Tag Archives: research

Writing Life (for now)

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I snapped the picture above a couple years ago in Brescia, Italy. I was there teaching some astronomy lessons at a portable planetarium in a local school, part of a teaching exchange program that had taken me and Christine to Rome, Assisi, Gorizia, and ultimately Venice. I didn’t do much writing while I was there, but I occasionally find an image or photo that I captured on the trip that seems to fit with what I’ve been writing lately. This lane of Roman stones in Brescia, softened by green, was part of a tour we were given of the ancient corners of the city by our host. People have paced that lane for centuries, but on that particular afternoon we saw no one.

My writing lately has focused on keeping up with fiction reviews and research. For a while I was doing a good job (probably a pathologically good job) of posting a review of every book I read on this blog. It was fun. It helped me keep the books I had read straight in my head, helped me to enter into conversations with the authors and the concepts they were engaging. I hope to do that here again, but it got to be less fun. It started to feel like an obligation. Also, I started publishing my reviews elsewhere. (If you’re interested, my latest review appeared at Grimdark Magazine not long ago and I have others forthcoming in Mythic Magazine and at Black Gate.) So, things have been quiet here for a while.

As far as research goes, I have a few grants that I’ve been working on, one of which I hope will be bearing fruit shortly (and perhaps sending me back down certain cobbled lanes). My forthcoming work of nonfiction, Making Stars Physical: John Herschel’s Astronomy, is at the presses now (in some kind of possibly literal sense) with University of Pittsburgh Press. We’re looking at a Spring/Summer 2018 release. I just saw copy on the book for their spring catalogue, complete with lovely blurbs from colleagues, so that was encouraging.

In fiction, I can’t stay away from Diogenes Shell and his floating house. There have been three installments in his saga to date, with a fourth, “The Wind’s Departure,” out today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you have a minute, take a look at it. Diogenes tries to keep his promises, confronts the god, and returns home– after a fashion.

Promises, I have come to understand, are the aureate chains that tether a wizard’s life, the margins that hem and structure his magic. We live by the promises we make, just as we draw power from the promises the world keeps with itself.
-Diogenes Shell, in “The Wind’s Departure”

Check it out, stay in touch, and as always– let me know what you think.

Lighthouses & Keepers

Lighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its LegacyLighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy by Dennis L. Noble

Something about lighthouses captured our family’s fancy this past summer, and we found ourselves visiting as many as we could along the western coast of Lake Michigan. Their appeal is aesthetic, certainly, the romance of the shoreline and a lost time passed. But the amount of history—of commerce, technology, transportation—they represent is also significant, and I remembered a colleague who, in the early days of my PhD program, suggested that the history of the US Lighthouse Board would be a good topic for a dissertation, one on which there was still a great deal to be done. After spending some time this summer exploring lighthouses, I figured it might be time to revisit this idea, so I started looking for material. And it turns out the only recent book-length treatment on the topic is Lighthouses & Keepers by Dennis Noble, a survey of the history of the US Lighthouse Service. The book provides an outline of the contours of this history that any more detailed study would be built upon.

Basically, the narrative of lighthouses in the United States goes something like this: the construction of lighthouses in Colonial times and the early days of the republic was haphazard and poorly managed. Their construction and supervision was linked with the collection of customs, and supervision of the lighthouses (or “aids to navigation”) was under the fifth auditor of the US Treasury, a man by the name of Stephen Pleasanton, who would control lighthouses for over thirty years, beginning in the early 1800s. The problem was that besides having no maritime experience, Pleasanton was primarily focused on keeping his political bailiwick as economically lean as possible. Noble claims that Pleasanton, along with his primary contractor, was responsible for retarding the development of lighthouses even as they proliferated on both coasts and the Great Lakes. This growing crisis, which Noble talks about briefly in terms of rising cost to life and commerce because of poor aids to navigation, precipitated the founding of the US Lighthouse Board in 1852.

This is where a detailed study could really sink some teeth into the narrative and provide context. What was the popular, contemporary feeling regarding lighthouses, or were there particular incidents that swung public and government opinion toward founding the Board to address the issue? Noble credits the Board with transforming lighthouse management in a manner of years from “a service of political appointees, with haphazard accomplishment” to a professional government service. How exactly was this accomplished? Part of the explanation, according to Noble, was the composition of the Board, which included civilian scientific representatives (like Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute) as well as army and navy officers. Part was also the fact that the Board issued detailed instructions for keepers, standardizing equipment and procedures. Part of this was technical innovation as well, with Noble treats briefly in discussions of oil and Fresnel lenses. But all of this discussion in Lighthouses & Keepers is generally superficial, simply one chapter in a longer overview of the Lighthouse Service, which came into being at the Board’s recommendations.

Noble has chapters on all aspects of the Service, not just lighthouses. He discusses lightships (which had a unique history on the Great Lakes), buoys, fog signals, and tenderships (ships that provided service and supplies). All of this provides a snapshot of aspects of the work of the Service, before it was disbanded in 1939— or rather, merged with the US Coast Guard, which again would be an interesting period to examine because, as Noble discusses, Coast Guard were enlisted officers whereas keepers were almost entirely civilian, so the merger of the two organizations inevitably led to some friction. Lighthouses, perhaps more than any other iconic structures, seem to embody history, and Noble’s book is an excellent (and perhaps really the only) way to access the institutional history behind them.