I just returned from three days on the Colorado river, a section called “The Daily” which runs for some thirty miles above Moab, following HW128 from I70 to the bridge on the North end of town.
Mostly slow, wide flowing brown river. Wonderfully cool in the onset of 108F degrees (in the shade), but warm enough you can remain in the water all day, into the evening without feeling chilled.
On our first night, at the put-in, a few people noted the growing number of stars overhead and the increasing prominence of the Milky Way. It was late when Ali, Clay, and I arrived, people brushing their teeth or already in their respective tents. The next afternoon I offered to provide a brief introduction to cosmology.
I didn’t think about it again. The third night out I walked from the kitchen (where we had just finished eating brownies baked in a Dutch oven) to one of the boats where I would sleep, the gentle rocking motion and gurgling of water through the self-bailing holes a delight.
Not more than ten minutes after I had turned off my headlamp, someone yelled from the campfire behind and above me, at the top of the sand bar, “Hey Kai! You wanna give us that talk on cosmology!? You’ve got a captured audience!” Someone else yelled something not worth repeating. Everyone laughed.
I pulled on my river shorts and sandals, stepped overboard into the water, and made my way back up to the campfire. I sat down to about a dozen individuals, some next to me, some on the far side of the fire. I asked what they would like to learn.
Immediately, the question was posed, “Why are all the stars blue?”
Another, “What is all that stuff, up there,” waving arms silhouetted in the firelight, “anyway?”
A third, “Do you think sex with aliens would be fun?” Everyone laughed.
Someone to my right said, “They are blue because they are moving. The light is shifting.”
I waited for the laughter to subside from the previous comment and then responded, “Actually, the stars do not all appear blue when we look through a telescope, but you bring up a great intro to our first topic. Most objects in the universe are in fact moving away from us, and are shifting to the red end of the spectrum. Those which shift toward blue are moving toward us.”
I used the British ambulance versus American ambulance as examples of how we can determine the kind of ambulance based on the siren, even if the sound is shifted higher or lower is at approaches and then moves away from us, a kind of fingerprint for the source of the sound. The comparison to light signatures given by the elemental composition of stars and galaxies seemed to sink in.
We moved on to the expansion of the universe, looking back in time, the Big Bang versus a more modern understanding of the Big Rip, but that took us to space-time fabric and quantum flux which was too much for my slightly inebriated audience.
As happens in most conversations about astronomy and cosmology, the origins of life came to discussion. Some fully embrace the very real potential of life on other planets, some remained steadfast in the belief we are alone. I ran the numbers: 300 billions stars in each of at least 100 billion galaxies. As we now believe most stars do have planets, if just one out of every one million stars has a planet with life enabling conditions, then we are most certainly in good company.
“But, you can’t just, just shake a box of rocks and get life!”
I quickly countered with a raised but joking voice, “In my classroom, there will be no quoting the Jehova’s Witness Watchtower, please.” Everyone laughed.
He continued, shaking his head, “No. Seriously. Maybe single cell organisms, or bacteria, on a few planets, but not creatures as complex as us?! That just doesn’t seem possible! Someone had to make us, right?”
I added, “If life makes it to single cell organisms, then walking, talking, rocket building life is not a far reach. Evolutionary pressure in an ever changing ecosystem invokes a constant effort to improve upon resource allocation, consumption, and species proliferation. It just takes time.”
“But there are too many gaps! We don’t have all the answers!”
“No, we don’t have all the answers, but since the human genome was completed, and that of thousands of plants and animals, the gaps in our understanding of the evolutionary expansion of life across our planet is growing smaller each day. In fact, when we look back at the speed of evolution across the eons, we see many more times of relative stagnation than we do gaps in advancements made to shared DNA. It appears that evolutions works in relative leaps and bounds more often than gradual unfolding.”
Someone asked, “What about those gaps that remain?”
“God,” someone added.
I offered, “Look. Whether or not you believe in a supernatural creator, to relegate him or her to the gaps in our knowledge is, quite frankly, indignant. If you need God in your life, find a better reason than the filler of gaps else God is running out of room. Forgiveness, compassion, hope in a hopeless time or place, are far better reasons for faith than ancillary support to areas which we have not yet explored.”
There was a general consensus of agreement.
We went on to discuss a few more topics but as the fire died down and the alcohol took its desired effect, my audience diminished to that of just two or three who were interested in further conversation.
The last question addressed, given by someone who had had a little more to drink than the others, was “So. So. So, … then … well, like, how does the moose know to drink the water from the lake, and … and … and how does the lake, I mean, well, what if there weren’t any lakes? I mean, what would the moose drink?!”
While his question actually raised a good many profound questions about evolution of ecosystems to support a wide diversity of species, I didn’t feel I could fully address that particular point in the confines of one evening, nor would the person who asked it likely remain awake, no matter how engaging the discussion.
I simply offered, “That is an excellent question, but I fear you have asked it in reverse. Perhaps you should ponder, ‘Why does the lake desire to be drunk by the moose?'”
“Dude,” was the appropriate, received response.
I returned to the floor of my boat, crawled into my sleeping bag, and the Colorado River gently rocked me beneath a sky of inky black interspersed with the light of our galaxy.