Saturday, January 30, 2010

Read Your Own Stuff, Joe....

In my last post about the great meeting in Chico I paraphrased Galileo. Now, embarrassed to discover that I included the actual quote in my January 10 post. It's much more eloquent than my recent paraphrase. Please go back and read it. I am still angry over what happened to Galileo.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Making the World Safe for Atheists

Last Monday afternoon my 15-year-old son Ryan and I drove down the tremendous Feather River Canyon to Chico to see the great biologist/blogger PZ Myers at a small gathering arranged by the Skeptical Students Alliance. PZ is a professor at U Minn at Morris and his blog Pharyngula is an important [I believe] collection of science news, humor, and ammunition for people who believe in quality science education in the battle(s) to keep religion out of science classrooms and politics. It is embarrassing to me that only about 40% of Americans accept the fact of evolution. The great scientist Charles Darwin who developed the theory of natural selection as a giant step toward understanding evolution once said "all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service." [ I got that quote off PZ's blog.] As a naturalist, I think virtually all my observations in nature support the fact of evolution.
PZ had been touring California for a week, speaking at a different college every day, by the time he arrived in Chico Monday afternoon. My son and I drove through the Canyon in a driving rain, and during one pee stop got this photo of a beautiful geologic phenomenon around 15 miles west of the Greenville Y. It was a reminder of the incredible dynamics going on beneath us all the time. Also, it provides habitat for all sorts of interesting microorganisms, extremophiles, conjuring up images of what the first life on Earth might have been like.
We arrived at the Graduate by 4:00. It was a noisy restaurant/pool hall/bar that many college students must love, but, for my tastes, not a great place to host a distinguished scholar. We enjoyed it anyway, straining to hear PZ's answers to the many questions posed by the group, all of whom were obviously quite familiar with his blog.
While PZ is an "out" atheist, and he has a book about atheism coming out soon, his crusade [probably not the best term here] has to do with fighting off the agressive attempts by religious fundamentalists to promote "alternative theories" to the modern theory of evolution when there aren't any. Manufacturing new terms - first creation science, then intelligent design - to masquerade religion as science and fighting for "equal time" in science classrooms has the intended effect of interrupting science education. Intelligent Design is not a theory, it is a religious belief. PZ believes science educators need to do a much better job of teaching students what a theory actually is, and that science is based on evidence. Scientific theories must be testable and capable of being proven wrong. It's a huge subject, and very important. For beginners, check out Pharyngula. Also, there's a blog called Halfway There written by a math professor who saw a couple of PZ's talks and posted transcripts.
I write about the event and the issue here because they greatly impact thesubject of natural history. Soon, I will be posting an essay I'm calling The History of Natural History. In a nutshell, most naturalists a couple of hundred years ago were creationists and used traps and shotguns to gather lots of specimens. Then, over time, Darwin's theory was accepted by virtually all biological scientists and naturalists and the shotgun gave way to the camera and field journal. Natural historians came to see themselves as an integral part of nature rather than as detached observers. Progress? I think so.
I'll finish this with my favorite quote from Galileo (paraphrased) "I cannot believe that a god would give us the faculty for thinking then forbid us to use it." Oh, the middle photo, taken by my son, shows PZ Myers on the right, eating a hamburger, and me on the left, eating a gardenburger, and the president of the students' club (didn't get his name) in the middle.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Happy Fellow at Oakland Feather River Camp

I hope I see him there again this spring.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Try Out Quincy Writers Group

I just inadvertently posted today's message on the other Blog I participate in. So, rather than retype the whole thing,let me introduce you to another BLOG. Try My statement is rather political and angry, but my next post here will be a happy one with photos. I promise.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Yippee! It's Spring!

Well, not really. But it's been so warm in Quincy these past few weeks, it might as well be spring. The snow has melted at this elevation, green grass is showing through, ferns and mosses are looking very green, and Monday, I'm driving down to Table Mountain with my camera. Down there, it really is spring. They skip winter there. So, let me enjoy these feelings for another couple of days. We're getting reports that El Nino is going to dump snow on us for a week or more, beginning Sunday. I'll believe it when I see it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bring Back Apathy!

I just did a little investigation of the etymology of the word "apathy" and decided we need more of it! It was only around the 1730's that the word acquired its current negative connotation of being lazy or uncaring. Originally it meant simply "without suffering" or "without disease."

Reminds me of another word which did a flip-flop. Terrific - same root as terrify, as in frightening. Used to mean scary, but now means wonderful, although one could describe a terrific storm as well as a terrific painting. Curious.

What a terrific dress you're wearing!

Wouldn't it be terrific to be afflicted with apathy? On rainy days, I investigate these kinds of things. Check out the relationship between hysterical and hysterectomy. Crazy.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What makes a naturalist?

When I saw this beautiful beetle snooping around on one of my favorite flowers, I thought of Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern classification system we still use for living organisms. Linnaeus was a creationist, like most people in his time, and he undoubtedly would have seen the relationship between the beetle and the plant [if, in fact, he saw a relationship at all] as evidence for the awesome creativity of God. To Charles Darwin, who came along in the next century, it would have been cause for curiosity. He soon hypothesized that flowers and pollinators evolved together [co-evolved] into some remarkable relationships. In fact, after seeing many different species of columbine being pollinated by insects or hummingbirds whose probosci perfectly matched the size of the tubular petals of the flowers, enabling them to reach the nectar at their bottoms, meanwhile carrying the rubbed-off pollen to yet other flowers, he encountered a species of columbine with 6"-long tubes. He hypothesized that there existed a hummingbird with a bill just that length. Indeed, many years later such a bird was discovered and it turned out to be a pollinator of that species of columbine, thus demonstrating the power of evolutionary theory to predict.

Biologist Richard Dawkins, who is quite familiar with the works of Linnaeus and Darwin, is clearly partial to the approach of Darwin. He has said, "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." On the other hand, was it Benjamin Franklin who said, "Curiosity killed the cat?" I'll take my chances with curiosity. This past year, while photographing wildflowers, I came across many pollinators, or at least visitors, I had never seen before. I got lots of aesthetic pleasure from these discoveries, but also had my curiosity fired up many times.

Two quotes I have pondered while contemplating the many plant-animal partnerships I have seen: Wilson Heydt: "As soon as you are willing to discard observational data because it conflicts with religion, you are giving up any hope of understanding the universe," and Galileo: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use."

The endeavor called natural history has evolved, not only from a creationist perspective to one of investigation, but also from using the shotgun as a primary tool to using a camera.

Today's natural historian can learn a great deal from his/her own observations, but also has a greater opportunity than ever before to network with other naturalists/scientists, including ones who spend most of their time in the laboratory. For example, I just a read a report on the Science News website about a sea slug that eats marine algae. It incorporates the algal chloroplasts into its own body and then begins performing photosynthesis. This part of the story has been known for a while. However, the new breakthrough is the discovery that if the slug takes in and metabolizes enough chlorophyll it can begin to manufacture its own chlorophyll! This beautifully demonstrates the commonality of the metabolic pathways of all living things - we are certainly more closely related to chimpanzees than to algae, but we still have a lot in common with the algae. This is the sort of discovery that excites a naturalist, but might drive others a little bit crazy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Back to Nature

These images are candidates for a nature photography show I'm preparing. In this post I'll include catchy titles for the photos: from top to bottom, a.) making the best of a bad situation, b.) self portrait with dragonfly nymph, and c.) unlikely companions. Later, I'll compose a pretentious "artist's statement" about my photography. Truth be known, I just love seeing these critters, and I feel fortunate to have a pretty good camera and a pretty good eye for composition. I'm not a world-class photographer, by any means, but I know that to produce a "show" I need that pretentious artist's statement. Watch for it here. Meanwhile, get outside and enjoy coming across nature's wonders, and, by all means, encourage your kids to do the same. Get rid of the video games!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bridging the Gap - Maybe

Here are two photos of my son Ryan's hydrogen generator. He discovered that a mixture of lye and bits of aluminum [usually chopped up aluminum cans] will generate hydrogen gas. In fact, if you're not careful, you can generate enough heat to present a danger. Thus, he always has a cooling bucket of water nearby. The chemical reaction is happening in the Kleen Kanteen , the bottle of water in the middle prevents flame from backing up into the generator, and the "torch" is a piece of aluminum foil twisted around a pin to create a very small opening. The very tiny flame burns hot enough to make steel red hot - probably at least 2000 degrees. AS followers of this blog know, my first love is the life sciences - specifically, natural history, ecology, evolution....but my son's first love is in the physical sciences. To him, the subjects of these two photos are things of beauty. I can understand this, as I was inclined toward physics in high school. Howver, his "laboratory" in our garage, to me, represents a hazardous zone. He does love our cats and dogs and also has a good time accompanying me on flower and bug photography outings, but it is clearly the "Myth Busters" type of stuff that really floats his boat. I wonder if we'll ever meet in the middle. Maybe with his technology skills he'll someday help me make insect videos or time lapse videos of flowers blooming.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Random Memories of 2009

These photos are reminders of enjoyable "expeditions" taken in Plumas County during 2009. The western rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis, is a bit blurry because it was photographed in a very dark woods, necessitating a slow shutter speed, and I came within one stride of stepping on it when my wife yelled "snake!" I was undoubtedly shaking a bit when I pushed the shutter button. The goldenrod crab spider, white phase, has appeared in earlier posts in its yellow splendor. Turns out it can change between white and golden yellow, but not very fast. Recent studies indicate it may not serve as camouflage. A bright yellow one I posted earlier, against a white background flower, may have actually attracted its prey, a pollinator, by appearing to be a bright yellow flower. The teasle was photographed in a swampy place across the street from Quincy High School. It's a favorite spot of mine for wildflowers and bugs, and sometimes great waterfowl. The dried stalks are still standing and will probably last all winter. Last, the bloom of pitcher plant, AKA cobra lily, AKA Darlingtonia, photographed in spring in the Butterfly Valley botanical area, a great swampy area in the pine forest which is home to several species of carnivorous plants as well as hundreds of other species of wildflowers. Happy New Year.