Time travel in west Texas


Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.


A non-selfie: the Andromeda Galaxy

On January 5 this year, NASA released an image of a portion of Andromeda (aka M31), the nearest galaxy to our Milky Way. It’s the largest picture ever taken, a 1.5 billion pixel image (69,536 x 22,230) requiring 4.3 GB disk space. The full image is made up of 411 images captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. 

The largest NASA Hubble Space Telescope image ever assembled, this sweeping bird’s-eye view of a portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is the sharpest large composite image ever taken of our galactic next-door neighbor. Though the galaxy is over 2 million light-years away, The Hubble Space Telescope is powerful enough to resolve individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long stretch of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disk. It’s like photographing a beach and resolving individual grains of sand. And there are lots of stars in this sweeping view–over 100 million, with some of them in thousands of star clusters seen embedded in the disk. (via Hubble’s High-Definition Panoramic View of the Andromeda Galaxy | NASA)

A video http://youtu.be/udAL48P5NJU takes you through the photo (thanks to Chuck Cole for spotting this). Andromeda probably has a trillion stars, ten thousand times what is shown in the photograph.

Andromeda and the Milky Way will collide in about 4 billion years. Although more than a trillions stars are involved, the distances between them are so great that it is unlikely that any of them will individually collide.

Lac-Mégantic: beauty and death

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams –W.B. Yeats

284px-Mont-Mégantic-2About six weeks ago, Susan and I canoed in Maine, then made a brief excursion into Québec.

Nature around Mont Mégantic

We planned to visit the area around Mont Mégantic, a monadnock about 15 km north of the border. It’s in the middle of the Parc national du Mont-Mégantic and is the terminus of the Sentiers Frontaliers, a hiking trail that connects with the Cohos Trail in the US, which runs north from Crawford Notch, NH to the border. The trail is in a beautiful area, and represents an even more beautiful cooperation among volunteers on both sides of the border, who are working to make ways to enjoy, but tread softly, in the forests and rivers.

Image 1The treasuring of the environment is even more evident there because the Mont Mégantic Observatory is the first site to be recognized as an International Dark-Sky Reserve. Lighting within a 50 km radius is strictly controlled to minimize the impact of artificial lighting on astral observations and on wildlife. Again, international cooperation will be needed to sustain the dark sky, but already a rare resource has been created in which both professionals and amateurs can enjoy seeing the Milky Way and know that at least in this one small region respect and love for nature prevails.

Down the grade into Lac-Mégantic

lac-meganticWe came to the Mégantic area from the east, and actually slightly north, having visited Saint-Georges. Traveling on back roads we reached the village of Nantes, at a small elevation and a few miles from Lac Mégantic.

From there we descended into to the beautiful lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic, following the little used rail line along Rue Laval. We walked for a while around the town and in the parc des Vétérans. If we had not had a B&B reservation, we might have stayed longer to enjoy the lake and the small town atmosphere, which fit so well with what we knew about the peace with nature in that region. But unlike so many who have suffered there, we were fortunate to be away when disaster struck.

On July 5, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train engine near Nantes caught fire. That fire was extinguished and the train was left unattended, parked on the line. Hours later it rolled down the grade towards Lac-Mégantic, derailed, exploded, and turned the town into an inferno. There were soon photos of the physical destruction, but accounting for deaths has been slow due to the extreme destruction.

The cost of cheap energy

Aujourd’hui, nous sommes tous des citoyens de Lac-Mégantic.

The story has moved to the back pages of US media, even as the death toll has risen to 38, with many still unaccounted for. As awful as some more publicized recent bombings, explosions, fires, plane crashes, etc. in North America have been, this disaster is already more deadly than all of those combined.

Lac-Mégantic explosionOf course, the tragedy might not have affected me so much if I hadn’t felt some kinship with the area. But it has made me both sad and angry. It’s impossible to imagine how people can cope with the loss of loved ones and the destruction of their town.

I’m glad that people are asking questions, starting with some basic ones such as: Why was a train with 70 full tanker cars left unattended? and Why weren’t the brakes set?

It’s good that some are moving on to bigger questions: Why do Canada and the US still carry 70% of oil using a tanker car design that was deemed unsafe over 20 years ago? Why is it allowed to send dangerous cargo on regional (Class II) rail networks, which have fewer safety mechanisms and less thorough safety checks?

Maine lawmakers noted recently that “in the last year alone, crude oil shipments have increased fifteen times over” and “there have been three derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials in Maine just during the last six months.”

For some people, the answer to all of these questions is to build more pipelines, which destroy the environment more when they rupture, but may kill fewer people directly. The rail disaster will also give support to defenders of nuclear power, e.g., the aging Pilgrim, Mass. plant that uses the same design as the Fukishima reactor and strangles any possible escape route from Cape Cod. Others might call for renewable energy, which still needs to be transported at great environmental cost.

I wish that there were a moment when we might ask: Why must we design our society around cheap energy? Must every politician in every party declare that cheap gasoline is their first priority? Would it be so awful to minimize the loss of life and environment, and possibly even lessen the imperative for war? Is “cost” only what we see on a bill for goods and services?

Could we reduce energy use so that areas such as Mégantic could remain unspoiled, or at least less spoiled? And that no Lac-Mégantic would ever experience such a disaster again?

Islamic Science and Technology Historical Museum

Yalikavak, Turkey

Our last stop in Istanbul was at the İstanbul Islâm Bilim ve Teknologi Tarihi Müzesi (Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam) in the Eminönü district. It’s a wonderful museum, displaying centuries of achievements in geography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, music, optics, chemistry, chronometry, historiography, medicine, military, civil engineering, and other disciplines.

I was told in school that the period when most of these discoveries and creations occurred (9th-16th century CE) was called the Dark Ages, a time of fear, superstition, lack of progress, even regression from the Classical era. Then the Classical learning was miraculously rediscovered and expanded during the Renaissance. And of course, like many things I learned in school, it was partly true.

But the fact is that while great scientific and technical accomplishments were happening in the Islamic world, much of Christian Europe languished in these areas, not completely, but to a large extent in comparison. Islamic scholars maintained and extended the Classical learning, and incorporated additional ideas from Greek, Byzantine, Indian, Judaic, and other traditions. They not only advanced learning considerably, but did so by listening to and learning from other cultures.

Long before Roger Bacon, they articulated and promoted experimental science, and they wrote about inductive or scientific methods long before Francis Bacon. They studied the circulation of blood before William Harvey, and made many other medical advances. But the exhibits do not take a “who did it first?” approach; instead, they emphasize the continuity of learning, across time and across cultures.

The Ages were not Dark everywhere, and the Renaissance in Europe was not autonomous; it was dependent upon and grew organically from an Islamic culture that valued learning in all its forms.

The Museum displays fascinating astrolabes, glassware, maps, globes, medical instruments, ships, an elephant clock, and many other artifacts. I’ve never seen such an assemblage anywhere, and these are beautifully presented and explained with multilingual text and video. Scientists, mathematicians and other scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sena (Avicenna), Geber, Al-Jazari are featured.

That’s why it was both surprising and a bit depressing to see how few people came to the exhibits. I counted five total visitors during the entire time that we were there, Make that seven if I include Susan and me. There were about fifteen staff and guards. Of course, it’s been open only two years.

İstanbul offers tough competition for any museum. World Heritage sites like the Topkapi Palace nearby, the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), and Hagia Sophia are just a few of those within easy walking distance, each offering jaw-dropping sights. But those also offer long lines and crowded viewing. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Topkapi dagger while being shoved along in a crowd. The Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam offers a different and equally important view of Islamic culture, one that I suspect is not well known by many within or outside of Islam,

The Museum is housed in the Has Ahırlar (Imperial Stables) complex now in Gülhane Park. This area was once the outer garden for the Topkapı Palace during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The working instruments and other objects were constructed by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, based on illustrations and descriptions in textual sources, and to some extent, on surviving original artifacts. There is a similar exhibit there under the direction of Fuat Sezgin. The İstanbul museum is a joint project of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and Goethe University.

Photo opportunity

I was recently invited to appear in a book for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. They’re featuring people who played an important role in creating the museum, famous people who enjoyed the museum, and for some reason, me.

This project involved making photos of the people in scenes with museum artifacts. In my case, that was to be antique telescopes. It’s not hard to find antiques, since even the new ones from my day are now over half a century old. The photography was to take place in Austin.

My photo shoot went OK in the end, but was a near disaster in many ways. Skipping over several minor problems, which made me a few minutes late, I arrived at what I thought was the site, the J. J. Pickle Research Campus, only to be told that I had come to the wrong place. Michael O’Brien, the photographer, did not have any office there, but could definitely be found at CMA (?) on the main University of Texas (UT) campus. *All* I had to do was drive down Burnet Rd to 183, take IH 35, get off at 24th St, and find my way to his office. That was a white knuckles drive in the Austin traffic, in an unfamiliar car, especially when I don’t see well while I’m waiting for new contact lenses.

Anyway, I eventually got to the main campus, but at the opposite corner from CMA. I was given a map, but it didn’t show construction. So, I’d drive ten blocks down a narrow street, with cars on both sides, people on bicycles, pedestrians walking haphazardly, while searching for a street sign I could read. Then I’d come to a construction barrier, which meant I had to back up and go a different way. I eventually reached what I thought was CMA.

There were of course no parking spaces, save for one with large signs declaring how your car would be towed within seconds and crushed to a pinpoint of dense matter for use in a cosmology department experiment if you even thought of using it. It was my mother’s car, but she wasn’t there, so, deciding for her, I took the chance. Inside CMA, which by now I’d decided was a top secret agency, known only to a few others with three-letter acronyms, I asked for Michael O’Brien. No one would admit knowing him, and he wasn’t in the directory.

I kept pressing on, meeting people in the special needs communications department (obviously some kind of intelligence agency function), radio-television-film (propaganda department), and eventually journalism. Under relentless pressure, I finally got someone to claim him.

Unidentified But Helpful Person: Would you like his phone number?
Me: Thanks, no, I have that and already called it, leaving a message.
UBHP: He has a cell number.
Me: Oh, can you give me that?
UBHP: No, but I could call it for you.
Me: Please do.

To my surprise, we reached Michael. Almost immediately another call came in, undoubtedly from some little-known war region, so we went on hold, I had to move to another room, needed to, but couldn’t find the other phone, had trouble reconnecting, and so on. Eventually, we were able to talk, most certainly being recorded by CMA operatives. I apologized; he apologized.

Then, I learned where he was, at the J. J. Pickle Campus: “All you need to do is get across the campus, head north on that same IH 35, take 183 north to Burnet Rd. Just come in the main gate [exactly where I’d been before].” We’re in building 6.

So, I retraced my previous harrowing drive, finally making it the photo shoot. I was sweaty, dehydrated, frazzled, rumpled, everything one needs to be ready for an expensive, high-stakes photo op.

Building 6 turned out to be Vertebrate Paleontology. It’s filled with fossils of creatures who blessedly never had to deal with Austin traffic, construction, vicious tow operators (I got away this time), or  gigantic campuses. I wanted to explore the building, but we (the photo crew of three and I) were after all now an hour late.

So, we moved directly into photos. Poor Michael and team must needed to take several hundred, searching for one in which I didn’t look like the after photo from the evil tow company’s crushing operation. Eventually he succeeded.

But I’m almost certain that when he said he’d gotten a good one, that he’d focused on the telescope alone, and I was out of the frame. As Dewey’s idea of end-in-view tells us, standards for success need to accommodate to changing reality. The sharks managed to stay away.

Anyway, we were done. I hope the book is a success in spite of me.

One bonus of the adventure was that I got to meet Wann Langston, a famous UT paleontologist (above left). He’ll be featured in the book because of his research on fossils in Texas, which played an important role in the Museum’s early development, including my own experiences in the “Rocks and Fossils” classes.

Langston shared some of his current work on fossilized giant crocodiles from the Big Bend area. I think they were Deinosuchus. He showed us several models made from creatures with jaws big enough to swallow a man whole, especially one who by then was exhausted from his photo shoot (harder than you may think) and his explorations of the UT campus(es).

Perseid meteor shower

Don’t miss the annual Perseid meteor shower, which should be especially good this year:

Sky watchers could catch a dazzling treat Thursday night and early Friday morning, with the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower… The Perseid shower occurs each year when the Earth passes through a wide stream of debris shed by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 130 years or so and last passed through the inner solar system in 1992…Views of the shower are expected to be particularly good this year, since the moon will set early in the evening.

via Short Sharp Science: Moonless sky sets stage for dazzling meteor show.

Happy Pi day!

Happy Pi day!  It’s March 14, or 3/14, the first three digits in the decimal expansion of Pi.

This only works for those of us living in Belize, Micronesia, Palau, Philippines, the US, and sometimes, Canada. The 95% of the world that more logically puts the day first thinks of today as 14/3. They’ll have to wait until July 22, but will have the consolation of knowing that 22/7 is a better approximation of Pi than 3.14.

As a gift for today, New Scientist offers five tasty facts about the famous ratio “We did consider giving you 3.14 facts but alas we had five…”