Monday, 14 January 2008

A winged (and sunshaded) messenger ...

... is going to fly by the planet Mercury later today (at 19:04:39 Greenwich time). The MESSENGER spacecraft is making the first of three gravity-assist passes by the planet, modifying its orbit around the sun before making a final manouevre to achieve orbit of Mercury in 2011. In the course of these flying visits, the probe will be mapping the planet and making other studies to prepare for the eventual orbital mission.

Mercury has only been visited by one other mission --- three flying passes by the Mariner 10 probe over thirty years ago --- and placing a modern probe in orbit will dramatically increase our knowledge of the solar system's smallest planet.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington. (Image taken on 12th January, 1.2 million kilometres from the planet: details are available at the MESSENGER web site.)

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Give the man his due

Olivia Judson (a.k.a. Dr Tatiana) blogs on the NYT side concerning Alfred Russel Wallace, evolution's Other Guy. It was his birthday on January 8th (OK, so I missed it), and in five months it will be a hundred-and-fifty years since his letter to Charles Darwin that, by showing that someone else was onto the idea, prompted him to publish The origin of species by means of natural selection.

Second in time and in profundity to the sainted Charles, Wallace has missed out both on being a scientific pin-up and on being the scapegoat for a million social and conceptual ills. (Heads up, people: "it" is not Charles Darwin's fault. Or Alfred Russel Wallace's. Or the fault of biology. If you want someone to blame for whatever dreadful thing you think has been unleashed, you might more accurately try Herbert Spencer.) Of course, I should not wish the latter fate on anyone's memory. But as for Wallace's scientific standing: this is a man who, whatever his other weaknesses, independently hit upon the idea of evolution by natural selection, one of the great concepts of any age, and the key in the lock of natural history. Let's give him his due.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Blinded by the light

It's thirty-five years since the release of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Bruce Springsteen's first album and an eternal member of my top-ten-disc list: an album I could not bear to part with.

Let's begin at the beginning, with Blinded by the light, which you may know from the Manfred Mann's Earth Band version of 1976. Mann is bright, full, polished, and somewhat over-processed; Springsteen's original version is a rangy, burstingly articulate shaggy-dog revelation of a song, overstuffed with internal-rhyming lyrics but somehow still loose and jangly. The other album highlight is Lost in the flood, a lush triptych of apocalyptic stories that proceed from dream-horrors to the truly terrifying: the casual cruelty and indifference of ordinary people. At the other end of the scale, I have a personal fondness for the quietest and least typical entry, The Angel, which is merely a poem set to sad music. (But what a poem!) There is not a dull song on the album, although there are some strange ones, and in all of them surprises of music, of image, or of sheer poetic beauty.

Greetings is one of those first-published-works with a coltish energy, what Lester Bangs described (in his Rolling Stone review) as "reveling in the joy of utter crass showoff talent run amuck and totally out of control". Springsteen's next album, a bare eight months later, has a similar zest but more polish, and was a bit more popular; his 1975 album, Born to Run, set the world on fire. And for the wider public, "Bruce Springsteen" pretty much begins in 1975, the song Rosalita excepted. But for those who have ears to hear, all of the talent and poetry and promise and joy is there in January '73, together with that utter-crass-showoff edge that the mature albums --- for all their wonders --- don't quite recapture.

Like others of my generation I got interested in Springsteen because of the Born in the USA tour: it was one of my English teachers, possibly the only person at my high school who shared the interest, who put me on to the early albums. My schoolfriends listened in incomprehension as I obsessed and enthused about the poetry and the energy of this work, and it wasn't until years later that I discovered I shared the love with critics, fans worldwide, and the entire state of New Jersey. But since the knowledge isn't general, the least I can do on this anniversary is to pass on the good news. If you haven't heard Greetings: you must. And Mr Buchan --- if you're out there --- thank you from the bottom of my heart.