Good morning and welcome to Saturday. There are 281 days left in the year, which somehow doesn’t seem very many.
In 1807 the Slave Trade Act became law abolishing slavery in the British Empire. In 1811 Percy Shelly got expelled from Oxford (or “sent down” as they like to say over there) for publishing The Necessity of Atheism.
In 1995 the world’s first ever wiki was published: WikiWikiWeb.
This is his composition Romanian Folk Dances, performed here by Tessa Lark and Yannick Rafalimanana .
This is a recording of Bartok himself playing Romanian Folk Dances on the piano.
Today Hili has visitors, and is managing to put on a remarkable, if slightly unconvincing, display of self-effacing humility.
A: Hili, look! What a nice picture of Urszula and Asia.
Hili: When I was that age I always wanted to be in the foreground, too.
Ja: Hili, patrz jakie fajne zdjęcie Urszulki i Asi.
Hili: W tym wieku też zawsze chciałam być na pierwszym planie.
CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The second round of March Launch Madness continued with the thunderous nighttime blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket powering a super swift military communications satellite to orbit in a collaborative effort of U.S. Allies from North America, Europe and Asia and the U.S. Air Force.
The next generation Wideband Global SATCOM-9 (WGS-9) military comsat mission for the U.S. Force lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV from Space Launch Complex-37 (SLC-37) on Saturday, March 18 at 8:18 p.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Check out this expanding gallery of spectacular launch photos and videos gathered from my space journalist colleagues, myself and spectators ringing the space coast under crystal clear early evening skies.
A key feature in this advanced Block II series WGS satellite is inclusion of the upgraded digital channelizer that nearly doubles the available bandwidth of earlier satellites in the series.
WGS-9 can filter and downlink up to 8.088 GHz of bandwidth compared to 4.410 GHz for earlier WGS satellites. It supports communications links in the X-band and Ka-band spectra.
Note that Round 3 of March Launch Madness is tentatively slated for March 29 with the SpaceX liftoff of the first ever reused Falcon 9 first stage from historic pad 39 on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The WGS-9 satellite was paid for by a six nation consortium that includes Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States. It joins 8 earlier WGS satellites already in orbit.
The partnership was created back in 2012 when the ‘WGS-9 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)’ was signed by Defense organizations of the six countries.
The WGS-9 MOU agreement to fund the satellite enabled the expansion of the WGS system with this additional satellite added to the existing WGS constellation.
“The agreement provides all signatories with assured access to global wideband satellite communications for military use,” according to the US Air Force.
Watch this launch video compilation from Jeff Seibert:
Video Caption: Launch of WGS-9 satellite continues USAF Breaking Barriers heritage. This ULA Delta 4 launch of the WGS-9 satellite on Mar 18, 2017 marks the start of the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force. That was also the year that U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Credit: Jeff Seibert
WGS-9 was built by Boeing.
The 217 foot tall Delta IV Medium+ rocket launched in the 5,4 configuration with a 5 meter diameter payload fairing that stands 47 feet tall, and 4 solid rocket boosters to augment the first stage thrust of the single common core booster.
The payload fairing was emblazoned with decals commemorating the 70th anniversary of the USAF, as well as Air Force, mission and ULA logos.
Orbital ATK manufactures the four solid rocket motors. The Delta IV common booster core was powered by an RS-68A liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine producing 705,250 pounds of thrust at sea level.
A single RL10B-2 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powered the second stage, known as the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS).
The booster and upper stage engines are both built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA constructed the Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) launch vehicle in Decatur, Alabama.
The DCSS will also serve as the upper stage for the maiden launch of NASA heavy lift SLS booster on the SLS-1 launch slated for late 2018. That DCSS/SLS-1 upper stage just arrived at the Cape last week – as I witnessed and reported here.
Saturday’s launch marks ULA’s 3rd launch in 2017 and the 118th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
The post Nighttime Delta IV Blastoff Powers Military Comsat to Orbit for U.S. Allies: Photo/Video Gallery appeared first on Universe Today.
When your ordinary citizen learns there’s a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million suns sucking on its teeth in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, they might kindly ask exactly how astronomers know this. A perfectly legitimate question. You can tell them that the laws of physics guarantee their existence or that people have been thinking about black holes since 1783. That year, English clergyman John Michell proposed the idea of “dark stars” so massive and gravitationally powerful they could imprison their own light.
