Tag Archives: space

Monday Musings: For One Night, Magic and Light Beat Out Doom and Gloom

Forty-one years ago, after an emotionally difficult sophomore year in college, I took a job as a camp counselor at a sleep away camp in rural Pennsylvania. I didn’t want to go home, and I didn’t want to stay in Providence, and I thought a summer of working and living and playing with kids would be good for me. It was, mostly. But that’s not what this post is about.

All the counselors at the camp had two essential duties. First, they were bunk counselors, living with and taking care of kids in a given age group. I was assigned to a bunk of twelve-year-old boys, who, I learned, straddle the line between “kid” and “teen,” ping-ponging from angelic to demonic and back again with breathtaking agility. And second, counselors had a specialty that they taught throughout the summer. I was an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast even then, so I was the nature counselor. As it happens, my fellow bunk counselor and I were both named David. He had been at the camp for several years, so he was “Old Dave” and I was “New Dave.” And my colleague in the outdoor program was also named David, so he and I were “Camping Dave” and “Nature Dave.” (It didn’t seem to bother anyone — well, except me — that I didn’t like being called “Dave” then any more than I do now.)

Near the end of the summer, Camping Dave and I organized a sleep-out for any kid or counselor who cared to join us, so that we could watch the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Our plan was to have the kids sleep out on the huge soccer/baseball field, cook s’mores, watch shooting stars, and stay up past their usual bedtimes. Sounds great, right?

Except things didn’t go according to plan.

They went far, far better than we hoped.

Because that night there was a northern lights display that lit up the night sky up and down the eastern part of the United States. My brother was camping in Vermont that same night, and he saw it too. The kids thought it was very cool, though I don’t think they understood how special it was to see what they were seeing. A few were disappointed that the weird, curtains of light in the sky made it impossible to see shooting stars.

Dave and I, and the other counselors who were with us, were thrilled. Most of us had never seen the northern lights before. The glow in the sky was mostly green that night, at least it appeared so from where we were, and it danced and flickered and shimmered for hours before fading well after midnight. To this day, my memories of that night remain vivid and joyful. Before this past Friday night, it was the only time in my life when I saw the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe
Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe

Friday night, found me in Tennessee rather than Pennsylvania, and yet, in a testament to the power of this year’s solar event, Friday’s display was every bit as spectacular as that first one so many years ago. And yet . . . .

We got our first hint of the possibility of unusually widespread aurora sightings a couple of weeks ago. Astronomers reported an increase in solar flare activity that they thought would soon peak at historic levels. On Friday itself, when the first of the huge flares occurred, scientists again noted that this could mean unusual aurora occurrences.

But those predictions were buried in news reports of quite a different nature. Most of the news outlets neglected to focus on what turned out to be a wondrously beautiful event that linked people all over the globe. Instead, most articles warned of what the sunspot activity and solar wind might do to communications satellites, electric grids, internet providers, and other parts of the electronic infrastructure on which we depend. And hey, I get it. Media outlets and the governmental and scientific institutions to which they turn for information when stuff like this happens don’t want to be caught off guard. They don’t want to be blamed for the dislocations caused by foreseeable problems. So they emphasize the expected bad news and downplay anything that might detract attention from those dire potential consequences.

As it happens, though, the few disruptions caused by Friday’s solar flares turned out to be minor. The real story turned out to be the phenomenal views of auroras enjoyed by people around the world in areas for which such sightings are usually quite rare.

Look, no one who knows me would ever confuse me for a Pollyanna. I am a lifelong pessimist. I am Mister Doom-and-Gloom. I am Eeyore. But Friday night was amazing, a night I will remember for the rest of my life. And I wonder how many people missed their chance to experience it because news of what was going to occur wound up buried in stories about terrible troubles that never materialized. Probably a lot. Which is too bad. Because the collective joy shared, across continents and oceans, by strangers who were fortunate enough to see the auroras, both borealis and australis, was an inspiring, albeit temporary antidote to the doom and gloom that confronts us on a daily basis.

I hope you were among the fortunate who saw the display.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Contemplating The Cosmos Again (Or Is It “Still”?)

I am just back from a weekend in Charlotte, where I attended ConCarolinas. This only a few days after my return from Wyoming/Colorado. It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, and convention season is far from over.

But my thoughts remain fixed on the wondrous days I spent at the Launch Pad Workshop in Laramie that I wrote about in last week’s post. Launch Pad is intended to educate creators so that when they introduce concepts related to astronomy and space travel to their work, they do so in an informed, accurate way. The workshop does far more that that, however, at least it has for me. It has made me think in different ways about a host of issues and questions. Last week, I focused on the new urgency and moral weight with which it has infused my thinking regarding global climate change.

This week, my thoughts have been trending in a somewhat different direction.

It is a given of astronomical thinking, and also of physical and chemical law, that all the matter found in the universe today was formed at the time of the Big Bang. The vast majority of that matter exists now in the form of hydrogen and helium — the latter is produced, along with energy, by the fusion of hydrogen atoms in stars. Hydrogen, the lightest element, accounts for 73% of all the matter in the universe. Helium accounts for 25%. All the other known elements combined account for the remaining 2%. That’s all. Two percent. Proving once again that stars are big, and there are a lot of them.

This, though, is not the point I am trying to make.

Dying Star
A dying star. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

When stars are formed, and when stars die, other elements are created by the tremendous pressure and energy produced by extreme gravitational forces. I won’t attempt to go into the physics of this because I am fated to screw it up in some way, inviting ridicule and undermining the larger purpose of this post. You’ll just have to trust me on this, and also on the rest of what I’m going to say. Namely . . . .

There is, in the birth, life, and death of a star, a circularity of consumption and production of elements and resources that mirrors what we see in, say, the death of a tree in a primeval forest. Nothing is lost; everything from the old goes into creating new star “life” — new energy and mass — just as every component of the downed tree infuses the soil with nutrients for new saplings. Probably this is self-evident, but I believe it is worth noting nevertheless. Ecology of this sort, whether on the scale of trees or of stars, is elegant in its efficiency, beautiful in its symmetry.

Combine this with the sheer size of stars and galaxies, and we are confronted once more with the relative insignificance of our own world. Yes, we have polluted and scarred our world. We risk poisoning ourselves — our food, our water, our air — and rendering our world uninhabitable. But the universe will go on. Long, long, long after we as a species are gone, our planet will be consumed by our dying sun and all that we are and all that we leave behind will be reclaimed by the universe and used to create new stars, new planets, perhaps new life.

This past weekend at the convention, though, a conversation among friends turned to the question of what happens to us as individuals when we die. Now, I am not a religious person. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in reincarnation. But the universe is filled with the unexplainable, the unfathomable. There are forms of matter and energy that the smartest minds on the planet have yet to figure out fully — dark matter and dark energy, quarks and gluons. We have so much yet to learn.

So, who is to say what happens to our spirit, what some might refer to as our soul? Does it exist? I don’t know. And if it does, I don’t know what form it would take, though I expect it would be more energy than matter. But energy and matter both are subject to laws of conservation. They can’t be lost or gained. They continue, and have since the Big Bang.

And if closed, circular, conserving systems govern what happens to the smallest of creatures and plants, to the great Sequoias of Pacific forests — the largest living things on Earth — to planets and stars and galaxies, mightn’t they also govern what happens to us? Not only our bodies, but our essences? I’m not trying to get all metaphysical here. Really, I’m not. I’m not saying “This is.” But after all the mind-blowing stuff I learned at Launch Pad, I do find myself saying, with ever more frequency, “Couldn’t this be?”

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Coming Home From Launch Pad, and Contemplating the Cosmos

I spent last week at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. Launch Pad is the brainchild of Mike Brotherton, a science fiction writer who also happens to be a professor of Astronomy at U of W, and Jim Verley, also a professor at Wyoming. They started the workshop back in 2007, basically because they had grown tired of reading bad space science in SF novels and of seeing bad space science in SF movies. The idea of the workshop is to bring together small groups of writers and literary industry professionals and give them a crash course in astrophysics. Along the way, Mike and his current fellow instructors — Christian Ready, an astronomer at Towson University who has worked on the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope projects, and Theodora Zastrocky, one of Mike’s graduate students — hope to correct longstanding misconceptions about how space “works,” and impart to the workshop attendees some of their passion for all things astronomical.

Launch Pad 2023I applied for the workshop back in March, and was fortunate to be accepted along with a group of eight other writers, all of them intelligent, inquisitive, totally engaged, and eager to learn. It was an amazing week, filled with fascinating lectures, wide-ranging discussions, and very cool demonstrations. We learned a ton, laughed even more, and benefitted from the awesome knowledge and enthusiasm of our three teachers. The weather in Wyoming was a bit uncooperative, denying us the opportunity to spend an evening looking through telescopes, but otherwise the week was all we could have hoped for.

This is a Monday Musings post, of course, and so part of my purpose in writing about the workshop is to share with you some of what I’m considering as I make my way home from Wyoming. And honestly, I’m not certain where to start.

I suppose I should begin where the week’s curriculum began, because it really is fundamental to everything else: Space is really big.

Yeah, that’s obvious. At least I thought it was when Mike said it at the start of his first lecture. I was kind of cavalier about it, actually. “I know that. Everyone knows that. They sure are starting off with basics . . . .” Except, of course, I had no idea. None. The idea that space is big is both completely obvious and utterly incomprehensible. It is big on a scale that defies logic and understanding. And despite all the cool space photos and well-explained charts Mike and Christian and Theodora shared with us, I didn’t really get it until Day 4 of the workshop.

We were talking about galaxies at that point, defining different types and discussing how they form and interact with one another. And whoever was lecturing that day — I believe it was Theodora — put up on the screen yet another stunning image from the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s an image of a spiral galaxy viewed “edge-on,” so that the galaxy appears relatively flat except for the bright bulge at the center. Theodora explained that while the spiral arms of the galaxy are home to relatively new stars, like our sun, older stars are clustered in that bright center.

And suddenly, the scale of space hit me.

Galaxy edge-on
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Rosario

You can see the image here. That central bright spot is a tiny part of the galaxy. And it is filled with stars, none of them all that close to one another. In fact, the closest star to our own sun is 4.25 light years away. That’s 25,300,000,000,000 miles. Each star in the pictured galaxy is, quite likely, the center of its own solar system. And every one of those solar systems is probably comparable in scale to our own.

Here is a face-on image of another spiral galaxy to give a sense of the structure.

Spiral galaxy, Face-on
Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Okay, now look at this third photo.

Galaxies, from Webb Telescope
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

This is an image from the James Webb Space Telescope of a tiny — and I mean TINY — portion of the sky. Look at all those galaxies, each one of them comparable to the ones in the previous images, each of them containing tens of billions, or even hundreds of billions of stars.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, David, we get. Space is big. So what?” Fair enough.

We look at the Grand Canyon and we marvel at how vast it is. We glimpse the Rockies, or the Cascades, or, if we’re truly fortunate, Kilimanjaro or the Himalayas, and we are awed by their majesty. We wonder (rightfully so) at the achievements to-date of NASA — journeys to the Moon, to Mars, to Jupiter, to the Kuiper Belt. Yet all of these things are minute. Our world is less than a speck. Our lives are less than flashes of light in the scope of spacetime that is our universe.

But our insignificance in the face of the hugeness of the universe is a cliché, and is sort of beside the point.

Everything that we are, every element and molecule in our world, in our lives, in our bodies, comes from the formation of the universe. It was all there in that first mysterious occurrence of creation known as the Big Bang. It has shaped us, as individuals, as societies and cultures, as a species. I’m not a religious person, but there is something miraculous in this. When I look at the vast scope of all that surrounds us in space, and I contemplate our infinitesimal world, I cannot help but be struck by the fragility of this world. We think of it as so very large. “The whole world.” It’s a phrase we use and hear from earliest childhood. In reality, that whole world is so very, very small.

That we exist at all is remarkable. We should be doing all we can — again, as individuals, as societies and cultures, as a species — to protect that miracle. Are there other worlds out there with life, with civilizations? Maybe. Probably. But we don’t know. And maybe we would be better served to assume there aren’t, that we’re alone.

We are, as a species, well on our way to blowing this, to fucking up our world beyond hope of repair or recovery. Hubris has very nearly destroyed us. The sort of hubris that ignores how enormous is the universe in which we live, and how insignificant a place in it our world holds.

Look at those photos again. Look at how gorgeous our universe is, our galaxy is. Look at a photo of the Grand Canyon. That’s pretty gorgeous, too, small though it might be. Beauty runs like a plot thread through the entirety of existence, from the dandelion growing in the green of our lawn to the spectacular galaxies that glow as far as science’s eye can see.

We owe it to ourselves and to those we love to spend our every breath making sure all that beauty is there for our children, and their children, and all the generations to come. The universe cares nothing for us. We are as dust to it. We are the ones who must save ourselves.

So, take a moment tonight to stare up into the stars, to appreciate the beauty of all you can see, and all you know is there but can’t spot with the naked eye. The universe is a wondrous place. But it won’t wait for us indefinitely.