A contagious confluence, metaphorical hydraulics in chronofluidity, multiple rippling effects.

Location: Lawrence, Kansas

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Ulysses and Troy in Topeka

The state representatives from Troy and Ulysses sat at the bar in Po’re Richards in downtown Topeka. Speculation had long since ended on why there was an apostrophe in Po’re and none in Richards. The two representatives had little in common except for the epic names of their home towns and their agreement that public exhibitions of hypnotism should be legal. One was Republican, the other Democrat. One was an anti-evolutionist, the other not. One wanted to conceal her sidearm, not the other. Troy and Ulysses were, not surprisingly, at opposite corners of the state. Sometimes they joked about boosting tourism in Kansas by changing the names of other struggling small towns in the state to Ithaca, Cassandra, Penelope, Hector, Helen, Priam, Achilles. They once got into an argument about the last one. The representative from Troy thought it should be Achilleus, true to the original Greek. The representative from Ulysses would not allow such a precedent, fearing that her own home town might be expected to change its name to Odysseus. Anyway, the idea of promoting a “Kansas Odyssey,” as they called it, had great potential. The interstate could become a sort of four-lane Aegean, with rest stops renamed to support the theme: “Lotos Eaters Rest Stop Next Exit—Food, Drink, Fuel, Lodging—You’ll Never Want to Leave.” The highway department could post signs with a cyclops saying, “Watch your speed—we’re keeping an eye on you” and “If you’re obeying the law, you won’t hear the Sirens” (this one would have to be positioned before entering Salina). The possibilities were endless, as they say—“to the stars!”

On this evening, however, they were not discussing the Kansas Odyssey. Instead they were watching the pictures just in from the Hubble telescope on a television suspended above the bar. These were pictures from the Beginning of Time, said the news announcer’s voice, wild galaxies only a half billion years removed from the Big Bang. These images from what was called the “Ultra Deep Field” were so remote and in such a tiny piece of the sky that viewing them was said to be like looking through an eight-foot long soda straw. Ulysses was having enough trouble imagining that straw, let alone the vastness of the Ultra Deep Field. All Troy could think about was the statue of the Kansa warrior atop the capitol, bow and arrow pointed skyward. He wondered where that arrow was pointed and made a mental note to find out.

How could the Hubble scientists know where in the heavens to point their eight-foot soda straw and find the center of the cosmos, Troy wondered out loud. Ulysses looked at the colorful, odd-shaped galactic images on the tv screen and said, “You know, if the universe is expanding and we’re moving ever outward, then we’re not really moving toward the stars but away from them. We may need to introduce legislation to change the state motto.”

Troy thought about it. “Instead of ‘ad astra per aspera,’ it should be ‘ex astra per aspera?” he asked. But then he wondered about the “per aspera” part. How difficult is it really, if instead of aspiring and struggling ever onward toward some bright, shining destiny, we’re actually just riding a cosmic pinball launched fourteen billion years ago? “Hey,” answered Ulysses, “it couldn’t have been easy for our pioneer mothers when that Big Bang thing happened.”

Originally a statue of Ceres was to have topped the Kansas capitol dome. In fact, the statue was still in a crate somewhere in the capitol basement. Ceres, goddess of grain, fertility, and agrarian prosperity, was just too pagan, even in her modest classical stone drapery, for most of the state’s legislators. Every couple of decades, a legislator would take up the cause to free her from her basement crate and hoist her up to the top of the Topeka skyline, but each time the effort failed. For decades, nothing graced the dome but a large, not very bright, bare light bulb to alert low-flying aircraft.

At some point late in the twentieth century, a majority of representatives agreed that the statehouse needed a more suitable symbol atop the dome to represent the gravity of their endeavors beneath the dome. The solution was the Kansa Indian shooting an arrow into the air, no matter that the last Kansa had been driven from the state bearing their name more than a century earlier. The statue was commissioned and a design approved. Some legislators thought a statue of a pioneer woman would be more appropriate. The vote split on gender lines. Others expressed concern that the warrior was nearly naked (even the voluptuous Ceres had been robed). The Republican majority argued that savages were supposed to be naked and to depict the warrior any other way would be revisionist history. When the statue was completed it went on tour around the state for everyone to see before its ascension. Somewhere during this grand tour, it occurred to someone that the statue was really heavy. Engineers were called in to take some measurements and make some calculations. The capitol dome was not strong enough to support the Kansa. The legislature would need to appropriate nearly a million dollars to reinforce the dome.

The upshot, so to speak, of this saga, Troy was to learn a few days later, was that the reinforcement of the dome elevated the statue six inches higher than it would originally have been placed. Coincidentally but also consequently, he learned from an astronomer at the state university down the road, the extra six inches put the Kansa’s arrow exactly on line with the Ultra Deep Field at the far end of the eight-foot soda straw. Were it not for gravity and the fact that he was cast in metal, the warrior could have fired his arrow straight into the Beginning of Time.