Friday Dec. 30, 2016

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If It Was a Snake

You’ve lost something, your car keys, or your watch
and you have searched for what seems like hours. But
then suddenly it appears, right there on the table, not
two feet away. “If it was a snake it would have bit you,”
Mother said. That’s what you remember, a phrase,
an old saying. My sister said, “Grandma told me,
‘Never wear horizontal stripes, they make you look
fat.’ That’s one of the few things I remember about
Grandma.” Or the words disappear and an image
remains. I was getting a lecture from my parents
about riding my tricycle all the way downtown. I don’t
remember anything they said. I remember looking
out the window, it was just dark, and a block away
a man wearing a white shirt and a tie passed under
the streetlight and vanished into the night. That’s all.
Out of a lifetime, a few words, a few pictures, and
everything you have lost is lurking there in the dark,
poised to strike.

“If It Was a Snake” by Louis Jenkins from Tin Flag. © Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of short-story writer, poet, and novelist (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling (books by this author), born in Bombay, India (1865). He settled in Vermont. It was there, in a rented cottage surrounded by snow, that he began to reimagine the India of his childhood, and he wrote the book for which he's best known today, The Jungle Book (1894), about a boy raised by wolves, who grows up with the other jungle animals until a tiger forces him to go back and live with people.

On this day in 1903, the Iroquois Theatre fire took place in Chicago, with a death toll that made it the worst single-structure fire in American history. A matinee audience was engulfed in flames when the stage caught fire and the asbestos safety curtain failed to work. Five hundred people were burned to death or died of smoke inhalation.

California opened its first freeway on this date in 1940. Known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the Pasadena Freeway, or simply "the 110," it was also the first freeway — a high-speed, divided, and limited-access thoroughfare — in the western United States. It runs for just over eight miles and connects Pasadena to Los Angeles.

Astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way on this date in 1924. Before he made his discovery, everyone thought that our Milky Way galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe, and that there wasn’t much outside it besides the Magellanic Clouds, which are visible by the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere, and which were thought to be clouds of gas or dust. We know now that the Magellanic Clouds are really dwarf galaxies. Hubble first published his discovery in a paper called “Extragalactic Nature of Spiral Nebulae,” which was presented on this date, in his absence, at a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889, and moved to Chicago when he was nine. He was a handsome man and a star athlete: he played a lot of sports in high school, and ran track and played basketball for the University of Chicago. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study law at Oxford, and when he returned to the States, he earned a Ph.D. in astronomy. He had a hard time choosing between the two career paths at first and practiced law in Kentucky for a while. After he served in World War II, he returned to astronomy and took a job at the Mount Wilson observatory in California. About the same time, the observatory unveiled the new 100-inch Hooker Telescope.

Hubble had written his doctoral dissertation on “Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae.” With older or smaller telescopes, nebulae just looked like clouds of glowing gas, but with the Hooker telescope — the most powerful telescope in the world at that time — Hubble was able to see that there were actually stars within the nebula. One of the stars in the Andromeda Nebula turned out to be a Cepheid variable: a particular type of star that pulsates and is very bright. A Harvard computationist named Henrietta Leavitt had figured out a decade earlier that, by observing a Cepheid variable and measuring its brightness and the length of time it takes to go from bright to dim and back again, they could calculate the star’s distance from the Earth.

Hubble did the math and realized, to his amazement, that the star he was observing — which he called V1, or “variable number 1” — was almost 900,000 light years away. That’s more than eight times the distance of the farthest star in the Milky Way. It was then that he realized that the cloud of gas he’d been observing was really another vast galaxy that was very far away. He renamed the Andromeda Nebula the “Andromeda galaxy,” and he went on to discover 23 more separate galaxies. Within a few years of Hubble’s discovery, most astronomers came to agree that our galaxy is just one of millions. Methods to measure astronomical distance have gotten more precise, and it’s now estimated that the Andromeda galaxy is 2 million light years from Earth.

In spite of this world-changing discovery, Hubble never received the Nobel Prize. At that time, there was no award category for astronomy. Hubble campaigned for many years to have the work of astronomers considered as a branch of physics, and eventually the Nobel committee agreed. Unfortunately, it was too late for Edwin Hubble, who died in 1953. But his name has been given to an asteroid, a moon crater, and — most famously — NASA’s orbiting space telescope, which launched in 1990. A few years ago, the Hubble telescope was trained on V1, that Cepheid variable star that led to Edwin Hubble’s breakthrough. NASA pointed it at the star to commemorate its namesake’s contribution to astronomy. Calling V1 “the most important star in the history of cosmology,” astronomer Dave Soderblom said: “It's a landmark discovery that proved the universe is bigger and chock-full of galaxies. I thought it would be nice for the Hubble telescope to look at this special star discovered by Hubble, the man.” The Hubble telescope tracked V1 for about six months.

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