Notes on Frank Cloutier's Grave

This past Thursday was the 55th anniversary of Frank E. Cloutier's death.  He died just over 5 years after the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, for which he’s marginally remembered. 

Here's what his headstone looked like on my first visit, the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2006:

Frank Cloutier grave in autumn

It’s in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is a beautiful drive from the Twin Cities, especially if you take Highway 61 through the Mississippi River valley. 

You pass through, or near, Red Wing and Rollingstone, Wabasha and Zumbro Bottoms, Frontenac and Trempealau.  There are often bald eagles, red-tailed hawks.

Frank Cloutier is buried "on a local heroes hill," to borrow John Prine's phrase, in La Crosse's Oak Grove Cemetery.  Frank's is one of about 200 headstones of veterans of each American war from the Spanish American through the Korean. 

Though basically from Rhode Island, Frank happened to be working as a piano player in Manitowoc when the US entered World War One — hence the “Wisconsin” on his Army-issued headstone. 

He arrived in France with the 311 supply train company in 1918, not long before the Armistice and too late to see fighting. 

But France was pretty out-of-sorts and needed supply trains, so Frank’s company stayed on after the war for about 9 months in wine country.  Less than six months after Frank returned to the states, Prohibition took effect.

Knowing he was both Catholic and a Freemason, I was curious to see whether his headstone would have a cross or a masonic square-and-compass.

Frank Cloutier contributed the Anthology's only Upper Midwestern music. Here's his headstone on March 1, 2009:

Frank Cloutier grave in winter

As the musical director of St. Paul's Victoria Cafe, Frank and his band made a 78 RPM record in September 1927 — "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One". 

It was released that January, but by then the Victoria Cafe itself was already in Federal court, fighting for its life.  From the start, the record always represented a gone world.

"Moonshiner’s Dance" seems to have utterly vanished from history almost as soon as it was released.  When Frank died in 1957, he apparently didn’t know the recording had been reissued 5 years earlier in New York as part of the Anthology of American Folk Music.
But even then, nobody would've been able to predict the Anthology would become as important to America’s self-image as it’s become.

Frank Cloutier couldn't have foreseen that "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" would one day become the best known recording made in Minnesota during his lifetime.

Frank Cloutier grave in spring

Its hard to appreciate how deeply the country had changed between 1927 and 1957.  Indeed, much of the Anthology’s power derived from the way the alien sounds of Prohibition-era, pre-Depression, pre-WW2 America mystified young Cold War listeners.

Frank Cloutier died on a Friday morning in 1957. 

That very same morning, the Vanguard TV3 exploded on its launch pad in Florida.  Meant to meet the challenge of Sputnik with America’s own first satellite, the Vanguard TV3 was an embarrising, televised explosion.  Headline writers dubbed it Flopnik, Oopsnik, and Stayputnik.

The satellite itself was recovered from the wreckage and put on display at the National Air and Space Museum, where I took a picture of it in January 2005, not yet knowing the object was somehow about the Anthology

(I was in Washington for Mike Seeger’s concert marking the “Picturing the Banjo” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery).

Note the light trespass fogging the film in my old battered 1970’s camera.  More than any other single photo, this one finally convinced me to get a digital SLR camera.

Vanguard TV3

In any case, that Friday morning in 1957 not many Americans were focused on the death of Frank Cloutier. 

Even by the time the Smithsonian reissued the Anthology on CD in 1997, there was exactly zero research on Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe to draw from while writing the liner notes.

It wasn't until Thanksgiving weekend 2006 that an Anthology listener finally showed up at Cloutier's grave, wearing earbuds to listen to his record graveside. 

In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of Cloutier's death, I had planned to be in La Crosse, but an opportunity suddenly arose to go to Chicago instead.  It took me a while to choose Chicago, but I made the right decision ... although I still do think about that now and then.

Observation — IRAS-Araki-Alcock


In May of 1983, IRAS-Araki-Alcock came closer to Earth than any comet since 1770 — about 12 times the distance to the Moon.

It was my first comet, and I saw it from the back yard of my family's house in Palatine, Illinois. Although Palatine was small then, it was already a Chicago suburb on O'Hare's flight path. I did a lot of complaining about the light pollution, but those turned out to be the darkest skies I've ever lived under.

IRAS-Araki-Alcock was a ghostly thing. It looked roughly the size of the moon, and spherical — it had no visible tail. You could see its nucleus, though ... overall, the comet was like a round patch of smoke with a star caught inside. Aside from its pale blue-green color, it looked like one of the little fairy sprites that followed the UFOs around in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Because it was so close, you could almost see it move against the background stars, like the minute hand of a clock (and believe me, I know how the minute hands of clocks move). I would try to get a fix on where it was in relation to the stars, but what my eyes were seeing would never match the image in my mind, which was always already obsolete.

Having spent so much of my youth with my developing brain focused on the sky, it felt a little perverse to have something new up there, especially something that moved so fast. I could feel in my bones why comets were regarded as disturbing omens of bad things to come.

Mostly, what it looked like was ... and this was the most remarkable thing ... it looked like an evaporating bit of ice about 12 times as far as the moon. Although I knew more than enough about astronomy to know why it had to be silent, I remember being amazed at its silence. It just slipped on by.


Editor's Note: This morning, my wife got her copy of her latest publication, a poem entitled "We Seek a Shepard or a Sign" in Court Green #4, a literary journal from Chicago's Columbia College. Check it out.

