Birds at OstrichLand USA in Solvang, California

Back in the days when there were places to go and when coronavirus was not rampant in the land, Martine and I liked to visit Solvang, about three quarters of an hour north of Santa Barbara. There was a great bookstore (the Book Loft), yummy Danish smorgasbords, Santa Inez Mission, great cookies, and OstrichLand USA.

Ostriches are considered part of the order of Struthioniformes, which includes, in addition to ostriches, kiwis, rheas, emus, and cassowaries. At OstrichLand, there are ostriches and emus.

There is something confrontational about ostriches. One would never consider petting one without risk of being attacked by a sharp beak. You can feed them, but many visitors are afraid to. They’ll take your proffered food, but only while casting a baleful glare at you.

Joshua Trees in the California Desert

Although they are not native to the Southwest, I think of ostriches the way I think of desert cacti: One would no more pet an ostrich than hug a cholla cactus or a Joshua Tree. They’re interesting to look at, but not pleasant to touch.

More “Spooky Action at a Distance”

The Theory Has Been in Play for More Than a Century

Mention Quantum Theory to a non-scientist, and what you frequently get in response is a look of profound puzzlement. Even Einstein has weighed in against many of its premises by calling it “spooky action at a distance.” Elsewhere, he asserted that “God does not play dice.” I mean, if Einstein wasn’t on board with this, how could it be true?

Close to the center of the theory is what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, proposed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg around 1925-1927. According to it, in the world of micro particles, there are no equivalent certainties to the world of big objects like stones, trees, or even planets. If you set up an experiment such as the one illustrated below in which a photon is fired at an opaque object in which two slits are cut, the end result on a receiving surface is not nice and predictable. At times, it will seem that a single photon will go through both slits simultaneously, which would seem to be impossible. At times, when light is shone through the slits, it will seem that the light will act as if it were a particle; other times, it will act as if it were a wave.

The Two Slit Experiment Presents a Multiplicity of Results

Every few years, I read another book on quantum theory to see what physicists are doing with it. Currently, I am reading Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality by Anil Ananthaswamy. Like most books on the subject, there is a heavy reliance on the history of the theory over the last hundred years or so, ending with experiments currently in play.

It’s hard to believe that such a simple experiment could flummox so many incredibly smart people, but it does. And it even still flummoxes me.


Serendipity: Flowers and Bugs

In Order for Flowers to Exist …

Lately, I hav been reading two old books by naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch: The Forgotten Peninsula, about Baja California, and The Voice of the Desert. I found this interesting paragraph in the latter. I sure do like his writings!

Gardeners usually hate “bugs,” but if the evolutionists are reight, there never would have been any flowers if it had not been for those same bugs. The flowers never waste their sweetness on the desert air, or for that matter, on the jungle air. In fact, they waste it only when no one except a human being is here to smell it. It is for the bugs and for a few birds, not for men, that they dye their petals or waft their scents. And it is lucky for us that we either happen to like or have become “conditioned” to liking the colors and the odors which most insects and some birds like also. What a calamity for us if insects had been color blind, as all mammals below the primates are! Or if, worse yet, we had our present taste in smells while all the insects preferred, as a few of them do, that odor of rotten meat which certain flowers dependent on them abundantly provide. Would we ever have been able to discover thoughts too deep for tears in a gray flower which exhaled a terrific stench? Or would we have learned by now to consider it exquisite?



It’s Coming for YOU, Bubba!

Look for It the Day Before Election Day!

Ever since that grim day in November 1916 as I twisted and turned in a hotel room in Quito, Ecuador, I have come to the conclusion that something is not right with the universe. I am reminded of Casca’s words in Act I Scene iii of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar:

A common slave—you know him well by sight—
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn
Like twenty torches join’d, and yet his hand,
Not sensible of fire, remain’d unscorch’d.
Besides—I ha’ not since put up my sword–
Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
’These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.

What I am referring to is the news that an asteroid might strike the earth the day before the November 3 “fraudulent” election that will confirm Donald J. Trump in his role as dictator for life.

According to CNN, the asteroid is just a shade over 6 feet—the size of our presidential pretender. I cannot help but think that it will land in such a way as to set fire to our great leader’s impressive bouffant hair-do, and possibly burn him to a cinder in his size 12 shoes. If that happened, it would surely show that there is some justice in the universe.


The Ultimate Survivor

A Tardigrade (Milnesium tardigradum)

Perhaps the hardiest creature on the face of the earth, or under the sea, is barely large enough to be seen by the naked eye. There are some twelve hundred species of tardigrade, which, if they were our size, would be terrifying. In fact, they are usually about 0.5 mm in size, have eight legs, and are usually referred to as water bears. Under normal circumstances, they live for several months; but, under periods of extreme stress, roll up into a tiny barrel shape called a tun and turn themselves off for as many days, weeks, months, years, or even decades pass and circumstances improve.

What the tardigrade could survive includes:

  • A few minutes at 151° Celsius (304° Fahrenheit)
  • Thirty years at -20° Celsius (-4° Fahrenheit)
  • A few days at -200° Celsius (-328° Fahrenheit)
  • A few minutes at 272° Celsius (-458° Fahrenheit)

They can also survive at sea level, at the bottom of the deepest depth of the Pacific (the Marianas Trench) and even the weightlessness and radiation of outer space. This was tested at the Space Station: Although some of the tardigrades dies, most survived and returned to normal when they landed on earth.

If you have a few minutes, I urge you to watch this informative BBC video, which contains further amazing statistics about this creature:

We talk about colonizing the planets and distant stars. I am not sure that we could, but I have every confidence that the tardigrades could.

The Day Life on Earth Almost Died

A Piece of the KT Boundary

Around the end of July, I wrote a post entitled Revisiting the Cretaceous Extinction. This week, I read a fascinating story entitled “The Day the Earth Died” in the April 8, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. The asteroid that collided with Earth around 65 million years ago was at least six miles wide and gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and launched 25 trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. The article goes on:

The damage had only begun. Scientists still debate many of the details, which are derived from the computer models, and from field studies of the debris layer, knowledge of extinction rates, fossils and microfossils, and many other clues. But the over-all view is consistently grim. The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phyto-plankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999% of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.

This massive disaster left a signature layer across the entire surface of the planet referred to as the KT boundary, short for Cretaceous-Tertiary. (It is also referred to as the KPg boundary after the Tertiary was renamed the Paleogene by geologists.) This boundary layer is high in the rare element Iridium, which is most often found in meteorites and asteroids.

It is a sobering thought that an object from space only six miles across (10 km) could strike the Earth, which is eight thousand miles across (12,900 km) and end up killing virtually all life, and certainly annihilating the human race.

The asteroid collided with the Earth around Chicxulub on the Yucatán peninsula, which I plan to visit, hopefully with a geologist, early next year.

Mars Beneath the Surface

Doesn’t Look Like Much, Does It?

When I was attending my mindful meditation session on November 15, the cute young woman who acted as liaison with the L.A. Central Library handed me a flier that promised an interesting experience:

Live, from another world! Watch the live stream of NASA’s InSight mission when it lands on Mars. InSight is a robotic lander designed to study the interior of the Red Planet. The mission is scheduled to land on the surface of mars at Elysium Planitia, where it will deploy a seismometer and burrow a heat probe. This will be the first mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of the planet.

As the event was scheduled for today at 11 am, I took the Metro to the Central Library and attended the event. For all the years that I have lived in Southern California, I have never interested myself in the space program—except for my visit to the retired space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center. This was to be the first Mars landing in six years, and it was the first that was planned and executed all within the State of California. It was put together by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, staffed largely by graduates of Cal Tech, and launched early in May from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.

