Days of Remembrance and Inspiration

We are living in a science fiction era.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Back in the early 1960s, when TV shows like Doctor Who and The Twilight Zone were first starting, nobody had actually seen the surface of any other planet in our solar system. 1965 was the year when we saw the first photographs of another planet courtesy of the Mariner 4 spacecraft. Since then – in a single generation – humanity’s view of our solar system has changed forever from fuzzy pin-pricks of light to high resolution digital images of interplanetary real estate.

When the final Star Trek (TOS) movie hit the theatres in 1991 and portrayed alien worlds, human beings had not yet seen any evidence that such worlds actually existed. Then, in 1992, astronomers found the first exoplanet and now we know of over 4000 of these places.

During 2022, surpassing the marvels of the Hubble Space Telescope, the first images from the James Webb telescope began to expand our view of the universe more than ever before in human history. Where we could once only imagine galaxies a long time ago and far, far away, we can now see them and marvel at their beauty.

We are reminded of Carl Sagan, who pointed out that we are made of star stuff, and these images bring us closer than ever to seeing our earliest origins.

However, we must not ignore the the cost of space exploration: the tragic deaths of astronauts and cosmonauts in space and related accidents. Knowledge and progress are never free. In the USA, this week includes NASA’s Day of Remembrance to commemorate the loss of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia during the same week in different years.

Let’s remember our pioneers who created the pathways we walk today. Let’s also look ahead to those visionaries who are yet to take that journey. Sic Itur Ad Astra.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Hey Boomer

To commemorate the anniversary of the Human Be-In (14 January 1967)

Image by David from Pixabay

Rarely a day seems to pass without some comment in a letters column or a social media thread where someone is complaining about the baby boomer generation, who are apparently all affluent, privileged, self-absorbed, and selfish.

It seems somewhat puzzling that ageist generalisations about baby boomers come from subsequent generations of adults who appear to largely abhor racism, sexism and homophobia. Why is this other form of discrimination acceptable?

As a tail-end baby boomer myself, I was born towards the end of the era and so I just made it into the generation, but many of these people – older girls and boys when I was a child but who seemed so grown up to me – ultimately became my mentors and heroes in my youth and adulthood. In response to ageist criticism of these people, I would like to say to my role models:

Hey boomer, thank you.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Thank you for once being young and idealistic and full of dreams and naive hope.

Thank you for taking the world of Robert Menzies and Joseph McCarthy, and turning it into a world of Rosa Parks and Gough Whitlam.

Thank you for the hippies who turned the nuclear arms race into flower power and pacifism that stopped the Vietnam War.

Thank you for taking the empathy of Dr Spock, who raised your generation; and contributing to the modern-day mythology of Mr Spock, who encouraged us all to think more logically and rationally.

Thank you for questioning and challenging the establishment – everything from institutional Christianity to the Vietnam War draft – and inspiring a wave of independent thinkers.

Thank you for the civil rights movement which established the equality of people regardless of race or skin colour.

Thank you for ending racial segregation and apartheid.

Thank you for the 1967 referendum in Australia which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australians.

Thank you for contributing to the space program and Moon landings, helping to create the biggest non-military scientific program in history which led to much of our modern-day science and technology.

Thank you for advancing the environmental movement and many animal liberation causes.

Thank you for the second-generation women’s lib movement.

Thank you for the gay liberation movement and its subsequent LGBT+/queer rights momentum.

Thank you for all your activism during the era of HIV/AIDS, when millions of people were dying in a double epidemic of AIDS and homophobic stigma – yet you cared for them, changed the world for them, and became heroes.

Thank you for starting the world-wide trend towards abolition of the death penalty.

Thank you for promoting women’s sexual autonomy via the pill, abortion, the right to say no, and granting women some power within marriage instead of treating them like the property of their husband.

Thank you for advancing many of the human rights that subsequent generations of adults enjoy, including their right to criticise you.

Thank you to those of you who, even in retirement, continue to lobby hard for human rights, equality, and uplifting the underdog: refugees, indigenous people, and others who are oppressed or disempowered.

For those of you who are still active and empowered and educated, and who keep your finger on the pulse of a younger world, I say please keep working hard to create an even better world for posterity. To those of you for whom the spirit may be willing but the flesh is becoming weak, I respectfully suggest it is time to graciously pass the mantle to a younger generation and enjoy a well-deserved rest. Those who follow will be grateful and capable in continuing the work of changing the world in newer ways of which perhaps we can only dream.

