Archive for February 2013

Happy in Danum Valley   2 comments

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This is rare for me, a post with only two pictures and few words.  But I was thinking recently about what actually makes me the happiest.  I found these shots hiding out in my collection.  They were taken in 2009 and are not great photos, but they brought home exactly what makes me happy.  They are from a little paradise called Danum Valley, in Sabah, Borneo.  The one of me was taken by a “guide” (actually a biologist working there who I convinced to go hiking), and the one below is a shot I took when I woke up at dawn, with a literal riot of birdsong in the air.

This was my first genuine experience with a real (and I mean real) rainforest.  In the top photo I was enchanted by the calls of gibbons (not to mention the enormous trees) and could not seem to spot them.  Little did I know that by this point in the hike, probably because of a soaking rainstorm earlier, several leaches had found their way into my shorts.  They were busy choosing quite embarrassing places to draw blood.  You cannot feel them, and only when the blood starts to flow do you notice.  But this was one of the most amazing hikes I’ve ever done – truly a land from a story book.

So here it is:  me definitely not looking my best but happy as a clam.  If you go to Malaysian Borneo, go to Danum Valley.  Let me be more specific: if you go to Borneo, and want to see wild orangs (not in a sanctuary) in a wild forest, spend a few days in Danum Valley.  ‘Nuff said!

Rainforest at dawn, Danum Valley, Borneo.

Rainforest at dawn, Danum Valley, Borneo.

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Larch Mountain, Oregon   8 comments

The full moon rises over Larch Mountain at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

The full moon rises over Larch Mountain at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

I’m taking a quick breather from the heavy science stuff  to highlight one of my favorite features of the area around Portland, Oregon, where I live:  the amazing extinct volcanoes.  There are at least 32 in the Portland metro area.  Oh right, well maybe this will involve a little bit of geology, which is science I suppose.  Sorry ’bout that.

The volcanoes, which were active up until about 300,000 years ago, are cinder cones and generally small shield volcanoes (like in Hawaii, except those are BIG shield volcanoes).  Many lie within the city limits, and several have city parks covering their summits.  I happen to live quite close to two of them: Rocky Butte and Mount Tabor.  Both have parks, but the one at Mt Tabor is much more extensive, with hiking trails, tennis courts, a large playground, picnic areas and more.  There is even a natural amphitheater at Tabor where live music is often hosted on warm summer evenings.  This popular venue occupies the volcano’s old explosion crater.  How cool is that?

The Columbia River flows west below the foggy forests of the Larch Mountain, Oregon.

The Columbia River flows west below the foggy forests of Larch Mountain, Oregon.

While each of these old volcanoes in Portland have their own character and personality, one stands out above the rest.  It is the king of them all, a looming hulk over 4000 feet (1240 meters) high on the east Portland skyline.  I’m speaking of Larch Mountain.  There are no larches on this well-forested shield volcano, so one might wonder how it got its name.  Early lumbermen sold noble fir from the mountain and labeled them “larch”.  How come misnomers so often stick?

Larch is quite a large mountain, but most people do not take notice of it at all.  Beyond Larch Mountain lies the Cascade Range, with big snow-capped peaks like Hood and Adams.  These more dramatic peaks draw the eye away from foreground mountains like Larch in Oregon and Silver Star in Washington.  But try to ride your bicycle up Larch’s 16-mile long road, and you quickly discover how big this mountain actually is.  Like most shield volcanoes (named for their resemblance to a shield laid concave side down), Larch can easily escape notice.  This is because they are so broad, with gentle slopes.  And the gentle slope is because most of what pours out of a shield volcano during eruptive phases is a very liquid form of lava – basalt.  Basalt is the hottest and most dense lava on Earth, and it covers most of the ocean floor.  Because of its relatively low silica content, basalt flows very easily, forming smooth shallow slopes and a broad volcanic edifice.

The view to the east from Larch Mountain's summit is dominated by Mount Hood and its cloak of forest.

The view to the east from Larch Mountain’s summit is dominated by Mount Hood and its cloak of forest.

Copious quantities of basalt flowed out of Larch Mountain’s summit vent during the early ice ages.  It’s part of what geologists call the Boring lava field.  The name does not describe geologists’ feelings about this very interesting volcanic feature.  Rather the name comes from the little town of Boring, which is southeast of Portland.  The volcanoes are actually quite interesting because of their position far to the west of the main axis of volcanism represented by the Cascade Range.

Whenever my eyes drift up toward the east, I’m always impressed by the sheer bulk of Larch Mountain.  In certain light conditions it is almost lost, but in other light you can get an accurate feel for how dominant the mountain really is.  The views from the top are absolutely stunning.  You can look east to see an interesting angle on Mt Hood, north to see Mounts Rainier, St Helens and Adams in Washington, or west down the length of the Columbia River.  I often ride my motorcycle up there for sunset when the road is open (snow closes it in winter).  And stargazing from the summit is quite excellent, despite the proximity of Portland’s light pollution.

If you ever find yourself in Portland and want to catch the sunset from a high viewpoint, make the drive up to Larch Mountain.  Just head out the Historic Columbia Highway from Troutdale.  Not far past Corbett, and just before you come to Crown Point, you will see a sign where the road angles up to the right.  Don’t forget your camera!

Larch Mountain dominates the view from the wetlands of Portland's Smith and Bybee Lakes.

Larch Mountain dominates the view from the wetlands of Portland’s Smith and Bybee Lakes.

Life in the Universe IV   2 comments

Wherever life is, you will most likely find water or some other liquid.

Wherever life is, you will most likely find water or some other liquid.

This is a continuation of a series of posts.  Each is designed to be understandable without reading the others; they do build off each other, however, so check them out starting with Part I.  In the last post on this topic, I hope I got across how little we know of life’s beginnings.  This planet we live on hosts the only life we know of thus far…in the whole universe!  Does that mean we are most likely alone?  Not really.  This and the next post will look at the possibilities for life elsewhere.

Water is a good thing, but energy is also necessary for life; here in the form of geothermal heat in Yellowstone National Park.

Water is a good thing for life, but energy is also necessary; here in the form of geothermal heat in Yellowstone National Park.

It must be said that our ignorance of what the universe offers in terms of life beyond our solar system is profound.  Actually, I should not be so negative, because over the past decade or so we have found out much more about our universe’s capability to host life than we knew before.  This new knowledge has come in the form of the discovery of planets orbiting other star systems, along with the discovery of microscopic life in places we never thought could host life.

There is something I should mention before going further.  Scientists who study this sort of thing, called astrobiologists, do not expect to find any living thing out there that is visible without the aid of a microscope.  That’s because the conditions that are favorable for microscopic life (bacteria, etc.) are much broader in scope than those favorable for multi-cellular (big) life.  In addition, more complex life requires a much longer period of time before it can take hold, as opposed to the shorter time required for simple one-celled life to evolve.  But one thing is for certain: once we find microscopic life anywhere outside Earth, the stage is set for discovering much more complex forms.

Symmetry in nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

Symmetry in nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

Where We’ve Been

Humans have been probing the planets we share this sun with for a number of years now.  The first exploration outside of Earth orbit happened in 1962, when Mariner 2 flew close to the thick, acid-laced cloud-tops of Venus.  Then came the Apollo era, when the United States sent astronauts to the Moon and Russia managed to land a few craft on hostile Venus.  We also probed Mercury with a later Mariner mission.

The twin Voyager probes, launched in the late 1970s, were our first foray to the outer planets.  Voyager 1 showed us incredibly detailed close-up views of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and Neptune as well (still the only time we’ve visited those distant planets).  I recall seeing those first images of Jupiter’s clouds and Saturn’s rings in detail.  I was in High School, and the details were was truly blown away.  And I wasn’t the only one.

I normally only use my own images in this blog, but this painting is so realistic I couldn't resist.  Click image to go to source page.

I normally only use my own images in this blog, but this painting is so realistic I couldn’t resist. Click image to go to source page.

The Voyager probes are now the furthest from home that anything made by humans has ever traveled, and they win this honor by a mile!  Both are well over 100 times as far from the Earth as we are from the Sun.  They are also traveling by far faster than anything humans have ever built.  Soon Voyager 1 will arrive at the Heliopause, which is the spherical boundary around our Sun where the solar wind ceases to be the major influence, and instead galactic forces take hold.  In other words, our little travelers are about to leave our star’s neighborhood and forge a path out to the great beyond, the Milky Way Galaxy.

The U.S. has been the de facto explorer of the Moon and Mars, along with the outer planets, while the Russians picked the most hostile rocky planet on which to land a probe – Venus.  The European Space Agency has also been active more recently, designing the probe that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan.  While Mars garners the most attention, with its rovers and orbiting observatory, two U.S. probes are busy elsewhere.  Messenger is finishing up its mission at Mercury and Cassini continues to orbit Saturn and its zoo of moons.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Life on Mars?

In the 1970s we landed for the first time on Mars.  The lander was called Viking.  Along with incredible photography, the non-mobile lander dug up a small sample of soil and analyzed it for life.  Although it looked initially like the results might turn out positive, the soil was found to be completely hostile to life.  Since then, a series of Martian orbiters and rovers have found abundant evidence of water on Mars.  The only problem?  This water appears to have last flowed billions of years ago.  (Intriguingly, there is some evidence of periodic eruptions of liquid water from below ground, even recently.)  We have yet to find fossil evidence of past life on Mars, and the planet’s current condition appears to be as hostile to life as we ever thought.

An eclipse of the sun is one of the more humbling natural spectacles.

An eclipse of the sun is one of the more humbling natural spectacles.

Life Beyond Mars: It’s the Moons

Since both Venus and Mercury are much too hot to hold liquid water, even in the distant past, the next good place (beyond Mars) to look for life are the many moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has been known for years to have a liquid ocean beneath a thick ice cap.  The moon is heated by enormous tidal forces created by the nearby gas giant, so this probably means that hot vents discharge into the sea.  On Earth, undersea hot springs host entire ecoysystems, so it stands to reason that Europa could  hide similarly-powered concentrations of life clustered around hot vents beneath its ice cap.  Also, Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that also has a subsurface ocean, represents an excellent habitat for life.

Mount Rainier and the night sky above Eunice Lake.

Mount Rainier and the night sky above Eunice Lake.

Although other moons around Jupiter and Saturn are thought to contain liquid or partly liquid interiors, arguably the most intriguing place to search for life is Titan.  Titan, orbiting Saturn, is the Solar System’s second largest moon.  It’s larger than Mercury and not much smaller than Mars.  There is a lot of methane on Titan, much of it liquid because of the frigid temperatures.  In fact, methane on Titan might serve the same role as water does on Earth.  We have observed features like river valleys and lakes on Titan, but instead of being filled with water they are filled with liquid methane.

The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and selected moons in the solar system.

The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and selected moons in the solar system.  Click on image to go to website where the author of this image, Abel Mendez, is sourced.

Why is this interesting for life?  Because prior to the emergence of oxygen, Earth was a planet rich in methane as well.  Early life on Earth relied on methane not oxygen, and in fact, these organisms are still around.  There is an enormous community of micro-organisms (methanogens) living just beneath the sea floor today.  In fact the methane they produce has been stored in ice formations that could, because of global warming, erupt and release into the atmosphere, greatly accelerating global warming.  Many scientists think Titan could be revealed to operate much as Earth did billions of years ago, with microscopic life very similar to those early Earth days.

The fact is, although we have made great strides in understanding how likely it is to find life within this solar system of ours, we are just now scratching the surface.  Life on Mars has by no means been ruled out, and the moons of the outer solar system are just now being examined.  It will take a very sophisticated effort to look for life in Europa’s subterranean ocean, or across the huge and distant moon Titan, or on Enceladus.  But even the discovery of a community of extremophiles (micro-organisms adapted to extreme environments) on one of these relatively nearby bodies would be a watershed moment.  It would tell us that we are not alone in our neighborhood, and that life has likely gotten started in countless locations across the universe.

Next up: the incredibly diverse zoo of planets orbiting other stars.

Evening falls on the Columbia River, where two explorers passed on their way to discovery.  It's now quiet, and the frontier has moved on.

Evening falls on the Columbia River, where two explorers passed on their way to discovery. It’s now quiet, and the frontier has moved on.

Horizontal vs. Vertical: River of the West   9 comments

The Columbia River rolls west toward the Pacific, as viewed from the mossy banks on the Oregon side.

The Columbia River rolls west toward the Pacific, as viewed from the mossy banks on the Oregon side.

 

A short post on one of my favorite places to go when I sense a nice sunset coming up.  The River of the West is of course the Columbia River.  The North American continent has some big rivers, most draining the older eastern part of the continent.  But there are a few big ones in the west too.  The Columbia is one of these (The Yukon and McKenzie are two others).  The big river originates high in the Canadian Rockies and empties into the Pacific at the charming little town of Astoria, Oregon.  Lewis and Clark, the pair of explorers that Thomas Jefferson sent out west in 1804 to map a route to the Pacific Ocean from America, passed this spot.  Who knows, they might have stepped ashore here, stepping from their canoes to stretch their legs.

This spot is just 20 minutes or so from my house.  The river is wide here, and is influenced by tides despite being many miles from the ocean.  I scrambled down these rocks, nearly falling because of their slickness.  A rainshower had just passed, giving the moss, rocks and sky a fresh look that I think really adds to the photo.

I am posting both the vertical and horizontal versions.  I will often shoot both formats.  Sometimes one of them just jumps right out as the superior take.  But often I’m left wondering which one has more impact.  This might be the case here.

When there are many vertical elements in your composition, such as trees or tall buildings, a vertical composition is most often the best choice (not always though).  When you have an expansive composition, perhaps taken with a wide-angle lens, a horizontal composition often works better.  If there are layers in the scene, such as that provided by flat clouds or contrasting levels of ground, trees, mountains, etc., a horizontal composition is definitely worth it.  But do not think just because you have horizontal layers that a vertical composition will not work equally as well.

What I’d like to know is which one you prefer, the horizontal image above or the vertical one below.  Feel free also to post a pair of images on your own blog, same scene but one horizontal and one vertical.  Then post a link in your reply here so people can take a look and give their opinion on which format they prefer.  I suppose it would be a theme/challenge.  Thanks very much for looking!

The lower Columbia River in Oregon flows west toward the Pacific past the moss-covered rocks lining its banks.

The lower Columbia River in Oregon flows west toward the Pacific past the moss-covered rocks lining its banks.

 

In Praise of the Prickly Pear   8 comments

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

I recently realized something.  I have until recently avoided photographing a worthy subject just because it is common. It is the lowly beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family.  It grows across the interior western United States, touching the Pacific Coast in southern California.  It took quite awhile for me to come around on this rather unspectacular cactus.  But now I am taking the time to notice its subtle charm.

Beavertail cactus, a member of the pricklypear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

You see, I’ve noticed that this plant and I have some things in common.  It is on the surface unpleasant when you first glance its way, having a heavily creased face and a generally sour appearance.  It’s also worth avoiding at certain times, such as early mornings before it’s had a cup of coffee.   But it cannot completely conceal a certain rough charm, when the light is right.  And its interior is pulpy and soft, in stark contrast to the face it shows to the general public.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

More than once I’ve squatted down to look at something on the desert floor, and had my bottom stuck with the painful spines of a small prickly pear I hadn’t even noticed.  I’ve also been annoyed when huge prickly pears blocked my way, forcing me to detour.  In many drier areas of the American West, beaver tail is ubiquitous, the most common spiny succulent growing.

The plant can take on amazing colors, particularly just after flowering, or when it’s stressed and the chlorophyll drains out of its body.  When a plant loses its green chlorophyll, other pigments (such as anthocyanins) impart vibrant purples, pinks, reds and other shades.  In fact, this is precisely what happens when a leaf goes from green to red or yellow in autumn.

