Archive for the ‘science’ Tag

Eclipse Mania: Are you In?   4 comments

A diamond ring appears as the sun comes out of total eclipse in 2009.

On this August 21st a shadow will pass across the United States.  At that point on its slow 4-week revolution around the earth, the moon will pass directly between the sun and earth.  Since it’s just the right size and distance from us, making it appear the same size as the sun, the moon will block the entire solar disk.  It will make the normally invisible corona (or atmosphere) of the sun visible, along with a number of other normally hidden features of the sun’s surface.

For a brief few moments day turns to night, confusing animals and causing panic among those humans not aware of what they are seeing.  Stars and planets are visible at noontime.  As the earth spins below the blocked sun, a shadow races east over a narrow sliver of land and sea, making the event a very brief one for anyone along its path but also causing strange atmospheric effects like shadow bands.  It’s a total solar eclipse, one of the strangest and most beautiful natural phenomena a person can see.

The Nature of a Solar (vs. Lunar) Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse happens when the earth lies between the sun and the moon; that is, at new moon.  It’s when the alignment of this monthly event is perfect, allowing the earth to cast a shadow over the moon.  A total solar eclipse, which happens at new moon, is when the moon lies directly between Earth and the sun and casts a shadow on earth.

It’s unlike a total lunar eclipse in two big ways.  First, a lunar eclipse, while beautiful and worthwhile, is simply not as stunning and multi-dimensional as a total solar eclipse.  Second, because of the earth’s much larger shadow, a lunar eclipse is a common thing to see while a total solar eclipse is a very a rare event to witness.

It’s not as if solar eclipses are in general rare.  Most years see two of them in fact.  But they are rare for any given point on earth.  On average the wait for any given point on earth is 375 years.  Some places have been treated to two in a row less than two years apart.  Other places have gone 35 centuries or so between successive eclipses.

During partial eclipse before and after totality, do not look directly at the sun without the right filter. But you can project its image onto any surface, and easily see sunspots. During totality you can look right at an eclipse with your naked eyes.

Why is something that happens every year experienced by us so rarely?  For one thing the path along which the eclipse is total (rather than partial) is very narrow, about 70 miles wide.  For another a solar eclipse may occur anywhere, with no regard for population or whether over land or ocean (remember water covers over 70% of the earth).

Finally, most solar eclipses are not total.  Since 2000 there have been 30 solar eclipses and only 13 of those have been total.  In 2012 I witnessed a solar eclipse in northern California.  It was a cool thing to see and photograph, but it was not total.   It was an annular eclipse (image below), where the moon is just a little too far away to block the entire disk of the sun.  If you didn’t know, the moon varies in distance as it journeys around the earth.  That is, its orbit is elliptical.

Annular eclipse, as viewed from Sacramento, CA in May, 2012.

There is no question I will make every effort to see this solar eclipse, and I strongly recommend you do as well.  After all, it’s the first total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979 (Hawaii had one in 1991).  The next one in North America is in 2024 (Mexico, U.S. and Canada).

Each total solar eclipse has a unique character, partly due to location and partly the precise nature of the alignment.  They are too special to pass up when the opportunity arises.  Once you’ve seen one you have some idea why some people make a life of chasing them.  So any solar eclipse is worth seeing.  But it is very rare that they limit themselves to a single country.  This one does.  It’s America’s eclipse.

Images do not do justice to the sight of a total solar eclipse. This is in the western Pacific in 2009, during 6 minutes 39 seconds of totality, the longest solar eclipse until 2132!

The Path

The 2017 eclipse, unlike 1979s which only hit the Pacific Northwest, will cross through America’s heartland.  Granted, the first and last people to see it will be in boats far out in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans respectively.  It begins at sunrise far north of the Hawaiian Islands and ends at sunset south of the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Despite the fact that over half of its path lies over ocean, this eclipse will not approach very close to any island.  Lucky for us, the central half of its path, including the point of maximum duration, passes over land.  It will be visible over a wide variety of landscapes, from densely urban to agricultural to coastline to ruggedly mountainous.  The path graces quite a number of the country’s national parks as well as other natural areas.

