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Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

In honor of today’s eclipse, I’d like to spotlight this piece on Annie Jump Cannon from the funny and informative site Rejected Princesses. Their tag line?
“Women too Awesome, Awful, or Offbeat for Kids’ Movies.”

Hee hee! If you’re interested in quick, clever portraits of some of the most interesting women in history, Rejected Princesses is the site for you.

(Related aside: I’m also pretty sure that popular movies are selling our kids short.)

Why Annie Jump Cannon? Because she fell in love with the stars at a time when most women were only expected to fall in love with homemaking, and then she went and did something about it.

Born the same year President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, she attended college at a time when few women did, and then worked at the Harvard Observatory as a “computer.” (If you’ve seen Hidden Figures, you know what “computer” meant lo those many years ago. If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures, I highly recommend you do, stat!) She excelled at Harvard, classifying stars by the hundreds of thousands and building a spectrographic star classification system still in use today.

Ms. Cannon has been called The Queen of Modern Astronomy, but also brought a useful perspective to more terrestrial concerns. And while earthly challenges must continue to occupy our thoughts and energies, one quote in particular seems appropriate for our current times:

“In these days of great trouble and unrest, it is good to have something outside our own planet, something fine and distant and comforting to troubled minds. Let people look to the stars for comfort.”

If you don’t already have eclipse plans but you’re interested in a once-in-a-century astronomical event, NASA has a great site. They’ll help you enjoy the eclipse with everything from maps, safety, activities, DIY pinhole viewers, what to do if you don’t have a viewer but still want to see the event, and more.

Like most people I’ll be outside the path of totality, but we’ll still get 65% coverage. Well worth putting together a pinhole viewer… Oh look, here’s one I just happen to have, hacked together from a shoe box, legal paper, the sticky bits of reusable adhesive you find on the back of various packages, and a phone for easy photo taking:) I’ll cut the lid off to better control the distance between pinhole and paper, then hope for clear skies!

Eclipse: Who? What? Where? When? and How? is a good place to start, or check out the Eclipse Kit for all most of your eclipse party needs (beverage of choice not included:)

Have fun!

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If the world feels a bit weighty this morning, grab a cup of something hot, sit back and enjoy Mars.

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Every so often I am struck with the realization that I live in what is, to me, a foreign country. How cool is that?

There I was, about to start up the old treadmill desk and get to work when I looked out the window and had one of those moments. You may know the kind I mean (at least I hope you do), where suddenly everything you see shines with crystal clarity.

Oh, you may think, I hadn’t realized that the neighbor’s maple was quite so magnificent this Fall, and every leaf stands out. I think of it as seeing with a child’s eyes, before “this thing” and “that thing” become a group of “the usual things” that can be ignored without conscious attention.

Do we see each blade of grass when we walk past the lawn? I don’t. In fact, it would be an almost impossible way to live, I think, and I say that with the full knowledge that I am the sort of person who pays attention to the curbs when in Athens. (What? They’re made of marble. And oh yes, The Parthenon;)

I like the everyday, appreciate the curbs and libraries and sidewalk trees that we interact with on a daily basis. The common shapes our daily experience, even as it remains largely invisible. Even so…

I live in a foreign country! Part of my realization was the sudden understanding that I’ve accomplished one of the goals I set when I was a child.

I might have been twelve years old, the details are a bit fuzzy now. There was a group of friends in the room, all of us paging through an atlas (oversized, hardcover, with glossy paper). We argued over where to go, calculated the costs, plotted impossible strategies to get there.

Living in another country seemed the height of adventure. And now here I am.

Canada is lovely and wild, with an often thin edge of civilization anchoring this vast swath of often frigid territory. Approximately 75% of the population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border, and the continent looks very different up here at night.

North America at night

That mostly dark bit mostly north of the U.S.? Yeah, not water. I’m waving!

Canadian history is much different than the version I grew up with. It captures an ongoing friction between very different cultures and the relatively peaceable integration of those worlds into a single entity. No flashy Revolution here. There are reasons for signs that list both French and English versions of the word “street.” There are reasons for the populations’ deep-seated love of Tim Horton’s coffee, and gravy-drenched poutine. This country has its own twists, its own heroes, its own storied and shadowed chapters.

