Jan. 4, 2014

In This Season of Waiting

by Linda Pastan

Under certain conditions,
when the moon in the western sky
seems frozen there, for instance

even as the sun is rising in the east,
so that soon two sides of the coin
will be facing each other;

or when the snow
which is a stranger here
fills our trees with its cold flowers;

when the single
bluejay at the feeder
is so still

it could be enameled there,
then the earth becomes an emblem
for whatever we believe.

"In This Season of Waiting" by Linda Pastan from Heroes In Disguise. © Norton, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 2004, NASA's "wonderful workhorse," the Spirit Rover, landed successfully on Mars. Its twin, Opportunity, landed on the other side of the planet three weeks later. The purpose of the mission was to analyze rock and soil samples, look for evidence of water, and determine whether the environment on Mars was conducive to life. The rovers are solar-powered robots with six wheels, about five feet tall and weighing about 400 pounds. They also contain metal from the World Trade Center, converted into shields to protect their drilling mechanisms.

Spirit was expected to operate for only 90 days or so, but it far exceeded expectations, sending data back to its team of scientists for more than six years. It became stuck in soft Martian soil in 2009, and though scientists spent some months in trying to remotely extract it, they finally gave up, and used it as a stationary research platform. It collected observational data of Mars' two moons, Phobos and Deimos, as well as the planet Mercury, and a passing comet. Eventually, dust covered the solar panels, and Spirit was unable to either clean the panels or to recharge its batteries; it sent its last communication back to Earth in March 2010. An asteroid — 37452 Spirit — was named in its honor.

Today is the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton (books by this author), born in Woolsthorpe, England (1643). He was born very prematurely and so small that it was said that he could fit into a quart pot. His father had died three months before Newton was born, and the plan was for the boy to take over the running of the family farm when he grew up. He wasn't a good farmer, and his uncle suggested that he be sent to the university instead. He went to Cambridge, and when it was shut down during a plague outbreak, Newton went home and studied mathematics and physics on his own. It was during this time that he first developed his theories of gravity and optics. His first published scientific achievement was the invention of a reflecting telescope.

At the age of 43, Newton published his Principia, which overturned nearly everything humankind had believed about the universe up to that point. He proved that the celestial bodies were governed by the same laws of physics as objects on Earth. He incorporated Kepler's laws of planetary motion into his own theories about gravity, and established his own Three Laws of Motion.

Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote, "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

It's the birthday of Jacob Grimm (books by this author), the elder of the Brothers Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1785). He and his brother volunteered to help some friends gather oral folktales for a research project. The Grimms did such a great job that one of their friends suggested that they publish the stories in book form. They did, and the stories filled several volumes, called Children's and Household Tales (1812-22). The collection was later renamed Grimms' Fairy Tales, and it included many stories whose names are familiar to us today: "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Rapunzel," to name a few. The original Grimm versions were violent and scary, but the stories have been significantly toned down over the years.

It's the birthday of Louis Braille, born in Coupvray, France (1809). He was blinded after an accident in his father's harness shop when he was three years old. At the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Braille adapted an idea used in the French army to send messages that could be read in the dark. He decided that each letter would be represented by a different arrangement of six dots packed close enough that each letter could be read by a single fingertip. He perfected his method by the time he was 15. He published the first book in braille in 1829, and eight years later, he added symbols for math and music to his alphabet. But his method spread slowly, and he was not recognized for his achievement during his lifetime; not a single newspaper published his obituary upon his death in 1852. It wasn't until a British group called the Royal National Institute for the Blind took up the cause in 1868 that the braille method became well known.

Louis Braille said: "Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals — and communication is the way this can be brought about."

Today is the birthday of Max Eastman (books by this author), poet, journalist, and radical, born in Canandaigua, New York (1883). He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University and then moved to Greenwich Village with his sister, Crystal, who would later co-found the American Civil Liberties Union. Eastman was a central figure in the radical community in the Village for many years. He served as editor for a series of socialist magazines, including The Masses and The Liberator. He was an outspoken critic of the United States' involvement in World War I, and was arrested twice for sedition. He complained, "You can't even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage."

After the Great Depression, Eastman became more critical of Marxism. In 1941, he was hired for an editorial position at Reader's Digest. And in 1955, he became a contributing editor for the new conservative magazine The National Review. By the end of his life, he was pro-free market capitalism and called himself a "radical conservative."

Eastman also wrote about a wide variety of other topics, including literary criticism, Freudian psychology, and the scientific method. He published translations of Aleksandr Pushkin, and a novel. He wrote five volumes of poetry and two memoirs.

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