Tag Archives: saumya balasubramanian

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.


 

Unity in the Face of Virus-That-Must-Not-Be-Named

“This is the Ministry of Magic all over again!” I said.

The Ministry of Magic, as Harry Potter fans know, completely botched up the rise of Voldemort. The Minister and his administration were in denial, then went on a campaign of outright lying with false facts, bravado, and then a rude reckoning of the truth. The Order of the Phoenix is one of those books that really opens our eyes to incompetent leaders.

We were discussing the United States’ handling of the Coronavirus, COVID-19 health threat.

Everywhere on social media there was information – some true, some untrue, some alarmist, some pacifist, many telling us not to worry, but worrisome all the same. Our President, it seems, has not yet arrived at the true reckoning of the situation, and continued his bravado. The President blundered on about his building walls to stop the spread, his biggest problem seemed to be the Stock market index.

Meanwhile, the CDC did not have enough testing kits ready, so we do not know how pervasive the situation really is. While unprecedented, it is also concerning that we knew the world is more connected than ever, and yet did not prepare as a country. 

Vox article: here indicating that US is lagging behind most developed countries for testing Covid-19.

The World Health Organization declared the situation a pandemic on Mar 13th 2020. A pandemic knows no borders. Derived from the Greek roots, pan meaning “all” and demos meaning “people”, it denotes diseases that spread across multiple continents or worldwide.

The article here on WHO site lists the stages of planning and preparedness required for a pandemic. 

We all pass through phases of denial, a state of holy-moly, and a surreal settling in to things. (I had been vacillating between astonished denial & mild panic, up until the 1st week of March in California). We do the best we can. We see the terms quarantine & social distancing, and try to come to terms with this new mode of functioning. We are social animals now united by the need for social distancing.

Our company announced an ‘Encouraged to Work From Home policy’ like many other tech companies. That has now been upped to a ‘Mandatory Work From Home’. I know many of us used the public transit systems to get to the office, so we were obviously grateful to be told this, and to have the kind of jobs that can be done remotely for a short period of time. It was not lost on me that a great many people did not have the same luxury. What will this mean for them?

Covid-19 is unprecedented for many of us. People who had lived through the SARS outbreak 18 years earlier are probably the ones who have seen something similar in their lifetimes. For the vast majority of us though, this is new territory. How do we determine the best sources of information?

How do we learn lessons from the countries who are already dealing with the situation? Taiwan, China, Singapore. How did Italy quarantine their entire populace? What are the ways in which Society will be affected with this social distancing? It remains to be seen.

While the man at the top may not be taking Covid-19 as seriously as he should, local & state governments stepped up with proactive measures such as a call for Sheltering-in-place that was imposed across 7 counties in the Bay area affecting more than 7 million people. These are unprecedented measures. People are turning to their local leaders in their times of need. Many organizations have gone above and beyond canceling unnecessary travel, conferences, gatherings etc.  

To protect the vulnerable among us, we will need immediate plans, short-to-medium term plans and long term plans. We are currently in the immediate response mode. 

Humanity always comes together in the best & worst of times. When our leaders do not provide timely guidance, our collective reasoning can, and much like the Wizarding World united in the face of Voldemort, I am sure we shall do the same this time around: by collectively, voluntarily, distancing ourselves socially, being responsible, and putting the greater good ahead of us.

  • If you are reading every article on Covid-19, and wondering what to do in all the doomsday scenarios described, take heart, practice social distancing and follow guidelines set out by the WHO & CDC. 
  • If you are taking Covid-19 far too lightly and continuing to hang out with your friends, please watch this TED talk given by Bill Gates in 2015. He says our next big catastrophe to prepare for is not missiles but microbes. 

This time, it seems we are struggling against the onslaught of the Coronavirus.

The tiniest virus, it seems, brings us closer to the human condition than any other thing can. We are human and are therefore at risk.

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in 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.


Image licence can be found here.