In the shadow of the moon

I saw the eclipse, the total eclipse, and though I’ve seen pictures and knew what would happen, no words or pictures can match the effect of being there.

It begins slowly, a sliver of the sun gone black, a sense of surreality at seeing such a common fixture in the sky and our psychology shifting that way.

Then you begin to notice the light is dimming. It’s around 10 am but it feels like the sun is about to set. It is setting, in a way.

Then you realize that there is hardly any heat on your face anymore. The sun is cold, a winter sun. It gives off chill, thin light that fails to warm your forehead as you stare at the thinning crescent.

Then the moment comes, when you watch that crescent turned line turned dying ember finally blink out–and an instant later, the halo of white, ethereal flames surrounding the black void disk of the moon. The sky is that of twilight, all around you the horizon appears like a sunset. And that strange white light and preternaturally black disk hangs above you like some alien vision. You’re laughing, you’re cheering, you’re putting your hands on your head and jaw hanging open. You feel some connection with something huge, and brief, and singular and completely out of your or anyone’s control or design.

Then, a white flare like magnesium from a single point on the black disk, and the sky lights up with the triumphant return of the sun.

These words are not enough, you have to experience it. You’ll feel a thrill of elation, emotion, of knowing that you witnessed an event that in the past brought millions to their knees, spawned religions and cults and ended rulers and tyrants, and shifted human events that we will never know.

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Going to the Eclipse

I will see the total eclipse on the 21st! I will have to sleep in my car and drive for many hours, but I will see it!

I’ve never seen one, and can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for ancient peoples who had no idea what was going on. I’m sure total eclipses spawned religions like meat draws hornets…

The fear, the awe, the beauty… all of it combined must have driven people mad thinking the world was over. What did they do in those minutes of darkness?

Maybe I’ll find out next week…

Total eclipse on the way

On August 21 of this year, those of us in North America will get a total solar eclipse–the first in 38  years.

And it’s going right past my house!

Well not really, but within driving distance. I’m seriously considering a road trip to Portland for the best view. I’ve never seen a sight like this and wont likely have another chance to in my life, so gotta go for it!

It is Portland though, with 90% chance of clouds on any given day, so maybe I should take a longer trip over to Idaho or Wyoming…

The Martian (2015)

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is an accurate, thrilling survival story that for ONCE portrays scientists as normal human beings (even cool, likable ones!), instead of amoral villains, sociopaths, socially crippled nerds, or emotionless robots.

Problem solving is the hero of this edge-of-your-seat thriller, and realism is king. I don’t have degree in any of the many fields of science featured in the story, but I have seen a lot of sci fi movies, and the usual Hollywood nonsense for the sake of drama was nowhere to be found. The laws of physics are followed, meaning communication takes time. Travel takes time too, it takes MONTHS to get to Mars, and this is not glossed over but is a major factor in the plot. The precision and timing of orbits and their effect on launches is taken into account as well.

Not only is the science great, but the acting and the excitement is right there as well. You might worry, hearing how accurate everything is, that the actual story and characters would suffer. Well, they don’t. I will admit that the Watney character’s quirkey sarcasm is a bit groan worthy at times, but that matches well with the character of the book–and what should we expect from a NASA botanist, anyway?

Damon’s performance is really good, considering he rarely interacts with anyone else in the film, and has to do a lot of monologues which could have easily gone awkward. The others are great as well, a really strong cast of well built characters, which it is clear some time went into creating even though they weren’t the focus of the movie.

The space scenes looked amazing, on a level with Gravity, and the Martian landscape was perfect. Just the right level of otherworldly meshed with the familiar red dunes and rocks that we all know.

This is not your regular action movie. There are no villains besides nature, and there is a lot of science and not much traditional action until the very end. But if you are a fan of hard sci fi, or realism, or just good, thoughtful action movies, you definitely have to give this one a shot.

This is close to being my favorite movie I’ve seen this year, but I think Mad Max still beats it out by a hair.

Check it out!

Gravity

I watched this thrilling sci fi movie while on a plane over the ocean, and the turbulence really added to the tense feel of it.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts working on repairing the Hubble telescope, when an accident sends them into a dire situation.

There is a kind of deep, uneasy fear that comes from watching someone tumble into the empty void of space, with nothing to reach for or hold on to. It is like the fear of falling that is hardwired in our animal brain–but slower, more horrible. This movie tantalizes you with that unease throughout. Constantly, someone is nearly slipping into a never ending fall to a slow death.

