Sunday Sensational Science

Touring Lowell Observatory

Most people visit Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon, skiing, hiking, and other outdoor activities. But about 70,000 folks a year take a detour from downtown Flagstaff, climb a nondescript Ponderosa-covered hill, and go play with science instead.

Lowell Observatory’s a family affair. It’s been privately owned since Percival Lowell built it in search of Martian canals in 1894 – his grandnephew’s the current trustee. It’s among the oldest observatories in the United States. And it’s a fantastic place to experience science and history all in one go.

I’ve already written about Lowell Observatory’s contributions to science. In this edition of Sunday Science, we’ll just have a walk around the grounds, get to know some of the quirks and oddities of the place, and get our hands on history.

Once you pass through the Visitor’s Center, you enter a courtyard surrounded by venerable old buildings. And you’ll see something that looks like a sculpture of a telescope. It’s a work of art, all right, but it’s the real deal – the 42-inch reflecting telescope built by Alvin Clark & Sons. Lowell wanted a reflector for planetary observations, and he certainly got it. The 11-ton giant was installed in a dome in 1909, and remained in active use until the late 1960s, when it was replaced by a new 42-inch reflector made of low-expansion glass, installed at Anderson Mesa.

Dr. Slipher used it for spectroscopic studies for about two years; his brother Earl used it to take Kodachrome photographs of the planets (I did mention Lowell’s a family affair, right?). But for the majority of its working life, it was C.O. Lampland’s baby. Dr. Lampland used it to take over 10,000 pictures of spiral nebulae (later discovered to be galaxies), star clusters and star fields. He and colleague W. W. Coblentz used the telescope to measure the surface temperatures of Mars, Venus and other planets – their work helped establish that Mars has a very thin atmosphere indeed. And after Pluto’s discovery, Dr. Lampland aimed this telescope at it and got accurate positions for it, essential in determining its orbit.

All this happened, of course, before the poor reflector got retired and chucked out of its dome to serve as a work of astronomical art.

Look at it in relation to the Visitor’s Center behind it, and realize one thing: it is huge. Very, very huge. Staring at things very far away requires big equipment.

And big equipment requires big domes. This is the home sweet home of the 24-inch Clark Telescope. This is the centerpiece of the Observatory. It dominates Mars Hill. It acts like a gravity well: you make little circular motions trying save it for later, but you spiral closer and closer until you finally just give up and make a beeline for it. There’s a reason why the Observatory tour guides usually take you there first.

On clear nights, a long line of folks snakes out of the building, down the steps and out into the courtyard, waiting for their turn to gaze through the eyepiece at the cosmos. On the night we went, they had the Clark aimed at the Moon. You have not truly experienced our nearest cosmic neighbor until you’ve viewed it through the lens of a large telescope – the mountains and craters pop out in vivid relief, starkly outlined along the edge against the blackness of space. The Moon’s brilliant white glow, dimmed by dark maria, so clear and sharp you feel you could step through and touch it, fills your vision. It’s tough to pull yourself away and let the next visitor take their turn. But there’s plenty to look at even when you’re not looking through the telescope.

The dome alone weighs 8 tons. The walls and supports are soft golden pine, giving the telescope’s home the feel of a no-frills pioneer’s house. And yes, those are truck tires up there. The dome is rolled about on one particular variety of tire – 1954 Ford pickup tires, to be precise. They do a better job and make a lot less noise than the old iron wheels in use before. Of course, every once in a while, one of them pops with a gawdawful bang, and they’re not fancy, but when you’re a privately-owned observatory that has the choice between spending scarce funds on fancy-schmancy extras and funneling those funds into the really essential stuff, you put up with the occasional blown tire.

And if you’re the proud owner of some extra 1954 Ford pickup truck tires, there are some folks at the Observatory who’d like to have a chat with you.

But truck tires aren’t the most amusing improvisation in the dome. Follow the arrow in the next photo and see if you can identify the lens cap for the guide telescope on the side of the refractor:

Why, yes, indeed, it is Mrs. Lowell’s frying pan. She’d just gotten a new set when Mr. Lowell needed a lens cap and discovered that a frying pan is precisely the right size and shape to get the job done. Needless to say, she wasn’t exactly thrilled when she discovered where her new pan had got to.

For your entertainment, the guide will show you the cover. It settles over the lens of the guide scope with a satisfying culinary bang.

The Clark itself is a bit more sophisticated. The instrumentation is the real deal, not pieces cobbled together from kitchens and cars. It’s made of rolled steel, weighing in at a slim 6 tons, and is 32 feet long. It’s so well-mounted that you can move it with a touch. Lowell hooked spectrographic equipment up to it in 1901. Lowell used it as his primary instrument in his Martian investigations; V.M. Slipher employed it to measure the redshifts of galaxies, giving him one of the first looks at the expanding universe.

The Clark’s been in use since 1896. It started its career in Mexico, where Lowell had it erected in December of 1896 that provided a better view of the opposition of Mars. It came home to Mars Hill shortly afterward. Its main function today is to give visitors an astronomer’s-eye view of the cosmos. There’s something particularly thrilling about stepping up and looking through the same instrument used by famous astronomers like Lowell and Slipher. If you get the chance, you really must experience it for yourself.

Then head on over to the Rotunda Museum for a look at history. It’s in the Slipher Building’s Rotunda Library. The building’s fascinating for its architecture as well as its science – it was most likely designed by Percival and Constance Lowell themselves. The dome was intended to resemble Saturn, with a thin balustrade standing in for the rings. The balustrade never happened, but the dome certainly did. They aligned the building with the spring and autumn equinoxes for an extra astronomical touch.

Mrs. Lowell did a hell of a job with the interior. She designed a large “arts and crafts” fireplace on the north wall (it’s arts-and-crafts the way a painting is a doodle), and she ordered the stained glass light fixture in the shape of – what else? Saturn:

Note the graceful spiral staircases, the elegant library circling the open second floor, the windows inviting in all that gleaming Arizona sun:

And then keep in mind that this was designed and built as an office building. They knew how to marry form, function and sophistication back in the early 20th Century, didn’t they just?

It’s all crowded with relics, as you can see from the above photos. When you visit, you’ll get a chance to see Percival Lowell’s first telescope, a 2.25 inch brass beauty his mother gave him on his 15th birthday:

From such gifts, life paths are chosen.

Among the displays, you’ll get to see Clyde Tombaugh’s log of observations. The photo below shows his log book of the plates from 1930, wherein Pluto was revealed:

And the equipment he used to make those plates:

Pretty intriguing stuff. If you’ve ever wondered how astronomers managed to make important discoveries pre-computerized equipment, this is an excellent place to learn. You’ll see examples of all sorts of equipment that did the job before the silicon chip was even dreamt of.

Lowell himself never got to see Pluto’s discovery, or even enjoy his sunny new office in the Slipher Building. He died in 1916. But he got to stick around. Mrs. Lowell had a massively expensive mausoleum built for him, complete with cobalt tiles and Italian building stone. She also decided that her share of the will wasn’t quite enough, and so she went to court to obtain the rest. The ensuing legal battle ate half of the Observatory’s $2.3 million inheritance, and to this day, you’ll still hear Mrs. Lowell blamed for the Observatory’s every financial woe.

So it goes. Families are messy things, and they sometimes tear themselves apart. Mrs. Lowell lost her fight and faded from the scene. The science went on while Lowell lay sleeping. Pluto got discovered, which has given them lasting fame even after the poor “planet” got demoted. Today, Lowell Observatory’s much more than Mars hill – there’s it’s Anderson Mesa facility, where important projects like the Little Things Survey and Local Group Survey are in full swing. And by 2011, the Discovery Channel Telescope will be online in Happy Jack. The Observatory’s thriving, and at least everybody got an interesting Mausoleum out of the bargain.

It could’ve been worse.

Just yesterday, the Arizona Republic ran an article about Lowell and his wonderful Observatory. Reporter John Stanley summed up Lowell’s career thusly:

Although Lowell was grossly mistaken about the markings on Mars, his theories inspired generations of scientists, engineers, writers and filmmakers. He also was wrong about Planet X, yet his calculations led to the discovery of Pluto. Sometimes that’s the way science works.

That is indeed. Percival Lowell left one hell of a legacy. And if you get a chance to go see it for yourselves, you’ll see the inspiration he left for future astronomers, not only in the work and the equipment he left behind, but in his own words, which you’ll find on his Mausoleum wall:

That, at the end of the day, is just what science is all about.

Further Reading:

For descriptions of the telescopes and a history of Lowell, see V.M. Slipher’s own article in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. There’s also useful information in this rough draft of the article “The Telescopes of Lowell Observatory.”

A good photo tour with fun snippets can be found here. A 360-degree tour for those who can’t make it to Arizona is available here.

The architecture and history of the Slipher Building can be found in this Historic American Building Survey by the National Park Service (.pdf).

