Looking up!

/Looking up!

The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Everyone desires a safe space, a home base, a place to return to when everything else in life is unsettled. For some, this is a certain room in the family home. For others, a timeshare overlooking the waterfront in a far-away town tourists have not yet discovered. Some travel to the cities while others escape, seeking something a little less whelming.

I too have my safe places. Buffalo Peak Ranch in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, our family farm in rural Iowa, and Sutherland, South Africa. This past week I was given the opportunity to return to the South African Astronomical Observatory. The drive from Cape Town to the Sutherland site is, no matter how many times you have made the journey, an adventure, a flight through space and time despite the confines of this planet’s gravity.

Those at the point of departure provide assistance in loading your travel bags and wish you well. Upon arrival, the guest house staff greet you by name, no matter how long since your last visit, and provide the keys to your dormitory. With hushed voices and careful motion we unpack and settle in, for the astronomers are yet sleeping. As with African game preserves where human visitors peer out from protective blinds to watch the animal world unfold, astronomers use telescopes to watch the cosmos evolve, to observe both the mundane and the most spectacular stellar shows.

Those areas in the world in which dark night skies yet exist are a kind of sanctuary, a place where we are reminded of what it means to be inspired. From our unique vantage point in this cosmic wilderness blind, we see new-born stars, middle-aged nobles, and ancient giants intermixed with nebulae, supernova, and massive black holes. To witness one rapidly rotating, small but massive neutron star consuming it’s neighbour through a dance that lasts eons is to watch the lion consume the elephant in painfully slow motion, frame by inexorable frame.

What we observe is explained through the application of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. While the interaction between stellar bodies is anticipated, even considered routine, there remains the daunting, bewildering, difficult to explain phenomena which send researchers into overdrive for decades.

It is the data of the routine which confirms our formulae. It is the unexpected which keeps us hungry for more.

Upon arrival to the guest house at the observatory I was filled with emotionally charged memories of my grandparents’ farm in Iowa. The anticipation that builds with the first glimpse of the domes on the horizon is to crest the edge of the Pride of the Valley farm, the final stretch of the curving road, and ultimate descent into the complex of white buildings.

Inside, each piece of furniture has its place and orientation, the sofas, the chairs adorned by cloth covers too easily wrinkled and caught in the spaces between the cushions. Throw pillows are returned each day to their proper position. The pool table is showing its age, the felt torn and the legs less stable. One can complain, or enjoy the added challenge. The library has been stripped nearly bare as the journals are now entirely digital. Yet the aroma from the kitchen, the sound of the kettle boiling, the light wind buffeting the west-facing windows all say, ‘Welcome home!’.

By mid-afternoon intense conversations unfold as the engaged astronomers rise and those of us who retain fairly normal sleeping hours share the dining hall and common space. Steven, Retha, and I, the next day joined by Willie and Lisa covered more topics than I do recall, from the generation of water from humid air to the politics of South Africa, to data reduction and the application of Machine Learning against the wishes of those who are not yet ready to let go of their scripts and proved techniques.

With all telescopes at the SAAO observatory now capable of being remotely controlled, there is debate about the value of sending astronomers to these remote locations. For certain, the mechanical aspects of pointing the instrument to a distant object, capturing photons, and moving onto the next can be done without a being on-site. Yet, it is the draw of the dark night skies, the bliss of isolation, those moments of being only here, right now, that draw us into this place.

It is my experience and my hope that astronomers will continue to come to these places for the same reason we venture to witness the elephant and the lion, not on-screen. The sound of the wind whipping over the top of the open dome, the smell of the machine oil, the sensation that one has stepped into a spacecraft destined for anywhere cannot be reproduced through a remote connection.

Until the next visit to Sutherland, I will recall that for those brief four days, I enjoyed a return to one of my safe spaces, where both the routine and unexpected unfold every night.

By | 2018-05-17T00:12:23+00:00 September 16th, 2017|2017, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Earth to Mars, A Journey for Us All

Science Cafe Cape Town
29 October 2015

Science Cafe Cape Town with Kai Staats Science Cafe Cape Town with Kai Staats

A week ago Thursday, October 29, I was honoured by the opportunity to speak to the Science Cafe Cape Town. Held at Truth Coffee, the Science Cafe offers “monthly meetups for anyone with a curiosity in science, a chance to chat with local experts about cutting-edge research in a relaxed setting.”

Indeed, the unique venue was ideal for an interactive conversation with an audience of more than one hundred. Following a brief introduction, I showed a short film produced while I was working as an embedded filmmaker and technician at the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah, in January 2014 with MarsCrew134. I then moved through two dozen slides in order to bring the audience into an awareness of the many organisations that are now working toward taking humans to Mars, the asteroids, and beyond. I introduced a few of the many technical and financial challenges, and offered topics for consideration, including “Why should we go to Mars?”

Science Cafe Cape Town with Kai Staats For me, as a speaker, it was a most enjoyable event. My thirty minutes presentation was followed by an hour of questions, which is most unusual and incredibly fun. Thanks to all who attended, for such being the most engaging audience I have ever enjoyed.

I opened the evening with full admission that I am a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” and promised to let the audience know if I could not answer a question asked. This kind of presentation is new to me. Informal and wonderfully engaging, it was as much a conversation with new friends as it was a lecture. Yet in that informality, I was not as accurate with some of my answers as I would have liked to have been.

This past week I have conducted a series of fact-checks, to correct some of my answers and to build upon the subjects addressed. What’s more, Kerry Gordon, co-founder of the Science Cafe Cape Town granted me the opportunity to edit and clean the audio recording of my presentation. In so doing, I was able to remove the inaudible questions (too far from the microphone) and tighten a few of my answers in order to be more concise. The total recording is now just under one hour, including the short film.

 

In this follow-up research process, I have learned a great deal. I hope you will as well.

CAUTION! The proverbial rabbit hole runs deep. Myriad pathways unfold when investigating such a tremendous topic as space exploration. Dive in, but don’t expect to stop … until you walk on the face of Mars or build a future such that your children’s children may climb aboard a massive vessel bound for a neighbouring star.

RESOURCES

 

CORRECTIONS

  • I stated the distance from the Sun to the Earth was similar to the distance from the Earth to Jupiter, and again the same distance to Saturn. This was not correct. The distance from the Earth to Jupiter is nearly 5x that of the Sun to the Earth. But yes, the distance from the Sun to Jupiter is approximately the distance from Jupiter to Saturn. To continue, Uranus is 2x the distance from the Jupiter to Saturn at 20 AU; Neptune another 10 AU. —source
     
  • The average temperature on Venus is 460C (not 300C). —source
     
  • Voyager was launched in 1977 (not 1978) and became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space in 2012 (not “last year”). —source
     
  • Astronauts who live on the ISS for periods up to 6 months are required to exercise for approximately 2 hours per day (not 4.5). Even with rigorous exercise, astronauts have typically lost up to 0.4-1% of their bone density per month in space.—source
     
  • The longest continuous stay in space is on-board the Russian MIR for 437 days, not the International Space Station for which the longest run is 223 days.—source
     
  • It would take 73,000 years to travel to Proxima Centauri at the speed of Voyager I (17.3 km/s). This is approximately 2500 generations. At 100x this speed, we would need 25 (not 100) generations to arrive. —source
     

ADDITIONS & VALIDATIONS

  • Concerning the discussion of how we determine if a moon of another planet has a liquid water ocean, there are in fact 5 methods for such an observation and conclusion:
    1. dampening of the moon’s magnetic field through monitoring the auroras
    2. observation of geysers
    3. spectroscopy
    4. orbital wobble
    5. gravimetry

     
    The above expands upon my answer of spectroscopy and acceleration by the gravitational field (gravimetry). Further conversation with Stephen Potter, Head Astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory offers, “Visual size is a first rough guess. Orbital period and distance cannot give you the mass. You can put any mass at a specific period+distance. E.g. replace Earth with Jupiter and it will have the same period and distance. Moon masses can be refined by studying the deviations in their orbits as a result of their interactions with other moons. So this now becomes a more complicated N-body problem, which you refine with more longer term observations. e.g. JPL has one of the best solar system N-body simulations right now. Only once you get close with a flyby can you refine it further. I.e. your spacecraft becomes the test mass.”

  • Concerning construction materials on Mars, yes, silica and iron are prevalent, as stated, but it is also believed that magnesium, aluminum (aluminium for those who prefer the British spelling :), calcium, and potassium are abundant, as discovered through the sampling of soil on Mars, and inspection of meteorites which originate from Mars. —source
     
  • My reference to “not likely having calcium-based stone” for use as a construction material (cement) was in reference to limestone (calcium carbonate) which is formed primarily from the remains of marine life forms. Carbonates have been discovered on Mars using spectrometers on-board Spirit and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which provides evidence for a warmer, wetter past. (source) But for there to be limestone as we have on Earth, there would have had to have been many hundred of millions of years of calcium-bearing marine lifeforms, which has not, to date, been determined.
     
  • To confirm the question of the young man to my left, yes, all planets are the same age as they were all formed from the same accretion disc orbiting our newly formed sun, between 4.4-4.6 billion years ago. —source
     
  • While I correctly differentiated electromagnetic radiation from particle radiation, I could have further discussed “ionizing” radiation as the type which causes harm to human tissue. (source). However, per the question by the woman sitting directly to my front, given my current understanding, it would require radioactive isotopes, not highly energetic particles (“cosmic rays”) to cause food used as a radiation barrier, to become poisonous to the astronauts who would consume it. This requires further investigation …

    “Cosmic rays are immensely high-energy radiation, mainly originating outside the Solar System. They may produce showers of secondary particles that penetrate and impact the Earth’s atmosphere and sometimes even reach the surface. Composed primarily of high-energy protons and atomic nuclei, they are of mysterious origin.”
     
    “The term ray is a historical accident, as cosmic rays were at first, and wrongly, thought to be mostly electromagnetic radiation. In common scientific usage high-energy particles with intrinsic mass are known as “cosmic” rays, and photons, which are quanta of electromagnetic radiation (and so have no intrinsic mass) are known by their common names, such as “gamma rays” or “X-rays”, depending on their origin.”
     
    “Galactic cosmic rays are one of the most important barriers standing in the way of plans for interplanetary travel by crewed spacecraft. Cosmic rays also pose a threat to electronics placed aboard outgoing probes. In 2010, a malfunction aboard the Voyager 2 space probe was credited to a single flipped bit, probably caused by a cosmic ray. Strategies such as physical or magnetic shielding for spacecraft have been considered in order to minimize the damage to electronics and human beings caused by cosmic rays.”—verbatim from source

  • I was correct in stating that Mars habitats will not have windows, at least not until we employ something like Star Trek’s transparent aluminum (which I learned is real!) as a shield to radiation. However, after the Q&A, a gentleman suggested that sunlight could be bounced into an otherwise radiation protected greenhouse (meaning, covered in soil). By selecting the coating on the mirror, you could determine what wavelength of light is reflected. However, if this is the case, then it would stand to reason that the human habitats would also have windows, even if tucked back, beneath an shielded roof. However, without a magnetic field and atmosphere 1/1000 the thickness of our own at sea level, the cosmic rays may yet penetrate the domicile through the window, even if travelling through the thickest part of the Martian atmosphere. This requires further investigation …
     
  • The risk of radiation exposure is not as bad as we had thought, for a long-term manned mission to Mars. Results from Curiosity rover suggest that a mission consisting of a 180-day journey to Mars, a 500-day stay, and a 180-day return flight to Earth would expose astronauts to a cumulative radiation dose of about 1.01 sieverts. For comparison, the European Space Agency limits its astronauts to a total career radiation dose of 1 sievert, which is associated with a 5% increase in lifetime fatal cancer risk.—source
     
  • Per the photograph of the “blueberries” on Mars, a concretion is a hard, compact mass formed through precipitation of mineral cement between particles. It is found in sedimentary rock and soil. This process can make the concretions harder and more resistant to weathering than the surrounding rock or soil.—source
     
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) lost contact with Spirit after last hearing from the rover on March 22, 2010. Attempts were continued until May 25, 2011, bringing the total mission time to 6 years 2 months 19 days—25 times the original planned mission duration. —source
     
  • For the gentleman who after the Q&A asked about the formation of our Moon, I found this page by NASA’s Jen Heldmann. Yes, the current theory remains that of a large impact. The difference from prior theories is that the Moon formed not from a lump of molten rock thrown into orbit by the impact, but by the accumulation of vaporised material from both the proto-Earth and the massive (Mars sized) object with which it collided.
     
  • On the topic of nuking Mars, “Elon Musk details his plan to bomb Mars saying constant ‘nuclear pulse explosions’ would create double suns to heat the planet”. Read more …
     
  • On the topic of teleportation, this is incredibly complex and wonderfully engaging, far beyond Captain Kirk arriving to the transporter room in duplicate (while wonderfully entertaining). I provide just a few links to stimulate further reading:
By | 2017-04-10T11:17:31+00:00 October 29th, 2015|2015, Humans & Technology, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Earth to Mars, A Journey for Us All

The Waters of Mars

water on Mars by NASA

(photo courtesy of NASA)

The race for space began with fear that one of our kind might leave home before the other and gain a military advantage. It was not an expedition but a political decision to fuel the Saturn V rockets that carried our species further than ever before.

Four decades later, we have advanced our technology such that each of us carries in our pockets more computational power than all of NASA at the time of the Apollo program, yet we remain grounded, the International Space Station the only reminder of a time when we believed we would inherit the stars.

In my lifetime, humans have walked on the moon and orbited the Earth countless thousands of times. But I must ask without confidence, Will I live to see humans walk on the surface of the Moon again? Will we lay hammer to the rocky surface of an asteroid or sample the flowing waters on Mars?

With the British Interplanetary Society, Icarus Interstellar, and the Initiative for Interstellar Studies thought leaders are helping to put words to thought, and designs to words. The Planetary Society continues to lead with real spacecraft moving into interplanetary trajectories, even into interstellar space.

With NASA’s bold declaration of water on the surface of Mars, perhaps, finally, the dead centre will be shifted to an edge over which politicians without the power of imagination but with the power of economic control will be forced to follow.

Maybe then we will be made aware not of what makes us different, but what unites us under a common goal.

Exploration. Discovery. The unknown.

By | 2015-10-06T23:11:40+00:00 September 29th, 2015|Looking up!|Comments Off on The Waters of Mars

When the Moon Turns Red

Lunar Eclipse 2015 by Kai Staats
Lunar Eclipse 2015 by Kai Staats Lunar Eclipse 2015 by Kai Staats

The photographs were obtained between 3:15 and 4:20 am, in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa. The cloud cover came and went, at times totally blocking the view. Unfortunately, as the Moon neared totality, the mist was heavy (thus the soft image). The final shot of the Moon resting on the adjacent building was only seconds after the clouds dissipated one last time. Totality was missed from this vantage point, but the total experience was mesmerising.

Canon 60D
Nikor 80-200mm lens (circa 1980) with Nikon/Canon adapter
ISO: 400 – 1000
Exposure: 1/200 – 2 seconds

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:32+00:00 September 28th, 2015|2015, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on When the Moon Turns Red

A Night Beneath the Stars

Kai Staats: south pole from Sutherland Kai Staats: 20" telescope at Sutherland

Last night I sat alone, on the flattop remnant of an ancient volcanic intrusion, it’s hardened crust resisting erosion moreso than the surrounding terrain. This is where the telescopes reside, spaceships that travel millions of light years but never leave the launching pad.

I sat on a folded blanket, three layers on top, two on the bottom. The air was perfectly still, the sky dark overhead. I read the latest novel by sci-fi master Ben Bova while pressing the shutter on my camera, via remote, over 200 times. Each exposure was 20 seconds long, capturing the SALT observatory silhouetted against the centre of the galaxy.

Satisfied I had captured enough for a timelapse animation, I repacked my camera, book, water, nuts, and blanket and walked along the paved road to the observatory which houses the 20″ telescope on which I have been training. Pierre was conducting his observation run, and doing research into which objects we might photograph the following night.

The moon was rising when I departed, visiting the two astronomers in the 1.9m observatory. Danika, a Ph.D. student from Serbia training under her professor from Australia.

I had left my camera running, a long exposure at low ISO to capture star trails behind the SALT observatory.

Ever time I step into an observatory dome, I am overcome with a sense of childhood thrill, the kind that Jae and I likely shared when we built a fort in our shared bedroom, made of card tables and blankets and flash lights, or when as a child I first visited NASA JPL and saw the Galileo spacecraft under construction.

For me, the observatory has this kind of mind-expanding capacity, for it reaches to the night sky and receives photons from distant galaxies each with billions of stars, massive explosions closer to home, and of the stuff that gives foundation to the formation of planets which may be home to inquisitive creatures looking back at us.

The telescopes are tremendous achievements of engineering and design. There is an incredible sense of accomplishment when you one move, a 3-story, multi-ton creature of iron, steel, and glass as graceful as a dancer; as accurate as a laser.

Like astronauts, the astronomers reside in a small, cramped quarters monitoring the light received by the telescope just outside. Following each observation, one rises, slips through the door which isolates the telescope from their heat and light, to adjust the direction the instrument is pointing.

Returning to their seat, warm cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, the music, conversation, and observation resume.

Night after night, week after week, across the planet, thousands of individuals dedicate their sleepless hours to gathering data which helps us better understand our world.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 September 20th, 2014|2014, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on A Night Beneath the Stars

Return to the Karoo

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Just outside of Sutherland, South Africa, a small town like so many others yet recovering from the effects of the apartheid era, lies the primary site of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

At 1800 meters elevation, this plateau hosts a wide variety of observatories, including Africa’s largest telescope, SALT (South Africa Large Telescope). The area surrounding the site is an extension of the Greater Karoo desert, in the high western Roggeveld Mountains.

