Orrery

Last night I watched an astronomy documentary on Netflix, Secrets of the Solar System. I loved astronomy documentaries, and the show Cosmos, but after a while, the same old information gets stale. I feel like I heard it all before in my astronomy courses at school, and no new information has really been added to the wealth that is already there, when it comes to publicly available media.

So it was to my surprise last night that I’d never heard the information in that show. It was all new. I devoured it voraciously, of course. As astronomers are learning more studying distant solar systems, they are able to piece together more information on our own solar system.

The documentary postulated which planets were formed first after the birth of the sun as a star. It even brought up a concept of hot versions of Jupiter that are out there, orbiting stars in other solar systems. It hypothesized that at one point, Jupiter was closing in on the sun, but then the formation of Saturn kept the Jupiter orbit from approaching closer and closer to the sun: a wandering Jupiter. It was all really interesting.

Perhaps the a-ha moment for me though, was the discovery of something called Kepler’s orrery. Now, an orrery is one of those mechanical models (with clockwork mechanisms) which intends to keep the planets, their orbits, and the distance from the sun to scale.

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However, if we did that, the planets would literally wind up kilometers away from our model sun, in some cases. Accurate scaling is not practical due to the large distances/ratios. So, they usually end up not to scale so we can keep them all in one tidy, little place.

Orreries can illustrate and predict where the planets are on any given date, past, present or future. You’ve seen them before, if you’ve seen the movie the Dark Crystal (pictured below), or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. They can be used to predict when eclipses will occur, when planets are aligned, and all kinds of important futuristic events written in the stars.

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Johannes Kepler was the mathematician and astronomer best known for his laws of planetary motion. He deduced planets orbit the sun in ellipses. His work formed the foundation for Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity.

Now, Kepler’s orrery is a little different. It’s a virtual display that shows the relative sizes of the orbits and planets in the multi-transiting planetary systems discovered by Kepler up to Nov. 2013. All the planetary systems discovered through 2013 are illustrated in a virtual collection of orreries. Planetary systems can vary so much – and our solar system is just as unique in its own formation. In Kepler’s orrery, the colors simply go by order from the star (the most colorful is the 7-planet system KOI-351). The terrestrial planets of the Solar System are shown in gray.

What I gathered from this collection of various solar systems we’ve observed is that each solar system is unique, like a snowflake, or a fingerprint. Some systems have two stars instead of just one; some have one central star like our sun, but contain only gaseous planets without terrestrial planets. Some stars rotate clockwise and have planets which run counterclockwise. Some are densely packed solar systems; some span great distances. The possibilities really are endless for what kinds of systems are out there, not just in our Milky Way galaxy, but in other galaxies too. It made me realize that had Saturn not been created from remnants further out in our solar system, Jupiter may have actually crashed into the sun, and we may not have Mercury, Venus, Earth, or Mars in our solar system at all. Our solar system may not have planets which sustain life, human life, at all. And even that came with time, and was a slow evolution within conditions that made it happen.

Our lives hinge on events that happened by chance, and hang in a delicate balance. It’s realistic (some say optimistic) to believe there has to be life out there on other planets. The problem is, maybe those planets will have life in millions of years, they’re just not there yet. They are all at different points along their journey, moving at different speeds, with different foci. All these planetary systems observed by Kepler hundreds of years ago have been studied by scientists at NASA in particular to aid in the search for habitable planets. However, there may be no escape hatch, no easy button, to continue the human race on other planets. That is the most conservative view. We have one planet, one chance.

We are all made up from various circumstances, too, just as solar systems are. Some we can control, but many we can’t. Things just happened. They’re a part of how we got here, though. Is it random? Is the variation planned through fractals or other mathematical concepts? Is there a master plan, or a higher power controlling all of this? Depends who you ask. It boggles my mind because I have to expand it wide for all the possibilities in this universe, but scale it down to focus on one or two small things to make a point. I don’t want to be on record as doubting intelligent life in space, thus that is where I must make my point. It must be out there. Given the variety of just the tiny sample humans have observed over our brief blink of an eye, it’s hard to believe. But I believe.

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Maybe I have a little hope after all. It’s little, and it’s been beaten and bruised, kicked around and left for dead. 

Wind, sand, and stars

Sometimes I do judge books by their covers. Or in the case of one book I’m reading at the moment, I chose it based solely on its title and author. Wind, Sand, and Stars. By Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The same author who penned The Little Prince.

He was a pilot for France, who flew planes to deliver mail to routes in Africa and South America, amongst other places. He also wrote and what he wrote, well, it comes from an adventurer who couldn’t make up the shit up he’s seen.

But this particular book, well, it’s sort of special. You can tell by the printing, I guess? You can tell the book was translated, possibly in a secondhand granny panty manufacturing facility with no air ventilation by 10 year olds in between smoke breaks. You know, where great ideas are born.

Sometimes, there are zeroes instead of oh’s. There are random 1’s or 6’s which show up every so often in the middle of a word, unexpected. Some sentences just end, like a staircase in the Winchester Mystery House.

Yet some of the translated prose is poetic and powerful, despite looking like it was written by a third grader with the extra extra large crayon.

When I read books, I’m a highlighter. I underline with whatever pen is around me (though the OCD in me wants to use the same highlighter and a patented color coordination shorthand notes system in the margins, with deep, prolific meanings, both provocative and silencing.)

I’ve highlighted tidbits of wisdom in my translated copy of this book, and hereby share my favorites with you.

“… gruff, not particularly approachable, and inclined somewhat to condescension when giving us the benefit of their experience.” – describes some people I’ve had the distinct pleasure of suffering through.

“…looked at us with embarrassing sympathy, as if they were pitying a flock of condemned sheep.” – looking upon on the faces of the new crop of college graduates who join my firm every year.

“Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.” – sometimes you need to be the one to grasp your own damn self by the shoulder.

“Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”

“Wind, sand, and stars… a handful of men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.”

“There exists a quality which is nameless… It is the quality of the carpenter face to face with his block of wood. He handles it, he takes its measure. Far from treating it frivolously, he summons all his professional virtues to do it honor.”

“Never, never in my life have I listened as carefully to a motor as I listened to my heart, me hanging there. I said to it: ‘Come on, old boy. Try beating a little.’ That’s good stuff my heart is made of. It hesitated, but it went on. You don’t know how proud I was of that heart.”

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.” As it is also with cooking.

“I was no more than a mortal strayed between sand and stars, conscious of the single blessing of breathing. And yet, I discovered myself filled with dreams.”

“That house was sad for being empty, but none other should live in it.”

“…his over-full heart was quivering on the brim and needed only to find itself back in Marrakech to be poured out.” – There’s no place like home.

“Of what can we be certain except this – that we are fertilized by mysterious circumstances? [In] the story of man’s gropings towards self-fulfillment… [we] learn what happens to man when the scaffolding of his traditions suddenly collapses.” That is when life begins, and there is no safety net. Each decision becomes more important than the last. “The time to hesitate is through,” in the immortal words of the Doors.

“One man in misery can disrupt the peace of a city.” True especially of Paris, of San Bernadino, of so many other countless places on this small world of ours. The left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird. We’re all in the same lifeboat, and the hole at one end impacts us all.

“When they read in their provincial newspaper the story of the life of Basil Zaharoff, master of the world, they transpose it into their own language. They recognize him in the nurseryman, or the pharmacist. And when they shoot the pharmacist, in a way they are shooting Basil Zaharoff. The only one who doesn’t understand is the pharmacist.” The innocents pay the price.

“Nothing had changed visibly, and we ourselves were unchanged. Nevertheless, in that clump of trees someone had just died.”

