August 30, 2012

Where's Watson?

It's probably my own fault. But whenever I come to London, I can't help feeling all around me the reproach of the past: in my case, the eye-rolling, tut-tutting disapproval of dead literary Londoners.
Take a Street called Gloucester Place on the fringe of London's West End. It's not much to look at, just two rows of tall, early-nineteenth-century buildings staring out at each other over a constantly flowing river of traffic.
But within a few minutes' walk at Number 27, there's enough literary celebrity to keep anyone who follows the scribe's trade, as I do, depressed and awake nights.
For example, within spitting distance-and that's how I sometimes feel-there's the house where Elizabeth Barrett wrote the book of poems that made her the toast of London and the wife of Robert Browning. There's the house where Wilkie Collins invented the crime novel by writing The Moonstone; and a little farther on, another, where his friend Charles Dickens sat at his desk churning out little items like The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield.
Around the corner on Montagu Square, there's the house of Anthony Trollope, who had the gall to do no more than three hours' work a day while producing novels like The Warden and Barchester Towers.
Worst of all, perhaps, there's the doctor who was Trollope's near-neighbor on Montagu Place. This doctor had a practice a few minutes' walk away, but his heart wasn't in it. He arrived at his consulting rooms, he later wrote, "at 10 and sat there until 3 or 4 with never a ring to disturb my serenity."
So what did he do? Was he content with his leisure? No, no, not a bit of it. To while away the time and fill the unforgiving minutes, he resuscitated a certain hero he'd created a few years before while living in Portsmouth, and whose exploits now began to appear regularly in The Strand magazine. In doing so, the good doctor launched upon this area (and upon the world) a ghost so real that it has haunted this part of London ever since, though it can never be exorcised because it never existed.
This ghost is "the grandson of a sister of the French artist Vernet." He is 6 feet tall, with a narrow face, thin lips, gray eyes, and a quick, high, strident laugh. His name is Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes' ghost, as raised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, can be found, if you're foolish enough to look for it, all over London. But its special hunting ground is Baker Street, where he lodged, as everyone who's ever heard of Dr. Watson or Professor Moriarty knows, at Number 221B.
Now 221B-and you have to remember this-never existed; modern Baker Street, in any case, has almost nothing in common with its nineteenth-century forerunner-it's filled today with shops and pizza joints and anonymous postwar buildings.
Still, it's virtually impossible to escape the way its most famous nineteenth-century nonresident has stamped his mark on it. You can't buy a newspaper on Baker Street without running into the silhouette of a man with a curly pipe and a deerstalker, plastered on the glass front of a chemist's shop.  There's even a Sherlock Holmes Hotel at Number 108, where Dr. Watson's Bar offers a Mrs. Hudson's Tea (sandwiches, scones, muffins, and crumpets) in the afternoon, and such items as The Hound of the Baskervilles for most of the rest of the day. (The Hound of the Baskervilles is-wait for it-a jumbo hot dog.)
But this is only the beginning of the Holmes mania. I saw what can only be described as a gaggle of fans on one of the quieter reaches of what used to be called Upper Baker Street. They were excitedly photographing each other against the walls of a nearby building society. The building society in question was erected, by the look of it, in the 1930s, and I wondered what on earth they were doing.  I asked one of the fans whether he was there on pilgrimage or what. There was a moment of incomprehension…
Now I know a challenge when I see one.  So within two shakes of a hound's tail I was on this (totally fictional) trail.
In 1930, number 221 was created by the incorporation of Upper Baker Street into Baker Street itself. The building so honored was, however, soon demolished, and in 1932, odd numbers 215 to 229 were assigned to the new Abbey House, headquarters of the Abbey Road Building Society (later the Abbey National, now simply Abbey). Letters to Sherlock Holmes poured in from all over the world, in such numbers that Abbey House decided to appoint a secretary to Sherlock Holmes.
All was well until 1990, when the Sherlock Holmes Museum opened just down the road at number 239. Determined to lay claim to Sherlock Holmes' address, the museum gained the right to put the appropriate number on the door by the expedient of registering a company by the name of 221B Ltd.
But Abbey House was not ready to relinquish its role as guardian of the great man’s memory without a fight. Matters came to a head in 1994, when the Sherlock Holmes Museum failed in its attempt to be officially designated number 221B Baker Street.
And the building society was not doing a bad job in honouring the illustrious detective, even commissioning in 1999 the bronze statue which now stands outside Baker Street Tube Station.
But when Abbey moved on in 2002, the wrangling ended. Since then, no one, except true blue fans, has been in any doubt that the Sherlock Holmes Museum occupies the Sherlock Holmes address.
Have you any idea how serious this Holmes business is?  There are well over a thousand Sherlock Holmes societies (usually called Baker Street Irregulars) worldwide, including 156 in the United States alone. (Members there name themselves after characters in the stories, like Brother McMurdo, Bodymaster McGinty, and Brother Ted Baldwin. I kid you not.)
This was too much. A museum to a nonexistent person!  And at the wrong number! (By this time, I had rooted through a few books and spoken to quite a few local fans, and had found that Baker Street had been renumbered twice since Holmes' unday, leaving the best candidates for Mrs. Hudson's unlodging house at Numbers 60, 109, or 111.) Still, it was, of course, an opportunity too good either to be true. So I ventured ahead, and under a blue plaque announcing SHERLOCK HOLMES, CONSULTANT DETECTIVE, I stepped into his lodgings.
According to local folklore, Aidiniantz, its creator, had walked up Baker Street one day, counting the numbers of the houses from where they started on the corner of Oxford Street. And when he arrived at what should have been, by this logic, 221B, he'd found, not the building society, but Number 239, a modest house built in 1815. It had been lying empty since 1934; had been until then a lodging house (like Mrs. Hudson's); and was now (amazingly) available for sale, complete with what remained of its Victorian fittings.  Aidiniantz claimed that he had first to see whether the house matched the stories. Did it, for example, have exactly seventeen steps up from the street, as mentioned in 'A Scandal in Bohemia'? It did. Did it have two large windows in the sitting room, and could Mr. Holmes have got to them in a single bound from his bedroom, as he did in 'The Mazarin Stone'? He could.
Further research revealed that a Dr. Watson had lived next door though he had been a manufacturer of artificial teeth. Also, some of the maids who worked in this house were said to be relatives of a Mr. Holmes, who may or may not be the same one who, I found, did buy a villa in Sussex about 1904.
At this point I tried to remind myself that Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character, for God's sake.
But all the fans visiting seemed to be unfazed by this fact.  "Look," they say happily, "We’re not saying that Mr. Holmes lived here; and we’re not saying he didn't."
In the face of such blithe good nature, what could I do but surrender? So I meekly did a tour of the museum: through Holmes' impedimenta, his pipes and tobacco slipper, his desk, his chemistry set and violin; through Mrs. Hudson's sitting room and Dr. Watson's room.
But then a fan showed me a photograph of Sherlock and said: ''This is the prize of my collection. It was sent to me by someone in Scotland, and it's believed to be the only existing photograph of Mr. Holmes, probably taken when he was a student. . . ."
I fled. I mean, its one thing to have to compete with dead writers in this area, but quite another to have to cope with a fictional creation who has a museum and is still alive at about 160 years of age.
Still, I mused: Conan Doyle, while penning A Study in Scarlet, really did write 221B Upper Baker Street, and then crossed out the "Upper." Did he do it to cover both his and Holmes' tracks? Hmmm, I thought, I should investigate. Then, my eye caught a shop sign: WHERE'S WATSON? Where indeed!!

