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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

HALL OF MIRRORS

I think it a profound insight that all telescopes involve mirrors. In 1846 this idea was stumbled upon by the obsessive-compulsive painter Alvan G. Clark, when he realized there was more money to be made in selling  telescopes to rich people than in just painting portraits of rich people. And since both involved selling positive self-images, Alvan dropped his brush and took up the polishing rag. It was said this self taught optician could feel imperfections in the glass lenses through his thumb while polishing them. For over a half a century Alvin and his sons ground magnificent telescopes for rich clients who saw funding observatories as grand monuments to their own intellectual beneficence. Five times Alvin Clark and Sons produced lenses for the largest refraction telescopes in the world. But it is another sad truth that making optical telescopes is an ephemeral art form, since glass over time all lenses tell lies. Even a Clark
One of Alvan Clark's most enthusiastic customers was Mr. Percival Lowell, whose mommy gave him a 2 1/4 inch Clark on his fifteenth birthday. Astronomy was the kind of hobby mother and son could share atop their Brookline mansion. At his father's insistence Percival went into business in Japan (above - the tall one without the hat). But he always returned to his first love; astronomy. And as  the end of the 19th century approached, Percy was attracted by the approach of Mars. 
The more people looked at the red planet, the more it looked like earth. Kepler was the first to realize that Mars was a neighbor of ours. But it was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who drew the first detailed maps of the planet's surface. Then in September of 1877, as the orbits of Earth and Mars converged, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a new telescope and saw what looked like mountain ranges and plains and long mysterious grooves which criss-crossed the planet. He described the grooves in Italian as “canalii”,  a word meaning a channel, or path.  It is sad to point out here, that although Percival Lowell spoke fluent Japanese, he did not speak Italian. 
In 1896, Percival retired from the business world and built his own world class observatory in the mountains, 7,180 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, atop a peak he named Mars Hill.  Here, for $20,000 (half a million today) Percival installed a 24 inch Clark refracting telescope. Every summer night for the next 23 years, Percival Lowell (above) sat at the bottom of his telescope, observing Mars. During the days he slept in the 24 room mansion he also built on Mars Hill. Being born rich has its advantages, and Percival would have been a fool if he had not taken advantage of his advantages.
And what he saw through the eyepiece of his expensive magical tube was amazing. He saw canals - real canals - more than 180 of them, some of them 4,000 miles long. And he wondered what sort of creatures had constructed such a massive, intricate irrigation system. “Quite possibly, “ he wrote, “such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed...Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.” 
Percival wrote three books, “Mars”, “Mars and its Canals”, and “Mars as the Abode of :Life”. Each and every book became a best seller. He inspired H.G. Wells to write “War of the Worlds”, as well as inspiring Edgar Rice Burrows, who besides the “Tarzan” series, wrote 13 adventure books centering on Mars. By the year his third book was published, in 1907, Percival Lowell was recognized as the world's expert on the planet Mars. And then, almost over night, Percival's magical red world was deflated by his doppelganger, Mr. George Hale.
George Hale also came from a rich Boston family. But where Percival's father had insisted he attend business school, George's father had sent him to MIT to become a professional astronomer. And in 1908 George opened the lens cap on his new 60” reflector telescope in his new observatory atop California's 5,700 foot high Mount Wilson. And almost the first thing George peered at was Mars, where he found...no canals. Not a one. No matter how hard he looked. It is alleged that George saw an elf in his bedroom, but he saw no canals on Mars.
The photographic proof was conclusive. What Percival had seen as canals proved, when seen through a  newer, bigger, telescope,  proved to be just an optical illusion, or maybe the blood vessels in the back of Percival's own eye.  Percival had a nervous breakdown. And when he recovered he sought to re-establish his reputation. He took up the search for the the last great mystery in the night sky, the powerful conundrum of Planet X.
According to Percival's own mathematics, there was something very odd about the planets Neptune and Uranus. They were too big, their orbits were odd, Neptune was spinning on its side and they both wobbled. It looked to Percival as as if there had to be another planet further out from the sun, tugging at Uranus and Neptune. He called his suspect Planet X. Percival even calculated Planet X's mass, and he knew exactly where it had to be in the sky, 40 times further out from the sun than the earth.
For ten years Percival and his assistants – okay, mostly his assistants – scoured photographs of the night sky, searching for the tell-tale movement in the star field that would herald the discovery of Planet X. Twice the camera on Percival's 12” Clark took pictures of the moving X.  But the humans who had to examine each one of the thousands of photographs, failed to notice the one dot that had moved slightly. And then,  in 1916, at the age of sixty-one, Percival Lowell suffered a stroke and died. He was buried next to his beloved 12” Clark atop Mars Hill.  But thanks to Percival's fortune, the search for Planet X continued.
