In July, 2012 the Earth dodged a bullet. Or more accurately, the bullet was misaimed. But had it hit, we’d have been in big trouble.
The bullet in this case was a solar storm, an eruption of a billion tons of plasma exploding outward from the Sun. This kind of event — called a coronal mass ejection, or CME — is actually relatively common. But this particular CME was a monster… in fact, it may have been the most powerful one ever seen.
People sometimes ask me if anything in astronomy actually worries me. Something like this is near the top of the list. Why? Because a storm this size is big enough to cause widespread blackouts that can last for months, and can damage critical satellites we rely on for our modern existence.
Although this one missed us, it did hit a solar orbiting satellite called STEREO A, which observed the whole thing. Here’s a video showing the event as seen from different spacecraft (the different segments are explained on the SDO YouTube page):
The part at 0:20 gave me chills. All that “snow” you see is actually the result of countless subatomic particles slamming into STEREO A at about 1% the speed of light. That’s fast.
So what’s going on here? And was this event really all that dangerous?
The quick version of this is that the Sun has very a complicated magnetic field. Inside the Sun there are enormous packets of hot plasma (gas with its electrons stripped off) that rise from deep within. These blobs have their own internal magnetic field, and as they rise to the surface the huge loops of magnetic field lines (similar to what you see in bar magnet diagrams) pierce the surface. These loops carry a vast amount of energy with them, and normally carry that energy up the loop and back down into the Sun.
But if a bunch of these loops get tangled, they can interact and connect with each other, releasing their energy all at once. The resulting explosion dwarfs our planet’s entire nuclear arsenal, and is what we call a solar flare. Sometimes, this can trigger an even larger release of energy in the Sun’s outer atmosphere (the corona). That’s a coronal mass ejection. The expanding bubble of subatomic particles and energy sweeps out into the solar system, and if it hits the Earth it can connect with our own magnetic field, creating all kinds of havoc.
The fierce blast of subatomic particles can fry satellites, and can induce large currents of electricity deep within the Earth. This can in turn create a surge of energy that can cause blackouts; just such an event in 1989 blew out transformers in the US and caused a blackout in Quebec.
The largest such solar storm ever seen was also the first one ever seen: the 1859 Carrington Event. This storm was so powerful it blew out telegraphs across the US, and caused aurorae all over the planet.
Daniel Baker, a solar astronomer at the University of Colorado, estimates that the July 2012 storm was at least as powerful as the Carrington Event. Had it hit us, the results would have been catastrophic.
I want to be careful here. I always try to be very careful not to either overplay or understate the risks from astronomical events — some people panic over things that are very low risk, for example, and I certainly don’t want to exaggerate dangers. But in this case, there’s no other way to say this: If this 2012 CME had hit us, it would’ve been a global disaster.
Many satellites would have been fried, their electronics shorted out. That alone would mean we’d lose billions of dollars in space assets, not to mention the loss of international communications, weather prediction, and all the other critical systems that depend on satellites.
On the ground things wouldn’t have been so hot either. There would have been widespread power outages. Large transformers would’ve been destroyed by the enormous current flowing through them induced by the storm. These transformers can take months to build and deploy; imagine a large portion of the United States without electricity for several months — especially in the staggeringly hot months of July and August, when the load on the power grid is already very high.
So no kidding, an event like this would have been very, very bad. I’m glad it missed!
But mind you, that was entirely due to chance. It could easily have hit us. Looking over storms from the past 50 years, Baker estimates the odds of the Earth getting hit by a similar storm in the next ten years as 12%. That's a bit higher than makes me comfortable, to put it delicately.
There’s literally nothing we can do to prevent such storms from occurring on the Sun. However, there are ways we can mitigate the damage they can cause. Satellites can be made to resist the effects of such a storm, for one. Another is that the power grid in the US was designed and built in the days when the load was much lower than it is today; it could be upgraded to carry or dissipate the extra current generated by a big CME.
Of course, these techniques cost money. A lot of it, certainly billions. But estimates of the damage the 2012 event could have caused top $2 trillion. And that doesn’t include the resulting human suffering.
Perhaps our best course of action is early warning. Ashley Dale, an engineer at the University of Bristol, and his colleagues on the SolarMAX initiative, say that deploying small satellites around the Sun can measure its magnetic field and the environment into which the solar storms flow. This can help us predict when and where big storms might occur, and whether they are aimed at Earth. They estimate this could give us at several days warning; critical time needed to divert power on the grid, shut down vulnerable power lines, reorient satellites, and more. All of these actions could prevent much of the damage a storm could inflict.
I’ve been beating this drum for some time; I wrote about it in my book Death from the Skies!. I take this threat seriously, and given what we’ve learned about this event, I think everyone needs to.
Linear extrapolation to year's end says 144 books. Achievable?
Possibly. This month featured a binge-read of Butcher's Calderon
books. Maybe I should re-acquire all the Dresden books as ebooks and
try the same with them. Might be interesting, you know.
Anyway, have a good rest-of-reading-year.
Mt TBR @ 1 January: 191
Mt TBR @ 30 June: 187
Mt TBR @ 31 July: 196
Yep, totally failing to shrink Mt TBR. I can't say that I really mind all that much. Most of the growth was due to my haul from the local secondhand bookshop that was closing. It was my civic duty to help them out ;)
* denotes a reread.
@ denotes electronic copy
32. What the Robin Knows by Jon Young
33. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
34. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
35. The Court of Lightning by Amy Rae Durreson @
36. Heat Wave by Richard Castle *
(5/7) The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
(5/7) The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
(5/7) Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
(5/7) The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier
(5/7) Temeraire by Naomi Novik
(5/7) Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
(5/7) Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
(8/7) The Passage of Pearl by Lynn O'Connacht @
(19/7) Broken Phoenix by Edmond Manning @
(30/7) Unbound and Free by Becca Lusher @
I decided to follow the example of a friend and start listing the online stuff that I'm reading as well. I think that doing so will help give me a more accurate picture of my reading habits.
Over on LJ, I've been reading saiena's Drabble project. She writes a drabble every day, then posts them in weekly batches: July Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.
Over on DW, I've been reading ysabetwordsmith's Avenger fan fic. Agent Phil Coulson uses non-sexual age-play to help the Avengers reclaim their childhoods and build better relationships. ysabetwordsmith describes these stories as "...very sweet in tone and make for good comfort reading." I can only agree. At the end of each chapter are non-fiction notes that provide supportive material for dealing with the issues raised. All in all, some fascinating reading. This month I tore through Hairpins, Querencia, Am I Not and Blended.
At the other end of the scale in terms of tone is not_poignant's original fiction over on AO3. I read The Court of Five Thrones, Chapter 3 and Strange Sights Chs 1-11. These are both classified as m/m erotica, are explicit and come with some pretty heavy trigger warnings--particularly the latter. They're both set in the same amazingly vibrant world (though the latter is alternate universe) and feature wonderfully faceted characters.
I think that we live or die under the tyranny of perfection. Socially, we are pushed towards being perfect. Physically, beautiful to conform to standards that are cruel and uncommon, to behave and lead our lives in a certain way, to demonstrate to the world that we are happy and healthy and all full of sunshine. We are told to always smile and never sweat, by multiple commercials of shampoo or beer.I don't agree with a lot of the recommendations about online shopping carts in this Oatmeal cartoon from 2011 (no, I NEVER want to check in to an etail store via Facebook!!!) Also, since it's The Oatmeal, there is gratuitous sexism including references to harming people's reproductive body parts. But it's pretty hilarious.
And I feel that the most achievable goal of our lives is to have the freedom that imperfection gives us.
And there is no better patron saint of imperfection than a monster.
We will try really hard to be angels, but I think that a balanced, sane life is to accept the monstrosity in ourselves and others as part of what being human is. Imperfection, the acceptance of imperfection, leads to tolerance and liberates us from social models that I find horrible and oppressive.
This is one reason I was writing a lot of notes during my recent jury duty (I got questioned and dismissed).
Like it says on the tin.
