Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shards of Ancient Suns

Summer is winding down. Peewee football practice has started in the park, though baseball will continue sporadically for a while. Lilly starts school tomorrow, and yesterday we got a recorded message by phone from the school superintendent, reminding students to show up. That isn't quite how he put it, but anyway it was a first. Finally, there's that business of shorter days, which is very noticeable now.

Ann starts kindergarten soon, too, but not tomorrow. On the whole, kindergarten must be a few days shorter than the rest of the elementary school year; she starts early next week. We got a letter from her teacher, welcoming her new students, and including a picture of her. She looks young enough to be my grown niece, if I had any. This is now happening with some regularity.

For a popular astronomy book published in the late '80s, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris, 1989) holds up pretty well, mostly because it's about the history of figuring out just how far away celestial objects are. When I have a few moments, I go to the deck and read it in still-warm August air.

I'll never look at my iron deck table quite the same again after reading the following digression, at the end of a discussion of Capt. Cook's 1769 voyage to observe the Transit of Venus, which was an important step in accurately measuring the Astronomical Unit.

"At iron the building stops; a normal, first-generation star lacks the energy required to make any heavier nuclei. The Sumerian name for iron, which means 'metal from heaven,' is literally true: Iron is a working star's proudest product.

"When a star runs out of fuel, it can become unstable and explode, spewing much of its substance, now rich in iron and other heavy elements, into space... Time passed, human beings appeared, miners in the north of England dug the iron from the Earth, and [smiths] pounded it into nails that longshoremen loaded in barrels into the holds of the HMS Endeavour. Off the nails went to Tahiti, continuing a journey that had begun in the bowels of stars that died before the Sun was born. The nails that Cook's men traded with the Tahitian dancing girls, while on an expedition to measure the distance of the Sun, were, themselves, the shards of ancient suns."


Post a Comment

<< Home