Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Sound of Silence

While I enjoy a little silence now and then, like when I stand still in a snow covered field on a winter's night, I also enjoy the sound of snowshoes as they crunch crunch crunch their way around a frozen field.

I enjoy the silence as I stare through the eyepiece of a telescope and I enjoy the noise of barred owls calling and coyotes howling as I peer at the stars.

While I enjoy the soundtrack, silence can be thought of as the true sound of space. In the vacuum of space, sound waves cannot travel so silence rules the day.

That's why I was happy when the firefly class ship Serenity silently glided past Reaver ships in the movie Serenity. I'm a science geek at heart and I like my space scenes quiet.

All is not lost though for those who like sounds. We live in a universe of vibrations. More and more, little bits of information come across my desk that have to do with sounds in space. One of the reasons space can seem so cold and boring is that much of it is cold and boring. Sounds excite us.

So, in an effort to make space a little more exciting here are some sounds from space. This is a new field so the offerings are a little meager but keep in mind the first recordings on earth weren't real exciting either.

The first sounds from space I ever heard were pulsars. A pattern will become clear soon that all of these sounds are a bit of a tease. You can't really "hear" a pulsar. These are radio waves emitted by spinning stars. A computer turns them into sound for us. I heard sounds like these on TV shows about space as a child and thousands of people heard them in the movie Contact when Jody Foster's character thinks one might be an alien signal early on in the film. In fact, the one linked above sounds a bit like the one in the movie. She says it is J1741+2748 which isn't a real pulsar.

It was years until I heard another sound from space. It was the cassini spacecraft traveling through Saturn's rings. The accompanying animation gives some nice perspective. Millions of tiny particles hit the high gain antenna creating puffs of superheated plasma that the Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument recorded.

The Cassini spacecraft collected these bizarre radio waves near Jupiter. They sounds like birds. This is an example of a chorus sound caused by radiation belt electrons in a planet's upper atmosphere.

Cassini also recorded the sound of auroras at Saturn.

Check out these weird radio emissions the Galileo spacecraft gathered from Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede.

This Sound from the Dynamics Explorer Spacecraft that sounds a lot like a transmission from Reavers in the movie Serenity. (Keep in mind this is essentially a sound that the earth makes. Perhaps fitting.)

Here's the sound of the Voyageur 1 spacecraft hitting Jupiter's bowshock. I like the sound of this one. If you want an explaination look here. Keep in mind this is an audio representation of data. This one is cool though because the waves are technically in the audible range so this is closer to actual "sound."

Last two sounds. How about the Big Bang? Or did it sound like this? Technicaly this is the sound of the universe cooling just after the big bang.

The other day I stumbled upon the Planetary Society website and saw that they are attempting to send an actual audio recorder to mars. Now we're talking. Real sound! Unfortunately, they put the recorder on the polar lander which crashed. Now that would have been a sound to record!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Seasons Spinnig 'Round Again

I actually wrote this up last year but the beautiful thing about the Earth is that it keep on spinning. As Harry Chapin used to sing:

All my life's a circle;
Sunrise and sundown;
Moon rolls thru the nighttime;
Till the daybreak comes around.

All my life's a circle;
But I can't tell you why;
Season's spinning round again;
The years keep rollin' by.

Last year someone asked me an interesting question. "Does the amount of darkness at the solstice change from year to year at a given latitude?" As far as I can tell, it doesn't. At least not in a scientifically significant way.

What is interesting though is that I came upon an another phenomenon. In our hemisphere, we all know that on or around December 21st the winter solstice arrives and we have the smallest amount of daylight in the year. The sun appears to stand still thus, "sol-stice." On this date the sun ceases to creep around the horizon and begins moving the other way.

Most people assume this means this is the day of the latest sunrise and earliest sunset. Here's the catch though, the earliest sunset is not on the solstice and neither is the latest sunrise! The date of the earliest sunset is actually December 9th (at least at my latitude) while the date of the latest sunrise is something like January 5th. The solstice falls in between and it is neither the day with the latest sunrise nor the earliest sun set.

It is, however, the day with the least total amount of light and the most darkness. These "days of darkness" between earliest sunset and latest sunrise change based on latitude. Here in Minnesota that means that we officially entered the days of darkness Wednesday, December 8th at sunset. The were then 12 days of darkness until the solstice which was day 13.

So, the good news is that the sun is now setting later and later starting today giving us more evening light. (Though technically we're talking a matter of seconds here so don't expect any visible change!) The bad news is that the sun will keep on rising later, giving us more morning darkness, until around January 4th!

