Even if it’s not at the front of my mind, the back of my mind is still mulling over February’s young earth creationism (or whatever it’s called) “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I often wonder about the experiences and motivations that lead an individual to any form of science-denial, but the laughable absurdity of young-earth creationism isn’t the topic here. I’m only disclosing that the debate played a part in the curiosity that helped this particular blog entry bubble to the surface. That said, if you get time, please watch the “debate” in the video above.
Of all my friends and acquaintances, I knew of one person who preferred Shaun of the Dead until several weeks ago. But even then the question vexed me. How could even one person feel that way?
Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, along with last year’s The World’s End, are collectively known as the Cornetto Trilogy. All three were directed and co-written by Edgar Wright, and all three feature the young and brilliant British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
I’ll set aside The World’s End because it would unnecessarily complicate matters. So what of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead?
Both are quirky comedies with a little slapstick and well-executed over-acting. Both have dark and sad moments that compel the viewer to reflect upon friendship, death, family, and morality. Both are also fast-paced with snappy, original dialogue. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Shaun of the Dead is a zombie comedy while Hot Fuzz is a buddy-cop-action-comedy-thing. I’ve never understood why anyone would prefer the former over the latter. To be clear, while I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead (watched it once), I am addicted to Hot Fuzz (watched it 20+ times, conservatively).
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a tavern enjoying a pint of beer. I finished the glass and was eager to enjoy another when, as I approached the bar, a line of dialogue from Hot Fuzz popped into my head. “Another pint of lager, Mary.” The line probably isn’t funny if you haven’t seen the movie, but don’t worry about that.
I almost threw the line at the bartender but worried she wouldn’t know the movie, so instead, because she and I are pals, I asked if she’d seen Hot Fuzz. She had, but said she enjoyed Shaun of the Dead more. What?!!!
I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:
While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.
When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.
See that bizarre-looking mushroom above? I discovered it in July while on a birthday hike alone through Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park. Its strange whiteness made it hard to miss among the yellows and browns of dead leaves and rotting wood on the forest floor.
But more importantly, I discovered it. Indian Pipe was discovered before. Hence, its common name is Indian Pipe. If I were its first discoverer, it would be known as the Maryland Chalk Stalk, or Cookies ‘n Cream, or the Martian Oreo. Probably that last one just to mess with people. But still, I discovered it.
Discovery is a funny concept and I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’ll do my damnedest to illustrate what I mean.
My imperfect memory tells me that the first grown-up book I read and enjoyed was “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the far more famous “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both written by Arthur C. Clarke.
I wasn’t seeking “2010” when I happened upon the book in the LaPorte High School library. Maybe I was looking for a book-report subject. I don’t know. But I ended up loving that book. Still, for some reason, 20 years or so passed and I still never read any Isaac Asimov.
When I was a teenager I enjoyed a lot of hot chocolate. On one occasion, after heating a mug of water in the microwave, I placed the mug on the counter, tore open a packet and, as soon as the Swiss Miss hit the water it boiled over. The counter was a literal hot mess as quick as I could say “Shit shit shit!”
My best guess for the cause is that the water was ready to boil but was too clean and the mug too smooth. It needed nucleation points — rough spots where a few molecules of gas could orient themselves and start to form bubbles. It’s the same as when carbon dioxide bubbles collect on the soda straw in your ginger ale, or the way a piece of dust or ash serves as a rough kernel upon which a snowflake forms. In my case, the sugar and chocolate dust in my Swiss Miss provided the necessary rough surfaces to allow the water to boil. And the word “dust” reminds me of a funny phrase: mote of dust.
