Tag Archives: Space

State of the Season 12 – Rock and Roll, Reading, and Remembering

Hello and welcome to any and all who find themselves here! As is customary for my every 13th post I look back at the last 12 for a retrospective of the previous “season” of this blog. Let’s hop to it!

Back on May 8th, I tossed the second of my four-part inspection of the T-shirt worn by Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. This was followed by the final two parts over the next couple of weeks. Ament’s shirt contained a list of names of bands and artists he and his bandmates feel deserve inclusion into the Rock Hall. Some I know and agree with, others I was less familiar with. In an effort to educate myself further on all these acts, I listened to a cut of each act’s discography and sought the best (or my favorite) of the bunch to feature.

“Waiting in the Wings of Rock and Roll – Vol. 2”

“Waiting in the Wings of Rock and Roll – On Being the Third Part of Jeff Ament’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Shirt”

“Waiting in the Wings of Rock and Roll – The Final Chapter”


“Never Forget Our Heroes” is my Memorial Day post that attempts not to remember fallen soldiers and service members, but those translators who have been forgotten by the US government in the mire of political bureaucracy. This came from a featured segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that I include.


“With a Little Help from My Friends” – I was committed to sticking to my original plan to release a celebration of The Beatles for the anniversary of their most famous album. I did so even in the wake of Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, and I am pleased that so many cities, businesses, and communities have all stated that they will continue to honor the international agreement on climate change mitigation. With a little help from my friends indeed.


“Da na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na That Man!” is a eulogy of actor Adam West. Fox Animation recently churned out a video compilation of his best moments as Mayor Adam West on Family Guy:

“Paul! That’s a person’s name!”


Indeed it is, Mayor West, and it is Sir Paul McCartney who is the focus of “Happy Birthday Walrus Man!” where I listed some of the best songs written and performed by McCartney over his career with The Beatles and Wings and on his own. He’s referred to as Walrus Man because he was the walrus! Don’t believe me? Well check, check it:


“Rowling Along the Reading Rainbow” is my thanks to J.K. Rowling for writing the book (series) that got me jazzed about reading. I’ll send another shout out to her for today right here and now: Happy Birthday to you and Harry!


“The Magical Mystery Tour is Waiting to Take You Away” – There’s that Walrus again. Expanding upon my fantasy book series fandom like a literary Bran the Builder, I next turned my attention to the A Song of Ice and Fire series. The featured picture is artwork of my favorite sequence from the books, the wildling attack on the Wall. Fantastic fantasy.


While the show, Game of Thrones, does not always nail some scenes like that battle, it has put together some excellent moments, including some that did not occur in the books. You may even call these moments “Epic! Badass” as I did. Enjoy these 10 scenes that may have fallen off your radar from the first six seasons of the show.


“Astronauts Without Borders” is a celebration of the docking between Apollo 18 and Soyuz 19 that took place in 1975. It was the first time two countries planned and enacted a mission to connect spacecraft in flight and kicked off a grand partnership between the scientific communities within the USA and the USSR/Russia that continues today as it always has – separate from politics.


“Nobody Exists on Purpose. Nobody Belongs Anywhere. Everybody’s Going to Die. Come Watch TV.” – Game of Thrones isn’t the only anticipated show that’s back. Rick and Morty made their long awaited return last night on Adult Swim, and Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon and company keep finding humor in the existential dread that surrounds us all. Props especially to Chris Parnell who manages to make us pity and laugh hysterically at the plight of pathetic Jerry whose name is dragged through the mud by even the wind.

Since next Sunday is six long days away, check out the Non-Canonical Adventures of Rick and Morty to help hold you over.


In addition to this recap, I’d like to wish the best to the family of Sam Shepard, who died from ALS on July 27. An actor on the stage and screen best known for his roles in movies like The Right Stuff and Black Hawk Down, but his true passion was as a playwright. Shepard penned 44 plays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with his work Buried Child. He also co-wrote some film screenplays, was nominated for an Oscar for The Right Stuff, and even played banjo on Patti Smith’s unique cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. R.I.P.

Thanks for reading, watching, listening, and enduring some bad jokes in all along the way. I hope that I provide quality entertainment and ideally some education along with it; if I do, I hope that continues, but if I don’t, I hope it begins. Most of all, I hope you’ll check back in here next week for more fun.