You can dissect the nuts and bolts of why this phenomenon by reading this article by the astronomical applications department of the US naval observatory.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I like Science

I like science. I always have. I dug Don Herbert a.k.a. Mr. Wizard. While my brother's childhood birthday gifts consisted of books on greek mythology I was always delighted to receive books such as, How things Work, Why Clocks Run Clockwise, and Mr. Wizard's Supermarket Science.

These two realms, mythology and science are both ontological and epistemological in nature. They seek to discover or reveal both the nature of existence and the nature of how we know what we know. Humans are fascinated with these questions.

Both science and religion/mythology seek to help us understand. Some people chose to have both science and religion in their lives, while other people, like me, find them incompatible. If people want to believe in something fundamentally unverifiable, they have every right to do so. This is what faith is all about.

What frightens me is that religion, specifically Christianity in America, is having a crisis of faith. The consequence of this crisis of faith is lashing out at science. When science brings forth good evidence that contradicts what a religion has taught, the religious should, in my humble opinion, take one of two courses of action.

1. They can adapt their beliefs to fit in with the new understanding. or
2. They can rely on faith and remain unchanged in their beliefs.

When it became clear that the Earth went around the Sun (not the other way around,) religious people realized that they needed to change their view. This really didn't hurt their core religious beliefs since there is no chapter in the Bible that says, "I am your Lord God, I made the Earth go around the Sun." In fact, the realization that the Earth goes around the Sun strengthened many people religious convictions since, as it didn't require epicycles it made more sense and is, in many ways more "perfect" than the Sun going around the Earth.

Option 2: Relying on Faith comes into play when we examine stories such as Jesus walking on water. This flies in the face of science but most Christians would simply say they believe the story as a matter of faith. Enough said. They don't need science to prove how he did it.

The problem is that there is an increasing number of religious people, and not just fundies and zealots anymore, who want a third option. When science challenges them they do not want to change their beliefs or simply rely on their faith, they want to change science. There have always been those who want this option but it is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of science in the first place. Just ask Giordano Bruno.

A strange email came my way though that gave me pause for several reasons. It referenced an article titled, "No NASA Millions for Irate Russian Astrologer."

Astrology, that kookie cousin to the real science Astronomy is a religion. Here is a case of a religion trying to stop science because of a conflict in belief. The astrologer claimed that NASA's Deep Impact mission, crashing a probe into a comet, was upsetting the balance of the universe. Okay, okay so it's probably just a case of a scam artist trying to make money but follow me here.

I find this reprehensible. The idea that a faith based belief system could even try to hold sway over science makes my skin crawl. Then again, science does not occur in a vacuum. Yes, it does in space but let's regress. Science is done by humans for the benefit of humans. As such, the values of humans must come into play. Science can allow us to do many things that we as humans find undesirable. I have argued against the destruction of the environment or the use of bioengeneering but are those just personal values getting in the way of the progress of science?


Values can be informed in two ways. One is belief and the other is science.

It is easy for people to assume that the environmental movement is based on the belief that things are better a certain way but this is not the case. Environmental education and environmental action are based on science.

I can, and should, use beliefs informed by science to question both the assumed knowledge of science and the practical application thereof. Religion, strictly speaking a belief system, will always be of use to question the application of science in a society dominated by people with religious beliefs. However, religion should not be used to challenge the basis of science.

The Russian astrologer is challenging the application of science not the basis of science and for that I'm relieved.

She's still a nut.

The funny thing is, there are Christians who look at her and think she's crazy for believing things we can can see and measure affect our lives but they think nothing of citing the will of an invisible god when some madman enters a church and kills people.

I'll end this huge post with a quote from Stephen F. Roberts.

"I contend we are both Atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours."


Friday, December 09, 2005

Great Ball of Fire

I fell in to a burning ball of fire . . .

Check out this video of a huge fireball over Western Australia. Sorry it is a .ram file. You'll need the Real Player to view it.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Jack's Promiscuous Sister

Jack Frost has a promiscuous sister. Hoar Frost. Okay, terrible joke but that time of year has arrived. Hoar frost appeared overnight and it was beautiful. It wasn't a total cover but pretty good. At work it was only the tree tops so no pretty pictures to post. Hoar means hairy, thus we end up with plants called Hoary Puccoon. Hoar frost is a hairy like covering that appears on trees, grasses, fences, and phone lines overnight. Think of it as the winter version of dew. Okay, I admit, the winter version of dew is rime ice but gimme a break.

