Thoughts of the Day

  • Another day, another senseless act of violence (in reference to the recent events in Colorado). No one ever goes to a mall, theatre, or school expected to be gunned down for no good reason. We don’t wake up thinking this day will be our last. We go about our lives completely oblivious to the fragility and finiteness of our existence. Perhaps that’s a merciful thing, since it would no doubt depress us and lead to much anxiety (which would defeat the purpose of living every moment with appreciation and gusto). Maybe we should just keep it in the back of our minds at least.
  • In just about every one of these massacres I read about, there is  at least one incidence, if not several, of people sacrificing themselves to save their loved ones (or even total strangers). It’s such a strange juxtaposition of human nature: at the very same time that someone is senselessly murdering others, people are unflinchingly giving their lives to save each other. I wonder if I am capable of that sacrifice? The best or worst aspects of us can emerge during such tragedies. I hope I never have to find out.
  • Colorado, where the recent gun massacre occurred, has one of the loosest gun regulations in the country: there are no limits on assault weapon ownership, no limits on handgun purchases per month, and no permits or licenses required for gun ownership. The state has no authority to regulate guns, while safety measures such as safety lock requirements are nonexistent. With all that said, most research I’ve read suggests that gun policies, whether strict or loose, have little to no effect on gun violence. Instead, the underlying causes are child poverty, a lack of mental health services, socioeconomic inequality, and a lack of community cohesion.
  • The US has a woefully inadequate mental health system, with among the fewest people receiving psychiatric help of any developed nation. Now, many of these mental health clinics are closing down or facing budget cuts, including in public school and prisons. Imagine the consequences of this.

Real Time Video of Aurora Borealis

The recent spike in solar activity has produced some stunning aurorae, such as the one captured on video and posted in the Bad Astronomy column of Discover Magazine. It’s an unusually active and dazzling specimen, even by the breathtaking standards of the aurora borealis. As writer Phil Plait explains:

Aurorae video is generally done with time lapse to show the movement, which is usually slow. I’ve often wondered just how fast the movement really is; I always figured fluctuations in the solar particle density, speed, and magnetic fields would produce real-time changes in the lights, but I’d never seen anything like this! After a search of YouTube I actually found several more.

I know some people will think this is fake, and I had my skeptic hat on while watching it. Note that in most time lapse you can see the stars move; in this they don’t, indicating (unless it’s a complete fake) short periods of time during the filming. Given that, plus the existence of other video like it, I’m thinking this is real.

Mind you, the movement you’re seeing isn’t a physical motion. It’s not like solid curtains of material are flapping. The lights are caused by atoms in the upper atmosphere getting hit by subatomic particles blasted out by the Sun, caught by our Earth’s magnetic field, and funneled down into our air. These particles dump energy into the atoms, moving the electrons up in energy (called excitation). The electrons then jump back down, emitting light in the process (de-excitation). As I said in an earlier post, it’s like needing energy to jump up stairs, but releasing it as you jump down.

Different atoms have different energy levels for the electrons — think of it as more or less spacing vertically between steps in a staircase — so the energy emitted is different, resulting in differentcolors emitted. That’s why we see green, red, purple… they come mostly from oxygen and nitrogen in the air. So as the magnetic field fluctuates, the particles are sent shooting down in different places, giving the appearance of motion while the atoms themselves don’t move.

The physics is complex and interesting, but the beauty of these lights is, to use another term, magical. Not in the fantasy sense, but in the sense of the emotional response we have to them. They are simply breathtaking in these videos, and are a wonderful by-product of our tempestuous Sun.

Indeed, the inherent beauty in the natural world leads to an almost spiritual reverence for the beauty of our universe. I must see this phenomenon myself some day. Hope you enjoy.

Aurora Borealis

I came across these gorgeous photos while browsing through the website for The World At Night, an international program devoted to collecting and exhibiting multimedia depictions of historic sites and/or celestial bodies (I’ve posted the work from one of their astronomers before). They’re courtesy of Japanese-Canadian photographer and cameraman Yuichi Takasaka, who has his own website and YouTube channel (both of which I highly encourage you all to visit).

Those are just a small sample of what’s available on the site. The last photo is a time-lapse photograph, which makes sense considering how gorgeous the display is. Here are a few videos too:

I definitely need to see this phenomenon myself some day. If anyone is interested in learning more about it, click here. Please show the artist these projects some support too. Anyone who captures and displays this sort of beauty for the rest of us to enjoy has my utmost respect and encouragement!