Aug 252017

Today is a big day for the two Voyager spacecraft, designed to explore objects in the solar system and then go beyond into interstellar space. Sounds a little like Star Trek, doesn’t it? On this date in 1981, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Saturn and in 1989 made its closest approach to Neptune, the last planet in the Solar System (although at the time Pluto was considered the last). On this date in 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, becoming the first human-made object to do so. I’m impressed by the voyager journeys for a couple of reasons. First, I am impressed that NASA could have the basic wisdom, foresight, and confidence to launch a couple of craft into the Solar System knowing that it would take decades for them to get to the edge (and they could break down anywhere along the way). Second, I am impressed by the sheer quantity of close photographs and other data returned over the years, never mind the glorious quality of some of the images. I feel a gallery coming on.

Voyager 2 was launched by NASA on August 20, 1977, to study the outer planets. It was launched 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1, on a trajectory that took longer to reach Jupiter and Saturn but enabled further encounters with Uranus and Neptune. It is the only spacecraft to have visited either of the ice giants. Its primary mission ended with the exploration of the Neptunian system on October 2, 1989, after having visited the Uranian system in 1986, the Saturnian system in 1981, and the Jovian system in 1979. Voyager 2 is now in its extended mission to study the outer reaches of the Solar System and has been operating for 40 years and 5 days as of August 25, 2017. It remains in contact through the Deep Space Network. Sometimes I wonder how this is possible. Think about the technology on board for starters. My current cell phone has 100 times more computing power than the computers on the Voyagers. If you are old enough, think back to what computers were like in 1977 when they were launched. Fortunately computers on earth can do all of the heavy lifting nowadays. The Voyagers just have to just keep plodding along. And they are – amazingly. Computers back home can enhance the images and data as it comes back.

Voyager 1 was launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. Having operated for 39 years, 11 months and 20 days as of August 25, 2017, the spacecraft still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data. At a distance of 139 AU (2.08×1010 km) from the Sun as of July 1, 2017, it was the farthest spacecraft from Earth as well as the farthest human-made object. It is also the most distant object in the solar system whose location is known, even farther than Eris (96 AU) and V774104 (~103 AU).

The probe’s objectives included flybys of Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn’s large moon, Titan. While the spacecraft’s course could have been altered to include a Pluto encounter by forgoing the Titan flyby, exploration of Titan, which was known to have a substantial atmosphere, took priority. It studied the weather, magnetic fields and rings of the two planets and was the first probe to provide detailed images of their moons. After completing its primary mission with the flyby of Saturn on November 20, 1980, Voyager 1 began an extended mission to explore the regions and boundaries of the outer heliosphere. On August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause to become the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space and study the interstellar medium. Voyager 1’s extended mission is expected to continue until around 2025, when its radioisotope thermoelectric generators will no longer supply enough electric power to operate its scientific instruments. I’d say that’s a fair bang for the trivial bucks.

At a distance of 115 AU (1.72×1010 km) from the Sun as of July 30, 2017, Voyager 2 is one of the most distant human-made objects, along with Voyager 1, New Horizons, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. The probe was moving at a velocity of 15.4 km/s (55,000 km/h) relative to the Sun as of December 2014 and is traveling through the heliosheath. Upon reaching interstellar space, Voyager 2 is expected to provide the first direct measurements of the density and temperature of the interstellar plasma.

Here’s your gallery:


There’s tons more if you look.

Cooking with a microwave seems suitable for this anniversary. By uninformed estimate I expect that 99% of microwave oven usage is heating stuff up. I’m told, on reliable authority this time, that the majority of younger, first-time home buyers in the US want to be sure that the house they buy has a microwave, and don’t care about stoves, conventional ovens, and such. Clearly I belong to an older generation. I’ve had microwave ovens over the years and have mostly used them for reheating leftovers and quick thawing of items. They do that job very well and I’m glad of it. But they can do so much more. Here’s 2 videos. You can find hundreds more:

Mar 132016


On this date in 1781 Sir William Herschel observed an object with his telescope which had previously been cataloged as a star, and determined that it moved. He believed at first that it was a comet, but after much debate reclassified it as a planet – what we now call Uranus. This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight. As a result of this discovery, George III appointed him Court Astronomer. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and grants were provided for the construction of new telescopes.

