It came from outer space

Recently I revisited the Willamette meteorite -- a fifteen-ton immigrant from another planet that has enchanted me since childhood. Though it fell to Earth in the Pacific northwest millennia ago, the meteorite now resides at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.

I needed a new look at the old hulk after receiving a letter from a reader in Portland, Oregon, near the former home of the meteorite in the Willamette Valley.

John R. Bakkensen politely corrected an error in my description of the space rock's arrival. In The Planets, I had said that "it hurtled down to the Oregon ground at tremendous speed, burning up from the heat of friction, and hitting the valley floor with the impact of an atom bomb," when in fact the meteorite made first contact far north of that neighborhood.

The site of its cataclysmic landing could lie in what is now Washington state, or Montana or Idaho, or even Canada. The crater the meteorite must have gouged there has long since disappeared in the wake of ice ages and other weathering. The meteorite itself fell prey to a glacier, which swallowed it whole.

Some 15,000 years ago, the Missoula Floods coursed through the region like an ocean on the move, and carried the ice-encapsulated Willamette meteorite to a resting place near present-day Portland. The rare object's great size -- about ten feet by six feet by four feet -- drew the attention of the Clackamas tribe, who understood that it had come from "the moon." They gave it the name Tomanowos and venerated it for generations.

Ironically the meteorite, which consists almost entirely of extraterrestrial iron, occupied property owned by the Oregon Iron & Steel Company. In 1902 the company sued Ellis Hughes for stealing the stone, which could hardly be described as rolling. Hughes had wrestled it to his own land  -- a journey of less than a mile that took 90 days -- and was charging a fee to let people see it.

In court, Hughes pleaded "Finders, keepers." Had the meteorite truly burrowed down into that patch of Oregon ground, then, Hughes allowed, he might be guilty of larceny. However, the meteorite (or "aerolite" as it was also known in those days) stood on the ground, not in the ground. Hughes tried to prove the Clackamas had dug it up and moved it to the veneration site, but later abandoned it, leaving it ripe for appropriation by anyone who came along. When he lost the case, he appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court -- and lost again.

Mr. Bakkensen included a transcript of the higher Court's 1905  judgment with his note:

"And it was held that [the aerolite], having none of the characteristics of personalty" -- i.e. unclaimed personal property -- "became, by falling on the earth through the course of nature, a part of the soil, and hence that the ownership was determined by the ownership of the soil."


Venus post-script

On Tuesday, June 5, my brother Steve and I were happy to stand among several hundred Transit of Venus spectators under clear skies atop Mount Wilson. Although we were treated to five hours of the event's  duration, the lack of wi-fi connections prohibited those of us with the Transit of Venus phone app from contributing our observations. We could hardly complain, however, especially as reports of clouds and rain filed in from other sites. A wedding party of non-astronomers arrived at the Observatory to take advantage of the transit as a backdrop for their nuptials. Our group of antique telescope enthusiasts also entertained romance: A couple who had met in anticipation of the 2004 transit got engaged during this one. As Venus moved from first to second contact, he proposed and she said "Yes."

Venus in Transit

I've spent this week at the Sydney Writers' Festival in Australia, where I had the honor of giving the closing address on a topic of high local interest: the upcoming Transit of Venus. The rare passage of Venus across the Sun's face will be visible from all of eastern Australia, weather permitting, on June 6. Not only will locals get to see the six-plus-hour event in its entirety, but the history of their country is bound up with James Cook's voyage to view the 1769 Transit of Venus. After Cook completed his astronomical mission in Tahiti, he obeyed government orders to sail on to other southern lands, explore them, and claim them for the British crown. In the following century, with Australia in favored viewing position to see the transits of 1874 and 1882, observatories here purchased new telescopes and devised specialized cameras for the occasions. I've gotten so enthused discussing the June 6 prospects in Sydney that I need to keep reminding myself my own date with Venus is set for the day before, June 5, back home on the other side of the International Date Line. I'll be viewing the transit--the last one Earthlings will see till 2117--from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.

The transits of the 18th and 19th centuries gave astronomers the means to gauge the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Although modern radar methods allow more precise Solar System measurements, the June event offers a unique opportunity to probe the atmosphere of Venus and to refine strategies for detecting Earth-like or Venus-like planets around other stars.

