Stephen Ornes

We may not be able to save ourselves, but at least we won’t be bored

Recently, my consumption of fiction has dropped off to within an . I try to stumble through a New Yorker story now and then, and I've been known to stop what I’m doing to read Jhumpa Lahiri, even though I didn’t dig The Namesake. All in all, there's very little fiction passing in front of my face. Instead, to test my imagination these days, I've been looking toward geoengineering. You know, the idea that in order to save ourselves from the devastating effects of climate change, we need to act fast. We need to do something drastic and dramatic that will fine-tune our atmosphere and keep human beings alive a little bit longer; we need to build a great big something to save ourselves. Country by country, the climatologists are getting on board.

This is not an advocacy editorial. Or an anti-advocacy editorial. I’m not well-read, smart or scientific enough to advocate. Or anti-advocate. On one level, it does seem paradoxical. How do we know that if we do artificially adjust the global thermostat, we’re not causing bigger mal-adjustments down the road? Could it be true that the way to remedy the dire consequences wrought by human activity on the planet is to step-up human activity on the planet?

Many geoengineering ideas don’t seem strange: carbon sequestration, for example, seems fairly benign and, dare I say it, like a reasonable way to buy some time. But for the purposes of this blurb, I’m not interested in the reasonable ideas. I just want to point out a handful of the wildest papers, the ones that suggest thrilling and secret stories in a manner akin to one of my favorite children's books, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’d like to think that these ideas will feature prominently in high-quality science fiction one day. There are other far-flung proposals out there: sulfur cannonballs that blow up in the stratosphere; dropping lots of lime or iron into the ocean; variations on an aerosols-increase-albedo theme; etc.. Here are my top four.

Idea 1: Inflatable mountains. I'd like to think that if either Ridley Scott or Philip K. Dick had thought of this, the last scene of Blade Runner would feature Harrison Ford and Sean Young riding away, dotting in and out of the shadows cast by an enormous floating peaks... Excerpt from the :

In this paper is presented the idea of cheap artificial inflatable mountains, which may cardinally change the climate of a large region or country. Additional benefits: The potential of tapping large amounts of fresh water and energy. The mountains are inflatable semi-cylindrical constructions from thin film (gas bags) having heights of up to 3 - 5 km. They are located perpendicular to the main wind direction. Encountering these artificial mountains, humid air (wind) rises to crest altitude, is cooled and produces rain (or rain clouds).

Idea 2: Use cloud-seeding ships to spray salt water into the atmosphere. The additional salt water would, in theory, increase the reflectivity of clouds above the oceans. Excerpt from an article in :

The 300-tonne unmanned ships used to seed the clouds would be powered by the wind, but would not use conventional sails. Instead they would be fitted with a number of 20 m-high, 2.5 m-diameter cylinders known as “Flettner rotors” that would be made to spin continuously. This spinning would generate a force perpendicular to the wind direction, propelling the ship forward if it is oriented at right angles to the wind.

Idea 3: (Similar to #2) Send tiny mirrors into space to reflect sunlight into space, thereby reducing the amount of sunlight that makes it to our planet. Surely these could be tuned to make an intergalactic lighthouse? From a :

The plan would be to launch a constellation of trillions of small free-flying spacecraft a million miles above Earth into an orbit aligned with the sun, called the L-1 orbit. The spacecraft would form a long, cylindrical cloud with a diameter about half that of Earth, and about 10 times longer. About 10 percent of the sunlight passing through the 60,000-mile length of the cloud, pointing lengthwise between the Earth and the sun, would be diverted away from our planet. The effect would be to uniformly reduce sunlight by about 2 percent over the entire planet, enough to balance the heating of a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.

Idea 4: Hydromancy! Pump seawater out of the ocean onto the world’s sand dunes, thereby mitigating the harmful effects of a rising sea level. (By the same wild mind behind idea #1.) An excerpt from the

Seawater extraction from the ocean, and its deposition on deserted sand dune fields in Mauritania and elsewhere via a Solar-powered Seawater Textile Pipeline (SSTP) can thwart the postulated future global sea level. We propose Macro-engineering use tactical technologies that sculpt and vegetate barren near-coast sand dune fields with seawater, seawater that would otherwise, as commonly postulated, enlarge Earth’s seascape area! Our Macro-engineering speculation blends eremology with hydrogeology and some hydromancy.

