Fall is here

As a child in first grade, I learned how to write my first full sentence, welcoming the new season. The command of words pleased me so much that after penciling "Fall is here" a dozen times or so on a lined sheet of paper in class, I used colored chalks to repeat it on the sidewalks around my parents' house and even the bricks of the building. It became such a family code phrase that for the rest of his life my older brother Michael would call me every year near September 22 to remind me "Fall is here." And sometimes I would mail him a note, in several colors of ink, to say the same. I recently shared this memory with my science writing students at Smith College. Then I gave them a related assignment geared to their level: Write a one-paragraph explanation of the autumnal equinox. I knew this was tantamount to asking them to describe a spiral staircase without using their hands, but they met the challenge.

It feels fitting, at this time of year, to picture the tilted earth on its path through space, rounding a place in its orbit where sunlight falls evenly on the northern and southern hemispheres. The earth's annual cycle--more ancient and enduring than the leaves' consuming themselves in flame--moves all of us forward, on to face the next thing.

Fall is here.

Riding the search engine to the end of the line

Now that almost any factual question can be answered by googling the topic and ogling the results that pop on-screen within half a second, I usually find the information I need in a moment or two. But for a deeper kind of inquiry -- seeking out the biographical details of a well known figure about whom little is known -- I thought I might, for the first time, try riding the search engine all the way to the end of the line. With no idea how far the trip through 82,300 results would carry me, or how long it might take, I just hopped on board at Wikipedia. Clicking along through the sites, enjoying the scenery of the available images, I reached the bottom of the first page in a few hours and paused for the night.

On Day 2 / Page 2 I discovered a Spanish-language video vignette dramatizing the life of my Scottish character, and vowed I would never again content myself with Google's top most popular referrals. I got to the page bottom more quickly this time, and noticed that only the page numbers 1 through 10 were displayed there. Not until I had sped through the (repetitive) material on page 6, and prepared to click onward, did I detect the slight shift in destination. The page numbers now ranged from 2 to 11.  Progress through just one more page shifted the range again (3 to 12), but momentum or inertia kept me pressing on. From a vantage point at the top of page 29, the realization finally dawned that, with ten links proffered per page, I still had 8,202 pages to go. A question naturally arose that Google could not answer: If I persevere to the finish, will the effort prove worth my while?

By then, in addition to a pleasing number of useful discoveries, including my Scottish immigrant's 1907 petition for American citizenship, I had also encountered a plethora of dead links, genealogies of unrelated people who shared her last (or even first) name, and careless repetitions of errors and apocryphal tales.

I quit there, of course. But I still find myself thinking down that long tunnel of possibilities, wondering what I'm missing.




Required reading

This month I'm drawing up two required reading lists. One is for the students in the science-writing seminar I'll start teaching in September at Smith College. It covers a wide range of subjects and genres, from the planet poems of Diane Ackerman to the DNA play by Paul Mullin, plus chapters from classic works such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, along with clips from The New York Times Tuesday science section and recent pieces in The New Yorker, New Scientist, and Scientific American. The other reading list is for myself. It's narrower in focus but much longer and will keep growing over the next two years as I research and write my current book, tentatively titled The Glass Universe, for Penguin Random House. The story takes place at the Harvard College Observatory, beginning in the 1870s, when Edward Pickering, the institution's third director, approached some of the biggest questions in astronomy by hiring a large number of women to work as computers.

My reading list includes several histories of the American observatory -- not just Harvard's but also its contemporaries and competitors such as the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington (admirably chronicled by Steven J. Dick in Sky and Ocean Joined). Then there are the state-of-the-science accounts from a contemporary perspective, my favorite of which so far is Agnes Clerke's Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century (Third Edition, 1893). I feel a kindred spirit-hood with Agnes, a once popular science writer whose colorful idiom describes "matter that thrills the ether into light."

The best part of the reading awaits me in the Harvard University Archive, among the many boxes of letters to and from the former Observatory staffers. Much of their correspondence is available in digitized copies on-line, where I've gotten started going through it. "Dear Edward," the director's brother addresses him from an astronomy outpost in Peru, then pours out twelve hand-written pages of news before signing off stiffly as "W. H. Pickering." There's a story there.

