Thursday, July 29, 2004

Plant an onion...


Get an ... well, weeks have passed and, unlike my radishes, the spring onions on my windowsill show no sign of germination. The seeds sleep. Perhaps they are dead.

I try to put a bright face on it. Can I quote Ursula Goodenough again, from her wonderful book, The Sacred Depths of Nature: "Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love."

Plant a radish...

Get a radish. Never any doubt. That's why I love vegetables; you know what you're about!

Well, ok, I'm old enough to pretty much know how my kids will turn out, unlike the flummoxed parent in the song. But I still like growing veggies on my window sill.

They're dependable! They're befriendable! What the radish will turn out to be is all there in its 18 chromosomes.

There's more there too. A garbage heap of junk genes. The detritus of billions of years of evolution, roads not taken, destinies sloughed off. If we've learned anything from the study of DNA it's that life is jerrybuilt and wasteful. Any halfway clever engineer could do a better job.

As biologist Ursula Goodenough says: "Genomes are absurd. They really are. Small islands of meaningful genes and their regulatory modules floating in seas of meaningless sequences, each gene some crazy quilt of former ideas."

But my radishes reach for the sun, eager for the nip of my teeth into their firm white flesh. A man who plants a garden is a very happy man!

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Blowin' in the wind -- Part 2

As wind farms occupy our wild hilltops, I look out the window and see dozens of new structures that are potential sources of renewable energy.

Roofs.

Governments in wealthy nations should mandate photovoltaic roofing systems for all new commercial and residential buildings (private houses under a certain modest size or cost would be exempt), to come into effect in, say, five years.

I'm not taking about solar panels, but integrated systems to replace tiles or shingles, connected to the electricity grid for two-way transfer of power.

Cheap? No. But if the requirement is there, technology will rise to the occasion. Efficiency will go up, cost down. There will be a payoff for the poorer nations too, which tend to be located in sunnier climes.

Since the size of a roof generally corresponds to the size of a building, the cost of photovoltaic roofing would be an indirect tax on energy consumption.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Blowin' in the wind...


Wind farms are the big green dream of many conservationists in America. Here in Ireland (and Britain) the giant spinning propellers are rather thicker on the ground.

In this little country, which is about the size of West Virginia, several dozen electricity generating wind farms are presently operating, and more are proposed or under construction. A similar situation prevails in Britain.

Two things drive the proliferation of wind generators: unlike the present administration in Washington, governments here take seriously their commitments to renewable energy; and government incentives mean handsome profits for developers.

Many Irish and British conservationists doubt the wisdom of peppering the landscape with these huge machines. Wind farms are generally sited in remote upland locations, but those of us who treasure the few remaining wild landscapes cast a wary eye on the insidious march of the turbines across the hilltops.

Is there a better way? More tomorrow.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Absence makes the heart...

Tom's blogs were conspicuously absent last week. He was busy buying a new house and putting his present house on the market. Yesterday he left for two weeks of travel in Europe. The last thing he did before heading to the airport was add some neat links to this week's Musing.

He'll be back aboard when he arrives here in Kerry next Sunday, but he'll surely miss broadband. On the other hand, broadband won't give him soft Irish evenings like this.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

One last Hawking blog...

Some years ago, New Age guru Shirley MacLaine had a chat with Stephen Hawking, which she recounts in one of her books on achieving inner bliss.

She asks the famous physicist if the "harmonic energy" of the universe is loving.

"I don't know that there is anything loving about energy," replies the wheelchair-bound professor, via his computerized voice-synthesizer. "I don't think loving is a word I could ascribe to the universe."

"What is a word you could use?" wonders MacLaine.

"Order," replies Hawking. "The universe is well-defined order."

MacLaine persists: "So the question becomes how we define order in relation to how we see ourselves and our behavior?"

"Maybe," muses Hawking. "What do you mean?"

