Category Archives: Science and Technology

Eastern US Bitten by its own Global Warming Tail

by Joel Gunn

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

I have sympathy for the high profile scientists who are struggling with the politics of global warming: Did this or that weather event occur because of global warming? See for example this New York Times post (and the several updates) in which climate scientists address the effects of global warming on the winter Olympics.  However, if you believe in thermodynamics and the interlinking of the atmosphere-ocean circulation and life processes, and that the world is warming, there is only one conclusion you can come to. Everything that is happening is to a greater or lesser degree a product of global warming. There is a legitimate question as to what degree the causes of individual events are apportioned to that trend and what part is attributable to chaotic forces. The tendency is, perhaps wisely, for scientists to hide behind chaotic forces when the politics gets too hot. However, the only real question is how the events and trend fit together, and that is admittedly complicated. But, since we have not lived with this particular change before, observation and model building have to take the lead. You can see the scientists struggling with these questions in the later parts of the blog, and we as citizens of the globe should also participate in thinking this through.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

A good example is our current discussion of the wandering fragments of polar vortex and the effects they have had on our weather. When I first started seeing weather reports about the polar vortex I said, how can this be? Probably the first really interesting article I read on the behavior of the atmosphere was in the ’70s by Angell and Korshover, people with a government agency who were measuring the atmosphere in many very interesting ways. Their article was about the behavior of the polar vortex. In fact, they were discussing the reason for the cold weather in the mid ’70s. Who recalls that in the winter of ’76-’77 it was so cold the Ohio River froze over? I was sure that the Ice Ages were coming back.

Chicago over frozen Lake Michigan.

Chicago seen over frozen Lake Michigan.

Our present day relationship to the polar vortex has crept out less directly but more interestingly. After the initial reports appeared, the pieces of the global weather puzzle began to leak out. Someone came on television and claimed that it was because the weakening of the circumpolar jet that ordinarily pins in the polar vortex. That helped some. Then a friend sent me a newsletter about a warm pool of water in the Gulf of Alaska. This was also something I recall reading about in the 70s. From that I was familiar with how that pool turns the jet stream up into Canada at which point it zooms down on eastern United States bringing chilly air with it. I have no problem seeing that an arm of the tropical jet thundering around the warm pool and into Canada in the winter would throw the Arctic jet into disarray and freeing the polar vortex to wreak havoc.

NASA image of the first polar vortex event.

NASA image of this winter’s first polar vortex event.

The real question is why that pool is so persistent? Usually it goes away in the fall and the jet stream and the airmass that goes with it assume a cozier route across the US. A possibility is the current solar maximum, weak though it be, but what is the mechanism to warm that pool? The Gulf of Alaska is a long way north for it to be warmed much directly by the sun this time of the year.

Then came another startling observation my friend noticed. Scientists were finding that strong westward passage of air along the equator was sinking atmospheric heat into the Pacific along the equator +/-10 degrees latitude. This seems to be a new phenomenon and worries me. Does it mean that the atmosphere is so hot from global warming that processes are active to cool it by sinking the excess heat we caused into the ocean? Can salmon and other Pacific fish survive such a thing?

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Since then I have been thinking that this could be the warming mechanism for the Gulf of Alaska pool. If the Pacific is being warmed by winds that are sinking atmospheric heat into both atmosphere and ocean, then the Japanese Current could be drawing that warm water around the Pacific with the resulting warm pool in the Gulf of Alaska. The next bit of news I will be watching for is for someone who studies Pacific temperatures to confirm that the latter link is in truth the case.

If all of that is true, then there is little mystery about why the winter is cold in eastern US. It also might suggest that the condition will persist until the thermodynamic balances between atmosphere and ocean, equator and pole, are redressed. How long could that take: ten years, a 1000 years? Perhaps a simulation might be able to work the 10/1000 years question out providing a bit of window on the future.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

I have always thought that it is one of the great ironies of the current age that people in eastern US, perhaps the greatest perpetrators of global warming in the world, are being cooled by global warming. This is something else that has been going on for a long time, maybe since the 80s. It interesting that the cooling process has turned mean this winter and bitten us with stinging cold. This is not the type of lesson in global warming we are used to getting from the weather.

Who Am I? (On Genealogy and Genetic Ancestry)

by Matt McKinnon

Who am I?

I have long been pestered by this question, seeking the answer not in a litany of likes and dislikes or the self-obsessed perspective that modern Western consumerist culture offers me.  But neither in the personal history of myself—where I’m from, where I’ve been, and so on.  Or even less in my career, my “profession,” what I do to make enough money to live comfortably and raise a family.

1

No, my interest in identity has been more in my genealogy, my distant past, and what we now call “deep genealogy”—the history of my DNA, that mysterious code I have no control over but that dictates much of who I am.

2The more I have sought answers in these two areas, the more I have come to realize that they are decidedly different—that my genealogy (the relatively recent history of my family and ancestors) and my “deep genealogy” (the origins and history of my DNA) offer two quite different portraits—even though the latter, after tens of thousands of years, ultimately leads to the former.

But that’s the key: after tens of thousands of years.

I remember my first dabbling in genealogy when I was in high school: I had always known that my name, McKinnon—or rather MacKinnon—was Scottish in origin.  I had been told by my family that we were mostly “Scots-Irish,” a term which, I came to find out later, is basically an American invention used rarely if ever in either Scotland or Ireland.  It can denote the Ulster Scots whom the English used to colonize Northern Ireland in the 17th century (and are thus not “genetically” Irish at all), or Lowland Scots and those of the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

3But a little research soon proved that the MacKinnon name is Highland, not Lowland or Border, and certainly not “Scots-Irish.”  The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are mostly Gaelic, and hence Celtic in origin, while the Scots of the Lowlands are a mix of Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish in varying amounts.  And since our most recent Scottish ancestor was a MacKinnon who left the Isle of Skye sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, my Highland ancestry was confirmed.

So I spent the rest of my high school days donning plaid scarves, Shetland wool sweaters, and Harris Tweed caps and playing records of bagpipe music at home that frightened the cat and annoyed my parents and siblings to no end.

But deep down, I knew that this was not answer enough.  Indeed, ethnic identity continued to elude me and offer more questions than answers.

And it still does, even after countless hours spent researching family history and genealogy, and hundreds of dollars spent on research and DNA analysis.  Perhaps my developing awareness of the fragmentary and somewhat arbitrary nature of what we call “history” has made my search one of exponential questions instead of hard and fast answers.

For what we call “Celtic” is in fact a linguistic designation, like (and related to) “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic.”  These are first and foremost language identifiers and not “genetic” ones.

So MacKinnon, being a Highland name, at least designates my ethnic identity as Celtic, right?

Perhaps.  At least to some extent.  But what does that really mean?

After all, these groups—Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic—are only Indo-European linguistic identifiers with origins in a shared Proto-Indo-European population of tribes who inhabited Europe most probably during the late Neolithic Age (circa 4000 BCE).  Only then did these peoples begin their various migrations north and west as they differentiated into the more well-known (if often mistakenly applied) names like the Celts, Germans, Slavs, Romans, etc…

4The point being that, any location of one’s ancestry as “Scottish,” or “Highland,” or “Gaelic,” or “Celtic,” or, for that matter “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic” is rather arbitrary in that it assigns prominence to one moment in a wave of modern human migration that began in Africa some 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is today Eastern Europe about 30,000 years later.  From there, these various groups migrated into all directions, as wave after wave of tribes populated Europe, developing different cultures and languages, though all sharing the same not-too-distant Indo-European past.

(It is interesting to note as well that these folks only started to look “European,” i.e., “white” around 11,000 BCE.)

5So that Highland MacKinnon ancestry I was so sure about?  Well, it turns out that a deep DNA analysis confirms my paternal lineage (the Y-chromosome of my father’s father’s father’s father’s father…all the way back to its beginning) to be that of Haplogroup (I won’t even get into it) I2, subgroup a2.

Haplogroup I began 30,000-40,000 years ago in Eastern Europe, with I1 and I2 diverging about 6,000 years later.  I2a arose about 11,000 years ago in the Balkans and is still today concentrated in Eastern Europe and Russia.  I2a2, that of my Highland Scots paternal DNA, only emerged some 7800 years ago, also in the Balkans, before starting its migration north into Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia.

And, at some point, as the DNA of a male member of a Celtic or perhaps Germanic tribe who ultimately made his way to Scotland.  And then passed it along to me.

So my Highland Scots DNA is actually Baltic in origin, and is shared by more Serbs and Croats and possibly even Russians than it is by my “fellow” Highlanders.

But if that’s not confusing enough, this only represents one line of grandfathers on my father’s side, going back roughly 8,000 years.  If we consider that there are approximately 400 generations between me and my Neolithic “European” ancestors, then the number of my direct relatives from present day all the way back to the New Stone Age is considerably large [nerdy editor's note: large enough to need scientific notation: 2.58 x 10120].

But we need not go back that far to make my point: much of an individual’s “ethnic identity” is relatively arbitrary and tells precious little about their deep genetic makeup.

In calculating the rather complex mathematics of our ancestry, scientists have concluded that all modern humans are related to each other in the not too distant past—within a few hundred years in fact.  Steve Olson, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, reported that

  1. Everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and
  2. Everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

Grandma?That would be everyone.

Which means that all modern humans alive today are related to each other—and related to each other rather recently, considering that modern humans have been in existence for about 100,000 years.

7

Indeed, everyone reading this post is probably at most my 20th cousin.

But you’re not invited over for Thanksgiving.

And I’m guessing you’re not all Highland Scots.

How Self-Driving Cars Could Change Our Lives in Unexpected Ways

by Christopher Metivier

Who's there?!

Who’s there?!

A couple of weeks ago an unusual thing happened to me. One of my neighbors knocked on my door. I haven’t lived in my current house long, and he just wanted to tell me that his lawn mowing had blown some grass clippings in my driveway and to assure me that he intended to clean it up. I certainly wasn’t worried about grass clippings in my driveway, but it was a polite way for my neighbor to introduce himself, and I was glad that he did. He’s a nice guy.

Afterward, my housemate remarked that it was strange for someone to just knock on the door. Typically when that happens it’s some sort of solicitor, and I’d just as soon pretend I’m not home as answer it. He said that he’s actually annoyed when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly. If it had been a friend, he said, we’d have known they were coming.

We considered how we came to have this attitude of preferring to avoid unannounced visitors. It occurred to us that this is the same way we feel about receiving calls from unrecognized phone numbers. I don’t know about you, but I usually ignore those calls, because again, it’s typically a solicitor. The unexpectedness of a visit or phone call implies that it’s likely to be unwanted. That small bit of information is what we’re acting on when we decide to ignore a knock on the door or a ringing phone.

Just Dropping By

Just dropping by. Remember when that used to happen?

He mentioned that when he was young, it was common for family friends to drop by unannounced. It was a normal social practice. But it doesn’t happen any more. We concluded that the ubiquity of cell phones is at the root of this change. We know now when someone is on their way over because they—knowing that I always have my phone with me and they theirs—will call (or more typically text) to let me know they’re coming. I usually don’t even need to answer my door. If I’m expecting someone, I just make sure the door is unlocked so they can just walk in.