Most of us would probably describe an individual dust particle as a fleck, a speck, or a bit of dust. I’ve only ever heard one man say “mote of dust.” Even when others use the phrase, they’re only quoting him. Him, as in Carl Sagan or, to some admirers, Carl. He was perhaps the greatest ambassador between science and the public who ever lived. In addition to being a NASA consultant for decades, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and much more, Sagan was the host of the 1980 public television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”
We who adore that television series simply call it “Cosmos” and, as anyone with an internet connection and the slightest geekiness knows, a preview for the show’s 2014 remake was released a couple weeks ago. They’re calling it “Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey,” and it’ll be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are some big differences between Sagan and Tyson, of course, the only notable one being that Tyson has a mustache and Sagan didn’t. But, in a way, that makes them similar because Tyson has a mustache when they’re not fashionable, whereas Sagan lacked a mustache when it WAS fashionable, or at least when Freddie Mercury made it seem fashionable.
Rock ‘n roll aside, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and has been orbiting the planet Saturn since 2004, took a few photos of Earth July 19 at a distance of almost 900 million miles (see photo above). That photo, of course, calls to mind a similar one taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft (below) in 1990 at a distance four times farther than the Cassini photo.
The Voyager photo was advocated for by Carl Sagan himself, and served as the inspiration for the title of his book “Pale Blue Dot.” The Voyager photo remains the most distant ever taken of our planet, which takes us to Sagan’s famous phrase “…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” a phrase he delivered in the original “Cosmos” program.
I’ll not waste time or electronic ink fiddling with lofty ideas that are so much better articulated by others in recent days regarding the Cassini photo, the Voyager photo, or the reboot of “Cosmos.” Instead, I’ll summarize: the Voyager photo and the show “Cosmos” captured humanity’s insignificance as well as our connectedness to all of nature (that means space too). As Phil Plait noted in the caption of the Cassini photo on his Slate blog, “No human has ever ventured outside the frame of this picture.”
So there’s a theme here — Cosmos, Sagan, photo of earth — what of it? Well, it all got me thinking about something that I was, honestly, already thinking about because I’m thinking about it all the time. But despite all that thinking, others still say it so much better. For example, Rachel Edidin at Wired wrote a piece reacting to the Cosmos reboot and composed my thoughts far better than I could:
“As we face an all-out assault on science and the principles that inform it — a dogma-driven, results-focused culture of denial and institutionally reinforced ignorance, as we strip science curricula from schools and research funding from budgets — we need Cosmos more than ever. Carl Sagan’s Spaceship of the Imagination isn’t just a convenient metaphor. It’s an ark, whose trajectory has the potential to change the course of our culture, and, possibly, our future.”
But lets widen the scope of our timeline a little, keeping in mind my mug of hot water from the beginning.
We live in a world where China, Japan and other nations are making news with their respective increased participation in spaceflight and the development of space technology. Private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are also successfully joining the field of spaceflight, and the Mars One project has received tens of thousands of applications from people around the world interested in a one-way trip to establish a permanent settlement on the red planet in 2023. Those are all good things.
The Mars rover Curiosity landed a year ago (Aug. 6, 2012), has steadily made the news since, and is now en route to its destination, Mount Sharp. On this pile let’s toss the Chelyabinsk meteor that ripped across the skies of Russia in February, certainly providing the world with a reminder: while space is a thing to be explored, it also harbors immense threats to our way of life. Further still, we’re in or near the solar maximum, a story that has found its way to the cover of nearly every science magazine (see the Sept. 2013 issue of Astronomy Magazine) in the last couple years, along with non-science publications.
Do you feel the mug of water heating up? Is the stage set? I’m hopeful, and I’ll explain why.
Any human born in 1890 who reached the age of 80 lived through both the first flight of the Wright brothers and the first humans landing on the moon in their lifetime. My parents’ generation were born when color television hadn’t even arrived in the U.S., but that same generation can now watch whatever they want on smart phones, and can do so with higher resolution and more vibrant colors than was offered in the best televisions when even I was growing up. In short, I concede that the phrase “We live in a special time” has probably passed the lips of someone in every generation for the last several generations and, at the time, they were right. But I still believe that our time is different. Why? Because you can Google and watch video footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor in an instant. Or here’s a time-lapse of the first 100 days of the Curiosity rover on Mars:
Videos like those are commonplace so what’s the big deal? Whether in Paris, London, Tokyo, Jakarta, Tehran, Beijing or almost anywhere else in the world, people with an internet connection can watch those videos and be inspired. Did immediate and broad access to such experiences exist 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago?
