◊◊◊ “the big and little dippers, Polaris, Cassiopeia, Orion in winter, and Sirius, of course” : The big and little dippers aren’t constellations, but asterisms. The stars that make up the dippers are part of the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the big and little bears. Polaris is the north star. Cassiopeia is the constellation that looks like a big W in the sky (Cassiopeia was forced to be upside-down in the heavens because she dared to claim she was more beautiful than the sea-nymphs). Orion is the mighty hunter, easily seen by the pattern of three stars at his belt (he’s chasing the Pleiades, the seven sisters– the much fainter constellation that looks like a tiny version of the little dipper) (the legend being that Orion saw the sisters, decided he wanted them, tried to grab them, but they ran. When he was close to getting them, they prayed for an escape, and Zeus turned them into birds, and then to stars. Unfortunately for them, when Orion died, he was also given a place in the heavens, so the chase continues). Sirius is the brightest star in the sky (other than the sun, of course) (it’s called the Dog Star, and is part of the constellation Canis Major– i.e., “Big Dog”).
◊◊◊ “You miss your room full of Hargrave and Musgrove children at Christmas?” : in Jane Austen’s book, “Persuasion,” there’s a Christmas party where tons of kids and adults are making a “domestic hurricane.” Mrs. Musgrove leans over to the main character and says she’s sure her daughter will benefit from having “a little quiet cheerfulness at home.” Another character hates that noise, but loves the din of Bath. Austen suggests that what we associate with a sound is what makes the sound “quite innoxious, or most distressing[.]”
◊◊◊ “Zheng He” : Lived 1371-1433. Born to Chinese Muslim parents. When he was 10 years old, his town was conquered, and he was among the captured boys who were castrated and sent to the army. He distinguished himself there, then became a serious player at court, then headed seven voyages across the ocean, and, evidence suggests, sent fleets across the world.
◊◊◊ “Scylla and Charybdis.” : Odysseus had to sail between these monsters. Charybdis sucked in the ocean (making a whirlpool of utter destruction) while Scylla would jump down from the cliffs to grab and eat sailors.
◊◊◊ “Democracy in America, Plutarch’s Lives, and War and Peace.” In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville published “Democracy in America” which details why the experiment of democracy succeeded in America though it failed in France. Around 100 A.D., Plutarch (a Greek trained in Roman learning) wrote a series where he chose a certain trait, then picked a Greek and a Roman who exhibited that trait, then compared the two lives (it felt like the Greek guy beat the Roman guy more than he should have– maybe a little home cooking by the ref? Plutarch’s personal comments on these famous heroes and villains have a wit in them that sounds so modern it makes me laugh). In 1869 Leo Tolstoy published “War and Peace,” which explores Napoleon’s invasion of Russia through the eyes of several interesting characters. It deserves its reputation as one of the best books ever written.
◊◊◊ “Then he brings up electromagnetism. We debate string theory for a short while.” Electromagnetism is the fundamental force that’s responsible for electricity and magnetism. Though all four fundamental forces are crazy-weird and have direct effects on our ability to live, electromagnetism is the one we manipulate in our everyday technological lives. If you want a quick “in” to how cool it is, check out the “Electricity” and the “Magnetism” videos in “The Science of Disney Imagineering” series. Amazon link String theory is the idea that electrons (and other tiny bits of matter) behave sort of like stretchy strings, rather than like planets in orbit or like pure waves of energy.
◊◊◊ “He abruptly switches to Impressionism, and then to Escher…” : Around 1860, a bunch of artists couldn’t get their work accepted into the stuffy exhibitions, so they got together and had a display of their rejected works. Their art is characterized by use of color and brushstrokes to convey the feeling of a scene, and a certain amount of intelligent rebellion against rules of composition. Escher died in 1972. He used math, especially tessellations and impossible perspective lines, to create precise images that toy with a person’s imagination.
◊◊◊ “Maxwell’s Transformation” : Unfortunately, the heroine has conflated some ideas. Thomas is too kind to point this out. In Chapter 11 and Appendix 1 of “Relativity” by Albert Einstein, Einstein briefly discusses the “Lorentz Transformation,” which is a series of equations used to reconcile the absolute limit of the maximum speed of light with the practical fact of different observers moving in spacetime at different velocities. Some great videos on this concept begin here: Khan Academy Lorentz Transformation. Maxwell’s equations deal with electricity and magnetism. If you skim through Sections 18-3 and 18-4 of the Feynman Lectures, Caltech lectures, you’ll notice that Maxwell’s equations have something to do with the ideas of relativity (even if you don’t want to follow the math). The Lorentz force also has a role here. An accessible explanation of this stuff is found in Lecture 4 (“Let There Be Light!”) of “Einstein’s relativity and the quantum revolution: modern physics for non-scientists” by Richard Wolfson. Course description page. The heroine’s mistake shows that she’s only gone wading by the shore in the ocean of physics. (I realize some readers might decide the author is an idiot and stop reading, but I wanted to keep this mistake in, anyway. It demonstrates her level of physics knowledge in a way that ought to be completely missed by a non-expert, and should be noticed with, hopefully, some humorous compassion by the physics-intelligentsia.)
◊◊◊ “Orville and Wilbur”: the Wright brothers, who, On December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, after 4 years of scientific study of the principles of flight, successfully launched the era of powered flight. National Park Service
◊◊◊ “my Prismacolor number 197, or maybe 28. The gold could be a 1002…” Prismacolor makes excellent art pencils. The numbers identifying each color have stayed fairly consistent over time. If you Google “Primascolor 197” you can find images for that particular green. If you click on the “150” set of pencils on this link: 150 pencil box set, and click on the color palette, it will give you the number for that color.
◊◊◊ “and compare Pachacuti with Lycurgas and Ch’in” : Three rather totalitarian, war-like, and extremely sophisticated empire builders. Each turned a collection of war-beset kingdoms or tribes into a single cohesive political unit, establishing a new level of safety and prosperity, and eradicating conflicting cultural ideas. Pachacuti (1438-1471 AD) did this with the peoples on the west coast of South America, Lycurgas (800-730 BC) did this with the Greeks (often associated with the Spartans), and Ch’in (221-206 BC) did this with the Chinese.