My Son’s Pandemic Ponderings: Why is Our Sky Not Green?

The sky (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)
The sky (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

Due to the pandemic, my son and I have been thrown together a lot more than usual. Walks take on a gentle curious hue that is relished by us both. He is definitely more energetic than I am, but somehow I seem to thrive in the glow of his energy too, so all is well. Our walks are often talk-fests. The elementary school-going son, like many children his age, pulls a full why-wagon with him wherever he goes. The questions tumble out with ease, and can be anywhere on the spectrum:

They are all fair game.

Sunset (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)
Sunset (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

Sometimes, of course, his questions chip away at the stoutest of theories. For instance, a few years ago, as we mooned about the hills overlooking the bay at sunset and taking in the shades of pinks, oranges, blues, grays, purples, and reds, he said, Why is the sunset never green?

Now, that is a perfectly valid question with a perfectly scientific answer. However, it had me stumped, for it never occurred to me to ask that particular question. I remember being awed a few years ago when the children had drawn rust and pink-colored skies when asked to imagine a sky for their imaginary world. 

How often do we take the time to question things that just are? It is thanks to the young and curious minds of the children that I stop to ponder about these things and enjoy the joy of wonder.

In the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, he comes up with a marvelous chapter on determining the planetary world one is in simply based on the color of the sky. This is the kind of leap in imagination, where only deep thought and research can take you, and here he was, simply giving it away in a book. All his marvelous thought processes, his wonder of the world, his eternal curiosity, and scientific rigor just laid out on a page so we could embrace it in one simple reading. 

“The color of the sky characterizes the world. Plop me down on any planet in the Solar System, without seeing the gravity, without glimpsing the ground, let me take a look at the sun and the sky, and I can, I think, pretty well tell you where I am, That familiar shade of blue, interrupted here and there by fleecy white clouds, is a signature of our world. “ – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot
Pale Blue Dot

The essay, Sacred Black , in the book, Pale Blue Dot is well worth reading. He explains the reasoning behind the colors of the planets as we see them. He deduces the color of the sky based on the elements found in their atmospheres. 

  1. Venus, he says, probably has a red sky.
  2. Mars has a sky that is between ochre and pink much like the colors of the desert.
  3. Jupiter, Saturn – worlds with such giant atmospheres such that sunlight hardly penetrates it, have black skies. He talks about this bleak expanse of a sky being interrupted here and there by strokes of lightning in the thick mop of clouds surrounding the planets. This image does make for a sober shiver for someone who loves the sky and its myriad attractions. Imagine, not being able to see the stars, the sun, or anything beyond the clouds.
  4. Uranus & Neptune have an uncanny, austere blue color. The distant sunlight reaches a comparatively clean atmosphere of hydrogen, helium, and methane in these planets. The skies may be blue or green at a certain depth resulting in an aquamarine or an ‘unearthly blue’.

He shows us how in the absence of an atmosphere, an inky deep purple is all there is – how our planet is only a pale blue dot floating in an inky void illumined by a ray of light from the sun. Our eyes may not show us green colors in the sky at sunset, but it does detect plenty of green in the flora around us. The colors in the visible spectrum of light make for a marvelous world, but what if our eyes had evolved differently? How would life have been? 

I read bits and pieces of the chapter to the son one evening, and he had that look of intense concentration as if imagining a hundred worlds with thousands of possibilities of the sky. When I smiled at the end and said, ‘So, how do you like it?”

He grinned his approval and said, “Awesome!”

In June 2014, Mangalyaan, launched by India in November 2013, became the first Asian orbiter to stay in Martian orbit, and sent many high-resolution images from the Martian orbit for us to analyze. The Martian Magic continues with the rovers now on Mars. From the earliest times of ancient civilizations, the ‘wanderers’ have enthralled mankind. Behaving differently from the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye, the planets were the first teasers on a long journey through Aryabhatta, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei to Mars missions and rovers. The first puzzle in understanding the cosmos and our place in it.

A few days later, the son came charging into the room in the middle of his school day – “Amma! Amma! You will like this. I just came to tell you this! The Mars landing just happened!”

There is something special in being able to watch the Mars Perseverance Rover land on Mars during the day with your fellow explorer. The video attests to Carl Sagan’s deductions. The Martian atmosphere does look pinkish red with heavily desert hues. The son & I looked outside at the beautiful blue sky with reassuringly white clouds flitting by. We were admiring the clouds in the Bay Area in California while thinking of Mangalyaan launched from India. The missions launched from halfway across the world. The cosmic arena is truly a unifier – to design and perceive the grand universe, the scale of the experiments requires international co-operation as the International Space Station, LIGO experiments, and the Mars pictures attest.

Flora and fauna (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)
Flora and fauna (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

Science took us to Mars with the reddish sky, but it was the blue sky with white clouds that enabled us to dream.

Throughout the following week, the little cosmologist in the house interspersed our Earthly life with Mars-ly anecdotes and clips. 

One evening, we sat together huddled up, watching pictures stitched together from the 3 Mars rovers: Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance. Barren desert landscapes, not unlike those in the Sahara desert or the Arizonian deserts, are all the rovers could see. 

The one thing that the Martian landscape reinforces to me, is that our Earth is a beautiful planet – so vast in its diversity, and lifeforms. The Martian pictures make me want to go out and sigh and fall in love, look after, and cherish the one planet we can thrive on. To admire the miracle that is every tree, every lake, every cloud, every blade of grass, and every flower. 

“A blade of grass is a commonplace on Earth; it would be a miracle on Mars. “ – Carl Sagan

If Martian 4K resolution images have taught me anything, it is to buckle down and look after the one planet we do have. I talk to my son about this – It is his generation that will adopt the new skies. 


Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.


 

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