In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X. And since he was being paid by Percival's endowment, and still using Percival's 12” Clark, Planet X was named using Percival Lowell's initials – PLuto. And isn't it amazing that Planet X became the official IX planet in the solar system? You don't often get to use Roman Numerals in a joke.
Ah, but things were about to get even more amazing. With the refinement of observations of the outer planets a number of new great mysteries appeared in the night sky, as they always do. The more you know the less you know, you know.  You know?
The first thing astronomers realized they did not know was why  two of those three cold blobs of rock and ice circling far out from the Sun– Neptune and Uranus - were so darn massive, too massive to have been formed so far out at the edge of the spinning disc that eventually became the solar system. In 2005 the mystery was solved (we think) at the University of Nice, France.  Neptune and Uranus, said the French astronomers, had actually formed in the inner solar system, and out of rock, like the Earth, Venus and Mars.
Four billion years ago the newly formed gas giants Jupiter and Saturn had turned the inner solar system into pool table on the break -  with the still molten planets and asteroids slamming and careening into and off of each other. This gravitational pin ball game had pulled the moon into a collision with the Earth, and allowed its capture. It had ground up the rocks trying to form a planet into the asteroid belt. And it had flung Uranus and Neptune out of their formation orbits and into their current orbits, leaving behind a lot of oddities as they swerved out into the edge of our solar system.
And that left Pluto. The more people looked at the guardian of the outer realms the odder it looked. Better telescopes, including one in earth orbit, showed it to have less than two tenths of 1% of the mass of the Earth, and to be only about half the size of our moon. That was too small to have perturbed the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. In fact it was even too small to be classified as a planet.
On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union struck Pluto from the list of planets and gave it the new title of "134340 Pluto, dwarf planet".  It seems that for all of Percival Lowell's careful calculations, and for all of Clyde Tombaugh's perseverance, and for all the power of Alvan Clark's thumb,  finding Planet X right where it was supposed to be was...just a coincidence.  It was the human mind which mistook blind luck for a deep cosmological insight,  just as the swelling in the blood vessels behind Percival Lowell's eye had built the canals of Mars.
It makes me wonder how we can ever really be certain we are certain of anything. And it seems that no matter how big our telescopes become, we will always looking into a mirror.
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Sunday, July 20, 2014

COXEY'S ARMY: BEING HEARD

I imagine that every one of the seven miles from Brightwood Park to the capital were tense for Coxey’s men. The now 500 man Army was swollen by supporters to 4,000, who were hoping, I suspect, to protect the marchers with their bodies, if necessary. They were further supported by 12,000 witnesses, among whom was Mr. L. Frank Baum, who the next year would pen the children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. The crowds lined the route of the Army down 16th Street to Massachusetts Avenue, then across to Mount Vernon Square (to avoid passing the White House), south on 9th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, which they followed directly to the capital building. 
"This is a great comfort," he said. "I have been holding that axe in the air ever since I rusted, and I'm glad to be able to put it down at last. Now, if you will oil the joints of my legs, I shall be all right once more." 
So they oiled his legs until he could move them freely; and he thanked them again and again for his release, for he seemed a very polite creature, and very grateful. "I might have stood there always if you had not come along," he said; "so you have certainly saved my life. How did you happen to be here?" 
"We are on our way to the Emerald City to see the Great Oz," she answered, "and we stopped at your cottage to pass the night." 
"Why do you wish to see Oz?" he asked. 
"I want him to send me back to Kansas, and the Scarecrow wants him to put a few brains into his head," she replied. 
The Tin Woodman appeared to think deeply for a moment. Then he said: "Do you suppose Oz could give me a heart?" 
"Why, I guess so," Dorothy answered. "It would be as easy as to give the Scarecrow brains." 
"True," the Tin Woodman returned. "So, if you will allow me to join your party, I will also go to the Emerald City and ask Oz to help me."
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" 
By this time the crowd was so large, it was being led by 25 mounted Metropolitan Policemen, just to keep the Army moving. Ray Standard Baker, covering the march for the Chicago Record, noted that “Coxey’s carriage (stopped) near the “B” street entrance to the grounds…Rising from his seat, he stooped over and kissed his wife, as if realizing something of the terrible ordeal to follow”.
Jacob Coxey then “leaped nimbly to the ground, and in a moment he and Browne were swallowed up in a wild surging mob of men which lifted them from their feet and bore them bodily across the street to the Capital grounds. More than four hundred mounted policemen…rode into the crowd with the intention of capturing the two…but they might as well have attempted to arrest a cyclone. The mob forced one of them against a stone wall…and threw his horse violently to the ground. Coxey…lost his footing and in a moment he was at the bottom of a pack of writhing, struggling humanity.” 
