Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’
One of the first cosmological images which really and truly blew my mind as a young adult was the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. Basically the idea was “Hey, what happens if we take our most powerful telescope and point it somewhere that’s pretty much empty and just stare at that spot for a really long time. What would we see?” The answer to that question was “We see somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 very distant galaxies.” Pause and let that marinate for a moment.
Here is a closeup on one small area of the image, a random part that I thought looked cool:
For a long time I left that as the wallpaper for my computer at work and I’d come in every morning and stare at the image while my slow computer took forever to finish loading windows. What was cool about having it as the wallpaper I had to look at while I waited for the machine to become usable was just how much there is to look at in there. As long as I stared at it, I’m certain there’s oodles of things I still didn’t notice. Looking at it first thing in the morning too, when the mind is raw and still gradually awakening surely added some awe to the effect as well. It’s staring into an abyss. Staring into infinity. And knowing that it stares back at you too…
As a humorous aside, I’ll note that the “Hubble Ultra-Deep Field” is actually the sucessor to the “Hubble Deep Field” which showed a different region in space. And this new image, the “Hubble Extreme-Deep Field” is a closeup of a smaller section within the Ultra-Deep Field image, adding around 5,500 galaxies to the original 10,000+. When the James Webb Space Telescope goes online, they have plans to image the same area with it’s mighty Infrared sensing capability. What will that image be called? The Ultra-Extreme Uber-Deep Field Tournament Edition Plus. Director’s cut. Enhanced, expanded edition. Two. Strikes Back. Reloaded. Chopped and Screwed. Remix. Turbo.
Whatever, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just, everyone, do me a favor: full rez this new baby and spend at least two minutes staring, thinking about what it shows:
Everything on the internet, everything in a book, everything you’ve ever heard, learned, imagined, or even dreamed, in the most remote recess of your subconscious, is all within the realm of the ‘Earth’ experience. And Earth is a single, small terrestrial planet out in some sleepy backwater arm of the Milky Way, a perfectly average spiral galaxy with about 300 billion stars, and about as many planets, with maybe 10 billion of these being in the goldilocks “habitable” zone. Or at least habitable to “life as we know it”. Nevermind moons, nevermind thermally-supported life, nevermind ‘Steppenwolf’ planets that were flung from their parent stars. If the entire breadth of human knowledge, emotion, and experience resides within our differential-unit-small grain of sand that’s floating in the Milky Way swimming pool, then try to concieve of the vast diversity of lifeforms, cultures, natural wonders, and sub-realities residing within the oceanic field of view of this image, depicting thousands upon thousands of distant galaxies. Try to imagine traveling there, surveying them. Imagine exploring just a handful of those galaxies and chronicling the habits of their residents.
How could we explore it? First we’d need to aggressively master interplanetary voyages, remote communication and colonization. Fly probes and listening devices to the Kuiper Belt. Mount them to passing comets for a long voyage back out to the Oort cloud. Use those to learn about the radiation and galactic wind in interstellar space. Develop shielding, life prolonging and hybernation capabilities for deep space travel. Contact alien cultures within our own galaxy and master inter-species diplomacy. Develop non-invasive, non-destructive ways to study primitive life still early in its evolutionary tree. Catch the best bacteria to help us live longer, retain more knowledge. Authoritively chronicle the Milky Way with billion-year data storage capability. Pool resources with other intelligences to build intergalactic ships or probes. Scatter them in all directions to search for points of interest. Then, finally, research ways to reach the most distant of galactic neighborhoods like the ones we see in these pictures. My point: The actual exploration of these places is not something that’s a few ‘ages’ away in terms of a civilization. Exploring these places is an act for intelligences unthinkably more sophisticated than our own… But we can dream of it.
When I look at this, I like to focus in on individual places and try to imagine what might be there. I like to find a pretty looking galaxy and think about what planets might be inside of it. Or sometimes find a teeny sub-pixel dot and wonder if that less-than-a-pixel point is a whole giant supergalaxy, burgeoning with life forms, interstellar commerce & conflict, culture & craftsmanship. Maybe these two galaxies colliding are locked in an interspecies war millions of years long. Maybe they’ve evolved organic-electronic synthetic intelligences that can instantly teleport between host bodies, allowing them to be anywhere their race has ever traveled instantaneously. I wonder what their music sounds like. I wonder what senses they have. Can they “see” radio waves? Does their culture have money, or government? I wonder what “pleasure” or “sex” means to them? Or consciousness? I wonder what THEIR telescopes have discovered about the formation of the cosmos. Does it look “the same in all directions” from the far-far edge of what we humans can see?
It’s fun to try envisioning all these things. And then humorous, in a zen sort of way, genuinely humorous, knowing that it’s impossible. You can’t. You’re looking at something so much bigger, ancient, and wilder than the capability of the feeble human brain to comprehend. The are not human words in any language to meaningfully describe what any of these Hubble Fields show. These images, obscured by the thick, nearly-opaque veil of distance, give the most fuzzy, teasing glimpse of something beyond us. Something beyond even what our most distant descendant will ever become. I find that deeply exciting. This picture shows, unquestionably, indisputably, that the universe has more to explore than is possible to explore. What better reason to be alive in this cosmos?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the budget cuts facing NASA, and indeed they are deep, and correspondingly tragic. I’m sure the space crowd around here is already well versed, so we’ll skip the rehash.
But I do want to remind us all that there are ultra-sweet projects nearing fruition: budget cuts can’t stop Curiousity, which is well on its way to the red planet. The biggest, baddest rover that ever was! That thing is going to get new high scores, starting in August.
And, despite gobbling up all the money that could have been used for myriad enticing small projects, the James Webb Space Telescope will be built and launched. One could make a very strong case that this was the wrong decision, in light of the opportunity costs in scrapped missions the Webb consumed, but I say hey, what recent space project has done more to raise public interest in astronomy than Hubble? I mean, I’d put Hubble at #2 behind the Apollo missions in terms of ability to get people fired up and fascinated with the sky. Having a brand new, next generation eye up in space is going to create better images than ever before. Pretty pictures are important, to capture the imaginations of new generations.
In the end, it is sad that our national priorities are what they are–jeez, on MANY levels! As the SETI infographic highlighted, there is a massive disconnect between planning for an inevitable future (ie space exploration/research) versus how our money/resources get burned away at the altar of short-term profit (war profiteerism/exploitation of natural resources with disregard to the planet/etc)
Out of everything I’ve done on this website, that infographic brought way more people through the door than everything else combined. Even almost a year later there is a steady trickle of visitors every single day who come here to look at that. What does that say? I’d venture it says there’s a large group of people out there who agree that our destiny, as an evolving lifeform, lies beyond the shore of the cosmic ocean, here on Earth. And by extension, it means that our survival depends on knowing the Universe. How well can we explore it, exploit its treasures and avoid its dangers? The answer to our ultimate fate lies in how much effort we are willing to devote into these things.
What would it take to shift our societal priorities away from petty conflicts and toward the next horizon? There’s no way of saying. But Curiosity and James Webb are two powerful steps toward raising public awareness that hey, there is this giant thing called the Cosmos; it’s all around us and inconcievably more vast, richer, and filled with more splendor than Earth alone could ever hold. Seriously. We should go check that out. We should be part of that. To the people already abundantly aware of it, it’s easy to feel like maaaan, why aren’t we doing this already? Why did we cancel Apollo? Why haven’t we set foot on Mars yet? Why does our brain power go to work on Wall Street, instead of at JPL? Don’t they understand that we have places to GO?
I definitely feel that myself. But I also remind myself that it’s still less than one century since the theory of “island universes” became an accepted idea. It takes time to build concensus. It took eons for life to evolve from the sea to the land, and it will take perhaps a long time for humankind’s larger consciousness to grasp what the revelations of the last century in astronomy actually means for us all. I have to admit, I feel it does say something dark and disturbing about our society that we should develop fusion bombs well before fusion powerplants. But I keep hope that as James Webb lifts the veil from the great cosmic metropolis stretching to infinity in all directions, and as Curiousity digs to find martian secrets in our veritable backyard, it will open more eyes.
Open more eyes to the unavoidable truth that the Universe is beyond our vocabulary for Ancient, Boundless, and Beautiful. It has existed for longer than the word Epochs can articulate and it will continue unaffected when we are gone. An extension of our word for “nature,” the cosmos is equally stuffed to the brim with magnificence as it is with impartiality toward the folly of its minor tenants. The sooner we awaken to our own frailty and societally grok the rarity, the sacredness of life, the better our chances to gain that lucky opportunity to be part of this cosmos, to savor it and chronicle it.
To me, that’s the truth that Webb will awaken in more people. Curiosity is the other prong; doing. Being able to know what’s out there and prepare to go ourselves. That’s the part where the “homo” genus get to, you know, not become extict someday. But in order to get there, we need to prioritize it. We need the vision to see. Fortunately we’re going to get the most powerful set of eyeglasses yet, launching around 2018………
So the weekend before last I was in NYC visiting my bro (I still need to compile several time-lapse scenes from this trip!). We visited a bunch of cool places in the Apple and I got some cool pictures of the city. Among the places we went was Zuccoti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was cool to see people both this amped up and also dedicated enough about their cause to live outside in the freezing New York weather. Saturday there was a particularly nasty triumverate of wind, rain, and snow. Yikes. Anyway enjoy the slideshow.
It’s been a hot minute since I wrote about anything space-related on here, and we’re due. In the words of the late great James Brown, awwwww, git on UP!
#1 news item: SETIstars succeeds! They raised their $200k and will use it to reactivate the Allen Telescope Array. That, my friends, is news sweeter than yams with extra syrup. Their website is curiously brief about the this victory and what comes next. Maybe I might email the people from SETI I had been talking with and see what they say. Inquiring minds want to know; what now?
#2: The Juno probe has been launched to visit Jupiter in 2016, where it will orbit for 1 year in a highly elliptical path, dipping into the atmosphere repeatedly to make measurements. There’s two especially fascinating things about this probe: one, it will be subjected to radiation more harsh than any other space probe, EVARRR. This craft will serve as a test-bed for future missions into the most unforgiving environments; It’s even got a titanium vault for the electronics to withstand all those deadly alphas betas gammas and whatnot. And two: it runs on solar power, at a distance from the sun where the photons are 4% as bountiful as here on Earth. Therefore it must be very power-efficient, and uses special solar cell designs to derive the juice it’ll need way out there. Stunningly cool.
Also, another awesome tidbit: the name is derived from the wife of the Roman god Jupiter, who was able to see through the veil of clouds that Jupiter drew around himself. Poetically done, guys! Popular Science has a solid roundup of the details here.
#3: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has mapped Mars in greater detail than Google Earth’s satellite imagery shows our own planet, has spat out some eyebrow-raising images that seem to convey liquid water moving down some slopes on the red planet (see the streaks in the images above?!). You can maybe file this under ‘knew it was coming eventually, but still über-rad to have real evidence now!’
#4: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has reached the asteroid Vesta, where it will orbit for a year before progressing on to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Now that it’s nice and close, the Dawn team made an eyeball-poppin’ movie showing the asteroid spinning. That’s pure spaceporn and I love it. Vesta is the brightest object in the asteroid belt and thought to be the source of many meteors that reach earth. If I read correctly, Dawn is done snapping pictures for now, and is commencing it’s “science orbits” where the many other instruments will check out all the asteroid’s vitals. Awww git it!
#5: Mars Rover Opportunity has almost reached Endeavour Crater, its target since 2008. This crater is more than 25 times bigger than Victoria Crater, which Opportunity spent two years checking out. Endeavour has some exposed ancient rocks to study, spotted by the aforementioned Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Note that Opportunity’s primary mission ended in 2004, and they’ve been continuing on “bonus, extended missions” since then. That’s like… mega friggin’ triumphant. If the rover had beats for its mission, I bet it would be the second half of Ewan Pearson’s Ride A White Horse Disco Odyssey remix. That thing is out in the wilderness scoring so many points right now.
All this stuff is so sweet. Seriously. It’s things like this that really help me maintain a positive outlook on us humans. As I said in my previous post of this same title, the people who are conducting these missions and operating the satellite dishes that recieve these images are called heroes. While the majority of us are concerned with daily operations on a tiny backwater outpost known as planet Earth, or the small quests like groceries and entertainment for the evening, these badasses are studying the timeless questions, about how the larger universe ticks–The larger universe that will be there still moving onward, long after the genus homo sapien is a minor footnote in the annals of what once was. Hopefully, due to the knowledge gained in these quests, an evolutionary descendant will be able to look back and think, ‘nice one ‘sapiens!’
So recently I was contacted by the SETI team regarding a sequel to the infographic I had produced a couple months back. As many of you may know already, they’re trying a new way of keeping the Allen Telescope Array running: crowdsourcing. There’s a new website over at SETIstars.org where anyone can go and give funds specifically for the restarting of the ATA. It’s a savvy move in the age of kickstarter, microloans, and grassroots funding. And it’s pretty awesome to think that, well, if the people who should be paying for this won’t pay for it, fine, we’ll do it ourselves!
I hope the venture is a big success. It’d be reaffirming to see the citizenship of planet Earth as forward-thinking enough to collectively grok the profound implications that discovery of other intelligences would have. It would be invigorating to know that we realize this meaningfully enough that we, as single individuals, would band together to sustain this important work.
In the large scope of things, it’s not all that expensive either. Just for perspective: the 1st infographic so far has seen over 40,000 views (just the flickr version, nevermind the ones I cannot track). See the bottom of this new infographic to see how much 40,000 people would need to spend apiece to keep the ATA in action…
There is a slightly-higher quality version available at flickr, as well as a whopping 11,749 pixels-long monstrosity of this new graphic combined with the original. Anyone is welcome to use or repost this to their heart’s content. All I request is a link. And that you can chip in at least a fiver to SETIstars! Anyone can swing that.
Also, I got a lot more creative with the background this time around. Check out the remnants of Kepler’s supernova, comet NEAT, and the Andromeda galaxy!
Special thanks to Phil Plait, Jill Tarter, & John Girard.
Lastly, if you’re really into this sort of thing check out some other space-musings on the site
Going immediately off of my last writing, why do we spend billions of dollars on particle accelerators and millions of dollars on antartic neutrino detectors? Answer: the quest to understand what we are made from, and how that matter is affected by the universe around us.
It’s the story of where we came from, and how we’re connected–all of us–to events billions of years ago and as many light years away.
In that spirit, I’m excited that the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour contained the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS-02. It’s an outer-space particle physics experiment that will study cosmic rays, antimatter, and search for dark matter. In short, it’s tackling the big questions. It makes me happy to think that if this is the second to last shuttle mission, at least it brought up a gigantic, heavy, badass physics experiment that’s going to be probing the secrets of the cosmos for the next decade. This thing is the silver lining in those opaque clouds that hovered over Endeavour’s launch.
The AMS-02 is a particle detector, the most sophisticated ever sent into space. It was developed by a team of over 500 scientists and tested at CERN in Switzerland where they shot the particle accelerator beam at it. Let me just repeat that: they hit it with the world’s most powerful particle accelerator and now it’s going into outer space to listen to cosmic rays, those invisible beams of radiation that are literally shooting through the entire earth this very moment, emitted from the deaths of distant stars and playing some role in our evolution by causing random mutations. I think the awesomeness-detection circuitry in my mind is fried now. If you’d like to learn more, hit the wikipedia link, it’s utterly fascinating stuff.
Check out this video to see them install it in time-lapse. This slow-motion space ballet is the launching of a masterpiece. So uplifting.
It’s also a nice bit of irony that this big hunk of metal is up there in the sky, out towards the vast infinity of space; it was put there in order to study the tiniest sub-particles hidden deep in the infinity of the very small. There it is, up above the Earth, reaching for infinity in both directions…
A thought that keeps going through my mind is that galaxies collide all the time, but collisions between stars or planets are rare. I remember watching a captivating animation of this at my local planetarium, where all the stars merged like a cloud of bees, flying in a small area but somehow not crashing. Galaxies, as giant as they may be, are made up chiefly of empty space!
You could say a smiliar thing about the objects right in front of you on your desk: the spacebar on your keyboard is made up of lots of hydrogen and carbon atoms, jammed in tightly to make a solid piece of plastic. Those atoms are bumped up right next to each other, yet their electrons and nuclei are never colliding. By comparison, the electrons in their shells around the nucleii are just like tiny little planets in far away orbits around the atomic core, where literally >99.9% of the mass is concentrated. Those hydrocarbon molecules are made up cheifly of NOTHING.
Atoms are made mostly of empty space, and galaxies are made mostly of empty space. Sort of takes me back to the Buddhist idea of emptiness; nothing has a unique identity (ie it’s empty) because it’s completely full of everything else. In this way, a tree is empty because it is filled to the brim with nitrogren from the soil, photons from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and maybe even the intention of someone who planted it. Our galaxies and our molecules may be made mostly of nothing, but they are in another sense quite full. Let’s explore!
This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program. This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next. I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper. I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.
One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards. I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”
Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.
One: why two garbagemen? Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey? Maybe the object was to purposefully select an undignified way of dying? It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death. An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death. This. Very. Moment. Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak. It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD! But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!
Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating. Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care. But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut. Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…
Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement. The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:
This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking. In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources. Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future. In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale. In the future, we will. Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning. Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant. That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth. Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.
To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable. We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves. We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions. Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.
So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet. We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems. Those are the choices, there is not a third option. Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system. We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.
Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats. There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t. All the eggs are in one basket. Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness? Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?
Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date. Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.
What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done? Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon. What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space. There’s greatness in them there skies. Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils. It’s all out there, literally.
The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life. These are the BIG questions. Should we stop asking these? Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend? Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?
Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING. Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.
The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.
This weekend I spent a lot of time working on a project I’m excited about: new speakers. These speakers are not for myself, they’ll be a birthday gift for my little brother, but still! Building loudspeakers is something I’m definitely passionate about, although this is the first time I’m mentioning it on the site. So let’s get into it!
First of all, why is this cool? Well, a ton of reasons. Building speakers is an art of trade-offs. There is, and never will be such thing as ‘perfect’ speakers. Every system is a compromise in some sense, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. For example, the two main strengths in the ones I’m making right now are a high efficiency rating of 91dB (pretty good! This means that given less power, these speakers play louder than most), and a very smooth frequency response. The smooth frequency response was my main goal; important because my brother is going to recording school. If he’s going to be using these to audition recordings and potentially do mastering, it’s critically important that they don’t add their own ‘color’ to the sound. Speakers with choppy response curves can still sound great, but they add their own personality to the tone, which does not copy over to any other stereo setup. So it would be a terrible idea to master a recording on a system with a response curve that has lots of peaks and valleys. The weaknesses would be that I maybe didn’t get as deep of a bass response as I would’ve wished, and the price went a little higher because I insisted on drivers with good responses. In order to try to keep the costs down but still use good components, I omitted a midrange and used only two drivers per channel. For the enclosure, I chose to use a port to get what bass I could. I’d prefer a sealed box, but again, these are the compromises that you get forced into making. It’s part of what keeps it interesting.
There’s also the brand name aspect too. Just like having your favorite sports team or buying new shoes from your favorite brand, getting speakers from a particular maker is sort of exciting in and of itself. This time around I picked a tweeter from a Danish brand I’ve always wished I could afford, Scan Speak. Scan Speak is very highly regarded in the industry, and with that awesome pedigree comes an accompanying price tag. I’m guessing the recent economic downturn led them to eschew their typical snobiness and produce a series of drivers ‘for the people’ called their “discovery” series. Maybe it’s called that because it’s my opportunity to “discover” what it’s like to listen to Scan Speak (on the cheap)? This I look forward to.
Something else very neat about speaker building is how long lasting it is. I built myself a pair in high school, and with one driver replacement (right midrange went bad) they’ve been serving me faithfully ever since. That’s well over a decade of listening. GOOD listening! I built another set for my buddy Luke, probably over a decade ago as well. Not long ago he told me he’s still lovin’ them and they continue to serve as his main listening system. That’s so rad! It brings me joy to think about this; the construction that I’m setting in motion in my garage today will last for decades. These are long term actions right now.
And more than that–these things will be making MUSIC! There will be huge moments of rocking out, when you’re getting ready to go do something great and you put on some tracks to pump yourself up! There will be mellow times late in the night when you come home and put on some chill vibes before you wind down for bed. Sad songs for when you just need to wallow in despair for a while, or daily anthems to get you into the groove of doing what you need to get done. These things are mood machines. Life enhancers. Tone establishers. Music colors our lives, it shapes our feelings. All those emotions will be flowing forth from these paper cones and cloth domes. I love that idea. LOVE IT!
In the morning, I cook myself an omelet with red onion, cheddar, and spinach. Filled up and ready for action, I head out to the garage. The sun is searingly bright and as I step out, I hear a crescendoing rumble in the sky. Before I can even step out onto the driveway, I say to myself aloud, “what the hell IS that?!” As I pass under the garage door I look up and see one of the biggest propeller planes I’ve ever seen flying very, very low overhead. It’s a 4-engine passenger plane, like one of those vintage prop-airliners from the 60s or something. Very unusual, and a pitch-perfect start to the day. It’s like a good omen. I watch it lumbering slowly across the sky in a wide arc as it turns toward the nearby municipal airport, slipping away behind the treeline.
Making speakers is something I love doing so much that if I could choose one thing to do for the rest of my days, building speakers would be near the top of the list. While I was out in the garage, I thought back to Geoff Marcy and his story of picking what he wanted to do with his life. Things weren’t going good and he knew he had to make a decision to go in a new direction. He thought, well, what I really want to do is find planets even though it seems like a crazy idea. There’s really no money, glory, or fame in it, but I just want to do this because that’s what makes me happy. I could say the same thing about speakers.
So here I am, out in the garage, doing one of the things I love best! It is literally an ideal spring day, with temperatures in the high 70s and a nice cool breeze. I’m out with my measuring tape, drawing lines and slicing wood panels with my circular saw. There’s brown aviator sunglasses on my nose, to protect against wood chips and the blinding Texas sun. A few mistakes here, a curse word there, and a course correction gets me back on track. By the day’s end I will begin to see the cabinets take shape, and there are very nice looking flush-mount circles cut with my new router for the drivers. This is a new skill I have learned today, seen in the lead picture at the top. A neat speaker cutting jig helped me get just the right cut. Using these new tools is gratifying.
Mid afternoon I uncap my water bottle and take a huge swig of the cool refreshment inside. Stopping to assess my progress, it’s uncanny how quiet and peaceful things are between the rounds of power tools. Birds chirp somewhere in the trees and the streets are empty. No one else is here, no one super into this the way I am. It feels like this instant is a triumphant moment, but without anyone else around who ‘gets it’ enough to chime in and say “oh man, what’s happening right now is so sweeeet!!” The absence of conversation feels both ironically strange yet somehow appropriate in an inexplicable way. Here I am, by myself in the garage, making it happen, “blowing it up” so to speak. I guess this sums up what it’s like being into niche hobbies, hey?
There’s a tiny bit of red sunburn on my neck and a mix of sawdust and sweat on my brow. I am in an odd mode of excitedly rushing to get to the next step yet leisurely configuring the power tools for my next operations. Occasionally a dog-walker goes by, curiously eyeing the piles of wood, my setup of sawhorses, and various power tools strewn about. Sporadic flocks of kids fill up the air with sound as they pass down the block. Now and then I hear the distant roar of a power saw from someone else’s garage. It’s a great day to get some work done. Maybe once an hour I stop and look around, conscious that I’m doing something I love, which I only get to do once every few years. Building loudspeakers is expensive. And time intensive. A whole lot of planning goes into picking the drivers, crossover points, cabinet design; this is sort of a sacred moment, The Moment Of Genesis when ideas begin to take physical form.
There may be no money, glory, or fame in it, but I have a lot of love for the speaker building art. I don’t think I could ever make a living off of it, even if I decided I was willing to risk it all to try. But I hope to build many more sets over the years, to share my love of high-fidelity sound, and help give to other people the experiences that their own DJing can give to themselves, with crisp detail in the playback.