Friday, November 30, 2012

Walking the Dog on Mars

Lunar Eclipse by Glen Tepke

Some of our most most profound moments arise when we are mindful of the ordinary, everyday happenings in the natural flow of our lives. A wondrous thing can occur when we look with fresh eyes...  we experience reality anew.  An honest and open look may throw us into confusion at first, but then there's always the potential for that "ah" moment when our understanding of nature deepens, and our conceptual world broadens... a moment of profound satisfaction.

That's what happened to me last night as I walked my small pet beagle, and  I looked up at the moon.

I tilted my head, and the shape of the craters and lunar seas took on the form of a rabbit, but that was not the surprise.  I've traveled the southern hemisphere where the rabbit on the moon resides.  I saw myself standing on the surface of the earth, nestled within the thin sliver of blue atmosphere that shelters all life as we know it.  The moon stood far beyond that safety, beautiful, cold and sterile.  The stars around it felt even further, beyond my imaginings...  I experienced a brief moment of fear.  The earth, my very existence, seemed fragile, a tiny sphere lost in an immense universe as lifeless as the moon.

NASA Illustration of Curiosity
How outrageous we humans are, I thought.  Half a century ago some of us went to the moon... how outrageously curious and bold.

It occurred to me that as I stood there, at that very same moment, on the surface of Mars several machines of our making roamed. My eyes scanned the sky for that tiny reddish tinged light in the sky and found it.  I felt a pull on the leash and noticed my dog sniffling around a bush hoping to find something.  There was an excitement to him.

I pictured Curiosity, NASA's latest rover, sniffling here and there, not so different from the efforts of the beagle at my feet.

It was an uplifting feeling, an ah moment, not so much about the moon but about ourselves.  The image of Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder of the lunar lander stood sharply in my mind.  No matter the cultural and political constraints of the day, I mused, we will always be excitedly searching.  We will always be venturing forth because that is who we are....

Monday, November 19, 2012

Winds of Life

Pomarine Jaeger by Patrick Coin
Birds often get caught by the fierce winds of hurricanes, finding shelter in the eye and riding a tropical cyclone, sometimes for thousands of miles.  Some storms make landfall and travel far inland, and wayward sea birds settle on foreign coasts or in lakes and ponds.

After the Superstorm Sandy, pomarine jaegers were found in many places as unlikely as Pennsylvania. Rescued pelicans in Rhode Island were flown back to a place more like their natural home, Florida.

Birds of all stripes follow the wind during their yearly migrations.  Sometimes the process is interrupted by violent events like Sandy, and they may end up far from their preferred habitats.  There were many such sightings after that massive northeastern hybrid storm: a Ross gull from the arctic turned up in Upstate New York, for instance, and in New Jersey a red-billed tropicbird was spotted.

Sandy is an example of how life itself is guided by the ubiquitous winds that move and shape clouds and weather.  Sometimes the effects are gentle as well as beneficial.  Throughout the world, the winds bring essential rain far inland, to places that lack their own source of moisture.  The breezes of the earth disperse seeds so many species of plants need to propagate.

See the relationship of wind and current in this NASA Scatterometer Image.
The effects of the wind on the biosphere are great and small.  The prevailing winds push on surface water creating great oceanic rivers, like the Gulf Stream; currents that in turn circumnavigate the globe and help spread the excess, equatorial heat from the direct sun to the rest of the earth.  Without that process the tropics would be scorched of life, and great masses of ice would abound in much of the rest of the planet.

The wind... although we can’t see it, we can feel it as an ever-present force.  Like with Sandy, it reminds us that in life everything changes.  The nature of the wind is written into our very thoughts and words.  If change is near we say there something in the wind.  Unpredictable people are said to be as fickle as the wind.

And on this earth the winds of change forever blow, reminding us nothing is permanent, not even the mountains that over geologic spans of time are beaten down by the wind and rain, and like great swells ultimately return to the waters of the ocean.

Monday, November 5, 2012

White-headed Capuchins of Central America

White-headed Capuchin by JoeOcchipinti
White-headed Capuchin, a photo by JoeOcchipinti on Flickr.

As New World monkeys of Central America, white-headed capuchins are perhaps one of the most recognizable of all primates, best known as partners of the street-performing organ grinders of early 20th century New York City. White-faced Capuchins are known to be very clever and can easily evade capture. In fact, they are so intelligent that they are sometimes used as animal helpers for  people who are paraplegic.

White-faced Capuchin MonkeysIn our travel to Costa Rica we were fortunate enough to observe two different troupes of Capuchin, one in a mangrove forest and another near our beach hotel.  In the mangroves, they were wary of us and posturing for us to leave (above), while by the beach resort they couldn't have cared less, and happily socialized with each other (left).  I will long remember the day when standing in the growing shadows of tall palms, we watched these wondrous creatures until the sun set into the Pacific.

