Grinspoon: Earth in human hands

David Grinspoon himself wonders how an astrobiologist wound up writing a book about the human impact on Earth. Grinspoon, author of Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), answered the question during a Science in the City lecture recently at Pacific Science Center.

David Grinspoon

Astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon talked about his new book, Earth in Human Hands, January 10 at the Pacific Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I am struck by the unique strangeness of the present moment,” Grinspoon said, noting that we are at the controls, if not actually in control, as we enter a new epoch in human history. Some find the proposed name of Anthropocene—the age of humanity—a touch self-centered or self-aggrandizing, but Grinspoon feels it is a fitting moniker.

“It represents a recognizable turning point in geological history brought about by one species: anthropos,” he said. “Our growing acknowledgement of this inflection point can be a turning point in our ability to respond to the changes we’ve set in motion.”

In fact, Grinspoon finds it promising that there’s some recognition that we the people are a major factor in what is happening.

“We need to learn all that we can about how planets work so we can make the transition from inadvertently messing with Earth to thoughtfully, artfully, and constructively engaging with its great systems,” he said.

A long history of planetary change

Grinspoon noted that it’s always fruitful to take a close look at the long-term history of Earth.

“We are not the first species to come along and radically change the planet and cause problems for the rest of the biosphere,” he said. In fact, the first one was not nearly so clever as we are. About 2.5 billion years ago the humble cyanobacteria caused a terrible calamity.

“They transformed the planet, the most radical chemical transformation that our planet has ever experienced,” Grinspoon explained. “They flooded the atmosphere with a poison gas that spelled certain doom for most of the other species that were living on the planet at that time.”

What they learned to do was photosynthesis, and the poison gas they spewed was oxygen. The oxygen also destroyed much of the warming methane in the atmosphere of the time, which led to a global glaciation that turned Earth into a giant snowball, a condition that lasted until volcanoes pumped out enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet up again.

“Cyanobacteria presumably never discussed that fact that they were starting to ruin the world,” Grinspoon quipped.

Four types of change

Grinspoon identifies four broad types of planetary change:

  • Random
  • Biological
  • Inadvertent
  • Intentional

The classic example of the random is an asteroid strike, something that just happens that there’s little control over. The cyanobacteria fall under the biological change. We’re in the midst of great inadvertent change right now, with automobiles, population growth and other factors driving a spike in carbon dioxide levels that began in the 1950s.

We’ve barely dipped our toes into the intentional. Grinspoon explained that our first stab at intentional change came with regard to fixing the hole in Earth’s ozone layer. The solution came from scientists studying Venus and trying to explain the planet’s lack of oxygen. They realized that chlorine destroys oxygen and ozone. Other scientists connected the dots and concluded that chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants, propellants, and other products on Earth were eating away at our planet’s ozone layer.

Fixing the ozone

Interestingly, Grinspoon noted that this created an argument that may sound familiar. Some called the notion a hoax, there were attempts to discredit it, opposing “science” was created, and there was lengthy debate.

“The truth won out,” Grinspoon said. A global agreement was reached: the Montreal Protocol. Alternate chemicals were developed that didn’t deplete the ozone. Grinspoon said it’s working.

“It’s still going to be another fifty years or so because it takes time for the ozone layer to come back,” he said. “The natural chemical reactions that re-create ozone take fifty to one hundred years.”

“Assuming we stay on track, this is actually a success story, and it’s an existence proof that this kind of global change is possible,” Grinspoon added. “Not that it’s easy, and there are some ways in which fixing global warming will be inherently harder than this, but it shows that we are capable of a different approach.”

Thinking long term

While global warming is an important challenge, Grinspoon said it is a relatively short-term one, and that we need to think even further down the road. He said such random events as asteroid strikes don’t have to happen.

“We have a space program; the dinosaurs didn’t, and look what happened to them!” he quipped. We know how to identify possible threats and have a pretty good idea about what to do when they occur.

Further, Grinspoon said that we have an illusion that climate is always more-or-less fine, only because we’ve been lucky enough to live in a time of relative stability. We need to think about the next ice age, which he said will eventually occur.

“If we get over the near-term climate harm that we’re doing, we will have the knowledge that will allow us, when the need arises—we’re talking 10,000 or maybe even as much as 50,000 years in the future—we’ll have the ability to interrupt that cycle of ice ages and preserve the relatively benign climate, not just for ourselves but for other species as well,” Grinspoon said.

Who is out there?

All of this allowed Grinspoon to put on his astrobiologist hat and talk a little about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).

“When you do the math of SETI what you realize is that the question of is there anybody out there to talk to comes down to the question of longevity,” he said. “You can show this mathematically, that if civilizations last for a long time—that is, if this problem is soluble of how to create a stable technological civilization and use technology in the service of survival rather than self destruction—if that’s possible to do and if it happens on other planets, then there ought to be other civilizations out there that we could discover and maybe even communicate with.”

Thus the Anthropocene epoch represents something of a turning point. There are those who regard it as doom and gloom, as something we can’t beat, but Grinspoon doesn’t see it that way.

“The true Anthropocene is something that should be welcomed,” he said. “Though it is yet only in its infancy, it can be glimpsed. Don’t fear it; learn to shape it.”

“It is the awareness of ourselves as geological change agents that, once propagated and integrated, will provide us with the capacity to avoid doom and take our future into our own hands,” Grinspoon concluded.

Books by David Grinspoon:


Astro Biz: Skagit Sun blueberries

Skagit Sun blueberriesMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Skagit Sun blueberries. Skagit Sun is based in LaConner, Washington, up in the Skagit Valley. The farm grows strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries in addition to blueberries. Their berries are available at some locations of Metropolitan Market and Whole Foods, and they’re regulars at the Queen Anne Farmers Market.

More info:


Total solar eclipse 2017 in Music City

You can’t blame people in Nashville for being excited about the total solar eclipse that will darken the city on August 21, 2017.

“The last time the path of totality crossed through town Nashville wasn’t even a thing!” laughed Derrick Rohl, manager of the Sudekum Planetarium at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. Indeed, the last total solar eclipse there happened on July 29, 1478.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Rohl said.

Music City Solar EclipseRohl’s big role in the planetarium’s preparation for the eclipse has been the creation of an exciting new show about eclipses. Titled Eclipse: The Sun Revealed, it has been in the works for more than a year. It starts off with a look at the ways people have responded to total solar eclipses over time.

“It gives people a great look at different cultural histories, ways that different cultures have interpreted eclipses and just how they would react,” Rohl said. Eclipse lore is filled with serpents and dragons and other scary creatures eating the Sun. The show also explores the geometry of eclipses so viewers will better understand what’s happening, and takes a look back at the interesting science that has been accomplished during total solar eclipses.

Of course, it also has the obligatory lessons about how to safely view the eclipse, and Rohl says they stress that during totality, it’s OK to look up without eye protection.

“It’s one of the greatest views that nature has for us and we would hate to have anyone miss that,” Rohl said.

Eclipse: The Sun RevealedThe show closes out with a story about someone seeing a recent eclipse, “so that people can get an idea of just what a profound, impactful experience it will be,” Rohl said.

Eclipse: The Sun Revealed will premiere next weekend, January 21, exactly seven months before the total solar eclipse will hit town. Rohl said they’ve also sold it to planetariums in four other states and others are expressing interest.

Speaking of eye safety, that’s been a big investment for the Adventure Science Center, which ordered some 300,000 pairs of eclipse glasses.

“We have pallets and pallets of eclipse glasses sitting out on a loading dock now,” Rohl laughed. The glasses are earmarked for the city’s school kids, science center visitors, hotels, the convention and visitors bureau, and others. Center staff are helping teachers with lesson plans about eclipses, and are helping everyone from city officials to park rangers and bus drivers learn about the eclipse. That’s for good reason; Rohl says they’ve heard estimates that as many as two million visitors may hit Nashville for the eclipse.

Bracing for visitors

“We’re trying to prepare as many people around town as we can to be experts,” he said. “We’re trying to connect as many people as we can just to make sure that this a smooth experience for the huge amount of people that will be here to share it with us.”

In addition to the planetarium show, they’re planning an eclipse festival for the weekend before August 21. While many of the events remain tentative at this date, the festival will likely include lots of information about the eclipse, and Rohl expects it will also touch on virtual reality, robotics, and other cool topics.

“We’re not just limiting it to astronomy; we’re really expanding it to all the different science that we’d like to have people exploring and understanding and appreciating,” he said.

Other attractions of Nashville

One of the reasons that visitor estimates are so high in Nashville is that Music City is already a great tourist draw.

“Nashville is such a tourist friendly city even without an eclipse happening,” Rohl said. “While there are many other cities within the path, Nashville is a very very enticing place for people to choose.”

He expects folks from as far away as Chicago might rise in the wee hours and make the trip to Nashville for the eclipse, noting that practically everyone in the U.S. is within a day’s drive of the path of totality. While it’s a tourist town, Rohl says many Music City hotels have been booked for a long time. He’s got a spare room in his house, but it’s still up in the air who gets it.

“I think a lot of people who live in Nashville might be having long-lost relatives coming out of the woodwork,” Rohl laughed.

There are a couple of other space and astronomy attractions in the region besides the eclipse and the Adventure Science Center. Rohl suggested a visit to the Dyer Observatory, operated by Vanderbilt University in Brentwood, Tennessee, just a bit south of Nashville; and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which is just a couple of hours drive to the south.

Total eclipse mania

Rohl noted that the buzz is certainly building about the eclipse. He fields several calls each day already, and expects it will only increase. Social media is helping to spread the word, something we didn’t have the last time a total solar eclipse crossed our entire country, back in 1918.

“The hype around this one really makes it so that everyone is expecting it to be the biggest astronomical event ever to happen in the United States,” Rohl said. “It’s something really exciting to look forward to, and of course Nashville is a mighty convenient place to live with that coming.”

Podcast of our interview with Derrick Rohl:

Trailer for the planetarium show Eclipse: The Sun Revealed:


Astro Biz: Blue Star Coffee

Blue Star CoffeeMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Blue Star Coffee Roasters. Blue Star has a roasting plant and coffee bar in Twisp, Washington. Their products are available online, and in a variety of north central Washington locations from Wenatchee to Mazama to Oroville. Their three listed locations in Seattle are the Pike and Western Wine Shop downtown, the Ark Lodge Cinemas on Rainier Avenue South, and the Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery with shops on Capitol Hill and in Ballard, just a hop and a skip away from Cloud Break Optics.

We discovered Blue Star because their coffee is served at Local 360, a restaurant just across the street from our barber Julie Olsen‘s shop, Collage Barbers. We often stop in for a little refreshment when we’re a bit early for our haircut appointment.

More info:


LIGO and the era of multimessenger astronomy

Multimessenger astronomy is a fairly new buzz word in the science. Dr. Joey Key, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Washington Bothell and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, talked about the concept at last month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Joey Key

Dr. Joey Key of the UW Bothell gave a talk about LIGO and the era of multimessenger astronomy at the Dec. 21 meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Key made the same presentation to the Everett Astronomical Society Jan. 7. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As you probably know LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory—made the first detection of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, back in December 2015 and announced the findings last February. So now what?

“The next big goal for LIGO is to have a gravitational wave detection where we also get an electromagnetic signal from the same source,” Key explained. She noted that various wavelengths of light, from gamma ray to radio, require different types of tools to detect and reveal different things about objects observed. Key said gravitational-wave astronomers refer to such science as “electromagnetic astronomy.” The big hope, then, is to learn even more if there can be an electromagnetic observation as well as a gravitational wave observation of the same event.

“That’s what we would call a multimessgenger source,” Key said.