Friday, July 23, 2004

On the mountain -- Part 3

One last stop on my way up Coumaknock (mountain hollow), the ice-carved corrie on the flank of Mount Brandon.

Here's a little plant that flourishes in moist, shady microclimates high in the corrie: Saint Patrick's Cabbage.

It is not a cabbage, nor as far as I know does it have any connection with the saint. It is however almost unique among Irish plants in that it doesn't occur in Britain. It is one of the so-called Lusitanian species of Irish flora and fauna, native to warmer Mediterranean climes, with no intervening colonies. (Lusitania was the Roman province that corresponds mainly to modern Portugal.)

These plants and animals appear to predate human commerce. How they got to southwestern Ireland -- and nowhere in between -- is a mystery. Seeds, perhaps, in the belly of birds, but then what of the Kerry spotted slug?

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Black holes, boggled minds

Several stories I have seen on the Hawking announcement call black holes "cosmic vacuum cleaners that go around sucking up everything in their path." That's a bit of hyperbole. You would fall toward a black hole just as you fall toward Earth or any other object with gravity.

With black holes, the trick is getting out again.

Getting off the Earth is not easy either. You must move fast enough to overcome Earth's gravity -- the so-called escape velocity. Even harder to escape Jupiter, because the surface gravity is greater.

When the escape velocity of an object equals the speed of light, nothing can get away -- except Hawking's quantum "seepage."

Presumably, most black holes in the universe are the collapsed cores of massive dead stars. With no force strong enough to stop the collapse, the core shrinks to an infinitesimal point. That pinprick of superdense matter, which can weigh more than the entire Solar System, is surrounded by a bubble of space about the size of Rhode Island from which there is no escape -- the black hole.

All things considered, I'd rather visit Rhode Island.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Black holes, bright minds

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking was in Dublin today.

For decades he has had a running bet with theoretical physicist John Preskill about whether information that falls into a black hole is lost forever. Yes, maintained Hawking.

The mass of black holes will eventually leak out as quantum radiation, he discovered, but this random energy would contain no clue about what went into the hole in the first place.

Now Hawking finds this is not the case, and came to an international conference in Dublin to eat crow, washed down we hope with Guinness.

No point in going into the details, if for no other reason than that it's way over my head. The real story here is the willingness of scientists to admit mistakes when theory or experiment suggests a change.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

On the mountain -- Part 2


Here's another pic from the ice-carved corrie on the flank of Mount Brandon. The parallel grooves you see running from lower right to upper left are surface scratches from the glacier that harbored here just 10,000 years ago.

A careful observer will find these scratches all along the valley, invariably pointing down hill.

In the mid-nineteenth century, John Ball, an Alpine mountaineer, visited these steep-sided, bowl-shaped valleys on the Dingle Peninsula and noticed their similarities to mountain valleys in Switzerland where living glaciers reside today. He was among the first to suggest that much of northern Europe was fairly recently covered with ice.

The idea of an ice age in Ireland was no less fabulous in the first telling than stories of the magical god-hero Finn Mac Cool, who was also supposed to have inhabited these slopes. The ice, however, left behind far more persuasive evidence.

Monday, July 19, 2004

On The Mountain

On the north side of Mount Brandon, glaciers -- now long gone -- have cut a great deep gash in the mountain's flank.

Along the old pilgrim path up through the valley are revealed splendid examples of cross-bedding in the 400 million year-old sandstone.

Here fine red sand was swept by wind into dunelike layers, truncating other layers at odd angles, giving us a glimpse across the eons of a dry inland basin on a long-vanished continent where sediments collected from surrounding uplands.

Geologists, too, have walked this pilgrim's path, teasing out the story of the Earth's transformations. They understand what the Irish saint Columbanus taught 1400 years ago: The creation is the primary revelation.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Virtual Worlds

Chet's latest musing, Realities, has been posted over on the Musings page.
Tom and Chet on laptops
For the past month, our collaboration on this new website has been conducted entirely in cyberspace -- Chet in the west of Ireland, myself in Massachusetts but with emails zipping back and forth daily.

In August, I'm looking forward to a week's vacation in Ireland where the two of us can resume our chats in the real world, or what nerds call meatspace. Perhaps I'll be able to talk Chet into another hike up Brandon.

In the meantime, it's a sunny afternoon here in New England, time to get off the laptop...how's the weather in Ireland?

A Healthy Skepticism

Anonymous, commenting on a Musing, reminds us of a statement of the biologist Richard Dawkins that I always liked: "By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out."

He was speaking of the mindreaders, channelers, and other purveyors of the paranormal who seem to have such a firm hold on the popular imagination.

"There is certainly nothing impossible about abduction by aliens in UFOs,"
writes
the always skeptical Dawkins. "One day it may be happen. But on grounds of probability it should be kept as an explanation of last resort."

More From Cassini

There was a flurry of stunning pictures from Cassini in the beginning of July but then nothing for the past two weeks. Why? Shortly after Cassini achieved Saturn Orbit Insertion, the whole Saturnian system disappeared behind the Sun as viewed from Earth. Communication with the probe was impossible during this time. Recently, Saturn emerged from behind the Sun and NASA was able to start downloading data from Cassini again.
Dark and bright Iapetus
Take a look at one of these new images, a view of Saturn's bizarre moon Iapetus. It sort of looks like our moon but there is something quite odd about Iapetus. The dark area in this picture is not shadow! One side of Iapetus is very bright, the other side is caked with darker material. No one knows for sure what causes this difference of appearance. One theory is since that side of Iapetus is the leading edge in its orbit around Saturn, it is collecting debris. Much like running your finger across a dusty table, Iapetus may have plowed up all the junk that crossed its orbit. Neat!

Friday, July 16, 2004

Vagabonds

The color of the sea here is not the only sign the water is warmer. For the past few weeks we have had an unusual infestation of Compass Jellyfish in the harbor, as big around as dinner plates, with streaming tentacles six feet long.

They are not particularly dangerous, but they make a swim off the pier or a lowtide walk on the strand rather unpleasant.

The bodies of jellyfish are 99 percent water; they have fewer non-aqueous ingredients than lemonade, yet they are alive. They eat, they drift, they reproduce. They've been around almost as long as multicelled creatures have been on the Earth.

Armored trilobites, thunder-footed dinosaurs, and saber-toothed tigers have come and gone; the watery jellyfish endure. Their strategy for survival has been spectacularly successful: Keep it simple, go with the flow.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Hard Truths

Years ago when I first came to this place, a neighbor expressed astonishment that we would build a cottage on "the fairies' hill."

I smiled condescendingly. "We don't believe in fairies," I said.

Sometime later I was explaining to the same neighbor how glaciers had shaped the mountain during the ice age.

"'Tis easier to believe in fairies under the hill than ice on top," she said, with just a hint of triumph.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Microangels

When I visited the website of the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science for yesterday's blog, I discovered a gallery of exquisite microphotographs of plankton.

Plankton are tiny plants, animals or bacteria that live in the sea drifting hither and yon as the currents take them. Their name derives from the same Greek root as planet, meaning "wanderer."

The little animals you see in the gallery (scroll down on the linked page to see thumbnails) are typically smaller than the head of a pin.

These wonderful creatures are as much a part of their medium as clouds are part of the sky, as if water itself had a tendency to thicken and to flower. They undulate their spectral bells and wings like visitors from a world of pure spirit.


Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Emerald Isle, Emerald Sea

When we arrived here in the west of Ireland in June my wife said, "The sea looks greener than usual."

I pooh-poohed her observation. "It's your sunglasses," I said.

Well, maybe not. Scientists at the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, England, have been surveying plankton in waters around Britain and Ireland for more than 50 years. A year-round bloom of green algae is making the sea visibly greener, they say.

