The Road: A Bleak Panegyric to Civilization

The Road, a novel by Cormac McCarthy, Vintage International, 2006, 256 pages.

It’s hard to recommend this incredible book. Though gripping, moving, and beautifully written, it is not easy to read. I had to put it down every so often just for the relief of reconnecting with the living world we take for granted. The end credits of the film based on the novel are accompanied not by music, but by the mundane ambience of a suburban neighborhood: people talking, lawnmowers, barking dogs, planes passing overhead — sounds forever lost in the post-apocalyptic world in which McCarthy’s characters struggle — a world so well rendered it is painful to contemplate.

McCarthy’s style is an acquired taste. He never met a metaphor he didn’t like and his Westerns have so much weather one can easily lose track of the plot. This novel is written in a kind of blank verse, with paragraphs structured as stanzas.  My initial reaction was to return the book to the shelf in disgust at what seemed an artsy affectation, but the words captured me. In truth, the abstract style helps make the horrific events in the story bearable. Quotation marks are neither used nor required, since, for the most part, there are only two characters – The Man and his son, The Boy –  and one always knows who is speaking. Potential readers who believe the style might be off-putting are encouraged to listen to the audio book, performed wonderfully by Rupert Degas. Listening to it, one has no idea the printed version is not written as a conventional novel.

An unspecified calamity has devastated the world. Inaugurated by a “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions,” the Apocalypse might well be the aftermath of an asteroid impact like the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Years later, ash continues to fall from the perpetually overcast sky and the earth trembles with aftershocks. The man and boy push a shopping cart filled with their meager provisions through a nightmare landscape of dead forests and looted cities. Hiding in terror from roving gangs of cannibals, they trudge south, where it might be warmer; where there might be…something. The man’s tattered road map taunts them with the names of places that no longer exist. They carry a pistol with two bullets: one for each of them, should they be captured by cannibals. The man drills his son, who is, perhaps, ten, in the art of effective suicide.

The bleak tone is reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s 1957 post nuclear war novel On the Beach, but while Shute’s characters wallow in well-fed self-pity, McCarthy’s man and boy, although starving and freezing, reassure one another that they are “carrying the fire,” that they must not merely survive but remain the good guys. A physician before his world ended, the man has tried to plant the spark of civilization within his son, to teach him a code of ethics that makes him more than a starving animal. The boy takes the lesson to heart and pleads with his father to show kindness to those even more wretched than they. Shaped by his father’s fierce love, the boy radiates angelic goodness even when they are both at death’s door. It sounds corny but McCarthy pulls it off. At the end the reader is convinced that as long as such a child can exist, there is hope, even in the midst of horror.

McCarthy’s subtext is that civilization is as fragile as a soap bubble. We are bound together by an intricate web of trust and cooperation. Snap one strand of that web, and things fall apart with surprising suddenness. Cosmic calamities are not required to end civilization. Something that merely prevented grocery trucks from making their scheduled deliveries for a couple of weeks would do the job. Admirers of the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations might do well to consider this. The roadside reenactment of the Paleolithic Era stopped short of offering a practical demonstration of the sustainability of the socio-economic scheme being advocated, which is, in essence, cannibalism.


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The Oddball Club

I resonated to this essay by classicist Victor David Hanson. Dr. Hanson expresses eloquently the angst of wandering the world feeling as if one’s head is about to explode into a vacuum of stupidity.

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The Tyranny of the Majority

On Sunday, March 21, 2010, on the 245th anniversary of the Stamp Act that triggered the American Revolution, the Democratic Party, in a stunning display of self-righteous arrogance, fiscal irresponsibility, and contempt for the democratic process and for the liberty of their fellow citizens, decreed that Americans shall be forced to purchase health insurance from state approved businesses. This ill-conceived legislation, bloated with pork, unfunded by any honest estimate of potential future revenues, passed without a single supportive vote from the party ostensibly representing half the population, establishes dozens of new bureaucracies and will likely throw the medical insurance industry into chaos and bankruptcy. The kluged-together bill, unread by most who voted for it, is 2,400 pages long. That’s the equivalent of six novels, written in turgid legalese. It is inevitably full of unintended consequences on issues affecting the lives of 300 million people.