The moon’s shadow first hits land on the Oregon coast.  At about 10:15 in the morning towns from Pacific City south to Waldport will be plunged into darkness.  Little Depoe Bay is on the path’s centerline, and so is the summit of Mt. Jefferson, one of the high Cascades.  After crossing Oregon and southern Idaho, the shadow passes over the southern part of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and then speeds out into the Great Plains, crossing Nebraska and Kansas.

A number of cities are either near or in the path of totality.  Residents of Kansas City and St. Louis will see it.  The shadow continues on to Kentucky, passing over beautiful Land between the Lakes.  It then bisects Tennessee, gracing the Music City, Nashville with the show.  The shadow then glides over one more national park, Great Smoky Mtns., before heading out over the Atlantic at the port of Charleston, South Carolina.  It leaves U.S. soil just before 3 in the afternoon local time, having taken just over an hour and a half to traverse the continent.  For a very nicely done interactive map of the eclipse’s path, check out this site.

I hope I’ve gotten you excited about seeing this eclipse.  If you are already an enthusiast you’ve undoubtedly already made plans.  If not, don’t worry that it’s too late to plan a trip.  If there is a will there is a way.  If you’ve never seen one, and especially if you live in North America, there really is no excuse.  Just see it!  So now that we’ve taken care of the why, next time we will get down to the how and the where, the nuts and bolts of seeing the great American Eclipse of 2017!

The silhouetted moon near the end of an annular eclipse.  Note the diffraction effects, especially along the upper left limb of the sun.

Mountain Monday: Telescope Peak & Death Valley   12 comments

Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

Occasionally I like to highlight a mountain I like for Mountain Monday.  Today it’s Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park, California.  This has long been one of my favorite national parks.  I started visiting when it was still a national monument.  My first visit was a college seminar and field trip.  My second time was freelancing with friends, and we climbed Telescope Peak.

The top is just over 11,000 feet high, and since it was early spring, we waded through hip-deep snow drifts to get there.  After the all-day climb, we drove back down into the valley, took our sleeping bags, and tumbled out into the sand dunes to sleep under the stars.  What a contrast!  An icy morning at 8000 feet, a snowy climb, then sleeping out in balmy weather at sea level.

Snow-capped Telescope Peak has been lifted by the range-front fault over 11,000 feet above the floor of Death Valley.

Snowy Telescope Peak has been lifted by faulting along the range-front over 11,000 feet above the hot desert floor of Death Valley.


Telescope is the highest point in the park and crowns the Panamint Range.  The Panamints are an upraised block of the earth’s crust, lifted along the west side of a fault zone that at the same time dropped Death Valley down.  And down a lot!  The floor of the valley is a few hundred feet below sea level.

But the valley is filled with thousands of feet of sediments that were eroded from the Panamints and other ranges as they rose.  The top of the the bedrock that was dropped down by the fault lies some 11,000 feet beneath the valley floor.  This enormous wedge of valley fill is made of gravels, sands and clays.  But overall it’s quite salty.  There are thick sections of salts of various kinds, including good old NaCl, table salt.

These salt flats at Badwater in Death Valley are just the top of thousands of feet of salt and sediments filling the valley.

Geologists call these types of deposits evaporites because they are formed when large bodies of water evaporate away in a drying climate.  In Death Valley’s case it was a large lake called Lake Manly.  From about 2 million to 10,000 years ago, mega ice sheets lay to the north.  Because of this, the climate was quite wet in the now ultra-dry Death Valley region.  Early hunter-gatherers, recently migrated in from Siberia, were able to spread south because of this climate, which supported a diversity of life much greater than today’s desert does.

But when the ice sheets retreated during inter-glacial periods, the climate grew more arid, and Lake Manly shrank.  Because of how fault-block mountains border almost all sides of Death Valley, often there was little or no chance for the lake to drain in the normal way, via rivers.

