Sunday, October 28, 2012

I've Always Looked Up

The night sky has always captured my attention. I remember a 4th grade slumber party at a friends house a few weeks before school started. We were outside under the stars with a huge bowl of popcorn talking and laughing. As the evening continued we noticed a lot of "shooting stars" and our conversations abruptly halted as we pointed to the bright flashes across the sky. I remember staying awake as long as I could to see just one more of those "shooting stars." I was certain we were the only people to witness the stellar event on that warm, summer evening. Since then I have realized that myriads of people were watching the night sky on that evening and knew there would be "shooting stars."

While I was attending Boise State University, I decided to take "Introduction to Descriptive Astronomy." I soon learned that the night of "shooting stars" I'd witnessed years ago was actually the Perseids meteor shower, which happens every year in the middle of August. Throughout the years I have slept out under the stars with my family during the annual Perseids meteor shower. We laid in sleeping bags and I talked about the stars, answered a few questions and then quietly lay there hoping to see every meteor I could as my family drifted off to sleep. This past summer during the Perseids meteor shower, only my husband and I were around so we stretched out on our backyard benches to watch for a little while.  As we talked and watched, a brilliant fireball shot across the sky from northeast to southwest. Its brightness lingered in the sky for a long time; the best of show for the evening.

A fortunate coincidence happened while I was taking the astronomy class at Boise State. NASA had launched the Voyager I and Voyager II spacecrafts years before, into our solar system; it was during the beginning of that semester that they reached Jupiter and Saturn. The historic part of the event was the fact that there had never been a space mission like it, and the pictures and information being sent back were all new to the world. We were observing things and learning facts that had never even been supposed.

Last year when I was teaching a unit on European Explorers, I explained how the explorers found their way using the stars in the night sky, and recently I was able to experience a bit of this for myself. My husband and I went on a hike into a wildness area in Oregon. It was not a trail we had been on and we started at the trailhead later than planned. Darkness came quickly and there was no moon out to light our way or help to orient us. The trail wound in all directions along and on top of a range of mountains. Before long, my internal compass was confused from all the direction changes in the dark and I could not distinguish which way we were going. Unlike the early explorers on the ocean, I had a path I could follow and my desire to know which direction I was going was simply for my own peace of mind. As we continued uphill I could tell that we were approaching the top of a ridge because I began to see stars beside me as well as above. When we got to a clearing, we turned off our headlamps and I could identify the constellations with their main stars, as well as the Milky Way. Those stars that I had looked up at for years instantly told me which direction I was headed. Seeing these familiar patterns in the sky fixed my internal compass and soothed my feelings of anxiety. As I gazed at my stellar companions that dark night, I got a very brief glimpse of how those early explorers must have felt as they sailed in the darkness; hoping to avoid sea monsters or even the edge of the world.

Since my days in college taking that astronomy course, I have continued to look up at the night sky. It is a frontier that continues to deliver new and amazing information that helps us understand our universe and leads us to ask more questions. A few weeks ago, my old teachers, Voyager I and II showed up in the news again. This time is was to say goodbye. These spacecraft are expected to leave our solar system sometime during the next few months. They will drift past the edge, where no known earthly object has yet been. They are no longer able to take pictures but are still recording and sending data to Earth.

So remember that the nightly show is available to anyone who wants to step outside and look up. People have been looking up for longer then we can imagine, trying to find their way on a long, bleak night through unknown territory. Others have found comfort in the consistency of the night sky. So whether you are taking out the garbage or bringing groceries into your house, take a few minutes to look up and wonder about the light that left the stars thousands of light years before.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Ghost Army

World War II was a blend of strategies, battlefronts, and brave and warring men and women. Innumerable pages fill books about these individuals, but a group of creative and artistic men who participated in World War II recently captured my attention. These crews, known as the Ghost Army were not soldiers trained with assault weapons; instead they were actors and artists who successfully fought in World War II with an entirely different set of war tactics. Known by the Army as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, this 1,100-man Ghost Army started into action in June 1944 near Normandy. Their top-secret assignment was to use deception, trickery, and bluffs to save lives during World War II.

To accomplish this the Ghost Army set up their props from Normandy to the Rhine, staging twenty different battle deceptions while impersonating U.S. Army units in order to mislead the enemy. To accomplish this they used inflatable tanks, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes as well as giant speakers that broadcast sounds of artillery, troops, and fake radio transmissions. The author, Rick Beyer, stated that the Ghost Army traversed “the European Theater to put on a traveling road show of deception, two nights here, and a week there, with the German Army as their audience."

The camouflage engineers of the Ghost Army were responsible for the visual deceptions. Air compressors were used to inflate pump-up tanks, cannons, airplanes, trucks, and jeeps. After these were deflated they were hidden so they could not to be detected by air. The camouflage engineers from the Ghost Army could create dummy airfields, artillery batteries, motor pools, and tank formations within just a few hours. They also generated fake troop bivouacs that even included phony laundry hanging out on the line to dry.

The Ghost Troops also did some play-acting to mislead their enemies. At times their illusions involved driving trucks in looping convoys with just two men in the seats near the tailgate; this simulated a truck full of infantry under the canvas cover. Recorded sounds being played from the covered back of the vehicle assisted with the illusion of a full vehicle. Actors also posed as military police and were deployed at cross roads wearing appropriate divisional emblems. A few of the “ghost officers” simulated staff officers and generals, and visited towns where the enemy would be likely to see them. At times, actual artillery pieces and tanks were assigned to the Ghost Unit to make the imitations seem more realistic to the enemy from a distance.

The Ghost experts in sonic deception worked with engineers at Bell Laboratories. Before heading to Europe, this team went to Fort Knox and recorded sounds of armored and infantry troops. Sounds were recorded on state-of-the-art wire recorders, the forerunner of tape recorders. Once in Europe, these pre-recorded sounds were mixed to match the deception the Ghost Army was trying to make the enemy believe. On the battlefield, the sounds were blasted from huge amplifiers and speakers attached to half-tracks. These bogus sounds of battle could be heard fifteen miles away.

The United States Army gathered their Ghost Troops from the world of talented artists and actors. These men literally painted, sketched and acted their way across Europe during the war. The Ghost Army landed in France a few weeks after D-Day and ‘fought’ until the war ended. They staged over twenty battlefield deceptions and were usually functioning near the front lines.

Their first mission in France was to simulate a fake Mulberry Harbor at night using lights to entice German fire away from the actual troops. Next they assisted in confusing the German troops at Brest. Using speakers and pre-recorded sounds, the Ghost Army led the opposing forces to believe there were approximately 30,000 men nearby waiting to attack; far more than were actually there.

Members of the Ghost Army were talented artists previous to the beginning of World War II. Many of them spent their downtime while on the front lines, filling notebooks and journals with drawings of their surroundings, each other and their deceptions. After the war ended, the Ghost Soldiers continued in their chosen fields of artistic endeavors. A few recognizable names from the Ghost Army include: clothing designer, Bill Blass; sculptor Ellsworth Kelly; and wildlife artist Arthur Singer.

Friday, February 3, 2012

New Netherland, Sheep and Ice Cream

On April 15, 1660, Cornelis Jacobsz Van Leeuwen sailed from Amsterdam on the ship Bontekoe (The Spotted Cow). The ship was filled with families, soldiers and Cornelis’ employer, Roelof Swartwout; all were on their way to the colony of New Netherland.  After a few months at sea, the twenty-four foot wide ship, reached New Amsterdam, which today is New York City.  Swartwout was a farmer but had recently been appointed by the Dutch India Company to serve as a schout or sherrif in the town of Wiltwijck. He had been on business in The Netherlands and was returning on the Bontekoe to his home in the New World.

In the colony of New Netherland, a schout was responsible for keeping the town orderly, and free “from rabble and dicing,” and monitoring the weight of baked bread (Jacobs, 90). Carrying out these duty required him to be among the people of the town and attend meetings with other town authorities every fourteen days, expect during harvest time. During these meetings, various civil cases and disagreements were brought before the schout and leaders to be discussed and an outcome decided upon.

We do not know what Van Leeuwen’s exact duties were as he assisted Swartwout. Most likely, he was out among the people as well, observing the interactions of the colonists and stepping in when needed. For our purposes here, it is of interest to note that there was an individual with the name of Van Leeuwen, in 1660, who live in what would one day become New York.

In the late 1800s, near where Van Leeuwen had lived 200 years previously, a unique sight was beginning to unfold. The caretakers of Central Park in New York made the decision to grow and maintain a lawn. Many of us today may not understand the distinctive importance of this, but before the nineteenth century, not many people had lawns because it was simply too expensive to keep a “greensward” as they were called. There were basically two ways to maintain a lawn in the 1800s. First, a crew of people could be hired to scythe, gather and haul away the cut grass continually during the growing season. The second option was to keep a flock of sheep that would roam through the grass and nibble it down to keep it trimmed. The gardener of Central Park decided to use a herd of 200-300 sheep to do the job; he also employed a shepherd who watched over these sheep. Each morning and evening the sheep were herded in front of the beautiful building where they slept at night. Here visitors could watch them eat, look at paintings of different kinds of sheep and even examine sheep’s wool under a microscope.  All of the sheep along with their shepherd lived in this building until the 1930’s when it was changed into the Tavern on the Green Restaurant.

After decades of being in business, the Tavern on the Green has closed and the building is now being used as a gift shop for Central Park visitors. Various food vendors come and go but there are three mobile food vendors that are always set up on the outdoor terrace of the old sheep building. They are: Pera Mediterranean Brasserie, Rickshaw Dumpling Truck and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream. Not only is Van Leeuwen’s Artisan Ice Cream one of New York’s best but it’s name also sounds quite familiar. I’m certain that Cornelis would be quite surprised with the transformation of his little town into what New York is today; and he might even enjoy an ice cream cone with his name on it.

Jacobs, Jaap. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (New York: Cornell University, 2009).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Science and Religion

Looking to the past one may find innumerable examples of how expanded knowledge leads to a better understanding of the world. Early mariners had maps of the Earth showing the known landmasses, oceans, sea serpents and the edge of the world that one would most certainly fall off of if they got too close. Then one day, a brave sailing captain navigated to the very edge of the map – and continued sailing. He and his crew did not fall to their deaths off the edge of the world; instead they kept gliding on into unknown waters, eventually finding land that was not recorded on any maps. This new knowledge changed what had been previously known, which in turn, led to even more discoveries and further knowledge.

We see yet another example in the field of medicine. To cure individuals of diseases and illnesses the practice of bloodletting was once used. It was believed that bleeding a person would help restore the proper balance of their bodily fluids and allow them to heal. Though surprising to us today, this was not a unique exercise but one that was used for almost 2,000 years by the Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs and others as well as by doctors during the U.S. Civil War. Today we understand that bloodletting is not helpful to those who are ill. This new knowledge has changed the way medicine is practiced and thankfully, doctors no longer use bloodletting to cure illness.

These two examples demonstrate the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. We, as a species, are continually learning more about the world around us and as a result, we understand more how and why things work the way they do. Many times new discoveries require us to think and understand issues differently than we have in the past. Living during this time of continual learning and research requires us to keep up with what is new in our ever-changing world. We need to be aware and honest enough, to correct information, even from our own belief windows, that has become flawed.

I experienced an interesting event recently. My husband teaches science and is also a religious individual. Some people have asked him how he can ‘believe’ religion and science at the same time and he has explained that they complement each other; his growing knowledge of science has actually strengthened his spiritual beliefs. He was asked to give a talk in our congregation and he spoke about the importance of finding truth in our lives. He discussed how it is valuable to find truth in the secular world, such as in his science classroom, and how it is also vital to continue to learn spiritual truths as well.

A few weeks after his address, the leader of our congregation called my husband in and reported that a few members of the congregation had some concerns about the talk he had given. They were worried that my husband actually believed all of the science he taught in his classroom. After some discussion, he asked my husband if he could assure these few, fatuous members that he did not think all of the science principles he taught were true. I tried to keep my jaw from dropping and could not believe what I was hearing. As my husband respectfully refused to declare that the science he taught in his classroom was untrue, my mind I was immediately transported to a lavish room in Italy at the top of an ornate spiral staircase. The room, with its frescoed ceiling was filled with several persons who were decision makers as well as the individual they were cross-examining. The accused had spoken what were considered to be blasphemous statements, which he acknowledged to be true because of recent evidences he had discovered while studying and experimenting with them. The ideas he shared did not fit with the archaic notions that rattled around in the minds of the accusers so they were certain he spoke falsehoods. This individual’s blasphemous idea was that the sun was the center of the solar system and not the Earth. So on June 22, 1633 Galileo Galilei was convicted of the heinous crime of “having held and believed the doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world” (Sobel, 274).

Galileo believed that there was much to be learned about the world around him and that is was prudent to continue to gain knowledge. In a letter to his friend, Castelli, Galileo stated, “I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who gave us our senses, our speech, our intellect, would have put aside the use of these, to teach us instead such things as with their help we could find out for ourselves, particularly in the case of these sciences of which there is not the smallest mention in the Scriptures” (Sobel, 65). Galileo could see that truth could be found everywhere; both in secular and spiritual aspects of life and that those truths in the secular world did not threaten the truths of the spiritual world.

We live at a time with access to unlimited knowledge but do not always take advantage of it. The age-old battle between science and religion is not really a battle but a blending of truths from both arenas. By losing our fear of change and being brave enough to let go of outdated information we can expand our knowledge in so many more areas of our lives. As Galileo said about those who were against the truths he found through the lens of his telescope, “They seem to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment and growth of the arts, not their diminution or destruction” (Sobel, 67). As we bravely go to the comfortable edge of our knowledge and then proceed beyond, we can learn more than we ever thought possible. We will realize that the illusory brink was never actually there and that a remarkable horizon is before us, leading us to greater truths in every aspect of our lives.
Dava Sobel. Galileo’s Daughter. New York: Penguin Books. 2000.