March 2012 Archives

Using Special Relativity to Solve Cosmic Puzzles

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lagoon-nebula.jpgQuantum Fluctuations in the Early Universe
     In the very early universe, there were no particles, only photons zipping about at immense speeds. Those photons must have collided with each other at some point or other, resulting in one of them absorbing the other and therefore creating slightly higher energy densities in certain areas (that is, quantum fluctuations in the early universe). Then energy cooled and the photon concentrations turned into tiny concentrations of mass (which particles later began to form atoms as the universe cooled). As the cosmos expanded, the mass concentrations began to form nebulae as they were spread out over the increasing distances -- and gravity began to draw more matter to them and shrink them into the first stars.

How Particles Acquire Mass

    The mass-energy equivalence states that as a photon is emitted from an electron or any other particle, the mass of the particle increases, because the energy (e) is equal to the mass (m) times the speed of light squared (c). This is because the net mass (the energy + mass) needs to stay the same to prevent a particle from changing, say, from an electron to a quark and so forth. This creates a logical explanation for  how mass is acquired, and the Higgs mechanism is not required.

Animal Poems

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lion-sketch-final.jpg

Look! I see a shape of tawny,

Its eyes may be kind, but it's fierce and brawny,
On the savanna it blends in so it can hide away,
Never is it seen in the grasses scorched by hot day.


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Great and tall, yet in the plains this animal abides,
In the low grasses it can find no place to hide,
Reaching up to 20 feet off the ground,
Automatically no cover is to be found.
For their safety they have to have spots and to run,
Few are caught by predators  -- almost none!
Evidently they're doing alright, for they are still within our sight!





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The jungle cat I speak of is striped of orange and black,
In hunting and in swimming it does have a knack.
Gazelles it can easily overpower once it is fully grown,
Each and every cat a stripe pattern has its own,
Roaming in the jungle lightly, never leaving a track!


turtle-sketch.jpg


That there is a green reptile

Under the sea, there's no denial.
Red or brown (green, most often of all)
These creatures swim beautifully, but awkwardly crawl,
Land is where it lays its eggs, but at no other time
Ever does this animal above the tide-line climb.




camel-sketch.jpg


Carrying a pack through the desert dusty gold,
As it has all its days and shall until it's old.
Meandering ever through the dunes of sand,
Ending never, always forward caravanned,
Lumbering always in the desert dunes and folds.



Edward I: Environmentalist by Accident

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Edward I.jpgEdward the First, the fifth Plantagenet king of England, is famous for clobbering the Scottish and Welsh armies, getting clobbered by the French, banishing the Jews, going Crusading, taxing everybody he could get his hands on, and performing other violent acts.

Tall for the times at 6'2", Edward had a terrible temper. When his son requested an earldom for his friend, the king tore out fistfuls of the boy's hair. When the Dean of St. Paul's entered the throne-room, mustering his nerve to discuss lowering taxes, he was supposedly killed on the spot by the mere sight of the king.

Is it feasible that this ferocious king, represented in medieval allegory not as the "noble" lion but as the "powerful" and "volatile" leopard, had a good side? It's possible. He maintained a good relationship with his parents, and loved his own wife and children. At fourteen, young Prince Edward married Eleanor of Castile, who was about the same age. Unusually, they were dedicated to each other; Edward didn't have affairs, and he didn't lock Eleanor up in a tower! When Eleanor died after thirty-six years of marriage, Edward was devastated, and built Eleanor Crosses wherever the funereal procession stopped. (His second marriage, to the young Margaret of France, also turned out well, despite their fifty-four-year age difference.)

Yet less well known is the fact that if Edward had had his way, coal pollution would never have been an issue.

Coal was so abundant on England's northeast coast that it was collected in wheelbarrows. People could even pick it up on the beach! It had been used since prehistoric times -- in the Bronze Ages, Welsh funeral pyres were fired by coal -- but when the Romans conquered "Britannia," they fell in love with the fuel.  At first, they thought it was very pretty, and fashioned it into ornaments for themselves. They called it gagate; this word would evolve into "jet," a dense variant of coal still used in making jewelry. (However, the Roman artisans often mixed up the higher quality jet with ordinary coal.) They also popularized burning it. After the Romans had cleared out, the Britons forgot about coal and resorted to wood. The early historian, St. Bede, describing the abundant "jet," didn't mention that it was used for heat, but observed that the smoke kept snakes away.

