Friday, June 23, 2017

93 BILLION LIGHT YEARS

This is the Westerlund I Star Cluster, a mere 15,000 light years away.
In it, there is a star so big that if it were in our solar
system it would reach out past the orbit of Jupiter.
See APOD  for more info.

Recent articles have reported that astronomers have now calculated the size of the universe. The long but interesting articles relate how scientists came to their current conclusion that the diameter of the universe is 93 billion light years. (Not miles: light years. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, or about 6 trillion miles. Do the math?) Those of us who remember a bit of high school geometry will realize that nothing was said about the circumference or the area of the universe. 93 billion is a big enough number, especially if it is multiplied by 6 trillion. That comes to a number in the sextillions. When they use the word 'astronomical' they really mean it. Only astronomers can think in that kind of numbers.

Just think on this: it was once believed that our own Milky Way galaxy, which over time has been estimated at various sizes, had the Earth at its center. Our galaxy is now known to be about 100,000 light years across – give or take a few light years - and we are out in its edges. The Andromeda Galaxy, the closest galaxy to ours, it is only 2.54 million light years away.



For those of us who regularly deal in miles or kilometers, or even the length of a city block or a football field, light years are almost mythical. To bring it down to earthly size, I suppose the Earth is not the seed in the watermelon or the flea on the dog, it’s probably not even like the proverbial grain of sand on a coral beach. No, I’d guess we’re more like an atom of carbon in that grain of sand.

In the days before World War II, Winston Churchill was preoccupied with the question of whether we are alone in the universe. In a 1939 essay recently discovered at the Churchill Museum in Missouri, Churchill, a great advocate of science, argued that humans aren’t all that special: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures.”

Makes you start thinking about the bigger picture - about all the now seemingly insignificant problems besetting our planet, and the relatively insignificant beliefs we hold. Start thinking about all the beings who most assuredly populate the countless worlds between us and the edge of the known, ever expanding universe. How do they live, what are their problems, who are their gods? Thoughts like this shouldn’t keep you up at night. Maybe, if you pursue them in depth, they'll put you to sleep.







Friday, June 16, 2017

THE POSTAL SERVICE COMES OF AGE

 Back in February, we marked the 225th anniversary of President George Washington’s signing of the Postal Service Act in 1792, establishing the United States Post Office. Today we call it the Postal Service. Coincidentally, in August of this year we will mark the 490th anniversary of the sending of the first known letter from this side of the pond, Newfoundland to be exact, to England, from Master John Rut, mariner, to Henry VIII. Though there were various methods and offices to handle the mails, including having Benjamin Franklin, working from England, act as Postmaster General, not much speeded up the mail in the 265 years between those two events. There’s not much more to be found on line to say who carried the letter to Henry VIII or even how long it took to get to him, but postal service has improved over the years. It improved, certainly, with newer and faster methods of transportation and organization, but these days it’s showing definite signs of decline and disuse.

At the website about.usps.com, you will find this:
  “The United States Postal Service is an independent establishment of the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States and operates in a business-like way. Its mission statement can be found in Section 101(a) of Title 39 of the U.S. Code, also known as the Postal Reorganization Act: The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.”



Those are lofty ideals, but it seems to us these days that the Postal Service carries only catalogs, annual reports, fast food fliers, and miscellaneous junk mail. On line, we can get email, ecards, online billing, banking, and bank statements. Just as our use of cash is declining because of the almost universal use of debit and credit cards, so too, one day there will probably be little need for a government postal service. Carriers like United Parcel Service have trucks and personnel on the roads every day, and are already picking up mail deliveries. In the name of conservation of our natural resources, perhaps our laws will one day outlaw paper catalogs and reports. Even today, most of the information in them is easily obtained on line. These days it isn’t really essential that our regular postal carriers deliver to us each day – even three times a week could suffice – but carry on they do.



Unless it is stolen or mislabeled, very little mail is undelivered these days. We Americans are fortunate in our postal service. But if you are a postal employee in far off places that consist of dozens of nameless inhabited islands or vast tracks of land, finding the proper recipient can be a trial. Now, a new London-based company has developed what3words. (see them at what3words.com/about) The system divides up the planet into 3x3 meter squares, roughly 10 ft. by 10ft, identifying it with a unique string of three words. For The New York Times office in Manhattan, it’s “zest.ropes.along.” For the Tonga Post headquarters, it’s “international.bashfully.placidity.” * Identifiers will also come in French, German, Russian, Spanish, and many other languages. If the sender knows the recipient’s three-word address, the local postal office can deliver. (And agencies like the Red Cross will be using it to pinpoint areas in need of disaster aid.)



