Sep. 20, 2010
How the Stars Came Down
Night. How the stars came down
arching over us, and the only name
we had for them was shooting stars.
Why there were so many was anybody's guess.
My great grandmother thought the world
was coming to an end when Haley's comet
flared across the sky. I lay flat on my back
and watched the night sky falling
all around me and I wanted,
more than anything, never to go home.
I did, of course. They put us campers into busses
and drove us back to tenements,
asphalt and streetlights in the city.
What I didn't know that night
in my bedroll at Sherwood Forest Camp
was that when I got home,
home wasn't my real home any more.
I had a new home in my remembering
and it was dark and safe and beautiful
with shooting stars still falling all around.
It's the birthday of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1885. He grew up in New Orleans, and by the age of 17, he was playing piano in bordellos there. His composition "Jelly Roll Blues" was the first jazz piece that was published.
It's the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884). His first big success at Scribner's was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald, much to the objection of other editors. It was This Side of Paradise, and when the novelcame out in 1920, it sold more than 50,000 copies. It was the beginning of Scribner's becoming one of the most important publishers of new fiction.
It was on this day in 1848 that the American Association for the Advancement of Science was formed in Philadelphia, at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Its stated purpose was to "procure for the labors of scientific men, increased facilities and a wider usefulness."
The term "scientist" had been coined just 15 years earlier, and all over the world scientists were making important new discoveries and formulating new ideas. Europe tended to be the center for the great theorists of science — in the year 1848, Léon Foucault set up his first rudimentary pendulum to demonstrate the Earth's rotation, Darwin was at work on his theory of evolution, Michael Faraday was at the height of his work on electromagnetism. But America was cut off from Europe, and it was hard to compete with the scientific community there. Instead, there was an interest in invention and science that supported industry. Just four years earlier, the first telegraph line was installed, stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Trains were popping up all over the country, and in the year 1848 four times as many train tracks were laid as in 1847. In 1845, Elias Howe had invented the mechanical sewing machine. The inventor Cyrus McCormick had sold the patent for his McCormick Reaper in the 1830s.
Earlier in the century, Lewis and Clark's journey was the first to make science an exciting and visible aspect of discovering new territory. They observed the weather, the topography, and the geography. They described 182 plant species and 120 animals in their travels; they sent back specimens to the East Coast, a few of them live, including a prairie dog that lived in the White House. By the 1840s, the botanists Asa Gray and George Engelmann were actively cataloguing the plants of the American West. At the same time, anthropology was starting to emerge as its own field, separate from natural history.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, established on this day in 1848, grew to a membership of more than 2,000 by 1860. It kept an emphasis on being inclusive, reaching out to anyone interested in science, and in the 1850s its members included the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore; the astronomer Maria Mitchell; as well as Henry David Thoreau. But Thoreau had mixed feelings about science — on the one hand, he kept meticulous notes and observations on plants, animals, and the weather; but he was wary of technology and new inventions. When he published Walden in 1854, Thoreau complained, "Men have become the tools of their tools."
In 1883, the AAAS began publishing the magazine Science, which is still around and a respected part of the scientific community. And AAAS is the largest general scientific society in the world.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®