This film is beautiful–amazing really. To the point where I don’t really understand how it was done. Not that I’m an expert on special effects, but I found it stunning. When eye-widening sights are combined with a story you can actually follow and characters you care about, the result is powerful. We get one, 90 minute long action sequence, where you’re on the edge of your seat for most of it, and feeling for the characters the whole time.

I really liked the simplicity of this film. It is cut down to the basics–two people trapped in space trying not to die. There is no mystery, no puzzling villain with undecipherable motivations, no nonsensical plot twists, brow-furrowing betrayals. It is pure and clear action with an understandable plot. It is easy to underestimate how much of a bonus it is to have a clear plot and character motivations!

This was very enjoyable to watch, and felt much shorter than its already short (these days anyway) 90 minutes. I’d probably even watch it again at some point.

Recommended to anyone interested in space travel, sci fi, or just a good, tense thriller.

Check it out!

Europa

NASA’s budget for 2016 was announced on Monday, and within the 18.5 billion they received, is 30 million specifically for a robotic mission to Europa.

Europa has always been the hot spot for the possibility of life in our solar system, and now we may be able to catch a glimpse of anything living beneath the frozen oceans of the moon.

This started me thinking about what would happen if we really did discover life there. Life of any kind. How would it affect the psyche of the world, knowing that we are not alone? How would it affect religions and philosophies?

I tried to think about how it would affect me. Would I be changed, knowing that there was other life, completely alien from anything I knew before, that had sprung up spontaneously in the same way I, and every other living thing I’ve encountered, did?

I think it would make me feel awed, in the true sense of the word. I get a little tingling in my gut, thinking about it, a glimmer of how huge and old and completely unknowable the universe is. It feels strange, and a bit scary, but also comforting in a weird way.

Would such a discovery make the rest of the world feel this way? Or would they brush it off, joke about it, minimize it, or outright deny it? Or would it be met with a collective ‘huh, that’s interesting’ and be old, forgotten news in a few weeks?

I don’t know anymore. I feel like it should be momentous, it should be history making, the biggest event in modern science and something unforgettable and world shaking. But maybe these things aren’t important to most people. You cant interview a microbe or fish-like thing beneath ice on a moon four-hundred million miles away. Maybe it would only mean anything to scientists or sci fi fans.

I’d like to think not, though. I’d like to think that kind of news would draw humanity together in collective amazement, and joy at such a discovery. I’d like to think it would make us all better people.

But maybe I’m just an idealist.

Anyway, we’ll have to actually get to Europa first! Right now a launch date of 2022 is in the works. I’ll be watching excitedly as the mission is planned, implemented and executed over the coming years.

AI to End the Human Race?

You may have read one or more articles today about dire warnings from scientists about AI. This is because Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others have signed an open letter detailing their concerns about the advancement of artificial intelligence technology.

If you read the letter, you will see that it is much along the lines of ‘lets be very careful what we use this for’ instead of the ‘oh god the machines will kill us!’ that I’m sure many articles will try to portray it as. This is to be expected, as the media profits from fear above all else.

Why do these things scare us, though? It is a common thread throughout science fiction: the creation destroys the creator. This is related in some part, I’m sure, to our constant fear of change and ‘the new’. But in this specific case, I think it is instead based on our unwillingness to consider our own mortality. Not as individuals, but as a species. Because the artificial intelligence that we one day create, may very well outlive the human race.

And I do not mean this in a the sense of a ‘robot uprising’ but based on the simple fact that our creations will be better suited to survive than us–because if they weren’t why else would we create them? We build robots to explore space, to travel to distant worlds, to endure things that we can’t ourselves endure. And technology allows us to improve them much, much faster than evolution can improve us.

I can see a day when our creations tour the stars, replicating and preparing worlds for us, doing all the things that we wish we could do ourselves. And all it would take is time, before humanity wanes and our children flourish without us.

And is that really something to fear? Do parents resent their children for progressing farther than they did, and try to hold them back? Maybe some parents do, but no one would call them good parents.

Good parents are proud of their children’s achievements, and are excited to see their children go where they always dreamed they could. And so should we be. If our artificial intelligences one day outlive us, out-perform us, and out-survive us, then I think that is something we should be proud of.