There has been a flurry of striking news stories from outer space. Closest to home, though still impressively far away, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, seems to have reached the “heliosheath” — the boundary zone between the influence of the Sun, as defined by the “solar wind” of particles the Sun emits, and interstellar space. The plucky little spacecraft is two and a half times farther away from the Sun than Pluto ever gets, and still operating. Five hundred times farther away than that, astronomers have found the most earthlike planet yet, orbiting a sunlike star. The mean surface temperature on Kepler-22b is a pleasant 72 degrees. And half a million times farther away than that, two black holes of record size have been discovered, one 10 billion times more massive than the Sun, one 20 billion times. The black holes sound terrifying; Kepler-22b sounds intriguing; but we will save our enthusiasm for Voyager 1, which we Americans made and sent on its way, and which bears an audio-visual selection of information about our planet and our species, including a Chuck Berry song, a picture of Boston, a sketch of the human sex organs, and a greeting from Jimmy Carter.
New York University is set to become the first college in the United States to offer classes in Occupy Wall Street, when two new for-credit classes join the timetables next semester. In keeping with the inchoate nature of the movement, both classes — one for undergraduates, one for graduates — have a “rotating focus.” Expect the subject to rotate to the evils of government if a Republican wins the White House in 2012. NYU’s move appears to have been quite brilliantly designed to ensure the maintenance of a vicious cycle and ensure that the course’s content never becomes stale: In this vein, expect more debt-laden graduates to stand around complaining about the uselessness of their costly education about four years from now.
Michigan and Wisconsin are embroiled in a dispute over which state looks more like a mitten. The controversy began when a Michigan resident noticed that Wisconsin was using a mitten to symbolize itself in a marketing campaign. Blasphemy, he declared: Everybody knows Michigan is the Mitten State, while Wisconsin looks like one only if you stretch the thumb part over your pinky. Wisconsin partisans retorted that at least their state doesn’t have to leave out an entire peninsula — and besides, Wisconsin beat Michigan State for this year’s Big Ten football championship, so there. An online survey at TravelMichigan.com predictably showed Michigan winning in a 5–1 landslide; international monitors have yet to weigh in on the survey’s fairness. Mitt Romney was unavailable for comment until he could check the two states’ polling data. Meanwhile, we’re told that Wyoming and Colorado will soon slug it out over which state more closely resembles a Pop-Tart.
What would the Christmas season be without a War on Christmas story? Here’s one from Stockton, Calif. Teachers at a local K-through-8 school have been told that Santas, Christmas trees, and poinsettia plants are not to be displayed, though snowmen and snowflakes are acceptable. Why the ban? There are a “myriad of religious affiliations,” quoth the superintendent, and “we don’t want a pervasive theme of a class to represent one religious affiliation.” If you can make sense of that, you’re smart enough to be an ed bureaucrat in California. After many protests the superintendent seems to have backed off, though his English usage is so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to tell: “Well-intentioned people may take a step that’s incongruous with district expectations. That’s been corrected.” Meanwhile, in Florida, there is a dire shortage of multicultural Santas, with speakers of Spanish and Haitian Creole especially in demand for community centers and churches. Black Santas, too: “When Santa bears the face that kids can connect to, it can raise their self-esteem,” caroled a local community activist. What could be more important than raising kiddies’ self-esteem? Assimilation into a common culture? Ho ho ho!