Until next week,

Alex

Astronauts Without Borders

Once upon a time not so long ago, the United States and Russia had a high-profile meeting that was a top news story. Unlike today though, this was not a shady circumstance that cast doubt on the inner dealings of each respective government, but rather helped to improve the relationship between two nations that had been engaged in a constant and bitter show of one-upmanship with nuclear proliferation. I’m talking about the Cold War. Nevertheless, 42 years ago on this date, July 17, 1975, the United States and Russia, then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, set aside their differences, at least as far as the scientific community was concerned. As the preeminent superpowers of the world and the leaders in space exploration, the US and USSR arranged for an historic high five within the vacuum of space.

Contrary to what silly stories of moon crab monsters would tell you, there actually was an Apollo 18 mission. NASA had launched seven manned lunar landing missions with its Apollo program, successfully landing six of them (Apollo 13 had a bit of a snafu).  However, the final moon mission, Apollo 17, was not the last time a Saturn V rocket shot an Apollo craft into orbit. Apollo 18 was launched in conjunction with the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19.

After there establishment in orbit, the two craft were lined up and then linked up, marking the first time that two craft from different countries and space agencies docked. The mission was orchestrated to serve as practice for potential rescues in the future.

The ABC coverage is pretty good at explaining the mission, but here’s the link if you want to watch the docking without the newscaster speaking.

Leave it to the men and women who work in science and especially the students of space to show us how meaningless political squabbles can be. We are all one species on the same Earth, and it is missions like this one that help us to realize that no matter whether we are on opposite sides of the world, or floating above it, we are at our best when we work together to advance our mutual pursuit of greater understanding of our place in space.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, launch them into my inbox at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun.

I’m sure I’ve written that before and I don’t care,

Alex

Just Let Me Hear Some of That Rock and Roll Music

All due respect to Elvis Presley, we lost the true King of Rock and Roll this past Saturday, March 18th. Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known simply as Chuck Berry, graced this Earth for 90 years during which he helped create and refine Rock and Roll music by combining the best the blues, R&B, country, jazz, and swing had to offer and throwing in plenty of his own energy and electric guitar to boot. The primary influence to the first round of rock and rollers the world over, Chuck Berry was a force in the genre throughout his life, even completing another album that he announced the release of on his 90th birthday last October. This album, Chuck, will be released in the near future, but Berry’s already cemented legacy will live on forever as a rock pioneer, guitar god, and crowd pleasing entertainer. We’ll miss you, Chuck.

Berry attributed his success and the peak of the growth of rock and roll to greater radio playtime throughout the country reaching a wider audience. Indeed, Berry had a grand appeal to many whites which helped to connect black and white culture during a time of racial turmoil. He ushered in an era of vibrant new music that was infused with the essence of the genres that came before it and in doing so provided something that everyone of all walks of life could love. He especially found a following in America’s youth, who serve as the subject matter of many of his songs. Young Americans flocked to the fast-paced, guitar and piano-fueled mania of early rock, and Berry and his fellow first generation rock and rollers like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Of course it was not just Americans who raved over Berry and his buds as every major act of the British Invasion was heavily influenced by them, with many scoring hits of covers of Berry’s songs. Ever heard of these guys?

It did not stop there either. The years went on, rock and roll evolved and incorporated new sounds and sensations, branching off into styles like psychedelia and birthing other genres like hip-hop, yet artists continued to aspire to follow Chuck Berry’s shining example of how to capture the essence of rock and roll. Just as every test pilot wanted to be Chuck Yeager, every girl and boy with a guitar wanted to be Chuck Berry. The greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix, played some Berry tunes, most notably Berry’s best known hit “Johnny B. Goode”. AC/DC covered “School Days” and called for all of us to Hail Hail Rock and Roll in their own brutal powerchords. George Thorogood and the Destroyers did a rollicking rendition of “It Wasn’t Me”. Softer acts like Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt gave some of Berry’s songs a go, and ELO had a hit with their always inventive style worked into Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” featuring some of the eponymous composer’s own opus. Rod Stewart made his own version of “Memphis, Tennessee” with The Faces. Hell, even Motorhead paid their dues to the man and brought Berry into metal with “Let It Rock”.

Berry’s riffs may have been basic in composition, but the now familiar formula they follow make it so that his music serves as the building blocks of rock and roll music. Furthermore they are easily transferable to any style of music, as you can hear from any of the aforementioned covers (and any of those not mentioned). Nowhere is this better proven though than in the classic scene from Back to the Future (1985) that has been the source of many amusing musings on Berry’s life. Through an enthusiastic Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox (and Mark Campbell who is doing his singing, and Tim May with the guitar) show us the 30 year evolution of rock and roll in three minutes complete with a clever time travel related reference to the man who made all this music possible.