This is installment 17 of a 28-day experiment. The Celestial Monochord is trying to post once a day, sort of like a blog is supposed to do.


Drone! Drone! Drone! Pilotless Airplane!

Astronaut diaper
Get it?

When I founded this journal in March 2005, I got a little purple notebook in which to keep ideas for future entries. On the first page, between two ideas I never used — "Skin, Gut, Wood, Bone, & Metal in Banjos" and "Chemistry of Red Clay Halos" — is the following idea, also unused: "Astronauts in Diapers".

So, before moving on to more recent news, let me recap where my head was at — what I would have written — 22 months ago.

Nobody loves the space program more than I do, I would have written. I grew up with my room wallpapered with galaxy posters and, at one point, I listened to little else but Vangelis. Carl Sagan's Cosmos, as I wrote more recently, was an early cornerstone of what you might call my spiritual life. Every solid body in the solar system should be crawling with Spirits and Opportunities, I would have argued.

And this would've been a bargain, if we would only shut down the "manned" space program, which I found increasingly pointless and grotesque.

It's true that if the Galileo spacecraft had carried a crew, they could have climbed out and shook loose that stuck umbrella antenna, giving us orders of magnitude more data from that mission. On the other hand, for what it would cost to feed the mission's astronauts, supply them with air, give them a way to crap and pee and take a shower, entertain them, satisfy their sex drives, keep them from killing each other — I would have written — we could have had a flotilla of 500 Galileo spacecraft, of varying design, that would have swarmed around Jupiter like bees around a nest.

And nobody would have died. The main reason for maintaining the Shuttle Program is to finish the wildly over-budget, useless Space Station Freedom, my argument would have gone. The claim that we need the station for scientific purposes would have been called a lie — the only thing we could learn from that station that we couldn't learn more easily, cheaply, and safely in other ways would be how to keep people floating around in space.

Why do we keep hurling these brave, bright, strong, idealistic people up on these monsters designed in 1970 to play nurse maid to billion-dollar junior-high-school science-fair ant farms? Just to have them die painful, fiery, long, terrifying, lonely deaths? Or for a massive welfare program for defense contractors? Have we no shame? Is nothing sacred? ... I would have asked, had I written that post 22 months ago.

The argument is often made that "the young people of today" need heros to look up to and to stimulate their imaginations. Again, a concept from 1970. (Aaaahhh, remember when "disposable" was synonymous with "expensive"?) Young people today find it wildly stimulating to sit behind a computer, issuing commands to robots. They may well find it irrational and regressive — backward and idiotic, even — to risk death just to fly around in circles in the dark. Or so I might have speculated, had I written that post.

And the emblem for all these ideas would have been The Diaper. Yes, those brave explorers spacewalking in the new frontier are wearing DIAPERS (which really inspires the teenagers, in my experience.)

Well, I could go on ... I mean, I could have gone on ... like this forever, oh so long ago. I think you can see why I never wrote that entry — hysterical rants are simply against the editorial standards of The Celestial Monochord, which attempts to put forth a rational, contemplative exploration of ideas. When one of our writing staff submits such a screed, the Editorial Board politely rejects it.

Anyway, that's where I was before this week. Then, two news items caught my eye.

First, the pilotless drone story. Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle started using messages that readers leave on the paper's voice mail for the Chronicle's podcast. The first such experiment became a huge internet phenomenon. It was a guy enraged by the Chronicle's use of the phrase "pilotless drone" — a drone, you see, already implies the lack of a pilot. The caller's off-the-rails tirade ("DRONE! DRONE! DRONE! Pilotless airplane! GET IT?") is hilarious, as is the attention it has received.

Mostly, I like the way the caller's hysterical chanting roughly reflects my actual position on an important public policy issue.

And then there's Lisa Nowak. Yes indeed. As I write this, I haven't yet seen what fun the late-night comics will make of her. The woman is clearly having what used be called, in the old days, a "nervous breakdown" and I don't want to exploit her mental health crisis. Leave the exploitation to the cable news networks and the Florida prosecutors.

But I can't help pointing out that I was right — and what's a blog for, except to point out the rare occasions on which you were right — about astronauts and diapers. Something needs a second look here. Maybe we need to go focus on real knowledge, on missions like the Voyager Spacecraft, which to my generation were so inspiring, so beautiful, and so dignified.


Editor's Note: This is installment seven of my increasingly bizarre attempt to post one entry every day for a whole month. THIS month, as a matter of fact.


Carl Sagan, Ten Years After

      a telescope in Times Square, 1933


(Sorry for all the autobiography lately, but today is the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death.  Bloggers worldwide are marking the date with remembrances.)