The old Death Valley Borax Works, with a heavy-duty wagon.  This wheel is six feet high.

The six-foot high wheel of a heavy duty borax wagon.

Evaporation was (and is) the main way that water left the valley.  Salts that were dissolved in the water grew more concentrated as the lake grew smaller.  A brine was the result, and as the lake grew and shrank many times, often down to nothing, the salts were precipitated out.  They built up layers and layers of evaporite deposits.  The famous 20 mule-team wagon trains transported tons of borax from the borates (a type of salt) mined from the valley (image above).

A close-up of Death Valley’s evaporites (salt deposits).


The current desert climate of Death Valley is one in which standing water from paltry winter rains evaporates rapidly, leaving behind fresh salt.  The salt can take very interesting forms (image above).  The mix of fine muds and salt, combined with repeated wet/dry cycles, can form fantastic polygonal patterns, as the bottom image shows.  Salt is also eroded away occasionally by the Amargosa River when infrequent storms allow it to flow south out of the valley.

The water in the image at the top of the post is really not part of this equation.  It’s fresh not salty, and comes from the amazingly strong Saratoga Springs in southern Death Valley.  I camped nearby one time and captured this view early the next morning.  Saratoga is well off the beaten track and most visitors to the park miss it.  There’s a very cool dune field nearby.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns.  Telescope Peak is just left off the photo.

Ouachitas & Ozarks, Part I   12 comments

Instead of Friday Foto Talk this week, I’m pausing to do something I haven’t done in quite some time.  If you haven’t been reading this blog for long, you probably think I only do posts on photography.  But my real love is exploring and learning about new places.  In particular I love the land and how people have been relating to it and to each other over the ages.  I tend to go for off-beat places lying “in-between” the well known destinations.

I don’t totally ignore the more touristy places.  After all, nearly all of them used to be charming little spots, and that charm often lies just beneath the surface.  But I don’t take trips without making time for detours.  As an example, this blog actually started out when I did a 4-month trip to Africa.  If you have time, you might check out some of the posts from that journey.

Arriving at night, I camped on top of this ridge and woke to a chilly but beautiful autumn morning in the Oachita Mountains of Arkansas


This post is about a place I wouldn’t have thought of visiting if not for the fact I was working nearby and had some time off to explore.  The southern U.S. is a culturally distinct area of the country.  It’s the most conservative part of the U.S., and religious fundamentalism has a home there.  But the region is also renowned for its polite respect and hospitality.

A liberal may not agree with much of what the people believe here, but they also might be treated much better than in friendlier ideological confines like California or Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, that culture has been diluted by the ongoing homogenization of the world.  In that respect it’s no different than many other places.

Interesting purple berries, western Oachitas.


The Oachitas and Ozarks of Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and southern Missouri are an interesting area of low mountains and forests, small towns and farms.  Outstanding quartz crystals are found among pine forest in the Oachitas.  In the Ozarks streams flow from numerous caves.  Between the Appalachians and Rocky Mountains, this is some of the only high country you’ll find in the U.S.

The word Oachita (pronounced wosh-i-TAW) comes from the Choctaw tribe’s word for the region.  It means place of large buffaloes.  Sadly, bison no longer roam free here.  The word Ozarks is derived from the French term aux arcs, referring to either the top bend of the Arkansas River or to the large number of natural bridges and arches in the area.

A good time to visit the Oachitas and Ozarks is in autumn, when the leaves of the oak and hickory turn golden and red.  That happens in mid-October through early November most years.  There is probably a little more fall color going on in the Ozarks than in the pine-rich Oachitas.  Summers are hot and humid, but there are plenty of lakes to cool off in.  Winters are fairly mild but cold, snowy periods are not uncommon.  Early to mid-October is a perfect time to visit.  Springtime (March to April) is also great.


A farm in the fog, Ozarks, Arkansas.


I always start with this when talking about a place.  Blame it on the fact that I did it for nearly 20 years.  Or maybe I read a lot of James Michener when I was young.  The Oachita Mountains are the remnants of a once-mighty mountain range.  We can’t be sure exactly how high they were, but think of the modern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and you have the idea.

The reason these mountains are so mellow (some would even call them hills) is the combined effects of water, gravity and time.  By the way, I don’t call them hills because I know about their long, grand reign.  You wouldn’t call an old man who had seen and done great things a boy, now would you?

Like many (but not all) mountain chains, the Oachitas formed from the collision of two tectonic plates.  About 300 million years ago, well before any dinosaur walked the earth, the South American continent, coming from the south, collided with North America.  An ocean was destroyed in the process.  Much later it was resurrected as the modern Atlantic, with the Gulf of Mexico butting up against the southern U.S.

The Oachita “orogeny” (mountain building event) created what is called a fold-thrust belt.  Folds in layers of sedimentary rock are just like when you push a rug against a wall.  Thrust faults are like pushing one rug over top another.  Yep, tectonics is like your living room!  The Alps are the classic example of a fold-thrust belt mountain range.  But they are much younger than the Oachitas and Appalachians.  The latter are characterized by long ridges separated by broad valleys.  The ridges stand up because erosion has cut into the folds and exposed harder rocks like sandstone.

Diagram of a fold and thrust mountain belt.

These folded mountains in the northern Rockies of Canada may be what the Ouachitas once looked like.  This is not my shot but I’ve been told it’s probably an old Geological Survey of Canada image (which makes sense).

The sandstone, shale and limestone that make up the Oachitas were formed many millions of years before they were crunched by the Oachita Orogeny.  The area was covered by thousands of feet of seawater, and the nearby coast was flat and quiet, much like the modern-day east coast of South America.  Sediments were deposited in the quiet waters of a Paleozoic sea, precursor to the modern Atlantic.  As that ocean was destroyed in the collision, the seafloor rocks and sediments were caught in a giant vise.  They buckled under the stress of collision, eventually rising to form a fold-thrust mountain belt.  Because the pressure was directed north-south, the mountains run east-west.  They’re the only mountains in America that run in this direction.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as seen from space, are shown curving toward the east-west orientation of the Oachitas to the west. Click to go to the source site for this image.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as seen from space, are shown curving toward the east-west orientation of the Oachitas to the west. Click to go to the source site for this image.

On a curved surface like that of our planet, mountains don’t run in straight lines forever.  The Oachitas are part of a very, very long arc of ancient mountains, extending thousands of miles from Maine to Texas.  The Appalachians, which are themselves quite long, extend to the west.  They are interrupted by the Mississippi embayment, but pick up in central Arkansas as the Oachitas.  Even further to the west, the range is submerged beneath younger rocks, popping up as the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and the Marathon Mountains of west Texas.

The Oachitas are known for their beautiful quartz crystals and also for novaculite.  Novaculite is a very fine grained, hard flinty rock that resembles flint or chert.  It’s easily knapped or flaked, and as such made this area a magnet for newly arrived humans some 12,000 years ago.  These hunter-gatherers were looking for good raw material from which to make spear-points.

As a bonus, the Oachitas also provided deer, bison and other animals to hunt with those spear points.  Both the crystalline and the micro-crystalline quartz (novaculite is micro-crystalline) were created when fluids from deeper in the crust rose and filled the pervasive fractures formed during mountain building.

Novaculite from the Oachita Mtns., Arkansas

Novaculite from the Oachita Mtns., Arkansas


The Ozarks lie north of the Oachitas.  In ancient times (and I do mean ancient), the North American continent was smaller, with a coastline to the north of the Ozarks.

**Sorry, I just have to go on a tangent:  Although there have been a few periods in Earth’s history when all the continents joined together into super-continents, most of the time it’s been like today, continents separated by oceans.  But in the distant past continents were smaller and oceans bigger.  It’s one reason we have so much darn limestone around (that rock forms in shallow seas).  Pangea, which you may have heard of, was the last of the super-continents, and it came together after the Oachitas formed.  In fact, the tectonic collision that led to the rise of the Appalachian-Oachita mountains was a big event leading to the coming together of Pangea.

We’ll have another super-continent again sometime in the future, but the bigger picture is this: continents started out quite small and have grown steadily larger over billions of years.  This means big things for carbon, the basis of life and (combined with oxygen) the ultimate controller of climate.  It means more carbon will be soaked up by weathering and stored away in limestone and other rocks.  Of course this has always happened and we’ve done just fine.  Carbon has been dragged with it’s enclosing rocks down into the mantle by subduction, and then recycled back into the atmosphere in volcanic eruptions.  It’s what has kept earth from freezing over.

But with bigger continents comes more weathering.  With relatively shorter coastline and less ocean comes fewer volcanoes.  The net effect will probably mean less efficient long-term carbon cycling, and declining ability for the planet to resist ice ages.  It will mean less carbon for life and less carbon dioxide for the greenhouse effect.  This trend won’t become noticeable for quite some time.  But after the current episode of global warming plays itself out, we will return to a long-term cooling and drying trend, one that has been in place for about 30 million years.  We probably won’t freeze over, because the sun has been gradually getting hotter ever since the solar system’s formation.

While this trend will have big effects on climate, evolution tends to triumph over those kinds of changes.  But having less carbon around has crucial implications for life.  We’re living, most probably, in the latter stages of life’s heyday.  Though life began some 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, it only really got going about a half billion years ago.  It saw its peak sometime between 150 and 35 million years ago, and has been slowly declining ever since.

You may have heard that the sun will expand in about 5 billion years, destroying the earth and us in the process.  That will happen.  But unfortunately, all complex life (including us if we don’t evolve into a space-faring and/or partly synthetic species) will likely have disappeared long before that.  In fact, we might have only about a billion more years of habitability here.  Tiny one-celled organisms may be the only thing to witness the expansion of the sun to its red giant stage.  Nothing lasts forever, and that goes for both good times and bad.  I think there’s a lesson to be learned here.  Enjoy life!  And guard the precious ability of our Earth to shelter it.

I’ve gone over on length with this one, so I’ll leave it there and continue next time with more on the Ozarks, plus some interesting cultural history.  I’ll have tips for travel and photography in this interesting area as well.  Have a great weekend!

Instead of a sunset, here’s one captured at night along the Buffalo River, AR.  The full moonlight was filtered by heavy fog, creating a mood that was a little spooky.

Happy Summer Solstice!   10 comments

Sunrise over Klamath Marsh, south-central Oregon.

Sunrise over Klamath Marsh, south-central Oregon.  Click on image for purchase options.

It is that special day today, Summer Solstice!  It’s the longest day of the year and the first day of summer for the Northern Hemisphere.  For all you Southerners it’s Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and start of winter.  For today I’m posting one sunrise, from Klamath Marsh in southern Oregon, and one sunset, from the Pacific Coast just south of the Oregon-California border.

Please let me know if you’re interested in fine-art prints of the images here, or want to buy rights to the high-resolution files.  They’re not available for free download except with my permission.  Please contact me, thanks!

You may already know this but the Earth is tilted on its axis about 23.5 degrees.  This tilt gives us our seasons, and means as we go around the Sun there are four moments (not whole days) when things line up.  In March and again in September there’s a moment when the North Pole is tilted precisely along our path of travel, our orbit, at a perfect right angle to the Sun’s direction.  These are the equinoxes, when day and night are equal the world over.


In December there’s a moment when the North Pole points directly away from the Sun.  In June, usually on the 21st but sometimes on the 20th, a moment comes when the North Pole points directly toward the Sun.  This puts the Sun as far north in our skies as it can get.  In the Southern Hemisphere it’s low in the sky, leading to short days.  In the Northern Hemisphere it’s high in the sky, leading to long days.

In the far north above the Arctic Circle, where I spent a couple summers a long time ago in Alaska, the Sun never sets at this time of year.  It skims along nicely above the northern horizon throughout the wee hours.  I went on several long hikes in the Brooks Range when I was up there working.  I’m a person who needs darkness to sleep, and I was having trouble staying asleep.  So I used the time to see the midnight sun trace its path across the sky above the Arctic Plain.

Our encampment was down in a valley with a fairly high ridge to the north, so you couldn’t see the midnight sun for about 8 full hours.  It took about an hour and a half to climb the ridge, and I”m sure it would take twice that long for me now!  In good weather there was a clear view out to the Chukchi Sea to the west, the Noatak River Valley to the north.  The glowing sun glided not far above the horizon.

I recall seeing a few grizzlies on their rounds down below.  I never ran into one close, but being alone I was cautious.  I avoided obvious passes and other places a bear might use to cross from one valley to another.

So enjoy our long days all you fellow Northerners.  If you live relatively close to the equator, I’m sorry but all this talk of seasons and change is a bit lost on you.  But heck, go ahead and celebrate with the rest of us!

The rugged Pacific Coast of far northern California witnesses many a fine sunset.

The rugged Pacific Coast of far northern California witnesses many a fine sunset.  Click on image for purchase options.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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 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 III   13 comments

Isn't it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

Isn’t it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

At one time I thought God created everything, but I can’t remember ever truly believing it was during 6 very busy days.  I do remember giving serious consideration to whether or not Purgatory would be an interesting place to stop before going to Heaven, even if there was a small chance I could be sent instead to Hell by mistake.  Then soon after I seriously began studying science, I put my inner religious beliefs into a little box and went on, unencumbered, to feed my curiosity.  I didn’t throw my beliefs away.  I believe that as you go through life, you should try not to throw things away unless you really need to.  We already lose too much as we grow older.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

I learned that it’s likely life emerged from non-life by a trick of chemistry, and that was that.  I had bigger fish to fry – how the Earth and other planets formed.  I knew scientists didn’t really know exactly how life began, but I figured they would find out soon enough.  It wasn’t for me an important question for a long time.

(An aside: I sometimes wonder whether I would have become obsessed with life’s origins, had I went further in the direction I explored my senior year in college.  I was good at chemistry in college, and I took a class called Thermodynamic Geochemistry, which sounds a lot tougher than it actually was – but it would have gotten very tough if I had pursued it.)

Probably the world's oldest religion.

Probably the world’s oldest religion: Judaism.

Meanwhile, for the scientists who work on it, the origin of life has been an unusually thorny problem.  There have been many side-tracks along the way, from primordial soup to deep sea vents to extra-terrestrial origins (panspermia).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle for life: shallows of the sea.

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle of life: shallows of the sea.


The State of Our Knowledge of Life’s Origin

We don’t really know what kind of environment hosted the first life.  It could have been in a thermal area, or in ice, or even in solid rock.  It could have been on Mars.  But wherever it was, water very likely was the dominant substance surrounding the primitive beings.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

Perhaps a non-living compound underwent some chemical transformation into RNA.  RNA can do the work of forming proteins (as it’s doing right now inside you) but it can also reproduce, like DNA.   Then it’s just a matter of finding itself in the right place at the right time (pre-cells), to be put to work in an entirely novel way in something we would now call alive.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Or perhaps non-living structures similar to our body’s cells first started to form in high-energy environments (like deep sea vents) and they began to process energy (it’s thermodynamically favorable).  Then they began to reproduce (via RNA).  Most scientists believe that RNA is an important key.

Life was born because chemical compounds were formed at great odds.  Here salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Life was born because chemical compounds formed at great odds. Salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Perhaps you know of Craig Venter.  He’s the guy who led the team who first decoded the human genome.  He’s at work now on trying to create a living organism with no biological parents (actually a computer takes the parents’ place).  Many believe that creating life ourselves is necessary before we can understand how it arose.  As Richard Feynman once said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

You can see there is some uncertainty here, and every good chemist knows these transformations are not at all easy.  But it happened.  Stuff happens after all, and given a lot of time and the right environment, perhaps life has been emerging  everywhere, throughout the history of the universe.  So what if we can’t explain the moment of life’s creation.  Does it matter?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth's lifeless oceans?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth’s lifeless oceans?

I tend to think that life in this solar system evolved on Earth first, but I wouldn’t bee too surprised if it started on Mars first and was transported to Earth riding on a meteor.  I also believe that this question: how did life start, is an important one.  I think it will take us a big step forward in figuring out how life emerged in the universe.  How we got here is one thing, but it will take much more insight to discover why we are here.

This story will continue, so stay tuned…

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

Science vs. Religion   3 comments

I’m taking a break from my usual photography/travel blog to put down some thoughts on this conflict.  Ever since science came to the fore during the Renaissance, the two ways of making sense of our world have been engaged in a running battle.  Granted nearly all scientists and a great majority of the faithful don’t pay any attention to it at all.  But a good number of the world’s religions and (despite their denials) some scientists continue to be rankled by the other’s views.

By the way, enjoy the pictures.  I am giving  a break to viewers and if you can manage to download copies to your computer, go right ahead.  But please do not use them for any other than personal use (wallpaper is good).  They are copyrighted, so please do not use them in advertising, your website, etc.  This goes for these pictures only.  Clicking on those in other posts on this blog will take you to my website where purchase can be easily made.  Thanks for your cooperation and interest!

Early morning in the Botswana veld, as clouds begin to gather in preparation for the rains. The end of drought was (and still is) placed in the hands of God.

Some would say that science vs. religion is a straw man issue, that it points to flawed thinking even to consider the two as rivals.  There are also some who think the argument is over, that science has successfully separated itself from the question, and that most religions have reconciled science with their faith.  There is some truth to this, but by no means is the conflict over with.  Strangely enough, the controversy surrounding climate change has stoked the argument, and of course the argument over evolution and its teaching continues to elicit raw emotions on both sides.

Many people don’t realize how religion got its start.  Also, most don’t realize how science was practiced in relative obscurity for centuries before it ever attained enough power and influence to give religious leaders cause for concern.  But as soon as science became important, as soon as it was able to be distributed to a wide segment of the populace, religious hierarchies were threatened.  The history of this conflict points to how inevitable it was for the two camps to fight, and how difficult it will be to resolve the conflict in future.

Religion at its origins was most likely a way to make sense of the vagaries of nature:  crop failure and devastating storms, premature death and sudden, unexplained sickness.  Science at its beginnings was a way of thinking that relies on observation, inference and deduction to rationally explain the world around us.  Even though religion has matured greatly over the centuries, bifurcating many times, it remains at its core a way for people to take comfort in the face of adversity, to have faith that God(s) or a spiritual equivalent is behind the making of the Universe.  Science is much younger, having gotten a false start with the ancient Greeks, then only expanding during the Renaissance.  But in recent times science has become much more influential, explaining the Universe at ever earlier times, almost to the very instant of its origin.  It remains a way for us to explain nature.

A storm breaks up over the Absaroka Mountains of Montana.

Although most scientists maintain that the two should never be thought of as competitors, I think they essentially tackle the same questions.  Science does go about it in a wholly different way than does religion, often trying to answer small questions that would never concern a spiritual person.  But those small questions, it should be clear to anyone by now, lead to the big ones:  Where do we come from?  How was all of this created?  What is the destiny of the world?  Religion for a long time was convinced that science would never get close to answering the ultimate questions, but it is very clear now that science is rapidly heading in the direction of answering all or nearly all of the fundamental questions.

