JWST’s MIRI looks at Stephan’s Quintet. Courtesy NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute
Sports Illustrated quoted this Japanese proverb back in 1975 in conjunction with Cal’s championship men’s gymnastic team of that era. The adage abides with the James Webb Space Telescope now in its halo orbit around the Sun-Earth L2 point, its optics and instruments slowly cooling to their ultimate cryogenic temperatures, the better to collect the faint signs of heat from the early universe. Little has been said to the public about the instruments nestled in the big box behind the 6.5-m primary mirror. This is perhaps not surprising. There are no secrets here, just that the real science goals and the optical engineering to meet them are fiendishly complex. Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer Christian Ready tackles the challenge, explaining where the precious photons will go and what will happen to them once they arrive. The comment section clamors for more detail on the MIRI cryocooler which will take the mid-Infrared Instrument’s focal plane array below 7K. Here’s to hoping for a full video on this beast, built across the hall from me, and on which I spent a couple of weeks when the team was shorthanded.
Youtube Channel: Launchpad Astronomy
As the man said after the Eagle landed: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
The James Webb Space Telescope, largely designed, built, and tested at Space Park in Redondo Beach, has launched, raised itself from the spacecraft, deployed its 5 layer sunshield, and put its primary and secondary mirrors into place. It will take another few months for the telescope to cool in the shade and then to commission the instruments before science measurements can begin.
It has been a long and contentious wait but the magnitude of this accomplishment is worth celebrating.
Youtube Channel: Northrop Grumman
Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
— Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury
I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.
I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy. Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their American counterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.
In recognition of the Bradbury centennial, Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry. Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production. Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.
It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness. We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.
Here are two sobering stories adapted in 1950 for the Dimension X radio series.
Youtube Channel: Old Time Radio Researchers
The online astronomy office hours from the UofA continue apace. Every week Prof. Chris Impey answers ex tempore a mix of questions from planetary science to the fate of the universe from a thirsty audience across the globe. A large Indian contingent stays up until the wee small hours of their morning to join in. Part of the fun is pausing the video and trying to figure out the answer from basic considerations before resuming. It is fun to be right but more instructive to be wrong. I’ve been moved to send in three questions over the past couple of sessions and all have been answered.
- When in relation to the Big Bang did dark matter originate?
- There is a surprising correlation between supermassive galactic black hole size and the population of old stars in a galaxy. Can telescopes now resolve individual stars in distant galaxies well enough to distinguish old from new to establish this connection?
- Observational results come from the successful. How do astronomers get precious telescope time?
Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art
Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better. Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe. Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things. The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades. Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, Shapley, Zwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.
The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm. The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast. The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.
Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory
Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy
Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass
Is this thing still on?
I’ve posted previously of CinemaTyler’s excellent but breathless exploration of 2001: A Space Odyssey. ParallaxNick takes a more leisurely and historical look at the same film. It is less about the filmmaking process and more on its origins, development, context, and implications. Nick’s videos about astronomy are well worth the watch.
Youtube Channel: ParallaxNick
Steven Weinberg wrote a famous book, “The First Three Minutes” on the early stages of the universe. The same universe became transparent to light some 370,000 years later. There are other landmarks in post-Big Bang time going down to bewildering fractions of a second.
But the early universe was very hot, very dense, and gravitationally very different from the comfortable-to-us 1 g we experience today on the surface of the earth. Einstein has convincingly shown that spacetime is accordingly divorced from that human experience. Clocks, for example, are affected by gravity and satnav constellations have to take this into account. Did the first three minutes flow the same way three minutes flow in the here and now? I sent that question to Chris Impey’s online office hour and he kindly answered. It is a tantalizing response and one that will require substantial further study to fully appreciate – perhaps finally diving into the guts of GR. It makes me wonder even more intensely why we anthropomorphize those intervals the way we do.
Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art
Composer Toru Takemitsu has set the general idea to music.
Youtube Channel: Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa
The mere detection of gravitational waves two years ago was cause for celebration and, for those of us skeptical of LIGO, eating of crow. Now gravitational wave detections regularly cue electromagnetic observatories on the ground and in space with tighter integration to come.
