star-crossed trivia roundup

Rounding up some obliquely star-related trivia…

• • •

1. One of nine siblings, Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket in 1818, to a Quaker family dedicated to educating all of their children, including the girls. And so by 12, Maria was helping her father, a semi-professional astronomer, calculate the timing of eclipses and monitor the skies using a small observatory he had built. At 17, she opened a school for girls, but it closed a year later when she took a job at the local library. There, she was said to—and this sounds like a bad screenplay—stay late at the library to read the books.

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

She kept at the astronomy thing, though, and on October 1, 1847 discovered a comet, using only her father’s two-inch telescope (I guess that’s small, for a telescope?). In what seems like a shocking case of getting it right, she earned credit for the discovery even though a European scientist discovered it independently a few days later. Mitchell then got to meet the King of Denmark, who’d promised an award for comet discovery, and he gave her a sweet plaque that read “Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus” (“Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars”). The comet was called, informally, Miss Mitchell’s Comet; formally it’s C/1847 T1. One of those is catchier than the other.

A year later she was the first woman—by several decades—to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It’s believed she was the first woman employed by the government for any kind of professional/academic job, when she made a $300 yearly stipend for celestial observations and computations related to weather forecasting. Later she became the first faculty member at Vassar. And she was pretty cool politically: she refused to wear cotton clothing to protest slavery, held out for a raise when she found out junior male faculty earned more than her, and founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. She died in 1889.

She left behind some journals, which are great and I really identify with. For one thing, she reveals herself to be a total pedant, just like me: “Lunch was at noon, but it was noon neither mean nor apparent [a reference to mean/apparent solar time] but a Sorosis noon.” She revels in elegantly cutting remarks:

“Both lectures were anecdotal, if Quincy’s was more witty it was also more inelegant. It would have made a pleasant drawing room lecture but had not the dignity desirable in a Lyceum discourse, where it is presumable something will be taught.”

She tends towards misanthropy: “My habit of grumbling has become so chronic, that I feel disposed, as I put your note down, to fret…” and doesn’t oversell herself: “The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.” Also this which I really like: “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Maybe they should have remembered that when they named her comet C/1847 T1.

Apparently her journals are scant because in the aftermath of a large Nantucket fire, she had seen many of her neighbor’s private papers scattered about on the winds, and was aghast at the prospect of it happening to her, which I also kind of identify with. You can dig through this blog for more of her own words. More here and here and here.


2. The Second Kamchatka Expedition was a massive Russian undertaking to map and explore Arctic, Siberian, and North American coasts and waterways, largely in search of an Arctic passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The expedition was helmed by Vitus Bering, a Dane, and it took the better part of a decade, many dozens of lives, and roughly 1/6th of Russia’s GDP. They “discovered” Alaska and some Arctic islands, and confirmed there was no land bridge between Asia and North America, but never found the passage they hoped for.

Georg Steller
Georg Steller

The crew’s botanist-slash-zoologist was Georg Steller, born 1709 in Bavaria. Steller wound up in Russia in 1734 while serving as a naval physician, where he met a Russian zoologist who suggested he join the expedition. It was already underway, but they were still exploring the Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula, in the far northeast corner of Siberia.

Steller spent the better part of two years hiking and sledding through Siberia to catch up. When he finally made it, his relationship with his shipmates was, shall we say, strained. Bering straight up didn’t like him, and mostly refused to let him off the ship to take samples or make observations (the hostility, as best I can tell, was assuredly mutual; Steller was by most accounts not the most pleasant person). The crew thought he was a pompous know-it-all who didn’t know the sea. Steller complained of them in his journals: “They mocked, ridiculed and cast to the winds whatever was said by anyone not a seaman as if with the rules for navigation, all science, and powers of reasoning were spontaneously acquired.” (For those of you who remember Fire Joe Morgan, this is a corollary of Joe’s supposition that it is impossible to know or learn anything about baseball unless you’ve played it, aka “Joe Morgan’s Epistemological Nightmare.” Incidentally, Steller’s journals include a section titled “Fire Vitus Bering” (no they don’t) ).

When they finally made it to Alaska, Bering gave Steller just 10 hours to investigate. Even with the restrictions of the captain, Steller had identified many species new to science, most of which got his name: the massive Steller’s sea eagle, Steller’s jay, Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea cow, interstellar sea cow. The Steller’s sea cow was basically a plus-sized manatee and floating tub of goo, which I mean in a good way. Like the manatee, the creature was too friendly for its own good and was hunted to extinction within three decades. Let’s not get started on the interstellar sea cow.

the Steller sea cow was huge.
the Steller sea cow was huge.

By this time, the crew was suffering severely of scurvy (trivia footnote: the cure for scurvy was forgotten several times throughout history). Steller tried to feed them fruits and lichens he’d scavenged, but the sickly lot—by this time down to a dozen capable men—shipwrecked a few hundred miles west of Kamchatka, on what is now Bering Island, which is described as “treeless, desolate and experiences severe weather, including high winds, persistent fog and earthquakes,” making it exactly the kind of place you want to shipwreck. It’s called Bering Island because Bering himself died there, along with other crew members.

Steller, who’d actually been following his diet, was one of the more hale and hearty members of the crew by this point, and helped in the hunt for sea otters, which were a crucial source of vitamin C. The survivors spent most of their time under constant assault from Arctic foxes, which are cute but apparently total jerks that stole with impunity the food and supplies of the castaways. Steller, according to his notes, once axed 60 foxes to death in one day, only to discover that it merely emboldened the survivors.

"I'm an arctic fox! I'm an adorable marauding jerk who will steal all your shit."
“I’m an arctic fox! I’m an adorable marauding jerk who will steal all your shit.”

The crew, in an Arctic version of The Flight of the Phoenix, managed to build a ship from the remnants of the first, sailing off the island and back to Russia. In what was to the survivors either a moment of delicious retribution or a cold calculation of the odds of survival, they refused to let Steller load any of his collection onto the boat (they took the lucrative otter pelts, though). He returned with only his journals and the palate of a sea cow.

Things did not improve much. Steller stayed on the Kamchatka peninsula, exploring the region and making further observations. But the Russians grew suspicious of him, in part because he was technically Bavarian and thus an outsider; and he further engendered their distrust when he suggested that maybe they shouldn’t treat the native Kamchatkans like total shit, which was of course seen as a borderline traitorous opinion. As Steller trekked across Siberia to defend himself, he took ill and died, in 1746, at 37. And, to suffer one further indignity, he was grave-robbed and his corpse tossed in a snowbank. Sure, by all accounts he was prickly and hot-tempered and not the funnest dude to hang out with, but that’s not an inspiring story.

But no matter, we’ll always have the Steller’s sea cow. Also, if the story has you stressed out, perhaps you need to summon a calming manatee.

Side note: Something that hurts my credibility as an amateur cryptozoologist is that I’d never heard of the Steller’s sea ape. Steller described the beast as having the head of a dog, the fluked tail of a shark, and hair like a brown cow; it supposedly swam at great speed and could hold itself upright out of the water. It was only ever mentioned in one book, so it’s generally assumed that he either included that bit as a joke, or that he had actually seen some kind of injured mutant sea lion. One author suggests that the “sea ape” was meant to describe, and make fun of, Bering himself. Obviously the two didn’t get along like gangbusters.


3. The Stardust was a flagship Vegas strip casino from 1958 until its demolition in 2006. And, it was almost exactly as mobbed-up as you’d expect from a Vegas casino of the era: it was once purchased with money lent from the teamster’s pension fund, at one point involved former Capone associates, and was the main character in Casino (where the name was changed to the Tangiers to protect the innocent). I don’t care much about the casino, but I do care about the Stardust’s rightly famous sign:

original stardust facade
original stardust facade

That artful slice of mid-century excess and polychromatic effulgence is an example, I’ve learned, of what’s called Googie architecture, named for the LA coffeeshop that exemplified the style: lots of parabolas and curves, bright multi-color palettes, upward-sloping roofs, starbursts, and basically anything and everything to reference the future, or more specifically a pure and distilled 1950s version of the future.


There are any number of explanations for the why Googie flourished. The clear references to the space age and the atomic age and the promise and allure of technology, for example. The booming of new highways, suburbs, and car culture that encouraged business owners to draw a driver’s eye from the roadway (also a combination of the two; one book about Googie was called Ultra Modern Roadside Architecture). If you prefer something slightly more Freudian, some argue the hyperbolic, exaggerated designs were something like an overreaction to the rationing and frugality of wartime, a sort of volcanic release of pent-up creativity.

Academics and critics hated it—it’s gauche, tacky, unrefined, unsubtle—which is part of the reason so many of the buildings were torn down and why it took so long for preservation societies to spring up. Thank god they did because I love it, I’m excited to now have a name for it, and I’m even more excited that name is Googie. As per usual, the Smithsonian already has an article on it.

a googie motel
a googie motel

4. Starburst date to 1960, when they were unveiled as “Opal Fruits” in the UK. The slogan back then: “made to make your mouth water.” The slogan now: “unexplainably juicy,” which is the most grim WebMD search term you can find. Also, I prefer foods I eat to be explainably juicy. The candies weren’t called Starburst until introduced in the US in 1967, and the US won that particular culture war when the “Opal Fruits” name was dropped altogether in the 90s, an act which serves as the closing argument in Thomas Friedman’s book on globalization (just kidding, Thomas Friedman isn’t nearly that clever).

Actual Starburst flavors of yore include Plum, Strawberry Lemonade Chill, Honeydew, Apple, Citrus Slush, and Royal Berry Punch.


3 thoughts on “star-crossed trivia roundup

    1. Yes! I half-expected that to be one of those things where I had no idea it had a name, but turns out to be common knowledge for everyone else. Nice too that it’s memorialized with a name used derisively.

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