Assemby Articles

A Cosmologist’s View of the Northern Michigan Sky

Interview by Ginanne Brownell      7.22.2020

Even though he is a Princeton University-trained cosmologist (and now teaches there), William “Bill” Jones says he can still appreciate the Family on beachaesthetic beauty of the Northern Michigan night sky. Bill first came up to the CSA in 2001 after he started dating Molly Hood and he jokes that he’s still considered a “newbie.” Though the couple, who have two daughters, now live in Princeton, New Jersey, they still make the haul up to Benzie County every summer. This academic year Bill, who is an associate professor, will be taking on the added role as director of the undergraduate physics program at Princeton this academic year. Sitting at a social distance at one of the picnic tables at the Crystal View Bill talked about his research on cosmic microwave background radiation, why more and more people are finding physics pretty cool to learn about and what the stars in Michigan look like to him. EXCERPTS:

 

Ginanne Brownell: In very layman’s terms, can you tell me a bit about your research?

I consider myself a cosmologist, which is just a fancy word for run of the mill physicist who is studying things that are best learned by using the universe as a laboratory. You can imagine there's a class of things where it's best to just have a benchtop experiment. And you can run your experiment and you can compare the outcome of that experiment with your theory. But there's a whole class of theories that can't be tested through benchtop experiments, or even here on Earth. This is the case when the energies involved are too high or the scales are too big. For example, if you want to see how gravity behaves on the scale of the entire universe. There's not an experiment you can do on a lab bench to test this.  The only thing you can do is to use the universe itself as a laboratory, which is what we do when we make observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation. 

Sorry, but I don’t even know what that means — my physics knowledge is very limited.

Okay, so in the big picture view of the universe the case observationally is that everything in space is expanding right now. And the implication of that, if it's expanding now at some earlier time, the whole place was a lot denser. And when you do that in a quantitative way, based on the measurements that we've made, you can trace that all the way back to the point where the whole universe was a really hot, dense environment. And to a good approximation, the whole universe is just hydrogen gas, like just what the sun is made of. That’s kind of interesting because if you push it back that far, and you look at it, it's all plasma at that point.  We know how plasmas behave so we can make that in a benchtop. And we very well understand the physics that determines plasmas. We know what would happen when we go from that state of the universe when it's all plasma to letting it cool.

How many years ago are we talking about here?

About 14 billion. Based on the measurements we've made we know that what would happen is it would go from that plasma material to a neutral hydrogen gas pretty quickly as it expands. Because it expands and it cools. We know that it would neutralize. And the implication of that is all that light that was bouncing around in that plasma, as it was a plasma as soon as it turns into a neutral gas, that light would just propagate, and there'd be nothing to interfere with it. That means that if we just build an instrument that is sensitive to that kind of light, and look anywhere, we should measure it.  We should find it.

Okay, tell me more.

Imagine going from a completely opaque place where if you're a light particle, and you're just scattering around all over the place, just like light microwave telescopehappens, then all of a sudden, everything becomes transparent. And so that light is what we refer to as the cosmic microwave background. Microwave just tells you what wavelength that light is. The prediction is that we should be able to measure this. And in fact, we can. And it's kind of cool, because since it hasn't really interacted with anything in 14 billion years, it's basically a snapshot of what the universe was like 14 billion years ago. And it's pristine, there's been nothing interfering with it. And when you're in any area of physics what you dream about is having a theory that makes a prediction. And it makes a prediction for something that you can measure and that the connection between the thing you measure and the thing you predict is as simple as possible. And that's the beauty about the CMB is that it's so simple, right? It's just a plasma, and then it becomes transparent. And it's a very simple theory.

Is this your theory then?

No, I'm an experimentalist. Smart people have sat down and come up with predictions about what one should measure if you can measure this stuff. We are sort of in the camp of those that go out and make those measurements and try to connect them to the theoretical prediction. The microwave background was first discovered in in the 1960’s. And in fact, the Nobel Prize last year was for that, and it went to Princeton’s Jim Peebles who made a lot of the predictions about what the microwave background can tell us.

Were you all very excited?

Super excited.  He's also the nicest guy in the world. He’s the Dumbledore [the headmaster of the Wizarding school in the Harry Potter books] of physics. Unfortunately, we didn't get to have a lot of the celebrations because of Covid.

