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Counting raindrops in Meru

The Meru Simba Lodge dining area is unusually occupied at 22:40 this evening. Two men to my back and side speak quietly in Swahili. One told me he cannot go home at this time, as the elephants are on the road, having crossed out of the Arusha National Park earlier in the evening. We both heard what sounded like a half dozen gun shots, he further explained these were locals, not shooting at them, but scaring them back into the park. No one walks at night unless they must for the elephants are far more a threat than the cheetah, here, at the base of 4000 meter Mt. Meru.

This is my twelfth day in Tanzania, each rich, full, and fully engaged as I work with my colleagues, ambassadors to astronomy for this Telescopes to Tanzania and Astronomers Without Borders project. But tonight it is raining for the first time since my arrival. Light at first, the tempo and volume has increased and the wonderful aroma of cleanly washed atmosphere.

The temperature has dropped, a light breeze brings a subtle chill, the aroma of wet forest and the banter of the drops on the thatched roof remind me of the need to breathe it all in.

By |2019-08-02T16:24:43-04:00August 2nd, 2019|2019, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Counting raindrops in Meru

Update from the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory

An update for the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory (MMAO), “Since the last update on December 15, 2017, there is much to tell about the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory. Thank you for your patience and steadfast interest in this important project.

The observatory itself is nearly complete. The telescope pier was set with rebar and concrete nearly two meters deep, isolated from the observatory floor, then finished with four threaded rods ready to receive the 120 kg steel pedestal and telescope …”

Photos and more at Astronomers Without Borders

By |2018-11-23T23:04:43-04:00October 12th, 2018|2018, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Update from the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory

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 |2018-05-17T00:12:23-04:00September 16th, 2017|2017, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Sun Beams and Seals

Small waves, calm, relatively warm, with little wind.

The sun was pushing through the clouds, forming those intense beams of filtered light to the horizon. Distant mountains shrouded in the mist.

A seal played with us at sea. He went beneath my board, back and forth and again, popping up his head and staring at me repeatedly. If I had reached down, below my board, I could have touched him. Then he dashed to another surfer and did the same, returning once. One of the surfers, a woman, squealed in delight. Everyone was engaged, hoping the seal would come to them next.

When the waves came, he used the momentum of the rolling water to propel himself into the air, diving into the wavefront again and again. Then there were two, playing in unison. I had tears in my eyes, salt water mixed with salt water. There is a connection I can’t explain, mammal to mammal perhaps, intelligent hunters who recognize when it is time to play.

We all know, as surfers, that if a seal is relaxed, playing, then there are no sharks around. If instead they pop their heads up, look around intently, take a deep breath and dart off down the shoulder of water along the beach, then we had better swim to shore too.

By |2017-11-13T03:11:39-04:00September 11th, 2017|2017|Comments Off on Sun Beams and Seals

Truphena in Rwanda

This in from my son Bernard, about his experience in receiving his significant other Truphena in Rwanda where he is conducting an internship with Partners in Health (PIH). A moving, beautifully described wording of the elation of a first flight, of a sense of safety in the streets of a city, and the realisation of the capacity for humans to both love and hate in the genocide museum.

I am so delighted for what you the family did in seeing Truphena visit me in Rwanda. My heart felt with joy on seeing her and hearing from her in person. She could not hold her joy.

[This] was a biggest miracle on her side using the flight for the fast time ever and she could always tell me “… in my life using a flight was just but a dream that I was not even sure of and to repeat it again. [This] is my biggest surprise ever and my story now begins a fresh…”

[Truphena’s] coming [to Rwanda] was a life changing experience on her way of looking [at] things and on how people socialize. She has met my very many new friends from all corners of the world, some of whom are interns in PIH and others working as Doctors at PIH hospital for Cancer treatment and even the Rwandan friends. We have spent time with our new Indian friend who is in her medical school to become a Doctor and on her internship with PIH. [H]er name is Sonya who was championing for visiting us in Kenya together with her boyfriend who is now finishing [his] PhD studies in India.

