Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cosmos slips into a black hole: Thoughts on Episode 4 "A Sky Full of Ghosts" Air Date 3.30.14

I'm constantly trying to push the new Cosmos on anyone that will listen.  I've been posting all over the place urging everyone to watch.  But this week's episode (S1:E4 "A Sky Full of Ghosts") left me with some mixed feelings. 

My concerns are mostly about the goofiness the show allowed itself in slipping over the event horizon of a black hole. IMHO, the show should stick with what it's made abundantly clear it's about: the observable universe. I fear that the show risks some credibility and opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy if it allows itself to engage in gross speculation, and even fantasy. NDT has pulled no punches in going right after people who don't believe in evolution, who believe the universe is only 6,500 years old, etc. Maybe a little too directly, given that this show is about turning people on to science, not settling scores. NDT can make these sort of pugnacious statements because he can always say those beliefs don't hold up in the face of the physical evidence, the observable universe. But when the show allows itself a "thought experiment" that it admits has no basis in observation, then we're entering fantasy land. To be consistent with its core approach, IMHO, the show simply should've stopped at the event horizon and NDT should've admitted that that was the limit of our knowledge -- so far.

I also was not a big fan of the Sagan bit at the end.  I loved the ending of the first episode, when NDT pulled out Sagan's calendar, and showed that appointment with the young NDT. That was incredibly moving, and you could see that NDT was getting emotional just talking about it. I choked up watching that bit. That is the kind of thing that works well in an introductory episode, and sets up the relay from mentor to student, from Sagan to NDT. But I felt like going back to that event again in this episode was a bit gratuitous, and felt a bit maudlin. It also a felt a bit too on-the-nose with its parallels to William Herschel and his son.

All that said, this remains the most important television on the air today, and I'm a committed fan. I do think the show should be consistent, and stick to the observable universe, instead of trying to get a bit wild in an attempt to blow our minds. Reality -- as we can see it so far -- is already mind-blowing enough.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Doing What Comes Naturally: Playing Devil's Advocate re Natural vs. Unnatural

In 1994, a college roommate and I got into a heated argument about our microwave.   The argument wasn't about whose turn it was to clean the microwave, or who had spattered tomato sauce all over the inside of the microwave.  The argument was about whether the microwave was "artificial."  

This argument was, I recognize, pretty standard fare in the repertoire of drunken or high arguments with college roommates.  But the two sides of the argument went pretty much like this:

Side A (my roommate): The microwave was artificial, that is, a technology created by man that did not previously exist in nature.  

Side B (me): Humans are animals, products of nature.  How can anything produced by humans, who are products of nature, be deemed artificial, and not also products of nature?

I know.  Is your mind blown yet?  Also, don't bogart that J, yo.  

Side A is conventional, and accepts a conventional definition of the term "artificial": 

: not natural or real : made, produced, or done to seem like something natural
: not happening or existing naturally : created or caused by people
: not sincere

Merriam-Webster Online.

Side B is a typical mid-90s college rhetorical move: what does anything mean?  How can we draw lines?  Isn't natural vs. unnatural a false dichotomy?

For some reason, watching the last few episodes of Cosmos brought me back to this relatively stupid argument.  In the second episode, the show reviews the history of mass extinctions on earth.  These were, undoubtedly, natural events.  Given that these were events produced by nature (i.e., volcanic activity, meteor strikes), were they tragic?

What about the natural course of extinction of various animals (saber tooth tiger, woolly mammoth) due to natural climate change, or the activity of other, natural animals -- including man?  Should we feel bad about those extinctions?  Wasn't that nature just taking its course?

Certain creatures seem to adapt and thrive even as we humans radically transform the planet.  The territory of coyotes has expanded dramatically with our development of North America.  Rats and cockroaches have also thrived with the spread of our species.  Our polluting and warming of the oceans has led to the rise of the jellyfish (probably our favorite topic on this blog).   Are these "good" or "bad" developments?  Are some species more valuable than others?  

Some species die out over time.  That is life on earth.  Circumstances change, and species adapt or die.  New species rise in new conditions.  Nature has no stasis.  We may like the current assortment of species we have on the planet, but it's just a fact that they can't all stay with us forever.  (Or, perhaps, us with them.)

You can guess where this is headed.  Should we feel bad about what we, as humans, are doing to the planet?  Other animals, natural as can be, have altered the climate in the past, though obviously not to the extent that we are.  Humans want to have comforts, and luxuries, and the nice things other humans have.  That is a human desire, but also a natural, animal desire.  Humans want to have sex, and have children, and eat foods that make them feel good.  How do you stop that?  Legislation?  Democratic legislation?  (Or would this be a good example of how something like the Chinese model may be more effective than the democratic model currently on view in Washington, D.C.?)

This argument is, granted, an argument for just sitting back and doing nothing.  It is the ultimate laissez faire justification: we are products of nature, so let us do what we feel like, because that is what is natural.  Any attempt to dictate what the masses should do from on high will ultimately be misguided because it will not be directed by the wisdom of the market/herd/flock/hive mind.  The wisdom of the few is outweighed by the wisdom of the many.

The objections are obvious: unlike animals, we are capable of rational thought, of understanding the consequences of our actions, of disciplining ourselves for the good of our species, of the other species on the planet, etc.  We are capable of argument and persuasion to change the behavior of others.  

But who gets to decide what should be done?  What sacrifices must be made?  Who must give up wealth and comfort for the more intangible benefits of sustainability?  Actually, we know who: the powerful and the rich.  Those who control wealth, and the flow and content of ideas.  (But, again, is it artificial, or bad, that certain individuals or entities are powerful?  Did they end up that way through unfair, unjust, or artificial means?  Again, what does artificial mean?  What is fairness?  Those are contested terms.  Who's to say what on what fair field those terms should be justly defined?) 

And, yes, underpinning much of this argument is the assumption that what is "natural" is better than what is "artificial."  But we all know of all of the examples that disprove this.  For example, it may be "natural" to want to punch someone in the face, but we restrain ourselves because of "artificial" social norms, laws, etc.  Isn't it better that people are not constantly getting punched in the face?  (Honestly do not know the answer to this.)

To be clear, the above is not what I believe.  Far from it.  Just playing devil's advocate.  Like I was with my roommate and the microwave.  Just to be a pain in the ass.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Canary Island Pine, or Pinus canariensis

On Dahlia
If you're like I was before writing this post, you have a vague idea as to the location of the Canary Islands.  Somewhere off the coast of Spain.  Maybe near the island of Mallorca?  Or is that the wrong side?  The Canaries are in the Atlantic, right?

The long needles of the tree help capture moisture from mist and fog; the water then drips to the ground, is absorbed by the soil, and then eventually makes its way into aquifers.  This moisture-capture feature of the tree has played a vital role in maintaining the water supply of the Canaries.

The Canary Islands, I learned while looking up the Canary Island Pine, or Pinus canariensis, are located just off the coast of Morocco, near the border with Western Sahara.  (And here I have to admit that I had no idea that there was a country called Western Sahara bordering Morocco.)  How these islands off the coast of Africa came to be part of Spain is a long story.  In any event, this tree is native to the Canaries.

The tree is highly adaptable and very drought-tolerant.  These qualities have made it a successful import in Australia, South Africa, and California, where it is a popular street tree.  You see these trees, which can grow to eighty feet or more, all over Eagle Rock.  You also see their large cones all over the place.

Interesting historical note: the Canary Islands take their name from the Latin word for dog: canis.  "According to the historian Pliny the Elder, the Mauretanian king Juba II named the island Canaria because it contained 'vast multitudes of dogs of very large size.'"  Wikipedia.  Also, the name of the islands doesn't derive from the bird of the same name; in fact, it's the other way around, with the bird getting its name from the island.  Id.  So, etymologically speaking, canary yellow is really dog yellow.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Coast Live Oak, or Quercus agrifolia

Coast Live Oak on Mt. Royal, near Hill

The Coast Live Oak, or Quercus agrifolia, is native to California.  More specifically, it's native to a region known as the California Floristic Province, which Wikipedia describes as "a floristic province with a Mediterranean climate located on the Pacific Coast of North America with a distinctive flora that bears similarities to floras found in other regions experiencing a winter rainfall, summer drought climate like the Mediterranean Basin."

You can usually identify the tree by the bark, which I can best describe as being in high relief, with a deeply craggy, almost stony look to it.  The leaves are relatively small, roundish, and dull (i.e., not glossy).

Detail of leaves.

The genus name, Quercus, is simply Latin for "oak."  Interestingly, the oak genus is native to North America -- though the oak became the national tree of, among other places, Germany, England, Poland, and Serbia.  Apparently, Congress also designated the oak as our national tree in 2004.  I don't think that got much press.

The Spanish names for the Coast Live Oak are encino(a) and encinitas ("little oaks").   And that's where the names for Encino and Encinitas came from.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Camphor tree, or Cinnamomum camphora

Man praying at a camphor tree at a Shinto shrine in Japan.  [Photo via Dara in Japan]
An Irishman visiting Japan describes his experience of watching people engage the spirits of sacred 400-year-old camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) at a Shinto shrine:
Sometimes you see a person engaging the spirit of a sacred tree. They approach the tree, clap their hands together twice, and then lean towards the tree and stand for a while with their hands pressed against the bark. Having watched these people and become curious, I have tried it myself. People laugh at tree-huggers, but there is no denying the sense of power and calm that comes from touching a great old tree.
[Dara in Japan.]  You may recall a somewhat similar scene of revering the 神 kami [god-like spirit] that dwells in these ancient trees from My Neighbor Totoro.
Engaging the spirit of an ancient camphor tree's kami in My Neighbor Totoro.  [Via Thirteens Atlas]
The largest known camphor tree in Japan, named 蒲生の大楠 (kamou no ookusu : giant camphor tree of Kamou), is located at the Kamou Shrine in Kagoshima prefecture.  It is believed to be between 1500-3000 years old.  Id.

