Mucking out the stall

Anyone who’s ever dealt with livestock housed in a barn knows about the wicked unbalance of energy involved: it takes a lot more effort to remove the shit than it did to deposit it. This is an apt analogy for addressing theology.

Jerry Coyne and the various commenters at Why Evolution Is True had a great go at this, but it’s been burning in the back of my mind since then, and I simply felt like treating it in detail. And this will be long, as foreshadowed above, because it takes no effort to emit inanity that looks good, but it takes many times that to show why looks are deceiving (many times no effort? Isn’t that still no effort? Let’s ignore my writing weaknesses and move on…)

I am shamelessly copying Prof. Coyne’s quote direct, since I’m not going to fetch the book in question and spend even more time screwing with it, but this does mean any inaccuracies within it are not mine. This is intended as a critical-thinking exercise; what I’m covering here can be applied anyplace throughout the book, and many other places besides.

The book in question is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart, considered one of the best theological arguments for god and/or religion, at least among those who already believe in the christian god. According to Prof. Coyne, it all reads like this particular passage, but quite frankly I don’t care – unless it is purposefully intended as either satire or a caricature, the issues with this passage are manifest, and context isn’t going to improve it any.

The essential truth to which Lonergan’s argument points is that the very search for truth is implicitly a search for God (properly defined, that is). As the mind moves toward an ever more comprehensive capacious, and “supereminent” grasp of reality, it necessarily moves toward an ideal level of reality at which intelligibility and intelligence are no longer distinguishable concepts. It seems to me we all really know this in some sense: that we assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind. No other comportment toward truth as a desirable end is existentially possible. The ascent toward ever greater knowledge is, if only tacitly and secretly and contre coeur, an ascent toward an ultimate encounter with limitless consciousness, limitless reason, a transcendent reality where being and knowledge are always one and the same, and so inalienable from each other. To believe that being is inexhaustibly intelligible is to believe also—whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not—that reality emanates from an inexhaustible intelligence: in the words of the Shevanashvatara Upanishad, “pure consciousness, omnipresent, omniscient, the creator of time.”

The first thing I will say is that, from a long history of reading stuff of this nature, the style of writing now triggers my bullshit detector right off the bat. Grandiose, assertive, and unequivocal – all warning signs that the writer is not presenting arguments intended to convince the reader, but statements aimed at appeasing those already in agreement; this can be said of virtually all theology. Still, plenty of people read this with great delight and find it convincing, so herewith, a detailed breakdown of why many others remain unconvinced.

The essential truth to which Lonergan’s argument points is that the very search for truth is implicitly a search for God (properly defined, that is).

Ignoring, for the moment, that curious caveat of “properly defined,” what Hart is expressing here is that mere curiosity implies god – a pretty substantial statement, especially when I can picture a puppy playing with a windblown leaf and a hawk shifting its head back-and-forth to determine if the movement it just spotted indicates prey. We have plenty of reasons to examine our environment to determine what’s happening, and the functionality of this can hardly be ignored. Yet, with the inclusion of the fatally-overworked word “truth” (twice, mind you,) Hart is attempting to elevate such basic behavior into a property of transcendence.

As the mind moves toward an ever more comprehensive capacious, and “supereminent” grasp of reality, it necessarily moves toward an ideal level of reality at which intelligibility and intelligence are no longer distinguishable concepts.

A quick, dirty aside: I’m fairly certain Hart intended to say that intelligibility and intelligence could not be differentiated from each other, and not that both words have lost their meaning, but that’s the way the sentence is structured ;-)

Ignoring that, there’s lots of contentious elements within here. Gaining intelligence, in the form of “ever more comprehensive grasp of reality,” does not in any way imply that ultimate knowledge is the goal or even possible, any more than my breaking into a run will “necessarily” bring me to light speed. Certainly, we seek knowledge, but a quick comparison of people you know will demonstrate that some seek it more than others, while few believe in any way that there’s a saturation point.

That’s not even the main thrust of the sentence, which outright says that knowledge will reveal reality itself to be intelligent – otherwise we couldn’t understand it; that’s the conflation of intelligible and intelligence he alludes to. The history of science shows this to be not just a vast assumption, but a peculiar one as well: if anything, our expanding knowledge has revealed that the universe, despite its complexity, is remarkably simple, governed by four fundamental forces and extremely predictable processes. This is exactly what theologians are so desperate to deny, but a mere assertion isn’t any kind of rebuttal to the years of research we have that establishes this simplicity.

It seems to me we all really know this in some sense: that we assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind. No other comportment toward truth as a desirable end is existentially possible.

