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Nature Abhors a Vacuum, But Everyone Loves a Supervoid

According to fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Democritus, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is just opinion.” But our universe turns out to be slightly more complicated than that, and Democritus’s theory of atomism—the proposal that “atoms” and “void” are the only two components of existence—does not fully account for what we can now observe. In our expanding universe, celestial bodies are drawn toward one another by gravity, forming bigger and bigger clumps of matter, while the areas between them, such as our neighboring Local Void, become ever larger. These empty areas are ruled by dark energy, a repulsive force that scientists have known about only since 1998. Recent measurements calculate that the universe is—somewhat shockingly—72.6 percent dark energy, 22.8 percent dark matter and 4.6 percent atoms, or the known elementary particles. In other words, this elusive, mysterious dark energy fills all the voids of space that lack planets and stars and galaxies. Asteroids_culturemap_sideIn the portion of the southern sky plotted on star maps as the constellation Eridanus lies a supervoid, an inconceivably large area of the universe that contains relatively little atomic matter. This sea of dark energy is associated with a cold spot in the cosmic microwave background (CMB)—electromagnetic radiation generated in the aftermath of the Big Bang. The CMB cold spot is an expanse of space with inexplicably lower temperatures than most of the surrounding space; it was first recorded by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), a NASA satellite active from 2001 to 2010 that set out to map the entire universe by measuring CMB radiation. Some images generated from the WMAP data revealed another anomalous structure near the cold spot, which seemed to suggest that the universe might have an axis. As one scientist-blogger explains, “It’s theoretically very naughty to give the universe any kind of special direction.” This may be why scientists immediately labeled the idea a “cosmic axis of evil.” That devilish axis, it turns out, does not exist—it was an artifact of the data-collection process—and for a while researchers wondered whether the cold spot was the result of a similar instrumental error. But data generated by the European-based Planck satellite confirmed Eridanus’s big chill. Ever since the cold spot’s earliest appearance in WMAP data in 2004, scientists have been trying to understand how an area that is too large and too cold to exist can really be out there. Theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton had an answer: “It is the unmistakable imprint of another universe beyond the edge of our own.” She and her team of cosmologists are proponents of the multiverse theory, which holds that there are multiple universes, maybe billions. The cold spot, their theory goes, is caused by another universe nudging up against our own. While Mersini-Houghton’s group works on interpreting the CMB to find evidence to support their proposal, astrophysicists based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have come up with a much more banal, and probable, cause. They determined, through the analysis of data collected from the CMB, that the supervoid is responsible for the cold spot’s lower temperatures. Team leader István Szapudi described the void as the “largest individual structure ever identified by humanity.” The Eridanus Supervoid, after all, spans 1.8 billion light-years. Apparently, as radiation enters the vast low-density area of the void, it slows down, loses energy and cools. By the time this radiation exits the supervoid, billions of years after entry, its temperatures have dropped to approximately 2.7 Kelvin, or, in Fahrenheit, 455 degrees below zero. Aristotle is supposed to have said that “nature abhors a vacuum,” claiming that any void in matter is immediately filled in, as water and air fill spaces on earth. Furthermore, he postulated, if a void is a thing, it can’t be nothing. What the Eridanus Supervoid is, or whether it is, remains to be seen. Photo courtesy of nasablueshift/Flickr Asteroids_culturemap_bottom

by Amy K. Hughes

Oct 2, 2015

JBJs: Bill Belichick

The year was 1999. After head coach Bill Parcells retired, assistant coach Bill Belichick was offered the position. He held the job for a full day before calling it quits. And yeah, that’s Belichick holding one of the four Vince Lombardi Trophies he’s won with the New England Patriots since 2002. New York fans sure dodged a bullet there. 7 BillBelichick Photos courtesy of AP Images

