Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pluto: A History

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015. Maybe you were at work, stressing out about a deadline. Or, maybe, you were with friends, distressing after having to fight off your boss one too many times. LeBron James was probably sitting at home somewhere, trying to understand how he could lose in the NBA Finals yet again. His Cleveland Cavaliers had just fallen to the Golden State Warriors less than a week before. South of the border, the Mexican government was putting out a bounty on the infamous drug kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

With everything that was happening on Earth, you’d be excused for not looking up at the stars and realizing something historic was going on. Space is the last thing we’re thinking about between family, friends, work, politics, sports, and all the other little things that are always grabbing for our attention. Out there, though, roughly five billion miles away, humanity was getting its first close-up of the dwarf planet, Pluto. 

You’re excused if you didn’t realize that, but you need to know this was important.

The history of Pluto’s a complicated one. As early as the 1840s, men like Urbain Le Verrier were making sophisticated predictions, which were based on Newtonian mechanics, to assert that there had to be other planets beyond Uranus. Uranus, at the time, was the planet we thought was farthest out in the Solar System. The problem for astronomers was that Uranus didn’t have a steady orbit around the Sun. Something was interfering with it. 

That planet wasn’t Pluto. It was actually Neptune, but for the first time in human history, mankind was pushing the limits of the known Solar System. Once people realized Neptune was out there, governments started making huge observatories to start searching further and further out. Neptune was discovered in 1846. Pluto, though, wouldn’t be found for nearly a hundred years more. 

The problem for astronomers was that Pluto was legitimately hard to track. That’s understandable, considering the distance was far outside the scope of most observatories that existed at the time. In 1906, the equivalent of an outer space manhunt was declared to track down this rouge “Planet X.” Astronomers started scanning the skies and predicting possible locations. Some of those involved in the search even accidentally picked up images of the wandering planet, then failed to realize they had.

The epicenter of this search was occurring at Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff, AZ. Created by a wealthy Bostonian named Percival Lowell, whose pockets were deep enough to self-fund such a massive project, the Lowell Observatory’s mission for decades was to track down this undiscovered planet. Most people are aware that space is big, but what they don’t realize is just how big it actually is. You have to carefully pick your battles when it comes to taking photos out there.

So, the Lowell Observatory staff did the best they could to make predictions about that path Pluto was travelling. It was the kind of obsessive mission that Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame would have been proud of. In fact, it was a never-ending pursuit that drove Lowell until his death in 1916. He died, never aware that he’d actually captured faint images of Pluto, and went to his death without having ever found his version of the white whale.

After his death, a legal battle started to brew as his widow attempted to claim a multi-million dollar settlement from the observatory. Over ten years, that legal battle raged, bringing the search for Pluto to a halt. Once the dust settled and the observatory returned to work, Vesto Melvin Slipher, the observatory director, handed the mission of finding Pluto over to a young astronomer named Clyde W. Tombaugh. It was the beginning of the end to the 30-year mission.

Clyde Tombaugh was the kind of guy that would beat anyone else in a game of Where’s Waldo? because his mission for a full year was to basically do just that. Instead of finding a happy-go-lucky, glasses wearing oddball, Clyde’s mission was to take photo after photo of space. Then, one by one, he’d search those images for even the slightest changes. 

Over the course of six days, from January 23rd to January 29th, he finally noticed that there was an object that seemed to be drifting through the photographs. He had to confirm this before making any big declarations of the world. He was looking for his smoking gun. That came in the form of a picture taken on January 21st. As he compared all the photographs, he found the streaking Pluto yet again, and made a path for its movement over sets of multiple pictures. 

With a predicted line of motion, the observatory was able to take even more pictures, confirming for good that Pluto was out there. All it took to make the news official was a telegraph to Harvard College Observatory on March 13th, 1930. The mission to find Pluto, that began with predictions by astronomers in the 1840s and became the obsession of Percival Lowell in the early 20th century, was over. Clyde Tombaugh had made history.

The discovery of a new planet created a tidal wave of scientific investigations. It’s a curious little place out on the edge of the Solar System, and it has some odd behaviors. Its orbit around the sun, for instance, makes it intersect with the orbit of Neptune. Pluto moves at an angle to the sun, and the only reason it doesn’t collide with Neptune is that Neptune’s rotation is just a little bit slower. Otherwise, instead of planets beyond Uranus, you’d have just asteroid belt.

