In case you forgot, a gorilla is a wild animal

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Harambe. Rest in peace.

With all the media frenzy about the tragic death of Harambe the gorilla, people seem to have forgotten two simple facts: gorillas are wild animals, and kids are fast.

I reproduce here with permission the comments of an acquaintance of mine with experience in zoo management:

“They had no choice. [Harambe] was not guarding the child, he was pushing him around and getting more agitated.

This is not like Brookfield in the 90s. That boy was unconscious and not screaming, and the first animal to reach him was a nursing mother. This was a silverback protecting his family; the dynamics are different. In the wild silverbacks will kill babies from other fathers. It would have taken 10 to 30 minutes for a dart to have worked, and in that time you have a seriously pissed off male gorilla with a screaming 4-year-old.1 The keepers had no choice and they did not shoot him callously.

You can blame the mother but I cannot count how many times [my child] slipped away in the blink of an eye. I do not know that she was not watching the child. A slight distraction with another child is the basis of countless tragedies. The kid was 4 so you cannot blame him. 4-year-olds do not have a true sense of danger or outcome which is why we cannot leave them alone. How many of us found ourselves lost as small children because Mom turned a corner and she thought we were with her? Just to note I got lost at about 4 at Brookfield Zoo while watching the brown bears. It happens, it is a tragedy and zoos will need to reexamine their enclosures. Last week 3 lions were killed because a suicidal guy entered their enclosure.

[An added note:] for all of the upset over this one animal (and I think this is a tragedy) no one is talking about the slaughter of gorillas in the wild from poaching to the bush meat trade it is devastating what is happening to the wild populations. Focus your energy where the real horror lies.”

-Dr. Geralyn M. Mostaccio-Caplan

Compounding the stupidity, police and prosecutors are now considering pressing charges against the parents of the boy who slipped away; clearly there is a shortage of real criminals and real cases to keep them busy.

As Dr. Mostaccio-Caplan mentioned above, kids of this age are fast, clever, adventuresome, and devoid of an awareness of danger. I lost my own two-year-old in a mall after a split-second of inattention, and it was one of the most horrific moments of my life, but he was returned to us safely – hundreds of such instances (normal incidents, not kidnappings or anything crime-related) are repeated daily in a nation of nearly 325 million people. It happens.

Animal-rights activists and child-welfare activists are losing their minds and making media hay out of a tragic but essentially unavoidable situation. Lessons can be learned from this event and improvements made to zoo enclosures, but for the most part everyone needs to chill.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


1 It turns out the child was three, but the difference in this case is irrelevant.

A visit to the new planetarium, and so much more.

Earlier I posted some memories of the old Hayden Planetarium in New York City. As a child it was one of my favorite places to go.

1956, Planetarium 1

Finding myself in New York City once again, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History along with its new Science Center. With one small exception, I was not disappointed.

I started out with a wonderful presentation narrated by the Planetarium director, the illustrious Neil deGrasse Tyson, called “Dark Universe.” It was visually stunning and extremely enlightening. I mentioned to my Facebook group that if Carl Sagan were still alive, and had he been able to see this presentation, it probably would have brought tears to his eyes – such was the respect paid to the wonder of the universe in this beautiful show.

Next on the docket was a visit to a very brief presentation about the Big Bang, narrated by Liam Neeson. Only 4 minutes long, it was light on science but a good introduction to the subject for the many people who come to visit the planetarium.

Leaving the Big Bang theater, one exits the dome and proceeds down a spiral ramp with many exhibits along the way relating to the formation of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

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Other exhibits artfully and powerfully illustrate the scale of the universe from the subatomic to the farthest reaches of our observation. On the bottom floor one finds some familiar things: the Willamette meteorite which was salvaged from the old planetarium,

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and many scales embedded in the floor showing your weight at various locations in the universe, such as the moon, a red giant star, the Sun, and a neutron star.

One never stops learning. I was surprised to see that my weight on the “surface” of a red giant star was almost negligible. Had I stopped to think about it, I would have realized that these expanded giants are so large that their photosphere is far, far, from their center of mass, meaning that the effect of gravity is almost nil.

I was crestfallen to find out that the Copernicus room with its amazing clockwork orrery which I so dearly loved as a child no longer exists; the entire building that housed the old planetarium was torn down to make way for the new Science Center, and apparently the mechanisms had stopped functioning as early as 1980. Modern day knowledge and technology has far surpassed the needfulness of the old mechanical device… but it was cool. The planets actually moved in real time, and the glowing orange Sun at the center was captivating. At least I have the memories.

Orrery

Leaving the planetarium, I wandered around the Natural History Museum and reacquainted myself with many of its amazing exhibits. Like the movie in Paris, this is not a building that one can experience in a single day so I had to be selective. I was not, however, disappointed.

The old dioramas in the African mammal room and elsewhere have been lovingly preserved and maintained; they look exactly the way I remember them and are still stunning to consider. These are true works of art.

My first girlfriend, to whom my mother introduced me when I was about four or five, was still there, along with many other wonderful fossils. In the hall of dinosaurs, I learned something new again: the old conventional wisdom that a Stegosaurus had a brain in its ass to control its back end the same way a hook and ladder truck has a second driver is simply not the case. Live and learn: farewell, Brontosaurus. Farewell, butt brain. (But Pluto is still a planet, dammit.)

The museum is now home to one of the largest dinosaur fossils that can be seen by the general public. It’s so long that they had to have its head stick out of one of the exhibit rooms.

“The new, much larger occupant grazes the gallery’s approximately 19-foot-high ceilings, and, at 122-foot, is just a bit too long for its new home. Instead, its neck and head extend out towards the elevator banks, welcoming visitors to the “dinosaur” floor.”20160204_123143

 

 

 

 

The so-called “titanosaur” is so new that it has not yet been officially named, but it certainly makes for quite the sight.

There were so many other things to see. If I were to ever live in New York City again, which given real estate prices is far beyond the realm of possibility, I would certainly become a member and support the museum with regular visits.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

Keeping Welsh (and Bees) Alive.

Note: This article was originally published at FT.com (Financial Times). It is copyright. They have indicated that these articles can be shared with their “sharing tools,” and added, “Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.”

That would be fine, if they didn’t use that accursed “complete a survey to read this full article” ploy. Or make you register (i.e. give them your information) to read “3 free articles per month.” Both of these are scummy tactics which serve no purpose other than to drive people away from a website; to Pluto with that. So, FT, get rid of the surveys and the paywall and I’ll be happy to link people directly to your site. Until then, hard lines.


Wil Griffiths set up an organisation that aims to save the bees and his native tongue

Welsh beekeeper Wil Griffith

©Gareth Phillips

Wil Griffith: ‘When we started, other beekeepers thought we were racist’

Welsh has always lent itself to prose and poetry, to music and singing. But it has never been associated with scientific matters, and beekeeping is a science. If the language is to survive, it needs to expand into all aspects of everyday life.

I run the only Welsh-language beekeeping association in Wales. I set up Cymdeithas Gwenynwyr Cymraeg Ceredigion (the Ceredigion Welsh Beekeeping Association) at the end of the 1960s with two aims: survival of the bee and survival of the language.

Our Welsh beekeeping terms are not a pure translation of English terms because word-for-word translation is meaningless. For example, in a beehive, honey is stored in the very top of the hive, in the top box. The term in English is “super” — as in “superintendent”. It means “above”. But “above” would not be used that way in Welsh. The more usual Welsh word is “lloft” — meaning “upstairs”. So, in determining new terminology, we use everyday words that make sense to a Welsh ear. I wrote a book, Dyn Y Mel (The Honeyman) in which our Welsh terms are listed. In English, the term is “beekeeper” but, again, in Welsh, “dyn y mel” is more common.

I’m well over 80 now but I started beekeeping 60 years ago. At about that time modern hives were introduced. Before then, beekeepers had used closed straw skeps — but suddenly, for the first time, they were able to see what was taking place within the hive.

Modern terms were coined to reflect these changes, which flustered the older beekeepers. Very experienced beekeepers, who were first-language Welsh, were at a loss. The terminology involved was beyond them, particularly if it was in English.

Today our association has about 30 members and we even put on an annual show in a pub for our honey and mead. Finding enough bilingual judges is always a problem. As they are tasting, the judges must comment out loud in Welsh.

Beekeeping can be hazardous. A friend went to shift a hive late one evening and didn’t bother with protective clothing; a bee crawled into his ear. We tried to get it out but couldn’t. The only way was to drown it, and the only liquid we had to hand was a bottle of brown ale. So that was poured in and the bee floated out. But there’s no special term — in Welsh or English — for these beekeeping mishaps.

Our members do not have to speak Welsh — but we are true to our founding principles. At meetings, English speakers sit next to someone bilingual — most of us are — who will quietly translate for them. After a season or so, they have a good smattering of the language.

When we started other beekeepers thought we were racist. But what is wrong with studying in our native tongue? People would not be surprised if beekeeping associations in France or Germany discussed beekeeping in French or German. Why be surprised about Welsh?

The best way to keep a language alive is to place it at the centre of everyday life. In my county, Ceredigion, Welsh is a minority language. There has been a big fall in the number of native speakers in the past 30 years, and people are realising that we are in danger of losing one of the oldest languages in Europe.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

Sometimes the Universe smiles, and sometimes it doesn’t

Karma. Everyone wants good Karma.

Over at reddit, it’s measured in orangered or periwinkle (props to the author of this gif, whoever you are):

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In other locations, one doesn’t accrue upvotes and downvotes, but there is still a certain intangible karma that people collect for creating / sharing “cool” images, so we often see things like this:

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or this:

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The two images above are almost certainly photoshopped, and I’ve seen them in my inbox more times than I can count. Not that they’re not really cute, but on occasion nature can one-up the photoshoppers.

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AP Photo

In December of 2008, a beautiful conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and a crescent moon created a lovely “smile” in the night sky, although depending on where you were in the world, it probably didn’t appear straight-up like this.

More recently, however, the Hubble telescope captured a lovely smiley face created by gravitational lensing:

A smiling lens

You can read the science behind the capture at spacetelescope.org.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

In the moving and beautiful video below, Julia Roberts voices Mother Nature and reminds us that from the point of view of the earth, we as humans are not needed.

Humon, the pen-name of the artist who draws Scandinavia and the World did a beautiful comic on the same theme:

Gaia

Lastly, I repeat a comic I have posted or referred to a few times in this blog, by the inimitable Stan Lynde:

RickOShay2

Whether one are a person of science or a person of faith, it behooves us all to take care of this one and only spaceship earth that we have to live on. There is no getting off it in the foreseeable future. and we’re soiling our nest so rapidly that there will be unavoidable consequences down the road; the concept is underscored in Carl Sagan’s thoughts on The Pale Blue Dot, which I mentioned earlier.

Let’s please not forget:

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from the Outside

Writer Frank White coined the term “The Overview Effect” to describe the deep changes that astronauts experience once they see Earth from space. He said, “In 1968, Apollo 8 went to the Moon. They didn’t land, but they did circle the Moon; I was watching it on television and at a certain point one of the astronauts casually said: we are going to turn the camera around and show you the Earth. And he did. And that was the first time I had ever seen the planet hanging in space like that. And it was profound.”

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Apollo 8: Earthrise. ©Nasa

Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell said,

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

But you don’t need to have gone into space to have obtained that awareness; some forward-thinking individuals divined the importance of our island earth from their armchairs. In 1948, British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle predicted the change of viewpoint when he said,

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension… Once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

Subsequent to Apollo 11, Hoyle spoke at a NASA scientific banquet and said,

“You have noticed how, quite suddenly, everybody has become seriously concerned to protect the natural environment. It happened almost overnight, and one can understand how one can ask the question, ‘Where did this idea come from?’ You could say, of course, from biologists, from conservationists, from ecologists, but after all, they’ve really been saying these things for many years past, and previously they’ve never even got on base. Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place. It seems to me more than a coincidence that this awareness should have happened at exactly the moment man took his first step into space.”

A recent short documentary, Overview, collects statements from many astronauts who have had this unique experience.

With his famous essay on “The Pale Blue Dot,” Carl Sagan captured the essence of this effect, without himself ever having been in space physically, although he probably plumbed the universe more deeply in his mind than the vast body of humanity.

