Quoting Marie Curie on her birthday

Today, November 7, is the birthday of the one woman scientist whose name is familiar to nearly everyone. Marie Skladowska Curie (1867-1934) is well worth celebrating for her achievements in both physics and chemistry, for which she was twice awarded the Nobel Prize, and also for her personal bravery. She built and drove mobile X-ray units to numerous front-line battlefields during World War I to aid wounded French soldiers.

Garrison Keillor saluted Mme. Curie today on The Writer's Almanac. "Be less curious about people," he quoted her, "and more curious about ideas."

A-Word-A-Day also cited some of Mme. Curie's philosophy today, without comment on her use of the word disinterested to mean free from selfish motives, not lack of curiosity: "Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research."

Among my favorite passages from Mme. Curie's writings is the one that astronomer Annie Jump Cannon recorded in a notebook in 1922, while on an observing run in Arequipa, Peru. The quotation was neither an aphorism nor a political statement, but a memory of private moments in pure research: "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night. We then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights." Perhaps Miss Cannon saw her stars the same way.

 

The color purple

Part One of my new book, The Glass Universe, concerns “The Colors of Starlight.” It opens with a quote about stellar colors from the first lady of American astronomy, Maria Mitchell: 

"I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. . . . What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars."

The glass-plate photographs that the Harvard women examined in their studies were particularly sensitive to light from the blue-violet end of the visual spectrum – a fact that has sensitized me to violet light wherever it appears. In a recent re-reading of E. M. Forester’s classic, A Room With a View, I found the blue and violet hues celebrated beautifully: 

"From her feet the ground sloped sharply into the view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth."

On Paradise Pond

The back-to-school season finds me once again at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. My appointment as the Joan Leiman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer was supposed to end after the 2015 spring term, but, most fortunately for me, I've been asked back for a third academic year. In addition to the interaction with truly motivated students, I enjoy my friendships with a few faculty members and the physical beauty of the campus, including Paradise Pond. The pond, which is really a dammed section of the Mill River, got its name from Jenny Lind, who sang at Northampton's Old First Church in 1851 (before the college existed) and declared the village "the paradise of America." A path that runs from campus around the pond and along a good stretch of the river provides the ideal hour-long daily walk.

The incoming first-year students have been asked to read The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, a book I assigned as required reading for my science-writing class last semester. It takes a grim view from the future at the current failure of nations to address the consequences of climate change.

I read a few books myself this summer, including Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. All three will come up in conversation in this year's classes, as they offer, respectively, a fictionalized account of organisms affected by climate change, a scientist's appreciation of a misunderstood mollusk, and the bonds between humans and other animals.

I spent most of May through August writing my own book about the female "computers" of the Harvard College Observatory, The Glass Universe, which I hope to finish by the publisher's November deadline. To keep the project moving forward through the summer, I turned down an invitation to attend a week-long conference on European Women in Mathematics, convened at a palazzo in Cortona, Italy, where I would be right now had I agreed to go.

But I'm happy to be at my work, and to be here, on Paradise Pond.

Word play

Somewhere in the process of writing Galileo's Daughter, I came up with a method that helped me avoid repeating unusual words or phrases. Although a simple "Find" command can turn up all the inadvertent repetitions in an article or a chapter, "Find" falls short in the face of a lengthy book project with several parts. In a composition notebook with alphabet tabs, I entered words that might call attention to themselves, along with the numbers of the chapters in which they appeared. The hard part was remembering to make the entries, but after a while it became habit. I used different pages of the same notebook to achieve the same goal with The Planets. Now I keep my concordance on the computer, where it's handier and easier to alphabetize.

Although I have no need to look back at the concordances of previous books, reviewing them recalls the feeling of immersion in those subjects. In Galileo's world, words like "abstruse," "bellowed," and "capacious" found their places. The Solar System accommodated "dazzle," "extremophile," and "fumarole."

