Thursday, March 31, 2005

The technology of desire

We were listening last evening to some good ole love songs of the 50s and 60s, and there was Jim Reeves singing: "Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone..."

My wife and I started laughing together. Yes, this was phone sex in our generation.

And now our grandchildren have camera cell phones, text messaging, international chat rooms, and internet access to the fleshpots of the Orient. Ah, but will they find romance?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Remembering the Yokyoks

After a day when everything that could go wrong went wrong, I remembered the Yokyoks, an army of tiny green men with long, straight noses and red-and-yellow gloves, who carry an assortment of tools and go about fouling the works -- clogging holes in saltshakers, making pens and faucets leak, blowing fuses, letting the air out of tires.

As I recall, Yokyoks were an invention of Rube Goldberg, our philosopher of technical excess. Goldberg's loony inventions, widely published in American newspapers between 1914 and 1964, helped us keep our technological exaggerations in perspective. He loved machinery, but he also knew that technology grows unwieldy because of our insatiable desire for the very latest inventions, at whatever the cost in money or frustration.

But when I just now googled "Yokyoks," I came up with zip, or, rather, just a reference to my own earlier writing. Am I misremembering? Is Goldberg implicated? If not, who is?

Goldberg warned against the "gadget strewn path of civilization," and this much is certainly true: The more complicated our machines become, the more opportunities the Yokyoks have to drive us crazy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The battle of the sexes

The other day I mentioned an important recent paper on the sequencing and evolutionary history of the human X chromosome.

The human genome -- our complete set of genes -- comes packaged in 23 pairs of chromosomes. The members of each pair are identical, except for the X and Y. The X is average in size for a chromosome. The Y is a shriveled little thing, smaller than any other chromosome.

The cells in a woman's body contain two X's. The cells in a man's body contain an X and a Y -- and thus are we divided into sexes. A woman always contributes an X to an embryo; a man can contribute an X or a Y, depending on which sperm wins the race to the egg.

Crucially, the Y bears a gene called Sry, which makes a protein that switches on the Sox9 gene, which switches on the MIS gene. MIS makes testicles in a developing embryo, and testicles make boys by releasing hormones.

The diminutive but scrappy Y has long engaged the larger and overbearing X in evolutionary strife. The X and Y may originally have evolved from a matching pair of non-sex chromosomes. But once they got involved in sex determination, all hell broke loose. As the biologist Matt Ridley puts it, "The two chromosomes no longer have each other's interests at heart."

The X chromosomes spend two-thirds of their time in females and only one-third in males. "Therefore," say Ridley, "the X chromosome is three times as likely to evolve the ability to take pot shots at the Y as the Y is to evolve the ability to take pot shots at the X." The result is that the Y has been reduced to a mere stump of a thing -- although bearing the all-important Sry gene.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Complexity

I have a colleague, a physicist, who tells his students, "If it's not simple, it's not physics." He does not mean that physics is easy. He means that physics is the study of things simple enough to be described mathematically. The rotation of a galaxy is simple. The production of energy by a star is simple. The fall of an apple from a tree is simple.

An apple is not simple.

Three-and-a-half months ago I planted seeds -- green peppers, tomatoes, zucchinis, beans, corn -- and now we are eating the last of the fruits before tossing the plants onto the compost and heading north.

Physics is simple; biology is not simple. A single living cell is vastly more complex than a galaxy. That a seed planted in a pot can organize the stuff of soil, water and air to make a zucchini seems a miracle to a physicist.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ockham's razor

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth."

