Category Archives: Kirkwood Observatory

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“Evolution is fascinating to watch. To me, it is the most interesting when one can observe the evolution of a single man.” — Shana Alexander

TINY

Just a reminder, you can broaden your visual horizon up to a trillion-fold tonight — for free.

Each Wednesday night, the astro-geeks who run IU’s Kirkwood Observatory, throw its doors open to the public. They’ll actually let you peer out at the universe through its main telescope, a 12-inch refractor, and they’ll show you tons of other cool, geeky things.

If you ever want to feel infinitesimally small, try sneaking a peek at some celestial landmark (or should I say spacemark?) sometime. Say, for instance, the Kirkwood astronuts point their device at the Andromeda Galaxy, the first cosmic structure to be identified as existing outside our own Milky Way Galaxy. The Andromeda is approximately 2.6M light years away from Earth.

M-31: The Andromeda Galaxy

That is, if you picked up your hyper-strong flashlight, pointed it at the Andromeda, and flicked it on, it would take the its light more than two and a half million years to reach that galaxy.

Or, putting it another way, the Andromeda we’re looking at today actually existed when Australopithecus first started using stone tools in Africa.

Great-Great-Great-Great… Great-Great-Great Grandma

Not even your grandfather walked that far to school in the middle of winter.

BTW: that trillion-fold reference I made earlier? Just a breezy estimation. It’s said that when a six-foot tall person stands at sea level, the horizon appears to be about three miles away. In other words, that’s pretty much haw far your horizontal vision range is on Earth.

Now, a light year is 5,878,625,373,183.61 miles. Let’s put that in English: that’s more than 5.8 trillion miles. Not million. Not billion. Trillion.

Now do you feel small?

JOE THE SHOVELER

Do you want to feel even smaller?

Great-great… great-Grandma’s (pictured above) progeny — us, Homo Sapiens sapiens — includes within its ranks one Joe the Plumber.

That’s right, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher gained international fame when he confronted candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail during the 2008 race for the president.

At Least One Of These Guys Isn’t Telling The Truth

Wurzelbacher told Obama that he was planning to buy his boss’s plumbing business and would probably make more than $250,000 a year after doing so. Therefore, Obama’s proposed tax hike on quarter-plus-millionaires would harm him or at the very least make his dream harder to achieve.

Obama responded by saying, in part, that some wealth ought to be redistributed.

Oh, did the Republicans jump on that! Next thing you knew, Obama was painted as the depraved spawn of Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, and Son of Sam all rolled into one.

Obama’s Dad

Not only that, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher was rechristened “Joe the Plumber” and became the darling of the Right and eventually a standard bearer for the Me Party.

Only Joe the Plumber was not what he said he was. The Toledo Blade did some digging and found that, although J the P said he worked under his boss’s plumbing license, he was not legally permitted to do plumbing work in the state of Ohio. “He is… not registered to operate as a plumber in Ohio,” the Blade reported, “which means he’s not a plumber.”

Oh.

Turns out his “plan” to buy out his boss’s operation was casually discussed during his hiring process six years previously. In other words, J the P’s grand design was part of the normal bullshit bandied about during any job interview.

Additionally, a close examination of J the P’s finances revealed that he had precisely zero chance in the foreseeable future of buying out his boss’s successful firm.

So, at least J the P was revealed to posses one requisite talent for a plumber — he is expert at shoveling shit.

Joe Can Do This

But wait — that’s not the end of the story. J the P is still with us. In fact, he may be reporting for work in the US Capitol come January. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher is running for Congress in Ohio’s 9th District. He faces long-time House Dem Marcy Kaptur.

And guess what — he has an awfully good chance of winning. Right-wingers and Me Party-ists from around the country are contributing to his campaign.

Darwin had it right: we didn’t ascend from the apes, we descended from them.

DIMON IS A BOWL’S BEST FRIEND

I’m not a violent man so when the revolution comes I won’t be in favor of chopping off the heads of the greedy hyper-capitalist no-goodniks who’ve turned this holy land into a tin-horn banana republic.

I do have an idea for how we ought to deal with Jamie Dimon, though.

We, the new bosses after the overthrow, will force him to earn his daily bread by scrubbing public toilets. Those in parks, say, or in non-profit cultural institutions.

Why not? It’s good, honest work. Somebody has to do it. Why not Jamie?

Why Not, Jamie?

In fact, what with his vaunted rep as a brilliant business strategist, he’d probably be able to form a very efficient operation employing hundreds or even thousands of people.

All of them doing real work that would benefit people.

But no matter how busy Jamie might be setting up his new biz empire, he would be compelled to personally scrub at least a half dozen porcelain princesses a day — we’d hate to have him lose that hands -on experience.

