Tuesday/ Our Planet: can we save it?

The spectacular – and spectacularly upsetting, it looks like to me – Our Planet series of episodes from renowned filmmaker Sir David Attenborough (he’s 92) is set to debut on Friday on Netflix in 190 countries. It may draw a total audience of one billion viewers.

The material has been four years in the making, with filming done in 50 countries and with the collaboration of the World Wildlife Fund. No bones are made about the impact that human activity has had on the planet. Humans are accelerating what is called the Sixth Extinction, of plant and animal species across the globe.

Below is a preview and a few photos from the series, that the Irish Times had published over the weekend. The octopus in the last picture is off the coast of South Africa.


Wednesday/ the super worm equinox moon

Spring has arrived here in the North.
We experienced freakishly warm spring temperatures here in the city yesterday and today: 79 °F (26 °C).

A supermoon tonight coincided with the start of spring, the third and final supermoon for the year. (A supermoon is called a perigean full moon by astronomers. It occurs when a full moon reaches its closest point to the Earth in its elliptical orbit, making it appear unusually bright and large).

The ‘worm’ in the moon’s description refers to little creatures like worms that resume squirming out of the ground, along with the leaves and flowers that start budding in spring.

Here’s the early evening’s full moon from my upstairs window tonight.  The full moon occurred only 4 hours after the spring equinox, the shortest time between the two events since March 1981.
Gorgeous picture of the supermoon, as seen from the International Space Station [Source: @NASA on Twitter]

Saturday/ shocking, but true: Earth is round

We watched ‘Behind the Curve’ tonight: a Netflix documentary about Flat Earthers. For these people, no ‘conspiracy’ is too big to discount. They say that NASA lies and has conspired for decades to portray Earth as round. They find each other on Facebook groups and Youtube videos, and at conferences, prominent Flat Earthers are treated as celebrities that advocate for ‘the truth’. (The conferences are more about commiserating with each other for being outcasts, than they are about explaining the logical basis for saying that Earth is flat).

One of the main protagonists in the movie is from Whidbey Island, a stone’s throw from Seattle. (Dude. We don’t know you, but stop embarrassing us!). The documentary makes the case that Flat Earthers should not be dismissed & shamed outright, since that will entrench their kooky views even further, and completely marginalize them. The problem is that one cannot use reason to argue with a cultist.

This conspiracy theory mindset bleeds into all kinds of other areas. We have people in the United States that believe that 9/11 and Sandy Hook were perpetrated by the US government, and that mass shootings are staged with ‘crisis actors’. People don’t vaccinate their children. We had a recent case here in Oregon with an unvaccinated boy that almost died from tetanus. It took 57 days in hospital and $800,000 to treat him.  His parents took him home and still refused to get him vaccinated.

Saturday/ what was that? -the mystery of ‘Oumuamua

Was our solar system visited (in 2017) by a probe sent by an alien civilization? Astrophysicist Avi Loeb (from Harvard University in Cambridge, MA) explains why it is possible, in the January issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel.
1 The Intruder On October 19, 2017, the Pan-Starrs Telescope in Hawaii discovered a strange elongated cigar-shaped celestial body. It moved so fast that it could not be part of our solar system. It had to be a foreign object, and was called ‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for ‘First Messenger from Afar’).
2 Strange Coincidence It is comparatively rare that asteroids from distant star systems get lost in our solar system. According to Loeb, the likelihood of seeing such asteroids through Pan-Starrs is somewhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 100,000,000.
3 Flashes The brightness of ‘Oumuamua fluctuates: the object rotates and reflects, due to its special shape, different amounts of sunlight. The effect is so pronounced that ‘Oumuamua would have to have a bizarre, elongated form – something which does not occur in celestial bodies of our solar system.
4 Enigmatic Trajectory ‘Oumuamua shows a trajectory departure from that known for comets that leave a trail of gases (typically surface ice that evaporates). Also, neither a comet tail could be observed, nor did the rotation of the object change, as would be expected with loss of mass due to gas emissions.
5 Not Solar Powered For Avi Loeb, the only other assumption could be that the solar power (radiation pressure) affected the trajectory of ‘Oumuamua. However, this force is so weak that it could only affect bodies with a large surface area and tiny mass, such as a paper-thin sail.
6 Not Space Junk If such an artificial light sail or other object reached our solar system by accident, one would have to assume that in space such foreign artefacts would abound (which is not the case). So this possibility also seems unlikely.
7 Alien Mission Loeb therefore suspects that an extraterrestrial civilization has purposefully sent ‘Oumuamua as an exploratory probe in our solar system.

