Thursday, December 20, 2007

What Carl Sagan gave us


11th anniversary of
Carl Sagan's death post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Andromeda moment

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

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

Long Exposure Photo: Andrea Baird, BU Parent magazine

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

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

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

That’s when the moment happened.

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

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

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Grevy's Zebra: Extinction in Black & White

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

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Friday, May 11, 2007

New take on a snake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, April 30, 2007

An ecogeek on the loose

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

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

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

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Friday, April 13, 2007

A Samburu Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was more challenging than I had could have imagined.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love...

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

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

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

So went the past, I hope goes the future.

* Reposted for Valentines Day

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Variations on a theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Visualize Whirled Peas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Comfort in the arms of the cosmos

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


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

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

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


So the Milky Way is both?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What I love about Messier 42


This is a photo from the Hubble Space Telescope of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42). The Orion Nebula is an example of a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Observations of the nebula have revealed approximately 700 stars in various stages of formation.

But what I really love so much about the Orion Nebula is how readily available it is to all of us in the northern Hemisphere. So many of the other jaw-dropping photos from the Hubble Space Telescope seem somehow disconnected from us here on the ground. For all we know they could just be mediocre video game simulations.

But not the Orion Nebula, it is different. It seems so REAL because you can see it for yourself through binoculars or even with the naked eye. You just need to know where to look (For the more astrologically inclined see this fictitious version then lose the superstition - please).

The Orion Nebula appears as a faint smudge of light around the middle star of Orion’s sword. It's 1,500 light-years away but here's the thing... there is nothing between you and it – NOTHING! With a long enough tongue, you could reach out and lick it. It is real and visible proof that stellar alchemy happens. That is where you came from and it's proof positive that science kicks-ass!

For a freaking fabulous tour of the Orion Nebula click here…and here is a cool visualization too.

Now get out there and taste that hydrogen!

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Friday, December 08, 2006

A Scientist's Christmas

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

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

Here, a neutron star with its "cometary knots"

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

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

When I look up and see these lights I get a warm, fuzzy feeling... Because to me, these secular decorations are the expression of a community with something grander and more beautiful to celebrate than bronze-age myths. They recognize and respect that our origins are tied to cosmic events much longer ago and further away - but still very much ours.

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

I see them as an acknowledgment that our natural heritage extends the story and values of Christmas with an additional 14 billion years of meaning. Meaning that even its namesake could not have appreciated given the knowledge of the day.

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

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Nature never fails…

It is now the closing hours of an unseasonably warm October day and I just got back from another mountaintop epiphany.

As I laid there on my favorite curved rock, soaking up the easy breeze, soft light, and the warbler’s sweet tweet, I drifted into a very clear, very intense, thought experiment.

I imagined I could see the flow of time. From out in the space above the lake, I could see a future moment condense into a discrete thing, and flow toward me. I could feel it reside in me for a moment and then pass by into the future and dissolve, never to be experienced again. Where it came from and where it went I don’t know, but for that moment, when it was within me, I had complete and personal ownership.

With a little concentration, I found that I could tick each moment off as it went streaming by. This little daydream was fun… but it soon became just an exercise in counting the moments.

That’s when it hit me. It was that little moment of personal ownership that mattered. What made each moment special was what I chose to do with it. I could waste it, or value it.

I turned my attention to the grass beside me. Suddenly I felt a great wave of connection. I felt I could see overwhelming beauty in the simplest of things. Little furry corkscrew seeds, intricate patterns, rich warm tan, sweet-smelling, like the hay-bales of my childhood. Truth is, I spend a lot of moments this way.

Then I tried tuning my thoughts toward love and meaning. And there they were, moments full of love and meaning. The best part is, I decided each moment could last for a second, a minute, an hour, or a lifetime.

Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” I think I may finally understand what this means. Moment by moment, each of us makes the Universe. So if your thoughts are devoid of meaning, the universe has no meaning. If you hate, the universe hates. But if you have compassion, the universe is full of love. If you see beauty, the universe is beautiful. It's an empowering idea.

I guess the big question is, what will you choose to do with your moments? What universe will you make?

Note: No drug or religion was used in the making of this post - just fresh air, autumn light, and an open mind.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Where's Walden?

The weekend began at 8PM on Friday. I had been craving social interaction and was reminded of a recent acquaintance’s pond-side party down in Western Mass. So I set off for an hour-long drive trending south and west.

Take a look at any map of NH and one thing you won’t see, are roads that trend south and west. Four dark, winding, bumpy, hours later, I arrived at her house, only to find that everyone had already gone home. Because I don’t really know the hostess, I turned away with my case of Coronas un-cracked and my need for people unmet. At this point, I just wanted to put the day to bed and start anew in the morning. I needed to find a place to crash.

