Monday, March 06, 2000

Solar Dance 1: Entering a Living Cosmos

(Image credit: a beautiful coronal mass ejection captured Feb. 12 by SOHO's C2 coronagraph, from

The sky is alive. All around us, from our solar body’s heart, the sun, center of our family of planets, on outward toward infinity, earth is forever spinning within a grand dance, one that humans have glimpsed at moments during our history. From Incan astronomers who first charted the 24,000 year precession of the equinoxes (thus offering to them the experience of the way our solar system wobbles in Long Time within the galactic turning), to pueblo skywatchers carving spirals in rock to announce the coming and going of the sun and moon (and so honoring our daily dance partners), we have explored a fascination with our greater context.

For most modern humans, the sky is a beautiful tapestry cast overhead, one of earth’s more sublime wonders. But while the sky is appreciated, our experience of it is vastly simplified, distorted by our tendency to let mere abstractions replace any sense of bodily connection. For the cosmos, from the solar disc to the galaxy and beyond, is NOT simply a pretty dome spread overhead, with planets, comets, and constellations appearing now and again on the cue of some invisible director—it is a vast landscape of gargantuan physicality. It is bodies, bodies made of smaller bodies, cauldrons of creation and forges of destruction. To begin to have a palpable physical experience of the sky is to enter into life at a scale that is reminiscent of profound spiritual reverie. To feel the fires of starbirth in Orion, to exclaim in joy with the adolescent exuberance of the Pleiades, to marvel at the power of age in a red giant like Aldeberon, and to actually feel yourself on a planet spinning at a tilt around the sun, is to enter into a sensuous connection with life that is altogether new.

These short essays will offer glimpses of this expanded view, various perspectives, fragments that, when taken as a whole, will, hopefully, synergize to help open an awareness of a three-dimensional sense of place, in space. To enter into this view, where the sense of direction you are familiar with on the planet’s surface is stretched into space (first to the solar family’s circles upon circles, then on into the galactic immensity within which we move in even larger circles), you need not devote yourself in any strenuous way. Simply going outside for a few minutes, a few times a month, will be enough. Heck, if you only get inspired enough to go out on those few crescent moon evenings and dawns, you’ll be able to go far. Each time, you will look for one or a few tidbits of direct connection with that starry expanse overhead. And by the time summer settles in, you’ll be living in a world much larger than the one you now inhabit. Come along for the show. . . . .

Sunday, March 05, 2000

Solar Dance 2: Jupiter-Saturn Conjuction and the 3-dimensional Solar System

Several times each year, vistas of our sister planets appear that can help us feel earth as one piece of a three-dimensional solar system. From February through summer of the year 2000, there was a confluence of sky passages that offered an unusually vivid opportunity to enter into the physicality of space. That is when I wrote this essay; go back now with me five years, to that wintery sky....

Jupiter and Saturn are nearing conjunction; Jupiter has been "catching up" to Saturn and is preparing to pass in front of it in early spring. To the disappointment of many, the actual passing will occur when these two gas giants are not in the night sky; they'll be lost in the glare of the sun. To the standard way of thinking, they will not be part of the sky for this time. But in fact, of course, they'll simply be near, and briefly behind, the sun from our view. Which means that they will indeed be there in the sky, near the sun, during the day. We won't be able to see them right then, but we can watch as they slowly fade into the sunset glow during early spring, and then in early summer as they slowly emerge again in the early morning sky. By watching through several months, they will not disappear as they meet; they will be there, every day, as we await the chance to greet them again some early morning in early summer.

And the sun, villain in this play, hiding the show of the great gaseous rendezvous, put on a show of its own that spring. Nearing the peak of its eleven-year cycle of activity, modern satellites and imaging techniques offered an unprecedented look at far more than an increase in sunspots.

At least once a week, the sun’s disc is dwarfed by massive solar flares and "coronal mass ejections", each one now visible the next day on the internet. To become aware of this secret life of the sun is to enter into a new wonder at that disc of white that arcs habitually across the sky each day.

As we watch the sun’s glow swallow Jupiter and Saturn during March and April twilight, we can, for the first time, enter the sky as it is: these planets, and the stars beyond, are not "setting" earlier, disappearing in some abstraction of seasonal sky charts. Rather, we can watch and feel the way the earth is spinning ‘round the sun, so that the sun gradually moves across the cosmic sea, passing briefly in front of the more distant conducting pair. And we can begin, too, to notice how briefly, really, the sun remains in any one part of the sky, and thus have a physical knowledge of the orbiting earth and the way its yearly cycle offers us an annual 360-degree panorama of the cosmos beyond.

Then, too, there is the nearby moon and distant galactic sea. Once a month, as the dynamic duo move into their conjunction, they will be joined in the dusk (then dawn) sky by the crescent moon. Beautiful, of course. . . and all the more so for being close by the Pleiades, one of the sky’s most famous star clusters. For the rest of winter and spring, this dazzling bit of sky choreography will take place just ahead of Orion, which rides high in the sky above this twilight show. With a bit of direction, the stars in the vicinity of the Jupiter And Saturn Show can welcome us into our stellar neighborhood. There are very close stars, distant megastars, nurseries of starbirth, adolescent clusters burning fiercely (the Pleiades among these), and familiar constellations (handy, but mere two dimensional abstractions) dissolving into the concrete patterns of the galaxy’s spiral landscape. . . . this is all easily visible, in the weeks and months to come.

Saturday, March 04, 2000

Solar Dance 3: The Living Solar System

As we move toward this new, physical awareness of the cosmos, there several specific ideas that will be useful starting points. As with the course of this journey in general, we’ll look at both our solar system and the galaxy beyond.

Starting closer to home, let’s anchor into a new view of the solar system. Call to mind, if you will, the solar system we’ve all seen in drawings and tabletop models. You know, the one with a small yellow sun in the middle, surrounded by concentric rings, each one inhabited by a little colored ball. True as these abstractions may be, they don’t begin to suggest the physical reality. A bit better, perhaps are the scale models that appear in some museums, or, more commonly, as descriptions in textbooks. These "if the sun is an orange, the earth is a cherry pit a hundred yards away, with Pluto way out by the countty line" sorts of descriptions offer a more realistic sense of scale, to be sure, but most of the time, inspire little more than a passing bit of awe. Despite their accuracy at suggesting the immensity of the solar system and the miniscule size of all its elements, they are so separated from the actual sun and planets that we are hard pressed to enliven our actual experience through them.

Instead, try starting here: the solar system is alive. At its heart, offering the very molecules of its body every single day to create the energy fueling the whole thing, is the sun. The planets are the concentrated remnants of a huge cloud, then disc, of dust and gas that condensed at its center until igniting into a star. The new star burned away its cloak of gas (or blew it away with its vast "solar wind"), just as we can see in nearby supernovae. -

What dust and gas remained around our sun clumped together thanks to gravity and collisions, until 9 specks remained. Each one has its own remarkably unique and fascinating physical form. Beyond these specks is a vast cloud of debris, known to astronomers as the Kuiper Belt; surrounding the whole thing is a huge halo, a ball of fine matter called the Oort Cloud. From these distant reaches seem to come comets, bearing water and organic building blocks. In the early days of the sun’s life, far more comets rained into the inner solar system, perhaps building the oceans, surely carrying some organic matter. More scientists are beginning to suspect that the building blocks of life may in fact permeate the dust and fires of space, settling everywhere, taking root wherever it finds even marginally suitable terrain. In this view, the entire solar system, indeed, all space, is alive. Earth may be the only life-sustaining nursery in the solar system, though some moons of Jupiter and Saturn are under close scrutiny as possibly being life-friendly as well.

In the years just after the new milenneum, as Jupiter and Saturn moved through one of their 17-year conjunctions, the Galileo spacecraft enjoyed an active retirement around Jupiter (its planned mission ended in 1998). It was directed into a series of very close flybys of Jovian moons, sending back images of startling clarity of active volcanoes, cracked-ice surfaces of possibly liquid oceans, and other stunning beauty. When we watch Jupiter, we wonder at the search for life at one of its leading edges. In 2004 and 2005, the Casinni probe has been making similar rounds in the Saturn system, giving us close up views of the beauty of her rings and two-score moons.

You can see the moons of Jupiter with modest, everyday binoculars. They appear as tiny dots in a line extending on one or both sides of the planet (they move fairly fast, and so the pattern of dots will change daily). If you wish to experience the dynamics of Io or Europa more directly, consult an astronomy magazine or web site for diagrams that identify the visible moons for each day.

Once we realize that the entire solar system is alive, it is but a small shift to let our biological identity follow our cosmological one. In recent centuries, western science let go of the idea (logical from simple observation) that the earth was the center of the solar system, and accepted the heliocentric view, with the sun at the center.

Similarly, we are at the verge of releasing our earth-centered view of life: the idea that life arose spontaneously in the "primal soup" of earth, built of molecular ingredients spawned by purely earthly processes. While it is certainly true that key steps in the emergence of cells and organisms were triggered by terrestrial dynamics, it is becoming more and more likely that some building blocks of organic life do indeed exist in space, at least in the extended solar orb, and perhaps (though only conjecture at this point, it certainly would be a logical extension), in interstellar space. Thus we can now say with some validity that life is a solar phenomenon.

This gives concrete validity to the Joni Mitchell’s poetic evocation that "we are stardust". Indeed, in this view, life on earth can be seen as a fertile spot within the huge body of the solar system. The earth itself is but a fragment of the gas and dust cloud that birthed the sun at its center; our bodies and the bodies of all plants and animals are built of tissues that were built, by life, from the minerals of the planet (this piece of the solar body), fueled by energy derived from sun-fired cellular processes.

So it may be that ancient sun-worshiping cultures were on to something very real: their worldview, with the sun as the source of life, allowed them to participate in the dance of life in a very direct way. Or, we may suspect that their intuition or tradition about the role of the sun, followed from a foundation of seeing humans as participants in a dance of life within their local landscape and biological communities. In either case, our latest scientific advances seem to be leading us in a similar direction: we are being offered the chance to glimpse the workings of life at a scale that is both awe-inspiring and deeply physical.

To know ourselves as inhabitants of a star system is a profound expansion of identity. It will doubtless take us a while (a few years as individuals, a few decades or centuries as a race?) to really embody this experience. Yet even as we come to understand this, it can inspire us to cast our eyes and senses beyond the solar dance, to begin to know the lay of the local landscape within which our star is living its life. This is the realm of the galactic landscape, to be explored in another segment.

Friday, March 03, 2000

Solar Dance 4: Eyes and Images

Image Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA). For source image and caption:

Nothing has inspired my curiosity and excitement about the sky as much as the recent burst of incredible images from the most advanced telescopes. Sure, it’s neat to look in Orion’s belt with a medium sized telescope and see the Orion nebula; but the pale white splotch in the eyepiece is but a tease compared to vivid Hubble photos of this dynamic, gorgeous cauldron of creation.

Throughout human history, skywatchers have enlivened their cultures’ sense of place by diligent observations of the night sky. Such seemingly complex phenomena as the precession of the equinoxes, 19-year cycles of the moon’s subtly changing orbit, and the travels of all visible planets have been discerned by these ancient naked eye astronomers.

In my experience, the most profound and direct experiences of the night sky come from naked eye viewing. Building a habit of looking up, even for a minute or two, at roughly the same time at night can, over several years, begin to reveal the cycles of the planets, and of the seasonal starscapes. I began watching the sky when Jupiter was in Leo, a few years before the big Comet Shoemaker-Levy breakup and impact sequence hit the gas giant while it was approaching Scorpio. I think Saturn was just leaving Capricorn at that point.

Now, as it rapidly "catches up" with Saturn on the outskirts of Taurus, I have an experiential memory of it travelling more than halfway around its orbit; in just a few years, it will again be in Leo, and my first skywatcher apprenticeship will be complete. (NOTE: this essay was originally written in 2000, just before the Saturn/Jupiter conjunction; in 2004 Jupiter did return to its place in Leo, and my 12-year primary education was complete.)

Similarly, the best way to really feel yourself on a spinning planet in a disc of companions circling the sun, is to stare in open-hearted wonder (and active mental imagination) as Venus, perhaps Mercury or the moon, and one or more of the outer planets appear together in the twilight or pre-dawn sky. (something like this tends to occur once every year or so).

Developing a sense of the three-dimensional landscape of the galaxy is also best done with nothing but your eyes, the sky, and a handful of targets for viewing. This is best done at times when the moon is not too bright in the sky, with some key vistas offered by the summer Milky Way (heart of the galaxy low in the south, Vega high overhead pointing at our direction in a flowing orbit around that center) and the winter sparkle of Orion and Sirius not far from the softer band of the spiral arm that swings around outside and behind us, trailing the sun in its great journey).

Nevertheless, the gifts of naked eye viewing are definitely augmented by occasional use of binoculars or a small telescope. With simple binoculars, such delights as the moons of Jupiter, the stunning splatters of star clusters, and our neighbor galaxy Andromeda come alive in new ways. A 3 to 8 inch telescope brings you all the closer, though at that point, you’ll be looking at objects that are perhaps most exciting in astrophotos.

It seems to be that a combination of ongoing naked-eye viewing (augmented with occasional binocular or small scope glimpses) and familiarity with the best of today’s astrophotography yields the ideal mix for moving into the direct, profound sense of place that I am speaking of in this series. Your eyes will give you the big picture, revealing the patterns of the dance; the photos let you glimpse the beauty of far-off events with stunning directness. Starbirth, stellar nurseries, exploding supernovae, immense vistas into the density of the Milky Way or the vast communities of galaxies beyond our own and back toward the dawn of time--all this in vivid color and ever-increasing clarity. (Explore the links offered to the right to find some of the best of today's deep-space astrophotography) From this foundation, you will be able to move within a few months into a beginning sense of the movement of the planets around the sun, the place of the sun within our corner of the galaxy, and the locations in the sky of active starbirth, young stars, and old, soon-to-nova ancients. At that point, the sky will be alive for you, and you will be alive in the cosmos.

Thursday, March 02, 2000

Solar Dance 5: The Galactic Landscape

(Image Credit: Wolfgang Brandner (JPL/IPAC), Eva K. Grebel (Univ. Washington), You-Hua Chu (Univ. Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and NASA. This image shows several stages in the life cycle of stars in a single image; to be taken to the Hubble page with caption:

At the heart of the bigger picture of the cosmos that I am trying to know is the idea of expanding my sense of place. Like many humans, I have a pretty solid sense of the region where I live. I know its communities of plants and animals, the forms of its land, the direction from one place to another. My skywatching is but a few steps removed from, and intimately related to, this common experience.

A slightly larger sense of place includes the knowledge that over those mountains on the horizon lies Chaco Canyon, or that following these nearby mountains north will bring me to Yellowstone, and then the Canadian Rockies. To have a general sense of where each direction is in the local landscape, and what lies further in that direction in the continental landscape, brings me home in a larger sense.

Beyond that is the Gaian view, of being a part of one living planet. I won’t go into the details, controversies, or distortions that surround this image of a living earth: questions of fore-planning by creation, self-organization at the root of material forms, the role of symbiosis in biology, or human-centric thinking. Beyond all these issues lies the experience of the unity of earthly life. Virtually all primal cultures, and various artistic, literary, and scientific traditions in modern cultures, have shared in this experience. In this view, nature is the most accessible, tangible window through which humanity can explore the mysteries of life and creation. To know the unity (and diversity) of life on earth is but one small step from entering the galactic landscape.

An earlier installment (The Solar Dance #2, The Living Solar System), introduced the experience of knowing our place as being a part of our local star’s body. This essay builds from there, as we begin to look out from our "spaceship earth", now rightly perceived as but an orbiting piece of the star that is us.

What is the lay of the land within which our star is living its life? Most of us know the simple answer: we are part of a spiral galaxy we call The Milky Way. The general picture of a disc of stars, dense in the center, with a number of spiraling arms is familiar to any schoolchild. We’ve further been told that we are on the edge of one of the outer arms, offering a healthy sense of the peripheral role of the sun in the grand scheme of the galaxy. Perhaps we have also integrated the knowledge that the Milky Way we see stretching across the summer sky is a view through the disc of the galaxy. This is a great starting point for gaining a true sense of place in the galactic landscape.

So here we are, under the night sky, the Milky Way stretching overhead. If it is summer, the band is wide and bright, stretching up from its heart near the tail of Scorpio. If it is winter, the Milky Way is fainter, but still obvious under dark skies, passing alongside Orion, and fading out up toward Cassiopeia’s "w" shape. We know that’s the galaxy, but we have little or no idea how all the stars we see, or our sun, fits into the whole.

To flesh out our knowledge of the galactic landscape will be the goal of many of our skywatching sessions. A few key landmarks will begin to give flesh to the body of the galaxy, allowing us to begin to experience the next step of knowing our place. We’ll learn which way the galaxy is spinning, which stars are just ahead of us in this great spiral dance, what’s "up" and "down" in a familiar sense, when we’re looking into the galaxy’s center and when we’re gazing out the nearby edge. Future posts will highlight these perspectives, but it's worth mentioning the basics up front:. The summer Milky Way is a primary anchor for this awareness: with the thick heart of the galaxy lying low in the south, the white band stretching overhead is "ahead" of us in the grand turning of the galactic disc, with bright Vega leading our way around that center). Meanwhile, the winter sparkle of Orion and Sirius points us toward the softer band of the spiral arm that swings around outside and behind us, trailing the sun in its great journey as part of the galaxy's turning. Buckle up, and prepare for liftoff!