Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

July 3, 1863 dawned hot in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The soldiers of the two huge armies groaned in the stifling overnight heat, and then Union forces began another day of fighting with an artillery barrage that started at 4:30 a.m.  The rebel forces responded by attacking, and the sound of battle drifted over the countryside.

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had spent the night reflecting on the day before, when the rebels had come close to breaking the Union lines and winning a devastating victory.  Lee concluded that another assault on the Army of the Potomac might produce a breakthrough.  This time, he planned on a direct attack on the center of the Union position.

Lieutenant General Longstreet, whose troops were to carry out the assault, adamantly opposed Lee’s announced plan.  Longstreet believed that no forces, however capable, could successfully carry out a direct attack on the prepared enemy positions.  But Lee was not to be dissuaded, and the duty to carry out the assault was given to Confederate General George Pickett and his fresh force of Virginians.

At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery began shelling the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge, hoping the soften the lines so that Pickett could break through.  But the barrage was ineffective, and when Pickett’s 12,000 men began their famous charge across the field toward Cemetery Ridge later that afternoon the Union forces were ready.  The Federals poured cannon fire and rifle volleys into Pickett’s troops, tearing huge holes in their lines and leaving thousands dead and dying.

Amazingly, some rebel troops reached the Union lines, and the soldiers fought hand to hand.  Union reinforcements soon appeared, and ultimately the rebel losses proved to be too great.  The Confederates recognized that the charge could not succeed, and then the living remnants of Pickett’s decimated brigade retreated over the bloody ground.

Lee knew that he had blundered and accepted full blame for the carnage inflicted on Pickett’s brigade.  But the tide had turned, and the die had been cast.  The fighting ended, with the Southern forces suffering 28,000 dead, wounded, and missing over the three days of clashes compared to 23,000 casualties for the Army of the Potomac.

The numbers, however, did not tell the full story.  The Confederate invasion of the North had been repulsed, and the Army of the Potomac had finally won a real victory against the seemingly unbeatable Robert E. Lee.  Rather than inflicting a blow that might cause the North to sue for peace, Lee’s plan had given the Union a great, if bloody, victory that stiffened its resolve to fight on.

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In Pluto’s Bad Luck Orbit

Pluto’s had a tough time of it.  It’s the loner of the solar system, orbiting in the cold regions of the Kuiper belt, far away from the warmth of the Sun.  It’s got the same name as one of the more pointless Disney cartoon characters.  Then, in 2006, it was exposed to the sizeist biases of scientists who decided that it should be embarrassingly downgraded from a planet to a “dwarf planet.”

But recently things were looking up for poor Pluto.  Two more moons were discovered in its orbit, bringing its total to five.  In the lunar satellite category, therefore, Pluto kicks the butts of those haughty, full-scale planets like Earth and Venus.  And then a naming contest for the new moons got underway, and people became interested when William Shatner — also known as Captain James T. Kirk, of the starship Enterprise, on Star Trek, the original series — suggested that one of the moons be called Vulcan, after the home world of his fellow Star Trek character Mr. Spock.  Vulcan was the top vote-getter by an overwhelming margin, and Pluto must have thought its luck had really changed for the better:  it would have a moon with a name that people would actually remember and that might, in some far distant time of routine space travel, become a kitschy tourist attraction as a result.

Alas!  Pluto’s luck could not hold.  The International Astronomical Union vetoed Vulcan, concluding that it was used elsewhere in astronomy and that Vulcan, the Greek god of the forge, was not sufficiently associated with Pluto, the god of the Underworld.  So, instead of Vulcan, Pluto will be orbited by Kerberos and Styx.

It must be depressing for Pluto to constantly be reminded of its grim, land of the dead namesake, and it’s got to be even more depressing to now be reminded of a mediocre ’70s rock band.  Cheer up, though, Pluto!  It could be worse!  Your new moon could have been named Kansas.

Happily Bionic

How many people do you know who have an artificial hip, or knee, or some other body part?  If you are like me, you know many such people.  They used to walk with tortured gaits, wincing as they favored their “bad knee” or “bad hip.”  Then they went under the knife, endured rehabilitation, and now are happily pain-free and advocates of joint replacements.

Such operations are not without risk, of course.  They involve major surgery.  Dr. Science, who is having both knees replaced, explained the procedure:  the surgeon slices the leg open, uses a whining bone saw to cut through the tibia and femur, removes the unattached knee, replaces it with the artificial knee, and then securely anchors the new knee to the bones above and below.  When you’ve had such a significant operation, you’re going to need lots of recuperation time.  And, of course, artificial knees and hips can fail, and most in any case have a limited life span — so if you’re young enough, you might need to undergo another operation in 12, or 15, or 18 years.

Still, my friends who’ve had successful joint replacements swear by their new bionic body parts.  Their failing knees and hips forced them to endure intense, constant pain for years.  Now, that pain is gone, and they can scarcely believe how wonderful it is to walk, or climb stairs, or sit without feeling like you’re being stabbed by demons.  Is it any wonder, then, that our bionic friends are among the loudest proponents of such surgery?

Without fanfare, we are living through the bionic revolution in medicine, where high-tech, full-scale replacements of joints have become commonplace and we peacefully coexist with friends who fall within the technical definition of cyborgs.