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These People Shot a Freaking Rocket to Pluto

Originally posted by kylecassidy at These People Shot a Freaking Rocket to Pluto
Scientists, engineers, rock stars.

Friday evening I got a text from Kate McKinnon asking if I'd be interested in coming to Maryland and photographing the scientists behind the New Horizons Pluto expedition, essentially, immediately. At the time I was out at dinner with trillian_stars. "Do you want to go?" Trillian asked. "No," I said, "I'm really tired. But I know I'll want to have gone when I get back." I've learned that over the years. It's not how you feel about it at the time, it's how you think you'll feel about it next week.

We raced home and I threw a bunch of stuff in camera bag and jumped on a train. On the train I called Jordan Teicher from SLATE and asked if they'd be interested in running it if I could get a series of portraits. He said they's push everything out of the way for it, and then there was no turning back.

Camera Geekery: Leica M9, 50mm Canon Serenar, 28mm Voigtlander f2, 35mm Voigtlander f1.7, Panasonic GX7 (backup), Pocket Wizards, Lastolite triple-fold umbrella flash, batteries, two lights stands, Kindle, Paper notebook, Monteverde Intima fountain pen, card reader, collapsable backdrop. Kitten optional. I used everything but the two extra Leica lenses. You may clickenzee to embiggen.

I took an Amtrak to Washington DC and met up with Kate and some of the scientists for dinner and was able to get in a quick set of portraits after which made me feel much less apprehensive -- I'm always a wreck until things get underway and with five portraits taken care of ... things had started so I felt I could relax. (I was also pleased to discover that a table full of proverbial rocket scientists has the exact same level of difficulty splitting a check that the rest of the Earth has.)

I went to bed late and got up early. Everybody else got up early too. For the scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory the day starts with an early morning briefing where each of the five teams discuss what they've learned the night before. After the meeting, they go off to work on all the things they have to do and in between, Kate would catch people and bring them over to the small studio the Laboratory was kind enough to let me set up near the lobby. Everybody, in fact, was super nice.

Behind the scenes, photographing Dr. Hal Weaver.
You may clickenzee to embiggen!

Kate did interviews, I grabbed portraits while people scurried from one place to another. I had usually between a minute and two minutes with everybody. Kate did quick interviews. It's a very simple setup with a single shoot-thru umbrella and a Leica M9 rangefinder camera.

Later in the day there was a recap for the public about the most recent findings (if you've been watching on TV or the Internet, this is likely what you've seen.) Kate and I sat down in the front row in the press section and I started working on processing the morning's images. About 15 minutes after it started, Brian May (aka Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, AKA Brian May guitar player from Queen) and Casey Michael Lewis from the Applied Physics Lab sat down next to us. That's just how things happen.

Plutopalooza with Brian May & Kate McKinnon.
Photo by Casey Lewis

The Applied Physics Lab let me set up another studio in a classroom and Kate went out and found all the key scientists and brought them in.

They're all amazing people, and that's -- I mean, that's nonsense talk to say "amazing" it's like calling a mountain "big" -- it's just the only thing I can think of because my brain overloaded thinking about the scope of what they'd done. These people, starting 15 years ago with an idea, built a space probe, built a rocket, figured out where a planet nobody had ever seen a full orbit of was going to be in a decade, shot this thing into space and it hit it's target and -- it sent back data to Earth, from three billion miles away. I don't know what to call it -- I'm just dumbstruck. But in any event, they're all amazing, but my brain melted when I met Yanping Guo, the "trajectory designer", which is a really elegant phrase for the most elegant job I've ever heard of. She's the one who figured out where to shoot the rocket to hit Pluto ten years later, and not in a straight line.

You can see the trajectory of New Horizons here in this animation -- it uses the gravity of Jupiter to help give it more speed and fling it into space.

While she was talking about what she did my jaw just kept dropping further down. One of the things she had to factor in was the time dilation caused by fact that New Horizons was traveling 36,000 miles an hour, so time actually goes slower on the spaceship. At the end of it all, after nine years and three billion miles and one whip around Jupiter (which added 9,000 mph to it's speed) New Horizons arrived 70 seconds faster than Yanping predicted, but not through any fault of her own, but because Pluto was bigger than they expected it to be. You turn on the TV and someone says "blah blah, scientists shot a rocket to Pluto" and you're like "oh, that's nice, pretty photos, ice, cool ..." but it doesn't sink in ... scientists (and engineers) shot a freaking ROCKET TO PLUTO.

