Despite Pluto’s dwarf planet status, the countdown continues: a short essay

pluto

Here’s how one artist imagines the sun would look as soon from Pluto’s surface.

Much has happened since Pluto was first discovered by the late Dr. Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

In 1978, Pluto was discovered to have a moon. The moon, later christened Charon, resulted in new calculations being done regarding Pluto’s size. The verdict? Pluto, once thought to be roughly the size of Mars, was discovered to be smaller. Much smaller, even smaller than the earth’s moon.

In 1985 and confirmed three years later, tiny Pluto was discovered to have an atmosphere. But because it’s so cold on Pluto (an estimated -382 degrees Fahrenheit), the surface gases are said to freeze into ice and fall like snow to the surface during the tiny planet’s aphelion (when it’s farthest from the sun).

In 2005, two more tiny satellites were discovered orbiting Pluto. Unlike Charon, which is about half Pluto’s size, Nix and Hydra are much smaller.

On January 19, 2006, after delays due to weather problems, the New Horizons spacecraft launches on its 9.5-year voyage to finally explore Pluto. The craft has successfully received a gravity assist from a brief orbit around Jupiter and is scheduled to rendezvous with the tiny, frozen world on July 14, 2015 (I’m 36 now and I’ll be 42 when this happens). For now, Pluto remains a reddish-brownish-goldish enigmatic blip.

And now, the planet Pluto is officially the dwarf planet Pluto after the International Astronomical Union voted later in 2006 to demote Pluto. Pluto’s orbital plane is very eccentric, rising far above and below other planets and looping inside Neptune’s orbit 20 years of its estimated 248-year orbit. The biggest reason given for Pluto’s demotion is that it doesn’t clear out its own orbit. IAU’s decision has been both praised and criticized, with critics pointing out that few members actually voted and that the definitions of a planet are vague and subjective. Under the criteria, they say, other Solar System planets could lose their planetary status.

It’s possible that the decision may be reversed when the IAU meets again later this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

What also complicates the Pluto issue is that Pluto isn’t even the largest dwarf planet. That honor belongs to Eris, discovered in 2005 and estimated to be thrice Pluto’s size and about 27% more massive. Eris, estimated to reach a distance of about 14.6 billion miles from the sun and takes more than 500 years to complete its orbit, even has its own satellite—Dysnomia.

Will the controversy around Pluto be resolved in 2015 when we finally start receiving detailed images of what Pluto looks like? Hard to say. All we know for certain is that space, though the final frontier, is by far the most complex frontier.

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Short Essay: What’s beneath Jupiter’s clouds?

For centuries, Jupiter has confounded both astronomers and outer space enthusiasts alike. The questions abound: Why does Jupiter emit more heat than it receives from the sun? What exactly is The Great Red Spot? Is Jupiter really a planet, or is it simply a failed star?

And my favorite question: what lies beneath the clouds?

When I was a student 20 years ago, I remember seeing the old textbooks depicting Jupiter’s surface as a meandering mountain range. Based modern knowledge, this is completely incorrect. Scientists generally describe Jupiter as a very enigmatic gas giant, one where underneath all those clouds are two “oceans”, one a gargantuan ocean of liquid hydrogen and the other an ocean of a substance completely foreign to earth: metallic liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen is theorized to reach a metallic state under enough pressure.

When visiting a Connecticut mall back in 1987, I happened upon a book that showed a terrifying depiction of what Jupiter’s “surface” might look like. The sky was black, save for the constant cackling of lightning overhead and the feeble attempts of the distant sun to poke through the thick atmosphere. The endless dark, yet clear, oily blue-green ocean of liquid hydrogen showed a world where no humans could ever possibly live.

We’ve tried to send space probes into Jupiter’s surface to learn more about it, and what Arthur C. Clarke postulated in 2001: A Space Odyssey came true. The staggering pressure of the Jovian atmosphere (estimated to be about three million times stronger than what we experience on earth) crushed the probes while they were still far from the “ocean”. This begs the question: will we ever know what lies beneath Jupiter’s atmosphere? Furthermore, is its core just a giant, earth-sized diamond, as Clarke also postulated in the book?

We may never know, but it’s always fun to speculate.

Is journalism ‘dead’?

A few months ago, I lunched with a friend and professional colleague. We discussed journalism–particularly the present and future. This friend, who was once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, told me three disturbing words:

“Journalism is dead.”

