Dec. 27, 2013

The Rockettes

by John Updike

Now when those girls, all thirty-six, go
to make their silky line, they do it slow,
so slow and with a smile—they know
we love it, we the audience. Our
breaths suck in with a gasp you hear
as their legs in casual unison
wave this way then, and that, and their top
hats tilt in one direction,
and their sharp feet twinkle like a starry row
as the pace picks up, and the lazy legs
(thirty-six, thirty-six, what a sex
to be limber and white and slender
and fat all at once, all at once!)
that seemed so calm go higher, higher
in the wonderful kicks, like the teeth
of a beast we have dreamed and are dreaming,
like the feathers all velvet together
of a violent contracting that pulls us in,
then lets us go, that pulls us in,
then lets us go; they smile because
they know we know they know we know.

"The Rockettes" by John Updike from Collected Poems: 1953-1993. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1831 that Charles Darwin (books by this author) set sail from England on the HMS Beagle, beginning the journey that would take him to the Galapagos Islands and inspire his theory of evolution. His father wanted him to be a clergyman, but Darwin always cared more about collecting beetles than he did about theology. He took a biology class in college, and his teacher recommended him for the spot on an upcoming voyage to South America. His father was furious, but Darwin went anyway.

Darwin had terrible seasickness, so as soon as they reached South America, he spent as much time on land as he could, traveling through unexplored regions. He was amazed at the variety of shapes and colors in the plants and animals he found. He wrote in his diary, "It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose."

He returned to England in the fall of 1836 and never traveled beyond Great Britain again. He spent years thinking about what he'd seen during his voyage on the Beagle, and eventually he developed the theory of evolution in the mid-1840s. But he was terrified to publish it, for fear of offending people's religious beliefs. He said, "It is like confessing to a murder." Finally, in 1859, he published On the Origin of Species, which forever changed the way people thought about living things and their beginnings.

Charles Darwin wrote: "Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. There is grandeur in this view of life that [...] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

It's the birthday of the man credited with proving that disease is caused by germs: Louis Pasteur born in Dole, France (1822). He was a scientist who specialized in the properties of acids. One day, a local distillery owner asked him to figure out why the fermentation of beet sugar into alcohol sometimes failed. At the time, people knew about the existence of microbes, but most scientists thought they were insignificant oddities. By studying the process of fermentation under a microscope, Pasteur discovered that the process is a result of microbes digesting their food. And he found that fermentation failed when another type of microorganism interfered with the process.

Pasteur became one of the first scientists to grow cultures of bacteria and study their effects on nature. He began to theorize that microbes might be responsible for all kinds of things, from spoiled wine and milk to the decomposition of dead animals. He showed that milk and wine could be preserved for longer periods simply by heating them just enough to kill off the microbes. The process became known as pasteurization, and it revolutionized the food industry.

He went on to develop the first vaccines for anthrax, cholera, and rabies. He is now regarded as the father of bacteriology. It's because of him that our mothers started teaching us to wash our hands before dinner.

Louis Pasteur said, "Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world."

Today is the birthday of German astronomer Johannes Kepler, born in Weil der Stadt, Württemberg (1571), who intended to become a theologian but then read Copernicus's Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, in which Copernicus posits that the planets revolve around the Sun, not the Earth. Kepler saw Copernicus's theory as evidence of a divine blueprint for the universe, and set out to prove the theories through scientific observation. He wrote a defense of Copernicus called The Cosmographic Mystery (1596) and over his lifetime, Kepler came up with three laws of planetary motion. He published two of them in New Astronomy (1609), stating first, that the planets travel in elliptical orbits around the Sun; and second, that an imaginary line joining the planet and the Sun would sweep out equal areas during equal periods of time — in other words, the planet moves faster during the portion of its orbit that is closest to the Sun. His final law, published in Harmonies of the World (1619), describes the mathematical relationship between the distance of a planet from the Sun and the length of the planet's orbital period.

Kepler was also the father of modern optics. He had poor vision himself, as a result of a childhood case of smallpox. He explained the mechanics of vision in the eye, and developed lenses to correct nearsightedness and farsightedness. He also explained how both eyes work together to produce depth perception.

Radio City Music Hall opened on this date in 1932. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had originally planned to build a new Metropolitan Opera House on some land he owned in Midtown Manhattan, but the stock market crash of 1929 put an end to that plan. He decided to build a block of buildings anyway, which he called "Rockefeller Center." The cornerstone of the center was a vast Art Deco theater that offered lavish entertainment at reasonable prices. Radio City Music Hall boasted the largest indoor theater in the world; its marquee spanned an entire city block. The stage was equipped to produce water effects like fountains and rain showers, and fog could even be piped in from a ConEd utility plant nearby. One New York critic wrote, "It has been said of the new Music Hall that it needs no performers."

Opening night was not a big success. Crowds turned out for the high-class variety show featuring Ray Bolger and Martha Graham, but individual acts were lost in the cavernous space, and it got bad reviews. Radio City was better suited to big, splashy spectacles. Two weeks after the opening, impresario Roxy Rothafel staged a movie premiere — Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen — coupled with a stage spectacular, and started the Radio City tradition of movies combined with stage shows. That tradition continued until 1979.

The Christmas Spectacular is another Radio City tradition that has endured. The first Christmas Spectacular was staged December 21, 1933, a year after the theater opened. It was a 30-minute production that was paired with a movie feature. In 1979, the show was expanded to 90 minutes, and since that time it stands on its own, incorporating 3-D movies and, of course, the precision legs of the Radio City Rockettes.

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