Some Species Will Love Global Warming
April 17, 2012

Global warming isn't all bad. It's kind of nice, if you are a sow thistle.

In Oklahoma we had a long heat wave (75 consecutive days over 100 F heat index, most of them by actual temperature as well) last summer, and a drought at the same time. Most people's yards, including my own, died back. Last winter was wet and mild.

A common weed in yards is the sow thistle (Sonchus asper). It is an unpleasant relative of the innocent dandelion. Like dandelions, it produces a rosette of leaves right next to the ground, below the level of lawnmower blades. And, like the dandelion, it grows in this way for a year or so, storing lots of food in a big taproot. And, again like the dandelion in springtime, it produces an aerial stem with flowers. In dandelions this is a tender hollow stem with a cluster of flowers on it. But in the sow thistle, it is a prickly stem with prickly leaves and lots of flower clusters. It is difficult to get rid of a sow thistle. If you try to pull it up by its hollow stem, the stem simply breaks, leaving the rosette and taproot to grow again-producing four or five new stems, not one. If you dig it up, you cannot just leave it on the moist ground-its roots will burrow back down into the soil. You cannot just leave it on your driveway or sidewalk-the flowers will go ahead and release the fluffy seeds. The only thing to do is to put them in a dumpster with the lid closed. As I dug up a couple hundred of them, I was reminded of the phrase that Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men) used to describe saguaro cactuses: they were "visceral Freudian nightmares."

This winter, the rosettes of sow thistle had the whole yard to themselves, their competitors having been killed by the drought, and they produced and stored a lot of food during the mild wet winter. Now most yards have dozens of them. Clearly, the conditions of global warming-hot dry summers and mild wet winters-will benefit this unpleasant species. In general, global warming is an example of an ecological disturbance, which will favor fast-growing, short-lived species, from herbaceous weeds to trees such as tree-of-heaven and mulberry, which are the tree versions of weeds. According to my data set, many trees have died as a result of the drought last summer. During the next century, we will see a lot of dead trees as the weedy species of herbs and trees begin to grow in their place. The world (except in regions with extended droughts) will still be green, but it will be the green of weeds rather than the long-lived trees that we have had the privilege of seeing.

Emergent Properties and Human Creativity: Boy, Do They Emerge!
May 8, 2012

Emergent properties are complex results of simple, interacting processes. An example from nature is an ant colony. Each ant is fairly stupid but the colony can do some amazing things. There is a scientific research center, the Santa Fe Institute, which devotes its attention to emergent properties.

I got a new appreciation of emergent properties when I listened to the Meadows World Music Ensemble in December. It was not a performance; it was a jam session, in which the most incredible music emerged from the interactions of the musicians. And I was not merely listening; I felt drawn up in the process of creativity (fortunately I did not start dancing). It was not a concert; it was a living thing, and I feel that I am killing it by analyzing and dissecting it in this essay. It was one of the best examples that I have seen of creativity resulting in emergent properties.

First, the creativity. Peter Schickele used to teach a course at Columbia University called "Creativity through Incompetence." Well, he meant it as a joke. To have true creativity, you must have intelligence and skill. You have to have your craft perfected. The professor and students in the Meadows World Music Ensemble must be the most intelligent and skilled musicians I have ever seen. And that is what made the creativity possible, both theirs and that of those nameless folk musicians whose ideas they used. Here are some examples. You have probably all heard of the didgeridoo, the aboriginal Australian instrument that produces unearthly sounds. When you hear it, you feel like you have been transported into the nothingness at the center of the universe, inside the empty eyes of the Australian aboriginal goddess Wodjina. I had never seen one, but had seen photos of them. But the one played by wind instrumentalist Jonathan Jones had a slide: an odd unification of trombone and didgeridoo. Then string bass player Leland Byrd joined him, and they did a duet. Byrd did things with the string bass that I had never imagined possible. He made those things up himself. Then the professor (Jamal Mohamed) and percussionist Ben Croucher came in and joined them, playing West African balaphones, which are bamboo marimbas with gourds underneath them as resonating chambers. There was a strange kazoo-like sound coming from the gourds, produced by thin sheets of paper, just as in a kazoo. The West Africans traditionally used spider webs for this purpose. Mohamed did things with the bongo drum that I had never imagined possible: rapid finger strokes, getting different tones from different parts of the head, and even adjusting the pitch by moving his hand across the drum head. Now that's creativity. But the most creative thing I saw was when Jonathan Jones was sitting and waiting for his chance to enter into an Egyptian melody. He held his clarinet, without the head or mouthpiece. Surely, I thought, he is going to put the head onto the clarinet. But no. He started playing the clarinet without a head or mouthpiece, producing a flutelike tone. He just made that method up himself. They were having a great time. I don't recall one moment when Jamal Mohamed was not smiling.