Michell wasn’t making wild assumptions but taking the idea of gravity to a logical conclusion. Of course, he had no way to prove his assertion. But we do. Astronomers now routinely find bot stellar mass black holes — remnants of the collapse of gas-guzzling supergiant stars — and the supermassive variety in the cores of galaxies that result from multiple black hole mergers over grand intervals of time.
Some of the galactic variety contain hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses, all of it so to speak “flushed down the toilet” and unavailable to fashion new planets and stars. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has shown that black holes evaporate over time, returning their energy to the knowable universe from whence they came, though no evidence of the process has yet been found.
So how do we really know a massive, dark object broods at the center of our sparkling Milky Way? Astronomers use radio, X-ray and infrared telescopes to peer into its starry heart and see gas clouds and stars whirling about the center at high rates of speed. Based on those speeds they can calculate the mass of what’s doing the pulling.
In the case of the galaxy M87 located 53.5 million light years away in the Virgo Cluster, those speeds tell us that something with a mass of 3.6 billion suns is concentrated in a space smaller than our Solar System. Oh, and it emits no light! Nothing fits the evidence better than a black hole because nothing that massive can exist in so small a space without collapsing in upon itself to form a black hole. It’s just physics, something that Mr. Scott on Star Trek regularly reminded a panicky Captain Kirk.
So it is with the Milky Way, only our black hole amounts to a piddling 4 million-solar-mass light thief confined within a spherical volume of space some 27 million miles in diameter or just shy of Mercury’s perihelion distance from the Sun. This monster hole resides at the location of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A- star), a bright, compact radio source at galactic center about 26,000 light years away.
Video showing a 14-year-long time lapse of stars orbiting Sgr A*
The time-lapse movie, compiled over 14 years, shows the orbits of several dozen stars within the light year of space centered on Sgr A*. We can clearly see the star moving under the influence of a massive unseen body — the putative supermassive black hole. No observations of Sgr A* in visible light are possible because of multiple veils of interstellar dust that lie across our line of sight. They quench its light to the tune of 25 magnitudes.
Merging black holes (the process look oddly biological!). Credit: SXS
How do these things grow so big in the first place? There are a couple of ideas, but astronomers don’t honestly know for sure. Massive gas clouds around early in the galaxy’s history could have collapsed to form multiple supergiants that evolved into black holes which later then coalesced into one big hole. Or collisions among stars in massive, compact star clusters could have built up stellar giants that evolved into black holes. Later, the clusters sank to the center of the galaxy and merged into a single supermassive black hole.
Whichever you chose, merging of smaller holes may explain its origin.
On a clear spring morning before dawn, you can step out to face the constellation Sagittarius low in the southern sky. When you do, you’re also facing in the direction of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Although you cannot see it, does it not still exert a certain tug on your imagination?
The post Watch Stars Orbit The Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole appeared first on Universe Today.
It’s a well-documented fact that roughly 4 billion years ago, Mars had liquid water flowing on its surface. However, there have also been recent findings that suggest that Mars might periodically have liquid water on its surface today. One of the strongest bits of evidence comes in the form of Recurring Slope Lineae, which are ventured to be seasonal flows of salty water which occur during Mars’ warmest months.
However, a new study produced by an international team of scientists has casts doubt on this theory and offered another possible explanation. Using numerical simulations, they show how a “dry” process – where rarefied gas is pumped up through the soil (due to temperature variations) – could lead to the formation of the dark streaks that have been observed on Martian slopes.
Their study, titled “Formation of recurring slope lineae on Mars by rarefied gas-triggered granular flows“, appeared recently in the journal Nature Geoscience. In it, the research team – which hails from the Géosciences Paris Sud (GEOPS) laboratory in Orsay, France, and the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava- explain how the current theories about what creates RSLs fall short.
As Frédéric Schmidt, a professor from GEOPS and the lead author of the study told Universe Today via email, the current theory about RSLs is based on the morphology, composition and seasonality of lineae which in the past, seemed to suggest that liquid salt water played a role in their formation:
“They attributed the appearance to liquid water mainly because of seasonality and salt detection. The activity occurs at the maximum temperature season only, in the most favorable condition for water to be liquid. The salt permits to decrease the freezing temperature of liquid water.”
