Monthly Archives: March 2016

Dispatches from Pluto

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi DeltaDispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My wife and I lived for a couple years in Oxford, Mississippi, and there was much that I, having been raised in the Midwest, did not understand. This was more than the accent, though the first time I had to get a vehicle inspection sticker I could only stare in incomprehension at the man behind the counter when he asked if I had “tents on my windows.” My confusion must have been obvious, because he repeated it with more insistence. When that didn’t work, he asked if I had windows that were “tented.” If I did, he informed me, we’d have to do a “tent test.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. This was, after all, Mississippi, so I assumed maybe a tent was some kind of slang for broken windows that had been repaired with plastic. It wasn’t until he spelled it out, obviously running out of patience for this clueless Yankee, “TENT, T-I-N-T,” that the lightbulb came on.

I spent most of my time during that period of our lives in the physics department at Ole Miss, so interactions like this didn’t take place very often. My wife, however, taught in the county high school. At our first high school football game, I asked why her incredibly polite and cheerful students were constantly greeting her with the strange call “Muh-Kay!” She explained this was “Miss Case.” (She had spent her high school years in Texas, so she had a jump with me on the accent.)

But Oxford was great. The town was beautiful, the people were lovely, and you could get pimento cheese or fried hotdog sandwiches at the same place you fueled your car. The weather was wonderful, and in the summer there was air conditioning.

In Oxford, we heard stories about a strange place called the Delta, and one day I convinced my friend Chet, who was also the pastor of the tiny Nazarene church we attended, to take a road trip with me through a small portion of it. We must have stuck out like sore, idiotic thumbs: two skinny white men in my blue ’99 Firebird gawking, photographing, and trying to make small-talk with locals in the tiny towns we passed through. But images of that day trip stay with me: especially the tiny town of Friar’s Point on the Mississippi River, a place like a closet that you backed into with nowhere to go; the ruins of St. Cecilia’s Catholic church, empty and decaying; the Seventh Day Adventist we chatted with in the parking lot of a closed historical museum. We drove over the river to Helena, and finished with a gander at the spillway of the Sardis Dam, the largest earthen dam in the world. (Chet has stayed, learning the story of the Mississippi civil rights movement and telling its narrative.)

I thought of that trip reading Richard Grant’s account of his time in the Delta, Dispatches from Pluto. The work is a loose chronological narrative of how he fell in love with an old plantation home in the tiny hamlet of Pluto in the middle of the Delta and convinced his girlfriend to uproot from New York City and start a new life there. To him, it was as though he had discovered a new, foreign country called Mississippi and then an even stranger hidden kingdom within Mississippi called the Delta. (For confused Midwesterners: the Mississippi Delta is not the delta of the Mississippi River. It’s the confluence of the Yazoo River where it runs into the Mississippi, a low, swampy and incredibly fertile land only drained for farming after the Civil War. It makes up the northwest corner of the state, stretching along the western side of the state to Vicksburg.)

Dispatches from Pluto is Grant’s exploration of the culture, history, twisted and bizarre politics, and complex race relations of this isolated portion of our country’s poorest state. Race is a big theme in the book, with Grant (originally from London) continually frustrated and ultimately bemused in his attempts to categorize the relations between blacks and whites in the Delta in any meaningful way through the relationships he builds with his neighbors.

The book is not a travelogue, and Grant is at times frustratingly vague on the actual geography of the Delta. Nor is it a straightforward history or any sort of systematic survey of the social trends or economy of the region. And that’s fine, as the book doesn’t attempt to be this, but a section on “suggested reading” or at least some leads given in the narrative of what Grant’s reading in his attempt to understand his adopted home would have helped an interested reader know where to go to learn more.

Dispatches is instead a colorful, rambling account that makes this strange but charmingly enigmatic backwater come to life through Grant’s own discoveries. More than an exploration of a place you may never have heard of before (with a history and certain traits that are indeed troubling and often horrifying), it’s more importantly a testimony to understanding, hospitality, and neighborliness that transcends regionality and (in some cases) even race. To know a place, Grant seems to be saying, you have to know its people. And to know the people, you need to live beside them. Doing this with an openness and a genuine desire to learn and then writing about what it teaches him is where Grant succeeds admirably.

March Skywatch

I’ve been promising a column for a couple months now that offers a basic introduction to telescope optics and usage. I plan to keep that promise, but exciting news keeps breaking out in the astronomical world. Last month it was the alignment of the planets in the early morning skies and the announcement of the possible existence of a new, ninth planet in the solar system. Now it’s even bigger news, as scientists have reported the first confirmed detection of gravity waves, which not only provide a further confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relatively but more importantly have opened a completely new avenue for learning about the universe.

Up to this point in our history, everything we’ve known about distant objects in space has come from light, whether telescopes set up in backyards or research observatories on mountaintops or even instruments beyond the surface of the Earth like the Hubble Space Telescope. All of these gather types of light (which includes all portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, from the visible light we see up to high-energy gamma rays and down to low-energy radio waves). Light can tell us a lot about the universe, from the velocity of galaxies to the chemical make-up and temperatures of stars. Until now, all discovery related to the distant universe has been through studying light.

But a century ago Einstein predicted that there may be another means of learning about the universe. According to his theory of general relativity, massive moving objects should give off gravity waves, distortions in space that spread outward at the speed of light like ripples on a pond. These waves would be a completely new way of giving us information about objects in space. It would be as though having only before seen distant objects in space, now we would be able to “hear” them as well.

The problem was that gravity waves would be incredibly, almost unimaginably weak and thus very, very hard to detect. As a gravity wave moves through space, it contracts space slightly along one direction while stretching it in a perpendicular direction. This contraction and stretching is tiny, amounting to something like a thousandth of the thickness of a single proton. To detect such miniscule variations in length, scientists have had to build some of the most sensitive detectors ever.

How do you detect the warping of space caused by gravitational waves? There are several detectors around the world, but the two in the U.S. that detected this first confirmed signal (which passed through the planet—and all of us—last September) were the twin detectors of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravity wave Observatory, located in Washington state and Louisiana. LIGO reflects a beam of light down two 2.5-mile tunnels at right angles to each other and by analyzing the beams can detect a tiny difference in the lengths of the tunnels caused by gravitational waves. This past September they both received a signal, and after months of analysis scientists were confident that it was indeed a gravity wave.

Aerial view of the LIGO Hanford Observatory, courtesy LIGO Image Gallery,

This particular signal appears to have come from two black holes billions of light years away in the process of colliding and merging to form one larger black hole. Scientists are able to predict how such an event would “sound” (that is, what sort of gravity waves it would give off), and the signal detected matches this prediction. Scientists are also able to triangulate using the detection at the two different sights to get an idea of where in the sky the signal came from, though it’s far too distant to observe with visible light.

But that’s exactly the point: with this confirmation, we now have a completely new way of observing the universe. We’re in a similar situation to when Galileo first turned a telescope—at the time a completely new scientific instrument—to the heavens. We have a new tool, and we’re not sure what we’ll discover.

Yet our very first observation has already shown us something exciting: double black holes that eventually collide have long been predicted but never before observed. It turns out the very first thing we’ve “heard” with our new ears on the universe is itself something new.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.