Light Pillars in Umeå

2 February 2022

On 21 December 2021 (the winter solstice), I saw an enigmatic optical illusion right outside my apartment building in Umeå. Several vertical pillars of light seemed to hover in the sky (please watch the two videos embedded in this post). Today, after reading an article from 2017 in NYT, I learnt that these pillars are virtual images formed by the reflection of terrestrial light off flat hexagonal crystals of ice floating in the sky. Such crystals usually tend to float several kilometers above the Earth's surface. However, when the weather is extremely cold, they can come quite close to the ground. As millions of flat ice crystals float at different heights, reflections off them appear to form a vertical column of light that has the same color as the terrestrial light source. As these pillars form due to simple reflection off plane mirrors, they are found approximately halfway between the light source and the observer. For more information on similar atmospheric optical phenomena, check out Les Cowley's website.

The pictures I could never take

8 February 2021

“When I got my first camera at fifteen, a hand-me-down 35mm Canon from my uncle, I eagerly took pictures of everything I laid eyes on in suburban New Jersey. ... But I also became obsessed with the pictures I missed. The more I thought about documenting what I saw, the more keenly aware I was of the moments I failed to apprehend.”



I had a similar feeling yesterday. Saw a swarm of moths lit brilliantly by their destination, that halogen street-lamp just outside my balcony. I had seen something similar last year, perhaps during the same week, maybe on the same day. Those bright spots moving disorderly near the lamp convinced me that the moment was worth capturing. I imagined it would make a nice long-exposure image, somewhat like the archaic structure of the atom that Ernest Rutherford had proposed.  And then I noticed the bats! Must have missed them last year. Navigating the invisibility of sound, they showed up at this source of light to catch the poor insects with spectacular ease and grace. Countering chaos with order, they flew like arrows to seize their prey. Before going inside to get my camera, I lingered on in praise for half-a-minute more than I should have. And then I wasted two more in swapping lenses. That was just enough time for another lesson about the ephemerality of such precious moments. The bats had disappeared, and the swarm was nowhere to be seen. The moment had gone. Maybe I’ll do better next year.