Saturday, April 12, 2014

Take the High Road: Arecibo On My Mind

Sunshine cactus bicycle miles: the rolling perspective machine

I probably should have been a radio astronomer. Child of the space age, rocket-obsessed, late-night TV moonwalk insomnia, obsessive grade school consumer of science news and science encylcopedias and anything I could get my hands on, shortwave radio listener kid tuning in to Radio Tirana etc, proud nine year old owner of a reflecting telescope which was deployed on cold winter nights to look at the stars. Penzias and Wilson stumbled upon the cosmic background radiation the year I was born. I was primed to don headphones to listen to whispers across the light years piped to me from structures the size of football fields aimed upwards to gather up picowatts of cosmic RF in search of data, patterns, symbols, even a relative perspective to anchor meaning.

The emblem, the hope, the symbol, the nexus of all my young aspirations was the huge radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Other kids my age dreamed of going to an NFL football game, or of spending the afternoon at the video game arcade, but I always wanted to visit Arecibo to listen to the stars. Yes I jumped head-first into science fiction, too, but I didn't require those stories to fuel my imagination or to fire my dreams, since I already had engraved on my brain the image of the dish at Arecibo.

Second item of deep background to support this post, in the days when I was both suffering from chronic back pain + knife-like sciatica and commuting by car to work each/every day, when sitting in one place was about the worst thing I could do for the muscle cramps and rampant crazy inflamed nerve signals, some mornings not even the pills would help much. (Chronic pain is terrible for the brain, by the way. I should have dealt with it more aggressively and with professional medical assistance earlier. Lesson learned.)

Surgery and physical therapy ultimately fixed the back situation. What took me away during my drive in was cranking up the music on a good stereo and singing along in the car. One of the songs which helped the most was Puscifer's Momma Sed. It's a song which sounds like it's about getting over a lost love, of which let's not underestimate the acute distress that can cause, but which broadened in scope can cover most of the painful, perspective-robbing challenges that life throws at us inevitably. The lyric "Take the high road / take it like a man," came to have specific and encouraging meaning for me well beyond what it sounds like initially. Yes it's certainly about being tough and strong and possibly even macho, but "take the high road" also pointed me toward the intellect rather than brute force, to the stars rather than the fists.

So, combining those two items of deep background, it's clearer why the image projected on the giant screen behind the stage during the Puscifer concert I saw in Mesa at the end of Momma Sed had such a powerful impact on me: Maynard standing in front of what I believe was an image of the radio telescope VLA in Socorro, NM. He turned around and gazed up at the giant antennas, having just finished singing the closing line: this pain will pass away. We are tiny specks of immense potential gazing upwards at a vast universe but capable of learning so much more about it, if only we focus our curiosity and technology effectively, out of an openminded perspective which grants both how much we could do and how little we actually know so far. 

I have to know. I must find out. I want to discover. What's out there? How does it work? Gravity waves and pulsars. Black holes and quasars. Photons relativity and quantum mechanics. The unknown wed to the pinpoint possibility that life exists out there, too. This pain will pass away. A cosmic perspective for seeing long and far through agony. 

That flagship symbol of the Sonoran Desert I live in, the saguaro cactus, snaps me into that long/far perspective when I see it on a bike ride. Spiny, stoic, strong, persistent through heat and dessication, also providing delicious fruit and home for cactus wrens, it is both minimalist and essential in its approaches for surviving and thriving. Drenched in desert light from the nearest star, warm and spinning, this too shall pass away like rain.

Riding along on the surface of the bluegreen marble planet, I'm rooted in a caveman beast mind and body easily distracted and even overwhelmed by the sensations of the moment which can be both good and bad, but always HEY HEY HEY seek to grab the attention and burn away time until I'm all out and am no more. But I'm also looking up, out at the stars, listening for waves of a longer, slower, deeper time. Lean my bike against a saguaro, set my bare hand gently on a patch of its green skin to feel the warmth emanating from it. 

Solid, heavy with stored water, vertical, when they die they first expose their inner supporting spines, then turn to dust, like us and everything else. This too will pass away. But, pause a moment longer here, and look: spiny arms point upwards. The cactus wren calls WRACK WRACK WRACK in the summer heat. He too is soaked in picowatts of RF broadcasting quietly from a billion other stars. I tell him: take the high road. Take it like a man.


  1. Back in my ham radio days, I often thought of making my own radio telescope. I think I saw plans somewhere. I also had my first computer hooked up to SETI when they had a program to help screen all the data they had.
    When I had my radio hooked up sometimes I'd just scan the band and listen to static and wonder...of course that was short wave and I only had an inverted V antenna but still.
    I will think of you now when I watch the movie "Contact."

    1. I drilled a hole straight through my bedroom wall to run coax out to a wire strung between trees in the backyard. Parents not very happy about the hole. I also ran SETI for a while, and nearly became one of those guys who got in trouble for installing it on a thousand computers at work, a plan which I backed out of when I heard what happened when his employer found out about one of those guys. All the signals between 1 and 30 MHz I wanted to understand. Funds prevented me from the antenna farm, sensitive receivers, and converters I felt I needed. I also listened to airplanes and police on their frequencies. But the prize of listening to the stars with specific equipment eluded me.

  2. I know I'm wrong but I swear some of that static and stuff sounded like quasars!

    1. Some of the static crashes were lightning strikes off the coast of Africa. The whistling sounds were sometimes electrical discharges high in the stratosphere enabled by cosmic rays bursts. The daily Solar Activity reports on WWV captivated me. I dreamed of huge curtain-like attenna farms and miles-long buried long wave antennas. I wanted to learn CW a few times but heard my friend the ham doing it with his superfast quick key and was discouraged.


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