Sunday Sep. 27, 2015

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The Sunday Swim, Comanche Trace

The canyon ledge was steep and stark,
the pool below a patch of dark.

The canyon wrens careened our names
and from the narrow overhangs

the lupines leaned and clung, like us,
to any purchase they could muster.

We grappled down the frowning rock
then bolted for the swimming dock,

slowed to strip down to our skins,
the bullfrogs plopped to beat us in.

Other children, dark and bare,
had bathed and played and squatted there

and left us shining arrowheads
along the rocky water’s edge.

The velvet slime squeezed through our toes,
the water greened our feet and rose

around our hips and pulled us in,
filled our arms and cupped our chins.

Its coolness seeped into an ear.
The minnows threaded through our hair.

We floated there along with clouds,
clouds our ceiling, clouds our ground.

“The Sunday Swim, Comanche Trace” by Noel Crook from Salt Moon. © Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1905, the German physics journal Annalen der Physik [Annals of Physics] published Albert Einstein's "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content," which produced arguably the most famous equation in all of physics, E=mc² (books by this author). The paper was one of four Einstein published that year — papers that subsequently have been nicknamed the Annus Mirabilis papers — four remarkable papers that added up to a miraculous year for both Einstein and physics and changed our views on space, time, and the fundamental nature of matter.

Einstein had completed training to be a physics and mathematics teacher at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich in 1901, but he was unable to find a teaching post and ended up accepting a position as a technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office. At that time, he lacked access to extensive scientific research materials and to fellow physicists with which to discuss his work, so in 1902 he formed a discussion group with a philosophy student (who had answered a newspaper ad Einstein had placed, hoping to find students to tutor to supplement his income) and a neighbor who was a mathematician. No instruction or tutoring ever took place, and the three ended up reading and debating physics, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Don Quixote — whatever interested them — jokingly calling themselves the "Olympia Academy." Their discussions had a lasting influence on Einstein's scientific and philosophical outlook.

Much of Einstein's work in the Patent Office related to questions about electromagnetism and the new field of wireless communication, and these types of technical problems show up in the thought experiments that led him to his groundbreaking conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connectivity of time and space. The hypothetical scenarios and thought experiments by which Einstein came to these conclusions in many ways sound apocryphal in their elegance, as in the case of his solution to the problem of the motion of light — which, after seven years of struggle, came to him like a revelation, in the middle of a conversation with a friend.

On March 18, 1905, the year he was 26, Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect, showing that light, which had been thought to always travel in continuous waves, can only be absorbed or emitted by an object in discrete packets — a complete reversal of an accepted physical truth. Two months later, he published his work on Brownian motion, explaining the long-standing physics problem of how it is that small particles suspended in stationary liquid can still be seen to move continuously and in a random fashion without any forces acting on them. In June, the work that Einstein derived from his revelation on the motion of light, what we now know as his special theory of relativity, was made public and introduced a new theory of time and distance that overturned what had previously been understood about the nature of existence. And finally, on September 27th, in the three short pages of "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content," he made matter and energy equivalent when he derived equations that show that "if a body gives off [energy], its mass diminishes by [the ratio of that energy to the speed of light] ... so we are led to the conclusion that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content." In seven months, Albert Einstein had answered questions that had plagued scientists for generations and overturned hundreds of years of understanding of how the universe operated.

After his final article, exhausted, he retreated to his bed for two weeks. But, still, as he told a friend in the patent office, "My joy is indescribable."

Today is the birthday of the man often called the "father of the American cartoon," Thomas Nast, born in Landau, Germany (1840). His father had socialist leanings and found the political climate of Germany unpleasant. He sent the family to New York when Thomas was just six, and joined them three years later. As a teenager, Nash studied art at the National Academy of Design, and landed work as a draftsman with Harper's Weekly. By the time he was 20, he was covering conflicts overseas for papers in England and at home. He spoke out firmly on behalf of the Union at the dawn of the Civil War, drawing cartoons for Harper's that showed the horrors of slavery. Lincoln called him his "best recruitment sergeant," and Grant credited his re-election victory in 1868 to "the sword of Sherman and the pencil of Nast."

Cartoons by Nast were frequently printed in large two-page spreads, sometimes close to two feet wide. He is the first cartoonist to have had the platform of a weekly nationally distributed magazine. After the war, his reputation led to great success as a book illustrator, working on 110 books over the course of his career. Nast is also credited with first drawing the elephant of the Republican Party and one of the most popular images of Santa Claus.

In the late 1860s, Nast and the editors at Harper's and The New York Times set their sights on the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall administration and their leader William "Boss" Tweed, who at one point was the third largest landowner in New York. Nast's cartoons depicted Tweed as a bloated, thuggish politician, and the drawings were so effective that Tweed is said to have ordered his lackeys to "Stop them pictures! My constituents can't read, but they can see those pictures!" Tweed's group was thrown out in the election of 1871, and when he escaped from jail and fled to Vigo, Spain, in 1876, it was the popular caricature by Nast that led to his discovery by authorities.

Nast was most comfortable fighting, and one critic described him as "content to see the world as a struggle between good and evil." When the political currents began to shift after the war, he didn't shift with them. As literacy grew, magazines and papers were increasingly read by women and immigrants, and his distrust of Roman Catholics led to some nasty depictions of the Irish. When a new editor took over at Harper's, the two couldn't agree, and Nast left to freelance and launch his own paper, which soon failed. Out of work and desperate, he took an appointment as ambassador to Ecuador in 1902, where he died of yellow fever after just six months.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®