Chasing Ice: Images of a vanishing world

“You can’t divorce civilization from nature…we totally depend on it.” – James Balog

If seeing is believing, then nothing can make you believe in climate change as profoundly as James Balog’s stunning 2012 documentary: “Chasing Ice”, which we watched and discussed yesterday. The documentary, in addition to shedding light on climate change, offers rare glimpses into vanishing landscapes and frozen worlds that were lost forever.

The damage is irreversible, the evidence is overwhelming, and the film is epic (it won the 2014 News and Documentary Emmy® award for Outstanding Nature Programming). Balog, a National Geographic photographer and photojournalist famous for his work on wildlife, was skeptical about climate change.

Things took an unexpected turn in 2005. Here is the story from the official website:

“In the spring of 2005, acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog headed to the Arctic on a tricky assignment for National Geographic: to capture images to help tell the story of the Earth’s changing climate. Even with a scientific upbringing, Balog had been a skeptic about climate change. But that first trip north opened his eyes to the biggest story in human history and sparked a challenge within him that would put his career and his very well-being at risk.

Chasing Ice is the story of one man’s mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of our changing planet. Within months of that first trip to Iceland, the photographer conceived the boldest expedition of his life: The Extreme Ice Survey.

With a band of young adventurers in tow, Balog began deploying revolutionary time- lapse cameras   across the brutal Arctic to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers.

As the debate polarizes America and the intensity of natural disasters ramps up globally, Balog finds himself at the end of his tether. Battling untested technology in sub-zero conditions, he comes face to face with his own mortality. It takes years for Balog to see the fruits of his labor. His hauntingly beautiful videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at   a breathtaking rate.

Chasing Ice depicts a photographer trying to deliver evidence and hope to our carbon-powered planet.”

The documentary leaves you overwhelmed by the power of the images and the clarity of the evidence on climate change. It also leaves you with mixed feelings: frustration due to the lack of global action on climate change; fear regarding the impending disaster; a sense of guilt for not doing enough to stop it; and a desire to learn more about this and many other pressing issues of our time.




Nebra Sky Disc

The oldest surviving sky map is neither Egyptian nor Mesopotamian; it is neither the work of Pharaohs nor the fruit of Sumerian astronomy. It does not belong to China, India, or Pre-Colombian America, but rather belongs to Saxony-Anhalt in present-day Germany where the Bronze Age trade routes once converged, and it is known as the Nebra Sky Disc. This Disc is no less wondrous than the Zodiac of Dendera (now in the Louvre) or the Aztec Sun Stone, and it has a story to tell us about a civilization that left no written record of its knowledge and its achievements.

Discovered in 1999 near Europe’s oldest observatory in Goseck, the 3600 year-old bronze disc is adorned with gold-leaf shapes depicting the sun, the moon, stars and a solar boat, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian boats that were believed to serve as vehicles for the sun as it sailed across the sky from darkness to dawn every day. We already recognize a cluster of stars as the Pleiades the way they would look 3600 years ago, but why the sun and the moon together? And why a moon that is not a nascent crescent moon, but rather a 4 to 5-day old moon? It would seem these Bronze Age astronomers had managed to reconcile both solar and lunar calendars, allowing for a thirteenth month, but that is not everything.

A golden arc on the tip of the disc at one side (and which had a similar arc on the opposite side, now lost) seems to form a triangle with the moon and the sun. Its edges mark the exact points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets on the longest and shortest days of the year (summer and winter solstices) in Central Europe. The solstices had both ritual and practical significance to Bronze Age people, as they were associated with divinity and helped mark seasons and agricultural calendars.

It is believed that the solar boar motif was added to the disc some time after the sun and the moon had been added. As the National Geographic puts it, this motif ‘would later become as important to Bronze Age cultures as the crucifix to Catholicism.’

A sky map, a calendar, a ritual object; it comes as no surprise that this Disc was listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as ‘world documentary heritage’. One can only contemplate the good old saying: ‘archaeology is not what you find; it’s what you find out.’ Will we find out one day whether the Sumerian Clay Planisphere at the British Museum was actually a sky map and whether it was older than the Nebra Sky Disc?


Nebra Sky Disc



Masters of the Deep: Silencing the Planet

“For tens of millions of years, whales (these enormous, intelligent, communicative creatures) evolved with essentially no natural enemies.
Then the development of the steamship in the nineteenth century introduced an ominous source of noise pollution. As commercial and military vessels became more abundant, the noise background in the oceans (…) became noticeable.

Whales communicating across the oceans must have experienced increasingly greater difficulties. The distance over which they could communicate must have decreased steadily. Two hundred years ago, a typical distance across which two finback whales could communicate was perhaps 10,000 kilometers. Today, the corresponding number is perhaps a few hundred kilometers. Do whales know each other’s names? Can they recognize each other as individuals by sounds alone? We have cut the whales off from themselves. Creatures that communicated for tens of millions of years have now effectively been silenced.

And we have done worse than that, because there persists to this day a traffic in the dead bodies of whales. There are humans who hunt and slaughter whales and market the products for lipstick or industrial lubricant. Many nations understand that the systematic murder of such intelligent creatures is monstrous, but the traffic continues, promoted chiefly by Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union.

We humans, as a species, are interested in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Would not a good beginning be improved communication with terrestrial intelligence, with other human beings of different cultures and languages, with great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with those intelligent masters of the deep, the great whales?”

Excerpt from Cosmos by Carl Sagan – 1980.


My new Astronomy Course: From Quarks to Quasars

Today I start giving a course of 4 sessions on Astronomy. Attached is the poster.
The course covers a wide range of relevant topics and celebrates Astronomy as the ultimate science that fuses Physics, Mathematics, Geometry, Chemistry, and many other disciplines. The picture becomes even more interesting as we tackle the big questions of Cosmology and the infinitely small dynamics of Quantum Physics.

From Aristarchus to Sagan and from Ptolemy to Hawking, this is one incredible journey…the journey of science as it turned its attention to our universe and the forces that shape it.

Millions of Cosmic Cannibals discovered in Space

This week saw two incredible discoveries that further challenge our idea of the universe.

A space telescope called Wise has just discovered millions and millions of huge black holes. These holes, formed when super massive stars explode and collapse in on themselves, have gravity so strong those not even light escapes from them. The true dilemma is that most galaxies have black holes at their centers: these black holes ‘suck’ matter and gas from nearby stars and other objects in the galaxy, literally ‘devouring’ them. It’s as if there’s a greedy cannibal at the heart of each galaxy.

The other shocking discovery made yesterday was that of sugar molecules in space for the first time in history. These molecules were discovered close to a star similar to our sun, with planets forming around it. Because the star is similar to our sun, the finding “shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this (solar) system at the time of planet formation,” said the European Southern Observatory. The creation vs. evolution debate goes on.

Carl Sagan already said it decades ago: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars (…). We are made of star-stuff.”

My 9th article in Ahram Online: Egypt’s Extraterrestrial Heritage

This is an article about Egypt’s Meteorite Heritage, a heritage subject to systematic looting and vandalism.

A problem arises, however, because many people fail to see why we should celebrate meteorites and craters as heritage in the first place. What heritage values are there in an alien body hitting a spot in our desert and leaving a scar? How can we classify this heritage? Why and how should we protect it? Here is the full story:

A Brief History of Time: Three Tales from Hawking’s Masterpiece

Apart from being a legendary non-fiction masterpiece selling over 10 million copies, Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” is a little bit more than just a popular science book…it’s also a story book with hundreds of interesting tales. Here are three of them:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

When (St. Augustine) was asked: What did God do before he created the universe? Augustine did not reply: He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he said that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe.

Throughout his life, Einstein’s efforts towards peace probably achieved little that would last-and certainly won him few friends. His vocal support of the Zionist cause, however, was duly recognized in 1952, when he was offered the presidency of Israel. He declined, saying he though he was too naïve in politics. But perhaps his real reason was different: to quote him again, “Equations are more important to me, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity.”