Tag Archives: science

Six of One

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I have an affinity for hybrids of technology and nature, whether in art or engineering. There was the Coniferous Clock made of cedar, fresh and green in spring, brown and withered in winter, that told a simple tale of a year’s passing.

Here’s a new take on using plants in a sleek design: The CityTree, made by Green City Solutions. CityTree is an urban air filter that uses moss to remove pollutants from city air.

CityTree.
Photo: Via CNN

In a cool trick of using densely packed moss that has more leaf surface area than other plants, the self-contained, mobile units are solar-powered, self-watering and are monitored via sophisticated sensors. They are estimated to remove the same amount of pollutants from city air as up to 275 trees. This can, according to the inventors, add up to the annual removal of 240 metric tons of CO2 per unit.

Like the super neat SmartFlower Solar installations of blossom-shaped solar panels that follow the arc of the sun across the sky – one is at a supermarket just down the road from our house – this is a great concept that has its price. In the case of CityTree, each unit is currently priced at around $25,000. The company states that the units are made from a high proportion of recyclable materials and have a long life, but how does that really break down in terms of resources, disposal, and maintenance over the long term?

CityTree with optional bench.
Image: Green City Solutions

Still, I like it. Even if achieving equivalent results doesn’t always mean the methods were equivalent. Six of one isn’t always the same as half a dozen. After all, plant a hundred trees or cover a hundred house walls in ivy, and you’ll be filtering city air for decades with very little overhead. But for that, you need the soil, the water and the will.

It’s a sign of our poor urban planning that we even need to talk about CityTree, but I have a feeling we might just be seeing more of them. The makers boast that CityTree has the services of a whole forest on the surface of 3.5 sq. meters (37 sq. feet).

It’s an intriguing and creative solution. They’re nice to look at, and I bet they smell almost like a forest.

Oakwood forest, Scotland.
Photo: Forestry Commission Scotland

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

 

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning:

 

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.

Radiant Sun – So Long, 2016

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This piece of mine came out on Medium’s Midcentury Modern right after John Glenn passed away in early December, but it seemed a fitting way to send off 2016 as a whole. Not because it was as great as John Glenn, but because we all need a little something to get us through the hard times:

It was 1975 and Nixon had left office the year before. A new, dark cynicism about our system of government had freshly hatched and was flailing around like a hungry mongoose, hissing and snappish. Saturday Night Live started that year, and began by openly mocking then-President Gerald Ford on a regular basis, and if it bothered Ford, the general public never found out. John Glenn, a military man and former astronaut, had just been elected senator for the state of Ohio.

I had just moved back to California to live with my father after a few years of making my mother miserable with her new husband in his home town of Milwaukee. Returning from an orderly suburban life that ticked along like Chinese water torture, I found myself living in a cabin that my father and a bunch of buddies slapped up in a forest clearing. It was a 10’ x 12’ redwood box, tar-papered and shingled, heated with a wood stove, no running water, and it was located around fifty feet from my dad’s own cabin in the middle of a dense bay forest. I couldn’t see his place from mine, and at night, once the sun went down, it was prehistorically unlit by anything but the flame of my small kerosene lamp. I was thirteen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had flown around the planet a couple of weeks after my birth and now I lived in my own little satellite beneath the stars.

Society was all at sixes and sevens in the Sixties and Seventies, people wandering off in different directions, and I occupied myself with reading a lot of science fiction. Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov. Their casual misogyny and racism was dated, even then, but there was the pull of the great yonder. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was already seven years old; Apollo 11 had landed on the moon six years earlier.

At the rate we were going, surely space colonies couldn’t be far off, soon enough to beat any population problems, nuclear wars or environmental disasters we might inflict upon ourselves. I wrote what would be my first publication, a letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go off-world if it would help save the planet. I got an unexpected check for $25 in return, my first money for words.

My father wrote songs, and some of them came from dreams. He had a tape recorder at the head of his bed, and if a song came to him at night, he’d push the record button and sing,

still mostly asleep, at the machine while the little wheels of the cassette tape turned. We’d listen to the results over breakfast, which was always at his place, just after dawn.

I’d wake up and listen for him to whistle, which meant he was awake and I could come over. Sometimes it took a long time and I sat on my doorstep, looking out through ferns and bay trees and beyond, to Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County, and thinking how hard it would be to fit that all even into the largest space station. How would we transport all this earthly wealth with us to barren planets? Maybe the moon was close enough. “Zero G, and I feel fine.” That’s what John Glenn said when they reached orbit and he became weightless for the first time. Sounded pretty good to me, I just wanted to take a few trees along.

