Book Review: Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails)

First off, a small admission: This book jumped ahead in my review lineup because I won it as a prize in a photo competition held by Panda’s Thumb. I feel I owe it to them ;-)

Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), by Matt Young and Paul K. Strode, was written in response to a determined movement solely by religious organizations to discredit a fundamental tenet of science and biology: evolution. Or to be more specific, the theory of descent with modification by natural selection. And that is the only place where resistance comes from. There are only a tiny percentage of biologists that question the theory at all, and absolutely none that I have determined that somehow do not work religion into the discussion.

This by itself bears some examination, since there is little religious effort put into discrediting geology, cosmology, thermodynamics, or history, all of which present us with hard evidence that scripture is wildly inaccurate. There seems to be something about evolution, most especially human evolution, that really annoys the hell out of many religious folk, so much so that it requires obvious and coordinated efforts to demean.

As Strode and Young demonstrate, however, there isn’t a rational argument against evolution at all. Science has a very distinct method of ensuring accuracy, and this does sometimes mean that theories are refined as we get better information – refinement, however, is not the same as eradicating or replacing, and the fundamental aspect of descent with modification not only has not changed in the time since it was proposed, it has actually been strengthened by this new information, so much so that no one who understands it seriously questions it in the slightest. Religious arguments often involve the idea that science changes, as opposed to (supposedly) perpetual scripture, but this should actually be expected. Humans are not perfect nor omniscient, so our knowledge base will naturally grow, and the ability to change and correct ourselves is how progress is defined. It is similar, in many ways, to a murder mystery, but in real life there is rarely a j’accuse that wraps everything up; instead, we have only the weight of the evidence to go on, and given enough evidence, one is left with the difficult proposal of explaining how any other conclusion could result in the, literally, hundreds of thousands of clues we have.

Young and Strode lay out the case, building on it with each successive chapter, taking the time to establish why there is so much support for this mere theory (and of course, debunking the hoary old “it’s just a theory” meme as they do so.) Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the discussion in detail, simultaneously showing both the support for evolution and the weaknesses behind the opposing arguments. I feel obligated to point out that this is not an anti-religion or atheist book (leave that to me,) but deals solely with evolution. To their credit, they not only say they are not addressing religion as a whole, but feature two religious authors with their own discussion against the inerrancy of scripture, perhaps the biggest issue brought up in opposition to evolution. Strode and Young are conscientious enough to differentiate “creationism” from “religion,” and deal only with that which tries to dismiss or deride evolution.

Initially, I had some misgivings about this book based on the title, since I felt that the target audience, those who feel evolution is untrue, would specifically avoid the book because of it. Not far into the book, however, I corrected that: it’s aimed more at those who have to debate this issue themselves, such as educators, and alternately for those who have heard arguments in both directions and want a better understanding. To that end, it provides an excellent example of building the case. It shows the functional attributes of the scientific method, specifics pertaining to Darwin’s original theory and the later refinements from genetics, the flaws of the opposing arguments and the nature of pseudoscience, and even includes essay questions at the end of every chapter – these are not aimed at reviewing the material, but to encourage the application of the thought processes towards deeper understanding. While the material within the book is accessible to any adult, or even young-adult, the questions reflect college-level exercises intended to evaluate content rather than regurgitate it. It could almost serve as a textbook, though it would be hard to justify a course with the goal of trashing an approach, even one as untenable as creationism. There are those who will not be reached by the material, to be sure, but this book isn’t targeted at blind faith; it is instead aimed at those willing to discuss issues and weigh evidence fairly and openly.

In a few places I found some points that could have borne greater detail or support, since I recognize the kind of opportunities creationists look for to drive some doubt into the discussion. These were outweighed by the detailed examples in opposition to the common arguments, examples such as the unintelligent design of the human knee, and the differences between morphological (appearance-based) and molecular (gene-based) phylogenetic trees, better known as “family trees.” One gets a necessary glimpse into the incredibly involved world of biology, and is reminded that evolution isn’t some casual talking point, but remains wrapped inescapably within a body of knowledge that simply wouldn’t work at all without it. It’s easy to say, “the vast majority of scientists accept evolution,” but another to show that decades of research and medical understanding would be totally dysfunctional in its absence. One cannot simply make up a detailed theory and have tens of thousands of scientists working in the field never realize it, and this book provides some recognition of such a ludicrous idea. Without once, I should add, coming out and saying how ludicrous such ideas are.