We have tried different but very simple foods here as well, including having our dinner in one of the Chinese restaurant here in Rwanda. [This] was full with fun, walking at Kigali city at night is very safe and these would saw as walk together as twins. A few bodaboda guys could greet us in Kinyarwanda and as I quickly responded to them as I pose a joke in Kiswahili, they even moved closer to where we were standing, asking me are you from Tanzania or Kenya? Teach us your very nice Swahili language and some could ask where are you taking our beautiful Rwandan girl. They all thought Truphena is from Rwanda so they could tell me, Are you ready to bring us the Kenya’s cows as a dowry so that we may allow you to take her with you? I jovially asked them, Yes how many cows do you need from me? They answered many cows since our girls are beautiful, don’t you see?

Believe me Kai, if you happened to one time visit here you will really admire it. The beautiful hills and valleys that connect one estate to the other with well lit roads and not forgetting the very smart side ways pavements that are well maintained would see you tempted to start [an] either morning or evening run that at the end will see your feet very healthy as one might say no to chronic diseases.

Our tour to Kigali Genocide Memorial site was another place that saw our sharp and very slender tears rolled down our by then helpless faces. We spent many hours at the site, visiting place by place, reading word by word as pinned in the walls. The photos of the 1994 genocide victims could tell a lot. We felt so sorry on how [this] country was in [the] hands of people inhuman. [This] was history and a movie as we used to watch in Kenya. But [in] our presence, [they] marked it all with realities, and its true. Hundreds of thousands people died, not even an innocent child could be spared, very smart and talented kids lost their lives. The skulls, the blunt tools used during the genocide was all evidence that people were not people but animals that would view others as the wild prey, demand[ing] their death.

The graves where over 250,000 bodies were laid was all an evidence for what happened. We underwent a moment of silence with Truphena and we really thought of these in wider perspective. If the rest of the world could learn a lesson from what happened in Rwanda then we do no think if you can hear of killings or loss of lives in favor of political leaders or parties, race, tribe or religion and the world could be the best and better place for humanity … may God forbid.

Once again I feel so glad that Truphena is already [returned to] Kenya [for] I have received her text messages. Our lovely Grand Parents Linda and Dick Staats. Our Papa Kai and Jae, with great love we say thank YOU SOO much. May you live long on Earth to see us prosper in greater heights. May you find joy and happiness in all that you do.

With lots of love always,

By |2017-08-05T13:25:56-04:00August 9th, 2016|2016, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Truphena in Rwanda

A Morning to Remember

Bernard and slept for a second night in an empty apartment, below and one door over from Lindah’s. Lindah was thoughtful to purchase a brand new mattress before my arrival (I am very well cared for here :)

Bernard had arrived to Nairobi from Nakuru just shortly before I arrived to the airport. As I shared, our reunion was wonderful and so much fun. We ate at a fancy Italian restaurant in the city center, on our way back to Lindah’s flat. The walk was very scary for me, as it was dark the traffic roaring by, and my body hyper alert given my experiences in Cape Town.

By day, of course, it did seem as bad.

Lindah had eluded to her flatmate as being a little odd, but I did not realise just how much Lindah had been dealing with this past few months. Lindah and Jen shared a bath, each with their own rooms. The kitchen Lindah used, but Jen was not granted access (a longer story for another time).

There had been issues between them, each time resolved by the land lady, a woman in her late sixties, I assume, who is as much a soothsayer as she is the owner of this large, relatively new apartment building.

Our first night, at roughly 8 pm, Jen cranked up her music so loud that it was difficult to have a conversation. Lindah commented that she does this often, sometimes leaving the music running all night. The bass caused the floor and walls to vibrate. It was mind numbing, to say the least. I could not believe Lindah was living with this, and had never said anything to me. But yes, the landlady had been informed on more than one occasion.

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, Jen started the music again. Bernard went down the hall to speak with her, but to no avail. I thought I’d give it a try. I stepped into the hall just as she walked from her room to the bath. I asked her if she’d like to join us for breakfast. No answer. She slammed the bathroom door.