At the same time, amateurs the world over will get the chance to double-check the Earth-Sun distance in a new cooperative global enterprise.

The Transit of Venus app, available free, miniaturizes a shipload of expedition paraphernalia. Unavailable during the last transit, in 2004, the app enables anyone with the right eye protection and a smart phone to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Stars and Stardom

Recalling, as I do, the birth and short life of the long-echoing "Star Trek" television series, I was honored to meet the real Lt. Uhura -- Nichelle Nichols -- at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta this week. We exchanged pleasantries with "Live long and prosper" hand salutes.

As the former communications officer aboard the starship Enterprise, Ms. Nichols, still glamorous at 79, moderated a competitive event called "FameLab," which challenged young scientists to communicate scientific concepts in language anyone might understand. The evening's entertainment featured eleven "FameLab" finalists from fields as diverse as astronomy and paleontology. Each had three minutes to expound on a topic with as much clarity, enthusiasm and humor as he or she could muster.

When the panel of three judges left the stage of the Georgia Tech Conference Center to deliberate, Ms. Nichols called up memories of auditioning for her life-changing role. The part of Lt. Uhura not only carried her through three television seasons and six movies, but also led to an affiliation with NASA as a recruiter of women astronauts. In fact, she had long since unwittingly inducted Mae Jemison, who watched "Star Trek" at age nine and followed Lt. Uhura's lead to become first a medical doctor and later a Space Shuttle mission specialist.

During a question-and-answer period, a young astronomer leapt to his feet, star-struck almost to the point of speechlessness by the presence of Ms. Nichols. "I want to thank you," he said. "Your appearance on that TV show led to my decision to study astronomy, and made me what I am today. I never thought I would get to thank you in person!"

For many years, I've credited Carl Sagan and his "Cosmos" series with creating an entire generation of astronomers. While that assessment remains valid, I'm happy to acknowledge the parallel effect of "Star Trek." Even in re-runs of its re-runs, the show spawned legions of "Trekkies" whose ranks include untold numbers of bona fide scientists.

Postage to Pluto

The status of Pluto is about to change again. A century ago it went from an unknown entity to a new discovery, hailed as the ninth planet. A few years ago it traded that title for a designation as the first dwarf planet. Now, thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft currently en route to Pluto, the small world's distinction as "unexplored" is about to fall away.

Stamp enthusiasts may recall a block of postage stamps, issued in 1991, celebrating the planets paired with their spacecraft visitors, such as Viking with Mars and Pioneer 11 with Jupiter. One stamp in the series called attention to the aloneness and  unknown-ness of Pluto. Its message, "Pluto not yet explored," struck some astronomers as a call to action.

Several mission designs and more than a decade later, New Horizons lifted off from Cape Canaveral in January 2006. Pluto was still a planet then. But in August of that year, the International Astronomical Union approved a resolution that defined the word planet in terms that excluded Pluto.

Triumphant Pluto-deniers and disgruntled Plutophiles still debate the Pluto decision, but both camps anticipate the findings that New Horizons will report upon its 2015 arrival. Already, the possibility of a new postage stamp is in the offing, drawn by space artist Dan Durda.

If you like the idea of a philatelic return to Pluto, please help the New Horizons team win over the U.S. Postal Service by signing their petition before March 13. Even if you communicate solely by e-mail and social networks, I hope you'll agree that "New Horizons First Spacecraft to Explore Pluto" deserves to find its place on the corners of envelopes "Forever."



Science in Rome

What surprised me most about the 7th Annual Rome Science Festival, devoted this year to the theme of Time, was the attendance. I had heard that Festival events sold out quickly, but I still found myself amazed to see hundreds of Romans of all ages milling about the Parco della Musica and crowding into its spacious lecture halls at every opportunity. I had spent two weeks preparing my talk, "How Time Put the World in its Place" -- or, as it appeared in the Festival program, "Come Il Tempo É Riuscito a Mettere il Mondo al suo Posto." That left me free to sample the other offerings, which the organizers had scheduled without overlap. In theory, one could take in the entirety of the Festival's lectures, concerts, and panel discussions, beginning with the inaugural address by cosmologist Jean-Pierre Luminet of the Paris Observatory. Luminet spoke in French. I queued up for the simultaneous-translation headphones being distributed in the lobby, but found French-to-Italian the only available option.

Although my command of Italian suffers from disuse, I accepted the Festival challenge of "when in Rome."  I especially  loved listening to author Stefano Benni read aloud some short pieces he'd written under the rubric "Che Ore Sono?" ("What Time Is It?"). One of these sketched a weather-perfect, happy day at the beach, interrupted all of a sudden by a cry from a mother who realizes her son has strayed too far from shore. She screams his name, and the other bathers rush to help the boy. In that instant, the narrator sees the distraught parent divide into two women: One gives way to grief over the tragedy of the drowning, while the other embraces the child who is returned to her. The narrator closes his eyes for just a moment, but when he opens them, he finds the beach deserted, with no sign to tell him which of the alternate worlds he now inhabits.

The Festival coincided with the Italian publication of A More Perfect Heaven by Rizzoli, as Il Segreto di Copernico.  In celebration, my astronomer friend Ettore Perozzi and his colleagues at the science bookshop Libreria Assaggi arranged a partial play reading in the store. Perozzi is pictured below, setting the scene for Retico (Fabio Condemi) and Copernico (Stefano Onofri). Thanks to the actors' perfect diction and enthusiasm for their roles (and further aided by knowing what they were supposed to be saying) I understood every word.





Year of Wonders

On the first truly frigid night of winter (Jan. 3-4), I set an alarm for 2 a.m. and went out to take in the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. I'm fond of meteor showers because they're so low-tech. You don't need a telescope to observe them, or even binoculars, but just the willingness to lie outside in the dark and look up.

Over-eager, I started my vigil too early. My fingers (inside mittens under blankets) froze before the first shooting stars arrived. While waiting I got reacquainted with the available constellations: the Big Dipper, from whose ladle the promised meteors would pour, Gemini standing on Orion's shoulders, and Leo, looking like a real lion, pinning Mars underfoot. The cloudless dark and absent Moon set up perfect viewing conditions.

I had the cordless phone in my coat pocket. Should the display turn spectacular, I would call a couple of not-quite-die-hards and encourage them to leave their beds. But I counted only eleven meteors in the two-plus hours I could bear the cold. The forecast had predicted as many as one hundred or more per hour. I wondered whether the friends I'd alerted in advance to these potential fireworks were also out somewhere in the night, perhaps annoyed with me for sending them on a fool's errand.

I found plenty of time to question what made me want to spend the pre-dawn hours this way, and also to realize why. Staring up at the unchanging pattern of the stars, panning for surprise, I thrilled every time a bright ball of fire materialized out of that reliable background to slide across the heavens in less than a moment.

The new year promises other meteor showers along with two major astronomical events -- the Transit of Venus in June and a total solar eclipse in November. Attendance at those sky shows will demand large investments of time and travel expense in addition to pluck, plus readiness for a different flavor of risk. No one doubts that the syzygies -- the exact planetary alignments that permit Venus to be seen crossing the Sun's face or a sector of Earth to immerse in the Moon's shadow -- will occur on schedule according to the laws of physics. The only question is, Will the local weather in any particular viewing area allow witnesses to watch the natural miracle unfold?

First Christmas in the Cloister

"We'll plant trees in the spring," their leader promised. Meanwhile the few young nuns newly arrived from Chicago must embrace the sere brown fields of their new home in New Mexico, and try to forget about snow. The story of the first Christmas at the Poor Clare Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe was the first season's greeting to reach me this year. The nuns of this convent belong to the same religious order as Galileo's two daughters. The friendship we formed while I was writing Galileo's Daughter continues, although Mother Mary Francis, my special correspondent and guide to the cloistered life, died five years ago. I'm grateful to the current abbess, Mother Mary Angela, for sharing this memory from Mother Mary Francis, who woke on December 24, 1950 to sing the solemn Christmas Martyrology, only to find her surroundings strangely bright:

"The 15-watt bulb in the dormitory hall furnished the only light for all our cells, and what illumination this Poor Clare chandelier managed to provide through cell doors open two or three inches to admit it was rather less than dazzling. The light that was washing down our habit skirt this morning and gleaming on my bare feet was something different. Then I saw it -- the snow! Snow whirling, singing, laughing everywhere! Snow insistent on the window ledge, snow fitting great ballerina skirts on the elm trees. It tore the last cobwebs of sleep form my eyes before the cold water in the pitcher followed to shiver me awake. I swept down the dormitory stairs and across the community room to the east window.