(A Poor Excuse for) Sunday Sensational Science

Mea culpas are in order, my darlings. I meant to have a spiffy article on Meteor Crater put together in honor of the Perseid Meteor Showers. That, obviously, did not happen, as you’re reading my sorry excuses instead.

It’s been a bad week. It started with Aunty Flow, who allowed me just enough energy and respite from the pain to keep up with normal posting, but no more. It finished with The Stench.

I have been battling The Stench since Thursday. It’s consumed the majority of my attention. It’s prevented me from getting a proper night’s sleep for days. It has sent me to the store repeatedly for anti-Stench items, such as Glade’s Febreeze ripoff (damn you, Target, for being out of the real thing!).

That’s right. I bought a memory foam mattress topper. And the smell is everything you’ve been warned about and more. It resembles gasoline crossed with the toxic goo that created the Joker. It is, above all, pervasive.

I’ve tried airing the damned thing out on the porch, but in Seattle, you can only leave things outside so long before the damp destroys them. I’ve tried covering it with layers upon layers of thick, heavy blankets. I’ve tried dryer sheets. I’ve tried blasting it with fans. I’m finally reduced to a waterproof mattress protector, which worked for a few hours. But The Stench is now starting to penetrate even that, along with the thick mattress pad, the blankets, and about ten thousand dryer sheets.

It’s terribly distracting, and combined with the social life I developed over the weekend, has led me to punk off Sunday Science until it’s too late for anything complicated.

You may ask why I’ve not chucked the memory foam mattress topper into the nearest dumpster. Three reasons. One, the thing’s hideously expensive and nearly impossible to return. Two, The Stench is not long for this world – memory foam loses its odor in a few days to a few weeks. Three, once The Stench is gone, bliss will be mine all mine. The topper’s not quite a Tempurpedic, but it’s damned comfortable. Far better than the ancient feather mattress I’ve been using.

It will all be worth it in the end. But if you decide to buy one of these things, make sure it can have a room of its own for a few weeks. And buy it in a season when you can have the windows open.

But enough of The Stench. Let’s talk my social life, which involved some science. Our local skeptics group decided to meet on a Saturday for all us poor bastards who can’t make it to the meeting on Tuesday nights. We were discussing the Apollo moon landing, and the idiots who to this day believe it’s a hoax.

We watched a “documentary” called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon. My darlings, grab your local skeptics and pirate a copy forthwith. It’s hilarious. It starts out with Bible quote after Bible quote. It continues with a discuss of the Tower of Babel and the Titanic (which, it’s implied, God hisownself sank). It has a musical interlude with a bunch of rockets blowing up, followed by a smorgasboard of arguments from incredulity, logical fallacies, spectacular ignorance of basic physics and photography, and arguments from the Kennedy assassination. Even Godwin’s there in spirit. If you could stick posts from the DIsco Institute, Answers in Genesis, and other such luminaries of dumbfuckery into a blender with Expelled and Ray Comfort’s banana video, puree on high for two minutes, and then turn the resulting blend into a DVD, it would emerge as something very like this “documentary.”

There’s only one way to follow that up: the Mythbusters Moon Hoax special. You can view clips here. Or just get your local skeptics together – there’s nothing quite like a room full of very smart, very skeptical, and very knowledgeable people taking these myths apart one by one.

The only thing missing was a video of Buzz Aldrin punching the moon hoax moron in the nose.

So, anyway, that’s what’s keeping you from getting an honest-to-goodness Sunday Sensational Science this week. But there’s a little science for you – I’ve got some follow-up to Kepler’s launch.

First off, the thing works – it really works!

And that’s what the news is from Kepler. As a test of its abilities, it observed the star known as HAT-P-7, which is known to have a roughly Jupiter-sized world orbiting it every 2.2 days. This planet, called HAT-P-7b, is far too close to the star to be seen directly, but every time it passes in front of the star, the light we see drops. Here’s what Kepler saw after observing this system for 10 days:

Kepler observations of HAT-P-7B

The top plot shows the data as the planet circles the star. The big dip is due to the planet blocking a fraction of the star’s light. The depth of that dip tells us how much of the star was blocked, and therefore the size of the planet. But look along the plot a little bit to the right: see that fainter dip (right under the i in “Magnification”)? What’s that?

The bottom plot is the same thing but zoomed in to see more detail. That second dip is a lot more obvious. It’s not another planet blocking starlight, which is what you might first guess. It’s actually the light from the planet being blocked by the star!

The planet is reflecting light from the star, just like the Moon reflects sunlight, allowing us to see it. When the planet passes behind the star, we don’t see that light anymore, so the total light from the system drops a wee bit. It’s not much, and totally impossible to see from the ground, but Kepler was able to spot it. And that’s critical, because it turns out this dip is about the same thing we’d expect to see if a planet the size of the Earth were to pass in front of the star. In other words, the drop in light from a giant planet going behind its star is about the same as we’d expect from a smaller planet passing in front of the star.

The fact that Kepler spied this dip at all means that, if somewhere out there an Earthlike world is orbiting a star, Kepler will be able to detect it!


And, as Darksyde noted last week, it even managed to detect its first exoplanet atmosphere:

NASA’s new exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope has detected the atmosphere of a known giant gas planet, demonstrating the telescope’s extraordinary scientific capabilities. The discovery will be published Friday in the journal Science.

“As NASA’s first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene,” said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate’s Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Detecting this planet’s atmosphere in just the first 10 days of data is only a taste of things to come. The planet hunt is on!”

Good hunting, Kep!

Sunday Sensational Science

Arizona Botany: El Norte

Last week, we traveled through Southern and Central Arizona, munching our way through various cacti, soaping our hair with yucca plants, and shading under the lovely sycamores. At last, we’ve reached Northern Arizona, which always shocks the hell out of people who’ve seen nothing of Arizona but dirt, desert, and dessicated plants.

Northern Arizona’s got a lot of green, my darlings. But we’ll ease you in with a denizen of the more sparsely-foliaged frontiers.

Lavender-leaf Sundrops (Calylophus lavandulifolius)

Most of us Arizona denizens just call it that one yellow flower, not to be confused with that other yellow flower, but you can also call it a Lavender-leaf Primrose if you like. These delightful little blooms like to rough it in dry, rocky territory. You can find them on hillsides, ledges, eroded stream valleys, roadsides, forest clearings, and disturbed ground anywhere from just over 4,000 to almost 8,000 up.

This one’s growing at Meteor Crater. Talk about your disturbed ground! It’s one of the few plants braving the violent wind, sun and rock of the rim.

I know the first thing that comes to mind upon seeing it isn’t “Oh, hey, look – dinner!” But we’re not natives. It puts out little cylindrical seed pods about 1/2″ – 1″ long, which Apache children cooked and ate. No report on flavor, alas.

Just goes to show that most plants are more useful than we think, and kids will try anything as long as their parents aren’t the ones serving it.

Let’s visit one of the Lavender-leaf’s relatives next.

Crownleaf Evening Primrose (Oenothera coronopifolia)

If, as some claim, Arizona is hell, there is indeed a primrose path to it. These delicate-appearing beauties were a ubiquitous feature of my growing up – we had a huge bank of them growing wild along the front of our house. This is where I learned that moths pollinate flowers. We kids used to lurk outside after dark, when the evening primroses were glowing in the moonlight, and watch ginormous moths of the Schinia family cluster around like gastronomes at a gourmet food fest.

These beauties seem to like it just about anywhere. They’ll grow in poor soils, like the above bed of cinders near Red Mountain. They’re equally happy in the woods, the yard – basically anywhere they can get a toehold, you’ll find them in Flagstaff. They’re not too fascinated with competition, though – expect them in poorer soils and as first colonizers who are happy to move on when others move in.

The Oenothera family made their way up from Central America and Mexico, and variations on the theme are now found just about everywhere. The crownleaf seems to like the Southwestern states the best, but it’s found as far north as Idaho, and as far east as Kansas.

The Navajo seem to have found many uses for it, ranging from an additive for improving the flavor of wild tobacco to a stomach remedy to a poultice for swelling.

If you’re having tummy troubles, maybe we should stay on the subject of flowers.

Apricot Globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Due to a confusion of common names, I spent my childhood wondering how Native Americans painted with this awesome little flower. This isn’t Indian Paintbrush, but it certainly painted my landscape – this plant’s ubiquitous throughout central and northern Arizona. When it bloomed in spring, we almost always had a few sprigs of it in a vase. It usually blooms orange, but it can be all sorts of colors, including purple.

Like most Arizona plants, it does just fine in poor soils, but if you get it a prime spot, you may just end up with a five-foot bush. It grows up to two feet tall. And it doesn’t mind mixing it up with other plants, as you can see from this photo, taken at the Grand Canyon.

Like the primrose, it was used by Native Americans for a variety of swellings and upset tummies. It also found itself used as a contraceptive. If you’re trying to avoid breeding, I wouldn’t necessarily test its powers in that regard – unless you’re relying on its properties as an irritant. Its stellate hairs, possibly evolved to discourage herbivores from seeing it as a banquet, aren’t easy on the eyes.

