RIP Morton Rabkin 1937-2016

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Meeting Mr. Rabkin at Morton’s Panaderia, October 2015.

We didn’t know Morton Rabkin well, having met him only recently as Mariah and I explored Panama & Boquete last fall, then recently as Mortie ‘The Rye Guy’ peddled his wares at Tuesday Market. But judging from the reaction of the community at his passing, and the outpouring of sympathy from friends & fellow Boquetenan’s, we’re sad too, that we didn’t get to know him well, and that our community has lost a real friend.

“Blessed is the True Judge,”as our Jewish friends say. RIP Morton Rabkin, we’ll miss you, even if we did not know you well.

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Feliz Cumpleaños Boquete!

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105 Años Young! With at least that many horses to prove it.

Happy Birthday Boquete! Last Saturday evening found us in beautiful (and raucous) downtown Boquete surrounded by revelers, all celebrating the town & district’s birthday. At 105 years old, the little town in Western Panama is as vibrant and upbeat as ever.

Multi-horsepower gives way to 1-HP as the festival comes to town.

Boquete, (gap or opening en Espanol) also referred to as valle del eterno arcoiris, town and district were officially recognized in April 1911. From its early history the area was a farming and agricultural settlement, chief among its crops being sugarcane, lettuce, onions, potatoes and coffee. Prior to its founding, back in the time of the Spanish explorers, it was a waypoint for conquistadores seeking gold and other treasures. The so called ‘gap’ provided a convenient path from Bocas Del Toro on the Caribbean, then across the mountains, a natural channel that led, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean 70 miles to the south. Since ancient times, when the Ngobe Bugle and other indigenous people made their way to these mountains, Western Panama has seen waves of immigrants. In the late nineteenth century people flocked to the area during the French effort to build a canal across the isthmus. In the twentieth century many more came, from across the Caribbean, the Americas and even Western Europe during the U.S. effort to dig and complete the canal. Since at least the year 2000 many expats have arrived, as many as 3,000, to settle into this area, the ‘Valley of eternal rainbows.’

Something for everyone at the festival of the founding, regardless of age. 

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2016 Gran Cabalgata de Boquete.

(for a video of the 2015 Cabalgata, go here)

What’s with all the caballos? Horses have been an integral part of Boquete life for many years. Because the roads were few, and the populace farmed every hectare they could, horses became more than mere animals on the farm. Local author Milagros Sánchez Pinzón in Boquete, Valle del Eterno Arcoiris writes: ‘Las carreteras no existian, y el traslado de personas y productos se hacia a caballo…’  Until the roads came, horses were tools, co-workers, transportation and commodity. Brought to the Americas by the Spanish, horses became vitally important. Thus, in the Boquete birthday party they were a major exhibit, with nearly 200 prancing through the streets to the accompaniment of brass bands, cheering crowds and admiring visitors.

 1-The Cavalry has arrived; 2- The Cavalry departs; 3-The cleanup begins

The Boquete birthday parade also demonstrates differences between cultures, subtle yet remarkable variations in style and substance between Panamanian life and, say that in the U.S. Standing on the sidelines watching, I noticed no guarding barriers, no limiting efforts between marchers and observers. People crossed in front of and behind the horses, and many riders led their steeds along while contentedly sipping beer from cans. Several had small children ensconced on saddles, and several horses were driven by very small kids.

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 Maria Ruiz PhD Tuesday market keynote, 4/12/2016

(Dr Ruiz.is the CEO of special projects with Casa Ruiz, S.A., in Boquete, Panama)

The ease of interaction and lack of barriers is a cultural distinction for a couple of reasons as it turns out. As keynote speaker at the Tuesday Morning Market Meeting on 4/12, Maria Ruiz, PhD mentioned horses, and the culture surrounding them, specifically as it pertains to roadways. “Roads are more than just a means of travel,” she said. “They are a social venue for people in Panama, a place to walk, to meet and to gather.” So it was no surprise to see the crowds mingling with the horses on the ‘communal property.’Speaking of cultural differences, Dr. Ruiz went into some detail about them, the various clashes that may occur, and the reasons for them. She displayed a graphic that traced the typical path of those who decide to take up residence in Panama. “First there’s the honeymoon phase,” she said. “That lasts a little while, then comes the culture shock phase when nothing seems familiar, then the adjustment phase begins followed by the mastery phase.” Dr. Ruiz claims that mastery can take years, and not everyone attains that level. (Here’s a tip: Coffee may or may not help, but it can be found in Boquete in abundance. Here’s a link to Ruiz coffee, some of the best by acclimation)

The parade moves on…so master life in Boquete, or send in the clowns.

