Category Archives: Writings

The Six Directions of Space

The Six Directions of SpaceThe Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Alastair Reynolds has been a contemporary science fiction author on my list of writers to check out for a while. It was near the end of Christmas break that I visited my local public library and grabbed a small pile of novels that included Swanwick, Moorcock, and Benford, and a very thin volume by Reynolds. The Six Directions of Space, like The Best of Michael Swanwick, was published by Subterranean Press (one of a signed run of 1000), but unlike the Swanwick, it was a disappointment. From everything I hear, Reynolds has done impressive contemporary science fiction, but The Six Directions of Space, though a quick and easy read (actually a novella in hardcover), is not among this.

I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me about the work as I was reading. It was a compelling idea: a reality in which the Mongols had conquered the known world, become a space-faring civilization, and then—after stumbling across alien technology—a galaxy-spanning one. An agent of the Khan is sent to the periphery of this empire to investigate rumors of phantom ships appearing in the sub-space corridors (the Infrastructure) that allow FTL travel. Doing so, the protagonist stumbles across evidence that these conduits linking space actually link together much more.

I don’t like writing bad reviews. But I do like analyzing stories to help improve my own. So I’m going to do that for this one, with the understanding that Reynolds is a very successful writer and that this particular review says nothing about his overall work, from which I just appear to have selected a poor sample.

Finishing this work though (within a day, as it is really quite short) I realized it was a good example of how great ideas can be executed in a way that leaves a story feeling limp and passive, which is how this one felt. I was motivated to keep turning pages to see when the twist was going to come, not because I was gripped or because I had fallen in love with the characters or because the vistas were sharp and compelling. I just read to keep reading. If it was a full-length novel I would have put it down after a couple chapters.

Why? I came up with three reasons, and each of them is something that I continually struggle with in my own writing. Each of them is something that I think often keeps Stephen Case-level writing from becoming, say, Michael Swanwick-level writing.

Here they are:

1. Narrative passivity: Yellow Dog, the main character, doesn’t really do anything in this story. She’s sent on a mission and takes some small initiative near the beginning to get some information, but she’s captured early on. From that point the plot is just stuff happening to her. She doesn’t seem an agent; she doesn’t have to make any hard decisions; she doesn’t develop as a character. She’s carried along by the stream of events, so it’s hard to care about her or what happens to her. Her horse dies. She meets a guy. She solves a puzzle. But none of this seems to matter to the ultimate outcome of the story.

2. Telling but not showing: From the beginning of the story I felt like I was reading not a story but a report. Yellow Dog was telling what happened, maybe typing it up to send to her superiors back on Earth. At first I thought this was narrative method, but even when it was clear this would never become a report it didn’t stop. And because of the tone, there was no tension. To take just one example, when their ship was caught in Infrastructure turbulence and the stabilizing whiskers were ripped off and we weren’t sure if our heroes were going to make it, we didn’t get a description. We didn’t get anything about what this looked like or sounded like or how it make the characters feel. We just got a report, like maybe we were interested in designing a ship with replacement stabilizing whiskers. The writing style made it feel like everything was already predetermined, and it was kept up throughout.

3. And finally, triteness, and here’s a *major spoiler*

*spoiler space*

It turns out that the Infrastructure is bleeding into other realities, and our heroes get lost among them. But the realities disappointingly turn out to be little more than caricatures: a Christian (or at least Western) civilization, a galactic Caliphate, one where monkeys evolved, and one with intelligent lizards. This might have worked in the 1960s, maybe, but now we need more subtly, more piercing realities than these, especially when the final take-away is that even people from such radically different backgrounds can learn to work together.

I have heard lots of good things about Reynolds, so please feel free to offer some alternative suggested reading in the comments, but if you’re looking to get into his work don’t start here.

January Skywatch

This month so far the sky has not been especially friendly for star-gazing. Besides lots of clouds, the big problem with observing in winter is a simple one: it’s cold! In the summer it’s easy to linger at the telescope, waiting for unexpected objects to pass into view or searching for new, hard-to-find targets. In the winter, targets that can be found quickly—before the fingers start to numb—and easily are better.

Fortunately, many of the celestial targets in the January sky are indeed bright and easy to spot quickly. Last month I started with an introduction to the constellation Orion. This month we’ll zoom into some of its telescopic wonders that can be caught on the frigid, (hopefully) clear nights of January.

As I’ve mentioned in this column in the past, I’m partial to observing double and multiple stars with my backyard telescope. These objects are bright enough to find in the light-polluted skies of town, and they’re endlessly varied. The most spectacular object to view in Orion is of course the Great Nebula (which we’ll examine in a moment), but Orion also hosts several lesser-known but lovely and easy multi-star targets.

