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’.

pale_blue_dot_pichttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PIA23645-Earth-PaleBlueDot-6Bkm-Voyager1-orig19900214-upd20200212.jpg

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?

Shoshin Seeking & Science Writing

Shoshin is a concept dear to me as regular readers know. Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist word for ‘beginner’s mind’, denoting the capacity to bring wonder and open-mindedness to learning anything.

To continue the quest in Shoshin seeking,  I volunteered to take an online writing class with a focus on Science for elementary school children. 

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The idea for the class was inspired by multiple factors:

(1) A sense of wanting to be useful while doing the socially responsible thing of staying home during the Corona-virus shelter-in-place. 

(2) My brain after years of running around from Place A to Place B found a method to calm down from the frenzied lifestyle that modern man prides himself on (The Virus is a reminder of something lost long ago – an essay by Alan Lightman – a writer and physicist at MIT) 

(3) Combining the marvels of Science and keeping the wonder of Shoshin alive is pretty much what my writing has been about (at least in the past 1/2 a decade). An area of passion that I was happy to share with the children, from whom I learn Shoshin in spades.

(4) A love for children and young minds has me yearning to be like them on multiple levels. I live precariously through this yearning by reading children’s books, squabbling childishly with my own children, and much more.

The result of this was a marvelous month in which I went about reading topics that had long since been pushed to the back of the brain. I wondered as I prepared for the classes, how we wasted those marvelous moments of youth with all these fascinating subjects. I understood as the class went on:  sometimes the children were enthusiastic and wanted to write all about the topic under discussion. Other times, they liked the sound of music-like science lilting in their ears, and they nodded along sagely. The rays of the afternoon sun filtering in through the window made for warm, cozy sessions in which one saw one’s friends on the zoom call, and answered when one felt like being a part of the discussion. This was nothing close to the normal they knew, but they adapted with ease and their customary good sense. All in all, it made for a marvelous time, and with the children happy, so was I, their teacher. 

If post-Covid, some children recall sunny afternoons with thrilling science to a background of their classmates trilling in the background, while taking a leap of imagination, it is time well spent, in my opinion. 

I remember distinct moments when something piqued the children’s attention. The time I told them about giraffes in the savannah, or when we played the little game of hearing frequencies, or when we spun off pretending to be whales using sonographic techniques to unearth something really unexpected.

I am going to sign up for another 4 week session in which I hope to have as much fun, learn as much and enjoy the companionship of younger authors, who are by  virtue of their youth also leaps ahead in imagination and spirits.  Wish me luck!

Fiction Inspire Non-Fiction?

While reading a good piece of fiction, I often wonder about the inspiration behind the writing.  Dune, for example, is a book that immediately lets you know the author must be a personality of prodigious learning. The ecological angle, I was delighted to read in the note by his son, had its origins in Frank Herbert’s work for an an Op-Ed on the Shifting Sands in Oregon. The government was toying with the idea of planting grasses that could help with stopping the sands from shifting and collapsing onto roads and rivers. 

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Quote: 

In 1957, Dad flew to the Oregon coast to write a magazine article about a US department and Agriculture project there, in which the government had successfully planted poverty grasses on the crests of sand dunes, to keep them from inundating highways. He intended to call the article “They stopped the Moving Sands” but soon realized that he had much bigger story on his hands

Dune is a modern-day conglomeration of familiar myths, a tale in which great sandworts guard a precious treasure of melange, the geriatric spice that represent, among other things, the finite resource of oil. The planet Arrakis features immense, ferocious worms that are like dragons of lore, with “great teeth” and a “bellows breath of cinnamon”.

Planetology is a marvelous word for taking in the intricacies of a life sustaining planet (Dune makes reference to planetologists for figuring out survival strategies),  and the effects of our consumption of finite resources. 

I would love to study Planetology.We know that we are stretching the Earth’s resources – National Geographic came up with a simple number: we are currently using 1.71 times Earth’s resources every year and it is increasing. The effects are everywhere.

A friend and I were discussing the lack of tree cover in a country like Iceland for instance. Blessed with enormous natural beauty, the lack of tree cover is quite unnerving. Everywhere you turn is green because it rains a lot, but there are no trees. Apparently, excessive logging first got rid of them, and replanting did not take root as intended for sheep grazing ate away the saplings and the seedlings before they had a chance to sprout. 

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This too is not a new phenomenon. World over there are examples of over-grazing that edged out forest cover( Ireland, England, Mauritius are all examples of how our lifestyles has altered the ecosystem drastically). In the book Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell, the author is on a mission to collect endangered species from Mauritius so he can bring them back to the Conservation Center for breeding and releasing into the wild. He writes about Round Island and how the simple act of introducing goats, sheep and rabbits into the ecosystem by humans has eroded the tree cover irreparably. 

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From Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell – Round Island

While reading this book, I realized the inspiration behind his fiction book, Mockery Bird. This hilarious fiction book, Mockery Bird – was based on a story doing the rounds in Mauritius surrounding the Dodo bird and the loss of certain trees. The knowledge gave me immense pleasure. How lovely to see the inspirations behind good fiction.

 

Just as fiction draws its inspiration from reality, reality too can draw its inspiration from fiction.

In the Dune universe, the planetologist, Kynes, shares the visionary dreams for the planet Arrakis – a vision outlining a glorious self sustaining future for the planet that will take three or maybe four generations to come to fruition. We can derive our inspiration from fiction and set ourselves on a similar path working towards setting aside half the planet for forest cover to reverse global warming, sustenance etc. (News item : here)

 

The Lentil Chips Shine Down

The excitement in the bunch of children gathered was palpable. They were united by a sense of wonder and pleasant anticipation. Were they really going to be able to touch the telescope, and see something remarkable? A bar stool had been borrowed from a kindly neighbor and the little telescope was perched on it. An earthworm like line was formed with the children waiting to get a turn at the telescope. It was as wiggly and restless as an earthworm, and just as fascinating to watch from a safe distance.

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Mars in the distance shone with the iridescence of a star. Mars has been exceptionally bright in the evening skies, and the Mars viewing party was happening on the week it was closest to the Earth.

Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries. It started with hoaxes of finding extra terrestrial life on Mars: maybe those rigged lines on the planet were canals? said a 19th century astronomer, and from that hypothesis, sprang a vibrant story of alien life. In our enthusiasm to find extra terrestrial neighbors, the populace went along. That kind of hope is refreshing even if misguided. 

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

Tonight the telescope we had with us was only as big as a professional camera, and I hoped it would not disappoint the children gathered.

While the telescope was being deftly handled by the husband, I diverted the attention of the children skyward. Their questions about progress were distracting the misguided astronomer who was pointing the lens towards the stile on our neighbor’s roof, and wondering how he could see things fluttering there (I pointed to the sycamore tree nearby that had shed a few of its leaves on the stile, and crushed the poor fish’s soul about finding extra terrestrial life on Mars. Andy Weir might have imagined potato cultivation on Mars, but even by his standards, a sycamore tree was a leap, I told him kindly. He guffawed loudly at this and fiddled on.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel)

In the meanwhile, I pointed out the familiar constellations to the hopeful looking children. The budding astronomers were skeptical. 

‘How do you know it is Big Dipper?’ 

‘It could be anything or nothing’, said another, and quickly the pendulum swung from hope to disillusionment. I managed a quick save by not letting it swing too far, and told them about the excellent app, Skyview, using which they could confirm the stars for themselves. The older teenagers who had smartphones for themselves were suddenly beset upon to share the marvels of the night sky. 

 

Cecilia Payne would have been proud indeed of the motley group of astronomers gathered in our driveway. It is marvelous to see how the work of early astronomers & physicists set the base for us to be able to map the skies and predict the movements of stars and planets.

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The Glass Universe

Book recommendation: The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

“Oh look!”, said the Big-Dipper-doubter, pointing the phone wildly at the sky, “the moon, the moon!”. 

An experienced hand said he had seen the moon before and there was nothing remarkable about it.

“But it is so beautiful!” said another sounding reproachful at the dismissal of the beautiful moon, and I agreed. The moon has exerted her pull over mankind almost since the beginning of time. Even if we do see it everyday, the moon has a poetic beauty all of its own. That night it was looking achingly beautiful. 

Maybe it was the effect of the scintillating talk I had the privilege of attending earlier that week.

I have never had the opportunity to listen live to a TED Talk. But that week, I had listened to a very TED-esque talk by Jon Carmichael the cosmic photographer. He shared the beautiful story of how he photographed the full lunar eclipse a year ago with the help of a Southwest crew. 

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Please listen to the talk on the site if you can.

I was telling the children about the talk, when the husband let out an involuntary yelp and said this time he was fairly sure it was Mars. 

One child gazed into the telescope and said, “It looks like a Papad in the sky.”, and we all laughed. (Papad  – is a sort of flat, round lentil chip!)

The cosmos has a way of uniting us in the darkest of times. Even during the most inane days, there is always a cosmic show that is ready to enthrall us and fill our souls with enchantment. It is why I was so happy to be standing among the children gazing up at the stars, and soaking in the wonders of the cosmic show above me that day. Even if the children did see a lentil chip in the sky, I hope for some of them at least the magic seed was sown. A seed nurtured by the hopeful innocence of youth, tempered by the wisdom of years, with the potential to mature into a star of their own.