This Day in History, Space Race Edition

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches. Addressing a crowd at Rice University in Texas, he spoke powerfully about the meaning of science and exploration. His words helped propel America to lead the space race. If you have an interest in science and exploration but haven’t watched this speech before, take 15 minutes and do so.

Kennedy’s speech resonates today, but I think the most powerful lines are the lines that extol the values of exploration for the sake of exploration, looking optimistically toward an innocent future.

For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.


There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.

Seven years after he gave this speech, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and for the first time in Earth’s 4 billion year history a species walked on an alien world. Mankind would never be the same after that giant leap. Within three decades the world knew an opportunity for peaceful cooperation that Kennedy feared might never come again: we launched the International Space Station.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy but because it is hard.

Plastic Diet: Taking the First Steps

Only a few weeks into my decision to reduce my plastic consumption, and I’ve already been called an extremist, and accused of trying to “shame” people. Neither of those things is true, but I can see why people would say those things. I do sometimes come off a bit strong. It’s a little extreme (even for me) to try to go fully plastic-free, but I make reductions wherever possible. Sometimes, like a diet, it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, and downright tedious. Other times, I can feel the victories starting to accumulate and it adds steam to the fire.*

There’s always that awkward moment when you first try to explain to your friends and family what you’re up to. The one uncle who thinks you’re just having a laugh, the cousin thinks you’d really like plastic if you’d just give it a chance, the mom who sees this as just the latest in a succession of bizarre phases, each of which is due to be over any day now so you can go back to normal.

But at the end of the day they all mean well, and they’ll support you. Even better are the ones who try it along with you—even if they do think you’re a bit daft.

It’s hard for me to find the right balance between proselytizing and just discussing. I don’t form opinions rapidly, but when I do I do so with gusto. Because I spend so much time turning over every little bit of a thought in my mind I forget that newcomers to my psyche haven’t had the opportunity to consider these issues for months on end. Thus, I come off a bit strong. I tend to try to take the things I do as far as I can take them, but I don’t expect anybody else to. Like a well-balanced diet, every person has different needs and different desired outcomes and I don’t have the energy to judge anybody else on theirs!

When I take a little time to explain why it’s so important to me, I think it starts to click. Jacques Cousteau famously suggested that the best way to get people to protect something is to teach them to love it. Some of my friends have already begun to cut down their plastic use. Even my boss is getting in on the action! That one really surprised me, but he’s taken it to heart: he even posted flyers in the employee break rooms asking people to please be considerate of their plastic use!

Little actions like this can have a big impact, so don’t be afraid to take the first steps!

The Cool News Roundup, End of Summer Edition

Plenty of bad news to go around, but that’s all anybody talks about. We’ve made lots of progress in ocean conservation this summer, too, so let’s take a look at where we stand. Click on any of the links for full articles and more information.

The Trash Patch Tracker — Tons upon tons of the trash we use every day eventually finds its way into the oceans, swirling in one of many oceanic gyres. Basically big, trashy whirlpools of refuse. Studying the waste stream has revealed some surprising insights into how oceans work:

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), in Sydney, Australia, have created a new model that could help determine who’s to blame for each garbage patch — a difficult task for a system as complex and massive as the ocean. The researchers describe the model in a paper published in the journal Chaos, from AIP Publishing.

“In some cases, you can have a country far away from a garbage patch that’s unexpectedly contributing directly to the patch,” said Gary Froyland, a mathematician at UNSW. For example, the ocean debris from Madagascar and Mozambique would most likely flow into the south Atlantic, even though the two countries’ coastlines border the Indian Ocean.

Protection for Bluefin — Most people picture a tiny can when they think of tuna, but the tuna is one of the mightiest fish in the sea. Bluefin tuna is a prized catch, and a combination of overfishing and poorly-managed bycatch have severely jeopardized them. On August 29, 2014, NOAA Fisheries issued a new rule limiting the use of surface longlines:

Surface longlines average 30 miles in length, use hundreds of baited hooks, and often remain in the water untended for up to 18 hours. This gear catches and kills bluefin along with many other species, including hammerhead sharks, blue marlin, and leatherback sea turtles.

Today’s final amendment restricts the use of surface longline fishing in certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico and off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, while promoting highly selective gear such as greensticks for yellowfin tuna and buoy gear for swordfish. Ensuring that surface longlines are not used when and where bluefin gather in great numbers to spawn and feed will dramatically reduce the amount needlessly caught and killed.

