Searching for Darkness

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The Mobius Arch Loop Trailhead, by ©Clarisse Meyer via Unsplash

Ah, January – that time of year when the nights are longer, and if you live in a northern clime, you might be able to wander out to a hilltop on a clear, cold night, and be mesmerized by the stars above.  I remember amazing nights on a fishing boat in the Philippines during my Peace Corps days, where it seemed I could reach up and take a handful of the cosmos, or hiking the Three Sisters Wilderness area under a moonless sky so bright with stars, we didn’t need flashlights. And nothing stirs the creative juices for a sci-fi story I’m writing like gazing at the heavens.

I miss the stars.

Last time I caught the majesty of the Milky Way with the naked eye, was a few years ago while visiting my park ranger daughter at Pipe Springs National Monument in Utah.  I now use a smart-phone app called Sky Guide, a handheld planetarium of sorts, to view the constellations in real time. As if standing on a remote hill a thousand years ago, the app displays what we should see if the sky wasn’t hazy with light scatter.

Most of my adult working life was in or near major metropolises.  It’s a little hard to stargaze with today’s countless malls, homes, and streetlamps. Though I’m fortunate to live in a small, eastern Pennsylvania town where I can stroll the streets and cul-de-sacs at night, there’s still too much light pollution to see constellations with any clarity.

How bad is it? Take a look at a before and after shot during a Northeast power outage in 2003.

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Source: Darksky.org – Photo by ©Todd Carlson

It has me wondering why we need all that illumination.  Apparently, I’m not alone.

Since the late 1980s, IDA, International Dark-Sky Association, has been collecting information about the hazards of light pollution, and suggesting ways to counter it. As a former biologist, I’ve known for some time that excess light when it’s supposed to be dark, disrupts natural circadian rhythms. Our photoperiodism evolved with darkness a part of the daily cycle. In the US and Europe, nighttime light pollution affects 80% of the geography. Bet you didn’t know streetlights account for most of that light scatter.

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Source: National Parks Service – Night Sky Growth

According to the IDA, “We are losing the dark of night, at the speed of light.”  No wonder I can’t see the stars.

I’d love to frequent a place where I can see the Milky Way without the need of a smart-phone app. Thankfully, my daughters live near Las Vegas, a top contender for light pollution capital of the world, but not that far from places that offer great starry views, like Death Valley, Red Rock Canyon, and the many National Parks within a day’s ride.

On the Top Ten Places in the World to Stargaze, imagine my surprise to see the first one listed right here in Pennsylvania, Cherry Springs State Park, but it’s three-plus hours away, not something I can head out the back door on a whim after dinner.

We’re starting to see a trend with small towns working to preserve a diminishing resource – darkness, by managing light. Streetlights can be modified to point light down, where it’s needed, not upward, where it pollutes. The IDA now has a certification process for Dark Sky Communities around the world.

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Pondering the Heavens, by ©Ömür Kahveci via @500px

For now, I’ll have to endure that pesky ole city light scatter hogging the spotlight (pun intended), take a drive, find a nice hill, and search for some darkness where I can see the true light above my head.

Hopefully, I won’t need a flashlight to find it.

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PS: I like pinning photographs of the stars above on my Pinterest Page, Searching for Light, if you’re interested in following.

And if you don’t have time to find a place of dark sky, I offer this excellent time lapse compilation of the Milky Way, by Peaceful Cuisine.

  

 

Still Pining for the Old Days?

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After surviving this past year’s extended edition of the Barnum & Bailey/Nintendo reality game, Jumbo the Elephant versus Donkey Kong, I decided to substitute my usual introspective, holiday missive with a festive infusion of humor.  I thought a trip down memory lane of what used be considered acceptable holiday advertising in days gone by might fit the bill.  I’m a big fan of vintage advertisements, and follow a few Pinterest pages dedicated to it. I was born in the early fifties, and some ads invoke warm flashbacks of when I was a tyke (and no, I didn’t ride horseback to school, we had cars). We had a different mindset inherited from the earliest days of the twentieth-century. Looking back, some of those ads now have me ROTFL.

Back in 2012, I was asked to guest post a holiday article to cheer folks up during difficult economic times. I blew the dust off it, and added a couple more graphics.

To quote a cigarette campaign from 1968, “We’ve come a long way baby.”  Enjoy.

Original Guest Blog Post – Blame it On The Muse, December 12, 2012

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Many folks long for the good old days, especially holidays filled with nostalgic childhood memories of crackling hearth fires, and family gathered around a decorated, live-cut tree. Mom served eggnog in her new apron. Dad lit up a Lucky in his favorite chair. The kids wore their Sunday finest, jiggling with impatience for Santa to come.

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Dad wasn’t always in tune with what the love of his life really wanted for Christmas in those days. Retailers paid special attention by offering advice to wives on how to drop hints to get that new toaster. Mom’s expression of sheer joy when she opened her gift was the highlight of Dad’s day.

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I can almost hear Dad now, lighting up that special, holiday flavored Tiparillo.  We’d all go “eeeewwww” when mom sat in his lap, all giggly and snuggly, buried inside a cloud of smoke when he asked, “Honey, would you make me a sandwich?”

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He’d give her a little pat on the backside to signal enough lollygagging. What he really wanted was for Mom to get started on dinner with her new mixer.

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Mom gently tweaked his nose. Dad smiled and gave a wink. “Wait, there’s more.” Santa left another present for Mom. What could it be?

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It was really Mom’s year for the good things in life. Now she wouldn’t have to use the kitchen table to get that perfect crease in Dad’s trousers.

Oh darn, the baby is fussing. Mom knew exactly what would soothe the little tyke.

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“He’s probably teething,” Dad suggested. “I’ll run down the local Rexall and pick up some medicine.”

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Raising seven kids was kind of distracting back then. Every once in a while, things got a little too hectic, and Mom would burn the ham. Dad understood, just as long as she remembered to stock up on his favorite beverage.

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Heaven forbid, though, if she tried to save a few pennies buying a less expensive coffee. Dad was little persnickety  about his coffee.

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Christmas feasts were the best. Turkey with stuffing, ham, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with cream (whipped to perfection with Mom’s new mixer), green bean casserole, and three kinds of pie for desert.

Dad would kick back, unbuckle his size 48 belt so he could breathe better. He’d gaze at Mom at the sink, up to her elbows in dish soap. “Wonderful dinner honey, but you might consider skipping desert next time,” then toss her a pack of cigarettes.

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Yes, holidays were so much more special in the old days. Mom finished cleaning up the kitchen, stowing the leftovers, washing the floor, and putting the baby down for a nap.

“Can we watch TV?” we kids would clamor. “Well, since it’s so educational, just for awhile,” Mom would smile.

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Mom looked tired while sweeping the floor, but she knew if she was good for another year, maybe Dad would get her that new Hoover she dreamed about.

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Holidays are so special, Mom thought back then.

To the soothing sound of Dad’s snoring on the couch, she made a promise to give herself a gift next year, with a big tag that said:  Open Me First.

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Still Pining for the old days?

Happy Holidays. May the presents beneath the tree contain lots of laughter. 

Graphics from Pinterest Vintage Advertisements.

Happy Hallothanksgivingmas

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Woman with a Christmas Turkey thanksgiving

From: DepositPhotos.com

Did anybody notice I missed October?  Who could tell? When I went into Walmart a few weeks ago to get some Halloween treats, the seasonal aisles had Christmas decorations. I found broken bags of candy in a bin near the exit.  What’s that all about?

Hey, I’ve been chin-deep in a sci-fi story. Went upstairs the other day to refresh my caffeine drip and discovered October had come and gone. I didn’t even put out a pumpkin.  All those damn doorbell chimes a couple weeks back?  I thought they were church solicitors with an urgent need to save my soul. The Halloween candy I bought is still on the counter. I’m surprised my front door didn’t get egged.

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Writing Life

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Lots of old black-and-white photos

From: V. Niktenko – Depositphotos.com

A social group I belong asked a while back if I’d offer a few tips about writing an autobiography. Who me?  I’m more into making things up in fiction. Couldn’t think of a worse candidate for the job.

I have an elderly relative who loves to tell stories of his youthful escapades, over and over and over, infinitum. He’s not a bad story teller, and it isn’t the repetition that gets me. It’s an overwhelming fear that I will end up doing the same thing when I reach the golden years (or is it platinum, now that we’re all supposed to live thirty years on average after retirement?). Oh, and his epilogue after each tale, where he insists his life would make a great story. “I should write it”, he’d say. “My autobiography would make a great book.”

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From: Pinterest

Cue in scene: Honey, it’s getting late.

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Still Trekking

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From: nerdist.com

Hard to believe the little sci-fi series that almost didn’t make it, turns 50 on September 8.  After a pilot with Jeffery Hunter was rejected in 1965, Gene Roddenberry’s space adventure, Star Trek, got the green light from Desilu Studios. Yes, that’s the “I Love Lucy” studio.  A network executive claimed Lucille Ball never actually read the script, she thought it was about movie stars on a trek to entertain U.S. Troops, a mistake that still resonates a half-century later.  Thank you, Lucy.

