Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Light, Shadow, Air


Way back in May of 1994 I was working for the University of Nebraska at the High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney. My naval service was not yet a year behind me and I was having a lot of fun learning how to be a civilian. On May 10 I was working with Kofi Boa, a grad student from Ghana. As I recall we were planting a plot of sunflowers for an experiment.

There were a bunch of grad students there that day. In addition to Boa there was Mun from China, Mazhar from Pakistan, a fellow from Turkey whose name I’ve forgotten, and four or five American grad students, whose names I’ve also forgotten. One was from Annapolis, Maryland and had an interesting lack of tan lines as I recall. Which is perhaps not germane to the story.

Bit of a digression, but rather an amusing anecdote. Mun was from what non-racists used to be able to call Red China. He was polite and friendly in a rather distant way and would not discuss politics or government in any way, shape or form. Having grown in experience and perhaps even wisdom over the last 22 years I can now imagine how tough it must have been for someone from that place to come to this place with full intent to return to that place and live in that system. Tiananmen Square was less than five years in the past in May of 1994.

Mun came to Nebraska with his wife and daughter (I know, I heard that too; that all female Chinese babies get thrown down wells). The little girl was cute as a bugs ear, as are all little girl children. The wife -- Men was her name as I recall -- seemed to be perpetually grumpy. Mun and his family rented a place in town, and apparently the local constabulary were called there one evening when husband and wife were having a verbal and perhaps somewhat kinetic disagreement. The next day Mun asked me how to go about finding a counselor.

"Shaow," he said, "where do I find counseror?"

Interesting question. "What kind of counselor?" I asked.

"I don't know!"

"Well, what do you need counselling for?"

"Ah, porice come when Men throw prates at me; porice say we need go counserring."

"Well Mun," I replied, "I think we need to call your adviser on this one."

At that point Boa came around the corner and threw his oar in the water. "Ah, Mun! Foolish man! You pay someone to beat your wife?"

Boa was a card.

Okay, back to May 10.

Everyone was pretty busy that morning. It was a bright springtime day and there were dozens and dozens of experiments being conducted.

Nevertheless, we all met back at the office building around 10 a.m. Something very cool was going to happen and we wanted to watch.

The cool happening was a solar eclipse. Sidney was well north of the best viewing locations, but it was close enough that we’d be able to see the sun partly obscured by the moon. As we all learned in elementary school, solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between Earth and the sun as the moon orbits around our planet. Due to a happy confluence of events, the moon appears to be exactly the same size in our sky as the sun. This is because while the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, the sun is 400 times farther away. During a total solar eclipse, at those fortunate locations on earth where the orbital geometry lines up just right, the moon appears to completely block the sun.

The May 10, 1994 solar eclipse would only be a partial eclipse, though, because the Earth and moon happened to be closer than average to the sun, and therefore the moon’s apparent size would be just slightly smaller than the sun. When it passed in front of the sun, the moon wouldn’t quite completely block the sun.

Solar eclipses are fairly common, yet on any particular spot on the Earth they are very rare, and we all recognized that this might be our one chance in a lifetime to watch one happen. Sure, everyone wants to see a total eclipse, but this partial eclipse would be very exciting. The next eclipse at Sidney wouldn’t happen for nearly a quarter-century, and how can anyone know where they’ll be or even if they’ll still be living that far in the future? We all seemed to think it was a pretty big deal.

As we gathered and prepared our pinhole cameras I gently teased the American grad students, telling them that back in their hometowns people would be rushing into the streets, beating pots and pans and trying to make enough noise to scare away the monster that was eating the sun out of the sky. This is the way many people in ancient times reacted to a solar eclipse, back before science figured out what the sun and moon and stars really are. Back before the age of science and of the scientific enlightenment of humanity.

“Yes,” said Boa, directing his comments to the other foreign grad students, “your people are all pagans and will do the same!” We all laughed, and Mun shared the historical Chinese solar eclipse tale. “It is dragon,” he said, “not monster. What is monster?”

It was a fine thing to be sharing this rare event with real, live human beings who hailed from places all around the globe.


As the time of the eclipse approached the air became still and light began to fade. It felt like dusk was rapidly approaching. I’d often read that during a solar eclipse birds will fly to their nests and prepare to roost for the night. Sure enough, flight after flight of songbirds began winging their way into the trees near the office.

The air began to feel cooler and the light continued to dim. Our pinhole cameras showed the moon moving across the face of the sun, seemingly taking a semicircular bite out of its bottom. You could see the same thing through a heavy arc welding face mask. I stole a very few quick, unshielded glances at the sun, and it appeared to be its normal, intensely bright self. Yet all around us the gloom and darkness grew.

It was then that I really began to understand what it must have felt like to witness a solar eclipse back in the days before science. It was an eerie feeling, a feeling that something was very, very wrong. I shivered a bit, and the joke about trying to chase the monster away was somehow not quite so funny. In that moment, although my knowledge and intellect told me that everything was fine, that the moon would pass on by and everything would return to normal, something ancient in the core of me held a kernel of fear. Within a few minutes the moon did pass on by, and everything did return to normal. But that moment of fear has stayed with me.

I think it’s important to recognize that fear for what it was, for what it is. Fear is an ancient defense mechanism, evolved to keep us alive. But fear isn’t the only tool we have to keep us alive. If we only have fear, then we are no more than rabbits, quivering our lives away on the precipice of terror.

As human beings -- Homo sapiens -- we also have the ability to think and reason, to understand the difference between true danger and simple fear. We don’t have to beat pots and pans to chase the monster or the dragon away from the sun. We can think and learn and grow in understanding. But that takes work. It doesn’t just happen. You can’t think and learn and grow in understanding by letting others tell you how it all works. You have to do the thinking and the learning to grow and understand. That’s just the way it is.

“But I’m not smart enough,” you might say. “I’m not a scientist, I don’t have a Ph.D.!”

Poppycock. If you can dress yourself and read a book and count the change in your pocket or purse then you’re smart enough and more. You got all the basics you need in elementary school. You just have to do the work of thinking and learning. And you think and learn all the time, 24-7-365 (well, except when watching television). It’s what being human is all about.

So there’s your choice. Be a thinking human, or a quivering rabbit informed solely by what others tell you. Think about, learn about, and enjoy the eclipse that comes next August for what it is while you grow in understanding. Or get out your pots and pans.

What eclipse? Why the total solar eclipse that will happen right here (in Nebrasky anyway) on August 21, 2017, of course!


In today’s modern world “global warming” and “climate change” mean that mankind is producing so much carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuel to produce energy that it’s going to destroy the planet. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, right? It will trap heat in the atmosphere and make the temperature rise and rise and rise until we’re all dead and the Earth becomes just like Venus.

Do you believe that? If so, why? If not, why not?

Do you have fear about what might happen? If so, that’s normal. Do you think about what might happen, try to learn, try to understand? If so, that’s normal too. If not, you may have a problem.

As you’ve probably heard, the U.S. Government had declared carbon dioxide a pollutant. That’s pretty much the same thing as outlawing it. Does that make sense to you? Why? Or why not?

Here’s a little food for thought.

At present the Earth’s atmosphere contains about 390-400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Fifty or a hundred years ago that number was a lot smaller, about 340-350 parts per million. If what is said about carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas is true, this could be a reason for alarm. Maybe the planet is going to heat up and become like Venus.

But wait a minute. We’ve analyzed gas trapped in air bubbles in the ice of ancient glaciers. That gas is the Earth’s atmosphere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago, long before the first human lit the first fire. About half of those samples contain less carbon dioxide than the atmosphere does today. And about half contain more. Many of them contain much, much more carbon dioxide, twice the levels of today or more. So how is it that the Earth didn’t burn up back then?

Here’s another thing to think about. Carbon dioxide is so bad that the government has essentially banned it, or at least announced that it’s trying to ban it. Okay. Now tell me this. Where do all the trees and the grasses and the flowers come from?

We all learned in elementary school about the cycle of life on Earth, how the sun and rain make the plants grow, and how animals eat the plants, and how other animals eat the animals that eat the plants, and how when things die they decompose and return to the soil to nourish new plants and continue the cycle. This is grade school stuff, right? So where do the plants come from? Do they come from the sun? From the rain? From the ground?

Plants actually come mostly from the air. I know you remember this. The sun shines down and powers photosynthesis in the chlorophyll of plants, where water and trace nutrients of the soil are combined with carbon dioxide from the air to make cellulose and starch. Plants are almost entirely cellulose and starch. And every speck of carbon that plants turn into cellulose and starch in the process of photosynthesis comes from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All of it. Every bit. There is no other source.

Good thing the government is outlawing carbon dioxide, right?

There’s something badly flawed with the whole global warming/climate change narrative.

You can figure it out. Your kids and grandkids can figure it out. It’s grade school stuff, and grade school stuff is easy for anyone who puts on their thinking cap.

There’s no shortage of people who will tell you otherwise, who will tell you you’re too dumb, or you have to have a Ph.D., or it’s too much of a danger to let you figure it out for yourself. That only smart people can get it.

Are you going to believe that?

Why isn’t it getting hotter every year? Why are ice caps and glaciers still growing? Why are there still cities above sea level along the shoreline? Why hasn’t the planet already burned up?

How will we survive if the government puts all the carbon dioxide in jail?

When you dig into the science a bit you find (at least I find) that the science of climate and weather is wonderfully fascinating. The basics are a joy to think and learn about. For instance, greenhouse gasses make up about two percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which represents such a terrible threat that the government wants to outlaw it, makes up a mere 0.0017 percent! So what is the most abundant (and most powerful) greenhouse gas? It’s water vapor. More than 96 percent of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is water.

There’s a lot more to think about and learn about climate and everything else in nature’s universe. None of it is beyond the reach of “normal” people. We’re all smart enough to think about it and learn about it and to grow in understanding.

Each of us can also make the choice to turn away from knowledge and get out our pots and pans.

What will you do?

To paraphrase Destin from Smarter Every Day, in a world of television viewers, be a thinker and a doer.


  1. Good post Shaun, many excellent points.

    Our government wants to outlaw CO2? Well, King Canute demonstrated the futility of "trying to stop the tide" way back in the day. Governments aren't very good at learning are they?

  2. Thanks Sarge.

    You can kind of understand that government is dumb. It's not supposed to be smart, it's just supposed to do a few very important things very well. Not rocket surgery.

    But when most of the people who are in charge of government spend most of their lives drooling on the couch and being programmed by their televisions...that can't be a good sign.

  3. The 2017 total eclipse will be on my 56th Birthday. I like the idea that the skies will turn dark on my birthday!

  4. They'll call it the Badger Eclipse and you, Sir, will be the King of the World!