Tag Archives: #research

One-Note Wonder

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Machaeropterus eckelberryi. Image: Andy Kratter/Florida Museum of Natural History

It was the manakin’s simple song that gave it away. Rather than the two-note chirp of its close relatives, the striped manakins from other areas of South America, the tiny bird with the red cap trilled out only single syllables.

A research team from Louisiana State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History first found the manakin in the remote Cordillera Azul region of Peru in 1996. But it is only now, twenty years later, that the newly named Machaeropterus eckelberryi was classified as a species separate from other Machaeropterus relations. Why?

The new species song could only be compared to other species once vocalization samples from other manakin groups had been recorded. It was only then that researchers were able to hear that M. eckelberryi song was so different from other manakin species. When they dug deeper, they found other defining characteristics as well.

Comparison of plumage of some taxa in the Machaeropterus regulus complex.
Source: Zootaxa

Attention to detail, patience, and research funding led to this new identification.

But more than that, even before the manakin was revealed to be a new species, the researchers’ revelation of the spectacular biodiversity of this habitat led to the creation of one of Peru’s largest national parks. The Cordillera Azul National Park covers 13531 km² (522 m²) and is home to a remarkably untouched variety of flora and fauna.

What other discoveries, what unique songs, lay in wait in collections around the world?

Should we call them discoveries, or should we call them revelations?

Click here to listen to the song of the painted manakin.

Lessons in Listening

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For the first time in its 59-year history, the Australian Science Teachers Association’s (STAWA) Secondary School of the Year award, an annual prize handed out in Western Australia, went to a school outside of Perth. That kind of anomaly deserves a second look.

The school that won the award for science research is the Christian Aboriginal Parent-directed (CAPS) school in Coolgardie, an independent school established by Aboriginal parents who felt the quality of education in their region was lacking.  This was also the first time the STAWA award went to a school with a mainly Aboriginal student population.

The students at CAPS were under the tutelage of a young science teacher from the United States, Allan Alipio, who wanted to inspire students with the passion he himself felt for science. He allows the students to come up with some of their own ideas, and this is where I think the story starts to get really interesting.

Eucalyptus saligna (Blue Gum)’ (1887)
Artist/Source: Agard Hagman/MAAS

The projects that won the award were mostly based on the application of native plants and indigenous knowledge to energy and medical experiments. One group of teens investigated the antimicrobial potential of traditional medicine plants maroon and crimson turkey bushes as well as sweet potato leaves for potential use as an anti-diarrhoea medication, while another group used local plants like wheel cactus and gum leaves to make ethanol.

This award speaks to the profound impact that good teaching can have – not just on passing along the facts and passing tests, but on inspiration and passion. I think it’s important to stress that, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum, Mr. Alipio listened to his students.

There’s a lot that could be discussed here about the all-too-common lack of education funding for indigenous populations. This gets at a larger issue of the side-lining (or worse) of indigenous populations around the world, and the extent to which their deep local knowledge has been suppressed, disdained, ignored, or (as with many medicinal applications) commercially exploited. And as we slog through this new era of climate change, that knowledge is more relevant than ever – as is the necessity to start listening.

Wheel cactus (Opuntia robusta)
Artist/Source: M.E. Eaton/Crow & Raven

People who identify as indigenous number an estimated 370 people worldwide, made up of around 5000 groups across 70 countries. They make up approximately 5% of the global population – but traditional lands and territories contain an estimated 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.

Gleb Raygorodetsky put it well in this excellent article: “With collective knowledge of the land, sky and sea, these peoples are excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment. The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale. Moreover, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions…

The difference in world views can be as fundamental as the botanical illustrations of plants above done through Western eyes, the illustration of bush plants below done by Aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre.

Bush medicine leaves
Artist: Gloria Petyarre

I will get into huge topic around the overlap of human rights issues, indigenous peoples and environment another time, but for the moment, I would say this: As long as that deep knowledge stays on a parallel but separate track from Western-based science, policy, legislation and education, we are missing out on critical opportunities to learn and adapt to the changes we have created over a relatively short period of time. At the same time, learning to listen and to cooperate puts people back in the loop when it comes to determining the fate of the land on which they live – and might just help us weather the approaching storm.

Hopefully, students like the award-winning teens at CAPS will be able to leverage knowledge from both worlds to help chart a path ahead.

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

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A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Magpies
Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Magpies
Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.

 

A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.

