The Other

The Other

I am a white American male. As such, I realize that there is no way for me to grasp and viscerally appreciate all the ways in which racism afflicts black Americans. Or, for that matter, all the ways in which sexism afflicts women. But I can acknowledge that these things exist. I can recognize when it happens. I’ve seen it happen to others, both friends and strangers. I can try not to be part of the problem.

It isn’t just black and white or male and female. There are so many other ways in which we classify and mistreat each other. Black Americans were enslaved; Native Americans were largely eradicated. It is easy to think of still more examples – religious heretics, colonized peoples, members of the LGBT community – anything that sets one apart as the Other. Being the Other makes one less than human and more akin to vermin that should be controlled or exterminated: clearly the attitude taken by Nazis towards Jews in occupied Europe.

When I was a child, my family moved around a lot. [It doesn’t matter why; there was no good reason.] We moved every other year. I was born in Oklahoma, but my only memory of it is from visiting relatives later: we moved to central Illinois when I was still a baby. We lived in a series of small towns – Decatur, Sullivan, made a brief detour to Escondido, California, then back to Shelbyville. My earliest memories are of the rich smell of the fertile Illinois landscape coming to life in springtime as my consciousness dawned in a beautiful wooded landscape about which I was infinitely curious. The shady forests and little creeks were as much my classrooms as the brick schoolhouses inhabited by teachers, friends, and bullies.

I was painfully, cripplingly shy as a child. It took a year to start to make new friends, and another to establish them. Then we would move away.

Bullies came more quickly than friends. Every bully wants to pick on others, but especially if they are different – the Other. I was different in so many ways. I was from somewhere else, an alien immigrant to each parochial little town. I was small for my age and young for my grade, having skipped first grade. I was an egghead, a nerd in a time where the only thing society seemed to value was size and strength. Worst of all, I did not attend the same little church that they did, so I was going to hell, and many  illiterate bible-thumping bullies seemed to take it as their religious duty to speed me on my way.

When I was 13, we moved to Flint, Michigan. We went from a tiny farm town to an urban industrial area the epitomizes “rust belt.” I could no longer see the stars at night because the sky was pink – a lurid, poisonous pink – from the lights of the nearby AC Spark Plugs factory (then an active facility in which I briefly worked; now a vast empty slab of concrete). I still wandered in the limited little woods wedged between the freeway and a golf course, but the creek there ran thick with the sheen of petrochemical runoff.

I became a part of the 1970s effort at desegregation. The white religious bigot bullies were replaced with black ghetto bullies. Some seemed to think it to be their duty to return the shit white people had given them by being shitty to white people whenever they could. I didn’t really get that at the time. To me, they were just bullies. Same old, same old. Their hatred for the Other was palpably the same.

But you know what? Most people aren’t bullies. Bullies are just the first in line to greet Others onto whom they hope to unload their own self-loathing. Given time, I met better people in each and every place I lived. And what I found, over and over again, is that people are people. There are craven, nasty people and their are extraordinary, wonderful people, and everything else you can imagine in between. I’ve lived in all-white neighborhoods and mostly black neighborhoods and pretty well integrated neighborhoods. I’ve seen differences in culture but zero evidence that one race is better or worse or even meaningfully different from the other. Both have a tendency to mistrust the Other that seems deeply ingrained in human nature. We aren’t quite human to each other until we’re personally known. Once you meet the Other, they cease to be the Other and become an individual with a name and a personality. I suspect that’s what people mean when they claim not to see color – it’s not that they cease to see it, but for the people they’ve actually met, it ceases to be their defining characteristic.

And yet we persist in making implicitly racist assumptions. To give just one tiny example, a few years back a friend was helping to organize the Larchmere Porch Fest, and asked my wife and I to help. This is a wonderful event in which people in the Larchmere neighborhood offer their porches as stages for musical performances. One can wander up and down and hear all manner of music. On this occasion, I wound up helping to set up one porch for a performance by Obnox. I realized that some electricity would be needed, so knocked on the homeowner’s door. A woman appeared, and after a brief discussion, she provided an extension cord with a pink, Barbie-themed power strip that we threaded through an open window. Lamont Thomas and his drummer arrived, and set up went fairly smoothly, but he thought of something else, so also knocked on the door. I don’t remember what he was looking for, but I remember the reaction of the woman upon opening the door. Lamont is a tall, imposing black man. Her eyes got as big as saucers. She closed the door without a word. We heard the -snick- of the lock and her retreating footsteps. Lamont looked at the door that had been shut in his face, then looked at me and spoke softly: “My lyrics are kinda… raw. Is that going to be a problem?” I could only shrug. “She signed up for this,” I replied.

I don’t know what went through her mind. I would guess that like a lot of white people in the U.S., she had conveniently forgotten that black people exist – or at least, weren’t a presence in her regular circle of life. So when she chose to participate in a positive civic activity, in this case porch fest, it simply hadn’t occurred to her that black people might be involved. Who would have guessed that some musicians might be black!

That episode is but one tiny example of the pervasive, reflexive fear of the Other that still pervades American culture. More generally, I marvel at the human potential that we must have wasted in this way. The persecution of minorities, both ethnic and religious, the suppression of novel thought outside the mainstream, the utter disregard for women in far too many societies… For every Newton, for every Einstein, for every brilliant person who became famous for making a positive impact on the world, how many comparably brilliant people found themselves in circumstances that prevented them from making the contributions that they might otherwise have made? Einstein happened to be visiting the U.S. when Hitler came to power, and wisely declined to return home to Germany. He was already famous, so it was possible to financially arrange to keep him on. How might it have gone if the timing were otherwise? How many were less fortunate? What have we lost? Why do we continue to throw away so much human potential?

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Obnox performs at the Larchmere Porch Fest in 2014.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

I started this blog as a place to discuss science, and have refrained from discussing overtly political matters. This is no longer possible. Today is June 10, 2020 – the date set to strike for black lives. I want to contribute in a tiny way by writing here. If that seems inappropriate to you or otherwise makes you uncomfortable, then that probably means that you need to read it and reflect on the reasons for your discomfort.

To start, I quote the statement made by my colleagues and myself:

The CWRU Department of Astronomy stands in solidarity with our Black colleagues and fellow citizens across the United States in expressing what should be a clear moral absolute: that people of color should enjoy the same freedoms as other Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We condemn the de facto system of racial oppression that leads to pervasive police brutality up to and including the extrajudicial murders of Black Americans like George Floyd and far too many others.

We strive to build an academic community that welcomes, encourages, and supports students and scientists of color. To achieve this goal, we recognize that we must continually reflect on the injustices faced by under-represented and marginalized people, and repair the institutional structures that place them at a disadvantage. We encourage our colleagues in astronomy, throughout academia, and more broadly across society to do the same.

We will participate in the Strike for Black Lives this Wednesday, June 10, and encourage others to join us.

As the current chairperson of the CWRU Department of Astronomy, I was initially reluctant to post something about the Black Lives Matter movement on the department website. It is a different thing to make a statement on behalf of an organization of many people than it is to do so for oneself. Moreover, we are a science entity, not a political one. But we are also people, and cannot separate our humanity from our vocation. There comes a point when way too much is ever so much more than more than enough. We have reached such a point. So when I contacted my colleagues about doing this, there was unanimous agreement and eager consent to do so among all the faculty and scientific staff.

I value the freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment of the constitution of the United States of America. I think it is worth reproducing here:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of speech is often construed to mean the right to espouse whatever opinion one might hold, and I think that is indeed an essential personal freedom that Americans take for granted in a way that is rather special in the history of humankind. Note also that the first amendment explicitly includes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” – a right that Americans sometimes exercise but also frequently attempt to deny to each other.

Why does this come up now? Well, if you haven’t been keeping up with current events, George Floyd died in custody after being arrested in Minneapolis, sparking protests – peaceable assemblages – across the country and around the world.

In the last sentence, I intentionally use a misleading structure common in both the press and in police reports: “George Floyd died…”, as if it were something that just happened, like a butterfly happening to pass by. Indeed, the initial police report on the incident stated that Floyd “seemed to be in medical distress” while omitting mention of any causal factor for that distress. Similarly, the medical examiner’s report exonerated the police, attributing Floyd’s death to “underlying medical conditions.”

That is some major league bullshit.

The cause of Floyd’s death is not mysterious. Officer Derek Chauvin crushed Floyd’s windpipe by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds. That is considerably longer than the longest TV commercial break you have ever been modestly annoyed by. Who among us has never raged WILL THESE COMMERCIALS NEVER END? Now imagine feeling the life being crushed out of you for a considerably longer period while lying flat on your belly with your hands already cuffed behind your back. That’s right – George Floyd was already handcuffed and on the ground while being pinned by the neck. In no way can this be construed as resisting arrest. He was already under police control and in no position to resist anything, up to and including being murdered.

A more accurate statement using the active voice would be “Police arrested George Floyd, then brutally murdered him as he lay helplessly handcuffed on the ground.” There was an obvious  cause for his “medical distress:” Derek Chauvin’s knee and body weight. “Underlying conditions” played no role. Before being pinned and crushed, Floyd was alive. After, he was dead. It didn’t matter if he had been suffering from terminal cancer: that’s not what killed him. Officer Chauvin did. There is no alleged about it: we can all personally witness this heinous act through now-ubiquitous video recordings.

The more puritanical grammarians might object that I am not merely using the active voice that the police and coroner’s report (and some press accounts) take care to avoid. I am also using pejorative adverbs: brutally and helplessly. Yes. Yes I am. Because those words apply. If you want an illustration to go along with the dictionary definition of these words, then go watch all 8:46 of the execution of George Floyd.

As egregious as this case is, it is not an isolated incident. That both the police and coroner’s reports whitewash the incident with intentionally vague and passive language is a dead give away that this is standard operating procedure. They’ve done it before. Many times. So many times that there is a well-rehearsed language of obfuscation to subvert the plain facts of the matter.

This event has sparked protests around the country because it illustrates an all too familiar pattern of police behavior in black communities. I’ve heard various people say things like “It can’t be that bad.” Yet this systematic police brutality is what protesters are saying is their life experience of being black in America. Are you in a position to know better than they?

I’ve heard people say worse things. Like blaming the victim. Floyd was a career criminal, so he deserved what he got. This is such a common sentiment, apparently, that it affected a Google search I did the other day. I was trying to look up a geology term, and got as far as typing “geo” when Google auto-suggested

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Really? This is such a common conceit that the mere three letters g e o leads Google to think I’m searching on George Floyd’s criminal past? I can think of a lot of more likely things to follow from g e o. Given the timing, I can see how his name would come up quickly. Just his name. Why add on “criminal past”? How many people must be doing that search for this to be Google’s top hit? 

News flash: people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. It is the purpose of police to apprehend suspects and that of the courts and a jury of citizens to decide guilt or innocence. Whatever the alleged crime, the punishment is not summary execution by the police on the spot. As much as some few of them seem to want to be, the police are not and should not be Judge Dredd.

The same victim-blaming is going on with the protests. People have assembled in communities all over the country to protest – a right guaranteed by the first amendment. As near as I can tell, most of these assemblies have been peaceable. Given the righteous, raw anger over the arbitrary state-abetted murder of American citizens, it is hardly surprising that some of these assemblies devolve into riots. The odds of this happening are seen time and again to be greatly enhanced when the police show up to “keep order.” All too often we have seen the police act as the aggressors and instigators of violence. If you haven’t seen that, then you are not paying attention – or not following a credible news source. Fox, OANN, Breitbart, the Sinclair broadcasting network – these are not credible new sources. They are propaganda machines that are keen on focusing attention on the bad behavior of a minority of protesters in the hopes that you’ll be distracted from the police brutality that sparked the demonstrations in the first place.

Victim-blaming is an excuse closet racists use to dodge engagement with the real issue of police misconduct. “He was a career criminal! He deserved it!” and “Riots are bad! Police must keep order and protect property!” These are distractions from the real issue. Property is not as important as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Black Americans are not assured of any of those. When they peacefully assemble to petition the government for a redress of grievances, they are met with masses of police in riot gear hurling flash-bangs and teargas. Even if a few of these assemblages lead to riots and some looting, so what? That is nothing in comparison with existential threat to life and liberty suffered by all too many Americans because of the color of their skin.

An old friend tried to make the case to me that, basically, “mobs are bad.” I reacted poorly to his clueless but apparently sincere buy-in to the misdirection of victim-blaming, and felt bad about it afterwards. But he was wrong, in an absolute moral sense, and I have no patience left for blaming the victim. Yes. Mobs are bad. Duh. But going straight to that willfully misses the point. This didn’t start with mob violence out nowhere. It started with the systematic oppression of an entire group of American citizens defined in literally the most superficial way possible –  the pigmentation of their skin. The police have many roles in our society, some for the good, some not. One of the bad roles has been as enforcers of a de facto system of white supremacy – a system so deeply ingrained that most white people aren’t even aware that it exists.

I would like to believe, as many white folk apparently do, that white supremacy is a thing of the past. An ugly chapter in our past now relegated to the dustbin of history. Yet I look around and see that it is alive and well all around us.

We – all of us who are American citizens – have an obligation to make things better for our fellow citizens. At a very minimum, that means listening to their concerns, not denying their experience. Just because it is horrible doesn’t make it untrue. So don’t try to tell me about the evils of riots and mobs until you first engage with the underlying causes therefore. These are mere symptoms of the societal cancer that is white supremacy. They are natural, inevitable reactions to decades upon decades of degradation and disenfranchisement heaped on top of centuries of dehumanization through slavery and lynchings. Until you acknowledge and engage meaningfully with these brutal aspects of history and modern-day reality, you have zero credibility to complain about any of their toxic offspring. Doing so is a clear sign that you are part of the problem.

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Fuzzy Thing!

Fuzzy Thing!

I was contacted today by a colleague at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who was seeking to return some photographic plates of Halley’s comet that had been obtained with the Burrell Schmidt telescope. I at first misread the email – I get so many requests for data, I initially assumed that he was looking for said plates. That sent me into a frenzy of where the heck are they? about data obtained by others well before my time as the director of the Warner & Swasey Observatory. Comet Halley last came by in 1986.

Fortunately, reading comprehension kicked in, and I realized that all I really needed to figure out was where they should go. The lower pressure version of where the heck are they? That would be the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, which has had the good sense to archive the vast treasury of astronomical plates that many observatories obtained in the pre-digital era but don’t always have the ability to preserve. But this post isn’t about that; it is just a spark to the memory.

In 1986, I was a first-year graduate student in the Princeton physics department. As such, I had at that time little more competence in observing the sky than any other physicist (practically none). Nevertheless, I traipsed out into an open field at the dark edge of town on a clear night with a pair of binoculars and a vague knowledge of what part of the sky Comet Halley should be in. How hard could it be to spot the most famous comet in history?

Impossibly hard. There was nothing to see, so far as I could find. The apparition of 1986 was a bust. This informed in me a bad attitude towards comets. There had never been a good apparition in my lifetime (all of 22 years at that point), and Halley certainly wasn’t one. I accepted that decent comets must be a rare occurrence.

Flash forward a decade to 1996, by which time I was an accomplished observer with a good working knowledge of the celestial sphere. A new comet was discovered – Hyakutake – and with it came much hype. Yeah, yeah, I’d heard it all before. Boring. Comets were always a flop.

Comet Hyakutake made a close approach to Earth in March of 1996. Its wikipedia page is pretty good, with a nice illustration of its orbit and its path on the sky as perceived from the Earth. I was working at DTM at the time, where there were lots of planetary scientists as well as a few astronomers. Someone posted an ephemeris, so despite my distrust of comets I found myself peeking at what its trajectory would be. Nevertheless, we had a long period of cloudy weather, so there was nothing to see even if there was something to see, which I expected there wasn’t.

At this time, my elder daughter Caitlyn was two years old. I made a habit of taking her out and pointing things out in the sky. We watched the sunset, the moon set after it near new moon, and the moon rise near full moon. She seemed content to listen to her old man babble about the lights in the sky. Apparently more of that sank in than I realized.

My wife Anne was teaching at Loyola, and her department chair had invited us over for a party around the vernal equinox. We enjoyed the adult company and Caitlyn put up well with it – up to a point. It got dark and we bid our farewells and headed out. We had parked across the street, and on the way out Betsy (our hostess) said “Stacy – you’re an astronomer. Where’s the comet?”

I got this pained expression. Stupid comets. But it had cleared up for the first time in nearly a week, and looking up from the front door, I could quickly orient myself on the sky. Doing so, I realize that the comet was behind the house. So I pointed up and over, towards the back yard and through the roof: “Over there.” I continued across the street to the car with the toddler cradled in my left arm, fiddling with the keys with my right hand.

We did not have a nice car: one had to insert the key manually into the door to unlock it. As I went around the car to get to the driver’s side, I was focused on this mundane task. It did not occur to me to look up in the direction I had just pointed. I felt Caitlyn stretch her arm to point at the sky, exclaiming “Fuzzy thing!”

I looked up. There is was: a big, bright, fuzzy ball. A brilliant cometary apparition, the coma easily visible even in Baltimore. My two-year old daughter spotted it and accurately classified it before I even looked up.

Comet Hyakutake on March 22, 1996.

Comet Hyakutake was an amazing event. Not only spectacular to look at, but it drove home celestial mechanics in a visceral way. It was at this time very close to Earth (by the scale of such things). That meant it made noticeable progress in its orbit from night to night. You couldn’t see it moving just staring at it, but one night is was here, the next night it was there, the following night over there. It was skipping through the constellations at a dizzying speed for an object that takes c. 70,000 years to complete one orbit. But we were close enough that one could easily see the progress it made across the sky from night to night, if not minute to minute. If you wanted to take a picture with a telescope, you had to track the telescope to account for this – hence the star trails in the image above: the stars appear as streaks because the telescope is moving with the comet, not with the sky.

The path of Comet Huyakutake across the sky.

This figure (credit: Tom Ruen) shows the orbital path of Comet Huyakutake projected on the sky (constellations outlined in blue). Most of the time, the comet is far away near the aphelion of its orbit. As it fell in towards the sun, its path made annual ellipses due to the reflex motion of the Earth’s own orbit – the parallax. These grew in size until the comet came sweeping by in the month of March, 1996. Think about it: it spent tens of thousands of years spiraling down towards us, only to shoot by, transitioning well across the sky in only a couple of weeks. Celestial mechanics made visible.

Not long after Hyakutake started to fade, Comet Hale-Bopp became visible. Hale-Bopp did not pass as close to the Earth as Hyakutake, so it didn’t leap across the sky like Tom Bombadil. But Hale-Bopp was a physically larger comet. As such, it got bright and stayed bright for a long time, remaining visible to the naked eye for a record year and half. In the months after Hyakutake’s apparition, we could see Hale-Bopp chasing the sunset from the balcony of our apartment. Caitlyn and I would sit there and watch it as the twilight faded into dark. Her experience of comets had been the opposite of mine: where in my thirty years (before that point) they had been rare and disappointing, in her (by then) three years they had been common and spectacular.

The sky is full of marvels. You never know when you might get to see one.