December 21st, 2007

little review

Poem for Friday

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It's not really worth talking about my day before 4 p.m., when Paul and I went to a wine and cheese, concert and tour of the facilities at the United States Naval Observatory. Until I got a message from Jennifer Cutting about the concert, I hadn't realized the observatory was ever open to the public; apparently there are public tours of the main building (designed by Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed the Biltmore Mansion and the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the large refracting telescope on Mondays, but since the Vice President's house is on the grounds and the facility houses the official clock of the United States -- which, as we learned, is vital to keeping everything from GPS to the internet running as well as numerous military and government technologies -- security is tight and no one is admitted without a reservation and photo ID. The entrance is between the embassies of Great Britain and New Zealand up a winding drive with deer wandering across the road.

Because the library is so small, it was only Jennifer, Lisa Moscatiello, Grace Griffith and Rosie Shipley out of the many people who sometimes make up Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra, with only Jennifer's keyboard plugged in; the rest was all acoustic and none of the women were using microphones. Steve Winick and a couple of other people sang with them at various points as they did most of the songs they performed when we saw them a couple of weeks ago in Herndon, but this time, since there were no pipes, Rosie played most of the melodies and Jennifer had written a new piece just for the occasion because she couldn't find a suitable solstice song. There were lots of sing-along choruses and lots of clapping, though not so much stomping...I think the room itself might have been a bit too serious for that. There was also wine and cheese, hot mulled cider, cookies and cake!

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Much as I love this music, I must admit that the very coolest part of the evening was not the concert but the tour afterward of the observatory, which included a trip upstairs in the main building to see the 12-inch refractor, a walk through some of the historic instruments around the library and a lecture on the functions of the US Naval Observatory today, which included the best explanation I've heard of how GPS works (it's a matter of the time differential between satellites talking to a device, adjusted for the vicissitudes of the Earth's orbit and rotation, and must be correct to within a billionth of a second). I always forget that historical observatories are so closely associated with sailing ships and navigation, so there was lots of talk of tall ships and the development of celestial navigation and timepieces. The original Naval Observatory was actually not on a hill where the stars could be seen very clearly, but down by the water at Foggy Bottom, so that the ships could be signaled with the correct time every noon.

Anyway, in addition to the 12-inch refractor that offered amazing views of the moon's craters (it being too early in the evening to look at Jupiter or Saturn, while Mars was nearly as bright to the naked eye as it would have been through a telescope), we got glorious views of DC from the dome, particularly National Cathedral on one side and the Washington Monument on the other. Then we walked across the grounds to the massive done housing the 26-inch refracting telescope, at one time the largest in the world. The floor of this dome is the largest elevator in Washington, DC, though we didn't learn that until the guide started to make it rise! The telescope is now used to study double stars, which for reasons I didn't quite understand is not a task particularly hindered by the city's light pollution. Its dome sits on the original US prime meridian from before the US and France were using the one in Greenwich as a reference point for longitude.

Our final stop on the tour was most accurate clock in the world -- the massive computer-controlled atomic clock that sets the official time of the United States. There are many other timepieces housed in the same building, historic clocks and quartz clocks and nautical clocks, including some beautifully designed timepieces...the most important one, however, looks like four big computerized boxes and lots of smaller hard drives, and uses hydrogen and cesium. The guide, whose background is in meteorology, said that he couldn't actually explain how it worked, as whenever the physicists tried to explain it to him, his ears started to bleed. And we got home to find that Navy is winning the Poinsettia Bowl! Anyway, it was a nearly perfect evening except that we didn't get dinner till 9 p.m., so I will just wish everyone a very happy solstice and go collapse!