November 3rd, 2010

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Vesta: whether asteroid or dwarf planet, certainly interesting

I've blogged in my past about my fascination with Ceres, the first asteroid discovered by astronomers, for decades considered a planet, and most recently reclassified (along with Pluto) as a dwarf planet. Another asteroid is dear to my heart, a geologically interesting body that also has its own claim to dwarf planet status, Vesta.

The discovery of Ceres in 1801 and Pallas in 1802 led German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers to propose that the two objects were the remnants of a destroyed planet. In 1802 he sent a letter with his proposal to the English astronomer William Herschel, suggesting that a search near the locations where the orbits of Ceres and Pallas intersected might reveal more fragments. These orbital intersections were located in the constellations of Cetus and Virgo.[14]

Olbers commenced his search in 1802, and on March 29, 1807 he coincidentally discovered Vesta in the constellation Virgo. As the asteroid Juno had been discovered in 1804, this made Vesta the fourth object to be identified in the region that is now known as the main asteroid belt. This discovery was announced in a letter addressed to German astronomer Johann H. Schröter dated March 31. Olbers allowed the prominent mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss to name the asteroid after the Roman virgin goddess of home and hearth, Vesta.

Vesta ended up losing its planetary status later in the 19th century, as the discovery of hundreds of other asteroids scattered in what came to be known as the asteroid belt led to the downgrading of these bodies. I think that this downgrading was a mistake in some respects, in that even the larger asteroids, like the larger moons of the outer Solar System (the four Galilean moons and Titan, called "secondary planets" also in the 19th century), weren't considered to be worlds of the same import as the "actually existing" planets. We have sent space probes out to distant Neptune, but nothing to the Ceres and Vesta discovered more than a generation before Neptune.

This, thankfully, is changing. Bad Astronomy linked to these superb NASA images of the Vesta surface, part of an ongoing effort to map first Vesta then Ceres for the benefit of the navigators of the Dawn space proibe, scheduled to visit Vesta in 2011 and Ceres in 2015.

Vesta from four angles

Vesta is a very unusual asteroid, and the key to understanding its unusual nature lies in its density. This rocky world can claim a density of 3.42 grams per cubic centimetre. This is substantially above the estimated density of ~2.07 grams per cubic centimetre estimated for Ceres, almost exactly the same as the 3.34 grams per cubic centimetre of Moon, and not that far removed from Mars' 3.93 grams per cubic centimetre. Even though Vesta is a very small body, estimated to have a diameter of 550 kilometers and a polar axis 462 km, and with a surface gravity a bit more than two percent of Earth's, Vesta is a dense, rocky body. It's unique in having a rocky surface, perhaps similar in composition to the maria of the Moon, that's so reflective that Vesta is the only asteroid visible to the naked eye. The asteroid--the only surviving member of its class--formed as particles collided and condensed over several million years, internal heat produced by the decay of a radioactive isotope of aluminum common in the early Solar System, this melting resulting in a sorting out of Vesta's material by density before the too-small world began to cool.

Vesta's complex surface is marked by one very, very big crater discoveredd in 1997.

The most prominent surface feature is an enormous crater 460 kilometres in diameter centered near the south pole. Its width is 80% of the entire diameter of Vesta. The floor of this crater is about 13 kilometres below, and its rim rises 4–12 km above the surrounding terrain, with total surface relief of about 25 km. A central peak rises 18 kilometres above the crater floor. It is estimated that the impact responsible excavated about 1% of the entire volume of Vesta, and it is likely that the Vesta family and V-type asteroids are the products of this collision. [. . .] Spectroscopic analyses of the Hubble images have shown that this crater has penetrated deep through several distinct layers of the crust, and possibly into the mantle, as indicated by spectral signatures of olivine.

Several other large craters about 150 kilometres wide and 7 kilometres deep are also present. A dark albedo feature about 200 kilometres across has been named Olbers in honour of Vesta's discoverer, but it does not appear in elevation maps as a fresh crater would. Its nature is presently unknown; it may be an old basaltic surface. It serves as a reference point with the 0° longitude prime meridian defined to pass through its center.

