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Sigh, as 2012 winds down, it is time for the annual obituary list.  As in 2010 and 2011, this list is not at all comprehensive:  I have left off many famous entertainment personalities (who are amply celebrated elsewhere) and concentrated on scientists, artists, writers, puppeteers, and people whom I knew personally.  Even so, I have missed or omitted all sorts of names (sorry, Gore Vidal and Robert Bork).  The list is elegiac and personal: an obituary not just for people but for eras of time and aspects of life which are ineluctably passed:

H. Norman Schwartzkopf (Bob Daugherty/AP)

H. Norman Schwartzkopf (Bob Daugherty/AP)

H. Norman Schwarzkopf, (August 22, 1934 – December 27, 2012) was a United States Army officer. Schwarzkopf was most famous for his role as commander of coalition forces in the Gulf War, but he had a long infantryman’s pedigree including two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded three silver stars (along with numerous other awards for valor).  “Stormin’” Norman was famous not just for his logistical and tactical savvy but for his ability to deftly manipulate the press corps. I remember seeing him marching at the head of a mechanized infantry column during a victory parade in 1991 in Washington (an event which now seems almost as remote to present times as a Roman triumph).

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Norman Joseph Woodland (September 6, 1921 – December 9, 2012) was the co-creator of the barcode.  After fighting for his patent and his idea in the rough-and-tumble world of American business he ultimately became an important cog in IBM’s vast corporate machine.  The first consumer product with a UPC was scanned in 1974!

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Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) After flying combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean war Neil Armstrong spent years as a test pilot.  He left the military to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer, but as the space race quickened, he applied to NASA Astronaut Corps and was accepted as one of two civilian astronauts (the other was killed in a training accident).  In 1965, Armstrong was the pilot of Gemini 8–and thus piloted one of the two first spacecraft to dock with each other in outer space.  He returned to space in July of 1969 as mission commander of Apollo 11.  He was the first human to walk on the moon—the first person of any of us to step on a different celestial body.   After the moon landing, Armstrong taught engineering, farmed, raised his family and ignored his international fame, however as the current crop of useless politicians continue to slash away at research programs and at the space program itself, he joined together with his fellow astronauts to issue a public statement that “For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

count jerry nelson

Jerry L. Nelson (July 10, 1934 – August 23, 2012) was a puppeteer, best known for his work on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Although not a towering hero who will be remembered for as long as humanity endures (like, oh, say, the first man on the moon) he was the puppeteer who gave voice and life to Mr. Snuffleupagus and Count Von Count (among many others).

Beehive-at-the-PATCH-Community-Garden

Isaac “Doc” Ferrebee (May 27, 1928 – August 15, 2012) was a family member.  He was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, a veteran of the Korean War, and worked at (the same!) metal plant for 40 years.  When I knew him, Doc was a tireless gardener and a great beekeeper.  I will always think of him at the edge of his sweet corn and potatoes carefully looking after his beautiful hives of honey bees.

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Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) was a pioneering science-fiction/fantasy writer who wrote strange moral allegories and fantasies concerning the possible future of humankind.  After a childhood epiphany in 1932, Bradbury wrote every single day for 69 years: his epiphany occured  when a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico touched his nose with an electrified sword (which caused young Bradbury’s hair to stand on end) and yelled “Live forever!”

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Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) was the first American woman in space.  Trained as a physicist she joined NASA in 1978 and traveled to low Earth orbit in 1983 upon the space shuttle Challenger.  In addition to being the youngest American astronaut to travel into space (she was 32 at the time of her flight) she also co-authored five children’s science books with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Illustration for "Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present" (Maurice Sendak, ca. 1977)

Illustration for “Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present” (Maurice Sendak, ca. 1977)

Maurice Bernard Sendak  (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) was probably the foremost children’s book illustrator of the 20th century.  His work is famous for combining the dark wild passions of opera with the whimsical inventiveness of central European folklore.  Somehow Sendak took these elements and created his own unmistakable visual style of great beauty and depth.

