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"