Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Astronomical Moose & Murder

Over on the Nellie Blog, Mike Peterson recently posted an article about the hazards Moose pose on Maine’s roads. My students are dealing with Kepler’s laws of planetary motion at this early point in the Spring quarter. I watched an episode of one of the “Law and Order” tv cops-n-robbers franchises last night in which the old “motive-means-opportunity” method of identifying murder suspects was invoked. These three items, weirdly, are not without connection.

Tycho Brahe had a moose.

Brahe (1546 – 1601) was the last and the greatest of the pre-telescope astronomical observers. A fabulously wealthy member of the Danish nobility, his island domain between Denmark and Sweden was home to astonishingly accurate celestial position-measuring equipment, which he designed and used from 1576 to 1597. The data he amassed there concerning the positions of the planets against the background of the stars were later used by Kepler to discover the underlying laws that govern the planets’ orbits and to demolish, once and for all, the notion that the Earth was the center of all Creation.

Brahe’s great wealth (at its height estimated to be fully one percent of all the economic power in Denmark) allowed him to indulge many odd whims – including the acquisition of a pet moose. He was proud of the moose, and happily agreed when a neighboring noble asked to show it off at a dinner party in the neighbor’s palace. The party guests happily shared their beer with the moose. Lots of beer.

Lots and lots of beer.

The moose staggered toward a stairway and, I’m sure to the mortification of the guests, disappeared down it. Luckily, no party guest was on the stairway that the creature careened down, or there would have been more fatalities than the poor moose on that evening. It died on the landing, so to speak. The lesson here is that you need to be careful about moose not only on the backroads of Maine, but also on stairs above you. Especially if the moose is drunk.

The moose wasn’t the only member of the Brahe household that was fond of ethanol. Tycho himself had an appetite that was legendary.

He had worn out his welcome in his native Denmark by 1597. I can find two versions of why he lost his estate and his income and his welcome, both of which may be true. One is that his mistreatment of his tenant laborers became too scandalous for the King and the Chancellor to tolerate. The other is that the Danish Chancellor had kicked Tycho’s dog “Lep the Oracle” during a tour of Brahe’s facilities, and Brahe had furiously evicted him from the premises. When the old king, Frederick II, died, the Chancellor, still smarting from the insult, convinced the new Danish king, Christian IV, to evict Brahe from his estate, cut off his income, and invite him to leave the country. In either case, Christian IV determined that something was rotten in his kingdom, and it was probably Tycho, so he was gone from Denmark in 1597 like Barry Bonds from San Francisco in 2007.

So, in 1597, Brahe was without income or country. He was, however, with considerable fame, and Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire snatched up the free-agent astronomical major-leaguer, offering him the position of Imperial Mathematician and a palace in Prague. Brahe accepted the offer, and set up shop – without astronomical instruments, but with entourage, family, and big-time street cred for partying -- in Prague in 1599.

Meanwhile, down in Graz (about 600 kilometers to the South of Prague in what is now Austria), a brilliant, strange high-school math teacher was trying to figure out the universe. Johannes Kepler had convinced himself not only that the Earth was a planet, and that the planets all orbited around the Sun, but that the planets were supported in their orbits by an invisible framework of Plato’s five perfect solids nested within one another. The problem was that he just couldn’t make his model fit the reality of recorded observations (Kepler didn’t make any observations himself, being the prototype of a modern theoretician.)

Luckily for Kepler, his school was closed, his books were burned, he was fined ten percent of all his assets, and he was kicked out of the country by an archduke who had switched religious allegiance from Protestant to Catholic. Yes, “luckily,” because that forced him to accept an invitation from Tycho Brahe to join Brahe’s new group of assistants at the Prague palace up North. There, Kepler thought, he would have access to Brahe’s famous but well-guarded data about the planets’ positions and would finally be able to prove his theory concerning the five solids.

But things weren’t quite that simple.

Brahe guarded his data trove from decades past jealously. Moreover, there were several assistants, and Kepler wasn’t the lead dog in that pack. Franz Tengnagel , a mathematician of little talent but a serviceable message-carrier, had grabbed the top assistant’s position by marrying one of Tycho’s daughters. Also, Kepler apparently had a priggish attitude concerning the nonstop party atmosphere in the palace and its petty intrigues. In Carl Sagan’s words, Kepler and Brahe “repeatedly quarreled” and the “synthesis of observation and theory, which is at the root of modern science, teetered on the precipice of their mutual distrust,” and Kepler just couldn’t get his hands on the data he so badly needed, the data for which he had abandoned his life and career in Graz.

But Kepler caught another break. Until then in robust health, Brahe took ill following a party (what else) in early October, 1601. He suffered severe pain and urinary distress until he died on October 24th at age 54, and fate had opened the way for Kepler finally to obtain the data he coveted. Yep, fate did it, certainly. Sad for Tycho, though, but, hey, that's how things go sometimes, luck of the physiological draw.

Or maybe not.

Until the late 1900’s, Brahe’s death was attributed to his gluttony in one way or another. Sagan, in the above-quoted episode #3 of Cosmos, says in somber tones that Tycho died of “his habitual over-indulgence in food and wine.” Not so. In 1996, a nuclear analysis of one of Tycho’s preserved hairs showed that he died of mercury poisoning, and in a specific and troublesome way. The analysis showed that the fatal mercury had been ingested less than 24 hours before death. The following is from

“In the summer of 1996, the University of Lund carried out a PIXE analysis of hair from Tycho Brahe (PIXE = Particle Induced X-ray Emission). With the PIXE method it has been possible to see not only what substances are present in the hair but also their precise location. If the mercury came from the embalming process, the mercury would be found on the outside of the hairs. If Tycho Brahe had been slowly poisoned by chemical experiments or the gold-plating process the mercury would be inside long sections of the hairs. What the analysis actually has shown is that only one of the hairs contained mercury. This hair was the only one with the hair follicle still attached, and the mercury was present close to the hair follicle. It was inside the hair, which means that it came through the body via the blood. It is calculated that the mercury concentration rose very quickly, in just 5-10 minutes, and that it sank just as fast. This and the mercury concentration's distance from the hair-root, show that Tycho Brahe must have ingested a large dose of mercury about 20 hours before his death. Unfortunately, the analysis is unable to explain the presence of mercury in Tycho Brahe's body. He might have taken it himself as a medicine for his illness. He might have been deliberately poisoned. It is impossible to know for sure. It can only be concluded that he mercury poisoning might have caused his death. The PIXE analysis have been questioned by other scientists.”

Despite that last disclaimer, Tycho was pretty clearly poisoned, either accidentally by taking large doses of mercury-laden medication to alleviate his bladder distress… or by someone who stood to gain from his death.

Four years ago, Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder published Heavenly Intrigue, a book in which they connect the tv-recipe of motive, means, and opportunity to point the finger of blame for Tycho’s death straight at Johannes Kepler. Motive: to obtain data necessary to fulfill his lifelong obsession with determining the underlying support of the planets. Means: Kepler lived in Tycho’s house, knew of Tycho’s dabbling in alchemy and pharmacy and undoubtedly knew where Tycho’s quicksilver (mercury) was. Opportunity: he was famously hovering around Tycho’s sickbed during his last, severe bladder infection, to the extent that he sent letters quoting Tycho’s delirious mumblings to others.

I think that it’s at least equally possible that Brahe self-medicated himself to death, but it’s fascinating to think that Kepler may have committed murder in order to gain his revolutionary insight into the way the universe works.

It’s indisputable, by the way, that Kepler committed another act that would be a felony in the modern world to gain the same end. After Brahe died, Kepler still couldn’t get the data he needed – it fell to the hands of Franz Tengnagel, the fellow who had married Tycho’s daughter.

So Kepler stole it. Flat-out burgled it. And later cut a deal with Tengnagel to avoid legal liability by giving Tengnagel equal credit in the first publication of results based on the stolen data.

You can look it up. Google stands ready to help.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Green Gorilla: A Proud Daddy Moment

Gorilla in the Greenhouse is an action-packed animated web show that inspires kids to take real-world steps towards a healthier environment. The show is set in a magical greenhouse in San Francisco, featuring a visionary green gorilla and four kids who use their imagination, their network and their music to tackle the environmental challenges facing their generation.
- from the "Gorilla in the Greenhouse" website, launched on Earth Day, 2008

... and Adam is the voice of the gorilla!

Check out the pilot episode by clicking here.

'Scuse me. I have to go grin like a crazed idiot for a while.


Sunday, April 13, 2008


I. A Nation of Contrasts

Mike Peterson sent me this picture of his place yesterday:

You can tell it's spring in Maine, because there are places where ground is exposed, not covered in snow.

I took some stuff to the recycling center today. This is a picture of the Ft. Harrington pickup at the facility:

... and this is a picture of its thermometer at the center (if you can't make it out, it's registering 92 degrees fahrenheit -- the temperature on the deck at Ft. Harrington was only about five degrees cooler):

(This is unusually warm for April in the Santa Cruz Mountains.)

II. Explosive Vegetation

Two floral varieties popped out their first blossoms today in response to the sudden warmth, and in such proliferation that, if only I had been listening closely, I probably could have heard them unfolding:

... lilacs in the full daytime...

... and in the gloaming (above)...

... and wisteria by the gazebo.

III. Casey Rose Vickers...

... is home. No more news yet, but she's just fine, and her Dad is still on the ceiling.

IV. Sherwood's Writing

In the comments stream for the previous SherWords post, Adam urged me to write professionally, as he voices professionally and as tiny Kiana can model professionally. Brian, also, has urged me to "write more" from time to time.

I am just walking on air that people I think of so highly actually like to read what I write here. I'm tempted to say that it's a Sally Field moment, but that would demean the opinions of those whose opinions I value. But it is a very, very happy feeling.

But I need to point out a few things on the record:

1. A long time ago, in a galaxy actually pretty close to home, I did a good deal of writing for publication that Adam would have been too young to remember now. Not much of that remains, since it was done before the World Wide Web existed, but there are a few relics floating around. The most readily available is still for sale through the Astronomical Society of the Pacific: Tours of the Night Sky, a series of four introductions to stars and constellations of the seasons with recorded narration. (That combines voiceover with writing, Adam!) Mike Peterson has actually listened to those ancient tapes. A few other relics of that era of my writing have also been preserved in the ASP website, including this tour of nearby stars (which, handily enough if you live in Zagreb, has been translated into Croatian.)

I also co-wrote a weekly newspaper column on astronomy that was syndicated by the San Francisco Chronicle, but all of that really was a long time ago, and my writing calluses have withered, and any claim I might have to be anything but an amateur writer has long since vanished.

2. I do remember that writing is hard work, and that people who can do it well day in and day out (like Mike Peterson), or who can do it in ways that help revolutionize an ancient medium (like Brian Fies -- and I absolutely mean that, Brian) probably wince at the notion that a tyro can just "turn it on" if prodded to do so. (Adam , just about everyone who reads this blog is a highly-accomplished wordsmith; check out the links on the blogroll. I’m tickled giddy that they even read my stuff at all; presuming that I could walk with them almost seems to be hubris. But, yeah, I can, probably. I’ve still got a little brashness left.)

Writing is hard work, writing well is even harder work, and writing on a schedule is grindingly hard work. I'm not sure I have that in me, certainly not while I have an actual job! So, like many before me (my Dad and Diane's Dad, for example), I'm thinking that retirement is a time where I might do some more serious writing.

3. Even if I accept the idea that I can still write pretty well, I'd need something to write about in order to justify the effort of, say, a book. Ability used just because it exists leads to things like the Space Shuttle (famously, in the business, "the ultimate solution in search of a problem.") There is one topic I'm itching to work on: the Parsons family, and that may well be something in my future. (And/or Brian's: I haven't forgotten the "Fire King," Mr. Fies!)

4. This blog is writing for publication! Even though very few people read the entries as they are posted, the posts remain, they don’t disappear. I’m saving them in backup form, and the main aim is to preserve a record of who we are and what we think and what we do for Grace and all the others who will follow in this astonishing extended family. I’m happy enough with that aspect of blogging that I feel guilty when I don’t post for a while. And especially guilty when I don’t post the kind of thing that my regular readers actually ask for: astronomy stuff. (I will do more of that sometime soon, really, honestly, I promise!)

