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With Comet Ison on the horizon (but out of sight until it finishes looping around the Sun), I thought it might be fun to re-run what I wrote here in 1997 (in my blog-before-there-were-blogs), about the last great comet to grace Earth’s skies. — Doc


 

Ordinary Miracles:
Start Your Day With Comet Hale-Bopp

Hale-Bopp

Graphic by Dr. Dale Ireland, whose excellent comet page is here.


By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say Ilooked and that maybe I saw something. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Finally, let’s not forget the kid, who was born between Hyuktake and Hale-Bopp. In this context the miracle of his arrival (to parents our age) seems almost ordinary.

Anyway, it might be fun to find the publicity coefficient of modern comets that at least get a little press. If the relationship is inverse, as I suspect, consider this modest page a bit of publicity prosthesis.

And don’t miss it. This may be the last comet you ever see.


Bonus links from the present:

West Fork Fire

On my way back to New York from Sydney on Wednesday, while flying east over the San Juan National Forest and the Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado, I shot what at first I though was a controlled burn, but later realized was the West Fork Fire. I knew it was a big one when I watched the smoke fan out to the east, starting with the San Luis Valley, where some of it pooled over the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and against the Sagre de Cristo Mountains. (Here are pictures of those in clearer conditions.)

But it went far beyond there, coloring the skies over Kansas and beyond. (More when I put up the rest of the photos from the trip.) Here is a story on the fire’s visibility from space. And here’s a link to a search for “West Fork Fire”.

Just discovered by Antipodr that Bermuda and Perth are antipodes: located at the exact other ends of the Earth from each other.

I’m in Melbourne, Australia, which is the antipode of a spot on the h of North Atlantic Ocean on Antipodr’s map. By the end of tomorrow I’ll be back in New York, a couple thousand miles west of there, after flying most of the way around the world on four different planes and three different airlines. New York’s antipode is a spot not far southwest of Australia — maybe about as far from the coast as Brisbane is from Sydney, as you can see from the upside-down image of North America on the amazing map around which this text wraps.

The map is from Wikimedia Commons, and illustrates perfectly how little land is antipodal from other land. The sum, in fact, is just 4%. As Wikipedia currently puts it, “The largest antipodal land masses are the Malay Archipelago, antipodal to the Amazon Basin and adjoining Andean ranges; east China and Mongolia, antipodal to Chile and Argentina; and Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, antipodal to East Antarctica.”

Click on the map three times and you’ll find yourself at a large version of the map that lets you discover these other antipodes:

Those last three are the sum of U.S. antipodes, at least for the lower forty-eight. Most of Hawaii is antipodal to Botswana, while the northern edge of Alaska is antipodal to an edge of Antarctica. Same with the most northern parts of Canada.

So that’s a little fun in the early hours before my last day of meetings here. It’s been a fun trip.

A question on parting: Have the link piles been useful or interesting? They’ve been all I’ve posted on this trip, because it’s easy and I sometimes feel like sharing what I’m reading. But I’ve had just one piece of feedback so far, and it was negative. So, if you care, lemme know.

A comet is headed for Mars. impactNow approaching at 125,000 miles per hour, it will explode with the force of 35 million megatons of TNT if it hits. That’s a third the size of the collision that caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which famously erased the dinosaurs and ended the Mesozoic, around 66 Million B.C. It also left a 110-mile wide crater next to what is now Mexico. This Mars impact, should it occur, will also be larger than many other impact events that changed life on Earth utterly, causing mass extinctions countless times in in ages before ours.

The chance that this comet will hit Mars is one in two thousand. The chance that its tail will graze Mars and produce an impressive sky show there are high. Earth-made probes on the surface of Mars will be watching, if they survive. So expect some impressive news, either way.

By the way, my favorite comet of all time was Comet West, which glided slowly through our skies through several weeks in the Winter of 1976. It was beautiful. So was Hale-Bopp, in 1997. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote at the time:

By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say I looked and that maybe I sawsomething. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Bonus links: Comet Ison, which might become “the comet of the century” later this year. After looping close to the Sun, it may become as bright as the moon, and visible in daylight. And Comet Panstarrs, which is visible now.

NYC

I want to plug something I am very much looking forward to, and encourage you strongly to attend. It’s called The Overview Effect, and it’s the premiere of a film by that title. Here are the details:

Friday, December 7, 2012 – 5:30pm – 7:00pm
Askwith Lecture Hall
Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

The world-premiere of the short documentary film Overview, directed by Guy Reid, edited by Steve Kennedy and photographed by Christoph Ferstad. The film details the cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts during spaceflight, when viewing the Earth from space.

Following the film screening, there will be a panel discussion with two NASA astronauts, Ronald J. Garan Jr. and Jeffrey A. Hoffman, discussing their experience with the filmmakers and with Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects producer on films such as 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The event will be moderated by Harvard Extension School instructor Frank White, author of the book The Overview Effect, which first looked at this phenomenon experienced by astronauts.

This event will take place on the 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble, one of the most famous pictures of Earth, which was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972.

Seating is limited and will be assigned on a first-come first-serve basis. The event will also be streamed live at http://alumni.extension.harvard.edu/.

The Overview Effect is something I experience every time I fly, and why I take so many photos to share the experience (and license them permissively so they can be re-shared).

The effect is one of perspective that transcends humanity’s ground-based boundaries. When I look at the picture above, of the south end of Manhattan, flanked by the Hudson and East Rivers, with Brooklyn below and New Jersey above, I see more than buildings and streets and bridges. I see the varying competence of the geology below, of piers and ports active and abandoned. I see the palisades: a 200-million year old slab of rock that formed when North America and Africa were pulling apart, as Utah and California are doing now, stretching Nevada between them. I see what humans do to landscapes covering them with roads and buildings, and celebrating them with parks and greenways. I see the the glories of civilization, the race between construction and mortality, the certain risks of structures to tides and quakes. I see the Anthropocene — the geological age defined by human influence on the world — in full bloom, and the certainty that other ages will follow, as hundreds have in the past. I see in the work of a species that has been from its start the most creative in the 4.65 billion year history of the planet, and a pestilence determined to raid the planet’s cupboards of all the irreplaceable goods that took millions or billions of years to produce. And when I consider how for dozens of years this scene was at the crosshairs of Soviet and terrorist weapons (with the effects of one attack still evident at the southern tip of Manhattan), I begin to see what the great poet Robinson Jeffers describes in The Eye, which he saw from his home in Carmel during WWII.

But it is astronauts who see it best, and this film is theirs. Hope it can help make their view all of ours.

Over dinner in Amsterdam recently, George Dyson — who knows a thing or two about the history of computing — told me that a crossover of sorts has happened, or is happening now.

The crossover is between a time when we erased storage media to make room for fresh data and a time when we save nearly all of it. This is one reason there’s all this talk about Big Data. We need big ways (storage, analytics, software, services) to deal with the accumulations.

At the personal level we don’t yet have more than a few primitive means, relative to whatever it is that Google, Amazon, Facebook, the NSA and other big entities are doing. At their level, who knows? Lets say Google wants to save all your deleted Gmails. The mails might be deleted for you, but are they deleted for Google? I have no idea. All I know is that storing and analyzing them is more and more do-able for them.

I don’t have an axe to grind here (not yet, anyway). I’m just noting that this change is freighted with many possibilities and many meanings. And so, to make it easier to talk about, I suggest we name it, if it isn’t named already.

Hmm… since the sum of all stored data is Too Big to Know, maybe we should call it the Weinberger Threshold. One reason I like that (at least provisionally, besides liking David) is that there is what I consider a fallacious assumption, or presumption, behind much Big Data talk: that an analytical system can know us better than we know ourselves.

But that’s a whole ‘nuther topic, and maybe we should avoid conflating one with the other. (Though I do think the two — Big Data and Too Big to Know — are related, and I am sure David has thought about this stuff far more than I.)

Anyway, just blogging out loud here.

Discuss.

aurora

When it got bumpy on the red-eye from Newark to Amsterdam two Fridays ago, I looked out the window, hoping to see auroral activity such as I’d seen a couple times before on trips like this. And sure enough, there it was. Not as spectacular as the other two, but plenty visible. I watched it from south of Greenland until dawn began to break west of Ireland.

The shot above is the only one in the series without stars turned into lines by the motion of the plane. (The shot, like most others, was four seconds long, at ISO 1600.). The camera, a Canon 5D, is a solid workhorse that’s now eight years old. So is the lens, a $100 bottom-of-the-line 50mm f1.8 prime that I brought along just in case opportunities like this came up.  Alas, the 5D is not great shakes in low light. Still, it was fun watching the show at the time, and still fun sharing a bit of it, a few hours before we fly back.

Geologists have an informal name for the history of human influence on the Earth. They call it the Anthropocene. It makes sense. We have been raiding the earth for its contents, and polluting its atmosphere, land and oceans for as long as we’ve been here, and it shows. By any objective perspective other than our own, we are a pestilential species. We consume, waste and fail to replace everything we can, with  little regard for consequences beyond our own immediate short-term needs and wants. Between excavation, erosion, dredgings, landfills and countless other alterations of the lithosphere, evidence of human agency in the cumulative effects studied by geology is both clear and non-trivial.

As for raiding resources, I could list a hundred things we’ll drill, mine or harvest out of the planet and never replace — as if it were in our power to do so — but instead I’ll point to just one small member of the periodic table: helium. Next to hydrogen, it’s the second lightest element, with just two electrons and two protons. Also, next to hydrogen, it is the second most abundant, comprising nearly a quarter of the universe’s elemental mass.  It is also one of the first elements to be created out of the big bang, and remains essential to growing and lighting up stars.

Helium is made in two places: burning stars and rotting rock. Humans can do lots of great stuff, but so far making helium isn’t one of them. Still, naturally, we’ve been using that up: extracting it away, like we do so much else. Eventually, we’ll run out.

Heavy elements are also in short supply. When a planet forms, the heaviest elements sink to the core. The main reason we have gold, nickel, platinum, tungsten, titanium and many other attractive and helpful elements laying around the surface or within mine-able distance below is that meteorites put them there, long ago. At our current rate of consumption, we’ll be mining the moon and asteroids for them. If we’re still around.

Meanwhile the planet’s climates are heating up. Whether or not one ascribes this to human influence matters less than the fact that it is happening. NASA has been doing a fine job of examining symptoms and causes. Among the symptoms are the melting of Greenland and the Arctic. Lots of bad things are bound to happen. Seas rising. Droughts and floods. Methane releases. Bill McKibben is another good source of data and worry. He’s the main dude behind 350.org, named after what many scientists believe is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million. We’re over that now, at about 392. (Bonus link.)

The main thing to expect, in the short term — the next few dozen or hundreds of years — is rising sea levels, which will move coastlines far inland for much of the world, change ecosystems pretty much everywhere, and alter the way the whole food web works.

Here in the U.S., neither major political party has paid much attention to this. On the whole the Republicans are skeptical about it. The Democrats care about it, but don’t want to make a big issue of it. The White House has nice things to say, but has to reconcile present economic growth imperatives with the need to save the planet from humans in the long run.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, or how I’m going to vote, because I don’t want this to be about that. What I’m talking about here is evolution, not election. That’s the issue. Can we evolve to be symbiotic with the rest of the species on Earth? Or will we remain a plague?

Politics is for seasons. Evolution is inevitable. One way or another.

(The photo at the top is one among many I’ve shot flying over Greenland — a place that’s changing faster, perhaps, than any other large landform on Earth.)

[18 September…] I met and got some great hang time with Michael Schwartz (@Sustainism) of Sustainism fame, at PICNIC in Amsterdam, and found ourselves of one, or at least overlapping, mind on many things. I don’t want to let the connection drop, so I’m putting a quick shout-out here, before moving on to the next, and much-belated, post.

Also, speaking of the anthropocene, dig The ‘Anthropocene’ as Environmental Meme and/or Geological Epoch, in Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin, in The New York Times. I met him at an event several years ago and let the contact go slack. Now I’m reeling it in a bit. 🙂 Here’s why his work is especially germane to the topic of this here post:  “Largely because of my early writing on humans as a geological force, I am a member of the a working group on the Anthropocene established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.” Keep up the good work, Andy.

When I was a kid I had near-perfect vision. I remember being able to read street signs and license plates at a distance, and feeling good about that. But I don’t think that was exceptional. Unless we are damaged in some way, the eyes we are born with tend to be optically correct. Until… what?

In my case it was my junior year in college. That’s when I finally became a good student, spending long hours reading and writing in my carrel in the library basement, bad flourescent light, cramping my vision at a single distance the whole time. Then, when I’d walk out and the end of the day or the evening, I’d notice that things were a little blurry at a distance. After a few minutes, my distance vision would gradually clear up. By the end of the year, however, my vision had begun to clear up less and less. By the end of my senior year, I needed glasses for distance: I had become myopic. Nearsighted. I remember the prescription well: -.75 dioptres for my left eye and -1.oo dioptres for my right.

I then began the life of a writer, with lots of sitting still, reading things and writing on a typewriter or (much later) a computer. Since I tended to wear glasses full-time, the blurred distance vision when work was done — and then the gradual recovery over the following minutes or hours — continued. And my myopia gradually increased. So, by the time I reached my forties, I was down to -3 dioptres of correction for both eyes.

A digression into optics… “Reading” glasses, for hyperopia, or farsightedness, are in positive dioptres: +1, +2, etc. As magnifiers, they tend toward the convex, thicker in the middle and thinner toward the edges, or frames. Corrections for myopia tend toward the concave, thicker on the edges. You can sort-of see the thick edges of my frames in the YouTube video above, shot in June, 1988, when I was a month away from turning 42 (and looked much younger, which I wish was still the case). My glasses were Bill Gates-style aviators.

I also began to conclude that myopia, at least in my case was adaptive. It made sense to me that the most studious kids — the ones who read the most, and for the longest times each day — wore glasses, almost always for myopia.

So I decided to avoid wearing glasses as much as I could. I would wear none while writing and reading (when I didn’t need them), and only wear them for driving, or at other times when distance vision mattered, such as when watching movies or attending sports events. Over the years, my vision improved. By the time I was 55, I could pass the eye test at the DMV, and no longer required glasses for driving. In another few years my vision was 20/25 i

n one eye and 20/30 in the other. I still had distance glasses (mostly for driving), but rarely used them otherwise.

I’ve been told by my last two optometrists that most likely my changes were brought on by onset of cataracts (which I now have, though mostly in my right eye), and maybe that was a factor, but I know of at least two other cases like mine, in which myopia was reduced by avoiding correction for it. And no optometrist or opthamologist I visted in my forties or fifties noted cataracts during eye examinations. But all have doubted my self-diagnosis of adaptive myopia.

Now I read stories like, “Why Up to 90% of Asian Schoolchildren Are Nearsighted: Researchers say the culprit is academic ambition: spending too much time studying indoors and not enough hours in bright sunlight is ruining kids’ eyesight“… and the provisional conclusion of my one-case empirical study seems, possibly, validated.

It also seems to me that the prevalence of myopia, worldwide, is high enough to make one wonder if it’s a feature of civilization, like cutting hair and wearing shoes.

I also wonder whether Lasik is a good idea, especially when I look at the large number of old glasses,  all with different prescriptions, in my office drawer at home. What’s to stop one’s eyes from changing anyway, after Lasik? Maybe Lasik itself? I know many people who have had Lasik procedures, and none of them are unhappy with the results. Still, I gotta wonder.

 

dome
When I visited the Upheaval Dome in 1987, I was sure it was an impact crater. But roadside displays and printed literature from Canyonlands National Park said otherwise. Clearly, they reported, this was collapsed salt dome. Since then German researchers have found evidence, through shocked quartz, of an impact. That now appears to be the prevailing theory. The crater is approximately 5 km in diameter and must be Jurassic in age or younger, given the ages of the rock it hammered. From bottom to top, those rocks are:

Navajo Sandstone also stars in Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks, in Comb Ridge, San Rafael Reef and the Red Rock country overlooking Las Vegas from the west (where it is called Aztec Sandstone). Its cross-bedding strata suggests windblown sand, which is exactly what comprises the rock. The whole formation is the fossilized remains of a Sahara that once covered much of  The West. Think of it as a fossil desert within a desert.

So I was flying over the area last week, and got some good shots of the thing, including the one above. There are many more in that series, which stretches from Boston to San Francisco, by way of Newark. I’ll put up other segments soon, I hope.

 

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