When we were camping at the Grand Canyon last month, we witnessed a most unusual sight in the night sky. We saw a Starlink satellite train. Starlink is a satellite network that Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation is launching even now. When completed in a few years, it will be composed of thousands of satellites that will blanket the earth’s skies worldwide, bring the internet to every corner of the world. Eventually, each satellite has its own individual orbit, but immediately after launch, because of SpaceX’s unorthodox card-dealing technique for deploying the 60 Starlink broadband satellites that are boosted into space at the same time, they temporarily form a Starlink train.

The Grand Canyon is a dark sky park, the sky was perfectly clear and the timing of the event that we witnessed couldn’t have been better. It was dark, but it wasn’t that long after sundown, allowing the already set sun to illuminate the satellites that were 500 miles above us. I didn’t have the wherewithal to photograph the sight, but plenty of other people have. I chose this example from Twitter, because the scene includes a full moon, so you have an idea of how bright these satellites really are. For us, it was a moonless night and I swear, at the Grand Canyon they seemed even brighter then they appear in this video, brighter than any star in the sky.

As the train passed overhead the campground erupted with cries in the dark of, “Look at that!”, “What the hell?”, “What is it?” Fortunately, I did have the wherewithal to answer these cries in the dark and announced, ” They’re Elon Musk’s Starlink new satellite network.” I’m sure I headed off a UFO panic. Anne was angered by the sight. It is a dark sky park and these satellites are light pollution, but subsequent research has indicated that these train formations are only temporary. The individual satellites will still be bright, but no brighter than the jets flying in and out of the neighboring Albuquerque airport. 

Time Tunnel

Time Tunnel

There is an old curse that goes, may you live in interesting times, which I guess is apt for these times. Except if they’re so interesting, why then are they also so darn boring. We sit home alone, sheltering in place, doing our part to flatten the curve. Our days have fallen into a regular rhythm, governed by a routine that varies little from day-to-day. Each day is so much like the last one that it is all too easy to lose track of time. Which day is today? Is it the weekend? Of course it is, but what you should be asking is it the long weekend or the short weekend? The high point of each day is our walks together. Sometimes we just head out the front door and walk around the neighborhood. Others, we drive a little and then walk in Forest Park. We are lucky in this regard. We have always been lucky to live so close to this park. It is like a bit of the country, in the middle of the city. While the county parks have been closed, it is nice to still have this city park. The closures of its golf courses and some of its roads have only enhanced its enjoyment for us, making our half of the park all that more secluded.

For today’s walk, we added a picnic lunch. Who says that you can’t dine out in the time of pandemic? To enhance our experience and make it more special, I made cucumber sandwiches. It is supposed to get warm today, with the mercury climbing into the eighties, but we’ll stay cool, as cool as a pair of cucumbers.

Desert Trumpet

Desert Trumpet

Eriogonum inflatum is a plant more commonly known as Desert Trumpet, but is also sometimes called Indian Pipe Weed, Bladder Stem or Bottle Stopper. Its most salient feature is a prominent bulging of its central stem. Originally thought to be a gall caused by an insect infestation, it is now believed to be related to regulating the plant’s carbon-dioxide levels. It has small yellow flowers (not shown) that are a primary food source for the Metalmark butterfly. Southwest Native Americans once used the plant to fashion pipes for smoking tobacco mixed with mistletoe. 

It has an unworldly appearance. With its base of petal-like leaves, long sinuous arms and bulbous head, it could easily be reimagined as some alien creature. Imagine it swaying on the high desert plain, while being buffeted by the wind, its arms seemingly grasping every which way. It is the stuff of science fiction.

Goblin Valley Hoodoos

Anne photographed these Desert Trumpets, last year, on the occasion of our visit to Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. Know for its maze of hoodoo formations, Goblin Valley is just the kind of place that one would expect to find such an unusual species. When we visited the park, it was high noon. The parking lot was situated on a promontory that overlooked the portion of the valley that we had chosen to explore. It had rained heavily the day before and there were still rivulets of water flowing in-between the myriad of standing stones. Running water in the desert is always an incongruitous sight. There were already people down there, as we descended to the valley floor, but they soon disappeared as the hoodoos rose up to meet us. The shouts and laughter of the nearby children was pretty much all that remained of their neighboring presence. 

We had left Moab that morning and still had a drive of several hours, before reaching Capitol Reef, the evening’s destination. So, we only had a couple of hours to explore Goblin, but since we had skipped it two years earlier, I didn’t want to miss it this time around. We used what time that we had to wander among the hoodoos, photographing them and marveling at their naked weirdness. All the while, I kept my bearings, by keeping an eye out for the parking lot promontory that we had originally descended from.

As we progressed across the valley floor, towards the gray topped ridge of rock that demarcated the other side of this immediate valley, we talked about further exploring the next valley over. That would have been nice, because the number of people that we could still occasionally glimpse had decreased markedly from the start, but thoughts of miles yet to go and then a campsite to erect cautioned us against such an endeavor. Besides, with the dwindling human companionship there was something a little spooky about the place.

