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,

Roving on Planets

Standing outside by the curbside of our home one night, my eyes were drawn to the beautifully illumined Sirius shining bright in the night sky. Sirius has been looking brighter than usual in the winter skies, and I have often stared at the blinking star wondering what was happening that far away in the Universe.  Every dot in the night sky suggesting a universe of possibilities. The space between dots showing the emptiness, the dots themselves, bright and important only because of the surrounding darkness

Almost subconsciously, my eyes moved over to the red spot Mars. For here, in our own solar neighborhood, we know that something is happening. Something of human interest, and intent. To think that on that distant reddish spot in the sky, 3 generations of rovers have spent the time taking photographs and trying to determine the existence of life on the planet, is surreal. Not to mention the fact that they have been able to transmit the pictures back to Earth for analysis. 

Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 2.46.02 PM

The planet has long beckoned us with its allure. All those Science Fiction writers, who used the planet as the home for their fertile imagination, paved the way for these missions. 

Fiction on Mars isn’t new. In fact, the red planet invited writers as early as mid-1800’s to set their stories there. Long before knowing anything about the sounds on Mars, the temperatures, or the atmospheres; worlds were set in it. War of the Worlds had the strangest creatures that human imagination could think of (cephalopod like creatures), who could overpower humans. (This quest for dominance vs courteous co-existence is a pet peeve – why must we turn everything into a conquest? But then, do ants wonder the same about us?) 

martian-ray

Throughout the week, the little cosmologist in the house interspersed our Earthly life with Mars-ly anecdotes and clips. 

Do you know? If we want to live on Mars, we have to have high metal barrier suits. If you go out on an adventure without a suit, there is so much radiation that it could kill you. “ (He had read a novel set in Mars)

Wonder what happened to all water on Mars. The video said there really was water there.” (He has been watching the NASA  videos with interest)

One evening, we sat together huddled up, watching pictures stitched together from the 3 Mars rovers: Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance. Barren desert landscapes, not unlike those in the Sahara desert or the Arizonian deserts, are all the rovers could see. In some shots, the commentator says the NASA team stitched thousands of individual images together to gain a clearer view. In some pictures, a blue sky is visible  (the commentator says that NASA colored the skies blue, so as to be able to see the images better, and I thought about how pretty blue skies are and how blue is a very rare color in nature. )

Curiosity and Perseverance will help us find answers. Till then, we have the opportunity to ponder and puzzle about these things. More than any of these curious wanderings, the one thing that the Martian landscape reinforces to me, is that our Earth is a beautiful planet – so vast in its diversity, and lifeforms. The Martian pictures make me want to go out and sigh and fall in love, look after, and cherish the one planet we can thrive on. To admire the miracle that is every tree, every lake, every cloud, every blade of grass, and every flower. 

summer-collage

Not to mention the great miracle of life in the form of marine creatures, land based creatures and those that are able to aerially survey our beautiful planet. 

img_1168-collage

If Martian 4K resolution images have taught me anything, it is to buckle down and look after the one planet we do have. If I am to be roving on planets, why not this beautiful one that has so much to offer?

“I walk in the world to love it.” – Mary Oliver

Mars Marvels

There is something special in being able to watch the Mars Perseverance Rover land on Mars during the day with your fellow explorer. 

Mars.Nasa.Gov

A work day was in bustling progress.  Many meetings, many projects, many interruptions, and many more deadlines were jostling about in the ether, when the son came charging into the room. It was the middle of his school day (one of the many high points of the corona lifestyle), “Amma! Amma! You will like this. I just came to tell you this! The Mars landing just happened!”

I plucked myself away from the myriad day-to-day happenings of my world, and looked up at his excited face. Luckily, it was one of those rare ½ hour slots that was meeting-free. “Do you want to see the landing? “ I asked, and he nodded. There is something special in being able to watch the Mars Perseverance Rover land on Mars during the day with your fellow explorer. 

Mars.Nasa.Gov

Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 2.46.02 PM

The video attests to Carl Sagan’s deductions in the book, Pale Blue Dot (essay: Sacred Black). The Martian atmosphere does look pinkish red with heavily desert hues. The son & I looked outside at the beautiful blue sky with reassuringly white clouds flitting by. 