Pluto’s got a couple of other quarks, just like any person. It takes 24 hours for the Earth to make one rotation from day to night. Pluto is a bit lazier. It takes a little over six days for it to make a rotation. Because it rotates at an odd angle, it doesn’t have constant seasons. A quarter of Pluto is in constant daylight, never experiencing nighttime. It’s like living in Alaska over the summer and never leaving.
Not that you could live on Pluto if you wanted to. Its surface is almost entirely nitrogen ice, with just small traces of methane and carbon monoxide. There’s no oxygen, so there’s nothing to breath. It’s also incredibly cold. We’re talking -390 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be -233 degrees for the Europeans out there. Either way, when you start talking about temperatures that are anything below zero, you know it’s not going to be pleasant.

Of course, the most infamous debate surrounding Pluto’s history revolves around its status as a planet. When Clyde Tombaugh found it, he naturally just declared it a planet. By 2003, the way astronomer’s categorized stellar bodies had changed. There’s another object beyond Pluto, named Eris, and it was that discovery that sparked the discussion of what made a planet. Pluto is too small and because of its odd place in the Solar System, it no longer made the cut as a full planet. Now it’s a dwarf planet.

So, Pluto has an odd history and place in the Solar System. It’s also incredibly distant, which made close up observations impossible for decades. That was the case until a group of scientists started planning to launch a new mission to Pluto. Much like the astronomers of old days, it took a group of science obsessed, space loving individuals to lay out a plan that would actually get a space probe close to Pluto.

Scientists like choosing cheesy names too, so they called their group The Pluto Underground. Established in 1989, they started lobbying NASA to begin seriously looking into a mission that would capture close photography of the distant dwarf planet. The biggest problem was that there was no real understanding of how Pluto’s atmosphere behaved. How would a space probe react once it was in orbit?

The project started picking up some serious steam in the halls of NASA until it was declared a mission of “low importance,” which really meant that the funds were taken out from underneath the scientists looking to explore Pluto. There’s nothing quite like a group of angry scientists, though, and groups like The Planetary Society started hitting back hard at NASA. All the complaints and lobbying finally got a new exploration program started: The New Frontiers program.

Begun in 2000, it would take six years of around the clock research and work to create the New Horizons probe. Even once it was off the ground, there was a period of nine years of anxious breath holding. Would this work? Would the probe intersect with Pluto’s orbit and get the photos people had been dreaming of for so long?

Back to July 14th, 2015, almost 175 years since Pluto had been predicted by early astronomers. The New Horizons probe wasn’t intended to land on Pluto, but to get close enough to take the kind of pictures that would scientist better understand the planet. It did its job. Within a week of the probe’s flyby, new pictures were emerging of alien atmospheres full of stellar rays, great, flat plains that rise up into mountain ranges, and frozen rivers of nitrogen ice flowing along the planet’s surface.

The mission to better understand Pluto is not over, though. Two new probes, launched in May and August of 2011, are expected to pass along Pluto sometime in 2016. These newer, more advanced probes will bring back even more stunning imagery and scientific data of Pluto. It’s the sort of photography that men like Clyde Tombaugh could only have dreamt of years ago.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Englishman from Mexico

                His name was Reginald Benedict Gonzalez.

                He hated his last name.

                Reginald, or Reggie, as he liked to be called, was born the first and only son of Charles Benedict Senior. If there was a junior, no one could say, but Charles had always announce himself by that appellation. Unlike the entirety of his family, avowed Shakespeareans who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, Reggie was born in the far more American town of Waxahachie, Texas, before relocating to Manhattan.

                Charles claimed Reggie was a Texan. Reggie hated him for it.

                Reggie spent his earliest years abroad. His father, an oil businessman with offices in China, Venezuela, Scotland, and Houston, took his son with him on his business trips. Whether by airplane or boat, Reggie was accompanied by the finest tutors in the world. Charles often, and proudly, announced the hundred thousand dollar salaries he paid his employees. “This is my son,” he said proudly at dinner parties. “Did you know just one of his tutors costs me a hundred grand?” Charles had never been shy about his wealth, and by all accounts was something of a bastard. 