Protection for Hammerheads — Oddly, despite all the many dangers facing sharks, they haven’t managed to find protection under the Endangered Species Act until this summer. Scalloped Hammerheads will become the first to receive such protection. Hammerheads and other sharks are seeing their kind protected in other vulnerable areas of the world, too, which is a great sign of global progress. But, says Bradnee Chambers of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, “Because silky and thresher and hammerhead sharks are highly migratory globetrotters, it is every nation’s responsibility to protect these ancient creatures.”

World’s Largest Artificial Reef — With natural coral reefs endangered everywhere in the world, it’s easy to forget that they aren’t just beautiful landmarks…err, sea-marks. They’re also delicate natural habitats that are home to up to 25% of all living species! There are many artificial reefs throughout the world, but the Kan-Kanán in Puerto Morelos, about 40km south of Cancún, Mexico, will be the world’s largest. I couldn’t find any information about its projected completion date, but it’s already on my list of sites to visit next year!

More Good News for Sharks — Many Pacific nations, whose total land area could literally be measured in fractions-of-a-Rhode-Island but whose territorial waters are invaluable, are turning to ecotourism and away from commercial fishing. Palau is a shining example. Having already established a shark sanctuary in 2001, the tiny country has committed to effectively prohibit almost all fishing within its territorial waters.

It is a small nation, nestled in the middle of the Pacific, with pristine ocean waters and bountiful wildlife.  The President of Palau, Tommy Renengesau, has announced that he intends to create a marine sanctuary where fishing is banned in 80% of his nation’s territorial waters.  In the remaining 20%, only local fishing will be allowed.

More Good News for Corals — While we’re on the subject of Palau, a new study has shown that traditional Palauan agriculture—including the production of taro, the main ingredient in the tasty poisupports the health of coral reefs by reducing runoff. Looks like  I’m putting Palau on my must-visit list! In other news, India is establishing its first coral garden. This is huge, because India is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing middle classes. It also has one of the worst Environmental Performance Index ratings of any nation*. So the Mithapur Coral Garden represents a great step forward in focusing on a sustainable future while attracting more of the eco-tourism dollars that by most estimations will continue to grow as more people learn to value the natural world.

In other coral news, check out this incredible underwater sculpture. An artificial reef in the making!

Catlin Seaview Survey — When Google Maps first announced their Street View program, no-one could have predicted that it would find its way underwater. The Catlin Seaview Survey has sent divers around the world to photograph sensitive and beautiful marine areas, bringing these beautiful landmarks—err, sea-marks—right to your monitor. If you’ve somehow managed to miss my incessant updates about the CSS, do yourself a favor and go take a look. I love swimming from view to view, soaking it all in. I could browse it for hours. Actually, don’t tell my boss, but sometimes I do.

The End of Plastic Bags — Not really the end, but a good step. California has become the first state to ban single-use, disposable plastic grocery bags. These bags make up a big portion of marine debris, and they are hugely wasteful. We all use them, because we don’t even think about it, or about what happens to them when we discard them. Sure, they can be put to other creative uses, but in the end the best solution is to just use fewer of them. Of course there’s the predictable industry backlash, but their main argument is that “it’s a cash grab by the grocery share holders.”

But California’s not alone. Many cities in the US have municipal bans or restrictions, and  some countries have had bans against certain types of plastic bags in place for years. Wikipedia has a good running count of legislation around the globe.

BP Faces Heavy Fines — The Gulf of Mexico is still reeling from the Deepwater Horizon spill, and federal courts have determined that British Petroleum acted in gross negligence, a euphemism for “pretty much single-handedly destroyed an entire ecosystem”. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was one of the biggest marine oil spills in history, and is considered to be the costliest environmental disaster in US history. They’ll have to pay $18 billion in damages, of which 80% will be used for cleanup measures and 20% will be used to establish a trust fund for future spills. As awful as the disaster is,

The ruling stands as a milestone in environmental law given that this was the biggest offshore oil spill in American history, legal experts said, and serves as a warning for the oil companies that continue to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where high pressures and temperatures in the wells test the most modern drilling technologies.

