Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dark Catharsis

I should be busy with my research right now, but I have not been able to concentrate.  As you might guess, I cannot reconcile why my country has chosen such a symbol of intolerance and greed to be president. 

For perspective, if I overheard a punk talking, even in a locker-room, about my niece using these words, “I moved on her like a bitch… when you’re a star you can do anything, whatever you want, grab em by the pussy”, I would warn them never to come near any of my family.  I’m a poor judge of character, so maybe if he was a smooth talker, he might convince me he was just joking.  Yet if I already knew he bullied kids at school, called girls that fought off his advance fat and ugly, paid kids to do his homework, and an exhaustive record of cheating others, the greasy sales pitch would only solidify my judgement. 

Instead 49.9% of voters want the same creep I wouldn’t let near my niece to be the most powerful
person on the planet.  The most cited reason for his support is the need to “shake things up”, and that this whiny playboy’s bullying tactics are just “clearing the air”.  The idea that a game show host style brashness and a savvy for luxury real-estate qualifies as leadership, while ignoring fundamental character flaws is why the only newspaper in the country to endorse him goes by the moniker “Sin City”.  It is difficult to believe that even deeply conservative newspapers have such a bias that they cannot see the virtue in such a shallow character. 

I do not understand the willingness to disregard those warnings and the moral ambiguity to dismiss the hateful rhetoric as “locker-talk” or “keeping it real”.  I can only question the lapse of judgement that brought us to this moment, and it leaves me with a sense lasting distrust.  Of all the campaigns I’ve experienced, this one reached new lows in the treatment and respect we have for each other.  The wound is raw and I fear it’s infected. 

Aside from the obvious and well-founded concerns most people around the world have about the character of our playboy president-elect, the personal pain for me goes beyond this.  The 100 day fast-track plan has many items that are deeply concerning to me, but #2 on the list affects my own dreams directly - to work for the National Park Service.  The only new federal jobs over the next 4 years will be for the military and attrition will shrink all other departments. 

At my house, I leave the chimney uncapped.  This allows the migrating chimney swifts to raise their family there each spring.  They circle our house each morning and evening and their bright calls can drown out the din of the city.  That such a tiny bird can migrate each year to Argentina and somehow know how to navigate across the ever-increasing sprawl of urban and agriculture is amazing to me.  Unfortunately, they do not earn income or pay taxes, therefore they have no perceived value in Trump’s plan (despite the fact he also does not pay taxes).   Maybe one of the fledglings this year ate a mosquito that could’ve trigged a Zika outbreak near my home and saved many lives.  Maybe it didn’t.  It does not matter to men who value gold-plated toilets in luxury hotels. 

Our wildlife refuges, forests, parks and other natural areas are already being attacked, exploited, and sold.  Agencies needed to protect both our health and the economy will shrink drastically, and science needed to monitor them will be cancelled.  Our own health and security is at risk, as agencies such as the EPA that track lead and mercury in our water supplies will be abolished, and other agencies that interfere with profits, such as the SEC, will be sharply curtailed. 

There are many more grave concerns in just the first 100 day plan, so I will spend the next few months writing about some of them with a constructive perspective.  Yet I feel so sad that nearly half of my country is only concerned about short term gains regardless of long term consequences to our economy, health, and God’s creation that we selfishly exploit.  

If my soul had a vagina, I feel like it was just grabbed it with cold, greasy fingers and half of my country cheered as the light in me faded.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Bottom of the 9th

I recall as a kid in elementary school a special presentation in the cafeteria during lunch.  Someone from the Johnson Space Center gave a talk about Voyager passing by Jupiter.  The slide that showed the relative size of earth next to the image from Jupiter was stunning.  The volcanoes on Io were also amazing.  It was huge.

Then Voyager 2 went on to complete the Grand Tour, a voyage of discovery likely never to be repeated in our solar system. Voyager 2 zoomed past Saturn the following year in 1980.  I was in high school by the time Voyager 2 flew past Uranus.  I was in college when she sailed by Neptune.  That was a quarter century ago and those brief encounters are still all we have of 2 of our largest planets.  At that time, the internet as we know it did not yet exist, so it was often months before a decent image could be seen in a magazine and over a year before interesting discoveries discussed.