Though Uranus is visible to the naked eye like the five classical planets, it was never recognized as a planet by ancient observers because of its dimness and slow orbit. Nowadays, should a new planet in the solar system be discovered, as seems quite likely, we would probably be delighted, but take it in stride. It’s hard to put ourselves into the mindset of Georgian England and fathom what an amazing discovery this was. Herschel had expanded the known boundaries of the solar system for the first time in history.

Uranus had been observed on many occasions before its recognition as a planet, but it was generally mistaken for a star. Possibly the earliest known observation was by Hipparchos, who in 128 BCE may have recorded it as a star for his star catalogue that was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest. The earliest definite sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloging it as 34 Tauri. The French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier observed Uranus at least twelve times between 1750 and 1769.


Sir William Herschel observed Uranus on March 13, 1781 from the garden of his house at 19 New King Street in Bath, Somerset, (now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy), whilst engaged in observations on the parallax of fixed stars. Because of the accuracy of the telescope he was using (of his own design), he was able to detect the planet’s motion, which had previously gone unnoticed. He also noted that it increased in size when he increased the magnification of his telescope (which stars do not), thus indicating that it lay inside the solar system.

He recorded in his journal “In the quartile near ζ Tauri … either [a] Nebulous star or perhaps a comet”. On March 17, he noted, “I looked for the Comet or Nebulous Star and found that it is a Comet, for it has changed its place”. When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he continued to assert that he had found a comet, although he compared it to a planet:

The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.

Herschel notified the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, of his discovery and received this reply from him on April 23: “I don’t know what to call it. It is as likely to be a regular planet moving in an orbit nearly circular to the sun as a Comet moving in a very eccentric ellipsis. I have not yet seen any coma or tail to it”.


Although Herschel continued to describe his new object as a comet, other astronomers had already begun to suspect otherwise. Finnish-Swedish astronomer Anders Johan Lexell, working in Russia, was the first to compute the orbit of the new object and its nearly circular orbit led him to a conclusion that it was a planet rather than a comet. Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode described Herschel’s discovery as “a moving star that can be deemed a hitherto unknown planet-like object circulating beyond the orbit of Saturn”. Bode concluded that its near-circular orbit was more like a planet than a comet.

The object was soon universally accepted as a new planet. By 1783, Herschel acknowledged this to Royal Society president Joseph Banks: “By the observation of the most eminent Astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System.” In recognition of his achievement, King George III gave Herschel an annual stipend of £200 on condition that he move to Windsor so that the Royal Family could look through his telescopes.


Uranus is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus (Οὐρανός), the father of Cronus (Saturn) and grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter), which in Latin became “Ūranus”. It is the only planet whose name is derived from a figure of Greek mythology. The adjective of Uranus is “Uranian”. The pronunciation of the name Uranus preferred among astronomers is /ˈjʊərənəs/, with stress on the first syllable as in Latin Ūranus, in contrast to /jʊˈreɪnəs/, with stress on the second syllable and a long a, though both are considered acceptable. The first pronunciation avoids crude jokes concerning “your anus” !! It does, however, leave open the possibility of “urine us.”

Consensus on the name was not reached until almost 70 years after the planet’s discovery. During the original discussions following discovery, Maskelyne asked Herschel to “do the astronomical world the faver to give a name to your planet, which is entirely your own, which we are so much obliged to you for the discovery of.” In response to Maskelyne’s request, Herschel decided to name the object Georgium Sidus (George’s Star), or the “Georgian Planet” in honor of his new patron, King George III. He explained this decision in a letter to Joseph Banks:

In the fabulous ages of ancient times the appellations of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were given to the Planets, as being the names of their principal heroes and divinities. In the present more philosophical era it would hardly be allowable to have recourse to the same method and call it Juno, Pallas, Apollo or Minerva, for a name to our new heavenly body. The first consideration of any particular event, or remarkable incident, seems to be its chronology: if in any future age it should be asked, when this last-found Planet was discovered? It would be a very satisfactory answer to say, ‘In the reign of King George the Third’.


Herschel’s proposed name was not popular outside Britain, and alternatives were soon proposed. Astronomer Jérôme Lalande proposed that it be named Herschel in honor of its discoverer. Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin proposed the name Neptune, which was supported by other astronomers who liked the idea to commemorate the victories of the British Royal Naval fleet in the course of the American Revolutionary War by calling the new planet even Neptune George III or Neptune Great Britain.

