After decades of research, in September 2015 the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors measured ripples in the fabric of spacetime. That ripple is known as gravitational waves. They arrived at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. The new detectors had just been brought into operation for their first observing run when the very clear and strong signal was captured.

Back in 1916, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves. These miniscule ripples in the fabric of spacetime are generated by unfathomably powerful events.

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin says that if those ripples and other vibrations could somehow be recorded, we could observe our universe through sound. What might we hear? The hissing of the Big Bang, the songs of collapsing stars, the low rumblings of merging galaxies, the smash of two black holes collapsing into one.

Spacetime takes the concepts of time and three-dimensional space and fuses them together. In classical mechanics – think of Isaac Newton – time is separate from space. In special relativity – think of Einstein – time and space are fused together into a single 4-dimensional “manifold” called spacetime.

Can you really grasp that concept? I think I do, but ask me to explain it and I go blank.

Many things about space and time are at a scale that really is incomprehensible to most of us. Based on the observed signals, the LIGO scientists estimate that the black holes for the event they detected were about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun. I can’t imagine that. The event took place 1.3 billion years ago. I also can’t imagine that.

For this event, about 3 times the mass of the sun was converted into gravitational waves in a fraction of a second. The peak power output would have been about 50 times that of the whole visible universe. This energy is emitted as a final strong burst of gravitational waves.

This past October, Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish won the Nobel Prize in physics for directly detecting gravitational waves.

 

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spiders

Little Miss Muffet suffered from arachnophobia.

We all have fears. But if you have a disproportionate fear of something that does not pose a real danger,  that is a phobia. Phobias are an intense, persistent and lasting fear that you associate with a specific thing.

I did some experiments for college psychology classes related to phobias. I was in a group for arachnophobia, the fairly common fear of spiders. We were told that past experiences often have a profound influence on our reactions to things in our environment. I couldn’t recall any traumatic events occurring with spiders, but not all types of phobias necessarily develop due to psychological trauma.

The conditioning our group went through started with looking at photographs of spiders. Some people were freaked out by the photos. We moved to spider videos and then to spiders in tanks. I was fine until we got to putting our arm into a tank and allowing spiders to crawl on me.

 

People suffering from phobias get physiological symptoms including tachycardia (rapid heart rate) dizziness, gastric and urinary disorders, nausea, diarrhea, choking, redness, excessive sweating, trembling and exhaustion.

There are different categories of phobias. Situational phobias are fears caused by a specific situation, such as public transport, tunnels, bridges, elevators, flying, driving, or closed areas (claustrophobia) or  open spaces (agoraphobia).

There are many kinds of animal phobias: fear of birds and even a fear of just pigeons, insects, dogs, cats, mice etc.

Besides my fear of spiders (which isn’t bad enough to really interfere with my life) I also have one of the more common phobias – acrophobia or fear of heights. That fear hits me on a tall ladder, cliff edge and many amusement park rides.

I have read that glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia. The word glossophobia derives from the Greek glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. Some people have this specific phobia, while others may also have broader social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

Other common ones are fear of  the dark (scotophobia), phobia of water (hydrophobia), blood phobia (hemophobia), and needle (as in injections) phobia.

There are also some rarer but real phobias.

How about reacting to hearing good news with fear? Those individuals are suffering from euphobia have opposite reactions to good news.

Yellow is a nice color most of associate with warmth, summer, sunlight and positive emotions. But there are people who fear yellow. That is xanthophobia.

Eosophobia can be a disabling phobia because fearing daylight, these people prefer sleeping during the day and become more active throughout the night. Get ready for vampire jokes, but it can seriously affect someone’s work and social life.

Whatever the opposite of turophobia is, I have it. Turophobia is an irrational fear of cheese. Like any true phobia, this can manifest as a fear of seeing, smelling, touching and certainly of eating cheeses.

it is more likely that the thought of cheese causes you nausea. Only the idea of eating cheese will probably make you feel disgusted due to its texture and taste.

Imagine how tough it is to live with ablutophobia which is when the thought of bathing, showering, cleaning or washing can cause shortness of breath or accelerated heartbeat. Many children show this fear at an early age, but become conditioned to these activities. Some never do.

On the other extreme are individuals with mysophobia who have such a fear of getting in contact with contaminated things that have a constant need to clean their environment, such as their working area or any object they touch.

There are conditioning treatments that can be effective for some people with phobias. It is a very gentle exposure to what we fear. You have probably heard about people who have a fear of flying (aviophobia) who watch airplanes, sit in grounded ones and build up to actually going up in the air for a flight.

journals

I was trying to recall the details of something that happened to me almost 40 years ago, and my memory failed me. But I have kept journals since I was 16, which remember much better than I do. I say “journal” rather than “diary” because I never was able to do the daily entries. But I have been chronicling my life with entries that cover the past week or the past month (if I was busy with other things).