Extreme gardening

Something alien is growing in the community garden on my street. The garden occupies a narrow lot, fenced on all sides and bordered by multi-family homes. There’s a wooden fence in the front; the entrance is always open. In the nearly 30 plots, all of which are planted out this year, we earnest urban gardeners have planted our tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Bold, racy types have planted lavender or arugula or wandering Egyptian onions or albino hybrids. In July, the garden goes wild: the tendrils of my neighbor’s pea plants have reached across the gap and grappled with my Brandywines, and the raspberry bushes are threatening mutiny. We’ve got a compost pile and bees in the back. Lots of bees. The plants are green and lush right now, which is exciting, but a few weeks ago the verdant hues dimmed a little. The organizer of the garden sent out an email saying that one of us wanted to lock the entrance gate. Fruits were being plucked from vines. A locked gate is an understandable reaction to pilfering, a common problem in community gardens. You grow your plants, you carefully tend to them all summer, and days before you reap, some hooligan comes by and cleans off your pepper plant. I get it: What’s the point of gardening, if the products of your labors walk off when you’re not looking?

Ultimately, the gate idea was axed: The majority of us preferred to keep our community garden unlocked and open. And if someone comes along and swipes, well, that sucks. You could get mad, real mad, and plot your revenge. Or you can say, in your best Pollyanna voice, “I hope the people who take it need it more than I do!” or you can stomp at the ground and get over it, or you can shrug your shoulders and say that’s the price of gardening in the open.

The emails and responses grew quickly as people weighed in. People suggested signs: “Don’t Steal” or “We call the police.” A video surveillance system was proposed.

About this time, I realized I have no idea who these people are. I’ve probably seen them, greeted them, talked about bugs or taproot with them, but I can’t match emails with faces. I didn’t used to think of gardeners as being prone to extreme measures, but the situation escalated quickly in cyberspace. Last week, a gardener emailed all of us to complain that someone had stolen a few frying peppers and a basil plant from her plot. She went on to use her email to berate “them” (quotation marks are hers). In her colorful epistle, she questioned whether “they” even know what to do with the stolen food; she mocked “them” for stealing only a few peppers and not the whole plant; she said she thought “they” stole her food for spite, because “they” can. Finally, she said that if those thieves are the kind of people that live in the neighborhood, she doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. I find this fascinating because I, like most of the gardeners who garden there, live in the neighborhood—on the same street.

Her email became a battle cry. Someone thought they could secure broken-down video cameras to install around the garden—a ruse, to drive away vegetable thieves who are afraid of being recorded. Another gardener wrote back immediately to call for solar-powered electric fences. A few days later, a gardener/spy sent out a very excited email with a picture attached. He claimed he had caught photos of vegetable thieves in the act—and he was tapping the collective wisdom to find out if it was appropriate to spray the burglars with a hose. Later the same day, he sent out an email with the subject line “false alarm.” Turns out, he had taken pictures of a fellow gardener picking a few zukes from his own plant.

We gardeners are taking pictures of each other and thinking the worst. Where are we headed? An all-out produce rumble? I’ve been thinking about unexpected brinkmanship this summer because of a recent run-in with Dr. Seuss. (How’s that for a forced segue way?) We were vacationing with my in-laws in Florida, and one morning my mother-in-law surprised my son with new books. She said she had raided her kids’ bookshelves and found lots of lost Dr. Seuss books, and she was very excited to read them to Sam.

After reading The Butter Battle Book, she looked a little shaken. “Well,” she said. “That wasn’t what I thought it was.” I picked it up. The book tells the story of two peoples, the Yooks and the Zooks, who live on different sides of a wall. At the beginning, they disagree about some minor issues. The book ends with a Yook and a Zook facing off on the wall—and they both have nukes. That’s where you’re left, as a reader, seeing two Seussians about to blow each other to smithereens. It’s mutually assured destruction, the end of escalation, the final countdown, zero minutes to midnight. I thought I had known about escalation in Dr. Seuss—I’m familiar with “The Big Brag,” after all—but I was mistaken. I was delighted to find he was so political, so outspoken. I may not ever get past delight: I’m sure tomes have been written about the politics of Theodore Geisel, but that’s probably one area of literary arcana of which I will forever be ignorant.

As it turns out, one of the themes of my summer is “Escalation where you least expect it.” As for the garden—what’s going to happen when we leave the relatively cool climes of June and July and head into the really hot and humid waters of August and September? There's a storm brewing; people are drawing lines in the soil. I can't help but recall these wise words from It Came from Outer Space :

Did you know that more people are murdered at 92 degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easy-going, over 92 and it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable.

Natural Storytellers

My son Sam is an early riser. For the first 16 months of my his life, give or take a month, the day began in the same way. I’d get up with him at 5:30 or 6 (or, on lucky days, 6:30). I’d turn on the radio, make coffee, eat a bowl of oatmeal, bundle my son, bundle myself, pour the coffee into a travel mug, strap on a harness used for tethering babies to people, and walk out the door. Judging by the looks of people on the street, I looked like a vagabond who had raided an orphanage. Twenty steps down the street, I’d realize I had left my coffee at home and, depending on the grayness of the sky or some other arbitrary measure, I’d go back and get it or make a beeline for Fuel, a small coffeeshop where they knew me and knew my son.

As he got older and the seasons changed, we introduced some variation. I stopped bundling both of us. He started riding in the stroller. I frequently planted him in a raised bed while I planted seedlings in our plot in the William Street Community Garden. Snacks became paramount to the success of the adventure. We went to Willoughby’s (big mistake with a baby when you’re facing off against the early morning rush hour), Moka/Koffee on Orange/Bru, Koffee on Audubon. Sometimes I remembered my coffee. Sometimes he ate croissant. We took long walks to marvel at the Quinnipiac River drawbridge in Fair Haven, or to marvel at the view from the Leitner Observatory, or to try out a distant and fabled playground.

There was one part of every day that did not vary during that time. There’s a man who lives on our street who I believe is a natural storyteller. We saw him every day, either in front of his house or in the garden or on the next street over. Because of him, I suspect there must be dynasties of storytellers, passing the storytelling gene from generation to generation, each new iteration changing and adapting the same stories. That isn’t to say they don’t have to work at it, but in these families I imagine a high premium is placed on telling the right story, at the right time, in as few a words as possible.

He’s known my son longer than anyone outside our family. I don’t know anything about him but his stories, and they’re kind of incredible. His stories stick: They bounce around in my brain and surface in my thoughts frequently throughout the day. He greets us with “Hello good people” or something similarly benign, and then he starts telling. The first one I remember well is the day it was particularly windy, and as we made our way down William Street he joined us and walked for a while. “Did you hear what happened in Washington?” he asked. He proceeded to tell me about a man who was walking his baby, in a stroller, along a river. The wind, he said, was so strong and so fierce that the man had to fight hard to finish the walk. But in the end, the wind won: The man and his son were blown into the river and disappeared, and they still hadn’t found him. “Okay, good people!” he said cheerily. “Have a great day! One day we’ll all serve Sam!”

As he left, I wondered it nature overtake us while we’re out in the world, just trying to have a normal existence. All day, I thought about strollers blown away by the wind; tornadoes taking away our children and our parents; waves rising up from Long Island Sound. I thought how the telling of the story seemed so effortless.

One time, the time it began to occur to me that he might not be the best company for our walks, I asked him how he had come to New Haven. He said that his probation officer was transporting him from Stamford to Hartford. They were handcuffed on the train, he said, but when the train pulled into Union Station in New Haven, his probation officer was asleep. He reached over, stole the key to the handcuffs, and escaped the train. Once inside the station, he ran in John DeStefano. The two of them chatted amiably; by the end of the conversation, DeStefano had offered him a job with the city, working as a counselor with recent inmates who had been released. Don’t worry about the probation, he said, I’ll take care of it. And ever since, Sam’s friend had been working in the prison system in New Haven.

I was both enthralled and disturbed by that story. I had known our neighbor for months: At what point do I start avoiding him in the morning? Do I have terrible judgment in the company I keep? What was his crime? He really does work for the city, and very well might have been on probation, but did he really know DeStefano? What was his connection to the way everything works?

My favorite story was about our neighborhood. We were walking down Lyon Street, and our friend pointed out the chimneys. He said he had worked on restoring most of the chimneys on that street, that I wouldn’t believe how many of them were on the verge of toppling. It’s barely safe to keep walking here, he said. Immediately I conjured up an inner movie, in which a whole block of houses just started crumbling, from the top down. He laughed and laughed to himself, and I asked what was so funny. He told me that when they renovated the house I’m living in, an opossum had been living in the basement; the first time they lit the pilot light, the opossum caught fire and made a beeline for the natural gas tank. (I was a little surprised at how well he knew the layout of our basement.) They caught him, doused him and expelled him. Don’t worry, he said, that opossum (of fire!) doesn’t live in your house anymore.

He then pointed to a house and said that many families of birds had been living in its chimney, but the new owners didn’t know. The first time they fired up the furnace (lit a fire? I don’t remember now), the flames ignited the nest, and the nest ignited the birds, and the birds came flying out of the top of the house. He opened his arms and fanned out his fingers, saying the sky was full of burning birds. That had happened so many time he couldn’t remember, he said. A house renovation, a pilot light, a furnace, and voila! Burning animals are running down the street; burning birds are filling the sky. It made our neighborhood seem dangerous but at the same time mythological.

I feel happy to live on a block where the oral tradition is alive and well, where stories circulate and grow. On the other hand, it’s time to move. We’ve got another kid now, and I’m tired of having to scan the nearest playground for rusty lighters and broken vodka bottles before I let Sam scramble. I don’t want to wonder if my walking companion, no matter how talented a storyteller he is, is a walking manifestation of my bad judgment. My New Haven street may not be the best place to raise a kid – indeed, most young families in Wooster Square eventually migrate to Westville or Whitneyville.

But hey, time passes. Things change. I’ll miss the natural storyteller on my block when we go, and I’ll probably always think of him when the wind blows so hard I wonder if it’s going to whisk us away.

Marcia Bartusiak and the day we disappeared

Broadly speaking, the history of astronomy reads something like the story about how we humans have discovered our insignificance in the cosmos. In the last two thousand years, major discoveries about the solar system, our galaxy and the universe have shuffled the likelihood of our existence deeper and deeper into the realm of improbable chance and fortuitous coincidence. In the big picture, we're barely a pixel. I suppose it's only unsettling if you start out assuming that human beings are, quite literally, the center of the universe. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle stepped up and said the Earth sits at the center of an unchanging, infinite universe; our planet is surrounded by celestial spheres most easily observed by the movements of the Sun and planets. People believed Aristotle and moved on with their lives. In the 16th century, Copernicus stepped up to the plate, swung, and blasted the Earth out of the center. He explained the motions of the planets by invoking a heliocentric view of the cosmos. The sun, not we, sat in the middle. Earth had officially been displaced as the center of everything—at least in theory. (And Copernicus himself was displaced. Last November, archaeologists finally found his long-lost remains buried under the floor of a cathedral in Poland.) In the 17th century, Galileo improved upon the design of a Dutch engineer to build a telescope, with which he delivered good evidence in support of Copernicus. In this case, good evidence made the Dominicans mad, and Galileo was rewarded by the Catholic Church with house arrest (albeit a very comfortable house arrest) for the rest of his life.

And so on—each new discovery places humanity further from a central position. The greatest decentralizing act of our time may have occurred on New Year’s Day, 1925—the eponymous "day" in the title of science writer ’s latest offering, . Bartusiak is an experienced and award-winning writer, a fellow of the AAAS and a former Knight fellow at MIT. (I feel fortunate to count myself among her former students.)

On that day in 1925, astronomers were gathered in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On the third day of the meeting, someone stood up, gave a talk, and changed everything. Edwin Hubble, a 35-year-old stargazer working at the atop Mount Wilson in California, had found conclusive evidence that the Milky Way—our beloved home—was not the only galaxy in the cosmos. (Hubble, fearful of sullying his reputation, didn’t even present his own findings.)

It’s easy to be blasé about the impossible-to-comprehend infinitude of the cosmos now; after all, almost everyone alive today grew up surrounded by the knowledge that the Milky Way is no loner. And we science junkies, with our varying deficits of attention, learn, marvel and move on, looking for the next big thing. Bartusiak, however, writes about that blustery day in the nation’s capital with the infectious excitement of a giddy astrophile:

In one fell swoop, the visible universe was enlarged by an inconceivable factor, eventually trillions of times over. In more familiar terms, it’s as if we had been confined to one square yard of Earth’s surface, only to suddenly realize that there were now vast oceans and continents, cities and villages, mountains and deserts, previously unexplored and unanticipated on that single plug of sod.

Or here:

The Milky Way, once the universe’s lone inhabitant floating in an ocean of darkness, was suddenly joined by billions of other star-filled islands, arranged outward as far as telescopes could peer. Earth turned out to be less than a speck, the cosmic equivalent of a subatomic particle hovering within an immensity still difficult to grasp.

That’s just the beginning: In Day, Bartusiak lovingly and meticulously traces the origins and development of a big idea. Hubble’s name is familiar to most of us mainly because of recent news about the space telescope that bears his name, but he doesn’t really show up in the book until two-thirds of the way through—a structural choice that demonstrates Hubble stood on the shoulders of many, many giants. His name may be forever associated with the discovery of the universe, but his finding was no instantaneous flash of brilliance that launched him from obscurity into the annals of science.

In fact, Bartusiak calmly puts to rest the idea that scientific advancements arrive in discrete packages marked by the word “Eureka!” Despite the legend of Archimedes, scientists aren’t usually struck out of the blue by the clear light of truth: "Answers did not arrive in one eureka moment, but only after years of contentious debates over conjectures and measurements that were fiercely disputed. The avenue of science is more often filled with twists, turns, and detours than unobstructed straightaways."

Her enjoyable book is an exhaustively researched exploration of both major and minor players. She points out that Hubble wasn’t the first person to suspect the great vastness. The Roman poet Lucretius thought it ludicrous to imagine a finite universe; the polymath mystic Emanuel Swedenborg mused that there must be ‘spheres’ beyond our own; Immanuel Kant correctly discerned galactic shape and suggested galaxies were scattered throughout space.

Many unsung heroes get a nod: Vesto Slipher clocked the speeds of distant spiral-shaped nebulae (later identified as other galaxies) and found that most of them were speeding away from the Earth—“a precocious intimation of the cosmic expansion that took many more years to fully recognize.” Henrietta Leavitt’s studies of variable stars made it possible to measure the distance between us and galaxies far, far away. Leavitt, one of many women hired to be a human “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory, died in 1921—four years before the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to nominate her for a Nobel Prize in Physics. (It wasn’t to be—Nobel nominees must be living.)

The book ends with something of a cliffhanger. Hubble and his fellow giants had found that not only is the universe filled with other galaxies, but these galaxies are retreating. Further investigation revealed that these “galaxies are not rushing through space but instead are being carried along as space-time inflates without end.” No matter which way we look in the sky, we see this vast universe rushing away from us. (In a way, that does put us back at the center of things, but only because every point in the universe is the center…)

Modern astronomy continues to tell us how far we are from the center—and that we still can’t comprehend the weirdness of reality. Ninety-six percent of the barely interacts with the protons, electrons and neutrons that make up our reality. (It’s most likely flowing through you right now, and there’s no way to know.) are scanning the skies for the telltale spectrographic signature of distant, rocky world that may harbor life. Other astronomers are looking for the “chameleon,” a theoretical entity that adjusts its mass to its environment and may help explain dark energy, the unknown goo that fills most of space. Also unsettling is the idea that our infinite universe is just one of an infinite number of universes that together form the ".” Is there no limit to enormousness?

(PS: The International Astronomical Union and the United Nations declared this year the an initiative that invites countries and institutions to step up their education of the public in all matters regarding the universe. Bartusiak’s book would be a great way to celebrate. So would a trip to Yale’s new planetarium at the , which offers free shows on Tuesday nights and, on June 12, a showing of “War of the Worlds.”)

Unfinished Business

I am pretty lucky. I am a science writer who, from my home office not too far from Wooster Square, gets to write about topics like giant, gassy planets that would float in a bathtub—if only there existed a bathtub large enough. I recently felt the Nerd’s Elation—an internal, rising giddiness—when I asked an astronomer about how, exactly, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy ejected a gang of rogue stars from the Milky Way. My current fixation is graphene—one-atom-thick sheets of carbon that look like teeny tiny honeycombs and will profoundly influence the future of electronics in one way or another. All that to say, I usually write about things either far away—or very small. Last year, the good people at the New Haven Review let me take a welcome detour from the world of exoplanets, metamaterials and deep-space cannonballs. For Issue #3, I wrote about how Elm City artists responded to the demolition of the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, a colossal hulk that stood at one end of downtown New Haven like a neglected barbarian. I finished the story in the summer, and the issue was published in the fall.

Thus, the article was done. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The following sentence may be a tired truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless: most stories are never finished. You just stop working on them.

After I finished the piece about the Coliseum, I still had loads of information—bookmarks, postcards, pictures, tattered photocopies with illegible scribbles—I hadn’t used. I kept coming across architectural factoids and images that seemed interesting. Not all of these bits were Coliseum-centric. By the time Issue #3 went to press, the Coliseum had started to seem like one minor player in a long and complicated story about New Haven’s tangled relationship with architecture. But I was hooked: I had begun to pay attention.

In an effort to finally put this story and all of its tangents to rest, I’d like to offer just a few of these tidbits and highlight a couple more Elm City artists who have may or may not have had anything to do with the Coliseum.

• The firm of Roche Dinkeloo designed the Coliseum, and has an about his approach to architecture in general and the Coliseum in particular. Roche’s answers are heady but accessible. A photo essay about the Coliseum accompanies the interview. Under one of the photos of the gutted behemoth, there’s this lovely quote that I would have loved to include in my article: "Monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy: that is their tragedy." Ishirō Honda (Director of Gojira, 1954).

• Man oh man, do I like looking at pictures of the Elm City through the lens of , and I’m sure he’s got pictures of the Coliseum somewhere. Karyn Gilvarg, New Haven’s city planner, tipped me off to his work while I was fact-gathering for the Coliseum story. Gardner’s pictures—some of which show up in the latest edition of —are vivid and rich. On his web site, he’s got , and they make New Haven look like a million bucks. The other thing I appreciate about Gardner’s site is his blog. He provides know-nothings like me a window into his process. He explains why that is about to fly off Yale's Art and Architecture building, and why he later had to take that laptop apart.

• Painter exhibited some paintings at the Hull’s Framing store downtown, right where Church becomes Whitney, last summer. Santarpia’s paintings stopped me because they looked like the Elm City by way of Edward Hopper. And yeah, he’s got a Coliseum picture or two. On his web site, you can see his rendering of the Anchor Bar, the reflection of City Hall in the Chase Bank building, and the Smoothie underwear factory condos, among other local haunts. And I do mean haunts. Santarpia’s paintings are a little spooky—but hey, they’re familiar. Maybe I am one of those people who don’t dance if they don’t know who’s singing.

So that's what I've found. What/whom have I missed?