star-crossed trivia roundup

Rounding up some obliquely star-related trivia…

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1. One of nine siblings, Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket in 1818, to a Quaker family dedicated to educating all their children. By the age of twelve Maria was helping her father, a semi-professional astronomer, calculate the timing of eclipses and monitor the skies using a small observatory he’d 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

In her spare time, she also kept at the astronomy thing, and in 1847 discovered a comet using her father’s two-inch telescope. In a shocking case of getting it right, she earned credit for the discovery even though a European scientist discovered the same comet independently a few days later. Mitchell then got to meet the King of Denmark, who had earlier promised a reward for comet discovery. He gave her a cool plaque that read Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus (“Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars”). Informally, the comet was called Miss Mitchell’s Comet; formally it’s C/1847 T1, which is less memorable.

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 also 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.

Mitchell kept journals, and I identify strongly with so much of them. She reveals herself to be a pedant, 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 insults people with elegant and 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. That is also a feeling with which I strongly identify. Dig through this blog for more of her own words. More here and here and here.

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2. The Second Kamchatka Expedition was a massive Russian undertaking to map and explore Arctic, Siberian, and North American coasts and waterways, 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, confirmed there was no land bridge between Asia and North America, and 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. There, he met a Russian zoologist who suggested he join the expedition. It was already underway, but still exploring the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the remote reaches of the Russian mainland.

Steller spent nearly two years hiking and sledding through Siberia to catch up, only to end up in a fractious relationship with the crew. Bering so disliked Steller that he often refused to let him off ship to take samples or make observations The crew thought he was a pompous know-it-all and sea dilettante. The hostility was both well-earned and mutual: Steller was not the most pleasant person to be around, and complained of his coworkers in 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.” (If you remember Fire Joe Morgan, that’s a corollary to Joe’s supposition that it is impossible to know or learn baseball without having played it, aka Joe Morgan’s Epistemological Nightmare.)

When the group finally made it to Alaska, Bering gave Steller just 10 hours to investigate. Even with those restrictions, Steller identified many species new to science, most of which are named for him: the massive Steller’s sea eagle, Steller’s jay, Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s 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 discuss 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 from their various stopping points, but most of the crew ignored him. 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. The island 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. Also, 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 hunt for sea otters, a crucial source of vitamin C. When they weren’t hunting and desperately clinging to survival, the castaways spent most of their time under constant assault from Arctic foxes, which are cute but apparently also total jerks that will steal with impunity any food and supplies you leave unattended. 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 biological collection onto the boat. He returned only with his journals and the hard palate of a sea cow; the crew did load the lucrative otter pelts, though.

Things hardly improved for Steller, who stayed to explore the Kamchatka peninsula. The Russian government soon grew suspicious of him, in part because he was technically foreign, and in part because he suggested they not treat native Kamchatkans like shit. Called to defend himself, Steller begin a trek back through Siberia towards civilization, but took ill and died, in 1746. As a final indignity, he was grave-robbed and his corpse tossed in a snowbank. Sure, he was ill-tempered and not the funnest dude to spend time with, but that’s really depressing. At least, 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.

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3. The Stardust was a flagship Vegas strip casino from 1958 until its demolition in 2006. It was almost exactly as mobbed-up as you’d expect from a casino of that era: purchased with money lent from the teamster’s pension fund, at one point run by former Capone associates, and the titular character in Casino (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 coffee shop that exemplified the style, Googie features lots of parabolas and curves, bright multi-color palettes, upward-sloping roofs, starbursts, and anything and everything to reference “the future,” as it was conceived in the 1950s. 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 be developed. But I’m glad they did because I love it and I’m excited to now have a name for it.


Cultural scholars are interested in why Googie flourished. Was it the clear references to the space and atomic age and the allure of technology in the post-WWII era? Blossoming car culture, and the expansion of highways and suburbs, and the need for business owners to draw a driver’s eye from the roadway? Both, as suggested by one book about Googie titled Ultra Modern Roadside Architecture? If you prefer a more Freudian angle, some argue that the hyperbolic, exaggerated designs were an overreaction to the rationing and frugality of wartime, like a release of pent-up creativity.

Read more about Googie here.

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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 also the most grim WebMD search term I can think of, and also, I prefer my food to be explainably juicy. The candies weren’t called Starburst until migrating to the US in 1967. The US won that particular culture war when the “Opal Fruits” name was dropped altogether in the 90s, 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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