Friday, August 29, 2008

My "bug" collecting story

A while ago, I said I was going to write a funny story (to me at least) about how I tried to get more insects for the collection that was due before the end of the semester. Well, here goes:

This first part is boring and not funny at all.
I was taking a course in Invertebrate Zoology. This is the study of all animals without a backbone. That's the huge majority of animals in the world. It includes everything from single-celled animals like the amoeba and paramecium to the mollusks like the clam and octopus. It includes the insects and many others. It's kind of like dividing all the people of the world into two groups - the citizens of the state of Massachusetts and NOT the citizens of the state of Massachusetts!

Our professor, Dr. Daniel Hoffman, had lowered the number of families we needed to have in our collection from 100 to 50. Family is the name given to a level of classification in biology (here is a Wikipedia article on the hierarchies of classification in biology). For instance, all the bees are in one family - Apidae. So, you couldn't have a bumblebee and a honeybee in your collection. They are both in the same Family. The size of the collection was reduced early in the semester so, of course, I assumed that since we only had to do half the work it would be a piece of cake. I didn't rush right out and get a bunch of specimens. I had all semester. If only I had thought for a minute. This was the fall semester. It got colder as the semester progressed. Insects don't like the cold. How many insects have you seen in penguin or polar bear movies? It didn't take too long for me to panic. It was October and I had less than half the specimens I needed. I was looking everywhere. I was digging under the bark of decaying trees, I was scouring the basements of all the labs, I was searching through the botany lab's greenhouse. I was running out of time and was nowhere near the end. The funny thing about panic is that it caused me to miss a lot of good places where I would go in later years for non-panicked insect collecting.

Every day after dinner, I'd climb on my bicycle and go for a long ride that ran along the river. There were a lot of low, wet areas and one particular day I had to ride through clouds of various kinds of insects. So, I came up with the great idea to attach some sort of bag to the front of my car and drive along this same road at night. I'd get more specimens in an hour than a student could hope for! So, I got a coat hanger and my laundry bag, slid the hanger through the place where the draw-string went to close the bag and wired the bag to my front bumper. That didn't work because the bag had nowhere to open - it bumped into the grill of the car. So, then I moved it up and attached it under the hood so that the bag was above the hood. I put it on the passenger side of the car so it wouldn't block my view but I had to keep looking over at it to see if I was getting anything and that was as bad for my driving as a blocked view. So, then I moved it to the driver's side of the car. This way I could "aim" the car at promising things that showed up in the headlights. There didn't seem to be many insects that night, though. I kept pulling over to check the bag and I saw nothing. Talk about panic. I was wasting my best chance here. So, after checking the bag once more, I stopped to think for a minute. In the headlights I could see that I seemed to be on the edge of a large grassy field. I had this vision of thousands of insects laying low in the grass. From what I could see (not very far - you idiot), it looked flat so I got into the car, pulled off the road and started driving through the field. The results didn't match my imagination. There was no cloud of insects rising from the grass as I plowed through it but I could have been missing it because I couldn't see well over or around the bag that was flying in front of me. So, on I drove hoping to hit the spot where all of the insects must surly be hiding.

As I craned my head to try to see around the collection bag ballooning out in front of me, I noticed the grass getting higher and I could feel the ride getting rougher. Now, the grass had become high weeds that were higher than the hood of my car. Now I had no idea where it was or how far I was from the road. I thought I'd better turn left and head back for where I thought the road must be. Still the weeds grew higher and higher. Now I was really having trouble controlling the car. Finally, I came out on the road. The last 20 yards or so I couldn't see where I was going because the weeds had gotten so high. I stopped on a wide part of the shoulder to inspect my collection bag. Nothing! I was devastated. As I stood there next to my car, I looked over at the field I'd been driving through. I could see a barn off in the distance and the glow of lights in the house next to it. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the night after turning off my headlights, I saw that I'd been driving through the edges of a corn field. I couldn't believe how lucky I was that I didn't run into a fence or a ditch as I had driven. It didn't look like I'd gone through the main part of the field but just on the edges that weren't tended. Perhaps seed was carried there by animals or scattered by the wind. I must have turned off just in time.

