Category Archives: nature

The last blooms

Flowers won’t be blooming too much longer where I live. This late in the season a frost could do them in at any time. I find myself looking more closely in October than in, say, July, when the summer still seems endless. When you feel the nights growing colder, you know it’s time to enjoy the season before it changes.


Count the turtles

Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska, April 20, 2014

Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska, April 20, 2014

Spring is here, at least where I live. I drifted in my kayak closer and closer to these turtles but they didn’t move, even when I was practically on top of them.

Do yourself a favor and get outdoors. There’s so much going on this time of year, but you have to get out there and look for it. It’s amazing how much fun you can have at a city park with an inflatable kayak and a point-and-shoot camera.

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Waldo, it’s not all about us: Where Emerson’s “Nature” goes wrong

bald eagle

Bald eagle, via Wikipedia

I want to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1836 essay, “Nature,” and why one of its central ideas is dead wrong, but first I’m going to tell a true story about a bald eagle. The two thoughts are related.

A long time ago when I was still in school, I was at a religious retreat when someone from the church brought a live bald eagle for us to look at. As I recall, this person volunteered at some wildlife rescue organization. The eagle had been injured and was no longer able to fly. This was back before the bald eagle population had recovered from the effects of DDT. This was only the second one I had seen; I wouldn’t see one in the wild for another decade. The bird was wary but not agitated, and we all kept a respectful distance.

I remember that it was obvious to me at the time that the man had no particular reason to show us this bird. It was just something he wanted to do. But we were at a church retreat, and a pretty conservative church at that, and so after telling us about the species, he made several analogies to spiritual subjects and basically wrapped the whole thing into a Sunday School lesson. He probably even quoted the “They will soar on wings like eagles” verse from Isaiah.

He ended his talk this way, I think, out of some sense of moral or spiritual obligation. The eagle wasn’t allowed simply to be a wonderful being in and of itself. To be truly worthwhile it had to represent something higher, something abstract. Even at the time, that bothered me. Continue reading

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).

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).

“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.

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

Singapore’s mechanical forest

This opened a year ago, but I only just learned of it via Science Dump. Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay park, which includes some 220,000 species of plants from around the world, added these massive “supertrees” and connecting walkways. In addition to how cool they look, the mechanical trees, which stand as tall as 50 meters (and which are home to many real plants), “provide ventilation ductwork, rainwater collection and generate solar power which provides lighting to the various conservatories below.”

Gardens by the Bay is part of Singapore’s larger plan to improve quality of life through more greenery in the city. Having never been there I can’t say how extensive or successful this plan is, but when I saw the pictures I wondered if this is a peek at what cities of the future might look like. Maybe the people will look back at our mostly barren concrete-and-steel cities with the same dismay that we feel about the grim, filthy, and soot-blackened cities of the Industrial Revolution. Our descendants may lump us in with the pioneering generations of urban dwellers, back when the human race was just beginning to learn the basics of urban living.

More photos and video here.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Writers often create worlds for the reader to inhabit. Nonfiction can do this as well as fiction. The only requirement is that the writing be vivid.

In this poem, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) does this, but does something else as well. More about that below. First, here is the poem itself:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Continue reading

Math geek as artist: Robert Lang’s origami

Robert Lang at work on an American flag. Via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a fascinating little video, plus some additional thoughts about art, science, and creativity below. This is so much more than folding little paper cranes. Robert Lang talks about the intersection of art and mathematics, and shows how “problems that you solve for aesthetic value only, turn out to have an application in the real world.” Not to mention some mind-blowing designs.

Lang’s eighteen-minute TED talk is fast paced, lively, and funny. Here are some highlights: Continue reading

On Middle Creek, moving slow

Middle Creek photo

Middle Creek, above Pawnee Lake, Nebraska, June 1, 2013.

Reach ahead gently with the paddle and draw it back slowly, a good long stroke, and you’ll keep the kayak moving with very little noise. Just a steady dip, dip, dip of the paddle blades, and the boat itself glides silently across the still water. Continue reading