Climbing Mt. Sinai

Climbing Mt. Sinai

Earlier this month NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the area where Mt. Sharp is located. The satellite used its HiRISE camera system to image the region. Amid the slope and jumble and dunes of Mars it photographed something with a symmetric shape and unusual color. That something was another robot of exploration called the Curiosity Mars Rover. This robot has been operating on the planet since August, 2012.

In the last 4 years and many months Curiosity has ambled across nearly 16 kilometers of the Martian surface. An able geologist, the golf cart sized mobile science lab has sampled a multitude of sites and made a number of important discoveries, including the past presence of water in the region where it operates. Its many images have included cracked layers of rock, dune filled depressions, and no few martian dust devils.

Curiosity is now in the process of climbing Mt. Sharp. In the cold, thin atmosphere of Mars its six wheels turn and propel it steadily forward and upward. When we say climb it is scaling features and following a path watched very closely by its controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It has gained an elevation of 165 meters. The peak it is assaulting is 5.5 kilometers in height…that’s taller than Mt. Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. So it has a ways to go!

This is certainly not meant to diminish the feat of having a semi-autonomous mobile lab at work day-to-day on a world tens of millions of kilometers away from Earth. The slopes it climbs are challenging for a robot and every centimeter is truly new territory. Yet the inclines are kept within its carefully designed operating parameters, so it tackles fairly low angles of gravel and sand. Still, those angles offer a hazard, particularly for its well worn wheels, communications systems, and the delicate instruments on board.

Will it climb up the shoulders of the mountain and reach the top of Mt. Sharp? As its objective is to follow the science and seek traces of water the summit is probably not the mission’s key goal. Yet even if Curiosity were to stop transmitting tomorrow (it shows no indication of wanting to do so) its mission to date would be an overwhelming success.

mro-curiosity-rover-pia21710-br2
HiRISE image shows the Curiosity Rover near the base of Mt. Sharp. The purple-blue dot near the center is the rover. The odd color of the rover is due to post-processing of the image. For comparison Curiosity is the size of a golf-cart (2.9m long x 2.7m wide).

The crisp image from HiRISE shows an unforgiving terrain. It looks forbidding and may be full of surprises. There was something about the rugged nature of the mountain, its ocher coloration, and the sense of loneliness I felt when I first saw the picture that made me think of the prophet Moses and that long-ago first climb of Mt. Sinai. I’m not sure why that Biblical event sprang to mind except that it offers a unique symbolism of humanity facing an unknown. Moses was a lonesome outcast, far from home in a bitter wilderness seeking truth and meaning to his life. He found an answer on the mountain, and was a different person when he returned from the summit.

It would be remarkable if Curiosity reached the summit of Mt. Sharp and surveyed the land all around it. What would its camera eyes see? And would its controllers have it come back down? If so, what discoveries would it bring back? Certainly not a burning bush or a robotic version of the Ten Commandments in hexadecimal format! But the journey upward will not be without reward, even if we just learn something about ourselves and our very human capabilities in the face of wonder.

 

(Note on image at top: mosaic “self-portrait” of the Mars Curiosity Rover composited and post-processed by NASA JPL. Mt. Sharp is to the left in the background.)

 

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

43.1610° N, 77.6109° W

Today, on this big spaceship called Earth, we are all participating in the summer solstice. It doesn’t matter where in the northern hemisphere we are, it started at dawn and will run until a very late sunset. The northern pole of our planet is tipped the full 23.5 degrees toward the Sun. Seen from the latitude and longitude above in Rochester, NY (and elsewhere) our parent star is as far north in the sky as it ever gets. As the planet turns the Sun’s path below our horizon is very short. This day is the longest of the year and consequently our night will be the shortest of the calendar year. Bad day for astronomy devotees!

If you are a stargazer (or stargeezer, as in my case) and live above the Arctic Circle you will have no starry night this time of year. Right now, in the far north, the Sun never sets. Many people flock to destinations in Alaska and the Yukon to partake in this event. In their devotion they remind me a little of the ancient Druids at Stonehenge. Solstice tourism has seen a spike in recent years and I’ve considered going myself. And at an opposite extreme, if you are based in one of the many Antarctic outposts the night of June 21st will last a full 24 hours.

The summer solstice is the time of year when the Sun stops its northern ascent, pauses, looks around, and then trudges downhill again. It’s interesting that the word solstice comes from the Latin sol-stitium. This word literally means “sun-standing.”

