Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Pale Blue Dot

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Ann Druyan suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?”

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Perseids @ Sea

Last night I had the exhilarating experience of viewing the peak of the Perseids meteor shower in the company of a dozen Shipmates (oddly, the majority of them seemed to be engineers) from the signal bridge, perched high on the Tanker's upper works.  The view was spectacular, with the Milky Way stretching horizon-to-horizon, the Summer Triangle ensnared in our ship's signal halyards, and golden Saturn gleaming in contrast to ruddy Antares in the south.

As might be imagined, I was in my element; explaining how meteor streams occur, are refreshed by their parent comets, and intersect with the orbit of our own Earth; pointing out constellations and asterisms; walking my companions through the "scales" of the night sky, starting with Saturn at mere interplanetary distances, moving out through light-years to Vega and Antares and distant Deneb--then taking that leap into intergalactic realms with the lovely naked-eye galaxy of Andromeda.

The evening's conversation ranged, you might say, far-afield, but every minute or so we were drawn back to the "shallow" sky by another bright meteor flashing overhead from east to west.  While not the best Perseid show I've ever experienced, the celestial fireworks were quite satisfactory to all present, and the shower was still going strong when the rising Moon began to brighten the skies.

As midnight came nigh I found myself alone on the signal bridge; a thin skein of cirrus had formed and conspired with Luna to end the evening's show.  As I gathered binoculars, star atlas and red flashlight my thoughts went back over the evening's adventures in time and space, aeons and megaparsecs.  Once again I'd had proven to me that exploring the heavens in the company of enthusiastic Shipmates is what I truly enjoy about being an astronomer;  whether on a sidewalk with "members of the public" or atop the towering superstructure of a mighty sea-going vessel with crew-mates, the true joy of observing the skies lies in the sharing.

But then, I already knew that.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

f/Stop: My August Eclipse

Last night I watched a very nice partial lunar eclipse from 'Laramie's bridge wing. A half-dozen Shipmates joined me to watch Earth's shadow obscure about a quarter of our satellite's disk. Here in the Red Sea it was easy to see the penumbra creep across Luna's surface; all the dust in the atmosphere here acts as a natural filter, enhancing the changes in brightness and tone.
Red Sea Eclipse...
I'm going to miss the August 21 Solar Eclipse that so many folks Stateside are preparing for; I suppose that the experience of observing the Moon's darkening limb could be considered a consolation prize.

I guess I can accept that.