Presumably another result of global warming. Stronger ocean currents are bringing warm water and nutrients from the south. Last year the temperature of the North Sea was 3 degrees C higher than normal, say the researchers.

"Here, put on your sunglasses and read this," says my wife, as she hands me the story in the London Times.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Stormy Weather

The "smiling, fiery orb" at the center of our solar system sometimes throws tantrums! Last autumn, solar storms and massive coronal mass ejections spewed blazing-hot gas and radiation in all directions. When a wave of ejected solar radiation reaches Earth, it can cause disruption of electrical power lines and communication satellites. But ejections can also result in spectacular Northern (and Southern) Lights!

This recent article in New Scientist highlights how far humanity has spread itself across the solar system. Humans have themselves not traveled farther than our own moon, but our robotic eyes and ears are everywhere! These most recent sun-storms were detected and measured by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft orbiting Mars, the Ulysses craft near Jupiter, Cassini on its approach to Saturn, and even the Voyager probes (!) at the far reaches of the solar system.

See this NASA animation for a dramatic demonstration of the power of the Sun's power as well our ability to observe it from all angles.

Strimming

Emmett, commenting on last week's Musing on global warming, worries about emissions from his lawn mower. I'm on my hillside here in Ireland strimming away with a gasoline-powered strimmer. There was a time when we pushed a mower and swung a scythe.

There's no going back. Let's face it, civilization means pollution.

And I'm not just talking about internal combustion. The advent of farming meant cutting down forests, thereby diminishing the planet's capacity to take carbon dioxide out of the air. Rice paddies add the greenhouse gas methane. So do cows.

We can find ways to contract. Hybrid cars. Renewable energy. Recycling. More intensive methods of agriculture.

More important from an ethical point of view is convergence: Everyone has an equal right to pollute. Or, I should say, a right to pollute equally. As it stands, citizens of the rich nations pollute vastly more than citizens of poor nations.

Unlikely this will change until the United States ceases to frustrate every step towards international agreement on hydrocarbon quotas.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Sunday is "Sun" Day

Chet's latest musing, Smiling Faces, Orbs of Fire, has been posted over on the Musings page.

Also added this week are photo galleries related to Chet's two most recent books, Climbing Brandon and The Path. If you've read either of these books you may enjoy seeing some of the sights described within their pages.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Honor and the Glory

Just look at those rings of Saturn in false color, posted by Tom. Pretty spectacular, as his "'nuff said" implies, even if what we are looking at is only visible to the eye of science.

Human vision evolved as a strategy for survival. Seeing the hidden ultraviolet spectrum of Saturn's rings feeds the spirit.

"It is the glory of God to conceal a thing," said the great Russian chemist Mendeleev, "and the honor of kings to search it out."

Friday, July 09, 2004

Ultraviolet view of Saturn's rings

UV view of Saturn's rings
'nuff said.

Taking It Easy

Sarah, who left a comment below, says she has always sort of liked stinging nettles "since it kept the less than committed off the hidden paths."

She will get a sympathetic nod from any of us who like the quiet and solitude of the great outdoors.

Helicopters in the Grand Canyon, snowmobiles in the backcountry, or 4-wheel-drive vehicles on remote beaches make it altogether too easy, we say, and spoil the very thing we go in search of.

At the same time, we may feel a tinge of snobbery, and guilt that the exclusion of noisy, fume-spewing vehicles might deprive those who cannot walk access to places of beauty.

Still, I know I seethe with annoyance when I encounter off-road vehicles or snowmobiles along my path, where they are prohibited.

I'm with Sarah. I'll take nettles over snowmobiles.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Dowsing -- Part 1

A teaser caught my eye on the cover of the July issue of Focus magazine, which calls itself "The World's Best Science and Technology Monthly" --

"Dowsing: The new discovery that reveals why it works."

Dowsing is the use of twitching sticks to find buried water or other hidden objects. Sometimes called water witching.

