Blizzard FAQ

As a born-and-bred New Englander, I have some helpful insights for folks preparing for a blizzard. Here are some short answers to some commonly-asked questions. 

What should I do if the power goes out?

Obviously, you should scream and holler. Ideally you can amplify your hollering with an orange traffic cone. These are available at most city construction sites. Just keep screaming until the power comes back on. In fact, it’s the only thing that will bring the power back; that’s how science works. Your throat may grow sore, so consider stocking up on lozenges before the snow begins to fall. 

What’s the best food to have on hand?

Cheez-Its are healthy and compact. I generally fill the bathtub with Cheez-Its before any major storm, holiday or life event. You can survive on these alone for about 3 hours before your body gives up. Then your family members can eat your body, and use the Cheez-Its as snacks. They’re really a snack food. 

What if my mule escapes?

This is a common concern. Stapling some bells to your mule’s ears should allow you to find your mule even during whiteout conditions. Alternatively, I like to have my mule swallow my iPhone just before the blizzard; then I use the handy “Find my iPhone” feature to track down my mule. If you don’t have an iPhone, you should probably spend some time with your mule before the storm, because you may never see Marvin again. 

Who will feed the dolphins?

Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to say what dophins eat during a blizzard. All of my faxes to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have gone unanswered, so ocean life remains a mystery. 

Will there be wine?

Most Rite-Aids give out free wine during blizzards. I think an unoaked chardonnay pairs beautifully with a mouthful of grey, roadside snow. While you’re at the Rite-Aid, buy me some Cheez-Its?

Late Heavy Bombardment / Big Wednesday

I have a vague memory of playing a game in gym class called bombardment. You divide the class into two groups - did we ever pick teams when there was a teacher around? - and stand around throwing balls at each other. There must be more rules than this, but I recall only the joyous bombardment. 

Today in Ian Time it’s a Wednesday in mid-late January. I’m in Hawai’i visiting old friends and recording ocean sounds for a new film. All week everyone has been talking about the big swell soon to bombard the north shore of Oahu. A famous surf contest - only held when the swells hold a 40’ minimum wave face - was cancelled but it’s still expected to be big enough (25’-30’) to draw legions of surfers to Waimea Bay. Still vaguely on East Coast Time, I wake before dawn and listen to the rising roar of the dark waves. They strike the basalt shore every 10-15 seconds, each wave a liquid packet of blue-white energy unburdening itself after a long windy romp across the ocean. 

Comet riders.

Comet riders.

Last night we watched as Comet Lovejoy slid across the zenith, not far from the Pleiades and the Hyades. My time-lapse exposures were a mite shaky, and we fancifully imagined it was the colossal waves pounding the soil just steps from the camera’s tripod. (It’s also highly possible I left the lens’ image stabilizer on, but human error is always a more stultifying explanation.)

This week, in Earth Time, it’s the Late Heavy Bombardment. We’re about 700 million years since the roiling, tumultuous formation of the planet, but the relative quiet of the Hadean Era is now interrupted by a rain of rocks from space. Many of the craters on the moon are being formed during this bombardment. (Rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts will suggest the timeframe.) Mercury is getting some scars, too. Here on Earth it’s a cascading fireworks show of falling ice and rock, such that few corners of the planet are spared. The surface grows molten anew, pockmarked with round craters.

Eventually, traces of the bombardment on Earth will mostly be wiped clean by erosion, subduction of the plates, and other geologic processes. Old scars will be smoothed and filled by time. But geologists will find traces here and there of rocks that survived the bombardment from our earlier days. Geochemists will analyze scraps of surviving meteorites and fallout dust, counting iridium spikes in an attempt to suss out the origin of the LHB. Physicists will theorize that the orbits of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn gravitationally perturbed asteroids and/or comets, sending them hurtling towards the wee rocky planets of the inner solar system. As if, in gym class, one of my burlier classmates had shown up with a slingshot. 

Mischievous Jupiter!

Mischievous Jupiter!