We have our own stand of these revered trees in Eagle Rock, on Shearin Avenue:
Camphor trees along Shearin Avenue
The camphor tree is native to China south of the Yangtze River, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.  [Wikipedia.]  The Chinese character used for the tree in China, Taiwan, Japan (and older Chinese-character based versions of Korean and Vietnamese) is  or   (pronounced zhang or nán in Mandarin, jeong or naam in Cantonese,   [jang] or   [nam] in Korean, nam or nêm in Vietnamese, andくす [kusu] in Japanese).
On Shearin
Beyond its status as a sacred tree host to kami, the camphor tree holds a special place for the Japanese, as a symbol of survival:
[C]amphor trees are not only long-lived, but they are also astonishingly vigorous and capable of surviving even the worst that man can throw at them. A specimen at the Sanno Shrine in Nagasaki was designated a natural monument by that city on Feb. 15, 1969, because it had survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Aug. 9, 1945. Then, on Nov. 3, 1973, the camphor tree was made the official tree of Hiroshima to commemorate those trees that not only survived the U.S. atomic bombing of the city on Aug. 6, 1945, but then recovered quickly and gave inspiration to the people trying to rebuild their lives.
[Japan Times.]
Under the camphor canopy
Ivy climbing  and coating camphor tree

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Cedrus deodara, or the Deodar tree

The Deodar, breathing at night, and dreaming of its Himalayan home.

The Deodar tree, or Cedrus deodara, (also called the Deodar Cedar), is, like so many of us, far from home.  The tree, which has a distinctly alpine look to it -- a look that seems slightly out of place next to Mexican fan palms -- is native to the western Himalayas, in eastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, northern India, southwestern Tibet, and western Nepal.  Its native habitat is relatively high: 4,921–10,499 ft.

Deodar, flanked by Mexican fan palms, north of Colorado

The tree is sacred in Hinduism.  "Deodar" comes from from the Sanskrit term devadāru, which means "wood of the gods" (deva (god, divine, deity; cf. deus) + dāru (wood; cf. durum, druid, true)).   Ancient Hindu epics apparently frequently mention Darukavana -- forests of deodars -- as sacred places.

Row of Deodars on Dahlia
When I first saw deodars scattered throughout the neighborhood, I thought it was a bit odd: what were these alpine-looking trees doing in Southern California?  The trees were brought over to Britain from the Himalayas in the 19th century, became ornamental favorites in English gardens, and spread from there.  The adaptability of the tree is remarkable.  It's gone from the snowy foothills of the Himalayas to the 100-degree summers of our neighborhood.  The tree has been spread throughout Europe, and along the west coast and southwest of the U.S.

Detail with incipient cones.

Deodar in the California morning sun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Sweet orange, or Citrus sinensis

Orange tree on Hill Drive
The history of the orange tree -- specifically, the sweet orange, or Citrus sinensis, -- reads like a miniature history of the world.  The tree appears to have been domesticated in Asia, Southeast Asia, and/or South Asia roughly 2500 years ago.  It seems clear that widespread domestication of the tree first took place in China.  (Indeed, the sinensis in the species name means "Chinese.")  From Asia, the fruit was brought back to Europe, by various means, including the Silk Road, trade with Arabs, crusades, etc. -- the history of its introduction to Europe seems a bit murky.

The orange was spread from Europe to the Americas by the Spanish.  Columbus brought orange seeds over to North America in 1493.  The first orange orchard in California was reportedly planted by Spanish missionaries at Mission San Gabriel in 1804.  [Wikipedia.]

The origin of the term "orange" in English ultimately links back to the Sanskrit word for "orange tree" (नारङगम्, nāraṅga).  The Sanskrit word came through Persian نارنگ (nārang) and its Arabic derivative نارنج (nāranj). The word entered Late Middle English in the fourteenth century via Old French orenge (from pomme d'orenge).  The French word, in turn, comes from Old Provençal auranja, based on Arabic nāranj -- which goes back to the Sanskrit.  [Id.]  (The French word presumably came over into English when William the Bastard led the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and William got to change his name to William the Conqueror.)

Because Portuguese merchants were among the first to introduce the sweet orange in Europe, in several European languages the fruit was named for the Portuguese: e.g., Albanian portokall, Bulgarian портокал (portokal), Greek πορτοκάλι (portokali), modern Persian پرتقال (porteghal), and Romanian portocală.  Related names show up in other languages, such as Arabic البرتقال (bourtouqal), Georgian ფორთოხალი (p'ort'oxali), and Turkish portakal.  Various Slavic languages use the variants pomaranč (Slovak), pomeranč (Czech), pomaranča (Slovene), and pomarańcza (Polish) -- all from Old French pomme d'orenge.  [Id.]

Orange is arancione in Italian, l'orange in French, and naranja in Spanish -- the last of which is strikingly similar to the Sanskrit.  The orange is known as "Chinese apple" in the Germanic languages: e.g.,  sinaasappel and appelsien (Dutch),  Apfelsine (German), appelsin (Danish).  Interestingly, the connection to China also appears in the Puerto Rican Spanish word for orange: china.  [Id.]

There is no word in English that rhymes with "orange."