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Living in the Rockies

Another hot day, following a string of other hot days. Everything is baking hot and dry, so it's such a delight to see this delicate yellow blossom on one of the Prickly Pears, with a tiny bee enjoying it just as much as me.

Prickly Pear flowering

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Ed Yong, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

An Immense World by Ed YongWell narrated by the author

Ed Yong is one of my favorite writers. I deeply appreciated his previous book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life⩘ , and I carefully read almost all of his articles in The Atlantic. As soon as I learned about this, his new book, I pre-ordered the audiobook as well as a hardcopy for my beloved who prefers reading paper books, and also purchased the eBook, so I could reference key passages (bonus: the paper and eBook contain lots of great photos of the animals he writes about).

In the incredibly well researched An Immense World, Yong travels the globe, speaking with experts and researchers to explore and observe firsthand how various animals experience the sensory world: smells, tastes, light, pain, heat, contact and flow, surface vibrations, sound, echoes, electric fields, and magnetic fields. He especially reveals how differently we and the animals with whom we share this planet experience the sensory world. We each inhabit our own Umwelt (environment, surroundings), and often there's very little connecting them.

No creature could possibly sense everything, and no creature needs to. Evolving according to their owner's needs, the senses sort through an infinity of stimuli, allowing through only what is relevant. To learn about the rest is a choice. The ability to dip into other Umwelten is our greatest sensory skill. A moth will never know what a zebra finch hears in its song, a zebra finch will never feel the electric buzz of a black ghost knifefish, a knifefish will never see through the eyes of a mantis shrimp, a mantis shrimp will never smell the way a dog can, and a dog will never understand what it is like to be a bat. We will never fully do any of these things either, but we are the only animal that can try. Through patient observation, through the technologies at our disposal, through the scientific method, and, above all else, through our curiosity and imagination, we can try to step into perspectives outside our own. This is a profound gift, which comes with a heavy responsibility. As the only species that can come close to understanding other Umwelten, but also the species most responsible for destroying those sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal all of our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures, and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.
– Excerpted from How Animals Perceive the World⩘  by Ed Yong, The Atlantic, Jun 13, 2022, which is based on this book.

An Immense World is filled with delightful and oftentimes mind-blowing details: "With receptors on their feet, butterflies and other insects can taste things by landing on them." My favorite section is the one describing the Umwelt of whales.

In the final sobering and somewhat tragic chapter, Yong discusses the topic of threatened sensescapes.

We now live in the Anthropocene—a geological epoch defined and dominated by the deeds of our species. We have changed the climate and acidified the oceans by releasing titanic amounts of greenhouse gases. We have shuffled wildlife across continents, replacing indigenous species with invasive ones. We have instigated what some scientists have called an era of "biological annihilation," comparable to the five great mass extinction events of prehistory. And amid this already dispiriting ledger of ecological sins, there is one that should be especially easy to appreciate and yet is often ignored—sensory pollution. Instead of stepping into the Umwelten of other animals, we have forced them to live in ours by barraging them with stimuli of our own making. We have filled the night with light, the silence with noise, and the soil and water with unfamiliar molecules. We have distracted animals from what they actually need to sense, drowned out the cues they depend upon, and lured them, like moths to a flame, into sensory traps.

We live on a beautiful and enchanting planet, sharing it with an immense variety of amazing creatures. We urgently need to take better care of our home and our housemates.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022,⩘ ; Random House, 2022,⩘ 


Coping with the chronic stress of our times

The calm waters of Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park; photo by Toshen

There's no doubt that we are living through an intense period: climate change, pandemic, political dysfunction, mass shootings, war, economic uncertainty, and on and on. What does that do to us, and how can we attempt to cope? An intersting article by Sophie Brickman in The Atlantic provides some insight.

   "The whole world—but certainly we see it very vividly in America—has had brain changes due to chronic stress, which makes us less capable of making decisions that can give us a healthy future, both at an individual and cultural level," Dr Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale medical school, told me.…

   As Arnsten explained to me, your brain is wired to activate its fear system if it sees someone else afraid. So when horrifying news blows up our phones, we instinctively empathize. Combine that with the new normal of living in a constant state of Covid-related uncertainty, and a political environment that can feel hopeless and intransigent, and you get a perfect neurological storm that has her worried.
   "You are losing the very circuits that enable you to self-regulate, to be rational," Arnsten told me, "and in a small-grained way not to be irritable, which is really important for family health."
   Can we get those circuits back? Research suggests yes, if we spend time in calm environments in which we feel in control. There are active ways to combat our new reality, many of which we know but don't pursue: exercise can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, deep breathing can calm one's arousal systems. Seeking out joy and humor, in the forms of books or music, can help. Another simple suggestion: "Do something that helps you feel more efficacious," Arnsten said, "even if it's very small. Often times, helping someone else can help jumpstart that."

When stressed, we 'catastrophize' – but we can learn to calm our irrational fears⩘  by Sophie Brickman, The Atlantic, Jun 21, 2022.