by Mediander Staff

Oct 1, 2015

Coming Full Circle With Jack Kerouac

Every Kerouac fan has a story about when she first discovered him. At this point, he’s part writer, part American legend; his drinking is as infamous as Hemingway’s, and his books are even now inspiring epic cross-country road trips. I’m far from immune to Kerouac-mania: At 15, I read The Dharma Bums ; by 17, I was immersed in the Beats, devouring the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder; and just before my 19th birthday, I traded undergraduate life at Johns Hopkins for a bus ticket to San Francisco. For all the dreaming and freedom Kerouac’s life on the road signifies, that road ends in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he died in 1969 of internal bleeding due to his alcoholism. One story described his esophagus detaching from his stomach, which means that he drank until alcohol burned a hole in his body. Journey to St. Pete today and you’ll find a boarded-up house; a few blocks away, the Flamingo Sports Bar, Kerouac’s old watering hole, has hung a haunting picture of his face in the window. Florida is where Kerouac went to live with his mother, support the Vietnam War and renounce the “pilgrims” who appeared on his doorstep, eager for the wisdom of the Beats. Florida, it seems, is where Kerouac went to die. Jack_Kerouac_connects_sideBut travel 100 miles east to Orlando and you’ll find a different story of Kerouac’s time in Florida. There, on a quiet street in the College Park neighborhood, a huge oak tree strung with Spanish moss stands in front of a humble, single-story house. This was Kerouac’s home from July 1957 until the spring of 1958, a tumultuous time that saw the publication of On the Road . This is also where Kerouac wrote the follow-up, The Dharma Bums , over 11 days and nights. But the house at 1418 Clouster Avenue is a far cry from the freight trains his alter ego Raymond Smith hops. In photographs published by Time magazine, you can see the 35-year-old Kerouac sitting on the side steps—he and his mother rented the tiny back apartment—surrounded by oranges and cats. In the pictures he looks distrustful and sad, or maybe just hungover. “My current theory is that he represents a sort of Kokopelli archetype for the modern age,” says Summer Rodman, president of the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando. The Kerouac Project bought the house in 1996 and transformed it into a residency program that hosts four writers a year. “Or perhaps like the tarot Fool,” she adds. “He was an adventurer but got caught up in the role his success handed to him.” So, while all of what happened in St. Pete is certainly part of it, maybe we should understand Kerouac’s legacy in the spirit of a trickster god, a storyteller who represents the spirit of music and who announces his good intentions as he travels through lands using his gift of language. How else can we explain—and understand—the enduring fascination? [caption id="attachment_9199" align="aligncenter" width="600"]OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Photo courtesy of Wikimedia[/caption] Bob Kealing, who discovered the details of Kerouac’s history in College Park, told USA Today that the residency program “is the idea of not only celebrating Kerouac’s history in Florida, but also creating a living legacy to him.” The writers-in-residence who participate in the literary scene of Central Florida (locally dubbed “Litlando”) also help to create it. They read at open mics at Infusion Tea, conduct writing workshops in the living room through Mad About Words, guest lecture at Trinity Prep and appear on John King’s Drunken Odyssey blog. Or they can choose instead to “channel [Kerouac’s] manic energy during their three-month residency,” as the organization describes in its mission statement. I was awarded one of the residencies a little over two years ago. Before I arrived at the house, I found myself dreaming of Kerouac, or sleepless and thinking of his death. Maybe his ghost was haunting me. One day in the house on Clouster Avenue, I heard a knock at the door, and when I opened it a crack, I saw two college students on their way home from spring break. “Is it true,” one asked, “that Jack Kerouac lived here?” “Come on in,” I said, and opened the door. Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia Jack_Kerouac_connects_bottom

by Monica Wendel

Oct 1, 2015

No, Really: You Are What You Wear

For those of us who came of age studying Glamour’s Do’s and Don’ts column, with its black box of shame over the eyes of hapless women caught wearing age-inappropriate skirts, bunchy pants or some other gaffe, fashion is a daily opportunity for distinction or humiliation. Cintra Wilson wants to liberate us from those black boxes so we can work our wardrobe mojo. Her new book, Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, aims to educate us about how clothing invariably reveals more about our identity than we want it to and how, whether fashion plate or fashion victim, we’re all subject to fashion determinism: You are what you wear. Wilson, a novelist and cultural critic, penned the Critical Shopper column for The New York Times for almost three years (“The stories that our clothes tell, one store at a time”). As an admitted outsider to the fashion world, Wilson blazed a snarky trail across Manhattan, visiting mostly high-end retail stores (think Madison Avenue between 57th and 86th Streets) and describing their wares, their interior design and her encounters with snotty salespeople. Unlike the typical fashion journalism written from the sidelines of a catwalk, Wilson was right there in the trenches, pulling luxurious garments over her head in the dressing room and reporting on how the pieces looked and felt and, most important, what they meant: that is, what that gossamer snood that cost nearly a month’s rent signified sociologically and psychologically, what fantasies it aroused and whom it was supposed to transform the wearer into. With memorable wackiness, Wilson nailed the zeitgeist of such brands as Balenciaga, Gucci, United Nude, Ann Taylor, Marni and Kiki de Montparnasse. Fear_Clothing_mediumFear and Clothing takes a much broader view, as Wilson explores the United States through its wardrobes. Geographically specific politics, economics, sexual mores and social ambitions, she contends, can be read through clothes. With a travelogue through San Francisco, Utah, Miami, L.A., Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., and beyond—and to events as different as the Kentucky Derby and the Iowa State Fair—Fear and Clothing is a scaled-up version of Wilson’s Critical Shopper columns with grander sociological ambitions. For example, describing the drab uniformity of our capital’s clothing, Wilson writes, “Washington, D.C., fashion statements read like blacked-out documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, in that they betray no relevant, timely or interesting personal information whatsoever. D.C. fashion statements tend to be almost entirely redacted.” Trends are broad, but the essence of fashion is woven into the details: the precision of the cut, the weight of the fabric, the way the garment moves and the way it works in the world. The liveliest, smartest parts of Fear and Clothing come when Wilson reprises her Critical Shopper columns. In the sweeping chapter arguments that map regional dress onto politics and economics, Wilson sometimes reaches too much and plays too fast and loose. And she occasionally meanders. Perplexingly, taxidermy and Art Basel keep popping up, for example, and the Miami chapter abruptly turns to cannibalism in its last paragraphs: “At the end of the day, all human beings are made of meat.” True, but huh? Fans of Wilson’s shopper persona will savor her own cameos in Fear and Clothing, including a chapter on San Francisco style subcultures that doubles as her coming-of-age memoir. We also get anecdotes about her fashion faux pas, which mainly occur when she deviates from her habitual head-to-toe black or reveals her own regional biases (as in her controversial fat-shaming review of JCPenney’s debut in Manhattan’s Herald Square, which pissed off many Times readers). The last chapters of Fear and Clothing shift gears from “meta” political-cultural analysis to practical advice for consumers. “If you try on a piece of clothing that is perfect, you should buy it,” Wilson counsels, “even if its price tag violates your budget. Here’s why: In my experience, if you don’t buy the thing you really want, you will become obsessed with it” and, she notes, end up spending just as much pursuing inferior imitations. But in the book’s conclusion, “To Thine Own Style Be True,” Wilson takes a different tack: “A good knockoff can work just as well as the thing it rips off,” she counsels, and if you can’t afford the items you crave, learn to work the online secondhand market. The seeming contradiction of those messages—“Go into credit card debt if that’s what it takes to follow your fashion bliss” versus “eBay and DIY are your best friends”—is what keeps some of us enthralled by fashion. Fashion determinism can enslave us to commercial and regional desires, but it can also offer us a means of subversion, creativity and rebellion—if, as Wilson urges, we let our sartorial freak flag fly. Photo by Sarah Forbes Keough

by Laura Frost

Sep 30, 2015




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