Diane Stresing

When English musician William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, he put the star-gazing community into a spin. Not only was Herschel an amateur astronomer, he claimed to have discovered the planet with a homemade telescope nearly 100 times more powerful than the average scope at the time.

Sixty years after its discovery by a musician, however, Uranus was curiously off course. George Biddell Airy, Greenwich's astronomer royal from 1835-1843, painstakingly logged Uranus' movements. When another astronomer suggested in 1837 that Uranus' odd movements might be caused by a body situated further away, Airy would have none of it. Quite simply, a new planet was not in Airy's sight. In 1845, Cambridge University's brilliant mathematician John Adams Couch again prodded Airy. He had pinpointed the new planet's position, he said. Would Airy please use his powerful telescopes to look for it? Airy responded predictably: with a request for clarification of Couch's calculations. Unbeknownst to the Englishmen, French astronomer (and Airy rival) Urbain LeVerrier was also pursuing the possibility of a new planet. Just a month before Couch's letter reached Airy, LeVerrier presented his third paper on the theory of Uranus, urging an all-out search for the elusive planet. By the end of the year, the planet had been found, exactly where Couch had calculated.

The Neptune File provides a fascinating glimpse of the work, challenges and vast egos that led to the first discovery of a planet by mathematical calculation rather than observation. Standage writes of the heavenly bodies with a mixture of reverence and understanding. His careful inclusion of colorful anecdotes of the scientists involved results in portraits of the men as three-dimensional players no matter how quirky their characters or their universe.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.

 

When English musician William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, he put the star-gazing community into a spin. Not only was Herschel an amateur astronomer, he claimed to have discovered the planet with a homemade telescope nearly 100 times more powerful than the average scope at the time. Sixty years after its discovery by […]

In the days after his death in 1827, many of Beethoven's friends and admirers snipped off locks of his mane. It was the custom of the time, before the popularity of photography. Nearly two centuries later, the hairs collected by a young musician, Ferdinand Hiller, gave Russell Martin fodder for Beethoven's Hair. The book, a mystery of sorts, is best described as chemical thriller meets historical "how-dunit." The 500 or so hairs, snipped (and, more importantly, pulled) from the head of the master composer, traveled in a tightly sealed locket from Germany, to Denmark, and into the U.S., arriving at a Sotheby's auction.

After the auction, the delighted new owners ushered the hairs into the hands of scientists known for their expertise in hair analysis.

Because some of the pulled hairs contained follicles, DNA testing was also possible. And so it fell to William Walsh, a chemical engineer working at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, to oversee the analysis of Beethoven's hair. Walsh orchestrated the testing process in such a thorough and controlled manner that the results of the testing simply could not be doubted. In doing so, he solved the riddle of the musician's deafness and other ailments. Beethoven's Hair is a tale of science and humanity, and those who love classical music, as well as those who love a good tale, will enjoy untangling it.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.

 

In the days after his death in 1827, many of Beethoven's friends and admirers snipped off locks of his mane. It was the custom of the time, before the popularity of photography. Nearly two centuries later, the hairs collected by a young musician, Ferdinand Hiller, gave Russell Martin fodder for Beethoven's Hair. The book, a […]

It is astonishing that the inventor who brought us the lightning rod, bifocals, and the odometer; the writer who brought us Poor Richard's Almanack; and the negotiator behind the 1784 Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, were in fact just one man. The Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Philadelphia showcases Franklin's many inventions and ideas from fire insurance to a urinary catheter. These inventions and the stories behind them reveal Franklin's practical nature. The First American reveals Franklin's passions, as well.

Imagine Franklin, in waning health, undertaking a month's journey to France, where he was to win French support of the colonies' quest for independence. When he sailed to France as the American commissioner in 1776, he asked a monarch for no less than total support for a cause that was to destroy the underlying principles of a monarchy. H.W. Brands tells us that instead of rejecting Franklin, the French very nearly adopted him. Some pointed out that "Franquelin" was a common French name; many affectionately referred to him as "Doctor Franklin." He eloquently courted and politely strong-armed King Louis and his foreign minister, de Vergennes, by memo, and ultimately, he accomplished his mission using persistent, practical prose as his primary tool.

With similar vigor, he pursued several French women again, with his pen. Some of the best passages in this book are Franklin's appealing appeals to these women, excerpted in the aptly titled chapter "Salvation in Paris." In his romantic pursuits, Franklin skillfully and sometimes lightly employed theology, natural law, and the rules of war in a single love-letter. Franklin's favored females, and the recipients of these letters, typically were not single. "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." Franklin did both during his 84 years; this book provides some worthwhile reading on an American worth remembering.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.

