Monthly Archives: August 2013

Songs with Astronomical Themes No. 7: “The Planets” by Gustav Holst

No. 7 in our Songs with Astronomical Themes isn’t a song but an orchestral suite, “The Planets,” by composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). This selection is the seventh and last movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.”

Here’s a picture of Gustav:


Despite his name, he was an Englishman. He came from a very musical family; his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and wife were all musicians.

(Gustav’s brother Emil, however, moved to America, changed his name to Earnest Cossart, and became an actor. He appeared often as a butler in Hollywood films of the 30s. In 1942, Earnest acted alongside Ronald Reagan in “Kings Row,” the film in which Reagan’s character wakes up from surgery to find both his legs amputated and cries, “Where’s the rest of me?!”–a line that Reagan later used as the title of his autobiography.)

Okay, back to Gustav. As a boy he suffered from asthma, poor eyesight, and neuritis in his arms that made playing the piano difficult for him. His mother introduced him to Theosophy, which is how he became interested in mysticism, Eastern religions, and astrology.

In college he studied Sanskrit, and during his “Indian Period” he set a number of his works to Sanskrit texts.

“The Planets,” begun when Gustav was 40 years old, is based on astrology, not astronomy; the seven movements correspond to the seven planets used in astrology (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).

Although Holst didn’t think the composition was one of his best, it became instantly popular and won him lasting fame.

Here’s an album cover from a 1970s recording of “The Planets”:


The movement here, “Neptune, the Mystic,” has a definite mystical sound to it, especially with the ethereal women’s choir that comes in about halfway through. In fact, to anyone who’s ever seen any film or TV show that deals with space or science-fiction, this movement is likely to sound awfully familiar. If the piece isn’t quoted exactly, it’s certainly imitated, so much so that when we try to imagine what “space” sounds like now, I believe we unconsciously think of Holst’s “Neptune.”

“Neptune” was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a “fade out” ending, and I’ve always loved Holst’s instructions for how performers are to achieve this effect:

The women’s chorus, he writes, is to be “placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed.”

So here it is, Gustav Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic,” from “The Planets”:

Listen to The Night of the Comet on the Radio!

Radio Boy

Now you don’t even have to buy the book. You can listen to The Night of the Comet this month on National Public Radio.

The Radio Reader, Dick Estell, is reading The Night of the Comet on his syndicated show, hosted by public radio stations all around the country. It begins today with the first of 23 episodes. Dick does a great job with the books he chooses, so you can be sure it’ll be a good read.

Check listings for your area at The Radio Reader’s station schedule, here.

You can also listen online; check The Radio Reader’s internet schedule, here.

Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, died a year ago. He’s being remembered in the news again this week for his “giant leap” in 1969.

Here he is again. I like to imagine him always like this, standing astride the Moon, waving down at us.


Comet ISON Update: “We Shouldn’t Be Scared of the K-Word”

A recent article from, “Will Comet ISON Be Another Kohoutek PR Disaster?

Comet Kohoutek is the star of my new novel THE NIGHT OF THE COMET. Discovered in 1973, Kohoutek was hyped as the “comet of the century,” and it ignited a brief worldwide craze for all things cometary.

This year’s Comet ISON has also been called another comet of the century, a “dream comet.” It was spotted last September by a couple of amateur astronomers, and is expected to be at its brightest around Thanksgiving-time. Here’s its projected orbit:


Recently, however, astronomers have begun scaling back their predictions for ISON. It might not really be another comet of the century, they caution, wary of being burnt again as they were by Kohoutek, which turned out to be one of the most disappointing comets in history, a complete dud.

But no matter how big or small of a showing it makes, astronomers say Comet ISON will still be a treasure trove of science, an “extraordinary event.”

Says one astronomer, Casey Lisse of the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University:

“We shouldn’t be scared of the K-word.”

Songs with Astronomical Themes No. 6: Blue Moon, Sung by Elvis

In honor of our own blue moon this week, here’s No. 6 in our Songs with Astronomical Themes series: “Blue Moon.”

Blue Moon Sheet Music
The song was written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, the duo that wrote dozens of Broadway musicals and hundreds of popular songs. “Blue Moon” went through several incarnations, with different titles and lyrics, before this version was written and recorded in 1935.

Elvis Presley’s rendition, released by Sun Records in 1954, is one of my favorites. Have a listen. It borders on the bizarre, with the clop-clopping electric guitar, the over-the-top reverb, and and Elvis’s weird falsetto cooing at the end of each verse.

A blue moon, by the way, as in “once in a blue moon,” is an extra full moon in a season–commonly, the second full moon in a single month. So it’s a rare event, occurring every two or three years. A blue moon, however, is rarely blue.

Birmingham, Nazis, and Comets

Birmingham, Nazis, and Comets: A Short Photo Essay

One free morning while I was in Birmingham, Ala., on my book tour for THE NIGHT OF THE COMET, I took a stroll out of my hotel to visit the Birmingham Museum of Art. (It’s an excellent museum, by the way, and well worth the visit if you’re ever in Birmingham.)

To get to the museum, I walked past the downtown Jefferson County Courthouse, and was struck by something I saw carved into the marble pedestals on either side of the rear entrance of the courthouse:

Courthouse Pedestals

A closer look:

Pedestal Close-up

That’s right, those are swastikas, infamously associated with Nazis and Nazism since the National Socialist German Workers Party adopted the swastika as their official symbol in 1920. As in:



Hitler with Flag

But what were swastikas doing on the Birmingham courthouse? What could they signify here?

Historically, Alabama, like my own native Louisiana, has not exactly been known as a model of racial tolerance and diversity.

See, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Birmingham jail:

King in Jail

Or Alabama state troopers attacking civil-rights demonstrators during the Selma to Montgomery march on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965:


Or Birmingham police fire-hosing black high schools students:


You get the idea.

Even today, Alabama harbors white supremacy groups–30 “active hate groups,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Council of Conservative Citizens, for example, has chapters in Birmingham, Montgomery, Florence, Jasper, and Cullman:


The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has chapters in at least five Alabama cities:


And there’s a chapter of the National Socialist Movement in Mobile:

(This photo is from a rally in Minneapolis, not Mobile.)

Nevertheless, it’s highly unlikely that the swastikas carved into the courthouse steps in Birmingham have anything to do with Nazism or white supremacy.

The Jefferson County Courthouse was built in 1930 by a Chicago architectural firm, and the pedestals and its swastikas were probably carved sometime in the late 20s. Prior to World War II, the swastika appeared here and there as a decorative element on public buildings and monuments all around the U.S., without any association to Nazism or Germany.

Here it is shown as a good luck symbol on an American postcard from 1907:

Good Luck Swastika

The swastika as a symbol has been around for millennia, dating back as far as 3000 BC, when it showed up in the Indus Valley during the Bronze Age. According to Wiki, “Swastikas have also been used in various other ancient civilizations around the world including India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Korea and Europe.” They’re found in Native American culture, as well.

Today, if you travel in India, you’ll see the swastika everywhere, especially on temples; it’s used as a religious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Like this:


The word itself, “swastika,” is from ancient Sanskrit and means, literally, “to be good.”

The question, then, is how this symbol, carved into the county courthouse in Birmingham, demonized by the Nazis, and used all over the world for centuries, came to exist in the first place? Stranger still, the symbol apparently arose spontaneously at roughly the same time in many different cultures spread very far apart, as a common representation of something, shall we say, divine. How did this happen?

Carl Sagan (1934-1996), the famous astronomer who for a couple of decades made stargazing cool, had a fascinating theory.

He proposed that the swastika symbol was inspired by a comet: a strange, great comet that was witnessed simultaneously by people all over the world, centuries ago.

He explains it (with Ann Druyan) in his 1985 book “Comet”:

“What we are imagining is something like this: It is early in the second millennium B.C. Perhaps Hammurabi is King in Babylon, Sesostris III rules in Egypt, or Minos in Crete . . . While all the people on Earth are going about their daily business, a rapidly spinning comet with four active streamers appears.”

He goes on:

“If something like it slowly materialized in your night sky amidst shrouds and fountains of dust–something self-propelled, animate, almost purposeful–you would surely find the experience noteworthy. You would speculate on its meaning, its religious significance, its portent. People would copy the symbol down so other would know about it, so that this marvel would not be forgotten. Whether you view it as an auspicious sign or as a harbinger of disaster, no one need explain to you that this thing is important.”

As proof, Sagan offers this ancient atlas of observed comets, from the Han Dynasty in China, third or fourth century BC, recorded by “the culture with the longest tradition of careful observation of comets.” And there it is, number 29 in a catalogue of comets, comet “Di-Xing,” “the long-tailed pheasant star”:


So there you have it. The unexpected but not completely implausible line from this:


To this:


To this:


(Apologies, by the way, to all the very kind and decent people I met while traveling in Alabama. This is not meant to be about you.)

Songs with Astronomical Themes No. 5: Venus and Mars, by Paul McCartney and Wings

No. 5 in our Songs with Astronomical Themes series is the medley “Venus and Mars/Rock Show,” off of Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1975 album “Venus and Mars.”


This song I believe was recorded in New Orleans, with Alan Toussaint on piano.

Other songs with astronomical themes? I’m open to suggestions.

Comet is Required Reading in NY Post

The Night of the Comet is in the Required Reading section of today’s New York Post. Thank you, Billy Heller.


Required Reading
Last Updated: 11:33 PM, August 17, 2013
Posted: 10:16 PM, August 17, 2013

The Night of the Comet

by George Bishop (Random House)

The comet in question is Kohoutek, which for people coming of age in the 1970s caused some hoopla. In Bishop’s funny and endearing follow-up to his novel “Letter to My Daughter,” Alan Broussard Jr. gets a telescope for his 14th birthday from his amateur astronomer dad, a science teacher at the high school in their Louisiana bayou town. But Junior is less interested in Kohoutek than in lovely Gabriella Martello, whose family lives in a mansion within telescope view — with a lifestyle that catches the attention of Junior’s mom.

Comets in Description de l’Universe

Illustration of different types of comets in Alain Manesson Mallet’s Description de l’Universe (Paris, 1683). You can see the whole text, full of fabulous maps, online here.

Comets in Description de l'Universe, 1683

San Francisco Book Review on Comet

From the San Francisco/Sacramento City Book Review, Aug. 15 (the good bits):

“The Night of the Comet offers a snapshot of a moment in time and then fills in all the back story of the circumstances preceding it. A coming-of-age tale liberally dusted with starry trappings, the book perfectly captures the interminable feeling of high school—how the days drag and the future looms yet seems as if it will never come—as well as the heightened sense of drama that suffuse events at the time, as first loves and infatuations take on near-cosmic importance.”