 

Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

Failed Elver Balance

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As the season comes to an end for harvesting the young American eel known as elver, I thought I would revisit a topic I’ve often written about on ChampagneWhisky. The American eel was once a remarkably abundant marine animal along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. Along with its close cousins, the Japanese eel and the European eel, it was so plentiful in coastal waterways that people could go out with pillowcases and easily fill them with eel.

The American eel was a staple of early Colonial life, and was the main dish served at early Thanksgiving meals. Japanese eel was so popular that it was fished to near extinction in the 20th century, and the same holds true for the European eel.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland.
Illustration: Charles Folkard

These days, elvers are fished in a very limited number of locations, during a short season – transparent, around the size of an earthworm, they are sold by the pound for shipping to aquaculture facilities in Asia. The appetite is large, the supply of local eel all but decimated outside of fish farms.

It’s not just the overfishing that is putting this mysterious animal at risk around the world. Habitat loss in the form of compromised river ways, climate change, pollution that affects reproductivity, barriers like dams or hydroelectric plants that block the progress of eels and elvers to their traditional grounds.

In Maine, where elvers represent an annual revenue of around $10 million (not counting the lucrative black market, of course), elver fishermen who hold the highly coveted and non-transferable licenses are, on the average, over the age of 50. There’s concern that their skills and knowledge won’t be transferred if the licensing process isn’t opened up to include younger newcomers via lottery.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland
Illustration: John Tenniel

In the United Kingdom, fishing for the critically endangered European elvers is highly restricted, and patrols try to control any poaching.

Here’s my question: All three major eels used for human consumption are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, or in the case of the European eel, critically endangered. These animals have complex life cycles that still hold a large measure of mystery – they breed and spawn in the ocean, they return to rivers and lakes to grow. This complex process is one reason they can’t simply be farmed like some other fish.

They traverse thousands of miles in ever smaller numbers, and if this year’s catch included 600,000 elvers, that’s half a million fewer than will now be able to keep their species alive through all the other threats.

Glass eel, unpigmented elver, post-larval stage of the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Photo: G. Verreault/Gov’t of Canada Species at Risk Registry

With all due respect to the fisheries along the eastern coast of North America, to the revived fisheries of the UK, to the aquaculture of Asian countries, maybe it’s time we lost our appetite for eel, at least for a while. Let’s grow other industries, other appetites, other revenues that aren’t carried out on the sinuous backs of ancient animals.

We think we can balance our relationship with the eel – but this won’t last.

Let the ageing fishermen of Maine record their knowledge, let the practices fade until they can, perhaps, be revived if and when the eels return.

Enduring Collection

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Enduring Collection

The image below, of bottles and some kind of a collection, immediately made me think of marine life. Maybe it’s the small, irregular pieces carefully arrayed beneath each bottle. Maybe it’s the size of the bottles and their tidy alignment, paired against the sandy randomness of their spilled contents.

 

I thought it might be a collection of sand types, something from the Sand Atlas.

Samples from various beaches, perhaps.

 

These are forams (Sorites), Cyprus.
Source: Sand Atlas

 

The round bottles also made me think of sewing and buttons.

Maybe these were shards of buttons that had been found in an archeological dig.

 

Buttons
Source: Tyrs/Wikimedia

 

Or perhaps the image is a tiny environmental art installation of natural materials.

 

The Darkness, an installation taken from part of a collapsed Sussex cliff.
Artist: Cornelia Parker

But no. The collection turned out to be none of those things, although each jagged piece will outlast almost anything else I had imagined. Each small piece here, even if it hadn’t been retrieved and catalogued, will endure for decades if not centuries.

I was correct about the marine life connection. The pieces had been battered and reduced from their original forms by water. But before they found their way into these lab bottles, each piece found its way into the mouth of a turtle hatchling, and each bottle represents the stomach contents of a hatchling either starved to death on a belly full of plastic, or that died as a result of damage caused by the plastic.

Stomach contents of deceased hatchling and post-hatchling sea turtle patients.
Source: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Larger turtles can survive some level of plastic ingestion, which includes everything from small debris to entire plastic fishing nets. The hatchings can’t pass the plastic through their systems.

According to Jack Lighton, head of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Florida where these samples were collected, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if a sea turtle has ingested marine pollution,” it’s now a question of “how much the turtle has ingested.”

And because it’s not just turtles swallowing our garbage, but all manner of other animals on land and water, it’s something to consider in our ongoing world of packaging, non-reusable items like straws and plastic forks, plastic bags and plastic furniture.

