The Path of Totality

On August 21st, 2017, I had the privilege of traveling with a band of cosmic pilgrims to the Path of Totality. What follows is my account of and reflections on the experience of the total solar eclipse.

As Totality neared, a pale grey-purple haze overtook the land and sky. Shadows became murky, yet emanated a deeper contrast, as if vibrating with detail. A cold wind blew, and then, in an instant, everything stopped; the air, the sounds of birds and bugs and rustling trees, the very pulse of the planet came to an eerie stillness. A dark wave crept over the ground from across the lake until it settled right above us; at the horizon it was like sunset, orange and red, with planets before unseen suddenly bright in the sky. And directly overhead a brilliant white ring with a center of the blackest black stared down at us, like a great empty eye, with its gaze reflecting both the infinite void of the endless universe and a radiant fullness of the unchangeable fact that all of existence is ultimately one inseparable being, timeless; beyond time itself. And as quickly as it came on, dawn broke for the second time in one day, as if to remind us that day and night are not truly two, but one, constantly flowing into one another; one becoming the other, over and over again, forever, in the eternal cosmic cycle of being and becoming—and that we, too, are one; that even when we are apart, we are a part of the same; that even when we are apart, we are always together.

Solar eclipse

Apollo. Ra. Amaterasu. Kinich. Utu. For millennia, human beings across civilizations have worshiped the Sun. The center of our solar system, the energetic source of life on Earth, bringer of day; every being on Earth, through all of history has had an existential relationship with the Sun. None would be if not for it. The Sun, unlike anything else, unifies the human experience; it shapes the very nature of our condition, embodies the passage of time, and moves the causality of life itself. The great cosmic dance of our planet, moon, and humble star radiates the magnificent contingency of our existence and inspires the most fundamental questions of consciousness: Why are we here? What reason explains our existence? What is our purpose?

Human beings are the only animals concerned with the notion of purpose. Its pursuit defines the nature of our consciousness. We do indeed seek explanation for our existence, on one hand, but even more so, we seek its justification. What is the point of our existence? What are we supposed to do? It is from this idea of purpose that we derive our senses of meaning in life – and perhaps, it is the most fundamental of truths that we all want to live meaningful lives.

Ultimately, however, it is unclear that any absolute answer to the question of purpose exists—that there is any certain point to being alive, or that there is any supposed to at all. Grappling with this uncertainty is the very core of ethics: Some suppose that we’re supposed to do our duty (but what is duty?); or that we’re supposed to do what’s good (but what is the good? And for who?); that we should do what’s right or just (right in what sense? And what is justice?); or what’s virtuous (but what is the nature of virtue?); or that all we’re really supposed to do is keep the promises we make to each other (But what are contracts, and what contracts us to them, really?).

Ethics and the question of purpose are a great wheel that will turn forever, as long as human being are the kinds of agential creatures that act and seek to justify our actions to ourselves and to each other – and it seems a fantasy to suppose that we will ever discover or articulate any ultimate or universal answer. Perhaps if we were perfect beings we would be capable of knowing in certainty, but we are inevitably fallible, and in that fallibility we must accept and embrace a certain agnosticism about the purpose of consciousness and the purpose of living. All we can do is suppose and engage in the process of consideration: to suppose and to consider—to think and to judge, and then to act. Indeed, it is the process that makes us ethical beings and gives our lives meaning – not necessarily the answer. The question, in a sense, is the answer:

What are we supposed to do? Never stop wrestling with that very question! The question of purpose makes us what we are. When you strip it all away, all we can say is that we are just the kinds of beings that wonder what we’re supposed to do, and maybe that’s all we’re supposed to be. Maybe that question is, at its core, what makes reflective consciousness what it is.

the thinker

But while the justificatory question of purpose may be unanswerable in finality, the question of explanation is tangible. We may never know for certain the purpose for why we are here, but we can indeed know the explanation—the reason—for our existence, and as human beings have intuited for tens of thousands of years, the Sun is just such an explanation; the Sun explains why we exist. Of course, even material explanation entails is own infinite regress. If the Sun explains why we exist, then it is natural to then ask why the Sun exists – and the material chain of causality can extend as far back as we are willing to ask. We can explain the creation of the solar system, the births and deaths of stars, the origins of galaxies, and, as distant as we have been able to discern, the birth of the universe at the Big Bang. But what explains the Big Bang? What sparked the great explosion of matter and energy from which all of the known universe was born? There are suppositions, of course—an eternal cycle of Big Bangs and “Big Crunches” wherein the universe is forever expanding and contracting on itself; the multi-verse or parallel realities; some see only God as the ultimate explanation of existence—the “Prime Mover” of all that exists and the great chain of causation – the Alpha and Omega.