The eastern and western hemispheres show markedly different terrains. From preliminary spectral analyses of the Hubble Space Telescope images, the eastern hemisphere appears to be some kind of high albedo, heavily cratered "highland" terrain with aged regolith, and craters probing into deeper plutonic layers of the crust. On the other hand, large regions of the western hemisphere are taken up by dark geologic units thought to be surface basalts, perhaps analogous to the lunar maria.

The large south-polar crater--visible in the two top images--may be the scar produced by a collision that ejected perhaps one percent of its mass via at least one massive impact a billion years ago, creating a signifcant family of asteroids was thrown off of the Vestan surface by this and other impacts.

Could Vesta be elevated to the status of a dwarf planet? Maybe. The infamous International Astronomical Union resolution defines planets as bodies massive enough to pull themselves into spherical shapes through their own gravity. Vesta isn't a sphere, perhaps a result of that collision, and it has only a quarter the mass of the already small Ceres. If Dawn determines that Vesta is massive enough to mold itself into a sphere, and if it turns out that Vesta's oblateness is productive of the aforementioned massive asteroid collision, Vesta could join Ceres in that elite club.

Age of miracles and wonders.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On jaw-dropping, unremarkable, small-town Canadian racism

The small south-central Ontario town of Campbellford apparently has a reputation as a centre for tourism and artists. It has also started to acquired a new reputation, perhaps typified by the Toronto Star article "KKK costume wins first prize at Legion Halloween party".

Mark Andrade sat down at the Campbellford Royal Canadian Legion hall on Saturday night looking forward to a Halloween beer. Instead, he was treated to the sight of one man parading around in a Ku Klux Klan costume with a Confederate flag.

The partygoer was leading another man in blackface around the room by a noose.

Andrade left his beer on the bar and walked out. Friends told him later that the two men had won first prize at the Legion’s Halloween costume competition.

“This is 2010,” said Andrade, who is black. “That’s unacceptable, especially in a Legion. A Legion, of all places.”

Joy Herrington, president of the Legion, issued an apology on Tuesday.

“As president of Branch 103 Campbellford of the Royal Canadian Legion, I humbly apologize to all those offended by the events that took place at our Halloween party on October the 30th, 2010. The events in no way reflect the views of the royal Canadian legion or its members. Those responsible have been spoken to.”

Meanwhile, the man who did this was interviewed by the Welland Tribune and issued a classic non-apology.

The man who dressed up as Ku Klux Klan member for Halloween in small town Ontario insists he isn't prejudiced and meant no harm.

But in retrospect, Blair Crowley said Tuesday, it may have been a bad choice.

Crowley wore a white KKK robe and hood with a Confederate flag attached to his back when he attended the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 103 annual Halloween party Saturday night in Campbellford, a small town northeast of Toronto.

A friend, in full blackface, wore a red and black-checkered shirt and jeans and had a string tied to his arm.

"It wasn't meant to be anything racist. I'm not prejudiced. It was a Halloween costume, it was a joke," said Crowley, adding that his best friend is black.

[. . .]

Crowley, who lives in nearby Hastings, said it's getting blown out of proportion.

"That stuff (slavery) has been gone for years and years and years. I don't see why the reaction is the way it is. That's so past tense. It's a piece of history from long ago," he said.

"I'm sure it was probably in bad taste after the fact. But there was no disrespect by it. People need to worry about something other than that."

Clearly some people found the costume humorous because he and his friend were given an award at the party, Crowley said.

Crowley also said he hasn't been contacted by anyone at the legion, despite the president stating "those responsible have been spoken to."

Northumberland County, to which Campbellford belongs, doesn't seem that unusual. It is a substantially rural area, with rates of population growth and levels of employment and income somewhat but not substantially below Ontarian norms, with relatively fewer one-person households. The county does stand out in its relative homogeneity: nearly seventy-eight of its seventy-nine thousand people use English most frequently at home, most of the county's immigrants (one-tenth of the total) came before 1991, and being predominantly of a few backgrounds: Chinese, South Asian, Korean, Black, Filipino, Latin American. Northhumberland County's political complexion is unremarkable, tending towards the Liberal Party. There doesn't appear to be anything visibly wrong with it, in short.

