Monday, December 15, 2014

I just always thought affection for nature was right.  I thought everything would be alright if we could just get back in touch with the simple magical reality that we are.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

two films showing one thing

We're all in this together.

After watching them separately, it is good to watch them simultaneously.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Big History Holiday Credo

I just happen to find this passage of Marcus Aurelius in MEDITATIONS Translated by Staniforth, (1964) where he talks about a kinship response to the understanding of wholeness;
No matter whether the universe is a confusion of atoms or a natural growth, let my first conviction be that I am part of a Whole which is under Nature's governance; and my second, that a bond of kinship exists between myself and all other similar parts. If I bear these two thoughts in mind, then in the first place, being a part, I shall not feel aggrieved by any dispensation assigned to me from the Whole; since nothing which is beneficial for any whole can ever be harmful to a part, and in this case there is nothing contained in this Whole which is not beneficial to itself. (The same, indeed, could be said of every natural organism; but the nature of the universe has the further distinction that there is no cause outside itself which could ever compel it to produce anything harmful to itself.)
In the remembrance, then, that I am a part of such a Whole, I shall cheerfully accept whatever may be my lot. In the second place, inasmuch as there is this bond of kinship between myself and my fellow-parts, I shall do nothing that might injure their common welfare, but keep those kindred parts always purposefully in view, directing every impulse towards their good and away from anything that runs counter to it
Sounds like a Big History Holiday credo to me. 

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Our Goldilocks Moment

We live in the very special moment when our story is entering our story. This is the type of circular scenario I frequently use to try and explain the profound cultural significance of Big History. When I do, it is usually met with a blank stare. So I’ve been trying to come up with a new way of conveying what I mean.
We all know the old English fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Goldilocks comes upon the forest home of a family of bears who are out for a walk while their porridge cools. Assured that no one is home, Goldilocks tries out their chairs (breaks one), samples their porridge, and tests each bed until she finds the ‘just right’ size, temperature, and softness. She ends up falling asleep in the smallest bed and the climax of the tale is reached when the bears come home. Wee Bear finds the little girl in his bed and cries, "Somebody has been lying in my bed, – and here she is!" Awoken and startled, Goldilocks jumps from the window, and runs into the woods, never to be seen again.
The Goldilocks story is the namesake of an important concept in complexity theory and Big History known as the Goldilocks Principle. In Big History and the Future of Humanity, Fred Spier, makes good use of the idea that complexity only emerges under certain ‘just right’ circumstances (aka boundary conditions). But I propose a different use of the Goldilocks idea; as a metaphor that describes our current predicament/opportunity.
To make my point, the story would be modified just slightly. Imagine the plot twist if Goldilocks decided to do a little light reading before falling asleep. And what if the book she happened to grab off the nightstand was the story she was in? It's a moment captured on Goldi's face below.
"The Goldilocks Moment"
© Rich Blundell 2012 - original artwork commissioned to Jason May
This is what I mean when I say that “we live in the moment when the story is entering the story.” Big History is our story and this is our Goldilocks moment. Yeah, we were young, we experimented, we even broke a chair or two. But now, as the bears come up the path, the story is in our hands, what plot twist can we write...?


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Three clearly connected & beautiful things

Plastic bag scene from "American Beauty"

Cosmic evolution, humanity, and mundane beauty are all part of the same story. The challenge and question is how to connect and communicate them in personally meaningful ways...
Thanks Jack!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A scientist's Christmas

Last night I was walking through Harvard Square and noticed these awesome Christmas lights hanging above the street:

Here is a spiral galaxy, complete with blue "star-forming regions"

Here, a neutron star with its "cometary knots"

Ok, so maybe the cometary knots take a bit of imagination. But actually I see a lot more than that.

In those twinkling lights I see purely rational, purely natural reasons to love thy enemy, to do onto others, cherish life, teach peace, and practice compassion - you know, all those Christmassy ideas.