A recent WSJ Arena article by John Jurgenson, Still Boldly Going, recapped a short history of the first Star Trek, or “lowercase fantasia” as rated by Variety at the time.  Jurgenson cites William Shatner’s memory of the era, “We were always about to be cancelled, always a sword of Damocles hanging over us.” One actor quoted “No one had any idea that 50 years later, the story would have a heartbeat.”

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Song of Fire and Smoke

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From: Ampack - Depositphotos.com

From: Ampack – Depositphotos.com

It’s August, and that time of year when I walk away from the word processor, kick back, and spend quality time with my two grills and smoker.

Yo DT, shouldn’t you be adding pages to that sci-fi story you’re stuck on.

Damned muse. Always giving me shit when I’m not focused on important stuff – like finishing the book. Annoying little bastard, but easily silenced with a couple cocktails and fibbing that it’s world building research for a dystopian tale I’ve been trying to finish since last year. Or was it the year before?

Exactly when humans began to burn meat over fire remains controversial. Scientists originally believed the early meat eaters ate sushi style, fresh off the bone, and didn’t start barbequing until 800,000 years ago. Then in 2012, a South African Primatologist examined evidence from the Wonderwerk Cave, where sediments revealed presence of burned bone in a campfire over a million years old. Sure hope it wasn’t a fellow hominid.

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We All Have the Same Dream

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July Fourth is one of two holidays that are dear to my heart (can you guess what the other one is?). Our country’s independence is more than just fond childhood memories of BBQs and small town parades. It is the time when I take a moment to reflect how lucky I am to live in a place where I’m free to live as an individual. Not to say I don’t shake my head in befuddlement on occasion, but hey, who said life was perfect.

People ask what my fondest Fourth of July memory is. Was it a particular family event, fireworks on a small New Hampshire lakeshore, or my girls running around in the dark with sparklers when they were young?

Fresh out of college, when adulthood broadsided me, a biology degree didn’t offer much in the way of gainful employment at the time, so I chose a path less traveled and joined the Peace Corps. It promised adventure and a chance to do something special in a third world country. Being the impressionable young man with noble dreams and zero sense of reality, off I went to the Philippines as a Fisheries Biologist for a two-year, non-stop assignment without home leave. I left just after July 4, and returned two years later in mid July.

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Remembrance

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Moritorus – DepositPhotos.com

Next week, our nation takes time off to remember the brave souls who paid the ultimate price for keeping us safe. Many of us have never experienced the horror of armed conflict. Because of our veteran’s sacrifice, most of us will never have too. Our national day of remembrance ensures we never forget them.

My throat locks up when I visit veteran memorial parks. Headstones seemingly stretch to the horizon. Who were these brave souls? What dreams went unrealized? How many hearts were broken when they didn’t come home? How many sons and daughters went without a parent? For those whose remains are interred in this hallowed ground, the living will plant a flag on their grave in reverence, perhaps kiss a faded photograph, or touch a brittle love letter written long ago. But not all will be remembered this way. Countless tens-of-thousands throughout our country’s history are buried beneath forgotten soil, their legacy lost to the ages, their memory but a solitary memorial to the Unknown Soldier.

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Astrobiology – A Universe Wired for Life

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Curricular options for me in college didn’t include subjects pertaining to astrobiology. In my day, most budding biologists were encouraged to focus on earth-bound developmental sciences, provided you could get through university weeding courses in organic biology and biochemistry. Life sciences were about life on earth. Even hinting of life in the cosmos got you the evil eye, a lower grade for being stupid, or a semester of janitorial service cleaning up after freshman lab orientation. Times have changed.

First, a definition. Astrobiology is a branch of biology concerned with the study of life on earth and in space. The earth part of it focuses on finding answers to how life began on earth. As for space, the research has to go beyond the study of fossils and other earthly evidence. Astrobiologists must look for the presence of organic materials outside our solar system, and hypothesize how these materials become the molecules of life.

Jeffery Kluger of Time Magazine wrote an article last February, The Perfectly Sane Case For Life in Space. Kluger tagged along with astrobiologist, Scott Sanford at the NASA Ames Research Center, who demonstrated an updated cosmic primordial soup device that would make Dr. Frankenstein very proud. Sanford filled a chamber with elements you’d find in space (stellar dust, gas), duplicated the chill of space, and instead of lightning, used the same kind of radiation expected in the cosmos. The result yielded thousands upon thousands of chemical products, many of which included molecules needed to spark life. What Sanford stated in Kluger’s article caught my attention.

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