I’ll return to terminology - what’s an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a meteoroid, a meteorite, a bolide - later, but for now I want to say a word of thanks to my 5-year-old friend Sal, son of my friends Adam & Amanda in Vermont. Sal shares my love of planets and has agreed to illustrate a few of them (in this case, that mischievous slingshotter Jupiter, above shown with its bevy of moons) throughout my spring trek through time. Thanks Sal! 


This is the Hadean Era. On my International Chronostratigraphic Chart it is represented by a magenta blob. 

Magenta denotes the known unknown of Earth's early days. 

Magenta denotes the known unknown of Earth's early days. 

Forming now on the planet Earth: granite. And cousins of granite: granodiorite (think Plymouth Rock!) and tonalite. No idea what that is. Generally speaking, granite is an intrusive (or plutonic) rock, which means it solidifies below decks. It’s high in silica, as opposed to basalt which is more of an iron situation. Right now, some 500 million years after the birth of the planet, granite is cooling and solidifying beneath the surface of the Earth, then bobbing up through the denser basaltic magma to form the building blocks of continents. There’s quartz in it, silica dioxide, which over time will erode and crumble to make beach sand. There’s plagioclases, white and pink, and mica, shiny black. There are zircon crystals here and there. Over billions of years, as the rock wanders on Earth’s plate tectonic conveyor belts, the granite will deform and compress and warp and stretch — in short, it will metamorphose - into an orthogneiss. In the 1980s it will be in Northwestern Canada, near Yellowknife, where a man named Sam Bowring will chip away at it, finding zircon crystals that will tell him, back in the lab, that these are the oldest known rocks on the planet Earth. More from Sam - a professor now at MIT - in the days to come. 


Dim sun

It’s nearly the middle of January, and the Earth is around 438 million years old. Woohoo! In fourteen days I’ve survived the crushing hail of planetesimal conglomeration, the searing heat of a collision with Theia, and the buckling, vomiting red and black mayhem of the early Hadean Era. We’ve got an iron core, a peridotite mantle, a basalt crust, and a liquid ocean. What a planet.     

But the Sun these early days is dim. 25% dimmer. Or thereabouts, who can say. It’s not unlike, I suppose, the feeble January sun here in New England. Somehow the sun takes on the color of the salty asphalt, especially on days overcast with cold, grey clouds. So my wife and I are going to southern California for a few days to see an old friend — and the sun. 

The early Earth has no such option, because California doesn’t exist yet. (On this time scale, it won’t get made ‘til May.)

But it’s warm on the early Earth. There is liquid water. It’s not an ice world. Are Earth’s early volcanoes offloading a heap of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping more heat? Sigh, we know how that works. That’s probably it. (Ask Venus.)

And Robert Hazen writes, “another hypothesis places a large amount of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the early atmosphere. A curious consequence of a methane-rich atmosphere would have been chemical reactions high in the atmosphere, where ultraviolet radiation would have triggered the synthesis of a rich variety of organic molecules, including possible building blocks of life. Such organic molecules might have caused a thick, smoglike haze, transforming the blue Earth into a distinctly orange world...” 

Smoglike haze? Los Angeles here we come. Who knows what creatures you’re conjuring in your clouds. 

Earth, en route to Los Angeles.

Earth, en route to Los Angeles.

Briefly —

The Earth, these early days, is not the one I know. Its surface is cracked and blackened, heaving and spewing red lava from its tumultuous subsurface. I’m reminded of the asphalt along the Rockaways in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine how it got this way. 

Time Trek

I’d like to explain my timescales here. 

The earth is thought to be around 4.55 billion years old. Call it 4,550 million years old. Or 4,550,000,000 years old. Or what have you.

My fellowship at MIT lasts until mid-May. Right around my birthday. And around the time when my brother is expecting his 2nd child to be born. And that’s about 4.5 months from now. So we’ll call it 4 months plus 15 days. Or 135 days, since this year January, February, March and April have an average of 30 days, rather conveniently. 

Not that this helps explain anything.

Not that this helps explain anything.

Okay, so 4,550,000,000 divided by 135 = 33,703,703 years per day. In other words: 

  • a day of Ian Time equals 33.7 million years of Earth Time;
  • an hour of Ian Time equals 1.4 million years of Earth Time;
  • a minute of Ian Time equals 23,405 years of Earth Time;
  • a second of Ian Time equals 390 years of Earth Time. 

Looking ahead towards some big events this year, I’ve got to mark my calendar for:

  • January 19th — the Late Heavy Bombardment — will there be a hailstorm?
  • March 1st — the Great Oxidization Event — avoid Beijing
  • May 7th — the end-Permian Extinction — avoid Siberian volcanoes

Just to name a few. We wouldn't want to give everything away!

Rocky rain

Skies are filled with drifting cold snow today in Cambridge. The snowflakes look grey. I spiked my decaf coffee with a splash of regular coffee (egads!) and a bloop of organic milk (bloop!) because surely that’s how Shackleton drank his decaf. 

In Earth time, all is molten. The collision with Theia has tipped Earth 23°, blasted the atmosphere into space, and made a hot mess of this blessed planet. Like Dante, Shackleton’s great-great grandfather* (*unconfirmed, probably not true) we’ll start at the top and spiral our way downwards for a brief foray into this infernal goop. 

Peridotite, a blend of greenish olivine and blackish pyroxene, is possibly the first rock to solidify, hardening into a crust somewhere near the Earth’s molten surface. Hooray for peridotite, first on the scene! We write a quick haiku for peridotite:

Oh peridotite.

You make a young planet proud.

Too bad you're so dense. 


Yes, alas, too dense to float for long atop the basaltic magma, the peridotite sinks down to the mantle some miles below. We’ll follow it down and return to the surface later. 

This “upper mantle” of predominantly peridotite is maybe 250 miles thick. But the pressure is now increasing as we dive. Below this upper mantle, olivine is compressed into different formations like wadlseyite and perovskite. That’s the lower mantle. I’m sure someone has something interesting to say about this, but I don’t. 

We dive. Here we’re diving with the heavy metals that make up the Earth’s core.  (Yes, at its core, the Earth is all about heavy metal.) Mostly iron. Some nickel. The outer core is a swirling mess of molten iron that is assumed to be responsible for our magnetosphere. The inner core is solid. 

Everything down here is quite warm, so especially in these early days there are cycles of convection bringing cooling, denser minerals down and hotter, less dense materials up towards the earth’s surface. Some of these rising minerals have water packed inside; when they near the surface, they explosively degas. (There is also a good bit of farting in Dante’s Inferno, we must note.) 

Back at the surface, black basalt is spreading over the surface, now rid of the lovely greenish peridotite that sank below. This is more or less the Earth’s first crust, pierced by degassing vents that spew water and other hoo-haw out onto the cooling surface — and that’s how we get ourselves an ocean. 

But where did the Earth first get its water? The planetesimals that first formed the Earth may have had some water bound up in their minerals. Asteroids and other nonsense from the young solar system are likely still bringing water down too during this molten phase. Rocky rain. Mineral blizzards. Water is actually pretty darn common in the universe. You can find it all throughout the solar system (usually, annoyingly, as ice), so it’s not a shocker that it would have been present on the early earth — but it’s only somewhat recently that we’ve thought the earth had these oceans. Maybe a mile deep. Salty, slightly acidic. (Like salad dressing?) Again, volcanoes poke out here and here, but mostly, even in these early days, this is a blue world. 

Somewhere in here, zircon crystals are forming. They will one day be found in the Jack Hills of Australia. And some scientists will look at them and say, those formed  4.4 billion years ago — near water. (We’ll return to Zircon later, and not just because it’s the name of my little-known alien probe manufacturing company.)

Meanwhile, above the young, differentiating, degassing Earth, the moon is cobbling together some rocks that will eventually be plucked by a chap named Neil Armstrong.

Pluck 'em if you got 'em. 