August 27, 2012

An intriguing word…


A look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.

If only I knew how to pronounce it

August 23, 2012

Ah yes, I remember it well ...

Deserted is my summer place!
Back to school I go in an autumn haze.

For darling Clive,was it only yesterday when…

In 1984, a seventh-grader named Andy Smith wrote to then-President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, with a request:
    Today my mother declared my bedroom a disaster area. I would like to request federal funds to hire a crew to clean up my room.

President Reagan replied with the following letter.

    Andy Smith
    Irmo, South Carolina
    May 11, 1984

    Dear Andy:

    I'm sorry to be so late in answering your letter but as you know I've been in China and found your letter here upon my return.
    Your application for disaster relief has been duly noted but I must point out one technical problem: the authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request. In this case your mother.
    However setting that aside I'll have to point out the larger problem of available funds. This has been a year of disasters, 539 hurricanes as of May 4th and several more since, numerous floods, forest fires, drought in Texas and a number of earthquakes. What I'm getting at is that funds are dangerously low.
    May I make a suggestion? This administration, believing that government has done many things that could better be done by volunteers at the local level, has sponsored a Private Sector Initiative program, calling upon people to practice voluntarism in the solving of a number of local problems.
    Your situation appears to be a natural. I'm sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster. Therefore you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program to go along with the more than 3,000 already underway in our nation—congratulations.
    Give my best regards to your mother.
    Ronald Reagan
(Source: Reagan: A Life In Letters)

August 20, 2012

Nobody looks back . . .