For the individual interested in understanding more about evolution itself, this book provides a basis, but lacks the detail that it should have for that goal. Since it is not aimed at that, but rather at those engaged in the debate between evolution and creationist/religious arguments, it serves its purpose well, and includes copious notes and a complete glossary and index. The science teacher who gets too many of those “challenging” questions their students have been primed by their churches to ask would be well served to keep this handy – initially, I was going to say, “well out of sight in a drawer,” but then considered that having it out in the open provides more chances for students to thumb through it on their own.

The book is also useful to those who accept evolution with little reserve, but find themselves ill-equipped to debate it effectively. It not only deals directly with the evolution/creation issues, but also with some of the more common fallacies and misleading approaches that invariably crop up, and prepares the reader well for the creationist who resorts to switching tactics when their first arguments fail. In this way, it is more valuable than simply knowing evolution well, since many of the arguments deal with unrelated subjects like probability and cosmology, also addressed by Young and Strode. Subtly, this is damning by itself, since it becomes clear that creationists rely heavily on the misrepresentation of science in as many areas as possible. It is hard to believe that so many “innocent” misunderstandings could exist, and continue to exist – and of course, they don’t. The fact that such a book needed to be written shows us that religion, contrary to the assertions of many, is not about providing answers.

*      *      *

When I took the photo for my last book review, I discovered that too few people noticed the inclusion of a vague human shape in the dark background that I had taken pains to capture, so I went for a more obvious thematic setting when composing the accompanying photo.

This

One of the best things about this is, we have grandstand seats to see this in person, every one of us, just by ducking out from under our roofs when the weather is clear. We are surrounded by something so stunning, so overwhelming, and all we have to do is be aware of it. There are no word games to play, no philosophy to explain it, no greater understanding to be sought. Just the knowledge of the distance, the time, and maybe even the energy that it takes is all that is needed.

There are photons pouring down right now, ending a trip longer than we’ve been human. Catch them, collect that energy, start that tiny chain reaction from your optic cells into your brain, and tell me that’s not the coolest thing ever.

Have fun.

Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for this one.

Odd memories, part three

When people think of animal shelters, they mostly think of cats and dogs, whether it be cute little puppies and kittens or mangy unwanted crossbreeds, but the fact is, shelters see a large variety of animals, even when the bulk is still cats and dogs. Case in point: my little buddy above.

The shelter I worked for a few years back had night deposit cages, actual locking kennel cages accessible from the outside, with food and water and heated from inside, that allowed people to drop off found (“stray”) or owned but no longer wanted (“surrender”) animals after normal operating hours. They were asked to fill out a form detailing either the location where the animal was found, or the circumstances of its surrender, but you can imagine how that goes. So one morning after a rather cold fall night, we found this gal (I believe) in one of the cages, with no other information.

When I say the cages were heated, this is relative – furred animals would be okay, but reptiles requiring a much higher base temperature of roughly 30º c (85º f) were not going to be happy. So when we discovered the iguana, she was in a state of torpor and very cold, with minimal response. She was medium-sized for a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana, no, seriously,) roughly 30cm (12 in) in body length not counting the tail, which doubled that. Iguanas can get up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length overall, which would have made my next action a bit harder. To warm her up, she got tucked against my chest inside my winter jacket with a warmed bag of Lactated Ringers solution serving as a hot water bottle, and there she stayed for half the day as I worked at my desk, sweating like a pig. Meanwhile, since I was inexperienced in iguana care, I contacted Triangle Iguana Rescue nearby, whose volunteer kindly provided me with critical care information should I be successful in getting the poor thing past the very dangerous condition she was in.

By early afternoon, the iguana was responding to the warmth and started moving about alertly, so I transferred her into a cage in my office (where I worked as administrator) and set up a heat lamp. Initially, she was semi-force-fed baby food, because her system probably wasn’t up to full digestive power, and in a few days she was convinced to eat on her own. Iguanas are actually fairly high-maintenance pets, since they require specific temperatures and UV levels, and a diet of fresh prepared vegetables and fruit with vitamin supplements – you cannot feed them on any commercially available food pellets and expect them to be healthy. Her muted color might actually have been testimony to such a poor diet before. I remember getting razzed by other staffmembers regarding the amount of time I spent preparing her food, but frankly, if you’re going to do it, do it right.

We did eventually find an adoptive home for her, after interviewing the new parent fairly rigorously, again coached by Triangle Iguana Rescue. While they could have simply taken her off our hands, they were loaded themselves, and this does not appear to have changed since then. The exotic animal pet trade is a problematic and frustrating one to many animal advocates, including most animal shelters. Too many people get pets based on their “cool factor,” uniqueness, fad appeal, and other similar reasons, never realizing that such pets are rarely adapted to domestic life and require much more care than dogs and cats. When the novelty fades, the animal gets discarded – sometimes to overloaded volunteer organizations, sometimes to night deposit boxes (to be fair, I cannot vouch that this simply wasn’t a found escapee that someone kindly turned in, but there’s no way of knowing either.) Iguanas, like virtually all reptiles and amphibians, have little personality to speak of and do not warm up to their owners, do tricks, or learn to use a specific potty spot – they simply lack the brainpower, and the best that can be said is that they have particular temperaments. Improperly handled, they can be dangerous, but even in the best of conditions, a significant cage space must be devoted to them – picture “aviary” rather than “cage” in this case, since they need room to climb, higher temperatures than most households prefer, specific spectrum UV lighting, very high humidity, and nice cleanable surfaces.