Honestly, he was doing everything Chuck Berry would have done up until he starting leaping and shredding like Eddie Van Halen, but hey, Chuck Berry’s indelible impression is found in that joyous noise from the 1980s too. Through his long and illustrious career, Chuck Berry made a name for himself not only as a great musician, but as a stage presence who demands to be seen as much as heard. He was natural at engaging an audience and entertained all with his humor, honesty, and signature duck walk – the oft copied, never duplicated solo strut that is synonymous with Berry. You can see it and his many other exploits on display in these clips from live performances over the years:

You know you are popular when everybody wants to play alongside of you. Over the years, many who grew up loving Berry were able to share the stage with him at one point or another. Keith Richards got that wish granted much to his excitement considering he has said that Chuck Berry made The Rolling Stones. He was the one who got to induct Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986. Chuck Berry was actually the first person to be inducted into the vaunted Rock Hall, and his legacy shows why. He shared the honor of being in the inaugural class with Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, talent scout (and not dinosaur park owner) John Hammond, producer Sam Phillips, and disc jockey Alan Freed. That’s quite a class to be at the top of!

The Rock Hall wrote a great biography of Berry, including a clip of his induction which I encourage anyone who enjoys Keith Richards high to watch.

Beyond his influence on other artists, Berry had some scintillating songs that are essential for any rock and roll fan to hear. In addition to those already mentioned, be sure to check out these terrific tunes:

“Maybellene” – One of the first rock and roll songs, Berry’s first hit was a reworking of  a song called “Ida Red”. Berry livened it up with music and lyrics that became the standard for other rock songs of the early rock era.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

“I’m a Rocker”

“Woodpecker” – This instrumental piece takes an easier pace than most of Berry’s lightning striking introductions and riffs and remains one of his more jazzy and unique song.

“No Particular Place To Go” – I first heard this as a kid in a commercial for a Power Wheels car. You remember those toy cars that kids could drive? Those were the envy of every child’s eye when I was a wee lad, and I was fortunate enough to get one for Christmas one year… until the goddamn battery died and the electric system fizzled out and I was left with a oversized Hot Wheels car too heavy for child me to push out of the garage. Anyway, I grew to love this song which details an evening of teenage love that never really gets anywhere because the narrator cannot unbuckled his date’s seatbelt.

“School Days” – Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Nobody said that Chuck Berry was a widely varied artist, but when you invent the go-to licks for rock and roll, you can run through them as much as you need. I mentioned the AC/DC cover earlier, but this song bears repeating for its encapsulation of the musical zeitgeist of the days of early rock.

“Run, Run Rudolph” – One of the few songs that I look forward to hearing every Christmastime, this original seasonal song has stood the test of time as a classic in both rock and holiday music.

“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”

“Soul Rockin'”

“Little Queenie” – If you’ve heard T. Rex’s hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” then you’ve heard a part of “Little Queenie”. The riff is taken from Berry’s song, as are the closing lyrics, “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking….”

“Almost Grown”

“You Can’t Catch Me” – I love The Beatles, but I do not love all of their songs. The most played of their that I just cannot get on board with is “Come Together”. You may feel differently, but no matter what you think of the song, it has some Chuck Berry influence. Like some of their other non-sequitur songs from the era, The Beatles drew upon many pop culture references to fill the cryptic lyrics, and “Come Together” has some of “You Can’t Catch Me” in it, namely old Flattop.

“Back in the U.S.A.” – The Beatles once again drew upon Chuck for inspiration when they twisted this song’s title to be a little more Russian. The lyrics of their superior “Back in the U.S.S.R.” are mostly a parody of The Beach Boys though. Then again, where did The Beach Boys get their soul-of-American-youth-summer-jams style from?

“Thirty Days”

“Route 66” – Being a native of St. Louis, Missouri, Berry undoubtedly took a few trips down the legendary highway that runs from his hometown to Los Angeles, California.

“You Never Can Tell” – Who knew this would be a hit that would be covered by numerous artists and danced to so successfully by Uma Thurman and John Travolta? C’est la vie say the old folks….

“Reelin’ and Rockin” – This song makes for great rock and roll and the title makes for good fishing advice.