The new book belongs to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm only at the halfway point, but have already found my first opportunities to use "accouterments," "aflutter," and "unbosom." The list of "a" words, read aloud, sounds a little like a Latin conjugation: alas, alight, allot, allow, amass, apace, avow . . . .

Paying respects

Last Saturday I visited the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of the astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory are buried there, and I wanted to pay my respects. It was a perfect spring day. Mount Auburn is as much an arboretum as a burial ground, and the flowering trees made light of the long, white winter suffered in these parts. Thanks to astronomer Owen Gingerich and astronomy librarian Maria McEachern, I had a map of the territory, with stars marking the sites of the relevant graves. I found almost the entire cast of characters of my current book project, from the observatory's founding director, William Cranch Bond, to the celebrated telescope makers of the Alvan Clark family, and Williamina Paton Fleming, the first lady among my several heroines.

I stopped a long time at the side-by-side tombstones of Edward Pickering and his wife, nee Lizzie Wadsworth Sparks. Pickering ran the observatory for more than forty years, from 1877 until his death in 1919. He gave employment with encouragement to a score of women who fulfilled careers as computers and astronomers. Aside from his name and the dates defining his life, Pickering's epitaph consisted of a single word, Thanatopsis. I recognized it as the title of William Cullen Bryant's poem about facing death -- the same poem my mother had asked me to read aloud at her funeral.

I placed a small stone on top of the marker, and moved on.

Return of H-4

I was pleased to be invited to speak recently at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington for the opening of "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Having traveled to England last summer to see the exhibition's first iteration, I wanted to help welcome the items to the States. The numerous scientific instruments and portraits, including one of 18th-century clockmaker John "Longitude" Harrison, look splendid in the Folger's Great Hall, their new temporary home. When I arrived at the library on March 19, about an hour ahead of the two hundred invited guests, a pleasant surprise made me discard my prepared remarks. I had intended to say that the sea clocks at the heart of the show were all replicas, standing in for the venerated originals that reside at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich as star tourist attractions. I meant to praise the copies for being fully functional and exact in every detail. I wanted to make the point that although the originals were not allowed out of the UK, the replicas could tour as their inventor's ambassadors, to be seen and appreciated all over the world. But there at the Folger, staring back at me from one of the display cases, was Harrison's celebrated fourth timekeeper -- the original H-4 -- the very "Watch" that had solved the longitude problem.

H-4 was made for travel. It crisscrossed the Atlantic twice in the 176os to prove its merit on ocean trials, but it had not gone anywhere since 1964, when the Admiralty lent it to the U. S. Naval Observatory. How happy I was to see it again.

I like to think Harrison would be pleased with the replicas of his sea clocks. After all, he built them as prototypes, and hoped the best design would multiply to occupy every vessel in the Royal Navy. I doubt he foresaw H-4's future as a museum piece. It has become one only because it answered the need so well.

Second stage

I am still waiting, still hoping, still trying for a second staging of my Copernicus play, “And the Sun Stood Still,” to follow its successful production in Boulder last spring. Finding another venue is proving even more difficult than I had imagined, but meanwhile the play continues to be heard. L. A. Theatre Works, a non-profit media arts organization with a forty-year history, will soon produce an audio recording of “And the Sun Stood Still” in its West Hollywood studio, under the direction of Rosalind Ayres of BBC Radio. When completed, the recording will become part of  the L. A. Theatre Works repertoire, from which plays are regularly downloaded on iTunes, streamed on-line, checked out of 11,000 libraries, broadcast on various radio networks in the U.S. and abroad, and used by teachers in 3,000 American high schools.

On occasion, I have taken the part of Rheticus (Copernicus’s provocative young visitor) in informal enactments of two scenes from the play’s first act, with my friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard as Copernicus. Gingerich is an acknowledged world authority on Copernicus, which makes his rendition of the role an oversized in-joke for our audiences.