Ain’t I a dreamer?

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“The law does not pretend to punish everything that is dishonest. That would seriously interfere with business.” — Clarence Darrow

BZZZZZZZZZZZ!

Steve the Dog and I just had a major drama. I was in the process of typing up the entries below when Steve started getting unusually curious about something in a corner of the garage (where I keep my office).

Suddenly, Steve screech-barked and jumped back. I went over to see what was up and I saw a gigantic bumble bee staggering and lumbering around on the concrete floor.

The hair on my arms turned to tiny needles.

A Cute Little Bunny — I Refuse To Post A Picture Of A Bee

Apparently, the bumble bee took exception to Steve’s sniffing and gave him a shiv to the snoot. Bumble bees, I understand, essentially commit suicide when they sting. I would normally look something like this up to verify it but I’m not gonna do it.

See, I have a bee phobia. Wasps and hornets, too. Merely typing the words makes me shudder. I can’t even look at pictures of the brutes or else I’ll spend the rest of the day glancing over my shoulder in a panic.

You think I’m neurotic about these guys? Take my sister Charlotte and snakes. She can bear them no more courageously than I suffer yellow jackets. Swear to god, Charlotte one day cut the picture illustrating the entry for the word snake out of her family’s dictionary. That’s nuts.

Wanna know what’s more nuts? I wouldn’t even have the cagliones to cut the picture of a bee or wasp out of my dictionary. When I was a kid I read my family’s set of the World Book Encyclopedia voraciously — all except the B volume. I didn’t want to take a chance on seeing a picture of a bee.

See? No Bees

This reminds me of an incident that happened in the Book Corner last summer. I was straightening out the half-price book table near the big front windows. Suddenly I heard what I originally thought was the drone of a World War II fighter plane. It turned out to be one of those titanic carpenter bees.

They stand about six-foot-three and have a wingspan of some three yards. This particular one was hurling himself against the window trying to get out of the place. Honestly, he was smoking a cigarette. I’m not certain but I think he might have been carrying a gun.

I almost lost control of my bodily functions. I dashed to the other end of the store.

Right at this time, my pal Mary Damm, a soil biology researcher at IU, walked in. She could see the terror on my face.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I pointed toward the window where, by this time, the carpenter bee was picking up a large volume and preparing to fling it at the glass.

“You’re afraid of a bee?” she marveled. “It won’t hurt you.”

I looked closely at the bee; he glared back at me and drew one of his fingers across his throat in a threatening manner.

“Look,” I said, almost mewling, “I’m scared to death of these things. I don’t know what to do.”

At this point, Mary started telling me what terrific citizens of the Earth bees are. How they keep to themselves and help propagate countless floral species and how they won’t attack you as long as you don’t molest them.

The bee in the window gave me a terrifying glance and made a shushing gesture in my direction. I think I squeaked.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, “but they still petrify me.”

Almost As Terrifying As Bees

“Well,” Mary observed, “that’s not rational.”

“No, it’s not,” I said, my voice shaking. “That’s why they call it a phobia.”

“Well, do you want me to get it out of here?”

Oh! Had I the courage to get within 50 feet of the carpenter bee, I would have run up and hugged her. As it was, I could only shout out, “Yes, please!”

Then I offered to fetch her a cardboard box and a push broom and a snow shovel. “Whatever you need to do the job, I’ll get,” I said. I remembered seeing an axe in the basement and so I made a move in that direction before Mary stopped me.

“I won’t need those things,” she said. “I work in the fields all summer long. I’m used to bees. They don’t bother me at all.”

She directed me to bring her a soft drink cup and a piece of paper. She carefully and calmly crept up on the bee as he stood there, trying to figure out his next strategy. She gently placed the cup over the bee and slipped the paper between it and the glass. Then she took the bee outside and released him over a planter on Kirkwood Avenue.

The bee buzzed off without a single word of gratitude, the hoodlum.

“That’s that,” Mary Damm said. “See. They won’t hurt you.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said.

Anyway, the bumble bee today. I grabbed the longest broom I could find and positioned myself as far from the bugger as I could. I stretched and craned and flicked him toward the now-open garage door.

I flicked, that is, if flicking is the proper term one would employ to describe moving something the size of a wrecking ball.

Victory! I got the bumble bee out of the garage.

Safe At Last!

Only I’ll be glancing over my shoulder in a panic occasionally for the rest of today.

HOORAY!

I’m the first guy to howl when the Reagan/Bush/Bush Supreme Court issues one of its baffling decisions — say, the Citizens United imprimatur for big money interests to take over the electoral process in this holy land.

