Monday Dec. 19, 2016

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Sheep in the Winter Night

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.

“Sheep in the Winter Night” by Tom Hennen from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1932, the British Empire Service — now known as the BBC World Service — went on the air as a shortwave service to send news and messages to the outposts of the British Empire. With this new resource, King George V decided that year that he would broadcast a Christmas message so that he could reach the “men and women so cut off by the snows and the deserts that only voices out of the air can reach them,” and give them holiday wishes from home. Since then, the yearly Royal Christmas Broadcast has become an important part of Christmas Day celebrations for many in Britain and around the world, and the tradition is carried on to this day by George V’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

Today is the birthday of the Polish-born American physicist Albert A. Michelson, born in Strelno, Prussia (1852). His family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old, and he settled in well. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy when he was 17, but he wasn’t a very good seaman. He was better at science, and the academy kept him on as a science instructor after he graduated in 1875. A few years later, he began to study the speed of light and tried to develop a way to measure it. He went to Europe to study optics, improving his knowledge of the properties of light and the construction of lenses, and when he returned, he calculated the speed of light to be about 300,000 kilometers per second. But Michelson wasn’t satisfied with that answer; he felt it could be more accurate, and in the 1920s he refined his calculation to just under 300,000 kilometers per second — only very slightly off from the speed scientists accept as accurate today.

He wondered if the movement of the Earth affected how fast light traveled: did light on Earth move faster than light in space, because the Earth was also moving? He developed an instrument he called the interferometer to test this hypothesis, and discovered that the speed of light was a constant that did not change even if the light was on a moving object. This discovery laid the groundwork for Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which he published in 1905.

After serving in the Navy in World War I, Michelson became interested in astronomy, and used light as a method of measurement. In 1920, he used his interferometer to accurately measure the diameter of the star Betelgeuse.

Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1907. He was the first American scientist to receive that honor.

It’s the birthday of French chanteuse Édith Piaf (1915). Piaf was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, on the outskirts of Paris. Her mother was a café singer and a drug addict, and her father was a street performer who specialized in acrobatics and contortionism. Neither of them particularly cared for Piaf, so she mostly grew up with her grandmother, who ran a brothel. Piaf was looked after by prostitutes and later claimed that she was blind from the ages of three to seven because of keratitis, or malnutrition, though this was never proved.

Her father reclaimed her when she was nine and Piaf began singing with him on street corners until he abandoned her again. She lived in shoddy hotel rooms in the red-light district of Paris and sang in a seedy café called Lulu’s, making friends with pimps, hookers, lowlifes, and gamblers, until she was discovered by an older man named Louis Leplée.

Leplée ran a nightclub off the Champs-Élysées. He renamed Piaf La Môme Piaf, “The Little Sparrow,” dressed her entirely in black, and set her loose on the stage. Piaf was a hit, and recorded two albums in one year, becoming one of the most popular performers in France during World War II.

Édith Piaf died on the French Riviera at the age of 47. More than 40,000 people came to her funeral procession. Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Karachkina named a small planet after Piaf; it’s called 3772 Piaf. Her songs have been covered by Madonna, Grace Jones, and even Donna Summer.

Édith Piaf’s last words were, “Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.”

The Italian writer Italo Svevo was born on this day in Trieste, Italy (1861) (books by this author). He was devoted to literature but went into business, working as a bank clerk and writing a theater column and stories under a pseudonym on the side. When he published his first two books, A Life (1893) and As a Man Grows Older (1898), they were ignored by readers and critics alike.

Svevo needed to improve his English for business reasons and hired a tutor who turned out to be aspiring writer James Joyce, who had come to Italy to teach. Svevo shared his books with Joyce, who felt the Italian was a neglected genius. With Joyce’s encouragement, Svevo wrote the book for which he is known, Confessions of Zeno (1923), a fictional memoir of a man undergoing psychoanalysis. Today it is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century.

It’s the birthday of Constance Garnett (books by this author), born in Brighton, England (1861). She gave us many of the first English translations of famous 19th-century Russian novels. Garnett could translate 5,000 words a day, scattering piles of pages at her feet as she wrote. She finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in six months, and translated a total of 80 volumes, including Dostoyevsky’s complete works, which alone add up to about two and a half million words. But Garnett had a habit of skipping phrases that she didn’t understand, she often missed the humor of the original Russian, and she altered sexuality in the novels to reflect her Victorian ideals. Critic Kornei Chukovsky compared her writings to “a safe blandscript: not a volcano … a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original.” Constance Garnett’s translations held up as the standard for decades, but now most of them are replaced by more nuanced versions of the Russian works.

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