Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Secret Wish, and God’s Favorite Children

Know what I wish*? That I could sing. Really sing, like belt out a tune. Like I would open my mouth, break into song, and people would just be astounded and moved and impressed all at the same time. I would sound more or less like this (skip to 0:28, where he walks out onto the balcony):

*To be clear, that’s not like my only wish. It’s not even in the top 3. The top X wishes would be big-picture, change-the-world type wishes, like World Peace and End Disease or End Hunger or Don’t Wreck The Planet- stuff like that. And really, the Singing Wish wouldn’t even be my top Personal Wish. I’m not even sure it would be in the top 10. I’d probably wish for a bunch of money, or to speak another language perfectly, or to know the Secret Of The Universe, or maybe even just play the ukulele really well first. But it’d be really cool if I could sing well, too.

My singing would be a frequent topic of conversation throughout my social circle. Maybe OCRick would be out skiing or something with say, Hunky Neighbor or Clean Colin, and he’d say something like, “Hey, you know who can really carry a tune? Alex, that’s who. Man, that guy has a voice!” And Clean Colin would say, “You’re telling me! The guy is an amazing singer… he really could have been a professional.” People would make sure to invite me to parties and other events, because they knew there’d be a good chance I’d break into song, which of course would make the event a total success.

But my friends never have that conversation. I never know for sure what they say about me*, but I suspect it’s more like this:

Clean Colin: Hey, listen up. Tell your friend not to bring along that guitar again this weekend. I do not want to sit around the campfire and listen to Alex mangle Neil Young again after he’s had a couple of beers…

OCRick: You’re telling me. It’s just bizarre that a guy who sings so badly seems to always want to start doing it…

*Actually, I’m pretty sure they say, “What is he doing all that blogging for? What, is he going through some kind of mid-life crisis or something?”

Yes, I am. And this expression of it is way cheaper and less disruptive than a sports car, Argentine mistress, or joining an ashram.

And that’s the tragedy. Because I really like singing. But I am doomed to do so almost exclusively alone, usually while driving. It’s a tragedy not only because I enjoy it, but because singing is really one of the defining characteristics of being human.

All About Singing

Wait, wait- don’t click away! No, I’m not getting all sappy/new-agey/music-makes-the-world go-round or anything. What I mean is that singing- or more specifically the range and flexibility of the human voice- is arguably the best of any mammal in the world.

These days I’m thinking a lot about music because I’m running a lot, and when I run I listen to tunes on the iPod. I tend to be semi-OCD in my listening habits. I’ll listen to one artist/ group/ album over and over, like practically every other time I run, for maybe 2 weeks, and then I’ll drop it cold. Up until last week, for example, I was really into a Jayhawks phase. On any run over 4 miles I’d listen to the them, usually parts of Hollywood Town Hall, or Tomorrow The Green Grass. wolfgang-amadeus-mozart Before that I was running over and over to the Clash’s London Calling* for a couple of weeks. Then last week I dropped the Jayhawks cold, and switched over to my current obsession, which I’ve been listening to on runs for the past week, and which is- I swear to God I am not making this up- Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

*Because Rudie Can’t Fail, Clampdown and The Guns of Brixton are totally kick-ass running tunes.

Tangent: About 5 years ago I went through this bogus Zen-Nietzsche-purity-whatever-baloney phase where I made a big deal about never listening to music while running, because I somehow felt that listening to music was in some way “masking” the experience of the run*. In early 2004 I ran hundreds and hundreds of miles training for a marathon- in silence. 2 weeks before the event I injured myself and had to skip it. Months later, when I finally started running, I started listening to tunes again and wondered what the hell I’d been thinking.

*Seriously, what was up with me? All I can say is that by one’s mid-40’s, pretty much everyone has some period of their life that they look back on with total embarrassment. The running-in-silence thing is mine. Oh yeah, and that whole first marriage thing.

You’ve probably heard something over the years about researchers teaching chimpanzees and gorillas to communicate via sign language. It’s a fascinating subject, and highly controversial, with strong opinions as to whether or not the apes are truly communicating via language as humans do. But here’s something nobody’s arguing about- teaching apes to communicate in spoken human language. Nobody’s arguing about it because they know it’s impossible; apes don’t have our voice-boxes.

We’ve previously talked about several aspects in human evolution since the human-chimpanzee split back 5-7 million years ago, including neocortical development, hairlessness, facial hair, parasites and endurance running. Here’s another one: At some point in the last million years* our larynx descended to a lower position in the throat, enabling the range of sounds we can make today.

*Probably within the last 350,000.

Larynx Compare Side Note: To be clear, the descended larynx is just one of several physiological features to have made modern human speech possible. But it’s the one I’m focusing on today for reasons that will be apparent in a moment.

Our descended larynx is a great example of an exaptation, which is when natural selection modifies a structure or organ which originally evolved for a different purpose. All mammals have a larynx. It serves to protect the trachea, and often, but not always, for sound production. In the vast majority of mammals, the larynx is located very high in the throat, close to nasal passages, where it can effectively separate breathing from eating and prevent food items from traveling down the trachea. In humans, our larynx is located so much lower that we’ve lost that ability, which is why we’re practically the only(?) animal to routinely choke to death.

Initially this appears to be a lousy deal; nearly all of us have experienced or witnessed at least a couple of choking scares, where a potential victim required assistance. It seems like a big price to pay, and the only explanation for it was that the benefits of descended larynx outweighed- in the long, reproductive run- the benefits of choke-protection. Speaking – and maybe singing- was obviously important in our evolution.

AlphaN uncut Side Note: My 2-month-old niece was with us over the holiday weekend. She’s delightful, low-maintenance, largely uncomplaining baby, but like most infants, she’s often hungry. In all her feedings- which of course are entirely liquid, and which she receives while in a reclined position, she never once coughed or gagged. Think about that. If you spent a 2 or 3 hours a day lying back drinking liquids, how often would you gag? Pretty often, I’m guessing. In human babies the larynx is high in the throat, like in an ape, and provides the same tracheal protection they enjoy.

Descended larynxes also can be found in some aquatic mammals and- oddly- some species of deer, which may also possibly realize vocalization benefits.

It’s been claimed that whales, wolves and maybe even mice* sing, but no other mammal sings anything like we do. Though human voices can be enchanting in many different styles, probably no genre shows off the human voice better than classical opera.

*Ultrasonically, if at all.

Giovanni1-webI’m not a regular opera fan, but I was sucked into Don Giovanni by the overture, which I’ve long enjoyed*. When I finally, absent-mindedly, let the recording continue, I found myself mentally humming along to the themes I’d come to enjoy in the overture, but now reinforced by the stunning power of human voices- both male and female- at their very finest.

*I’ve been a half-assed Mozart fan for years, and am especially partial to symphonies #40, 41 and 25, as well as his utterly fantabulous Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.

daponte1 I’m going on about Mozart here, but I should give credit to the great Lorenzo Da Ponte, who authored the libretto, which is what the lyrics are called in an opera. Most classical operas were composed in collaboration between the composer, who developed the score, and the librettist. (A notable exception was Wagner, who wrote his own libretti.) A libretto can be written in any language, but Italian dominated the libretti of most serious operas in the 18th century.

Da Ponte authored libretti for 11 different composers, and also wrote those for Mozart’s Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. Cool Factoid: Late in life Da Ponte emigrated to the U.S. and became an American citizen.

Side Note: Almost certainly none of us alive now will ever hear the most remarkable human voice. Though the creation of castrati was a barbaric custom that is thankfully no more, the voice of a castrato was different than any singing voice today, combining the range and pitch of a woman’s voice with the power and strength of a man’s. A handful of recordings of just one castrato- Alessandro Moreschi- survive, and these were made late in his career, when he was past his prime, and Moreschi was never considered a great castrato. Still, you can pick up a sense of the power of the castrato voice in the clip below.

Yes, the human voice is amazing, but like another human capability that is exceptional among mammals- vision (both color and foveal)- it comes up looking pretty lame when compared to- that’s right- birds.

Compared with the near-dearth of singing mammals, the plethora of singing birds is stunning. Think about it- how many species of birds have beautiful voices? Like thousands! Birds sing for courtship, alarms and other reasons, but mammals have these concerns and needs as well. Why do so birds sing so much better?

Birds don’t have a descended larynx; they have something altogether better, something we don’t have- a syrinx*. The syrinx is a sound-producing organ located well below the larynx, right at the junction where the trachea branches toward the 2 lungs. A syrinx has no vocal chords; rather the sound is generated by the vibrations of a little tympanic membrane attached to a small air sac, and pitch and tone is modulated and amplified by muscles that control the tension of the syrinx/tracheal walls and the aperture of the bronchial openings.

*Confusingly, humans can have something called a “syrinx”, but it’s a completely different- and not a good- thing. Specifically it’s a fluid-filled cavity within the spinal cord or brainstem.

Syrinx Expand-O A syrinx has a couple of sonic advantages over a descended larynx. Because it’s located at the tracheal junction, it can (in some birds) produce more than one concurrent tone. The flexibility of the syrinx provides birds with a range of possible sounds we don’t come close to matching. Parrots and Myna Birds regularly mimic human speech, but we can’t very well mimic their calls. But maybe the most impressive advantage is sheer efficiency.

If you’ve ever tried to carry on a conversation or relate a story while biking or running uphill, you know how hard it can be to speak clearly while breathing heavily. We all take this for granted, but think about it for a moment: why should it be so hard? It’s just “talking”. You’re riding a bicycle uphill, burning maybe 300+ watts already. Why should the minimal effort of just making a little noise put you over the top?

Because speaking is wildly inefficient. The human larynx converts something like 3% of energy received into sound. With the avian syrinx, the figure is closer to 100%.

Side Note: This comparison isn’t quite fair, if only because avian lungs are way more efficient than ours as well. Human lungs- like those of all mammals- are a dead-end deal. Air goes in, fills up the bag, then goes back out the same way. No matter how fully we exhale, we always re-inhale some of the- now oxygen-poor- air that was in our lungs last breath around. Birds don’t have this problem, because their lungs are 1-way. Air enters at one end (bottom/rear) and exits the other (top/forward.) The whole avian respiration system is more complicated than this, with a number (usually 9) of strategically-positioned air sacs working in tandem with the lungs, but the short version is that no bird ever inhales its own “backwash.” This lung efficiency is doubly important for birds because not only do they breathe heavily while flying, but often do so at significant altitude.

The title character of Don Giovanni is an incorrigible rascal and seducer, having wooed a couple of thousand women across Europe. Early on in the opera he murders the father of one of his targeted conquests. At the big finish, the grave-statue of the father comes to life and drags the unrepentant Don Giovanni down into the flames of Hell. I don’t believe in ghosts or animated statues or Hell, but it’s a fabulous ending.

OP Action Similarly, I don’t believe that a divine creator directed evolution, but the whole issue of song makes me think. At this point in the project, after learning what I have about birds, their incredible vision, remarkable brains, superior respiration and incredible voice-boxes, if I were a believer, I’d be getting suspicious that perhaps they- and not us- were her favored children.

Wow. That year went by quick. Hope it was a good one for you, and that this blog managed to enlighten, entertain or just help you kill some time now and then during its course. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Santa Was Good To Me…

Actually it wasn’t Santa- it was Awesome Wife who gave it to me:

I don’t know that a helmet cam is going to help me watch the world wake up all that much more effectively, but it sure is a lot of fun. It’s the VholdR CountourHD, which was recommended to me by reader Joe in this post back in September. (Joe posted a review in a November follow-on comment to that same post.) Though I’m not ready to provide a review yet, my initial experience has been great. It was a cinch to set up, record and download video, and for a 4oz camera on top of a helmet, I’d say the video quality is pretty decent.

Helmetcam Mount1 It doesn’t come with a real helmet-mount; you have to order it separately. But I rigged up the gogglestrap-mount with a spare Velcro strap, and it works just fine*. The camera comes with a 2GB memory card, which is supposedly enough for ~1 hour of HD video; I picked up a 16GB card at BestBuy. I’ll have to play around with the sound; the mike seems to pick up little except for wind…

*Although there was a titch of play between mount and strap, which I took care of with a small piece of cardboard wedged in-between.

Helmetcam Mount2 Interestingly, video seems to make a ride appear faster than it seemed at the time. Keep in mind that in these videos I’m rolling on packed snow with regular mtb tires; I don’t think I topped maybe 18 MPH. But it sure looks like I’m moving. Can’t wait to try it out on fast, dry singletrack…

BTW, if you’re a non-Utah reader, this next video gives you a good idea of what a Salt Lake Valley inversion looks like. For most of the video I’m riding North along the Wasatch foothills at ~5,500 feet; you can see the haze filing the valley to my left. (Or just skip to 2:20, when I switchback from Southbound to Northbound, taking in a quick panorama of the valley.)

Thanks Joe for the recommendation and review. And yes, Colin, I will be bringing it along on our next Gooseberry trip. I figure it will sort of balance out the ukulele.

Monday, December 21, 2009

AstroUpdate: Aldebaran, Ain, Auriga, Anticenter, Andromeda

Today is it- the Winter Solstice*- which means the days are short and the nights are long. Hey, that’s a line from a song*, isn’t it? That’s funny, because this post will have not one, but two music videos. Anyway, there are really only 3 fun things to do on long nights. The first of course is night-ride, which isn’t that great with a mess of crusty snow & ice all over the trails, the second I can’t write about in a family blog, and the third is stargazing.

*No, this post has nothing to do with it. If you want a post about the Winter Solstice, check out this post or this post from last year.

**California Sun. I’m partial to the Ramones cover.

Back in October, I kicked off AstroWeek with a quick overview of navigating and telling time by the night sky. The navigation part is still simple-as-pie: locate the Big Dipper and/or Cassiopeia, and use them to find the North Star. North Star The clock part is simple too, but if you haven’t been keeping up with it, you should be aware that the clock as has advanced. Remember, the Earth rotates around the Sun in a counterclockwise direction, when viewed from the North, or “above” the solar plane. And the Earth rotates in the same direction. So every night as dusk, throughout the year, the entire night sky will be tilted just a titch more to the West. Over the course of a few days or a week this isn’t really noticeable, but after a couple of months it makes quite a difference.

At around 8PM in Salt Lake City Cassiopeia is at the top of the clock, an upside-down “W” above and South of Polaris. The Big Dipper is down way low in the sky, and- in much of the valley- completely obscured by the foothills.

North 8PM At 6AM, the Dipper is high up and upside-down, at around the 1 o’clock position in the sky, and Cassiopeia is low and largely obscured.

North 6AMThe “advance” of the sky means that many of the constellations we had to stay up late to see in October are now easily viewable just after dinner. The Pleiades, for example, are already high in the sky when darkness hits, and by 8PM Orion is clearing the Wasatch. By 6AM Orion will be setting in the West and the Pleiades already out of view.

Orion is where we wrapped up AstroWeek, and so it’s a good place to pick up again. We’re going to start with a constellation that’s above Orion, but first, since we’ve got such a nice early evening view of both Orion and the Pleiades, let’s quickly check out some neat, easy-to-locate stuff in between them.


About mid-way in between Orion and the Pleiades is one really bright star. If you check it out with binoculars you’ll see it’s a beautiful, bright orange, similar to Betelgeuse. This is Aldebaran, a red giant with a diameter 44 times that of our sun. For perspective, if you stuck Aldebaran in the position of our sun, it would be as though the sun covered 20 degrees of the sky*. Speaking of the sun, Aldebaran lies close (from our view) to the ecliptic, and the Sun passes just barely North of it right around June 1. It also regularly gets blocked, or occulted (eclipsed) by the Moon.**

*Of course, we’d be totally cooked, so we wouldn’t be “seeing” much of anything…

**I think the next such “eclipse” is in 2015, but I need to confirm that.

Aldebaran is the “eye” of- and brightest star in- the constellation Taurus, which is one of those lame constellations that looks absolutely nothing like what it’s supposed to be- a bull. But for years before I knew what it was, or where Taurus lay in the sky, I recognized it as the “Orange Linker” because of its “hub” position relative to Orion, the Pleiades, and the next constellation we’ll check out- Auriga.

All About The Hyades

But before we leave Aldebaran, there are a whole bunch of interesting stars right around it, mainly on the Pleiades-side: the Hyades. The Hyades are the closest and best-studied open cluster of stars to us, a tight grouping of some 300-400 hot, blue-white stars of similar composition* 151 light years away. Aldebaran, BTW, is not part of the Hyades, and has a very different composition, but just happens to lie along the line of sight to the cluster.

*Rich in metals, about 40% more so than our sun.

Aldebaran ExpandO The “core” of the Hyades, though small, is one of my favorite constellations- tight, beautiful and amazingly symmetrical. (In urban areas you need binoculars to spot this; in remote desert/mountain areas it’s easily visible without.) It’s just to the West of Aldebaran, slightly South of the most direct line from that star to the Pleiades. I call it the “Space Invader”, as it reminds me of the landing craft from the same-named 1980’s arcade/video game.

All About Ain

But the coolest star in the Hyades is just a titch further West and slightly North of the Aldebaran-Pleiades axis. This is Ain, sometimes considered the “other eye” of the bull, and usually naked-eye visible even in the valley. Ain is the brightest star in the Hyades proper, one of 4 dying blue-white giants that is currently fusing helium intro carbon in its core, having long ago fused its core hydrogen. It’s about 13 times as big, and 2 ½ times as massive, as our sun. But what makes Ain cool is that it’s one of* the easier stars to spot which we know has a planet orbiting it. The planet is a “hot giant”, more than 7 times as massive as Jupiter, but orbiting it’s hotter, bigger, brighter “sun” much more closely- only twice as far as Earth lies from Sol. The view from such a planet- if one could see the sky- must be astounding. The sun would appear 7 times the size of ours in the daytime sky, while the night would be light up by the hundreds of spectacular nearby stars of the surrounding cluster. Imagine our night sky filled with 300-400 stars as bright- or brighter- than Sirius!