And next, the emergent properties. They had ground rules: each musician knew what to do when the professor, or another musician, glanced at them and smiled. They had to know the basic outline of the melodies and what key to play in. But all of them were jamming. There were no scores to be seen anywhere. Just as in jazz (but much more complex), they were making things up as they went along, within the general shape of the rules. They had to think like a single brain, especially when they played the Bulgarian song that was in 25/16 time. Some of the complexity, as in the Balinese music, resulted from simple rhythms slightly offset between two percussionists. The result was music that was extremely complex-there must have been lots of thirty-second notes-and an intense aural experience, but which was created on the spot.

How different this is from the usual performances that I see, in which musicians slavishly follow scores. In those cases, the musicians focus on the scores much more than on one another. Even the atonal music of the twentieth century, which could just as well have been produced at random, required performers to follow a score. Although I am transported by classical music more than I can ever say, I must admit that it is dead and slavish compared to the emergent properties produced by the Meadows World Music Ensemble. As much as I love the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, I cannot forget that each symphony, when originally performed, was superintended by the glowering face of the composer, and the orchestra and singers did not dare change one note. Even the makeup of the Ensemble is an emergent property: it is a class of students at Southern Methodist University, and student members come and go. No two musical creations by this ensemble are the same.

Evolution and ecology cannot happen without complex biochemistry, and the astonishing skill of the student musicians and their professor cannot be overestimated. And the creativity and emergent properties of the Meadows World Music Ensemble are actually the same processes that you will find in evolution and ecology. Maybe the Santa Fe Institute should study them.

Evotour 2012: Part One, Eclipse of the Sun
May 27, 2012

I've been on a journey to California and back, visiting sites of evolutionary interest and making Darwin videos about these places, which I will post on my YouTube channel.

Evotourism is a new concept, which may someday draw attention among science-literate tourists the same way ecotourism now does. I am looking into the possibility of leading evotours, and my first step is to visit or revisit sites of evolutionary interest and make videos of them.

Until the day before I left, I was not planning to include the eclipse of the sun in my tour. Then I read that the eclipse would be seen clearly in New Mexico, and I knew I would be going through New Mexico as part of my trip. So I rearranged my schedule to be in Gallup, NM on May 19, to watch, photograph, and, if possible, make a video of the eclipse, which was to occur at 7:30 mountain daylight time.

I left my motel room about 6:00 and headed south on a state highway, expecting to easily find a place to pull off to the side of the road and set up my telescope and my camera tripod. This turned out to not be so easy to do. I wanted a clear view of the horizon, but there were few places from which I could do this. And almost the only side roads, off of the state highway, were private ranch roads with cattle guards. The residences did not look like the kinds of places that would welcome loiterers even outside the fence.

At last I found a side road of a side road with a church sign, and a little dirt spot to pull over. To my surprise, when I set up the telescope, I discovered the eclipse had already begun a little before 7:30. The disc of the moon was approaching from the lower right. I quickly set up my camera and took still photos and took some videos, which I tried to narrate despite the occasional cars whooshing down the country highway. For a perfect moment I saw the annular eclipse—the moon forming a perfect black disc centered in the sun. It was impossible to take photos or videos of the eclipse without the filter, and therefore nothing else was visible—until right at sunset, when the moon had nearly passed to the upper left, when a sun with a big bite taken out of it nestled down into piñon branches.

Humans used to think that gods or demons caused the sun to darken and the moon to turn to blood (eclipses) and the starts to fall from the sky (meteors). This is the language used in the scriptures we still revere. The scientific view of nature, starting with Copernicus and Galileo and other astronomers, and continuing with physics and chemistry and biology, and finally the evolutionary understanding of humans and even the human brain, has shown us that the universe is not full of demons but that we are a part of its natural laws. We are at home.

For all I could tell, the people in the convenience store and driving along the road had no idea that an eclipse was occurring. The few people I talked to had no interest. They were totally absorbed in their own pleasures or problems or projects. In the old days, eclipses disturbed people. Today, they should be sources of wonder. But it appears that the geocentric theory has not been replaced by the heliocentric theory as much as by the egocentric theory.

(This is adapted from the May 20 post on my blog.)

Evotour 2012: Part Two, The Transit of Venus,
     or, Guillame Le Gentil Finally Gets Satisfaction
June 11, 2012

On June 5, many people, including myself, watched the Transit of Venus. I saw it, using a solar filter, during the afternoon from a mountain east of San Diego, far away from coastal fog. At sunset, I was back down in La Jolla, where the fog had cleared. I watched the silhouette of Venus against the sun as it set into the Pacific waves, without a solar filter. I also made a video of the Transit of Venus at sunset, which I have posted on my YouTube channel.

The Transit of Venus occurs when Venus moves across the face of the sun, as seen from the Earth. This event occurs only in eight-year pairs, each pair being separated by 121.5 and 105.5 year intervals. The last transit was in 2004, eight years ago. The next pair will be in 2117 and 2125. So as the sun sank into the Pacific Ocean, from my terrestrial viewpoint, I knew that none of us alive now would ever see it again.

Why is the Transit of Venus such a big deal? The Transit of Venus was first observed by Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639. At that time, the heliocentric view of the solar system (planets revolving around the sun) was as new of an insight as evolution is today, so it must have been exciting just to see visual confirmation of it, just as people today express surprise at seeing evolution in action.

By 1761, scientists were ready to observe the transit from different parts of the world. Scientists were stationed in Siberia, Norway, Newfoundland, Madagascar, and the Cape of Good Hope in order to determine the exact times at which Venus began, and ended, its transit. It takes long enough that the entire transit cannot be observed from any one location. By using triangulation, the scientists would then be able to determine how far away the sun is, and from that they could calculate the orbits of the planets. In 1769, scientists were at Hudson Bay and Norway, and Captain Cook observed it in Tahiti at a place that is now called “point Venus.”

What does this have to do with evolution? Back in the middle ages, scholars thought that the sun, stars, and planets were on spheres that turned around the Earth. God had created these spheres as part of the perfect machinery of the cosmos. Part of this image is that the planes of revolution of all the planets would line up precisely. Were this the case, then there would be a Transit of Venus every year. But the planes of revolution of Earth and Venus are not parallel. The sun, Venus, and Earth line up only at rare intervals. This was the beginning of the end of the concept that God had perfectly designed the universe, creating what scholars at the time literally considered to be the harmony of the spheres. The theories of geology and then of evolution further undermined the Perfect Design view, a concept that has been demolished by modern genetic research.

The French scientist Guillame Le Gentil traveled to India to see the 1761 transit. When he arrived at Pondicherry, the French enclave in the subcontinent, he found that war had broken out and the ship could not land. The day of the transit was clear, but the lurching of the ship prevented him from seeing it. So he decided to stay and see the 1769 transit. He built an observatory (after the hostilities had ceased). For a month before the transit, every day was clear—until the day of the transit, which was cloudy. The disappointment drove him nearly to the brink of insanity. He went home to France, only to find that he had been declared legally dead, his property had been divided up, and his wife had remarried. Most important of all to Le Gentil, he had lost his post in the Academy of Sciences. But after the intervention of the king, Le Gentil was able to get back some of his property. He remarried and lived another 21 years. Best of all, he was reinstated in the Academy.

But Le Gentil never got to see the Transit of Venus. Until this year.

I met two scientists from the University of California at San Diego—one an orthopedic anatomist, the other an anthropologist, both amateur astronomers—who were walking up to the top of Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in California on June 5. They were toting their telescopes, and a bunch of computer printouts. They were going to celebrate the transit by creating living art, projecting the solar disc onto portraits of astronomers. One was Guillame Le Gentil. They had cut out a hole in his eye, so that he could at last see the transit and, perhaps, rest in satisfaction.

Another pair of transits occurred in 1874 and 1882. John Philip Sousa wrote a march, Transit of Venus, for the 1882 event. And Mark Twain put it in a story, "The Animals of the Forest Conduct a Scientific Expedition". Wild animals decided to investigate the human world as we investigate theirs. They encountered a train running along its tracks at night, with its headlight on, and they concluded that it must be the Transit of Venus.

This essay will also appear soon on my evolution blog.