News roundup to the edge of the solar system

Here’s my piece for The Fix about the Supremes and marriage equality:

There’s so much news breaking in Washington that I can hardly keep up with it, especially since I’m in Florida, at this moment sitting poolside under a palm tree.

(It sounds more decadent than it is; I’m as chained to the laptop as ever, and monitoring events all the way out to the edge of the solar system.)

This was a week that reminded us, in case we needed such a reminder, that the world turns, that times change, societies evolve, and there is no turning back. The world, Thomas Jefferson said, belongs to the living. Sometimes it seems as though the Supreme Court is the shaper of things, but obviously the Court is playing catch-up with the rest of society. It’s a lagging indicator, as they say. It has been only 17 years since Congress comfortably passed, and Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act, but that now seems to have been in a different century, or a different millennium, even.

Ask almost any young person today: He or she cannot fathom why anyone would object  to same-sex marriage. (Gender itself is quite plastic on college campuses now; at orientation you are invited to declare your pronouns. As in, “My pronouns are she, her and hers.” You can even be non-gendered. As a fogey I fear pronoun chaos, but it’s not my call.)

The Supreme Court decision on DOMA left plenty of room for chaos and confusion about the precise legal rights of same-sex couples in states that do not recognize such marriages. Justice Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Court did not declare a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. Charles Krauthammer, perceiving that the Kennedy opinion lands on unstable ground, says the ruling must eventually lead to a nationalization of same-sex marriage rights in the same way the Court nationalized abortion rights in Roe.

Charles is displeased with this scenario. But I think in outlining why we’re on a path to full marriage equality everywhere, he explains precisely why the current situation must lead to something more comprehensive. Marriage is not supposed to be geographically contingent. Marriage should be all-or-nothing, legally. You can’t have people being almost married, sort-of married, or kinda married. You can’t have marriages defined by state lines.

Marriages, in daily practice, come in all forms and intensities. Marriages vary by degrees of happiness, intimacy, emotional commitment, sexual energy, fecundity and so on. But they have in common the fact that if one partner wants out, he or she is going to have to call a lawyer. This is a legal bond. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Unless you’re a same-sex couple in a state like Texas that doesn’t think such people can be legally married — no matter that they have a certificate from another state, and rings, and a bunch of thank-you notes to write for all the wedding gifts.

So there is more world-turning to come. You can count on it. And ultimately the decisions are going to be made by the people, and particularly the young people, in their daily lives, and not simply by the powers that be, and the exalted figures wearing robes in a neo-Classical temple in Washington.

Postscript: Keeping with the decentralization-of-power theme, I’d like to close with an evocative passage from “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel, the bestselling account of 16th century England, starring Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, counselor and fixer for Henry VIII. Cromwell is trying to get the troublesome Earl of Northumberland to recognize that his ancient title means little in a new age of markets and international commerce:

“How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

And here’s my piece on Voyager 1:

The edge of the solar system has no edge, it turns out. It has a fuzzy transitional area, not quite “solar system” and not quite “interstellar space.”

This basic fact of our star’s environment has been discovered by Voyager 1, one of the most remarkable spaceships ever built. Our premier scout of deep space, Voyager 1 is currently 11 billion miles from the sun, beaming data to Earth as it scoots at 38,000 mph toward the constellation Ophiuchus.

Scientists had assumed that Voyager 1, launched in 1977, would have exited the solar system by now. That would mean crossing the heliopause and leaving behind the vast bubble known as the heliosphere, which is characterized by particles flung by the sun and by a powerful magnetic field.The scientists’ assumption turned out to be half-right. On Aug. 25, Voyager 1 saw a sharp drop-off in the solar particles, also known as the solar wind. At the same time, there was a spike in galactic particles coming from all points of the compass. But the sun’s magnetic field still registers, somewhat diminished, on the spacecraft’s magnetometer. So it’s still in the sun’s magnetic embrace, in a sense.This unexpected transitional zone, dubbed the “heliosheath depletion region,” is described in three new papers about Voyager 1 published online Thursday by the journal Science.“There were some surprises,” said Ed Stone, who has been the lead scientist of NASA’s Voyager program since 1972. “We expected that we would cross a boundary and leave all the solar stuff behind and be in all the interstellar stuff. It turned out, that’s not what happened.”

How big is this transitional zone at the edge of the solar system?

“No one knows,” said Stone, 77, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology and the former head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Voyager’s home base. “It’s not in any of the models. We don’t know. It could take us a few more months, it could take us several more years to get through it.”

The dimensions and nature of the heliosphere are not a wholly esoteric matter. The sun’s magnetic field deflects much of the radiation coming from other parts of the galaxy that was created in supernova explosions. Interstellar space is not a benign environment. The heliosphere’s features make life easier for blue planets such as Earth.

Voyager 1 can be counted as one of the great exploratory craft in history, and none has gone farther, nor cruised steadily at such astonishing speed (a few have briefly gone faster while falling into the sun). Two Voyager probes were launched in 1977. Both spaceships carried a gold-plated record crammed with digital information about human civilization, including mathematical formulas, an image of a naked man and woman, whale vocalizations, and clips of classical and rock-and-roll music. (The famous joke was that the aliens listened to the record and replied, “Send more Chuck Berry.”)

The two Voyagers embarked on what was called the Grand Tour, taking advantage of an orbital positioning of the four outer planets that happens less than once a century. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn before angling “north,” as astronomers would describe it. (There’s no up or down in space, but there is a north or south relative to the orbital plane of the planets.) Voyager 2 went past Jupiter and Saturn and flew by Uranus and Neptune before heading “south.”

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Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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