When I look up and see these lights I get a warm, fuzzy feeling... Because to me, these secular decorations are the expression of a community with something grander and more beautiful to celebrate than bronze-age myths. They recognize and respect our origins as tied to cosmic events much longer ago and further away than some immaculate conception of any single human here on earth. Most people walk through the square totally unaware that these decorations celebrate the whole of humanity's emergence as an evolving cosmos. We are all divine here and now.

I wonder if this what the so-called culture warriors are worried about? That people like me will see these non-religious displays and...well and what? Are these lights, these cosmic ideas, the "War on Christmas too?"

I see them as an acknowledgment that our natural heritage extends the story and values of Christmas with an additional 14 billion years of meaning. Christmas and all that, is embedded within this cosmos too. This gives Christmas meaning that even its namesake could appreciate given the knowledge of today.

These decorations tell a story that still allows a sacred covenant - a covenant with mystery. A scientist's Christmas has humility and dignity both. It is humble enough to admit that our knowledge of the sacred will always be incomplete, without the need to declare "war" on anything but ignorance. There is plenty of mystery to celebrate and plenty of ignorance to fear - Merry Christmas.

Reposted for Christmas

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What Carl Sagan gave us

11th anniversary of
Carl Sagan's death post

Whether you know it or not, everyday you use what Aristotle, Hypatia, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, etc. gave us. They gave us knowledge.

Carl Sagan stood on the shoulders of these giants of science and saw further. He gave us much more than knowledge, coalescing their science into one inescapable result; love. Do you use it everyday?

Sagan’s legacy is a love unadulterated by dogma, superstition, authority, and fear. It is literally Universal; accessible to anyone who opens their eyes, heart, and mind.

If you think of the relentless advance of science as a “great human demotion,” please, think again. Through science, Sagan courageously revealed an overlooked but wonderful paradox of humility. One that turns the "demotion" upside down. By taking us out of the center of the universe, Sagan put us back in - for truer reasons. He showed that our value is intrinsic to the universe, and that our story, is the universe’s story.

Sagan lit the way to a love rooted in truth, even if some of those truths hurt at first (which is the reason some find it difficult to accept). But the reward for courage is a new way to love ourselves, our lot in life, our planet, our place in space and time, and perhaps most importantly, each other. Sagan showed us that love does not come from outside this universe, it comes from within - from within the youniverse.

As the battle between religion and science rages on, why isn't it clear that love without knowledge is lame, and that knowledge without love is dangerous? Alone they are equally meaningless. It's such a shame that science and love are divorced in the minds of most. As a scientist, I know how gushy and sentimental this sounds. So let me try to express it in a way you critical thinkers are accustomed to:
Knowledge is power.
Love of knowledge.
To know the power of love.
I’m not sure if this is a formally valid syllogism. But no matter your stripe, that’s what Carl Sagan gave all of us; truthful, transcendent, pure, poetic, powerful, love. I'd say he gave more, but how could anyone give more than that?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Andromeda moment

I have a moment to report. Unlike the bitter-sweet last time, this Andromeda moment is purely sweet.

As you might know, I’m in the process of establishing a community-class astronomical observatory down in the Caribbean. It is to be an observatory to enhance an existing eco-camp program for kids, and get the island public involved in amateur astronomy. So while I’m stateside, I’ve been doing a lot of research, visiting planetariums, observatories, astronomy classes, etc. Tonight I went to Boston University Observatory’s public viewing night. It’s held every Wednesday, clear skies permitting, and I go there just to get a sense for how a public program works. Folks head up to the roof of the science center, where a volunteer astronomer runs three 8” reflector telescopes. On this clear and very cold night, there was a chatty crowd of about 25 people. The volunteer was busy.

Long Exposure Photo: Andrea Baird, BU Parent magazine

One of the scopes was aimed at the Andromeda Galaxy. Through an 8” scope, Andromeda appears like a faint milky sphere. To someone unaware of what they are looking at, it’s decidedly unimpressive. It looks something like this.

After I had taken a peak at Andromeda, I stepped aside just to take in the scene; people huddled around on the cold steel catwalk, the skyline of Boston as backdrop. While I was standing there beside the scope, two women and 4 kids stepped up to have a look. First up was the littlest one. In the darkness, and all bundled up in a snowsuit, scarf, hat, and mittens, I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. All I could tell was that this kid wanted to see! As the child climbed up the little white plastic step stool, I could tell neither he or his mom knew where to put their eye. I stepped in to help.

As I repositioned the step stool, I began telling this kid about the Andromeda Galaxy; that it was a lot like our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and that it was the biggest thing we humans could see from earth. I told him how far away it was and showed him where to put his eye.

That’s when the moment happened.

As he pulled his scarf aside, and leaned forward to look through the eyepiece, a faint white light flooded though the lens and onto his face. Time stopped and the chatter fell silent as I realized that this ancient light had traversed two and a half million years of cold vacuous void, only to land on the warm, wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, snotty-nosed face of this tiny child. I could feel a lump in my throat as everything I know about the cosmic story - from the big bang, nucleosynthesis, evolution, and the dawn of consciousness - distilled down to this one precious moment. It was clear and vivid. Here was the universe looking at itself in a two-way mirror. Kid and cosmos, saw each other and I heard them say in unison - wow!

I don't know where the kid might take this experience. I like to think he'll develop an appreciation for a universe that's vastly bigger, but at the same time intimately connected with himself. But I do know this; that Andromeda moment confirms that I’m on the right path.

We look at the stars with such awe and reverence. But, don’t you think that if they could, they would, be looking at us instead? But of course they don’t, they cant, and that is precisely my point.

Monday, October 22, 2007

When different paths cross

For as long as I can remember, I've had this nagging suspicion, or maybe it's a fear, that I might be... different.

It happens quite often that I find myself in the blissful grip of some leaf, or pebble, critter, phrase, or idea. I look around wondering why this mundane little nibble of nature isn't the celebrated center of everyone's attention.

It's just plain true. Being so awed by nature all the time, makes one a bit odd by nature some of the time. But now that I've come to terms with my disorder, the only thing left to worry about is being misunderstood and alone.

So when I stumble upon a kindred naturalist traveler, I feel compelled to call them out - sort of as a way of saying, see! I'm not crazy! or at least I'm not alone in being so.

Chet Raymo’s website is exemplary.

Science Musings is like no other site I can find on the Internet. It is difficult to even describe. To try, I brainstormed the following list of descriptors:

nature, literature, philosophy, naturalism, secular values, religion, science, romance, narrative, meaning, empiricism, art, love, language, spirituality, and environmentalism.

The terrain of Raymo’s world spans a vast intellectual landscape. But he’s inspired. His science musings succeed in synthesizing a broad spectrum of thought eloquently under the single umbrella of scientific worldview. In Raymo’s reality, only rigorous empirical science could possibly serve as the driving force for such flowing poetic reverence.

The author’s stated purpose of the blog is to cultivate the Noosphere.
“By cementing virtual relationships around the globe we make it less likely that we will kill each other over real or perceived differences. By celebrating the universality of science, we diminish differences rooted in accidents of place or time.”
Whatever his reasons, Chet Raymo is a man who has listened closely to what nature and culture have to say. His observations are woven into words that allow us to share in a simple blissful wisdom.

What the site forfeits in flash, it makes for up in intellectual inspiration. A master essayist, Raymo moulds something he’s read, observed, or experienced, into much more than mere entertaining or provocative narrative. Knowledge without perspective is meaningless, and meaning is what we need more than ever. He understands that science, rigorously practiced and thoughtfully communicated, can guide us toward personal moral epiphanies.

Science Musings realizes the most fulfilling version of science – that is, science as worldview. I am also most impressed because it upholds my personal belief that, in addition to providing valid knowledge, science must also endeavor to inspire. Without an iota of compromise in scientific integrity, Raymo shows science educators a whole new horizon to set sail for. I see his dogma-free philosophy and public platform as a model to strive for. Science Musings offers a pragmatic and spiritually satisfying worldview. If there is to be a human future, our understanding of the world will probably need to look something like Raymo's.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Where does all the roadkill go?

No, not carry-on beetle.

Where does all the roadkill go?

Now I don’t expect you to instantly fall in love with the carrion beetle… (well, why not actually - oh right, their "disgusting!").  but it’s not like I’m asking you to go around putting them in your mouth - that would be downright disgusting. But I am asking you just to stop for a moment and appreciate yet another overlooked but eloquent example of nature in action. I mean do you know how fascinating these creatures really are? Do you even know they exist?

After finding a carcass, like a small mammal or bird, groups of Carrion Beetles will fight over it. In a demonstration of civility, males only fight other males, and females only other females. To the victorious pair go the spoils. But to keep it from actually spoiling, the beetles first remove all the fur and skin and then form the flesh into a ball. Then they cover the “meatball” with anti-fungal oral and anal secretions to keep it from rotting.

And this is just the foreplay.

Then they bury it in a cozy fur-lined “crypt” from within which, the happy couple engorge themselves on meat and then mate. After that, the female will lay her eggs in the soil surrounding the crypt.

After a few days the larvae hatch and fall into the crypt, now called a brood den, and the parents begin to regurgitate a meaty pate for the larvae eat.

During this phase, the parents can somehow assess how many offspring the meatball can sustain and if necessary, they’ll cull the brood - commit infanticide - to reduce the number of mouths to feed.

After a few days of family feasting and infanticide fun, the remaining larvae migrate into the soil and pupate. They transform from small white larvae to fully formed adult beetles, and the cycle begins again.

When a large carcass becomes available, such as a deer, several pairs of beetles may cooperate to bury the whole thing and then raise their broods communally.

Oh right, the beetle species featured in the video is Nicrophorus vespilloides (I think). But believe it or not, there is an endangered species called the American Burying beetle Nicophorus fabricius. Inidentally, the endangered species was first described by Johanne Christian Fabricius (who also described the Black Widow Spider Lactodectres mactans).

It's just a little wonder of nature right under our noses (or at least under dead mice on the side of the road).
 Awed by nature and a little odd-by-nature
 Another New Series In-development with Animal Planet

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Grevy's Zebra: Extinction in Black & White

Here is a bit of what I've been up to. This video podcast for kids (and the young-at-heart) is gleaned from some of the Zebra and Samburu footage.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Five chicks

I apologize for the long lapse in posts. My courses this summer are extremely time consuming (nothing fun about fundamentals of educational research). You may blame my instructors. I did have just a moment to film an Eastern Phoebe nest underneath the cabin. 
Gorgeous little bird and very protective of her nest.

Friday, May 11, 2007

New take on a snake

On a hike today I came upon a Garter snake. This usually means I'm crashing through the bushes after it, wrangling it into my hands, and wrapping myself up with it in order to get a "closer" look (for example, see the MeTube cellphone video in sidebar).

But today, maybe because the day was so hot, and the trail steep, and I so winded, I decided to take a different approach. I laid down on the ground and just watched her (not sure how to sex a snake but anything that conjures up a garter has got to be female for me). After a few moments, when I'd calmed down a bit, she let me get REALLY close. At one point my face was maybe 2-inches from hers and I could stare deep into those big beautiful brown eyes. This was a meeting on her terms not mine, a kinder gentler sort of appreciation.

Then, I began to notice things I had never seen before. I watched her scales stretch and her body inflate with each breath. I saw exquisite green and blue patterns on her head and that gorgeous fire-red tongue, flickering with a forked black tip! She was not that big, maybe three feet, not poisonous, not even rare, but she was AWESOME.

Ten minutes later and I swear I could sense a personality in there.

So I decided to play a little game with her. I dove my hand slowly into the leaf litter and surfaced a finger beside her. She sensed it immediately and would even follow it with a frantically flicking tongue. I found that if I moved it slowly and tantalizingly, I could just walk that fine line between her predatory instincts and curiosity. That's right a snake, who would have thought a snake could be curious!

When she had had enough, I swear she stopped, looked me in the eye, coiled up, and took a swipe at my face. It was so fast, and took me by such surprise, that she almost got me in the nose. I screamed like a little girl, it was perfect. By this time I was dripping with sweat and covered with black-flies. But it didn't matter, I had just had one of those little epiphanies I'm always squawking about.

I really wish I could share the experience with you. Next time I hike, I'll bring my video camera along and maybe I'll find her again.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Love, courage, and apathy on the Jersey Turnpike

The northern stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike are a couple of 5-lane wide strips of gray asphalt meandering through what used to be marshlands but now a dreary concrete landscape. A relentless barrage of trucks, buses, and cars roar along at 75 miles per hour.
This morning, I was one of many barreling along when, in the narrow strip at the base of the concrete barriers, I noticed something out of place. On the left hand side of the highway, a Canada Goose lay dead, it’s feathers ruffing from a passing truck.

Road-kill is always sad for me, but a fairly common sight. But what I saw next was absolutely heart-wrenching and inspiring. A second goose was waddling up to its fallen mate and I could see it vocalizing.

The story was clear. This mated pair were on their way north when one of them was struck, and landed in the median. The other circled around faithfully, and bewildered, returned to its mate's side in great distress.

Whoever can’t see that animals feel emotions is blind. This is a form of love. What else but love could possibly encourage ANY animal to act so thoroughly against it's own self-interests and land in such an obviously unnatural and terrifying patch of pavement?

I understand that accidents happen and organisms die all the time. And I’m certainly not one for anthropomorphizing (projecting human emotions onto animals). I’m one who never feels bad for the gazelle in the jaws of a lion. I see this as nature in action and I celebrate it as much as I would the birth of a giraffe. Death is not a tragedy but simply the price paid for life - and well worth it.

But this was different.

What really made this scene so sad was when I looked around, at all the other drivers with their cigarettes, cell phones, and mega-sized McDonalds cups, not one of the occupants of the black BMW’s, monster SUV’s, or tricked-out Toyotas seemed to care, or even notice the courageous drama unfolding in the dusty turbulence. If I thought I could help I certainly would have. But all I could do was notice, and be thoroughly overwhelmed.

Tonight, one sad bird sleeps alone. I’m sorry goose. And to all geese, I’m sorry for what we’ve done to your habitats. I’m sorry for not being more effective at helping us humans appreciate you. We really do care, we've just lost sight of what's truly important. I’ll try harder. I hope you made it out of New Jersey to find a beautiful and fecund new mate on the breeding grounds in Canada.
Happier times for a mated-pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)

Monday, April 30, 2007

An ecogeek on the loose

Here's a sampling of clips of me doing the "ecogeek" thing. The first half is for a "kids" website called the wildclassroom. The second half is a fun little behind-the-scenes musical montage.

With all the global warming gloom-and-doom stuff I've been working on, I just needed a little reminder of how beautiful and fun life still is :). Thanks for the footage Josh!

In case you hadn't had enough, here's more of the same from across the years and around the globe

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Samburu Story

I recently returned from Northern Kenya where I was dispatched to cover the plight of the endangered Grevy’s zebra. Over the course of the expedition, I learned that the biggest threats facing the Grevy’s are habitat degradation, poaching, disease, and competition with livestock of indigenous tribespeople. I knew there had to be a human component to the problem. In this case, it’s the Samburu - or so I thought.

To gain access to the zebra’s story, I embedded myself in an Earthwatch Institute expedition. Part of their conservation initiative includes forays into the bush to find and interview Samburu herdsmen, asking them about their knowledge and impact on zebra.

The Samburu are one of the proud and sturdy tribes from this marginal region. Like the Turkana to the north and Maasai to the south, the Samburu have essentially resisted and rejected the modern world. They choose to lead the same pastoralist lifestyle that supported their ancestors through thousands of seasonal cycles of aridity and rains. But it quickly becomes clear to anyone who experiences this harsh landscape that the Samburu way of life, shaped by time and climate, is the only viable option.

In the middle of the expedition’s fourth night, while pouring over the interview transcripts under my mosquito net, I had an epiphany. In the focused blue light of my headlamp, the written words of Mzee Leisan, needed no scientific analysis to understand; “I see the world drying up” he said, “If we get no help, we will all die.”

I suddenly realized, that the forces threatening the zebra are greater than poachers, disease, and Samburu livestock. The forces at work here are environmental on a grander scale. And the zebra that I came here to understand are not the only endangered species. Suddenly the scope of extinction shifted from because of the Samburu, to include the Samburu…and beyond.
It then occurred to me that these interview sessions might be a rare opportunity to collect first-hand stories of global-warming's impact on tribal life. Indeed, this might be the last chance for a remote and isolated people to tell their story to the developed world. After all, who better to ask about climate change than the oldest and wisest of a culture that has lived with this land and wildlife for centuries?

So I developed a series of questions that could be incorporated into the interview sessions. The next day my interpreters and I set out in search of the old and wise.

It was more challenging than I had could have imagined.

Immediately, unforeseen obstacles began to emerge. For one thing, I was looking for men 80 years or older and there just aren’t that many left. This required we travel farther away and deeper into the bush. In addition, the Samburu are particularly suspicious of outsiders (especially white ones), and the more remote the clan, the more wary they are. They’ve also developed a profane loathing for having their pictures taken. So needless to say, white men with cameras face vigorous, often violent, opposition. I was treated to stories of bumbling tourists, stupid enough to snap before asking and subjected to the jury of a spear (if you live, you are forgiven). It took much time of simply “hanging out” with these men to gain the level of trust where my interpreters could even broach the subject. But by the end of a dusty, frustrating, exhausting week punctuated with a couple of sketchy moments, I had managed to conduct six on-camera interviews with the oldest of the old in the Samburu community.

These are men largely unaware of the current debate over global warming. But across the board, they each stated independently and emphatically, that the overall climate has changed. Gone were the days of “white” rains, plentiful pasture, and mingling with wildlife. In their language (Maa translated to English), they explained that the present climate is hotter and dryer than when they were young. They indicated how weather patterns have become extreme. Instead of the natural rainy and dry seasons, they are now experiencing severe floods and droughts, with little or no moderation as in the past.
The ill effect of flood and drought can be seen in the background of every shot. Red sandy soils called ”machanga” lay bare and baking in the hot equatorial sun. Land is washed away as mudflows in catastrophic floods and the cycle leaves no room or time for nutrients to accumulate. Vegetation can no longer replenish the landscape. Horizon after horizon, the grasslands depended on by countless generations of Samburu, fail to appear. The situation is indiscriminate and desperate for all life - zebra and human alike. Scavengers are the only beneficiaries and even their days seem numbered.

Samburu men spend every living moment outside exposed to the elements. They are intimately tuned to the patterns of nature, now etched like credentials into their deeply wrinkled and weathered faces. And since familial storytelling is an integral part of Samburu culture, the stories handed down through the generations are an extension of their ancestor’s tales. An interview with a Samburu Mzee is an indirect conversation with their heritage and a visage of an ancient collective wisdom. I felt compelled to record whatever they had to say, conveying to the world their story not for the first time, but maybe the last.

Listening to the exotic and animated syllables of these extraordinary people, I can’t help but hear an ancient way of life disintegrating. It is a cruel irony indeed that these, the voices of a people that has always lived in harmony with the environment, imprinting the lightest carbon footprint on the earth, are being unknowingly silenced by an ignorant culture of consumption half a world away.

Early coal miners used canaries to warn of deadly gas buildup. But this method relied on two tragic flaws. First, the canary had to die. Second, the miners had to see the dead or dying canary. So maybe the developed world needs to see some of the suffering already in progress. Maybe, by seeing the abject poverty of the environmentally displaced, we can begin to own our own contribution to climate change. Maybe...hopefully.
A big THANKS! to my Earthwatch teammates Bethany, Christy, and Josh for all the photos, footage, fun, and friendship.

Here is a selection of fun photos from this expedition (Quicktime Movie takes a long time to load)