Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882, and his legacy today

April 19, 2014

This is an encore post.

We shouldn’t pass April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

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Delicate sunset in Utah

March 21, 2014

From the U.S. Department of Interior:  This stunning photo of dusk @ArchesNPS by Jonathan Backin is the perfect way to end the week. #utah #nature pic.twitter.com/5bIanEG8sZ

From the U.S. Department of Interior: This stunning photo of dusk @ArchesNPS by Jonathan Backin is the perfect way to end the week. #utah #nature pic.twitter.com/5bIanEG8sZ

Delicate Arch, with a dusting of snow, as the sun sets.

A great reason to live in Moab, Utah, or visit there.


Lightning strike in Monument Valley, Navajo Nation

February 20, 2014

Lightning strikes in Monument Valley, on the Navajo Reservation, Utah.  Photography by Carolyn Slay (Oak Ridge, TN); Monument Valley, UT

Lightning strikes in Monument Valley, on the Navajo Reservation, Utah. Photography by Carolyn Slay (Oak Ridge, TN); Monument Valley, UT Feb. 20 2014 Via smithsonianmag.com.

Lightning strike in Monument Valley, photo by Carolyn Slay of Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Smithsonian Magazine Tumblr Photo of the Day, February 20, 2014.

Rocks on the right can also be seen in this photo; can you help pinpoint the location of the photographer, and names of any of the other formations?


A sign of some apocalypse in Dinosaur, Colorado?

December 28, 2013

It’s an interesting town, Dinosaur, Colorado 81610.  It’s on the south side of US Highway 40, a very short distance east of the Utah border.

And it touches on the Colorado part of Dinosaur National Monument.  The Wikipedia entry gives specifics:

The Town of Dinosaur is a Statutory Town located in Moffat County, Colorado, United States. The town population was 339 at the 2010 census.[5]

The town of Dinosaur was originally named Artesia; the current name was adopted in 1966, to capitalize on the town’s proximity to Dinosaur National Monument.[6] The monument headquarters is located just east of the town on U.S. Highway 40.

And:

Many streets in the town are named after dinosaurs, including Cletisaurus Circle, Tyrannosaurus Trail, and Antrodemus Alley.[8]

It’s a setup, a straight line waiting for a good comedian.

Brian Switek, the science writer now based in Salt Lake City, suggests one area ripe for comedy:

Wait. What?  Dinosaur Baptist Church?

Brian Tweeted that he wasn’t looking to ridicule, but: “I just imagined thyreophorans, maniraptorans, sauropodomorphs, and their ilk in the congregation.”

That might produce even more comedic situations.

It’s a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated congregation.  Aren’t you curious how Sunday school goes for dinosaur-crazy kids in such a church, in such a town?

Signs of life, signs of the times, signs of something!

Another shot of the directional sign for Dinosaur Baptist Church, from earlier in 2011, I think.  From Text of the Day.

Another shot of the directional sign for Dinosaur Baptist Church, from earlier in 2011, I think. From Text of the Day.

From a different angle, one can see that the church is just a couple of blocks off of Stegosaurus Freeway.  Wow.

2007 photo of the sign showing street signs at the intersection of 6th Street and Stegosaurus Freeway.  Photo by Will Gelnaw, who has copyright to it.

2007 photo of the sign showing street signs at the intersection of 6th Street and Stegosaurus Freeway. Photo by Will Gelnaw, who has copyright to it.

Still, it’s fun to imagine a nice, small town church, with dinosaurs in the back pews singing along.  (Instead, Chris Clarke suggested, they are hiding in the Rocks of Ages . . .)

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Welcome to Dinosaur, Colorado

Welcome to Dinosaur, Colorado (Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn)


Annals of global warming: Great Lakes need water

November 13, 2013

Does Lake Michigan's record low mark beginning of new era for Great Lakes? At least 150 years of rhythmic pulses in Lake Michigan's water levels appear to have shifted abruptly with loss of winter ice.   Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Photo and caption from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Does Lake Michigan’s record low mark beginning of new era for Great Lakes? At least 150 years of rhythmic pulses in Lake Michigan’s water levels appear to have shifted abruptly with loss of winter ice. Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Don’t get complacent, yet.  Has enough water fallen in the Great Lakes drainage area in the past six months to change this situation at all?  From the New York Times last June:

Drought and other factors have created historically low water marks for the Great Lakes, putting the $34 billion Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway shipping industry in peril, a situation that could send ominous ripples throughout the economy.

Water levels in the Great Lakes have been below their long-term averages during the past 14 years, and this winter the water in Lakes Michigan and Huron, the hardest-hit lakes, dropped to record lows, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Keith Kompoltowicz, the chief of watershed hydrology with the corps’s Detroit district, said that in January “the monthly mean was the lowest ever recorded, going back to 1918.”

While spring rains have helped so far this year, levels in all five Great Lakes are still low by historical standards, so getting through the shallow points in harbors and channels is a tense affair.

It’s not just storms, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers, you know.

The Great Lakes as seen from space. The Great ...

The Great Lakes from space. The Great Lakes are the largest glacial lakes in the world. NASA photo via Wikipedia

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Great Lakes in Sunglint (NASA, International S...

Great Lakes in Sunglint (NASA, International Space Station, 06/14/12) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)


Devils Tower is beautiful in autumn

October 25, 2013

Or any other time of year.

From the Department of Interior Twitter feeds:

 Devils Tower NM. pic.twitter.com/YRo1U8DSMQ

US Dept of Interior ‏@Interior 16h Is there any doubt fall is best enjoyed in America’s great outdoors? Here’s great example from Devils Tower NM. pic.twitter.com/YRo1U8DSMQ

What do you think Richard Dreyfus thinks when he sees that?  Stephen Spielberg?

Devils Tower NM” means “National Monument,” not New Mexico.  This volcano remnant stands in Wyoming.

Old friend, painter and photographer Nancy Christensen Littlefield offers a more close-up view.

Devil's Tower on a July morning.  Photo by Nancy Christensen LIttlefield.

Devil’s Tower on a July morning. Photo by Nancy Christensen LIttlefield.

And looking even closer, you spy Richard Dreyfus never-wanna-bes:

Climbers on Devil's Tower. Photographer Nancy Littlefield

Climbers on Devils Tower. Photographer Nancy Littlefield said: “There were Native American prayer bundles along the trail around the base. It really is awe inspiring. Early morning gives you the best light to photograph it by.”

Devils Tower is the plug of an old volcano.  What’s left is the magma that hardened, and what we see is left after the softer cone eroded away.

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Is your science class as smart as a U-Haul truck?

October 23, 2013

We had to fight to keep this stuff in Texas science books.

Then, out on the street, I see a U-Haul truck.

U-Haul truck features geographic information, and geology information

U-Haul truck features geographic information, and geology information, about Arkansas and its Crater of Diamonds State Park.

Detail:  U-Haul truck features a graphic description of the geology and information about Arkansas's Crater of Diamonds State Park.

Detail: U-Haul truck features a graphic description of the geology and information about Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds State Park.

Well played, U-Haul.  Can Texas catch up?

Update, October 24, 2013:  Turns out U-Haul has a website that features all of the graphics they use on their trucks.  I sense a geography or state history assignment in here, somewhere, social studies teachers.  Reminds me of the animals that used to (still do?) grace the tails of Frontier Airlines airplanes, the Native American on the tails of Alaska Airlines, and other specific destination promoting tricks businesses have used over the years.  Wish more businesses would do that.

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