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!

 

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.

Farewell to Charles Bolden: NASA Administrator

He saw me! Administrator Bolden noticed me!

charles-bolden-nasa-newseum
NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden speaking at the Newseum in 2015, flanked by a model of the Hubble Space Telescope, Image Credit: Jake Christensen

Okay, I was a bit star struck. The above encounter involved me shuffling along the front of the stage in jeans and a NASA t-shirt as Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, looked over his speech prior to a televised press conference. The encounter took place shortly before a 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope, held at the Newseum in downtown Washington D.C. I attended as part of a NASA Social.

Full disclosure: I passed in front of the small stage by myself. I am 6′ 1″, chubby, and had a big NASA “meatball” logo on my chest; the man had no choice but to notice me. Furthermore I was sheepish and failed to say hello or even nod. But still, for a moment, the leader of our nation’s space program took note of me.

That was April 23, 2015. On January 20th of this year, Bolden resigned as NASA’s Administrator. He will be missed at the helm.

Portrait of Charles Bolden, NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

From my perspective, Administrator Bolden oversaw an era of robotic space exploration that may be called a golden age. As an astronaut, he played a firsthand role in deploying and maintaining the Hubble Space Telescope. As Administrator he oversaw some of our greatest missions: Cassini (Saturn), Curiosity (Mars), and New Horizons (Pluto). My “golden age” assertion comes by way of the incredible joy and sense of adventure I have experienced as a space enthusiast in recent years.

In honor of Major General Bolden, here are a couple of quotes from an address he gave in 2012 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Notwithstanding his own considerable accomplishments at NASA and in the Marines, Bolden expressed awe standing at the same podium once used by Dr. King. Bolden’s profound remarks note a unity of purpose while contrasting King’s non-violent work with his own military service. The full speech, only a few pages, is well worth the read:

Charles F. Bolden’s Remarks, 44th Annual MLK Commerative Service

“Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. … We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

—Martin Luther King, 1964, quoted by Charles Bolden

“I am proud to serve a President and a country that have given NASA the mandate and the resources to honor Dr. King’s dream by reaching new heights and revealing the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

—Charles Bolden

Here is a previous post about Administrator Bolden’s Senate Confirmation remarks:

Crisis, Thy Name is Muse

Planet as Protagonist in ‘Mars Crossing’

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

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Two-faced Haiku for Neptune

neptune-portrait-voyager-nasa

Voyager’s Neptune (nice version)

Orb. Bear your stitching
Scar. Icy shines your still life
Face. Blue clouds rejoin.

Voyager’s Neptune (mean version)

You. Bear your stitching
Scar. Icy shines your orb’s poor
Trait. Blue clouds sever.


Poet’s Note

I did not set out to write two versions, let alone a nice and mean one. As a lazy Sunday morning writing activity, I decided to compose a single haiku based on a NASA image. I chose the above picture, actually a composite of multiple images from the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. It includes what appears to be a faint photo-stitching line running vertically through the left quarter of Neptune. My plan from the outset was to give the poem a corresponding scar by use of enjambment, which now that I explain it sounds kinda mean. Maybe that’s why the first version I completed was the mean one. But, loving the picture and admiring NASA’s imaging talent, I kept playing till I had a nice haiku as well.

Let there be Law, saith the Universe

nasa-cassini-solstice-mission
The things we can do because Isaac Newton figured out gravity for us. This graphic depicts the 155-orbit Solstice Mission of the Cassini spacecraft. This multi-year mission has avoided crashing into Saturn, any of its moons, or accidentally hurtling aimlessly into deep space because we can measure and utilize gravity. Image Credit: NASA JPL/Caltech

Right now scientists are spending lots of time and money looking for a “Planet X.” Unseen, possibly non-existent, its presence is being mathematically inferred by researchers thirsty for discovery. The reason their search is not ridiculous is that it has been done before. And it worked!

The planet Neptune was discovered sans telescope. Researchers in 1846 used math coupled with the best observations of known planets at the time. They discovered Neptune by detecting its gravitational influence on planets they could see. I’m reading up on this for use in my creative writing. My chosen book is The Planet Neptune: An Exposition and History, by John Pringle Nichol. (Yes, I’m suddenly thinking about potato chips too.)

“The unity of this great Universe is unbroken; it is the appointed theatre of uninterrupted law: and the power to follow that law through the Heavens, and to discern by its aid the inter-dependence of their most varied and gorgeous phenomena, was the legacy bequeathed to human genius and perseverance by him who, in this sense, has never yet been approached–our own immortal Newton.”

–J.P. Nichol, The Planet Neptune, Part First, Picture of the Solar System

In the first part of Nichol’s book, the rhetoric comes lofty from his pen. I enjoyed sampling his 1847 perspective, more closely tuned to our present-day view than I might have assumed. He speaks of a universe in which the gravity of everything, even a single pebble, affects the gravity of everything else. Had the phrase butterfly effect been in the lexicon at that time, I suspect Nichol would have given that meteorological notion a nod for gravity’s sake.

Nichol revels in the unity, harmony, and especially the complexity of the cosmos, which math and astronomy make decipherable. In describing the apparent oscillation of stars, he all but introduces exoplanet research (which is all the rage today for discovery-thirsty scientists and science journalists). His ultimate refrain, summed up in the above quote, is to praise the virtue of “august Law” at work in the Heavens. Lofty indeed!

Questions for Comment

When expressing your sense of the universe and its movements, what words come to mind? Why are you drawn to these words?

Voyaging through ‘The Interstellar Age’

The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager MissionThe Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this one had broad implications reaching decades ahead to the present day. Voyager 1’s top priority was to image the moon Titan close up. Titan boasted an atmosphere and potentially liquid on the surface. The close flyby meant sacrificing any chance for Voyager 1 to travel on to Pluto (which ended up waiting until 2015 for its first visit). But here’s the part that made me catch my breath. If Voyager 1’s flyby of Titan had failed, there was a plan to have Voyager 2 make a second attempt. If Voyager 2 had been routed to fly by Titan, there would have been no visits to Uranus or Neptune. Such are the ultimatums given by orbital mechanics and the ever changing positions of planets.

The above dilemma plays out in a chapter titled “Drama Within the Rings.” The Voyager missions, like all space missions, generated a great deal of drama. Jim Bell captures it well in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Readers will learn how close we came to missing out on the famed, almost religiously revered, Pale Blue Dot image. Much of the drama comes from the flyby nature of the mission. Every time Voyagers 1 and 2 arrived at a new planet, the science teams back on Earth knew they had only one opportunity to capture images and data. A recurring theme, and word, in this book is “pressure.” No U-turns and few if any second chances.

To a lesser extent, The Interstellar Age is about a budding young scientist: the author. Bell ferreted his way into the mission control center, willing to fetch pizza and coffee for a chance to be near the action. Voyager’s mission has spanned his life heretofore. His book captures both heart-stopping moments and poignant changing of the guards. As scientists and engineers who designed the mission moved on to other missions or retired, younger researchers came onboard.

Bell exhibits a keen awareness, but also an evangelical fondness, for the subject material. Late in the book he unabashedly refers to himself and others as disciples of the late Carl Sagan. I must include myself in that group. Bell’s decision to embark on a career in science holds as a primary inspiration watching Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos series. Of his approach to communicating science, Bell suggests Sagan “was probably the first scientist I had ever encountered who spoke English.

“I mean common English, more like what you’d hear around the dinner table than the jargon and shorthand codes that most scientists typically use when talking about their work. But that plain talk was also laced with metaphor and analogy and evocatively grand cadences, often accompanied by the soaring and romantic electronic music of Vangelis.”

Like Sagan, Bell strives to make his writing conversational and accessible. This is a great read for people wanting to take a grand tour of the Voyager mission. As readers glide through the final pages, the Voyager probes glide toward the edge of the solar system. The primary mission long since completed, Voyager’s greater journey into the galaxy has only just begun.

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