The new law’s proponents claim — and probably believe — they are acting in a spirit of liberalism for the greatest good, but this approach to legislation is not liberal. Liberals value freedom and the rule of law. Most Americans share those values and prefer a divided government in which one faction cannot run roughshod over the other. The Democrats have established a terrible precedent, paving the way for any political party with a President and 51 percent and no scruples to ram any piece of garbage legislation down the country’s throat.

The mid-term election that will be held on Tuesday, November 2, 2010, may be the last chance to stop the statist juggernaut and to restore balance to our government.


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I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.Leo Tolstoy

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here, but the recent “climategate” scandal is so disturbing on so many levels that a comment seems appropriate. It’s a sad time for science. The very institutions charged to keep it honest are now revealed to be steeped in corruption. In the interest of adding another Google hit to the more than 30,000,000 that the mainstream media choose to ignore, here’s mine.

In November, either a hacker or whistleblower liberated a document  from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. , which is one of the major sources of data used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change whose reports have guided politicians. The document appears to be an archive prepared in answer to a British Freedom of Information Act request and includes ten years of emails between leading scientists at CRU and elsewhere, program code that was used to normalize data, and a plaintive commentary by a programmer who struggled to beat the data into submission so it would conform to expectations. The emails are characterized by the smug arrogance typical of those who dwell in The Land of Unchallenged Assumptions — aka academia — in this case, scientists who “know” that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are changing Earth’s climate in potentially disastrous ways. This is certainly an interesting theory and it might even be true, but support for it is based on an extremely weak signal that has been teased from very noisy data. The Climategate files reveal efforts to fudge this data to amplify the signal —  a scientific sin — and systematic efforts to suppress information that might “dilute the message,” meaning the political message that CRU’s confabulations were designed to support. This isn’t science. It is activism.

Almost more distressing than the scientific malfeasance is the “nothing to see here” attitude of the mainstream media, who were quick to report rumors that the Bush Administration pressured NASA’s James Hansen to cool it with regard to global warming, but when fraudulent science that serves as the basis for trillion dollar policies comes to light we hear crickets chirping. Because the alleged remedies for the alleged climate crisis dovetail so neatly with their politics, these people have checked not only their BS detectors at the door, but also their journalistic integrity. Despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing by so-called consensus climatologists,  their journalistic enablers continue to characterize skeptics as not merely mistaken, but evil and venal (no matter that far more grant money is awarded to the alarmists). Two years ago, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman put skeptics on a par with Holocaust deniers. The prestigious journal Nature repeatedly used the epithet “deniers” in its December 3 apologia for the CRU’s data distorters. We expect such silly language from religious fanatics, not scientists and journalists, but environmentalism has indeed become a religion and it has created a kind of faith-based science that is on a par with Creationism. With their monomaniacal fixation on greenhouse warming, the Gaia worshippers have set sane environmentalism back decades. Kyoto alone has already caused more than $300 billion to change hands, yet even its proponents concede that if it were in effect for 50 years with perfect compliance it might have a theoretical mitigation of only half a degree. It expires in three years and compliance has been wretched, but delegates to the Copenhagen conference will unconscionably propose more of the same.  $300 billion would buy a lot of clean water — the most pressing environmental issue for most people in the developing world.

Stephen F. Hayward has summarized the science and shenanigans very concisely in his article “Scientists Behaving Badly.” Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal brilliantly examines the “Warmist” mind and asks: Why did the scientists at the heart of Climategate go to such lengths to hide or massage the data if truth needs no defense? Why launch campaigns of obstruction and vilification against gadfly Canadian researchers Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick if they were such intellectual laughingstocks? It is the unvarying habit of the totalitarian mind to treat any manner of disagreement as prima facie evidence of bad faith and treason. The rest of his essay may be read here:

For those who want to  understand  better what the fuss is about, David Burge sets aside his Iowahawk satire hat and shows us how to build our own paleoclimate hockey sticks in Fables of the Reconstruction.  With off-the-shelf spreadsheet software and a bit of statistical legerdemain, you too can join The Team.

Lord Christopher Monkton summarizes the Climategate situation with his inimitable verve in this video.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for my check from Exxon-Mobil.

