Nectar and pollen and all that jazz

possibly silver-spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus showing proboscis
With the heavy rains a few days back, the flowers in the NC Botanical Garden were producing more than adequate nectar, and when the Inscrutable Mr Bugg and I visited on Thursday, the pollinators were having a field day, as they say. I mean, not the pollinators – they tend to be closed-mouthed, or really no-mouthed-at-all – but, you know, the they they. Which is to say, someone other than us, possibly wholly imaginary. And pollinators almost always have a field day, since that’s where their food is, where they reproduce, and all that. We’re not getting anywhere with this paragraph, are we? And by that I mean the royal we, which basically means I bear sole responsibility for making this horrendous mess.

Anyway, we got a lot of photos during the outing, and one collection of which is going to serve to illustrate a new macro photography post – but that is not this one. This one is simply showing off several different species doing the same damn thing. Lotta proboscises… probosci… mouth siphons to be seen here. Above, an unidentified skipper provided a lot of detail but an over-exposed flower, I suspect because Bugg’s flash went off at the same time that I tripped my own shutter, but I can’t vouch for that. I also can’t vouch for the species, but this is not through lack of trying; BugGuide.net has 373 pages of photos for just the grass skipper subfamily, and I’m not even sure that I was right in selecting that one. I’d gotten past 150 pages before I said, “Screw it,” and continued with this post; I could always submit what I have for identification, but I don’t have detailed fullbody shots and anyway I’m not gonna.

[Okay, so, I put “skipper” into the tag field and WordPress popped up previous instances of the tag from my own blog, among them being “silver-spotted skipper,” so I checked the post where that appeared, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like a match. And that species isn’t a grass skipper (subfamily Hesperiinae,) but a dicot skipper instead (subfamily Eudaminae,) so you know this means I should have checked my own posts first. Geezzz. Anyway, this is likely a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus.) That was better than 45 minutes for one photo – this is not promising to be a fast post to produce.]

unidentified carpenter bee on unidentified flower
Having learned my lesson (which was not to try and learn what anything is,) I present only the aesthetics of this image and not the details. It’s a buzzy thing on a plant. Deal with it.

But if you’ve ever tried it, you know that most carpenter bees, especially with flowers this small, are not holding still very long at all, moving quickly from blossom to blossom, to say nothing of the swaying of the stalks in the breeze and the swaying of the unsteady photographer for no reason at all. Combined with the very short depth-of-field of the typical macro magnification, this makes such images fairly hit-or-miss; timing can play an important role, as can taking a lot of images hoping to nail one in sharpest focus, but I’m not showing you that whole collection of misses. I’m showing you this successful one so you can marvel at my precision and amazing skills. If you look close, you can see that the focus on the wings, the legs, and the sides of the body and head are all sharp, largely because they were all in the same plane, with a couple of blossoms coming in there too. Other blossoms show how short the focus range really is – had the bee been facing diagonally from the camera, the effect might not have been as distinctive.

There were several patches of phlox (what I believe to be Phlox paniculata, which goes by so many common names it’s ludicrous,) and these were a huge favorite of the sphinx moths, the hummingbird mimics. To all appearances, I captured at least two different species, but it actually takes close examination of the resulting photos to tell – they’re far too hyperactive to be able to distinguish on the fly.

hummingbird clearwing moth Hemaris thysbe feeding from Phlox paniculata
The pale forelegs and the red underside of the abdomen likely peg this as a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe,) and you can see that the hind legs aren’t in contact with the flower at all – the moth is hovering, only braced by the forelegs, and maintained this position for two seconds or less. Believe me, I have plenty of photos that I missed; it’s more a matter, upon returning and unloading the memory card, of seeing if I managed to get any clear shots. Overall body length might have been 30mm – slightly smaller than the ruby-throated hummingbird that the moth mimics, but apparently not so much that any predators could tell the difference.

A couple more to illustrate.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis feeding from Phlox paniculata, full frame
This is the full frame, showing what I captured as a different species, a snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) provided a nice profile shot (instead of the typical dorsal view, when they actually came into the clear in the first place.) But now we’re going to go in close for the detail.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis at Phlox paniculata, in detail
I am not going to dismiss the role that luck plays in getting images like this, but I will at least aver that it is not all luck, demonstrated very simply by the plain fact that I shoot subjects like this alongside other photographers fairly frequently, and almost always get more keepers than they do. In cases like this one, it was also a matter of finding the key parts to focus upon (such as the proboscis here) and being able to trip the shutter right as they came up the sharpest. I wasn’t trying to adjust the focus ring and sure as hell wasn’t going with autofocus (and couldn’t anyway, since this was the strictly-manual Mamiya 80mm macro lens,) so this meant adjusting focus with the camera’s position instead, leaning in or out as needed. It takes practice, but it can be worth it.

By the way, I’m fairly certain this was an aperture of f4, since I was shooting by natural light without a flash unit, which shortens depth-of-field even more. Notice that the abdomen is already going out of focus, and the flower petal under the tip of the proboscis is very soft. It’s easy to believe the blur of the wings is from their movement, until you notice how distinct the wing veins are; they’re not moving much at all in the brief shutter speed – 1/2000 second – so the softness is primarily from short focus depth. I’m pleased with it.

Even more telling – of what I don’t know – is that, after quite a bit of searching, I eventually spotted a tiny crab spider on one of the blossoms. This was a vindication of sorts, since I know crab spiders like those flowers as ambush grounds, yet wasn’t finding them even though I was looking hard. However, the spider was perfectly motionless, on a blossom that wasn’t driven much by the wind, and not one of eight frames is anywhere near sharp enough to use. Yes, I really do wonder how the hell I managed to screw that up. But you know I’ll take the sphinx moths over the crab spiders any day.

And one last one, as the same moth left that particular cluster of flowers.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis leaving Phlox paniculata after feeding
Not quite as sharp as the last, but not bad, and I like how the proboscis is already curling up into travel position (or, you know, whatever you want to call it – I’m sure entomologists have some technical term that applies.) This is cropped, but not quite as much as the previous; I was in the exact same position after all. Also, there’s enough detail captured here to see the differentiating details of the species, in this case dark legs and a black underside to the abdomen. The dark background fooled my exposure meter towards overexposing the shot a little, but there was no way I was going to play with compensation in the mere seconds that I had, and the backgrounds were widely varied as the moths flitted about haphazardly.

