Wednesday Apr. 6, 2016

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Against all probability our bulbs have blossomed,
opened their white rooms, given their assent.
I pull myself from your breathing to take a closer look.
It happened overnight.

Outside a flock of birds folds and unfolds its single body.
I start the coffee. Light comes
from impossible directions.

You are still asleep.
I cup the curve of your skull with my hand.
Alive, sleeping.
Light rises on the flame-colored bricks.

“Morning” by Kristen Case from Little Arias. © New Issues Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The United States entered World War I on this date in 1917. We had stayed out of the war, which had been going on in Europe for three years, but when Germany started attacking American merchant ships and conspiring with Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson decided it was time to act. He asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, it passed almost unanimously, and war was declared four days later.

The first commercial communications satellite, Intelsat I, was placed in orbit on this date in 1965. Nicknamed “Early Bird,” the satellite was built by Hughes Aircraft Company for COMSAT, the Communications Satellite Corporation, which had been incorporated in 1963. COMSAT’s objective was to provide a public telecommunications service via satellites in orbit around the Earth.

Early Bird was in place and operational in time to provide television coverage of the splashdown of Gemini 6 the following December. It was shut down in 1969, although it was briefly reactivated in 1990 to mark its 25th anniversary in space.

It’s the birthday of American country and western singer Merle Haggard (1937), born in California, where he grew up in a remodeled boxcar. By the time he was nine, he was fatherless. By 12, he was teaching himself how to play the guitar by listening to Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams records, but he was also writing bad checks and stealing. He ran away to Texas at 14, hopping freight cars to get there. In between jail time, he worked as hay pitcher and potato truck driver.

By the time he was 20, he was in San Quentin prison. It was a visit from country singer Johnny Cash, who later became his good friend, that inspired him to start playing music seriously. He said: “I was just on the wrong direction and someone, something, turned me around. God hit me on the upside of the head.” At San Quentin, he earned his high school equivalency and joined the prison’s country band. He was released in 1960 and began playing bars for $5.00 and free beer.

It wasn’t until he recorded “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” in 1966 that he earned his first No. 1 hit. Johnny Cash encouraged him to write about his criminal past, so Haggard wrote about the dark life of prisoners and ex-cons, even though his past scared him. He said: “I’m afraid someday I’m gonna be out there and there’s gonna be some convict that was in there the same time I was in and they’re gonna be third row down and say, ‘What do you think you’re doing, 45200?’”

His most famous song, “Okie from Muskogee,” was originally intended to be humorous, but took on a life of its own when it was released in 1969. People, especially conservatives, were tired of hippies protesting the Vietnam War. The song, with snappy lyrics like “And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee / A place where even squares can have a ball,” earned Haggard standing ovations and became an anthem, even for hippies. It’s been covered by The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, and the punk band The Melvins. Haggard was even invited by President Richard Nixon to perform the song at the White House.

Haggard has had 40 No. 1 hits and won numerous Grammys. His latest album is Django & Jimmie (2015), a collaboration with Willie Nelson.

It’s the birthday of biophysicist James Dewey Watson, born and raised in Chicago (1928). He was a curious child, and would read the World Almanac for fun. He became interested in bird-watching, and that led to an interest in genetics and inherited characteristics. He received a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was 15, and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in zoology. From there, it was on to Indiana University and a Ph.D., also in zoology. The newly minted Dr. Watson, just 22, took a job at the University of Copenhagen, where he began his research into the genetic makeup of viruses.

In the fall of 1951, Watson moved to Cambridge University, and soon after that he began working with Francis Crick. The two men shared an interest in DNA, and both believed that it should be fairly easy to work out its structure. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, but it wasn’t long before they hit upon it: a double helix, which looked like a twisted ladder. This model also enabled them to explain how DNA could replicate itself. The two halves of the ladder would separate, like the two sides of a zipper, and each half would serve as a template for the new strand. The two men published their findings in the journal Nature in 1953. Watson, along with Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery.

Watson returned to the United States in 1955, and taught biology at Harvard for more than 20 years. He also led the Laboratory of Quantitative Biology at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, where he made cancer the focus of his research. From 1988 to 1992, Watson served as one of the directors of the Human Genome Project, whose mission was to map the entire human genome. His own genome was sequenced and published on the Internet in 2007; he was only the second person to have his entire genome sequenced. He retired from the Cold Spring laboratory that same year, in part due to controversial comments he had made about the relative intelligence of different races. In 2014, he auctioned off his Nobel Prize medal for almost 5 million dollars; he said he needed the money because the scientific community had turned on him. “No one really wants to admit I exist,” he said.

In 1968, Watson published The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. It begins: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” and it is a gossipy look behind the scenes of one of the most important scientific discoveries of modern times. One reviewer called it “lucid, honest, [and] suspenseful” but also “unbelievably mean in spirit.” In 1998, the Modern Library ranked it number seven on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. Watson has also written a memoir: Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science (2007).

James Watson, who said: “To have success in science, you need some luck. But to succeed in science, you need a lot more than luck. And it’s not enough to be smart — lots of people are very bright and get nowhere in life. In my view, you have to combine intelligence with a willingness not to follow conventions when they block your path forward.” And: “To succeed in science, you have to avoid dumb people [...] you must always turn to people who are brighter than yourself.”

On this day in 1327, the poet Petrarch saw Laura for the first time. It was on Good Friday, in the church of Saint Claire in Avignon. Her identity has never been confirmed, but she was probably Laure de Noves, a noblewoman living in Avignon with her husband Hugues de Sade.

Petrarch was 22 years old, and she was a teenager, maybe 17. He fell instantly in love. He wrote: It was the day when the sun's heavy rays / Grew pale in pity of his suffering Lord / When I fell captive, lady, to the gaze / Of your fair eyes, fast bound in love's strong cord." Given the content of his poetry, it seems likely that the two never had an affair, but for the rest of his life he idealized her and dedicated three hundred and sixty-six sonnets to her.

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