So if you’re considering some kind of exotic pet, think carefully, and do your research. Don’t let yourself get carried away by the appearance, the novelty, or impulses, and get informed about their health and care requirements – it’s cruel to subject your pet to improper diet or living conditions, and the non-profit organizations that see all of the castoff animals after the novelty fades really don’t need to pick up after you. In all seriousness the exotic pet trade should be eradicated entirely, because it serves no purpose (and there are more than enough cats and dogs already seeking homes.)

Because of this experience, naturally when the next four iguanas came into the shelter over a period of time, they all got to stay in my office. A couple were monsters, close to maximum size, but the first was the little girl above, who even shows faint traces of greenish-yellow baby food on her snout in the photo, taken a few days after her arrival (as well as some dark patches from rubbing against the less-than-ideal cage we had available.) Not many people can say they wrote monthly reports with an iguana stuffed in their armpit, so you know that goes right to the top of my résumé.

Go us!

I’ll apologize in advance, this may come off more like a rant than a thought-provoking piece, but it’s been stewing in my little brain for a while now and I’ve never seen anyone address it, so I shall leap valiantly into the breach. But sports are really damn stupid.

Mind you, I’m not referring to a friendly game of tennis, or really, anything where people get some exercise and aren’t driven by some goal to be superior. I’m talking about the multi-billion dollar industry where couch potatoes shout meaningless slogans at ridiculously overpaid athletes and obsess over what corporate-owned logo can lay claim to a title for a few months. Seriously, can somebody explain this to me?

Don’t try telling me it’s entertainment. They don’t hire color commentators to drone on endlessly about personal bests and garbage trivia because the viewers are wrapped up in the action. Though I will admit it can be fun to watch Dave Madden scribbling away madly with his magic onscreen pen, but that’s mostly because I’ve never seen any child play with any toy as fervently as he does. I keep waiting for little monster doodles to spring up and eat players he doesn’t like…

Just think about this for a second (not Madden, I mean sports in general.) What is the purpose to it all? What does it provide to us? Why do human beings find this so compelling?

Let’s face it, we have some aggressive, tribalistic tendencies – this is almost certainly an artifact of survival traits we needed a few centuries ago. Then, we had strong ties to our village or nomadic tribe, partially as protection against marauding neighbors – and, let’s be honest, also to provide a strong marauding force itself – and partially to reap the benefits of cooperative hunting, farming, and food storage. There were obvious benefits to this. Our species developed it (however far back along the way) because it worked far better than not having it, and thus outcompeted those who lacked it. Then, it was a good thing, and kept the tribes cohesive, kept the mutual protection and benefit thing happening. Now, though we no longer need it, but still have this drive, this “us against them” concept (which fits tightly with the dichotomous thinking trait that I wrote about a while back.)

Sports rivalry is a way of expressing that. Lacking a specific way of applying to the protection and advancement of a home village, which provided mutual benefit, this drive grounds itself in other areas, often getting referred to as “male-bonding” (not that this applies in all situations) but mostly having to do with competition and involving no small amount of emotional expression. This vague feeling that we should be engaging in certain behavior then gets justified within whatever method we choose to express it.

I have lived in several different places over the years, and by dint of expanding some arbitrary demarcation, I could say my “home team” was any of a dozen or more choices – despite the fact that I have participated in nothing even remotely related to any of them. Like virtually all sports fans, I know absolutely no one connected in any way with the games. I was not born in any city that is displayed within a team name. I have not contributed to their welfare, their training, their equipment or facilities. At best, I have at some particular point in time been in some stadium somewhere adding one voice to the cacophony creating a hearing hazard (no, I actually haven’t, but I’m playing the part of a sports fan for a moment, before I rag on them again.) At times I will shout at my TV, or stick a cheap plastic flag onto my vehicle. There’s a persistent rumor that Napoleon failed at Waterloo because the English armada had giant foam hands to wave defiantly. That kind of thing can turn the most stalwart heart, let me tell you.

I did, at one point in time, internally argue that sports were a safe outlet for the aggressive competitiveness we have built into us, especially males. Better to hash it out on a playing field than a battlefield, right? But now I think this is a flawed way of looking at it. First off, it can hardly be said that wars, violence, or conflict tapered off in any way once organized sports became popular. People certainly aren’t ready to accept the idea of being on the losing side, which is why awarded titles last only a season. For a fun exercise, imagine changing the rules so that one team wins for life. Wouldn’t the reaction to that be a great thing to watch? More entertaining that the games themselves, I’ll wager (five to one odds, place your bets.) Even so, is sublimating this aggression really working? Sure, we have soccer riots, but that’s nothing compared to the, um… weren’t there just standard riots on the streets every week or so before sports?

Actually, looking at the effect, it would seem that allowing and encouraging a response to innate tribalism is far worse than recognizing it and downplaying it. Encouraging it only legitimizes it. No one seems to think that they’re being primitive (or at least, that this is a bad thing) when engaging in sports rivalry. You’ll hear lots of excuses for it, lots of justifications, but do they stand up at all? How often do you wonder about the idea of paying someone else to physically ruin their body – or to try and ruin someone else’s? How useful is it to have a significant percentage of the country contribute income towards a completely vapid pursuit? How come the sports figures in colleges receive so much recognition while the PhDs generally struggle for decades for adequate grant money? You know, I think it was a major leap forward when Crick and Watson opened the door for so much medical and biological advancement – I couldn’t care less what Namath and Jordan did. Am I a mutant?

And if you aren’t sure who Crick and Watson are, but know Namath and Jordan, there’s a serious problem here. Can anyone argue against education? Is there a downside to it? But the salaries of educators is pretty pathetic, and school budgets have been slashed with the recent economic hand-wringing. Sports figures, however, aren’t struggling. It should make you wonder…

Here’s another aspect of that tribal/home team/cooperative society concept. Way back when, it worked to protect our food or even provide it, and to protect the other members of our tribe/village. But now, there’s no real benefit, is there? The winning team does not bring back the food, or prevent the food we have from disappearing. Sports, as a replacement for this drive, is like chewing gum: they don’t really accomplish anything except acting as a pacifier. At best, we can say some of the exorbitant amounts of money that sink into it comes back into the economy, especially if you sell steroids, expensive sports cars, and big ugly rings. Reagan would be proud of that trickle, I’m sure. Overall, however, it’s simply giving select individuals (players and owners) vast sums of money to jump and run and throw, or even just to supervise jumping and running and throwing.

I would probably be cool with the idea of two countries settling their differences on a playing field instead of in combat. It tends to be a lot less costly in every way. Then, maybe, displaying a little Calvin mourning over a dead number 3 on your pickup truck would have more meaningful social commentary. But again, there’s the whole behavior of the fans to consider. They can’t handle questionable calls from referees – they sure as shit can’t handle losing some economic advantage with grace. It’s the aggressive competition that’s the issue, not whether there is an adequate way of expressing it. In fact, fervent nationalism is a way of expressing it. There’s obviously a problem with believing that “My country is Number One!” is better than, “Maybe there’s some room for improvement.”

Innate drives do not mean they are useful, or unavoidable. Our social and economic structure, the idea of worldwide communication and travel, the ability to kill large numbers of people easily, came about very abruptly in evolutionary terms, within a handful of generations. There has not actually been time to breed out tribalism, even though it has little use anymore, and obvious disadvantages. We’re not trapped by this, however. Our sex drive has much the same provenance, and is widely controlled – our rational minds can easily override the instinctual or emotional, provided we recognize it and make the effort. Realize that just a couple of hundred years ago ritualized murder, in the form of dueling, was actually legal and supported by society, slavery even more recently. The fact that these are abhorrent to us now is great evidence for the power of rational thought.

The message needs to be clear, too. Competition does indeed have many benefits, to both the individual and the culture – as long as it’s competition with a positive result, and not merely for self-indulgence. Sports are a great way to maintain physical fitness, when practiced regularly – but not if you’re paying someone else to do it. Personal bests are great motivators – but only if they’re for something useful.

How long are televised sports events? Two hours? Three? How much does it cost to get into a game? Wait, how much?! Damn. Do you have that satellite dish primarily for sports? And that’s what per year?

Get up. Go outside. Do something, learn something, teach something. Don’t think of “goal” in terms of a little object going through some defined point in space. Think of it in terms of personal improvement. Then go out and score.

Have fun!

Just because, part three


Sometimes, you just have to.

(Yes, I know “Frank” is actually a female – it just didn’t have the same impact…)

Two can play that game

While I had been planning to put this post up soon, Dr. Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution Is True beat me to it with his own post about snakes, but his includes some great video, including a stunning sequence of an egg-eating snake! I hate it when someone on my blogroll to the right upstages me, even before I actually post! Although he’s a university professor and author, so I suppose that has privileges…

For some unknown reason, I have seen surprisingly few snakes this year, which is annoying to someone that likes snakes as much as I do. My property, which plays host to as many different animals as it does (including some resident treefrogs in a potted plant,) does not seem to cater to snakes. Now just a few days ago, as we get late into the season and the days are starting to get chilly, I glanced down at the base of a tree at The Girlfriend’s house and spotted a short length of bicycle chain, or at least that was the immediate impression, soon replaced with one of recognition at the pattern of a young Black Rat Snake.

Black Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta,) despite their scientific name, are very common throughout the eastern United States, and one of the largest you’re likely to encounter, at times reaching over two meters (six feet.) They’re great tree climbers, great everything climbers, and can even be found nesting in attics. As adults, they resemble little more than black garden hoses, having the same diameter and often seen “discarded” casually in the grass. Their white undersides aren’t usually apparent unless you pick them up, which is easier to do than you might imagine, since they are typically fairly docile.

The pattern of the young differentiates greatly. Their patchwork pattern of black spots on a medium-pale grey base makes many people think they are entirely unrelated, not helped by the size they are for their early years. This pattern helps them remain camouflaged while they are at this vulnerable size, since it blends very well against tree bark and in shady patches. And like many snakes, they usually become motionless when danger threatens, opting to avoid attracting attention rather than bolting for cover, which is what allowed me to capture this one.

Their diet consists of just about everything, including the namesake rats. But they also eat birds, eggs, and even other snakes if the pickings are slim. They’re constrictors, with a completely harmless bite, and their tiny teeth are good only for holding prey. Even if you manage to get one to bite you, you’ll display little more than tiny pinpricks of blood, not an honorable wound at all for intrepid Crocodile Hunters. I have used perfectly wild Black Rat Snakes for educational talks, because they are so easy to handle, but do not recommend retaining any wild animal as a pet. Not simply because they don’t belong and have drives to be outdoors rather than a small cage, but also because of the damage that can be done to them by poor diet and improper housing.

In the right conditions, the adults can be seen to retain vestiges of the patterns they had as young-uns, between their scales, but you typically have to look hard to see this at all. This example, of one roughly 1.5 meters (5 ft,) shows the pattern in bright sunlight, right there in the middle, as it heads straight up a tree. You might think they do this slowly, but you’d be amazed – they can scale a vertical rough surface at the same speed as their casual gate gait [cripes] on the ground (I suppose it’s improper to use “gategait” on something with no legs, but you know what I mean.)

In spring and fall, they can be seen in early mornings on the roads, or occasionally sidewalks. As “cold-blooded” (ectothermic) animals, they get heat from their environment, but when the nights are cold this makes them a bit sluggish. Since they often hunt at night, this can pose a problem to digestion, so they drape their wonderfully solar-absorbent bodies in areas to capture the maximum amount of warmth when the sun rises – unfortunately, this leads to many of the encounters they have with humans, in which they rarely come out unscathed. It’s a shame, since they’re simply doing their own thing and fitting in nice and snugly with the ecosystem.

I’ve encountered Black Rat Snakes rather suddenly on a large number of occasions, sometimes in surprisingly close quarters. Doing animal rescue work years ago meant (as one of the people who had no qualms about snake handling) that I got many of the snake calls, and have removed them from attics, downspouts, front lawns, schools, and once the sidewalk in front of the public transit garage – where it had kept half the staff clustered inside against the glass door as it digested its bird meal. A few tried bluff displays, one actually struck – again, big deal. They honestly can’t do any damage. Mostly, they retreat, and in situations where they’re out in the open and suspect they’re in view, they can pull backwards with glacial slowness, hardly appearing to move at all, so as not to attract attention if they haven’t yet been noticed. Many species of animal, humans included, can miss the obvious simply because it’s not moving – I’ve spotted a Black Rat Snake hanging out of a downspout on a porch, a few meters behind someone I was conversing with. They might have missed it entirely had I not pointed it out.

Like many snakes, they have a warning display when agitated, which is vibrating their tail madly – rattlesnakes only have a handy noisemaker, but they’re not the only ones to do this. When the tail encounters dry leaves the sound is fantastic, but even on a smooth surface the buzzing is neat. Coupled with a writhing coiled motion (see one of Dr. Coyne’s videos linked above,) it looks very ominous, but the threat from snakes in North America is way over-emphasized. Telling the venomous species apart is fairly easy – it simply means you have to look close at markings and memorize them. Even without this effort, leaving them be works fine; pushing them off with a broom, if they’re in a hazardous area, is usually sufficient. No snake can eat a human, so they only want to be left alone – you’re the threat, not them. The phobia many people have over snakes is a human failing, not the snakes’ fault, and no, it is not inherent or instinctual, it’s usually conditioned by culture. Get over it. Snakes are all around us, and by a large margin not even remotely dangerous. Get this: I actively hunt out snakes, know how to spot them and how to handle them, and still haven’t had an encounter with a venomous species in the wild, save for rescue calls (which were notoriously uneventful.)