"There was the big field. But, no, it was a huge lake of light! Thick masses of stars reached down arms of light toward our new little monastery. The white grounds reached back. Evidently our Lord had decided to tear up the weather forecasts for Roswell this year of our first coming. I looked at the light streaming up from the snow and down from the sky again; and I walked slowly into the choir, a little shaken with the beauty of the embrace."


In his element

A few friends sent me excited word this week that a new element had been named for Copernicus -- and perfectly timed for the release of my book about him. Only, I had already reported this news in the new book. The  designation of super-heavy atomic element number 112 as "copernicium" (symbol Cn) occurred nearly a year ago, on February 19, the date of Copernicus's birthday (his 537th), as announced then by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The recent news concerns the acceptance of the name copernicium by a sister organization, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which voted in favor during its General Assembly in London this past week.

Nice to know that everyone agrees.

Copernicium is a radioactive element that does not exist in nature. A few atoms' worth were created in 1996 from a fusion of zinc and lead under laboratory conditions at the Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung) in Darmstadt, Germany. The tiny sample of new substance decayed into extinction within microseconds of its synthesis. Yet its significance lives on. Chemists and physicists the world over have since reviewed the experiment and authenticated its results.

According to custom, the scientists who produced the copernicium earned the right to suggest a name for it. The team's leader, Sigurd Hoffman, drew a nice comparison between Copernicus's world view (of planets orbiting the Sun) with the structure of a copernicium atom, in which 122 electrons orbit a nucleus of 122 protons and 155 neutrons.

Enduring Legacy

Being interviewed by NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca would have been thrill enough, but he also chose the perfect venue for our meeting on Thursday (October 27) -- at the Dibner Library of the History of Science & Technology, a trove of rare books and manuscripts tucked inside the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Set out on a table for our inspection was a pristine looking first edition of Copernicus's great book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Next to it sat the much rarer First Account of his heliocentric theory, written by his only student, Georg Joachim Rheticus. The two sixteenth-century titles served us well as conversation pieces.

After weeks in and out of bookstores, seeing hundreds of new hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-reader accoutrements, I found myself startled anew into appreciation of early books as sturdy artifacts.

Copernicus was covered in a deep brown tooled leather. Rheticus wore white. He shared his elaborate binding (held closed by two antique clasps in good working condition) with a set of astronomical tables by his mentor Johann Schöner, plus eight other related tracts from famed cosmologists of his own and earlier eras. Since book buyers in the 1500s purchased treatises unbound, they could create custom volumes according to their personal tastes.

Palca and I delighted in the texture of the pages, which felt more like fine fabric than paper. The librarian looking over our shoulders, Kirsten VanderVeen, attributed their creamy durability to a rag content of predominantly pure linen.

On close inspection, the Copernicus displayed a hole drilled through a succession of chapters by a bookworm. The insect had eschewed the ink as it ate its way through On the Revolutions, leaving the text unexpurgated.


Dividing Lines

As I travel from book store to book store in cities around the country, I find that my talk of Copernicus's Sun-centered cosmos quickly raises questions about the relationship between science and religion. Last week in New Hampshire a pamphleteer deemed Copernicus's ideas "anti-God." This week a Denver resident attacked science more broadly, bringing evolution into the discussion of heavenly revolutions. Copernicus himself conceded he feared censure from people who might twist scripture to discredit him. As a canon of the Catholic church, he could hardly have considered his own theory irreligious. Rather, it was non-religious--separate from theology. As he declared in the opening pages of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, "Mathematics is written for mathematicians." At the same time, he bowed to an omnipotent creator. "Thus vast," he wrote later in that same book, "is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty."