Speaking of herbivores, let’s turn next to an unlikely food source for the buggers.

Stansbury Cliffrose (Purshia stansburiana)

You’ll find these gorgeous tree shrubs clinging to cliffs, mixed happily with the trees in rocky areas, and generally beautifying the landscape. They have a sharp but pretty odor that seems to permeate the entire area when they get hot. But local browsers don’t appreciate it for it’s smell – they think it tastes great. Everything and its brother on hooves eats it, from the mule deer to bighorn sheep. It’s the winter forage in northern Arizona, even though it’s a bit bitter.

The Hopi also found it useful, although not so much as a snack. They used it as a wound wash, cough syrup, and emetic. Their Snake Priests wore kilts made of its bark. The bark also came in useful as padding for cradle boards, which I’m sure the kids appreciated. The Navajo pound its leaves and stems together with juniper to make a tan or yellow-brown dye.

It’s sometimes a life-saving plant. Being rooted firmly near cliffs, I myself utilized it more than once as an impromptu anchor. Beautiful and utilitarian – that’s the cliffrose.

But if you’re hungry, it’s time to go climb a tree.

Twoneedle Piñon (Pinus edulis)
Other people spent insane amounts of money on pinenuts in grocery stores. We just headed into the woods and shook down the cones. We’d come out with sacks of piñon nuts, which can be eaten raw, roasted, and constantly. Yum!

You can eat the sap, too. Not so yum. Never tried making piñon needle tea, but since the needles tasted pretty good when we chewed them, I don’t imagine that’s as bad as the sap.

Folks apparently use the sap for a variety of things, from salve to sunblock to splinter-removal. If only we’d known about the splinter-removal as kids!

These little guys are hardy. They’re usually found mixed with juniper around the 5,000-6,500 elevations in Arizona and New Mexico. They grow slow and grow old – a one-foot trunk may have taken 200 years to reach that size, and the tree might see another 300 years of life. This one at the Grand Canyon shows they’re not afraid of precipitous drops. They’ll work their way into cracks in the rock and grow out over the edge as if it’s nothing.

They’re actually New Mexico’s state tree. They’re practically Northern Arizona’s official Christmas tree. I know they’re my favorite tree in the universe, simply because they were my close companions growing up. There’s something friendly about a piñon forest. Maybe it’s because they’re smaller, and utterly perfect for climbing.

But not every tree in northern AZ is small. In fact, some are quite huge indeed. Prepare to meet the ultimate in Arizona pine trees.

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus arizonica)

Ponderous they are. They can reach up to 227 feet in height and 290 inches in girth. That is huge.

Height isn’t the only thing that will allow you to identify one of these. There are the needles, which are also huge. They’re 5-9 inches in length. That is long enough to make a decent broom. The loose, dry needles fallen from the trees also clump well, which for kids means prime building material for fort walls. Adults more often use the actual wood.

Native Americans ate the seeds and the sweet inner bark; used the pitch as glue, torch fuel, and rubbed it inside flutes and whistles to improve the tone. You can also make a blue dye from the roots.

Ponderosa forests are home to a variety of critters, some who browse their needles, seeds, and so forth, others who use them as shelter.

Now, one of the most awesome things about the ponderosa is its bark. If you get up close, you’ll see it’s an almost burnt-orange color, with black fissures. If you’re careful, you can peel off flakes of it that look almost like puzzle pieces. If you stick your nose deep within one of those fissures and inhale deeply, you’ll smell an aroma that in some trees is reminiscent of vanilla, in others much like chocolate. Ponderosa pines are some of the best-smelling trees in the world.

They grow in elevations mostly above 7,000 feet. We had one lonely ponderosa growing in our piñon forest, and there are areas like Sunset Crater where they mingle quite a bit, but they like the high, cool, and fairly wet spots. There’s just one problem: they’re a bit lazy. At Sunset Crater, where the rains don’t sink much past the cinders, they spread out enormous, shallow root systems that leave them vulnerable to the next high wind. So, that solid-seeming tree to your right could end up nothing but a tangled bunch of exposed roots come next gale. Amazing, eh?

Well, my darlings, we’ve barely scratched the surface of Arizona’s flora, but here our exploration ends. You can at least identify enough of Arizona’s denizens to impress folks who think of the state as nothing but trackless desert. And if you’re caught out in the wild, at least you’ll feast rather than famine, right?

Sunday Sensational Science

Arizona Botany

No, I’m not having you on. Arizona is not a trackless desert – well, it was in the early Jurassic, but you won’t find endless fields of sand dunes now. What you will find is plants – lots and lots of plants. Even the desert gets awfully green.

I’ll introduce you to a few of Arizona’s ubiquitous plants, so you can impress your friends with the news that Arizona contains plenty of botany, and you even know their Latin names.

Let’s begin in the desert and work our way north, considering that’s how most people see the state.

Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)

The Sonoran Desert contains plenty of green growing things, some so green even their bark is green. And that’s what palo verde means – green stick. Any self-respecting wash is going to have a crowd of them hanging about. They’re so ubiquitous they’ve become the state tree.

Palo Verdes adapted to desert conditions by shedding their leaves in extremely hot, dry periods. But they don’t quite go dormant – they’re still busily photosynthesizing in their bark. That lovely green hue in their trunk and branches is caused by chlorophyll. Hard-working trees, no?

If the spring’s suitably wet, the trees flower, and then put out seeds in long pods. They don’t fall from the branches. As they dry out, they pop like firecrackers. If you stand in a grove of them, you’ll swear somebody’s playing with snap-caps. Rodents run off with the seeds and bury them underground, just like squirrels do with acorns. And that, my darlings, is how little Palo Verdes are born.

This specimen planted in front of the Mesa Air Museum is variously known as a Littleleaf Palo Verde, Yellow Palo Verde, or Foothill Palo Verde. The seeds are edible. Dry ones can be ground up for flour; green pods went into Native American stews, and green seeds were merely munched. Remember this if you’re ever stuck out in the Sonoran Desert with no food.

Next, I’ll tell you where to get water.

Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

Hey, guess what Arizona’s state flower is? It’s a bloomin’ cactus! Saguaros have great big white blooms that perch atop those gigantic arms like a too-small hat. Unfortunately, they were pretty much done flowering when we got to Arizona, so all you get is cactus.

These are interesting buggers. They’re picky – they only grow in southern Arizona, a teesny bit of California, and Sonora, Mexico. Most of the ones in this photo are old – those characteristic arms sometimes don’t develop until the plant’s reached its 75th birthday. They could live to twice that age.

They’re gluttons for water, living in the desert as they do. They’re veritible storage tanks. When it rains, they suck up as much moisture as they can hold, storing it against dry days. When it rains a lot, they may suck up so much water they burst. And no, you wouldn’t want to be standing next to one when it happens.

The blooms give way to a dark red fruit that’s delicious if you can get your hands on it.

They’re pollinated by bats, believe it or not. Their primary pollinator, in fact, has the delightful name of the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat. Saguaros also play apartment house to a variety of birds. As you can imagine, the main constructors are woodpeckers, who excavate holes in the trunks. How does that happen, what with all the spines, you ask? Well, those spines are in neat rows spaced widely apart, which allows plenty of room for housing development. If you’re really lucky, you might see an Elf Owl peering out at you from his saguaro house.

Speaking of houses, the thick ribs of the saguaro can be used as building materials – check out the roofing on San Xavier del Bac’s cloisters sometime, and you’ll see how that works. Of course, the cacti are now protected, so don’t ask for a saguaro-rib roof yourself.

Now you’ve had a meal and a drink – how about some soap to wash up with?

Yucca (Yucca elata)

I know, soap’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you look at this spiky plant, is it? But this is a soaptree yucca, and you can indeed extract a soap-like substance full of saponins from their roots and trunks – if you feel like braving narrow leaves with hard, sharp points. Like most desert denizens, they’ve perfected the art of the spike. It’s rather easier to peel yourself off one of the fibers that curl back from the edges of the leaves so you can floss your teeth than it is getting to the soap, but if you have dandruff, it might be worth some extra effort.

This one, photographed near Benson, Arizona, is in riotous bloom, which is likely making the yucca moths happy. Yucca moths have an exclusive contract with yuccas – they pollinate, and in return, get to lay their eggs deep in the flower, where they’re protected by the fat oval seed pods that develop. The moth larvae get to eat a seed or two, which seeds were made possible by the yucca moth’s mom, and everybody’s happy.

You’ll find the soaptree yucca ranging throughout southern and central Arizona, west Texas and New Mexico. You might even find a few in Europe – they’re cold-hardy, just so long as they get plenty of sun.

The Tohono O’odham use the soaptree yucca as a major source of their basketry fibers. So there you go: soap, floss, and baskets all in one go. Useful little bugger, innit?

