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A Yankee Notebook

July 13, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – I was ten year sold the night the United States first bounced a radar beam off the moon. In an experiment nowadays regarded about as crude as the discovery of fire, scientists showed that signals beamed from earth could penetrate the ionosphere in both directions. Their success is today remembered as the birth of the space program. My pals and I were mesmerized by the sight of the bright moon hanging above my back yard and marveling that nothing seemed to be different about it.

This is written less than 24 hours before a manmade space probe will – if it manages to avoid collisions with the many bits and chunks of space rubble hanging about its destination – zoom past the dwarf planet Pluto, out near the presumed edges of our solar system, and begin to beam back images and information to waiting scientists and instruments here on Earth.

That’s not a bad trick: shooting a small package of science 3 billion miles through space and various magnetic fields to a rendezvous with a planet (lately demoted to “dwarf” status), probing it with cameras and other instruments, sending the data home, then zooming off into deeper space. In deference to Clyde Tombaugh, the first astronomer to definitively record Pluto’s existence in 1930, the probe carries a tiny vial of his ashes. Who says scientists are unsentimental nerds?

The sophistication of the operation beggars the imagination, especially that of someone who recalls the beginnings of our still nascent voyage to the cosmos. When I was a kid, the technology we now take for granted didn’t exist. Navigation was seat-of-the-pants guesswork with any instruments and information available. There’s the wreckage of a bomber on a mountainside near Mount Moosilauke; its wind-buffeted navigator mistook Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for Providence. I recall, a few years ago, coming across a little monument in the Canadian Arctic at roughly 66ºN, 110ºW, beside a long lake that would have been easy to find by the relatively primitive navigation methods of the 1940s. It was a way point on the route that American bombers followed across the North Atlantic to Europe during the war. From there eastward it was dead reckoning, local weather reports and wind information, and whatever land might be visible below.

Though we have still much farther to go, we’ve come a long, long way since those times. There’s no analogy available sufficiently extravagant to describe the complexity of what’s just been accomplished. We can only look forward with excitement to whatever’s coming next, and hope it’ll be accomplished while we’re still here. The recent amazing landing of a robot explorer on a comet, for example, seems to be yielding evidence of organic material – on a comet!

Homo sapiens, “the intelligent being,” is an amazing creature. Properly nourished and raised in relatively safe surroundings, properly educated, equipped with the scientific method, and given even a modicum of opportunity, he sees no limits to what he can accomplish. The diseases of my childhood are now but memories, and those of our future, related largely to our now-longer lives, are under assault: cancer, sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s, to name only three. The very best of our brains and imaginations are giving it all they’ve got with whatever resources they’ve been allotted.

On the other hand – and with human beings, there’s always an other hand – a significant proportion of our species’ talent seems to have been diverted, perverted, converted to trivia. With our nation facing, as it has been almost constantly since its inception, threats from without and within, our news media focus largely on the inconsequential and spectacular. There’s not a lot of difference between CNN, Fox, and the tabloids for sale at the supermarket checkout.

No one in this world, so far as I know...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. – H.L. Mencken

In the good old days (that’s just a time reference, as I don’t believe there ever were any), a political party’s poohbahs gathered in a cigar smoke-filled room and chose their presidential candidate. Often they chose his running mate, as well. Today, one of the parties seems utterly to have lost its center, and to date boasts fifteen scrabbling candidates for its nomination. It reminds me of a former neighbor of mine who had an electronic bug-zapper suspended over the middle of his trout pond. The trout had become so accustomed to the inert, fresh-fried meals that fell to the surface after each purple flash of the zapper that they appeared to be climbing on each other’s shoulders to get at them. And of course our media gleefully report every word – particularly the errant, embarrassing ones – rather than the substantive issues the candidates need to address; and the whole early campaign becomes more a professional tag-team wrestling match than a serious business with, in the end, serious consequences for the nation.

It’s always been a mystery to me why the network attaches such importance to the opinion of the man in the street. – Ray Goulding

To be fair, it’s not entirely the fault of television, our most-attended news medium. Caught between the rock of needing to inform and the hard place of needing to entertain in order to secure sponsors, it falls somewhere between, which often leaves viewers free to choose their truths. Half an hour on the Internet, where disputants go at each other like ancient Italian buffones armed with inflated pig bladders, will disabuse almost anyone of the pragmatic value, or future, of reasoned debate. And all the time, our best minds heal, teach, and reach toward the stars.

Photo by Willem lange