In the next valley over, the promontory where the Prius, our home away from home, was parked would be out of sight. I feared us getting lost in another maze, without any familiar landmarks and then I further imagined us out after dark, lost among the hoodoos, with only a new moon and our iPhones for light. What if instead of seeing more of the just few foot high Desert Trumpets, we ran into their gigantic queen? Would she call out to us using the melodious tones of her trumpeter’s voice and in her siren’s song, demand we, “Feed me, Seymour!” 




Even though it is still only January and as such it is still well within the depths of winter, colleges and university across the country have reconvened and begun this year’s spring semester. Along with this beginning, Cynthia Wichelman MD restarted her Science on Tap speaker series. In conjunction with her Washington University in Saint Louis colleagues, Wichelman holds a monthly talk on the last Wednesday of most months of the regular school year. We met last night at the Kirkwood Station Brewing Company. The evening’s speaker was Erik Henriksen, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Physics at WashU. His talk was entitled, Graphene: Particle Physics in Pencil Lead.

Graphene is a relatively newly isolated and novel form of carbon. Other more common forms of carbon, like diamonds and coal have been around forever. Even graphite, also known as pencil lead, which is another form of carbon has been known about for a while. Graphene is a single atom thick sheet of carbon. The molecular bonds between the carbon atoms in these sheets are extremely strong. It turns out that graphite is composed of many layers of graphene. In graphite, the weak bonds between the many layers of graphene allow those layers to be easily sheared apart from each other, like when you drag a pencil across a piece of paper. Graphene as a material has some interesting properties. It is much stronger than steel. Likewise, it is a far superior electrical and thermal conductor than copper. A single layer of graphene is also transparent.

In his talk, Henriksen, introduced us to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, the Nobel Prize winners who first isolated graphene. They called their technique micro-mechanical cleavage, but it was soon dubbed the Scotch tape method and was surprisingly simple. Starting from a block of graphite, Geim and company would apply ordinary Scotch tape to it and then peel off a thin layer from it. This technique would be repeated on this thin layer, until only one layer was left. In science, Geim is relatively unique, because he not only won the Noble, but also the Ig-Nobel. The Ig-Nobel is a parody prize given to scientists for conducting trivial experiments. Geim had suspended a frog is a magnetic field. Last night, in his own parody of this experiment Henriksen suspended a sheet of graphene is a magnetic field.

The particle physics aspect of Henriksen’s talk is the crux of his research into graphene. Per his on tap bio, in this 2D material, electrons move from one atom to the next as if they have no mass, acting like ultra-relativistic particles despite having an actual velocity that is just a fraction of the speed of light. Physicists like Henriksen are using this quasi-relativistic system to investigate some long-held predictions about the theory of relativity.

While following up on last night’s talk, I learned that Geim at his University of Manchester institute has added a new wrinkle in the design of the ultimate little black dress. It is made entirely of graphene. This is a dress that reacts to the person wearing it. It responds to the breathing rates of the wearer, changing color and illuminating in different ways. Oh, and it is incredibly light weight.

Travel Time

Pink Pine Buds

Pink Pine Buds

2016 was a year that many people wish came with an undo list and as we begin the New Year, those same people wish that they could somehow retreat to a happier time and place. Perhaps these feelings formant desires to fix past mistakes. As if only we could go back and change one little thing, then maybe things would be different now, maybe even better. But what if that happier time and place was here and now? Such a situation forms the premise for the Netflix science fiction TV series, Travelers (Trailer).

The past is history,
the future a mystery,
but today is a gift.
That is why it is called the present.

Time travel is such a well-worn troupe that by now it is hard to mine anything more of value from it. It is then a testament to this Canadian born show that it does so well with it. Hundreds of years in the future, after a sequence of catastrophes, humanity finds itself on the doorstep of extinction, when time travel is discovered. Teams of numbered travelers from the future project their consciousness back in time and into the bodies of host victims moments before the time of their recorded deaths. These travelers assume the identities of their hosts and then working as a team take on missions to change the future.

Creator Brad Wright’s Travelers revolves around one particular team of five that is led by a FBI agent (Eric McCormack) and comprise an intellectually disabled woman (MacKenzie Porter), an abused single mom (Nesta Cooper), a high school senior (Jared Abrahamson) and a heroin addict (Reilly Dolman), an eclectic group of people to be sure. Short on special effects for a Sci-Fi drama, this show makes the most out of the everyday difficulties that these foreigners find, while trying to fit into their newfound lives and our then modern times.

While they come from a dystopian future, where even a high school cafeteria’s cream corn tastes like a rare delicacy, the overall tone of the show is rather upbeat. The mantra that is voiced over in the trailer speaks to these character’s rather healthy sense of altruism. The team abides by a set of protocols that are reminiscent to Star Trek’s prime directive and the show is laced with humor. As in the casting-against-type of a school bus load of Reverend Jim Jones like octogenarians, whose bodies are repurposed as fire support for our team, at least while they’re not having to run off to the bathroom to pee again.

Travelers is not great TV, but it is enjoyable TV. It doesn’t make great demands upon its audience. What serious issues that are dealt with in this show are handled rather lightly. The action is not too rough and the tension is never too great. Think of it as comfort television that is pleasant to watch and escape with for a while to a happier place and time. What’s past is past and the future is unknown. So, on these cold winter nights enjoy this little present for now.