Archive for the ‘night photography’ Tag

Single-image Sunday: Night Again   6 comments

The Milky Way rises over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

The Milky Way rises over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

If you’ve been following this blog for quite awhile you know I used to post some night-time starscapes.  Not as many as some photogs., but some.  Over the past couple years I can count on one hand the night shots I’ve done.  Shooting  the Milky Way in particular has not interested me in the slightest.

I still love watching the stars, and very much miss my telescope (which I had to sell).  But to stay up into the wee hours shooting requires real motivation and interest, and it just has not been there for me in recent times.  I mostly blame it on the fact that too many other people shoot the stars.  The Milky Way especially has been done to death, appearing over every conceivable foreground subject.  It’s called astrophotography now, which is in my opinion a misnomer.

Real astrophotography; that is, deep field images of cosmological objects like nebulae, clusters and the like, is a completely different sort of photography than the wide-angle shots you see so much of these days, the ones that include the landscape below.  I dabbled in real astrophotography some years back.  But after quickly realizing that getting quality images requires very expensive equipment, I decided to stick with simple observation through my telescope.

I’m not criticizing wide-field night photography at all.  I usually call the resulting images starscapes (or nightscapes).  They’re perfectly valid and often very beautiful when done right.  It’s just not astrophotography.  While the subjects for the two overlap, astrophotography is a separate genre that uses radically different focal lengths along with different equipment and techniques.

This image represents the first time in a long while that I’ve put forth the effort to capture a starscape.   For the methods I used, see the addendum below.  The skies of Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada are very dark and clear.  It was my first time to this park, and the warm temperatures combined with clear weather made it an opportunity too good to pass up.

I hiked up into the high alpine area of the park, to an amazing grove of ancient bristlecone pines which sit at the base of 13,159-foot Wheeler Peak.  These are the oldest living trees on Earth.   They can grow to more than 5000 years of age!  My idea was to capture one or several bristlecone pines as foreground, but I ended up liking the simpler compositions of mountain and stars better.  I rolled out a sleeping bag and slept out there in the bristlecones for a couple nights in a row.  I hadn’t slept under the stars for a long time, so that part was at least as much fun as the photography.

ADDENDUM

To make the image above I used my tracking mount to follow the stars.  This is a compact unit that mounts onto the tripod and allows your camera to follow the apparent motion of the stars, lengthening exposure time while keeping things sharp.  First off I exposed for the sky: three shots in a vertical panorama, shutter time a bit over a minute each (set on bulb).

I needed to do the panorama because I was using my 50 mm. Zeiss lens.  It’s sharp and allows an aperture as wide as f/1.4, but it really isn’t wide enough for the Milky Way.  I then turned tracking off and took a separate exposure of the partly moonlit landscape for about the same time.

In Photoshop I combined the two in a composite image that represents pretty much what I observed.  Some starscape composites represent combined dusk (or even daytime) foreground subjects plus a night sky captured hours later.  I’ve done those too but I prefer my images to represent a single moment in time.  In order to give the image a little more “punch”, after the sky and land were combined I raised raise contrast and clarity.  It’s because the moon, though a crescent, was washing out the sky to a degree.

My goal in photography is almost always to capture the reality of being there.  But pictures are two-dimensional and usually rather small.  That’s why I often edit for more punch or impact (not always, many times I go for a softer feel).  It’s to give some idea of what it is like to sit out there in the silence among the gnarled bristlecones, perched on a big boulder of quartzite peering up at the dome of an enormous night sky, with the sheer glacier-carved wall of Wheeler Peak above me and the Milky Way standing on end behind it.

Have a great week ahead and happy shooting!

Life in the Universe VI: Space, the Desert & Exoplanets   8 comments

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

Space is on my mind here in the deserts of southern Utah.  It isn’t so much that when the sun goes down in the desert the stars shine brightly.  It is the very nature of the desert itself.  The way small clusters of people and houses seem to occur randomly with huge empty spaces between them reminds me of the scarcity of life in an immense void.

And during this time of year at least, the way the temperature drops so quickly at night and rises almost as quick in the morning reminds me of being on an airless planet where the nearby star’s light brings intense heat during the day and biting cold at night.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones.  On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones. On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

This is an ongoing series on my blog, believe it or not.  Like space, there are long journeys involved in going from one post to the next in the series.  The last installment, Part V, began to explore the question of life outside the solar system by highlighting the indomitable Carl Sagan.  Part IV discussed the search for life within our own solar system.  This part will continue to explore the idea of life out in the universe as a whole – a challenging subject I admit I’ve been avoiding.

