2 engine, famed for its attachment to the second and third stages of the Saturn V.

J-2 Air ZooThere aren’t many machines that have to be just so or they’ll blow up. Kudos to the engineers.

Here’s something I’d never seen before: a Gemini boilerplate.
El Kabong, Air ZooEl Kabong I is its whimsical nickname. I’d forgotten that, “as El Kabong, Quick Draw would attack his foes by swooping down on a rope with the war cry “OLÉ!” and hitting them on the head with an acoustic guitar …” (Wikipedia). Quick Draw McGraw made a fairly faint impression on me, even at an impressionable age.

Anyway, the boilerplate’s main job was to test the feasibility of recovering spacecraft on land using extendable skid-type landing gear, a steerable gliding parachute (para-sail), and solid-fuel retrorockets to help slow the spacecraft for landing, says the Air Zoo. I don’t think Gemini landed that way, but it sounds pretty cool.

The concept of the boilerplate spacecraft might be an obscure one to the public at large, but I like coming across them.

Godspeed, John Glenn

project_mercury_astronauts_-_gpn-2000-000651Occasionally, a public domain picture from NASA is just the thing. I opened up Google News at about 3 this afternoon to take a look at the latest outrages worldwide, and the page informed me of John Glenn’s passing. I knew he was still alive, but I wasn’t sure whether any of the other Mercury 7 astronauts were, so I checked.

The answer is no. He was the last one.

I don’t remember any of their flights, of course. I barely remember any of the Gemini missions. It wasn’t until Apollo that I started paying attention, but when I did, I made a point of learning about Mercury and Gemini too. I well remember my excitement at finding the July 1962 edition of National Geographic, which covered Glenn’s flight, about 10 years after it came out (because we saved them, like everyone). I read every word of the article. Early space flight was covered in other editions, too, and I read them as well.

Like all editions of NG, it was well illustrated. One in particular stuck with me: how John Glenn might have died in 1962 and not 2016. Reading that also meant that I knew how the dramatization of his flight in The Right Stuff movie would turn out (also, I’d read the book). Astronaut not incinerated.

The news set me wondering about how many of the Moon walkers are still around. Seven of 12, as it turns out, but every jack man of them are in their 80s. Buzz Aldrin’s the oldest, nearly 87, while Charles Duke is the youngest, at 81. Wonder if Aldrin would even have the energy these days to offer up a punch to a Moon landing denier who clearly deserved one (officialdom agreed; Aldrin wasn’t charged).

The Dearborn Observatory

Nestled among a thicket of other buildings at Northwestern University is the Dearborn Observatory. Whenever you can, visit an observatory. So we did on Saturday, since it was part of Open House Chicago.
Dearborn Observatory 2016This particular building goes back to 1888, with the aluminum dome was added only in 1997, though there must have been some other dome before that. The story of the telescope inside goes back further. The remarkable Frederick A.P. Barnard, chancellor of the University of Mississippi, tasked the also remarkable Alvan Clark & Sons to construct a 18.5-inch refracting lens for the school, the largest yet made.

That was in 1859. By the time the lens was finished in 1861, Ole Miss (not so ole then, I guess) was in no position to take delivery. Before long the Chicago Astronomical Society bought the lens for a telescope at the Old University of Chicago.

Old Chicago — not the same as the modern university — folded in 1886, and eventually Northwestern got the telescope with the Alvan Clark lens, which it uses to this day. It’s quite a thing to stand in the presence of such a storied telescope.
Dearborn Observatory 2016How storied? The One-Minute Astronomer tells us — even though it mistakes E.E. Barnard for Frederick A.P. Barnard — that “in 1846 Alvan Clark established a telescope factory at Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Clark and his two sons, with almost no formal training, learned how to build the finest refracting telescopes in the world. Many of their instruments remain in use today…

“Many important discoveries were made with Clark refractors, especially related to binary stars, stellar motion, and planetary studies.

• Asaph Hall discovered Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, with the 26-inch USNO telescope. He also discovered a white spot on Saturn that helped determine the planet’s rotational period.