Her hostility was palatable. Without thinking, as the music was causing my head to hurt, I pushed aside the curtain suspended across her doorway, hoping to find a volume control within reach. I was standing there, in the doorway for less than 10 seconds, when I turned and took one step back into the hall way.

Jen had just come back out of the bathroom and pushed me aside, slamming the door in my face (quite literally). I knocked hard on the door three times, hoping to address the situation a bit more directly, but no response.

I realised I was shaking, so volatile was the situation. This woman was clearly not in her right mind.

I returned to Lindah’s flat, apologised if I had escalated the situation. We packed our things for the day, and left for the museum.

Upon our return, Jen had become quite excited over the unfolding of the morning. Bernard went to speak with her at length, in her room. She demanded an apology from me. I went to her room and apologised for having entered her room.

She responded, “I don’t believe your apology is good enough. I mean, there was a strange man I have never seen before in my room. I do not feel safe. You could try to hurt me.”

I apologised again.

She shook her head, her mobile phone in her hand. “You should have apologised in the morning. Now, it is too late. I believe I must call the police.”

I took a deep breath, knowing that if the police get involved, it will likely result in my having to pay a substantial bribe to not be jailed. I sensed this was not going to go well, and that she was looking for money from what Lindah later told me was the first “mazungu” (white person) to enter this apartment complex.

“Jen. That seems a bit extreme. But if you feel you need to call the police, then that is what you should do.”

“You came into my space! You invaded my privacy!”

“I pushed aside the curtain, intent upon reducing the volume of your music as your music was invading our space. We could not even have a conversation.”

“It’s not the same. I am calling the police.”

“Ok. You do what you need to do. But we are leaving for the day and I leave early in the morning.” Those last words I would later regret.

We walked to the museum and enjoyed an incredible day.

Upon our return, Jen was still unnerved. She asked Bernard (who had become the middleman) to join her in a discussion with the landlady. The three of them spoke for more than an hour while Lindah made dinner and I completed the sorting of the papers she graded, entering marks into a spreadsheet. I was nervous, inside, wondering where all of this would go. Clearly, Jen was not willing to let it end.

When Bernard returned, he said, “Everything is ok now. We all left with smiles. Wow. That landlady, she is amazing. She has so many stories to tell. But you know what she said to us? She said, “Look at me. I am an old woman now. I want to help young people have a safe place to live. I need to hear good stories, not about people fighting. This needs to be resolved because I deserve to know how well you are doing. It is not my place to take sides. So, if this cannot be resolved, I will ask both you to leave my building.”

Bernard said she told more stories, raising the spirits of Jen such that she said the issue of my having entered her apartment was resolved. I was very proud of Bernard, and quite thankful for his expertise in these kinds of affairs. Lindah said that at Pistis, he was like this too, always the negotiator, the one who resolved issues.

Bernard and I said goodnight to Lindah, and ventured down one level to the otherwise empty apartment.

We woke at 5:00 am, packed our things, returned the new mattress to Lindah’s flat, and prepared to catch our bus to Tanzania. At 6:30 am, Bernard was ready to leave when Jen called to him from the hallway. He left for just a few minutes and returned, his face concerned.

“This girl, something is not right with her. Now she says Kai has poisoned her food.”

We just shook our heads. Bernard left and went down the stairs, believing I was just behind him. I had forgotten our bag of travel food and gave Lindah a hug. My backpack was on. Jen appeared in the hall, just before me, a pad lock in hand.

Lindah realised what was happening, and moved into the hallway to stop Jen. But it was too late, she locked us in. She turned to me and said, “You poisoned my food. I want ten thousand Schilling.”

Lindah launched into her. I started shaking, feeling quite physically violated despite the lack of physical contact. Jen was clearly irate, her eyes wide and physical gestures scary to me.

“This is crazy. I have to catch a bus. You can’t lock us inside!”

“You poisoned my food! I want ten thousand Schilling to replace it!”

“Ten thousand?! What? That’s crazy!” Lindah yelled.

I was going to confront her again when Lindah demanded that I just go back into her room. I did, but it was clear she was not going to let us out.

I grabbed Lindah’s hammer and walked toward the lock, intent to break it open (easily done on small locks such as this one). Jen jumped in front of me and physically blocked me, pushing at my chest.

Lindah again demanded that I walk away, which I did as I was increasingly afraid of Jen. Lindah picked up her phone to call the landlady. Just then, Bernard appeared at the door again. He asked to come in. Jen hesitated, then opened the door. I yelled, “Do not let her shut that again!” as Lindah explained what Jen was doing.

Bernard shoved his foot to the door jam just as she attempted to slam the door shut. I waited, hoping the tension would diminish. It did not. Bernard tried to calm Jen down, but she remained steadfast in her demand for payment.

Lindah had reached the landlady who sent a manger toward our flat.

I saw an opportunity, and decided to just press my way out. Jen physically blocked me and grabbed my backpack by the front straps, pressing against my shoulders and chest. I pressed harder, forcing her through the exit and into the exterior hallway. She held on to my backpack such that I could not walk.

I was now in fighting mode, contemplating how to act. I did not want to hurt her, but her grip would not release. As we were yelling and wrestling, I applied pressure to a pressure point on her wrist, but to no avail.

I swept her legs out from under her, hoping the fall would force her to let go. That too failed. Now, I found myself nearly on top of her, trying not to fall to the ground as my backpack, with camera and laptop was about to be pulled over my shoulders.

Just then a thin man appeared rounded the corner. I later learned he is the property manager. I was free of Jen only to now be physically retrained by this man who clearly saw me as the aggressor. I wanted out of this mess immediately, before it got to be a real issue, but he would not let me leave, insisting we called the police.

I worked my way past him and down the stairs. Bernard behind me, Lindah to follow. We made it to the ground floor, and out the front door. Lindah, Bernard, and I stood there, all three of us shaking, wondering what to do.

Lindah insisted Bernard and I should go, as we were already behind schedule. I yet had to get to the ATM and convert some Kenyan schilling to U.S. dollars before boarding the bus.

I suggested to Bernard that we not leave, as I did not want for Lindah to deal with this on her own. It was too scary, too violent already. It could get worse.

We decided to stay, to catch the 2:00 PM bus instead. I remained outside the gate, in the alley, sitting on my heels, leaning against my backpack. My presence with Jen would only aggravate the situation.

Fifteen minutes, two men walked past me, ducked through the steel gate and into the ground floor of the apartment complex. I did not know then, but those were the police who had been called.

Ten minutes more and Ben stuck his head outside the gate, asking me to come inside. The building owner, manager, two police officers, Jen, Lindah and Bernard were standing in a circle, talking. I remained on the outside.

The police officer closest to me turned to me, asking for my name. He then stated, “You entered this woman’s apartment without permission. That is illegal. You need to come to the police station.” I responded with an explanation that I did not in fact enter her apartment, but only looked inside. He repeated his statement again, insisting we had to go to the station.

I knew that if I was forced to go, the only way out was to pay a large sum of money.

Fortunately, Lindah intervened, suggesting that everyone be able to tell their story. The police officers agreed and Bernard started. He presented his version primarily in Swahili, so I caught only a few words, but the gist I understood. I was given a chair after the piece of wood I rested upon slid to the ground. I remained low-key, keeping my eyes low, focused on the concrete of the court yard in which we all stood.

Bernard was diplomatic, expressing how just the night before a total resolution has been reached for issues building to this point. He neither accused, nor lost ground. I was very impressed. Lindah went next, explaining what happened that morning. I rose to my feet, to take a turn (as I was not clearly to be given one), saying simply, “I offered Jen breakfast. She slammed the door in my face, accused me of poisoning her food, demanded 10,000 Schillings, and physically attacked me. I just want to catch the next bus to Tanzania and leave this mess behind, as it makes no sense to me.”

Jen went last. Her voice as clearly accusatory and enraged. Roughly half way through, as she claimed I had physically attacked her, the police officer turned to me and rolled his eyes. I felt some relief that she might be making a fool of herself with such an exaggerated story.

