The Origin of Dreams

It was a mild day in Jaipur. This time of year means one can walk among the structures of the Jantar Mantar without being fried to a crisp. The guide was explaining the scientific relevance of the structures in front of us. He explained how the latitude and longitudes were determined by the astronomers of centuries ago. As we stood there calculating the angle of the sun and subtracting it from the Indian Standard Time and so on, I missed the son. This is a place that would have interested him enormously – his unswerving curiosity and awe about the cosmos and the nature of time notwithstanding, it was also a propitious time for such musings. 

Earlier that day, I had cheered along with him as we sat on opposite sides of the world and watching the Artemis 1 launch and take off to the moon. Every time the launch had been delayed, he had had a small pang of disappointment. But this time, his eyes shone: “Amma, even if you have a meeting, please just make sure that you watch it. It will be at …”, and he went ahead and calculated the local time for me. Accordingly, I sat in my room watching the launch and cheering with the fellow.

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-to-share-artemis-i-update-with-orion-at-farthest-point-from-earth

Image credit: Bill Ingalls: Image Source: https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/artemis-i-launch-0.html

His eyes shone, triumphant as he caught the excitement of the launch with periodic updates from NASA. I told him that I was going to a place that he would really like later that day and he asked me to enjoy it on his behalf. An astronomical marvel from centuries ago. A place where astronomers had mapped the skies with accuracy and skill. 

As I stood there watching the different structures and listening to our guide as he explained how each worked, I also derived small pleasures in seeing that his own narratives often confused astrology and astronomy. (Humans have always been wracked by problems: If, along the way, they tried to understand the sources of their trials and tribulations as something beyond them, who could blame them? ) Nevertheless, it was humbling to see how the astronomers of centuries ago had managed to get their recordings and data accurate to such a high degree. 

That rocket launch of a few hours ago was a cumulative building of dreams and imagining worlds beyond what is known to us. Dreams that started with the ancient homosapiens wondrously mapping the skies, and millennia of human evolutionary interest in the heavens. 

Carl Sagan quote :

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

– Carl Sagan

How many such dreams are being hatched as we speak? I read a children’s book: Ara, The Dream Innovator – By Komal Singh, that tried to capture the importance of Dreams. It was business-oriented even for a children’s book. The startup language of funding and patents and all the rest of it somehow did not quite capture the magic of dreams, but it was a good book nevertheless. 

We do not know how many dreams are being hatched today that have the potential of being realized in the near or far future. So, I am all for going to places that nurture these fantastical sojourns into our dream consciousness.

To infinity and beyond!

The Joy of Cloudy Days

Summers in California are true and long, lingering summers. The grass becomes hay, the green hills become brown, lawns boast of signs that say ‘Brown is the new Green’, and birds and animals alike droop from the sun. The flora though thrives – vegetable gardens burst forth and produce in the bountiful rays of the sun, flowers bloom everywhere, and in the midst of all the heat, there is beauty at every corner. The weather sometimes heeds the arrival of the autumnal equinox but has no qualms about ignoring it either.

This year, the summer has been excaberated with the drought. The riverbed that gives me so much joy was dry, the lake beds were parched and all the creatures gone. 

This year, even the cloud cover seemed scant. Sunsets were less than spectacular, the skies were a brilliant blue and slowly turned pinkish before becoming a deep ink-ish blue.

My sunset photographs from yester-years seemed magnificent in comparison. For clouds – scattered, wispy, thick, grey, white, fluffy, dense all make for brilliant sunsets.

You can imagine then, the joys of seeing the clouds rolling in. We were traveling and to see the clouds from the flight was magical. The son & I sat mesmerized by them. As the aircraft dipped in altitude and made toward the Earth, it was pure magic to see the clouds around us – the aircraft was literally flying through the clouds.

A lover of clouds is called a Nephophile. 

In the book, A Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan writes about how he could probably identify which planet on the solar system he was in merely by looking at the color of the sky. Our home, Earth, is a characteristic blue sky with white clouds. The absence of these day-to-day marvelous wonders, that Carl Sagan calls as the signature of Earth for the past few months, made us truly appreciate the beauty and grandeur of cloudy days.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.

Rabindranath Tagore

It is why you saw me with my face upturned and beaming at our heavenly companions as if they had feelings and needed to be welcomed. 

Our quaint cosmic neighborhood!

Everywhere on social media and news platforms were images from the James Webb telescope magnifying in glorious detail sections of the universe billions of light years away. The universe has enlightened us all and reminded us of our humble place in it once again. In the midst of all this chaos, and enormous gas clouds is a tiny planet where our particular kind of life evolved capable of acquiring these images. 