Thank you, boomers, for your lifetime of work. I’m not saying that you got everything right, but you did your best to make the world a better place for your having been in it. May subsequent generations learn from your example, agitate to change the world for the better, and enjoy their own well-deserved retirement after a lifetime of hard work and activism.

(These same young people in this video would now likely be in their seventies or eighties. Grandma and Grandpa were young once – boomers in their heyday enjoying being alive, carefree, and full of potential to change the world. Let’s see subsequent generations do the same.)

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

UFOs and Other Lunar Visions

The Apollo 11 astronauts were not the only people to report observing strange lunar phenomena. Fortunately, science and common sense can plausibly explain the sightings. The truth may be out there, but it is even more exciting than we imagine.

The Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 Kirsten Trecento (Used by permission).

It sounds like a sci fi story: a UFO (technically an ‘unidentified flying object’ because it remains officially unidentified) trailing the Apollo 11 spacecraft as it flew towards the Moon for its historic landing. Was it a vehicle carrying aliens who were observing humanity’s first steps offworld? Or perhaps it was a space bus full of time-travelling tourists who wanted to observe what was, for them, an historic event from humanity’s past?

Sadly, neither possibility seems likely. In his book No Dream Is Too High, astronaut Buzz Aldrin reports this sighting by the Apollo 11 crew as they flew Moonward, three days and 200,000 miles (over 320,000 km) away from Earth. The object (or light) in question was visible but too distant to be identifiable to them, and Buzz reports they were reluctant – in the glare of the world’s media – to simply ask aloud: “Hey Houston, we have something moving along beside us, and we don’t know what it is. Can you tell us what that might be?” They concluded that it was either the final stage of the Saturn rocket that had launched them on their lunar trajectory two days earlier (somewhat implausible because that was reported to be 6000 miles, or just short of 10,000 km, away from them), or – more likely – was one of four panels from the casing that had been discarded when they had extracted the lunar module. This panel, flying its own lonely trajectory alongside them and reflecting sunlight, would appear to be a light or a vehicle following them at some distance.

This was not the only strange sighting these astronauts experienced on the way to the Moon. Time magazine (25 July 1969) includes in its Apollo 11 report that the astronauts were asked to investigate a strange sighting near the crater Aristarchus: “Astronomers in Bochum, West Germany, had observed a bright glow on the lunar surface—the same sort of eerie luminescence that has intrigued moon watchers for centuries. The report was passed on to Houston and thence to the astronauts. Almost immediately, Armstrong reported back, “Hey, Houston, I’m looking north up to ward Aristarchus now, and there’s an area that is considerably more illuminated than the surrounding area. It seems to have a slight amount of fluorescence.” Aldrin confirmed his observation.”

This latter sighting was a transient lunar phenomenon (TLP) or lunar transient phenomenon (LTP) – which Wikipedia summarises as comprising a short-lived light, color or change in appearance on the surface of the Moon. These events, reported for over one thousand years (at least since monks in Canterbury reported such a sighting on 18 June 1178) are attributed to possible outgassing, geologic, or meteorite activity. Even NASA notes these sightings:

“If you stare at the Moon long enough, you start seeing things. “82 things to be exact,” says Bill Cooke, leader of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Group. That’s how many “transient phenomena” the group has video-taped since they started monitoring the night side of the Moon in Nov. 2005.”

So while staring upwards and yearning for excitement, it may seem exhilarating to ponder whether alien cities, UFOs, portals to other dimensions, or other exciting possibilities exist within plain sight. However, such possibilities are best consigned to exciting sci fi stories, while the reality is more plausibly explained by solid science and critical thought.

Aldrin, in his aforementioned book (subtitled “Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon”) quotes Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Let’s remember that and accept that reality can still be as breath-taking as our imaginings. Sure, the Apollo 11 crew may have missed the chance to be stalked by aliens or time travellers, but hell, they walked on the Moon. Sagan’s quote provides its own challenge. While sci fi might provide inspiration for future dreams, it cannot compete with the excitement of real life. If you think that your life is only half as exciting as an episode of Star Trek, chances are you’re reading this blog article on a piece of technology that was inspired by – and closely resembles – the tech represented in that imaginary future. We are here already, folks.

Enjoy our dreams and visions, but also enjoy the real universe in which we live. Our grandparents walked on the Moon, dammit; where will our grandchildren tread?

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Previously published on ScienceSpaceandFiction blog.