“Johnny B. Goode”– The song that is synonymous with Chuck Berry and early rock and roll. Covered by countless individuals, professional and amateur musicians alike, and brilliant featured as one of the most memorable movie moments ever, Berry’s song about a little country boy with a natural talent to play the guitar is one of the greatest songs ever made. Originally, the lyrics were going to be “little colored boy” but Berry changed them to avoid it being shunned by disc jockeys afraid of potentially poor or angry reception. the song is partly about Berry himself, but mostly based on his bandmate Johnnie Johnson, who gave Berry his big gig and eventually let Berry take charge of his band since he recognized the natural talent he had not just at playing and writing music, but at energizing the crowd.

This song also has the honored distinction to be the only rock and roll song on the Voyager Golden Record. The phonographic record included on both Voyager spacecraft features a selection of images and sound recordings, with music from around the world to showcase the varied cultures on Earth to whomever finds the records. Whether it be intelligent extraterrestrial life or humans in the far future, the recoverers of the Golden Record will be able to hear Chuck Berry’s best song. This opportunity almost did not happen though, as many on the selection panel that decided the Record’s content thought rock and roll was “adolescent”. Fortunately Carl “Sick Burn” Sagan pointed out “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” Damn Carl, that’s you tell ’em!

Chuck Berry left a lasting legacy of music, but his impact on others both musically and culturally, especially in helping incorporate harmony in the diverse youth of America, is what really raises him up to the level of icon. His death was not by any means sudden, and he certainly lived a full life, but he will still be missed by his many adoring fans. Thanks for the music and memories, Chuck Berry!

Thanks for reading and listening! Please send any questions, comments, and requests to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Rock and roll on back next week for what will hopefully not be another eulogy for one of my heroes.

Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!

Alex

 

Space Butt Joke

Happy Holi everyone! Also happy early Pi Day and the one with all the green stuff! Have an enjoyable and safe celebration of all you care to. I am kicking things off today, but not for the aforementioned Hindu spring festival of love (go ask Google). I am instead hoisting a cold one for the 236th anniversary of the discovery of Uranus!

The seventh planet in our solar system is the third largest behind Jupiter and Saturn respectively, although not the third heaviest. That weighty honor belongs to its slightly heavier and farther-from-the-sun neighbor Neptune (slightly is a relative term). Uranus was official discovered on March 13, 1781 by British astronomer William Herschel. This dude was an astronomy all-star (pun very much intended). Herschel is most well known for his determination that Uranus was a planet, but he also discovered some moons of Uranus and Saturn, did some studies on Mars’ seasonal shifts and rotation, was the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society, and, oh yeah, fucking found out that infrared radiation was a thing! William Herschel discovered a planet and a form of electromagnetic radiation on the light spectrum! I found $20 in a parking lot once, but something tells me his stuff will probably be longer remembered.

While Herschel was the first to conclude that Uranus was definitely a planet, he was not the first to spot it in the sky. Uranus can actually be seen with the naked eye and it is the farthest planet that can be seen without help from a optical device. It was the first planet official discovered with a telescope, and was the first planet to be discovered in modern history (as in this side of the Renaissance), however, it was noted by other previous astronomers on their surveys of the night sky, perhaps even possibly cataloged as far back as before the common era. Why then do we give credit to Herschel? Well, mainly because everyone who took a look at Uranus (shut up!) before him thought it was one of the many stars in the cosmos. Herschel, with the aid of his telescope was able to figure out the true identity of the shining celestial body, although, even he first assumed it was a comet, and not a planet. Hey, we all goof sometimes; at least he figured it out eventually.

As was the case with Uranus, modern technology (again, modern in the sense of being refined post-Renaissance) helped to uncover the existence of Neptune, Uranus’ next door neighbor. As a matter of fact, Neptune was not seen, but was first discovered because it was tugging on Uranus’ orbit (stop that childish laughter!) and the pull was correctly determined to be from another planet. We have since gotten a good look at both worlds with the aid of even more modern technology, specifically the NASA probe Voyager 2, which is the only spacecraft to have whizzed by either of the ice giants. That’s what Uranus and Neptune are considered, by the way. As both planets are massive and gaseous (all right, c’mon!) they are classified as giant planets, or jovian planets – Jove is another name for the Roman god Jupiter, which you’ll recall is the namesake of our solar system’s largest planet. Nevertheless, not all giant planets are gas giants. Gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements. Ice giants are mostly heavier elements like oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, none of which are astoundingly heavy, but are heavier than hydrogen and helium.

