Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Word (or Several) about the Wee Folk Known As Leprechauns

With St. Patrick's Day now upon us, the spotlight is firmly aimed at those mischievous wee folk: the leprechauns. Well, it would be, if they were easy to spot. And to have any hope of spotting them, you have to know where to start looking.

There are two schools of thought regarding the leprechauns' whereabouts: those who believe they're global inhabitants, and those who believe they can only be found on the Emerald Isle itself. (There is also the ever-present skeptical school of thought that refutes the leprechauns' existence entirely. Since I'm not One of Them, let's just ignore that school, shall we?)

Regardless of location, leprechauns are known to be wily, quick-witted, solitary, and none too pleasant. So why would you want to find a leprechaun? Well, legend has it that these Irish fairies are the self-appointed guardians of ancient treasure left behind by Viking raiders who marauded through Ireland eleven centuries ago. To find that well-hidden treasure, you first have to find a leprechaun. No easy feat, that, but rumor has it that you may be able to do it by listening for the sound of his cobbler's hammer.

If you manage to catch one, keep
your eyes glued to the little man. Courtesy and fairy law binds the leprechaun to tell the truth, but only as long as his captor adheres to courtesy, as well: looking the leprechaun straight in the eye, and never looking away. If his captor looks away, even for a fraction of a second, the leprechaun is freed from any obligation, and will vanish.

If you manage to maintain eye contact, there's another wrinkle: though the leprechaun is honor-bound to tell the truth, he has no restrictions against trickery whatsoever. You must have a sharp mind to be able to match wits with a leprechaun if you hope to even get a glimpse of his gold, let alone get your hands on it.

Good luck!

Since not all leprechaun searchers are treasure hunters of the monetary type, here are some offerings for treasure hunters of the cerebral type:

Ireland's County Tipperary is home to a famous fairy ring, where it is said that leprechauns have been seen for centuries. It's near the town of Thurles, in a meadow known as the Glen of Cloongallon, on the ancestral family farm of the Coogans. The ring is an enormous dark green circle roughly 500 feet across. In the center stands six ancient stones "taller than a man," topped by a capstone even larger.

On the edge of this ring stands an oak tree believed to be over six centuries old. Legend says the leprechauns, who enjoyed its shade, saved this tree at a time when Irish oaks were being cut down in order to build the navies of England's King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth.

If you'd love to see the wee folk in their native land, but can't make the trip in person, point your browser to IrelandsEye Leprechaun Watch, where you can actually see the fairy ring via a live webcam hidden in that 600-year-old oak, and maybe even spot a leprechaun with your very own eyes, all without ever leaving your living room. Note that Ireland is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so to see anything, you'll need to view the webcam during Ireland's daylight hours. If you see any leprechauns, there is a link on the page to report what you saw, as well as read about what others have spotted. And if your visit comes during Ireland's nighttime hours, never fear. You can click over to a page where you can view a panoramic video of the whole fairy ring area, to see what it looks like during the day. Click around the rest of the site, too, and find all kinds of info about leprechauns and Ireland's other fairy folk, and even download an official Leprechaun Watch certificate to commemorate your virtual visit. Very cool.

For those lucky enough to actually be in Ireland, as either citizen or tourist, you can learn all about leprechauns by visiting the brand new, first-of-its-kind-anywhere-in-the-world National Leprechaun Museum. It just opened on March 10, 2010, in the heart of Dublin, Ireland. Visitors will learn all about leprechauns, their folklore, and their place in history, as they go through the museum's guided tour of 12 rooms that - via optical and physical illusion - shrink them down to leprechaun size to experience life from the leprechaun's perspective. Says the museum's designer/director Tom O'Rahilly, via interview in ArtDaily.org:
"Irish culture is famous the world over - even Walt Disney came to Ireland to look for leprechauns. However, not may people know the real stories behind the country's folklore. We want to give visitors an experience to remember, taking them to the heart of Irish identity and imagination, telling the amazing tales that make up Celtic culture and offering some surprises and new experiences along the way."

