Tuesday, December 11, 2012

three books

My time lately has been filled caring for a neonate, but I have managed to do some reading (I have a tendency to read non-fiction). Here they are in order of the timeframes they cover:

The Man Who Ate His Boots’ by Anthony Brandt (2010)

I found this book in a used bookstore in Penticton. It’s an account of the British’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic early in the 19th century ending with Franklin’s ill-fated expedition. I’m flummoxed that so many people held the belief that a Northwest Passage existed and that so many were ready to attempt to find it in a sailing ship. Living though those trips that ended well seemed like such misery - those that didn’t end well must have been a nightmare.

The narrative was easy to follow and the main people were painted with great detail. For example: Sir William Edward Parry of the Royal Navy, while in charge of an Arctic expedition, grew sprouts, mustard and cress, in his cabin to prevent scurvy in his crew - I love this kind of detail. It was Franklin who ate his boots and I suspect he wasn’t the only one. Overall, I thought the book was great and would recommend it.

Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps’ by Peter Galison (2003)

I also found this book in Penticton. It focuses on the 1800’s to early 1900’s when physicists thought their mechanical view of the universe had solved everything - but there was hints they were so wrong. This is one of my favorite times in the history of science.

This book focused on standardizing time ending up with our modern time zones. It’s a very complex story and it amazes me that standardized time zones were ever agreed upon.

It has the best explanation of phase diagrams that I’ve ever read - although the author doesn’t call them that. Poincare spent a lot of time trying to solve the three body problem in physics. An example of a three body system is the orbits of the earth, sun and moon - there isn’t a one-stop mathematical solution to most of these problems, instead the calculations need to be done in increments. To help himself visualize solutions to this problem he came up with phase diagrams. These diagrams gave him a first view of chaos, however it took half a century for chaos to be recognized as something other than a calculation error.

The Infinity Puzzle’ by Frank Close (2011).

This book was given to me for my birthday as I generally enjoy books about physics. Described as “how the hunt to understand the universe led to extraordinary science, high politics, and the Large Hadron Collider.” It turned out to be a very detailed account of the personalities and theories in particle physics.

I found it difficult to keep the people straight as the author bounced back and forth between so many different people. With so many different people named throughout the book, I was surprised there wasn’t a single named woman (a wife or girlfriend deserves a name). Overall, I found it a difficult read and would have preferred it to be a more focused story on the physics or more a on one physicist. I think it just tried to cover too much.

Picture is from here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2 + 2 = 5

I have no mathy pictures, so here is a lobster instead
A segment on the news recently disturbed me. It was about a new way to teach math in elementary schools (I’ve become interested in these stories as my daughter is now in the world). The new way is a creative approach where there are no wrong methods, and they may also have reported that there are no wrong answers - I’m really hoping I heard the last part wrong. There may be more to the story than the news presented (as is often the case), however, if it is this way, I’m quite worried about our mathematical future.

I’m all for creative approaches, however, in math there are methods that will take you to the answer quickly. One of the nicest things about basic math is that there are right answers to be found and, they can be verified as correct. Creative methods may get the right answer eventually but are not necessarily effective tools for everyday math. It may be dull to memorize mathematical basics - never the less, one needs to get the basics down. No one ever suggests that we take a creative approach to learning how to read. We are expected to learn the grammar rules necessary to understand written text - so why is math different?

Technology takes away the necessity to do math in some circumstances, but technology doesn’t always work. Understanding some math is necessary - how would you determine if you can afford something? How about telling if you tax return is reasonable? Did you get the right amount of change back on a purchase? Or when is a sale at a store actually a good deal? Recently, I found a man looking at peanut butter in the grocery store trying to determine if it was a better deal to get a smaller jar on sale or a larger one - in this case the smaller jar was the better deal (he seemed relieved when I told him).

A lot of people have trouble with math, but I wonder if this is due to our society’s portrayal of math as scary. Math isn’t scary, it’s simply a set of rules to manipulate numbers. Since, people’s brains work slightly differently making picking up math harder for some, if someone is struggling to learn a mathy technique help should be available to coach them towards the right answer.

I’m biased about math because I use it all the time and am comfortable with it. Although, I’m not very good at doing math in my head but, I’ve practiced tricks allowing me to do everyday computations. With a pen and paper I can work out most things - calculators make it even easier. At higher level university courses, math becomes more abstract and harder to intuitively grasp. One needs to use this type of math regularly, or be mathematically gifted (which isn’t me), to apply it. As a scientist, I understand the math that describes my field but the pure abstract math is often baffling to me as I haven’t spent time working with it.

Picture is from here

Monday, October 29, 2012

Snakes in the freezer

My husband holding a rattlesnake
- he tells me he know what he is doing
In addition to tasty delights, my freezer often ends up the temporary home for animals that have died and are on their way to join the scientific collection at the local museum where my husband is a curator. It is sad that these animals have died, especially since it is often the result of humans like getting hit by a car or birds not seeing windows. At least collecting them puts them to good use - plus it prevents having to kill animals for science. I only accept the recently dead - I’ve put my foot down against rotting carcasses after a unpleasant decomposed swan incident. We’ve temporarily housed various song birds, a mink, a hawk, owls, wall lizards, newts, garter snakes, squirrels, toads and more. Perhaps a spare freezer in the carport would not be amiss.

Half a days drive from the coast can put me in rattlesnake country. Only once, have I seen a wild rattlesnake. It was so young it only had its button rather than a full rattle. It looked small and helpless when we cornered it on the bank of a stream. Then it put on an aggressive display, striking at us with it’s mouth open. We could clearly see its fangs, but managed to stay clear of them. We thought it was harmless, only later did I discover that baby rattlesnakes have very potent venom.

What makes a rattlesnake scary is its venom. Venom is saliva that has been modified over evolutionary time. It contains a complex assortment of components that differ between snake species. According to Munekiyo and Mackessy (1998) : “lethality of venom results from a synergistic interplay of venom components, including enzymes, peptides and specific toxins.”

The venom of a Fer de Lance acts differently than rattlesnake venom, which is why it is important to identify the snake that bit you - so you can get the right antivenin.

Snake venom is on my mind because my husband and I recently went to rattlesnake country. My husband has a long history of picking up rattlesnakes - including, Prairie, Eastern Massasauga, Timber, Dusky Pigmy, Northern Pacific Rattlers, and Eastern and Western Diamondbacks. So I was expecting a road-killed rattlesnake to come home with us and spent time in the freezer. I started to wonder if frozen rattlesnake venom is still toxic.

Fortunately, the toxicity of frozen rattlesnake venom has been studied by researchers (Munekiyo and Mackessy, 1998) looking at how to best preserve the venom for scientific research. The answer is yes, a frozen rattlesnake’s venom is still toxic - I’ll need to handle them with care. Munekiyo and Mackessy (1998) went on to speculate that their results should apply to all front-fanged snake venoms (both vipers/rattlesnakes and cobras and their relatives have front fangs). However, this still needs to be studied. I won’t worry about it as I don’t expect a cobra in my freezer - although I wouldn’t be surprised if I found one there. Presumably a cobra in the house would arrive with some warning or at least a big colourful sticky note on the freezer lid.

Reference: Munekiyo, S.M., and S.P. Mackessy. 1998. Effects of Temperature and Storage Conditions on the Electrophoretic, Toxic and Enzymatic Stability of Venom Components. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. 119B, 119-127.

Thanks to G. Hanke for the photos

Friday, October 26, 2012

Garter Snakes

A Wandering Garter Snake
In my opinion, if you mess with an animal and it bites, scratches or pees on you, you deserve it. Currently, I try to let wild animals be; however, as a kid, I often tormented garter snakes in the garden. They would bask in the heat on the black plastic we used to control weeds. This preferred location made them easy to find and I never had any difficulty snatching them by the tail as they tried to slither away. Once caught, their typical defense mechanism was to pee. This potent musky-smelling pee would persist on my hands even after thoroughly washing them in soap and hot water.

Even though they are carnivores, garter snakes don’t want anything to do with people. Wikipedia claims that a garter snake may coil and strike - but I’ve never seen them do anything like this (I've just discovered that a friend and my husband have seen a snake do this - especially when garter snakes are cold). Generally, they retreat from humans as people kill more snakes than snakes kill people.

Since, garter snakes play an important role in keeping pests down, I’d love to have them in my current garden to control the slugs. These streamlined snakes can be quite colourful with black or brown bodies and stripes that range from blue, to yellow or red (the San Francisco Garter Snake is pink).

Garter snakes have saliva that acts like a mild venom, which is dangerous to a frog, but not a person. Only once was I bitten (I totally deserved it). I had the snake by the tail, but moved my hand in range of its mouth. I ended up with two tiny pricks on my hand which healed cleanly without even a hint of infection.

As an aside, I always let the snake go and I still feel bad that I was once keen on interrupting their day.

Thanks to G. Hanke for the photo

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Circling Vultures

They didn't photograph as well as I hoped
Since it was sunny on the long weekend, my significant other took some time to wash the car. I came out to check out what he was doing. In the still damp and shiny clean back window, I saw the reflection of a mass of black birds circling the house, an scene reminiscent of a horror movie. A nice thermal must have formed above the house as I’m not about to expire any time soon.

Looking up, I saw that each individual had a bald head. Identifying them was easy - they were turkey vultures, common to my area and a bird I’ve been able to identify since I was a kid. There were too many birds to accurately count, my best guess was there was more than thirty.

More vultures joined the group as they shifted their spiral slowly away until the mass was out of sight. This time of year they migrate south in groups. I had no idea they did so in such a large group. Turkey vultures migrate down to southern California or even as far as South America.

There was a time, when I was growing up, I was fascinated by the idea of birding. I’ve never been a serious birder as the hours don’t agree with me and I think going to extremes over a life list of birds can get a little silly, but I still like to identify the birds I see. I scraped together allowance money and bought the ‘Birds of North America’ in the early 80’s. It is still my only bird field guide. Every time I don’t bring my bird book out on a hike with me I see an interesting bird and regret not having my book.

My bird book doesn’t have a lot to say about turkey vultures. It describes them as “ a common carrion eater, scavenging in fields and along road sides.” Carrion eaters have many benefits. According to the The Turkey Vulture Society, these birds prevent spread of disease by cleaning up dead things - no food is wasted in nature. Since they might have to stick their head inside a carcass to get a tasty morsel, being bald means they don’t have to mess up their feathers for a meal.

Turkey vultures don’t make the haunting cry of a hawk, or even the peep of a chick. They have to resort to hisses and grunts as they lack the vocal cords other birds have. I’ve never hears a turkey vulture make a sound. 

As a tangent: I'm always amazed that there is a society for everything.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The book I haven’t read

my copy looks exactly like this
This week marks 50 years since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was published.

I care about the environment in part because it's the only environment we have to support us, thus it's our lifeline. I agree with Carl Sagan when he wrote “the simple fact is that we are performing unprecedented experiments on the global environment and in general hoping against hope that the problems will solve themselves and go away.” I’ve been aware of Rachel Carson’s book and how it is credited with starting the environmental movement since I was in high school - yet I’ve never read it (yes I should read it - as soon as I find a copy in a used bookstore I’ll pick it up).

I can’t comment on ‘Silent Spring’, I have however, read another book by Rachel Carson, ‘The Sea Around Us.’ My grandfather gave me his copy of the book when I switched into oceanography for my undergrad. In the front cover the inscription says ‘this book is presented to H.B. Hunt as an award for excellent meteorological observations carried out in S.S. Lakemba on a voluntary basis during the year 1951.’ He must have been presented the book when it was brand new as it was published in 1951. By the early 90’s, it looked slightly ratty on my book shelf and I didn’t read it then, but I kept it. A few years ago I realized who the author was, so I decided to pull it out and finally read it.

The acknowledgments read like a who's who of early oceanography - all names of people who made major contributions to the field. In addition to her background in marine biology, she did her homework. I found it an easy read that made the ocean seem magical. Consider her description of the tides:

There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest part of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide … no other force that affects the sea is so strong.

Or surface waves:

It is a confused pattern that the waves make in the open sea – a mixture of countless different wave trains, intermingling, overtaking, passing, or sometimes engulfing one another; each group differing from the others in the place and manor of its origin, in its speed, its direction of movement; some doomed never to reach any shore, others destined to roll across half an ocean before they dissolve in thunder on a distant beach

What I also enjoyed about the book is what she didn’t mention. Places like hydrothermal vents hadn’t been discovered yet - so the belief at the time was that the abyss was barren of life. Ideas like plate tectonics were not yet widely accepted so, the ocean floor was presented as static. We have learned so much in the time since the book was published.

Note: the picture came from Wikipedia

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Aliens for dinner

Not the alien I mean
Sounds like I invited some extraterrestrials over to share a meal but, what I really mean is eating invasive species as a form of revenge against the damage they inflict on our native species.

As people move around, we tend to take critters (and plants - which I’m not going to discuss) with us. Rats and cats have been introduced across the globe, both of which have been known to decimate bird populations - especially on islands where birds have lost their ability to fly. Pigs were deliberately left on tropical islands by passing sailors to provide future food.

Sometimes animals are intentionally introduced as a means to fix a problem. For example, Australian sugar cane crops were being decimated by cane beetles, so in 1935 just over 100 cane toads were introduced to control the cane beetles. The cane toads adapted well to their new environment, now there are over 200 million - however they didn’t control the cane beetles. Instead cane toads caused all sorts of other problems as they are toxic to the animals that try to eat them.

Want to make a buck? 
How about introduce a critter that produces a luxury product, like beaver fur. In 1946, 50 beavers from Canada were introduced to the southern tip of South America for just this reason. It turned out great for the beavers as there were no predators to worry about. The beavers went on to do what beavers do - gnaw down trees and build dams. Unfortunately, the forests in that region can’t handle beaver damage like North American forests can, so the damage is extensive. Active programs are still underway to remove the beavers.

Not all introduced species create these kind of problems, however there is always a risk that a local species will be displaced by the newly arrived animals. The result is a loss to our global biodiversity as our world-wide ecosystem is becoming more and more homogenized.

