Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Juan gone -- Part 2

Tom's post about the black bear that escaped from the Berlin zoo got me thinking about zoos.

I grew up in a generation of American boys who idolized Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck, the 20th century's most flamboyant live animal dealer. Buck's clients included many of America's zoos. He supplied them with elephants, tigers, leopards, apes, monkeys, exotic birds, and any other beast they asked for.

By the time my own children started reading, there were new zoologist heroes and heroines. Joy Adamson, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey. The book titles were different too: "Bring 'Em Back Alive" replaced by "Living Free" and "Gorillas in the Mist."

But give Frank Buck this: While his friends blasted away at wild beasts with guns, he brought 'em back alive. Unfortunately, Buck's animals were saved from the trophy room wall only to spend their lives in grim confinement.

Today's zoos are not so grim and zoos no longer collect merely for display. Their agendas emphasize education, breeding, and conservation. No contemporary zoo of any stature will display a rare or vulnerable animal unless it intends to promote an increase in that species' population.

Still, I can't help but feel sympathy for Juan the Escapee. I hope he enjoyed his brief taste of freedom.

Juan gone

In a scene reminiscent of The Great Escape, Juan, an Andean bear, attempted a thrilling breakout from the Berlin Zoo. Juan was apprehended by vigilant zookeepers, presumably far from the Swiss border. It is left unreported whether Juan was then sent to the "cooler."

Monday, August 30, 2004

Quackery

Our little market in this West Ireland village sells three kinds of homeopathic remedies: atropa belladonna, arnica montana, and aconitum napellus. The first is commonly known as deadly nightshade, a highly toxic plant.

Dangerous? Nah. At the homeopathic level of dilution one can be virtually certain that the tiny bottle of pills contains not a single molecule of nightshade. Nor indeed would a whole truckload of the stuff.

In fact, all three "remedies" contain exactly the same sugar pills, their supposedly distinctive substances having been diluted out of existence. At six euros (about seven bucks) a bottle, this makes caviar look cheap.

Hey, if people want to spend six euros for a thimbleful of sugar that's their business. Homeopathic "remedies" won't do them any harm. Certainly less harm than my six-euro bottle of wine might do to my liver.

But at least I'm getting some actual alcohol molecules for my money.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Seeing the invisible

Jason draws our attention to the Chandra X-Ray Observatory's new image of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant.

This lovely celestial blossom is a false-color image of a star that blew up about 300 years ago, Earth time. The progenitor star was about 10,000 light-years from Earth, a goodly way across the Milky Way Galaxy.

Cassiopeia A was first revealed with a radio telescope in 1944. Delicate wisps of matter were then photographed in visible light.

But much of the energy of the expanding shell of gas is in the X-ray spectrum, invisible to the eye -- but not to Chandra, which has orbited the Earth since 1999.

If you want an edge-of-your-seat space science adventure, read how Chandra got built and deployed in the terrific book by Wallace Tucker and Karen Tucker.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Bug love -- Part 2

Ladybugs -- oops, ladybirds! -- are named in the Linnaean system rather like a deck of cards: by suit and number of spots, or rather, genus and species. Thus, Adalia bipunctata is the two-spot ladybird, and Adalia decimpunctata is the ten-spot ladybird.

The lovers on the fence post are (if I'm not mistaken) the common Coccinella septempunctata, or seven-spot ladybird.

Ladybirds are also like a deck of cards in that they are sometimes red with black spots or black with red spots. Adalia bipunctata appears in both forms.

The family name Coccinellidae means "little sphere." Shouldn't it be little hemisphere ?

Friday, August 27, 2004

Bug love

Here is a pic I took on the mountain today. Two ladybugs nuzzling on a fence post. Or I suppose it is a ladybug and a gentlemanbug. In any case, they seem to be getting it on swimmingly.

What I want to know is how the thousands of species of ladybugs (ladybirds, they call them here) tell themselves apart. Ok, the two-spotted ladybug is perhaps easily distinguished from the ten-spotted ladybug, but can a ten-spotted ladybug recognize a fourteen-spotted ladybug as a different species?