Supersaturated air, i.e. more than 100% saturated with water, sublimates directly onto cold surfaces making beautiful crystaline structures. Later in the day the wind can blow hoar frost off the trees and make it look like it is snowing. The "snowflakes" in the photo above are actually "hoarflakes" I caught as they fell from the tops of the trees. The featherlike structure was amazing. The photo really doesn't do it justice since the camera is terrible at macro shots.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Remembering Autumn

I took this photo at work back in October. How I miss those fall colors. Winter grips the land and I either need to stop complaining or gear up and get out into it to enjoy the marvels of winter. Autumn is my favorite though.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

And Starts

Ok so now the snow has returned just a few days later. We will didn't get nailed though. Maybe three inches at the most. Very pretty but not enough to snowshoe. I hope it isn't another of those pathetic winters.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Fits and starts

On Saturday morning snow fell on the ground and kept falling. I'd say we had three inches and it looked like it was going to stick until a warm front blew through on Sunday. By sundown on Sunday every flake melted and the lawn looked lush and green.

Happy birthday to me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Not a lot of time to write here but thought I should note that I saw 14 trumpeter swans on Mays Lake today at work. They were fantastic.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Winter Won't Come

This autumn has been strange in that it has lasted so long. Beautiful. Two days ago I looked in the phenology book for Nov. 7th in 2003. It was 13 degrees out and ponds had frozen over. On Nov. 7 this year it was 60 degrees out. What a difference.

Yesterday, strong winds blew all day and whipped up twenty foot waves on lake superior. Overnight, the temperature dropped to twenty five degrees. Some small ponds iced over last night. It was the first time this year. We're getting closer to that 13 degree weather. The experience of place, the phenomenon of weather and seasons can be so, well, phenomenal. When this day began it was just 25 degrees out and by the end of the work day the mercury reached over fifty degrees. How long can these warm peaks last before winter's hand pushed down firmly from the north?


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Busy Beavers

The beavers have been busy at work this year. I've been here for four years and only seen beaver lodges, not dams. I often have to explain the difference to people. Beaver dams block up water and create beaver ponds where beavers then create round lodges where they live.

Beavers do not live in beaver dams.

The lake at work, Terrapin Lake, is a large body of water with several beaver lodges. The beavers were reintroduced to the Wilder/Warner 2000 acres back in the 1960. They haven't built any dams on the property since the early 1980s. There was a drought at the time and sinking water levels forced them to build a dam in "the narrows" between Terrapin and Mays lakes.

For the first time in twenty years there is again a dam in the narrows. I first spotted it toward the end of the summer. At first it was just some rocks ad a couple of sticks. I wasn't sure it it was just some kids playing around. Over the next few weeks the dam grew. The two foot high dam is constructed of small branches, mud, rushes and even baseball size stones.

It is easy to say that sinking water levels in Terrapin spurred the building but there is more to the story. A former naturalist who lives in the area told me that beavers near long lake have plugged up the Brown family creek with a small dam. This has prevented water from reaching Terrapin. So, a lack of rain lowered water levels in Long Lake and beavers responded with a dam to keep the remaining water from draining into Terrapin. Alarmed by the lack of water in Terrapin, beavers there have blocked water from draining into Mays lake. Imagine the beavers in Mays lake are madly searching for a spot to build a dam as well.

The narrows dam has paid off for the beavers. Water levels have remained high in terrapin lake while they have fallen in Mays lake. this means that when winter comes the entrance to the lodges will be safely underwater where the beavers need them.

The dam is now roughly two feet high. I wasn't all that impressed until I did some quick math. Let's assume Terrapin lake is on average 396 feet wide (okay, so I cracked out a map and ruler here) and that the length of all the bays added together equals 11,276 feet. That gives a surface area of 4,861,296 feet. Almost five million square feet is pretty good size! Now, we need to know how many gallons per cubic foot of water. There are about 7.48 gallons of water per cubic foot. If the dam has held lake levels one foot higher than we can say Terrapin has 4,861,296 cubic feet more water then it would without the dam. Multiply by 7.48 and we get 363,624.900 gallons of water!

But wait, the dam is two feet high so double that to 727,249,900 gallons of water that this tiny dam is holding back. That's almost three quarters of a billion gallons!

Now I'm impressed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Apple and the Fall

When fall comes I naturally think of apples. I attended an apple program by fellow naturalist Kristi this past weekend. She asked, "Where did the apple come from?" to which someone offered up, "The Garden of Eden."

This can be a nightmare situation for a naturalist. It depends on the audience. Kristi explained that wasn't the answer she was looking for and went on to tell how the original apples came from Kazakhstan. So, unless you're thinking the garden of eden was in Kazakhstan....