This change in attitude toward visiting someone’s home is sort of an unexpected side-effect of cell phone technology. I wouldn’t have guessed that the portability of telephones would lead to a shift in attitude toward something that isn’t obviously related to telephones. It made me think: what other technologies might have unexpected effects on our attitudes toward common social practices?

Google Self-Driving Car

Google Self-Driving Car.

Some days later I was driving on the highway. There was some traffic and I got to thinking, if only everyone would drive exactly the same speed, there would be no traffic. Then I thought, those Google self-driving cars could do that. In fact, those Google self-driving cars could probably do it much more safely and efficiently, with smaller gaps between cars even at high speeds. I suspect they could merge in and out of traffic with flawless precision. There would be no traffic bottlenecks at major junctions. Maybe I’m expressing more confidence than the technology merits, or maybe anyone who doesn’t is a technophobe. (There. I said it.)

Then I got to thinking about how different traveling by road would be if every car on the road was self-driving. Not only would you probably get where you’re going faster, because of the elimination of most traffic problems (like some idiot doing 55 in the fast lane), you’d also know exactly and reliably when you would arrive at your destination. No longer would “traffic” be an excuse for showing up late. And you couldn’t fudge it. If you left behind schedule, there would be no making up the time by driving extra fast. The self-driving cars would always move at the same speed. Robot cars have no sense of urgency.

Nissan Autonomous Drive

Nissan Autonomous Drive Vehicle.

Furthermore, since there would be no driving extra fast, there would be no breaking the speed limit. Maybe the notion of a speed limit would become nonsensical, since the self-driving cars wouldn’t travel at some range of speeds with an upper limit, they would travel (except while merging) at exactly one speed. Probably other kinds of traffic laws would become obsolete as well.

Think about how common it is to exceed the speed limit, and think about how you feel when you suddenly notice a police cruiser on the road behind you, or on the side of the highway. Maybe you don’t do this, but I immediately feel tense, nervous, guilty. Maybe your stomach lurches a little. Maybe you reflexively take your foot off the gas. I do all those things, even if I’m driving below the posted speed limit. I feel like a criminal, who will suffer or avoid punishment, only on a whim of some guy in a uniform. (Who does he think he is?! Ugh! Cops!)

Well ... rats.

Well … rats.

Now think about how you react to seeing a police officer while you’re both on foot. You don’t feel guilty. You don’t feel nervous. You probably feel safe. You might even smile or nod. You don’t have to avert your eyes for fear he’ll memorize your shifty face so as to apprehend you later. When you’re on foot, police are there to protect you, not to persecute you. The only trouble is that this doesn’t happen all that much. The bulk of a typical (non-criminal) person’s experience with police is on the road, where we’re suspicious of them, the threat of punishment implicit in their mere presence.

It's a beautiful evening to be on a foot beat at the park!

It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?

I suspect this is a common attitude toward police. When you’re on foot, they’re your allies. When you’re behind the wheel, they are symbols of authority who are only out to enforce laws against you. My prediction is that if self-driving cars were common, people’s attitude toward law enforcement would change dramatically. Most people’s negative experience with the police are over speeding tickets. Since self-driving cars would make the very concept obsolete, the negative experiences (including anxiety) about contact with police would be eliminated (except maybe for parking tickets).

Sure, there are other reasons people might have negative attitudes toward law enforcement. But I’m willing to bet that most folks are like me. If I didn’t think that all cops were out to give me speeding tickets (because of some insidious quota program that the state will obviously deny, but I know better), I’d be likely to have a much more positive attitude toward them.

I know this isn’t really a big deal. It’s not going to change our lives in any really significant way (more than self-driving cars would already). I know attitudes toward police aren’t a serious societal problem that many people give much thought to. And I know that self-driving cars are technologically possible now, but economically a long way off. This is just an exercise in thinking about the ways technology might change our lives in ways we don’t expect at first. It’s an exercise about excitement for the ways in which our lives might be different, and better, due to minor, indirect effects of new technologies. Sure, I’m being optimistic, and sure, you can be be a future-dreading techno-pessimist if you want. But the future will arrive in spite of pessimists, and there will be myriad benefits for those of us who embrace it.

Who's Driving this thing?!

Wait … who’s Driving this thing?!

Jumping the Shark

By Marc Williams

The Fonz

In 1977, the television sit-com Happy Days began its fifth season with an audacious episode that was different in tone from its first four years of episodes, it took the viewers by surprise. Happy Days’ appeal had always been its nostalgic attitude toward the 1950’s and the likable, down-to-earth characters around whom each episode focused. The motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing heartthrob, Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli–played by Henry Winkler–was the epitome of cool and remains an icon of coolness today.

Unexpectedly, in the fifth season’s premiere episode, the Fonz decided to prove his bravery by jumping over a shark while water skiing. It was a baffling moment in television history. The first four years of the show had nothing to do with water skiing and the Fonz had never been the kind of character who needed to “prove himself” to anyone. More superficially, viewers weren’t accustomed to seeing the Fonz in swimming trunks. It was an odd episode after which the series could never be the same–a point of no return. This moment gave birth to the phrase “jumping the shark,” a term coined by John Hein to describe the moment when a television show betrays its origins–perhaps suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas. Often, shows are thought to have jumped the shark when a key character leaves the show, or if an important new character is introduced. Hein started a website dedicated to the phenomenon, where readers can debate the moment in which their favorite television shows jumped the shark. Hein sold the website in 2006 but the site is still active.