                He was also a renowned world traveler, seen on the cover of Yacht Owner’s Fancy and Delectable Boats. He was particularly proud of standing with his finger stretched outward to the sun, his leg propped against the railing of his boat with a cob pipe jutting from his teeth. Reggie, for his part, did not stay out of the spotlight. He was quite often featured alongside his father, and the child’s great intellect was often put on display. In Russia he played a series of chess games against some of the world’s most renowned Chessmasters. He took his first game, lost his second, and stalemated his third. He was only eight at the time, so it was considered quite the accomplishment by all. His father was slightly disappointed. 

                Despite some of his other unsavory predilections, Charles Senior was an avowed conservationist. He took his son beneath the Arctic Circle during whaling season, where the two of them boarded a Japanese whaling vessel. The sight of a nine year old boy being taken prisoner was considered an international scandal, and the official whaling season was called off that year. It made for a good summer vacation, and in the fall, Charles and Reggie returned to shore. They stopped off in France, where Reggie took music lessons from the acclaimed artist, Pierre-Louis Courbet. The child’s painting, A Vision of Terror, was featured in the winter edition of Painter’s International. 

In short, his father took him everywhere, and so it was that, by the age of ten, Reggie had seen the Great Wall of China, Edinburg Castle, Angel Falls, and the Alamo. 

                Reggie’s mother was a Spanish woman with family in the states. She knew him for only a brief time, and he knew her even less. She had family in Texas, where she had met Charles. The two of them had what some described as the “erotic heights of tempestuous love” before they split in a firestorm of accusations and broken hearts. She was a passionate woman with a desire for close affection, and he was a man of the sea who could never stay still long. She left their suburban home in the Houston area, leaving only a half-written note that began, “Dear Charles, I…” before running out of ink. She hadn’t bothered trying to find another pen.

                Charles kept his son on into his teen years, when he began to travel more frequently and found less time to stay in any one place. Reggie increasingly spent time in the States, a turn of events he despised. His aunt and uncle, Mary and Gil, would go on to permanently adopt him. This was shortly after Charles’ fateful voyage around the tip of South America, during his attempts to replicate the fateful circumnavigation of the world first completed by Ferdinand Magellan.      

                So it was that Reginald Benedict Gonzalez, future heir of the Benedict fortune, a globally travelled prodigy who once sat at the feet of the world’s greatest instructors, found himself once again in New York. From the age of 14, he stayed on with his new parents in the house Charles Senior had left to them. He attended the prestigious Westington House, a private all-boys school attended by the children of princes, diplomats, and business tycoons. Charles’ name continued to haunt him, since it was engraved in stone over the library’s main entrance.

                By 21, Reggie found himself commuting to the private college of Saint Bartholomew. Rumored to have been established by a fraternal order whose wealth was plundered from the Orient during the Boxer Rebellion, Saint Bartholomew made all its students sign a pledge promising they wouldn’t look too closely into the history of the school. Reggie hadn’t particularly cared about the pledge either way.

                The only thing Reggie cared about was the dwindling money that was draining out of his bank account. For as rich as he had been, Charles Senior had not made it clear where he had stored the family fortune. Reggie had the house that had been left to him, and the sizeable sum of money that he inherited, a sum that was nearly exhausted after a lifetime of private schools. 

                So it was that Reggie, in his final semester of college and nearing his 22nd birthday, began to face down the reality that he would never again be known as the globe travelling genius. After a lifetime spent training at the hands of masters, being featured in magazines, and living the life of a trust fund enriched nomad, Reggie found himself with the greatest challenge of his life. Soon, he would have no money.

                And that’s when the letter arrived.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Writing in Media: The Divergent Courses of Archer and The Venture Bros

Warning: Spoilers for at least the first three seasons of these shows is most likely to occur.

Satire isn't a new genre in writing. As long as mankind's been able to look inward at his own absurdity, he has been making it a point to make fun of himself and the people around him. It's an act that goes back to man's earliest days. Hell, in 2000 B.C. the Egyptians were satirizing the hard work and employment that merely being an Egyptian required. Of course, you also have the satires that are considered Western classics. A Modest Proposal, in which Jonathan Swift argues that the Irish should eat their children as a solution to country-wide hunger, was actually a mockery of England's wealth and the habit rich people have always been in of ignoring the needs of the poor.