When she was done, one of the police officers asked, in English, “So what do you want from this man?”

Jen responded, “Ten thousand Schilling for poisoning my food.”

“Ten thousand? That is a lot!”

“Ok. Five thousand will be enough.”

“Which food, exactly, do you believe he poisoned?”

She hesitated, “The tea. He poisoned the tea.”

“Five thousand Schilling of tea?”

“Two thousand will cover the tea.”

“Ok. Here is what we will do. Go get your tea and we’ll take it to the police station lab. If it contains poison, this man will replace your tea. If it does not, you will buy him a new ticket for his missed bus to Tanzania.”

Suddenly Jen was not so interested in the repayment, saying she did not need the reimbursement.

The policemen said there did not seem to be further need of their assistance. I immediately addressed the owner and asked if we could move Lindah into a new apartment, as she was not legally able to immediately evict this clearly unstable girl. I promised to pay the difference in cost that day, and December before I departed.

Bernard, Lindah, and I spent the next four hours cleaning and moving her from the 3rd floor to the 2nd, into a new, larger, much nicer apartment free of psychopathic women.

By |2018-11-24T01:39:18-04:00December 5th, 2015|2015, Out of Africa|Comments Off on A Morning to Remember

Counting raindrops in Nairobi

At midnight, a twelve hours call for the Holy Spirit to rain down on those gathered in a tin-roofed church climaxed in a cacophony of singing, shouting, and crying–a collective, spiritual orgasm.

When those who believe the creator of the universe can hear their plea only with amplified voice finally succumb to sleep, this can be a quiet, peaceful place.

The rain did come, throughout the night and into the early morning. The rising sun warmed a cloud ladened landscape. The subtle bass rhythm of music rose from a distant flat. The voice of an infant oscillated from a low complaint to a full cry of discomfort in a world yet new. Two stories below our shared flat, the muddy streets were transformed into temporary streams which carry plastic bags, wrappers, and packaging through a muddy, gravitational descent.

I find my time in the cities perplexing.

While we move to a greater understanding of how our universe did unfold, deeper insight to what makes us whole, I see a world of increasing disconnection for who we are. A lack of understanding of the complex system of which we are a part. Fear of the environment outside of that which we have built.

Repeat attempts at replacing what makes us human with a technological revolution. Just one more upgrade, just one more download, and finally, we will have arrived to that place where our inherent biological tendency toward the path of least resistance is satisfied, our lives made more easy.

Yet, that place is never found.

Our youth know not what it means to be alone.

By |2019-08-02T16:29:13-04:00November 13th, 2015|2015, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Counting raindrops in Nairobi

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.




  • 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


  • 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 |2017-04-10T11:17:31-04:00October 29th, 2015|2015, Humans & Technology, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Earth to Mars, A Journey for Us All

A Breakfast for the Body and Brain

Breakfast by Kai Staats

For me, exercise and breakfast set the day in motion. They determine, in some ways, how successful I will be at accomplishing my goals. Therefore, I look forward to each and embrace them as serious fun.

  1. Wake shortly after sunrise.
  2. Glance over the railing at the end of the walkway to determine if the surf is good or a pass day. Change into my running shorts or wetsuit then head down to the beach.
  3. 7.5km, to the second estuary and back again, or surf.
  4. Return to my flat, shower, and change into my attire for the day.
  5. Fire up the computer, music that fits the day (anything from Bach to Enya or Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin to George Winston to Styx).
  6. Fix breakfast and read a science journal or novel while eating.
  7. Check email, code, research, research, research …

Breakfast by Kai Staats Today I prepared a fruit smoothie from a half dozen small ice cubes, juice oranges, apple, avocado, handful of dates, ginger and honey. I cook the onions, garlic, and chilli pepper with 4 eggs in a skillet, topped by mushrooms and tomatoes sautéed in unsalted butter and shredded cheese. Prep to consumption: less than thirty minutes including cleaning, doing dishes as I go. If I prep a few items the night before, a quarter of an hour total.