At any rate, until the 12th century, everybody in London burned wood. Soon, however, London began to grow, and the forests dwindled. Wood became expensive and rare. Instead, the Londoners decided to try the cheaper, easily-obtained coal. There was only one problem. Burning wood produced some smoke, but a lot of heat. Burning sea-coal produced a little heat, but a lot of sulfurous smoke. Nevertheless, instead of thinking of a better solution, everyone decided to burn more coal. The thick smoke combined with the natural fog and hung over the city for days.

In 1306, Edward, instigated by a group of prominent noblemen and clerics, passed legislation banning the burning of sea-coal. The king's mother, Eleanor of Provence, had gotten so sick from the smoke surrounding Nottingham Castle that she had had to flee the town. (Edward I's great-grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had had a similar experience with the burning wood around Tutbury Castle.)

Despite the king's commands, the law was disregarded. The poor didn't have the money to buy wood and there weren't any other alternatives. Edward altered his bill. Now, first-time offenders were subject to immense fines. If they were caught a second time, their furnaces were destroyed. Unfortunately, this didn't work either. The atmosphere was getting tense. Edward altered his bill again. This time, a death penalty was installed for burning coal. One person was seized and executed. But everybody kept on burning coal. Edward couldn't execute his whole kingdom. Besides, even if he could have, then he wouldn't have had anybody to tax or beat up, so what's the point of that? Consequently, the law was ignored, although Edward II, Edward I's successor, tortured a few people who were unable to meet its terms. Astoundingly, that didn't help.

princess elizabeth.jpgSubsequently, others tried to exterminate the burning of coal, including the kings Richard II and Henry V, whose palace at Westminster was permeated by the odor. By the time Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne, the situation was worse than ever. Short beds, which forced sleepers to sit up, were popular, as people had difficulties breathing if they lay down. The queen was reported to be "greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea- coales," and tried to get it banned, at least while Parliament was in session.

Later, in 1661, a prominent Cavalier named John Evelyn was asked by Charles II (whose palace at Whitehall was getting all the fumes from a nearby duke's residence) to write a book against coal. He complied, and the result was Fumifugium: or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, Together with some Remedies humbly proposed by J. E. Esq., to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now Assembled. The title "Fumifugium" was compounded of two Latin words, fumus, meaning "smoke," and fugit, "to escape or get  away from." (It's actually pretty terrible Latin, just for the record.)

John Evelyn.jpgEvelyn's book was one of the first comprehensive studies of the dangers of coal burning, and one of the earliest to discuss air pollution. (It also blamed the English Civil Wars on bad air caused by coal fires, not on any political issues!) Not only did it berate the smell of the smoke, it also attacked it as being unhealthy and aesthetically unpleasing. Evelyn wrote that the fumes were

"...so universally mixed with that otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies; so that Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions, rage more in this one City, than in the whole Earth besides."

He also complained that "Whilst these [the "Chimnies of London"] are belching it forth their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Ætna, the Court of Vulcan, [or] Stromboli, ... than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the Imperial feat of our incomparable Monarch," adding that the black particles in the smoke ruined the facades of palaces, churches, and houses. Evelyn goes on to say that it killed birds and insects and blighted flowers and fruit trees. He adds that travelers could smell the city long before they could see it.

Evelyn did not advocate the prohibiting of coal-burning; he merely said that trades, such as brewing, dyeing, lime-burning, which put out a significant amount of smoke should be relocated to where the soot would not affect the city. He also proposed moving other noxious businesses, such as butchers and chandlers, out as well. To promote cleanliness, no burials should be permitted in churches or even within the city walls. Not even this approach, however, gained much support.

