Communion Of Dreams


Excerpt.

It’s been a couple of months. Let’s have a bit from the current chapter I’m working on.

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It was full dark before he passed through Llangynog again, and headed up the Tanat valley. It was just past the first quarter Moon, and the sky was clear and brilliant. One of the things he always loved about visiting Wales was that the light pollution was minimal and he could see the stars almost as well as when he was on a shuttle run. About halfway up the valley to Pennant Melangell he stopped the Rover, shut it off and got out.

He stood there, leaning back against the cold metal and glass, and looked up, letting his eyes adjust. Slowly, more stars emerged, and he was able to trace the passage of several satellites in low orbit. There were plenty that he couldn’t see from the ground, ‘darks’ which were in the service of different intelligence agencies and military forces, but he knew they were there, watching, listening, perhaps even waiting to hunt on command.

And it struck him just how much this echoed something Megan had told him less than three weeks previously: “Look at it with new eyes,” she had said. “Try and see it as the believers see it.”

Was this the same thing?

He could pull out his hand-held, call up the appropriate app, and hold the camera pointed at the sky, and it would show him the satellites his eyes couldn’t see. But to do so would necessarily block his direct vision, his direct experience of the real sky above.

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket to protect them from the cold, and relaxed a little as he leaned against the vehicle. For now, he’d just take in the whole of the now-visible Milky Way as it arced high above.

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This image will give you an idea of how dark the skies can be in Mid-Wales:

Wales Dark Skies photo WalesLightPollutionMap.jpg

Jim Downey



“What if we tried more power?”

Didn’t I just say that Randall Monroe is brilliant? Of course I did. That was writing about his artwork. And this morning he proved (once again) that his science is solid, as well:

Er, let me explain…

Monroe does the popular webcomic xkcd. If you don’t read it regularly, you should. Anyway, this summer he added in another feature called “What If?” which he explains with this subtitle: “Answering your hypothetical questions with physics, every Tuesday.”

And for whatever reason, today’s entry is in response to this question: “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?”

Gee … where have I heard that question before? Hmm … perhaps in Chapter 9 of Communion of Dreams?

“You know, I could design a program that would enhance the image. Everyone who looked up at that would see our Moon,instead. Wouldn’t take much. I could even paint it red.”

“Paint it red? You mean the Moon?

“Yeah, old joke. There was this artist back at the turn of the century who had this project called ‘Paint the Moon’. He wanted to get everyone in the Western Hemisphere to focus these popular little hand-held laser pointers on the Moon all at once, with the idea that enough of the laser light would cause a red spot to appear. Had it all figured: what phase of the Moon was best to do it, how people could aim their lasers, the whole bit.”

“Crazy,” said Jon. Then, after a pause, “It didn’t work, did it?”

“Nah. But that wasn’t the point. He always described the project as a ‘shared lyrical fantasy’, designed to bring people together for a single moment, all doing the same thing. The first attempt got quite a lot of attention world-wide from the media. Millions heard about it, and maybe tens of thousands participated. It is still considered a seminal art event – we studied it in school.”

“But . . . what’s the point?”

“Oh, I just always liked that grandiose sense of whimsy. There were a number of crazy things like that back then, before everything went to hell.”

Unsurprisingly, Monroe concludes that the laser pointers wouldn’t accomplish the task. But then he uses that as a jumping-off point to explore what it *would* take to accomplish the task. And then some. It’s a fun piece, and likely the image of his I posted above has just become another instant classic, not unlike this one (which is the not-xkcd-approved Official T-shirt of BBTI).

Jim Downey

PS: Thanks to the people who sent me a link to the xkcd What If? entry this morning — very much appreciated. Now, if anyone would like to pop by the xkcd forums and mention this connection, I’d greatly appreciate it. Cheers!



Scenes from a trip: into the heart of darkness.
November 24, 2011, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, Light pollution, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Science, Space

They say on a clear night you can see forever. But would the clouds ruin everything?

That was the forecast.

* * * * * * *

We breakfasted, then loaded onto the bus for the airport. A quick and easy jaunt through the security checkpoint (the agents knew we were Americans, made quips about how we didn’t have to act like cattle in their country) and then a 45 minute flight south to Christchurch.

We met our new bus driver there – like the one on the North Island, he was friendly, knowledgeable, personable. We got a brief drive around Christchurch, a chance to see some of the damage and rebuilding going on from the earthquakes earlier this year. The choir had originally been scheduled to perform in Christchurch Cathedral. We went by to see it. Or, I should say, what is left of it. There’s still a big debate going on in New Zealand over whether it is practical to salvage *any* of the structure.

After that drive-around, we went to the Canterbury Museum and the adjacent Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Martha and I opted to walk the gardens, which was wonderfully relaxing and beautiful. Many of the plants were in full bloom, it was sunny and warm, ducks were in and out of the Avon River, there were families with children and school groups.

Then it was on to Lake Tekapo, located in the center of the South Island, up in the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

It was a wet and rainy drive, very spring-like, but colder than it had been up on the North Island. The landscape reminded me very much of the inter-mountain area of western Colorado, between the different ranges of mountains. We stopped for snacks along the way, and Martha discovered the joy of hokey-pokey.

We rolled into Lake Tekapo, out the other side in an instant. There’s not much there. To our hotel, an odd sort of place called Peppers Resort. Oh, it was nice enough, but the place is sorta like an apartment or condo, with a bedroom downstairs and then a large family room and fairly complete kitchen upstairs. Which was fine, except that a second bedroom was glommed-on to some of the units, and the people in that bedroom would have to access the upstairs by going through the bedroom-bathroom hallway of the other one.

Further, the units were all scattered in clusters over a fairly large campus, meaning that you had to walk outdoors for long stretches, and most of them were some distance from the meeting areas and clubhouse. It wouldn’t be bad for someplace where the weather was always warm and nice, but here it had us scratching our heads a bit.

* * * * * * *

Martha and I got settled in, then decided that since the weather was clearing, we’d walk the short distance into the small town, have a look around.

Lake Tekapo is quite lovely, and the small town is pleasant enough. Here’s a good shot of the lake, just behind the small commercial strip:

* * * * * * *

We had a large buffet dinner that evening with other members of the tour. It was quite good.

Then after, the reason we were there: the Mount John Observatory.

It’s New Zealand’s premier observatory, operated under the auspices of the University of Canterbury. Mount John isn’t all that tall – just about a thousand meters above sea level at the top – but it is located in one of the least light-polluted places in New Zealand. The lack of other ambient light sources means that it is easier to see the stars.

They took us to the top of the mountain in vans, handing out loaner parkas. Because it is bloody damned cold up there, and the wind is always intense. One of the guides said that the location held the record for highest wind speed in NZ – some 250 km/h (150 mph), and that sent the domes of the observatory tumbling.

We spent several hours with the different guides, all grad students and staff of the observatory, looking through 16″ and 9″ telescopes and with the naked eye. Unfortunately, there was a quarter-moon up, so it was harder to see the Milky Way, but it was still some of the best sky viewing I’ve had anywhere in my life, and of the Southern Hemisphere. Wonderful!

It was getting on to midnight when they bundled us back in the vans and down to our rooms.

Jim Downey



Remember “Earthrise”?

That was the iconic photo taken during the Apollo 8 mission, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful, and touching, images ever. This video, titled “Cities at Night”, has something of that quality:

It is a series of images taken from the ISS, using an improvised barn-door tracking system to stabilize their digital cameras relative to the speed of the station, allowing for images good to a resolution of about 60 meters. And it had a similar effect on me from watching it as seeing “Earthrise” did for the first time (I remember that, back in 1968), even with my poor monitor and via YouTube.

Light pollution is a problem, as I have mention previously. But it is hard to look at these images and not be struck with just how beautiful even the evidence of our sprawl and overpopulation can be. And seeing our city lights from 200 miles up is inspirational, a glimpse in how we can indeed someday transcend our problems and limitations. We need not be Earthbound, not now, not for the future.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)



Imagine.
October 18, 2007, 10:38 am
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, John Lennon, Light pollution, MetaFilter, Music

Via MeFi, news that Yoko Ono has completed a “light tower” in tribute to her late husband. Here’s an excerpt of what Amy Goodman wrote about it:

John Lennon would have turned 67 years old last week had he not been murdered in 1980, at the age of 40, by a mentally disturbed fan. On his birthday, Oct. 9, his widow, peace activist and artist Yoko Ono, realized a dream they shared. In Iceland, she inaugurated the Imagine Peace Tower, a pillar of light emerging from a wishing well, surrounded on the ground by the phrase “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages.

The website for the project has some very cool images of the construction, testing, and final result (here’s my favorite). This type of use of light is becoming increasingly popular (and is more tangible than my own Paint the Moon project from Communion of Dreams). It can be problematic, though, since light pollution is a real problem, and not just for astronomy. Still, I’d rather have things like this than just random searchlights marking where some car dealer is having a sale.

Jim Downey



Oh! Pretty!
July 31, 2007, 9:30 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Climate Change, Global Warming, Light pollution, Science, Society, Space

Here’s a fascinating, and really quite lovely, image of the earth as seen at night:  The World At Night.  It’s in enough detail that it is fairly easy to identify individual cities, at least if you know your geography a bit.

Lovely, yes, but I must admit to somewhat mixed emotions in seeing it.  First, light pollution is a real problem, not just for astronomers but for anyone who enjoyed looking at the stars at night.  There’s a passage in Communion about how high-atmospheric dust caused by a small scale nuclear war has limited most people’s experience of seeing the stars considerably.  But realistically, we’re at that point now, due to light pollution.  The folks at the International Dark Sky Association have lots of information on this topic, and what can be done about it.

Secondly, all that light is created by electricity – which required power generation.  And right now, for the most part that means the production of greenhouse gases.  And that leads (or contributes) to climate change/global warming, which is likely the biggest threat we face.

But it sure is pretty.

Jim Downey