So, when the Court does something praiseworthy, as it did yesterday, I’ll have to give it its props.

Usually aligned with the tories and royalists, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, ventured into the world of the sane when he voted with the “liberal” minority to guarantee criminal suspects the right to decent representation.

Kennedy

The gist of the main case before the Court in this question was that prosecutors had offered a suspect’s lawyer a nice plea bargain deal. The client would have served a 90-day sentence for a petty infraction.

The lawyer, though, forgot or neglected to tell the client. The plea bargain offer expired, the client pleaded guilty without the deal in place, and he was sentence to three years in prison.

Only later did the client find out he could have accepted a three-month sentence.

Oh, just in case you’re thinking that murderers and rapists and terrorists will now waltz out of prison or never even serve time because of this decision, well, you’re wrong.

This decision was based on the case of a man who was — brace yourself — driving without a license.

Kennedy wrote that America’s criminal justice system is no longer a procession of trials but a virtual assembly line of plea bargains. Ergo, when a guy is denied a possible plea bargain because his attorney is a knucklehead, he’s being denied justice.

Kennedy was tabbed for the Supreme Court post by President Reagan in late 1987. In fact, Kennedy was Reagan’s third choice to replace retiring Justice Lewis Powell. Old Dutch first named Robert Bork to the Court but Bork’s history as a collaborationist in Watergate as well as the fact that his views on American justice were formed by his attendance at the Cro-Magnon School of Law torpedoed his nomination. Reagan came back with a fellow named Douglas Ginsburg, who, it was learned — horrors! — had occasionally smoked a joint while he was a law student.

Bork Abetted Nixon

So Kennedy, a less reptilian judge than Bork and a man whose lungs were virginal, was named and confirmed.

Since then, Kennedy has been considered a sort-of swing vote in the Court, although he generally pendulates (I just made that word up!) between Right and Far Right as opposed to Right and Left.

The Court since the days of Reagan has become about as Right Wing as a country club locker room. Here’s the current lineup of the Court:

By the way, Kennedy was confirmed 97-0 by the Senate a quarter of a century ago. Doesn’t that kind of bipartisanship seem rather quaint?

Anyway, the Court often rules 5-4 in cases that reflect any cultural or moral divide in these Great United States, Inc. The five, of course, being the quintet of Reagan/Bush/Bush boys.

It’s a court whose core essentially gave us George W. Bush as president. Thanks, guys (and one gal).

“I Owe It All To Sandy O’Connor.”

The lesson? Even though it appears there’s barely a fine hair of distinction between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, would you really want Romney to start paying off his political debts by naming a sixth conservative to the Court?

And what if this great nation fully tumbles into the Twilight Zone this summer and fall and somehow winds up with Rick Santorum as president? Who’s he gonna name to the Supreme Court? Michele Bachmann?

“No, Really. My Husband’s Straight. No Lie. He’s Into Women. Really.”

All I’m saying is your vote matters this November.

AM I ALIVE?

With all the Big Questions swirling around these days, isn’t it disconcerting to realize we don’t even know exactly what life is?

Oh, I don’t mean all those clever answers like “Life is a long lesson in humility” (James M. Barrie) or “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act” (Truman Capote).

No, I mean what is life?

As in, what’s the difference between a rock and a human being? We all agree a human being has life, right? And the rock does not.

Not Alive

Now tell me why we know that.

You can’t.

Nor can the greatest life scientists on this weird planet.

Lisa Pratt, Provost’s Professor of Geological Sciences here at IU, for one, can’t tell us what life is. And, hell, she’s a specialist in something called biogeochemistry. Yee-oww.

Pratt told a panel of life scientists at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures yesterday that no one has developed an agreed-upon definition of life so far. “To accept the fact that scientists can’t seem to reach an agreement on the most basic ideas is troubling,” she said.

Alive

It may be troubling to her but I find it rather comforting. Nature humbles us. The imams and priests and lamas of the world tell us they have the answers. The scientists, though, say Search me.

Count me on the side of the scientists.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?

Hey, the weekly Kirkwood Observatory open houses started up again last night.

Kirkwood Observatory, This Past Christmas Day

From now until mid-November the little domed structure just off Indiana Avenue near the Sample Gate will be open to the public. You can peer planets and stars through the Astronomy Department’s telescopes each Wednesday night, provided the sky is clear. Hours are from 9-11pm until mid-April. Every couple of weeks thereafter the facility will open and close a half-hour later due to Daylight Savings Time. After the June solstice, open hours will begin creeping back earlier as the summer wears on.

WHAT IS LIFE?

My favorite Beatle, George Harrison.

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