Uranus is comprised predominantly of water, methane, and ammonia, but don’t hold out hope for the presence of water being potential source of life as the temperature is too low. But hey! It’s axis of rotation is retrograde – as is Venus’ – which means that it’s north and south poles are along the Uranus equivalent of Earth’s equator meaning Uranus spins horizontally! That’s why its rings are shown to be perpendicular to traditional rotation planets with rings like Saturn. One of Uranus’ rotations (a Uranian day) is only 17 hours, but its orbit around the sun (a Uranian year) is roughly 84 Earth years.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about Uranus (keep your composure for one more paragraph!) then check out the NASA site where I got much of my information. Send any questions, comments, or suggestions to monotrememadness@gmail.com, and orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun! That is not a promise of another space post… at least not immediately.

Urectum,

Alex

It’s a TRAPPIST-1!

It has been a week of star-studded news. Yes, there was that insane debacle at last night’s Academy Awards that saw the wildest finish to any Oscars presentation when the wrong movie was announced as the Best Picture. Actually, the wrong movie has been announced as Best Picture lots of times, as I discussed a few years ago, but in this case the movie that official won the award was only announced after the award had already been presented to the producers of another movie who were halfway through their acceptance speeches! For a fun and thorough wrap-up of all the action, check out the annual Screen Junkies Grouchies award show.

As bonkers as that was, and as interesting as I am in the goings-on of the film world, I am much more intrigued by what’s happening with another world. Seven, in fact. Moonlight is the least of my concerns when starlight and planetary transits creating shadows that our space telescopes can see are occurring.

For decades, numerous astronomers have been tirelessly searching for other worlds like ours throughout the universe. These exoplanets as they are called when they are outside of our solar system, are the key to further observing what the most common planets are like and how ours stacks up in the grand cosmic scene. Additionally, the search for Earth-like worlds give us a greater look at areas that may have the right pieces to harbor life. This can mean that we may discover the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on one of these worlds, and/or find another world suitable for future human habitation.

Last week, NASA revealed that such a solar system had been found with not one, but seven – yes, seven! – Earth-like planets orbiting around a small star. Three of the seven exoplanets are within the habitable zone for humans, also known as the Goldilocks Zone because its conditions are not too hot or cold, but just right for humans to live within. Most exciting of all though, this star system is but 12 parsecs, or about 39 lightyears away! Now while this is about 250 trillion with a “T” miles away from us, in relation to the massive scope of the universe as we know it, this is extremely close. A lightyear is as its name implies, the unit of distance that it takes light to travel in the span of one year. Light is the fastest moving thing we know in the observable universe, clocking in at around 299,792,458 meters per second, or 671 million with an “M” miles per hour. That’s pretty darn quick, and we couldn’t hope to match it with our current technology, and probably never will manufacture a real-life Millennium Falcon to exceed it, but it is very much within the realm of possibility for a spacecraft that can manage one-fifth (1/5) the speed of light to be made. In fact, such technology is currently being worked on.

Is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Make no mistake, it will take some time for us to reach the recently discovered star, called TRAPPIST-1 after the terrestrial telescope in Chile that first found it in the constellation Aquarius. However, the great potential that this system and the exoplanets within it hold for the future of our species is tremendously exciting. I won’t get to go there in my lifetime, but maybe the great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren I’m not planning on having will start to see humans making their way toward landing on the TRAPPIST exoplanets, perhaps with the chance to colonize them. Much sooner within my lifetime, as in the next few years, we will probably know what the composition of the exoplanets’ atmospheres are made of and whether or not they contain oxygen, a biological marker that heralds the presence of living organisms. It at least seems likely that the exoplanets, which we know are rocky like our world and not gaseous like Jupiter, contain water, the liquid form of which is the necessary component to life, as you may have heard before. Who knows? Perhaps we may even have definitive proof of life outside of Earth unearthed within our remaining spins around the star we know and love best. Hopefully it’s less hostile than what Private Hudson experienced on LV-426. Game over, man! Rest in peace, Bill.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn much more about the TRAPPIST-1 system than I can tell you then check out the ever reliable NASA webpage for continuing updates, as well as the beautiful and information-filled TRAPPIST-1 site found here. There is a great set of pages that detail everything from what we know of each exoplanet so far, and the timeline of the discovery. Be sure to check out the cute and colorful comic on the “Stories” page that features an astronomer rabbit explaining the find to her panda pal in terms that make it accessible (and fun) for us all. Send any questions or comments my way to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Make your way back here in a little less than one TRAPPIST-1f year (nine days!) for more fun and informative stuff.

To TRAPPIST-1 and Beyond!