We’ll start with the easiest target. Mintaka is the westernmost star in Orion’s belt. Through a modest telescope (I usually use a Dobsonian reflecting telescope with a 6-inch aperture) at low magnification (48x), it’s clearly revealed as a wide double star. It doesn’t have the impressive color contrast of a famous pair like Albireo, but with a separation of about 50 arcseconds, it’s easily revealed as a double even in a pair of binoculars.

Things get more impressive swinging the telescope just slightly eastward to the star sigma Orionis, the moderately-bright star visible just beneath Alnitak, the easternmost star in Orion’s Belt. Sigma is actually a triple-star system, with a few other surprises in the field of view. The components of the star are much tighter (closer together) than Mintaka, so I use a higher magnification (60x). The differing colors of this triple star are easily apparent and to my eyes seemed reddish, blueish, and whitish (though part of the fun of observing multiple-star systems is that each observer seems to note different tints). Even more impressive: in the same field of view, just to the west, is another, dimmer triple star system, Struve 761!


If your fingers are freezing, don’t despair: the next sights are well worth the chill. Move the telescope to the cluster of stars marking Orion’s sword. For now, pass up the Great Nebula (also known as M42) for the star at the southernmost tip of Orion’s sword. This is iota Orionis. Iota is a close pair (separation of 11”, I viewed it at 70x magnification): a bright star with a dim companion. In the same field of view though, is the wider, even pair of Struve 747. But that’s not all: a fainter third double star, Struve 745, can also be spotted in this view.

Finally, the most famous multiple-star system in Orion is buried at the heart of Orion’s most famous sight: the Great Nebula. Just north of iota, you can’t fail to spot it on clear nights. The four stars of the Trapezium are surrounded by the cloudy glow of the Nebula, which extends across the entire field of view in greenish, hazy ribbons. The larger your scope (and the darker your sky) the more detail you’ll see, but even with a 6-inch from my front yard in town, it’s a sight to brave the cold for.

We still have not exhausted Orion’s treasures though. Part of the appeal of searching after double stars is to tackle more challenging pairs: pairs that are either very close to each other or have a significant contrast in brightness. If you’re up for a challenge, try the star lambda Orionis, marking Orion’s head. This is an even double star with a separation of only 4 arcseconds (remember that Mintaka’s components were 50 arcseconds apart). With my 6-inch, I can easily split it on a clear night with a magnification of 70x. Compare this with Rigel, the brilliant star of Orion’s foot. Rigel has a dim companion at a distance of 10 arcseconds, but the brightness of Rigel makes it very hard to spot this pale blue companion star. On my most recent attempt, it took a magnification of 133x to spot it for sure.

I hope I’ve convinced you that Orion is a treasury of sights that make it worth braving the cold this month. Perhaps though you don’t have a telescope to take a look yourself and you’re wondering about the type of instrument to purchase to get started, or maybe you got a telescope this Christmas and you want to know more about how to put it to use. Next month I’ll spend some time going over telescope basics and providing my own thoughts on steps toward easy backyard observing.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

December Skywatch

The evening skies of winter bring one of the most familiar groupings of stars, Orion, known as a giant, hero, or hunter in cultures throughout history and visible at some point of the year from every inhabited portion of the globe. Orion carries within it several stunning sights for both the naked eye and telescope observer, and we’ll be focusing on this constellation both this month and next. In this column I’ll start with a naked eye orientation to the bright constellation, and next month we’ll zoom in on some of the features visible through a telescope.

Orion rises in our evening winter skies as a tilted hour-glass figure marked by brilliant stars. At the beginning of the month he’s well over the horizon in the east by 8:30; by the end of December he’s nearly halfway up the sky in the evening. Two stars mark his shoulders, three his belt, and two his knees. Fainter stars trace out his head, sword, and shield or club he holds extended to the west. Each of the bright stars would be remarkable on their own, but together they make the constellation impossible to miss and twinkle fiercely low in the sky on crisp cold evenings.

The two stars marking Orion’s top shoulders are Betelgeuse (reputed to be a corruption of the Arabic for “Armpit of the Giant”) and Bellatrix (of recent Harry Potter fame—ask a fan what other characters appear in the winter sky). Betelgeuse has an unmistakable pale orange hue, which flickers beautifully when it’s low in the east. The stars in Orion present a snapshot of stellar evolution, and Betelgeuse is the old man in the crowd.