One morning, the whistle finally came and I made my way up along the narrow path that wound between ferns, carefully using a stick to part the dewed spider webs strung across the way. We sat down in our respective chairs to tea and pancakes, and I reached over and pressed the rewind and play button the tape recorder to see if there was anything there. My dad’s voice sang a groggy ditty that was unintelligible except for a long, four-note “meeeeeee” at the end of two lines. “What the heck is that?”

My dad’s face brightened as the dream returned to him.

I was walking on the surface of Mars with the Colonel. There was nothing, just red wasteland, except for the compound behind us. We came to an enclosure, a fence around waist high.

‘This is where we keep them,’ said the Colonel.

‘Keep what?’

‘The space monkeys.’

I looked down, and there, in a little space suit just like ours, was a chimpanzee. It stood right in front of us, and then it took off its own helmet. And it had the face of John Glenn. Smiling, beatific. It looked at us, and then at the sun, so far away. And John Glenn beamed. He started to sing!

Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!
Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!

My dad wore the same smile he must have seen on his dream version of John Glenn. The song instantly entered our lives as a way of expressing joy about anything that was really, really terrific, and we’d sing it, or just say that something was a ‘radiant sun’ moment. We were probably what most would have would called radical hippie types at the time, but if there was one thing pretty much everyone could agree on, it was that John Glenn was a good guy who flew higher than Cold War politics or partisan pettiness. You couldn’t not like him.

The song and the dream of John Glenn stayed in my life. I got my first truly soul-killing office job at Equitable Life Insurance in 1981. The supervisor parked me in a cubicle on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown San Francisco, tasked with the Sisyphean job of transferring all the client paper files to the early mainframe computer system, and even though I knew from the first week that the job and I would never be a good match, I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. One day, after a particularly rough week of talking to a lot of very sick, broke people on the phone who hadn’t been paid because their files hadn’t yet been transferred, I arrived at work to find one small addition to the wall of my bleak cubicle: It was a postcard of John Glenn in his space helmet, his confident face radiating its goodness right down on me. It was signed, Courtesy of Your Fellow Inmates. Glenn got me through the next few months, before I quit to pursue another life.

Space colonies didn’t become a reality as quickly as expected. Instead, I left the country for other continents and other countries, and ended up spending most of my life far from my country of birth. John Glenn made his mark as a senator for the state of Ohio. Mostly he did a good job, an advocate for science and, more importantly, for enduring curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He had a knack for looking beyond borders.

So, now he’s left Earth’s orbit for good, and I find myself thinking that we need a John Glenn these days. Someone who inspires everyone, no matter their persuasion, to look beyond their own cynicism. Cynicism was rife under Nixon, and then Ford, and even under the artificial-honey reign of Reagan, but at least we could all agree that astronauts and the science that kept them aloft were objects worthy of admiration.

So farewell, John Glenn, and thanks for getting me through some hard times and inspiring more than just happy songs. It was radiant.

Thanks for visiting Champagnewhisky, and wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.

Deep Cuts

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One of the sharpest knives used to divide people and promote apathy is the instigation of the sense that nothing is shared across political or religious beliefs, that we are powerless, that we are isolated.

It’s a baffling fact that the issue of climate change, not to mention environmental policy and science in general, didn’t come up much during the recent presidential campaign in the United States. Mere days after the Paris climate agreement came into force on 4 November 2016, U.S. voters elected a man who has made plain his skepticism of climate science.

One of my favorite trees split down the middle last week. Photo: PKR

One of my favorite trees split down the middle last week, an apt metaphor for the current mood. Photo: PKR

There has been plenty written on the assembly of a new administration based on donor rewards and loyalty rather than expertise in a given field, but this is fairly standard practice; I won’t waste time here discussing the appointment of climate science skeptics. Debating whether climate change exists is like having an argument over whether  water is wet and having someone who wants to sell you ice insist that sometimes, when frozen, it isn’t. (To be as explicit as possible, if someone is denying climate change or climate science, there is a profit motive.)

More worrisome are statements that the new administration plans to distance itself from the climate agreement altogether in favor of expanding fossil fuel use, that funding for NASAs Earth-observation satellite project will be cut, and that environmental regulations will be rolled back in favor of promoting industry in the name of jobs as if the two ends – environmental protection and job creation – can’t be mutually beneficial.

There’s been a historical divide between those who consider themselves conservationists, i.e. those who see nature as a place of natural resources to be utilized, tended to and protected in the interests of humankind, and environmentalists, who tend to see any human impact on nature as something to be mitigated.

Whatever your inclination – and most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two approaches – the fact is we share an interest in maintaining a clean water supply, an ecosystem that permits ongoing agriculture, breathable air and sustainable soil. Regardless of what you believe about climate science or your political stance, we are undeniably in the midst of radical climate change and a large-scale extinction that is unprecedented in the history of human civilization. Sure, the planet has undergone huge changes before, but not while we were trying to survive on it.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

It’s no surprise that those of us who support action being taken to protect the environment, who are committed to working against extreme climate change and holding our governments accountable when it comes to protecting habitats, are profoundly dismayed.

We need to find common ground, we need to redouble our efforts, and not just with the people with whom we agree, but with those with whom we disagree on a variety of topics. We need to reach across divides at every level, especially where it’s not easy. This blog has always attempted to promote understanding and curiosity, to inspire hope and encourage action beyond just enjoying a good dram of whisky now and then.

There is so much opportunity for progress, and humans can be at their best when confronted with adversity.

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

Rare Snow, Rare Rant

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It’s one of those days that confirm the thinking of both climate change deniers and the other 98% of us.

I wanted to go out for a run, and ended up wearing my spring running tights, a winter running jacket, and gloves. A fierce wind has been blowing from the north-east. The sky looks like late April but it feels like January.

Out on my run in the bright spring sunshine, a white mote floated down before me. A bit of cherry blossom? Underfeather fluff from an amorous songbird above? Maybe a glint of wing from the first small dragonflies in my path? After all, it’s almost May and spring has sprung.

The sparkling bit of something that floated down in front of me, and the many others that followed, were none of those things.

It was snow. Not much, just a light flurry, but most decidedly snow. Pretty, the way it caught the sunlight. The mountain range beyond lies under a late spring blanket, just after the end of the ski season here.

Spring blossoms against new snow. Photo: PKR

Spring blossoms against new snow.
Photo: PKR

Fodder for those who choose to deny what they still call ‘global warming.’ After all, how can snow in late spring be a sign of a warming climate?

Proof for everyone else, the rest of us who call this process what it is: human-induced climate change.

Sure, we’ve had late snows before, just not quite this late, and not after weeks of warm vernal weather.

And so we begin to speculate on what it all means.

I recently read a couple of articles in the Washington Post, the oldest newspaper in the Washington D.C. area, winner of dozens of Pulitzer Prizes.

One article, by Chris Mooney, was in the Energy and Environment section. It outlined some of the climate change expectations versus what is being observed on the ground right now, which could be summarized by saying that the climate is changing even more quickly than expected. It ends with a strong argument for putting a sharp end to deforestation, and for taking responsibility and quick action to stop further changes.

Several other articles and opinion pieces echoed this sentiment.

Winter skies move across an April landscape. Photo: PKR

Winter skies move across an April landscape.
Photo: PKR

The other, on the same day, was an Opinion piece by well-known and highly acclaimed conservative writer George F. Will. In it, he says that those who agree that the current era of climate change is caused by humans (i.e. pretty much everyone in the world except a tiny economically driven minority in a small handful of countries) are carrying out a “campaign to criminalize debate about science” by trying to reduce the noise made by deniers who call themselves skeptics. Mr. Will considers any refutation of this supposed climate ‘debate’ to be suppression of free speech and a move towards authoritarianism.

He frames the entire discussion as a government grab of individual and economic liberties, reminding me a bit of the fringe-thinkers who think the United Nations is actually a New World Order organization with a goal of world domination.

I’m not sure why the Washington Post, with its long and respected history, would choose to publish such a contrast on Earth Day. It’s hard to grasp why a tenacious group of people, some of them very smart, would choose to ignore such widespread agreement across the globe in favor of short-term politics – and for such a grimly nihilistic worldview, at that.

A recent study found that in 14 industrialized countries, the largest proportion of deniers (17%) was in Australia. The U.S. came in at 12%, far fewer than the number of Americans who think that the sun revolves around the Earth, or who haven’t really been convinced by the whole evolution thing.

A piece like Mr. Will’s in a newspaper like the Washington post is exactly the kind of thing that makes the head-in-the-sand stance look like there’s actually any kind of debate going on at all, and that in itself could be seen as an irresponsible environmental act.

Meanwhile, I’m watching pretty snowflakes settle on the spread of petite white daisies across my lushly green garden lawn.

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

Standard

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