Archive for June 2013

Friday Foto Talk: Isolating Subjects   7 comments

Their shapes and fact that these camel thorn trees in Namibia are in silhouette helps to isolate them from the background of dunes.  The strong morning light washes out the background, further de-emphasizing it.

Their shapes and fact that these camel thorn trees in Namibia are in silhouette helps to isolate them from the background of dunes. The strong morning light washes out the background, further de-emphasizing it. 55 mm., 1/1600 sec. @ f/16.

This is a look I sometimes go for in my images, if for no other reason than to occasionally get away from the extended depth of field, wide-angle landscapes that dominate my shooting.  It involves highlighting one or a few particular subjects and allowing other parts of the scene to be less obvious.  Although close-up or true macro photographs fall into this category, I’m not really talking about those.  They are relatively straightforward images to make.  The trick I think is to isolate a subject and yet still leave something of the surroundings for the viewer to identify – even if it’s just a feel for the surroundings.

This type of image works well if the subject contrasts in some way with the rest of the scene.  Your subject  doesn’t have to be big, or even all that interesting.  You will make it more interesting by photographing it in the right way!  But it sure helps if the subject you’re trying to isolate is already set off in some way from its surroundings.

For this picture of my mare I simply opened up my aperture all the way (f/4) and shot.  I checked my LCD and saw that the background was a little too much in focus, so I moved closer and shot again.  I wanted it to be only slightly out of focus.

For this picture of my mare I simply opened up my aperture all the way (f/4) and shot. I checked my LCD and saw that the background was a little too much in focus, so I moved closer and shot again. I wanted it to be only slightly out of focus. 200 mm., 1/160 sec. @ f/4.0.

Here are some examples of subjects that are suitable for isolation:

      • Flowers, either a single bloom or a tight bunch.  Their color can really set them off against the background.
      • Trees, if they are interesting in some way.  Good candidates are trees that show off a different color (say a golden larch against green pines or firs), or a stark, bare tree against a background empty of details.  A tree that stands far above the rest of the canopy can make a good subject for isolation too.
      • Rocks can be good subjects for isolation, so long as they either contrast in color (difficult to find) or stick out in some other way from their background.  So-called hoodoos are a perfect example.  These are pillars, often with interesting shapes, that stick up out of the surrounding landscape.
      • Animals or people are perhaps the easiest subjects to isolate against a natural background.
For this shot of spring poppies, I wanted to include the cliff they were growing beneath, so I moved in close and chose a wide-angle.  If I had shot it from a standing position, the flowers would not be a strong enough subject.

For this shot of spring poppies, I wanted to include the cliff they were growing beneath, so I moved in close and chose a wide-angle. If I had shot it from a standing position, the flowers would not be a strong enough subject. 24 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/11.

How you go about isolating a subject will depend on how strongly the subject already contrasts with its surroundings, plus how much you wish to hit the viewer in the head with isolation.  Your approach can be subtle, such as a slight vignette applied in post-processing, or it can have full-on impact, such as a shallow depth of field combined with a mask applied in post-processing that darkens and further blurs everything but the subject.

USING DEPTH OF FIELD

If you use a large aperture (small f number), you can put your subject in clear focus while the rest of the image is blurred.  You should be aware that it rarely works to put a lot of the area in front of the subject out of focus.  It’s best to limit this effect and go for blurring the background instead.  A blurred background looks much more natural than a blurred foreground.  This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, however.  You should play around with different levels of foreground blurring when the opportunity arises.

For this macro image of moss, I wanted to highlight the droplet, so I focused on that and got as close as I could.  I might have needed to get closer though.

For this macro image of moss, I wanted to highlight the droplet, so I focused on that and got as close as I could. The blurry stalk in front of the droplet takes away from the picture. 200 mm., 2.0 sec. @ f/16; taken with Canon 70-200 mm. f/4L + Canon 500D close-up lens.

USING COLOR

I often will spot a composition that just begs for an isolation technique, and it is only because of a subject that intrigues me.  It might be shape, it might be texture, but I most often pull the trigger when it is color that sets the subject off.  Perhaps this is because of my bias toward color in photography, but it also seems to work better than using a subject’s other characteristics.

USING BRIGHTNESS (NATURAL) 

This might be the best way to highlight a subject.  Anyone viewing a photo will tend to look at the brighter parts first.  You don’t have a lot of control over this sometimes, unless you can move your subject.  I should note right here that it’s not okay to damage the natural world in your pursuit for the perfect picture.  But if you are photographing a person or pet, moving them into a beam of light is a good option.  You can also wait on a cloudy day for light beams to fall on your subject.  You will see stunning shots of hill towns in Europe highlighted in this manner.  Also think about shooting into the sun in order to highlight your subject in the opposite way – by making it much darker than the background (see top image).

USING BRIGHTNESS (FLASH)

You can use flash, whether it is daytime or not, to isolate a subject with brightness.  Even a subtle flash directed at the subject can be used in combination with a darkening mask for the surroundings to create a “spotlight” effect.  The spotlight can be obvious or subtle or something in between.  When I say subtle flash I am talking about either being near the outer limits of the flash’s working distance or using flash exposure compensation to dial down the power of the flash (or a combination of the two).  Check the owner’s manuals for your camera (and for your flash if it is an off-camera unit) to see how to dial down the flash’s power.

For this shot of springbok in Namibia, I broke a rule saying that your in-focus subject should be in front.  Placing the male in shadow helped to focus attention on the well-lighted female in back.

For this shot of springbok in Namibia, I broke a rule saying that your in-focus subject should be in front. But placing the male in shadow helped to focus attention on the well-lighted female in back. 400 mm., 1/1250 sec. @ f/5.6

USING SIZE

If you are closer to the subject, even something small like a flower, it will appear bigger in your frame.  I know that is obvious, but it’s amazing how many photographers refuse to simply move their feet and get closer to a subject.  If you do this, you might get one more picture out of the scene, one you didn’t see initially.  Maybe it will not turn out very well.  But maybe it will!

Of course the bigger the subject the easier it is to isolate it from the background.  In other words, you won’t have to rely on other means, like depth of field, nearly as much.  If you are going wide-angle, for example, and only have f/4 or f/5.6 as a maximum aperture on the lens, you won’t be able to throw the background very much out of focus.  In this case you will appreciate characteristics of the subject like color and size; they will play a bigger role in isolation.

Although I recently posted a similar image to this one, I included this because it illustrates well the technique of getting close to your subject and playing around with depth of field to get just the right amount of blur.

Although I recently posted a similar image to this one, I included this because it illustrates well the technique of getting close to your subject and playing around with depth of field to get just the right amount of blur. Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/80 sec. @ f/8.0

USING EMPTY SPACE

This might be the most obvious technique to isolate a subject.  Just put a lot of empty space around it.  You feel isolated when you are surrounded by empty space, so why shouldn’t a picture give a feel of isolation if a person, animal or tree is surrounded by a lot of empty space.  Photographers often call it “negative” space.  It’s just portions of the frame lacking in elements.  Broad expanses of sky, grass, water, they all count as empty (or negative) space.  See the bottom image for an example of this technique.  The more compelling your subject, the better.

USING POINT OF VIEW

You’ve probably noticed that the lower you get, the bigger objects closer to you appear, while things further away appear even smaller.  This is really using size, as mentioned above.  But here you’re taking advantage of apparent size.  Does it matter to the viewer whether the size of something in the frame is “real” or “apparent”?  Nope.  If you’re using a relatively wide angle, this effect is magnified.  With fisheye lenses, it reaches the extreme.  I should mention the opposite case.  If you gain an elevated viewpoint, things that are closer to you will appear to be closer in size to things that are further away.

This big male hippo in Zambia put himself closer to my position in the boat, thus giving me the chance to quickly grab the shot and isolate him against his pod of females.

This big male hippo in Zambia put himself closer to my position in the boat, thus giving me the chance to quickly grab the shot and isolate him against his pod of females. 81 mm., 1/800 sec. @ f/7.1.

USING FOCAL LENGTH

As I just mentioned, things closer to you appear even bigger when you get lower.  The same thing occurs when you use a wider angle, a shorter focal length.  If you use a lens with a focal length of 20 mm., for example, you are going to isolate closer subjects by virtue of their appearing bigger in the frame.  If you use a telephoto at 100 mm. or more, you are going to accomplish the opposite.  Closer subjects will more easily blend in with the background, again mostly according to apparent size.

Although I got close to this subject, I kept the focal length short to include plenty of sky and not allow the background to go completely out of focus.

Although I got close to this flower, I kept the focal length fairly short (wide angle) to include plenty of sky and keep the background from going completely out of focus. 67 mm., 1/30 sec. @ f/22.

USING THE COMPUTER

There are several techniques to use in post-processing that will further isolate your subject.  But realize that you will need to use some or all of the methods listed above during capture so that you don’t need to push the post-processing too far.  This is a truism in photography.  You will only get natural-looking results if you take steps during capture that get you partway (most of the way?) to where you want to be in the end.

Vignettes, masks, selective focus treatments and more are all used to further isolate subjects from their surroundings.  Instead of going into detail here, I recommend doing a bit of research.  Look into how portrait photographers use post-processing techniques to isolate people from backgrounds (in non-studio surroundings).  Nearly any book or video series that shows you how to use Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture and others will go into the techniques used to help isolate people (or animals) from their surroundings.  Take a look, and apply those things to flowers, rocks, or any subject you wish to isolate.

For this shot of blooming beargrass with Mount Adams in the background, I tried a few different focal length/aperture combinations before I got the one I liked best.

For this shot of blooming beargrass with Mount Adams in the background, the fact that I was close to the subject relative to the background meant that a small aperture was needed to avoid the background being too blurry. 165 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/22

Use all of these things together.  Use characteristics of the subject like color, brightness and size (or some other feature), use apparent size by varying distance to subject and point of view, use the focal length of your lenses, and maybe even use flash.  While editing on the computer use vignettes, masks and other techniques to further isolate your subject.

If you bear these things in mind while shooting, pretty soon it should become second nature to you.  It will help keep your mind on the subject.  I’m not promising that you’ll get a level of isolation that yields a winner every time.  But I can promise you’ll obtain a greater variety of images, even if you only vary depth of field.  If more of your images isolate interesting subjects, you will eventually have more images with impact in your portfolio.  And that can only be a good thing.

This is just a straight picture taken at f/11.  The height and interesting shape of the lightning-struck tree does all the work of isolation without any help from the photographer.

This is just a straight picture taken at f/11. The height and interesting shape of the lightning-struck tree does all the work of isolation without any help from the photographer. 28 mm., 1/80 sec. @ f/11.

Isolation in this image comes from a combination of the fact this roan antelope is the only live creature plus all of the open space of Malawi's Nyika Plateau that surrounds him.

Isolation in this image comes from a combination of the fact this roan antelope is the only live creature plus all of the open space of Malawi’s Nyika Plateau that surrounds him. 31 mm., 1/50 sec. @ f/11

Wordless Wednesday: Bullrider   2 comments

I know you’re not supposed to say anything, but I’d like to note that this is my first post for Wordless Wednesday!  I like the concept.

Bullrider at a small rodeo in Oregon glancing back at the bull that just threw him.

The Solstice & Super Moon   6 comments

The summer solstice happened very close to the time of the full moon at perigee, here at Lost Lake.

The summer solstice happened very close to the time of the full moon at perigee, here at Lost Lake.

Yes I realize it is several days after the solstice, but I don’t want to wait 6 months to publish this.  It seemed to me significant that we had both the solstice and a full moon at perigee (“supermoon”) in the same week.  I’m an astronomy nerd, so the motions of the sun, moon and planets mean something to me.  It’s not just about your sign!  I think the solstices are the most important days of the year, with the equinoxes a close second.  I still like Christmas a lot, but that’s just the winter solstice a few days after.

Last week, one of the year’s two solstices took place.  For us in the northern hemisphere it marked the first day of summer, the longest day of the year.  It happened in the evening on the west coast of North America.  Like all astronomical phenomena, solstices (and equinoxes) happen at a specific time not on a date.  In the case of the solstice, it is the moment when the earth points its axis directly toward or away from the Sun.  For the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is when our planet points its northern hemisphere at the sun, at the sharpest angle it can.  Therefore for most of the world’s population this signifies the longest day and shortest night of the year.

Stonehenge was supposedly built to mark the solstices.  This is a replica of the famous megalithic ruins.  It is in Washington state.

Stonehenge was supposedly built to mark the solstices. This is a replica of the famous megalithic ruins. It is in Washington state.

For the southern hemisphere, the situation is the same but opposite.  The summer solstice for the northern hemisphere, which happens either on the 20th or 21st of June every year, is the winter solstice for the southern hemisphere.  Folks in South Africa and Australia have their shortest day and longest night while people in America and Europe have their longest day and shortest night.  The year’s other solstice occurs in 6 months, on December 20th or 21st.   The northern hemisphere is pointed away from the Sun, and thus has its shortest day and longest night.  The southern hemisphere has its longest day and shortest night.  Short nights around Christmas?  I really don’t like the thought of that.

This post is a good excuse to post an abstract, relatively rare for me.

This post is a good excuse to post an abstract, relatively rare for me.

The planet we live on is tilted on its axis of rotation.  Therefore it must tilt toward or away from the Sun as it revolves around it.  If you are good at visualizing, you know that there is a time (two times actually) when during the year the Earth neither points toward or away from the Sun.  Those times are known as the Equinoxes.  Nights and days are equal.  Think of those times as when the Earth is tilted directly toward or away from its direction of its travel around the Sun.

Okay, so why is this stuff important, or at least very cool?  The nature of time, the seasons, the passage of our lives:  to me these have always been very profound & interconnected things.  When I was younger, the seasons meant warmth, colorful leaves, cold and snow, and flowers, and that’s all.  But as I learned about things astronomical, the other pieces fell into place.  Add all the fascinating myths and stories from around the world and I realized I was not the only one who thinks these matters are important.

Surprising tulips appear randomly along Washington's Klickitat River, well away from any habitation.

Surprising tulips appear randomly along Washington’s Klickitat River, well away from any habitation.

Connections between things that happen in the world have always interested me.  You will occasionally see TV shows and books dedicated to these ties between natural events and human stories and experience.  Unfortunately these are too often academic and dry.  This I can’t understand, since these events have inspired so much that is creative in humans: poetry, art, stories.  I like the way people respond and react, both emotionally and in a visceral sense, to these cycles.  I definitely react to them, and I like this very real connection to the natural world that I share with others.  I guess that’s why I think the solstice is worth celebrating.

Rhodedendrons bloom in June in Oregon's forested Cascade Mountains.

Rhododendrons bloom in June in Oregon’s forested Cascade Mountains.

I should admit right here that I did nothing special to signify the event.  It snuck up on me.  I have in the past celebrated by climbing a mountain and camping atop it, or by joining in some extended outdoor excursion or even party.  But this time it just passed, and like with birthdays I just felt older.

Enjoy these images.  I’m sorry but they’re copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  Just click on any you are interested in to go to purchase options for the high-res. version.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks!

The so-called supermoon, actually the full moon at perigee, rises over Lost Lake, Oregon as a beaver swims by.

The so-called supermoon, the full moon at perigee, rises over Lost Lake, Oregon as a beaver swims by.

Dusk comes very late in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge at summer solstice.

Dusk comes very late in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge at summer solstice.

Single Image Sunday: A New Friend?   5 comments

This is the second time I’ve risked my skin climbing up Rooster Rock to get eye level with my new friend, the osprey.  The nest is at the top of a big fir tree that has had its crown lopped off by lightning.  The view over the river for sunset was my original motivation, but I think now it’s really about the fish hawk.

Osprey_6-21-13_5D3_002

She was not happy the first time I did it, and this time she was only slightly less noisy.  I can see progress though.  Sorta have to cling to a perch while taking the picture, so I’m glad the Mister was far too busy fishing to pay me much mind.  He did do a flyover however, to see what she was squawking about I suppose.

I’m definitely thinking of returning at least a couple more times.  I want to see the chicks when they hatch.  Of course her gradually increasing comfort with me might vanish when the little ones appear.  We’ll see.

Friday Foto Talk: Getting Familiar with your Camera   13 comments

A fading day illuminates colorful skies and the basalt cliffs at Crown Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A fading day illuminates colorful skies and the basalt cliffs at Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

This subject is one of those in photography that everybody just assumes is true but many don’t put it into practice with enough rigor.  Getting familiar with your camera and lenses, along with your tripod and other accessories, is key to capturing your best shots.  This is tops on my mind right now since I just bought a new camera.

If you are a novice, or even beyond novice, photographer, I have to say right here that there is only one author that I’ve read who really dives into this subject with some detail.  That is longtime photography teacher Brian Peterson.  His Understanding Photography Field Guide should be required reading.  He does not go deeply into the idea of getting familiar with your camera, since beyond saying you should do it, there’s not much to mention that is not brand dependent.  But he does detail great ways to get familiar with your lenses.  So go read that book and I won’t go into lenses much here.

A quiet dusk evening along the Columbia River.

A quiet dusk evening along the Columbia River.

Nobody would argue that learning how to use a new piece of electronics is important, whether computer or phone or camera.  But I’m going to argue here that most people tend to do the minimum amount of learning when it comes to their camera.  They read the manual (maybe) and then begin using the camera.  They don’t go back to the manual, trying to figure out the best way to set it up.  But this is the best way to make sure you are doing things in the most efficient way.  It’s important to do this early on so you don’t get locked in too much to a less-efficient way of doing things.

Once you go through this somewhat clunky period of feeling out your camera with help from the manual, then you should just shoot shoot shoot.  This is the only way to get to the point where everything is second nature, where you never have to look at your camera to do anything.  Your eyes belong on the scene before you, not on your camera (except for reviewing the image on the LCD when necessary).

 By the way, regarding the plethora of books that come out on each new model of camera: I don’t see them as very useful.  They are basically extended user’s manuals, which you get for free with the camera.  Much of what you’ll learn is what that photographer does with that camera.  So long as you don’t let that influence you too much, there isn’t much harm in reading one.  I prefer reading the user’s manual and developing my own system.

Dusk descends on the Columbia River in Oregon.

Dusk descends on the Columbia River in Oregon.

