From the needs to be created Department of Lance Loves Science and There’s Still a Part of Him that Wishes He’d Gone Down that Path, Brian Switek writing at Tor:
Dinosaurs are great. They dominated the world for over 170 million years, and one line has survived to the present day as birds. But they’re hardly the be-all and end-all of prehistory. In the wake of the mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals proliferated into a variety of astounding forms that were just as fantastic as those of the dinosaurs they succeeded. Instead of letting them be persistently overshadowed by dinosaurs, it’s time to give fossil mammals their due.
From there, Brian goes on to give Uintatherium, Andrewsarchus, Amphicyon, Gigantopithecus, Amebelodon, Paraceratherium, Thalassocnus, Maiacetus, Doedicurus, and Homotherium their dues.
Uncle Merlin called in from the Cape this morning to report he’s having woodpecker trouble. Judging by his description, a female downy has punched a hole in the eave of his house. He wanted to know how to drive her away.
“I can’t have her building a nest in there and having babies.”
I assured him that’s not what was happening. Downies don’t nest until the spring. What she’s doing is building a little apartment for herself for the winter.
Uncle Merlin was not mollified. “Well, I don’t want her banging away up there all winter either.”
She won’t be doing any banging.
“I heard her!”
“I don’t know. Last time I was down here. Two weeks ago?”
That might not have been her.
“Of course it was her. It’s her hole!”
It didn’t take her two weeks to make that hole. A day, tops, and she did it quietly. Lots of poking and pecking with her beak. But no banging. That’s not how they work. The banging you heard was probably a male woodpecker showing off. Might not have been a downy either. You have flickers in your neighborhood too. But don’t worry. Whatever it was, the banging’s all done for a while. Woodpeckers only bang during courtship. And it’s not banging, it’s drumming. It’s what they do instead of sing. They’re percussionists, not song stylists. They drum to establish territory and attract mates. The rest of the time they peck. That’s why they’re called woodpeckers, not woodjackhammerers. They use their beaks to peck and poke and dig for bugs and to drill nest holes.
“Ah ha! So she is building a nest!”
Downies pair up in the fall but they wait till spring to nest and lay eggs, I repeated.
“That means I’m going to have two of them up there banging away?”
No. Likely just the one. They mate but they don’t move in together right away. They stay close by each other but keep separate apartments. And, once again, one, it’s not banging, it’s drumming, and, two, the drumming’s over for now because there’s no more reason to drum. The courtship’s over. Now they’re going to wait out the winter, she in her place, he in his, both quietly pecking when it’s time to eat. Come spring they'll go house hunting together.
Actually, male and female downies do go searching for suitable nest sites together. And they argue about it as they flit from spot to spot. The way one of my guide books describes it, they sound like city-dwelling human couples who’ve reluctantly decided to take the next step but are each keeping their own apartments for now, you know, just in case? The dominant member of the pair makes the final choice, and also as with many human couples, gender does not decide dominance. They work it out between them.
So, I told Uncle Merlin, she’ll be gone in the spring.
“I still don’t want a hole in my house all winter. How do I get rid of her?
She still out there, I asked.
“No, she flew off when I went out there and yelled at her. I haven’t seen her since. That was two hours ago. Do you think I scared her off?”
I don’t think she’d be that scared of you if you’re just standing there on the ground yelling up at her. Downies are used to people. In fact, they’re fairly comfortable around us. She probably flew off because she had something she felt she had to do.
“Then she'll be back! How do I get rid of her for good? Come on, bird boy. You’re supposed to know all this ornithological stuff.”
Odds are she got rid of herself. Once she opened up the hole and found it was hollow inside, she probably decided to go looking for a nice solid tree. Too much space. She wants something snug and safe. She’s looking for a studio. That’s a loft in back of there.
“So she’s gone?”
Maybe. Probably. Unless…
Unless she was after something else.
She might have discovered your house is a woodpecker restaurant.
“Don’t go there,” Uncle Merlin warned, “Don’t go anywhere near there.”
Photo by Uncle Merlin. Chatham, Massachusetts. Around 9:30 this morning. Sunday. October 20, 2013.
I’m not looking forward to the day when the young Mannion men leave the farm, but I am looking forward to something the blonde and I will be able to enjoy when they do---long fall weekends on Cape Cod when the shore birds on are on the move:
A variety of factors work to make this time of year exceptional. The first is that bird populations of all species are at their highest point of the year because of all the young birds produced during the breeding season. They are making their first migration. Second is the rapidly decreasing photoperiod (shortening time of daylight), accompanied by decreasing temperatures (especially inland), which causes a decreasing food supply as plants and their attendant insects begin to shut down for the approaching winter. This all combines to trigger the instinctual, inherited migratory urge that so many of our North American breeding birds have evolved. This "perfect storm" of factors combines to make this far and away best time of the year to see many birds of many species.
All migratory birds are on the move in mid-September. Each and every day holds promise, excitement and a bit of mystery as one heads out to scan a favorite spot. There is no way to know what one is going to see or hear and the only way to find out is to go out and do it. A "bad" morning birding in September (does not exist) is better than almost anything except a great morning birding in October. Enough already about how great the birding is on the Cape and Islands at this season-if you don't believe it just go try it and see for yourself.
The unexpected is expected, almost commonplace, on the Cape and Islands in September. It continues to be a good year for seeing buff-breasted sandpipers and Baird's sandpipers all over the northeast. These long-distance migrants are not seen many years, and when they are, it is in a very brief window that runs from late August thru mid-September. The American golden plover, another scarce long -distance wader, has been widely reported from farm fields on Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and in southeastern Massachusetts as well as from a few beaches. These lovely plovers are on their way to South American wintering grounds and are always a treat to see.
That’s a buff-breasted sandpiper in the photo, by the way. Laux reports it’s a good time to see these birds, which implies they’re plentiful, but according to my National Geographic Society Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America, once upon a time, “Market gunners nearly wipe out the species during its migrations, for the dense flocks would return again and again to its wounded members.” I guess they’ve bounced back since whenever those market gunners did their dirty work.
Boston Globe caption on the image above: "Across New England, areas like the Swift River Valley (above, left, in the 1880s and in 2010) in Petersham have seen their forests, once cut down and cleared for farmland, replenished in the 21st century." Photos courtesy Harvard University and David Foster via the Globe.
A wilderness comeback is underway across New England, one that has happened so incrementally that it’s easy to miss.
But step back and the evidence is overwhelming.
Today, 80 percent of New England is covered by forest or thick woods. That is a far cry from the mere 30 to 40 percent that remained forested in most parts of the region in the mid-1800s, after early waves of settlers got done with their vast logging, farming, and leveling operations.
According to Harvard research, New England is now the most heavily forested region in the United States — a recovery that the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau once thought impossible.
I know this is true. I've seen it with my own eyes. I've been watching it happening ever since I realized that Thoreau's description of Cape Cod
didn't match the Cape Cod I knew in one important way.
As for the interior, if the elevated sand-bar in the midst of the ocean can be said to have any interior, it was an exceedingly desolate landscape, with rarely a cultivated or cultivable field in sight. We saw no villages, and seldom a house, for these are generally on the Bay side. It was a succession of shrubby hills and valleys, now wearing an autumnal tint. You would frequently think, from the character of the surface, the dwarfish trees, and the bearberries around, that you were on the top of a mountain. The only wood in Eastham was on the edge of Wellfleet. The pitch-pines were not commonly more than fifteen or eighteen feet high. The larger ones were covered with lichens, — often hung with the long gray Usnea. There is scarcely a white-pine on the forearm of the Cape. Yet in the northwest part of Eastham, near the Camp Ground, we saw, the next summer, some quite rural, and even sylvan retreats, for the Cape, where small rustling groves of oaks and locusts and whispering pines, on perfectly level ground, made a little paradise. The locusts, both transplanted and growing naturally about the houses there, appeared to flourish better than any other tree. There were thin belts of wood in Wellfleet and Truro, a mile or more from the Atlantic, but, for the most part, we could see the horizon through them, or, if extensive, the trees were not large. Both oaks and pines had often the same flat look with the apple-trees. Commonly, the oak woods twenty-five years old were a mere scraggy shrubbery nine or ten feet high, and we could frequently reach to their topmost leaf. Much that is called "woods" was about half as high as this, — only patches of shrub-oak, bayberry, beach-plum, and wild roses, overrun with woodbine. When the roses were in bloom, these patches in the midst of the sand displayed such a profusion of blossoms, mingled with the aroma of the bay berry, that no Italian or other artificial rose-garden could equal them. They were perfectly Elysian,and realized my idea of an oasis in the desert. Huckleberry-bushes were very abundant, and the next summer they bore a remarkable quantity of that kind of gall called Huckleberry-apple, forming quite handsome though monstrous blossoms. But it must be added, that this shrubbery swarmed with wood-ticks, sometimes very troublesome parasites, and which it takes very horny fingers to crack.
The inhabitants of these towns have a great regard for a tree, though their standard for one is necessarily neither large nor high; and when they tell you of the large trees that once grew here, you must think of them, not as absolutely large, but large compared with the present generation. Their "brave old oaks," of which they speak with so much respect, and which they will point out to you as relics of the primitive forest, one hundred or one hundred and fifty, ay, for aught they know, two hundred years old, have a ridiculously dwarfish appearance, which excites a smile in the beholder. The largest and most venerable which they will show you in such a case are, perhaps, not more than twenty or twenty-five feet high. I was especially amused by the Liliputian old oaks in the south part of Truro. To the inexperienced eye, which appreciated their proportions only, they might appear vast as the tree which saved his royal majesty, but measured, they were dwarfed at once almost into lichens which a deer might eat up in a morning. Yet they will tell you that large schooners were once built of timber which grew in Wellfleet. The old houses also are built of the timber of the Cape; but instead of the forests in the midst of which they originally stood, barren heaths, with poverty-grass for heather, now stretch away on every side.
That woods on the edge of Eastham and Wellfleet now spreads south at least as far as Hyannis where it's unfortunately interrupted by Mall Land and Big Box Store-ville. Eastham is a shady town as is Orleans below it and Chatham below that and Harwich to the east of Chatham and Brewster to Chatham's northeast. There are stretches where you can't see the trees for the forests, can't see the ocean for the trees. The "exceedingly desolate" Cape landscape---the sand and scrub land---Thoreau described is mostly confined to areas just in behind the dunes on the ocean side of the Lower Cape.
Our human calendars, analog, digital, and virtual, on our walls and on our screens, say it’s August 1st today. But according to the floral clocks along the roadside it’s been August here for over a week. The daylilies have faded and the goldenrod, wave after feathery yellow wave, has taken over.
I haven’t seen it yet myself but the damp low spots in the fields and meadows must be full of purple loosestrife by now.
The Queen Anne’s Lace and chicory are sill in bloom. The New York Asters too. Primrose. Buttercups. Black-eyed Susans. No shortage of color. But I miss the soft oranges of those daylilies, more peach than pumpkin. They glow, most brightly in the early mornings, like watercolor or crayons, comical and cheerful. They are the best things about summer florified. The yellow of the goldenrod is a pastel, even a pencil, sketched in lightly, as if color’s intrusive and also beside the point. The emphasis isn’t on floweriness but on grassy-ness, which is to say not on its blooming but on its inviting a mowing or, to get to the point, a harvesting. Goldenrod tells us it’s August, technically still summer, but its purpose is to warn us summer’s ending, prepare for fall.
Take the road straight north from here and you might think you’re driving miles and miles through woods. But this is farm country. The trees reach back only so deep and behind them are orchards and cornfields, mainly, interspersed with the front and backyards of houses dating from last week to three hundred years ago, raised ranches and split levels, Cape Cods, saltboxes, half Colonials, real Dutch Colonials built of stone by people who spoke Dutch, a few McMansions. There are no large developments, just clusters of houses where over time the farmers have sold off lots at the edges of their fields or in hollows or on hillsides that were too troublesome to work or where the hamlets and small market towns have pushed out in pockets and ribbons from their centers, little archipelagos of development. In summer when the trees are in leaf, the road is deeply shaded during the day, blackly shadowed at night.
And all day and all night long the roadsides are busy with animal life…and gory with animal death. Skunks, possums, woodchucks, foxes. They're all plentiful and on the move. Deer, too, of course. Deer are a serious hazard along here.
But you know what I’ve never seen many of in all our years here and our thousands of trips up and down that road?
They’re out there. I know that. But they keep very late hours and are smarter than those other mammals and know enough to stay out of the road.
At least, I thought they knew.
Last night, or technically this morning, around one-thirty, I discovered the house was without necessary supplies. So, under a waxing, orange-tinged gibbous moon, still high and large in the west, I set out for the only store relatively close by I knew would be open, the convenient mart six miles to the north, and about three miles up the road I saw the two raccoons.
Just in time.
They were in the middle of the road, talking over something nose to nose across the dividing lines.
I stopped about ten yards short of flattening them.
They were smallish, so females or young ones or both, and more all over a lighter, more powdery gray than I think of raccoons as being. Their bandit masks weren’t as black or distinct as I would have expected either, but that might have been due to a general washing out of color from their being caught full on by my headlights, which didn’t seem to faze them at all, by the way. They looked straight at me, blandly, as if they were seeing through the windshield and taking my measure.
Oh, they appeared to be saying, do you want to get by?
“Yes,” I said out loud, as if they could hear me. “If you don’t mind.”
They didn’t mind, although they thought it over for a bit. Then they turned and scurried off together and I went on my way.
Beneath the seafloor lives a vast and diverse array of microbes, chomping on carbon that constantly rains down from above and is continually buried by a never-ending downpour of debris — some whale dung here, some dea…
Photo via Yahoo News courtesy of Joseph Russell of the University of Delaware. “The Joides Resolution heads to sea from the Azores to drill sediments on IODP Expedition 339 offshore Peru. Most of the Earth's organic carbon is stored in seafloor sediments.”
Flicker swooped out from a tree by the roadside as I was driving along. Thought he was aiming at my windshield, but he turned in plenty of time, flying straight on ahead of me as though we’d planned to meet up and now he was going to guide me on home.
swooped out from a tree by the roadside as I was driving along. Thought
he was aiming at my windshield, but he turned in plenty of time, flying
straight on ahead of me as though we’d planned to meet up and now he
was going to guide me on home.
One of my favorite books from last year, Alan Lightman’s comic and philosophical Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, has been out in paperback for a while but I forgot to re-post my review. But since I referred to it in class yesterday, I figure now is as good as time as any…
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." ---Genesis 1:1-2
"As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.
“Not much was happening at that time. As a matter of fact, time didn't exist. Nor space. When you looked out into the Void, you were really looking at nothing more than your own thought. And if you tried to picture wind or stars or water, you could not give form or texture to your notions."---from Mr g by Alan Lightman.
I’m talking dimensions here. Length. Width. Depth. It’s a slender book of a size and weight that are familiar to my hands.
Not as heavy as a hymnal. Not as compact as missalette. Not as thick as my edition of the New Revised Bible. It’s slightly bigger than my grandfather’s collection of Emerson’s essays he won in high school. Slightly larger than a primer on relativity my father saved from college and that I tried to read in eighth grade and gave up on less than a third of the way through, sadly convinced that my future did not lie in the sciences.