Pluck 'em if you got 'em. 

Souvenirs from the Apollo missions confirmed what a few folks had suggested: that the lighter-colored, pockmarked highlands were older, and the darker lowlands (the maria) were younger, smoothed by melted basalt. The oldest lunar rocks found were around 4.4 billion years old. 

Anyway, it's a great day for the Earth and the Moon, because they're making things that humans will eventually find. Although this particular human can't seem to decide whether to capitalize moon. Moon! Oh, and the other word of the day is siderophile, meaning metal-loving.


The moon formed sometime last night. Or I mean, the night before. Or possibly right now. It’s of course hard to say. I was in New York City this weekend premiering a film, which is a lousy excuse for potentially failing to see a rock the size of Mars hurtling towards the still-young Earth and then — insert comic-book words here — WHAM! BLAM! ZAP! BLASH! Debris blasting into space, circling the molten, shuddering earth, coalescing quickly to make the moon. 

In Earth's first days, there was no moon. 

In Earth's first days, there was no moon. 

That’s more or less the idea. Not long after the Earth initially condensed, an object astronomers call Theia slammed into it. When exactly? A paper last April in Nature, by Seth Jacobson et al, pinned the date at 95 million years after the initial formation of the Earth, give or take 32 million years. So with my current scale, where 1 day of my time is equivalent to 33.6 million years, this lands the moon formation somewhere in Jan 3 - 5. 

In other words, maybe I can imagine this is happening right now. Theia is exploding itself onto the Earth. Rocks from the two bodies are intermingling as everything blends and blasts together in a most violent planetary kiss. Energy melts the rocks. The Earth grows. Ejected debris encircle the hot planet. In less than a hundred years - or one-third of a second on my time-scale! - the Moon forms. The molten, liquid Earth adjusts. Heavy iron and nickel descend to the core. Lighter elements float to the surface. Theia + Earth = new Earth + Moon. Au revoir, Theia!

This is all very formative, and there is much to discuss. Maybe tomorrow, as Cambridge's snowfall melts to slush, I’ll sort through the science of this early violence. For now, I’m closing my eyes trying to picture this collision without the aid of any computer-generated graphics. 

If you lob a snowball in the air, and then quickly throw another snowball at that first snowball, do you make a moon? My father knew a guy in Germany who could throw an apple so hard at a tree, the apple would stick to the tree, as if it became part of the bark. In France today, somewhere, two old men are playing pétanque, lobbing silver spheres in the gravel. When one sphere strikes another, the ping rings out across the hills, echoing back onto itself a thousand thousand times as the bemused sun peers down and glints. 

New year, new planet

Today, in Ian Cheney time, I woke in a small lighthouse in the middle of the Hudson River. Frost clung to the windowpanes. A morning train rattled along towards New York City. Ice skirred the edge of the banks. Phragmites rustled, victorious, as the sun broke on a glacially-carved landscape a few hours north of New York City. Feeling slightly hungover from an evening of Prosecco and oysters with old friends, I wandered downstairs to look for coffee and a toothbrush. 

Today, in Earth time, there’s a planet being made. Dark rocks, wet asteroids, and dusty chunks of primordial jetsam are slamming into each other and becoming a molten sphere. The sun is dimmer than the one we know today; it’ll brighten with age. But it’s bright enough to illuminate the swirling gases and dust that are violently coalescing to make Earth. I can’t fathom whether it sounds like anything; how does sound work when you’re making a planet? No cassette tapes from this era survive. 

Picturing this is tough, too. I’ve seen leaves swirling in mini-cyclones in vacant lots, but they don’t coalesce to make a sphere of leaves. I’ve made bread in a mixing bowl, stirring and kneading until it blobs together, ovoid and tacky to the touch. And at the ice rink near my parents’ house, where hesitant skaters slide in rough unison around an empty ellipse, I’ve survived a few knee-knocking collisions — but nothing on a planetary scale. 