Betelgeuse is a dying star, a red supergiant near the end of its life. During this period of a star’s life it balloons to enormous sizes and can go through periods of instability, its tenuous radius heaving in and out like a slowly beating heart. Betelgeuse is thought to range from a radius of 800 million miles down to 480 million miles, which means at its smallest its surface would still extend beyond the orbit of Jupiter if it took our Sun’s place in our own solar system. Its density though is so low it’s less than a ten-thousandth of the density of the air we breathe, literally a “red hot vacuum.” It’s bleeding off this thin outer atmosphere into space, a dying giant lying just over 500 light years from Earth.

It’s fitting Orion is known as a giant in mythology, because the constellation is full of them. The star marking Orion’s knee opposite Betelgeuse, and providing a bright white-blue contrast to Betelgeuse’s pale orange glow, is Rigel. Rigel is one of the most luminous objects in the entire galaxy, outshining our own Sun by a factor of tens of thousands and at a distance from us of about 750 light years. Though it’s a supergiant like Betelgeuse and therefore has left the “middle age” that characterizes stars like our Sun, it’s younger than the pale orange star. And because more massive stars age more quickly, it’s likely younger than our Sun as well. Supergiants like Rigel (thought to be about fifty times the size and mass of our Sun) live short, hot, bright lives.

The stars in Orion’s belt, going from west to east, are Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. The star marking the remaining (eastern) knee is Saiph (meaning “Sword” though it’s far from the region of the constellation known as the Sword of Orion). All of these stars are giants or supergiants as well. What makes Orion such a rich area in space for the formation of these bright, young stars?

Image by Mike Hankey,

The answer is the huge clouds of nebulosity that spread throughout this entire constellation, dark and invisible. Though hundreds of times emptier than the best vacuum we can produce on Earth, these clouds stretch for hundreds of light years and contain enough mass to form thousands of Sun-sized stars, as well as a fair amount of giants. And that’s exactly what has been happening for millions of years in this portion of the sky. We can see it in action in the visible part of the cloud, known as the Orion Nebula, a fuzzy smear of light in the center of Orion’s Sword, just below his belt.

We’ll zoom in on this nebula with a telescope next month, but a good pair of binoculars also offers quite a view. In the center of the nebula a tight grouping of four very young stars, known as the Trapezium due to their shape, are causing the surrounding nebula to glow. These gems at the center of the nebula are among the youngest stars visible in the sky, a scarce handful of millions of years old. The nebula that surrounds them is one of the most famous sights in the night sky. Though it lacks the intense color and detail you’ll see in processed images from large telescopes, it’s still quite impressive for backyard scopes.

The astronomy Robert Burnham, Jr., quotes the journalist and astronomer C. E. Barns as saying, “For who would acquire a knowledge of the heavens, let him give up his days and nights to the marvels of Orion. Here may be found every conceivable variation of celestial phenomena: stars, giants and dwarfs; variables, multiples; binaries visual and spectroscopic; clusters wide and condensed; mysterious rayless rifts and nebulae in boundless variety, with the supreme wonder . . . at its heart—the Great nebula.” I tend to agree. Now that we’ve introduced the constellation, next month we’ll take a closer look at what Orion reveals to backyard telescopes.

This column first published in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

November Skywatch


This month starts with us relaxing our clocks back into a more natural rhythm with the Earth’s diurnal cycle, as we conclude Daily Saving Time the first Sunday of November and fall back one hour to Standard Time. This means our evenings get darker sooner, and the stars come out earlier for sky-watchers. It also means clock noon and solar noon once again roughly coincide. With evening arriving earlier, this month we’ll continue our series of looking more closely at sky objects that can be seen through sidewalk telescopes even from the streets and backyards of Kankakee.

The bright planets are still mostly grouped in the pre-dawn sky, but evening begins with the constellation Cassiopeia high in the northern sky. This recognizable, easy-to-find constellation hosts a pair of impressive multiple-star systems. Nearby are some lovely clusters and the famous Andromeda Galaxy (often unfortunately washed out by the light pollution in the skies above town).

Cassiopeia is shaped by turns as a 3, a W, an E, or an M depending on its orientation in the northern skies. In the early evening skies of November, it looks like an angular number 3, its bottom pointed down toward the northeast, with five bright stars marking the ends and each angle of its zig-zag shape.

To find our first double star, η (eta) Cassiopeiae, look for a fairly bright star halfway down the second “zag” of the zig-zag number three. This star is one of the most famous binary stars of the night sky. Though it looks like a single star, through a telescope it’s revealed as two stars—a bright yellowish star with a dimmer, reddish companion nearby. Measures of the relative positions of these stars over decades have revealed that this system is actually gravitationally bound, with an orbital period of about five hundred years. The system itself is about 20 light years away, but the two component stars are separated from each other by a distance of only 70 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun,

Once you’ve tried your hand at finding and viewing η Cassiopeiae, the next target in Cassiopeia is ι (iota) Cassiopeiae, a moderately bright star just below the constellation’s southernmost “zag.” Drawing a line through the southernmost two stars of Cassiopeia’s zig-zag, extending again about as far as the distance between the stars, will get you there. Through a telescope, ι Cassiopeiae will look like a smaller version of η Cassiopeiae. In fact though, it’s not a double but a triple system, with the brighter component actually itself a very close double star. Under high magnification and clear viewing, you may be able to just barely spot a small blue companion close to the yellow primary star. This entire triple system is about 160 light years from Earth.

