Friday, October 6, 2017

The Shopping Mall Effect

Economists use the term "shopping mall effect" to describe what happens when many shops are located in one place:  they draw more customers than the individual shops each would if they were scattered.  People are attracted by the opportunity to see many things at once.  People come to shop in one store and make purchases in others.  Every store benefits.

Ox-Eye Daisy
Flowering plants often use the same strategy.  Daisies and other members of the Aster family have “flowers” that are actually made up of many flowers together.  If you look closely at an ox-eye daisy you will see that the yellow center is actually around 100 tiny fertile florets.  The white “petals” are 20 white sterile florets that act as advertising for the food available at the center.

Calico Aster
Ox-eye daisies have only one flower per plant but many asters double up on the advertising by having dozens of compound flowers.  Pictured here is a calico aster.  At this time of year they are covered with bees that have been attracted by all that food in one place.

Calico asters go even further in attracting pollinators.  Instead of dropping flowers once they have been pollinated they keep them as part of the advertising scheme.  Huge masses of white and yellow – and red.  The pollinated flowers turn red in the center but are not dropped.  The result is a mass of white, red, and yellow like calico fabric.

I'm just wondering if anyone is reading this.  If you are, a comment would be appreciated.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bee Frenzy

This is about plants and light.  Or plants and a lack of light.  And bees.

The days are rapidly getting shorter now as autumn winds down.  Bees are rushing about, taking advantage of the masses of blooming asters to finish up their food supplies for the long winter.  There is a huge border behind my house just filled with white asters and I can hear the bees buzzing from many feet away.

The question then is why the asters are blooming now and not earlier in the season.  The answer is something called photoperiodism – in other words, a reaction to the amount of light, and the chemicals that keep plants from blooming.

Except that when it comes to flowers, it is the lack of light that does it.  The chemicals that affect blooming are unstable in darkness and break down at night.  So asters and goldenrods and mums can’t bloom until the nights are long enough for much of the chemicals to degrade.  Then they can bloom.  They are what are called “short day plants”.  They only bloom when the nights are longer than 12 hours.  Other plants are "long day plants" that only bloom when the spring days grow long enough, and some plants just don't care.  The dandelions that brighten up our lawns will bloom all year long.

So consider this:  all of those artificial lights like streetlights and flood lights on your patio can be keeping your fall garden from blooming, and the same goes for plants inside.  That is why last year’s poinsettia isn’t turning red this year.  Keep it in a room without artificial lights and it will brighten up.

Does this artificial daylight affect birds and amphibians and insects also?  You bet it does.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Going Out On A Limb - Predicting The Weather

Last night I turned up the thermostat for the first time this fall.  In another week or so I will light the stove and it will burn until April.

The question now is, how cold will this winter be, and how much wood will I need? 

Predicting the weather over a long period has always been tricky, since there are so many variables that change from hour to hour.  Climate change makes it more difficult as the rules are now changing. 

I checked the reports from NASA and NOAA, the two government agencies that study the weather, to see what trends they are seeing.

One indicator is the ENSO, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.  Normally the winds in the tropics blow from east to west – the easterly trade winds.  This pushes tropical warm ocean water away from the west coast of the US, allowing cooler water from the ocean bottom to well up along the coast.  The result is the cool, dry, weather and the great fishing of southern California.  (It also blows hurricanes from Africa to North America.)  

If during an El Niño the winds slow down, the warmer water sloshes back towards California.  This warmth and resulting low pressure will pull the jet stream southward, giving wetter weather in the south and drier weather in the north.

If the trade winds speed up and push the warm ocean water further from North America, a phenomenon called La Niña, the opposite occurs.  The jet stream will be pushed up by the high pressure over the colder water, bringing wetter, warmer weather up to the north.

Currently it appears that the El Niño winds are slowing down, but with a only small chance of a full La Niña (stronger trade winds) developing.  NOAA thinks that there is only a 62 percent chance of La Niña development during November-January 2017-18. The official outlook indicates a likely return to ENSO neutral conditions by next spring. Based on that, there are some long-range predictions that might be made.  

With a slowing of the El Niño winds, the average temperatures in the US could be slightly warmer than normal.  The precipitation (as of today) is expected to be normal.  Unfortunately that combination could mean more sleet and ice.  

Remember that ENSO is only a part of the prediction, but as of right now it looks like pretty much like slightly warmer and slightly wetter than normal this winter in New England.

Then there is the polar vortex.  There are several high-speed winds that circle the earth;  you have probably heard of the jet stream.  These upper atmosphere winds are caused by the difference in temperatures between the equator and the poles. 

