Phobos, Chariot of Fear

Phobos

The title of this posting is no hyperbole. The “Chariot of Fear” is the ancient Greek personification of the mythological God Phobos, described by the ancients as horror riding his chariot across the night sky.

In reality, the diminutive moon Phobos, almost skimming the surface of the warrior planet Mars, is a potentially innocuous place to visit assuming you have a pressure suit and oxygen to breathe. Like Earth’s much larger moon, there is no atmosphere on Phobos. There is also no appreciable gravity.

NASA and Japan are planning a joint unmanned mission to the moons of Mars in 2024. The joint venture is called the Martian Moons eXploration Mission, or MMX. Those unmanned missions may be a prelude to later manned landings since NASA has considered landing astronauts on Phobos before landing on Mars, due to the lack of atmosphere and ultra low gravity of that moon.

Using the Hubble telescope, NASA generated a short video of Phobos as it orbits around Mars.

NASA video made from 14 Hubble Space Telescope images.

While researching a new novel, I was looking for a view of Mars from Phobos. Using the astronomy software Starry Night Pro 8, I found it.

Further more, I was able to make a 3 minute video of Mars going through an entire rotation, sped up of course some 150 times.

While the above video is aesthetically pleasing because of the background stars and the entirety of Mars being in the field of view (FOV), in reality Mars is too far away in this simulation. As the NASA movie suggests, the surface of Mars is much closer (about 6000 km away from Phobos), and thus in reality Mars fills a quarter of the celestial horizon as seen from Phobos. In other words, from Phobos the FOV of Mars is about 45°, which yields a more accurate view as shown in the following video, also made using Starry Night Pro.

Mars at a realistic distance.

The shadow of Phobos can be seen racing across the surface of Mars, to the left of center of the Martian equator.

From a writer’s perspective, thanks to affordable but sophisticated astronomical simulation software and a bountiful database of space objects and trajectories, both near and far, there is no longer an excuse for science fiction writers not getting their scenes setup correctly, assuming their stories are based on the observable universe.

As for the unobservable universe, well that’s where this thing called imagination comes into play. In an imaginary universe, there’s no fact checking allowed.

Cosmic Coincidence

Almost exactly a year ago, I began writing one of my third novel’s introductory chapters. I am sharing a sample of that chapter at this time because of what seems to me to be a recently discovered coincidence.


“There is never an end to a thing once it is started, according to astrophysicist Peter Green. We can call it an end, but that doesn’t make it so.

A person can be born, grow old and die, but his or her energy goes on, somehow. It may not be recognizable, but physics says it must be that way.
Even a universe is born, grows for a seeming eternity, yet eventually it too must die. Some say in its end, there is a new beginning.

Dr. Peter Green knew those facts better than most. As an astrophysicist working with colossal machines of physics research at CERN, Switzerland, machines that have the power to peer into the beginning of the universe, he’d often thought about not just the beginning, but the ending, the ending that precedes what comes next.

His specialty was dark matter, and something perhaps related, dark energy. We can’t see either, but physics says they must exist for the universe to be what it is.

Either that, or physics is wrong, and neither Green nor his scientist colleagues had ever found physics to be in error.

But he did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales?

And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really. At least that’s how Dr. Peter Green saw it.”


Arguably, that’s a pretty unconventional thought, Dr. Green had, even for cosmologists who, as a whole, are renowned for unconventional thinking. And at the time that I wrote it, I thought it was a good way to illustrate that the character Peter Green was brilliant, but a bit odd.

Well, he is odd no longer.

I say that because just today I saw a LiveScience article, from which I quote:

“Physicists have found what could be evidence of ‘ghost’ black holes from a universe that existed before our own.

The remarkable claim centers around the detection of traces of long-dead black holes in the cosmic microwave background radiation – a remnant of the birth of our universe.

According to a group of high-profile theoretical physicists including Oxford’s Roger Penrose (Ph.D. in mathematical physics), these traces represent evidence of a cyclical universe – one in which the universe has no inherent end or beginning but is formed, expands, dies, then repeats over and over for all eternity.

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Roger Penrose

“If the universe goes on and on and the black holes gobble up everything, at a certain point, we’re only going to have black holes,” Penrose told Live Science. “Then what’s going to happen is that these black holes will gradually, gradually shrink.”

 When the black holes finally disintegrate, they will leave behind a universe filled with massless photons and gravitons which do not experience time and space.

 Some physicists believe that this empty, post-black hole universe will resemble the ultra-compressed universe that preceded the Big Bang – thus the entire cycle will begin anew.

 If the cyclical universe theory is true, it means that the universe may have already existed a potentially infinite number of times and will continue to cycle around and around forever.

Penrose is clearly one of the great minds of the world, as you can perhaps appreciate from this YouTube clip.

As a reminder, this is also what the fictional cosmologist in the upcoming novel, Dioscuri, believed.

“He did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales? And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.” 

Pretty interesting coincidence, don’t you think?

Read the LiveScience article here.

 

Living Off Universal Energy. Really?

By stuart Burns from Erith, England (_MG_7185 Uploaded by snowmanradio), via Wikimedia Commons

I thought I was misreading the title of the news article. I adjusted my glasses, then looked again.

Sure enough, the news headlines this past week actually reported on a young couple, reportedly a Breatharian couple, who claimed they had no need for food. They lived off of Universal energy, whatever that is. Most amazingly, the news-hungry press actually reported the story, obviously without a bit of fact checking.

As a physiologist, I know that is a patently ridiculous claim. It is impossible for humans to survive without eating. And as a science fiction author, I know it is not even good science fiction. The best science fiction maintains at least a little scientific accuracy.

Could it be fantasy? Maybe, but the story was reported as being true, with no hint of tongue-in-cheek.

However, it did remind me of a revelation of sorts from a few months ago, coming to me in a split second after a quick glance to the side of the road. What attracted my attention as I passed by at 55 miles per hour was a gorgeous white egret, like the one pictured, foraging for frogs and tadpoles in a ditch recently filled to overflowing with water from several days of downpours.

And then it struck me: wouldn’t it be nice if things did not have to die so that other things can live?

Now that’s a fantasy for you. Of course life is predicated upon death. Big animals eat smaller and weaker animals. Physicality cannot exist without death; you cannot live in the body unless something else dies. That’s life, pure and simple. It sucks to be the little guy.

But what about after life? Well, at the risk of turning in my scientific credentials, I will admit I do believe in an after-life, Heaven if you will, for reasons which I will not go into here. But it struck me in that brief moment of observing a beautiful bird, that only in a spiritual realm could energy exist without the simultaneous extinguishment of life.

To my way of thinking, that may be the single greatest distinction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

So thank-you Breatharian couple, practitioners of Inedia, for helping me remember my roadside revelation. Perhaps there is a place in some alien realm where beautiful birds, and beautiful frogs, and even humans can coexist without one eating the other. Maybe there is some parallel universe where our laws of physics don’t apply.

Perhaps we will someday discover that parallel universe, and call it Heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Mind Controlling Egret

IMG_7960This spring I acted as a chaperone for a second grade class visiting a park to learn about the beach ecosystem. The 7 and 8 year olds learned about Florida alligators, peered through a telescope to view a nesting osprey in the top of a dead tree, and encountered the Snowy Egret.

When I first saw the Egret, I saw nothing particularly interesting about him. He was small, an apparently young wading bird doing what Egrets do, stilting into shallow water looking for minnows.

We had just learned how tiny the brain of an alligator was, and I thought the brain of this little bird couldn’t be much larger. But what I didn’t know was that it was capable of controlling the minds of eight year old humans.

Park Rangers, never passing up a chance to educate children, wanted to show the students how fish start off life in shallow water estuaries, like that surrounding St. Andrews Park located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Small fish grow up to be big fish, or else get eaten by bigger fish, which grow up to be eaten by us. It’s all part of the oftentimes short circle of life for fish species.

IMG_7977With education in mind, two rangers took a seine net into the water and scooped up a bounty of small fish, placing them into shallow plastic pans for the children to observe.

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The children were then asked to identify as many of the small fish as they could using Ranger-provided identification charts.

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In the meanwhile, I noticed that the bird was no longer looking towards the water for fish. The Egret started sizing up the children, and apparently decided upon a different plan of action; a mind-control plan of action. The children had a lot more fish in front of them than the bird did. How could he turn that situation around?IMG_7969

Perhaps he’d learned from past experience that eight-year old boys are more easily manipulated than eight-year old girls. He seemed to single out one of the older boys and locked eyes on him. Perhaps the boy’s sixth sense alerted him that he was the recipient of stares, because he turned away from the other children and stared right back at the telepathic bird. And then I heard the boy utter the words all little fish must instinctively know will bring their doom. “Let’s feed them to the bird!”

Being a biologist by training and heart, I attempted to save this sampling of the next generation of fish by saying, “No, the Rangers want the fish back in the water to grow up.”

The Rangers remained silent, perhaps having seen this scene play out before. And the children were deaf to my words, hearing only the words of the boy. What a great idea!, their young faces seemed to say. And in a matter of seconds young hands began plunging into the shallow trays, scooping up the hapless fish, carrying the youngsters in their cupped hands to toss into the water directly in front of the waiting bird.

Temporarily stunned by impact with the water, the fish lay immobile just long enough for the bird to clasp them in his beak and swallow them whole.

Admittedly, I was too stunned to capture a photograph of the slaughter. You will just have to use your imagination; it was all over for the young fish in a matter of seconds.

At the time I wondered if I should tell my grandchild that she had been manipulated by a bird with a pea-sized brain, but I’m sure those words would have been wasted, just as had been my plea to stop the slaughter.

Biologists spend careers studying interspecies communication, verbal and non-verbal. Well, this may well be an example of non-verbal communications between animals and humans.

Which leaves me to wonder: should the normally derogatory term “bird brained” really be a compliment?

 

 

 

A Geometric Mind

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By Impronta – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

I challenge you to describe the following images in terms of simple geometric shapes: shapes such as rectangles and circles, and flat surfaces called planes.

If you see one of those shapes in the image, then mentally note it.

You may not be able to completely define the image with those simple shapes, but at least note those parts of the image where you can see a plane, or a rectangle, or a circle.

The shapes are not likely to be seen dead on; they may be seen at an oblique angle.

Color is an interesting variable in the images, but it is not the primary focus of this exercise. The ability to use geometrical shapes is the point of this post.

The first such shape is Figure 1.

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Copyright John R. Clarke.

 

The next shape is Figure 2. Do you see a lighted plane on the left partially obscured by an extruded rectangle, otherwise known as a rectangular prism or cuboid?

Temps2000-2blank1_inverted

 

Figure 3. Yet another image, somewhat similar to Figure 2:

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And a fourth image, Figure 4.

Temps2000-2blank1
Copyright John R. Clarke.

 

Now, lets try some variations on the theme.

Temps0600-3blank1Temps0600-3blank1_inverted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Temps2000-2blank1_inverted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The four images immediately above are identical to the first four images, but by seeing them in this order you may detect that there are only two unique images.

The images on the right are simply the images on the left rotated 180°; that is, they are turned upside down.

And yet most people identify an entirely different geometry, depending on which way the images are rotated.

So, seeing is believing …

… or is it?

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I do not know if this visual phenomenon has a name or not: I accidentally discovered it when looking at images to post on a laboratory wall. One figure looked unfamiliar; I was confused by it, until I happened to rotate it.

As the French say, voila. It was an optical illusion caused by our brain’s tendency to look for familiar shapes in unfamiliar and potentially confusing images.

There is a literature on the illusions of inverted images where images have been digitally manipulated (sometimes called the Thatcher Effect), but the images above have not been altered in any way.

 

 

 

 

 

In the Claws of a Monster

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Huhu Uet via Wikimedia Commons
Nature does not always provide good options. When faced with weather-related adversity, making the right decision can be as much a matter of luck as wisdom.

Homerville, Georgia is the home of some first-rate southern barbeque and home of one of the best genealogical libraries in the Southeast, the Huxford Geneological library. In June of 1975 I made an unintended stop at the Homerville Airport after flying my 1962 Cessna 150 from Thomasville, Georgia to Waycross, Georgia. My wife and Mother-In-Law were in Waycross, visiting, and on a Friday afternoon I took off in my 2-seater aircraft to meet my wife’s family 92 miles away.

As I approached Waycross a thunderstorm was directly on top of the field. The Waycross Fixed Base Operator confirmed they were being clobbered, so I made a 180 degree turn and flew 26 miles back to the Homerville airport that I had passed on the way in.

When I landed I found I was the only aircraft, and only human, on the field. But regrettably, there were no tie-downs, ropes or chains that I could use to secure the little Cessna while I found a phone to call my wife and tell her about the change in plans. The weather was good, and it should take only a few minutes to bother one of the nearby neighbors for a phone call. What could go wrong?

After I explained to my family where I was, I thanked the friendly lady who let me use her phone, and headed back to my aircraft. But as I approached the plane, the view at the other end of the runway was turning ugly. Another thunderstorm was headed straight for the field. And it was close, and mean-looking.

I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and sat there assessing what I was seeing out the windscreen. And thinking about options.

What I wanted to do was take-off and head for Waycross. I was not at all prepared to abandon my airplane and watch it be destroyed by the approaching storm. As I considered the fact that I would be taking off towards a thunderstorm, I thought of riding out the gusts on the ground, using the engine power and rudder to keep the plane pointed into the wind. But as I throttled the engine and rudder back and forth, reacting to the increasing gusts, I realized the 1000 pound plane would inevitably be picked up, with me in it, and dashed to the ground. It would not be a pretty sight, especially if it was lifted to a significant height by updrafts before being dropped.

The wind ahead of the thunderstorm rain shaft was picking up, gusting, and as I weighed the different options, the storm kept getting closer, closing my window of opportunity. As they say, the clock was ticking.

Finally, I decided I’d rather be airborne, in some semblance of control, than being airborne out of control. The storm was not yet on the field, but I knew I had scant seconds before the cloudy violence would make an escape impossible. I pressed hard on the brakes, dropped my flaps one notch, pushed the throttle full in, and when the engine was roaring as loudly as a 100 horse power engine can roar, I let go of the brakes and started my takeoff roll.

Thanks to the advantage of straight-down-the-runway storm winds, I lifted off very quickly. I stomped a rudder pedal and dipped a wing to turn as fast as I could away from the storm, passing over the roofs of nearby houses much closer than the residents were used to, I’m sure. But the plane was fully in control and headed quickly towards safety.

Although the storm winds were actually helping to push me away, I felt an occasional shudder from the back of the plane. I imagined the storm shaking me in its jowls, plucking at my wings with its sharp talons, as if angry that I had escaped its clutches.

I made it safely to Waycross, but my aircraft’s escape was short-lived.

If there were such a thing as a Storm Monster, I would think that it was malevolent, because exactly two weeks after that incident another thunderstorm hit the field in Waycross, where the plane was supposedly safely chained down. I was on the field as a vengeful storm snapped the steel chains holding down my plane’s tail, flipping the plane over on its back, crushing the tail. My little bird never had a chance.

I had risked my life in Homerville to avoid watching my beautiful bird be destroyed, only to see it destroyed in the same manner only a fortnight later.

We tell our children there are no monsters … but I’m not so sure.

N1144Y_desat_300dpicrop

Where Things Move Quickly and Darkly

I came across a great article from the New Yorker with an interesting title. In fact, my interest lasted all the way to the end.

Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)
“Albert Einstein (Nobel)” by Unknown – Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you get the feeling that science is not as pure of thought and logic as it pretends to be, then you will find some comfort in Adam Gopnik’s approachable review of the deeply hidden controversy surrounding what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Spooky action is the weirdest of all science, and makes telepathy and clairvoyance seem almost banal by comparison.

In my opinion, parts of Gopnik’s none-too-technical article remind me of the quote by Dr. Jason Parker, the protagonist in the science fiction thriller, “Middle Waters“. In a supposed speech to the open-minded Emerald Path Society, Parker said, “There are regions between heaven and Earth where magic seems real and reality blurs with the surreal. It is a place where things move quickly and darkly, be they friend or foe. The hard part for me is knowing the difference between them.”

Gopnik expressed that thought more prosaically by the following: “”Magical” explanations, like spooky action, are constantly being revived and rebuffed, until, at last, they are reinterpreted and accepted. Instead of a neat line between science and magic, then, we see a jumpy, shifting boundary that keeps getting redrawn.”

Gopnik goes on to say, “Real-world demarcations between science and magic … are … made on the move and as much a trap as a teaching aid.”

