On Bringing Things Down to Scale

October 28 is International Observe the Moon Day. Yep. Our lovely celestial neighbor gets a special day on the calendar. Or, rather, a special night.  Here in our corner of the globe, the moon will be waxing gibbous; a little more than 50% illuminated.  56% to be more precise. It will wax fuller as we move toward Hallowe’en. On that night the little roving spooks will have 83% of the moon’s potential light to guide their mischievous meanderings through the neighborhood.  Unless it’s cloudy.

I always liked the word ‘gibbous’.  It seemed to suggest something awkward, stumbling, a little bit funny. Almost a kind of ‘baby talk’ nonsense babble, with that double ‘b’.  Research says it comes from the Latin, ‘gibbosus’ which means ‘humpbacked.’  Anyway …

Readers of this blog know I am fascinated with the moon and may remember I took a course, “All Things Moon,” at the Natural History Museum a while ago. So interesting, and fun.  As I’m writing this, I’m looking at the model of the earth/moon relationship each of us in the class built and took home; a simple illustration of the relative size of the moon vs the earth and its distance from us, using everyday objects; a tennis ball and a penny, and string.

If you lay out the model, say, on your dining room floor, the distance representing the 240,000+ miles between earth and the moon measures about 7 feet. Somehow that seems to make the relationship much more intimate and graspable.

Modeling incomprehensible science through human-scale or everyday examples is one way for us to develop some appreciation, if not understanding of impossibly complex or otherwise inscrutable things.

The image of a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline, for example, as a model for the warping geometry of spacetime and gravity.

Or a frog in a pot on the stove, which doesn’t notice the temperature rising until it is too late, as a metaphor for climate change.

Harder, I think is the effort to find compelling alternate examples or metaphors or analogies to spark understanding of what’s happening to our democracy.  We have to take a hard look at the real thing and recognize the escalating reality of tyranny for what it really is.

I was recently introduced to an amazing, insightful and quite alarming little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University.  Barely larger than a pack of cards, within the book’s 120 pages Professor Snyder details 20 historical examples from the very recent past that are clear and precise red flags for the present. Each chapter is titled with one of 20 concise directives to counter the rise of tyranny in a society.  They are both a global societal call to action at the same time they are a personal, individual primer for resistance.  Here they are:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Beware of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact with small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

I hope these exhortations make you want to read the book. You can finish it in an hour and you can get it used for less than $5.00 from abebooks.com.  I keep mine on the end table in my living room along with my pocket constitution. 

200 years is a short time in the history of civilization.  Who says our democracy will last forever?  Unless continuously defended and enlivened, it certainly will not.

We cannot stop our moon from moving imperceptibly away from us – as it is doing at the rate of 1.4 inches a year – generating the shifts in tides and rotation and axis the earth will experience millennia from now. That scale of time and gravitational force cannot be reckoned with.  But the current threats to our enlightened democracy are at a scale and within a timeframe that can. We will all need to ‘be as courageous as we can,’ however, as the ‘unthinkable’ moves toward arrival.

Something to think about while observing our lovely, essential but “inconstant moon.”

Here’s an image with a poem I wrote as part of “Moving Minds” – a public art project putting poetry inside city buses. Here’s the poem.

Night Song

The moon, sudden as a door slam,
rang the night awake.

The Aztecs saw a rabbit there.
For me, a singer croons;

a lunar anthem sounding
from the cloud-less mouth

of Mare Nubium; its tone
the perfect ‘A’ of Mozart’s clarinet.

© 2007: Kathleen Cerveny





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