Yes, I’ve heard the stories of people being pursued aggressively by venomous snakes, just like I’ve heard the stories of people curing their illnesses with crystals or homeopathic remedies. They’re the same level of total bullshit. The people who have to capture and handle these same venomous snakes as a matter of routine will tell you how unfounded the stories of aggression are. It’s all defense at provocation, nothing more.

My little buddy here, despite displaying a defensive coiled-and-ready-to-strike posture (when I did not have the camera handy,) never even attempted to strike, and was easy to handle. The pic below gives a fairly good indication of size. The Girlfriend, who really doesn’t like snakes, even thought it was cute.

This is not satire

That’s the frightening thing: it really isn’t satire, since it’s far too accurate. We’ve had a long run of stupendously ignorant politicians recently, and it’s really shameful.

I don’t do much about politics, because I really don’t have the patience for it. This is one of my vices; while I spend no small amount of time promoting critical thinking and the idea of not fooling yourself, I really can’t stand actually finding out how phenomenally stupid many people are, so I avoid the subject. But here’s a thought: maybe we can institute a simple law, where no one can hold public office until they can pass a standard high school GED test. Is that too much of a bare minimum competence standard? Hell, it should be much higher, but right now let’s set the bar realistically. I’d hate to see too many politicians out of work, because McDonalds only needs so many drive-through attendants…

Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for this video.

Things change

Just a few posts ago, I featured some yellowjackets working on their underground nest. Today, I discovered I was not the only one who had found them.

Sometime in the last few days, something had dug up the opening into the nest and removed several large portions of comb, leaving them strewn about the ground nearby. It was a bit curious, because the excavation wasn’t very deep at all, amounting to only about 20 centimeters (8 inches) at most, and maybe the same width – it didn’t seem enough to hold the number of combs I found. But the yellowjackets were undeterred, and were very busy on the exposed portions of the nest. Note, to the right mostly, the multi-colored swirls indicating the paper shells of the nest itself.

From the looks of the damage, this certainly wasn’t any human’s work, and I got no impression of a large animal because the area of disturbed soil wasn’t significant, so my guess is a raccoon or opossum. It just strikes me as odd that they would tackle this. Yellowjackets aren’t honey producers, and the larva are fed by pre-chewed insects that the adults capture. These combs, all apparently older and empty, are just like paper wasps’ nests, and house only the eggs and pupae. While this might be an enticing meal, it seems like a tough one to obtain.

Most of the hymenoptera have really lousy night vision, much worse than ours, and thereby very much worse than a raccoon’s or opossum’s. They usually do not fly at night at all, even when the nest is threatened. But they’re more than happy to swarm onto something if it comes within reach, which may be why the layers of nest visible in my shots remains undamaged: the old stuff near the surface wasn’t hard to tear out, but when the nighttime marauder got to the active nest a little deeper, it encountered the standing guard. The photos above were from daylight (though flash assisted) – the image below was taken at night, showing the sleeping positions of the yellowjackets.

Yep, stick your hand in there, see what happens. I’ve had my fill of things like that, and don’t care to star in any YouTube videos just for your amusement.

When I went out to seek this shot, I did so very quietly and with the assistance of a bright flashlight. Not to see the bees as much, but to try and catch the return of the marauder. I saw nothing, however, and the nonagitated state of the bees would seem to indicate that the night had been quiet. Perhaps the raccoon or opossum had learned its lesson. Or was returning with a bee smoker…

Can I make an amateur naturalist’s lesson out of this? Perhaps I can. If there are areas you frequent, it sometimes helps to look around carefully and pay attention to details, because then situations like this become obvious, and you have some clue as to what is happening when you’re not there. This can provide an opportunity to return and catch sight of the drama that often unfolds at night, but also to illustrate a story even if you don’t see what actually happened.

Get back to me with Phase Two

Like many pursuits and interests, critical thinking involves a subset of information, discussions, and approaches, many of which don’t capture the attention of those who aren’t interested in critical thinking. I’m well aware of this, so often you’ll see me break the blog posts up with the “Continue Reading” tag, so that no one is forced to read a topic that doesn’t motivate them. It’s kind of silly in this way, for two reasons: the first is, nothing I post is even remotely forcing anyone to read it, and something else is a mouse-click away. Secondly, I think critical-thinking skills are important for everybody, so I’m perhaps defeating myself by hiding things beneath the fold, as it were. Just think of it as my way of being… accommodating.

But if you don’t continue, you miss the cartoon video…

Continue reading “Get back to me with Phase Two”

Can you see the light?

From time to time, I play around with infra-red photography, because it can produce some really cool effects, and also because there are ways to make it relatively easy. An old digital camera of mine, the Canon Pro90 IS, can not only capture infra-red light, it can focus it and calculate exposure reasonably as well. All that’s needed is an infra-red filter, such as the Lee 87P3, an inexpensive polyester sheet.

The reason this works is that most digital sensors can actually capture a certain range of infra-red (hereinafter “IR”) light normally, without any modifications. In fact, most quality digital cameras today include an internal filter specifically to block IR light because of this. I tumbled to it entirely by accident, when I noticed that foliage had a tendency to wash out in images made with this camera, as if the foliage alone was being overexposed. I already knew that foliage is one of the best reflectors of IR, so putting this together wasn’t a great leap.

But what is IR light anyway? Well, all light is simply energy in the electromagnetic spectrum, as is radio waves, microwaves, gamma rays, and cosmic rays. What we tend to call “light,” or sometimes “visible light,” is simply a particular range of wavelengths that our eyes are sensitive to, running roughly between 390 and 750 nanometers. Many light sources are not restricted to this range, however, and our sun is a good example. Wavelengths outside of this range are not detected by our eyes, but are still there – infra-red starts above 750 nanometers, and ultra-violet starts below 390 nanometers. Go even further, and it becomes one of those others that I mentioned above. Microwaves, such as those used for cellphone communications, are merely much shorter wavelengths of the same kind of energy.

IR photography simply involves blocking most of the wavelengths we consider visible, but letting through the near infra-red spectrum. Of course, you need a medium sensitive to IR light as well, which can be digital (and tends to produce more consistent results) or special films. But there’s a lot less IR energy than visible, in effect making the IR world more like twilight, so long exposures are needed to get a decent image, and the greater range of wavelengths blocked by your filter, the longer it needs to be.

Foliage is a remarkable reflector of IR light, so leaves in bright sunlight come up very bright. But the sky, nice and blue to our eyes, does not suffer from Rayleigh scatter in IR wavelengths, so clear skies turn up very dark, and get brighter with humidity because water does reflect IR. Thus the dark sky and white clouds. And because there is no Rayleigh scattering, indirect sunlight, clouds, and shadow all make IR light extremely dim, so the best results are obtained from brilliantly sunny and clear days (with maybe a few puffy clouds for sky accents.)

Other things reflect IR differently, so experimenting is best. Our skin, for instance, reflects a moderate amount of IR in comparison to foliage, so in a properly-exposed photograph, people look pretty normal, which can make a nice juxtaposition among the ghostly trees and dark sky – provided they hold absolutely still for the whole exposure time, which often goes into several seconds. Yes, a tripod is a must, and a remote release recommended.

Now, here comes more science trivia. Our sun puts out a wide range of energy in a curve, hitting a high peak at about 500 nanometers – yes, smack in the middle of what we call visible light. The thing is, we could see in lots of other conditions, and see entirely different things, if our eyes had a different or wider range of sensitivity to wavelengths. But they’d have to be more efficient, since our eyes now can detect only the wavelengths coming in with lots of energy – this is, of course, no coincidence, but a simple evolutionary advantage of utilizing the greatest available resource. Other species, however, can see different ranges, or with more sensitivity. Many fish can see in certain ranges of ultra-violet (UV) because it penetrates further into the water, and bees use it to spot healthy flowers, which produce a different reflection pattern in UV. Birds have a much more detailed range of color vision than we do, seeing more color overall – where we could tell no discernible difference between 500 and 500.5 nm, for instance, birds can. And they also have a range of UV they’re sensitive to, because it is reflected in plumage to varying degrees and can indicate the health and robustness of potential mates.

But why does it look black & white? Shouldn’t it look, well, red, or very red? With some filters, some color does indeed come through, but this tends to be visible light that is allowed to pass by the filter’s composition. You need to be aware that neither digital sensors, nor the light-reactive chemicals in film emulsion, react to color in any way – both only react to light intensity. To achieve color, you basically need to filter for that color, just like putting on colored sunglasses. For film, it’s different layers of emulsion set into a colored gelatin. For digital, it’s actually a micro-screen of colored filters over every pixel in the sensor. In other words, digital sensors have a dot pattern like a TV screen, but this is eliminated by algorithms in post-processing. IR light, however, corresponds to none of these digital filters, and trickles past all of them equally well in the examples above. Most likely, these colored filters block some of the IR light, which is part of the reason why exposure times can go so long.

Below, some examples of different IR filters on the same camera. At left, a filter allowing only wavelengths above 950nm, well past our ability to see. At center, one allowing wavelengths above 720nm, which intrudes into the visible spectrum and begins to get affected by the color filters in the camera. At right, a sneaky trick – using a black piece of developed slide film as a filter, in this case Provia 100F.
Wait, slide film? Yes indeed. The emulsions on many slide films block most visible light but let IR through, so a black piece of slide film can work. Because of the size of most lenses, you have to go with medium-format or large-format film. The Canon Pro90 IS has a 58mm lens filter size, so I was able to use the blank leader of 120 film which is 60mm wide, mounted in an old UV filter ring.

This leads to another fun trick. Light sensors in other areas are also sensitive to IR light. Slave strobes, for instance, are strobe units that respond to a sudden flash of light (or sometimes aiming them abruptly into bright sunlight, as I’ve blinded myself discovering.) So they fire off when they detect the camera’s strobe unit, and because light travels so fast and electronics introduce only tiny delays, the slave provides additional light to the image. They can be handy to have, since they can throw light from other directions without requiring any kind of wiring or radio linkage.

But let’s say, when shooting normal situations and not IR, you don’t want light coming from the camera, only from the slave set off to the side. Then you block the on-camera strobe with a piece of black slide film, which blocks the visible light but lets the IR trigger the slave. Cool, right? Just one of those quick and dirty tricks to make fancy lighting a little easier. Radio triggers are expensive.

Getting back to IR filters, you should note that all three images compared above have radically different exposure times. When shooting film, you’ll be advised by the manufacturer how sensitive the film is to certain filters (though you’re out of luck using slide film as a filter – the best I can say is that the Provia 100F used above probably lets an additional stop through over a 720nm filter.) With digital, the camera might set its own exposure correctly, or it might require some playing around.

Let’s not forget another tricky thing. Okay, we know that lenses bend light, and looking at illustrations of prisms, they can bend different wavelengths (colors) by differing amounts. Camera lenses are optimized to try and correct this rainbow effect – in visible light. But IR is outside of what they’re created to handle, so to even focus properly, you introduce some issues. Using film, for instance, you can’t focus with the IR filter in place, because we see only visible light, so you have to focus on the scene, then place the filter. But the lens is focused for visible light, and IR gets bent much further, so the lens is now out-of-focus for IR light. You need a lens with an IR mark (only some lenses include this anymore), and you adjust focus according to this mark.

See the red line by the “4” on this focusing ring? That’s the IR pointer. Once focused without the filter in place, you then shift the focus ring from its alignment with the center pointer (here, pointing at the back of the “5”) to line up instead with the IR pointer. You can’t trust autofocus in most cases because the IR filters don’t let through enough light for the sensor to get a decent contrast reading. The Pro90 can achieve autofocus, but it struggles with the 750nm filter, and is very balky with the 950nm filter – conditions have to be very bright and contrasty for it to lock on.

Want to know if your digital camera can produce IR images? There’s a simple trick, for those where the LCD can be used as a viewfinder. In relatively dim light, use the LCD viewfinder and have someone point a TV remote (any kind should do) at the lens and press any button. If you see a flicker of pale light from the front of the remote, you’re seeing the IR pulse they use, and your camera should be good to go – just find a filter!

Many Canon EOS film cameras are hampered in shooting IR film, because they use an IR light to count sprocket holes when advancing the film – this will fog the bottom edge of your images. It’s not a hard thing to shoot wider and simply crop this out, just be warned of the problem.

Unless you’re using film, you will almost certainly have some color cast to your images, even the ones that look B&W. You can simply eliminate this by converting to greyscale, or tweak this for good effect. You will probably also find that contrast is low, so boosting it afterward is recommended – play around with the levels until you achieve what you like best. The farm picture above has been converted to greyscale and adjusted in contrast to keep the midtones where I liked them. In the forest road photo at top, I left the color in and tweaked it, very slightly, towards cyan – it’s subtle, but it contrasts nicely with the page background color.

And you may have been waiting for me to explain the bright streaks, or figured it out on your own: yes, it’s a car going past during the four second exposure, with its headlights on. The car didn’t reflect enough light to do anything in the areas it traveled through, but the headlights were distinctly brighter, even in IR. I should have gone for eight seconds…

Two other examples of IR photos can be seen here and here. Finding the right conditions for a good image is trickier, but the results are worth it. Keep watching this space for more examples as I play around some more.