Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Solar System Gets a Makeover

This is how the solar system looked when I was a kid.

Don’t feel bad if you missed it.  You had a lot going on, what with the holiday and all, so when astronomers announced recently that the dwarf planet Makemake has no significant atmosphere it must have slipped past you.

At least you knew there is a dwarf planet called Makemake, and that it’s pronounced “MA-kay-MA-kay”.  I’m ashamed to admit that I was ignorant of its existence.

When I was a kid, there were nine planets and we could name them in order, based on their proximity to the sun.  There was Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars.  Then came the asteroid belt, a name that generated much schoolboy humor.

Beyond that were the massive Jupiter, ringed Saturn, Uranus (another source of childish jokes), Neptune, and finally Pluto.  That was the lineup until a few years ago, when the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto, recategorizing it as a “dwarf planet”.

Pluto had only been discovered in 1930, so it didn’t get to hang out with the varsity planets very long.  Its name, by the way, was suggested by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old schoolgirl in England who obviously had some experience with unusual names.

In classical mythology, Pluto was the Latin name for the ruler of the underworld.  It wasn’t until several months after the naming of the planet that Walt Disney appropriated the name for the beloved cartoon dog character.

Anyway, at the time astronomers found it, Pluto (the planet) was believed to be about the same size as Earth.  As telescopes and technology have improved, though, scientists realized that it is less than 20% as big as the planet we call home.

By focusing their attention in Pluto’s part of the universe during the early 1990s, astronomers discovered something now known as Kuiper’s belt (to my knowledge, no Disney character has been named “Kuiper” yet).  Within that band of ice and rocks 3 billion miles or so from the sun, other petite planets were seen.

With these developments, the International Astronomical Union decided it was time to render my astronomy textbooks obsolete.  As mentioned, Pluto was downgraded in 2006, and at the same time, an asteroid known as Ceres was upgraded to dwarf planet.  Another orbiting object that was discovered in 2005 and subsequently named Eris is categorized that way, too.

In 2008, the IAU dwarf planet collection added Haumea, named for the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, and Makemake, a name given by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island to their god of fertility.  It’s a long way out there — Makemake completes an orbit around the sun every 310 years, give or take.

As of today, then, the solar system floor plan is down to eight planets and their moons, and five official dwarf planets, with several more awaiting confirmation by the IAU.

Oh, and if you’re concerned about the news from Makemake, reports that “although this icy world currently lacks an atmosphere, there is still a chance it could form one.”  Keep your fingers crossed!

Open Spaces

Cricket match at Stanley Park
Vancouver, British Columbia

“What?  You were in Cartagena and you didn’t visit the Palace of the Inquisition!?”

Because I don’t want to be tortured with questions like that after I’ve returned from a trip, I do some homework before we go.  You probably do, too.  Of course, we might assign different priorities to the attractions of any given city.  Maybe you’re an enthusiastic shopper, while on my top-10 list, shopping would be 17th.

My preference is to head for museums or sites of historical significance (and yes, we did visit the Palace of the Inquisition).  Recently, though, I realized that some of the most enjoyable times I’ve had while traveling were at places that hadn’t been on my pre-trip wish list.  They were at public parks.

Almost every city has them now, but parks are a relatively recent development.  Oh, there were many acres of elaborate gardens and paths and fountains and trees, but they were owned by kings and nobles and were intended for their own private gratification.  On weekends, the servants weren’t out on the lawn at Versailles tossing around a frisbee.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that cities began to provide open spaces for their citizens to enjoy fresh air and recreation.  New York’s famed Central Park is more centrally located now than it was in 1857 when it was transformed from rock piles and swamps into a good vantage point from which to see the city that has grown up around it.

London and Paris have parks that might qualify as tourist destinations:  Hyde Park and the Tuileries Garden come to mind.  A visit to Boston Common is essential when you visit that city.

When planning a trip to Madrid, though, I hadn’t realized that a highlight would be hours spent in Parque del Buen Retiro.  One Sunday we came up out of the subway near the park and heard live music; we wandered into an outdoor concert being given by Madrid’s symphony orchestra.

After that ended, we walked around a lake in the middle of the park and watched locals trying to maneuver rowboats they had rented.  Elsewhere, a pack of in-line roller skaters were showing off for each other.  Many Madrileños were relaxing and playing in Retiro Park, and unexpectedly, we got to be a part of it.

Before our visit to Beijing, I’m not sure I had even heard of the Summer Palace, which doesn’t sound like a park, does it?  Long ago it had been an imperial garden, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Its main feature is a good-sized lake where you can ride on a Dragon Boat.  They are ornately-decorated vessels, but have no interior amenities other than rows of banquet-room chairs.  I can’t honestly say the ride was thrilling, but it did get us out of the crush of tourists we encountered elsewhere in the city.

Stanley Park in Vancouver is a beautiful place to spend a day (see photo), and I have fond memories of Parque Eduardo VII in Lisbon.

Maybe the appeal of parks is that they can be appreciated at a more leisurely pace than travel schedules often demand.  They also provide opportunities to blend in with the locals and share with them a sense of community.

I realize that this has been a very short list of great parks and I’m aware that there are many others.  So — what’s the first one that comes to mind for you?

The Poet and the Painting

“Landscape With the Fall of Icarus”, attributed to Pieter Brueghel (c. 1560) — Musee des Beaux Arts, Brussels

When you visit an art museum, a comment you’ll often overhear is “what time are we supposed to be back on the bus?”  Other popular topics include the lines for the rest rooms and the prices in the cafeteria.

Occasionally, though, I’ve heard museum visitors say stuff about the art they were seeing that was so perceptive I’ve wanted to high-five them.  The poet W.H. Auden had one of those brilliant insights, expressed in a poem he wrote in the late 1930s.  It’s called Musée des Beaux Arts.

That’s the name of a museum in Brussels, Belgium; it houses a quirky painting that until recently was attributed to the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  Its title is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”.  (Click on the picture above to enlarge it.)

You probably remember the Greek myth about Icarus, whose father Daedalus made wings for himself and his son.  Wax was a component of the wings, and when Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and Icarus plummeted into the sea.

If a painting is titled, say, “Madonna and Child”, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the composition will prominently include Mary and the baby.  That’s one of the odd things about the Icarus painting, though:  He’s not the central figure.  In fact, you have to look closely at the painting to see Icarus at all.  In the lower right corner of the picture, his flailing legs are sticking out of the water.

Everyone else in the painting is oblivious to this guy who has fallen from the sky and is drowning.  So Auden, who apparently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in 1938, stood in front of this painting and thought, “Hmm.  What was the artist trying to convey with this peculiar composition?”  For that matter, he wondered what other artists were communicating when they depicted people and animals around the margins who were seemingly missing nearby miraculous events.  Here’s what Auden realized…

Musée des Beaux Arts

 About suffering they were never wrong,                                                                      The Old Masters:  how well they understood                                                               Its human position; how it takes place                                                                    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking                    dully along;                                                                                                                      How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting                                        For the miraculous birth, there always must be                                               Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating                                       On a pond at the edge of the wood:                                                                            They never forgot                                                                                                            That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course                                   Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot                                                                   Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse          Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away                          Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may                                             Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,                                                                     But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone                                       As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green                                  Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen                      Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,                                                     Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

That’s Not a Sport

The batter is Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves.

To the best of my recollection, I have never attended a game wearing face paint in my team’s colors.  I am certain that I have never sat in a stadium in December with a group of my pals, all of us shirtless in freezing weather.  Right, I know what you’re thinking:  “And you call yourself a sports fan?”

Well, yeah, I am a sports fan.  As my wife once said about me, “he’d pay to watch two guys fish.”  That’s probably not true, in part because I’m not sure fishing qualifies as a sport.  Which raises a question occasionally debated by people who have had plenty to drink:  What is a sport, and what isn’t?

It occurred to me that when Sports Illustrated published its first issue in August, 1954, they might have printed a sort of mission statement, saying (in effect), “We’ll be covering X, Y and Z.  If you want stories and pictures about bean-bag tossing, look elsewhere.”

There was no definition of sports to be found in that first issue, but there was a lengthy article called “The Golden Age Is Now”, taking the view that interest in sports was at an all-time high in 1954.  The magazine cited statistics like this:  “Tens of thousands of pin boys are kept leaping by 20 million bowlers.”  A chart of the leading U.S. spectator sports had softball first with 125 million admissions; football was fifth with 35 million.

So I put that inaugural Sports Illustrated back on the shelf and looked for help elsewhere, including several dictionaries.  Their definitions of sports (or sport) varied slightly, but the general idea was that sports are a) physical activities that are b) competitive and are c) governed by rules and d) require skill.

By those standards, we can see that 110-meter hurdle racing is a sport, but jogging to Starbucks isn’t, since it lacks elements b, c and d.

My hesitation about classifying fishing as a sport is that it’s often solitary, not competitive, and when it does get competitive, it isn’t governed by rules.

Some people don’t consider golf a sport, usually on the grounds that it isn’t a physical activity.  On the contrary:  Golf often requires a lot of exertion, especially when playing shots from weeds or water.  However, I’ll grant you that miniature golf is not a sport — not enough a or d.  Also, amateur wrestling is a sport, but professional wrestling isn’t — it’s acting.

Here are a couple of other thoughts about what separates sports from other leisure activities…

1.  Just because you can get hurt doing it doesn’t make it a sport.  You and your neighbor are extremely competitive about stringing Christmas lights, but when you fall off the roof, that’s not a sports injury.

2.  It’s not a sport if you can smoke while participating in it.  That eliminates poker, billiards, chess, bridge, and maybe fishing.

There’s some irony in the no-smoking standard, since the back cover of that very first Sports Illustrated is an advertisement that shows a guy holding a tennis racket in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  The caption reads, “You’re So Smart to Smoke Parliament.”