“The mounted policemen lost their heads…and began striking everyone within reach. Women and children were ruthlessly ridden down…All this time Coxey had been struggling through the crowd toward the central steps of the capital….Before anyone knew it Coxey was bounding up the East front…He was up to the tenth step before he was recognized. Then the officers closed in on him.”
Holding Coxey’s arm, Captain Garden of the Capital Police demanded, “What do you want here?” Coxey replied, “I want to make an address.” Gardner told him he would not be allowed to do that. “Then can I read a protest?” asked Coxey. The answer again was no. After that, it was all over in less than five confused minutes.
Jacob Coxey was not arrested on the capital steps, no matter what the history books say. He was ushered back to his carriage, and the Army, now under the command of his son Jesse Coxey, marched “like a funeral procession” toward their new camp, at the site of an old dump on M street, which they dubbed “Camp Tyranny”. However Carl Browne and another aide had been arrested in the melee. 
On Wednesday, May 2nd. Jacob Coxey was in court to show support and pay the fines for his two friends. That was when he was arrested. The charges laid against all three men were "carrying banners illegally" and "walking on the grass". They were immediately thrown in jail. One week later, on Tuesday, May 8th, all three were tried in District Court, where it was revealed that the illegal banners they were charged with displaying were the three by two inch cloth lapel pins worn by every member of the Army. Coxey always maintained that he never stepped on the grass. It did not matter. All three men were found guilty, fined five dollars each and sentenced to an additional 20 days in jail.
Coxey’s Army stayed in Camp Tyranny for two weeks, playing baseball, drilling and attending rallies, until the D.C. Board of Health ordered them to move. They then returned to their camp at Hyattsville for another week. Then a hotel in Bladensburg, Maryland provided free rooms for the newly released Coxey and Browne, while the Army cramped in the hotel's back yard. Heavy rains in June drove the marchers to higher ground and this time they moved to Roslyn, Virginia.  Finally, on August 11th,  their numbers had dwindled to the point that the Governor of Maryland dispatched Baltimore Police Officers to sweep in and arrest the remaining 80 men on charges of vagrancy. That whimper was the end of Coxey's Army of 1894.
In the speech Coxey had wanted to deliver from the steps of the capital, was a desperate plea. “We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people,” he had wanted to say. “We…say, help, or we and our loved ones must perish… We come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer, and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.” That was what all he had wanted to say.
In the wake of Coxey’s Army, ex-President William Howard Taft was asked what a man with a family was to do when there were no jobs. The President replied “Lord knows. I do not.” And he didn’t. Neither did he have any idea how to help revive the national economy. Two years later, the Denver News would still note, “There are millions of heads of families partially or wholly out of employment…In the agricultural districts wages have fallen one-half.  In manufacturing…the aggregate of all wages paid is at the starvation point.” The depression would continue for yet another two long years, and during this lost decade, those with little imagination fiercely contended that there was nothing that could be done to mitigate the disaster; so nothing was tried. To the surprise of the wealthy and ruling class, that did not work..
Then, in 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. The nation raised an army and invaded Cuba, and the Philippines. And at that, the six year long depression came to an end. Still, conservative economists argued that the war could not have revived the economy. They insisted the budgets increases were far too small and it was far too short a war. Besides, they insisted, increasing taxes and government investment in infrastructure could not revive a depressed economy. And that may be so. But if it is so, then the war spending and the end of the depression was one heck of a coincidence in 1898, and again in 1942. 
I think the best memorial for those unnamed heroes of the spring of 1894 was provided by a bar fly in New York City,  who was named Feeb.  He composed and preformed songs for his supper. And his favorite that spring of 1894 was, “Come, boys, turn around the beer keg. And listen to my song, Great Coxey is among us, to right each grievous wrong. N'o more shall sorrow grip us, We're on the way to wealth…With a glass in every hand; Sing to Coxey and his army, And free lunch all in the land.”
"…and the Witch said to the Scarecrow, "What will you do when Dorothy has left us?"
"I will return to the Emerald City," he replied, "for Oz has made me its ruler and the people like me. The only thing that worries me is how to cross the hill of the Hammer-Heads." 
"By means of the Golden Cap I shall command the Winged Monkeys to carry you to the gates of the Emerald City," said Glinda, "for it would be a shame to deprive the people of so wonderful a ruler." 
"Am I really wonderful?" asked the Scarecrow. 
"You are unusual," replied Glinda." 
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
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