If, along with these images, and the equally glorious full moon, one has not caught a whiff of shoshin, I urge you all to do so. I also have the resident astronomer of the house on summer vacation, so I am constantly being given statistics along with the images. 

It is fortune indeed to, purely by chance, be immersed in starlight myself even in the reading world.

The beautiful images in the children’s book: The Stuff of Stars – Illustrated by Ekua Holmes, Written by : Marion Dane Bauer 

The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

I just finished reading Bewilderment by Richard Powers last week. Bewilderment: the book and the feeling

I am now reading Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.

After a walk under the stars, our corner of the universe seems sanguine – the countryside of the cosmic arena. In our suburban areas, not too many stars are visible, and the gas clouds in the James Webb photographs seem surreal. The universe is a happening place – stars and galaxies being born every day, yet the rise of our faithful moon glowing rose-gold in the early evening makes for a satisfying adventure enough in the cosmos. 

“The laws that govern the light from a firefly in my backyard as I write these words tonight also govern the light emitted from an exploding star one billion light-years away. Place changes nothing. Nor does time. One set of fixed rules runs the game, in all times and places. That’s as big a truth as we Earthlings have discovered, or ever will, in our brief run.” 

Richard Powers, Bewilderment

With images such as these, we are perhaps closer than ever to finding another planet that is capable of harboring earth-like lifeforms. 

But till then, Carl Sagan’s words hold true:

The Happy Cluckers Are Named

I pinned the Volunteer badge proudly to my chest and walked into the son’s classroom. There, on the board, was a list. The teacher was busy adding to the list and I was flummoxed. There was no categorization. I mean this was not a grocery list, not an author list, not a mailing list, it didn’t look like ice cream flavors either. This list had no theme. 

A sample:

  • Caramel
  • King Cluck III
  • Nathan Drake
  • Westerpoolch
  • McFlurry
  • Lee

I must’ve looked quizzical, for the moment the teacher saw me, she said somewhat sheepishly. “Well, we are coming with a list of names for the chicks in Science class. Say what you will about my job, it is never dull!”

I laughed agreeing heartily. The son had told me about the chicks they were raising in Science class. I just hadn’t realized all the background work that went into raising them.

I have the greatest admiration for teachers as regular readers know: their job is the hardest (but also the most gratifying as the father likes to remind me. He was a teacher for 40 years and is still happy to teach when he can.)

Once the class had settled down, I set about reading a story I had written : Father’s Day in the Jungle, followed by an article published in The Hindu newspaper: Space Racers – Together the Fun Begins, and the saying on the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan.

The picture of Earth Rising

The children were a marvelous audience as usual. They were curious, wanted to know about how we got the images of our planet, and how it came to be called the Pale Blue Dot. There is always a moment of awe as I imagine the Voyager II spacecraft turning around just before exiting the solar system to take that picture of Earth – the picture immortalized in Carl Sagan’s words as the Pale Blue Dot. I hope a little of that awe was captured by the children in class that day.  

Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan

The innocence, intelligence and joy in an elementary school classroom was more keenly acute this time so close on the heels of another meaningless gun shooting incident in America. 

I am always grateful to the children’s teachers who allow me to come and read to the children, for the experience is extremely satisfying, and the energy of the young children is like a tonic of sorts.

That evening, I asked the son whether the chicks had names yet, and he said happily. “Yeah! The voting was intense. But Caramel and Westerpoolch are happy cluck-ers ma!”

I was reminded of Miss Read’s sayings: Miss Read was a country school teacher who wrote prolific books about life in the English countryside with generous measures of common sense, nature, and gentle humor.

“Life went on. No matter what happened, life went on, inexorably, callously, it might seem, to those in grief. But somehow, in this continuity, there were the seeds of comfort.” 

Miss Read, Emily Davis

Why Do We Grow Up Really?!

The son and I were poring over the article to select. It was an important decision to make. I was being given the opportunity to read to the son’s classroom. He was proof reading the list of articles I had from approximately 1000 articles that I thought might interest an elementary school classroom.

“This one is nice Amma, but it has too many big words.”

“This one – ahem! No!”

“Oh come on! How about this one? That’ll appeal to the cat lover in your class!”

“Hmm….you are right there. But I already showed him that article you showed me last week on toxoplasma gondii Amma.”

“This one – maybe – maybe. But let’s look for something that will catch the attention from the beginning.”

So it went, till I showed him one that I knew would get his attention. 

Why is our sky not green?