Anyway, there’s no saying precisely how long this takes. Current models estimate it could take as little as tens of millions of years, or as long as hundreds, to pull together a planet Earth. Which means, on my current timescale, where 1 day of Ian Cheney time is equivalent to 33 million years of planet Earth time, you could theoretically make a planet in a day. 

Not spheres of water and ice on glass, looking towards the Hudson.

Not spheres of water and ice on glass, looking towards the Hudson.

There will surely be time for more discussions of planetary formation when my hungover head is not itself filled with tiny colliding rocks, so for now I’ll stick to comfortable territory. To things we know: in Iowa in the early 20th century, there were at least two gents named Clair. One was my great-grandfather, who eventually left the state to become a barnstormer. He settled in Texas. My sister was named after him. The other Clair was born in 1922 in central Iowa, and later - using lead dating - declared the age of the earth to be 4.55 billion years old. 

The logic behind this 2nd Clair’s work is fairly simple: the planet is as old as its building blocks. Since we think our planet is made of colliding rocks, if you find an unincorporated remnant - say, a meteorite - you can date the Earth. At least roughly. The Earth didn’t start the way 2015 started, with a chanted countdown and the precise pop of a Champagne cork. But I suppose, in its own way, a ball did drop into the solar system, and all was suddenly new. 

Autumn in Cambridge

You move to Cambridge in August, with Amanda. The apartment is sunny, small and not clean; there’s enough long, black hair behind the couch, you could make a wig. But instead you vacuum. You’re here to delve into the science of planets and space, so it seems natural to start out with a vacuum. 

In your first month at MIT, you do see equations. They’re on the chalkboard of your planetary formations class, chalked in with chalk. Your professor was born in Germany, moved to England as a teenager. As she writes equations, to you it’s more like cave drawings, or runes, these Greek letters and swirling mysteries of calculus, her hands growing whiter and whiter with chalk, and you remember reading somewhere that chalk runs in broad swaths across England, under the Channel, clear through to France. Maybe they dug the Chunnel through the chalk? Maybe it makes for good Champagne? Back in class, the equations are describing the behavior of dust in our solar system’s protostellar disk. Dust colliding with dust, gas mingling with gas, planetesimals smashing with planetesimals 4,500 million years ago. Chalk dust falls now from the chalkboard, catches the light of September sun. The equations stretch across the entire wall. Your professor is saying, “There’s a lot we’re still figuring out about this model. But we know the universe can make planets, because there are planets.” 

You go to learn about your own planet on the 8th floor of a tall concrete tower, resting on land reclaimed from the Charles River. Here the chalkboard is called slate, which is metamorphic, and the chalk is called limestone, which is sedimentary. In the same classroom, in your geochemistry class, where the teachers sometimes outnumber the students, limestone is called CaCO3, calcium carbonate, calcite and aragonite. It’s formed on this planet mostly by sea creatures. You identify it by dropping acid. You get an oil change in East Cambridge. You pay the rent. You get a storage unit for your collection of hard drives, and sign a form stating that you are not storing bodies, dead or alive, in unit 33a. 

You join an impromptu field trip with new friends out to the blue waters at the tip of the Cape. You take dramamine, but it doesn’t help because you’re peering through a camera’s tiny viewfinder, filming whales in slow motion. The ship heaves above the sea’s swells. 

Back in Cambridge, you look at fossils, minerals, igneous rocks. You recognize halite, gneiss, marble, but schist eludes you — simple, straightforward schist. You decide, suddenly, but with conviction, that you will never know what schist is, it will be one of those things you are comfortable not knowing, like the salaries of your classmates from college. You give a presentation about zircon and δ13C. Living things prefer the lighter carbon, and hold it tightly til death, so carbon isotopes in ancient rocks are layered obituary pages. Clues to lives lived. With your fellow fellows you see the Red Sox trounce the Rays, and you leave all the litter in the bleachers, to be swept somewhere by someone, sometime before the next game. You run along the Charles, over the bridge. Tall humans row thin boats. Ducks watch, thinking, planning. You think, surely those ducks have a plan to one day retake their river. It’s just a matter of time.

The ducks will join forces with the geese. 

The ducks will join forces with the geese. 

You drive west along Route 2 following a geologist who measures the timing of extinctions. He’s named Sam, and years ago he found the oldest rocks on the planet Earth. Your mother comes along and explains the rocks in her own terms.  Sam, who confesses to feeling very comfortable with the vast expanses of deep geologic time, confides in you that he’s uncomfortable with the stalled climate of the climate debate. He tells you we’re in for a serious time. Your mother brings along a pumpkin chocolate chip cake, which she shares with Sam and his bewildered students; she wears a shirt with colorful dancing dinosaurs. It occurs to you that a geochronologist is a rock clocker.

October opens with cold, and rain. At night, you read McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, and fall asleep picturing the blocks of the basin and range as they stretch, tip, erode. Your mind compresses time as best it can, imagines plumes and plates flowing like river ice, but in the daylight Cambridge does not appear to move. In one class you’re told, “now you have what you need to build a planet.” And the conversation shifts to the making of moons. More equations appear. You imagine that the solar system - that great, chaotic swirl which spun and collided and heaved and cracked and eventually gave birth to all the life we know - would be vaguely insulted to be reduced to chalk dust. Or maybe it’d be honored to grace the blackboards of MIT. 

On the weekends, you peck away at a film you’ve been pecking away at for a while. It’s still not a film. If it were a meal you were trying to make, the dessert would be salty and heavy, the main course would be shattered on the kitchen floor, and the appetizers would be unmade, from ingredients you’ve never heard of and can’t find anywhere you’ve ever been. You still can’t imagine who would want to eat it, but at least you’ve registered a domain name. 

You don't mention this storm in Florida. 

You don't mention this storm in Florida. 

You go to Woods Hole and drink whiskey in the rain. There’s a caffeine-swilling geochemist who studies oil spills. There are captive squid, stressed sharks, horseshoe crabs waiting for post-docs to drain their blue blood. In a basement, a man says, “If the community wants mutant frogs, we make them mutant frogs.” That night you disassemble lobsters in a mansion atop a glacial moraine. 

Up at Harvard, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, your class on geobiology is exploring the end-Permian Extinction. You write, what was the first sound made by a living thing? What does an extinction sound like? In this class, you don’t say a word the entire semester, for reasons you can’t explain. 

So far, your favorite thing to do at MIT is eat free cookies at the Wednesday afternoon Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Science department lectures. From the 9th floor you can see clear across Cambridge to Somerville and beyond, maybe all the way to the Winchester fells, where your friend Meme, now gone to cancer, worked for the Parks dept and hauled teenagers’ kegs out of the woods. You can now imagine this landscape 15,000 years ago, all of New England - the landscape of your childhood - under a giant hand of ice, pressing and scraping and surging, pulling gravel and sand and boulders this way and that, carving gullies, rivers, moraines, leaving behind the hills where you learned to hike, the pond in Maine where your father took you nightswimming as a boy, under stars as bright as any you’ve ever seen, where with your ears underwater, flat on your back, the sound of your own breathing and the hemisphere of stars gave you the sensation of floating through space. The cookies at the planetary science lectures are the size of Jupiter, but you are unable to restrain yourself from eating several as a gentleman from California shows an animation of stellar formation, explains where water freezes and thaws in the early solar system. There is water aplenty frozen in the comets of the Oort cloud, the Kuiper belt, and now you see his pictures of active asteroids, degassing reserves of water, knocked loose, he suspects, after an unexpected collision with another rock. Of the million or so asteroids circling the sun between Mars and Jupiter, he has found sixteen that he considers to be active. “Will we visit them?” someone asks. He replies, “NASA is conservative and only wants to do boring things where the result is already known and success is assured.” 

In geochemistry class, an expedition to sample the bottom of Walden Pond is scrapped, because, as the TA explains, “Our boat is in Africa.”

