Tag Archives: pictures

Ineffable Images of the Space Age

by Shane L. Larson

The arrival of each new year always engenders a brief moment of reflection on how we all would like to improve and change our lives, and very often with a recounting of how transitory life actually is.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I was reflecting on the sad fact that on December 21, astronaut Bruce McCandless II passed away at the age of 80. He was a Naval Academy graduate who joined NASA in April 1966 as part of Astronaut Group 5.

McCandless joined NASA during the Apollo era, but never flew until the Space Shuttle era, logging 312 hours on two flights: STS-41-B aboard Challenger in 1984, and STS-31 aboard Discovery in 1990. It was on his first flight that he gained notoriety: he made the first untethered spacewalk in history, flying the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) some 300 feet away from the Challenger. The image of McCandless, flying free over the Earth, has become one of the most iconic images of the Space Age.

Bruce McCandless, flying the MMU about 300 feet from the space shuttle Challenger during STS-41B in 1984. It was the first untethered spacewalk in history. [Image: NASA]

There is something timeless and awe-inspiring about this image. What is it? Is it the ever-blue curve of the Earth behind him? Is the loneliness of a single human, flying in the void far from any others? Is it the thrill of the the adventure or a surge of voyeuristic fear, the “fun thrill” letting your mind roll around how you would feel in that same situation? I think it is a little bit of all of those. Just show the image to some friends at your next dinner party and ask, “Would you do that?” or “Can you imagine?” and listen to the direction of the conversation!

When McCandless made his historic untethered spacewalk, I was in high school and dreamed of being an astronaut. I didn’t become an astronaut, and likely will never travel to space, but the dream lingers in my mind and surges forward every time I see images like this one.  This isn’t the only image from the Space Age that has such an effect on me. Some photographs, some moments suspended in time on celluloid or pixels, somehow capture ephemeral emotions that are indescribable by any other means.

Many such photographs come from the astronauts themselves. Astronauts have had a singular, unique experience that is transformative to their consciousness. Nothing molds a person’s worldview more dramatically than first hand experiences, there are no first hand experiences quite like those of the astronauts. They have seen the Cosmos, seen the world, from a perspective that the rest of us can only catch elusive glances of in stunning photographs delivered from the shoals of space.

Take a look at this photo. Almost exactly 49 years before Bruce McCandless passed away, the crew of Apollo 8 made the first voyage from the Earth to the Moon. They completed ten orbits around the Moon, and on their fourth orbit were the first humans ever to see the Earth emerging from behind the Moon — the first Earthrise ever witnessed by the human species.

“Earthrise” shot by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on 24 December 1968. A recreation of the moment, with mission audio has been created by Goddard Spaceflight Center [Image: NASA]

The world first saw the image in the 10 January 1969 issue of Time Magazine, burning it indelibly into our collective consciousness.

Like so many moments captured on film and revisited with reverence and awe, the Earthrise photo was taken by chance; Apollo 8 just happened to be rolling at the moment, and the image just happened to be visible through the tiny windows on the front of the capsule. In retrospect, the moment could have been predicted, but every story told of that moment when Apollo 8 rounded the limb of the Moon describes the first sight of the Earth as an unexpected and ineffable moment — the first time in human history that we had ever seen our world in Cosmic context, behaving in relation to the rest of the Universe in ways that our minds had only previously considered for other worlds.

One of the most famous pictures returned from the Apollo missions was of Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint in the lunar soil, made and imaged by Aldrin to record the properties of the lunar soil. [Image: NASA]

Just seven months later, Apollo 11 made the first crewed landing on the surface of the Moon, leaving humanity’s first footsteps on another world. Buzz Aldrin famously took a photograph of his bootprint on the Moon to illustrate the behaviour of the lunar surface soil; it is an image that is universally recognized as being from our first journey to another world. Most of us have made footprints, in snow or mud or soft dirt. Often alongside many other footprints, a cacophony of shapes and patterns, each one a remnant of a journey from somewhere to elsewhere. The next time we cross that particular trail or particular riverbank, the prints have changed and tell new tales of new journeys. But the footprints on the Moon are different — so far, there are only 12 sets of prints, laid down five decades ago by the few humans who crossed the gulf. And they will persist for millions of years, untold aeons beyond my life and your life and the times in which we live. If some future traveller should happen upon them, perhaps laying down their own prints alongside, what will they know of the journey that first left the prints there? Will they know of Aldrin’s famous footprint, and cast about debating which one was The Print? Or will they have utterly forgotten us and these days, the remains of Apollo on the Moon just curious forgotten relics of a civilization wiped away by time? What will they remember and know of us?