 The US Proposes Expanded Marine Sanctuaries — President Obama is looking to chip in to G.W. Bush’s record of marine protection by expanding one of the former President’s sanctuaries. Actually, they’re considered national monuments, but either way large-scale commercial fishing is off-limits. This is only a proposal, and it’s sure to face some opposition, but it represents what could be a great trend. If we establish a pan-partisan record of increasing marine protections wherever there is an opportunity, it will give us all something to stand together for.

Under the proposal, according to two independent analyses, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would be expanded from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. The designation would include waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore from the territories.

That’s all for today’s roundup! Lots of good things happening this summer, but there’s a lot more work to be done. Get informed, get involved, and get excited! Oh, and keep an eye out for the People’s Climate March, happening in a couple weeks. Very exciting stuff!

If you hear more good news, let me know here in the comments or on Twitter, @LookEverywhere. See you next time!

Hidden beneath the waves

“No matter what goes on beneath the surface, the ocean always looks the same. The waves always look the same.”
-Dr. Carl Safina

From the surface, it’s impossible to see that the ocean is teeming with untold varieties of life. The waves may be calm or agitated, but swimmers and sailors seldom see more than the occasional cetacean. Dive in, however, and a new world opens up to you. Even still the ocean hides life in its waters.

Photographer David Liittschwager shows us the living museum even a single drop of seawater can harbor. The variety of microfauna in this drop is incredible. The other photos in the gallery are equally amazing.

Also read the brief interview in which Liitschwager discusses how he sampled the water, the challenges of photographing nigh-invisible creatures, and which bits he was most impressed with.

The Tragedy of the Commons

We hung out with friends last night, and as these hangouts go, the conversation eventually turned mathematical. Not that we’re a bunch of chaos theoreticians, but our interests are…varied!

We started discussing game theory and how group dynamics can be modelled with different degrees of precision and accuracy.  Many scenarios were offered, but one question was posed thusly: “How could you model a group interaction in which the actions of many benefit the group, but with the possibility that the actions of an individual could screw the group?”

Assuming certain parameters, this could fall neatly into the Tragedy of the Commons. There is a village in which most residents are shepherds whose sheep that graze in a common pasture. As long as each shepherd is mindful of his charge’s eating, the pasture is sustained indefinitely and there is plenty for everybody. However, if a single shepherd allows his sheep to graze more heartily than the others, he gains an advantage at no cost to him, but leaving less grass for the other sheep. According to game theory, each shepherd has an incentive to overfeed his sheep, because he does not bear the direct cost, and the outcome is better for the individual. Obviously, if everybody does that, there is no more grass and the commons become barren—ultimately, they all bear the cost.

The beautiful thing about game theory (game, in this sense, means a mathematical model explained verbally) is that by tweaking the parameters you can apply it broadly to many aspects of human behavior. We as a species are faced with the commons dilemma now, even if you’ve never heard of it. The common pasture is the sea, and we are all over-grazing. Overfishing is the unseen crisis of our time. An idea that really stuck out to me from the Mission Blue film is that no matter what we do to the sea, it looks the same on the surface. It could be teeming with life or a desolate ruin and the surface wouldn’t change a bit. It makes it hard to understand human impact, especially for those of us who do not live near the sea.

Game theory is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a sad thing, because you can’t blame any individual player, as much as we want to. In the story of the shepherds, we want to ostracize the greedy one, but in reality the story doesn’t tell us his motivation. People act selfishly all the time for what we would call noble reasons—perhaps it’s the only way to feed his family, perhaps he needs to raise money for a cause. We just don’t know. The tragedy is deeper, though. The tragedy is that suppose I know that shepherd Jonas is suffering a hardship that would tempt a normal person to take a little extra. Now, because I’m afraid Jonas will do that and leave less for me, I have an incentive to do that in advance to maximize my own payoff. That is the real tragedy.

The partial answer is trust. We all have to trust each other to act in the benefit of the group, because ultimately if we act selfishly we destroy the whole system and ourselves in the process. This is not collectivism, communism, or groupthink. This is simple math. Tragically, there’s nothing simple about the ocean, and while in a small group it’s reasonable to expect the players to trust each other, how can we have that expectation on the global stage?

The remainder of the answer is value. An alternative version of the Tragedy of the Commons is called the Comedy of the Commons. In the original, it costs nothing to be greedy and maximizes the individual’s reward. In the Comedy, instead of extracting resources from a common pool, players contribute to the pool. The cost of a contribution is small compared to the value of the entire pool. Even a contributor will stand to gain more from the entire pool than his entire input. I’ve already shown an example of the Comedy in this post. The picture of the shrimp trawler above is taken from Wikimedia Commons, a non-profit warehouse of public license media. By viewing that picture, both you, the reader, and I, the writer, have benefited from a stranger’s contribution to a common pool whose value is growing just by our having used it.

