Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sunrise on Mercury

The Strange and Surprising World(s) Around Us

We live in a strange and beautiful world, a world hard to explain at times. (Just look at Joshua trees . . . and then think about the now-extinct ground sloth that used to browse their tops.)

While reviewing a new grammar book, I came across this astronomy-based writing sample, below. It’s on pages 224 and 225 of the Little Seagull Handbook from WW Norton. (That company uses a seagull at a corporate logo, so their comp books are branded with gull themes. Houghton-Mifflin used to have a “Dolphin Reader,” after their own logo, even though there were not any cetacean-based stories inside the collection).

Here’s the amazing scene, from a sample student paper quoting from something by Edward Bell:

“Sunrise and sunset on Mercury are spectacles to behold. Two and one half times larger in the sky than seen on Earth, the sun appears to rise and set twice during a Mercurian day. It rises, then arcs across the sky, stops, moves back toward the rising horizon, stops again, and finally restarts its journey toward the setting horizon. These aerial maneuvers occur because Mercury rotates three times for every two orbits around the sun and because Mercury’s orbit is very elliptical.”

This seemed almost too good to be true, and sent me to the websites for JPL and Wikipedia, among other sources.

For a more technical explanation, I combined several sources to get this, just for my own private notes. (I keep a journal that’s mostly a collection of amazing runs of language. The text below qualified for star status.) Here’s the science, more exactly:

“At certain points on Mercury’s surface, an observer would be able to see the Sun rise about halfway, then reverse and set before rising again, all within the same Mercurian day. This is because approximately four days before perihelion, Mercury’s angular orbital velocity exactly equals its angular rotational velocity so that the Sun’s apparent motion ceases; at perihelion, Mercury’s angular orbital velocity then exceeds the angular rotational velocity. Thus, the Sun appears to move in a retrograde direction. Four days after perihelion, the Sun’s normal apparent motion resumes at these points.”

The image below is by William Hartmann, from The Grand Tour: A Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System.

It turns out that the grammar book’s bouncing sunrise is not the half of it. The passage below is mostly adapted from Wikipedia (edited a bit, for clarity). “Messenger” refers to a space mission that is above Mercury right now. Check this out:

“During its second flyby of the planet on October 6, 2008, MESSENGER discovered that Mercury’s magnetic field can be extremely ‘leaky.’ The spacecraft encountered magnetic tornadoes—twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting the planetary magnetic field to interplanetary space—that were up to 500 miles wide.

These twisted magnetic flux tubes, technically known as ‘flux transfer events,’ form open windows in the planet's magnetic shield through which the solar wind may enter and directly impact Mercury's surface.

The process of linking interplanetary and planetary magnetic fields, called magnetic reconnection, is common throughout the cosmos. It occurs in Earth's magnetic field, where it generates magnetic tornadoes as well. However, the MESSENGER observations show the reconnection rate is ten times higher at Mercury.”

Well, hot dog. Since Mercury is about the size of our Moon but denser, I was wondering what I would weigh. (Don’t we all secretly like those planets on which we not only weigh less but could thus bound around like a kangaroo on too much Red Bull?) The Griffith Observatory and other sources imply that on Mercury we would all be about a third our present weights, plus of course the added bulk of the space suit. (Excluding bone loss from the long journey, you would weight the same on Mars as on Mercury. Go ahead, have an extra slice of cheesecake.)

In Roman mythology, Mercury was a god of travel and thievery. Our planet Mercury has no moons but could (despite being 800 degree Fahrenheit in parts) have a hidden ice cap at its North Pole. A strange and wonderful sky, up there, isn’t it? The books I grew up were almost too timid in their suppositions and imaginary societies. Still, they started something that NASA and JPL are only now starting to develop.

Of course in my lifetime we have lost one planet (Pluto) but gained hundreds more (the so-called exo-planets, orbiting stars other than ours; there are over 500 candidates now). We also have gained an elephant, if you’re among those progressive taxonomists who split the African elephant into two species, the savannah form and a rare, shy, dwarf West African form, the Forest Elephant. I have looked for the forest species but so far all I have soon is footprints and hefty mounds of green poop. Story of my life. (All parties agree that the African species, whether one or two, differs from the Indian species, and that in turn these are different again from the mammoths and mastodons.) How many rhinos are there, really? Who knows. Right now there’s just one species of giraffe but DNA evidence and minor morphological differences tell us there maybe should be a revision, and that really there are ten species of giraffes. (See my journal note on this, below, which came originally from National Geographic.) If that giraffe change ever goes through, I would expect a few years later another revision, and have the number collapse back down again by half.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and some of the exo-planets will turn out to be errant moons or clusters of long-lost car keys, but many may be legitimate. For now, though, we have to make do with the eight local planets we have left, including Mercury, being explored now by the Messenger probe, and Mars, the planet the color of the sky in Mojave on a windy day. Mars has two moons to our one, and Mercury, as mentioned above, has multiple sunrises. Poor old Earth, just stuck with one of everything—though as sunrises go, ours ain’t too shabby. Just before and after the sun’s up or down is a good time to look for Mercury (you can even see it with binoculars). It’s also a good time to take pictures of giraffes, to write in your journal, or to go to sunrise service at church.

Strange and beautiful planet, in an ever-more-surprising Solar System. It’s kind of cool that a Somebody up there (and/or random evolution, take your pick) was kind enough to let us hang out and enjoy it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Restrepo, Memorial Day, and the Meaning of Service

Thank You Veterans (Part 2)

I have two grown children who no longer live in the Antelope Valley so I usually only see them at holidays and graduations. My youngest, 21, still lives near me though, and we try to coordinate a “family night” once a week or so. We make a good meal and watch a video and just get caught up.

These often happen on Mondays or Tuesdays, and in the case of the upcoming Memorial Day Monday, I was thinking ahead about what would be an appropriate film to watch. Memorial Day is a good time to think about service and sacrifice, about the military and about what makes America what it is. One recent war movie that received high critical praise but still is little known is Restrepo. Maybe that should be the focus of my next family night...and yours.

A documentary by the man who wrote A Perfect Storm, this gripping film tells the story of a platoon of soldiers at a small outpost in Afghanistan, an outpost that is under daily fire. The base is named “Restrepo” after a member of the unit killed early in their deployment. There is nothing fake about this film: it is grim and unrelenting and vividly shows the stresses our troops endure.

Critics gave the movie an astounding 96% approval rating (104 positive reviews out of 108, as tallied by the website “Rotten Tomatoes”). Here is a typical response: “Restrepo succeeds as both a remarkable piece of cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking and a tribute to the soldiers who are put through hell.” (Thomas Caldwell, as quoted on the Rotten Tomatoes website.)

The filmmakers were in the thick of it themselves, and an opening shot where we are inside a humvee when it is hit by an IED is jarring in every sense of the word. This is high definition footage, and if watched on a high-resolution screen, has an indelible presence. A warning to parents, though, with children at home: there are no actors here, just soldiers being soldiers in the middle of a combat zone, so the language is authentic but coarse. You can’t bleep it out or it will ruin the flow, so I must caution that the dialogue is beyond salty.

The terrain looks like the steepest, scabbiest parts of the drive between Palmdale and La Cañada over Angeles Forest Highway—rocks and stunted trees and impossibly steep, scrubby slopes. It seems like a terrible place to try and make a living, and a worse place to fight a war.

Another artist who has made important work about the current Afghan war is a British soldier and artist, Mark Cook. I saw an exhibit of his work at the National Army Museum in London, and bought a signed copy of the catalogue (with a forward by a generously praising Prince Charles). Cook paints in the field, sometimes even while under fire. These plates are from his amazing collection of art, Sketches from Afghanistan. Profits from this 2009 publication will go to charities assisting returning soldiers.

The documentary Restrepo is in some ways just one voice in a three-media project. There are these water colors (above), there is the movie itself, but then there is a nonfiction book that parallels the movie, looking in depth at fear and brotherhood and even the odd sexuality of men deprived of dates. It is called simply War and also is by the movie’s director Sebastian Junger; it goes into more background with the men and expands on incidents covered in the movie.

In the prose style and insights it recalls Hemingway’s World War I novel, Farewell to Arms. Here is a sample from page 157.

"We walk into Restrepo and drop our packs in a pile. The sun has fired the Abas Ghar with a red glow and a few of the brighter planets are already infiltrating the afternoon sky. The men are standing around in dirty fleeces and their pants unbelted smoking cigarettes and watching another day come to an end. They’re dirty in their pores and under their nails and their skin has burnished to a kind of a sheen at their wrists and neck where the uniforms rub. Dirt collects in the creases of the skin and shows up as strange webs at the corners of the eyes and their lifelines run black and unmistakable across the palms of their hands. It’s a camp of homeless men or hunters who have not reckoned with a woman in months and so have long since abandoned the niceties. They belch and fart and blow their noses on their sleeves and wipe their mouths on their shirtfronts and pack every sentence with enough profanity to last most civilians a week. After the fighting ended last fall they got so bored that they starting prying boulders out of the hillside and rolling them into the valley. They were trying to get one inside the wire at Firebase Phoenix just to keep Third Platoon on their toes. Caldwell finally told them to knock it off."

From our current generation of service, the other war movie to watch this Memorial Day would be the feature film Hurt Locker, about a bomb squad in Iraq. The first Gulf War has a movie too, odd and little-known, by the rogue German director, Werner Herzog. It is a sort of science-fiction allegory and/or Cubist collage film, using post-war footage from Kuwait combined with voice-overs, inter-titled sub-chapters, and an operatic soundtrack. Called Lessons of Darkness, it is haunting but hard to find.

Heartbreak Ridge was a less-than-great Clint Eastwood movie, but it does reference the invasion of Grenada. It is the Vietnam War that gives us our shelf of great American war movies: Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now. Next academic year there will be a professional development program (formerly called “Flex”) that will look at these films, and will consider the novel Heart of Darkness that Apocalypse Now was based on. It will be open to the public and the date will be announced on this blog.

An excellent documentary about this period that is worth remembering (and that is in AVC’s Instructional Media Center collection) is Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Indeed, this was the movie I was going to use in class on the Tuesday that became known as “9/11.” It is made up entirely of archival footage with the narration provided by news broadcasts and letters home from the men and women serving overseas, and all of that combined with period rock and roll. The movie concludes with a deeply moving letter written by a mother for her dead son that was left at the Vietnam Memorial.

(Similarly, the book War in its most recent printing ends with President Obama hugging a sobbing mother during a Medal of Honor ceremony. That too is a very moving moment.)

Korea has often been called the Forgotten War, though it makes an appearance in the book War and even in Heartbreak Ridge (Eastwood’s character is a Korean and Vietnam war veteran). While the television series M*A*S*H was one long liberal, monotone satiric comment on the Vietnam War, parts of it illuminate the real Korean War, such as the episodes shot in black and white whose frame tales replicate the interviews of actual, authentic period war reporting.

A World War II movie to think about this Memorial Day is the ‘90s remake of a 1940s documentary called (in both cases) Memphis Belle. It tells the story of a B-17 crew who will be the first in their unit to finish their required combat missions and rotate State-side. Shot in England using actual vintage planes, it recreates the terror and confusion of aerial combat in the Second World War. It has vivid characters and a compelling plot. A movie like that is far, far beyond the sit-com triviality of Hogan’s Heroes, the POW series filmed on a Culver City back lot and seemingly determined to turn a conflict that claimed 60 to 70 million human lives world-wide into something so silly and shallow that the average kindergarten class has more substance.

Whether you attend a parade this Memorial Day or plant flags at a cemetery or simply observe a moment of silent prayer, let us all honor our American servicemen and women, and thank them for helping to keep us safe and free, and for helping us to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Congratulations Matthew Jaffe

AVC’s Newest Scholar in Residence

May 18th there was our yearly Faculty Recognition event, and among the many pleasures the day provides, we get to learn who the next Scholar in Residence will be.

This year’s winner received a spontaneous and very sincere standing ovation when his name was announced: the History Department’s deeply beloved Dr. Matthew Jaffe.

Trained at UCLA (after an initial start at my alma mater, UC Irvine), Dr. Jaffe was teaching at Cal State Fullerton when AVC hired him in 1990. He also had been an editor at the very prestigious UC Press once upon a time—I still rely on his expertise when typesetting manuscripts to this day.

Of course back then manuscripts were hand-typed; he and I sound like real dinosaurs when we talk about typing by hand fifty-page grad school papers, including trying to eyeball the bottom margins, to leave enough room for the footnotes.

Now he has joined the modern era. While he doesn’t have a tattoo or Twitter account, here is a shot from Pasadena recently on the day he bought his first laptop. He and I may be dinosaurs, but we’re very hip dinosaurs.

Nobody has been an advisor to more student activity clubs than Dr. Jaffe, and few people on campus have taught as many successive generations of same-family students. He has been to more campus sporting events, more Flex talks, and more rehearsals for the Vagina Monologues than anybody else at AVC. Few come in as early as he does in the morning—or stay as late. He is a treasured part of the campus culture.

Something most people don’t appreciate is the quality of scholarship before he came here. Have you ever seen these panels at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

Dr. Jaffe can read these inscriptions, and indeed, studied these very panels as part of his PhD dissertation. I am hoping to talk him into leading a field trip to LACMA now that these Assyrian panels have been rehung in a new, more prominent gallery.

His is an amazing Renaissance mind. Among the topics we have talked about recently are the parallels between the present war in Afghanistan and the British debacles in the 19th century, who was the best (and worse) U.S. President, Hemingway’s fishing prowess, the influences of Greek culture on modern architecture, and the history of the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland. It often seems as if no Flex panel (on anything from the Koran to the movie franchise for Pirates of the Caribbean) would be complete without his presence—or at least his selfless mentorship.

A former student summarized it best when she told me, “AVC has dozens of good teachers. But Dr. Jaffe is not just good, not just great—he’s the very BEST.”

Congratulations to the newest Scholar in Residence, Matthew Jaffe.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Bobbie Zimmerman hits the big Seven-O.

There it was, on the cover of LA Weekly this week: a birthday cake with Bob Dylan's face on it. (The editor's note assured readers it was a real cake and after the photo shoot, they ate it.)

Meanwhile, at another newsstand, Rolling Stone had its own tribute.

And when I was in London, the British magazine Uncut had not just articles but a tribute CD they had compiled, which had on it everything from covers of Dylan's recent stuff to songs he would have heard on the radio on his 16th birthday, growing up in Hibbing.

This made me look in one of my old journals for articles from when Dylan turned 50. Here is a list of things that U2's Bono had to say:

In case that's a bit too small, he admires Dylan's rhymes, the fact that he is a modern-day Walt Whitman, and the fact that unlike Hendrix, Dylan isn't dead. Hendrix of course took a Dylan song "All Along the Watchtower" (written in the Mojave Desert, Dylan claimed once) and amped it up as electric and soulful as it comes. Dylan in turn started to perform it that way live (Dylan covering Hendrix covering Dylan), which in turn has influenced others. Eddie Vedder has done an amazing version, and the Dave Matthews Band does extended live versions, many of which are available via the usual sources like iTunes. I have heard them live at the Hollywood Bowl and can say yes indeed, they nail it every time.

The best version ever of "All Along the Watchtower" took place at AVC.

A few years ago I was honored by being named Scholar in Residence, and with the post comes the chance to hold a lecture or community event on the topic of one's choice. I organized an outdoor festival called Bobfest, with music, poetry, and video art, all of it to take place on May 24th, Bob Dylan's birthday. Among the highlights (and really, it was an evening of highlights) was the chance to do "Blowin in the Wind" with Professor Lynn McDonie, except we did it in Middle English, the language of Chaucer. (Well, English teachers have a queer sense of fun, it is true.)

The last performance of the night was Dennis Russell and the AVC band Test Flight doing a spectacular version of "All Along the Watchtower." As program director, I encouraged them to go all out, and I must confess that my actual words were "If they can't hear it in Quartz Hill, you're not playing hard enough." It was fabulous.

Back in the day, there used to be things called record stores (!), and one of the best was Rhino Records in Westwood. My ex-wife was the go-to gal for Frank Sinatra, and as it clear by now, I am the Bob Dylan guy in the English Department. Rhino Records had two floor-to-ceiling black and white portraits on the wall in the back of the store. On one side of a doorway was Frank Sinatra and the other, Bob Dylan. It was the perfect place for us to shop.

Well, old Blue Eyes is in Heaven now, the AVC adjunct Dennis Russell is getting a PhD in surf music at UCSB, and next year's Scholar in Residence will be named in a few days, on the 18th. What he or she will do for the special lecture I don't know yet, but already I am looking forward to it.

As far as Dylan himself, still touring at age 70, all I can say is right on. He's a model for us all. It seems that he indeed has taken the advice from the song he wrote when his son was born. In a prayer for continuity and joy, papa said, "May you stay forever young."

And so may we all.