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. 

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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. 

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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?

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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. 

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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.

Why is our sky not green?

The elementary school going son, like many children his age, pulls a full why-wagon with him wherever he goes. The questions tumble out with ease, and can be anywhere on the spectrum : 

They are all fair game.

Sometimes, of course, his questions chip away at the stoutest of theories. For instance, a few years ago, as we mooned about the hills overlooking the bay at sunset and taking in the shades of pinks, oranges, blues, grays, purples and reds, he said, “Why is the sunset never green?

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Now, that is a perfectly valid question with a perfectly scientific answer. However, it had me stumped, for it never occurred to me to ask that particular question.  I remember being awed a few years ago, when the children had drawn rust and pink colored skies when asked to imagine a sky for their imaginary world. 

How often do we take the time to question things that just are? 

This is why when I read the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, and he comes up with a marvelous chapter based on determining the planetary world one is in simply based on the color of the sky, I shone with girlish delight. Here, was the kind of leap in imagination where only deep thought and research can take you, and here he was, simply giving it away in a book. All his marvelous thought processes, his wonder of the world, his eternal curiosity and scientific rigor just laid out on a page so we could embrace it in one simple reading. 

“The color of the sky characterizes the world. Plop me down on any planet in the Solar System, without seeing the gravity, without glimpsing the ground, let me take a look at the sun and the sky, and I can, I think, pretty well tell you where I am, That familiar shade of blue, interrupted here and there by fleecy white clouds, is a signature of our world. “ – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

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The whimsical side of me wants to ask whether he will recognize Earth at sunrise, sunset, during wildfires and what-not. 

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. He talks about this bleak expanse of a sky being interrupted here and there by strokes of lightning in the thick mop of clouds surrounding the planets. This image does make for a sober shiver for someone who loves the sky and its myriad attractions. Imagine, not being able to the stars, the sun, or anything beyond the clouds – brrrr.
  4. Uranus & Neptune – uncanny, austere blue color. The distant sunlight reaches a comparatively clean atmosphere of hydrogen, helium and methane in these planets. The skies may be blue or green at a certain depth resulting in an aquamarine or an ‘unearthly blue’.

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He shows us how in the absence of an atmosphere, an inky deep purple is all there is. How, our planet is only a pale blue dot floating in an inky void illumined by a ray of light from the sun. Our eyes may not show us green colors in the sky at sunset, but it does detect plenty of green in the flora around us.

What would you like to see in a sky?

Rajma on Titan or Mars

“Yeah! Rajma!” The little fellow slurped in mock exaggeration throwing his hands up into the air. I smiled. I wondered yet again how genetics seems to work in odd ways. My brother as a child had the same expression or at least sentiment every time rajma was made. How could my children who are growing up on the opposite side of the earth from my rajma-loving brother have the same expressions of delight and exaggerated lip-smacking responses to this simple dish?

I can hear my brother mimicking Tamil movie comedians and saying,  “அனுபவிக்கனும் ஆராய கூடாது”. Loosely translated, this means, it is better to not analyze these things too much, but just enjoy them.

I turned the little red kidney beans over in my hands, and in a moment of impulse planted a few of them into the soil in a little pot where the winter colds had stripped the plants bare. 

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I started the year reading The Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. Much of Carl Sagan’s writing celebrates the accident of life on this beautiful planet, and how incredibly lucky we are to be blessed with sentience to try and make sense of it all.

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by [Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan]

A sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. It is one of the reasons I love Thanksgiving and Pongal or Makara Sankranthi. The fact that we actually set aside our myriad problems to take a moment to express gratitude to the cosmos and this planet for nurturing life is special enough, but this year it feels extra special and even necessary. The planet has united human destiny with a virus, reminded us of the pettiness of grandiose ambition, and helped us appreciate the delights of the ordinary. No small feat. 

In the book, Carl Sagan talks at length about what all can revealed about a celestial object by a mere photograph. Our own pale blue dot – the picture of Earth he says can actually reveal existence of life on this planet. The combination of gases in the atmosphere, not to mention the presence of methane in the atmosphere. However, in the very next chapter, he examines the methane in Titan ( one of the moons of Saturn), and quickly debunks existence of life there as yet because of the temperatures and the concentration of the gas. However, he still holds out on its potential :  the moon has the conditions necessary for the accident of life to happen at some point in the future. 

