Archive for March, 2007

chillout.jpg Amid Outside magazine’s monthly regulars: a gear carnival, a death-defying mountain assault, a top-30 list of adventure tours, here’s an amusing story about trees doing modern art.

I guess if Thai elephants have recorded a CD and sea lions sell frameable artwork, it only made sense to get another biological kingdom involved. A performance artist from San Francisco tied pencils onto cypresses at a Georgia tree farm, positioned some heavy sketch paper scant millimeters away, then stood back and let the art happen.

It’s all written engagingly and with a blessed lassitude not often seen in such ClifBar-fueled magazines. Author Eric Hansen sounds like he’s taking calm, deep breaths as he writes, and not once does he kayak upside-down off a Class V waterfall or plummet through a treacherous Himalayan cornice.

Instead, he wanders amid the cypresses as they sketch. He admires artist Jonathon Keats’s bowtie if not his short-shorts (check Keats out on Wikipedia for a synopsis of other quirky projects, like strategically planting flowers to dictate the way honeybees dance).

Hansen does credit to the enterprise by taking the trees’ creations seriously, attempting to put into words the aesthetics portrayed in the – well, if chickenscratch isn’t quite the word, it’s close. And after a bit of reflection, he ends with some quiet advice that you can almost hear sighing on the north-Georgia breeze:

If modern art is the ultimate expression of its creator’s take on the human condition, then these artists’ message is clear: You guys think too much. Chill out and scribble awhile.

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The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has set a life-size blue whale loose online, where it placidly swims past the browsers of millions of viewers. The picture starts at the whale’s eye, which pretty much fills your screen. Bubbles drift past, and a soothing underwatery sound wafts from the speakers.

Nitpicking viewers, the Scribbler among them, will be impressed to see that resizing the browser window doesn’t change the size of what’s onscreen – lending confidence to the life-sizeness of the image. On the other hand, change the pixel size of your display and you can immediately magnify your whale by about 50% – but then, that’s the kind of buzzkilling lawyerliness that gets people like us kicked out of parties.

All in all, a worthwhile diversion. Leave it running in the background, as Anne over at Inkycircus did, and you can check back in from time to time to contemplate new regions of the leviathan’s topography. (e.g., the whale lips, above, full size)

AND a note: Thanks to all those relatives, friends, and relatives of friends who have completed the Scribble Readers’ Poll. Your responses have been excellent proof of the fact that people who like this blog like this blog (thanks!). It really does interest me to know what, roughly, you’re reading for. Plus, I have some great ideas to forward on to the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group now that they’re finished with their salamander. My only remaining task is to get people who don’t read the blog to stop in and explain why not (hmm…the first annual Scribble Non-Readers’ Poll…must get to work on that).

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pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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The cute, fluffy bird world hit the science big time two years ago when Chris Templeton of University of Washington deciphered the information contained in chickadee calls. He found that the birds’ alarm calls went beyond a simple “Watch out.” They also gave a heads-up about what kind of dangerous predator was around.

This week, Templeton and former advisor Erick Greene are back in the news with reports that nuthatches listen in on those chickadee calls and decipher the information contained in them. This sort of interspecific codebreaking is a little like your dog listening in on your conversation and learning whether you are headed to the park or to the vet.

We’re willing to forgive AP reporter Randolph Schmid for misspelling the eminent Dr. Greene’s surname in the national press. Why? Because he pulled off an amazing feat of journalistic intrepidness when he sought an expert’s independent opinion on the findings. He called up Charles Eldermire at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is one of the country’s great resources about birds and science.

That in itself is good journalism. But did reporter Schmid realize that Eldermire, when he’s online, is none other than the Contemplative Nuthatch himself?? Not only that, but the kid spent his master’s degree research studying chickadees. So Schmid has found arguably the single most qualified expert to comment on breakthroughs in nuthatch-chickadee communication. His reporterly fortitude simply boggles the mind. Kudos!

And if the newspaper reports left you wanting to hear more, check out the Nuthatch’s own take on the research, complete with discussion of the fine points, links to background articles, and a sound spectrogram of the chickadee calls themselves. Nice work.

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In the deep water just outside of Monterey Bay, California, construction is under way on an undersea observatory that will herald a new era in ocean science.

The MARS observatory (no relation to the planet, it’s just a cute acronym) will get continuous power from land and offer live, 2-way data communications through a broadband data connection that is always on. It’s the start of a revolution in the way ocean science is done – offering something like the new perspectives that the first satellites gave to earth and atmospheric sciences.

I don’t mean to get all grandiose on you – but then it’s difficult to talk about revolutionary advances in ocean science when few people have a clear idea of business as usual. Put it this way: the ocean’s average depth is 4,000 meters and for about 3,800 of those it’s absolutely pitch black. It consists of a weak solution of salty electrolytes that gleefully corrode metal and short out power supplies. Its average temperature is a frigid 4 degrees Celsius, which would call for a seriously thick wetsuit except for the fact that the pressure is a crushing 400 times what it is on land.

So much for hands-on research. And remote sensing is pretty much out, too. Radio waves – so handy for chatting with space probes as they parachute onto distant moons – crash to a complete halt mere inches into the water, leaving us literally in the dark about the ocean depths. The best deep-sea surveys we can muster come from sonar – sophisticated versions of a 1940s technology.

The MARS observatory has had a fitful history as various funding and permitting delicacies were negotiated by the farsighted planners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and elsewhere. But this month workers began the first concrete step – burying the power-data cable along its route out to the site. The story attracted the attention of the BBC and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

The Chronicle‘s reporter was none other than David Perlman, perhaps the country’s pre-eminent newspaper science reporter. He has a science writing prize named after him and a track record of fantastic scoops spanning a half-century. (case in point: when deep-sea life was found thriving at hydrothermal vents, in 1977, Perlman was at sea with the shell-shocked scientists – the only reporter on board, phoning the news desk each evening to pour news of that day’s discoveries into the ears of whichever editor answered.)

So a small thrill penetrated the Scribbler’s jet lag when he read the Monterey story. Last summer, I got to write much of the background material on the MARS observatory website. Reading Perlman’s description of the project felt like a distant rubbing-of-elbows with one of scribbling’s grandmasters.

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octi.jpg Yesterday, several polite young German women packed the Scribbler into a sleek metal can and catapulted him across the Atlantic holding little more than a croissant and some very good chocolate. While he recovers from the shock, head over to Inkling for a story about the endangered Pacific tree octopus. An excerpt:

According to what little scientists know about it, the Pacific Northwest tree octopus is an amphibious species restricted to the temperate rainforests of the North American Pacific coast. The arboreal creatures abandon their coniferous homes each spring and migrate to the waters of Puget Sound to spawn. Sadly, years of logging, urban growth, overharvesting during the nineteenth century for hat accessories and depredation by its natural predator, the sasquatch, has driven this species to critically low levels.

You may think you’ve guessed the punch line, but you haven’t. This remarkable bit of yarn-spinning has its own site (here) and Connecticut researchers are using it to test the critical thinking skills of seventh-graders doing online research.

The octopus site itself is something of a marvel, going several layers deep without betraying so much as a nudge or wink. A particularly nice touch is the RSS feed to actual, breaking science news from major press resources like Eurekalert.org.

It’s such an endearing image – the thought of a harrowed little octopus ascending the Douglas-firs in a drenching Pacific rain, trying to escape the ruthless Victorian hat-merchants, only to be swatted, squished, and swallowed by a ham-handed but ruthless Sasquatch. Can any doubt remain that we live in an intelligently designed world at the mercy of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

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robotsally.jpg Lest you worry that the Scribbler has gone all-climate, all-the-time, here’s video of a robotic salamander that walks and swims.

The research was published last week in Science. It’s a tour de force involving translating a theoretical model of a salamander’s neural system into a physical model that’s eerily reminiscent of the real thing.

This work must represent a pinnacle in the authors’ scientific careers. I’m happy for them, then, that they made their robot a cumbersome, meter-long prototype the color of a school bus, ensuring prompt coverage at Nature, Wired, the BBC, MacNewsWorld, the Washington Post and right here at brandung.vogel.gekritzel (OK, I’m a few days late, but I was imprisoned in a Bavarian castle for most of the weekend).

Cool graphics aside, this work is fascinating because it’s a glimpse of evolutionary research as performed by a neuroscientist. The group started with a simple system of nerves that can make an animal swim. Then they looked for subtle modifications to the network that could make a long body undulate and its appendages wiggle in such a way that the creature could gain traction at a lakeshore and then haul itself onto land. (Here’s video of the robot clambering out of Lake Geneva.)

No fewer than 14 videos and numerous photos are available at the robot’s webpage in the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Why didn’t anyone tell me about these folks back when I stopped enrolling in math classes?

What I like about this research is the implication that, if you’re imaginative enough, you can still make major scientific contributions while standing ankle-deep in water and playing with a glorified Lego set.

(Image: A. Badertscher, Biologically Inspired Robotics Group, EPFL)

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A follow-up on that last climate post (thanks to all who read and commented):

Tune in to ABC Wednesday afternoon for a televised debate about climate change. The lineup pits climate scientists Richard Somerville, Brenda Ekwurzel, and RealClimate‘s Gavin Schmidt against skeptics Michael Crichton, Richard Lindzen, and Philip Stott. (Lindzen and Stott are respected scientists – it’s not clear what landed Crichton on the panel besides name recognition).

Lindzen is one of the most exalted and crotchety thorns still jabbing at climate science’s side. I’ve heard from casualties of his atmospheric physics classes that he’s a very difficult man to out-argue. Here’s hoping that the debate rises above bait-and-switch (i.e., “We’re not causing all of it, so we shouldn’t worry about it.). At the same time, here’s hoping it doesn’t sink so deeply into differential equations that we hear an entire TV nation simultaneously scratching its head.

Another of MIT’s esteemed climate scientists, Carl Wunsch, was the victim of severe mischaracterization on the UK’s Channel 4 program “The Great Global Warming Swindle” last week. Wunsch thinks that climate change is real and dangerous, but wishes that people would stop proclaiming that the Gulf Stream is about to shut down. When he tried to say as much to Channel 4, he found himself edited down to a sound bite implying that human carbon emissions are inconsequential. You can find his side of the story at RealClimate as well as a copy of his politely irate e-mail to Channel 4.

And in today’s NYT, a plea for moderation on both sides. The story cites scientists unhappy with Al Gore’s stark assessment who still think society needs to be taking strong steps.

The trouble is that moderation is not a very good spur to action, as well-meaning RealClimate reader “Colin” sweetly illustrated:

I have no idea where the truth lies in any of this, but I come down on the sceptic side, because I believe if there really was a problem, the government would, as an example, drop VAT to zero on all energy efficient goods, cars etc, to encourage the masses to buy items that are good for the environment.

He continued:

Could all you climate scientologist answer me a few questions? Why can’t all you people who really know get together and present a totally unbiased and impartial, scientific paper on what is really happening, declaring all sources of funding etc?

Sounds like the IPCC report to me. Still, I like this comment, because it demonstrates that people actually do expect government to act in our best interests. Trouble is, that means government inaction is sort of implicit evidence that things aren’t as bad as they sound.

In that case, Gore’s conviction that people need to be shocked into taking matters into their own hands sounds like wisdom. But how do you square that with science’s tradition of careful analysis and understatement? Good luck to Somerville, Ekwurzel, and Schmidt.

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Ripples of excitement and indignation are spreading across the Internet following the releases of a deliberately provocative TV show and well-timed book. Both chalk up climate change to natural causes such as cosmic rays. Science aside, the ripples show us something about the public’s level of scientific involvement.

The book, by Nigel Calder and Henrik Svensmark, suggests that cosmic rays – not carbon dioxide – are responsible for changes in the Earth’s temperature. The argument is that cosmic rays bombard the atmosphere with high-energy particles that induce cloud formation. Clouds reflect sunlight, so when the Earth gets more cosmic rays it’s likely to cool. Regardless of how big a carbon-dioxide blanket we may have thrown up into the atmosphere.

The folks at RealClimate do a pretty thorough job of countering this argument (briefly: no trend in cosmic-ray arrival over the last half-century; plenty of other causes of cloud formation; and the relationship holds only if you factor out upper- and middle-atmosphere clouds and concentrate on low clouds).
Still, read the comments on a BBC news blog for a glimpse of how the public feels. Comments are fairly equally divided between people who believe the IPCC and people who are still in denial. Many post long, impassioned treatises.

A few points recur:

1. as consensus about climate change grows, skeptics take increasing pride in their position

2. arguments in favor of doing something about climate change are often emotional calls to restore dignity to the Earth – making them suspect in the eyes of skeptics, who see themselves as pragmatic and canny

3. all opponents are characterized as cherry-picking their examples

4. people seem to believe there is some simple way to present the evidence, and they don’t understand why it hasn’t been made available

5. people don’t believe they misunderstand the science; they believe the media has misrepresented it

It’s science’s very democratic nature that’s at fault here. The public does at least understand that science is an ongoing argument and that the truth can be arrived at by level-headed inspection of the evidence. The problem seems to be that people don’t expect the evidence to be so complicated.

When a pattern is presented simply – like the hockey stick graph – some people get the nagging sense it has been manipulated to look that way. Explanations for why data manipulations are justifiable lead back to the complaint that it shouldn’t be so complicated and that the real, simple answer is being concealed. Even worse – bogus manipulations can be camouflaged in similar justifications, leaving the rest of us at a loss for whom to believe (skim the RealClimate article for a typically bewildering example).

I suppose we can take some comfort that the public is so clearly interested in this sort of science. But I’m disturbed by the way science-journalism-for-profit finds itself at odds with their readers’ best interests. A Danish professor bubbling with enthusiasm for cosmic rays is a quaint news story. It’s not right to present it as a nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change, just to increase circulation. Nigel Calder, as a past editor of New Scientist, ought to know better.

Sadly, capitalism seems to have won out already: Amazon suggests five similar titles that, for between $11 and $33 (eligible for free shipping) will reassure you that global warming isn’t your fault, and it’s everybody else who’s crazy.

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***Warning to science-y readers: this is a science-free post***

**Except for the large slide rule and the paleoceanographer**

*And the parakeets*

Last week, the Scribbler E.U. Tour took England by storm. To save you busy people some time, my 20,000 word write-up has been condensed using the well known words-pictures relationship. These were the highlights:

white_tower.jpg spamalot.jpg Seeing the Tower of London and Spamalot the same day.

parakeets.jpg parakeets_detail.jpg Wild rose-ringed parakeets in Hyde Park drinking from puddles in the sycamores. Here’s a view through the Scribbler’s binoculars.

jackdaw.jpg Sort of a cross between a crow and a chimney-sweep, jackdaws are delightful and spiffy.

chalk.jpg The deep low tides that arrive on a full moon are always a spectacle. Even more so when the reef is made of the same bright chalk as the cliffs.

fishnchips.jpg Fish-n-chips as they were meant to be: wrapped in paper, drenched in vinegar, and eaten on a pier. Note this expert’s consistently flawless fried-food-munching technique: (compare with Twinkie).

channel.jpg feetinchannel.jpg Sticking my feet in the English Channel for the first time in 27 years. Wasn’t much warmer than last time.

slides.jpg An art gallery (the Tate Modern) with five-story slides you can ride.

nathistory.jpg nathistory_pterano.jpg nathistory_jackal.jpg The incredible architecture at the Natural History Museum. All three pictures were taken from the same spot; the detail views are from “digiscoping” – pointing the ScribbleCam through the ScribbleBinos. The jackal (right) is sitting at far upper right in the first photo.

sliderule.jpg At the Science Museum, a 21st-century paleoceanographer confronts a slide rule.

ginandbeer.jpg Pints for two pounds fifty are a steal, but the exchange rate is a bit shocking.

abseil.jpg Thrill-seeking: a gear-free abseil on a braided hemp rope down a sheer mud precipice. Admittedly, it was 10 feet high and I was following a fearless 12-year-old in pink wellies (Lydia Visick).

joesbird.jpg My first-cousin-once-removed, Joe Visick (age 7), sketches marvelous birds using something of an Edward Gorey approach.

downs.jpg birlinggap.jpg Beautiful English spring weather makes Bremen (rhymes with “rainin'”) hard to come back to. (First picture, right to left: 21st-century paleoceanographer Mea Cook; writer-photographer-cousin David Visick; musician-of-note Marko Packard)

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