Venture outward tonight into those short hours and look at the stars. Unlike the wintertime we can go out in tee-shirts and relax in lawn chairs. If the mosquitoes aren’t biting we might catch a meteor or two and see a few satellites stray past overhead. All while we enjoy a cool drink.

Happy Solstice, everyone!

 

(Note on illustration: “Stonehenge at Solstice Dawn” from the book Astronomy: The Cosmic Journey by William K. Hartmann, 1978, C. Wadsworth Publishing Co.)

…and new civilizations.

…and new civilizations.

To boldly go. Everyone knows those words. For many of us they introduced the future, and a promising one at that. And yet those three words are not trapped in a little amber bubble that represents some fictional time in the future. I would say those words are highly applicable not so much to the adventurers of novels or movies…whose treks pale in comparison to reality…but to historic travelers and seekers of all kinds who have voyaged outward to find new, fascinating horizons.

That was certainly the case with the mid-19th Century explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The partners were in the vanguard of exploration of Central America’s Mayan ruins. In the 1840s the lost cities of that region were little more than rumor inextricably tied to the well-worn narratives of Spanish conquistadors. In 1839 the two men came to Central America as seasoned travelers.  They had spent many years independently exploring the ancient monuments of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Keen observers, they brought this experience as well as fresh viewpoints to an area that had been given only limited scientific investigation. And what they discovered…not without cost…laid the groundwork for understanding not just the original peoples of the New World, but the very human capacity to create greatness even in the most challenging of environments.

The book Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen tells the story of the American writer Stephens and the British architect and artist Catherwood. It is a marvelous biography of two adventurers who through dedication and hardship explored a lost world. Applying solid scientific observation they challenged the notion prevalent at the time that the peoples of the New World were incapable of independently creating a unique civilization. The old cities of Mexico and Central America were known to exist, however the view among academics was that these marvelous civilizations had been created by lost migrants from the Old World. Indeed, the thinking at the time was that after the original migrants had died off the native peoples simply copied or mimicked what had been brought to their shores. Some of these “lost migrants” included Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even a Lost Tribe of Israel.

Stephens and Catherwood came to their groundbreaking conclusion only after long and careful study of the ruins they uncovered with the aid of native guides. Although not the first to suggest this view, the theory that New World natives had independently created a civilization out of the jungles of Central America was somewhat controversial. The fact that the two explorers applied observation, careful measurement, and comparative data of the ruins they came across with those of the Old World is in the best scientific tradition. Indeed, Catherwood made carefully detailed drawings of the sites with an architect’s eye. His drawings of elaborate Mayan stelae and hieroglyphics were the first of their kind.

The two explorers also worked closely with, and were at times very dependent upon, native peoples. This included muleteers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, guides as well as revolutionary leader Rafael Carrera and the dashing yet tragic General Francisco Morazán. This unique combination of scientific rigor and cultural interaction led Stephens and Catherwood to the inescapable conclusion that the proud remnants of the lost Mayan civilization were a product of Central America and its people.

Jungle of Stone is not just a book about history and the beginnings of archeology it is also a book full of adventure. As a writer Stephens often needed “incidents” to write about. Central America was quick to offer these. The land is as much a character in the book as are the many people the two explorers encounter. The place is mysterious, time-wise, mercurial, dramatic, and beautiful. On the first day of their arrival they are treated to a powerful earthquake. This is a harbinger perhaps of the varied challenges that await them in the natural world: steep mountain treks, volcanoes, torrential rain, swollen rivers, thick jungles where one might get lost forever, insects, dangerous animals, and surprisingly: dry spells. There is also political upheaval, banditry, and disease. Yet Central America also offers a willing hand and the two are often aided by people who act out of kindness, pride, and in many cases an interest in the history of their land and their place in it. However, as they are so often warned, the land will not give up its secrets easily. And yet, throughout it all, Catherwood and Stephens are undaunted.

William Carlsen shows a deft hand and the book is at times as much about those who the two explorers encounter as about the explorers themselves. I learned a great deal about Carrera and Morazán, for instance, and a book about these two adversaries certainly awaits. The Caddy and Walker mission is also interesting in that it is a segment about hard travels and an expedition sent forth to “beat” Stephens at his own game. It is an essay in human endurance but also a peek at how so many attempts to literally wrest discovery have gone awry.

The book is also about the Maya themselves, the civilization they created, and how it flourished. Their tale is also one of caution in that the forces to which it eventually succumbed are similar to the forces that have harried all civilizations throughout history. Those forces…overpopulation, war, disease, cultural hubris, environmental degradation…are multi-layered and complex. Places such as Copán, Quirigua, Iximche, Tonina, Pelenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum stand in mute testimony to the strength, vision, beauty, dedication and tradition of one civilization’s powerful saga.

Stephens wrote up his adventures in a book titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and YucatánLike so many of his previous works it was a major bestseller. Richly illustrated by Catherwood it inspired others to study Mesoamerica. In the late 1840s a Central American official, Colonel Modesto Méndez ventured deep into the forest and discovered the giant temples of Tikal. Méndez made the first official recordings in his report on Tikal. Later explorers followed decades later and these expeditions utilized photography to capture the wonders of the lost cities.

Stephens and Catherwood made two expeditions to the lands of the Maya. Afterward the necessities of life made them follow more practical paths. Stephens became an advisor and later president of a consortium that built the first railway across the isthmus of Panama. Catherwood continued as an illustrator but with a family to support in London he often reinvented himself as a railway engineer or later, during the California gold rush, as a miner. The two men remained friends and Carlsen’s detective work leads to a poignant epilogue that is as fascinating as the rest of the book.

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen is an excellent work and one I would highly recommend. It can be found in hard cover from William Morrow/Harper-Collins Publishers. It is 461 pages and includes many fine illustrations by Frederick Catherwood.

 

(Note on photo: a view of the southern facade of Temple 11 from the East Court of Copan..this is one of the first sites Catherwood and Stephens visited during their 1839 expedition to Guatemala). source: Wikipedia Commons

 

 

 

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.

 

 

 

 

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

New York City is history.

Not in the sense that the great metropolis is somehow over, ended, kaput. No, New York City is history. It is a family album of hope, work, dedication, good times and ambition. That album is also interleaved with mysteries, unspoken but well-known secrets, discouragement, and loss.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 captures this sense of past, present, and future. I’ve been a fan of Robinson since reading his Mars Trilogy a number of years ago. As an author, Robinson has big ideas based in hard science and he lays these out not as framed portraitures but as large tapestries. He shows this ability again in New York 2140.

The 600-page novel is set in a New York that has been inundated by a sea-level rise caused by global warming. Manhattan and environs experience a 50-foot increase in water level. New York has become a sort of super-Venice, with familiar streets serving as canals. The population goes about life and we see scenes of surprisingly familiar tasks involving work and daily living. Many of the buildings of the Manhattan we know have been saved using technologies developed as preservatives against the detrimental effects of floodwater. This includes advanced composite sky-bridges, a sort of diamond-based sealant that keeps salt water out of structures, and Syd Mead-like hydrofoils and streamlined, energy efficient watercraft. The city still hums with vibrancy, despite the wrath tossed down upon it due to worst-case climate change.

The novel features almost a dozen main characters. All have very different lives and they all interact via the central locale of the MetLife Tower near Madison Square. As New York is a character in this novel so is the MetLife Tower and it serves as a sort of anchor for characters and events. Here and there, Robinson discusses a sampling of its history, including its intersection with the lives of such New Yorkers as Melville and Teddy Roosevelt, all in the light of the goings-on within the narrative. Like the city, the building has a past that goes down to the bedrock. When we first gather at the entrance of its bacino the old structure has been preserved and reinvented to meet the needs of its residents within the 50-foot intertidal zone of the inundated city. The irony that the survivors of climate change might find a habitat within an old insurance company building is not lost upon us.

Most of the characters work best in pairs. There is the spritely Amelia Black who is a sort of internet star. Literally travelling on the four winds within a high-tech dirigible she provides a narrative for the world outside the city, giving us a big picture view of the forces that have changed the planet. Meanwhile, a more grounded character is Vlade, the superintendent of the MetLife building. Vlade is emblematic of the dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who sees the bigger picture but is always willing to roll up his sleeves to do the dirty work. Vlade is dedicated, hard-headed, yet never unwilling to help his building or its occupants. This extends to a pair of street (canal?) urchins named Stefan and Roberto who go upriver and even under it in a manner that reminded me a bit of a futuristic Huck and Tom. The two boys are a key to the novel and represented both youth and the city’s future. They pair nicely with Mr. Hexter, an elderly denizen of a dangerously washed-out section of town who can remember the day New York was permanently flooded. Mr. Hexter is also a keeper of maps and old records and instigates a treasure hunt for a ship lost near the Bronx in the 1770s. This leads to a surprising find.

Other paired characters include finance trader Franklin whose specialty is inter-coastal property and Charlotte who is a social worker and activist. These two opposites find some mutual advantage despite their tensions. The reader comes to understand that like all government and free-market forces these polar opposites are, in a sense, symbiotic. This is a key theme in the novel.

Police officer Gen Octaviasdottir comes from a long line of NYPD cops and her personal motto, like her ancestors who kept the city running during its worst years, is Hold The Line. Gen is part of the glue that holds societies together and ultimately her partner is the City itself. And that flooded, urban landscape knows many a secret, including the whereabouts of two programmers with the handles of Mutt and Jeff, who attempted to hack the planet. They released a virus designed to interrupt computerized market trading and thereby disrupt entire economies. This didn’t work out for the pair of quants, and their disappearance is a key driver of the story.

And to me, this is where the story gets interesting. Years ago I read the works of Ayn Rand. Those novels and that philosophy have always left me very uncomfortable. I won’t go so far as to say that Rand’s novels left a stain on my soul, although I did have a friend express it this way to me once. The basic issue I have with the philosophy of the selfish ego is that unlike Rand I am the product of a democratic (little d) society, in which the common man can do great things while also recognizing that we are all in this thing together. Hence the winning of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, exploration, scientific advancement, the struggle for social progress, and the ending of slavery and the defeat of fascism in the 1940s are emblematic of what can happen when every-day people work together for a joint purpose. Hell, we even had the audacity to create rock-n-roll and build an amazing interstate highway system that is a veritable touchstone of our culture.

Since the Recession of 2008 there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not a taxpayer funded bailout of Wall Street was appropriate. I won’t go into that here, but such economic cycles, and even the ability to make a buck during a grievous disaster, are the paired blessing and curse of capitalism. These issues are confronted directly in Robinson’s novel, and his solution was something of an antidote to the things I read in those Rand novels many years ago. A bloodless coup for the common men and women over the powers of Wall Street? Maybe…this is a science fiction novel after all. But I cheered at how Robinson laid it out and I found his everybody-wins (including to a certain extent the financiers) scenario both hopeful and heartening.

Another plus to this novel was the fact that the characters offered virtually no hand-wringing and I-told-you-so’s regarding global warming. Indeed, the politicians and industries that are leading us into the world of New York 2140 are not even mentioned. The reader is left with a sense that the good people of this world are so busy surviving and getting by and at times enjoying their lives that the self-proclaimed masters of our age are not even remembered. Which, in a sense, is very fitting. The heroes of the past are engineers, doctors, police officers, scientists, construction workers, seafarers, and no few men and women of goodwill who manage to rescue both life and society.

I finished the 600 page novel with a sigh and a feeling of hope. It pleased me that Robinson opted to end his novel with several of the characters enjoying a very proverbial night on the town. Things may get bad, but we don’t have to lie down and accept dystopia.

Whatever comes, we’ll Hold The Line.

Together.

 

(New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, h/c 613 pages is available from Orbit Books)

 

 

 

Earth Day

Earth Day

When the crew of Apollo 8 returned this image on Christmas Eve of 1968 they took turns reading the first ten verses from the book of Genesis, which is about life and creation. Carl Sagan, among others, suggested that we, a collective humanity, might be the Universe’s attempt to understand itself. Certainly art, science, and spirituality are some of the tools by which we seek to learn who we are. Apollo 8 is interesting in that it took this unique moment to combine all three and show us a farther horizon.

Happy Earth Day!

Yuri’s Night

Yuri’s Night

Fifty-six years ago Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly in space. That flight was relatively brief, a few orbits for a lone man cramped within a little bubble of light and warmth and life. The flight of Vostok 1 was as much a milestone as the Wright Brothers flight and Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic. After Gagarin came more flights, the first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov, and of course the manned landing on the Moon by Armstrong and Aldrin.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke once said that he had shaken hands with the first man to fly in space, the first space-walker, and the first to trod the dusty surface of the Moon. He also strongly believed that in the long run of history it would not matter that two were Russian and one was American. The promise of a human future was bigger and better than mere nationalism. I hope he was right.

And since April 12, 1961 we’ve continued to explore our farther horizons. This has included Vostok and Salyut and Gemini and Apollo and Mir and Shuttle and Progress and Soyuz and, of course, an International Space Station where men and women of many nations work together. Happy Yuri’s Night everyone!

Note on photo: A recent image from Izzy. A Soyuz and Progress freighter docked to the station.