Natural High

Nature tidbits from personal experience - the beach, the river, the woods, the universe.



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Friday, May 16, 2003
Oops - I didn't expect that!
Yes, I watched the first half of the eclipse last night and yes, I was surprised to see the moon vanish from the bottom up. lunar eclipseI thought the left side would go first - the east side - as it moved into the Earth's shadow. Instead it looked like it was being dipped, bottom first, into a pot of black paint.

So while I was able to use this to sense the motions of earth and moon, I was also puzzled by the geometry of it all.

Let's see, the earth is turning on it's axis from west to east, making it seem like things "rise" in the east and "move" to the west to "set." (I put those words in quotes because they are a throwback to when we thought everything else was moving, when we know now that it is the earth that is rotating.) In any event, that motion should have little bearing on what we saw, for the Earth's shadow wouldn't move because of this - just our view of it would change.

At the same time, the moon is moving slowly, eastward, against the backdrop of stars - that's why it rises earlier each night. That's the relevant motion. It is that eastward motion that I would think would lead to it moving into the shadow and therefore I would expect the shadow to show on the eastern side of the moon first. So why did it show on the bottom first? Maybe there's a diagram somewhere that will explain this? Or maybe someone else can explain it? I have some vague picture of our conical shadow projecting out at some slight angle, but....

Ok - and we were lucky. It was cloudy before the eclipse and cloudy after it, but not during it. I only watched half because my eyes were so tired from using the computer I was seeing three images of the moon instead of one! Very frustrating. I went to bed ;-) Oh - the picture above is from CNN - I took some stuff with my video camera, but it wasn't very good.
Thursday, May 15, 2003
Big orange meets big orange!

Hey, it actually works! Cut up some oranges, spike them on a tree branch, and the Baltimore orioles love 'em. I had read this several times, the most recent in a local newspaper column by Fred Thurber. He said the time to do it was when the apple blossoms appear. Ok, I did it. And nothing happened. I did see a couple of orioles in the yard, as mentioned in this space a few days ago, but they didn't get near the oranges I had placed in strategic locations the day before. Then at supper time last night we looked out the window and there they were - right near the bird feeder, pecking away at the oranges. One orange half had even fallen on the ground and they were attacking it. BTW, I caught this dude on video through the window. I thought he was alone. As he flew away I turned off the camera. When I looked at it on the computer I saw two orange blurs in the last couple of frames. One was leaving - one was arriving!

Update - May 27:The catbird and orioles (male and female) are as regular as cardinals at the birdfeeder. They go through an orange every two days. Wonderful addition to our feeding station!
Wednesday, May 14, 2003
Try to see it this way
You are on this huge ship, circling a brilliant light. Spinning around you is a much smaller boat. Usually you can see this boat fine, for it is lit by the same beam of light as you. But every once in a while, the little boat gets into the shadow of your huge ship.

On such occasions it goes quickly from being fully lit, to nearly invisible. But not so dark that you can't still see it. And soon it emerges again into the beam of light. The whole process takes just a matter of hours. And none of it would happen if your ship and the small boat weren't the sizes they are and the boat wasn't spinning around you at just the right distance.

Lunar eclipseThus it is with the lunar eclipse, of which there will be a fine example Thursday evening, May 15-16 for those in America, Europe and Africa. [Go here for details for different time zones.]

People like to watch eclipses for a lot of different reasons. Lunar eclipses are relatively common. But weather and timing doesn't make them all convenient - or possible - to watch.

I watch because it gives me a chance to feel motion - to sense the greater reality of all the motions we experience, and yet are generally unaware. The universe is a vast dance, from the microscopic to the macroscopic level. The lunar eclipse is one fine example of this dance.

Here we are on planet earth, whirling around the sun at something like 64,800 miles an hour - and we don't feel a thing. No wind in our face. Amazing, isn't it? As a school child I felt smug and laughed when I learned the ancients didn't understand this - that they didn't believe the earth was moving around the sun. It seemed so logical the way the science books explained.

But what's logical about it? It's totally counter intuitive. Just as it's counter-intuitive to think of the earth as spinning on its axis. If it's doing so - and it is, at more than 800 miles an hour in my latitude - then I should be able to jump straight up, have the earth turn beneath me, and land in a place some measurable distance to the west. If I learned to hover, I could just wait a few hours until California came to me! Now that's common sense.

Science is uncommon sense.

And so I watch an eclipse of the moon to try to get in my tripes - to try to understand at some deeper, more intuitive level, what I believe to be true. I try to sense the sun at my back, shining down on China, or wherever. I sense the huge mass of the earth blocking out a chunk of light. I see the cone of the Earth's shadow, reaching out into space some quarter of a million miles or so. I see it getting more and more narrow. Not an easy target.

And then I see the moon - this barren globe one fourth the diameter of our planet, but large as moons go. I see it weaving about us. (Forget those nice ellipses in the textbooks. Remember, that as it circles, we move forward, so if you trace it's path it really looks more like it is weaving from one side of us to the other as we move about the sun.) Anyway, I see the moon coming into our shadow. I see one side of it starting to dim. I wonder if this time it will completely disappear? Or will it remain a brick red throughout the total part of the eclipse?

And then it emerges again. And all the time I try to sense the motions, because it is so easy to just accept the scientific explanation as logical without really grasping it in totality.

Try it. Perhaps you will feel it too - and then remind yourself of all the motions you are experiencing. The earth spinning beneath our feet at 800 miles an hour, the earth moving around the sun at 64,000 miles an hour; the sun (dragging us, the moon, and the rest of the solar system with it as it orbits, the core of our galaxy at some 43,200 miles an hour. And, of course, the whole galaxy is moving in concert with our local group and may at some future time have one of those extraordinary collisions with another galaxy - collisions we've witnessed among other galaxies from our comfortable perch, millions of light years away from the cosmic carnage.

"Sit still," they told us as school children. Did they know it was an order impossible to obey. Life - and all else that usually isn't thought of as life - is motion. It's one reason why I love the images evoked by Sydney Carter's song, "Lord of the Dance." If there's a "Lord" he is certainly Lord of the Dance. Feel that dance and you feel the very core of life. Watch the lunar eclipse and you may indeed, feel the dance.

This NASA drawing depicts the eclipse for the East Coast of the United States. You can get more details at the NASA eclipse web site.

Lunar eclipse May 15-16

After the winter of our discontent, what a joy the yard is!
Composite dandelion etc.

Arranged around the dandelion, clockwise, are the great crested flycatcher, a "Confederate" violet, a curious catbird, and a blue violet that I think of as a "Yankee" violet.

I usually hate mowing the lawn, but what a treat today! Everyone - and every thing - is back.

The "Confederate" violets are in full rout around the fireplace, with what I consider "Yankee" violets intermingled. A peaceful scene for such war-like names. I don't know if those are their real names. They're what my mother, a good Southern girl, always called them and these came from her yard years ago. They make a brave show in May trying to creep out into the lawn where I tend to mow around them for a few weeks.

The dandelions have taken hold of much of the yard to a far greater extent than I've ever seen.If I were a good gardener that would upset me. People consider this beautiful flower a weed. I like them. They're terrific in bloom and what child hasn't enjoyed blowing their seed heads apart? You can do a lot worse than have an abundance of dandelions. I'm torn between the Judaeo/Christian ethic of man dominating nature and the Buddhist ethic of relating to all things - of "interbeing." So I mow the dandelions with reluctance and am glad some are out of reach of the spinning blades.

One thing that has made lawn mowing fun the past years is the catbirds. One book on hand-taming birds I got a long time ago said the catbirds were the most difficult to tame. Couldn't prove it by me. They're not eating out of my hand, but they seem fascinated with the lawn mower, frequently landing just a few feet away. I have to think it stirs up insects for them. but even without the lawn mower they seem curious about anything and everything I do in the yard.

I was about half way through mowing when I caught a glimpse of bright orange flitting by. I stopped the lawn mower and took a seat to watch two Baltimore orioles cavort in the apple tree behind the observatory. The blossoms are just coming out. I had put out some orange halfs on other trees to attract them, but they didn't seem interested. And as I watched them I suddenly became aware that I was being watched by a little guy parked on a twig at the very top of the Rose of Sharon bush. It was a ruby-throated hummingbird - presumably the same one Bren came nose-to-nose with a week ago.

I got my camera but it was too late for most of the birds and rain was on the way. Still, as I was walking back towards the door I got one final treat. Something was checking out the birdhouse in the old pear tree. Sure enough! The great-crested flycatcher was back! He/she is one of the more unusual, but regular visitors to the yard. They've nested in this same box for at least three years.

And I actually got the lawn mowed, too, and just before it started to rain!
Monday, May 12, 2003
New visitor to feeder
female rose-breasted grossbeak
Just spotted a sparrow-like bird on the feeder, only it seemed too large. I got a good look at its markings - pale bill, streaked breast, and a white line above the eye going to the back of the neck. My first thought was some sort of sparrow or possibly a female purple finch, but it seemed too large for any sparrow I knew. In the back of my head was the thought that it's eating behavior felt like that of a grossbeak.

Well, I couldn't find it among the sparrows and as a last ditch effort I checked the grossbeaks. Sure enough, there it was - female rose-breasted grossbeak! (She came back around dusk and I got some video from which I extracted the still above.) Each year around this time we've had a rose-breasted grossbeak visit the feeder for a few days. We assume they're migrating. The male is very distinctive. The female doesn't look anything like the male, but I won't forget her. Below is a male visitor from last year, as caught with the video camera.
rose breasted grossbeak

When the words hide the truth . . .
Hubble wide field image

. . . and numbers and pictures serve to obscure, I am reminded of what Einstein said some years ago:

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed." --Albert Einstein

Imagine a sand grain, held at arms length so it blots out a portion of the sky. Pretty tiny portion, right? Yet in a portion of the sky that small the Hubble Deep Space camera has just revealed some 300,000 stars and thousands of faint background galaxies.

Yes, they aimed their camera at a rich area of the sky near the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy. What they call the Andromeda's "halo." They wanted to capture faint stars in these outlying regions. But it's not the stars that amaze. It's the thousands of galaxies. Each galaxy, remember, contains something in the order of 100,000 million stars.

And that's the juncture where "Natural High" begins to meld into "Spirit Space." Meditate on those numbers - try to even begin to grasp them - and you see why the ancients in Israel did not want people to name god. Words - any words - can only cheapen the full mystery, power, and size of the natural universe. And frankly, numbers cheapen it as well, for they give the illusion of knowledge where there can be no knowing. And pictures? Well, I find them stunning, but you need additional abstract knowledge to even begin to understand them, and even then they too give a false sense of knowing.

"Know" is an interesting word with many shades of meaning. In the Biblical sense it means to have sexual intercourse with a person. But, of course, that's no guarantee that the knowledge is anything except superficial. The dictionary gives a hint when it defines knowing as "To perceive directly; grasp in the mind with clarity or certainty." I like the words "perceive directly" and "clarity." They get close to what I mean with my distrust of this kind of abstract "knowing."

I want to know the thing directly. There are times when I feel I have come face to face with the Andromeda Galaxy, subject of this latest photo. Those times I have been in the back yard and I have used a small telescope or binoculars to let the light from two and a half million years ago enter my eyes and ping my brain. That directness - the lonely night, the abstract information in my head about what I was seeing - all come together for me sometimes and I feel on an intuitive level the enormous distances and sizes involved.

But I can not express what I feel directly. Poetry and art help. The words and numbers used in prose don't.

Maybe we should simply ban them, these large numbers, for while they serve science well and mathematicians and technologists can manipulate them with amazing results, they also build a sort of pride and satisfaction that hides the full extent of our ignorance. The numbers represent quantities and distances that simply don't relate to anything we experience, or can reasonably project from our experience.

I can relate to the 3,000 mile journey to California - especially when it is made in a car. So I have some sense of 3,000 miles, though it would be a far better sense if I walked instead of drove. But I have difficulty with the paltry astronomical distance of 238,000 miles to our moon. I can say that's like making 80 trips to California - slightly more than one a year for most of a normal life time. But even that's hard to feel and doesn;t match anything in my real experience.

Light makes the journey from here to the moon in a little more than a second. It takes light eight minutes to make the 93 million mile journey to the sun, our nearest star. Ninety-three millions miles? Now that's beyond my intuitive grasp. I can experience the trip to California. I can even experience the trip to the moon - that's within our power as humans. But the sun? Nothing we do, or are likely to do with our muscle power alone, remotely relates to travelling 93 millions miles to this, the nearest star. That's 31,000 trips to California. If we travelled there every day it would still take 85 years to cover the distance.

And yet that is barely a baby-step astronomically. With this Hubble camera we're examining stars around a nearby companion galaxy - "nearby" means just 2.5 million light years away! No matter how many times I say the words - no matter what analogy I make, 2.5 million light years escape my experience and any real knowing. I can't come close to relating that vast distance to something I know. First, we've invented a new unit - a light year. That's how far light will travel in one year moving at 186,000 miles a second. State it in miles and it's a number with a silly number of zeroes. Reality goes out the window. Yet we're talking about two and half million of these years.

So suddenly we made the number very manageable - 2 and a half. That I can manage. Million I have difficulty with, but can begin to manage. But light year? A wonderful fabrication without a way to bring it to an imaginable human scale. Science writers have been trying for the better part of a century with some wonderful analogies - but in the end I think they all fail. Bring it down to something we can grasp - can "know" - like the trip to California and the number of such trips it represents becomes something we can't know. So we're stymied. Massage it all you want, this puppy won't dance.

So I - I being these 5 trillion cells that act some what collectively as my body - am supposed to relate somehow to this new image and go "ooh" and "ahhhhh." And I do. But with a large dose of humility and frustration.

All of which is in way of introduction to the new photo. I'm amazed by it. I'm in awe of it. I just fear that most people will either ignore it because they have no understanding of what they are seeing - or will glibly talk about it using abstract knowledge without contemplating how the abstractions lead to a glibness that in turn displays a false sense of knowing. I want people to look at this picture and fall out of their chairs. But I fear they won't.

But let's try.

slices oflarger image

The first step in knowing this image is to at least get the full image. I recommend downloading the huge JPEG - the one that is 4.9 megabytes. (There's an even larger TIFF file, but I don't think that will help and it's a ridiculous download.) You'll find it here. Once it loads - and it will take several minutes, so start the load and go get a cup of coffee - you can manipulate it in your browser, or download it to your hard drive and use an image program, such as Photoshop, to view it. (Click - Mac- or right click - Windows - on the image and hold the mouse button down until you get a menu that allows you to download to your drive.)

Either way, with this you begin to see the full extent of the 300,000 stars. And you begin to see several blurs in the "background" of many shapes and sizes. nearly all of these are galaxies.

"Background" - here we go again. When we say "background" here we're talking about looking at huge objects - galaxies - which in themselves are collections of 100,000 million stars or so. And those objects are not 2.5 million light years away, but billions of light years away. And unfathomable as it is, that's what we casually cover by that word "background."

Besides the "nearby" stars - part of the "halo" of stars surrounding the more densely packed regions of the Andromeda galaxy - and the "background" of "thousands of galaxies" we do see one stunning object in the lower right of the picture. This is not a background galaxy. It is an intense collection of about 500,000 stars called a "globular cluster." We find many such clusters on the fringes of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The brighter ones, such as M13 in Hercules, are wonderful sights in amateur telescopes.

Such clusters are also on the fringes of the Andromeda galaxy, and that's where this one is. To an astronomer the image of the globular cluster is stunning evidence of how good the new Hubble camera is. It was not long ago that with earthbound telescopes we would see a picture such as this and be amazed - but then we were dealing with our own group of truly "nearby" - in astronomical terms - clusters. This one, like the individual stars in the image, is 2.5 million light years from us.

But you see, you have to have had those earlier experiences to appreciate the magnitude of this change - and then I fear you are only appreciative of it within a closed system of abstractions that some folks feel comfortable with, and yet still have not internalized to a meaningful degree.

Why does all this matter? Because I think it relates wondrously to our whole sense of "wonder," our sense of awe. What Einstein called ". . . the source of all art and science."

Science and technology are on a gallop. They are absolutely romping through the universe. But at some point philosophy, religion, art, poetry need to catch up. We are seeing so much more than we can know. This not just about astronomy - it is about ourselves and the wonder that we are here, conscious, and seeing all this. That is hardly something knew, but after we have contemplated this new image from Hubble and begining to grasp it, we need also the kind of reminder found in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo:

"People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering."

Some useful references:

Read an excellent article about this new image here.

Read the press release from the Hubble folks here.

And look at related images here.

A similarly spectacular image was published in 1996. I use it on the home page of this site and describe it here with related links.
On reading this, Dom ("Dominic Gonzalvez" commented:

In Arthur C Clarke's book "2001 a Space Odyssey" Bowman's last recorded words just before he vanished into the monolith were: "My God, it's full of stars." (I quote from memory so E&OE)

Space is so "full of stars" that it numbs our number system. (I am on your wavelength there).

I just did a little calculating. If I had a million dollars in one dollar notes and I had to count the lot, how long would it take me? Say I counted one note a second, and worked unremittingly through the 8-hour day. No lunch breaks. No toilet time. Just count like a bank teller. Well, the task would take me 34 working days.

There are about 20 working days in the month. So I'd be busy counting for the better part of two months.

One million is a figure my mind can grasp. Byond that I don't think I have a meaningful yardstick for comparison.