A hymnal, a prayer book, scripture, the musings of a transcendentalist sage, a scientific text. That’s the power of suggestion driving these comparisons. I could as easily and accurately say it’s the size of those old Modern Library editions of the classics but the resonances aren’t there. Mr g is a delightful tour de force about the creation of the universe as told by the creator himself. Ontology, cosmology, theology, philosophy, quantum physics, these are the subjects under discussion and the objects of jokes.
I entered the new universe and took stock. Matter. At that moment [the universe] contained only pure energy. But my two symmetry laws already guaranteed that matter could be created from energy---in fact, required it---so all I needed to do was specify the parameters of a few basic particles. This one spins this much, that one spins that much, this one responds to this force, that one to that force, and so on and so forth. Done.
Immediately, matter appeared! In fact, matter exploded. Matter burst into being with a vengeance, as if it had been languishing in a frustrated state of potentiality for eons of time and was finally given the opportunity to exist. Electrons and muons and taus, top quarks and bottom quarks, squarks, gravitrons, photons, neutrinos and neutralinos, gluons, W and Z bosons, axions, photinos, winos, and zinos. And with matter, of course, came antimatter: positrons, antimuons, anti quarks, et cetera and anti et cetera.
At every point in space, the hillocks and basins of energy gushed forth with matter. Some of this matter instantly annihilated with antimatter to create energy again, which in turn spit forth new matter, so that there was a continual give and take between the two. Energy begat matter which begat energy which begat matter. It was a spectacle.
Religion and science get delightfully mixed up in Mr g. Lightman mischievously plays games with the expectations of believers and skeptics, which is part of the fun but not the point. Mr g is a novel, a story, then, about a character in conflict. Remember the three conflicts from high school English class? Man against God, Man against Nature, Man against himself. All three are at issue in Mr g, with the second two being versions of the first, since Nature and Man are extensions of their creator---or reflections of his mind, he’s not sure. The conflicts are existential and internal, as God has to face the questions about his own existence. What is he doing? What has he done? Why has he done it? Is he glad that he’s created the universe? Did he do a good thing?
The photons in particular sometimes took the form of an oscillating wave of electrical and magnetic energy. I decided to call such a thing “light.” Where photons flew about in abundance and collided with other matter, there was light. Where photons were absent, there was darkness. Thus, when I created matter and energy, I also created darkness and light, and I decided that these things were good, although I was not sure at the moment what they were good for.
The opening chapters parallel and allude to the creation story in Genesis, the first creation story, the one told in Genesis 1, the one that can be read as a poetical summary of the history of the creation as science has come to lay it out for us, not the fable featuring Adam and Eve in Chapter 2. God, pausing after each step, looks upon his day’s work and sees that it is good. But Lightman’s Mr g is not the Biblical God. This is God as he might be if he created the universe according to the laws of physics and mathematics we know underlie and give order to the whole ball of wax and which many people see as making a creator unnecessary. He looks upon his works and is pleased to see that they…work. And that they work without him, without his having to continually “tinker” with them.
Bound by causal necessities, requiring not a single touchup or tinker from me, events…proceeded on their own with an impressive inevitability. As the universe continued to expand, its material contents cooled further and further. The brilliant displays of light slowly dimmed. And the attractive force of gravity began to dominate and reshape the terrain. Whereas before, small condensations of matter would quickly evaporate under the high heat, now they grew larger and denser. Lumps of material, most of it hydrogen gas, began to condense here and there. In the past history of the universe, matter had been rather evenly spread about, but now there were ridges and valleys, arches, amorphous aggregations, all bunching themselves up into ever denser bulges as each particle of mass gravitationally attracted other particles. The smooth, almost fluid topography of matter before had been beautiful, but these architectural constructions were even more beautiful. There were linear filaments. There were sheets. There were hollowed-out spherical cavities. There were ellipsoids and spheroids and topological hyberboloids. Great clouds of hydrogen gas swirled and flattened and spun out spiral wisps and trails. And within these spinning galaxies of matter, smaller knots of gas formed, collapsed on themselves, and grew hotter and denser---in opposite fashion to the rest of the universe, which was thinning and cooling.
Lightman’s God is a scientist. I kept picturing him as looking like the scientists in Sidney Harris’ cartoons, a little younger and thinner, but just as rumpled and with the same air of distraction, prematurely balding and wearing a turtleneck under his sport coat with patches on the elbows, one hand digging into his jacket pocket to fumble nervously and abstractedly with a piece of chalk. Creation is an experiment that’s going well, a theory that’s proving itself. But he doesn’t know if it’s good, because, for one thing, good is besides the point---beautiful is the point and beauty is a result of function, of the math being right---and for another, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, specifically, with it or to it or because of it. He knows what could happen and what’s likely to happen, because everything in it will follow the rules he put in place at the outset. But because one of the things he’s created is quantum physics, probable variations are nearly infinite to the point that they might as well be infinite---it’s not worth the effort to foresee and follow them all to their logical ends to figure out which one will definitely come about. Lightman’s God is not omniscient because omniscience is a headache and a colossal waste of the divine’s time.
So the act of creating leaves him wistful and whenever he’s faced with an outcome he’s always left wondering if that was the best outcome. When looking upon his creation, he can’t help asking himself, Did I do that right? and Might I have done it better?
And he has another problem. The act of creation has changed him in ways he can’t quite put his finger on. It’s changed his aunt and uncle too---Yes, God has an aunt and uncle. No mother or father or other relatives, and definitely no son. It’s not explained where they came from. They just seem to have always been, like Mr g himself. They aren’t gods themselves but they are supreme intelligences and they are immortal. They can’t create but they can suggest. They can advise. They can nag and wheedle. And he respects them and defers, sometimes, to their judgment. He’s not sure exactly how they’ve changed, except that they seem to have become more themselves. And that seems to be the case with him too. He is aware of himself as a self, which vexes him with the question of what that means? What is he supposed to do about being him?
More irksome is the way others take it upon himself to tell him. His aunt and uncle. A certain stranger who strolls into the Void apparently uninvited. All of the intelligent animate matter in the universe that evolved to the point of being aware of itself as a self. That last group, made up of trillions of beings, in becoming aware of itself has become aware of something else---it dies. And it objects to this.
All those beings seem to think Mr g goofed when he didn’t make them immortal and they spend a lot of time and energy explaining that mistake or explaining it away to themselves---and to him, although they don’t know it’s him they’re talking to. Their minds aren’t big enough to comprehend him, so they’ve invented scaled down and simplified versions of him to talk to. Which is to say they’ve invented religion to comfort themselves. Mr g understands but he resents, mildly, their attempts to define him because it makes him feel defined and responsible.
Mr g creates many universes right off the bat. When he creates quantum physics billions more pop into existence. But at his aunt’s urging he decides to concentrate on one at a time and so he and the book focus on just that one. The thing is we don’t know if that one is this one. We don’t know if it’s ours. All we know is that it is built on---built out of---the same laws of physics and mathematics as ours.
Because of those rules, similarities, recapitulations, and distinctions without differences are bound to occur and do occur over and over again. The universe teems with intelligent creatures very much like us---and with intelligent creature very much not like us---but Mr g never deals with any creatures who might actually be us or, if this is our universe, to be aware that there is an us. Given all he has to look at, all there is to capture his attention, there’s a good chance he hasn’t noticed us and never will. In fact, there’s a chance that we came into being, lived out our collective lives as a species, and died off without his ever knowing we were here. Mr g, being immortal and able to exist outside of time, to an extent, experiences time very differently than his creations. Eons can pass while he’s walking up a single flight of stairs. He steps out of the universe for what to him is just a quick moment and when he returns whole star systems have winked into and out of existence. What this means is that if we are “here”---or were here---it doesn’t or didn’t matter to Mr g because we didn’t or can’t catch his attention.