And for those who just need something silly on St. Paddy's Day, I leave you with these: discover what your leprechaun name is by visiting capstrat.com, but before you leave me, be sure to watch this very sweet three-year-old's giggle-worthy take on leprechauns:

However you choose to spend the day, whether searching for leprechauns, visiting museums, or sharing a laugh, I wish you a very happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 13th is Pluto is a Planet Day (and the IAU Be Darned!)

If you memorized the names of our solar system's planets via some variation of the mnemonic sentence: "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas," then perhaps the issue of Pluto's celestial status resonates with you, one way or the other. 

You learned via a smart mom and an absurd number of pizzas that there are nine planets. Nine. And that the smallest of these is Pluto. (Pluto the planet, of course; not to be confused with the lanky, spicy-mustard-colored, whip-tailed canine of the Disney persuasion).

Pluto has held the exalted position of smallest, most-distant-from-the-sun planet since it was first discovered by Clyde Tombaugh on February 18, 1930, and named by eleven-year-old English school girl Venetia Burney. School children all over the US happily recited that Mom-and-Pizza mnemonic as they dutifully learned the names and placements of all nine planets in our solar system.

Did I mention there are nine planets? Well. There were. Until 2006, when They went and screwed it all up. "They" is the International Astronomical Union. Due in part to an increasingly heated debate in the scientific community over the years as to whether Pluto is, in fact, a bonafide, card-carrying member of Club Planet, the IAU decided to come up with an official set of membership criteria. To be a planet, a celestial body must meet all of the following:
  • Orbit the sun.
  • Be large enough to have a near spherical shape due to the force of its own gravity.
  • Must have swept its orbital neighborhood clean of large objects.

It is item #3 that did Pluto in: at least one object in its orbital neighborhood (the largest of its three moons, Charon) is nearly half Pluto's mass.

And so, with a few strokes of a pen (or rather, a few characters typed on a computer screen, most likely) the far-out, frozen, Planet Formerly Known as Pluto has been relegated to mere dwarf planet status. And dwarf planet, of course, has a definition, too. A dwarf planet:
  • Orbits the sun.
  • Is large enough to have a near spherical shape due to the force of its own gravity.
  • Has not swept its orbital neighborhood clean of large objects.
  • Is not a satellite.

Lest you consider the matter closed, here's a new wrinkle: there are some planetary folks who feel Pluto is really in a binary system with its largest moon, Charon. But since the IAU hasn't yet officially defined "binary dwarf planet," Pluto is still just a dwarf planet. For now.

In the meantime, while Pluto lives through a very controversial celestial identity crisis, the IAU decided to spare Pluto's largest moon a similar fate: Charon still gets to keep its "moon" status until the whole binary dwarf system thing is resolved.

To add insult to injury, Pluto's fall from grace has spawned a new verb: "to pluto," meaning, "to demote or devalue someone or something," as in, "Dude, you just got plutoed!" And it doesn't even get the dignity of capitalization.

So, from celebrated new planet to so much space flotsam and jetsam in a span of only 80 years?

Hold on! Before you lament that life just isn't fair, know that there are some consolation prizes:
  • First, in 2008, the IAU announced the newly created category of plutoids: a term which describes Pluto, the newly discovered Eris, and other similar celestial bodies which have an orbital semimajor axis greater than that of Neptune, and which have enough mass to be of near-spherical shape.
  • Second, "plutoed" received the dubious honor of being chosen as the American Dialect Society's 2006 Word of the Year.
  • Third, the good people in both the state of Illinois and the state of New Mexico have declared - officially - that Pluto is indeed a bonafide planet every time it passes through the skies over their respective states. And, they went even further, declaring that March 13th* be henceforth known as "Pluto Day" (in Illinois) or "Pluto Planet Day" (in New Mexico). No matter what the IAU says.


That's something, I guess.

- - - - - - - - -

*Note: March 13th is the birthday of Percival Lowell, an astronomer who first called the scientific community's attention to the existence of a "Planet X." It was during the search for Planet X that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.


In the interest of fairness, these articles contain compelling discussions supporting the notion that Pluto is not a true planet. (I may disagree, but I love a good discussion):