Using the newly-invented telescope, French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) discovered the now-famous Orion Nebula (M42) when he was 29 years old, 410 years ago on this day.
November 26, 1610.
But wait a minute. You and I can see a nebulous “star” below the belt of Orion with our unaided eyes under a reasonably dark sky. Why wasn’t this object discovered long before the invention of the telescope?
Apparently, there is no known report of a “nebulous star” in the sword of Orion prior to Peiresc’s discovery. Is the Orion nebula brighter now than it was a few centuries ago? Is it possible an earlier observational report somehow got missed or was not properly interpreted?
There is speculation that the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica recognized the Orion Nebula long before Peiresc’s discovery, describing it as smoke from the smoldering embers of creation.
One can only stand in wonderment at the knowledge and experiences of hundreds of generations of men, women, and children who are utterly unknown to us today. Passed from person to person and generation to generation through oral tradition, never written down and eventually lost. Or written down on documents that later disintegrated or were purposefully destroyed.
Who hasn’t wished that they could could time travel back to the past? Have you ever wondered what your current location looked like a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? Ten thousand or more years ago? Though sending humans into the past will probably never be possible, who’s to say that we won’t eventually figure out a way to view and perhaps even hear the past, without actually being there or having the ability to change it?
Pittsburgh telescope maker, optician, and educator John Alfred Brashear (1840-1920) was born 180 years ago this day. His world-renowned optical company made much of the astronomical equipment in use in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works included a 30-inch refractor for Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, a 15-inch refractor for the Dominion Observatory in Canada, and the 8-inch refractor at the Drake University Municipal Observatory in Des Moines, Iowa.
My good friend, telescope maker Drew Sorenson in Jefferson, Iowa, has been a fan of John Brashear for many years. Not only does Drew make fine refractors as did Brashear, but there is more than a little resemblance between the two men. Drew introduced me to a delightful book entitled John A. Brashear: The Autobiography of A Man who Loved the Stars, which was first published posthumously in 1924. For anyone interested in the history of astronomy and the life of a scientist and humanitarian who struggled from near-obscurity to great success with only an elementary school education, this book is a must-read.
Here are three of my favorite passages from the book.
Somewhere beneath the stars is work which you alone were meant to do. Never rest until you have found it.
There is another yarn I cannot resist telling. The young farmer who had been bringing Mrs. Brashear her supply of vegetables asked her one day if I would let him look in the big telescope if he came up some clear evening. She encouraged him to do so, and I found him waiting one night to see the sights. I did not know whether or not he had any knowledge of astronomy, but I asked him what he would like to look at. He replied, “Juniper.” I told him that unfortunately that planet was not visible in the sky at the time. Then he expressed a desire to see “Satan.” But his Satanic Majesty was not around either. The climax came when he asked if I could show him the “Star of Jerusalem!” I ended it by showing him the moon and some clusters, and he went home very happy.
I remember, too, an old gentleman over eighty years of age who climbed the hill one moonlight night for a look in the telescope. The good man was utterly exhausted when he reached the house, and Ma and I had him lie down on the lounge to rest before climbing the stairs to the telescope. The views that night were fine, and I can hear the soliloquy yet of the dear fellow as he said, “For many years I have desired to see the beauties of the heavens in a telescope. I have read about them and heard lectures about them, but I never dreamed they were so beautiful.” We invited him to stay all night; but as it was moonlight, and much easier for him to go down the hill than to come up, he insisted on going home. I went part of the way with him to see that he got along all right; and all the way he expressed his delight at having the wish of a lifetime gratified that night.
Three weeks later the funeral cortège of that old man passed along the road on the opposite hillside that led to the cemetery, and it has always been a pleasure to remember that I was able to be of some service in gratifying one of his desires of a lifetime.
I think that all my life I have been partial to old people and children, and it has always been a source of genuine pleasure to contribute to their happiness.
John A. Brashear: The Autobiography of A Man who Loved the Stars (1924)
Though Trump lost his 2020 re-election bid, the fact that he polled so well throughout the anything-but-United States clearly shows the “Party of Trump”—today’s Republican Party—is leading us towards something far more sinister. The Republican Party of our parents’ generation would never have elected such a damaged person to the highest office in our land. Trump’s narcissism, ineptitude, lying, corruption, nepotism, divisiveness, etc. has been an unmitigated nightmare these past four long years. If you haven’t watched it yet, I suggest you take the time to view the three-part documentary series Rise of the Nazis airing this month on PBS Wisconsin. There are parallels to what is happening in the U.S. today, and it is chilling.
As for the voters who continue to support this charade, we are witnessing in living color government by people who don’t believe in government—or good governance. The landscape looks pretty bleak in this country for progressives and intellectuals for the foreseeable future. Might want to leave while you still can.
Has the whole country gone mad? Well, not all of it. Here are the ten states where Trump and Trumpism were most soundly rejected in the 2020 election.
% Voting for Trump
District of Columbia
States where Voters Most Rejected Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election
And here are the ten states you’ll probably want to think twice about moving to if you’re a progressive.
% Voting for Trump
States where Voters Most Supported Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election
Now, let’s return to the ten states that most soundly rejected Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Which county in each of these states had the smallest percentage voting for Trump?
Most Trump-Unfavorable Counties in States where Voters Most Rejected Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election
Polarization is tearing this country apart, but the blame does not equally fall on both sides. How do you talk with someone who all-too-willingly embraces conspiracy theories rather than reason, who derides science and scholars, who mistrusts or worse yet hates anyone who has a different spiritual viewpoint, let alone is a humanist, agnostic, or atheist? Who shows little or no interest in understanding perspectives other than their own?
May I submit for your consideration, the March 4, 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.
Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers…throw them into darkness for a few hours and then you just sit back and watch the pattern.
And this pattern is always the same?
With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find…and it’s themselves. And all we need do is sit back…and watch.
Then I take it this place…this Maple Street…is not unique.
[Shaking his head.] By no means. Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we’ll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other…one to the other…one to the other—
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices—to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children and the children yet unborn. [A pause.] And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined to…The Twilight Zone…
In the June 2005 issue of Physics Today there is an article by Lee Smolin with the provocative (or evocative) title, Why No ‘New Einstein’? That year marked the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein‘s annus mirabilis (year of wonders), in which the 26-year-old Swiss patent examiner submitted and had published revolutionary papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and matter-energy equivalence in a prominent German physics journal, Annalen der Physik. These papers were so important that they completely changed the course of physics and led to great opportunities for Einstein to further develop his career as a physicist.
Here are some excerpts from Smolin’s article.
“Many of Einstein’s contemporaries testified that he was not unusually talented mathematically. Instead, what enabled him to make such tremendous advances was a driving need to understand the logic of nature, tied to a breathtaking creativity and a fierce intellectual independence.”
“Perhaps a lesson might be learned from the fact that this one person, who was initially unable to find an academic job, did more to advance physics than most of the rest of us [physicists] put together have since.”
“It follows that new Einsteins are unlikely to be easily characterized in terms of research programs that have been well explored for decades. Instead, a new Einstein will be developing his or her own research program that, by definition, will be one that no senior person works on.”
“Are our universities, institutes, and foundations doing all they can to identify and promote individuals who have the creativity and intellectual independence that characterize those who contribute most to physics? I say that they are not.”
“People with the uncanny ability to ask new questions or recognize unexamined assumptions, or who are able to take ideas from one field and apply them to another, are often at a disadvantage when the goal is to hire the best person in a given well-established area.”
“It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing.”
Sergei Prokofiev was truly one of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. His signature disjunct melodies and quirky, perky compositional style is so interesting and unique that his music is instantly recognizable, even today. When critics complain that the wellspring of current musical idioms has become exhausted or derivative, along comes a composer like Prokofiev who surprises everyone and does something completely different. That is why I believe that even within established musical forms it is possible to invent something completely new and exciting—it just doesn’t happen very often.
Regrettably, no English-language documentary about the life and music of Prokofiev has ever been produced. While we wait for someone to do that, perhaps Robert Greenberg might add another excellent installment to his “Great Masters” series for The Great Courses by profiling Sergei Prokofiev in eight 30-minute episodes as he did for Shostakovich, Brahms, and others.
Sergei Prokofiev composed his last completed work, the Symphony No. 7, between December 1951 and July 1952 at the age of 60-61. Its first public performance in Moscow on October 11, 1952 would be the last public performance Prokofiev would attend. He died less than five months later.
Dmitri Shostakovich attended the premiere, and quickly sent a letter of congratulations to Prokofiev, “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.” Shostakovich would attend Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953.
The most inspired recording I have ever heard of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton conducting. Even though I was already familiar with this work, listening to this performance was like hearing the work for the first time. This interpretation is intimate and compelling.
The last years of Prokofiev’s life were difficult ones. His health was deteriorating and Stalin’s terrible regime was a constant threat and source of anxiety. Official disapproval had led to a life of poverty for Prokofiev.
With that as a backdrop, Prokofiev was eager that his new symphony would be well received by the authorities as well as the public, hoping that it would earn him a First Class Stalin Prize—he needed the money. But like Shostakovich, Prokofiev took his symphonies seriously, pouring his heart and soul into them while cleverly embedding what he wanted to say musically in a way that would elude the authorities with their limited musical sophistication and intelligence.
Prokofiev even wrote two endings for the symphony. The “real” ending and a contrived ending to please the authorities and help him win the prize. (He did not win the hoped for Stalin Prize, but he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize for this symphony in 1957.)
Prokofiev told his friend, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava, you will live much longer than me, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” As Andrew Huth writes in the liner notes, “Both versions of the ending are included on this disc so that listeners can judge the very different effect each makes.” Track 9 is the final movement of Symphony No. 7 played again with the alternative ending that Prokofiev wrote to please the authorities.