Looking at the Northern Lights

Aurora BorealisThe Aurora Borealis—that mysterious shimmer of light appearing sometimes in the night sky—is a great thing to contemplate now during Hanukkah, our Festival of Lights, and so close to the Winter Solstice. You can’t even plan to see the Aurora, this huge, otherworldly phenomenon, one of the strangest of light events on earth. You just have to show up where it might be seen and hope one will reveal itself.

What is the Aurora Borealis, anyway? It was named for Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and for Boreas, the north wind, in the 17th century, and often just called the Northern Lights.

Before scientists teased out the secrets of the Northern Lights, the Kwakiutl and Tlingit people of Alaska interpreted them as the dancing of human spirits. The Inuit people of Labrador identified them as the torches held by spirits from the true heavens beyond the sky, meant to lead newly arrived spirits on the right pathway. The Algonquin Indians said that they were the reflection of fires built by the Creator, who retired to the north after he finished his work, kept burning to remind the people that he still thinks of them.

The story told by scientists is just as incredible. Our sun throws off constant small storms of plasma—masses of electrified gas ejected out from its surface. These fly out in all directions on the solar wind. When they get near enough to the earth, they slide across our magnetosphere—the giant electromagnetic body that surrounds us, basically shielding us from getting too much radiation from the sun and the cosmos.

Earth's magnetosphere absorbing solar plasma

Earth’s magnetosphere absorbing solar plasma, still from animation at http://wimp.com/borealisaurora/

Some of the plasma is pulled in and sucked toward the north and south poles, where it interacts with elements in the stratosphere. Here’s a great animation showing this process.

This interaction of particles of sun and earth creates the Aurora Borealis, as well as the Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere. A green light show, the most common, means that oxygen particles have been more excited by the flux of free electrons and positive ions, at an altitude of up to 150 miles. The rarely appearing red Aurora means it’s happening even higher than that. Blue or violet light shows reveal the involvement of nitrogen particles at a lower altitude. Sometimes the Aurora appears as undulating curtains, sometimes as swirling lines, or merely a soft allover glow. We now have numerous images, and even videos taken from space, showing how globe-spanning a single event can be.

Aurora seen from space

Aurora seen from space, Wikimedia Commons

Have you seen the northern lights? I haven’t, but I hope I’ll be lucky enough to see them with my own eyes someday. It will be a chance for an up-close encounter with an off-world astrophysical effect, without the need for filters or lenses—a direct experience of the vast electromagnetic environment around us as it briefly drops into the visible realm, to become a stunning spectacle of light in the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Burchfield and synesthesia

Burchfield's "Midsummer Caprice" (detail), 1945

Burchfield’s Midsummer Caprice (detail), 1945, Burchfield Penney Art Center

In the paintings of Charles Burchfield, the trees vibrate, the air pulses with rhythmic patterns, and birdsong takes on shape and color. Everything is alive, even a dead branch, even a house. At the major exhibit of Burchfield’s work at the Brandywine River Museum, up through November 16, you can see the early and later paintings in which he worked full-out to translate his visionary experience of the natural world.

Burchfield lived from 1893-1967, in Ohio and upstate New York, away from the centers of art-world activity. But he kept up with the currents of modern art. It’s possible that learning about the daring art of the 1913 Armory Show helped him make his own breakthrough work in 1915, when he first began to make connections between his own intense responses to nature and music, and his painted landscapes. In the 1930s he became known for sometimes brooding portrayals of small towns and industrial scenes. Then, in the midst of World War II, he returned to his earlier desire to convey the strange aliveness of nature.

Burchfield's "Early Spring," 1966-67

Burchfield’s Early Spring, 1966-67, Burchfield Penney Art Center

Birds transforming into air currents, the sound of cicadas appearing like jagged leaves around a tree—was there some hallucinogenic stimulation involved here? Very unlikely. Nancy Weekly, who co-curated the Brandywine exhibit, has highlighted the idea that Burchfield had synesthesia—the ability to experience trans-sensory perceptions, such as sound as color or vice versa. It may be that I love his work so much because I have synesthesia too—along with many others in my family, from my father, my sister and brother through nieces and nephews. We have the most common type, seeing numbers and letters as specific colors. Although it’s relatively rare, at least one study has shown that synesthesia is more common among visual artists, and I suspect that may be true of poets, musicians and composers too.

