Hot Air: Labor & Women

My old favorite hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, just signed a fab new contract with its reporters’ union. Columnist Neil Steinberg summed it all up quite nicely:

“Baby’s got new shoes!” I said, looking up from the Sun-Times this morning, where I learned that I, and everybody else at the paper, just got big ass raises. Cool.

When I was a kid my parents only brought the Sun-Times and the then-Chicago American into the house. Both were Democratic newspapers. We wouldn’t be caught dead with the Tribune in the house. And the Daily News at the time was pretty much on life-support so it really didn’t matter, although it did have Mike Royko before he began a Windy City newspaper tour to end his career. An aside: some time after Royko went to work for the Sun-Times, Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. As soon as the announcement was made, Royko walked a couple of blocks to the east and went to work for the Trib. He said, “”No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.” How prescient; Murdoch, of course, went on to bankroll Roger Ailes’ bastard child, Fox News.

Anyway, Sun-Times staffers will get a sweet raise, improved health care, paid professional development days, the commitment that the newsroom will be more diverse and equitable, and a few other things. I’m more than happy Chi. is still a multi-newspaper town. In addition to the Tribune and Sun-Times, there are the Daily Herald out of Arlington Heights and another daily suburban paper owned by the Tribune. There remains some real newspaper competition in what was once America’s premier newspaper town.

Newspapers have changed radically in the last 15 or 20 years. You used to turn to the paper to find out which pols were indicted yesterday, how many people died in the house fire, what the Cubs did last night in LA (and who hit the home runs, etc.) Now, all that detail-y stuff comes to your handheld device every freaking moment of the day so newspapers have mutated to something like the wise (or fatuous, as the case may be) old relative who comments on what you already know. I find that frustrating since I elected a couple of years ago to give up my handheld device. Now when I turn to the paper to find out who won or which alderman is going to jail this month, I have to tear through the whole thing before I can snatch a hint of detail. But that’s me.

There are local online daily news sources. In Chi., there’s Block Club Chicago, among others in that city. Here, there are a couple of noble attempts at local online news, Jeremy Hogan’s Bloomingtonian and Dave Askins’ B-Square Beacon. Ron Eid’s Limestone Post (for which I’ve been a contributor for years) has been (and Eid certainly hopes will continue to be) a several-times-a-week long-form news source. And, yeah, the Herald-Times still puts out a daily edition, but golly…, enough said about that. I was hoping to turn this communications colossus into a real news source at one time but my desire to do other projects, make a couple of bucks here and there, and my own lack of patience with…, well, people, caused me to jump off that train a while ago.

In any case, despite what nay-sayers say, journalism seems to be alive, if not exactly the indispensable pillar of democracy it once was. The profession is in a transition phase, to put the best spin on it. And the new deal between the Sun-Times and its union gives me a needed shot of optimism.

The Invisible (Wo)man

These stories just keep on coming and, in one sense, it’s heartening to see women of great accomplishment finally getting some measure of their due but, OTOH, it’s depressing, for pity’s sake, to think that so many brilliant, imaginative, hard-working women got screwed out of credit, plaudits, and even dough that they deserved while they were alive.

Here’s the tale of one Elizabeth Williams, a mathematician whose painstaking labor was responsible for the discovery of what at the time was considered the ninth planet, Pluto.

Pluto (foreground) and one of its moons, Charon.

Pluto was a wild card, its odd orbit messing with the then-accepted clockwork of the rest of the solar system. Sometimes Pluto is nearer the Sun than Neptune, sometimes, farther. It’s little chunk of ice and rock smaller than our Moon and so, back in 1930, just before it was officially observed and tracked by powerful telescopes, it was impossible to detect.

Williams worked for the astronomer Percival Lowell who, in 1905 noticed perturbations in the orbits of both Uranus and Neptune that couldn’t be explained. Lowell mulled on the problem and concluded there must be some body floating around way out there some three billion miles from the Sun. His “computer,” as female mathematicians were called in those days, amassed all the figures of distance and deviation for years and eventually predicted precisely where the unknown body would be. It was left to visual astronomers to strain their eyes against the lenses of the most powerful telescopes of the day to finally spot the dot. Pluto is so distant form the Sun (and us) that its surface temperature hovers around the -375ºF mark. Hell, that’s even colder than Ft. Wayne in January.

Some of Williams’ computations on the unknown planet.

Lowell had died by 1930 so it was left to the fellow who took over for him at his observatory, Clyde Tombaugh, to be the first human to eyeball Pluto. The newspapers and newsreels of the day went gaga over Tombaugh for expanding the solar system by one planet. No one mentioned Elizabeth Williams who, y’know, did all the goddamned work!

The vanishingly small pinpoint that moved in the two plates was Pluto.

Pluto was downgraded to dwarf planet status a few years ago. If we were to call all round objects of a size similar to Pluto orbiting the Sun planets, we’d have hundreds or even thousands of them. For now we have to be satisfied with eight major planets. Then, you have to take into account all the even smaller asteroids and comets spinning around the Sun here and there, a number that would reach into the millions.

Nevertheless, Pluto was a major discovery and, for chrissakes, Elizabeth Williams was the person who told everybody where to look. Should any women you know seem resentful or cranky when discussing their status, historical and current, keep in mind scads of people like Elizabeth Williams were ignored or worse simply because they possessed vaginas.

Elizabeth Williams

[NOTE: Another female was responsible for naming the then-ninth planet. An 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, who was fascinated by classical mythology, suggested the name Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld, to her grandfather, an Oxford librarian, who in turn passed the suggestion along through a string of astronomers until it reached Tombaugh. An asteroid and a crater on Pluto have been named for her. Burney died in 2009.]

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