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planet-earth-outer-space

It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

I’m sorry for the paucity of posts this month.  To mark the end of the somewhat disappointing two thousand teens (the teens? the ’10s? how do we even write out that decade?), I have been in a seasonal creative slump.  This brown mood might not be solely a reaction to the lackluster decade (and the troubling path of ignorance and excess which humankind currently seems to be set upon), but also a reaction to the death of my first artistic mentor, my mother’s mother Constance Fay Pierson (April 24, 1927 to December 7, 2019).

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Grandma has a competently written obituary in the Weston Democrat which outlines her life of education and travel (although sweeping stories of Somalia, the Congo, Kenya, Italy, and Indonesia during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s were obviously more thrilling to hear about in person). Likewise, the writer has indicated the primacy which family had in Grandma’s world by the simple expedient of naming everyone in her immediate lineage (although it is too bad that the pets Johnny, Flash, Muffy, & Pharaoh didn’t get a shout out, since they were family too). However, neither the obituary nor the eulogies at the funeral have done justice to Grandma’s creative and artistic life.  Since her encouragement, patronage, and teaching were instrumental to my own life path, I would like to share some of her lessons with you.

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The vivid beauty of the places she went was enormously important to Grandma Connie, and she was always remarking upon the unique characteristics of the clouds, the trees, the waves or the hills of a particular place at a particular time.  Grandma could paint and she made charming alla prima paintings of the places she went and the things which were most striking to her (I have included a picture of a North African dhow above and a road in Central Africa a few paragraphs below…but alas, I don’t know the dates).  She also had a deep love of the the sculptures of the ancient Mediterranean world, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and, above all, the paintings and drawings of Italy and France.  Since she lived outside Washington, we would go look at those works at the National Gallery or the Walters Museum when I was visiting her as a child.

Grandma showed me how she painted and she bought me my first real paint set at an art store outside of Annapolis. She made sure I had each of the fundamental necessary colors, cerulean, ultramarine, ochre, sienna, sap, Naples yellow, cadmium and alizarin red, white, and black…but when I also wanted a preposterous iridescent yellow with scintillant stuff in it, she bought that for me too.   It wasn’t so good for painting the Chesapeake Bay or the sky but it was great for portraying imaginary glowing dinosaurs or ancient divinities.

This was important because one of Grandma’s greatest talents was to see a boring hall and say”what if this hall was lined with suits of armor holding halberds and great swords?” or to look upon a squatly constructed house and say “it would be so beautiful if it had a cupola or a Gothic spire.” She could see things with her imagination!

Now nobody is likely to come along and build pagodas or widow’s walks upon the concrete & clapboard dime stores and garages of Clendenin, West Virginia, but the feasibility of such ideas was not necessarily the most important thing to Grandma. She loved the humor and the wild unpredictable joy of imagining such juxtapositions.

The secret key to endowing life with beauty and meaning is not necessarily lovely items or cross-referenced tomes, but observation first and then imagination–the rainbow-colored skeleton key which unlocks, well, everything.  In our world of store-bought imagination, everyone’s faces are glued to their computers & cell phones to see what color-by-numbers digital wonders Hollywood can whip up.  Grandma Connie always advocated looking at the beauty of the actual world, then, if such was insufficient for your amusement, she suggested juxtaposing it with fabulously dressed luminaries from all of world history or with amazing and beautiful animals.  If there was no actual ostrich just add one!

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At her funeral a stout bearded mountain man of West Virginia unexpectedly appeared and signed the mourning ledger. It was one of her students from when Grandpa was in Vietnam and Grandma was teaching high school French back in West Virginia.  He said “I never though of myself as a scholar, but Mrs. Pierson convinced me otherwise. I went to college because of her…and I majored in Romance languages!” Grandma would have been delighted to have influenced his lifepath towards scholarship, but she also would have been delighted by the unexpected juxtaposition of the man and the major.

We are going to need to mash a lot more unexpected ideas together if we are going to get anywhere. We need to make better use of our imaginations not just in art, but everywhere.  That is one of the major lessons of art!

I wish I could have written more about Grandma’s amazing life, or about the things we drew and talked about together.  I also wish I had told you more about her generosity, her erudition, or her elegance, but there is no time: I need to go draw some beautiful monasteries with the Tuscan moon…and some ichthyosaurs wearing feathered hats.  Grandma taught me that the beauty, significance, and grace of the past is never gone.  It lives on in art and can be summoned forth anew with additional creative enterprise.  The world’s beauty and the human imagination are both never-ending fountains of meaning and delight.  Thank you Grandma, for showing me his truth of art and life. Now to get to work on some never-seen juxtapositions to honor (and baffle) her spirit.

 

An artist's' conception of the planetary sytem of Wolf 1061C

An artist’s’ conception of the planetary sytem of Wolf 1061C

Today Australian scientists announced the discovery of a very interesting exoplanet—a so-called “super-earth” which orbits around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061.  The rocky planet (Wolf1061c) is actually only one of three worlds so far found in the solar system of Wolf 1061, but it is of particular note because it lies in an orbit which allows for liquid water to exist upon its surface.

Wolf 1061 is tidally locked to its star, so one side always faces the red ball in the heavens. It has a mass about 4.3 times that of Earth—so the surface gravity is nearly twice that of Earth. Its “years” are 18 Earth days long.

Perhaps most excitingly Wolf 1061c is “only” 14 light years away (about 84,000,000,000,000 miles).  It is a neighbor!  Perhaps we can use our best telescopes to assay the atmosphere and find out if anything resembling Earth life is there.

Stromatolites at dawn in Shark Bay, Western Australia

Stromatolites at dawn in Shark Bay, Western Australia

This place really exists! Spend a moment imaging what it is like on the surface.    In my fantasy, one side of the world is a vast red desert while the other is a desolation of black glaciers…yet in a twilight ring between the sides there are sludgy water oceans filled with big green and violet pillows of fabulous squashed shapes—the analogs of stromatolites.  Bubbles of gas pour up from these oddly shaped blobs of bacteria-like cells.  Somewhere among the billions of little multiplying alien organisms, a few peptides have changed and the cells begin to exchange genetic material with one another.  They are beginning to reproduce sexually instead of merely dividing.  Life in the ring oceans of 1061c takes a leap forward.  It is all imagination…and yet it may be so.  The universe is vast.  I wish we could find out more about this entire earthlike planet that we only just found.

Goodbye old friend...

The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation.  To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”

We are all the turkey...

However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be.  Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans.  Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini.  Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system.  I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks).  These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.

NASA Spacecraft Dawn firing its ion thrusters with Vesta and Ceres in the Backgound

The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes.  A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.

Artist's Concept of a Scramjet Spaceplane Entering Orbit

I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations.  Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want.  Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility).  I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches.  I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity.  The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off).  But I’m open to other ideas.  We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.

If we call it an orbital railgun, people will be upset. How about "orbital railfriend"?

I once read a science fiction book about nanotechnology and biotechnology so powerful that intelligent materials could mold themselves into fantastical cities in the shape of cyclopean indestructible flowers.  One merely had to plant a special seed and the replicating nanoparticles therein would usurp all nearby matter and form it into a self-sufficient flower city.  It was a terrifying world—if you touched the wrong pillar you could be reconstructed and permanently built into a wall or a huge solar panel that looked like a leaf. On the other hand, it was a world where humanity had stretched out to build flamboyant botanical cities on the moon and beyond.

So far our steps into bioengineering and nanotechnology have been falteringly slow…but I mention the imaginary flower cities for a reason. This week I have been writing about builders of the past and the present, but what about the future?  What lies beyond the mega skyscrapers, experimental fusion labs, and radio telescopes that define the limits of what humankind can build now?  When I was a child I dreamed that I would end up living in a terrarium on a space station or I would bioengineer myself to have gills so I could dwell in a garden made of kelp and coral in a sea-city.  I live instead in a building that was made before I was born (in fact my last ten residences have pre-dated me).  The oceans are becoming waste lands and space exploration is on the back burner. The time of the arcologies and the domed cities is not here yet, but the population is growing so fast that prefabricated suburban sprawls will not be a suitable habitat for our teeming billions within only a few generations.

Builders are working to create structures which fit in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the planet, but it is less easy than it sounds.  I always remember my experience as a volunteer at a synthetic ecosystem built by the Smithsonian–despite immense ingenuity on the part of the designers, the life cycles of the organisms inside the system quickly veered into strange arrhythmic feedback loops. Today’s green movement does not exhibit any such ingenuity and the results are predictably nugatory. So far sustainable buildings and eco-friendly cities have been little more than shams designed to ease the conscience of affluent buyers.  I have a friend who visited Masdar City, an arcology community in the UAE which is designed to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The hereditary nobility who rule Abu Dhabi ordained that Masdar City should be the international showpiece of green living. Unfortunately the solar panels which have been installed do not work because of the dust and wind from the desert.  The other renewable energy sources have not even made an appearance.  The community is currently run on fossil fuel.  The personal transit pods souind intriguing but they don’t seem to have appeared yet either.

Masdar City: The future is...not here yet it would seem.

All of this that could and will change as technology improves (or it could change instantly if energy became inexpensive and clean).   The age of suburbs and slums must give way to a time of more efficient human habitats.  The arcologies are coming (unless of course the world spins into a dark age).  I am pleased that we have not yet seen their shape, but I am anxious that the shape might not be very pleasing.  Imagine the structure that you wish to see most.  Is it a Victorian mansion, an immense metal pylon, or a delicate Faberge egg? Perhaps it is colossal statue, a basalt temple, or a giant space torus?  Really, really look in your heart and ask yourself what you want.  Once you have decided, you should start talking about it with everyone.  Looking at Masdar City makes me realize that the people who design the great human habitats of the next age need more ideas as quickly as possible!

I guess we still have the International Space Station...

 

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