Synesthesia runs strongly through early modern art: Kandinsky wrote about trying to achieve color-sound consonances through painting, and it can be seen as a motivator toward abstraction in his work and others, including artists of the Blue Rider school. Burchfield was aware of all this, yet he didn’t follow the path of pure abstraction. For him, those sensory correspondences were inextricably linked to the blooming, buzzing profusion of the natural world. He persisted in making pictures showing how, for him, everything around us vibrates along many interconnected spectrums—sound, color, energy.

Does any of this strike a chord? If so, what color is it?

 

Charles Burchfield: Exalted Nature

Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA – through November 16

 

 

 

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Got Climate Change?

CM Diane my sign

Diane Burko holding my sign

I was one of the 300,000-plus people in the People’s Climate March in New York on September 21 – and like many others there, it had been a long time since I joined a march. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of a big crowd, all sharing a growing feeling of alarm over patterns of climate change, and deep dismay over patterns of denial among those who could and/or should know better.

The low clouds held back except for a brief spatter of rain, and the mood held too: a lovely parade buoyancy, and a palpable excitement at being part of a visible expression of something we all cared about. I went on one of dozens of buses from Philadelphia organized by 350.org, carrying my handmade sign, saying WAKE UP. My partner for the day was Diane Burko, an artist who has been making powerful paintings and photographs documenting the melting of glaciers and other effects of climate change. Diane has traveled to the Arctic Circle, Greenland, and Antarctica, and to scientific conferences to speak about her work.

CM give bees a chance

This group’s slogan was Give Bees a Chance

The parade had seven thematic groupings, starting with FRONTLINES OF CRISIS, FOREFRONT OF CHANGE and ending with the inclusive TO CHANGE EVERYTHING, WE NEED EVERYONE. Diane and I joined the group behind the banner THE DEBATE IS OVER, whose float was a giant rolling blackboard with drawings charting rising CO2 and ocean temperatures. We were surrounded by scientists—old and young, men and women, of many backgrounds, and many with their children—representing fields from geology to psychoanalysis.

Because the turnout was so much higher then expected – estimates had been around 100,000 beforehand – the street backed up with participants, and those of us in the back stood for several hours before actually marching. Pizzas were delivered, snacks and water were shared. Finally, we set off down Central Park West, walking with people who had lost homes to Katrina and Sandy, young activists, old activists, dignitaries, working people, stilt walkers, musicians, people representing Pacific island nations whose very land is in danger of disappearing under rising seas.

Giant puppet of Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty in rising waters, wearing a life jacket

The parade ended at 11th Avenue, near the Hudson River. It’s not far from here, I realized, that a scene takes place toward the end of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. In Egan’s brilliant vision of the ways we are changed by technology and other forces, climate change has become part of the background of city life: a few decades from now, on a warm day in February, a young family gathers with others on the ramparts of the giant sea wall that’s been built to keep the rising waters out of New York. Climbing up to watch the sunset from there has become a new tradition, since the view has been blocked out by the wall.

What will we have to face as a result of the climate change that has already been set in motion? People whose cities have the resources to build sea walls will be the lucky ones. We need to acknowledge what scientists are telling us, and we need help from artists and others to visualize what’s happening now, and to imagine what’s in store. We need to wake up.

 

 

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Seeing Turrell’s Skyspace

A view of the Chestnut Hill Skyspace

Chestnut Hill Skyspace, photo by Greg Benson for Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting

My friend and I arrived at James Turrell’s Skyspace, at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse, just before sundown. When I asked another visitor if we could take photos, the man—who had visited a number of times before—told us the artist had asked that no one take pictures, so that we could keep the experience “in here”—he tapped at his heart.

Turrell has built dozens of these perceptual environments around the world, but only two in the context of Quaker worship. This newest Skyspace encompasses the small, white-walled meetinghouse room, with a carefully constructed, rimless opening in the center of its roof, and a bank of hidden, digitally programmed LED lights high on the walls.

If it rains, the Skyspace viewing is cancelled, since the rain would come right in through the opening, which is usually covered. It had rained just a few hours before, but thankfully, the sky cleared up: when the covering retracted, we looked up into a softly blue sky with puffs of gray clouds. I took the invitation to lie on the floor, right under the opening. This made it different from a Quaker Meeting for Worship, though the silence that fell over the visitors through the next fifty minutes felt very close to a Meeting.

The open, rimless rectangle, framing a piece of deep sky, at first touched off a sense that I was looking at a painting—although a painting that moves—against a white background. Paintings traditionally aspired to be windows onto another view, right? It’s as if Turrell knew how hard it is to keep our eyes and brains still enough to pay attention to the sky, and offered us this one bite-sized piece.

Slowly, like a curtain rising, the hidden lighting in the room changed, and with that, we were transported into another place. Turrell the perceptual magician ushered us into worlds where our sky was intensely green, soft orange, deep lilac or faded yellow—a startling result of our eyes adapting to the changing ambient hue in the room. More amazements followed: was that a halo around the sky? Was I maybe standing in front of a window, rather than lying under it—and could I just get up and walk through it now? Finally, we blinked under the coal-black aperture, and walked outside to a sky of midnight blue.

Lying under the window of sky, I found myself wanting to share the experience with others—particularly with my father. He is in his final illness; he sleeps a lot and talks only a little. I wished I could convey to him some of the light we saw, taking it out of my heart and putting it in his. Still, I know the experience is different each time and for each person: everybody has to see his own light.

Chestnut Hill Skyspace is open to visitors 
at sunset on Sundays and Thursdays, 
and at sunrise on Thursdays.
Opening is subject to temperature and precipitation.
To learn more and to register, visit chestnuthillskyspace.org

 

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Nikola Tesla’s hidden contribution

Tesla cover image


Tesla featured on the cover of the Electrical Experimenter, 1902

Nikola Tesla is a hero to geeks everywhere, who will be celebrating his birthday this week. World-famous in his lifetime, the prodigiously gifted inventor fell into semi-obscurity after his death in 1943, even though his inventions helped create the world we live in now.

Tesla’s fans know about his groundbreaking work in many fields: his invention of radio (sorry, Marconi), his creation of the alternating-current motor, his singlehanded development of remote-control robotics, to name a few—all before 1900. Like some virtuoso of invention, Tesla worked solo, perfecting most of his inventions in his head. Eventually, he held several hundred patents.

But there is one development for which he hasn’t gotten credit, even as a collaborator. And if you’re thinking it may be the electric car—that’s not it. We should also give Tesla his due for contributing to the birth of modern science fiction.

Tesla’s imagination never turned off, and he continued to churn out ideas with world-changing implications—if they had been realized. His World Broadcasting System, anticipating the Internet by decades, ended as a half-built ruin on Long Island. He thought up “death rays” made of charged-particle beams, experimented with using principles of resonance to cause earthquakes, and even proposed pulling electricity down from the ionosphere, to provide virtually free energy around the globe.

These and other huge-scaled projects didn’t come to be, but they inspired others who were part of Tesla’s circle. One of them was Hugo Gernsback, a young writer, inventor and publisher of popular science and science fiction—a term that he coined. (The Hugo award, one of science fiction’s highest honors, is his namesake.) Tesla’s inventions and ideas resonated intensely with Gernsback: articles about Tesla ran regularly in his early magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, and Tesla’s autobiography, My Inventions, appeared in its pages. The young author inserted Tesla into a sci-fi story of his own, The Magnetic Storm, in 1918. A few years later, Gersnback founded the legendary Amazing Stories—the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction.

Tesla’s work can be seen as a kind of template for early science fiction: they both share a worldwide focus, speculation on war and peace, and a general hope in the possibilities of human progress. The way I see it, it was as if some of the visions Tesla was offering couldn’t be encompassed by society in his time, and had to spill over into the arena of imagination. There they fed the blossoming of a new art form—the first in human history to focus on the future.

