#REVIEW: Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

Longest post title ever? Possibly. Gotta love nonfiction books.

This is known: there exists an alternate-universe version of me who has a Ph.D and works as either an astronomer or a planetary geologist. I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for as long as I can remember, and every now and again I really wonder how it is that I didn’t take all that much math and science in college.

(Actually, I know why that’s true. My current enjoyment of mathematics dates to realizing how fascinating statistics was when I had to take a stats class for my … oh, wait, I was a Psychology major, among other things, so I guess I did have to take a fair number of science classes in college.)

(Let’s say “hard science” classes and piss off the psychology people. Like, science with math, which– other than stats– Psychology really doesn’t trouble itself all that much with. Shut up you know what I mean.)

Anyway. I followed the New Horizons mission with no small degree of fascination, and the data they’ve acquired about Pluto and its associated moons is endlessly interesting. Earlier this year the spacecraft did a flyby on a Kuiper Belt object now known as Arrokoth, and I believe there’s at least one more KBO flyby planned before the craft is shut down. Stern and Grinspoon’s book isn’t so much about the science, or about Pluto, however; it’s about the 20-plus-year effort to get the mission to explore the ninth planet(*) approved and the political and scientific process by which the mission itself actually came to be. As it turns out, there were a lot of people who for one reason or another didn’t want New Horizons to happen, and the mission was either actually cancelled or nearly cancelled five or six times, to say nothing of the number of times where something went wrong with the craft itself. For example, I wasn’t aware that they lost contact with the craft just a few days before the Pluto flyby began, and the book’s description of the mad scramble to not only reestablish contact with the by-then-several-billion-miles-away craft but to then slowly re-upload a bunch of mission-critical code updates before the thing sped by Pluto at thousands of miles per hour is compelling as hell.

So, yes– this book is less a work of popular science or a textbook about Pluto than it is a book about history and politics. It’s about the mission, not the planet, and while I wasn’t quite aware of that when I picked it up it’s no less of a good read for it– I’m always down to read something about NASA’s inner workings, and some of the squabbling that takes place between Caltech’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins over who was going to actually design and build the spacecraft that eventually became New Horizons is pretty damn cool. One way or another, while I haven’t read a ton of nonfiction this year I’m glad I finally let this stop languishing on my shelf and picked it up. You’ll probably see it mentioned again in a month or so, when I write my 10– or possibly 15– best books of the year post for 2019. In the meantime, check it out.

(*) For most of the book, Pluto is very much considered a planet, and the authors’ open derision toward the new definition of “planet” that reclassified Pluto is hilarious. Needless to say, for these guys Pluto is the ninth planet and it ain’t going anywhere.

In which I shouldn’t post this

The last couple of days have been … well, downright pleasant at work, with no particular episodes of bullshit worth passing on. I took a video today of one of my more generally troublesome kids doing something both entertaining and mysterious; he appears to have the ability to blow smoke (well, water vapor, but it looks like smoke) out of his mouth more or less at will, and I recorded him doing it so that I can show it to my wife and have her science it and tell me what the hell he’s actually doing. I’d post it, but it’s somebody else’s kid, and the parent doesn’t know, and … eh, nah.

(Goes on YouTube)

Oh, here’s what he’s doing. I still want to know more about the science:

Anyway, yeah, it’s just like my life for me to decide I need to go on antidepressants again and then have two genuinely good days at work. Tomorrow, no doubt, will be a hell-nightmare, because I’ve posted this.

In which I still hate nature

I’m still holding true to one of my summertime goals: every day, do something to clean and/or organize and/or improve something around the house. Frankly, most days I’m doing multiple things, but even on the laziest of days I’m trying to get something minor accomplished. To wit: there is a bush in front of our house, and there were a bunch of big weeds and two actual small trees growing out of the bush that needed to come out. I initially posted a picture of one of the weeds to Facebook, because it reminded me of something that the back of my head was telling me was poisonous and I wanted to know if anyone could identify it. (The poisonous things are hemlock and giant hogweed, which are both superficially similar; I do not think this weed is poisonous any longer.)

Several hours later, I still don’t know what the hell the thing is and now it’s a blog post. We’re all about plants around here today.

Anyway. First picture: I pulled the thing out of the ground barehanded and with very little effort, so the roots don’t go deep. I tossed it on the hood of my car for scale. This was not here last week, so it grows fast.

A close-up on the flowers. Note lots of tiny clusters of white flowers but no stamens (stama?) anywhere. This is relevant, as lots of plants have the flowers but they have stamens all over the place.

The underside of the flowers:

And the leaves:

I took another picture that was a close-up of the stems, but you get a good look in the lower corner of that picture. The two most common guesses have been mock bishop’s weed and Queen Anne’s lace. I feel like neither is right. Mock bishop’s weed has really needly leaves:

And Queen Anne’s lace leaves don’t look right either, although they’re a lot closer, and I keep seeing QAL described as “hairy”:

… which, shit, maybe this IS hemlock. The stems and leaves look right, but the flowers really don’t. This is hemlock:

No little stamen thingies on the flowers, so not hemlock. And, interesting: I just scrolled back up to look at the pictures of the flowers more carefully and the stems by the flowers are a little hairy. So maybe it’s Queen Anne’s after all?

EDIT: Found a website about QAL and hemlock and now I don’t think it’s either, because the stems don’t have any purple in them (which hemlock does) and the flowers don’t have any purple spots in them or any bracts, which Queen Anne’s Lace does. So I think it’s another thing altogether.

Gah. Screw nature; it’s stupid.

In which I leave the house

We just got back from Doing a Thing, the annual Science Alive! event at the main branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library in downtown South Bend. This is the third year my wife has taken my son; I didn’t go the last two years because I was working every Saturday. It’s an interesting event; they basically take over the library with tons of booths and exhibits (too many, honestly; there’s stuff everywhere you turn, and tons of people, and I was stressed out from trying to keep from bumping into people or knocking little kids over) and most of them are hands-on in some way or another, which is pretty cool.

The ground floor was basically a mini-4H fair, with a lot of vaguely bemused-looking farm kids letting the terrified city folk do stuff like pet chickens, with the occasional pig or snake thrown in for good measure.

The upper floors were more … science-fair-ish, I guess? Not in the sense of people showing off experiments, but more like lots of table staffed by local college kids demonstrating some aspect of SCIENCE! to the kids. The weird thing was a lot of the time the science they were wanting to talk about was miles beyond the comprehension level of the small kids (my son is 7, and he was about average for the crowd, and there were a lot of kids way younger) who were there. I spent a couple of minutes watching some poor woman who is probably an excellent teacher when she’s surrounded by college students who want doctorates gamely struggling to relate square dancing and mathematics and fractions to each other … somehow? She literally had a whiteboard covered with equations next to her and I had to keep myself from bursting out laughing when she, entirely seriously, asked the group of elementary-age kids in front of her who wanted to square dance what the negative reciprocal of 1/2 was.

I would wager that, if you threw out the actual scientists, no more than 10% of the adults in the building could tell you what a negative reciprocal is. I mean, it’s not a difficult concept, but it’s not one of those things that most folk need to worry about, y’know? Then there was an entire room full of particle physics folks and one lonely astronomer. And, like, okay, radiation’s cool, and particle accelerators are cool, and whatever the spinny ball-balancy thing that my son was so enthralled with was neat, but I found myself wondering if anybody at all was thinking about age-appropriateness when they put this all together. Waving a hand-made Giger counter at a piece of Fiestaware is pretty neat, but I’m pretty certain that despite a valiant effort at explaining radioactivity by the two Ph.D candidates behind the table, it really didn’t get anywhere with my kid.

So. Yeah. Interesting event, but they maybe need to think a bit harder about the age group they’re pitching to and how they’re going to do that in the future.

Woo new face!

IMG_7121Finally got the new glasses today, which was exciting up until the point where I remembered that having a new prescription for my glasses is basically exactly the same as being super duper baked.  I’m spending all my time staring at my hand and the floor seems like it’s farther away than I’m used to it being and there’s this weird haze around the edges of my vision that comes from not having trained my brain to not notice the edges of the new glasses yet.  One interesting development: these lenses have some sort of new coating on them that is supposed to both screen out certain kinds of light emitted by digital screens and sharpen those images, and holy cow my iPhone has never looked so good before.  So I’m staring at my phone like I’ve never seen it in addition to anything else in the world with fine detail.  My old prescription wasn’t that out of date, but it’s been long enough since I’ve changed it that I’m way out of practice, if that makes any sense at all.

Tomorrow I get to go back to the dentist for like the third time in a month.  They’re going to numb me up again and do some sort of horrible procedure to my gums– they’re pretending it’s cleaning-related but I’m pretty sure it’s actually just punishment for having taken so long in between visits.  At any rate, the important part is that they’re going to be numbing me again, so I get to look forward to not being able to feel half of my face for most of the day.    I may actually have to run into work to close out a sale after the procedure, which is going to be awesome fun.  I’ve never tried to close a sale while unable to feel my face before. I’m really excited about it.

What’s on y’all’s agenda for the next couple of days?