Saturday, April 26, 2014


Some stages of Magnolia buds
Isaac Asimov relates a story about learning his comparative insignificance on the edges of science:
“A number of years ago, when I was a freshly-appointed instructor, I met, for the first time, a certain eminent historian of science. At the time I could only regard him with tolerant condescension.

I was sorry of the man who, it seemed to me, was forced to hover about the edges of science. He was compelled to shiver endlessly in the outskirts, getting only feeble warmth from the distant sun of science- in-progress; while I, just beginning my research, was bathed in the heady liquid heat up at the very center of the glow.

In a lifetime of being wrong at many a point, I was never more wrong. It was I, not he, who was wandering in the periphery. It was he, not I, who lived in the blaze.

I had fallen victim to the fallacy of the 'growing edge;' the belief that only the very frontier of scientific advance counted; that everything that had been left behind by that advance was faded and dead.

But is that true? Because a tree in spring buds and comes greenly into leaf, are those leaves therefore the tree? If the newborn twigs and their leaves were all that existed, they would form a vague halo of green suspended in mid-air, but surely that is not the tree. The leaves, by themselves, are no more than trivial fluttering decoration. It is the trunk and limbs that give the tree its grandeur and the leaves themselves their meaning.

There is not a discovery in science, however revolutionary, however sparkling with insight, that does not arise out of what went before. 'If I have seen further than other men,' said Isaac Newton, 'it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Asimov, Adding a Dimension
Asimov's observation dispels the notion of an isolated genius by examining the life cycle of a tree. Thinking himself a fluttering decoration, he concludes that a fluttering leaf without the grandeur of the trunk and limbs he has no meaning.

If we imagine Asimov's tree rooted in a decomposing soil that nourishes it, existing on a planet in a solar system that provides energy for it, we can imagine ourselves as passengers on Buckminster Fuller's Spaceship Earth. What gives a passenger meaning? Are we the fluttering leaves on Asimov's tree? Carl Sagan proffered this about human consciousness:
Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Life and Beauty

Three questions motivate astrobiologists:
  • What is life?
  • How did life begin and evolve on Earth? and
  • Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?
Science understands surprisingly little about the first question, and the answer seems likely to remain elusive. Astrobiologists continue to pursue the discovery of extraterrestrial life by sending probes to Mars and other planets. So far we only know only of life on Earth.

Science knows a lot about life on Earth, but questions remain unanswered. There are enticing clues that suggest when and how life began on Earth. To the best of our knowledge life began about 4 billion years ago with humans, the latecomers, appearing as recently as a couple of hundred thousand years ago (cf. Cosmic Newcomers).

There is plenty of evidence of life adapting at the molecular level. The shared DNA of all living things, and the coexistence of identical segments of DNA code across species, makes a compelling narrative for a life force that has been replicating and adapting for billions of years.
Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.
Henry David Thoreau
What is the role of sensory attraction in the adaptation and evolution of living things?
"How did these organs of plant sex manage to get themselves cross-wired with human ideas of value and status and Eros? And what might our ancient attraction for flowers have to teach us about the deeper mysteries of beauty - what one poet has called "this grace wholly gratuitous"? Is that what it is? Or does beauty have a purpose?"
Michael Pollan from The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
In Botany of Desire Michael Pollan examines the properties of sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control and the role they each property played in the codependent evolution of apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), cannabis (intoxication), and potatoes (cultivatable control).

Pollan asks, "Does beauty have a purpose?" When viewed as the result of accidents of nature, beauty seems to be attained, or converged upon, through incremental change. What constitutes or defines beauty seems free to evolve along with changing desires of the species.
"Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose."
Michael Pollan from The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
Cypripedium reginae
Pink Lady's Slipper
Cypripedium calceolus
Yellow Lady's Slipper

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Humans are grounded. Most of us will never experience weightlessness, yet gravity is a force that covertly acts upon our sense of reality.

Gravity is ruled by mass. As mass goes, so goes gravity. Earth's mass is heterogeneous and unevenly distributed. Contrary to the notion of a static terra firma, the distribution of mass changes over time.

Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment visualizations of the Earth show variations in Earth's gravitational field. Color zones (right) indicate gravity anomalies where gravity is stronger or weaker than it would be if Earth was a perfectly smooth sphere with homogeneously distributed mass.

The continental spine of the Andes represents an aggregation of mass and a corresponding but imperceptibly stronger gravitational pull indicated by the deep red-colored zone along the coast of South America.

Large earthquakes deform Earth's crust creating local variations in gravity.

The blue zone in the image below shows a weaker gravity deviation, or gravity scar, near the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck in the Pacific Ocean east of Honshu Island in March 2011.

Gravity scar following Honshu earthquake

It must have appeared almost as improbable to the earlier geologists, that the laws of earthquakes should one day throw light on the origin of mountains, as it must to the first astronomers, that the fall of an apple should assist in explaining the motions of the moon.
Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, Volume 3, 1833.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sentinels of the Sea

Mid Santa Barbara channel buoy
Photo: Collin Bronson
Weather buoys are sentinels of the sea that record and transmit data like:
  • Wave height, direction and periodicity;
  • Temperature of air and water;
  • Wind speed and direction; and
  • Barometric pressure.
Oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface. Data from a constellation of 1,215 buoys are open to the scientific and maritime communities for analysis, planning, prediction and research.

Weather Buoys

Water column height from buoy station 32412 shows the rise in the ocean surface as a tsunami wave created by the disturbance of an 8.8 magnitude earthquake centered off the Chilean coast passes its location.

Water column height, 27 February 2010

Much of the data from weather buoys are loaded into short- and long-term computer models to forecast weather, monitor long-term climate trends, document sea-level rises, predict potential emergencies like tsunamis, and monitor travel conditions in shipping channels.

“and I shall watch the ferry boats, and they'll get high,
on a bluer ocean against tomorrow's sky.
and i will never grow so old again,
and i will walk and talk,
in gardens all wet with rain...”

Van Morrison