A difficult search

Einstein never thought gravitational waves could be detected because he figured they would be too small. It took a century of technological advances to prove him right—again. Finding a multimessenger source may be an even more elusive needle in the cosmic haystack.

Key explained that, right now, it’s hard for LIGO to detect with precision from whence a source signal originates. When they detect a source they send an alert to about 60 electromagnetic astronomy partners and give them a general direction in which to look. In addition to the challenge of pinpointing the source, they also don’t really know what to look for. Key said their models aren’t very good, not yet anyway. Light from a source may have already passed, but there could be x-rays, gamma rays, afterglow, or shock waves under certain conditions.

Fortunately, LIGO is getting better. The addition of more Earth-based observatories will help better locate sources and discover collisions of neutron stars or stellar-mass black holes. Project LISA, scheduled to launch in 2029, will look for supermassive black hole collisions and “extreme mass ratio in-spirals” which occur when a little star or black hole falls into a big black hole. Pulsar timing arrays could detect when supermassive black holes collide in galaxy mergers. There’s even study of the cosmic microwave background to try to detect gravitational waves from early universe.

“Just like electromagnetic astronomy, different sources are detected by these different kinds of experiments,” Key said. “We need all these different kinds of gravitational-wave experiments to be able to study the gravitational-wave sky.”

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than a thousand scientists from 15 countries and 90 institutions. Four of the institutions are in Washington: The University of Washington, UW Bothell, Whitman College, and Bellevue College.

Unknown discoveries ahead

Key said it is an interesting time to be involved in the field as LIGO is just into its second observing run.

“We’re really going to be able to map out and explore the population of black holes in our universe,” Key said.

“We don’t know what we’ll discover, and that is always the story of a new astronomy,” she added. ”We do not know very much about black holes in general, and so this is a new way to study the universe and study what is out there. It will be very exciting!”

LIGO could discover new kinds of sources like cosmic strings, study supernovae, and maybe even lead to the detection of dark matter and dark energy.

“We are lucky we live in the era of gravitational-wave astronomy, and we hope soon that it will be the era of multimessenger astronomy,” Key concluded.


Astro Biz: Galaxy White IPA

Galaxy White IPAMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Galaxy White IPA from Anchorage Brewing Company. White India Pale Ale is something of a new brew. From the company’s website:

Exploration and innovation have always been hallmarks of mankind. The same spirit that sent pathfinders, like Captain Cook, sailing from Britain to the shores of Australia and the rocky coastlines of Alaska animates today’s trailblazers. Wherever you find a frontier, be it the Final Frontier of our Milky Way, the Last Frontier of the Great Land, or the frontiers of scientific knowledge, there you will also find dedicated men and women, taking risks to break trail for the rest of us.

One of the new trails being blazed on the frontier of beer is the style known as White India Pale Ales. Galaxy White IPA represents a significant new landmark on that trail. With its use of fresh kumquats, Indian coriander, and black peppercorns, Galaxy pays homage to the early explorers, who sailed unknown seas in search of rare spices and exotic fruits. Captain Cook travelled from Australia to Alaska, and so have the Galaxy hops used to create this adventurous brew. Just as a true explorer never stands still, the presence of brettanomyces guarantees that Galaxy White IPA will keep evolving in the bottle for years to come.

We chose Galaxy White IPA this week because Santa, wise fellow that he is, and knowing that I love IPA, enjoy astronomy, and have been very good this year, left a bottle of it in my stocking some time during the wee hours on Christmas Eve.

More info:


Great events coming up in the new year

The calendar of northwest space and astronomy events is empty this week as most folks take a breather between holidays before barging ahead into 2017. There is, however, a full slate of stage science and planetarium shows at the Pacific Science Center this week. You can find their listing on our calendar page below the Northwest Astronomy events calendar.

Futures file

We’ve added a handful of new events in the last week or so:

Up in the sky

You should be able to spot Saturn just south of the Moon on Tuesday. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.