I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

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Back to the Drawing Board

I was walking through the parking lot to my car after work when I started daydreaming about all the people who had been there before me; earlier the same day, or perhaps a month or a year ago, meandering to their cars, stopping to check messages, and standing, talking to coworkers. Science fiction writers love to explore this “space” when they write about time travel. Michael Crichton, for one, tended to incorporate more science in his sci-fi than others, introducing the idea that while time travel is not possible, travel to other dimensions might be. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the notion of being able to journey to another time in the future or the past was first popularized. In his story, the Time Traveler was able to travel to a very distant future version of earth, while staying in the same geographical location. Aside from Doctor Who, most other time-travelling narratives stick to this point. And so, as I perambulated and wondered about the past lives that, if only on the same timeline, would have crossed my path, or bumped into me if I weren’t looking.

But while it’s proper to consider that time travel, if it were possible at all, would limit the voyage moving in time, it is not reasonable to assume the traveller would also change position, geographically. Or is it? As my daydream began to mutate (as they often do), it dawned on me that if I were to travel backward one year, I might end up somewhere else. You see, 365 days ago was not 19 September, but instead 20 September 2015. But ignoring the very predictable results of Daylight Savings changes in the Gregorian calendar, we must shift our attention to the fact that where you are, right now, in space is unknown.

The earth is currently orbiting the sun at a speed of 108,000 km/h, or about 30 km/s. Therefore, if you travelled instantaneously to 1 second in the future, and you didn’t change your location, you would be 30 kilometers away from your current position. You would have teleported on top of travelling in time. Also, consider that the sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way, around 800 km/h. So, if you wanted to travel in time, but you didn’t want to move, you would have to predict where the earth would be at that time. Since the earth and the sun and the galaxy are all moving at the same time, this would require some awesome math. Now, considering that we are already in the possession of some awesome mathematical principles, created by some equally awesome mathematical geniuses, we could extrapolate and get a pretty accurate calculation of where you might end up. But it wouldn’t be perfect, and so you could still end up in the middle of a mountain or floating in space, but within tolerance (inside the orbit of most satellites.) This is assuming we have a good idea of what a fixed point in space looks like.

If you wanted to travel forward in time to 2150, you would need to know just where the earth and the sun would be at that time, that second. But assuming we could overcome this obstacle, there are other problems to consider, like exposure to pathogens that do not exist in our time, or the increase in pollution, or incomprehensible dialects. Naturally, not having nearly enough money to get around would pose a serious problem (someone from the late 1800’s would be absolutely shocked at the idea of spending $40 on a meal). No doubt, the increase in population and significant lack of privacy would be disturbing to our time traveller, not to mention being completely ignorant of 130 years of history. In the Back to the Future series of films, several characters move backward and forward through time with very little difficulty, aside from having to fuel the time machine, but it would most likely be traumatic.

Of course, time travel is not a reality, except for the slow, day-to-day type with which we are all familiar. That’s alright with me. Gradual change is much easier to accept. The changes we face now are quite dramatic enough, and most of us are barely able to keep up. History reveals that civilizations have embraced change, and then violently rejected it. Swings in public opinion seem to come back to their starting point after a generation or two, or a millennium. But before we presume we have come so far in our modern civilization, we should look at our current form of entertainment and make sure it is not worse than gladiators fighting to the death. It may look truly bizarre to future historians, our taste for pugilism might be horrifying, or charming, whichever the case may be.

I guess we’re fortunate that there are things that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Otherwise, we would have very little in the way of fantasy. Science fiction would be nonexistent, and our daydreams would be pretty dull.

 

Married to a Medium

My wife is, for lack of a better term, a psychic.

Unlike Allison Dubois, the main character in the long-running CBS television series “Medium“, she does not solve crimes. And she also can’t pick next week’s winning Lotto numbers. But, like Ms. Dubois, she receives signs. Some are obvious; others somewhat obscure and ambiguous. But she has learned to recognize these signs, and she’s getting more accurate about interpreting them. At first, about 25 years ago, I was very skeptical. But over time, I began to see how real this ability was.

Oh how I wish she could pick those numbers, though! But it has now dawned on me that there’s a difference to being a psychic medium and a prognosticator, which may also be a thing, it turns out. The particular and peculiar ability of my wife is that she seems to be able to “hear” from what I can only logically describe as another quantum reality – another dimension, or an alternate universe, if you will.

In physics, the principle of quantum superposition suggests that particles can be in two places at once. Many people may scoff at this notion, and certainly there are many skeptics. But we need only look back a few generations to find a time when the idea of microorganisms seemed just as mysterious and preposterous. A century before the Civil War, people still may have blamed certain maladies on witchcraft. Indeed, things we take for granted in the 21st century would definitely have been attributed to sorcery, like listening to music from a mobile device, or traveling to outer space.

I’m confident that it’s just a matter of time before we reach a greater understanding of the universe(s). Quantum physics is still a relatively new field, and scientists are making new discoveries often. Someday, I predict, we will be able to explain psychic phenomena just as confidently we can explain a thunderstorm. What used to frighten people, making them think they had angered the gods, is now a quantifiable, measureable, even predictable event.

Psychic ability, ESP, telepathy, whatever you wish to call it, could be just an acute sensitivity to energy waves or loose electrons, just as hay fever is caused by a heightened sensitivity to one or more types of pollen. When I start sneezing and my eyes water, I look up the pollen count – something invisible to the naked eye, but is indeed there – to verify what I am reacting to. Granted, subatomic particles are much, much smaller. (Check out Scale of the Universe to see how different objects and organisms compare in size.) My point is, just because something can’t be seen or detected by our modern-day instruments doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

So now I am a believer. And I trust my wife’s ability to interpret the information she receives. As for me, I can’t tell you what my reaction to ragweed means, if anything. But if it’s possible that our electrons are traveling to the other side of the universe, or to other universes, and mingling with other protons there, who knows what is possible? Perhaps there are infinite parallel dimensions, copies of our own, or ones where weird and impossible things are commonplace, like dividing by zero. Maybe there is a universe where zero doesn’t exist. Just be careful that you don’t get burned as a witch if you should stumble into that existence.

 

 

What Day is it?

It’s Thursday. But it feels like Friday. We’ve all said something like this at one time or another. Working through the weekend, going on holiday, being housebound for a few days with the flu; there are many causes for being a little disoriented in terms of our tendency to mark the passage of time by artificial means. What is a day, anyway? In a basic sense, a day is just the amount of time needed between sunsets. The sun drops below the horizon – day over. Simple, right?

Real time – cosmic time – is not constrained by hours, minutes, years, and weekdays. When the Apollo astronauts were careening through space toward the moon, they had no sense of day or night. Looking out the window might have told them it was night, because the sky is black in space. They probably weren’t thinking about what day of the week it was. I don’t know. But did it matter that it was a Wednesday? It strikes me as odd that we assign characteristics, almost personification, to any day of the week.

A few weeks ago I took half a day off. It was a Wednesday. I chose that day pretty much arbitrarily, but I felt it might make the week pass quicker. It didn’t. A watched pot and all that. Besides not seeming to enhance the perception of the passage of time, it actually screwed me up, because I spent that morning doing things I usually do on Saturdays: making breakfast, sleeping in a bit. Not every Saturday is like this. Sometimes I am traveling, and sometimes I’m writing or working on other projects. In any case, when I showed up for my bill-paying gig, it felt strange. And that continued through the rest of the week.

Humans like patterns. Actually, a lot of organisms get off on patterns. Bees make their hive in a geometric pattern. Geese fly in a V formation. I’ve heard that squirrels bury acorns using some sort of arithmetic algorithm. Clearly, nature loves a certain amount of order and symmetry. Even quartz forms in a geometric pattern, according to the properties of crystalline formations.

It stands to reason that we humans would at some point in our development seek to establish boundaries and controls over groupings of the number of sunsets. The study of the motion of the stars and planets helped the Maya establish an early – and quite accurate – calendar thousands of years ago. Knowing how the earth revolves around the sun, or at least how the seasons change and recycle, was surely vital to agriculture. And, presto, you have civilization. No more chasing herds of caribou or wildebeests. Now people could plant crops and know about when to expect them to be ready for harvest.

So it seems it very important to assign a name to this day and another name to the next one, and so on. I’m not a farmer, but I do a lot of gardening. It’s very important to know when to plant. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Monday or a Tuesday to the seeds and the compost. But it is a lot more likely I will be available on a Saturday. In Texas, late February is a pretty good time to plant seeds directly in the garden, as we have done this year.

Giant Zinnias

With a shift in the earth’s climate, time itself is shifting. Spring arrives in February now. When I was a kid, we might see icy patches in the streets as late as March. But now, seasons are harder to predict. Next year, we might have another snowstorm. Who knows.

I wear a wristwatch. I mean an actual timepiece, not an Apple Watch or similar device. This watch was an anniversary gift from about 2001. It is a Wenger Swiss “kinetic” watch, meaning it is purely mechanical and winds itself. So, as I wear it and move around all day, the watch will continue to keep time, even when I lay it on my bedside table for a day or two. after three days it tends to stop. The strange thing is that it runs a little fast. I mean, a little. Over the course of a week, it may run one or two minutes ahead. No big deal; but, ironically, I synchronize it with my phone. C’est la guerre.

If I didn’t go to the office, if I didn’t live around people, I might easily lose track of what day it was. It would hardly matter, as I said. I wonder when days of the week ever began to matter. Early people, people for whom belief in supernatural beings controlling all aspects of our lives was the only sensible explanation for things, probably needed to mark the time, naming the days. The Old English root for Tuesday, Tiwesdæg, is translated as “Tiw’s Day”, named for the Norse god of war. The name stuck, even as the Vikings abandoned the old gods.

One way I like to mark the passage of time is by watching the trees on my property grow taller and taller. For trees, the basic unit of time is a season. Like the second hand on a watch, each season passes quickly compared to the lifespan of a liveoak or a cedar elm. The Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas is estimated to be 500 years old, definitely a mature specimen. The pair of live oaks in my front yard were about ten years old when the house was built. Now they are about 23 years old each, but decidedly adolescent as trees go. Assuming someone will be here to take care of the property in the next centuries, they will outlive everyone reading this blog.

Time appears to be relative to the observer, as Einstein proposed. Whether he was right or wrong, you must admit that time is part of our being. Each of us has our own internal clock, our heartbeat, our own rhythm. Some of us are content to sit peacefully and take it all in, while others can’t sit still for a minute. Every morning, I take a moment to look at the flowers we planted a few months ago. They tower over the walkway from the front door to the driveway, leaves and petals reaching to the sun, insatiable in their cravings. Time is not on their side, because by November they will have faded, having lost their lustre and radiance. For them, a lifetime is in the space between spring and fall, in Texas, a full nine months. They do all they can in that short time. It’s amazing, too.

Moon Shadow

Less than two years from now, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible across 11 states in the US. In places like Salem, OR, Idaho Falls, ID, Jackson Hole, WY, St. Louis, MO, and Nashville, TN, people will see day turn into night for as much as 2 minutes and 40 seconds, the maximum shadow duration near Carbondale, IL.

Solar Eclipse Aug 21 2017

Some of my friends have said I am a little obsessive, and why would anyone plan something years in advance. The fact is, nothing on this planet has the power to stop an eclipse. It will happen, no question. In case you don’t know what a solar eclipse is, it is simply when the moon moves into a position between the earth and the sun in such a way as to partially or completely obscure the sun, casting a shadow on the earth. A total eclipse results in darkness, 100% of the sun’s light blocked. There are varying degrees of partial eclipse, including something called an annular eclipse, where the moon covers the center of the sun’s disc.

Solar eclipses occur two or three times per year, but they are not always visible from land. The 20 March 2015 eclipse was only visible from the Arctic Ocean. The last time a total eclipse was visible anywhere in the Americas was 1 August 2008, the moon’s shadow traveling from Nunavut, the Arctic region, to Russia. A total eclipse has not occurred visible within the US since 26 February 1979.

On 21 August 2017, thousands of people are likely to travel to places within the path of the shadow. The whole thing will last only a few minutes in any one location. Astronomers will be sure to have their claims staked out for best viewing. Scientists will certainly take the opportunity to study the sun while the moon is blocking its light. For most people, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Seven years later, another total eclipse will occur on 8 April 2024. It will also be visible from Carbondale, IL. The faculty at Southern Illinois University have already been preparing for this.

http://eclipse.siu.edu/about-the-eclipse/carbondale-and-the-solar-eclipse/

I wonder what the world will be like in nine years.

How to Count to Infinity

Things to Make and do in the Fourth Dimension should be my next read. If you don’t want to watch the video – and who could blame you, it’s a mind-bending trip – you might consider my take on countable infinity:

Imagine you wanted to shake hands with every human on the planet. You would walk down the street, knocking on doors and shaking people’s hands. If you could do this, and you didn’t have to wait for people to come to the door, assuming they would be home, you could cover a city population of 300,000 in 55 days, that is, if everyone lived within ten meters of one another. You could cover the entire population of Norway in…

150 years!

Countably infinite means it is beyond our ability to rationally arrive at the “end” of the line. You would never be able to shake everyone’s hand, much less have an encounter with each one, before another generation arrived to take their place. And you could not live long enough to realize the goal. (Don’t feel bad. Just try to meet the people on your street. That’s better than nothing.)

Infinity is not an imaginary or unrealistic number. But we humans cannot count high enough to conceptualize the Googol (10100). It’s often said that the universe is infinite. It’s hard to imagine, but it is a reality. The distant star’s light reaching our planet started its journey perhaps 300,000 years ago, and by now, any planets in that solar system are now lifeless and the star vanished from the heavens. New stars are being born right now, and their light deceives us because they could be flourishing suns in the skies of distant worlds, but we will never see it. If we ever reach the stars, we might be able to see what became of the lights in our night sky. But we might also witness the births of unimaginable civilizations. History in the making.

My favorite thought of the day: Infinity + 1 = infinity, therefore, 1 + 1 = 1

Take that, [insert middle school math teacher’s name]!