Monday, October 22, 2012

Haikus for Sober Daylight

(Graffiti at Gasworks Park, Seattle)

Normally I don't much care for writing poetry. Constraints can be useful for creative exploration, but I usually wind up feeling overconstrained by rules governing rhyme and meter. At some point the rules stop being welcome milestones for navigation and start being frustrating limits on what I can say. Though prose can seem more mundane upon reading, it's liberating to be able to write unbounded by artificial and unnecessary structure. Sometimes, though, it's nice to do something different.

I woke up this morning and decided I'd rather write some haikus than keep packing for my departure to Arizona. Here they are:

I think I want to
be a Renaissance man, but
napping is cool, too.

As an engineer,
gravity bothers me, but
I like that stars shine.

Girl in a green dress
Standing on the median
Should've hit the brakes.

I want another
haiku. Because of pride? Or
because I like them?

Taylor Swift makes more
money and music than me.
That's okay. She's pretty.

war is exciting to the
The problem is that
we might someday play it for
real. That would be bad.

I find writing more
interesting than lunch, but I'm
also hungry now.

Moving all my stuff,
I marvel at how much should
have been trashed before.

I understand that
is a thing. Wait. What?

Freedom from want is
the best place to be, but I
want it. Dammit, brain.

Writing about flow
is hard. Minds don't like thinking
about ego loss.

Did I write this just
for symmetry, or because
I want more haikus?

Some of these refer to real things. Most of them seem to be fairly meta. If only there wasn't still so much packing to do, I might be able to make better sense of what I'm trying to say, assuming that such a thing exists.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Southern Wild

Image credit

This isn't a news blog. I'm not even sure what this blog is for sometimes. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that there was spectacular news from the European Southern Observatory on Tuesday night that I haven't mentioned until now. Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our solar system, has at least one planet. Greg Laughlin posted an excellent overview of the technical and cultural implications of this discovery here.

Alpha Centauri has planets! And not just any planets, the one discovered is almost a twin of Earth in size, one of the smallest ever discovered. This is wonderful news. Alpha Centauri is a stellar archipelago anchored by three main sequence stars, and the larger two (A and B) are close in size and age to our Sun. Multiple star systems are more common than singletons like the Sun, and finding at least one planet in the Alpha Cen system underlines the message that's been slowly emerging from the search for extrasolar planets. Where there are stars, there are usually planets, and where there are planets, there are possible homes for life.

No exoplanets will be discovered closer to home. This is the primary reason the ESO's discovery is so exciting. The new planet's proximity will make it more practical to observe and travel to than any other planetary system yet known. Note that that doesn't mean observation and travel will be easy. Alpha Centauri is still a frighteningly long distance away at the speeds human-built spacecraft have yet achieved. Even at the speed of light, it's more than a four year journey across the interstellar void. The most power-hungry engines we can imagine building today will only be able to manage a few percent of that speed. The most capable engines we can build today can only manage a fraction of a percent of that lower bar. Still, the divide between Sun and Alpha Cen is less than that to any other destination beyond the solar system, so this discovery is a boon for learning more of our planetary companions abroad.

I want to be sure that I'm not overhyping this discovery. The planet discovered is a strangely hellish place. She orbits so closely to Alpha Centauri B that a year there lasts about three and a quarter Earth days, and the planet's surface is so hot that the surface is probably more lava than rock. There are no oceans of water there, but there could be lakes of copper. Alpha Cen B's companion is not a home for starship pioneers, and would be a very challenging place even for robotic exploration. The main reason the announcement is so exciting is not so much for the freakish world it unveiled, but because it shows that more clement places may await discovery nearby.

Laughlin's description of the data collection and analysis that led to the announcement illustrates what a demanding challenge the ESO team has answered. The new planet is much too dim to see against the white-hot glare of Alpha Centauri A and B. Instead, astronomers saw the signature of her presence in the doppler shift of Alpha Cen B swinging back and forth against the planet's gravitational tug. A and B orbit each other in a lazy double-elliptical path that pulls them through a cycle once every 80 years, but even at that rate Alpha Centauri B is sprinting away from the Sun and double the fastest speed astronauts have ever achieved. The wobble due to the planet discovered perturbs this path by the speed of a falling leaf. The light leaving Alpha Cen B carrying the signal of the planet's presence left with a sticky residue of noise from starspot activity, convection, and stellar rotation. After travelling for four years across the vacuum of space, it was garbled further by turbulence in the last few milliseconds on the way through Earth's atmosphere to the ESO's telescopes in the Chilean desert. Like CERN's discovery of the Higgs boson earlier this year, this discovery is as much a triumph of statistical analysis as it is of instrument design and perseverance. While only one planet is currently known, the signal of an Earth-sized planet the right distance from B to have watery oceans will be harder to tease out of the data than that of the planet announced on Tuesday. An American team has been collecting high-cadence doppler observation data on Alpha Cen B since 2008. In a few years, they or the Europeans may have even more startling discoveries to announce.

Alpha Centauri B is the second-brightest star in its system, and the planet ESO announced earlier this week is the first planet discovered around B, so it will officially be known as Alpha Centauri B b for the time being. That's an awkward name, one that makes the planet sound more like bank account than a world. She'll be given a more appropriate name when astronomers and engineers are much further along in her exploration, as the Curiosity team has done with Mount Sharp on Mars.

Due to an awkward and unfortunate coincidence of Earth's orbit, attitude, and plate tectonics, most people won't be able to see the Alpha Centauri system tonight. Viewed from Earth, it's far south of the equator, and only appears directly overhead in the wild waters of the Southern Ocean. Alpha Centauri never appears for observers north of Houston, and is only occasionally visible between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer.
A few summers ago I was in Campinas, Brazil during July and August, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The familiar constellations of the north, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia,  Polaris, where nowhere to be found on the long clear nights of the southern tropical winter. Each cloudless night, the Southern Cross glowed like a string of lighthouses pointing the way to the Antarctic, and the constellation Centaurus shimmered to its east. The brightest star, the Alpha of Centauri, formed one of the Centaur's forward hooves, and shined clear, twinkling, and colorless, like a diamond in a sea of rubies, sapphires, and pebbles. Now I know there was a world on fire that I was seeing in that point of light. Alpha Centauri is nothing to those in north, but in the southern skies it's brighter than Arcturus, beckoning those who look up from Sao Paulo, Sydney, and Cape Town. As people once ventured to those places, so we'll one day venture further south. South of the Cape of Good Hope, south of Amundsen's camp at the pole, south of orbits of all the planets, south until the Sun is just a white fleck in the northern sky, and home is among the worlds of Centauri

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Logos et Volantes

Though I'm no longer a student at Texas A&M, I've been in College Station lately, and can still check out books from Evans Library. Since I'll be departing soon for Arizona, then Washington, I've been spending as much time as I can get away with lately thumbing through the third floor aviation and space section. First, I jotted down some notes from T.A. Heppenheimer's two-volume Development of the Space Shuttle history (which should be required reading for anyone interested in program management, government science policy, or technology development), and read through Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon (which is severely problematic, more on that later). Over the last week, I've been reading Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis, and I've not be disappointed.

There aren't many people who have both made great strides in human flight and eloquently described their work and experience to a broader audience. Lindbergh is one of them (if you're interested in others, I recommend Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Michael Collins, and Mike Mullane). In my reading today, I came across two passages in particular that do much to capture the feeling of awe that flight enables us to glimpse:

"Behind every movement, word, and detail, one felt the strength of life, the presence of death. There was pride in man’s conquest of the air. There was the realization that he took life in hand to fly, that in each bolt and wire and wooden strut death lay imprisoned like the bottled genie – waiting for an angled grain or loosened nut to let it out."

"Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved. There was science in each curve of an airfoil, in each angle between strut and wire, in the gap of a spark plug or the color of the exhaust flame. There was freedom in the unlimited horizon, on the open fields where one landed. A pilot was surrounded by beauty of earth and sky. He brushed treetops with the birds, leapt valleys and rivers, explored the cloud canyons he had gazed at as a child. Adventure lay in each puff of wind."

What Lindbergh understood, and Mailer so failed to grasp, was that the severance of contact with the Earth is an experience charged with the numinous by its very nature. Talking about these kinds of experiences, these moments of contact with psychological flow and awe at humanity's place in the cosmos, is very difficult. Thank goodness we have articulate accounts like that of Lindbergh. If nothing else, he reminds me that I should go flying more often.

Monday, October 15, 2012


The first time I flew solo in an airplane, I departed from Pleasant Valley Airport in Peoria. It’s a small operation north of Phoenix, and the facilities can best be described as “Spartan.” The runways are thin strips of desert floor plowed free of the larger pieces of sandstone and basalt, and the gravel and protuberances of the dry Gila River valley cover each of the runways. The Schweizer 2-33 can take off at a hair under 40 miles an hour when it’s not burdened with the weight of two riders, but even at that speed rolling over the dirt runways at Pleasant Valley is a jarring experience.

When the airplane first starts rolling all its weight is borne by the landing gear and their contact with the runway. Every bump, dip, and chip of gravel transmits a jolt to the wheels, the aircraft structure, and ultimately to the pilot. You accelerate as you roll down the runway, and the experience of ground contact begins to rattle your spine. Soon, though, the wings are moving quickly enough through the dusty air that they ease the load on the tires, pushing the glider’s weight through sheets of air rather than wheels on ground. Takeoff is a moment first sensed through touch rather than sight. When the shaking stops, replaced by the smooth continuous jostling of aerodynamic motion through turbulence, you’re aloft.

It’s a relief to be airborne after the rattling and rolling of the takeoff run. Ground holds an airplane gruffly, though the path is assured. The touch of air is gentle, purposeful but accommodating, like the hold of a familiar dance partner. Leaving the ground behind and embracing the air above is a moment of relief for the pilot, knowing he’s taken the machine into a realm where she’s better equipped to move through the elements. Still, on a gusty day it can be an unnerving process to leave the certainty of the path of ground below.

This process of embracing uncertainty and drawing away from the unsettling notions of the past is something like my experience developing my career and exploring religion in the last few years. To be honest, this seems the most appropriate way to describe where I am:

Whether or not I have any idea what I’m doing, I have ideas with varying shades of vagueness on what progress is, and I like making progress. I've spent more time idle than I’d like since deciding to put grad school on hold and head to Boeing, but that will come to an end after the new year. I’m confident that that’s the best I action I can take now, though it is a departure from my original plan. In the meantime, I've written quite a bit on various things that interest me, and plan to make more serious progress between now and starting full-time in Seattle. Will advise.

Last month, I started going to the weekly Rite of Christian Introduction for Adults (RCIA) at St. Mary’s in College Station. This is trickier, but I've had enough influences, some subtle, some overt, in my life pushing me toward Catholicism that I felt I needed to learn more about it. So I’m gathering data, trying to make an informed decision, painfully aware of how bad I can be at making important decisions when I’m given conflicting advice. Still, this seems like the appropriate place for me to be now (though I’ll need to find new RCIA classes in Phoenix later this month and in Seattle in January), so I’ll keep plugging away trying to make sense of how things work in this universe.

I’m slowly beginning to understand that if I keep flippantly taking up monumentally challenging tasks, I’ll probably never really feel like I know what I’m doing. Not that that’s a big deal. Truth be told, I can’t think of anything better to do.