June 2011 Archives

Hello from Texas

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As an alumnus of the EML, I hope I'm not stepping on any toes with a few posts now and then, but I think this is pretty neat.

In the summer time, the Congress St Bridge in Austin Texas is home to a large colony of Mexican free tailed bats. They make up the largest urban bat colony in the world (according to wikipedia). Tonight I went down to the river with some family to check it out.

Around sunset, people start lining up on the bridge:
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Then once the light is right, the bats come out from under the bridge to feed:
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and fly down the river in what looks like a stream of bats:
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If you're ever in Austin during the summer, it's worth checking out.

Imagine being born here

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There hasn't been much posting lately, so here's another one from the archives.  This image was from my first adventure into the universe ruled by seabirds--a bleak and bare rock a mere 300 yards across, miles off the northern shore of Newfoundland, straining to barely poke up above sea level.  I had only just set foot on this rock when I glanced down to see tern chicks hatching in the most exposed and tenuous spot I could have chosen, on a nest of broken shells.

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As I surveyed the isle by foot, I caught brief glimpses of other alien critters, darting by under boulders, revealing themselves only fleetingly.  I felt like Dorothy, just landed in Oz, with that eerie quiet of being apprehensively watched, broken only occasionally by the scurrying of feet.

There was an impressive gathering of life on this tiny, sea-scoured pebble.  It was slowly revealed that every inhospitable nook and crag was in fact a nest and nursery to some species other than mine.

-Nick Record, signing off

Free food for the mind

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I've just opened an email form a colleague informing us that from today onward, the National Academies Press will offer its electronic books and reports for free.
They even provided the code to embed in anybody's webpage. It's neat, as you can see by yourself. Go there and browse the catalog. There's definitely something for you.

The Sea is an Unknowable Beast

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We can measure the speed of light to an astonishing level of accuracy.  Uncertainty is a millionth of one percent.  We can measure and count sub-atomic particles that weigh a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a gram.  We can detect earth-like planets hundreds of trillions of miles away by measuring wobbles in stars.

Yet we can't measure egg mortality in the ocean.

This week I'm at the Ecosystem Studies of Sub-Arctic Seas conference.  I've attended this meeting, and other similar meetings, in the past.  It's a good chance to meet with scientists from all over the world, hear their ideas, learn from them, and (if you're like me) interact with them awkwardly.  It's fun and educational.

Learning about the North is especially interesting, as the Arctic appears to be a harbinger of what's to come with climate change.  Complex systems of ocean currents and ice are shifting into new states, and consequently, so are the ecosystems they support.  Marine scientists are intrepidly probing the depths to help us figure out just what is happening, and how to deal with it.

The problem is that the sea is an unknowable beast.

One of my favorite talks at this meeting was on copepod egg mortality.  The question boils down to: how many eggs survive from one day to the next?  After showing measurements made using a variety of different techniques, the take home message was: none of these techniques works.  Actually, I saw a few talks on the impracticability of measuring mortality in the ocean.  Nobody seems to be able to do it except in highly simplified or idealized cases.

It's amazing all that we've accomplished in science.  I marvel in the feats of humanity against the powers of nature, staving off death and disease, conquering flight and space travel, and discovering the imaginary numbers.  That does give me some hope that we might have the cognitive toolkit and the sheer determination to figure out the science of changing seas and their ecosystems--to buffer humanity against the oncoming climate shifts.  But I marvel too in what we have yet to accomplish.  We haven't been able to travel back in time; we haven't been able to build cities on Mars or crack the speed of light.  

And we can't count how many eggs die in the ocean.  One might say oceanography is harder than quantum physics.  At the least, it's an intriguingly mysterious enigma.

-Nick Record, signing off

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