I have even toyed with an ontological explanation for the existence of existence (though, admittedly, not to much satisfaction); something like: “Existence, by its very nature, must always and only exist because for existence to not exist would make existence non-existence, and for existence to be non-existence would be a fundamental contradiction. Therefore, what explains the existence of existence is the nature of existence itself.”

But none of these suppositions are immune to the prospective interrogation of infinite regress. No matter the origin, we can always proctor successive questions and inquire as to the origin of the origins. And at the end of the day, we may never know. Even in terms of the material explanation, we may have no choice but to accept and embrace, in our inherent fallibility, a fundamental agnosticism about the explanation of our existence. We may never know—and indeed may never be able to know—in any ultimate sense either the explanation or the purpose underlying our existence.

Nevertheless, we need not stare into the face of infinite regress as if it entails nihilistic futility. The privilege of being distinction-making beings is that we can choose the distinctions to which we ascribe meaning. We need not see meaninglessness in infinite regress; infinite regress is just infinite regress, and for no reason should we assume that infinite regress necessarily means meaninglessness about the distinctions we unveil along the way. We need not know in absolute certainty the explanation of the entire universe to understand the relationship between the Sun and Earth that explains the existence of life.

earth sun and moon

To be sure, life would not exist were it not for the harmonious relationship between the planet from which we sprang and star that emanates our essential energy. We owe our very lives to the alignment of the Sun and Earth; and in so knowing that celestial relationship we can derive the values of gratitude, appreciation, respect, awe, and love for the contingencies that explain life’s existence and ultimately unify us all.

Solar eclipses, unlike much else, are significant because they illustrate for us so explicitly, so obviously, the cosmic alignment at the heart of our existence. In the great dance of our solar system, every so often the Moon crosses directly between the Earth and Sun, and in those few, rare moments we feel, more powerfully than is usual, our oneness with the cosmos of which we are a part. We are never not one with the universe, but in the bustle and distractions of modern life, it can be easy to forget the bigger picture of our existence. Sometimes we need reminding of our unwavering universal unity.

The world often seems so estranged from itself and we from each other, so carved up by nations, interests, or politics, so wrapped in discord—and we, in turn, can lose ourselves to a sense of division and alienation. But the unchangeable truth is that, for all our dissensions, we are all here, together, and indivisible in the fact of our existence. And solar eclipses, in all their majesty, evoke in all who experience the Path of Totality a blissful comfort about our fundamental oneness and shared place in the universe.

Nothing can ultimately separate us, for even when we are apart, we are a part of the same, and thus, we are always together. And where we are together forever, we can be together, in love, for all eternity.

So honors the Sun Sage: To the Sun god, the Earth, and Moon—and the cosmic ecology to which we owe our existence.

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A greener White House

As promised by Energy Secretary Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality Sutley in 2010, the Obama administration is joining the legacy—alongside Presidents James Carter and George W. Bush—of using solar energy to power the White House.

The solar panels being installed on the White House are an important symbol of federal commitment to renewable energy. Even more important, however, is the administration’s greater commitment, which Juliet Eilperin reports as a pledge to generate 20% of the energy consumed by the federal government—including the militaryfrom renewable resources by 2020.

20% of federal energy use isn’t a huge number in global, or even national, terms. To put it in perspective, we consume about 4.4 million Gigawatt-hours each year in the US, while 20% of federal energy consumption only amounts to about 3 Gigawatt-hours. But every bit counts! Worthwhile progress is often piecemeal—and to cast it in more relatable terms: generating 3 Gigawatt-hours from another source would require, for example, over 3,200 pounds of coal. By getting that energy from the Sun, we spare the atmosphere more than 63,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. only represent a small fraction of this overarching goal, but greening the White House is, in my opinion, wise both for both politics and aesthetics.

To the sun god!

Texas is doing it right

If the modern idea of the Good Life is an energy intensive one, life in Texas is the best. Environmental protection and enforcement can be spotty at the state regulatory level, but there’s no denying that Texas is paradisical for developing energy. Oil and natural gas are obvious heavyweights. Texas is a national leader in wind energy development, and has its fair share of jobs in coal, employing just over 2,200 in 2006. Most exciting of all, Texas is 8th in the country for solar power.

Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. It is also an opportunity. Whether in fossil form, biomass, or direct from the source, the Sun enables but does not dictate the purposes we create that make life worth living. Clearly Texas understands this.

Eventually, solar will overtake fossils fuels as they become more expensive to extract–whether by regulation, scarcity, or inaccessibility–answering not only the energy enthusiast’s call, but also the environmentalist’s. While the precautionary and proactionary principles seem dogmatically opposed at a theoretical level, being proactionary about solar and precautionary about the environment go hand in hand. The same resonates about wind power. But the wind only blows because the sun heats the air.

To the sun god!

jmk

Ultra-thin high-efficiency organic solar cells from Princeton

Fresh out of a first round of experiments at Princeton’s NanoStructure Laboratory, Dr. Steven Chou and Dr. Wei Ding released this report on the progress of their “plasmonic cavity with subwavelength hole-array” solar cell (PlaCSH). Using 30 nanometer-thick gold mesh instead of the indium-tin-oxide (ITO) layer that photovoltaic solar cells usually make use of, the Princeton team has managed to make PlaCSH solar cells 175% more efficient than traditional PV technology.

The gold nano-mesh is more efficient in several ways, thinking about the life cycle of solar cells. Indeed, gold is a rare metal (one that’s ever-increasing in value) but actually ends up being more cost effective than continuing to use the indium-tin-oxide compound we’ve been using thus far. Gold itself may not be cheap, but we’re talking about nano scale technology here — a nanometer, measuring in at one billionth of a meter, is usually used to scale dimensions at the atomic level. We use micrometers (a mere millionth of a meter) to measure human hair, just to give you an idea of how thin these gold nano-mesh layers are — the gold nano-mesh just doesn’t require that much material, especially considering the efficiency of Dr. Chou’s invented nanofabrication method. Price is a real measure of real resources, so getting the cost of manufacturing these solar cells down makes sense from an environmental sustainability perspective too, not just economic practicality.

Most importantly, however, the PlaCSH solar cells lose far less energy to reflection than traditional PV cells. Once light energy passes through the nano-mesh, it’s incredibly difficult for it to escape. The points in the nano-mesh through which light would usually be reflected back out are actually smaller than the photons themselves, so these otherwise rogue photons stick around to lend us their energy after all. The PlaCSH cells are significantly more efficient under cloud-cover, too, for those concerned with intermittency.

This innovative technology has the potential to revolutionize the solar energy industry and loosen the grip of fossil fuel dependency. Once the upfront costs of solar cells become competitive with the overall costs of fossil fuel production, it will make more economic sense to invest in solar technology over natural gas, e.g., because the pay-back period will be much shorter. The solar energy route offers reasonable (and decreasing) upfront costs and little to no maintenance costs — and, most obviously, we have more solar energy than we know what to do with. We may have to mine the gold to produce the nano-mesh, so it’s not totally benign, but it’s far less invasive than, say, Mountaintop Removal Mining.

Here to another step toward our sustainable energy future!

Cheers,

JMK

PS – This article by Grant Brunner of ExtremeTech has some nice diagrams depicting the way PlaCSH solar cells work in comparison to traditional ITO PV.

Third year of triple-digit growth in US solar PV market

In the second quarter of 2012 the US installed 742 Megawatts of utility-scale solar PV, reports GTM Research. This growth is largely attributable to the new Agua Caliente, Mesquite, and Silver State solar plants, all of which were backed by federal loan guarantees. I would like to think this means we can put the Solyndra issue to rest. Loan guarantee programs help free up capital for important projects to which private investors suffering from Keynesian mass psychosis are reluctant to commit. Sure, they can be risky at times, like all investments, but developing renewable energy technology stands as perhaps the most salient hurdle to perpetuating our high standard of living, making our energy intensive lifestyles sustainable, and maintaining a healthy environment for our contemporaries, future generations, and non-humans. For we who champion progress as sustainable improvements in science, technology, and social organization, this is surely welcome news.

JM Kincaid

Solar in the southwest

The US Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management have released the “Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” (FPEIS) for utility-scale solar energy operations on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. This “solar roadmap” estimates we will be able to harness 23,700 megawatts from 285,000 acres of developed lands, enough to power 7 million US homes with renewable energy.

285,000 acres might sound substantial, but everything we do involves trade offs. Deciding to pursue one opportunity inherently means not pursuing another, hence the name opportunity cost. But 285,000 acres only make up one ten-thousandth of the United States’ total acreage, meaning that from one hundredth of one percent of our land we could supply power to 2.3% of our country’s population. Seems like a good trade off to me. To the sun god!

JM Kincaid

US solar installs

Welcome news from the editors at real clear energy, here’s one of their “charticles” tracking US solar installations. Megawatts of solar technology installed went from 100 MW in 2006 to 1000 MW in 2010! Of course that number must be qualified by the efficiency of solar tech, as the editors explain, but this is expected to improve over time. Will we see infinite linear progress in solar energy technology? No. But we can certainly get the cost per kWh down from Forbes’ calculation of 7.7 cents/kWh so that solar is cost competitive with other energy sources.

JM Kincaid