After 21 hours and 36 minutes on the surface of the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off to rejoin Michael Collins, who had remained in lunar orbit. On their approach to dock with Collins, he snapped this picture of the lunar module over the surface of the Moon, with the Earth in the background sky. Collins famously remarked that this photograph was a picture of every person in the human race, except him. What a stunning observation, a perspective that reflects how small and alone we all can be in the face of the immensity of the Cosmos.

Apollo 11 image of the Earth and Moon behind Lunar Module Eagle, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin back from the lunar surface to command module Columbia. Michael Collins, aboard Columbia, noted that this was a picture of every human being except him. [Image: NASA]

Such images are not confined to cameras held by humans. Over the past six decades, we have hurled many robots into space, mechanical emissaries designed to carry our senses to places we cannot easily visit ourselves. Among that mechanical flotilla are eight explorers sent into the outer reaches of the solar system, to visit the giant, gaseous planets and even tiny Pluto. Among them is an 800 kilogram spider of wires, foil, antennae and cameras called Voyager 1. Today it is still faithfully travelling outward, gently probing the space around it to map out the invisible bubble that defines here, the neighborhood of the Sun, from there, the wildlands of interstellar space.  On 14 February 1990, a little more than nine years after its encounter with the planet Saturn, Voyager 1 was commanded to make one last photographic survey of the neighborhood it came from — a Family Portrait of all the worlds of the Sun.  Turning inward one last time, it snapped off sixty frames. Laid side by side, one over the next, the last pictures from Voyager built a unique and humbling portrait of our homeworlds.

Voyager 1’s family portrait of all the planets of the solar system. [Image: NASA]

Buried on one of these frames is a pale point of light, small and blue, easy to miss in the flared light of the Sun bursting though Voyager’s lens. That’s the Earth, our home in the vastness of the void. That small meager point of light inspired Carl Sagan to write one of the most poignant and eloquent  assessments of human nature ever penned. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy can be found in the book of the same name, but in one of the great magics of the modern age, a recording of Sagan reading it has been found and preserved; it is as moving to listen to as it is to stare at the delicate fleck of light captured by a simple robot from 6 billion kilometers away.

The Pale Blue Dot; an image of Earth from Voyager 1’s “Family Portrait” sequence, and arguably one of the most famous pictures ever taken of Earth, noted for showing the smallness of the Earth in the immensity of the Cosmos. [Image: NASA]

When leafing through stacks of images from the Space Age, I’m struck by one very clear fact: there are no boundaries to the grandeur and ineffable wonder that can be captured on film. Each frame, each snapshot, each pixel, is a gift to future generations, a record of what we attempted, a record of what we aspired to, a record of what we risked during this time in history. On most days achievements like this stand in stark contrast with the lows our civilization has sunk to, and it is difficult to understand how both can be the legacy of the same species.

Some people look at images like these, and are nonplused. For them I weep. I hope they find wonder and awe in some other visions of the world, because the emotions and exhultations that these images evoke hearken to something deep in the soul, something I think we have lost in the modern morass of social media, reality TV, consumerism, and soundbites that claim to capture the quintessence of life. There is something deep and abidingly important in being able to see and experience amazing things and tremendous accomplishments, even in the face of serious and possibly overwhelming challenges to our way of life and our future on this planet. It provides a focal point for our aspirations to be better. It provides a poignant bludgeon of hope for the better selves that we aspire to be.

Other people look at these images, and all they see are dollars spent on endeavours they regard as frivolous. I can’t help but feel agony at such narrow visions of the world. In no small way, today’s world was made by these images. Not the images themselves, of course, but the thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of problem solving, prototyping, invention, innovation, creativity, and imagination required to make every one of these possible. We didn’t strap a gazillion dollars onto the side of Voyager and catapult it into space. We paid an army of engineers and as a result fed their families and sent their kids to school. We created entire new technologies, birthed companies that today make the backbone of the trillion dollar aerospace industry. We inspired a generation of children who wanted to be astronauts, but became enamoured with science and went on to become computer scientists, cancer specialists and brain surgeons, molecular biologists, ecological physicists, and aerospace engineers. I bet if you talk to many of today’s technical professionals, there is a time in their past where they swooned over pictures of the Moon.

The point is pictures are just one small return on each of the investments that were made to send people to the Moon, or to send a robot into the depthless void of space. Maybe you don’t think they’re interesting or the cost was worth it, but consider this: these are pictures we unfailingly recognize and know of — that simple recognizability is an indicator of the intrinsic and often unspoken value we as a society put on these ephemeral moments, captured forever as a frozen memento of places we once visited and knew and experienced.


#AdlerWall 05: Share Interesting Observations, Ask Questions

by Shane L. Larson

Apparently this creature eats quarters.

Apparently this creature eats quarters.

My wife and I just bought a new couch and when we flipped the old one over to carry it downstairs, a quarter fell out. When I was in high school, arcades were the rage and a quarter was a ticket to a nice half-hour playing Xenophobe or Blasteroids. These days, it goes in my pocket and gets spent on parking. Despite the sad evolution of my life into adulthood, the appearance of the quarter sparked an interesting thought: I don’t remember dropping a quarter in my couch, and probably no one else would either, so that must mean almost everyone’s couch likely has a loose quarter in it! That observation, sparked an interesting question: how much money in quarters is hidden in couches?

(L) How I used to spend quarters. (R) How I spend quarters now. If the place on the left still existed, I could feed the the thing on the right with my phone and put those quarters to good use! :-)

(L) How I used to spend quarters. (R) How I spend quarters now. If the place on the left still existed, I could feed the the thing on the right with my phone and put those quarters to good use! 🙂

Because you and I live in the future, information is at our fingertips. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and was quickly at the US Census site, which told me there are approximately 116,000,000 households in the United States (this page is where I landed). So if they all have a couch, and each couch has a quarter in it, that amounts to:

$0.25 * 116,000,000 = $29,000,000

There are 29 MILLION dollars in quarters hiding in couches! This observation has sparked some interesting discussions with friends that are wide ranging and varied: is there really only 1 quarter per couch? How much money disappears from circulation every year? Is there some way we could collect all that money? What could we do with $29 million?

This little exercise is something known as a “Fermi Problem,” — taking something you know (my couch has a quarter in it) and figuring out the implications based on other things you know (the number of households in the United States). Scientists use the method all the time to understand what the Universe is all about, particularly in astronomy where we don’t know much. But the interesting bit about the quarter question is not the number, it is the discussions that ensue afterward.

Just a few observations I have made and shared with friends, found on my smartphone. You most likely have a similar set!

Just a few observations I have made and shared with friends, found on my smartphone. You most likely have a similar set!

You make observations of the world around you all the time, and share those observations on social media or over coffee with friends. I know you do, because I see jillions of people everyday taking pictures of flower bushes and posting them to social media, asking friends over coffee if they noticed they way the clouds were streaked over the city that day, speculating on why the traffic was heavy or light today, or simply enjoying the spectacle of the brilliant turquoise color of the lake on a sunny day. You see the world around you and record it and talk about it, every single day.


Given our social connectedness in modern life, this week’s exhortations from the #AdlerWall are ones that might not seem totally incongruous: “Share Interesting Observations” and “Ask Questions.” We are all good at this to some varying degree, but kids are masters. Children ask incessant questions of their parents:

“How do airplanes fly?”

“Where do frogs go in the winter?”

“Why do we say ‘bark’ to mean the sound dogs make and the skin of a tree?” 

They also share interesting observations:

“Look how you can make a loud sound by squishing your hand in your armpit!”

“If I hit my spoon right here, it flips oatmeal WAY over there!”

“The shadows from this tree look like an octopus!”

But sadly, somewhere along the pathway to adulthood, many of us lose that unbridled enthusiasm we had as children for exploring the world around us, and declaring our discoveries to the world. Sure, I’ve wondered how many gummy bears I can fit in my mouth and figured out the answer (37) — who hasn’t? It’s not that we don’t know how to ask questions and share our observations.  It has just become the societal norm to squelch the unbridled enthusiasm.

Yes, that’s right: squelch, not kill. Because in the quiet moments, we all give into the most basic impulse to ask a question, to look at the world around us and see what is going on. You might not always post a picture of the weather radar during a torrential thunderstorm, but you still made a screen capture. You have stayed up too late at night because you went to Wikipedia to find out about The Great Platte River Archway and two hours later found yourself still on your tablet, having randomly navigated through clicks until you were reading about the Toledo War. You’ve almost certainly been hanging out with your friends, when someone has asked some esoteric question about the difference between fountain pens and calligraphy pens, igniting a debate that was only resolved by asking Google or Wikipedia.

img_7696For most of us, making interesting observations and asking questions of our friends and the internet are diversions to everyday life, something we do for the sheer enjoyment of learning. But lurking just below the surface of those questions and observations is always a myriad of important ideas and applications, some of which we understand and some of which we may not. Irrespective, it points a simple and inescapable fact: we are all close to being scientists, simply by doing what we do — asking questions and making observations.

Let me illustrate with a curious observation I just made the other day. I have a vertical glass shower door; the glass is maybe 10 mm thick. If you put your eye right up against the edge of the door, and look into the glass (not through the glass), you a mesmerizing collection of reflections inside the glass door!

The view inside a glass door, looking edge on into the glass.

The view inside a glass door, looking edge on into the glass.

I’m sure I could work out the physics of the all the reflections as to why it happens (and could probably subject some future students to the analysis of that problem), but instead I’ll just share that observation with you. The next time you walk through a glass door, take a moment and peer in through the edge, looking longways into the glass — you’ll be treated to the same awesome spectacle I discovered. Maybe you’ll show it to a friend, or you’ll sketch it in your pocket notebook, or you’ll create a new glass sculpture inspired by the sight.  Irrespective, I’ve shared my observation with you, and hopefully shown you something you haven’t see before!  You should share what you see too.

So what does that have to do with anything? Peering into the glass of your shower door produces a spectacle that is fun and pleasing to behold, like a piece of symmetric art or a kaleidoscope. But the basic physics, called internal reflection, led to many, many modern applications, not the least of which are fiber optics, and the heart of most high-speed communications networks that are likely streaming internet and movies into your home right now. Binoculars have a pair of prisms that use internal reflection to gather the images of distant objects and route them through the binoculars to make a correct, right-side up image at your eye. Internal reflection of light in a raindrop takes the light from the Sun behind you, and directs it back at you to make a rainbow. And perhaps last, but not least, internal reflection is the basic physical principle behind infinity mirrors (IMHO, one of the coolest pieces of home decor you can have — your spouse may or may not disagree…).

Everyday examples of internal reflection. (Top L) Binoculars. (Top R) Rainbow creation by raindrops. (Bottom) Light propagating through a fiber. [All images from Wikimedia Commons]

Everyday examples of internal reflection. (Top L) Binoculars. (Top R) Rainbow creation by raindrops. (Bottom) Light propagating through a fiber. [All images from Wikimedia Commons]

All of this is connected, in a simple way, to the little pane of glass on my shower door. The world is a strange and wondrous place, full of moments of giddy discovery if you take the time to notice. 🙂

So I’ll see you out in the world — I’m the guy blocking the entrance to the coffee shop as I try to snap a picture looking longways into their glass door. 🙂


This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.

Cosmos 6: Travellers’ Tales

by Shane L. Larson

Sitting at the gate at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, staring at the thousands of other people around me, I am struck by how remarkably connected the modern world is.  I’m not thinking about smartphones and instant personal communication; rather I’m staring out the window at a Boeing 777 and thinking that I can go travelling virtually anywhere on the Earth, in just a day or so, by walking down the jetway.  And we all do it in a blink of an eye.  Sometimes we go for work, to exotic places like Dallas or Albuquerque.  Sometimes we go to visit family, like grandma in Mobile, or Aunt Becky and Uncle Bob in Bemidji.  But sometimes, we jet off across the world, just to go exploring.  We go to see the grand Buddha of Leshan, or the primeval rain forests of the Amazon, or the volcanoes near Reykjavik, or Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

(L) The Grand Buddha of Leshan. (R) Sagrada Familia. [Photos by S. Larson]

(L) The Grand Buddha of Leshan. (R) Sagrada Familia. [Photos by S. Larson]

While on our adventure, we take selfies, we send text messages that say “Guess where I am?”, and we wonder at the marvels of the world. When we return home, we may bring a few trinkets — a silk shirt, a wall hanging, a journal embossed with foreign words and images.  But the things we return to time and again, years after our voyage, either in idle strolls down memory lane or to show family and friends, are our pictures.  Pictures are the single most common and important thing brought back from adventure voyages, as they alone have the magic to transport us  back to those far away lands, with our friends alongside us.

Text messages and selfies, some of the most common travellers' tales of the modern age.

Text messages and selfies, some of the most common travellers’ tales of the modern age.

There was a time when our world was not so easily accessible, when the far corners of the Earth had not yet been discovered, and adventurers didn’t know what they would find on a long voyage of discovery. In the 1700’s, Captain James Cook made three epic voyages around the world, aboard ships whose names have become synonymous with exploration and discovery: HMS Endeavour (a name latter passed onto a United States space shuttle orbiter), and HMS Resolution. Cook’s papers and journals of those voyages were collected and studied for many years after his death, but one of the greatest treasures returned from the voyages were images of far away lands. In those days of exploration, every ship was crewed not just by sailors, but by professionals.  Some were scientists tasked with observing and recording discoveries along the voyage, and others were artists tasked with capturing images of the voyage to record and relay the adventure to those left behind. Without those artists eyes, we would never know what Cook saw on those first, epic voyages.

Images by artist William Hodges, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage. (L) The HMS Resolution near Antarctica, and (R) HMS Resolution in Matavai Bay, Tahiti.

Images by artist William Hodges, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage. (L) The HMS Resolution near Antarctica, and (R) HMS Resolution in Matavai Bay, Tahiti.

Today, the world is completely mapped, cultures (for the most part) have been found and documented, and there are precious few places humans have not yet tread.  Voyages of new discovery come more rarely, and people like you and me have adventures that begin with airplane rides and are documented through the lenses of smartphones.  While you and I have set our sights on worldly adventures like visiting Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or picnicking in the shadow of Moai on Easter Island, our species’ thirst for adventure has grown beyond the Earth.  We have embarked on a new adventure to seek out new horizons and unknown landscapes far out into the Cosmos. The primary commodity of these new adventures are pictures — thousands and thousands of stunning pictures of cosmic vistas that move our spirits in ways we could have never imagined.

I often dream of being able to visit the Moai of Easter Island. [Illustration by S. Larson]

I often dream of being able to visit the Moai of Easter Island. [Illustration by S. Larson]

The sky has always compelled us to look up.  Even were we not fascinated with the strange and unearthly things we have found in the sky, the sky presents events that compel us to look up.  Consider the case of eclipses.  The Sun is the most brilliant source of light in the solar system, and every object it shines on casts a shadow, including the Earth. The Moon, on its rounds about the Earth, sometimes fleets through the shadow of the Earth.  As it passes into the shadow, it begins to disappear, an ever growing curve of shadow slowly eating the bright disk of the Moon. When it reaches the center of the shadow, the Moon takes on a deep reddish hue, cast in scarlet tones by the sunlight streaming around the Earth and through its atmosphere — an Earth sunset on our closest neighbor in the Cosmos.  This event is called a lunar eclipse.

(L) The geometry of a lunar eclipse. (R) iPhone image of the total lunar eclipse on 10 Dec 2011. [images by S. Larson]

(L) The geometry of a lunar eclipse. (R) iPhone image of the total lunar eclipse on 10 Dec 2011. [images by S. Larson]

The Moon also casts a shadow, and sometimes that shadow falls on the surface of the Earth, casting a fleeting moment of darkness wherever it falls.  Seen from the Earth, the Moon creeps across the Sun, an ever growing curve as the Moon blocks the brilliant solar disk.  At the center of the eclipse, the Moon covers the Sun and those standing in the center of the shadow are treated to a rare sight — the blazing corona of the Sun.  This event is called a solar eclipse.  Eclipses in our ancient past were unexpected and likely inspired fear and superstition.  Today, we can predict when they occur and where to stand to see them. People from all over the world step onto airplanes, and fly to stand in the shadow of the Moon.  They take their cameras with them, and capture images of the event to share with friends and family when they return from their travels.

(L) The geometry of a solar eclipse. (C) Image of total solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington in 1919. (R) Hydrogen alpha image of the annular solar eclipse on 20 May 2012 in Cedar City, Utah. [by S. Larson]

(L) The geometry of a solar eclipse. (C) Image of total solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington in 1919. (R) Hydrogen alpha image of the annular solar eclipse on 20 May 2012 in Cedar City, Utah. [by S. Larson]

Another, rare kind of eclipse is called a Transit of Venus, when Venus passes between us and the Sun, appearing as a small black dot traversing the solar disk. Beautiful and inspiring to see, observing a transit of Venus was one of the first ways that people figured out to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Transits can be seen in pairs roughly every 121 or 105 years (a 243 year pattern), when the orbits of Earth and Venus are aligned just right. The most recent pair of transits was in 2004 and 2012. Two scientists, Charles Green and Daniel Solander, accompanied James Cook on his first voyage, tasked with observing a transit of Venus, which they did from Tahiti on 3 June 1769.

Transit of Venus seen from Wasilla, Alaska on 5 June 2012 [by S. Larson]

Transit of Venus seen from Wasilla, Alaska on 5 June 2012 [iPhone photo, through a solar telescope, by S. Larson]

While one could spend a lifetime standing on the surface of the Earth looking up into the Cosmos, some part of us knows that we could learn so much more if we just go up there.  And so we have.  For the most part, our emissaries beyond the Earth have been robots — machines of human design, supremely instrumented and exquisitely engineered to make interplanetary voyages that we cannot. Our robots have sailed the interplanetary sea and visited every major world in the solar system, providing tantalizing and brief glimpses of alien shores through pictures radioed back to their creators on faint radio links.  Travellers’ tales, recorded through the electronic eyes of semi-intelligent robots, are the principal commodity of the age of space exploration. Tales that paint a tapestry of wonders brilliant and evocative, tempting us with the promise of what we might discover if we were to dig deeper, push farther, and continue the exploration.

Of all the many worlds in the solar system of which we are aware, there are only five on which we have landed and returned images from the surface: the Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the asteroid Eros. These are the only worlds beyond the Earth whose surfaces we have tread upon, and only on the Moon and Mars have we ventured away from the landing site (using rovers). At all of the sites, we have tantalizing pictures of alien shores that sing a siren song of adventure when we look out across them. 

(A) Surface of Eros by NEAR-Shoemaker. (B) Surface of Titan by Huygens. (C) Surface of Venus by Venera 14. (D) Apollo 15, station 9 on Hadley Rille. (E) Surface of Mars, near Bonneville Crater by the Spirit Rover.

(A) Surface of Eros by NEAR-Shoemaker. (B) Surface of Titan by Huygens. (C) Surface of Venus by Venera 14. (D) Apollo 15, station 9 on Hadley Rille. (E) Surface of Mars, near Bonneville Crater by the Spirit Rover.

But most of our probes are not landers — they are semi-intelligent cans of electronics, wires, metal and composites that we have hucked out into the Cosmic sea, leaving them destined to drift forever in the sky.  Most of the images they return are all taken from orbit or on a one chance “flyby.”  The stories they tell are a bit like describing a state by looking out the window of a plane as it passes overhead, but the tales are riveting mysteries of the past, present and future of the worlds in our solar system. 

On Mercury, we’ve found a vast impact basin, just discovered in 2008 by the MESSENGER spacecraft. The basin is more than 700 kilometers across; if it were on Earth it would stretch from San Francisco to Seattle.  A vast circular hollow excavated in the early days of the solar system, the central plains are a vast expanse of ancient lavas criss-crossed with ridges and troughs that have been frozen into the landscape since their formation — there is no weather on Mercury to weather and fade the scars of ancient geologic trauma.  We’ve named it Rembrandt after the famous Dutch painter — a fitting name for such a picturesque place.

(L) Rembrandt, on Mercury. (R) Saturn by Cassini.

(L) Rembrandt, on Mercury. (R) Saturn by Cassini.

At Saturn, Cassini has radioed back exquisite images of the subtle tawny clouds of Saturn, always framed by the brilliant arc of the great rings.  But on its way to Saturn, Cassini did a little sight-seeing, and as it sailed past Jupiter toward Saturn, recorded a mesmerizing movie of that planet’s banded clouds. The clouds swirl and rotate as they are pressed before winds blowing as fast as 500 kilometers per hour, nearly twice as fast as the strongest winds ever seen on Earth.  

Jupiter's cloud bands, as seen by Cassini.

Jupiter’s cloud bands, as seen by Cassini (click to animate).

Among all the space probes we have set adrift, five hold a special place of honor.  They are Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons.  These are the only probes we’ve built that are destined for interstellar space after their reconnaissance of the solar system.  Thousands of years from now, their creators long forgotten and returned to dust, these spacecraft will sail on into the interstellar void of the galaxy.

Now fallen silent, their energy reserves exhausted, the Pioneers no longer send tales home to Earth. But each carries a story with it, in the form of a small plaque telling the tale of the probes’ origins, should any intelligent being find it in the distant future.  A bottle cast into the Cosmic Ocean, I often wonder about those who might one day stumble on Pioneer 10 and 11.  Will they be alien intelligences?  Or perhaps will they be some impossibly distant descendant of humans, stumbling on a forgotten remnant of their past? Will they understand the message, and understand what Pioneer was doing in a long forgotten epoch of time?

(L) The Pioneer plaque, amidships on Pioneer 10. (R) The two sides of the Voyager record.

(L) The Pioneer plaque, amidships on Pioneer 10. (R) The two sides of the Voyager record. You can explore the Voyager record online (at the JPL Voyager site, or at a complete online archive), or in the (now out of print) book Murmurs of Earth.

Both Voyager spacecraft also carry a message in the form of a Golden Record. The record contains instructions for use, a map pointing back toward Voyager’s origin, and its own set of travellers’ tales: a set of 55 greetings in different languages of Earth, 116 images of life on Earth, and 90 minutes of music from around the world ranging from masterpieces by Mozart, to Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, to a traditional Peruvian wedding song.  The record bears one final message, inscribed on its inner edge, a handwritten message: “To the makers of music — all worlds, all times” (etched by Timothy Ferris, the producer, when the record was completed).