Although technically, the live-streaming was a bit of a dud, with the image going into long buffering pauses in between live action snippets. At one point, I asked if they were running Windows 3.1, which was the version I used in the late 1980s. When I found that they were using Apple’s Safari browser, I noted yet another black mark laid to Apple’s account (though it probably wasn’t Apple’s fault).

Mockup of the Mars InSight Lander

Fortunately, there were a number of JPL employees present who were able to bridge all the lacunae and present a coherent picture of the mission from the point of view of the techies who were most involved. Fortunately, it was a splendid success, with the first picture coming in within minutes of the landing. It doesn’t look like much: It’s merely an image of the surface on which the lander was situated. You can see mostly a lot of dust (this is because there is a protective transparent lens cap covering the photo lens) and a rock in the lower left foreground. At the lower right, you see one of the legs of the lander.

This mission is not meant to move around the surface of the planet: It is, rather, to use a seismograph (that’s the object above that looks like an upside-down colander) to determine whether the Red Planet has a molten core, or whether it’s as dead as our moon. There is also a probe drilled 15 feet into the surface of the planet to measure micro-variations in heat.

I understand that JPL has an open house in the spring that I am interested in attending.


Juggling with Infinity

The Worm Ourobouros, One of the Symbols for Infinity

I have just finished reading Amir D. Aczel’s book on the mathematics of infinity, entitled The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity (New York: Washington Square Press, 2000). Although I am an ignoramus when it comes to theoretical mathematics, I was able to follow this book pretty much throughout; and I found it utterly fascinating.

The most important contributions to the mathematics of infinity have come from two Europeans, first Georg Cantor of Germany and then Kurt Gödel of Austria. In vainly attempting to prove their theorems regarding infinite sets, both men went mad. Cantor died at Halle’s Nervenklinik in 1918; and Gödel of starvation in Princeton, NJ, of all places, in 1978.

Georg Cantor

What sent Cantor to the clinic multiple times were his difficulties in finding a proof for the so-called Continuum Hypothesis, which, stated all too briefly, is that there is no set whose cardinality is strictly between that of the integers and the real numbers. In other words, it relates to quantifying systems of sets containing infinite values, whether real or integer. Got that? Well, it killed Cantor and also Gödel.

Kurt Gödel

Even though at the end his mind was wasted, and he insisted that people were trying to poison him, Gödel finally understood one very important fact:

Gödel and [Paul] Cohen have brought us to a sobering realization: hard as we may try, there will always be some truths forever beyond our reach. Human beings may never understand the deep nature of infinity. This is perhaps something that Kabbalah practitioners understand on an intuitive level, without requiring a mathematical proof. To them, infinity was God or things that are God’s. One such infinity was the chaluk, God’s infinitely bright robe, at which no human can look.

It all makes sense. To prove something, one has to be able to see through to its essence, which is difficult when infinities are involved.



Optical Illusion

The So-Called Zollner Illusion

All the long diagonal lines are actually parallel to one another. Measure them if you don’t believe me. The short horizontal and vertical lines just make it look otherwise.

Very Large Array

One of 27 Giant Radio Antennas at the VLA

One of 27 Giant Radio Antennas at the VLA

One of the places that Martine and I would like to see on our trip to New Mexico is the Karl G. Janski Very Large Array some 50 miles west of Socorro along U.S. Route 60. It is part of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). If you are of a sci-fi turn of mind, you might think its related to SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence—but actually it’s for taking images of radio waves directed at the earth. For some of the images created by the VLA, click here.

The twenty-seven 230-ton radio antennas are in one of four Y-shaped configurations and can be moved into position along rails using a special locomotive. Tours are available (we plan to take one).

Although there are many observatories in the United States, many are adversely affected by air pollution. The data from the various VLA radio antennas can be combined to give the resolution of an antenna 22 miles across with the sensitivity of a dish 422 feet in diameter.

I expect to be swept off my feet.