Saturday, August 27, 2016

Outward & Inward Exploration

With an estimated 100 to 400 million solar masses in the Milky Way, our outward search to identify solar systems with Earth-like exoplanets, and by extension Earth-like biospheres, is driven by an inward exploration of what it means to be human.
In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.
Carl Sagan, The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
For centuries philosophers have posited that there are planetary systems clustered around stars like our Sun in the fervent hope that we might some day connect with life beyond Earth and beyond the solar system.
Through all of our history we have pondered the stars and mused whether mankind is unique or if, somewhere else out there in the dark of night sky, there are other beings who contemplate and wonder as we do - fellow thinkers in the cosmos.
Carl Sagan, The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
The thought that the finite biosphere surrounding Earth is the only such habitable life raft in the universe is as astonishing and as awesome as the notion that there might be others.
Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.
— attributed to Arthur C. Clarke
The pursuit of extraterrestrial life is a quest to reconcile our significance — however insignificant.
To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow.
Metrodorus of Chios, 4th century BCE.
Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have detected the influence of, but not observed directly, an exoplanet called Proxima b on the closest star to our sun, a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri.

Proxima b is more massive than Earth and it orbits the circumstellar habitable zone around Proxima Centauri. The habitable zone is where the surface temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist.

Artist's rendition of red dwarf star Proxima Centauri
imagined from the surface of Proxima b

source: European Southern Observatory, August 2016

Proxima b lies some 4.2 light-years from our solar system at a distance 266,000 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Whether or not there is evidence of life on Proxima b remains a mystery.
"Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries."
Carl Sagan, Cosmos


Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Glory of Shiva

Arthur Wesley Dow was influenced by the shapes, flatness, and stark lights and darks of the Japanese woodblock prints he saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1891.

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, no. 32.
Katsushika Hokusai, circa 1830

Dow applied and refined these principles to New England landscapes for two decades, developing his work into a uniquely sensual, non-representational style, before traveling west to to paint the Grand Canyon in 1911 and 1912.

Dow painted a view of Shiva Temple. Shiva Temple is an isolated limestone cliff that rises 1,200 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon.

The Glory of Shiva
Shiva Temple, Grand Canyon
Arthur Wesley Dow, 1912

Dow baths the shadowed canyon in purple hues that are surmounted by crimson sunlight striking the cliff.

Geologist Clarence Dutton named this formation after the Hindu god. Dutton drew from literary and mythological references to name geologic features. Surveying for the USGS in 1881, Dutton drew from his interest in eastern religions to name the Hindu, Vishnu and Shiva Temple sites in the Grand Canyon.
Fire is His head, the sun and moon His eyes, space His ears, the Vedas His speech, the wind His breath, the universe His heart. From His feet the Earth has originated. Verily, He is the inner self of all beings.
― Anonymous, The Upanishads
The Glory of Shiva sold to a private collector in 2012 for $120,000.
"Dow took on a fugitive effect of sunlight viewed at the cusp of the day, knowing that within moments the light would alter irrevocably." ― Gene Shannon, Auctioneer
Twenty million years ago a river began carving the Grand Canyon. Rising to lofty heights above the canyon floor, these cliffs now assume the almost mythological character conveyed in Dow's paintings.
"The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars. Fire and lightening and winds are there, and all that now is and all that is not."
― Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Regenerative Capacity

Last Monday, 221 days into the year, Earth Overshoot Day was reached.

Earth Overshoot Day occurs on the computed number of days into a year that human consumption exceeds the regenerative biocapacity of the biosphere.

Earth Overshoot Day =Earth’s Biocapacityx 365
Humanity’s Ecological Footprint

For the remainder of 2016, demand outstrips supply.
"Humanity is living off its ecological credit card."
Mathis Wackernagel, founder of the Global Footprint Network
Ecological footprint is the aggregated area of land and sea needed to supply resources to a human population. The Global Footprint Network estimates that, as of 2007, humans consume natural capital 1.5 times faster than it's renewed.

by Bob MacNeal

"The insufferable arrogance of human beings to think that Nature was made solely for their benefit, as if it was conceivable that the sun had been set afire merely to ripen men's apples and head their cabbages."
Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, 1650


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Constraints & Consequences

John Wesley Powell, early expedition leader of the American West, wrote of the range of sounds he experienced exploring the Grand Canyon by boat:
"...sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain."John Wesley Powell
In his poetic description of sounds, Powell used the word diapason, a musical term denoting the interval of an octave.

The Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 chronicled the first recorded passage through the the Grand Canyon by men of European origin.

The Boats in Marble Canyon
John Wesley Powell's 2nd expedition, 1872

Diapason is a word also used in the metaphoric sense of a grand swelling of harmony.

Harmony with nature is a popular human construct. The General Assembly of the United Nations established International Mother Earth Day in 2009 to recognize "the Earth and its ecosystems are our home." The General Assembly resolved that "it is necessary to promote harmony with nature and the Earth."

Promoting harmony is a compelling, but idealized fiction. Organisms, and in particular humans, follow few if any altruistic rules. Organisms exist within dynamic constraints like predation pressure and food supply.

The biosphere is made up of dynamic and inter-dependent constraints. Constraints in the biosphere are more complex but not unlike the consumer economics concept of supply and demand. As early as the first agricultural revolution, humans have sought to defy constraints from an unpredictable food supply to the force of gravity.

Since the transition from mobile scavenging communities of hunter gatherers to the more predictable and geographically stationary communities of crop cultivation around 10,000 BC, humans have been shedding constraints and burning up resources with little recognition of the consequences.

To humans, the available resources to exploit seemed limited by ingenuity, rather than by the recognition of finite supply. Animals often act against their interests when constraints diminish. When predation pressure from foxes diminishes, herbivores like rabbits might spike in population, then overgraze a finite range of plants.

Dispassionate examination of ecological dynamics is more instructive and essential to our viability than the romantic allure of proposing to live in harmony with nature. Our existential plight depends on our recognition of the consequences of pursuing our desires with few constraints beyond the degradation of the biosphere and the hard stop of finite resources.

The Derelict (The Lost Boat)
by Arthur Wesley Dow

The challenge of our time is recognizing the grand swelling of harmony in each moment with the full range of our senses, while simultaneously recognizing the compass of consequences of self-serving behavior.