While I have run across the occasional moonchild that expresses such sentiments, it’s safe to say this is far from a viewpoint we all hold – some of us find it to be vapid nonsense. No one has to assume the mind can “mirror reality” to seek understanding, only that it can produce an accurate enough model to provide functionality to us. Yet we also find it enormously entertaining when our minds are fooled, as with optical illusions or, really, any work of fiction to be found. It is these very works of fiction that give an indication that it is not objective reality that is so important to us, but the appeasement of a wide variety of desires despite reality – this runs the gamut from fantasy to drug addiction, romance novels to video games. If anyone did, in fact, consider these mirroring objective reality, that’s what we call mental illness…

But, “No other comportment toward truth as a desirable end is existentially possible.” This sentence, a definitive pronouncement based on vague and arbitrary terms, is a linguistic failure. “Truth” is of course the golden child of all religions, yet its usage invariably refers to something that we cannot establish or even quantify, certainly nothing so bourgeois as evidence. While “existential,” in philosophical terms, refers to the subjectivity of meaning, as in the stuff that people search for – which by extension indicates that anything is “existentially possible,” since it’s up to the individual to establish it for themselves.

The ascent toward ever greater knowledge is, if only tacitly and secretly and contre coeur, an ascent toward an ultimate encounter with limitless consciousness, limitless reason, a transcendent reality where being and knowledge are always one and the same, and so inalienable from each other.

Let me proffer another analogy: this is just as nonsensical as saying that the act of eating is the ascent towards consuming the entire universe. Religious folk do so adore their superlatives and absolutes, and I can only consider this a mark of insecurity, the quest for something that cannot be surpassed or beaten. If we stop to think about it, though, what would we really get from omniscience, or as Hart puts it, limitless consciousness and limitless reason (I suppose he thought he was being gauche to use the simpler word)? Nothing left to discover, nothing able to surprise us, nothing remaining to see or do or experience in any way? That sounds like a recipe for ultimate stagnation to me, but then again, I’ve actually thought about the consequences of such concepts, rather than simply stringing together unsurpassable abstracts to foster feelings of awe.

And, holy shit, contre coeur!? This alone earns Hart the Pompous Fuckhead Award, since the term means simply, “reluctantly.” That’s all – no subtle nuances or unique properties. What possible purpose could there be to supplant a common word with a (misused) French term, except to try and dazzle the reader with worldliness? Seriously, this is a strong indicator that the writer is not motivated by communication or understanding, but by the desire to be seen as learnéd. Not a good sign at all.

To believe that being is inexhaustibly intelligible is to believe also—whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not—that reality emanates from an inexhaustible intelligence: in the words of the Shevanashvatara Upanishad, “pure consciousness, omnipresent, omniscient, the creator of time.”

“Whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not.” Do you like that? It’s Hart’s feeble attempt to make anyone who challenges his overreaching and unsupportable statements feel self-conscious about their motives. And this is supposed to be one of the better arguments…

But who, anywhere, believes that “being is inexhaustibly intelligible” as claimed here? There’s a huge difference between, “there’s a lot more left to learn” and, “the whole universe is able to be understood.” Events long past are likely well out of our reach, and plenty of neuroscientists express doubt that we could ever fully fathom even our own minds. Yet, there’s two relevant items to consider. The first is, we can never assume that we cannot learn about anything in particular, because that halts inquiry. The second is, it’s pretty astounding what we have learned, and a great deal of this is due to understanding simple properties. But this statement from Hart is a variation of a common religious pout:science thinks it can answer everything!” Ignoring that no one has ever claimed any such thing, we should recognize the hulking, loathsome hypocrisy of this accusation coming from anyone who then pronounces their belief in the ultimate meaning, intentions, or nature of the entire universe and any supernatural realms, especially their own part in it.

[Another aside: there can be no such thing as a "creator of time." Time is change; without time, there is no change, and thus no creation. Not to mention that no one has presented the least evidence that establishes such a being - but this doesn't stop them from pronouncing it with the utmost confidence.]

Disregarding that, the only way that Hart has even introduced that an intelligence is to be found is by claiming that the very act of learning can only find intelligence. Or at least, if we look hard enough. This one’s more subtle, but he’s saying that only those who are really smart can find god – it’s inevitable!

That pretty much sums up every bit of theology I have ever found: assertion and self-affirmation. When it is important for someone to justify their belief in any god, this kind of writing serves not just to appease them, but throw in a little ego-stroking as well. Go back up to that part about the mind “mirroring reality,” and thus reality mirroring the mind – this is implying that if we can think about it, then it’s really true (this is a variation of the ontological argument, by the way.) How incredibly self-indulgent is that?

What many people fail to consider, I believe, is that intellectual and intelligent are not interchangeable. Hart throws out bold pronouncements in a seemingly-erudite manner, attempting to give the impression of a seasoned academic, by extension conversant with all facets of knowledge that might apply to this topic – of course he considered the biological and the epistemological angles! Yet he has assigned overblown transcendent properties to the very simple trait of seeking cause-and-effect – something that many other species possess to varying extent, and that we have numerous studies detailing quite extensively – and then uses these abstract properties to extrapolate a universe of intelligence. This isn’t even the common fallacy of equating correlation and causation, and makes the corrupt slippery slope argument seem feeble; Hart is claiming simple emotions point undeniably to something even larger than physical laws – yet undetectable by physical means. One wonders what he could make of jealousy…

If, however, we look for something useful in here – let’s say, a manifestation of this universal intelligence, or a way it can be used, or how this answers the question of the one true religion – we won’t find anything. This is the difference between emotional supplication and functional knowledge, and why theology will remain forever in the back of the class, sending illiterate text messages. Even if we, just for the sake of argument, assume everything Hart has proposed here is accurate, what can we do about it? An ultimately pervasive intelligence, one of pure consciousness, doesn’t really provide anything for us, does it? To be of even personal affirmation use, it would have to have some other property, such as answering prayers, or giving us everlasting life, or somehow being benevolent – not just intelligence, but intent and empathy, at least – none of which Hart has even attempted to support. The huge chasm between most of the sophistry-laden theological arguments and the gods that people want to believe in goes unnoticed, even though it’s pretty much like saying that we can soon travel to other stars because gravity.

The worst thing is, coming up with this kind of shit isn’t even hard:

“Since we are made up of molecules that came from stars, it stands to reason that our souls bear this connection, and thus not only do we have portions of souls from beings long past, stars themselves are the sources, and have souls themselves.”

“Pain is a common factor of life, even among the lower animals – it guides us away from harm and towards more beneficial actions, which can only result in an ultimately painless existence; therefore seeking pain is a path towards freedom from pain.”

“Some of mankind’s greatest emotions come from sports and competition, and we could not have these traits without both intent and purpose; therefore, we must assume that god approves of playing games.”

Seriously, I could do this all day. Infuse a bit of flowery language and a whole shitload of assertions, throw in a touch of ego-stroking, and people will eat it up as sophisticated, transcendent wisdom. I don’t have to be smart, I just have to be smarter than my audience, and spoon-feed them some affirmation. Because they’re not looking for functionality at all.

A saga long in the making

I was examining the progress of the spring revival in the yard yesterday and noticing that the deer had discovered my almond tree the previous night, which means it now sports a few less leaves than it did – this occurs every few weeks in the summer and seems to do the sapling no harm at all. And then I noticed a movement near the base of the reappearing dog fennel plants, and went in for the closer look. The tale that follows is one of patience, frustration, trials, tribulations, speculations about evolution, and just plain weirdness.
red ant with cranefly
This area appears to be an ideal habitat for a medium-sized species of red ant, since they’re everywhere – quite possibly Camponotus castaneus, but don’t quote me on that. They’re harmless, non-biting and non-irritating, and don’t appear to do any damage to buildings or trees, instead maintaining their colonies underground. The specimen seen here had collected a dead cranefly, and was industriously bearing it back to the colony. Curious as to where this actually was, and of course being me, I began following its progress across the yard. I was shooting a hyperactive subject in natural light, so the photo quality isn’t what I consider optimal, but they serve to illustrate the journey.
coping with a snag
It would be accurate to say this was slow going. The ant was probably 5-6mm in length, the cranefly four times that, and the terrain a mixture of almost-bare earth and thick grasses and weeds. Getting snagged was a frequent occurrence, and here, the ant had actually determined that one of the cranefly legs was the entire holdup, and scampered down it partway to simply sever it and go on.
leg detached, good to go
From time to time, the ant would release its prize and wander a short distance back and forth, no more than a centimeter or two – I’m speculating that this was seeking the strongest scent trail to carry its bounty back to the colony. Ants lay down scent trails everywhere they go, and are very sensitive to how much the scent has faded over time; the stronger trail means the one more recently traveled, which generally puts it closer to home. It’s a mixture of simplicity and probability – ants wander all over in search of food, but they can encounter the trail of another ant and follow it back readily. Since I’ve seen this occur with practically no wrong turns, I have to assume that they ability to tell age is refined down to seconds or less – they know which way to follow the trails, as if there’s a direction indicator. In fact, thinking about it now, I suspect that ants lay their trails down only when heading away from the colony, so the direction is evident.

The reuse of these trails mean that, inevitably, there will be an encounter with another ant out foraging, and the two will join forces to bring the find back to the colony. More or less.
cooperative red ants
The bare truth is, with something this big and terrain this varied, it’s easy for two ants to decide on different paths around or over obstacles, and both of them take the initiative in leading the way. While both are heading in the same direction, the variations are enough to cause quite a bit of comedic fumbling. One tugging in a certain direction would often be enough to pivot the cranefly and lift the other into the air, suspended by its jaws and waving all six legs madly in an effort to gain a toehold.
disagreeing ants
Yes, these two have gone up different blades of grass and are tugging in opposite directions. Apparently nothing like letting the other take the lead, or scouting out the best path ahead, has ever evolved into ants (or at least not this species.) To all appearances, it was only because they were following the same scent trail that they managed any cooperation at all – but there was no hostility either, no possessiveness or attempt to chase off the other.

