Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What I love about Messier 42


This is a photo from the Hubble Space Telescope of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42). The Orion Nebula is an example of a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Observations of the nebula have revealed approximately 700 stars in various stages of formation.

But what I really love so much about the Orion Nebula is how readily available it is to all of us in the northern Hemisphere. So many of the other jaw-dropping photos from the Hubble Space Telescope seem somehow disconnected from us here on the ground. For all we know they could just be mediocre video game simulations.

But not the Orion Nebula, it is different. It seems so REAL because you can see it for yourself through binoculars or even with the naked eye. You just need to know where to look (For the more astrologically inclined see this fictitious version then lose the superstition - please).

The Orion Nebula appears as a faint smudge of light around the middle star of Orion’s sword. It's 1,500 light-years away but here's the thing... there is nothing between you and it – NOTHING! With a long enough tongue, you could reach out and lick it. It is real and visible proof that stellar alchemy happens. That is where you came from and it's proof positive that science kicks-ass!

For a freaking fabulous tour of the Orion Nebula click here…and here is a cool visualization too.

Now get out there and taste that hydrogen!

10 orbits on

We've been 10 times around the sun without him.

Have you ever noticed that there are just some people who seemed to be especially "changed" by Carl Sagan? Those who go so “ga-ga” over him, that even ten years after his death, they still blog, gush, and talk nearly incessantly about him? And these are often the people least likely to otherwise worship, idolize, or even get excited about a professional athlete, celebrity, rock star, authority or politician.

I’m one of those people. My life-trajectory was tugged and defined by the gravity of Carl Sagan. He gave all of us reasons to cherish the pale blue dot and “all that ever was or is or ever will be.” He personified the Cosmos – literally. A gifted scientist, communicator, dad, and human being, he moved millions to see.

But what’s more incredible than how many he did move, is how many have somehow missed the message. Because make no mistake - and he would be the first to admit – his legacy is about the message not the man. As endearing as he was, this is not a cult of personality, but of the Cosmos.

Carl Sagan articulated poetic and accessible accounts of reality that were so beautiful and simple that once you understood what he was saying, you would never see the world the same way again. Everything was meaningful and awesome. So ask yourself if you understand what he was saying. Do you have any idea what you are missing? Please, take some time to get to know what Carl Sagan was telling us. So many smart, thoughtful, and loving people can't be wrong. I invite you to join the club.

I often wonder how much better our world be if he were still here to offer his insights and guidance. But he is gone. And the rest of us who did hear him can only forge ahead, doing what we can to open people’s eyes.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Scientist's Christmas

Last night I was walking through Harvard Square and noticed these awesome Christmas lights hanging above the street:

Here is a spiral galaxy, complete with blue "star-forming regions"

Here, a neutron star with its "cometary knots"

Ok, so maybe the cometary knots take a bit of imagination. But actually I see a lot more than that.

In those twinkling lights I see purely rational, purely natural reasons to love thy enemy, to do onto others, cherish life, teach peace, and practice compassion - you know, all those Christmassy ideas.

When I look up and see these lights I get a warm, fuzzy feeling... Because to me, these secular decorations are the expression of a community with something grander and more beautiful to celebrate than bronze-age myths. They recognize and respect that our origins are tied to cosmic events much longer ago and further away - but still very much ours.

I have to wonder, is this what the so-called culture warriors are worried about? That people like me will see these non-religious displays and...well and what? Are these lights, these ideas, the "War on Christmas?"

I see them as an acknowledgment that our natural heritage extends the story and values of Christmas with an additional 14 billion years of meaning. Meaning that even its namesake could not have appreciated given the knowledge of the day.

These decorations tell a story that still allows a covenant - a covenant with mystery. A scientist's Christmas has humility and dignity both. It is humble enough to admit that our knowledge of the sacred will always be incomplete, without the need to declare "war" on anything but ignorance. There is plenty of mystery to celebrate and plenty of ignorance to fear - Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

little Buddah

Maybe you've noticed that the term "weep" has been showing up a lot in my posts and thoughts over the past few days.

Saturday started typically. Up early, checking the surf reports and on-line cams. A low was pulling offshore and if I rushed, I thought I might catch the tail end of a swell.

When I got to my new "secret spot" it looked like I was too late. Just to cold to suit up for the "ankle biters" zipping along the shore. No worries though. I could just head into the town of Portsmouth, NH, settle into a coffee shop and chip away at a script I've been working on. It deals with all that's wrong in the world, and how we might make it right. Heavy stuff that's hard to find hope for.

Eight hours later I was distracted by some commotion outside and looked up from my computer to see the police putting up a baracade out front. The main street through town was being closed to make way for the annual Christmas Parade. It was cold outside and getting dark, and I was in a particularly somber mood, so I decided I'd stick around to watch. I'd just stroll around town to kill an hour or so.

In an uncharacteristic move, I ducked into a little curio gift shop called ganesh imports. It was mostly becuase it looked warm and interesting in there.

The first thing to catch my eye, was a little dish full of charms called "Weeping Buddahs".


When I picked one up, and looked at it closely, It hit me like a ton of bricks. I just knew exactly how that little guy was feeling. Look closely at it:

Maybe it's this script I'm working on. But that is how I felt. I bought one and left.

Walking around, i could not stop wondering why the little buddah was weeping. I went back to the store to ask. The girl behind the counter knew only that he was weeping for all that is wrong in the world. It made perfect sense.

So I bought another with the idea that i would give it to the first person who made me laugh.

As I watched the parade go by. I still felt very sad. That is until the antique car carrying Mrs. New Hampshire went by:

I'm not sure if you can tell by this cell phone photo, but snuggled up in the back seat of this car, Mrs. New Hampshire is waving to the crowd. but in the front seat, is a big boxer-type dog. I was laughing out loud as I took this photo (The yellow banner down below says "Mrs. New Hampshire".

Later that night, after the crowd had dispersed, I started to make my way back to my car. As I passed by the coffee shop, I noticed a boxer-type dog sitting on the sidewalk. I went up to say hello. As I looked up, there was Mrs. New Hampshire, inside sipping hot chocolate (along with a guy I assumed was Mr. New Hampshire). I went in to give her the little Buddah.

Mr. New Hampshire snapped this funny photo that still makes me laugh:

I never told her exactly why.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Carl Sagan Portal

Ann Druyan, is the peak of my pyramid of heroes.

Just noticed the newly-released Carl Sagan Portal page. Be prepared to read it and weep.

The Creepy Gene

In my last post, I used the last few seconds of a video clip to reveal what I thought to be the hidden motivations of a secular leader (Richard Dawkins).

Ok to be fair, I should probably do the same for a religious leader. This is a clip from a documentary shot a few months before the inner motivations of Ted Haggard became known.


Ted Haggard is (or was) a highly regarded preacher of the "New Life" mega-church in Colorado. To check out his latest exploits read the news or just Google Ted Haggard. I know, I know, an easy target - just couldn't resist.