Re-rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Some people go to bars on Friday nights. Married couples often go on dates to keep their courtship alive. These days, I spend most Friday nights in my living room watching Star Trek reruns with perhaps the only group of Twitter users I can still tolerate. Then, on typical Saturday mornings like this one, I sit in a coffeeshop nursing my junk-food hangover with iced coffee. Today I reflect on a beautiful experience which I relished last week. Not the 2017 Solar Eclipse. The other beautiful experience I had last week.

“All his professional career he had looked upon the universe as an arena for the titanic impersonal forces of gravitation, magnetism, radiation; he had never believed that life played an important role in the scheme of things…”

The copyright page indicates I bought the above Del Rey paperback edition of Rendezvous with Rama in or after 1988. Four years earlier, I’d been converted to Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction by Peter Hymans’ movie 2010, itself a sequel to Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I read Rendezvous with Rama and loved it. Yet like so many books and flicks I consumed in those pre-internet days, Rama remained a solitary experience, largely unshared with family and friends.

“The real New York, like all of man’s habitations, had never been finished; still less had it been designed. This place, however, had an over-all symmetry and pattern, though one so complex that it eluded the mind. It had been conceived and planned by some controlling intelligence…”

I read Rendezvous with Rama again in 2008, admiring Clarke’s efficient storytelling. The novel’s plot effects an elegant marriage between grandly impersonal architectural themes and a thoroughly romantic awareness of humanity’s puny footprint in the cosmos. In this universe, could it be that intelligences exist so advanced as to be indistinguishable from gods? Might they be utterly disinterested in humans, so disinterested as to leave their ship’s door unlocked?

Might superior intelligence only threaten us inadvertently, as an ant is threatened by the shoe of an otherwise peaceful human failing to notice the insect in its path, and so crushing the smaller being unawares? Might there be something fundamentally healthy about considering the possibility humans are only a supporting character in creation? Yes, life may only be a precious accident.

“He believed that the universe operated according to strict laws, which not even God could disobey…”

Last week, for the third time in my life, I read Rendezvous with Rama. I found its door still unlocked. I crept inside while it slept. I witnessed as its gigantic interior awakened, punctuating its general quiescence with storms of electricity, wind, and metallic tsunamis. Then, as it prepared to sleep again, I fled back outside and watched it eclipse our sun.

Ours?

My third encounter with Rama felt intensely familiar, as did the second and first. Rama—a vast cylindrical alien ship on an intergalactic journey—seemed familiar as a childhood backyard, deep and vivid in the memory. Rama, you remain a place where I feel less alone. And I know that I love you, because even though you make me feel smaller and more fleeting, I feel blessed to have been altered by your appearance in my life.

Capturing Eclipse Reactions

Yesterday I saw not one, but a half-dozen total solar eclipses. Such was the odd privilege of being stuck inside an office cubicle for most of the day, relying on internet coverage. From Oregon to South Carolina, again and again, I watched the sun disappear, become a coronal ring around the moon, and then burst forth in an audience-delighting “diamond ring” glow.

More than just astronomy, this event became both ritual and communion. Below is a touching video put together by The Washington Post which provides a good balance of eclipse footage and human exultation.

Each time another crowd witnessed the eclipse, I found myself especially taken with the audible reactions. Animals can’t possibly sleep during a total eclipse. They must sit alert, waiting tensely for the light to return so the humans will stop squealing and shouting for joy.

And people? They struggle for words. The oral history of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, from seasoned reporters to little kids, begins and ends with the word “Wow!”

To sum it up, as I watched the reactions again and again yesterday, they seemed a marvelous mingling of two things: 1) feeling like an ecstatic kid; 2) feeling something deep and profound, mystical or spiritual even. Feeling like the sun and moon at once?

Below is a good 360 view. Press play. Then click and drag upward to see the sun as a pillar of light which recedes into a tight ring surrounded by temporary night. Thanks to The Salt Lake Tribune for putting this one together. Old-school newspapers are giving me the best highlight footage to share. Awesome!

 

Exploring Self with ‘The Black Penguin’

The Black PenguinThe Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vaguely annoyed. That’s how I felt after months of following Andrew Evans on Twitter. When was this guy’s paid vacation going to end? Did he really think he could infect me with his exuberance for world travel? Who was funding him? Annoying! The only reason I followed Andrew was Twitter told me to. That and it seemed a little fun, keeping tabs on a literal globe trotter. Plus, his tweets often displayed a celebratory quality about our world.

Okay, so my early annoyance turned out to be jealousy. Years later, @WheresAndrew remains a Twitter account I recommend following. Even so, buying a copy of his new book The Black Penguin was not an immediate priority, but for one fact that eluded me until last week. I’d never realized Andrew Evans was raised Mormon.

Andrew and I have two critical things in common. We both served LDS Church missions, and we both eventually walked away from the Church. Being both a Twitter fan and a fellow “returned missionary” makes it near impossible for me to write a fully objective review of The Black Penguin. I was rooting for Andrew before I finished reading the preface. Still, this is not a book solely, or even mostly, about his journey out of Mormonism.

The Black Penguin recounts Andrew’s bus trip from Washington D.C. to Antarctica (including a short plane ride and a necessary transfer to a boat near the end). The book exhibits a binary structure. While Andrew proceeds southward by bus in the narrative present, his book flashes back to school years spent in Ohio and Utah, and his time in the Ukraine as a Mormon missionary. Yet, even with this time hopping, The Black Penguin displays a unifying sense of rising action and purpose.

Andrew’s epic bus trip eventually became an article for National Geographic Traveler, supplemented by blog posts and tweets from the road. Along the way the book detours further into his past to reveal an origin story fraught with bullying, religious judgement, and family crisis. All these ordeals were reactions to Andrew’s same-sex orientation. For Andrew, the science of geography became the art of escape.

By running past and present storylines in tandem, The Black Penguin offers engrossing parallels. For instance, the chapter about Andrew being found out at Brigham Young University connects to chapters about dangerous travel through Mexico and Central America. Both episodes exhibit the same sense of peril, fueled by powerful, sometimes unseen, forces that may decide his fate at any moment.

Yet, like his tweets, Andrew’s book also provides humor, beauty, and excitement. The personable, empathic prose creates a sensation of being in the seat next to him, staring out the bus window while passing near cliffs, through jungles, and along coastlines. And while the book is ultimately about Andrew’s quest, it teams with lively stories about people he meets along the way—quite like an issue of National Geographic.

Page after page, I experienced a keen sense of us all being on a globe, feeling the pace of its spin, gaining greater awareness of our relationship to each other and Earth. I highly recommend The Black Penguin. It’s a trip we all should experience.

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Think you understand Alan Alda?

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The greatest science communication failure of recent history occurred during breaking news coverage of the Higgs boson particle discovery. At least, that’s my opinion. This particle, claimed to be the active ingredient in objects having mass, is a huge deal. Yet, look at this gibberish news outlets threw at me as the leading quotation for the achievement.

“We have observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 plus or minus 0.6 GeV at 4.9 standard deviations.”

No offense to Dr. Joe Incandela, who made the above technical statement to a room full of scientists. Following his words, the gathering bubbled over with applause, even tears in at least one case. But the jargon was lost on me. That day I refused to be impressed as a matter of principle. Science had failed to explain itself.

Such disconnects between scientists and the public comprise the impetus for Alan Alda’s latest book: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Known to many for his acting career, Alda has dedicated much of his time to promoting better science communication. Far from being a mere on-camera spokesman, Alda works as a Visiting Professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Using personal examples, as well as research, Alda makes the case for empathy as essential to good communication. He couples this with insights regarding the Theory of Mind. Think of empathy as the emotional connection, and Theory of Mind as the rational component. Empathy, according to Alda, is a skill which can be developed and refined.

Not surprisingly, Alda advocates cultivating empathy through theatrical improv (a serious performance method, not merely a game-driven attempt to get laughs). Anyone who has taken an acting class with improv as a component, myself included, will find this to be self-evident. The same practiced skills which help actors connect onstage can help scientists connect with the public. As Alda relates, this extends to medical doctors, business leaders, hopeful lovers, and parents mentoring children.

If I Understood You… stays on task via short chapters and focused, conversational prose. It wraps up in a tidy 200 pages. There is also an audio version, read by Alda, which I’ll safely assume is highly enjoyable. The result is a book calculated to be accessible, informative and thought-provoking.

Odd then that this book sometimes struggled to hold my interest. If I Understood You… is full of nuggets: nuggets of wisdom, hindsight, and profound experience. Any chapter by itself can be a delight, and many were for me. Yet, perhaps because of the testimonial nature, perhaps because of the copious repetition of its premise, the book sometimes felt like an after-dinner conversation growing tiresome. In no way am I panning it. However, I do suggest readers avoid devouring the book quickly (which I did so I could post my review asap).

Given its levelheaded blend of entertainment with educational discourse, If I Understood You… disqualifies itself from being Alda’s most fun book yet. It may however prove his most important, given the toxic level of animosity in current public discussion. Therefore, I highly recommend reading it. Come for the theory, but stay for the moments of sublime understanding.

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Seasons of Planets

planet-montage-voyager-nasa
Montage of planets and Jovian moons imaged by the Voyager mission, Image Credit: NASA

Four Haiku for Planets

Shy Mercury peeks
Flowers tickle its south pole
In young frosty air

Venus flashes Earth
Nubile dome-draping bright orb
Nude in the warm dusk

Jupiter dons stripes
Gas-lit hues of dying leaves
Cast through harvest breeze

Saturn trims the black
Storefront with icy china
Glints on Old Man’s breath

Poet’s Notes

The above represent more completed homework assignments from my journey through Stephen Fry’s wonderful book The Ode Less Travelled.

For my previous foray into planetary haiku, please read this post.

And lastly, I hope you are having a good National Poetry Month.

Recommended: Science Fact Clichés

 

Here’s a great piece from NPR this week. In the audio version, NPR Science Editor Geoff Brumfiel and Weekend Edition Sunday Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro banter about science journalism clichés and the news stories that utilize them:

It Sounds Like Science Fiction But … It’s a Cliché

 

With a nod to the loneliest born…

trappist-1f-nasa-illustration
From NASA’s website: “This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system…”, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The space exploration community is yapping about exoplanets. Here we go again, making the most of minimal data, stretching the meaning of the word “discovery” to its absolute limit, taking blurry imagery of distant stars and inferring the existence of whole solar systems. What can I say? When it comes to exoplanet research, Jake Christensen is a grinch.

Yet, even as I remain straddled between the platforms of healthy skepticism and indulgent cynicism, I must also say the search for worlds around distant stars seems to be generating a lot of work for illustrators. Speaking as a creative writer, that is a mighty good thing.

Yesterday, exoplanet research added a layer of significance to a poem I encountered. The late poet Darrell Gray wrote a piece entitled simply “Planets”. It is a very short poem, only two lines long. Please follow the link below. Read the poem a few times. Then take a deep breath and read it a couple more times. Again, it’s only two lines long. Afterwards, I invite you to come back here for my thoughts and the opportunity to comment:

Planets

Initially, I disliked Mr. Gray’s poem. In particular, the word “unborn” turned me off. It read a bit needy to me, maudlin perhaps. I suspected the poet of trying to amp up the emotional value of an ordinary thought. Granting the genuine pain involved, it is quite ordinary for a person to say they feel alone. Trust me, I’m a bachelor. Even the cosmic metaphor failed to increase my enjoyment. It is standard usage for scientists to refer to planets and stars as being born and eventually dying.

But then I did what I asked you, good reader, to do above. I read the poem several times. I took a deep breath. I read it a couple more. “Planets” does something I love to see poems do. It promotes humility. It takes humility to give credence to the notion that our very bodies are like shadows of things which haven’t even come into existence. The vastness of the cosmos—the innumerable things already gone and yet to come—all but commands us to be humble.

If you enjoyed Mr. Gray’s poem, head to the Poetry Foundation website for some more samples. I especially recommend his poem “Elephants”.

I also read a tribute to him by Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press. It’s rather long by blogging standards, but wonderful in its rendering of poets living life in the context of their poetic urges.

Now, here is a link to the NASA press release for recent exoplanet findings. Worth a look even if, like me, you’re a mix of skeptical and cynical.

Lastly, I highly recommend listening to a recent podcast from StarTalk All-Stars. I think because of the thoughtful mood Mr. Gray’s poem put me in, I found this episode, co-hosted by astrophysicist Emily Rice and comic Chuck Nice, to be thoughtful, humorous, and ultimately endearing. Listen to the romanticism in their voices.