All yuccas are part of the agave family, which means they’re also related to my favorite drink: tequila. The Mohave yucca provided the original root in root beer, and its stems are used for livestock deodorant. This family may be spiky, but boring they are not.

Those are only three of the thousands of the botanical denizens of the Sonoran Desert. Since we didn’t spend a lot of time there, I haven’t got many pictures, but you can explore on your own. Pay special attention to the ocotillo, which shall feature in a future Sunday Sensational Science.

We’re headed to central Arizona next, which is a transition zone in more than one way. You’ll find our old friends the Palo Verdes there, as well as the ubiquitous agave. You’ll also begin to learn why Arizonans consider cacti weeds.

Century Plant (Agave palmeri)

Another member of the agave family blooms just once. These two Palmer’s agave by Jerome, AZ are at the end of their lives: they’re monocarpic, meaning that after they bloom, fruit and seed, they die. Lucky for them, their seeds, contained in fruits called pups, are really good at germinating.

Despite being called “century plants” or “century trees,” they only live for 5-25 years. In their last year of life, they shoot up a stalk that can grow by an astonishing foot a day, up to 20 feet in total, and throw out their beautiful blooms. They’re sampled by a huge variety of critters, everything from insects to hummingbirds to our old friend the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat. Both they and the Mexican Long Tongued Bat use Palmer’s agave as a refueling station during their migrations from Mexico to the Sonoran Desert. This works well for the plants, because they rely on the bats for pollination. Everybody else is pretty much just a freeloader.

Their leaves contain wonderful fibers that natives used for making hunting nets, baskets, and sandals.

And yes, you can make mescal from these agave. But since they’re threatened by loss of habitat, we’d much appreciate it if you didn’t.

These gorgeous plants grow in great swathes in the 3,000 to 6,000 ft elevation in Arizona and Mexico. Watch out for them hiking. Those long leaves don’t just funnel water down to the stem of the plant, they’re tipped with strong spikes that can do some pretty awesome damage if you ram yourself on one. Those leaves also have smaller spines that make the sides of the leaf feel like saw teeth. If you’re careful, though, you can go feel the plant’s air conditioning system – they have a waxy coating with a powdery surface that both seals in water and deflects up to 3/4 of the sun’s heat. While you’re sweating miserably in the mid-summer heat, they’re hanging out all cool and moist inside.

Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii)

Chances are, prickly pear cacti are no strangers to you. One species, Opuntia ficus-indica, is probably hanging about in your produce aisle right now, since it’s a food crop. Prickly pear come in a bewildering variety made all the more bewildering by their profligate hybridizing. And they’ve pretty much taken over the world. My Australian readers have probably had cause to curse them at some point – there, they’re an invasive species.

Here, we loves ’em. Opuntia engelmannii pops up nearly everywhere. Catch him at the right time, and you’ll get treated to either spectacular blooms or lush reddish-purple fruit. Better gather your prickly pear buds while ye may, though – each bloom lasts for only a single day.

They’ve got a connection to Charles Darwin, too – he “was the first to note that these cacti have thigmotactic anthers: when the anthers are touched, they curl over, depositing their pollen. This movement can be seen by gently poking the anthers of an open Opuntia flower.” But you’d best poke very carefully – the long spines are easy to avoid, but they’re surrounded by hair-fine glochids, which are nasty little spines that will cause you misery if you get them embedded in your skin. I know this from bitter experience.

Arizona’s prickly pear have pads that face mostly east-west, proper little solar panels that maximize their sun exposure during the summer rains. Those pads contain a moist pith filled with sap. It feels like glue and tastes like that white craft paste we used in elementary school, but if you’re desperate in the desert, it’s great stuff.

What’s that you say? You’re sick of cacti? You want to drink real water, not cactus juice? But I was about to tell you about all our lovely Ferocactus wislizeni barrel cacti, whose heads you can lop off and find tanks of water stored inside! Okay, granted, it’s water tainted with oxalic acid and can give you the runs, but still, better diarrhea than death, right?

Fine. We’ll head for some riparian areas, then. You can take your chances with Montezuma’s Revenge, and then hang about in the lovely cool shade.

Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii)

If you hang about the creeks and rivers of central Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, you’re likely to run into groves of these gorgeous trees. They not only look pretty, they smell good – that fresh, sweet, green smell that just screams water, shade and contentment. That is, until one of their spiky seed balls bops you on the head. That’s the female bloom’s doing – the male’s is more like a marble. These sycamores are hermaphrodites, so expect both genders.

They’re water-loving trees who grow best when the water table’s not too low, so don’t expect to see them out on the open plain. They cling to areas with at least intermittent water flow, where they drink efficiently from moist soils and grow big – up to 65 feet, sometimes 80 if they’re really excited. They typically extend one big limb out over their water source. This, I can tell you, is an excellent idea, and was practically tailor-made for those who want to sit over the creek on a hot Arizona summer day.

Those lovely spreading crowns with their wide, long-lobed leaves provide a lot of cool, green shade. The bark is mottled gray and white, baby-smooth and wonderfully cool to the touch. Which is what your author did, repeatedly, on her visit to Montezuma’s Castle. Have you hugged your tree today?

These trees are pretty safe from commercial exploitation. They don’t produce tasty fruit, and their wood is virtually useless – too hard to work with. About the only thing you can make of it is buttons and butcher’s blocks. It’s highly resistant to splitting, which makes it ideal for those purposes. But we’d rather leave it standing, as it’s a sovereign remedy against stream bank erosion. Believe me when I say Arizona stream banks need all the help they can get.

As the trees get old, their bark gets more gnarled, and they can hollow out, providing a happy home to woodpeckers and other birds.

Venus Hair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris)

Sometimes when you travel, it’s nice to see something familiar. If you’re from Africa, Asia, Europe, or North America, you’ve probably seen a Venus Hair fern. You might even have one growing in a garden, or keep one as a potted plant.

In the wild in North America, they especially like south-facing, sheltered limestone walls, such as this one. You might find them growing around foundations or in the mortar around storm drains, although that’s pretty bloody unlikely in a place as hot and dry as Arizona. They’re not all that fond of the dry.

The natives might have used them for medicine – they’ve been widely used in folk medicine for an astonishing variety of ailments. However, none of their properties are clinically proven, and they may not be especially healthy to ingest. Best just to sit on the stream bank and enjoy their fronds trailing happily in the water.

Suitably soaked? Then let’s head for the hills again.

Silverleaf Nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium)

As you might have guessed from the name, this gorgeous little purple flower is a wee touch deadly – at least to livestock. It’s the bane of anyone trying to get rid of it, since it can regenerate from just a fragment of its roots. But for those of us who like wildflowers and have no cattle to worry about, it’s a delight.

The silvery sheen on its leaves comes from downy hairs. It’s a tough little bugger, able to withstand crappy soil with very little water. This one’s growing at Gold King Mine in Jerome, AZ, not exactly a friendly place for flora.

The plant does have its uses for humans. It puts out little red, yellow or orange berries that the Pima used as vegetable rennet (one presumes for making cheese). The Kiowa used the seeds along with brains for tanning hides.

No one’s quite sure whether the plant’s native to North America and got accidentally introduced to South America, or if it was the other way around. Whichever is the case, it happily grows in both places today.

Well, my darlings, we’ve made it to Central Arizona, and I think we’ve had quite enough botany for one Sunday. We’ll spend the night in Sedona, and then head on up to Flagstaff next week. If you’re pining for more botany, you can amuse yourselves by seeing how many native plants you can identify in this photo:

You can also try to catch me in any errors. I did my best to be as accurate as possible, but I’m no botanist and plants in the wild don’t carry labels, so some of my identifications may be slightly off as to exact species or subspecies. If you’re an expert in Arizona flora, feel free to set me straight in comments. Just know that if you question my identification of the saguaro, I’ll know you’re having me on.

Sunday Sensational Science

The Power of Pee

Yes, we were supposed to do Arizona botany, but there’s a Carnival on. We’ll save the lengthy discussion about flora for next Sunday, and instead, you can head over to Cujo’s place for a brief chat about urine:

The net effect of research efforts like these could be that someday, we will use what is now a waste product that must be disposed of as a source of vitally important commodities.

You’ll never see pee the same way again.


Sunday Sensational Science

Science Books in Bed

Alas, I’ve fallen behind in my research work for the next in my Arizona Sensational Science series. Also, I decided I desperately needed to read a few more books on Arizona geology that I’d never heard of but now cannot write another post without. Such is the life of a bibliophile.

We’ll spend this Sunday perusing some sensational science books together. If you’re looking for a good read, I’ve got suggestions. Oh, my, do I ever.

If you’re an Oliver Sacks fan, or if you’re just fascinated by brains, you really must pick this one up. Dr. Ramachandran doesn’t just tell interesting neurological stories, he takes you on a journey of discovery through your brain. And he’ll make you think of consciousness in ways you never considered before. The whole thing’s an adventure on the order of the Odyssey.

