Tag Archives: cosmos

Prelude to Cosmos: Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed by Bill Moyers

Cosmos featuring neil degrasse tyson

Tonight is an exciting night of television for anyone interested in discovering how the universe works. For those of us committed to sharing our understanding of the universe, it is particularly exciting and trepidatious to think about turning on the telly at 9:00PM tonight—tuning it to the Fox network (or National Geographic) of all places—for the reboot/revival, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, of one of the most successful science documentary series on television ever: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

You can watch that whole original epic series on youtube now, in case you are of a younger generation who missed it entirely, or if you (like Salman Hameed at Irtiqua) want to relive the moments of your youth when Sagan lit that luminescent candle in the dark, and perhaps changed the course of your life. I can but hope (with no little trepidation) that the new Cosmos lives up to that legacy, and indeed takes it further to light up a whole new generation (of Fox TV watchers, no less) to the wonders of science.

If Neil deGrasse Tyson was able to excite Seth MacFarlane—the “creative engine” of juvenile, puerile, sexist comedy (making a ton of money) for Fox, who came up with the boob song (for Oscar 2013) which still makes me cringe—into putting his considerable wealth and clout into producing this Cosmos reboot with a lot more showbiz whizbang, and getting Fox to broadcast it (alongside NatGeo), then there is hope for many of us already excited about science but frustrated by increasing public ignorance of, and hostility towards science. But I don’t want to burden Tyson, or one show, with too many expectations – just… take me on an astonishing ride. That is all I ask! And that is what this trailer promises, so buckle in:


As you wait for the series to premiere tonight, you might also want to revisit this recent in-depth three-part interview with Tyson by Bill Moyers, which aired last month, and ranged widely, tackling not just the show and a cosmic perspective:

… but the nature of science, its increasingly irreconcilable relationship with religion, and Neil’s relegation of God to “an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance”:

… to the dark politics of the US which has held back this country from remaining the leader of science in the world:

Join me, and enjoy the ride starting tonight!

Prisoner of Light

Earth at night

Isaac Asimov played a crucial role in the development of my juvenile imagination, with his wonderful ideas unhampered by his lack of felicity with literary prose. I’ve even invoked his planet Trantor in exploring the limits and ethics of urbanization. I am delighted, therefore, to find that Asimov’s wonderfully imaginative short story Nightfall inspired the latest blog post by Meera, my neighbor here in Coyot.es. In turn, her lovely prose (and the poem she quotes) brought to mind of a bit of my own juvenilia, a poem I had written many moons ago, about trying to break free from the prison of light, to embrace the night. A night we have gradually banished from much of the world today, as evident in the above image you may have seen, of Earth at night, this one composited from over 400 satellite images from NASA and NOAA. (Here’s another recent view, captured by a single satellite during March-April 2012.)

Unlike the world of Nightfall, we have but the one Sun, not six – yet within a few decades of global urbanization we have managed to make strangers of most stars! Many urban-dwelling members of our own species may now be astonished and bewildered, if not actually driven mad, should they suddenly be confronted with the full splendor of the brilliant night sky as it appears still over the world’s high deserts, for instance. I have seen Venus cast a shadow in the pre-dawn night (while camping in the Sahyadri mountains a quarter century ago). I have also had friends report in complete amazement their discovery that the milky way can actually be seen by the naked eye from some places on this earth! And I hope we can halt, and roll back, the marching of the armies of light across our planet, and bring back the night. Not only for ourselves, for we need the stars and the night to nourish our souls, but also for migratory birds and all the wonderful nocturnal creatures who need the dark and the starlight.

Here, then, is the youthful me railing against the light, as I wandered through a suburban woods in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills one spring night, trying to blot out the city lights and find some stars, mayhaps an owl, and find myself.


Prisoner of Light

The soft darkness, an element forgotten
or never yet discovered perhaps? Night,
feeling, reaching out for me with the
gentle fingers of the strong wind, draws
and propels me, into the bottomless pit
of my self. The invisible, dark red
glow of Palash blooms, the Flames
of the Forest, half opened buds of an
incomplete spring paint the night in
terrible, fascinating hues, that drive me
out of my mind and out of my heart.

My intellect struggles to express, throws itself
against the walls of an imprisoned knowledge.
A captive imagination revolts against that dictator,
Language, hurls itself at the grammar bars, and
though bruised, trickles out gradually through
the gaps, amorphous fluid that it is. A chaotic
upheaval as estranged Reason and Emotion,
each denying the other, yet forced to coexist,
come face to face, in the noisy graveyard
of my deforested mind; captive, under siege from
the fluorescent battalions marching all night.