. . . and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.

Good morning friends, the title of the post is probably more gong than dinner.  But whilst you’re flipping those Pfannkuchen for breakfast, consider this. 
I often ‘cruise’ the Internet for factual, fictional, or downright obscure knowledge.  Why, despite an extensive education, do I have a hankering for knowledge of the autodidact?   Difficult to say.  The glorious thing about the Internet data is instantly available, and turbo-charged with on-line libraries, newspapers, Facebook, and blogs.
People get cross about Facebook and blogging and insist that it is too self-involved.  To the contrary it is often because of blogs that I look into corners of the world, and areas of thought, that I had not previously explored. That too is a sort of pleasure. Every day I learn something, and this gives me an inordinate amount of satisfaction.
So I have decided to share some of the more obscure facts I have gleaned in exchange with other blogger.  Every time I discover something fascinating, I am going to share it on this blog. If it gets too pedantic, dull or geeky, just shout at me and I shall stop.
Here is how last nights ‘obscurity’ originated. I found a wry little message on Facebook: “Having SNP (Scottish National Party not single-nucleotide polymorphism) guests for supper, shall I offer English or French mustard?”
Quick as a flash Mona replied: “French, in honour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was of course Italian.”
Bonnie Prince Charlie Italian, surely not!

I remembered all those crazy old risings at school and university, and thought I knew everything about the '15 and the '45.  Bello Principe Carlo was never on the agenda.

So I looked him up. I had forgotten that he was in fact born in Rome, but I also discovered that his ‘mum’ was Polish.
The great hero of the Scots!   This is an auld alliance I never suspected. Charles Stuart's mother was the pious and melancholy Polish princess Maria Klementyna Sobieska. She did not much like her husband, spent a great deal of time praying, and died young, at age 32.  Alas!

And, as one good thought leads to another...I remembered another famous Pole, Joseph Conrad.  When I first read him I learned that English, in which he expressed himself so beautifully, was actually his third language. Kudos!

Keep your minds...

August 16, 2012

Are you?

Are you ever inclined to doubt your maker,
Think life’s all pain and worldly goods
Beating a path to the undertaker?

You’ve never seen morning in the woods!

You’ve never breathed that virgin essence
Of leaves and grass first kissed by the sun.
You’ve never savoured life’s quintessence
When you and the air and the earth seem one!

August 13, 2012

"Citius, altius, fortius" . . . horological meanderings.

When athletes compete against each other for the glory of an Olympic medal, hundreds of photographers try to capture the one and only moment which makes the games so unique. 
At these London Olympics, for the first time, robotic cameras made specifically for the high elevated roof positions that can only be covered by a remote camera and not by a photographer have been used. The robotic camera can be released by a photographer over wireless transmitters or externally triggered by a cable. All images are directly transferred into the Paneikon remote editing system and from there can be transmitted on the wire. 

Each feat pushes back the limits of the humanly possible, and each is recorded with precision.  The horologists thus become heroes.  Because they never appear before the fast public, here is their story.

It all began with horses and war. In the seventeenth century, the kings and gen-tlemen of England took up horse breeding with a view to improving the strong but slow native stock. The older horses had served well when knights and steeds wore armor and it took a heavy beast to carry the weight and withstand the shock of battle. But now gunpowder had made armor obsolete; mobility was more conducive to survival. The English began importing nimble Arabian horses from North Africa and the Levant, sometimes paying the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today's dollars.
Three of these animals achieved immortality as progenitors of the major bloodlines in the stud book: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arab.