Alex

Consider Again That Dot

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. We are all part of the same pieces that exploded into existence as we know it with amazing energy 13.8 billion years ago. From that magnificent beginning of this universe, everything within it has grown and evolved. And that’s even before life on Earth formed. The ideas we study today regarding the Big Bang and what has occurred in the expansion of the cosmos since are relatively new, having come into scientific understanding during only the last century or so, however, the study of the stars and the infinity beyond has existed for millennia. Astronomers have long impacted our knowledge of our world and what exists beyond it, helping to pave the way for other subjects of study. We remember and revere the names and lives of many such people who helped teach us more about our place in the universe. Today, I am writing about a hero of mine and many others who did this in more ways than one, showing us just how small and special we are as a planet and a species.

Tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the saddest days in science education history. On December 20, 1996, the world lost a man who saw its incredible beauty and recognized how infinitesimally small we are on it and in the grand scheme of the cosmos: Carl Sagan. Sagan was an inspirational figure whose efforts to educate are still felt strongly, especially in the medium of television that he utilized so perfectly. His studies and insights also continue to be prevalent in his many books, as well as the lessons reiterated by his students who teach us today as he did decades ago.

Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York to a Russian immigrant father and a native New Yorker mother. He and his sister, Carol, were raised Jewish, but not with a great emphasis on religious practice and teaching placed upon them. His parents not only allowed him to question everything, but encouraged it, something that he stated aligned perfectly with the scientific method and his quest for knowledge.

Sagan was smart from the start, thanks in large part because of his many interests in many subjects, such as astronomy, biology, and chemistry to name a few awesome ones. He frequently read about the wonders of the natural sciences, and visited the world-class museums that New York had (and still has) to learn as much as he could. It paid off for him as he attended college early, studying at the University of Chicago when he was 16. There he encountered some of the preeminent scientists and teachers of the era, including geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller and chemist Harold Urey (remember the latter). Sagan’s dissertation was done under the tutelage of Gerard Kuiper, for whom the Kuiper Belt (where Pluto and two other dwarf planets live) is named. From Chicago, Sagan went on to the University of California at Berkeley in 1959.

Sagan became an assistant professor at Harvard University at 1963 after his peers in academic astronomy were impressed with his work, specifically his Science article regarding Venus’ atmosphere. However, even after years of teaching at the university and working at the nearby Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Sagan was not granted tenured status. In fact, numerous members in the academic community voiced their concerns with Sagan’s wide window of study as opposed to the traditional finer focus on a specific pursuit of study. The strongest voice against him, and the greatest dagger to his tenure hopes, came from a former advisor at the University of Chicago, that’s right, Harold Urey. Urey was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and had worked on the Manhattan Project, so he had authority in the scientific community. He argued against Sagan becoming a full-time professor, and Harvard listened.

Sagan was understandably disappointed, but where one Ivy League door closes, another gets to say “Suck it, Harvard!” today as a reward for not being overly concerned with the comprehensive interests of its professors at the time. Sagan had actually had an offer from astronomer Thomas Gold and Cornell University to come to teach prior to this decision from Harvard. The outcome of that decision made it easy for him to take his talents to Ithaca. He became an associate professor in 1968, and just two years later a full professor. His educational efforts were not confined to the classroom though, as in addition to continued research in astronomy and other fields, Sagan worked with NASA to prepare the Apollo astronauts for their lunar missions and to develop robotics. Sagan is also the man responsible for the creation and inclusion of information regarding humans and the Earth placed on some deep space probes sent out in the 1970s and 1980s. The first of these is the Pioneer Plaque which was attached to Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The plaque depicts a naked human man and woman and an illustration of our solar system and other items used to indicate the origin of the spacecrafts in the event that they are found by intelligent extraterrestrial life. An explanation of the illustrations can be found here.

carl-sagan

The two Voyager probes launched in 1977 contain an updated plaque, called the Voyager Golden Record. Like the Pioneer Plaque, the Golden Record was attached to the spacecraft with information pertaining to humans and the Earth.

Sagan was all about finding other forms of intelligent life and making contact with them. He encouraged search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, projects and co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980 with SETI initiatives in mind. In 1985 he published the novel Contact about making first contact with intelligent alien life. The book was made into a movie of the  same name that was released in 1997, a year after Sagan’s death. The story is representative of many of Sagan’s ideals, especially where the relationship and often duel between scientific fact and religious faith are concerned. Contact provides intelligent insight into the relationship of government and science as well. All of these are themes that exist in other popular science stories like Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life that was recently released as movie called Arrival, which has many similarities to ContactInterstellar does as well, including Kip Thorne’s input regarding wormholes and Matthew McConaughey being all right, all right, all right.

