Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Quantum Fizzicks

I try not to miss a sunset if I can help it, so I stepped outside with my margarita at the restaurant where my friend Robert was exhibiting some new paintings recently to watch the last few minutes of daylight slip away behind the horizon.

The light show was about halfway done when Robert and his partner joined me at the balcony railing.

"The sky's pretty clear," I said. "Maybe we'll see the green flash."

The partner rolled his eyes, grunted and shrugged. I asked him if he'd ever seen it.

"He's seen it," he replied, nodding toward Robert. "But not me, no." He sounded a little like somebody talking about seeing leprechauns.

"Oh yes, I've seen it," Robert said with sympathetic modesty that anybody but a tolerant partner might have found more grating than honest gloating. People who have heard of the green flash but not seen it are common as bougainvillea blossoms around here.

The thing happens just as the last sliver of sun disappears, when the atmosphere and the curvature of the earth bend the light in a way that lets only the green portion of the spectrum reach an observer.

Conditions need to be ideal, an unobstructed view to a distant horizon with no interfering clouds or haze. And the angles are only right for a nanosecond. If you blink or turn to the bar for another sundowner, you miss it.

"I've seen it too," I said. And I'm pretty sure I have. If you keep your eye pinned to the very last wink of solar crescent before it's all gone, the wink changes hue. Sometimes it's too pale to be called a color, but other times it's definitely green.

I was afraid that Robert's partner might be feeling like the odd man out, so I tried to think of something reassuring to say.

"It happens so fast it's almost mythical," I told him. "It's probably a lot like cow tipping."

Our friend Vicki in Nebraska told us years ago about cow tipping. She was raised in farm country, and she said tipping cows was a popular after-party activity for small town teenagers. Cows sleep standing up, she explained. You can creep up on them in the dark and push them over on their sides. Sometimes they don't even wake up.

We were drinking, so this sounded hilarious. We definitely wanted to try it, and Vicki promised to take us along some time. But she never did.

I haven't run across anybody else who claimed to have tipped a cow or knew someone who had, and I've met several who assured me from personal knowledge of the creatures that it can't be done.

Still, for me it remains a charming possibility, though an elusive one. That's why it comes to mind whenever I'm empathizing with somebody who hasn't been in the right place at the right time with proper focus to catch a green flash.

I'm even a little unsure myself that what I've experienced is the thing everyone gets so excited about. The phenomenon I hear others describe seems a lot greener and flashier than mine. How many times do I have to watch the sun go down before I'm sure I'm not missing something?

It's not that I doubt it's real.

A number of years ago somebody gave me a set of DVD's with lectures by a world-renowned astrophysicist about the latest developments in astronomy. He started off with some basics, including the optics of the flash.

Then he took us on a tour of research frontiers in the wider cosmos, explaining in layman's terms how scientists are slowly but surely cracking the codes that will unlock the deepest secrets of the universe.

A decade later, those lectures are obsolete, and I've seen him quoted in news stories about some of the discoveries that overtook them. Dr. Alexei Filippenko of Berkeley is his name, an authentic genius who doesn't kid around.

So I'm a believer in the green flash. But if any of the deepest secrets of the universe turn out to include cow tipping, we should get a new universe.

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