And which of this amorous pair carved the heart beneath their tryst?

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Written in stone

One advantage of living on a once-glaciated, mountainous, sea-girt peninsula is the many places the Earth's bedrock is exposed in ice-carved valleys and sea cliffs. The Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland has been a haunt of geologists since the mid-nineteenth century.

Here is a pic of Clogher Head on the end of the peninsula, from yesterday's walk. These are the oldest rocks of the peninsula, about 425 million years, from a time not long after plants and animals first invaded the land.

In the cliffs are lava flows mixed with shallow marine and non-marine sediments. Volcanoes in Ireland!

Just one of many clues geologists use to reconstruct the past, in this case a time when a pre-Atlantic Ocean was being squeezed out of existence in the collision of continents that raised the ancestral Appalachian and Caledonian Mountains, now mere remnants of their former selves and sundered by a new ocean.

In the era just after the collision, I could have walked the relatively short distance from Ireland to New England.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Seeing in the dark

In recent years, professional astronomers have discovered a hundred or so planets around other stars. These are not Earthlike planets, but gassy Jupiterlike giants whose mass is sufficient to cause a detectible wobble in the parent star.

Now another technique has found an extrasolar planet. A tiny telescope, no bigger than those of many backyard astronomers, has detected a planet around a distant star by the faint dimming of the star's light as the planet moves in front of the star.

The newly discovered planet orbits a star 500 light-years away. Within that distance there are approximately 1 million stars with potential planetary systems.

So here is a rich new field of research for amateur astronomers with halfway decent small computer-driven telescopes, one which can make real contributions to our understanding of how planets are formed.

Amateur astronomers are amateur in the original sense of the word: the am- derives from the Latin word for love. What unites them is love of the night.

It has been suggested that the root of the Latin for love, am, had its origin in baby talk, like yum-yum or mmmm! an expression of delight.

And that's what propels amateur stargazers into the night when everyone else is settled down indoors. They seek the mmmm!, that special moment of delight when the night reveals itself in an intimate way, knowledge and beauty coming together in a seamless experience.

My dictionary of English usage says that the word amateur has acquired "a faint flavor of bungling and a strong flavor of enthusiasm." That faint flavor of bungling devalues an otherwise honorable word. Amateur astronomers are increasingly competing with the pros, and match them step by step for enthusiasm.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Rain, rain, go away... Part 2

As anticipated, Hurricane Charley crossed the Atlantic to wring the last of its wet rags on Ireland. As a result, parts of this country had the wettest August since Charley's namesake visited these shores in 1986.

But by some fluke of circulation, this little corner of Kerry remained relatively dry.

Today is the feast of Saint Bartholomew, which in Irish and British weather lore means the end of the forty days of rain that begin on the feast of Saint Swithin. Good Saint Bart must be losing his clout. It just started pouring.

Monday, August 23, 2004

The music of nature

I have a young friend here who is an accomplished composer, trained at Queen's University, Belfast. I have just been listening to a composition she was working on last summer, but which premiered after I left Ireland.

The piece was commissioned to celebrated the Great Blasket Island off the Dingle Peninsula, a place that gave rise to an astonishing body of literature in the Irish language, and even more works in English about the little community of people who lived there and accomplished so much.

Last summer Rachel was out and about collecting sounds with a tape recorder -- sea, wind, rain, oars in oarlocks, flexing timber -- which she took back to her computer and "sculpted" (her word) into music to be sung and played on conventional instruments.

I love her sense that even a turning door handle can be a song of sorts, and I admire her mastery of the technology that lets her share with an audience the songs she hears all about her.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Look but don't touch -- Part 2

I disagree with Tom about the Stonehenge road tunnel. I think it's rather a good idea, and English Heritage and the National Trust, proponents of the plan, have done much to preserve the nation's treasures.

So how about this: In addition to the tunnel, build a Stonehenge Theme Park some miles away, with a full-size fiberglass reproduction of the monument, guides dressed up in skins as Beaker People, and a village of wattle and daub, including tea rooms and souvenir shops. Disney proved long ago that tourists will flock to the ersatz Stonehenge, thereby leaving the real thing to latter-day druids and people -- like Tom -- with a taste for authenticity.

Evolution of good and evil


Tom recently posted a few remarks on his visit to Blenheim Palace in England, awarded by a grateful nation to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, for his victory over the French at Blenheim.

In Robert Southey's poem about the battle, a young boy asks his grandfather what the conflict was all about. "What they fought each other for, I could not well make out," the old man replies. He then assures the child that nevertheless "'twas a famous victory."

Human history is full of terrible slaughter the purpose of which we often cannot make out. Aggression is in our genes, no doubt firmly affixed to the male chromosome. Alas, it is most often young men who die, not always certain why they are asked by their ambitious elders to lay down their lives.

Altruism is also in our genes, as behavioral studies* of other primates make clear. Battles rage within our bodies as well as on fields of blood.

*(See Evolution of the Golden Rule by Gretchen Vogel, in the February 20, 2004 issue of Science. Not available free on-line.)

Friday, August 20, 2004

Revealing the beauty within

Over at SpaceTramp's blog, there is a interesting post about Dendrochronology -- the study of tree rings.

Any budding dendrochronologists out there may enjoy the work of artist Giuseppe Penone. I was entranced by his sculpture Tree of 12 Metres which is on display at the Tate Modern in London. Penone took a massive timber beam and carefully cut back along the knots and rings to reveal the original tree at an earlier stage in its growth. There isn't a picture of it on the Tate site but his sculpture Helicodial tree uses the same technique.

Penone's work is on display in the same room as the more famous The Kiss by Auguste Rodin. Rodin started with a solid block of marble and chipped away at it until the form of a man and woman in a loving embrace was created.

Both artists realized the beauty contained within these solid forms -- one a creation of his own imagination, the other a creation of the natural world.

Look , but don't touch

So they want to build a tunnel at Stonehenge? Proponents of the tunnel plan say that it will reduce traffic congestion, pollution and accidents near the ancient monuments.

I must say the idea of Stonehenge sitting by itself in lush open grasslands without any whizzing cars nearby does appeal to me. However, after visiting the site for the first time while in England last month, I can tell you the real reason they want to do this -- so you are unable to see the monument without paying admission.

As it is now, you are no longer able to get up close to the stones. By paying a entrance fee of about £10 you can gain access to a walkway which circles the site at a comfortable viewing distance. If you are a cheapskate like I was, you can see the structure from the road. The view from the existing road is only about 30 feet further away than the paying customers so you can see why they want to remove the road from the picture.

Magic and mystery -- Part 2

In a brief speech the other evening (I'll tell you where in Sunday's Musing), a friend made a neat distinction between the miraculous and the marvelous. It is a distinction lost on the Church authorities who denied young Haley Waldman a valid sacrament.

If there is a theme to sciencemusings.com, it is that the universe is sufficiently marvelous, all by itself, not to require miracles.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Magic and mystery

You may have read the story of the little New Jersey girl with a serious wheat allergy who received her First Holy Communion from a sympathetic priest with a rice-based wafer.

Apparently church law requires that communion wafers be made of wheat, and the bishop of the diocese refused to validate the sacrament.

Traditions can be lovely things, but what we are talking about here is magic. I'll let you discover the probable origin of the word hocus-pocus.

There was a time during the earliest centuries of Irish Christianity when magic was repudiated in favor of the idea that all of nature is sacred -- rice as well as wheat, presumably -- an attitude not inconsistent with a healthy scientific skepticism.

Present church authorities might profitably read the sermons of such revered Irish saints as Columbanus, who suggested 1500 years ago that the surest way to God is through the study of the natural world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Rain, rain, go away...

Here in the west of Ireland the prevailing winds bring our weather from the west (and makes the flight here from the US an hour shorter than the flight home).