Learnings from the little prince

In the last 24 hours, I reread Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I haven’t read it since I was a very little girl, and I admit I could not recall the story at all. I’m glad I reread it – reminders come at the most useful of times… The story is about what’s really important in life, but as the reader learns, what’s important in life is going to be different to everyone one meets.

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The story starts with the narrator being discouraged from drawing at the tender age of 6, because grown-ups didn’t understand his art. He’d drawn a boa constrictor, from the outside and from the inside, with an elephant inside it. But all grown-ups could see was a hat. They didn’t see the elephant inside the snake. The narrator learns early on who the people are like him, who see something other than a hat, and then he learns who the people are who only see hats. He speaks of adjusting what he shares and how for the rest of his life, based on what it is people see. If people see hats, he speaks numbers with them. Makes more sense than it should, I’m afraid.

He also observes that grown-ups like numbers. I do admit, my career is based on numbers, yes. But my very nature is like that of the Little Prince. I do not speak numbers when I’m with friends or thinking for myself. If I’m being paid to think for a client, then I will think in numbers. It’s what the grown-ups want, so that is what they will get.

The Little Prince had quite a different perspective on grown-ups, and the planet Earth. His planet was so tiny, he could see the sunset 44 times in one day if he wanted to, just by moving his chair to keep up with the twilight! I should like to do that… That isn’t quite how we do things on Earth, though – it is much to big and we cannot move fast enough to keep our chair going to keep pace with the sunsets for a perpetual twilight. It’s a beautiful thought, though.

On his planet, he has a flower, two active volcanoes, and a dormant volcano, “but you never know.” His point of view on the volcano that used to go up to his knees but is no longer active, is that is still has potential. It’s not done yet. He’s right – you never know something is truly done… it can always reawaken.

He speaks of his flower often to the traveler who crash-landed in the Sahara and came upon the Little Prince as he was trying to fix his aircraft. He confides to the traveler, “You must never listen to flowers. You must look at them and smell them. Mine perfumed my planet, but I didn’t know how to enjoy that… In those days, I didn’t understand anything. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life… I was too young to know how to love her.”

Then, the Little Prince leaves his planet and ventures to others, where he meets characters who help him understand life and different perspectives. On the first planet, was a king, desperate for subjects, since he was the only inhabitant of his planet. He could not rule without subjects. The second planet was inhabited by a very vain man, who needed admirers, but alas, he was also the sole inhabitant of his planet.

Both the king and the vain man address the Little Prince as a subject, or as an admirer. I took this to mean that people see others in relation to themselves. The king is nothing without subjects, and the vain man is nothing without admirers. You don’t have to know your subjects or admirers to know that is their role in your life. But the Little Prince knows he is more than a subject and more than an admirer. Yes, there is more to him than meets the eye.

The third planet is inhabited by a drunkard, who claims to be drinking to forget that he’s ashamed of drinking. Vicious cycle, indeed. That planet made the Little Prince very depressed. Been there, done that, had that hangover.

The fourth planet is inhabited by a businessman, who loves numbers, and wants to own the stars. The Little Prince thinks the businessman argues like the drunkard, which is amusing to no end for me. The Little Prince tries to understand what owning is, and comes to the conclusion he owns the flower and the 3 volcanoes, and takes care of them every week. He thinks he is useful to his flower and his volcanoes. But the businessman is not useful to the stars.

On a fifth planet, the Little Prince meets a lamplighter. The Little Prince speaks with the lamplighter, and comes to the conclusion, “that man would be despised by all the others, by the king, by the very vain man, by the drunkard, by the businessman. Yet, he’s the only one who doesn’t strike me as ridiculous,” because he had a useful occupation, no matter how small or seemingly simple. He was following orders, regardless of whether the orders made sense, but they were being useful, lighting lamps and then putting the light out again once every minute.

On a sixth planet, the Little Prince meets a geographer. The geographer defends his usefulness because he records eternal things. But maps and records and books don’t record ephemeral or fleeting things, or the subjective. The Little Prince learns what ephemeral things are, and realizes his flower is ephemeral, threatened by imminent disappearance. The flower could be eaten by a sheep in a single morning, for example, the very sheep the Little Prince asked the pilot to draw for him upon first meeting in the middle of the Sahara. That flower will not last forever.

Then, it is on the seventh planet the Little Prince visits is Earth, and where he finally meets the traveler/narrator in the Sahara. Earth is a planet of 111 kings, 7,000 geographers, 900,000 businessmen, 7.5 million drunkards, 311 million vain men, and in total, about 2 billion grown-ups, with an army of 462,511 lamplighters. But, the grown-ups won’t believe you if you tell them that Earth is so big and they are so few, that they all could fit on one Pacific island, because, “Grown-ups, of course…. They’re convinced they take up much more room.”

When he gets to Earth, the Little Prince comes upon a blossoming rose garden, and is surprised to find the flowers that look like his flower back home. He felt a little betrayed, because his flower told him she was the only one of her kind. He thought he was rich, because he had a flower and 3 volcanoes, but after seeing all the roses, he hardly felt rich at all.

After the rose garden, he comes upon a fox, which won’t play with him, because the fox isn’t tamed. The Little Prince doesn’t know what that means. The fox explains that the Little Prince must teach the fox how to play, how to behave and not hurt the Little Prince while playing. Taming means creating ties, and after the fox is tamed, they’ll need each other. Creating ties is a time investment, after all. There are rites and appropriate protocols that come with being tamed. There is routine and familiarity and comfort and trust. The fox wants to be tamed by the Little Prince, but the Little Prince is not sure he should tame the fox. You risk tears, if you are tamed. But you can only learn that which you tame, what you put time and effort into. The Little Prince knows he has a lot to see and learn in his little life, so he’s not sure he should tie himself down and tame the fox, but he does. The fox tells the Little Prince to go back to the roses and then before the Little Prince departs, the fox will tell him a secret.

So he goes back to the rose garden and talks to the roses. He realizes that he loves his flower back home, and that she’s more important than all of these roses in the garden. She’s the one he watered, he made time for, tamed, and with which he had rites. She’s his rose. That makes her infinitely more special than all of those other roses in the garden on Earth.

The Little Prince returns to the fox one last time for the secret, which is: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

It is then in his travels that the Little Prince meets the stranded pilot in the desert, and makes some startling revelations to the pilot. Firstly, what makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere. What is beautiful is invisible. The narrator has a moment of realization that what makes the Little Prince beautiful to him is his loyalty to a flower, which is also, invisible.

The Little Prince also comments how, “People where you live grow 5,000 roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet, what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water… But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”

For the Little Prince, he knows, “People have stars, but they aren’t the same. For travelers, the stars are guides. For other people, they’re nothing but tiny lights. And still for others, for scholars, they’re problems. For my businessman, they were gold. But all those stars are silent stars.” But the Little Prince says that when the pilot looks up at the stars, the pilot will remember the Little Prince, and know he is out there living on one of them, laughing. So for him, the stars will laugh. The stars laugh for no one else but the pilot.

So now, whenever the pilot looks up at the stars, he recalls the Little Prince, and he wonders whether the sheep has eaten the flower. Grown-ups will never understand how important that is.

It’s such a beautiful story.

To see what is beautiful, you must look with your heart, not your eyes. Your eyes are blind.

Be careful what you agree to tame, because creating ties makes you responsible for what you’ve tamed and creates tears, but it truly makes that with which you make ties infinitely more special. You’re bound forever, and need each other.

You can be rich, even if you only have a flower and 2 volcanoes (and third dormant one, but you never know!)

What I see when I look at the stars is different from what anybody else sees. And what I see, regardless of whether anybody else can see, holds importance to me. Maybe it’s not a blonde little prince laughing and not answering questions, but it’s mine nonetheless.