Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

A Field Guide to Gay Animals

A fascinating and risqué new podcast from the creators of Canadaland. Some viewer discretion advised.

From gay swans to self-pleasuring elephants and amorous giraffes, they learn how scientists have been understanding and misunderstanding queerness in nature for centuries. And they introduce us to a bold researcher in the 1990’s who helped us see nature for what it is – queer as fuck.

Learn More →

Review of Every Living Thing

Friend of Elsewhat Jason Roberts has a new book, out yesterday, called Every Living Thing. His last book, A Sense of the World was beautiful and amazingly well researched, making this an instant buy (from your local independent book store, not Amazon).

The book follows the paths of two scientists endeavouring to come up with a taxonomy system to classify, well, every living thing. From the New York Time’s review:

Roberts’s exploration centers on the competing work of Linnaeus and another scientific pioneer, the French mathematician and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Of the two, Linnaeus is far better known today. Of course, Roberts notes, the Frenchman did not pursue fame as ardently as did his Swedish rival. Linnaeus cultivated admiration to a near-religious degree; he liked to describe even obscure students like Rolander as “apostles.” Buffon, in his time even more famous as a brilliant mathematician, scholar and theorist, preferred debate over adulation, dismissing public praise as “a vain and deceitful phantom.”

Their different approaches to stardom may partly explain why we remember one better than we do the other. But perhaps their most important difference — one that forms the central question of Roberts’s book — can be found in their sharply opposing ideas on how to best impose order on the planet’s tangle of species.

Read the New York Times’ Review →

Putting The Eclipse Into Words

In preparation for my first ever total eclipse on Monday, I’ve repeatedly come across attempts to put the otherworldly experience of seeing a total eclipse firsthand into words. In Rivka Galchen’s Guide to the Total Solar Eclipse in The Atlantic, a cultural guide of sorts about eclipses, one of her interviewees says:

Describing an eclipse to someone who hasn’t seen one is like trying to describe the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” to someone who has never heard music…You can describe notes, frequencies of vibration, but we all know that’s missing the whole thing.

I have seen a partial eclipse, but from all accounts that pales in comparison to the full show. XKCD summed up the difference between being in the path of totality or not in graph form:

But the best summary of the difference comes from Annie Dillard’s wonderful classic article Total Eclipse in The Atlantic. It dates from 1982, but feels as though it could timelessly apply to any total eclipse. It’s certainly worth a full read.

It comes with a reminder of how big a deal it is to be within the path of totality:

Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.

Sleeping With One Eye Open

Reading through Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep, I ran across this bit about animals who sleep with one half of their brain at a time. This allows one side to be asleep (with the eye on its side closed), leaving the other side to be awake (with its eye open). Dolphins are known to sleep this way. But birds do it with an interesting wrinkle, taken from the book:

In some species, many of the birds in a flock will sleep with both halves of the brain at the same time. How do they remain safe from threat? The answer is truly ingenious. The flock will first line up in a row. With the exception of the birds at each end of the line, the rest of the group will allow both halves of the brain to indulge in sleep. Those at the far left and right ends of the row aren’t so lucky. They will enter deep sleep with just one half of the brain (opposing in each), leaving the corresponding left and right eye of each bird wide open. In doing so, they provide full panoramic threat detection for the entire group, maximizing the total number of brain halves that can sleep within the flock.


This week I looked out my office window to see a merlin absolutely tearing into their catch.

Solar Eclipse Prep for Montrealers

This year I get a full solar eclipse on my birthday in the city where I live. The local libraries are giving out free eclipse glasses, and the school board is closing the schools for the day. Leave it to friend of Elsewhat Plateau Astro to give you a guide on everything you need to know for coming eclipse if you live in Montréal.

Book: Gathering Moss

A couple of years after reading Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s Braiding Sweetgrass, I returned back to her 2003 debut non-fiction book Gathering Moss. Kimmerer is a Bryologist, or someone who studies moss. This short book gives an overview of these under appreciated organisms. Mosses don’t tend to get the sort of love or attention larger plants get. Kimmerer writes:

We carefully catalog the positions of all the moss species, calling out their names. Dicranum scoparium. Plagiothecium denticulatum. The student struggling to record all this begs for shorter names. But mosses don’t usually have common names, for no one has bothered with them. They have only scientific names, conferred with legalistic formality according to protocol set up by Carolus Linnaeus, the great plant taxonomist. Even his own name, Carl Linne, the name his Swedish mother had given him, was Latinized in the interest of science.

Her book explores many, many facets of mosses, from how they reproduce, to how peat bogs are formed. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she also brings a perspective that blends science with an indigenous point of view. For example, this section where she describes her experience trying to figure out why a certain moss reproduces in a counterintuitive way:

But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the woods, it’s that there is no pattern without a meaning. To find it, I needed to try and see like a moss and not like a human.

In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience. They are expected to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken; it must instead be given. Knowledge is bestowed by a teacher only when the student is ready to receive it. Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience. It is understood that there are many versions of truth, and that each reality may be true for each teller. It’s important to understand the perspective of each source of knowledge. The scientific method I was taught in school is like asking a direct question, disrespectfully demanding knowledge rather than waiting for it to be revealed.


Amazing Starling Photos by Kathryn Cooper

A simple idea, beautifully executed. The England-based photographer takes sequences of bird flight and combines them into composite images that track the motion of the entire flock. Above, a predator makes a brief chase of this massive murmuration.

The artist writes about the way these birds avoid predators by moving together:

By diluting the risk as the group size increases, the chance of any one individual suffering predation decreases and many eyes means that vigilance increases with the number of individuals.

Most aerial predators (sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon for example) hunt by targeting a single bird. The confusion caused by the constant movement may hinder their ability to lock onto an individual.

See More Here →

Jockey Cap Map

While on a very short hike during my vacation last week, I ran across a very simple, and very clever sculpture (for lack of a better word) at the top of a small hill. At first, I thought it was just a plaque on an elaborate stand, until I got closer…

It was a map of sorts. A 3D bronze representation, erected in 1938, of all the surrounding hills and peaks (it was just foggy enough for Mount Washington to not register on camera). A very simple idea, and a good reward for a short 20-minute hike.


Macro of Gomphaceae mushroom