Now we are nervously eyeing the remnants of Hurricane Charley, which caused such devastation in Florida. We remember well another Charley, of August 1986, that gave the eastern United States a mild lashing, then got caught up in an existing North Atlantic depression, crossed the ocean, and dumped buckets of rain on Kerry.

The flooding was altogether fierce, as they say here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Safety last

At the risk of driving over a dead horse, I bring up SUVs yet again. Enthusiasts of these monstrosities often cite the sense of safety they impart due to their size. Well, according to this article in the NY Times, you are 11 percent more likely to be killed in an SUV than in a car. Whoops.

I can only imagine that in the future we'll look back at the SUV fad in the same way as we snicker at the big-finned cruisers of the 50s.

Which brings to mind the brilliant parodies of artist Bruce McCall and his celebrations of 50s excess -- his Bulgemobiles. McCall's satirical car ads scream "For the man who has everything and just needs something to carry it in!"

Priceless.

A plethora of disasters

Just when you thought it was safe to come out of the movie theater, geologist Bill McGuire reminds us again of the chunk of the Azores that is about to fall into the sea, causing a giant tidal wave that would wipe out US coastal cities.

Well, here's some good news.

One of the most violent threats in the universe is having a nearby star go supernova.

If a star as close as 50 light-years exploded, the blast would sweep the Earth with a burst of deadly gamma rays, x-rays, and a straggling wave of high energy cosmic rays moving at nearly the speed of light. Life on Earth would suffer a terrible blow.

Within 50 light-years of the Earth there are approximately a thousand stars. The vast majority are smaller and less luminous than the Sun, and according to present theories small stars are unlikely to die with a bang.

If you insist on worrying about supernovas, keep your eye on the familiar star Rigel in the constellation Orion. It is a hot supergiant at that stage in its life when the balance of gravity and energy production can go dangerously askew.

If Rigel goes supernova, it will become as bright as the moon. It will be the most spectacular celestial event in recorded human history, but -- because of its distance, 900 light-years -- relatively benign.

There, now don't say I didn't cheer you up.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Plant a cabbage...

Another update on a previous posting, "Plant a radish, get a radish," which quoted the song from the Fantasticks. A comment from Philip, a London barrister, apprised me of a law case finally decided in the House of Lords: George Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd. vs Finney Lock Seeds (1983, 2AC 803, for you legal buffs). It seems our farmer purchased seed for Finney's Dutch Winter White Cabbage, but what he got when he tried to grow it in Scotland was an inferior brand of autumn cabbage which was completely unsuitable for the climate.

"Plant a cabbage might get a cabbage but this may be in doubt," observes Philip wryly.

Now, Philip, about my spring onion seeds which never germinated...

The good old days

I have posted a few comments lately about the polluting power of SUVs.

I have a neighbor here in Kerry who runs a riding stable. His customers trek the same country lanes I use for walking.

Around here, we not as concerned about engine exhaust as we are about the equine equivalent.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

iMac, therefore I am

My sis, the artist Anne Raymo, began her adult life in the sixties as a flower child of sorts, a calling to which she has remained remarkably faithful.

In her little sun-powered house on a mesa in New Mexico, surrounded by her paint pots and brushes, she spurned the excesses of the information age, and the cyber revolution passed her by.

Then, a year or two ago, a translucent blue iMac showed up on her doorstep, and -- lo and behold! -- my flower child sister became overnight a pixelated senior citizen.

She weaves wondrous drawings on her new machine, and seems to be having lots of fun. I love seeing technology lashed to the mast of her otherworldly craft.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Hubble bubble -- Part 2

Tom's post of the Hubble bubble brings to mind lines from Dante's Paradisio, when the poet looks upon on the Empyrean Sphere:

I saw light in the shape of a river
Flashing golden between two banks
Tinted in colors of marvelous spring.
Out of the stream came living sparks
Which settled on the flowers on every side
Like rubies ringed with gold. . .

Friday, August 13, 2004

Hubble bubble


Hubble's latest, an image of a gigantic gas bubble surrounding a young star. The bubble is created by the immense stellar wind pushing out from the star. The diameter of the bubble is 200,000,000,000,000 miles. That's a big bubble!

Marlborough Man

Today, August 13th, is the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim. Englishman John Churchill, leading allied forces, defeated the French in a decisive battle during the War of Spanish Succession. In recognition of this victory, Churchill was named Duke of Marlborough and given Blenheim Palace in the Oxfordshire countryside.

In 1764, the grounds at Blenheim Palace were beautifully landscaped by Lancelot "Capability" Brown--the subject of Chet's latest musing.

Front view of Blenheim PalaceI had the pleasure of visiting Blenheim Palace on my recent trip through England. The Palace still serves as the residence of the Duke of Marlborough, currently the 11th. The Duke graciously opens his palace and grounds to tourists like me.

I don't know if Lancelot Brown would have imagined the capabilities of a huge swath of the palace grounds being used as a car park, but the current Duke has. Marlborough also ensures that visitors are unable to leave his fine estate without first passing through the gift shop.

The guy has to pay these gardening bills somehow I guess. There's probably not too much scratch to be earned in defeating the French these days.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Ouch!

The first radish harvested from my windowsill is a dumb little thing. Never a thought in its life, as far as I know.

Tom's "talking" gorilla Koko can carry on a conversation of sorts, but I don't don't expect he'll be commenting on Tom's posting.

The difference between me (and you) and Koko and the radish is all in the numbers. A neuron is a stringy sort of cell that goes snap, crackle and pop. There are something like 100 billion neurons in the human brain. A typical neuron has several thousand connections to other neurons, and each connection is capable of a dozen or so activation levels.

The number of possible neural states is staggeringly large: Imagine your brain as a bowl of Rice Krispies with more potential combinations of snap, crackle and pop than there are atoms in the universe.

Just thinking about thinking makes my head hurt.

GM foods -- Part 2

Had a slice of my favorite store-bought chocolate fudge cake for lunch.

Prominent on the label: GMO FREE. "Genetically modified organisms free," a big selling point here in Europe.

See below a pic of the ingredients label. Yum! Just like grandma used to make.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Plant a radish -- Part 2 Harvest time

Of every 100 atoms in the universe, 91 are hydrogen, and virtually all the rest are helium.

You can make a universe of stars and galaxies out of hydrogen and helium, but you can't make a radish.

Of every 100 atoms in a radish, about 60 are hydrogen and none are helium. The other 40 or so atoms are mostly oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.

For 14 billion years the universe has been cooking up heavy elements in stars. The radish is the froth on the pot.

Perseids tonight!

Skywatchers--don't forget that tonight is the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. For those unfamiliar with this recurring treat, Joe Rao provides a good summing up over at Sky & Telescope's website.

Tonight is your best chance of the year to see a lot of shooting stars. Get outside!

Frankenfoods?

Bill McKibben is writing again in opposition to genetically-modified food, this time for use in malnourished countries such as Zambia. Bill is the author of the bestselling books The End of Nature and Enough and a valuable and articulate commentator on environmental issues.

Much of what he says about American influence around the world is spot on, but I'm not sure he has it completely right about why Zambia resists GM-food from the US. He makes only fleeting mention of the vehement -- I would say hyper-irrational -- public resistance to GM-food in Europe, which is Zambia's most important export market.

He quotes from a book of essays edited by Brian Tokar, and Naomi Klein, both well-known anti-GM activists. He might have been better served by the more balanced and scientific reflections of Jennifer Thomson's Genes for Africa: Genetically Modified Crops in the Developing World. (U. of Cape Town Press, 2002), or for that matter Alan McHughen's Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods, (Oxford University Press, 2000).

While, like Thomson, I have urged caution with regard to GM-foods, I know of no evidence they have caused harm to humans or significant damage to the environment. Meanwhile, I look out my window in this traditional agricultural community and see the rampant use of polluting artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and diminishing biodiversity.

GM crops and animals can play a vital role in feeding the extra few billion people expected to be born in the next quarter-century, but they are no panacea. They must be applied with local understanding and support, and in ways that complement rather than supplant traditional agriculture.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Chelsea tractors

Add my voice to those bemoaning the influx of SUVs into Europe. Yes, they are impractical in the inner cities of London or Paris, but more alarming is coming face-to-face with one on the backroads of Kerry or Wales.

Black Spot roadsignI spent quite of bit of time driving on these country roads the past two weeks, in my rental car, an oddly-proportioned Toyota Minutiae or some such. A car that small is decidedly necessary to navigate rural Irish roads. An SUV, on the other hand, is grossly inappropriate. I came close a few times to being sucked into the wheel well of one of these invading leviathans as they came barreling around the corner of a narrow country lane. I would have rattled around a few times and then been spit out into the gorse bushes.

I expect if that had happened I would have returned my Toyota and asked for the latest Ford Behemoth. Eat or be eaten!

Monday, August 09, 2004

From the "Be careful what you wish for" Department

Getting back in the swing of things now that I'm back online, I was tickled by this story about the world famous gorilla Koko. She is the gorilla who is able to converse with humans through the use of American Sign Language. Apparently Koko had a toothache and was successfully able to communicate her need to visit the dentist. They pulled the tooth, but as is detailed in the article, while Koko was under sedation in the chair, her doctors took the opportunity to give her a quickie gynecological exam and colonoscopy. Yikes! That'll teach her to complain about a toothache!

Home again

I'm back home in the U.S. after my two week vacation in Ireland and the U.K.. It was a delight to spend some more time in the Irish countryside that Chet so lovingly writes and blogs about. Although I appreciate the character and diversity of America, traveling abroad and then coming back home to this country brings to mind an apt observation by Oscar Wilde:
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.

Fairy mischief

A new biodiversity study on agricultural land here in Ireland had has it biggest surprise in the discovery of 85 hitherto undescribed groups of parasitic wasps.

Fairy flies, they are called here.

These are not the usual yellow-and-black wasps that buzz around our picnic tables, but rather tiny creatures, many smaller than the head of a pin, that lay their eggs in the larvae and pupae of other insects. As the wasp grows, it feeds on the flesh of its host, eventually bursting forth in a nasty eruption that is often fatal for the host.

I look at the fields outside my window and imagine these microscopic horror shows, these gory hijackings. No one said life was pretty.

Of course, we do our own hijackings to feed ourselves. I just polished off for lunch a tasty mackerel from a neighbor's line. The web of life is all about eating and being eaten. Only humans, apparently, think about it.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Kyoto

In his comment below, Kevin offers an alternate opinion to the standard scientific line on global warming. Kara expresses mixed feelings about wind farms.

With thoughtful and reasoned voices on both sides of these contentious issues, it seems prudent to err on the side of caution.

Ireland is a signatory to the Kyoto conventions on reducing greenhouse gases and takes its responsibility seriously, unlike the present US administration which seem determined to err on the side of profligacy.

Ireland has now had two years of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and is on the way to meeting its 2010 Kyoto target of 13 percent emissions above 1990 levels. More wind farms are coming, and more reliance on natural gas rather than carbon-intensive coal, peat and oil. Even livestock flatulence has been eased by small reductions in the numbers of animals.

Yet Ireland's economy continues to boom. The standard of living and quality of life here now compares favorably with that in America.

Friday, August 06, 2004

An ocean in the air


As you can see from the photo, I'm sitting in a cloud, which is not at all unusual here in Kerry.

Outside my window a myriad of water droplets are suspended in the air, many thousands of tons of water altogether.

What keeps them there? After all, water is very much heavier than air. Why doesn't it fall?

It does -- sort of.

When a skydiver jumps out of a plane, she accelerates until the force of gravity pulling her down is equaled by air resistance, which increases with her speed. Then she falls at a constant rate, her so-called "terminal velocity."

A feather reaches its much smaller terminal velocity rather quickly, and then drifts languorously earthward. A tiny droplet of mist falls so slowly that its downward motion is insignificant compared to other forces that stir the air.