The cosmologist in him sat up, the child in him shone. He beamed at this one. 

In this one, the astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, writes about how he could get up anywhere on the solar system and figure out which planet he would be on purely by looking at the skies. I could say the children marveled at that thought process. 

The essay, Sacred Black , in the book, Pale Blue Dot is well worth reading. He explains the reasoning behind the colors of the planets as we see them. He deduces the color of the sky based on the elements found in their atmospheres. 

  1. Venus, he says, probably has a red sky.
  2. Mars has a sky that is between ochre and pink much like the colors of the desert.
  3. Jupiter, Saturn – worlds with such giant atmospheres such that sunlight hardly penetrates it, have black skies interrupted here and there by strokes of lightning in the thick mop of clouds surrounding the planets.
  4. Uranus & Neptune – uncanny, austere blue color. The skies may be blue or green at a certain depth resulting in an aquamarine or an ‘unearthly blue’.

When we were through with the article, I asked the young cosmonauts what they visualized their best skies to look like. Of course, there was a magnificent range of answers including one that somehow involved cats!

“Oh! You must be the cat-lover!” I said laughing, and the ailurophile or felinophile (cat lover) grinned cattishly. 

ailurophile, aelurophile

a lover of cats. Also called felinophile, philofelist, philogalist.

I told the fellow about the post on toxoplasma gondii and their teacher laughed too. Her day involves moving attentions from cats to maths multiple times a day. 

So, it was that I read: Why the sky isn’t green – a science based article followed by a trip to a place of pure imagination and fantasy: St Patrick’s Day in the Jungle

By B.S.Bumble

Of course, the children switched tracks marvelously, and we finished the class reading by discussing the Irish music in St Patrick’s Day in the Jungle done by a good friend with a refined musical sense, and the talented artists from Holland who helped with the illustrations for the little book.

St. Patrick's Day In The Jungle
St. Patrick’s Day In The Jungle

The iBook is also available: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/st.-patricks-day-in-the-jungle/id829152649?ls=1&mt=11 (Please go to iBooks on your iPad and then look for the book)

After the story, the c. lover was the only one who wanted to know whether the tiger did manage to escape the trap set by Oby Elephant after all in the St Patrick’s Day in the Jungle book.

I seldom fail to come away refreshed after a visit to the classroom, and this time was no different. An otherwise dull week sparkled with the memory, and shone on through the week-end.

Why do we grow up really?

Precarious Egos

I was tired emotionally and physically, and slept the minute the flight took off. Why they have international flights taking off in the wee hours of the morning I don’t understand, but there we are. Groggily, mid way through the flight, I switched on the console to see where we were. Just a month ago, I was flying over Russian airspace on my way back from India. The situation in Ukraine was  already deteriorating. There was nothing for it. What was this mad rush for controlling more areas? Tanks were piling up near the borders then, and another crazed ploy for power, influence and space was in motion. Would we be able to defuse this situation without it escalating further and displacing thousands?

I took this picture of the console after we passed over Russia.

Involuntarily, I sighed and sent a little prayer, indulged in a little wishful thinking, and thought of Carl Sagan’s quote on the little blue dot. It was dark outside making our obscurity in this universe even more stark. The flight shuddered, and the seat belt signs came on. The pale blue dot and its trappings of our ego, power and greed never feel more real than when at the mercy of the headwinds around one. The cloak of gravity over the precarious egos on the planet.

Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan

In the month since, the situation has deteriorated multi-fold as we all know. Sanctions have been imposed. No flights over Russian airspace and through the Ukrainian region.

The threat of another World War looms high in the air. Syria remains in the throes of civil war. Even in moments of alarm, I belong to that category of people who believe in the balm of time and all that. Give it time, things will resolve. Give it time, reason will stagger back to its throne in the head etc. 

Will time be able to help the situation from escalating into a Third World War? I hope so. Fervently. After all, we are smart enough to have the technology and weapons to annihilate ourselves several times, and are dumb enough to do so.

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

Carl Sagan in the book, Pale Blue Dot

When Musings Are Amusing

It haș only been about a hundred years since humankind gained the knowledge that the atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. In the intervening century, what all we have done with this knowledge – slowly building upon the cumulative knowledge of mankind? It is astounding, and I shivered a little – partly due to the cold, and partly due to awe.

It took humankind 200,000 years, or at least about six millennia of civilization to discover subatomic particles, and somehow in the intervening century since, the pace of technology and the possibilities of the future seem to have raced forward. Every generation has had to live with phenomenal changes. Barring huge setbacks, where would humanity be in another 100-200 years? 

