"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Blind Date with a New York Gal

It's not what you think. I sooooo wish this blog post is what you might think after reading that headline. But it is not. For the second time in my perennial bachelorhood, the Marian Librarians of Chelsea Public Library have taken pity on my solitude and set me up with an engaging fountain of intellect. Move over, Innocence. May I buy you a drink, Experience?

For those of you who haven't read about my previous library blind date, you can do so via this post. I'm not trying to entice you to delve further into my blog. Suffice it to say that post is far more sexual...also mingled with violence and...no, I did not read 50 Shades of Grey.

This is how a library blind date works. The library set up a display of books covered in brown paper, with short phrases hinting at what the book was about. I was not allowed to open the book until after I checked the book out from an authorized Marian...I mean librarian. Sight unseen I committed to paying a late fee if the date went badly--or rather, if the date went really well.

As you can see above, I chose a book that promised to center on "humorous essays," "world travel," and a "catalog of house pets." Like other blind dates, I chose to be optimistic and take a chance. I tried to imagine what my date would look like and talk like. I asked myself, "Do I really want to go through with this?"

I ended up spending several evenings with Sloane Crosley, a New York-based author who wrote How Did You Get This Number. I was hoping for a quick read, because I have a backlog of other books that I need to read, including a monthly book club selection. A book of essays sounded accessible.

How did it go? Pretty well! I rated this book four out of five stars on Goodreads.com. My review follows:

How Did You Get This NumberHow Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would recommend How Did You Get This Number to people looking for good non-fiction, essays in particular. If you have a New York City obsession, this is a book by a New Yorker. Most importantly, it is a book I likely would have never tried otherwise. No offense to Ms. Crosley, but she was not on my radar. Nothing personal. Just LOTS of authors out there. The radar is crowded. But my local library set me up with this book on a literary blind date, so...

As with books by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, here I found myself reading long-form reflections by someone who is from my generation. At one point, Crosley says, "I was a child of the '80s but a teenager of the '90s." I have often described myself the exact same way.

This blind date wasn't perfect. At their best, essay books are a fascinating chance to explore someone else's mind, to experience the joy of another person's notions resonating with your own. In such moments, a book makes you feel less alone. At their worst, such books become an excruciating one-sided conversation. At various times in this date, I experienced both extremes.

Crosley is an astute observer of the world--able to encapsulate her experience in meaningful, often playful, prose. Her zingers and witticisms are hit and miss. Her sense of humor did not always jive with my own. Although, perhaps I shouldn't chalk that up to a flaw. She is capable of great twists, sending you in one meaningful direction so she can suddenly yank you in another. That is good essay writing to me.

Still, during her chapter about visiting France, what started out intriguing eventually dragged on too long. Have you ever been at the table with someone very much in to what they are rambling on about? You wish you could be as in to it as are they. But you know what? I have never been to France. I might never go. Keeping with the blind date metaphor, during the Paris chapter I had this inner-dialogue while reading: "Right now this night is all about you. And if it does not become about us pretty soon I probably won't ask you out a second time."

In her last essay, Crosley hits a home run. My notions of New York City have reached toxic levels of dreaminess under the influence of a certain sitcom which for eight full years remained motherless. Crosley took me deep into her New York experience, including a disastrous relationship. I believed in her Big Apple by the end, full of dreams and downfalls, but very much a place where powerful connections can happen.

So the date went well. I don't know that we will see each other again, but the time was not wasted. We should all find ourselves out with someone different, who challenges us more than they charm us. Thank you Sloane. And thank you to my library for fixing me up once again.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Attending Hubble's 25th Anniversary NASA Social

Image of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder on display at NASA Goddard.

For all I was privileged to see as an attendee of the Hubble 25th Anniversary NASA Social, the above picture typifies what I learned. When Hubble Space Telescope launched into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990, it contained three reel-to-reel tape recorders. Reel-to-reel! The above is one of two that were replaced by solid state drives in subsequent servicing missions. (A solid state drive provides storage on the smartphone you may be reading this on.)

Now, keeping the old reel-to-reel in mind, watch the spectacular video below. It combines Hubble’s observational keenness with digital wizardry to achieve a 3D rendering of a nebula. See how far we’ve come in a quarter century of Hubble observations!

I first watched the above video on Thursday, April 23rd, on a gigantic HD screen at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I and my fellow NASA Social attendees applauded the visual treat. We were among the guests for a televised press conference and image unveiling: Star Cluster Westerlund 2. The image comes from 20,000 year old light emanating from 2 million year old suns.

Jennifer Wiseman, Charles Bolden, and John Grunsfeld, speak at a NASA Press Conference for the Hubble Space Telescope 25th Anniversary Image Unveiling.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who piloted the shuttle mission that released Hubble 25 years ago, presided over the press conference. Seen at center in the above photo, he was joined onstage by Hubble Senior Project Scientist Jennifer Wiseman and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld (like Bolden an astronaut with first-hand Hubble experience). Not seen in the image, but also speaking at the event was Kathy Flanagan, Interim Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

NASA Social attendees view the Space Environment Simulator in Greenbelt, MD.

Following the press conference, NASA Social attendees were bused out to
Goddard Space Flight Center for behind-the-scenes tours of facilities like the above Space Environment Simulator--a high vacuum cryogenic facility that chugs super-cold liquid nitrogen by the gallon. As was a recurring theme throughout the day, our celebration of Hubble transitioned into discussions about the James Webb Space Telescope which should launch into space in 2018.

There was even some playful smack talk about Hubble versus Webb in the pantheon of observatories. In reality, NASA wants to keep Hubble operational through at least 2020. This would allow Hubble and Webb to observe the deepest regions of space in tandem.

Of my day at NASA Goddard I will say that it was a thrill to see the facilities up close--to observe as dedicated scientists and engineers build and test instruments that must survive in the cold vacuum of space for decades at a time. Much of what launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida is first made space-worthy in labs at Goddard.

Hubble Space Telescope 1997. Image Credit: NASA

Like Hubble, I've been staring up and out for the last 25 years. I remember one of my high school teachers sheepishly explaining Hubble's early technical snafu as it unfolded. Being a brat at the time, I found it a bit amusing. Yet over the years, as happened for so many of us, the improved telescope refined and expanded my sense of the universe and my place within it. A few years ago, I contributed a photo caption to an article celebrating the final servicing mission of Hubble, published by the Planetary Society.

When I watched the IMAX film Hubble 3D at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum back in 2010, I confess I was brought to tears by the shuttle launch sequence. So, by way of geeky tendencies, I have a romantic sense of Hubble’s ongoing mission. Thanks to my Goddard visit, I now have been in the same room with Hubble’s early components. The connection feels more tangible than ever before.

To see the photos I took during the social, visit my Google+ page.

To learn about the NASA Social program and how you might participate, visit their page or follow @NASASocial on Twitter. Lastly, to spend some quality time with the fruits of Hubble’s labor, I strongly encourage you to visit http://hubblesite.org. Thank you for reading!