So the droplets hang there, in a fine Irish mist, waiting to either grow large enough to fall as rain, or to be dispersed by the wind.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

"Pleasures both of eye and ear"


As I type, I am listening to the music of Henry Purcell, an album called Music For A While. Purcell flourished during the English Restoration that I write about in this week's Musing.

"If music be the food of love, Sing on, till I am fill'd with joy," sings the sporano. "In yonder cowslip lies my dear, Entomb'd in liquid gems of dew," sings another soprano voice. What a contrast with the preceding puritanical theocracy of Oliver Cromwell!

Love is in the air, and in the aires. Nature blushes in all of its beauty. "Thus ev'ry happy, happy thing revels in the cheerful spring."

Here is the musical counterpart of the religious tolerance, artistic vivacity and intellectual freedom encouraged by Charles II, which sparked a renaissance of scientific thought.

Geoparks

A local community group here in County Kerry, Ireland, is seeking designation of their region as part of the European Geopark Network.

The landscape around Sneem, Castlecove and Caherdaniel offers superb evidences of ice age glaciation and folds in the Earth's crust that record collisions of continents hundreds of millions of years ago.

The European Geopark Network is meant to celebrate "Four billions years of story of the Earth to serve tomorrow." UNESCO plans to extend the concept worldwide.

Meanwhile, polls show that nearly half of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old.

As a few rural communities in Ireland look to "serve tomorrow," many school boards and creationist lobbying groups in the United States seek to serve up to our children a typical middle eastern creation myth from the distant past -- and pass it off as science.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Alien invaders

I had a note from a reader of The Path thanking me for being kind to purple loosestrife, a wildflower many Americans consider an invasive nuisance.

It was imported from Europe in the 1800s as a garden ornamental and soon went wantonly wild, clogging roadside wetlands with sheets of color.

Here in western Ireland purple loosestrife happily shares its space with other species. The beautiful bully of our ditches is the orange flower in the photo, montbretia, which came to these islands as a hybrid from South African gardens at about the same time purple loosestrife went west.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Global warning

You might as well know, if you don't already, that the American SUV craze has hit Europe.

In London, SUVs are known as "Chelsea tractors." (Chelsea is a posh inner city neighborhood.) Some London city councilors are calling for a double congestion charge on every SUV entering the city.

In Paris, the city council has passed a resolution that would have 4x4s banned from the city during peak pollution periods and their owners denied parking permits.

The majority of the big gas guzzlers are bought for city driving. "You get a bit of respect when you drive one," one SUV owner is quoted in the Irish Times. "People get out of your way just that little bit quicker," says another.

Europeans may not approve of American muscle flexing in Iraq, but they seem eager to follow our Texas swagger on the roadway.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Kew -- Part deux

I was in London over the weekend for the wedding of a young friend, where I met up with Tom. Not much time to visit or revisit the many places and things associated with the history of science, but we did manage to squeeze in a morning at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The Gardens began hundreds of years ago as a collaboration between the British royal family and a long train of brilliant horticulturists, architects, landscape architects, and scientists.

Sir Joseph Banks, who circumnavigated the world with Captain James Cook in 1768-71, established Kew as a definitive repository of the world's plants. By the early 1800s, virtually no ship left any port of Britain's far-flung and growing empire without seeds or plants for Kew collections.

To visit Kew and its gleaming glass conservatories is to enjoy in a matter of hours an empire of greenery that knows no boundaries.

Kew

I'm midway through a two-week vacation in England, Wales and Ireland. I'll just sneak online long enough to point to Chet's newest musing, Microscopes and lucky charms.

I spent two days in London over the weekend. Didn't make it to Greenwich, but opted instead for visits to the thrilling Tate Modern and the beautiful Kew Gardens. Each attraction offers an opposing view of an amazing city. The Tate resides in an enormous converted power station--the Gardens, an idyllic botanical oasis. (Although Kew Gardens is located right in a flight path for Heathrow so jets zoom over every two minutes...bleech!)