The English of that day were irrepressibly rational-that is, means-ends-directed. Once they began to breed horses to speed, they had to know whether they were getting results. To settle the inevitable brags of one owner to another, they raced their horses - at first informally and as was, then increasingly under standardized conditions, at equal weights, on prepared tracks, in scheduled events with prizes, and often to wagers far exceeding the value of the prize.
This kind of competition called for serious preparation. The horse trainer, as distinguished from the groom, made his appearance, and professional riders took the place of amateur owners in the saddle. Every race was preceded by a regimen of exercise and practice runs. Owners wanted to know in advance how a horse was doing, and the one unambiguous way to find out was to time him. Times were also important for assessing results from one year to another and for comparing the performances of different bloodlines.
By a happy coincidence, it was just about this time that watches became accurate enough for the purpose. In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the introduction of the balance spring reduced the variance from as much as an hour a day to as little as two minutes. For the first time it paid to show minutes on watch dials, and some instruments even showed seconds. Such pieces were called doctors' watches, for they were obviously useful in pulse taking. They were less helpful, though, in timing races, for the seconds bit (as the name indicates) was tiny, and there was no way to stop the watch while keeping an eye on the finish.
Not until the invention of the so-called center-seconds watch with stop mechanism-the earliest examples that have survived date back to the 1730s - was a convenient timer available. It may have been with one of these that a horse named Flying Childers was timed in 1721 over a three-mile course at Newmarket in six minutes forty seconds - a performance almost too good to be true. Early times tended to the optimistic, and solo timing produced some farfetched results.
These shortcomings were not corrected until the invention of the independent seconds train by Jean-Moyse Pouzait, in 1776, and of the fly-back chronograph (what we would call a stop-watch) by Adolphe Nicole, a Swiss working in England, in 1862.
Along with gains of convenience came refinement of measure. The early center-seconds watches showed elapsed time to the nearest second; the watch dial used the same lines to mark seconds and minutes. Beginning around 1770, however, some watches began to show fractional seconds - quarter seconds for watches beating 14,400 times an hour (slow train), fifth seconds for those making 18,000 beats (fast train). These smaller units did not require any change in the watch mechanism; the new lines on the dial simply marked its beat (four or five times a second). They do show, however, that races were getting tighter, and, that trainers, owners, and bettors wanted more precise information on performance.
Timing of humans' races came much later. The first intrauniversity competitions took place in the middle decades of the nineteenth century; the first formal inter university meet, supervised and timed, was between Oxford and Cambridge, in 1864.
The runners ran to what were to become standard lengths: 100 yards, a quarter mile, a mile. Results were given to the quarter second. Times were slow in those days-not so much because the competitors were physically inferior to their successors (though they were, if only because the pool of recruitment was so much smaller) but because technique was primitive, training and preparation were negligible, and tracks were less resilient. In the decades that followed, there was much improvement on all fronts, as the record of running times shows, while the very fact of this record served as an incentive to ever-greater commitment and effort. Certain times became linked to particular events as perceived limits of human possibilities: the "even hundred" (ten seconds flat), the four-minute mile, the two-hour marathon.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin inaugurated the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, he also rendered them mathematical.

Electronic timing supplanted stopwatches at the Helsinki Games of 1952. In the final, no fewer than four sprinters made it to the line in a time of 10.4. More remarkable still, the runners were considered somewhat slow. The then world record, first set by Jesse Owens 16 years before, defined sprinting excellence at 10.2.
Today's sprinters are measured in hundredths of a second. Last week in London, the most hi-tech equipment followed the sprinter Usain Bolt's every step. His reaction time out of the blocks was 0.165 (ranking him a modest fourth of eight). But then the Jamaican got into his stride. His long legs disposed of the race in 41 strides.
His Olympic record time, 9.63 an eighth of a second – clear of the rest.

We are all children of the Enlightenment: we count calories, set alarm clocks, watch weather forecasts on TV. So habitual, so inconspicuous, are these daily rituals that we perform them automatically. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who considered man the "measure of all things", we feel at home in an infinitely expansive cosmos. Great thinkers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries passed down to us the notion of civilisation moving in a single – and desirable – direction. Thermometers, weighing scales and microscopes long ago moved us safely past the marshes of approximation. Time, risk and mortality are now told in numbers and quantified, since incremental progress relies on accurate measurement.
Even so, there was plenty of room for human disagreement at these games. Alas, nothing is perfect.

August 10, 2012

There are some things you’ve got to see for yourself.

  On my first solo trip to Paris, in 1968, I carried a list of the things not to be missed.  At the top was Sainte Chapelle, the small medieval church famous for its exquisite stained-glass windows, the oldest in Paris.  Described in guidebooks, as “a Gothic marvel” and “a great joy”, confirmed by friends, saying La Chapelle was simply too beautiful for words, they couldn’t possibly describe it, I just had to see it for myself.

