A Tale of Two Trips

August was this year’s month for out-of-state travel. First came a solo work trip to Danbury, Connecticut, then, two weeks later, a journey to Missouri with the lovely Lisa to see the total eclipse of the sun.

I decided to do Danbury by bus, because I didn’t want to be one of those armchair liberals who advocates for public transportation while tooling around in a Subaru. I plotted out a trip that would put me on a bus from Bangor at 7 a.m., connecting at Boston’s South Station, with a transfer in Hartford that would get me to Danbury by five that evening.

Little did I know that bridge construction in Boston had sent a ripple effect through bus schedules all over southern New England. My first inkling of trouble came when I looked up from my laptop an hour and fifteen minutes out of South Station to see that we were just passing Fenway Park.

I missed my connection in Hartford. A second bus failed to materialize. I finally got into Danbury around eleven o’clock, sixteen hours after setting out from Bangor. It’s an eight-hour drive.

On the way home, another bus was canceled. I made it, but not without spending a lot of time in bus stations – which is why it’s always advisable to bring a laptop and a good book.

Eclipses happen when they happen. Humans are powerless to postpone them. I’m sorry to disappoint the purists, but we flew to Kansas City and rented a car. We wanted mobility in case clouds moved in – though it’s hard to imagine chasing a shadow moving over the land at 1,400 miles per hour.

Missouri drivers only seem to drive that fast. On Interstate 70, where the speed limit matches the route number, people blew past at 80 or 90. All along the route we saw temporary signs cautioning drivers about the upcoming eclipse. As if anyone could possibly be in the dark about it at this late date.

Kansas City has a ring of hotels surrounding the airport, and a convenient, free shuttle system. We stayed there on the first and last night of our trip, but we saw the eclipse from Jefferson City, the state capital. The path of totality just grazed Kansas City and St. Louis, but Jefferson City enjoyed two and a half minutes of darkness.

Though it’s surrounded by asphalt, the center of Jefferson City is pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with tree-lined streets and parks with views of the Missouri River. There’s a local bus system called JeffTrans. My only complaint concerns the hotel I booked on-line, which advertised itself as “_____ at the Capitol Mall.” Well, the hotel wasn’t “at” anything. It was five miles out of town, and the only thing within walking distance was another hotel, which likewise did not have a bar. To get anywhere, you had to get in a car – and this is, sadly, typical of many places in America, including Danbury, Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked Jefferson City, and I was impressed by the welcome we and other visitors received. A Pink Floyd tribute band named Interstellar Overdrive performed “Dark Side of the Moon” in front of the capitol the night before the event. NASA set up shop across the street. Parking fees were waived in the downtown all day (I know, this encourages driving, but eclipses are nothing if not exceptional). The people were unfailingly friendly.

On the night before we returned to Maine, we took in a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Kauffman Stadium is a beautiful ballpark to which television does not do justice. But it’s miles from the city center, at the intersection of two Interstates, and, again, everybody has to drive. Parking is fifteen bucks. Though there’s probably a bus that can take you there, I saw no evidence of it.

The Royals’ starting pitcher, a lefty named Danny Duffy, held the Colorado Rockies hitless through the first five innings. What are the chances, I wondered, of seeing a total eclipse of the sun on one day and a no-hitter on the next? A walk and a two-run homer with two out in the sixth ended that line of wishful thinking. The Royals held on to win, 3-2, and we held on to survive the drive back to the hotel and the plane trip home.

Renting the car enabled us to travel freely within the American Car Culture. But I was glad to leave it behind when the trip was over.

The August Eclipse: Accident or Divine Coincidence?

 

A total eclipse of the Sun almost makes me believe in God.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be in Missouri on August 21 to see my fifth one of these things, but my first since 1979. A total solar eclipse is, hands down, the most extraordinary natural event I’ve ever witnessed. For a few minutes, you can see where you are in space: on a ball of rock circling a ball of fire, with a smaller ball of rock passing between. That’s you, standing in the shadow it casts.

The shadow is only about 70 miles wide, which explains why solar eclipses, while they occur at least every two years, rarely touch the same spot twice in an average human lifetime. You usually have to make an effort to see one.

We Earthlings are fortunate to see them at all. We live on the only planet in the Solar System – and possibly the galaxy – that puts on this kind of show.

During the few minutes of totality, the disk of the Sun is hidden behind the Moon, but you can see the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, shimmering around it. At this time it is perfectly safe to look at. The danger to your eyes in an eclipse occurs in the moments before and after totality, when you are looking at a sliver of direct sunlight that doesn’t hurt your eyes but can damage them.