Which brings us to this week's Musing.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Put this on a sticker

Here is a list of authors of an important recent paper on the sequencing and evolutionary history of the human X chromosome:

MARK T. ROSS, DARREN V. GRAFHAM, ALISON J. COFFEY, STEVEN SCHERER, KIRSTEN MCLAY, DONNA MUZNY, MATTHIAS PLATZER, GARETH R. HOWELL, CHRISTINE BURROWS, CHRISTINE P. BIRD, ADAM FRANKISH, FRANCES L. LOVELL, KEVIN L. HOWE, JENNIFER L. ASHURST, ROBERT S. FULTON, RALF SUDBRAK, GAIPING WEN, MATTHEW C. JONES, MATTHEW E. HURLES, T. DANIEL ANDREWS, CAROL E. SCOTT, STEPHEN SEARLE, JULIANE RAMSER, ADAM WHITTAKER, REBECCA DEADMAN, NIGEL P. CARTER, SARAH E. HUNT, RUI CHEN, ANDREW CREE, PREETHI GUNARATNE, PAUL HAVLAK, ANNE HODGSON, MICHAEL L. METZKER, STEPHEN RICHARDS, GRAHAM SCOTT, DAVID STEFFEN, ERICA SODERGREN, DAVID A. WHEELER, KIM C. WORLEY, RACHAEL AINSCOUGH, KERRIE D. AMBROSE, M. ALI ANSARI-LARI, SWAROOP ARADHYA, ROBERT I. S. ASHWELL, ANNE K. BABBAGE, CLAIRE L. BAGGULEY, ANDREA BALLABIO, RUBY BANERJEE, GARY E. BARKER, KAREN F. BARLOW, IAN P. BARRETT, KAREN N. BATES, DAVID M. BEARE, HELEN BEASLEY, OLIVER BEASLEY, ALFRED BECK, GRAEME BETHEL, KARIN BLECHSCHMIDT, NICOLA BRADY, SARAH BRAY-ALLEN, ANNE M. BRIDGEMAN, ANDREW J. BROWN, MARY J. BROWN, DAVID BONNIN, ELSPETH A. BRUFORD, CHRISTIAN BUHAY, PAULA BURCH, DEBORAH BURFORD, JOANNE BURGESS, WAYNE BURRILL, JOHN BURTON, JACKIE M. BYE, CAROL CARDER, LAURA CARREL, JOSEPH CHAKO, JOANNE C. CHAPMAN, DEAN CHAVEZ, ELLSON CHEN, GUAN CHEN, YUAN CHEN, ZHIJIAN CHEN, CRAIG CHINAULT, ALFREDO CICCODICOLA, SUE Y. CLARK, GRAHAM CLARKE, CHRIS M. CLEE, SHEILA CLEGG, KERSTIN CLERC-BLANKENBURG, KAREN CLIFFORD, VICKY COBLEY, CHARLOTTE G. COLE, JEN S. CONQUER, NICOLE CORBY, RICHARD E. CONNOR, ROBERT DAVID, JOY DAVIES, CLAY DAVIS, JOHN DAVIS, OLIVER DELGADO, DENISE DESHAZO, PAWANDEEP DHAMI, YAN DING, HUYEN DINH, STEVE DODSWORTH, HEATHER DRAPER, SHANNON DUGAN-ROCHA, ANDREW DUNHAM, MATTHEW DUNN, K. JAMES DURBIN, IREENA DUTTA, TAMSIN EADES, MATTHEW ELLWOOD, ALEXANDRA EMERY-COHEN, HELEN ERRINGTON, KATHRYN L. EVANS, LOUISA FAULKNER, FIONA FRANCIS, JOHN FRANKLAND, AUDREY E. FRASER, PETRA GALGOCZY, JAMES GILBERT, RACHEL GILL, GERNOT GLÖCKNER, SIMON G. GREGORY, SUSAN GRIBBLE, COLINE GRIFFITHS, RUSSELL GROCOCK, YANGHONG GU, RHIAN GWILLIAM, CERISSA HAMILTON, ELIZABETH A. HART, ALICIA HAWES, PAUL D. HEATH, KATJA HEITMANN, STEFFEN HENNIG, JUDITH