I can tell you, it is truly amazing just how human-like these creatures are.  In the wild these amazing animals employ the use of tools to access and gather food, and have been known to use plants medicinally.  Capuchins have been seen rubbing citrus fruits and vines on their fur, perhaps in an effort to rid themselves of parasites or as a way to scent themselves. On a few occasions, researches have observed them armed with sticks for protection.  There is one story of  mother frantically hitting a snake so it would let go of her infant.

These arboreal creatures are very social and like to live in large groups, often establishing alliances with each other. Kinship is important, particularly female to female bonds.  Females are pregnant for about five months and usually bear a single young. Mothers share parenting duties.

Like humans the young mature slowly, usually weaned in about a year, and remain adolescents for several years.  They have been known to live to fifty years and beyond.

Click here to see more capuchin images from our trip to Costa Rica.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Will Sandy be a turning point?

When facing illness we give consideration to our health and to our bodies, but before then we take our health for granted.  Sandy has engendered a moment of clarity for all of us.  Our relationship with the natural world is as intrinsic and as fundamental.  As with our own health, we often don’t give it much thought until crisis comes.

Earth is our home.  We have no other. 

Sandy's aftermath
Sandy is only the latest example of a rapidly changing climate.  We can now see and measure the effects; changes like the radical disappearance of the polar ice cap, the increased frequency of droughts and forest fires, and the rise in sea level.  These things are no longer a matter of speculation.

Let us see clearly… Taking care of our planet is the defining issue of our times.

As a civilization, we are beginning to understand many of nature’s wondrous mechanisms, including those that have shaped the evolution of our atmosphere and climate.  We can point to many factors of natural climate change, like the moving of continents and rising of mountains, like earth’s fluctuating relationship with the sun.  We also know the greenhouse effect (the collection of gases that act to keep the earth’s heat trapped in the atmosphere) is a natural process, and makes our planet more hospitable for life; without it, all of the world’s oceans would be frozen over.  Natural processes shape a perpetually changing climate, from global tropical conditions to ice ages
The earth’s biosphere has adapted accordingly.  Nature endures, will we?

The same cannot be said for the civilization we humans have created.  We have harnessed the power of fossil fuels, and in doing so have inserted ourselves as shapers of climate change.  Nature has kept CO2 gas in check by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into buried coal, oil and gas.  What took nature hundreds of millions of years, we are undoing in a matter of a few generations by releasing all of that carbon back into the air.  It is the main way we are altering the chemistry of our atmosphere, and the climate is beginning to respond.  We are now feeling the consequences, but is only the beginning.

It is clear: We must find a better way. We too must adapt.

When other problems arise, like a bad economy or a blossoming federal debt, the environment takes a back seat, as evident by the fact that climate change was hardly mentioned in the 2012 presidential campaign. We can argue about the role of government, but even those who give voice to small government believe the fundamental role of the State is to protect the people from harm.
A destabilizing global climate is the biggest threat we face.

Each one of us has the responsibility to act in whatever way we can.  It starts with electing people who understand what we face, but it does not end there.  We must educate ourselves and find a way to make a difference.

It is our clarion call.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A sand berm disappears and waves crash seawall

nearby seawall

Images and video of Dane Street Beach in the early part of the storm.  Northeast Massachusetts coast.

When we arrived
half an hour later

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Macabre and Primal Wonder of Storms

Hurricane Katrina just before it hit the Gulf Coast

There is a dark majesty to big storms as they remind us that for all our human advances, the force of nature remains paramount to our existence. We exist and are beholden to the supreme countenance of nature and always will be. Perhaps that is why so many people, including myself, are fascinated by storms. Through modern technology we can watch them grow into behemoths of destruction, and anticipate their arrival. We know they will bring devastation, destroy people's lives and property, and yet cannot help feel a rush of excitement as they approach.

Lord of the winds! I feel thee nigh,
I know thy breath in the burning sky!
And I wait, with a thrill in every vein,
For the coming of the hurricane!

               -- William Cullen Bryant (1854)

Is it part of the human condition... this macabre and primal wonder of storms?

Blizzard of 78'
My relationship with massive storms began early. As a sixth grader, I kept the daily weather statistics for my math class, writing the highs and lows on a bulletin board for all to see.  When I heard a big Nor'easter was heading our way, I placed a yardstick below the swingset in our back yard and waited for the snow.  From the kitchen window my eyes were fixed on the accumulating snow until I was sent to bed.  The next morning, my eyes widened in awe.  I could no longer see the three foot marker.  It was completely buried by the Blizzard of '78, and so was my hometown and much of New England.