    Not that summer.  French students were rioting, public transportation was shut down, and parts of the city were under siege.

   Four years later I stopped for only one day on my way home.  It was far too short a time to see anything of the city, so I decided to visit just one place-Sainte Chapelle.

  I knew from friends that the best time to see the windows was in the morning, preferably a cloudless one.  The weather was perfect, so I strolled up to the iron gates of the Palais de Justice.  Sainte Chapelle was tucked away in the inner courtyard.  I could see the spire above me and as I rounded a corner the whole church came into view.

  Its stone looked golden in the sunlight.  Pillars and buttresses supporting a series of stained-glass windows that rose fifty feet to Gothic arches and a roof with filigree trim.  What must those windows look like from inside?  I realized that there were so few other visitors at this hour that I’d have the chapel almost to myself.

  In fact, there were no other visitors.  It was closed.  Closed on Tuesday, the sign said.  Tuesday?  I checked my guidebook. Tlj sf Mar. Impenetrable before, it suddenly made sense: tous les jours sauf mardi.

  So, a few years later, I tried again.  This time I’d carefully checked the schedule.  Open from 10 A.M. to 5:45 P.M. (4:45 P.M. from October through March) every day except Tuesday and certain national holidays.  It was 11:30.  It wasn’t Tuesday.  It wasn’t Christmas, New Year’s, May Day, or All Saint’s Day and there was even an occasional flash of sun from between scuttling clouds.  Hurrah, there was a line at the ticket window I was going to get in at last.  When I got closer I noticed a small sign that explained that the chapel was closed, and only the ground floor, or crypt, was open.

  I sighed, paid, and saw the crypt, with its floor of tombstones, and its counter of souvenir books and postcards, some with pictures of the chapel above.

  I knew that in the past people had gotten into the chapel.  After all, my own friends and family had seen it and convinced me that to miss it would be to miss one of the profound experiences of life.  I couldn’t  believe they’d made it up.  If I needed additional evidence that admission was sometime granted, there was the painting by Pierre-Denis Martin titled “Louis XV Sourtant du Lit de Justice Tenu au Palais le 12 Septembre 1715” and showed the king emerging from the chapel.  I swore to see it myself on my next trip even if it meant calling the Minister of Culture himself.

  But when I next returned to Paris, it rained every day, and after all the waiting, I certainly didn’t want to see it in the gloom.

  In the autumn of 1984 I returned for a week.  Confident that with that much time I’d surely have my chance.  Over the years I’d adopted a philosophical approach:  I love Paris, and I’ll keep coming back until I see the famous windows.  It had become a character test: How great is your determination and perseverance?

  I dashed over to the Sainte-Chapelle my first day in town.  I didn’t even make it through the gate.  It was Thursday, November 1, All Saints’ Day, the chapel, needless to say, was closed.  But the guard outside the Palais de Justice assured me that it had been open yesterday and tomorrow would be business as usual.

  I went back the next morning.  The gate was open, and the faces of the people coming toward me out of the inner courtyard betrayed no disappointment, though none of the ecstasy I’d been led to expect.  Attached to the entrance of the church were sings in French and English that explained why.

  “The great interest in this edifice, which continues to attract larger and larger crowds of people, has brought about a noticeable change in the humidity level of the interior,” it said.  “The restoration of the wall paintings . . . is now underway.”  It was their winter project, postponed for decades until that very day! 

  Then, the following spring, I arrived to spend ten weeks in the city.  I did not even schedule Sainte Chapelle for a visit.  Instead, I decided to be devious, to sneak up on it, simply drop by someday and catch it unawares.

  Six weeks passed, then eight.  I still hadn’t made my move.  One week left in Paris.  Sunday, mid-afternoon, sun shining, during lunch our client ask me if there was anything I wanted to see, or do, before I left.  I told him my Sainte Chapelle saga.  Lunch finished he grabbed my hand and we veered across the river to the Ile de la Cite. 

  “Is it open? The whole thing?”
  “Yes,” he replied.  “All open.”

  I shut my eyes as I entered and reminded myself that great expectations often lead to great disappointments.  There was the movie that people told me would change my life and the restaurant I’d looked forward to for so long that it didn’t have a chance of being all I’d hoped.  And experience had taught me that sometimes it’s better not to meet the person you’ve admired from afar.  Would this be the same kind of thing?  At this point the chapel would almost have to be a preview of heaven to justify its advance billing and my doggedness.

