Archive for August, 2008

Biological Literacy

August 29, 2008

Many men go through life as though they wore horse blinders or were sleepwalking.  Their eyes are open, yet they see nothing of their many wild neighbors.  Their ears, attuned to motorcars and traffic, seldom detect the music of nature — the singing of birds, frogs, or crickets, or the wind in the leaves.  There men, biologically illiterate, often fancy themselves well informed, perhaps sophisticated.  They know business trends, or politics, yet haven’t the faintest ides of “what makes the world go round.”

Roger Tory Peterson


Relativity Explained in Fewer than 100 Words.

August 27, 2008

In the last post, containing the entire history of the universe in only 800 words, we were forced to leave out some things. For instance, we lacked the space to explain Einstein’s theories of relativity. Nor was there time to explain quantum mechanics. Not explaining quantum mechanics is no loss; Niels Bohr, or some other quantum physicist, once said, “Anyone who can explain quantum mechanics doesn’t understand it.”

Relativity is different. Einstein once wrote a book explaining it. In the introduction he said that the book was written so that any high school student could understand it. I picked it up after graduating from college, so was confident I would understand it. I did, for awhile. About two-thirds of the way through it I ran head-on into a sentence that was a complete brick wall. I could not understand it no matter how hard I tried. Eventually, I gave up and read the rest of the book but everything after that brick-wall sentence was unintelligible to my brain.

But it is important to an understanding of the universe to get the basics of relativity. With many thanks to Bill Waterson, here they are:

Calvin and Hobbes on Relativity

Calvin and Hobbes on Relativity

Or, if that isn’t clear enough, here is an animated New Yorker cartoon on the subject. Be warned, it is R rated. Also note that there are two cartoons. I couldn’t figure out how to rid myself of the second cartoon, also R rated and funny, but not related to relativity.

History of the Universe in 800 Words

August 22, 2008

In the next 800 words we summarize the entire 15 billion year history of the current universe. That’s about one word for each 150,000 million year swath of time. So sit up and pay attention.

Virgo Galaxy Cluster

It all began 13 to 14 billion years ago with an incomprehensible explosion known as the Big Bang. No one knows what exploded or what existed before — probably nothing. Nothing exploded. After that, there was nothing but quantum foam which is unlike anything you can get on top of your coffee at Starbucks. By and by atoms started forming. Just Hydrogen and Helium though. Nothing else. Those atoms are still around and make up about 5% of all matter in the universe. All the other atoms of all the other, heavier elements make up much less than 1%. All the heavier elements were created when stars blew up in huge explosions only slightly less incomprehensible than the Big Bang. Those elements include everything you are made of. You are stardust. Everything else is stardust too, including the planet. Only hydrogen and helium aren’t.

Stardust arranged as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Stardust arranged as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

About another 25% of the universe consists of something called Dark Matter. No one really knows what that is, only that it is out there and we can’t see it.

The rest, about 70% of the entire known universe, consists of Dark Energy. No one has a clue what that is, but it is out there too. In fact, dark energy is blowing the universe apart at an accelerating rate.

We are at about the half-way point in the life of this Double-Dark universe. For about 13 billion years, the expansion of the universe had been slowing, but now it is speeding up again and, in another 13 billion years or so the universe will lose all its energy and all its heat and all its light and all its life. In the meantime, just as we are learning how to see them, the most distant galaxies are beginning to disappear from view because they are now traveling away from us at greater than the speed of light.

Galaxies beginning to merge

Galaxies beginning to merge

Eventually, all we’ll be able to see is our own galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy, just before the two merge. Then all we’ll be able to see is the stars in one merged galaxy. (What shall we call it? “The Milky Andromeda?” No. Too many other referents there. “Andromeda Way?” No. That sounds too much like a street name in a gated community. We’ll think of something.)

Merging Galaxies

Merging Galaxies

Moreover, the oxygen of our planet is also about half done. Microorganisms first gave us a good supply of that about 500 million years ago and it ought to last about another 500 million. That’s when the sun is going to get hot enough to evaporate all the hydrogen out of the atmosphere. No more water after that.

Piling coincidence on coincidence, our solar system — 4.5 billion years old — is just about half-way through its life. The sun is expected to explode in another 5 to 6 billion years. I once heard Tom Brokaw talking about that. He said, “And NBC News will be there to cover it live!”

