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: http://www.davincisciencecenter.org/your-support-for-science/annual-fund

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?

Our place in the universe

After I wrote yesterday’s post I was talking to a friend about some of the mind-bending scales of the universe, so I thought I’d post a quick follow-up. We may currently have no way of knowing whether other civilizations exist, have existed, or will exist – but the odds seem to favor it. Like I said in the previous post, there are about 100 billion stars in our own galaxy. And 100 billion other galaxies with just as many stars. The odds are truly astronomical Earth is the only planet that has ever had the right ingredients to manufacture life.

We have no way of knowing the range of life that is possible. We might not immediately recognize it if we found it here on Earth. Life as we know it can thrive under unimaginable pressure and heat, deadly pH levels, salinity that would make McDonald’s blush, and environments devoid of light and oxygen. Life is awesome.

And yet for all that, life may still be a fluke that will never happen again. We just don’t know. Life as we know it is a set of self-replicating proteins. In fact, all life is part of the same interminable set of self-replicating proteins. As far as we can tell, biogenesis only occurred once on Earth, and the lineage has held for nearly 4 billion years. Not that that suggests that our way of life is the only possible one; it’s just the only known one, and we don’t have a whole lot to go on besides that.

It makes sense that we should seek out signs from advanced life forms, to let them come to us. It’s basically all we can do. Searching for signs of the simple organisms that comprise the overwhelming majority of terrestrial life is daunting enough on celestial bodies in our own solar system; finding them on extrasolar planets is an impossibility with current technology. We’re not even sure where to look on our own planet! Roughly half of Earth’s biomass lives deep within the earth, filling invisible nooks and crannies with their little microbial selves, and yet it was only within the last three decades that we even thought to really look for them there!

Clearly, life is very good at hiding from us.

Biomass, by the way, is a much more elegant way of describing life of this scale than, say, counts and descriptions of species. If you aren’t impressed by this admittedly bland-sounding term, try to imagine all the world’s trees and grasses, fish and whales, birds and bees – everything from mice to elephants. Now try – and you really can’t imagine this, but try anyway – to picture just how many bacteria it would take to balance out the scale.

Speaking of scale, one of the most incredible images I’ve ever seen is the famous Pale Blue Dot image taken by Voyager 1 as it slipped past all the planets and began its departure from the solar system.

Earth's self-portrait

From Wikimedia. Click to make it more awesome.

I love this image. Click through to see a composite image showing Earth, Venus, and the Sun. The sun looks so cute and harmless hanging there in the sky day after day. I love images that show us how enormous space really is. It’s almost impossible to grasp, really. Carl Sagan summarized the image best:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Often quoted but never surpassed, this reverential passage gets at the heart of why we are humbled by the vastness of space. We don’t want to be alone out here, but maybe – just maybe – we are. But we must celebrate our improbable existence, holds our heads up high, and proclaim, “Universe, I am in you!”

So, what do you think? Does the outrageous complexity of the universe drive you absolutely bonkers? Tell me in the comments! Celebrate your humanhood with me on Twitter and Facebook, too!

Earth has seen the most sublime arts, the most elegant sciences, the most compassionate stories that have ever graced the known Universe. It’s a wild, beautiful, soul-crushing, place to live, and I love it dearly. But before you start feeling too warm and fuzzy, remember: Earth, as far as we know it, is the also murder capital of the universe.


[seeking] Alien artifacts on Mars and the Moon!

I love The Daily Galaxy. I don’t browse it as much as I used to (I don’t browse anything as much as I used to) but every now and then I’ll click through a link on my Twitter feed to an interesting-sounding post. I absolutely love astronomy. The universe in all its glory is a miraculous, baffling place to exist, and as far as we know, it’s pretty much the only place to exist. So it would make sense that other entities, if they chose to exist, would have to do so in some distant corner of our own universe.

So anyway, back to the Daily Galaxy. I spotted an article a few days ago about our ongoing search for alien life. SETI, apparently, thinks that they might not be so distant after all. While the SETI that you and I know have done the bulk of their research by searching for measurable signals sent out by advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, they are planning to broaden their approach to include scrutinizing publicly-available images of the moon and other alien surfaces for evidence of technological artifacts.