*The easiest- that I know of- is Pollux, in Gemini, which we’ll cover in a future post.

OK, this is all cool stuff, but it’s actually not what I wanted to blog about. Let’s get back to Orion. “Tilt” your view of the sky so that Orion is standing straight up. (Around midnight right now this is already the case if you just look South.) Auriga1 Now look up and slightly to the right/West, pretty much directly above Aldebaran. You’ll see a clear, large pentagon of stars. (At 8 PM, it’ll appear on its side and left of sideways-Orion, later on it appears above upright-Orion.) This is Auriga. Like most constellations, it looks nothing like what it supposedly is- a charioteer. I just think of it as “the Pentagon” and as such it’s easy to recognize. Because of its position- higher than Orion but lower than Cassiopeia, it’s easy to pick out all Winter long, through most of the night. (When I camp down by Gooseberry/Little Creek in Winter, Auriga is usually the first thing I recognize in the sky.)

All About Auriga

The brightest star in Auriga, or the left shoulder (it’s left, your right) of the upright-pentagon, is Capella, the brightest-Northest star, or in astronomical terms, the first-magnitude star closest to the Celestial North Pole. It’s a fairly close neighbor, only 43 light years away, and it’s a double- a big double- but the two stars are too close to pick apart even with a telescope*. The 2 stars are 14 and 8 times the size of our own sun, respectively**, and are really close together- as far apart as Venus is from our Sun- orbiting each other just every 104 days. The smaller of the 2 has a dead helium core which hasn’t yet start to fuse into carbon, but helium fusion is well underway in the bigger star; when it completes it will expand again, possibly bumping/engulfing the smaller partner.

*The kind you or I would buy, anyway. Hubble can pick them apart.

**Though only 3 and 2.5 times the mass.

Across the Pentagon, to its “lower-right” foot when upright (your left) is Alnath (or “Elnath”), which actually links Auriga to Taurus. 130 light-years away, it’s in the final stages of hydrogen fusion and within only a couple million years will expand and turn bright orange. But the cool thing about Alnath/Elnath is this: It appears in the sky just 3 degrees from the Galactic Anticenter.

East8PM The Galactic What? The Anticenter isn’t a place, but a direction. It’s the exact opposite direction of the very center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which lies is Sagittarius, and so isn’t visible in Winter. But it you look up at Auriga’s “right (your left) foot”, then look exactly 180 degrees away into the ground, you’re looking toward the center of the galaxy.

The Galactic Center and Anticenter are cool because they give you some easy perspective. Space can be a little disorienting. We think most often in terms of terrestrial North and South, but since our axis is tilted 23 degrees relative to the ecliptic, our perspective is already somewhat messed up. The moon lies roughly on the ecliptic, though ranging as far off as 6 degrees, but the ecliptic itself is tilted at 60 degrees relative to the galactic plane. In other words, our whole darn solar system is tilted sideways.

But on a clear night, you can see the galactic plane clearly as the “Milky Way”. In December at 8PM it stretches from Auriga in the East, up to Cassiopeia overhead, to Cygnus- the swan or “Northern Cross”* to Aquila- the eagle- and down into the Western Horizon. Even if you’re in a city and can’t make out the Milky Way, if you can just pick out Auriga and Cassiopeia, you can visualize the galactic plane, and know what’s “up” and “down” in the big picture.

*Another constellation we’ll check out in a future post, featuring the fabulous star Deneb.

So that’s cool, but it leads to the bigger question: Where is the center of the whole universe? You know, where the Big Bang happened? Because the Big Bang happened at a single point and then everything exploded out of it, right? So where’s the point?

Unfortunately, I can’t point you to the center of the universe because there isn’t a center. Or rather, everywhere’s the center. There’s a tendency to think of the Big Bang as a point in space, but that’s not right; space was a point- there was nothing outside of it. This is weird and non-intuitive, but that’s how relativity works. If this frustrates you, remember: the human brain evolved to understand things how they function at our scale, in our surroundings. It didn’t evolve to understand how things really are, on a cosmic scale. It’s the dog-and-the-diesel-engine thing.

So I can’t give you the center of the universe. But as a consolation prize, I’ll give you the center of the Local Group- the cluster of 30+ galaxies of which our own galaxy is a part.

Let’s go back to Cassiopeia. Orient yourself so that the W is upright, and the North Star above it*. Go down below the W, about ½ the distance between the W and the North Star, and you’ll see a string of somewhat evenly spaced bright stars in a gently curving line from Northwest to Southeast. This is Andromeda.

*My directions in this section assume observation around 7-11PM in mid-December.

All About Andromeda

AndromedaStaal Tangent: Andromeda is of course named for the princess in Greek Mythology. She was the daughter of Cepheus (who has his own constellation, north of Cassiopeia) and Cassiopeia (namesake of the Big W), King and Queen of Aethiopa*. Cassiopeia bragged that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the daughters of Poseidon, God of the sea. Poseidon in anger sent a sea-monster- named Cetus- to ravage the Aethiopian coast. Cepheus consulted the Oracle, who- never a bearer of cheery news- told him that he could only save his nation by sacrificing his daughter to the sea-monster. Cepheus and Cassiopeia had Andromeda chained to a rock, naked, on the shore.

*Which was apparently not “Ethiopia”, but rather somewhere around Phoenicia, or modern-day Lebanon.

Nested Tangent: Cassiopeia, Clytemnestra, Helen, Hera- has anyone else noticed that Greek mythology is chock-full of high-maintenance, temperamental, problematic wives? Seems unfair, huh? Guess what: I’m Greek-American, spent a decade+ in Greek Orthodox Church/Sunday School and have ~ dozen female Greek-American cousins, and though I recognize this is a terrible, gross, unfair generalization, I am convinced that there is a kernel of truth in this- Greek women tend to be problematic and high-maintenance. (Fast Jimmy, if you are reading this, back me up- you know it’s true.)

Andro pntg Meanwhile, the hero Perseus happened to be flying past with a head in a bag. He was flying with the aid of winged sandals, loaned to him by Hermes, messenger* of the Gods, and the head belonged to the Medusa, a female monster who he’d recently slain, and who was so hideous that simply gazing upon her face would turn you into stone. Perseus, seeing the naked princess chained to a rock and the hungry sea-monster approaching, swooped down, told Andromeda to look away, whipped the head out of the bag, and turned Cetus into stone. Perseus then freed Andromeda, flew her home and married her. At the wedding, her Uncle Phineus, to whom she’d been promised**, made a scene whereupon Perseus, still in possession of the Medusa’s head, turned him into stone as well.

*Even back when I first heard these myths, ~20 years before cell phones, I thought it was way lame that the gods needed a messenger. They’re gods- don’t they have like telepathic powers?

**Yuck. Seems like every mythology has incest stories. Lot, Oedipus, Cronus & Rhea- yuck, yuck, yuck.

Perseus-and-Medusa-greek-mythology-687297_1024_768 Nested Tangent: What I just love about Perseus is that the guy is always thinking ahead. Seriously, if you or I managed to slay a monster like the Medusa, we’d be like, “Phew! Glad that’s done with- let’s get out of here!” But Perseus thinks, “Hey. I should bring this head along, just in case I need to turn anything into stone…” And talk about prepared- he even brought the head to his wedding!

The Andromeda story is fascinating not just in its own right, but because of the obvious parallel in Hebrew mythology, and yes I’m talking about Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

Side Note: This is hardly the only parallel between the two mythologies; Deucalion- who survived a God-induced deluge by building an ark- is one of the most obvious. Several other Indo-European mythologies- including Babylonian, Sumerian and Hindu- also included Flood legends. One hypothesis is that the story originated from a rapid filling of the Black Sea basin. Then again, flood legends exist in Apache, Mayan, Navajo and Yakima mythologies, so maybe such legends originated from the few- hundred-foot rise in sea-level at the end of the last ice age…

It’s interesting to compare the 2 stories side-by-side, because there are a number of really interesting differences:

1. The Setup. The Greek version goes to great pains to provide a justification for the sacrifice. Though Yahweh and Poseidon both act- for supernatural beings- like petulant jerks, the back-story of Cassiopeia’s bragging provides at least some (half-assed) justification for Poseidon’s dispatch of the sea-monster and sacrifice-demand. Yahweh, on the other hand presents his demand for sacrifice as essentially nothing more than a nihilistic loyalty-test.

abraham-isaac The reaction of the fathers in each story differs as well. Cepheus is positioned as choosing the lives of his subjects over the life of his daughter. Though a distasteful choice, it’s logical, and perhaps even coldly admirable. But Abraham isn’t saving anyone by sacrificing Isaac; he’s just following orders. By any standard of civilized modern ethics, his action is repugnant, and a present-day reader can’t help but observe that a man who’d follow a god’s instructions to kill his own child would likely follow his instructions to fly an airplane into a skyscraper…

The ethics of both gods are lousy by modern standards in that they require an innocent to suffer for the sins or beliefs of their parents. Think about that, and think about the worst criminals in modern history. None of us would suggest that the offspring or other family members of Ted Bundy or Timothy McVeigh be punished for crimes committed by them.*

*”Them” being Bundy and McVeigh, not their family members.

hwan_aqua Side Note: Want an example of a modern-day society that does exact punishment upon offspring? North Korea. For a gripping, modern day account of such punishment, check out The Aquariums of Pyongyang, the page-turning memoir of Kang Chol-hwan, who, as a young boy, was imprisoned in a hard-labor camp for a decade due to the alleged political crimes of his grandfather.

2. The Scene. The Greek version is- let’s face it- way hotter. I heard both stories when I was probably 8 or 9 years old*, and even then, I knew that naked princesses chained to rocks was saucy stuff. Throw in a sea-monster, a flying hero and royalty, and the Greek story beat the Hebrew one hands-down.

*I believe- but can’t prove- that Greek-American kids generally hear the Greek myths at an earlier age than “Other-American” kids. In my case, I learned Greek myths and Bible stories around the same time.

Perseus Andromeda Action Graphic 3. The Resolution. This may seem trivial, but it’s the biggest distinction. Although neither child is ultimately sacrificed*, Isaac is saved through submission to God, while Andromeda is saved through human defiance, courage and ingenuity. Guess which ending I prefer?

*Greek mythology does of course include a well-known story of a child who is sacrificed- Iphigenia (Agamemnon’s daughter)- which kicks off the Orestes cycle, which- in my opinion- is the Best Story Ever.

760px-The_Sacrifice_of_Isaac_by_Caravaggio It’s pretty obvious at this point, but I’ll say it anyway: I don’t care much for the Abraham-Isaac story- it’s the Bible at its near-worst*. The Bible is filled** with stories of admirable ethics and compassion and wisdom, but this ain’t one of ‘em. Oh, sure, Yahweh spared Isaac alright, but it’s hard to see that as particularly compassionate or good. If I held you up at gunpoint, took your money, but then changed my mind and returned it, that would be all well and good, but wouldn’t it be a whole lot more good if I didn’t hold you up in the first place?

*It’s hard to beat the massacre following Joshua’s conquest of Jericho.

**Well, the New Testament is anyway. Funny how so many modern-day “Christians” seem to draw supporting passages for their political beliefs- gay marriage, capital punishment, gun control- overwhelmingly from the Old Testament, and forget all that stuff about camels and needles and cheeks…

Andromeda is full of spectacular stars. Arguably the most stunning is Almach, or Gamma Andromedae, a double visible through a moderate-power telescope*. The 2 stars are stunning together, the brighter one golden-yellow and the smaller greenish blue. The smaller star is actually a double as well, and then within that pair, the larger is a double yet again, so the whole system is quadruple, in the form of a double-within-a-double-within-a-double. Wow.

*And supposedly through binoculars, though I couldn’t separate them when viewing from my yard.

Almach System Tangent: I tried to obtain an actual photo of Almach for this post (pic right = one I pulled off the web). The housemate of a coworker- Almach800let’s call him “Aaron”*- has a scope powerful enough to get the shot. But we were unable to work out a clear night this past weekend. I went to bug Aaron about it Friday afternoon at work. I felt bad bugging him during work hours, because Aaron works upstairs in IT, and as everybody knows, IT guys work really hard and are super-busy, right?

*”Aaron” is the coworker, not the roommate. Let’s call him (the housemate) “Justin.”

But I really wanted to get time on the big scope, so I overcame my reticence and headed upstairs late Friday afternoon. As you can see, Aaron was pretty busy, working hard with his boss- let’s call him “Scott”- seated at the desk.

Anyway, Aaron was very accommodating, but weather and schedules didn’t cooperate.

But to find the center of the Local Group, let’s move back one star along the right/West to Mirach, or Beta Andromedae, a bright orange/red giant 200 light years away. (From this point on, you’ll need binoculars in light-polluted areas. On a clear backcountry night, you might do without if your eyes are sharp.) From Mirach, follow up to the North side of the constellation to the next bright star (Mu Andromedae, white dwarf, 136 light-years away.) Next continue in the same direction, but slightly left/East an equal distance again to the next bright star (Nu Andromeda, double star, 680 light-years away. Cool factoid: the 2 stars of Nu Andromeda appear to be tidally locked, always presenting the same face to one another.)

Andromeda ExpandO From Nu Andromeda, move just a titch to the right/East. You’ll see a dim little ball of white fuzz. This is it- the farthest thing in the night sky visible with the naked eye- the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light-years away. If stars were marbles, and Sirius lay 2 feet away, Andromeda would be in Wendover*.

*My calculation, could be wrong. I just wanted to work Wendover into the post.

We’re Number 2

The Milky Way is the second-largest galaxy in the local group. #1 is Andromeda. # 3, not visible with the naked eye, is the Triangulum Galaxy (not visible with the naked eye), which lies directly opposite from Milnach as Andromeda, at about the same distance in the sky. These 3 galaxies- Andromeda, Milky Way, Triangulum, are the big spirals of the Local Group; everything else is chump change in comparison. Andromeda and Triangulum are much closer to one another than either is to us, so the “center” of the local group is somewhere in the general direction of Milnach, roughly ~1.7 – 2.0M light years away. Look in that direction, and you’re looking at the center of something really big.

We made it. This week the days will start getting longer, but we’ve got months of great winter stargazing ahead. I’ll try to check in with monthly updates through the season similar to this one. Given work, holiday and family commitments this week, I probably won’t post again till after Christmas. Have a great holiday.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Awesome Post In My Head

No, I don’t have a real post today. Hey, I warned you this month was going to be rough. But I feel bad. This’ll be the first week in a year and a half of this project that I haven’t posted- real posts- at least twice. And the thing is, I have, right now, a whole, entire, complete post- with an awesome tangent and everything- in my head. Seriously, if you were here in my office with me*, I could just tell you the post to your face right now, and you’d be like, “Wow, that was awesome!” You’d laugh, you’d cry- it would be better than Cats.

*Yes, I’m blogging at work. Aren’t I bad? Oh hey, give me a break- you’re probably reading this at work…

But I just do not have the time in the next 12 hours to put my thought-stream to “paper” and to come up with the graphics* a post like this deserves. Yet I don’t want you to think I’ve flaked, or run off to Argentina or otherwise gone dark**. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you what the post is about, and how awesome it’s going to be, so you can think about it over the weekend, and really have something great to look forward to when you come back to work on Monday. Sound good?

*It has occurred to me that I could both a) reduce my blogging workload and b) increase my posting frequency by abandoning graphics. And certainly there are many, many great blogs with no graphics. But I’m not doing that, for several reasons, foremost of which is this: the graphics are my favorite part of this whole project. Seriously, I absolutely love doing them. Remember, 90%+ of the things I blog about, I don’t know much of anything about until I get curious and start researching the topic. And somehow forcing myself to come up with a graphic makes me get the topic better. BTW, doing the graphics is the part of a post where I am most likely to start giggling to myself, so whenever I can I try to do them in private.

**”Going dark” is sales slang. It refers to when a once-promising client or prospect becomes completely unresponsive- no return calls, no email-replies- nothing. I use the term all the time, as does now my entire team at work, but I actually picked up the expression nearly a decade ago from previous boss, whom my peers and I referred to as “218”, because this was- no I am not making this up- the number of women he claimed to have slept with.

Monday’s post will be the first in a series of Astro-Updates, where we return to the navigational foundation we laid during AstroWeek (Man, was that a great week or what?), update our picture of the heavens as Winter progresses, and expand our view and understanding of the night sky. I’ll work to do these monthly, so we can chew off a little at a time, while keeping up with the changes above us.

Watcher at Work Monday’s Astro-Update will include not only astronomy, but also- get this- religion, mythology, ethics, North Korea, nudity and the center of the freaking universe*. Really, it’s gonna cover all that, and yet it’s all gonna tie together, because it’s all in my head right now. I just need a couple free hours to let it out…

*Re-reading that I feel I must reassure you: The post will not have photos of Kim Jong Il naked**.