We performed first on a whim at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where we were both attending an astronomy meeting in September 2012.  It went well enough to be reprised at a Harvard Observatory “Open Night” last March. Gingerich promised to wear the blue velvet scholar’s robes that had been custom-made for him in connection with a ceremony in his honor held at a university in Poland. In Cambridge, after word got out about the “actor” and the costume, we filled the auditorium and the overflow space and still had to turn away a large number of folks.

We put on our act again this past November as part of an interdisciplinary weekend conference at Smith College on the theme of space. And we’re about to take the stage again this coming weekend – a command performance at the home of a rare book collector in Virginia.

All this fun is so much more than I envisioned when the idea for the play first occurred to me, forty-plus years ago. But I'd still like to see the play unfold on stage again, from a seat in a playhouse somewhere.

Daily ritual

Part of my daily ritual entails reading an entry in Mason Currey's delightful book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This morning, for example, I learned that the late Philip Larkin held a job as a librarian for most of his adult life, and wrote poetry in the evening, "after dinner and the dishes." Another of my daily rituals is listening to Garrison Keillor intone history notes and a poem in his pleasing baritone on "The Writer's Almanac." Today's poem happened to be by Philip Larkin. I thought, What are the odds of that? Currey's book describes the work habits of 161 individuals, only some of whom are poets, and Keillor draws on centuries' worth of verse. It was the kind of coincidence that opens a rational person such as myself to mystic possibilities.

Larkin's poem, called "Travellers," did the same. It evoked strangers on a train, and hinted at their potential destiny with each other, while they, "islanded in unawareness," hurtled to their destinations.

 

Sisters

Since 1997, I have been providing a book a month for "higher studies" at the Poor Clare Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Roswell, New Mexico. The ongoing book donations honor the memory of Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., who showed me the "merry" heart of a cloistered nun, and answered my many questions about convent life while I was writing Galileo's Daughter. At first I ordered the titles she named, by contacting a variety of religious publishers such as Ignatius Press and Pauline Books. Later, after I sent Mother Mary Francis my credit card information so she could place the monthly orders directly, she assured me by return letter that she had "resisted the temptation to buy a villa in France." In recent years the new abbess, Mother Mary Angela, has further streamlined the process by ordering three books at a time on a quarterly basis.

In November, a charge appeared on my credit card bill for more than $100 worth of merchandise from The Teaching Company. I thought it must be an error or incidence of fraudulent use, so I called the vendor to question the transaction. A clerk informed me the materials had been sent to an address in Roswell. It was the first time in my experience that "my" nuns had shopped with a secular supplier. In another few days I received a thank-you note from Mother Mary Angela with the names of the latest acquisitions. Availing herself of a sale on The Great Courses, she had purchased "Experiencing Hubble," "Our Night Sky," and "Building Great Sentences." Those choices, which reflected my interests more than theirs, bound me ever closer to the group. While it's true I was raised Jewish in the Bronx, my ongoing association with the sisters has proved a continuing source of joy.

"I wish you could have seen us last night," Mother Mary Angela said in her Christmas greeting, "as we went outside during recreation to view the stars with the planisphere that came with the course on the night sky. We were able to see the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Andromeda galaxy with binoculars and pointed out to each other Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Taurus, Auriga, and the great Square of Pegasus. One month ago, we would have stared at the sky with great wonder but little understanding of what we were seeing."

Puzzled

As the daughter and sister of puzzlers, I was raised on The New York Times crosswords and acrostics -- also diagramless, cryptic, puns & anagrams, and other varieties of word play. Imagine my delight on Sunday, November 2, when the acrostic (my favorite challenge) featured a passage from Galileo's Daughter. In fact, I found out the preceding Friday, by e-mail from a well meaning colleague who urged me, "You definitely must do this Sunday's NYT acrostic puzzle."  As the sender was someone I knew only passing well, and to whom I had never disclosed my puzzle mania, the message spilled the surprise. It's finally happened, I realized. One of my books (I did not yet know which) had been singled out by acrostic authors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, and passed muster with puzzle editor Will Shortz.