Yesterday morning I received an email telling me that the International Space Station would be visible over my town for a few minutes starting at 9:00 p.m. So I stopped writing this for 10 minutes and went outside to watched a spaceship the size of a football field silently cross the sky carrying three Americans, two Russians and an Italian. That’s the era we live in. Hell, I’m not special. Anyone can sign up for those email alerts.
So maybe the water is hot, or even ready to boil. But where’s our hot chocolate mix?
In late November, the mountain-sized and newly discovered Comet ISON will pass within 724,000 miles of our sun — if the distance from earth to the sun were a football field, the comet would be less than a yard from a touchdown — and after it passes the sun, hopefully blasted into high-visibility in the process, ISON might be the comet of a lifetime, meaning it could be visible during the day and outshine the full moon at night. It might also blossom into a sputtering nothing, but if it does put on a show the whole world will be unable to ignore ISON for days.
Finally, riding on that comet’s tail is “Cosmos: A Time-Space Odyssey,” which begins broadcasting in February.
Here’s the preview:
Yeah, it’s like that. A documentary, but with mad special effects, three decades of science updates and a side-order of badass. Could this change the world? Could Cosmos be the powdered hot chocolate mix that allows the water of global scientific curiosity to boil? At present, that remains as unknowable as Comet ISON’s winter performance.
I hope that you’ll not only watch Cosmos, but persuade your friends to do the same. Maybe it won’t be as ground-shaking as you or I hope, but we must give it a chance. Screw professional and college sports, boycott the reality shows, and let the sitcoms laugh at their own damn selves, because inspiration and awe about the universe are being served up on a silver platter. Not philosophy, myth or superstition, but facts about the nature of reality. Choosing to not watch suggests nothing better than that you don’t care about the future of humanity. And if that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before the feeling becomes mutual.
There. I said it.
Yeah, yeah, NASA budget, blah blah blah. I know, I really do. I wish NASA had the budget the Department of Defense currently enjoys and I wish we lived in a world where the DoD didn’t need a budget at all. We’ll get there, not tomorrow, but we’ll get there.
In the mean time, while space exploration isn’t as far along as space enthusiasts wish, exciting stuff is still happening. Specifically, one of the boldest missions NASA has ever attempted is about to reach its most nail-biting moment. First, you should sit down. Good. Now slide forward until you’re on the edge of your seat. No? Well, whatever.
Here’s the thing: A one-ton, nuclear powered, laser wielding, six-wheeled robot the size of a small car is going to land on Mars in less than a month. There. I said it. And I’m not making it up. This robot is called the Curiosity rover. Docile-sounding name? Yes. But here’s how I picture the rover:
Okay, now here’s what Curiosity really looks like (Curiosity is the 6-wheeled guy with the Wall-e head to the immediate right of two engineers having a picnic):
On Nov. 26, 2011, right around the time people on the East Coast of the U.S. were pouring their second cup of morning coffee, the Mars Science Laboratory launched from Cape Canaveral. When the craft arrives on Mars Aug. 6 it will have traveled 352 million miles.
The rover is powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG (pronounced: muh-muh-ER-tig … just kidding). That loosely translates to “nuclear generator that runs on plutonium dioxide.” The rover really is equipped with a drill and a laser (see drawing above), as well as an arsenal of cameras, spectrometers, detectors and sensors. The purpose of Curiosity’s permanent visit to the Red Planet is to determine whether the planet ever had conditions capable of supporting microbial life. But that purpose only bears fruit if Curiosity survives its arrival at Mars.