Bear in mind that these aren’t the crazed words of hysterical stargazers; the Arizona State University researchers quoted in the article aren’t what you’d call confident that we’ll find any space hideouts on the Moon. Searching the Moon, however, makes sense, given its proximity to us. Not only do we currently have the technology to make an almost unlimited number of detailed observations of the surface, it also makes an excellent training grounds for us. We already know that the surface is littered with relics of space travel—our own—and so we know what they would look like if we were to stumble across more on other worlds. I suspect, too, that by practicing on the Moon, we’ll learn to streamline the process.

So yeah, that’s neat. But as much as I would love to imagine the excitement of finding something, I think it’s probably safe to assume that we won’t. The Voyager probes – the fastest-moving human-made vehicles in the universe – have been flying away from the Sun for 34 years, and they’re not out of the solar system yet. Sure, all the planets are but memories to the spacecraft, but they’ll still be locked into the heliosphere – the Sun’s sphere of influence – until 2015 or so. At its speed, Voyager 2 is expected to pass near (in galactic terms) Sirius in about 300,000 years.

300,000 years, by the way, is a geologic nothing. We’ve only been human for 200,000 years or so (dinosaurs, by comparison, reined for 160 million years). We’ve only been farming for about 10,000 years. All of the art and culture and history and mythology with which we identify have only been around for half that time. If it’s all Greek to you, remember that the Greek language has only been with us for about 2% of our time on Earth. The universe may not care about such a pitiful span of time, but to us, it’s unimaginably long. And space is big.

But let’s just assume that the technology exists to cut that interstellar journey down to, say, 100 years. We aren’t even quite sure that there are planets orbiting Sirius. Again, let’s assume that there are, and they had developed an enormously successful and curious civilization of space explorers. Would they really aim their probe for the Sun and hope to land on a planet? Would they even have a high confidence of our planetary status? Or would they instead shoot for Procyon? Procyon is closer to Sirius than we are by more than three light years.

The Truth is Out There

There is a vast, mind-boggling unlikelihood of finding anything with this venture. The no-stone-unturned approach can get results, but… only if there are results to get. I think it’s difficult to divorce ourselves from our earth-centric view of the universe, but I do wonder whether an alien civilization would have had much interest in our stretch of the galaxy given how difficult it can be to obtain solid data even for nearby stars.

I love what SETI is doing, however. Even with zero expectation of results, the exploration is awesome. We are a nation of explorers; it’s what we do. I love projects that engage the public’s imagination and encourage us to relive our childlike enthusiasm for science.

And remember, up until the 1960s we just assumed that life couldn’t withstand the sustained and extreme heat of a geyser. If scientists had never bothered looking, the sulfur-laced waters of Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin might still be thought of as stinky, lifeless sludge. The discovery that life can in fact exist in those conditions opened our collective eyes to the existence of extremophiles.

It doesn’t hurt to look, that’s all I’m saying. I don’t think it’s necessary to find evidence of other life to really appreciate the wonder of the universe. Even if we’re alone out here, the unbelievable and majestic enormity of it all should give us plenty to think about. The universe is an amazing place, and I wouldn’t want to exist anywhere else!

How do you guys feel our place in the universe? Let me know in the comments. Shoot me a Spacebook message or Tweet me some fun astro-facts. And don’t forget to sign up for e-mail subscriptions if you haven’t done so yet! I don’t post often, so you don’t want to miss it when I do!

There are another hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. Odds are one or two of them have seen alien lives come and go. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe we really are a fluke. But if we are sharing this vast expanse of space with somebody else, then let the intergalactic kegger begin!


Another Skeptical Interlude

So, I was reading The Case for a Creator last week, a book that chronicles Lee Strobel’s journey from science into Christianity, and it’s quite fascinating. The science in it, of course, is wretched. His examples show at best a middle school understanding of issues of science; he tends to discuss historical scientific findings as current; he treats the disproval (what? I guess it’s a word…) of a scientific hypothesis as evidence that “science” itself is hopelessly flawed; and he completely misrepresents the way scientific hypotheses, theories, and facts are determined.

