Monthly Archives: July 2010

Star the thirtieth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Friday 30 July without touching the demon drink is Stellaluna, written and illustrated by Jannell Cannon.

Stellaluna is a baby fruitbat. One night, her mother is attacked by an owl, and Stellaluna loses her grip. She falls, but lands in a nest of baby birds. The birds, and Stellaluna, are very surprised, but they all try hard to make it work out. “[Stellaluna] ate bugs without making faces. She slept in the nest at night. And she didn’t hang by her feet. Stellaluna behaved as a good bird should.” By and large, she makes her new life work.

But one night, she is found by another fruitbat, who wonders why she is sleeping the wrong way up. When Stellaluna tells her story, another bat comes forward – her mother, who survived the owl attack. Stellaluna goes off joyfully with her mother, but she still remembers her bird family too, and keeps on visiting them.

I know, it sounds like a wretchedly sappy story, and I suppose that it could be, except for some lovely touches in the illustrations. The look on Stellaluna’s face as she tries to eat scritchy scratchy insects is glorious, and very funny. In the sidelines, there are small black and white illustrations, telling another story. All the time that Stellaluna is learning to be a bird, her mother is searching for her.

And I suppose that I could deconstruct the story, and instead of focusing on the themes of people (birds!) looking after the strangers in their midst, and doing their best to help them, I could read it as a story of appropriation and assimilation. But at no stage do the bats claim that bat ways are best, and nor do the birds. Each simply has a way of life that works. Moreover, the ‘message’ is not heavy handed, in the mode of The Rainbow Fish, or Milo and the Magical Stones (I don’t think I had realised until now that Marcus Pfister is responsible for both these abominations), and the story is accompanied by some seriously good notes about fruit bats. I recommend this book.

Stellaluna, by Jannell Cannon

Star the twenty-ninth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Thursday 29 July without touching the demon drink is the STAR detector.

Dark centre, the strands of light going out from the centre, most straight, some in arching curves, in blues and greens and a few yellows, looking like a cross section of a 12-segmented orange.

Click on the picture to see a full size image at WikiCommons.

(Description: Dark centre with thin rings of yellow and blue, then strands of light going out from the centre, most straight, some in arching curves, in blues and greens and a few yellows and reds, looking like a cross section of a 12-segmented orange.)

The Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC is being used to study a state of matter that was thought to exist in the early moments after the big bang. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:

The primary physics task of STAR is to study the formation and characteristics of the quark gluon plasma (QGP), a state of matter believed to exist at sufficiently high energy densities. Detecting and understanding the QGP allows us to understand better the universe in the moments after the Big Bang, where the symmetries (and lack of symmetries) of our surroundings were put into motion.

Well, good. That explains that then, doesn’t it?

For me, that’s one of those passages of physics writing that dances on the edges of my comprehension. I think I can almost understand what it might be about, but then, my understanding slips away. I feel like Lata in A Suitable Boy:

Whenever she opened a scientific book and saw whole paragraphs of incomprehensible word and symbols, she felt a sense of wonder at the great territories of learning that lay beyond here – the sum of so many noble and purposive attempts to make objective sense of the world. She enjoyed the feeling; it suited her serious moods; and this afternoon she was feeling serious. She picked up a random book and read a random paragraph: …What exactly it was that pleased her in these sentences she did not know, but they conveyed weight, comfort, inevitability.

I can understand the ideas of the beginnings of the universe, of the joys of general relativity, of the incredible structures of atoms, at a most broad brush level – about the level that Bill Bryson’s excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything is written at, or on a good day, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, ‘though I have to admit that Hawking lost me on quantum physics until Bryson explained that I ought to find it incredibly weird and almost beyond conception. But that’s about it. I so admire the women and men who have mastered the arcana of physics, who wrestle with extraordinary ideas, who design the most enormous experiments so that we can increase our understanding of the universe in which we live. I’m thrilled that the Large Hadron Collider is running: I hope that one day, soon, someone will be able to explain to me what they are finding out. I love the sense that we are trying to find out more and more, to grapple with the farthest and smallest and largest aspects of reality. We live in an age of exploration. Isn’t it wonderful?

Also, the pictures are very pretty.

Friday Feminist – Yosano Akiko 与謝野 晶子

Cross posted

The Day the Mountains Move

The day the mountains move has come.
I speak, but no one believes me.
For a time the mountains have been asleep,
But long ago, they danced with fire.
It doesn’t matter if you believe this,
My friends, as long as you believe:
All the sleeping women
Are now awake and moving.

Yosano Akiko 与謝野 晶子, “The Day the Mountains Move”, first published in Seitô in 1911, republished in Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim (eds), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives, 2nd ed., Routledge 2010

Star the twenty-eighth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Wednesday 28 July without touching the demon drink is Star Wars.

Not the wretched ‘sequel’ movies that came out around the turn of the century, nor the sappy The Return of the Jedi, nor even the rather more interesting The Empire Strikes Back. The movie I loved was the very first Star Wars movie, plain Star Wars, long before it got its subtitle: A New Hope. It was magnificent. The very first scene created a sense of awe and shock and wonder for me, as the huge Empire battleship rumbled over my head. Then there was the fabulously imaginative bar scene, and the subversion of the “cute lil folks” trope: those desert dwellers were frightening people. As was Darth Vader: I had nightmares about him for months. George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie was a marvel, far surpassing the gadgetry of recent 3D movies.

It doesn’t however, pass the Bechdel test. No movie in the Star Wars franchise does. Clearly, that would have taken just too much imagination.

Star the twenty-seventh

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Tuesday 27 July without touching the demon drink is the asterisk.

I could loathe the asterisk, given the propensity of my symbolically minded colleagues to use it to indicate an alternate version of something, in language that makes my eyes glaze over and sends me racing back to the happy playground of political theory, right at the point where it becomes political science. So often it signals a dry distinction, a tedious point of logic, a use of symbols to obscure rather than enlighten. But most often when I see an asterisk in ordinary prose, my eyes race to the bottom of the page, to find the little juicy snippet of information that the author has placed there, because it didn’t quite fit into the text. Sometimes it’s just a date, but even that is interesting, allowing me to realise that particular lives crossed over, even if those who lived them didn’t meet, or that a particular event occurred just before, or just after, or at the same time, as something else I interested in. When I first read a fictional account of Richard III’s life, I was sceptical that there had been an eclipse on the day that his wife died, until at a suitable pause, the author inserted an asterisk, and at the bottom of the page, assured me that it was true, and that she would not have dared to make up such an improbable event. A kind editor let me know that “condescension” in Jane Austen’s time meant something rather closer to “graciousness” or perhaps “courteousness” in ours: otherwise I would have been rather put out by Emma reflecting that she “did not repent her condescension in going to the Coles.” Most of all, I enjoy asterisks in non-fiction books, when the extra information is not weighty enough to be included in the official footnotes, but it’s a point of interest. Perhaps it’s some quirky information about the topic, maybe an anecdote about the author, possibly a wry remark. It’s a little bit of communication from author directly to reader, a glimpse of colour, a pinch of chilli to enliven the chocolate. An asterisk is a tantalizing hint that there is more to be said.

That is why I like asterisks.

Star the twenty-sixth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Monday 26 July without touching the demon drink is the fiery star in the Bayeux tapestry, which we know as Halley’s Comet.

Section of Bayeux tapestry showing fiery star in top right corner.

(Description: Section of Bayeux tapestry showing fiery star in top right corner.)