Confessions of a definer (the "p" word)

NASA's New Horizons has traveled far enough in the seven years since its launch to see the target at the end of the trajectory. The spacecraft's highest-resolution telescopic camera recently beamed back an image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, discernible for the first time as two separate worlds.

At least one announcement of this milestone referred to Pluto as a planet, re-igniting the debate over the definition of the "p" word and Pluto's contested status as a member of that category.

Having played a (small) part in the Pluto affair, I would like to share some of the lessons in humility it taught me.

The first came from my older brother Michael, who, upon learning that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) had appointed me to its "Planet Definition Committee," asked, "Why do they want you?"

Maybe it was folly to try to redefine a term already laden with significance. A hand-me-down from the ancient Greek  planetai, meaning "wanderers," the word had referred of old to the Sun and Moon as well as to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Modern astronomers needed a more detailed, comprehensive definition, informed by new discoveries of the Solar System's most distant objects plus several hundred "exoplanets" circling stars beyond the Sun. A strict definition, it was hoped, would also decide what to do about Pluto, whose planethood had come under question.

Our committee's draft proposal in the summer of 2006 defined a planet as a body in orbit around a star, and massive enough to be globe-shaped. By our definition, Pluto remained a planet, while several other bodies became planets. These included the asteroid Ceres and a few so-called Kuiper Belt Objects beyond the orbit of Pluto. The census of Solar System planets thus rose to twelve -- with a chance of climbing higher in the light of future discoveries.

Of all the objections raised against our suggestion, the one that surprised me most was the argument that children could not be expected to memorize an unlimited number of planet names.

When our proposal came to a vote at the IAU general assembly in Prague a few weeks later, another qualifier was added by some of the discussants: To be a planet, a round body orbiting a star had to dominate its neighborhood. This was Pluto's downfall, as it orbits in thrall to the planet Neptune, and has failed to clear its path of other small fry.

The official definition reduced the Solar System to eight planets. Some outsiders thought Pluto had been bodily ejected, when in fact it was merely relegated to a separate class of "dwarf planet." But unlike a dwarf star or a dwarf galaxy (each a diminutive version of its type), a dwarf planet is not a planet. This seems a harsh -- even an illogical distinction. As one astronomer lamented, "Is a dachshund not a dog?"

An unfortunate change in the wording of the final definition replaced the word "star" with "the Sun." This means that after years of (still unsettled) debate, we have defined only the worlds of our own Solar System, when a goal of the re-definition process had been the expansion of our vocabulary to embrace the myriad other worlds abounding throughout the galaxy.

Surely the definition needs retooling. Maybe by the time New Horizons arrives in 2015, Pluto will have morphed into a planet again.

Science writing by scientists, for non-scientists

For nine years now, I have served on a Rockefeller University committee that awards a more-or-less annual prize for science writing -- not to a full-time reporter the likes of me, but to a distinguished researcher with a gift for unraveling science to a wide public audience: Jared Diamond, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, and E. O. Wilson figure among the winners. The prize went first to physician and poet Lewis Thomas, shortly before his death in 1993, and has been known ever since as the Lewis Thomas Prize. Dr. Thomas's literary essays in The New England Journal of Medicine, collected in popular volumes such as The Lives of a Cell and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony set a high standard for later honorees.

This past week, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore became the first woman to receive the Lewis Thomas Prize. The award citation praised her book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, for changing minds in the medical community as well as the general public on the nature and stigma of mental illness.

A perk of serving on the selection committee is attending the winner's invited lecture on the Rockefeller campus -- a gated enclave for research and advanced education in the medical sciences, perched at the easternmost edge of mid-town Manhattan, where the current faculty includes six Nobel laureates.

Dr. Jamison opened herself to the audience at the start of her remarks by alluding to her own manic-depressive illness, or bi-polar disorder, which struck her at age seventeen. She stressed the importance of early diagnosis and treatment, since the condition worsens over time, and she credited lithium with an eight-fold reduction in the number of suicides attributable to manic depression.

Her other books include An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, in which she describes her own alternating episodes of suicidal depression and sleep-deprived mania. In addition to her teaching at Hopkins and clinical work in its Mood Disorders Center, she is currently writing a biography of American poet Robert Lowell, one of several manic-depressive artists she discusses in Touched With Fire.

Dr. Jamison saluted Lewis Thomas by letting him have the last words of her talk: "The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA," he had written in The Lives of a Cell. "Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music."

Imaginary Lines

The artist and architect Maya Lin invited me to her current show at the Pace Gallery because, she said, latitude and longitude were "playing a major part." Of course I went -- not to the opening on April 25, but the following Tuesday afternoon, when it was possible to marvel quietly at the way Ms. Lin's imagination gave substance to the globe's lines of position. She had sculpted several of them in marble, the stuff of Earth's own heft.  These works lay low on the wooden floor of the gallery, where I walked around them and stepped over them and enjoyed being disoriented by lines realized in three dimensions. Their smooth sides give rise to hummocky top surfaces suggesting everything from mountain ranges to mid-ocean ridges or even midtown skyscrapers.

The marble ring called "Latitude New York City" looked to be an excised, miniaturized parallel of the world, joining all the places that share the "41 North" address of this metropolis, from Pennsylvania cross-country to California and over the Pacific to Japan, North Korea, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

A pair of long, narrow pieces, "74 Degrees West Longitude" and "106 Degrees East Longitude," were displayed end to end. The small gap between them kept east and west from meeting, though these particular meridians in fact intersect in Ms. Lin herself, a New Yorker with roots in China.

On the gallery walls hung several bodies of water she had rendered in flows of silver. Other waterways, including the Hudson River and the flood surge of Hurricane Sandy, took shape in assemblies of several thousand steel pins painstakingly stuck into the plaster. The seeming permanence of these installations naturally raised the question of how one might purchase such a work of art for display elsewhere. The answer: The artist or her assistants could map the positions of the pins onto another site's wall, drill all the tiny holes to hold them, and then insert them one by one.

The "Here and There" of the show's title reflects the fact that only part of the exhibition resides in New York, where it can be seen through June 22, with the rest on view at Pace in London. I wish I were going to see that part as well.

Saved Letters

In the top drawer of the file cabinet I inherited from my mother, I found an old manila folder full of letters that she and my father exchanged in the early phases of their romance, circa 1928 to 1930. The little archive is a mix of missives, from folded notes on torn-out scraps of notebook paper that would pass as "texts" today to three-page rants on the tortures of separation during the summers they spent apart. These are the souvenirs my mother stored through sixty years of marriage and ten of widowhood. At the end, she neither gave nor willed them to me, but simply left them behind. After another decade, I have finally made time to read through and set them in chronological order.

My parents' attitudes and personalities are fully recognizable in the pair of lovesick teenagers who wrote to each other at least once a day. Nothing they confided in their correspondence seems foreign to me or even to my children, who knew the couple only as elderly grandparents. What feels strange is to hold the fossil record of their love preserved in the amber of the writing paper -- not just the words, but also the moody changes of handwriting, the stationery she acknowledged as a gift from him (in their favorite color), the antiquated letterhead of the laboratory where he worked, the lost quiet of a private intimacy at the furthest possible remove from the social network.


Introducing Galileo

A handsome new, illustrated edition of Galileo's great Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World will be published in June, and I was invited to write an introduction.

Of course I accepted. I like introducing other people's books. It's something I've done perhaps half a dozen times in my life, though never for anyone so revered or so long dead. Yesterday (February 15) was Galileo's 449th birthday; January 8 marked the 371st anniversary of his death.

The Dialogue -- or Dialogo in the original Italian -- is nearing four hundred years in print. Having spent its first two centuries in a state of suspended animation on the Index of Prohibited Books, it remains evergreen. A reviewer's note in the mid-February 2013 double issue of The New Yorker called Galileo's Dialogue "the most entertaining classic of science ever published."

Others have shared that opinion, including Albert Einstein, who wrote the Foreword for the 1953 English translation by the late Stillman Drake. Einstein judged the Dialogue "a downright roguish attempt" to pretend obedience to authority while in fact flouting it: "A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of teachers in priest's and scholar's garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority."

Re-reading the Dialogue and retracing its tragic history for my current assignment, I reflected that I will never be asked to perform a similar service for Copernicus. Unlike Galileo, who functioned as the Carl Sagan of his day, Copernicus spoke to a small community of intellectuals who could read Latin and follow his math. Although his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, inspired Galileo and fomented a scientific revolution, one could never call it a page-turner.



No, not marriage. But something very like, for a person in my profession, given the time commitment implied. I'm trying to describe the scope of a new book idea -- a project that could consume my life for at least five years -- to a potential publisher. The point of the book proposal is to awaken the publisher's interest, elicit a promise of publication, and secure an "advance" sufficient to cover research and living expenses for as long as it takes to write the text. ("Advance" is short for "advance against royalties," which means that the dollar amount advanced to the author at the outset must be repaid to the publisher from book sales before the author can receive any further income.)

The challenge of writing a good proposal is to frame the story and make its significance come real before conducting the several years' worth of research required to tell it in full book-length detail. I'm talking about nonfiction. Novelists don't write proposals. They need to write entire novels before publishers will pay attention.

In preparation for this proposal, I have read a dozen books, toured the Web via "Google Scholar," interviewed a few people, and made one preliminary visit to the Harvard University Observatory, where the action takes place. I've also talked up the gist of the idea in conversation so often that the characters already feel familiar. I like them a lot, which is good, because if things go well I'm going to be living with them for the foreseeable future.

How long should a proposal be? "As long as it needs to be," is the general rule. I wrote a fifteen-page version in the summer that fell short for several reasons. Friends and family members who read it failed to grasp the nature of the work the characters were doing, or get a good sense of who they were, or how the astronomy of that period (late 1800s to early 1900s) fit into the larger picture of American society. When I say my preliminary readers failed to understand, I mean I failed to explain.

Now I have thirty pages. The proposal is much stronger, but not just because it's longer. The months I spent thinking about it helped me find the story line, whereas before I was sketching a series of situations. As my agent, Michael Carlisle, reminded me when he urged putting aside the proposal for a while, "Sometimes writing is about not writing."


I'd been thinking, en route in early November to Australia for my eighth total solar eclipse, that I’d spent more than enough time and money chasing the shadow of the moon. I figured I'd give up the quest after this one last exposure. But then the weather on Green Island cleared, after a string of gloomy mornings, to reveal the sunrise eclipse.

I watched from a waterside helipad with five friends, four of whom had never seen an eclipse before. Their first-timers’ anticipation upped my own excitement, especially when I realized I would need to seize the right moment for them to remove their protective glasses and stare naked-eyed at totality. I’d never been in that position of responsibility before.

Now. Take off the glasses. Oh my God. There's the diamond ring!

The sight, familiar but ever foreign, framed the black circle of the eclipsed Sun in a halo of silver and red. The whole world around us -- sky, sand, sea -- changed color, and the air grew colder. Clouds along the horizon threatened to blot out the spectacle at any moment. Instead they only skirted the Sun, as though to remind us how lucky we were -- how close we had come, thousands of miles from home, to seeing nothing.

I felt perfectly happy for the whole two minutes -- for the fleeting two minutes -- that totality lasted. When it ended too soon, as it always does, the euphoria hung on for days. And now of course I'm scheming for the means to view upcoming exotic eclipses in Africa and the Arctic, until August 21, 2017, when the path of a total solar eclipse will traverse the United States, cutting a diagonal swath from Oregon to South Carolina. It's not too early to start considering the ideal perch.



Doctor Copernicus in Padua

On October 15 I had the honor of delivering a lecture about Copernicus's day job -- his lifelong service as personal physician to the bishop of Varmia -- in Padua, at the very institution where Copernicus attended medical school early in the 16th century. I was happy to return to Padua, where another of my heroes, Galileo, spent the eighteen happiest years of his life, teaching medical students how to cast horoscopes at the city's famed university.

In his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, Galileo makes reference to the human dissections he attended in Padua's anatomical theater, which opened in 1594 as the world's first such facility.

My Copernicus talk formed part of a lecture series conceived by cardiac pathologist Gaetano Thiene to celebrate the "Morgagni Year 2012." Three centuries ago, Giovanni Battista Morgagni arrived in the Latin quarter of Padua as a demonstrator in anatomy. He stayed for six decades, working to the day he died of a stroke in December 1771. Morgagni's long career of research and teaching immortalized him as the founder of modern anatomical pathology.

A highlight of my visit was a tour through the cabinet of curiosities in the basement of Padua's Graduate School of Clinical and Experimental Medical Sciences. Some of the collection's specimens date from the 1850s, making the jars and preservation techniques almost as interesting as the anomalies themselves.

Home of the Expanding Universe

This September marks the one-hundredth anniversary of a discovery that opened the door to our enormous, expanding universe. Astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher ("V.M.," as he was always called) made the pivotal observation at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Using the same telescope through which his boss, Percival Lowell, had perceived canals on Mars, V.M. took a long look at the great spiral nebula in Andromeda.

To gather a sufficient quantity of the nebula's faint light, Slipher tracked the object for six hours, spread over three nights' observing. The picture he extracted from these efforts was a spectrum -- not a likeness of the nebula but a continuous rainbow strip of starlight punctuated by dark lines identifying specific elements. The positions of the lines indicated the nebula was rushing Sunward at the incredible pace of two hundred miles per second. The bright stars of familiar constellations, in comparison, moved at much slower rates, on the order of one to ten miles per second. With Lowell's encouragement, Slipher went on to clock other nebulae, all of which seemed to go at a gallop. Their great velocities suggested the dimensions of the universe might be far grander than anyone had suspected.

A century ago, the spiral nebulae were thought to be new solar systems in the making: Each blurred whorl represented a single star inside a cloud of fragments coalescing into planets. Within two decades of Slipher's discovery, however, astronomers came to recognize the spiral nebulae as separate galaxies, all lying far beyond our own Milky Way, each containing many billion stars, and most receding from us at speed.

Sixty-some astronomers and historians gathered in Flagstaff mid-month to hail Slipher's achievement in a two-day celebratory symposium, "Origins of the Expanding Universe: 1912-1932." Several speakers lamented the fact that Slipher's name has been all but forgotten, even dropped from textbooks, with most credit for the universe's expansion allotted to the famous Edwin Hubble.

I was happy to develop a proper respect for V.M. while paying my first visit to the Lowell Observatory.

Signs posted along the winding drive up Mars Hill proclaim the site as "Home of the Expanding Universe" and also "Home of Pluto." True, Clyde Tombaugh discovered the erstwhile ninth planet here in 1930, after Lowell died and Slipher had taken over as observatory director. Parts of Slipher's and Tombaugh's discovery instruments are on display in the Visitor Center.

I got to see Lowell's Mars globes, and put my eye to his original 24-inch telescope, which brought a globular cluster of stars on the galaxy's fringe into gorgeous focus. Even to the naked eye, the clear night at high altitude afforded a view of the Milky Way far superior to what I normally see near my sea-level home.

In the Moonless dark, a guide led me to another unique feature of Lowell Observatory -- the blue-glass-domed mausoleum that houses the founder's remains.

Final Leap

Everyone I know mourns the loss this week of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Those of us who saw the live broadcast of the first Moon landing have stood straighter ever since at the mention of his name. Armstrong carried out the combined missions of an explorer, a dare-devil, a visionary, and an emissary for the human race without ever raising his voice or taking credit for accomplishing his almost impossible mission. John Noble Wilford, who covered the Apollo program for The New York Times and wrote the page-one obituary that appeared on Sunday, tells one of my favorite Armstrong anecdotes in his book The Mapmakers. During the world tour following Apollo 11's return to Earth, the three-hero crew dined with the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. Armstrong proposed a toast that night to John Harrison, the 18th-century English clockmaker whose perfect timekeeper solved the age-old problem of finding position at sea. Armstrong praised Harrison for initiating the navigation innovations that made space travel a reality.

Since Harrison figured as the hero of my book Longitude, I loved learning that Armstrong held him in such high regard. I, too, had lifted a glass to Mr. Harrison on numerous occasions.

In 2004, in preparation for a tenth-anniversary edition of Longitude, my publisher, George Gibson, asked me to suggest some appropriate person who might write a preface to give the book a new dimension. I immediately thought of Armstrong, though I doubted I could even get a letter to him, let alone win such a favor from him. By happy coincidence, James Hansen had just completed Armstrong's biography, First Man, and Hansen's agent approached my agent, Michael Carlisle, for help finding foreign publishers. A path of communication opened.