As a young man, my sister and I left the shelter of our home and stepped out to feel the force of the wind from the "No Name" storm of 1991, a complex weather system that combined a hurricane with a classic North Atlantic nor'easter.  We were only yards from the back door when I heard an explosion above me.  I turned to see a hail of bricks fall behind me.  The wind had knocked down a large chimney from the house next door.  It was a close call for both of us, but experience only helped to increase my fascination. How about you?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Talk about extreme, have you ever heard of a moss piglet?

Who could fail to be amazed by any creature who loves to live in the harshest and even the deadliest of places; in a pond of scalding water, in toxic acid, and even under a blast of radiation. Scientist have coined the term extremophile to describe organisms adapted to severely inhospitable places. Although most are bacteria or microbes, not all are single cell. Have you ever heard of moss piglets, also known as waterbears?

The short, plump, millimeter-long creatures with four pair of legs and little clawed feet are called tardigrades.  Some are vegetarians and some are hunters; there are 500 different species in all. These guys are found in the wildest of places, like hot springs in the Himalayas, and will blow your mind with what they can do.

Yellowstone National Park
Hot Spring in Yellostone National Park
A tardigrade can enter a cryptobiotic state (a very bizarre, death-like state of life) allowing them to survive in a dehydrated condition and highly toxic environment, even for many years. That's only the beginning.  These little guys could hang out with a batch of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven or take a short bath in liquid hydrogen and still scurry away. The vacuum of space is no worry for them either. A vacation in the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the ocean would be no problem. 10Gy doses of radiation would kill you and me, but moss piglets can take 5,000Gy.
Wunderkammer Moss Piglet

There are other types of multicellular extremophiles, like the deep-sea bristle or Pompeii worms that live around hydrothermic vents and sport red tentacle-like gills, or ice crawlers, wingless insects that live atop the coldest mountains, but nothing beats a moss piglet.

If I were an astrobiologist (someone who studies the possibility of life in the universe) I would have one as my mascot, perhaps even a cuddly tardigrade teddy on my desk. Believe it or not they exist too.  You can learn how to knit one at Wunderkammer.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

To feel the presence of stone and time

Colorado Plateau
The Grand Canyon
Traveling the long highways along the high, plateau deserts of the American Southwest, one can stop and visit places like Zion or the Grand Canyon and many other amazing National Parks.

The beauty of the Colorado Plateau is most often portrayed by images of the Grand Canyon.  Visually, it captures you, as it did my son in this picture. And yes, it is a magnificent place, but I want to tell you, there is so much more to discover...

Hiking in the Colorado Plateau is an experience of natural awakening; the area is a geological marvel dotted with bits of intriguing history and culture.  The area’s old nickname, Red Rock Country, comes from the brightly colored sandstone, long ago deposited by an ancient sea that cleaved North America in two.

Lava flow at Hidden Crater
Asteroid Impact
Meteor Crater in Arizona

The scales of time resonate within you, if only one stops to listen.  At the bottom of the Grand Canyon you can pick up rocks more than two billion years old. That’s twenty times older than the end of the age of the dinosaurs.  Not far off, an asteroid impact blasted a kilometer wide crater in the land a mere thousand centuries ago.

Zion National Park
Angel's Landing, Zion National Park
After climbing a particularly stunning trail, my wife and son look out over the Zion Canyon on the peak of Angel’s Landing, a massive rock formation along the Virgin River.  From the river, the way transitions into roughly paved switchbacks until nearly the summit, where people breathlessly cling to heavy iron chains, not so much from the two and a half mile hike, but from the dizzying drop-offs on either side.

Flowers and Cinders
The Colorado Plateau, nestled west of the Rockies in the four corners region of Southwestern United States, is a place of intimate moments, where the very rock speaks to you in a language all its own.

I recommend taking the time to stop at some of the quieter, lesser known spots, like the enchanting landscape of black cinders in Hidden Canyon State Park in Northern Arizona, where as the sun went down, we walked across soft cinders and climbed jagged lava flow, and where our spirit drifted with the cool wind on dry mountain grass.

More pictures of my trip to the canyons in the Southwest

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Coming Storm of Light

Northern Lights
NASA Image, Aurora over Midwestern US
Imagine mysterious curtains of crimson wavering in the night sky, while in a fit of madness, electrical equipment goes haywire.  That’s what happened in early September of 1859.  Literally out of the blue, telegraphs everywhere began to spark and crackle.  There was so much energy inexplicably flowing through telegraph systems that they continued to transmit even after being turned off.   Some operators reported being severely shocked.

In 1859, a particularly powerful stream of particles from the sun hit the earth straight on.  For two days, unusually brilliant auroras could be seen across the planet, even in the tropics.  More than a century later, we still don’t fully understand solar storms and the auroras they generate.  The Inuit people tell us the Northern Lights sing; only recently has science discovered they actually do.