• Percival Lowell (falsely) observed canals on Mars with the famed 24-inch Clark refractor at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

• And in 1861, Alvan G. Clark made a 18.5-inch lens for E. E. Barnard [sic] at the University of Mississippi. While testing it, he observed Sirius and glimpsed the faint companion predicted by Friedrich Bessel in 1844.”

Astronomer E.E. Barnard would have been about four years old when Clark was working on the future Dearborn Observatory lens. Oddly enough, I’ve known about him a long time — I happened across a reference to Barnard’s Star when I was in junior high, and wondered, who was Barnard and why does he get a star? Good reasons, it turned out. Alas, no Earth-like planets seem to orbit his star. Much later, I learned that Barnard Hall at VU was named after him; he attended Vanderbilt in its early years.

The Dearborn Observatory is open to the public for viewing on clear Friday nights. It’s a bit far to go to Evanston just for that, but one of these days we might do it.

Western Ohio &c

We arrived in downtown Dayton late on a Friday afternoon, May 27, and from the look of things, Dayton isn’t an 18-hour city just yet. Municipal planners probably aspire to that: there’s been some nice infrastructure work at Riverscape Metro Park and Five Rivers Metro Park downtown, including walkways, an elegant garden, a pavilion and other public spaces that look fairly new. As for the private sector, I also spotted a few new apartment projects downtown.

But as a tertiary market, Dayton’s downtown still seems to close up at 5 pm. That’s almost old fashioned now, as the way things were in most smaller downtowns in the last third of the 20th century. Only a handful of people were out and about in the late afternoon/early evening of a warm late spring/early summer day in downtown Dayton, some at the riverfront, others outside the Schuster Center, an event venue.

The main river along downtown is the Great Miami River, which eventually flows into the Ohio. A tributary that meets the Great Miami near downtown Dayton is the Mad River. I like that name. Later, I drove by Mad River Junior High. Now that’s a name for your school.

Less amusing to learn about was the Great Dayton Flood of 1913 (part of the Great Flood of 1913), which is memorialized along the Great Miami. The Dayton flood spurred the creation of the Miami Conservancy District, established in Ohio by the Vonderheide Conservancy Act of 1914, which authorized levees and dams and such to prevent another monster flood. It was a great age of civil engineering, after all. So far, it seems to have worked.

Of course, no matter how obvious the public good, someone’s going to be against it.

Also downtown: Fifth Third Field, where the Dayton Dragons minor league team plays. In the plaza near field are large concrete baseballs. On these Ann proved herself to be more limber than the rest of us.

Fifth Third Park, Dayton 2016At the Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, I happened across Lookout Point, the highest elevation in Dayton. This is the view from there.
Dayton - View from Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum In 2010, the cemetery completed a tower and columbarium on the hill, along with landscaping all around. It’s a lovely spot.

Woodland Cemetery and ArboretumLookout Point, Woodland Cemetery, DaytonThe cemetery also put in a time capsule at Lookout Point, to be opened in 2141, the year of the cemetery’s tricentennial. Guess 2041 wasn’t far enough in the future.

One famed burial I didn’t see at Woodland: copperhead Clement Vallandigham. In reading a bit about him, I found out about his death in 1871, when he was working as a defense attorney after unsuccessful attempts to return to office.

“Vallandigham’s political career ended with his untimely death on June 17, 1871,” notes Ohio History Central. “While preparing the defense of an accused murderer, Vallandigham enacted his view of what occurred at the crime scene. Thinking that a pistol that he was using as a prop was unloaded, Vallandigham pointed it at himself and pulled the trigger. The gun discharged, and Vallandigham was mortally wounded.”

At least his client was acquitted. That’s further even than Perry Mason would go to get a not guilty verdict.

On the way home, we stopped in Wapakoneta, Ohio, a town south of Lima and hometown of moonwalker Neil Armstrong. Just off I-75 is the Armstrong Air and Space Museum. I’ve read the design is supposed to evoke a future Moon base. Maybe the sort of Moon base Chesley Bonestell would put in the background of a lunar landscape.

Armstrong Air and Space MuseumThe museum’s probably interesting enough, with Armstrong artifacts and other items related to space exploration. The Gemini VIII capsule is there, in which Armstrong and Scott almost bought the farm. But Ann wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the place, and we wanted to press on to Ft. Wayne for lunch, so ultimately the admission fee we didn’t spend went toward that lunch. I did buy some postcards at the museum.

The Armstrong Air and Space Museum’s web site stresses: “The museum is owned by the State of Ohio, is part of the Ohio History Connection’s statewide system of historic sites and museums, and is operated by the local Armstrong Air and Space Museum Association. Neil Armstrong was never involved in the management of the museum nor benefited from it in any way.”

Before leaving Wapakoneta, I wanted to find Armstrong’s boyhood home. It wasn’t hard; the town is small. The house is privately owned by non-Armstrongs, so the thing not to do is venture too close. No doubt occasional oafs do just that, though probably fewer as time passes and fewer oafs remember his achievements.

Another good-looking small town in western Ohio is Troy. We stopped there to obtain doughnuts at the local Tim Hortons. That part of Ohio is within the Tim Hortons realm; our part of Illinois is not. Troy has a handsome main street and a fine courthouse.

Finally, with this trip, I’m glad to report that I’ve been to Neptune. Neptune, Ohio, that is, an insubstantial burg in Mercer County along US 33. Far from the ocean, and far from the planet of that name, though no further (roughly) than anywhere else on Earth.

Curiosity made me waste spend a little time at the USGC Geographic Names Information System, and I discovered that there are five populated U.S. places called “Neptune,” not counting variants like Neptune Beach, Fla. Besides Ohio, they are in Iowa, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Someday maybe I’ll look up the other planets.

The More Common Kind of Transit

Transit of Mercury, eh? A few news sites were pumping up today’s transit as a “rare” celestial event, but something that occurs 13 or 14 times per century here on Earth doesn’t merit that adjective. The next one’s going to be in 2019, for crying out loud. A transit of Venus, now that’s rare in human terms.

Besides, Mercury’s annoyingly hard to spot in the sky under normal circumstances. Is it ever known to hang so bright in the morning or evening sky like Venus? Glimmer red-orange like Mars? Appear as a bright white dot late in the evening like Jupiter or even the dimmer Saturn? No, it hides in the glare of the Sun.

Even so, I might have taken my eclipse shades out — the ones I used during the transit of Venus, without harm to my retinas — and looked for it this morning, but for one thing here on my part of Earth: completely overcast skies. Ah, well. I’m glad that didn’t happen back in ’12 and I hope it doesn’t happen for the solar eclipse next year.

Curiosity observed a transit of Mercury on Mars about two years ago, the first time any kind of transit has been observed from anywhere other than Earth (by earthlings, I should add), and something I didn’t know until now. That should have been bigger news than today’s garden-variety transit. Also, should there be observers on Mars — people or machines — in 2084, a transit of Earth will be visible from that planet.

Here’s a take on the transit of Mercury I saw in Lileks, in the comments section of all places. Then again, his comments section tends to be a cut above the norm.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

I’m about halfway through Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1990) by Edward Rice, subtitled in its Amazon entry, “The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West” (but that phrase isn’t on the cover of the book). At the halfway point, Burton’s already been an agent for Gen. Napier in Sind and other places, daringly visited Mecca, and done a lot more, and now — around the time he met Speke — he’s preparing to venture into Africa for a date with a spear through his cheeks.

Wiki (to borrow only one sentence) describes Burton as a “British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.” Rice’s biography, I’m happy to say, does him justice.