For information addicts: The Museum of Online Museums (MoOM)
This "spoon shortages explained" poster is good, but I'd prefer a poster that also mentions that any of these activities could randomly develop a spoon leak.
In fact, I am going to generally ponder thinking about disability-related energy shortfalls in terms of liquid rather than discrete entities like spoons. Some liquids evaporate/freeze/boil/expand/contract at different rates depending on conditions. Some liquids interact with their containers. It's easy to spill liquids of the containers aren't handled properly. And so on.
One of the best descriptions of how health fads work, including the fact that for any given fad (such as gluten intolerance), a few people probably are helped by some of the treatments.
And speaking of fads, let's have a cross-cultural look at the current fad of "happiness"/positive psychology. I like a lot of what's said here, but I think that saying non-Western cultures "fear" happiness might be going too far, and the article also suffers from the fact that "happiness" means about a billion different things and it's conflating a bunch of them.)
Weird Al tweeted that he didn't realize "spastic" was a disablist insult and he was sorry.
So I finally watched "Word Crimes" and I absolutely love it. Not so much because it's judgemental about language—I'm an editor but not a prescriptivist. I love it because of the dancing typography and the proofreading marks.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield writes a hilarious article about some of the challenges of living in zero-gee.
Before anyone asks, no, sex in space is not part of our downtime. We're a small group of focused professionals working in a zero-gravity enclosed environment without a lot of privacy -- even if we wanted to, it would be challenging, to say the very least. As space travel becomes more common and sophisticated, it will probably happen, but it's not happening at the moment, so please don't write any fan fiction about me.Various authors write about the suck fairy.
If you let your camera geotag the photos you take of cats, and you upload the photos publicly, this site may show a photo of your cat in its approximate location. If you think this is a good project you can back it on Kickstarter.
Some people can't cook because they lack privilege. Others, like me, have no excuse. [Actually I can cook when I put my mind to it, but I have some anxiety around cooking.]
Carlos reports on strange developments in the otherworld desert. Plus new announcements from a new mayor, a look at horoscopes, and a message from Desert Bluffs.
The voice of Carlos was Dylan Marron.
Music: Disparition, disparition.info
Logo: Rob Wilson, robwilsonwork.com.
I'm not planning on buying much while away, so hopefully I can keep from adding too much weight to my luggage other than the pair of shoes waiting for me at a Toronto Fluevog store. (I had my eye on these for months and months, and then they went on sale so conveniently close to my trip, so I didn't have to pay for shipping! Also, I tried them on in May, so I'm as sure of my size as one can be without wearing shoes for an extended period. Here's hoping, since sale items aren't returnable if they're not shipped out.)
My to-do list still has plenty on it, but all of the vital pre-trip things are done, other than the rewrite that I have to turn in on Monday. (Eep.) My bags are packed, my clothes are laid out for tomorrow, my hair is freshly dyed, the final Feed discussion post is up (as of only about half an hour ago), the rewrite due tomorrow is finished although not turned in...
One very annoying thing: I took my Swiss Army knife off my keychain to put it in my to-be-checked suitcase, and...it's gone. Poof. scruloose figures it has to have wound up in said suitcase, somewhere, because I can't find it anywhere at all (and hadn't packed my carry-on bag yet, which I now have, mostly). ;_; I know it's in the house somewhere, since I haven't left the house, but I'm irrationally worried that it won't turn up. :/
It was a gift from K (the friend I'm staying with in Ottawa) before we even met each other, so I've probably had it for fifteen years or so. :/ She got it for me in Switzerland while visiting there--and had to argue with the person engraving it over the spelling of my name, which was funny because at that point we only knew each other at all in a text medium--and it's exactly my favorite shade of purple, and I will be very sad indeed if it's inexplicably gone forever.
And now I should really get to bed, since I want to get some work done before I head to the airport, but both kittens are here in the office with me. Jinksy is sprawled on the floor by my desk asking for belly rubs. I'm going to miss them horribly. (I'll miss scruloose more, but I can at least talk to him every day. Hail the cell plan!)
So here, have just a few more links that have accrued since I posted earlier:
A cut scene from the season 1 finale episode of Penny Dreadful.
