August 30, 2017

Unfinished Business

[Ed: Update 12/31/17 11:42 AM PT: According to a San Gabriel Valley Tribune article updated on 12/30/17, the Irwindale Speedway has been granted a temporary reprieve and will operate for at least two more seasons while Chinese investors try to find an anchor retailer for their mall.]

The Irwindale Speedway, a 6000-seat twin track NASCAR motorsports stadium, is going to be shut down at the end of January 2018 and eventually bulldozed (presumably for a shopping center).

It was already one of the last of a dying breed, in an area of California that used to be covered in race tracks (at Paramount Ranch and the Farmers Market, just to name a couple).

And while it was sad to see yet another one fade into just a memory, hearing of its imminent demolition also made me just a little bit mad.

Because I've got some unfinished business with Irwindale Speedway.

Back in 2013, I'd already started earning my racing stripes by learning stick shift in a Formula 1 racer and perfecting my skills in a stock car. I'd caught the bug, and I was looking for new sets of wheels to race on new tracks, anywhere and everywhere.

I wanted to hit them all—and my next stop was Irwindale, where you could not only spectate drag races and such but also take a course from  a stock car driving school called LA Racing Experience.

As all of these miniature, amateur driving "lessons" do, this one first sat us in a room and lectured us about safety. I felt pretty confident, given my recent triumphs on the track—but that's exactly what our instructor warned us of. "The ones who've done this before are always the ones who mess up," he said.

And that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy—but only because the instructor ended up blaming me for his own mess-up.

With these schools, you can't just drive willy-nilly around the track. You've got to obey the orders barked into your earpiece—and, since you don't have a microphone, you have no opportunity to ask any questions to clarify if you're confused.

It's a one-way line of communication, and it's their way or the freeway. One wrong move, and you can say goodbye to the speedway.

I must've only made my way around the track one or two complete times when the command center called out instructions that referred to me by the wrong car number.

That was the beginning of the confusion.

Based on what the other car numbers were, and how close the number he used was to mine, I kind of figured out he meant me—and so, I got in position to do what he instructed, which was to pass the car in front of me.

He ordered that car to move a lane over and for me to speed up. And then he started saying "NOT YET NOT YET NOT YET," without referring to any car number.

Of course, the driver ahead of me thought it was for him, so he didn't move over. And because I didn't hear my car number—not even the wrong number that I figured to be mine—I just kept going.

Understandably, the lesson screeched to a halt with the wave of a red flag. It could've been disastrous otherwise.

But then, to my horror, I was ejected from both my car and the track and sent to the equivalent of the principal's office.

I explained my case to the safety manager, who thought I'd gone rogue, like so many of those cocky race car drivers before me. But I was so bewildered and remorseful—thinking that I had obeyed to the best of my ability—that I burst into tears.

It burned that I was being punished for a human error that wasn't entirely mine. I was also steamed that the other driver—who seemed to me to be equally as at fault as I was, by not moving over when he was told to—was allowed to finish the experience, while I cried in the office.

Not to mention the fact that I'd spent not a small amount of money on that track experience and driven not a short distance to get there—and I'd only gotten a fraction of what I'd hoped for.

Shockingly, the manager said that he believed me and that although he couldn't put me back out onto the track that night, he'd send me a voucher to come back and try it again.

Maybe he only told me that to stop the tears from streaming down my face—a tactic that worked quite well—because after periodically following up with him by phone and email, I never got that return pass.

My desire to avoid conflict having eclipsed my need to avoid regret, I eventually gave up on the LA Racing Experience.

But I hadn't given up on the Irwindale Speedway.

Instead, I'd just convinced myself that I would find some other way to get back behind the wheel on that track, put the pedal to the metal, and burn rubber like the racing champ I was meant to be.

I haven't raced since. And now, it looks like if I ever do race again, it won't be at Irwindale.

