Tag Archive 'astronomy'

Jan 26 2016

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Cosmos Book in Print

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ICI’m pleased to announce that The Impossible Cosmos is now in print. I received the first shipment of books yesterday and wasted no time making it available at the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon as both a paperback and an ebook.

Some of you have been listening to me talk about the cosmos for over a decade, ever since I got serious about astronomy and acquired a 4.5-inch Newtonian telescope. Well, here’s the whole story, from my first gaze skyward to crazed galaxy hunting. Plenty of speculation about the universe, as well – both mine and those of priests, philosophers and scientists since the beginning of civilization.

Space is the ultimate wilderness. It is Nature on a grand scale. In my longstanding quest to understand our place in the natural world, it only made sense that I would eventually turn skyward. What’s surprising is how quickly and easily I found my inner geek in the process.

For those of you who are waiting for another hiking narrative, I’m sorry to disappoint. At one point in this book I am silly enough to haul my telescope into the mountains for better viewing, but most of the action takes place in my back yard.

Here’s everything you always wanted to know about the cosmos but were afraid to ask. A good place to start, anyhow. My narrative stretches from the constellations to the latest developments in astrophysics. Fun stuff, if you don’t mind having your head explode every once in a while. So then, if you’re up for it, check out my book.



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May 22 2014

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Abstractions and the Cosmos

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AndromedaGalaxyLate May, when the world is all green and flowers are blooming, seems like a lousy time of year to immerse oneself in cosmic abstractions. Only a fool would venture deep into space and philosophical speculations about the nature of the universe while a balmy breeze is caressing the moist earth. I am guilty as charged.

A little over a month ago, I pulled out my cosmos manuscript, mothballed for eight years, and started revising it. I’m about three-fourths of the way through that process now, having worked like a madman on it early each morning as robins sing mindlessly outside my window. It’s a passion out of sync with the season, I must confess.

Though few people see it that way, I consider my mad scribblings about cosmology a form of nature writing. After all, the universe is the ultimate wilderness where the nature of things plays out on a grand scale. It seems silly to me to discuss the meaning and purpose of our lives here on this planet without considering the big picture. All the same, I look forward to being a little more down to earth in the near future getting all sweaty, dirty and bug-bitten again in deep woods. Just have to wrap up this draft first.


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Dec 12 2013

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Back into the Cosmos

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telescopeThe urge to further explore the cosmos is coming back to me. When the night sky is clear, I can’t help but look skyward and marvel at the universe. Not long ago, I pulled out my binoculars and revisited the Andromeda Galaxy. More recently, I went to the Astronomy Picture of the Day website and checked out the incredible photos there. I think it’s time to crack open some cosmology books, dust off my telescope, and let the cogs in my head whirl about once again.

I reviewed my cosmos manuscript the other day, clicking into it after a short round of writing. What I found there got me thinking. It’s pretty good for being an early draft. Why not finish it?

I abandoned the cosmos manuscript years ago. At that time I couldn’t justify putting a year of work into something that would be difficult to market. After all, I’m no expert in the field. But I have a passion for the subject and that’s reason enough to finish the book. Besides, I am ready to have my mind blown again.

Cosmology is not for the faint of heart. The wild universe, hidden in plain sight, undermines any complacent understanding of things. Do not go there if you like having your feet planted firmly in some comfortable worldview. I have delved deep into the matter only to have my head explode, time and again. It’s intellectually thrilling yet exhausting. If you have ever pondered the big bang, red shifts, black holes, or dark matter, then you know what I’m talking about.

Unlike most people with a scientific bent, I do not look skyward and say, “God is dead.” On the contrary, I find in the night sky affirmation that we live in an ordered universe, that it is not all chaos and random occurrences. One look at a spiral galaxy is proof enough to me that some organizing force is at work. Gravity alone defies chance.  But what is really going on out there? Like I said, the subject isn’t for the faint of heart… or the simple minded.


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Jan 13 2011

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Planetary Awareness

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Recently my doctor prescribed an antibiotic for me that had to be taken four times a day.  I chose four easy times to remember: first thing in the morning, noon, dusk, and bedtime.  My wife Judy laughed when she heard this.  “Dusk?” she said incredulously, “Most people go by the clock.”  Perhaps so.  But dusk is a major event in my day.  Especially during the winter.

Dusk is when the world takes on a decidedly spiritual aspect, when it is easiest to comprehend the simple fact that we live on a planet.  On cloudy days this fact can be overlooked, but a clear or partly clear sky makes it hard to ignore.   At such times, the sun sets in a blaze of glory, the moon shows itself, and the first stars come out.  Sometimes it is quite the show.

At dusk I often stop whatever I’m doing and take a moment to acknowledge what is happening to the physical world.  My dog, Matika, is finely tuned to my habits and usually gets excited around this time of day.  She knows that we’ll be going out soon, and if she’s lucky I’ll toss the ball for her a few times while gazing towards the sky.  But not always.  Sometimes I like to just stand in the middle of the yard, taking it all in.

A few years back, when I dove into astronomy with reckless abandon, I eagerly awaited dusk.  When conditions were just right – clear sky with a late moonrise – I would set up my telescope just as the sun was setting.  While twilight faded, I would print star charts from my computer and map a route to some incredible deep-sky object: a nebula, star cluster or galaxy.  Now I’m not quite so fanatical about my viewing.  All the same, I still cultivate planetary awareness on a regular basis.  After all, it’s so easy to do at dusk.

During my brief sojourn in the Alaskan bush many years back, I enjoyed one sunset that seemed to go on for hours.  It was high summer and sun dipped beneath the horizon with great reluctance.  Then I experienced with full force the reality of being a creature living on a planet.  It might seem like a silly thing to say, but when you truly feel your presence on a sphere spinning on its axis, just being alive in this world seems absolutely remarkable.  The sky is suddenly a window to the cosmos, and planet that you inhabit is incredibly fecund.  Even in the dead of winter there trees, bushes and other kinds of vegetation patiently waiting for spring.  Even when this world seems cold, dark and hostile, the air you breathe seems to be made for you.

This is my planet, I often tell myself at dusk as if uttering a prayer.  This is the exact place in the universe where I belong.  And no matter how alienated I might become during the course of daily events, nothing can take this sense of belonging away from me.  I am a man on Earth and that is enough.  Everything else is superfluous.

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Sep 23 2009

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Greater Nature

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Judy and I were returning home from a late dinner out the other day when we looked up and saw the Milky Way splayed across the sky.  No moon, not even the wisp of a cloud anywhere, and the sun was long gone.  Thousands of stars glittered overhead.  Judy suggested that I pull out my telescope for a quick look.  I noticed that there were no bugs out and the air temperature was nearly ideal, so I did just that.

I pointed the instrument at the brightest object in the southeastern sky, thinking it could be Jupiter.  Sure enough, it was.  Once I centered that planet and its four biggest moons in the eyepiece, Judy took a look.  I told her that she was seeing what Galileo saw with his telescope four hundred years ago: another planet and its satellites – the first hard evidence that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe.  I think she was impressed, not so much by my words but by the image itself.  Yeah, when it comes to astronomy, seeing really is believing.

Judy has encouraged my stargazing over the years but hasn’t taken much interest in it herself.  Quickly sweeping through the sky, I looked for nebulae, recalling how impressive they looked to me when I first saw them.  I wanted to wow my wife.  I had no star map in hand, though, so I gave up that hunt before Judy lost all interest.  I went looking for Andromeda Galaxy, instead.  The Great Square was in clear view directly overhead, so finding Andromeda wasn’t too hard.  All I had to do was follow a familiar path away from the Square with my binoculars.

When finally I got Andromeda Galaxy in sight, I showed it to Judy.  She saw only a fuzzy spot in the eyepiece.  I told her that was all she was going to see with my humble instrument, then reminded her that she was looking at an object two and a half million light years away.  Numbers like that are difficult for anyone to grasp, though, so I expounded:  When the light now reaching her eye left Andromeda, our ancestors were just starting to use stone tools.  But even that was a gross understatement.  Spacetime defies all description, really.  All we can do is approximate it.

Nature is all around us all the time – no farther away than the blades of grass underfoot, the bee buzzing past, or the breeze caressing our brows.  We have come to know it well through our senses, and nearly everyone knows intuitively the difference between what is natural and what is man-made.  But there’s a greater nature out there that requires our reasoning skills as well as our senses to understand, where the boundary between the concrete and the abstract is blurred, where cosmic forces are hard at work and objects are much, much farther away than they appear.  I for one can’t gaze deep into the night sky without thinking about God, about nature with a capital “N.”  Someday I will wander aimlessly through that wilderness as I do the woods.  Someday I will wander and wonder without physical restriction.  Someday.

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