Tag Archives: David Grinspoon

Our favorite books and author talks of 2017

We created Seattle Astronomy because, given our region’s seemingly perpetual cloud cover, there were more opportunities to write about astronomy than to actually observe the night skies. We also read the writing of others, go hear them talk about it, and report back to you! Here are our top five author and book stories of 2017.

1. Treknology

Ethan Siegel’s new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) is a must for any Star Trek fan. As the title suggests, Siegel takes a look at a host of technologies imagined by the various Trek TV series and movies and weighs in on which have already come true, which are on the horizon, and which would still require some discovery. Siegel is reluctant to say something will never happen. Instead, with challenging technologies such as warp drive, he looks at the physics of how it could work and the challenges for bringing that to reality. Siegel isn’t just making this stuff up; he’s a theoretical astrophysicist and writes the blog and produces the podcast Starts With a Bang. Siegel has appeared several times on our pages. Find our article and podcast about Treknology, and our articles about his talks on gravitational waves and the expanding universe given to Rose City Astronomers in Portland, and his talk about dark matter at Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

2. American Eclipse

Former NPR science editor David Baron got the idea to write a book about solar eclipses way back in 1998 when he witnessed his first total solar eclipse from the beach in Aruba. He figured 2017 would be a good year to publish, when interest in the great American eclipse was at its peak. American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017) is the story of the 1878 totality that crossed the American frontier from Montana down through Texas, and it chronicles the efforts of Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson to view the eclipse. Baron credits the event for sparking a scientific boom in the United States. We just finished the book during a recent train trip and found it to be a marvelous and informative read. Baron spoke at Pacific Science Center in July. Check out our review of his talk.

3. The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far

Lawrence Krauss is a renowned author and theoretical physicist and cosmologist who packed Town Hall Seattle back in April for a talk about his book The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017). We love it when someone can tackle particle physics without causing headaches, and Krauss nailed it with both his talk and the book. Krauss tells not just about the advances in physics over the years, but gives interesting insights about the creative processes that led to the discoveries. As an example, there are at least two cases in which amazing discoveries came when the scientists were sleep deprived because of the recent birth of children! Here’s our review of Krauss’s talk in Seattle. There’s a weak connection between Krauss and Ethan Siegel; one of Krauss’s earlier books is The Physics of Star Trek (Basic Books, 2007).

4. Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich created the “Intergalactic Travel Bureau,” and their book Vacation Guide to the Solar System: Science for the Savvy Space Traveler! (Penguin Books, 2017) is a travel brochure. Packed with information about what to see from Mercury to Pluto, the guide tricks us into learning something in an entertaining and beautifully illustrated format. They spoke at Town Hall Seattle in June. Here our recap.

5. Earth in Human Hands

David Grinspoon himself wonders how an astrobiologist such as himself wound up writing a book about the human impact on Earth. He figures the more we know about how planets work, the better we can be at making changes to the climate that are for the better. In Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) Grinspoon notes that we aren’t the first species to radically change the planet’s climate; the humble cyanobacteria killed off just about everything else on Earth once by adding oxygen to the atmosphere. Grinspoon spoke at the Pacific Science Center last January; here’s our recap of his talk.

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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:

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Dava Sobel talk highlights week’s calendar

A talk by author Dava Sobel is the highlight of this week’s astronomy calendar. Sobel, whose new book is The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016) will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 15 at Town Hall Seattle.

The book is the story of the contributions of women at the observatory who made major advancements in the science, often without getting proper credit or recognition. From Williamina Fleming, originally hired as a maid, who identified ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars to Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, appointed as the first woman professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1956, this group of remarkable women disproved the notion that “the gentler sex” had little to contribute to human knowledge.

Tickets to Sobel’s talk are $5 and are available online.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

December’s edition of Astronomoy on Tap Seattle will consist of three shows at the University of Washington Planetarium on Wednesday, December 14. The program will be a guided tour of the universe. Unfortunately, all of the seats for the three shows were snapped up quickly, but you might watch the AoT Facebook event page to see if any openings occur.

Public night in Pierce County

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 17 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be a viewing of a movie about the Christmas star. If the weather is clear they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing, too.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center. Recently added events include:

Up in the sky

The Geminid meteor shower peaks this week, but will have to compete with the full Moon. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.

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David Grinspoon will make three northwest appearances in January

Folks in the northwest have three chances next month to hear a talk by astrobiologist, award-winning science communicator, and prize-winning author David Grinspoon. Grinspoon, author of Earth in Human Hands: Shaping our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, January 10, 2017 at the University Book Store in Seattle. The following evening, Wednesday, January 11, he will appear at the Pacific Science Center at 7 p.m. as part of the center’s Science in the City lecture series. The following Monday, January 16, Grinspoon will speak at 7:30 p.m. at the monthly meeting of the Rose City Astronomers at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

David Grinspoon

David Grinspoon

Grinspoon will assess climate change by comparing Earth’s story to those of other planets. Without minimizing the challenges of the next century, Grinspoon suggests that our present moment is not only one of peril, but also great potential, especially when viewed from a 10,000-year perspective. He’ll discuss the human impact on Earth and what we can do to shape our future. Possible implications for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence will be considered, as well as the choices our civilization faces in seeking to foster a wisely managed Earth.

Grinspoon is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and adjunct professor of astrophysical and planetary science at the University of Colorado. His research focuses on climate evolution on Earth-like planets and potential conditions for life elsewhere in the universe. He is involved with several interplanetary spacecraft missions for NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency. He’s a contributing editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, and his work also has appeared in Astronomy and a variety of other publications. He often appears as a commentator on television, radio, and podcasts.

The lecture at Pacific Science Center is free for members, $5 for the general public; tickets will be on sale soon. The Rose City Astronomers and University Book Store events are free and open to the public.

Books by David Grinspoon:

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Club events and planetarium shows on tap for this week

The first weekend in December is heavy with club events, star parties, and planetarium shows. Here’s what’s on the calendar for the coming week:

Club gatherings

Spokane Astronomical SocietyIn December many astronomy clubs opt out of a formal meeting and instead hold a banquet or other more social gathering. The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its annual potluck dinner for 6 p.m. Friday, December 2 at the Riverview Retirement Community. A guest speaker will follow the dinner at 7:30. Dr. John Buchanan, a professor of geology at Eastern Washington University, will talk about catastrophic outburst flooding that have occurred on Earth and Mars through geologic time. He will examine how the “Ice Age Floods” in eastern Washington compare with various large floods both on Earth and Mars.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society plans its free monthly public star parties for 6 p.m. Saturday, December 3 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Poor weather will mean cancellation of the events, so watch the club’s website and social media for updates.

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its free public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 3 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather program will be about selecting gift telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy gear. (We covered that topic, too last week!) If the weather is good they’ll also put their gear into action for some celestial observing.

Planetarium shows

Planetaria have no trouble with cloudy weather! There are several shows on the docket for the week.

The University of Washington planetarium will host three free shows on Friday, December 2 at 5:30, 6:30, and 7:30 p.m. Reservations for all three times were snapped up quickly, but you can watch this site to see if tickets become available.

Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton will host its First Friday Sky Walk shows December 2, with a presentation every half-hour between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The shows look at what’s up in the sky for the coming month.

There are a variety of shows suitable for all ages every day at the Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center. You’ll find their complete schedule on our calendar page.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. New additions to the calendar this week include:

Up in the sky

Venus and the Moon make a nice pairing on the evening of December 3. 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.

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