The question that I posed to begin, the one which underpins the meaning of this series, is explained in Part I.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the big sky.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the broad skies.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Quest for Exoplanets

Humans have found over 1000 planets outside our own solar system to date, with well over 3000 potential candidates.  In typical parochial fashion, we call these extra-solar worlds exoplanets.  The Kepler space telescope is one of the finest tools we have in the quest to find exoplanets.  It explores a constellation-sized area of the Milky Way Galaxy near Cygnus, the Swan (aka the Northern Cross).

Kepler continuously monitors the brightness of more than 145,000 stars.  It looks for a slight dimming in brightness indicative of a planet crossing between earth and the star. Think of trying to detect the dimming of a bright streetlight a mile away when a moth flies in front of it and you have the idea.

To find exoplanets, astronomers have traditionally used the slight wobble of a star that occurs when an orbiting planet tugs on it.  This gives us good information on the sizes of the planets, along with how close they orbit to their host stars.  More recently the Spitzer space telescope has detected, for the first time, actual light coming from an exoplanet.  This is key.  In order to find out anything about the surfaces of these worlds we need to examine the light bouncing off them or skimming through their atmospheres.  Spitzer and some ground-based telescopes can do the former while Kepler is uniquely suited for the latter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Candidates for Life

Most of what we’ve found thus far have been very massive exoplanets the size of Jupiter and larger.  Many of these “hot Jupiters” orbit very close to their stars, closer even than our own Mercury.  As our techniques get more refined and as more time goes by (allowing the wobble method to work on exoplanet candidates orbiting further from their stars), we are finding more and more planets that are close to the size of Earth.

Crucially, we are now finding planets that orbit their stars at a distance which allows liquid water to exist.  This orbital distance, which in our solar system essentially extends from Venus to Mars, is the “habitable zone”, also known as the Goldilocks Zone. Combining these two factors that are relevant to the search for earth-like life (the planet’s size and distance to its parent star), we have found to date 12 earth-like exoplanets.

The size and brightness of the host star makes a big difference in how close a planet can orbit and still be cool enough for liquid water and possible life.  We have found only one earth-sized, rocky planet thus far (Gliese 581-g), and happily this planet orbits about the same distance from its star as earth does from the sun.  But there are two problems.  First, Gliese 581 is a much smaller and cooler star than the sun.  So its habitable zone, where water may exist, is presumably much closer in.  Gliese 581-g still would orbit within it, but depending on the shape of its orbit it may get too hot for liquid water.

There’s a much bigger potential problem, however.  The very existence of Gliese 581-g is disputed by some astronomers.  Its discovery is somewhat clouded and controversial.  Confirmation of Gliese 581-g may take some time.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

An exoplanet called Kepler 22-b is also interesting.  The Kepler space telescope caught it passing in front of its star on just the third day of the spacecraft’s operation.  Though 22-b is some 2.5 times bigger than Earth, its parent star is very similar to the Sun (G type).  Also, 22-b orbits at an average distance very similar to Earth’s, and so its year is similar to ours.  The only problem with Kepler 22-b is that we know so little about it.  For instance, we don’t know how elliptical its orbit is.  If it is highly elongated (as most explanets’ orbits are) it might spend part of its year very very close to the star and part very far away.  Earth’s orbit is nearly circular.

The closest potentially habitable exoplanet to us is Tau Ceti-e, only 12 light years away.  That is still much too far for us to visit in anything close to a human lifetime, so we need to temper our enthusiasm.  Also, Tau Ceti-e is yet another unconfirmed exoplanet.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park as Venus sets.

Are We on the Right Track?

You might be questioning the importance of looking for exoplanets that are earth-like, orbiting sun-like stars at earth-like distances.  You might wonder why we don’t also look for life forms that aren’t anything like ours, life that perhaps does not rely on water or based on carbon.  Also you might notice that we always speak of planets.  We know from the search for life within our own solar system that the moons around planets are in some cases better candidates for life than are the planets themselves.  Finally, life in the cosmos may in some cases be decoupled from planets or moons, living instead in space, perhaps close to large energy sources (such as quasars).

