Thursday, October 27, 2005

Random Thoughts On The Astronomical

It's been a spectacular couple of nights' flying, with pretty high cruising altitudes and fantastically good visibility.

I think I could look out my window for a living. (Hey, that's a pretty good job description!) When it's my leg to fly (we alternate legs) it's surprising how little you actually look outside, since there's so much to look at inside in pursuit of your flying duties. But this morning I was on non-flying duties, which lets me basically stare out the windows--from six miles up!--for an hour and chat on the radio with the controllers.

And the view from this altitude on a clear night puts me in a mind to contemplate things that are not in the normal realm of human experience. Humans just aren't supposed to be looking at Planet Earth from six miles up. It ain't natural. We've all had those nights when you find yourself away from the usual light pollution and look up at the sky and are shocked by what you see. Well, that's kind of a regular view from an airplane window at night at 35,000 feet. The view of the sky is that much clearer because, at 35K, about 80% of the atmosphere is below you. You're above all the weather and the pollution and light sources.

And the view downward from that altitude is similarly fascinating. On a clear night you can see 80 or 100 distinct towns in the view immediately ahead of you, each dot a distinct place and home to a bunch of people. And like looking up in a telescope and being surprised that what you thought was a star is actually a whole galaxy, each of these towns which looks like a single speck from afar, becomes, as you near, a large collection of lights; and finally the actual layout of the town becomes visible as you pass over. Streets and ball fields and parks and rivers and interstate access--an overview, seen in a passing glimpse, of what is bone-marrow familiar for those who live there. (I often think about this as I pass quickly and silently overhead, knowing I will never visit and don't even know the name of this town where generations have lived and died, where sleeping in their beds this very night are people who have scarcely been away from this place. This smaller world, from a perspective of, say, 5,000 years ago, makes much more sense than my world, six miles up. Cue the Amish music.)

Strangely, away from the cities the view down looks remarkably similar to the view out into space. Between the towns and cities it is mostly pitch black punctuated very faintly with a zillion white lights, lights like what a farmer would have on a pole in his driveway. (A digression: all these lights, the millions and millions and millions of them, and the energy burned to illuminate them, are there to keep people from ripping each others' shit off. There's an ugly commentary on human nature.) Without overriding geographical features--mountains, say--the lights are randomly constant, as it were, extending in a kind of fractal background density for as far as the eye can see. Looked at very closely they reveal hills and valleys, the actual topography below (which is otherwise completely invisible, of course) much like a skilled artist can manipulate the lines of a grid to reveal shapes.

But the main impression is one of sheer numbers: there are so many lights that the mind cannot really process them. It actually gives one a visual sense of the numbers and density of people living on the land for mile after mile for hundreds of miles and beyond. You want to grasp a million? Look at these lights and think (quite logically, really) that each light is a couple people, or a family. It puts a face on a concept otherwise hard to grasp.

A million is a thousand thousand. A grid of a thousand by a thousand would give a million squares. This number flirts with insensibility; it is just about too large to make any meaningful sense to us. I read every day (though not nearly enough) about our EIGHT TRILLION DOLLAR national debt, and there's just no way to make that number mean anything. (We should give it something more decipherable, like a color. It would now be double-super-secret, break-your-mother's-back, fire-engine red.) And that's what I thought of as I looked at all these lights below. Here comes Nashville, appearing on the horizon out of the blackness above and below; there's another 3 million lights, minimum. It approaches and passes rather quickly at 565 knots, the cockpit illuminating slightly as we pass, then plunging back into darkess.

I'm just fumbling along here. But sometimes, the job, it's cool.


mango said...

Wow... sounds amazing. Now I wanna be a pilot!

Lizzie said...

I find it slightly disconcerting that pilots spend very little time looking outside while they're flying. I'm already terrified of flying so hearing that another plane could fly right into us without the pilot noticing is not particularly comforting. I guess as a professional you know what you're doing though. I sure hope so...

wunelle said...

Sorry you're a nervous passenger. I think for a lot of people it's a control thing: they're just not accustomed to turning their safety entirely over to someone else. But honestly, you ought to be fearing your trip to and from the airport.

Warning! The following discussion might not be soothing!

Collision avoidance, while it's certainly a concept we're aware of, is just not really a problem that needs addressing in an airplane. The windows are much more useful for assessing weather threats, but again your onboard radar does a better job of this. Nah, windows are for daydreaming, just like in your office :-)

2 airplanes hitting each other in flight requires the same planetary alignment as the BVM showing up as a lump in your oatmeal: it's a statistical miracle. I couldn't run into another airplane, except in certain circumstances, if I set out specifically to do it. I think people don't really understand how huge the margins for error are in almost any civilian flight regime. Takeoffs and landings, naturally, require a certain attention to detail and adherence to procedure, but after that you're pretty much good to go. Cars are all restricted to the same operating plane, and so need to intersect in two dimensions, the thrid being a given. With an airplane, you'd have to precisely arrive with another airplane in all three. Ain't gonna happen.

The flight attendants (in my former passenger-flying life) used to call up and say "Somebody wants to know what town that is off the right wing." And I would think WTF? Am I navigating by the water towers or something? How the hell would I know what town that is?! But I kept it all inside and scrambled for a chart.

Lizzie said...

I don't care what you say (fingers in my ears, saying lalalalalala I can't hear you). As far as I'm concerned, there's a 50-50 chance my plane will hit another plane. Either it will happen or it won't. Only two possibilities. 50-50.

wunelle said...

Hey, with math like that you could get a job in the Bush White House! Hurry while there's still time! (Insert wishful thinking here.)


Anyway, keep watching the papers, since after my crash I won't be able to blog about it.

Anonymous said...

TCAS! "Climb, Climb" "Clear of conflict"

wunelle said...

"Don't Sink...!"