Money On The Sun

Stereoscopic Photograph of Victorian Greenhouse


by Heather Rogers, for The New York Times

At the turn of the 20th century, when Thomas Edison–who made possible the near-universal use of electric light and power utilities, sound recording, and motion pictures, all of which established major new industries worldwide–was at the height of his career, the notion that buildings, which now account for more than a third of all energy consumed in the United States, would someday require large amounts of power was only just coming into focus.
Where that power would come from — central generating stations or in-home plants; fossil fuels or renewable resources — was still very much up for debate.

A 1901 article about Edison in The Atlanta Constitution described how his unorthodox ideas about batteries could bring wattage to the countryside: “With a windmill coupled to a small electric generator,” a rural inhabitant “could bottle up enough current to give him light at night.”
The earliest wind-powered house was fired up in Cleveland in 1888 by the inventor Charles Brush, but Edison aspired to take the technology to the masses.
He made drawings of a windmill to power a cluster of four to six homes, and in 1911 he pitched manufacturers on building a prototype.

Edison’s batteries also fueled some cars and trucks, and he joined forces with Henry Ford to develop an electric automobile that would be as affordable and practical as the Model T.
The Constitution article discussed plans to let people recharge their batteries at plug-in sites along trolley lines; the batteries could also be refreshed courtesy of the home windmill.

Edison also, like other scientists of his day, was beginning to understand even then that fossil fuels wouldn’t last forever.
In 1913, Scientific American published an issue on energy problems, observing: “The question of the possible exhaustion of the world’s oil supply deserves the gravest consideration. There is every indication that we are face to face with this possibility.”
Articles delved into technologies to capture the power of the sun, the wind, the tide and even the earth’s rotation.
Inventors like Edison were modernizers who couldn’t bear the inefficiency of letting an abundant energy source like wind go untapped.

In 1912 Edison unveiled an energy-self-sufficient home in West Orange, N.J.
Billed as an experimental “Twentieth Century Suburban Residence” and designed to showcase his batteries, it bulged with luxuries like air heating and cooling units, a clothes-washing machine, an electric cooking range and, of course, plenty of light bulbs.
Completely off the grid, the house received its juice from a generator that charged a bank of 27 cells in the basement. For this first attempt, Edison used a gas-run motor, but evidence suggests that he hoped to hook up to a wind turbine.
The system would allow the prospective homeowner to be, according to The New York Times, “utterly and for all time independent of the nearness or farness of the big electric companies.”

The conglomerates struggling to control the nascent energy sector regarded that as precisely the problem.
For them, a world of independence, in which householders created their own power using renewable resources, was a nightmare.
The companies’ profits depended on electricity from power plants run on cheap fossil fuels.
In the end, Edison’s proudly free-standing Suburban Residence was hooked up to the grid, and neither his in-home wind-generated electricity plant nor his battery-powered vehicles ever reached the mass market.

In 1931, not long before he died, the inventor told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Naturalis Historiae

Václav Hollar (1607 – 1677)
The Battle of White Mountain


WE are now about to speak of metals, of actual wealth, the standard of comparative value, objects for which we diligently search, within the earth, in numerous ways.
In one place, for instance, we undermine it for the purpose of obtaining riches, to supply the exigencies of life, searching for either gold or silver, electrum or copper.
In another place, to satisfy the requirements of luxury, our researches extend to gems and pigments, with which to adorn our fingers and the walls of our houses: while in a third place, we gratify our rash propensities by a search for iron, which, amid wars and carnage, is deemed more acceptable even than gold.
We trace out all the veins of the earth, and yet, living upon it, undermined as it is beneath our feet, are astonished that it should occasionally cleave asunder or tremble: as though, forsooth, these signs could be any other than expressions of the indignation felt by our sacred parent!
We penetrate into her entrails, and seek for treasures in the abodes even of the Manes, as though each spot we tread upon were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile for us!

IT now remains for us to speak of stones, or, in other words, the leading folly of the day; to say nothing at all of our taste for gems and amber, crystal and murrhine vases.
For everything of which we have previously treated, down to the present Book, may, by some possibility or other, have the appearance of having been created for the sake of man: but as to the mountains, Nature has made those for herself, as a kind of bulwark for keeping together the bowels of the earth; as also for the purpose of curbing the violence of the rivers, of breaking the waves of the sea, and so, by opposing to them the very hardest of her materials, putting a check upon those elements which are never at rest.
And yet we must hew down these mountains, forsooth, and carry them off; and this, for no other reason than to gratify our luxurious inclinations: heights which in former days it was reckoned a miracle even to have crossed!

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79)

tr. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. (baptised 29 June 1773, died 6 August 1846)
Henry Thomas Riley (1816–1878)


‘Twas Pterodactyl, Sauropod

twas-gryphonOriginal pencil drawing of the sleeping Gryphon,
John Tenniel (1820 – 1914) 




“Jabberwocky” is a poem of nonsense verse written by Lewis Carroll, and was a part of his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). The book tells of Alice’s travels within the back-to-front world through a looking glass.

While talking with the White King and White Queen (chess pieces), she finds a book written in a strange language that she can’t read. Understanding that she is travelling in an inverted world, she sees it is mirror-writing, finds a mirror, and holds it up to a poem on one of the pages, to read out the reflection of “Jabberwocky”. She finds it as puzzling as the odd land she has walked into, which we later discover is a dreamscape.

It is considered to be one of the greatest nonsense poems written in the English language, and became a source of nonsense words and neologisms such as “galumphing”, “chortle”, and “Jabberwocky” itself.

In 1855, when Carroll was 23, he printed the first stanza of the poem in Mischmasch, a periodical that Carroll wrote and illustrated himself for the amusement of his family. It was entitled “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” and originally read:
“Twas bryllyg and ye slythy toves, Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe: All mimsy were ye borogoves; And ye mome raths outgrabe. ”
The spelling was altered when it was published as part of the later book.
The first stanza was written in Croft on Tees, close to nearby Darlington, where Carroll lived as a boy. The rest of the poem was written during Lewis Carroll’s stay with relatives at Whitburn, near Sunderland.
The story may have been partly inspired by the local Sunderland area legend of the Lambton Worm.

Roger Lancelyn Green suggests that “Jabberwocky” is a parody of the old German ballad “The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains” in which a shepherd kills a griffin that is attacking his sheep.
The ballad had been translated into English in blank verse by Lewis Carroll’s cousin Menella Bute Smedley in 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books.
Historian Sean B. Palmer suggests that Carroll was inspired by a section from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, citing the lines: “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” from Act I, Scene i.

John Tenniel reluctantly agreed to illustrate the book in 1871, and his illustrations are still the defining images of the poem.
The illustration of the Jabberwock may reflect the contemporary Victorian obsession with natural history and the fast-evolving sciences of palaeontology and geology.
Stephen Prickett notes that in the context of Darwin and Mantell’s publications and vast exhibitions of dinosaurs, such as those at the Crystal Palace from 1845, it is unsurprising that Tenniel gave the Jabberwock “the leathery wings of a pterodactyl and the long scaly neck and tail of a sauropod.”

Many of the words in the poem are playful nonce words of Carroll’s own invention, without intended explicit meaning.
Although the poem contains many nonsensical words, it holds to English syntax, and poetic forms are observed, such as the quatrain verses, the general abab rhyme scheme, and the iambic meter.
The linguist Lucas notes that the term “nonsense poem” is inaccurate. The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”.

When Alice has finished reading the poem she gives her impressions:
‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’
This may reflect Carroll’s intention for his readership; the poem is, after all, part of a dream.

In later writings, he discussed some of his own created lexicon, commenting that he didn’t know his source for some of the words; the linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty throughout both the book and the poem may largely be the point.
In Through the Looking-Glass, the character of Humpty Dumpty gives comments on the non-sense words from the first stanza of the poem; however, Carroll’s personal commentary on several of the words differ from Humpty’s.
For example, following the poem, a “rath” is described by Humpty as “a sort of green pig”, whereas Carroll’s notes for the original in Mischmasch suggest a “rath” is “a species of Badger” that “lived chiefly on cheese” and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag.
The appendices to certain Looking Glass editions, however, state that the creature is “a species of land turtle” that lived on swallows and oysters.
Later commentators have added their own interpretations of the lexicon, often without reference to Carroll’s own contextual commentary.

In January 1868, Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, asking, “Have you any means, or can you find any, for printing a page or two of the next volume of Alice in reverse?” This may suggest that Carroll was wanting to print the whole poem in mirror writing. Macmillian responded that it would cost a great deal more to do, and this may have dissuaded him

Multiple translations into Latin were made within the first weeks of Carroll’s original publication.

Legend of the Lambton Worm:


A Gossamer World

spider-webAugust Johann Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1759)

Two years ago, a research team led by the University of Oxford revealed that, when plucked like a guitar string, spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies, carrying information about prey, mates and even the structural integrity of a web.
Now, a new collaboration between Oxford and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid has confirmed that spider webs are superbly tuned instruments for vibration transmission.

Web-dwelling spiders have poor vision and rely almost exclusively on web vibrations for their ‘view’ of the world.
The musical patterns coming from their tuned webs provide them with crucial information on the type of prey caught in the web and of predators approaching, as well as the quality of prospective mates.
Spiders carefully engineer their webs out of a range of silks to control web architecture, tension and stiffness, analogous to constructing and tuning a musical instrument.

High-powered lasers were able to experimentally measure the ultra-small vibrations, which allowed the team to generate and test computer models using mathematical finite element analysis.

Professor Fritz Vollrath, Head of the Oxford Silk Group, added: ‘It is down to the interaction of the web materials, a range of bespoke web silks, and the spider with its highly tuned behaviour and armoury of sensors that allows this virtually blind animal to operate in a gossamer world of its own making, without vision and only relying on feeling. Perhaps the web spider can teach us something new about virtual vision.’


‘Tuning the instrument: sonic properties in the spider’s web’ is published in Journal of the Royal Society


A Marmoset Taking Sweets on a Painted Commode

marmoset-teacupLouis Tessier (c.1719 – 1781)


“Virtually every ‘uniquely human’ characteristic has turned out not to be so”, Matthew Cobb, The Guardian


It used to happen every day at the London Zoo: Out came the dainty table and chairs, the china cups and saucers — ­afternoon tea, set out for the inhabitants of the ape enclosure to throw and smash. It was supposed to be amusing — a ­comic, reckless collision of beasts and high ­culture. But, as Frans de Waal explains in “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”,  apes are actually innovative, agile tool-users.
Not surprisingly — to de Waal, at least — the apes in London quickly mastered the teacups and teapot too. They sat there civilly, having tea.
“When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done,” de Waal writes. “The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout,” and so on.
The animals had to be taught to be as stupid as we assumed they were. But, of course, the fact that they could be taught to be stupid is only more perverse evidence of their intelligence.

For centuries, our understanding of animal intelligence has been obscured in just this kind of cloud of false assumptions and human egotism.
De Waal painstakingly untangles the confusion, then walks us through research revealing what a wide range of animal species are actually capable of.
Tool use, cooperation, awareness of individual identity, theory of mind, planning, metacognition and perceptions of time — we now know that all these archetypically human, cognitive feats are performed by some animals as well.
And not just primates: By the middle of ­Chapter 6, we’re reading about cooperation among leopard coral trout.

There are many different forms of intelligence; each should be valuated only relative to its environment. And yet, there’s apparently a long history of scientists ignoring this truth.
They’ve investigated chimpanzees’ ability to recognize faces by testing whether the chimps can recognize human faces, instead of faces of other chimps. (They do the former poorly and the latter quite well.)
They’ve performed the ­famous mirror test — to gauge whether an animal recognizes the figure in a mirror as itself — on elephants using a too-small, human-size mirror.
Such blind spots are, ultimately, a failure of empathy — a failure to imagine the experiment, or the form of intelligence it’s testing for, through the animal’s eyes. De Waal compares it to “throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool” and seeing who can swim.

We sometimes fall into what de Waal calls “neo-creationist” thinking: We accept evolution but assume “evolution stopped at the human head” — believing our bodies may have evolved from monkeys, but that our brains are their own miraculous and discrete inventions.
But cognition must be understood as an evolutionary product, like any other biological phenomenon; it exists on a spectrum, de Waal argues, with familiar forms shading into absolutely alien-looking ones. He introduces what he calls the rule of “cognitive ripples”:
We tend to notice intelligence in primates because it’s most conspicuous, it looks the most like our intelligence.
“After the apes break down the dam between the humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species.”



It Could Take a Century to Recover

elephant5Portrait of an Elephant, Indian, c.1620-30

Study finds extremely slow reproduction rate unable to keep pace with deaths

African forest elephants have experienced serious poaching, driving an estimated population decline of 65% between 2002 and 2013.
Their low birth rates mean that it will take forest elephants at least 90 years to recover from these losses, according to researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Elephant Listening Project, Colorado State University, and Save the Elephants.

These findings are from the first-ever study of forest elephant demography just published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

“Female forest elephants in the Dzanga population typically breed for the first time after 23 years of age, a markedly late age of maturity relative to other mammals. In contrast, savannah elephants typically begin breeding at age 12.
In addition, breeding female forest elephants only produced a calf once every five to six years, relative to the three to four-year interval found for savannah elephants.”
Andrea Turkalo, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, collected the detailed data on the elephants over several decades, in spite of tough logistical challenges and political instability.
“This work provides another critical piece of understanding regarding the dire conservation status of forest elephants.”

George Wittemyer, a professor in Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University said, “Legislation regarding ivory trade must consider the collateral effects on forest elephants and the difficulties of protecting them. Trade in ivory in one nation can influence the pressures on elephants in other nations.”
And the forest elephant is particularly susceptible to poaching.

Forest elephants also have critical ecological roles in Central African forests, and many tree species rely on the elephants to disperse their seeds.
Those forests are vitally important for absorbing climate change gases.

Ours Blanc

polar ours bJacques de Sève (fl. 1742 – 1788)
from quadruped illustrations for Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière avec la description du Cabinet du Roi
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 – 1788) French naturalistmathematiciancosmologist, and encyclopédiste


Carrie Gooseberries

Amanda Almira Newton (1860-1943)



Surrendering Forests

tree david johnsonDavid Johnson (1827 – 1908)

by Jeff Tietz
Rolling Stone

From a tree’s perspective, excessive heat may be as deadly as lack of water.
To photosynthesize, a tree opens pores in its leaves called stomata and inhales CO2. Solar-charged chemical reactions then transform the CO2 into carbohydrates — the raw stuff of leaves and wood. During this process, a fraction of the tree’s internal water supply evaporates through its stomata, creating the negative pressure that pulls water from the soil into the tree’s roots, through its trunk and up to its canopy. But heat juices the rate at which trees lose moisture, and that rate escalates exponentially with temperature — so small temperature increases can cause a photosynthesizing tree to lose dangerous amounts of water.
“Forests notice even a one-degree increase in temperature,” says Park Williams at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In the death scenario, the sky sucks water from the leaves faster than it can be replaced by water in the soil, and the resulting partial vacuum fatally fractures the tree’s water column. If a tree closes its stomata to avoid this, shutting down photosynthesis, it risks starvation.
Ultimately, the tree’s cellular chemistry will fail, but it will often die before that, as its defenses fall; the complexly toxic sap that repels predatory insects dries up.
Many insects can detect diminished sap levels within tree bark by scent — they smell drought stress and pheromonally broadcast news of deteriorating tree health. Other defenses – against microbes, for example — may also be compromised.
A hotter climate generally means more insects.
It also means more, and more intense, wildfires.

For decades, all over the planet, heat-aggravated drought has been killing trees: mountain acacia in Zimbabwe, Mediterranean pine in Greece, Atlas cedar in Morocco, eucalyptus and corymbia in Australia, fir in Turkey and South Korea.
In 2010 a group of ecologists published the first global overview of forest health. They described droughts whose severity was unequaled in the “last few centuries” and documented “climate-driven episodes of regional-scale forest die-off.”

Because global warming outpaces evolutionary adaptation, the question is: Can trees survive as they are?
The conifer forests of the Southwest United States, if climate projections are even minimally accurate, cannot, but what about the rest of the world’s forests?
That’s a critical question, because forests cover more than a quarter of the planet’s land, and they help stabilize the climate by pulling immense quantities of CO2 out of the air.
In August 2011, a team of scientists led by Dr. Yude Pan, a U.S. Forest Service researcher, reported that between 1990 and 2007, forests sequestered about 25 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions — everything not in the air or seas.

Climatologists worry that if forests across the planet deteriorate, they could, on balance, begin releasing as much carbon as they absorb.
One of Pan’s collaborators, Dr. Richard Birdsey: “If the carbon sink in forests fails, a simple speculation is that global temperatures would increase proportionally to the increase of CO2 concentration, so about 25 percent above current climate projections.”
“The more forests die, the less carbon they take out of the air, the warmer it gets, the more forests die,”
says Dr. Nate McDowell at Los Alamos. “It’s a thermostat gone bad.”

The better we understand climate change, the more we seem to find that warming begets warming in unexpected and self-amplifying ways: Implacable heat engines materialize and run independently of all human effort.

There are an estimated 1 trillion metric tons of frozen carbon in the soils of the Arctic region — a century’s worth of global emissions, twice the amount stored in the global forest, another few Industrial Revolutions.
As the planet warms, permafrost thaws and decomposes, sending carbon into the air and further warming the planet. Higher temperatures also kindle increasingly intense and frequent wildfires in high-latitude forests, to quadruple effect.
And fire releases carbon directly; it burns off the insulating upper layer of vegetation, exposing more permafrost to warm air; it blackens the trees and land, which consequently absorb more solar radiation; and its soot can settle on and darken snow and ice sheets to the north, which then also absorb more solar radiation.

By the end of the century, the woodlands of the Southwest will likely be reduced to weeds and shrubs. And scientists worry that the rest of the planet may see similar effects.


Trees Cry Out

The Longevity of Trees
A Living Miracle
Du Bon Usage des Arbres

A Beautiful Law of Nature

camouflage caterpillarAbbott Handerson Thayer (August 12, 1849 – May 29, 1921)


“Less Thing-Like”

Abbott Thayer was a lifelong wildlife advocate whose artistic focus never strayed far from his personal fascination with the natural world.

On 11 November 1896 he made an appearance at the Annual Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Cambridge, Massachusetts arriving at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology on Oxford Street bearing a sack of sweet potatoes, oil paints, paintbrushes, a roll of wire, and two new principles of invisibility in nature that together formed his “Law Which Underlies Protective Coloration.”
In his afternoon open-air lecture, Thayer argued that every non-human animal is cloaked in an outfit that has evolved to obliterate visual signs of that animal’s presence in its typical habitat at the “crucial moment” of its utmost vulnerability.

Thayer arrived at camouflage inadvertently, in the process of pursuing art.
As a student, he had learned that any shape drawn on a flat surface can be given volume and dimension by a venerable process called shading. This is reliably achieved by rendering the shape lighter on the top and gradually darker toward the bottom.
As we know from current brain research, this takes advantage of an inborn visual tendency called the top-down lighting bias: when we look at anything, we default to the assumption that its light source is coming from overhead.

Observation then enabled him to realize why so many animals have light colored bellies with darker coloring toward the tops of their bodies. The effect is the inverse of shading.
Appropriately, it became known as countershading, because the effect counteracts the shadows resulting from cast sunlight, making an animal look less dimensional, less solid, less “thing-like.”
Though some of Thayer’s other proposals have been disregarded, countershading is a widely accepted biological principle today, and stands as the artist’s most significant contribution to the natural sciences.

By 1896, Thayer was increasingly inserting himself into what was a longstanding debate over the origins, effectiveness, and pervasiveness of protective concealment in the natural world.
After the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, animal coloration—both its origins and its role in animal behavior—had become a key locus of debate among natural historians, artists, and the lay public.
Prior to this period, naturalists had noted instances of animals’ blending in with their backgrounds. It seemed remarkable that God had “dropped” them into place just so—“nature by design.”

By contrast, in an evolutionary model, there was a gradual “fitting together” over time. Evolutionary theories, both Darwin’s and that of his colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, presented a range of explanations for animal colors. Darwin emphasized interrelations between the sexes as the cause of the showy coloration found in the male of many species; females chose the more colorful males for mating.
Wallace, studying the colors of many insects, interpreted bright hues and complex patterns alike as either warning signals to potential predators, modes for assimilation in the environment, or mimicry of other, more dangerous, species.

Meanwhile,  philosopher-psychologist William James, a friend of Thayer’s and a fellow birder, discussed the experience of bird watching in his 1890 Principles of Psychology, describing the study of illusions, or so-called “false perceptions,” as critical in efforts to understand human apprehension of depth, color, and movement.

Thayer’s New Hampshire summer home, to which he and his family relocated around 1900, was transformed into a year-round laboratory for studying protective coloration.
His communion with nature permeated the entire household. Wild animals—owls, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels—roamed the house at will. There were pet prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a red, blue and yellow macaw, and spider monkeys

Soon, his wife Emma, son Gerald, and daughters Mary and Gladys joined him as fellow investigators, technicians, and artisans.
Between 1901 and 1909, their generative theories were built up into a universe of paintings, photography (a new technology), collages, stencils, and essays. Each format addressed the enigmas of coloration and invisibility in different ways.

Thayer was simultaneously producing, witnessing, and documenting the processes of a living being’s assimilation into its habitat.


Richard Meryman
Roy R. Behrens
Hanna Rose Shell