The mystery of ‘Oumuamua, explained with pictures in the Jan 5, 2019 issue of Der Spiegel.

Sunday/ tonight’s super blood wolf moon

Here are my (amateur quality) pictures I took of tonight’s super blood wolf moon* as it went into eclipse. It’s the first total lunar eclipse visible across the entire United States in eight years.

*Super because it appears about 10% bigger than it really is; blood because of its coppery color (red light from the sun bent around Earth, reaching it); wolf because it is the first full moon of the calendar year.

From left to right: 6.34 pm Full moon | 7.46 pm Start of the eclipse | 8.18 pm Three-quarters eclipsed | 8.33 pm Eclipse almost complete with red/ copper color showing (all times Pacific Standard Time).
The moon spent some 3 hrs in Earth’s shadow. The diagram below left shows the refraction of the sunlight as it hits Earth’s atmosphere, that results in the red coloring of the moon. [Source: NRC Handelsblad newspaper 19/1/ 2019]

Friday/ the tetanus booster shot

I got a tetanus booster shot this week (recommended by the CDC to be done every 10 years for adults).

The vaccine offers protection against a troublemaker bacterium called Clostridium tetani. Its nearly invincible spore form can be commonly found in soil. So stepping onto a rusty nail with bare feet – or really any cut in the skin – can let the bacterium in. Once inside one’s muscle tissue, it can start producing tetanospasmin, a toxin second only to botulinus for potency. The toxin attacks the central nervous system. An early symptom of an attack includes spasming of jaw muscles.

The tetanus vaccine contains tetanus toxoid, a chemically sterilized tetanus toxin that stimulates one’s immune system to produce antigens that are able to attack and dismantle active tetanus toxin.

Cartoon from the website Telus World Science that explains what tetanus vaccines are all about.

Monday/ the cosmic perspective

I have finished reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s quick-read book called Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  In the front is a quotation from Tyson, that I love: ‘The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you’.

Humans have certainly made strides to understand the mysteries of the universe, but we need another Newton, another Einstein, to help us out with understanding what we now call dark matter and dark energy.

Towards the end of the book, Tyson also offers: The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life, but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another’.

This picture is not in the book, but the epochs shown in it are described. The Inflation Theory proposes a period of extremely rapid (exponential) expansion of the universe during its first fantastically short instants of time. Then it took 380,000 years for the temperature to come down to 3,000 K for atoms to form. Right now we are at the 13.8 billion year mark, and the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate – something we have only learned over the last few decades. The best explanation is that dark matter and dark energy are at work. [Picture courtesy of Particle Data Group, 2015].

Friday/ shocks & aftershocks in Anchorage

Report from the Alaska Earthquake Center:
‘A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just seven miles north of Anchorage at 8:29 am on Friday morning, at a depth of about 27 mi (40 km). The earthquake caused power outages, damage to roads and buildings, and closures of schools, businesses and government offices. The extent of the damage is not yet clear, and we are still waiting for word on whether there were any casualties.

This is the largest earthquake to strike near Anchorage since the 2016 M7.1 Iniskin earthquake. Because this morning’s quake was so much closer, the impacts to Anchorage and Mat-Su are far more severe and widespread’.

The USGS aftershock forecast is as follows:

  • Low (4%) probability of another earthquake equal or greater than magnitude 7.0;
  • 27% chance of a magnitude 6+ aftershock, and it is most likely that 0-3 of these will occur;
  • 78% chance of magnitude 5 or greater aftershocks, but likely no more than around 20 of these;
  • Up to 2,200 aftershocks greater than magnitude 3 are possible.
This map from the University of Alaska’s Earthquake Center, shows that the 7.0 event was only one of many smaller ones that preceded it, and that several aftershocks followed.
Tectonic map of Alaska and northwestern Canada showing main faults and historic earthquakes [Source: Wikipedia ‘Denali Fault’/ map by USGS]. There was a really big one in 1964: the Great M9.2 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of March 27, 1964.

Wednesday/ Big K is going away

The original International Prototype Kilogram (Big K), safe within three vacuum-sealed bell jars. Credit: BIPM

The kilogram is currently defined as the mass of a chunk of platinum-iridium alloy created in 1889, that is housed at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France. (Le Grand kilogram, or Big K, as it is affectionately known).

But what if Big K gets stolen, or damaged? And it has already (mysteriously) lost some 50 micrograms since 1889. So this state of affairs will not do for the 21st century.

This Friday in Versailles, a gathering of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, is expected to vote to redefine the kilogram by its existence as a unit in the Planck constant.  This new definition is very complicated to explain (see here).  For it to work, the Planck constant also had to be precisely defined and fixed to 9 significant digits, with the aid of a Kibble balance.

And voila!

Wednesday/ it’s going to rain

There is finally some rain on the way for Puget Sound, after a long stretch of dry weather. The meteorologists can see the systems approaching from way out west over the Pacific Ocean.

Below are some high-speed photographs of falling water drops, from an article published in 2009 by Emmanuel Villermaux. He wanted to study how big raindrops behave, as they make their way down to the ground. Raindrops of all sizes can come out of clouds, as the tiny drops (20 µm) combine to make bigger ones. But really big drops will flatten as they fall through the air, into little pancakes, then turn into little bags, and then break up altogether. So drops that reach the ground are at most 6 mm (0.25 in) in diameter. The terminal velocity of a rain drop is about 10 m/s (20 mph).

Saturday/ chameleon of the seafloor

I love this picture of an octopus, the ‘chameleon of the seafloor’. The skin of an octopus is like that of a pointillistic work of art: it has millions of chromatophores (cells with pigments). Octopuses have yellow, orange, reds, browns or even black pigments, and can camouflage itself against its background when an enemy approaches.  There is a complex connection between its brain, its nervous system, and the nerve cells that control the color of its skin.

Source: Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Picture by Stephan Junek.

Tuesday/ here comes Michael

Hurricane Michael will make landfall in the Florida panhandle tomorrow. It’s going to pack a powerful punch, with winds that could exceed 100 mph. At least it is projected keep moving at a steady pace, and not sit in one place like Florence did.

Source: the National Weather Service.
Update from Wed 10/10 from the New York Times: The hurricane made landfall as a Category 4, with winds of 155 mph (250 kph), unheard of. Its winds rapidly picked up speed as it approached the Florida panhandle.

Monday/ repairs after the rains

Light rain is finally starting to fall here in Seattle, after the driest summer on record. (Rainfall for May-August was 2.5″, compared to 7.0″ normally).

Here’s another one of my resident European garden spiders (Araneus diadematus), repairing its web today, from a little wind and rain damage.

Spider silk is more durable and elastic than even the strongest man-made fiber, Kevlar, which is used to fill bulletproof vests. Silk is mainly protein, but a single spider can produce as many as seven different silks from its spinnerets. The silks in the radial lines, and the spiral lines in this web are different, and the spider also dots the radial lines with sticky balls of silky goo. Watch out, flying insects.

Monday/ a spider, to frighten miss Muffet

‘Little miss Muffet sat on her tuffet,
eating her curds and whey.

Along came a spider
who sat down beside her

and frightened miss Muffet away’.
— Nursery rhyme that first appeared in print in 1805, in a book titled Songs for the Nursery. Its origin is not known.

I found this European garden spider (Araneus diadematus) by my garage today. These spiders are orb-weavers and found throughout Europe and across North America.

Monday/ a little walk in the woods

We did another little walk in the woods today – just through a woodsy area near Paul’s house here in the Hansville area.

The trail is dry this time of year, but can get squishy and muddy in some places, in the rainy season. So the planks covered with chicken wire are a nice addition.
This is a parasitic bracket fungus. It grows on fir tree bark. The genus is probably Fomitopsis (I found similar pictures online). Ötzi the Iceman (5,000 yr-old mummy found in the Alps in 1991), had similar kinds of fungi with him. The fungus could be used for food, but also as tinder (to start a fire with).
I don’t know what kind of spider this is, but I love the geometry of its web, and the rainbow tints that some strands get as the sunlight strikes it.
Here is a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyonis) with its jaunty head feathers. I was not quite close enough to the little bird for a sharp picture, but the camera’s 135 mm zoom helped a lot.
I had better luck with an osprey (Pandion haliaetus), sitting closer to me in a tree on the high bank. I had to wait for it to take off to get a clear shot at it, though.
Here’s the Agate Pass Bridge (constructed 1950) on our way back to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal.
And here comes Seattle downtown, as we approach it from Bainbridge Island. That’s the Celebrity Infinity cruise ship on the left, in from Vancouver, and setting sail on Tuesday morning for Astoria, Oregon (final destination San Diego). The ship was launched in 2001, and can accommodate 2,500 passengers.

Monday/ a woodpecker

This brown woodpecker is called a ‘northern flicker’ (Colaptes auratus). It spent a little time foraging for insects on my front lawn this morning. (Yes, the poor lawn is yellowed out from the three dry months of summer, but it will slowly start to green up, now that the rain is returning).

Northern flickers are unusual among North American woodpeckers in that their general coloration is brown, rather than black and white. They are ground feeders that live principally on ants, but also eat other insects and some fruit, seeds, and berries. [Source: http://www.birdweb.org]

Saturday/ Oaxaca, Grumpy Cat & helium

I’m about to hop onto the No 10 bus. The Mexican flag & Oaxaca sign at the Coastal Kitchen restaurant entrance indicate that a few Oaxaca dishes are on the menu right now. Oaxaca is famous for its moles (sauces).

Here’s the No 10 bus stop closest to my house, that I frequently take to go to downtown.

One of my favorite Grumpy Cat memes. Grumpy Cat is an American internet celebrity cat.

Oaxaca (say ‘wa-HAH-ka’) is in southwestern Mexico and best known for its Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous peoples and cultures.

Look for a Grumpy Cat helium balloon carried by the child in the bottom middle of the picture.

As it happens, helium was discovered 150 years ago to the day, on August 18, 1868, by the French astronomer, Jules Janssen, during a total solar eclipse. There is a strong case to be made that helium balloons be banned.

We have a limited helium supply in Earth’s crust; we cannot manufacture it, and we need it for superconductors and MRI scanners. So putting helium in balloons is a frivolous waste.  Once helium ends up in the atmosphere, it is lost forever into space – it is too light to be contained in the atmosphere by gravity.

Monday/ pleased to eat you

The popcorn movie ‘The Meg*’ is out on the circuit. Even though I have not seen it yet, it’s fun to check the movie’s trailer online, and the posters for it. The movie is a co-production with China, and features actress Li Bingbing alongside Jason Statham.

*Short for Carcharodon megalodon, a really, really big shark (60 ft/ 20m) that roamed the oceans until about 2.6 million years ago.

Carcharodon megalodon was bigger than a school bus, and could swim twice as fast as today’s great white sharks [Infographic from fossilera.com]
Fossilized teeth of Carcharodon megalodon are still found, but not much else (the shark had a cartilage skeleton). We also do not know why they went extinct .. probably because they ran out of food to eat!  [Infographic from fossilera.com]

Movie posters in different languages. Let’s see: Opening Wide is a movie reference (the movie opens in a large number of theaters) | Spanish ‘Te dejará con la boca abierta‘ – It will leave you with your mouth open | German ‘Biss bald‘ – ‘Bite’ you soon; a word play on ‘Bis bald’ – See you soon | Russian КуШАТь ПОДАНО! – Dinner is served!
An alternative movie poster with the tagline ‘Pleased To Eat You’ and two beautiful beach Homo sapienses as shark food, complete with an American food label. I am very sure the megashark will not peruse the food label beforehand !

Wednesday/ got the wandering porcupine

The African crested porcupine that I mentioned in a post in May, has been caught, in the Spanaway area (south of the city of Tacoma).
His new home will be the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon.

Here is the Spanaway porcupine enjoying a banana shortly after being caught. The African crested porcupine is the largest species of porcupine in the world and one of the largest rodents in the world.

Tuesday/ the Neanderthals

Here’s an article from Discover magazine, with the latest research about the Neanderthals: an extinct species of humans, that roamed around in ice-age Europe from 120,000 years, up to 35,000 years ago.

Will Homo sapiens still be around even a 1,000 years from now? Homo sapiens means ‘wise human’ .. a misnomer, it seems. Can modern-day humans should stop their wars, and stop destroying Earth?