He encouraged me to apply for government public affair positions. You know, military and government publications.

So far, I’ve been doing that and have been surprised at the pay rates of many jobs. Some that are writer/editor positions pay a minimum $50,000 per year.

Zowie! I thought, hoping my parents wouldn’t be bothered by my taking my surname in vain.

Try getting that kind of pay as a real-world journalist these days, even though writing is a skilled job that few do well.

If I had to describe the future of journalism in one word, it would be Internet. Someday, virtually all newspapers will not only be online, but they’ll be online only.

Another word: blogs.

One venture I’m looking into would require me to travel a lot. I’ve told my wife that what would be cool to do is to spend time each day or so blogging about where I’ve been and what’s been going on. You know, a travel blog. Perhaps even toss into there local events of interest.

I know some are reluctant about blogs because of they’re unchecked and can be inaccurate. (I’ve even had to make corrections on my From A to Zowie blog). Believe me, in the nine years I’ve been a writer, I’ve observed newspapers can be inaccurate also. One acquaintance told me he stopped giving quotes to a local paper while a sports coach because he was tired of being misquoted. A colleague told me a major New York newspaper once got a glaring detail very wrong regarding a celebrity (if I said their name, you’d know instantly who they were) supposedly entering the adult film business. I remember e-mailing an editor once regarding a historical film review printed, and asking her why they’d print a review that contained historically-inaccurate information.

Writer’s Digest #18: Krispy Kreme Arson

Below’s my submission to Writer’s Digest #18, the 750-word contest talking about a cop who investigates a string of Krispy Kreme arsons. Here’s the one I sent, the funny version. I must confess I had John Pinette in mind when I wrote this police officer.

NOTE: New Amsterdam is a fictitious city in Michigan.

Krispy Kreme becomes Krispy Kritter: A True American Tragedy

By Richard Zowie

“What about breakfast?” my wife asked me as I kissed her.

“I’ll stop at the Krispy Kreme on the way to work,” I replied.

I’m a homicide detective in the Detroit suburbs at the New Amsterdam (or “Newam”, for short) Police Department. Hey! Stop that snickering! I love Krispy Kremes. Deal with it! I’ve had to tolerate people smirking, “BAD COP! NO DONUT!” at the sight of me eating a Krispy Kreme. When I was a traffic cop, one drunk driver offered to pay his DUI fine by giving me Dunkin’ Donuts. I arrested him, because his offer of Dunkin’ Donuts and not Krispy Kremes was insulting.

As I drove, I noticed a lot of police scanner chatter about fires. Devil’s Night isn’t until October, so what’s goin’ on? I thought.

Then, I saw smoke in the horizon, about a mile away, right off the exit I take to get to my Krispy Kreme, where they know my name and what I eat (Chocolate Iced Kreme-Filled, by the way). As I drove closer, I could see lots of fire trucks near the doughnut shop. Smoke still drifted in thick clouds from the charred building as the firefighters looked like they’d contained it. Krispy Kreme had become a Krispy Kritter. I radioed it in to dispatch and they told me to wait there for other cops to arrive. Besides the fire trucks there were ambulances.

I flipped on my lights and headed toward my heartbreak. The sweet smoke made me think of burning, fruit-filled donuts. When I parked, I sat in the car, stunned, staring glassy-eyed at the burned building, wondering what I’d do now. How many Chocolate Iced Kreme Filled donuts, Original Glazed and Apple Fritters went to waste in this tragic fire?

The other cops arrived. “You’ve been assigned this case, Joe,” said Stan, a robbery detective and a good friend of mine.

“Case?” I asked. “The fire department is investigatin’ this. Why would they need our help?”

Stan’s gaze at me widened. “You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Well, for one thing, this Newam Krispy Kreme fire looks to be an arson. Someone even died in this fire. And there have been other Krispy Kreme fires today in other cities.”

“Where?”

Stan sighed, pausing. “They got the one in Allen Park—”

—not Allen Park! I thought. That was my backup Krispy Kreme shop!—

“—they also got the one in Troy, Grand Rapids, three in Ohio and then two in Indiana. The closest unscathed one is in Erie, Pennsylvania. We’re hearing they’ve all been ruled arsons. And since the one person died in this fire here, they’re assigning you, Mr. Homicide Detective, to investigate.”

At first, I said nothing. How could I? I was too stunned, too scared, too angry, too anguished. Finally, I erupted.

“ARE YOU TRYIN’ TO TELL ME I’M GONNA HAVE TO TRAVEL ALL THE WAY TO PENNSYLVANIA TO GET A KRISPY KREME DONUT?!”

Everyone within earshot (firefighters, store employees, cops, rubberneckers and reporters) jolted and glared my way. Stan looked at me, incredulous, almost angry, as if I’d just slapped him. I could completely understand all of them. What kind of a monster burns down a doughnut shop? A health-food Nazi? Jillian Michaels, that fitness fanatic chick from The Biggest Loser?

I walked around, notebook out, and found Chief Eichmann. His face was shiny with sweat, and I could see his scalp glittering from perspiration through his close-cropped blond haircut. He looked exhausted. I showed him my badge, identified myself and asked him what happened.

The chief told me what he knew so far:

Witnesses saw a young man, wearing a Detroit Tigers cap, running from the scene.

The way the fire was set indicated the suspect may have served as a firefighter.

The fire began in the back room, where the machines that make the doughnuts are kept.

The deceased was an assistant manager who was trying to salvage the office computer and save the data on it.

What, he didn’t bother tryin’ to save the donuts? I thought.

I thanked the chief as I took notes and started making calls on my cell phone. The first one, to my wife to tell her to download some doughnut recipes. Then to my confidential informant to find out the word on the street. The sooner I figured out what scum burned down this store, the sooner they’d rebuild and the sooner I’d get my doughnuts again.

Copyright © 2009 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or republished without permission.

Writing prompt about stand-up comic

This prompt is 500 words: a stand-up comedian is having a good night save for a heckler in the back. He angrily goes to confront the heckler, only to be shocked by what he discovers.

NOTE: Some of the material in below is in the PG-13 range. It’s a stand-up comedian, and things can get very salty at times–especially when a heckler’s in the mix. If you don’t believe me, go to Youtube and type keywords “George Carlin” and “heckler” and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m a Christian and while there are lines of taste that I absolutely won’t cross, I’d rather try to be realistic when the situation demands it.

Wearing my trademark gray slacks, royal blue shirt and metallic blue tie, I was finishing another night of stand-up at a comedy club on San Antonio’s riverwalk as Ricky Z. It’s just like my day job of sales: you have to be quick on your feet or you drown. Quickly.

The crowd loved my jokes, and my last one was about Charlie Gonzalez, the local U.S. representative and how a news site had published an (alleged) overdraft notice of his. “Hey, Charlie!” I said. “I hear they have the 2010 Camaro on sale for $35,000! If only your account had $35,000 in overdraft privileges.”

Even the Hispanics, who no doubt worship Gonzalez, laughed at that one.

The laughter died and then someone yelled, “You SUCK!

“Yeah?” I said. “So do you. You probably voted for him.”

He stood up, and I saw him. He was about six feet tall, medium build with dark balding hair and glasses. “Yeah, you’re a real funny comedian, Richard Zahn,” he said, startling me with my real name. My website doesn’t list that. “Your girlfriend left you because you weren’t getting her off.”

“And if she were with you, smartass, she’d leave you because she’d get tired of needing a microscope to see your dick,” I sneered.

“Only because it’s in your mouth,” he replied. The crowd loved that one.

I didn’t think it was funny. No time to respond, since my set was up. “Well, that’s all for tonight everybody, you’ve been a great crowd, even baldy in the back,” I said, pointing to him. His hands were on his hips, defiant.

The crowd cheered as I placed the microphone back and on the stand. I stormed toward the guy. Was I looking to take a swing at him? No, because I didn’t need a lawsuit and comedians are supposed to use their brains and not their brawn.

I came up to him, still angry and was about to ask him what his problem was (and use a four-letter word I only use when I’m very angry) when he smiled and held his hand out. Instead of a clinched fist, it was open in anticipation of a handshake. The gold watch on his left wrist glittered in the bright lights and made me wonder if it cost what I pay in rent for half the year. His sneer dissolved into a smile.

“I was testing you,” he said, handing me a white business card after we shook hands. His firm grip suggested he liked me. Once I took it, he offered his hand. “I’m George Goldman, a talent scout from The Comedy Store in L.A.”

I shook his hand. “And the L.A. crowds even more brutal than they are here?”

Very brutal. I’ve seen talented funny guys leave the stage in tears. Many times.”

I shook his hand. “What can I do for you, Mr. Goldman?”

“Call me George,” he replied. “The next Friday or Saturday night you’re off, I’d like to fly you out to L.A. to try your routine at the store. If all goes well, it could become your big break. I think you’re a very funny guy.”

Copyright © 2009 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or republished without permission.

Writing prompts from Writer’s Digest

This one deals with a dead relative meeting you and giving you an old document with shocking information in it.

I don’t see myself posting my results unless they turn out to be great: this is more a writing exercise than something to submit for publication. A professional actor, Adam Vernier, once told me that he practices acting every day, whether filming or not, to stay in practice. The same rings true for writing.

The first attempt at the prompt was about a man angry at being passed over for a job for a Jewish co-worker who’d been there less time. His anger evolves into a minor anti-Semitic rant. The man then encounters his great-great-grandfather and learns the family name Conway had been changed from Cohen around 1880 when his German-Jewish great-great-grandfather moved to America to escape anti-Semitism.

That hasn’t been done before, eh? A man who dislikes Jews finds out he has Jewish ancestry. If you think that’s a new idea, check out the Russian film Luna Park (relax, it has subtitles). I didn’t finish this, because it started to seem a little trite in the story line and I found myself wanting to explore elsewhere.

I did end up with another story, this one more autobigraphical and revolving around an older sister of mine, Kim, who died in infancy in 1965. I wasn’t born until 1973, so obviously I never met her. Perhaps I’ll publish it sometime as a tribute to her.

How books change as we age

I remember reading S.E. Hinton’s novel That Was Then, This Is Now back around the summer of 1988 as my parents and I drove up to Oklahoma (Hinton’s home state) to help my grandmother get moved into a new home. I remember that summer Heart’s song These Dreams played on the radio a lot, so anytime I think of this short paperback that song inevitably plays in my mind.

Here’s the book in a nutshell: Bryon and Mark have been life-long friends; they are more like brothers. But as they age, they grow apart: Bryon grows to hate fights while Mark still likes them. The brother of Bryon’s girlfriend has a bad LSD trip, and when Bryon sees Mark is selling drugs, he decides to turn him in. It ends badly as Mark “disowns” Bryon and Bryon ends up breaking up with his girlfriend.

The book ends with Bryon visiting Mark in prison and realizing Mark’s a lost cause. (Mark’s character later dies in a subsequent Hinton novel Tex). Bryon says in the book’s final sentence, “I wish I was a teenager again, back when I had all the answers.”

When I finished reading, my 15-year-old mind couldn’t process such a dull, dark ending. What a stupid book, I thought.

Now, as an adult who’s matured both as a person and as a writer, I have a completely different take. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that life’s seldom fair, or maybe it’s because I’ve grown to prefer dark endings over the happy ones. When I look back, I see it as a book of a young man who struggles with grasping adulthood and losing his adolescent innocence. He loses his “brother” and his girlfriend and sees the life of an innocent boy ruined.

What do these sentences all have in common?

1) Quinton Tarantino’s movies (such as Kill Bill) contain excessive amounts of blood, violence, crazy scenarios and what some would say is just simply an unnecessary amount of swearing.

2) I love ducks, but it’s puzzling how some affixated people just can’t quit talking about how tasty those birds are.

3) I lived in San Antonio, Texas for six wild, jovial years and have no qualms or fears about the city–as long as you have a good job and keep a house in a good area and avoid questionable citizens.

Anyone care to guess?

A few thoughts on writing

…Don’t kid yourself, dear reader, writing is very hard work. I love it immensely, but for me it’s easy to go through many drafts (especially in fiction) until I get something I think is good. Even then, after putting it away for a few days I’m bound to find something else that needs to be tweaked.

That’s probably why I get such a scornful laugh when I encounter writing job ads where the client wants to pay someone one dollar (no, that’s not a typo) to write a 500-800 word article. It’s tantamount to going to a mechanic, asking them to put in a new alternator for $10. Even if you have the new alternator already to save on the cost of parts, normally you’re still looking at at least $100 in labor charges (unless the alternator’s located in a tricky part of the engine requiring massive disassembly to get to it, then it’ll be even more)…