Ever higher

I recently watched the BBC miniseries, The Planets. Although it was made in 1999, I still recommend it without reservation.

Episode six concentrates on planetary atmospheres, using Joe Kittinger’s Project Excelsior experience to frame the extremes of the Earth’s atmosphere. He holds the record for the highest balloon flight, at 31,333 metres (102,800 feet). The gondola had a camera so as the narrator explained what was happening, I could watch it unfold before me. Kittinger radioed to the ground, explaining that he had reached the maximum altitude and the temperature reading was −70°C (−94°F). His next action came as an utter surprise to me. Kittinger stepped out of the gondola.

He fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a world record for the longest parachute free-fall that still stands today. He had deployed a stabilizer parachute after jumping and although it didn’t do much to slow his decent, it stabilized his flight attitude. During this decent, he reached a velocity of 1,150 km/h (714 mph), faster than the speed of sound at that altitude. He deployed his main parachute at 5,300 metres (17,500 feet) and landed safely in the New Mexico desert.

His ascent in the balloon took 91 minutes and his decent lasted just 13 minutes and 45 seconds. It took him less than two hours to get from the surface of the Earth to the edge of space and back without using any sort of powered flight.

He did this 51 years ago today, on August 16, 1960.

Welcome to Centralia

Centralia, Pennsylvania is a town in decline, and that’s being kind. It was a coal mining town and during its peak, some 2000 people called it home, with another 500 living on the outskirts. Then the mines closed in the 1960s. While that definitely hit the town hard, economic decline isn’t where this story is going. The population still numbered over 1000 in 1981, but only 12 still lived there in 2005, and 9 in 2007.

No one is entirely sure how it started, but the evidence seems to indicate that it was the firefighters. The borough would hire a number of firefighters to clean up the town dump. This seemed to be an annual event. They hired firefighters because ‘clean up’ was a nice way to say ‘set on fire.’ Two things were different in 1962. First, the dump was moved into an old strip-mine. Second, the fire was not properly extinguished. The dump site also seems to have been improperly prepared for garbage. A fire-resistant clay barrier should have been placed beneath each successive layer of garbage, but the garbage came quicker than the clay barrier was constructed.

Although no one knew it then, the fire wasn’t ever extinguished. It spread underground into an abandoned coal mine beneath the city.

In 1979, the owner of the gas station who was also the town’s mayor, John Coddington, noted that his measuring stick seemed unusually warm after he dipped it into the station’s fuel tanks to check the level. He lowered a thermometer on a string and discovered the gasoline was a toasty 78ºC (172ºF). Not good!

People got sick from carbon-monoxide and other gases coming up through the ground, and sink-holes had others falling down into the ground.

In 1984 the U.S. Congress allocated $42 million to move the population. Most left. In 1992, the state claimed eminent domain on all the properties in the borough. The remaining population fought to reverse the decision, but were unsuccessful. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked the town’s zip code.

Most buildings have been bulldozed. As a result, there are streets with sidewalks, but very few houses. It’s been long enough that trees have taken root and the sidewalks are being overgrown so it’s now obvious that something went very wrong in Centralia.

You can see the former town in Google Maps. It’s interesting because as of this writing, the satellite view is significantly older than the street view. The satellite view shows a grid of streets without any houses. There are trees here and there, just as you’d expect in a town. Street view however, shows what looks like an area that has always been largely unsettled. Trees and scrub are promising beachhead of nature’s bid to reclaim the town for its own.

Nine people remain, but the fire will outlast them. I don’t know how one can determine such a thing, but multiple sources claim the fire will burn for another 250 years.


Information and photo from the Wikipedia entry on Centralia, Pennsylvania.

That moment

You know that moment in movies? The moment when the sound of the voices and bustle slowly fade away. Once the cacophony is almost gone, the piano starts, gentle and slow at first. Then whatever pivotal event is coming, finally arrives and the music swells.

It doesn’t happen that same way in real life, but it’s close. The sounds around us do fade away, though not totally. Music doesn’t start, but we feel something inside ourselves and time slows down. The way the movies portray the situation is a good representation of the feelings, if not every literal detail.

It could be almost anything that the events build toward. It could change the world, but it doesn’t have to be that big. The only real requirement is that it change your world.

Do you remember the last time it happened to you?

Power and wonder

From Tycho, at Penny Arcade:

What I learned was that books, some books, were swollen with power — and this power projected into the physical realm. Some books contain the machinery required to create and sustain universes.

Tycho is talking about Dungeons & Dragons, on the occasion of Gary Gygax’s death. Gygax co-created the game and kicked-off the whole role playing game genre. If you’ve never played the game under a good game master, you might think the quote is obvious hyperbole.

You’d be absolutely wrong.