Nothing in Copernicus's faith prevented him from trying to understand natural philosophy on its own terms. Nor from insisting that faith alone was insufficient for probing the mysteries of the universe. Galileo, another Catholic, shared that conviction, quoting a quip by a cardinal friend of his: "The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven--not how the heavens go."

Kepler, who was so true to his Lutheran faith that he moved to another town to avoid forced conversion, agreed with Copernicus and Galileo on questions of science and religion. Kepler warned against "wantonly dragging the Holy Spirit into physics class."

An op-ed piece in The New York Times on Tuesday (October 18), "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," added a valuable current perspective on science and religion. Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens-- a physicist and a historian, both affiliated with Eastern Nazarene College--rue the anti-intellectual rhetoric of most Republican presidential candidates. As men of faith, the authors distance themselves from fundamentalists who insist the Bible trumps all other sources of information. "When the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas," they write, "we must not be afraid to speak out."

Last night (October 19) in Milwaukee, I found another hopeful sign during the event Boswell Book Company arranged for me at Discovery World Museum. A man asked me to inscribe a copy of my book for his brother: "To Peter, who follows science and respects faith." I was happy to do it.

Time travel?

The first round of U.S. travel to promote A More Perfect Heaven landed me last Sunday (October 9) in Concord, New Hampshire as a guest of Gibson's Bookstore. Two extraordinary experiences bracketed my talk at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

First, on approaching the theater for the 7 p.m. event, I saw my name in lights.

Upon exiting later, however, after speaking to a most congenial audience, I learned that every car parked near the venue had been leafleted with anti-Copernican literature.

The headline on the three-sheet handout, "Selected Profiles in the Geocentric-Heliocentric Debate," made me think the document must be a prank. Surely no one in New England in 2011 still clung to a flat Earth or an Earth-centered cosmos. But I regret to say I was wrong.

"In the 16th century, anti-God forces waged an all out war on Biblical truth," the printed diatribe began. "Copernicus proclaimed that the earth was not stationary--in direct contradiction to the holy scriptures. With no proof, Copernicus dethroned the earth as the jewel of all creation and enthroned the sun in its place."

Since the distributor of this document did not attend my talk to confront me, I had no chance to defend Copernicus--or Galileo, who was similarly defamed on page 2: "None, but none among the fanciful assertions of the believers in Galileo's sun-centered astronomical gospel has ever been proven."

Surrounded by friendly nerds as I usually am, I've been shielded from this desperate brand of deceit. It jibed all too well with the laments I heard last month from staff at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, ruing the energy they expend fending off "deniers" who insist the Apollo landings were faked.

Things are worse than I thought.

Second debut

On Tuesday, October 4, the official publication date of A More Perfect Heaven, "And the Sun Stood Still" enjoyed its second debut in the town where I live. It felt good to launch the new book with a staged reading of the play inside it, right here at home, among family and friends -- and under my son's professional direction. His sister, Zoë, and I were both very proud.

I think it's fair to call this event a "second debut" because the play changed a great deal from the first reading of the first draft, held here on May 22, 2007. Most of the same actors returned to resume their roles, I'm happy to say. Thanks to Hugh King, Trevor Vaughn, Peter Fitzgerald, Josh Gladstone, Kate Mueth, and Max Tabet for their fine performances.

Neither of these evenings would have been possible without the support -- without the existence -- of The Naked Stage and its home at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York. As the name suggests, The Naked Stage offers straightforward readings of plays, without scenery or lighting effects, almost every Tuesday evening in fall, winter and spring, free and open to the public. Founder Josh Perl engages the community in choosing the plays to be read, volunteering as actors, and attending with enthusiasm. Four years ago, when he learned that I -- one of his Tuesday night regulars -- was writing a play, he scheduled me for the season finale and played the part of the printer who published Copernicus's book.

I'm glad Josh is still speaking to me after I eliminated his role in the course of rewriting. With typical grace and good humor, he agreed to read stage directions this time.

Thanks, too, to our local book store, BookHampton, for setting up temporary shop in the Guild Hall lobby to sell copies of A More Perfect Heaven.

In the audience of familiar faces, I was particularly gratified to find my editor and publisher, George Gibson of Bloomsbury - Walker & Co., who drove out from Manhattan for the occasion. An even longer-distance visitor was Will Andrewes, organizer of the 1993 Longitude Symposium that cemented our friendship and changed both our lives. Will arrived just before show-time from Concord, Massachusetts with his daughter, Elizabeth, and returned there immediately afterward.

Bertram Kalisher, publisher of Chronos Magazine, brought his wife Marcie, of course, and also a tellurium clock that enlivened the intermission with its mechanical representation of Copernicus's cosmic conception.



Relics from the Moon, still good as new

While in Houston last week to lecture for the Lunar and Planetary Institute's "Cosmic Explorations" series, my hosts took me to the nearby Johnson Space Center on a thrill ride -- a tour of the Lunar Curatorial Lab, where the rocks the Apollo astronauts collected on the Moon now reside. By coincidence, I'd received a message immediately upon arrival in Houston from my friend Carolyn, the only person of my acquaintance ever to have eaten real Moon dust. The memory of that incident had been on my mind the whole day, and now here she was in a rare communication, writing to say she'd just located the astronomer who gave her that Moon dust as a love token four decades ago.

There was no Moon dust lying around the Lunar Curatorial Lab. It was a clean room in the technical sense -- so clean that I had to remove my jewelry before entering lest stray atoms of gold contaminate the environment. Obeying regulations, I put on a protective cap and suit (for the protection of the lunar samples) and stood several minutes in an air shower designed to relieve me of Earthly dust particles.

Within the facility's work area, Moon rocks lay untouchable inside glass cabinets giving them temporary shelter plus an atmosphere of pure nitrogen gas. Even Andrea Mosie, who has worked here for thirty-six years, handling Moon rocks on a daily basis, has never felt the Moon on her skin. She must put her hands in white fabric gloves first, then into the bulky black apppendages of the glove boxes, then don clear teflon gloves as a third barrier before picking up a hammer or chisel to break off small samples for the scientists who request them.

Only half a dozen rocks occupied the various cabinets. The rest -- approximately 800 pounds' worth -- hid in the adjacent vault, protected by a system of combination locks worthy of the secret service.

Cosmochemist Gary Lofgren, who holds the singular title of "Lunar Curator," gave me a glimpse of a Moon rock through a modified microscope set atop one of the glass cases. The rock sparkled at me, flashing tiny beams from a hundred shiny inclusions. I must have gasped, startled by the unexpected show of beauty. "They're still fresh," Dr. Lofgren explained, with an equally fresh enthusiasm for the specimens. "Ancient as they are, they never weathered on the Moon's surface, and they're protected from weathering here."

Thanks to all my new friends in Houston for this privilege.



To be a Solar System Ambassador

Last Sunday, during the question-and-answer session following my talk at the Shelter Island Historical Society, someone pointed out that the Longitude Problem had been solved during the Age of Reason at a time of great discovery -- but that now we seem to be entering an age of un-reason and un-discovery. (This event followed a certain governor's remarkably uninformed remarks about Galileo.) "What can be done?" my commenter wanted to know.

It was too big a question for a simple answer, but I suggested we all try to share what we know. Later it struck me that I already belong to a volunteer group trying to share knowledge about the planets.: NASA's Solar System Ambassadors Program, which is recruiting new members this month for year-long terms beginning January 1.

Kay Ferrari, who administers the program from her office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, especially seeks candidates from states with only a few active Ambassadors: Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii (Kauai), Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (New York has 23.)

You need not be an astronomer or own a telescope to apply. Kay herself comes from a theater background. When I asked her what constitutes "right stuff" for an Ambassador, she said, "The chief criterion is wanting to make a difference in the lives of others…and then doing it.  We are one huge family of like-minded people.  Sure, we all love space exploration, but our love of sharing the best of ourselves is what makes the program work so well."

Once accepted, Ambassadors can listen in on teleconferences in which scientists and engineers explain specific space missions. The program also gives Ambassadors materials for making their own presentations to groups of interested adults or children. Former Ambassador Sister Clarice Lolich, who died in 2009 at age 90, made a specialty of  talking about planetary science to the inmates of women's prisons near her home in Palo Alto. "She brought small NASA handout items with her for the women to give their children and grandchildren when they visited," Kay recalls. "She wanted them to pass along the inspiring message of space exploration as well."

