Monday, February 24, 2014

In Praise of Brainiacs

I don't have time to write this well but wanted to capture it before it wriggled away:

Historically, smart characters have had a hard time of it in fiction. Bespectacled dreamers in white lab coats, heads in the clouds, often the first to be killed by the alien or germ du jour. Sometimes insane. Typically good only for providing exposition before the real men of action take over and blow the threat to smithereens.

"What does it want from us, Doctor?"

"It's no doubt here in peace, probably more scared of us than we are of it."


"It vaporized Poindexter! Fire at will!"

Growing up a nerdy science-oriented kid, positive role models of brainy characters who were actually cool--perhaps even heroic!--were scarce. Wherever they appeared, they instantly became my favorite characters in the cast. A couple of recent deaths reminded me of some brainiacs done proud.

Harold Ramis died today. An accomplished comic, actor and director, he'll always have a sublet in my heart as Egon Spengler, the smartest Ghostbuster. The only non-fraudulent scientist on the team, Egon understood the danger of crossing the streams (giving me my favorite bon mot suitable for nearly all occasions, "Important safety tip, thanks Egon!") and, frozen in fear before a giant marshmallow man, still had the presence of mind to explain that he was "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought." Egon's so smart, that's how he speaks in a blind panic. In a cast of more colorful characters and flashier actors, Ramis's Egon was all dry understated reaction.

One of my favorite moments in the film is Ramis being completely silent.

I don't mean to minimize Ramis's life and career, and today's very real loss to those who knew him, by focusing on one role, but Egon Spengler provided services to science and culture beyond the part he played in "Ghostbusters."

As did Russell Johnson as the Professor in "Gilligan's Island." I'm serious, as were astronomer Phil Plait and other real-life professors who eulogized him upon his death in January at 89.

As a former chemist, the only serious technical error I see
the Professor making here is his choice of lab assistant.

The program was a comedic farce, but Johnson played the thankless role of the castaways' straight man with dignity. Everybody got to be zany but the Professor, but that's all right; he was a rock you could count on to keep his head while everyone else lost theirs. He was also the most handsome and virile man on the island. That's not a trivial point. The Professor was probably the hunkiest scientist in popular fiction until at least MacGyver.

Unless you count Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock, whose sex appeal was legendary. In fact, writer Isaac Asimov shrewdly anticipated this entire blog post in 1967 when he wrote an article for TV Guide titled "Mr. Spock is Dreamy" in which he concluded, "Women think being smart is sexy!" Quick clarification: unlike the gentlemen above, Mr. Nimoy is not dead. However, he has been in the health-related news lately, which is how ideas get connected in my brain and turned into blog posts.

So smart he built a computer in 1930 out of stone knives and bearskins.
Also dreamy, probably to Shatner's chagrin.

Spock brought to the party his prodigious intellect, great physical strength and, most importantly, coolness. As I write this, I think that's the chain linking the Professor, Spock and Spengler: cool. (If this essay had been better written, I would've set up that insight from the start instead of discovering it at the end.) Observant. Analytical. Rational. Spock channeled his frightening, deeply buried passions into intellect--surely the greatest metaphor for adolescent angst in mid-20th Century pop culture. Nimoy has often said that the number of actual scientists and astronauts he meets who say they owe their careers to him is enormous. Though I'm not a scientist or astronaut, I'd say I'm one of them.

"Ghostbusters," "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" were not real science. Far from it. But brainy heroic characters like these make a difference, especially when they hit you young. They matter, in ways that deserve to be taken seriously. The twig is bent.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Gentleman and a Scholar

This looks a lot like the 2012 softcover edition of WHTTWOT until you notice the red logo at the bottom . . . .

As I may have written here before, having WHTTWOT become an actual schoolbook is just about the best outcome I could've ever imagined for it. Like, beyond. I understand that it will be available through the regular book club we all remember from our childhoods, but that Scholastic's primary interest is using it in its Nonfiction Focus Program.

I don't know a lot about that program or how it works. What I gather is that Scholastic has put together several levels of books grouped by subject and complexity, ranging from Levels A to Z. A teacher or school would purchase a level as a package and get multiple copies of ten or so books that go together and support the curriculum. WHTTWOT is in Level Y in which "books feature similar themes to previous level (increasingly mature themes), with more explicit detail; requires critical reading skills to evaluate the quality and objectivity of the text." So it's for the smart kids.

Thanks to Scholastic, and Editor Charlie and Elisa Garcia at Abrams, for helping my book find new life that exceeded my imagination.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Evening Star

Just wanted to share this lovely photo I found of the Evening Star following the setting Sun down behind a distant dusky mountain range. The star's about halfway up the sky, one-third of the way from the left side. See it?

I expect you're thinking that's a pretty picture but nothing remarkable. You've probably seen a thousand sunsets like that yourself.

How mischievous of me not to mention that this sunset took place on Mars, and the Evening Star is us, photographed by the Curiosity rover.

Because Earth is closer to the Sun than Mars, Earth is an evening and morning star there, just as Venus and Mercury are to us. A Martian would never see the Earth directly overhead at midnight.

What elevates this photo beyond "Gee whiz!" all the way up to "Holy moley that's one of the best space photos I've ever seen!" is that if you download the full-resolution version here and take a real close look, you can see a simple truth we take for granted: we live on a double planet. This picture doesn't just capture the Earth, it shows our Moon.

Doing some quick math, I'm pretty sure you'd be able to see both with the naked eye. Earth had a magnitude of -1 (comparable to an extremely bright star like Sirius, or Venus or Jupiter from Earth) while the Moon's magnitude was about +2.7, same as a mediumish-bright star. (The magnitude scale is weird; it's both backwards and logarithmic. Negative numbers are brighter than positive numbers, and the limit of the naked eye is about Mag +6). The apparent separation of the Earth and Moon when this photo was taken was about as large as it gets, say 380,000 km, and JPL says we were 160 million km away, making the separation as seen from Mars about 8 arc-minutes. A full Moon as seen from Earth is about 30 arc-minutes across, so the Earth-Moon pair as seen from Mars is separated by a distance about equal to one-fourth the diameter of the Moon.

By way of comparison, the famous star pair Alcor and Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper are about 12 arc-minutes apart, and Mizar's magnitude (+2.2) is similar to the Moon's in this photo. Alcor-Mizar are not difficult to see. Also keep in mind that the Earth and Mars are relatively far apart right now. Sometimes that 160 million km shrinks to one-third that distance.

Easy peasy!

Imagine what ancient Martian astronomers would have made of us, watching this pair of stars--the piercing blue one among the brightest objects in their sky--circle each other every 26½ days (Martian days just are a little longer than Earth days). Imagine the mythology they'd create to explain us. We'd be gods to them; maybe a parent and child? We would be the most awesome and mysterious thing in their heavens.

This is a view humans will get to enjoy someday. I envy them.

Monday, February 3, 2014

No Names Please!

See if this makes any sense . . .

I've realized that my attitude toward comics is captured in the above matrix.

At the upper right (yellow) are comics that I both like and respect. Their subject matter, approach, humor (if appropriate), and other content appeal to my taste and interests, and I think they're done with professionalism. I figure they represent about one-quarter of the comics I see. A fair portion of cartoonists I know (bearing in mind that I don't know that many) do work that falls into this category.

At upper left (green) are comics I don't like but still respect. They're not for me but I can understand why they're for somebody. They're skillfully done, I can appreciate the artistry and craft that went into them, but for some reason they just don't spin my beanie. An obvious example is children's comics: I can look at one, think "that's an excellent children's comic," and have no desire to read it myself. Also many Underground comix. I figure these represent about half the comics I see. I'd also say that a fair portion of cartoonists I know do this type of work--maybe equal to the number in the first group.

At lower left (blue) are comics I don't like and don't respect. Somebody's making, publishing and buying them, but I don't know why. I consider them incompetently executed and fundamentally unappealing to anyone. I literally don't understand how their creators have careers. In many ways these are the most puzzling and frustrating to me, especially when they succeed wildly. Sometimes I wonder if I'm wrong. Or insane. This is another quarter of the comics I see. I know a few cartoonists whose work I'd place here--not many, but sometimes they're just so darned nice I have to overlook their perceived creative faults.