There seems to be a greater interest and appreciation for physics lately. Like in the U.K. where I live Professor Brian Cox is a cosmologist who does hugely popular television programs on the universe.

There are a lot of people out there who are extremely well read in cosmology or physics generally. And are just very curious. But there are also a lot of people that for whatever reason, find it too intimidating.  I find that it bifurcates: there are those people who are like super engaged. And then there's other people are like, “Whoa, next! Sounds boring. I hated it in college and I still hate it.”

I didn’t want to talk about COVID but one of the things that I understand many scientists are worried about is that articles on research and experiments are not being peer-reviewed, which normally is the absolute norm and expectation in the science field in general. Is that scary?

This could backfire as people might [then] say, “Oh, well, the scientists don't know what they're talking about, they're totally wrong about the way it was transmitted.” It's like, “Well, they weren't wrong, they just said it’s likely this but we don't know.” And that's not satisfying. And it's easily interpreted as just being wrong and useless. Which is different than just being sort of correct within the error bar.

Moving to a happier subject, tell me a bit about the night sky here in Northern Michigan.

Well, here's the amazing thing. When we look from Michigan, we’ll see much the same sky that others will see from New York or Toronto or wherever, though you are a little bit further north.  But it's more or less the same stars. If you counted all the stars you could see you might get a couple thousand. And all the stars that we see are just in a relatively enclosed area around our sun. If you imagine the galaxy is like extra-large pizza, we are a piece of pepperoni about two thirds of the way out. And if you imagine all the stars that we can see, they're just a little cluster around us. Now that's not to say that they aren't super far away. All the stars that we see are just mind bogglingly far away from us. But that just tells you how big the pizza is. Most of my research has to do with not seeing what's in our galaxy, it’s of trying to look out of our galaxy, away from all of our stars, to try and see the more distant objects behind it.

Actors will say it’s hard for them to watch plays without critiquing the acting, and chefs will say they don’t like to eat out because they are analysing the food and ingredients too much. As a cosmologist, can you ever just look at the night sky here at the CSA and enjoy it?

Absolutely. It’s gorgeous.  The greatest thing, in my opinion about astrophysics is just the variety of absolutely beautiful phenomena that are out there. And you can take a picture of a planetary nebula, which, you know, there's a lot of interesting physics going on there. But they're also just gorgeous. It's like looking at a really intricate flower and it's just another one of nature's creations and that’s absolutely beautiful.

sky viewed from telescope

Important Message from the Board of Trustees

By Alan Marble  7.18.2020

The Congregational Summer Assembly needs your help. In this extraordinary summer, two issues continue to bubble up to the forefront. Both issues need the immediate attention and assistance of everyone in the community.
THE CRYSTAL LAKE FIRE PIT:

csafb030Firepit 107462947 10157186883471128 8973346970286951389 oStarted several years ago with the driving force of the Walton family to honor their parents, the fire pit below the Crystal View was developed with the approval of the CSA Board. It provides an ideal spot for a family outing or a (physically distanced) meeting of CSA friends. The attractiveness of the fire pit has brought it some unwelcome attention which threatens its future. Loud gatherings after 11 p.m., prohibited use of alcohol on CSA common property, and acts of vandalism have compelled the Board of Trustees to formulate a make-or-break plan for its use. 
 
To accomplish this, we need everyone’s help.

  • CSA quiet hours, from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m., must be observed. You must leave the fire pit at 11 p.m.
  • At the same time, everyone must be aware of, and observe, the prohibition of the use of alcohol, drugs, and marijuana on CSA common grounds.
  • Parents of teens please talk with your children to reinforce the need for strict compliance with these rules for use of the firepit. 

As a community, we must use the fire pit safely and courteously.
 
A motion-sensor light was installed this week that will be activated by movement after 11 p.m. each night. Hopefully, this deterrent to after-hours activity will not be needed if enough CSA folks embrace the importance of this issue and the steps being taken to resolve the issue. Signs will be placed that the motion light will be activated during quiet hours.

If the motion-sensor light is damaged by vandalism, or if the rules about noise after 11 pm or use of prohibited substances are not followed, the fire pit will be shut down.

 

THE DUNES AT LAKE MICHIGAN CONTINUE TO ERODE:

Lake Michigan BluffHelp save our dunes! The Board of Trustees is making the plea to refrain from climbing our Lake Michigan dunes.  