What was missing in the Grand Tour was a visit to the 9th planet: Pluto.  This is because Pluto has a strange orbit and it was too difficult to change Voyager 2's trajectory to reach it.  Pluto orbits so far away from the sun it takes 248 years to complete 1 orbit.  It was discovered during late spring-time 85 years ago, and now Pluto is just entering fall!

Pluto is known to have an atmosphere, and calculations made it seem possible that during winter the planet would get so far from the sun that the entire atmosphere would freeze onto the surface.  That was one reason why there was a rush to send a spaceship out to photograph the planet while the atmosphere, surface, and amount of sunlight were all optimal.  Missing this window would mean waiting 180 years to try again!  Fortunately, NASA was up to the now-or-practically-never challenge. The Pluto Fast Flyby was proposed in 1992,  but it was 10 years later when a mission was proposed that had the right amount of science for the right cost.  New Horizons was launched in 2006.  Even as the fastest spacecraft ever launched, it still takes a Jupiter assist and 9 years of waiting.,,,

But here we are!  The doorstep of Pluto is already beginning to reveal its secrets and the flyby next week will finally finish what we started.  Pluto may have changed its status from Planet to Dwarf, but in many ways Pluto is in a class of its own.  It is sometimes called King of the Trans-Neptunian Objects, although Eris is larger.  However, Pluto is unique in that it is our only known double-planet system; Charon is so large and close to Pluto, that the two orbit around a barycenter that is outside the radius of Pluto... they orbit empty space.  Even more cool, Charon and Pluto may share an atmosphere, at least part of the time.

There are sure to be many more exciting space missions, some that have the potential to really shake things up (lets get to Europa already!!).  But finally getting to see a map of Pluto is for me the finale of the original foray into our backyard.

Try downloading Eyes on the Solar System and virtually fly along with New Horizons as she speeds past Pluto and beyond.  The preview mode is pretty cool, and its the next best thing to waiting 5 hours for the radio signal to reach home.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Endangered Species Day

Wow - another year has passed!

David Starovoytov, 6th, Margaryta Chaplinska Art Studio, CA
Kentucky arrow darter: credit David Starovoytov
I hope everyone celebrated Endangered Species Day by learning and helping the rare living things in our world.

Many species are endangered by one huge problem: habitat loss.  A really unwise and shortsighted resolution passed by the Legislature this spring threatens to sell nearly all our public lands.  There are economic, environmental, ecological, philosophical, and ethical reasons why this is a really bad idea and the article sums the problem up nicely.  Our public lands are already economically important, and even our wildlife refuges do not restrict oil production or other resources extraction.  It's very important to remember that most resource extraction is very short term economic impacts.  Often, there are costs that industry does not portray, such as acid-mine drainage, soil erosion and land slides, water pollution, and many many other problems that are damages that short sighted profiteering does not consider.

These lands are our natural and historical heritage, and any politician that thinks selling them off to the highest bidder is in the best interest of the nation should reconsider their position carefully.  Please consider voicing your opinion to your politician and let them know you consider our battlegrounds, historical trails, forests, rivers, grasslands, oceans, caves and other resources too important to sell off to a foreign company to strip mine or log.  Sign a petition and get involved before this ill conceived idea goes one step further.

The good news is that my thesis research is forging ahead.  I want to understand how "modern" plant communities have changed over time, particularly in response to drought and/or temperature.  This is best accomplished via palynology: the study of microscopic planty things.  Pollen is very tough stuff and fossilizes well, so it is often the best choice for reconstructing what an ancient ecosystem looked like.   The problems with pollen is it doesn't tolerate drying out and its only produced when plants flower.  Some plants reproduce vegetatively and may not produce pollen.
Gus Engeling WMA
Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area

I am conducting my research in North Central Texas.   Texas is a big state, but it has no natural lakes.  There are a few bogs and ephemeral ponds, but these are rare near SMU in Dallas.  The closest bogs to Dallas are at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area, and I am coring the pitcher plant bog there to look for pollen.  But when pollen can't be found, there is another trace plants leave behind... phytoliths!

Pytholiths are a bit of a mystery why plants produce them, but there are tiny crystals of opal-silica
Image result for phytolith pictures
Sorghum phytolith 
that form in all parts of the plants.  Exactly what plants use them for is still being debated.

By a stroke of luck, Dr. Reid Ferring serendipitously discovered one of the oldest archaeological sites  in North America during the construction work of  a reservoir spillway along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.  He discovered many Clovis era artifacts, fossil animals from the pleistocene, and in thin layered sediments from a small pond, pollen.  As the last ice age faded 13,000 years ago, the spring feeding the pond dried up.  Therefore, the pollen record does not continue forward into the Holocene.  He has generously offered his research samples from 25 years ago for me to prospect for phytoliths!  I'll write more about Dr. Ferring's research in my next blog.

Stay tuned as I spend the summer testing different places and layers of time for what plants grew when (and why it's important).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day!

I'm excited to announce I've been admitted to the Masters of Geology program at Southern Methodist University!  I plan to research the resiliency of ecosystems and how past disturbances impact biodiversity, and hope to focus on events from the past ten thousand years.  I'm mulling over ideas for a thesis project, so any suggestions are welcome.   I'll be learning a lot about Earth over the next two years!

Kitty cat from the good ol' days

A really fun exploration event has live camera coverage from the ROV aboard the Okeanos Explorer.  A few days ago, they were exploring shipwrecks 4,000 feet deep.  So deep, they haven't seen light in 200 years, so it was a thrill seeing the live feed from the ROV's camera.  They discovered the ship's sextant and a clock frozen in time, and an engineer for the ROV speculated on the implications.

Life on an eternally dark shipwreck

Also to celebrate Earth Day, Kepler has found a cousin for earth, now called Kepler-186f.  The planet is about the same size as Earth, but the star is smaller and dimmer.

Exciting real-estate opportunities abound!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Seeing More

A few days ago, the Kepler team announced the confirmation of 715 new planets from other solar systems, which is the largest number of planet discoveries ever announced and almost doubled the total in the Exosolar Planetary Catalogue.  This refinement served greatly to understand some census statistics for stars; how common are planets, are they usually in a group, and how massive are they.

The telescope lost its ability to continue its original survey last year, so these planets were "discovered" by munching the existing data set.  However, Kepler will be given a new mission design called K2 since it can still find planets.

However, my title of my blog isn't about Kepler hopefully getting a second life to see more.  Instead, it is one of the more poignant quotes from a wonderful book I just read, Telling Our Way to the Sea. The book is written like field journal entries from an educational trip to the Sea of Cortez, and transitions between story telling and lecturing with such poetic ease that it is very enjoyable and thought provoking to read.

The title I use is from the last sentence of the chapter "Mobula lucasana / The End of Nature", as he reflects upon an amazing underwater encounter with devil rays:  We go in search of wilderness, and so it is wilderness we find.  We tell the story of our rediscovery of nature.  We compose suitable lyrical prose.  We send back photos...  ...These are our dispatches from the wilderness.  But when these photos are held up against images of the past, something is a bit off:  Our fish is rather smaller, or... rather an enormous squid.  That beach is hardly pristine.  In fact, before the oysters were removed, it was not a beach at all.  And that ray, it was 2.5 feet across, not 25.  I too am awestruck by the monstrous squid, lured by the beach, thrilled by the leaping ray.  But how can we reconcile our sincere wonderment with the recognition that what we are seeing is miserably dilapidated? ... What we must do, perhaps, is cultivate our craft of seeing more than one thing at a time.

His first chapter is about Learning to See, and he has a great quote from Thoreau,
"I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places... I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. 
― Henry David ThoreauThe Journal, 1837-1861

Part of what I hope to learn at school this year is to join Thoreau and Hirsch and many others in this quest to gather up these "ragged bits and scraps" that remain and try to glean what pages are lost from this epic, and hopefully paste some of it back together.  We live amid the wreckage, yet we hardly notice that something has changed.
In fact, he has set a litmus for me... for all of us.  Sea turtles have been around for over 100,000,000 years and counting.  The species are incredibly robust and global in distribution, and have survived many major extinction events.  Humans have pushed all species to the brink.  If we cannot save the sea turtles from extinction, it is an indicator that there really is not much we can save. "it is a stupefying but not unrealistic possibility that an entire bough of the tree of life -- on that diverges deep in the tree of life... may reach no higher than the next few decades."

I like the passage where he explains that when you flush a toilet in Denver, you are stressing the few remaining totoaba fishes left in the Sea of Cortez.  Yes, you're right in wondering how in the heck Denver's toilets impact flow on the other side of the continental divide.  That is just a tiny glimpse at our mighty reach and the cascade of impacts we have.  Any know where I can get a bumper sticker that reads "Integrate information on a vast geographic and historical scale; act as an extensive collective to formulate and apply policies on a scale commensurate with the problem."?

There book is full of many deep philosophical and ethical considerations to go along with the story telling.  But one last quote I wish to hold on to: "They were the eyes of a wild animal, wreathed though he was in our creeping domestication.  And now I do take him to be a sign... ...He is another reminder that... ... we are already out there in profound and unavoidable form; and that despite all that, there is something there that is other, something that is not our own reflection."

If I can hold on to that image, maybe I can finally read a book that's been on my shelf for many, many years... The End of Nature.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Free Dinosaur Course

Some of the technicians that lead the volunteer preparations of Mosie the Mosasaur informed me about a FREE online, self-paced course from the University of Alberta that is an introduction to dinosaur paleobiology.  The course is titled Dino 101 (, and has a deadline of completion in mid April.  Now I need to add Dinosaur Provincial Park to my world travelling bucket-list.

Canada also made the news with another site already on my bucket-list, a new awesome quarry location for the Burgess Shale.

Ceratopsian dinosaur Chasmosaurus bellis

In other news, I just submitted our Great Backyard Bird Counts.  This year we recorded 17 species in our little backyard of suburban DFW.  The most exciting was watching 120 Cedar Waxwings descend upon our neighbor's red oaks. It's fun to watch the submissions keep coming in real-time.

Next on my to do list is to start recording observations to
That's another fun place to look at observations... like someone just posted river otter tracks near Bastrop, TX. Very exciting!

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Haunted End to the Ice Age

Snowstorm approaches Sunshine Mountain

Did you know that we live in the Ice Ages?  No, I'm not talking about the snowmageddon commute from this winter's polar vortex.  Technically, I mean we live within an interglacial period, some ten thousand years after the last big Ice Sheets melted away.  Don't worry though, despite the lower 48 having a cool winter, it's still warm on a global scale.  In fact, it is likely due to the warming arctic that our winters will have harsher cold fronts.  Most models predict our carbon dioxide and methane contributions have us on course to assuredly end the cycle, with our climate resembling the balmy Eocene by the end of the century. This means we are witnessing the official end of the last Great Ice Age.

So this winter is a fitting time to read up on times gone by. I'm halfway through The Ghosts of
Evolution, and it's a fun look at why certain plants and animals do things that don't make sense.  My favorite example so far has been my beloved Pronghorn Antelopes.  Pronghorns are, by far, the fastest land animal in the Americas and it's easy to wonder why they think they are being chased. Deer and elk certainly don't bother, so what is haunting our antelopes? The answer is they once were chased by a beast that could match their speed, the American Cheetah, which was about the size of a Puma but with the speed of our surviving African Cheetah.

Another example most of us in the Eastern half of USA are familiar with, Maclura pomifera 
Maclura pomifera
(aka the Osage Orange, Hedge Apple, Horse Apple, Bodarc, etc...).  It makes large, softballsized fruits that plop around but rarely eaten by animals other than gnawed on by a rodent.  During the ice age, the tree was growing from sea to shining sea. However, once the last Gomphotheres were driven into extinction, the tree couldn't disperse its seed and has been fading away ever since, aided into oblivion by humans who used their wood to fashion the same bows to perform the coup de grace of the incredible, Serengeti-like wildlife North America once had. The trees still faithfully make their fruit, but their dance partner is a ghost only they can know. Scientifically, these haunted antelopes and trees are referred to as evolutionary anachronisms.


As I feel the lonely, cold wind blow standing beneath a haunted Hedge Apple tree, I strain to listen to the Call of Distant Mammoths. I wonder what my walk in the woods would be like if peeking at me over the tree would be a gigantic Megatherium munching on the fruits.  (I also wonder if I'll go to graduate school and study this lost Serengeti, and end up wearing hipster glasses like the narrator of the following video.)

Here's a great PBS video to sum up the book in a nutshell (get it, nutshell?):