Over at ladybusiness, renay posted "'Who Speaks Chinese, Anyway?' and Other Mortifications from Luc Besson's Lucy". The second half of the very last line sums up why I went to see the movie (although before going I hadn't realized how dire it is on many fronts): "The moral of this story: [...] probably wait for VOD/DVD unless you want to make a political statement about women action leads being able to put bodies in theater seats."
(More specifically, I went in the name of "LOOK! I WILL PAY YOU TO SHOW ME SCARLETT JOHANSSON HEADLINING AN SF/ACTIONY MOVIE! LET ME DO IT AGAIN!", AKA my contribution to the "Where the hell is my Black Widow movie?!" fund.)
kaberett posted "A quick nerdy note on wardrobe decisions in Elementary", with spoilers for episode 2x01.
skygiants posted about Operation Mincemeat: "The amazing true story of one REALLY DETAILED hoax perpetrated by the British upon the Germans. The initial idea seems to have gone basically like this:
Step 1: Obtain corpse
Step 2: Cover corpse with fake British war plans for the Germans to find and be confused by
Step 3: FALL OVER LAUGHING AND ALSO PROFIT"
Then more and more in-between steps began to proliferate[...]"
Tonight on my way home, I took one of my favorite walks. It’s the walk across DuPont circle around 9pm, in the summertime, when folks are draped over the fountain and park benches, savoring every moment of warm evening weather. I realized that this may be the last time I take that walk as a D.C. resident. Time is moving fast.
I came to D.C. four summers ago. My boyfriend at the time lived here, and I was a first semester post-bacc student who was growing weary of trying to do Gen Chem problems on bumpy, five-hour Boltbus rides. It seemed only logical to transfer programs and relocate, so that I wouldn’t have to feel as though my life was split geographically. Looking back, I was more nervous about the move than I let on to anyone, myself included, but I was determined to make it work: the relationship, my post-bacc, all of it.
That summer, the summer of 2011, was a sweltering and stormy one, even by the region’s standards. I spent it dressed up in goggles and long pants and close-toed shoes in a poorly ventilated, ancient Georgetown laboratory, where about thirty other post-bacc students and I set out to conquer Gen Chem II in five weeks. I woke up every day at quarter of six, walked along Canal Road in the wee hours to yoga, made it to class by eight, and spent the day in lecture and lab. At night, my friends and I would park at the library until midnight or even later, trudge home after completing the day’s work, crash, and do it all over again the next day. It wasn’t my hardest post-bacc semester, but it was probably the most sleepless one.
That summer, only weeks after arriving in the District, I came the sudden and largely unforeseen realization that my relationship probably wouldn’t survive through autumn. It was strange and sad and disorienting, and I spent much of my time wondering how something I had been so certain of could prove to be so different from what I’d thought.
This became the theme of my first two years in D.C.: things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would. The relationship, my life as a post-bacc: none of it was what I’d imagined. I came to D.C. certain that proximity would breathe new life into my romance and hopeful that my initial post-bacc struggles would give way to success in a smaller classroom environment. I didn’t plan on staying in the District forever–I always knew I’d find my way home to New York–but I thought that I’d find firm footing as an aspiring physician here, and envisioned myself leaving only when I’d been welcomed into some med school or another.
I didn’t come to D.C. to make friends. I didn’t come here to have fun. I didn’t come here to explore a new city. As far as I was concerned, I was on a mission, and developing any robust personal life would only distract me from my goal, which was to become a doctor. I didn’t need friends, I told myself; I had school to occupy my time. And I certainly didn’t need or care to explore Washington. Stubborn New Yorker that I am, I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever develop the kind of fondness for another city that I feel for my hometown. (The fact that 90% of my time was spent in the Georgetown library did little to inspire a sense of curiosity about the District as a whole). When I look back on my first year here in D.C., it seems like such a narrow, cloistered existence, all of it spent in the corridor between my Hobbit House and the Georgetown campus. It was hardly the way to begin life in a new place, but then, I didn’t know much about beginning life in a new place. I’d spent my first 29 years in a forty block radius. I’d never had to make a home away from home.