The uneasy half moon, ashamed of itself,
seeking the anonymity of a mist-veil,
unable yet to shut off its light, watches
the fugitive jackal of my intellect scavenging
on the rotting remains of my self-respect
under the cover of lightness. The sombre
trees, living tombstones on my buried
humanity, run from me, as I crash madly
through the dead wilderness of my mind,
like a blind rhinoceros searching for
a resting place, a home or a grave.

But the army of Light, it cannot
bear to watch! It hauls me out of
the enchanting night. Its vice-like grip
squeezes the darkness, pulls my shrivelled,
dry self back into the circle of radiation.
An eternal prisoner of Light, once again
I fail, to understand, to unify myself.

– Madhusudan, 13 March 1989, Dehradun.

The universe itself exists within us… (a note of thanks)

Thank you, my friends.

The past several weeks have been difficult ones. I write this as a note of thanks to all of our global villagers who have rallied around us in the wake of my mother’s passing two weeks ago. I wrote to keep my anguish at bay while I traveled to her deathbed, and then shared what I wrote as a way to shield myself from having to relive the horror of what happened in the retelling to all the friends who would want to know, to share the grief, to express condolences. I am not very good with the spoken word, especially under such trying circumstances, but seem to have found a better outlet in writing. I am grateful to everyone who read and left comments and condolences, on this blog, on my facebook wall, in emails, and telephone conversations. Thank you, those of you who knew her, and also those who didn’t know her and don’t even really know me, but have shared my grief. I have been overwhelmed that so many tell me my writing touched them, moved them to tears, and in those tears I hope to drown the flames that took my mother.

While I am bad at knowing what to say to people expressing condolences and sympathy, it is even harder to respond to the many who said they would pray for her, and me, and said “may god rest her soul in peace”. I turned away from religion a long time ago, as did my siblings. Even Aai, who had followed many a ritual in our childhoods as a matter of course, had given up her pujas and prayers over the past couple of decades, preferring instead to read Marxist accounts of our cultural evolution such as “Volga te Ganga” (Marathi for Volga to Ganga), and writing angry feminist notes in her notebooks raging against the patriarchy. That is, when she wasn’t worshipping at the television altar of that other reigning religion in India: cricket. I am not sure, therefore, what she would have said to those wishing her soul peace in god, for she too believed in neither soul nor god.

Some of her loss of faith I know about from conversations we had during college days, when we, her kids, brought back what we were discovering in science and philosophy, following the path she herself had set us out on in insisting we become scholars. At least after she had reconciled herself to my failure to become a doctor, her first and biggest ambition. It was that disappointment, deepening through years of frustration at my lack of financial success, which made it difficult in later years for me to talk to her about anything as exalted as faith or souls. Reading some of her notes now, I regret not having been able to engage her in conversations deeper than the ones we had about mundane things. I do know, though, that she never really went back to her seasonal religious rituals, and only wanted to do the bare minimum asked for by society even when her husband died seven years ago.

Some of the nurses tried to tell us that in her delirium in the ICU, before she slipped into unconsciousness, she had blurted out something about god, and had appeared to be chanting some religious hymns. Did she turn back to religion and rediscover god in her final moments, as we atheists are told is inevitable? I don’t know. My sister, who was with her, talking to her, holding her hand as she fell into her final sleep, doesn’t recount god figuring much in their conversation. Vaijoo said Aai held her hand to her heart and asked her what was happening, why she had gathered friends and relatives, was she going to die, was this the end? Earlier, looking at the burned skin on her arms while on the way to the ICU, she had laughed at the absurdity of her accident. Now it had sunk in, and perhaps she was afraid that this was it, there was no coming back from this. What will happen next, she asked Vaijoo. Masking her own emotional distress, Vaijoo said she didn’t know, but that a lot of people who loved her were gathered outside, including her beloved brother whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years, and that her son was also on his way to be with her shortly. She squeezed her hand, looked into her eyes, told her to rest, try to be calm, and go to sleep. Then the doctor came, gently slipped Aai’s hand out of Vaijoo’s and into his own and told her he would stay until she was fully asleep.

That was the last lucid conversation my mother had, hardly regaining consciousness at all over the next 36 hours before she was gone. I don’t know how much room there was for god or religion in the cracks of her fading consciousness, nor do I find much solace in seeking out god to explain the accident that took her from us. Nevertheless, I deeply appreciate the sentiment from friends and strangers who said they prayed for her. Rituals of mourning are, after all, more for the still living left behind by the dead. So, thank you again, my friends, for your condolences.

I also find greater comfort in knowing something I know would have evoked wonder and awe in her spirit as well: that we are all made of stardust, that, as my favorite contemporary preacher put it (at c.2:40 in the following video), “Not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us“. So allow me to leave you with these cosmic (and hopefully not too disturbing) thoughts from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDRXn96HrtY?wmode=transparent]

Thank you.

Discworld!! But where are the Elephants and the Turtle?

An Extraordinarily Slender Galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a striking galaxy called NGC 4452, which appears to lie exactly edge-on as seen from Earth. The result is an extraordinary picture of billions of stars observed from an unusual angle. The bright nucleus can be seen at the centre, along with the very thin disc that looks like a straight line from our unusual viewing position. To complete the picture, a hazy halo of stars on the periphery of the galaxy makes it seem to glow.

NGC 4452 was first seen by William Herschel in 1784 with his 47 cm telescope in England. He described the object as a bright nebula, small and very much elongated. The new Hubble image shows just how elongated this unusual object really is.

Galaxies are like star cities, and typically contain many billions of stars. The American astronomer Edwin Hubble, after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named, was the first person to prove that there are other galaxies beyond our own by measuring their distances. This work, done in the 1920s, forever changed our view of the Universe.

Galaxies also belong to collections that are called galaxy clusters. NGC 4452 is part of the Virgo Cluster, so-called because many of its members appear in the constellation of Virgo (the Maiden). This enormous grouping is approximately 60 million light-years distant and contains around 2000 galaxies.

It is thought that the Local Group of galaxies, to which our own Milky Way belongs, is on the fringes of the Virgo Cluster, and at some point in the far future the Local Group may be pulled slowly into the Virgo Cluster by the force of gravity. Large numbers of much more remote, faint galaxies, far beyond NGC 4452 and the Virgo Cluster, appear in the background of this image.

This picture of NGC 4452 was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel on Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. This picture was made from images through blue (F475W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F850LP, coloured red) filters. The exposures times were 750 s and 1210 s respectively. The field of view extends over 2.6 arcminutes.


ESA/Hubble & NASA

OK, NASA and Hubble, that image is quite extraordinary and really cool and all, but – where are the four elephants holding it up, not to mention the Great A’tuin, upon whose back all of Discworld surely rests? C’mon, give us the full picture, which is supposed to look like this:


Tip of the magic hat to Arvind!


Celebrate the end of finals week with Bad Astronomy at the Downing Planetarium this friday!

Join us as we explore the sky at the Downing Planetarium!.

This month, Movie Night at the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics will be held at the Downing Planetarium.

We will be seeing two shows. 

First is Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy”, a show that explores and debunks astronomical myths like the moon landing “hoax”, and alien visitors to Earth in UFOs.  Dr. Plait will also explain several astronomical errors found in movies. 

“Bad Astronomy” is based upon the book “Bad Astronomy” also by Phil Plait.  This is an excellent book for any rational thinker to read and understand why some fringe claims about astronomy just don’t make sense.

The second show is called “The Planets”.  This is a tour of the planets of the Solar System, based on the best data astronomers have currently gathered on our neighbors.  Find out how our solar system was formed, learn about hurricanes on other planets.  Also, we will learn about the extrasolar planets, planets that are orbiting other stars.

We will be attending the Friday, May 21st showing, which starts at 7pm.

To join us, you must call the planetarium to reserve your tickets.  Call the planetarium at 559-278-4071.

The Downing Planetarium is located on the California State University, Fresno campus.  The best way to get there is from Cedar and Barstow, drive to Maple and Barstow, and park in the Green parking area.  (Google map of location)  (Campus map for parking).

For more information, see the Downing Planetarium schedule.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there!

A cosmologist in hypothetical make-up


This is from last night’s Colbert Report where physicist and blogger Sean Carroll’s new book “From Eternity to Here” presumably got the Colbert Bump. On his blog today, Carroll also offers some insights into how smart and professional Colbert and his team are in putting together the comedy show! That show continues to impress (along with the other guy who would be on afterwards in that other universe), especially with its science coverage. And I thought Dr. Carroll did very well last night, despite being caught off-guard and forced to use the jargony word entropy – the interview came off rather well organized.