In a program first this year, two Solar System Ambassadors are getting married -- to each other -- on 11-11-11.



The Moon's Name

The Harvest Moon, just setting this morning as I write, reminds me how most of the Moon's names have fallen away with disuse. Not the names on the Moon, such as Mare Tranquilitatis (the Sea of Tranquility) and Sinus Iridum (the Bay of Rainbows), which have held their lunar ground since selenographer Giovanni Riccioli dubbed them in the mid-seventeenth century. I mean the names of the Moon, which predate the telescope's invention and reflect the daily lives of many cultures. I've read that Siberian reindeer herders, for example, recognized the Moon of Water, the Moon of First Leaves, and the Moon of Shedding Antlers. Only full moons, rising at sunset and staying up all night, have ever earned their own seasonal names. The other phases mark the passage of time but don't call so much attention to themselves.

The Harvest Moon still clinging to collective memory sounds quaint as an old love song, though whoever named it favored a work ethic over romance. Arriving as it does toward Summer's end, when the days grow shorter but the crops require farmers to put in longer hours, the Harvest Moon recognizes their plight: It alters the normal interval from one Moonrise to the next, so as to give them more light.

Most of the year, the Moon rises an average of fifty minutes later than it rose the day before. But during autumn in the mid-to-high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, the Moon returns sooner -- less than half an hour later on successive evenings -- letting the work-day continue into the night.

By a more indoor definition, the Harvest Moon is the full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox, which will occur this year on Friday, Sept. 23 at 5:05 a.m. Fall is (almost) here.

Missing Person

Contemporary portraits from the sixteenth century depict nearly all of the key figures in Copernicus's life story - his fellow astronomers and churchmen, the printer who published his magnum opus, a few friends and family, the enemies who opposed him, and the royalty who commanded his allegiance. The sole and surprising exception -  the missing face in the portrait gallery - belongs to his lone disciple, Georg Joachim Rheticus, the brilliant mathematician who traveled five hundred miles from Germany to northern Poland to seek out Copernicus and convince him to publish his novel cosmology. The absence of any such likeness belies the fact that Rheticus authored several of his own well regarded mathematical treatises, paid formal visits to prominent scholars in foreign countries, and lived, despite his own dire predictions, to the age of sixty years.

Last week I thought I saw him in Bristol at The Watershed.

The actor from the Show of Strength Theatre Company who took the part of Rheticus in a staged reading of scenes from "And the Sun Stood Still" gave such an earnest portrayal as to imprint his face on the character.

The actor who played the Bishop, on the other hand, was far too handsome for the part, though his performance perfectly captured the character's demanding attitude and demeaning treatment of Copernicus.

As for our stage Copernicus, a retired physicist with no previous acting experience, his zeal for the role was exceeded only by his mastery of the subject matter. Many thanks to Andrew Kelly of the Bristol Festival of Ideas for organizing this most enjoyable event.


How I Learned to Write My Own Name

For the launch of A More Perfect Heaven at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Saturday (August 27), two Scottish actors took the roles of Copernicus and Rheticus, and read aloud scenes from the play-within-the-book, "And the Sun Stood Still." A local reporter from The Scotsman interviewed me on stage and moderated a question-and-answer session. Of the several hundred readers who attended the event, many "queued up" afterward with just-purchased copies of the book for me to autograph. I was happy to see them. Although speaking in public can be anxiety-provoking, signing books provides a pleasant opportunity to meet the people who like to read what I write.

The first person to approach me held up two books, and apologized for asking me to sign them both. Why, I wondered, would I object to such a request? I sat alone in a room for years to produce this work. Now someone else wants to read it - and also make a gift of it to a dear one. I'm delighted to inscribe a message to her in one copy, and wish her daughter a happy birthday in the other.

Several well-wishers had brought along worn copies of previous books (most often Longitude) to be signed along with the new, which I was also pleased to do.

Despite the long line, a few individuals seized the moment to confide something personal about their own lives, or to suggest something I should see while briefly in the city.

This was how I found out about the new statue of Edinburgh-native scientist James Clerk Maxwell sitting on George St., just a few blocks from the Festival grounds. I also learned that the hotel where I was staying had once been the home of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, so I made sure to look for the maps from his expeditions hanging in the ground-floor conference room.

