Archive for the ‘starry skies’ Tag

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.

Crater Lake at Night   5 comments

I wanted to revisit my visit to Crater Lake National Park recently.  I spent quite a bit of time up at night, testing out my new camera mount.  It tracks the apparent movement of the stars.  I am still getting the hang of it, but the first results are promising.  I am certain I will figure out ways to use it so as to get even better starscapes, and can foresee using it for moon, eclipse and other types of shots.  It is called a Vixen Polarie.

I actually entered the park at night, after getting caught up photographing a really cool waterfall I’ve never been to near Diamond Lake.  It’s called Toketee Falls, and it spills in such a beautiful way over a columnar basalt flow.  But I digress.  I entered the park from the north entrance, which is closed most of the year because of snow.  This evening was warm though as I motored my bike up the highway and right past the entrance gate.  I did pay later, not because I thought I had to, but because I wanted to.  National Parks are virtually starved of funds by Congress, and they need every penny they can get.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, arcs over Crater Lake in southern Oregon.

Upon reaching the lake I stopped right away, at a large overlook near Llao Rock.  I worked my way out onto a promontory over the lake, getting a nice tree in the foreground which happened to be angled in the same manner as the Milky Way cut across the sky (image above).  This is a composite of two shots.  The tracking mount follows the stars as they appear to move across the sky.  Of course it is the Earth that is doing the moving, rotating so fast  (700+ miles/hr. at mid-latitudes) that you’d think it would make us all dizzy.  This means that any foreground you include on long exposures will be blurred, while the stars remain sharp.  So you have to take another shot with the tracking mount turned off, just so you can later combine the starry sky part with the foreground part.  I did this in Photoshop Elements later.

A view of Crater Lake in late dusk.

I camped nearby, right on the rim with a gorgeous view of the lake.  A couple nights later, I was back at it.  I found a blue-hour shot at Phantom Ship overlook (above), and then after munching on dinner as the stars came out traveled around the lake to nearby my secret campsite.  I found a lone whitebark pine snag overlooking the lake.  It was perched on a cliff.  In the darkness, moving around the dead tree to get the perfect composition, I looked where I was walking just in time to gape into the maw of black infinity.  Two more steps and I would have been gone just like that, nobody to hear me scream.  So I contented myself with a straight-on view, and even tried light-painting for the first time (image below).

Light painting, for those who haven’t been devouring their photo articles lately, is the practice of shining a flashlight (torch for the Brits) on a subject during a long exposure at night.  Obviously the subject has to be pretty close, and you can use a red light (or any color if you go get colored wraps at a party store).  I used the red setting on my headlamp here.  Note that if you’re very close to your subject, your camera’s red LED light, if it has one, and/or the light on your timer remote, can serve to paint in a subtle way, even if you don’t want to.  Solution?  Electrical tape.

A lone whitebark pine snag basks under the stars at Crater Lake, Oregon.

All in all a good first outing with the tracking mount.  I am naturally a night owl, so this night photography suits me.  I really prefer starscapes to the trails of stars that some like to shoot (that’s why I got the tracking mount), and Crater Lake has the potential to provide really spectacular pictures.  The air was not as clear as I wanted for this trip, there being fires not too far from the park.  And too, the Milky Way is positioned at its highest point in the sky at around midnight at this time of year.  So I hope to return to Crater Lake sometime in autumn when the nights are crisp, the air crackling clear, and the Milky Way low enough to include all of it plus the lake in one sweeping shot.  I can’t wait!

Meantime I want to go up to Mt Rainier to try some more night photography, this time with glaciers and that humongous mountain to set off the starry sky.  Plus the flowers in the alpine meadows are peaking right now.  That will likely be the subject of my next post, in a few days when I return.  Until then, keep exploring!

%d bloggers like this: