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 www.ScienceMusings.com 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.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

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)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Zeebs and Peeps

For the next two weeks I'll be back in Kenya for the first time in nearly 8 years. Returning to my home away from home has always been a bittersweet thing. Some of my most awestruck and cathartic moments have occurred on the plains of East Africa. But each time I go back, I'm also struck back down by the unrelenting spread of people across the landscapes. Africa remains the homeland of humanity.

My job this time is to report on the plight of the Grevy's zebra. This symbolic and striking animal, has suffered greatly from human expansion. In 1979 there were an estimated 20,000 Grevys' in Kenya and Ethiopia. Today there are less than 2100, and they continue to dwindle even in last tiny protected pockets. We are really in danger of losing Equus grevyi.

Imagine soon having to teach our children the alphabet: "A is for Apple, in a pie it's a treat... Z is for Zebra, a horse-like creature you'll never meet."

The swahili name for zebra, is punda milia (crying donkey). One night, when I'm far from the light and hum of Nairobi, I'll record their voices and you'll be able to hear why. Serengeti nights will be quieter, and the world much lonelier without them.

Afia boro na salama punda milia. Tutaoana kidogo badai!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The hidden cost of awe

The other night I went out and saw the Andromeda Galaxy for the very first time. Elation beamed through the binoculars, as a faint oval smudge appeared against a crystalline black eternity. But that smudge was a Galaxy! Outside, in the night sky, an “island universe” awaits, but inside, on the tube nightly, Anna Nicole Simpson.

When you see the universe in every drop of matter, you do it mostly alone. You also become acutely aware of how so many of the things we choose to cherish are utterly lame. It’s heartbreaking and beginning to take a toll.

I have this nagging suspicion that the world has forgotten how to be awed, or at least been distracted from what's truly awesome. I’ve been trying wake people up for the past 16 years, and am beginning to wonder if risking everything might have been a big mistake. It was a choice I made willingly, and for which I’ll be accountable, but I might be done.

Make no mistake, my feeling unfulfilled is not a shortcoming of nature or the scientific perspective, and I’m not dysfunctional in seeing it. If anything, my delusion has been in thinking that I could communicate the awe to ears that don’t want to hear it, and eyes that don’t want to see it.

I still want to just shake people and say don't you see this! But being awed by nature all the time also makes one care deeply. And therein is the hidden cost. The more one cares, the more deeply runs the hurt - especially in the face of so much wanton natural ignorance. It pains me greatly. So I’ve decided to try and temper my awed outlook, just to see where it takes me.

This will take some long nightime walks in the woods and across a frozen lake. I'll just have to remember not to look up (because that's usually when the awe comes).

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Imagine my stoke when I learned that a video I had posted on my blog over a year ago, found an unintended second life in an ongoing debate about an alleged San Francisco Bay sea serpent.

Believe it or not, there is a whole community of amateur cryptid seekers out there. Many of these people (me included), eagerly wish there to exist creatures that have snuck below the radar of science. Surely and hopefully there are organisms yet to be described by zoology, and stories like the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker’s and Coelacanth’s are certainly worthy of great rejoice.
But some of these people (me NOT included) actually believe that Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster are real, and that Pterodactyls still exist (but oh how I wish). And as usual, unfortunately, there are also people eager to profit off the wishful delusions of others.

There is a very fun website called cryptozoology, where skeptics and zealots debate sighting claims, specimens, and video footage of cryptids. The Ropen (pictured below) is especially silly-cool.
A few days ago, this archived video post of mine on Pelican Feeding Behavior (scroll down) started getting lots of hits from a heated conversation on one of their forums dedicated to “Sea and Lake Monsters.”

Apparently, there are a few monster-entrepreneurs (or monsterpreneurs, oooh I like that) have been busy making the case for a San-Francisco Sea Serpent. On the blurry and shaky footage, they claim a series of dots are a giant serpent swimming in San Francisco Bay, and that at one point, the animal dives below the surface. They refuse to post the video online; why? you'll have to ask them. You can follow the whole ongoing story here, or check out their website here. Good luck guys!

Thankfully there is at least one voice of reason on the crytpozoology forums. A user named Elmer Fudd. Kudos to you Mr. Fudd, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty in dealing with all the purveyors of pretense and wannabe monster magnates.

I have a little suggestion to the entire crytpozoology community. Never forget that extraordinary claims require extraordinarily indisputable evidence (another Saganism). Please strive not to define reality by your beliefs, but instead have the courage to define your beliefs by reality. The living world is beautiful enough without distracting yourself with imaginary dinosaurs. Celebrate reality, but never stop searching and good luck!

**UPDATE** New extrordinarily indisputable evidence has been posted! I eat my words (it's much greener than I thought).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


...is what sets us humans apart... and what keeps us together.

(5000 year-old skeletons unearthed in Italy. Story here, Photos here)

Look closley at these photos. The flesh is long gone. The eyes and brains replaced by lowly dirt. But somehow, fixed in a stare and the subtle tangle of old bones, their Love lithified transcends death, dust, and decades.

So went the past, I hope goes the future.

* Reposted for Valentines Day

Monday, February 12, 2007

Variations on a theme

Today is Darwin day. So I thought the best way to celebrate would be to do what Darwin did; go out and observe the natural world as he would have, with eyes and mind wide open.

Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos in 1835 and noticed that each of the island’s finches had slightly different beaks. He wondered if the different shapes might just be a "variation on a theme," specialized for different food sources (insects, grains, etc.). At the time, this was a brave new idea because it suggested how the enormous diversity of life on earth, could be the result of small gradual steps between parent and offspring over vast amounts of time. In other words, evolution by natural selection, as opposed to creationism (lame) or Lamarckism (wrong). I admire his intellectual courage just as much as his adventurous spirit.

So today, with the songs of Galapagos finches singing in my head, I'm setting out on a birding expedition, and YOU are coming with me…

Not far from where I am right now there is a remnant of mangrove swamp that I found one day on GoogleEarth. For me it is has always appeared as a sliver of heaven in a sea of hell (condos, golf courses, and strip malls).

I’ve never been able to access it. Not because it’s an inhospitable muddy tangle of roots and mosquitoes (although it certainly is), but instead because it’s “Private Property.” A few years ago, developers built a gigantic up-scale condo community, effectively cutting off access to the last slice of coastal mangrove between it and the sea. So now I’m excluded by the rules. I guess if you buy and destroy enough of something, you feel a need to protect what’s left from birdwatchers like me.

I’ll not mention the development by name here. Let’s just say it’s an epitaph to the wildlife that was bulldozed under to build it.

But today being Darwin day, I’ve decided to break the rules a bit. I’m going to put on my nicest shorts and stroll right past the gate attendant like I’m on my way to a tennis match. Once I'm in, the only challenge will be avoiding the retiree security guards, who drive residents back and forth on the boarwalks in golf-carts, just itchin to bust a whipper-snapper like me.

Before we begin, a word about the videos. Do you have any idea how hard it is to film wildlife? Now imagine doing it with a cell phone camera. As a professional filmmaker I feel a need to explain the shaky camera work. To make these videos, I hold the camera up to my binoculars, usually with fire ants crawling up my legs. Please just keep this in mind if the picture gets shaky or goes out of focus.

The title of this post is “variations on a theme.” It’s supposed to be a Darwin’s eye-view of birds. Like he did with Galapagos finches, I compare “form against function” in all the birds I encounter on a single Sunday afternoon. In each photo below, I’ve captured a specific bird's feature (form) and in the associated video I show it in action (function). QuickTime videos open in a new window.

