Cosmic Nature of Living

We have several friends who are whiz-kids behind the lens, and rise before larks to photograph that first ray of sunlight through the crevice of the rock and so on. We are grateful to their creative labors, for the pictures show the artist behind the lens, and one needs only look at them to get an instant nature spa. We, on the other hand, forget to take cameras, or if we do, leave them behind in the car before getting out. Plans for sunrises are often derailed by the low trick the sun plays on us by beaming on us and waking us up with his rays before we beat him to it.

So, it is no doubt that armed with nothing but our cellphones, we had no method of capturing the brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy.

star_trails
Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy

Every time we have the luxury of traveling out of our urban areas swathed in artificial light, we try to step out at night to indulge in star gazing. The winter skies over Zion national park did not disappoint. The wisps of cloud that had floated in during the sunset to show us a more resplendent sunset had flitted away obligingly so that we may take in the iridescent brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy unobstructed.

A friend most kindly took a picture of the husband gazing up at the skies that had me yearning to see the sky like that.

milky_way_shree

Photographers will tell you something about shutter speed, and exposures and frames per second: Lark that always has me looking like a glazed doughnut at t+2 of the discourse. Therefore, I produce slightly alarming results that has physicists going back over their calculations to see how the focal length with the curvature and the light ray divided by exposure rate gave rise to the image that I seem to have obtained. (Just a moment: f/1.4 should blur that background, how did it blur the subject?)

I meander as usual. The point is: I thought we required post processing and superior photographic techniques like make-up on a set to be able to see that night sky. However that night at Zion national park, we had no need to resort to these advanced techniques to see the nebulous cloud of the Milky Way. The skies split open, and the stars poured their celestial brilliance upon us. If this was the show our ancestors enjoyed every night, it is no wonder that we have such wonderful myths and shapes in the ‘ever changing panorama of the skies’ (James Woodforde Parson).

As we looked up, we could not help wondering how the desert beauty in the canyons was so different from the beauty of the seaside and yet so unlike the snowy mountain plains. If this many vagaries of nature could exist on one planet, the mind boggles on what exists in the vast cosmos out there. We rarely stop to think of the skies in any color than the ones we are blessed with. It takes children to imagine that. I remember the childrens’ essays in first grade where they were asked to imagine another world, and their skies looked nothing like ours. They opened our minds to the possibility of having rust colored night skies, with swirling colorful gusts of wind and rainbow colored days. When asked to imagine extra terrestrial life, we are so limited by our imaginations that we seldom look beyond the slightly changed human form.

Yet on this very planet, we know that octopuses have a level of consciousness radically different from our own.

For a long time, we thought that being conscious was something unique to human-beings, then Jane Goodall paved the way for several scientists to study animals and not fear being accused of anthropomorphizing their subjects. Finally, in the 1970’s, Jennifer Mather’s work was acknowledged.  Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Once overlooked or dismissed outright, Jennifer’s work now is respected and cited by cognitive neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists so that the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Days filled with the daily business of living truly and fully demand our attentions so that we often forget the vibrant universe in which we float. The night view from our planet, ‘ a tiny mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’ as Carl Sagan so elegantly put it, is the best cure for arrogance there exists. Instead of taking our place among the harmonious orchestra of the universe, if all our dictators are fighting over, is a small patch in this tiny speck on a remote planet, we must feel sorry indeed for ourselves.

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Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

Arecibo_message.svg
Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

cd

Swimming With Dolphins

The daughter and I were lazing around one night a few months ago: she, reading me snippets from her Harry Potter book and gushing about Patronus charms, and self, reading out snippets from mine, The Cosmic Connection By Carl Sagan.

I was reading the fascinating piece on Elvar the Dolphin. The daughter’s favorite animal is a Dolphin. She has drawings of mermaids with Dolphins everywhere. The sea fascinates her in ways that amuse us. Dolphins, mermaids and narwhals enchant her mind, and her endeavor is to become one if possible.

So, obviously, I read the whole piece out to her.

wind-in-the-reef.jpgElvar had the brilliant scientist stumped after a brief interaction. Elvar-the-dolphin and Sagan-the-human, on being introduced, started playing a game initiated by Elvar wherein he swam to Sagan, and thumped his tail completely drenching Sagan. When after the fourth splashing, Sagan refused, the dolphin swam up to him and said ‘More’. Completely flustered with this turn of events, Carl Sagan ran to his fellow neuroscientist friend and said he might have heard the Dolphin say the word, ‘More’. To which the neuroscientist said that Elvar the Dolphin knew upto 50 words in English, and could use them in context.