For a weekend away you follow friends to a small island in Buzzard’s Bay. At night, bioluminescent phytoplankton skirt the rocks beneath a foot bridge, bursting into bright, brief, watery comets. You wonder where earth’s water first formed. Someone says it formed in space long before the solar system formed. Ancient space water? Delicious.

To eat turkey, you fly to North Carolina with your wife and parents. The drive from Charlotte takes you through endless switchbacks, and your father takes pictures of everything. You consider making a film about your father’s photographs, from Kodachrome to Digital SLR, and about the piles and piles of ones and zeroes that all our memories are turning into. In Asheville, you pay over $300 for organic groceries, including a $90 turkey, because long ago you made the mistake of learning about where food comes from. Amanda puts forward a recipe involving a cheesecloth blanket, soaked in wine and butter, that gets draped over the turkey during its fateful time in the oven. At the rental house, which is an impressive mountain chalet, the oven door is broken, and so your father and brother-in-law build a mop-based contraption to keep it shut. While the turkey cooks with its blanket, your parents trespass onto various woodland properties, and you stand embarrassed in the road. Together you eat sandwiches in a ditch. 

For a wedding in your old Brooklyn neighborhood, you sleep on a boat.

For a wedding in your old Brooklyn neighborhood, you sleep on a boat.

Back home, you get mired in legal documentation for a film you thought you were done with. A European robot bounces around on a comet.  In your notebook, in class somewhere, you write “I don’t understand the narrowing of absorption lines as a function of pressure — ask George.”  And then, “there are almost as many bacteria in a gallon of seawater as there are people on earth.” And then someone is saying, “all of us who groom, can begin to groom inappropriately.” 

Snow falls. When snow is cold enough, it’s almost chalky to the touch. On your last day of class with the professor of planets, you’re asked to stand up and talk about your films., to explain why you’re here at MIT. You stand there in front of the hastily-erased chalkboard, and behind you, the ghosts of the planet’s equations are pale white against the dark slate. 

Pilgrimage to the K-T boundary.

With a few days off from teaching, I lit out for Gubbio just after dawn, but struck holiday traffic on the outskirts of Bologna. A five hour trip stretched to eight, giving me ample time to nibble on a frisbee-sized disc of rest stop Mortadella, and admire a beautiful train - five blue subway cars on holiday from the city? - skip through the wheat fields. On the radio, American pop. On the autostrada, Fiats, Audis and campers jostled towards the coast.

Gubbio is inland, on the road to Rome if you’ve come ashore on the Adriatic somewhere south of Venice. I’d convinced the GPS to bring me directly to where I thought the K-T boundary site was, a kilometer or so north of town along a steep winding road. I’d read about it on some geology blogs (rock on!) and there was apparently a sign marking the spot. Passing through Gubbio, a medieval town with an array of Roman ruins, I slowed to a geological crawl and admired the relentless recklessness of the Italian motorists who pulled past on what would likely be a one-lane road in my home country. 

At last I saw the tell-tale yellow sign. Victory! There was nowhere to pull off, so I parked next to a dumpster and hoofed it back downhill alongside the terrifying speedbikes tearing towards town. My yellow sign looked like it had survived a few collisions with said bikers, but it still proudly proclaimed that this was a Scientific Site of Global Relevance. Trouble was, where was the site? The area around the sign was a tangle of weeds and slugs and mud, each layer of roadside rock blending uninterestingly into the next. The local highway department had even slathered cement here and there to give purchase to a metal net that kept rocks off the road. Was this it? I swore a bit. Eight hours! There were two shrines nearby, marking the sites where motorists had been killed around the time I’d been born. I stopped swearing and took a few pictures. A snail watched me from within his shell. 

Scientific Site of Global Relevance!

Scientific Site of Global Relevance!

Resolving to salvage my roadtrip with a Gubbian Gelato, I pointed my rental car uphill a few hundred meters to find a turnaround spot — and that’s when I saw the layer. Another bedraggled sign, a small gravel pull-off, aha! I was so elated, it was as if I, not Walter Alvarez et al, had discovered the reason the dinosaurs went extinct. 

Quintessential K-T selfie. 

Quintessential K-T selfie. 

K-T boundary (folks have scooped out most of the clay) between dinosaur times (Cretaceous) and, well, after. 

K-T boundary (folks have scooped out most of the clay) between dinosaur times (Cretaceous) and, well, after. 

In 1980, while I was busy working my way out of my mother’s womb, a geologist named Walter Alvarez and his Nobel Prize-winning father figured out why the dinosaurs kicked their various buckets. The key (for the Alvarez crew) was a layer of reddish clay sandwiched between two layers of limestone, each representing a distinct geological time period: the Cretaceous (K) and the subsequent Tertiary (T). (FYI, we’re now supposed to call the Tertiary the Paleogene, making this the K-Pg boundary. Noted!) The clay contained abnormally high concentrations of iridium, an element found only rarely on this planet’s crust, but in larger concentrations in asteroids. 

Well, in retrospect it seems simple, but it took a while for the Alvarez team to convince folks of their theory of what happened 65 million years ago. Asteroid hits the Yucatan, dust and sulfur fill the sky and acidify the water, many creatures die. A layer of iridium-rich detritus covers the land. Earth marches on. Mammals inherit Earth. Romans build Gubbio. Italians blast a road cut. Walter samples the rock layers. Ian walks to Gubbio and buys a gelato. 

Gelato, 65 million years after K-T Extinction Event.

Gelato, 65 million years after K-T Extinction Event.

With chocolate, arachide and fiordilatte gelato, I wandered back up towards the iridium layer to have another look. Each layer of rock was only a few inches thick, but represented thousands or even millions of years of history, compressed. I stood there staring at it, desperate for geological comprehension. It's among the most elusive comprehensions on earth, up there with love, death and astronomy. Each little layer is time and space compressed. Everything from a vast stretch of time compressed into a layer the size of a panini. I thought about taking everything in my life - say, my childhood home, the telescope I built in high school, the woods along the frozen stream where I first stepped through the ice, all the cities and cafés and hotel lobbies I’ve wandered into, the National Air and Space Museum with the plaque dedicated to my grandfather, the 1980-2014 Boston Red Sox squads, my wife, my salad bowl, me - and pressing us all into a layer of rock no thicker than, say, a slice of rest stop Mortadella. Incomprehensible. All human civilization, eventually compressed into a layer of rock. Unacceptable! Humans have no business looking at iridium layers. 



A few feet above these rocks, I noticed a beautiful stone wall stretching along the steep escarpment. An aqueduct built by the Romans. It snaked up the valley to an overgrown dam filled with green water. There, I stopped for a while and listened to Italian frogs bellowing and burping, presumably for mating purposes. Motorbikes screamed by. The water trickled along through the broken dam. Everything and everyone was headed downhill, so I followed suit, back to town where le signore were putting out flags to celebrate the country’s unification after World War II, and a man hung out a sign proclaiming the Roman ruins closed until Tuesday.  

Late winter stars in the hill country.

Spent an abnormally frigid night in March capturing a few late winter stars with some friendly MFA students who had trekked up from NYC to learn astrophotography. I hadn't done much long-exposure work in a long time. 

More light!

This article in Nautilus articulates something I stumbled upon many times while making The City Dark: as humanity develops more energy-efficient lights (more lumens for less energy), we don't use less energy and keep the same amount of light, we instead give ourselves more light. Thereby using just as much energy, if not more, than we did before. Perhaps we will always have a complicated relationship to light. Recently, I watched Aurora Borealis duke it out with some city-lit clouds, and found myself enjoying the strange orange glow, somehow a complement to the greens I'd flown miles and miles to see. 


why did the chicken cross the sea?

We're premiering our new film THE SEARCH FOR GENERAL TSO at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. The film charts the origins of Chinese American food through the story of this ubiquitous chicken dish. In New England it's often called General Gao's Chicken, and out west they serve a slightly modified doppleganger called Orange Chicken; the General knows many guises, but America is his.