Sunday, November 27, 2016

When donkeys climb trees

Donkeys in trees is the Georgian equivalent to pigs flying, as in: “When are you going to vote Democrat.”(Or Republican, depending on the person you’re questioning.)  And the reply you get is, “When pigs fly.”  Or sometimes, “When hell freezes over.”

Other equivalent expressions from around the world:

South Africa: When horses grow horns.
The Netherlands: When cows dance on ice.
Israel: When hair grows on the palm of my hand.
India: When crows fly upside down.
Latvia: When an owl’s tail blossoms.
Portugal: When it rains knives.
Turkey: When fish climb poplar trees.
Thailand: One afternoon in your reincarnation.
Russia: When crayfish whistle on the mountain.

And my favorite, from Germany: On St. Nevers Day.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Honoring Hubble

     The Hubble Space Telescope is arguably one of the most influential achievements of science.  During the more than 25 years of its, ah, stellar performance it has let astronomers scrutinize 40,000 objects in the universe, taken a million stunning images, spawned 10,000 scientific papers, been used for an average of 40 doctoral research papers each year, helped earn a Nobel Prize, and has enthralled the world by displaying the mysterious, beautiful universe to us all. 

     It has inspired musical compositions and a variety of art.  Its images adorn T-shirts and murals and everything from album covers to postage stamps.  The single Eagle Nebula image titled “The Pillars of Creation”—as much a work of gorgeous universal art as a revealing study of how stars are born—has been posted in uncounted classrooms to inspire students and has been viewed with awe by billions around the globe.

     Other Hubble images (it can image not only in visible light but also in penetrating ultraviolet and infrared) have given us invaluable new knowledge of our solar system’s eight planets and 182 moons, and of our whole universe.  The Hubble Deep Field image, for example, a long exposure taken of just a minuscule portion of sky equivalent to a grain of rice held at arm’s length—a portion of sky thought to be utterly empty—revealed 1,500 primitive galaxies that assembled when the universe was in its infancy.  Subsequent Ultra Deep Field images have amazed us even more.

     Its scientific leaps in astronomy and physics include proof that supermassive black holes exist, pegging the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, not only imaging the first planet ever actually seen that orbits a star other than our own but also analyzing its atmosphere (thousands of other exoplanets have been detected by scopes such as Kepler, but have yet to be actually seen), and showing us protoplanetary discs that are condensing into new planets around other stars in the same way our own solar system had to have formed.

     But maybe its greatest achievement is simply to vividly showcase what science can do for us.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Music of the Spheres

     There is a mysterious and beautiful correlation between music and mathematics.  There are rhythms in mathematics and there is much mathematical order in music, for example.  And either discipline can stimulate the other. Einstein, an accomplished violinist, credited music with providing the inspiration out of which blossomed his theory of relativity (no longer a theory, of course, but a well-established fact).  There are many more such examples.

     In fact the whole universe seems ultimately definable, and to a large extent explicable, through mathematics, from gravity to distances, to planetary orbits, to quantum mechanics.  The equations of Einstein, such as the simple E=mc², explain profoundly much.  Johannes Kepler, too (whose name graces the current exoplanet-discovering space telescope), keenly felt the symbiosis of music and math.  In his 1619 book Harmonices Mundi, he attempted to explain the harmonies of the world, and he described how music could be pleasingly paired with the kinetic geometry of the solar system.  Pythagoras taught that focusing on pure, mathematically precise tones could calm and illuminate the mind.

     There is also much magical math hidden in the almost musical rhythms of good writing.  The prime number three shows up over and over, for example.  A protagonist in a story tries twice to resolve some central conflict only to be somehow thwarted, but on a third supreme attempt, wins through.  Three also creates an effective and interesting character grouping.  As in The Three Musketeers by Dumas. Or a love triangle in almost any romance story.  Or a sweeping saga told as a trilogy.  Or the standard three-act play (the Setup, the Conflict, and the Resolution). 


Monday, November 7, 2016

Techno evolution

     Hard to believe how rapidly computers and cell phones have become globally indispensable.

     When I first started writing, things were much different.  Research was a major chore, checking out an armload of books from the library, searching through them at home while taking longhand notes, returning them and checking out more volumes, or waiting until the books I needed came back from being loaned out elsewhere.

     I did the first draft or two of an article or short story in barely legible longhand on lined yellow legal pads.  Then I typed subsequent drafts with an electric typewriter.  (At least I had that.  In my Mom’s newspaper reporting days she had to bang out copy on a hulking noisy mechanical monster.  She was so fast and accurate, though, she could actually take dictation while typing. She sounded like a machine gun.)  If I wanted to move a paragraph or fix typos or change a character’s name it meant laborious re-typing, over and over.  It was a hell of a lot of work.

     These days I research, compose, and type on a late-model computer.  I have access to a whole planet-full of information on the Net, and can zoom in on any place in the world through Google Earth to study locations for my fiction.  Making copy corrections or changes is stupid simple.  I can even submit a short story to a contest or a magazine article to an editor, or publish an entire novel online without ever leaving my office chair. 

     Taking photos to illustrate my magazine articles was also laborious.  Carrying enough color film in several speeds along with black-and-white rolls, having to stop to rewind and reload each roll, bracketing critical shots, guessing at exposures, never knowing if I had the shots I needed until the prints came back from the lab, processing my own black-and-white prints in my darkroom, selecting and packaging color slides to submit to an editor.

     Now my Canon camera is much smarter than I am.  I can take several hundred high-resolution shots for a magazine piece, immediately see each shot, and simply delete the ones I don’t want at no cost, e-mail selected ones to an editor on the spot, shoot high-quality video, even do slow-motion.  The camera recognizes faces and I can trigger a selfie with a wink.  I can choose depth of field after I’ve taken a shot.  Auto focus.  Auto exposure.

     I can’t imagine having to return to those old ways.

     You young ’uns have no idea how good you’ve got it.