The only home we have ever known

Yesterday, the Boston Globe’s Big Picture section featured two dozen mind-blowing hi-quality pictures of our Solar System’s mysteriously beautiful jewel – our ringed neighbour Saturn, captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe which is still orbiting the gas giant. I was stunned by this pic, which shows the planet’s far north latitudes…and what seems like gazillions of storms and mega-storms. Each pixel here is 29 kilometres on the planet, which means even the smallest of the storms is about the size of New Zealand:

Makes the Earth actually look like a peaceful place, don’t you think?

All the images were captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe, still orbiting the gas giant. But they seem to have forgotten to include the best pic by Cassini, the one that shows the planet just eclipsing the Sun, parts of its rings beautifully lit. But that is not all. Just click the pic to see a bigger version. Now, above the rings, in the top left, not particularly significant, forgotten and starlike – is our tiny home. Earth. The only home we’ve ever known. A pale blue dot that in this picture is easily unnoticeable. Sometimes, it is hard to accept that we live in a mote of dust, which shrinks fearfully at this imposing, giant yellow world, which occupies a full thousand times the volume of our own:

In a similar picture (below) of the earth taken from a huge distance – near the orbit of Neptune, to be precise – earth is a tiny dot, and by all miracles of chance a bright sunbeam reflecting off the spacecraft Voyager that took the picture crosses the dot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is the best example. Carl Sagan, one of my heroes and a world renowned astronomer, once remarked thus on seeing this:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

–Carl Sagan, May 1996

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New anime airs today

Speaking about animes, I almost forgot about a new one that will be aired simultaneously across the subcontinent in Animax (8:30 pm in India) today, called Fullmetal Alchemist – Brotherhood, a sequel to the enormously popular anime that was telecast almost a year ago.

Poised midway between science fiction and fantasy, the series belongs to the lesser known genre of science fantasy. It the FMA universe, almost magical “alchemy” replaces science. I simply loved the storyline in the previous series –  Edward and Alphonse Elric, try to resurrect their dead mother using the forbidden practice of human alchemy, quite unaware of the law that governs their universe – the Law of Equal Exchange: “To obtain, something of equal value must be lost”. The consequences were treacherous. Al loses his physical body in the attempt, and Ed loses two of his limbs. Ed somehow manages to attach Al’s soul to a suit of armour. The two boys, having realized that it was impossible to bring back a dead person, set out in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, possibly the only thing that could recover their bodies, and get embroiled in a frantic series of political, emotional and alchemical misadventures.

Alphonse and Edward Elric
Alphonse and Edward Elric

What struck me as good is that the alternate universe of FMA is not an outright magical fantasy. Alchemy in their world is governed by laws of nature, comparable to the laws of physics in our own world. The makers also made sure that their world was not a fairyland.  The series has an entire collection of people prepared to misuse alchemy for their own ends – the ghastly “homunculi”, military generals, murderers, researchers and a religious leader – the host of issues enveloping their world is not unlike our own.

They were liberal in showing the negative side of such an alchemy. I remember an episode when Ed fights an armoured guardian protecting the Stone. After defeating him, he realizes the guardian was just a soul attached to a suit of armour – like Al.  The guardian asks Ed to kill him, as he no longer has a purpose in life, he had failed in his task, and above all since he was just part-human. When Ed refuses, he kills himself – much to Ed’s crazy horror.

That’s why I am looking forward to seeing the sequel today – to see what more misfortunes fall upon Ed and Al…

(Animax’s previous release,  LaMb, totally sucked. Except for the Simple Plan soundtrack, of course.)

Update added today after watching it:  The episode was in Japanese with English subtitles!! I should have expected it. It’s still early to decide whether this is going to be a great series or not. Anyway, it was a normally good first episode.

Kino’s journey

As far as I know, Japan produces more animated series – simply called “animes” – than the rest of the world combined. Most of them are based on guessable themes – samurais waiting for their revenge, Pokemon-type fantasy universes, and dramatic, violent bloodbaths that sometimes seems out of vogue. However, some anime are so genuinely new and outta the boxish that they stay in your mind forever.

Kino’s Journey is an anime that appeals on all levels – emotional, thrilling and sometimes philosophical. The story is about a young (rather androgynous looking) female “traveller”, who along with her talking motorbike,  journey to different fictional places across the country.  Each place is entirely different from its neighbours – either in its form of government, technology or its citizens. Kino believes that three days is enough to know all there is to know about any country – and leaves when the time is over. Often, the there is a Holmes-Doctor Watsonian touch of intellectual conversation between Kino and the talking motorbike, Hermes. (yeah, the whole 13 – episode series is sometimes surreal).

‘Nuff said. I’ll let the show do the talking – this is one of my favourite episodes which explains how Kino met Hermes and became a traveller. Watch the entire series and you will look at your life differently.

(Don’t worry, it is in English except the opening song, LOL. This is the first of a 3-part episode, you can search for parts 2 and 3 in YouTube.)

“The world is not

beautiful.

Therefore it is”

That was a line that appears at the end of the episode. You do not know how much I  loved it. Sometimes, it is hard to look at Kino’s journey without drawing parallels with your own life.

Chandrayaan looks back at earth

ISRO released a new picture of our lovely blue rock yesterday, centred – of course – on India. You can see the Indus river flowing above the country, the sun reflecting off the waters of the Indian Ocean, night beginning to fall across Africa, and a small chunk of Australia.

It is not the best of earth pics – there is something wrong with the contrast, and it is in black and white. But heaven’s sake, this is a whole friggin’ planet you are looking at. When the Apollo missions took some of the first pics of Earth, it caused something of a paradigm shift – it started an entirely different way of looking at our surroundings. Earth is no flat, infinite extent of plateaus and mountains – it is an fragile island in space, and we must protect it.

Fantasy Sky

The past week has been glorious with spectacular sunsets during the evenings. I have always been an avid sky-watcher, and a sunset is one of the best moments during a day. No two are alike…some are really cool and specia. Take this one for example, which I saw a few days ago…

The sun rays started from the west just after the sun set (left and right pics), reached the top of the sky, and almost converged at the east. (Centre and last pic)(OK, they don’t converge – rays of light are really parallel). Thats a complete one eighty degrees of arc from horizon to the opposite horizon. You don’t know how supercool that was!

I’m still thinking why the rays at the east are multi-colored, like a rainbow…maybe its something caused by scattering of light (then again , it could be my camera…I’m not a professional photographer, you see). I wonder if meteorologists have a name for such phenomena. If not…well, might I suggest arclight?

PS: Here is a picture of a triple sunrise. You really don’t want to miss that!

Edit: Turns out that people did name this phenomena as “anti-crepuscular rays” (LOL, that sounds much cooler than “arclight”). Looky here for more info.

Anticrepuscular rays are not rare but they must be sought carefully. When ordinary crepuscular rays are visible, turn around and search for their opposite numbers. More rarely, sunrays pass along great circles right across the sky.