(Addendum, January 12, 2010 — a concise and fascinating history of Climategate can be found at these links: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

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“Sunshine” — Ed Wood, Eat Your Heart Out

In all fairness, I was prepared to hate “Sunshine” by reviews that praised its “stunning” imagery but nothing else. Mainstream reviewers generally don’t know what to make of science fiction and when confronted by an incomprehensible mess like this movie they assume they’ve witnessed something deep and meaningful that was way over their heads, so they play it safe by praising the imagery. I approached “Sunshine” with extremely low expectations but was bitterly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, my family and I enjoyed watching it, once we got into “Mystery Science Theater 3000” mode. Viewed that way, “Sunshine” is in a class by itself. There are rare films like”Gattaca” in which good acting, writing and direction serve a plot driven by an intriguing SF premise. There are lightweight romps like “Star Wars” in which the heroes ride spaceships instead of horses. There are occasional clever transpositions of classical drama into SF, such as “Forbidden Planet,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” There are  epics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” that break the rules and still mostly succeed. “Sunshine” fits in none of these categories. Although it wants to be “2001,” it is more akin to “Plan Nine from Outer Space” — the “Citizen Kane” of bad science fiction films. It is so bad that it is almost worth watching just for the fun of mocking it.

No plot spoilers follow here — because there is no plot to spoil. In any case, we’ve seen it all before. The only original plot device in “Sunshine” is a minor one (although it is unintentionally hilarious).

In some vague future the sun’s pilot light has gone out and the giant spacecraft Icarus Two is dispatched to drop a bomb to reignite it. Icarus One, we learn, went missing some years before. There are, I think, eight crew members on Icarus Two: Unstable Asian Guy, Sensible Asian Guy, Asian Chick, White Chick, Suntanned Dude, Sensible White Guy, and Soulful Bug Eyes, the purported hero. Wait! That’s only seven. I’m sure there was another guy. Oh well. It doesn’t matter. Nobody will miss him.

While passing Mercury they pick up a distress signal that comes from — surprise — Icarus One. Although the fate of the world depends on their mission and whenever this happens on Star Trek it means trouble, they decide to change course to investigate. Using a supercomputer, Unstable Asian Guy — their crack navigator — makes a mistake in his arithmetic that somehow sets fire to the greenhouse that produces their oxygen. They extinguish the fire by flooding the greenhouse with — brace yourself — oxygen. Honest. Bleeding the air off into space or filling the greenhouse with nitrogen doesn’t occur to these hand-picked, fate-of-the-human-race-rides-on-their-shoulders geniuses. The resulting flash fire forces them to choose who must be sacrificed to ensure that enough O2 remains to complete the mission. Pathos and heart-rending decisions loom, but fate lends a hand and characters start dying randomly from various misadventures, sparing them the need for any development.

Meanwhile, I think, they rendezvous with Icarus One and board it. Although the derelict is filled with several tons of dandruff its greenhouse is still going strong and there is much rejoicing on Icarus Two, but — surprise — a monster lurks aboard Icarus One. He has really bad sunburn and asthma — probably from the dandruff. We named him Crispy Critter. Crispy is the lone survivor from Icarus One and he has theological issues with the whole relighting the sun business, so he kills a couple of guys and sneaks aboard Icarus II, where he kills everyone else except Bug Eyes. Lots of things happen and there are bright colors and spectacular special effects and loud noises. Eventually, Bug Eyes drops the bomb on the sun and goes to Heaven or burns up or something, and the world is saved.

David Letterman used to have a spot titled “Limited Perspective,” in which a specialist would review a movie from his own narrow point of view: thus a dentist might evaluate the actors’ teeth or a doctor would enumerate the injuries likely to result during a fight scene. As a stunning imagery specialist, I found “Sunshine” underwhelming. The incessant lens flares and solarized frames mean nothing. They are intended to create the illusion that something deep and profound is happening, but, in reality, nothing is. The huge spaceship turns and tumbles murkily and incomprehensibly in needlessly tight closeups, so we never get a sense of its scale or any feeling that it is a vessel carrying people. The spaceship interiors consist mostly of long shiny corridors, which might be a welcome change from the standard smoky, claustrophobic, spacecraft interiors that “Alien” made de rigueur, if anything interesting ever happened in them, but nothing does. There is no reason to care about any of the characters and, indeed, we are delighted as they die off, because they are so astoundingly stupid and boring and every demise brings us closer to the end of this tedious and pointless ordeal.

With a good script, the premise could have been made to work. The device of an urgent space mission threatened by insufficient consumables engendered sweaty-palm suspense in Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations.” Instead of exploiting the drama inherent in the situation, however, “Sunshine’s” director throws it away by dragging a monster in by the ears. Even if we cared about it, the oxygen shortage becomes meaningless when there is a monster on the loose.

Bad money drives out good, and bad cinematic SF makes it harder to produce movies based on the good story ideas that remain untapped in literary SF. “The Cold Equations” could be produced with a minimal budget and a cast of two working on one set, and it would have infinitely more drama and pathos than a thousand big budget cow flops like “Sunshine.”

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Space Art : How to Draw and Paint Planets, Moons, and Landscapes of Alien Worlds

cover of space art book
Michael Carroll; Watson-Guptil; 144 pages, color illustrations, paperback, $24.95, ISBN 9780823048762

Reviewed by Don Dixon

I learned to paint from the wonderful Walter Foster art book series, which featured titles such as “How to Paint Landscapes,” “How to Draw and Paint Seascapes,” etc. Every niche of hobbyist painting was covered, from sunsets to still lifes. Typically, each subject would be explored through a series of illustrations showing the development of a painting from simple charcoal sketch, to rough color, to the finished work. Popular masters of the 50’s and 60’s such as Robert Wood and Violet Parkhurst let us look over their shoulders, sharing their “secrets” with struggling beginners. How I wish Michael Carroll’s Space Art had existed back then!

Space Art is not a primer on painting, although a beginner can pick up valuable techniques unlikely to be covered in more traditional “how to” books. While there is a good, brief discussion of media and tools, and an excellent presentation on color, the book assumes a basic knowledge of how to mix and work acrylics. What the beginning painter might find particularly useful, however, is Carroll’s discussion, throughout the book, on how to “see” — how to observe and depict the interplay of light and objects and atmosphere.

Any basic art book will contain a diagram showing how to render and shade the cube, cone, and sphere, but Space Art links this exercise to nature in a way that traditional art books generally do not. For example, most landscape artists rarely paint the moon correctly, either depicting it as a featureless white disk or a weird, banana-shaped crescent. This is, I think, because they haven’t made the conceptual leap that allows them to see the moon as a sphere, subject to the same rules of lighting as is an orange in a fruit bowl. They don’t see the illuminated part of the moon as its “day” side, and the dark part as its “night.” They haven’t realized that the dividing line between day and night — the terminator, to use astronomical parlance — is an arc of an ellipse: the shape of a great circle seen in perspective. After reading Space Art and attempting its exercises, beginning painters will have a deeper understanding of light and shadow that will make them better artists in any genre of painting.

Space Art takes the reader through fourteen exercises, ranging from the the almost mundane — “Earth seen from the Moon” — to the science-fictional landscapes of extrasolar worlds with binary suns. Brief essays by established space artists punctuate the exercises. These essays touch only lightly on technique, but delve more deeply into how space artists interpret the raw data of science and apply this knowledge to imaginatively portray a subject in a way that transcends a mere photograph. The sample illustrations by these guest artists range stylistically from plein air sketches to digital photographic realism. Carroll wisely restricts his exercises to techniques available to the beginner. Although he may sometimes use the airbrush or computer in his commercial work, subtle gradients in the exercises are created using fan brushes and sponges.

Space Art is not only a useful book, but a beautiful one, well printed and rich with color. A reader is likely to learn a bit of astronomy and geology along the way, and Carroll’s impish sense of humor comes through in the text, maintaining the friendly tone of a teacher who loves his work. Again, I wish a time traveler had brought this book to me forty years ago. Highly recommended for beginning — and developing — artists, in any genre.

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A Darwin Award for Greens?

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, obstetrician Barry Walters has proposed a $5,000 carbon tax on the birth of each baby, plus an $800 annual tax. “Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and thereby rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behavior, a baby levy in the form of a carbon tax should apply in line with the polluter pays principle,” says Walters. He also suggests that contraceptives and sterilization procedures be offered to attract carbon credits that would offset income taxes for the user.

One cannot gainsay the sincerity of Dr. Walters. He is so devoted to protecting the environment that he advocates policies likely to harm his livelihood.

Making an even more personal sacrifice, forward-thinking Toni Vernelli in Brighton, England, arranged to have herself sterilized at age 27. “Having children is selfish. It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet,” says Vernelli, now 35.

The draconian birth control policies advocated by extreme environmentalists could have interesting political consequences. There is a strong correlation between genes and memes; eighty-percent of children adopt the political and religious views of their parents. Conservative pundits who compare left-wingers to dinosaurs may be more prescient than they know: there are only about two liberal babies born for every three conservative children. Like coastal cities in Vice President Gore’s apocalyptic visions, the Blue States will be inundated eventually by a Red tide. The earth will be inherited not by the environmentally devout but by proliferant non-progressives.

Environmentalism is not the first religion to proscribe procreation. Shakers also were forbidden to breed and had to rely on conversion to sustain their numbers. Note the past tense. Given current demographic trends in North America and western Europe, it is only a matter of time before liberals are declared endangered. Heroic efforts may be required to herd sufficient numbers of these scarce creatures into protected habitats to create a breeding population, lest they die out completely. Biosphere II may come in handy then.

Mother Nature tends to correct her own mistakes, but it is gratifying to see so many people eager to help. Godspeed, I say.

[The possibly cryptic title refers to the tongue-in-cheek Darwin Awards commemorating folks who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in spectacularly stupid ways.
Mark Steyn, who has often discussed the link between societal values and demographics, also noticed the two stories referred to above. You can read his take on the issue here.]

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My Two UFOs

picatinny_ufo_smallPart of the fun of being an astronomical artist is that you get asked engaging questions. A surprising percentage of people are eager to buttonhole anyone who might have some inside info on things celestial. Often, folks want to follow-up on a news story, like the man who read about an impending collision between two galaxies and was curious how it had turned out. Some people just want reassurance that the moon landing wasn’t faked. Nearly everyone is fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This sometimes leads to a discussion about UFOs, which makes me squirm a little, because, doggone it, I’ve seen ‘em. Two, in fact. But I don’t really “believe” in them. It’s a subject that causes some personal cognitive dissonance.

My creepiest UFO sighting occurred in 1969. In those halcyon days I often loaded a homebuilt telescope into my mom’s Falcon and drove into the Mojave desert in search of clear, dark skies. I would invariably get the car stuck in a sandpit on some abandoned road and spend hours extricating it. Eventually, in a suitably god-forsaken place, I’d set up the ‘scope, toss my sleeping bag on the ground, heedlessly bed down with the scorpions and sidewinders, and gaze at the heavens. On one occasion I was adopted by a pack of coyotes, but that’s another story.

On the night in question, I was setting up the telescope an hour after sunset. The clear sky would allow a nice view of Saturn when it rose in the wee hours. I had just finished aligning the polar axis of the telescope when something caught my eye: in the southeast, just above a ridge of hills near the horizon, was a perfectly straight, luminous line. It was about half the apparent size of a full moon, absolutely horizontal, and moving slowly west. It was clearly too thin and too straight to be anything natural. Cue X Files theme.

There was a weird scintillation to the object and, in my mind’s eye, I could see the sequentially rippling running lights on the edge of a saucer cruising over the desert, its hull cooling from the plunge into earth’s atmosphere as its pilots searched for a suitable landing spot after their journey of who knew how many light years. That line from War of the Worlds about “minds vast, cool, and unsympathetic” came to mind and I could feel goosebumps sprouting. I half-expected green death rays to blast me where I stood.

Then I noticed that the object seemed to be slightly larger. It was headed my way! Mingled terror and awe. First contact. Take us to your leader, who, God help us, happened to be Nixon. I also noticed a creamy glow developing in the east, but I knew what that was: the moon, getting ready to rise. Then I noticed something else: I had a telescope! Homer Simpson wasn’t even a twinkle in Matt Groening’s eye, but this was an early “Doh!” moment. I deftly aimed the instrument toward the object, peered through the finder telescope, and was even more mystified.

The scintillation was real. There was indeed a line of lights flashing on and off, but they were not turning on sequentially. Nor were they spaced with the geometric precision one would expect. Each light was, however, flashing with a regular pulse, and the period seemed to be pretty consistent for all the lights: about three flashes a second. I centered the spacecraft (now firmly convinced that’s what it was) in the finder’s field of view and looked at it through the 60 power eyepiece of the main telescope.

The strange green sheen of the hull betrayed the alien nature of the craft. Auroral curtains shimmering at the base of the ship hinted at the power of its advanced magnetic drive. They had come. The world was about to change forever.