No one describes the spirit of this book as well as Dr. Ramachandran himself:

I believe that being a medical scientist is not all that different from being a sleuth. In this book, I’ve attempted to share the sense of mystery that lies at the heart of all scientific pursuits and is especially characteristic of the forays we make in trying to understand our own minds. Each story begins with either an account of a patient displaying seemingly inexplicable symptoms or a broad question about human nature, such as why we laugh or why we are so prone to self-deception. We then go step by step through the same sequence of ideas that I followed in my own mind as I tried to tackle these cases. In some instances, as with phantom limbs, I can claim to have genuinely solved the mystery. In others – as in the chapter on God – the final answer remains elusive, even though we come tantalizingly close. But whether the case is solved or not, I hope to convey the spirit of intellectual adventure that accompanies this pursuit and makes neurology the most fascinating of all disciplines.

He does indeed.

Michael Shermer’s something of a legend among the skeptic set, so most of you have probably already read his books. If not, here’s a good place to begin: right on the borderlands:

Here’s the rub: how do we know if a claim is sensical or nonsensical? How do we tell the difference between science or pseudoscience, or between science and nonscience? Can we always clearly distinguish between reality and fantasy, fact and fiction? ….We are faced here with a “boundary problem” – where do we draw the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy, between orthodox science and heretical science, or between science and pseudoscience, science and nonscience, and science and nonsense?

Michael goes on to provide us with a Boundary Detection Kit that helps answer those questions. And, of course, he’s filled the book with all his zany adventures with pseudoscientists, woomeisters, and other sundry silly people, so it’s an entertaining read.

Well, it’s Michael Shermer. Of course it’s entertaining. So is Why People Believe Weird Things, which makes an excellent chaser if you’re in the mood for more.

As someone who would like to see Americans get a lot more science in their diets, I adored Consilience. Edward O. Wilson does not believe there is anywhere science can’t go:

The productions of science, other than medical breakthroughs and the sporadic thrills of space exploration, are thought marginal. What really matters to humanity, a primate species well adapted to Darwinian fundamentals in body and soul, are sex, family, work, security, personal expression, entertainment, and spiritual fulfillment – in no particular order. Most people believe, I am sure erroneously, that science has little to do with any of these preoccupations. They assume that the social sciences and humanities are independent of the natural sciences and more relevant endeavors. Who outside the technically possessed really needs to define a chromosome? Or understand chaos theory? Science, however, is not marginal. Like art, it is a universal possession of humanity, and scientific knowledge has become a vital part of our species’ repertory. It comprises what we know of the material world with reasonable certainty. If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal.

It surely is.

As for those who believe science is a cold, hard thing, well, they should be reading what Richard Dawkins has to say about it:

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite. My title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry….

I think we should start handing this one out in creative writing classes. Actually, if there were two books I could give to every single person on earth, they would be Unweaving the Rainbow and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. I think we’d see a lot more people fall in love with science.

If I could add a third, it would probably be Carl Zimmer’s wonderful book on macroevolution. He’s a superb writer, and believe me when I say that macroevolution has never been so beautifully described. This whole book is a journey, there and back again:

We three animals [yellowtail snapper, dolphin and human] live in separate countries divided by a fatal boundary. Yet a dissection would show that we are not complete strangers. I volunteer as the human specimen: crack my ribs open and a pair of lungs hangs alongside my esophagus, and they match the pair inside the dolphin. The dolphin and I have giant brains wrinkled with neocortex. We keep the cores of our bodies around ninety-nine degrees. We both fed on mother’s milk. And while the dolphin maneuvers with what are called fins, they are actually not like those of the yellowtail. They are in fact camouflaged hands: take away the blubber and gristle and you find five fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The similarities between humans and yellowtails are of a more basic sort – we both have skulls and spines, muscles and eyes; we burn oxygen and build our tissue with the hydrocarbons we eat. And some subtler clues reveal that we humans are not the perfect land creatures we might imagine ourselves to be. Look again inside my opened ribs: nestled between my lungs is my heart, and sprouting from it is an aorta that rises upward, sending smaller arteries off toward my head before hooking around and down toward my legs. An engineer presented with a beating heart might have come up with a more rational solution: build two arteries, one to supply blood above the heart, one below.

You’ll learn the reason why we’re so poorly laid out as Carl takes you on our evolutionary journey from sea to land and back again. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot more about evolution than you thought possible from such a slim volume dedicated mostly to whales. And if, like me, you despised Moby Dick, you might discover a reason to at least read the chapters on cetaceans…

We began with neuroscience, and with neuroscience we shall end. Carl Zimmer wrote the most informative, delightful, and just plain enthralling book on how neuroscience came to be that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Imagine, if you will, the smells of Age of Enlightenment Oxford:

Every building in Oxford has an internal signature of smells: the incense burning in the churches once again, now that the Puritans have been routed and the monarchy restored; the roasted beans in the new coffeehouse on High Street; the foul reek of the prisons, where thieves, Quakers, and the various enemies of King Charles II languish together. But the strangest smells in all of Oxford can be found off the main thoroughfares, on Merton Street. Across the street from the gates of Merton College is a medieval two-story house known as Beam Hall. Its odors are almost unbearable: a reeking blend of turpentine and the warm, decaying flesh of dissected dogs and sheep, along with an aroma that none but a handful of people in Oxford – in the world, even – would recognize as that of a nobleman’s decapitated and freshly cracked open head. [snip] These men of Oxford ushered in a new age, one in which we still live – call it the Neurocentric Age – in which the brain is central not only to the body but to our conception of ourselves. The seventeenth century saw many scientific revolutions, but in some ways the revolution of the brain is its most shattering triumpth – and its most intimate. It created a new way of thinking about thinking and a new way of conceiving the soul.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since Thomas Willis and the other members of the Oxford Circle pried open a nobleman’s head and began looking at the brain as more than just several pounds of ugly fat. This book takes you on a journey that lasted thousands of years. If you like traveling the history of science, it’s definitely a trip you’ve got to take.

So there you have it, a small selection of the science books that have shared my bed recently. I’d stay and chat some more, but I just got a shipment from Amazon. Gots to go read now.

Sunday Sensational Science

Sunset Crater

The winter of 1064-65* wasn’t a particularly good one for the locals. There was the 6 mile fissure that opened and began pumping out lava. Then one end of the fissure started throwing scoria at them, collapsing the roofs of their pit houses under hot heaps of fresh cinders and ash. Then more lava flows filled in forested valleys. By the end of it, fields of corn lay buried, the landscape had undergone a fairly dramatic makeover, and the severely surprised Sinagua had discovered the art of basalt corn cobble making. They relocated to points less explosive nearby, where a beautiful new volcano formed a backdrop and gave a fertility boost to their fields.

These things happen when you live in the San Francisco Volcanic field.

Northern Arizona would be a flat, arid plateau if it wasn’t for the hot spot beneath it. For 6 million years, volcanoes have erupted here, steadily marching east. The field extends from Williams in the west to the banks of the Little Colorado River in the east, and from just below Flagstaff in the south nearly to Cameron in the north – an area of roughly 1,800 square miles. It contains the highest point in Arizona – 12,633′ Humphreys Peak – as well as the youngest volcano, Sunset Crater. If you’re looking for a particular type of volcano, chances are the San Francisco Volcanic Field has it, from lava domes to a stratovolcano to dozens of cinder cones of all shapes and sizes. With 600+ volcanoes to choose from, you can’t complain. And if you’re really lucky, you might get a chance to see a new volcano born, since the field’s still potentially active. Geologists think any future eruptions will be small enough to get a spectacular show without inconveniencing the locals too much.

Sunset Crater would have put on quite the show itself. The six mile long curtain of fire served as the opening act, and while it probably wasn’t quite as vigorous as many Hawaiian fissure eruptions, brilliant red lava shooting up from the ground is still an impressive sight. But that was merely the prelude. Activity along the fissure slowed quickly, becoming concentrated at the northern end, where the real show was starting. Explosions ejected fragments of lava high into the air; as those fragments cooled mid-air, the dissolved gasses within them exsolved and created dozens of vesticles, peppering the fragments with petrified bubbles. They rained down around the vent, piling into a cone. The heat, the smell, and the noise would have been overwhelming.

We have a good idea what the Sinagua saw. It would have been quite a bit like Paricutín’s birth:

Loud, isn’t it? One begins to understand why the Sinagua fed it corn: I imagine they were trying desperately to calm it down.

If they found a good vantage point on nearby mountains, they might have seen bits of the newly-birthed crater rafting away on lava flows. You can still see chunks of red oxidized agglutinate, pieces of the original cone, trapped in the Bonito flow. The explosions continued, filling Sunset Crater’s gaping wounds with fresh scoria, and leaving the volcano with smooth, unblemished flanks.

As the eruption waned, something wonderful happened. Fumaroles formed near the crater’s rim, venting hot gasses that oxidized the basalt scoria. The iron contained within basically rusted, painting the rim in gorgeous sunset colors. The fumaroles cemented the rim with silica, gypsum and iron oxide; as a finishing touch, they deposited sulfur compounds, opal, hematite, jarosite, and magnetite. Nature had created a masterpiece.

When all was said and done, the volcano topped out at 1000 feet in height, a mile in width, and contained a crater 400 feet deep, which itself hosts a 160 foot deep secondary crater. The local Sinagua might have considered it a decent consolation prize for getting volcanically evicted from their forested valley.

The visible interior of Sunset Crater is covered with a smooth coating of scoria, but we can get a look inside her if we head over to Red Mountain, many miles to the west. This is the eroded interior of a cinder cone. Steam and percolating water welded its layers of cinder and ash together with the same sorts of mineral oxides that cemented Sunset Crater, creating a volcanic material called tuff. We get this inside-look at the anatomy of a cinder cone because the entire western side of Red Mountain got itself rafted away by a lava flow, leaving an enormous ampitheater carved out of the cone. This time, there was wasn’t any explosive action to replace the missing bits.

Lava can do some pretty outrageous things. And thanks to Northern Arizona’s cool, dry climate, we can get a nearly unweathered view of its antics. Rain and snowmelt just sink right in without disturbing the surface of the flows too much. If it wasn’t for the lichens and hardy bushes peppering the flows, you’d think they’d just erupted last week.

Most of the flows around Sunset Crater are composed of a’a lava. There is a good reason why the Hawaiians call it a’a, which means, basically, “stony, rough lava.” It’s a stony, rough lava comprised of clinker, broken chunks of lava carried along the top by a dense, pasty core. As that hotter core oozes its way downslope, the clinker goes along for the ride, tumbling over the leading edge like a bunch of over-excited kids at a slow-motion water park. The tumbled chunks get buried as the flow ambles on. Thus, you get a sort of lava sandwich: clinker top and bottom, paste in the middle. Don’t bite into a fresh flow, though: it’s erupting at temperatures of 1000-1100 degrees C. That’s 1800-2000 degrees F. That’s bloody hot.

Back when I was a wee kiddie, our teachers showed us a video of an a’a flow filmed in Iceland. I’ll never forget the sound. As the clinker tumbles, it makes a cacophony like a monstrous china cabinet getting knocked over. This video from Hawaii demonstrates that nicely:

Is that, or is that not, simply awesome?

There are two ways a’a is formed from a basalt flow. One of them is when the basalt is high in gas bubbles and (relatively) low in temperature, thus high in viscosity. The other is when the strain rate of the flow is high – such as when it hits steep ground. Remember this, as it will factor in to the following discussion.

Sunset Crater’s lava flows weren’t limited to a’a. The Bonito flow began close to the western margin of the volcano as pahoehoe, a Hawaiian word meaning “smooth, unbroken lava.” It’s a far more liquid basalt that forms a beautiful, smooth surface, sculpted into undulating billows or ropy loops. It forms that way because of the way very fluid lava moves under a congealing surface crust. It’s hot stuff, 1100-1200 degrees C (2000-2100 degrees F), with a low gas bubble content.

Now, the interesting thing is this: pahoehoe can easily turn to a’a, depending on how the flow goes. If pahoehoe hits an uphill climb, it’ll cool down, slow down, and get all clinkered up. Same thing can happen as the flow cools further from its eruption site. Isn’t that neat?

You can get an idea of what something like that looks like from this video of pahoehoe and a’a flows merging:

Pahoehoe also means “good to walk” in Hawaiian. When I was a kid visiting the Crater, our field trip guide explained the name origins thusly: the Hawaiians, walking barefoot over flows, would try to tiptoe over the rough stuff, exclaiming: “Ah! Ah!” And then, when their feet hit the smooth, soothing surface, they’d sigh in relief: “Mmmm, pahoehoe!”

You’ll never forget the difference now, will you?

The Bonito flow turned from pahoehoe to a’a as it lost its gas on the trip out from the mountain. Big cracks formed in its surface from the frictional drag of the liquid lava below the cooler crust, and as that weak crust collapsed when lava drained away from beneath it. It’s the youngest and biggest of Sunset Crater’s two flows. It covers almost two square miles, and ranges from 100 feet deep in its center to less than 6 feet along the margins. It filled in a basin surrounded by older volcanoes. The other major flow, Kana’a, flowed down an old stream bed for several miles, and never got more than 1000 feet wide. Sunset Crater’s continued eruptions covered it in cinders, allowing a lot more vegetation to take root along its surface. Both flows, as well as the cinders, are alkai olivine basalt, which is composed of microscopic crystals of plagioclase, olivine and augite. The occasional big white chunk of stone embedded in the basalt is a xenolith, in this case formed when lava ripped a hunk of Kaibab limestone out of the underlying formations and took it along for the ride.

The Bonito lava flow is where you’ll see most of the interesting formations. For a crash course in lava, there’s nothing better than the trail that meanders through it. You can take an online field trip, but we’ll hit some of the high points here.

If you’ve never used “lava” and “toothpaste” in the same sentence before, that’s probably because you’ve never seen a squeeze-up. These form when gummy, partially-cooled lava squeezes its way through already-hardened cracks in the flow. It’s pretty much the consistency of toothpaste. A close inspection will show you the marks left as it scrapes by the solid stone around it.

The Bonito flow also contains lava tubes, formed when molten rock drained from its solidified surroundings. Those tubes are cold – basalt’s a terrible material for trapping heat. In colder, wetter Arizona days, the tubes used to contain ice full time. Now, they’re usually dry, but frigid. Alas, Bonito’s main tube collapsed some time ago, so you can’t go exploring it anymore. This is good news for the claustrophobic set, not such good news for the spelunkers among us.

You can console yourself with a hornito. Yes, I know most of you associate the word “hornito” with tequila, for good reason – Hornitos is an excellent brand. In this case, though, hornito means a small spatter cone formed on the surface of a basalt flow. It’s created when lava is forced up through the cooled surface. Hornitos are fed by the flow itself, rather than its own magma source as is the case with a regular spatter cone. They’re steep-sided heaps of splattered lava that splashed down and over the developing cone, welding itself as it goes. The lava’s still partially liquid when it falls, which is why it doesn’t form distinct cinders, although the principle’s roughly the same.

Watching one form is a fascinating experience:

Sunset Crater’s hornito used to be taller, but volcanoes aren’t all that good at welding, and people broke it down by sitting on it and taking away chunks. It’s still an impressive feature, though.

Just past the hornito, you’ll catch sight of something that looks like a mini-cinder cone. It’s a cinder dune. This gives you some idea of just how much material Sunset Crater ejected.

Sunset Crater is a geologists’ dream. There are few places in the continental United States where volcanism is so wonderfully demonstrated, without all the pesky plants in the way. And, just over the horizon, ancient oceans lie exposed, and prehistoric apartments look out over Painted Desert vistas.

But that’s a story for another Sunday Sensational Science. For now, I’ll just leave you with a portrait of Sunset Crater and her lava flows, and let you ponder the power of hot rock to create a work of art:

* Scientists are still bickering over the dates. The paleomagnetic guys think the dendrochronology guys are full of horse hockey, and the dendrochronology guys are busy arguing over whether the eruption or drought or beetles caused the slow tree growth that year. The dates used in this post were acquired from logs used in Wupatki’s roof, and they fit comfortably within the paleomagnetic dates, so we’re running with ’em.

All images except the map of the volcanic field are courtesy of yours truly and her traveling companion. Clicky for large, glorious versions.

Sunday Sensational Science

Celestial Photography

Summer Milky Way above Yavapai Point Trail in Grand Canyon. Wally Pacholka/

Nothing chock-full of scientific facts this week, but plenty of beauty. Whilst I was on vacation, I came across the photography of Wally Pacholka in various visitors’ centers. What’s remarkable about his photography is that it isn’t contrived:

Pacholka said he employs simple techniques and does nothing extraordinary to get his shots. He uses a standard 50mm lens mounted on a tripod, and points a small flashlight on nearby desirable rocks and other land features he wants to stand out in the photo.

He allowed that his digital camera has a light-gathering power that is in some instances more than 50,000 times greater than a typical daylight camera setting. Pacholka runs his exposures anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. But he doesn’t consider himself a guru.

“This is something the average person could do, absolutely,” he said.

Well, if the average person was willing to hike remote trails in the dark and had an eye for the right moment, I suppose. And believe me when I say that hiking around Sunset Crater even in broad daylight is a perilous proposition. Jagged lava flows, slippery cinders, unexpected Ponderosa pine roots – the average person’s more likely to end up with a broken neck than a spectacular photo.

Sunset Crater Volcano – Milky Way & Jupiter. Wally Pacholka/

Images like these remind us just how gorgeous our universe is. We’re damned lucky to live on a planet where such vistas paint the night sky. And with a little wisdom in our lighting choices, we can protect those skies, allowing ordinary people to point an ordinary digital camera and capture some really astounding astronomy.

Gemini Twins – Orion – Sirius – Meteor over Windows Area. Wally Pacholka/

Both astronomy and photography take us to other worlds – one a little more literally than the other. I think this picture captures the other-worldly quality perfectly. Little hard to believe this was taken at the Valley of Fire on Earth, isn’t it?

Mars at Closest Point. Wally Pacholka/

And there are few things as other-worldly as a comet soaring over Joshua trees, which look a little alien to begin with:

Comet Hale Bopp over Joshua Tree. Wally Pacholka/

Wally’s work gave me a new appreciation for my home state, where cosmos and continent always seemed close enough to touch each other. The first two photos in this post will be gracing my home just as soon as I’ve identified a suitable wall. Next time you’re in a national park, have a look inside the visitor’s center – his work may be there, and you can take a little something special home with you. If you love sensational science, here’s a photographer who captures its essence perfectly.

Mauna Kea view of Milky Way from Northern Cross to Southern Cross Panorama. Wally Pacholka/

(All photos filched from Wally’s website, except the first one, which I pilfered from TWAN. You’ll find plenty of other sensational science photographers there, too.)

Sunday Sensational Science

Overselling Ida: A Cautionary Tale

If you haven’t heard of Ida, the perfectly preserved Darwinius masillae, you’ve been living in a box. Plenty of information about this remarkable but not utterly revolutionary fossil shall follow. But first, I want to share an illustrative personal anecdote.

A couple of day ago, my coworker, whom I shall call C, asked me if I’d seen the doodle on Google. Indeed I had. And I’d had a brief moment of the warm fuzzies, because it was nice to see that cute little sketch of Ida there in place of the usual logo. Those warm fuzzies turned to the cold ohforfucksakes when C started babbling about her being a “missing link.”

This is a normally intelligent man. I rolled my eyes. “No, she’s not.”

“Yes, she is!”

I was in the midst of Brian Switek’s wonderful post on the hype, which will be highlighted below. I’d read several ScienceBlogs posts by then, dissecting the discovery, and I attempted to explain to C that while Ida was awesome, she wasn’t the missing link. Indeed, “missing link” is complete bullshit. His response was to inform me that he’d take the word of scientists published in a peer-reviewed journal over what bloggers said any day, and oh yes there are missing links! It didn’t matter to him that the peer-reviewed paper had major, major problems, that the whole process had been tainted by publicity stunts, or that the bloggers in question were scientists who know the peer-review process intimately. To him, that process is infallible. Therefore, Ida is the missing link.

So this edition of Sunday Sensational Science is dedicated to C, who reminds me that scientists must resist overhyping their finds in order to score History Channel documentaries, not all peer-reviewed science journals are created equal (although the public doesn’t know that), and that having a stable of scientists manning the blogs is a sovereign remedy against sensationalism. Now if we could just get the general public to realize that…

Let’s begin with missing links. As in, there are no “missing links”:

Again, the press are talking about “the missing link“. Let’s get one thing clear. There is no missing link. Rather, there are an indefinite number of missing branches. To have a missing link, you need to visualise evolution as a chain. If there’s a gap in the chain, then you have a missing link. But evolution, at least at the scale of animals and plants, is mostly a tree.

Keep that in mind as the History Channel, other press outlets, and hysterical creationists endlessly repeat the “missing link” crap. THERE IS NO MISSING LINK. Tattoo it on your hand if you have to.

Now. On to Ida.

Ida has been presented as a near-miraculous superfossil. Our first clue that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark probably should’ve been the email Brian Switek received:

Late last week I received a rather curious e-mail. It read;


Ground-Breaking Global Announcement

What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.

The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.

Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History

“The most significant scientific discovery of recent times”, eh? What could it be? Life on Mars? Time-travel? Teleportation? The Higgs Boson? A diet cola that doesn’t taste absolutely awful? Well, no. It’s all about a little primate from Germany.

When a paper is released in conjunction with a documentary, everybody should put their skeptic’s hats on and brace for the worst.

Brian engaged in a bit of prediction:

Consider, for example, the grand claims made about finds like Darwinius. It is being heavily promoted but scientists have not yet had a chance to see the fossil or read the paper describing it. When they get a call from a journalist or are asked their opinion on it, then, it can be difficult to discuss the find because they do not know the details. This can be harmful as it can not only lead to the spread of overblown assertions but it can also make us look foolish if these finds do not turn out to be all they were cracked up to be. This could especially be the case with Darwinius. Though heralded in documentaries and in the news as one of our direct ancestors, it is probably a very interesting lemur-like primate on a different evolutionary branch. I can only imagine the field day creationists are going to have if this is the case, and I am frustrated by the way mass media outlets manage to bungle genuinely interesting scientific discoveries.

He was so right.

The paper was published to a media frenzy. The drama got so bad that some science bloggers were forced to resort to emergency satire:

Yesterday, the entire world changed noticeably as the media, accompanied by some scientists, unveiled a stunning fossilised primate. The creature has been named Darwinius masillae, but also goes by Ida, the Link, the Chosen One and She Who Will Save Us All.

The new fossil is remarkably complete and well-preserved, although the media glossed over these facts in favour of the creature’s ability to cure swine flu. Ida was hailed as a “missing link” in human evolution, beautifully illustrating our transition from leaping about in trees to rampant mass-media sensationalism.

No one’s disputing that Ida’s a remarkable find. PZ sang her praises thusly:

What’s so cool about it?

Age. It’s 47 million years old. That’s interestingly old…it puts us deep into the primate family tree.

Preservation. This is an awesome fossil: it’s almost perfectly complete, with all the bones in place, preserved in its death posture. There is a halo of darkly stained material around it; this is a remnant of the flesh and fur that rotted in place, and allows us to see a rough outline of the body and make estimates of muscle size. Furthermore, the guts and stomach contents are preserved. Ida’s last meal was fruit and leaves, in case you wanted to know.

Life stage. Ida is a young juvenile, estimate to be right on the transition from requiring parental care to independent living. That means she has a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth — she’s a two-fer, giving us information about both.

Finds like Ida are extremely rare, and she’s justly being celebrated as an important find. But the overselling is, ironically, selling her short. It’s like promising someone a Ferrari and delivering them an Altima. That’s where buyer beware comes in handy, and Brian Switek’s done an excellent job kicking tires on this one:

Some researchers have long maintained that adapids are better candidates for the ancestors of anthropoids, with Philip Gingerich (one of the authors of the Darwinius paper) being a vocal proponent of this view. It is not terribly surprising, then, that the authors of the Darwinius paper posit that adapids are more closely related to anthropoids than tarsiers and omomyids, and they rely on two tactics to make their case.

The authors of the paper try to frame their hypothesis in a historical manner. They claim that adapids have been barred from a close anthropoid relationship on the basis of soft-tissue characteristics that do not fossilize. This would mean that the association between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids would hang by a nose, but this is not true. As reviewed in popular books like Chris Beard’s The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey and technical volumes like Anthropoid Origins, the relationship between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids is based upon a wide array of fossil and neontological data. I can’t imagine why the authors of the new paper would suggest otherwise unless they were trying to construct a false historiography in order to show their fossil in a better light.

This shoddy scholarship is matched by a weak attempt to show that Darwinius has more anthropoid-like traits than tarsiers or omomyids do. In order for the authors of the paper to make a convincing case they would have to undertake a careful, systematic analysis of the anatomy of Darwinius in comparison to other primates, yet they did not do this. Instead they combed the literature for 30 traits that might help ascertain the placement of Darwinius in the primate family tree and filled in whether each trait was present or absent in Ida’s skeleton.

That’s the post I was reading when C started spouting off about peer-review vs. bloggers. I sent him the link. Really, when you think about it, science bloggers engaging in research blogging are peer-reviewers. And then you have Carl Zimmer, one of our best science journalists, engaging in a little peer review of his own:

It finally got to the point where I found myself dispatching emails to two prominent primatologists–John Fleagle of SUNY Stony Brook and Chris Beard of the Carnegie Museum–to see what they thought.

Both researchers agreed that it was a lovely fossil, in terms of its exquisite preservation. “It’s really wonderful,” Fleagle said. It’s got bones, fur, and even its last meal in its stomach. Fleagle observed that it will be possible to learn many details about the biology of early primates from Darwinius, down to the stages by which it teeth erupted.


…I asked what Fleagle and Beard thought about the actual argument in the paper, which has to do with where humans, apes, and monkeys (known as anthropoids) fit in the primate family tree. Some of the co-authors on the new paper have argued in the past that an extinct group of primates called adapiforms gave rise to anthropoids. Others have favored a common ancestry with small primates known as tarsiers. (Laelaps has a nice history of the debate.) The authors of the new paper argue that Darwinius is an adapiform, but it also has traits that link it with anthropoids. So, according to them, it’s an early relative of our own anthropoid lineage.

Both Fleagle and Beard were not impressed with this argument. Fleagle observed that, ironically, most of the evidence presented in the paper is old news. Except for the ankle and a few other traits, most of the traits offered to link adapiforms to anthropoids “have been known for decades,” said Fleagle. It’s nice to have those traits all in one primate fossil, but they don’t advance the debate. Fleagle is intrigued by the anthropoid-like ankle of the fossil, but he also notes that it’s “roadkill,” flattened down to a 2-millimeter pancake. He wonders whether their interpretation of the ankle will hold up to scrutiny.

Beard has similar things to say via email.

I’ve been deluged today by journalists regarding this. It is a marketing campaign for the ages. The fossil is nice because it is so complete, but it is a rather vanilla-flavored adapiform that does not differ appreciably from other members of that well-known group of Eocene primates…

Beard was also puzzled that the authors did not compare Darwinius to an important early anthropoid fossil Beard found, known as Eosimias. In fact, he was underwhelmed by the entire comparison of Darwinius to other primates (a phylogenetic analysis):

The phylogenetic analysis is not very complete, and I would certainly interpret many of the characters they do cite very differently than they do. But one of the most shocking things of all about the technical paper is that they found room to cite 89 references, but there is not one mention of Eosimias to be found there. This is bizarre indeed. In a paper that purports to tell us something about anthropoid origins, the authors have conveniently ignored the single most significant fossil that has been published to date. Incomprehensible.

From all available evidence, it seems the authors of the paper were more interested in trimming facts to fit their theories than in good science, and a lot of that motivation probably came from their chance at fame and fortune. It’s a shame. Carl’s right: science is being held hostage:

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

This, my friends, is not the way to do science. PZ points out some of the many issues:

This is not helping. It is inflating a good discovery beyond all reason, and when the public hears the creationists declare that it’s one fossil of a monkey-like creature, and they’re right, it’s going to damage the credibility of science.

Seed Media has a bit of a scoop: they’ve got an interview with a PLoS One editor, a History Channel executive, and Jørn Hurum, the scientist behind all the promotion. It’s appalling. They’re bragging about how a “production company got in on the ground floor”. Shall we anticipate the brave new world when paleontologists have to beg for McDonald’s happy meal tie-ins to get funding?

Ida deserved better than this. She’s an amazing little creature, and she’s getting lost in hype. Thankfully, Brian Switek’s rescuing her from the frenzy, and helping her demonstrate what she has to teach us:

First, how do we know that Ida was a female? It all comes down to a missing penis bone, or baculum. Many, if not most, mammals have a penis bone, and in fact our species is one of the “oddballs” in that males of our species do not. Take a look at the restoration of the transitional pinniped, Puijila, that was announced a few weeks ago. See that long bone sticking out from in front of its pelvis? That’s a baculum, and the presence of such a bone indicates that this specimen of Puijila was a male.

While our species might not have a baculum, other primates do, including fossil ones. Darwinius lived alongside another kind of lemur-like adapid primate called Europolemur, and fossils from the same Messel shales show that male Europolemur had large baculums. Given their close evolutionary relationship between Europolemur and Darwinius it can be reasonably assumed that male Darwinius had baculums, too, but Ida’s skeleton does not have a penis bone. Is it possible that this specimen of Darwinius could have been, pardon the expression, dis-membered sometime after death and before fossilization? It is possible, but given the exceptional preservation of the fossil, including gut contents and a body outline created by bacteria, it is doubtful. The lack of a baculum attached to this fossil makes it highly probable that Ida was indeed a female.


Even though I have been critical of the way this entire “primate roll-out” has been handled, I have tried to stress how amazing a fossil Darwinius is. The sex and age of a fossil might seem like unimportant matters, but how often do we get such a clear window into the biology of an extinct species? Right now the public is still being deluged with the message that Ida is the “missing link”, but I hope that what Ida’s skeleton can actually tell us about how she lived and died receive greater attention as we continue to discuss her bones.

Scientists like Brian will ensure that Ida doesn’t get lost in the hubub. And maybe, just maybe, this is a precious teachable moment. Wouldn’t it be lovely Ida not only taught us about the evolution of primates, but helped the general public understand good science versus bad or biased science? She might even save us from PZ’s nightmare of McDonalds-sponsered paleontology.

That would make her a miracle indeed.

Sunday Sensational Science

Celebrating Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope’s been sending back spectacular images since April 1990. It’s coming to the end of its life – it’ll be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope in 2014 if the best-laid plans o’ mice and men don’t gang aft agley – but that doesn’t mean NASA’s given up on upgrades. The Atlantis crew’s up in space as we speak, tweaking, replacing, and fixing up various bits to ensure HST continues to contribute astonishing images and amazing science for years to come.

Today’s Sunday Sensational Science is a salud to HST, and a gallery of the glorious images its provided us with these last 19 years.

Spacewalking. You think repairs on old equipment on land are tough, just try replacing parts that were never meant to be replaced while floating around in hostile space without gravity.

Cujo’s got a good description of what it’s like:

On Earth, when an electronics tech yanks a circuit board out of a computer, gravity is holding his feet to the floor, or his butt to the chair, and his muscles can counteract the force being applied to his hands in reaction to the force he’s applying to the board. In Earth orbit, there’s no gravity. To get an idea what that’s like, imagine you’re underwater in a pool that’s too deep to stand in. Push against the side of the pool with one hand. You’ll spin around, because the force is being applied to your hand, and your body in turn.

The astronauts on this mission deserve the title of supermechanics. Somebody give them capes. Underwear worn outside the clothes optional.

We all know HST’s awesome, but a good majority of us probably haven’t the faintest idea how it works. That’s why there’s websites like

Like any telescope, the HST has a long tube that is open at one end to let in light. It has mirrors to gather and bring the light to a focus where its “eyes” are located. The HST has several types of “eyes” in the form of various instruments. Just as insects can see ultraviolet light or we humans can see visible light, Hubble must also be able to see the various types of light raining down from the heavens.­

Specifically, Hubble is a Cassegrain reflector telescope. That just means that light enters the device through the opening and bounces off the primary mirror to a secondary mirror. The secondary mirror in turn reflects the light through a hole in the center of the primary mirror to a focal point behind the primary mirror. If you drew the path of the incoming light, it would like the letter “W,” except with three downward humps instead of two….

After you’ve gotten to know your Hubble anatomy, take a moment to appreciate the last sight of one of the instruments the crew of the Atlantis is replacing:

The Hubble community bids farewell to the soon-to-be decommissioned Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. In tribute to Hubble’s longest-running optical camera, a planetary nebula has been imaged as WFPC2’s final “pretty picture.”

This planetary nebula is known as Kohoutek 4-55 (or K 4-55). It is one of a series of planetary nebulae that were named after their discoverer, Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. A planetary nebula contains the outer layers of a red giant star that were expelled into interstellar space when the star was in the late stages of its life. Ultraviolet radiation emitted from the remaining hot core of the star ionizes the ejected gas shells, causing them to glow.

In the specific case of K 4-55, a bright inner ring is surrounded by a bipolar structure. The entire system is then surrounded by a faint red halo, seen in the emission by nitrogen gas. This multi-shell structure is fairly uncommon in planetary nebulae.

This Hubble image was taken by WFPC2 on May 4, 2009. The colors represent the makeup of the various emission clouds in the nebula: red represents nitrogen, green represents hydrogen, and blue represents oxygen. K 4-55 is nearly 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

The WFPC2 instrument, which was installed in 1993 to replace the original Wide Field/Planetary Camera, will be removed to make room for Wide Field Camera 3 during the upcoming Hubble Servicing Mission.

During the camera’s amazing, nearly 16-year run, WFPC2 provided outstanding science and spectacular images of the cosmos. Some of its best-remembered images are of the Eagle Nebula pillars, Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9’s impacts on Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the 1995 Hubble Deep Field — the longest and deepest Hubble optical image of its time.


And Hubble’s mission won’t be over when the telescope stops peering into the far ends of the universe. As a recent discovery shows us, the data it’s gathered will provide new insights for long decades to come:

Well, if you place a coronagraph over a distant star, you can see a whole plethora of much fainter objects orbiting that star. Well, someone was going through some old photos from 1998, and look at what they found using a coronagraph on a dusty young star, HR 8799, where they discovered planets in 2008:

So not only could we have found this planet 10 years earlier than we actually did, but by going back to the old data, we can learn a whole lot about this planet’s orbit, and hence the mass of the star that it orbits. Is it not just outstanding that the Hubble Space Telescope, in addition to all the other things it does, functions as perhaps the most accurate stellar scale we’ve ever built?

How neat is this? We’ve got over 200 stars that have been imaged with a coronagraph by the Hubble Space Telescope, and now we can start looking for planets around them just by looking at the data we already have!

Hubble doesn’t just provide us science, but works of art. The following images are a great reminder that science, especially seen through the eyes of Hubble, is beautiful: