Friday Nov. 20, 2015

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My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.

"My November Guest” by Robert Frost from Complete Poems of Robert Frost. © Henry Holt and Company. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of astronomer Edwin Hubble, born in Marshfield, Missouri (1889). Hubble had studied law at Oxford, following his dying father’s wishes, but returned to the United States in 1913 with no real drive to continue in the legal profession. He went to graduate school to study astronomy instead, and finished his doctoral dissertation just before he enlisted to serve in the First World War. His dissertation was on nebulae: cloud-like formations in space.

After the war, George Ellery Hale invited Hubble to join the staff of the Mount Wilson observatory in California; there he would work with their new 100-inch Hooker Telescope, the largest telescope in the world at that time. Hubble agreed to come to Mount Wilson to continue his work on nebulae.

Hubble was studying the Andromeda and Triangulum nebulae, which he thought at first were star clusters in our galaxy, the Milky Way. At that time, most astronomers believed that the Milky Way galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe. As Hubble looked closely at Andromeda, he discovered that one of its stars was what’s known as a Cepheid variable: a kind of star that was very bright and pulsed at regular intervals. Cepheid variables can serve as a “yardstick” to mathematically calculate distances in the universe. Hubble calculated the Cepheid to be almost a million light years away, which would place it well outside the farthest stars in the Milky Way. He speculated that Andromeda was not a nebula at all, but another entire galaxy separate from our own. Further discoveries of dozens of additional Cepheids reinforced his findings that ours was just one of many galaxies in the universe.

The New York Times was the first to publish Hubble’s findings; he didn’t present a formal paper to the American Astronomical Society until the following January. The newspaper reported that “the results are striking in their confirmation of the view that these spiral nebulae are distant stellar systems.”

Hubble was only 35 when he made the discovery that expanded the known boundaries of the universe. He opened the door for the discovery of many galaxies outside of our own — and discovered 23 of them himself. He was also the first to suggest that the universe is expanding. His peers scoffed at the idea, but Stephen Hawking has since called it “one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century.” Hubble’s work set the stage for the future development of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. He lobbied for many years to make astronomy a branch of physics rather than a separate area of study, so that astronomers such as himself could be recognized for the Nobel Prize in physics. The Nobel Committee eventually agreed that astrophysicists were eligible for the prize, but Hubble had died by this time, and his work was never recognized by the Committee.

In 1990, about four decades after Edwin Hubble’s death, NASA launched the Hubble Telescope, the first telescope based in outer space. It captures accurate images of faint, distant objects.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Don DeLillo (books by this author), born in the Bronx (1936). DeLillo has won the Pulitzer Prize for literature twice, for his novels Mao II (1992) and Underworld (1997), which many consider his masterpiece. DeLillo didn’t think people would take to an 800-page novel about a waste management executive that features more than 100 characters. He said: “Who’s going to be interested in that? I didn’t have great confidence.”

DeLillo’s novels are populated by cranks, paranoids, recluses, and dropouts, and are mainly concerned with the effects of global consumerism, terrorism, politics, and pop culture on the human psyche. He wasn’t interested in being a writer when he was growing up in the Bronx; he mostly played billiards, cards, and baseball, which he still follows obsessively. He took his friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie, to a baseball game once; Rushdie was touched that DeLillo brought a mitt to catch fly balls.

The kids in his neighborhood didn’t have much money; they made footballs by scrunching up newspapers and tying them together with tape. It wasn’t until DeLillo was a teenager and working as a parking attendant that he began to read voraciously between waiting for cars and parking them. He devoured Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway. He said, “I had a personal golden age of reading in my 20s and early 30s, and then my writing began to take up so much time.” He attended Fordham University but considered his main education the city itself: he spent most of his time listening to jazz at the Village Vanguard and looking at paintings at the Museum of Modern Art.

DeLillo worked as a copywriter in Manhattan for five years before he quit in 1964. He says, “I didn’t quit my job just to quit. I just didn’t want to work anymore.” He wrote tirelessly, living cheaply: his rent was $60 a month and his phone was $4.20 a month. It took him four years to write his first novel, Americana (1971), about a disillusioned television executive who hits the open road. It received good reviews, but wasn’t a great seller, which summed up the rest of his novels during the 1970s: Great Jones Street (1973), Players (1977), and Running Dog (1978). It wasn’t until his novel White Noise (1985), about a professor at a Midwestern college who specializes in Hitler studies, that he had an international best-seller.

DeLillo found himself fascinated by the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had lived at 179th Street in the Bronx while DeLillo was growing up just a little to the east, on 182nd Street. He spent a few years researching Oswald before deciding to write a novel about him, Libra (1988), which speculates about Oswald’s childhood and the events leading up to Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It was a best-seller, though conservative columnist George Will called the book “an affront to America” and “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship.” DeLillo still has the first draft of Libra: it’s so long it takes up 10 manuscript boxes in his house.

DeLillo rarely watches television and avoids email. Until a few years ago, he still composed his novels using an old Olympia typewriter, typing out a single paragraph at a time on a clean sheet of paper, so that he could study the architecture of each paragraph in isolation. On writing novels, DeLillo said, “It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience.”

When asked how he became a writer, DeLillo answered: “I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles. And I also became a writer by avoiding serious commitment to anything else.”

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