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“… Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known…”.
– Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Recently published at YouTube was a video of the final message of Wubbo Johannes Ockels (March 28, 1946 – May 18, 2014), who was a Dutch physicist and an astronaut of the European Space Agency (ESA), riding on Space Shuttle STS-61-A, and becoming the first Dutch citizen in space. After his astronaut career, Ockels was professor of Aerospace for Sustainable Engineering and Technology at the Delft University of Technology. On May 29, 2013 it was announced that Ockels had an aggressive form of kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma) with a metastasis in his pleural cavity, and a life expectancy of one to two years. He died from complications of cancer on May 18, 2014, one day after making this video.

A transcript in English of Dr. Ockels’ remarks follows.

“We need some luck. Some other spacecraft. Something, because with what we have now, it’s going to be finished. As an astronaut, you feel excluded to a particular group of people. And those are the people in the majority. They are you, not being aware of the danger in which you live.

But now suppose I’m going to change all of you. Suppose I can transfer the experience which I have to you. Then you would go out and see the earth, and you would see the blue sky, not the blue sky which you see when you go outside; in space you see that you are the only one. The only planet. You have no spare. And so you have to take care of this one only planet.

Our earth has cancer. I have cancer too. And most people with cancer, they die. When in fact, everybody will die. If we make enough people to continuously survive mankind on the earth, we need to conserve our own planet, and you when you have the spirit and the insight and the attitude of an astronaut, you start to love the earth in a way that other people can’t. And if you really love something, you don’t want to lose it.

You know, my wife, she doesn’t want to lose me. She wants to do everything to let me stay alive. That’s the love and attitude which human kind should have to the earth. We do not have 50% of our roofs covered with solar. We do not have more than half of our cars electric. We certainly do not have a production in which there is a reasonable amount of material recycled. We don’t have all these things.

And then the question comes, ” OK, well what’s wrong?” Well, what’s wrong is the mindset. I’m sure, but I can’t claim it, but when I heard 18 April 2013 that I had a very bad cancer, damn kidney cancer, and also changed into a sarcomatoid, which means that, you know, which to slip through all kinds of things [by this he meant metastasis], and this, the doctor, beautiful doctor, and he said you have a fair amount of time. And of course each time I asked him, “what does ‘fair’ mean?” and then he was not very accurate, but he said, “Well, months, maybe a year.”

I got over a year, a good year, because I believed that the good future, and I believed, you know, you can do things with the power, with the mind power. We, we people coming from the same molecules out of one bloody strong star which bursted out, we who have developed over billions of years, life, life, is made by we, we humanity are so strong that we can save the earth – but we also can destroy it. Even a small thing does something.

The overwhelming burden of experience from those who have been outside the Earth’s atmosphere is that this little planet we live on is the only home we have, and we need to take care of it. Even if you happen to be a person of faith, taking the chiliastic view that we don’t need to worry about the Earth because God is going to come down and take care of everything strikes me as irresponsible, and unfair to future generations. Western Artist Stan Lynde captured my own sentiments decades ago:

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While efforts are being made by forward-thinking individuals to reduce the damage we’re doing to our planet, there is still much to be done. We owe it to future generations to make a difference now. “Drill, baby, drill” just doesn’t do it for me.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

A gift from God

 

I consider all food a gift from God, but when you go into your garden and pick things you’ve grown yourself, it seems an occasion for extra gratitude: free food from the ground.

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Those of my friends and family who are of the atheist/agnostic tradition look at such things as an outgrowth of evolution, which is fine; on one level, that’s correct. But seeing such bounty merely in such terms leaves me with a sense of emptiness, of incompleteness. If there’s nothing but random chance and selective breeding and survival of the fittest, then there’s no one to thank for these gifts.

One take on gratitude was famously given by “Charlie Anderson” in the movie Shenandoah, played by James Stewart:

“Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.”

It is certain, we wouldn’t have food in the stores if it weren’t for the backbreaking and often poorly-compensated work of farmers and laborers, but if it weren’t for the sun and the rain and the soil and the seeds and the wind and the pollinators, there would be nothing at all. So I often remember to thank the Lord for the work of everyone along the supply chain that brought dinner to my table, but recognize Him as the ultimate source of all goodness.

That’s just how I roll.

The Old Wolf has spoken.