Just outside the town of Athol, I found what looked like an abandoned driveway. I plunged the Eurovan through overgrowth and crept down the little tunnel of shrubs. At the end I came to a big derelict house. Besides the creepiness of the building, the yard was perfectly quiet. It looked out over a quaint stream that flowed under the arc of an old stone bridge.

After a quick reconnaissance, I sat for a while listening to the babbling water and staring into the night sky. Then I brushed my teeth, nestled into bed with Copernicus, and drifted into tomorrow.

I woke up early to bright new surroundings. Across the bridge I found an expanse of wild riparian land to explore. After greeting several birds and chasing away a housecat, I came across this GIGANTIC wasp sitting on a boulder. She seemed pretty chill and allowed me to pick her up long enough to snap this cell phone video. As she crawled up my arm you can see her obscenely long ovipositor.

This was going to be a good day!

For breakfast, I headed into the town of Athol and found what could be the grungiest diner north of that one “Waffle House” in Alabama. It was tiny, and cramped with locals. I chose the only stool left at the counter.

I love to study in places like this, so pulled out an assigned reading. This one was an analysis of the Chernobyl accident. Soon an old guy came in and sat down on my left. He started to chat across me with another not-so-old guy on my right. There was not six inches between us so I could not help but be a part of the conversation. Guy-to-my-right was the owner of the biggest business in Athol (some kind of electronics) and Guy-to-my-left was the Executive Director of the Quabbin Regional Chamber of Commerce. Apparently Wal-Mart is coming.

In casual conversation, I expressed how much I enjoyed the country-feel of the region and made clear my preference for family-owned business and small-town Americana. I walked away feeling like I may have actually had a positive impact on these two guys on either side of me.

Guy-to-my-left professed to be an avid “outdoorsman,” So I asked for some leads on good hiking trails. He told me about Gate 29. The next little adventure brought me deep into the woods of the Quabbin Reservoir where I found this little shack.

Next stop was Atkin’s Farm Stand where I discovered the locally-grown peach. I was completely unprepared - like I pulled the pin on a fruit-grenade. It reminded me of a Mango I once found on the side of the road in Tortola that left me sticky for days.

After a thorough fresh water rinse, I saw the words “Dinosaur Tracks” on my Rand-McNally road atlas. From my days as a student of geology, I could not recall how the volcanic and tectonic history of the Connecticut River Valley could have sustained roaming dinosaurs. I could not resist setting my knowledge straight and ended up getting into a long nostalgic talk with the ranger at the Dinosaur Tracks exhibit. He reminded me that the accretion of terrains occurred during the Paleozoic era about, 500 mya while the dinosaurs inhabited the area during the Mesozoic from 165-65 mya. A mere oversight of 400 mya.

When he saw how excited I got at the mention of a basalt/conglomerate nonconformity, he revealed a secret outcrop high on Mt. Taylor. With a hand-drawn map, I trekked up to see and it met all of my expectations. It was a gorgeous hike. Those rocks told me ancient stories and the birds sang to me personally.

Another peach and another freshwater rinse later, I headed up the road to Northampton. Northhampton is one of those places that everyone tells me I should live (along with Eugene, Oregon?). So I had to check it out. It was nice, very liberal, but soon to be hippie-critical. It highlights to me how I am often misunderstood. Although I share many of the values of deadheads, I care deeply about the planet and it’s people and I’m driven to making a positive impact. I struggle everyday to communicate an idea which I'm not yet qualified to do, but I’ve not given up yet.

As I strolled through town, I passed a haircutting place. On impulse, I decided to get a haircut. I was a little concerned because the place was blasting club-thumping techno music. But the girl did a good job, and it was worth the fifteen bucks just to have her wash my hair.

In a small bookstore, I bought a book of the letters of Thoreau at half-price. I then caught a movie “Little Miss Sunshine” (very good), had some sushi (wicked good), and settled in for the night up the road in a Clarion Hotel parking lot. In the back of my 2001 Eurovan, under the blue LED light of my Petzel mini-headlamp, I read Thoreau for the first time in my life.

The next morning was cold and rainy. So I was proud of myself for remembering to bring an umbrella. But when I opened it, I realized that not only was it tiny, but it had a scalloped edge – almost frilly. A little embarrassed by this girly thing, I ducked into the first café I could find. I sat there for several hours, my nosed pressed into my new book. “The heavens are as deep, as our aspirations are high “ wrote Thoreau. I was stunned. I decided to make a little pilgrimage.

I jumped on the Turnpike and headed east toward Walden Pond. With the words “Simplicity, simplicity” ringing in my ears, I stopped for a quick visit with my brother, to check out his humongous new, wide-screen, Hi-Def, digital surround sound, TV (which was cool).

The tenuous island of woods surrounding Walden Pond is now a National Historic Site run by the State. On this cold and rainy day the place was vacant. I found a bronze statue of Thoreau positioned near his cabin - as if he had just set out to go exploring. He has a determined stride and a familiar intense look on his face. His hand is held up, as if studying a piece of fruit.