This theory has met with its share of excitement, considering that the presence of water on the Martian surface would mean that the chances of finding present-day life there would be significantly greater. Unfortunately, recent studies have cast doubt on this by showing how there is insufficient water on Mars to account for the lineae that have been observed on various slopes.
“[T]here is not enough atmospheric water to fill all the dark flows and internal subsurface sources are very unlikely (Chojnacki et al., 2016),” said Dr. Schmidt. “Also, because there is no signature in the thermal range as one may have in the case of abundant liquid water. From the data, the maximum allowed water is too little (Edwards et al., 2016).”
However, Mars does have sufficient air pressure to allow for another process known as thermal creep. Also known as thermal transpiration, this process involves gas molecules drifting from the cold end of a narrow channel to the warm end. This occurs as a result of the walls of the channel experiencing temperature changes, which triggers a gas flow.
According to their study, sections of the Martian surface could be heated by solar radiation while others remained cooler because they were covered by a source of shade. When this happens, rarefied gas beneath the surface (i.e. gas with lower pressure than the atmosphere) could be pumped up through the Martian soil. Once it reached the surface, this gas would disturb patches of small particles, triggering tiny avalanches along Martian slopes.
To test this “dry” process of RSL formation, the team ran numerical simulations that took into account various locations on Mars and seasonal changes. “We tested our theory by modeling it and estimating its efficiency for different facet orientation and different seasons,” said Dr. Schmidt. “We find that the observed activity is coherent with our prediction. Also we simulated it in the lab in order validate the principle.
Basically, they found that in rough and boulder-strewn terrain on Mars (where shadows are cast that can cause temperature differences in small sections of soil) this process could result in the formation of dark streaks along slopes. Not only were their results consistent with observered RSLs in some areas, but they also explained how they could form without the need for liquid water or CO² frost (dry ice) activity.
This may sound like bad news, and it certainly is if you’re planning on establishing a settlement on Mars anytime soon (Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp might want to take heed!). And as Dr. Schmidt explained, it doesn’t bode well for those who are looking to confirm that there could be present-day life on Mars either:“Since RSL are the main features to argue about the presence of liquid water at present time on Mars, it was also the argument for possible habitability and life on Mars. If the new theory is correct, the present Mars is not as habitable as we previously thought. Liquid water was most probably present billions of years ago, but not today. These findings paint the portrait of an inhospitable world for human exploration.” So it seems that the prospect of water-procurement on Mars might be trickier than we thought. Perhaps future missions to the surface that rely on in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) will either have to drill for water, or harvest it directly from the ice caps. And as for full-blown colonization plans… well, let’s hope they don’t mind drilling wells or chopping ice either!
Further Reading: Nature Geoscience
The post Process Behind Martian Streaks Continues To Puzzle appeared first on Universe Today.
. . . or so said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan after Republicans, unable to present a credible alternative to the Affordable Care Act, pretty much gave up. As CNN reports:
Repubicans were unable to muster enough GOP support to bring their health care bill to a vote.
Trump thanked Ryan for working “very hard” on the failed effort. The real losers,the President said, were Democrats, who didn’t support the bill. They own it, he said. “Let Obamacare explode.”
Democrats gleefully accepted the charge. “Today’s a great day for our country,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “It’s pretty exciting for us.”
The only downside to this, I think, is that had Republicans passed their own healthcare act, many of those who voted for Trump would lose their healthcare, and might be less inclined to vote for him in 2020. But I’d rather have Americans stay alive than have Trump look bad. As it is, he still looks bad, unable to deliver yet another campaign promise. Republicans are reprehensible, and this is what they get for vowing to sink ObamaCare without thinking through how they’d do it.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe. But here on Earth, it’s rather rare. That’s unfortunate, because in our warming world, its status as an emissions-free fuel makes it a coveted chemical. If German researchers are successful, their Synlight project will help make renewable hydrogen fuel a reality.
Dubbed the “artificial Sun”, the Synlight uses concentrated light to power Thermochemical Water Splitting (TWS.) Every school child knows you can produce hydrogen by electrolysis—running an electric current through water. But that takes an enormous amount of electricity. TWS might be a better way of getting hydrogen out of water, but it takes an enormous amount of energy too, and that’s what the German research is about.
