Settler as imagined in the National Geographic Mars series.

Settler as imagined in the National Geographic Mars series.

In our movies and novels, the Moon or Mars is usually the other place for humans to live in our solar system. It seems more fiction than reality, but they are closer and more hospitable compared to Mercury and Venus.

I’m watching the Mars series on the National Geographic channel now. Turns out, despite movies, books and TV shows, the Moon and Mars have no protective magnetosphere or atmosphere and that makes them lousy choices for colonies. Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR), the energetic particles from distant supernovae, bombard both places and humans just can’t live long-term under those conditions.

I was surprised to see an article at scientificamerican.com that says that beyond Mars, the next best potential home is among the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are dozens of those and it seems that the best option is Saturn’s largest moon Titan. It is the most Earthlike body  in our system.

 

titan

Composite infrared image of Saturn’s moon Titan from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Titan is the only other body in the solar system with liquid on the surface. These are not watering or fishing holes though. They are lakes of methane and ethane. It rains methane on Titan.

Titan has a nitrogen atmosphere 50 percent thicker than Earth’s for protection. There are vast quantities of hydrocarbons in solid and liquid form on the surface that can be used for energy.

No oxygen in the atmosphere, but water ice just below the surface could be used to provide oxygen for breathing and to combust hydrocarbons as fuel.

You’ll need warm clothing with your respirators. It’s cold on Titan. How does  -180°C (-291°F) sound? But the plus of that thick atmosphere is that if you are a Titanian you won’t need pressure suits.

We can build shelters of plastic produced from the plentiful resources there. Nice domes inflated by warm oxygen and nitrogen would give us huge indoor spaces.

Titan’s weak gravity and thick atmosphere would allow you to leap easily and maybe even fly with some type of wings on your back. Falling would be gentle.

But don’t pack your suitcases just yet. Currently, we can’t really get to Titan or even Mars. We need faster propulsion to limit the time in space and those doses of GCR. The trip currently would take seven years.

As Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix, authors of Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, say:

There is no quick way to move off the Earth. We will have to solve our problems here. But if our species continues to invest in the pure science of space exploration and the stretch technology needed to preserve human health in space, people will eventually live on Titan.

 

The massive Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating. In this photo a developing forest can be seen above the glacier illustrating how the Mendenhall landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo courtesy of The National Science Foundation. Durelle Scott.

The Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating and the landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo: National Science Foundation -Durelle Scott via Flickr

The election is over. Lots of talk about immigration and personal digs about the candidates. Not much talk about climate change other than saying superficially that we need to stop it or that it’s a Chinese hoax.

Part of the problem is that it is at least partially a social science issue. Of course, there is a lot of scientific research, but research on why people believe that research or reject it is a whole other area of research. That is because climate change is not only a scientific issue but one that is political, social and cultural.

Why did “global warming” fall out of favor and get replaced by “climate change” if the main problem is that the Earth’s atmosphere land and water is warming due to manmade changes?  That’s all political, social and cultural.

How many times have you heard someone say (jokingly or seriously) on a very cold or snowy day “So much for global warming!” That is because we are hardwired to focus on the short-term. That is the position of George Marshall, Director of Projects at Climate Outreach and author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.  “We tend to discount […] things happening in the future the further away they are,” says Marshall.

George Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network and has worked for twenty-five years in the environmental movement. I heard him on an episode of NPR’s podcast Hidden BrainOn that episode, “Losing Alaska”, they visited the shrinking Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to consider why it is so hard for people to come to terms with explore why it’s so difficult for us to wrap our heads around climate change.

I agree with Marshall’s take on why some people ignore our changing environment and the explanation for it. It’s not the science. It’s more about confirmation bias, present-time focus, social conformity, group think, procrastination and valuing the messenger over the message. It’s rational versus emotional brains.

 

A dictionary might say that to observe is to notice or perceive something, and register it as being significant. It’s that second half that makes observation more than just seeing.

I try to be observant. I try to pay attention to nature and to what is happening in the sky above. “Observations” and “Celestial Observations” are categories on this site.

One way I do that is to participate in the National Phenology Network. One thing they developed is Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations by researchers, students and just plain old volunteers like myself.

Phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year. That means flowering, emergence of insects and the migration of birds or mammals with a particular interest in their timing and relationship with weather and climate.

I was drawn to this because of the idea of things like observing the migration of birds and how the timing relates with weather and climate.

This year the Network had 2 million records submitted.

I don’t live in a wildlife paradise, but there is a surprising amount of plant life and wildlife in almost any neighborhood. In my home area, observing a bobcat is possible but unusual. Observing the budding and blooms on rhododendrons is easy.

As a citizen scientist, observing the rare or the common is important.

bobcat-lynx_rufususda-cc3

Photo: Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

rhododendron_maximumcc4

Photo: © Ben Carter via iNaturalist.org. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) License

With plants, you observe the same individual plants each time you visit your observation site, which could be your neighborhood or a nearby woods. For example, you could observe the same red maple in your backyard all through the year.

With animals, you create a checklist of animal species and look for all of them each time you visit your site. For example, if your checklist has robins, wood frogs, and tent caterpillars on it, you should record whether or not you see or hear those species anywhere in your site each time you visit.

You can choose one or more species from the Network’s list of plant and animal species. For plants, they would like you to select at least one plant campaign species. For animals, they recommend that you select several species that occur in your local area or in your state.

It is not difficult. It will help tune you in to the world around you and share it in a useful way to a larger effort.

time-travel

We need time travel.

I have read in several places that before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine no one had considered time travel. Unless you’re talking just about literature, I find that hard to believe. Does that mean that no one thought about the “what if” of being able to go back and undo or redo something? No one considered the advantage of being able to shoot ahead in time to see what was to become in order to prepare for it or prevent it?

It’s common today for literature and film to use time travel for all the reasons that any of us consider its possibilities. We want to see history. Nostalgia. We want to change history. We want to see the future. Perhaps, the future will give us hope. It may make us fearful and we will want to change the future. Time is a mystery.

If Wells invented time travel in 1895, he preceded Albert Einstein’s work by a few years. I’d love it if someone found evidence that Einstein read The Time Machine. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity allows for time travel, though not in a very satisfying way.

Space and time are really aspects of the same thing—space-time. There’s a speed limit of 300,000 kilometers per second (or 186,000 miles per second) for anything that travels through space-time, and light always travels the speed limit through empty space.

If  you could move through space-time and your speed relative to other objects is close to the speed of light, then time goes slower for you than for the people you left behind. Not exactly what most of us think of when you say “time travel.” You won’t notice this effect until you return to those people who were not traveling with you.

This kind of time travel was part of the movie Interstellar. Suppose you were able to travel at the speed of light. They put you on this spacecraft when you are 15 years old and you leave your life on Earth. You travel for five years and at age 20 you come back to Earth. Those kids you left in high school are now 65 years old. You missed the prom and a whole lot more from the past 50 years.

Did you time travel to the future? You seem closer to being Rip Van Winkle than a spaceman. In Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” he does the same thing. No time machine or speed needed. He drinks some strange liquor owned by the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew and it knocks him out for about 20 years. He returns home and his now-grown daughter takes him in. Oddly, he seems little changed by the experience.

It happens that way to Woody Allen’s character in Sleeper and to the astronaut in Planet of the Apes.

He resumes his usual idleness, and his strange tale is solemnly taken to heart by the Dutch settlers.

traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest

Time travel helps us cope with a varity of anxieties. Science historian James Gleick explores wrote Time Travel: A History which is part history and part Einstein thought experiment mixing physics, literature and philosophy.

Isn’t it strange that H.G. Wells, who was so interested in history, only had his time machine travel to the future? Did he give thought to the looping paradoxes of traveling back and changing the past so that you didn’t exist in the future and therefore couldn’t have traveled back and changed things?

Do you ever have the feeling that you’re stuck in a time loop? I’ve written before about my love for the film Groundhog Day. First you feel bad for Bill Murray’s character and he lopps through the same day over and over. But eventually he gets things to work “correctly” and is able to move on.

If all that is too frivolous, then move on to Stephen Hawking. He once, quite unscientifically, hosted a party for time travelers. No one showed up. Where are those people from the future? maybe they are here but are being very careful not to change anything and so are being very, very covert.

John Archibald Wheeler popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole” and gave new hope to time travel literature and Dr. Who.

The wonderful podcast, To the Best of Our Knowledge, has done a bunch of stories on time travel. In one segment, they talked with someone who dreamed about creating a time machine as a child. His intent was to go back and save someone he lost. That child became a theoretical physicist and has spent a lot of his career studying time.

Currently, my time travel is limited to memory, photo albums and video excursions into the past. Nothing in the future so far. I was more in favor of time traveling as described in stories like Time and Again that didn’t require any machines.

When I first read about Einstein’s theories, I was disappointed. I imagined that my 19 year old self might travel back to when I was 9 years old and so have no memory of my present that had become the “future.” I would be trapped in a loop of growing up to 19, getting in the time machine, going back to age 9 and doing it over and over for eternity. I wouldn’t even remember that I had ever done it before. Or maybe I do remember some things. That would explain déjà vu.

Maybe we haven’t met any time travelers because we are all time travelers. We were sent back from some disastrous future and are reliving history over and over again in the hope that we can somehow change things and negate that disastrous future. The hope of time travel.

axe-chop

My first association if I hear “Norwegian wood” is the 1965 Beatles song on Rubber Soul. That album, and particularly “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” made a big impression on me when it was released.

My second association is a novel I read back in 2000: Norwegian Wood  by Haruki Murakami. At the start of that novel, the protagonist hears an orchestral cover of the Beatles’ song and it sends him to a place of loss, nostalgia, and back to the 1960s. I checked back on the book before I wrote here and discovered that the book’s original Japanese title, Noruwei no Mori, is how the Beatles song is translated and that it means more of a Norwegian forest (a wood) rather than wood as in furniture (which is what the song implies).