Sagan had other (non-fiction) books and many published papers and reports, but undeniably his greatest impact was through his television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. With Cosmos, Sagan took his grand encompassing interest in the big picture out of the classroom and into our homes. The show was superbly received and is one of the most watched series ever to air on PBS. Sagan was successful at inspiring everyday people into asking “Why?” and helped to make scientific ventures popular. Two of Sagan’s most notable students at Cornell would go on to have similar success with similar programming on TV. From 1993-1998, Bill Nye was the titular science guy in his show aimed at teaching children the basics of science. Nye was a senior at Cornell when he took Sagan’s underclassman course for easier credits, but he has stated that the class was a critical building point in his life that helped him to realize his potential and shape his life. Neil deGrasse Tyson did not attend Cornell and take Sagan’s class as Nye did, but he was a student of life of Carl Sagan’s and kept close ties to him from his teenage years. Tyson has hosted the StarTalk podcast (and later show) since 2009, and in 2014 he made another Cosmos series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. In the opening episode, Tyson explains how he first came to know Carl Sagan. Tyson had sent an application to Cornell, and the admissions office had forwarded it to Sagan. Sagan then wrote a letter to Tyson inviting him for a visit. Tyson was impressed to say the least with Sagan’s knowledge, but mostly his character. Of his mentor and friend he said, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”

Cosmos was good for Sagan as well, as his co-writer, Ann Druyan, would within a year become his wife. Druyan was Sagan’s third wife, but she and he remained happily married until his death. Near the end of his life, Sagan suffered from a myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the blood cells in bone marrow does not develop properly. It often leads to leukemia. He was able to keep it at bay with bone marrow transplants from his sister, however he developed pneumonia which took his life on December 20, 1996.

Carl Sagan was exceptional at presenting simple and complex information alike in an easy and enjoyable way to the public. Whether or not you are young or old, or as wild about science as Carl was when he was younger or not, then you can learn and love what Sagan has to share in his show and books. He had many famous musings in his beautifully poetic presentations, but the most renowned is his “Pale Blue Dot” speech given at Cornell, in which he ponders on the whole of human existence while observing a picture of Earth taken by Voyager I from about 6 billion kilometers away. This may be the most important speech I have ever heard or read. It summarizes the actions of our species so perfectly and presents us with a spectacularly humbling realization that we are so, so small in this enormous universe. However, this makes us and our planet so incredibly special and grants us the wonderfully privilege to make our world the best it can be. I hope that it moves and inspires you as it does me.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or requests for future topics, then please email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Orbit back here next week for some more out of this world fun.

Science shed lights on the unknown,

Alex

Godspeed John Glenn

The term “American Hero” is thrown around a lot in today’s society. This is not to say that the many police, firefighters, soldiers, survivors of serious medical ailments and inspirational figures who have contended with adversity of any sort are not heroes, but the great number of them can dilute the importance of the designation. However, some men and women are without question rightfully admired by all others. John Glenn was such a man. As a pilot and astronaut, Glenn literally rose above the Earth and often found himself in the wondrous gaze of all those looking on from below. A few men and women have also had this rare honor to be at the forefront of the zeitgeist, and it is what they do in these moments that determines how they are perceived over time. Some fail us, either unable to handle the pressure we put on them, or they are exposed as being someone much less worthy of our veneration. Occasionally though, some people set the bar far higher than we ever imagined it could go. John Glenn is a true American Hero because whether or not the spotlight was shined on him, he always did what he felt was right and best for his state, his country, and his world. John Glenn earned the respect of everyone with a kind heart, good morals, and the drive to succeed to help others. I am not the first to have revered John Glenn, and given his incredible legacy, I will surely not be the last, for his works will echo through the annals of human history.

The class act of a man that was John Glenn died last Thursday, December 8th at the age of 95. He was the last of the Mercury 7, NASA’s first group of astronauts, of which he is most well remembered, despite the fact that he was not the first of the team to go into space! Glenn was in fact the third, behind Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in the Mercury program, but his was the first orbital spaceflight for an American. Nevertheless, cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and Gherman Titov each orbited the Earth prior to Glenn, so how did he achieve greater recognition in a world where not being first might as well be last? For one, Glenn outlived all of these men, but more importantly he kept active throughout the entirety of his life. His space-based popularity kept his activity nationally and occasionally internationally relevant even long after he was back on the ground (although that didn’t last forever as we’ll discuss later), and as I have already explained, his time in the limelight was spent trying to make the world a better place. Not to mention, Glenn was a lovable personality. He always had a smile on his face and was an excellent speaker who could win over most any crowd.

Always rightfully associated with piloting planes and space capsules, it was John Glenn’s character and work outside of the realm of flight that truly helped him endure as a living legend. From his early days in his birthtown and hometown of Cambridge, Ohio and New Concord, Ohio respectively, Glenn exhibited the kind of devotion to family and country he would be praised for later. He was at Muskingum College when the attack on Pearl Harbor sent his nation to war, so he stepped out of school and into the the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force), but they never called him up to service. Thus, he entered the Navy to become an aviation cadet where he further trained on flying planes, something that had started back college for him. Finally Glenn served in the Marine Corps as a pilot making bombing runs in the Pacific in WWII, and doing just about everything aerial in Korea. After his decorated war service he became a test pilot and worked with a variety of aircraft and continued to rack up achievements, including making the first supersonic transcontinental flight when he flew from Los Alamitos Army Air Field in California to New York in 3.5 hours while reaching speeds of up to 726 mph.

Nonetheless, John Glenn’s greatest success in this span of his life (and I’m sure he would say in the whole of his life) was marrying his high school sweetheart, Anna Castor. John and Annie Glenn were married in 1943 and had two children together. John was devoted to her despite teasing that she and he received due to her stutter, a condition she dealt with until she was 53. She easily could have been lost in the shuffle of his increasing fame over the years, or worse pushed to the front with too much focus placed on her condition, but the Glenns balanced their family life perfectly with his rise to the stars, even once refusing excessive attention from then-vice president Lyndon Johnson (this moment is hilariously represented in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, which also features an excellent portrayal of Glenn by the ever great Ed Harris). You’ll be hard pressed to find any image of the Glenns together without smiles on their faces. Together John and Annie left an indelible mark on their community, especially in their home state where The Ohio State University has named a street after the pair of them and had them both dot the “i” in “America” in a special ceremony put on by the marching band during a football game to honor John’s service to the state and the nation.

John Glenn’s most memorable service is his time in NASA where he was one of the Mercury 7, the pioneering team of astronauts for America. His orbital flight was a major victory for the blossoming program, even in the wake of continued success by the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut program, however the reentry of the historic flight was harrowing for NASA’s Mission Control. Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft, of course named Friendship 7 by him, indicated that the heat shield was damaged. This led NASA to order Glenn to keep the retrorocket that is normally jettisoned on his craft on landing approach so that the shield would stay on. His reentry appeared to be an excessively violent one with pieces of the craft tearing off and flying by his viewport. Glenn touched down all right, and later it was determined that there was no problem with the heat shield, but the indication system had malfunctioned in alerting a problem that was not there. The fiery debris Glenn saw was the remains of his retrorocket pack.

After his retirement from NASA, Glenn served as a senator for Ohio from 1974-1999. This was certainly not surprising to his fellow Mercury astronauts who, along with NASA, always perceived John as the most senatorial of their bunch. Hi gift for public relations clearly paid off. While in office, he pushed for big issues, key among them the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 which sought to discontinue the creation of nuclear explosives. This is also not surprising, given that many astronauts often return to Earth professing the need to work more peaceably with other nations and set aside tools of conflict. Glenn also tapped into his faith to keep his morals, but he did not let it blind him. He was religious but encouraged the study of evolution in schools, citing that belief in God and scientific fact are not mutually exclusive.

When you’ve lived as full of a life as John Glenn had through the mid-1990s, you probably do not think, “Hey, what if I did that space thing again? That’d be pretty cool.” Then again, you’re not John Glenn. Glenn went back into space on space shuttle Discovery in order to test the effects of space travel on seniors, and to get his orbital kicks again. He remains the oldest person to ever go into space, at 77 years old in 1998.

John Glenn lived a hell of a life, from being in the heart of the Space Race, to serving in the United States military and Senate, to remaining a devoted husband and father, and always a source of inspiration. He kept in the company of the likes of the Kennedys, Ted Williams, and a whole lot of astronauts and NASA personnel, including another Ohioan astronaut pioneer, Neil Armstrong, who is probably the only astronaut to exceed his fame.

Here is a compilation of photographs of Glenn through the years, as well as information on his memorial service from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

By his family, many friends, and admirers around the world he went around, John Glenn will be missed. Godspeed, Mr. Glenn.

Thanks for reading. Please send any questions or comments to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Take care, and swing around back here next week for another appreciation of a man who saw our place in the stars, but from a different vantage point.

Fly on,

Alex