Tuesday, July 5, 2011

One Hundred Fireworks In The Night

Yesterday evening, I found myself on a US Airways jumbo jet, bound from Phoenix, Arizona to Milwaukee. For a long time, I had dreamed of flying over the country on the night of July 4th and seeing all the fireworks below. I brought binoculars and a camera with video capability. The following are the notes I scrawled in my copy of The Elegant Universe, in the margins of Chapter 4 where Brian Greene talks about quantum probabilities. 

 Huge, perfect circles of light that would bloom into being for a second or two and then disappear forever. Some were small, barely visible even at short distances; others were plainly visible and enormous, the size of my thumbnail in the binoculars even at hundreds (probably more like 12-75 at most) of miles' distance. Up close, they must have been hundreds of feet wide.

Sometimes, the town was totally invisible to the naked eye, noticeable only by the brief flashes of white and red brilliance. Tiny sparks and balls of light coming suddenly into being and disappearing without a trace of their passage. (I saw at least two towns that way, streetlights visible only upon examination with binoculars.)

If all the conditions were right, the town near to me and the fireworks large, I could see astonishing details. One giant ball, as big as the Moon from the Earth, turned bright red and sparkled for five or six seconds before succumbing to darkness, its remnants crackling and popping in the air like cosmic glitter.

Smaller towns usually had just one or two sources of light, but larger cities could have 4, 5 or even more. One large city had at least eight, twinkling dots that flickered on and off like fireflies. One massive city had dozens! Dozens of sources flitting in and out of existence like luminescent ghosts. Flashing and popping all over the city.

Another enormous city boasted at least forty point-sources, flickering all at once like a perpetual grand finale. As each borough or suburb or municipality sent up its own fireworks, the cumulative effect was indescribable. (It reminded me of watching meteor showers on Washington Island, random rays of light streaking across the sky, appearing and vanishing like heavenly blind-man's-bluff.) The entire city was sending up bursts of radiance, on and off throwing their messages out into the dark. I think we passed through the "finale zone" as we were going over that city, where everyone in the entire place was sending up their final celebrations at about the same time. It was a cacophony of light, silent and beautiful and full of joy.

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