To be honest, I did leave out Gopnik’s entertaining reference to Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Again, if you have ever been suspicious of the purity of science, the New Yorker article is well worth the read.

Unlike the concerns of Einstein, Neils Bohr and the rest of the cast of early 20th century physicists, the anxiety of Jason Parker, the fictional hero, is not cosmological; it’s personal. It’s every bit as personal as it is for each of us when we sometimes question our sanity.

Yes, real life can be like that sometimes, when things intrude into our ordered lives, as quickly as a Midwest tornado, but with less fanfare and warning. But every bit as destructive. And it is at those points, those juxtapositions with things radical, unexpected, that we end up questioning our grip on reality.

After all, what could be more unexpected and unreal seeming than the notion that cosmological matter we can’t see, dark matter, could send comets crashing into the Earth, as Gopnik mentioned, and the  Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall wrote about in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

So, Jason Parker had every reason to be wary of things that move quickly and darkly. They can be a killer.

Sometimes, as in the case of Parker, those internal reflections do end up having a cosmological consequence. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to occasionally reexamine our lives for the things which may seem one day to be magical, and the next day to be very real.

In short, the magic should not be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, just like “spooky action at a distance” and “dark matter”, it may not be magic after all.

 

 

Burn My New State Flag – I Don’t Care

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I’ve decided to invent a new series of non-controversial flags for all 50 states of the United States of America.

I began with a plain white flag. Not much to be controversial about there. (By the way, I was not the first to think of that.)

Then I proposed adding to each state flag the two letter state identifier used for our postal system. We’ve been using those for decades, so again, no controversy.

For instance, the Florida flag would be white with FL in the middle of it. If the state is really proud of itself, it could be a big, bold FL. If they’re a little embarrassed by, oh I don’t know, crime rates, hate crimes, voter apathy, or whatever, they could use smaller letters, and maybe not bolded. The voters could decide.

But voters would not get a choice on the overall design. Two white letters on a pure white background – that is the state flag formula.

Of course I tried this idea out on a focus group made up of mixed gender identity, mixed ethnic, educational level, and mixed financial levels. I even took care to keep the test group evenly divided among political parties.

And that’s when the trouble began.

Unfortunately there were many, many complaints, but I’ll only mention some of the more interesting ones; all based oddly enough on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Take my state of Florida or example. FL stands for Florida of course, but the “F” in it represents the element Fluorine, a chemical which I believe has strengthened my teeth since childhood. But some believe it is a toxic chemical dumped into our water supply by all levels of government, (county, city, state and federal) to poison Americans. [Google it. I will not provide a link to those websites.] I’m highly skeptical of that notion, but I wouldn’t want to offend them by forcing them to look at “Fl”uorine on their flag.

And then there’s Florida’s neighboring state, Alabama. AL can stand for Alabama, but it also is the symbol for aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and not very strong. Some Alabamians don’t like that word association, even though it’s been on their U.S. mail since 1963.

AR for Arkansas also means Argon, a narcotic gas. Some didn’t want to be associated with stoners.

GA for Georgia is also gallium. Gallium melts at approximately body temperature, which was too troublesome of an association for those who are still pained by Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia. A melting-in-the heat mineral connotes weakness, which Georgians certainly don’t want their flag suggesting.

The most memorable scene in "Gone With the Wind" was the recreation of Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's destruction of his own munitions train. The scene was filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles in December 1938.
A frame from “Gone With the Wind” published at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/08/31/The-burning-of-Atlanta-seared-into-America-s-memory/stories/201408310090

CA for California, also stands for calcium, a component of lime, which is basically crushed limestone. Water and carbon dioxide react to form acidic water that dissolves limestone. With an atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and global warming, some apparently fear that acid rain will dissolve their state, leaving nothing but caverns leading straight to geological fault lines. Even though I don’t think there’s an awful lot of  limestone in California (certainly not like Florida), some just don’t concern themselves with the facts. Apparently, for them this fear is too horrendous to contemplate, so CA is out as far as a state flag goes.

MT stands for Montana, or Meitnerium. I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of that one, but apparently some apologist did. I was quite surprised to find out that Meitnerium was created by Germans after a week of bombardment of bismuth with iron. The notion of Germans bombarding anything with iron for a week was simply too painful for those who had survived the Nazi bombardment of Russia and Poland. Apparently some take the analogy very seriously. The MT flag had to go.

Louisiana, or LA, is also Lanthanum, which in Greek means “escapes notice”. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. It was reported that students from the LSU Chemistry Department strongly objected to being compared to a soft, highly reactive, and hardly noticed element. I guess I can see their point.

PA or “Protactinium” sounded like an interesting element synonymous with Pennsylvania. That is until someone pointed out the following from the Los Alamos Periodic Table of the Elements. “Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no practical uses for protactinium other than that of basic scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is generally extracted from spent nuclear fuel.” OK, I get it. There is basically nothing in that sentence that would be a point of pride for Pennsylvanians.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Not far away geographically or chemically from PA is MD, or Mendelevium. That element is named after Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian Chemist who apparently invented the (or maybe “a”) Periodic Table. He is certainly a noteworthy man to help us remember the state of Maryland (MD), but ever since Vladimir Putin went on the offense in Eastern Europe, no state wants to be associated with anything Russian. I can understand that.

Then there is Indiana, or Indium. Now who could find anything to complain about either Indiana or Indium? Well, lo and behold, someone read that Indium gives out a high-pitched “cry” when bent, somewhat like a little girl I suppose. That20140530_125613 discovery immediately condemned it as being sexist, mocking our youngest young ladies.

Really? This is getting ridiculous.

There were a few flags that were not deemed objectionable by anyone. For example, MN stands for Minnesota, or Manganese, as in deep-sea manganese nodules. No one objected to MN, so Minnesota, I guess your flag stands. The same went for SC, South Carolina, or Scandium; no objection. Then there was CO for Colorado, or Cobalt, and MO for Missouri or Molybdenum.

Ironically, people have been writing these state initials on their stationary for years and no one objected. However place the same initials on a state flag and someone gets offended; which is a fact that puzzles me. You see no one salutes a state flag. No one pledges allegiance to it. It has no power, no meaning. If you don’t like my flag, make up your own!

To be fair and all-inclusive, I thought about alternative flag designs that might appease everyone. Suppose we just number the states in the order in which they entered the union (ratified the Constitution). The first four would be Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But of course some highly competitive New Yorkers might be miffed that Georgia, a Southern State, entered the Union before New York did. And we can’t have any New Yorkers miffed.

So then I considered a random number generator. Your state might be State 87.42 and the adjoining state might be 91.82. That was a fine idea until I considered that the same problematic scientists who fussed over their concerns with a Periodic Table of the States would question how truly random was the random number generator.

It exhausts me to think of the possibilities.

So, if I was King for a Day I would simply say this is how it will be: All states will have white flags with two letter state identifiers. If someone doesn’t like it, then burn it, deface it, walk on it; I don’t care. It has no meaning except to let people know what state they’re in. And if that’s a problem, if people really don’t know what state they’re in, then using my powers as King for a Day I’d give everyone a free GPS.

Now, does that make everyone happy?

 

Of Mussels and Whales

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Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It was a coincidence forty years in the making. I was recently at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, talking to Scripps professor and physician Paul Ponganis about deep diving whales. He told me about the recent discovery that Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, an elusive whale species, had been found to be the deepest diving of all whales.

How deep I asked? One whale dived to 9,816 feet, about 3000 meters. At that depth, water pressure exerts a force of about 4400 pounds per square inch (psi), equal to the weight of a Mercedes E63 sedan pressing on each square inch of the whale’s ample body surface. That is a seriously high pressure, a fact that I knew well since I had once created that much pressure, and more, in a small volume of sea water in a pressure vessel at the Florida State University.

Early in my science career I published my work on the effect of deep ocean pressure on intertidal bivalves, a mussel (Modiolus demissus) being among them. I found that if you removed the hearts of such molluscs (or mollusks) and suspended them in sea water, they would continue to beat. Furthermore, those excised hearts would beat when subjected to 5000 psi of hydrostatic pressure. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, the slight genetic differences between Atlantic subspecies and Gulf Coast subspecies of mussels resulted in the isolated hearts responding slightly differently to high pressure.

 

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If you’ve eaten live raw oysters, a cousin to mussels, you’ve eaten beating hearts like the one in this photo. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )

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The mussel Modiolus demissus in their natural habitat at low tide (Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was a remarkable finding I thought since none of those mussels had ever been exposed to high pressure; ever as in for millions of years. (This study occurred long before the discovery of deep sea vents and the almost miraculous growths of deep sea clams.)

Eventually my research transitioned from invertebrates to humans. Humans, like intertidal mussels and clams, are not normally exposed to high pressure. But like my unwilling invertebrate test subjects, sometimes humans do get exposed to high pressure, willingly. But not so much of it. Deep sea divers do quite well at 1000 feet sea water (fsw), manage fairly well at 1500 fsw, but don’t fare well at all at 2000 fsw. That depth seems to be the human pressure tolerance limit due to the high pressure nervous syndrome, or HPNS. At those pressures, cell membranes seem to change their physical state, becoming less fluid or “oily” and more solid like wax. Cells don’t work normally when the very membranes surrounding them are altered by pressure.

The Beaked Whale is genetically much more similar to man than are mussels. Therefore, man is far more likely to benefit by learning how Cetaceans like whales tolerate huge pressure changes, than we are to benefit from the study of deep diving (albeit forced diving) clams and mussels.

As I talked to Dr. Ponganis it was obvious to him, I suspect, that I was excited about learning more about how these animals function so beautifully at extreme depths. But to do that, you have to collect tissue samples for study and analysis in a laboratory. The only problem is, collecting useful tissue samples from living whales without hurting them may be a bridge too far. Humans rarely even see Beaked Whales, and if the Cetaceans wash up on shore, dead, their tissues have already been degraded by post-mortem decomposition, and are no longer useful for scientific study.

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MIT’s RoboTuna; ca. 1994. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Potentially, here is a job for underwater Cetacean-like robots that when released in a likely Beaked Whale environment, can locate them, dive with them, and perhaps even earn their trust. And when the whale beasts least expect it, those robotic Judases could snatch a little biopsy material.

If only it were that easy.

Considering how difficult it would be to acquire living tissue samples, would it be worth the effort? Well, if man is ever to dive deeper than 1500 to 2000 feet without the protection of submarines, we must learn how, from either the mussels or the whales. My bet is on the whales. Unlike mussels, the whales dive deep for a living, to catch their preferred prey, squid and deep sea fish.

 

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What are arguably the first studies of the effects of high pressure on intertidal bivalves (mussels and clams) can be found here and here. Moving up the phylogenetic scale, Yoram Grossman and Joan Kendig published high pressure work on lobster neurons in 1990, and rat brain slices in 1991. I made the leap from mussels to humans by conducting a respiratory study on Navy divers at pressures of 46 atmospheres (1500 feet sea water), published in 1982. For a more recent review of high pressure biology applied to animals and man, see the 2010 book entitled Comparative High Pressure Biology. My theoretical musings about the mathematics of high pressure effects on living cells can be found here.

With time, these studies, and more, will add to our understanding of mammalian pressure tolerance. However, it may well take another generation or two of such scientific effort before we understand how the Beaked Whales make their record-breaking dives, and survive.

 

 

 

To Elect a Mockingbird

file000319876044The days when Kings led their Army into battle are long gone. Not so, for princely animals who through loyalty, devotion, or instinct act at times with seemingly calculated personal abandon.

It was a spring day when I stopped my car at an intersection, then made a gentle right turn onto a crossing street. In front of me, scarcely 30 feet away, a curious standoff was underway.

A mockingbird was standing in the road, face to face with a cat that weighed a good 100 times more than the bird. They were no more than five feet away from each other. Since it was spring, I’m guessing that mockingbird was defending a nest with young.

As the cat saw my car approaching, he moved from the center of the road to an adjacent driveway, and the fearless bird flew up to the top of a mailbox just a few feet away. There the slim grey bird held the high ground and acted as hawkish as a little bird can. It was not in him to be intimidated by a much larger, more powerful, born-killer of birds.

As I continued down the road and lost sight of that duo, I had a funny thought. If that mockingbird ran for political office, I think I’d vote for him.

Granted, that was a curious, and to me humorous, thought which I rethought when I shortly thereafter found myself reading to my Granddaughter the best-selling book “Duck for President”. 61UbeEcTm8L__SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Well, OK then, maybe it wasn’t such an idle thought after all. If a duck can be elected, at least in the mind’s eye of children, how much better a mockingbird?

 

 

 

I am Neanderthal, Pt. 3

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Neanderthal. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

I feel like a seeded watermelon.

Ever since I was created by the curiosity of government and university scientists, I have lived through no efforts of my own. I have the largesse of the U.S. government to thank for that. You see, they paid for the research that created me.

And now, I contribute nothing to society. I pay no taxes, work no jobs. The only decisions I’m allowed to make are restricted to which television program to watch, or which book I want to read. (In case you wondered, I’m not a slow reader. I read quite well, thank-you.)

I live basically in a zoo, except I am the only specimen there, and the zoo keepers all wear lab coats. I suppose the lab coats are designed to protect them were I to spit on them or throw excrement.

I admit, as a child I used to act out with what you consider primitive behavior, throwing feces to vent my anger. I do have tough skin, but no child wants to be continuously poked and needled and questioned. Would you?

But I’ve outgrown that. I’ve learned that when it suits me I can produce a terrifying stare or a teeth-bared snarl that scares the crap out of the more timid researchers. Ah yes, I do enjoy having fun at their expense. It’s about the only thing they can’t control in my otherwise manufactured and manipulated world.

And of course they don’t dare punish or threaten me, because I am, after all,  the rarest person in the universe, the only living Neanderthal.

But about that watermelon?

Having nothing to do of any real value gives me time to think … lots of time. Now, since a part of me is a part of you (genetically that is), I’ve been inclined to wonder why my kind is gone, and you Homo sapiens have become the overlords of the planet, at least for the time being.

And I’ve decided that I am truly a seeded watermelon, and you’re seedless.

The seedless watermelon is very much like the older, and almost extinct seeded variety, but with one subtle difference; it’s infertile. (If this analogy becomes too Freudian for you, just keep your mind on watermelons.) Watermelon is, I sincerely believe, one of God’s gifts to man.

But of course you Homo sapiens weren’t content with that. No, you decided to take advantage of a genetic flaw, a freak watermelon with few if any seeds, that is quite incapable of sustaining itself in the gene pool.

Since spitting out melon seeds is apparently such a difficult proposition for your kind, the seedless variety is overwhelmingly popular. It has crowded out the natural watermelon from grocery stores, so I hear.

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Photo Credit: Steve Evans (Watermelons) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been reading about how, based partially on my IQ test results and other research, scientists have decided we weren’t mentally inferior to you. And for sure, as my own testing by the Army has confirmed, we were far stronger.

So what’s not to love?

OK, we are a little shorter, squattier than Homo saps, and from what I hear tall men have a selective breeding advantage over shorter men. So could it be simply a matter of Neanderthal women preferring to breed with you guys,  the new kids on the block, and not with us more vertically-challenged guys? Could that be why my kin disappeared, and why many of you have Neanderthal genes?

I mean, really, could it be that simple; a matter of sexual attraction? Did short-sighted Neanderthal women breed our unique species out of existence?

Well, who would have thought an infertile and obviously biologically deficient watermelon would have replaced the real thing in popularity?

But it has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nightmarish Thoughts of Being Eaten

DSCN1233aThere is a downside to situational awareness.

I discovered this fact while 868 miles north of the Arctic circle, 600 miles south of the North Pole. It took place in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, a part of the well-known island Spitsbergen. 

I was helping the Smithsonian Institution train divers in polar diving. My job was to teach them about scuba regulator performance in frigid water.

A fact of life in Ny-Ålesund, the most northern continuously occupied settlement, a research village, is that Polar Bears are always a threat. In fact, one came through town during our visit to Svalbard.  The Greenland sled dogs, tied down outside, were understandably, and quite noisily, upset. The bear walked right past them.

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After the excitement of that nighttime polar bear prowl had begun to wane, the incident remained as a not so subtle reminder during seemingly routine activities. For you see, polar bears are emotionless killers; to them, we are prey. Tracking and eating a human gives it no more pause than us picking blackberries alongside the road. For adult polar bears, humans are simply a conveniently-sized food item, not nearly so fast and wily as their typically more available meals, seals.

Unlike the ploy of divers bumping potentially predatory sharks on the nose to dissuade them from biting, bumps on the nose don’t work with polar bears. Without a gun by your side, a walk in Svalbard is a walk on the wild side, and not in a good way.