HERNANDEZ, BERND HINZMANN, SARAH HO, MICHAEL HOFFS, PHILLIP J. HOWDEN, ELIZABETH J. HUCKLE, JENNIFER HUME, PAUL J. HUNT, ADRIENNE R. HUNT, JUDITH ISHERWOOD, LENI JACOB, DAVID JOHNSON, SALLY JONES, PIETER J. DE JONG, SHIRIN S. JOSEPH, STEPHEN KEENAN, SUSAN KELLY, JOANNE K. KERSHAW, ZIAD KHAN, PETRA KIOSCHIS, SVEN KLAGES, ANDREW J. KNIGHTS, ANNA KOSIURA, CHRISTIE KOVAR-SMITH, GAVIN K. LAIRD, CORDELIA LANGFORD, STEPHANIE LAWLOR, MARGARET LEVERSHA, LORA LEWIS, WEN LIU, CHRISTINE LLOYD, DAVID M. LLOYD, HERMELA LOULSEGED, JANE E. LOVELAND, JAMIESON D. LOVELL, RYAN LOZADO, JING LU, RACHAEL LYNE, JIE MA, MANJULA MAHESHWARI, LUCY H. MATTHEWS, JENNIFER MCDOWALL, STUART MCLAREN, AMANDA MCMURRAY, PATRICK MEIDL, THOMAS MEITINGER, SARAH MILNE, GEORGE MINER, SHAILESH L. MISTRY, MARGARET MORGAN, SIDNEY MORRIS, INES MÜLLER, JAMES C. MULLIKIN, NGOC NGUYEN, GABRIELE NORDSIEK, GERALD NYAKATURA, CHRISTOPHER N. O'DELL, GEOFFERY OKWUONU, SOPHIE PALMER, RICHARD PANDIAN, DAVID PARKER, JULIA PARRISH, SHIRAN PASTERNAK, DINA PATEL, ALEX V. PEARCE, DANITA M. PEARSON, SARAH E. PELAN, LESETTE PEREZ, KEITH M. PORTER, YVONNE RAMSEY, KATHRIN REICHWALD, SUSAN RHODES, KERRY A. RIDLER, DAVID SCHLESSINGER, MARY G. SCHUELER, HARMINDER K. SEHRA, CHARLES SHAW-SMITH, HUA SHEN, ELIZABETH M. SHERIDAN, RATNA SHOWNKEEN, CARL D. SKUCE, MICHELLE L. SMITH, ELIZABETH C. SOTHERAN, HELEN E. STEINGRUBER, CHARLES A. STEWARD, ROY STOREY, R. MARK SWANN, DAVID SWARBRECK, PAUL E. TABOR, STEFAN TAUDIEN, TINEACE TAYLOR, BRIAN TEAGUE, KAREN THOMAS, ANDREA THORPE, KIRSTEN TIMMS, ALAN TRACEY, STEVE TREVANION, ANTHONY C. TROMANS, MICHELE D'URSO, DANIEL VERDUZCO, DONNA VILLASANA, LENEE WALDRON, MELANIE WALL, QIAOYAN WANG, JAMES WARREN, GEORGINA L. WARRY, XUEHONG WEI, ANTHONY WEST, SIOBHAN L. WHITEHEAD, MATHEW N. WHITELEY, JANE E. WILKINSON, DAVID L. WILLEY, GABRIELLE WILLIAMS, LEANNE WILLIAMS, ANGELA WILLIAMSON, HELEN WILLIAMSON, LAURENS WILMING, REBECCA L. WOODMANSEY, PAUL W. WRAY, JENNIFER YEN, JINGKUN ZHANG, JIANLING ZHOU, HUDA ZOGHBI, SARA ZORILLA, DAVID BUCK, RICHARD REINHARDT, ANNEMARIE POUSTKA, ANDRÉ ROSENTHAL, HANS LEHRACH, ALFONS MEINDL, PATRICK J. MINX, LADEANA W. HILLIER, HUNTINGTON F. WILLARD, RICHARD K. WILSON, ROBERT H. WATERSTON, CATHERINE M. RICE, MARK VAUDIN, ALAN COULSON, DAVID L. NELSON, GEORGE WEINSTOCK, JOHN E. SULSTON, RICHARD DURBIN, TIM HUBBARD, RICHARD A. GIBBS, STEPHAN BECK, JANE ROGERS & DAVID R. BENTLEY


These researchers are associated with 21 prestigious institutions in six countries. From the list of authors, their institutional affiliation, the subject of the paper, its conclusions, or the journal it is published in (Nature), you would not have a clue as to the religion or politics of the authors. And indeed the above-named people probably include a variety of faiths (and none) and political persuasions. The names might hint at the gender or ethnicity of an author, but that too suggests diversity.

This is what gives science its strength as reliable knowledge.

On the other hand, if you can guess the religion or politics of the author/s of a "scientific" communication from the institutional affiliations or journal, then you are very likely not dealing with science but with religious or political propaganda.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Matins

What will I miss most when I leave this island five days hence and return to New England? I'll miss rising at 1 or 2 AM, as I always do, for a cold drink, then stepping onto the terrace almost naked in the warm tropical air, the sea lapping the sand and the stars a vast, silent canopy of glory. Alfred North Whitehead described religion "as what we do with our solitude." Those intervals on the star-dark terrace are my liturgy.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Boys and girls

Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, got himself into a heap of trouble recently by suggesting that men and women have different innate aptitudes for math and science.

There's no doubt that men and women are genetically different; there's those pesky X and Y chromosomes to start with. But nature and nurture are damnably difficult to sort out.

Alan Lightman's new book of essays contains a short biography of Vera Rubin, the astronomer who discovered "dark matter," the mysterious substance that makes up eighty percent (!) of the material universe. Rubin tells of the time her three-year-old granddaughter discovered that her toy rabbit was sick. A visiting uncle said to the little girl, "Well, you be the doctor and I'll be the nurse, and we'll fix it." To which the granddaughter objected, "Boys can't be girls."

That's nurture.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Walking to Fitchburg -- Part 2

My sister and her S. O. were here for a visit recently. They brought along a satellite radio, a nifty little gizmo the size of your hand that plays through whatever audio system you currently own. The antenna is about the size of a deck of cards. For $13 a month, you get 150 channels of crystal-clear, commercial-free audio, such as channels that play only 50's, or 60's, or classical music. My wife was attracted by the crisp and reliable BBC World Service.

Our visitors offered to leave the satellite radio with us, and we were briefly tempted. But on reflection, the cost in "life" seemed too high: one more on-all-the-time intrusive connection to the busy world outside.

What intrigues me is that all of this music and information is pouring down on every square inch of the planet from geostationary satellites thousands of miles above the earth, the very ether we live in awash with electromagnetic vibrations, a never-ceasing, inaudible cacophony of the sublime and the frivolous. Even the monk in his silent cloistered cell is bathed night and day with the noise of the world.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Walking to Fitchburg

Thoreau wrote: "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it."

There is a lovely series of children's picture books, by DB Johnson, based on Thoreau's counting up of costs. For example, in Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry's friend works all day to buy a train ticket that will take him to Fitchburg. Meanwhile, Henry walks to Fitchburg, having a wonderful day out.

It's a devilish business, this counting up of costs. I live without television six months of the year, and have a bit more "life" instead. I walk more than I drive, but I couldn't get along without a car. A year ago while preparing for a book tour I got a cell phone for convenience, but it's hardly been used; the amount of "life" I had to exchange for it was too high. I recently acquired a DSL internet connection here on the island, after years of slow, unreliable and infuriating dial-up. I think the new service is saving time for "life," although I wouldn't bet on it; I'm certainly using the internet more.

I try to remember that part of what brought me to this island was the tropical, nothing-quite-works, walk-to-Fitchburg languor.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Unnatural selection?

Remember the old rhyme: "I never saw a purple cow, and hope I never see one; but I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one."

Is it so absurd to imagine purple cows? There is a certain purple bacterium that lives in salt lakes, called Halobacterium halobium, that accomplishes a primitive sort of photosynthesis using a pigment other than chlorophyll. The pigment absorbs light in the middle (green) part of the solar spectrum. This leaves reflected red and blue light at opposite ends of the spectrum to give the bacterium its purple color.

H. halobium may have appeared earlier in the history of life than organisms that use chlorophyl. It is not unreasonable to imagine that they might have remained the chemical template for all successive plant life, in which case even land plants might be purple.

And if plants were purple, then some animals might have evolved purple protective coloration. Hence, purple cows. (wink)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Equinox

Today at 12:33 UT (7:33 EST) the Sun crosses the skies equator into the northern hemisphere. Next Friday the Moon rises full. By ancient formula -- first Sunday after the first full Moon after the spring equinox -- next Sunday is Easter, which prompts my Musing for this week.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Trouvelot's splendor, Trouvelot's mess

Tom M. is right. The mystery drawing I posted a few days ago is of sunspots, observed and sketched on June 17, 1875 by Eteinne Leopold Trouvelot, a Frenchman by birth, then a resident of Massachusetts. Trouvelot rendered his finest sketches as chromolithographs that remain among the most exquisite astronomical images ever made.

Here is Trouvelot's drawing of the zodiacal light, observed on February 20, 1876, a phenomenon mentioned in last Sunday's Musing that light pollution has rendered virtually invisible in much of the developed world. (Can you identify the "stars" in the picture; for example, the two brightest objects near the horizon along the band of light? Yep, that's why it's called "zodiacal.")

Alas, Trouvelot is remembered more for bringing gypsy moths to America than for his astronomical drawings, a tragedy that resulted from his interest in entomology and which refuses to abate.

I thank SpaceTramp for making me aware of the New York Public Library Trouvelot website.

Friday, March 18, 2005

"...endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful..."

Living in the tropics, we are not quite so hermetically sealed from the rest of creation as we are in New England. Although we have screens in the windows, we have no glass (just wooden louvers), no air conditioning, no heat. The membrane between ourselves and the world is wonderfully permeable. In spite of our best efforts to keep them out, the creatures intrude: ants, mice, geckoes, sandflies, mosquitos, scorpions, and now and then a bat moth or hairy spider. If that sounds awful, it's really not as bad as it sounds, and I love the sense of indoors and outdoors flowing together -- the breezes, the sunlight, the rain, the stars.

The hummingbirds at the feeders, the snakes and frogs, the tiny silver fish and barracudas that nibble and pry as we swim, the fish hawks and occasional shark that patrol the shore -- somehow it's all more of a piece than the rather tame petting-zoo nature we encounter at home. One has more of a sense of being part of a web, a seamless tissue of eating and being eaten, a forceful feeling of the irrepressible "oneness" of life of which we are a part.

This must be what the young Charles Darwin felt when he first wandered alone in the tropical forests of South America, and caught a glimpse of life's interconnectedness that guided his life's work.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Abyss without fear

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious," wrote Einstein. What did he mean by "the mysterious"? In his new book A Sense of the Mysterious, the physicist/novelist Alan Lightman describes it this way: "A sense that we can stand right on the edge between the known and the unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened." It's what I meant by the subtitle of my book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion -- enthusiastically embracing (and celebrating!) the abyss of our ignorance without a felt need for a security blanket of superstition.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

"We were here!"


For my money, the Voyager space probes are probably the greatest achievement of humanity thus far. Why? Attached to the sides of each are the famous Golden Records, time capsules of Earth's ingenuity. The Voyagers will soon leave the Solar System to, perhaps forever, travel in interstellar space. It pleases me greatly to know that a recording of a Bach fugue performed by Glenn Gould is going along with them.

Tens of thousands of years from now, when everything we know or care about has long turned to dust, there will still be Voyager -- and more importantly, Bach!

*As a side note, if you'd like to see a nifty visualization and analysis of the Voyager fugue (and others), take a look here.

Puzzle


What is this a drawing of? Answer in a few days.

The little spacecraft that could

In Shakespeare's "The Tempest," Miranda grows to age sixteen on an ocean isle with no human companions other than her father Prospero and the monster Caliban. When storm and shipwreck bring others to the island she is suddenly awakened to the variety and beauty of humankind. "O brave new world," she exclaims,"that has such people in't!"

Of all the space craft launched from Earth, none have so opened our eyes to the variety and beauty of the solar system than Voyagers 1 and 2, two plucky little craft that photographed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and those planets' moons, including one named Miranda. O brave new world, indeed, that has such objects in it.

Now, more than 27 years after launch, the craft are nearly 9 billion and 7 billion miles from Earth, instruments active, in daily contact with home, drifting towards the elusive boundary between the Sun's domain and interstellar space.

Because of budget restrictions, the Voyagers face possible termination later this year. If so, they will drift towards the abyss, capable of perceiving and reporting their environment -- but no one will be listening.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The fire

In yesterday's post, I referred to the hummingbird as "a bird that burns like a luminous flame." A simile, but more than a simile.

Jean Cocteau was once asked what he would save from a burning house. He replied: "The fire." I'm not sure that I know what he meant, or that I would agree with him if I did, but the remark has a ring of metaphysical truth about it.

The hummingbirds, the geckos, the bat moths, the boas, the other creatures here that creep, or crawl, or fly, or swim, including myself and those I love -- we are all doomed to extinction. But the fire that is built into every atom of creation, the fire that makes stars burn, that fills the universe with novelty, that fire, that mysterious primeval thrust towards complexity -- that fire will not be extinguished.

Not much consolation for our own mortality, I suppose, but consolation nevertheless.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Free as a bird

My first hummingbird nest. And, yes, that's my thumb next to the nest to give a sense of scale.

If you want a symbol of freedom, the hummingbird is it. Exuberant. Unpredictable. A streak of pure fun. It is the speed, of course, that gives the impression of spontaneity. The bird can perform a dozen intricate maneuvers more quickly than I can turn my head.

Is the hummingbird's apparent freedom illusory, a biochemically determined response to stimuli from the environment? Or is the hummingbird's flight what it seems to be, willful and unpredictable? I watch the birds at the feeder. Their hearts beat ten times faster than a human's. They have the highest metabolic rate of any animal, a dozen times higher than a pigeon, a hundred times higher than an elephant. Hummingbirds live at the edge of what is biologically possible, and it's that, the fierce intenseness of their aliveness, that makes them appear so exuberantly free.

But there are no metaphysical pilots in these little flying machines. The machines are the pilots. You give me carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and a few billion years of evolution, and I'll give you a bird that burns like a luminous flame. The miracle of the hummingbird's freedom was built into the universe from the first moment of creation.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Wheels within wheels

"When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels." (Ezekiel 1:19-21)

For a contemporary take on Ezekiel's vision, see this week's Musing.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Sleepwalking

I forgot to post a reminder of last evening's conjunction of an eyelash-thin crescent Moon and Mercury. From here, at least, it was exquisite.

The wisp of Moon with its elusive companion brought to mind the first poem in Alan Shapiro's newest book of poetry, Tantalus in Love, which I have just finished reading. The last lines:
            ...Make us see
no matter where
we gaze that the bush burns
unconsumed.

And we, the spun clay, will rise
to a receding
holiness and sing, as it recedes,
How filled with awe

this place is, and we did not know it.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Reality

My artist sister is having a protracted love affair with her Apple PowerBook. I love the way she takes family snapshots I send her by e-mail and transforms them into revelations. Here is what she did with a grandchild.

The caption -- "Whatever can be imagined is real" -- is certainly true for the reality of art, and not far in spirit from Michael Faraday's "Nothing is too wonderful to be true," which was carved over the door of the physics building at UCLA when I was a graduate student there.

A scientist might turn the phrase on its head and say "Whatever is real can be imagined." Or as Einstein said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

In the shadow of the Moon


The moon casts her shadow on Europe. The August 1999 eclipse, as seen from the orbiting Mir space station.

Chasing darkness -- Part 3

As we plan for the total solar eclipse of 2006, the eclipse of August 11, 1999, is still very much in mind. I was with 800 other avid eclipse chasers, including a high-tech team from NASA, on a cruise ship in the Black Sea. Our location offered several advantages: it was close to the place of maximum totality; it had a better than average chance of clear skies; and the ships's mobility would make it possible to seek a hole in the clouds in case of inclement weather.

We waited in a calm sea under cloudless skies as the dot of darkness -- the Moon's shadow -- raced out of Europe and across the water, extinguishing the Sun's light for two-and-a-half minutes. With a last blaze of glory -- like the gem of a diamond ring -- the Sun's disk became jet black. Streaks of radiance streamed outward into a blue-black sky, and crimson flecks marked solar storms leaping beyond the rim of the covering Moon. Venus blazed nearby. The horizon all around was rosy with a midday dawn. When the Sun went dark, 800 jaws dropped and eyes gaped wide. Was it worth traveling thousands of miles to see? You bet.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Chasing darkness -- Part 2

The next total solar eclipse track, on March 29, 2006, begins in the Atlantic Ocean, sweeps across northern Africa and Turkey, and ends in Siberia. Most eclipse chasers will be in Libya, Turkey, or on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea. I'll be somewhere along the track.

Europe will not have a total solar eclipse until 2027, and then only Gibraltar will be touched. India and China will have an eclipse in 2009, but Japan must wait till 2035. The United States will be blessed in 2017, when the Moon's shadow cuts right across the heartland from west to east. Then North America will have to wait until 2024, when the Moon's shadow will sweep up from Mexico, across the United States, and into Canada.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Chasing darkness

Like Earth, the Moon wears a long conical shadow of darkness. By cosmic coincidence, the Moon's shadow is almost exactly as long as the distance from the Moon to the Earth. Roughly once every couple of years, when everything is lined up just right, the tip of the Moon's shadow brushes across the face of Earth, like the tip of a feather across your cheek or brow.

If you are in the path of the shadow, you will experience one of the most spectacular phenomena of nature, a total eclipse of the Sun.

But to see a total solar eclipse, you will almost certainly have to travel. Take a 12-inch diameter terrestrial globe such as you might have in your home or schoolroom, and every couple of years draw a random arc 10 inches long across its face with a black felt-tip marker. The line can be anywhere from North Pole to South Pole and in any hemisphere. These marks are typical of total solar eclipse tracks. Mathematical astronomer Jean Meeus has calculated that it takes 4500 years for the planet to be completely colored black. The chances are small that in your lifetime an eclipse track will brush your place of residence.

This year has no total solar eclipses. Twice, on April 8 and October 13, the shadow comes sweeping by, but the "tip of the feather" barely misses touching the Earth's surface, so a ring of sunlight remains -- an annular eclipse. The next total solar eclipse is March 29, 2006. More tomorrow.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Night has a shape

Earth wears its shadow like a tall, skinny wizard's cap. The cap fits snugly on the brow of the spinning Earth along the line of twilight and dawn, and reaches out to a vertex three times further than the Moon. If the Earth were a grapefruit, the apex of night would be 60 feet away -- a tall, skinny wizard's cap, indeed!

Everything outside of the conical shadow is bathed by the light of the Sun.

Percy Bysshe Shelley saw the shape of night in his mind's eye and turned it into one of the most beautiful astronomical images in all of poetry. In Prometheus Unbound, the Earth speaks these lines:

I spin beneath my pyramid of night
Which points into the heavens, dreaming delight,
Murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep;
As a youth lulled by love-dreams faintly sighing,
Under the shadow of his beauty lying,
Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.


Every object in the solar system wears a conical shadow -- every planet, every moon, every grain of dust. The solar system is as prickled with nights as a porcupine is prickled with spines

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Into the abyss?

Looks like the Hubble Space Telescope is doomed to extinction. A peephole to the gods closes. See this week's Musing.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The hummingbird planet

It seems like only yesterday little Mercury was doing its pas de deux with Venus in the morning sky. Now here it is climbing steeply away from the setting Sun, a lovely evening apparition. Mercury darts around the Sun every 88 days, dawn to dusk and back again. The "hummingbird" planet, star guru Fred Schaaf calls it.
A head's up: Next Friday evening, the 11th, a deliciously thin crescent Moon will join Mercury in the darkening sky at sunset. Put it on your calendar and hope for clear skies.

Moondance

Saturn's moon Dione eclipses Rhea (as seen from Cassini). Neat!

Friday, March 04, 2005

Darkness and silence

Two things that brought me to this island: darkness and silence. Darkness for the stars. Silence for writing.

I've written here before about how we are losing the darkness to light pollution, the worst offender being the new upscale Four Seasons Resort which lights up our northern horizon. Also, the prosperity the resort has brought to the island means that homes that used to snooze dreamily under the Milky Way are now lit up at night -- all night! -- like Christmas trees. And the Queen's Highway that runs the length of the island is lit with street lamps that hide the stars in a sickly orange glow.

And sound. Private jets now take off all day from our airport with guests from the resort. Many of these big planes, I'm told, carry just a few people. And now that the Queen's Highway is nicely paved, the cowboys who drive the trucks between the government dock in George Town and the Four Seasons Resort can't resist hurtling along the straightaways with a macho roar.

The creak of a wagon on a distant highway was sometimes noise enough to disturb Thoreau's reverie. There is apparently no place on Earth remote enough to escape the din of infernal combustion. At least here on the island we are spared the abominations of snowmobiles and leafblowers.

One can't stop "progress," of course, nor is it for me, a grateful guest in this lovely place, to impede development that is mostly welcomed by the locals. However, with sensible planning restrictions and proper law enforcement most of the light and noise pollution is preventable.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Form vs. function

Apparently, the glistening new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles has its neighbors a bit heated up. This is architecture that would have made Archimedes proud!

From the LA Times:
"Construction crews are set to take a hand sander to some of the shimmering stainless steel panels that have wowed tourists and architecture lovers but have baked neighbors living in condominiums across the street.

Beams of sunlight reflected from the hall have roasted the sidewalk to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt plastic and cause serious sunburn to people standing on the street, according to a report from a consultant hired by the county."

Yikes!

No weirdos, please

And via Slashdot, online classified service craigslist has landed a deal to transmit thousands of personal ads into deep space.
"Effective immediately, all earthlings posting to craigslist will have an opportunity to earmark their message for inclusion in the historic transmission from Cape Canaveral, immediately following the launch of the Discovery Space Shuttle - currently scheduled for May 15, 2005. Deep Space Communications Network will transmit the postings... "

It's official. There are no more decent single guys left on Earth.

Googling

So an acquaintance here on the island found on the internet the letter from Thomas Huxley to Frederick Dyster that I mentioned in an earlier post.

Surely the internet, this instantly available and searchable electronic archive -- Teilhard de Chardin's Noosphere -- is the most important technological innovation of our time. Anyone with a computer and a phone line can have access to a sprawling universe of information both useful and frivolous, authoritative and spurious, elevating and degrading. I can research and write from anywhere in the world.

The social implications remain to be seen. The borderless, uncensored anarchy of the internet liberates the individual from those who previously held the keys to information -- governments, priests and mullahs, doctors, travel agents, car dealers, establishment scientists, and so on -- and that can be empowering. It also sets individuals adrift on an sea of unfiltered fact and foolishness without compass or map, and that can be scary.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Snowbirds

Well, did the red-winged blackbirds appear in the water meadow along Queset Brook on February 27? I wonder.

Here in the central Bahamas we don't have those delicious signs of spring. In New England, 2.2 times as much solar energy falls upon the ground in summer as in winter. Here on the Tropic of Cancer the figure is 1.25, not enough to make a big difference to growing things. And, of course, these islands are surrounded by an ocean that moderates change.

Most of our birds are here all year round: hummingbirds, bananaquits, mockingbirds, anis (the crossword puzzle bird). But we get a few visitors from up north, most famously the rare and elusive (I've not seen one) Kirtland's warbler from the piney woods of central Michigan, which apparently likes the Bahamas in winter as much as we do.

Thanks to some help from human friends, the Kirtland's warbler is making it's way back from near extinction.