The process through which Curiosity will land on Mars is laughably complex, and at the same time awe-inspiring. Here’s NASA’s sci-fi-style computer-generated animation of Curiosity, from when it enters the Martian atmosphere to when it touches down. Remember those charming touches of realism in the 2009 Star Trek film, or in the Firefly series, such as lens flare, zooming in and out, and a little bit of wobbly camera action? Yeah, they’ve got that:
Regardless, the Curiosity rover reaches Mars in less than a month. Maybe all the engineers’ calculations were solid and nothing goes wrong. Or, maybe something does go wrong. I’d prefer the former but will accept the latter. That a group of people planned and attempted such a complex project is good enough for me. Success or failure, we learn. If Curiosity does set foot on Mars and get on with the mission, hold your breath. It probably won’t find life or signs of life (I just have a feeling, or maybe I’m trying not to get my hopes up) but it will find something, probably something groundbreaking or Earth-shaking. This is science in action. Don’t miss it.
You can follow the Mars Science Laboratory on Twitter here and on Facebook here. Want to see where the space probe is now? Or would you like to see the countdown clock to Curiosity’s arrival on Mars? Click here. And set aside some time Aug. 6 to watch a little NASA TV. I imagine they’ll provide live coverage of the rover’s successful or unsuccessful landing here. I’ll be watching too, but my mind will be hundreds of millions of miles away.
Behold! Another story of wildlife just beyond my doorstep! It’s not my fault. I can’t avoid the creatures. They’re everywhere, from the tiny red mites on the railings at school, to the slugs that migrate across my apartment sidewalk at the same location every night. I even have wildlife in my apartment. I know this because every time I eat popcorn at the desk in my home-office, some evil creature steals a couple kernels when I’m not looking and then places them under my desk so I’ll roll over them with my chair. Goodness knows I couldn’t be spilling popcorn myself.
But back to the wildlife outside my Baltimore apartment. A little after sundown a few days ago I was walking in the grass along the edge of the park across the street. As is common this time of year, the fireflies were out doing their thing.
Fireflies remind me of my years in Indiana. I must have been 12 or 13 years old when my family moved from steamy and sunny Florida to the Midwest and its long, chilling winters. One day during my first winter in Northern Indiana the temperature hovered around -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, my family’s house in Indiana had a huge perk. Beyond our backyard lawn was about an acre of woods, and down a small hill was a pond, about a quarter-mile long. Other homes were right on the pond, but they were all on the north end whereas we lived on the south end. We couldn’t see the other homes from the pond unless we walked around the point. On our end, we had the waterfront all to ourselves, and the whole thing was surrounded by tall trees. My memories from the pond are so fond that, when I’m in my final days of life, thoughts of my time there will be among those I ponder with the simplest but greatest satisfaction.
My older brother and I helped our dad build a sturdy set of wood stairs straight down the hill through the woods. From there, my dad cleared out a path to the pond and covered the path in wood chips. At the edge of the pond, he then mowed down an area big enough for a fire-pit and a dozen people to sit around it. He also built a short wooden dock and installed two floodlights on 20- or 30-foot studs at the end of the dock so that we could ice-skate after sundown (days are short in the Midwestern winter). We’d sit on the dock to put on our ice-skates, then we’d shovel the snow into a rectangle with rounded edges and play hockey with our school friends for hours on end.
Aside from the mosquitos, summers down on the pond were just as good if not better than winters. My dad had an old slightly waterlogged sailboat. We didn’t bother putting the mast and sail on — there wasn’t usually much wind down on the pond — but the boat had two oar-locks. So whenever I brought a girl over, even just a friend, my dad would suggest I take her out in the rowboat. I’d row and we’d chat while admiring the houses on the north end, and the fish, lily pads, turtles and tadpoles. Some evenings, my marching band pals and I would sit around the fire well into the night and talk about whatever. At other times, my dad and I would stroll around down by pond, talking about girls, my future, my brothers, or my awful grades.