In my part of the world, we have lots of introduced species (tropical areas often have more - Hawaii and Florida are perhaps the hardest hit with alien invaders). There are green crabs, manila clams, carp, house sparrows and grey squirrels to name a few. Another that has become ubiquitous in North America is the European Starling. These noisy birds like open country - like orchards and grain fields. They often flock together in massive flocks where they scour the area for fruit and insects to eat. They indiscriminately eat crops intended for human consumption which has put them on the hit list of many farmers. They also out compete local birds, for instance swallow species like the purple martin, for nest sites.

Why would anyone introduce starlings? 
In the late 1800’s, Eugene Schieffelin decided to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's works into North America. As part of this odd plan, 60 starlings were released in 1890 into New York’s central park. Now, there is an estimated population of 200 million.

So what can be done? 
One option is to eat the invaders. I was at an event recently put on by the Penticton Museum and Archives for the opening of the traveling ‘Aliens Among Us’ exhibit created by the Royal BC Museum. The exhibit highlights alien species in BC. At the opening, breaded and fried starling breast was offered - the meat was dark and gamey, reminiscent of goose, and was quite good. For Okanogan fruit growers, eating starlings must be a delicious form of revenge.

It would take a lot of effort to harvest enough starling breast to make a full meal. I’ll just keep the idea in the back of my mind in case there is a zombie apocalypse and starlings are all I can catch.

As a tangent - people are not considered ‘aliens’ in this context because people tend to move themselves around (i.e., natural dispersal) - although governments might label people as aliens for various reasons. By this same logic, extraterrestrial aliens would only be considered aliens if they hitched a ride to earth on a space shuttle instead of their own spaceship.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Examples of iridescence from the fall fair

I caught these two beauties showing off their iridescent plumage at the fall fair. It always amazes me that such a range of colours can be produced from an optical trick.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Frustrated with technology

He looks just as frustrated
Recently, I’ve experienced another version of the ‘technology trap’. Warning: rant ahead.

I flirt with three different operating systems - Mac, Windows and Ubuntu (linux based).  I wish I had the skill to customize my own operating system, but I don’t and I don’t have the time (or will) to gain them. Mostly I use my Mac, however there is always something I need another operating system to do. My older laptop is a Ubuntu/Windows dual boot machine which I use regularly.

I now have data from up north (Ice cleared enough for the ship to get into Cumberland Sound). The data is in a hex format that needs to be converted by the instrument’s software into a format I can look at. This software only runs on Windows - no problem, as I have a Windows machine. I started up the old laptop (which is only about 3 years old), ran some updates and the machine hung up. I let it sit for a few hours and nothing happened, so I turned it off and back on. All I get is 7 beeps - it doesn’t even go far enough for me to use a boot CD. After some hunting around on the internet, I found out that 7 beeps on my make of laptop means that the motherboard is toast. Based on the age of the machine it isn’t worth fixing - essentially, my laptop is now garbage.

Along the same vein, I got a call from my cell phone provider. My cell phone contract is up and they want me to sign up again. To entice me I was offered a new phone. My current phone works just fine, so why do I need a new phone? The woman, who was trying to sign me up, just didn’t get that I didn’t want to throw out perfectly good technology. She went on to suggest I could keep the old phone, while using the new one. That just sounds like adding clutter to my life and ultimately creates more technology garbage. Phones are easy to come by, when my old phone dies I’ll get a new one.

The short life span of technology is perhaps good for the manufacturers of this technology - but it is terrible for the planet. Like it or not, my occupation and lifestyle requires me to use these gadgets - I can’t think of a way around it as I live in this society and times (if I was using Victorian era gadgets, I could adapt gadgets to my needs and fix them as required). Still, I get frustrated whenever my technology dies a few years after I got them and I won’t be replacing things until they die.

Note: the picture came from here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

There's a hole in the middle

Where will these guys go?
Here is my slightly depressing view of what's happening in the Arctic which mainstream news seems to be ignoring (this is just my opinion).

Two stories recently came out about Prime Minister Harper's plans for the Arctic - both of which I find disturbing. The first is the announcement of a new Arctic research station with priority on resource development. This announcement came as news of another Arctic research station, one that focuses on climate science and is much cheaper to run, is closing due to canceled funds.

The second is the announcement of a new national park, Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve, NWT. This park's northern boundary is deeply indented to allow for mining exploration. Is this new park for wildlife? Or was the park established so roads can be built for mining exploration and development? Talk about a subsidy to the mining industry if roads are built on someone else's budget. The result is a mostly-protected watershed (86% according to Parks Canada's website) - which doesn't sound protected at all. An industrial accident could easily contaminate the whole watershed.

I can't help but think our government views resource development as the only important thing the Arctic offers. Right now, we have an opportunity to learn from our past environmental mistakes and protect a large contiguous wild space. This is a rare opportunity in human history. Here are my two good reasons to care about the Arctic that are relevant to those of us who live further south and there are plenty of other good reasons.

All our oceans are connected. The Arctic Ocean acts as a bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic - waters from the Pacific flow through the Arctic Ocean and exit into the Atlantic, plus some Atlantic water circulates through. While water is in the Arctic Ocean the cold modifies it, cooling it down and making it salty by brine rejection from sea ice. The result is denser water. This cold, dense water sinks when it reaches the Atlantic, making the Atlantic one of the two places deep ocean water is formed (Antarctica is the other place). Warm return currents, like the Gulf Stream, replace this sinking water, while keeping Northern Europe warm.

Let's say we heat up the Arctic Ocean to the point where all the sea ice melts (this summer is already on its way to the history books as a minimum for pack ice). This melted water may still be cold, however it will be fresh. Since fresh water is less dense than salty water, it may just float on the surface spreading out across the Atlantic. The surrounding land masses (Europe and North America) would experience a cooler climate. This is an extremely simplified view of the result of warming the Arctic.

Second, although plenty of wildlife survives in the Arctic, the food web there is relatively simple compared to southern ecosystems. At each level in the food web there may only be one or two species. This simplicity means that if we drive a single species to extinction (for example, by building a mine or a highway over a traditional migration path, or a chemical spill, or siltation destroying fish spawning habitat) the food web could collapse.

Already, a changes in top predators (if we ignore that humans are the true top predator) is occurring - polar bears are giving way to killer whales. Shrinking ice will only make life harder for the polar bears since they will have to migrate farther from pack ice to shore each year. This is particularly tough on cubs which lack their parent's endurance. All life in the Arctic will be forced to adapt to a reduction or loss of pack ice - or go extinct.

For those who don't care if there are any animals in the Arctic, plenty of animals migrate to the Arctic each year for rich summer feeding grounds - if these feeding grounds are changed, who knows what the impact will be. Imagine the Arctic with luxuriant vegetation in summer - Snow Geese likely will benefit and their population will swell. That may have an impact on grain farms in the south - even today geese raid fields to get extra energy for their migration. But hey, why worry - the mining and oil industry is making money.

Why don’t we just stop resource development in fragile places - or at least take a good look at what the impacts will be instead of just putting our heads into the sand? Just because a resource is present, it doesn't necessarily need to be pulled out of the ground for short term gain (money). Instead of looking to extract more resources like fossil fuels, we should look at ways to reduce our reliance on them. Ultimately, keeping a place wild is a good enough reason to protect our Arctic. We cannot develop mines and industry adjacent to every wild "park" and expect life to thrive.

Note: the picture came from here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

a different expedition to Cumberland Sound

Vats for rending whale fat off Cumberland Sound
On 3 August 1879, the schooner Florence set sail for Cumberland Sound on what was called the Howgate Polar Expedition. Ironically, Captain Howgate was supposed to join the ship once it reached the Arctic, but never did. The naturalist Ludwig Kumlien, only a few weeks out of university, was on board.

Ludwig Kumlien behaved as a naturalist from an early age. As a child he raised wild birds, collected frogs and captured fish during time spent in nature. According to his wife, “his phenomenal eye-sight allowed nothing to escape his observation and drawing was as natural to him as writing”. In addition he was trained by his father, Thure Kumlien, a prominent naturalist in his day. A trip to the Arctic turned into a great way to start his career as a naturalist.

The primary objective of the Howgate expedition, in Captain Howgate’s words, was: “to collect material, skins, skin clothing, dogs, sledges, and Eskimo, for the use of a future colony on the shores of Lady Franklin Bay.” Scientific work was the second objective and whaling was third.

Unfortunately for the science, the crew’s pay came from whaling profits making whaling the top priority for the crew (I know of modern day expeditions where similar things have happened when fishing vessels have been chartered). As a result, the scientists on board were unable to regularly get use of the ship’s boats as they were kept ready for whaling. Kumlien described how his work went like this: "nearly all the scientific labors were prosecuted under very discouraging conditions" - I can't help but wonder if he was holding back.

Kumlien published a book on the natural history of the area titled Contributions to the Natural History of Arctic America in addition to bringing as many specimens home as he could fit on the ship (it was a small ship). I’ve read through his book and although its focus is on plants and animals of Cumberland Sound, it does provide me a few tidbits to add into my own work.

It appears that the spring conditions in 1878 held a lot in common with this summer. According to Kumlien: “the spring of 1878 was stormy and backward, and the prevalence of southerly gales kept the ice closely packed about us till the fore part of July.”

Kumlien’s observation that “icebergs are also sometimes found in this fjord that, from their positions, seem to have come from the northward and not from the south” might mean that there is a current flowing through Cumberland Sound that originates from the north. I hope to be able to capture this in my own measurements.

The Florence arrived home on 30 October 1878, 15 months after leaving. Surprisingly for the time, all on board made it home alive and well. The next group of scientists to work in Cumberland Sound arrived in 1952.

Another account of this expedition can be found here.

Kumlien, L. 1879. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, No. 15: Contributions to the Natural History of Arctic America made in connection with the Howgate Polar Expedition, 1877-78. Washington Government Printing Office. 179 pages.

Taylor, H.J. 1937. Ludwig Kumlien. The Wilson Bulletin. 49 No 2, 85-90

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My difficulty with poems

My favorite artwork by William Blake
I’m going to go on a big tangent here... I generally don’t like poetry (does that reduce my sophisticatedness?). I have friends who love poetry. One has gone on to get an advance degree in poetry of a specific era, another can recite long poems while simultaneously hanging out of a cherry tree plucking the fruit. I’m not like them; if I’m reading something and find the author added in a poem for some reason, I skip it. A book of poems I wouldn’t even open.

This is my only poetry exception (you can skip it if you like):

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

These are the first four lines from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake and I love them. Years ago, I saw Sting claim he came up with these lines for one of his songs on an Oprah interview. William Blake wrote this in 1803 - years before Sting (I’m still baffled Oprah didn’t call him on it, I would have but maybe that’s why I’m not on TV). There is much more to the poem, it seemingly goes on forever - the rest can be found here. I must admit I’ve not read the whole thing.

Also, if a story I’m reading breaks out into a few lines of song (like Lord of the Rings does) I skip that too. However, I like some song lyrics, which is kinda like poetry - except without the expectations I built up about poetry from high school English. I used to top my high school physics classes without difficulty, but for high school English I had to put in tones of work just to get by.

Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird has summed up the view high school English gave me of poetry: “Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul.” It sounds lovely in concept, but high school English had tests where I needed to come up with the right interpretation, rather than my interpretation.

Reading poetry became hard work as I felt I needed to look for deep meanings under every snowflake - accepting a snowflake as being just a snowflake (as they are wonderful) just wasn’t allowed.

Ironically, I currently live in a neighborhood where all the streets are named after poets.

The artwork image came from wikipedia

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What will change?

I’ve been thinking about how my life will change with the addition of a child (she’ll be here in roughly 3 months). The baby part is flat out scary. I expect that for a while my life will center around sleep deprivation and bodily fluids. But, after that, how will my life be different? The real answer is that I simply don’t know - but I can ponder the idea.

I don’t live a wild and crazy life, so there are no wild parties for me to give up (I never enjoyed them anyway). I don’t base jump off high-rises or go spelunking in unexplored caves. I’m not in the army anymore - there are no more late night calls where I have to pack my dirty laundry and head off somewhere potentially life-threatening. Overall, the danger in my life is minimal.

Once I’m past most of the sleep deprivation (does the sleep deprivation ever really end?), I'll continue my focus on science. In fact, since I’m super lucky to have a supportive supervisor and committee - being a grad student offers me a lot of flexibility for the next few years.

I usually spend about a month a year in the field, sometimes a lot more and sometimes less. For this summer’s field work someone went in my place (at 7 months pregnant no one thought I should go) and I don’t know if I’ll manage field work next summer. One of the things I like about the science I do is the field work so I hope to resume field work sometime in the future. However, I am thinking of putting a three week cap on the length of individual trips.

When I was a kid I drew and created things. I tended a sub-plot in my mom’s garden where I grew zinnias and beans plus, I kept chickens. I spent endless hours exploring my forest and local beaches including watching the critters there. I read voraciously about adventures and nature. I even wrote stories and kept notebooks full of observations and ideas. I still do all of these things and all of them can be done with a child.

I suspect that my life is about to fundamentally change, but in a lot of ways stay the same.

Image is from here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Some icy bits

A different menace to shipping
I’ve been sitting at my desk with the view of the beautiful summer day on my island in the Pacific thinking about sea ice. The ice in Cumberland Sound is still delaying science work there. On top of real life ice woes, I’ve been reading about sea ice.

Sea ice is surprisingly complex. After a morning’s reading I’ve had to look up three terms I hadn’t run across before: lamella, nilas and breccia. But, if I take a step back, ice in the Arctic can be broken into four categories:

1 - Polar Ice Cap - this makes up about 70% of ice found in the Arctic Ocean. This ice stays year round, however it isn’t static. New ice is being included into the cap while older ice is carried away. Overall, the cap is rotating in a disjointed fashion clockwise.

2 - Pack Ice - Wind blew this type of ice into my path when I was up in the Beaufort Sea a few years ago. There was pack ice as far as I could see in every direction at a time when clear sea was expected. This ice is made up of floes, which are separate chunks of ice. About 25% of the Arctic Ocean is covered in pack ice.