The Mars Perseverance Rover is tasked with looking for evidence for extraterrestrial life.

Excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Perseverance rover has four science objectives that support the Mars Exploration Program‘s science goals:[8]

  1. Looking for habitability: identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
  2. Seeking biosignatures: seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in specific rock types known to preserve signs over time.
  3. Caching samples: collect core rock and regolith (“soil”) samples and store them on the Martian surface.
  4. Preparing for humans: test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

Mars has, it seems, been a most fertile planet for the imagination through the centuries. From harboring questions about life on its surface to envisioning warfare between worlds. As rich as lifeforms on Earth are, even in our imaginings, we are somewhat limited by how life has evolved on Earth. Cephalopods, trees, giraffes, humans – but what else is possible? What sensory powers are we not even considering?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_in_fiction

The War of the Worlds (1898) by H. G. Wells. Features an attack on England by cephalopod-like Martians and their advanced technology to employ fighting machines to decimate the world.

Even as early as the 16th and 17th century, writers made bold attempts at imagining life on its surface. The canal like squiggles on its surface, led to intriguing theories on an advanced civilization running advanced colonies etc. 

Now, seems like a good time for me to read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Given what we know about the Martian atmosphere now, there are places where the writing seems awkward. For instance, Ray Bradbury writes of a blue Martian sky – an example that it is hard for us to un-imagine what is. 

martian-ray

The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury. Features human-like Martians with copper-colored skin, human emotions, and telepathic abilities. They have an advanced culture, but the human explorers are greeted with incomprehension. 

Science took us to Mars with the reddish sky, but it was the blue sky with white clouds that enabled us to dream. The hunter gatherer is us out to explore the cosmic ocean, as Carl Sagan would say.

2020 Genre Unknown – Tops Bestseller List

I started this post out to write about all the books that have made life so enriching and beautiful in 2020. It has become a lovely annual ritual – a look-back on the kinds of things that interested and sustained me throughout the year.  But as I started writing, I felt a commentary was in order, as my reading changed with the events of the year. One felt like an eager student trying to cram everything relevant into one year, and then still feeling there is so much left to learn, so much to change, and so many things left to be done.

However, this overwhelm helps no one unless one reflects on the year past. So here goes. (The book list follows in another post.)

2020 is like one of those template books that somehow make it to the best seller lists. It started off as usual I suppose, maybe even showed a little promise, then the story takes you on a rollercoaster.  Deftly crashing you here, and bashing you there, the flow of events sometimes called for rolling one’s eyes.  Yet it took us to places one only imagined in thought experiments. There, inside a dystopian world, the story plunges on from one bizarre happening to another. True Schadenfreudian style if ever there was one. 

Then having rattled your innards, somehow in the end, it manages to end on a hopeful note.

Were it a novel, we would write up a review that said ‘Unbelievable at times’.

2020 had it all. 

🚀 It showed us Time Travel was possible. How? you ask.

  • Consider this: a leader of the free world denied science, and actually made impassioned calls for medieval forms of thinking (sigh!). If that wasn’t traveling back by a few centuries, I don’t know what is.
  • The past few years have also shown us how truths can be twisted, our realities distorted to suit the loudest people with the loudest voices in our online echo chambers. 

🌏 You want an inconvenient truth? 2020 gave us several.

  • From unprecedented bush fires and forest fires to hurricanes and snow storms, the year showed us all the true extent of what we have done to the one planet we call home.
  • Wall-E is becoming a reality. Our man-made things weigh more than the biomass of the planet put together. That’s more diapers, concrete, nylon, cars, and plastic than all the whales, sharks, seals and fish in the oceans; trees, shrubs, flowers and vines in the forests; elephants, rhinoceroses, bisons, zebras in the world.

If only we had mastered biomimicry before mass production!

⚖️ In my close to two decades of life in the United States, never had we had to face a curfew owing to civil unrest, but 2020 saw plenty of these too. The Black Lives Matter movement reminded us yet again about how equity and justice are terms that not everyone can use with a level of trust. 

