Communion Of Dreams


“We are on a marble, floating in the middle of … nothing.”

Via BoingBoing, this completely delightful short video about the scale of our solar system:

That does a better job of getting the real sense of scale than just about anything else I’ve seen. Wonderful.

 

Jim Downey

 



A meditation on what isn’t there.

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

 

* * *

I first heard of Michael Heizer in a sculpture class in college, sometime in the late 1970s. Well, that I remember. It’s entirely possible that I had seen some coverage of his work in the press before then. But my professor got me thinking about how sculpture defined space both by physical presence and absence, and I know that it was then that I became aware of Heizer’s work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his basic concepts would manifest in my life in many ways, showing up in my interests in martial arts, book design, even writing.

* * *

In the movie, John Bowsher (then the Project Manager for Levitated Mass at LACMA) says this:

His ideas are incredibly simple, when you pare it all down to just its physical nature, it’s really quite simple, and you see it again and again in his work. To achieve that degree of simplicity is like, almost the hardest thing in the world to do.

 

* * *

Not being there when your opponent strikes.

Drawing the eye to the empty space.

Allowing the reader to fill in the suggested, but missing, description.

Each of these engages and enlightens in ways that no amount of force, or color, or detail ever could.

 

* * *

Chrissie Iles, Curator at the Whitney Museum, talking about Heizer’s Double Negative in the movie:

Micheal Heizer makes you aware of space and your relationship to space and how you move through space,the role of the sky, the role of the land, beyond what you’re looking at. You have to rethink the nature of who you are physically in relation to what you are walking around inside and observing from a distance and up close.

 

* * *

We’re not always aware of what we do while we’re doing it, or why. Sometimes, the trajectory of a life is determined by little things, subtle things. Even things which are mssing.

 

* * *

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

Shortly after I had conceived of the idea behind Paint the Moon, I knew that it wasn’t actually feasible. But the idea delighted me. And after some thought, I realized why: it was taking the principles of Michael Heizer’s art — of paring down art to the very simplest, physical elements of experience — and going one step further. Remove the physical object altogether, and replace it with pure experience, pure concept. Hence my description of the project as a “collective lyric fantasy”.

You can’t see the artifact of that project at a museum. There is no massive boulder to walk under, or a negative space in the desert to encounter.

But there is the Moon overhead, and the memory of a moment in time.

 

Jim Downey



One fourth.

Tomorrow I turn 57. Yeah, on the Fourth of July.

That might seem a little weird to someone who doesn’t have a birthday on the Fourth. Not to me. I’ve grown up with it.

But you know what seems weird to me?

That I’ve been alive for almost one-fourth of the entire time that the United States has existed. Run the numbers, and you’ll see.

It’s very odd to realize just how young our country is in some ways. And how much things have changed just in my lifetime.

I remember the early days of the Space Race. I remember the night Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

And I remember growing up with casual racism of the worst sort. When homophobia was so deeply ingrained and widespread that the word itself didn’t even really exist. I remember using words like n***** and f***** without a trace of embarrassment, because they were so common.

Things have changed somewhat. Not enough. But still, too much for some people. Because change can be scary. Threatening.

The length of my life will take you to the time of Sputnik. The length of another such will take you back before Kitty Hawk. And just one more will land you well before the Civil War.

Change can be hard. And the fight never ends. But have hope: progress can be made. Both for individuals and for countries. Perhaps, even, for the whole world.

 

Jim Downey



Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey



Bits & pieces.

A number of unrelated items which I thought I’d share …

* * *

Astronomers Find Ancient Earth-Sized Planets in Our Galactic Backyard

Astronomers have announced what may be the most interesting exoplanet discovery yet made: five planets, all smaller than Earth, orbiting a very ancient star. And I do mean ancient: Its age is estimated to be more than 11 billion years old, far older than the Sun. These are old, old planets!

* * *

Perhaps you see the problem. If planets like Earth formed 11 billion years ago, and happened to form at the right distance for more clement conditions on the surface, life could have arisen long enough ago and started building spaceships long before the Earth even formed! They’d have planted their flags on every Earth-sized habitable planet in the Milky Way by now.

Where are they?

Oh! Oh! I know! Pick me!!

* * *

Thanks to all who helped spread the word about the 3rd anniversary promotion! It was a modest success, with a little shy of 200 books downloaded world-wide, including through the following Amazon portals:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Japan
  • Netherlands (for the first time!)
  • UK
  • US

* * *

Via BoingBoing, turn your iPhone into a thermal imaging camera in just seconds:

Yeah, I mentioned using this kind of imaging tech in the current novel some time back.

* * *

Speaking of tech predictions, this is the first step in the sort of thing I envisioned for the cyberware of Communion of Dreams:

Flexible spinal cord implants will let paralyzed people walk

* * *

I mentioned earlier that evidently the Wikipedia elves are trying to decide whether to nuke my entry there. It seems that they’re still debating it. As I noted on the BBTI Facebook page a few days ago, in response to comment by a friend that it seems weird that BBTI is little more than a footnote in that entry:

It’s a fair point. I certainly am known much better around the world for being the driving force behind BBTI than I am for a fun little art stunt which was intended to happen and then fade from memory. I know that BBTI has had a much bigger and more lasting impact in the real world.

So, whether or not an entry about me should exist at all, if one does exist, shouldn’t it be more about my part in BBTI rather than as a “internet performance artist”? Hell, even my work as a book & document conservator has had a much larger real impact than ‘Paint the Moon’ did.

Just a thought, if anyone wants to do some editing …

* * *

This doesn’t have anything to do with any of the books or anything I’ve predicted (that I can remember), but it is a pretty cool bit of astronomy:

Gigantic ring system around J1407b much larger, heavier than Saturn’s

Astronomers at the Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands, and the University of Rochester, USA, have discovered that the ring system that they see eclipse the very young Sun-like star J1407 is of enormous proportions, much larger and heavier than the ring system of Saturn. The ring system – the first of its kind to be found outside our solar system – was discovered in 2012 by a team led by Rochester’s Eric Mamajek.

 

* * *
And here’s a useful video for anyone out there who may need to remove some rust from old equipment:

I knew that this could be done with electrolysis, but I didn’t realize that it was actually quite so simple. I am definitely going to set up to do this on a number of old tools and suchlike.

* * *

A nice bit of space exploration history:

The Challenge of the Planets, Part Three: Gravity

 

* * *

And I think I will leave it at that for now.

 

Jim Downey



It’s a matter of perspective.

Phil Plait has another in a long series of articles about a space rock that isn’t going to hit Earth. Seriously:

This is Part N of what is apparently an infinite series of “No, Asteroid XXX Is Not Going to Hit the Earth” posts.

I’m sure he’s right. I have no doubt that he’s right. The latest rock in question isn’t going to get any closer than about 5 million kilometers. Which, as Plait notes: “That’s a pretty wide margin, well over 10 times the distance to the Moon.”

But I think that the problem with this kind of thing is that most people just have no clue how great that distance actually is. Seriously. I remember reading that a series of studies were done where if you asked people what they thought of the relationship between the Earth and the Moon was in terms of distance, where the Earth was represented by a basketball and the Moon by a softball, they’d typically say that the distance between the two was about a foot. Some would say a yard. As in, 3 feet. Maybe they’d say a meter if they were feeling sciency.

Whereas the proportional distance would be more like 24′ in actuality. (Based on just memory, I originally said 18′. A friend who actually knows this stuff gave me the correct number – thanks, Brent!)

Space is big. Most people have no damned clue how big. So when you say that some fast-moving rock will pass by the Earth by as much as 10x the distance of the Earth to the Moon, they’ll get scared, thinking that it is going to be a hell of a lot closer than it actually is.

It’s all a matter of perspective, not science. Like most things.

Jim Downey

Edited to add: My friend Brent, who set me straight on the actual proportion above, added a comment on FB to note that if you have the distance of the Sun-Earth (one AU) set to one inch, then a full light-year would be right about a mile total distance. Which would put our nearest neighboring star at about 4.5 miles distance.

Yeah, space is BIG.



Two visions.

This wonderful vision of the human future has been making the rounds recently, and I had to share it:

Wanderers is a vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.

A somewhat more … cautionary … vision of what the future could hold can be found in this:

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant melted down in 1986, creating a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone that has been almost completely devoid of human interference for decades. Now you can take a tour, courtesy of a camera-carrying drone.

 

Mutually exclusive? Apocalypse versus brave new worlds?

I think not. In fact, the Communion of Dreams/St Cybi’s Well ‘universe’ contains both. If I ever decide to write them, I have books set in the 2020s, about 15 years following the fire-flu pandemic, and in the 2030s in the Israeli colonies on the Moon. In the first the world will feel much like what’s seen in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And in the second I’ve envisioned how the 1/6th Earth-normal gravity would allow for playing something very much like Quiddich on small personal flyers in large domed stadiums.

It’s important to remember that the future isn’t either/or. It’s even more important to remember that we will have a role in creating that future, for good or ill.

 

Jim Downey