The Little Planet that Could

Lowell’s Mars TelescopeThere is a certain mystique and thrill filling anyone who camps beneath the stars. Exposed to the open skies, devoid of walls, the chilled blackness of night air, the breeze on skin, and above, that canopy of dense splattered starlight, transports anyone back in time to their earlier years, where a child, rapt in anticipation for the exciting unknown, imagines the mystical, where nearly everything might be true.

This is the feeling people share, as unlikely as it may sound, no matter their age, when visiting the ancient instruments of the astronomical. These intricate and often colossal devices somehow exude a primal and otherworldly quality. For all their technology, they remain distinctly connected to the natural world, inexplicably. Housed within buildings, yet open wide to the chill night air. Lights by which to read or write, yet utter darkness from which to see.

Searching for signs and knowledge in the heavens is ingrained within the earliest points of our species. Observatories erected in wood, stone, metal and glass continue to fuel our curiosity about what, exactly, we might be, where we may be going, and who or what else might dwell, far beyond our sight, waiting for discovery. This is the closest many people will ever come to feeling a presence of profound awe and even magic.

Percival LowellPercival Lowell was one such man. In the late 1800’s Percival left his home in Boston to explore various cultures and people in the Far East. The countries of Asia remained, at that time, largely alien to Westerners. For a decade, Percival reveled in the diversity, drawing parallels between their histories and civilizations to our own. He also became fascinated by the work of Giovanni Schiaparelli who studied objects within our solar system by peering through the optical instruments of that time. Schiaparelli named the continents and seas of Mars. He also discovered canali on Mars, which many people interpreted as “canals” rather than “channels”.

This fired Percival’s imagination. He wondered at what manner of people, what grand civilization, could construct such enormous canals across the entire planet. Perhaps they became extinct after a monumental effort to save themselves from a planetary drought. And this is where Percival, from a scientific perspective, made a terrible mistake: he sought to cause an alignment of facts to support the passion of his belief. However, from a humanistic perspective, his fantasy and its pursuit set in motion of chain of events that follow us strongly into today, and will carry on into the future.

It is impossible to talk about Lowell Observatory without mentioning its founder, Percival Lowell. You discover this when you try to write about it, and you discover it whenever you speak with anyone at the Observatory. It was this man’s unquenchable passion for discovery that led him to set out upon a massive hunt across the United States to find the perfect spot, unspoiled by light, dense atmosphere and clouds, upon which he might construct his own observatory, since the observatories of his day had no room for an amateur, which he was. At last, he settled upon a small town in Arizona called Flagstaff, up through the woods on tall hill overlooking the town, and soon renamed Mars Hill.

Strangely, this all came about because Schiaparelli’s eyesight was failing him, which compelled Percival to carry on Schiaparelli’s mapping work, in anticipation of some great alien cultural discovery. He built a 24-inch refractory telescope, floating on salt water and controlled by pulleys and ropes, to carry on the mapping of Mars, all enclosed within a beautiful wooden dome which is turned by the rotation of rubber tires. During his many hours staring through his telescope, Percival observed many things that both were and were not there. His writings helped turn Mars into the science fiction spectacle from which it only recently escaped.

Percival Lowell’s TombIt is astonishing how much of this man’s life remains — his writings, his telegrams, his notebooks, his instruments, and all manner of memorabilia. Even though his life’s passion turned out, in the end, to be a wild and quite unintentional concoction, the Lowell Observatory holds Percival in an almost bizarre reverence. Even in death his presence and passion permeates the Observatory like a friendly, inspirational and defining, yet invisible framework. His tomb on the hillside draws you, like someone who wishes to say, there is always something more.

Today, Lowell Observatory has gained many more telescopes both on Mars Hill and Anderson Mesa, which is several miles out of Flagstaff in greater darkness. No longer considered an amateur institution, Lowell works with several academic institutions as well as the US Naval Observatory and the US Geological Survey. Their premier project is the construction of the Discovery Telescope, which is in partnership with the wonderful science people at the Discovery Channel, and whose CEO, John Hendricks, just recently contributed $5 million of his own money to help fund. Passion indeed.

Serious science is performed daily at Lowell Observatory. But even more important, Lowell seems to be in one of the most friendly and beneficial relationships I have seen, with the city of Flagstaff. There is tangible, mutual love. Arizona, in general, seems to value sharing its academic wealth with its communities. If you are in a city with a university, you can expect many lectures offered freely to the public each week from some of the greatest minds in the various astronomical sciences, not to mention various community festivals throughout each year revolving around science. I managed to hear an extraordinarily informative lecture on the nature and composition of comets by David Schleicher while getting a serious insider look at what really happened with the probe sent to land on Titan and previews of the fascinating science coming from it from Larry Soderblom of the USGS.

I loved my time spent in Flagstaff. They have dense trees, grass and hills, very unlike Tucson. And as where Tucson is spread out, Flagstaff is far more dense, where you can easily just head out on foot, exploring around. Next will be the US Naval Observatory, who have a facility very near Flagstaff but are not quite as home-grown friendly.

I can’t speak of Lowell Observatory without mentioning their discovery of Pluto, however demoted it may have become. A young man from Kansas named Clyde Tombaugh managed to get a telescope and make drawings of Jupiter and Mars, which he sent to Lowell. Lowell liked them very much and offered Clyde a job with him in Flagstaff. They knew of anomalies in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus which they attributed to the gravitational influence of a yet-undiscovered ninth planet, and Tombaugh began a painstakingly systematic survey of the night skies with photographic plates. These plates were compared with each other over long period of time by flipping them in stereographs to see if any bright spots moved, in a veritable sea of bright spots. Incredibly, his sharp eye eventually picked out Pluto, after having discovered 14 asteroids incidentally during his search. Unfortunately, Lowell had died before Pluto was discovered. Tombaugh had symbol for the planet make by the juxtaposition of the letters P and L, in honor of Percival Lowell. Incidentally, the orbital anomalies of Uranus and Neptune weren’t actually caused by Pluto. They were caused by an error in the calculations of those planet’s mass. After discovering Pluto and all those asteroids, Tombaugh decided to go to college and get a degree in Astronomy, eventually teaching Astronomy at New Mexico State University. Some of his ashes, right now, are hurling through space at over 35,000 mph to rendezvous with Pluto in 2015 as part of the New Horizons Mission. He’ll be passing Saturn’s orbit later this year, in June.


You Were Right

Shelli, I owe you an apology. It was years ago when I was giving you hell about voting for Ralph Nader; when I told you that you would be helping to give the election to Bush by doing so. And after that, with all my told ya so’s, we both waited in horror for what was bound to come. But I’m sorry for pressuring you, or laying guilt trips on you. I was very wrong doing so. It’s only now that I begin seeing what you already knew.

On the Democratic side of things, in this primary, I can find no rational justification to vote for one candidate over the other. Our country, over the last few years, has sickened me. And I don’t say that lightly. I am part of a great wrong. I desire change. Just like the candidates keep repeating, again and again, with no details, only words. But I desire fundamental change, not merely cosmetic ones. All the candidates we have, regardless of what they say, have played, and are continuing to play the game as usual. Their histories reveal it, to varying degrees, and current their overly-generalized commentary shows they are willing to continue playing the game in one form or another.

I am certain there are all kinds of strategies associated with what they say and do not say, designed to help them win the Presidency, thinking both toward the primaries and toward future debates with the Republican candidate. I’m sure they, or their advisors, know the “game” very well. The only problem is, I’m sick of those games. And playing those games, is not change.

I didn’t go to the caucuses yesterday, to choose between Hillary and Obama. When I put them on scales, they weigh the same. I also believe it’s best not to vote on an issue when you don’t have a good reason for making a determination. My dad went, though. He said there were probably a thousand people there for the deliberations — a far greater number than any he had previously seen, with no room to stand and stuffy air. He came back home without participating. Obviously, something is afoot within the people. Something is stirring their quiet coals into action.

Strangely, the Republican side of McCain doesn’t even sound that bad. He seems to take our climate problems more seriously than any candidate. And although he is often obtuse, he seems to be honest. Then again, you can be quite honest while continuing to shift money to the wealthy, and driving our armies to “glory”. And as for Huckabee, I’ll just go get a pink triangle tattoo and throw myself in an oven to save anyone else the trouble.

In this whole bloated, gaudy menagerie of candidates my two favorite were Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. They had by far the most interesting, challenging and relevant things to say. I suppose that is why they were the ones censored by both the media networks and their own parties — including the other candidates.

And this is where I have come to understand you better, Shelli. We truly do not have choice within this limited and insular field of candidates. We merely have variations on a theme. Variations more akin to the dubious Hayden variety than the spectacular and honest works of Bach. Variations that merely support a towering and quite broken spectre of Democracy. And what change can we truly hope for, from these?

I want us to help people, not hurt them. I want us to make sure that everyone can have food before any of us start dancing around with diamonds. I want us to be smart and inquisitive, not prone to deceit. I think we should take care of each other, as much (or more) than we take care of ourselves. Lunatic, eh? I had always associated these characteristics with the Democratic Party. Their actions, since they took control of Congress, has proven me wrong. Again, they may have all manner of strategic reasoning, but there is a time of reckoning for us all when words and excuses become merely noise, and our objects of faith and hope must be reexamined.

I am told that hope and change will come from these candidates. But how can I expect change from them if I am unwilling or unable to change myself? It is these thoughts that lead me to seriously consider lending my support to “alternative” candidates in the upcoming election, even though there is little hope in their victory, and doing so might strengthen the forces leading us into further darkness. Change does not come unless we are, each of us, willing to take our own actions toward change. And this is how stupid I was, Shelli, by not fully realizing that.

Any of the candidates we have before us will need to go a long way proving themselves worthy of my vote. If they cannot, they will not have it, just because they are a member of one of two parties. I know my one vote is a small thing. But somehow the thought of my conscience being clear, at least, is encouraging. I suppose this is my personal form of change, in more than just words.

There are many people who seem very hopeful right now, swirling in their support of this “underdog” Obama. I have to wonder, what has caused this? Our collective will to escape the tyranny of the Bush regime? Or is it a personality? A personality that capable of rallying people beneath his cause, even when that cause is largely amorphous…

This is the very definition of the “cult of personality” that, amongst other things, rules marketing and is a primary ingredient within totalitarian states. I do not trust it. I have to look at facts instead. And the facts, to me, show no clear winners on the Democratic side, and certainly not on the Republican. As for other party’s candidates? I have no idea. They are never offered as an option. You have to go digging, deep for such things, and when that much effort is required, almost nobody will do it. Both dominant parties make efforts to shut out the alternative parties, while our media, using our public airwaves, keeps them invisible.

I cannot say that I will forgo voting for Hillary or Obama. Even McCain is not far from them. But the Democratic party no longer has my vote outright, without earning it. The last Congress has sealed this decision for me, and these candidates who emphasize repetition and generalizations. The hypnosis now fails.

There is an image I have of a cheerleader, shaking her pompoms and kicking up her sexy legs, while all the building around her burns with people falling to their death, skewered by collapsing metal frameworks. That cheerleader really irritates me, and it doesn’t matter which routine she’s dancing. Call me cynical. Call me a killjoy. Call me a horses ass. But maybe I’ll be happy a few years from now, when we’ve sifted through the bodies and made certain that everyone left alive was safe and cared for outside. Hell, I might even put on a skirt.