These satires, which were aimed at serious topics of employment and wealth, were replaced in the 20th century. Media grew at a blazing pace over the last century, exploding into forms of radio, television and film. As these forms grew, they took on tropes and tried to represent life in the form of straight comedies like Leave it to Beaver, Mary Tyler Moore and The Dick Van Dyk Show. Decades of this helped grow a huge wealth of material, tropes and patterns about what life should be like but what people knew life wasn't like. It shouldn't be a surprise that America eventually  made a habit of satirizing everything it could get its hands on. The turgid comedy Married... with Children was a satire of the classic American family comedy. Its lead, Al Bundy, was a deadbeat father who just wanted to work his shift at the shoe store, come home, drink a beer and zone out in front of the television. Of course, he wanted this done while expecting his wife, Peggy, to cook and take care of the home. That idea, that women were the housekeepers and men were the breadwinners, had been engrained in American society for centuries. It has its roots in social transformations that occurred in England hundreds of years before, and Married took the notion and spat on its grave. Al was constantly humiliated for his performance in bed, his meager income and his poor role as a father. Peggy's homecooked 'meals' were microwaved quick dinners. It was a complete inversion of the wholesome families of portrayed in earlier decades of television.

It was never incredibly witty, though it was probably a necessary part of American television. Sometimes you just have to take a hammer to social structures, and Married did that to the typical family that had been idealized for decades, one that never existed in reality. Satire found other sources to mine besides Americana, though. The 90s found pleasure in mocking entertainment that had come before it. James Bond, long a male sex symbol and a dashing representation of England and its spy network, found himself lampooned in the guise of Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. Mike Moore's original Powers film deserves an article all its own, but it was one of the original attempts at mining the vast source of pop entertainment that had developed throughout the 20th century. It varied between the worst toilet humor, to quick and witty repartee and chuckle inducing physical comedy. The film may not have won everyone's love, but it stands as one of the great satirical breakthroughs specifically because it mocked the great cultural touchstones that had developed over the last few decades. Better, it opened the door to even greater satirical pieces.

The Venture Bros. came to life in 2003 on Cartoon Network's late night broadcast block known as Adult Swim, which had been home to a long trail of decaying anime carcasses and the cheapest animation that American studios could produce. Venture Bros. was, from the start, something very different. First of all, it had the benefit of writers who actually had a theme that would unify the show: Failure. The fevered vision of genius creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, two names that most men can only dream of themselves inventing, Venture Bros. took the ancient Johnny Quest formula and, like its predecessors, subverted its entire source material. Where Quest had shown a triumphant Doctor Quest adventuring across the world with his son Johnny, while showing the triumph of Western society and the technological marvels of the Space Age, Venture dares to ask "What if Doctor Quest was a failure?" This lead to a show in which the lead scientist, Doctor Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, is only making ends meet because he's been selling the inventions of his deceased father to the U.S. government for money. Thaddeus is, himself, almost incapable of inventing anything worth owning, and the great corporate and scientific empire his father had created (itself a mirror of Quest's own vast wealth, as well as that of other moguls such as Tony Stark) is rapidly falling apart. In this show, Thaddeus was what Johnny Quest would have been if he'd grown up humiliated, embarrassed and unable to step out of the shadow of his father. Thaddeus' own two sons, Hank and Dean, are Johnny Quest types themselves. However, they, too, mock the original Quest show. Young boys don't miraculously find their way out of one dangerous situation out of another without some scars, and the two of them end up dying in a (hilariously) fiery explosion at the end of Season One.

Archer, in contrast, had little vision to unite it as a show and instead chose to rely on quick gags, sex humor, and an endless mockery of the 'international spy' trope in a way that was similar to Austin Powers before it. Where The Venture Bros. attempted to develop, mockingly, a deep universe for its characters to inhabit, Archer was, from its inception, a show that relied on an endless series of gags. Archer, although an admittedly gifted fighter who can handle himself with a gun, is endlessly inept, unable to comprehend basic numeric and geographic concepts, and is outshone intellectually by his partner, Lana Kane. Yet Archer is the darling of the spy agency in many ways, largely because his mother owns it, but also because, despite his idiocy, Archer manages to survive an infinite number of dangerous situations while parading through a stream of sexual escapades. It really throws up James Bond's tropes in many ways, and it does remain funny. Whether it's agent Pam's addiction to Cocaine, or creepy scientist Krieger's holographic anime bride (yes, you read that right), Archer bombards the senses with endless mockeries, humiliations, gags, and sex humor.