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As he painstakingly examines one world after another, there is so much to marvel at, and also appreciate the only home known to our particular kind of life. There is nothing as yet discovered that can harbor our particular chemical compositions, our requirements for this particular combination of atmosphere, water and foliage. 

For all the marvels we surround ourselves with I still think the joy of seeing things sprout from a seed into a plant has to be the most wondrous of all. Every time I walk in a forest or a meadow, I wonder how many seedlings lie around us, waiting to take that leap into their chance of life. 

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I walk around my little strip of a garden that has been kindly putting up with my well-intentioned, but often laughable, attempts at horticulture. I stand marveling at the tulip bulbs shooting up through the soil. This year’s rains have been woefully low, and I hope it changes for I know what it portends for a fire season later in the year. 

A few days ago, I went to water the potted plants and I cannot tell you the joy of seeing little kidney bean plants sprouting up. To think of all that wondrous work happening quietly in the soil while we spend our days with our concerns of our human imprints on this one tiny planet of ours is truly humbling. This is the real work isn’t it? 

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“So can we really eat the rajma beans now?” Asked the son, his eyes gleaming with excitement. I found, I didn’t know the answer. How does one transform legumes to rajma beans that little fellows in kitchens go on to associate with warmth and love? 

I fumbled and told the little fellow honestly that I didn’t know, but that we’d find out together. We will spend a pleasurable evening looking through the process of legumes to kidney beans. Whether Mars or Titan ever gets to growing rajma beans, we do not know, but I did promise him a dish of rajma from our very own plants. I think my brother would give his approving nod half an earth away. 

Let’s care a whole lot!

T’was family movie night. An evening fraught with decisions, and everyone’s voice and opinion clanged over the dishes and sizzled over the noise from the stove.
Suggestions rose, opinions swelled and movies quelled.

“Uggghhh! No way!”
“That again?”
“What are you? A kid? Oh wait! Yes you are a kid! Okay never mind!”
“Nope! Too much for Amma! “
“What do you mean? It isn’t too much for me?!”
“You bawled last time for a movie that wasn’t even a tear-jerker, nope! How about this?”
“Star Wars!”

A collective moan went up. Finally, it was revealed that the youngest member of the family had no recollection of the Dr Seuss movie Lorax. He has read the book multiple times, and so we all settled in to watch Lorax.

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Dr Seuss is an inspiration, of course; but just how insightful his take on humanity is uncanny. From fresh air as a commodity, to a land without trees, to surveillance at every pore, his far sighted vision has so much to nod your heads at.

The Thneeds, created by the Once-ler, in his story are made from Truffle trees. Thneeds were fashion statements – doubling up from head scarves to sweater vests and shawls. (“But even he, it seems, could not envision a future where ripped jeans were fashion trends!”,  I said and drew a grudging chuckle from the teen with the ripped jeans. ) Eventually, of course, the Once-ler’s greed led to decimation of trees, habitat loss and a devastated landscape is all that is left.

“Wow – that was such a good movie Amma – though the movie had scenes that the book didn’t have.” was the verdict of the youngest.

“Really! Humans are impossible!” said the teenager, and discussion turned to conservation, Greta Thunberg and some you-tuber who talks about going green.

“Did you know the Lorax was banned in some schools in California because loggers felt it was not friendly to the ‘foresting industry’. ” I said.

I looked at their agonized faces with awe – how is it children get these things, and adults don’t; and I felt a surge of hope.

lorax

We were walking a familiar route through our neighborhood a few days later, stopping to see some of the felled trees as we do every so often. The rings in the pine trees show they must have been at least 80 years old, and to see the forlorn stumps reminded of the beautiful book, The Giving Tree.

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The book starts with friendships between a young boy and an apple tree. The boy plays and swings on the tree’s branches, but as he grows older demands more and more from the tree. He needs her apples to make money, cuts her down to build himself a house and a boat, and finally comes back tired and spent with life, when all the poor tree can offer is the stump to rest.