You’re right to question.  Definite biases exist in the search for extraterrestrial life.  To some extent they are unavoidable.  But consider two facts: First, it is easiest to look for earth-like planets and life.  And this is not an easy enterprise to begin with.  Second, our sort of life is all that we know for certain can exist.  Again, it is hard enough to look for our type of life trillions of miles away let alone other types.  These sound like excuses for our bias, but there it is.

And so the hunt continues for exoplanets that are candidates for earth-like life.  Based on the Kepler space telescope’s findings, astronomers estimate that perhaps as many as 20% of the sun-like stars in the our galaxy have habitable planets orbiting them.  This is a stunning estimate because it suggests that there are nearly 9 billion habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.  If even a tiny percentage of these planets have developed intelligent life, then we have plenty of company in our galaxy. 

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Single-image Sunday: Camping on the Playa   7 comments

No trees for miles around, but it was still a very fine place to camp for the night on the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon.  After a drive of about five or six miles across the impossibly flat & smooth playa (dry lake bed), I had my pick of spots.  The only other campers within miles were the wind riders, who were back on the other side of the playa.

Of course, how do you pick a spot when everything looks the same?  Actually, I did choose a spot near some water from recent rain pooling among the desert shrubs at the edge of the playa.  In the morning, I saw birds, who were drawn to the water.  I half-expected a visit from coyotes as well.  I heard them that night, but they never showed up.  The stars were intense that night.  In keeping with the theme of last Friday’s Foto Talk, this is a wide angle shot (19 mm.) that I hope shows the insignificance of my presence there.

Hope you all are enjoying your weekends.  Happy shooting!

 

Camped under the stars on the large playa that makes up most of Oregon's Alvord Desert.

Camped under the stars on the large playa that makes up most of Oregon’s Alvord Desert.

Peter French’s Round Barn   17 comments

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This is a somewhat famous barn in southeastern Oregon, in an area we like to call the state’s “outback”.  It dates from the late 1800s, when Peter French, a cattleman from California, drove a herd from California into the open spaces of the Oregon Territory.  His ranch eventually covered some 800 square miles!  He became one of Oregon’s so-called cattle kings.

He built a round barn so that his buckaroos (what cowboys are called in this country) could train horses while sheltered from the harsh high desert winters.  The barn has been partly restored, but most of it is original.  The beams are quite stout and the barn extremely well built, which is probably why it has stood up to the fierce winds and snow that hits this region every winter.

It was long ago that I first visited this barn, and it was in much poorer shape then (though the structure was very sound).  In recent years, money for its restoration has been made available, and a small visitor center/book store was built nearby.  I photographed it at night and then again the next morning, with the light pouring in.

On that quiet morning, with only the sound of the wind, I thought about the life here in the 19th century.  The life of Peter French, his leadership, his drive to make it in this lonely outpost.  The lives of the buckaroos, working hard every day, making just enough to get by, and occasionally being able to spend some of it in saloons.  Were there ghosts roaming the hills still?

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and also that your week is going well.  Happy shooting!

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French's round barn.

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French’s round barn.  You can see all the boards that have been replaced with recent restoration efforts.

The clouds move in but don't block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

The clouds move in but don’t block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece   27 comments

Instead of Single-Image Sunday this week I’ve decided to be a joiner for once.  I’m not generally a joiner, but I like the theme Masterpiece.  Also, I felt the need to view other people’s photography.  It’s like eating meat.  I don’t do it a lot, but occasionally I feel the need.  So I’m participating this week on the Postaday’s Weekly Photo Challenge.  Hope you enjoy the image.  Just click on it if you’re interested in purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  If you have any questions, just contact me.  Thanks for looking!

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

This image, which I think I posted as part of a Grand Canyon theme some months ago, is one of my favorites.  It speaks to me of the unity between the earth and the cosmos.  I think of everything we can see in day and night, the earth and space, the whole shebang, as one enormous masterpiece.  This is the winter night sky, so it’s not like so many shots you see (including mine), where the Milky Way arcs across the sky.  Instead we’re looking outward toward inter-galactic space.  For me it makes the image even better.  You can also notice some left-over smoke from fires, drifting in low layers over the Canyon.

I almost didn’t capture it.  My foot was injured and I didn’t want to make the 1/2 mile hike in the darkness down to this viewpoint.  But the moon rose, nearly full, so I went ahead and limped down there.  When I arrived I didn’t see this composition.  I hopped the fence and carefully worked my way to the edge. Looking down into the black void was freaking me out, so I concentrated on the stars and the distant canyon.  I used a very wide angle, 15 mm.

The image is a combination of two images taken one after the other.  The first one was for the land, with a static camera, and the second was for the stars, tracking their apparent movement across the sky so they wouldn’t blur.  I have a tracking mount for my tripod.  I combined the two images in Photoshop to come up with an image very similar to what I saw that night.  This isn’t easy, matching your memory of the view with your final image.  It’s especially difficult with long-exposure night shots.  Hope you enjoy it.

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.

Life in the Universe IV   2 comments

Wherever life is, you will most likely find water or some other liquid.

Wherever life is, you will most likely find water or some other liquid.

This is a continuation of a series of posts.  Each is designed to be understandable without reading the others; they do build off each other, however, so check them out starting with Part I.  In the last post on this topic, I hope I got across how little we know of life’s beginnings.  This planet we live on hosts the only life we know of thus far…in the whole universe!  Does that mean we are most likely alone?  Not really.  This and the next post will look at the possibilities for life elsewhere.

Water is a good thing, but energy is also necessary for life; here in the form of geothermal heat in Yellowstone National Park.

Water is a good thing for life, but energy is also necessary; here in the form of geothermal heat in Yellowstone National Park.

It must be said that our ignorance of what the universe offers in terms of life beyond our solar system is profound.  Actually, I should not be so negative, because over the past decade or so we have found out much more about our universe’s capability to host life than we knew before.  This new knowledge has come in the form of the discovery of planets orbiting other star systems, along with the discovery of microscopic life in places we never thought could host life.

There is something I should mention before going further.  Scientists who study this sort of thing, called astrobiologists, do not expect to find any living thing out there that is visible without the aid of a microscope.  That’s because the conditions that are favorable for microscopic life (bacteria, etc.) are much broader in scope than those favorable for multi-cellular (big) life.  In addition, more complex life requires a much longer period of time before it can take hold, as opposed to the shorter time required for simple one-celled life to evolve.  But one thing is for certain: once we find microscopic life anywhere outside Earth, the stage is set for discovering much more complex forms.

Symmetry in nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

Symmetry in nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

Where We’ve Been

Humans have been probing the planets we share this sun with for a number of years now.  The first exploration outside of Earth orbit happened in 1962, when Mariner 2 flew close to the thick, acid-laced cloud-tops of Venus.  Then came the Apollo era, when the United States sent astronauts to the Moon and Russia managed to land a few craft on hostile Venus.  We also probed Mercury with a later Mariner mission.

The twin Voyager probes, launched in the late 1970s, were our first foray to the outer planets.  Voyager 1 showed us incredibly detailed close-up views of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and Neptune as well (still the only time we’ve visited those distant planets).  I recall seeing those first images of Jupiter’s clouds and Saturn’s rings in detail.  I was in High School, and the details were was truly blown away.  And I wasn’t the only one.

I normally only use my own images in this blog, but this painting is so realistic I couldn't resist.  Click image to go to source page.

I normally only use my own images in this blog, but this painting is so realistic I couldn’t resist. Click image to go to source page.

The Voyager probes are now the furthest from home that anything made by humans has ever traveled, and they win this honor by a mile!  Both are well over 100 times as far from the Earth as we are from the Sun.  They are also traveling by far faster than anything humans have ever built.  Soon Voyager 1 will arrive at the Heliopause, which is the spherical boundary around our Sun where the solar wind ceases to be the major influence, and instead galactic forces take hold.  In other words, our little travelers are about to leave our star’s neighborhood and forge a path out to the great beyond, the Milky Way Galaxy.

The U.S. has been the de facto explorer of the Moon and Mars, along with the outer planets, while the Russians picked the most hostile rocky planet on which to land a probe – Venus.  The European Space Agency has also been active more recently, designing the probe that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan.  While Mars garners the most attention, with its rovers and orbiting observatory, two U.S. probes are busy elsewhere.  Messenger is finishing up its mission at Mercury and Cassini continues to orbit Saturn and its zoo of moons.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Life on Mars?

In the 1970s we landed for the first time on Mars.  The lander was called Viking.  Along with incredible photography, the non-mobile lander dug up a small sample of soil and analyzed it for life.  Although it looked initially like the results might turn out positive, the soil was found to be completely hostile to life.  Since then, a series of Martian orbiters and rovers have found abundant evidence of water on Mars.  The only problem?  This water appears to have last flowed billions of years ago.  (Intriguingly, there is some evidence of periodic eruptions of liquid water from below ground, even recently.)  We have yet to find fossil evidence of past life on Mars, and the planet’s current condition appears to be as hostile to life as we ever thought.

An eclipse of the sun is one of the more humbling natural spectacles.

An eclipse of the sun is one of the more humbling natural spectacles.

Life Beyond Mars: It’s the Moons

Since both Venus and Mercury are much too hot to hold liquid water, even in the distant past, the next good place (beyond Mars) to look for life are the many moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has been known for years to have a liquid ocean beneath a thick ice cap.  The moon is heated by enormous tidal forces created by the nearby gas giant, so this probably means that hot vents discharge into the sea.  On Earth, undersea hot springs host entire ecoysystems, so it stands to reason that Europa could  hide similarly-powered concentrations of life clustered around hot vents beneath its ice cap.  Also, Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that also has a subsurface ocean, represents an excellent habitat for life.

Mount Rainier and the night sky above Eunice Lake.

Mount Rainier and the night sky above Eunice Lake.

Although other moons around Jupiter and Saturn are thought to contain liquid or partly liquid interiors, arguably the most intriguing place to search for life is Titan.  Titan, orbiting Saturn, is the Solar System’s second largest moon.  It’s larger than Mercury and not much smaller than Mars.  There is a lot of methane on Titan, much of it liquid because of the frigid temperatures.  In fact, methane on Titan might serve the same role as water does on Earth.  We have observed features like river valleys and lakes on Titan, but instead of being filled with water they are filled with liquid methane.

The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and selected moons in the solar system.

The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and selected moons in the solar system.  Click on image to go to website where the author of this image, Abel Mendez, is sourced.

Why is this interesting for life?  Because prior to the emergence of oxygen, Earth was a planet rich in methane as well.  Early life on Earth relied on methane not oxygen, and in fact, these organisms are still around.  There is an enormous community of micro-organisms (methanogens) living just beneath the sea floor today.  In fact the methane they produce has been stored in ice formations that could, because of global warming, erupt and release into the atmosphere, greatly accelerating global warming.  Many scientists think Titan could be revealed to operate much as Earth did billions of years ago, with microscopic life very similar to those early Earth days.

The fact is, although we have made great strides in understanding how likely it is to find life within this solar system of ours, we are just now scratching the surface.  Life on Mars has by no means been ruled out, and the moons of the outer solar system are just now being examined.  It will take a very sophisticated effort to look for life in Europa’s subterranean ocean, or across the huge and distant moon Titan, or on Enceladus.  But even the discovery of a community of extremophiles (micro-organisms adapted to extreme environments) on one of these relatively nearby bodies would be a watershed moment.  It would tell us that we are not alone in our neighborhood, and that life has likely gotten started in countless locations across the universe.

Next up: the incredibly diverse zoo of planets orbiting other stars.

Evening falls on the Columbia River, where two explorers passed on their way to discovery.  It's now quiet, and the frontier has moved on.

Evening falls on the Columbia River, where two explorers passed on their way to discovery. It’s now quiet, and the frontier has moved on.

Life and the Universe I   8 comments

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

How is that for a title?  Perhaps a bit too broad for a blog post, ya think?  I know, I’ll spread it out over 2 or 3 posts, that should do it.

Actually I have been thinking about this subject in a different way off and on for a few years now.  It can be boiled down to this: does the universe show a consciousness?

Several cosmologists out there have written books where this idea is implied if not outright stated.  And these are scientists, so please don’t think I’m off my rocker!   Paul Davies is one scientist who has influenced my thinking.  He wrote a book in 2007 called Cosmic Jackpot where he discusses some of the theories behind modern cosmology, including the idea of the Multiverse.  He doesn’t stop, however, with yet another layman’s explanation of relativity or string theory.  He goes further and tackles quasi-religious “why” questions, such as:

  • Why is the universe so dang perfect for the emergence of life, when it could have been so easily hostile to life?
  • Why are we here, and why are we conscious?
  • Does the Universe itself have a consciousness?  If so, why?
The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

Davies isn’t the only cosmologist who is exploring these questions, but most scientists don’t go so far into speculation about the purpose for and meaning of life in this universe. My ideas as summarized in this post aren’t exact copies of Davies’, and they don’t use these cosmological ideas to springboard into fantasy land.  I’m not saying the ideas could not be the basis of a very good, and very bizarre, science fiction novel.  But in a way I am a good little scientist who doesn’t stray too far from what can be tested and established by observation and other lines of evidence.

I think the fact that our universe is so finely tuned to the emergence of life begs to be explained.  I also think that life is too often regarded as a sort of passive feature in the universe.  You have gas clouds, dust, rocks, and other stuff…and oh yeah, you also have life.  I really think it’s possible that it is much more than that.  It is now obvious that life has influenced everything on Earth from climate to the oceans, even minerals (whose incredible diversity on this planet is very likely because of life).

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

Just one example: a little over two billion years ago the atmosphere was infused with oxygen by micro-organisms who bloomed fantastically in the ancient oceans.  Mostly the changes that life has wrought on Earth have served to make the planet much more hospitable to…you guessed it, life!  In the example above, the oxygen in the atmosphere allowed the evolution of energy-hungry complex life.   Oxygen supplies enormous energy within your body’s cells, much more than any other element could.  There are many other examples; ask any good paleontologist and they’ll tell you.  Is all of this mere coincidence?

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won't be repeated for over 100 years.

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won’t be repeated for over 100 years.

Now Earth is the only model we have thus far to explore the tight inter-relationships between non-living matter, energy and life.  But looking out into the galaxy, we are finding more and more planets that are looking more and more like they might also harbor life.  When you consider the numbers involved, life might actually be quite common in the galaxy, and by extension the entire universe.  If we can find some of the same types of connections between life and the history of the cosmos that we have found on Earth, then we might be looking at something very profound indeed.

You might have heard that in astronomy, time starts with the Big Bang.  Nothing existed before this but a singularity, which takes up no space.  So what happened before the Big Bang?  That question is nonsensical, or unanswerable, or blah blah blah.   This is utter nonsense of course.  We might not be able to answer these questions about our origins right now, but they are certainly legitimate (and very important) scientific questions.  Next lecture you go to where the Big Bang is discussed, make sure and raise your hand to ask the question, what came before?  If the speaker is good, while probably not being able to answer definitively, she will never brush this question off with a lame excuse.

Storm clouds gather.

Storm clouds gather.

If we live in just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, of universes, in other words a Multiverse, then it is impossible to ignore the startling consequences.  And it goes beyond the admittedly bizarre fact that there could be another person virtually identical to you in a parallel universe.  If we are part of a Multiverse and begin to understand how it works, we could discover some mind-blowing things.  We might actually find out in the not-too-distant future how we got here, how all of this got going in the first place, and crucially, WHY.  Why are we here?

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it's alive.

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it’s alive.

Never let anybody tell you this isn’t a legitimate scientific question, that it’s outside the purview of science.  But I’ll excuse you for being selective regarding whom you get into a discussion of these matters with.  After all, religion tackles the same sorts of questions, and things can get emotional and personal real quick!  Science and religion mix much like water and oil do, and sometimes they mix more like pure sodium and water!

Next up: let’s dive into some real arm-waving speculation on these questions.  I welcome any and all comments and contributions, no matter how wacky you might think they are.

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.

Smoky Photography at Grand Canyon   5 comments

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

 

This is a follow-up to a two posts on photography under smoky skies, one from Crater Lake and one from the North Cascades.  On my recent trip through the American West, I was as close as I’ve ever been to Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  Having never been there, I just had to make the side-trip up there.  I had heard that they were doing some prescribed burning in this part of the park.  Prescribed fires are very common in the West these days, as land managers try to reduce the amount of fuel in forests in order to discourage large damaging wildfires in future.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several "prescribed burns" that took place in Fall 2012.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several “prescribed burns” that took place in Fall 2012.

Because of the fires, I almost skipped the North Rim (again).  I was hoping to do some star photography, and very clear air is necessary for that.  I’m very happy I swallowed my misgivings and headed up there.  By the way, for some detailed travel-related tips on the North Rim, check my previous post.

Grand Canyon's majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

Grand Canyon’s majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

The image above was one of my first views of the canyon.  When you approach on the longish highway that traverses a flat, forested plateau, your first view of the canyon is always a stunner.  You know it is there, but the majesty and scale is always surprising.  In the late afternoon the skies were quite smoky, but this view towards the west is actually pretty clear.  The fires were to the west of my location here, which meant the light was ruddy red, yet I was not enveloped in smoke (where good photos are extremely difficult to get).

The sunset was pretty darn incredible.  I pointed my camera towards the west, where smoke was thicker.  Because of this, I did not even need to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky.  This is quite remarkable; pretty much any other sunset photo like this would require this filter.  And no need to add saturation during post-processing, though you do need to add some clarity and contrast to cut through the haze.

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon's north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon’s north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.

After sunset, the air cooled appreciably and the smoke steadily decreased.  You can see this in the starry image of the rising full moon below.  There is some haze around the moon, but the sky above is bright with stars.  It looked like I might get the best of both worlds!  As it turned out, photographing towards the west was still impacted negatively by the haze, but only for the stars.  The landscape part, the lower part of the image at bottom, turned out fine.  I processed the sky separately, and then merged the two in Photoshop.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Photographing during smoky conditions allows you to do at least two things: (A) While staying away from the worst of the smoke, try pointing the camera away from the sun, with your subject  bathed in light filtered through the smoke.  (B) As the sun gets very low, and depending on how hazy your foreground and mid-ground is, try photos towards the setting sun with a sky fully or partially shrouded in orange smoke.

I had a fine time up on the North Rim, despite (or maybe because of) the smoky conditions.  Thanks for reading.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

 

Close and Low: Photography without Shame at Yellowstone   3 comments

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts into a beautiful morning.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts into a beautiful morning.

While looking over the 10,000 or so images from this recent trip around the West, I’ve been finding little jewels in the heap of…well, let’s just say there are many photos not worth keeping.  Realizing that I already looked at these photos once, however briefly, I know they don’t necessarily have immediate impact.  Their charms are typically more subtle.  Best of all, many demonstrate important photography habits that I practice more or less naturally, and are worth sharing.

This photo I made while camping in a (very) chilly Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.  This is my favorite geothermal area in the park (with Norris being a close second).  I love photographing here in the evening (see image below), well after the sun has set, and also in the very early morning.  I was there in mid-October, so mornings were downright freezing.  This means plenty of steam, but it also means you will probably see buffalo rousing from their beds in the morning.  These iconic beasts often spend the night in thermal areas when nights turn cold.

Moonlight and steam on a cold night at Hot Lake in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin creates a mystical scene.

Moonlight and steam on a cold night at Hot Lake in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin creates a mystical scene.

The concept that the photo at top demonstrates is this:  there is almost no photo, certainly no landscape or nature composition, that is not worth trying from a very low shooting position.  It is often the case where the lower the camera is, the better.  So you need to get down on your belly or have a tripod which allows you to set the camera very close to the ground.

Bison begin the day's grazing after spending a cold night in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin.

Bison begin the day’s grazing after spending a cold night in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin.

The shame part of the tip comes from the fact that people will often stare at you while you’re in “strange” shooting positions.  I will usually start off shooting the composition from a bit further away, then move closer as I shoot.  Usually the best photos are the closer ones.  When I am very low, hand-holding the camera, I will often crawl on my belly towards my subject.  In the case of the photo at top, White Dome Geyser, I was doing my best imitation of “army guy crawling under razor wire” when I felt a rumbling in my belly.

The moon is enlarged through the steam over Hot Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The moon is enlarged through the steam over Hot Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

At first I thought it was just my stomach telling me it was past breakfast time (I had been shooting for a couple hours, since before sunrise).  But the geyser quickly made it clear what the rumbling meant as it began to erupt.  I managed to get a few frames off before I started getting pelted with hot water and had to scramble away.

As I got up and looked around, there were at least a couple observers chuckling and nudging each other.  Sure, I felt a little embarrassed, but I also knew there was a good chance I got a nice shot.  Always remember this:  your photo will last longer than you, while your shame usually lasts mere minutes; you will have forgotten all about it by next day.  So go ahead, photograph without any shame.

Steam drifts over Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin on a starry evening.

Steam drifts over Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin on a starry evening.

 

 

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