🌌 It was also a year of cosmic splendor:

🏳️‍🌈 It was a political thriller (Will the elections happen? Will the votes be counted? Will the results hold? Will the winner be able to take up power?)

😩 It was one of the most tragic years in recent history. More lives were lost this year in the United States to Covid-19 than all the major American wars in recent history

2020_year

🥳 But it also has a hopeful end. Who would have thought that a virus that surfaced out of the blue (well bats really) killing thousands of people around the world, would have a vaccine found, and mass produced for consumption before the year was out? It feels like a Science Fiction movie in real-time. #CovidVaccine

Science as an Art

I caught sight of an artist one day, sitting in the garden and painting the profusion of life around her.  I stood there drinking the contentment of the scene in. Here was beauty, poetry, art and the science behind it all in one grand stroke. How marvelous it is to stop and observe someone paying attention to the world around them?

I remembered the piece in a book recommended to me by a writer friend, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. The book is an example to show how each one of our stories is different in its own way. This memoir is written by a dedicated scientist, and covers among other things a rare friendship, her bipolar disorder, and her journey of a life with trees. 

In the book, Dr Jahren writes about the science and its demands on its lovers. Her writing is lyrical, and when she writes of her research and her little moments of leap, it is nothing short of poetic. For instance, she writes of studying the structure of the seeds of  hackberry trees. It is the kind of research that is, as she says, ‘curiosity-driven research’.  Dr Hope Jahren is a paleobotanist, and she goes on to say that her research is the kind of work that “will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct material gain – or if it does indirectly lead to one of those things, this would be figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me. “ 

I have always admired the tenacity and perseverance of endeavors such as these. In the world of instant gratification, working on fields where the gratification may not arrive in your lifetime is nothing short of phenomenal. It is the work of an artist: working on something solely for their interest, because they have the aptitude to understand life around them, and to persevere in the face of odds.

In the book, she captures some moments along the path of a scientist’s life that are magical. For instance, she writes of the time she was studying the structural makeup of the seeds of hackberry trees, and she unmistakably finds traces of Opal in the seeds:

“It was opal and this was something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was – in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation,…Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone.”

How could one not smile at this? How beautifully she marvels at understanding the ecstasy of life. Walking along a forest path, I’ve often wondered how, that of the millions of seeds dropped in there, a few decide to take the leap and sprout into sapling, clawing their way up towards the light, while digging deep and finding their roots. It turns out there may be no definitive answer to that. If you were a seed, what are the parameters you would use to sprout your wings and decide where to put down your roots, knowing fully well that from then on, movement is out of the question?

There is more to the miracle of our ecosystems than we can imagine. The ones who study this profundity – astrophysicists, anthropologists, scientists, ecologists, geologists – and then, go on to share their journey with us is marvelous. #Shoshin.

Who was it who said that – when you read a book you live a thousand lives, but if you don’t read, you only live once, yours?! 

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R R Martin in A Dance with Dragons

What would we do without the internet to give the answer right away?!

Complement with:

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

Soonish

“How do you think the water on Titan is? “

I must’ve responded with a quizzical look, for the son responded with a “Saturn’s moon!” 

http://Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=610237

“Oh!” 

His interest in all things Space-Cosmos has me unnerved sometimes. He catches me when I am zap in the middle of the myriad things that keep me busy and unproductive, and like a zing of fresh air, sends a question like this to remind me that life does not always have to be stern.

As I thought up a response to another ping at work, I found myself wondering what ammonia-esque water must be like. The temperatures must be more frigid – sure, but beyond that the imagination sort of teeters. Would there be  fish in the seas on Titan? Would their eyesight have evolved so differently because of the low amounts of sunlight, and all this, only if we assume life has evolved on Titan. 

We did not evolve into cyclops like one-eyed creatures. Two eyes lends perspective to our vision and construct the world around us differently than a person with only 1 eye would. What if we had evolved with one eye on top of our head – always upward looking? And another set under our feet? I wonder how we would have shaped our world if we had managed to evolve like octopii with neurons everywhere not just in our brains. 

Over lunch today, discussion moved to contact lenses. With changes in contact lens technology, the disposable ones are in use now. Calculations were being made as to how many days of lenses were left, and I picked up the thread of the third eye and the octopus-like eyes-and -brains-in-limbs theory.

The son immediately calculated the number of the contact lenses we would have required for 3, 4 & 5 eye scenarios, while the daughter moved to the more practical problems

“Yes – imagine – looking upwards all the time, and see bird poop flying towards your upper eye and not having time to close it. Aaah!” That child can take the magic of star dust and turn it into duck-poop!

Another time, there I was thinking along simple lines such as ‘These flowers have faded so much in the summer heat”, or “These poor little squirrels in the heat wave – should we leave some water outside for them?” when the son in his attempt to make conversation pulled me straight out of this solar system altogether with “Did you know Proxima Centauri can pull comets towards it from the original Kuiper belt?”

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/792/10-things-to-know-about-the-kuiper-belt/

Keeping up with a child’s curiosity is difficult enough as an adult. Yet, I look forward to these little chats with the budding futurologist, for they make me think outside of the what-needs-to-be-done to the more creatively beckoning what-can-be-done mode of thinking.

One evening, on a little stroll by the waters, the fellow asked me what I thought would be the 5 most interesting things in the future. I love it when I have to think through his questions like this. I had him go first so I could get my thoughts into some sort of order.

He started off with the space elevator, and then a sky hook, moved on to some solid asteroid mining, and then conservation of energy. He is increasingly fond of the channel Kurzgesagt 

Their you-tube channel has a number of philosophical, scientific concepts. The videos are only a few minutes long and are done in a highly simplistic style, yet enough to give one the overall picture. 

Luckily, for me, I had picked up this book, Soonish by Kelly & Zach Weinersmith

Thanks to the book, I could hold up my end of the conversation. The book is written in a funny and engaging manner. Starting with space technologies and asteroid mining; the book moves on to robotics, augmented realities; and the future of personalized medicine and synthetic biology.

People who have the joy of gaining fresh perspectives from the forward looking spirit of youth are lucky indeed.

May we always retain the inner child in us – The wonder of Shoshin.

The Kaleidoscope of Life on Earth 🌏

“Hmm…how Covid has changed things right Amma?” said the daughter when I walked into her room one day, and spotted ‘Greece’ sprawled across the whiteboard. She has been spending her summer making minor changes to the decorations in her room. As most teens do, she has a fond attraction to her room, and one day I found her looking at the pictures she had printed out to make a sort of picture collage. Her teenage eye-roll and monosyllabic answers fell away as soon as I showed an interest in the choice of pictures she had laid out on the floor arranging and rearranging them to see the best patterns.

How do you see the best patterns in a kaleidoscope? Everything seems beautiful, everything seems fine, and yet the artistic piece of her fussed with the layout and order of the pictures. There were pictures of happy people, little cafes, books, beaches, forests, city lights, quotations, rainbows, flowers, and small towns. The collage was eclectic enough to interest me. She gurgled and burst forth with the thought that went into them. I listened amused. 

By then, her excited voice had attracted her little brother and fond father into the room. Her brother painstakingly wrote ‘Mars’ below ‘Greece’.

“Mars! Seriously dude- next thing we know you will be lugging us into black holes and having us all burst into all the tiny starry bits like your Avengers or Star Wars superhero dudes in their adventures! No! No space travel!”

“Just yet”. I added and she gave me a look that indicated that this idiocy with space is because I indulge him with this stuff. I laughed out loud, and the children joined in too.

“And while we are at it,  no fictional or mythical places either. Only places that we can locate on a known map of the world.”

“Sheesh – she is so strict!” said the young explorer of the cosmos.

Travel_dreams

Cautiously, like deer in a prairie, we approached the topic of places we’d like to visit, ready to scurry back to Covid restrictions. Slowly, the name scrawled on a whiteboard set the stage. In the safe company of just the four of us, it felt good to take a peek into travel dreams again. It was done at first soberly – how happily we had taken international travel for granted? How happily we had taken good health for granted? Disconcerting as the Covid situation has been, it has also made us sit up and take notice of the beautiful things surrounding us on Earth. 