Delicious, nutritious, filling and grounding.

It does not take a scientific research study to draw the connection between how we fuel our bodies and how our bodies and minds function. Rather, we need to be reminded of what not long ago came more naturally, when our lives were not so fast-paced, when food preparation was a time to prepare for our day.

Everything you see came from the Ethical Co-Op. Not as pretty as the greenhouse ripened, chemically treated, and wax coated fruits and veggies found in the super market, but that’s the point—this is food before marketing decided it should be shiny, BIG, sweet and fun. Many of us have forgotten that food grows in soil. It is wrinkled, imperfect, and delicious in ways an entire generation has never enjoyed.

Our bodies are nothing more than an expression of what we put in. If we expect a cardboard box, a shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray, or a heavily processed “healthy-start breakfast bar” to replace the real thing, we are a victims of advertising designed to sell nothing more than a chemically engineered product made to look like food and sit on the shelf without going bad such that neither the distributor nor the retailer will report lost income to food gone bad.

In the past fifty years, in the lifetime of my parents, we have gone from carrying canvas bags to and from a small, locally owned market to the expectation that everything we consume comes in a box, plastic bag, carton, or container whose sole function is catching our attention on the shelf, and subsequent, easy transportation to our homes where we quickly discard the packaging.

I often consider the fossil fuel and raw materials consumed to package modern food. Farmed trees cut, transported, shredded, pulped, bleached, stabilised, rolled into paper and cardboard then trimmed, printed, and glued into a box to hold what may be consumed in a single meal. Every plastic container began as a fossil fuel formed 300-500 million years ago. Carbon, trapped deep in the Earth released and processed through the complex, power consumptive process of refining, manufacturing, and distribution in order that we can have four, maybe five spoonfuls of yoghurt or quickly unwrap a breakfast burrito on our way out the door.

This is nothing less than insane! Yet, it has become the norm.

Surely, there is a means to return to a life in which we are closer to our food, making clear our consumer preferences through how we spend our dollars and rand. We can visit local farms, and learn how modern farmers struggle and succeed. We can join farming cooperatives, tend to a community garden one afternoon each month. We can grow tomatoes, peppers, and herbs on window sills and balconies, in the narrow spaces between our homes.

We can return to a breakfast that is as enjoyable to prepare as it is to consume, and rest assured we have engaged in a practice that supports a sustainable mind, body, environment and soul.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:31-04:00October 21st, 2015|2015, Out of Africa, The Written|Comments Off on A Breakfast for the Body and Brain

The Return of the Dolphins

Two hundred meters from shore, the subtle undulation of the swell raises and lowers my board, my body half immersed in the cool embrace of False Bay. In the early morning light filtered by a thin mist, diminishing silhouettes speak excitedly. I hear someone shout. Three dozen surfers to my left and right spin their boards away from shore as sleek, black bodies rise against the horizon, quickly slipping below the surface again. Even at twenty meters distance, the site of dolphins is breathtaking.

Some paddle out further. Other sit tall, watching, waiting … hoping. A few are lucky to come within just a few meters of the passing dolphins, to be in the path of these curious creatures. More than once, the dolphins come up just parallel to a surfer, looking briefly before submerging and passing beneath the board. I was told later that if you jump off your board, and just float in the water, you may be so lucky as to be nudged. A test? An invitation?

One passes a half dozen meters from me, and I am deeply moved.

Both times I have experience this, I find unexpected emotion welling up inside, my breath caught on the verge of tears. I do not hold belief these are super intelligent creatures, for little in our study of them says they are more or less than what is needed to survive in their domain. But raw beauty, even if only an interpretation in the human mind, moves me in a magical way.

The next day there were whales breaching a few kilometers off shore, and the third day, seals riding the waves just to the sides of our boards. What a gift, to share this medium with our distant relatives, mammals in various forms.

By |2015-11-07T03:30:34-04:00October 10th, 2015|2015, Out of Africa|Comments Off on The Return of the Dolphins