 

It is astonishing that the inventor who brought us the lightning rod, bifocals, and the odometer; the writer who brought us Poor Richard's Almanack; and the negotiator behind the 1784 Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, were in fact just one man. The Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Philadelphia showcases Franklin's many inventions and ideas […]

Brian Shepard was born on the 4th of July, 1949 in Kankakee, Illinois. This real, live nephew of his Uncle Sam grew up to become an FBI agent, spending his first six years of service in New York City. He returned to his home state in 1983, assigned as the sole agent in Decatur. Mark Whitacre was the wunderkind of Archer Daniels Midland Company, or ADM (yes, the same ADM of the classy Supermarket to the World television advertisements). Whitacre is also the duplicitous hero of The Informant. In this true account that has more spy action than some Tom Clancy novels, we get double-crossing, dirty dealing, lying, conniving, and wiretapping . . . and that's just the FBI agent and his informant. Add to the mix Whitacre's high-school sweetheart and loving wife, Ginger, who thinks all will be cured if her poor, beleaguered husband simply tells the truth. But, alas, Ginger, the truth isn't simple, and neither are Whitacres's colleagues at ADM, especially head-honcho Dwayne Andreas. Andreas pulled political strings worldwide for decades, even before heading ADM: He met Gorbachev before Reagan did, dined with Yitzhak Rabin before he was Prime Minister Rabin, and helped David Brinkley find an apartment. All the while even when his friend Richard Nixon got in a bit of a mess in 1972 he managed to stay out of the public eye. Does our meager FBI agent have a chance? The truth is a complicated matter, and in the case of The Informant, much stranger than fiction. The truth is The Informant is more deceitful and more spellbinding, than many works of fiction. The phantasmagoric story behind the so-called “Supermarket to the World” rocked Decatur and much of the world, and it will certainly change the way you look at your grocery bill. It may also change the way you think about your neighbors when a strange car pulls into their driveway.

While Diane Stresing admits she was born under an assumed name, she claims she has never been an FBI informant.

Brian Shepard was born on the 4th of July, 1949 in Kankakee, Illinois. This real, live nephew of his Uncle Sam grew up to become an FBI agent, spending his first six years of service in New York City. He returned to his home state in 1983, assigned as the sole agent in Decatur. Mark […]

Eleanor's Rebellion: A Mother, Her Son, and Her Secret Adoption is an ancient arrangement dating back to biblical times and probably even earlier. Even so, it was not until the 1850s that adoption was legally recognized in the United States, and decades later, in the 1930s, that laws were created to ensure the confidentiality of adoption participants. Of the 87,250 children born to unwed mothers in 1935, many were placed with orphanages to be adopted. David Siff was among them. In 1975, when he wanted to make his own astrological chart, Siff needed the exact minute of his birth; it was this quest that lead him to a secret more revealing than the stars. Not only did Siff learn at the tender age of 40 that he was adopted, he also learned that the woman who adopted him was the birthmother who had placed him in the orphanage just a year before. The author's biological father died before the secret was out, but Siff eventually uncovers another startling fact about his heritage: his father was none other than stage and film star Van Heflin. At the mercy of somewhat unwilling biological relatives to understand the father he never met, Siff turns to his father's celluloid surrogate for clues. Siff repeatedly watches Heflin's movie performances (including those as Joe Starrett in Shane and as a mad bomber in the 1970 movie Airport ) in a desperate attempt to learn more about his father, and to understand his mother's secret. Siff's winding journey, a mid-life discovery process if not an all-out crisis, examines how the layers of his family were folded and shifted to cover up his mother's rebellious decision to reclaim her son from the orphanage. As he examines the fabric of his family, the author finds that the secret affected his mother even more than it did himself. With a thorough and thoughtful examination, Siff reveals that the emotional effects of adoption, like the ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond, have no concrete border. Though difficult to measure over time, the ramifications are life-altering for many in the extended circle.

An actor and journalist, Siff has also written several books on sports under the name David Falkner.

Diane Stresing is a freelance writer in Kent, Ohio.

Eleanor's Rebellion: A Mother, Her Son, and Her Secret Adoption is an ancient arrangement dating back to biblical times and probably even earlier. Even so, it was not until the 1850s that adoption was legally recognized in the United States, and decades later, in the 1930s, that laws were created to ensure the confidentiality of […]

A quirky gathering of 13 essays, The Century That Was pumps personality into what many consider a dry subject: U.S. history. But Century is neither text nor reference book; each essay hinges on telling statistics and critical dates, strategically placed to frame the period. And thanks to the perspective of its many talented writers, Century deserves to be a companion to mainstream texts. The strongest argument for the book as a companion text is author and historian Albert Marrin's 20-page piece regarding WWI's immediate and lasting effects on our county. First Marrin sketches the Home Front, then he colors it with the mosaic bits of economic, social, and political issues that shaped our lives. How did the War Industries Board, Bernard M. Baruch, and his “dollar-a-year men” supply what the war required? If this chapter doesn't prompt a few questions, kick your student he's sleeping.

“A Hundred Years of Wheels and Wings” explains how came to move as fast as the price on the Model T (it plunged from $600 to $290 in 12 years not unlike today's careening computer costs, eh?). And in a historical contemplation of religion (how often do textbooks openly address religion?!) Hans Christian Andersen- and Newbery Medal-recipient Karen Patterson recalls the day she asked a friend, “Do you believe in Science or in God?” Lighter but no less thoughtful fare, “Fashioning Ourselves” describes from a woman's point of view that while our clothing has changed through the ages, we've not changed at all in one way: No matter what they wear, we never think our mothers are cool.

Diane Stresing personally experienced more than three decades of the century that was.

A quirky gathering of 13 essays, The Century That Was pumps personality into what many consider a dry subject: U.S. history. But Century is neither text nor reference book; each essay hinges on telling statistics and critical dates, strategically placed to frame the period. And thanks to the perspective of its many talented writers, Century […]

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