True Space Art

juno-jupiter-15If you like the notion of space travel, and wonder what it would actually be like out there among the planets, take a gander at some of the photographs of Jupiter taken by the NASA Juno probe, and you’ll get the answer — it is stunningly beautiful, like an artist’s canvas hanging out in space.

I can just imagine hanging out on the observation deck of some orbiting space station, sipping Tang and watching that lovely view slowly rotate in the window.

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Exam Anxiety

Right after waking up I realized with a start that I have a crucial exam today. Even worse, I’ve been procrastinating studying for the test, and not even going to the classes, besides. Now, Exam Day has arrived, I am totally unprepared, and I am well and truly screwed. How could I be so stupid and reckless?

The next thing I know, I’m rushing through the empty, echoing halls of the building, looking for the room where I’m supposed to take the exam. Everybody else must be in the classroom already! Unfortunately, in my rush to get here I obviously forgot to write down the room number where the exam was being given, and now I’m frantically racing through the empty hallways, trying to find the right room before the test starts. My anxiety level shoots through the roof, and I think: I am a colossal idiot to have foolishly gotten myself into this horrible predicament.

At about this point the conscious brain takes over and realizes that I’m a 60-year-old lawyer who doesn’t take classes or critical exams any more, and I wake up with a start and a racing heartbeat.

Why do I still have exam anxiety nightmares, even though I haven’t had to endure a crucial exam for more than 30 years?  It’s apparently a very common dream, and no doubt it’s because those long ago days of actual winner-take-all exams with real-world consequences engraved permanent, scarring concerns deep into the dark, twisted world of my id, where they are ready to spring forth with only the flimsiest excuse. Expose me to any unusual stressor, and that night I’ll probably be kicking myself once more because I’ve blown off the class and Exam Day is here. Yesterday I took some on-line training modules that ended with short quizzes that you needed to complete to show you’ve paid attention. I got passing scores, and I could have taken the quizzes over even if I didn’t get a passing score the first time around, but perhaps even that limited, low-pressure exposure to simple testing is enough to trigger the bad dreams.

It’s sad to think that I’ll probably continue to be haunted by the specter of long-ago exams for the rest of my life, but at least when I wake up I have the pleasure of knowing that the days of all-or-nothing testing are behind me — except in my dreams.

13 Billion Miles Away, And Still Working

Let’s pause for a moment, ignore the ugliness and failure that seems to boil out of the depths of Washington, D.C. on a daily basis, and consider for a moment something that everyone can agree America has done incredibly well:  manned, and unmanned, space exploration.

640px-ec_voyager_saturnConsider Voyager 1.  It was launched 40 years ago, in September 1977, during the early years of the Carter Administration.  With its sister probe Voyager 2, it successfully explored the major planets of our solar system, sending back fabulous pictures of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and collecting data that gave us a better understanding of the two giants in the neighborhood of planets circling the Sun.  I remember belonging to a group called The Planetary Society that supported space exploration and travel and getting some of the fantastic Voyager photos as part of my membership.

But then, Voyager 1 just kept going, and going, and going.  It is now more than 13 billion miles away, and has officially gone past the boundaries of our solar system and is out in the trackless areas of interstellar space.  And it’s still working, too.  Recently NASA sent a message out to Voyager 1, instructing it to fire its trajectory correction maneuver thrusters for the first time since November 8, 1980, a few days after the presidential election in which Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.  The Voyager flight team had to send the instructions in an outdated software language — imagine how much the computer world has changed since 1977! — and it took more than 19 hours for the instruction to reach Voyager 1, but the instruction worked, and the thrusters fired for the first time in 37 years.  The firing of the thrusters allows Voyager to keep its communication antenna pointed in our direction and to keep sending us data as it moves farther out into the void.

It’s pretty amazing stuff, and Americans should be proud of this accomplishment and the planning, and engineering, and foresight that went into the Voyager program.  Of course, we don’t hear about it, in the haze of coverage of presidential tweets and other current news — but it’s a noteworthy accomplishment just the same.  Kudos to NASA!

Dealing With The Wonders Of Phlegm

I’ve just recently come out of my bad autumn allergy period, which means my runny nose and intermittent coughing have finally stopped, my head isn’t congested any more, and I sound like a normal person again.

Oh, and I’ve stopped producing phlegm wads, thank you very much.

large_6667d0ec-6086-4e4b-80fe-2f6603e60c8fOf course, phlegm and mucus are crucial parts of the body’s defensive mechanisms.  Through millions of years of evolution and natural selection, they were developed to protect the mouth, throat, lungs, and the rest of the human respiratory system by attracting and trapping the materials to which you are allergic.  You then expel the bad stuff by coughing up the little globs.  In my case, they eventually worked, because the allergic reactions have ended.  Having to endure the crawly river of mucus down the back of your throat and the phlegm clods in your mouth when allergy season hits is just the price we pay for keeping a healthy body healthy.  Still, it’s disgusting and irritating, and when you’re in the midst of it you can’t brush your teeth enough to get rid of that peculiarly salty phlegm wad taste.

This year, I tried to be proactive about the phlegminization period, which meant turning to the internet to see what the various “health care websites” have to say about dealing with it.  Of course, they’ve all got tips about what to eat and what to do, from gargling salt water, to consuming foods with lemon, ginger, garlic, and ginseng, to guzzling guava tea and downing zinc.  As I read, I wondered whether all of these “health care websites” are regulated in any way and whether they actually have any scientific basis for their instructions and tips — as opposed to trying to convince you to try a product or advance some other agenda.  After all, when you do a normal open-ended internet search you’re just calling up random websites that do something to get listing priority so they end up on the first page of results.  So I decided that, rather than going to the store, buying raw ginger root and other ingredients, and trying to prepare the concoction that one website said would help moderate the phlegm flow, I would just endure.  Notwithstanding my allergy, I was clear-headed enough to reach that conclusion.

Getting Goosebumps

I’m a goosebump kind of guy.  Put on the right piece of music — preferably opera or a stirring piece of classical music — and I’ll be reacting with the familiar chills running up and down my arms, leaving the little hairs vibrating.  The selection above from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or a beautiful Puccini aria from La Boheme, or Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, among many others, will do it every time.

What causes goosebumps or, to use the more elegant French term, frisson?  (Either of which, incidentally, is preferable in my book to the description used by some researchers —  “skin orgasms” — which makes a pure, deep, emotional reaction to music sound a little bit tawdry and embarrassing.)  Scientists aren’t quite sure.  It’s pretty easy to identify the kinds of music that provoke the reaction; typically the selections involve soaring notes or unexpected changes in volume, tone, or harmony.  But why do some people experience a noticeable physical reaction to such auditory stimulation?

Some scientists theorize that there are evolutionary roots to the reaction, because the arm hair response would help to warm our much hairier ancestors, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, a significant portion of humans — somewhere between 20 and 40 percent — never experience goosebumps, which seems like a pretty big percentage if you’re positing that the reaction is somehow significant to evolutionary success.  And I can’t exactly picture early hominids listening to Mozart or Bach or their prehistoric equivalent.

Other researchers think the goosebump phenomenon is tied to personality.  The goosebump group will like this:  some research studies indicate that those who shiver with frisson tend to get high marks in a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which is linked to a lot of positive characteristics like unusually active imaginations, appreciation of beauty and nature, intellectual curiosity, interest in trying out new experiences, and enjoyment of variety in life.  That makes us goosebumpistas sound pretty superior, but I honestly doubt that there’s really a big difference between us and the frisson-free folk.  I think it’s simply that people react to music differently.

There’s a reason why music was developed in the first place, after all.  It enriches our existence and makes us feel good — a sensation that some of us experience physically.  And we should be glad for that, too.  Who knows?  Maybe we wouldn’t have had the rich human tradition of beautiful music, in all its forms, if our ancestors hadn’t experienced a shudder of frisson once in a while.

Space Suit Chic

We’ve got a little bit of a “space race” going these days, 50 years after the first one.  This particular space race is about which commercial entity is going to be the provider of choice for both travel and delivery of space-related services — like creating working flight suits that people would wear on space voyages, and other necessary components of routine life in space.

space-x-suitLast week SpaceX unveiled the look of its flight suit to great fanfare.  Some people described the suit — which is sleek, futuristic, and basic black and white — as looking like the imperial stormtrooper outfits from Star Wars, but it clearly has a certain style.  Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says the suit is functional, not a mock-up, and has been tested to double vacuum pressure.  Interestingly, Musk also noted that SpaceX was focused on both esthetics and functionality in designing the suit, and that is was “incredibly hard” to balance the two, while focusing on one or the other would have been a lot easier.

Earlier this year, Boeing gave us a peek at its version of a flight suit, which passengers would wear on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft that is intended to deliver passengers to places in low-Earth orbit, like the International Space Station.  Boeing’s announcement got a less less attention than the SpaceX unveiling, but then Boeing isn’t quite as cool as SpaceX.  Boeing’s flight suit, which is “Boeing Blue” in color, looks a lot more like an updated version of the Apollo suits we remember from the glory days of moon shots and lunar rovers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

space_suit_630Of course, Boeing and SpaceX are just two of the companies vying for supremacy in the corporatization of space, and flight suit design isn’t going to finally and conclusively determine who gets a leg up in the competition.  But the disclosure of things like flight suits is important nevertheless.  It shows that companies are hard at work on the necessary nuts and bolts of spaceflight, and you can bet that for every item, like flight suits, that get public attention there are dozens of less interesting devices that are being developed, streamlined, and perfected.

The unveiling of flights suits has another important function, too:  getting people talking about spaceflight again.  When I was growing up, it seemed like just about every kid wanted to be an astronaut, and the space program was a constant topic of conversation.  In the cool occupation pyramid, “astronaut” was at the pinnacle.  The aspirational dreams of youngsters may not have made a difference in how the American space program was operated, but it provided an important core of support for NASA, and many of us still harbor those inner dreams even though the manned space program has basically had a 45-year hiatus.  If the disclosure of the SpaceX and Boeing flight suits cause kids to begin dreaming about space again, it would be a good thing for those of us who feel that our future lies out among the stars.

Eclipse-Watching In Atlanta

It’s a festive, communal atmosphere in the Atlanta airport right.  Rather than the normal mass of hurrying, grim-faced travelers, friendly people are crowding the windows, passing eclipse sunglasses back and forth, and craning their necks to see an eclipse that is supposed to be 97 percent of totality.  Outside it’s like twilight.

It’s easily the most amiable, neighborly feeling I’ve ever experienced in an American airport.  Too bad it only occurs during eclipses!