Sunday, July 19, 2015

Clyde Tombaugh Just Passed Pluto

How New Horizons shot through the Pluto System this past Tuesday morning.  Its data gathering stage lasted several hours then it switched into transmission mode and "phoned home."
I think maintaining a wellspring of wonder (sense of wonder) is important and fundamental to human experience.  It enriches and inspires and fascinates in ways that lightens the weight of daily life.  For me, space exploration has been a lifelong source of wonder.  I have just witnessed a new probe serving as part of humanity's furthest reach from Earth.  I feel part of this wow Now event.

In 2006 we shot New Horizons into space.  It burned a lot of its fuel speeding up to a record 36,000 miles per hour, carrying the probe away from Earth on a trajectory toward Jupiter. Whereas it took the Apollo mission astronauts three days to get to the Moon, New Horizons made the trek in just nine hours and kept going. In 2007 we used Jupiter's gravitational force to burn a bit more fuel, slingshoting the space probe way out on a trajectory to rendezvous with Pluto, still some 3,000,000,000 miles away from Jupiter which was roughly 480,000,000 miles from Earth.  It would take New Horizons another eight years to get to Pluto and when it arrived it would be going extremely fast. In the meantime it mostly hibernated.

We flew like a bullet through the Pluto System, with its moons in various places and phases.  Our trajectory brought us inside the orbit of Charon, the largest and first known moon.  Incredible video taken of the surface from about 48,000 miles up was released just a few days after New Horizons completed its Pluto flyby.  At its closest the space probe was at an altitude of a mere 7,750 miles (that is what the countdown was all about back at the Tuesday morning celebration), but that only lasted a few seconds.  At the speed New Horizons was getting it, the probe was over the surface only 3 minutes.

Now imagine that.  In 2006 we shot off a probe and sent it roughly 3.5 billion miles over nine years and aimed it to within less than 10,000 miles of the orbiting target.  It is an amazing example of our finest humanity. That wondrous achievement of rocketry and physics is broadened by the fact that we sent the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto in the 1930's.  It is thus ritualized in our highest esteem.  There is no scientific reason for delivery of the ashes far out to the Kuiper Belt - the furthest any human has ever traveled.  A feeling about the mission caused that.  And that is a cheerful, hopeful thing.

The first image we have of the Earth as seen from space was taken in 1946 while mounted on a V2 rocket Americans were experimenting with after World War Two.  In 1964 a probe we launched photographed the Moon for the first time.  Mars came in 1965.  Venus in in 1973 by Mariner 10, which also shot the first closeup of Mercury in 1974, our first double planet probe.

Voyager 2 captured Jupiter in 1979. Voyager 1 gave us Saturn's first closeup in 1980. Voyager 2 meanwhile went on to show us Uranus in 1986 and a surprisingly beautiful Neptune in 1989.  Then another 26 years passed before this moment I am blogging about, the longest time between planetary closeups since that V2 rocket went up in 1946. That historic fact makes this moment even more awe inspiring for me, connected through human time.

New Horizons flew by at its closet distance (7,750 miles) as I was at my desk at work last Tuesday.  I always get to work early so I can think and plan and get somewhat of jump on the day.  I had my iPad with me and NASA TV up.  It was about 7:45 AM. A crowded room of scientists and assorted nerds were counting down. 10...9...8... Louder each time as if it were New Year's Eve in July.  I smiled and watched them all shout for joy and hug and shake hands....but there was nothing from New Horizons. It seemed a bit absurd to a coworker and me who were emailing back and forth as the moment happened.

Of course, it was going to take awhile to get the actual "live" photography from the probe.  So everyone was ecstatic on sheer faith that we did not unexpectedly misfire and crash into Pluto.  Or that the probe would successfully switch to data send mode and successfully realign its antennae back toward Earth.  It was a glorious sight unseen.  New Horizons was traveling super fast, after a nine year journey. You had one shot at everything and everything was validated about 12 hours later when the first images were released to the public.

It was one amazing view after another.  Scientists were immediately impressed with the red tinge of the planet, like Mars.  Also surprising was the smoothness of its surface, with its lack of cratering, indicating a geologically alive core. Mountains at least 11,000 feet high were discovered (measured by the length of their shadow from the a perspective of the flyby). This was totally unexpected.  My own take is that the massive craters we see on Earth and the Moon and Mars and Mercury were the result of the Sun's gravitational pull on the Solar System's debris, which is comparatively slight out at Pluto's distance. But that is just an amateurish speculation on my part.

After the immediate flyby, New Horizons snapped shots of the entire Pluto System.  It fell into the shadow of the dwarf planet at 8:45 AM this past Tuesday.  I look forward to seeing how it looks from that perspective, eclipsing the Sun at that great distance.  By 10 AM its speeding trajectory briefly fell in the shadow of Charon.  The probe continued to gather data until about 4:30 when it used its limited power to switch from data gathering to transmission mode, which it will remain in for most of the the next 16 months.  The probe is so far away that it takes about 4 and a half hours to send data to Earth.  And it is constantly moving further away.

The easiest way to grasp the distances involved within our Solar System is through Astronomical Units (AUs).  The Earth is about 93,000,000 miles from the Sun and that equals 1 AU. Jupiter orbits at a distance of about 5 AU.  Pluto has in irregular oval orbit that averages about 39 AU.  That's a long way out.  

Going to Pluto in just nine years is hauling ass in space within present human limitations.  Of course, this is still a small thing, an undetectable thing in the vastness of space itself. But it is nevertheless a magical human moment.  We sent Clyde Tombaugh to Pluto and beyond.  He now joins Voyager 1 and 2 as well as Pioneer 10 and 11 in the furthest reaches of human touch.  Hello out there...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Listening to The Monsanto Years

You can watch the band record the album "live" on the DVD. They set everything up in a small theater.  Lukas Nelson is in the center of this shot.  His bassist, Cory McCormick, is behind Neil and Old Black.  Micah Nelson is in the background.
It isn't unusual for Neil Young to venture out with some new music that is not universally accepted.  Much of his voluminous work features a rough-hewn dissonance that is demanding on the average listener.  Consider, for example, Broken Arrow (1996).  Fork In the Road (2009) is a more recent example, but this particular Neil-style goes all the way back to the infamous ditch trilogy and such classic albums as Tonight'sThe Night (1975) and even the mega-hit Rust Never Sleeps (1979).  There might not be a more challenging song to listen to in Neil's vast repertoire (though others equal it) than "Welfare Mothers."

The Monsanto Years is not that song, nor is it Fork In The Road.  Reviewers who feel it is "trash" and "not worth listening to" are certainly entitled to their intimate reaction.  It is good to see Neil still elicits such strong responses and opinions of distaste among the public.  It is usually a sign that he is on track and splendidly following his muse.  The album is slightly uneven but, when you break it down tune by tune, there is some strong material here that is more than worth the investment of getting into by the true Rustie.

"A New Day for Love" has a nice ragged feel to it.  It is vocally rough on the ears, but Neil fans have learned to push through these moments.  Usually you are rewarded by what the music delivers overall.  This is a happy hippie rocker.  The most noteworthy thing about this song is Neil's new backing band, Promise of the Real (the band's website describes itself as performing "cowboy hippie surf rock.")  What a refreshing update to the battered and bruised state that Crazy Horse has ended up in (Poncho broke his hand, Billy had a stroke, Rick, Billy's replacement, recently died).  This album is the rebirth of Neil with young and vibrant talent rocking in a vaguely southern style.

Most critics of this material have focused on the lackluster and raw nature of the lyrics that often don't rhyme.  Eh.  They misunderstand Neil, characterizing him as anxious, hurried and, most especially, as an angry Neil.  Well the words do have a spontaneous, hasty, and unpolished feel to them.  But so do so many other Neil Young songs.  This should not surprise anyone.  This ain't Harvest Moon (1992) people.  And thank god for that.  I like my Neil in all his many forms and the more varied he is, the more interesting (and unique) he becomes.  I do not relate to the critique that Neil is angry here simply because most of the music is loud, his themes are political and economic, and his voice is strong and confident.  Instead, the whole album feels youthful to me.  Again, Promise of the Real is the backbone upon which we witness the rebirth of Neil.  He ain't so much angry here folks as he is uppity and confident.

But, the album features some kinder, gentler tunes as well.  Ironically, the second song, “Wolf Moon,” could have fit in nicely on Harvest Moon.  It is mostly acoustic and perhaps the album’s most accessible tune, at times beautiful.  It has a very folksy, even haunting, feel to it. Yet, like track 7 further down, I would consider it to be one of the weaker links in this musical chain.

People Want to Hear About Love” is one of those songs Neil writes where the chorus and verses are deceptively polar opposites (like “Rockin'in the Free World” [1989], though that tune is a different Neil genre).  The catchy refrain and guitar work make this appear to be a feel good song.  This is actually a biting song about how people tune out the very real troubles of the world that affect their lives in order to enjoy the easy "love song" culture.  As such, this might be a song of self-critique regarding the nature of The Monsanto Years and how it is likely received by mainstream culture.  At times it sounds like postmodern Allman Brothers Band music. I really like this song, both in its performance and in its deeper meaning.

Big Box” reminds me of my favorite Neil tune so far in the 21st century, “Restless Consumer” (off Living With War (2006).  It is the best song on the album and possibly the best music Neil has written in a couple of decades.  An outstanding power rocker with the band playing solidly in support.  It features Neil very effectively trading lead guitar riffs with Lukas Nelson.  Nelson provides the spirit of what Danny Whitten did on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). He often plays rhythm but sometimes he leads Neil and the others.  This song flat out jams and it feels great.  Meanwhile, of course, Old Black roars into action a couple of times and carries everything on its mighty shoulders.  I crank this one up LOUD.  Awesome music.  Even though the lyrics are somewhat over the top at times, anyone saying this album is trash or even blah needs to give this particular tune further consideration.  This is a strong, youth-like Neil, having a great time.  I can't recommend it highly enough. It musically takes me back to American Stars ‘n Bars (1977).

A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” is a great follow-up to “Big Box.”  It is a fun song, much lighter musically (yet the lyrics are distinctively pointed) than most of the album’s other material.  It has a nice slow groovy vibe to it.  The group's whistling is campy but that just makes the song’s whimsical spirit all the more pronounced.  Very catchy and I have found myself on more than one occasion humming it in my head and, yes, even whistling it in my car.  There's no angry Neil here.  This is a focused but playful Neil.  A really fine tune.

Workin' Man” takes me back to Time Fades Away (1973) - another indication of the resurgence of Neil thanks to his playing with Promise of the Real.  It is fast, steady and raunchy. It is driven by Neil's deep empathy with blue-collar values.  "Well, I don't know you, but I do know who I am" is one of my favorite lyrics on the album. Really nice harmonica as the band clangs along on this one.  This song has a Monsanto-heavy message to it.  You can either let that add to the effect or ignore the lyrics entirely.  I like this one, it’s Dylansque.

Rules of Change” is not a highlight.  This one is oddly vocal-centric.  The singing has to carry the weight here, the musicianship is a muted though powerful minimalism.  Eh.  Perhaps for that reason, Promise Of The Real gets to demonstrate their talents a bit more prominently.  They are worth listening to even though the song overall is so-so at best.

Monsanto Years” is a solid song with Neil featuring Old Black and the band.  A direct shot at what the company Monsanto does for business.  It features a really good guitar duel with Lukas on lead; very solid but not as good as some other songs mentioned here.  The vocals work well on this one, which is an odd thing to say about it.

If I Don't Know” is definitely worth a listen.  We are back to the Neil of Are You Passionate? (2002).  A vaguely soulful, semi-Motown Neil here as weird as that might sound.  Lukas and Micah carry a lot of this song’s weight.  Perhaps this is Neil’s tribute back to Promise of the Real.  Probably not.  But it sounds that way to me; which is magical.

I highly recommend The Monsanto Years.  A small part of it is mediocre Neil, most of it of it is worthy Neil, and at least a third of it is solidly impressive Neil - if you are a Rustie you know the many "grades" of Neil.  This one, at its best, is certainly comparable to his work on Psychedelic Pill (2012), Chrome Dreams II (2007), or Prairie Wind (2005) and it is, at times, better than anything of these other fine records.

There is an obvious improvement in sound quality on the DVD compared with the CD.  Plus the DVD has some video touches that are worth watching.  Mostly, however, it is just the band playing together.  This record was recorded “live” in the classic sense.  The band was in one big theater room.  No isolation booths for the separate recording of each instrument.  And almost no overdubbing, like I said, live.  A great bonus is actually watching Micah Nelson play his various stringed instruments at times strumming, at times picking, and frequently using a bow like playing a violin or cello.


The Monsanto Years sounds like a new beginning for Neil Young, even though it also hearkens back to his early Crazy Horse work like Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.  I can only hope he decides to work again with Lukas and Micah Nelson.  Promise of the Real is a band with a future and their youthful energy is exactly what Neil needs to tap into to re-energize himself after the seeming demise of Crazy Horse.  Out of the remains of that long and satisfying collaboration a new spirit emerges in this music, worthy of further exploration.  But - as every Rustie knows - there is no telling what comes next with Neil Young.  All we have is the promise of the Now and The Monsanto Years rocks the Now just fine.

The Monsanto Years is #7 in all of music and #4 in rock music on amazon.com as of this post.

Late Note:  The Monsanto Years debuted at #21 on the Billboard Top 200.  This marks the 40th time Neil has cracked the Top 40 with an album on the Billboard charts. Phenomenal staying power for a rock artist.