Science fiction has become an immersive background to our lives, via Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, the Matrix and many other imagined future worlds that owe their existence to the genre of popular science fiction. It’s almost second nature for us now to slip into these virtual environments, trying on possibilities and working through ominous scenarios, using the future as a canvas to help us figure out what’s happening now, and where we want to go. We take this time-shifting between present and future for granted—as much as we take for granted the electrical power that surrounds us, thanks to Tesla’s worldwide electrical grid.

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla, and thank you for helping to introduce us to the future.

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Asteroid Sighting

Asteroid shooting across skyThe Asteroid Belt Almanac celebrated its launch yesterday, at a great event put together by the publishers, The Head & the Hand Press. Great venue too – Indy Hall, a loft-style co-working space in Old City Philadelphia for tech workers, startups and other creative folks.

I’m so happy to be part of this forward-thinking project. This beautiful little Almanac re-imagines Benjamin Franklin’s iconic format, bringing together contributors who share an interest in the intersection of technology and science with our lives today. There are essays (including mine), a graphic novel script, some actual science fiction, art and more. In a nod to the old almanac form, this one even includes a guide to 2014 meteor showers, and a Weather Glossary – but this one’s geared toward climate change literacy. (Do you know what anvil zits are?) Really, it’s a must have!

You can order the Asteroid Belt Almanac direct from The Head & the Hand, or from Amazon.

contributors

Three Almanac contributors, l-r: Christine Neulieb, me in my vintage Star Trek uniform, and Sarah Grey

Nic Esposito, founder of H&H

Nic Esposito, founder of The Head & The Hand Press

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Mark Twain & Crowdfunding

Mark-Twain-Nikola-Tesla-Laboratory-1894

Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s Laboratory, 1894

I’ve just written a guest post for The Head & The Hand Press, considering how Mark Twain’s innovations in publishing could be seen as a precursor to the growing trend of crowdfunding for books. Twain/Clemens thought outside the box not only in his writing, but in the business of books. You can read the post here.

Twain’s passion for innovation and invention led him to admire the work of Nikola Tesla. Here’s a picture of him in Tesla’s New York laboratory, holding what looks like one of Tesla’s wireless light bulbs. You can just make out Tesla on the left.

And speaking of crowdfunding, the preorder campaign for The Head & The Hand’s Asteroid Belt Almanac is in its final week. Order a book, support a great independent press, and get a beautiful anthology of new writing and art, all at once!

Posted in Arts in the Digital Age, Future of Books, Nikola Tesla | 3 Comments

The Asteroid Belt Almanac

ImageWhat if Poor Richard’s Almanac were reimagined for today? The Asteroid Belt Almanac, coming soon from The Head and the Hand Press in Philadelphia, is all about using this homey literary form to help us imagine the futures we’re moving toward. The old Farmer’s Almanac offered stories and interpretations of the stars to help farmers with their planting. The Asteroid Belt Almanac is a place to consider the strange intersections of creativity, science and technology that we’re experiencing now.

It will include my essay, Gravity and the Cloud, an expansion on my blog post Gravity and the Noosphere (both inspired by seeing the movie Gravity), as well as the script for a graphic novel about travel to Mars, thoughts on music in the digital age, star charts, and much more. The publishers hope that it will “help to measure the kind of atmospheric pressure felt between daring hypotheses, between small steps and giant leaps.”

Preorder the Asteroid Belt Almanac! For $15, or more if you would like extra rewards, you’ll get a beautiful book, craft-printed on recycled paper. I love how with this project, The Head and the Hand Press is linking its commitment to fine artisanal printing with a new way of funding, via Pubslush, a site dedicated to crowdfunding for books.

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Opera, Real and Surreal

Three operas featured at New Works Forum

Three new operas showcased at Opera America’s New Works Forum: l-r, The Summer King, Judgment of Midas, Dog Days

“Opera permits us to go into a world that is not real.”

This was spoken by Nicole Paiement, artistic director of Opera Parallèle, about halfway through a panel discussion of storytelling in opera at Opera America’s New Works Forum, held last week in New York. I was there because Judgment of Midas, the new opera I’m involved with, was scheduled for a showcase performance—an excerpt with singers and piano.

I heard these words with a sense of relief and recognition. After this, others in the room acknowledged that many opera companies have gotten into a “quasi-naturalistic groove,” developing new operas that share with much of traditional opera a straight-ahead, scene-by-scene narrative arc.

It’s been almost forty years since the 1976 premiere of Einstein on the Beach, with its shocking mix of enigmatic text, Robert Wilson’s hypnotic movement and the propulsive sound of Philip Glass—and it’s been eighty years since Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, sung to a blithely out-there libretto by Gertrude Stein. Since the groundbreaking Einstein, new opera and music-theater have staked out a wider range of possibility for the story, or in some cases, the text that goes with the music. Operas like John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, about the first atomic blast, expand the story with diversions into poetry and myth, while Anna Nicole borrows TV talk-show format and flashbacks to create a large-scale version of the would-be Pop goddess.

At the New Works Forum, Nicole Paiement described an upcoming production planned for her Opera Parallèle in San Francisco, a mash-up of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel and the Baroque-era Les Mamelles de Tirésius by Poulenc, which sounds—well, I can’t even imagine how this will turn out, which makes it pretty interesting. In some ways, a lot of new opera has more in common with Baroque opera, with its stories of mythical heroes, gods and goddesses. With Judgment of Midas, the libretto I wrote offers a place where Greek gods interact with present-day humans. In the libretto for Violet Fire, I tried to create a dream-like space in which the events, people and visions experienced by the inventor Nikola Tesla could intermingle.

People still respond to the big characters and passionate stories that are the stuff of traditional opera. But it may be that now, with our lives marked by a dizzying interplay of the virtual and real, we need art forms to reflect that multiplicity of experience—the feeling of living in different realities. That kind of multiplicity is coded into the structure of opera, with its synthesis of story, movement, visuals and the human voice at its most powerful. You could see this multi-layered approach as stretching back to the earliest human storytelling, which combined rhythm, movement, costume and voice to create an experience of a greater, expanded reality shared by humans and gods.

I came away from the New Works Forum recharged and inspired by the work of some gifted artists in the field, and the dedication of the opera professionals who want to see new work happen. Here’s to the making of crazy, weird new operas that help us make sense of our strange, fast-changing world.

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Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved seeing Gravity. In my opinion, the Planet Earth should be nominated for a supporting-player Oscar. I drank in the massive, stunning views of the earth in the background of so many scenes—completely convincing, thanks to high-level CGI effects. At those screen-filling distances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmosphere, the delicate outer membrane that makes life on earth possible. There they were: the biosphere and the atmosphere, as seen from space for real by just a few hundred people so far.

That soft shell of atmosphere offers a visual analogue to other, unseen layers, both actual and imagined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of reality that’s tied to physical things like computers, servers, satellites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain digital, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem farfetched to think of this quickly filling-in worldwide web as another, invisible shell surrounding the earth’s surface.

And then there’s the noosphere, an idea put forward by the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Verdansky, a Russian scientist who himself gets credit for coming up with the term “biosphere.” With the noosphere (the prefix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teilhard invites us into a kind of thought experiment: imagine that all of human thought surrounds the earth in an invisible shell. As our mental outpourings grow and intensify, this “thinking layer” fills in and comes into its own. Teilhard suggested that the noosphere would emerge out of technologies “extending a closely interdependent network” around the world. At that time he was referring to radio, teletype and television—but his description seems to eerily anticipate the Internet and our current web of digital communication.

This promise of the noosphere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libretto for Violet Fire about Nikola Tesla’s vision of the earth becoming “a single brain” through his planned World Broadcasting System. In Leaving Alexandria, the novel I’m working on, it has helped me envision the accumulation of knowledge, from ancient libraries to our expanding digital cybersphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translucent envelope of our atmosphere, but that doesn’t stop us from experiencing them around us.

Posted in Nikola Tesla, Noosphere, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments