Saturday, May 11, 2024

A Stunning Night: The Aurora Borealis from Central California

It has been a stunning night. I never believed the auroras would make it into Central California, and most of the predictions suggested it wouldn't. But then reports started pouring in; sightings in South Carolina, northwest Florida, Houston, and then Death Valley. I had to give it a chance. Mrs. Geotripper and I hopped in the car and headed out to the California Prairie south of Knights Ferry.
As we pulled up at the small stock pond on Willms Road, it didn't look like much was going on. I convinced myself that there was a bit of a red glow in the sky, and I started taking pictures with my phone (my regular camera turned out to be useless for once). On the screen it wasn't obvious, but there was indeed some color. 
I would have been satisfied with that, as I have seen the aurora only twice before. The first time was from within the Grand Canyon on my very first geology field studies trip in 1975. It was just a glow in the sky then, and we thought it was light pollution from Las Vegas or St. George, but it turned from red to green. We were awestruck, but there was no structure to be seen. The other time was in the late 1990s when we were in Montana on a mostly rainy night, but for a short moment a filament appeared through the clouds. And that was that.
Having so little experience with the phenomena, I simply didn't know what to expect, but we were becoming aware that the lights were changing as we watched. Spires came and went, and the glow moved to different parts of the sky. The colors were changing as well.
We watched until midnight when the cold breeze and lack of facilities forced us to start the drive home, but as we went around each bend, we couldn't resist stopping a moment to see what changed.
The changes were many. More and more green was showing near the horizon, and blue or purple appeared off to the west.

Needless to say maybe, but it was an astounding thing to see. I should note that while I have not modified the pictures (especially the saturation), the phone camera did see more vivid color than I did. I was using the night shot setting, so it was collecting light for two or three seconds, so the pictures are more colorful. But even so, it was easy to understand why the ancients thought these lights emanated from the gods.
We have our own mythology about these strange lights in the sky. They are the magnetic force shields protecting us from deadly emanations from the sun. Without our magnetic field, life on Earth might never have appeared, and we continue to thrive as long as the field continues.
After studying the Earth and the cosmos for more than forty years, I still can be impressed by the incredible processes that operate on and around our planet. What a privilege to live in and understand our world.

The storm is expected to continue through the weekend. I encourage you to find a dark place and check it out, but if that isn't possible, I hope this gives you an idea of what it was like!

Saturday, May 4, 2024

George Lucas Had It Wrong. A Day of Fierce Pride at Modesto Junior College Yesterday

I had conflicting responsibilities and to my regret had to miss my school's graduation ceremony yesterday. I know that many of my students had the honor of walking that stage, and I can only say: I am proud for all of you. So, about that title...this is something I wrote a few years ago about the special and talented people I serve as a teacher.

No, I'm not talking about the prequels to Star Wars! It was something much earlier. People could be forgiven for not knowing this, but Star Wars was not George Lucas's first successful film. He was known for another great movie, American Graffiti, a semi-autobiographical film that recalled his days as a young man in Modesto, California. Yes, Lucas is perhaps our most famous native son. He also attended Modesto Junior College for a time.

So what was it that he got wrong? It was a fairly minor plot point, but in the movie, the two friends Curt and Steve were on the same pathways for their lives. They were planning to leave town to attend a "northeastern" college (let's presume an Ivy League school), but after a series of events over the space of one long night, Steve is convinced to stay in Modesto, attending the "junior" college, while Curt heads off to great success, and was eventually a writer living in Canada. Steve ended up selling insurance in Modesto.

What's wrong with this picture? It was the insinuation that attending a community college was somehow a lesser option for achieving success, that it is in some way a second-rate education. As I sat proudly through our graduation ceremony tonight, I would fiercely argue that getting a degree at a community college is a wonderful achievement, and that I would proudly put my students up against any Ivy League student at the two-year mark in their academic career.

It doesn't take long to realize that a lot of (but certainly not all) the students at a Harvard or Yale are children of privilege, people who have never really had to struggle to get ahead in life. They started in private upscale schools, got in on the fast-track to an Ivy League school with the best preparation possible. It's hardly a surprise that they would excel and succeed.

The students I work with come from many different backgrounds, and most of them are poor and disadvantaged. They come from many cultures. Our elementary and secondary schools are underfunded and sometimes dangerous, and alcoholism and drug use are epidemic in our region. The kids in our schools have the decks stacked against them at every turn. They come to us unprepared and unskilled. We have veterans suffering from PTSD, abused spouses, and laid-off laborers. We have huge numbers of people who are the first in their families to ever attend college. We have resources at our school, but sometimes the challenges facing our students are overwhelming. And yet these students persist, and they fight, and they cry, and fail, and then they come back again. And in the end they master the skills required to pass their classes. When you see a group of these students decked out in blue robes, and receiving an AA or AS degree, you are looking at some of the most successful people in the world.

If you are an employer, and you see a community college on the resume of a potential employee, you are looking at a person with persistence, stamina, and an incredible work ethic. They've been through impossible challenges and they've succeeded.

I couldn't be more proud of my students on this great day.