Once we started talking of lands beyond our day-to-day, a different energy gripped the room. Within moments, distances melted away, and the globe-trotters threw names on the board with no thought to distance or expense. Exactly how dreams should be.

Looking at the list on the board reminded us, however, that our lifetimes were not enough for this sort of ambition. How does one fit in a hike in the Himalayas for a zen feel, with a sort of Darwin-esque trip to the Galapagos? How can one fit the journey of civilization in Greece and Peru, to the pure sounds of nature as yet untouched by mankind? I suppose travel still has a lot to teach us, and post-covid, the world will start to cautiously explore once more.

We started, therefore, with a couple of day trips taken mostly on a week-day taken off from work, so we could avoid crowds. We looked for wide trails on which to get our dose of nature and exercise in. While for the first time thinking of a 2-3 day trip, we looked for godforsaken places. Places people do not usually go to for a vacation. But the house was a good one, pitched atop a hill with the nearest neighbor miles away. There was a  Jane Austen-esque feel to the whole thing. It reminded me of the poem by Wendell Berry: The Beauty of Wild Things.

On Being: The Beauty of Wild Things – By Wendell Berry

I set about the evening meal after the long drive there, while the children ran to find board games to be played that night. I cradled a cup of tea in my hands, as I set the water to boil, and rummaged the contents I had packed with me so as to minimize exposure to the outside world.  Slowly, the kitchen’s essence wafted around the room – smells, heat, textures all dancing together in an exquisite symphony of the senses. A symphony was playing as I cooked, and talked to the children. Here was a lively room packed with energy, activity, witty comments, and chaos that strangely translates to calm.

Inside this house overlooking a river valley, I felt the kaleidoscope of our life on Earth lap at me in waves. Watching the objects in the room around me evoked a strange sense of living  on this earth: the telescope, the books ,the music, the keyboard that promises the best music to those willing to invest in it, the creature comforts of a well-built house with the furnishings about us, the deer grazing in the hillside by us, the beautiful moon, the thousands of stars visible because of the distance from populated areas.

Life_On_Earth

The Peace of Wild Things: By Wendell Berry

I come into the peace of wild things

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

The daughter’s pictures had indeed done a good job of capturing life on earth.

Star 🌟 Stuff?!

I don’t know if you have tried comet chasing every night for a week. A week in which photographers from the world over posted photographs that suggested a flaming, brilliant torch tearing past our heavens with an urgency that made you realize life was short, our journeys spectacular, and a whole lot of poetic asides.

The husband, the bright matter energy source in the household, if anything, shored up even more bright matter to counteract all the dark matter in the universe. His resolve only wiggled a bit when he saw these brilliant flaming pictures of the comet as though it was an olympic torch blazing through the heavens, when in reality, the comet looked like a Pluto after a good cry. (After the astronomer’s good cry, not Pluto’s!)

The son, kept his running commentary on photons, light years, superclusters, cosmic addresses, and the pair of us dreamt on.

The daughter, pragmatic as ever, squashed The Poetic Outlook like a bug under a hippo’s knee. Some teenagers may find it cool to tag along with their parents on adventures chasing 💫 comets: ours rolled her eyes, and the drag of the eye roll did resemble a comet’s tail.

I’d like to think that I was the calm influence that steered the boat into the cosmic oceans. The husband turned to give me an amused look, the son’s laughing rattled the comet to go back into hiding, and the daughter pulled her coolest teenage look of scorn and said the all-encompassing word, “kook!”.

“You know? I don’t see why people are wasting so much  time with the skies. I mean, if you  do see  the comet, I suppose it is nice and all, but  what’s the point of sitting there for hours on end and trying to find something hurtling through space. Huh-hmm!” she said, her lips thinning just the way her grandmother’s would.  I love it when the mannerisms of her grandmothers slip into her speech in unguarded moments like these, and couldn’t help smiling.