Lucky for me, D.C. reached out and embraced me in spite of the fact that I was so reluctant to embrace it. I see it as wonderfully ironic that the very things I didn’t come here looking for–friendship, community, and, ultimately, love–are the things that I’ll be taking away from my time in this beautiful city. The relationship that brought me here is not one that survived, and medical school–the goal around which I oriented so much of my time and energy–is not to be. But as I was grappling with these unexpected twists and turns, I came to appreciate D.C. more strongly than than I ever thought I would. I made friendships that I’ll cherish forever. I found a vibrant, welcoming, and wonderful community of peers and yogis and fellow wellness enthusiasts. I found an exceptional professional mentor. And, of course, I fell in love. Things didn’t turn out the way I’d planned, but they turned out pretty wonderfully, in the end.
Here’s what I’ll remember about my time in D.C.:
Walking along the highway to early morning yoga in the dead quiet of winter, wrapped up in my parka, my mat slung around my back, watching the sun rise over Virginia.
Leaving my five hour Orgo lab, lips blue from the cold of the room, and stepping out into D.C.’s incredible, enveloping early summer heat.
Walking home from evening class with my fellow post-bacc and neighbor, Dave, and catching the sight of a sunset over the Georgetown soccer field, all crimsons and purples. Sitting in Dupont circle on a late spring evening at dusk, watching the skateboarders.
I remember all-night study marathons with my peers, the way we became half delirious with coffee and fatigue and the sight of benzene rings. I remember how heightened our emotions were, how we all felt as if we’d sacrificed something huge to go back to school as a part of a tremendous gamble that might ultimately take us nowhere at all. I remember the camaraderie that broke through our layers of uncertainty, the way we’d all be so grateful for a bad joke or a nervous laugh or an inappropriate remark.
I remember sitting around with my genetics lab partner for hours one day as he carefully explained to me the nuances of unraveling a Holliday junction. I remember his patience, the way he refused to let me insult my own intelligence and insist that I was hopeless, that I’d never understand. I remember how calmly he told me to pick up my pencil and try each problem again, until I understood, and I remember how grateful I was when I finally did. Those kinds of friendships, and that kind of generosity: it’s a debt I’ll never be able to repay. I’m not going to become a doctor, but most of my post-bacc friends are, and I feel so proud to have passed through the fire by their side.
I remember the end of my post-bacc, when school was almost behind me and I began re-emerging into normal life. I remember how odd it seemed to be out at a bar, smiling and flirting; normal stuff, but at the time, it was as though I was a stranger in a foreign land. I remember how weird it felt to go out to dinner, to linger over a conversation or a phone call, to go to yoga without feeling as though I had to rush home and get back to work. I remember going to see movies again, and feeling as though it was some tremendous extravagance. Say what you will about intense grad school programs: they make you appreciate the little things.
I remember how it was when I discovered how beautiful the landscape of D.C. is: the green space, the circles, the parks, the monuments. I remember when it dawned on me that I was incredibly lucky to be able to walk to the mall. I remember hiking Old Rag and other parts of Shenandoah, amazed at the foliage and views. D.C. is a rich and interesting place to live in so many ways: culturally, geographically, visually. In my last year and a half here, after I moved out of the Hobbit House and said goodbye to Georgetown, I began exploring it in earnest, getting to know new neighborhoods, trying new restaurants, seeing concerts and art and getting outdoors more often. I’m so glad I stayed here for my “gap year,” because without that time, I might never have come to appreciate this city as much as I do.
I remember the highs and lows of this past winter. I remember being huddled at home, shivering my way through the flu, burning with fever and grappling with the fact that med school had become decidedly unlikely and trying to figure out what would come next. And I remember walking through District streets in April and May, the theme of springtime renewal more poignant to me than it had ever been, realizing that my future was plenty bright without an acceptance letter. I remember the first few months of my life with my current partner, which weren’t so long ago; I remember how happy we both were to have found each other, to have slipped so easily into a love that was sweet and solid and real.
