Wednesday, September 30, 2009

High Plateaux Part 1: Hoodoos and Bobcats

I love the high Southern plateaus*- they’re full of beauty and mystery, spectacular geology, abundant wildlife, the most varied and interesting forests in the state, and thousands of wonderful hidden places. So Friday afternoon, when Awesome Wife dropped Bird Whisperer off at the office, we headed South.

*What is the plural of “plateau” anyway? I started out with “plateaux”, but the spell-checker kicked it back. I was going to ignore it and use the “x” anyway, but then I started feeling all self-conscious and Francophilish…

A couple of weeks ago when I blogged about Twin A and the Henry Mountains, I talked about how AW and I are trying to make sure we spend 1-on-1 time with each member of the Trifecta. My trip South with BW was part of that ongoing effort, but if anything it had just a bit more urgency.

Thinking Ahead

IMG_2305 BW turned 10 this year, and though he’s bright and loving and kind and responsible and pretty much everything you’d ever hope your kid would be, this past year I’ve picked up a vibe from him that wasn’t there before. A vibe of interests directed away from us, a sense that his Dad just might not always be the most interesting and fascinating thing in his life. That the focus of his life will soon roam outside the family, to things social, to friends, and eventually girls and more.

And as I thought about this sense, I realized that what I’ve been picking up on are the first early, pre-hints of adolescence. IMG_1007Soon his expanding perspective will be washed over by a cresting wave of hormones that’ll change how he sees and feels about everything: friends, girls, school, the world, and his parents. Thinking about all this made me think back about my own adolescence, and I realized that I largely “checked out” on my parents for several years in my teens and early twenties. I didn’t dislike them or anything; I just wasn’t particularly interested in them. Later, much later, I started noticing them again, and in a sense, like most kids when they finally grow up, came back home.

BW is so like I was in mood and temperament; I suspect he’ll check out the same way. So my kid is leaving soon for about a decade, and I want to spend time with him while he’s still “here”.

Tangent: BW is in 5th grade. I remember 5th and 6th grade as being sort of a proto-adolescence, where awkward things happened that you hoped were just kind of one-off deals, but which in fact turned out to be harbingers of the long dark age of junior high school just ahead… One of the examples that comes to mind was the whole “getting picked” thing, and specifically “getting picked last.” Getting picked last for teams in gym class, and even getting picked last when it was “ladies choice” in 6th grade dance class. Ouch. I went home hoping it was a 1-time occurrence but in fact it was the beginning of a several-year-long stretch* during which I was consistently and spectacularly unsuccessful with girls.

*Actually one could argue that it lasted nearly 20 years, until I talked Awesome Wife into going out with me.

Nested Tangent: My Mom signed me up for dance class, where we learned, you know, the waltz and the foxtrot and all, because well certainly those were important skills we’d need later in life. What a phenomenal waste of time that was; I learned absolutely nothing. Once every few years I go to a wedding or something where you’re expected to do a traditional-type dance and I just fake it and shuffle around smiling, like I assume everyone under 60 does. Sometimes though, you end up having to dance with an actual Old Person- like the bride’s great-aunt or something- and you get totally busted.

Do they still “pick” for teams in elementary school gym class? Christ, I hope not. I’ll ask my kids.

Back to the Paunsaugunt

IMG_2419 We drove down I-15 past Beaver, then cut over the hills to the Sevier River Valley and upstream through Panguitch before turning East up and onto the Paunsaugunt Plateau. I’ve been here many times, and we followed a back road I knew well into the forest, where we set up camp for the night amid the Ponderosas.

Harleys Tangent: Here’s something I noticed on the drive down. You know how Harleys often have those big American flags flying off the back? What’s up with that? Why the need to identify their citizenship? Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but when I see a fat middle-aged white guy on a Harley riding down I-15, I generally already assume he’s a US citizen. Now, if he were a foreigner, visiting this country, then I could totally see him flying his German or Canadian or French flag or whatever. It’d be like, “Hey, check me out, I’m from France!”

Or maybe it’s some “patriotic” thing, where they’re flying the flag because you know, they’re “Keeping America Free” and what-not by uh… riding their motorcycles on I-15. I used to wonder if it was a Vietnam veteran thing, but most Harley riders nowadays don’t look much older than me, and I was 11 when Saigon fell.

Now if they flew those big flags when they rode their Harleys outside of the US, say in Canada, or better yet Mexico, then that would show some real national pride and courage, but then that would require actual cojones, and not just poser-jingoism…

We took turns reading aloud to each other until we went to sleep. BW’s book choice was Diary of Wimpy Kid, which he loves and I ended up enjoying as well.

IMG_2409 Last year I took the whole family down to the Paunsaugunt, and did a 3-part series about the plateau that covered Pronghorns*, Bristlecone Pines and endemic wildflowers. We had a great time, and explored further South on the plateau than I had previously. But when we turned home I was left wanting more. I wanted to see what lay further South, down to the very end of the Paunsaugunt. So when we rose and broke camp the next morning, we turned down Forest Road 087, South past Tropic reservoir, past Badger Creek (where we camped last year) and continued South.

*Which we also saw plenty of this trip as well. (pic right)

Geology Is Way Cool

IMG_2455 During the intervening year I’ve learned a lot more about the plateau, including the story behind its fascinating geology. Roughly 55 million years ago, a large lake, called Lake Claron, which was about the size of Lake Erie, covered a large chunk of what is now Southwest Utah. Over a few million years the lake deposited a series of sediments. The lake was intermittent, and in between inundations the exposed sediment-plains supported plant life, and much of the iron in the deposits oxidized, giving them pink and reddish hues.

geo1 About 34 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions occurred on and off for the next 3 million years or so. These eruptions, followed by later eruptions around 20 and again 7 million years ago, capped the sediments with layers of volcanic rock.

geo2 During this time, the land was rising, part of the gradual uplift of the Colorado Plateau as a whole. But the uplift wasn’t even; the land was broken up by faults in the Earth’s crust, and as the land rose, these faults divided and tilted the land into 3 distinct plateaus: the Markagunt (lying between the Hurricane fault by Cedar City and the Sevier Fault in Panguitch) the Paunsaugunt (lying between the Sevier Fault and the Paunaugunt Fault East of Bryce) and the Aquarius Plateau (to the Northeast of the Paunsaugunt Fault.)

geo4 Around the steeper, faulted edges of these plateaus, the Claron sediments have been exposed, and over the past few million years runoff, wind, rain and frost have cracked and carved the exposed layers into the spectacular forms you see today in places like Bryce and Cedar Breaks.