At lower right (red) would be comics I like but don't respect. I couldn't conjure a single example; the dashed dot and question mark represent a theoretical possibility that such a chimera could exist. You might think a "like but don't respect" comic would be a trashy guilty pleasure, but the fact that it gives me pleasure also makes me respect it--it's doing something right--which lifts it up into the yellow.

Boiling it down, I like and respect about a quarter of the work I see. That's about right. I'm a grumpy comics consumer who, it turns out, doesn't really enjoy a lot of comics.  I respect about three-quarters of them, but the number I'd actually want to sit down and read is pretty small. The rest I find inexplicable.

I think I'm more lenient with other arts. I can watch a movie or TV show, read a book, watch a play, listen to an orchestra, eat a meal, and find something to like in almost anything. I'm pretty easy-going. Maybe I'm tougher on comics because that's where my own ambitions lie. The people making them aren't just there to entertain me--they're my colleagues and competitors. My standards are higher. Their tricks don't fool me.

By the way, I know this works both ways. Over the years I've sold or given copies of my books to various cartooning acquaintances, and I would bet a million bucks that fewer than one-quarter of them get read. That's all right. I probably didn't read theirs, either. We can still be pals.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Misty Watercolor Memories

Last night Karen and I dug through a few boxes of old photos, looking for one event in particular but finding much more than we counted on. We probably hadn't looked through these pictures in 20 years. Most of them covered our lives roughly between college and babies, which in retrospect wasn't as long as it seemed at the time.

In addition to asking each other "Who is that?" and replying "I have no idea," we dug up some gems. I don't know if these'll be anything but tedious to anyone except me, but I wanted to post a few. My rule is that I won't embarrass anybody but myself, so all my friends and family who I have compromising pictures of can rest easy. Once you see these photos, you'll know me as well as people who've known me for 35 years....

Renaissance Faire geek, age 17ish. My costume doesn't look like much but my gang of friends and I comprised a very impressive court, in which I played a lowly page (in fact, the Yellow Page; that's a joke). This is the part where I don't embarrass my friends by posting their pictures. The deal was that if you dressed appropriately and worked a booth for half a day, you could get into the Faire free. Nice deal! I still have the puffy shirt.
Astronomy geek, age 20 to 23ish. This was in my university's small observatory, where I did a little research with a mentor and ran the public viewing program for a couple of years. It got cold up there!
Double-decker bus geek, age 20 to 23. You may sense a theme emerging. One of my jobs in college was driving these authentic London double-deckers in a student-operated city transit system. In some ways, I still consider it the best job I ever had--although the towel I'm sitting on reminds me how hot it could get in that little cab over the engine with no air conditioning (the towel keeps the next driver from sitting in your sweat puddle). 
Luckily, cute chicks dig geeks. Here I'm 23 and it's nearly graduation. I can tell because I swapped my mortarboard for a straw bonnet belonging to the lovely young lady who was my girlfriend at the time, who later became my wife for all time. "No, don't leave college, never grow up!" I shout in vain through my monitor. Dumb kids. Also: cotton sundresses. That's all I'm saying.
My first job out of college was as a cub reporter for a small daily newspaper. High-tech VDTs! Note the emergency typewriter standing by just in case. This is actually the main newsroom at the home office; my first full-time job was in a basement corner of a tiny satellite office that we had to evacuate when the fumes from the darkroom (i.e., converted bathroom) got too strong. I'm 24 or 25.
Young dad. Very young dad. 31? I still have that tie and shirt, and maybe the belt. I think I need to go shopping.
Finally, for friends and fans of my Mom, this was shot when I accompanied her to Rapid City, South Dakota for her 25th high school reunion. I was 24, she was 44. 

History. Sometimes it kicks you in the teeth, and sometimes it helps you to your feet. It's a volatile companion but usually welcome. Thanks for indulging me.

Happy February Birthdays!