  So it was with a certain skepticism that I opened my eyes.  My heart was beating faster.  Was it the anticipation?  Or was it in fact, the first view of those luminous windows, the light flooding the room with rich color, making it almost seem to float.

  No hyperbole.  It really was all that had been promised.  But I’m afraid there are no words that can do it justice.  You simply have to see it for yourself.

August 07, 2012

Why Curiosity?

Hot, hot, hot and not an internet connection in sight, poor AT&T was “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” yesterday, all day, in L.A., it had not been a “connecting you to your world, everywhere you live and work” day.

Hard day with the little urban hipsters. 
Me: You know what happened today?
They: Yeah, you know the day we did that thing in Japan.
Me: No, guys, Mars rover Curiosity has landed and is starting to send pics.
They: Big deal, why should we care?  …
Me: Listen guys…

…In 1970, a Zambia-based nun named Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then-associate director of science at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, in response to his ongoing research into a piloted mission to Mars. Specifically, she asked how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such a project at a time when so many children were starving on Earth.
Stuhlinger soon sent the following letter of explanation to Sister Jucunda, along with a copy of "Earthrise," the iconic photograph of Earth taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders, from the Moon.  His thoughtful reply was later published by NASA, and titled,

"Why Explore Space?"

May 6, 1970

Dear Sister Mary Jucunda:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart. I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to express my great admiration for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.
You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as "Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!" In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument.

About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count's household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. "We are suffering from this plague," they said, "while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!" But the count remained firm. "I give you as much as I can afford," he said, "but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!"

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about 200 billion dollars in his yearly budget. This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country.

About 1.6 percent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, Earth resources projects, and space engineering. To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with 10,000 dollars income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space. The rest of his income, 9,970 dollars, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his other taxes, and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: "Why don't you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying, and send these dollars to the hungry children?" To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries. The government consists of a number of departments (Interior, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, and others) and the bureaus (National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others). All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President. When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space. You realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose, and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on Earth. Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others. For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial Earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use. It has been estimated that even a modest system of Earth satellites equipped with Earth resources, sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume, it is one of international cooperation. The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospect of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power. Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today. I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle over night. However, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary. Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip. If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same without any doubt.

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Spaceflight without any doubt is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry. However, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spin-offs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on Earth. We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man's life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work. Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided. Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of moons and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reaction between the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth. It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance. Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation. It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: "I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope."
My very best wishes will always be with you, and with your children.

Very sincerely yours,

Ernst Stuhlinger
Associate Director for Science

One of the first pictures taken by Curiosity after it landed. It shows the rover's shadow on the Martian soil.

August 05, 2012

Not for the old ladies in Duluth.

“Heaven, if it exists, has just gotten a lot more interesting.” Clive said to me when he rang to tell me that Gore Vidal had died.

Sitting poolside in Ravello Vidal declared, "As you can see, my needs are simple." Asked whether the setting inspired him, he wisecracked, "Yeah, it inspires me to write a film script to pay my bills."

Long before today’s celebrities gave parties for a living, Vidal gave them for the pleasure of his friends’ company.  And although there must have been many parties in the past, and there probably would be many parties in the future, the most enjoyable for me was a three-day bash Vidal arranged in his villa in Ravello. It was beautifully planned and exquisitely executed, even if there was plenty of skinny-dipping.

When ask to choose the proverbial ‘someone’ with whom he’d be willing to spend the rest of his life on a desert island, Vidal refused to answer.  I see the wry, half-smile of satisfaction that his protective armor had remained securely in place, and remember the voice cold and dry as a martini.

Vidal the well-bred young man of scintillating brilliance who tried to fashion a career for himself in the difficult context in which this fashioning had to take place, the late 20th-century America, an environment not only increasingly hostile to thought, but also to patrician entitlement and, you sometimes suspect, intelligence per se.

In his memoir, “Point To Point Navigation” he imagines himself with Johnny Carson on the balcony in Ravello.

          What’s that phrase you use all the time for the country?
          The United States of Amnesia.
          I’ll open with that, then you read of the “latest” Iraq election news with the quote from 1967.
          But where do we do this?
          Oh, we’ll find a show.
          There isn’t one. Remember? You’re dead.
CARSON (evasively)
          No, no. I’m just living down at the beach, I think it’s called in seclusion.

"Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy's edge," he once wrote, "all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here.  "Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."