For an event last night (August 30) here in Dublin at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, I showed some photos I'd taken of Copernicus-relevant sites in Poland. Science Gallery director Michael John Gorman, himself a science historian, joined me for a conversation on stage and then invited comments from the audience.

During the book-signing that followed, I appreciated the many expressions of concern that I might end the evening with a bad case of writer's cramp. I find that using a fat pen wards off any such suffering and allows for a legible signature. Thanks to everyone who turned out and made me feel so welcome to Ireland.


United and Divided

This week finds me in the British Isles, where the first foreign edition of A More Perfect Heaven makes its debut at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland -- a month before the American edition comes out. It's the same book on both sides of the ocean, of course, except for the spelling of certain words and the contrast between the two jackets. Just as the United Kingdom and the United States are "divided by a common language," as George Bernard Shaw once quipped, we seem further divided in the way we judge books by their covers.

The background color of the U.K. jacket suggests the bluest depths of the night sky that Copernicus might have observed, while the U.S. jacket glows in a burnished brass-gold reminiscent of an early astronomical instrument. Both are beautiful, and I'm glad I didn't have to choose between them.

An important first edition copy of Copernicus's own book resides at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. It belonged to astronomer Erasmus Reinhold, a Copernican contemporary who made copious notes in the margins of many pages -- notes that indicate how the book's first readers reacted to its original ideas. I was hoping to view Reinhold's annotated copy while visiting the city, but, unfortunately for me, the librarian who has custody of the rare volume will be away on vacation.

The Book Festival coincides with Edinburgh's Festival Fringe, said to be the world's largest annual arts festival. The crowd of performers coming to town has made it easy for my publisher to find a couple of actors willing to portray Copernicus and his lone disciple, Rheticus. The two men will read aloud a few scenes from "And the Sun Stood Still," the play at the center of my book, during my Festival event.

After leaving Edinburgh, I'll take Copernicus to Dublin and Belfast, then England, with events in Bristol, Bath, Greenwich, and London. For a play reading at the new Peter Harrison Planetarium of the National Maritime Museum, the staff have promised to create stellar theatrical effects (or theatrical stellar effects?) on the dome with their digital laser projector.


A Date with Greatness

Often I'm asked to speak about Galileo to interested audiences, but last week The Tech Museum in San Jose invited me to speak for him--to answer a series of questions about his "personality traits" and "lifestyle preferences" as I imagined Galileo might respond. For example, would he describe himself as "shy and quiet"? Enjoy playing sports or games? Prefer eating meat to eating vegetables?

Put another way, Can an individual who lived centuries ago find a match in today's online social network? I wasn't sure I wanted to put Galileo to that test, but the Museum staff convinced me to think again. They plan a small exhibition about the "scientific formulas based on social science theories" used by dating services to connect people with similar personalities, interests, backgrounds, and values. An accompanying interactive display promising “A Date With Greatness” will allow Museum visitors to take a short quiz that tests their compatibility with characters out of history.

As someone with a longstanding crush on Galileo, I felt confident choosing the personality descriptors that pegged him as "warm," "sympathetic," "adventurous," and "open to new experiences." I was sure he'd like "watching movies, concerts, and plays" (well, concerts and plays), just as much as "making art, music, or new inventions." Asked to list hobbies and other interests, I offered that he loved writing letters and verses, also debating, and playing the lute, although I wasn't sure these qualities would appeal to the middle- and high-school students in the exhibition's target audience. You never know.

The Museum didn't ask for a picture, but I engaged in a little "cyber-stalking" to see what images might be available for their purpose. Galileo counted several well known artists among his acquaintances, a few of whom drew or painted his likeness. Unfortunately, all the portraits depicted him as a bearded old man. Tucked in among these head shots, however, was a lone photo of a genuine stud--a handsome piece of horseflesh also named Galileo.

According to, an online matchmaker service for thoroughbreds, 12-year-old Galileo is currently stallion of the week, stallion of the month, and stallion the year.

Looking ahead, I've asked the Tech Museum to consider adding shy, quiet Copernicus to their roster of Greatness Date candidates.