Who wouldn't love the Anhinga. A beak perfectly suited to grabbing little fish. Also notice its cheek membrane. Like a small version of a pelican's pouch, or a nightjar's "gape" it helps funnel fish into it's grasp. It's also useful as a catcher's mitt (watch right at the end of the clip when she flips the fish into her mouth). So Cool! Anhinga fishing video

The Anhinga gets two videos because she has such a cool lifestyle. But that swimming ability comes at a cost. In order to get underwater, Anhingas have forfeited the water-repelling and buoyancy-providing oils that coat the feathers of other birds. The tradeoff is that they must dry out their wings before they can fly. They also use the time to carefully preen themselves. Hi-Rez Anhinga video (but worth the wait)

The Mottled duck has a very different shaped bill. She uses it to sift through the mud, filtering out all of the small bits of algae. The inside surface of her bill has tiny interlocking grooves and is shaped to act like a little pump as she quickly claps the top and bottom together. Duck filterfeeding video

The Roseate Spoonbill has taken the duck's bill to the next level. If some grooves are good, more grooves are better. The widened tip provides more bill-real estate and more thus more filtering. Like the Flamingo, the pink color comes from thier diet of a certain kind of bacteria they ingest. Spoonbill filterfeeding video

The Common Gallinule is not all that common. He's a robust little guy and a generalist. His bill is designed for selecting lots of different kinds of food. That's why it appears like the "typical bill-shape". Also notice from the video how high these guys float in the water. That's because of the oil on their feathers (as opposed to the Anhinga above). Gallinules browsing video

The majestic Great Egret is a symbol of stoicism. Great eye-height, and sharp lookout in the shallows, she'll stand for many minutes waiting for just the right moment to strike. The Great Egret's behavior, like it's morphology (shape) appears to be genetically inheritable. So on some level, behavior is defined by genes too. Great Egret video

The Reddish Egret is a great dancer. If the Great Egret is known for being patient, the Reddish Egret is a spaz (but they are a lot more fun to be with, that's for sure). The Reddish Egret takes a more proactive approach. She runs around, spooking the little fish into moving. The fish then want to hide in the shadows, which she provides with her wings, but it is a trick and she "knows" how to read the little fish's habits...amazing! Reddish Egret dancing video fishing video

The Louisiana or Tricolor Heron falls somewhere between the Great Egret and the Reddish Egret. She hunts for fish, walking along the shore, stalking, ....and striking. Same beak, different behavior, all defined by genes. Louisiana Heron stalking video

I LOVE the Snowy Egret. For many years I've admired those beautiful yellow feet and wanted to see them in action. Today, for the first time in my life I got to see. Watch closely, every once in a while she'll extend out her foot (especially into the crevices around submerged sticks) and jiggle it, rousing little fish and getting them out into the open. AMAZING! Snowy Egret's beautiful yellow feet in action

The White Ibis takes a different approach. His bill is specially adapted for probing into the holes of crustaceans and insects. It's also highly sensitive, packed with scent and movement sensing neurons. The body plan is similar to the egrets but look at the difference in the bills. White Ibis probing video

We almost lost this gorgeous bird. Well, a close-up view of his face may test the definition of gorgeous, but I think Wood Storks are beautiful. They nearly became extinct due mostly to loss and mismanagement of habitat. To me the Wood Stork embodies all the qualities of his buddies above. He's got the colored feet of a Snowy Egret, height of the Great Egret, bill of the Ibis, and resourceful habits of the rest. Watch as this old-guy probes the muddy shallows for a living. Wood Stork walking and probing video

This little adventure and post is meant to be a tribute the Charles Darwin. Thanks Chuck!

For the love of life, check out some of the other critters I encountered.

PS - A little story behind the story. I was knee deep in the mud when I heard my bike fall over. In the basket was my computer bag (with computer in it). I rushed up to the causeway to rescue it, but I was too late. It had floated out about 10 feet from shore. A passer by (actually the parent of the toddler who had knocked it over in the first place) snapped this photo. That's my computer in my hands dripping with water. Yeah real funny kid!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Visualize Whirled Peas

Somebody recently asked me what I meant by the power of visualization.

Look at your thumbnail. Do you feel a rush of awe? No?

Well, now watch the video below keeping in mind that this is what goes on in the cells of your thumbnail, and in cedar trees, and brain cells, and babies, and sparrows, etc. etc.
Also consider that Science gave us this perspective. It is a visualization based on scientific data, not merely imagination.

If such a visualization can make you think twice about clipping your thumbnails, or at least help you appreciate their exquisite structure, imagine what it could do for your appreciation of a whole living thing... like a passenger pigeon, a polar bear, or a fellow human being. Imagine the effect of that kind of perspective on world peace (or whirled peas for that matter). So with a certain point of view, science is giving us reasons to respect and cherish each other that transcend the piddly political ones we've dreamt up for not.

This is about intrinsic value writ large. This is about celebrating where we have taken the primordial ooze. This is about seeing beauty where it REALLY is. The video above is an example from the microscopic, others are macroscopic, others still telescopic. Call me crazy, but I call this the omniscopic perspective and it sure works for me.

And I'm not the only one.
Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. There is grandeur in this view of life that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved...

...When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

-- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
Now with new science eyes, take another look at your thumbnail, at bacteria, at trees, at frogs, at porcupines, at babies born and unborn, at your neighbor, at your enemy, at yourself.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Words of Wilson

No wonder E.O Wilson is one of my all-time favorite heroes. A dedicated bug-loving tree-hugger with impeccable dignity and a flare for fine language. I welled up from the last pages of his biography "Naturalist"
“My seventieth birthday came and went without a ripple in my mind. Now it recedes like a shoreline behind a departing ship, serenely, a shrinking abstract line of memory. …I know better, but press on as though I will live forever.

I am often asked, given the strong naturalism in my philosophical writings, to express my deepest convictions. They are simple and I will give them here.

Science is the global civilization of which I am a citizen. The spread of its democratic ethic and its unifying powers provides my faith in humanity. The astonishing depth of wonders in the universe, continuously revealed by science is my temple. The capacity of the informed human mind, liberated at last by the understanding that we are alone and thus the sole stewards of Earth is my religion. The potential to turn this planet into a paradise for future generations is my afterlife.

You will understand then, why I stay engaged with such purpose and optimism…”
-- Edward O. Wilson Naturalist
Here is a 1932 photo of Dr.Wilson as a three year-old

My first goat was a Toggenburg like this one named "April"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Comfort in the arms of the cosmos

The night sky in November's New Hampshire is exceptionally dark. And since the last few nights have had just a sliver of moon, the Milky Way has been big, bright, and beautiful.

Wanna feel small? Bundle up, then lay on the ground and stare at the Milky Way. That cloudy band of light is billions of stars, dimmed and blurred by immersion in distance.

But it’s not just that. Now I'm going to try very hard to show you the Milky Way for the very first time.

You already know, that the Milky Way is also the name of our home galaxy. A flattened spiral, with wispy arms stretching across 100,000 light-years of space. Like this (which is a not-yet-possible picture by the way):

So the Milky Way is both?

How do we go from a Milky Way that is a faint band of light across the night sky, to a spiral galaxy of 100 billion stars?

Think about this... How can it be both?

Well, from where you’re laying on the surface of the earth, you look out into space along what’s called the Galactic Plane. Stars are more dense in the plane, and since we’re in one of the arms, it appears as a blurry band of light. Get it?... Not yet?

What it takes is a shift in perspective and this is where the power of visualization can help.

This Video Clip might be the first time you've ever seen the Milky Way for what it really is - our true place in the arms of a galaxy - the galaxy. Here's what will eventually happen when our Milky Way collides with our nearest neighbor galaxy, Andromeda.

When you look at the Milky Way in the night sky, what you're actually seeing is our galaxy on edge. It’s not just a band of ethereal light we call the Milky Way, it IS THE MILKY WAY! They are the same thing. Now do you get it? All it really takes is a change in perspective. (Music in this clip is borrowed from the original COSMOS Soundtrack. I recommend you purchase the DVD Box set)

I think about these things when I’m feeling particularly lonely. Then all I have to do is aim my gaze down, and I'm suddenly surrounded by good worldly stuff. Kind of like being in the arms of a galaxy – no not kind of – exactly!