If we go east from the bottom of Cassiopeia, toward the constellation Perseus, we’ll run into the Double Cluster (NGC 869 and 884). Visible with the naked eye in dark skies, these have to be “felt out” in brighter city skies. Once spotted though, they’re still an impressive sight. They are best viewed at lowest magnification in the telescope (or even with a pair of binoculars) and are examples of open or galactic clusters, composed of hundreds of young (six to twelve million years old) stars seven thousand to eight thousand light years away. In the telescope eyepiece they fill the view with dozens of bright, crowded stars.

Now, leaving the best for last (and omitting the fabulous Andromeda Galaxy which is nearby but washed out in city skies), we move to Almach, also known as γ (gamma) Andromedae, to the southeast of Cassiopeia, marking one of the feet of the constellation Andromeda. Almach is one of the most impressive double stars in the sky. Its component stars are a bit closer together than those of η Cassiopeiae but they have a brilliant, sharp color contrast between the yellow/gold primary and the dimmer blue companion star. Like ι Cassiopeiae though, one of the components of Almach (the dimmer blue star) is itself a close double as well, though I have not been able to separate these components in my backyard telescope. It doesn’t stop there though: one of those stars is in addition an even closer binary star with a period of only three days, making the whole system actually a quadruple star system.

I occasionally hear that the early evenings of autumn make people feel winter is finally here and sometimes even lead to seasonal doldrums. I maintain though that darker, earlier evenings are a fantastic opportunity to get out and learn about the dynamic, tangled lives of those bright stars above us. Hopefully these objects give you a place to start!

This column appeared first in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

October Skywatch

Sorry this is a bit late folks, but here’s my local astronomy column for this month:

This month, the skies favor the early riser. As Saturn slips toward the western horizon in our evening skies, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars take center stage throughout October in the skies before dawn. If you are someone who prefers to rise early, you are in luck. If you’re someone who tends to sleep in, set your alarm and treat yourself to a view of these bright objects at least a few times this month to see the steps in the eastern sky. I’ll give you a breakdown of the performance so you know what particular dates to watch for.

First though, a quick re-cap of the biggest celestial event of last month: the total lunar eclipse, which brought the current tetrad of total eclipses to a conclusion. Last year I had to bribe my astronomy students to rise before dawn to see the eclipse, but this time it was easily visible in the early evening sky. We shut off the lights on our side of campus, set up telescopes around the perimeter of the planetarium, and then waited for the sky—which had been cloudy all day—to clear. It did just in time, and we were able to view the duration of the eclipse in clear, dark skies from the heart of Bourbonnais. It was a sight, I trust, that few students will soon forget. (Several took pictures of the eclipse and have been posting them to social media under the hashtag #OlivetAstro.)

Time-lapse of the lunar eclipse taken by ONU student Nick Rasmussen.

Now that the Moon is past full, it’s slipped from the evening skies and does not rise until after midnight. Its display isn’t over though, as it moves to the morning sky to join the planets before daybreak as a slender crescent. And that’s the first movement of this act you should catch these October mornings: set your alarm and rise before dawn on either Thursday, the 8th, or Friday, the 9th (or both). If the sky is clear, you’ll see three bright planets strung out in a line pointing down toward the eastern horizon.

The highest and brightest of these is Venus, which rises at about 3 AM and is high in the eastern sky before sunrise. Mars trails it to the east, and below them both is bright Jupiter. On the morning of the 8th, a thin crescent Moon rides just above Venus. By the next morning the Moon has dropped to join Mars and Jupiter as an even thinner crescent lower in the east. The slanted line of the three planets in the morning sky is a powerful illustration of the disk of our solar system, viewed from our tilted angle on the planet Earth.

Moving forward through the month, Venus falls eastward against the background stars each month, while Jupiter and Mars rise farther into the west. Jupiter passes by Mars on the morning of Saturday, the 17th, for the closest conjunction of this planetary arrangement. The bright giant planet passes within half a degree of the ruddy red planet. That’s about the diameter of a full Moon. At that distance, both planets could be visible in the same field of view through a telescope eyepiece.

It’s that ruddy red planet on which NASA scientists last month found the best evidence yet of running water on its surface. They studied the composition of dark tracts on Martian hillsides that change with the seasons and concluded these formed by briny water seeping out and staining the Martian surface.

Finally, as Venus continues its eastward motion against the background stars, it passes by Jupiter on the morning of Sunday, the 25th. Though the two planets are within a degree of each other (twice the diameter of a full Moon), this may be the most conspicuous conjunction of the month, as Jupiter and Venus are the two brightest planets in the sky. On the morning of the 25th and the following morning, they’ll form a brilliant pair with Mars trailing below them to the east.

Of course, their apparent closeness is only an illusion in our sky, the same way the light from a nearby lighthouse might appear close to a ship passing along the horizon. It’s only a matter of perspective. In reality, millions of miles of empty space separate those bright lights in the night.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

On blood moons and tetrads

lunar eclipse
“Lunar eclipse April 15 2014 California Alfredo Garcia Jr1” by Tomruen – [1]. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

There is a lunar eclipse coming the end of this month, and depending on who you ask it is significant for different reasons. In fact, there has been a lot of hype about this particular eclipse (or rather, series of eclipses) in some Christian circles with the term “blood moon tetrad” often being used in conjunction with prophetic claims. I’m certainly not a specialist in Biblical prophecy, interpretation, or the history of Israel, but I can unpack some of the sensationalized terminology here and help sort out the science behind the hype.

Let’s start with the term “blood moon.” The popular press has recently started using this term to refer to a lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses happen quite frequently, usually twice a year, when the full Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. This causes the Moon to fade in brightness over the period of a couple hours and often take on a deep red hue due to the Earth’s atmosphere and the way it scatters light.

Consider how the sky looks during a sunset: even though the Sun is hidden beneath the horizon, the atmosphere bends the red portions of sunlight toward us. From the Moon, during a lunar eclipse, the Sun is hidden behind the Earth. The glow of a ring of sunsets casts that red light onto the Moon’s surface, making it appear duly reddish or “blood red.” This effect can be heightened if the Moon is near the horizon, depending on atmospheric conditions.

So what about “tetrad”? There are different types of lunar eclipses. If the Moon only moves partly into the Earth’s shadow, it’s called a partial lunar eclipse. The eclipse of this month is the last in a series of four total eclipses, in which the Moon passes through the darkest portion of the Earth’s shadow. A series of four total lunar eclipses without any partial eclipses between is known as a tetrad. This current tetrad includes the total lunar eclipse of last April as well as the eclipses of April and October of last year.

How rare are such series of eclipses? Glancing through my copy of NASA’s huge “Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses,” which included information on all lunar eclipses from 2000 BC to 3000 AD, I see that over the past thirty years there was a tetrad in 2003/2004 and 1985/1986 (as well as several lunar “triads”). According to the website, there will be eight tetrads in the twenty-first century, while the years 1701 to 1899 had none at all. There were five in the twentieth century.

So what does this all have to do with Biblical prophecy? According to some sources, this particular tetrad is unique because it lines up with specific Jewish holidays. Last year, the first lunar eclipse of the series fell during Passover, as did the eclipse of April of this year. Last year the October lunar eclipse was during Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, which again corresponds with this month’s eclipse.

The important thing to remember though is that the Jewish calendar (unlike ours) is a lunar calendar; its months correspond with the actual phases of the Moon. Both Passover and Sukkot begin on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month, which usually corresponds with the full Moon. And because lunar eclipses only happen when the Moon is full, it’s not strange there would be occasional line-ups between these holidays and a series of lunar eclipses. How occasional? Again, according to, this has happened eight times since the birth of Christ.

And here’s where the prophet interpreters come in, offering links between the years in which a tetrad of lunar eclipses corresponded with these holidays and important events in the history of Israel. But that’s the problem: history is a complex, messy business, and the human mind is hard-wired to find patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist. Plus, these “significant events” are subjective: how widely do you want to interpret what events are actually important? The tetrad of 1493-1494 is linked to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, for instance, but the order for the expulsion wasn’t signed in these years and the persecution lasted for decades. Making 1493-1494 especially significant is arbitrary. And other events that would seem to be significant are ignored: there was no lunar tetrad, for instance, during the Holocaust. Finally, I should add that this whole claim of prophetic significance is offered by individuals outside the Jewish community with little insight or regard into what that community would actually consider culturally or historically important in their own past.

In my mind, searching for codes in the night sky is much less useful than simply appreciating the grandeur of astronomy for what it is. And this month, regardless of prophetic forecasts, we have the chance to witness one of nature’s most impressive spectacles. The “blood moon tetrad” will conclude with the total lunar eclipse beginning the evening of Sunday, September 27th. (If you’re still looking for cosmic coincidents, here’s another one: my birthday is September 27th.)