How could someone have possibly thought this could be acceptable? And at the local Legion, no less! In smaller towns like Campbellford, the Legion is often the main public space, its property and halls rented out to community groups. What does it say about this community that this sort of thing can happen, and that it wouldn't have been noticed but for someone who came from outside the community says something, I mentioned in last night's History and Futility post that the Legion can act as a repository for memory. Clearly, it can do so in multiple ways.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Australia and Canada and borders and the threats they hold back

Some time ago, Personal Reflections linked to an interesting essay by Russell Darnley, "#Indonesia and #Australia: perceptions of border security from the land that’s girt by sea." Australia has issues with boundaries vis-a-vis large neighbours in a way that Canada does, Indonesia filling the United States' place.

Living here on the east coast of Australia it’s easy to retain a sense that in the land that’s girt by sea, our borders are quite finite. After all we’re a modern nation state with very clear rules about borders and exclusive economic zones. We’re a signatory to various international conventions and treaties that regulate the way we as a nation state relate to the world at large. While the implications of such arangements must sometimes be tested, by and large we enjoy a formal and concrete sense of what is ours, where it is and how this fits in to the rest of the world. If only it was all so simple. It certainly seems to be this simple from the vantage point of our island continent’s eastern coastal margins. Some 80% of Australians live within 50 kilometers of the continent’s eastern and south weastern coastline.

Although it’s undeniable that ‘our home is girt by sea’, our home is an island only in the basic and static sense. In reality, both biophysically and socio-culturally there is constant interaction between this Australia and what surrounds us. Tropical cyclones sweep in from the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea. Ocean currents, part of a vast global circulations influence our weather and climate. Traditional fishers from the Indonesian archipelago continue to visit Australian waters while our border with New Guinea is a culturally arbitrary one.

Russell goes on to cite the example of the Torres Strait Islands on the northeastern frontier of Australia, culturally New Guinean but politically part of the Australian state of Queensland, and the Arafura and Timor Seas on the northwest, with their long histories of contact, trade, even migration with what is now Indonesia. Australians doesn't get this porosity, he says, much to the detriment of Australian interests. Why?

Australians are overwhelmingly concentrated on the southeast coast of their island-continent, living in dense conurbations in an ecologically unusual part of their continent (wet with fertile soil, say) located in the quadrant of Australia located furthest away from Indonesia and the rest of Asia. If they don't have any experience of the northwestern quadrant of Australia, and in truth little reason to go there apart from tourism or maybe seasonal migration to the mines and whatnot, how do you get a sense of this porosity?

Canada's issues are different. Almost 90% of the Canadian population, it's said, lives close to the border with the United States, concentrated in the thin strips of habitable territory in the south of Canada that form the Canadian ecumene. To the north of the ecumene is territory that, although certainly Canadian, is climatically quite hostile, very different from the temperate climes Canadians are used to, and the prominent home of many of Canada's largest First Nations with their own divergent interests. Canada's frontier with Greenland isn't discussed, notwithstanding Inuit cultural commonalities on both sides of the Baffin Strait; I suspect that Melanesian cultural affinities do as much, or at little, to make Australians think about New Guinea. As for the frontier with Alaska, well, only 34 thousand people live in the entire territory of Yukon. For Canadians, the American frontier--the border with the lower 48--is the prominent one. I suspect it's cultural commonalities between Canada and the United States, as contrasts to the extreme separation characterizing the Australian-Indonesian relationship, that helps keep Canadians from thinking of Americans as a serious threat--we just know them too well.

[LINK] "To Brand T.O."

Andrew Barton, ex-pat Torontonian in Vancouver (the Facebook meme said so), finds a certain amount of hope on mayor-elect Ford's getting that the streetcar is such an iconic item for Toronto. Literally iconic

Forty years ago, Toronto had a problem. Back then, before the possibility of an independent Quebec sent Canada's captains of business and industry charging down the 401 to the shore of Lake Ontario, it had no pretensions of being a world city but was instead, as Unbuilt Toronto puts it, a "second-order metropolis" - occupying the same niche as, say, St. Louis or Cincinnati. It didn't have much to distinguish itself from its competitors. That's where Buckminster Fuller came in with his ambitious Project Toronto, which included a commercial district enclosed within a glass pyramid, a covered arcade parallelling University Avenue, and entire villages afloat on Lake Ontario.

Ultimately, of course, none of this got built. Politicians in the 1960s were no more willing to take leaps into the future than they are today. But the result is that Toronto has continued to flounder, and today is obsessed with whether or not it's really a "world city." Sure, it's got the CN Tower, but communications towers are not exactly uncommon. Even really tall ones. What Toronto really needs is a wide-spectrum campaign to establish itself.

It won't all have to come out of nowhere. I think Toronto already has the germ of part of such a campaign - its streetcars. Back in 1969, when popular wisdom saw streetcars as obsolete and the official TTC plan was for the last streetcar to have run by 1980, it wouldn't have been a consideration - and not particularly unique either, as at that time there would still be plenty of people who remembered streetcars on the streets of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, London... so on and so on. At that point, it's easy to conclude that they weren't anything special.

Forty years later, the pendulum has shifted. Now they _are_ something special, if only because they're the only transit streetcars, as opposed to heritage railways, left in all of Canada. Even expanding the view to all of North America, it's still not too common, and even then the exact types of streetcars the TTC uses are in service nowhere else in the world. They're part of Toronto, something it doesn't share with any city anywhere else. Torontoist has it the right way - the four silhouettes that site chose to represent its city were the CN Tower, City Hall, the otherworldly box-on-stilts of OCAD, and... a streetcar.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Form, function, books, Amazon

If not for Michael Steeleworthy's post at The Zeds, it would have taken longer for me to learn about the Kindle Single.

Amazon’s Kindle store is getting more like a music store everyday. Now you can buy a whole book or just a single—an e-book that’s about twice as long as a New Yorker feature.

In a statement, Amazon called on writers, business types and other big thinkers to create Kindle Singles.

This move is a bit of e-commerce brilliance. Why? Amazon is moving to give you the meat of an idea—10,000 to 30,000—while saving you some time and expense. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be “priced much less than a typical book.” Bottom line: There will be a big audience for Kindle Singles.

The CNET article I linked to suggests that the Kindle Single might be an excellent move: it has the potential for cutting out troublesome and money-sucking publishers, letting Amazon deal directly with at least some authors; shorter pieces will work better on Kindles and Kindle apps than longer ones; the distinctive product will help the brand stand out. As Michael, notes, Amazon may well have boosted another literary form.

Face it, the Single is a marketing tactic that will encourage the production and consumption of a different (I don’t want to call it “new”) literary form. Perhaps our society’s collective ADHD, brought on by the very devices that gives us books in a digital format, will be a captive and willing audience for the Single, and perhaps the Single is just what we need – literary value found in something somewhat longer than a short story but nowhere near as long as a novel. It’s a novella, but not quite – it’s a Single. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it’s just what you need to finish your day while sipping a sugar-laden coffee-style drink in your favourite third place somewhere between work, home, and daycare.

The book retailing industry is threatened. As This Ain't the Rosedale Library (closed this year) and Pages (closed last year) demonstrated, bookstores need a strong and committed clientele (one reason why the first bookstore's move from its own Church and Wellesley haunt to Kensington Market was such a bad idea), and they need coherent business plans which extend beyond books to attract as broad a clientele as possible (as noted in an interview with the owner of the second bookstore). Stores which don't do that, and which perhaps lack the economy of scale available to chains, are going to lose out. The book as such--as a container for information, fictional and otherwise, presented according to certain constraints--isn't endangered, any more than it has by other changes.

The book – the physical object that contains the text – is dynamic, and the container has certainly affected the contents in the past.  Penguin Books developed the affordable paperback in the 1930s, which facilitated the production, promotion, and popularization of the longer text, and ostensibly turned the novel into the grand literary form we count on it to be today; Gutenberg increased accessibility to the written word, but so much of the texts from the early modern period are pamphlets; the great epic poems that we read in our Great Books and Classics courses often had no container at all and therefore were developed around mnemonic aids which helped the poet and speaker memorize the content.  Texts of high(er) literary value will continue to exist, regardless of the form of their containers.

Length-wise, at least, the Kindle Single doesn't seem to be much different from the established form of the novella. The idea, as voiced in some places, that Amazon is somehow perverting literary development is overstated. Besides, shorter pieces are common: this is a blog I'm writing and you're reading, you know, and my longest pieces extend into the low thousands only. (Pity; I want a contrast.)

I wonder: When Penguin introduced its cheap paperbacks in the 1930s, did people say similarly critical things about the format's impact on the popular literary imagination, about the cheapening-cum-demassification of literature and the opening up of audiences to less secure authors?