Washington DC is a city by fiat.
It's very obviously been founded by a bunch of guys saying, "Okay, we will have a city here". Not because it has a great natural harbour or important resources or a good strategic position. It's just here because some founders said so. It's been declared into existence.
That's reflected in its character. It's very much "Well, since we're here, we might as well make it nice." It's designed nice. All cities are built, but some grow. This is a city that's been put in place. It's been implemented. And some of those nice things that were implemented worked, like the Georgetown canal. And some of those things that were implemented didn't work so well, like the frankly terrifying 1970s-zeerust retro-future demi-Orwellian brutalist fever dream that is the DC Metro. But it's definitely not a city that grew organically.
I found my cultural touchstone for DC when I was looking at the zero milestone yesterday. For New York, it's the TV series How I Met Your Mother. For Boston, it's The Social Network.
Here, it's Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. The way the city is entirely operated by and concerned with nothing other than the continued functioning of the Government of the United States of America, Of The People, By The People, And For The People, One Nation, Under God. Whether they want it or not.
That said, they've got some pretty cool stuff to nerd out over.
A quick aside before I launch into the stuff-fest: the best way, and I mean the absolute hands down best way to see DC is with the bike share bikes. The traffic in this city is simply awful. It's a case study in how building roads utterly fails to fix traffic problems. They have more roads than any other city I have ever seen, and by far the worst traffic of any city I have ever seen. Don't bother with taxis, buses, or Ubers (though we did try one, and it was great fun except for the bit where Grace had lost a contact and couldn't see.) The Metro is never busy, but the stations are far too sparse to be useful. Get. Bikes. You will skim past traffic and be happier for it. Trust me.
The Lincoln memorial is really interesting, and sort of contradictory-feeling. I think Grace put her finger on it best - it's this imperial veneration, in very imperial style, of a guy who fought for exactly the opposite.
The Gettysburg address is engraved on one wall, and what I gathered to be a presedential acceptance speech is on the other. They're a monument, as much as anything else, to how tricky it is to read extended passages of text which are typeset in all capitals. It was worth it though. This is the first time I've read the Gettysburg address in its entirety, and I have to say, it is a masterpiece of speechwriting. Even today. Every sentence is punchy and sound-bite-able. The whole thing gets right to the point, and it's got a nice little twist of irony with the idea that "[t]he world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
We took some obligatory pictures, but I think the most interesting bits were all of the little additions to the structure, which seemed slightly more ignored. Things like the stone indicating where Martin Luther King gave the "I Have A Dream" speech. Or the metal plaque awkwardly added to the bottom of the stairs when some extra states joined the union and couldn't be put on a gigantic marble plinth.
It's an odd structure, but an interesting one, and I enjoyed visiting it.
Congress is DC's rasion d'etre, and it shows. It is right in the middle. The streets are numbered and lettered based on how far they are from this building. And they have by far the silliest security arrangements of any structure so far, in that in addition to guns and knives, they also don't let you take food and drink in. So we had to eat our skilfully-pilfered-from-breakfast snacks in the courtyard before going in.
Once we did get in though, it was worth it. Not only is it a magnificent building, but it was actually very little hassle (even as "foreign nationals") for us to head into the House of Representatives gallery and watch some actual Congress happening. Not that there was much Congress happening. It was just two guys going back and forth on how the United States should recognise the Armenian Genocide and not bow to apparent political pressure from Turkey. This then dwindled to one - party unknown - ranting about how potential patent reforms went against the principles of the founding fathers.
The extent to which the political discourse (what little of it we saw) basically boils down to patriotism is pretty fascinating. Depending on how cynical you are, these people are genuinely still totally enamoured with their country's early political history, to the exclusion of all else, or else very aware of the power that discourse still carries and are totally unconcerned with how trivially they might be seen to be applying it. Judging by some fairly self-aware comments in the speeches we heard, I think it's probably somewhere between the two extremes.
There's actually a tunnel connecting Congress to the Library of Congress, which was just amazing. They had a viewing area over the reading room, which is properly iconic, and (much cooler) a reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson's library. He sold his private collection to congress after a fire, and they subsequently lost a fair chunk of it in another one. They've spent the last few hundred years painstakingly recreating that collection, sticking to Jefferson's original cataloguing system, and tagging whether books are originals or replacements with adorable coloured silk bookmarks. It's a very cool room, in a very cool building. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn that it's apparently (still!) the largest library in the world.