And we’re still not through with these “half-way” coincidences, but this last one is of less importance. Beings the size of humans are approximately half-way on the possible size scale. We’re about half-way between the estimated size of the Cosmos and the Planck length. (That is .000000000000000000063 smaller than the diameter of a proton or .0000000000000000000000000000000001th of an inch. Imagine the state of Rhode Island, a proton, and a Planck length. The proton is larger than the Planck length by roughly the same factor as Rhode Island is larger than the proton. [Thanks to blogger Plato for the comparison.]Beneath that size spacetime ceases to exist and becomes something else. Strings, maybe? Quantum foam? Nobody knows.)

Actually, we’re a little unsure about the exact size of the Cosmos. That depends entirely on a number known as the Hubble Constant and our estimate of that number has been anything but constant. Right now we think we know it within a 4% margin of error, one way or the other. That would be like an airline pilot flying you from New York City to Sydney, Australia (9,933 statute miles) knowing only that it is somewhere between 9,500 miles and 10, 300 miles away, a margin of error of 800 miles. You wouldn’t feel confident about the plane actually hitting a runway when it landed.

In fact, everything you just read may be wrong; much of it might be and some of it almost certainly is. We just don’t know what parts. The only way it could be all wrong is if we are all wrong about the Red Shift, the phenomenon of light shifting to red wavelengths as it recedes from us, like sound lowers in pitch as it recedes. Of course, there is much evidence that the Red Shift is bang on and none that it is wrong; still, it is fun to speculate about the upheaval in physics and cosmology that would occur if a bright young graduate student someday walks into his professor’s office and says, “Now, Herr Professor, about this ‘Red Shift.’”

In a subsequent post, we’ll devote another 800 words to the history of the earth. That’s only about 5 and a half million years per word, so stay tuned.

Another Redundant Redundancy

August 20, 2008

More about the News

August 18, 2008

Recently we discussed news of the wild world. Before that we lamented the boring coverage of the presidential election which has not improved. That reminded us of a quote from David Brinkley that seems apt:

The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were.

His statement applies to newspapers as well.

Laws of Nature

August 15, 2008

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Nature has laws as well as humans.

The Law That Marries All Things

The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.

The rain is free only
in falling.

The water is free only
in its gathering together,

in its downward courses,
in its rising into air.

In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.

Or song is truest law,
and you must enter singing;
it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus
of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.

Whatever is singing
is found, awaiting the return
of whatever is lost.

Meet us in the air
over the water,
sing the swallows

Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.

Wendell Berry


Thanks to JJ Cadiz for the photo of the barn swallow.


August 13, 2008

We have this idea that if we are spending money and doing things, we must be making progress. I wonder.

Our neighborhood is being treated to a sewer. We never needed one before but we do now. Never mind that sewers are water wasters and we live in a desert, never mind that the heavy equipment used to dig mammoth holes in our streets spews forth tons of extra carbon dioxide into our air, never mind that the noise and dust makes us all crazy; we’re spending money and doing things, so it must be good. Right?

Wrong. It is noisy, noisome and offensive. It is bad for the environment — dual flush toilets (or composting toilets) and modern septic tanks are as efficient removers of waste as sewage lines and treatment plants and use far less water and energy — and it is bad for the neighborhood. One of the machines literally rattles and shakes the houses. The birds must hate it, those that are still around. Many have left. Besides, it is making us cranky.[1]

Normally, I am a mild mannered sort but even I had an altercation recently with a neighbor and I blame it on the sewer project. The neighbor is probably a reasonable person and I blame his irrational behavior on the sewer too. Humans are not evolutionarily adapted to unrelenting noise, even those who live in Manhattan or San Francisco. We need silence. Our souls need silence. And we certainly don’t need our local paper “thanking us for our patience” while they do this stupid sewer project, which includes ripping out all the existing pavement then replacing it. We haven’t been patient nor should we have been. George Washington, in his farewell address, warned us about being led like sheep to the slaughter.

That altercation was only the second time in my entire life when I failed to get along with a neighbor. I was only a little boy the first time, when the neighbor shot my dog. You read that right; she shot my dog. The dog didn’t die but my parents decided to give it away, which is one of the few things they did wrong and the one for which I’ve never forgiven them. Anyway, we nick-named that neighbor, “Pistol Pete of Maple Street” and I hope she died with a bad taste in her mouth because she shot that dog. I’m assuming she’s dead; I certainly hope she is.

But back to the sewer which, as I said before, is a bad idea and the result of Americans’ belief in progress. It is costing 10 million dollars. That doesn’t include the $3000 or so that each house will have to pay for hooking up. Imagine: $3000 and nothing will be visible. When you pay that kind of money for something, you ought to at least be able to see it. The $3000 includes crushing the septic tank and filling the resulting hole with dirt. They’ll come inspect it to make sure we did it because they don’t trust us.

A government that does not trust its citizens is in deep trouble. The local mayor has won his last election.

Nor do we have any choice. Suppose an environmentally conscious citizen, perhaps a bird watcher for instance, has installed a gray water system, composting toilets and a sanitary wetland for birds. No matter. Here is what the local ordinance says:

No person shall install or modify a private liquid waste system or use a private liquid waste system that was installed or modified after public sanitary sewer service has become available.

If we don’t hook on, we’ll be fined $100 a month until we do. As far as I can tell no one even considered the possibility of a well designed decentralized waste water system. One that the citizenry could be proud of and invested in. For instance, our little street is a dead end where we could have built a small wetland system every bit as “sanitary” as a city-wide sewer system. The birds would have loved it.

I don’t often agree with George Will but I share his distrust of “vast collective undertakings” even when it is Americans undertaking them. We ought to encourage decentralized experiments with sewage, not punish them. We are learning, after all, that environmental problems have to be addressed by all of us and in diverse ways which include, but are not limited to, collective governmental action.

Worst of all, we had a family of Greater Roadrunners living in our yard and they have gone. Maybe they’ll come back after we quit making all this progress and it’s quiet again.


[1] For a list of all the other ways in which we think we’ve made progress, please press 1; for another list, please press 2; if you’d like to talk to an operator, hang up now.

The Lunatic Fringe

August 10, 2008

Thank you Charles Schulz for a summer time reminder of the importance of summer time politics.

Summer News

August 8, 2008

We’ve had an avalanche of email, two probably, noting that our posts have been sporadic recently.  That’s because summer vacation is in progress.  Some part of it will be spent away from internet connections and the rest may be spent away from mind-finger connections.

Racoon emptied bird feeder

Racoon emptied bird feeder

But there is news here and it is different than the news at home.   For instance, last night the bird feeder you see at the left was almost full of bird seed.  A racoon emptied the entire thing during the night.  It was a careful racoon and did no damage to the feeder.  A flock of Pine Siskins discovered our thistle feeder and decided to stay for a few days.  A Red-tailed Hawk had a look from on high yesterday, called for awhile and flew on.  For dessert last night we had a peach alpenglow which lasted the better part of an hour.  And the hummingbirds are eating syrup as fast as we can make it.  We count at least four male Rufous Hummingbirds so we spend a lot of time watching Hummingbird TV.  A little Calliope Hummingbird is at one of the feeders right now.  That wouldn’t have been possible earlier this morning when one of the Rufous hummingbirds was attempting to keep all three feeders to himself.  He eventually gave that up; it was costing too many calories.

Such news was once more important than human news but that may no longer be true.  Four centuries ago five hundred million humans lived on the planet.  Now almost 7 billion do and we’re headed for 9 or 10 billion.  The human population of the globe has quadrupled in the last 100 years!  Doubled twice!  Never before and probably never again will that happen.  So human news now matters to the wild world in ways that it didn’t used to.  There are so many of us now and, collectively, we have massive impact.

Hummingbird TV

Hummingbird TV

So, stay tuned.  We’ll be back with exciting posts entitled, “What I did on my summer vacation.”  Or not.

Celebrating Birds and Birders

August 4, 2008


We’re off topic today but I spent part of last week in the mountains watching Hummingbird TV. That reminded me of  Sam Keen’s little book named simply, Sightings, an exploration of the impact of bird watching and nature has had on his life. Here is a sample:

What makes birders of the world unique is their propensity for celebration. In an age in which the major world religions are marked by serious internal struggles between fundamentalists and progressives, birders are devoted to a single-minded pursuit of joyful revelations of what is beautiful and sacred.  Their focus is aesthetic, rather that dogmatic or moral.  They belong to the uncomplicated, lighthearted, religious type that the American philosopher William James called, “the once-born.”  Life is a gift to be enjoyed is their guiding maxim.  The beauty of winged creatures leads them from sensual enjoyment to reverence for life.  In the wide spectrum of religious types, they are celebrants, practitioners of a theology of nature.