Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Of galaxies and glaciers

Not only is the earth not the center of our solar system, but our sun is not even in the center of our galaxy. Today I learned that our Milky Way galaxy is called a “barred spiral” galaxy: in the center is a bar-shape of stars. Our sun isn’t even in the two biggest arms that spiral outward; it’s in a lesser one called the Orion Spur.

We are a teeny-tiny bit amongst billions and billions of stars, and we are back in the wings, on the periphery, not center stage. I find this reassuring.

Right after I moved to Alaska, I went kayaking in Glacier Bay. It was an astounding trip: beautiful, blue glaciers; the stark black-and-white landscape that I love; utter quiet. I stayed out long enough to forget about coming all the way back.

At one point, I spotted a dirty glacier. It was blue, but it had lots of debris and dirt and was really splotched and marred. At first, I felt as if it were some horrible aberration in the universe, a defective glacier. And then I thought, This glacier is so huge, and its stain is so huge, and still it’s powerful. And this is me, and my defects are huge, but compared to that glacier, they are infinitesimal. My problems are insignificant!
I have to remind myself of this every now and then so I check out astronomy, where I am reduced to insignificance again. I am a major fan of the UAA Planetarium; as members, we get to attend the shows for free. What I like is that the shows come with real, live, local scientists who are actually doing research that the films introduce.

I once was a physics major. Eventually, I stopped understanding it but remained in awe of it, so I switched to philosophy of physics. The questions still enthrall me so I take Olé classes taught by Travis, a UAA astrophysics professor. Today, Betsey and I agreed that Travis is so clear and comprehensible, we actually understand general relativity until we get home.

So the current class is about finding life on other planets, and it reminded me of another class with Travis. He had said that life would not look like little green men, but we were looking for the elements and conditions that might support life. He spent a whole class talking about how we might go about categorizing, identifying, finding those elements. Finally, one woman raised her hand and said, “Well maybe that’s not the way to go about it. Maybe we should first figure out what the little green men require and then focus on finding those places that might support them.”
Blows your mind, too, doesn’t it?


  1. Sounds like the same woman who thought the "Deer Crossing" sign should be moved to a less busy place, so the deer could cross safely.


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