  • Each time a person or dog makes the round-trip to the water’s edge, another shovel-full or two is pushed downhill because of the effort in climbing. 
  • There is a serious threat of harm to the persons climbing the dunes. Layers of clay and gravel cling vertically to the slope and, like an avalanche in the mountains, may be triggered to collapse which could trap or suffocate a child.
  • Continued erosion may make it impossible to climb up from the lakeshore.
  • Signs will be posted to encourage compliance.

Please stay off the Lake Michigan dunes...for your sake, and for the sake of the future of our CSA bluff.

Pandemics of the Past in Northern Michigan

By Ginanne Brownell and Maeve Madden

Summer is here, but not all things are as usual due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many summer residents of Benzie County, Michigan are assessing what will be safest for their families as well as the overall community this season. While some have made the heart-breaking decision to stay away this year, others have decided that the benefits of the trip outweigh the risks of travel.

In Europe during this Covid-19 crisis, borders that no longer existed—like between Austria and Slovakia—have sprung back up again much to the chagrin of European Union nationals. And while this does seem rather shocking to those who have gotten used to borderless journeys between countries, it was not that long ago where checkpoints were just a rather dull but ubiquitous part of summer travel to get to heaving Italian beaches or charming provincial French towns.

But imagine if the same had been implemented in the U.S. between different states – unlikely, yes, but strange things have abounded over the last several months - or even between counties in the same state. There were rumours of blockades that might go up on the East Coast, while some New Yorkers who have weekend residences in Rhode Island were visited by the state troopers and the National Guard asking how long they had been at their homes.  Interestingly enough, that precedence was set “Up North” back in 1919 during the Spanish Flu pandemic between Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. 

The flu came in three waves in 1918: the first appeared in the spring of that year (called “three-day fever”), the second in late summer and into the autumn was more deadly, and the third wave towards the end of the year and into early 1919 became less potent. There were other smaller waves that arose throughout that year and even into 1920. According to Mlive.com, state health records from that time show that more than 15,000 people died of the flu in Michigan between October 1918 and April 1919. (To put it into perspective to show how lethal that influenza strain was, in 1917 there were only 544 deaths from the flu). With an estimated population in Benzie County of just under 10,500 in 1918, there were a total of 118 deaths that year, up just three percent from 1917. Between January 1918 and April 1919, Benzie’s monthly death toll went from a low of three in March to a high of 23 in December.

Northern Michigan had implemented lockdowns and quarantines on October 1918 when a 14-year-old boy from Buckley died from the flu. The schools in that town were closed, as were pool and billiard halls while public gatherings were cancelled. Shoppers were asked to “keep moving” while they were in stores with other people. Meanwhile, according to a Record Patriot article (https://www.recordpatriot.com/columns/article/Historical-Society-The-horror-of-the-Spanish-Flu-14316396.php) that month in Benzie County a Frankfort doctor reported 16 cases of the flu, including the teachers for 4th and 6th grades. In Benzonia the schools and the Congregational churches closed down for two weeks.

In Traverse City there was a special wing in the State Hospital (which these days goes by the fancy moniker of “The Village at Grand Traverse Commons”), set up just for flu patients. However, the Record-Eagle newspaper reported that there was concern over the behavior of some of the staff who, on their off hours, went cavorting in dance halls, visited theaters and played billiards. “During working hours, attaches wear anti-flu masks and exercise caution to prevent the spread of the disease [but] when night arrives, some slip off their masks and go down town [sic] where they mingle freely with crowds with total disregard for the safety of others.”

Red Cross canvassers went door to door across the city trying to assess an accurate account of those that were sick. For those who were ill they had their houses marked and people living there were told to observe quarantine rules. As things went from bad to worse in Traverse City, those in Leelanau County watched on in horror. During the last wave more than 250 cases of the flu were diagnosed across Leelanau County in early January 1919. According to a 2018 story in Northern Express to mark the 100th anniversary of the pandemic, (https://www.northernexpress.com/news/feature/the-great-flu-pandemic-of-1918 ), locals blamed it on people coming to the area from Traverse City so they petitioned Lansing to quarantine the county so that anyone coming into Leelanau would have to agree to be detained for four days to show they were not carrying the flu.  A state health department official reprimanded local officials in Traverse City over what he saw as their reckless regard stating that they had not handled the situation properly and “you have laughed at us and ignored our suggestions and orders.” By early February the number of deaths had dropped and borders between the two counties were lifted.