2007-03-1505-59-59_0077I was observing and photographing boat-based diving operations from the end of a long pier jutting 375 feet (115 m) into the Kongsfjorden. Normally in March the fjord is ice covered, but the year I was there (2007) there was no ice to be seen except at the nearby glacier.

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I had been standing at the pier’s end for a while taking photographs, and soaking up the polar ambiance, when I looked back and realized that from a safety standpoint, I was vulnerable. That is when situational awareness began to kick in. 

We were in a deserted, industrial portion of the town. The old coal mining operations were shut down long ago. Other than the divers on and in the water, I was the only one around. And I was stuck out on the end of a very long pier, with no means of escape.

If an intruding and hungry bear made its appearance at the land side of the pier, I would be trapped. Although I was dressed for cold, I was not dressed for cold water. That water was, after all, ice water. Polar bears, on the other hand, are excellent swimmers in polar water. So after I’d jumped into the water, which I would have if faced with no alternative, it would have taken the bear only a few furry strokes before he would have me. While he or she would find my body parts chilled on the outside, my internals would still be pleasantly warm as they slid down its gullet.Me cropped

Being a sensible person, I called the boat drivers over and put them on alert; should a polar bear appear at the far, land-side end of the pier, they should pick me up post haste. Otherwise, there would be no way I could safely escape from my vulnerable position. No photograph is worth dying for. 

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Being nice fellows, they agreed they would keep an ear out for my shouts. They then returned to their duty of waiting for and recovering the divers.

 

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As the boat eventually sped off with its load of thoroughly chilled divers, I realized that I had been deluding myself all along. At their distance and with the noisy interference of the boat motor, my shouts would have been inaudible. And from their low position on the water, they would have been unable to see what I was so agitated about; until it was too late.

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My return back to the safety of the diving center was a cautious one; with the full realization that I was exposed and vulnerable for the entire route. Fortunately, safety was only a third of a mile away, but that was a long 500 meters, which gave my alert mind plenty of time to focus on walking quietly, and avoiding being eaten.

Nothing focuses the mind like knowing that close by, hidden by piles of snow, could be lurking a camouflaged predator looking for lunch.

 

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This Youtube video shows a Polar Bear searching for food in Ny-Ålesund during the brief Arctic summer.

 

 

The Turtle Who Came to Swim

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An adult member of the Slowsky family.

The recent Comcast Xfinity ad campaign featuring the animatronic tortoises Bill and Karolyn Slowsky reinforces the attitude that turtles, or tortoises to be exact, are slow moving.

Occasionally a surprisingly large turtle lumbers through our yard. Sometimes we spy a baby, or perhaps an adolescent. And true to expectations, they are all painfully slow. Well, let’s face it, they’re carrying a lot of baggage.

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A presumed Suwanee River Cooter Turtle after its swim in our pool.

But one day this past summer I saw a black, turtle-shaped object on the bottom of our pool. It was probably an adolescent, clearly not a full grown adult. At first I thought it had drowned, but that notion was quickly dispelled. It was moving, or more correctly, it was walking, as if it was entirely normal to be walking on the bottom of a pool.

From a distance it looked  like a Box Turtle, and I suspected it had fallen into the unkempt pool while taking a stroll through our yard, just like the baby turtle being held in a 6-year old’s hands.

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Baby turtle pulled from our pool skimmer.

After observing this creature for awhile, I noticed it seemed to be in no distress whatsoever. He would occasionally walk up the sides of the pool, float at the surface taking a breather, and then at the first hint of something new in its environment, would quickly dive to the bottom, stubby arms and legs pumping mightily, seemingly in a near-panic.

What impressed me the most, was the speed with which he could move underwater. You think turtles are slow? Well, think again. The accompanying video will show you otherwise.

A Boy Scout Troop leader and amateur naturist helped me with a partial identification. It was not a Box Turtle at all, but a variety of aquatic turtle curiously named Cooter.  Cooter turtles are aquatic turtles, but are known to travel considerable distances over land when it suits them, to relocate to another body of water. As they lumber over land, like their other turtle kin, they give no indication of their underwater agility.  However, as the video shows, they can be very agile, and comically clumsy in their rush to avoid a potential predator.

After I’d netted the seemingly woe-begotten turtle and moved it to the lawn, I watched it  just long enough to make sure it was alright, and then let it return to its wanderings. It never occurred to me that his visit to our pool may have been deliberate.

If I had detained it longer, and photographed it more carefully, I might have firmly identified it. But it really didn’t matter;  whatever it was, it was soon on its way. 

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Webbed foot of an aquatic turtle.

My original thought that he was not an aquatic turtle but a terrestrial turtle accidentally fallen into the pool came from the observation that he walked on the bottom, like Navy salvage divers, and did not swim. I would have guessed that if he could swim, he would have. But apparently that assumption was wrong. Also, I was expecting an aquatic turtle to have webbed-feet, and this turtle’s feet were only half-webbed, as shown in the photos below. Maybe that’s why it could swim, but preferred to walk. 

 

 

Foot 2

 

 

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Although the turtle moved slowly and deliberately both on land and on the pool bottom, when spooked it moved very quickly. They are capable of a speedy get away when they feel threatened near the surface.

I don’t get the feeling that the Slowsky tortoises have that capability. But then, I could be wrong. Maybe I should ask Xfinity.

 

 

 

 

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Phytophotodermatitis and the Fig Tree from Hades

My fig tree is a diabolical, horticultural menace sprouted from a demon seed. I’ve tried to kill it, but it won’t die.

In general, I love trees, and figs, but this particular fig tree (Ficus carica for the Latin purists out there) has sorely offended me. It has attacked me, causing, as they say, bodily harm.

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My fig tree shortly after its attack. Looks innocent, doesn’t it?

And to top that, it doesn’t even produce edible figs. Some people call them goat figs, because only goats are undiscriminating enough to eat them. I’m guessing any goats eating my figs will be cursed — for eternity.

Fig Leaf

The conflict began like most conflicts, with an innocent encounter. I was using a water hose to tunnel under a concrete slab to install a 3-inch diameter drainage pipe. I then inserted a five-foot long piece of pipe. So far, so good.

But I decided I needed to replace that pipe with a longer, more flexible pipe, which promptly got stuck in the hole. Looking into the tunnel I’d made I saw that some relatively small roots were now in the way. I cut them with a lopper and then blindly inserted my left hand into the hole to help pull the pipe through.

It was a tight fit, and the back of my hand was grinding into the sand and the cut ends of the roots as I tussled with the pipe and finally pulled it through the hole. There was no pain associated with the sandpapering of my hand. But, as I later realized, I was grinding something toxic into the skin.

The next morning I looked at an irregular shaped red blotching on the hand. I assumed that the sandpapering from grinding against the sand grains had irritated the skin. But as time went on, the discoloration got worse, not better. A physician friend recommended a combined antibiotic and topical steroidal ointment, and bandages to protect the irritated skin. Dutifully applied for several days, that treatment resulted in absolutely no improvement. In fact, the discoloration seemed to worsen.

I continued to work on the drainage project outside, and, as it turned out, sun light seemed to make the discoloration worse.

A week later when irregular shaped blisters erupted, I realized that my skin had reacted to something in the sand, and the most likely candidate was fig tree sap from the roots I’d cut moments before inserting my hand.

The Internet revealed that fig tree sap was highly irritating to human skin. In fact, it appears to be an effective chemical weapon.

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Warning: when magnified this looks pretty gross.

Quoting from AllAllergy.net, “Phytophotodermatitis is an acute skin reaction that may be easily confused with other causes of contact dermatitis. It is characterized by sunburn, blisters, and/or hyperpigmentation. The reaction takes place when certain plant substances known as psoralens, after being activated by ultraviolet light from the sun, come in contact with the skin. This report describes phytodermatitis due to contact with figs. (Watemberg 1991)”

Amazingly, the discoloration of my hand is still visible 6 weeks after the insult. But, I’m happy to report, that fig tree is not; visible that is. It was cut low to the ground. Eerily, it’s toxic sticky sap continuously coats the stump, so apparently that bedeviled fig tree is not entirely finished with its mayhem.

That sappy stump will, no doubt, be plotting a comeback this winter, out of pure botanical meanness. But I am firmly set on a plan of containment. Only time will tell whose chemical weapons are the more effective, the tree’s or mine.

Strangely, my war with the fig tree got me to thinking about art censorship. It’s true.

Most art devotees are aware of the stylistic device of  placing a sculpted fig leaf in a strategic  location to disguise the anatomical humanness of otherwise manly looking gods or athletes. Apparently, this form of censorship was foisted upon the art world by powerful religious prudes of  the Enlightenment.

Two Weeks Fig Sap
Two weeks after exposure to fig sap.

Well, as I sulked about my long-lasting dermatological insult, I  got to wondering; why would anybody even think of putting a fig leaf anywhere near what is arguably a sensitive part of the human body? 421848-statue_with_a_fig_leaf

I strongly suspect that the artisans would not have deliberately incorporated fig leaves as part of their design, because they probably knew all too well just how irritating fig leaves can be.

I imagine Adam and Eve were both made rather uncomfortable by their leaves. Perhaps that was part of God’s revenge for their disobedience. Makes me wince to think of it.

But I digress. This current horror story ends like most horror stories; the foe fig is vanquished at the end. But just before the ending credits role, you catch a glimpse of the fig tree stump, still pulsing its hellish chemical weapons, and not at all fully dead. For all I know, it may already be planning its sequel, where it turns really nasty.

Lesson learned: I’ll be waiting for it, with gloved hands next time.

 

 

Cold Water Regulator Blues

It’s a black art, the making of scuba regulators for use in polar extremes; or so it seems. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Once you find a good cold water regulator, you may find they are finicky, as the U.S. Navy recently discovered. In 2013 the Navy invested almost two hundred hours testing scuba regulators in frigid salt and fresh water. What has been learned is in some ways surprising.

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Looking at a pony bottle that saved a diver when both his independent regulator systems free-flowed at over 100 feet under the thick Antarctic ice.

DSCN3557cropThe Navy has been issuing reports on cold water regulator trials since 1987. In 1995 the Navy toughened its testing procedures to meet more stringent diving requirements. Reports from that era are found at the following links (Sherwood, Poseidon).  (Here is a link to one of their most recent publicly accessible reports.)

The Smithsonian Institution and the Navy sent this scientist to the Arctic to help teach cold water diving, and to the  Antarctic to monitor National Science Foundation and Smithsonian Institution funded trials of regulators  for use in the under-ice environment. What those studies have revealed have been disturbing: many regulator models that claim cold water tolerance fail in the extreme environment of polar diving.

The Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) has developed testing procedures that are more rigorous than the EN 250 tests currently used by European nations. (A comparison between US Navy and EN 250 testing is found on this blog). All cold water regulators approved for U.S. military use must meet these stringent NEDU requirements.

Nevertheless, we learned this year, quite tragically, that the Navy does not know all there is to know about diving scuba in cold water.

For example, what is the definition of cold water? For years the U.S. and Canadian Navies have declared that scuba regulators are not likely to freeze in water temperatures of 38° F and above (about 3° C). (The 1987  Morson report identified cold water as 37° F [2.8° C] and below). In salt water that seems in fact to be true; in 38° F scuba regulators are very unlikely to fail. However, in fresh water 38° F may pose a risk of ice accumulation in the regulator second stage, with resultant free-flow. (Free-flow is a condition where the gas issuing from the regulator does not stop during the diver’s exhalation. Unbridled free flow can quickly deplete a diver’s gas supply.)

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The regulator on the left free-flowed, the one on the right did not.

While a freshly manufactured or freshly maintained regulator may be insensitive to 38° F fresh water, a regulator that is worn or improperly maintained may be susceptible to internal ice formation and free-flow at that same water temperature. There is, in other words, some uncertainty about whether a dive under those conditions will be successful.

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An isolator valve that can be shut to prevent loss of gas from a free flowing regulator.

That uncertainty can be expressed by a regulator working well for nine under-ice dives, and then failing on the tenth. (That has happened more than once in Antarctica.)

That uncertainly also explains the U.S. Antarctic Program’s policy of requiring fully redundant first and second stage regulators, and a sliding isolator valve that a diver can use to secure his gas flow should one of the regulators free flow. There is always a chance that a regulator can free flow in cold water.

A key finding of the Navy’s recent testing is the importance of recent and proper factory-certified maintenance.  Arguably, not all maintenance is created equal, and those regulators receiving suspect maintenance should be suspected of providing unknown performance when challenged with cold water.

This finding points out a weakness of current regulator testing regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Typically, only new regulators are tested for tolerance to cold water. I know of no laboratory that routinely tests heavily used regulators.

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Weddell seal on the Antarctic sea ice. Photo copyright Samuel Blanc. (From Wikimedia Commons).

Considering the inherent risk of diving in an overhead environment, where access to the surface could be potentially blocked by a 1400 lb (635 kg), 11 foot (3.4 m) long mammal that can hold its breath far longer than divers can, perhaps it is time to consider a change to that policy.

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About to descend through a tunnel in 9-feet of ice on the Ross Ice Shelf.

 

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A huge Weddell Seal blocks the diver’s entry hole. He looks small here, but like an iceberg, most of his mass is underwater.

 

 

The Immigrants in My Backyard

I admit it; I have long been angry at the immigrants living in my backyard.

When I moved my family back to Florida over twenty years ago, I was thrilled by the sight of the beautiful green anoles (lizards) scampering over the white stucco walls of our house.

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Green Anole, from Wikimedia Commons.

But over the years the native green lizards have all but disappeared, replaced by the drab brown lizards which immigrated somehow from Cuba and the Bahamas.

We can’t get Cuban rum or Cuban cigars, but we have Cuban lizards. How did that happen?

Anyway, it is a well proven scientific fact (see pages 12-28 of the linked publication) that when Cuban brown lizards move into a territory, the Green lizard population plummets. Part of the reason is because the larger brown lizards eat the young of native Green Anoles. That alone is enough to make me angry with them; although human anger is better directed towards human atrocities than against instinctive animal behavior. I know that, as a scientist, but still there is the annoyance I cannot quench at the loss of the Greens who, after all, belong here.

One particularly cold morning when the temperature had uncharacteristically dropped to 20° F overnight, I found a Brown Cuban Anole had crawled up to our front porch, trying, I suppose, to get as close to the house’s heat as possible. And there he lay, stiff and dead.

I actually rejoiced in the immigrant’s vulnerability. I remember thinking, “Bet it doesn’t get this cold in Cuba, does it? See, you should have stayed;” as if that frozen lizard had a choice in the matter.

As a matter of curiosity, and definitely not sympathy, I moved his stiff body out on the sidewalk where the warming sun rays were beginning to fall. I was thinking perhaps the local cats would like their lizard breakfast with the chill taken off it.

Imagine my surprise when I found 20 minutes later that the lizard was moving, and a few minutes after that, had managed to scurry off into the garden. Well, you have to admire toughness; and who doesn’t enjoy a surprise?

In the past couple of weeks these little guys’ toughness and their surprising lack of fear has helped me to appreciate these invaders, just a bit.

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He’s hard to see; a good survival strategy.

I have been pushing my physical limits digging drainage trenches through root infested sandy soil. Much to my surprise, the Brown Cubans have been watching me, closely. Apparently my disturbance of the ground stirs up insects and small worms which the Anoles then feed upon with lightning quick forays into the digging zone.

What surprised me, however, is just how close they approach the digging. The most extreme example of lizard fearlessness was when I used a string trimmer to mow down ground-cover so I could uncover an outdoor sump pump. A Brown Cuban was hanging upside down on the stucco wall of the house, barely a foot away, with clippings from the cutter flinging at high speed into the wall where the lizard remained still but vigilant. He was completely unperturbed by the machine noise and the constant barrage of vine debris. Tough little critter, I thought. photo (36)

Apparently, he had only one thing in mind;  the prospect for the sudden appearance of food stirred up by the string trimmer.

During another phase of the project, what seemed like the same large Anole perched himself on any high elevation available so he could watch my digging. Every once in a while he would hop down into the disturbed dirt to snag a morsel, seeming unconcerned by the fact that a steel shovel was working the earth.

On one occasion he ran 18 inches or so right up to my foot to snag some insect I had failed to see. At the foot of the giant —  yes, that little guy was fearless.

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The Foreman lizard, keeping a watchful eye on my work.

OK, I had to admit, no Green Anole had ever done that before.

As I continued to work one hot Saturday, covered in sweat, I began to enjoy my constant companion. So much so that I picked up a camera and started taking photos of him, without the flash of course. I didn’t want to blind him.

On one shot the flash went off unexpectedly just inches from his face. He bolted. After 10 minutes or so, when he was nowhere to be seen, I actually felt bad, thinking that I’d scared him, or worse, blinded him. Yes, I know it was strange, that the Brown immigrant hater, me, actually felt remorse for my carelessness with the camera.

Finally, after another 30 minutes or so, he showed up again, as if nothing had happened. And with that, I felt forgiven.

Obviously, my hard attitude towards these immigrants has softened. The more time I spend with them, the more I appreciate their positive qualities: fearlessness, willingness to appreciate me as a food provider. They are in a word, opportunistic. And that, I believe, gives them  an advantage over the more timid native Green Anoles.

As for the Cubans feeding on the natives? Well, they get as good as they give. Neighborhood house cats, who are certainly not native either, feed nightly on the Cubans. I cringe when I watch a cat flip an Anole, of any color, into the air and down it head first in a single gulp. That is the way of nature, and the fact that I like it or not has no influence at all on the outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Tiny Titans

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Broad-Headed Skink
(From Wikimedia Commons, photo credit Nvillacortabuer)

Seen up close, the contestants in this battle were impressive. One was a male Broad Headed Skink native to the Southeastern United States. The other was a male Minotaur Beetle. The insect contestant was plucked off a log in Atlanta, Georgia. The Broad Headed Skink was scooped off a red brick wall of a house in Waycross, Georgia. The Skink was fast, but not fast enough to avoid capture.

The Grandmother of the house warned me that the Skink was poisonous. After all, he had a red head. But in truth he wasn’t at all poisonous – he was simply a male, and his red head and broad, for a lizard, shoulders were apparently irresistible to female Skinks.

I moved that manly looking lizard to my office at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I’d converted a 10-gallon aquarium into a terrarium, and it made a nice lizard home. To give him a sense of security, I placed into the glass enclosure an 8-inch long section of used radiator hose, and closed off one end. He had, in effect, a little den; and he took to it immediately.

I fed him live crickets which were easily found in the adjoining woods, or bought from a bait store. Each of those insects, once placed in the terrarium had a very short life span — they were quite defenseless against the large and relatively toothy lizard.

And that is where the Minotaur Beetle came in.

Male Minotaurs have the appearance of a horned tank. They are armed with weapons on their head and thorax to fend off attackers, and a seemingly indestructible chitin armor. I simply could not resist wondering what would happen when these two creatures met, face to face.

Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus), Photo by Jacob Fahr, used under Creative Commons License. Click for original source.

And so it began, this pairing of impressive but small beasts.

By hand I placed the miniature triceratops into the terrarium. He was much too bulky and self-assured to be threatened by me, and  he seemed to accept that some God was placing him into a new world, a world to be conquered, and if possible, eaten.

He remained motionless for a moment, seeming to survey his new environment. Then he spied the dark tunnel which promised an interesting place to hide, and so he started lumbering towards it. I, of course, knew that a large Skink lay resting in the deepest recesses of that cave. Things were about to get interesting.

From a philosophical and historical standpoint, tunnels and caves have always been dual-natured. For humans they are a way into this life, and seemingly viewed by many on approaching the end of life. They provide safety and shelter, but are also a threat. One never knows what is lurking inside a newly encountered cave.

If the beetle was concerned, he didn’t show it; he headed straightway for the tunnel. Once his armored legs climbed into the radiator hose, they clicked with each step. Tic, tic, tic, – like the clicking of an old fashioned wristwatch. Tic, tic, tic, with about two clicks per second as each of the six legs carried him further into the cave.

After many dozens of tics I heard two reptilian hisses. I had never heard that Skink hiss before.

And then the fight began in earnest, with scratching, scraping, hissing and a general ruckus that lasted for five or ten seconds. Then silence  —  followed by tic, tic, tic, at a no more hurried or slowed pace than before.

The encounter was fought to a draw. The beetle vacated the hostile cave, and the much larger lizard chose not to pursue the well-armed intruder. The beetle emerged from the radiator hose unscathed with the exception of a couple of shallow teeth marks on its heavily armored carapace.

Nature had endowed that little beetle with the ability to repel assaults by creatures lurking in the dark, creatures twenty times longer than the beetle.

The beetle had earned its freedom, back to the same rotted log from which it was found. The Skink was also released into the wild shortly after, but not before those two combatants taught me a valuable lesson.

Actually, there were three participants in the lesson, if I count the crickets. As always, reproduction has something to do with it.

Crickets have no armament, but because they have no heavy armor they can jump and avoid some of their enemies. Because they advertise their presence by the chirping we associate with the essence of summer nights, they have a high probability of meeting a mate before they meet a predator.

In the experiment called life, the Minotaur is 180° out of sync with the cricket. They are slow and solitary, and have to be heavily armored to, on average, avoid  being eaten prior to reproduction. My little experiment proved, to me at least, the wisdom of their biological design.

My little experiment also proved to me that the story of David and Goliath, even on a miniature and non-human scale, can be immensely satisfying. Predictably, Goliath was not slain, but neither was the dark beetle with a propensity for inhabiting dark spaces; spaces filled with the giant monsters of baby beetle nightmares.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Keep the Placenta and Throw Away the Baby”

On the occasion of the birth of my daughter’s second child, I was reminded of one of the strangest medical conversations I’ve ever had. It occurred during the birth of my daughter, our second child.

I was on the staff of Shands Hospital and University of Florida School of Medicine, Gainesville, FL. My wife was pregnant with our second child. As a professional courtesy, the Chief of the OB/Gyn department had promised he would personally deliver our baby, regardless of when the time came.

When the time did come, in the middle of the night of course, I observed the baby’s head delivered but with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around the baby’s neck. “Nuchal cord x2” is what the medical record later read. The only part of the baby I could see at that point in the delivery, the head, was  a stunning blue color.

The color blue works well on Smurfs, but at that time Smurfs had not yet been discovered. So seeing our baby arriving with that color was a tad disconcerting.

With the confidence of thirty or forty years’ experience with deliveries of all grades of difficulty, the muscular gray-haired physician grabbed the loops of umbilical cord and attempted to slip them off the baby’s neck and over its head. But birth is by nature a well lubricated process, and those strangling loops were slippery enough to slip from his hands.

 I think time slowed for me just a bit as I saw the blue baby and the experienced master of his craft thwarted by bodily fluids. It was, to use the medical vernacular, concerning, at least to me. However, time had not slowed for the obstetrician. Within another second he had repeated his attempt, and this time was successful.

As the baby pinked up and revealed herself to be a girl,  my level of concern returned to normal, along with my heart rate.

Shortly thereafter, this kindly physician was attending to the second birth, the “after-birth” or the mother’s expulsion of the placenta. I remarked on the event often missed, or at least unappreciated, by the layman. I commented on what a wonderful yet transient organ the placenta is. Gray39

 That was when he responded with the phrase in the title of this posting. “Sometimes I think we should keep the placenta and throw away the baby.”

It was a remarkable thing he said. Yet it was not intended, and I did not take it, as a comment about the inherent worth of babies. But rather it was a shared appreciation for the miracle of pregnancy and birth, and all the structures and systems the female body creates to nurture and sustain new life. Of course we share this miracle of the placenta with most mammals, such as rabbits, dogs, cats, and yes, even rats, but that does not make it less amazing.

From an engineering standpoint it is incredible to think that the connection between mother and child, a wonderfully and intricately designed anatomical throw-away, should in fact be discarded so unceremoniously.

Of course, non-human mammals eat the placenta, recycling some of the energy invested in that organ. But modern day humans usually discard it.  

Usually; meaning the Internet abounds with suggested ways to prepare and eat the placenta. Well, like chocolate covered grubs, some tastes have to be acquired, I suppose.  And then there is some element of cannibalism, the eating of human flesh, associated with this practice that thoroughly grosses this writer out. If it’s your thing, part of the ritual celebration of the creation of life, well, then it’s your thing. To each his own, as they say.

 But the point is, at that moment, that physician and I both felt a sense of awe at what the human body sacrificed to bring a new human being into the world.

When the excitement of birth is over and the credits roll on the screen for the theater of life, don’t fail to notice the name of the Placenta as it goes by. Arguably, it’s every bit as important as the “gaffer” or the “grip” to the success of any theatrical event.

HumanKangaroo
Click the photo to go to the original source.

Without it, we would not be placental mammals. We would be, well, kangaroo type mammals, but without the tail. Children would develop and be suckled in pouches.

Interesting imagery there.

 

 

 

 

The Magic of a Perfectly Proportioned Body

running
Click on the photo to go to the source link.

I was challenged to a race by a five-year old little girl. If I was not so amazed by the outcome, I would be humiliated.

When I say little girl, I mean really little, like 38 pounds and about three and a half feet tall, with spindly arms and skinny legs. She was a little wisp of a child, and so I thought it funny that she would challenge me to a race around the yard.

After all, in my day I used to be a reasonable sprinter. I was not on a track team, but I was one of the fastest in my college gym class. My only concern was that I would have to hold back and pretend to let her beat me so she wouldn’t break down in tears. You know, pre-kindergarten kids have pretty labile emotions. They cry a lot.

As it turns out, they also laugh a lot.

 Together we chose where the race would start and end, and before I knew it she was off, giving herself about a five-yard head start before telling me to start. Fair enough I thought; the puny child deserves a head start.

The only problem was, when I started running I found I was not closing the gap. Her tiny feet, with a diminutive stride, were eating up the yard at least as fast as were my much longer legs; maybe faster. Not being a trained runner she couldn’t resist looking back at me, laughing gleefully as she continued her headlong charge. I just knew she’d trip when she looked back, but yet she didn’t stumble. If anything, the distance between us was increasing.

Apparently I’d gotten out of practice.

I saw my chance to cheat — and took it (experience counts for something). As she ran behind a car parked in the driveway, I cut through a small garden and slid between the car and house, almost bowling over her startled father.

I’m sure she was shocked when I suddenly appeared just ahead of her, but exerting her champion-like dominance of the sport, she grabbed my shirt, pulled me back and shouted forcefully, “Get behind me.”

I obeyed of course, pleased by my outwitting of a five-year old, but not really wanting to teach her that cheating pays. So I let her win.

As I bent over with my hands on my knees, panting hard, I begged for mercy when she said she wanted to race again. I wouldn’t stand a chance the second time.

Being both a biologist and a physical scientist, I have marveled at the anatomical design of young children. They are perfectly proportioned for survival. For example, they are no match for a wrestling match with older kids or adults. Their weight and muscle mass is too small, and they understand that. Yet when it comes to running away from other kids, or adults, or wild animals, they would seem to fare pretty well. The amount of muscle mass for their weight is surprisingly well balanced, resulting in an amazing ability to sprint.

I would also have to conclude that my muscle mass to body weight ratio is no longer ideal  — by a long shot. Therefore when she next challenges me to a race I may be tempted to say, “How about a game of scrabble instead?”

Would that be cheating?

 

 

 

Not Exactly a Horse Whisperer

Bundy Palomino Quarter Horse
Good horse

I have always been kind to animals, but for some reason animals have not always been kind in return. Case in point; horses.

While dating the girl who eventually became my wife, I was given a chance to prove my manhood by riding one of two horses. She chose her friend’s horse, a sedate, well-trained Palomino quarter horse mare, Millie, and I was given Trigger to ride, a tall, dark, manly-looking quarter horse stallion.

As a youth I had taken riding lessons, English style, which seemed to be a refined gentleman’s way to ride. Of course as a young teenager I was neither refined nor a gentleman, but I think my parents hoped something good would rub off on me, other than the scent of sweaty horse flesh. That early training did give me confidence, but it did not prepare me for Trigger.

220px-WesternSaddle2
Western saddle

Trekker
English saddle

The first thing I had to get used to when riding with the girl I was trying to impress, was the Western style saddle with a prominent saddle horn. English saddles have no such horns, simply because you don’t need to rope calves when engaged in gentlemanly riding. But that seemingly anachronistic saddle horn may well have saved my life.

Trigger was appropriately named. Every time I mounted that horse I seemed to trigger a rude bout of equine depravity. On one such ride, accompanied by my girl on Millie, we decided it would be good sport to transition from a canter to a full gallop. Great fun I thought.

Except Trigger did not make smooth transitions. His erratic, rough sprint caused me to lose my seat on the saddle, and with only one foot in a stirrup and one hand welded onto the saddle horn, my head was suspended inches from the unpaved, sandy road whizzing past, with the maniacal horse’s hooves slicing back and forth a scant nose distance from my face; or so it seemed.

Quarter horses are fast sprinters, and to that horse it didn’t matter if his rider was firmly seated or not. I must admit that being inches from hoofs and sandy road presented an interesting visual perspective. It’s not one you often see — and survive.

American-Quarter-Horse-Screensavers_1
Crazy horse (click link to go to photo source, Softpedia)

During another horse riding adventure, my girlfriend and I were again riding Millie and Trigger, respectively, along that same sandy road. Once again we were galloping because that’s what young people like to do, (especially slow-learning ones like myself). Millie was commanded to slow and make a hard right turn onto an intersecting road. True to character, Trigger would have none of that.

Given the choice of going at light speed straight forward, or slowing and making a right turn, he chose the path least taken – a 45° angle through a plowed farmer’s field.

 A horse’s mind is a difficult thing to fathom. Perhaps he was looking for intellectual freedom from the rider sitting atop him. I don’t think I was whispering to that demon horse as we churned up the newly plowed land. I was probably shouting things unkind, but he didn’t seem to care.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I began to associate the color of that horse as no longer dark and manly, but as dark and brooding; or more appropriately, plotting. As my wife recently told me, it was lucky I wasn’t killed.

 Recently, scientists have sought to determine experimentally whether horses are lazy or bored. Trigger was neither. He was, well, the word that comes to mind is… fiendish.

Perhaps you have known a seemingly diabolical horse like Trigger. If so, my condolences; but to be fair, I cannot blame the horse. As they say about dogs, children, and horseback riders: they all need training to be enjoyable. 

 

 

A Conversation with a Cloud

clouds2I lay on the summer grass with a young lady friend of mine. We were holding hands affectionately, talking softly about nature, love, and a future that was fated never to happen. As we talked about nothing of lasting importance, I pointed to a dying cloud. All of the clouds drifting lazily overhead were dying as the day’s heat was dissipating and the air was becoming calm, preparing for evening.

I suspect it’s an infrequent event when someone points out an act of nature that had always been visible, but had never been noticed. Indeed, we watched, not saying a word, as the first of the day’s puffy clouds ceased to exist.

I was pleased with myself; glad that my prediction had been proven true, and pleased with her reaction. In fact, I was so pleased that I still remember that incident, many years later, even though the face of the girl has mercifully faded from my memory.

However, now that I have matured enough to ponder the imponderables of life, I realize there is more to the story. As I replay the event in my mind I realize that the cloud talked back to me.

I know that sounds bizarre, but all I can say is that my memories, perhaps having been repressed due to their strangeness, are finding their way back into my consciousness. Perhaps there’s a reason for their reappearance at this stage in my life.

I am not dying; the cloud closest to me seemed to be saying.

I was at first taken aback. After all, who’s ever heard a cloud speak.

I said I am not dying.

OK, if a cloud is willing to talk to me, I suppose I should respond. That would only be polite.

“Yes you are,” I argued, politely of course. “You’re getting thinner by the minute. In fact, you’re disappearing before my eyes.”

I’m not dying; I’m resting.

I laughed, with Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch in my mind.

“Well, resting or not, you’re quickly disappearing.”

But I’m still here.

“You’ll be long gone, any minute now.”

I am moisture; water vapor. That will still exist. It just won’t be visible to you.

“But your whiteness, your cloud, what you are, will be gone.”

I am not a cloud. I am moisture. A cloud is my physical appearance, but that changes throughout my life. And regardless of how I look, what I am, vapor, still exists.

“Well, you’re looking very anemic now.”

I am not anemic!

Apparently the fading cloud had feelings, and perhaps a little bit of a temper.

“Well, you are at least looking very benign right now.”

Like I said, I am resting. Today my mission is to provide shade. Today is an easy life for me.

“So, does that mean you’ll be reborn tomorrow?”

Of course.

“And you’ll look different?”

No two clouds are ever alike.

Strangely, I was beginning to understand that cloud, just a little perhaps, through some seemingly impossible way. And then I had an uncharacteristically profound thought, for a young man.

“You say the true you is nothing more than water vapor. Would you call that your soul?”

By now the cloud had completely disappeared, but I could still hear its voice in my head.

It is what I am. It is always there; it does not change. If that is what you call a soul, then so be it.

By now the voice of that thing that used to be a cloud was fading as the invisible vapor moved on.

Needless to say, I did not discuss what I was hearing with my then girlfriend. She moved on to another boy soon enough.

The next day dawned with building cumulus. There was instability in the air, and clouds were pregnant with moisture. Wishing for confirmation of what had happened the day before, I turned my attention to the nearest cloud.

“You look full of life this morning.”

I heard nothing.

I tried again, “You look very full of life this morning.”

You talkin to me boy? The cloud was growing vertically as well as horizontally.

“Well, I was trying to.”

Yes, I thought I heard you thinking I was pregnant.

I sincerely hoped that no one else could hear this … uh… conversation, if you could call it that.

You’re right, though. I’m about to give birth.

“To rain?” I wondered out loud.

Rain? Oh no. That’s the process, but not what is borne.

“I don’t understand”.

I give birth to puddles, ponds, lakes and oceans; any container that my rain falls into.

“Containers? Really?”

Tell me little man, do you have a mind?

I laughed. “Last time I checked. What a strange thing for a cloud to ask.”

OK, then where is it?

“In my head of course. In my brain.”

Oh you silly little man.

“What?”

Your brain is the container. Your mind is shaped by the container, but it is not the container.

It seemed very strange getting a lesson — well, maybe I could charitably call it a philosophy lesson — from a cloud. But then they tell me all knowledge is being stored in clouds. I wonder if this is what they mean.

Pay attention. I’m telling you important stuff here.

“I’m sorry; my mind was wandering.”

Minds do that. They don’t like being kept in containers; it’s too confining.

“Do tell.”

Do you know your mind survives even when your brain does not? Your mind can leave its container just like my water can leave its containers.

This was beginning to sound suspiciously like the ancient mind-body problem. Is the mind the brain, or vice versa?

Except that could not possibly be. After all, I was talking to a — cloud.

“So if we have a soul, you’re saying our soul retains its mind?”

You like that word, “Soul”. You used it yesterday.

“How do you know that?”

If you can believe it, that cloud chuckled, in a vaporous sort of way… I swear it did.

All information is shared in the clouds. That’s why I’m talking to you.

But to answer your question, yes. Your soul retains its mind. Actually, humans have been taught this for thousands of years. Yet most of them still don’t seem to understand. Which puzzles me — it’s really not that difficult.

“You know, I hate to be skeptical, but you seem way too smart for a cloud.”

Oh come now, do you really think clouds can talk?

For some inexplicable reason I was shocked by that question. Apparently I had already suspended disbelief as this second day’s conversation had become more and more interesting.

Having been forced back to reality, I answered. “Well … no. Not really.”

They’re a parable. It’s Me whose talking to you.

“Me who?”

There was no answer. I asked again, “Me who?”

 

That question has never been answered.

In Search of Glories

Recently my inner child took notice of a circle of light racing across the cloud tops as I cruised at 7000 feet and 180 mph with the prevailing westerlies at my back. I was headed east above the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle, and the late afternoon sun crept ever lower behind my right wing. Like a fighter in loose formation, the ring of colored light was keeping pace with the aircraft, just in front of my left wing.

My adult self realized that the spot contained a shadow of the airplane, but the bright halos around the dark shadow puzzled me. When my inner child asked me what it was, I had no ready answer.

I’d seen those halos before without really understanding them, but now I had a chance to photograph them. I grabbed cameras and recorded the beautiful phenomenon while the autopilot kept the aircraft on course.

One of the advantages of general aviation aircraft is that we often fly at the altitudes of the DC3s, the early airliners. Which meant that at 7000 feet I could open a small window beside me without depressurizing the cabin and give the camera a clear view of what I was experiencing.

An understanding of what I was seeing would have to wait.

[youtube id=”sV90o44sCE8″ w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

With few exceptions, Glories remain in the realm of pilots and Angels. By association, many pilots feel privileged to see a glory. I know I do.

Without knowing the science behind glories, pilots may even interpret them as signs of the divine. After all, they do look suspiciously like halos seen in medieval religious art. Indeed, “glory” is another name for those iconic halos.

Science is only able to partly demystify the subject of glories. The best technical explanation is that glories are the result of reflections (back-scattering) of sunlight coming from directly behind the observer. The tiny spherical water drops in clouds are the objects that scatter the sun light. Oddly enough, the size of the water droplets determines the size of the glory, which by the way may contain multiple rings as seen on the videos in this posting.

MiePlot simulation of scattering of sunlight from r = 4.8 µm water drops superimposed on a digital image of a glory taken from a commercial aircraft. From philiplaven.com.

This process of ring formation from water droplets is called Mie Scattering, and is described mathematically by Mie Theory. Phillip Laven’s website, http://www.philiplaven.com/index1.html, provides an ample resource for the curious.

Glories have proven to be such an elusive quarry, that I, like many pilots, have developed a fascination with them. Therefore I could not resist making a brief video, with music, of the glories encountered on that one eastward flight. In it you see a classical glory, followed by a fleeting and hard to photograph glory on the side of a cloud, followed by apparent flight into an ever moving cloudbow.

 

[youtube id=”CKtkzOpmSUM” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would You Rather Face a Cunning or Relentless Foe?

Suppose you find yourself on an alien planet, battling with indigenous species. On your side, you have smarts, both natural and technological. The alien defenders have nothing; no technology. Well, they do have slime, but that’s all.

Brains against the brainless: Who do you think will win?

Blithely headed into tick-infested woods.

I spent a summer weekend with my family in a cabin in the Virginia mountains a few years ago. It was nature at its finest, until we discovered after a short walk in the woods that ticks seemingly rained down upon us and were invading our bodies as fast as their little legs could move. We were food, and they were hungry. Human-sized meals didn’t come around those woods very often, apparently.

The entire family, adults and children, stripped down to our underwear on the porch of the cabin, trying to rid ourselves of the invaders. Modesty took second place to the fear of miniature arachnids.

Once the imagined itching had abated and the baby was asleep, we soothed our nerves with puzzles and games, or reading from a well-stocked bookshelf. I picked a book with an interesting cover; it was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

I cannot say enough good things about Scalzi’s debut novel, a futuristic science fiction, other worlds story. Suffice it to say, it features combat between Earthling soldiers and all sorts of bizarre and ruthless alien life forms. Although Scalzi didn’t write about invading armies of ticks, per se, I could easily envision such a terrifying encounter.

This author devouring Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”.

I also think and write about extraterrestrial aliens. Like most writers, I assume ETs are sentient, and calculating. Depending upon the writer, those ETs may have either high morals, or no morals at all, but they always have a brain.

Lately, I’ve had to rethink potential plot elements dealing with intelligent life forms. The reason is, scientists now claim that a single celled animal, a slime mold, acts with a shocking degree of intelligence. The kicker is, being a single celled organism, slime mold does not have a brain.

Slime mold knows a good thing when it finds it. (Photo credit: SB_Johnny)

Intelligence without a brain?

Compared to slime mold, ticks are geniuses if we count the gray matter cells contained in their single-minded heads. However, according to a Japanese researcher the brainless slime mold can solve problems even scores of engineers could not easily solve.

Sounds like science fiction to me.

So now imagine the following storyline. Your spaceship lands on a verdant planet that has no higher, brain-possessing life forms, at all. However, what it does have in abundance is slime mold. And of course the threat from slime mold is easy to ignore — until it is too late. The mindless protoplasm senses all sources of food, and fans out in all directions, following the scent.

The ship’s science officer tries to warn the mission commander, but the arrogant and miscalculating commander responds with a volley of lead rounds into the nearest slime; which of course is not in the least bit deterred from its food-finding task.

And when the crew sleeps, as of course they must, the brainless mold finds the food sources, one by one, absorbing the human nutrients.

Human-sized meals don’t come around those woods very often, apparently.

 

Being brainless, slime mold cannot be considered cunning. But, one could argue, it’s not stupid either: it can’t be tricked. It is, if anything, relentless.

From a cinematic perspective this is not an entirely new theme. The 1958 movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen popularized the idea of mindless organisms devouring humans. But at that time there was no real science behind it. Now there is.

Some interesting science facts about slime mold are found in this link and the following Scientific American – NOVA video.

[youtube id=”lls27hu03yw” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Diving, What is Best is Not Always Good

A Closed Circuit Rebreather diver in a Florida spring.

In technical or recreational rebreather diving, safety is a matter of personal choice. Wrong choices can turn deadly.

Some poor choices are made for expediency, while others are made with the best of intentions but based on faulty or incomplete information. As a diving professional, it is those latter choices that concern me the most.

David Shaw

A poignant and well documented diving fatality involved a record setting Australian diver, David Shaw. David was an Air Bus pilot for Cathay Pacific.

Professional pilots are immersed in a culture of safety, a culture that makes airline travel the surest means of long distance transport. David applied that same sort of attention to his diving, recording on his personal web site his detailed plans for a record setting dive to recover the body of a diver who died in the 890 feet (271 meter) deep Boemansgat Cave of South Africa 10-years prior to David’s ill-fated dive.

Despite his extensive preparations, David Shaw made a fatal mistake. Like those who fail to appreciate the threat of an approaching hurricane, David failed to recognize the risk of really deep diving with a rebreather.

Unlike other types of underwater breathing equipment, a rebreather is entirely breath powered. That means you must force gas entirely through the “breathing loop” with the power of your respiratory muscles. On a dive to 890 feet, you are exposed to 28 times normal pressure, and breathing gas more than five times denser than normal. The effort involved is enough to dismay some U.S. Navy divers at depths far less than David Shaw intended to dive. Yet in David’s own words, he had previously never had a problem with the effort of breathing.

“The Mk15.5 (rebreather) breathes beautifully at any depth. WOB (work of breathing) has never been an issue for me. Remember that when at extreme depth I am breathing a very high helium mixture though, which will reduce the gas density problem to a certain extent.”

He goes on to say, “I always use the best quality, fine-grained absorbent on major dives. The extra expense is worth it.”

“I have had 9:40 (9 hrs, 40 min duration) out of the canister and felt it still had more time available, but one needs to qualify that statement with a few other facts. Most of the time on a big dive I am laying quietly on deco (decompression), producing minimal CO2 (carbon dioxide).

In those words lie a prescription for disaster.

A rebreather scrubber canister containing granular absorbent through which a diver has to breathe.

David wanted to use a single rebreather that would accomplish two tasks — provide a long duration gas supply and CO2 absorbing capability for a dive lasting over nine hours, and provide a low work of breathing so he could ventilate adequately at the deepest depth. To ensure the “scrubber canister” would last as long as possible, he chose the finest grain size, most expensive sodalime available. His thought was, that was the best available.

Arguably, the two aims are incompatible. He could not have both a long duration sodalime fill and low breathing resistance.

Cartoon of breathing through a scrubber canister.

As illustrated in a previous blog posting, the smaller the size of granules you’re breathing through, the harder it is to breathe. Think of breathing through a child’s ball pit versus breathing through sand.

Perhaps if David had maintained a resting work rate throughout the deepest portion of his fatal dive, he might have had a chance of survival. After all, he had done it before.

But the unexpected happens. He became fouled and was working far harder to maintain control of the situation than he had anticipated. That meant his need to ventilate, to blow off carbon dioxide from his body, increased precipitously.

A sure sign of high breathing effort is that you cannot ventilate as much as is necessary to keep a safe level of carbon dioxide in your blood stream. CO2, which is highly toxic, can build rapidly in your blood, soon leading to unconsciousness. From the videotaped record, that is exactly what happened.

Purer A, Deason GA, Hammonds BH, Nuckols ML. The effects of pressure and particle size on CO2 absorption characteristics of High-Performance Sodasorb. Naval Coastal Systems Center Tech. Manual 349-82, 1982. (Click for larger image.)

Had David been fully aware of the insidious nature of carbon dioxide intoxication from under breathing (hypoventilating), he probably would have chosen an alternative method to conduct the dive.

One alternative would be to use a larger granule size absorbent in a rebreather at considerable depth (say, 100 meters and deeper), and reserve the fine-grain absorbent for use in a separate rebreather shallower than 100 meters.

David chose the fine-grain absorbent because of the longer dive duration it made possible. Although fine grains are more difficult to breathe through than large grain absorbent, fine grain absorbent lasts longer than large grain absorbent.

But that long duration is only needed during decompression which is accomplished far shallower than the deep portions of the dive. The time spent deep where work of breathing is a threat is quite short. He did not need the capabilities of a long duration, fine grain absorbent.

From the U.S. Navy experience, there are other problems with this dive which might have hastened the end result. A rapid and deep descent causes the oxygen pressure within the rebreather to climb to potentially dangerous levels; a phenomenon called oxygen overshoot. Thus he might have been affected somewhat by oxygen toxicity. A rapid descent might also have induced the High Pressure Nervous Syndrome which would affect manual dexterity.

While those contributing factors are speculative and not evident on the tape, the certainty of the physics of dense gas flow through granular chemical absorbent beds is an unavoidable fact.

No doubt, many have offered opinions on what caused David’s accident. I certainly do not claim to be intimately involved in all the details, nor familiar with all the theories offered to date. Nevertheless, David’s mistaken belief that using the “best absorbent” was the best thing for his dive, is a mistake that needs to be explained and communicated before this accident is repeated with a different diver in some other deep and dark place.

Click to go to the source document.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions About Personal Black Holes

Thank-you for contacting Cosmic Capacity Corporation’s FAQ regarding our popular Personal Black Hole Product.

1. The price of your product seems astronomical. Will there be equally large maintenance fees?

As they say, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. But keep in mind, science has shown that if your PBH is not properly maintained it will disappear due to Hawking radiation.

2. Why do you only show artist’s conceptions of the PBH?

It is microscopic. That is the only way to make sure the PBH remains safe for the environment. And of course, CCC is an environmentally mindful enterprise.

3. I need the highest level of security for shredding sensitive documents. Will the PBH provide that?

There is no higher security. Once in, there is no coming out.

4. Our local landfill is filling up. Can I lease my PBH to my local municipality for garbage disposal?

You can within reason. Too much garbage input will cause uncontrolled growth of the Black Hole, and as you must understand, that would be undesirable.

5. The hardware front-in to the PBH supposedly limits the amount of feeding of the PBH I can do. Is that hardware reliable, and can it be defeated?

Any attempts to defeat it will cause a transitory swelling of the PBH, just enough to consume whatever is attempting to tamper with the device. Again, physics dictate that the swelling will be both limited and transient. Of course the device will be consumed in the process and your investment will be lost.

6. Why is there such a prolonged security review for any potential CCC customers?

CC Corp has to be satisfied that criminal elements are not purchasing our equipment for nefarious purposes, such as body and evidence disposal. While our device is obviously ideal for that purpose, we would be negligent to not screen, within the limits of the law, all potential customers.

7. If say, a government entity, were to use your device to dispose of weapons and munitions, would that process be safe?

The physically catastrophic events occurring at the event horizon make safe any material entering it. For Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) questions, please contact our military sales representative.

8. I have heard that black holes may spawn other universes. If so, are there security concerns associated with that?

Well, as they say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” But security should not be your concern. Any universe spawned by human waste or discarded items is unlikely to be suitable for life as we know it.

9. The bullet riddled body of my traitorous Uncle Harry is unlikely to become a star or something on the other side. Right?

Why do you ask? Who are you?

 

 

Maximum Parsimony – In Diving and the Cosmos

Image credit: Niko Lang and Booyabazooka

I admit it, my early training in physics has made me irritatingly sensitive to the principle of parsimony.

Parsimony, pronounced similarly to “alimony”, can be summed up by the following: the simplest approach to understanding nature should be considered before contemplating a more complicated line of reasoning. In a famous example, it is more probable that planets, including the Earth, orbit around the sun than the visible planets and the sun orbit around the Earth. Of course, in a different time that probability was not obvious to the common man. But then they hadn’t been thinking about parsimony.

Thank-goodness someone (Nicolaus Copernicus) did.

In the search for habitable exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system), the following statement was recently made by astronomer Steve Vogt in response to a storm of skepticism about a potentially habitable planet. “I do believe that the all-circular-orbits solution is the most defensible and credible,” he said. “For all the reasons I explain in detail … it wins on account of dynamic stability, goodness-of-fit, and the principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor; in Latin, lex parsimoniae).”

http://www.space.com/16673-gliese-581g-habitable-planet-existence.html

William of Occam (also Ockham) was an English theologian of the 14th century. He did not invent the premise behind his razor, but he famously used it to slice through the complicated philosophies of the day and rebut them by an unfaltering demand for simplicity over complexity.