For those who do master life in Boquete, Valley of the Eternal Rainbow, life can be very rewarding indeed.

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So…Happy 105th Birthday Boquete!

SETI en Boquete

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Marlin (Ben) Schuetz’s 20 inch optical telescope at the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory, Boquete, Chiriqui Panama

Ben Schuetz is a man on a mission. He’s searching the universe for an elusive signal, a laser pulse directed at Earth from another civilization, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. This SETI endeavor is the Holy Grail of many astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and astro-dreamers amateurs and professionals alike, and has been for many, many years. Ben Schuetz is 76. He’d once dreamed of a life ‘somehow involving astronomy,’ he says. And now he’s heavily involved in it, scanning the Panamanian dry-season sky, using tools he built himself and pursuing the SETI effort with a passion.

Recently, my wife and I accepted Ben’s invitation to visit the observatory behind his home near Boquete. We’d seen the pictures and descriptions on his website www.optical-seti.org and the METI International website and gotten a taste of what we might find in the hills above Boquete. But we had…no idea. This post is a very small taste of what we found, like a butter bean at a banquet, or one of the <1 to 50 nanosecond laser pulses Schuetz is seeking. Let me assure you that our one hour visit with Ben left us with far more questions than answers, along with a profound appreciation for the challenges, pitfalls, methodology and current status of SETI, plus an amusing anecdote about a busted car.

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Ben Schuetz & the balky Kia

We arrived at 9:30 on a brilliant Sunday morning, and Ben was scurrying around, tending to things on the house side of his property. I say ‘house side,’ because his observatory is up the hill a bit, away from whatever ambient light the house and/or neighbors might exude. Watching Ben discuss a problem with his friend and car mechanic, we waited patiently. Something was clearly wrong with the balky though reasonably new Kia, and Ben had reached a level of deep frustration with it. “We only drive it about five thousand miles a year,” he said. “And it never has worked right.” When I suggested he should perhaps drive it more often, he laughed, nodded, and directed us toward his true interest, the SETI observatory fifty yards off.

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The Boquete Optical SETI Observatory

It doesn’t look like much, but inside this little structure is one man’s contribution to the search for extraterrestrial life, and looks are, in this case, very deceiving. Keep in mind that Ben Schuetz built this site and everything in it himself: the edifice, telescope, electrical components & circuit boards to operate it, even the chain-driven roof opening mechanism. A short–very short–version of what Schuetz is pursuing is this, (and forgive me, Mr. Schuetz for capsulizing): Using his optical telescope, he’s scouring the heavens for laser pulses. Directing the scope toward one star at a time, focusing on stars that are close by, that is within 300 light years, he looks for pulsations that, if found, indicate the possibility of a sentient beacon. His reasoning is this: the light from a star is a stream of millions of photons per square meter arriving more or less evenly spaced during each second, while a laser pulse of a few nanoseconds will have a far higher photon arrival rate. Schuetz uses his scope and specialized detector to separate the hoped for pulsed signals that indicate they’re not emitted from the star itself, but anomalous emissions from a planetary system, or systems, orbiting that star.

On the left, Ben shows Mariah his carefully charted star list, a file holding 3000+ stars that he uses as starting points for his nightly searches. Top right, in the scope room, he jots a highly simplified explanation of the photon bursts/laser signals that concentrate his efforts. The differentiation of those signals will (he hopes) display the sent laser emission he’s seeking. Even after all this excruciating attention to detail, Ben realizes it’s entirely possible the signal will be missed, and he’s sanguine about that. “After doing all that homework, there are still important details that are hard to ferret out of the information jungle.” That ‘information jungle’ Schuetz refers to is based on the millions of photons per second per square meter any given star floods toward us. ‘Ferreting out’ the laser signal from that tsunami, and other ‘spurious noise,’ requires the search for pulsed signals; signs that may be from a sentient source. Middle right, at the computer, Ben slices, dices, reads and interprets all manner of digitized data. The bottom picture is the scope itself, a 20 inch optical device Schuetz built, and the centerpiece of his SETI effort. The main scope has a built in highly sensitive detector.  A second scope is equipped with a digital camera roughly a million times more sensitive than a home type video camera. The assembly weighs 500 pounds, but is balanced so well that, until the clutches are engaged,  it moves at the touch of a finger.

More pictures of the 20 inch Optical SETI scope. The middle shot shows the roof opening, which mechanism Ben built, and which opens in about two minutes so the scope can be raised. The right hand shot is the specialized detector. On cloudy or rainy nights, of course, the scope sits idle. I asked Ben what his regimen is like: “During the dry season, I’ll often go to bed around six or seven (PM) and then get up at midnight or one o’clock. I’ll come up to the observatory and, if the sky is clear, I’ll work until four or five.” In the wet season, May through November in Boquete, Schuetz does a lot of development and system upgrades.

Ben Schuetz is a man with what can be called without hesitation a laser focus on his passion, to be in position with the right equipment, right mechanism and the right touch of serendipity to capture the elusive laser pulse long sought by interplanetary experts like him. As he states on his website: “….one hates to think that your main toy may be poorly adjusted, and those (countless) hours could not bear fruit…there for the picking.”

I had many more questions than answers, as I said, but a few had to be cleared up. I asked, if light from the nearest star has been traveling to us since Shakespeare was scribbling Hamlet, how do we even know the star is still there? Ben explained that we’re fortunate to have developed algorithms that can predict where stars will be into the far distant future. I had to know why not search further out? We now have the technical ability, after all, to transmit laser signals far beyond his preferred 300 light year search limit, so why not expand the search? Schuetz’s entirely reasonable response: dependent upon the power of the laser pulse, the 20″ telescope system has its detection limits. Also, if ETI has anything like our longevity, then sending out signals for which a returned response would require many hundreds or thousands of years  seems to make little sense.

I posed the inevitable question to him: in his estimation, knowing what he does about the topic, how many potential so called Goldilocks planets are there? Ben’s response was that, given the recent discoveries and the vast numbers of stars in our galaxy, it’s not unreasonable to expect that there are many thousands of habitable planets. He qualifies the response thus: No matter how many extraterrestrial civilizations are out there, the chances of detecting a signal from one of them is infinitesimally small…but if no one looks it’s a certainty they won’t be found. I asked, is anyone sending signals out? “No, because there’s some resistance to the idea and, as you might imagine, no funding for that sort of thing.” Lastly, I asked Ben if he’s actively recruiting someone to continue his work, and the answer is yes, he is. Interested grad students can apply for an internship at the Boquete site for this coming summer. Here’s a link to the internship description and qualifications, and an application form which must be submitted by May 1st 2016, with review through June 1st 2016. Ben cautions that the study opportunity is offered during the wet season in Boquete, so actual viewing opportunities may be limited, but essential benefits are numerous. The chance to work with Mr. Schuetz is benefit enough.

So, why does Ben Schuetz keep climbing that (very steep) hill behind his house in the mountains above Boquete Panama night after night, aiming his telescope, tweaking his computerized graphing and tracking software (which application he also built)? Why the laser focus on searching for a pulsed beacon from another solar system, one he admits is so elusive as to be almost non-existent? “At 76, I’m still hopeful to be around when the incredible event happens,” he says.We’re fortunate to have dedicated, smart, laser-focused scientists like Ben Schuetz. Fortunate to have people like him who spend their lives on solitary, and often lonely pursuits such as SETI. Now, if we could only find a good mechanic who knows how to fix a Kia.