1999 August 13: Twain, maps, role models

I've been reading Mark Twain's Following the Equator, a travelogue written just over a century ago. I'd never heard of it before, but damn, it's entertaining. This is the funny Twain I've always known from legend but never really met in his books; but underneath the tall tales is a man with a very modern social conscience living in a world where unreconstructed European imperialism still staggers on, dying but not yet gone.

``And in memory of the greatest man Australasia ever developed or ever will develop, there is a stately monument to George Augustus Robinson, the Conciliator in -- no, it is to another man, I forget his name.''

I found myself in the Stanford Bookstore on Tuesday, desperately trying to distract myself (from what, I think I will not mention here), looking at maps. I had been looking for a decent world map on Sunday, and so it was on my mind that I didn't have an atlas. I spent probably half an hour sitting on the floor flipping through alternatives, comparing renditions of obscure parts of Africa. There was a hardcover New Millenium atlas with pages and pages of utterly gorgeous satellite photography, but it was way out of my price range; I finally settled on Hammond's softcover Atlas of the World: Concise Edition.

I've been flipping through it, following Twain along. The more I look through it, the more I like it. Subtle colours, elegant design, wonderful detail. There's something magical about maps. I love 'em.

. . .

I went to a seminar at Lockheed yesterday morning -- Derek Buzasi was talking about his WIRE salvage experiments. WIRE, the Wide-field InfraRed Explorer is a satellite that malfunctioned on launch back in March -- all the coolant leaked out, so the nominal science package was useless. NASA was going to write it off, until Buzasi jumped in and convinced them that the star tracker (a tiny telescope smaller than some amateurs have in their back yards) could be used to do asteroseismology (ie, helioseismology applied to other stars). So this guy has salvaged a failed mission to do nifty observations that really couldn't be done any other way -- it's better than Star Trek. If I was serious about becoming a scientist, Buzasi should be my hero. Instead, I think the work is brilliant, but feel no particular drive to try to top it. Call this another sign.

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