Every eleven years, solar flares become more frequent and can produce coronal mass ejections, massive bursts of solar wind.  If aimed correctly, these storms of energized protons, electrons and a scattering of elements strike the protective magnetic field that surrounds the earth.  The solar wind is deflected towards the poles, charging the high atmosphere like a neon sign, painting rings of light.  The more intense the storm the bigger the effect; in the largest events the energy penetrates to the ground as it did in 1859.
Neon Effect
The next active peak period is almost upon us, and scientists suggest it could be very intense.  Despite all the 2012 predictions, I wouldn’t worry about the end of the world -- after all, our little planet has been orbiting the sun for four and a half billion years; life’s been doing just fine.  Still, it does make one wonder what would happen if a solar storm the size of the one in 1859 were to strike.  Telegraphs marked the beginning of a communications revolution that has come to define our world, but unlike back then, our civilization is now completely reliant on electrical and telecom networks.  

You can find out more at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.  The last time I saw the shimmering Northern lights was on a Halloween night, during the last solar maxim in 2003.  Have you ever seen them?

See my post: Watch the sun erupt in a rain of fire.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Wonder in a Drop of Water

Have you ever wondered about a drop of water?  You should, as the whole of human existence, all human thought and creativity, rests on a slight bend in the nature of water. 

Round your lips and gently blow on the surface of a teaspoon.  See how the water in your breath has collected on the cool metal.  Place it on the tip of your nose and let the spoon hang there.  Dip the spoon back in a glass of water and glide it smoothly across your arm.  You see, water is glue and a lubricant at the same time.  Bizarre, isn’t it?    

Lucky us, we live in a place in the universe that has water aplenty.  Our home is covered with a liquid ocean of the stuff and the air is infused with it.  Look outside on a wintry day, and you see water in all three states of matter.  The transition between ice, liquid, and gas releases or absorbs a huge amount of heat, and that energy allows water to cycle through the natural world.   The rain brings life to the land, creating our amazing earthly biosphere.

Dip a teaspoon in a glass of water.  Watch the drops of water form on the edge of the teaspoon.  Lift it and follow the drop as it makes its way down the silver metal, perhaps collecting other drops along the way.  Picture closely the curved shape of the drop on the arc of the spoon, because a bend is what it’s all about.
It just so happens that the molecule that makes up water, one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, has a bend to it, and that makes one side a little more negative.  Like little magnets, the H2O molecules pull on each other just so, not too much and not too little; they flow together in such a way that water forms into a drop.  Without this subtle pull there would be no way for plants to draw water from the soil.  Life as we know it would not exist.

Human CreativityScoop a teaspoon of salt and stir it into your glass of water, and watch it disappear.  The power to dissolve things allows water to carry a whole bunch of chemistry within it.  So add a few other elements and we have everything that matters… the evolution of life.  You and I are an incredibly complex soup, 90% water, a little carbon, and a whole lot of chemistry. 

That water is life is evident, but it is also the ether of consciousness itself.  Dissolved salts and that little molecular bend give water excellent conductive properties.   It is the medium that carries the electrical impulses through our nervous systems, allowing us to live, love and paint the Mona Lisa.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Dunes of Plum Island

protected beach
Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge
Is there a place, or a landscape that stirs your soul more than any other?  For me it’s probably the simple beauty and marvelous symmetry of sand dunes.  I’ve traveled to the Saharan sands, walked along the dunes that line the coast of Florida, and visited Great Sands National Park in Colorado.  But the truth is, I don’t have to go very far at all to stand in the hills of sand I love most.

One of my favorite natural places is an eleven-mile long sandbar in northern Massachusetts called Plum Island.  It’s a wildlife sanctuary and as a child I saw my first bald eagle there; and also my first red fox, great blue heron, piping plovers; and the place I caught my first striped bass fishing at night along the surf.  Last year, I witnessed a young seal making its way along the surf, and a great cormorant wading in the offshore swells.

The southern 2/3 of the island has been designated as Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. There is so much wildlife because Plum Island is an estuary, a place where the ocean tides mingle with the sweet water of two rivers, the Merrimac to the north and the Ipswich to the south.  As are all estuaries, Plum Island is one of the most productive natural habitats in nature, and plays a critical role in the local environment.

The dunes of Plum Island are filled with a wide variety of plants.  Beach plums and short hardy grasses abound on the side that faces the Atlantic by the haunting sound of the surf, on a long seemingly endless beach.  The inland side sits on some of the most beautiful tidal marshland you will see anywhere.  In between, you can walk along dunes that run for hundreds of yards and stand fifty feet tall, hosting a shrubby forest and the occasional tall pine.

Beach DunesIn my first trip on the island, with my tenth grade biology class, I never could have imagined how a sandbar would shape my life.  When I lived in the Andes and wrote my first novel about an ocean world, I thought about Plum Island and how it often closes long stretches of the beach for nesting plovers.  Can you look upon a scene so beautifully free of human footprints without being inspired?