Halley’s comet is a short period comet, appearing on a regular cycle. It appeared in 1066, just as William of Normandy was preparing his invasion of England – a bad omen for Harold Godwinson, but a good omen for William, who became the Conqueror. Its first recorded appearance was in 240 BC, but it wasn’t until 1705 that Edmond Halley calculated that the comets that had appeared in 1531 and 1607 and 1682 were the same comet. He predicted that it would return in 1758, and obligingly, it did so. Alas, Halley was no longer alive to see it: he died in 1742, aged 85. The periodicity of the comet is long enough that even though most people can be sure of seeing it in their lifetimes, not many people would see it twice. Last time round, the only time it is likely to appear in my lifetime (it’s next due in what will be my 96th year), it was a long distance from the earth, and it appeared only as a smudge in the sky. My flatmate and I went out to see it one evening, peering at the patch of sky where we had been told to look, and there it was, miserably pale. I was very disappointed.

Not so in its 1910 appearance, when it was very bright. My mother’s mother was about eight years old at the time, and in her old age she told me about the bright light that had flamed in the sky for night after night.

Black background, small white smears - stars - and a ball of light up towards the top right corner, with a long tail spreading down to the bottom corner.

(Description: Black background, small white smears – stars – and a ball of light up towards the top right corner, with a long tail spreading down to the bottom corner.)

For all its dullness in 1986, the comet’s appearance has been recorded in a tapestry. Along the endwall of the Great Hall in Australia’s federal parliament, there is a huge tapestry. The tapestry is based on a work by Australian artist Arthur Boyd, showing the painted gums on his property at Shoalhaven, in New South Wales. When the tapestry was being planned, the women who were to weave it suggested to Boyd that just as celestial events were recorded in other enduring pieces of art work, this tapestry should record the 1986 passage of Halley’s comet, as a means of dating it. Boyd agreed, and the comet now appears in the tapestry. You can see an image of the tapestry here, but I can’t pick out the comet on it. The white flash in the middle is a cockatoo.

I recall this story of the comet being included in the tapestry from when I visited Parliament House in the 1990s, but I can’t find any official record of this story. However it is clearly being passed on as oral history: I found several school webpages recounting the story as part of documenting a trips to Parliament. I’m sure this fascinating snippet about the tapestry is included in official histories, or at the very least, is in the Australian Tapestry Workshop’s files. But it would be nice to find a official record somewhere on the web too.

Star the twenty-fifth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Sunday 25 July without touching the demon drink is the constellation Orion.

(Description: Late evening, almost night sky, shining stars of Orion in southern hemisphere orientation i.e. upside down from the p.o.v. of people in the northern hemisphere)

This image looks odd, I’m sure, given that there are trees hanging upside down from the top of the frame. That’s because I have rotated it to its southern hemisphere orientation, which will be perceived as upside down by northern hemisphere readers. It took me years and years to realise that the illustration of Orion in my northern hemisphere produced books simply didn’t match what I saw in the sky because the illustrations were wrong, not me (wrong for the southern hemisphere, that is). I was astonished when I saw Orion standing with his feet pointing towards the ground when I travelled to the other side of the world.

Orion was the first constellation I ever learned to pick out in the night sky, ‘though I first learned it as The Pot, based on the three shining stars of his belt. For me, it is the constellation of summer nights spent stargazing.

Each year, my dad’s family meets somewhere for family camp, at varying locations, but most often at Whangamomona. In the evenings, people sit together and talk and sing and stare at the sky, picking out the constellations, and watching the satellites passing overhead. One summer night, a very bright satellite came into view, heading straight for the base of the pot. Speculation was intense as to whether it would pass over or under, with everyone having a settled opinion about it (this is an unsurprising state of affairs in my family). As it got closer and closer, the chatter stopped, and in complete silence, the satellite went plumb through the middle star of the belt. Without losing a beat, my youngest uncle strummed his guitar and sang… “There’s a hole in my bucket.”

This is why we are making the move home.


Star the twenty-fifth is just for me. Mr Strange Land had work entertaining obligations to do with corporate boxes and footy matches, so he obtained an indulgence (with thanks to Idiot-Savant for describing it so).

(Description: Dry July golden ticket, allowing the bearer to enjoy alcoholic beverages on 25 July)

But he’s back on the wagon tonight.