I really enjoy the inversion of security we've seen so far at libraries. They had something similar at the New York Public Library. They are utterly unconcerned with what you might be bringing in - all the security is, as it always has been, directed at stopping books from getting out. At least without being properly barcode-scanned, although I doubt the Library of Congress actually allows you to take books out.
This is a museum the way a museum should be. Which is to say, free. And easily accessible by bike share and public transit. And full of spaceships.
I have very specific criteria, okay?
This is a place to wander through and learn. Or if you are already a colossal space geek, to wander through and point at things and exclaim, "Oh my god, that's an actual [item]".
Wonderfully curated, with some amazing items, and hearteningly packed with people. Even if some of them did insist on doing Despicable Me voices all the way through the life-size Skylab.
(They have a life-sized Skylab!)
Here are my highlights. I have kept it to three, in an attempt to keep this post under 2000 words.
So from top to bottom, we've got:
Columbia, the actual command module that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins flew to the moon and subsequently returned to earth inside. Complete with charred ablative heat-shield. They have this right in the entrance. It's awesome.
COSTAR, the corrective optics module that was installed in the Hubble Space Telescope after its main mirror turned out to be misshapen. This guy was the subject of many political cartoons comparing it to glasses, and the whole thing was a bit embarassing to NASA - but it did its job, and after it was installed during the first Hubble Servicing Mission we got some of the most amazing pictures of space we've ever had. They brought it back down again on the next servicing mission, because we needed another one, because Hubble has lasted longer than anyone ever planned. Fun fact about Hubble: It actually, when you literally put them up next to each other, is pretty comparable in size to Skylab. It is a very big telescope.
The Rocketdyne RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engine. It's no F1, but three of these powerful bastards were the workhorse of the space program for decades. They were modular and interchangable, and essentially had to be rebuilt after every 8-minute burn. So there were 46 of them, for 3(ish) shuttles. They were so finicky that they were started several seconds before lift-off, just in case something went wrong, because once the solid boosters were ignited it was hideously difficult to turn around and come home. If Congress has its way, five of these will be the core of the Space Launch System, and will end up at the bottom of the ocean after just one launch. Which... I'm not sure how I feel about. That seems incredibly wasteful for one launch - but that launch might well be to Mars. We'll see.
Okay, this has turned into a novel, so I'm going to stop writing now and grab something to eat.
Thanks for sticking around.
They say that in D.C., all the museums and the monuments have been concessioned out and turned into a tourist park that now generates about 10 percent of the Government's revenue. The Feds could run the concession themselves and probably keep more of the gross, but that's not the point. It's a philosophical thing. A back-to-basics thing. Government should govern. It's not in the entertainment industry, is it? Leave entertaining to Industry weirdos -- people who majored in tap dancing. Feds aren't like that. Feds are serious people. Poli-sci majors. Student council presidents. Debate club chairpersons. The kinds of people who have the grit to wear a dark wool suit and a tightly buttoned collar even when the temperature has greenhoused up to a hundred and ten degrees and the humidity is thick enough to stall a jumbo jet. The kinds of people who feel most at home on the dark side of a one-way mirror.
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Foreground: The Zero Milestone is a zero mile marker monument in Washington, D.C. intended as the initial milestone from which all road distances in the United States should be reckoned when it was built. At present, only roads in the Washington, D.C. area have distances measured from it.
Background: The White House.
Foreground: The National Christmas Tree is a large evergreen tree located in the northeast quadrant of the The Ellipse near the White House in Washington, D.C. Each year since 1923, the tree has been decorated as a Christmas tree.
Background: The Washington Monument
Foreground: Pilot Officer Francis Milne, RAAF, became the first (and so far only) Australian to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. During World War II he was attached to No 6 Troop Carrier Squadron of the US Army Air Forces, serving as a copilot in Dakota transports. On 26 November 1942 his aircraft was attacked in New Guinea by a Japanese fighter and forced down into a swamp, in terrain so rough that the crash site was never reached during the war. After discovery of the wreckage in 1989 allowed recovery action to take place, it was found that Milne’s remains were ‘individually unidentifiable’ from those of Technical Sergeant Joseph Paul, the US flight engineer on board, so they were buried together in Arlington.
