Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson

NYC’s Magical Snow Day

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

Johna exploring a snow fort in Central Park (photo by Vlad)

By rights, New York City should still be digging out from the blizzard that was to be “historic, catastrophic”—except that it wasn’t.

The storm was predicted to bury New York in up to thirty inches of snow. In anticipation, the Mayor and the Governor declared a state of emergency, shut down the subway system, and banned all vehicles (including taxis and delivery bicycles) on the grounds that stalled vehicles would impede emergency efforts.

And then the blizzard didn’t happen. True, Long Island got a couple of feet of snow. And coastal New England, including Boston, got hammered.

But here in New York, we awoke to a mere eight inches of snow in Central Park… and a government-mandated, universally observed, snow day.

It was great!

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The Sunspot Story

By Johna Till Johnson

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding. …

—Philip Larkin, Solar

.
What’s the longest-running scientific experiment in history?

I bet you didn’t think of monitoring sunspots.

Sunspots

Sunspots (photo by NASA)

And I can’t definitively say it’s the longest-running experiment —there may be others I haven’t heard of yet. But the first recorded systematic observation of sunspots in the West was by astronomers Thomas Harriot, Johannes and David Fabricius  in 1610 (Chinese astronomers observed them as far back as 300 BC). Scientists have been monitoring sunspots ever since—which means that sunspots have been monitored for the past 405 years!

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Christmas, 2014

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Our 2014 Christmas treeMaybe it’s because we spent last Christmas on the waters of the Florida Everglades. Or maybe it’s because this year has held more than the usual vicissitudes. For whatever reason, this year we found ourselves focused intently on the traditional trappings and rituals: A live tree, with real candles. A wreath, with ribbons and a bell. Roast goose, mashed potatoes, and cabbage. Christmas carols.

And they were wonderful: As the sun set on Christmas Eve, the apartment filled with the scent of roasting goose (overpowering the fresh fragrance of pine). Dinner that night was magical, with light glittering everywhere, and the sound of Christmas carols on the air.

Johna's favorite ornamentChristmas Day, we slept late, then spent a splendid several hours opening gifts. Okay, more like a few minutes doing the actual opening—but since most of the gifts were books (and most of the remainder was food), we spent a lazy afternoon listening to music, reading, and nibbling cookies. On Boxing Day, we did the official tree-candle lighting (complete with obligatory stand-by bucket of water and fire extinguisher).

All the trappings were there, and the rituals were most satisfactorily observed.  But even more than the trappings and decorations, what resonated most with us was the meaning of Christmas: light in darkness, hope for better times to come.

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It’s All About the Ideas

By Johna Till Johnson

Haitian fishermen (photo Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

“Ya gotta have ideas,” the cab driver said, followed by an uproarious belly-laugh. “Money’s not worth nothing unless you have ideas.”

I laughed along with him. It was impossible not to: the man had the most contagious laughter I’d ever heard. And he had ideas. Boy, did he have ideas.

He wasn’t what I expected when I got into the cab on that overcast, dreary December day a few days before Christmas. All I could see of him was a dark face, beard streaked with a bit of gray. He was eating a late lunch when I got in, and didn’t return my greeting.

So I figured I wasn’t going to hear much from him—and that was fine. I had errands to get done, and worries on my mind. After I told him the destination, I figured that was the last exchange we’d have. Wrong!

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Guest Post: The Art of Art

A few days ago we posted “Thanksgiving Musings: We’re Grateful for that Still, Small Voice…,” in which we referred to a wonderful essay by writer and adventurer Willis Eschenbach. He generously gave us permission to reprint the essay in full on our blog. Here it is. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

With Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I’d write about something other than science. A few weekends ago, I went by kayak across Tomales Bay from Marshall to Lairds Landing, where I lived for nine months or so when I was about twenty-five with a wonderful friend and his lady and their son. It had been fifteen years since I was last there, I’d gone for the wake not long after my friend died. I went on this trip with a long-time shipmate of mine, a gifted artist, builder, and blacksmith.

Now, there are lots of words for the gradations of friendship—friends, acquaintances, work-mates, BFFs, room-mates, colleagues, and the like. “Shipmate” means more than any of those to me. It means someone who I’ve been through some storms with at sea.

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Thanksgiving Musings: We’re Grateful for that Still, Small Voice…

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Backlit

This is the time of year to stop, take a pause, and think of all the things we’re grateful for. For most of us, that’s family, friends, a warm hearth when it’s cold outside…

And we’re grateful for those, very much so. Particularly our friends, who have held us close recently, and whose warmth and support have reminded us of the very best that human nature can offer.

We’re also grateful for something that’s a bit harder to articulate. It’s the common theme uniting art, poetry, adventure, and the love of nature. It’s that small voice that calls to you: “Pay attention! This thought, or image, or moment, or destination is important!”

Artists know this voice. They live by it. And scientists hear its call, too. As do adventurers. It’s the call that pulls you off the beaten path, onto a new path you didn’t expect to follow, away from all your carefully constructed, sensible plans: We were going to stop and camp here, but… what’s around that next bend? We need to make it to the next waypoint, but… look, there’s a double rainbow! Time to wrap up the experiment, but… what’s going on over here?

You could say it’s the call of the unexpected, or unusual, or unusually beautiful. You could call it, as Vlad sometimes does, an esthetic sense. Or you could just note that sometimes the world, in all its strangeness and beauty, sometimes just reaches out to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey! Slow down! There’s something here to appreciate!”

Whatever it is, we’re grateful for that voice, and for the ability to hear it.

We were recently reminded of it in an essay about an American artist, Clayton Lewis, who was also a woodworker and sculptor, and who, by all accounts, lived by this call. Writer and adventurer Willis Eschenbach, who knew him personally, encapsulates that worldview like this:

“Clayton was an artist, and a jeweler, and a boatbuilder, and a fisherman, and a crusty old bugger. He owned three boats, all of them with beautiful lines. I was going to buy a boat once, because it was cheap, even though it was ugly. ‘Don’t buy it,’ he warned, ‘owning an ugly boat is bad for a man’s spirit.’ ” —Willis Eschenbach, November 2014

Clayton Lewis

American artist Clayton Lewis (from Clayton Lewis’ website)

You can read more about Clayton Lewis, and see photos of his work, including the beautiful seaside studio he constructed, at his website. (One interesting note: He’s one of the very few artists whose bed is now in a museum!)

That voice often calls to Vlad in his photography. Here are a few examples—

(click on any photo to start slideshow)

Mom, We Did It!

By Johna Till Johnson

Occasionally a news story really resonates with me. This is one: An Indian spacecraft called Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has just reached orbit around the planet Mars.

And the achievement is astonishing on many fronts: It’s the first time in history that any country’s spacecraft has made it on the first attempt. At $74 million, the effort cost less than making the movie “Gravity”—and almost 10 times less than the US’s NASA Mars mission.

Scientists and engineers cheer as MOM reaches Mars orbit (Photo: Reuters)

Scientists and engineers cheer as MOM reaches Mars orbit (Photo: Reuters)

And, as with the NASA effort, some of the top scientists and engineers involved are women. There’s something symbolic in “Mother India”—which is linguistically, culturally, and even genetically the ancestor of many of us of European descent—sending a spacecraft called MOM to Mars.

I’m really proud of our Indian sisters and brothers for pulling this off. And I’m psyched to see so many saris involved in the celebration.

MOM, we did it!