Not a physicist? Not to Worry

Not a physicist? Not to worry… Growing up, I never gave much thought to science. Art and sports were my thing. I didn’t take physics in high school. Biology and chemistry? Yes, only because they were required in the Gary school system curriculum in the 60’s. The only thoughts I had about space were pretty much limited to Flash Gordon on TV, Sputnik and race to the Moon with the Russians.

I don’t remember thinking about the wonder and science behind all that. It was by a twist of fate, a failed eye exam, that in 1969 I ended up in navigator training at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento. Night celestial navigation is one of the last courses in the program. Mather had this wonderful planetarium where we were introduced to the stars and constellations we would need to know to navigate by. Navigating with only a sextant and the stars was challenging, but fun. Sitting in our Cutlass convertible with Coriena and showing off by naming a bunch of stars and constellations was more fun.

Thinking and wondering beyond just the names of a few stars, trying to know and understand more about the cosmos, how it works and our place in it came for me, as it did for many others, in 1980 thanks to Carl Sagan’s series and book Cosmos: A Personal Voyage I never took this fascination to the point of wanting to become an astrophysicist like Neil deGrasse Tyson who credits Sagan for inspiring him. But, I was hooked.

I just finished reading Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is the next book up in the queue. These are just the latest. I have a whole shelf devoted to the Cosmos, the science, the meaning of it all and our species place in it. Besides many books by Sagan, the authors include Stephen Hawking, Brien Greene and a guy named Einstein. Alongside, you’ll find Yuval Noah Harrari, Daniel C. Dennett, Sylvia Earle Bill McKibben, Tim Flannery, Edward O. Wilson, Siddhartha Mukherjee, to name a few.

It’s all connected.

The Physics

The Evolution of every living thing (and extinct)

The Land

The Sea

The weather

It’s all connected.   

In his 80 page book, after Rovelli explains The General Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Quarts, The Standard Model, Black Holes, Time and Probability along with most everything else we know today about our world in a way even I can understand. At the end, Rovelli challenges us to consider “If the world is a swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter, a great jigsaw puzzle of space and elementary particles, then what are we?” 

It’s all connected. 

He is very clear that “we are not external observers” of this world. “We are situated within it. Our view of it is from within its midst. We are made up the same atoms and the same light signals as are exchanged between the pine trees in the mountains and the stars in the galaxies.” Like Carl Sagan said, “we are made of star stuff.” 

 “We are born and die as the stars are born and die, both individually and collectively.”  

Rovelli suggests we are a species of natural curiosity. But, we are the last of our group of species (the genus Homo) made up of equally curious species. In other words, and unlike the turtle that has been around for hundreds of millions of years, “we belong to a short-lived genus of species. All our cousins are already dead.” Our impact on the planet leaves him very pessimistic of our chances as a species or, at least, as a civilization. 

There have been five mass extinctions in our planet’s history. The sixth is more than likely to be of our own making. As Rovelli says, “The brutal climate change and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us.” 

None of the species in the first five extinctions saw it coming. He fears, “that soon we shall have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.”  

Never Stop Learning…More thoughts about the Continuum…

Lately I find myself spending more and more time reading. I have always loved to read and always made sure to make the time to read. Lots of fiction. Lots of non-fiction.

These days I have been gravitating to books that would be broadly described as historical and biographical. What I mean by broadly is the book might be of a specific historical period or person, but it brings some perspective to the times we are living today. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time” is a good example. Taylor Branches “The Parting of the Waters…America in the King Years 1954-63” is in the queue on my desk along with several other books. However, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” or Edward O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence” and “On Human Nature” take a much broader and longer historical perspective of the evolutionary twists and turns and accidents--lots of accidents--over a continuum measured in billions of years that have brought us to where we are today. 

There a several authors I keep gravitating to. I have mentioned Edward O. Wilson. and Doris Kearns Goodwin is one. Doris is more of a story teller than a typical presidential historian in the classic sense. Read “Lincoln, Team of Rivals” or “The Bully Pulpit” and “No Ordinary Time” and you’ll see what I mean. Her “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” is in the queue. David McCullough is another great story teller who has a growing place on my book shelf. 

 As I mentioned, I think what I’m reading more and more of is an attempt to put life today into some historical perspective; in the near term and along the long-term Continuum. 

 Wrapped up in the notion of the Continuum is the stage on which it unfolds…our planet Earth. Scientists who happen to be great authors take up a lot of my time. Sylvia A. Earle has spent her life trying to help us understand our history and our fate are tied to the oceans. Tim Flannery is another. Then there is Barry Lopez. Part science, mostly transcendental, Barry’s “About this life” and “Artic Dreams” along with “Crossing Open Ground” are my favorites. One of my favorite photographers and writers fits in here. Guy Tal’s writing and images help me pause and think about my art and, more importantly, my life. “More Than a Rock” is collection of Guy’s many essays. Besides his book, many of his thoughts come through his blog, newsletter and photographic magazine articles. 