The scenes, you are behind them! My Leica was a point of continual interest among the scientists and engineers. One asked if I built it. The optics team discussed, at great length, how modern lenses are built to disperse less light in the rear optics of because of the digital sensors. On the left Dr. Henry Thoop plays with my camera (and is carrying some big glass of his own.) Center Dr. Brian May discuss Dr. Alex Parker's animations., and on the right, Dr. Alex Parker himself. You may clickenzee to embiggen!

You may also see some of Dr. Alex Parker's celebrated animations here.

My photography deals a lot with contexts, seeing people in or out of their contexts and for me, seeing these people not in mission control doing what they do, but seeing them in the really neutral environment of a studio with a simple backdrop and one light made me realize that there are very concrete individual components to "scientists (and engineers) shot a rocket to Pluto" -- individual people solving individual parts of a problem that's too big for any of them to solve alone.

There are all sorts of accomplishments -- from "I got out of bed this morning" to "I worked my way through college" but when confronted with "I shot a piano sized computer three billion miles and hit a really small moving target" just pushed the needle into "there be dragons" -- I had no words. I still have no words and I've been thinking about it for two days now.

Anyway, I posted a selfie with Yanping and people agreed.

I've met a lot of interesting people, but not many who impressed me as much as she did.

Me and Yanping Guo. Within an hour of me posting it to Twitter
it had been retweeted hundreds of times.
You may click here to make this larger!

A Tumblr post of it is at the moment rapidly approaching 150,000 notes.

Brian May also came down and was perfectly charming. He's been really interested in three dimensional photography and has a huge collection of Victorian sterioscopic images and so we did his portrait in 3d.

Scientists make the rockin' world go round.
You may clickenzee to see Dr. Brian May in three dimensions, larger.

Kate and I met up with shadowcaptain and we went off to a restaurant where I worked on picking photos and Kate typed up interview transcripts, then I got on a train and kept working on photos. Got home at midnight and fell asleep so fast I don't even remember making it to the bed (though I do remember checking on Emily the Spider who was enjoying a fly). This afternoon I talked to Slate, sent them the photos and text and did an interview. Now I'm off to bed again.

It's been a crazy, wonderful weekend.

I'm so glad to have been able to spend a small amount of time with some of the most brilliant people on Earth and use whatever skills I have to amplify their voice. These people are doing the most important thing that humans can do, they're trying to answer the biggest questions -- what is everything and how does it work? And they're doing it to make us all better, and it's long, hard work and the answers don't come easily. I don't know how to properly say "thank you."

This is all I can do.

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Go Set a Watchman, halfway through

I don't know if I will change my mind in the second half, but so far I'm finding it fresh, delightful, very readable, and surprisingly contemporary in tone.  She's just starting to process the Klan meeting.  Who knows, maybe I'll be the only person in the world who is glad this got published and who actually likes this book.
Oh no.  I looked at this Martha Stewart recipe for lemon cake with lemon whipped frosting.  I don't know that I'm going to be able to resist making this.

And I still want to make that purple ombre blueberry cake.

I'll need occasions for this.  My children won't eat cake anymore.  :-D


I have longed and longed for this, especially since we had to give a kitty back :-( and I want to try to reacclimate myself to kitty dander to see if we could try again.

If Philly gets a kitty cafe, I will go there and I will take the girls there and we will have birthday parties there and, and, and.

Please consider donating!


It never occurred to me to submit more than one proposal to the annual Harry Potter conference in Chestnut Hill.  They are small, though growing, with presentations over a few hours on one Friday afternoon; last year, they expanded to a few concurrent tracks.  My talk on Ron was already accepted.  But over the weekend, when I brainstormed a talk about JKR's tributes to To Kill a Mockingbird in HP, tqoh encouraged me to ask if they wanted a second presentation from me.  Turned out they did.  They have 10- and 20-minute slots, and it seems they would be fine with this one also being 20 minutes.  The abstract I submitted:

To Kill a Mockingbird as an Influence on the Harry Potter Series

Through plot and literary strategies, the Harry Potter series pays tribute to several themes from To Kill a Mockingbird, which J.K. Rowling recommended as one of her top 10 books for young readers.  Marvolo Gaunt and Bob Ewell impose their racism and abuse on their daughters, with catastrophic consequences.  The scapegoating of Tom Robinson has echoes in the imprisonments of Hagrid, Sirius Black, Harry, and Lucius Malfoy.  Dumbledore, Atticus, and Heck Tate sometimes flout the law for the sake of justice.  Empathy overcomes evil, whether by turning away a mob or lowering a Death Eater’s wand.  And like Harper Lee, Rowling uses the naïve perspectives of a trio of children to convey her beautifully brutal story.

Several things jumped at me at me from this weekend's skim of To Kill a Mockingbird. Like when Scout asks Jem how someone who is against Hitler could be prejudiced against black folks, and he screams at her to shut up about the trial, and Atticus tells Scout something that could just as easily apply to Harry dealing with his trauma from his parents' deaths:  "Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for a while, until enough time passed.  Then he would be able to think about it and sort things out.  When he was able to think about it, Jem would be himself again."  Another thing I didn't understand when I was 13 or 14 and reading this book:  how clearly Mr. Nathan Radley filling up the knothole was only to cut off the children's communication with Boo.  Dang, that is sad.  And yet another:  how motivated Boo Radley must have been to defend kids from a violent, abusive man who targeted children.  Ouch, the kinship between Boo Radley and Mayella Ewell.

I was happy that the conference organizers welcomed my proposal.  It's nice to feel appreciated.

Cake update.

No cake today.

The Director noted, laughing, "I'm tired of cake."

The baker rests.  :-)


The finished Lane cake

Started skimming To Kill a Mockingbird and got thoroughly engrossed all over again.  Such quality writing.  Such quiet, neutral sarcasm.  Such a masterful millefeuille of perspectives.  Dropped by the local Bunns and Noodle and read aloud three pages as part of their daylong celebration.

tqoh hosted a book release party for Go Set a Watchman and I contributed the finished Lane cake to their spread, to go with the deviled eggs, bean and bacon soup, homemade biscuits, lemonade, and sweet tea they set out.  I wish I had gotten a photo from the side to show just how TALL this four-layer cake was.

Now I have my copy of the book.  Goodness knows when I'll get to read it.  But I'm glad I have it.

More cake.

We just delivered this cake to the new next door neighbors, who moved in early this week.  Hmm.  Photo doesn't do it justice.  It was much prettier in person.

I finished the layers and filling for the Lane cake for Monday night's Go Set a Watchman release party.  The frosting will be a boiled meringue, which I've never made, so I think I will make it the day of, in case it would seep in the fridge if made too far ahead.

The Director has just put in her order for the cake she wants me to make for summer camp on Monday.  She wants a cube cake.  She wants it to be shaped like a cube, half a foot tall, and have colorful cube-shaped decorations on the tops and sides.

Art project cake, blueberry ombre cake, cube cake as commissioned, and hopefully this obsession will have run its course.


Further adventures in the making of cake

I tried a quilt pattern.  Eh.  I don't see enough potential here to make any further investigations.  The thing I like to do in quilting involves gradual color shifts using a great many repetitions.  Cake is probably not the medium for that.

tree of life cake.jpg

But then I made a tree cake.  Now this one, I like.  Even The Director was impressed with this one.  Nobody wanted to eat it, though.  I stuck it in the freezer.

Next, I would like to reproduce this on a cake:

After that, a secret cake project, plus one The Director wants me to do featuring a swordfish and an octopus who become friends, plus a Lane cake for the Go Set a Watchman release party that tqoh is throwing.  I'll have to do some sort of cake for Dessert in the Courtyard on the last Wednesday of the month.  But most of all, I want to do a purple ombre cake with blueberry compote between the layers and freeze-dried blueberry buttercream icing with fresh blueberries on top.

Four more to go.  And then I hope this obsessive run will release its grip on me.  


I was musing on Facebook about my long-held fantasies of non-alcoholic lesbian and gay pickup spots:  a cat cafe/rescue shelter in a lesbian neighborhood called Kitties Galore, and a laundromat in a gay men's neighborhood called Dirty Laundry.  I was looking up retro laundry posters with which to decorate my fantasy singles spots.  Found one that made me laugh and think of lookfar:

Was also charmed by:



drinking chocolate

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