When I was 15, I thought a bit about becoming a priest. 
My family was Catholic, and I loved the Catholic Church. I also had already been obsessed with astronomy for about six years, and now my thoughts were just mature enough to start worrying over some of the hard questions this background presented.
Astronomy made it obvious that the world was much older than the Bible claimed — the Bible was wrong.  In fact, I saw there was no way to confirm virtually anything in the Bible. The Creator himself suddenly seemed mythical compared to the easily confirmed natural laws I was starting to understand.
But a universe without God, so far as I could tell, was a horrible place — meaningless, without beauty, amoral, loveless.  The evidence seemed to be forcing me into a sad and frightening universe in which I certainly did not want to live
Knowing no other alternative, I thought about entering the priesthood — that is, of handing myself over completely to faith. Evidence and reason were leading me where I didn't want to go, so I toyed with the idea of turning a blind eye to them.  If a "good" universe was the only tolerable kind, maybe I would have to simply assume one, regardless.  I was deeply conflicted, and didn't know what to do.  I remember a lot of pain about this.
By an astounding coincidence — divine intervention? — Carl Sagan's Cosmos debuted on public television exactly one week after my 16th birthday. The series turned out to be a 13-hour, carefully reasoned, gorgeously dramatized argument.  And this argument was an elaborate answer to precisely the very question I was struggling with. 
Cosmos argues that the universe is profoundly beautiful and meaningful, and it demands an ethical response from us — even, or especially, when we view it without the supernatural.  Sagan argued that the only ethical response to the universe we know in the 20th century, given the challenges of that century, is to get the whole evidence thing, and the whole reason thing, right.

We've got see the world as it is and not how we wish it was. 

The guy in the turtle-neck sweater spent 13 leisurely hours SHOWING why the character of the physical universe, and of our origins it it, oblige us to embrace a humane, ethical, rational, evidence-based world view.  The evidence shows us a universe that is not only beautiful, but beautiful in precisely such a way that it requires from us an ethical, loving response.
For the next couple years, my synapses flowed with the greatest antidepressants on Earth.  It was a mind-blowing and delicious religious experience.
I won't go into every twist and turn of my intellectual and spiritual development since 1980 — there'd be a lot to dredge up.  It will suffice to say that Carl Sagan's Cosmos was among the most important events of my life.  The Celestial Monochord would certainly not have existed without it — surely among Carl's greatest contributions to mankind!
I will add that Sagan's importance has unexpectedly deepened since 2001's dual attacks on Western Civilization — September 11 and Inauguration Day.  Lately, I terribly miss Carl Sagan and what I think of as his ethics of epistemology, as I call it — his sense that we have a moral obligation to resist baloney.

I mourn his inability to be here to remind us of who we used to aspire to be — a humane civilization based on reason, evidence, and the universal rule of just laws.  No one has taken his place.


John Cohen and the Voyager Record

New Lost City Ramblers
The New Lost City Ramblers: John Cohen, Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz

Voyager Record
NASA technicians bolting the Voyager LP to the spacecraft


It has finally, really dawned on me.

The Voyager Record is a timecapsule, designed by Carl Sagan and friends, in the form of a long-playing phonograph record. Identical copies were bolted to the side of NASA's two Voyager Spacecraft, which are now drifting in interstellar space. And this record contains a field recording made in Peru by John Cohen, co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers.

Here at The Celestial Monochord, that's one heck of a revelation. Let me think about this.

The Voyager Record (and the soundtrack to the Cosmos TV series, which borrowed heavily from it) was my first exposure to all sorts of music — not just Blind Willie Johnson, but also Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven string quartets, and a variety of non-Western musics like the Javanese gamelan and Japanese shakuhachi.

More often than you might think, 25 years later, the thought of the Voyager Record still occasionally overwhelms me with grief and wonder. It must be the strangest episode in the history of the US Government — for one thing, it was partly the result of Sagan's stunning, awe-inspiring innocence. The record is Carl Sagan's quixotic love letter to Planet Earth — Earth, which filled him with a grief and wonder of his own. To Sagan, the record expressed Earth's "cosmic loneliness."

And somehow, he arranged for this document to roar into interstellar space, riding like a stowaway aboard the federal government's Cold War nuclear missile technology.


When the Voyager Record was launched, Carl Sagan saw it as a fitting tribute to the recently-deceased inventor of the LP, Peter Goldmark.

Sagan had become a young Ph.D. in 1960, about six months before Bob Dylan first arrived in Greenwich Village. His generation passionately loved the long-playing record, and they soon came to define themselves and their worldview through the LP.

They studied LP's — such as Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper — with a reverence and creativity that previous generations reserved for The Bible. The social movements that defined the 60's and 70's were shaped and held together, to no small degree, by the LP format. It was The People's Format, an invention that invented a generation.

So, by 1977, it wasn't a big stretch for Sagan to envision a total summation of Planet Earth encoded into the grooves of an LP. But what should this record say? What would be its argument?

Above all, the Voyager Record is a global anthology. An anthology, because it juxtaposes diverse music, images, voices and sounds. And global, because it sees itself as unconstrained by national boundaries. Its varied elements belong together in a common space simply because they're all the work of Earthlings.

The argument of the Voyager Record (at least for its human audience) is its humanism, set against the Cold War. It tries to show, by means of an outlandish and beautiful thought-experiment, that the differences separating us are trivial when viewed from a "cosmic perspective," as Sagan liked to say. In the all-consuming milieu of the Cold War, now difficult to recall, that could be a very forceful vision.

It's often said that the peace and environmental movements were deeply inspired by NASA's photos of Earth taken from space. On the other hand, NASA was one of the USA's primary Cold War weapons. The display of those photos also scored points in the Space Race.

The Voyager Record inherited both poles of this irony. It was Carl Sagan's ambition to resolve the contradiction in favor of peace.


That ambition had roots, of course.

The intensely humanistic Alan Lomax served as an advisor to the Voyager project — it was Lomax who recommended to Sagan's group the inclusion of John Cohen's 1964 recording of a young Peruvian woman's wedding song.

Lomax himself had recorded folk musicians in many countries, partly to get out of the country during McCarthy's red-baiting and to find a way around the blacklist. This episode, like the Voyager LP, is clear case of the Cold War leading directly to "world music." Indeed, in a vivid echo of Sagan's project, Lomax would later dream of a Global Jukebox representing all of human culture through one portal.

And then there was Moe Asch's Folkways Records, for which The New Lost City Ramblers recorded exclusively. Back in the 1930's, Asch proposed "a complete acoustic record of the human lifeworld" (as Robert Cantwell put it). He came closer to fulfilling that dream than you might expect, as a little time with the Folkways catalog will show. The Folkways vision first formed in a spirit of resistance to the early stages of WWII and the Holocaust — and, as such, it was endorsed by Albert Einstein (as I've described before). Asch's company certainly became the most critical record label of the Folk Revival, a movement whose reason for being was the disillusionment of America's children in the post-WWII, Cold War environment (see Cantwell's brilliant book).

Asch and Lomax (both of whom vigorously pioneered the anthologizing potential of the LP) were the inventors of the Voyager Record's very spirit. Sagan and NASA — by reframing Asch and Lomax's vision in the contexts of the Cold War and the Cosmos — each appropriated the vision for their mutually contradictory, competing purposes.


I will close with a few startling anecdotes about John Cohen — not so much to fit his life into the thesis above, but to show you that the guy actually makes sense, standing there on the corner of such mighty intersections.

Besides having co-founded The New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, and having made many recordings and award-winning documentaries about Andean culture, Cohen is also famous as the guy who coined the phrase "high lonesome sound." In Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg provides a good summary:

John Cohen ... contributed to the interest in bluegrass with his photography and through a short documentary film whose title has become closely associated with the music. In February 1963, when Cohen chose The High Lonesome Sound for his movie about Kentucky mountain music, he was seeking words to describe the high, intense quality of the singing which had impressed him during his research in the region ... The film included footage of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in a free concert at the 1962 Coal Carnival, on the courthouse steps in Hazard, Kentucky. It was the first documentary film to include bluegrass and marks the beginning of the association of Bill Monroe with the term "high lonesome sound."
This John Cohen is also the same John Cohen who Bob Dylan addresses in his liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited. In them, Dylan refers to Cohen's rooftop where Cohen had taken perhaps the first photos of Dylan in New York. I once read that this rooftop was demolished to make room for construction of the World Trade Center. Here's the passage [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]:
you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo.
This is also the same John Cohen who provided what was, for many years, the only available interview with Harry Smith, eccentric editor of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music.

And finally, it appears that the Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band" is about John Cohen and The New Lost City Ramblers.


Editor's Note: One of many reasons it's been so long since I've posted is that I'm working on an experimental news blog on The New Lost City Ramblers — The New Lost Times. Let me know if you think I should keep going or quit.


John Glenn's Capsule

John Glenn Spacesuit
John Glenn's Mercury spacesuit


I've often heard John Glenn's Mercury 7 capsule is about the size of a Volkswagon Beetle, but this week, on a trip to Washington DC, I was still surprised to see it up close — it hardly seems bigger than John Glenn himself.

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has a great way of displaying its capsules, kind of shrink-wrapped in plastic allowing VERY close examination, especially on a slow day at the museum. Rivets, seams, little dings and burns — Glenn's capsule really is just a tin can.

Its interior redefines "cramped" (and I thought my connecting flight to Chicago was tight!). Glenn was in a little can of human with only enough room for movement to touch a few controls. Just above his head, he had a window about four inches wide and twelve inches high.

Standing next to the capsule, the familiar facts about John Glenn now seemed strange and beside the point — the ticker-tape parade, the "hero" status, the eventual power and privilege of the Senate. Even the idea of his being "The First American In Orbit" fell away. What stuck with me was that, during the 4 hours and 55 minutes he was in orbit, he was alone up there in 1962, his bones as breakable and his flesh as flammable as yours.

Because fabric is very prone to degradation, the Smithsonian stuffs the old spacesuits on display with under-sized manikins. It gives the strange impression that all the Mercury astronauts were skinny 13-year old boys. It seems as if the astronauts were like wiry early hominids — Lucy's younger brothers.


Water On Mars

ESA Water on Mars

I am leaving town to visit relatives and to see Tom Paley in concert, so The Celestial Monochord will be quiet for several days. But I thought I'd show you this image from the European Space Agency, showing water ice in the floor of a crater on Mars. It's very cool and the press release about it is worth reading.

But part of what interests me is that I know of the image from only two sources: a friend who emailed it to me to ask "Is this real?" and from the latest issue (October) of Sky and Telescope. If the picture got wider press in the United States, I completely missed it. It's water. On Mars. Do I have a conspiratorial disposition, or would this have been utterly unavoidable in the United States if it had been taken by NASA, which has made so much fuss lately about its own search for water on Mars?

Sun and Moon / Summer and Winter

The full moon in summer follows the same path across the sky as the sun in winter. The inverse is true, too. The sun in summer follows the same path across the sky as the full moon in winter.

About that full moon on hot, humid summer nights, all big and low and yellowy, Tom Waits sang, "looks like a buttery cueball moon, all melted off to one side — Parkay." I love that ... Parkay margarine starts to liquefy and skew on hot summer nights, and the moon on those very same nights looks like that — relaxed, too moist to hold its shape.

It looks like that because the full moon on summer nights rides low from east to west across the sky, down near the horizon, where you have to look through a lot of air to see it, and moist warm air at that. The further north you are, the stronger the effect.

Of course, the sun sort of looks a little like that on winter days — riding low, fuzzy, yellowish. On those days in the dead of winter, the sun streams sideways into the room and shines on parts of the house you'd forgotten the sun could ever reach. I remember that light especially well from my childhood, I suppose because it came so near Christmas and during the rest of long, house-bound winters.

Now, around midnight in those same winters, the full moon is almost directly overhead, like a bright blue eye, small and alone in the middle of the sky. It strains your neck to look straight up at the full moon in winter - it exposes your neck to the cold, and makes you a little dizzy without a horizon to keep you steady, and the moon is so stark and bright that it's a little blinding.

In that way, it's like the sun in summer, straight up and baring down on you from directly overhead around noon. No wonder people have called it merciless - bright, hot, featureless, colorless, and overhead. I think of sunshine in summer days, but not really of the sun itself - it's too high and bright and dominating to really look into and see. Hart Crane simultaneously described the Manhattan skyline and the sun above it: "a rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene."

The sun in summer follows the same path across the sky as the full moon in winter, and visa versa. I'm not sure how to explain why that's true without waving my hands and drawing a lot of diagrams, so I thought I would try to remind you that its true. Maybe you'll think about the "why" on your own. And maybe I'll think of a way to explain the geometry some other time ...

The Train to Adler Planetarium

Adler Planetarium
Photo from Carl Zeiss AG Germany

Beginning when I was about 10 years old, I suppose, I would occasionally take the train to Chicago to see the Adler Planetarium.

I grew up in Palatine, one of dozens of small towns that grew up into suburbs along the railroad tracks running northwest from Chicago out to McHenry and Johnsburg and Harvard, Illinois. I used to lie in bed late at night in the summertime and listen to the train whistle blow in the distance, never imagining it might be a very tired old cliche. Ah, such innocent times ...

I remember my anxiety about asking the train station clerk for the ticket, even though going downtown to the end of the line was the easiest ticket to explain. My mother must've given me the cash for the trip. (Someday, I will write at great length about the countless ways she encouraged my interest in astronomy.)

My eyes never stopped studying the view from the train, which passed through the oldest parts of every town along its route, because, as I say, the towns were born along the tracks. We stopped at their turn-of-the-century depots, which apparently never got around to becoming obsolete. As a result, the picture in my mind's eye of Mount Prospect, Des Plaines, and Park Ridge is rather more charming than those towns probably are. I still don't know for sure to this day.

The end of the line was the Union Station, which was one of the old vaulted, vaunted cathedrals built when trains were the fastest, proudest vehicles on Earth. I remember walking through the station with my face turned upward, staggering slowly across the marble floor, no doubt obstructing business people late for work.

The Adler Planetarium was truly hallowed ground to me then. Its exhibits stayed pretty much the same throughout my entire childhood, so visiting them was more ritual than education for me. That's what I was looking for anyway, a place that understood and affirmed my view of the world, one that only Adler and I could see. There was no secret to it — it was simply ignored by most people. It seemed they had some sort of defect that left them blinded to it.

I was the youngest of seven children, growing up in a crowded house in a claustophobic suburb. The train to the Adler made me feel adult and free, like I owned my whole self, not just the inside of my head. I don't think I felt much like that again until I left home for Tucson, to study astronomy.


Star Pix Wow Space Fans

Hubble Deep Field

The Hubble Deep Field project uses the Hubble Space Telescope to take a kind of "core sample" of the Universe's development. It always comes to mind when I think of the tempestuous relations between science and journalism.

The project requires the Space Telescope to stare into a tiny part of the sky, chosen for its lack of foreground stars, for something like 10 days and nights — that is, it takes a million-second exposure. The result is a photo that looks, at first glance, like an ordinary field of faint stars, but when you lean in to look at the details, you realize the "stars" are all galaxies.

The Hubble Deep Field images provide random samplings of galaxies as they appeared in successively younger eras of the Universe, stretching back to when it was only about 6% of its current age. There are hundreds of ways to tease information out of such photos, and they've been a gold mine for astronomers interested in the evolution of galaxy structure and distribution, dark matter, the big bang, etc., etc., etc.

When the first such image was revealed to reporters in 1996, typical headlines were "NASA Discovers Thousands of Galaxies" or "New Galaxies Discovered, Wowing Astronomers." It's true that most of the galaxies in the images had not been seen before, but what happened was no more the discovery of new galaxies than the discovery of new pebbles would be when geologists take a core sample of interesting geological strata. Astronomy is not about increasing the count of known galaxies, but rather, understanding how the Universe works and evolved, so at least some journalists completely missed the most rudimentary facts of the story.

When you read a newspaper article about something you really understand well, it can make you very suspicious of the article next to it, about which you know almost nothing. On the other hand, I understood what had actually happened — what the news stories should have said — because some journalists actually did get it right. You just had to know where to find them.

Billboards in Space

Advertising in Earth Orbit
"Blogger Logo-rise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941"

The idea of creating very large advertisements and placing them into Earth obit has been very seriously considered. Such "space billboards," it's usually estimated, would be about the size and brightness of the full moon and would be visible for hours on end to something like a quarter or half the world's population at a time. Potentially, no sky on Earth would lack an ad for something.

Current technology is more than enough to do the trick, and actual companies have offered the service (for example, Space Marketing, Inc. of Roswell, Georgia, proposed space advertising for the 1996 Summer Olympics).

It seems that the only obstacles to actual space billboards are:

(1) Public opposition. Any company making use of such advertising would probably (or hopefully) be subject to intense and widespread public criticism. Indeed, I myself can think of few other causes for which I would be willing to go to war.

(2) National laws. At least in the U.S., a law prohibits the deployment of space advertising. Whether, and for how long, the law would stand up to challenges brought to the World Trade Organization, as well as domestic First Amendment challenges, I can't say. In any case, last week, the FAA asked Congress for the authority to enforce those existing U.S. laws (see's story in their "funny news" section). I believe this is happening now because private space ventures are making rapid progress in the U.S., and the FAA — not NASA — enforces laws relating to private space travel.

Around 1998, I toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay about an underground group that sabotages a mission to install some space advertising. They were not the bad guys, either ...

Einstein Takes A Test

Bohr Einstein
Niels Bohr and Einstein think about it

In physics, there are often different equations for the same phenomenon, but you can usually do a little algebra and show that the different equations actually come from the same source. This is considered good and normal.

So, it's a lot more than a bit embarrassing that the two most important ideas in modern physics — quantum mechanics, which are used to describe teeny tiny things, and General Relativity, which is used to describe big-ass things — have no connection at all. They don't match. To go from one to the other, you have to close one book, put it away, and open another.

For example, Einstein showed that gravity is really just geometry. Mass warps space, and so objects tend to slide down the geometrical warps that other objects create, moving closer together. When we look at this, it looks like gravitational attraction. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics thinks of gravity as an effect generated when masses pass little particles back and forth between them. These ideas are no more compatible to physicists than they are to me or you.

Generally, the conflict can just be ignored, but in certain cases, the two worlds collide. When you want to talk about teeny tiny spaces with HUGE gravitational fields — like black holes, or the Big Bang — you're in real trouble. You need physics that hasn't been invented yet — you need "quantum gravity" or a "Grand Unified Theory". People are working on some interesting ideas (like string theory) in trying to develop this new physics, but it's not clear whether anyone is on the right track or not.

Check your local bookstore for a good article in the July 2005 Sky and Telescope, describing experiments designed to help break the log jam. In terms of the margin of error, quantum mechanics has been confirmed with a lot more precision than General Relativity has. If Einstein's work could be confirmed way, way down to the umpteenth digit, and if this work revealed some difficulties with the theory, it might help unravel the curtain separating the physics of the very large and the very small. Astronomy is at the forefront of the effort, hence the article in Sky and Telescope.

1969 and the Moon Landing
Part 2: Alice's Restaurant

Alice's Restaurant is a long, rambling, very funny song about a lot of things — particularly the absurd way that its author, Arlo Guthrie, got out of the draft.

A film version of the song was rushed to the theaters soon after the song became a hit. In Arlo Guthrie's fascinating audio commentary for the "special features" of the film's DVD, Arlo describes the writing of the song, and then its first public performance:

I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and they said, "Oh, Arlo Guthrie, you know, aren't you Woody's kid?" And they put me out in this field — you know, I was just 18 or 19 years old, I was a real young guy — and I remember playing Alice's Restaurant standing on a box in a field with about 300 people.
They got such a response that they put me on some other program later on that afternoon with, you know, about a thousand people and that got such a respsonse that they put me on at the very end of the festival, and that evening there were probably about twenty, thirty thousand people in the audience.
They were afraid to put an unknown person like me at the end of a big festival. It'd be really chancy, I mean, what if I was terrible? What if it was horrible? ...

And so Judy Collins came out, Joan Baez came out and then other people came out, and Pete Seeger came out. And by the end of the evening, all the performers were onstage singing Alice's Restaurant.
And that was the day that Man first walked on the Moon. I remember being onstage and telling everybody, you know, "There's people walking around up there." And looking at the moon. And it was a big day. Big day for me, big day for everybody. The next day, I started getting the phone calls from all the record companies and the execs and stuff.

It's true that the song made its public premier at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967. But "Man first walked on the Moon" two years later, in July 1969. There were no astronauts in space during the 1967 festival.

Part of what fascinates me about the film, and Arlo's commentary, is that they are both constantly haunted by endless coincidences, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and mysteries — some of which Arlo points out, and some of which he seems to miss. The moon landing the night of his great triumph at Newport, for example, happened only in Arlo's memory.

The timing of the song and the film interests me. Hollywood in the mid-60s was in pretty bad shape and the studios were desperate to get people into theaters. Bonnie and Clyde (produced by 28-year-old Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn) was a surprise success and helped encourage bolder movies by sometimes by younger artists, oriented toward younger audiences.

Alice's Restaurant was Arthur Penn's next directing job after Bonnie and Clyde, and has a disorienting strangeness that seems to come from being a weird hybrid of countercultural documentary and studio pandering. So, Alice's Restaurant feels like it catches Hollywood in mid-morph, trying to figure out how to do a new thing. The movie is one key to understanding Hollywood at that moment.

But I want to understand the year 1969 and how the The Moon Landing fit into it. One lesson of Arlo's mistaken timeline is that the recollections of the major players — whether astronauts or folksingers — are 36 year old, and are bound to be cloudy.

Certainly, any drugs used at the time are unlikely to help, but they're not the only thing that can make things "run together" — young people in 1969 had a lot on their minds, what with a draft, a war, assassinations, Nixon, and such. I often remind myself that between 1965 and 1970, there were ... well, just five years.

But the main lesson of Arlo's mistake is that it wasn't some other mistake — it was about the Moon Landing. It is testimony to the importance of the landing not just as a technological feat, but as a reflection and contributor to the headiness of the times.

The 1967 Newport Folk Festival was certainly one of the most important events in Arlo Guthrie's life. It changed everything for him, and it was inextricably wrapped up in momentous national events (just listen to the song). It really was a big day for everybody — every day seemed to be. 

So, it makes sense that memories would get pegged to Apollo 11 as a way of expressing their own intensity and, especially, to express the way those memories were shaped by various dramatic displays of American power.

Part 1


Thank You Mr. Sagan



Oh, it's nice to return
to the twentieth century
blockaded from invasion
and lame radio shows
about how Jesus
loves the athletes,
his rich children,
who can achieve
so much with a cleat.

In The Letters To
The Mount Wilson Observatory,
every day blazed
with irresistible keys
brandished by real citizens
with big sensitive heads
compelled to tell us
the almighty resided
in the Orion Nebula
or that humans used
to live on the moon
until it melted.

Oh, please can we
all be muscular
jeweled fools
beating our wings
at gaps in what passes
for understanding
in a vestigial wind.

The world is not
a polyphonic monster.
If possible, may we
refrain from eavesdropping
on erudite ancestors?

Consider what we've done
to virgins, toasting on an open fire
or hosting that obsession with reptiles,
all sacred and chicane. Humans
are a moony crew, a ship's list.
Still lost but stalking the location
of a true galactic home.
Neither frozen, nor crackpot,
not noble, not alone.




This poem contains a reference to an online exhibit of very eccentric letters received from the general public by The Mount Wilson Observatory.

For today's entry of The Celestial Monochord, my heartfelt thanks to Minneapolis poet Jennifer L. Willoughby. Her first book of poems, Beautiful Zero, will be published by Milkweed Editions in late 2015. Contact her @hellowilloughby.

The Monochord has also published her poem "Your Wife As Krakatoa."


The Mount Graham Controversy, 1988


In the 1980s, I studied astronomy (actually, physics and mathematics was all it was) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I also did a lot of hiking and camping in the mountains and deserts of the southwest, compelled by the same love of nature that brought me to astronomy.

So, I found myself in the company of both astronomers and environmentalists on a daily basis. I thought nothing of it, since so many amateur astronomers prefer to see dark, clean skies than strip malls, and often have to camp in the wilderness to escape light pollution. Similarly, environment-conscious hikers and campers always seem intensely aware of the night (and day) skies they get to experience.

But then came the Mount Graham controversy. In its early stages, the debate mostly revolved around a rare species of red squirrel that some feared would go extinct if a large observatory complex was built on top of the mountain. There was a lot to consider, and I tried hard to consider it. Unfortunately, I found no colleagues willing to help.

The environmentalists I met saw visions of chemical and radioactive spills, noisy research, great tracts of asphalt, and throngs of tourists in a pristine wilderness. I tried to explain that telescopes just bend light with mirrors and today require only electricity, not photochemicals. They also like native plants around them to absorb image-blurring heat, and tourists are only marginally tolerated at a serious research facility. Mount Graham already boasted a road system, a Bible camp, and an artificial lake. Nothing of the sort was in the least bit interesting to the environmentalists I discussed it with — this information was greeted as evidence alright, but only of the fact that my heart was not in the right place. The facts seemed to prove only that I didn't care.

I will say that they were somewhat more willing to engage than the astronomy students I tried to talk to — at least when those students were in all-male groups. There was no hope of even suggesting that accomodations might be made for the observatory's impact on animal habitats, or that a better understanding of the ecosystem up there might be interesting, or that mutual education between astronomers and environmentalists might lessen the tensions over the issue. I mostly remember one very brief, bruising conversation in which it was suggested that the group go squirrel hunting.

I eventually stopped paying attention to the Mount Graham debate, mostly because I doubted a real debate was possible. Being somewhat wet behind the ears, I was shocked that my interests could be aligned with people who were so obviously wrong and unwise. It would be many years before I really came to accept that even your ideological brethren can be routinely hostile to the truth and to the common good. I came to accept it as a fact, but I still find it rather unpleasant.

Classifieds: Biosphere 2


Biosphere 2 was an attempt at creating a sealed-off, self-sustaining ecosystem of the kind astronauts would need for Moon or Mars bases, or for extremely long trips into deep space. The name implies that the Earth itself is Biosphere 1.

The $200 million venture was mostly funded by a Texas oil billionaire. With a lot of TV cameras aimed at them, the first crew was sealed up in 1991, but oxygen levels plummeted, crops failed, the isolated crew grew testy and weak, and no animals survived except abundant ants and cockroaches. It wasn't long before outside food and fresh oxygen were quietly brought in.

After a flurry of mission changes and lawsuits, the complex just north of Tucson is now up for sale:

"This is not all about the highest bidder," [general manager of company that owns Biosphere 2] said. "All things being equal, we'd certainly like to see an appropriate reuse of the Biosphere and associated buildings, but ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear."

I gather that some good science came out of Biosphere 2, and its certainly better to fail in Southern Arizona than halfway to Alpha Centauri. Still, Biosphere 2 may be best remembered as an especially bizarre example of America's (and The American West's) doomed utopianism.

It's also a dramatic example of something I've mentioned before — the intimate and often troubling relationship between American space science and the mass media. I'll do some exploring of that long history in future entries of the Monochord.


Einstein's "Miracle Year"


A hundred years ago this year, Einstein published a series of papers that reworked what scientists thought reality was. It was such a shocking gesture that 1905 is still sometimes called Einstein's "miracle year."

In science, advances and discoveries are almost always "in the air." That is, everybody is working on the same issue and kind of knows what's going to happen next — though usually not exactly how or when.

But Einstein's papers were another matter — they were certainly not "in the air." It seems like a batch of 21st century physics shot back not just into the 20th century — into 1905. I always picture a group of scientists gathered around discussing the details of some current sticking point, when suddenly a 26-year-old patent clerk clears his throat and asks, politely, "You know ... time?"

There's been so much written on Einstein, it seems silly to go on about him here. But to give a flavor of that year, let me draw an extremely quick sketch of what Einstein said:

Light occurrs in discrete "quanta." Everybody had accepted that light is a wave, but now Einstein says it's a particle too, and each light particle has a distinct, independent energy level. Nothing in quantum mechanics would be possible without this.

Atoms exist, and kinetic energy theory works. Einstein applied the idea that heat is ceaseless agitation of atoms to a phenomenon called Brownian motion — thus more or less simultaneously proving what heat was and that atoms exist.

The velocity of light is not relative, space and time are. The velocity of light isn't just how fast light goes, it's a number somehow woven into reality itself — that is, space and time organize themselves around "c".

Mass is a form of energy. And if you transform that "stuff" into more familiar forms of energy, you know how much you'll get using this equation: E=mc², where E is energy, m is mass, and c is that same number that's woven into spacetime.

It may seem anticlimactic after all that, but to mark the year, 33 physicists are writing online diaries (apparently also known as "blogs") all year long.

Classifieds: The Yerkes Observatory

The Yerkes Observatory is for sale. Possibly one of the most beautiful observatories in the world, Yerkes is located on 77 acres of prime lakeside real estate in the charming resort community of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

To those who appreciate the history of astronomy, Yerkes is also one of their best loved shrines. Yerkes was the last observatory to be built during what I think of the first space race — a drive to build larger and larger refracting telescopes (those with a big lense in the front and a little eyepiece in back, like a sailor's spyglass). Finished in 1897, Yerkes hosted some of the greatest astronomers and telescope builders of its era — E. E. Barnard, Ritchey, George Ellery Hale, Otto Struve, Kuiper, Chandrasekhar, and the young Carl Sagan.

Apparently, the University of Chicago (one of the most richly endowed universities in the world) thinks the most promising buyer at the moment is a New York developer who'd like to (at best) make Yerkes the centerpiece of a gated community of oversized suburban mansions.

If I were a rich man, daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dum ...

1969 and the Moon Landing
Part 1: M*A*S*H

Apollo 11


The first major Hollywood movie to use "the f-word" was Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. It was hard enough to get this past the studio, but the word was spoken by a gung-ho, frat-boyish soldier, whose buddies were smoking marijuana on the sidelines. Released during the depths of the Vietnam War, it was not exactly the kind of depiction of Our Troops people were used to seeing on-screen. It is said, though, that many state-side soldiers found a way to go AWOL from their bases for a few hours to see the film.

While editing M*A*S*H after filming was complete, Altman was disappointed in the results. He thought something was missing, and eventually decided the film needed a kind of Greek chorus — a detached voice that could comment on the action. So, he sent a camera crew back out to film many dozens of shots of a loudspeaker on a pole, and then he dubbed the 4077's camp announcements over this footage. It was just what he was looking for.

One of those shots of the loudspeaker has a gibbous moon in the background. According to the DVD's "special features," that shot was taken the night Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first moon landing. There are people up there on that moon, behind the camp's loudspeaker in the movie M*A*S*H.

I wan't really there in 1969, so it's not easy to imagine the impact M*A*S*H must have had on its first audiences (the more familiar TV series doesn't help). What it must have meant for that moon landing to drop into the middle of 1969 is even harder to reconstruct. After all, when is it ever possible to grasp the mood of an entire nation in any year — much less America in 1969?

John Prine said recently, "If you want the big picture, you need a really small frame." That shot of the 4077's loundspeaker with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the background sometimes rests in my mind for a long time, like a shrine for contemplation or like some kind of worry stone.

Part 2

Two Hundred Planets

When I was a kid, being stuck with just the Sun's nine planets drove me half mad. Astronomers suspected there were planets circling other stars, but the brute fact was that nobody knew. The uncertainty made my skin crawl.

Carl Sagan made matters worse by vividly fantasizing about a future in which you could thumb through an "Encyclopedia Galactica," a catalog of known worlds and civilizations. He wondered, ominously, what our entry would say.

Well, the first "extrasolar planet" was discovered about 10 years ago, and today something like 20 new planets are announced every month. Within a few weeks, the total number of known planets will hit 200. It's almost impossible to keep up with these announcements (especially since a few don't pan out and are later withdrawn).

The May issue of "Sky and Telescope" reports that a planet recently found circling a pulsar has a mass of 0.0004 that of Earth's — that is, it's basically just an asteroid. The rate and variety of discoveries is going to do nothing but accelerate, and fast. We'll have our own page in an "Encyclopedia Galactica" sooner that Carl thought.