It is one of the first natural places I visited with my wife, when we were so very young and the possibility of our now life-long affair was as ephemeral as the icicles that hung off every branch around us.  It was in the middle of winter and the place sparkled from a blanket of ice and crusty snow of a New England nor’easter.  And now, twenty five years later our teen-age son swims in the tall waves, oblivious to the chill of the North Atlantic.  It is his favorite place as well.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why it's so important to be creative

Monet - Sunset in Venice

There’s no other satisfaction like creating something.  That sense of accomplishment nourishes the soul in a way nothing else does. When the bible says we were created in the image of God, I wonder if it meant not so much that we look like, but rather that we create like God.  

In my case, my fingers compose words and they appear on the screen in front of me… black, white and flat words, but wholly beautiful and powerful.  I am sharing my thoughts, literally part of who I am, with you.  It’s absolutely incredible.
My hands could be playing the piano instead, shaping mud and earth, holding a camera, or perhaps a paint brush dabbing flames of color on a canvas.  They could be arching through the air as I’m dancing or wielding a hammer.
When we think about what it means to be fully human I see no other thing more essential as the ability to create.  Making is as needful of a thing for us as having a friend or a lover.   So I say, make creation a priority in your life.  Find a way to be creative and be fully whole.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Get ready to rock your mind

Rock field on Mt. Jefferson, NH

When you pick up a lowly rock from the ground, you are touching something unimaginably incredible.   Yes, you have probably heard that a rock is a collection of minerals, and that minerals are made from elements, created by stars.  It’s all star stuff, the rocks, clouds and landscape you see in the image, and that’s pretty amazing, but there is even more to ponder.

Thinking about a rock is pretty impressive.  For instance, if you compress the age of the oldest rock on earth to a year, the pyramids were built a few seconds ago.  The elements that make up that rock are older still, perhaps almost as old as the universe itself.  So, twirl that rock round your fingers and then forget all that…

Imagine nothingness. 

A white dot pops into existence… welcome the universe.

This dot is so hot that the best minds among us are still wondering what it might have been like.  All that will ever exist lies inside this white dot.  It inflates, and as it grows all of the reality we humans know settles into being.  Inside the growing white dot are the laws of nature, like the fact that two bits of matter will gravitate towards each other, and the closer they get the more attractive they become.

Big Bang
NASA Illustration of a Supernova

Hydrogen is the first element that appears and it soon collapses into vast spheres.  With pressure comes heat, one of those natural laws.  Eventually the heat grows so great the hydrogen spheres ignite into nuclear furnaces.  Through more natural laws, matter begins to fuse together, and transforms into progressively heavier elements.  The new suns eventually use up all of the fuel and explode with even greater energy, and heavier elements are born.  The dust created by the supernovas in turn collects into more stars, and lo and behold we have all of matter.

Lagoon Nebula, NASA Image
It just so happens that because of the laws of nature, a very tiny amount of all that matter takes a different route.  If matter is traveling at the right speed and direction it will begin to spin around other matter through a balancing act between gravity and centripetal force.  The rock you are holding happens to be one of those bits of matter that, instead of falling into the sun, stayed in orbit as part of a planet or a moon, or perhaps a comet, meteor, or asteroid.  

I am writing this blog because of all the laws of nature have converged to make it so.  The rock in your hand would not exist otherwise.  Above all, the universe is the patterns within it, patterns that emerged with the big bang.  Next time you pick up a rock, look what rests between your fingers, know that you literally hold the universe in your hand, for all those patterns are there.  Feel the weight of the rock in your hand, and know it as expression of how attracted it is to the ground.  Twirl it around your fingers and wonder at the audacity of it all. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What’s it like to be on top of a volcano?

Vulcano Island

My wife and I asked ourselves that question when we left the beach and began to climb the thousand foot mountain directly behind us.  Many years ago, on one of the Aeolian Islands in the Mediterranean, wearing nothing but sandals and bathing suits, we made our way up the volcanic cone.   It was a particularly tempting climb because this island named by the Romans now defines the very term for mountains of fire.

We easily made it to the rim of the crater and began to walk around it.  Soon we were coughing and choking from the sulfurous gases.  We ran into a group of scientists in heavy gear and oxygen, looked at each other, and decided that perhaps we should head back down.  Despite several washings we had to throw away our bathing suits as they still smelled distinctly like rotten eggs.
Sulphur Vent

I was born in Messina, Sicily, and as a child remember the distant glow of the nighttime lava flows of Mount Etna, one of the great shield volcanoes of our world.  Perhaps it’s due to that early memory, but I’ve always been enamored by volcanoes and have visited several.