Normally the polar vortex traps the coldest air at the north and south poles.  But (as formally denied by the best politicians that money can buy) as the earth’s atmosphere heats up, and the poles are warming at a faster rate than the equator, there is less and less difference in temperatures and the polar vortex weakens.  The cold arctic air is not being contained at the dark north pole as the vortex slows down.   It comes down to visit us. 

As of right now there are no specific warnings about the polar vortex for this winter, so my prediction remains at very slightly warmer and wetter than average for New England.

Friday, September 29, 2017

GMO is Good For You

Many is the time that I have wished for a world without mosquitoes.  They not only give itchy bites, but they spread deadly diseases and even worse, whine in my ear in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately this world does have mosquitoes, and removing them all (if possible) would not be a good thing.  Mosquitoes are firmly entrenched in the biosphere as food and hosts for a myriad of other living things.

Now there is good news.  The NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has sponsored some research using genetically modified mosquitoes to prevent the spread of malaria.   

By altering the microbiota (the viruses, bacteria, and other microscopically small things that live within the gut of the mosquitoes) they have been able to create mosquitoes that do not support the human malaria-causing parasites. These GM mosquitoes preferred to mate with wild mosquitoes and passed the desired protection to offspring.

After 7 years the descendents of the modified mosquitoes were still resistant to the parasites.   Thank you, GMO mosquitoes.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Native Orchids

When many people think of orchids, they picture those large, showy, corsage flowers from the tropics.  However, there are many orchids that are native to New England, some of which are just as showy, and all of them beautiful.  I photographed every one of the orchids here within 10 miles of where I am writing this.

Showy Ladies Slipper
Pink Ladies Slipper

There is the rare Showy Lady’s Slipper and the much more common Pink Lady’s Slipper.

There is the Purple Fringed
White Fringed Orchid
Orchid that blooms along woodland streams in August, and the White Fringed Orchid that blooms in a bog 5 miles down the road from where I am now.

There is the very common Rattlesnake
Rattlesnake Plantain
Plantain that blooms in July.

Grass Pink
There is the Grass Pink that is found in bogs, 

and my all time favorite, the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, which blooms in late September.  It is a small, white orchid found in damp meadows.  And it is blooming now!
Nodding Ladies' Tresses

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Global Warming Will Freeze Europe.

Theory:  noun, plural theories.
A statement that explains observed observations and predicts future observations.  A theory is repeatedly tested; if new observations do not agree with the stated theory then the theory will be modified or replaced.
            Newton’s theory of gravitation which was replaced by Einstein’s upon further observations. 
            Darwin’s theory of evolution which replaced those of Lamarck and others and has been 
                        modified through the study of genetics.
            Kepler’s theory of planetary motion which explains the orbits of planets and allows 
                        us to predict where new planets may be found.
            The germ theory of disease which replaced various superstitions concerning the 
                        cause of diseases.

The scientific theory of climate change explains the rapid increase in the average temperature of the atmosphere and allows the prediction of what will happen because of it. 

As an example, my students learned (I hope) about how water moves north and south in the oceans.  The start of the ocean currents is the freezing of the ocean in the arctic near Greenland.  Only pure water freezes;  the very salty and cold remainder sinks to the bottom of the ocean.  From there the water travels south, cooling the tropical oceans as it goes.

The water finally reaches the Gulf of Mexico, where it flows back along the surface to the arctic as the Gulf Stream.  It is this warm Gulf Stream that keeps the United Kingdom and northern Europe much warmer than it otherwise would be.  In fact, Iceland is warmer in January than Connecticut is.

The polar ice, then and now.  From NASA
An article published in Nature magazine ( indicates that the freezing up north is slowing down.  Satellite image records indicate that September Arctic sea ice is 30% less today than it was in 1979.  

The obvious prediction is that when the arctic stops freezing, the currents will stop exchanging cold water from the north with warm water from the south and Europe will freeze.  Yes, “global warming” means that it will be colder up north.  Of course the ocean will also be warmer at the equator (so we can predict more powerful hurricanes).

Science:  it doesn’t only predict eclipses.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

It Is Just A Theory: Climate Change

Theory:  noun, plural theories.

A statement that explains observed observations and predicts future observations.  A theory is repeatedly tested; if new observations do not agree with the stated theory then the theory will be modified or replaced.
            Newton’s theory of gravitation which was replaced by Einstein’s upon further observations. 
            Darwin’s theory of evolution which replaced those of Lamarck and others and has been 
                        modified through the study of genetics.
            Kepler’s theory of planetary motion which explains the orbits of planets and allows 
                        us to predict where new planets may be found.
            The germ theory of disease which replaced various superstitions concerning the 
                        cause of diseases.

Note the "star" on the back of the tick.  From
The scientific theory of climate change explains the rapid increase in the average temperature of the atmosphere and allows the prediction of what will happen because of it. 

For instance, as the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere increases, it should be expected that tropical life forms will move north.  Example, the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum, which has always been found in the southeastern U.S. and as far west as the middle of Texas, has now been found in CT.  Fortunately the lone star tick does not carry Lyme disease, but it does create an allergy to red meat in some victims.

Science:  it doesn’t only predict eclipses.

Monday, September 18, 2017

José, Will We Have More Hurricane Weather?

As they say, the only good pun is a bad pun.  Sorry.  However, José has a LOT to do with our weather in the next weeks.

It looks like hurricanes are the big (non-political) disasters of the year.  Harvey slammed Texas.  Irma, the most powerful hurricane in history, destroyed several Caribbean islands before hitting Florida.

From the Weather Underground
And…. Here comes José.  José started off strong, then wandered off into the Atlantic, looped back towards the US, and was blown by the prevailing westerly winds back out to sea.  This week it will slide off to our southeast.  We might get some rain and gusty winds.  Or not.  And then it might loop back at us and slide right through the Mideast states.  Or not.  Either way, José will impact our weather.

Since hurricanes are bundles of very low pressure air, any strong wind can change their course.  That makes them extremely difficult to predict.  We can only watch.

From the Weather Underground
Next up, Maria.  She is currently following Irma’s track, and might hit the continental US just north of Florida.  Or, here comes José again!  If José does loop around again in the upper Atlantic, its low pressure may pull Maria towards it and away from the US entirely.  That means we won’t be impacted again.

Until Tropical Depression Lee, currently forming off the coast of Africa.


Friday, September 15, 2017

600 Shots? Poor Babies!

News:  New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high versus low familial risk for developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD).   See this review of the study, with a link to the original article in Nature.

Why is this important?  Because gullible people think that babies receiving their first vaccinations at 6 months are somehow becoming autistic because of the shots.  This study is just adding to the data that autism is genetic.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield was a medical doctor in the United Kingdom.  He
Former Dr. Andrew Wakefield
at Trump Inauguration Ball
was making a lot of money as an “expert witness” in lawsuits involving childhood vaccines.

People whose children were autistic were upset and looking for someone, preferably someone with deep pockets, to blame and sue.  Andrew Wakefield helped them with their law suits.

Needing some scientific backup for his testimony, Wakefield faked a research project where he claimed to prove that childhood vaccines somehow made children autistic.  He wrote up his results in the UK medical journal The Lancet.

Immediately other researchers retried Wakefield’s fraudulent study.  No one could reproduce his results.  Further investigation showed that six of his test subjects had shown autistic tendencies before vaccination.  His test sample was only 12 children.

For his imaginative work, Wakefield made a lot of money and was stripped of his medical license.  The Lancet retracted his article.  Wakefield still makes lots of money speaking to the gullible.

Unfortunately, the damage was done.  “Celebrities” (There’s an interesting and self-serving word.  I’ve never “celebrated” Jim Carrey or Jenny McCarthy) jumped on the wagon and tried to get attention by “protecting” babies. 

The result:  babies are dying.  Children who do not get vaccinated can get sick and die.  Children under the age of 6 months, too young to get vaccinated, are exposed to diseases and dying.

Dana Mccaffery, dead at 4 weeks -
because her neighbors were not vaccinated.
Nonsense:  These are “childhood diseases” so they are not harmful. 

Before vaccines, “childhood diseases” killed almost half of children under the age of 5.  I had measles before the vaccine became available in 1963.  I nearly went blind.  To this day I have vision problems.  Mumps can cause sterility.  Whooping cough merely kills.

Nonsense:  There are no tests proving that the vaccines are safe.

Truth:  There have been many, many tests of vaccine safety over the last 70 years.  Millions of children around the world have been vaccinated in the 65 years since the measles vaccine became available.  Very few have had adverse reactions of any kind.  Don’t cherry-pick your data.

Nonsense:  There is formaldehyde in vaccines and formaldehyde is bad.

Truth:  Yes, large doses of formaldehyde are harmful.  Each vaccination has 1/600 as much formaldehyde as a large apple. 

Nonsense:  The mercury in vaccines will kill you. 

Truth:  Yes, methyl mercury is dangerous.  On the other hand, the ethyl mercury once used in the preservative Thiomersal is much less dangerous.  Thiomersal  is no longer used in vaccines, so those “warnings” are outdated.  Back when Thiomersal was used (by the way, it is also used in tattoo ink), there was less mercury in a shot than in 3 ounces of canned tuna.

Scare tactic:  Poor babies are given 600 shots!!  Poor babies!

Truth:  Fortunate American children do receive a total of 60, not 600, vaccinations between the ages of 6 months and 18 years.  That’s an average of 3 shots per year.

Nonsense:  Big Pharma makes millions selling vaccines.  I’m not going to give them my money for those government-tested drugs. 

Truth:  So I’m going to give all my money to “alternative drug” manufacturers for chemicals which have never been tested for safety or effectiveness?  "Natural" medicines that have been tested and found effective are called "medicine".
The human cost of Andrew Wakefield's fraud

What it comes down to is, if you don’t get vaccinated, you are a health threat to yourself and your neighbors.  There is no good reason not to get vaccinated.  Do it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Good News, Everyone!

I have been living in Burlington, CT, for almost 35 years.  That's 35 years without seeing a monarch caterpillar.  Even after I started planting milkweed in my "lawn" about 10 years ago.  But this year I have 2 large cats munching away, putting on weight, and if I am lucky becoming the next generation of butterflies!

There are many reasons why the monarchs have been scarce.

1.   Too many farms have been abandoned and grown up to forests.
2.   Too many of the old fields have been converted to cookie-cutter housing developments.
3.   Most of the plants that native butterflies feed on are considered “weeds” by the companies that sell monocultured grass carpets and have chemicals that can kill everything that is not grass. 
4.   Even my neighbors who have joined the trend of planting butterfly gardens have been treating their property with insecticides.  They bring in the butterflies and then poison them.

Still, there are two fat cats in my yard, and maybe they will survive the trip to Mexico, overwinter there, and return in the spring.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Irma Is On The Other Side Of Florida, So What's With Miami?

ABC news
There is standing water in the streets of Miami yet the storm all the way on the other side of Florida.  What's happening?

1.  Florida is 140 miles across.  Irma is over 300 miles wide.  For reference, the storm would stretch from Boston to Syracuse, NY, and from Long Island Sound to the Canada border.

2.  Storm surge.  The winds are so powerful that they are pushing the water into a wall up to 4 or 5 feet high off Miami – and up to 15 feet high along the west coast.  The average elevation in Miami is 6 feet above normal sea level.  And the water is being channeled by the shape of the coastline and squeezed up higher.

3.  Rising sea levels.  Yeah, that thing that Florida Governor Rick Scott doesn’t believe in.  Ice on Greenland is melting and flowing into the oceans.  And, the water is getting warmer.  You know what basic physics has to say about warm things expanding.

Miami already floods at normal high tide.  Irma is not going to fun.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Another Way Physics Can Kill You

We interrupt the hysteria about climate change disasters (droughts and fires out west, multiple destructive hurricanes in the southeast)
Photo from
to talk about the Mexico earthquake.  Haven’t heard much about it?  That’s because the 24/7 news media have something closer to home to frighten us with….
So, here is how physics killed over 60 people in Mexico last Thursday:

Adding energy to things makes the molecules move faster and try to move apart.  That is why warmer air is less dense than colder air and rises.  Warmer water floats to the surface.  So does hot rock in the Earth’s mantle.  But with the weight of the Earth’s crust on top of it, the hot rock can’t expand.  Pressure builds up, and the hot magma will escape any way it can.

The way a lot of the magma escapes is through cracks in the Earth’s crust.  The crust primarily a rock called granite, which has less iron in it than the rock in the mantle which is mostly basalt, so the continents float on top of the mantle.  The crust is made up of many large and many more small plates.  The plates are moving around.  There are several hypotheses about exactly how they move, which we will not worry about here.  The important thing is that the rising of hot magma and sinking of cooler magma in convection currents has something to do with it.

The major tectonic plates.  Yellow shows frequent earthquakes, red is volcanoes.

The crustal plates can move towards each other, with either one going under the other like happens on the western coast of the Americas, or simply collide and push up mountains like those plates that are forming the Himalayan mountains.  These are called convergent boundaries.

The plates can slide past each other, like the North American and the Pacific plates are doing along the San Andreas fault in California.

Or, the plates can move away from each other, as they do in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  In fact, the Atlantic is growing wider at the rate of 1 to 2 inches every year.
If the Atlantic is growing wider, then something must be shrinking, because the Earth’s diameter isn’t changing.  That something is the Pacific Ocean.  All along its edges the Ocean crust is being pushed (or pulled, depending on which hypothesis you subscribe to) under the continents.  

As the crust sinks it sticks, then the pressure is released in earthquakes as the crust pops free.

This is what happened off the coast of Mexico. The magnitude 8.1 quake, which was felt as far as Mexico City and Guatemala City, was registered off Mexico's southern coast.  The epicenter was in the Pacific Ocean, some 600 miles southeast of the Mexico City.  It was the most powerful quake in Mexico in over 100 years.
Photo from
Fortunately, building codes in Mexico require buildings to move with the quakes instead of trying to stay rigid, failing, and falling.  This minimized damages and injuries.