Oct. 5, 2012

Come Picnic on Mars

by Diane Ackerman

for Zoë, age 5

On a distant glad November,
when our hearts are running high,
and the dreambats all have vanished
into the limestone of the sky,
why don't we take a fiery stroll
straight up to Mars? Just you and I.

We will pack a mental picnic
for years before we go.
Some will say the sky's the limit,
but we will answer: No,
the mind was made to travel.
So, too, indentured hearts,
and knitted fears unravel
with adventure in the dark.

A world of blues will slowly dwindle,
as Mars glows round the bend;
the differences that blind us
will bind us in the end,
for wonder is the chorus
that makes us all a choir,
and time will not forgive us
if, slug-a-beds, we lie
fat and bored and cranky
in our hammock in the sky.

So, come and take the waters
that jet across the seas
that lie between the planets
we crawl to on metal knees.
Oh! when we arrive, what fancy stuff
we'll see: the swooning sands of Paradise,
dust-devils, a volcanic sea.
Then, when twilight falls, by double moon,
we'll feast on ra-

"Come Picnic on Mars" by Diane Ackerman, from Jaguar of Sweet Laughter. © Vintage Books, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot (books by this author), born in Langres (1713). He was a prominent thinker during the French Enlightenment, and he was good friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The two men met regularly at cafés in Paris to discuss music, philosophy, and their troubles with women.

From 1745 to 1772, Diderot was the chief editor of Encyclopédie, a book meant to replace the Bible as the source of knowledge. It was the first book of its kind to subject all the entries to rational analysis, debunking a lot of ancient wisdom along the way. For instance, it included an entry on Noah's ark that tried to estimate how many man-hours Noah and his sons must have spent shoveling manure off their boat. Previous encyclopedias restricted themselves to serious topics like theology and philosophy and science, but Diderot tried to cover everything he could think of: emotions, coal mines, fleas, duels, bladder surgery, stockings, the metaphysics of the human soul, and how to make soup.

Diderot, who said, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

It's the birthday of the author Helen Churchill Candee (books by this author), née Hungerford, in New York City (1858). One of her early books was a how-to guide, How Women May Earn a Living (1900). She had experience in this area: although she came from a wealthy family, she had little money of her own, and she supported herself and her two children largely by writing articles and books. Her husband, Edward Candee, was abusive, and she eventually took the children and left him. As a single working mother, she wanted to make sure that other women could find ways to support themselves without relying on men. She wrote books on decorative arts, and also published a novel, An Oklahoma Romance, in 1901.

Once she was established as a writer, Candee moved to Washington, D.C., and became one of the first professional interior decorators; several high-powered politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, were her clients. She was also a close friend of the Tafts, and she decorated the West Wing of the White House when President Taft had it remodeled in 1909.

She was in Europe early in 1912 when she received word that her son, Harold, had been injured in an accident. Naturally, she wanted to return home as soon as possible. From Cherbourg, she boarded a brand new luxury liner, the RMS Titanic, bound for New York. When the ship struck an iceberg near midnight on April 14 and began to sink, Candee boarded Lifeboat Six, under the command of quartermaster Robert Hitchens. She tried to persuade him to go back after the ship went down, to search for any survivors, but he refused. She wrote a dramatized account of the voyage for Collier's Weekly magazine, about an unnamed man and woman. The story, called "Sealed Orders," included a romantic sunset visit to the bow of the great ship, and it may have inspired parts of James Cameron's movie Titanic (1997).

Today is the birthday of rocket scientist Robert Goddard, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1882). Goddard had been interested in outer space since he read H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds when he was 16. He started thinking seriously about rockets the following year, in 1899. As he recounted in his autobiography, he was up in a cherry tree, preparing to prune its dead branches, when he began to daydream: "It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet."

He received a patent for his design for a liquid-fueled rocket in 1914, and another for one that ran on solid fuel. At this point, the government wasn't really interested in the idea of space travel, so he had a hard time getting grants for his research, and he usually ended up paying out of his own pocket. Finally, a grant from the Smithsonian Institution enabled him to do research and publish a paper on "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes" in 1920. In the paper, he speculated that rockets could be used to reach the moon.

The New York Times heard about his paper, and published an editorial ridiculing him. He went from "nobody" to "national laughingstock" literally overnight, but he said, "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace." He didn't give up, and on this date in 1926, he completed the first successful launch of his liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket reached a height of 41 feet and an average speed of 60 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, Goddard didn't live to see space flight become a reality; he died of cancer in 1945. In July 1969, the day after Apollo 11 departed for the Moon, The New York Times printed a correction to its scathing editorial of nearly 50 years before. The paper wrote, "It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."

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




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