*This writer lives at “wonderfully.homepage.dazzles,” or in that general vicinity, but don’t address any snail mail to me there. Our intrepid mail carrier isn’t yet ready to handle those three-word addresses.

Friday, June 9, 2017

THE QUEEN AT 91

 
The Queen and her Corgis

These last years have been quite eventful for Queen Elizabeth. In September 2015, QE II sailed on, outlasting Queen Victoria reign of 63 years, 26 days. Last year, she celebrated birthday 90. This past February, she celebrated her Sapphire Jubilee: 65 years on the throne. This coming November, she and Prince Phillip will celebrate 70 years of marriage. How many get to have a Platinum Anniversary?
According to Wikipedia, she now stands in 48th place among the longest reigning monarchs of the world. Those reigning longer: all men. The longest reigning, I see, was Sobhuza of Swaziland, who reigned for almost 83 years. He must have been exhausted!

Egad!


This year, Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, was ninety-one. I always remember her birthday. Always. Why? Because it is also my sister’s birthday: April 21. When I discovered that fact, I was delighted, especially since from an early age, oh, about ten or eleven, I thought the Queen was our Queen. After all, what’s a country without a President and a Queen? I thought that was the way it worked: one male for the business stuff, one female for the ceremony stuff. Remember, I was only ten or so.

If you were a Queen, and your birthday was in April, and that was a rainy month in your England, wouldn’t you want to really celebrate in month with a “higher probability of fine weather?” England’s monarchs have been doing this since the middle of the 1700’s. Come a fine Saturday in June, June 10 this year, the Queen will first inspect her troops. She once did this, wearing full military uniform, from horseback. Now she rides in a carriage, and you can be sure her handbag is close by.* She will join the parade down The Mall on home to Buckingham Palace, there will be the Trooping of the Colour near St. James Park, and it will all end with a flyover by the Royal Air Force.  (Excuse me, they call it a “fly-past”)

Were's her handbag?

I am an Anglophile, and an Elizabethophile. (Or should that just be an Elizabethan?) I love all the colour and pomp and ceremony. Not everyone does. There are those who say the monarchy is obsolete and the cost to the nation is too great. While these sentiments are ever-present, they swell back into the forefront of the news any time there is a grand event, like the birthday celebrations, or a wedding, or a coronation. In actuality, the royal family foot a lot of their own bills, and the public, to the tune of less than $1 per person per year, foot the bills for things security, international entertaining, and a laundry list of other things. Many think the tourism jobs and dollars brought in far offset the cost of the monarchy. Many anti-monarchists would like to have a republic with an elected head, a Supreme Court, and a written constitution, none of which they now have. They feel that the Queen should have the distinction of being Great Britain’s last monarch. But around 80% of the British population approve of the monarchy, and we can’t foresee that it will be abolished in the near future.

Meanwhile, sail on QE II.

Ah, there it is. Mia has it.

*Like the question “What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?” the other burning question from the British Isles is “What does the Queen carry in her handbag?” She usually carries a comb, mirror and lipstick, a £5 or £10 note for any collection plate that might come her way, her eye glasses, and maybe some mints. Like many women, she may carry personal trinkets given to her by family members. Though we don’t know if it is in there at all times, the Queen does have a mobile phone to keep in touch with her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She carries no passport or personal identification – she doesn’t own them or need them. So, less than you might think, because her ladies-in-waiting do carry things like clean gloves and a sewing kit and safety pins for emergencies, but more than just a penny to spend in the loo.


Friday, June 2, 2017

ALICE IN WONDERLAND ON BROADWAY


Seventy years ago, when I was just 4, so I don’t really remember it at all, my mother took me to see the Broadway production of Alice in Wonderland. I remember her telling me in later years that I had seen the great actress Eva Le Gallienne, as the White Queen, but it meant little to me then. Today I know that Miss Le Gallienne co-wrote and starred in the play that combined the two Alice books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and that on and off, she brought the production back to Broadway for a few performances. I can’t find a definite/probable date for our going to the show.

1947

Since then I’ve seen all manner of Alice adaptations. The Disney version sticks in my memory for the songs (I’m Late, I’m Late, and A Very Merry Unbirthday from the scene I loved the most – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.) The 1933 movie version, which I’ve seen only once, I remember for all the wonderful Hollywood personalities as the book’s characters. I especially loved and remember Gary Cooper as the lugubrious (I love that word!) White Knight. I will have to see if I can find a video of that.

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch


But, book lover that I am, my favourite Alices are Tenniel illustrated editions of either book - and don’t I wish I had first editions!  The Tenniel drawings are how all the Alice characters look in my mind. There is no other Jabberwock, there is (are) no other Tweedledum and Tweedledee, there is no other Alice.