**Even though this one does. I’m sorry, I found it on a google search, and it was just too good not too use. Sorry if I ruined your lunch.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fit & Stinky – All About Running At Work

Run rear Finally this weekend the cold snap broke. I don’t think it got above 22F until Friday, and the nightly lows at our house were in the 8-11F range. Even if I’d been willing to brave the temps, there was too much snow & ice around for biking, but frustratingly, not enough for decent skiing either*. It was the kind of Northern Utah week I typically can’t stand. And yet oddly, I was in a great mood all week. Thursday afternoon I finally realized why this was- I was having a great running week.

*Though there is now.

I hate exercising indoors. Like most cyclists I put in some foul-weather time on an indoor trainer, but it’s not something I enjoy. I loathe the monotony, the sweat and the endless searching for something watchable on TV. I enjoy skiing- XC or backcountry- but time doesn’t allow me to do it daily. So I run.

I started running at my first job after college, when I was an electrical engineer at a large computer company. The facility we worked in had a big shower/locker facility, and there was a group of guys who regularly ran at lunch. I didn’t pay them much mind for the first several months I worked there.

As a single guy my cooking repertoire was limited. The only 2 meals I knew how to cook were taco salad and tortellini in alfredo sauce, which didn’t bother me, since I enjoyed both, especially the latter. There was a scale outside the locker room at work, and one day I stopped on a lark to check my weight. 194 lbs. In 6 months I’d gained 14 pounds. I was 23 years old, and did some quick math; by age 30 things were going to get scary. I started running the next week.

Running was my main form of exercise for the next 4 years, until I started biking. And after biking, it was my primary exercise in winter, and later, after I’d switched careers to sales, while traveling. (Business travel, with its tight schedules and restaurant meals, can be tough on the waistline, and over 2 decades of selling and traveling I’ve run all over the US, Canada and Western Europe.) After that first job, at several succeeding jobs in Massachusetts and Colorado I worked at offices with similar facilities, and was able to run regularly.

In 1995 I moved to Utah. The first company I worked for, in downtown Provo, was run by a cranky former Mormon bishop* who thought that the only 2 worthwhile ways to spend one’s time were at work or church. Early on I asked him about the possibility of getting a shower at the office. “Shower? Exercise? Big waste of time!” he snarled. “All that changing, and then showering and changing back- huge waste of productivity…” He wasn’t putting in a shower.

*To clarify, he was a former bishop, not a former Mormon. I mean he was a current Mormon. Oh never mind, you know what I mean…

So, at age 31, I was faced with one of those fundamental, fork-in-the-road life choices. I could forgo running during weekdays, resign myself to the gradual weight gain toward middle age, and be well-groomed and sweet-smelling, if a bit chubby. Or I could be fit & stinky. I chose fit & stinky, and I’ve never looked back.

Provo_iv Tangent: Provo in 1995 was even… oh, forgive me, I just don’t have a better word- “dorkier” than it is today. On several of my winter runs, people actually laughed and pointed at my black lycra running tights. That’s right, like they’d never seen a man in running tights… Really, it was like someplace out the 1950’s. In particular there was a building by the BYU campus where school-age children would sometimes be filing in or out. One week, on 2 different days, the kids- probably about Bird Whisperer’s age now (10)- pointed and hooted and hollered at me and my tights. After the second day, I thought, “This is ridiculous…”

Note: I’ve told this story- which is true- several times. Anytime I’ve told it to a man, they’ve loved it. Anytime I told it to a woman, they thought I was a jerk. You’ve been warned.

So the next day I made sure to run by the building again at the same exact time. Sure enough, the boys saw me and started pointing, hooting, hollering right away. But this time I broke into a smile, turned and jogged straight up to them. As I did so, I reached into the pockets of my running jacket and pulled out a dollar bill in one hand, and a small envelope in the other. “Who wants a dollar?” I called out, holding the bill high above my head. Several boys shouted, clambered and reached for it. The loudest and most obnoxious jostled his way to the front. I looked down at him. “You want this dollar?” I asked.

Obnoxious Provo Boy: Yeah!

Me: OK, but you have to do something for it.

OPB: What?

Me: Give this note to your mother.

OPB: Uh… OK…

I handed him the dollar, the note and jogged off. The note read, “You shouldn’t have married your brother.”

It’s hard to get exact figures, but only something like 10% or so of the adult US population runs regularly. Which is funny when you really think about it, because there’s a fair amount of evidence that one of the most important selection pressures over the last couple of million years in shaping the form of the modern human body has been endurance running capability.

This may sound silly on the face of it, because compared to other running animals we’re familiar with- dogs, cats, horses, deer, squirrels- we seem pathetically slow, and certainly many, many animals can outsprint us. But when it comes to long distance endurance running- especially in high temperatures- it turns out we’re not half-bad. And when compared to other primates, we’re marathon-superstars.

Ahallucis Compared to chimpanzees, the human body is chock-full of enhanced running features. Some are obvious, like our feet. Our big toe is no longer opposable (like a thumb) but is adducted, or in-line with the plane of the foot along with the other 4 toes. This wasn’t a minor change; it necessitated the evolution of a new muscle- the Adductor hallucis- from the existing contrahens muscles in the feet of primates. With its adducted big toe, our foot can no longer grasp but is better suited for propulsion through the “toe-off” we take with each running step.

This lengthening of the foot and strengthening/enlargement of a single toe is interesting because it parallels running evolution in other animals. Horses run on a single enlarged toe (the hoof is a toenail) and the foot of an ostrich features one powerful giant toe, with a couple of atrophied minor toes on either side. Deer and antelope run on 2 toes, but the metatarsal bones in those 2 toes have fused, making them an effective single toe.

Side Note: Our metatarsals are of course not fused, and metatarsal stress fracture is a common overtraining injury among human runners, one that I have experienced twice.

Moving up from the feet, our legs are composed of a set of long spring-like tendons- such as the Achilles and the iliotibial (IT) band- connected to short muscle fascicles. This system of springs- which are largely absent in other apes (chimpanzees don’t have a real Achilles tendon)- captures a portion of the strain energy from each foot impact and releases it into the next toe-off.

Impact What’s interesting about these tendon-springs is that they aren’t that important for walking, which is a very different gait from running. In walking, your center of gravity is lowest mid-stride, and highest when your legs are alongside one another. When running, it’s just the opposite; your center of gravity is highest mid-stride, when you’re actually airborne. The long-tendon-spring system in our legs doesn’t do much for walking, but it reduces the energy spent running by as much as half.

Stride cog Side Note: It should be noted that our “running” is, from the perspective of a quadruped, a trot. We don’t have any equivalent gait of a canter or gallop (below), like horses or dogs do. Like a trot, our running is a bouncy up & down gate in which each forelimb swings in tandem with the hind limb.

hgallop1 What’s interesting about horses (and other running quadrupeds) is that there’s a speed range for which each of their 3 gaits is the most energy-efficient, and it will voluntarily switch from one gait to the next when changing “speed zones.” A horse will switch from walking to trotting at around 2 meters/second, and then from trot to gallop at ~ 4.5 m/s. We do the same thing, only with 2 gaits; most humans voluntarily switch from walking to running at ~2.5 m/s because it’s actually more tiring to walk at that speed than to jog.

Our long tendons allow the powering muscles to be located farther from the end of the leg, which means we don’t have to move as much weight back and forth with each stride. Although our legs are much heavier (due to length and muscle) than a chimpanzee’s, only 9% of our leg mass is contained within our feet, vs. 14% for chimpanzees.

Mid-Stride Endurance running also provides an explanation for our most obvious unique feature among apes- our hairlessness, which combined with our increased number of sweat glands and our cranial circulation network- which uses sweat-cooled veinous blood to cool brain-bound arterial blood- makes our cooling system much more effective. But less obvious changes are also important. Unlike apes, the musculature of our shoulders is largely decoupled from that of our head and neck, allowing the head to aim straight ahead while the torso rotates side-to-side. And our “muzzles” are shorter, making our heads easier to support upright in a lean-forward position. We have a strong ligament- the atlanto-occipital membrane, also absent in apes- connecting the back of the head to the top of the spine, acting as a shock-absorber, and allowing our arms and shoulders to counterbalance our head while running.

Side Note: I’m guessing the price we pay for this decoupling is decreased upper body strength, which is why most of us can’t hang from a tree limb like a chimpanzee.

Tangent: Speaking of sweating, the “fit & stinky” thing works because a) I run in Utah, where it’s so dry that sweating isn’t as much of an issue, b) I run mainly in the winter, and so don’t get very hot and c) I do a Howie-shower. A Howie-shower- named for a friend of a friend’s former boyfriend- consists of a “tactical” sink-washing of armpits, face and neck. It ain’t perfect, but like I said- fit & stinky.

shower types Nested Tangent: And of course I generally change in/out of my running gear in one of the restroom stalls. I’m the only guy in my office who ever changes in a stall, since no one else ever runs with me- or not for long, anyway*- so most coworkers know who it is when they see a man dropping his pants and changing shoes in the adjacent stall. Every once in a while though, someone still asks. Last week, “Lance”, asked, “Alex, is that you in there?” to which I replied, “No, it’s Senator Larry Craig.”

*Which will be the subject of another, future, running-related post, entitled “How All My Coworkers Keep Breaking Up With Me.”

The most dangerous part of my lunchtime run BTW is the start and finish, when I cross the giant parking lot of the Wal-Mart/”Family Center” shopping plaza in Midvale. That lot is like a magnet for spaced-out cell-phone-chatting minivan drivers from all over the valley…

Our knee, ankle and hip joints are all larger relative to our body mass than in the apes, and even our spinal vertebrae and disks- as problematic as they often are- are larger in diameter relative to body mass.

We have another partial-muscle-decoupling- also absent in apes- between our hips and our thoracic musculature, evident in our narrow* waists. And this brings me to one of the most fascinating differences between us and the apes, and a question that has most likely plagued all of us at some point in our lives: Why is my butt so big?

*Yes, all of my examples assume an “in-shape” human… There are many disagreements within paleoanthropology, but nobody postulates that 300 lb hominids were running down gazelles a million years ago…

Chimp featuresOK, so you may say that’s a dumb question- people get big butts from eating too much, right? Well, yes, but I’m talking about the muscles. If you look at the gluteus maximus of a fit human, such as a runner or cyclist, our glutes are way bigger than those of a chimpanzee, gorilla or orangutan. Essentially, apes have no asses.

Our glutes connect our femurs to our trunk, and though they’re hardly used at all while walking, they flex every stride during running, keeping us balanced and preventing us from pitching forward. In short, wherever you look, the human body is packed with stabilization and thermoregulation-related enhancements to optimize endurance running. We are the running apes.

Runner FeaturesSo when and why did this endurance running capability come about?

A Really Short Version of Human Evolution

Lots of questions in human evolution are still unanswered, but this much is certain*: Humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor somewhere between 5 and 7 million years ago. Between 3 and 5 million years ago our ancestors were one or more of the various forms of Australopithecus that lived in Africa over that time. (“Lucy” and the recently-famous “Ardi” were both Australopithecines, albeit about a million years apart, though of course we don’t know whether or not their particular species were our ancestors.) About 2.5 million years ago, the genus Homo- our genus- appeared, which produced a series of more and more modern-appearing (and bigger-brained) hominids, some group of which eventually led to us.

*Yes, it’s certain. Don’t get all bible-y on me or what-not. You can believe in both God and evolution and it’s just fine. You won’t turn into a newt or a lungfish or a democrat or anything.

Australopithecines seem not to have had most of these running-specific features*, yet we know, from things like Lucy’s footprints, that they were regularly- if not exclusively- bipedal. So presumably Australopithecus was bipedal, but not an endurance runner. Most of the cool running features don’t appear until Homo habilis (2.5 million years ago) or even Homo erectus (1.8 MYA)

*To be fair, there’s a lot of inference from fossils in making these judgments. For example, tendons don’t fossilize. But the size of the groove in the heel bone into which the Achilles tendon fits is much smaller in Australopithecus than in later hominids.

For hominids to have evolved for endurance running ~2 MYA, there must have been some selective benefit. In general there are 2 reasons to run: to evade something, or to catch something. Evasion seems to be a weak explanation; pretty much any predator of the African savannah can outrun a hominid*. So that leaves pursuit. On the face of it, it’s hard to think of people running fast enough to catch game, but there are modern-day examples- the Tarahumara of Mexico, the Khoisian peoples of Southern Africa- of people running down deer and antelope. They do so not by outsprinting the animal, but by overheating it to the point of collapse, leveraging the efficient human cooling system over the long haul.

*With the obvious- and perhaps not insignificant- exception of fellow hominids.

Endurance running might have also helped early hominids just to get within projectile range (The head-shoulder muscle-decoupling may also have made us better throwers) or it may have aided a scavenger lifestyle. Being the first scavenger to a recent kill might have had a significant benefit, especially if groups of hominids were able to drive off predators or other competing scavengers.

Toe-Off So all this is interesting, but it begs the question: why are the vast majority of modern humans such sucky runners? The obvious answer is that we’re fat and out-of-shape, and certainly that’s the case for many (most?) of us. But here’s a little not-so-secret: the ranks of amateur bike-racing are filled with 40-something former runners. So many bike racers turned to the sport after repeated stress-related injuries from running, and this suggests 2 other possible explanations for our general running suckiness.

RS1 First, we’re bigger. Not just fatter, but bigger, and bigger bodies mean more impact-stress when running. I and many of my friends are over 6 feet tall, and human height through much of the world has increased in recent decades, largely through better nutrition. But more importantly, we live longer. I’m guessing not too many H. erectus made it past 35 or 40 and so they probably didn’t often face many of the debilitating wear-and-tear-related injuries that we middle-agers struggle with. In tuning our ape-bodies for endurance running, evolution did the best it could with the materials at hand. But our spines, knees and sacral joints were originally evolved for quadrupeds, not bipeds, and ultimately you can only do so good a job with the wrong tool.

I’ve had my share of running-induced injuries, which peaked 5+ years ago during a spate of marathon-related training. I’ve smartened up a bit since then, and this year have gradually worked up to a pleasant 5 miles a day without any soreness or discomfort. I ran every day last week in the cold, felt great, and weighed in Friday morning at 171, only a pound above summer “race weight.”

Note about sources: My main source for this post was the very layman-friendly paper Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo, Dennis M. Bramble & Daniel E. Lieberman. Another helpful source was Bernd Heinrich’s interesting and entertaining book, Why We Run. Special thanks to Bird Whisperer for videotaping his dad running back and forth in a snowstorm.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dan Pope Is Way Cool

Note: I had a couple of posts brewing for the latter half of this week, including one on running, and another on Scrub Jays, but I’m doing this one instead for 2 reasons. First, it’s a great follow-up to the open question from Tuesday’s post, and second, as I have warned previously, my work-life is pretty, uh, “full” right now, and will continue to be so through December, during which my available research time is pretty limited.

The Post

DPopeReport So after Tuesday’s post, and the excellent and insightful comments from several of you, I stewed on the Why-is-Nevada-so-damn-cold question some more. I woke up yesterday, and thought about it while I drank coffee and read the paper. I thought about it while I sat and spun on the trainer and watched the news on TV, and I was still thinking about it when the weather report* came on.

*No, no, no- I wasn’t watching the Univision/soft-porn “weather” report- I was watching a weather report in a language I fully understood, on KSL Channel 5.

And I as I watched the weather report, spinning and panting and sweating*, a thought slowly formed in my not-yet-quite-awake brain. It was: “Weather report… weather report… presented by a… meteorologist… who is a person who knows something about… weather…. Huh… I have a question about weather… Huh… Maybe, just maybe… I.. should… ask… (light bulb coming on) the… meteorologist!”

*In the running post, I want to get into the whole perspiration thing, which is really interesting.

DanPope And so yesterday morning I emailed KSL meteorologist Dan Pope with my bizarre, Why-is-Eastern-Nevada-so-cold? question, and within 2 hours he replied! Here’s Dan’s email back to me, with commentary added by me:

Note for non-Utah readers: KSL channel 5 is the NBC affiliate station in Salt Lake City.


That’s a great, insightful question, and I’ll be pleased to answer it. But first, let me just say how wonderful I think your blog is! I'm absolutely amazing the range of topics you cover, and your Awesome Graphics are simply unparalleled. Really you have set a new standard for Informative Science Blogging.

Haha! OK, no he didn’t really say that. Here’s what he really said:

In fact, after reviewing your blog with senior KSL executives (and noting how well-informed, articulate and photogenic you are) we’d like to invite you to appear on KSL-5 News as Guest Science Specialist…

Haha! OK, really, really- I’ll quit messing around. Here’s what he said:

Last night skies cleared completely over Nevada, and clouds moved into Northern Utah. That combined with just enough air movement, kept temperatures a little warmer in Park City than what they will be tonight. As skies clear tonight, and with snow cover on the ground and with light winds, Park City will be colder. Elko and Ely were out of the wind movement last night, and both now have snow on the ground and the clear skies allowed both to drop significantly.

OK that makes sense…

Eastern Nevada can and does routinely get colder than the Wasatch Front and even Park City. Ely is about the same elevation as Park City, but the mountains surrounding Ely are higher, so the air gets puddled into the Ely Valley. Elko has mountains surrounding it as well, so the cold air gets puddled (inversion). The other thing in Eastern Nevada is that the air is often drier than near Salt Lake City (due to the influence of the Great Salt Lake there is more humidity). The drier the air, the greater the temperature spread from high to low can be. Not that Park City doesn’t get cold due to dry air. It does.

Ahh… OK, 2 good items in here. First, the lower humidity. I actually wondered about, as it- specifically minimal tropospheric water vapor- is one of the factors we talked about in Tuesday’s post that is involved in cooling cP air masses way up in Canada/Alaska. And of course the lake- with its frequent associated “lake effect” storms- is a logical source for increased water vapor along the Wasatch Front.

Side Note: Commenters cmsparks and Colin* both suggested the lake as a factor. Good job, guys!

*I know Colin (aka Clean Colin) in real life and he is Way Wicked Smart. In fact he is a Phd Organic Chemist. That’s right, both OCRick and Clean Colin are organic chemists. And in fact I have several more Phd-Scientist friends (including Vicente.) And then practically everyone else in my life (including Awesome Wife, Hunky Neighbor, SkiBikeJunkie, Young Ian, Brother-Phil, Sister-Elizabeth) has- or is getting- an advanced degree. Everyone that is, except me. I barely squeaked out a Bachelor’s degree, and am the least-educated, most ignorant person in my entire social circle. Man, what a downer. I need some new friends. If you are reading this blog and are a high-school drop-out, I would like to start pal-ing around with you.

InversionBasics4 Second, I knew of course that many Eastern Nevada valleys experience inversions, which we talked about in this post and this post last year. But what I hadn’t thought of was the height of the surrounding mountain ranges. The Snake Range, to the East of Ely, peaks out (Wheeler Peak) at about 1,600 feet higher than Twin Peaks (East Peak), the highest part of the Wasatch, along Park City/Snyderville basin*.

*But this isn’t the case for Elko. It’s at 5,200 feet, and Ruby Range, to the East of town, peaks out (Ruby Dome) ~100 feet lower than Twin Peaks.

Side Note: Commenter KanyonKris* suggested inversions, so great job, Kris!

*I also know KanyonKris in real life, and although I don’t think(?) he has a Phd, he is also Way Wicked Smart.

One final thing to think that Park City Main Street is warmer than the Snyderville Basin and Jeremy Ranch. Those locations are always colder than Park City Main Street. I'm not sure where you got your morning temperature of 3 degrees from, but the lower areas of Park City...even around the Golf Course are always colder than the readings from the Ski areas.

I just looked at the final morning lows. Silver Creek Junction was -16. Kimball Junction was -14. Park City Golf Course was -7. Elko was -22 and Ely -19. Salt Lake City dropped to 2.

PJBeltThermal4 Another good point. I should be comparing apples with apples, and Kimball or Silver Creek junctions are both at the bottom of basin, while downtown Park City is on the slope rising out of it.

Again, I think the clouds last night made a difference in the low temperatures. It will be colder tonight in Park City, Jeremy Ranch and the Snyderville Basin.


Dan Pope
AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist KSL-TV

P.S. How do I get one of those cool WatcherSTICKERS- they’re awesome!*

*OK I made up that “PS” part too. But the rest of the email is real.

So there we have it, from a real live meteorologist, who took time out of his busy day to reply with a thoughtful answer to a stranger’s question. Clearly, although meteorology is complicated stuff, one thing we can all agree on is that Dan Pope is Way Cool.

Note: Special- and serious- thanks to KSL Meteorologist Dan Pope. As always, I am exceedingly grateful to topical experts who go out of their way to help a curious amateur.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thoughts About Really Cold Air

Note: Kind of a rambling post today. What can I say, it’s a crazy time for me at work. But you’re gonna love the graphics.

The seasons are officially tuned lockstep to the solstices and equinoxes, but I don’t think deep down any of us really believes that’s when they start and finish. Here in Utah, by September 21 Fall has already been underway for at least a couple of weeks; the real end of summer is more like Labor Day, or maybe LOTOJA. And the 2 or 3 weeks before the summer solstice, with their almost endless daylight, are surely more Summer than Spring.

Shoreline View1 Every season is like that, but none more so than Winter. Does anyone really think Winter doesn’t start till December 21? No, by then Winter is full-on. Depending on the year, it usually seems to start within a week or two, one way or the other, of Thanksgiving. This year, I know exactly when it started: Saturday, December 5th, at 11AM.

Watcher Lights Oh, it had already snowed a couple of times, and the week leading up to it was frigid- in the teens the 3 mornings before. But the foothills were still mostly dry and brown, and I’d still been mtn biking almost daily in the pre-dawn darkness. Saturday morning, hearing a change was in the forecast, OCRick, Vicente and I met at my place, pedaled over to the zoo, and started riding out Shoreline. The trail was frozen hard, as it had been the previous 3 or 4 days, and we rolled over the rock-hard ruts left by previous bikers during the thaws of the previous weekend.

Tangent: I a previous post, I mused that when you really get down to it, there are truly only 2 mysteries in life: the Mystery of Existence, and the Mystery of Self. I feel now that I misspoke, and that there are in fact 3 great mysteries in life: Existence, Self, and Why The Hell OCRick’s Camebak Is So Freaking Huge.

OCR Expand-O I’ve been riding with the guy for over 13 years and still have yet to figure out what exactly is in his camelbak. My current theory is that it contains one or more of the following: a) a ton of extra clothing, b)a cheesesteak, c) chemistry textbooks, or d) (dismembered & mummified) first wife. Knowing OCRick, it could be any of them…

Our plan was to ride to City Creek, then up to the radio towers and back, but as we crested the final rise before the City Creek descent, this is what we saw- the wall of the front.

Storm Front If you think of Salt Lake Valley as a big room, the “window” of the room opens to the West/Northwest. In that direction you can see out past the mountains, across the lake, into the West Desert, even into Nevada on a clear day. And it’s from that direction that the weather comes. While we’d wound our way through the draws of the foothills, a dark gray front had rolled in through the window and into the valley. We stopped, stared West, and small fast-moving flakes started blowing around us. We turned around and started pedaling home.

As we sped back to the East, we could see the front roll into the valley. In this shot, looking South from 6,000 feet, you can actually see the front moving in, pushing out the week-old inversion ahead of it.

Met Act Graphic There was more wind than snow on the ride back, but what snow did fall didn’t melt on the well-frozen ground, and we left clear tracks through the dusting. The lead edge of the front was a patchwork of clouds and flurries, and we rode through repeated “sunshowers” of snow. Down, down, through Dry Creek, behind the hospital and back to the zoo we rolled buffeted along by Old Man Winter.

At home I jumped in the hot tub to warm up, accompanied by Bird Whisperer, and as we sat in the open air the flakes grew in size and carpeted the adjacent deck and lawn. Winter had arrived.

IMG_3789 Side Note: Ever wonder why sometimes snowflakes are huge? It’s because they’re (relatively) warm and wet. Warmer flakes have a film of liquid water on the edges, and when 2 wet flakes come into contact, they tend to stick together*. When it’s colder, the flake-edges are frozen, and they flakes tend not to clump.

*This is because of the surface tension of water, which I explained in this post and showed in this Extremely Helpful (Albeit Ridiculously Obvious) Educational Video.

OK, you probably knew that already. But think about this: you ever notice that storms in the Wasatch often start up with monster-sized flakes, but as the storm continues, even though the snowfall continues, the flake size gets back to “normal”? Since leading edge of a storm front is where cold and warm air meet, and so the air temps are slightly higher, I’m guessing that’s why the flakes are big at the beginning. Once the storm “settles in”, the cooler air doesn’t melt the flake edges to the same extent.

BTW, I covered snowflake formation in this post last year.

IMG_3777 The rest of the weekend was frigid, and we’re locked in for a while; temps won’t break freezing again till Friday at the earliest. Usually during cold snaps in Utah, you always have an “escape valve” in the back of your mind: St. George. You know that you could, just could, call in sick and drive 4 hours South and everything would be nice and Spring-like again. Even if you only actually do so once or twice a year, the knowledge that you could somehow makes you feel less “trapped.”

But this week we really are locked in; the polar air mass has covered the entire state. It may snow today in St. George, and it’s unlikely to break 40F! Up on Little Creek Mountain it probably won’t break 30F. This is it; Winter’s here, there’s no escaping, and I’ll just have to “man up.”

Side Note: The pay-off of winter-weather is of course skiing, but this week’s storm has arrived so far with fairly minimal snowfall and terrible winds. So far, it’s just the yucky part of winter.

When you think about it, the strangest thing about the seasons is how darn late they all are. Think about it. The Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, is only 2 weeks away, but it just got really, really cold. A month before the solstice, in late November, the weather was still, on the whole, rather nice. But a month after the solstice, it almost certainly won’t be “rather nice.” Nor will it be much warmer 2 months, or possibly even 3 months after the solstice, even though the days will be so much longer and the sun far higher in the sky.

The reason of course is the oceans. They take a long time to heat and a long time to cool. It’s easy to forget about the ocean so far from it, but they act like a giant thermo-regulator throughout the year. Places far from the sea experience greater seasonal extremes in temperature. Utah is rough enough, but some of the wildest swings are in Central Asia, in places like Mongolia, thousands of miles from an ocean.