Here’s a clip (via YouTube) of Fonzie’s famous shark jump:

The website argues that virtually any creative endeavor can jump the shark: musical groups, movies, advertising and political campaigns, and so on. But can an educational television program jump the shark? Some have argued that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has done so.

For years, Shark Week has provided viewers fascinating documentaries about recent shark research and has captured some truly eye-popping footage. For example, the images captured in a 2001 Shark Week episode entitled “Air Jaws” captured some of the most stunning nature film I’ve ever seen–images of enormous great white sharks leaping completely out of the water, attacking seals and seal decoys. Like nearly everything one expects to see on The Discovery Channel, Shark Week is usually both entertaining and educational.

Clip from Air Jaws

Click to view a clip from “Air Jaws”

When watching that spectacular 2001 episode, I wondered to myself–”how will Discovery Channel ever top this?” What shark footage could possibly compete with these amazing images? How will they possibly attract viewers next year? Not surprisingly, Discovery Channel dedicated many of its subsequent Shark Week shows over the past twelve years to more footage of jumping great whites–and not much else. Perhaps the producers acknowledged that indeed, they simply couldn’t surpass the spectacle of “Air Jaws.” Until the 2013 installment of Shark Week, that is.

“Megalodon” was the centerpiece of Shark Week 2013, a documentary about the prehistoric shark that paleontologists believe grew to lengths of 60 feet or more. I’ve always been fascinated by megalodon; my older brother was a shark enthusiast when we were young and I vividly recall him showing me a photo of fossilized megalodon jaws he found in a book–I couldn’t believe that such an enormous creature ever lived. I was awed by the thought of it. Naturally, when I read that Discovery Channel was featuring Megalodon in its 2013 Shark Week series, I set my DVR.

The episode begins with some amateur video footage from a fishing party aboard a boat off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The amateur footage ends with some fearsome crashes and the viewer then learns that the footage was recovered from the boat’s wreckage–and that none of the young passengers survived. When my wife and I watched the episode, we both thought the footage looked a little too polished to be amateur footage. My wife said she didn’t remember hearing anything on the news of a horrible boating accident and I didn’t remember such a story either.

Viewers were then introduced to a self-proclaimed expert in mysterious oceanic events: a dubious specialty, held by a man who was perhaps a bit too comfortable in front of the documentarian’s camera.

As the program continues, viewers learn that megalodon may not be extinct after all! And of course, in true Shark Week fashion, there was some stunning footage that offered tantalizing glances of what might be a live megalodon in the ocean. The ocean is a huge place, we’re reminded, and new species are discovered every year. The coelacanth, for instance, was thought to be extinct for over 60 million years until a live specimen was discovered in 1938. Even very large animals like giant squid and megamouth sharks have only been recently captured on film, so the evidence supporting a modern-day megalodon simply can’t be dismissed.

Clip from Megalodon

Click to view a clip from “Megalodon”

The program was extremely entertaining and was easily the most exciting Shark Week show I’ve seen since “Air Jaws.” And not surprisingly, “Megalodon” received the highest ratings in the history of Shark Week. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, it was all a hoax. Like Animal Planet’s 2012 documentary on mermaids, all of the nature footage and expert testimonies were fabrications. My wife and I hadn’t heard about the vanished boating party on the news because, of course, there never was a boating party. There was virtually nothing true about Discovery Channel’s “Megalodon.” But many viewers were fooled, and subsequently criticized the network for misleading and humiliating the audience.

What do you think? By airing a work of fiction–and presenting it as truth–did Shark Week jump the shark? Have the producers run out of ideas? Have they abandoned Shark Week’s reputation? Or were Shark Week viewers naive all along for seeking education through commercial television?

News From the Final Frontier

by Claude Tate

This is not something I normally put out for public consumption, but maybe the time has come.  I’m a space nerd, and have been since I first became aware of rockets.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon

Neil Armstrong on the Moon

I can’t remember when I was first introduced to rockets, but I do remember seeing the launches of the first manned flights in the auditorium of my elementary school.  I remember our teacher taking us to the auditorium where a single TV was placed on a stand. It was a small country school with few resources, so while I don’t remember whether it was the only TV in the school or not, it may well have been. At least it was the only one I was aware of. Our class and a number of others would sit there staring at the rocket sitting there on the pad on that small, grainy, black and white television way down there on the stage. The early Mercury flights always had delays, so often it would take some time before the big moment happened. But it always happened.  The rocket would come alive and lift majestically for the heavens. It only lasted for ten seconds or so, but what a magnificent ten seconds. I was hooked. A fire was lit that still burns today.

Last year, politics dominated our news. John King is probably doing something to torture that touch screen election map he stood in front of every day, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out. I hope he got extra pay for that.  I was listening to NPR one day and they had a story about a 5 year old being shown a picture of President Obama. When they asked him if they knew who that person was, he said “I’m Barack Obama and I sponsored this message”.

But while everyone seemed to be focused on every word that was uttered in the political arena, there were some significant things happening on the final frontier; some of which received attention, some did not. While the following does not comprise a comprehensive list of everything that happened, these four events stood out for me.  One was a milestone, two signified the passing of an era, and the other was a WOW! event for NASA.

The Voyager Interstellar Mission

First, a milestone was reached as the two Voyager spacecraft began leaving the solar system.