After the bloom: a prickly pear's dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

After the bloom: a prickly pear’s dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

Prickly pears are wrinkly and spiny, and the beaver tail is no exception.  The spines keep most animals from eating it (for the moisture it contains inside) and the wrinkles are an adaptation that lessens the drying effect of desert winds.  These features give it an interesting look when the light is right.  Like other photographers, I mostly have ignored the prickly pear.  That is until it blooms.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

In the deserts of the southwestern U.S.A., prickly pear blooms in late March or April – springtime.  The amount of winter rainfall and other factors influence how showy the blooms are, but the size and color (usually pinkish) of the flowers never disappoints anyone.  It is only recently that I’ve begun to really see how beautiful it can be at other times of the year.

So here’s to our common beaver tail cactus.  I will never take it for granted again.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

I Love Mountains II   13 comments

Everest (center) stands tall betwen its equally enormous neighbors.

Everest (center) stands tall betwen its equally enormous neighbors.

This is the second of two parts on mountains, inspired by the theme post on Where’s my Backpack.  I have a ton of mountain images, and quite a few stories as well.  So I split the theme into two posts.  Check the first one out too.

I fell in love with mountains when I was young and we started to go camping in the Appalachians of Virginia.  Like many kids I loved climbing around on rocks.  I still remember a favorite rock in the park near where I grew up.  I called it the Big Rock (I know, original).  We played for hours in the woods around that rock, using it as a sort of base.  Not many years ago, I returned to that place and walked through the park.  It was strange revisiting all of my childhood haunts.

Mount Rainier in Washington is mantled with lovely subalpine meadows.

Mount Rainier in Washington is mantled with lovely subalpine meadows.

On my first trip west, at the age of 12, we visited my uncle in Colorado (he was stationed at Colorado Springs in the Air Force).  As we approached the Front Range, in a bus on the plains of eastern Colorado, I remember my first view of truly big mountains.  I thought they were clouds.  Then when I realized what they were I was just floored.  I was hooked.  Right then I knew most of my life would be spent around big mountains.

The evening light is beautiful at base camp on the evening before climbing Island Peak in the Everest region of Nepal.

The evening light is beautiful at base camp on the evening before climbing Island Peak in the Everest region of Nepal.

Right after I got my license some friends all piled in my Pontiac and we went camping in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.  It was freezing cold, and we climbed up through the woods in an out-of-the-way part of the park.  We camped up on a ridge, and I had to stay up and keep the fire going to avoid freezing to death.  Our gear was pretty sad.  Next day we found the trail and climbed up a mountain called Old Rag.  Those familiar with Shenandoah probably know of this peak.  We did it from the opposite side, away from Skyline Drive.  It was really my first climb.  It was the first time where the entire goal of the trip was to stand upon the summit of a mountain; the first of many to come.

Mount Hood, near home in Oregon, is decked out in winter white.

Mount Hood, near home in Oregon, is decked out in winter white.

I learned on that trip that you really have to WANT to make the summit in order to be successful.  That drive for the summit has stayed with me all my life.  In younger years that drive almost cost me my life on several occasions.  It is good that the Lord looks after the young and foolish to some extent.  I’m smart enough to know I’ve used up my second chances, and I’m much more likely to turn around in unsuitable conditions now.

Glaciated mountains like the Himalaya have turquoise jewels for lakes, because of the fine rock flour that glacial erosion produces.

Glaciated mountains like the Himalaya have turquoise jewels for lakes, because of the fine rock flour that glacial erosion produces.

The environment around mountains is special.  The plants, trees, wild animals, all of it really, is perfectly suited to living in a harsh climate.  All climbers and hikers should feel humble in the presence of these beings who are much more at home here than humans could ever be.

A glacial tarn reflects the high Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.

A moose lives in the spectacular shadow of the Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Two Himalayan tahr descend the Himalayas of Nepal

Descending on snow is always so much fun.  One time coming off of Oregon’s South Sister, we foot-glissaded (sliding upright on your feet) down a steep slope.  One after the other, the four of us slid down.  I was last and after each guy went down, he disappeared from view and after 5 or 10 seconds I heard a distant shout/scream.  I didn’t see any choice but to follow, and we all ended up crashing together in a heap at the bottom, laughing our butts off.

Another time in Alaska a friend and I got caught in a “wet slide”, which is a relatively slow-moving avalanche that happens when the snow is soft and the weather warm.  We were in a chute, and at first it was fun, like being on a big conveyor belt.  But then it sped up and we saw that we would end up going over a huge cliff if we didn’t get out.  We both were able to grab hold of little bushes on the edge of the chute and drag ourselves out of the slide.  We got separated doing so, and it was an hour or so later that I found my friend.  We were both afraid the other hadn’t made it.

A mountain covered in winter snow is just begging to be skied.

Mountains come in all shapes and sizes, from huge pieces of the seafloor that have been uplifted miles into the sky (as in the Himalaya) to tropical Karst mountains (above) to volcanoes whether snow-covered or steaming.  Some mountains are old and eroded while others are young, jagged, and still rising.

Crater lake in Oregon was formed 7000 years ago when the volcano in Oregon erupted and collapsed back into its magma chamber, forming a caldera that later filled with snowmelt.

Rinjani Crater Lake

Rinjani volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, has a crater lake formed in a similar way to Oregon’s Crater Lake. The water, however, comes from tropical rainfall not snowmelt.

This rugged mountain Nepal is young and still rising.

Karst mountains are unique in their shape. This region of Thailand is covered in limestone karst terrain like this.

Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome is an enormous mass of granite.

The Brooks Range in Alaska is one of the state’s oldest mountain ranges, and so is eroded into gentle forms.

Sunrise from the highest volcano in Central America, Tajamulco, is a fantastic reward for the climb.

Of course mountain weather can be dangerous.  It’s always a good idea to consider turning around no matter how close to the summit you are if the weather turns nasty, because it can change much more rapidly than you think.  One time climbing in California we were very close to the top of a peak in the White Mountains after a long slog, including deep snow.  A storm was moving in as we approached the summit, and we weren’t willing to turn around when we had already worked so hard.  But the moment we summited, the storm hit.  As we scrambled off the peak, I looked over and saw my friend’s hair standing completely straight away from his head.  I heard a loud buzzing and felt electricity in my hands and feet.  The peak was struck spectacularly by lightning only a few minutes after we got off the summit.

This was taken of my partner as he climbed the last few meters to the top of a peak in Nepal.

Lenticular clouds form over Mt Hood in Oregon.

I love how the mountains draw the mist and clouds up their slopes.

I love how the mountains draw the mist and clouds up their slopes.

Mountain weather can be seen and experience, as here at Mt Rainier.

As I said in part I, I would love to live right up in the mountains one day.  The people I’ve met who have mountains in their blood are some of the finest salt-of-the-earth people in the world.  They work hard, they have faces as weathered as mine, and they are reserved yet very warm and welcoming, like me.

Two young Sherpa girls know nothing but mountain life.  Here they are weary after a long climb hauling heavy loads.

Two young Sherpa girls know nothing but mountain life. Here they are weary after a long climb hauling heavy loads.

A Sherpa from Khumbu region, Nepal, had summited Everest 8 times by the time I met him, all without oxygen.

A Sherpa from Khumbu region, Nepal, had summited Everest 8 times by the time I met him, all without oxygen.

Trekking in Nepal is nown in other places as hiking, walking, rambling, scrambling, tramping, & going for a walkabout.

Many of these stories and pictures are from much younger days.  My climbs are few and far between now, sad to say.  I’m still healthy and strong enough to climb of course, but the crazy stuff is behind me.  This post has reminded me to get back up there into the mountains I love, and soon!

The Colorado Rockies in fall is for mountain lovers the right place at the right time.

The Colorado Rockies in fall is for mountain lovers the right place at the right time.

By the way, please contact me if you are interested in any of these pictures.  I’ll make sure you get the high resolution versions, or can also ship fully mounted and framed pieces.  These versions are much too small to use.  Also, they are copyrighted.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

I Love Mountains I   14 comments

The world's highest mountain, Everest (Sagarmatha).  I finally made it here on a trek in Nepal, but did not climb it.

The world’s highest mountain, Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepali). I finally made it here on a trek in Nepal, but did not climb it.

I’m taking a break from the mind-bending stuff to post on one of my favorite subjects: mountains.  It’s inspired by a post on Ailsa’s blog.  The theme is mountains.  I’ve been a climber for quite a long time.  I have had such joyful experiences in the mountains.  Some have been scary, some miserable even, but all have made me feel more alive.  For that I am sincerely grateful.  I think mountains are the most spectacular aspect of Earth’s surface.

The mountain closest to home for me, Oregon's highest, Mt Hood.

The mountain closest to home for me, Oregon’s highest, Mt Hood.

First I’ll give kudos to the mountains nearest home in Oregon.  These are the Cascades.  Mount Hood, which I’ve climbed about 10 times, is closest.  But Mount St Helens, the famous volcano that exploded in 1980, is close-by too.  And Rainier, the iconic Washington mountain I’ve climbed twice, is only a few hour’s drive from home.  Mt Adams, also in Washington, is even closer.

Mount St Helens in Washington is clearly visible from the Portland, Oregon area.

Mount St Helens in Washington is clearly visible from the Portland, Oregon area.

A rare flat stretch while climbing in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.

A rare flat stretch while climbing in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.  Mt Adams and Mt Rainier are visible.

The aptly named Reflection Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

The aptly named Reflection Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Mountains don’t have to be high to be awesome.  Though I have climbed mountains up to 22,000 feet in elevation, the hardest one I ever climbed is just over 6000 feet.  It’s called Pioneer Peak, and is located in Alaska.  It took us 22 hours non-stop to climb this peak’s toughest face.  You start at about 10 feet above sea level.  Only two of the three of us made it to the top.  The only one of us with a wife and kid ultimately lost his nerve and froze just before the final pitch.  We picked him up on the way down.  The descent was hairy.  We slid down waterfalls, getting soaked.  We came upon cliffs we didn’t know were there and had to rappel.  Near the end, we bushwacked for hours, going over invisible droppoffs in the thick brush, grabbing at alder branches to soften the landing.

This is a typical climb in Alaska.  No trail, hellish approach, and just plain difficult after that.

This is a typical climb in Alaska. No trail, hellish approach, and just plain difficult after that.

To approach this part of the Alaska Range, you need to cross an enormous swampy river valley full of moose and grizzly bears, maybe a wolf pack.

To approach this part of the Alaska Range, you need to cross an enormous swampy river valley full of moose and grizzly bears, maybe a wolf pack.

This is the best way to "cheat" while climbing a mountain, taken just west of Denali on older film camera.

This is the best way to “cheat” while climbing a mountain, taken just west of Denali on older film camera.

A winter climb in Alaska.

A winter climb in Alaska.

One of Alaska's idyllic places to fly in, pitch camp, and catch dinner, the Wood-Tikchik Lakes in the Wood River Mountains.

One of Alaska’s idyllic places to fly in, pitch camp, and catch dinner, the Wood-Tikchik Lakes in the Wood River Mountains.

Sometimes river crossings on the approach to mountains are much more dangerous than the climb.  One time in Oregon’s Wallowas I was swept away and just barely escaped drowning by grabbing hold of a branch.  In Alaska on the return from a peak we got separated in the dark.  I had a bear following me for awhile, trying to cross a stream.  I kept going upstream and he (on the opposite bank) kept following me.  My friend Bob got swept downstream and ended up dragging himself out.  He was so cold he lay down and was about to fall asleep when he heard our shouts searching for him.  He hadn’t showed up at the truck.

One of North America's most beautiful range of mountains, the Grand Tetons.

One of North America’s most beautiful range of mountains, the Grand Tetons.

My favorites are mountains that aren’t at all planned, and whose name I don’t know.  One time in Northern California’s Marble Mountains we were camped, enjoying some whiskey.  Half-lit, the pair of us decided to climb the peak across the lake from us.  We named it Irish Peak, and it was so fun!  By the time we got to the hard stuff we had sobered up enough.  Ascending a ridge, it looked like we would have to turn around because of sheer cliffs.  We didn’t have a rope.  But we found a natural tunnel through the ridge that took us to the other side, which was easier and covered with an ice-field.  I had to go #2 very badly, and ended up squatting and dropping the bomb down a deep crevasse.

Prayer flags fly beneath Taboche in Nepal.

Prayer flags fly beneath Taboche in Nepal.

I would love one day to live right in the mountains, though I think my attitude towards them would be different in some ways.  It would be more mature, more intimate, less like they’re my playground.  I think my respect for their power would inevitably deepen.  Many people across the world, but especially Asia, have a spiritual connection with mountains.  They simply could not conceive of living anywhere else.  Perhaps I would grow to be like this if I lived in such places.

Tangboche, a buddhist monastery in the Himalaya, is a magical place to be at dawn when the deep bell calling monks to prayer echoes off the peaks.

Tangboche, a buddhist monastery in the Himalaya, is a magical place to be at dawn when the deep bell calling monks to prayer echoes off the peaks.

Mountains feed rich farmland in river valleys the world over, including here at Mt Hood.

Mountains feed rich farmland in river valleys the world over, as here at Mt Hood.

Tune in for the second part of this tomorrow.  By the way, if you are interested in any of these images, whether for a web use or just to hang on your wall, let me know and I’ll make sure you get the higher resolution versions.  These versions are much to small to use, and are copyrighted.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation.

The Tetons appear to be catching fire beneath a gorgeous sunset.

The Tetons appear to be catching fire beneath a gorgeous sunset.

Life in the Universe III   13 comments

Isn't it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

Isn’t it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

At one time I thought God created everything, but I can’t remember ever truly believing it was during 6 very busy days.  I do remember giving serious consideration to whether or not Purgatory would be an interesting place to stop before going to Heaven, even if there was a small chance I could be sent instead to Hell by mistake.  Then soon after I seriously began studying science, I put my inner religious beliefs into a little box and went on, unencumbered, to feed my curiosity.  I didn’t throw my beliefs away.  I believe that as you go through life, you should try not to throw things away unless you really need to.  We already lose too much as we grow older.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

I learned that it’s likely life emerged from non-life by a trick of chemistry, and that was that.  I had bigger fish to fry – how the Earth and other planets formed.  I knew scientists didn’t really know exactly how life began, but I figured they would find out soon enough.  It wasn’t for me an important question for a long time.

(An aside: I sometimes wonder whether I would have become obsessed with life’s origins, had I went further in the direction I explored my senior year in college.  I was good at chemistry in college, and I took a class called Thermodynamic Geochemistry, which sounds a lot tougher than it actually was – but it would have gotten very tough if I had pursued it.)

Probably the world's oldest religion.

Probably the world’s oldest religion: Judaism.

Meanwhile, for the scientists who work on it, the origin of life has been an unusually thorny problem.  There have been many side-tracks along the way, from primordial soup to deep sea vents to extra-terrestrial origins (panspermia).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle for life: shallows of the sea.

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle of life: shallows of the sea.

 

The State of Our Knowledge of Life’s Origin

We don’t really know what kind of environment hosted the first life.  It could have been in a thermal area, or in ice, or even in solid rock.  It could have been on Mars.  But wherever it was, water very likely was the dominant substance surrounding the primitive beings.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

Perhaps a non-living compound underwent some chemical transformation into RNA.  RNA can do the work of forming proteins (as it’s doing right now inside you) but it can also reproduce, like DNA.   Then it’s just a matter of finding itself in the right place at the right time (pre-cells), to be put to work in an entirely novel way in something we would now call alive.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Or perhaps non-living structures similar to our body’s cells first started to form in high-energy environments (like deep sea vents) and they began to process energy (it’s thermodynamically favorable).  Then they began to reproduce (via RNA).  Most scientists believe that RNA is an important key.

Life was born because chemical compounds were formed at great odds.  Here salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Life was born because chemical compounds formed at great odds. Salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Perhaps you know of Craig Venter.  He’s the guy who led the team who first decoded the human genome.  He’s at work now on trying to create a living organism with no biological parents (actually a computer takes the parents’ place).  Many believe that creating life ourselves is necessary before we can understand how it arose.  As Richard Feynman once said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

You can see there is some uncertainty here, and every good chemist knows these transformations are not at all easy.  But it happened.  Stuff happens after all, and given a lot of time and the right environment, perhaps life has been emerging  everywhere, throughout the history of the universe.  So what if we can’t explain the moment of life’s creation.  Does it matter?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth's lifeless oceans?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth’s lifeless oceans?

I tend to think that life in this solar system evolved on Earth first, but I wouldn’t bee too surprised if it started on Mars first and was transported to Earth riding on a meteor.  I also believe that this question: how did life start, is an important one.  I think it will take us a big step forward in figuring out how life emerged in the universe.  How we got here is one thing, but it will take much more insight to discover why we are here.

This story will continue, so stay tuned…

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

Life and the Universe II   8 comments

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

How did all of this come to be?  I mean everything around us.  Have you looked out into a deep inky-starry sky lately?  Have you tried, actually tried, to comprehend the distances involved, the multitude of galaxies and star systems?  Two things have become obvious:  (1) a multitude of planets exist, many likely to host life; and (2) the universe, in the way it works, is fine-tuned to be friendly towards the emergence of life.   This leads many to the idea that life might not be just an accident.  In thinking about the universe’s ultimate origins, life just might be the one small feature of the universe that is too important to ignore.

Constellations in a Meadow.

Constellations in a Meadow.

To date, physicists have been in charge of figuring out the origin and make-up of the universe.  If you knew any physicists in college, or even since then (highly unlikely), you know how ridiculous that notion is.  Unless the universe is nearly devoid of life, an assumption that is becoming more and more unlikely as time goes on, then we need more than just quantum physicists to answer the ultimate questions.

To begin with, think of it this way.  Our universe is just under 14 billion years old.  That is the quite precisely dated age of the Big Bang.  There is a small chance that this age is in error, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that the error is 14 billion minus 6000 years!  The universe (and Earth) are ancient, incredibly ancient.  A lot has taken place already.  But there is much much more to come.  All evidence points to this thing going on for a long time to come.  Where are we headed?  That is a question just as important as the origin question, and its answer could help shed light on why we are here.

Pondering one of Earth's possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring.

Pondering one of Earth’s possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.

It’s obvious now that our universe began with a great explosion of space-time itself (the Big Bang) and has been expanding ever since.  The rate of the expansion has apparently not been constant.  It has been speeding up of late, or that is the current best explanation for astronomical observations of stellar explosions in deep space.

I’m taking as a given that we MUST eventually discover how all of this came to be, where it is going, how it will end, and (most importantly) why.  At least we must continue to try.  Those who put their faith in God, in the Bible, the Koran or Book of Mormon, even these people will be enriched if and when we discover the true nature of things.  They might not admit it publicly, but they will be enriched along with the rest of us.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

There is nothing in astronomy thus far that contradicts the idea of a creator.  We are having some trouble describing the situation at the precise moment of the Big Bang (we can only describe events AFTER the Big Bang).  But even if we do, hints of higher levels of reality, a Multiverse (see below) means it all could have been set in motion by a creator long before “our” big bang.  Now be honest.  When you read the word “creator”, you had in mind an image.  I’m guessing it was an image derived from childhood religious teachings.  But notice I didn’t capitalize the word.  That’s because a creator, which let’s be honest is not at all required for this universe to have come into being, could indeed be someone entirely different than our traditional image of God.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland's Rose Garden on a rainy day.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland’s Rose Garden on a rainy day.

If you know something about quantum theory, you might have heard of virtual particles.  These are actually physical phenomena that pop into being from nothing, and then pop right back out of existence.  In fact, some scientists believe that the universe is speeding up its expansion because of the energy coming from this “restlessness” in the vacuum of space.  If you are willing to skip a lot of quantum physics and general cosmology in between, you can move to the extreme case of a universe popping into being from nothing.  In other words, you may be part of a universe that came into existence from nothing, with no help from anything but the inherent instability of truly empty space.  No creator, or Creator, is required.

The basic problem with applying quantum theory to the universe as a whole is, as it has been for closing on a hundred years now, the difficulty physicists have in applying quantum theory to the world we live in.  The word quantum refers to things so tiny that they’re really little packets of energy rather than things with length and breadth.  Electrons and protons are two examples of quanta.  These are things we will probably never photograph directly (atoms, made up of protons and electrons, have been photographed).

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we haven’t had much luck so far taking a theory that describes the world of electrons and protons and applying it to things that are infinitely more huge like a person, let alone something as vast as a universe.  Things like rivers and rocks, elephants and planets, stars and nebulae are, in essence, emergent properties of some underlying reality.  We seem to be stumbling around, using the language of mathematics to look for this underlying reality, and coming up with plenty of possibilities.  All the while physicists have not been able to connect any of the myriad possibilities to what has actually emerged from that reality.

Many attempts have been made to meld the submicroscopic world of energy (the universe right after the Big Bang) with the more familiar and much cooler universe of today.  We have a well-tested theory of beyond-tiny particles, but we need a theory of stars, planets and bacteria. ( Ha!  You thought I was going to say people, but bacteria vastly outnumber us and probably inhabit way more planets than do large animals like us.)

A rare solar corona appears.

A rare solar corona appears.

Einstein, Bohr, Wheeler, Feynman, etc., etc., all very smart scientists, have put forth  ideas that would extend classical quantum mechanics.  But nobody has succeeded in coming up with a well-tested quantum theory of the macroscopic world (a.k.a. quantum theory of gravity).  There are theories in science, and then there are Theories.  Sometimes, when it is pure mathematics behind the idea, they call it a theorem.  Nobody would call relativity, or evolution by natural selection, a theorem, believe me.  This ongoing effort is often called the Quest for the Holy Grail of Physics.

So I’ll leave it there for now.  I won’t say much more about quantum theory per se, though everything from here on out traces back to it.  Instead I’ll jump right on to the idea of multiple universes, or the Multiverse, and how life and the origin of life might fit in.  It would be good for anyone interested in science to get up to speed (layperson’s speed that is) on quantum theory.  I don’t pretend to understand a lick of the mathematics behind it, so don’t ask me too many questions.  But the ideas of entanglement and decoherence, of multiple histories, and even wave function collapse, are all good targets for a bit of googling and (better) actual book-reading.  More to come.

A small stupa in Nepal's Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

A small stupa in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

Life and the Universe I   8 comments

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

How is that for a title?  Perhaps a bit too broad for a blog post, ya think?  I know, I’ll spread it out over 2 or 3 posts, that should do it.

Actually I have been thinking about this subject in a different way off and on for a few years now.  It can be boiled down to this: does the universe show a consciousness?

Several cosmologists out there have written books where this idea is implied if not outright stated.  And these are scientists, so please don’t think I’m off my rocker!   Paul Davies is one scientist who has influenced my thinking.  He wrote a book in 2007 called Cosmic Jackpot where he discusses some of the theories behind modern cosmology, including the idea of the Multiverse.  He doesn’t stop, however, with yet another layman’s explanation of relativity or string theory.  He goes further and tackles quasi-religious “why” questions, such as:

  • Why is the universe so dang perfect for the emergence of life, when it could have been so easily hostile to life?
  • Why are we here, and why are we conscious?
  • Does the Universe itself have a consciousness?  If so, why?
The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

Davies isn’t the only cosmologist who is exploring these questions, but most scientists don’t go so far into speculation about the purpose for and meaning of life in this universe. My ideas as summarized in this post aren’t exact copies of Davies’, and they don’t use these cosmological ideas to springboard into fantasy land.  I’m not saying the ideas could not be the basis of a very good, and very bizarre, science fiction novel.  But in a way I am a good little scientist who doesn’t stray too far from what can be tested and established by observation and other lines of evidence.

I think the fact that our universe is so finely tuned to the emergence of life begs to be explained.  I also think that life is too often regarded as a sort of passive feature in the universe.  You have gas clouds, dust, rocks, and other stuff…and oh yeah, you also have life.  I really think it’s possible that it is much more than that.  It is now obvious that life has influenced everything on Earth from climate to the oceans, even minerals (whose incredible diversity on this planet is very likely because of life).

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

Just one example: a little over two billion years ago the atmosphere was infused with oxygen by micro-organisms who bloomed fantastically in the ancient oceans.  Mostly the changes that life has wrought on Earth have served to make the planet much more hospitable to…you guessed it, life!  In the example above, the oxygen in the atmosphere allowed the evolution of energy-hungry complex life.   Oxygen supplies enormous energy within your body’s cells, much more than any other element could.  There are many other examples; ask any good paleontologist and they’ll tell you.  Is all of this mere coincidence?

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won't be repeated for over 100 years.

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won’t be repeated for over 100 years.

Now Earth is the only model we have thus far to explore the tight inter-relationships between non-living matter, energy and life.  But looking out into the galaxy, we are finding more and more planets that are looking more and more like they might also harbor life.  When you consider the numbers involved, life might actually be quite common in the galaxy, and by extension the entire universe.  If we can find some of the same types of connections between life and the history of the cosmos that we have found on Earth, then we might be looking at something very profound indeed.

You might have heard that in astronomy, time starts with the Big Bang.  Nothing existed before this but a singularity, which takes up no space.  So what happened before the Big Bang?  That question is nonsensical, or unanswerable, or blah blah blah.   This is utter nonsense of course.  We might not be able to answer these questions about our origins right now, but they are certainly legitimate (and very important) scientific questions.  Next lecture you go to where the Big Bang is discussed, make sure and raise your hand to ask the question, what came before?  If the speaker is good, while probably not being able to answer definitively, she will never brush this question off with a lame excuse.

Storm clouds gather.

Storm clouds gather.

If we live in just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, of universes, in other words a Multiverse, then it is impossible to ignore the startling consequences.  And it goes beyond the admittedly bizarre fact that there could be another person virtually identical to you in a parallel universe.  If we are part of a Multiverse and begin to understand how it works, we could discover some mind-blowing things.  We might actually find out in the not-too-distant future how we got here, how all of this got going in the first place, and crucially, WHY.  Why are we here?

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it's alive.

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it’s alive.

Never let anybody tell you this isn’t a legitimate scientific question, that it’s outside the purview of science.  But I’ll excuse you for being selective regarding whom you get into a discussion of these matters with.  After all, religion tackles the same sorts of questions, and things can get emotional and personal real quick!  Science and religion mix much like water and oil do, and sometimes they mix more like pure sodium and water!

Next up: let’s dive into some real arm-waving speculation on these questions.  I welcome any and all comments and contributions, no matter how wacky you might think they are.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

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