Saturday, March 17, 2018

I'm Beginning To See The Light

If there is one defining feature of the North country, other than ice & snow, it's undoubtedly the Northern Lights, more properly referred to as the Aurora Borealis. Occurring year round, though not really visible around the summer solstice or when it's cloudy, this magical night time display will always take your breath away no matter how many times they are viewed. And no two nights are ever the same either.

The Aurora Borealis is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the Sun, during sunspot or solar flare activity (referred to as coronal mass ejections) that collide with the oxygen and nitrogen gases in the Earth's atmosphere. Driven by solar wind these particles enter the Earth's atmosphere through the north or south pole where the Earth's magnetic field is weaker. A roughly oval shaped area near the north pole called the Auroral zone offers the best viewing opportunity and, in Canada, one of the most perfectly located viewing spots is Yellowknife.

It was a perfectly clear night when we arrived at the viewing station and the Aurora started as soon as it was dark. Driving out of town to get away from any streetlight we were quickly overwhelmed by the display that shimmered and danced across the heavens with incredible speed. Constantly shifting shape, as if an unseen hand was stirring up a cosmic light show, we never knew where to look from one moment to the next.

Overwhelmed by our incredible good fortune we spent over 4 hours in the cold night air (minus 20 Fahrenheit) watching in stunned admiration as the mostly green light kept changing the night sky. Luckily we were dressed for the occasion in specially designed thermal clothing, but was nice to get back to our hotel where we fell fast asleep after taking in all the fresh night air.

On the second night we were ready for another session under the stars but wondering how Ms. Aurora was going to top off her last performance. We need not have worried as once again the sky was lit up with yet another spectacular display of rapidly moving curtains of light. Northern lights are mostly green in colour caused by the interaction with oxygen at approximately 60 miles above Earth but they can also be purple at the edges and at an altitude of 200 miles they can be red.

It's a long way from Vancouver to see the Aurora Borealis (even further if you want to see the Southern one called Aurora Australis) and people come from around the world (particularly Asia) where it's considered good luck if you see the lights.  There's never any guarantee but, when it does all come together, you feel very privileged. It's a national treasure and it's free, no wonder so many folks are beginning to see the light.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bend Me Shape Me

The one thing that affects all scuba divers, regardless of the water temperature, is pressure and the deeper they dive the greater is the surrounding pressure their body has to face.  At sea level the atmospheric pressure (ATM) is only 1 but every 10 metres or 33 feet deeper adds another ATM. The deeper you go the faster you consume your air supply because at 2 ATM you are inhaling twice the number of air molecules as you would at the surface and, at 4 ATM, or 30 metres deep, each breath is 4 times what you would at the surface. Understanding how the body reacts to all this pressure is the key to safe diving. 

Pressurized air in a scuba tank still contains the approximate 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen we are accustomed to breathing on land. However, during a dive, the body tissues are absorbing nitrogen in proportion to the surrounding pressure, which is anywhere from 2 to 5 times more than normal depending on depth. As the diver ascends and the pressure decreases the excess nitrogen will slowly leave the body (off gassing) but if the pressure is reduced too quickly the nitrogen will form bubbles in the tissues and bloodstream causing decompression sickness or what is referred to as the "bends".

There are two types of decompression sickness (DCS) with Type 1 usually characterized by musculoskeletal pain in the joints and mild skin itching and rashes. Type 2 on the other hand is much more serious and life threatening as it can affect the lungs, spinal cord or brain and the symptoms include difficulty with bladder control, and numbness and paralysis in the legs. The only treatment for DCS 2 is hyperbaric oxygen therapy delivered in a recompression chamber. Getting the bends and having to go to the "Chamber" is every diver's worst nightmare.

The "Chamber" at VGH - photo by Junie Quiroga

Unfortunately for me I came down with DCS 2, following an otherwise very pleasant day of scuba diving in Howe Sound with my friends and the good folks at Sea Dragon Dive Charters this past weekend, and had to be taken by ambulance to the "Chamber" at Vancouver General Hospital. Luckily a hastily gathered team of 5 specialists were there to make me comfortable and put me through the standard regimen of being taken down to the pressure of 2.8 ATA, or 60 feet below sea level, and given pure oxygen to breathe for a session that lasted just over 7 hours. 

Nelson in the Chamber - photo by Junie Quiroga

As I sat in my chair watching movies I could feel the nitrogen slowly leaving my legs, and I happily began to regain all normal feeling, but I wasn't out of the woods yet. While I appear to have avoided serious permanent injury it will be 6 months before my recovery can be properly assessed and I may never be able to go scuba diving again. How and why the nitrogen built up to such an extent in my bloodstream is something I'm still examining from my dive profile, but there's no arguing with the physiology and the frightening power it had to bend and shape me.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Space Oddity

The most significant event of the year so far was the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by Space X on Feb 6th. A private enterprise undertaking that, thanks to its reusable boosters, dramatically reduces the cost of rocket launches, the Falcon Heavy looks to reinvigorate the NASA Space program with space tourism and missions to Mars. While capable of carrying a payload of up to 140,000 lbs. the maiden voyage featured a Tesla Roadster as cargo complete with an astronaut mannequin modelling the latest in space wear and grooving the tunes by David Bowie.

Rocket Man/Major Tom in a Tesla Roadster
Space Oddity, one of David Bowie's signature tunes, and his first hit, was released in 1969 just before the Apollo 11 mission that put the first person on the moon, arguably the signature crowning achievement to date for mankind. There were 5 subsequent moon landings before the program was abandoned and, while the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs kept NASA going, it has been difficult to secure the public support and funding for any manned missions beyond low earth orbit. But 50 years later interest is now finally building for a manned mission to Mars to establish a colony.

Proposals to overcome the considerable obstacles of getting to the "Red Planet", establishing a functioning base camp, and then eventually being able to return to Earth have been studied for the past 75 years but the distances, environmental conditions, and budgetary requirements have stymied every plan. Now, however, the Space X folks have announced a vision to begin the colonization of Mars by developing a high capacity transportation infrastructure based on the reusable Falcon technology. The newer BFR (Big Falcon Rockets) will serve multiple functions including the servicing of the Space Station, acting as fuel supply tankers, and as a cargo/passenger spaceships to Mars and other interplanetary destinations.

The key to all of this succeeding will be the re-usability of all the rocket ship components, building a propellant production plant on Mars and, of course, the lucrative commercial contracts for satellites and Space Station work. As fantastical as this may seem it was all put to rest when the first 2 re-usable booster rockets made their dramatic and seemingly effortless return to the launch pad (the 3rd one ran out of fuel and hit the ocean). The digital rocket technology of today is vastly superior to the mechanical technology of the 1960's and, if they could put men on the Moon then with slide rulers, a trip to Mars no longer seems like much of a stretch.

John Young
Ironically it was 2 years to the day since David Bowie died and 1 month after the death of John Young, who enjoyed the longest career of any astronaut as a commander on Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions, and one of the 12 people to ever have set foot on the Moon, that the Falcon Heavy was launched. It was also ironic the fastest car ever produced, and one that runs on rechargeable batteries, was loaded onto a spaceship travelling 24,000 mph in an endless loop around the Sun and Mars. These space oddities mark this historic milestone as perhaps the long awaited re-launch of our existential quest to discover who we are, where we came from, and who else is out there. "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do...."

David Bowie

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dark Side Of The Moon

On December 3rd the world was treated to a spectacular supermoon sighting. A supermoon being a full moon that approximately coincides with the closest distance the Moon gets to Earth in its orbit and thus makes it appear to be larger than usual. Because of the eliptical nature of the moon's orbit the distance from Earth to the Moon ranges between 357,000 and 406,000 kilometers; so when that 50,000 kilometers coincides with a full moon it really makes a difference.

But the Moon doesn't emit light it only reflects sunlight and only half of the Moon is lighted at any one time. It doesn't mean there is a dark side it just means we can only see up to half of the lighted side depending on where it is in relation to the earth and sun. The reason we are always looking at the same part of the Moon is because it takes 29 days to make a complete orbit around the Earth which is also the same amount of time it takes to make one rotation around its axis. The two happenings are locked together. 

Also locked together of course are the Earth and Sun as the Earth rotates around its axis while orbiting the Sun. Unlike the Moon, which is relatively upright and therefore having the same season year round, the Earth has quite a tilt to its axis and, over the course of the year, this causes the Sun's radiation to strike the hemispheres at different angles. Whichever hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun experiences winter and when tilted towards the Sun has summer. In the polar regions this can also lead to 24 hour sunlight or 24 hour darkness.

Near and Far Sides of the Moon

Thanks first to the 1959 Soviet Luna 3 probe and later NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009 we now have images of the "dark side" of the moon or "far side" of the moon as it is more appropriately called. Prior to this the only humans to have seen this side of the moon were the Apollo astronauts who orbited it in exploratory missions or before landing on its surface.  Strange how, at this time of year as the days get progressively shorter and darker, it's the moonlight that seems to brighten our existence (even if it's only reflected sunlight from the near side).

Monday, November 13, 2017

Silence Is Golden/Sound of Silence

Nelson scuba diving - photo by Michael Mehta

One of the things I like best about swimming in the ocean or scuba diving is the silence. No sirens, honking of horns, or revving of engines. No garbage trucks roaring up and down the alleyways, no buses idling, no dump trucks and cement mixers grinding away. No mindless cellphone chatter, no beeping cash registers, not even any music.  Only yourself and what is around you.

Sunrise photo - by Junie Quiroga

Early morning is another good time to enjoy a little serenity. While most of the world is still sleeping I can have my coffee and newspaper, listen to the birds, and wait for everyone else to slowly wake up. No TV talking heads or radio announcers, no traffic reports or commercials, only peace and quiet and a chance to collect my thoughts.

Construction photos - by Junie Quiroga

However, peace and quiet is almost impossible right now in my neighbourhood, thanks to the overwhelming and incessant din of five different construction projects currently under way. Demolition crews taking down existing structures, drilling and excavating equipment in other places getting the sites prepared, and everywhere concrete being poured as the buildings slowly rise out of the mud. From early morning until end of day and sometimes into the evening the noise and attendant dust, fills the air.

Is there any end in sight? I doubt it and, as much as I love the bustle of city life, I can also see the bustling will only get more pronounced as more and more people move into the downtown and then have to find ways of getting around. In the meantime the decibel level keeps rising and we're all in danger of having our hearing damaged from all the construction noise.

Pigeons bathing - photo by Junie Quiroga

Still, if one takes a moment to step away from the hustle and bustle of our daily madness and look a little closer at our surroundings, there is always another perspective.  I may not appreciate a noisy cement truck blocking traffic and pouring water down the street but a group of pigeons was happy to take advantage of an ideal pop-up bathing facility. And for pigeons all these buildings are a good thing since they provide plenty of ledges to sit on.

But it was on Remembrance Day the sound of silence really hit home. For just a moment, at 11:00 a.m. things came to a sudden halt, people stopped what they were doing, and nobody spoke. Total silence. Such a profound way to mark the sacrifice of others and what an impact an absence of noise can make. It begs the question that if silence is golden why aren't we making more of it?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer of Love

As the 50th anniversary of the Summer Of Love comes to an end perhaps it's worthwhile to pause for a moment and compare the two summers. In the U.S. it all unfolded in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco where the counter culture hippie movement, use of drugs, and music scene came together but, while some of that spilled over into Canada, our main focus was the 100 year anniversary of Confederation and Expo 67 in Montreal. 1967 was a landmark year in many respects, particularly in terms of culture and politics but 50 years later it's hard to tell if any of it really mattered or if anything really changed. Sonny & Cher's song The Beat Goes On illustrated that no matter how much we think we modernize, the underlying things still stay the same.

In 1967 the drugs of choice were marijuana and LSD. The marijuana wasn't even a tenth of the strength of today's pot and the LSD promoted by Timothy Leary for "turning on, tuning in, and dropping out" was perfectly legal. The drugs in 1967 got you high and stimulated creativity and exploration. Today the drugs of choice are high test marijuana (which is now legal), cocaine, crystal meth, and fentanyl none of which are conducive to anything artistic and in fact are causing fatal overdoses in epic proportions.

The music scene however was an incredible mix of psychedelia, love and whimsy that produced a rich catalogue of unforgettable songs that contrasts sharply with whatever passes for music today. This was the year of the Beatles Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, & Magical Mystery Tour albums and all the hit songs they contained, Jefferson Airplane White Rabbit, Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze, Procol Harum, Whiter Shade of Pale, Moody Blues Tuesday Afternoon, Strawberry Alarm Clock Incense & Peppermint, Traffic Dear Mr. Fantasy, Small Faces Itchycoo Park, Up Up And Away by the 5th Dimension and Vancouver's own Tom Northcott with Sunny Goodge Street. It was also the year of the Monterey Pop Festival that featured The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Mamas & Papas, and Eric Burdon and the Animals who would later immortalize the event with the songs San Francisco Nights & Monterey. The songs of love included Love Is All Around by the Troggs, the Association Never My Love, Donovan's Wear Your Love Like Heaven, the Doors Light My Fire & Love Me Two Times, Jefferson Airplane Somebody to Love, Spencer Davis Gimme Some Lovin, Mamas & Papas, Dedicated To The One I Love, Happy Together, by the Turtles, Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl, Motown's Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson with Love Is Here And Now You're Gone, Ain't No Mountain High Enough, and I Second That Emotion, The Letter by the Box Tops, the Rascals How Can I Be Sure, and the Rolling Stones Let's Spend The Night Together. And for whimsy what could beat the Rolling Stones Dandelion, Kind Of A Drag, by the Buckinghams, The Rain The Park And Other Things, by the Cowsills, Easybeats Friday On My Mind, Grassroots Let's Live For Today, Monkees Daydream Believer, the Tremeloes Silence Is Golden, I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night by the Electric Prunes, Blues Magoos We Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. the Rascals Groovin or Simon & Garfunkel's Feeling Groovy.

But it wasn't all love, in 1967 the U.S. was in the middle of an unwinnable war in Vietnam, just as it is today with the war in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The difference is back then there were massive protest marches led by students who wanted to see an end to the injustice and atrocities whereas today we just have massive indifference. 1967 was also the year of the 6 day war that saw Israel seize control of the Sinai in Egypt, the West Bank in Jordan, the Golan Heights in Syria, and East Jerusalem resulting in over 400,000 refugees being displaced. Fifty years later the situation is even more chaotic in the Middle East with an estimated 5 million Syrian refugees alone living outside their country.

In 1967 Che Guevara, the famous guerrilla and revolutionary partner of Fidel Castro, died. The left wing ideologies of the 1960's have all but disappeared now with the Soviet Union and China just as ruthlessly capitalistic as the rest of the world and, instead of rejecting the status quo, we have all become voracious consumers and slaves to the forces of marketing and banking. At the end of 2016, almost exactly 50 years later, Fidel Castro also died and now Cuba is trying to join the rest of the economic order and do something for its long suffering citizens.

In 1967 there were huge race riots in major U.S. cities with Detroit suffering hundreds of casualties and millions in property damage. Today there are again race riots thanks to the recent rise of white supremacists. 1967 was the year the movie "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" debuted as well as "The Graduate" and "Bonnie & Clyde". Movies back then were trying to explore social issues whereas today that role is being left to streaming TV series and the movies are all about special effects and make believe. In 1967 Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2017 the first black President of the U.S. stepped down.

In 1967 revelations about President Lyndon Johnson's incompetence in handling the Vietnam War led to him not bothering to seek re-election the following year. 2017's litany of screw ups may turn out to have the same result for Donald Trump, the presidential clown currently occupying the oval office. It was China in 1967 that conducted its first hydrogen bomb test while today it's North Korea trying to play the nuclear arms game.

1967 was Canada's 100 year birthday celebration just one year before Pierre Trudeau would become Prime Minister. 50 years later a more muted celebration would take place under the eye of his enigmatic son Justin. Gordon Lightfoot penned Canadian Railroad Trilogy a history of the nation building railway through the country's vastness. Unfortunately these celebrations ignore the fact Canada has been around much longer than just since Confederation with First Nations people living on the land long before European traders and settlers arrived. In addition to long stalled treaty negotiations throughout North America with these First Nations people Canada also has the shame of having to now address the cultural genocide and abuse it supported with the residential school program.

In 1967 the space race between the Russian Soyuz and the American Apollo programs was well under way, in spite of occasional tragic set-backs, and the Cold War was in full swing. Today the Russians rent out their launching facilities to various commercial enterprises and in the U.S. the space program race is primarily between various private enterprises including Elon Musk (Tesla) SpaceX and Jeff Bezo (Amazon) Blue Origin with Richard Branson (Virgin) Virgin Galactic in Great Britain also competing.  Interestingly 1967 was also the year the Soviet Union and the U.S. signed a treaty banning nuclear weapons in outer space and today both countries actively share responsibilities for the international space station.

In the movie "The Graduate" the actor playing Mr. Robinson tells the hero Dustin Hoffman that the future is in plastics, a product of the petrochemical industry and something that today would seem to be on the wane in the wake of global warming and the massive plastic garbage patch circulating in the Pacific ocean. 2017 however marked a year of pipeline protest in both the U.S. and Canada as the world looks to find alternatives to oil & gas. In 1967 the first automated teller machine was introduced but, after 50 years of PCs, laptops and smartphones, the future of computing is now all about quantum physics.

If the heart symbolized love what could have been more symbolic than the first ever successful human heart transplant being completed in 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. The first successful liver transplant also happened in 1967.  Today we treat transplants with about as much awe as flying on an aeroplane with heart, lung, kidney, liver and other organ transplants happening by the thousands every month. As miraculous as these transplants and other medical advances have been it hasn't translated into looking after our health any better. Instead it has made us all very complacent and lazy with nearly 50% of the population now obese or overweight as opposed to only 10% in 1967.

As a prelude to the summer of love what could have been better than Elvis and Priscilla Presley getting married in the spring of 1967. Marriage and divorce rates have changed since then with people delaying getting married until later in life but, as a result, the divorce rate is also starting to decline. It's also possible for people of the same sex to marry one another. With love and marriage some things never change.

Summertime always makes me feel nostalgic especially now that all of us who were alive in 1967 have become pensioners. It's a time of sunshine and taking a break from work or school. It's when you go on holiday road trips, hang out by the water, and fall in love. It was also that magic year when it all came together in a very special place that maybe now is the centre of high tech but was once a place where you wore flowers in your hair.  The year was 1967 and, while the summer of love has long since passed, at least the music lives on in Scott Mackenzie's San Francisco Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair.