Scallop boats (like the one above, which I photographed several days ago in front of our house) have been dragging our bay, on and off, this winter. They legally drop heavy metal draggers that scrape along the bay floor and scoop up the tasty bivalve mollusks, which are later sent off to restaurants and stores across Maine and the rest of the country. Dragging is not an ecologically friendly procedure. On days when there's a particularly low tide and we go out wading, Pamelia and I can see some of the barren swaths the boats leave. We sometimes compare dragging the sea floor for scallops to clear-cutting a forest to collect acorns.
Because fishing boats also work the Down East waters for sea urchins, sea cucumbers and other marine delicacies, and each type of seafood has a limited season (sometimes in limited locations), it can be hard for us to know whether a boat is out there legally or illegally. On mornings like yesterday's, we get clues that it's illegally.
When a very low-flying plane circles and re-circles and re-circles fishing/dragging boats (as happened yesterday), and some of those boats start racing away at top speed as soon as the plane first appears, we suspect that fishing/dragging rules are being broken. With considerable money to be made, the fishing/dragging business can be something like a gold rush, with large numbers of boats heading for the same stretch of water if, say, urchins or scallops are plentiful. The marine patrol does its best to police violations, which can be hazardous work. A patrol officer once told us frightening illegal-fishing-bust stories (complete with guns) that would have curled an urchin's spines.
Maine's fishing and lobstering practices are far better than those in many parts of the world. The regulations are stricter, and watchdog groups such as the Frenchman's Bay Conservancy do a good job of keeping the health of the bays and marine life in the public discussion. Still, when the buzz of a patrol plane breaks the calm on a lovely morning like yesterday's, it's a reminder that the natural beauty we see out the window is only a superficial picture of the reality facing sea creatures and their precarious environment. What's happening below the surface can be a drag.
On to the Big History of Our Life...As mentioned in our first post of 2013, this is our Big Bang year at The Naturalist's Notebook. Pamelia and I will continue to develop our 24-color-coded history-of-the-universe science and arts timeline and its related Big History of Our Life art installations. Building on the success of our outdoor installation at the TEDx conference last October, we will be working with students at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn., and the school's exceptional leader, Thomas McMorran, who was named Connecticut Principal of the Year in 2012, to create an interactive 13.7-billion-year timeline for Barlow's big Palooza event in May (more on that soon). We'll be introducing, in pilot form, an art curriculum, based on the color-coded timeline, that we are currently developing with four educators linked to the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Within the Notebook and in this blog, we'll be talking about and, we hope, illuminating the latest scientific understanding of the 13.7-billion-year history of our collective home.
Comprehending that long a period of time tests the limits of the human brain. The chart below is one attempt to put the events of the last 13.7 billion years in a simpler context. The bottom line of the chart is, if you will, the bottom line: We're a rather insignificant part of the whole story. If the history of the universe were compressed into a single calendar year, the history of homo sapiens would last six minutes and the last 2,000 years would flash by in all of four seconds.
Think back on 2012 and everything you experienced. Remember that swig of sparking pomegranate juice (O.K., champagne) you took during the final countdown to midnight? That's all of recent human history, in one gulp, if we look at the year as capsule summary of 13.7 billion years.
We could come up with other ways to look at it. Here is a visual one: If we take the geographical size of the continental United States and say that represents the the history of the universe, then the entire history of modern humans (going back about 200,000 years) would cover a patch of ground about one-tenth as large as the smallest county in Maine. The last 2,000 years would take up an area less than half the size of New York's Central Park.
If you've ever driven around the 3,717,792 square miles of the continental U.S., and know how big this country is, that comparison is pretty amazing.
So as we embark on our tour of the planet under your feet and the universe over your head, and when and how they developed, try to keep in mind that calendar, that song, or that map of the U.S., with only the microscopic piece of Maine or New York City colored in to represent the human era. They offer a healthy perspective, and might add a genuine sense of awe to your day.
100 Top Science Stories of the Last Year (Cont.) Having taken you from big story number 100 (wild solar activity) through number 60 (the new age of masers), we continue our countdown of the list from Discover magazine:
59: A study revealing that much of the rice grown for human consumption in the U.S. is tainted with a significant amount of arsenic, from residual pesticides. The only exception was rice grown in California.
58: The creation by Microsoft of a system by which speakers of the world's 6,800 "minor" languages can fairly easily teach computers to translate those languages into the world's major languages.
57: The resurgence, on a small but worrisome scale, of measles and mumps in the U.S. Experts cite the failure of some people to get the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and the spread of the disease through international travel.
56: Information gleaned from three spacecraft, all launched in the 1970s, that have traveled farther from Earth than any of their predecessors: Voyager 1, currently moving beyond the realm influenced by our Sun into so called "interstellar space" and the twin probes Pioneer 10 and 11, which aren't quite so far out and whose movement and speed are being studied even though both are no longer in contact range.
55: The creation of a computer-linked camera (built with 98 cameras put in a dome shape) that can shoot a billion-pixel image. Electrical engineer David Brady at Duke University came up with the invention, which takes shots so sharp that they enable a person to read a license plate from a third of a mile away.
54: The development of a vaccine that has dramatically limited tumor growth in mice by targeting cancer stem cells, which, in Discover's words, "are thought to be major drivers of cancer relapse and progression." Cancer researcher Qiao Li of the University of Michigan told the magazine, "All you need is one leftover cancer stem cell for a tumor to come back."
53: Further progress for China's human space program, whose astronauts are called taikonauts. These achievements included linking a spacecraft to an orbiting space lab for the first time. China has announced plans to have a manned space station in orbit by 2020.
52: The sequencing of DNA from an extinct species of human, known as Denisovans, by German researchers using what Discover calls "wisps of DNA from an 80,000-year-old fingertip bone."
51: New research on ancient human remains unearthed in China in 1979, revealing that they may belong to, in Discover's words, "a previously unknown, anatomically unique modern human species." The remains are between 11,500 and 14,500 years old. Australian researcher Darren Curnoe believes that they may represent a human species that developed in parallel to homo sapiens, reports the magazine, meaning that "we shared the planet with other human species right up to the dawn of agriculture."
50: The use of private space capsules to take supplies—soon to be followed by passengers—to the International Space Station.
Answer to the Last Puzzler Louis Braille developed his system of six-raised-dot text for the blind after a visit to his school by a soldier who told him of a 12-dot code system used by soldiers to silently pass instructions to each other at night.
Today's Puzzler How many bones are there in a typical shark? a) 76 b) 234 c) none d) more than 1,000