James Watt.jpgThe Industrial Revolution effectively destroyed any hopes of outlawing this pernicious fuel, as it was considered indispensable to development. Anyone who was opposed to coal was opposed to progress. Factories relied on it to fire their huge furnaces. It heated workers' homes. Worst of all, it provided the steam for James Watt's new steam engine. Getting rid of it was impossible. In fact, coal usage in Great Britain multiplied by 100 between 1800 and 1900.

The coal-produced smog, called "fog" by the Londoners, was familiar to people such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Darwin, James Russell Lowell (who was proud to have survived the smoke), Arthur Conan Doyle, Heinrich Heine, and Thomas Carlyle, who called it "fluid ink." Finally, in 1956, four years after a four-day "fog" killed approximately 4,000 people, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act, which reduced coal burning to a large extent.

To this day, coal continues to be one of the worst energy sources on the planet. It is the largest contributor to man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The difference that the success of Edward I's 1306 law would have caused is unfathomable. Even though he was a terrifying warrior and sometimes a cruel king, ironically he deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest environmentalists.

Crocodile Crossword

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croccross.jpg
CrocCrossClues.jpg
If you need help figuring out the clues, you can try consulting any of these websites:

American Crocodile Facts, Defenders of Wildlife
American Crocodiles, National Geographic
American Crocodile, Wikipedia
Crocodile, Wikipedia
Saurian (definition), Dictionary.com

After you finish solving the puzzle, check your answers below (no peeking!):

crocodileanswers.jpg

Florida Backyard Birding

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pterydactyl.jpg    On vacation in Florida, we saw a surprising variety of wild birds. There were ospreys, great and little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, white ibises, limpkins, bald eagles, moorhens, coots, vultures abounding, sandhill cranes, and all varieties of egret -- great, snowy, and cattle.

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    Many of our opportunities occurred close to home, like the pier in Venice, which hosted several anhingas and pelicans. One pelican appeared to have a hurt wing, so we rang the local Save Our Seabirds. They took the pelican and we saw him again (looking better but still favoring his hurt wing) in the Sarasota branch.There was also a church very near to our house with a cross atop it which adornment was the favorite haunt of a bald eagle who evidently hadn't been acquainted with the separation of church and state yet. At the nearby Myakka State Park we saw a stray flamingo flying overhead, along with many roseate spoonbills and some black-crowned night herons as well. Magnificent frigatebirds are rare, but we saw them flying overhead twice (they can be easily identified by their throat pouches, while are still conspicuous when not inflated). The crested caracara is harder to identify, but it flew over occasionally.
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  But best of all was the lake back of our house. Almost every evening we would hear our resident pair of sandhill cranes "chortling" across the lake and then flying off to roost. But one day they began to build a nest in a clump of reeds opposite us -- tweaking the grasses with their bills and inquisitively sitting on it. Then, one morning, we found them incubating their eggs, and they never flew away at night again. One chick hatched about a month later, and was quickly nicknamed "Junior." He was at first inside the nest for the most part, but then he gradually began to walk about the lake with his two parents, as viewed with our binoculars. As he grew his appearance changed from that of a small downy chick to a small tawny bird the size of a chicken, with inordinately long legs. One day we decided to go across the lake for a close-up view of the cranes, and we walked across the subdivision to the nest site. They were calmly feeding there, and they showed no signs of being afraid of us. Junior kept running from one of his parents to the other to be fed on the grubs they were digging from the ground, and now and then one of the parents would rise for a moment to see if they detected any intruders, and then resume foraging. The chick gradually grew until his fledging stage arrived -- we would see the two parents walking along the lake and flapping their wings, and Junior following, anxious to keep up with Mom and Dad. By the end, Junior was larger than his mother, and only lacked a red cap to resemble his parents almost precisely.
   The little blue herons and the white ibis seemed to get along relatively well with each other -- we'd see them making rounds across the pond, filing one by one and digging in the Great Blue Heron.jpgpond bed and grass slopes on the bank. Their heads would bob comically up and down. The ibis typically walked much faster than the herons, however, so they would generally end up at least twenty yards away. Juvenile white little blue herons would also sometimes be seen. Little and Great Blue Herons (the latter could sometimes be seen feeding on the lake, occasionally the Wurdemann's or Great White varieties) both flew with their necks bunched up in a comical fashion. Limpkins are relatively rare; they only showed themselves a few times at our pond. They would generally stand near the bank with the herons and ibises.
    Wood storks would sometimes land on the other side of the pond in the late afternoon to feed, and occasionally roost in the tall pines (very seldom, on our side of the pond), but most of the time they would fly off. Also, sometimes we would see a mysterious phenomenon; a group of birds would be flying in the distance, and then they would disappear, often when they went in front of a cloud. We then discovered it was the wood storks flying, and tilting themselves midair until we could not see the black bottoms of their wings.
    Ospreys and eagles frequented a large tree just to the left of our house, and you would sometimes see the ospreys diving for fish, flapping, hovering -- then diving. A juvenile eagle and his parent would sometimes be seen in the tree, attempting to establish authority over a raven that persisted in irritating them. There were regular battles for supremacy (in the bird world, that's the higher branch).
    We also had a chance to view the lives of moorhens, coots, and ducks in detail. In the small-bird world, there was a mockingbird pair who built a nest in our shrub, but theirs was a fussy baby who emitted regular sounds almost like a timer beep when hungry (and sometimes just as irritating). We never got to see much of the chick, who was hidden away in the foliage, but we saw the two parents entering the shrub with food and singing their melodious songs.

Good luck birdwatching and always remember these tips:
-Never get too close to a bird that it might become nervous
-Never at any time litter: a bird might learn to feed in developed places and be run over.
-If you see a hurt bird, always call the nearest wildlife rescue center. Never touch the bird, however.
-Be extra respectful of a bird with a nest.

Does Shelling Harm Wildlife?

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Shell.jpgRecently, we were walking on the beach just after low tide. Rims of seashells marked where the waves had come. Many of these were fragmented, and the majority had been bleached by the sun. There were some pretty scallops and cockles, and several still-connected bivalve shells. Then, Mom found a beautiful conch. The shell was mottled with shades of brown, edged in red. The spiked tips were pointed and distinct, unlike some of the worn ones we had collected earlier.

conch shell.jpgMom picked it up and held it up to the light. It was inhabited, and we could see the conch's claw. We put it back where an occasional wave would wash over it. The prettiest shells we found had creatures in them. Many were conches, but some of the shells had been claimed by hermit crabs. We didn't take any of the ones that were alive, but we saw other people carelessly collecting them. One lady had two grocery bags filled with large, colorful shells. Although the signs along the boardwalk read "No Live Shelling," several people were ignoring that rule.

hermit crab.jpgOn many beaches, collecting live animals is illegal. For instance, Washington State has banned the taking of any invertebrate, and in most national parks it is illegal to take anything. In addition to wanting the shells, people get them for food and bait, or as pets for their home aquariums. However, even in places where there are no laws preventing this collection, it is a bad idea. Not only does it harm the individual animal, but overharvesting of a species can lead to a decline in its population, making it endangered or even extinct. When this happens, the natural balance is also upset, because the creatures that relied on the animal for food or used the shells as shelter are no longer able to find them.

Buying shells commercially is not environmentally-friendly. Many companies catch live shellfish, which are killed for their meat, their shells, or both. Live sand dollars and sea stars are also captured and sold. Because they are caught in such huge numbers, many rare species are threatened by this practice.

One example is the Queen Conch. Its shells are used as jewelery or decorations and its meat is eaten or used as bait. They were captured so extensively that their numbers declined. Although they are not officially endangered, many Caribbean countries are trying to conserve the conches living near their shores and have agreed not to export them until the populations have stabilized.

The critically endangered Black Abalone is another animal which has been depleted by the meat and shell industry. They were once plentiful along the Pacific coast, from California to Mexico. Its meat was more popular than its small, smooth shell. At the time they were being harvested, there were no rules about protecting an individual species. After the California fishery had run out of one species of abalone, they would switch to another. Withering syndrome, a disease, also decreased the numbers. Today, hunting these mollusks is illegal, although some poaching occurs.

Collecting empty shells at the beach is harmless, except in parks where removing anything is illegal. Just make sure they are empty before you take them!

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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