At the beginning, I told myself that the D.C. years were just a weigh station on my way to longer journeys ahead. When you do a post-bacc, it feels as though you’ve put your life on hold en route to a bigger and larger goal. You tell yourself that you’ve simply got to keep your head down and stay focused and survive it all. But in spite of the fact that I felt as if my life was on hold, it wasn’t. Life was happening, all around me, whether I planned on it or not. The memories I’ve just shared add up to a rich, textured, and vibrant three years of life experience.
I’ll never look back on my time in D.C. as easy, or fun, or even very happy; there were pockets of intense happiness and joy, but this phase of my life was a crucible from start to finish. Even so, I’m positive that I’ll one day remember these last few years as some of the most significant of my whole life. They were the years in which I learned to accept new challenges, to reshape my life without the safety and comfort of what’s familiar, to humbly accept that I cannot do anything I set my mind to and I can’t have everything I want. They are the years in which I came to terms with how fleeting and fragile and fast life is, the years in which the idea of non-attachment started to resonate with me. I think that my life in D.C. helped me to become a better person. And I am so glad that I found myself here, even for a few years. I need to create a new path forward this year, and I want to do it in New York. But I’m leaving D.C. with a tremendous sense of gratitude for all it has given me.
By the time this post is published, I’ll probably be unpacking on the upper west side. As I write, though, I’m sitting at my table in my D.C. studio, gazing out the window and feeling all sorts of nostalgia and strangeness about leaving the city in which I’ve spent such colorful, dramatic, and important years. This won’t be goodbye; I now have a family in the District, a group of people whom I love dearly, and I’ll be visiting before too long.
In the meantime, I’ll soon be back in magical New York, where I’ll one again be given a fresh start. This time, I’ll be a little less goal-oriented and a little more open to life’s surprises. And I’ll be sharing my life (and my apartment) with a new partner. As many of my blog readers have said to me since I wrote my 32 post: onwards.
By the time I post weekend reading, I’ll be able to tell you how good it is to be home. Goodnight, all.
Image of Dupont Circle courtesy of Larry Chang.
(I work for a firearm retailer. We put out an ad every month stating our monthly sales. It always states ‘while supplies last.’ A ‘brick’ is 500 rounds of ammo. A well dressed older gentleman walks up to counter.)
Me: “Hello, sir. What can I do for you today?”
Customer: “I’d like to buy a brick of 22.”
Me: “I’m sorry, sir. We sold out earlier today.”
(The customer pulls out the ad, slams it on the counter and points to the bricks of 22.)
Customer: “And then what is this?”
Me: “It’s an ad for 22, but everything is ‘while supplies last.’”
Customer: “Do you understand the law of ‘false advertising?’”
Customer: “Well, [My Name], you will be hearing from my lawyer!” *smirks and briskly walks away*
Manager: “Third threat of legal action this month; we’re on a roll.”
(A lawyer actually called the next day and mentioned me specifically. He stated that he was only calling because his client paid him to ‘look into it.’ Nothing, of course, happened.)
(I am the customer in this story. I have just had a rant about customers in my store not reading signs to my fiancé while he was buying shoes.)
Me: “Ah, these are nice.” *to sales clerk* “Excuse me, there is no 50% off sticker on these. Don’t you have a 50% off sale like the sign on the window says?”
Sales Clerk: “Uh, no. That only applies to certain brands and this brand isn’t on sale.”
Me: “Oh, no! I’ve turned into that customer that doesn’t read the whole sale sign! I was just ranting about those!”
(We had a good laugh and talked about horrible customers and how sometimes we accidentally have those moments, so I think I was forgiven.)
(I take a phone call for someone in the bedding department:)
Customer: “I’m looking for a white duvet, but I need it to cover a bedspread that is 96 x 114. I can’t seem to find anything that will fit.”
Me: “The closest thing I have is only 104″, but I think you could fit an extra 10″ in just fine.”
Customer: “Oh, believe me, honey. I’ve stuffed 10″ in before!”
Me: *stunned silence*
Customer: *laughing* “What did you say your name was? I am definitely going to find you when I come in to the store!”
Me: “Um, I think I can have it waiting at the checkout for you.”