The ADS All Sky Survey, a rotatable interactive map showing where we've taken pictures of the sky.

The ADS All Sky Survey, a rotatable interactive map showing where we’ve taken pictures of the sky.

The principal commodity of science, and astronomy in particular, is knowledge. The tangible evidence of that knowledge is pictures.  Images capture both scientific knowledge and cultural aesthetic; they can be appreciated by everyone for the wonder they evoke and the questions they provoke.  At a recent gathering of the American Astronomical Society, some of my colleagues showed a new kind of astronomical map.  It is a map of the entire sky, but instead of showing us the secrets veiled away in the deep Cosmos, the map shows us how often we have looked at or studied — taken a picture of — a particular place in the sky. To the trained eye, you can see the Andromeda Galaxy, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the plane of the Milky Way, the plane of the Solar System, and the area covered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  But what amazes me most about this picture is how LITTLE of the sky we have seen — most of the map is  black, meaning no picture has been taken there.  That is a staggering shame, since as the Hubble Deep Field as shown (and its successors, the Ultra Deep Field, and the Extreme Deep Field), even the most remote, dark and (we thought) empty places in the sky are filled with uncountable mysteries.  The sky is a BIG place, and we are far from having seen it all.

And so we continue to stare, we continue to take pictures, and we continue to spin travellers’ tales about what we’ve seen, what we know, and what we still would like to discover.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF), showing what is unseen but can be found if you stare at an empty part of the sky for long enough.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF), showing what is unseen but can be found if you stare at an empty part of the sky for long enough.


This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

Scientific Selfies

by Shane L. Larson

One of the great pleasures of my life is going to scientific conferences. I love sitting through talks, listening to my colleagues weave tales of things I’ve never thought about before. I find something deeply relaxing about simply letting new information seep into my brain and connect to things one might never have expected. It makes my life and daydreams interesting.

A favorite picture of Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky.

A favorite picture of Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky.

I was sitting at a meeting in Denver recently, listening to one of my colleagues spin a tale I’ve heard before, about the dark matter in the Cosmos. The idea that the Universe is not entirely made of the same stuff as you and I was pioneered in the 1930s by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, based on a famous observation of the motion in a distant cluster of galaxies known as the Coma Cluster. Zwicky showed that if you count up all the stuff you could see in your telescope and compared it to how much stuff you need to make the galaxies move, there was some matter that was missing, or dark! This is a famous and important result, and my colleague did what we all do when we tell this tale: he put up a picture of Zwicky. More often than not, we all use the picture shown to the left!

Which got me to wondering — if Zwicky were still with us today (sadly, he has gone back to the Cosmos in 1974) and I were to drop him an email asking for a picture of him to show in a talk, what would he send me?

One of the most famous pictures of Einstein, taken on his 72nd birthday.

One of the most famous pictures of Einstein, taken on his 72nd birthday.

There are other examples of funny scientist pictures that are commonly used. Perhaps the most famous is of Albert “Big Al” Einstein, sticking out his tongue. The picture was taken by a UPI reporter on Einstein’s 72nd birthday, and was a favorite of Einstein’s. It is arguably one of the most popular images of Einstein and is used in many venues, especially when talking about complicated physical concepts that derive from Einstein’s work. I use it in two different instances. The first is when I’m trying to convince people that scientists aren’t completely serious people — we like to have fun and goof off; if Einstein did it, so can we! We’re people too! The second is when I’m talking to people about dark energy — a completely unknown physical effect that appears to comprise almost 70 percent of the Universe. Einstein’s famous “blunder,” known as the Cosmological Constant, is a leading candidate for explaining the dark energy. I like to think that if I could call Einstein up on the phone and tell him we were going to use his greatest blunder to explain the greatest mystery in physics today, he might think I was pulling his leg and blow a big raspberry over the phone, like he appears to be doing in this picture!

Not all of my colleagues use pictures when they talk science; not all of them regale us with historical tales of the subject they are outlining. But I always do because to me, the context of the story is as important as the scientific result itself. Science is a uniquely human endeavour — no other species that we know of studies the world like we do. Science, like art, is an intense expression of our innermost creativity and imagination. As such, it is important to me to put a human face on all the great mysteries we have unravelled, and on all the puzzles we are still trying to find answers to.

Consider Jane Goodall, widely known for her decades long research on the Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania. I would love to be a collaborator with Goodall, so I could ping her for a picture to use. What picture would she choose? There are thousands of pictures of Goodall and the Gombe chimpanzees, many quite famous, but the most striking to me has always been this one by Michael Nichols of National Geographic. It captures so eloquently the interspecies interaction which has always been the hallmark of Goodall’s work. While the unconventional methods Goodall used in characterizing her work has often garnered criticism centered around the anthropomorphization of the chimpanzees, it is precisely the idea that we are closely related to these other Earthlings that makes Goodall and her work so compelling to the rest of us. All the subtle mix of wonder and mystery at this deep connection with our cousins, the great apes, is captured for me in this single image.

One of my favorite pictures of Jane Goodall (photo by Michael Nichols).

One of my favorite pictures of Jane Goodall (photo by Michael Nichols).

The existence of funny or striking images is largely due to the development and commercialization of film. Today especially, pictures are cheap and easy — goofing off for the camera is a worldwide pastime! But before cameras and photography became common, photographic pictures were posed and planned. As a result, as one looks back in time, it seems to me that we often simply have the image of famous scientists, and little of their personality. But I still show their pictures.

James Clerk Maxwell with his wife Katherine, and an unidentified sheep dog. :-)

James Clerk Maxwell with his wife Katherine, and an unidentified sheep dog. 🙂

This is one of my favorite pictures of James Clerk Maxwell, though it is not one you often see. It shows the iconic Maxwell that is so well known to physicists, in his mid-life, with his signature bushy beard, together with his wife Katherine. Maxwell was a phenomenal physicist, contributing to many areas including color photography and thermodynamics. What he is most well known for, however, is the combination of electricity and magnetism into one, unified description of Nature now called “electromagnetism.” It was the first time humans had ever come to the realization that there was some deep unification possible in the Laws of Nature, and set the stage for fundamental physics research that continues to this day; the quest to find the Higgs boson is the distant descendant of Maxwell’s original epiphany about unification. What I love most about this picture is that Maxwell had a fuzzy sheep dog! If Maxwell had posted this picture to Instagram, I’m sure I’d shoot him a text right away saying, “LOL Jim. What’s the dog’s name?”

Portrait of a man in red chalk. Possibly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Portrait of a man in red chalk. Possibly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Beyond the horizon in time when photography was invented, our memories of distant ancestors and figures is reduced to art. It is no secret that I harbor a deep romanticism for Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest polymath known in history. It is a fond daydream of mine to imagine sitting on a hillside somewhere with Leonardo, sketching in my Moleskine next to the great master as we engage in idle chit-chat, speculating on the awesome machinery of Nature and how we humans might tap into that machinery and be more than we think ourselves to be — to fly, or traverse the wide oceans, or to build a violin whose sound would make the masses weep with joy to hear the sound of it. There are many portraits of Leonardo, but the one I carry in my mind is one that is thought to be a self-portrait (though this is debated), the famed “Portrait of a man in red chalk.” If it is Leonardo, it shows him late in his life. I’m most captivated by the eyes in this portrait — deep, hidden under bushy eyebrows, the corners lined with wrinkles that I imagine must be derived from a life filled with laughter and delight at all the world has to offer. Too much to read into fading lines of chalk sketched five hundred years ago? Perhaps, but it keeps me putting my pen to paper every day, spilling out crazy ideas and imaginings about the world. What would Leonardo do?

Because I do place great stock in the human story of science, my passion for showing pictures of scientists doesn’t end with historical retrospectives. Most of my colleagues have at some point in our collaborations been asked for a picture, so I can show the world the people I work with. They are all brilliant, unique, imaginative scientific minds. As you might imagine, their pictures reflect their inner brilliance. I show their pictures when I give talks to bring those human dimensions to our work, because I am proud to call them friends and colleagues.

Some of my collaborators, in self-chosen portraits.

Some of my collaborators, in self-chosen portraits.

Here is my academic family, my research group from my last year at Utah State University. They are, each of them, singularly brilliant and talented. Every one of them is just beginning to write their stories. I have no doubt that if they come visit me in the old scientists’ home when I’m 107, they’ll bring pictures of their adventures and tell me tales of the paths they walked in the world, no matter what they might be. We’ll pull out this old picture, and laugh at how young we all were back then, and how quaint “digital pictures” were back when that technology was new-fangled.

My academic family, in self-chosen portraits.

My academic family, in self-chosen portraits.

My scientific selfie. :-)

My scientific selfie. 🙂

Someday, one of my students, or one of you, will need a picture of me for something. When you do, do me a favor — no serious pictures. If I’m lucky, I’ll have some odd little picture that is so awesome everyone will use it, just like the picture of Fritz Zwicky. Until then, I’ll leave you with one my favorites — my selfie. Not as compelling as Goodall’s picture, nor as elegant as Leonardo’s portrait, but maybe as serious as Einstein’s. 🙂