And this is where The Venture Bros. and Archer largely divert as storytelling mediums and why The Venture Bros. is the superior show (which is not to say that Archer is a bad show by any means). Venture Bros. is now about to begin its sixth season while Archer is concluding its sixth. Let's work our way backwards, beginning with Archer. Faced with a boredom dilemma, writer Adam Reed introduced a number of changes at the end of Season Five and leading into Season Six. One change, which reduced Archer's spy agency to a drug dealing agency, was fitting with the overall tone of the show. It introduced new ways to use the characters in different situations. However, the show has essentially remain unchanged. It's still a constant parade of gags that runs wide, not deep. That lack of depth is why the second change, making lead character Lana Kane pregnant (and Archer's admission that he loves her), is undeserved. These type of deep character moments only mean something when depth has been applied to the characters over time. Archer is fast paced, ruthlessly mocking and essentially a Gatling gun of jokes, but it could never be accused of being deep. It's the lack of depth that makes the character admissions and changes so, well, meaningless. They're the sorts of things shows do to stay fresh, but they don't change the audience, characters or story in any way that feels like any of those elements will have a lasting impact.

The Venture Bros., on the other hand, spent years not only creating an increasingly deep mythology, but also using its unifying theme of failure to evolve its characters. Thaddeus Venture, at forty, is not suddenly going to become dad of the year. He's still obsessed with becoming greater than his father, mostly by making a horde of money and proving to his younger brother, Jonas, that Thaddeus is the greater scientist. It's shallow, sad and the ultimate demonstration of failure in the show. The thing is that it's true to the character, and you feel bad for Thaddeus when you see the way his domineering father treated him. People learn from the failures of others, though. Bodyguard Brock Sampson moved on when he realized his life had become stagnant working for Thaddeus. Brock, another version of the 'international man of mystery' trope, is a former spy himself that has fought, and fallen in love with, a former KGB operative named Molotov Cocktease. However, Brock has slowly pulled away from her and his stagnant bodyguard lifestyle, to reach a point where it seems he may even find love elsewhere. Venture children Hank and Dean, having been cloned, also grow. Hank has come to understand the world he lives in is incredibly absurd, embraced it, and grown into a daring young man that still makes hundreds of mistakes, but that is definitely not repeating the self loathing steps of his father. Dean, forever romantically obsessed with Triana Orpheus and beat down by his own fears, humiliations and sense of inadequacy, seemed the most likely candidate to grow into the same self hating man that his father Thaddeus is. However, Dean has slowly been asserting himself, rejecting his father's attempts to remake him into another 'mad scientist' type, and has generally become confident and assertive. At least, more assertive than he used to be.

That difference between Archer and The Venture Bros., the willingness to create character depth versus not, is why The Venture Bros. triumphs in a way that Archer has struggled with. The Venture Bros. makes for an almost nonstop laughfest. This isn't just a matter of personal opinion, everyone from Comic Con to The A.V. Club laud The Venture Bros. hilarity. However, the show has also slowed down to give its characters time to breath and grow. Rather than relentlessly make pot shots at each other's expense, Venture has sacrificed a few jokes for character development. That's also why, if someone got pregnant on Venture, it would feel earned in a way that Archer does not. Again, this isn't an argument that hopes to slam Archer. However, in ten years, when you think back on stories that had significant impact, Venture is going to stand out. It had the jokes to stay on television just as long as any other show, but also gave its characters the room to develop will make them memorable for years to come. It's also why the show has so much life left in it. That deep mythology it invested in, alongside its rich characters, give it ways to grow that Archer simply doesn't have available to it.

Hey, if you like my writing, don't forget to give my book FLOOR 21 a try! It's only 2.99 and it's basically the best dystopian piece you'll ever read.