Oh, and I’ll mention again: you can pick a particular cluster of blossoms to ‘stake out’ and lock focus onto, waiting for the pollinators to come into your composition and feed from those flowers, but it typically doesn’t work. As a species, we tend to be meticulous and methodical, but pollinators (and even hummingbirds themselves) work almost at random, or at least driven by factors that are not immediately apparent to us, and remaining locked-in on any given spot usually means you’ll miss a decent shot only centimeters away. It’d be nice if it worked, but in years of doing this I’ve had it happen maybe three times. Just follow their progress and hope for decent compositions and focus.

Oh, give it a shot

It’s been a while since I’ve made the attempt myself, but the moon conditions at least are almost ideal now. Over the next few nights we’ll be near-peak for two different meteor showers: the Delta Aquarids and the Alpha Capricornids. All too often, the moon is too bright for good viewing, throwing excessive light across the sky (especially in humid climes like here,) but we’re in a waning crescent phase right now, meaning the moon won’t even rise until the early hours of the morning, and then it’ll only be a thin slice.

It’s not hard to set your camera for these, but different techniques yield different results. I’ll provide a few pointers (even though what I’ve caught so far has been abysmal.)

1) Pick the darkest region you can find, of course, as far from light pollution as possible. There is a ‘radiant’ for each storm where the meteors tend to originate, but in my experience it’s always been a loose tendency, and meteors might be found in any direction. If you have darker skies away from the radiant, you may have better luck aiming that way.

2) ISO no higher than 800, but 400 or less will keep the digital noise down.

3) Full manual settings, aperture between f5.6 and f11, B[ulb] for the shutter. Camera on firm tripod of course, as low as you can reasonably get it just for stability, especially if it’s breezy or windy. A remote release helps keep you from disturbing the camera when opening and closing the shutter. Moderate focal length, from 35-80mm, will give you a broader section of sky, increasing your chances of capturing one, while hopefully not reducing it so much in the frame that it’s barely discernible. Manual focus too, locked carefully onto a bright light source as far away as possible, like a radio tower beacon or something – they’re easier to make out in the viewfinder than stars, though usually at the same effective distance.

4) Relatively short exposure times, because the Earth is turning and this will render star trails for longer exposures. How short? Well, there’s no good guide, because a lot of it depends both on your focal length and how close to the equatorial plane you’re aiming – that’s where the most apparent motion takes place. The longer your focal length, the more noticeable star motion will be. Aimed near the poles (like north or south,) you can get away with exposures perhaps as high as a minute, but near the path that the sun and moon take across the sky, ten seconds is probably maximum. Don’t get me wrong, star trails are cool, but they can also muddy up the frame enough that lesser meteors become almost invisible.

5) Find a comfortable position near the camera that allows you a good view skyward; this generally means at least leaning back a bit, but lying almost horizontal tends to be the most comfortable. And dress for inactivity, i.e., a little warmer than you might have thought.

6) Just keep firing off frames. You’re going to discard a lot. But the less time you spend with the shutter closed, the more chances you have of capturing a meteor.

7) If you’re lucky enough to capture a brilliant fireball, make sure you don’t re-aim the camera for at least a few frames afterward, and go for some much longer exposures for following frames. Some fireballs actually leave an infinitesimally faint trace of their passage in the sky for minutes afterward, and subsequent frames may reveal it, and possibly even its movement across the sky.

I hope this helps. Have at it, and if you capture anything, drop me a line, or make a comment here. Good luck!

Storytime 30

southern unstriped scorpion Vaejovis carolinianus not quite ready for action
This had been among the first of my detailed arthropod images and had been in the image galleries for a while, but I eventually removed it to upgrade my offerings. This is a southern unstriped scorpion (Vaejovis carolinianus,) also commonly known as a southern devil scorpion. It was collected in Smyrna, Georgia, which is one of 168 and counting suburbs of Atlanta, and it dates from 1999 or thereabouts; yes, this means it was shot on slide film and not digital. Overall length was probably less that 30mm, but I’m going off memory and we all know how bad that is.

The action pose here is anything but, since it was found entangled firmly in a spider’s web, quite dead. I spent some time stripping the webbing away carefully and then soaking the corpse in alcohol to soften the joints, which allowed me to pose it at will before letting it harden again – the background is playground sand from my apartment complex. So, yeah, intrepid action shots and all that. Worse, this was before I even knew that they fluoresced brilliantly under ultra-violet light, so I missed my opportunity back when this was in my possession. Though I imagine, in those uncivilized days, I would’ve had a difficult time getting my hands on a UV light source for a price I was willing to meet.

There’s a part two to this story as well. After getting a selection of photos, I set about to cast it in clear polyester resin to make a curio out of it. I didn’t have the shape mold that I wanted, but I found a small drinking glass (what two or three generations back would have called an “Old Fashioned” glass after the mixed drink of that approximate size) with an ideal shape to it. Planning carefully, I mixed the first batch of clear resin and poured it in, letting it start to set so it had gelled a little, then carefully put the dearly departed in upside-down and held it down with straight pins through a card above the glass, so its feet were just breaking the surface of the resin. Letting that harden for a short while, I mixed a new batch that was heavily infused with sand, and added a thin layer of this on top – when inverted, it would give a somewhat natural-looking surface for the scorpion to be perched on, like the photo here.

Everything went just ducky until the whole assembly had hardened sufficiently, which was a day later – that was when I found that I couldn’t get my new casting out of the damn glass. I shook, I tapped, I ran the glass under hot water, I pleaded, I threatened, and of course I cursed; no luck. I had used no mold release agent and the glass was not the typical polyethylene that most molds are made of. I was starting to worry that I’d permanently infused one of my sparse drinkware with an inverted scorpion. On a whim, I popped the glass into the freezer overnight.

The next day, I brought it out and tapped it a few times, with still no movement, then turned it upside-down over a padded stool and banged it down repeatedly – this was both successful and unsuccessful. The very first whack popped the casting free cleanly, but I was in hammering mode, a series of three rapid bangs, and the second brought the now-empty glass down onto the top of my new casting. The glass survived, the lovely scorpion paperweight received a big chip directly out of the top. Well, fuck. It was quite annoying, because the casting was otherwise perfect and had a remarkably smooth and uniform appearance. And naturally, I have never had any chance of even seeing a scorpion since then, despite several safaris aimed almost exclusively towards that. I mean, seriously, is this too much to ask?

I’d include a photo of the chipped casket, but I ended up giving that to the friend who had provided the scorpion in the first place, even though he lived where he could find them alive and kicking. To my knowledge, he has continually eschewed this advantage. Some people.

Eventually

crepuscular rays at sunset
Slow, slow, slow; that’s what it’s been, though there’s an outing scheduled for today that may yield more pics. Right now, we’re going to go back a few days at least.

anticrepuscular rays at same sunsetThe general rule for me is, if I have the time and go out waiting for the sunset, the results are incredibly lackluster, but if the conditions are stunning, I’m doing something else. This is one example, where the sky did some great things but I was in the middle of urban blight and couldn’t work a foreground interest – at least this time I had a camera with me. Above is the view looking towards the disappearing sun, showing off some nice and dynamic crepuscular rays – well, kinda. I think that actually applies to the beams of light that make it through breaks in the clouds, and not the shadows caused by cloud peaks, but whatever; same difference. While at right, we see some anti-crepuscular rays/shadows, which are the exact same thing but in the opposite direction. Both of them appear to converge towards a common point – for crepuscular rays that would be the sun, while for anti-crepuscular rays it would be the anti-solar point, or the position directly opposite the sun. Measured by compass bearing from any given point on the surface, anyway. The point actually opposite the sun would be 180° around the Earth’s orbital disc I suppose…

Anyway, it’s an illustration that the rays are actually parallel, and only appear to be diverging/converging because of the distances involved and our vantage point, but it admittedly is pretty cool to trace the shadows up and overhead and watch them expand and contract, in a manner. Too bad I wasn’t anyplace to make a better job of it.

Then, a few evenings back, the thunderstorms rolled in – lots of them. I went out once, but the rain started almost immediately and chased me back in. A couple hours later another round of ominous rumblings sent me back out to check the sky, and I could see the flashes approaching, so I fetched the tripod and set up for a session. Alas, the clouds were thick and low, so the only thing that happened was some inner-cloud illumination, most of which was too weak to overcome the ambient light reflected from the nearby cities during the long exposures. The best is below – not bad cloud detail, but nothing to write a blog post about.

nighttime clouds illuminated by hidden lightning
It started raining during the second session, too, and I dug out the disposable poncho from the camera bag as I started back home. But by the time I struggled the ultra-thin plastic over my already-damp skin, the rain stopped, so I returned to my spot and just used the poncho to cover the camera while staying put through the next shower.

The rain continued, off and on, summer shower to deluge, for the next day, but abruptly by sunset the sky had cleared quite a bit and some colors were already evident, so I returned to my vantage on the nearby pond.

post-storm sunset on pond
The colors weren’t too shabby, if lacking a little in the reds, but they also demonstrated the typical trait of colorful sunsets: the conditions alter rapidly, deceptively so. It may not look like anything is changing, but within a minute you can have an entirely different view. I managed to capture a good range of light from the sky as well as a hint of the vapor rising off of the pond, so I’m good.

rain dripping from branch onto sunset reflections
There wasn’t a lot of foreground interest to work with here either – just the typical branches and leaves that I photograph too much of, really, but I did what I could.

big ripple cutting across scene
This one shows evidence of something that I was a little curious about. I spooked a trio of green herons that have been living around the pond and they sought a different tree to shelter in for the night, pretty close to the apparent source of a very distinct ripple that crossed the corner of the pond towards where I stood. The ripple was high enough to indicate that something big had disturbed the water, but I never heard a splash or commotion and couldn’t imagine what was capable of producing something that size. I can only surmise a large fish, given that any turtles would have long previously left any basking spots, but this was too much surface disturbance for most fish. Maybe we have a pond monster…

This last one, however, is my favorite, just for the range of light throughout. I’ve done better sunset and sunrise images, but this was sufficient to pull me out of an unproductive rut. Hopefully I can keep the momentum going.

wide range of light levels in sunset over pond

Here’s why, part 1: Alien visitation

[Just a brief opening note here. I originally started this topic quite some time ago and had it sitting in the folders in draft form while I tackled other subjects. In the meantime, the whole ‘Area 51’ hoohah started, and so I decided to finish it off and post it to take advantage of the huge boost it will provide to the website visits. Or something…]

Many years back I started the “But how?” series of posts to demonstrate how a secular approach could not only explain all of the aspects of a religious worldview, it usually did a much better job. Eventually, I found that the format of that initial question didn’t always work for some of the topics, but I plowed ahead anyway. The same might happen here, as I start a new topic format that already has three topics in the lineup. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

The premise is simple. Very often in certain circles, a question arises something along the lines of, “Why doesn’t science take this seriously?” And it’s often not even a question, but a left-handed (or direct) accusation that scientists are in some form of cabal that intentionally dismisses or ignores some particular theory/hypothesis/speculation/wild-ass idea. My goal here is to show that there are usually very distinct reasons why such ideas don’t deserve much, if any, attention, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with ulterior motives – it’s just science itself.

That said, let’s look at the idea of alien visitation, UFOs and abductions and all of the related subtopics. Why don’t scientists pay more attention to these accounts?

The physics. There are two distinct aspects of this, closely intertwined.

We already know what our solar system is like, and that there is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of advanced life anywhere to be seen. And in fact, even rudimentary life is likely not present, though we’re still looking for evidence in a few interesting locales, like under the ice crusts of Enceladus and Europa, as well as seeking evidence of past life on Mars. But intelligent species capable of space travel? There isn’t the faintest evidence of such – not on any surfaces, not in radar traces, not in energy emissions, nothing that we would expect to find. And given what we know about life itself, the exchange of energy needed between cells and the supporting ecosystems, there isn’t any place that’s actually hospitable. While it’s easy to speculate that there could be some society, like, buried well beneath a surface, does this even make any sense? It’d be much harder to live there (having no solar radiation to begin with) and even the radar mapping of terrain hasn’t turned up any evidence of cavern systems.

Once we go outside of our solar system, the distance to even the nearest neighbor is, to put it technically, fucking huge – light takes over four years to make the journey, and we all know how fast that travels. So, the likelihood of any intelligent species making the jaunt is extremely low, and even less so when we think they might be doing so in small undetectable craft.

The very next arguments that come up are how, for instance, an advanced species could have overcome physical constraints to travel faster than light, or use energy really efficiently, and so on. Yet the amount that we know about physics right now is far from insignificant, and we’ve been doing experiments in these fields for well over a hundred years, as well as observing the stellar neighbors for a hell of a long ways out. There are some very basic laws, ones we have defined very specifically – it’s all, in fact, boiling down to just four physical forces, and they’re enough to explain damn near everything that we see, from star formation and the fusion of new elements down to the interactions of electrons around a nucleus. Those big particle colliders are part of how we know all of this, and our attempts to produce anything different. Very very long story short: those four physical forces are holding firm. Don’t trust me on this – feel free to look into it yourself. It’s not a field that’s ignored or unexplored in any way.

Next invariably come the protests of something outside of physics – extra-dimensional travel, or hyperspace, or wormholes, and so on. And true enough, these had their origins in speculative physics, and the nature of space-time itself. But they’re not only speculative, we’ve found no evidence of such things occurring at all, despite our careful examinations of the universe. But much worse, if you depart space-time and those four physical laws, you also depart the very rules that keep us as atoms and molecules and, you know, whole bodies. All such scientific speculation revolves around subatomic particles and things like vacuum energy – not anything ‘solid.’ And I’ll be blunt – there is no scientific speculation about such wormholes or whatever that also allow the basic four forces to selectively exist so that a craft of any kind could remain intact. That’s science fiction – authors like finding creative ways to have alien contact beyond radio messages, but science isn’t supporting it at all.

The expectations. There are a few small groups of scientists, astrophysicists and radio astronomers and so on, that actually are looking for any evidence of extra-terrestrial life. But they’re looking for the most efficient manners that we might find such. Physical visitation is not efficient – far from it. It takes a lot of energy to make such a trip, all the life support and all the fuel and so on, while it would be thousands of times easier just to send a message, should any species be so inclined (and who can say if they would be? We can’t use our own social curiosity as an example, because it’s far from given that this is a necessary aspect of intelligence.) But even without such overt messages, there’s still just the idea that any species would leave some kind of externally observable traces – stray radio emissions just from surface communication, or heat signatures from industrialization, and so on. And as yet, we’ve seen no sign. So why would we come up short on that, and somehow have spacecraft flying around in our atmosphere?

Moreover, it’s dangerous. The moment that you initiate close contact with another species, you’re within easy range of their reactions, whatever they might be – and the possibility that they’d be hostile is distinct enough. Plus the very idea of putting life forms out into this environment is risky all by itself, and for what purpose? Is there some kind of information that has to be garnered personally that could not be done remotely? Think about this: if we encounter another species ourselves, are we going to go straight for anatomical exams, or try to determine just how intelligent they are first? Is it better to set up communication, perhaps, before we go zooming around in the sky over their populated regions? Even if we’re confident that their defensive measures could not affect us, how irresponsible would it be to flout those, and to what useful end?

[By the way, the myriad accounts of aliens that somehow know our language are a bit suspect in and of themselves; how do you learn an entirely alien language? Hell, it’d be ridiculously difficult to even take our TV transmissions and determine that they’re intended for a visual image that’s coded for an electron gun aimed at phosphors on a glass plate…]

The evidence. Science needs evidence. It isn’t about making pronouncements, saying something like, “Yep, there must be aliens.” We need things to measure, and analyze, and compare – something more than stories. But unfortunately, that’s just about all that we have. For the thousands of accounts, ranging from distant observations to actual physical contact, the amount of testable artifacts or traces is damn near zilch; the amount that could not easily be explained is even lower than that. For instance, there isn’t any kind or shape of scar that could not be produced in an ordinary manner. Which will introduce a criterion often used in such investigations, outlined further down.

Sure, we have lots of photos, and even a few videos. Except, photos are remarkably easy to fake, and can only provide so much information no matter what – it’s simply the nature of lenses and recording media. Claims that someone “wouldn’t know how to fake a photo” are ludicrous, considering that it’s been done since the dawn of photography, and doesn’t need anything more than a basic understanding of lens properties anyway. An aperture of f22 gives a high depth of field? There you go – there’s no way to determine if this object is ten or five hundred meters away. Moreover, when it comes down to it, a photo isn’t very much information at all – it consists of contrasts within a chosen medium, and not only can this be produced in countless ways, in and of itself it shows nothing; such images need to be interpreted, and all too often they’re interpreted incorrectly, even with known subjects. What we have an impression of is not necessarily what we’re actually seeing, and is biased by what we want to see. As ‘proof’ of an extra-terrestrial airborne craft, well, no – especially when we have no physical examples of such craft to compare the images to in the first place.

Eyewitness accounts are so pathetically weak it’s laughable, and in fact, they’re the weak point of any court case. Even if we assume, rather rashly, that someone must be telling the truth, they’re only telling what they think they saw, not necessarily what they did. There are very real limits to human perception, and beyond certain points (like less than twenty meters,) there is no active depth perception, and no method to accurately judge size. Even in everyday occurrences, people can be remarkably bad at getting the details right, and in circumstances where they’re not even sure of what they’re seeing, the chance of their account being accurate drops to disturbingly low numbers. And while we’re on the subject, pilots do not receive any training at all regarding observation of objects in the air, except to actually watch for them. But even if they did receive specific training, it still wouldn’t overcome the limits of perception, especially without distinct measurements of angle and position. Air traffic control exists for a reason, as does radar.

Yes, there are lots of accounts, which many people take to mean there must be something to them. But a few hundred years ago, there were lots of accounts of demonic visitation and possession, as well as various odd critters. Two principle things come into play here: suggestibility and notoriety. Anyone that says they spotted a coyote in their neighborhood will spawn numerous follow-up sightings from others, most of whom couldn’t distinguish a coyote from a fox or stray dog. Once introduced into the mind, it is often the first thing that springs up as an explanation in any circumstance that seems to warrant it, especially so among people who favor the idea. And then there’s notoriety, because there still exists media solely concerned with making a buck, imagine that, that will gladly hype any story no matter how insubstantial – and once it’s been featured, there’s that suggestibility again. When Project Blue Book announced that it was receiving UFO reports from the general public, the number of those reports exploded; are we to assume that at that very moment the visiting aliens drastically increased their numbers? Or that there were thousands of people beforehand who simply never reported what they’d been seeing? Or could it simply have been a bandwagon effect? Considering how few remained unidentified following the investigations, it doesn’t bode well for such accounts being accurate or useful.

Much worse are the large number of singular accounts with no corroboration, which are virtually worthless. How inaccurate are they? There’s no way to determine. Are they outright lies? Again, who knows? Can we follow up in some way? No, it happened three days ago – the UFO is probably not still hovering there. So what can anyone actually do with this, even if they’re so inclined?

Most scientific studies have a distinct element, which is not just recording the results, but determining, as well as possible, what else may have affected them; this is the heart of clinical trials. Lots of test subjects take a sample drug, while others take a completely inert drug, and neither the subject nor the tester recording the results knows which is which, called a double-blind study. If the results favor the real drug, then a tentative conclusion is drawn – still with the idea that maybe something else might have produced the results. Maybe a lot of people that live near nuclear power plants get headaches – but how’s the air quality? Is it allergy season? Is the region prone to loud noises, or stressful work conditions? Were the people even told why they were being asked? How bad does your head hurt, right now?

With, of course, a singular account and no further background, any report really isn’t much in the way of useful data, given all of the above. Again, what can be measured or tested? Is there a trend that can be observed, perhaps making a prediction? Has the person reporting been influenced in some way? Believe it or not, most of these questions have already been asked, and indeed measured – which is why there isn’t much emphasis placed on alien visitation. The results didn’t point to aliens.

And one further factor comes into play, especially when interpreting such accounts. It has a little to do with the concept of Occam’s Razor, the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the most accurate, but probability also plays a key role. Essentially, consider all of the potential explanations for any given account – and consider how often each may have occurred. Mistaken identification? Unfamiliarity with night sky? Inability to tell distance, size, or speed, just from human limits, but also because at least one of those has to be fixed and known to determine the other two? Any use of decent reference points? Any proper timing of event? And so on, and so on, with “real live honest injun alien spacecraft” coming in there somewhere – except that we still have no solid examples of such, so the probability falls well below everything else on the list. And if we can’t determine a solid speed or vector, and we can’t trust the impression simply because of human limits, and we can’t even rule out hoaxes because there’s no corroboration or physical evidence… what, then do we have?

Scars were mentioned above as one example of physical evidence, or so proponents like to claim, anyway. I personally have countless scars, some of which I don’t even remember causing, but if I were to tell you that this one came from a near-abduction by aliens (instead of, you know, the much-less-fascinating slipped knife,) in what way could you determine this was truthful or not? Are scars so rare that, if we come across one, it must be from some exotic circumstances? And since aliens are purported to have such advanced travel technology, how come they haven’t mastered not leaving such clumsy traces behind?

[By the way, how many people go shopping for a used car, or even a house, and simply accept everything that the seller tells them – without poking around or test driving, without checking history, without a professional evaluation? Why the hell not? Naturally, there’s the overriding idea that the seller has enough incentive to fudge the details a bit to close the sale, if not outright lying. Now, if there were no way to check the item itself, or the history or anything else, would you go ahead and buy it anyway? Because that’s what most people are asked to do with UFO accounts, and believe me, lots of proponents get quite snippy when this trust isn’t automatically extended towards their favorite topic.]

It’s not part of the job. Believe it or not, scientists are not free to pursue whatever topic comes along, and all of them have to make a living. Practically no one funds UFO research in any manner. Why not? Because without any measurable or physical aspects, there’s virtually nothing to research in the first place, but more distinctly, there’s no indication that it could lead anywhere. There are millions of enthusiasts, ranging from the anxious believer of everything to the critical amateur researcher, and this state of affairs has been in place for decades now – with nothing whatsoever to show for it. The explosion of handheld cameras and recording devices among the greater populace should have exponentially expanded our accounts and evidence, but instead they’re no better than they were twenty, thirty, forty years ago. So, what’s the incredible breakthrough that’s going to make the funding well spent? Where does the investment pay off?

There’s plenty of money in the field itself, mind you, just like there’s plenty of money in gossip rags – people will readily pay to have their desires validated, and we’ve had organizations that promised to “blow the lid off” of UFO information for decades, always soliciting (and receiving) funds. Overall, however, people are far less enthusiastic to fund dedicated, professional research with the idea of accepting the answer, even when it’s negative. And when the answer is negative – when the astounding evidence turns out to be mundane and unsupportive of alien life – the reaction is not often thankfulness, or even stoic acceptance; it usually ranges from dismissive to hostile. Meanwhile, we’re still sitting here with the lid firmly on…

So in light of all that, it’s not hard to fathom why this isn’t an active field of scientific study. Which is not to say that it should solely be up to scientists (however you choose to define that title) at all.

Independent research. This takes place more than anything else, and it’s primarily because of enthusiasm about the topic – which means that it’s usually done for free. And while most topics have large grey areas, those that examine the idea of alien visitation usually fall into two camps: those that find huge promise in most of the reports, and those that find virtually nothing of merit whatsoever. It would be easy to believe that both camps are driven by personal desires and bias, but there are telling differences. Those that usually pronounce that their findings are evidence of extraterrestrial life have, for decades, shown no advancement whatsoever in the field; we are no closer to knowing who or what or where than we were in the sixties – and these are the same folk who continually lament the lack of organized scientific interest. Solid evaluations of video, or careful diagramming of lines of sight, comparisons to known aircraft in the area, or even a working knowledge of equipment used? These are rarely ever presented by the believers, either the individuals or the organizations, while unnamed sources and vague ‘professionals’ abound. Meanwhile, those that find no evidence of alien life are often meticulous and very forthright with their findings and methods. Most of these (usually considered skeptics) are more than happy to present their findings in great detail – diagrams, sources, figures, and so on. Any researcher, especially anyone in the sciences, knows that their work should be vetted and examined; no true professional would actually rely on their pronouncements and/or reputation being ‘enough.’ Also helpful: few if any professionals promise something astounding to come at a later date – there really isn’t a point to that, is there? If you found something compelling, it doesn’t have to ripen. Building hype is what film studios do to try and bulk up opening weekend numbers…

It is this drastic difference in behavior and approach that usually defines the subject in the first place – and the reason why many people find it not worth pursuing. I personally went from enthusiastic over the accounts to openly skeptical, from my youth to my adulthood, because of this lack of critical evaluations and the desperate attempts from believers to deny any and all mundane explanations. It did not help finding out how many cases were shamelessly misreported, embellished, or opportunistically edited; if this is a topic worthy of serious consideration and investigation, why then are so many cases altered, especially by the very sources that promote them? Shouldn’t ‘meticulous accuracy’ be the primary criterion when presenting any evidence?

Hopefully, this explains why scientists aren’t anywhere near as enthusiastic about the prospect of alien visitation as a great deal of the proponents, and as I’ve remarked before, most of it seems to come down to whether someone wants to believe, or if they’re motivated by producing useful information that will advance our knowledge. One is self-absorption, the other is beneficial to just about everyone.