Mori or forest is the closer association in my third and newest association with Norwegian wood. This is the title of a Scandinavian publishing phenomenon that is not a Stieg Larsson thriller, but a kind of handbook for chopping, stacking and burning wood.

I first heard about this book on a podcast at the start of the year, but I only recently encountered the book on my local library’s shelf. Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting is a bestseller in Norway, Sweden and Britain.

It is ostensibly advice on how to heat your home with wood. But the way that it goes into the history and details of the very old traditions for cutting and stacking wood and our more primal passion for open fires, seems to have moved people beyond a how-to or DIY book to viewing it as a kind of book of practical philosophy.

I have skimmed the book and learned about Scandinavian culture and more about the chopping, stacking and drying processes than I probably need. My home did have a wood stove years ago, but we got rid of it when my sons first came into our lives – fears of burns. I have a firepit now and I readily admit to really enjoying making a fire and sitting next to it with a drink and just staring at the flames.

But how does a book about chopping and burning wood become a bestseller? How many of you reading this have a desire to learn how to build a smokeless fire? It seems that the appeal is at least half in the parts that are less about making that fire. For example, he offers advice about choosing a husband based on his wood pile.

“It’s a very common thing among older Norwegian men to create this enormous monument of firewood that outlives them, and also a very nice heritage that they leave behind.” With a bit of woodpile envy in mind, size matters and so does creating a “sculptural stack.” In Scandinavia, local papers run competitions to find the best woodpiles.

Lars Mytting covers all the phases through gathering the wisdom of growers, choppers, stackers and burners. He covers the science of tree culture and of combustion. I suppose there is some “renewable energy” interest in all this, though fires are quite polluting, especially if built poorly.

I think the real bestseller broader appeal is more of a meditation on the human instinct for survival, and a call back to some part of us that has mostly died out. These ideas might rekindle a spark of the neolithic you hiding inside.

Who doesn’t love sitting by a campfire or fireplace? We even get into fake fireplaces and flames and have watched a Yule log burning on video. A Norwegian television program based on the book aired in 2013 and they followed the show with a six-hour video of an open fire in a hut. Along the way, it had a million people tuned in. People were live-tweeting the logs burning and commenting that it was time to get on a new log, or suggesting they add more spruce or birch.

Lars Mytting was born in Fåvang, Norway in 1968. His “definitive wood-cutting bible” is a good fireside read as we enter late fall and winter and fireplace season.

I am more of what Mytting calls an “armchair wood chopper” as I don’t go out in the woods with an axe or keep a stack in the backyard. But, as the author’s neighbor told him, “a wood fire is about so much more than heat.” Luckily, my Paradelle neighborhood never gets down to the -30C mark, but I get great comfort from the firepit even on a cool 70F summer night, and I love the smell of fresh-cut wood.

And I still want to cut logs and build a little cabin one day. It will have to have a little wood stove or fireplace too.

 

The scent of fresh wood
is among the last things you will forget
when the veil falls.
The scent of fresh white wood
in the spring sap time
as though life itself walked by you,
with dew in its hair.
– Hans Børli

indiancorn

I always knew it as Indian corn, but this year I wondered if that was politically correct or even accurate.

It would more accurately be called Flint corn (Zea mays var. indurata) and sometimes as calico corn. It is a variant of maize, the same species as common corn. For this variety, each kernel has a hard outer layer that is compared to flint.

Flint corn has become a symbol of harvest season and these multicolored ears often adorn doors and centerpieces.

Did you know that corn does not grow wild anywhere in the world? It is a domesticated plant that evolved sometime in the last 10,000 years. Its original form was teosinte, a form of wild Mexican grass.

Good old troublemaker Christopher Columbus brought corn to Europe in the late 1400s. The American Indians used it as a dietary staple and the colonists learned how to cultivate it from them.

The most commonly grown kind of corn in America is dent or field corn which is used to feed livestock, for the manufacture of industrial products and processed foods. It is a yellow or white corn and it is called dent for the indentation that appears on the outside of its mature kernels.

We eat sweet corn (also yellow and white), which can be cooked and eaten right on the cob, and is also sold canned or frozen. Like dent corn, its kernels are usually yellow or white.

Flint corn, or Indian corn, is one of the oldest varieties of corn and is white, blue and red. It has  very low water content and so it is more resistant to freezing than other vegetables. The kernels have a bit of soft starch surrounded by hard starch, so they dry and shrink uniformly and are less prone to spoiling. It is type of corn ideal for harvesty décor, but it is also consumed by livestock and for people it can be used for hominy and polenta.

Popcorn is Zea mays everta meaning “corn turned inside out” and is considered a variant of Indian corn.

And Indian corn is a historically accurate name.

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