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corvi [userpic]
Negative Space

Last night I missed my bus, and had the longer-than-usual walk home, though the wildlife refuge. Sometimes the universe turns inside out, when I've been at work too long, or just long enough, perhaps. I work with structural ecologists, people trying to understand the shapes trees make. The walls in the lab are covered with pencil sketches of the spaces between trees, the soaring columns of the cathedral of wind, the fine threads of emptiness around individual leaves where sunlight curls catlike. And some nights, picking my way along the marsh, I can see empty space laid amoung the douglas fir and cedar like stained glass or silk, fractal and frond and fastness.

Very clear night, all the spaces between branches filled with stars thick as fireflies, come home to roost. There was a single wisp of cloud, a long pale bluegreen line, maybe 30 degrees of altitude, visible now and then coiling amoung the branches.

Until I noticed stars visible through it. Not a cloud. Called caladri, asked her to check the magnetic field for me. Before she'd even answered, I'd seen it spike and arch, fan out like unfolding wings. Aurora. It looked like someone had grabbed a handful of sky and braided it- trailing green strands coiled around eachother but fading to starfleck at the edges.

(I am kind of wondering if there were black aurora defining the intricate interior edges of the lacework, given how very sharp they were. I've never seen one! It was like the trick of looking at space between trees, or that optical illusion with two people and a cup - you could flip a switch in your head and see the gaps as a seperate aurora, a clawed shimmerblack thing. Space between flame, breath.)

I love living here sometimes.

PS, if you were one of the people who would like a text message when there's aurora in the sky, I didn't do so because my old cellphone is dead and gone, and with it those names. Sing out if you want re-added and I have your cell #.



oh, how lovely.

I've seen the aurora borealis -- years ago. It's magical.

And how did you get a job so very very cool? What kind of training went into it?

The way I ended up here is certainly not the easiest one! :) Most ecologists study it in college, though there's a sizable (maybe 25%) self-taught minority, and I've never noticed any hesitation on anyone's part dealing with them. Tree-climbers have an informal apprenticeship system; I think it's usually about two years before you're considered ready to rig and climb on your own.

My education is somewhat more random; I studied visual arts and computer science, and worked as an artist or a programmer (depending on how hungry I was at the time) before joining the lab. My work here is in visualization - making computer generated images of the data that we gather up in the rainforest canopy. Humans are still much better at seeing patterns and connections that computers are - nobody has figured out how to put intuition into a program yet, and intuition is what makes science dance, when there's nowhere left it can walk to.

But staring at a spreadsheet and thousands of numbers doesn't work terribly well for a human audience, so it's my job to take all the numbers we have and invent ways to see them in color and form and motion. I have to find a way to show a tree that's still immediately understood as a tree on whatever level it is people feel it standing in the rainforest with leaf-shadows on their skin, but I have to also show all the precise measurements of this and that, the fractal shapes, the way each branch has the same form as a tree, or the ghost-limbs of branches long gone - so that people can understand them in the same way.

I like to think of my job as giving people x-ray vision, showing them all the sweep and span of pattern they couldn't see otherwise. Figuring out how to make people understand something is visual art; figuring out how to precisely display a bunch of numbers from a spreadsheet is computer science, so I'd guess you need some training in each for this, though it probably needn't be formal in either case. A cheerful willingness to accept a lot less than going salary for a programmer in exchange for lovely and meaningful work helps a lot, too. :)

(Apparently I love this job so much I'm willing to type your eyes off about it, too. :) )

What a great job! I've wanted to do an art project of invisible things made visible by adding stuff - like what's going on in the sky during the day is invisible unless you add clouds. And how you can see the tempering in glass with polarized lenses. And magnetism . . .

(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Re: Text ribbit.

Done. :)

How was the coast cleanup?

Oh, text please, if it's not too much trouble.

It's not - my phone has a 'send a text message to everyone in this group' function. :)

Ooooh, text me?

I like trees too.

Structural ecologists and the shapes trees make?

I'd guess then you've seen these guys?
(The idea is that common tree shapes are predicted by some fairly simple rulesets about propagule distribution, light capture and wind resistance in a computer model.)

I just think they're so neat -- someone plugged some basic algorithms into a computer and, hey presto! TREES!

(no subject) - (Anonymous)

It's easy to forget how far North Seattle is, given how mellow/rainy the weather is, but we're at 47'43", more north than the top bit of Maine. :) They're fairly common here - this is maybe the fifth or sixth I've seen this year, I think, though none of them terribly impressive. Other years are much better - we're at the minimum of the eleven-year solar cycle at the moment, so there aren't a lot of magnetic particles from the sun to trigger them.

The biggest problems with seeing them here are the rainy-for-fourty-four-days-straight weather, and the fact that Seattle proper has too much light pollution. If you'll be living in the City, you'll have to get out somehow to have any chance of seeing them. The general rule of thumb is that the sky has to be dark enough you can see the Milky Way. I would be glad to drive you up into the mountains aurora-hunting. :)

Oh, oh, oh.

Every time I see a picture of an aurora I acutely miss thinking them common (from back when I lived somewhere northerly where there was little light pollution, and they *were* common - though never lessened for it).


Lovely, and with multiple colors, no less! I've only seen the northern lights once, and not anywhere near as vividly. However, the setting was wonderful and since we were in Ithaca, NY (a good bit farther south), we were quite surprised as well!

If you look on this map/satellite image, you'll see a thin white line extending north into the lake from the center section of land on the south shore. It's a long breakwater about 3 feet wide, ending in a small lighthouse. Or maybe "beacon" is a better word, as "house" is definitely stretching it. You could get out there by parking at the public park along the beach on the eastern section of land, walking through the park to a bridge over to the center section (not visible here), and then through a golf course back to the beginning of the breakwater. And then it was just a long walk along it out into the middle of the lake.

There's not a huge amount to do in Ithaca, and sneaking out there late at night was an occasional activity- once you get out there its very peaceful surrounded by that much water. And one night several of us had gone out there and noticed that the sky seemed oddly green...

We didn't see dramatically defined sheets of color, but a more subdued show of green regions fading in and out, slowly spreading across a large part of the sky, and then slipping away. It was a beautiful night.

Add me back to the text group, please!


Please add me to your aurora SMS group...

(no subject) - (Anonymous)

You might want to watch aurora_chasers - when I have advanced warning of aurora, that's where it goes. Everyone was sick of me posting that stuff on my personal journal. :)