Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cosmos Thoughts

It's been a mostly gray week on the North Coast, not unusual for summer, at least until recent years.  This time the high gray of the marine layer (a more precise name for high uniform fog) was joined by darker and lower clouds that threatened rain but produced only a brief night shower.  On another night the combination also led to the light moisture in the air that accumulated wet touches on the leaves, barely discernible on the street, that's also characteristic of this place.

Today however was bright and windy--days like this seem more frequent.  And since it is the weekend, it was noisy with leaf blowers and lawn mowers, as well as two young men blasting around in what now is called a vintage car, but in the past was known as a hot rod.

Last night the sky was clear enough for me to see the moon and some stars, and a bright pin of red that I knew must be Mars.  It is particularly close now, though receding from its closest point this time around, in May.  Its orbit swings it nearer to Earth once or twice every 15 years or so (though its very closest pass which happened in 2003 won't be repeated until 2287.)

Interest in Mars perked up during a few such close encounters in the late 19th century, when more powerful telescopes picked up surface features, mis-reported as "canals," which were then aided by imagination in suggesting a civilization on that planet.  When Mars came close again in the late 1890s, England and America in particular were in the grip of Mars Mania, and more than 50 novels about Mars and Martians were published, including the one that is still read today: H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

That these novels were popular when Mars was big and red in the sky was not coincidence, but that I was watching episodes of Carl Sagan's 1980 Cosmos series was.  Sagan was a working scientist as well as an inspiring writer and personality, and he was heavily involved in the Viking missions, which landed the first spacecraft on Mars and sent back the first photos of the Martian surface.

His episode on Mars ("Blues for a Red Planet," also a chapter in the book version) begins with the opening of the H.G. Wells story, as emblematic of the hold Mars has had on imaginations.  Since then we've had the Martian rovers, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy that chronicles terraforming the planet and the first generations of Martians from Earth, the hit movie The Martian, and Internet billionaires who are fixated on going to Mars in their lifetime.

Sagan also had that dream of human habitation and some form of terraforming, but he prioritized saving the one planet still known to be "graced by life," the Earth.  I'm not sure the same can be said about some scientists and Internet billionaires.

In another episode, "The Backbone of Night," Sagan tells of being a child in Brooklyn who occasionally saw the stars and wondered what they were.  He went to the nearest library and asked for a book on stars.  At first he was given a picture book of Hollywood luminaries.  But then he got the one he wanted and learned for the first time that "stars were suns, only very far away.  The Sun was a star, but close up."

(You might wonder why he didn't learn this in school.  What he doesn't say is that when he made this first trip to the library he was five years old.  Precocious Carl even had vivid specific memories of being taken to the famous 1939 World's Fair in New York, when he was four.)

"The Backbone of Night" refers to the Milky Way, which is the point of departure for this episode. The particular coincidence of seeing this episode was that, on the same day, I read the melancholy finding that 80% of  North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution.  Almost everyone in the US looks into a light polluted sky.

One of the scientists involved in the study commented: "There are still people that can remember when they used to be able to see the Milky Way when they would walk outside at night, but those are becoming fewer and fewer."  I guess I'm one of the few, though it seems so unusual now that I can hardly believe that the Milky Way was a commonplace sight in my early childhood, as I lived on a hill of a neighborhood that didn't have streetlights, outside a small town.

I probably had a better view than young Carl in Brooklyn, who might not have seen much more of the night sky as I do now, when on clear nights there are only a scattering of stars visible from my backyard.  Carl Sagan, who believed he got his analytical skills and skepticism from his mother but his sense of wonder from his father, combined them as no one else has.  Maybe some of the science in Cosmos is outdated (and there is a more recent series that follows in his footsteps: the 3 minutes of the video above with Sagan's narration from another of his books is from that series) but his voice remains eloquent in expressing this necessary combination.

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