 

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Circumnavigational Wonder

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The world’s first circumnavigation by an aircraft powered only by the sun was just completed this week.

The Solar Impulse 2, created and flown by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, landed in Abu Dhabi after 23 days of flight time – spread over the course of 17 months and 42,438 km (22,915 nmi) of Northern Hemisphere territory.

It’s a strange thing to live in an age when scientific breakthroughs seem so commonplace as to barely merit more than a passing mention before they are lost again in the onslaught of information.

Positive discharge from a wire (1899) - An early electrical discharge visualization based on experiments in electricity by William George Armstrong. Armstrong, inventor, arms dealer, scientist, was an early advocate of solar power.  Image: via Dataisnature

Positive discharge from a wire (1899) – An early electrical discharge visualization based on experiments in electricity by William George Armstrong. Armstrong, inventor, arms dealer, scientist, was an early advocate of solar power.
Image: via Dataisnature

We spend all of a few minutes or a few hours in wonderment before moving on to the next amazing novelty. Time moves more quickly these days than it once did.

I try to imagine the days when even an innovation in clock making and mechanics could provide the discussion of an evening, or longer.

The remarkable clockwork globe here was an innovation in its own time. Its movement was built by Gerhard Emmoser, clockmaker to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was inspired by the words of Philip Melanchthon in contemplation of Plato:

“…the wings of the human mind are arithmetic and geometry…

Carried up to heaven by their help, you will be able to traverse with your eyes the entire nature of things, discern the intervals and boundaries of the greatest bodies, see the fateful meetings of the stars, and then understand the causes of the greatest things that happen in the life of man.”

Celestial Globe with Clockwork (Vienna, 1579), by Gerhard Emmoser.  the globe originally rotated, powered by an internal movement, and an image of the sun moved along the path of the ecliptic. Use of the mythological winged Pegasus to support the celestial sphere conveys a Renaissance idea that “the wings of the human mind” support the science of astronomy. Image/caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Celestial Globe with Clockwork (Vienna, 1579), by Gerhard Emmoser.
the globe originally rotated, powered by an internal movement, and an image of the sun moved along the path of the ecliptic. Use of the mythological winged Pegasus to support the celestial sphere conveys a Renaissance idea that “the wings of the human mind” support the science of astronomy.
Image/caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Solar Impulse 2 flight was 15 years in the making. Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg shared piloting duties of a plane equipped with 17,000 solar cells. The undertaking has a dual purpose: To show that it can be done, and to inspire the ongoing pursuit and implementation of renewable energies over fossil fuels.

Exploration, research and innovation aren’t just matters of pushing boundaries of what we already know – they are about dreaming into areas about which we know nothing. The clockwork globe was no doubt inspired not only by the soaring words of Melanchthon, but by ever-growing knowledge of how the world might look from above.

Who wouldn’t want to circle the globe from the comfort of their own drawing room?

Four hundred years passed between the first circumnavigation of the world by water in 1519 (by an expedition initially led by Ferdinand Magellan over three years) and the first aerial circumnavigation in 1924 (by a the United States Army Air Service aviator team over 175 days).

Flight path of the Solar Impulse 2. Source: The Guardian

Flight path of the Solar Impulse 2.
Source: The Guardian

Less than a hundred years passed between that feat and doing the same thing using only the sun as fuel.

We figured out how to harness electricity less than two hundred years ago using water power and coal; transforming sunlight into electricity happened around the same time, but the problem has always been storing that energy for use as needed.

The Solar Impulse 2, like other major achievements in science, engineering and exploration, reminds us that there is always further to go.

Just let that sink in for a few minutes, or a few days.

As Melanchthon wrote, “For I know that you are certainly convinced that the science of celestial things has great dignity and usefulness.”

Words as true now as they were over four hundred years ago.

The Solar Impulse 2. Source: Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse 2.
Source: Solar Impulse

Covering Our Eyes

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The main centers of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lay like a loose pearl necklace around the coastal edges of the nation.

I’ve never been to any of the NASA sites, but I grew up watching them from a distance.

As a child of the Sixties, the moon launches that took place were an invitation to dream of the stars. They made everything – anything – seem possible. It was just a matter of extending the grasp of our human hands by a finger’s length.

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt Text credit: European Space Agency

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Text credit: European Space Agency

With the passing of time, those dreams of exploration have expanded in unexpected ways. As it turns out, what we don’t know about space is matched in kind by what we don’t know about our home planet.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say what we don’t know and would like to find about the cosmos runs parallel to what we have chosen not to know, and would rather not find out, about Earth.

