Sunday August 2, 2015

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At the Edge of a Time Zone

Not the midnight sun exactly, or endless summer,
just that extra hour holding steady, western
horizon stable, as though shadows won’t lengthen
when in August you can outrun the night
or feel as though you do, latitude in your favor,

North of Sioux City, the sky widens into South Dakota,
turn west and you will think you could see all the way
to Wyoming, and if you drive long enough you will,
crossing the Missouri River, the bluffs gentle,
then the grasslands, the turnoffs for reservations.

As dusk approaches, you may pass a stone house,
long deserted, a star carved over the door, a small pond,
wind stirring over it even now, forming a second thought,
a space you will carry within your speech,
your soul stirred by these great expanses.

“At the Edge of a Time Zone” by Jane Hoogestraat from Border States. © BKMK Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by 56 delegates of the Second Continental Congress, although it is popularly believed to have been signed a month earlier on the fourth of July. Since then, the wording of the Declaration, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," has often been invoked to protect the rights of marginalized groups and individuals, and was an inspiration for Abraham Lincoln, who made the Declaration the foundation of his political philosophy and used it as a call to end slavery in America.

Although some signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, wrote in the years after the signing that it had taken place in July, by the 1790s political historians began to doubt this date. For one thing, a number of the signers had not actually been present in Philadelphia earlier in the summer of '76, including eight delegates who hadn't even been elected to the Continental Congress until after they'd supposedly signed the Declaration.

The issue was a matter of controversy until 1821, when the four volumes of the Secret journals of the acts and proceedings of Congress were finally made public. The journals contain no entry whatsoever for the fourth of July. However, on the 19th of that month, the Secret journals record the Congress's decision that "The declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment," meaning it would be drawn up as a formal legal document, "and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." Fourteen days later, as the entry for August 2nd, 1776 reads, "The Declaration of Independence being engrossed, and compared at the table was signed by the members."

Physicists began speculating in the late 19th century that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us, mirror-image anti-atoms and perhaps even whole anti-solar systems where matter and antimatter might meet and annihilate one another. But on this day in 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea.

Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber, a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation, like the vapor trails of miniscule airplanes, each type of particle forming a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious pattern — a trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve — an electron's mirror image and evidence of an anti-electron. Anderson named the antimatter particle the positron and won a Nobel Prize for his discovery four years later.

Around 1940, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took up the newly discovered particle, using it as the basis for his fictional "positronic brain," a structure made of platinum and iridium and his means for imparting humanlike consciousness to the robots in his story collection I, Robot.

The fictional uses of antimatter and the positronic brain have since spread throughout literature and popular entertainment, from the writing of Robert Heinlein to the classic British television series Doctor Who to propulsion systems and the sentient android, Data, in the American science fiction series Star Trek — even to Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, the book preceding his wildly popular DaVinci Code, in which the Illuminati intend to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

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