This, of course, is the big and key difference between religion and science, between Genesis 2 and the Big Bang theory. Science tells us that the universe wasn’t created with us in mind. We are far from the point. The universe existed and went about the business of continuing its existence for billions of years without us and it will go on about its business and working its way towards its extinction for billions more years after we’re gone. If there is a God, what does that tell us about him and about us?
The intelligent self-aware animate material beings want more. They pray. They plead with him, flatter him, excoriate him. That he never answers adds to their fear and their sorrow. Their evanescence breaks their hearts. His indifference drives them to despair.
Mr g feels accused of creating their sorrow. He objects. It’s the nature of matter to decay and he expects intelligent matter to understand and accept that. Still, he can’t help feeling sorry for his creatures and and he concedes that he may have made a mistake, at least in not foreseeing the problem. Like I said, he feels responsible and this presents him with a temptation. Yes, God is tempted. He’s tempted to interfere.
He resists. Interfering would violate his rules. It would destroy the beauty of the cosmos that is the result of those rules at work. It would cause a mess. And it would be arbitrary and random.
This is grossly and cruelly unfair. Why him and not her. Why you and not me? Why us and not them?
Because I felt like it? Because it amused me? Because I did the divine equivalent of rolling dice?
Mr g does not play dice with the universe.
That’s the devil’s game.
That stranger I mentioned, he’s the devil, maybe. Not the devil we know as Lucifer. And definitely not Satan. He’s more like the adversary from the Book of Job who tempts Yahweh into testing Job. He seems to appear out of nowhere, introducing himself to Mr g by the name of Belhor.
Belhor, Lightman tells us in a note at the end of the book, was a demon from Hebrew and Christian mythology who also went by the names of Beliar, Baalial, and Belial.
The novel’s Belhor isn’t very demon-like. In fact, he’s rather personable, even charming. And he cuts an attractive figure, if you can overlook his habit of growing taller and skinnier with each appearance. He stretches out and thins out like a ribbon unspooling in a breeze. He weaves and wafts about the Void. A good description of his motions and manner would be, although Lightman doesn’t use it, serpentine.
Actually, rather than having biblical antecedents, Belhor seemed like a figure out Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach or Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Actually, the whole book reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth, in tone, in its playfulness, in its calm acceptance of its own surreality.
There’s more than a touch of Alice in Wonderland too, although I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading for children, even precocious ones who can handle the math.
We don’t know how Mr g’s aunt and uncle came into existence, but we can make a guess as to how Belhor got here. Mr g tells us that when he created quantum physics
…all objects---even though objects at that point existed only in my mind---billowed out and swelled into a haze of indefinite position. All certainties changed into probabilities, and my thoughts bifurcated into dualities: yes and no, brittle and supple, on and off. Henceforth, things could be hither and yon at the same time. The One became Many.
Since Mr g is in essence a product of his own thought, the same thing happened to him, he bifurcated into a duality. Belhor is able to tempt Mr g because he is Mr g or he’s implied by him, the way on is implied by off. Belhor likes to wander about the universe, getting involved.
Belhor drops obvious hints that is involvement is often malicious and he enjoys causing trouble and pain. But of course he’s bifurcated too and implies his own opposite. If he can interfere for the worse, why can’t Mr g interfere for the better? Why won’t Mr g interfere for the better, Belhor asks. Why won’t he step in and undo Belhor’s mischief? Is he heartless? Is he cruel? Does he approve of what Belhor has been up to? Does he simply not care?
Belhor is clever, though. His method of temptation, which you’d think would be too blatant to fool God, is reverse psychology. He implores Mr g to promise not to interfere.
Mr g isn’t heartless or callous. He’s just by inclination, by temperament, by necessity, and on principle detached. Finally, though, the temptation to involve himself grows strong enough that he brings his attention to bear on one of his intelligent creations, a girl who is sinking into a life of remorse and despair because of a small crime hunger and poverty forced her to commit. This girl, by the way, may be human, biologically---although she may not. Mr g doesn’t describe her in detail. Girl might just be his word for a young female of any self-aware collection of animate matter. She appears to be bipedal and have opposable thumbs. Whatever she is, though, she isn’t an earthling. She lives in a star system that has only three planets. Still, she is human in her feelings and in having a heart that is breaking. And Mr g is tempted to help her. The tempter this time, however isn’t Belhor.
Do something for her, Mr g’s uncle pleads. Mr g’s uncle is more sympathetic and far more sentimental than Mr g.
Mr g is at a loss. What should he do?
Take away her suffering, says his uncle. Give her life meaning. Let her see herself as mattering.
Make her immortal.
Make them all immortal.
Or at least give them souls that are immortal.
Along with being a novelist of note, Lightman is a physicist on the faculty at MIT. But as far as I can tell, your knowledge of math and physics doesn’t have to be extensive or very sophisticated in order for you to enjoy what Lightman’s up to and follow along. But then I don’t know how much I know. My transcript contains only one college course in introductory physics and another in astronomy. But Pop Mannion started out as a physicist before he moved over to computer science and then veered off into politics, so I grew up hearing this stuff discussed over dinner and trying to read books Pop liked and said were probably not too far over my head---sometimes I succeeded. And I’ve kept that up. Routinely I impress myself by almost understanding popular works of science journalism and books like Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here and Chad Orzell’s How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and its soon to be published sequel How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. So I’d say a (not very deep) grounding in college-level physics and cosmology and a habit of watching Nova and shows like Through the Wormhole would be enough. But the science writer Tom Levenson, who is Lightman’s colleague at MIT and a big fan of Mr g has assured me that a good high school level physics course will do the trick.
You don’t need any specialized course work to appreciate that Mr g is beautifully written. Just a good ear and wide-open inner eye.
I did not tell Uncle and Aunt about all of my visits…Or of the many things I saw. Once I hovered invisibly in a city that arched over a hill. The planet was a one of a dozen orbiting an ordinary star, the smallest planet in the system. It was a quiet world. Oceans and winds made scarcely a sound. People spoke to each other only in whispers. I floated above the city and looked down at its streets and inhabitants. Corners of buildings rusted in the air, billows of steam rose from underground canals. I spotted two men passing each other on a crowded walkway. Complete strangers. In the eight million beings living in the city, these two had never met before, never chanced to find themselves in the same place at the same time. A common enough occurrence in a city of millions. As these two moved past, they greeted each other, just a simple greeting. A remark about the sun in the sky. One of them said something else to the other, they exchanged smiles, and then the moment was gone. What an extraordinary event! No one noticed but me. What an extraordinary event! Two men who had never seen each other before and would likely not see each other again. But their sincerity and sweetness, their sharing an instant in a fleeting life. It was almost as if a secret passed between them. Was this some kind of love? I wanted to follow them, to touch them, to tell them of my happiness. I wanted to whisper to them, “This is it, this is it.”
Every time I come across some happy-go-lucky atheist cheerfully going on about how science is on the verge of explaining away the existence of God and how it will soon be proved that life, the universe, and everything are just the predictable results of a giant, eternal, meaningless, purposeless, self-replicating science experiment, I think:
“That person has no soul!”
But then, atheists say the same about me, so we’re even.
Over the past few centuries, science can be said to have gradually chipped away at the traditional grounds for believing in God. Much of what once seemed mysterious — the existence of humanity, the life-bearing perfection of Earth, the workings of the universe — can now be explained by biology, astronomy, physics and other domains of science.
Although cosmic mysteries remain, Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, says there's good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.
Carroll argues that God's sphere of influence has shrunk drastically in modern times, as physics and cosmology have expanded in their ability to explain the origin and evolution of the universe. "As we learn more about the universe, there's less and less need to look outside it for help," he told Life's Little Mysteries.