Shield volcanoes are by far the most massive, spanning tens of miles, and have a gentler slope as they are formed by repeated flows of lava.  The ones that have the typical cone shapes with steep sides are created by alternating lava flows and blasts of rocky debris that rise and fall back down.  There are two basic varieties, cinder and composite cones.  Cinder cones are created by one-time eruption and are much smaller, while composite cones can grow to great heights through repeated eruptions.  The latter are incredibly destructive as was Mt. St. Helens in 1980 when an eruption blew 1500 feet off the top.

There is so much variety that each visit to a volcano is a new experience, but always I find myself awed and humbled by what I see. The harsh, alien landscape makes me feel insignificant, but also brings out the feeling of being alive.   I love the otherworldliness to the sights, smells, and sounds around you.  Often, near a vent, you can reach down and feel the heat radiating through the ground, which is usually dark and foreboding, lacking any signs of life.   It is precisely the sheer barrenness that makes me appreciate how life is a truly precious thing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Gift of Life Elsewhere

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, detail

We humans tend to see ourselves as the center of all things.  It’s understandable, as we haven’t encountered anyone else in this vast universe, not even a lowly extraterrestrial bacteria as of yet. What happens when we do find life elsewhere?  We will lose our special status as the bearers of a unique haven of life in the cosmos, but what will we gain?

It means something that we are trying hard to find out.  As I write this blog, Curiosity is digging in the Martian landscape hoping to discover signs of living matter.  We are searching the heavens for extra solar planets in that tantalizing Goldilocks zone, the place where the temperature is just right and liquid water may exist and so life.

If we do find we are not alone, history suggests we will get used to it eventually, but it won’t be easy to adjust.  It may cause strife and unease.  In Western civilization, I can think of three great happenings that shook the human, egocentric view of our place and status in the cosmos.  By now most of us have accepted we don’t have a special home in the universe, that we are really just animals, and we’re often prone to irrational behavior.  It was not easy for us to accept such things about ourselves.

The first shock to our “ego” occurred in the 1500’s when Copernicus announced earth was not the center of the universe, but rather revolved around the sun.  This radical view of the cosmos was condemned by the  Church and many others as heresy.  A century later Galileo was tried and placed under house arrest for his support of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.  Many died and suffered greatly for espousing this belief.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young scientist came along and tried to convince the world that humans were really part of nature.  Darwin published Origin of Species which took away the special status of humans as spiritually apart and above the life around us.  We are still dealing with that one. The third blow to our human “ego” came from Sigmund Freud himself, who introduced the notion that we humans are driven by internal, mental forces largely beyond our control.  Not only are we bound in a physical chain of evolution and adaptation, as Darwin argued, but our very minds are subject to powerful drives that challenge the lofty idea that we are primarily creatures of reason and logic.

What happens when we find life elsewhere?  I think we will find it eventually, although I am human and subject to such whims.  My feeling is that we will deal with another blow to our uniqueness more constructively than we have in the past.  It’s not so important to consider ourselves apart and unique as it once was.  In fact, most of us like to think of ourselves as connected, as part of a large whole.

When we first saw images of earth from space we discovered a blue planet with no borders and boundaries and that did change us for the better.  I think knowing we are not alone will as well.  Finding life elsewhere in the cosmos will be a gift for all of us, perhaps in ways we can hardly imagine.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Anyone Truly Normal?

As someone interested in human nature, I wonder if anyone is truly "normal." No matter how you look at it, being normal is a very strange thing, and I can't think of anyone that I know reasonably well to be a truly "normal" person. Everyone is quirky in one way or another. I mean this as a compliment and that's what curious about it.

In our society, being called normal can be a downer, as it implies being boring. It's considered better to be unique, a trend-setter, an outside-the-box person. So why is our civilization so hung up on normality?  The concept of "normal" is expressed across our cultural institutions as an ideal state.  It helps define the standards of what is a healthy person, for example.  Being normal is a part of manners, positive behavior in general, and even found in principles of law.  Considering just how much emphasis and energy we put into being normal, it seems contradictory that we aspire to and even revere individuality.

What does this have to do with nature and society which are the supposed subjects of my blog?  A lot, I'd say, as the question goes to the heart of human nature and of our "individualistic" culture.

There are two reasons usually given as to why most people aspire to be normal, or at least appear normal, as opposed to being a misfit or seen as a weirdo. From a personal point of view, the need to be "normal" is an expression of the fact that we humans are social animal and as such want to fit in. On a larger level, to have a functioning society as opposed to "Lord of the Flies" type chaos, people have to conform to social standards, in other words, people have to act normal. And this is why our institutions are so hung up on normal.

I don't know, but things seem to be changing.  I don't think it's coincidence that post-apocalyptic stories are so popular today.  People seem to be fascinated by scenarios where the normalcy of society is challenged and even falls apart.  I wonder if the very idea of "normal" is being challenged now.  I think young people are thinking about normalcy much more critically. Is the very idea of "normal" changing?  Is social media responsible?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Born to Run, or Born to Shop?

I run.  

Well, technically I’m probably jogging but every other day, I travel about four miles or so faster than walking.  What’s the difference?  If you’re not touching the ground at any given point during your stride then you’re running.
According to anthropologists, we were all born to run.  In fact, according to William Cromie we humans are (or were) particularly good at it.  Our bodies have evolved that way, but after some quick research on the web I discovered that only about 1 or 2 percent of Americans run.  Only one out of a thousand Americans have run (or jogged) a marathon.   The rates for compulsive shoppers (clinically addicted, meaning it’s a serious problem for them) is much higher, somewhere between 2 and 8 percent.  True, we all need to buy things, but personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t shop frivolously at least sometimes.  I think shopping wins.  We are a culture of consumers, probably the greatest ever.
So humans and our ancestors have been running for 2 to 3 million years and shopping for a lot less than that.  The first evidence of money is about 2,700 years ago.  This brings to mind the debate of nature versus nurture.  Are we shaped more by our genes or culture?  I suppose in this case, if the anthropologists are right, culture rules the day.  Even runners love to shop for really cool running shoes.

So next time someone tells you it’s their nature to do this or that, remind them about running…

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Post-Apocalyptic Beauty

          Lovell Island where we set our camp has a post-apocalyptic feel to it.  The islands, filled with ruined forts and bunkers, are a testament to American military history and nation-building.   As part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Parks Area they have guarded the port of Boston from pirates in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to German U-boats in World War II.  Some of the more notable inhabitants were the prisoners, from early Indians to confederates and deserters in the Civil War.

          On an eroded drumlin near our campsite rested an enormous block of concrete, the remnant of an underground bunker that housed the soldier who watched the harbor for enemy ships and submarines, ready to set off large, hulking mines stuffed with tons of TNT.

          This urban archipelago is a geologic relic of the last ice age when the area was covered by a mile-thick glacier.  As the ice came and went it deeply scoured the land, leaving behind the great lakes and long valleys.  In others places the retreating glaciers left an impressive variety of mounds of rubble and earth.  The Islands arise from a drowned field of drumlins.  The term itself comes from the Irish word droimnín, meaning a "little ridge."

          The beaches are covered by gray mounds of rounded slate of beautiful shapes and configurations.  We wandered around on the intertidal zone picking up some of the more curious stones, pieces of sea glass, bits of shells and other interesting tidbits, including an old whiskey bottle with a message inside, which instructed us to learn history and be grateful, among other things.

          Before the nearby skyline of Boston lit the evening horizon with city lights, the sky put on its own display of colors.  The wind blew gently and was fresh, salty, and cool.  And I was indeed grateful to have found such a beautiful place so close to home.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I was really getting into my novel when...

          “I was really getting into my novel when I saw I had a message from Socrates on facebook.”  Before  I clicked on the little icon on the bottom of my screen I got to thinking, why did I buy an e-reader that is also a web platform?   It’s pretty distracting.  Multitasking is supposed to be bad for us, at least according to a lot of new studies on human cognition.  Why did I buy an e-reader at all?  There is something to be said for losing oneself in bound, foliated wood pulp.  Some people argue e-books will ultimately relegate traditional books to being niche items, sort of like vinyl records are today.    
          I’m not convinced…
          Future predictions are usually notoriously off kilter.  When television came along, movies and radio were supposed to go by the wayside, and both media are fine and well today.  When computers were adopted we heard predictions of a paperless society, when in fact the use of paper quadrupled.  In the same vein, robots were slated to take over all of the menial tasks that debased the human condition.   And then there were all of the predictions of a 21st century world run by fusion energy and airborne cars dotting the skies around cities like lines of flying ants. 
          On the other hand, occasionally futurists get it right, and it just may be that paper books will be relegated to being novelty items.   
          What’s ironic is that over two thousand years ago, Socrates, one of the West’s greatest and most revered intellectuals, was disturbed by books.  He thought books were static things, not able to interact as human beings do, and that made them so inferior as to be a detriment to thinking and learning.  Considering the intellectual history of the last millennia I think he may have been wrong.  Although I wonder, if Socrates was around right now he might happily be reading a treatise on an ipad, from time to time checking things on google, and perhaps texting me about a good place to get falafel sandwich. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why search for Aliens?

Gliese 581c  NASA Image

The search for extra terrestrial intelligence has been going on for fifty years and still we have not found anything concrete. The recent discovery of "earth-like" planets like Gliese 581 c is re energizing this effort. Will we ever encounter intelligent life in the cosmos? If there are other beings in the universe where are they, and why haven’t they said hello?

In thinking about this blog I came to realize I have many more questions than answers.

What would it mean for our human civilization to discover that we are not alone? Some UFO enthusiasts claim that governments are already aware of intelligent visitation of our planet, but for whatever reason they are keeping it secret. One of those reasons might be the social repercussions of knowing that aliens exist. How would people of faith interpret first contact? Any interstellar civilization would have to be far more advanced than us. Would the fact that far more powerful beings are hanging over our heads induce mass hysteria?

Stephen Hawking, one of the most respected and renowned physicists of our times, argues that we should not broadcast ourselves, that it may be dangerous to contact alien life. After all, we have no knowledge of intent. When it comes to first encounter between “primitive” and “advanced” societies we only have human history to go on and it’s not a pretty picture. What if they want to assimilate us, enslave us, or simply wipe us out?

Gliese 581d NASA Image
The late Carl Sagan argued that any civilization capable of interstellar travel would de facto be benign. The argument goes that overly militant civilizations would not have survived their atomic age or other potential ages of technologically-induced oblivion. Only beings advanced beyond such aggression would have made it to the stars, so we have nothing to worry about. If you had to guess, which do you think it is?

I think it comes down to the fact that we are a curious lot and we just need to know one way or another. We will continue to explore space for many reasons: for resources, for entertainment, for scientific knowledge, and for prestige. Finding extraterrestrial life is central to all those rationales. If there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that we’re going to keep looking.

The Rift Valley and Evolution

NASA Image, Rift Valley
It's incredible to think about all of the natural forces that came together to create a sentient species on this little blue planet of ours.  There are so many interesting ways to approach the question of our origins. The Great Rift Valley in Africa is a place that elicits such conversations.

What can  geology, the study of rocks and the physical earth, tell us about human origins, for example?  The crust is constantly on the move due to the internal heat of the earth’s interior. Along the Pacific rim, the sea floor is forced back into the depths of the earth forming a vast ring of volcanic fire;  In India, the Himalayas rise as the plates crush into each other.  How can any of this relate to human evolution?

In East Africa the land is being literally ripped apart by the same great forces.  A new ocean will soon sever the continent apart and the horn of Africa will become its own separate land. The African Rift Valley also happens to be the place where our first human ancestors evolved. Could there be a connection between the colossal forces working within the earth and the evolution of life and of human kind?

NASA Map of Rift Valley
Life has blossomed on earth due to the geologically active earth’s interior.  It is the reason why our planet has a magnetic field. Without that field life would be in deep trouble as it protects the earth from the sun’s periodic ejections of radioactive particles. The magnetic field also keeps the atmosphere from being slowly ripped away by the solar wind. Just look at poor Mars as an example of planet that has cooled and lost its shield.

But as far as the human story of evolution, the influence of geology may go further than that. Evolution is all about adaptability. Over the course of about five or six million years the development of hominids may have been spurred by the geomorphic changes happening across the African Rift Valley landscape. As its geology changed, bodies of water formed and disappeared, the climate became cyclically wetter and drier, and in turn the surrounding ecology adapted.

Every creature has evolved in its own unique ways. Nature is amazingly creative in that regard. Perhaps, changes in the Rift Valley favored hominids that were cleverer, more able to survive by using intellect, in turn, encouraging early humans to develop larger brains, and leading ultimately to us.

There were also global climatic changes during this time, possibly related to plate tectonics, as well as changes in the relationship of the earth and sun. Earth has experienced a few dozen ice ages in the last few million years, each one radically changing life on the planet. All but one hominid species went extinct. Climate change is no hand maiden.

In any case, a particular combination of species, land forms and climate change in the Great Rift Valley is probably why you are reading this right now.

Now that’s something to think about. There seems to be a lot that goes into making sentient life, and it seems to be a fragile process. Perhaps it is quite rare in the universe, but I doubt we are the only example, as we now know there are likely tens of billions of planets just in our galaxy alone.

Pattern and Meaning

Earth in Space
NASA photo, Apollo 11 mission.
Who cannot help being humbled by the vastness of the cosmos as compared to the smallness of our earthly home. We are indeed a tiny dot in the universe, but I do not believe significance is a matter of size. I've always been fascinated by the dynamics of pattern -- how pattern reproduces itself in vastly different scales, and how the blueprint of the universe is intimately bound through self-replicating forms.


I revel in how the arrangements of nature are ensconced in space and time; the way patterns are displayed in our planet's landmasses, in the atmosphere and in the oceans. There is an artistry to the earth's physical landscapes that is more richly textured than any human work.

Double Helix
AAAS Image

Walking along a beach I watch the swells run up the sand, weave and merge, and return to the ocean as braided rivulets, and it reminds me of the great river systems of our world.  It brings back memories of the curls in my son hair, the capillaries that course through his young body, and the double helix of DNA that constructs his being. 

Joe and Paul in 2002

So perhaps, it is within the pattern of things that we humans can find solace in this vastness of space. The same patterns, that no matter the scale, inform us that we are an integral part of the cosmos; that our existence is as much a reflection of the universe as is the largest galaxy cluster.

Milky Way
NASA Image