I've gotten similar answers from groups before such as:

Kirk: "Does anyone know why the sky appears blue?"
Student: "Because God made it that way."
Kirk: Well actually, it has to do with the way light scatters."
Student: "Well, that's not what my mom told me!"

I love it when parent's don't bother to find the answers to tough questions and then give the God answer. Why is the sky blue? Because god made it that way. Why do clocks go clockwise. Because God made them that way. Why does it rain? Because angels are crying. It's even worse when parents get on the school board and want their guesses to be in the curriculum.

This makes my life so interesting. What's the best way to tell a kid his parents are wrong?

It's not just answers but questions too. This summer a girl found out I teach a fossil class. "Wow!" she said. "Do we get to find dinosaurs?" Not wanting to disappoint, I had to explain that we don't find dinosaurs around here. "Dinosaurs are only 65 million years old," I explained. "The animals we're going to look for are around 400 million years old! " I did my best to sound excited, after all, I'd rather be looking for dinosaurs too.

She thought ... and thought.

"How can we find things from 400 million years ago if the earth is only 3000 years old?"

"Um, well, the Earth is older than that!"

"But the Bible says ..."

I educate. I teach science. I educate.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hello Autumn

Fall is coming. Okay, so fall's here technically. And I'm loving it! Cool days eating lunch out on the deck. The crisp tart crunch of a good apple. This is the season I live for (pardon the participle.)


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Where Bears Belong

Today is a day for blogging.

On the way to work today I heard on the news that a black bear that had been wandering around the northern suburbs and sleeping in trees was shot by a conservation officer. What I found most disturbing was the quote from the officer. ""We wanted to let him go back where he belongs, but he kept moving further south on us,'' said John Hunt, DNR East Metro supervisor.

Yes, that's right. "Where he belongs." Clearly wild animals have no place with humans. Nature is all great when it does what we tell it to. Listen, if the bear was in Roseville or White Bear Lake then that is where it belongs. I don't move to Duluth and then go, "Oh my! There are BEARS here? Let's kill them all. I mean, I LIVE here!"

They decided to kill the bear (instead of moving it) because it had no fear of humans. Yes, yes, we like to kill animals that don't fear us eh? Nature is all good as long as we can control it.

Mark LaBarbera, DNR director of communications, elaborated, "We gave him five days to leave, and he just wouldn't. It's crazy he stayed around.''

Crazy indeed.


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Musing at Hegman

I was in Ely this president's day weekend. Chelsey and I met up with some friends to rent a cabin and go cross country skiing. The first day we went into Hegman lake and saw the pictographs.

We had a lot of fun guessing what they mean. The main debate in our group seemed to be whether it was someone bragging about a moose they saw or whether it was a bored person doing a drawing. I guess we'll never know.

The next night we found wolf tracks outside the sauna. If I had looked out the sauna window I would have seen a big wolf from about six feet away. Unfortunately I was choking on smoke as I was trying to get some really bad wood to light in the stove.

Oh well. It was a beautiful trip.


Friday, February 18, 2005

Birds and a Dead Virus

Today as I took out the trash I was greeted from the trees by a familiar call. I peered up to the top of a defoliated maple and spotted the muted winter colors of the cardinal. It seemed so out of place. I know they stay here all winter long but they do a good job of staying hidden. This morning, in the four degree weather, this cardinal was singing a hopeful spring song.

I wish I could be so cheerful. I got my flu shot yesterday in preparation for a late winter vacation and my body is not so happy about it. The flu virus they use is dead but my body hasn't caught on yet. I know that is the idea. The body reacts to the non-threat by making the appropriate antibodies. Thing is, my body is taking things a little too far. It has gone to defcon 2. It is 70 degrees in my office but I have the chills as a slight fever is creeping into my body. My muscles also have the dull ache of the early stages of the flu. It isn't supposed to go any further than this. Hopefully by the end of the day my body will wise up and ease off.

Bleh. I feel like l've been flogged with a wet noodle.


Thursday, February 17, 2005

First of 05

I haven't posted here in over two years! I've been busy working and writing. Plus the loss of the high speed connection at my old place of employment made it harder to get here.

I'm feeling good as I was just asked yesterday if I would like to write a regular column in the magazine The Interpreter. I've said yes so that should be a step in the right direction.

I just had a commnetary piece published by them in Volume 1, Issue 1. It is available here

I just sent off a feature length piece to the same magazine and last month I had a tasteful piece on scat published as well. Check it out.