Youtuber skydivephil puts the camera on several researchers active in developing the next generation GW systems and the ever more ambitious cosmological probing that these observatories will enable.
Youtube channel: skydivephil
Skydivephil and the unnamed narrator are self-effacing providing few details about themselves, not even their names in the nonexistent credits. They also have enviable access to many leading physicists and institutes, largely on the theoretical side. The style is simple: Let the speaker speak. It is a refreshing antidote to the modern space documentary which highlights the doom-and-gloom with an explosion and visual effect every fifteen seconds. Whatever one may think about string theory, loop quantum gravity, or their alternatives, it is refreshing to hear about them from the purveyors. Here’s the “Before the Big Bang” playlist with an assortment of views on modern cosmology (note that the episodes are in reverse chronological order.)
Mil Grus does double duty as the name of “Los Angeles’s Premier Bouffon Troupe” and their eponymous show at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Ostensibly based on Pliny the Elder’s story of a Thousand Cranes, a five member ensemble in heavy padding, tights, and grotesque makeup do various skits and improvisational bits taken from (if not exactly inspired by) extensive crowd work and audience participation. The closest hooks to cranes are the elegant little origami handed to a few of us in the front row (right) with the totality of the hour being a mystery. The young and young-at-heart in the packed McCadden Place Theatre roared and ohmyGODded with every twitch, tic, and bit of shtick. Being neither, I was tossed into my recurring nightmare of the final exam in a class I never knew I was taking. If there were references I didn’t get them and if there was a through line, it escaped me. The performers do show talent in physical theatre and this may have been an intentionally loosely-formatted bit of nonsense for a festival audience. Perhaps their other offerings have at least some structure for those of us that need it.
Summertime is usually Shakespeare season but one festival company has taken on on the daunting task of mounting rival Marlowe. This is no easy task as there are probably very good reasons why Shakespeare (or Bacon or DeVere or whomever) has dropkicked contemporaries to the curb over the past few hundred years. Let’s blindly extrapolate from one or two encounters with the rest and assert that their language isn’t as smooth, their characters as fleshed, or their plots as nuanced. Nevertheless, School of Night Theatre‘s adaptation of “Tamburlaine the Great Parts 1 and 2” into the Star Trek milieu is galactic in scope, brazen in ambition, and a stone cold marvel. Historical Timur/Tamerlane/Tamburlaine was such a brutal and unrepentant conqueror that transplanting him into a Klingon makes eminent sense. It is easier to recognize savagery in the other than to acknowledge it in the self. The uncredited adapter also cleverly remaps various tribes and city-states involved in an endless series of wars into Vulcan, Romulan, and Starfleet counterparts. Played straight, Tamburlaine’s unremitting and unpunished transition from shepherd to despot would wear thin quickly but Director Christopher Johnson deftly leavens the grim proceedings with wry humor, sight gags, posturing, and plenty of tongue.
This production would be a tight fit in an outdoor venue and it is the height of q’hutzpagh to put a fully costumed beak-over-tailfeathers cast of 13 and a percussionist/Foley artist into the 360 square feet offered by the Complex Theatres. The action is non-stop, full-tilt, loud, and a tad too long with commedia head snaps and full throated oration from start to finish. Neither is this a land-bound adaptation. The large design team puts together epic space battles with supernumeraries, starship models, and clever lighting although the bulk of the fighting is incongruously hand-to-hand combat with pointy objects and blades.
There is no comeuppance, no divine retribution, and no great moral to the story other than lying, cheating, nepotistic, usurping sleazeballs can and do get away with it. Some things don’t change over the centuries. If there is a criticism of the production it is that it might have reached out to LA’s vibrant Klingon community to cast parts currently played by human actors in prostheses and makeup. The theatre world has taken steps toward inclusivity but there is always room to grow.
Mil Grus by Mil Grus Theatre
Closed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019
McCadden Place Theatre
Klingon Tamburlaine by School of Night Theatre
Remaining performances: Thursday 27 June at 8:30pm and Saturday 29 June at 4pm
Ruby Theatre at The Complex, Hollywood
6476 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA
Online tickets via the Hollywood Fringe Festival
Youtube Channel: The Vestibules
Youtube Channel: KyleKallgrenBHH