To be fair, I haven’t finished the book yet, but I will. My point here is not to criticize him, or Christianity, or creationism, or anything like that, but Strobel’s shoddy journalism. And not just his, but bad science journalism in general.

I’m not a scientist, mind you, nor do I have a particularly deep understanding of almost anything in science. But I do follow science news quite intently. I was thinking as I read Creator that Strobel can hardly be blamed for only understanding science from a layperson’s perspective, because we’re all laypersons. If there’s one thing that gets my goat, however, it’s when journalists throw buzz concepts around to excite readers’ interest. I’ll grant that it’s often difficult to make concepts seem exciting to the average reader, but if it weren’t a challenge, would it really be rewarding?

Instead, however, a week doesn’t go by without an article passing through my science newsfeeds that talks more fiction than science. Almost any mention of an extrasolar planet–you can bet there’s a discussion of planets that might harbor life headed your way. Almost any mention of a black hole gravitational pull, and there’s probably talk of time travel in your future. Did somebody say LHC? Brace yourself, because you’re about to get hit with a God Particle. 

And that’s just in my carefully-pruned list of sources I like! Google any of the above and I promise you’ll be overwhelmed. Don’t believe me? Think of a recent announcement. Go ahead and Google, say, “flowing water on mars,” and see what happens. 

First result: 

Scientists Discover Rare Flowing Water on Mars, Supports Alien Life

Thanks, International Business Times. Okay, so most results aren’t quite that…um…enthusiastic. But you see my point. Readers are trained to expect lofty disappointments, and to stop taking the real news seriously.

We readers are fed a continuous stream of literature that tells us, essentially, that science is only valid as the first half of science fiction.  

I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of fantastic science journalism out there, of course! There really is; and it isn’t just the province of brainy science magazines. My own local paper, not really known for its interest in the sciences, just published an excellent article about Jupiter. In fact, dedicated science journalists have, I suspect, one of the most difficult writing jobs you can have.   

But journalists of all stripes have a responsibility to their readers to neither understate nor overstate the facts. Any article in a respectable publication would deny that water on mars is affirmative proof of extraterrestrial life, but even focusing on the possibility that it could be builds an association in readers’ minds. Which is not to say that it isn’t important, or that NASA scientists won’t be concentrating their search for organisms in this region during future missions.  

Just that nobody’s actually discovered any liquid water yet (and even if it is water, it may well be so salty you’d never recognize it as water), which is why we can’t get ahead of ourselves. 

It’s very easy to point at articles like the above and say, “See? Science has no idea what it’s doing!” Which is exactly Strobel’s approach in Creator. It’s easy to make Science out to be this dumb, blundering beast that goes with the flow and doesn’t ask much out of life. But it’s also easy to show it for the elegant, beautiful thing that it is, growing and changing and always asking more of itself. It may not be easy to do the research, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.  

I don’t know where I was going with this. Maybe nowhere. I just know that we can do better, and we need to demand better from our news—and from ourselves. Science, the grand, simple thing that it is, isn’t about facts and figures, problems and solutions, labcoats and flasks. It’s a way of looking at the world, a way of asking about the world. It’s a method, and it’s one we can all do. It’s one we all need to do, if we’re ever going to make progress.

Lee, I’m truly sorry you got so bummed to find out Darwin wasn’t infallible. I’m sorry you put so much stock in 19th-century ideas and weren’t able to keep up with modern research. The beautiful thing about science, Lee, is that it doesn’t have to apologize for being wrong. In fact, science doesn’t cling to archaic hypotheses when new evidence uproots them. Science is about falsifying the falsifiable, not contradicting the theological. Science isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. 

But don’t forget what you learned from all this, my dear Lee. Reading something in a book doesn’t make it true. You do your research and you don’t follow blindly. Find the evidence, and then find more evidence. You’re on the right track, but you aren’t there yet. Take heart; we’re all on this journey together!  

A Very Unskeptical Postlude
Look at this! Two “Skeptical Interludes” right in a row! I must be on a roll. It turns out, the stars have aligned to guide my typin’ hands in celebration of James Randi’s birthday. James Randi is the patron saint of Skeptics everywhere, so it’s fitting that the Universe should conspire to influence me to be especially skeptical. 

Okay, back to reality. I linked there to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, one of my absolute favorite reads. Phil is level-headed, analytical, and hugely engaging. If for nothing else, read his posts for the multitude of synonyms for “enlarge” he has at his disposal. Compare the IBTimes article above with his take on the Mars findings. Compare both with NASA’s release. Discuss. 

Today’s Environmentalist

Yesterday on Twitter, Alexandra Cousteau of Blue Legacy challenged the public to update the definition of ‘environmentalism’:

What does it mean to be an environmentalist today? We need some re-definition! Thoughts anyone?

That got me thinking, and I’d say it is time for some redefining. It’s never been easier to call oneself an environmentalist, so let’s take a moment to think about what we’re saying.

© 2010 Justin Gifford

You’d think, from the amount of press that things like the BP oil spill are rare occurrences or that such things have only happened relatively recently. You’d be wrong. Which is to say, environmental disasters, catastrophes, and complications happen all the time, and it’s horrifying. We are, however, now more aware of them, both because we have a greater historical perspective on past events and because we have a greater global perspective on current events happening in somebody else’s backyard. A cynic might go so far as to say that it’s trendy to be aware of such things, the way it’s trendy to discuss fiscal policy at cocktail parties. Not that these things are any less urgent or real; just that it is trendy to have an opinion on them.

Unfortunately, the side-effect of this is that having a ready-made opinion stifles creative thought. When I say ‘creative,’ I don’t mean that in the artsy sense of creating murals or paintings; I mean it in the sense of creating something else entirely—solutions.* It isn’t enough any more to want to pitch in.

Whenever I see questions like Ms. Cousteau’s, I like to peek at the responses it garners, when they are readily available and I don’t have to do any actual investigating. The answers tend to range from the clever:

“For me, being an environmentalist today means doing work through a lens† of mindfulness and compassion.”

to the heady:

“There is no other way of being. One day this word won’t mean anything because we will all be. It’ll be embedded in our values.”

to the inane:

“tough it’s been watered down”

Since the smarter answers are pretty self-explanatory, I’ll skip right to the dessert.

Again, I don’t want to minimize the efforts of real environmentalists, which are many and varied, nor of concerned citizens who genuinely do what they can. My problem is rather the prepackaged opinions that get inhibit real progress. Nor would I suggest that this is limited to the environmental sciences, because it certainly isn’t. But in the spirit of the original question, that is how I must frame my answer.

* A licensed chemist is encouraged to create precipitates as well.
† I’m a photographer; I can’t help picking out the comment that makes a lens reference!

Prepackaged Solutions

One of the things I see all the time is the all-too-common belief in the myth of ‘common sense.’ That is, environmentalists believe that their weapon in the fight to save the world is their common sense. Unfortunately, those who would deny environmental problems like climate change area also relying on common sense (at least, those innocents who have been misled through no fault of their own to believe it). As far as either group can tell, their opponents are either crazy or have a hidden agenda. The problem is not that one group is crazy, but that ‘common sense’ doesn’t clearly exist. It all depends on the company you keep. Anthropologists are familiar with this phenomenon on the largest and the smallest scales and, accordingly, avoid judging cultures on any terms but the culture’s own.

The Liberal vs. Conservative fight is a well-known caricature of today’s politics,‡ but I think anybody would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that bickering between two political groups is a recent phenomenon! Nevertheless, it has important implications. Both groups will remain entrenched in their opinions for as long as it takes to accomplish their goals—that much should be apparent. The only appropriate recourse, then, is not to continue arguing, but to make a real effort to understand the goals of the people whose ideals are contrary to our own, and whose ideas we would change. More on this later.

My point is not who is right and who is crazy. Rather, I wish to illustrate the pitfall that pervades any discussion: the prepackaged opinion. When we recite fact after fact that we have known since grade school to be true, we are not expressing our own opinions, but the opinions of those who taught us. We take these to be incontrovertible and obvious and, because they are all we have ever known, it never occurs to us to doubt them.

Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t actually fix anything; in fact, it usually does the opposite. Our unthinking repetition of mantras like Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! can actually be counterproductive—they become so familiar to us that we stop giving them any real consideration. Further, to continue discussing the Three Rs, people tend to get hung up on Recycling, because it’s easy and cheap—at least for consumers. If nothing else, consumers get to feel a nice pat on the back when they do it.

And that’s the thing—most armchair environmentalists do it because, frankly, we feel pretty nice for contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. We are often reminded that such a cause is environmentalism. But the flip side to that feeling of self-content is that it can prevent us from doing more. I have had many discussions with a friend of mine about how awareness ribbons seem to do little more raise awareness—a limited resource. By buying a cheap trinket for a few cents, I can absolve myself from doing anything further if it inconveniences me, which it often does.

Many ‘green’ solutions seem to be the same way. If I use more efficient light bulbs (cost-effective), why should I buy a more efficient car (inconvenient)?

‡ And if politics are a caricature of society, that makes it a caricaturecature!

Single-Serving Environmentalism

It isn’t enough to do the bare minimum. As environmentalists, our battle is not with ignorance but with apathy. An apathy that has occurred not despite our best efforts but because of them. Sadly, in their fervor to spread enthusiasm for the preservation of the environment, environmentalists have over-saturated the media, leaving the public with little inclination to care.

Take the case of Earth Day. Earth Day, at its heart, is an extraordinary idea. It was designed to raise awareness in a culture that really was sheltered from the realities of environmental destruction, and to spur the world into action. It did. But after 40 years, it’s lost some steam. Earth Day is a time, for the citizen of average concern, to rally together and ‘pitch in.’ While the camaraderie fosters a sense of accomplishment, instead of the day highlighting the dire need to create more powerful solutions, it highlights cutesy green caricatures§ of environmentalism.

The public can only sustain alarmism for so long until attention wanes—this happens all the time. Worse, while the incentive to Pitch In exists for the day, it seldom extends longer than a week at best. This seems to be because, again, we as a society absolve ourselves from action when we do the bare minimum. In effect, we only need to be environmentalists once a year.‖

This kind of environmental minimalismis especially egregious when it comes to disasters. Disasters – natural or man-made – happen. It’s tragic when they do, but they happen. Lately we have seen that in the Gulf of Mexico. But a side effect is that we are so used to tragedies happening that we are practically on a schedule for donations. We contribute to the cause of the moment, and seldom otherwise. We do not donate regularly, or, in general, to less urgent causes. The reasons for this are several, but that is for another column.

What it comes down to is that, sadly, we are so used to urgency that we seldom respond without it. All of this is to say that we want simple, convenient, and relevant solutions. I do not mean this to sound like criticism; it is only an observation, and it seems to be true in all spheres. Not everybody has the inclination, and few the time, to be a full-steam environmentalist. It’s hard work, and it takes a lot of specialized skills and a critical mindset. No-one can accuse the average green thumb for lacking effort.

However, while they may be excused for not embracing every aspect of environmentalism, there is another pitfall that commonly traps even the best-intentioned shoppers (insidiously, it traps them all the more). That pitfall is known as greenwashing. In our zeal to be environmentally aware, we have created an atmosphere in which it is trendy (i.e. profitable) to be Green.¶ Whenever there is a profitable atmosphere there is a very real potential for fraud. This is worse than benign dishonesty. It causes consumers, who are already in the market for convenient solutions, to divert their money from genuinely helpful products to those that are far less so.

TerraChoice has compiled a thorough list – The Seven Sins of Greenwashing – of common untruths as well as ways to spot them. In an effort to avoid simply throwing blame, and to make consumers accountable, TerraChoice has elected not to name particular brands or companies—a tactic that promotes open-minded thinking and avoids pre-packaged-opinion-mongering.

Students learning to test water.
© 2010 Justin Gifford

This today is the charge of the environmentalist. We have seen how much progress can be made by an individual, but we must now shift our focus to our society. We must embrace an attitude of healthy skepticism.

Healthy skepticism is not to be confused with pseudoskepticism or environmental denialism. These obfuscations serve no socially-valid purpose and generally only benefit a small interest group, if anybody at all. Good skepticism, on the other hand, does not doubt, but it questions. It questions the validity of claims not to suppress them but to make them more accurate. To make them better.

Healthy skepticism does not only question the claims of an opponent, but also its own. When most people hear a statistic that sounds fishy to them, their first instinct is to doubt it. It’s a good start, but only if that initial doubt does not predispose you to disbelief when you find satisfactory evidence. Likewise, most people, on hearing a statistic that confirms what they suspected, are unlikely to doubt it and probably won’t bother checking another source to determine its veracity.

This is a supremely-important skill not just in environmentalism but in all disciplines. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to take a columnist’s word for it, for instance, trusting that not only do they know what they are talking about, but also that they have no particular agenda.

§ I keep using this word! I don’t think it means what I think it means…
‖ Twice if you also count Arbor Day. Thrice if you think Labor Day is Arbor Day.
¶ We have also preserved an atmosphere in which ozone layers exist.

Don’t Be Evil

A useful starting point, I think, may be to examine your motives for environmentally involved. Or for not being involved more. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy Green (and this is a major selling point), but often companies charge a premium for Green products.** Buying Green is never better than using less. Reduce, man.

But that raises a question of ethics. The pairing of environmentalism with ethics has a long and respectable pedigree, and with good reason. The very idea of environmental stewardship is based on the idea that it is the responsibility of those who benefit from resources (i.e. the Earth) to are for them (it). Many would say it is unethical to waste fossil fuels, or ruin the air, or use up all the rocks. Whether it is or isn’t is a debate for another time, but the sentiment is there and the implications are dire.

So it is necessary to think not of being Green (or buying Green)†† but of being ethical across the board. Sometimes thinking laterally is necessary. Vegetarians, frankly, have a smaller environmental impact than their omnivorous brethren. I can’t advocate becoming a vegetarian, since I am not one myself, but a consumer can still make huge differences by shopping ethically and making a commitment to learn more about their food. While the Vegan horror stories of slaughterhouses haven’t dissuaded me from meat entirely, they have certainly caused me to cut way back; I now shop only ethically-produced food and, as an indirect consequence, I only eat meat a couple times each month. Such awareness has made me feel healthier and better about eating the food I do eat.

To mention one more example that is particularly relevant, coffee is a hugely destructive industry. But true aficionados demonstrate their love of it by buying Fair Trade and shade-grown coffees—both ethically sustainable. It is time to start thinking of new ways to be involved; you may do more good by eating at McDonald’s less than by buying Green window cleaners.

Environmentalism today means rethinking the concept of ‘stewardship.’ We must be stewards not just of the environment, but of our attitudes. Environmentalists must be responsible for seeing through false claims, but also for actively correcting them. It has never been easier to be environmentally active, and the boundaries dividing those who ‘are’ environmentalists and those who ‘aren’t’ have never been hazier. Professional environmentalists know their job, and they’re out there doing it every day. It’s our job, those of us who care but aren’t specialists, to help them—and to thank them for their efforts.‡‡

** A major manufacturer of resealable plastic sandwich bags, for instance, responded to the recession by offering new, Green bags. They used less plastic. They say ‘less plastic,’ I hear ‘more fragile.’
†† My problem is not having enough Green to spend!
‡‡ Mowing the lawn is hard enough; I applaud those who do actual work outdoors!

Update – 7 October

GOOD just posted a link to an FTC proposal for new guidelines that would govern any product’s claims regarding environmental impact. Sweet.