But the end of the dock was where the real magic happened. If the water was low enough, you could sit on the dock without your shoes getting soaked and stare across the pond. On certain nights in the summer, the wall of trees across the pond would erupt into a silent light show. From high in the trees right down to the pond, the fireflies were everywhere shopping for mates.
But here’s the thing, I spent a lot of summer nights down by the pond, and I only ever noticed one color of firefly. In fact, it never crossed my mind that there were more than one species, let alone any firefly whose butt didn’t glow in a yellow-green color. I’ve enjoyed fireflies before and since, but only ever the one color. But on this recent night in Baltimore, walking along the trees near my apartment, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.
First, I started paying attention to the fireflies because of how they were lighting up. Several of the insects weren’t doing the familiar slow fadeaway after they glowed. They were flashing on, off, on, off with no fade. This caused me to do a double-take. I couldn’t remember fireflies flashing so quickly on and off. A moment later I forgot about that surprise because I thought I saw an orange firefly. I stared and waited, then saw not one orange firefly but three.
After a while it was easy to know I wasn’t mistaken because the orange fireflies were mingling near the yellow-green ones. Have you ever been unsure whether a certain pair of pants were black or dark blue? What do you do to make sure? You find a piece of clothing you KNOW is black, and you put it next to the pants in question. Suddenly, they’re clearly blue, not black. It’s the comparison that makes their color clear, and it didn’t take long to confirm these were orange fireflies.
I wondered if maybe the fireflies had evolved to use orange streetlamps to hide from predators, or maybe the lightning bugs had somehow ingested manmade chemicals, which then accumulated in the insects’ light organ and changed the chemistry enough to make an orange color instead of a yellow-green one. Was I the first to see this change in the species? Or maybe I discovered a new species of bioluminescent insects that just happened to come out and glow at the same time of day in the same places as fireflies. [Ahem] No. I’ll have to keep dreaming of the day when I can name an orange-glowing-butt insect after myself.
Turns out there are more than one species of firefly. Well, a whole lot more than one. The National Geographic Society says there are about 2,000 species of firefly, and fireflies’ flashing patterns are unique to each species. Scientists aren’t certain how the insects control the on/off switch, but they do know how they glow. Fireflies take in oxygen and introduce it to a chemical called luciferin in a special organ in the bug’s rear end. The chemical reaction creates almost no heat and almost all light. We’re talking not quite 100 percent but darn close, according to the Ohio State University, which offers firefly facts online. The university’s site also says that a normal lightbulb converts only about 10 percent of its energy to light. The other 90 percent becomes heat.
But what about the color of fireflies’ glowing butts? That can range from the common yellow-green to a reddish-orange. I had no idea.
While we’re at it, here are a few other things you might not know (and I certainly didn’t know) about fireflies, from Ohio State University’s and Nat-Geo’s websites:
- Fireflies are not flies. They’re beetles (of the family Lampyridae), and most firefly species, but not all, have wings.
- Like humans, fireflies are omnivores.
- Unlike humans, fireflies generally live only 2 months.
- Some firefly species don’t glow. In the U.S., you’re unlikely to encounter the glowing types west of central Kansas.
- Both firefly larvae and adults glow, and both taste not-so-good to predators.
- Some Asian species of firefly live underwater, breath using a type of gills, and eat snails.
- Fireflies live just about everywhere humans do, except for the southernmost tip of South America, most of Greenland, and the northernmost reaches of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Also, you won’t find any fireflies in Antarctica, though you’re welcome to go there to look.
That said, keep an eye out and you just might see a firefly that’s not yellow-green. I’ve seen just three, and though I’ve kept looking since, I haven’t seen another orange one. Maybe I’ll never see another, but I’ll still remember the joy and surprise of this single occasion — one more fond memory to relish.