At one point, both ants stopped to examine the trail, but one made it back faster than the other, seizing the cranefly and trotting off; the second came back to find the cranefly missing, and began an agitated search of the immediate vicinity to locate it. This demonstrated how poor their vision really is, because the large cranefly was wobbling through the grasses not 3 cm away at times, but never spotted, and the slowpoke never bothered to follow the trail to catch up; the internal command seemed to be, “It was right here,” and not, “Harvey must have taken it – go find him.”
red ant tearing off wing
As the ant-in-possession reached the pampas grass, still mostly burnt-off stubs from the winter, it made a serious mistake: getting the body of the cranefly trapped in a small crevice, it tugged too hard on a wing and tore it off, triumphantly bearing this back to the colony (and never noticing that it was making remarkable time and not breathing half as hard now.) I had spotted the likely opening to their warren and the increased traffic among other ants, so it was only a matter of time before another discovered the cranefly lodged in the grass, fetching it out and continuing the journey.
recovered loss
The trip had taken its toll on the cranefly, which now had no legs and only part of one wing, but the breast meat was largely intact, so still good.

As the ant neared the opening to the nest, it dropped the cranefly and began an agitated dance back and forth with a few other ants, I can only guess they were communicating something. It didn’t last long, and within moments three ants were proudly, if again somewhat erratically, bearing the prize down to the colony. And another drama in the leaves comes to a close.
bringing home the bacon
The distance covered, from the time of my discovery, was better than three meters, and you can see the terrain covered in the photos. This took 45 minutes, which not only tells you the life of an ant, but the life of a nature photographer as well; now imagine what it takes to capture a species or behavior not ridiculously common. Some photographers (not me) spend days out in the field trying for the right images. It’s not just the patience that’s necessary, but the kind of mind that finds this stuff fascinating – and I’ll just leave that hanging out there for you to speculate upon…

Earth Day suit

raise your anthers in the air like you just don't careI am changing my tactics slightly with this post, in that I am announcing Earth Day early, so you can actually plan to do something or call in sick or whatever strikes your fancy. If you needed more warning than this, well, that’s your problem – get a decent calendar next year.

So tomorrow, get out and stomp up and down on our planet, just to remind to yourself how useful it is. Or if you want to tackle the advanced appreciation, go to a park, down to the river, up to the mountaintop, go exploring, frolic in the flowers (or the snow – whatever applies,) spit on an SUV, shut down a factory, or piss off a Republican. Plant a garden, introduce the kids to nature, follow a wildlife trail, figure out where that stream ends up. This day is set aside expressly for these purposes, and it is your solemn duty to fulfill your destiny. I don’t think this can be stressed enough.

Or, you know, whatever – no biggie. It’s a handy excuse, but as far as I’m concerned, every day is Earth Day (which means no one is, or something – yes, I get my ideology from Pixar movies; can you think of a better source?) I find it kind of silly, like World Humanist Day – it smacks of the absolute minimum recognition that can be extended, one day that people can do something useful for extending our resources or slowing the abuse of our home, then everything back to normal again the next day. Still not quite as stupid as a National Day of Prayer, but not a lot better either.

There should be something local to you that you can participate in, and if not, then you have something you can arrange yourself for next year. The vast majority of activities that I’ve seen are aimed at kids for some reason – they’re not the ones who make policies or leverage their profit margins, so involving adults seems much more effective. Finding ideas takes nothing more than a simple websearch, or if you’re too reluctant to leave this site (I can relate,) you can click on any links I provide, because they always open in a new window and this page will still be here waiting.

Yet, I don’t really feel the point of Earth Day needs to be either activism or guilt – I think it’s enough to go out and appreciate the natural world, away from the things humans inflict on ourselves and then get annoyed with. Just about universally, we all appreciate sunny skies and rolling hills, the splash of fresh water and the smell of the foliage (save for, perhaps, certain kinds of pollen and spores, especially this time of year.) We tend to get away from these though, in pursuit of “a living” or convenience or even entertainment, and it’s worth setting aside some time to renew our appreciation. That’s all.
beach curlers at sunrise

Save yourselves!

That’s the punchline they should have used. I mean, how could you miss it?
© Cyanide & HappinessThe question, naturally, is where the chocolate bunnies fit into this.

Cyanide & Happiness is, as one might guess from the title (or the episode here,) a rather warped daily webcomic created by three artists – Kris Wilson, Dave McElfatrick, and Rob DenBleyker (or so they claim.) They do rotations on the artwork, which is why it changes every day, and they now feature an animated short every Thursday. Let’s not forget the book, Punching Zoo.