The Giving Tree, can be interpreted and discussed in many different ways. Givers & Takers, Need & Greed, Selfish & Selfless, but the most beautiful one is the simple one, the one where your children make a sad face at the end, and say, “Why doesn’t this boy/man/grandpa ever feel sorry for what he’s done?”

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The boy reminds us of human’s relationship with nature. The human species can be broadly classified as takers: from the planet, & from our co-habitants on this planet. You might have seen this video clip of Man’s greed By Steve Cutts:

The Giving Tree too was banned interestingly for sending sexist messages – the tree was female and the little boy continued to take from her without ever giving back.

I just finished a book called Losing Earth – by Nathaniel Rich. The book, deals with the science, politics and action of climate change.

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Despite humanity having the science locked down more than 50 years ago, little action has resulted. The closest we came to getting everyone to agree on unified action was the Paris Agreement where all countries agreed to work towards keeping emissions such that we not go above the 2 degree increase of temperatures world-wide. The largest emission offender for decades, United States, pulled out of the agreement when Donald Trump became President.

I was shocked to find that Climate Change as a topic has been banned in certain schools, skirted around in others and given a miss altogether elsewhere. The science behind Climate Change and the effect of our industries were long proved – as far back as 1970.

This April 22nd is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a special onus on Climate Action. Maybe this Earth Day, we can renew our commitment to the only pale blue dot that will harbor us. Let’s care a whole lot about our planet before all we are left with is the word ‘Unless‘ like in the Lorax story, or the tree stump in The Giving Tree.

 

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Read also: Are we to become Lab Rats?

 

Galactic Plumes

I had been mooning about the fields outside in the village where we stayed near Topslip National Forest. People told me to be careful about venturing out far – “There are Elephants nearby, and they love the fields. “, they said emphasizing the word, Elephants. My eyes lit up. The villagers exchanged looks that doubted my sanity and hurried on, “It isn’t Good seeing Elephants in the fields – you never know what they will do. If you hear fire crackers in the distance, come straight back here!” said one toothless fairy godmother, and her husband (I think) nodded in agreement vigorously.

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Off we went then, sauntering through the fields, listening to the loud orchestra of birds, crickets and frogs, accompanying the beautiful colors that nature was setting forth for us to see. It is magical indeed to see a half dozen peacocks take flight into the sunset. By the time, we fumbled for the phones they were gone, and I was glad I did not waste those precious moments of seeing them start off awkwardly and then gain elegance in flight by trying to get a picture. I have it in my mind’s eye, along with the indescribable moment of feeling your heart soar with the peacocks’ trajectory.

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Peacocks have long feathers, and while they know how to fan them out and preen in front of peahens looking splendid in the process; when they fly, it looks like it can feel like long hair feels to women.

Gather your tresses,
Of plume and multi-colored beauty
Tuck them in,
Letting it stream behind you elegantly while
Trying not to let it look messy
And all the rest of that.

It was then in the distance that we heard firecrackers go off in the distance. I don’t know about you, but this is the sort of thing that holds mystique. It is what inspired my Mother’s Day in the Jungle tale. Trumpy elephant going off to Farmer Hasalot’s farm – there is such an element of thrill and romantic mysticism to this kind of thing, though I think the elephants and farmers in question disagree.

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I spent dusk in a similar fashion enjoying the fading sunlight, the rising moon, the fields, the clouds, the village, the children, the adults and creatures of beautiful Earth. Every now and then, crackers went off in the distance – elephants in the distance we whispered. Though, why we were whispering we had no idea. Dusk seems to call for these things. A laid back village in South India tucked away in the recesses of the Western Ghats with all the fascination of the bucolic. An occasional rumble of a vehicle is all there was to remind us of civilization, corporates, power tussles, wars, micro/ macro economics, nuclear heavy-lifts, and motives of profit.

Post dinner, I traipsed indoors, happy with life, still rattling on about the beautiful image of the peacocks taking flight together in the evening light. We stayed chatting happily into the night (Part 2)

It was well past midnight when the electricity went out, and the husband said, “Outside now! Completely dark – yes!”

Off we went, self carrying the son piggy-back to see the stars in all its glory outside. With the electricity gone, it was pitch black outside.
Oh!
My foot!
Not there.
Ouch!

