As Pamelia and I drove south along the coast from Berkeley to the University of California at Irvine last week, we stopped to study more than 1,000 Northern elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery near San Simeon. More than 17,000 of the seals winter there, a startling number when you consider that by the late 1800s, the hunting of elephant seals for oil had reduced the population to about 100. (Sad to say, people back then looked at elephant seals as an industrial commodity rather than as highly-evolved mammals; the blubber of one 5,000-pound male could produce a whopping 25 gallons of lamp and machine oil.)
Can we pause to talk about the science and danger of ladders? My dad, who's 85 and very safety-minded, was climbing down a ladder at my parents' house in Connecticut the day after the recent blizzard when the two forces that make ladders hazardous—gravity and friction—conspired against him. He's lucky to be alive today.
Worried that the weight of two-plus feet of snow (soon to be sodden by an approaching rainstorm) might cause the flat roof of the garage to collapse, Dad took out the extension ladder, propped it against the front of the garage and climbed up with a snow shovel. (He is not your average 85-year-old, and to him, this was just another day of doing what he does all the time.) As he cleared the snow off, he started getting hot and decided to climb down and grab a lighter jacket from the house. He was on his way down when the foot of the ladder slipped (not enough friction between it and the paved driveway) and Dad fell (gravity at work).
I'm relieved to report that my dad suffered "only" a fractured vertebra (i.e., a broken back), strained muscles and major bruising and is at home recovering. Pamelia and I have known several other people (all of them intelligent, older men, and most of them engineers and scientists, interestingly enough) who have either died or been permanently disabled in falls from ladders. In the last nine months two male friends of ours have broken, respectively, a wrist, and an arm and leg in ladder falls.
My father didn't happen to have anyone on hand to hold the ladder on the day of his fall. Pamelia and I were stranded in California by a blizzard-canceled flight, and my mom was inside, unaware he was trying to get down. He thought it would be a routine descent. I guess the lesson is, it's great to be a do-it-yourselfer, but when a ladder is involved, no matter how experienced or athletic you are, don't be a do-it-all-by-yourselfer. Scientific forces can be unforgiving.
Seven (of the Countless) Miscellaneous But Interesting Things We Learned On Our Trip1) Elephant-seal milk is the consistency of mayonnaise. Sea gulls hang out on the beach and try to slurp up any drops of the high-fat glop that a pup fails to catch.
2) You've got a lot less water in you as an adult than you had as a child. See photo below, from the San Diego Museum of Natural History.
3) Monarch butterflies like Pismo Beach, California, even better than Bugs Bunny did. Until about a week ago, my only knowledge of Pismo Beach was that Bugs often made references to it in his cartoons, usually when popping out of a rabbit hole in an exotic location ("I must have made a wrong turn at Pismo Beach!"). Then I read that Pismo Beach and other nearby spots on the central California coast are the migration destinations for the millions of monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains. And so Pamelia and I made a stop there and saw an estimated 20,000 monarchs—some fluttering, most snuggled together on the underside of branches. The photos really don't do the place justice.
4) Fred Urquhart was a hero. While watching a monarch documentary at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego a few days after visiting Pismo, I learned that Urquhart, a zoologist who grew up in Ontario, spent his entire adult life trying to figure out where monarchs that live east of the Rocky Mountains migrate every fall. Suffice it to say that Pamelia and I were both in tears by the time the film showed a dramatization of Urquart, after four decades of work and setbacks with his wife always at his side helping him, finally finding the migration spot, in the mountains of central Mexico. Watch the documentary if you can find it. It's called Flight of the Butterflies.
5) Human shadow puppetry is fun. While visiting the beautiful and geologically interesting Sunset Cliffs with Pamelia and San DiegoUnion-Tribune science and technology writer Gary Robbins, I noticed that the cliffs were distorting, in funny ways, the shadows that we cast. So we started standing in silly poses. What can I say?
5) The Hubble Telescope is traveling at 5 miles per second while circling 353 miles above the Earth. I think knowing those specifics helps you envision the amazing Hubble, which in the 23 years since its launch has literally and figuratively changed the way astronomers—and consequently, all of us—see the universe. By the way, the Hubble circles the planet every 97 minutes.
6) Astrophysicist/cosmologist James Bullock is as good a guy as he is an astronomer. And that's saying something. We met with James in his office at UC Irvine to talk about Naturalist's Notebook projects involving the Milky Way (in which he is a particular expert), the color spectrum and the 13.7-billion-year history of the universe. You've seen James if you've ever watched National Geographic's Inside the Milky Way or some other specials and series about space. He is the director of the five-university Southern California Center for Galaxy Evolution besides being a UCI professor. You'll learn more about him and his work this summer at the Notebook.
7) Without little flies called midges, there would be no chocolate. If you know that, you can never really hate insects again. I learned the info at the San Diego Museum of Natural History in a show on the natural history of chocolate. Midges are responsible for almost all the pollination of cacao blossoms (bats sometimes help), which wilt if not pollinated within 24 hours.
Meteorites, Asteroids and Comets If in the aftermath of this week's Russian meteorite crash and the asteroid near-miss you're wondering about the differences between and among the types of large flying space objects, watch this video from the aforementioned Gary Robbins, science writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Answer to the Last Puzzler The photo showed parts of seed capsules, known as gumnuts, from a eucalyptus tree.
Today's Puzzler What strange type of dog did we see below in San Diego?
a) Hungarian Zsa Zsa Vizla b) Balboa Park Hoodle Poodle c) Hollywood Paparazzi Hound