One of my prides and joys when I was a kid was my subscription to National Geographic. I cherished each issue and kept them all neatly stacked on my bookshelf and probably took greater care of them than I did my Hardy Boys and Alistair MacLeans. But sometime in high school, my subscription ran out and I didn’t bother to renew. The Secret of the Old Mill and The Guns of Navarone made way on the shelves for other, “grown up” books and with them went the magazines. I wouldn’t say I outgrew National Geographic, the way I’d outgrown the Hardys and MacLean’s boys’ own adventures. How can you outgrow the best magazine in the world? But whatever it was inside me that made each new issue so wonderful and exciting when I was ten and eleven wasn’t there when I hit fourteen and fifteen. The books I packed into boxes to be stored in the attic. I don’t remember what happened to the magazines. I can’t imagine I just threw them out, but I must have or maybe my brothers did when they took over my room when I went away to college. It was many visits home before I noticed they were gone, though, and when I did, I wasn’t too cut up about it.
But I’d have been mad if the maps had gone with them.
More than I loved the magazines themselves I loved the maps inserted into many of the issues. A few I tacked to the wall. Most I kept neatly and obsessively folded and stored away until I needed to study them, which I did, again and again, until it seemed I had the whole world memorized, continent by continent, nation by nation, city by city. It wasn’t that I dreamed of visiting any of the places on those maps. I think I took it for granted that one day I would, the way I took it for granted I would get my driver’s license and play centerfield for the Mets. But when I pored over those maps I felt that I didn’t need to travel there, because I already was there, wherever the there was that I was looking at. And I wasn’t traveling. I was exploring. I don’t know how much I still have memorized. I wouldn’t want to test my geographic knowledge on Jeopardy. But I’m pretty sure that if you dropped me any place on earth and said, Find your way to such and such a city, this or that river, those mountains, these plains, this lake, that desert, that valley, that forest, I’d know right away which direction to turn and have a good idea of how much walking I had ahead of me.
They’re still there, those maps, in my parents’ house in a folder in the bottom drawer of my old desk and next visit I’m going to dig them out to see if I’m remembering right, that one of the maps is a map of the Indian Ocean floor. It was beautiful. I can still picture it, even without having read the description provided by National Geographic in an accompanying article that author Hali Felt quotes in her engaging, informative, and stylish new biography Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor :
"Color…gives depth to the map: light green for shallow seas and continental shelves; medium blue for sediment covered plateaus and hills of the mid-depths;dark violet-gray for the abyssal plains; darker still for the great trenches. Towering undersea mountains and plunging slopes of this waterless ocean are highlighted as if at sunrise."
Sounds like a work of art. It was a work of art. Literally. In fact it’s almost inaccurate to call it a map. It’s a painting…of a map.
The painter was Heinrich Berann, an Austrian who preferred to do “serious paintings in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci” but made his daily bread painting Alpine panoramas for tourist traps. His experience painting panoramas and mountains got him a gig with National Geographic doing a panorama of the Himalayas and that led to his being contracted to paint the map of the Indian Ocean. But I wonder if he shared an analytic and scientific bent with his hero Da Vinci and if it was that that made him the right artist for the job:
After getting his detailed drawing approved...Berann began the final version. He sketched basic landforms onto thick paper using pencil, filling in patches from top to bottom. He used..a multimedia approach, employing "air brush and frisket, casein-based paints and oil-based paints in an assorted sequence," working through a hole cut in a sheet of tracing paper that projected the rest of the painting. A light wash of paint went down first, basic shapes filled by watery colors. Then Bernann tackled the features' textures, consulting the physiographic diagram and, if necessary, collecting details in rawer form...
The result, the National Geographic article says...is "a remarkable map painting" that "combines scientific discoveries and an artist's skills."
The scientific discoveries that combined with Bernann’s artist’s skills were made by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, whose partnership, professional and romantic---although peculiarly, eccentrically, and possibly purely Platonically romantic---began in the 1950s at Columbia University where Heezen was finishing up his Ph.D. and Tharp was working as a research assistant and lasted until Heezen died of a heart attack while on a research expedition aboard a submarine in 1977. Heezen was an oceanographer. Tharp, the remarkable woman of Felt’s subtitle and the focus of the book, was a geologist by training and a cartographer by happy accident, and it was as a mapmaker she made her reputation, creating the first map of the ocean floor.
No one had mapped it before Tharp because no one had been down there. Not all the way down. For a long time no one was sure there was anything down there to map. For all anyone knew the ocean floor was a drowned desert, flat and featureless, the monotony relieved only by shipwrecks and the bones of whales. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge was discovered in 1872 by scientists looking for a path to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Its enormity had only begun to be charted in 1925. When Tharp and Heezen set to work on their first map of the North Atlantic, underwater cameras capable of withstanding the pressures of great depths were rare and expensive and didn’t take very clear pictures, having to shoot through their own protective glass armor and roiled water in total darkness. Submersibles like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Alvin that could carry human beings to the bottoms of the deepest seas were still in the development stage. The best way to see what was down there was actually to hear it. Echo soundings. SONAR. You sent a sound down, listened, noted how long it took to bounce up, moved along, sent another sound down, listened again, and if that took longer to bounce back, you knew you were over a downward slope or a hole. If it bounced back quicker you were over a rise or a peak or a fish.
Heezen and other oceanographers went out to sea to make the soundings. What they brought back was a lot of disjointed information. Research vessels weren’t crisscrossing the oceans in grids. There were few such vessels, anyway. The United States had just two. The ships would go out as far as time and funding would allow, cruise about in circles for a bit, and come home along a different course, taking soundings as they went. The next expedition would chart a different course to a new location. The data they brought back was far, far from complete.
Back at the lab, Heezen’s job was to interpret the soundings. Tharp plotted his results and drew what he told her he saw---heard. To turn what they did into their first map, though, required a lot of educated guesswork.
Tharp's insight, based on her training and experience as a geologist and common sense, was that rock underwater behaved pretty much like rock on dry land. Formations implied other formations around them. A ridge, a mountain, a valley, a trench, would likely be surrounded by the features that surrounded ridges, mountains, valleys, and trenches of similar shape and size elsewhere. Her maps were essentially hypotheticals. Suppositions, conjectures, and just plain guesses guided her drawing hand. But the more data that came in, the more of her guesses were proved right. Where she’d guessed wrong, it often turned out that the correction was implicit in her diagrams. If not this, then it must be that was built into the scheme. Rarely did she have to erase a whole undersea neighborhood and start over from scratch. Her maps have been refined and redrawn many times in the decades since, but a lot of that work has been a matter of filling in and working from what she did rather than writing over it.
Her key contribution may not have been the maps themselves but what her first one---of the North Atlantic---showed.
The continents were adrift.
When Marie inked the space below the jagged lines she had drawn, the six transatlantic topographical profiles were complete: six silhouettes of the ocean floor's terrain, inked onto the staff-like graphs. Continental shelves dropped down into continental slopes, continental rises sloped down into those abyssal plains Bruce wanted to find. The island of Bermuda was there, rising above the water's surface. The wide medial ridge that had been surmised by oceanographers since the late nineteenth century was there, and wherever there weren't plains, tiny stalagmite-shaped mountains gave the floor texture. It was an accomplishment: Marie's profiles were the most detailed representations of the ocean floor ever produced. But she wasn't satisfied; she didn't think she'd discovered anything...
...Marie kept studying her profiles...She spent a lot of time looking closely at the ridge whose presence she'd confirmed, a wide bump where the ocean floor gained elevation. It was apparent on all six of the profiles, which meant that it was a range, not just one isolated mountain. And then something happened. "As I looked further at the detail, and tried to unravel it," she said, "I noticed that in each profile there was a deep notch near the crest of the ridge." a deep notch, a rift. This was something new. She kept studying it, checking the sounding records over and over to make sure she hadn't mis-plotted a depth. When she was certain she was right, she called for Bruce.
Their first big fight followed...
The fight was sparked by Heezen’s horror at what he thought he was looking at in Tharp’s map.
The possible end of his career.
If the Mid-Atlantic ridge was as Tharp had mapped it, and Heezen presented their results at a conference or in paper, he’d be going before the community of American scientists and telling them they could no longer deny what they’d been denying for a generation. Continental drift was a fact.
This was a surprise to me. By the time I was in fifth grade and Sister Mary Anthony sat me down in front of a sectionable 3D map of the earth’s crust, drifting continents were being taught as givens, like Darwin’s finches or Mendel’s beans, and I’d have been as dumbfounded to learn that only a little more than a decade ago continental drift---and its proponents---were dismissed the way Felt says they were as I would have been if someone had tried to tell me Newton was all wet and Einstein full of it. But up until Tharp’s map convinced Heezen, who really, really resisted being convinced, American scientists rejected the theory of Continental Drift.
In 1952 the words " continental drift" were fighting words. "At the time," Marie wrote in [an article for Natural History], "Bruce and almost everyone else at Lamont, and in the United States thought continental drift was impossible." Depending on your intellectual confidence, the words continual drift provoked anything from mild anxiety to flat-out horror. Not only did American scientists think continental drift impossible, they also "considered it to be a form of scientific heresy," wrote Marie. "To suggest that someone believed in it was comparable to saying there must be something wrong with him or her."
To put it very simply, continental drift is the explanation for the bumps and grooves in the earth's crust that can't be explained as the work of glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes, erosion, and meteor strikes. The underlying idea is that the earth's crust isn't a single table of contiguous rock. It's made up of separate, separated, and still separating plates that, floating on a sea of magma, are on the move all the time, colliding with one another, rubbing up against each other, sliding over and under each other, locking together, coming apart, abrading landscapes, pushing up mountains, cracking open valleys and canyons, breaking up large land masses into islands, pushing islands together to make new larger masses of land, shaping and reshaping whole continents. The idea that the continents were moving had been batted around since the 16th Century. A German geophysicist and meteorologist named Alfred Wegener turned the idea into a fully developed theory in 1912 and it was readily accepted by many scientists around the world. On the whole, though, the scientific community was skeptical and for one reason and other, most American scientists weren’t just skeptical, they were actively hostile. Tharp probably studied continental drift in grad school but it was dismissed by textbooks in use at the time. At the time the reluctantly persuaded Heezen presented the map at a conference, most American scientists were in agreement that there were likely a number of explanations for the wrinkles in the earth's surface, but continental drift was definitely not one of them. Presented with the evidence in the map, the reflexive reaction was to insist Tharp and Heezen had gotten it all wrong. The rifts weren't there because...well, because they couldn't be there!
Here's a good place for me to point out that for all the history of the science Tharp and Heezen devoted their lives to, Soundings is not a lesson in the history of that science. It is the intimate biography of a woman who happened to be a scientist. And because so much of her life was tied up with Heezen's, it’s also the story of a partnership between two eccentric people who both happened to be scientists. Felt has us looking at Tharp and Heezen within the context of their personal lives more than their professional ones. Other than Heezen, not many other scientists appear in their own rights as scientists doing science. They show up, with their CVs pinned to them like captions in movies or TV shows quickly indentifying new characters, as witnesses to Tharp’s and Heezen’s activities at this or that point in their lives in order to provide background and to give insight into their characters. Jacques Cousteau makes a guest appearance when he brings back the first photographic proof that Tharp was right about the rifts being there and where they were. But the only other scientist who has more than a cameo is Maurice Ewing, known affectionately in life and referred to by Felt a little too chummily throughout Soundings as Doc, who founded the labs at Columbia that under his guidance grew into the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and who hired Tharp and recruited Heezen and then fell out with both of them, and his part in the book is less a story about science than it is a dispiriting tale of academic politics and friendships gone awry.
That doesn’t mean Felt neglects the science. It’s there, in fine, lyrical, flowing detail. Felt is excellent at describing processes. The process of making the maps. The processes of doing the science that led to Tharp’s maps. The geologic and oceanographic processes the science discovered and explained. But, I think, best of all, the process of Tharp’s scientific education, which began when she was a very young girl being taken out into the field by her father, a soil surveyor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, continued through her becoming the president of her junior high science club, on into her time at Ohio University, where she majored in music and art(!), and her graduate career at the University of Michigan, where she earned her master’s in geology, her work as a geologist for an oil company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, at the University of Tulsa, she picked up another degree, this one in mathematics, and on through her time at Columbia and her partnership with Heezen. Felt makes a persuasive case that an important part of this process was Tharp’s loneliness or, rather, her aloneness. Growing up, Tharp had few friends because the government transferred her father almost annually and no sooner had she begun to settle in at one school than she found herself plucked out and plunked down and ernolled in another. Her closest companion was her mother, who died when Tharp was in high school.
Moving around all the time, changing schools nearly every year, sometimes within the school year, losing her mother and having the responsibility for taking care of her father and their home and herself dropped on her and having to start making her own way in the world at sixteen taught her to be self-reliant, independent, and comfortable being on her own and alone with her thoughts.
These qualities sustained her in her work, which required her to spend long hours alone at her desk and drawing table, and throughout her career in a field in which few women were welcome in any jobs but secretary, file clerk, and human computer, and in her relationship with a man who was frequently away at sea for long stretches of time and who was as independent, solitary-minded, and eccentric as she was, and, possibly, not as devoted or faithful.
I'm not sure how accurate a picture Felt has painted. Sometimes it’s hard to see Tharp because Felt herself keeps getting in the way.
Soundings is an unconventional biography, like Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, in that, like Hendrickson, Felt puts herself in her story and, like Hendrickson, when stymied by gaps in her source materials, she gives herself permission to make things up, that is, where she doesn’t know, she supposes. But unlike Hendrickson, she isn’t always upfront about it. Usually, she’ll let us know. I think, she’ll write at the beginning of a passage that is full of conjecture, supposition, or just plain guesswork. I imagine. I see. But often she’ll blend what she’s learned with what she’s surmising and then not bother to point out where the former leaves off and the latter picks up. You have to turn to the notes at the end to learn what’s what. And the notes aren’t always helpful.
I still don’t know how to sort out a passage like this:
On the street, Marie buys a hot dog and eats it in three bites as she walks the few blocks to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She likes feeling lost in its huge nave, the interior buffed and pale; occasionally she takes a long lunch and walks all the way up to The Cloisters just so she can see the miniatures with their delicate faces carved from stone. Her coat is unbuttoned and she walks it flaps around her slender torso. She wears an unstructured skirt, gathered at the waist. Scuffed black chunky shoes. Hair a loose mass of frizz around her face. She does not look like the other women, whose hair is pulled into taut rolls on various parts of their heads. Those women walk with their noses pointed forward, as if to keep their tiny hats balanced, and they wear clothes that nip in at the waist and out at the hips and fit tight round their arms. The women carry magazines, wear shoes that are light and heeled, and skip lunch to shop. Marie is not like them but she is not like the men in the office either. Or, actually, she is like the men of the geophysical lab in one important way: they’re working for their futures, and Marie is working for their futures, too.
Where did all that detail come from? How does Felt know Tharp ate a hot dog in three bites? How does she know she ate a hot dog at all? Is Felt working from one of Tharp’s letters or an interview or a third party’s memory? Is she guessing? All the note says is that the description of what Tharp is wearing is drawn from a photograph of her walking down a New York City street some time not too long after she started working at Columbia in 1948.
Going by the note on a story Felt later tells about a visit Tharp made to Heezen’s boyhood home after he died and her being given a tour of the place by its current owner, I’m thinking that much of the above paragraph is fiction. Tharp, Felt tells us in the note, did make that visit, but there was nobody home when she went and the owner and the tour are Felt’s inventions!
I didn’t feel deceived when I hit upon a passage that turned out to be half fact and half, essentially, fiction or that I suspected was. I was just baffled. Felt warns her readers what’s ahead right at the start. She tells why she took this approach. But I didn’t quite get it and still don’t. It seems to me that Felt was determined to write the same kind of biography she might have written of a poet or a philosopher or a different sort of scientist, one with a more self-reflective, self-questioning nature and the soul of a poet or a philosopher, like Loren Eisley, Albert Einstein, or Carl Sagan. Tharp, at least from what I can tell from where Felt is clearly describing her and not her own imagined version of her, was gregarious and companionable but not confiding. She loved to write letters, giving Felt a lot to draw from, but those letters are---again I’m going by what Felt has included---what you’d expect a scientist’s letters to be like, as long as you know that scientists usually write well and have good senses of humor, observant, objective, analytical, outer-directed, and almost obsessively descriptive rather than reflective, inward-looking, self-revealing, and confessional. Felt seems to have given herself the job of speaking for Tharp on the grounds that at the end of all her researching of Tharp’s life she just felt she knew her well enough to do so.
I don’t like this. My feeling is that if you’re going to novelize, then write a novel. But although I don’t like it as a matter of principle---or prejudice---I liked how Felt did it and what she did with it. I liked the book and I liked Felt’s portrait of Tharp. And it helps to see Soundings as a portrait, that is, as if it’s like a painting. You look at Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Gachet or Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and you don’t think, Yep, that’s exactly what those people must have looked like.
I’m not sure I was seeing the real Marie Tharp when I was reading Soundings. But I did feel I was seeing what Felt thought I should see. The portrait may not duplicate the particular person being painted but it’s certainly a person. Felt’s Tharp is very much alive in the pages of her book the way the Gachet and Stein are alive on Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s canvases.
It’s not enough we’ve got bears roaming everywhere:
GOSHEN — An albino wallaby went on the lam and spent hours hopping around town until he was recaptured early Wednesday morning.
Read Nathan Brown’s story, Escaped wallaby tours goshen, at the Times Herald-Record. Unfortunately, unlike the bear story below, this one doesn’t include any helpful tips on what to do if you find yourself confronting a wallaby in your your yard.
WOODSTOCK — A drought-fueled lack of food is largely to blame for the soaring number of black bear invasions in the mid-Hudson, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"The bears are a little more desperate this year for alternative food because their natural source of food is not so available," said wildlife biologist Matthew Merchant, who is known as DEC's "Bear Guy."
Already this year, the DEC has received 300 inquiries about nuisance bears in this area. In all of last year, it received 390.
Ok, first, I think it would be pretty cool to be known as the Bear Guy.
Second, I’m clipping the helpful tips on dealing with a bear and posting them on our refrigerator, just in case. This one, though, I think we can safely skip:
• Put electric fence around livestock or beehives.
From the Department of Who Doesn’t Love News About Great Cetaceans:
When a University of Washington researcher listened to the audio picked up by a recording device that spent a year in the icy waters off the east coast of Greenland, she was stunned at what she heard: whales singing a remarkable variety of songs nearly constantly for five wintertime months.
Kate Stafford, an oceanographer with UW’s Applied Physics Lab, set out to find if any endangered bowhead whales passed through the Fram Strait, an inhospitable, ice-covered stretch of sea between Greenland and the northern islands of Norway. Only around 40 sightings of bowhead whales, which were hunted almost to extinction, have been reported there since the 1970s.
Stafford and colleagues put two hydrophones, or underwater microphones, on moorings attached to the seafloor in Fram Strait, leaving them there for as long as the batteries would last: nearly a year. Since the population of bowhead whales likely to pass through was thought to number in the tens, they didn’t anticipate much interesting data.
“We hoped to record a few little grunts and moans,” Stafford said. “We were not expecting to get five months of straight singing.”
Not only did they record singing nearly every hour of the day and night, they picked up more than 60 unique songs…
Modern culture emerged in southern Africa at least 44,000 years ago, more than 20,000 years earlier than anthropologists had previously believed, researchers reported Monday.
"They adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and notched bones for notational purposes," said paleoanthropologist Lucinda Blackwell of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, a member of the team. "They fashioned fine bone points for use as awls and poisoned arrowheads. One point is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, which closely parallels similar marks that San make to identify their arrowheads when hunting."
The answer to the old and supposedly rhetorical question about what bears do in the woods turns out to be, “Not always.”
Following their first bear invasion that Friday, the Knowles family locked the windows and doors and left home for a dinner gathering.
They returned a few hours later to find a kitchen casement window had been torn open, its lock twisted into uselessness. Their home had been trashed all over again.
The family cleaned up their home and went to bed, hoping they'd have no move visits from bears.
But the next day was the worst. Knowles and his family returned home at 7 p.m. to find the house completely ransacked. The bears had trashed 7-year-old Takemi's bedroom, rummaging through his closet, even defecating on his bed.
Note the bed got it on the bears’ third visit.
And it was bears, plural. The photo by Jeff Goulding of the Times Herald-Record shows a cell phone image of the cage in which the Department of Environmental Conservation trapped a bear cub and the anxious and presumably angry mother bear outside. Read Jeremiah Horrigon’s story, Bears bash family’s house, in the Times Herald-Record to find out what happened to the mother and her cub. Registration not required but recommended for regular readers of this blog.
By the way, the Knowles family lives in a hamlet about an hour north of here called…Bearsville.
Attacked a neglected and overgrown section of the hedges in the backyard with the clippers late yesterday afternoon before supper and, pulling away some broad-leafed vines from an evergreen shrub, I uncovered this:
My heart sank.
Great, I thought, feeling I’d killed them just as surely as Charlie Brown felt he’d killed the Christmas tree, They’re doomed. I figured they were doomed in one of two ways. Either their mother would resent and be scared off by the human interference with her nest and the nestlings wouldn’t get fed anymore or tomorrow, with their shade gone, the sun would fry them.
Actually, there was a third possibility. I’d exposed them to predators. There are hawks in the neighborhood.
I was done with the trimming for the evening. I retreated inside and then set up a watch on the nest from the bedroom window, hoping to see that I was wrong about frightening away the mother.
And I was. Round about seven she swooped home. The babies’ heads shot upward, their necks craning to what I thought impossible lengths, spiky ruffs of new feathers sticking out up and down, their maws opened wide enough to swallow their mother whole.
She flew in and out three times while I was watching. Each time, she lingered a bit after feeding the babies, eyeing things, probably wondering who’d taken her roof. She didn’t look frightened. She looked miffed. But robins always look miffed. Cornell’s All About Birds website describes them as “industrious and authoritarian.” I think of them as little Puritans. Yes, they seem busy and hard-working, but they appear judgmental about it, as if they’re noticing that other birds aren’t working as hard or are having too much fun going about their business and thinking Sinners in the talons of an angry God thoughts. They’re convinced that their diligence is earning them their proper place in heaven but it gives them little and only grim satisfaction.
My field guide says robins are very protective of their nests and will gang up on crows if any wander into a neighborhood where several robin families have set up housekeeping. I don’t know what the mother would have done if she’d been around when I was hacking away at her home---or the father. That could have been a male I watched feeding the babies. Males help feed the young, although they don’t do any of the brooding. Probably just given me a stern, Puritanical judging and left me to work things out with my conscience.
At any rate, I’ll check on them tonight to see if they made it through the day safe from the sun or hawks. They look pretty well-grown, maybe they’ll fledge soon and leave the nest. I just looked out to see how things are. The mother was settled on the nest. She sensed me at the window though and flew off.
But only across the yard where she perched on a fence post, looking miffed.
Wednesday night: They didn't make it. I feel terrible.