I was stupid with excitement. At the same time, I wished I hadn't been forewarned. I would have experienced a much bigger, much better thrill by struggling part-way through the puzzle, then suddenly realizing I could fill in the first letter of every clue. But I felt no anger toward my unwitting tipster. Besides, I would not have attempted the acrostic before Monday night, by which time one of my students had already congratulated me on its content.

The following week, the answers to the previous week's puzzles appeared, and sent another small electric charge through the members of my family.

 

 

Prizes: surprise and reprise

I was most pleasantly surprised a few months ago to learn that the Eduard Rhein Foundation of Germany wanted to give me its 2014 Cultural Award. Accepting the honor meant flying to Munich to attend the October 18 prize ceremony in the Hall of Fame at the Deutsches Museum, a grand old wonder cabinet of science and technology exhibits. The eponymous Eduard Rhein (1900 - 1993) patented important inventions in the 1940s pertaining to radio, television, and LP vinyl records. He was also a prolific popular writer and children's author. The Foundation's prizes reflect his various interests, and include youth awards to promising students in the sciences. 

This year the Foundation conferred its Technology Award on the affable Kees Schouhamer Immink of the Netherlands, whose contributions to digital recording underlie the CD, DVD and Blu-ray disc. In the brief time I had to chat with him, I thought we might commiserate about the declining memory capacity of the human brain, but Immink was having none of that. He told me he's currently learning Mandarin, successfully retaining myriad new sounds and symbols. 

A few days after returning from Munich, at another prize ceremony in the Boston Museum of Science, I watched Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web (and winner of the 1998 Eduard Rhein Technology Award), receive a 2014 Bradford Washburn Award. What a month for glitter. And, because 2014 marks the fiftieth year of the Washburn prize, named for the Museum's beloved founding director, two additional winners were also fêted at the October 23 event: three-term New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now the U. N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, and Richard Saul Wurman, creator of the TED conference.

As one of several past Washburn laureates invited back to join the happy fuss over the new ones, I sat in the audience with Paula Apsell (1994), senior executive director of NOVA. When Bloomberg remarked that he still prefers a slide rule to a calculator, she Tweeted the comment. After the ceremony, she urged the ex-mayor to run for president. He kissed her on the cheek.

Darkness at Moon

Yesterday, as I finished reading the current issue of New Scientist, I turned over the last page and was struck by a watch advertisement on the back cover. The wristwatch appeared to be in lunar orbit, and had the kind of multi-dial face meant to appeal to a would-be astronaut. Indeed, according to the ad copy, earlier iterations of this very model, an Omega Speedmaster chronometer, were worn by members of the Apollo missions. In and under the headline, "THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON," the ad's text referred twice to an outpost that only right-stuff crews have seen "with their own eyes."

I made that same labeling mistake once myself, and was embarrassed by it, so I remain sensitized to the important difference between the far side of the Moon, forever hidden from the earthbound among us, and the dark side, which changes all the time as the Moon circles the Earth. At full Moon, the dark side and the far side are one and the same. But the same cannot be said for the rest of any month. Most times, moonstruck earthlings can easily see our satellite's dark side without benefit of a rocket ship or even a telescope.

Grade-school teachers report that the majority of students need to engage in hands-on activities involving globes and flashlights before they can master the Moon's phases. For whatever help it may provide, a schematic diagram of the lunar phases is pictured on every page of this web site. The old-fashioned image comes from an outdated textbook, but it contains correct information, gleaned from observers' longstanding fascination with the waxing and waning of the Moon.

 

Countdown

On July 16, the en-route-to-Pluto team celebrated an important milestone: Their New Horizons spacecraft had arrived at a point in space just one year shy of Pluto flyby. Mission scientists met for two days of detailed encounter planning at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and threw a party at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in nearby D. C. In exchange for agreeing to speak at the "One Year and Counting" event, I got to sit in on some of the science meetings and tour certain non-restricted areas of the Lab -- most notably the Mission Operations Center that controls New Horizons. The spacecraft had recently been awakened from hibernation to perform a slight course correction. Now, having smoothly executed the maneuver, it would go back to sleep for a few months while coasting toward its destiny.

