Friday, December 24, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Solstice Birthday Lunar Eclipse

The best thing about enjoying one's birthday on the winter solstice (Robert Frost's "darkest evening of the year") is that it's important for reasons other than personal. This is the day of Sun Return on old Druidic calendars, Yule to Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, celebrated in the vast Roman empire as Saturnalia, and all manner of lively festivals among the world's peoples. This seasonal moment was considered so significant, in fact, that early Christianity appropriated it for Christ's birth day (Saturnalia occurred on December 25 of the Julian calendar). Tax collecting time in the ancient world tended to be in the fall, after harvest, and there's considerable dispute over the actual date.

So despite the fact that babies born around the Winter Solstice tend to lose out on the loot because of the proximity to Christmas, this birth date has its own specialness. Very occasionally, solstice babies are awarded with extra celestial goodies, as we were this year.

On the 20th I received this cute text message from my son: Happy early birthday mom! I assume you'll be staying up to see the present we all convinced the universe to get you?:)

And what a present it was, compounded by an ancillary gift from the Beloved Spouse, who had spent the day locating a lens and a device for marrying our digital camera to our telescope so that we could take pictures of a rare solstice lunar eclipse.

So we did stay up (well, until just at totality, when the clouds moved in) and this week's Skywatch entries include some of the results.

The evening of the 20th presented us with a pretty moon-infused sunset, through the now-bare trees:

Before the eclipse started in the wee hours of the 21st, we got a good clear shot of the solstice full moon. Since we're novices at astrophotography, we ended up with too much image for the frame; the only complete shots were from the telephoto lens. The ones shown here offer a great deal more detail, however, and we're quite happy with our first attempts.

Just before totality--and in advance of some unwelcome clouds that cut our observations short:

Of course, not all celestial portents are good ones, as the idiots prognosticating the end of the world on another solstice have warned us. But as I tell those of my students eager to seize on arcane meanings of ancient texts, truly the only thing of cosmic significance that will occur on December 21, 2012--is my 65th birthday.

Happy Winter, everyone. And Happy Yule, Merry Christmas, an enjoyable Festivus, to all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Finding the Middle

I feel like Peter Finch's character in Network--who has become a metaphor for frustration since the film premiered the year my son was born (1976--which probably explains why I never actually saw the movie itself). But the tag line "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" has been floating around my head for the past couple of days.

It doesn't help that I've also been watching Max Headroom, via the bad-transfer DVDs we bought last month--another emblem of a good concept (not unlike Firefly) that couldn't get the ratings it needed in order to keep it in production. Max was a mid-eighties phenomenon that presaged digital media expansion and inhabited a dystopic future similar to that depicted in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner (1982).

Admittedly, I'm rather preoccupied with things dystopic/eutopic at the moment, because I'm writing a Philosophical Perspectives course for the Winter quarter (Technology and Utopia), and am finishing up a short story that involves life after a Coronal Mass Ejection causes an Electromagnetic Pulse, knocking out all solid-state electronics and screwing big-time with The Grid (the stuff I was talking about here last month). The story, however, is a utopia. No, I don't think we'd necessarily find ourselves living in garbage dumps and smacking each other about with machetes after a big calamity.

If all this isn't enough, I'm also reading Charles Robert Wilson's Julian Comstock, a thoroughly engaging literary thought experiment about life after Peak Oil and the False Tribulations. Wilson, at least, hasn't forgotten that it hasn't been all that long since we were doing without electricity altogether (emphasized rather vividly in the two movies we watched this weekend, Silverado and The Illusionist). He's also about the only science fiction writer I'm reading these days, because I'm so not into cyberpunk and military SF/schoolboy warcraft crap. I think that one reason I'm fond of non-zombie-related Steampunk is that it tends to rely on rather imaginative combinations of old technologies and Art-Deco streamline-aesthetics, rather than on blood, guts, and dismemberment by squiddy aliens.

So, yes, I'm being cranky again, primarily because I'm getting more and more frustrated about the state of modern politics, and their handmaiden, modern media.

Why all the movies and old TV shows this weekend? Several reasons: pledge fortnight on PBS (I've paid my dues and I am not willing to sit through hours of drivel from Yanni and Celtic Women which have not one thing in common with regular programming; I want my Doc Martin, damnit!), and the growing number of utterly annoying commercials for pharmaceuticals, primarily the ones that deal with male erectile issues.

My main objection to television these days actually lies in the coverage of the news, and (except for PBS) the apparent inability to report events without hyping them into the stratosphere. The ratings games that gave rise to critiques in the form of Network and Max Headroom are alive and well twenty and thirty years later--and I'm just plain tired.

The demise of civil disagreement and calm, reasoned, argument has driven me away from my television set as a primary vehicle for news. Since I haven't been able to stomach having the tube on before four or five in the afternoon for the last several years, my mornings begin with a good cup of coffee and the Daily Poop, usually the funnies first, and then a leisurely stroll through the various sections. Since I've got my mornings off this quarter, and can afford the time if I'm not grading, I can then peruse a magazine or two either in print or on the iPad, before I have to get to work. I'm frequently rewarded in one venue or another, and today I found an article that warmed my little soul right up: about a new organization called No Labels. According to its website (and a nice little introductory video), its aim is to bring back the same civil discourse I've been lamenting the loss of. Whatever our views, we ought to be able to share them, discuss them, and locate some kind of common ground without screaming at each other, and this organization is grounded in that hope.

Normally, I'm not much of a hopeful person. But that may change if this movement gets up enough steam--before that's all we have to run the show.

Image credit: Hungarian television set from 1959. ORION AT 602 - 1959. By Istvan Takacs, via Wikimedia Commons. The font is "Typewriter" by P22.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Look! Up in the Sky . . .

Or, even better, "Look! Down in the Mud!"

This is a shameful weasel of a Skywatch entry, but I needed to get two things done--put up a couple of the photos I took during our Thanksgiving break, and celebrate the news of "alien" life on earth found in none other than my beloved Owens River Valley.

First, the shots are nothing special, but they are evidence of the lengths I will traverse in the name of Skywatch Friday. The Beloved Spouse and I spent nearly two hours out enjoying the unseasonably balmy weather on November 24 waiting for a sunset. Enough leaves had fallen so that we could actually see the sky whilst sitting out in Grandma Clarice's old metal lawn chairs (which we'd had to move the day before because a huge branch was dangling overhead; once it fell, gifting us with a day's supply of firewood, we moved the chairs back). This is always the best place on the property to enjoy sunsets and the evening glass of Chateau Thames Embankment.

At any rate, I spent those hours wandering about and shooting up (ahem). But the longed-for sunset never came. The light, however, was luminous, and so the photos at least provide a record of a pleasant evening. The weather changed fairly dramatically the next day (and the Thanksgiving sunset, during which we were en route to our daughter's loft and therefore didn't photograph, was spectacular), and the leaves are pretty much gone. There will be a great deal of raking happening this weekend.

Far more interesting is NASA's announcement about a nifty bacterium found in Mono Lake, north of Bishop, California. The discovery of amazing biotic flexibility is the best news science fiction buffs have head since Sputnik was launched. It's such a big deal that the Daily Poop even ran the story on the front page, and we're not exactly known for our love of science around these parts.

Mono Lake (pronounced "moe-noe," not "mah-noe" as the newsies have been calling it) occasionally makes news related to the old Owens Valley water controversy (about which I've written in earlier posts on The Farm). For some time the water level lowered ominously due to the diversion of water to Los Angeles, and the seagull breeding site on a tiny island in the middle of the lake was threatened by coyotes via an emerging land bridge. In the '90s, however, efforts began to avert dessication of the lake and the demise of the gulls. Here's a good shot of the lake by Michael Gäbler:

Skywatch Friday folks are probably already familiar with Martha Z's photos of the site; for some of these, see her Sunset at Mono Lake post from September 8.

The newest chapter in the Saga of Mono Lake just makes my little SF-loving heart go pitty pat. According to John Matson's article in Scientific American, a bacterium found in the lake uses arsenic (poison to life as we've known it) in the same way other life forms use phosphorous--in photosynthesis and other life-processes. The fact that one element can replace another in DNA like this opens up the possibility that similar replacements might occur to produce different forms of life than those with which we are familiar.

'This study really drives the point home of how adaptive life can be and that we should go out expecting the unexpected,' [astrobiologist Dirk] Schulze-Makuch says. 'If you look at other places, from the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan to the subsurface ocean of Europa to the deserts of Mars, we really should not underestimate the abilities of life to adapt to these places.'

Yum! There's just nothing to rev up the old creative juices like confimation that one's speculations about the universe have at least some scientific grounding. I have long (and boringly to my friends) insisted that life "out there" is probably (or at least possibly) very much different than it is here on earth. This confidence was sparked long ago by SF stories involving silicon-based life instead of carbon-based, and by thought experiments about what might have happened if that pesky meteorite hadn't plowed into the Yucatan sixty-three million years ago. It's hardly an original notion, but even though I've managed not to feel too smug about driving a hybrid car or not shopping on Black Friday, I will not hold back now.

To all the doubters and skeptics and people who've rolled their eyes and smirked, "there she goes again," I told you so!

I'm really happy for Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ronald Oremland, who authored the study, and admire their curiosity and persistence more than I can say. But I'm even happier for those science fiction writers who have been inspired anew; I can't wait to see what kinds of "nowheres" appear as a result.

Image credit: Lakeside of Mono Lake, by Michael Gäbler, via Wikimedia Commons.