Little to add

If you’ve been paying close attention to the obscure sections of the media, you might already know that today is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. You know, Earth’s moon, Luna, that big grey thing in the sky, just to clarify. And I’m vaguely curious to know how much attention this gets in other countries; I imagine it’s at least a tad less in Russia, for instance. Nationality is a stupid thing, and while we might credit any accomplishment to the country where most of the participants hail from, major endeavors such as going to the moon were not only built upon the efforts and expertise of people around the world, they relied on the scientific accomplishments from all of previous history. This is a human milestone, pure and simple.

My own perspective hasn’t really changed from when I covered the 40th anniversary, so I’ll refer you back to that one – it’s got a picture and all. [I know, I’ve barely been posting anything recently and with a topical subject at hand, I’m chickening out and using an old post. But we already know I suck. And worse, I’m about to do an outside link too.]

But for a newer perspective – well, okay, no, it’s also fifty years old, but it might be as new, i.e., previously unknown, to you as it was to me – we go to the Astronomy Picture of the Day from a few days back, and a composite video of the Apollo 11 lunar lander’s descent. Overlaid is the communications between Aldrin and Armstrong in the lander itself, as well as ground control in Houston and all of their monitoring and concerns. The targeted area for landing turned out to be too dangerous, strewn with boulders and debris, and beyond it was a crater with uneven slopes, so Armstrong had to take over and manually drift the lander to the side to avoid these – with fuel running dangerously low. Now, I knew about their fuel reserves long ago, but it’s quite another matter to be watching it, realtime as it were, as the lander drifts towards a safe spot while the clock is ticking. There’s little for us to compare it to, because most of us aren’t even airborne – um, uh, spaceborne, vacuum-borne, aloft, whatever – when we do anything, but the lander had to set down precisely and gently, and even a rougher landing could mean that they wouldn’t be able to leave again.

You see, there weren’t a lot of options. The little engine in the base of the escape module (the upper stage of the lander, that would detach and carry them back to orbit to rendezvous with Collins in the command module) was fixed-thrust and non-gimbaled, meaning it couldn’t be aimed, so any corrective aiming had to be done with the reaction control system, those little nozzles around the module that you see in all of the photos, which also had limited fuel. Set down at too steep an angle, and while the escape module might leave the moon’s surface, it wouldn’t be able to adequately correct its path and make rendezvous. So, descent and landing had to be pretty kosher. As it was, they touched down so gently that they didn’t even compress the landing struts, those legs of the lander, and their egress to the moon required a bigger jump off the ladder than anticipated.

One more silly bit, because it’s actually an interesting aspect of physics. It’s easy to think that the lander wasn’t too hard to handle because of the lower lunar gravity, which is true insofar as descent acceleration went. However, even in microgravity, objects still have their mass, which has inertia, and inertia still has to be overcome. A very large or dense object can take a lot to move, stop, or change direction, so while it might take less fuel, it’s not like tossing around an empty crate. It might be likened to heavy objects on a slick sheet of ice – starting their movement, or stopping them, still takes considerable effort.

Anyway, enjoy the celebrations (he says in order to post this before the day’s over.)

Storytime 29

trail of unidentified larva through center of leaf
Far too many things going on today for a long one, so this is brief. Today’s storytime post is all there, if you look closely. The faintly brownish trail of some arthropod larva that twists through the middle of the leaf, and by that I mean, between the top and bottom surfaces – and terminates at the larva itself. It has the appearance of being on top of the leaf because the upper membrane is so thin, but it’s inside – I checked at the time. If I’d backlit the leaf, the damage within would have been more obvious.

The first point that I’ll draw attention to is the apparent random nature of the damage, not appearing to follow any particular pattern and only limited by the main rib down the center of the leaf – probably not the most efficient method of eating, but give the species a few thousand years. If the plant doesn’t develop its own repellent traits in that time.

The second came to me as I typed, but I have a faint suspicion that the darker lines along the path are actually the waste, where the larva was defecating as it made its way along – you notice how they’re all oriented towards the bottom no matter which way the larva was progressing. You always know you can count on me to bring you these little details.

who needs alt text for this?Okay, one more stupid thing, which is a screenshot of the text file I use as backup when I’m writing posts (having been burned before on system crashes, plus what’s a storytime post without a link to another post?) But it’s awfully suspicious the way so many “the”s lined up at the beginning of the lines, doncha think?

[No, after adding that I didn’t get any more – not even the one in quotes.]

Just a couple of highlights

There will be nothing earth-shattering to be found in this post – I’m simply trying to maintain a little content while new images are a tad scarce.

great blue heron Ardea herodias on Neuse River
Two recent outings with the Itinerant Mr Bugg produced far fewer photos than foretold expected, which is just how it goes sometimes; by no means should anyone attempt to infer that either of us is lacking in skills, and it should be borne in mind that I have a slander attorney on retainer (you know, with all this disposable nature photographer income.) Sometimes, things are just slow. Despite such hardships, we still managed to coax a few useful images out of the days, a few of which you’ve already seen – or have now anyway. A pair of great blue herons (Ardea herodias) were stalking back and forth quite some distance off, reluctant to come any closer and thus necessitating the use of the long lens. Above, my favorite of the frames I captured, while below sits The Girlfriend’s vote.

great blue heron Ardea herodias in Neuse River
Both of these, by the way, are cropped tighter from the original frames – the herons really were some distance off, more than a hundred meters away. At least we had a good light angle on them – for the most part, anyway. As one took a short flight across a narrow stretch of deeper water, it showed that there were still some patches of shadow. Really, I have to believe this was on purpose.

great blue heron Ardea herodias landing on rock in Neuse River
Fartistic poses are all well and good, but I’m always after behavior, and so I tracked this one during its short flight and did a sequence of the landing. The wings are pretty dynamic here, but I wish I’d been closer, with less shadow.

landing great blue heron Ardea herodias throwing up an unexpected splash
And then – wait. How, exactly, did the bird produce such a big splash for what should have been a landing on either a protruding rock (of which there were plenty) or at most a few centimeters of shallow water? I’m inclined to say that it struck the water with one wing, which seems odd because, as large as they are, these are not clumsy birds. Under the surface, the rocks in the areas get covered with a fine layer of silt and algae, which I can attest is an extremely slippery concoction, but I’m sure the birds have a lot more epxerience with this than I do. I never even saw this happen in the viewfinder, but then again, as the sequence was firing off the mirror was only in position to show me the gaps between frames for tiny fractions of a second, so this isn’t surprising.

great blue heron Ardea herodias trying to regain its aplomb
Still a few drops of water in the air betraying the heron as it tries to pretend that never happened. But notice the contrast of the dark band cutting across the scene, indicating that the heron chose the one rock in the entire river that actually fell into shadow, which of course reduced the detail and clarity of the resulting pics. Naturally. Did either of the two herons that we saw in the same location decide to come closer or make for better pictures? They did not.

unidentified sleepy dragonfly
Much the same could be said for this dragonfly a couple of days later, still not stirring from its overnight sleeping spot. The undergrowth prevented getting a better sun angle, but it was a largely dark species anyway, so we’ll have to be content with a silhouette and a single bright spot on the compound eye. This wasn’t the best of spots for the dragonfly, because they need a lot of warmth for their wing muscles to work, which is why they perch primarily in bright sunlight. This one was still sluggish while others, smart enough to catch the morning sun early on, were already zooming around.

So now we see the other side of the coin.

unidentified dragonfly hovering over perch in early sunlight
This one was flitting away from its perch after prey before returning to the same spot, and clearly it’s getting as much sunlight as it can – and so was my lens. The Mamiya 80mm macro has a deep aftermarket hood that remains attached, and is recessed enough on its own, but there are still conditions where sunlight can make its way to the front glass element, and when it does, it’s noticeable. While pretty well-corrected against ghosts and internal reflections, nonetheless it has a glare problem, which is what produced this horribly washed-out appearance. It’s why I always recommend a lens hood when shooting in sunlight, even when you’re not expecting to be facing into the light, because it’s not hard to find a subject that forces that perspective, and even reflections from water can throw some glare. It was readily visible through the viewfinder, however (which is good – often, ghosts never show until the final image since they’re affected by the aperture,) and so I was able to correct it fairly simply.

unidentified dragonfly returned to its perch
World of difference between the two frames, right? And all it took was holding out my hand to shade the lens better. There was a balance point between it blocking the sunlight and actually getting into the frame, but that’s what expert nature photographers can accomplish, donchaknow.

Now if I could only get some photos that were artistic or something…

I have a few other posts lined up, but they’re more philosophical that photographic, and either way my time this week isn’t looking too promising, at least until later. We’ll see what transpires.

Storytime 28

Eastern garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis in threat display
This week, we have a little curiosity: an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) providing a threat display of flattened head and inflated body, attempting to look big and dangerous. First off, very few snakes ever engage in such displays – everybody knows cobras, of course, but they have a much more distinctive shape when displaying (and none at all when they’re not.) And the two species of hognose snake are known for it… except when they don’t bother. But this image, from 2013, marks the only time I’ve ever seen a garter snake do it.

In a way, this doesn’t seem too remarkable, since I’ve seen ridiculously few garter snakes at all in North Carolina, and the last time one was featured on the blog (as well as the first time,) was 10 years and three days ago. However, they were by far the most common snake to be found in Central New York when I was growing up, and I’ve handled literally hundreds of them – all sizes, all dispositions, all times of the day. Only one was particularly aggressive, biting me several times as I scooped it out of a ditch, and I put this down to it having survived a recent encounter of some kind. For the most part, garter snakes are pretty mellow, and typically defecate on anyone that picks them up as their main defensive mechanism, besides wriggling madly. There was a natural gas junction box on the corner of our property, which had some gaps in the mortar of the concrete footer, and the garter snakes simply adored this haven; one summer day, sprawled across the top of it where I could see the gap, I captured twelve snakes exiting the box.

Yet the one pictured here was encountered at the Eno River, at the edge of the parking lot, and it was about as quiet as possible in any such setting. I had been waiting to meet with a student and was strolling along the edge of the parking area, so I knew no person had been near for several minutes at the very least, no visible or audible commotion, and no large birds. I approached quietly and not particularly close – there was no danger that I was about to step on it. What, exactly, caused this one to produce this rare display remains beyond me.

After meeting with then student, by the way, I did a little more poking around and captured another snake encounter, much more dramatic.

I’ll point out something while we’re here. The lightest markings along the body, very very pale blue, are not markings at all but the complete lack thereof; those are actually gaps between the scales where the underlying skin is showing through, indicating how much the snake is swollen, Most times you can only see this as the snake is swallowing something sizable, stretching out beyond normal proportions. But it adds a bit of contrasting color to the pattern, and maybe that was the point: it was showing off for the camera. Ya never know…

I still found what I’m looking for

I’m going to spoil the entire post by prefacing it with, “If you look hard enough, you’ll find what you were after, even if it doesn’t actually exist.” That’s all you really need to know, but I’m far more long-winded than that, so let’s see what I’m talking about.

I followed a link over to an article on Psychology Today’s website, partially because I’ve already addressed the exact topic and wanted to see if they were still flogging a stupid horse. Answer: yep. The article is, “The Beauty in Numbers, and the Numbers in Beauty,” and it’s written by Dr Oscar Fernandez, an associate professor of mathematics, surprise surprise. I can’t say that I was impressed, and I’d hope his other writings are better than this article, but I’m not betting on it. As you may have guessed, Fernandez is harping on the Fibonacci sequence, closely related to the ‘golden mean,’ and often linked to the ‘rule of thirds’ – all supposedly guides towards how to make art more compelling. But Fernandez doesn’t seem to understand either averages, or accurate tallying, and has fallen for the old confirmation bias trap.

As usual, his first example is the illustration of how the Fibonacci sequence (“Named after the mathematician Leonardo of Pisa,” and yes, that’s a direct quote – might have been nice if he’d mentioned that Leonardo’s last name was Fibonacci,) produces a remarkable spiral, just like a nautilus shell, or a sunflower head, or a major storm system, among myriad other things! Except, if you look at it, the Fibonacci spiral isn’t particularly natural-looking, nor even a close match to the examples he chose to show. And if you want, you can measure real-world examples of such spirals (I’ve already done that) and find that they don’t actually follow the sequence, or indeed any regular numbers – growth is always influenced by conditions and is, 99.99% of the time, variable. And while it might be astounding to reflect on how any spiral is some indication of mathematical wonder, it’s actually rather simple: if you have a curve, it’s either circular, or a variation of a spiral. In other words, a fixed radius, or not. Big fat hairy deal.

Fernandez soon migrates to studies that have attempted to quantify “beauty,” and we’re not a whole lot better here, if not actually far worse. He says:

Additionally, computer-generated overlays constructed from the golden ratio — a number that one can use to generate Fibonacci numbers — have been shown to detect beauty in faces.

…and of course follows with a Tron-like outline of Jessica Simpson’s face; this is, mind you, after showing with a bunch of overlaid rectangles how La Giaconda (Mona Lisa) demonstrates the use of such. Now, granted, La Giaconda is rumored to be a direct portrait and thus not a stylized representation of beauty, so we can’t judge on the face at least, but I’ll be honest: it’s never done a damn thing for me, aesthetically, artistically, or beauty-wise. Okay, sure, I’ll say it before you do: I’m weird. But this is indicative of the entire problem that every study runs into with such mathematical reveals, because everyone is different – different tastes, different opinions, different things that appeal to us. To arrive at such concepts of ‘ideal beauty,’ the researcher has to use averages, finding the middle-ground among all of the different data points people provide. I’m not all that enamored of Jessica Simpson either, though I’ll admit she has Mona Lisa beat, and I understand the typical traits that a majority of people consider attractive. But ideal? Hardly.

Using averages contains a lot of assumptions, and more than a few flaws of course. Take these four numbers: 9, 12, 99, 128. The average is 62, which represents… nothing, really, especially since none of the numbers are even close. Or try to determine the ‘average’ favorite ice cream flavor. You may find a ‘mean’ favorite, meaning the one that the greatest number of people liked, as long as you have numbers that support it – but if they’re all the same number of people, you got nothing. It’s easy to get a meaningless number. Worse, nothing about an average indicates ‘ideal,’ and in many cases is exactly what you’re not after. If any of those four numbers above represented an ideal beauty, or best ice cream, to each of the four people polled, the ‘average’ is actually disappointing all of them. The only thing an average of this nature might accomplish is disappointing the greatest number of people by the least amount. Hooray.

(For further giggles, look at that ‘beauty’ overlay in the article, “constructed from the golden ratio,” and try to determine exactly how they managed that. The golden ratio, or Phi, by the way, is not Fibonacci’s sequence – it comes close, but how close does it take to count in mathematics? Depends on what you’re trying to do, it seems; if I was off by that much in bookkeeping, I’d be fired pretty quickly, and we’re not even talking about how far off the mark the rule of thirds goes. But going back to that overlay, and the rectangles scribed on La Giaconda, let’s be honest: they were added in after the result, not to produce it. You could do this easily with any ratio that you care to name, ignoring what doesn’t fit and marveling breathlessly at what does.)

Most especially, studies and articles like this tell us absolutely nothing, because they’re missing any and all points that there might be. When we’re talking about ‘beauty,’ for instance, there’s generally a particular purpose – when it comes to people, this is reproduction, pure and simple. That’s the drive behind why we’re rating attractiveness in the first place. And if we ask why attractiveness is important, we quickly come to the conclusion that we’re, as a species, driven by who’s going to produce the best offspring. But the guidelines within our brains aren’t that specific – we’re still pinning down how specific they are, but the bare fact that beauty standards are far from universal is fairly telling. Symmetry is one of the few universal standards, the lack of which can certainly indicate a genetic problem. Most of it, however, is cultural, instilled in us from our immersion within any given society, and has changed radically over the years. If you’re not convinced of this, take those little mathematical beauty guidelines and put them over as many of the classical paintings that you can find, as well as carvings from different continents and time periods. Even worse, we didn’t always look anything like this – our development as a species took place through a very broad range of body styles and skeletal structures. So how magical is this number, if it doesn’t apply to the majority of human development? Do you think Jessica Simpson would have impressed Australopithecus africanus very much? How about the 4th century BCE Asians? What part of this magic ratio applies to hair and eye color? What part of it applies to a genuinely warm smile? Seriously, we rate attractiveness on a shitload of things, and skeletal structure of the face is only a small fraction.

Going back to the beauty of nature, the very first thing that I always point out is how much ugliness is found in nature too – distasteful activities of other species, creepy invertebrates, and just plain unappealing regions like deserts and bogs and such; we really can’t be selective and say, “Wow, isn’t it wonderful what this math produces?” Yet, there’s a fragment of truth to this, because in some select ways ratios really do play a part. Overall, there is going to be a more efficient way to accomplish something: the size of the leaves versus how much energy they can produce versus how much energy it takes to maintain them, whether it’s better to produce dozens to hundreds of offspring with little childrearing versus just one at a time but almost guaranteed to reach reproductive age, and so on. It’s easy to see that no one formula works for them all, of course; it all depends on the conditions, and the predators, and what’s changed recently – which is how evolution even works, especially the bit about adaptation. This largely tells us that, even if we happen to locate some particular numbers or ratios or formulas right now, these may not hold for even another couple of hundred years, and likely didn’t apply for much of the past.

two juvenile Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis on opposite sides of grass bladeMeanwhile, in some select areas some numbers do hold true; the way molecules bond, for instance, which is responsible for much of the symmetry that we can find now. And in most cases, we find the patterns and geometry that they produce remarkable precisely because they are not the norm; snowflakes are cool, but they seem odd because nature doesn’t generally work that way, and I spot a lot of my photographic subjects because animal patterns are usually symmetrical among a background that’s not. We select some trees or plants as subjects because they’re not lopsided or straggly; we manicure our lawns and lay out our landscaping because nature rarely produces what we find attractive. And that’s fine, because if everything was ‘attractive,’ we’d have to have some other standard for something rare, exceptional, or unique. We like the little surprises, but they need that contrast to even be remarkable.

And that leads us to another bit that’s missed in all of this, which is how and why nature works this way. The tree is lopsided for a reason, whether it’s the sun angle, or from growing on a slope, or a disease, or what have you; being able to see this for what it is tells us more about our world than selecting some self-vindicating standard of ‘beauty.’ Even when we find some place where the numbers plug in ever so neatly, this tells us absolutely nothing about why, and why it doesn’t occur everywhere, unless we make the attempt to have a greater understanding of how such things work – and the simple recognition that numbers and math are simply ratios, expressed in a human-derived base-10 system, and in too many cases, the ‘really cool’ numbers that we find are caused only by conditions that we created in the first place. Nature isn’t always beautiful, at least by our common standards, but part of my purpose here is to point out how often it’s still fascinating, especially when we see the underlying functions and physics that make it that way.