But what makes a week like this so rough is that the weather changes so suddenly. It’s not like every day for say 2 or 3 months, it’s like a ½ a degree colder or anything. No, it’s like in the span of a few days, the temps drop 20, 30, even 40 degrees. What’s up with that?

My first winter in Colorado was, on the whole, quite mild. Compared to a New England winter it was positively balmy, with daily highs in the 40’s and 50’s. Then one week, there was a minor snowstorm, following which it didn’t warm up for a full week. For a week the temps never climbed above 10F. The weatherman told us that an “Arctic Air Mass” had arrived. And every year I was in Colorado, once or twice a year- sometimes as early as October- an “Arctic Air Mass” would arrive, super-cooling the state down for a good 4-7 days.

Here in Salt Lake we don’t experience ‘Arctic Air Masses’ of the same severity, but we still do get them. This week it won’t break 30F until Friday, and freezing until Saturday (if at all.) So what is an “Arctic Air Mass” anyway, and why does it act like this?

Tangent: To be fair, the winter weather- and weather overall- of the Colorado Front Range is, on the whole, better* than the weather of the Wasatch Front. Their winters are warmer, their summers cooler. But we don’t get- by and large- those whacky Arctic freezes whereby it will stay under 5F or so for a week. I’ll explain why in a moment.

*Except for those annoying, clockwork-like summer afternoon T-storms. Nope, we don’t get ‘em.

323a-airmasses An arctic air mass is just one of several types of air masses (graphic right, not mine) that form over a particular part of the planet, and then create significant weather changes when they change location, often as a result of a shift in jet stream. These air masses are huge, often something like 1,000 miles across. There are maritime air masses and continental air masses, and polar and tropical air masses. What we call an Arctic Air Mass is a Continental-Polar air mass, designated “cP” in meteorology-speak.

Way, way up North, in Eastern Alaska and Northwest Canada is the birthplace of the cP air masses that affect us down in the lower 48. Over long, stable periods of high pressure, the troposphere- the part of the atmosphere below 30,000 feet (the part that we can breathe in) becomes very cold. The reasons for this may seem obvious, and some of them are, namely the low sun angle and super-short daylight hours. But there are other compounding factors at work. The low sun angle means greater tropospheric length, which is the distance a beam of solar radiation must travel between the tropopause (boundary with the stratosphere) and the surface. The longer the distance, the more of that radiation is scattered. (This is why sunsets/sunrises are orange- the tropospheric length is huge.)

IMG_3795There’s also much less tropospheric water vapor. Water vapor is actually the most important greenhouse gas in most of the world because of its quantity. (CO2 is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, but there’s way less of it.) But the cold polar regions evaporate little water into the air, the air retains less radiation, the air gets colder, the surface gets colder, and so on. And then there’s the high albedo of the arctic land-surface. Snow and ice are wonderful reflectors, and good amount of the radiation that does reach the surface is reflected back into space.

So the air is cold up in Canada. Tough luck for them. But what makes it tough luck for us is when these super-cooled cP air masses make their way South. The force that drives them South is the polar jet stream. Jet streams are powerful air currents up in the upper troposphere, just below the tropopause that move from West to East*. They’re caused by solar heating of the atmosphere and rotation of the planet**.

*Usually. Lesser, easterly jet streams can form in the tropics.

**Jet streams also occur in the atmosphere of Jupiter, where the planet’s internal heat is also a causative factor. For more on Jupiter, and its Way Cool Moons, see this post.

jet stream1 The thing about jet streams (diagram right, not mine), and the polar jet stream in particular is that they don’t just go West to East. It’s a Westerly air current, but follows a meandering path across the continent. This path is called a Rossby wave. Rossby waves are caused by shear in rotating fluids. In the case of the Earth’s atmosphere that fluid is the atmosphere, and the shear is caused by the Coriolis effect with latitude.

Tangent: Rossby is for Carl-Gustaf Rossby, a Swedish-American meteorologist who organized the training of military meteorologists in WWII. He’s probably the closest thing we have to a National Meteorological Hero, but of course you never heard of him because, well, we, uh… don’t have National Meteorological Heroes.

I think part of the reason is that meteorology- specifically weather-forecasting- has a bad rap among the public. We all love to go on about how inaccurate weather forecasts are, which is funny, because if you compare weather forecasts to, say economic forecasts, which arguably affect most of us much more, weather forecasts are far more accurate. Really, weather forecasts- like automobile tires, fuel injection, and LED headlamps- are one of those things that have consistently and quietly gotten better and better just within our lifetimes. In fact, the average 3-day forecast today is more accurate than the average 1-day forecast was in 1980.

All About The Coriolis Effect

The Coriolis effect is all about conservation of angular momentum. Let’s pretend you wanted to kill your Arch Enemy, who lived in Tempe, Arizona. And fortunately, you had a Wicked Powerful Rifle (WPR), capable of shooting a bullet 1,000 miles in a straight line. So you stood in the middle of Salt Lake Valley and fired your WPR exactly due South. Guess what? You’d miss him. As your perfectly-aimed bullet sped South, it would appear to veer right. And if he shot back at you with a similar WPR, his bullet would also veer right.

Cor Graphic 1 The reason is that Tempe is moving faster than Salt Lake City. Both spin around the same axis, but Salt Lake, sitting about 800 miles higher up on the globe, is spinning more slowly. When both bullets are sitting- unfired- in their respective WPRs, the Mesa bullet already has significantly higher angular momentum than the SLC bullet, and as it travels North, across more slowly-rotating earth surface, that angular momentum is expressed by its rotating faster around the Earth’s axis than the land over which it is traveling, which manifests itself as moving more rapidly to the East (the direction is which the Earth spins) and to the right.

Cor Graphic2 Conversely, the SLC bullet as it travels South, with its lower angular momentum, falls behind the land over which is passes with respect to the Earth’s rotation, and veers to the West, which is its right.

Tangent: I picked this example because I thought guns would hold your attention, not because I have an arch-enemy. In fact, as I was thinking about this example, there’s really no one in the world I’d want to shoot, even if I could get away with it. Oh, sure I might crack off a shot at Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il if the circumstances presented themselves, but I mean someone I actually know. Really, there’s just no one I have strong enough negative personal feelings toward that I’d want to hurt them.

Now, having said that, there are people I Really Don’t Want To Run Into. You know what I’m talking about- maybe a past co-worker you didn’t care for, or an annoying former neighbor, or an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend where you maybe handled the break-up poorly, or your wife’s friend-of-a-friend who manages to work every conversation into a pitch for why you need to start seeing her psychic*- that kind of thing. iphone_large5 And I think about this because it gives me an idea for an awesome smart-phone application: The Proximity-Annoyance Alarm. I got the idea from some iPhone commercial I saw where a couple of unbearably-hip yuppies are trying to meet up for sushi or facial wraps or some such and they’re sending each other directions, and monitoring each other’s locations on- what else- their iPhones. Who cares? I don’t need to see where my friends are- if I really care I’ll call ‘em up and ask them. But I would like to know where the people I Really Don’t Want To Run Into are, and more importantly, whether I’m in imminent danger of running into them. So the Proximity Annoyance Alarm would allow you to input the mobile #’s of those people and then an alarm would go off when one was nearby, and the app would give you directions to avoid them. Now that would be a useful iPhone app.

*You probably thought I made that one up. I didn’t. I swear, I have the weirdest friends-of-friends.

South of the equator, the effect is in the opposite direction, and North-South trajectories veer to the left. These forces work not just on make-pretend bullets, but on real-world air currents, and the North-right/South-left distinction is why cyclones always rotate counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern*.

*It’s also the reason why cyclones rarely form near the equator; there’s little Coriolis effect.

Anyway, this effect causes shear that alters Rossby Waves, and so from time to time the Polar Jet Stream bobs way South, driving a thousand-mile wide cP air mass down into the heart of the Lower 48. But as it does so, the brunt of the mass is deflected by the Rocky Mountains, and this is why Denver’s cP air masses are so much more icy than ours. The cP air is frigid across the upper plains, but as it slowly makes its way East across the Mid-West and the Appalachians the mass is gradually warmed and broken up, and this is why I never even heard of “Arctic Air Masses” growing up in New England.

So that explains what an “Arctic Air Mass” is, why they really are worse in Denver than in Salt Lake, and why I never heard of them in New England.

isarnv_ Tangent: But what it doesn’t explain is why Central Nevada is so much freaking colder than the Wasatch Front in Winter. Surely, any Wasatch Front resident who’s looked at a wintertime weather map has noticed this: Central Nevada is an icebox. The lows in places like Elko and Ely are usually 10-15F lower than in Salt Lake. Why is that? The latitude is the same, the altitude more or less the same, and they’re far from the Polar Jet Stream path. Why is Nevada so damn cold?

The first real week of Winter always seems to come on a bit heavy; it’s dark and cold and Spring seems years away. But solstice is just around the corner, and then every day is just a little bit lighter, hinting at the Living Year to come.