The stars spun around in its merry dance around the universe ,while I had the same sensation in my head trying to make sense of the world we have built for ourselves. The simple observation on the atom’s makeup led us on a merry dance of our own – that of financial markets, world economies and much more.

The husband was explaining the concept of NFTs, VR worlds that is already beginning to manifest in the world.  Our great grandfathers would not have understood. We are not going to understand things of perceived importance in our grandchildren’s lives, forget great grandchildren’s. The mind boggled. 

It all started with my fretting about the Economics of the world getting increasingly complex – how did stock market indices, per capita incomes came to be built one upon the other? Currency fluctuations, led to the discussions on crypto currencies, and we went on to how people claimed ownership to stars. Apparently, one could pick a star and name it after yourself for a fee. ( Star registry )You essentially ‘owned’ the star from then on. The only problem was that there were multiple star registries, and so multiple people could pick the same star to ‘own’. Also, there is the real problem of the star not knowing it is ‘owned’ by a human on a faraway planet.

I looked up and laughed out loud – the stars seemed to understand and winked back.

I could not help thinking of the parody of The Little Prince by Antoine Saint de Exupery. In The Little Prince, the Prince visits different ‘planets’ each hosting one human being – a geographer, a banker, a king, a drunkard and so on. The banker never seems to spend any time enjoying the stars around him, but spends his time counting them all, as he claims that the moment he counts a star, he owns it. (Carl Sagan’s Quote on Astronomy being a humbling profession is completely lost on the poor, rich banker!)

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience

Carl Sagan, Physicist and Astronomer

Really, human beings are the most remarkable beings if you stop to think about it. We want to own the first digital signatures, the most coveted things on earth (Napoleon prided himself on his Aluminum vessels, and it was considered a luxury till someone found how to produce it enmasse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_aluminium), the best paintings that cost millions, and so on. We want our egos fed and nourished all the time by a universe that largely does not seem to care whether we exist or not. 

But, simple things that mattered before the composition of the atom was discovered still remains important. We still value our loved ones, yearn for contentment and peace, and want to live on a bountiful planet that allows us to thrive.

There is no doubt about it: The musings of our importance on a cold, starlit night is highly amusing.

On the Shores of Sleep

I lay awake ready to explore the cosmic oceans of the subconscious, which is to say, the eyelids were heavy with welcoming drowsiness, but blessed sleep was momentarily elusive.

The infection in my eye was throbbing, and had morphed into a dull headache. A trip to the city earlier in the day had tuckered me out more than I cared to admit, and an over-tired body can take some time falling asleep. 

The quick trip to the city had also rekindled some familiar feelings. Some things never seemed to change. The city with its trembling lights, its massive office buildings, the scores of people rushing, rushing towards something, nothing. Life felt long, unchanging, and yet, distressingly tumultuous all at once.

I stopped to take pulse – the anxious rush of traffic, the speed with which one needed to act and react on the streets, the cacophony of ambulances and traffic, and the frenzied pace were one thing. Colleagues who had moved out of the geographic location, colleagues who had moved on was quite another. The memory of a colleague who had succumbed to cancer a few weeks prior: another good human being whose companionship and solid good sense I missed.

How could time feel swift and still at the same time? 

How can our ephemerality coincide with that sense of life being long and varied?

“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.” 

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Every moment plucked like a strand from a whirlwind, and yet, every person’s appreciation of the whirlwind was their own. Life seemed meaningless and meaningful in spots of flashing clarity in the confusing overwhelm of the day.

I tried to sleep that night – back in the quiet of our suburban home. I couldn’t, and took to moon-watching instead. The moon had risen – the same moon that rose over the Sierra Nevada mountains – unmoving, majestic; the oceans – calm and serene; the vast plains of the desert cactii-laden amidst multi-hued rocks and sands; the coastal regions  – the sandy shores and the redwood forests reaching up to eternity; and the bustling city all at the same time. 

The Japanese have a beautiful word for moon-watching:

Tsukimi (月見) or Otsukimi (お月見), meaning, “moon-viewing”, also known as Jugoya (十五夜), are Japanese festivals honoring the autumn moon, a variant of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Time and Space in the physical realm invites us to think of Being in the meta-physical sense.  The land of dreams beckoned again, and I went to bed – grateful for the quiet solitude of the night, the calming nature of moonlit thoughts and blessed sleep.

The sun will rise bringing with it a whole new perspective.

Barnard’s Star & Jupiter Dancing

Jupiter and Venus were both illuminating the evening skies. Dusk was creeping in. The sight of our familiar planetary companions is always a welcome one. The first ones to illumine the skies, and visible long before the stars can be seen, these wanderers are a delight. The red atmosphere of Venus, the thunderous black ones on Jupiter, and the beautiful bluish velvet earthly skies make for a magical time.

Later that night, after loads of laundry, dishwashing and cleaning were done, I sat on a park bench nearby and gazed up. Jupiter looked brighter than all the other stars, and I found my thoughts drifting. I read somewhere that the red spot on Jupiter depicting its great raging storm looks fiercer than ever. I could see none of that from my park bench millions of miles away of course. That night, the reflected light from the sun was just soothing, and in some ways alluring.  The great mighty giant with its storm raging for 3-4 centuries spinning, quietly keeping the solar system in balance, and dealing with its own destiny is strangely fascinating. Are there extremophiles on its surface? Any micro-organisms that only thrive in the storms? Maybe we would know one day.

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/jupiter-s-great-red-spot/family/

As I went to say good night to the son, we fell to discussing the skies (one of our favorite topics as regular readers know). I told him that I read about Jupiter’s storms being stronger this year,

“Ha! Our global warming affecting the storms on Jupiter? “ he said and the pair of us chuckled at the joke. 

“Did you know if you put 90 Jupiters together, you still won’t have a star?”

“Yeah?! How many would you need?”

“ A hundred.”

“Let me guess – Kurzegesagt?” I said, and he nodded. 

That channel has some of the most amazing content, and the son gets excited when a new video is released.

“If 100 Jupiters came together, we could get a star like the Barnard’s star. We cannot see, but it will be a star. ” . I had not heard of Barnard’s star, but there it was capable of going on as a red dwarf star for the next 10 trillion years. He charmingly said 1-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0 of course, and I was wondering what the number is – fogged after a hard days’ work, this child’s 1-0-0-…-0 can be a bit much. 

So, there was another close neighbor to the Earth – a star that was not as visible as Alpha Centauri, but there nevertheless, 6 light years away. This red dwarf has made its way into science fiction with the possibility of harboring life in the planets around it. The dwarf star is too cold, and though the planets orbit at an optimal distance, it is too cold for life as we know it. But human imagination, while marvelous, is also limited in some respects.

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

Carl Sagan

Apparently, the Barnard’s Star is known as one of the fastest moving stars – a little dancer in the skies, moving slowly regally among Jupiter & Venus in the evening skies. This one’s movements are not as visible in one lifetime, but is visible over a century. To marvel at this kind of generational wisdom being passed down always makes me grateful for the little part we all play in this mighty universe.

Life_On_Earth

As we sat in our pajamas talking about the stars and their planets, I thought about the beautiful marvelous gift of star-gazing.

I don’t know what the future holds for mankind, but I hope gazing at the stars is one that is always possible. A source of dreams, conjectures, possibilities, and solace. That is my wish for all sentient beings,

The Covid Vaccine

We rolled into the expansive grounds to receive the Covid vaccine. Everything shone with efficiency starting from the way our appointments were scheduled. It always astounds me when I see undertakings as large as this. Any public health initiatives are amazing in their scope and ability, and I was in awe. Like a child at the fairgrounds, I soaked in the sign boards, the appointment process, the courteous health workers all working on Saturday mornings to ensure the world can be a safer place. 

There were no questions unrelated to one’s health. No checks other than ensuring one was eligible age-wise and health-wise and had no known allergic reactions. 

As we waited for our turn and watched the registered nurses, volunteers and traffic attendants go about their duties, I thought once again of all the great things human beings are capable of as a species. Within a year of the coronavirus bringing the world to a stand-still, a vaccine was not just found, but mass produced and administered to millions of people. That is nothing short of a miracle. Even as the virus continues to spread its tentacles in waves, the vaccine outreach program was offering hope.

Extensive testing, mass production, and a dizzying level of community outreach and logistics had gone into place for this to work. But how did the mRNA vaccines work?

We live in the Information Age, and know first-hand how it can quickly be turned on its head to a Misinformation Age. A Quote from the Demon Haunted World came to mind.

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements—transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting—profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The nurse came up to the car with a thin needle and I closed my eyes instinctively. She smiled and said, “It’s done. You feeling okay?”

Just like that, the tiny ant-like pinch of the needle that delivered a tiny dose of messenger RNA gave rise to something else.

I felt a surge for love for America

A touch of pride in its efficacy and its courtesy

A ripple of gratitude for Science

A shiver while thinking how it might have been had the 46th President not been elected.

And finally a sense of gratitude that we did have a President who valued these things.

 

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