Category Archives: Science

Carnival Town

We are ALL Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

We are ALL Dr. Babooner
We are ALL Dr. Babooner

I suffer from a litte-known, not-well-understood condition called Atariphobia, which is an unsupported-by-facts but nonetheless pervasive fear of invaders from space.

Consequently, I find myself constantly scanning the sky for signs of flying saucers.

In addition, I am a practicing Orsonist. As followers of the late actor/director Orson Welles, we Orsonists assume that in every case the most dramatic explanation is automatically the one that’s most likely to be true.

Rosebud!

Welles is known for the classic 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast,  which convinced too many people that Earth was under attack.  As a result, smoldering craters of every kind give me the creeps. When our family went to visit Yellowstone National Park, I stayed in the hotel room the entire time, sobbing.

In spite of these debilitating conditions, I am usually able to lead a typical life. But there’s a blog I follow where the writer often talks about how beautiful our planet looks from space, and he sometimes posts things like this video:

When I look at this, I’m terrified.

Compared to the barren, dead worlds we see elsewhere in our solar system (Mars!) and others we’re discovering throughout the galaxy, our place has a distinct ‘open for business’ look that makes me extremely uneasy.

It’s a swirly, spinning, sparkly gem set against a black background, with inexplicably vivid highlights, like the intermittent green glow of those northern lights – a feature that simply begs to be investigated.

If you were a space alien searching for a fun place to land or a bright bauble to tear apart, ours appears to be the only game in town. Why wouldn’t you come here?

I’m usually not too political, but I called my Congressman to urge her to do something. I thought maybe she could offer legislation to wrap the world in a drab,frumpy bag, dressing it down in the same way a beautiful woman de-emphasizes her best features to discourage unwanted attention.

The congressional aide I spoke with told me the Republican leadership is already doing everything it can to uglify the world through climate change denial. He used the incessant western drought as an example.

“California,” he explained, “is already looking a lot like Uranus.”

But I could hear stifled laughter on the other end of the line. I don’t think they took me very seriously.

Dr. Babooner, people are so willing to mock those who are even a little bit unconventional. How can I get them to consider the real risk posed by our planet’s obvious invade-able-ness?

Trepidatiously,
I.M. Wary

I told I.M.W. there is not much one person can do to make the world seem uninviting to outsiders. And when it comes to putting a potential crisis on the popular agenda, one must wait one’s turn. As a people, we respond to risk when the danger is imminent and our possible responses are limited.  In other words, we will only act when it is too late to act.  But as an Orsonist, I’m sure you’re already well aware that the world will accept no whine before its time.

But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

A Long Trip Worth A Short Rhyme

We all know migratory birds accomplish amazing feats, but none are more incredible than this latest news about the Blackpoll Warbler.

That a fluffy bird “the size of a tennis ball” can make it from Massachusetts to Venezuela is inspiring – at least I hoped it would be for Trail Baboon’s Sing-Song Poet Laureate Schuyler Tyler Wyler.

When I asked him to pen a few lines about exhaustion and depleted things, he was already at work on it, having received word via social media that there was a bird story in the news.

The songbird’s strength is in his throat,
the better for to sing with.
He’s not designed to swim or float.
It’s music he takes wing with.

His scrawny stubs flap extra fast
when he flies o’er the ocean.
We don’t expect his trip to last
with such a frantic motion.

For three long days he pushes south.
Until the trip’s completed.
At last a sound escapes his beak.
“R my arms tired,” he tweeted.

What wears you out?  

Don’t Let The Stars Get in Your Eyes

It should be obvious by now that I’m fascinated by outer space, a place I’ve seen on TV but will probably never visit. If I did get a chance to leave the atmosphere, I would want a window seat and would spend most of my time looking back at the place I’d just come from.

From what I’ve seen on the printed page and the flat screen, all views of Earth from orbit are enthralling. Even the ones that don’t allow me to say “Hey, there’s my house!”

I don’t know how long it would take for the scenery to become ordinary or (heavens forbid!), boring. Maybe that’s not possible, but there’s a chance we’re going to find out now that a couple of guys have been sent to the International Space Station to stay for a year.

Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will help answer a boatload of questions during their odyssey.

The one that caught my eye (literally) is this one – quoted from the BBC article linked above:

“However, there are other problems that doctors still need to study and understand. They have poor data on the effects on immune function, for example, and there is considerable concern about the damage spaceflight causes to the eyes. This is a newly recognised phenomenon, and appears to be related to the way fluid is redistributed in a weightless body.

Pressure is seen to build in the skull and on the optic nerve, and a large number of astronauts return to Earth complaining that their vision is not as good as when they went up.”

So in other words, space is beautiful, but the longer you stay, the less you’re going to see.  If diminished vision is part of the deal you have to cut to experience the stunning visuals of long-term space flight, is it worth the price?

When have you agonized over a trade-off?

We Are Stardust

The latest news from deep space is that scientists believe the explosion of a supernova at the center of our galaxy generated enough cosmic dust to make everything on Earth 7,000 times over, including us.

But then that should come as no surprise, since the noted scientific researcher Joni Mitchell, along with her lab assistants Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young detailed our connection to stardust back in 1970.

Long before that (but after that supernova explosion), Hoagy Carmichael was using chords to depict stardust, and Mitchell Parish provided some elegantly twisty lyrics to turn the focus of the song outward and back on itself at the same time.

Strangely, because it is a work of art and doesn’t have any particular physical qualities outside of the paper its notes and words are written on, the Carmichael/Parish song Stardust is actually one feature of our cultural landscape that’s NOT made of stardust. But that couldn’t protect the song from some savage treatment – me trying to wrangle it into something that reflects this latest bit of astronomical information:

Sometimes I wonder how the stuff
that makes us up, came to be around.
Floating free, scientists agree,
some dust congealed to me and you.

When we were brand new,
drifting in a constellation!
Ah, but that was long ago,
and our coagulation means that to stardust we belong.

Exploding ancient stars
gave off some light, and a lot of stuff.
The stuff survived. Later we arrived.
I can’t explain it, nor can you.

I believe they know
So let’s all just say it’s so.
We’re stardust, you and me,
Debris from chaos, long ago.

What are you made of?

A Little Bend in the Light

I was trying to get my mind around the news that astronomers have observed multiple images of a supernova exploding by simply looking in the right place and understanding the strange effects of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, when the phone rang.

It was Trail Baboon poet laureate Schuyler Tyler Wyler calling to beg for a commission.

Things have been a bit tough in the poetry game of late, and what with large companies like General Mills and Target retrenching, the slogan and tagline market has dried up almost completely.

“Give me something complex to boil down into a few lines of verse,” he said. “I have to keep my toolkit sharp in case the discount clothing and packaged food industries bounce back and there’s a sudden need for fresh jingles.”

Of course I gave him the only thing I had – that a star exploding on the other side of the universe nine billion years ago has appeared in our sky at least four times, and it all makes perfect sense. I told him I would buy him a cup of coffee next Wednesday if he could make it rhyme.

Here’s his reply:

To see a Supernova pop
is not so hard to do.
Just float some denser galaxies
between the star and you.

Then get it properly aligned
Nine billion years ago,
to let dark matter intervene
so you can watch it blow.

The light from the explosion
has to go around each side.
So when you view the fireworks
you see it multiplied!

The images arrive distinct
and separate as they please.
A single Supernova that can say
cheese cheese cheese cheese.

What spectacle would you watch over and over and over and over?

Overlapping Shadows

Time now for an occasional (OK, this is the second one, ever) feature of Trail Baboon – Connect Three.

Three current news stories share a common feature – in this case the linkage is anything but obscure – it’s a simple shadow.

The first one has to do with a particular portrait of Bill Clinton in the National Portrait Gallery. Artist Nelson Shanks says the canvas he painted of President Bill Clinton in 2006 includes the shadow of a blue dress, a reference to the famous Monica Lewinski garment which, having been smeared by Clinton himself, left a permanent stain on his presidency.

This, I suppose, is where being an artist trumps having political or financial muscle in that you get to make a lasting commentary. It’s not clear why Shanks would reveal this particular artistic choice right now. Perhaps it’s a bid to set his Clinton image apart from at least 54 others in the Portrait Gallery.

Ah, the Shanks Portrait. That’s the one with The Dress!

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Meanwhile, far out in space at the constantly moving intersection of comet science and human ingenuity, the Rosetta spacecraft has taken a picture of its own diffuse shadow on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This news is getting enough play to suggest that we retain our ability to be amazed by simple things. Not only could we locate, chase down and go into orbit around a comet – we’re able to throw a little shade on one too. Fascinating. We are enthralled at any bit of evidence that hints at or own existence. Does this light make my butt look big?

And finally, Disney Characters shadowed shoppers in a mall in Massapequa, New York. I’ve been to Disney World and believe me, it’s just like this – you walk along minding your own business while a duck follows your every move just a step behind.

Close enough to reach into your pocket.

How are you as a mimic?

The Galaxy Hillbillies

The discovery of a gigantic black hole from the dawn of time has me feeling a bit like that small town boy who thought his world was pretty huge, until he found out about New York City.

We’re such small potatoes, universe-wise, the only way I can get my head around it is through the lens of the literature of my youth – TV show theme songs.

So these scientists was lookin’ at a big black hole,
though goin’ to visit wasn’t anybody’s goal.
The one that they found – was as wide as it was tall …
It made everyone feel impossibly small.

A massive hole. In vast space. Texas trench.

It was further away than a lot they’d seen before
It was large as the sun plus a dozen billion more.
They said “this is bigger than an older hole should be,”
An’ they added it all up to another mystery.

Dawn of time. Ancient gas. Quasars.

What’s the biggest city you visited as a youth, and what effect did it have on you?