“I  mean – what sort of career is that? And what use is it?!” she cried, clearly asking for it.

The son & I, inferior debate  companions as we are to her sharp tongue, rose up to the occasion.

“Hey  hey hey! Going at the rate we are, scanning the skies may give us an opportunity to find another habitable planet to expand into. The same can be said of all kinds of research – the actual research does not immediately yield results, but every little bit of understanding advances us  a little bit further.”

“Yeah – also we need to know where we are in the universe! Are we in Milky  Way, Virgo Supercluster, Observable Universe:  what is our address?” said the son.

Location_of_Earth

Andrew Z. Colvin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The daughter’s tongue could have  sliced an apple in an instant as she rattled off our home address and said, “Why do we need to know huh? I mean, here we are. This is it. Live here, what is all this knowing where-we-are stuff? Waste of time. What is it going to do for us?”

The son & I blanched. You see: the pair of us are dreamers, standing beneath the stars, and endlessly wondering whether we belong to the Lainakea supercluster (is it the same as the Virgo supercluster?)  After the observable universe, then what? What if all the observable universe in inside a massive black hole, and time is only  something in this space? 

“But we are made of star stuff – isn’t that magical? Star stuff!” said the son wistfully.

“Yeah – duck poop is is also star stuff – deal with it!” said the daughter. The son wilted under this argument. The daughter caught sight of my eye looking like an angry comet, and mollified the little poetic fellow. “But duck poop is good star stuff! Heh??!!”

I cannot say the debate went anywhere. It was a disappointing bunch of evenings after all, and the teenager felt it keenly. I mean, when one has posted  to one’s friends that they are going comet gazing, and then come back after hours, having  grazed on half a luna-bar, there is bound to be a dearth of the poetic. 

“You know young lady, I have just the book to cure you of this disappointment.” I said and gave her the book, The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

The illustrations in this book make it an absolute treasure. In the past few days, after a clearly disappointing  comet gazing experience, I found myself gazing at the marvelous pictures in the book instead. 

stuff_of_stars

Annus Confusionis

His voice  quivered with excitement as he read the page out to us. 

Never mind that it was early in the morning, and he did not yet know that the  morning tea was working its way slowly through the cells waking them up. The cells were hitting snooze like the body they reside in usually does with the alarm clock. Yes, things  were getting off to a slow start in the old body. The son, in sharp contradistinction, woke up like a light bulb switched on to full power with the opening of the eyelids. He shone brightly, and his vocal chords took on the  timbre of the morning bugle as he trumpeted the queer finding on Time. 

“Can you imagine a year with 445 days?”

“uhhhhnnnhhhuuujn” 

To this legible response, he prattled on reading aloud to us from his Encyclopedia of Queer Facts.

“Yeah! It was in the year 46 B C, King  Julius Ceaser corrected the lunar  calendar.  This year became known as the annus confusionis or the year of confusion, since the year  had 445 days! Imagine how our  school must have felt!” he said looking up from the thrilling page. 

Time has always excited him – what  it is, how do we measure it, why does it always flow forward and never backwards? 

Time

I poked my cells up into waking up – it seemed the decent things to do in the presence of such excitement.  

“Exciting huh?! Would they have increased the number of school holidays  (a 5 month summer vacation) or the number of school days?”

It must have been enthralling.  Only, school as we know it today was not in session then – schooling as we know it today only came into existence about   200 years ago to equip people with the ability to sit in one place and learn to get used to it.

So they probably continued with their statue making and war-ring even though the seasons were completely out of whack with what was happening around them. What did they name the months? It must  have been an exciting time to be on the committee determining such things! I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the  wall for those meetings, instead of the ones I  usually go to. 

“Isn’t it amazing the  kinds of things human beings  have figured out?” I said, “And, then we used this knowledge to build on it, and build some more. I suppose it will only truly get boring when we  have nothing to keep us curious. Thinker & Tinkers!”

This was probably the conversation that inspired me to read about Nicholas Copernicus.

I have often marveled at how Thinking Mankind figured out our place in the Cosmos, the fact that Earth  is round, rotates on its axis, and so much more. After all, there were no spacecraft beaming pictures back to us then. The irony was not lost on me, that had we not figured out these things, the spacecraft could not have been built at  all. How  would we  know escape velocities and  thermodynamic thrusts and gravitational pulls in the first place?

This year is a leap year, and a reminder that we can figure out when we need years  of confusion, and when we need to just  look upon  the years of confusion benignly  to  stir ourselves towards better things. Like Jane Goodall said:

“Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”  – Jane Goodall

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Ants in a Cosmic Universe

The children peered into the list of ideas I had for my blog while on the whirlwind trip to the other side of the world. Predictably, some of my better ideas drew a smirk from the teenager. When pried she rattled her laugh and said, “Maybe add an article or two on lame titles? Really! What is all this with the Ants and the Cosmic Universe? Who writes stuff like that?”

“I do!” I said. “I was pretty happy that morning when I got up early and went a-walking through the woods by the resort. There were jackfruit trees, pepper wines and uh, many other trees.”

I threw my mind back happily to that early morning saunter in the Western Ghats. How beautifully the little creatures had turned my haughty look skywards to ground wards and then back again? The saunter of humility it turned out to be.

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The best part of the walk was the fauna that was up with the sun ready to greet a new day. There I was sleepy still, but happy that I had not wasted this glorious morning in bed. I had to do a double take when I saw dry leaves croaking and leaping about. Was I dreaming that I was up and walking while snuggling up cozily in bed? It has happened before. (When one wakes up and finds that that early morning jog by the lake never actually happened except in one’s dreams, it is disappointing.) It turns out these were clever frogs who had mastered the art of camouflage. They were the ones who attracted my attention ground-ward.

Till then, my spirits and outlook were sky bound – admiring the suns rays filtering through the tree tops, looking for butterflies, and the clouds flitting lazily. The clouds had opened up a few minutes earlier, drenched the hills, and then having done their job, decided to flit and laze for a while.

The teeming life on a tropical forest floor is endlessly entertaining. The temperatures were not too high yet, and many creatures had decided to get their spot of exercise, fresh air and Vitamin D before it became too much Vit D. The ants were bustling. Really, if ever we need motivation on a dull day, look no further than the role ants play in this cosmic universe.

They bustle, they plan, execute and deliver, they seem goal-oriented even when walking off with your bread crumb two hundred times their own weight from under your nose. Hundreds of them, in apparent harmony, with a shared vision of some kind, and an indomitable spirit.

This remarkable combination of spirited vision and lack of personal ambition is a balm to souls who mire themselves in the human world. Humans value competition as the means to make us better, but in the grand scale of the cosmic universe, wasn’t shared vision a loftier goal? I suppose Leaders try to cry themselves hoarse with speeches dripping with this sort of guff, but their own personal ambition thwarts the message somehow.

Everyone must spend a day every now and then in the forest re-aligning our spirits, and learning a thing or two from every single organism.

I said something like this to the children, only not as coherently and got another eye-roll as a response. I tried another angle.

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Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy

Imagine these ants come out at night, and probably admire the stars. The beautiful canopy that changes. That was us isn’t it? Even as recently as a few hundred years ago, even while territorial battles were being fought, we admired the changing skies and built myths around it. “The myths you guys seem to enjoy so much!” I said.

“Remember, I came back from the walk and pulled all you children out for a walk through the woods? To see the beautiful forest in its glory?”

“Yes! We remember! There were no cosmic universes – just Appa giving his flora and fauna tour. He didn’t even know the names, just making up some stuff, and pointing to the dry leaves and saying – Imagine these as frogs.”

“Well, by the time you guys came, the frogs had gone back into their burrows or wherever? I don’t know – where do frogs live? ” Soon, we were discussing the abodes of frogs and I told them, “But you saw so many more butterflies!”
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“So, Butterflies in a Cosmic Universe?”

“Or, moths in a cosmic universe more like. The butterflies go to bed. Where do you think butterflies live? Their cocoons must long be gone.”

I decided to let things rest. We are in a Cosmic Universe. We must live and let live and you know, share.