As a group, scientists are pretty smart cookies. I'd even bet that, if it could be determined, the thousand smartest people on the planet---those who weren't mathematicians---would include mostly scientists. Physicists, mainly.
Not all of them would be scientists and mathematicians, though, and if you rounded up the next thousand smartest, the percentage would drop and you'd start to find more musicians, artists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, professors and teachers in the humanities and liberal arts, engineers, architects, hedge fund managers (who are usually too smart for their own and our good), politicians (ditto), football coaches and baseball managers, quarterbacks, point guards, pitchers, and midfielders, accountants, actuaries, librarians, police detectives, astronauts, airline pilots, ship captains, ad execs, marketing gurus, and computer programmers and video game designers.
And priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, nuns, shamans, monks, lamas, and yogis.
And since not all geniuses express their brilliance in conventionally intellectual ways or get to live lives that allow them to express their brilliance at all---remember the story about the general who when he dies and goes to heaven asks God to introduce him to the greatest military mind in history and then is shocked when that turns out to be the old tailor from the village where the general grew up? God tells him, yes, he’s just a tailor but that’s because the country was at peace when he was young and he never had to be a soldier. But if there’d been a war, he'd have the chance to show the world his brilliance. And don't forget, God adds, he was a pretty good tailor, wasn't he?---the ranks of geniuses would include, well, tailors...
...and auto mechanics, cabinetmakers, plumbers, jewelers, farmers, fly-fishermen and fishing boat captains, secretaries, store clerks---yes, there are genius store clerks. You've dealt with them. They're the ones who make you say, How come every clerk in there can't be like that? Genius waiters and waitresses get a little more recognition and appreciation.---street sweepers, parking garage attendants, grape pickers, goatherds, and beggars and thieves.
There are a lot of very smart people who don't think like scientists.
There are scientists who don't think like scientists. Not all the time. Not on every subject.
And since you don't have to be a genius to be a good scientist, the great majority of scientists aren't geniuses and this means there are plenty of smart people who don't think like scientists who are smarter than majority of scientists.
Including some priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, imams, lamas, monks, sachems, and yogis.
What I'm getting at is that there are many people who are smarter than most scientists who think in ways that aren't scientific and believe things that can't be proven by science.
For example, they believe in God.
Or a god or a godlike presence in the universe.
Some of these people who don't think like scientists all the time and believe things that can't be proven by science are...scientists.
Couple weeks back I wrote about a Gallup poll that showed that almost half of all Americans believe the Biblical story of creation is the literal story of creation. I was and still am skeptical of the poll’s results. I think people react to polls as if they're pop quizzes which means they think there's a right answer and they have to give it and that often causes them to in effect lie. They don't tell the pollsters what they think. They tell them what they think they're supposed to think. Often they don't really hear the question. They misinterpret it, miss the key point, or overthink it.
As I said, I'm sure a lot of people heard the question as an either/or.
Do you believe in God or do you believe in evolution?
The poll allowed you to answer both and some people did. About a third of all Americans believe that God created life through evolution.
So I'd bet that if you repolled the people who said they believe in the Biblical version of creation and made it clear it wasn't an either/or question and they could answer both, many of them would change their answer.
Many but far from all.
That's because there are a great many people who heard it as an either/or question heard it that way because to them it is an either/or question. There is no answering both.
Either you believe in God or you believe in evolution.
Here's the kicker.
A lot of people who heard it as an either/or question because to them it is an either/or question answered "evolution."
Not all these people are scientists. For one thing, some scientists would have had no compunction about answering "both." For another, there just aren't that many scientists. It's probable that most of the people who took that poll and answered evolution not only aren't scientists, they don't think like scientists.
Not all the time. Not on every subject.
I've observed before that on the left side of the bandwidth and among liberal pundits and writers and academics there's a near worship of science and scientists by people who back in eleventh grade chemistry routinely risked setting their classrooms on fire every time they picked up a beaker. In tenth grade biology, their scientific reaction to dissecting a frog was "Eew. Ick." They did not grow up to be scientists or even to think like scientists.
But they did grow up to think they're supposed to think like scientists.
Do you know what the worst thing about the recent Gallup poll on evolution is? It isn’t that 46 percent of respondents are creationists (“God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so”). Or that 32 percent believe in “theistic evolution” (“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process”). Or that only 15 percent said humans evolved and “God had no part in this process.”
I think I’m reading her right. It looks to me that she’s pretty much lumping all believers in with creationists as if their answers to the question amount to the same thing and that she thinks that answer is wrong. The right answer is the one she’s dismayed that only 15 percent gave.
So it seems that as far as she’s concerned anyone who answered both just as good as answered that they don’t believe in evolution…because as she sees it, evolution precludes the existence of a God.
She equates a belief that evolution as the way God or a God-like intelligent being willed it or wanted it happen with the belief that God created the universe in six days a few thousand years ago with the express purpose of bringing humans into it and giving them dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living creature that moves on the ground and laments both beliefs as proof that the American education system has failed. She moves on to focus on the bible thumpers but she leaves her either/or on the table.
Either you believe in science or you believe in fairy tales.
Like I said, I don’t know if I’m reading her right, but it sounds as though she’s calling into question the intelligence of anyone who believes in any sort of creator or at least calling into question the quality of their education.
I don’t know how Pollitt did in eleventh grade chemistry or if she blew anything up. I can’t picture her eww-icking over dissecting a frog. But however well she did in her science classes, she did not grow up to become a scientist. She’s obviously smart. But I’m fairly sure she’s not as smart as Pop Mannion. Pop Mannion did pretty well in his high school science classes. Actually, he did pretty well in all his classes. He was valedictorian. He did pretty well in college too, graduating as one of the top ten students in his class. He has a Ph.D. in physics. He spent his working life teaching computer science. That’s when he wasn’t busy running our town during his two stints as supervisor. Pop Mannion doesn’t believe in evolution any more than he believes 2+2=4. Evolution is simply how it is.
Pop Mannion believes in God.
To be continued. I’m not sure where I’m going with this. No way, though, am I about to make the case that because a guy as smart as Pop Mannion believes in God believing in God is the smart thing to do. I’ll figure it out as I work on the follow-up post. If you think you know where I’m going or where I should go, please feel free to tell me in the comments. I need help with this one, obviously.
Commercial paleontologist Eric Prokopi and his family in front of the Tarbosaurus he restored and intended to sell at auction until the governments of the United States and Mongolia put a stop to it.
I didn’t know there were private fossil hunters---“commercial paleontologists”---until I read Boneheads by Richard Polsky, but they’re out there. Private fossil dealers too. Good money in it too. My favorite character in Polsky’s book is a born again Christian dealer, a bible literalist, a retired graphic artist, who believes Noah took a few T-rexes onboard as passengers on the ark---only very young ones, though. Adults would’ve eaten all the other animals---and that the millions of years old fossils he buys and sells are only a few thousand years old. But that’s business.
The fossil hunters call themselves boneheads and what self-employed boneheads and dealers have to be careful of is provenance, where their finds came from and who has legal rights to them. Their primary customers, museums and universities, don’t want to buy something some third party---usually a foreign government---is going to show up to reclaim as a stolen national treasure.
A Florida fossil dealer who prepared the skeleton of a tyrannosaur and attempted to sell it at auction, questions assertions that the fossils were taken illegally from Mongolia, and says the dispute over its ownership has brought financial ruin on his family.
"Imagine watching your house burn down with everything you have in it and knowing you have no insurance," Eric Prokopi, a commercial fossil dealer based in Gainesville, Fla., writes in a lengthy statement issued to reporters today (June 22).
The lost sale of the dinosaur has been devastating, he writes.
The process of preparing the skeleton — which federal agents took into protective custody earlier today — took "thousands of hours and every penny my wife and I had," Prokopi writes.
“Protective custody.” I get a kick out of that. No fun for Prokopi though.