I'm stopping in the middle of an epic road trip to post this from a diner in York, Pennsylvania. I am headed for Laurel, Maryland, where the good folks at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have been flying NASA's New Horizons spacecraft for nine years.
The day after tomorrow, New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto and Charon. APL will have a lot of temporary visitors. I've agreed to help with their education and public outreach efforts, starting tomorrow.
I changed my travel plans when I learned that my uncle, Bernard Higgins, had died. The funeral was to be in Rochester, New York last Friday. I decided to leave home on Thursday and drove 600 miles from Aurora, Illinois to Buffalo, about an hour short of Rochester, in one very long day. I was able to cover the remaining distance the next morning, just in time for Uncle Benny's funeral.
We were all very sad to have lost him, but on the other hand it was a great joy to be gathered with so many people who loved him. I heard a lot of cousins tell a lot of stories; this buoyed me up for the next leg of the trip.
Saturday night, I played around with a combination of Google Maps and the invaluable Masstimes.org to come up with a list of churches in towns along my trajectory to Maryland Sunday morning. This might have been too much cleverness, but I couldn't resist a puzzle.
I got a later start than I'd meant to, and was realizing that I wasn't going to make it to Addison, N.Y. in time for the 10:30 Mass at St. Catherine of Siena. I began to figure my arrival time at my backup, the 11:15 at Holy Child in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Just then I saw that the next exit was for Mount Morris, and I still had twelve minutes before the 10:00 Mass began. That's how I found myself under the double gaze of Saint Patrick—he is represented in that eponymous church not only by a statue but also by a large depiction in stained glass.
In today's Gospel, Mark 6:7–13, Jesus sends disciples out into the world two by two. St. Patrick's deacon gave a homily about traveling, which, as a traveler, I appreciated.
I tend to forget how enjoyable it is to drive through Pennsylvania. The parts of Illinois I usually travel in are resolutely flat. Pennsylvania has scenery. It's as if the surface of Illinois was magically wrinkled up, so that farms and forests and towns suddenly found themselves on the slopes of hills and valleys. Plus, along the highways, blasting and excavation frequently exposed the sedimentary layers beneath, so the Pennsylvanians, if they choose, can read the history of their landscape.
(Late-breaking update: I can recommend the chocolate milkshakes at the 83 Diner. Thick and chocolatey. Is that the right way to spell "chocolatey?")
Because I've been spending my time either behind the wheel of a car or schmoozing with cousins, I haven't been glued to the Internet the way others have. If I'd been at home, I, too, would be eagerly combing the Web, streaming press briefings, and refreshing Twitter feeds to find any scraps of news from Pluto's vicinity. I've had just a few glimpses of new images. I have noticed that discourse about Pluto has reached such a fever pitch that even professional astronomers have begun to speak IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
Pluto has been an unresolved dot in telescopes all my life, or at most a few pixels across in the Hubble Space Telescope. In the past month or so, New Horizons has been giving us Pluto as a painted disk, with dark and light patterns shading its surface. That was exciting enough, for a while.
In the days since I left Illinois, Pluto has sprouted fine detail. No wonder everyone's excited. It's like stepping from the flat terrain of Illinois to the complex features of Pennsylvainia's landscapes. Thus the pros are writing things like WOW, PLUTO HAS GEOLOGY.
It will be fun to see what happens tomorrow.