Background: Arlington National Cemetery.
Renting a car is way too easy. We spent about five minutes at a computer kiosk, and then a nice young man invited us to take our pick of Kia Rio Or Similars. We picked a brand new, fresh-from-the-lot, only-done-16-miles bright red Chevrolet Sonic. Because when you're in America, you gotta drive American.
Needless to say, neither of us had ever driven on the right hand side of the road before. Grace was up first. Grace, what did you think of driving on the wrong side of the road?
"Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. Oh... actually once you get the hang of this it isn't so- WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE'S A LEFT TURN COMING UP?"
Yeah, the left turns are tricky. Because you have to pretend that they're right turns and give way, but then also remember to end up in the other lane once you've crossed traffic. Driving on the interstates was much easier.
I'm not sure what the history of cruise control is, but I'm pretty sure it must've been invented for the Interstate system. These are huge, very straight, very flat, very fast, very long, very boring stretches of road, with no cross traffic, no lights, no roundabouts, and barring traffic jams, really no reason to stop at all. Once I figured out the nuances of it, I think I just about spent my entire time in the driver's seat under cruise control, although I think I would've felt a little better about it if anyone else on the road was actually following the speed limit.
Anyway. It's a wonderful, yet uniquely American invention, and now I kinda wish my 1999 Civic had it.
The Chevy Sonic, by the way, is actually a pretty wonderful car to drive. Handles nicely, very comfortable, and apparently one of the safer cars in its class. We named ours "Abe", because it was a glorious Republican Red, but a pretty cool guy nonetheless.
(This concludes my entire career in car reviewing. I promise.)
Our drive took us through five states and one whatever-the-heck-DC-is, and it was really interesting to watch the scenery change. From still-pretty-bare deciduous trees near Massechusetts, to clearly-the-inspiration-for-Central-Park of upstate New York, to the spring-has-definitely-sprung greenery near DC. This country is not just big, it's diverse. It's not just thousands of kilometres of pretty similar desert. It's hundreds of beautifully gradiated yet distinct biomes. And we've just seen one tiny corner of it.
I think this is where that myth of the Great American Road Trip comes from. This country would be awesome to just explore by car, and the changing scenery would actually give you the impression of going somewhere.
The original plan was to stop in a seedy motel somewhere on the Interstate, just for the experience, but between that plan and actually leaving we both sort of got a little bit into The Office. It turns out that, about exactly where we were planning on stopping anyway, there was a little town called Scranton, Pennsylvania. So we stopped there instead. We stayed at the Radisson, and checked out the Mall at Steamtown, and generally giggled at how weird small towns in America are.
So eventually we got into Washington DC. It took about an hour of being stuck in traffic, and several tense moments of yelling at Siri, but we got here. We found our way to Ronald Reagan airport, and bid farewell to Abe. We took an alarmingly dystopian subway to an alarmingly pleasant ho[s]tel, and took a long shower to try and get the stench of the Taco Bell from back on the highway out of our skin. Then, we-
Huh? Hold on. Let me try that again.
Why is that coming up blank?
Could it be?
Am I actually finally up to date?
The ASTC Passport program is wonderful, and will allow you to get into all sorts of cool places with your dinky little card from Scitech, Western Australia. Seriously, I have seen how we print these things. They are annoying special snowflake paper, on a very ordinary photocopier. They should not entitle you to meet an astronaut, much less for free - but they do, and I love them for it.
By comparison with museums in the UK, which are all pretty universally free, museums in the US are not just not-free, but kinda expensive. It probably helps their funding a lot, and they're laden with exceptions (see above) but it still kind of feels wrong somehow.
Chris Cassidy is a cool guy. Astronauts, as a rule, seem to be pretty great people, not that I've met more than one, and Chris didn't seem to be any exception. This is a guy who helped shoot Chris Hadfield's Space Oddity video, and conducted an unplanned spacewalk to save the Space Station('s cooling system), and was featured in a certain 30-minute full-dome documentary on astronaut training - and yet here he is patiently, even happily, talking about space toilets to a bunch of kids. Maybe I've been drinking the Astronaut's Guide kool-aid a bit too much, but maybe if we were all a little bit more like astronauts then the world would be a better place.
Boston may have a bigger, nicer, more purpose-built building than Scitech, but overall they're pretty comparable. The only thing I am properly jealous of is their uniform, which is (I kid you not) bright red lab coats. Blue polo shirts can suck it. But the exhibits were of similar quality, and the activities were very similar, and apart from a vague wistfulness about their nice building I feel like my job stacks up pretty well.
One exhibit I was a little bit jealous of was this guy. It lifts up two identically sized balls of different masses, and lets you drop them from different heights. I think it really elegantly demonstrates a pretty hard-to-explain concept, that accelaration due to gravity ends up the same regardless of mass. And the story of Newton at the Tower of Pisa is pretty interesting, and very important to the history of science to boot. Basically, I'd never considered demonstrating this as an exhibit, and I kinda want one.
They had a really cool exhibition on models. Everything from scale models, to working models, to abstract models, to mental models. How we make them, and use them, and how they each have strengths and weaknesses. It was a really illustrative idea for an exhibition, and it's pretty indicative of what you can do if you have enough space to devote to something niche-y like that instead of having to have just one feature exhibiton. I don't think it would do so well at Scitech, but I dig it nonetheless and I'm really glad it exists.
I got a bit of a chuckle out of this one which basically seemed to be 'MIT indoctrinates a generation of kids to become bitrate snobs: the exhibit'. It's a cool way of demonstrating what those pretty opaque-seeming numbers on your files actually mean though, which is a cause I can always get behind.
Here's something that I actually learned for myself: Why toilets don't flush properly if you don't let the tank fill all the way up. As illustrated by (and here's a sentence you rarely hear:) a truly wonderful cutaway toilet bowl. Which I didn't photograph, I drew it instead, but I assure you had little red foam balls instead of... anything else.
I always assumed it was something to do with the sheer weight of the water, but it looks like it's something a little more subtle. I think you need enough volume of water to create some suction in the S-bend, such that the contents of the bowl aren't pushed down, they're pulled. Without that volume of water, there isn't a clean seal, and thus not enough suction to empty the bowl. At least, I think that's what's happening. It certainly looks that way.
It was definitely fascinating to watch, at any rate.
Walking around Harvard, I realise how much of my perception of Boston is shaped by The Social Network. The area has a really distinctive architectural style, but until I imagined it at night with Aaron Sorkin-esque cinematography it didn't click where it was that I recognised it from.
I keep expecting to see Jesse Eisenberg jog around a corner.
Harvard is nice. It is a very nice school, in a very nice neighbourhood, and when you hear that it costs a hundred thousand dollars a year, it suddenly makes sense. It's also not all surrounded student housing, or frat housing (apparently they don't have frats at all), or anything like that. It's just a pretty regular upmarket neighbourhood, with kids on tricycles. Kids on tricycles. Near Harvard. We saw them, and it was a little bit weird.
"Imagine growing up around the corner from Harvard. What kind of expectations would you have? How would it feel to live here your whole life and then not go here?"
Embedded in that fairly ordinary neighbourhood is a pub called The Thirsty Scholar, which is pretty prominently featured in the opening sequence of that aforementioned Facebook Film. They have some signed posters inside, in between all the Boston Bruins jerseys(?), and a table in roughly the same position as the one where the characters sit in the film, which we inadvertently sat at. We genuinely didn't realise, but we must've looked like massive tourists. The bartender, to her credit, took it pretty much in stride.
See, here's the thing - despite being immortalised in what I'd consider to be one of the greatest movies of the past decade, this is just an ordinary pub. It's not even that big. It's somebody's local, and for them it just happens to be their local that was featured in a really good movie, and not the other way around.
And as is the way in pubs, we engaged in some serious, deep discussion of The Future, and What Could Have Been, and What Might Yet Still Be, which I won't repeat here except for one particularly interesting fragment.
"Here's a weird thought. If I was American, I'd probably be going here. Or expected to go here."
Because after all the hype, Harvard is like MIT. It's just another place. A place with a truly kickass natural history museum full of glass flowers and giant plesiosaurs and the best curated exhibition on natural selection I've ever seen, I'll grant you that - but it is just a place. It's a place that makes you want to spend the rest of your life there as an undeclared major, but it's just a place. It's not an idea. You can really go there, and really wander around.