We’ve known about human-caused climate impact for a very long time. Even the fossil-fuel industry has known about the effects of its products for longer than any care to admit.

And a rise in sea levels is one of the main effects of a rapidly warming world.

So what to think about the story that many of the most iconic NASA facilities, those stepping stones to understanding our place in the universe and in the environment, are at risk of being submerged by the rising seas of global warming?

NASA and international space agencies around the world provide an array of tools and mechanisms for examining our world as well as others – those first photos of the blue planet bobbing in deep space inspired many to try and protect what turned out to be a rather unique place to live.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells. This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Caption/Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells.
This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data

Those initial images have been followed by a myriad of eyes that look at our planet in self-examination. In photos, measurements, radar, NASA and its partner agencies have been building an ever expanding archive of information, deepening our understanding of the forces at work here on the surface.

These are visions that aren’t necessarily what I would call the stuff of dreams, but they provide a portal to action in a way that perhaps moon launches didn’t for the average earthbound human.

These are images taken from the perspective of celestials, given to the earthbound. They promote an awareness of what the planet it doing, we are doing and maybe, what we can do it better.

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997. Credits: NASA/Goddard

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Goddard

The United States launch pads, were built near coastlines for safety reasons. But latitude plays a role – these are the southernmost regions of the country, and thus closest to the Equator, where “the greater diameter of the planet provides a slingshot effect that gives each rocket more bang for the propulsion buck.” (NYT)

What to say about some of our best technological achievements being inundated by the technologies and habits we can’t seem to quit?

Memory Theater

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I came across images of fallen logs painted with landscapes and images of the woods from which they might have come.

Fictional forest history painted on the remnants of real forests, a reminder of life on something no longer living, a singular specimen in its own cabinet of curiosity.

Trophy - Oil on fallen log (1998) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Trophy – Oil on fallen log (1998)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, those private collections of natural objects that have been described as ‘memory theater’ and which could include anything from antiquities and religious relics to insects and animal bones, were a way of organizing the natural world into human comprehension.

They were an era’s expression of scientific interest and exploration, and for many years, a marker of wealth and education. They were kept for the perusal of the few and the privileged.

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince. Source: Wikipedia

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince.
Source/caption: Wikipedia

Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, amassed a collection of minerals, fossils, plants, insects and other animal life, that he invited fellow writers and thinkers to examine and discuss in private at his Weimar home. A catalogue of this single collection, published in 1849, spans almost 300 pages of single-spaced entries.

The first public museum for natural history was established in 1793 in Paris, during the French Revolution. Building on a royal natural and botanical collection dating back to 1635, the object of the new Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle was to conduct scientific research as well as to instruct the populace – quite a departure from the earlier, prestige-based collections.

This seems to me a logical extension of the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie traditions from earlier in the same century, which sought to bring knowledge to a wider public rather than keep it for a select few.

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History
Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Today, we take for granted many of the massive collections housed by the world’s natural history museums, large and small.

I know I spent many hours in semi-fascination tempered by the dusty boredom of looking at static animals posed in naturalistic attitudes against painted landscapes, birds stuffed in mid-flight, their plumage iridescent and stale, and helmeted beetles on pins.

I felt I was being educated, but to what end? There was usually little context, even with the painted jungles and savannahs of dioramas. I had no real sense of the animals or plants as a part of life.

Now, natural history museums are turning the tables, literally and figuratively. Many are publishing the vast encyclopedia of biodiversity found on their shelves online.

Several projects are well underway to scan the collections gathered over centuries, many of them originally private, digitize their images and information, and make them available to the public – not just to educate, but to be used in open research.

Through the Woods - Oil on 31 log sections (1996) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Through the Woods –
Oil on 31 log sections (1996)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

At this point, many of these specimens aren’t just curiosities – they are a last line of existence for life that has become rare, or even extinct. They hold secrets that could only be conceived of in philosophical terms back when many of them were first collected – DNA, ecological webs, life habits, connections.

They can be used to trace industrial development, climate change, and human settlement.

A New York Times article quotes Katja Seltmann, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as saying that each type specimen is “like the Mona Lisa. If an antenna or a leg breaks, all of a sudden, a really large part of information about that organism is gone.”

Like the fallen log creations, these specimens are each windows to an entire world, the world in which they lived.

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu