Tag Archives: #carlsagan

The sky (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

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

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.


 

The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

I was listening to an excellent lecture on Aristotle and Socrates: How Does One Live The Good Life? From 36 Books That Changed The World (Chapter 8). I quite agree with how Aristotle describes the nobility required of politicians: he opines that politicians should take an oath, almost as sacred as a Hippocratic oath, to remain fair and mete out justice. 

We are in the throes of another election season. A season necessarily filled with promises, policies, initiatives, and a fair amount of fluff.  There are no initiation courses for politicians. No training. No solid requirements or certifications to do the job. The various forms of media are especially active during this season, amplifying their candidate’s voice. 

There have been disturbing trends towards dictatorship in the past few years in our dear country. We have grown used to being lied to, we are more divided than ever before, and the versions of the truth fluctuate wildly depending on which network or newspaper reports it, it is increasingly hard to determine what the truth is. 

Just a simple search for ‘Media Bias Charts 2020’ is enough to drive home the point:

These problems have always been there. 2000 years ago, the world’s greatest democracy of the times, modern-day Italy, then the Roman Empire, witnessed turmoil that resulted in the decline of democracy. Things took a slower time to do so 2000 years ago, but with accelerated advances in technology linking us faster than ever to ‘breaking news’ and social media amplifiers for everyone, the waters have become noisier and murkier.

Several times in the past few years, I have gone back to reading a fine essay, The Baloney Detection Kit, written by eminent physicist, Carl Sagan. We have been living in a state of dubiety (The state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty). 

The essay starts off by empathizing with the human condition. Why are we, as humans, willing to believe in things whether or not there is any sober evidence for it? 

It isn’t unheard of to believe in things supernatural, or falling for false advertising campaigns with exaggerated claims, or believing models wearing Doctor’s coats, or blindly believing religious zealots who spout hypotheses with confidence. As human beings, we have been doing this for centuries, and in most probability will continue to fall for some sort of questionable practices. 

As long as there are those who are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable with little or no consequence, these will persist.

While we enjoy the occasional myth or fib, it is important to know the difference. For an adult to attack Harry Potter for instilling witchcraft is worrisome for this very reason. As part of growing up, we want children to outgrow the myth of Santa Claus. Knowing to distinguish fantasies from reality is a necessary tool for survival. 

Which brings us to why we must have a version of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for us to use. 

It has been a saddening realization to find that Science has not been embraced when it is needed the most. I was reading a book on the greatest inventions of mankind in the past 2000 years. It is a book collating the answers from philosophers, researchers, and professors from various fields. One of the answers given was the framework of Science. I couldn’t agree more. The ability to think, weigh, design experiments with control and test groups, and sift empirical evidence has resulted in the very least at :

  • Saving millions of lives, that in previous generations, succumbed to the disease.
  • Figuring out how to feed a planet that grew from 1 billion to over 7 billion within a generation.

For those who would prefer a straight jump to the Baloney Detection Kit, here it is quoted from the essay:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight—“authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.*
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise)—not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable, are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle—an electron, say—in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

As we move towards an election season amidst the Covid outbreak, economic hardship, and so much more, I hope we can keep reminding ourselves of the Baloney Detection Kit and apply it for ourselves.


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.