In a March 1782 treatise, Bode proposed Uranus. Bode argued that the name should follow ancient mythology so as not to stand out as different from the other planets, and that Uranus was an appropriate name, being the father of the first generation of the Titans. He also noted the elegance of the name in that just as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the new planet should be named after the father of Saturn. In 1789, Bode’s Royal Academy colleague Martin Klaproth named his newly discovered element uranium in support of Bode’s choice. Ultimately, Bode’s suggestion became the most widely used, and became universal in 1850 when HM Nautical Almanac Office, the final holdout, switched from using Georgium Sidus to Uranus.

Uranus is called by a variety of names in other languages. In Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, its name is literally translated as the “sky king star” (天王星). In Thai, its official name is Dao Yurenat (ดาวยูเรนัส), as in English. Its other name in Thai is Dao Maritayu (ดาวมฤตยู, Star of Mṛtyu), after the Sanskrit word for “death”, Mrtyu (मृत्यु). In Mongolian, its name is Tengeriin Van (Тэнгэрийн ван), translated as “King of the Sky”, reflecting its namesake god’s role as the ruler of the heavens.

Observation of Uranus has taken leaps forward in recent decades courtesy of images from the Hubble telescope and Voyager. Its ring and moon system is complex, not to mention its multilayered and deep atmosphere. Well worth your further inquiry.


I’ve been interested for some time in the cooking of Georgian England, which has perked the interest of contemporary amateurs. This site has a wealth of information about reconstructing old recipes from the eclectic MS collection known as The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies . The recipes are difficult to interpret with any degree of historical accuracy because they are generally terse, and assume knowledge of the cooking skills of the day, without elaboration on them. Furthermore, the quantities are usually huge as for a large Georgian household, and need to be cut down. I note two important distinctions between Georgian and modern cooking. First, the distinction between main course dishes and desserts is blurry by modern standards. Sweeteners and fruits are common in meat dishes, and you’ll find vegetables such as carrots and spinach in desserts. This fact is not entirely anomalous given that we routinely eat carrot cake and sweet potato pie for dessert, and don’t especially mind ham with pineapple or pumpkin with marshmallows for a main course. Second, relatedly, Georgian cooks used a number of spices and flavorings for main dishes that are more conventionally used in desserts in the modern kitchen, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, or cloves. Their taste palate was also a bit more varied, frequently employing mace, rosewater, orange flower water, and the like, which are rarities in modern recipes.

There may be a hint of the Georgian cook in me. I use powdered mace (when I can find it), cloves, and allspice all the time when I want a rich gravy. Courtesy of my mentor Robert Carrier, I never make steak and kidney pie without a trace of cloves in the gravy. Try it – it’s a great addition. Don’t overdo it, though.

Here’s a recipe called “White Pease Soop” from the Unknown Ladies. First, we must be clear what “white pease” means. “Pease” is Middle English for “peas” which has survived (barely) in “pease pudding.” Note that this is a recipe for soup and not pudding, and the recipe specifically cautions about making it too thick. You’ll need to find white peas if you can. They’re now usually sold in Indian markets as safed vatana. Yellow splits will work as a substitute, although they have a different flavor.


White Pease Soope

Take a pottle of good white pease & 5 qrts of water. Let yr pease be put in the water, cold, & let them boil till the are soft but dont break them at all. Then pour the broth from them very cleer & cut some salery small & som lettice & some spearmint & the ends of 2 o 3 leeks & some spinage & beets & some parsley. Cut all these very small & stew them in half a pnd of butter in a sauce pan, very soft. Then put them in yr pease broth & a qrt of strong gravy & a good deal of pounded mace & a little pepper. Give these a boil or 2 together, stirring them well & have some small rashers of bacon & bread fryed & laid in the bottom of your dish. Pour yr soope over them. You must take care yr pease be very clear. You must let it stew a very little while for it will be apt to grow too thick.

This recipe is not hard to follow, you just need to adjust the quantities down a good bit (a pottle (of peas) is half a gallon). Begin by soaking the peas overnight, then simmering them in double their quantity of fresh water until they are soft. Chop a mix of celery, lettuce, spearmint, leeks, spinach, beets and parsley (I’d go with equal amounts of each), and sauté in a heavy skillet in a generous amount of butter until soft. Combine the vegetables and peas in a saucepan with some good beef stock, and season generously with mace and black pepper. Do not allow the peas to break up, or thicken the soup. Fry some rashers of bacon until the fat is rendered, and fry bread slices in the fat. Transfer the fried bread and bacon to soup plates, and pour the soup over them.