Following instructions, I wrote an e-mail message to Commander Armstrong that passed through several insulating layers of people. I wasn't given his direct e-address, nor did I expect a direct response, so, when "N. A. Armstrong" appeared in my inbox a few weeks later, it stopped my breathing. "Thank you for your kind note," he wrote. He said he had read my book, and, given his feelings for Harrison, "would be honored to submit something for your consideration as a preface."

It was a trifle for him, but the biggest thing that ever happened to Longitude.

A statement released over the weekend by Armstrong's family urges his many admirers to think of him every time they look at the Moon, where a crater already bears his name.

The coming weeks will see many tributes and salutes to his memory, though he helped plant the best commemorative himself, on the lunar surface -- the small plaque that says, "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."


Hobbits reach Mercury

In their quiet, fictional way, hobbits and ents arrived at Mercury this month. They stole no headlines from Curiosity's successful touchdown on Mars as they slipped into their newfound niche, Crater Tolkien, on the Solar System's innermost planet. Crater Tolkien came to light thanks to the year-plus explorations of the Mercury-orbiting spacecraft called MESSENGER (an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging). The MESSENGER science team followed accepted planetary nomenclature protocol when it suggested author J.R.R. Tolkien's name for one of nine new crater finds. All impact craters on Mercury recall past artists, whether they expressed themselves in paint, print, song, or other creative medium.

Crater Tolkien, not exactly a hobbit hole, lies in shadow near Mercury's north pole and appears to contain deposits of ice. The notion of frozen water on the surface of a world so close to the Sun sounds as strange as the doings in Middle Earth, yet planetary scientists were not surprised by the discovery. Radar studies had identified ice-bright patches inside some of the planet's craters even before MESSENGER began circling Mercury in March 2011. Unlike the Earth or Mars, Mercury hardly tilts at all, so its polar regions receive no direct light. And even though the Sun warms up Mercury's day side to several hundred degrees, the rarefied atmosphere fails to distribute that heat.

While The Hobbit is generally considered a children's fantasy tale, I read it as a textbook in a university-level course on English syntaxat the City College of New York. My professor believed it possible to discover the hidden ice of an author's style by analyzing his sentence structure. The six or seven students enrolled with me in the seminar divided up The Hobbit's chapters. Between us we diagrammed every sentence, beginning with the one that came unbidden to Tolkien while he graded student examination papers at Oxford:  "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

Extending human naming tendencies to the other planets may seem frivolous, but it gives scientists a straightforward way to refer to specific features in their published papers and conference presentations. The practice also reinforces age-old links between scientific inquiry and other forms of creative curiosity.

Writers at Risk

Today is my last day at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, Ireland, where for the past week I've enjoyed the luxury of lecturing about my work and listening to other authors do the same. To remind us of our extreme good fortune, teenagers enrolled in a Festival writing workshop appeared at the start of each event, to read aloud the plight of some journalist silenced or imprisoned in another country. Amnesty International Ireland had identified a dozen cases of writers in peril, and featured them in a pamphlet providing photos of the individuals with descriptions of their "offenses" and sentenced fates. Each case summary also included the name and address of someone -- the ministers of justice in Greece and Sudan, the presidents of Gambia, China, Azerbaijan and Belarus, the head of the judiciary in Iran, the inspector general of police in Sri Lanka -- with the power to end that writer's suffering. All of us were urged to write letters on behalf of counterparts now prisoners of conscience.

A letter-writing center set up in the Café Organico made such appeals an easy daily routine. Literary Festival Artistic Director Denyse Woods, hoping to revive "the exquisite but dying art form" of getting in touch by letter, had obtained an abundance of stationery and pens from willing sponsors, and also provided a letter box with the promise of free postage to anywhere.

It was my privilege to launch the "Letter Café" campaign on Monday. I spoke about personal letters to connect with dear ones or express condolences, letters to oneself in lieu of journal entries, and collections of letters that illuminated history. But the letters I wrote this week all addressed foreign dignitaries who might not deign to read them. As the Amnesty International representative explained to me, "You just keep sending the letters. You hope it will help."





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."