Monthly Archives: October 2013

Most persons do not see the sun

sunset, Holmes Lake, NE

Sunset on Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska.

“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836).

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Seven ways Americans are insane

Nearly half of this blog’s readers live in countries other than the United States. Maybe you’re one of those and you’ve heard of the recent self-inflicted shutdown and near-default of the US federal government (as an attempt by Republicans to block a new law that expands health care coverage among this country’s fifty million uninsured). You may be wondering, “Are Americans out of their minds?” or, “How did the United States become the world’s most powerful country when so much of what it does seems so… dumb?”

As an American, I’ll try to sort things out for you (a very American thing to do). I mostly avoid politics on this blog, but since I deal a lot with curiosity and learning, I want to say something about the large number of my fellow citizens who seem to lack curiosity and avoid learning. I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations below — bear in mind that they don’t apply to all Americans all the time, but these things are common enough to get us in trouble: Continue reading

Cumulative curiosity

Galaxy Cluster Abell 520 (HST-CFHT-CXO Composite)

Galaxy Cluster Abell 520 (HST-CFHT-CXO Composite), seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis), and A. Mahdavi (San Francisco State University). hubblesite.org

“The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject . . . And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them . . . Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate . . . Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.”

–Seneca, Natural Questions, Book 7, first century (quoted in Carl Sagan, Cosmos)

I love this quote. To me there’s a thrill in reading words from so long ago from a person who could look beyond his own time and comprehend something about the nature of knowledge and cumulative curiosity. His statement is as true and timely today as it was two thousand years ago.

Columbus Day: How to distort the past without actually lying

Replicas of Columbus’s ships at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Via Wikipedia

Columbus Day is a US holiday which is celebrated with annual arguments about the propriety of honoring Christopher Columbus with a holiday. The atrocities that he and his men committed are so well documented that you’d think it would be impossible to defend the man, but people are still doing it. Today’s post isn’t about Columbus so much as it’s about how to defend Columbus (not that I’m defending him). There’s an important lesson here about history and about the way we talk about history. Continue reading

How do you make a really big dinosaur?

Euhelopus, showing the elevated neck posture. Art by DiBgd, image from Wikipedia.

Euhelopus, showing the elevated neck posture. Art by DiBgd, image from Wikipedia.

To me, one of the best ways to read about science isn’t to read about what they know, but to read about what they’re trying to figure out.

We all grew up with pictures like this — unbelievably huge dinosaurs with impossibly long necks. For a kid, a big part of the attractiveness of dinosaurs is their sheer bigness. Not all dinosaurs were large, of course, but from a kid’s perspective, the bigger and weirder the better.

One thing I never considered is how the biology actually works at that size. There’s a problem of scale. If you’re trying to pump blood from a heart up the fifty-foot neck of a Supersaurus, wouldn’t you have to have a massive heart, incredibly high blood pressure, or maybe some sort of auxiliary pumping mechanism to make it work?

Turns out, paleontologists have a lot to say about this. It’s a mystery they haven’t quite unraveled yet. A few months ago Brian Switek posted a fascinating article about this at his “Laelaps” blog at National Geographic. I’ve been meaning to post about it ever since. Continue reading

Fact

factI have some relatives who like to express their opinions by re-posting labeled photos on Facebook. So I made one of my own, using their working definition of “fact,” and borrowing a photo of a TV personality who apparently uses the same definition.