Wednesday/ Stellar’s jay

Infographic from  Year-round range map by

I saw this jay sitting on my garage roof this morning, so I ran upstairs and snapped the Mr Jay Bird from my bedroom window. This one is called a Stellar’s jay, named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. (Blue jays are close relatives, but a different species. Their feathers are mid-blues and they have a ‘black necklace’ on their off-white throats).

Saturday/ on Kilauea volcano watch

Kilauea volcano is on the south east of the Big Island.

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupted last week, causing lava at 2,200 °F (1,204 °C) to burst through cracks, and into people’s backyards in the Leilani Estates neighborhood on the Big Island.  So far 36 structures, including 26 homes, have been destroyed.

Residents and the Hawaii National Guard are now on standby for a possible evacuation of 2,000 people. The lava level inside the volcano could drop below sea level. Once that happens, water will pour onto the lava, and  generate steam that will likely explode from the summit in a shower or rocks, ash and sulfur dioxide gases.

This photo was taken from a helicopter. A giant fissure eruption releases lava and gas in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano on May 6, 2018. [Photo: Bruce Omori—Paradise Helicopters/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock]

Thursday/ that was the high, for now

The day temperature got up to 82 °F (28°C) on Thursday, tying the calendar day record for Seattle set back in 1947.  But now our little Indian summer is over, and we will drop back to 66°F (18°C) on Friday, and even lower over the weekend.

These tulips around the corner of my house make for bright splashes of color. We should all plant more flowers in our gardens, the scientists say: it will help honey bees everywhere to survive. There is still no single proposal for the cause of the collapse of bee colonies, that has gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community.

Wednesday/ Devil’s Tower

The restaurant where my friends and I had our Wednesday beers & a bite, has old car licence plates for the covers of the menus. I was not sure what the rock image on the Wyoming plate was called, and had to look it up.
It’s Devil’s Tower, located in the north-eastern corner of Wyoming.  Geologists still debate exactly how the structure was formed, described as a laccolithic butte composed of igneous rock.  In plain English: an isolated hill with steep sides and a small, relatively flat top, formed by magma pressed into sedimentary layers and then pushed upwards.

Tuesday/ Estero del Yugo

Estero del Yugo is an estuary in the far northern outskirts of the city of Mazatlán.  There is a trail around it that we traversed today. The foliage around the estuary is dry this time of year, and the water level was low.

Even so, we spotted herons, ibises, pelicans and a beautiful pileated woodpecker with its red-crested head.  A single deer across the water made an appearance as well, but we did not see it again, even after we had made it to the other side.

This is a green heron that we spotted today at the estuary – a small heron found in North America and Central America.
This is an American white ibis, found from Virginia via the Gulf Coast of the United States south through most of the coastal New World tropics. Behind the ibis is a black-necked stilt.
Here’s what a large part of the trail around the estuary looks like. That’s a young Mexican giant cardon (elephant cactus) on the right.
A beautiful tree flower that we found on the ground. It may be a from a tree called ‘palo cruz’, but I’m not sure.

3.14 Pi Day/ celebrate Tau, not Pi

These are ‘exhibits’ from Michael Hartl’s Tau manifesto, making the case that Tau is a better constant than Pi. Bottom: One full rotation is one Tau radians (right circle) and 2 Pi radians (left circle)-so Tau is simpler to use. Top Left: Euler’s identity is written more elegantly with Tau (the bottom equation). Top Right: If Tau is used for circular area, the formula looks the same as several other expressions used in physics.

March 14 is Pi* Day, celebrated by math geeks.  But Michael Hartl says we should celebrate ‘Tau Day’ instead, in his Tau manifesto. Tau is an alternative circle constant referred to by the Greek letter τ that equals 2π, or approximately 6.28. (So Tau Day would be June 28).

*Pi is the Greek letter used in math for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. No matter the size of the circle, this is always the same value (approx. 3.14): a mathematical constant.

One big thing that Tau fixes, is radian angles (see diagram).  It also makes sine and cosine functions simpler, and higher math like integrals in polar coordinates, the Fourier transform, and Cauchy’s integral, simpler.

Postscript: I found this great cartoon tribute to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking that had passed away on Mar 14.

He once said ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge’.


Monday/ go big or go home

As computing power increases, ever larger prime numbers can be found. [Graphic by the WSJ].
The 50th Mersenne prime* was discovered in December, by Jonathan Pace in Tennessee.  Yay! The gargantuan number is 277,232,917-1 (multiply together 77,232,917 twos and subtract one). The number has more than 23 million digits, and is also written as M77232917.

Alright – as of now, there is no real use for these monster numbers, but modestly large primes are put to good use in computer encryption.

The Great Internet Prime Search foundation will award $150,000 for the discovery of the first prime number with 100 million digits, and $250,000 for the first prime with at least a billion digits.  The search is on!

*Prime numbers are whole numbers that can be divided only by themselves, and by 1.  The number 1 is not considered a prime, but then the primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and so on. Mersenne primes are named for the French monk that studied them some 350 years ago.  They are written in the form 2n -1.  (So 3 is the first Mersenne prime, since it can be expressed as 22 -1). Euclid’s proof shows that there are infinitely many regular primes. We do not know if that is the case for Mersenne primes.

Tuesday/ the 2014 mammoth tusk

Utility box featuring a woolly mammoth, at the corner of 6th Ave and Westlake Ave in downtown’s Denny Regrade district.

This utility box from my walk on Sunday, reminded me of the 8½-foot mammoth tusk discovered right here in the city, in South Lake Union, in February 2014.

The water-logged tusk was put in a protective plaster cast, carefully removed from the soil and taken to the local Burke Museum of Natural History.

It belonged to a Columbian mammoth. These were the largest of the mammoths that roamed around in North America during the last Ice Age – as recently as 11,000 years ago.  They reached 13 ft/ 4m in height at the shoulders, and weighed up to 22,000 lbs/ 10 tonnes.

Thursday/ stamps are forever

This sheet of ‘Great Plains Prairie’ stamps (issued 2001) was on sale on-line, and I ordered it for my stamp collection. The manila envelope that the sheet had arrived in today, had itself some interesting stamps on.  Are these old stamps even legit? I wondered .. but it turns out they are. Postage stamps do not have expiration dates, as a general rule.

One of a series of ten sheets of stamps, each with a different environment, and a bunch of animals and plants on. Check out the pronghorn (antelope), badger, eastern short-horned lizard and burrowing owls on the left, and the bison and the black-tailed prairie dog in the middle. Burrowing in the ground are prairie pocket gophers – and they had better watch out for the prairie rattlesnake at the bottom right.
Here’s the manila envelope from the vendor, so let’s see what stamps these might be!  Left to right: US Airmail Eagle 4c, issued 1954* (whoah); USA Circle of Stars 6c (1981); Commercial Aviation 1926-1976 13c (1976); Pacific 97 International Stamp Exhibition (1997).     *Inflation makes 4 cents from 1954 worth about 37 cents in 2018.

Wednesday/ physics memories

Yes, it’s a 1996 issue and possibly missing a few notes on quantum mechanics and particle physics, but hey: $8. (That’s a French train on the cover).

I picked up this physics handbook at a secondhand bookstore today.  What in the world do I want to do with it? Well, it is very similar to one that I had as a freshman engineering student, and it brings back happy memories.

The first chapter has tables that illustrate the orders of magnitude in time, mass and length that physics deal with. The rest of the book is packed with pictures and diagrams.

Whoah. It’s an unimaginable long way to the edge of the observable universe (the last entry in the table). A light year is roughly 10^16 m, so that 10^26 is equal to 10 billion light years.
The age of Earth and the age of the universe are an order of magnitude apart, rougly speaking. In more precise terms, the age of Earth is 4.6 billion years and that of the universe 13.8 billion years.
This table tells me that Earth is roughly 100 times the mass of the moon, and the Sun is roughly 100,000 times heavier than Earth. I think I read somewhere that if Earth was the size of the head of a match stick, the Sun would be a soccer ball!

Tuesday/ a Falcon that’s Heavy

Elon Musk’s SpaceX team had a spectacularly successful Falcon rocket lift-off and recovery of two booster units today. (The middle booster failed to land on its drone ship target and was lost).

This rocket is called Falcon Heavy because it can lift nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs) into orbit*.  Check out the photos that SpaceX had posted on Flickr, here.

*The massive Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, could deliver 137 tons into orbit.  There was also a Russian rocket, the Energia, that made flights in 1987 and 1988 that could lift 100 tons into space.