“Burton was unique in any gathering except when he was deliberately working in disguise as an agent among peoples of the lands being absorbed by his country,” Rice writes. “An impressive six feet tall, broad chested and wiry, ‘gypsy-eyed,’ darkly handsome, he was fiercely imposing, his face scarred by a savage spear wound received in a battle with Somali marauders. He spoke twenty-nine languages and many dialects and when necessary, he could pass as a native of several eastern lands — as an Afghan when he made his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, as a Gypsy laborer among the work gangs on the canals of the Indus River, as a nondescript peddler of trinkets and as a dervish, a wandering holy man, when exploring the wilder parts of Sind, Baluchistan, and the Punjab for his general. He was the first European to enter Harar, a sacred city in East Africa, though some thirty whites had earlier been driven off or killed. He was also the first European to lead an expedition into Central Africa to search for the sources of the Nile…

“His opinions on various subjects — English ‘misrule’ of the new colonies, the low quality and stodginess of university education, the need for the sexual emancipation of the English woman, the failure on the part of the Government to see that the conquered peoples of the empire were perpetually on the edge of revolt — were not likely to make him popular at home. Nor did his condemnation of infanticide and the slave trade endear him to Orientals and Africans. His scholarly interests often infuriated the Victorians, for he wrote openly about sexual matters they thought better left unmentioned — aphrodisiacs, circumcision, infibulation, eunuchism, and homosexuality…

“Burton’s adult life was passed in a ceaseless quest for the kind of secret knowledge he labeled broadly ‘Gnosis’… This search led him to investigate the Kabbalah, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, a Hindu snake caste of the most archaic type, and the erotic Way called Tantra, after which he looked into Sikhism and passed through several forms of Islam before settling on Sufism, a mystical discipline that defies simple labels. He remained a more or less faithful practitioner of Sufi teachings for the rest of his life…

Wow. Previously I only knew about his career in the broadest terms, colored by reading Mountains of the Moon by William Harrison in Japan in the early ’90s (published as Burton and Speke in 1982), an exceptionally fine work of historical fiction, and seeing the movie Mountains of the Moon, which is a good adaptation.

Never mind the fellow who hawks Mexican beer. Even though he’s been dead for over 125 years, I’d say Richard Burton would still be a strong contender for status as The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Guy Fawkes & Martians &c

One more warm day. Then no more. Unless the forecasts about next week are right. What kind of November is this?

It’s Guy Fawkes Day again, and not a burning effigy in sight. It’s really something we should import. Lately I’ve been reading What If? 2, a collection of counterfactual history essays that I picked up used for 50 cents, but “What If Guy Fawkes Had Succeeded?” isn’t one of the subjects. Naturally that question’s been taken up elsewhere.

All of us went to see The Martian on Sunday. All in all, a well done bit of hard SF. Titanium hard, though considering the story, the focus on the technology of space travel and survival in a hostile environment isn’t misplaced. The movie also managed to present its exposition — and there was a lot of it — in a way that didn’t goo up the narrative, which is no small trick.

One thing (which the author of the book has acknowledged): the Martian atmosphere is so thin that a raging storm of the sort that got the hero in his jam would be impossible. The planet does have dust storms, of course, but not hurricanes of dust. Never mind.

There’s no overt indication of when the story takes place, so I figured it was either 20 years or so from now — very optimistic indeed, considering the sluggish pace U.S. manned space exploration these days — or in a present-day world in which a program to send people to Mars got started in earnest in the 1990s (it was, after all, something the elder Bush proposed). The flags on the spaceships and shoulder patches, I noticed, had 50 stars. A nice detail would have been to use the 51- or 52-star designs.

I suspect the only way U.S. astronauts are getting to Mars in a few decades is if the Chinese decide to attempt it.

From a web site I’d never heard of before but happened across recently, purporting to cover real estate news (all sic): “According to Investor Daily, TIAA-CREF’s Phil McAndrews has recently stated that the United States economy is under fairly good state that tantamounts to the continuing optimistic forecasts for the commercial property segment.”

That’s a sample from an item laid out like a real article, but clearly not written by a native speaker of English. The item, in fact, is a little hard to read, and larded with advertising links and other annoyances. And then it crashed my browser with an irritating “Unresponsive Script” message. I’m not overly worried about competition from such Mickey Mouse efforts as this.

Does anyone use “Mickey Mouse,” as in amateurish, any more? I had a teacher in junior high, our band director Mr. Fields, who was fond of the term. Now it sounds like it belongs to an earlier generation — Mr. Fields’ generation, or about the same age as Mickey himself. Maybe in more recent years, Disney minions have made trouble for anyone who uses Mickey like that. I’d better watch out.