The West Coast of Ireland

The West Coast of Ireland

Emmet Larkin (1927- March 19, 2012) was a tenured professor of history at the University of Chicago (in fact he was my favorite professor).  He studied and wrote about Irish history—most particularly the transformative role of the Roman Catholic Church in19th and early 20th century Ireland.  His most widely read book was “The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism”.  In undergraduate school, I took his Irish history class and his class on Victorian England, both of which were great favorites thanks to vivid lectures and lively discussion.  To quote one of Larkin’s colleagues, Walter Kaegi “He was a good teacher of both graduates and undergraduates…He was lively, animated and very good with Ph.D. candidates. He had definite academic standards and maintained them.”  I will miss Larkin greatly because I enjoyed talking with him in class or at his office hours.  Additionally he appreciated my writings and ideas and served as a last link to the glorious world of the ivory tower.

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Janice “Jan” Berenstain (née Grant; July 26, 1923 – February 24, 2012) worked with her late husband Stan Berenstain to create the “Berenstain bears” a fictional family of (strangely simian) middle-class bears. The bear family worked together to face the trials and tribulations of family life in a series of fairly blunt moral lessons (spread through a diverse entertainment portfolio of books, animations, andgames).  Since the Berenstain bears were hitting the apogee of their fame just as I was entering elementary school, I recall lots of Berenstain stories from those years.  Although many of those stories no doubt featured healthy lessons about patience and not throwing tantrums, what I remember most was their visit to a haunted house filled with bats and animated suits of armor.  That was amazing!

Good-Bye to All That

Good-Bye to All That

Florence Green (February 19, 1901 – February 4, 2012) was the last person to serve in World War I (as a waitress on an air base in England).  With her death, that terrible conflict takes another step deeper into the history books and away from the living experience of humankind.

Gosh, there were some famous astronauts there.  It almost seems like our heroic future in space is rapidly becoming a mythicized past.

Ferrebeekeeper has already posted about the aegis, the invulnerable shield of Jupiter/Zeus, which was fashioned by the king of the gods from the skin of his foster mother (and loaned to his favorite daughter.  However the concept of Jupiter’s shield has a larger significance.

Yesterday morning, an unknown object appears to have slammed into the planet Jupiter.  Oregon based astronomer Dan Petersen was watching the gas giant at 4:35 AM PST (September 10th, 2012) when a bright flash erupted from near the Jovian equator.  Another amateur astronomer, George Hall of Dallas, TX was filming the planet through his 12 inch telescope and recorded the flash (you can see the video here).

The September 10th, 2012 Flash on Jupiter (recorded by George Hall)

Thanks to the florid nature of science fiction entertainment, it is easy to imagine scaly green Guarillions testing out energy weapons against the huge planet, but the flash was almost certainly from a comet or asteroid striking the surface (we will know more as astronomers look at Jupiter this week).  Such impacts have proven to be much more common than imagined.

Jupiter has a mass of approximately 1.9 x 1027 kg (which is equivalent to 318 Earths).  The gas giant is 2.5 times more massive than all of the rest of the non-sun objects in the solar system added together. The sun itself comprises between 99.8% and 99.9% of the mass of the system (which should put some perspective on the precision required for our ongoing programs to scan the nearby galaxy for exoplanets).

Jupiter Relative to the Sun and the Earth (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The huge mass of Jupiter (relative to other planets and moons) means that a great many asteroids, comets, meteors, and whatnot fall into its gravity well.  Were it not for Jupiter, these hazardous leftovers would otherwise fly all around the solar system willy-nilly knocking holes in things and creating unsafe conditions (just ask the poor dinosaurs about this).  The ancient myths of the Aegis provide a powerful metaphor for this protection. Jupiter does indeed provide a shield for the smaller planets:  If it did not suck up so many cosmic punches, who knows if life could even have survived?

(Lithograph by F. Heppenheimer)

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks!  This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed).  Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year.  If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.

The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle.  Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).

A Chinese porcelain blue and white 'dragon' jar. Ming Dynasty, Jiajing period (1522-66). Photo Gibson Antiques

Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources.  In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.

Bronze Dragon from the Summer Palace, Beijing

Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish.  According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor.  The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own.  As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.

The Yellow Emperor (Illustrated by Blue Hsiao)

People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits.  Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.

Gung hay fat choy!

While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]

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