Voyager Spacecraft (Both Voyagers were identical)

Voyager Spacecraft (Both Voyagers were identical)

Their mission can be broken down into two parts. The first part was to increase our knowledge of the solar system. Voyager 1, launched in September of 1977, did flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 was launched in August of 1977, and in addition to flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, also flew by Uranus and Neptune. The second part, the Voyager Interstellar Mission or VIM began after Voyager 2 passed by Neptune.  The VIM consists of three phases, the termination shock phase, the heliosheath exploration, and the interstellar exploration phases.  Both are now in the heliosheath exploration phase. We do not know how thick this environment is, so we cannot determine exactly how long they will be in this phase, but it will probably be several years.  After that, it will be interstellar space.  They are still operating like champs and have enough power to last until around 2020. After that they will drift.  And providing neither are hit by anything, Voyager 1 will come within 1.6 light years of a star called AC+79 3888, and Voyager 2 will pass within 4.3 light years from Sirius. And then, who knows.

The Retirement of the Space Shuttle Fleet

A Typical Space Shuttle Launch

A Typical Space Shuttle Launch

The next two events signaled the passing of an era.  First was the retirement of the Space Shuttles and their final trips to their respective exhibition sites.

The Space Shuttle flew 135 missions and was the face of the American space program for 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. The accomplishments of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor are far too numerous to list here. But two things that really stand out to me were the contributions it made to the construction of the International Space Station, which would probably have been impossible without the Shuttle, and the placing into orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Enterprise Being Flown Over New York To Her New Home

Enterprise Being Flown Over New York To Her New Home

Enterprise was the first orbiter built, and while it never flew in space, was essential to refining the technology and design for the other Shuttles. It has been moved from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to the Intrepid Sea, Air &Space Museum in New York City.

Endeavor at home in Los Angeles (shuttles are big)

Endeavor at home in Los Angeles (shuttles are big)

In October Endeavour was moved to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.  Shuttle Atlantis has been moved to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida and will be placed on display in 2013. Discovery replaces Enterprise at the Smithsonian. It was heart-warming to see so many people turn out to see the shuttles make their final voyages to their respective retirement destinations.

The Death of Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong

The other event that signified the passing of an era was the passing at of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, at the age of 82 from complications following bypass surgery.

Armstrong, a Navy pilot during the Korean War, served as a civilian test pilot until being selected as part of the second ‘class’ of astronauts in September of 1962. He was one of two civilian astronauts (the preference was for military test pilots) and the first American civilian to go into space when he commanded Gemini 8 in March of 1966. He was selected as commander of the Apollo 11 crew in December of 1968. The other members of the crew were Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

Apollo 11 left on its voyage on July 16, 1969.  His coolness under pressure was legendary; a trait that would serve him well in those last few seconds over the moon.  In the final seconds, as the lunar module, Eagle, descended to the surface of the moon, the landing computers became overloaded.  When Armstrong saw they were headed for an unsafe landing site, he took over and manually flew the Eagle to a safe touchdown some distance away. The folks at NASA were worried, but they should not have been. As it turned out, while estimates of the amount of fuel left has varied over the years, the number most often cited is that they had under 20 seconds of fuel left when they landed.

The Apollo 11 crew:Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

The Apollo 11 crew:
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

The landing took place on July 20, 1969.  I was among those millions around the world who were glued to the television and listened to the NASA audio and animations as the Eagle approached the moon; heard Armstrong describe the descent to Mission Control in Houston; and felt that feeling of pride as he said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”  I was still there when after several hours of rest and preparation, Armstrong opened the hatch of the Eagle, attached a TV camera to its leg and descended the latter to the moon’s surface.  And I watched and listened on live TV as his first boot touched the moon and he uttered those famous words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” In 1960 our rockets were blowing up on the pad and just nine years later, we were walking on the moon. Words simply cannot fully capture what America accomplished in July of 1969.  The closest I can come is to say it was beyond extraordinary.

After the moon landing, Armstrong could have cashed in and made untold millions of dollars.  Instead, he chose to return to Ohio and lead a quite life. He taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1979, worked on his farm, served on several commissions including the investigation of the Challenger explosion, accepted membership on several boards, and took a few jobs as a spokesman for companies he believed in. But until the end, he insisted he was no hero.  He was only doing his job and was one of many who were responsible for the moon landing. NBC had an excellent story of his death and also those first steps on another world.

His family released a statement after his death responding to the many who had asked what they could do to honor Neil.  It stated that in addition to honoring his service, accomplishment and modesty, when you look at the moon, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

The Curiosity Mission

The other event may not equal the moon landing, but I would still classify it as a WOW! event, the landing of Curiosity on Mars.

Curiosity, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, made a powered soft landing on Mars August 6, 2012.  The landing used a technique never before attempted and was nothing short of amazing. The following description is taken from the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Fact Sheet.

Engineers designed the spacecraft to steer itself during descent through Mars’ atmosphere with a series of S-curve maneuvers similar to those used by astronauts piloting NASA space shuttles. During the three minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft slowed its descent with a parachute, then used retrorockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage acted as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.

And it all worked perfectly.  We have sent a number of unmanned missions to Mars; missions that have yielded a great deal of information about Mars.  But Curiosity is by far the most sophisticated unmanned probe we have ever launched, and has the potential for advancing our knowledge of Mars exponentially. For more information on this amazing mission, go to NASA’s homepage for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission.  A good place to start when you reach the page is the Fact Sheet I referenced above.  It is under Mission Resources located on the right side, and it provides an excellent overview of the mission.  The scope of Curiosity’s abilities is nothing short of amazing.

Self Portrait by Curiosity on Mars

Self Portrait by Curiosity on Mars

We will not be sending men back to the moon anytime soon. And I was disappointed when our new moon program was cancelled.  And presently we have no vehicle to send astronauts to the International Space Station. But we are moving forward into that final frontier. Private U.S. companies are developing the vehicles that will soon be sending Americans back into in a few years.  SpaceX has already developed a rocket and capsule that has begun making supply runs to the space station, and will soon have the capability to send men into space. NASA, in addition to continuing to send men to the space station and someday to an asteroid and Mars, will be undertaking missions that will increase our knowledge of the earth and unlock the secrets of the solar system.  And hopefully in the near future, the James Webb Space Telescope will be ready for launch. The James Webb Space Telescope may not sound as exciting as some of the other missions, but it should extend our vision to the edge of the universe.  And of course, Hubble continues to make discoveries that prove the universe is far more magical and wonderful than we ever imagined.

Our future in the final frontier is bright. And for this old space nerd, it’s going to be exciting.

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.

7

Enjoy the rest of your day.

Deleting the “Human” Factor

by Wade Maki

History is often divided into ages based upon a particular trend. The age of reason, age of invention, enlightenment, information and industrialization are but a few examples. Some ages are known for conflicts, others for prosperity. As we are 12 years into the 21st century, I’m noticing a trend that may make this the century we delete the human factor from decisions.

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“I’m still here! Turn the lights back on!”

This summer my department was moved into new offices. Of course they are not new so much as new to us with some recent updates and fresh paint. One of the first things we noticed was how the traditional light switches were replaced with motion light sensors to automatically turn the lights on when we enter and off when we are not around. One might be tempted to see this as motivated by convenience, but one would be wrong. The idea here is to save energy (ergo money) by removing the human factor from the equation. Humans tend to leave lights on and so the automatic sensor is there to handle things without having to rely on flawed human judgment. Even though the motion sensor must use some additional power, it has been determined that the sensor will be more efficient than people. As with anything new the bugs haven’t been worked out such as the daily tendency for the sensor to turn off my light when I read, work on my computer, or just sit mostly still for awhile. Thus, I must pause in the dark and wave my arms in the air to get the sensor to turn my light back on. True to the trend of deleting the human factor there is no way for me to override the sensor.

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We’ve all been here.

This summer I made several airline flights to conferences and events. At every airport where I used the restroom I found a similar trend of removing the human factor from the equation. Want soap? Put your hand here and the sensor will decide how much to give you. Want water? Hold your hands here and a pre-determined amount of water will flow. Want a paper towel? Wave your hands and a predetermined (always too small amount) of paper will be dispensed. The goal, as with my light sensor, is to remove my decision from the equation in the name of efficient use of energy, water, paper and soap. Why this became of interest was that in one of the airports most of the sensors had apparently stopped working leaving only a couple of sinks operational. If you’ve ever seen a busy airport restroom this was quite a sight to watch as dozens of people were dumbfounded (they waved their hands in vain but no soap or water came). You see, as with my light switch, the ability for an actual human being to turn on the water or pump the soap had been removed rendering the sinks non-functional.

The trend then is for small groups of humans (committees I’m guessing) to decide that in the name of efficiency, safety, or some other good purpose, systems should be designed to remove human decision-making entirely. Lest you think that it stops at switches and faucets please know that Google is close to perfecting the self-driving car. As anyone who drives around others knows, the machines can’t possibly do it worse… can they? I suspect this is only the beginning of a century long trend of deleting the human factor.

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Self-driving Google car

If this trend continues what will life in 2099 look like? My life will be managed by devices that wake me up, remind me where to go and what to do, perhaps even when to shower (and for how long). My car will drive me where I need to go. Manual driving will be too risky to allow, but drinking and riding while on your phone is perfectly okay. My refrigerator will know what’s inside and order anything I need from the store, which may deliver it (or have my car add a grocery stop to my commute). In addition to managing my life, my devices will track and report my activities to ensure public safety (this is already occurring and will continue to expand). I could go on, but it is enough to note how some of these things we can see coming by 2099 and others are almost here already.

Of this trend most will ask the wrong questions. Most will ask “how does this make life more efficient and convenient?” Some will ask “what are the costs to us by this loss of control?” In both cases there will be important points on each side to be weighed. However, perhaps the most important question we should ask is “how does removing humans from decisions change us?” Who will we become when we make fewer decisions and cede more control to machines (and to those who program them)? By comparison we know how using cell phones has resulted in a generation that no longer remembers numbers and has forgotten many social amenities. What will life be like 2099? I can give you a rough sketch of this future. Who will people be in 2099? That, may be a much more disconcerting question.

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Carrie Levesque

Recently in the Russian Novel of Conscience course we have been discussing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, about a highly mechanized and regimented totalitarian society (the One State) hundreds of years in the future where citizens have achieved the ultimate happiness: unfreedom.  Taking as our starting point Marx’s claim that machines, invented to help man, have become the symbols of his servitude, we debate the extent to which machines and technology have enslaved or liberated men in today’s world.

As a class, we’ve compiled a pretty good list of technology’s benefits (efficiency, convenience, online degree programs!) and costs (myriad media addictions, a privileging of online relationships at the expense of face-to-face ones).  At midterm, several students have written excellent papers on how we have created a sort of One State within the United States through certain government policies and technologies which reduce rather than foster our individuality and humanity.

Many of these discussions have stirred up nostalgia for simpler times, when it seems people had different values and a different relationship to one another.  They’ve made me think about a book I read recently on a more extreme response to this question, the Back to the land movement (which is a great deal more complex than just ‘living simply,’ but I’m limited to 800 words…).

I grew up in a remote area of northern Maine that has always attracted Back-to-the-landers.  What possesses these diehards who apparently find the southern Maine homesteads of the followers of Scott and Helen Nearing not austere or isolated enough, that they would haul their few remaining possessions to the place where the logging roads end and call it home, I can’t say for sure.