IMG_2441 But the incredible cliffs and hoodoos aren’t limited to National Parks. Throughout the plateaus, smaller amphitheatres pop out all over the place, such as those by our Badger Creek campsite from last year, and the wonderful Pink Cliffs along the Virgin Rim trail.

Geo-Tangent: We didn’t visit the Markagunt this past weekend, nor, more regrettably, at all this summer. It’s an amazing place, with fascinating geology and hydrology I hope to cover in future posts.

For mtn bikers, if you ever raced the now-(sadly)-defunct Brian Head Epic100, that course provided a fabulous geologic overview of the Markagunt.

And from hours poring over Google Maps, I was pretty sure I’d spotted similar amphitheatres along the South rim- the very end- of the plateau. It was these that I wanted to see.

sideamph As we continued South along FR 087, we paralleled the East Fork of the Sevier River through a series of open meadows, one leading into the next. Every few miles a canyon would open up to the West- Skunk Creek, Blubber Creek, Kanab Creek, each one providing glimpses of hoodoos and amphitheatres- dozens of “mini-Bryces”- carved out of exposed hillsides (pic right). As we drove, BW read aloud, continuing our book from the night before.

Finally we reached Crawford Pass, on the edge of the plateau. It’s forested here and hard to get one’s bearings, so we turned West and up, following a rougher jeep road. We climbed and wound our way through gorgeous Aspen groves, higher and higher, gradually making our way to the edge of the plateau. After 2 ½ more miles, the road reached a spot where it was bounded by a low, red-dirt slope, where a sign with binoculars was planted. We parked and scrambled 20 feet up to the top of the little slope. This is what we saw.

amph1 We grabbed a pack with lunch, a camera and binoculars and picked our way up to the high point of the ridge (pic left). The scene below us, through smaller in scope than Bryce, was every bit as spectacular as IMG_2481 anything found in the national park, and we had it all to ourselves. In fact it was more spectacular; the rim at Bryce is bounded by uniform coniferous forests, but here the rim is cloaked in Aspen, which this weekend were decked in shades of yellow, green, red, orange and everything in between. And we perched at the very end of the Plateau; beyond us the land fell away and rolled off into an endless hazy distance of woodlands and deserts. It felt like the end of the world.

IMG_2431 We talked and pointed out weird rocks and hidden arches to each other while we munched P&J sandwiches. After a while our conversation drifted back to the book we’d been reading, and BW mentioned how sometimes his school has authors visit, and he wished they’d invite the author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. He said, “It must be hard for him to write a book like that, because he has to get inside the head of a kid…”

Say what? When did my little boy start talking like that? It’s like I looked away for a moment and he grew up…

From our perch we spied another amphitheatre another couple of miles West along the rim, so we picked our way back down, and then continued driving.

Side Note: The “picking our way along the rim” was far and away the most exposed/hazardous part of this adventure. If you do this with small kids, supervise them closely.

IMG_2462 We drove slowly over rough road another mile or to before turning left onto a side road marked “PINK CLIFFS”. The road bent slowly around a hill, then climbed. BW was looking down at his book, and I was looking straight ahead, when 40 feet in front us, a Bobcat popped out and stopped in the road.

All About Bobcats

I’ve spotted Cougars twice, but this was my first clear Bobcat sighting. When you first see a cougar, you generally have the following reaction. Your brain says: DOG. But a fraction of a second later, you know that something’s wrong with this “dog”- usually either with its tail or its muzzle, and then you realize what it is.

Bobcat-1 When you see a Bobcat (pic left, not mine), there’s no such confusion. Your brain immediately says: CAT. A fraction of a second later there’s a similar “something’s wrong” feeling, but it’s that the cat is so damn big- it’s like your housecat pulled an Incredible Hulk or something.

There’s a tendency to think of Bobcats and Cougars in the same way, but they’re quite different. While Cougars regularly hunt deer, rabbits and hares are the staple of Bobcats. A desperate (or opportunistic ) Bobcat may take down a deer, but it’s more the exception than the rule*. They’re also, if anything, less of a threat to humans than Cougars. Though attacks on humans do occasionally occur, I couldn’t find a record of any resulting (human) fatalities. Another big difference between Bobcats and Cougars is that Bobcats are relative newcomers to North America. Not nearly as recent as Grizzlies, Wolves, Moose or Bison, but much more recent than Cougars, whose ancestors have been around here for some 8 million years.

*Interestingly, Bobcats also regularly (successfully) hunt Porcupines, which they kill by attacking the nose/snout.

lynxcana Lynxes evolved in Africa several million years ago. They spread throughout the Old World and diversified into various species, 2 of which live on today: the widespread Eurasian Lynx, Lynx lynx, and the now rare and endangered Iberian Lynx, L. pardinus. For a long time biologists believed that a group of Eurasian lynxes arrived in North America a few million years ago, and then diverged into Bobcats, L. rufus, and Canadian Lynxes, L. canadensis (pic right, not mine), but both genetic and fossil evidence now suggest otherwise. Instead it now appears that a first group of Eurasian lynx migrated to North America via Beringia between 3 and 5 million years ago, and that this group gave rise to modern Bobcats.

Lynx Evo1 cut Much later, probably around 1 million years ago, another group came across the land-bridge, and this second group were the ancestors of Canada Lynx.

Tangent: This “double migration” story, where some animal migrated over to North America on multiple, widely (temporally) spaced occasions, is a story we’ve heard before, most recently with Bison. A similar- though much shorter timescale- multiple-migration happened more recently with humans. Native Americans are thought to have entered North America in 2 or 3 distinct waves*, and the Inuit were a still later, completely different migration.

Multiple migrations are of course routine in the plant kingdom, particularly with weeds. Cheatgrass in North America is believed to be descended from 7 or 8 “successful” introductions, and Dandelions…. well, too many to count.

*Like just about everything to do with the nature and timing of the arrival of humans in the Americas, this is both uncertain and highly controversial. Research on the topic has long focused on linguistics, and more recently genetics.

So Bobcats and Canada Lynx aren’t quite as closely-related as once thought, but they’re still closely-related enough to interbreed and produce fertile hybrids, which they occasionally do where their ranges overlap (Northern US, Southern Canada.) Lynx are usually larger than Bobcats, though the largest Bobcats are bigger than the smallest lynxes.

cat1 Bobcats, like Cougars, tend to be active around dawn and dusk, and so our sighting- at around 12:30PM- surprised me. When we returned home I read up on them and it turns out that in the Fall and Winter they start to get more active by day, probably because their prey becomes more diurnally-active as well in the colder months.

cat2 I yanked the emergency brake and yelled at BW to look up. The Bobcat bounded into the woods, but BW quickly caught sight of it with an exclamation of glee. I grabbed the camera off the passenger seat and leapt out- I’d missed the bear in Montana, I was not missing this shot. I snapped several, none of which came out well, but hey, at least I got it. The Bobcat stopped and started a couple of times while I snapped these pics. BW got a good look at him and was thrilled, pronouncing this, “the best wildlife day of my life!” The trip was a success. Anything else was gravy.

We continued to the next overlook and were greeted with another spectacular amphitheatre full of pink cliffs and hoodoos. As we looked West we could see several more, stretched out over several miles along the Southern rim of the plateau. You could spend days here, exploring one amazing hoodoo-fairyland after another, maybe seeing no one else for days at a time.

amphith2 But our time was limited. We turned around headed back the way we came, bound for the next plateau.

Next Up: Aquarius- it’s not just that corny song from the 60’s musical they made you sing in music class- it’s also a plateau.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday Filler- like all KINDS of things…

IMG_2570 Bird Whisperer and I had a great weekend down South. But I got home late, had work to do, no time to blog. So I won’t post about it till tomorrow.

But here’s the thing. Monday’s the highest traffic day on this blog, and I always feel bad not having a Monday post for regular readers. So today I’m going to post some pics from rides last week, and a couple of teaser photos from this weekend.

Tangent: How do I know Monday’s the highest traffic day? Because I have one of those little visit counter thingies set up.

Nested Tangent: So why is Monday the biggest day? Are people procrastinating getting to work? You’d think Monday would be the lightest day and Friday the heaviest, but it’s exactly the opposite.

Here’s my advice for any new blogger: don’t get a counter-thingie. Really, the only people who need them are people with hyper-popular ad-supported blogs that need them to calculate hits and readers and such. But for the rest of us, why bother? What does it matter if 3 or 300 people stop by today? When you have a counter, you end up checking it, and then you inevitably end up thinking things like:

I wonder why no one’s reading my blog today? I thought I had a good post and all…

If 300 people read my blog today, how come no one commented?

I’m having second thoughts about that post I put up. Maybe people will think I’m weird or something. I better go change it before… oh crap, 200 people have read it already…

Wow, look at that guy. He spent 8 hours straight on my blog. Maybe he’s stalking me…

Hey 300 people read my blog today. That’s great. Wait a minute… 99.4% were directed here via the Google search phrase “Selma Hayek photos”… What the…?

Anyway, it doesn’t matter how many people read this blog, because I already know who’s reading it- my mother, that’s who. That’s right, my Mom found out about my blog over the weekend (Hi Mom). Not that I was keeping it secret or anything, but I wasn’t going out of my way to mention it either. Because honestly, is anything that’s really enjoyable in life quite as much fun when you know your Mom is watching? Think about it.

Nested Tangent: Actually, I’m totally fine with Mom reading WTWWU; she’s very cool. Really, my only significant disclosure-remorse has been telling a co-worker about it way back when. Today about 1/2 dozen coworkers are regular readers, which- tragically- has forced me to pass up countless wonderful work-related tangents. Ah well, like I always say- my next blog will be anonymous. And fabulous.

Quality Monday Filler, Right Here

OK, but here’s some seriously great filler. Yesterday reader “Pierre” posted a comment to my Cougar* post from last summer, saying that he spotted one yesterday behind This Is The Place. That’s basically across the street from the zoo, about ½ mile from my house (and a place I frequently ride at dawn- yikes!)

*Yes, yes , I’ve heard all the “cougar” jokes, so you don’t need to comment about how you spotted one yesterday as well- at the mall. Har har. “Mountain Lion” is a mouthful, so I’m sticking with “cougar.”

IMG_2377 Next filler topic- foliage. Yes, everybody knows the leaves are turning, but I think it’s a law that if you have a bike-related blog you have to post pictures of your friends riding past pretty leaves. Here’s Coryalis (pic left, shot 1-handed, over shoulder while climbing. I am a crazy photo-stud.) and Vicente (below, right) riding up in Pinebrook last week.

IMG_2363 Note Vicente’s goofy helmet. I asked him about it, and he told me it’s his 8 yr-old son’s, which he’s wearing while his new helmet’s on order, having cracked his old one in a crash*. Now I know Vicente’s kid, and he’s really smart and all, but next time I see him I’m taking a closer look. I mean, really, how big is that kid’s head?

*Actually the crash that occurred a moment before I snapped the center photo in this collage.

IMG_2357 Anyway, if you want some “real science” about foliage, you can go back and read the 2-part post I did last Fall about why leaves change color. While I’m posting goofy foliage pics, here’s a goofy foliage video, also from last week. Something else about this video- it gives you a feel for why I’m always destroying electronic equipment- is it any wonder I dropped my last camera? Maybe I should invest in a helmet cam.

Speaking of electronic equipment, I lost my bike computer this morning before work, probably on one of the brushy unofficial side trails up around Dog Lake- if anyone finds it this week, you’ll get a fabulous prize*.

*I have no idea what. But I’m noodling about coming up with some sort of prize-type WTWWU-related item I can give away when a reader does something really great, like explain song lyrics or find and return stuff I lose.

Anyway, this loss, and my subsequent, fruitless, made-me-late-for-work search for it has required me to revise the previously posted Hierarchy of Findability of Things, below:

Revised Findability

While I’m posting videos, here’s another (slightly less goofy) one from last week, which I post so non-night-riders can get a feel for it.

And last on the filler schedule, teaser pics from the incredible weekend Bird Whisperer and I had down South, and which I plan to blog about this week:




And very, finally, finally lastly, one more pic from this weekend. Look closely. There’s a large carnivore in this photo. No, I’m not kidding. Another “fabulous prize” to the first commenter who spots it (what it is and what part of photo.)


Thursday, September 24, 2009

What You Should Do Tonight

A week and a half ago, when posting about the Henry Mountains, I mentioned observing the moons of Jupiter through binoculars. At that time, as Jupiter rose in the sky, 3 of the 4 Galilean moons appeared to the right, and 1 to the left.

Saturday I checked out Jupiter again from my driveway. This time 3 were to the left and 1 was to the right. Tuesday night I looked again, and this time 2 were to the left and 2 to the right. And last night (Wednesday 9/23/09) it was 3 to the left, 1 to the right again.

September Views Most of us know a bit about planets and moons and stuff because we heard something about them in grade school, or maybe watched a NOVA episode or maybe even read something in the paper when that probe landed on Titan a few years back. But in our day-to-day lives it’s easy to forget all that stuff because correlating that knowledge with the little dots of light up in the sky requires all kinds of time, attention and maybe even a telescope.

But Jupiter is different. Right now Jupiter is visible in the continental US in the East/Southeastern sky shortly after sunset, and over the span of just a few days you can enjoy a great show of a planet and moons moving around it, and all you need to do to check it out is read the rest of this post.

How To Find Jupiter

Eat dinner. If your spouse cooked the meal, be sure to compliment him/her on the meal*. Do the dishes. Hang out for a bit, drinking coffee or helping your kids do their homework or prepping your bike for tomorrow morning’s ride, or just sitting around with your spouse at the table, belching and complaining about the government- or whatever else it is you like to do after dinner- until it gets dark. In Northern Utah this week this’ll be at around 7:50PM this week. Then go outside with a pair of half-decent** binoculars.

*What? Your wife cooks dinner every night and you never thank or compliment her? Newsflash: This is why she bitches about you to all her friends and is having an affair with the guy who built your deck.

**Mine are 10x42, specifically these.

Look up to the East/Southeast, maybe ~25-30 degrees up in the sky. The stars will just be coming out, and if you live in a light-polluted area (like here in the Salt Lake Valley) there won’t be many others visible anyway. The big, honking “star” you see, bigger/brighter than anything else in that part of the sky, is Jupiter.

Sunset Jupiter Finder Extra Help: Remember, all the planets orbit the sun on more or less the same plane, and that plane is very roughly parallel (+/- 23 degrees) to the earth’s equator. That means that planets in the night sky are always going to appear in the Southern half of the sky, assuming you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. (So if you’re looking at the Big Dipper or Cassiopeia, you need to turn your ass around.) At this time of year (close to the Equinox) the path the planets follow across the night sky is almost exactly the same as that followed by the Sun over the course of the day. (In the winter it’s higher, and in the summer it’s lower.)

There’s only 1 planet that’s ever brighter than Jupiter, and that’s Venus, which is the brightest “star” anywhere in the sky. But Venus’ orbit is closer to the Sun than ours, so it’ll always appear on the same “side” of the sky as the setting or rising sun. So in other words, it can’t be anywhere to the East shortly after sunset*.

*Venus is actually preceding the Sun across the sky right now, so it’s the honking big star to the East just before sunrise.

All About Jupiter

jupiter Everyone knows Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system, but you may not know how weird it is. Its mass is more than 300 that of Earth’s, but it’s volume is 1300 times as great, which means that on average, it’s less than 1/4 as dense. Surprisingly (for me anyway) we still don’t fully understand the structure of the planet- what’s liquid, what’s solid, or even whether it really has a “core”. But we know that it’s about 89% hydrogen, 10% helium, and 1% other stuff. Which is way, way different than the stuff that the Earth* is made out of. In fact, its composition is much more similar to the Sun**.

*The Earth is made mostly out of iron, oxygen, silicon and magnesium, with healthy helpings of sulfur, nickel, calcium and aluminum.

**The Sun is about 75% hydrogen,24% helium and 1% other stuff.

This is why you may have heard Jupiter referred to as a “failed star”- because if it were bigger its hydrogen would start to fuse and it would shine/”burn*” as the sun does, but the moniker is probably a bit overly dramatic; Jupiter would have to be something like 75 times more massive to achieve stellar ignition.

*Stars don’t actually “burn”. The energy released by the sun is the result of large-scale fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms, the same mechanism at work in a thermonuclear** warhead.

**Which is very different than the mechanism at work in a fission warhead, such as we dropped on Japan, or Kim Jong Il & co. recently detonated in a tunnel.

The Moons

Jupiter has at least 63 moons, and more are discovered every couple of years or so. But nearly 50 of these are little rinky-dink things a mile or so across, some number of which were probably asteroids that got “caught”* in the planet’s gravitational field.

*Astronomers can tell this because the orbits are usually weird: wrong direction, or an oddly inclined orbital plane, or highly elliptical orbit.

Only 4 are more or less “moon-sized” by which I mean “roughly the same size as our own moon”, and these are- in order of closest to furthest from Jupiter- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto*.

*From smallest to largest it’s Io, Europa, Callisto, Ganymede.

Side Note: Think about this for a sec- Jupiter’s biggest moon is only twice as massive as ours, but Jupiter is more than 300 times as massive as Earth. That’s why I keep going on about how our moon is so incredibly-freak-show-huge.

These 4 moons are called the Galilean moons in honor of their discoverer, Galileo Galilei, whose accomplishment was of course chronicled in the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Tangent: Does anyone know what the hell that song is about? I must have heard/sung along to it about 1,000 times and I have absolutely no idea.

Nested Tangent: In fairness, I should point out that I pretty much never know what any song is about, even with my favorite bands. For example I’m a long-time Pixies fan, and with the possible exception of “Palace of the Brine*”, I can’t tell you what any of their songs are actually about.

*And that’s only because of the plethora of Utah references.

Undertones1 For something like 15 years I’ve also been a fan of the Undertones. About a year ago my brother- let’s call him “Phil”- mentioned in passing their focus on “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. I was like, “What?”, whereupon Phil painstakingly walked me through how their music is all about The Troubles… Really, I was clueless*.

*I was like, “Really? But I thought their songs were all about Chocolate and Girls…”

led-zeppelin-stairway-to-heaven-album I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even know what “Stairway to Heaven” is about. Drugs? That’s always my fallback for any ballad from the 60’s or 70’s. “Oh yeah,” I’ll say, nodding thoughtfully, “That song had a real poignant message, you know with what it was saying about drugs and all…” Hey Jude? American Pie? Drugs? Drugs? Really, I don’t know. In fact the only bands/artists whose lyrics I think I understand are The Queers (telling off parents, ex-girlfriends), Lily Allen (snarking at ex-boyfriends) and the Dead Milkmen (automobiles, religion and Reagan.)

I really am a total idiot savant.

When you look at Jupiter through binoculars, you’ll see immediately that it’s not a star, but a little round disk. Right next to the disk, on either or both sides, nicely lined up in a row, will be the 4 Galilean moons. If you don’t see all 4, it’s because 1 or more is either blocked by, or in front of the planet. So first off that’s way cool- you’re seeing a planet and its moons.

But even cooler is if you check it out say 2 nights later- because the moons will be in different positions. And this is the way cool thing about watching Jupiter’s moons, that their orbital periods- their months, as it were- are way, way short.

Our moon has a month of roughly 27 days. That’s how long it takes the moon go completely around the Earth one time. But check out the “months” of the Galileans moons:

Orbital Periods This means that over a period of 2 days, the positions of the 4 moons- particularly the inner 2- will be way different, and if you look for just a minute on 2 different nights, and pay just a teensy-weensy bit of attention, you can actually see the moons orbiting around the planet.

All About Orbital Resonance

There’s something else interesting about these orbital periods. Did you notice it? The “months” of Io, Europa and Ganymede have a ratio of 1:2:4. This is an example of a common astronomical phenomenon call orbital resonance, in which two or more orbiting bodies influence each other gravitationally. Such resonances can be either stabilizing or destabilizing. The Galilean resonance (which is technically a mean motion orbital resonance) is stabilizing and self-correcting, keeping the 3 moons in resonance.

Side Note: Most orbital resonances are destabilizing, which can result in such things as changed orbits or gaps in planetary rings.

moon Callisto isn’t part of the resonance, probably because it’s a ways further out. All 4 of these moons BTW are tidally locked, like our own moon, meaning that they always present the same face to the planet they orbit.

All About Tidal Locking

Geeky-Astro-Tangent: Tidal Locking is way freaky and way cool. Most moons in the solar system are tidally locked. Tidal locking occurs because the gravity of the planet actually deforms the shape of the moon, creating slight bulges in its crust. These bulges act as a slight brake (because the host planet’s gravity acts more strongly on them) with every rotation, gradually slowing down the rotation of the moon until the bulge is always pointed toward the host-planet.

There are (at least) 2 wild things about tidal locking. The first is that angular momentum is conserved, so that the moon orbits farther out from the planet as its rotation slows and eventually locks.

spinslow The second is that the same bulging*/braking effect (diagram above, not mine) works on the host-planet, though at a much slower rate. The bigger the planet, the more gradual/weaker the braking effect. So Pluto for example is tidally-locked with its moon Charon**; both always present the same face to each other, and you can only see Charon*** from one side of Pluto (and vice versa.)

*The bulging in Earth’s case is primarily in the oceans, which we notice as tides.

**Technically Pluto and Charon are twin planets, since they orbit a common point exterior to the surface of Pluto. Yes, yes, I know Pluto isn’t officially a planet anymore, but that’s BS. As far as I’m concerned Pluto still is a planet, along with Eris, Sedna, Makemake and Haumea.

*** So the spell-checker doesn’t recognize “Charon”, which suggests that the folks at Microsoft are sadly ignorant of both astronomy and Greek mythology. Oo- that reminds me- I have a Greek mythology-tangent brewing…

IMG_2027 So what does all this have to do with us? 2 things. First, the moon is getting higher. Each year, the moon is just a bit farther from the Earth, and a month is getting a teensy bit longer. And second, the Earth’s rotation is slowing down, meaning that our days are getting longer. Eventually, someday in the far, far future, billions of years from now*, the Earth will be tidally locked with the moon, meaning that only half the planet will ever see the moon, and it will always be at the same position in the sky, and it will appear smaller than it does today. A day will be a whole month long, and it’ll be a longer month- something like 55 (of our present-24 hour) days long*.

*Whole bunch of qualifiers for this tangent. First, I had a hell of a time digging up figures for a) at what distance the Moon’s orbit would stabilize (anywhere from 1.25 to 1.6x present-day distance), b) when the Earth would tidally lock (anywhere from “a few billion” to 15 billion years from now) and c) exactly how long the eventual day/month would be. (My kiddie-math skills are nowhere near taking these calcs on myself.) It’s also worth noting that if these events happen later than ~5 billion years from now , then the Sun would go nova first, possibly engulfing both Earth and moon**.

**Though possibly not. The Earth’s orbit might get “higher” relative to the Sun.

Excepting the phases of the moon or a lunar eclipse, this is hands-down the easiest astronomy-in-action thing you can see in the night sky. Planets (including Earth) change positions all the time of course, so it’s not always so easy to see Jupiter, and to see it at such a convenient, early hour. So check it out already. And please comment if you can tell me what Stairway to Heaven is about.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Current Cosmetic Undertaking, and All About Sexual Selection

As I so often do, I’m going to start this post with something that seems totally un-related to the main post, but which I will manage to tie in- in a surprisingly relevant way- later on. And the thing I’m going to start off with is… my kids’ piano lessons.

No, no- wait! Don’t click away! I haven’t lost it, and I assure you WTWWU isn’t turning into a mommy blog. This will be relevant.

So we have a piano in the house. Awesome Wife occasionally pulls out some old sheet music and plays for a bit. A couple of years ago, we noticed that Twin B would often sit down at the piano and start improvising. And the thing was, her improvising- just pure making stuff up- sounded really pretty. Check out this video from 2 years ago.

After hearing her do this a couple of times, AW and I said to each other, “Hey, she seems to like playing the piano. Maybe we should give her lessons?” And so we signed up not just Twin B, but the whole Trifecta.

Our expectations were that Twin B would shine, Bird Whisperer would do OK*, and Twin A would struggle a bit. Twin A was the slowest of the 3 to catch on to reading, the slowest to start talking, and in several other ways has matured a bit more slowly than the other 2.

*Bird Whisperer is smart enough to do most anything well, but he deals with piano as he does with most matters outside the lens-like focus of his interests: the absolute minimum to get us off his back.

So how’d it turn out? Exactly the opposite. Twin A took to piano- and musical notation- like a fish to water. Twin B on the other hand, our little girl-genius who practically learned to read when we weren’t looking- has struggled, nearly unable to read basic notes after a year+ of instruction, to the point where we’re considering changing teachers and/or teaching methods.

Musical talent. Hold that thought.

Now let’s talk about me and my latest self-improvement project. Guess what I’m doing? Taking a night class? Learning a foreign language? Taking up yoga? Learning judo? No, no, hell no, and no. I’m growing a beard.

Watcher Looking Good Tangent: Before I go any further, I want to give some advice to any male readers considering growing a beard. It’s critically important that you position your beard-growing as something you are proactively doing, and not just something you are allowing to happen to you. You’re not sloppy or lazy or unhygienic; you’re ambitious, you’re a go-getter, you’re always taking on new challenges, and growing a beard is just the latest exciting challenge you’re taking on.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a friend you haven’t spoken with in some time emails you and asks what you’re up to. You could reply with something like: “Things are super-busy, but great! Work is crazy, the kids have started school again, and on top of all that, I’m growing a beard!...” Or if your spouse asks you something like: “Are you going to have time to put up those shelves in the garage this weekend?”, you could say: “Probably not. I’ve got a pretty full plate this weekend, what with everything going on and working on my beard and all…”

I’m growing a beard for several reasons, including, but not limited to:

9 Days 1- I want to look more bad-ass. Seriously- all guys want to look bad-ass.

2- I’m bored with my face. No I don’t hate it; I’m not getting a nose job or anything. I’ve just been looking at it for a long time in the mirror, and I want a little break, both from seeing the same face, as well as from staring at it so darn long while I shave every day.

Tangent: I’m a white guy with dark hair, which means that when I do shave, it needs to be a close shave, or I look like a mobster or President Nixon. Electric razors have never worked for me, nor for that matter, has shaving without a mirror. Lots of guys talk about how they shave in the shower, and then I see guys actually shaving (with electric razors) while they drive! How do they do it? I can barely drive in a straight line with both hands on the wheel, and here are these guys shaving at 75MPH! Why just the other day I tried to change the radio station while driving, and I swerved so badly I had to stop texting, spilled my latte and nearly dropped my Egg McMuffin on the newspaper I was reading! OK, not really.

3- The Trifecta egged me on.

Tangent: And they are being, I must say, wildly supportive of this project. They check the beard daily, touch it, offer compliments and encouragement. This is, sadly, in stark contrast to the feedback from Awesome Wife, who I have to report is staunchly anti-facial hair. In particular, she claims that my new beard makes gives me an uncanny resemblance to a certain Mideast political leader.

Me, I don’t see it.

Mahmoud Watcher cut BTW, I’d just like to say that although I find his politics distasteful, I’ve always considered Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to be an exceptionally handsome man.

4- I was worried that if I waited too many more years it would come in gray, and then I’d look like the snowman-narrator in the Rudolph special. (Of course I’d still wear pants.)

5- Finally- a real reason: Beards are great for outdoor sports in Winter. Yes, I’ve grown beards before, and this is absolutely true. When temps dip below 30F, a beard is wonderful when running or biking. And for skiing, they’re fantastic, particularly on a stormy day when they ice up, creating an insulating mask over your lower face. In contrast, they’re not so fun on a hot summer day, and that’s why I’m growing it now.

And really reason #5 brings us to the point of the post (and yes there is one and I am getting to it) which is why? Why do men grow beards? And it seems pretty obvious, right? Because it’s warm. Because back in caveman times things were cold, what with the Ice Age and all, and a nice warm beard would help keep your face from getting frostbitten, help retain head in your head and reduce the whole risk of death from hypothermia thing. Makes sense, right?

thule_inuit_family Except that if you stop and think about it, that makes absolutely no sense at all. First, why would only men have beards? Don’t women’s faces get cold? And what about children? And not all men even grow beards. While they’re common among European men, lots of people around the world grow hardly any beard- just a few whisps of hair on the chin. Know who doesn’t grow beards? The Inuit (pic left, not mine). That’s right, Eskimos grow only little whispy beards- talk about people who need to stay warm!

epifold Side Note: Inuit by the way are a great example of people with real cold-adaptations. The distinctive epicanthic fold (pic right not mine- think it’s from NY Times) of the eyelid is commonly cited as an example (to protect the eye against cold, wind, sands, glare) though it’s not quite clear how much protection it really affords. But non-shivering metabolism of Inuits is something like 30-40% greater than in control groups, and recent research suggests that even the hands of Inuits may have an enhanced, heat-retaining morphology.

Well, maybe then it’s just a hold-over from when our ancestors were hairy all over, and somehow some portion of human males just never full lost the fur coat on their face? The problem with that idea is that our closest relatives- chimpanzees and gorillas- don’t have beards. Sure, they have hairy faces, but nothing like Santa Claus-length beards we can grow.

All About Sexual Selection

So what’s the deal with beards? The answer is, apparently sexual- as opposed to natural- selection. 14 DaysNatural selection is the process that drives the obvious features of evolution- why a cougar has big teeth or why a pronghorn is fast. Because the mealy-mouthed cougars and slow pronghorns didn’t survive well or long enough to reproduce as effectively. Sexual selection is the process that drives evolution specifically through an organism’s ability to attract and procure mates. So let’s go back to Porcupines: if a male Porcupine is strong and healthy and has a great coat of quills and everything else needed to survive, but he’s incapable of performing the trademark “urine-shower” to court a female, he won’t leave any descendants behind. So male porcupines are selected for- among other things- their ability to perform effective urine-showers, and that type of selection is called sexual selection. There’s no individual survival benefit to being able to explosively urinate all over a female porcupine, but because female porcupines find urine-showers arousing, sexual selection for urine-shower-ability shapes Porcupine evolution.

Sexual selection has been used to explain all sorts of animal characteristics that don’t seem to have any traditional survival benefit. A peacock’s tale, a lion’s mane and a Lazuli Bunting’s plumage are all thought to be the result of sexual selection processes. Sexual selection is also suspected to be the driver behind the evolution of human male and female body shape, armpit & pubic hair, human female breasts, the human penis* and yes, beards.

*I’m trying to keep this post PG13, but here’s the deal: there is no biological reason for the human penis to be anywhere near as large as it is. The erect penis of a gorilla for example, is about 1.5” in length, and it appears to achieve its reproductive function just fine. Human female breasts are also- biologically speaking- completely unnecessary. There is no correlation between non-lactational breast size and ability to produce milk.

So apparently, at some point in our* past, women found bearded men to be more desirable than un-bearded men, and bearded men produced more offspring, leading to a population in which males are bearded.

*I’m using “our” in a fairly parochial sense here, as in peoples in which the men have beards- like white people, for instance…

gorilla Or maybe not. Sexual selection also drives the development of features or traits designed to outcompete rival males for access to females, either through force or intimidation. The muscles of a Gorilla and the antlers of an Elk are two great examples. Both can be used to fend off competitors, and in fact the mere appearance of either is often enough to dissuade prospective suitors. Perhaps a heavy, bushy beard makes a man appear more threatening, more menacing, more virile, more bad-ass, and serves to intimidate prospective rivals.

*Incredibly, this same mechanism- visual intimidation of prospective male rivals- was actually proposed as an explanation for human penis length back in the 1960s!**

**To clarify, I mean that the idea was proposed in the 1960s. I didn’t mean to imply that human penises were longer in the 1960s.

This is the wonderful and the awful thing about sexual selection; it provides plausible explanations for so many biological traits- like the peacock’s tail- that otherwise make no sense at all. But at the same time, sexual selection provides so many possible explanations that it sometimes seems like it can be used to explain away nearly any peculiar trait.

Tangent: So back to my beard- which is it? Attraction or threat? In my current life, the one female whose opinion matters is, as I’ve mentioned previously, anti-beard. But I have grown beards previously, and in fact my first beard, during my junior year in college, I sported during a time when I was both single and in avid* pursuit of female companionship. Here’s what I found:

*OK, “desperate”, really.

Most modern American women (at least at the college I attended) do not go for beards, and I would say that something like 70% of women pretty much immediately rule out men as a dating prospects if they’re bearded. But- and here’s the key thing- having a beard got you off to a better start with the remaining 30% than not having a beard did with the beard-hating 70%. Get it? So while my pool of dating prospects was smaller, I was better-positioned within that smaller pool.

All About Skin Color

It gets even more confusing in that some traits may be shaped by a combination of natural and sexual selection. One example is skin color. dark skin For decades*, variation in skin color was thought to be directly-related to solar exposure. People in sunny places had dark skin so that they didn’t die of skin cancer,. Melanin blocks UV. But people in places with very little sun had light skin, allowing them to obtain more UV from the limited sunlight they received. A certain measure of UV is necessary to synthesize vitamin D3, without which a number of developmental problems- including rickets- can occur.

*I believe William F. Loomis was the first to formally propose this idea back in the 1960’s.

D3 Synthesis graphic But in the 80’s and 90’s, other scientists* questioned this conventional wisdom. While skin cancers are awful and all, they overwhelmingly don’t afflict victims until after prime reproductive years. Yes, very fair people would probably suffer greatly from, and maybe even succumb to, sunburn-induced overheating and even secondary infections from sun-poisoning, but most moderately-complected white-skinned folks- like me for example- would probably sport a deep tan for a few decades before falling to cancer- plenty of time to bear and raise offspring. Instead, perhaps different groups in different parts of the world tended to select for fair or dark skin in different areas because they found those skin shades attractive, just as other facial or body features may be more or less attractive in different societies and cultures around the world.

*The ideas in this paragraph are drawn mainly from Jared Diamond. That’s right, the guy who wrote The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse- all great reads, BTW.

But in the late 90’s other researchers* studying UV radiation and its effect on folates proposed a 2.0 version of the natural-selection hypothesis for skin color. Loomis, they said, was half-right. white guyFair-skinned peoples (pic right = white guy) such as Northern Europeans did benefit from greater receptivity to UV for D3 synthesis, but skin cancer was not the principal threat to fair-skinned peoples in sunny climes. Rather it was the damaging effect of UV on folates, or folic acid. Folic acid is necessary to synthesize nucleotides, which are the structural building blocks of DNA and RNA. Without sufficient folic acid, you may suffer from anemia and some other nasty effects. But for a developing fetus, lack of folic acid is catastrophic and can lead to an array of growth deformities including spinal bifida.

*Ideas in this section are those of Nina Jablonksi and George Chaplin.

Predicted Shading graphic Interestingly it also turns out that folic acid plays a key role in spermatogenesis, the creation of sperm cells, and so men with insufficient folic acid are often infertile. So it sure seems logical that sunny climes would favor darker skin and less-sunny climes (>latitude 40N or S) would favor lighter skin.

truganini But on the other hand, darker-skinned people do occur in some notably un-sunny places. The Inuit are not a fair-skinned people, and natives of the cloudy New Guinea highlands or cool, Southerly Tasmania* are very dark-skinned.

*Savvy Southern-hemisphere readers may object that perhaps I should be referring to Tasmanians in the past tense, since the last full-blooded Tasmanian (pic right) died well over a century ago. I’ve heard that this is a sensitive issue with present-day mixed-blood Tasmanians, and so have elected to use the present tense.

Well, yes, but Inuit don’t require all that much UV exposure because their heavily fish-based diet provides ample D3. And the Southern hemisphere lacks large land-masses South of latitude 40S comparable to the huge Northern hemisphere land expanses North of latitude 40N, which makes the rise of Southern-hemisphere fair-skinned peoples less likely…

See what I mean? It goes on and on, and it may well be that both explanations- natural and sexual selection are at least partially correct when it comes to skin color.

Big Tangent

Tangent: Before leaving skin color, I have to mention 2 absolutely fascinating things about the topic. The first is that white skin appears to have come about twice, independently. Paeloanthropologists generally believe that the first hairless hominids were dark-skinned, due to their African origins.

Nested Tangent*: The earliest hominids were presumably hairy, like Chimpanzees and Gorillas. Hairy primates usually have either lightly or un-pigmented skin beneath their fur. Once hairless, hominid skin would have benefitted from (presumably dark) pigment. The whole issue of human lack of body hair is another huge, controversial topic outside the scope of this post. But the most widely-accepted explanations center around our increased number of sweat glands relative to other primates, and which probably came about as our ancestors took to a bipedal lifestyle.

*Yes Sid, I am getting technical in a tangent and a nested tangent. Get over it.

White skin is thought to have come about later, as humans migrated to areas North of latitude 40. And in fact researchers have identified likely mutations that caused this shift to lighter skin in both Europeans and East Asians. But- and here’s the freaky thing- the mutations are different between the 2 groups, meaning that Europeans and East Asians are “white-skinned” through completely different genetic mechanisms.

aussie-kids1 The second fascinating thing is blond hair, which does seem to be the result of sexual selection, possibly in just the last several thousand years*. Northern Europeans are of course known for a high incidence of blond hair color, but what’s interesting is that blond or “dirty blond” hair is much more common around the world in children. Australian aboriginal children for example (pic left, not mine) often have blondish hair which darkens as they mature. And even among blond-haired adults, hair color almost always darkens by the late 20s/early 30s*. Blond hair appears to be a youth indicator.

*My source for most of this section was Matt Ridley's wonderful book The Red Queen. It's probably my 2nd-favorite Ridley book, the 1st being Genome.

**News flash for spaceshot-men like me: Nearly every blond woman you see over age 30 is coloring her hair. I am embarrassed to admit I did not know this until I was over 40. I know, I am clueless.

blond2 Human males are generally attracted to female physical characteristics that indicate youth and reproductive health, such as figure/body shape and skin tone. In a cold Northern climate where people are heavily clothed much of the time, such indicators may not be generally obvious. But hair color is, and a head of blond hair could reveal a 5 or 10 year age-difference that clothing might otherwise conceal. Men who “selected” such blond/younger women (pic right, so not mine) might end up with a mate who had an additional 5-10 available child-rearing years, leading to more children and… you get the idea.

What Else?

It makes sense that sexual selection would shape anatomical characteristics related to mate selection, attractiveness and reproduction. What’s really fascinating about sexual selection, though, is all the non-obvious characteristics which it is suspected to drive. Here’s the most fascinating one: the human brain.

About a year ago I posted about the Pronghorn, and how for many years the big mystery about it was why is it so damn fast? Since it’s way faster than any possible predator, what could have driven evolution* to make the animal such a fast runner?

*The answer, if you’re interested, is the now-extinct North American Cheetah. Read about it in this post.

Here’s a similar question about another mammal: Why does the human brain need to be so damn big? Our large brains allow us to do all sorts of fascinating things- visit the moon, build particle super-colliders, compose symphonies and paint masterpieces. But there was no selection pressure to be able to do those things- clearly the need to build spacecraft could not have driven our evolution.

The standard explanation is that the human brain evolved to facilitate better hunting and tool-making. But really, you don’t have to be Einstein to outwit a mammoth or skin a rabbit. Yes, some smarts would help, but do you really need a brain 3 times the size of a Chimpanzee’s? Somehow, something in the last few hundred thousand years drove a dramatic evolution of the human brain, and one possible explanation* is sexual selection.

*The ideas in this section are largely those of Geoffrey Miller as described in his fascinating book, The Mating Mind.

17 DaysIn a social species like us, a smart guy, who can better understand motivations and emotions, is going to be more effective at attracting/ charming/ seducing females than a dull-witted guy. Females who mate with such smarter males will presumably bear smarter children, who will similarly enjoy the enhanced mating opportunities of greater intelligence. Smarter males might well have been able to negotiate and position themselves better within a group, with access to better resources, authority and mating opportunities. Females would have similarly benefited from higher intelligence in negotiating social position and access to resources for themselves and their young. And equally importantly, higher intelligence would benefit females in evaluating potential mates.

Mate selection among mammals (and most animals) is a higher-risk investment for females than males. In Pleistocene times females who made bad mate-choices, in terms of that mate’s health, character, social prospects or access to resources, would have left behind fewer descendants than those who made “good” mate choices. And so the ability to fully evaluate a prospective mate- not just their strength, health and vigor, but also their intelligence and charisma, became even more critical.

Back to Where We Started

According to Miller, many of the expressive and even artistic abilities in modern humans may have arisen as mechanisms for displaying mental acuity, creativity and resourcefulness to prospective mates. Even music. Which leads us back to… Twin A. (Sorry for the poor video. It is, regrettably, the only one I have. Skip the first 30 seconds.)

Neither my beard nor Twin A’s musical talents seem to make a lot of sense from a natural selection standpoint. Neither would help us kill a mammoth, outrun a leopard or survive a bout with malaria. But perhaps sometime in the last 100,000 years our ancestors faired just a bit better on the dating scene because they sported extra whiskers or could carry a tune.

Twin A is continuing piano lessons this Fall, and I’m looking forward to many warm-faced days over the long Winter ahead. Or maybe I’ll just move to Iran and run for office.

One More Thing

This part isn’t essential to the post, but I wanted to get it off my chest. Here’s my biggest beef with Sexual Selection: it’s continually presented as separate and distinct from natural selection, which contributes to a confusing perspective of Darwinian evolution for the layman. It’s like, “Oh hey, natural selection pressures- avoiding predators, not freezing to death, being able to run/fly/bite/whatever- that stuff drives evolution. Except for this other stuff, like feather-plumage and blond hair and boobs. That’s driven by this completely different mechanism…”

This distinction between natural and sexual selection has been made ever since Darwin, and I think it’s artificial and unnecessary. Sexual selection is part of natural selection, or more properly a subset of it. Sexual selection pressures are just one slice of the vast array of selection pressures faced by all living things, and I’d argue for a more holistic view of natural selection that includes sexual selection.

Holistic View As always, remember I’m a layman with zero scientific education or qualifications, and so I may well be talking completely out of my ass. But I really do believe that a good part of the reason we have millions of intelligent, literate people dismissing evolution as “just a theory” and believing the world is only a few thousand years old is because scientists so often do a crappy job explaining stuff that just about everyone should be able to understand. And anyway, even if you don’t agree with my argument for a more holistic view of natural selection, then at least we should be able to agree about my beard. Doesn’t it look awesome?