Here’s the lift-off of the Falcon Heavy rocket (cost: $90m). Rockets are about 85% fuel by mass. This is essentially a Falcon 9 rocket with two additional boosters strapped onto it. This was just a test flight, and there is a Tesla Roadster inside the rocket, with a dummy dressed up in a space suit (‘Spaceman’) driving it.  Right here about 5 million pounds of thrust is generated, equal to the combined thrust of some eighteen Boeing 747 aircraft.
I smiled when the live-feed camera panned over the ‘fan boys’ with their happy faces, as they cheered the lift-off. I think this is at the launch center in Cape Canaveral in Florida. P.S. Where are all the fan-girls? We need you, too, to become engineers.

Sunday/ hair that is ice = hair ice

Hair ice found in the Olympic forest.

Check out this amazing picture of hair ice. It was posted on the local TV station’s web site, and is from the Olympic forest nearby Seattle.

Hair ice forms on moist, rotting wood from broadleaf trees when temperatures are slightly under 0 °C (32 °F) and the air is humid. Swiss and German researchers found that the fungus ‘Exidiopsis effusa’ in the wood, as key to the formation of hair ice.

Tuesday/ the San Diego Zoo

We checked in on the San Diego Zoo today.  We tried to get there before the warmest part of the day (82°F, 27°C), when the animals hide away in the shadows and under rocks.  Here are a few of my favorite pictures of the day.

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia.  They are very, very rarely seen in the wild, and are designated as a ‘vulnerable’ species. It looks to me as if this big cat lost its left eye. Aw.
The African clawless otter (Cape clawless otter or ‘groot’ otter), is the second-largest freshwater species of otter.  They are found in permanent bodies of freshwater in southern Africa.
An African penguin taking a dive. Also known as the jackass penguin (they make a braying sound that sounds like a donkey), these are confined to southern African waters.
The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is from Madagascar, and an endangered species (their numbers are decreasing).
We spotted this giant panda from a bridge high above in its enclosure. All pandas are on loan from China. This one is one of Gao Gao, Bai Yun or Xiao Liwu, but I really don’t know which one!

Monday/ Birch Acquarium

Here are some pictures from our visit today at Birch Aquarium. The aquarium is managed by the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Left: The Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier, viewed from the aquarium. It is a research pier, and was constructed in 1988. Right: These life-size bronze statues of gray whales at the aquarium entrance are called ‘The Legacy’ are almost 40 feet tall, created in 1996 by Randy Puckett.
Clockwise from the top: A leopard shark in the kelp forest tank | a sea cucumber | a California moray gives me an evil eye | a stonefish (whatever you do – don’t step on it. Poison in its needle-like dorsal spine makes it one of the most venomous fishes in the world).
Clockwise from the left: The (spectacular) leafy sea dragon, found only along the south coast of Australia | the garibaldi | California king crab | loggerhead sea turtle

Sunday/ bat rays at Cardiff Beach

Here’s what we saw from the paddleboards we were on. These are bat rays. [From Wikipedia] The bat ray (Myliobatis californica) is found in muddy or sandy sloughs, estuaries and bays, kelp beds and rocky-bottomed shoreline in the eastern Pacific Ocean, between the Oregon coast and the Gulf of California.
Stingrays are a group of rays, which are cartilaginous fish, related to sharks. There are eight families in total, but let’s keep it simple: sting rays are the small ones, bat rays are larger and then the manta rays are the really big ones.

There are sting rays and bat rays here in the California waters. My brother knows where to go look for them (in the San Elijo lagoon, using paddle boards) .. and indeed, we sighted some, scurrying on the sand below.

The asterisk marks the spot where we found bat rays in the shallow water, off Cardiff state beach, on the way to the San Elijo lagoon. I’m in the back (doing very well to just stay up on my paddleboard, and not splash spectacularly into the water!), with my nephew up front.

Thursday/ tinkering with the climate

Die Klima-Tüftler (‘The Climate Tinkerers’), says this page from the kids’ section in the German newspaper Die Zeit. It discusses the feasibility of some ideas for reducing the rate of global warming. No mention of clean-energy generation or electric cars, though.

Here are the four ideas:

Artificial Clouds 
Question: Could artificial clouds be used to block/ reduce the sun’s radiation reaching Earth (and warming it)?
Answer: Researchers are sceptical – and the results are unpredictable. These gigantic clouds could drift far away, and result in droughts where rain is needed most (reduce the evaporation of water there).

Radiation Reflectors
Question: Could sunlight be reflected back with giant mirrors, or many small ones, or even say, by painting rooftops of all buildings white?
Answer: Impractical. Installation of many billions of mirrors would be needed, and it seems impossible to get most people in the world to paint their roofs white!

Air Purification 
Question: Could CO2 be sucked out of the atmosphere, and its carbon stored underground?
Answer: The equipment is very expensive; the filters would have to be changed frequently, and if landfill areas to store the carbon are not chosen carefully, the solid waste from the air would contaminate groundwater.

‘Wolverine’ Algae
Question: Could we cultivate voracious algae that would absorb CO2?
Answer: The algae in the water would have to be replenished frequently and as it dies, it would drift to the bottom of the lake or sea, and start to rot, which would take oxygen out of the water and air again.

Four ideas for fixing climate change, from the kids’ section in Die Zeit newspaper. Who knows – maybe these ideas attract the attention of a young Edison that can devise methods to save the Earth’s climate.

Monday/ only in Alaska

Check out this mama lynx and her seven kittens that visited Tim Newton’s porch in Alaska.  (They picked the right porch! He is a photographer).  These are called Canada lynxes.  Its cousin from the lynx genus, further south in North America, is the bobcat. Other species of medium-sized wild cats are the Eurasian lynx and the Iberian lynx, the Indian jungle cat, and Africa’s caracal, which we have in South Africa as well.

[Photo by Tim Newton] Anchorage resident Tim Newton awoke to the sound of something running across his deck in the area of Flattop, last Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. So naturally, he went to check it out.

Friday/ Lake Lenore & Dry Falls

(These pictures are from Wednesday).  We made a stop at Lake Lenore on Wednesday. Lake Lenore is a long, narrow lake (8 mi long, 15ft deep) formed by the Missoula Floods in the lower Coulee just north of the town of Soap Lake. There is a trail that leads up to caves in the basalt rock.

Driving further up north on Highway 17 brings one to Dry Falls, named for the massive waterfalls that existed there during the Pleistocene Epoch, when ice sheets and glaciers covered huge parts of Earth’s surface.  This area was at the southern end of the Cordilleran ice sheet, and the melting of the glaciers carved out the coulees in the basalt rock that we see today.

Clockwise from the top: looking southwest & northwest toward the ‘coulee monocline’ bluffs over Lake Lenore, with Highway 17 below; dry vegetation and a black beetle; Lake Lenore lies alongside Highway 17; view from inside one of the caves formed by the plucking out of pieces of the basal rock by the rushing Missoula Flood waters; footpath to the caves; beautiful lichen. Lichens are composite organisms that emerge from algae or cyanobacteria living among the filaments of two fungi in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
The main picture is from inside the visitor center at Dry Falls. The picture that I took (bottom right) is the view looking south, away from the cliffs of the Dry Falls. The Pleistocene Epoch began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11,700 years ago. The most recent Ice Age occurred then (there have been at least FIVE in Earth’s history). At the time of the Pleistocene, the continents had moved to their current positions. Large parts of the northern continents were covered by glaciers, but they did not just sit there. There was a lot of movement over time, and there were about 20 cycles when the glaciers would advance and retreat as they thawed and refroze.


Friday/ happy equinox!

The September equinox* arrived today at 20:02 UTC (1.02 pm here in my outpost on the globe), ushering in autumn.  So for a moment, night and day are each 12 hours long**, sunrises are due east and sunsets are due west, for all creatures on the globe. The sun’s position crosses the celestial equator (an imaginary equator above the real one on Earth’s surface), and this happens no matter where one is on Earth.

*Equinox from Latin equi (equal) and nox (night).
**Precisely speaking, there is more daylight than nighttime on the day of the equinox, an additional 8 or so minutes of daylight, at mid-temperate latitudes.

Earth’s axis is tilted 23.44° to the vertical*, which makes for the four seasons as it makes a trip around our solar system’s Sun every year.  Autumn has started in the northern hemisphere, and spring in the southern hemisphere. The sun has set on the North Pole, and will only appear again in March.   *Fun fact: due to slight changes in the elliptical orbit of Earth around the Sun, the 23.44° oscillates between 22.1° and 24.5° in a 41,000 year cycle called the Milankovitch Cycle. Earth is about 10,000 years away from the lowest tilt of 22.1°.

Wednesday/ glowing in the deep

Pictures from the NYT. Fireflies, anglerfish, and other organisms produce the light-emitting pigment luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. Luciferin reacts with oxygen to create light.

This New York Times article points out that creatures of the deep sea use light much as animals on land use sound — to lure, intimidate, stun, mislead and find mates. I love the pictures of the creatures.