A valentine to the cosmos

by admin on April 29, 2011

The Internet is the world’s greatest monument to free association. I love to hop on board now and then, start with a search and just go wherever the links and my own warped sense of curiosity takes me. But strangely, I have never actually written down a record of where I went during one of these random tours. It’s very easy to do, of course, using my browser’s History button.

Perhaps random walks on the Web are like dreams — your own are much more interesting than anybody else’s. But in case anyone wants a peek into my psyche, here’s where I went today.

It starts, as it so often does, with a Google search. I made up a word, “preposterosity,” and searched for it. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to make up this word. You can never be the first to do anything on the Internet. Back in 2008, the author of a blog called Blogadelphia had written thusly:

I made up a new word this morning as in “I don’t agree with a thing that candidate says but, I find the preposterosity of the situation humorous.”

Now I was curious about the author of the blog, so I clicked on the home page and found that he was a hospice worker. His latest entry (written today) was about the death of a patient. Rather surprisingly, it was not morbid but upbeat (he called the entry, “I’m Exhausted — In a Good Way”). I was especially fascinated by what he wrote about the patient’s agonal breaths.

What is agonal breathing? That led to another Google search. I read Wikipedia entries on agonal respiration and death rattle (which are not the same thing), and watched an educational YouTube video showing a man demonstrating what sudden cardiac arrest and agonal breathing look like.

My curiosity about agonal breathing sated, I returned to “Blogadelphia” and clicked on a random link in his blogroll. It took me to an extremely interesting website called www.michaelyon-online.com.

Michael Yon is an independent photojournalist, formerly a Green Beret, who has spent extensive time imbedded with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as traveling in other war-torn and mostly dangerous regions. The website had many of his photo dispatches, and I read about four of them. The current one was about a well that the soldiers had found in Afghanistan. Some of the locals thought there might be treasure at the bottom. But they lowered a camera about 200 feet to the bottom and found nothing but a soda bottle!

Then there was a beautiful series called River of Tears, about Yon’s visit to a refugee camp in Myanmar (Burma) for displaced people of the Karen ethnic minority. The river in question was the Salween, which divides Myanmar and Thailand. Yon had been traveling on the Thai side and then crossed over for a day to the Burmese side. The photos showed a very rustic village in which the kids were still going to school and the teacher had written mathematical formulas on a blackboard! He commented that there may be kids in the Burmese jungle who know more about math than you (the reader) do!

Towards the end of the dispatch he showed a photo of a dead Burmese government soldier floating in the river. Wow. He said the war of the Burmese government against the Karen was every bit as complicated and bitter as the war in Afghanistan. We just don’t hear about it.

After this I went back to my Google search on “agonal” (OK, call me morbid). I found a link to a filmmaker named Jennifer Montgomery who had made a film called “The Agonal Phase.” But I couldn’t really find much about it. The best thing I found was an interview of her conducted by someone named Penny Lane. “Holy cow!” I thought. “Somebody is actually named Penny Lane!” There was a direct link to Penny Lane’s website, www.p-lane.com, so I entered that into my browser.

Of course, Penny Lane turns out to be a documentary filmmaker, too. Takes one to know one. Most of her videos were not really of interest to me, but one leaped out: The Voyagers, a video that she had made about the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. They are the satellites that were launched in 1977 that contained golden records with sounds and pictures from Earth, in case some aliens should ever happen to find our satellites. Voyagers 1 and 2 are now farther from home than any manmade object has ever been — they are on their way out of the solar system. As Penny says in the voice-over, someday they may be the last relics of our existence in the universe.

I knew all about the Voyager missions, or thought I did, but what I didn’t know was that the idea for the gold-plated records was Carl Sagan’s, and the creative director of the record was Ann Druyan. They met during that project, fell in love and later got married. So in a very real way, the golden record was not only a record of what is beautiful and unique about Earth, it is also a token of one couple’s love for each other. That is why Penny Lane found it so fascinating. She dedicated her 16-minute video to her own fiancé. In her voice-over, she says that every marriage is a reckless leap into the unknown, just like the Voyager missions were. You can’t know what the future holds for you unless you try it.

What a powerful message! And of course it’s something that NASA public relations could never have come up with. Now, out of curiosity, I went to the Voyager mission website to see what they had to say about their own mission. I poked around for a while and found nothing too inspiring — certainly nothing about Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan falling in love. Nothing inspiring, that is, until I read a press release from last December saying that Voyager 1 has actually reached a point where the outward velocity of the solar wind is zero. That’s pretty close to interstellar space (which they think Voyager will reach in four more years).

About this time, my dog started telling me it was time for dinner, so I ended my Internet travelogue there, drifting out into the galaxy. All in all, over the course of three hours I saw and learned about a lot of things I had never seen before: about how people breathe when they’re dying, about twin elephants in Thailand, and about a valentine from Earth to the cosmos. Earth is bigger than I thought, and the universe is smaller. This was what I would call a good Web-surfing session. Even without any chess!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob April 30, 2011 at 3:20 am

Interesting entry Dana…

Today you have been explorer Richard F. Burton…or perhaps the Columbus of the internet. And instead of the Santa Maria, you ride the waves and tides on your browser seeking new and interesting worlds.

A bit inspiring I find it.



Negevoli May 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I assume you are young and that you haven’t read Sagan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the origin of life and conscioussness, “The Dragons of Eden.” It changed my life and is my favorite book not only because of what I learned but because it is so beautifully written. Sagan is my favorite writer because everything he wrote was so beautifully written and because he could explain things so beautifully, as well. I have missed him so much because there has been no scientist /writer to replace him. All of his books are phenomenal.


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