The full moon rises in the east at sunset that evening. By 9:15 the Moon has begun to enter the darkest portion of the Moon’s shadow, marking the most vivid phase of the eclipse. It will be at its darkest at about 9:45, and the moon will begin to emerge from deep shadow at about 10:20. The Moon will not be completely out of the Earth’s shadow, however, until after midnight. As far as visibility, this will be an easy lunar eclipse to observe—taking place when the Moon is high in the early part of the evening. (Last year I had to make students get up before dawn to spot the eclipse.) So definitely take the opportunity to wonder and ogle, but try not to prognosticate.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal, August 28th, 2015.

Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 3

I. AM: Inspiration

The most helpful thing I heard about interpreting the World Food Prize building was what our guide said just before we entered. “Ambassador Quinn was raised a Roman Catholic,” he explained, “and he’s used to buildings overwhelming and sort of wrapping the experience around you.” He seemed to say it almost as an apology, as though he was slightly embarrassed and needed to prepare us for what we were about to experience.

He was correct. The World Food Prize building was a cathedral to the importance of food and a shrine to those who have helped increase its “quantity, quality, and availability.” The architecture presented a clear narrative: the four pillars of rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans supported the building’s rotunda, but the four scenes painted beneath the rotunda, each portraying an agrarian landscape from a different society, showed that those crops in fact supported civilization itself. The availability of food equals civilization, and those who sustain and increase this are our civilization’s greatest heroes. This is what the building—as well as its various exhibits and inhabitants—was saying.

Ambassador Quinn touched on both the problem and the solution, as he saw it. The world population will reach 9.7 billion within decades. Our response to this challenge will define us as a society. Will we, Quinn asked, look to humanitarian heroes like Herbert Hoover, or will we continue on the path of politicians today who won’t even discuss food issues because they’re both too big (as we saw on our first day in Iowa) and too engrained in cultural values (as we witnessed yesterday at the fair).

Quinn has constructed a temple to inspire both the public and policy makers and make them believe food issues are essential (and formidable) but can be addressed successfully. Seeing the quiet grandeur of the building, which puts in mind the money and the power of those who come through its doors and are hopefully influenced to support the World Food Prize, makes it easier to have hope that issues of food can be addressed with influence, skill, and a good deal of inspiration.


II. Interlude: Lunch

I couldn’t eat another veggie burger, so I had pork tacos at a pub called The Continental. There was what appeared to be an ibex head mounted on the brick wall above the bar. I wondered about that more than I did where the meat in my taco or the corn in my tortillas came from.

III. PM: Despair

If our guide at the World Food Prize building gave us some hope in the midst of a display of heart-wrenching photographs, explaining we could tip the world out of poverty and toward sustainable population growth by simply providing school lunches, much of that feeling quickly evaporated in our discussion with Dr. Roth of the Center for Food Security and Public Health and the reality of emerging zoonomic diseases and ballooning population.

One got the sense that Dr. Roth would simply give a heavy shrug under the dome of the World Food Prize building and point out that increasing food quantity and availability will only make the population grow faster. Roth used the same figure of 9.7 billion that Ambassador Quinn did, and he even quoted Borlaug, the patron saint of Quinn’s basilica. Borlaug read by Roth, however, was a warning of the “frightening power of human production,” which threatened to make his Green Revolution ephemeral. Hearing Dr. Roth speak of emerging diseases put one in mind of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. We’re going to get more of these, and they’re going to cross over into human populations more easily. And the results of that, Dr. Roth seemed to be implying, would be tragic but ultimately inevitable.

Yet Roth also seemed to keep pushing up against the limits of his own discipline. He had the data, but whenever it became a question of what to do with that, he would fall back on the fact that he was a scientists, not an ethicist or philosopher, as though it was possible to be one without being in some respect the other. I think my turning point came in response to this during the van ride home, when one of our facilitators voiced something I had known all along: that it was our job as honors faculty to put our students into situations where they would be forced to learn and think outside their disciplines or across the disciplines. Veterinary medicine might help you understand how to prevent the spread of animal illness, but it won’t necessarily help you critique the system of animal production or reevaluate cultural or industrial concepts of “health” itself. Answers to these problems will be messy and complicated and spill beyond disciplinary divides.

Getting students to live in this tension and be comfortable in discomfort, as someone pointed out in our debriefing—that’s going to be key here. But how do I apply this to food and politics and the specter of Malthus? If I’ve learned anything about food this weekend, it’s that even in the center of the American breadbasket (or perhaps especially here) food and its production means different things to different stake-holders: culture, heritage, and commercialization at the Fair; investment and monoculture in the fields; inspiration and international cooperation at the World Food Prize; and a zero-sum game on Dr. Roth’s population graph. On my plate it’s still a tangle of riddles, but I’m learning to be comfortable in—and even to embrace—that discomfort.

Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 2

Iowa State Fair


People in Iowa are proud of their fair. That was something common to everyone we talked with today (though this was of course a self-selecting audience—perhaps Iowans ashamed of their fair stayed home). Everyone we spoke with came to the fair each year, and the vendors agreed that of the several fairs they went to every season, this was the best. When asked why, an answer they agreed upon was friendliness. It’s a friendly fair, rooted in the history (as evidenced by the size and solidity of the buildings) and heritage of Iowans.

Yet for me the fair was also a strange patchwork of competing narratives. It was often difficult, especially in places like the agricultural building and the food exhibits, to differentiate between what was agricultural or culinary exhibition and what was commercialization and advertising. They bled into one another and created what often felt like parallel but separate fairs occurring in the same space. When we visited the agricultural building, for instance, the section of produce and floriculture was roped off, preventing a close look at the products of agriculture. Instead, lines of visitors were tightly bunched along the peripheral vendors. There was a divide: the casual visitors milled around the edges or shuffled through the exhibition halls, while a simultaneous, largely unseen process of judging and competition occurred among fair participants. We had a similar experience in the food exhibits, where rows of refrigerator displays alternated baked goods for judging (products of fair participants) and packaged, processed foods (apparently for advertizing to fair visitors).

Which leads me to the question of audience, voiced by someone in our debriefing discussion at the end of the day. Who is the fair for? Is it simply for creating a self-congratulating identity for the Iowans who visit? And does it accurately reflect the true nature of farming in Iowa or an idealized, cultural version of the farm that may no longer actually exist?

Part of what prompts this question is the disconnect I experienced between what I saw yesterday and today. Yesterday I saw miles of corn and soybean, and I heard a farm manager talk about industrialized farming. Today the closest I came to the corn I saw yesterday was probably the corn syrup in the Coke I had for lunch. The diversity concentrated at the fair and displayed in the agricultural building or the horse, cattle, and swine shows seems a cultural margin not reflective of the actual Iowan landscape.

And maybe that explains in part the patchwork disjoint I felt. The commercialized exhibits, the vendors, and the deep-fried fair food—that’s all part of the industrial machine built on corn and soy. The varieties of corn, potatoes, and fruit on display and judged in the agricultural building, the FFA kids with their animals—that’s a cultural remnant celebrated as heritage. But they seem two very different worlds, and it’s unclear to me how they can continue to coexist.


Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 1

First Impressions



I kept waiting to be surprised. I grew up in the Midwest, so this rolling landscape of corn and soy dotted with towns and suburban spillover from larger cities—this is all very familiar. This looks like home. The economic patchwork is clear: soy and corn on a grid, nearly flat, to the horizon. The fields are quiet this time of year: no tractors or combines combing the rows. (Human figures would be lost on this scale.)

We stop in a town called Bondurant that in a nutshell illustrates the ebb and flow of the local economic tides. The concrete pillars of grain elevators dominate the center of town like monoliths. There’s a small train depot in their shadow that has now become a park. The railroad is gone, replaced by a bike trail running into the heart of Des Moines.

This was a farm town, and though still surrounded by corn and soy, it’s now clearly an appendage to Des Moines, which is a fifteen-minute commute away. This explains the glut of new housing developments. The downtown holds several buildings for rent, a hair salon, dentist office, and a single pub. There’s no commercial center, though there is a brand new library and community center, as well as a new high school and elementary school. It feels like a community being pulled into the suburban orbit of Des Moines.

“The farmer on a small farm,” a local farm manager tells us, “doesn’t make money because he isn’t disciplined or motivated.” Small farms grow or die. The same thing seems to happen to small towns. “Everything in this country comes back to income.” And yet he claims to manage many heritage farms, where absent landlords view their property as something more than simply an investment.

In all of this, I’m trying to understand the cultural ties to the land, be it small town, farm, or suburban. Who invests in the land for its cultural value? And what’s the value of culture when crops are seen as commodity?



My surprise finally comes when we pull off the road to a “Public Area,” a space carved out of the grid-work of corn and soy and allowed to revert back to prairie. What strikes me is the soundscape: birds and the various chirps, whirring, and buzzes of insects. We had stopped in a cornfield earlier, and compared to this the cultivated land was deadly silent, as the loud life around me now would be considered pests in the fields of corn across the street.

“They say,” my group’s facilitator tells us, “that when the first plows pulled up the prairie grasses, the roots were so deep and strong that it sounded like shotguns going off when they pulled them out.”

I try to imagine that sound, giving way to the absolute silence of growing crops. Monoculture is quiet. Diversity is loud.

The same thing holds true of neighborhoods, I think. We pass housing developments where the homes look like they’ve fallen from the sky into the subdivision that was recently a field. No sidewalks, no families on porches, no baseball in the street. There’s not much diversity in these neighborhoods, either of culture or architecture that I can tell. In these suburbs, where the houses push right up against the cornfields, whatever is growing inside is growing silently, like ears within the husks.

August offers a look at Lyra

When I talk to people about observing here in town, they often bemoan the fact that light pollution makes stargazing all but impossible from within the city limits.

Though it is true that observing from an urban setting doesn’t compare to an experience under truly dark skies, it’s certainly not the case that there’s nothing to see from one’s own backyard or even sidewalk.This month I’ll consider some of the sights in the constellation Lyra, which is almost directly overhead throughout August in early evening.

Lyra is a tiny constellation, but it holds a wealth of lovely double stars that are bright enough to be seen without a pilgrimage to the deep, dark countryside.

The constellation Lyra is easy to find on clear nights. Vega, its brightest star and the brightest star of summer, is nearly overhead at sunset. Vega marks one apex of the famous Summer Triangle, an asterism of three bright stars high in the summer skies. Lyra itself though is small formed of a triangle of stars attached to a larger parallelogram. Classically, the constellation was seen as a harp or lyre.


My observations are made with a six-inch reflecting telescope from my own yard in Kankakee, but a smaller telescope will reveal these sights as well. You’ll want to use eyepieces that give a relatively low magnification. (I used about 40x. Calculate the magnification of your eyepiece by dividing your telescope’s focal length by the focal length of your eyepiece. A shorter eyepiece focal length gives greater magnification.)

Sometimes you want higher magnification, as when you’re viewing the planets or the Moon and want to see details, but for the following views a lower magnification is better.

Start your tour with Vega, especially if you’re new to stargazing. A single star doesn’t look much different through a telescope, but this will give you a chance to align your finding scope (if your telescope has one) and test your instrument’s focus. It will also give you an idea of the seeing conditions for the night. If you can focus Vega down to a brilliant, sharp point, and if you can see one or two of its dimmer companions in your telescope’s field of view, you should be able to spot the rest of the objects in this list.

Hop down from Vega to Zeta Lyrae, the dim star where the triangle meets the parallelogram. This is one of the many double stars in Lyra. Double stars are great targets for light polluted skies. Unlike nebulae or galaxies, they are fairly bright and thus easy to enjoy even from one’s own backyard. Through even a small telescope, Zeta Lyrae is revealed to be a wide, uneven double, and many observers report seeing a beautiful color contrast between the component stars.

Moving up to the third star of the tiny triangle that makes up the top portion of Lyra, we find Epsilon Lyrae, one of the most popular double star systems in the sky and an example of why some observers (like me) get so excited about double stars. At 40x you may simply see what looks like a wide pair of white stars. But if you increase your magnification (I used 130x), you’ll see that each of these stars is actually itself a pair of stars. The entire system is known as the “Double-Double.” You’ll need a steady eye and good seeing to split them, but you’ll know if you’ve succeeded by noticing the orientation of each tight pair: they’re inclined at ninety-degrees to each other.

Moving back to a lower magnification, each of the stars at the apexes of Lyra’s parallelogram is a treat.

Delta Lyrae is a wide double star in a diffuse cluster of stars. One of the components is a lovely orange in contrast to the surrounding blue stars.

Beta Lyrae also is a group of colorful stars. (The Ring Nebula is nearby, halfway between Beta and Gamma Lyrae. From my front yard, the Ring Nebula at 70x looked like a faint smoke ring, barely visible.)

But my favorite sight of all in Lyra is a bit off the beaten path and not terribly well known. It’s sometimes called the “Double-Double’s double,” but I think it’s actually nicer than the more famous Double-Double. It’s a pair of double stars, like the Double-Double, known as Struve 2470 and 2474. They’re dimmer than the pair that make up Epsilon Lyrae, but because the components are farther apart they’re easier to split. They also have more marked colors, the brighter components appearing yellow in contrast to the dimmer bluish companions. Moreover, by some cosmic coincident the pairs are orientated in the same direction so they indeed look like almost perfect twin double stars in a single telescope eyepiece. This view alone would be proof enough for anyone who says the city skies are too bright to hold telescopic wonders.

Struve 2470 and 2474, the “Double-Double’s Double,” image from

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.