I did finish the insect collection but just barely. I was a day or so late as I looked for one more specimen to fill out the collection to 50. I expanded my search and finally one day, when I had the hood of my car up to check the oil, I noticed a horrible, mangled grasshopper-like insect stuck in the radiator of the car. I did a cursory classification and stuck it in the collection. The funny thing is that it was probably there from my drive through the field and was the only specimen I got from that adventure.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cows facing north?

I was reading a news item on the CNN website (it can be found other places, too) that has the headline, "Cows' compass is pure animal magnetism". One of the quotes in the article, though, has the scientists saying, "The magnetic field of the Earth has to be considered as a factor." So, in other words, the cows' sensing and reacting to the Earth's magnetic field is just one of the possibilities. Other possibilities that are mentioned are that the cows are just trying to stay cool by exposing a smaller dimension to the sun. Another possibility mentioned in the article is that perhaps the cows are aligning to the fences which may tend to be aligned north and south. But the editors just couldn't resist all the puns that go along with cows lining up with the compass.

It reminds me of a story I heard at our college. Supposedly a guy at our school, who was an avid outdoors man, always slept with his head oriented North. He supposedly did this to "tune" his body to the Earth's magnetic field so that someday he might be able to sense North if he was lost, without a compass and unable to see the Sun or the stars. It is probably just a story but it's fun to think about.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Well, we enjoyed "The Clone Wars"

My son, Evan, and I had been very excited about the new Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie after seeing previews for it. We are big Star Wars fans and we're big animation fans so it seemed a natural for us. When it was finally released last week (August 15), we went to see it the next day. I decided to read a few reviews before we went so I could help Evan figure things that that might be confusing. I will never learn. If the reviews are glowing and build my hopes up too high, I can be disappointed by the movie because it doesn't meet my expectations. But if the reviewers pan the movie, I may not go to see the movie or just wait for it to come out on DVD where it is never as exciting as in the theater. But, in this case, we were going to see it no matter what. As Evan said, "I'm so excited. This is my first chance to see a Star Wars movie in the theater." He's had to see all the others at home on our standard definition 27" TV.

So we went on a Saturday afternoon and Evan got his usual small popcorn and a small drink. We settled back, enjoyed the previews and waited for the movie to begin. I was so worried that he wouldn't like it. The reviews talked about how this movie was too complex ("Where", they said, "was the simple joy of the first Star Wars.") or the animation was not as good as other recent movies (we'd just seen WALL-E) and some reviewers were complaining about the fact the animation director had been influenced by the old Thunderbirds marionettes. With the movie starting, I was very tense. Would this be a big disappointment for my son?

I didn't need to worry. The action started at the very beginning and rarely stopped. And yes, that was another complaint of the reviewers. Too much action? That sounds like the famous complaint from Amadeus where Mozart's rival complains, "Too many notes." These movies are all full of action and this one just has more of it. And, in my view, the action here is much better explained. They actually take the time to explain what they are trying to do and what they need to do to counter the enemy's moves. It makes the weapons they have seem more real - the weapons have advantages and limitations. Also, you learn much more about the Clone Troopers. We learn about the selfless devotion and the duty they feel. They are human but they are brave beyond measure (as opposed to the 'droids they are fighting who are just mindlessly following orders and programming). The plot is very intricate but my 12-year old son was able to follow it. While it didn't have the simple story of the original Episode 4 Star Wars, it was no more complex than the Episode 3 Star Wars. And how could this have been a complaint (and it was) of the reviewers? How many times have you heard reviewers complaining that movies today are too simplistic? How many times have you heard reviewers complaining that animation is just cartoons - that serious animations are lacking? As far as we're concerned, this is a fine movie and a really fine example of modern animation.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A visit to the pet store

I usually go to the pet store with my wife and kids (we sometimes take our dog to the stores that allow leashed pets) but the other day I needed to stop off after work and pick up a few things so I was there alone. Not that being there alone made much of a difference but it gave me more time to reflect without needing to answer questions with, "Yes, they take good care of the animals here" and "No, I don't think the cats would like it if we got a tarantula."