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Dec 012015


On this date in 1913 the first line of the Buenos Aires Subte (Metro) was officially opened. Amazingly, the original Belgian-made rolling stock survived for a full 100 years, when it was finally replaced in 2013 with more up-to-date cars. A great shame in my humble opinion. The subte (Subterráneo de Buenos Aires), is an incredibly successful, but hopelessly overcrowded, mass transit system, with most lines these days carrying between 300,000 and 400,000 riders per day !! There’s a trick to getting a seat which it took me over a year to completely figure out. It involves knowing what stations to use, what times to travel, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving. Even so, most of the time I had to simply grit my teeth and endure 20 minutes or so of liver-crushing purgatory. It’s very cheap (2 pesos flat fare), and efficient. City buses are cheaper, but slower, more uncomfortable, and no less crowded.

When the first section of the subte (Plaza de Mayo-Plaza Miserere) opened in 1913, it was the first underground railway in Latin America, the Southern Hemisphere and the Spanish speaking world, with the Madrid Metro opening five years later in 1919.


The network expanded rapidly during the early decades of the 20th century, but the pace of expansion fell sharply after the Second World War. In the late 1990s expansion resumed at a quicker pace, and four new lines were planned for the network. Despite this, the rate of expansion has still been largely exceeded by the transportation needs of the city. Currently, the underground network’s six lines comprise 51.4 kilometers (31.9 mi) of route, serving 83 stations.


Discussions on the need to build an underground transportation system in Buenos Aires began in the late 19th century, alongside the tramway system, which was one of the most extensive in the world at the time. The first trams appeared in 1870 but by about 1900 were in crisis because of monopolies opposed to modernizing (especially electrifying) the system because of expense. Over the course of the 20th century the subte entirely replaced trams. All that remains of the trams are a few ghost tracks on old cobbled streets.

The first proposals for building an underground system were made, along with requests for government grants: first, in 1886, and several more in 1889, but the Ministry of Interior (Ministerio del Interior) denied the city administration the power to license building in the subsoil of the City. For this reason, subsequent drafts were submitted directly to this ministry. When in 1894 it was decided to construct the Congress building in its present location, the underground idea was revived, as it might shorten the travel time between Casa Rosada (site of the executive branch of government) and Congreso (the legislature). Miguel Cané, former Mayor of Buenos Aires (1892–1893), also proposed in 1896, a more general idea of an underground railway system similar to the one in London.


The first line was built by the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company (Compañía de Tranvías Anglo-Argentina), which had been given permission to build in 1909. That line linked the current stations of Plaza de Mayo and Plaza Miserere. As can be seen from contemporary photographs, the technology used was the same as that used to build London’s Metropolitan line. Trenches were dug in the avenues, tracks laid, then the trenches were roofed over, and repaved as roads. Once the subte expanded around the city, this technology had to be replaced with tunneling techniques.

Nowadays the subte is an artistic marvel with the stations of each line being distinctively tiled. Here is an album of photos I took over the course of 2 days riding each of the lines.

Ironically, stations on the first (line A) and most recent (line H) lines are the least ornamented. Tiling in stations built in the 1920’s to 1940’s is extraordinary.

bam17 bam16 bam15 bam14 bam12 bam11 bam10 bam8

Because of overcrowding, you don’t see too many people eating on the trains themselves, but there are plenty of kiosks and cafes at the stations serving the Argentine version of fast food, such as panchos (hot dogs), facturas (pastries), and empanadas. My sisters fondly recall getting a submarino at Retiro station on family trips from our barrio, Villa del Parque, to Centro. This is basically a mug of very hot milk and a slender chocolate bar which you dip into the milk until it dissolves. Very popular even now, but not to my taste. In fact, I’m not inclined to eat whilst commuting in general. That’s typical of Argentinos in general. Fast-food items are called minutas, and even though they are quick to prepare, they are rarely eaten on the run.


A favorite minuta is lomito, a steak sandwich with a fried egg, and pretty much whatever else you want. It is usually served open faced on a plate, but you can get it as a regular sandwich to go if you like. The main ingredient is a painfully thin cutlet of Argentine beef grilled to perfection. No other steak will do – sorry. It has to be fresh, juicy, and ever so tender. A fried egg is also essential – runny yolk. Melted cheese over the steak is also popular. Most people add lettuce, onions and tomatoes (the trinity of Argentine salads). You can also eat the salad on the side. If so, sprinkle it with olive oil.