I was surprised to discover that the author of the article is the respected science writer and professed skeptic John Gribbin.

The article contains nothing but anecdotal assertions to prove dowsing works, and nothing but vague babble about a "dowsing field" caused by the rotation of the Earth around the Sun to show why it works.

One might expect better from someone on the Advisory Board of the Skeptic Society.

I have a friend here in the west of Ireland who swears by dowsing and claims to have the gift. We are working on a double-blind test. Pints of Guinness are at stake. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Nose Knows

For some unknown reason, I was born without a sense of smell. In her book "A Natural History of the Senses" Diane Ackerman suggests "smumb" as an appropriate moniker for my condition. ("There goes Chet. He's smumb.").

The official name is anosmia.

In recent years, researchers have begun to pay more attention to the sense of smell. For example, we now know that mice have about 1200 genes for scent receptors, most of them in full working order.

Humans, by contrast, have only about 1000 smell receptor genes, and the greater part of these have been put out of action by deleterious mutations.

It seems that with our big brains and keen color vision modern humans don't rely as much on the nose as did our mammalian ancestors.

So rather than smumb, I now think of myself as highly evolved.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Global Warming Roundup

A few links apropos this week's Musing on global warming and climate change...
Ozone hole
The Beeb has a story on the Church of England's backing of an ambitious plan to bring worldwide pollution under control. The CoE has taken the view that the reduction of pollution is a question of morality. This is a stance that is refreshingly forward-looking compared to some fundamentalist Christian groups and their political allies in this country who seem to believe that we have already entered the "end times" which would make conservation policies pointless.

Meanwhile, NASA has scheduled for this weekend the launch of a new satellite that will study the Earth's atmosphere. The Aura mission will investigate the ozone in the Earth's atmosphere and look for trends with implications for climate change. The Aura website includes a quiz to test your knowledge of Earth's ozone.

Welcome

With the notice of this site in the Boston Globe this morning, perhaps old friends of the former Globe column will visit. Welcome! Your comments and suggestions are welcome too, to chet@sciencemusings.com or tom@sciencemusings.com.

A Nettlesome Dilemma

Nettles
Stinging nettles not only thrive in former places of human habitation (see below, Momento mori). They are also taking over our hedgerows and roadside ditches.

What used to be natural gardens abloom with buttercups, herb Robert, speedwell, foxglove, bramble rose, honeysuckle, clover and vetch are now obnoxious banks of nettles. Also gone are many species of butterflies, birds, insects, slugs and small mammals.

The culprit is run-off from large monocrop fields made fertile with artificial fertilizers rich in phosphates and nitrates.

Whereas farmers hereabouts used to maintain the fertility of their many small fields with animal manure and rotation of crops, now it all comes out of a bag.

But it would take a harder man than me to tell my neighbors they must give up their shiny SUVs, mobile phones, and trips to Orlando and go back to the old labor-intensive ways of wresting a meager living from the land.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Momento mori

One of the joys of this place -- the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland -- is the profusion of antiquities: abandoned villages, Medieval castles, early Christian ecclesiastical sites, Iron Age forts, Stone Age tombs and stone alignments.

The bane of anyone who visits these places is stinging nettles. Brush a bare arm or leg against these bristly plants and your skin will sting for hours.

Nettles thrive on phosphate-rich soil and human settlements provide phosphates in abundance, especially from ash and bones. Old graveyards are nettle heavens.

Villages abandoned hundreds of years ago push up nettles even where the original buildings have vanished. Phosphates linger long in non-acidic soils.

Every time I get a rash I curse the dead.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Looking, Living, Wondering

Tom stays up late to catch the latest downlinks from Cassini, and is rewarded with a pic of Saturn's tiny shepherd moon Pan (see below).

Makes me think of the episode in in Kenneth Grahame's childhood classic The Wind in the Willows in which Mole stays out late on the river and has a epiphanic encounter with the pipe-playing demigod himself. Goat-footed, horned. Bearded mouth, muscled arms, shaggy limbs. And of course the pan-pipes, with their mysterious, seductive music.

"All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered."

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Ring Cleaning


While some of us are busy Hoovering up spiders, Cassini has imaged Saturn's elusive shepherd moon Pan. The tiny moon is the caretaker of the 168-mile wide Encke gap in Saturn's rings. As it zips around Saturn, it keeps its own little orbit within the rings free of dust and debris.

Pan's existence was predicted before it was first observed due to its gravitational influence on the surrounding rings. The 12-mile wide moon was finally spotted by scientist Mark R. Showalter in a nine year old Voyager photograph in 1990.

And now on Cassini's return to Saturn, Pan has been spotted again -- still dutifully keeping its part of the rings tidy.

Woosh!

This house on a hill in the west of Ireland sits empty most of the year. When we arrive in summer every nook and cranny has its spider, Pholcus phalangioides, sometimes called "daddy-long-legs."

They are harmless things, but left to themselves they would overrun the place. So we go about sucking them up with the vacuum cleaner.

Except for the few I keep under the shelf above my desk, where I can watch and learn their habits.

If I touch one with the tip of a pencil, it flings itself into a dervish dance, turning itself into a blur. It must be a defense mechanism, selected by evolution many thousands or millions of years ago, probably not a bad way to defend yourself if you are all legs.

Pholcus phalangioides's dilemma is not unlike that of other creatures on the planet. Natural selection prepared them well for the rough-and-tumble of non-human predators, but not for the long black snout of the Hoover.

Friday, July 02, 2004

UTC it is then...

OK, as of now, I've changed all the timestamps on the blog posts to read in UTC time. However I'll still keep my watch set to EDT...for now...

Is It Now Now?

Tom muses about that hour-and-a-half disconnect between what's happening with Cassini at Saturn and reception of the signal on Earth.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a cottage in the west of Ireland setting my computer's clock with official U. S. Government time broadcast on the internet.

It takes less than a fifth of a second for a radio signal to go right around the Earth. Of course, the info displayed on the government's time site gets bounced all over the place in packets of binary data before it reaches my computer. Accurate to within 0.7 seconds, says Uncle Sam.

The signal is generated with atomic clocks by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington. These institutions contribute to something called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), from which their clocks never deviate by more than 0.0000001 seconds.

What's now? asks Tom. UTC, that's now.

(So why is the acronym for Coordinated Universal Time UTC, rather than CUT? A compromise with the French Temps Universel Coordonne, TUC.)

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Rings

Closeup of Saturn's ringsFor all your Cassini pictures hot off the presses you should go here. It seems they've stopped updating the main Cassini site.

Success!

Saturn has a new satellite and its name is Cassini! The Saturn Orbit Insertion burn was executed flawlessly last night and Cassini is now in orbit around Saturn.

I watched a portion of the NASA TV coverage before drifting off to bed. There was a strange temporal disconnect watching the NASA engineers cheering radio confirmation of each mission event during Orbit Insertion. It's also present in the media coverage this morning. The stages of Cassini's maneuver were being reported as happening now, in the present. "Cassini is now passing through the ring plane." "We're five minutes from main engine start." But in fact, every signal from Cassini indicating a mission success had been traveling through space at the speed of light for an hour and a half before being detected on Earth. It seemed odd...and makes you wonder what "now" actually means.

Science and Nonsense

Tom drew my attention to a parody news story in the Onion about the building of a giant pyramid in California as a burial chamber for our very own Sun God, Ronald Reagan.

Not mentioned in the story are the Royal Astrologers, who should also be interred with the ex-Prez, to advise him in the next world as they did in this one.

Jimmy Carter lacked the Great Communicator's political skills, but at least he knew the difference between science and superstition.

And by the way, thanks, Jimmy, for speaking out recently against removing the word "evolution" from Georgia's science curriculum.