I've always enjoyed going to the pet store. I like seeing all the different animals and especially when the store has a section for adopting cats or dogs. We don't have fish or birds in our house so it always seems so exotic to see them. I like seeing the other pet owners, too, because people with common interests always seem friendlier to each other. There is a bit of guilt involved in visiting the pet store, though. I wonder what will happen to the puppies that aren't bought before they get too big. Also, I wonder if I am lying when I tell my kids, "Yes, they take good care of the animals here." Most pet stores seem to take good care of their animals but I always remember the old Woolworth's Department Store in our town (before they went bankrupt and closed). The cages were dirty and the animals were listless. I was tempted to buy them all just to get them out of there. But then, of course, I wouldn't be able to take any better care of them than the worker the store had doing the job. But, for the most part, going to the pet store is a happy experience.

Until one day. The four of us were in the store and we had made the rounds of all the different types of animals and were looking at the fish. The kids were playing the game of seeing who could see the biggest fish. Then who could find the tank with the most fish. We were at the tank with the most fish when one of the employees came up with a net and opened the tank. I thought this would be great, the kids could see somebody buying the fish and putting them in the little baggie to carry them home. But something was wrong. No one else was there. Where were the people buying the fish? Where was the baggie? Before I knew it, the employee had scooped up a bunch of the fish and plopped them into another tank. My first though was, "Oh, that's nice. They were all crowded into that tank and now they'll have more room." I didn't have that thought long. As soon as the fish hit the water from the net, they scattered. I'm not one of those people who thinks fish are very smart and I don't think I've ever thought about them showing emotion but I could tell right away these fish were terrified. And they had a right to be scared. No sooner had they started to dart for cover than the fish that were already in the tank took off after them. It didn't take long for the larger fish that had already been in the tank to eat all the smaller fish that had just been thrown in the tank. There was nowhere to hide. One or two of the new fish managed to last longer than the others (maybe ten seconds) but they had no chance. Now, every large fish in the tank was after these few darting, turning, terrified small fish. Then it was over. I felt sick to the stomach. I couldn't talk for quite a while after that.

Why should I have been surprised? Not all fish are herbivores. This is the way the world works. The bigger, stronger, faster animals eat the smaller, weaker, slower animals. A lot of animals won't eat dead food. It made sense for the pet store to grow its own food. But I just wasn't prepared for it. If the employee had said, "Would you like to see me feed these fish to the other fish?" I would have just walked away. But it would have happened anyway. The bigger fish had to eat or they would die. I just can't help it. I'd never make it if I had to kill my own food.

So, when I went to the pet store alone the other day, and saw the fish tanks, this all came back to me as intensely as it did the day I first saw it with my family. I don't know if I'll go into the pet store alone again. I think I'll be happier answering the questions with, "Yes, the snake looks like he is well fed." Oh no! There's something else I don't want to see!

Friday, August 08, 2008

Looking at what you can't see

My son, Evan, has been fascinated with astronomy since he was just two or three years old and first noticed the Full Moon. He saw it out a window in the back of our house and came running into our living room shouting, "The Moon...the Moon" and made my wife and I follow him so he could show it to us. After we looked at it and acknowledged it, we sent back to the living room. But he was so excited, he ran back in exclaiming, "The Moon, Mommy. The Moon, Daddy" and insisted we follow him in to the back room to see it with him again. We could not figure out what he wanted us to do but just watching it and agreeing that it was the Moon was not enough. We just didn't get it!

Over the years, we've bought him "space things." His grandmother (my mother in law) bought him a nice Meade telescope. We've bought him books and have taken him to a planetarium. For his last birthday, we bought him a set of the planets that you can blow up and hang from the ceiling (the set includes Pluto as a planet which gratifies Evan - he didn't like it when Pluto was officially demoted). He used his own money to buy the set of DVDs for the History Channel series The Universe. I also found a nice utility for his computer named Stellarium. The screens shots (below) come from Stellarium. It's free but amazing. It lets you enter your position on the Earth and shows you the sky at the time on your computer's clock. You can change the time to any date and time to see what the sky will look like then. In the screen shots here, you can see a red line curving up from the horizon. That is the ecliptic line where you usually find the planets (notice how far Pluto is from the ecliptic).