 I just read his essay “What is Enough.” In other words, money doesn’t buy happiness. In it he said “We have an innate fear of the unknown, but within the unknown lies the one thing we do know—we know that at some point we will cease to exist…we do not know when or how that will come to be, but we know without a doubt it will.” 

 My first thought was, thanks, but I’m not sure I needed to be reminded I have more days behind me than ahead of me. But as I thought about it and continued to read I realized he’s trying to get me to pause and consider what it is we should find value in if we are to have a fulfilled life. He went on to say “This is the point of transcendence—when any increase in the value of life is only possible with the aid of immaterial things—experiences, emotions, knowledge, social interactions and so on.” I would add family. 

 The Continuum may have started with the Big Bang. And the Continuum is without end. Not so for us, our planet, our star, our galaxy. It may all be just a blink in time. But, that’s Guys point. Where, how and with whom you share that blink in time is where you will find real value and happiness in the life you have lived. 

 Yep. Never stop learning! 



"Kepler images were amazing…the equivalent of a seaman’s first glimpse of a new continent’s coastline, and a shout Land! Land!, where none might have existed. An estimated hundred billion star systems make up our Milky Way galaxy…the discoveries affirm that the Earth is not the center of the Universe—we’ve known since Copernicus and Galileo—but just how far from the center has been hard to imagine. The tiny blue speck we call home is proportionally no more than that, a mote of stardust near the edge of our galaxy among a hundred billion or more galaxies in the universe. It occupies just one position in a continuum of planets, moons…"

Edward O. Wilson The Meaning of Human Existence

My first reaction to Wilson's placement of humanity against the continuum of the universe, as a mote of stardust, was one of feeling small and maybe inconsequential.

But, lets pause and think about this.

Given the high probability life surely exists somewhere else in our vast universe, even in our own galaxy, makes us not small, nor inconsequential, but, rather, special and with purpose!

As Wilson would argue, life and humanity as we know it, as Homo Sapiens, is the result of evolutionary twists and turns and accidents over a continuum measured in billions of years. Millions of planets where forming around millions of suns four and a half billion years ago when our Earth was starting to form.  Fortunately for earliest microbial life forms (and for us) Earth found itself just the right distance from our sun.  Not too close.  Not too far.

The probability of microbial life on other planets or moons in our solar system is high considering we have discovered on Earth microbial life in our deepest oceans  and at the highest extremes of our atmosphere.  We have even found it in fiery volcanos.  The search is on to find it elsewhere in our solar system and beyond.

Scientists are discovering planets, light years away, circling their suns, that meet the "Goldilocks" test. Not too close. Not too far.  Given the vastness of our Universe, the probability of life even more advanced than Homo Sapiens is highly probable. Surely, whatever life is out there, microbial or advanced, has evolved through a series of unique twists and turns and accidents over billions of years.  Just as we have.

So, to be who we are, against the vastness of this continuum...Makes us unique...Makes us special...And with purpose!

As Carl Sagan said in the first pages of his book Cosmos, "The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be...In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans evolved to wonder, that understanding is joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival."  he went on to say "I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky...We are made of star stuff."


less traveled

“Two roads diverged in the wood, and I...

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost The Road Not Taken and Other Poems

So to, I have taken the less traveled. But to travel where no roads dare...that has made all the difference.

We have been lucky to be able to live and travel to some remarkable places. As you can see from the images below, many of the places we have gone to are places where there are no roads. 

 The only means to getting to places like the canals and glaciers of Patagonia along the Chilean side is by boat. Much of that coast line is uncharted and unforgiving. Being part of a crew of 15 on Alaska Eagle, gave us the opportunity to use seamanship skills we have been gaining over our 30+ years of sailing. Alaska Eagle was skippered by a couple had sailed these waters seven times before. But, as sailors know it takes everyone doing their part doing their part when on and off their watch. It’s an experience few will ever have. 

 The same can be said for our adventure aboard Discovery on Prince William Sound. To experience a place where few can because of its remoteness does make “all the difference.” Then there are the places where you can only get to by hiking in. 

 We were blessed to be able to live in New Zealand for four years. Amazing land. Amazing people. From the sub-tropical North Island to the alpine South Island there are wonders around every corner. Our four-day adventure along the Milford Trek took us to a wondrous, primeval rain forest. 

And then there’s Wyoming. The Wind River Range is a designated wilderness area. That means the only way in, around and out is by horse or on foot. My two lakeside images epitomize the wonders to be experienced. And, Yellowstone in winter is a special place. The one road that is “open” in winter in Yellowstone is the Lamar Valley road. The rest is only accessible by skis, snowshoes, snow coaches, and snowmobiles. I remember getting up early one morning, the temperature was -16. From our lodge I hiked over to Old Faithful. For two eruptions, I was the only one there. Very special. 

 As a photographer and artist you hope, as Guy Tal wrote in his book More Than a Rock, “to express more in images than the mere appearances of the things portrayed.” I hope my images that follow accomplish that.  

So, as John Muir once said "Of all the paths you take in  life, make sure a few of them are dirt."

Along the Straight of Megellan 1
Humpbacks in Monterey Bay
Dall's Porpoise Along Port Wells...Prince William Sound