Other planets have moons, but they are either too large or too small or too close or too distant to cover the sun exactly. From the surface of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun are the same apparent size. There is no requirement of physics to explain this.

But the distances between Earth and Moon are not constant, because orbiting bodies move in ellipses, not circles. When a solar eclipse occurs near the Moon’s apogee (farthest distance from Earth) and/or Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), the disk of the Moon is not big enough to cover the Sun, resulting in an annular, or ring eclipse, similar to a partial eclipse in that it doesn’t get dark.

Furthermore, the Moon is moving slowly away from Earth. The pace is beyond glacial, but in a few million years, there will be no more total solar eclipses. The concurrence of humanity’s emergence and perfect eclipses troubles some scientists. In his excellent 2011 book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley), John Gribben explains:

“Just now, the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, so that they look the same size on the sky. At the present moment of cosmic time, during an eclipse, the disc of the Moon almost exactly covers the disk of the Sun. In the past, the Moon would have looked much bigger, and would have completely obscured the Sun during eclipses; in the future, the Moon will look much smaller from Earth and a ring of sunlight will be visible even during an eclipse. Nobody has been able to think of a reason why intelligent beings capable of noticing this oddity should have evolved on Earth just at the time that the coincidence was there to be noticed. It worries me, but most people seem to accept it as just one of those things.”

It doesn’t worry Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University. In a 2012 blog for Scientific American titled The Solar Eclipse Coincidence, he wrote:

“Is there some great significance to the fact that we humans just happen to exist at a time when the Moon and Sun appear almost identically large in our skies? Nope, we’re just landing in a window of opportunity that’s probably about 100 million years wide, nothing obviously special, just rather good luck.”

Do coincidences happen? Probability dictates that they must. California’s Bay Area experienced its biggest earthquake since 1906 in the middle of the only World Series ever played between San Francisco and Oakland, but that doesn’t mean the ballgame caused the quake.

Perhaps we’re here because of an extraordinary run of good luck, akin to flipping a hundred heads in a row, something that might happen only once in the lifetime of the Universe. Our spectacular solar eclipses might be the result of similar luck.

Or just maybe, some ancient intelligence we don’t yet understand placed the Earth, Moon and Sun just so, to nudge a curious species toward contemplating the Cosmos. As though we were meant to reach for the stars, from the start.

Who knows? I certainly don’t.

 

 

Cars on Mars: Where a little Global Warming is a Good Thing

The dance of the moon, Venus, and Mars in the western sky after sunset last week had me taking the long view – and not just across the ecliptic plane. For three nights in a row I watched the crescent moon, fat with earthshine, climb past brilliant Venus and fainter, more distant Mars. In my lifetime, human beings and human machines have been to all three places. Little robotic rovers are rambling around on Mars right now.

I wonder now if I’ll live long enough to witness the next giant leap for mankind: a human landing on Mars. It’s a massive undertaking, and it would have to be an international effort. But perhaps it could also be a unifying one.

Mars is an order of magnitude farther away than the moon, and that much harder to get to. It’s also cold, airless, and exposed to harmful radiation from space. But these obstacles could all be overcome in time. The important thing is getting there.

The Earth is now home to more than seven billion people. Collectively, they own and operate some 1.2 billion motor vehicles. Sixty million new cars are built each year, with metals pulled from the planet’s crust and rubber wrenched from its rainforests. Most of them run on fossil fuels, which are probably, at least in the solar system, unique to Earth. There won’t be any fossil fuels on Mars, because there probably weren’t any plants, let alone plant-eating dinosaurs.

The machines we’ve sent to Mars and the other planets come from the same place all those cars do. They are made of Earth-stuff. To go into space, humanity had to first invent heavy industry. Two centuries of heavy industry have begun to change the planetary climate in ways that we are just beginning to see.

But the inner solar system is abundant with materials. And, because of our ability to extract stuff from the earth and turn it into spaceships, we can now get there. Mars is closer to the main body of the asteroid belt, and asteroids are rich in metals. Even the surface of the moon contains usable stuff. The sun provides the energy, which small nuclear reactors could augment. In the future, much of the building material for space missions will come from space itself.

On Mars, if we don’t find any indigenous life, a little man-made global warming might be a good thing. Mars does have an atmosphere, though it’s tenuous and mostly made up of carbon dioxide. But if we could somehow make more air, a small greenhouse effect would take hold and the planet would begin to warm. Subsurface ice would thaw. Lichens and other hardy plants could be introduced alongside industrial sites. Eventually, through a process called terraforming, the air could become breathable – in a thousand or so years.

But what if the process could be sped up by the introduction of cars? From what I’ve seen, a lot of Mars looks like New Mexico, minus the cactus. New Mexico isn’t at all unpleasant to drive through, though it is kind of eerie in its emptiness.

Those places are disappearing on Earth. Seven billion people in more than a billion vehicles can get just about anywhere. But Mars remains largely unexplored. Most of what we know about the place comes from a few friends with wheels: Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity.

The car has beaten humankind to Mars. Perhaps the rovers should bear plaques that read: “We came in peace for vehicles everywhere.”

The last man to drive on a world other than Earth, Eugene Cernan, died in January at the age of 82. He and geologist Harrison Schmidt explored their lunar landing site in a rover that looked like a dune buggy. Cernan had piloted the lunar module to within ten miles of the surface in the dress rehearsal Apollo 10 mission, and returned as commander of Apollo 17. When he stepped into the lunar module for the final time on December 19, 1972, it marked the end of an era. Human beings have not been back to the moon since.

But we sure have manufactured a lot of cars. Imagine if we diverted a quarter of that mass and energy to space. We could build space stations and mining ships. We could ensure our long-term future by inhabiting multiple worlds. We could have walkable cities here on Earth, and introduce industry and motor vehicles to Mars, releasing greenhouse gases on a planet where climate change would be welcome.

Will We Build Metric Highways on Mars?

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On Interstate 19 in Arizona, which connects the city of Tucson with the Mexican border at Nogales, the signs are in kilometers. According to CNN, America’s only metric highway is a remnant of the Jimmy Carter era, when the idea of adopting the metric system in the United States was briefly taken seriously.

Every country in the world – almost – uses the metric system. And everyone knows why: the math is easier. All you have to do to convert between units is move the decimal point. It’s the world’s official system of measurement. Our American inch is defined in statute as precisely 2.54 centimeters.

The metric system is the one part of the French Revolution to sweep the world. Today, the only remaining non-metric countries are Liberia (founded by American slaves who returned to Africa), Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and the United States.

My late friend Dave Alvernaz once suggested to me that the metric system hadn’t caught on here because it lacked the conceptual equivalent of a foot. Your foot is always there at the end of your leg, he pointed out, available to stick into a box or pace off a room. Three of them make a yard, and most of us are between five and seven feet tall. It’s a utilitarian measurement, based on the human body.

The metric system is based on the size of the Earth. The original definition of a meter was one ten-millionth (10-7) the distance along a meridian from the equator to the pole. Because not even this distance is constant (Earth bulges in different places), the official definition of a meter has since been tied to the speed of light. This is important to scientists and engineers seeking exact measurements of small distances on the atomic scale and large distances between the planets and stars.

All space missions have used the metric system since the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in November 1999. Designed to orbit Mars and monitor its weather, the ship burned up in the Martian atmosphere. According to Wired magazine: “A NASA review board found that the problem was in the software controlling the orbiter’s thrusters. The software calculated the force the thrusters needed to exert in pounds of force. A separate piece of software took in the data assuming it was in the metric unit: newtons.”

The new National Geographic Network Series Mars, set in the near future, uses entirely metric units. When the crew landed 75 kilometers from base camp, I had to calculate: “Okay, so a little less than fifty miles…”

Based on a decimal fraction of the size of the Earth, the metric system makes no more intrinsic sense on Mars than miles and feet. But it’s the easiest system to use, and it’s already the one in use by a majority of humankind. Perhaps if we had listened to Jimmy Carter 40 years ago, the Mars Climate Orbiter would not have crashed, and I would know my height in centimeters.

Like most Americans, I think in inches, feet and miles. Using the metric system is like learning a new language, something else Americans are notoriously reluctant to do.

The car culture, too, has its own language and patterns of thought, which make it difficult to change. We think of longer distances not in terms of miles but driving times: Bangor is two hours from Portland and four from Boston. It’s assumed that we are not talking about airplanes or bicycles. Car travel is part of our unspoken collective consciousness.

When I stopped using a car as my primary form of transportation, I found that I thought about the pattern of the day differently. How long did it take to walk to the bus stop? What did I need to take with me? How was the weather? When did the last bus leave downtown? What time did the sun set?

I recently saw the film Arrival. It was ostensibly about aliens but it was really about language. With a nod to Kurt Vonnegut, the film postulates that if humans can learn the aliens’ language deeply enough to think in it, they can see the Universe from a different perspective. Language drives perception, as much as vice versa.

I thought about that in the days after watching the film. And I thought that if we could begin to talk about cars and time and distance differently, without all the popular assumptions, we could perhaps begin to conceive of another way to live.