The battle has essentially been won by science.  Big decisions in the power centers of the world are no longer influenced to a large extent by religious leaders (there are some exceptions).  Meanwhile science drives technology, which in turn drives the advance of humanity into its future.  For example, evolution is regarded by most educated people as the only real explanation for the existence of all life, including us.  Those in the Bible Belt and in other regions around the world would not agree with this statement, but they are “drinking the koolaid” as it’s said.  Whenever the question gets to the courts, it is proven beyond doubt that among the powers to be science wins the day.  Polls consistently show that most people agree with those court decisions.

Because science has gained the upper hand in recent times, there are many scientists who now wish to disavow the reality of the conflict.  They naturally wish to minimize the religious point of view.  They want to get back to business, which is understandable.  Science is difficult enough to practice without distractions like defending it against fundamentalists.  It requires undistracted attention for an entire career.  Stephen Jay Gould complained on numerous occasions that he had wasted too much time defending evolution.  But being an eloquent man, he was constantly called upon (and he felt an obligation) to do so.  Tragically, he died too young, proving his point that scientific careers are much too short.  But among millions of those who have a fundamentalist bias in their faith (again, understandable) the conflict is by no means over.  They believe, rightly I think, that their way of explaining the basic questions of existence to their countless followers is threatened by the rise of science and rationality.

This argument is not going away, even though I think it will take long breaks where the media ignores it.  At their cores, religion and science continue to explain the fundamental questions.  They continue to go about answering them with radically different ways of thinking – science with what’s called the scientific method (even though most of us don’t understand what that really is) and religion with moral-based faith.  Of course, many would argue that religion focuses on guidelines for living while science has taken over the business of explaining nature, and this is a relevant point when speaking of SOME religions.

Prayer flags fly in Nepal. Although Buddhism does not rely on a creator, it does attempt to explain the suffering of humanity.

By and large, however, religion still attempts to explain those questions that we begin to ask as children.  It has to if it is to have any sway over people’s lives.  It’s about power over people’s lives, and I say that with no judgment regarding their motivations (I am willing to give religion the benefit of the doubt, i.e. their hearts are in the right place).  With science as well, they are convinced that science is the “real” way to explain nature, whereas religion is out of its element when explaining the world.  Religion, in other words, should stick to teaching children the difference between good and evil and leave the ultimate questions to them.  This I think is a naive way of looking at things.

I believe it would be much more honest for scientists to admit that their way of explaining the world has gained the upper hand in modern times, and that, as a result, religion has a reduced role in that realm.  Perhaps they would be less upset and frustrated when religion comes at them wanting a fight.  Perhaps they would stop accusing the faithful of muddled thinking on the issue.  All it would take, I think, for a rational scientist to understand things better, is for him or her to look into the very earliest origins of religion.  It is, after all, a science (archaeology) that has provided knowledge of those distant origins in the Middle East.

I do not see any good way of resolving faith and religion.  It seems a bit unsatisfying to me, as a scientist, to simply say that they are two different ways of thinking.  Maybe I’m too simple.  I feel that you either answer the ultimate questions or you don’t.  How can we have two different ways of answering them, with correspondingly different answers?  One has to be right and the other wrong.

Perhaps I should be happy, like many religious scientists, to relegate religion to being a guide for living while science explains the Universe.  But I can’t do that without feeling a little guilty.  I don’t like to disrespect another’s viewpoint.  I also don’t resent religion as many people seem to.  I accept the arguments on both sides, but as a scientist I know which side I will always come down on.

Maybe someday the fight will be over.  It certainly should not be carried into issues like climate change, which really don’t have anything to do with religion or faith.  But if I were a fundamentalist Christian, I don’t think I could swallow evolution hook, line and sinker.  I hope scientists will stop and think about the issue as deeply as they think about scientific problems.  I don’t like them piling on.  While Catholicism has largely pulled out of the fight, many religions have not.  So we are sure to see more acrimony in the future.  At the very least, we should never make it personal, never make it about the person.  All of us are merely children looking out at all the wondrous things around us with wide eyes.  Asking questions.

A typical valley sunset in western Oregon brings forth spiritual thoughts.

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