See also: Why criticism lasts longer than praise⩘ , by Sarah Griffiths, BBC News, Jun 27, 2022.

   [N]egative comments can be damaging at any age, especially during times when we are particularly impressionable or vulnerable. "When you're already down then it's harder to bounce back, so those might be difficult times to receive negative comments," [Roy Baumeister, social psychologist at the University of Queensland] says.…
   "We are all sensitive to negative comments in the sense that there are no 'stronger' personality traits. Considering the fact that everyone receives negative comments can help us deal with them … and could be a good strategy to protect our own mental health," [Lucia Macchia, behavioural scientist and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics] adds. "Another useful strategy could be to consider that comments are more connected to the person who's making them than the one who's receiving them."

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The Windtraveler shoji lamp

Windtraveler lamp

A shoji lamp in the shape of a deltoidal hexecontahedron.

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People walk at an average pace of about 2.5 miles per hour.
Trail winding up Cow Creek valley by Toshen
Meanwhile, light travels about 186,000 miles per second, or about 11,160,000 miles per hour. It would take light about 0.13 seconds to travel around the Earth,
Blue Marble, 2012. Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
1.3 seconds to travel the 238,900 miles from the moon to the Earth,
Big end-of-year moon by Toshen
8.3 minutes to travel the 93,000,000 miles from the sun to Earth, and 1.3 hours to travel the 890,000,000 miles from the sun to Saturn. To get a glimpse of an idea of just how far away Saturn is, see If the Moon were only 1 pixel⩘  by Josh Worth.
Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
At the scale of the solar system, the Earth is a spec of dust. 1,300,000 Earths could fit within our sun.
Sun, from the video Fiery Looping Rain on the Sun. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO
Our sun, as big as it is, is just a tiny twinkle of light in a suburb of the Milky Way galaxy. Its light takes about 27,000 years to travel to the center of our galaxy.
The Milky Way in Yosemite by bgwashburn is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (cropped)
One light year is just short of six trillion miles (5,878,625,000,000). The Milky Way has a diameter of about 100,000 light-years, and contains as many as 400 billion stars.
The Milky Way: VL test PSP8 by gjdonatiello is licensed under CC CC0 1.0 (cropped) The Milky Way, as vast as it is, creates just a smidgen of light in our local group of galaxies. Its light takes about 2,300,000 years to travel just to the Andromeda galaxy, the nearest large spiral galaxy. Isn't it amazing that by using our inherent art of visualization, we can be there, instantly, in this moment.
Andromeda. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The observable universe is estimated to contain as many as two trillion galaxies, a tiny fraction of which are visible in this eXtreme Deep Field Hubble image.
Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF). Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team
The light from the furthest reaches of the observable universe, near the dawn of our universe, takes 13,400,000,000 years to reach us. We are part of something that is near infinitely vast and incredibly beautiful. Such a gift.

To get more perspective on the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) Hubble image, see the short video: Hubble Legacy Field Zoom-Out⩘ . Make sure to read the notes, too. See also The Hubble Ultra Deep Field in Light and Sound⩘  at Astronomy Picture of the Day, which adds a pointer you can use to see just how far away a galaxy or star is, as well as hear a note play that corresponds to its redshift.

To get a glimpse of an idea of just how big our observable universe is, see Neal Agarwal's fun website, The Size of Space⩘ ; the BBC video by Professor Brian Cox, How big is our Universe?⩘ ; and CGP Gray's Metric Paper & Everything in the Universe⩘ . Here's another glimpse: What does two trillion galaxies mean?⩘ 

By the way, because of the Earth's spin, if we're standing still at the equator, we're actually moving at about 1,667 km/hour (1,037 miles/hour). The Earth is orbiting our sun at approximately 30 km/sec (67,108 miles/hour). Our sun is orbiting the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at approximately 250 km/sec (560,000 miles/hour). And our galaxy is moving through our universe at approximately 600 km/sec (1,340,000 miles/hour). Hang on!

If you'd like to move through time as quickly as you're moving through our universe, you might enjoy watching this TED talk by David Christian, one of the founders of the Big History Project: The history of our world in 18 minutes⩘ 

All distances and times are approximate.

Image credits:

  1. Hiking trail in Cow Creek valley⩘  by Toshen, CC by NC-SA 4.0⩘ 
  2. Blue Marble, 2012, Earth image⩘  by NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
  3. Full moon image⩘  by Toshen, CC by NC-SA 4.0⩘ 
  4. Saturn⩘  by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
  5. Sun, from the video Fiery Looping Rain on the Sun⩘  by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO
  6. The Milky Way in Yosemite⩘  by bgwashburn⩘  is licensed under CC BY 2.0⩘  (cropped)
  7. Milky Way in Summer: VL test PSP8 by gjdonatiello⩘  is licensed under CC CC0 1.0⩘  (cropped)
  8. Andromeda⩘  by NASA/JPL-Caltech
  9. Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF)⩘ : NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team