In terms of the Congregational Summer Assembly, there was barely a mention of the Spanish Flu in the summer of 1918 and activities continued as planned. Julie Pray Walton did some research in the CSA Archives and found that the Board of Trustees (BOT) met in Chicago at the YMCA in January, February, April and December of that year, presumably to discuss what to do both about the summer season of 1918 and for 1919. There were also BOT meetings at the CSA dining hall in August and they designated August 22nd as the “Community and Patriotic Day”, which included inviting the wider Beulah, Benzonia and Frankfort communities to join in the festivities.

According to Walton’s research, “There is no mention, not a single one, of Spanish flu, or of taking particular precautions as an organization to decrease infection risk.” Those who have had renewed interest in the history of the Spanish Flu at the time will note, part of that could have been because there was censorship in the press. John M. Barry, the author of “The Great Influenza” wrote that, “As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. [They] terrified by making so little of it, for what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured. People could not trust what they read.” (https://newrepublic.com/article/157094/americas-newspapers-covered-pandemic).

Walton found that the spring 1918 meetings at the YMCA in Chicago were particularly concerned with the Pere Marquette railroad schedules, and whether or not enough wood and ice had been cut and stored to last the season. She also found that there was a concern over whether it would be possible for the “personal closets” filled with “night soil” [which she assumes were shared toilets] could be cleaned better/more often in the upcoming summer.

There was also mention of how to deal with ongoing debt issues. The treasurer was nervous that the CSA was not paying/could not pay its bills. And there were mundane staffing issues over concern of how to go about finding a new local manager as the existing one had informed them that he’d like to resign after many years of service. “So, the CSA remained open and the meagre minutes make no mention of whether or not fewer families than usual made the trip to the CSA,” Walton noted.

Certainly, this summer will be one for the history books, as it will be the first time in the CSA’s history that programming will not be functioning like it has for the past 118 summers. But the expectation of the Board of Trustees is that by closing the CSA this summer, it could help prevent the spread of Covid-19 not only to those who still decide to make the journey to Pilgrim, but to the wider Benzie and Northern Michigan communities as well. And by supressing it this year, the hope is that things like the tennis tournament, the operettas, church services, swimming lessons and potluck dinners will happen again with renewed enthusiasm next summer and forever onwards. 

 

Old and New Assembly Building

This summer will be one for the history books at the Congregational Summer Assembly, as it will be the only time in 119 years that they have kept it closed due to the current pandemic. 

About the authors: Ginanne Brownell is a London-based journalist who writes about arts, culture and development for publications including the New York Times and CNN. She is a lifelong summer resident of Benzie County. Maeve Madden is an incoming Junior at the University of Dayton. She studies Communications and Marketing and has spent summers up north for 19 years. This summer she is the Congregational Summer Assembly’s Communications/Archives Intern.

"Of Mice and Men" with apologies to John Steinbeck 7.10.20

By Alan Marble

You have crested the hill and gone beneath the familiar arch and are descending into the little city of Frankfort...so many friends and familiar faces are waiting to welcome you and yours.

Well, this year there is an abundance of not-so-familiar faces also waiting for you...call it a cast of thousands...in the various forms of one of the most prolific orders of life on earth….the rodents. Defined largely by their pairs of constantly-growing incisors, rodents in North America run the gamut from tiny deer mice....an abundant species here...all the way up to the master of northwoods dam construction, the beaver, which can approach 70 pounds in remote areas of its range.  Let’s focus on the li’l fellers that scratch around at night along Lover’s Lane, making the dead leaves rustle on the forest floor and occasionally blurting high-pitched squeals and hollow “tocks” as they go about their gnawing existence.

This is what wildlife biologists refer to as an “irruption” year.  Several factors - life cycles, a very mild winter, an abundance of last fall’s bounty of acorns and beechnuts and pin cherries - collide to produce skyrocketing numbers of the buck-toothed brigade.  It’s an up-and-down sort of thing. This year the explosion of rodents guarantees that every fledgling predator born this year - barred owl, screech owl, fox, bobcat, coyote, red-shouldered hawks and Cooper’s hawks - will be well-fed and prosper.  Next year the odds will flip. More predators, less fodder for their nestlings.

For many of us, opening up the cottage upon arrival is a joyous affair. Sweeping aside the sheets that draped the furniture, taking down the shutters and opening the windows to chase the seasonal musty odor.  This year, parts of those sheets have been gnawed away and used to make mouse nests, often in places that surprise us - inside your gas grill (better check it first before you fire it up!), under your kitchen sink and inside a small tear in the corner of the customary old mattress on the rollaway that is rarely used.  And that musty odor is mingled with another smell, a noxious, fetid stench that signals death and decay on a rodent-sized scale.  Finding that bit of rotting matter can be difficult. If there is a positive side, it is that the amount of the decay is small and clears up rather quickly. 

So, who are we talking about?  In the woods of northwest Michigan, the primary players are deer mice and white-footed mice (very closely related), the woodland vole, which generally plays nice and stays outside, and chipmunks and red squirrels.  We have other fascinating rodents which usually don’t cause too many problems - the northern flying squirrel with its jumbo dark eyes and soft-as-chinchilla fur, and the woodland jumping mouse, sort of like the kangaroo rat of the desert, usually only seen at night in the headlights as you come home on Alden Edwards and catch a glimpse of a tiny, bounding mouse. Grey squirrels (and the common color-phase black squirrels) and fox squirrels are likewise off-the-charts in numbers this year, but, as a rule, the only problems they cause are at bird feeders. 

deer mouseOur two mouse species love the mix of woods and your home, especially the many porous, old cottages that provide many avenues of entrance and adventure. It doesn’t take much more than an opening of ¼ inch to signal the “welcome” mat.  Mice are climbing sons of guns. Earlier this summer I went to fill a hanging squirrel-proof (really, no kidding...at least, so far…) bird feeder, 6 feet above the ground when under the lid a deer mouse gave me that look, “Nuthin’ to see here, mister!” before leaping to the ground and scurrying into the wood pile. Mice love boating, too...well actually, they love boats, and show amazing ability to get inside them, gnaw on battery cables and sails and soft, chewy lifejackets and boat seats. 

Chipmunks and red squirrels are closely related, but as far apart on the personality spectrum as two cousins can be.  The eastern chipmunk is as cute as a newborn fawn - agile, tame, inquisitive - a terrific fighter when it comes to breeding season, which is about every other day (not really, but it seems like it).  Big eyes, big teeth, big cheeks, packed with sunflower seeds.  They tend to stay out of your home but love garages with open doors and stored dog food and bird seed.  They also burrow around your foundation and in your flower beds.  If they were as homely as star-nosed moles (seriously, look it up) we would despise them, but they aren’t, so we tend to give them a pass.  Usually!

red squirrel 7674 515662Red squirrels are the pirates of the mixed northern hardwood forest, a scourge to all.  When a red squirrel decides that it disapproves of your presence, the noisy, chattering invective will drive you away. If it could be translated into English, I dare say the air would be blue.  They are super-rodents, in that they also love small nestling birds for a meal along with sunflowers and acorns.  They love the great indoors, as well, and a red squirrel that spends time in your cottage will shred everything it can and eat the insulation in your ceiling.  Trouble on a stick!

What can we do?  There is an abundance of pest control businesses that offer their services, usually in the form of enclosed “traps” that provide permitted poison to rodents small enough to enter and exit the trap.  Granular poison provides similar control but needs to be confined to areas where birds and pets cannot get to it.  Both poison alternatives pose a real threat in the form of collateral damage, when a predator eats a poisoned rodent and may get a sufficient dose to make it sick, or, in smaller predators, kill it. 

The most humane approach is the old-fashioned mouse trap and the many easier-to-set modern versions which don’t make you jump when you accidentally set it down and trip it. A little peanut butter on the pan usually turns the trick.  The large size works on chipmunks if they have decided to share your hot tub...meaning, they get inside the works and shred the insulation and eat the wiring.  Red squirrels - good luck!  What we need is a population of pine martens - a species of weasel that forsook the ground for the trees, and are as fast as greased lightning in pursuit of red squirrels - but their range just doesn’t quite stretch to Benzie County. 

Best thing to do is not fret about it. Do what you can to mouse-proof your cottage, keep pet food and bird seed out of range, and enjoy the sideshow.  Listen to the tremolo of the screech owls and the hilarious laughter of the barred owls...the distinctive “kee yar” of the red-shouldered hawk and the sharp, sassy bark of the red fox vixen as she gathers little rodent corpses for her kits...and know that Mother Nature will sort it all out.