5, and probably most significant in the short term: Adam, your appreciation of my writing and wishing for its wider circulation is a wonderful parallel, one generation later, to what I felt about your Granddaddy’s writing. He left a huge trove of work that needs to be digitized and posted before the paper it’s on now disintegrates, and I should get to work on that. I won’t have to re-type everything, thanks to OCR software. (One of his stories has already been OCR’d and published here on SherWords, along with illustrations by Brian Fies.)

So here’s what I’m going to do: start a third blog (in addition to SherWords and PicShers) for his great stories from the first half of the 20th Century. I’ll probably get that up and running in about a month; look for the announcement here!

Doug, Adam, and Lynn Harrington, circa 1975.

V. The SherCircle

Parallel time flows produce some disorienting eddies when they lurch into one another. In his comment on the previous post, Adam called himself "
the newest member of the SherCircle."


Given death's meandering through our family, Adam, you are the oldest (in terms of time of service) member of any SherCircle I can think of. Really. I can't think of anyone I interact with at all any more who pre-dates you.

That realization brought me up a little short. Maybe it will you, too.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lookit What I Got in the Mail TODAY!!!

I think I'm going to sleep in this sweatshirt tonight. (Photo by Diane; baseball from 1962.)

When I arrived home after my night class tonight, I found this waiting for me in a package from Adam. His note said that this blog entry about my early experiences with baseball and my one season (1964) pitching for the Norwich High School team inspired him to get this sweatshirt for me (and another one of different design for him.) You know, it's really not all that hard to laugh and cry at the same time.

So two blog entries in a row end with this: Thank you, Adam. This is just outstanding; it's even color coordinated with my beard!


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Some of the There There

Panorama into the late-afternoon Sun from high in the Mountain View Cemetery, across Oakland, toward San Francisco. (Except as otherwise noted, all photos taken on April 6th, 2008.)

Gertrude Stein lived in Oakland, California, in the years 1878 through 1891. Those years spanned most of her childhood (she was born in 1874 in Pennsylvania), and she left Oakland as a young woman, after her parents died, ultimately to become a priestess of the avante-garde in France.

She didn’t return to Oakland until 1934, on a speaking tour. She later wrote of that visit to her old neighborhood that There is no there, there, which has irritated everyone who cares about Oakland ever since. In context, it was simply a preciously economical way of saying that the old neighborhood just wasn’t the same as the one she loved, but out of context it became something erudite for snooty San Franciscans to toss with a sneer at their neighbors across the Bay to the East.

Hear, hear! They're there. Adam at the Stein stone, Mountain View Cemetery, April 9th, 2008. (Photo by Andrew Rusca.)

Detail in the above image. When I asked Adam yesterday to get a picture of that particular gravestone, I didn't tell him why. I didn't have to. That's how strongly Gertrude Stein's little bon mot still hangs around Oakland.

My sons grew up in Oakland, too. Adam lives there now, and Doug’s memorial bench is in a lovely Oakland park. They never separated themselves from the place, maintaining a strong, sometimes almost fierce, allegiance to it.

As well they should. Oakland is only partly what its negative reputation would have the rest of the world believe it is entirely: poverty, crime, and strife afflict parts of the city, certainly, but no more so than they do any other major American city. It’s the Oakland you never hear about that ties Adam so strongly (and, to a slightly lesser extent, ties me, too.)

Can you hear me there? Adam on his cell ‘phone in front of a house I lived in for a few months in 1976.

This photo shows one of the places in Oakland I have called home. The house was divided up into several tiny apartments; in 1976, I lived in the room with the bay window right behind Adam. Adam’s first bicycle was hidden down behind the house as a surprise on his 6th birthday, and his and Lynda’s apartment is within about 75 yards of this place.

The Harrington family’s springtime gathering has been at Diane's and my place in the redwood mountains for the past several years, but this year Adam and Lynda invited us all to their apartment on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The plan was to have a light lunch of sandwiches and then go on up the hill to Montclair Park to visit Doug’s bench.

Adam, Lynda, and Andrew set up the lunch goodies.

As the extended family gathered, it struck me (as it does all us old geezers) that kids grow up so fast:

Grace of the wondrous hair of many colors.

Kiana and Diane. Kiana was little more than a week-old infant when her Uncle Doug’s bench was dedicated; she’s nearly a year old now.

There, there, she doesn’t bite.

Lynda, Adam, and Andrew’s cuddly pet, Hairy, seemed to enjoy the gathering, too. I guess. Far as I could tell. Without touching her.

After lunch, we caravanned up to Montclair Park:

Lynda’s daughter, Jamie, and her new husband, Hector, on Doug’s bench.

Left to right: Grace (seated), Adrianne, Diane, Adam, Hector, Jamie, Reva, Andrew. Lynda and Kiana are hidden behind Hector and Jamie.

The wonderful old tree that used to be directly behind the bench from this vantage point had to be taken down a few months ago. Adam has plans to plant a replacement on Doug’s birthday, October 1: a Douglas Fir. I have no doubt that he can make that happen.

This was not a somber pilgrimage – all the kids had tons of fun:

Andrew gets good metal on a ball (but I still have problems with bats that say “clink” when they should say “whack”.)

Kiana and Grace a-swing…

… and Reva had a good time on the swings, too! No sense letting the kids have all the fun.

After we returned to Lynda’s and Adam’s apartment, we split off into different groups going in different ways. Adam and I went back up into the hills, but this time into a place that both he and I have enjoyed over the decades as a peaceful, beautiful place for solitude and reflection: the Mountain View Cemetery, where Daniel and Amelia Stein rest, just a block up the street from Adam’s current place and my old one (the latter pictured in this entry’s second illustration, above.)

The shared but separate experience that Adam and I have of that place was detailed in this earlier blog entry illustrated with some of Adam’s photos. The facility is enormous, old (by California standards, anyway), and magnificently designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also the landscape architect for New York City’s Central Park.

In My father’s house are many mansions: Detail of “millionaires’ row” in Olmsted’s masterpiece.

As in Central Park, Olmsted here incorporated pre-existing natural features into his overlaid order.

The empty Livermore plot revisited, with Adam demonstrating its subtle message. I have no idea at all why there is a vastly out-of-season pumpkin in the background.

So, to take one more cheap shot at Gertrude, there is a lot of there there in Oakland, at least for Adam and me. But, trumping that, is the lots of who There, and years of events that are entwined with There, and the ongoing continuum of being that we all have brought to There and continue to grow through There.

Thanks, Adam, for everything on this day. And for the rides. (As far as Adam and I can remember, this day was the first time he had ever driven a car with me as a passenger, and he did it twice with two different vehicles. I figured that I should let him take the training wheels off before he turns 38.)


[Note in production: this post was actually almost ready to publish last night, when Ryan called with news of yet another soul born into this extended family. I decided to postpone putting this up so that Casey could have the day all to herself on SherWords.]


News Flash! Update with Picture!

Casey and Ryan, April 9th, 2008. (Photo by granny Diane.)

Casey Rose Vickers was born shortly before midnight last night (April 8th) to Ryan and Christel Vickers, Diane's older son and his wife. Casey is their first child, a healthy baby girl, 6 1/2 pounds, and took her time arriving -- 30 hours of labor.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Another Excursion to Oakland's Disneyland

In his most recent blog entry, Brian Fies says, "Honestly, I think I divide other people's work into three categories: 1.) I could do that. 2.) I wish I could do that. 3.) Wow, I have no idea how they did that." Diane and I categorize all glass art as a 3+, and are fascinated by it. (We also have a lot of it around the house, which is probably not the smartest thing in the world for people who have six cats and three dogs.) Above, Diane visits our favorite glass-art shop in Sausalito, Petri's, in 2002. Photo used with her permission. At least I think "I don't care" constitutes permission.

I wish I could remember where I first heard San Francisco referred to as "Oakland's Disneyland," but it's an apt tag in a sardonic sort of way. "The City" (as its citizens often call it*) is a little square of treasures and surprises, abutted on three sides by water and graveyards on the fourth, isolated, suave, kinky, cosmopolitan, goofy, and always charming. It is a great place for a getaway, as it was a great place to work for 17 years.

This week was spring break for me, and Diane and I motored off to Oakland's Disneyland twice. The first time was Wednesday, to visit our old friend, Lucile, and another of my co-workers from those 17 years whom I hadn't seen in more than a decade. On part of that visit, Lucile showed us a little treasure that I hadn't seen before: the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden at the foot of the Dutch Windmill at the far western edge of Golden Gate Park. After I'd muttered at myself for a while about not having brought my camera, Diane and I decided that we'd just drive back up the next day and do some more of the tourist thing. It's an easy drive, and even with gas prices the way they are now, the round trip from Ft. Harrington only costs about 30 bucks.

So we did.

Here are some snapshots from yesterday's outing:

Our first stop was a place that has been a topic here before: the Legion of Honor Art Museum near the Golden Gate. Our main aim there was to visit the Annie Liebovitz exhibit ("A Photographer's Life, 1990 - 2005"), which was well worth the drive all by itself. No pictures here from that exhibit, though: photographing the photographer's photographs was strictly forbidden, possibly because the Museum was concerned about potential effects on the spacetime continuum of inadvertent infinite recursions. But a couple of things that I could take pictures of were just remarkable.

Dale Chihuly's Sun in the Legion courtyard.

Chihuly's Sea Blue and Green Tower in an interior exhibit room.

The Legion of Honor's sister museum, the de Young in Golden Gate Park, will have an exhibit of Dale Chihuly's remarkable sculptures later this year. As part of the lead-up to that event, four of his large glass works have been installed, two in each of the Museums. In the Legion, they were Sun and Sea Blue and Green Tower, both above. They are massive works of blown glass, and Sun is also a neon light! You can see it illuminated by clicking here to go directly to a well-hidden (it seems) page in Chihuly's massive website (but please come back.)

Details in Sun. Click on any image to see a larger version.

As we were leaving the Legion of Honor to go on to our next destination, we were treated to an accidental piece of performance art.

Oakland's finest at a Frisco museum.

A group of seven Oakland motorcycle police officers pulled into the parking area and carefully backed their bikes into position for a photo to be taken of them with the stately pillars and arches of the Legion in the background. As I was taking the photo above, Diane (standing closer to them than I was) heard one of them say, "Somebody should write down all the gay stuff they make us do."

I'm pretty sure he thought that Diane was laughing with him. Silly boy. I was tempted -- but only for a split-split second -- to tell him that if he actually went into the museum, he could see lots of pichers of nekkid wimmin! Of course, he probably knows how to use the internet, so it wouldn't have been worth the effort to him, anyway.

The next destination. Somebody should write down all the gay stuff Diane makes me do.

The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park actually has an astronomical tie-in. Its constituent parts were purchased by James Lick, who endowed Lick Observatory. Those parts were still in crates when he died in 1876, so the Conservatory (like the Observatory) wasn't constructed until after it would do him any good personally.

The attraction on this day at the Conservatory was the butterfly exhibit -- not insects mounted on pins in cases, but freely flapping around in the entire western end of the Conservatory. We had a great time there for an hour, giggling like little kids (of whom there were may real ones scooting around) as the colorful littler guys flitted around.

On to the final stop:

The Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, Golden Gate Park

Our final destination was the tulip garden we had seen, briefly, the previous day. The little patch was named after Queen Wilhelmina (1880 - 1962) of the Netherlands -- and so was my paternal grandmother. The tulips are at the height of their display right now, as you can see above.

The Dutch Windmill.

The tulip garden is at the foot of the "Dutch Windmill," one of two large pump drivers that were erected in the early 1900's to supply fresh water for the huge expanse of greenery atop sand dunes that is Golden Gate Park. The windmills are at the far western edge of the Park, facing the beach, and the nearly constant strong wind off the Pacific allowed, through them, the park to become what it is today: one of the greatest urban parks in the world.

Meanwhile, back at the Fort...

... it's time for the first rosebuds ...

... and for apple blossoms ...

... and for the bees to get to work. Clicking on this picture to see the little guy hard at work upside-down will be worth your trouble.


* "The City" is so ingrained a nickname for San Francisco that the Warriors NBA team had that as its only locale designation on their jerseys for many years. Now, of course, they use the milquetoast "Golden State" abomination, which makes them sound like a college team from Colorado. (Photo copied from an ad on eBay; I have no idea whom to credit.)