3 - Fast Ice - No, it isn’t moving anywhere, in fact, it’s land fast. The ice extends to the bottom where it attaches. This ice type is seasonal, thickening to 1-2 m in winter while disappearing entirely in summer. As an aside, funky things can happen when pack ice and fast ice meet.

4 - Ice Bergs - These are mostly found in the North Atlantic and come from chunks of glaciers on Greenland and Elsemere Islands breaking (or calving) away. They then drift south becoming a menace to shipping.

Image is from here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What isn’t happening...

Last summer, I was oceanographic (CTD) sampling in Cumberland Sound by 23 July. This year work was scheduled to start 18 July. As I’m over 6 months pregnant, an undergraduate student was hired to do the field work in my place. He helped me in a lab class last fall, so I know he's a good, reliable worker. This trip is his first field work of this kind (other scientists will be there to help him out). No matter how things work out, it's a good opportunity for him to see a part of the world that not many people get to see.

It turns out that Cumberland Sound is almost completely covered in ice. For comparison, this time last year all we saw were a few icebergs. At the moment, the ship can’t even get into the sound - so the ship is going somewhere else to do some mapping until conditions change.

It’s amazing how different conditions are just a year later, I’ll have to look for some satellite photos to compare. I’ve prioritized my sampling plan, so hopefully the most important stations still get sampled. All I can do now is wait and see. Unfortunately, my student is stuck sitting in Pangnirtung with the other scientists waiting...

At this point no-one knows when sampling will begin.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Glass Frogs

My collection of frogs some day needs one of these.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ice holes

Out in the middle of the frozen Arctic and Antarctic waters are pockets of open water called polynyas (Russian for ‘ice hole’). I first ran across polynyas when I read ‘Ice Station Zebra’ by Alistair MacLean as a teenager - I understand the book was made into a movie in 1968, but I haven’t seen it. A cold war thriller, the novel centers on a nuclear submarine traveling under the Arctic ice pack on a supposed rescue mission that results in sabotage. Getting through the ice becomes critically important to the submarine’s crew - and normal pack ice is much too thick to break through. A polynya provides the perfect way through the ice, but why are they there?

It seems paradoxical that open water can co-exist with below freezing air temperatures. Shouldn’t the water just freeze? Polynyas form only under very special conditions. First, a physical barrier is needed to stop ice from moving in. A point of land or ice bridge would do the trick. Next, mechanisms to stop ice formation must occur which can be broken into two broad categories.

If the forming ice is removed by some mechanical process, it’s called a mechanically forced polynya. Appropriate mechanical processes include wind, currents and tides. Because ice is being formed, then moved away, the surface waters would become extra-salty - as sea ice forms it rejects the brine. This salty, cold water would then sink.

The second type of polynya is formed by convection. Convection is a common heat-transfer process that can be found in any kitchen. It explains how a pot of water is brought to the boiling point from a heat source below. The element heats the bottom layer of water (conduction) and this water rises heating water further up (convection).

In Arctic waters (and Antarctic waters I think - I haven’t been looking into what happens in the Antarctic), the lowest layer of water is quite warm, about three degrees Celsius. It stays on the bottom because it’s dense (i.e. heavy). If a process, like tides or upwelling, brought this warmer water up to the surface, it would keep the surface waters from freezing. An added bonus when deep waters are brought to the surface is that they tend to be nutrient rich, supporting diverse life.

As with everything in nature, polynya formation is complex. Typically, they form due to a combination of factors and can even create their own feedback loops.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

making ice

Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea
I took thermodynamics in 1992 - just the other day was the first time I needed it. Formulas memorized 20 years ago are long gone from my head forcing me to crack open old textbooks. I've been moving these books around for years, so it's good to finally need them.

The first book I looked at was a first year oceanography textbook where the authors seemed confused about the difference between heat and temperature. An undergrad physics textbook turned out to be much clearer.

Heat and temperature are related, but they are not the same thing - a point that is often blurred in our everyday language. Temperature is a physical property of an object and easy to measure with a thermometer. For my project, I spent a lot of time last summer measuring this property in seawater and I'm planning on gathering more of this data in a few weeks. Temperature puts a number to ‘hotness’ or ‘coldness’.

We know that the molecules making up everything are in constant motion. The energy found in this motion is know as heat which is reported in joules.

Why am I suddenly looking at heat and temperature? I want to know if cold winter waters produced in Cumberland Sound will form the bottom water which is over one kilometre deep. If I can’t make this water locally, then it must come from somewhere else. To see if bottom waters are being made in winter (as I don’t have data from that time) I’m cooling down the summer water (which I measured) to the freezing point, making it denser. Then, I’m looking at the denser water to see if it will sink to the bottom. The temperature difference between the summer value and the freezing point is related to the heat loss - so I’m also able to look at the amount of heat that needs to be removed and see if that number relates to winter conditions.

These calculations are very rough as ice formation is much more complex than just cooling surface waters to the freezing point - but, it's a place to start.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Getting tangled in jargon

A crab drawing of mine - completely unrelated to the text
Since I spend most my days with people in ocean science and people who have been around ocean scientists long enough to understand what they say, I often don’t notice ocean science specific jargon as such. I got caught out the other day using ‘water column’ when asked what I do - I didn’t even realize I was using jargon until she said she didn’t know what that meant.

Imagine you are out on the ocean on a rubber raft. If you looked straight down over the side, from the surface of the water all the way down to the bottom would be considered the water column.

On another note - a blog post I wrote about how we measure temperature in the ocean has been posted here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

An interesting take on blues and greens

I stumbled across this today. Colours and how we perceive them never ceases to fascinate me.

As a tangent: I realize it has been more than two months since I've written anything, work on another project has left me exhausted.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The case of the drowning crickets

A firebelly toad waiting for a cricket
Our aquatic tank contains many firebelly toads, and each one of them is a voracious cricket eater. A few large rocks in the tank create an island, surrounded by open water. When we place crickets on the rocks, a significant portion of them fall into the water staying there until they drown (or until we rescue them and put them back on solid ground). Are cricket brains so tiny that they don’t realize they can’t breathe, and so don’t pull themselves out of the water, or is something else going on?

I found a nice explanation in an essay by J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) ‘On Being the Right Size’:

There is a force which is as formidable to an insect as gravitation to a mammal. This is surface tension. A man coming out of the bath carries with him a film of water of about one-fiftieth of an inch in thickness. This weighs roughly a pound. A wet mouse has to carry about its own weight in water. A wet fly has to lift many times its own weight and, as everyone knows, a fly once wetted by water or any other liquid is in a very serious position indeed. An insect going for a drink is in as great danger as a man leaning out over a precipice in search of food. If it once falls into the grip of the surface tension of the water - that is to say, gets wet - it is likely to remain so until it drowns.

I often swim at lunch. When I’m done I haul myself out of the water and head to the showers without a second thought for the amount of pool water I’m carrying around with me. It’s lucky for me that my size makes me immune to the same surface tension that drowns the unfortunate crickets.

As a tangent: I found an online copy of Haldane's essay here - it's worth reading and not too long.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Floating Trees

A tree in the forest near my home
Years ago I read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy since I had enjoyed his The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series as a kid. The Space Trilogy books were too weird for me and I can’t remember if I finished all three. What does stick in my memory is one of the settings (on Venus I think, but I could be wrong). The main character ran across surreal floating islands coated in trees and surrounded by water. The movie ‘Avatar’ also brought us tree covered floating islands (this time floating in the air due to a ‘flux vortex’), but the strangest trees I’ve come across are floating on glaciers and they’re real.

A while back, I went to a talk by Hig about his trek with his wife, toddler and baby across Malaspina Glacier (find their blog here). They lived in the wild for two months. Clearly they are somewhat crazy - in a fantastic way, I wish more people took their kids into nature that way. From the video and photos clearly the kids had an awesome time.

Malaspina Glacier sits by the ocean on the southern reaches of Alaska reaching 600m thick in places and covering an area of 3,900 square km. Like many glaciers, this one is shrinking however the most striking feature to my mind is that in places trees grow on it. Trees growing on top of ice - how fabulous is that! Even assuming there is some sort of soil layer buffering the roots from the ice.

Are there other glaciers out there with trees growing on them?

Monday, February 27, 2012

a porpoise for a trip

The picture of the turtle I took was
blurry - so here's my lunch instead
This morning I went on a short road trip to drop off a harbour porpoise and pick up an olive ridley sea turtle from the Pacific Biological Centre - a trip that took two hours one way. Both animals had been found dead, frozen and put into scientists hands.

Olive ridley’s are the most abundant of the sea turtles. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining putting them at risk of extinction like all the other sea turtles. Years ago, I saw a live one on a beach in Costa Rica that came ashore to lay eggs - we moved along quickly to avoid disturbing her. It was night and to me she seemed huge as she hauled her mass up the sandy beach, however, they’re small compared to other sea turtles.

The sea turtle we picked up today ventured too far north as they normally live in tropical waters - in fact, turtle was the first olive ridley ever found here. Cold blood in cold water meant the animal probably was moving pretty slow. It was found on a beach in Toffino after it was too late to help. Why it came this far north we don’t know.

I’ll write more about the turtle shortly, as I’ll be helping at the museum to preserve it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

talks about climate change

I'm still at the Ocean Sciences Meeting. So far, every session of talks I attend are in rooms with a capacity for a great number more people than show up. As I look around, there is always an uneven sprinkling of people throughout the room.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012 - Day 3

An interesting point came up that I hadn’t considered: coral reefs are studied with much more frequency than the equally (or more so) common eelgrass beds. I wonder if the colourful fish make are simply more appealing? Although, fascinating creatures live in eelgrass.

One of the sessions I attended was titled ‘Imaging the Ocean Interior’ - I was excited about one of the last talks that hinted at exploring underwater ice caverns with acoustics. Two of these talks focused on re-using the seismic survey data collected by oil and gas companies. This is data collected to look at what is beneath the ocean floor, but it can provides interesting information about the structure within the water column such as internal waves and boundaries between layers.

A cool use of acoustics is looking at really small things. One group is able to ‘see’ targets down to 0.8 mm in size. This same group has simultaneously developed an optical system, essentially an underwater microscope, that sees to 25 micrometers giving a clear view of phytoplankton. Both these techniques can be deployed into the ocean, reducing the need to bring samples back to the lab.

The afternoon wasn’t without disappointment. The under ice exploring talk focused on a project they wanted to do, not one already completed. I’ll have to attend the next conference to see their results.

Thursday, 23 February 2012 - Day 4

Melting glaciers are an iconic symbol of climate change
- J. Bamber, Nature, February 2012

Another early start with ‘Dynamics of Fjords and High Latitude Estuaries’. A lot of focus is being put on the fjords in Greenland because of the melting ice sheet there. As this ice sheet melts it adds about 0.09 mm each year into the oceans contributing to rising sea levels. The majority of fresh water released from a glacier is due to calving icebergs and melting from beneath the glacier that passes over sea water, only a small portion if due to run off. Increased fresh water can change the dynamics of fjords making an interesting basis for a scientific study.

As a tangent - I wish I brought my camera so I could include some pictures!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

my brain is full!

I’m at the Ocean Science Meeting in Salt Lake City Utah. After the end of day two, I can officially say my brain is full.

Monday, 20 February 2012 - Day 1

I got up early to attend one of the first sessions of talks titled ‘Integrating Oceanography and Animal Tracking - the Ocean Tracking Network’ as my work is part of this project. An interesting point was raised: “results will not reflect the properties of fish ‘untouched’ by the hand of man.” Putting a tag inside the fish will alter its behavior, at worst the surgery could kill it at best it might swim away after a really bad day.

Tagging fish can answer questions like: how long a fish remains in an area, if they make daily migrations or movement related to tides, or how many of a population stays put compared to numbers that go wandering.Tracking projects were discussed from South Africa to Australia to Canada.

The migrations of the American eel made an interesting tracking example. These eels spend most their lives in fresh water ranging from Greenland to the north coast of South America. At the end of their lives, all of these eels migrate to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. We know close to nothing about this migration, but we do know their population dropped dramatically in the last 30 years.

To learn more and potentially take preservation measures, eels were tagged in the St Lawrence River. 145 eels were tagged in 2010 and 2011. From the acoustic signals recorded we learned that they don’t migrate as a group, and they take advantage of tides and darkness to move. Temperature data showed that unlucky eels were eaten by Tuna and shark as their stomachs are warmer than the surrounding waters.

A twist on finding tagged animals is in testing off the coast of Nova Scotia. Receivers are put on a big enough animal. Since, grey seals range over large areas, they are ideal predators to lead us to feeding hotspots while recording signals of other tagged fish.

Other talks I went to delved into how energy is dissipated from surface waves, decay rates of white cap foam and temperature fronts in the ocean. I found the images of currents that form jets in the southern oceans fascinating as I had no idea it was so complex - the pictures looked like a chaotic mass of snakes.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012 - Day 2

I started with attending Arctic talks in a session titled ‘The Arctic and subpolar North Atlantic as the pacemakers for climate change.’ I’m aware that there is a sea surface height difference between the Pacific, which is higher, and the Atlantic, this results in flow across the Arctic to the Atlantic. What I didn’t know is that fresh water is accumulating in the Arctic, specifically in the Beaufort Sea as a gyre. This gyre as increased in fresh water content significantly since 2003 by 5400 square kilometers. What happens when this fresh water is released? This and other fresh water anomalies could potentially impact our climate if they stop or slow down the Meridional Overturning Circulation - this is a basin wide process in the Atlantic that includes the warm water from the Gulf Stream the keep Europe warm.

I also found it interesting that Arctic observations peaked in the 1980s - cold war related?

My afternoon was filled with talks on flow/topography interactions, an area I looked at in detail for my masters work. The room was packed, meaning this area is very much the focus of active research.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How deep is it?

Once a lead line was the only way to figure out how much water was beneath your ship. Now, there are all sorts of options for determining ocean depths from echosounders to satellite images. I suppose one could even venture out with reel of line and a weight, but not me as spooling in kilometres of line is quite tiring.

I wrote about how our technology evolved for determining ocean depths here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Plastic in the ocean – a depressing thought

A myctophids (photo by G. Hanke RBCM)
“No scientist would ever use the state of Texas as a unit of measurement” 
       - Captain Charles Moore

My husband and I went to a talk by Captain Charles Moore recently. He wrote 'Plastic Ocean', a book I'll read and write a review of (we have been planning to get the book for some time). He brought up some interesting and depressing points about how much plastic is in our oceans and what it's doing to the life there.

Only about 10% of the garbage that gets into the oceans washes ashore; the rest is concentrated into the mid-ocean gyres. An unfortunate side effect of our convenience-based consumer lifestyle is that much of the garbage produced is plastics, which float and don't breakdown. It takes approximately 6 years for the garbage to travel around a gyre and the average life of the garbage in a gyre is 10 revolutions – that is 60 years.

At first the plastics resemble what they started as – a milk crate, a laundry basket, etc. Since plastic presents a hard substrate, algae eating fishes claim larger chunks as shelter and keep the surface fairly algae free. This clean plastic eventually gets colonized by barnacles and corals creating a new multi-level trashy ecosystem - with algae as the base, then on to herbivores, planktivores, secondary invertebrate consumers, and so on ending at the top predators (large fishes, birds, dolphins and relatives).

As hard-shelled invertebrates grow, their mass overcomes the buoyancy of the plastic. The reef sinks, and over time, the attached organisms decay or dissolve in the cold ocean depths. Buoyant once again, the plastic floats to the surface and the cycle of colonization can begin anew.

In the long run, this plastic garbage will rub up against other debris or be broken by wave action. The plastic pieces get smaller and smaller. A ruby-red bottle cap might be scooped up by an albatross to be fed to its chick or the plastic rings holding a six-pack together might end up around a sea turtle, restricting normal shell growth. Captain Moore mentioned myctophids, an abundant group of lantern fishes which are a vital part of the open ocean food web. Dissections of their stomachs show some of these fish are eating as much plastic as food. Even the tiniest pieces can be ingested by filter feeders.

Plastics are known to absorb pollutants. Species low on the food web eat plastic scraps, creating another way for pollutants to end up in our food. I wonder, what that tuna I ate for lunch ate for its lunch?

So what can we do? I try to use as little as plastic as possible. I have my own metal water bottle and ceramic coffee cup. I keep food in glass containers, and use re-fillable bottles for shampoo and cleaning products. Any other ideas?

as a tangent: thanks to my husband for helping me with this one.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Playing with fire - again

Burning an old bird house
We partly heat our home with wood for reasons including having a fireplace, being given a large quantity of well seasoned firewood and taking down a tree down on our lot. Ours is an actual fireplace (not a wood stove), that is only a chimney modification away from an ancient fire pit – meaning that if we aren't careful our house fills with smoke, which I consider a negative point. On the plus side, having a fireplace means there is always kindling around making me ready for a vampire attack.

The sound and smell of wood fires are nostalgic for me. A whiff of wood smoke transports me back to the house I grew up in and the wood stove that heated it (funny, I don't immediately recall carrying all that wood into the house – yet I did lots of that too). We aren't alone with our fireplace as 20% of Canadians partly heat with wood.

In general, wood is a much better heating source than fossil fuels. For example, natural gas emits 15 times more carbon dioxide per kilogram than wood. Is a wood fire better for the environment than using electric heat (our other option)? The type of wood burned matters in two ways. First, the energy content of wood depends on the variety of tree it came from. Secondly, how dry the wood is. Moisture content determines how firewood burns and how much heat is released. Dry wood produces more heat than green wood of the same species.

Here is a good explanation of why wood might be okay (from here):

Only a relatively small percentage of electricity is from renewables like hydroelectric dams, and even then there are environmental problems due to flooding large areas. Wind turbines will never produce enough electricity to be used widely for home heating.

Firewood, on the other hand, can be produced with slight environmental impact because it needs little processing and most of it is used close to where the trees grew. Wood is the most economical and accessible of all renewable energy resources for many households and it has value beyond the displacement of fossil fuels and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is practiced on a small scale and the householders that use it gain a better understanding of their impacts on the environment than users of other energy sources. Families who heat their homes with wood responsibly should be recognized for their contribution to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a sustainable energy future.

In a modern context, and knowing what we now know about the environmental impacts of all energy use, wood can be thought of as a ‘new’ energy resource, provided it comes from sustainable sources and is burned in advanced combustion appliances.

The article goes on to make it clear that wood heating isn't for everyone and how it's done is critically important.

An interesting side point – if a truck load of wood spills, it can just be picked up again the only cost is a bit of labour. If a truck load of oil spills it's a whole different problem. Plus, where I live wood can come from near by, while fossil fuels come from far away.

Monday, January 23, 2012

a bit about a beach sceine

Willow's Beach at high tide
I've expanded on my Friday night beach sceine from a few months back. The article can be found here. Take a look.

As a tangent, this came out of my Christmas cracker this year:

What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire?

- Frostbite (terrible, I know)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How to be an algivore

powdered chlorella on a spoon
To start my investigation of algae, I cracked open an old textbook of my husband’s titled: ‘Introduction to Phycology'. According to the textbook, “algae is ubiquitous, occurring in practically every habitable environment on earth.” I agree as I don't have to look far to find algae. My aquarium hosts all sorts of algae types resulting in periodic algal blooms, some less desirable than others. Walking into my bathroom, I can often find a pink alga growing on my shower curtain which would take over my shower if I didn’t regularly beat it back with bleach. Further afield, algae can be found thriving under Arctic ice and in deserts. I doubt there’s a more a resilient plant out there.

Plenty of critters thrive on an algae diet. Back to my aquarium, a farlowella (a stick-like fish with a suction-cup-like mouth) thrives on the green alga growing on the glass. My ever-expanding population of snails also dine on this alga. Out in the wild, frog and toad tadpoles live on algae. In fact, algivores reside all over this planet. Plenty of humans include algae in their diets - and have been doing so for eons. Apparently, ancient Aztecs considered spirilina (a freshwater microalga) a staple. Many coastal communities harvest seaweeds (a type of algae) all over the world and have done so for centuries.

In the alga eating spirit, I've decided to try eating (drinking actually) Chlorella vulgaris daily. Chlorella is a microscopic freshwater green algae. I bought a small tub of it in powdered form. Before I opened the tub, I expected chlorella to smell like pond scum, instead I got a pleasant surprise when the smell reminded me of a hayloft on a sunny day (still not a food smell). The powder is a dark forest green, so dark it's almost black, with the texture of a ground up pigment.

my farlowella kindly cleaning the glass for me
It is easy to find glowing reports about chlorella (which I keep wanting to pronounce as cholera) as a superfood. I'm sceptical whenever the declaration of a 'superfood' is made, especially if the superfood was considered a 'staple' of an ancient remote civilization – everyday food never seems to be declared a superfood. Instead of eating a blackberry from my backyard, am I supposed to rush out and buy acacia berries from South American jungles?

There are documented benefits to eating microalgae. First of all, they contain all sorts of nutrients and complete proteins. Additionally, chlorella can reproduce itself four times every twenty-four hours, making it the fastest growing plant on the planet. This productivity is an important factor in considering food sources for our seven billion plus population. As for the health claims, I just don't know. According to the internet, chlorella is apparently a cure-all, especially useful for 'people with poor vitality' (whatever that means). On the flip side, I've found web sites documenting digestive distress caused by consuming chlorella. I take the hype with a grain of salt.

Another well documented benefit to chlorella is how it improves air. Experiments have shown chlorella absorbs carbon dioxide and replenishes oxygen (important for long space voyages). If cultivated in tanks, eight metres squared of exposed surface is needed to keep one person breathing – which isn't much considering the cultivation tanks could be shallow and stacked. These experiments were conducted in soviet-era Russia (1970s) where they made no effort to eat the stuff. NASA took the next step and looked at chlorella as the sole food source for astronauts on long space voyages – apparently they would survive, but I bet they would be grumpy.

As a food, chlorella poses a bit of a problem. It's a single celled spherical alga with tough cell walls. These cell walls make it impossible to digest in its natural state. Processing of some form is required. Chlorella has a second problem – flavour. I've tried algae (in this case seaweeds) that have tasted fantastic, chlorella doesn't. It isn't that it tastes bad exactly, just unfamiliar. So far, I haven't found any reference on how to make it taste good – just advice on masking its flavour in smoothies, or taking it in pill form. I tried it in a chocolate-banana smoothie, the smoothie was fine but there was no hiding the fact that chlorella was in there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

on a snowy day ...

Snow is falling on my island in the Pacific - and more snow is threatening to dump on us. The lyrics from Paul Simon's 'Slip Sliding Away' come to mind when I think about venturing out onto a snowy road. If I don't have to go anywhere, I don't mind the snow and enjoy the change to the landscape it brings. From my window or backyard, watching snow falling is fascinating. There's something about the silence when snow falls that I find quite compelling. If you have ever wondered about a snowflake's shape and how it relates to the temperature outside, check out this.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Apollo 18

Apollo 18 never happened – originally it was scheduled to land two people on the moon for a three day stay. Apollo 18 and future manned moon missions were cancelled due to budgetary reasons meaning, Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to the moon in December 1972.

I watched 'Apollo 18' last night as snow, and the threat of more snow, prevented our expected dinner guests from arriving. The movie became the alternate evening entertainment. 'Apollo 18' is from my favourite genre – space horror (zombie movies are my second favourite – I have some unsophisticated tastes). This morning I was still thinking about the movie and it isn't often that I keep thinking about movies after they are over. By the way, I might give away the ending here.

The movie is presented as a series of clips from the Apollo 18 mission to the moon. It's presentation is similar to 'The Blair Witch Project' – which made me motion sick when I saw it in the theatre. 'Apollo 18's' clips were better executed, thus easier to watch and they maintained a nice 70's vibe to the footage. I think real moon footage was included. The cast was small and centred around the one guy orbiting the moon in the command module and the two guys camping out in the lunar module.

Apollo 18 is a secret military mission to the south pole of the moon which is why the public was lead to believe it was cancelled. The lunar module ends up landing only 2km from an ill fated Soviet mission's lunar module and frozen cosmonaut remained (in reality the Soviet's never made a manned landing on the moon). The astronaut's mission goes downhill from this discovery.

There are aliens, which I thought were handled well. We never find out why they are there or what they really want. They aren't humanish, nor do they speak English. We don't even know if they really are evil, although that is implied. Also, the physics of space was handled well (I never expect it to be perfect) and air was a serious issue.

Over all I liked the movie even though a lot of the reviewers didn't. I was left with one big question at the end, how did they recover the film?

As a tangent, I would be seriously on edge camped out on the moon even without strange things going on. Any creak or groan of the lander would put me on high alert as I'd be well aware that if something did go wrong there would be no one coming to save me. At least when I'm up in the Arctic, I know that if something went wrong rescuers would come - eventually.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shiny Shoes

A look at my red shoe polish
Last week I went walking in the rain wearing my black leather shoes. Predictably, my shoes got wet. As they dried salt stains appeared, creating jagged white lines across the dull black leather. I’m not particularly fussy about my footwear, however, I want them to look well kept. So, I dug out my shoe polish tin and brush to return the shoes to their uniform black state.

As soon as I twist open the lid, the shoe polish smell takes me back to when I was in the military. Boots polished to a glossy shine was required back then - a feat that included a time-consuming regimen of spit and polish. I never really had the patience to keep my parade boots to the required shine as I always could think of better things to do. As a result, I suffered the consequence of not having shiny enough shoes more than once. I do however, have no problem brush shining my shoes to preserve the leather and keep them black.

The few moments it took to blacken my shoes started me to wondering: what is shoe polish anyway?

From wikipedia: Shoe polish is a waxy paste or cream to polish, waterproof, restore the appearance and extend the life of leather footwear. Originally concocted from wax and tallow, generally people made their own shoe polish. Tinned shoe polish took off during World War I as suddenly there were hordes of soldiers who needed to shine their shoes. Recipes for shoe polish have evolved by going into the realm of industrial chemistry. Now they are composed of a multitude of ingredients including naphtha, turpentine, dyes and gum arabic. Clearly modern shoe polish is flammable (I wonder if it would work as a fire starter in the event of an apocalypse as I have several cans in the house).

Again according to wikipedia, banana peels can be used to shine shoes - who knew? So banana peels can make my shoes shiny, what can make them black?

There is a recipe made from olive oil and lemon juice here, again lacking a blackening ingredient. A recipe more along what I would expect can be found here. These directions use: charcoal (what makes the polish black), hard soap, kerosene (still flammable), citric acid and liquid paraffin. More recipes can be found here. Since I have lots of shoe polish at the moment, I haven't tried any of these concoctions - yet.

As a tangent - I polish my black shoes with red polish (the tin calls it 'mahogany') from time to time as I like the rich colour the red adds. I always feel a little naughty doing it as I was only allowed to use black polish on my army boots.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The talking crow

A picture of a crow - but not the talking crow
“Wanna ball,” demanded a small metallic voice. I stopped peddling my bike to put a foot on the ground and look around. I was alone on the road, not even a car to be seen. It was near the end of summer in the early 80's. My precious blue bike had been bought for me at a garage sale for twenty-five cents – the kind I had to peddle backwards to brake. All summer long, I rode my bike to the corner store, the swimming hole and anywhere else I wanted to go. On this particular dusty hot day, the kind signaling the approaching summer's end, I was biking along Headquarters Road, a rural road lined with fields of yellowed grass circled in barbed wire fences.

On a wire nearby, perched a crow looking me in the eye. He fluffed up his glossy black feathers and tilted his head. “Wanna ball,” he stated, as though voicing a common crow need. I stared at him, which he took for encouragement to continue. “Wanna ball, wanna ball, wanna ball ...”

It was getting late; as curious as the crow was, I needed to get home. So I balanced my bike and started to peddle away. The crow took flight, landing on the fence a short distance ahead of me, continuing to make the same demand. As I picked up speed, he just flew beside me in silence. The crow followed me all the way home (I guess he thought I was hiding a ball somewhere). Once we reached my house, I told my mom about the bird. She didn't believe me, and I don't blame her based on my overactive imagination, until the crow demanded a ball from her. 

Thanks to G.Hanke for the crow picture (I didn't have a camera back then)