We've used Stellarium to predict what the skies will look like when we think the sky will be clear on certain nights. A few nights ago, we noticed that Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune would all be "visible" on one evening. The top screen shot shows that part of the Stellarium display. Notice that it allows you to "draw in" the constellations and writes in the names of stars of a certain magnitude (you can adjust this setting along with tons of others).

Now, of course, we knew we wouldn't be able to actually see Neptune and Pluto. But being able to know that Neptune and Pluto were out there in the direction we were looking was fascinating. We took our dog, Charlie, with us and he had no idea what was going on. It was just a big adventure for him to go out in the car at night and be with his people. Charlie enjoyed sniffing around while Evan and I let our eyes adjust. As time went on and it got darker and we saw more and more stars, it almost seemed as if we just might get to see Neptune and Pluto after all. Maybe if we just relaxed and stared long enough, we'd see them glimmering out there. I remember reading a novel called Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon. It starts with a man laying down on a hillside to look up at the stars. As he gazes out into space, he finds the stars seemingly coming toward him. Then he realizes that he he has left the earth and is speeding out through space toward the stars. This begins his epic journey through many worlds and many universes.

Evan mentioned to me that it takes about an hour for the light reflected from Saturn to reach us. We figured the light from Neptune and Pluto would take a really long time and, after assuming the closest approach of each to the earth, we were right. It takes about 6 hours for the reflected light from both (their orbits cross and sometimes Pluto is closer) to reach Earth.

Well, it turns out that tonight, even Venus and Mercury will be visible (if only briefly because they are near the horizon and will be tough to see against the sun). The second screen shot shows that (notice the red 'W' centered on the bottom, that shows you're looking West).

While I was writing this, something from what I learned in high school seemed to be nagging me about whether you are supposed to capitalize Earth, Moon and Sun. At first I did. Then I changed them all to lower case. Then I decided to look it up. It looks like it's a confusing area even for the experts. As I interpret the "rules" I found, you don't capitalize "earth" when you're speaking about "dirt" but you do capitalize it when speaking of it as the planet Earth. So, I've gone back through the whole article and tried to do it correctly. Complain away if you think I am wrong.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What is that thing?

This blog is certainly lacking in the "Engineering" part of its title. While I hope to rectify that in the coming weeks, I don't want to miss a good topic when it comes along. And, once again, my topic is an insect! Of course I didn't realize it at first.

When I first saw this thing zipping around, hovering, visiting and (apparently) drinking nectar from flowers, I thought it was a hummingbird. But as I chased it around, it seemed to act more like a dragonfly. It was fast, agile and had clear wings. But dragonflies don't sip nectar. For a while, it looked like a flying crayfish but it didn't take long to change my mind about that - only because it seemed like such a ridiculous idea.

I was on one of my lunch walks in the woods behind our office. Here is one picture of "the flying thing". You'll probably recognize right away that it is neither a hummingbird or a dragonfly or even a crayfish. But would you guess that it is a moth? All the moths I'd seen previously were pretty bad fliers. They flop from place to place seeming to have a tough time steering. All the moths I'd seen previously had relatively large wings covered in scales. None of the moths I'd ever seen before actually fed on flowers (although I'm sure they do - I'd just never seen it). And the body of this thing was big! It seemed to be over a half-inch wide or more. While moths are more thick-bodied than the butterflies, I'd never seen one this big before.

When I got back from the walk and studied the pictures (during my afternoon break, of course), I saw a few clues to start a search on the Internet to find out this was a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. These are in the same family, Sphingidae, as the Sphinx and Hawk Moths. They all seem to have the same, sleek shape to their wings that differs from the other moths. A lot of these moths only come out and feed at night but I was fortunate that these particular moths feed during the day. I was also fortunate that there were so many of them. I saw one earlier in the year but it was so fast that I only got a glimpse of it. Was that what I think it was? Do crayfish fly? Well, here's another shot that makes it look a little bit more like a crayfish. I'm not crazy, you know!