Some Light Weekend Reading

Cascadia 2This recent article from the New Yorker is horrifying, and yet so brilliantly written that it also makes for a gripping read.

It describes a major fault in the Pacific northwest that is sure to produce a devastating earthquake and tsunami — probably within our lifetimes.

The article contains a pulse-pounding description of rolling catastrophe that could almost double as the screenplay for a big-budget disaster movie.  More important are the insightful observations about our collective inability to plan wisely for the future.  Here is an especially good passage:

On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.

This problem is bidirectional. The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.

That problem is not specific to earthquakes, of course. The Cascadia situation, a calamity in its own right, is also a parable for this age of ecological reckoning, and the questions it raises are ones that we all now face. How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?

Good questions.

Anyhow, I strongly recommend the article as some light weekend reading.


This is Not a Simpsons Parody

Fort SlocumNew Rochelle history buffs will love this old U.S. Army film describing activities at Fort Slocum on Davids Island.

In substance, the film is a fascinating portrait of a facility that was a big part of our city’s life.  Stylistically, though, it’s very much a relic of its time, with swelling music and cheesy voice-overs that play almost like a Simpsons parody.Big Picture

Ya gotta love the spinning globe complete with orbiting rocket ship, plus lines like this: “the inner man is served with generous portions of hearty Army chow!”

Anyhow, both fun and informative.  So check it out.


Maps, Maps, Maps

Maps mesmerize me.  Put one in my field of vision, and I’ll have a hard time focusing on anything else.  Maybe it’s the way all the messiness of history can be made to seem neat and knowable.  Maybe it’s the sense of exploring places one might never actually visit.  Maybe it’s the “Here Be Monsters” flights of imagination that take off at a map’s edge.  Whatever . . . I just love maps.

So I was both grateful and concerned when a friend told me about the New York Public Library’s digital map collections.  Really cool stuff, but also a potential time-sink of alarming dimensions.  I’d better swear off this site, but first, let me share this neat map of the New York area depicting Revolutionary military engagements in 1776.  You’ll find Westchester (“Weft Chefter”) and Eastchester (“Eaft Chefter’) noted clearly, but in the present-day Bronx.  And far to the northeast is “New Rochel.”  OK, just one more.  Here’s a still-agrarian New Rochelle circa 1868, together with our adjoining community of “Pelhamville.”

Enough!  Better go cold turkey on this.


Enceladus or Bust

An actual photo of Enceladus, not a computer-generated image.

An actual photo of Enceladus, not a computer-generated image.

Read these three paragraphs from an article in today’s Times:

Using atomic clocks on Earth, the scientists measured the radio frequency with enough precision that they could discern changes in the velocity of Cassini [orbiting Saturn], hundreds of millions of miles away, as minuscule as 14 inches an hour.

They found that the moon’s [Enceladus, a moon of Saturn’s] gravity was weaker at the south pole. At first glance, that is not so surprising; there is a depression at the pole, and lower mass means less gravity. But the depression is so large that the gravity should actually have been weaker.

Liquid water is 8 percent denser than ice, so the presence of a sea 20 to 25 miles below the surface fits the gravity measurements.

The ingenuity involved in these calculations just amazes me.  And it adds up to a big, important conclusion: tiny little Enceladus, all of 310 miles across, is definitively on the very short list of bodies in our solar system that are plausible candidates for extra-terrestrial life.

I hope I live long enough to witness dedicated missions to Titan, Europa and Enceladus that can determine conclusively whether life is present.  Probably a long-shot for a 44 year old guy, given the inadequate pace of investment in big science.  I’m more optimistic for Jeremy and Owen.




In The Beginning . . .

Milky WayThis week, there was a breakthrough in the study of the very early Universe.  From observations conducted at the South Pole, scientists obtained the first hard evidence of the theory of “inflation,” which holds that the Universe experienced a period of faster-than-light expansion in its first micro-second, about 14 billion years ago.  This has major implications for everything we know of the Universe today – and even increases the likelihood that our Universe is one of many in a mind-bending Multi-verse.  There’s a more cogent and complete description of things in this Times article.

I will not claim full comprehension of this subject.  I will not even claim partial comprehension.  Frankly, I can barely understand what I wrote in the paragraph above.

But it is evident from the really excited reactions of the physicists and cosmologists quoted in the Times piece that this is a VERY BIG DEAL, like a one-of-the-biggest-discoveries-ever deal.

As an admitted sci-fi nerd, who waged a daily – and generally losing – battle with my parents over permission to watch reruns of Star Trek on Channel 11 during the dinner hour, I can’t resist this sort of news.  And I am having fun introducing my kids to the new version of Cosmos.  (Jeremy seems semi-interested.  Owen, not so much.)

But I also have a strange set of mixed feelings.  On the one hand, it is genuinely awe-inspiring that human beings are capable of grasping these hidden truths about the nature of existence.  There is nothing about these theoretical insights that connects to the normal scale of human intuition or the senses through which we experience the world – it’s sheer force of intellect rising above our limitations.  And just think of the knowledge that had to be assembled, layer upon layer, year after year, shared across generations, to make such discoveries possible.

On the other hand, how strange it is that the greatest discoveries are now comprehensible only to the tiniest fraction of humanity.  Discover a new continent – that we can all understand.  Cure polio – we all breathe a sigh of relief.  Land a man on the moon – and every eye is glued to the television set.  But the outer limits of knowledge are so distant now that these monumental achievements pass almost unnoticed, swallowed up in the daily stream of news that, by comparison, is less than trivial.  Sad in a way.

Well, at least this discovery had prompted me to add a new category to my web-posts called “Neat Stuff.”  I’ll try to strike a miniscule little blow for more attention where attention is deserved.