Well, maybe not. What I actually saw was even stranger until my brain made the right connections. I was indeed looking at alien life forms: geese, on their way to some avian resort. The underside of their wings was reflecting the light of the moon, which was still hidden by hills at my location. Distance and perspective had blended the flock into a single line. Eventually the geese got close enough that I could see their characteristic “v” formation and hear their faint, evocative honks.

Without a telescope it would have been impossible to determine the nature of this UFO, which makes me think that most of the twenty-percent as-yet unexplained UFO sightings by sane, sober, honest people could have become explicable given a bit of optical aid or a different point of view. Under the right conditions even the most prosaic things can look extraordinary: Venus; weather balloons; swamp gas — all the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me official explanations. If investigators at Project Bluebook had suggested that I had seen a flock of geese I’d be looking over my shoulder for black helicopters even today. No way that was a flock of geese! But the telescope revealed that it was.

Item Number 2 in my UFO casebook isn’t quite so easy to explain. The desert encounter occurred when I was 18, arguably well above the age of reason (which I actually didn’t reach until 35, like most of my generation, but that, too, is another story). At least I was old enough and knew enough to eventually figure out what I was seeing. My first UFO sighting, however, happened when I was a mere lad of seven, and I thought nothing of it at the time.

The sighting lasted maybe three seconds. I was sitting directly behind the driver of our school bus as it cruised through a New Jersey forest ablaze with the colors of autumn. I was looking out the window, studiously ignoring Sharon Blake, the cute little red-haired girl across the aisle. The sky was blue and early morning sun dappled the treetops. Just ahead of the bus there was a flash of light. It was the sun gleaming off a shiny metallic disk flying over the road from right to left at maybe a thirty degree angle. I watched it for a couple of seconds until it went behind the trees. I thought it was kind of cool. Some new type of airplane, maybe, but no big deal.

I’m blessed — sometimes plagued — by the ability to retain vivid images. I remember looking out through the bars of a crib and can recall the shiny varnish that coated the top of a bannister at my grandmother’s house, viewed from the perspective of a babe in arms. This is not a particularly useful talent, but it allows me to recall details about that flying saucer that suggest the sighting was not a synthetic memory based on a dream or a misapprehended conventional aircraft such as a helicopter.

The UFO was lustrous silver and perfectly circular, sufficiently oblate that it looked basically flat, but there might have been a slight convex bulge to the bottom. As it glided across the road, a dazzling sub-solar glint slid along its edge, properly obeying the laws of optics. The most amazing thing about it was that its silvery underside reflected the orange and red treetops. I was able to see the trees as if in a mirror. This brief, bird’s-eye view is what enchanted my seven-year-old mind and it is the primary detail that convinces me I saw a real, physical object that morning.

If I were filling out a UFO report I would guess the thing was about 50 feet in diameter and 200 feet up. If it were much higher or bigger the tree reflections wouldn’t have been so distinct. It was likely moving at about the same speed as the bus, maybe 30-40 miles per hour. Given the location of the sun glint and the time of day, the bus was headed west and the UFO was traveling southwest. That should be enough to pin down the location of the saucer nest, don’t you think?

Did I see an alien spacecraft? Probably not. The least-bad explanation is that it was a test device from the nearby Picatinny Arsenal, covered with the same kind of aluminized Mylar envelope used on the Echo satellite two years later. This observation happened in 1958, post Sputnik, at the dawn of the Space Age, when America was frantically trying to catch up with the Russians. We could hear test firings of the Redstone rocket every few days, so they were doing bleeding-edge work at Picatinny. Perhaps it was an exotic balloon, like the one that supposedly went down at Roswell. Aeronautical engineers were trying all sorts of weird designs then. I’ve seen footage of a wacky flying saucer-like test craft from that time, but I don’t think it ever got more than a few feet off the ground; the computers required to stabilize such a thing weren’t around yet. The object I saw flew very gracefully.

Anybody know what it might have been?

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Global Warming: A Human Perspective

According to most climate experts, anthropogenic greenhouse gases add about 2 watts per square-meter of radiative forcing to earth’s environment. This is roughly the power used by a small Christmas tree lamp. In more personal terms, the human body generates approximately 100 watts of power and has a surface area of around 2 square-meters. Assuming that the sole of the average foot has an area of about 200 square-centimeters, it would emit 1 watt of power. Both feet, applied to a surface, would add 2 watts to that surface. Applied to a square-meter, that would be equivalent to the anthropogenic greenhouse effect.

If we could cover every square meter of the Greenland ice cap with a barefoot human — a magical, never frostbitten human willing to stand, day after day, pumping his 2 watts into the ice — would we expect the ice to melt?

The answer is “eventually.” A back-of-the-envelope calculation* suggests that it would take about 10,000 years, assuming an average ice depth of 2 kilometers. In light of this, Al Gore’s threat to invoke the wrath of Gaia to bring about a complete meltdown in 60 years seems off by a couple of orders of magnitude — unless, of course, he is willing to acknowledge the possibility that the warming we observe is due to a so-far unmeasurable anthropogenic effect superimposed on a poorly understood natural warming process that began when Abraham Lincoln was a baby, long before carbon dioxide levels changed.

Such an admission, however, might be inconvenient.

*2 Watts = 172800 Joules/day
333700 Joules melts 1 kg of ice
Therefore 2 watts melts 172800/333700=0.52 kg/day
1 kg = 1000 cubic centimeters of ice (yes, I know its really a bit more because of expansion)
Distributed over 1 square meter, this equals a depth of 0.1 cm
But our feet can melt only 0.52 kg/day, so a hotfooted human would melt a depth of (0.52)X 0.1 cm / day = 0.05 cm/day (half a millimeter)
THUS, the heat from a person’s feet would melt (distributed over a square meter), a depth of:
0.05 cm/day
1 meter/2000 days (call it 5 years)
2000 meters in 10,000 years (This surprised even me, so I’d appreciate a check of this reasoning by more arithmetically adept readers).

NB: Junk Science has a detailed discussion of how to evaluate anthropogenic radiative forcing .

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Quest for a New Earth

If our civilization survives for another decade or two, we may get our first glimpse of a planet remarkably like Earth. The red dwarf star Gliese 581 is about 20.5 light years away, practically next door. Last year, two planets were discovered orbiting it. Both are giant worlds like Jupiter, detected by the subtle wobble they produced in their “sun” as they tug it slightly to and fro with their gravitational fields. Last month, astronomers announced the discovery of a third planet, dubbed GL 581 c. Two things about it are intriguing: Its mass is only about 5 times greater than Earth’s (as opposed to Jupiter’s 300 times greater heft), making it one of the smallest extrasolar planets yet detected. If it is made of rocky material like earth, it would be only about 75 percent larger than our world. The second interesting thing is its orbit, which places it squarely in its parent star’s “Goldilocks Zone,” where it is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain liquid water. This is the first planet we’ve found that could conceivably look something like Earth, with white swirling clouds and vast oceans.

We should be reluctant to draw a graph using two data points, however, and all we know about this world is its mass and orbit. Be cautioned that all that follows is speculation. Gliese 581 shines with only 1.3 percent of the Sun’s luminosity, so a planet would have to orbit 14 times closer than Earth orbits the Sun in order to receive the same amount of heat. GL 581 c does this, in fact, giving it a “year” that is only 13 earth-days long. In such a close orbit Gliese 851c has probably become tidally locked, so that its rotation period matches its orbital period. This means that the same hemisphere would always be turned toward its star. Our own moon does this, so that we see only one side of it.

Such a situation could make for an interesting climate. Any ocean in the subsolar region of GL 581 c might simmer under a perpetual hood of steam. If the atmosphere is dense enough, convection might carry heat away to the dark side, possibly preventing it from freezing in its eternal night. The most habitable place might be the “Twilight Zone” near the boundary between night and day. Any creatures living in this temperate band would see their sun as a bloated orange orb — a dozen times larger than our sun looks to us — poised always on the horizon. Plants, questing for light, would tumble over themselves, trying to grow ever-sunward. I imagined a situation like this back in 1980, and have updated my painting of this “Marching Forest” to suit the GL 581 c scenario.

So far, no telescope has been able to photograph a planet orbiting another star, but with any luck, sophisticated satellites planned for the next decade may obtain spectrographic data that could tell us something about the compositions of the atmospheres of these distant worlds. GL 581 c is close enough that, should its atmosphere contain oxygen — almost certainly proof of life because it is so unlikely to remain unbound for long — we would have the first evidence that earthlike worlds abound.

Whether that realisation does anything to improve behavior on this planet is anyone’s guess. A sense that there is still wonder and mystery in the universe might kindle hope in those parts of the world where there currently doesn’t seem to be much, this side of Paradise.

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