It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese. – Carl Sagan

A marvelous essay that only serves to remind us about the virtues of humility. We can barely understand other languages that fellow humans speak, and are quick to erect barriers between ourselves, but here was a dolphin willing to pick up English in order to engage with human-beings.

“You know Amma? Dolphins are so lovely right?”

I nodded. I did love the little flubberty gibbets.

“I think I know what my patronus is – My patronus must be a dolphin. I love them amma. They are so magical and real too.”, she said her eyes gaining that dreamy quality that often accompanies magic.

So, imagine how we felt when on our recent vacation to Mexico, the husband had booked a ride with Dolphins.

We were first introduced to a pair of dolphins – a charming male and female, called Manta and Sole. We hugged, patted and kissed them. I have never in my life touched something that soft, warm, and plush pulsing with the robust health of life. I coo-ed with that tone of voice I use around babies, and the daughter tried her best to distance herself from me in embarrassment, unlike the dolphins, who seemed to enjoy the attention.

‘Would you like to ride with them?’, asked the instructor, and I got to tell you that I was apprehensive. I mean – weigh the facts. Dolphins can swim at the stupendous rate of 20 miles per hour. I swim, if you can call it that, at the rate of 2 strokes a minute, stopping to gulp water in between, spluttering a bit, gasping, coughing and rasping, then regaining my breath before taking another deep gulp to sustain myself for 2 strokes.

Would a Dolphin for the first time experience condescension? I had to find out.

It took me what felt like 20 minutes to swim a couple of hundred meters out to where the dolphins could meet me. I huffed and puffed, and flawlessly executed the gulped-water, sputter and choke routine before I felt able to say I was ready. The moment I nodded, she gave them the signal.

In under a second, I felt the dolphins streak toward me under water, and they were there wiggling their fins under my arm and assuring me in their playful way that all was well. Their faces looked like they were smiling which I suppose is a gift they are born with. Their demeanor indicated none of that condescension or judgment that I was dreading, but simply an amused curiosity.

In another second or two, they had deposited me on the shallow end. The pictures reveal an ecstatic look on our faces as we were carried gently ashore by the dear creatures. My heart was bursting with joy. Maybe my patronus changed to a Dolphin too.

dolphin_swim

If we truly were smarter than Dolphins, we would be totally giving you the works in Dolphinese. What I can do is to dance like they did for us.

I only hope their interaction with us was a happy one too. Boink – Thank-You in Dolphinese.

Cybotic Leaders or Alien Invasions?

I am reading a book called Mind, Life and The Universe: Conversations With Great Scientists Of Our Time. It is a compilation of interviews with scientists. It is fascinating reading. Holding one book letting one know so many areas in which one knows nothing is nothing but humbling.

One interview is with Jane Goodall. She says that what struck her as horrifying while studying chimpanzees was the fact that they could identify with a clan and go on to attack, maim or kill fellow chimpanzees belonging to a different clan. Similar to what human beings do to each other. Somewhere along the evolutionary cycle, our genes seem to have mutated thus – to identify race and religion and any number of extra associations and look down upon others.

Carl Sagan, in his book, The Cosmic Connection, writes about how if an alien civilization were observing us now, they would think that what we value most is violence. For that is what is available as entertainment and that is what being streamed into our homes everyday, and what our children engage in, in the form of video games.

(https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/the-wind-in-the-reefs/)

Last week, we did not need aliens to observe and see what is taught to us. A twitter bot, Tay, written by humans was let loose in the internet to learn and respond like a real user (The future is not far when a good cybot becomes the President of a country). Within 24 hours, we had turned Tay into a racist, misogynist, abuse-spewing user. Who can blame Tay for learning to be a racist jerk in one day? If that is what we are teaching twitter bots, could it be what we are teaching our children in a slower, sturdier manner?

I quote from article below:
http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/30/tay-microsofts-ai-program-is-back-online.html

“Unfortunately, in the first 24 hours of coming online, a coordinated attack by a subset of people exploited a vulnerability in Tay,” Lee explained. “As a result, Tay tweeted wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images.”

How do we teach an algorithm empathy? As Jane Goodall said, “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/30/jane-goodall-empathy/

I remember a P.G. Wodehouse book, Right Ho Jeeves, in which Jeeves (that all-knowing butler who saves his young, idiotic, but thoroughly good-natured master, Bertie Wooster many times over) says, that the best way to unite warring factions is to introduce a common enemy.

chimp

It looks like an alien invasion might save us from ourselves. If those aliens are only 0.1% percent more evolved than us, we can be their chimps.