22 November 2012

Pluto and its neighbors

I'm an avid consumer of news, but I've noticed that certain headlines draw me in almost immediately. No, not politics, not wars, not accidents, not crimes. As I looked at this morning's BBC News Web site, it happened again...

... my eyes went straight for the picture from space at the bottom of the screen. In a moment I was devouring the fascinating article about the dwarf planet Makemake and how astronomers used the planet's one-minute eclipse of distant star Nomad 1181-0235723 to get the clues they needed.

From that article it was a few short hops, starting with a "related articles" link, to read about two more moons around Pluto that I hadn't heard about before.

Maybe people in every generation on Earth think that they live at a turning point of history, and it's probably not more true now than at other times. But I still give thanks to be alive in the era of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, the Large Hadron Collider, and the search for the Higgs boson. So that's one of my themes for this Thanksgiving holiday, being thankful to be alive at this historic moment in physics, cosmology, and space exploration.

Actually, this theme does have some connection with politics, war, and all those organized blood sports that take up so much of our news media. If only we could get people to look up at the sky and look into the world of subatomic particles. Wouldn't they gain some perspective on the pettiness of power, ambition, and personal gain in comparison with the sheer scale of God's creation? Wouldn't we want to put more resources into what our whole species could learn about our cosmic home, its origins, and its viability?

As a non-scientist, I'd like to confess to an additional science-related fascination. I love to gaze at the zone where high science and earthy reality meet. I've referred to this picture before:

Source: nasa.gov
I watched this particular launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, by streaming video, and was amazed that the launch took place in a driving snowstorm--snowflakes were constantly landing on the lens of the TV camera showing the launch.

Even more endlessly fascinating to me was a photo from the next landing:

Source: nasa.gov
The Soyuz space capsule lands in the snowy, scrubby steppes of Kazakhstan, looking for all the world like the glorified Thermos canister that it is. Mother Nature rules!

An aerial view of the most recent Soyuz landing shows what a messy affair it is to return to the surface of the planet:

Source: federalspace.ru
One of my favorite space photos is this one:

Source: nasa.gov
Since I can't have this view for myself, I can only imagine what it was like for astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson to look out at our planet with an arm on the windowsill. She's surrounded by all those tubes and labels and hardware, those heart-tugging signs that her exalted perch is made possible by an amazing and thoroughly routine collaboration of scientists, bureaucrats, politicians, and contractors, all confronted by the non-negotiable realities of physics. It can be done! If I can't be there personally, I'm glad I lived to see the day when WE can be there.

I'm also thankful for the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. I contributed a few words about the conflict to Northwest Yearly Meeting's Peace with Justice blog.

Judy's post of one day earlier on the same blog was far more eloquent. The jewelry service counter attendant was every bit as warm and funny as Judy describes.

This will probably be the only time I ever link to a beauty pageant, but the responses of Russian contestant  Natalia Pereverzeva to the Miss Earth interview have drawn a lot of attention here. Commentary in English, in Russian.

Many science fiction fans are mourning the death of Boris Strugatsky. (Guardian obituary here.) Some English translations of works by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky can be found at lib.ru/STRUGACKIE and rusf.ru/abs/english/. My first introduction to the Strugatsky brothers came through Andrei Tarkovsky's haunting film Stalker, based on their novel The Roadside Picnic.

"The 'Benevolent Sexism' at Christian Colleges."

A wonderful collaboration: Hans Theessink and Terry Evans.

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