Photo credit: damianskinner.com

Medical students are taught essentially the same principle, albeit using different words: “When you hear hoof-beats, don’t think of zebras.” Wise physicians know that occasionally zebras do show themselves, but they should not be the first thought when a patient presents with unusual symptoms.

If simplicity is to be generally preferred over complexity, then an example in the diving literature comes to mind. This example annoys me to no end, but I’m slowly coming to terms with it. It is the growing popularity of referring to the respiratory effort required to breathe through a scuba regulator or a closed-circuit underwater breathing apparatus (a rebreather) as work (in joules, J) per tidal volume in liters, L.

When work in joules (J) is divided by volume (L), dimensionally the result is pressure (kiloPascals, kPa). To be exact, what is often called work of breathing in diving is actually the average pressure exerted by a person over the entire volume of a breath. The principal of parsimony says that if it is a pressure, if it has units of pressure, then we should call it a pressure (kPa)  and not something more complicated, such as Work of Breathing specified with units of J/L.

The light grey ellipsoidal area within this pressure-volume loop is equal to the work (J) of breathing for that breath.

(Examples in the regulatory diving literature correctly using Work of Breathing with units of joules can be found in early editions of NATO STANAG 1410. EN250:2000 is an example using the units of J/L for work.)

I find in my dealings with non-respiratory physiologists, that the concept of work of breathing is difficult to grasp since mathematically it involves a definite integral of pressure over a change in volume. I have made various attempts to simplify the concept, but I still find knowledgeable medical professionals misunderstanding it. In fact, mathematical integrals seem to be as frightening to most physicians as poorly dissected cadavers would be to laymen. Even engineers who certainly should grasp the intricacies of work and power end up confused.

I’m sure it adds to the confusion when some diving physiologists speak in quotients. For example, since a cubit is a length of 48 cm, and a hectare is 2.47105 acres, you could describe a person’s height as 165,400 cubic cubits/hectare. Dimensionally, that would be correct for a six foot (1.8 m) tall individual. However, most people would prefer the units of feet or meters rather than cubic cubits per hectare. Certainly, the simpler description is far more parsimonious than the former.

The shaded area within this triangle is equal to the “Work” inside the previous P-V loop. By dividing by tidal volume, you obtain the average mouth pressure on the vertical axis.

For the same reason, it makes more sense to speak of a descriptor with units of pressure as simply pressure (kPa) rather than a quotient of work per liter (Joules/L).

If describing a simple parameter like pressure as a quotient is not defensible scientifically, is it defensible psychologically?

Maybe. The U.S. Navy has used terms like “resistive effort” to convey the impression that a volume-averaged pressure is something that can be sensed by a diver. To breathe, divers have to generate a pressure in their chest, and that pressure generation requires effort.

“Effort” is admittedly not a hard-science term: it doesn’t even pretend to be. However, the use of “Work of Breathing” connotes hard science; the concept of work is pure physics. But as I have shown, the way it is increasingly used in diving is not pure physics at all. So its use is misleading in the eyes of a purist, and undoubtedly confusing to a young engineer or physicist.

But to a diver, does it matter? Does it somehow make sense? Do divers care about parsimony?

Well, I have yet to find anyone who does not intuitively understand the notion of the work involved in breathing. If they have asthma, or have tried breathing through a too long snorkel, they sense the work of breathing. So I imagine that the inexactitude of J/L is of no import to divers.

However, I also believe that the over-complication of an arguably simple concept should be just as unappealing to designers of underwater breathing apparatus as it was to William of Occam or, for that matter, the designer of the Cosmos.

 

 

 

 

 

Furry Aviators – Bats

Not every animal that flies is an aviator. June bugs and mosquitoes fly without any particular destination in mind; they just seem to flit around, hoping to detect a random meal. In my way of thinking, to be called an aviator you have to navigate, to use the air as a travel medium with a destination in mind, either consciously or subconsciously. By definition, navigation is not random; it is purposeful. Migrating Monarch Butterflies qualify as navigators and aviators, and so do migratory Bats.

While visiting Austin, Texas, I searched the front pages of the Austin Telephone directory for points of interest. No. 1 on their list was the nightly bat show at the downtown Congress Ave. Bridge.

I was just one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists waiting on and around the bridge to see the show that night. Once downtown I was told that about half of the 1.5 million strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony had already migrated to Mexico for the winter, but the remaining bats might put on a good show at sundown. They did.

Bats exiting the Congress Ave. Bridge, Austin, TX. From: http://joyridevideos.com/567/ignite-your-senses-in-austin-tx/

Once the skies had fully darkened, I saw what looked like a soundless horizontal waterfall of bats erupt from underneath the crevices of the bridge structure. Can you imagine 1000 planes a second leaving a major airport at the same time, using all available runways, with no controllers and no collisions? That’s how it seemed.

I watched with morbid fascination as a very fat bug made the biggest mistake of its short life by blundering near the bat departure pattern. At least five bats peeled out of the pattern and within milliseconds honed in on the hapless target. The first bat to the target must have gotten a meal because the squishy bug disappeared out of the traffic pattern with nary a puff of smoke. No NTSB investigation needed.

Walking up on the bridge for a different view I saw an even more incredible sight. Every once and awhile a bat jetting up the departure pathway would make a high speed 180° turn and head straight back into the torrent, without getting hit, best I could tell in the midst of the furiously flinging wings. It made the head-to-head passes of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels look like child’s play. Why they did that I don’t know; maybe just for the adrenaline rush.

On the other hand, even the best aviators can screw up. I saw evidence of this back in Panama City while looking out at my pool one evening. In the dim light I could see ripples in the usually glass smooth surface of the pool.  On investigating, I found a Little Brown Bat in the pool, spreading its wings to support itself by the surface tension of the water. They really were — dare I say it — water wings. But it was clearly tired and in danger of drowning.

Had his bat radar gone on the fritz? Or did he just mess up like the occasional seaplane pilot who becomes disoriented by a glassy water surface. On the one hand, bats can maneuver safely through a storm of oncoming high velocity fellow bats, but could be foiled by something as innocuous as a still water surface. Strange.

I guess even great human pilots have messed up for lesser reasons.

A frightened Little Brown Bat.

I scooped up the bat in a net and laid the wet furball on the ground to recuperate. Oddly, after a minute’s rest, the bat started crawling forward towards my foot using the hooks on its wings to pull himself along. Then he climbed onto my shoe. My Granddaughter who was watching the whole scene thought that was very strange. I did too.

But then the little water-soaked bat started climbing up my slightly nervous leg. I assure you the sensation of having a bat crawl up your leg can be discomforting, but my sense of curiosity was far more compelling. I was trusting he wasn’t looking for a place to bite me. However, as he got closer to my most sensitive region, that thought began to really concern me.  Fortunately all he wanted to do was climb, to safety from predators I assume. At least he didn’t consider me a predator. Maybe he thought I was a tree: I was, after all, standing oh so still.

As he approached my neck I began to wonder whether he was a werebat, looking for a succulent neck. Then it occurred to me that fleshy earlobes might be ripe for biting — like fat bugs perhaps, in a bat’s mind. Yet strangely I didn’t feel threatened, even when I could feel his hooked wings gently grab a “handhold” on my neck.

I then realized that once he reached the top of my head he had nowhere to go. And the thought of a bat sitting on my head for a while was not all that appealing. I wasn’t about to pick him off my head without a thickly-gloved hand. They do have teeth.

So I choose a non-confrontational course of action. I leaned my head into a tall pine tree trunk, and sure enough the soaking wet little bat kept on going. The photo below taken from behind him shows him (or her) continuing the ever-so-slow climb.

Water-logged Little Brown Bat climbing up a pine tree.

I have mixed emotions about the fact that my granddaughter did not take a picture of me leaning my head against the tree — with a bat on my head.

Moral of the story for human aviators? The little guys are absolutely awesome fliers, with unbelievably fast reflexes, unerring navigation, and the best possible terrain avoidance equipment. But even they can screw up. And when they do, their survival depends on the help of others; others willing to take a risk to help the fallen air-critters.

I was pleased to share this Nature moment with my Granddaughter. After all, it’s not every day you get to watch a bat climb your Grandfather, from his toes to his head.

Below is one of the most endearing videos I’ve found of a Little Brown Bat. The teenager in the video is clearly enthusiastic about one of nature’s smallest aviators.  (Video borrowed from http://www.chesapeakebay.net/fieldguide/critter/little_brown_bat.)

[youtube id=”E4Kxcr7kq14″ w=”525″ h=”439″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Littlest Aviators: Monarch Butterflies

Every fall I look forward to the current of Monarch Butterflies coursing their way across our local roads and beaches in Panama City Beach, FL, searching for one last refueling stop before heading out across the Gulf of Mexico to overseas destinations. They know where they are going en masse, so casually it seems, not in the least concerned about the doubtful safety of single engine flight over vast stretches of unforgiving water.

While over land, most fly low, at human shoulder height, perhaps looking for food. It makes for an almost magical walk outside — continuously being passed by little animated flying machines. When crossing roads, most of the migrating butterflies, but not all, climb to safer altitudes, and increase their speed.  I like to think that strategy is deliberate, but it could in fact be nothing more than the effects of buffeting by the wake of passing cars. Nevertheless, their success rate at crossing roads seems to be better than that of squirrels, which are arguably larger-brained animals. But then squirrels are dare-devils, not aviators.

I have walked to the water’s edge, watching how the little aviators behave as they approach the beginning of their long leg over water. They do not hesitate, but fling themselves forward into whatever awaits them.

Whenever I witness this sight I want to cheer them on, like Americans must have cheered Lindbergh as he set off across the Atlantic for the first time. It seems like folly for them to attempt such a journey, but amazingly, millions of them make that transit every year.

Image Credit Flickr User Texas Eagle

The scene during their return in the spring is even more emotional. Walking on the beach at that time, you see the surf washing in the numerous bodies of those aviators who almost made it, reminiscent of the beaches at Normandy. And like the scenes of war, dragonflies lie in wait at the water’s edge attacking the weakened Monarchs soon as they cross over the relative safety of land.

I have been so infuriated at the sight of such wanton attacks that once I chased a heavily laden dragonfly with a Monarch in its grasp, and caused the little Messerschmitt to release its prey.

The Monarch I saved did not thank-me by landing on my shoulder to take a breather. It was too dangerous to stop, and it had places to go, places far away from the sea, driven by a genetic memory of fields of milkweed.

Oddly enough, experts seem unsure as to whether there is actually a migratory flyway from the Panama City area to Mexico, the over-wintering grounds for most Monarchs. To me the answer is obvious; even though the flight of roughly 800 miles over water with no place to feed is almost unimaginable. The little aviators make that trip, spring and fall, as proven by the millions of orange and black-rayed butterflies crossing the white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and by the surf-washed bodies of those brave aviators who died in the attempt.

Migration map from Queen's University Dept of Psychology

The Fashionista Mum and its New Winter Colors

This Christmas there is a fashion war going on in my front yard. It is a war of colors.

The harsh grays and whites of winter are invariably followed by a vernal bloom of pastel colors which ease our eyes away from bleakness, preparing us slowly for the cacophony of intense color we know as summer in the garden.

Fall, even in Florida, gives us one last chance at vibrant colors shortly before those Chrysanthemum blooms darken to become lifeless cocoons settling in for the cold winter.

At least that’s how it is in most parts of the world.

December in the Florida Panhandle gives us a reprieve from an immediate garden death sentence. Bouts of warm weather, following spells of cold, entice Azaleas to bloom, haltingly perhaps, not with abandon as in the spring, but celebrating in a measured sense the pleasure of 70° degree Florida sunshine.

Locals tend to say the flowers and shrubs are confused, but I don’t think Florida plants are as mindless as many gardeners think. I feel they are simply taking advantage of another opportunity to re-experience their glorious youthful days of summer. Don’t we humans do the same thing when the chance presents itself?

Gaillardia

This fall we planted both Mums and Gaillardia, and when both were in full bloom in October we noticed we seemed to have a bit too much yellow. The yellow Gaillardia were scarcely ten feet away from the yellow Mums. Both flowers had yellow petals and maroon centers. Whereas true gardeners would consider that a travesty, we, being somewhat more tolerant of our foibles, simply decided the flower colors complemented each other. And that is how it would have to stay until next year.

I have always been one to give flowers a chance to bloom again, and so as any caring husband would do, I asked my wife to prune off all the dead blossoms from the yellow mums, just to see if they would bloom again. There appeared to be nascent buds hiding beneath the green foliage.

It did not take long for us to realize that the trio of Mums appreciated the deadheading and repaid us with December blossoms. But much to our surprise, all three plants decided, in unison, to change their colors.

Now, true Fashionistas would proclaim underneath their breath that they would not be caught dead wearing the same wardrobe as the gaudy Gaillardia next door. And so they didn’t.  They reversed their colors, wearing a winter coat of maroon  accented by yellow centers.

When a Christmas visitor comes up our walkway, they are no doubt inspired by the clever combination of fall colors that still adorns our flower beds.

But I am confessing to you that we, the flower guardians, had absolutely nothing to do with it.  The Mums managed a magical switch in color that we were powerless to even conceive, never-mind enact.

And I must profess, there is a certain aesthetic logic that the Mums demonstrated. After all, dark colors are more in keeping with the relentless slide into winter that will, sooner or later, catch up with northern Florida.

The Gaillardia blooms, on the other-hand, are optimistically  unchanging, blithely unaware of what is coming. The first killing frost will, I fear, catch them quite by surprise.

Once the Gaillardia and Mums finally decide to rest for the winter, I wonder what color schemes they will be dreaminbg about. Will next year include even more surprises in the fashion competition between showy species, each trying to out-compete the other?

I can hardly wait to see.

 

 

 

 

Saving Poncho Villa

I called him Poncho Villa. He was an animal baby who stole my heart.

Our time together began as I was walking past the eaves to our Florida home and I heard an unusual scratching and distinctly animal sound. It didn’t sound like a rat or a squirrel, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem happy where it was. And I of course didn’t want it there either. I followed the sound around a corner, and saw that whatever it was, was trying to enlarge a small break in the eaves so it could get out.

It didn’t take me long to get a ladder and rip out a section of the eaves, and when I did, I saw the face of a baby raccoon. But as soon as I saw it, it disappeared around the corner again.

I would have to be patient.

Thinking that perhaps it could climb down the ladder, I decided to leave the ladder in place through the night. Hours later as I was pulling a car out of the driveway, my headlights shown on a nondescript little furry thing in the yard, several feet away from the ladder. I put the car in park, and leaving the lights shining on whatever it was, walked over to investigate. It was a baby raccoon, lying fairly motionless even as I approached. I assumed it was the one I had briefly spied earlier.  When I saw how small it was I knew he must have fallen, hitting the ladder on the way down, for he was much too small to climb down the ladder.

His fall must have just happened because he had not moved far, and none of the local dogs and cats had found him yet. He was completely defenseless, and did not resist when I picked him up by the scruff of his neck, as I assumed his mother must have.

Fortunately I had a large metal cage we’d once used to house guinea pigs, and it made a secure place for him to spend the night while I researched what to do with him. As shown by one of the first photos I took of him, stretched out on a pool skimmer net, he was small.

I learned two things right away — he was far from being weaned, and he could barely see. One eye was covered in pus, and the other was barely open. I think that contributed to the fact that he did not scamper away from the base of the ladder; he was essentially blind.

I thought I was in luck because a veterinarian lived next door, and I quickly told him what I’d found. Surprisingly, he seemed very disinterested. I later learned he felt the baby had no chance of survival. But I was determined to give it a go, in spite of the odds.

The Internet taught me that he could be sustained by artificial puppy milk (Esbilac) given to him from a dropper. Sure enough, he avidly drank as I squeezed it out of the dropper. At that point I committed myself to raising him till he was weaned.

Like any baby, he fed frequently, and seemed to be thriving on the ersatz mother’s milk. I started taking him outside as often as I could just to give him a break from the cage, but he never wanted to stray more than a foot away from me. He had fully accepted me as his caregiver and protector.

He’d only been home a couple of days when it occurred to me to get a can of pressurized saline from a drugstore and wash his eyes, which had been undoubtedly damaged and infected by fiber glass in the attic. A gentle pulse or two of saline was all it took to wash away the pus from one eye and cleanse the matted goopiness from the other eye. He now seemed to be able to see.

But when I took him back outside, he looked up and froze. Instinctively he seemed to realize that he was exposed to predatory birds  — he seemed the most afraid of any time I’d had him, which made him stick even closer to me when outside. So we spent more time inside than out.

It helped that my wife was out of state so she didn’t seem to mind the thought of a baby raccoon housed in the bathroom of our now grown children. But she explained he would have to be gone by the time she got back. That didn’t leave me much time to get him weaned.

We developed a routine; I’d feed him at midnight and morning, and go home at lunch to feed him again. He’d get more feedings in the afternoon and evening. Whenever I got home I’d find him hanging upside down on the top of the cage, making baby raccoon sounds, eager to be fed again. He was gaining strength.  I’m sure he’d nurse much more frequently from his mother, but somehow my work schedule and his feeding schedule just had to work out. And it did.

I started trying him on grapes, with only very limited success. Other solids didn’t really interest him, but he loved simulated puppy milk. He was a messy drinker, just like a human baby, and much of what came out of the dropper went down his chin and neck. So sooner or later it was bath time, in the bathroom sink.  Although he was not happy about it, he did not resist. After all, his body was the size of the palm of my hand, so he accepted the frustration of being washed with the same confusion and passivity as a newborn human baby.

Now that he could see, he became interested in new toys, although he was not up to playing with them like a puppy or kitten. I suppose that was too much to expect. He also was reluctant to leave his cage, and only with some trepidation did he sniff around when I pulled him out of it. To him the cage was security, where he slept and was fed.

It wasn’t long before I saw the mother raccoon, sticking her head up through a hole in the roof. A 100-foot tall pine tree had dropped limbs on a portion of the roof, breaking the plywood, and allowing water to enter enough to begin softening the wood. The pregnant mother coon had been looking for a roof weakness to exploit, and finding it, she literally ripped a hole in the plywood enough for her to enter and raise her offspring.

Apparently Poncho Villa, being mostly blind from infection, had strayed far from the nest in the attic and became trapped in the eaves. The access to the eaves was too small for his mother to squeeze in to return him to the nest. Had I not found him, he would have perished.

It was summer, and when my wife returned I had to move Poncho outside into the heat. As much as I hated it, at least his cage was in a shaded, covered porch, which had to be much cooler than the attic where he had begun life.

During one of my visits during lunch on a hot day, he taught me a lesson in regulating body heat. I found him sleeping soundly on his back with his almost bald stomach exposed to the air, and with all four limbs outstretched stiffly and all fingers and toes splayed widely. It looked like he was using his stomach and non-furred paws to act as radiators, transferring heat out of his body. Clever little baby coon.

Eventually he was very close to being weaned, and it was time to find him a more accommodating home. Fortunately, our local zoo had received a rescued raccoon baby the year before, and was excited to see Poncho. As shown in the final photo, Poncho was as uncertain about leaving his human mother, me, as I was at leaving him with the zoo.

I had grown fond of the way he would cling to my chest and stomach with his baby claws as I carried him around the house, and eventually the zoo. I would soon miss the chittering sounds he made, evident in the video at the bottom of this posting. I felt like a parent to him, and he responded as I suspect a raccoon kit (baby raccoon) would to its mother. Except for the nursing of course.

But at least the zoo gave him a physical checkup, vaccinated him, and groomed him for a role in fund raising for the zoo, a noble cause I believed. In fact, he quickly became a radio station celebrity. He never had much to say, of course, but the local radio personalities carried on about him as the zoo used him for promotion.

After a brief stint as a celebrity, he was taken to the farm of his zoo caretaker and was slowly transitioned for release into the wild, a wilderness that, unlike most raccoons, he’d never known.

Ironically, right after I saw the mother raccoon, and made a futile attempt to locate the nest, the raccoons left. The playfulness of his siblings led to their eventual undoing. I woke one night hearing chittering and scampering sounds in the walls of the house where I believed the nest to be, far out of my reach. As I stood in the room trying to localize exactly where the sound was coming from, one of the kits broke a wire in the wall that triggered  the whole house alarm. The horn was situated in the attic near where the nest was, and as loud as it was to me in the room below, it must have been deafening to the raccoons.  After that night, I never saw or heard from the family of coons again. I’m sure the mother moved them to a quieter neighborhood.

The video below is a fair representation of the sounds Poncho Villa made when I would come to feed him.  The raccoon kit in the video appears to be a little older than Poncho was when he graduated from puppy formula to, of all things, animal crackers!

 

The Mysterious Physical Attraction of Slash Pine Seeds to … Anything

Pine cones are falling from the sky and smacking the roof with a thud, with all the earnestness of a piece of reentering space debris. The sound reverberates among the rafters, giving the impression of a large falling limb, sending us scurrying outside searching for damage to the roof.

It is October in the Florida Pan Handle, the time of year when pine cones eject their winged pine seeds.  Once emptied, the cones are rejected by their parental trees like useless appendages.

Those seeds had begun their race towards destiny high in the outstretched branches of 100-foot tall slash pines, being nestled by the overlapping leaves of their natal cones. But once ejected from their nest, they were on their own, distributed by gravity, winds, and those always tricky helicopter aerodynamics.

Walking outside this morning I could see those seeds helicoptering down to the ground, or the pool. Those landing fruitlessly, without hope on the concrete were distributed forlornly like bodies on a battle field. But those landing in a pool, being swept towards the uncaring maw of the pool skimmer, did something interesting.

It reminded me of illustrations of the attempted fertilization of human eggs by sperm; all lined up, jockeying to be the first to the prize. The heavier seed end of the wing seemed to be attached to the pool ladder as if by magic, although I suspected some subtle electrical charge interaction with the metal.

This was not occurring in still water; there was a considerable flow carrying unattached seeds swiftly past those clustered around the ladder.

Click to enlarge.

But then I saw the seeds clustering around other objects, the walls of the pool, and in an almost Oedipal fashion, a pine cone floating in the pool. One cluster of seeds were touching their ends together as if in some group incest.

Keep in mind, each seed fluttered down on its own, singly. Yet when they met in the water they had an unexplained physical attraction, literally.

 

The last two photos made me suspicious that the attraction was not based on electrical charge, but on surface tension — somehow. In the photo of the pine cone you can see dimples in the water around the wings and seed, an observation that positively screams surface tension.

Just how surface tension works to orient these seeds in the way they do is unclear to me. However, I see an evolutionary benefit.

Concrete pools are not of nature. In nature, seeds falling in water might be benefited if surface tension orients the seed end towards the edge of whatever stream or pond the seeds fall into. If the seed ends can touch the soil of the earthen banks, then they have a chance to germinate.  If the seed ends pointed away from the soil, they would eventually become water logged and sink, thus drowning the potential pine seedling.

In the following short video clip we see the strange maneuvering of three separate seeds, unattached except through some invisible force, moving to and fro in the eddy behind a pool ladder in a relatively swift current.

[youtube id=”CDmWVLZOpu4″ w=”525″ h=”439″]

 

One of the many joys of being human is discovering the beauty and mystery in nature. You don’t have to understand it to appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

 

A Frog Drowned in My Pool

Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). Photo credit: Bill Sutton

The little fellow was fast, and wily.

I was chasing him around the pool with a skimmer net, trying to herd him to the side of the pool where I had some chance of scooping him up with my hands. As the net approached he would kick to the eight foot deep bottom and then gracefully glide, legs in trail, along the contour of the bottom and sidewalls up to the edge of the pool. In dark water that tactic worked beautifully because his enemies could not see where he was going. But since he was in clear pool water I could see exactly where he was headed.

I’d sneak around the pool edge, out of his sight, and then grab for him as he floated at the surface. But he’d invariably see me in time to flip over and kick to the bottom again.

I had to admire his strength, speed and agility. He was clearly in his element. And besides that, he could breathe through his skin, absorbing oxygen from the water. Neat trick I thought, as I remembered various attempts by engineers to create artificial gills for humans — attempts that have all failed — so far.

Tadpoles have gills, but those gills are lost as the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs. Instead, frogs use a combination of lung breathing and skin breathing, called cutaneous respiration. Breathing through their skin allows them to remain underwater for months during the winter, when they are hibernating. However, when frogs are actively swimming, their oxygen demands are quite high, as you would expect. As the chase continued I had no idea how much or how little oxygen he could extract from the pool water.

For cutaneous respiration to work, frog skin has to stay moist, hence their desire to be close to water. But this frog was in the wrong water. I was about to pour chlorine into the pool, and if he didn’t get out of the pool, he wouldn’t survive. The chase was really in his best interest, but he didn’t know that of course; he was simply trying to avoid becoming my lunch.

So basically he never had time to take a breather. I figured at some point he’d grow tired from all the exercise and would allow me to catch him in the net and lift him out of the pool.

I was wrong. Before he quit swimming he apparently ran out of oxygen, in spite of the fact that he was getting oxygen from the water through his skin. But he wasn’t getting enough; he passed out.

Well, that sure made it easy to scoop him up.

Once I got him in my hands, I started frog CPR. No, I did not give him mouth to mouth ventilation. But I did give his little chest tiny squeezes, thinking that would do him some good. Apparently it didn’t; he never regained consciousness.

I buried him in my garden with all the solemnity due a frog, and vowed over his little green body that I’d do better with keeping the chlorine levels up so future frogs would not be attracted to the pool. Of course that was for my benefit as well, because where frogs are, water moccasins are not far behind.

I think it’s tough being a frog.

I mostly kept to my promise, but inevitably, another leopard frog or two attempted to take up residence in my concrete lined pond.

Being a scientist, I decided to conduct an experiment. I repeated my earlier, potentially deadly chases, but this time I reacted instantly when the frogs passed out. Soon as they went limp I scooped them up with my net and laid them in the grass. Before long they recovered and started frog-hopping away. Speed was of the essence in their rescue, and quick reactions on my part worked to keep the frogs alive.

So yes, frogs can breathe through their skin, absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, but only enough to support resting needs. When they are active, they must supplement gas exchange by gulping air into their lungs. Now I know.

(The loss of the first frog was an accident, not animal cruelty! Do not repeat this in the name of science, because it also is not science.)

I’ve since learned that I’m not the only person with frog-in-pool problems, and conveniently, small animal escape devices are available. Here’s a video of one that allows frogs to self-rescue without being dependent on any near-death escapes foisted upon them by me. (I’m not associated with the manufacturers or dealers in any way.)

[youtube id=”NlNbpBDRuMc” w=”500″ h=”400″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Battle of Titans: Orcas vs Gray Whales

It is an ageless story, mothers banding together to protect their young from instinctive killers. The fact that it was a battle between behemoth Gray Whales and Killer Whales (Orcas) made it all the more epic in scope, and worthy of the telling.

A fellow scientist and I had driven south early one springtime morning from Anchorage, Alaska to Seward. At 11 AM our glacier view cruise boat left the docks at Seward and headed for the glacier fields at the Kenai Fjords National Park where the glaciers sliding slowly down from the mountains calved into the Gulf of Alaska.

Heading south from Seward.

From there we motored on until we were attracted to a near-shore area by the blowing of water and foam from a group of migrating Gray Whales. The rapid pace of their exhalation was a sure sign that something was wrong. We had stumbled upon a battle involving another type of calf just as the combatants were taking their positions on the battlefield.

A female Gray whale weighing between 30 to 40 tons had birthed her baby during the winter in Baja California and now the mother, quickly growing baby, and two female caretakers (often  called “aunties”) were almost through with their migration to the Bering Sea. But as they swam beyond Prince William Sound, not far from their final destination, they were attacked by two adolescent transient Orcas who wanted that baby whale.

Our boat stopped far enough from the battle to not hinder the fight, but close enough for us to witness the events. Our biologist guide warned us that if we had a weak stomach we might not want to watch because often times the Orcas succeed in killing the baby Gray.

I don’t think anyone on the boat averted their eyes as the three massive females arranged themselves head to tail into a triangular defensive formation, with the baby in the middle. There was no way for the Orcas to get past the females on or near the surface, so they made repeated dives trying to enter the center of the triangle from underneath and attack the baby. But with each dive, the wily Grays maneuvered to block the Orcas.

The Orcas were nothing if not persistent. Perhaps sensing that, the whales started moving closer to a rock cliff face, and then they did something clever, but potentially risky. There was an opening in the rock wall and the baby whale had been nudged into that opening. One whale, probably the mother, was completely blocking that opening with her body. The Orcas tried repeatedly to find a way past her to the baby, but between the blocking action of the other two Grays and the blubbery plug of the cave entrance by the mother, there was nothing the Orcas could do.

We of course saw the riskiness of that defense. It looked to us like the baby was trapped underwater. Even a whale has to breathe sometime.

The other boat was too close to the action, but provides scale for the "cave".

But as I look at the photo I realize now that the cave was tall enough and just deep enough to allow the baby to breathe even with water access cut off. Obviously, the Gray Whale mother had made good use of her 4.3 kg brain. Nevertheless, from our elevated vantage point we could see over the mother whale, and we saw that the baby remained submerged. I’m guessing it was wedging itself in as tightly as it could. The anxiety on our boat grew perceptively as the minutes ticked down with us knowing the baby was holding its breath.

The tactic worked, for the Orcas eventually tired of the game, and after making one or two leaps out of the water they moved away from the whales and headed north toward seal colonies we passed on the way south. The seals would be easier pickings than those highly protective Gray Whales.

There was jubilation on our boat. I think we’d all been holding our breath like the baby, at least a little.

When the coast was clear, literally, the Grays moved back into the open water near where the battle had begun and caught their breath, heaving great geysers of watery air as they panted. They had obviously been very stressed, but their cleverness and strategic cooperation saved the day, or at least the moment.

Two Orcas. Copyright by Rolf Hicker. Used under fair use.

Things could have been different, both better and worse. Local Orcas were so-called residents who don’t attack Gray Whales. Residents tend to be fish eaters. Fortunately for the Gray baby, the more lethal transients were not as experienced with the local geography. They were also adolescents, not as experienced as adults, and there were only two of them. A pack of them, with adolescents being guided by adults, might have been more succesful. Transient Orcas, genetically different from Residents are reported to kill a third of the baby Gray Whale population each year.

Interestingly, the Grays seem to know where transient Orca populations are the most active, and in those regions they tend to stay close to shore. In this case that strategy paid off by allowing the baby to be protected by a rock wall and its mother.

On the boat we celebrated all the way back to Seward; we had witnessed a frightening conflict with, for us and the whales, a happy ending.

To learn more about Orcas attacking mother Gray Whales and their calves, see the excellent photos and story at the following website. http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/MtyBayOrcaattack.html

Scalloping – What If the Tide Turned?

It’s scallop season in the fertile waters of the Florida Panhandle. Almost completely surrounded by a peninsula called Cape San Blas sits a shallow body of clear water and sandy bottom that is an ideal location for bay scallops. Unfortunately for the scallops, the shallow water makes a yearly harvest of scallops by boaters and waders almost too easy.

Recently my extended family of eight descended on the unsuspecting bivalves as if our lives depended upon them. We spent most of a day in a hunter-gatherer mode, reaping the benefit of a bountiful crop, imagining an earlier day when local tribes did in fact depend on the local scallops and oysters for their survival.

I had been scalloping in Saint Joseph’s Bay once before, but this year the scallops were larger, and seemingly more bountiful. They attempted to hide in the sea grass, and I suppose those that hid well were passed over. But fortunately for us, many could not hide from the practiced eyes of determined snorkelers.

Usually scallops react to being picked up by snapping their shells together in an attempt to protect their vulnerable innards. However, one large scallop which had apparently lived long enough to be the equivalent of a wise scallop, or perhaps simply an inquisitive scallop, started to close his shell, and then stopped. We remained locked in a gaze, me with my green eyes staring through a diving mask, and it staring at me with its multiplicity of luminous, iridescent blue eyes.

Photo credit: Bill Capman, 2002.

I know this is blatant anthropomorphism, but it seemed like it was saying, “Well, hello. What’s this? Are you a deity? I’ve heard about you, but you’re not at all what I was expecting.”

I must admit I stared back quizzically, surprised by this little fellow’s bravado. He truly seemed to be checking me out.

It was bad luck for him that his telepathic powers of communication didn’t make a dent in my determination to eat him, or at least to eat his adductor muscle after discarding the rest. So into the bag he went with the growing collection of other scallops. In the end, his bravado did him no good at all.

It was somewhat of a pitiful sight as the captives were poured in a heap on a wooden platform just above the water of the bay. I bet they could smell it, the safety of water so close, and as the cliché says, so far away. They all tried to escape, to jet away, sounding like a chorus of  castanets. Of course, in air, jetting just doesn’t work for them. They were stranded. I could almost sense their collective panic.

I suspect the mechanics of scallop butchery came as quite a shock to this little guy. I’m just glad that this year I didn’t have to do it — my son took my place at the sacrificial altar. After all, shucking is, at its best,  tiring and a little bit gross. Beer helps of course.

In the unlikely event that now jaded scallop had seen me, had watched me with its sixty or more eyes as I began to take a shucking knife to it, could I really do what my family was expecting of me? Probably, but I don’t know for sure.

Well, I didn’t have to face that, and I will confess, I felt only pleasure, no guilt, as I finished off the last of those pure white scallop muscles, sautéed with butter, garlic and a dollop of lemon juice.

It was about 48-hours later, when the delicate flavor of those fresh scallops began to fade from my memory, that I had a sobering thought. Could those bivalves in fact be more sentient than we assume? After all, I’ve been mistaken before about the intelligence of invertebrates.

I’ve heard that scallop eyes can’t really see shapes, only shades of light, and movement. Arguably there is not enough neural matter for them to generate anything like a thought — at least in human terms.

But what if we’re wrong? Even worse, what if a highly advanced alien species, hungry after traveling interstellar distances, encounters humans? Would they consider us with the same lack of respect that we consider scallops? Could we be considered to have too little cerebral grey matter to create an organized thought — at least in alien terms? Would we be considered insentient and therefore unworthy of pity as we’re “shucked” and sautéed for dinner?

In Stephen Hawking’s opinion, that is a real possibility. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece

So, maybe we shouldn’t be trying so hard to attract the attention of extraterrestrials. If they show up hungry, maybe our communication, telepathic or otherwise, would do us no more good than it did that inquisitive scallop.

He sure was tasty.

How to Teach Ice Diving When the Arctic Is Melting

In 2007 Michael Lang of the Smithsonian Institution’s Scientific Diving Program sponsored a spring-time ice diving course in the high Arctic at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, in an area generally called Spitzbergen.

Ny-Ålesund, an international Arctic research town situated at 78°56’N, 11°56’E, is the most northern continuously operated community. It sits on the shore of a fjord called Kongsfjorden. In the springtime, the sea ice on the Kongsfjorden is usually several feet thick, providing an inviting platform for ice-diving operations.

North Pole Hotel, Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard

However, during the last decade the sea ice has been becoming thinner and sparser. By the time we arrived, there was virtually no ice on the fjord. The closest ice source was a glacier over two miles away. With no ice, polar bears could not capture their ringed seal prey, and were thus hungry, leading undoubtedly to the polar bear encounter described in an earlier posting (April 12).

It also left the course instructors, and I was once of them, in a quandary. It was expensive transporting diving scientists to the high Arctic to learn ice diving operations, and there was no ice to be seen. It appeared to us that the Arctic really was melting, surprisingly early in this case.

Although we had a few frigid days during our week-long stay, frigid enough to remind us we were close to the North Pole, one memorable day was almost balmy, reaching 0° C (32° F). Looking out over the fjord I saw mini-icebergs, recently calved by the rapidly melting glacier a few miles away.

Mini-icebergs, born on an unusually warm day

The word went out to launch all divers.

Dry land and underwater cameras, and high-definition video were working overtime to record the encounters between divers and ice. The result was some striking photos of delicately scalloped floating ice, with divers getting into the frames — just to prove they were indeed “ice-divers.” Unfortunately, that was not the type of experience that had been planned for those scientists.

Transparent glacial ice

As you might imagine, the water in the fjord was still bitterly cold, so the part of the course designed to teach about human and equipment survival in cold water was fully accomplished.

However, due to the growing sparseness and unreliability of the Arctic sea ice cover, the Smithsonian Diving Program has now moved its training and testing operations to McMurdo Station, Antarctica (see April 11 and May 26th posting). There, at least for the time being, lies plenty of thick sea ice covering the Ross Sea during the austral springtime.

I had not been impressed by the global warming rhetoric before I traveled to the Arctic. However, having seen the consequences first hand, at least in the far North, I get the strong impression that there are undeniable local climate changes occurring. Whether it is a truly global change, and whether man is somehow responsible, is an area of speculation that I will not venture into.

Only time will tell.

Outsmarted by an Octopus

Jim Duran and I started a night dive in about sixty to seventy feet of water several miles off the beaches of Panama City, FL. I was wearing double 80 tanks, held a collecting bag and lights, and fully intended to capture an octopus, alive.

At the time I was working in an invertebrate physiology laboratory at Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Greenberg. I had been impressed by the reputed high intelligence of the octopus, and was also interested in the effects of high pressure. The Navy base at Panama City had a new high pressure chamber, capable of simulating deep-sea pressures. Since I was in training in the combined Navy and NOAA program called the Scientist in the Sea, it seemed logical to me to catch an octopus, and study it to see if it would be a suitable candidate for testing in the Navy’s  giant hyperbaric chamber.

It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, and Jim Duran was willing to follow along as my assistant critter catcher. And to begin with, the plan worked. We spied our quarry only a few minutes into the dive. The gray-brown octopus was crawling over the sandy bottom, and initially seemed unaware of our intentions. But as the two of us closed in on him, specimen bag flapping in our self-generated current, he sprang off the bottom and squirted away.

But we were strong swimmers, and our quarry was in the open, maybe eight feet off the bottom. He had nowhere to hide – silly thing. Keeping our lights on him, and stroking like mad, I began gaining on him, at which time he let loose with his ink. I was prepared for that, and continuing to kick I soon caught up with him and got my hands on him, trying to stuff him into my bag. But he would have none of that.

Off we went again. What we didn’t realize was that the clever invertebrate was constantly turning to our right. We of course were too intent on capturing him to notice his strategy. And besides, invertebrates were incapable of strategic planning – or so we thought.

Apparently the octopus was determined not to be touched again, or else we were tiring, for we never quite caught up with him. So close, and yet so far away.

And then a curious thing happened. He collapsed his tentacles upon themselves, streamlining his body shape, and shot like a rocket from our depth to the sandy bottom. Once on firm ground again, he spread his tentacles as wide as he could, and his entire body turned white. I froze in shock.

In another instant, before I could recover my senses, he collapsed his body down to the width of an apple and slithered into his hole in the sea floor.

He was gone.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the chase had started near his home, and he had led us at a furious pace in a large circle, which ended precisely where it had begun. He had maneuvered us to within striking distance of safety.

Humbled, and now growing low on air, and embarrassingly empty-handed, we headed back to the off-shore platform where our dive had begun.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Who knew that two graduate students would be outsmarted by an invertebrate.

Below is a link to a video showing an octopus’ ability to disguise itself, and some of the defensive behavior we witnessed.

[youtube id=”PmDTtkZlMwM” w=”500″ h=”400″]

Broken Sparrow – Everyone Loves a Fighter

What on earth could make a blog posting on a sparrow worth reading?

Well, people love stories of near tragedy, survival, and salvation, and this has some elements of them all.

A nesting pair of House Sparrows showed up at work this Spring, hidden in the metal framework of a second story bridge connecting two brick buildings of typical government construction. Their nest lay only a foot from the heads of passers-by. No one paid them much attention until the hatchlings started calling incessantly for food. Then the nest became both busy and noisy.

The real story began after a wind storm struck one weekend, leaving behind an injured male sparrow. It was obvious that one of his wings had been damaged for we found him on a Monday morning walking up and down the concrete walkway, trying to dodge the frequent pedestrians, and not flying away to safety. In fact, it looked almost as if a wing had been torn off.

But what got everyone’s attention was the sight of him hopping down 12 feet of metal stairs to get to the ground, search for some food, then hopping all the way back up those stairs to defend his nest site, the best he could by being there, injured. Considering he was only about 3 inches high, those hops would be equivalent to us hopping up and down 232 feet of stairs, repeatedly.

I was probably not the first to test his flying ability, and indeed, when frightened he would fly a short distance to a palm tree trunk not far from the bridge. But then he would climb to a secure spot on top of the palm tree, rather than fly straight to the top. Flying for him had become a last result. It was difficult and seemingly painful for him, although he never cried out in pain or alarm, as I’ve heard sparrows can do.

The next day I borrowed some bird seed from a bird lover, and set out a small pan of water, so the injured bird would not risk being eaten by the feral cats that roam our buildings at odd times of the day. When that seed was quickly eaten, a warrior friend of mine came asking for some seed so he could feed his bird.

His bird? So, I was not the only one taking an interest in this brave little male and his struggle for survival.

Unfortunately for the female, her mate was not able to forage for the young, and she had to work double time. That could be why, as soon as the babies had fledged, the nest was emptied, and the female never returned to her mate for another breeding cycle. She could do better, I suppose.

In spite of his troubles, and probable pain, he remained the strong sounding male, calling, announcing his prime nesting site. Never mind that no other bird wanted it. If they had, they could easily have taken it from him since he was defenseless. But still, he thought, he had a job to do. It was a man-thing.

For weeks we would see that male, starting to hop down the stairs, to look for food, and if he happened to see my warrior friend or I bring food, he would turn around, and hop back up the stairs to eat, rather than risk foraging on the barren ground. He became used to us caring for him. Of course he always kept a safe distance from us.

 One morning my warrior friend was visibly upset.  Three female sparrows and a ring neck dove started mooching off the birdseed. He chased them off, as I did when I saw them, but they were persistent.

“How dare they steal food from my bird,” my friend said. “I’m gonna bring a BB gun and stack their little corpses up like cord wood.”

We both laughed at the irony of it.

And then he said, pensively, “I wonder how many birds I’ll have to kill to save this one?”

Others got into the protection business when three females, perhaps his offspring, ganged up on him when he was on the ground and started pouncing and pecking on him mercilessly. One of our female employees became angered by the attack on the injured male, and chased the females away. After that, the male flew best he could back up to the relative safety of the second story walkway.

And that was a good sign. He was growing stronger. A week later, I saw the sparrow flying instead of walking or hopping, and calling loudly to attract a female back to his nest, without success.

But I think the story is now complete, for today he left, fully healed, perhaps in search of more desirable real estate.

When I told my warrior friend the bird was gone, and that we had apparently saved him long enough for him to heal, he said, “You know, I go bird hunting a lot, but there was something about this guy that made me want to save him. It must be something psychological.”

“He was a brave soldier,” I said, “and you don’t leave an injured man to die on the battlefield without trying to save him.”

He smiled and nodded his head. He knew exactly what I meant.

The Puerto Rico Trench and Denizens of the Deep

(Public domain - from U.S. Geological Survey)
Puerto Rico Trench. (Click once or twice for full image) U.S. Geological Survey

The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is only surpassed in its depth by the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. It is 500 miles long, and at its deepest plummets 28,232 feet down.

After receiving my doctorate with a special interest in deep-sea physiology, I was invited on board the oceanographic Research Vessel (RV) Gilliss for an expedition to the Puerto Rico Trench. I was accompanied on that research cruise by Dr. Robert Y. George, a deep-sea biological oceanographer from Florida State University.

I had been studying the effect of very high pressure on invertebrate hearts. As luck would have it, the largest population of deep-sea creatures indigenous to the deepest places in the ocean are invertebrates (animals lacking  vertebrae, backbones.) But on the way down to the deepest reaches of the trench, you encounter some very strange creatures indeed, such as the Humpback Angler Fish.

Click for a larger image

 

 

 

 

 

 

These bizarre and frightening looking fish inhabit the abyssal pelagic zone (or the Abyss) between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. But below the water containing these abyssal fish lies the zone of the deep trenches, the hadalpelagic zone between 20,000 and 36,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.

“Denizens of the Deep” are known in merfolk tradition as the beasts that swallow up the sun at the end of the day, which is somewhat ironic since sunlight never reaches down to the abyssal and hadal zones. Whatever light is there, is produced by bioluminescence. Down there, light means either a meal, or a trap. And since meals are uncommon in the sparsely populated ocean depths, predators seem designed to ensure they miss no opportunities to feed. Their jaws, fangs, and other anatomical structures seem especially designed to snag a hapless passer-by, and provide no chance of escape for those caught.  Fortunately for us, animals adapted to the high pressure, low oxygen environment of the deep ocean cannot survive in shallow waters.

But imagine for a moment that something perturbed that natural order. Time has separated us from man-eating dinosaurs, but the only thing separating us from deep-sea monsters, ferocious predators that make piranhas look playful, is something as simple as pressure and oxygen.  Could things change?

Well, not to scare you, but until 1983 or so, the Puerto Rico Trench was a huge pharmaceutical dumping ground. Massive quantities of steroids and antibiotics, and chemicals capable of causing genetic mutations, came to rest on the sea floor, or were dispersed in the waters above and around the trench.

Read more about that here: http://deepseanews.com/2008/04/dumping-pharmaceutical-waste-in-the-deep-sea/

You don’t need to take just one person’s word for it. Professor R.Y. George himself commented on the issue in his resumé.

July 5 – July 30, 1977. Revisited Puerto Rico Trench (now Pharmaceutical Dump Site) aboard R/V GILLISS of the University of Miami to study Barophylic (pressure-loving)bacteria (Dr. Jody Demming’s Ph. D. work from Dr. Rita Colwell’s Lab. in the University of Maryland), and to study meiofauna, macrofauna and megafauna (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Higgins of the Smithsonian Institution).

Frankly, if I was visiting Puerto Rico, and signed up for a deep-sea fishing trip, I’d ask the boat captain just how deep we’d be fishing. I really wouldn’t want to bring up a Humpback Angler Fish large enough to eat the boat. After all, Angler Fish are fishermen too.

For a NOAA sponsored animated tour of the Trench, play the following high resolution video.

[youtube id=”v1OnsuyFdaM” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

Polar Bear in Town

In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.

In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.

The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up. 

In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.

By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.

Until one night.

There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?

On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”

The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.

Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.

As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.

“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”

“Hmm… I see what you mean.”  I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.

The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.

Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.

There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.

I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.

My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.

That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.

I wondered how badly it would hurt.

Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.

Diving Under Antarctic Ice

You are 100 feet down using scuba, with your dive light spotlighting the most exotic looking Sea Hare you’ve ever seen.

It’s noon at McMurdo Station, Antarctica but it’s dark at your depth because between you and the surface of the Ross Sea lies19 feet of snow-covered ice.  Your dive buddy has drifted about 100 feet away, but you can see him without hindrance in the gin clear water of the early Antarctic springtime.

The 800 foot water visibility also means you can easily see the strobe light hanging on the down line 200 feet away, the line leading to the three and a half foot diameter hole bored through the ice.

Under these conditions, you should not have to worry about your regulator, but you do, because you know that any scuba regulator can fail in 28° F water, given enough opportunity. You also know that some regulators tolerate these polar conditions better than others, and you are using untested regulators, so yours might free-flow massively at any moment.

Should that happen, you have a back-up plan; you will shut off the free flow of air from your failed regulator with an isolation valve, remove the failed second stage from your numb and stiff lips and switch to a separate first and second stage regulator on your bottle’s Y-shaped slingshot manifold, after first reaching back and opening the manifold valve. Of course, that backup regulator could also free-flow as soon as you start breathing on it – as has already happened to one of your fellow test divers.

In that situation you would have no choice except to continue breathing from what feels like a torrent of liquid nitrogen, teeth aching from the frigid air chilled to almost intolerable temperatures by unbridled adiabatic expansion, until you reach your dive buddy and convince him that you need to borrow his backup regulator. Once he understands the gravity of the situation, that two of your regulators have failed, then the two of you would buddy-breathe from his single 95 cu ft bottle as you head slowly towards the strobe marking the ascent line. And of course he will be praying that his own primary regulator doesn’t fail during that transit.

Once you reach the ascent line you are still not out of difficulty. The two of you cannot surface together through the narrow 19-foot long borehole. So you would remove your regulator once again and start breathing off a pony bottle secured to the down line. Once it is released from the line, you can then make your ascent to the surface; but only if a 1300-pound Weddell seal has not appropriated the hole. In a contest for air, the seal is far more desperate following an 80 minute breath-hold dive, and certainly much more massive than you. Weddells are like icebergs – their cute small face sits atop a massive body that is a daunting obstacle for any diver. 

But you even have a plan for that — you’ve heard that Weddell seals don’t like bubbles, and they get skittish about having their fins tugged on, and will thus relinquish the hole to you. … At least, that’s what you’ve been told. You certainly hope he would leave before you consume the meager amount of air in your pony bottle.

The text above was taken from a U.S. Navy Faceplate article I wrote concerning  a 2009 Smithsonian Institution sponsored diving expedition to Antarctica in which I participated. On and under-the-ice photos were taken by expedition members Drs. Martin Sayer and Sergio Angelini.