Category Archives: Nature

Dust to Dust

“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

 

My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.

But first, meet SOFIA:

photo credit Alexander Golz

This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope.  Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747.  It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.

After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened.  In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.

SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.

photo credit NASA/Jim Ross

Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.

The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.

At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole.  Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.

But where do these dust particles come from?  Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible.  It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.

photo credit NASA/SOFIA/FLITECAM team/S. Shenoy

Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.

At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.

Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct.  Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths.  Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.

photo credit NASA/CXO/Lau et al

Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed.  We now know they’re almost right about this after all:  let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.

Totality

“The very hottest stars are a few tens of thousands of degrees. But when you see a total solar eclipse, that corona you witness is millions of degrees hot;  it is the hottest thing the human eye will ever see in nature.” – Sun Moon Earth, The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets, by Tyler Nordgren

Triassic Dark

 

To see the 2017 eclipse of the sun, I went to Wyoming. This is where our group was:  off Bridger Creek Road near Badwater Creek Road outside of Lysite WY – more or less the American outback.  Our fearless leader, a geologist, identified these red rock bands as Triassic deposits with pale limestone layers that include fossils.  There may be Eohippus fossils in there – stony remains of the dawn horse.

As the Moon began to cover the Sun, the air definitely got cool and the light weaker.  Shadows looked oddly fuzzy on one side and sharp on the other side.  The sunlight streaming through a woven straw pith helmet threw little crescents on a piece of paper.

Totality looked like sunset on every horizon.  Security lights in various directions, and a refinery that lit up like a Christmas tree, made  the point there this really wasn’t nowhere.  There were human-made structures out there. Meanwhile the Sun was a black hole in the darkened sky, surrounded by the bright, pale, corona.  The corona had structure.

The eclipse was the single most incredible astronomical sight I’ve ever seen.

It’s incredibly temporary:  a few minutes of daylight darkness in a shadow that raced across the US in 90 minutes. And total eclipses will only last for a few geological eons while the Moon exactly covers the Sun.  Long ago the Moon was nearer and covered more than the  Sun’s  disk. The glassy eyes of ancient trilobites may have seen eclipses without much corona.  Long in the future, the Moon will spiral away and cover less of the Sun.  There will be no more perfectly awesome eclipses with the bright pale crown of the sun so visible.

Eclipses seen by human eyes portended disaster to old civilizations.  Now they’re wonders without terror and signs of orbital mechanics, not the end of the world.

Right?

Well.

I returned home to Houston and then came Harvey.  By the time it hit Houston it was Tropical Storm Harvey, and wreaked great havoc.  I was lucky that all I personally lost was my car (sob!). Some people in my condo complex had two or three feet of water in their homes.  I spent the storm snug in my third-floor condo with power, water, Internet, and plenty of good food to eat.

Storm Harvey was an infinitely small disturbance in the astronomical universe.  It unfolded in less than a flicker in geological time even though it made a lasting impact crater in this city and in human lifespans. It strangely ties us to some of those Triassic fossils, I think.  A lot of the world’s fossil beds seem to have happened when a flood drowned a large number of creatures.  Floodwaters washed  them into expanses of mud where their bones fossilized and their softer body parts left impressions in sedimentary stone.

In the days after Harvey, the resurrection fern on the oaks on the Rice University campus flourished greatly.  Ferns, by the way, date back to the Devonian  period, even earlier than the Triassic.

I took these pictures while the Library was open limited hours and for Rice ID holders.  The University and the city of Houston were still reeling.  May all the other communities hit by Harvey have their own resurrection.

 

 

Enchanted Rock

Brilliant red Indian paintbrush wildflowers below the Enchanted Rock batholith
Indian paintbrush below Enchanted Rock

In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas.  I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.

Alexis wearing backpack
Me and my backpack

When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.

We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep.  My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree.  Problem solved.  I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.

And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.

At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape.  We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith.  From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country.  After that we hiked around the Rock.

Eroded granite menhirs framed by aloe plant in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, TX
Rock formations near the trail around Enchanted Rock

After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs.  It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.

The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails.  He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.

Alexis looking back over her shoulder from her seat on a railroad motor car
All aboard!

It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!

Odd Bird Life

Snowy Egrets are elegant shore birds with plumy white feathers and black bills and legs. Bright yellow feet pattern-interrupt the elegant impression only when said feet are visible, and they’re usually below the water. However, I came along behind two Snowy Egrets at the edge of Braes Bayou when they were avidly investigating whatever goodies the recent flood had churned up, and from that perspective the Snowies looked like the business ends of Q-tips balanced on oddly angled black wires!

The last six or eight months have been remarkable for shore birds on Braes Bayou, including White Ibises and a Tricolor Heron.  For a while there was a Roseate Spoonbill in the vicinity of the Kirby Drive bridge.  Roseate Spoonbills are usually Pepto-Bismol pink;  they use their wide-tipped bills to forage in mud flats for little crustaceans, eating which makes their feathers pink.  The one on Braes Bayou looked not very pink and rather misplaced.  I’ve seen them  in tidal marshes and on Clear Creek near Galveston Bay, never this far inland.  The drought may have driven brackish water much further up the waterways than usual.

Get Well Wish

Walking to work, I was startled by being smiled at from the branches of a tree.  It was two mylar balloons – one of them bright gold with a smiley face.  The other balloon had little smileys all over it plus the words FEEL BETTER SOON.

OK, it’s not too surprising, that close to Medical Center, to see a couple of get-well balloons on the loose. On the other hand, it was very apt because  Houston has had severe drought for a year.  Even on a prosperous residential street like Greenbriar many trees (especially magnolias) look wilted. Over in Memorial Park there are so many dead trees it looks like Agent Orange fell out of the sky. The land itself has dried out to the breaking point. Greenbriar has buckles and potholes that could wallop a small car.  And on nearby Braes Bayou the asphalt hike and bike trail developed terrible cracks over the past year.  Cracks big enough to break a jogger’s ankle or take out a bicycle.  So the city put up warning signs and outlined the cracks in white, after which they looked like a crime scene where dead bodies had lain.  Maybe the dead bodies of a year’s worth of hopes for rain.  FEEL BETTER SOON is a great wish for the trees and the rest of the natural fabric of our city.

Owl Recognition

Fondren Library’s most recent Staff Recognition event had an an Owl Recognition element with the screening of videos taken by Jay Gillen of the screech owls roosting in the trees by the West entrance.  These have been very exciting owls, seen by numerous Library visitors and Rice people as well local Fox News station viewers.  Jay staked out the roost with a video camera on a tripod and caught the owls staring, vocalizing, preening, and falling asleep, as well as having plumage that looks remarkably like tree bark. According to OwlPages.com, “When threatened, an Eastern Screech Owl will stretch its body and tighten its feathers in order to look like a branch stub to avoid detection” – but these two have apparently decided that being detected by humans is OK given such lovely trees in which to roost.

Hawk Kettle

Today I saw what I took to be a large flock of small birds way up in the sky under a cloud.  However, they weren’t  flapping their wings. It turned out to be a large flock of large birds:  a kettle of hawks.  There were a couple hundred hawks circling under the most handsome cumulus cloud in the sky.  Because the size of the kettle seemed to change – at one point the apparent number of hawks doubled – I think they were at cloud base with some of the kettle in and out of mist.  I’ve thermalled at cloud base in gliders and I know what it’s like.  The updraft holds you up with no effort at all, and the gray fringe of the cloud keeps you blessedly cool.  The hawks found a cloud-gray oasis in their fall migration across Texas.

Rice Owls

Rice University alum and adjunct professor Robert Flatt has been photographing the Great Horned Owls on campus ever since a pair were discovered last March with babies in a nest in the trees behind what used to be the President’s House.  Mr. Flatt is a darn good photographer:  witness the Web page devoted to these owls.  Not only that but he has a book going to press with owl photos and remarks by Rice luminaries including President Leebron and former President Gillis.