But I’ll admit to having a touch of that idealism myself- to unplug, to live off the land, to disconnect from our nonstop media and rampant consumerism of all the latest technology (though you’d have to be insane to choose the wilds of northern Maine, a place with two seasons: Brutal Winter and Rainy Black Fly Infestation).  Though I now prefer a more comfortable climate, I understand the appeal of living in a beautiful, natural setting, devoting most of one’s time to work in the outdoors without a care for whatever new technology or entertainment the rest of the world is enthralled with.

Coleman Family

And yet, through a closer examination of life ‘off the grid,’ I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of many benefits of our modern life. I recently read Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life Is In Your Hands about growing up the daughter of famous homesteader and Nearing mentee Eliot Coleman. She chronicles the great strain that the demands of homesteading put on her family, resulting in her father’s ill health, her baby sister’s tragic death and her parents’ divorce.  (On a lighter note, she also reveals some of the purist Nearings’ well-kept secrets: Helen’s love of ice cream, mail order fruit and other delicacies.  Even the folks who wrote the (sometimes a tad righteous) book on living local and off the grid indulged a little on occasion).  Though there were certainly aspects of their lives on the homestead that were richly satisfying, some readers may come away wondering if their chosen cure for the ills of modern life wasn’t in some ways as harmful as the disease, physically as well as spiritually.

Another interesting look at the real-life struggles of those who lived in those idealized ‘simpler times’ is the PBS reality series Frontier House.   In 2001, three families (selected from among some 5,000 applicants!) lived off the land for six months on the simulated frontier of 1880s Montana.  The success of their venture was assessed by historians based on whether each family had put by enough food and fuel over the summer and fall to survive a Montana winter.  Though they labored admirably, through all sorts of drama, if memory serves it was decided all would have perished.  The simpler times were never as simple as they seem.   (Frontier House is available in UNCG’s Instructional Film Collection, but sadly, not on Netflix).

There are no easy answers to the question of man’s relationship to technology.  Most people I know lament their dependency on smart phones, social media and a food supply so highly engineered that many of us have no idea what we’re really eating half the time (pink slime, anyone?).   Yet we have so much to be grateful for.  We live in a time of amazing medical advances.  Whatever may plague or disappoint us in our lives, we have the freedom and resources at our fingertips to research alternatives and connect with like-minded people to find a solution.  For all our similarities, thankfully these United States are not the One State.  Our ultimate happiness is not to be found in our unfreedom, but in our freedom to negotiate these complex choices and relationships, to choose our own adventure.

The Clock is Ticking

By Claude Tate

I’ve been thinking lately about the problem of overpopulation.

WARNING:  I cannot verify the following story from my sociology professor is true. However, I can verify it got my attention.

My first encounter with the population problem came early in my college career. I had a sociology professor who told us of an effort in a rural village in India to help women use the rhythm method of contraception. The health workers gave each woman of childbearing age an abacus.  Each day they were to move another bead to one side. They were told how it was safe to have sex once all the beads of a certain color were on one side. The abacus experiment did work exactly as planned. The women did not move one bead a day as intended. They simply moved all the beads that indicated danger over at once, and went on their merry way.  Of course in America we believe in using more reliable methods of birth control…or do we?

Recently, the Obama Administration got into some political hot water in issuing a requirement that birth control pills be covered in the new health reform legislation.  Schools, hospitals, and other institutions supported by the Catholic Church felt the government had overstepped its authority in requiring them to offer birth control through the health insurance policies they offered.  For many Catholics, this was a matter of faith.  But unfortunately for many politicians, it was just an opportunity. President Obama thus sought an accommodation. The accommodation, that the insurance companies that cover the costs of birth control must assume the full cost, took some of the air out of the opposition, but it still may have a political impact.  Only time will tell.

And at the time of this writing, a bill is moving through the Arizona legislature that would require employers to ask women who take birth control pills if they are using it for birth control or a medical condition. It will allow an employer to refuse to cover a prescription used for contraception. And according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the law would make it easier to fire a woman if the employer found out she took birth control medication for the purpose of preventing pregnancy. In other words, the beliefs of the employer would take priority over the beliefs and needs of female employees. It has already been approved by the House, and as of this writing, is in the Senate Rules Committee. If approved there, it will be considered by the full Senate.  Whether it will pass or not or what the specifics of the final bill will be is still up in the air, but the fact that it is actually being considered by a state legislature is disturbing. I wonder if those opposed to medicine to prevent unwanted pregnancies would allow insurance companies to buy abacuses. Who knows, maybe they will work this time.

They call the time leading up to elections the silly season. But for this election cycle, we may need some new descriptors. I can see the arguments of the opponents of abortion.  But I find it difficult to believe that insurance coverage for medication to prevent pregnancy be denied, especially in a world whose human population has just passed 7 billion people and counting.

Our world is facing many problems.  In fact, their number is so daunting it’s simply hard to wrap one’s mind around them.  I may deal with some of the others in future contributions, but for this blog I thought I would focus on one problem, that of overpopulation. But as I thought about it, I realized it was simply too broad to deal with in such a limited format as overpopulation is a factor in one way or another in so many of the problems we face today. So, I decided to limit my discussion to only one aspect of the problem, the impact of our increasing population on the future of the biosphere. We are going forth and multiplying at an alarming rate.  And for the earth, that means we are running through its resources at exponential rates.  Mineral resources are growing more and more scarce, the problem of what to do with waste products is growing worse on land and on sea (there’s a major floating trash dump in the Pacific that we do not know how to deal with), fresh water is being depleted and is already running low in many areas, the demand for food is leading to deforestation on a massive scale, and plant and animal species are disappearing daily as natural habitats are destroyed or altered. And of course, regardless of what some still say, we are changing our climate.  If something is not done to rein that growth in, and rein it in soon, we will reach the point where the planet’s biosphere simply will not be able to support any more humans.  We will reach its “carrying capacity”.  And the entire biosphere will be impacted.  Life is tenacious. It will continue. Human life will even probably continue. But it will be different.

As you can see, even introducing the impact of overpopulation of the biosphere is simply too complex to adequately deal with within this space. So I searched for some websites that would introduce this issue to anyone who may be interested in the impact of overpopulation and the environment.  So I typed in ‘population growth and the environment’ and received 5,480,000 results. After closely reading 5,479, 999 websites, I settled on an essay from the website, 123helpme, called “The Population Explosion” .  It provides a nice, brief overview of some of the major environmental problems associated with the growing human population.

Note:  I was just kidding about reading ALL of those sites. I really read only a few hundred thousand or so before deciding on including “The Population Explosion”.

Obviously, we need to bring our population growth under control, but how to do that is still very much open to question. Any solution will involve among other things, something we deal with in the last unit of my BLS class, “Visions of Creation”; how we understand what it means to be human.  However, as with any problem, the ‘devil is in the details’.  And the details here will have implications for every human on the planet.  So any discussions of solutions must wait for another time and another place.

But I do know this… the clock is ticking.

Transcendence on a June Night

By Claude Tate

The topic area for this blog is designated as “Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Leisure, Family”, So naturally I thought about a little lightnin’ bug, whose scientific name is Phausis reticulate, but is commonly known as the blue ghost.

Image from the Encyclopedia Britannica

 

     “As humans we are born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth.  The natural world tells us:  I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you.  Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human.  For I offer you a communion with the divine, I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other, I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other.
In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape, and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, and in all these experiences I offer you inspiration for your music, for your art, your dance.”

~From  the essay, “Evening Thoughts”, included in Thomas Berry’s 2006 book of the same name.

I was first introduced to Thomas Berry (a native and resident of Greensboro) in classes I took with Dr. Charlie Headington in the MALS program here at UNCG.  Sadly, Dr. Berry passed a few years ago, but fortunately, he left us with a considerable body of writings, some of which I’ve included in my BLS class, “Visions of the Creation”.  Thomas Berry’s legacy cannot be summed up easily.  As one of the world’s leading eco-theologians, he drew on numerous cultural, scientific, philosophical, and religious traditions to weave a narrative of a universe filled with mystery, wonder, and the sacred.  But to me, perhaps the most important message Dr. Berry imparted to us is that this knowledge and these insights are accessible to everyone. The earth stands ready to reveal its sacred knowledge, and show us our place and role, and what it means to be human. All we have to do is to pay attention.

Far too often, we only give the earth a passing glance as we go about our daily lives, but we do not really pay attention to it.  But from time to time, the earth will show us something so special that we must stop and pay attention. One such instance occurred to my wife and me last June.  It wasn’t one of Martin Buber’s “I/Thou” moments, but it was magical nonetheless.  Since I’m somewhat lazy, or maybe a should say extremely busy, I’ve pasted a portion of the letter my wife and I wrote to Our State in August of 2011 concerning our ‘stop and check this out’ moment.

“We read with great interest “Southern Lights “about the “blue ghost” fireflies in Henderson and Transylvania counties. About 10 pm on June 5 of this year, we hurriedly left our place outside of Etowah (10 miles NW of DuPont State Forest) to be with our son and his family as they awaited the birth of their second child in Hendersonville. At the foot of our mountain, near the French Broad River, there’s a large open valley.  That night the entire valley was positively aglow in fireflies, from the ground to the tops of the trees. While we wished we could have stayed longer, we could only stop briefly to appreciate this remarkable display as our granddaughter was on her way.

We had no idea why so many fireflies had gathered in that particular place until the arrival of our August edition of “Our State”.  We are now convinced that blue ghosts were responsible for this magical moment that heralded the arrival of a new life.

We have returned same time, same place but have never seen them in such abundance. But with a healthy granddaughter, a memorable sighting and another keepsake edition of Our State, we are blessed threefold! ”

The article “Southern Lights” was written by Diane Summerville.  There are several things that make them remarkable.  First, they are rare.  According to the article, blue ghosts only exist in a few places, and “Henderson and Transylvania counties are two of those places.” They can also be found in areas of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. One reason for this is that they are very fragile.  We referenced DuPont State Forest (the legislature recently changed its designation to DuPont State Recreational Forest) because due to the cool, moist climate, there are a number of colonies there. But even there, they only come out during late May and June when the temperature and humidity are just right.  Everything was ‘just right’ on that night in June when we saw them. Another reason they are rare is that there are very few females. So when the population of a colony drops, it may take years for them to re-establish themselves. So sighting them is special.  Also, their lights are special.  First, they are slightly bluish, thus the name, blue ghosts.  And rather than staying lit only a second or two like other fireflies, their lights stay lit for several seconds, and sometimes up to a minute. They don’t twinkle. So a few thousand blue ghosts will be far more visible than ordinary fireflies. That was why our valley looked so magical that night.

But understanding what lit up our valley on that June night has taken nothing away from the wonder we experienced. In fact, it has only enriched the memory. I’m sure Thomas Berry would agree.

If you are ever traveling to the Hendersonville area in late May or June, and have some free time, you may want to contact The Friends of DuPont Forest. They normally take two or three blue ghost tours each spring.  But sightings aren’t guaranteed. Conditions must be just right. Wonder cannot be ordered at a take-out window, and it doesn’t come with fries.

Image from the Blue Ghost Post blog of a blue ghost sighting.