How can we do that with the oceans? Give more than we take. We need to give protections to the seas before we rip the life from it. Marine ecosystems are fragile, beautiful, and bountiful, but only if we care for them. So much of our lives depend on the oceans, whether we can see it directly or not.

Think about it as you go through your day. What can you contribute?



Going on a Plastic Diet

I love sharks (and rays!), so Shark Week is a year-round holiday for me. A few weeks ago, my wife and I watched Sharkwater, a documentary by Rob Stewart chronicling the growing threat we humans pose to sharks of all kinds. It’s a powerful movie, and well worth your time to watch it. But it left us wondering how we can help.

We’re both avid environmentalists, and we love the outdoors. But in a landlocked state we sometimes feel it isn’t easy to pitch in and help our great blue mother out. We are both fish-eating vegetarians (“Vegaquarians,” she corrects me), but conscientiously so. Safe seafood only, and no apex predators. I’m on the cusp of dropping that out of my diet as well. There must be more we can do! Stewart has a new movie, Revolution, and I was wondering if it was available to watch in our area yet. Poking around the Internet, I found an Ask Me Anything that Stewart had hosted on Reddit. I’m a sucker, so I read pretty much the entire thing. One thing stuck out to me, and kind of gnawed at me.

He mentioned that one simple thing we could do is to eliminate soaps and lotions with polyethylene beads. The beads are used as exfoliants, and wash down the drain and pass right through our filtering systems. The beads, often, end up in the ocean, where they are mistaken for food and eaten. Nobody knows how much microbead matter is in the ocean, or how it affects natural food webs, but we do know there’s too much of it and once it’s in there it’s next to impossible to get out. Well, I don’t use anything that has those microbeads (the one exfoliating soap I have uses walnut shells), but it made me think really hard about how much plastic finds its way into the oceans.

That, in turn, made me think about how much plastic I myself use. We recycle, and we use re-usable shopping bags, and we’re basically good little hippies. But even still, we’re all but drowning in our own plastic waste. Plastic household itemsIt’s pretty much impossible to buy seitan or tofu that isn’t wrapped in plastic. The cap on our soy milk is plastic, and the waxy coating inside probably is too. Even a box of pasta is likely to have a little plastic window, so you can see what you’re getting. Aluminum containers often have plastic labels, and even durable, re-usable goods

usually come swaddled comfortably in plastic. In short, contemporary America is very much made of plastic.

I have a challenge. Can I get my plastic usage under control? Can you? Can we all?

It’s my New Year’s resolution, but I’m starting early. Some things just can’t wait. It’s exciting, too. It may sound like a little thing, but going on a plastic diet means big changes. Big or small, it’s going to require a mental shift. Sometimes it’ll be as simple as choosing a re-usable bag or container instead of a disposable one. Other times it’ll be a matter of always carrying my reusable mug (I never leave home without one) and reusable silverware (I have some room for improvement in this one). And we’ll have to start making our own… well, everything. It’s something I’ve always liked to do recreationally, on the side, when I had some time to kill. Make my own macadamia nut butter, or horchata, or jam.

I suspect that at first, it’ll be a little more costly and far less convenient. I can see already why plastic waste is so rampant. But this is more important than saving a few minutes or a couple pennies.

This is for the sharks.

Image of the Day, Save the Fish! Edition

What better way to baptize my new GoPro camera than to do a mini underwater shoot for the Da Vinci Center?

Their Touch Tank aquatic habitat has a couple of bad cracks in it, so they’re raising funds for an upgrade. The new tank is going to be even better, so head on over to their page and chip in! The url:

Kepler announces 26 new planets

That NASA’s Kepler mission should discover some new planets isn’t really news at this point. The Kepler observatory is designed, after all, to do just that. At the end of last year it had discovered a total of 2,326 potential exoplanets – extrasolar planets. They’re potential because they require some pretty time-intensive confirmation.

Astronomers use Kepler to finely measure the total light output of tens of thousands of stars. The stars appear to dim briefly every once in a while, but only by a barely-perceptible amount. It’s not enough to cause them to twinkle (our atmosphere is responsible for the scintillation of the heavens, you know), but it is measurable, and often, it’s the same amount.

A likely possibility in the case of periodic dimmings and brightenings is that a planet is crossing in front of its star (from our perspective). This June, in fact, you’ll be able to observe a planetary transit right in our own neighborhood, as Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun. And you better try to catch it in June, too, because you won’t have another chance until 2117. So each dimming of a star is tallied as a potential planet. Then we just wait until the suspect passes in front of the star again, completing its orbit.

Most of the planets that Kepler has confirmed have short-period orbits: they don’t take very long to complete a revolution. The Kepler mission hasn’t yet been in operation for three years, so it’s unsurprising that it hasn’t had time to confirm longer-period planets. After all, in its brief lifetime so far, it wouldn’t have even had a chance to confirm Earth as a planet!

To confirm a planet, astronomers need to take note of a dip in brightness that could be explained by a transiting body. Then they wait until it does it again, and measure the time it takes. Then they wait the same amount of time to see if it does it again. If it passes those tests, you’ve got a planet. Naturally, it takes time to do it, as well as a considerable amount of effort to interpret the data. It isn’t nearly as simple a process as this summary would make it seem like. But, it’s NASA’s job to figure out how to do that. My job is only to marvel at how awesome the universe is.

The bit that caught my attention in this press release, however, is the bit about how astronomers are growing far more competent at quickly establishing the orbits of multi-planet systems. If we were to take our own solar system as an example, we’d find that only a handful of our planets, the interior rocky ones, are easy to study based on their orbits alone.  Mercury revolves around the sun about four times while we complete one revolution; in the three years Kepler has been at work we could have built up a substantial file on it had we been observing it on an alien star.

Neptune, distant and patient, takes 165 Earth years to complete a revolution. It has been generally assumed that gas giants like Neptune and its cousins Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter are the most prevalent planets in the galaxy. To date, we have discovered more gas giants than small rocky planets like Earth. However, gas giants have been easier to detect with less advanced methods. New data (including data from Kepler) is beginning to paint a different picture. More rocky planets are being discovered using some very complex techniques, and in fact, the rate of discovery exceeds that for gas giants.

Of course, that isn’t the whole picture, either. Even with Jupiter’s relatively modest year of eleven Earth years, it could be a while before anybody spotted it transiting the sun. Far out planets like Neptune might never be observed in our lifetimes. So when astronomers estimate that there are about 160 billion planets in our galaxy it isn’t because they’ve meticulously counted each one (though not for lack of trying). It’s a statistical estimate that, like many in the world of astronomy, is subject to revision as we obtain more data.

An artist's depiction of Kepler 16b, circling two suns. From NASA.

But wait, how do scientists know the mass and composition of a planet, anyway? You guessed it: complex measurements. By measuring the amount of light that a planet blocks, scientists can calculate its volume. The really tricky part is measuring the wobble of a star as the planet tugs on it  back and forth. Just like the Moon’s gravity affects our  tides here on Earth, our gravity affects the Sun (although only very minutely). By measuring the influence of a planet on its star, scientists can calculate its mass. Once you know its mass and volume, figuring out its density is the easy part. A small, massive planet is likely made of rock and metal, whereas a large, less dense planet is likely to be a gas giant.

So like I was saying, NASA’s scientists are getting much better at observing planets in a multi-planet system. Using a technique called Transit Timing Variation, astronomers use the differences in timing for each planet’s transit to calculate the gravitational effects of other potential planets; it allows them to quickly and accurately assess how many planets a given star system is hosting. If it sounds complicated, it is. Don’t let this video fool you; I bet it isn’t easy!

A billion other worlds

In case you thought I was going to let that comment about 160 billion planets slide, let me expand on it. Based on data we’ve observed so far, there seems to be about an average of 1.6 planets per star. A conservative estimate suggests that there are about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, but there could be as many as half a trillion. Either way, that’s a lot of planets.

Very few of the planets that Kepler has confirmed so far seem as though they might be hospitable to life as we know it, but the data has only just begun to roll in. Even with just tens of confirmed planets under its belt, the Kepler mission has spotted some truly alien worlds. The planet Kepler 16b (pictured above, courtesy of NASA) circles two stars. The star KIC 12557548 has a planet so close it’s being boiled alive, and KOI 961′s planets’ orbits are only two days long. Other observatories are making similarly weird finds.

We know there are a lot of planets out there, even before we make any estimates. We know of over 750 right now, with more coming in regularly. So, yeah, 160 billion planets in the Milky Way (give or take). And we’re just one galaxy.

For ease of calculations, I just try to remember that there are about 100 billion stars in an average galaxy, and there are about 100 billion galaxies. When I say “about,” however, it must be understood that we really have no idea. Some galaxies contain just a couple tens of millions of stars, and others can contain trillions. Even the number of galaxies has been calculated based on one tiny patch of sky that we happen to be able to see clearly. Either way, when I say there are about ten sextillion stars in the known Universe, I don’t expect anybody to quibble.

Because ten sextillion looks like this: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

I wouldn’t even know how to handle it if you said I was off by a zero or two, because it’s all the same to me. It’s just a lot of friggin’ stars. You just cannot conceive of this number. Even if you gathered a trillion stars every day it’d still take you 27 million years to collect them all. The odds of you picking the Milky Way out of an enormous Universe-sized hat at random are…well, let’s just say you’re more likely to win the lottery 500 times than to find the Milky Way once.

The incredible vastness of the Universe is really too much to deal with coherently. There is so much out there beyond us, and we haven’t even begun to discover it all. The more I learn about the Universe, the more awestruck I become. That we can find planets so distant the starlight we’re measuring left before we were born is incredible to me.

An alien sunbeam hurtles for countless eons at blistering speeds in an awful, lonesome odyssey through space, a subtle field of nothing punctuated by subtler ripples of invisible forces, until just when it was going to fade into the background it chances to hit a telescope and it gives its life to our imaginations. That’s the wonder of the Universe, and I absolutely adore it.


How to Count a Thousand Photographs

Just for fun, since it’s a new year, I thought I’d take a look at just how many pictures I took last year. I have all of 2011 archived onto the same hard drive, so I did a quick search to filter for the original RAW files (to cut out duplicates and data files). Turns out I snapped the shutter 35,410 times. Granted, a lot of these hardly count as “photographs” – test shots, useless shots, and just plain bad shots. But even bad photos take up space on my hard drivesand I never delete anything until the shoot is over a year old, and even then I only weed out the ones that are hopelessly useless to me or my clients.

So how much space do 35,410 files need? About 523 gigabytes, it turns out. And people wonder why I’m not eager to look through my archives. A RAW file is much larger than even a high-quality JPEG: the 16 megapixel D7000′s RAW files average around 18 megabytes. They add up fast.

523 gigabytes doesn’t seem like very much to us these days, when multi-terabyte hard drives are affordable and ubiquitous. But ten years ago, the “terabyte” seemed like something only necessary for industrial data-pushing. Numbers are weird, you see. They just keep getting bigger. They have no horizon, no boundaries—unlike our minds. So we add bigger and more impressive prefixes to our bytes. Mega. Giga. Tera. PETABYTES. It’s easy for us to comprehend a thousand of something. But millions and millions of somethings later and we start to get confused.

After a billion or so we just give up. Our brains interpret any big number as “A lot”.

So let’s scale my 35,410 pictures back a bit. At an average of about 15 megabytes each, they total (and I checked) 562,697,784,228 bytes. A byte is a little packet of data that tells your computer what it’s looking at. Each byte is made up of 8 bits – the 1s and 0s of the computer’s binary universe. There are 4.5 trillion ones and zeros scattered among my 2011 archive. That’s an almost impossible number to understand. But if instead of printing my photos and admiring them in the usual manner you took it upon yourself to reduce them to their binary skeletons and print that, you would fill an 800 million page book.

It’s fortunate for you that you can’t afford to get it printed. If the boredom of reading 800 million pages of ones and zeros didn’t kill you, its sheer weight would. Such a volume would be 30 miles tall. Plus a few millimeters if you’d like a hardcover copy. It wouldn’t do you much good, though, because if you somehow found yourself at the top of this 30-mile behemoth you’d be enjoying your last gasps of the stratosphere before you died instantaneously. 99% of the air on our planet would be beneath your feet, leaving you with a pitiable few molecules to cling to. At the top of Mount Everest, six miles up, atmospheric pressure is about 1/3 that of sea level, and humans cannot survive under these conditions for more than a few hours unaided. The atmospheric pressure at the stratopause (top of Mount Book grazes the stratopause, the boundary between the stratosphere and the mesosphere) would be about 1/1000th that of sea level. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine the havoc that would wreak on your body. 

You’d be better off saving it to floppy discs; it’s a bit tedious, but you’d end up with a convenient half-mile-tall stack.

But enough of this depressing Matrix-like concern with strings of 1s and 0s. Photos – and all digital data – are only really useful to us when they can be appreciated without peeking into the arcane underbelly of the computer’s processors. So let’s take an average photo as an example.

Gazing at the stratosphere.

This portrait was a test shot I took before a party. It was taken with my D7000, whose 16.2-megapixel sensor is something of a marvel. Less than an inch wide, it comfortably houses 16 million single-color photodetectors. You could line up 20 of these detectors before you matched the thickness of an average human hair. Which, by the way, is a pretty arbitrary way to measure things, given the tremendous variation in hair thicknesses – even on an individual! No matter how you measure them, though, these pixels are tiny.

The above image at full resolution.

But, tiny though they may be, they add up to something much greater than any individual pixel can claim responsibility for. And boy, do they add up! Assuming that every one of my 35,410 pictures were shot at the same resolution (which in reality they were not, but to simplify things we’ll just pretend that they were), we’d be looking at a stack of some 570 billion pixels. If we printed them in a row, each as large as a photodetector – 4.78 microns – that row would stretch for 1692 miles. That’s roughly the distance you’d drive between Camden, Maine and Miami, Florida. Microns – those vanishingly tiny spans, so small you could lose one on a speck of dust – add up.

Bonus points if you noticed that the pixel count for all those pictures (570 billion, slightly inflated due to the differences in resolutions) is remarkably similar to the total number of bytes for all of the RAW files (563 billion). It is not a coincidence.

An eye for an eye

A magnified view of the above image.

It’s amazing to look at the clarity that new imaging devices are capable of achieving. But before we pat ourselves on the backs, remember that we have nothing on evolution, which has had several billions of years to perfect light-capturing technology. Even high-end digital cameras peak at around 60 megapixels, or 60 million pixels. Each human retina, by comparison, has about 120 million photoreceptor cells. That’s a retinal density of about 200,000 in every square millimeter.

Birds of prey, on the other hand, have five times the retinal density of humans. If somebody ever tells you you have eyes like a hawk, you’d better appreciate the compliment. Hawks can spot prey scuttling across a field from a mile away; not only do they have vastly more photoreceptive retinas, their eyes are also finely-tuned to behave like telescopes.

Eyes in general, regardless of their owners, are a wonder of evolutionary mechanics that should make our finest optical engineers blush. In higher organisms, every set of eyes is perfectly tuned to a very particular set of activities essential to the organism’s survival. Birds have an unbelievable level of visual acuity because they need to spot – sometimes from tens of yards away – everything from seeds and bugs to flowers to edible critters. And all the while they need to be aware of things that are spotting them. The same is true of all sighted creatures.

The first eyes are thought to have been developed about half a billion years ago, during the so-called Cambrian Explosion; in fact, they may be directly or indirectly responsible for the explosive rates of change during the Cambrian. Actually, the Cambrian era is a topic for another discussion entirely. Remind me later and I’ll tell you all about it. No matter how you look at it (and 540 million years ago, somebody definitely started looking at something), the first eyes were undoubtedly little more than radiation-sensing devices unable to discern very much at all. In fact, the very earliest powers of vision would have been totally unfamiliar to us; they would likely have felt more like standing next to a light bulb; you can sense the heat radiating from it and tell basically the direction from which it’s coming.

Think back to high school biology. Remember playing with scientifically studying planarians, the little arrow-shaped flatworms? Those dots on the sides of its head that looked like eyes really were eyes—though of the type we described above. They could tell you where light was coming from, but they’d be incapable of admiring photographs. Evolution of the eyes, once photosensitivity was developed, is thought to have happened quickly. It may have taken less than half a million years to go from the most basic visual perception to fully-developed, if very basic, eyes.

But photoreceptors are only a part of the story. In fact, they aren’t even a particularly impressive part, compared to the rest. Ask any photographer and they’ll tell you that the lens is the really crucial part of a camera. The same is true of eyes, and I am in awe of the fact that eyes have managed to evolve in the way that they have. Cells sensitive to certain stimuli are pretty badass, sure, but organs that evolved to focus those stimuli onto the cells in ever more efficient streams? That’s awesome.

The first cameras were pinhole cameras. They allowed just a single ray of light into the, well, pinhole, which was then projected onto a surface for an artist to trace manually. The earliest “lenses” in an organism functioned in exactly the same way. The nautilus, in fact, still uses that structure. Instead of a lens, it has an open “pinhole” that funnels light to its photoreceptors. To use a lens has the double advantage of providing an additional degree of protection as well as allowing more precise focus.

The miracle of everything

I feel like I’m getting distracted, here, but vision is truly remarkable. If you are reading this, then you ought to just close your eyes for a minute and think about the last things that you looked at. It doesn’t matter what they are—a book, your mail, the TV, a loved one, a cherished photo. Take a moment to feel the overwhelming gratitude you should be feeling that you have the power of vision. It is miraculous.

It is seriously mind-boggling to think that our vision has evolved in the way that it has. We tend to think of what we see as “the way the world looks,” but in fact we wouldn’t even recognize the world if we were to really see it. Because our eyes are sensitive to a very narrow range of electromagnetic radiation, we can only see a narrow slice of the Universe with our unaided eyes.

Any time you see infrared or ultraviolet photographs – some of which are quite stunning – you are still only seeing light in the visible range. Technology allows us to capture light beyond the visible spectrum, but it then needs to be converted to something our eyes can understand. Often, when you read about the enormous telescopes used by astronomers to measure the minutiae of the universe, you aren’t reading about telescopes like we’re used to using. Most, like the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, rely on data from far without our visible or audible range. The images you see are rendered to be comprehensible to us. By the way, when you hear about a radio telescope, astronomers aren’t sitting there with headphones tuning in to Ryan Seacrest. Listening to the radio waves from the VLA would be hopelessly dull.

Of course, our human vision evolved from that of ancestors who spent their time underwater; we see blue and green most intensely because those are the wavelengths that happen to pass through water easiest. It’s the same reason the pictures you took while you were snorkeling last summer all turned out blue; water filters out huge parts of the visual spectrum, leaving all the vibrant reds and oranges floating near the surface. The sky above us, too, scatters blue light preferentially. Instead of seeing pure white, as you would if the sun’s light shone through directly (or you would if your corneas weren’t busy melting) you see a brilliant blue.

Speaking of the sun, it’s no coincidence that our cameras have twice as many green pixels as blue or red. The sun emits light that peaks in the green range.

The common Bayer array used in most DSLR sensors uses a pattern of one row of alternating blue and green pixels, and one row red and green pixels. The reason for this commonly cited is that human vision is most sensitive to green light; however this isn’t strictly the reason. Human vision is highly sensitive to green light, perhaps more than other wavelengths, but there’s actually no such thing as “green” light – or blue, red, or any other color. Green is comprised of dozens of individual wavelengths, so what we perceive as green tends to be a combination of wavelengths.

However, the way our brain interprets the data coming from the cones of the eye – the cells responsible for distinguishing color – gives green a greater role in providing contrast between colors and shades. If a camera sensor gave red, green, and blue pixels equal weight, the image would appear distorted to us. Green cones cannot be triggered without also triggering blue or red cones, which helps us to calibrate what we perceive as the visible colors.

Shut up already!

Okay, okay, I’ve gone on enough about these things. I just get overwhelmed at the incredible beauty of the universe. Vision is a fantastic thing, and I think it’s easy to forget how amazing it is that we can harness even a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. And look what we’ve done with just that fraction of light!

Photography is an incredible tool. From the infinitely tiny to the immeasurably vast, it helps us see further and more deeply than we have ever been able to before. When I wield my camera, it is with a sense of awe—not just at the world around us, but at the fact that I can record it. I feel a responsibility to record it. There are as many ways of seeing the world as there are people to see it.

As a parting thought, I want to remind my readers that we live in a time of unparalleled technology. It’s easy to scoff at those of us who flip through Twitter on our iPhones, but don’t forget that we have an unbelievable amount of technology at our disposal. My photos from 2011, as I mentioned, came to a total of 4.5 trillion bits. The Voyager probes, by comparison, took their entire twelve-year voyage to Neptune to return 5 trillion bits of data. Some of my photographs are awesome, but the data from the Voyager mission will be cherished forever, and have helped change the way we view ourselves.

How many ways can you  count to 35,410?