When you get to the second-nature stage of using your camera, lenses and tripod, you can do things very quickly.  This allows you to take advantage of quick-changing light.  You can switch subjects quickly.  You can get that wide-angle shot PLUS the zoomed in composition.  When photographing people, you can capture quickly changing expressions and body postures, allowing much more natural looking pictures.

Don’t get me wrong.  You’ll still miss plenty of shots.  You will get set up and trip the shutter a few seconds after the golden light fades, you’ll be ready to photograph an animal just as it passes behind some brush, etc, etc.  I’m actually talking about minimizing the missed shots, not adding opportunities.  For that you’ll need to simply get out in front of interesting subjects and shoot more often.

My previous camera (one that is in the shop right now) is a Canon 5D Mark II.  I just bought a new 5D Mark III, and so there is a lot of overlap.  All the shots here were captured with my new camera.  I’m very familiar with my Mark II, so how different could the Mark III be?  Unfortunately it’s not a completely seamless transition.  That’s because it’s difficult to get used to those things that have changed.

One example on my new camera is the different button used to magnify images on the LCD screen.  This is a feature I use all the time, in composing and focusing images using LiveView, and in reviewing images on the LCD for good focus.  The magnify button on the 5D III is in a different place than it is on the 5D II.  Doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but when your fingers are very used to going to a certain place, it requires retraining to make the change.

New camera models will often have wholly redesigned features.  Autofocus is one example on the Canon 5D III.  Inherited from the 7D and 1D model series, there is a brand new autofocus system to learn.  Compared to the 5D II, it is quite complex, with many different possible settings.  Something new to learn for sure.  Expanded capabilities will just remain unused if you don’t learn how to use them.

Thus far I have only shot a few pictures with my new camera, so I’m sorry for not having a lot of images in this post.  I will post more new pictures as I take them.  In fact, I’m going out right after finishing this post!  Now I’d like you to really examine how familiar you are with your camera gear.  Could using it be more intuitive for you?  If so, get out there and shoot!  Perhaps go back and read that manual one more time.   And by the way have fun!  Thanks for reading!

One of the many old pile dikes sticking out into the broad lower Columbia River right at the edge of magic and blue hours.

One of the many old pile dikes sticking out into the broad lower Columbia River right at the edge of magic and blue hours.

The Cascades I: Volcanoes Give and Take Away   16 comments

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

This is the mountain range I’m most familiar with, my home range.  I’ve climbed all of the high Oregon Cascades and many of the bigger Washington ones as well.  So I have personal experience and knowledge of these peaks.  Named for the many waterfalls that tumble over their volcanic cliffs, the Cascades are essentially a northern analogue of the Andes in South America.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named occur all through the range, including here at Toketee Falls.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named  include Toketee Falls.

GEOGRAPHY

The Cascades are volcanoes that still erupt from time to time, but with the exception of a single mountain are not the most active volcanic chain in the world by any means.  More on the exception below.  The Cascade Range, which stretches for 700 miles (1100 km.) in a north-south direction from Mount Garibaldi in Canada to Mount Lassen in California, is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (see below).  This whole region of the western Pacific Northwest is often called Cascadia.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The dramatic and beautiful mountains that make up the Cascades in most cases exceed 10,000 feet (3000 meters).  The high peaks are generally well-spaced, with many miles of forested lower mountains and hills between each snow-capped peak.  Oregon’s Three Sisters area (which actually includes 5 big volcanoes) is an exception to this wide spacing.  The bunched-up and much more rugged North Cascades in Washington are a whole different range geologically, one that happens to coincide in space (but not time) with the volcanoes of the Cascades.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

GEOLOGY

The highest peaks in the Cascades are quite young, most less than 100,000 years old – a moment in the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.  They are built upon a much older eroded volcanic range, arranged along an axis situated slightly to the west of the present locus of volcanic activity.  These older volcanoes began erupting some 37 million years ago.  It’s lucky for life (including us) that these older, heavily eroded volcanoes are around.  It’s the reason we have those lush forests, those cold streams that nourish the region’s great fish runs, and the habitat for the region’s other wildlife.  And let’s not forget the many waterfalls!

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

The older ancestral Cascades are also responsible for the region’s enormous timber resources plus the very rich soils that drew settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  Volcanoes combine with ample rainfall to make rich soil for farming.  By the way, many often wonder why so many people, worldwide, live near dangerous volcanoes.  It’s simple:  the rich soils around volcanoes, the productive farmland.  There is really not much choice.  We must eat, and so we must live near volcanoes.

While the Western Cascades are responsible for many of the Northwest’s assets, let’s not totally dismiss the younger High Cascades.  Their snowpack, lasting well into summer, gives farmers and ranchers (especially those to the east) water for their crops through typically dry summers.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The Cascades are stratovolcanoes (aka composite cones).  These are the steep-sided, conical volcanoes you drew as a kid in school.  They are made of alternating layers of lava-rock and pyroclastic (ash) deposits.  The volcanic rock is characteristically lighter colored than the basalt which covers the region to the east of the Cascades.  A typical volcanic rock for the Cascades is andesite (named for the Andes), which flows over the ground in a somewhat stickier manner than more fluid basalt (Hawaiian volcanoes erupt basalt).  The Cascades do have their share of basalt too, along with dacite and a few other types of volcanic rock.

An uncommon volcanic rock of the Cascades is obsidian.  It is very rich in silica (SiO2), which is also what quartz is made of.  In liquid lava, dissolved silica acts to make it stickier, more viscous.  Water does the opposite, makes lava less viscous – more fluid.  Obsidian is so rich in silica and erupts so dry that it literally squeezes out of the ground like thick toothpaste, heaping up into mounds and ridges.  Once cooled, obsidian is a beautiful natural glass, normally black, that can be sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments.  Obsidian arrowheads left along old American Indian trails and hunting grounds can still be found throughout the Northwest.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades.  That is Mount Adams in Washington.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades. That is Mount Adams in Washington.

THE RING OF FIRE AND PLATE TECTONICS

The Pacific Ring of Fire is that huge circle of volcanoes and earthquake activity that circles the Pacific ocean basin.  Some of the world’s most spectacular eruptions and devastating earthquakes happen along the Ring of Fire.  Truly an enormous geologic feature, it exists because the earth’s tectonic plates rub against and collide with each other (see addendum below if you don’t know about plate tectonics already).  Although they act slowly, the forces are gargantuan.  And something has to occasionally give.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

One example of the power and beauty of the Ring of Fire lies in the remote Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.  Here the huge Pacific Plate dives under the North American continental plate (plus a smaller one called the Okhotsk Plate) along a so-called subduction zone.  The plate partially melts as it descends, because of the heat of course – but also because of it is loaded with water (which acts as a flux).  Plumes of magma rising from the descending and melting plate eventually erupt into some of the world’s most active (and thankfully remote) volcanoes.  In the Southern Hemisphere on the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, the oceanic Nazca Plate subducts under the South American plate to form the longest volcanic range in the world, the Andes.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

All throughout the Ring of Fire there are earthquakes.  Some of the largest happen as a result of subduction and are called megathrust quakes (how’s that for a name!).  The earthquake that caused the destructive Japanese tsunami of 2011 was of the  megathrust variety.  This enormous earthquake happened where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath Japan’s Honshu Island.  The Pacific Plate moved as much as 20 meters (66 feet) west during the minutes-long quake.  Honshu drew closer to America by about 2.5 meters (8 feet).  The equally destructive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was also generated by a megathrust quake along a subduction zone.

Other earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates slide past each other.  The San Andreas in California is the most famous example of this so-called transform boundary.  Because these earthquakes happen on land and have fairly shallow epicenters, they can be very destructive.  This is despite the quakes being generally smaller than subduction-zone, megathrust earthquakes.

Climbing in the Cascades.  Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

Climbing in the Cascades. Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

ADDENDUM: PLATE TECTONICS

The crust of the earth (plus some extra beneath it) is broken into enormous semi-rigid plates.  Over time, the plates move across the planet’s surface, on average about as fast as your fingernails grow.  That’s an average; during big quakes they can move up to a hundred feet!  But overall it’s a very slow process.  It can take over a million years for a plate to move 50 miles.  They ride atop enormous convection currents in the semi-molten part of the upper mantle.  The mantle is that layer that lies directly beneath the earth’s crust.  The weight of tectonic plates as they descend into the mantle along subduction zones (like the one that lies just off the Pacific Northwest coast) helps to pull the oceanic plates along.

Why do we have tectonics while the other planets don’t seem to?  For one thing the energy that drives the convection currents comes from heat given off by the still cooling interior of the earth.   Mars is too small to have much heat left.  For Earth, much of the core is still molten, and our fast spin sets up complex circulation patterns (which cause our magnetic field).  Combined with heat from the decay of radioactive elements, this gives rise to huge, slowly rising zones of heat.  When they hit the colder, more rigid upper parts of the earth, the crust, the currents spread outward horizontally.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

But there’s another reason for plate tectonics.  It is because we are a water planet that all this partly molten rock is around.  Venus is much too dry for plate tectonics to get going.  Without water the pressures deep below would not allow enough melting.  Water essentially lubricates the earth’s tectonic system.  And without plate tectonics complex life would most likely not be possible, yet another way water is crucial to a living earth.

This series will continue.  If you are interested in any of the images, just click on them.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Travel Theme: Flow   6 comments

A small creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge flows in a rolling way through a mossy forest.

I don’t usually go for the theme post, at least those invented by other bloggers.  I figure it’s sorta cheating, letting other people decide what you will blog about because you don’t have any ideas of your own.  Or something like that.

Since I want to avoid being dogmatic about it, occasionally I’ll go along with the crowd, join the party, however you want to phrase it.  But only when the theme intrigues me.  This time it is the concept of flow, Ailsa’s idea on her great blog Where’s My Backpack.  I love flowing water of course, but that’s an easy approach.  Hmm…

If you’re interested in any of these images, just click on them.  You will be taken to the high-res. version where you can view price options by clicking “Purchase Options”.  The images are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission, sorry.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for looking!

Spring melting at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah brings a heavy sediment-laden slurry down from the red rocks.

Spring melting at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah brings a heavy sediment-laden slurry flowing down through the snow from the red rocks above.

 

The upper reaches of East Fork Hood River in Oregon tumbles down Mount Hood's slopes.

The East Fork Hood River in Oregon tumbles down through its canyon near Mount Hood Oregon as a spring flows out of its banks to feed it.

 

Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, California forms textured shadows as the wind blows hard and the sand flows over the surface.

Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, California forms textured shadows as the wind blows hard and the sand flows over the surface.

 

This flowing rock in southern Utah's Coyote Buttes area was originally formed into enormous dunes, now solidified into rock.

This flowing rock in southern Utah’s Coyote Buttes area was originally formed into enormous dunes, now solidified into rock.

 

 

A close-up view of sandstone strata in the slickrock country of southern Utah, very near the location called "the wave".

A close-up view of sandstone strata in southern Utah, very near the location called “the wave”.  The sandstone appears to flow on different scales, though it is solid rock.  Originally of course, it was formed by flowing currents.

A small stream deep in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge flows through a green-lined channel.

A small stream deep in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge flows through a green-lined channel.

 

One of the easiest ways to get into a "flow", that feeling of timeless, effortless doing, is cross-country skiing.

One of the easiest ways to get into a “flow”, that feeling of timeless, effortless doing, is cross-country skiing.

 

The clouds rapidly flow out of the basin containing Mowich Lake as night comes on and temperatures drop, revealing Mount Rainier standing above.

The clouds rapidly flow out of the basin containing Mowich Lake as night comes on and temperatures drop, revealing Mount Rainier standing above.

 

The Sandy River flows and eddies, throwing golden reflections from the setting sun back up at Steelhead fishermen.

The Sandy River in NW Oregon flows and eddies, throwing golden reflections from the setting sun back up at Steelhead fishermen.

 

The upper Columbia River in Washington flows smoothly but powerfully during spring's high flows.  On the opposite bank lie giant current ripples, formed during an ice age flood bigger than any we know about in earth history.

The upper Columbia River in Washington flows smoothly but powerfully during spring’s high flows. On the opposite bank lie giant current ripples, formed during an ice age flood bigger than any we know about in earth history.

 

 

Standing atop the columns of a basalt flow, cooled and hardened millions of years ago, in Washington's Channeled Scablands.

Standing atop the columns of a basalt flow, cooled and hardened millions of years ago, in Washington’s Channeled Scablands.

 

Golden light from a setting sun is reflected from the churning, flowing surf at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast.

Golden light from a setting sun is reflected from the churning, flowing surf at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Single Image Sunday: Portland Cityscape   2 comments

This Sunday I’ll give a nod to my city, which is a nice one.  Most pictures of Portland that you see will have been taken from the east bank of the Willamette River.  This is a more unusual take, from the north on the upper deck of the Fremont Bridge.  I stopped very briefly on the left shoulder.  Luckily the light was beautiful and the traffic was light (it was late afternoon on Sunday).  The green field you see in the foreground was recently created from ugly industrial land.  I could have brightened the shadows a bit; the contrast is pretty high in this scene.  But I think I like it with the shadows and contrast, to further separate the buildings, which look fairly crowded from this perspective.

The view of the northwest side of Portland, Oregon's skyline is not one you see often.

This view of the north side of Portland’s skyline is not one you see often.

Hope your weekend is going well.  If you happen to have an interest in this image (which is copyrighted and not available for download without my permission), just click on it.  Then click “Purchase Options” to go to pricing options on the high-res. version.  It won’t be added to your cart until you choose one of the options.  If you want it framed, or have any other special request, please contact me.  Thanks for looking.

Friday Foto Talk: Does the Camera Matter?   5 comments

This shot of the Columbia River in Washington under morning light was made with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 24-105 f/4L IS lens.

This shot of the Columbia River in Washington under morning light was made with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 24-105 f/4L IS lens.

I normally try to stay away from talk of gear.  This is the only day of the week in which I ever blog strictly about photography matters, but even here I stay away from gear reviews and the like.  Last Friday I looked at how water and your camera get along (or not!).  I suppose I dipped my toe into the gear waters when I did that.  So today I’m going to go in a little deeper.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to sell out.  I’ll keep it gear-neutral, and you won’t see any cheerleading.

I’ve been a Canon user since I switched to digital.  Nothing against Nikon, Sony, etc. of course.  I simply looked at the lens lineup, cost of a good camera to begin with, and went for it.  It happened that Canon’s 5D Mark II was the best value at the time I was purchasing, and Canon’s lens choice seemed a tad better than Nikon’s.  I shot Nikon film cameras, and could easily switch if a compelling reason came up.

Phantom Ship is a rock island sticking up in one corner of Oregon's Crater Lake.

Phantom Ship is a rock island sticking up in one corner of Oregon’s Crater Lake.

After I purchased the 5D Mark II I did not want to spend a lot more right away.  So I bought a Sigma lens with it, then a couple cheaper Canon lenses.  I wasn’t happy with the quality, in general.  So it wasn’t long before I took the plunge and bought a few Canon L lenses.  I also bought a Canon 50D as a backup, then a zoom lens that is specific to that camera type (crop-frame).

Through all this, I learned one important lesson: Next to the photographer and subject/light, the lens (not the camera) makes the most difference to the quality of image you get.  The camera does matter, don’t get me wrong.  I used a super-zoom point and shoot camera for some years when I was not seriously into photography.  Although the colors were okay, the images tended to be plagued by digital noise.  Noise tends to reduce clarity and make colors look unnatural.  Essentially, noise can ruin an image.  In general, the more expensive the camera, and the larger its sensor, the better it handles noise.

A viewing platform hanging over the lip of Multnomah Falls in Oregon is not for those afraid of heights.

A viewing platform hanging over the lip of Multnomah Falls in Oregon is not for those afraid of heights.

There are plenty of other reasons to get a nicer camera.  Ergonomics is important.  The way the camera feels in your hands and how easy it is to reach and naturally operate the controls is a factor, but depending on how outside the norm the size of your hands are, it’s my experience that you get used to whatever you use.  More important for me is a viewfinder that you can put your eye up to.  I have a point and shoot and use it when I’m in situations where the only camera I want to have needs to fit into my pocket.  This little camera (a Canon S95) handles noise amazingly well for its small sensor size, but I will never like using a screen to take a picture.  I just can’t compose as well.

A great pyrenees (Pyrenean mountain dog) appears to be having trouble staying awake.

A great pyrenees (Pyrenean mountain dog) appears to be having trouble staying awake.

One reason I don’t think is a good one to consider when shopping for a camera is the brand’s “cachet” or name recognition.  Nobody wants to admit they pay attention to this kind of stuff, but deep down we all know we do.  When I’m around other photographers, I’ve noticed other Canon shooters are more likely to strike up a conversation with me than are folks with other brands.  Silly huh?  I know one thing for sure.  If I had the money to go out and buy a Canon 1Dx, or a Nikon D4 (the two full-pro models), I might feel pretty cool around most other photographers.  But there will come that moment when somebody with a Hasselblad H5D (40K) or a similarly priced Leica S with fancy lens will show up.  Then what do you do?  It’s keeping up with the Joneses, a game you can’t win.

A red-winged blackbird sings in an eastern Oregon marsh.

A red-winged blackbird sings in an eastern Oregon marsh.

So back to the question: does the camera matter?  The short answer is yes but not as much as most think.  Glass (lenses) is always more important to the quality of your images, as is your overall skill and comfort with the camera.  The best camera is the one you have with you when you are presented with perfect light and subject.  This is an old truism that will always hold.

All of that said, today I have on the way a brand new Canon 5D Mark III.  I pulled the trigger yesterday and took advantage of a free one-day shipping offer.  It will replace my beloved 5D Mark II, which took a bad fall and bath last week.  That camera is at Canon’s repair, and will be fixed, but not cheaply!  Now I have 3 DSLRs and need to sell one.  My previous backup, the 50D, might be the one to go.  But that camera has given me nothing but sterling service for 3 years and is still going strong.  I might instead sell the 5D Mark II.  I’m not really sure.

Fairy Falls in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge appears to glow in sunlight diffused by the deep forest.

Fairy Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge appears to glow in sunlight diffused by the deep forest.  This was captured with my Canon 5D Mark II and Tokina 16-28 mm. f/2.8 wide-angle zoom.

The Mark II is a full-frame camera with video while the 50D is a crop-frame without video.  The Mark II is a 21 MP camera while the 50D is a 15 MP camera.  But you have more reach with a crop-frame (it basically gives you extra zoom capability), nice to have when your main camera (in my case a 5D Mark III) is a full-frame.  I think most people would sell the crop-frame and keep the Mark II as a backup.  But for me it isn’t so simple and I haven’t made up my mind yet.  So feel free to give me your opinion if you have one.  Let me know if you are in the market and are interested in either camera.  Maybe you can help me make up my mind.

Have fun shooting!  I’ll post pictures from my new camera soon.

This image of a fisherman beneath Crown Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge was captured with my Canon 50D plus Canon EF-S 17-55 mm. f/2.8 IS lens.  Not bad for a backup!

This image of a fisherman beneath Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge was captured with my Canon 50D + Canon EF-S 17-55 mm. f/2.8 IS lens. Not bad for a backup!

Life in the Universe V: The Influence of Carl Sagan   5 comments

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

I have neglected this series for far too long, I’m sorry to say.  Check out the previous posts for some background and for some of my best starscape images.  Part I discusses how science has tackled the biggest questions we ask about the Universe and how life fits into the picture.  Part II continues by touching on the idea of the universe having a consciousness, or even some sort of creator; it also discusses how quantum theory fits into things.  Part III goes into what we know thus far about life’s origins.  And Part IV highlights the incredible progress we’ve made in the exploration of our solar system, with the not always explicit goal of finding life on other planets.

The progress of this series has been generally outward, from our beloved Earth (which remains the only place we know that hosts life) and out to the solar system.  My goal (at least metaphorically) is to go out to the stars, our galaxy, then finally the larger Universe.  Then I’d like to come back to the original two-part question discussed in Part I: how did we come to be and why?  In this post however, I’m going to take a short detour and speak about a scientist who greatly influenced how we have tackled these questions.  He is Carl Sagan, an astronomer from the United States.  Now passed away, he was widely known as a popularizer of astronomy.  He influenced NASA policy along with millions of people who watched his Cosmos TV series.  He had a significant effect on me.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

SAGAN 101

Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPGWhile he was charismatic and very good at getting all sorts of people enthusiastic about space science, he was also a very good scientist.  Among the general public in the U.S., he was mostly known for going on the Johnny Carson Show and expounding on astronomy.  Of course everyone knew that Johnny would eventually get him to say the word “billions”.  In Sagan’s landmark TV series Cosmos and in lectures, he often referred to billions (of stars, years, miles) with a definite, purposeful emphasis on the b.  With his great voice, the b literally boomed.  Comedians of the day had a great time imitating it.

Sagan started out as a planetary scientist, studying under the great Gerard Kuiper at University of Chicago and going on to make important contributions.  For example, he put together observations from the early Venus probes to demonstrate that the reason our sister planet is an incredibly hot, dry place is that it suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect.  He was first to suggest that Jupiter’s moon Europa has an enormous subsurface ocean and that Saturn’s moon Titan is bathed in an organic-rich atmosphere and had liquid organics on its surface.  He was a key figure in several important NASA missions, including the Viking robotic mission to Mars.  He led a small team that designed humanity’s first (and 2nd & 3rd as well) message to the stars.

Carl Sagan and Frank Drake came up with the idea to send messages to the stars on the Pioneer space probes.  Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in the early 1970s to pass close to Jupiter and Saturn and then head out of the solar system into outer space.  These space-ready plaques, these cosmic messages in a bottle, had very simple messages inscribed on them.  There was a map showing where our solar system was located, along with figures of male and female human beings waving a greeting.  Five years later, the Voyager probes (which are now passing into interstellar space) carried a much more involved package.  It included a gold-plated record of pictures plus sounds from Earth (music, frogs croaking, volcanic action, human greetings in many languages, etc.).  This time capsule was designed by a team led by Sagan.

Also, in 1974, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent for the first time in human history a deliberate radio message out to the stars.  Aimed at the enormous globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, it was a coded radio transmission sent from the huge Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico.  It was not approved or sponsored by NASA, and drew great criticism.  Some prominent astronomers complained that it was arrogant and stupid for Sagan to advertise our presence to potentially hostile aliens.  Sagan countered that we have been broadcasting into space for generations, though the messages which continue to be broadcast (radio programs, TV sitcoms, etc.) may not be putting humanity’s best foot forward.

Wandering around Monument Valley during a full moon is a special experience.

Wandering around Monument Valley during a full moon is a special experience.

SAGAN & ET

Carl Sagan believed deeply in both the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence and in the many benefits that contact with them would provide humanity.  Do not misunderstand, however.  He was not a believer in ancient aliens or even that UFOs were evidence that we are being visited in recent times.  He simply believed that life had not only gotten started in many many places throughout the galaxy, but that it had progressed far beyond our level in a significant number of star systems.  He believed that if we made contact with any aliens, it would be near certain that their technology and culture would be far more sophisticated than ours.

This makes perfect sense if you believe that the Drake Equation (which estimates the chances of extraterrestrial intelligence) strongly suggests there are very many instances of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.  Sagan combined that conclusion with the Fermi Paradox.  In 1950, Enrico Fermi famously asked of his colleagues (including Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb) “where are they?”  If there are so many potentially life-friendly star systems and literally billions of years to play with, why haven’t we seen any evidence of aliens, present or past?  Sagan took these two factors, plus the fact that we are in the infancy of space exploration ourselves, and concluded that any civilizations which do exist have somehow avoided having destroyed themselves, and are thus greatly advanced both technologically and culturally.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

He had faith that we would eventually make contact with an advanced intelligence.  He also believed that their success in handling increasingly sophisticated, potentially destructive technology meant that they would be peaceful and non-aggressive.  Further, he thought they could teach us how to avoid destroying ourselves through technology, wars or ecological collapse, and that this would be the greatest discovery in the history of humanity.  This is why in the latter part of his career he focused intensively on making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, and on convincing the general public that this was a worthwhile endeavor.

Some criticized this belief as not only quasi-religious, but as out-of-date and quasi-colonial.  They thought Sagan’s beliefs smacked of the justification for imperial powers of the west conquering primitive peoples in order to provide them with the benefits of the modern world (all the while stealing their resources and infecting them with disease).  In this cosmic case, those backward beings would be us Earthlings, and the “benevolent” conquerors would be extraterrestrials.  Many people who think about this stuff believe that contact with aliens would bring a similar fate:  exotic disease, theft of the Earth’s resources, and similar bad outcomes.  I think this criticism of Sagan is unfair.

A full moon illuminates Ship Rock in New Mexico.

A full moon illuminates Ship Rock in New Mexico.

SAGAN & SETI

The movie Contact is based on Sagan’s book of the same name, where SETI’s Jill Tarter (played by Jodi Foster) makes first contact with aliens.  SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the effort that Frank Drake, Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison started is now a very mature organization.  Basically an effort to detect alien transmissions, SETI was kept alive during the 1960s by the Russians.  Carl Sagan, during the Cold War, collaborated with the Russians on SETI.  Now an American organization run by Seth Shostak, with both Frank Drake and Jill Tarter still involved, SETI is carried out by an international cast of scientists.  They conduct highly sophisticated monitoring of our galactic neighborhood.  Still looking primarily for alien radio transmissions, SETI incorporates sophisticated computer-assisted arrays of telescopes and also looks for optical signals (such as messages carried on laser beams).

SAGAN & MARS

Carl Sagan has been criticized for his almost religious zeal and optimism surrounding the existence of life on other planets.  He was very adamant that cameras on the Viking Lander be capable of sweeping the area in case any intelligent creatures show up to check out the intruder.  He endorsed a theory by the Russian Iosof Shklovsky which proposed that Phobos and Deimos (the two small moons of Mars) were artificial satellites created by Martians to escape a deteriorating climate on the planet’s surface.  Regarding the controversial “face” on Mars, Sagan parted ways with mainstream astronomers when he supported further study of it.  But he believed it was probably natural, a fact that was confirmed during subsequent flybys.

Sagan has been likened to that controversial icon of early 20th century Mars exploration, Percival Lowell.  Lowell was the dogmatic scientist who was convinced up to his death that Mars was laced with canals.  Sagan criticized Lowell for his refusal to accept evidence against the canal theory, but it is said secretly admired him for his belief in intelligent Martians.  Lowell was a tireless promoter of the theory for an advanced Martian society and, at least in part, so was Carl Sagan.  I think it’s a stretch, however, to label Sagan as Percival Lowell’s successor.

The full moon as viewed through a translucent veil formed by geothermal steam at Firehole Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The full moon as viewed through a translucent veil formed by geothermal steam at Firehole Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

SAGAN THE SCIENTIST & AUTHOR

While it’s true that Carl Sagan had a strong belief in alien intelligence, possibly nearby, I regard him as a very good scientist, a straight thinker who could never ignore evidence that contradicted his beliefs.  He famously said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  Although he though the study of UFOs was a legitimate effort, he debunked the famous alien abduction of d considered the chances of alien visitation to be extremely small.  For years he taught a course at Cornell on critical thinking.  But there’s no getting around the fact that Sagan’s interest in astronomy was stoked at an early age by the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Sagan was a well-trained astronomer who had a huge diversity of scientific interest and knowledge.  I have read quite a few of his books, and they are diverse.  Cosmos, The Pale Blue Dot, Cosmic Connection, Comet and Intelligent Life in the Universe are all great astronomy reads.  But he also wrote The Dragons of Eden, which explores the evolution of human intelligence.  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, about human evolution, is a fascinating book.  He worked for some years with famous biologists and geneticists, including Harold Urey and H.J. Muller.  He also worked with famous physicist George Gamow.  In a book called Demon-Haunted World, he defends science as a way to counter the chaos and misery of totalitarianism and war, along with ignorance.

The starry sky on a clear evening is reflected in the aptly-named Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

The starry sky on a clear evening is reflected in the aptly-named Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

SAGAN & FAITH

Sagan claimed that he was agnostic.  Based on some of his statements (“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing white beard is ludicrous.”) many considered him an atheist.  But others thought he brought a religious bias into his science.  He believed that “Not only is Science compatible with pirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality.”   I believe he was somebody who welcomed that soaring elation that comes with scientific discovery, and that he regarded this as a deep spiritual experience with the nature of the universe, a sort of God.  I don’t think he was an atheist.  In fact, he once said:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In eastern Washington state stands a replica of Stonehenge, here viewed just before complete darkness descends with the stars coming out.

In eastern Washington state stands a replica of Stonehenge, here viewed just before complete darkness descends with the stars coming out.

Sagan was in some ways a child of the 1960s.  He was strictly anti-war, a staunch environmentalist, a believer in a woman’s right to equality and access to birth control (including abortion).   He smoked marijuana, and did little to hide the fact.  He married three very talented, intelligent and strong women throughout his life.  I believe Sagan’s most important legacy is what he did to make astronomy (and science in general) understandable and exciting to the public.  Sagan really believed science was a spiritual quest, but not in the strictly religious sense in which the word spirituality is often used.  Many people think his belief in extraterrestrial intelligence had strong religious elements.  But I think that he simply wasn’t conflicted about his science, and that he really was agnostic.  I believe that many of his critics mistook his spiritual-like enthusiasm (especially evident when he talked to the public about science) for some sort of religiosity.

Carl Sagan died in 1996 from pneumonia (of all things).  It was related to a disease he had called MDS, a condition that destroys a person’s bone marrow.   He was only 62, with plenty more to contribute to science and society.  Among many scientists and science enthusiasts, and nearly all science educators, he is sorely missed.  The movie Contact, an adaptation of his novel, came out in 1998.  If we do make contact with intelligent aliens within what would have been his natural lifetime (to the late 2020s, say), it will be a true shame he did not live to see it.

An old abandoned schoolhouse out on the Oregon prairie is illuminated by a crescent moon.  The Milky Way glows pink in the coming dawn.

An old abandoned schoolhouse out on the Oregon prairie is illuminated by a crescent moon. The Milky Way glows pink in the coming dawn.

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