Tag Archives: iPhone

Improbable, Awesome Pictures

by Shane L. Larson

10138_504595436278932_866790903_nA friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, was grousing about last month’s enormously successful “Wave at Saturn” campaign.  “WTF? It’s not like Cassini will see any of us in the picture!  People can’t even see Saturn when they’re out waving because the Sun is up!  Why are you going out to wave? You know better!”  Perhaps in a less grumpy-old-man but more conversation-and-education fashion, Sky & Telescope even did a simple analysis to find out if any light from your waving hand actually would have made it onto Cassini’s imaging system (Will Cassini See You?).  I follow this little mathematical exercise perfectly well, and I had made a similar estimate myself.  But I still went outside and waved at Saturn!

waveSaturnI don’t think my friend (or other Grumpy Old Scientists, “GOSes”) understood the point at all, so we had to have a long conversation.  Let’s do the easy one first.  Why did I go out and wave?  Because when I’m a stooped old man who has to have a nurse feed him his Slurpee’s, I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not going out to wave at Saturn with the rest of humanity. I went out and waved!

Now when I’m 107, I’ll say to my nurse “Did I ever tell you when I was young like you I went out and waved at Saturn?”  He’ll smile at me, pat my arm, and say, “Here Mr. Larson, have another sip of your blue Slurpee.”  I made sure I went and got my certificate from NASA too!  I hope they hang it over my bed in the old folks home. 🙂

My Wave at Saturn certificate.  I waved at Saturn!

My Wave at Saturn certificate. I waved at Saturn!

To address the question of what’s the point, I like to ask a slightly different question: why did people bother to go out and wave at all?  All over the country, people took their kids outside after dinner, or took 15 minutes out of their workday and went out and stood on the sidewalk to wave at a planet 898 million miles away. Why?

Because it is an AWESOME idea.  It sparks a little bit of wonder in the back of your brain to contemplate that the light from every rock, cloud, puddle, car windshield, tree, rooftop, discarded box of macaroni, and waving human hand would travel almost 80 minutes before it arrived at Saturn to be captured by the camera on a robot from another world.  The simple fact that this could even be true should inspire a little bit of pride in every one of us, and make us stand up a little taller.  Only a little more than a century ago, we didn’t even know how to make an airplane fly under its own power.  But today, barely three generations later, our species quite reliably demonstrates the ability to fly beyond the confines of our small world, to send ships sailing the vastness of interplanetary space and send back to us tales of its adventures.

Titan's surface.

Titan’s surface.

Cryovolcanic Enceladus.

Cryovolcanic Enceladus.

That is AWESOME.  Cassini is only the latest is a long series of emissaries that have been exploring the homeworlds of our solar system, and it has sent us enormous numbers of improbable pictures, not the least of which include pictures from the surface of Titan; images of a blue and white wonderland of the enigmatic moon Enceladus, studded with cryovolcanoes; and of course Saturn itself, bejeweled with its mesmerizing ring system.

Saturn from Cassini.

Saturn from Cassini.

Saturn hurricane.

Saturn hurricane.

For thousands of human generations, Saturn was little more than a point of light in the sky. Galileo’s telescope was so crappy he couldn’t even tell Saturn had a ring; “Saturn has ears,” he wrote.  But today, we can build a self-sufficient robot capable of flying high above Saturn, where it can take pictures of a hurricane large enough to cover half of North America, locked onto the north pole of Saturn inside a mysterious six sided cloud formation called “The Hexagon” (you can’t make this stuff up!).

That is AWESOME.  I think all of us know it is awesome too; that’s why a million people went outside and waved at Saturn.  They were waving at Cassini, our little robot friend who tirelessly circles a world that most of us will never see with our own eyes, uncovering its mysteries and teaching us not just about Saturn, but about ourselves.  Deep down, people understand this, and they want to feel connected to it.  That’s why they all tore themselves away from their Excel spreadsheets, paused in their marketing meetings, left three of the tires off and the oil unchanged in the AMC Pacer, and went outside to join their fellow humans in waving.

The crowd at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waving at Saturn (photo by NASA).

The crowd at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waving at Saturn (photo by NASA).

People were so engaged with the activity, they took pictures of themselves waving and posted them to twitter, facebook and instagram.  I get the feeling that they didn’t really care whether Cassini got some light from their furiously waving appendages, but their iPhones did, and they basked in the coolness factor as a result.  Yep, for whatever reason, this geeky, crazy idea to participate in something related to science had some serious street cred.  It was an adventure, and they all participated!

I think every one of us who engages in the profession of science should pay attention to that fact, especially all the GOSes (many of whom aren’t all that old, they’ve just become old in their thought patterns — they probably don’t read blogs, so you should spend some time talking them through this!).  People freely engaged in something related to science. People in vast numbers freely engaged in something related to science. They had fun, they probably learned a little bit (like Saturn is up in the sky, even during the daytime), and walked away with a positive and optimistic view of something that isn’t related to reality TV or Hollywood celebrities.

As scientists, we like to bemoan the state of science literacy in the world today, a malaise that is driven by the very vocal anti-science rhetoric that has become inextricably entwined with politics.  There are climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers to be sure, but when I see a million people standing out on a sunny Earth afternoon waving at a camera improbably far away, I have a little hope.

And to top it all off, we’re still getting payback from the event!  NASA released Casssini’s snapshot of us all to great fanfare.  Here it is.

The Earth, seen from Saturn.

The Earth, seen from Saturn.

See that little dot, lost in the blackness below the majestic arc of Saturn’s ring?  That’s us; that’s home.  You’re in that picture, waving. Your mother is in that picture, waving. I’m in that picture, waving.  Every human being, waving or not, is in that picture.  At the moment this picture was snapped, we were all paying attention.  An improbable moment, captured for all time by a little robot with an improbable mission: seek out new things, learn all you can, and return that information to your creators.

That is AWESOME.

Take some time tonight, and before you fold up your laptop, take a moment to sift through some of the pictures from Cassini.  Take a look at the pictures you snapped during Wave at Saturn, and the ones that Cassini sent back, and remember how engaged the world was with this activity.  Improbable pictures, improbable engagement, but a stunning success.

Well played, NASA.  Well played.  Now let’s do it again.

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Fleeting Moments in the Days of Miracle and Wonder

by Shane L. Larson

These are the days of miracle and wonder…Paul Simon was wirelessly streaming onto the stereo in my living room from my computer. As I stepped out on my back porch, I used my iPhone to remotely pump the volume up — “Boy in the Bubble” is one of my favorite songs, and I didn’t want to miss any of it!  A hop and a skip down the steps into the yard.  A casual glance to the west treated me to one of the most awesome spectacles in Nature — a springtime sunset over the Wellsville Mountains, ten miles to my west.  The colors and hues were brilliant shades of red, orange and pink, painting the roiling clouds of spring and kissing the snow-capped summits in a display of color that takes your breath away.

I just about killed myself sprinting around to the front of the house, fumbling to get my iPhone out of my pocket, racing to the front porch to get a clear and unobstructed picture before the spectacle faded to the dulcet greys of plain, ordinary clouds.  Sunsets do that to you.  Most of us learn early on that sunsets are quick and fluid, every thirty seconds different than the last thirty seconds; sunsets drape the world in color for a few evanescent moments, and then in a heartbeat are gone.  Sunsets triumphantly return, but never repeat in quite the same way ever again; each performance is a chromic concerto of singular and unique genius.

Wellsvilles Sunset

Spring sunset over the Wellsville Mountains, Cache Valley, Utah.

As I walked back around the house into the sphere of music I had left behind, I looked over the picture I had captured.  It wasn’t exactly what I remembered from a few seconds before.  On the one hand, it was a miracle that I had any approximate record of the event at all. My phone, and the camera technology it carries, would have astonished my grandmother who showed me so much of her life in black and white photographs but retold the stories in the vivid color of memory only she could see.  Modern digital photographs are a special kind of magic, a consequence of humanity’s apparently unique ability to create technology; this device is truly a product of the days of miracle and wonder.  But on the other hand, the image is not exactly what I remember.  In many ways it is muted and less vibrant, only a stilted effigy of what I remembered.  I show the image to friends and family, and they are all suitably amazed.  Not, I think, because they are looking closely at the image, but because we each reach back into our memories, and paint on top of the image our rememberances of beauty and awe.  We have all of us experienced the miracle and wonder of the sunset, and it is that collective memory that makes the sunset great; it is that collective memory that binds us together; is is that binding that makes us great.

The ability to capture and share an image of the sunset is only the tip of the iceberg in these days of miracle and wonder.  Technology is only one facet of the infinite power bound up in the collective intellect of our species; it is a facet cut by our curiosity to explore the world around us.  The avatar of our curiosity is science, and it has many agents.  Some of those agents have not seen even ten revolutions of Earth around the Sun, but they are crawling around suburban backyards and playgrounds all across this magnificent planet, diligently discovering centipedes and worms, discovering the inexorable pull of the Earth’s gravity in one direction, and experimenting in pools with fluid dynamics in ways that you and I quite frankly have forgotten.  Some of those agents are your neighbors, who quietly set up small telescopes at night and capture light from distant galaxies that started the long journey to Earth when dinosaurs still ruled this world.  Some of those agents are people engaged in taking a census of life on this planet, both on land and in the sea, and discovering that we really don’t have a clue about all the lifeforms we share this planet with (like this chameleon or this creature of the deep, the enigmatic deep-sea jellyfish).  Some of those agents are engaged in transforming microscopic machines into drug delivery systems that can be injected into your bloodstream and sent on search and destroy missions for cancer cells.  Some of those agents work at your local university, studying how clouds form or how lightning is created, information someday destined to help us understand and predict the emergence of violent storms.  And the list goes on.

The subtle truth of this is that these are the days of miracle and wonder.  These are the days when we are discovering the secrets of Nature by asking astonishing questions and then, sometimes, finding out the answers.  What is the Cosmos composed of?  Apparently it is 96% of something; we don’t know what the something is (though we call it “dark matter” and “dark energy”, just so we know how to talk about our ignorance with each other).  Why do humans age when an oak tree does not?  We don’t know, but it has something to do with a part of your chromosome sequence known as telomeres, discovered about 30 years ago. The telomeres are repeating sequences near the end of your chromosomes that act as a buffer during replication, but get shorter and shorter as we age.  What is intelligence, and can machines think like us? We don’t know, but some of them (like AARON) can do amazingly human things.

These are times of wonder, when astonishing things are being discovered, when awesome technologies are being created, and when important and awe-inspiring questions are being asked.  Now is the time when we as a species became cognizant and aware enough not only to ask incredible questions, but to be aware that we can answer such questions.

It would be a shame to live our lives in a stupor.  Of course we are all aware of how science and technology shapes our lives — we have digital devices in our pockets linking us to the rest of humanity around the globe; we have awesome technology that allows us all to experience exotic and fresh food whose origins are far from our homes; we are all aware of the power of medicine to lower our blood pressure and save our mothers, wives, and daughters from breast cancer; and most of us have tried to capture a spectacular sunset with our cameras.  But we take this for granted and sometimes forget to take the time to reflect on the awesome power of the intellect of the human species.  It is remarkable and uplifting that we have created a tool– science — that lets us not only improve our lives, but to approach the grandest of mysteries in the Universe and bask in the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the grand Cosmic design.

Einstein once remarked that the most astonishing thing about the Universe was that it is knowable, that it can be understood.  That simple fact never ceases to amaze us, as Paul Simon so eloquently reminds us: these are the days of miracle and wonder.

Go out and enjoy the sunset, and enjoy every thirty seconds when it is different, and remember the moment is fleeting, evanescent.  Go to the Large Hadron Collider website and read the latest news about the search for the Higgs boson, and feel the wonder.  Twenty years from now, you’ll look back on this day and you remember that today was before, before we knew.  You’ll tell your kids about it, the way my parents tell me about the moon landing and the way my grandparents tell me about the news of the atomic bomb.  Your kids will shake their heads and smile, because they won’t be able to understand what it was like before. But you will remember.  We forget that those memories, and shared memories in particular, are important because they remind us of what we as a species are capable of.

Go read some science news in the paper (if you can find any!) or on the web (much easier, so try these: Science Now, Science Daily, and Science News).  Enjoy the moment, the way you enjoy the sunset.  These days of miracle and wonder are precious.  Cherish them now, and later, when they are only memories.