Related Posts:
Another Missed Calling
The Need for Speed
Off to the Races, Part One
Off to the Races, Part Two

August 29, 2017

Into the Wide Blue Yonder

For all the stargazing I've done, I'd never given much thought to the sun—though I had looked through a solar telescope at Carnegie Observatories and had observed a partial solar eclipse from Griffith Park.

But there's a reason why pioneering astronomer George Ellery Hale was so interested in the sun, having founded the solar observatory at Mt. Wilson and built his own solar telescope in his Pasadena backyard.

Because the sun is the biggest star out there that's close enough for us to observe—and what we can see it doing can tell us more about how the solar system behaves, and how the universe is expanding and accelerating, more than any other object in the sky can.

So, while visiting Big Bear back in May, I found myself at the receded shoreline of Big Bear Lake...

... to take a long sought-after peek inside its solar observatory, which usually stands stoically behind a locked gate, accessible only to researchers and not the general public.

Located at the end of a short land jetty on the north shore of the lake, Big Bear Solar Observatory was built in 1969 by Caltech, though it's been managed and operated by the New Jersey Institute of Technology since 1997.

It actually consists of two domes and three buildings...

...the smaller dome housing two telescopes on one mount...

...a hydrogen-alpha (Hα) solar flare patrol telescope and an "earthshine" telescope, both on the same mount.

With the H-alpha telescope, you can view the sun through a narrow slice of the spectrum of light—that is, the light emitted by hydrogen atoms. (And hydrogen is the most abundant element in the sun.) All other light is filtered out—and that's when the sun really "shows its colors" (namely, red instead of white) and really looks like a flaming ball of fire (hence the solar flares).

The earthshine telescope, in overly simplistic terms, observes and measures how much sunlight the earth reflects off its surface and back into space. It studies the path of sunlight without looking directly into the sun.

And since our planet's reflection generally bounces off the moon, this telescope only runs at night. And it's what allows us to see the "dark side of the moon," even when it's waned down to just a crescent.

The second structure isn't a dome at all, but rather a rectangular box that houses the observatory's GONG (Global Oscillation Network Group) telescope—part of Tuscon's National Solar Observatory, which operates a network of six such telescopes located around the globe to study the seismic-like movements that happen inside the sun (a field known as helioseismology).

At the third structure and the second dome, you'll find the largest aperture solar telescope in the world, the NST ("New Solar Telescope").

It's a telescope with a resolution so sharp, it snapped the most detailed image of a sunspot ever back in 2010.

And it's all thanks to a 1.6-meter primary mirror, since looking directly at the beam of light would fry your eyeballs.

This is where scientists can really observe "solar weather"—and all its associated turbulence, including "solar storms"—as well as "space climate."

And it's the weather events that occur at land level—like wind or precipitation—that can mess up the solar observations and create distortion.

Fortunately, its position at 6,750 feet elevation in the San Bernardino Mountains provides mostly clear skies and cool temperatures—and being surrounded by water actually stabilizes many of those atmospheric conditions.

And if the wind does kick up or some heat waves do radiate off the ground, the NST's adaptive optics can generally correct the distortions if they're not too severe.

I asked the researchers what they were looking for—but it turns out that observing the sun isn't exactly a business of proving hypotheses. They're mostly looking to see what they can see, which is predominantly sunspots.

And they're trying not to go blind in the process.

I didn't get the chance to gaze through the earthshine telescope at the solar observatory—but later that night, I did manage to get a good look at it as it loomed large in the sky... weaseling my way into a private sky-observing session at Camp Oakes, a YMCA youth camp near Deadman's Ridge, just east of the Pacific Crest Trail.

With no cell phone signal and not a soul around but the camp director and the telescope operator, the night was ours and ours alone.

And while I would've been satisfied with having chased down our moon, I got the bonus treat of spotting Jupiter shining bright in the sky—alongside two of its own moons.

It was a nice reminder that there are, indeed, not only other planets out there but also other moons—and, beyond those, other galaxies, and maybe even other suns.

We know so little about our own. It's hard to imagine how far outside of this world the limit goes—and whether there's any limit at all.

The ancient astronomers, of course, used their knowledge of the stars for navigation, timekeeping, and, to a certain extent, weather forecasting. And since the beginning of time, those of faith have equated "celestial" with "heavenly," attributing the great vastness above to some guiding spirit.

But I wonder: At what point does our exploration beyond ourselves fall victim to the law of diminishing returns?

What more can we do with what we know?

What are we looking for? And will we know what to do with it if we ever find it?

What good does it do to fully grasp how small we actually are? And what good will it to if we can see our ultimate demise coming in a way that the dinosaurs never could?

Or maybe they did see it coming... and they just couldn't do anything about it.

What would we choose to do... if we could? Would we merely watch it as it's happening?

Related Posts:
Follow The Sun
Intergalactic Reflections at Mount Wilson's 100-Inch Telescope
Counting Stars at Mount Wilson Observatory
Photo Essay: Palomar Mountain & Observatory
Chasing the Moon

August 27, 2017

On Redemption

Catholics say that eternal glory is won through suffering and prayer.

I was reminded of this when I recently visited the mausoleum at Holy Cross Mortuary in Culver City (Montgomery & Mullay, 1961) and spent a long time gazing through its stained glass windows.

I don't really like the idea of going through life trying to "win" something that'll happen to me after I die. Who wants to live forever, anyway?

The farther I stray from my Catholic upbringing, the more I've been able to come to terms with the religion I was raised on—one that's merely a means to an end. And, at least in theory, it all sounds like a losing proposition.

If you mourn, you are blessed.

If you are blessed, you'll be consoled by Jesus.

But that might not happen until you get to his kingdom.

And, as he says, his kingdom is not of this world.

It all boils down to the duality of redemption.

I remember my father talking about a points system—"brownie points," if you will—in the Catholic faith, likening it to when neither boxer knocks the other one out in a dead-heat match. Whichever opponent gets the most points from the judges is the one who wins.

Dad said most people aren't so perfect as to automatically join Jesus in paradise, nor so evil as to go straight to damnation. So, in theory, where you go after purgatory—or whether you ever get out of purgatory at all—depends on how many points you earned before you shuffled off your mortal coil.

And if you've got enough points, you can "redeem" them for your eternal redemption.

This concept of religion-as-transaction is just madness to me, but there are plenty of Catholics (and other Christians) who both literally and figuratively try to buy their way into Heaven.

If you throw some money in the collection basket, you earn points. If you eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ who died for our sins, you earn points. And if you don't—well, I'm not sure. You either just don't earn points, or maybe you get docked.

I'm glad I don't believe in points anymore—because if I still did, I'm sure I would be obsessed with keeping some kind of mental tally of how many I had or didn't have at any given time.

I believe in karma, of course—and I'm currently working on paying off some of my karmic debt. I pay it forward when I can. But it's not to get anything in return.

I'm not trying to get anywhere, either.

But by avoiding suffering—and easing the suffering of others—am I depriving us all of some reward at the end of it all?

Why must we live with our sights so focused on what happens after we die?

It's like spending all your waking hours hoping you'll sleep well when you turn in for the night.

But if you don't have a full and fulfilling day—if you don't really exhaust yourself and exhaust all the possibilities that surround you—you'll lie awake in that bed, in the dark, ruminating over how your day could've gone.

When you die, you don't have the luxury of waking up in the morning and starting all over again. If there is an afterlife after all, you might end up somewhere but maybe not the somewhere you were hoping for.

And what consolation is that?

It seems better to me to take your shots while you can and not pull any punches. Don't leave your fate or even your legacy up to interpretation. You're more likely to be judged based on what you do rather than what you believe.

Related Posts:

Photo Essay: Blessings for the Poor in Spirit
Photo Essay: The Way of Sorrows
Photo Essay: Sin City's Guardian Angel Cathedral
Photo Essay: The Monastic Life at St. Andrew's Abbey