I was partially inspired by a diary my father kept while he was in the Navy in WWII (bottom left of the photo above) that recorded his travels and battles, including landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. My own first journal was written in a notebook my father had from when he worked for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey (top left in photo). I found it after he died. I was 15, and I wanted to fill those empty pages.

Journals and diaries have a rich history and some actually get published, either because the writer becomes famous or because no one else has written about that time or place.

I went through a period when I was in junior high of reading a lot of adventure books and some of those were really journals. Herman Melville had two early best-sellers with his first book, Typee , and a follow-up narrative, Omoo, about his time in Polynesia and sailing the South Seas. Another one was Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. The story of his 1834 sea voyage was a big hit and at the time was one of the few books that described California.

One of my favorite journals that was published almost didn’t exist. One day in 1956 when Ernest Hemingway was having lunch at the Hôtel Ritz Paris with his friend A.E. Hotchner. The chairman of the hotel, Charles Ritz, told Hemingway that there was a trunk in the hotel storage room that he had left there in 1930.

Hemingway didn’t remember leaving it. But he did remember a trunk that he had lost in Paris at some point. When Hemingway opened it, he found clothing, menus, receipts, memos, hunting, fishing and skiing equipment, racing forms, letters – and most importantly, a series of notebooks and journals.

But this was 1956 Hemingway. He had won the Nobel and the Pulitzer prize. People knew who he was even if they had not been one of the hundreds of thousands of people who had bought and read his books. He was a celebrity author.

But he had been in a car crash in 1945 and smashed his knee, and in two successive plane crashes, had a bad concussion, a broken skull, cracked discs, burns, kidney and liver ruptures and a dislocated shoulder. Plus, he had the remnants of WWI injuries, bad insomnia, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, and was self-medicating with a lot of booze to deal with the pain.

Writing was not working for him. For someone who saw writing as what have his life meaning, no writing meant no meaning.

Hemingway had kept a detailed  journal when he lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, in the 1920s. He was a poor, young, struggling writer hanging out with other expat artists and writers. The writing he did in his notebooks is full of the people of that time and place – Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford.

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Rediscovering those notebooks and rereading them must have been wonderful. I know the feeling. I sometimes – not too often – go back to my journals looking for something I can’t quite recall. But I always end up reading more.

When Hemingway was rereading his journals, it was a time when he found it difficult to write. The journals gave him a starting place. He worked from those notebooks for the next few years calling the project his “Paris book.” He started writing the book in Cuba in the autumn of 1957, and continued working at home in Ketchum, Idaho, in Spain and in Cuba. He made some final revisions in the fall of 1960 in Ketchum, but he was in a lot of pain and fighting a deep depression.

It would be the last book he would work on, but it wasn’t published while he was alive. His publisher wanted to call the book Paris Sketches, but his fourth wife and widow, Mary, didn’t like the title and asked Papa’s 1956 Paris lunch companion, Hotchner, to suggest something. Hotchner recalled that Ernest had said “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” That became the book’s title.

In the revised 2009 edition of A Moveable Feast, Patrick Hemingway included his father’s “last piece of professional writing.” It was a forward to the book that had not been used. It’s sad. No wonder it wasn’t used in the original published version.

“This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”

Early in the morning of  July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway took a shotgun from the rack in his home, loaded it, put the barrel in his mouth and committed suicide. A Moveable Feast was published three years later.

Geminids in the northern hemisphere by Asim Patel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via commons.wikimedia.org

The Geminid meteor shower is a very reliable annual meteor shower that will visit us again in the upcoming week. It will peak the night of December 13 and early morning hours of the 14th and because there will be a thin crescent Moon, there won’t be much light to interfere with viewing.

The showers are caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is an asteroid, making this event one of the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. Phaethon (a name from mythology) is an asteroid with an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid.

The meteors appear to come from (radiate from) the constellation Gemini, which rises around sunset and will be almost overhead by 2am. The best views should be between midnight and 4am.

If you’re lucky and you are under a clear, dark sky, you could see up to 120 meteors per hour. And to further make them easier to see, the Geminids are slow-moving dust particles when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. They are only moving at 22 miles per second, but friction with air molecules will easily burn them up and make a nice incandescent glow for us to watch.

More at www.skyandtelescope.com

The last Full Moon of 2017  came to fullness at 10:47 am ET.  It is a “supermoon” which, by a commonly accepted definition, is when a full moon comes within 225,027 miles (362,146 km) of Earth. It’s not that rare, and happens every few months. The two full moons on January 2 and 31, 2018 also count as supermoons and that double full moon appearance in a month means we can call that second full moon on January 31, 2018 a Blue Moon.

This early full moon of December was often called the Moon Before Yule by the European colonists who also knew it as the Oak Moon (Medieval English), Frost Moon, Freezing Moon, Christmas Moon (when it occurs later in the month) and Snow Moon.

A nice book to read kids for all the full moons is When the Moon is Full. It has lovely woodcuts and poems that portray the twelve full moons of the year. They use the “traditional Native American names,” so this month is the Long Night Moon.

This is classified as a “children’s book” but it will not be difficult to read and reread as an adult. There is also some factual Moon information included in the book, like defining a blue moon. The poetry text is by Penny Pollock with illustrations by Mary Azarian.

It should be noted that to say that the December full moon is called by Native Americans the “Long Night Moon,” an asterisk should note that there are many Indian names for the full moons because they varied by tribe and especially by location. It was also called the Cold Moon, Small Spirits Moon, When the Wolves Run Together (Cheyenne) Moon of Respect (Hopi) and the Shawnee washilatha kiishthwa or Eccentric Moon.

This year I chose the name Moon of Popping Trees, but I have also read that the Sioux of The Dakotas and the Cree call the first New Moon of the new year something similar, sometimes translated as Moon of the Cold-Exploding Trees (which doesn’t sound quite Indian to me).

Cold weather can actually cause trees to explode by freezing the sap. The water in the sap expands as it freezes and can create a pop or even as a sound like a gunshot from the splitting bark.

The Choctaw called this the Peach Moon and that name is probably appropriate to a tribe that originally occupied what is now Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. If you live there today, it just might be more a Peach Moon than one where trees are exploding.

Sometimes the Colonists later took on English versions of the Indian names. And the Native American Cherokee people called this the Snow Moon, as did the Medieval English. Much of  America gets snow this month, and even in the warmer Southwest the Snow Moon is the full moon when the first snows fall in the mountains. The Cherokee tell the story of a spirit being, Vsgiyi (Snow Man) who brings the cold and snow so that the the land can rest.

Beyond American shores, this full moon is also called Wintermonat (Winter Month), Bitter Moon (China), Heilagmonoth (Holy Month), Dreaming Moon and Big Winter Moon.

This year the Yuletide  will not be signaled by a full moon but by the winter solstice for 2017 which will slide into the Northern Hemisphere at 11:28 AM ET on Thursday, December 21.

 

 

I suppose some people think of Watership Down as a children’s story, but it very adult in its language and themes.

I passed on reading the book to my sons and stuck to Peter Rabbit and, like Watership‘s author Richard Adams, I made up stories about rabbits for my sons’ bedtimes. My stories had a way of closely paralleling the boys’ lives, but they never seemed to notice.

I saw the animated adaptation of the novel and my kids did watch that, although I waited until I thought they were ready because these rabbits do battle and there is blood.

Rabbit battles? Is this an allegory?  I didn’t read it that way, but these anthropomorphic rabbits certainly seem human in many ways. But they are also very rabbit with their own language (Lapine), culture, history and mythology. And I learned a lot about real rabbits by reading it.

I had rabbits as a child – Coffee and Thumper. And my sons had a rabbit pet named Merlin (because his upright ears seemed to form a pointed wizard’s cap).

My wife had read the book before we met and it was something we had in common and talked about. When we were driving and we saw rabbits on the roadside in early evening, we knew they were at silflay.  We knew that the passing of our hrududu might frighten them, although rabbits get pretty good at living in or around human living spaces.

Emily Ruskovich, a teacher and writer who wrote a piece for the Paris Review about her own connections to the novel, and I could relate to much of it.

I revisited the novel this week via an audiobook. It read the book for the first time in 1973 and again the late 1980s as part of own bedtime storytelling inspiration. Not being a child or a young man or the father of children, it was a different story. Of course, books don’t change – we change and the times we read them change and have changed us.

People have read the book and compared it to the hero’s journey, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, and see different types of religious themes in it. For example, the character of Frith created the world and promised that rabbits would always be allowed to thrive, and in Lapine his name  “the sun”.

I don’t doubt that those things can be found in the novel, even if Richard Adams maintained that those earlier tales were not its origin and the intents were not the same. He set the story in the real Watership Down that he knew, a hill, or down, at Ecchinswell in the civil parish of Ecchinswell, Sydmonton and Bishops Green in the English county of Hampshire.

Entrance to rabbit warren

I identify more nowadays with the aging rabbits. Hazel is the “protagonist” of the novel who is able to unite two rabbit societies and they live a peaceful life in the downs. But Fiver is my favorite rabbit. I guess I identified more with this runt of the litter who is a kind of a seer. He is not the leader, but others follow him or at least follow his advice through Hazel.

At the end of the story, Hazel is visited by the mythical black rabbit of death. I suppose he is “Death” but this ghost rabbit is quite peaceful and he comes to invite Hazel to join his Owsla, a rabbit warren’s military caste. The black rabbit says “If you’re ready, we might go along now.”  Hazel didn’t need his body any more, so he left it on the ground and made a leap into the afterlife.

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve 2016 at the age of 96. Like most rabbits, Adams lived until his death in Whitchurch, which is within 10 miles of his birthplace. You don’t need to travel the world to find a good story.

 

 

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