Astronomers visit the SAAO Sutherland site from around the world. The U.S., Germany, France, Poland, Korea, Australia, Japan and many more are annually represented.

As with all professional astronomical sites, distance from large cities and light pollution is imperative. This lends itself to a place that can be challenging for those who feign relative isolation, and a safe haven for those who crave places where man-made inventions do not overwhelm the senses.

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Today, my first day on site, I packed a bottle of water, jacket, and camera and set out on foot to explore. The upper reaches of the site feed a wide water drainage. To one side of the shallow canyon there exists a broken sandstone canyon wall which caught my attention last year, when conducting interviews for “The Explorers“.

What I discovered brought me back to who I am, camera in hand, watching, listening, discovering. Lichen, moss, armoured locusts, and piles of bones. The rusted wire fence lines alone captured my attention for half an hour. The warm sun and brisk wind did battle for command of the weather while I oscillated between overheating and feeling chilled despite my thermal layer.

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA
Where the wind-blown, sun-baked desert
meets myriad firey stars,
A yet stagnant, earth-bound species
contemplates worlds it may one day explore.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:35+00:00 September 10th, 2014|2014, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Return to the Karoo

Voyager – 12 Billion Miles from Home

Voyager Spacecraft

Yesterday NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. The 36-year-old probe is roughly 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from our Sun.

In watching the live feed from NASA JPL in Pasadena, California, I loved the fact that the people speaking are the same that were involved in the project at its start. This not only shows the coherence of the JPL team, but that with time, men and women can remain involved and important to such incredible missions. Their heritage, as much as the spacecraft itself, is imperative to the future of exploration of our solar system and the greater universe.

  • Voyager 1 has traveled 11,600,000,000 miles.
  • Each of its daily transmissions require 17 hours to reach Earth. At the source, the signal is 22 Watts of energy, but at reception by the Deep Space Network, it is just 1/10th of a billion-billionth of a Watt.
  • The Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico was able to image Voyager 1 even at the incredible distance of 11.5 billion miles.
  • Voyager 1 uses an on-board radio-isotope thermoelectric generator whose total power output decays at the rate of 4 Watts per year. There is ample on-board power to operate the “Fields of Particles” detector to 2020. Then, via remote control, project managers will disable one instrument at a time in order to give Voyager the capacity to continue to transmit messages for a final 10 years.
  • Voyager 1 is heading to a star called AC+793988. It will arrive in 13,000 years, swing by this star, and then continue to orbit the center of our galaxy.
  • As a messenger for our species, both Voyager I and II contain a golden record designed by Carl Sagan and his team. This time capsule contains images and sounds of Earth, a sample of scientific data, and a map. If ever discovered by an intelligent life form this record provides a sample of who we were at the time of launch and how to find our planet should they decide to come by for a visit. What’s more, Carl Sagan and his wife Anne Druyan were engaged to be married during the course of a phone call about the music to be included. Anne’s brainwaves were sampled to capture the essence of falling in love, with hope that an intelligent species may someday decode the thought patterns. The full story is available from NPR’s RadioLab.
By | 2017-04-10T11:17:37+00:00 September 13th, 2013|Looking up!|0 Comments

Campfire Cosmology

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.

Good night.

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.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:37+00:00 July 1st, 2013|At Home in the Rockies, Looking up!|0 Comments

The Southern Sky

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: SALT, Sutherland, SA

Kai Staats: SALT, Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: 1.9m telescope, Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: Star Party at Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: sunset over Sutherland, SA

When we look to a rich, dark night sky we are moved to wonder. When we peer through the eyepiece of a telescope we are changed in some significant way. When we are granted answers to questions which the night sky raises, we realize how very small we truly are.

I believe the greatest challenge we do engage in our short time in this universe, both as individuals and as a species, is to recognize our humble place while at the same time our potential for great endeavors. Somewhere, between these two ends of the spectrum is the balance we seek.

By | 2015-10-02T10:19:26+00:00 May 16th, 2013|2013, Looking up!, Out of Africa|0 Comments

Overview

Overview, the film

On the 40th anniversary of the famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph taken of Earth from space, Planetary Collective presents a short film documenting astronauts’ life-changing stories of seeing the Earth from the outside – a perspective-altering experience often described as the Overview Effect.

The Overview Effect, first described by author Frank White in 1987, is an experience that transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

Overview’ is a short film that explores this phenomenon through interviews with five astronauts who have experienced the Overview Effect. The film also features insights from commentators and thinkers on the wider implications and importance of this understanding for society, and our relationship to the environment.

By | 2017-04-10T11:17:37+00:00 May 12th, 2013|Film & Video, Looking up!|0 Comments