Since no one was around, and Henry was distracted, I poked my head into the cabin. Inside, was marvelously stark. A slanted desk, three chairs at a three-legged table, a woodstove, and a small lumpy bed with a wool blanket. I could not resist. The door creaked open and I sat down at his desk. I daydreamed for several minutes and then found myself lying on the little bed listening to the rain. The last things I remember were the soft song of a robin, imagining the smell of wood smoke, and feeling the residual warmth from the long extinguished stove.

I was woken up by a wet Japanese family peering into the cabin. The father was nice enough to snap this photo on me and the old bugger (he’s a lot shorter than I imagined).

Of the many must-do things in a lifetime, two of them come to mind now (and no, peeing on the Plymouth Rock isn’t one). One is swimming in a tropical “bait-ball” – see earlier post, and two is sneaking a nap in Thoreau’s empty bed.

I have just begun to explore…

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Pelicans and Silversides

One summer gig I always enjoyed was as a teaching/sail-charter captain down in the British Virgin Islands. The 3-month job was to sail a 50-foot catamaran loaded up with high school kids, who had signed up for a summer of sailing, diving, marine biology and fun. So I went to the program’s website to get in the mood.

That’s when I saw a photo of a pelican and started to daydream roughly as follows:

I remember on one of these jobs a few years back, watching pelicans feed while anchored near Guana Island. I noticed - actually it’s hard not to - that they had a very specific and cyclic pattern. Sitting on the deck of “Gone Native” I observed (and filmed), squadrons of pelicans, flying in perfect formation. Groups of 2 to 20 would circle around in an undeniable “follow the leader” pattern. The lead bird was doing most of the hunting. It would frequently hesitate in mid flap, as if lining up prey. The rest would mirror the leader exactly, right down to the wing beat. Only when the timing was perfect would the leader commit to the classic pelican dive bomb, hitting the water at about 80 mph. Each successive bird mimicked the motions faithfully with the sole difference being that it would impact a fraction of a second later, and almost EXACTLY 2 feet away from the one just before it. The effect was like watching machine gun bullets fired from the deck of a warship as they aimed for a low-flying kamikaze.

See Pelican Video:


I’ve watched a lot of birds. And I’ve watched pelicans feed in different parts of the world. But this is the only place I’ve ever seen this habit practiced with such predictable precision. In Florida for example, I've watched pelicans fly in formation, but have only ever observed them to hunt/dive bomb independently.

Curiosity kicked in. Why do BVI Pelicans exhibit this peculiar behavior?

I’m sure there is a marine biologist or ornithologist out there who has studied the cooperative feeding behavior of pelicans. If you are (or know one) please let me know. But to me this is a completely original idea.

I think it has to less to do with geography and more with prey.

In the Caribbean there is an abundance of small fish called silversides. These little minnow-sized fish roam the shallows, in gigantic dense schools.

At some of the more remote anchorages, “bait balls” form and can dominate entire cove. A bait ball is a special event that happens when huge schools of silversides converge. From above it’s an insanely noisy scene with birds squawking and fish splashing all about (the last clip of the pelican movie). Pelicans and other seabirds such as gannets, gulls, and boobies, make diving assaults. Underneath, massive predatory fish like tarpon dart around with jaws agape, sending the fish boiling up to the surface. When not in an active bait ball things are a bit more calm but still disorienting.
See Silversides Video:


One time, while diving below a school of silversides, I looked up and noticed that the only space clear of fish, was a vertical tube in the path of my exhaled bubbles. Apparently the silversides don’t like bubbles. Maybe they think it’s a predator and are scattering to get away.

It was this radial scattering behavior that got me thinking about pelican feeding behavior. To do a little nonscientific experiment, I devised a simple “Rock Drop Test.”

See Rock Test Video:


I think Pelicans have learned that they can get more silversides per dive if they time and space themselves to the impact of a lead bird.

See diagrams.


Get It?

It could be a wonderful example of how complex, seemingly “intelligent” behaviors can evolve. How things evolve is a topic for another day.

And all it took was a little bird watching, daydreaming, and science.


PS. I had an opportunity to dive into an intensely active bait ball once and the experience blew my mind (unfortunately I did not have a camera). From below it is even more dramatic than above. Clouds of black, swirl around in the inches squeezed between the reef and the surface. At times you are enveloped in a vortex of fish not knowing which way is up. Vertigo sets in and you feel like you are tumbling through space because of the chaotic swarms of fish. Every few minutes the motion becomes even more panicked. Tarpon jaws flash by your face and these big fish actually bump into you. It feels like a brother’s punch.

If you ever get the opportunity to dive or even snorkel into one you should jump right it. It’s amazing. Check out this video.

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