Sorry, any jokes about a zombie jesus eating brains are obvious and redundant…

Lest we forget

I’m not very big on tradition – in fact, I find it pointless, likely a peculiar artifact of our evolutionary past – but I savor the opportunity to repost this, so consider me a hypocrite if you like. Either way, take this little quiz yourself, or past it along to all those you know who want to pompously remind you of the True™ meaning of Easter. Or is it Eostre?

8. When/Where did Jesus ascend back to heaven?

a. Jesus returns to heaven on the same day he arose, right after dinner, from a room in Jerusalem.
b. We don’t know exactly, but it’s at least 8 days after the resurrection, when the despondent apostles have gone back to being fishermen on the sea of Tiberias.
c. After his resurrection, Jesus spends at least 40 days of teaching his disciples in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven from the Mt. of Olives.
d. Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven; he met his disciples in the mountains of Galilee and told them he would be with them always.
e. We don’t really know; Luke is the only gospel writer who actually mentions the ascension.

The amusing undertone to this, as a supercilious wine-taster might declare, is that these questions refer to the number one guy in christianity; these should be the most familiar passages of their scripture. If the testimony of all the witnesses in a court case was of this nature, the case would be thrown out immediately. Triumphant creationists think a “missing link” is sufficient to refute evolution in its entirety. But this kind of babble is completely ignored, by people who still expect to be taken seriously.

Thanks to David Fitzgerald for the quiz, and Phil Ferguson at SkepticMoney for hosting it.

Enjoying the weather

wet mayapple leaves
I got out to poke around down at the park a few times in the past couple of weeks, the same park that produced the great chorus frog recording last month. There was a primary reason for this, as I’ll get to shortly.

The image above I included mostly for the counterpoint to the tulip plant I featured previously. The leaves of those had been so water-repellent it was freaky, but this plant was just the opposite – I’m pretty sure this is a mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum. It had rained sometime before sunrise, hours before this image was taken, and most plants had shed the raindrops long before, but this one was displaying them proudly, despite the drooping angle of the leaves. This load of raindrops made them conspicuously different from everything else around.

bold new bloom What I have been mostly after was more detail shots of praying mantids hatching, and the park hosts several egg cases in locations I’ve memorized now. So far, no luck – one definitely displayed the debris that told me I was too late, and a couple of others seem to indicate likewise, but I’m still holding out hope I can add some nice images this year. But while there, I grabbed some other frames as I explored.

I tried to determine what this tree was, with no luck at all, but I’m not too concerned – I just liked the shape of the lone blossom, as well as the position of the branches against the sky. This is typical of many trees right now, which are starting to bud out in earnest – the ones I captured close to two months ago are the earliest starters, appearing well ahead of anything else in the area. The leaves are breaking out on most of the deciduous trees now, finally making wider, landscape-style shots possible, and not as stark and bare as the background visible here. The area also hosts a serious population of loblolly pines, but these are longneedle trees, the kind that are used for telephone poles, and they tend to lose all branches and needles down low as they grow, leaving only a green crown at the top. I’ve said it before: they’re ugly trees, hardly qualifying as ‘evergreens,’ and even a dense stand of them won’t appear healthy and vibrant. If you live in an area with firs and spruce, be grateful – at least you have something to photograph in the colder months.

I have no idea what these areI’ll provide a couple more images of those blossoms, taken only a few days apart – if you know what these are, feel free to comment. I tried numerous different search terms for the color of the latter stages seen here and couldn’t turn up anything at all. Of course, I’m a guy, so my color vocabulary is limited – I resisted the urge to call these “beef-colored.” The leaves haven’t developed far enough yet to use as a guide, and even searching under “inverted flowers” turned up nothing that looked close. Trees have never been my thing.

The small pond in the park is now populated, and I use that word with reckless understatement, by tadpoles right now. Last year I had visited during the frenzy of mating season, and this year we can see the result of such unbridled passion.

waayyy too many tadpoles

The pond is maybe six by twenty meters and very shallow, really just a stormwater catch basin, but it meets with amphibian approval. Then again, so does a deep puddle, so this accolade is of limited use. I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of tadpoles within, but it easily numbers in the tens of thousands. While it would be nice to provide some development shots as they transition into toads or frogs, I may be competing against the herons who do not appear to have discovered this bounty yet. The numbers will dwindle drastically in the coming weeks, so we’ll see what happens.

I couldn’t pass up another image, but can you blame me?

tadpoles swimming atop lily pad

And I’ll throw in a couple of frames grabbed while out with a student; immediately below are the dogwood blossoms that North Carolina is so proud of, but I have no idea what’s below that, except to say that the pink coloration in the background comes from a redbud tree.

dogwood blossoms and pollinator

unknown blooms

Speaking of redbuds, I was pleased to see the eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis,) which I’d had to transplant last fall from alongside the porch right next to the azaleas, has taken the move without difficulty and is now leafing out, also producing its namesake flowers for the first year – not a lot, but since this was a spontaneous sapling that appeared on its own a couple of years ago, I can’t expect much.

redbud leafing out

A lot of the roots had spread out into areas I couldn’t dig them from and thus got left behind (which probably means the tree will reappear back in the original location too,) so I’m pleased that this one seems to have taken hold. It had served as host for a lot of critters last year, and hopefully will provide more photo opportunities again this year. I might also plant some morning glories at the base and see if I can convince them to climb the tree – maybe this time the hummingbirds will start visiting and I can get some natural-looking shots, instead of mostly at feeders.

Speaking of that, early last week I had filled a hummingbird feeder and set it out, figuring I might be a little early for this area but may as well be welcoming when they arrive. It was gratifying to see it in use within a day – I guess I wasn’t too soon after all. Since I likely beat any of the neighbors in getting a feeder up, perhaps I convinced them to build their nest close by. I witnessed a few mating display flights, and it didn’t take long before at least three were squabbling over feeding rights, as they tend to do, so I quickly put up two more feeders. I have yet to see a nest, even though I know they’ve been within a few dozen meters, but I don’t find this surprising; the nests are ridiculously small and usually buried well in the tree canopy for protection. One day I intend to find one I can watch. No pics of these yet – I haven’t staked out a feeder for long enough, and they’re still a bit spooky, but give me a little more time.

I’ll close with yet another image of one of the green lynx spiderlings (Peucetia viridans,) this time with the first observed meal of the year – which may well be its first meal since late fall. It appears to be the same species of filmy dome spider (Neriene radiata) from earlier, but I don’t think that same one seen in those photos, despite this being taken not 15 cm away – I believe that one was bigger. Either way, it’s been interesting watching these tiny green hunters weather out the fiercer-than-average winter on largely the same perch seen here, which was at times covered in ice (I have no idea where they scampered off to when that happened.) It might be cool if I found a way to tell individuals apart, just to chart their progress, but that might be understandably difficult. Still, get used to seeing them, because I’m sure more images are coming.
green lynx spider eating filmy dome spider

Oh, now he sends it!

lunar eclipse progression
One (or perhaps eight) more from Jim, showing the progression of the eclipse, with two curious traits.

These were taken with a fixed camera, shooting with a wider field of view than the images from the earlier post. An intervalometer was used to snap a frame every 150 seconds, and the resulting eight frames were stacked together into this one image. The camera didn’t move, the frames were not shifted – the moon actually moved this far between each image. As I have said before, the moon and sun move their own width across the sky in 150 seconds, just two and a half minutes. Actually, it’s the rotation of the Earth that’s (mostly) responsible, but you get the gist.

Then they should all be contacting one another, like beads on a string, right? Certainly – the only reason they do not appear so is because of the shadow hiding one of the contact edges. If we were to take one of the images and rotate so its non-shadowed side faced its neighbor, we’d see them touching.

Don’t bother trying, because I already did, and it doesn’t work – there really is a gap between them. Turns out, the whole “150 second” thing is not entirely accurate. The moon’s orbit is elliptical, which means at times it’s farther away from the Earth than at others, and of course this makes it appear smaller in size. Apogee, the time when the moon was farthest, occurred April 8th, while perigee (the closest) will be April 23rd. Thus it was roughly one-third of the way up from its smallest size. Note also that the moon is not perfectly fixed in the sky, only showing apparent movement because of the rotation of the Earth. It’s moving too, otherwise the phases wouldn’t change, but this movement is tiny compared to the rotation of the Earth.

I played around with angular size and time and all that, always a risky thing for someone who’s pretty bad at math, then got smart and booted Stellarium again, which will show the sky’s motion at any speed you like. A sticky note attached to the monitor confirmed that 150 seconds takes the moon more than its own width, producing a pretty good match for this image. In fact, using Stellarium to plot the time needed for an exact ‘beaded line’ is probably a pretty easy way to plan a cool photo sequence.

That was all trait one. Trait two is, the shadows are going the opposite way than what you’d expect. The moon is moving right, but the shadow is overtaking it from the left.

Most of what you are seeing is the moon’s own orbital motion as it revolves around the Earth in a little over 27 days. But a very small part of it is Earth’s orbit around the sun, which shifts the shadow it throws. This doesn’t account for much, since the whole orbit takes a year to accomplish, but it affects the speed and duration of the eclipse nonetheless.

The video found here illustrates this to a certain extent, but the scale for all bodies and distances are way off; the sun is loads bigger than that but much, much further off, while the moon is also significantly more distant. Thus the shadows thrown by the Earth and the moon are much smaller, and coupled with the inclination of the moon’s orbit, this means it only catches the shadow sporadically, thus the rarity of both lunar and solar eclipses (rather than occurring every new and full moon.) If you want to see the actual shadow cast by the moon during a solar eclipse, well, thank the Mir 27 crewmembers.

Aha, hmmmm

mantis hatchling moltI decided to try and answer a couple of questions raised in the post about the newborn mantids, so I went out and collected the debris that was still hanging from the egg sac, that the newborns had been suspended from immediately after emergence. The first thing to become apparent was that it hung from a webbing or silk of some sort, something that adhered to both the forceps and my fingers as I tried to deposit it into a film can (my handy collection bins.) Bear in mind that this is at high magnification, and appears to be nothing more than chaff, slightly larger than dandruff flakes – 3mm at best (thus much smaller than the mantids themselves.) Up close, I have become fairly certain these are actually molted exoskeletons, especially from the uniformity of the fragments. The emerging mantids seem to hang from a thread and split out of their skin, performing their first molt immediately after hatching to allow their legs to emerge. The pics I have of the hatching support this to a small extent, especially when examining the ones emerging from the egg sac, but I did not capture enough detail to see if any of them really were molting at the time.

Intrigued, I went down to the local park where I knew a few more egg cases could be found, this time with the full macro rig. The temperature is supposed to drop tonight and I expect this might delay any more hatchings for a bit, but I was hoping to catch one in the process before this happened. Short answer: not so far. I now know of about eight different egg cases, and only one has hatched – I was too late to see anything with that one. I will have plenty of opportunity to see more detail, provided I get my timing right.

Looking at our own egg sac again this morning, after having done the shot above last night, I found a new, smaller attachment of debris hanging from it. Only a minute or so of examining the bush confirmed my suspicions: a few more had hatched out three days after the initial emergence last Saturday. There’s lots of them around so spotting them for photos isn’t all that hard, but they’re extremely spooky about anything looming overhead, so actually getting close pics is pretty tricky. I got very lucky with these two, possibly because they were occupied with each other.
newborn Chinese mantises chatting
Not the pale coloration, and the dark eyes – these are a few hours old at best. Once again, these are about 10mm long overall, and you can even make out the mouth parts and those delightful little spikes along the forelegs, striking fear into the heart of any aphid around. I might have to try collecting one gently and doing some detailed studio shots, if I can convince it to hold still halfway decently – that’s likely to be a challenge. Earlier today I had coaxed one onto my finger, but it clearly found this Terra incognita and soon hopped off back onto the bush before I could get off a shot (I had anticipated this kind of reaction and hadn’t moved my hand away from the bush.) Even in a controlled setting, I may have a hard time getting a decent portrait.

And no, no bebby black widows yet. I’ll keep you posted.

Had my back

I was aware of the total lunar eclipse scheduled to appear last night/this morning (there’s that stupid “it changed day in the middle of the night” thing again,) but after a week of clear and accommodating weather, the front pushed in yesterday and we received solid, low overcast skies, meaning the only thing I could see was how many places nearby waste electricity by throwing their lights up towards the clouds.

However, my inbox this morning told me that Jim, at the Kansas branch of the blog, had much better skies. This was unexpected – he’s never up at that time of night. Nevertheless, the images shown here are (almost) all thanks to him, because I negligently allowed the weather to turn sour in central NC. You could put this down to cleaner living if you want, but he’s more of an atheist than I am, if that’s even possible, so it’s up to you to jam that into your worldview somehow.
Lunar eclipse beginning

lunar eclipse 40%

lunar eclipse 65%

lunar eclipse with earthshine
As a lunar eclipse progresses to this point, the photographer has a choice to make. Normally, different phases of the moon require different exposure times; this is because the sunlight being reflected is coming at different angles, more oblique for the smaller phases like crescents, and the camera meter cannot often be trusted (which is why people trying to get moon pics with automatic settings usually end up with a glaring blob – the exposure meter is reading too much of the dark sky and trying to make that brighter.) With a lunar eclipse, however, the light remains as direct – it’s just getting partially blocked – so exposure times can remain the same… unless you want to capture that cool orange glow.
lunar eclipse just reaching totality
That glow is sunlight being filtered through the Earth’s atmosphere, exactly as it does at sunrise and sunset. Were we on the moon at this point, we’d be seeing that really cool corona effect of a total solar eclipse, except that it would mostly be orange in color – the Earth blocks the glare of the sun but some peeks through around the edges, going through the atmosphere as it does so. This glow shines on the surface of the moon and reflects back to us, and the moon becomes this rusty color. But quite dim.
total lunar eclipse with earthshine

The exposure details are as follows:

  • Image 1. 1/320 second, f9, ISO 160
  • Image 2. 1/320 second, f16, ISO 800
  • Image 3. 1/320 second, f11, ISO 800
  • Image 4. 1/30 second, f9, ISO 6400
  • Image 5. 1/8 second, f9, ISO 6400
  • Image 6. 1/3 second, f11, ISO 6400
  • The change in ISO, to gather as much light as possible, is responsible for the grainy appearance of the latter images. Without it, Jim would have had to use much longer shutter speeds, and the moon would have moved too much in the frame during exposure – the moon and the sun move their own width across the sky in 150 seconds, so exposure times of even a few seconds will produce a blur at this magnification.

    The uneven lighting is due to the relative sizes of the Earth and the sun. From our vantage, the sun and the moon are close to identical in size – they both vary slightly due to changes in distance, which produces different solar eclipses depending on what time of year they occur – sometimes the moon cannot fully block out the sun and there’s a ring of light always remaining, called an annular eclipse. This coincidence in apparent size has actually been touted by some desperate religious apologists as evidence of god, who made the bodies this size to put on a show for us graced humans. Seriously. Because, you know, ancient populaces thrown into terror and believing the end times are nigh is always good for a larf…

    But from the vantage point of the moon, the Earth is way bigger than the sun, and rarely lines up perfectly square. The uneven lighting is because the sun’s corona shines past more on one side than another. Lunar eclipses also last much longer than solar, partially because of this size disparity, but also because of orbital motion – the moon’s orbit actually travels with the shadow a bit.

    earthshine with crescentBy the way, there’s another form of light that can fall onto the moon, called earthshine, usually visible only with a thin crescent. At such times, the sun is almost behind the moon from our vantage, shining largely on Earth at the same time (meaning the Earth would be gibbous when seen from the moon.) This light is reflected off of the Earth and shines on the night side of the moon, reflected back to us here on the night side of Earth. It is, not surprisingly, quite dim, so exposure times to capture it will almost always result in blowing out the sunlit portions of the moon. The best time to capture this is with as thin a crescent as possible, and the only times to see the moon with a night sky in those phases is right after sunset, or right before sunrise, waxing or waning crescent respectively.

    Now, go back up and take a look at that last eclipse photo of Jim’s. See the little blue dot at lower right? Is this a star? Well, putting Jim’s location into Stellarium and rolling it back to the timestamp from the image, I would say yes, it is – HIP 65821, with a magnitude of only 8.35 (that’s typically dimmer than we can see by eye.) The only time we’d be able to make out a star like that this close to the moon is during a total eclipse – otherwise the light scattered through our atmosphere would have obscured it in haze.

    And yes, Stellarium even shows the eclipse. Download it and check it out – it’s a great free program.

    Fish and reptiles and monkeys, oh my!

    I have learned that part two of the aforementioned PBS series, this one titled Your Inner Reptile, will be airing Wednesday April 16 at 10 PM, on PBS of course. Local listings may vary, but it does seem like they’re running this weekly.

    You also haven’t missed out if you didn’t get the chance to see Your Inner Fish, the first part – it can be viewed directly on PBS’s site by clicking right here. My understanding is this is supposedly restricted to US viewers, but you can get around this by using a proxy service. Since I have not ever attempted this myself, I cannot guide you on it, but a websearch should reveal how this works.

    I will reiterate that I found part one excellent, one of the best science programs I’ve seen, and the book is pretty captivating itself. Gather the kids, nuke the popcorn, get out your giant foam tetrapod fin (well, for the TV program anyway – it might make turning the book’s pages a little tricky.) Go check out the interactive website, too. And if you’re a teacher, this is definitely a worthwhile series to get the class involved in.

    I’ll throw out a little quibble, though: the use of fish, reptile, and monkey should be considered popular usage for convenience, but not scientifically accurate. The ancestral stages that we passed through on our long journey to Homo sapiens may have borne a superficial resemblance to these modern classifications, but today’s fish and reptiles and monkeys are just as much evolved from these ancestors as we are. Evolution didn’t halt or stagnate for any of them, and no modern species has existed unchanged for thousands or millions of years. It’s simply that, in some cases, the environments that our ancestral and our modern species had adapted to were fairly similar. While a shark and a tuna are similar in many ways (and commonly classified as “fish,”) they actually diverged from a common ancestor before the tetrapods like Tiktaalik, which in turn led to all four-limbed species including us. Tiktaalik may or may not be our direct ancestor – we might never know for sure – but it is an example of the development of supporting fins. Tiktaalik might be one of several cousins that existed at the time, and it was another cousin that was really our ancestor, all descended from a species we have not discovered yet. Fossils are rare things, providing tiny spots in history rather than a chapter-by-chapter saga – but, the progression of traits and timelines that we’ve found have been exactly what we should expect from the theories of natural selection and common descent, so this sporadic sampling is not a weakness in the slightest, and no other plausible theory exists to explain why this progression is so plainly evident.

    That’s enough digression – go watch the program.