When combusted with pure oxygen—inside a fuel cell for example—hydrogen’s only waste product is water. No greenhouse gases or particulates are produced. But if we want to use it to power our cars, buses, trucks, and even airplanes, we need enormous amounts of it. And we need to produce it cost-effectively.
“Renewable energies will be the mainstay of global power supply in the future.” – Karsten Lemmer DLR Executive Board Member
The idea is to use the heat generated by Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) to extract hydrogen from water, thereby eliminating the need for electricity. CSP systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight into a small area. The heat from that action can be used to power TWS. The Synlight project in Germany is demonstrating the viability of TWS by mimicking the effect of concentrated sunlight. In doing so, researchers there are building what’s being called the world’s largest artificial Sun.
German researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) at Julich near Cologne built the Synlight, a system of 149, high power lamps of the type used in film projections. When all these lamps are turned on, Synlight produces light that is about 10,000 times more intense than natural sunlight on Earth. When all the lamps are aimed at a single spot, Synlight generates temperatures up to 3000 Celsius. The challenge now is to develop materials and processes that can operate in such an extreme temperature.
The Synlight system itself uses an enormous amount of electrical power to operate. But that’s often the case with experimental facilities. The Synlight project will mimic the effect of intense, continuous solar energy, something that is not readily available in Germany. By building a test facility powered by electricity, researchers will be able to reliably perform experiments without being delayed or affected by cloudy weather.
“Fuels, propellants and combustibles acquired using solar power offer immense potential for long-term storage and the production of chemical raw materials, and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Synlight will enhance our research in this field.” – Karsten Lemmer, DLR Executive Board Member
As Johannes Remmel, the North Rhine-Westphalia Minister for Climate Protection, said, “”We need to expand existing technology in practical ways in order to achieve renewable energy targets, but the energy transition will falter without investments in innovative research, in state-of-the-art technologies and in global lighthouse projects like Synlight.”
This is not the German Aerospace Center’s first foray in concentrated solar power. They’re involved in a number of projects to advance concentrated solar power and thermal water splitting. The DLR is a partner in the Hydrosol II pilot in Spain. It’s a reactor for solar thermochemical hydrogen production that has been in operation since 2008. They’re also involved in the first commercially operated solar tower plant, an 11 megawatt system in Spain called the PS10 solar power tower.
The post German ‘Largest Artificial Sun’ To Generate Climate Friendly Fuel appeared first on Universe Today.
I thought the identity politics that infected the first incarnation of the Science March had abated, but, according to Stat News, they’re actually getting worse, with fractures developing in the organization over issues of diversity, immigration, gender parity, and so on.
What was billed as science advocates speaking with a unified voice, then, has instead surfaced long-lingering tensions within the scientific community.
Rachel Holloway, a clinical psychologist who chairs the event’s diversity and inclusion committee, conceded that initially the group was overwhelmed by scientists and activists clamoring for a spot at the table. It was “like trying to drink water out of a fire hose,” she said.
Things have settled down since January, and organizers have begun to address members’ concerns. But many are not satisfied.
. . . Jacquelyn Gill, a biology and ecology professor at the University of Maine, told STAT that she quit the organizing committee in recent weeks because of leaders’ resistance to aggressively addressing inequalities — including race and gender.
“We were really in this position where, because the march failed to actively address those structural inequalities within its own organization and then to effectively communicate those values outward, we carried those inequalities forward,” Gill said. “Some of these problems stem from the march leadership failing early on in its messaging.”
. . . The event’s official diversity policy, posted just days after the march was announced in January, has undergone repeated revisions, and is now in its fourth version.
The latest, as Wednesday, read: “We acknowledge that society and scientific institutions often fail to include and value the contributions of scientists from underrepresented groups. … We better serve everyone when we affirm that the labors and achievements of underrepresented communities are foundational to the creation and maintenance of our democracy; engage in difficult conversations; and sustain an open scientific community that celebrates, respects, and includes people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”
As an example of how every group wants its own special interests identified and emphasized, have a look at this post at Latino Rebels.
I have no objection to the March’s statement of diversity, because of course science should be an open community, any bigotry is uconscionable, and in fact science works best when everyone has the same opportunity to contribute, though that may not mean that all groups are represented in the field exactly according to their proportion in the population.
What bothers me is the message that the March is supposed to impart. If it’s that we stand up for science, science funding, and unfettered promulgation of scientific truth, that’s fine; but I don’t think it will have much impact. If it’s that the scientific community is plagued by the same inequities that infect society at large, well, those issues were addressed in the Woman’s March, and are not unique to science. To march about those issues, though the issues must be addressed, serves no purpose except to fracture whatever unified message the demonstration was supposed to have. It also brings the social problems of science to the wrong people (we’re supposed to be sending a message to society at large, while internecine problems should be called to the attention to the scientific community). Finally, what is achieved by diluting the March with social issues not endemic to science itself? What will be achieved?
I don’t know, not do I know any longer what the March is supposed to accomplish, or what its message is. There’s even an anti-harassment policy on the March for Science webpage that mentions—wait for it—hate speech:
Across all social media platforms, we will remove comments that include rude language or personal insults. Any commenters who use derogatory or hateful language and/or engage in personal attacks will banned, blocked, and/or removed from the relevant March for Science online groups or accounts.
The March for Science does not tolerate hate speech, bigotry, or harassment within or outside our community. Targeting individuals or communities with violent language, including statements that reflect racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or any form of bigotry, will result in banning and/or blocking. Personal attacks based on religious affiliation or lack of religious affiliation will also lead to banning and/or blocking. To flag an issue, please contact a March for Science administrator on the relevant social media platform.
Have you ever seen a march that requires such a policy? But it’s symptomatic of the March’s young organizers, who seem to be sufficiently inexperienced that they didn’t think things through in the first place. And what is happening here is what is ruining the effectiveness of the Left in general. It is the petulance of college students write into larger society, something I’ve always worried about.
Will I participate? (I’ll be back before it starts.). I don’t know. It depends whether they can decide what the purpose of the March really is, and how they’ll convey their message. Right now I’m dubious, for without a unified goal the March will just be a bunch of people blowing off steam in a way that has no tangible benefits.
What it’s like to be an octopus? This review of Peter Godfrey Smith’s book, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, captures perfectly why I’ve been fascinated by them — they’re the closest thing to aliens we’ve got.
Unlike cetaceans – whose sentience it is possible to imagine, partly because they demonstrate our mammalian connections so vividly and physically – cephalopods are entirely unlike us. “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over,” says Godfrey-Smith. “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” The fact that they have eight legs, three hearts, and blue-green blood allies them more with The Simpsons’ gloopy extra-terrestrials than anything earthly.
I have little time to post this morning, but I call your attention to a really dreadful piece of science journalism at CNN.
It refers to a new paper in PLoS Genetics by Arslan Zaidi et al. (reference below, free access) describing how natural selection based on climate (temperature and humidity) may have molded the nose shape of populations of humans in different parts of the world (I’d call these groups “races” but I’d get my tuchas chewed for that). Here’s the paper’s abstract:
The evolutionary reasons for variation in nose shape across human populations have been subject to continuing debate. An import function of the nose and nasal cavity is to condition inspired air before it reaches the lower respiratory tract. For this reason, it is thought the observed differences in nose shape among populations are not simply the result of genetic drift, but may be adaptations to climate. To address the question of whether local adaptation to climate is responsible for nose shape divergence across populations, we use Qst–Fst comparisons to show that nares width and alar base width are more differentiated across populations than expected under genetic drift alone. To test whether this differentiation is due to climate adaptation, we compared the spatial distribution of these variables with the global distribution of temperature, absolute humidity, and relative humidity. We find that width of the nares is correlated with temperature and absolute humidity, but not with relative humidity. We conclude that some aspects of nose shape may indeed have been driven by local adaptation to climate. However, we think that this is a simplified explanation of a very complex evolutionary history, which possibly also involved other non-neutral forces such as sexual selection.
We know of course that selection has been responsible for many local adaptations in humans (see here for a summary), so this is nothing new, though it’s an interesting piece of work. Sexual selection may also be responsible, as the authors say, though it’s not the kind of sexual selection that leads to sexual dimorphism (in this case, to any different nose shape between males and females).
Now look at the CNN headline reporting this result (clicl on screenshot to go to article):
The headline (which probably wasn’t written by author Susan Scutti) gets natural selection completely wrong, implying that it’s something that involves genetics and the selective pressure itself as different and separable entities. Of course we know that if climate-based natural selection caused evolutionary changes in nose shape, those changes would have to be genetic! Climate, after all, is not some Lamarckian force that molds an nose shape that gets passed on without the intervention of genes. Climate cannot evolutionarily mold nose shape, at least in a heritable way, without genes!
The authors of the PLoS paper discuss the differential replication of gene forms (alleles) based on their contribution to well being mediated through nose shape. That process involves both climate and genes interacting in a nonrandom way. The headline is grossly misleading, though Scutti herself seems to get it pretty much right in the article (but see below).
I was sent this headline by Richard Dawkins, who was just as appalled as I was. Here’s what he wrote (quoted with permission):
But if you read the CNN story it turns out, as you would expect, that the study shows natural selection, in different climates, has shaped the nose. In what possible sense is that NOT genetics?
Well, as I said, the story itself is okay, but the headline is horrible.
But there’s still a bizarre bit of Scutti’s story. Here’s what she reports further:
So it’s easy to understand why many people, past and present, “have this sense that human populations are very distinct and have been separated for a long time,” said Mark D. Shriver, lead author of the study and a professor of anthropology at Penn State University. Still, he noted, “human populations have always split and come back together, split and come back together, so there’s no separate origin.”
In fact, genetic differences between various population groups is not that great. Using noses as just one example, said Shriver, “the surface, the appearance of people in different populations is much greater than what the genetic differences show on average.”
There are three things wrong here. Yes, human populations have exchanged migrants for a while—ever since forms of transportation came about. And this process is accelerating. But the statement that “populations have always split and come back together” and that “there’s no separate origin” is flatly wrong. Populations don’t meld completely and then split again: they simply send individuals back and forth, and historically have maintained many of their genetic and phenotypic differences.
Further, there is a separate origin for many populations. Native Americans, including those in North and South America, came over the Bering Strait about 15,000-20,000 years ago. They did not repeatedly fuse back to their Eurasian ancestors and separate again. Ditto with Polynesians, the indigenous people of Australia, and so on. I have no idea what Shriver is talking about.
In the second paragraph, I am simply confused by Shriver’s statement that “the surface, the appearance of people in different populations is much greater than what the genetic differences show on average.” What genetic differences is he talking about? For surely there are substantial genetic differences involved in the nose shape differences, be they small differences in the frequency of alleles at many loci, big differences in the frequency of alleles at a few loci, or a mixture.
Perhaps he is saying that the allele frequency differences in nose shape (and other distinguishable traits among populations) are greater than those of the “average” gene, including “neutral” sites where different gene forms make no difference in appearance, phyisology, or so on. That would be a nod to the fact that wholesale genetic differentiation of our genome hasn’t had time to evolve over the 60,000-100,000 years since we spread out over the globe from Africa. But if Shriver meant that, why didn’t he say it more clearly, and why didn’t Scutti ask him to clarify it? After all, there’s no good way to compare the differences in the configuration of a character like the nose with the frequency differences of genes in the genome. They are apples and oranges.
This is the kind of dire science reporting, with the journalist not asking the right questions (not atypical for science journalists who haven’t had extensive training in science), and therefore the body of the article (and the headline!) remaining confusing. It was confusing for me, and I’m an evolutionary biologist.
Zaidi A. A. et al. 2017. Investigating the case of human nose shape and climate adaptation. PLoS Genetics http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1006616.
On Wednesday I booked bus tickets up to Arthur’s pass and back, giving me over eight hours in the area. Surely I’d see a kea, then, and that was my goal.
This bird (Nestor notabilis) is the world’s only alpine parrot, and has been largely extirpated by human activity, including clearing land and shooting the birds, who sometimes rip open the backs of sheep to eat the fat. They also have a fondness for lead, which they chew on car wheels and old houses. That has poisoned many. The ranger told me that 3 birds were taken to hospital for lead poisoning last year, and released after recovery. But they’ll just poison themselves again, for, smart as these birds are, I doubt they can make the connection between chewing lead and getting ill later.
The ranger also told me that farmers and ranchers had shot 150,000 keas over the years, and the conservation folks seem helpless to prevent loss of the present population, estimated at between 1,000 and 5,000 birds. I could hear the frustration in his voice as he described the situation. He added that next week the conservation folks are having a big meeting to figure out how to save this bird. I hope they don’t have to take them into captivity!
Anyway, in my discussion with the ranger, I asked him where the greatest chance was to see kea. He recommended a 2-hour (total) hike up one trail to the south, where there were keas not accustomed to humans, and which I might be able to spy in the trees. But the best spot, he said, was in the village by the cafe, where these cheeky birds come around to cadge treats. So I did both. More below.
Here is the tiny tourist village of Arthur’s Pass from a trail on the north side. Beeches abound.
Lovely beech forests cloak the slopes.
It’s another Lord of the Rings backdrop. Does anyone know what the plant is sticking up in the middle of the photo?
My guess is that this is red beech.
Everywhere there are signs about the keas and warnings not to feed them. The ranger also told me that avocado will kill them quickly (he said avocados are toxic to many parrots), and bread and chocolate are also bad for them. I of course was determined not to feed them. They lay eggs on the ground (apparently two eggs per clutch), and that’s bad, for introduced predators like the common brushtail possum from New Zealand (Trichosurus vulpecula), as well as stoats and rats, eat the eggs. Before Europeans came, there were no land mammals on New Zealand save two species of bats, so egg predation was low, and many birds evolved flightlessness.
Again from the ranger: at least 15 keas disappeared during the last year around the pass.
Possum trapping and killing is encouraged, as they are huge predators of native birds. Much as I hate the idea of killing anything, this seems reasonable if we want to keep the marvelous products of evolution that fly around New Zealand. A few decades of predation can destroy millions of years of evolution.
Possum skins are on sale in many places, including the ranger station, and they encourage people to buy them so that a “possum skin trade” will develop, encouraging further reduction of these invasive animals.
So. . . . how I found my kea.
After my hike, i sat in front of the village store and cafe for what must have been four hours, waiting for kea to come. It was tedious, though I had the galley proofs of Richard Dawkins’s latest book (out in August) to distract me. I finished the book and waited on.
I asked the cafe workers if there were often kea there, and they said that yes, nearly every day they came. That was bad: I felt that I was going to have another non-experience, like that I had at Milford Sound. The weather was warm and sunny, which may have driven the birds up the mountain.
At 4:30 it was time to meet the bus going back to Greymouth. It was the same shuttle driven by the same guy, who let me ride up front with him. When I told him of my futile quest for kea, he regaled me with stories of his encounters with them (they sit in the middle of the road and won’t move when cars come by, they destroyed the top of his van once, and so on). But then he told me that, on the way back, he would stop in places where he’d seen kea before and give me a Last Chance to See. And so we stopped at several overlooks and pullouts on the way back to the coast.
And, at the very last one, there was a plump bird waddling around the parking lot. It was a kea, scrounging what food it could from the ground. I was so excited that I hopped from the van with my camera almost before it stopped.
And here are the results. Notice that the bird is gorgeous, with green feathers that turn violet on the edges and turquoise on the tail. Its wings are orange-red underneath, but I didn’t see that. Note, too, the wicked beak, with which these birds strip chrome and rubber from cars. Also, it’s banded, as nearly every kea is around Arthur’s Pass (they know them all).
LOOK AT THAT BIRD!
This kea found apple peelings in the carpark. He held down some with his ungainly feet while eating them bit by bit.
Nomming crumbs from the pavement:
The photo below is a tad out of focus, but it shows the lovely colors of the bird, as well as its small eyes and wicked beak.
I am SO happy I got to see kea, even if I saw only one. One was enough, and it was worth the eight-hour wait.
Many thanks to Mike of West Coast Shuttle for giving me the chance to see this bird.
I also met up with another South Island Robin (Petroica australis), which, as one did on the Routeburn Track, followed me down the trail and, when I stopped, jumped onto my feet to tug at my shoelaces. It also made a dive at my jeans, trying to pluck at them. They are splendid little birds with gray coloration, glossy black eyes and beaks, whitish to yellowish breasts, and little stick legs. They are very curious and fearless:
And today (this will be published in the US on Friday), I head to Nelson, delighted that I’ve bagged a kea with my camera.