The Mission Operations Center looks like Apollo Mission Control, only much smaller and less densely populated with anxious faces. Even though New Horizons is performing perfectly, and every phase of the mission has gone according to plan thus far, the spacecraft's handlers live with a constant concern for its welfare. They also admit, good-naturedly, to their own superstitious behavior. On Mondays, for example, when New Horizons signals home with a status update report, some staffers dress in green, the color that signifies optimal conditions. No one requires them to wear green, of course, but they are expressly forbidden to wear red, the color of danger. All shades of red, pink, and even fuchsia, are proscribed.

Toys also help control anxiety in mission control. New Horizons has a small Earthbound mascot affectionately known as the hibernation bear. When the spacecraft is hibernating, so does the bear, bedded down in the tiny nightshirt, cap, and blanket that have been lovingly hand-sewn for him. When New Horizons wakes up for a trajectory correction or instrument test, the bear is propped into a sitting position and dons his party hat.

In my remarks for the public program at the Air & Space Museum, I recalled my time on the Planet Definition Committee and considered the continuing controversy over Pluto's status among the bodies of the Solar System. Whether we call it a planet or a dwarf planet, Pluto remains an unexplored world.

We will start to come face to face with Pluto and its five known moons next January, when New Horizons rouses to begin its reconnaissance. By the time of closest approach in July, we'll see what kind of world Pluto is.

 

Endnote on "Booknotes"

Between 1989 and 2004, Brian Lamb hosted the weekly C-SPAN television show "Booknotes," in which he spent an hour interviewing an author about one book. Recently Mr. Lamb donated his collection of the 801 annotated "Booknotes" books to the library at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. I'm happy to say The Illustrated Longitude counts among them. A few weeks ago the university's oral historians asked me to recall my experience on the program. I remember hoping to get a call from Mr. Lamb after Longitude was published in 1995, but he didn't reach out to me until The Illustrated Longitude appeared three years later. Our conversation about it aired on "Booknotes" on January 17, 1999. 

Friends addicted to "Booknotes" had warned me that Mr. Lamb often pursued odd points of fact, such as the type of pen a writer employed. That was fine with me. What I found truly unusual about him was his habit of careful reading and thorough preparation. I had survived radio interviews with hosts who had no idea who I was or what I had written, and who opened with a vague, "So, tell me about your book."

The most surprising question Mr. Lamb posed concerned the year of my father's death. I was so taken aback that for a moment I couldn't remember the date. I fared much better with questions about the chronometer story. And when Mr. Lamb inquired about Longitude's unexpected success, I mentioned I had been at a dance competition in Florida the day The New York Times ran its rave review, but that my editor, George Gibson, had gone out late at night in Manhattan to buy the next morning's newspaper, then telephoned me in Florida to read the review over the phone--twice.

Mr. Lamb steered the discussion back to my mention of "dance competition" and ballroom dancing in general. He seemed so interested that I couldn't resist asking him a question: "Are you a dancer, Brian?" He colored a bit and we changed the subject, but afterward, in the green room, he demonstrated an impressive turning box step. I salute him for that, as well as for creating a time capsule of the country's reading tastes at the turn of the current century.

 

Victim of anniversaries

My friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard once described himself as a victim of anniversaries. The 400th of Kepler's birth was the first one to affect him, in 1971, followed soon by Copernicus's 500th, in 1973. These observances changed Gingerich from an astrophysicist computing model stellar atmospheres to a full-time historian of science. This year I find myself happily "victimized" by three big-round-number commemorations. The 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act has occasioned a new hardcover edition of Longitude in the UK, and will take me to Greenwich in July for the opening of the National Maritime Museum's exhibition called "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Meanwhile the 450th birthdays of Galileo (February 15) and Shakespeare (April 23) provide good excuses for musing on the connections between the two. Not only did Galileo love poetry (reading it, critiquing it, committing most of Orlando Furioso to memory, composing his own terza rima), but Shakespeare included numerous references to actual astronomical events such as novas and eclipses in his plays.

Surely they never met, as neither man ever left his home country. Shakespeare, whose life journey took him only the hundred miles between Stratford and London, nevertheless set two plays in Verona, two in Venice, two in Ancient Rome, two in Sicily, one in Padua, and one on an island full of castaways from Naples and Milan. Galileo, born in Pisa, traveled to the Moon and stars via his telescope. Only hours after his book describing these discoveries came off the press in Venice in 1610, the English ambassador there dispatched a copy to the court of King James I.  

Both Shakespeare and Galileo addressed themselves to a wide public, because they shared a higher than average opinion of the average intellect. "Sure he that made us with such large discourse," cries Hamlet, "Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused."

Similarly, Galileo published most of his books in Italian instead of Latin, so as to inform compatriots who could not afford a university education: "Now I want them to see that just as Nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them."

Let us celebrate those sentiments throughout 2014 and beyond.

Debate on floating reopened

In 1611, a little more than a year after Galileo published the celestial discoveries he'd made through his telescope, he joined a debate about floating bodies. Ice raised the question, since Galileo's contemporaries believed ice to be heavier than liquid water, despite the fact that it floated. They attributed ice's buoyancy to its flat shape, abetted by water's resistance to penetration. Galileo countered that ice must be less dense than liquid: Ice of any shape stays afloat, while ice forcibly submerged in water resurfaces with no apparent resistance.

To the modern ear, the issue sounds trivial and easily decided, but Galileo's view of ice as rarefied water threatened to unravel the prevailing philosophy of science. Therefore the discussion spread from a friend's home to a wider argument with angry contenders, numerous publications on both sides of the issue, and Galileo's defense of his position in a staged debate at the Medici court.

Last July, an international group of scientists assembled in Florence to reopen the debate because, as Barry Ninham, one of the organizers, told me via e-mail, "Galileo's topic, 'Why Ice Floats on Water,' is still not resolved." Mistakes were made on both sides. The behavior of water raises more questions now than it did then.

The meeting, called Aqua Incognita, convened in a convent for five days and drew some twenty participants from Australia, Europe, Israel, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The proceedings are soon to be published as Aqua Incognita: Why Ice Floats on Water, and Galileo 400 Years On. Topics include the properties and structure of water, water's role in biology, and the effects of light and magnetic fields on water.

"Our debates were informal and our participants were limited to 20, with occasional attendance by wives and non-specialists, as for the original debates 400 years ago," write Ninham and co-editor Pierandrea Lo Nostro in the volume's introduction. "Florence itself has many attractions, being the center of the Renaissance. So it was difficult for such a meeting to fail."

Confident that Galileo would have approved, the editors "hope these contributions will provide a useful perspective and entrée for anyone interested in water in its manifold manifestations. And an insight into the science of water for the third meeting 400 years hence."

I received an early invitation to the gathering, thanks to my account of the 1611 debate in Galileo's Daughter. Although I could not attend, Ninham and Lo Nostro have now paid me another compliment by mentioning me in their book. They dedicate Aqua Incognita to the late Enzo Ferroni, whom they describe as "the pioneer in Italy of Physical Chemistry of Colloids and Interfaces, and after the 1966 flood of Florence the first scientist to apply the science of colloids and interfaces to the restoration and conservation of works of art. And to Dava Sobel for her marvelous book, Galileo’s Daughter, which gave us the human side."

 

On stage

"And the Sun Stood Still," the Copernicus play that I conceived 41 years ago but couldn't find the courage to start writing until 2006 -- the play I've rewritten and revised more times than I can count since then -- opened last weekend in Boulder, Colorado. I was sleepless with excitement for several nights beforehand. And perfectly delighted with the preview and premiere performances. The first review has just appeared.

So much of what I like best now in the script is the result of workshop and rehearsal collaboration with director Stephen Weitz of BETC, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. He helped me discover the weaknesses in the version that was published in 2011 as the heart of A More Perfect Heaven. For example, he eliminated one of my six characters. This was Franz, the sole fictional identity in a cast of otherwise real people. I had invented him for a reason, but Stephen deemed him a disturbing distraction. Absent Franz, the religious conflict and scientific content stood out more clearly. The interactions of the remaining characters became more dramatic. It was the sort of radical change I doubt I ever could have come to on my own. 

Several of the BETC actors, most notably Jim Hunt as Copernicus, had participated in various staged readings of the play. Last year they read it twice at conventions in Denver -- once for the American Physical Society in April, and again in October for the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences. But the difference between a staged reading and a fully staged performance is a leap of multiple imaginations that envelop the dialogue in costumes, scenery, lights, and music. I never thought I'd see the day.

Newton's tree

On George Washington's birthday, I found myself in his home state of Virginia, participating in a tree planting ceremony at the College of William & Mary. No, it was not a cherry tree, but a chip off the apple tree that allegedly led Sir Isaac Newton to formulate the Law of Universal Gravitation. Newton, escaping the plague in London in 1666, was sitting in his mother's garden when he saw an apple drop from a tree. Being Newton, he extrapolated the apple's fall to the Moon's orbit, and soon concluded that all bodies everywhere attracted one another according to their relative masses and the distances between them. Newton cited the apple tree's inspiration in his memoirs. By the time of his death in 1727 the tree had become iconic. University officials at Cambridge obtained a cutting from it to plant outside the window of Newton's office, perhaps in the hope it would stimulate the imaginations of succeeding occupants. (These include Stephen Hawking.)

In the mid-twentieth century, another piece of Newton's tree took root in the American Cambridge, on MIT soil. Given that MIT was founded by a graduate of William & Mary, Virginia physicists lobbied successfully for several cuttings to be sent to Williamsburg. Horticulturists then spent two years coaxing the grafts to grow on root systems suited to the clay-rich dirt of the southern Commonwealth. The best of their efforts -- a slender "whip" about six feet tall and a couple of inches in diameter, bearing many buds -- drew cheers from a crowd of some two hundred "Newton Day" enthusiasts, many of whom  took turns with shovels to help plant it in front of Small Hall, the campus physics building.

The tree should see its first yield within five years. These will be green "Flower of Kent" apples, one of  7,500 known varieties of the tempting fruit long synonymous with knowledge.

 

 

The Blurb

Every now and then--sometimes as frequently as twice a week--a publisher asks me to look at an early version of an author's new book and prepare a brief burst of praise to appear on the jacket. If I agree to write such a puff, or "blurb," I take the assignment seriously. I read the whole manuscript, make notes, and try to say something substantive. Most of the time, I reply to blurb requests with regret and excuses. "I'm too busy" is the usual truth, and furthermore "I'm an embarrassingly slow reader." But if a book comes to me on a topic of interest by a writer I know and admire, I try to find the time to comply. This was certainly the case with Alan Lightman's new work, The Accidental Universe.

I first met Alan nearly forty years ago at Cornell University, when he was a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics. After he altered his career trajectory, I became an instant fan of his enviable first novel Einstein's Dreams.

Of course I said yes to his editor at Pantheon.

As soon as the bound galley arrived I put it on top of a to-do pile in my new office at Smith College. And then it disappeared under something else. I lost mental track of it, too, as I realized months later, when the galley resurfaced long after the due date for my blurb.

Having just received the finished product, compliments of the author, I read it with delight. If I hadn't missed the chance, this is what I might have said about it:

"The man who once conjured dreams for Einstein here squeezes a multiplicity of universes into one slim volume. Being both an astronomer and a novelist empowers Alan Lightman to parse the cosmos with authority and sensibility. Subplots involving his old, comfortable wing-tips, say, or the wingspan of an osprey, enliven his explorations of the numinous in The Accidental Universe."