It’s true that I can shop for groceries in my native language, read most of the signage and do not need a plane ticket to visit my parents, but I no longer live in the place I was born. It’s also true that even Canadians can be crotchety, the bread often has too much flour in it, and there really is only one road connecting the East and West halves of the country. (And they still won’t shut up about that time they burned down The White House…;) But for me, here and now, it’s all a bit magical.

Pay attention, I remind myself. You just might find that the world is a far more beautiful and astonishing place than you remember. You might also realize that in spite of the knowledge that there is always more to do, if you work hard* and you keep moving even when it feels as though you’re going in circles, dreams can come true.

How cool is that?

. . . . . . . . . . .

* Need some motivation? I recommend the PBS Great Performances documentary Hamilton’s America. Both Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda are inspirational as heck. It’s available online for U.S. viewers. The rest of us may be lucky enough to catch it on our PBS stations. (See? Not the 51st state after all;)

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A friend with a shared love for Harry Potter sent me a link the other day. Some creative and determined person decided to make a Weasley clock.*
The magical ‘Harry Potter’ location clock exists in DIY form

For those who may have missed this detail from the HP book and/or movie, the Weasley clock is a magical JK Rowling invention that tracks each Weasley family member’s location and displays it on an antique clock face.

Rowling thought it up, and a Muggle made it real. How cool is that?

So with thanks to my friend, today’s installment of #ThingsILike is the real-world power of fiction.

*

“If you just focus on what you know, you’re blinding yourself to new opportunities.”
— Tyler Jacks, MIT

There are a lot of discussions of this topic out there, both contemporary and historical, but it’s a point I like to touch on periodically. A writer imagines a thing and someone else finds a way to make it real.

That’s magic right there.

This applies to specific items like the clock but also to everything from emotional states to broader goals. Want to generate ideas, stir up communal interest, and apply creativity to complex problems like living in space long-term? Tap the power of fiction:
The White House Wants To Use Science Fiction To Settle The Solar System

How to get into space? Excite the minds of young (and not so young) people with stirring tales of adventures in space. This applies to stories from Asimov, Clarke and other Golden Age of Science Fiction authors, but also to more recent blockbusters like Andy Weir’s The Martian.

The latter was particularly good at building future versions of current technologies, and NASA was happy to help Weir build his fictional (for now) world from the Popular Science article on the support NASA gave Ridley Scott as he turned the book into a blockbuster movie:

If you want to understand why it is that NASA loves The Martian and is so gung ho for this movie, you have to realize that this movie more or less presents exactly their future vision, minus all the drama.

*

I’ve cited this quote before but it’s so fitting I’ll use it again:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

That’s the power of fiction.

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* There may be other such clocks out there (in fact, I hope there are) but this is the version that caught my attention. Feel free to build more!

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David Bowie 1947–2016

Bowie was a great artist and an inspiration to so many, including those of us in the science and science fiction communities. A lot will be written about him in the next while so I’ll just leave you with one small sign of his influence, on and off the planet.

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I finally got to see The Martian this past weekend, and if you’ve been following the reviews at all my reaction will come as no surprise: it was great. What’s that, you’ve been busy/off the grid/media fasting? Here’s a trailer.

I read Andy Weir’s book last year so the specifics weren’t a surprise, but in this case knowing the story did nothing to detract from the experience. The execution, whether in terms of writing, acting, directing, or visuals, was a delight. The movie compressed the story in exactly the right ways, maintaining dynamism and tension in what could have been a dull one-man alone setting.

Also, no stupid characters were required to move the plot. Yay! You may not agree with every decision, but at no point did the script make some hapless individual look down at a big red button under glass and say, “Gosh, I know they told me not to touch anything but I wonder what this does,” literally or otherwise. Also times two, smart, strong characters, women included. How refreshing is that?

 

A lot has been written about the movie, and about Weir’s journey from self-published indie author to Hollywood hit, and it’s both interesting and well-deserved (see here and here and here and here, for examples).

As an entertainment consumer both versions scored high for me. As a writer, I was impressed by Weir’s concrete attention to detail, his willingness to dig himself into seemingly impossible holes, and his facility at getting out of them in realistic ways. Drew Goddard did an excellent job translating the book into a screenplay (I’d expect nothing less from this Buffy/Angel/Alias+ alum) for Ridley Scott.

I came out of the theatre kicking myself for not studying more math in school. Astronauts are awesome, and while most of us will never make that exalted level, there’s nothing to say we can’t try. (Ok, fine, my eyesight is bad and I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that astronauts need to be able to do more than 10 pushups, but you get my point.)

Helping kids (and everyone else) see that science is about exploration, discovery, innovation, capability and (in this case) freaking outer space?

That’s exactly the kind of story I can get behind. Recommended.

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If we do find aliens someday, I hope they are carbon-based and heck, while I’m wishing, mammals. Why? Because I want to try their food.

On some days I think that food is as close to a universal language as we’ve got. This is hardly an original thought, but the millions of cookbooks and posts and discussions on food and its importance only serve to make my point.

dinner

Food is good stuff. It supports us, sure, but it also helps define us as individuals and as social animals. What did you have for lunch today? How did you get your ingredients? How did you cook it? Did you share it?

Many folks’ introduction to other cultures happens over a meal. I grew up in a small town that was relatively isolated in terms of culture. Meat by the loin, heaping helpings of potatoes, sweet corn, one overcooked and somewhat suspect green at the edge of the plate. That sort of thing. I still have a soft spot in my tastebuds for pork and sauerkraut, but by and large the food was straightforward, hardly adventurous.

My parents took care of that.

Facing down a future with nothing more radical than chicken and waffles (yes, my poutine-loving Canadian friends, it’s a thing and you’d adore it:), the parental units got their hands on books like The New York Times Large Type Cookbook and Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook (both of which I still have on my shelf) and went to work. My palate and my social perspective are better for it.

An article on NPR talks about a group of Hungarian foodies fighting anti-immigrant prejudice with dinner. What a brilliant idea. Eritrean sourdough pancake bread, Somali fried bananas, or Afghan pie with fresh Syrian cream cheese? Sign me up, and while I’m there introduce me to the people too.

Think about your day, and the role food played in it. Did you go out to the barn to harvest eggs? Or did you open the refrigerator? What would breakfast look like (yours or mine) if the international shipping industry shut down?*

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Food is a big deal, and sharing it is sharing part of who you are. It’s why we invite people over for dinner instead of going out, It’s why Italy, of all places, has made significant progress in gluten-free food awareness as a way to make sure that gluten intolerance doesn’t get in the way of social communion.

Honestly, I’ve always felt that one major flaw in much speculative fiction revolves around food. Let’s see, fantasy = stew plus berries and mead, science fiction = rations that sound a lot like the worst protein bar you’ve every had or meals in a pill.** That’s not entirely fair but it’s not all that far off, either. It’s also not, from my food-oriented point of view, all that realistic.*** Sure, humans can put up with a lot when we must. Conflict, migration, that first year away from home, all times of upheaval, culinary and otherwise. But people still remember their traditions.

What we really want is that moment when life returns to normal, and among other things “normal” means real food. Whether your definition of “real” means Thanksgiving dinner or a Ramadan feast or congee, we use food as a touchstone. Lose that, and we lose an important piece of ourselves. (That doesn’t mean we can’t change, as my childhood diet attests, but it’s not like I’m eating hydrolyzed protein three meals a day either. Things got better. And hey, I feel the urge to add yet another footnote!****)

I’ve always been a bit shy but I learned early that one surefire way to start a conversation is to ask someone what they eat.

So if aliens arrive and invite us to the table, I’ll bring a fork.

* Note to everyone suffering from imagined caffeine withdrawal right now: yaupon is a caffeine-containing tea plant native to the United States. Because aliens, zombies, or no, mornings need a boost, amiright?

** For future reference, fellow SF Canada writer Krista D. Ball has a highly detailed and useful book on realism in fantasy food (just how long does it take to make stew and how in blazes do I carry leftovers?): What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank.

*** For a fascinating look at the intersection of food and space exploration, check out NASA’s Food for Spaceflight or read the section on food (titled “Discomfort Food, When Veterinarians Make Dinner, and Other Tales of Woe from Aerospace Test Kitchens”) in Mary Roach’s excellent Packing for Mars.

**** A good example of this is our family’s holiday smorgasbord: a few years ago we made the shift from Grandma Johnson’s handwritten recipes (so homey!) for dishes like Swedish meatballs and limpa and roast pork to the spectacular versions of same in Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit. Yes, an Ethiopian-born immigrant throws down on traditional Swedish food and wins big. See what I mean? The food still says home, only better:)

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