We bumped into one another spectacularly and I tripped on a chair outside in the verandah, carrying the little fellow on my back. Both of us went crashing down, self trying to save the poor fellow from being dropped from my back. One splendid moment later, I truly saw what ‘seeing stars’ meant.

The pair of us dragged ourselves off our feet and took our eyes skyward. The light pollution we have unleashed on our planet means that there are very few places in the world that humanity can stand and gaze at the sheer immensity of the universe in which we live. On an average dark-ish day, we can see about 3000 stars, on a day like this surrounded by mountains, forests and fields for miles around us, we could see tens of thousands of them lighting up entire bands of the sky with their luminance. The stars and galaxies are always there, and maybe because of this very permanence, it is seldom appreciated.

Standing there in the surrounding darkness with people I love, I felt light-headed. There we were, standing on an Earth that was spinning incredibly fast in its journey around the sun; the sun was swirling around the Milky Way galaxy; and the galaxy itself was spinning and whirling away into vaster expanses. Carrying us all: our ethereal thoughts, wishes and desires; and our solid physical selves on a solid planet.

The galaxy tucking its star-studded plumes behind it gracefully, and taking flight with all its organic and inorganic components streaming gracefully along its path. Huge balls of gas and flames hurtling through space, and some spots in this beautiful expanse sanguine enough to cool down for a spot of life to flourish. #The Pale Blue Dot.

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The beautiful image of the peacocks taking flight earlier that evening came to me, and in that moment, the galaxies above looked like peacocks taking flight into horizons unknown.

Do the dreams of galaxies have limits? Do they have purposes?

Thinking back on that beautiful spin through the gathering darkness, I am reminded of this quote by Ursula K Le Guin:
“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

Magical Garbage Collection

I plonked myself in bed one night and stretched the tired frame. The feeling of the muscles relaxing against the mattress is a welcome one. The thighs and calf muscles let out a small moan of gratitude at being allowed to rest. How lovely it would be if I could just sleep for another 12-14 hours? I knew the alarm had different plans for me though.

It had been another long day in a series of long days. The relentless nature of the days, and the things that were occupying them had me feeling somewhat jaded. 

Annie Dillard whispered her wisdom “How we occupy our days in how we occupy our lives.”

I really need something to rekindle the magic of life, I said to myself, and then remembered that a task lay ahead of me that had little to no magical appeal. I had forgotten that it was the night to put out the garbage cans for collection the next day. My muscles screamed in protest as I got up to take care of the unsavory task. 

I tried to silence the sound track of the amount of garbage we generate and push out just for this moment the heart -rending images of the garbage floating in our oceans that I had seen in the National Geographic magazine. I tramped from garbage can to garbage can in the various rooms in the house stumping listlessly and loudly. The sounds of my footsteps loudly registering my exhaustion and irritation at the same time. 

I dragged the cans out to the curb. A cool breeze gently caressed my tired frame. I stopped at the end of the curb, and lifted my eyes. I stood there caught in the moment of transformation. There was Jupiter shining down brightly near the Scorpio constellation in the summer sky. I veered my eyesight to the right and there was Little Dipper. It had been a long time since I glanced up at the night sky. The advent of summer meant that by the time the stars twinkled down gently at us at night, I was too tuckered out to exert myself to gaze longingly at the planets and the stars. ✨ 

I stood there for sometime. A few neighbors had stepped out on similar errands looking equally spent, and we had a curbside-garbage-can chat. I showed them Jupiter and the constellations I recognized. Really! How such a simple thing can invigorate us all is amazing. Soon, we were whipping out the Skyview app and looking for constellations and stars, familiar and unfamiliar. 

It was then I saw the artificial satellite orbit the Earth – shooting much faster than the remaining stars, steadily moving across the night sky, like a little star out for a run. In a matter of minutes, we were talking about the kind of data the orbiting satellites send us. No surer reminder of the Pale Blue Dot than an orbiting satellite is there?

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I traipsed back to bed after this welcome interlude of the magic of the skies. Who knew? Garbage collection could turn magical after all.

To quote Herman Hesse, “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” 

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.

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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.

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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.