Pamelia and I are back from our trip to Russia and happy to be at home in beautiful, chilly Maine. Our internal clocks are still out of whack while adjusting to the nine-hour time difference. Eli and Virginia helped keep us awake past 7 p.m. last night by challenging us to a game of Life, in which three of us became journalists—for me, a case of Life imitating life. I came home from Sochi with a full reporter's notebook as well as new ideas for The Naturalist's Notebook, which we will open for two days of holiday shopping and interacting right after Thanksgiving (see below). And now it's time to start catching up on the blog.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Geographic are collaborating on a book, TV special and museum exhibit on birds of paradise, some of the most extraordinary—almost unbelievable—creatures on Earth. The special will start airing on the National Geographic Channel on Thanksgiving night, and above is a sneak preview. These birds live only on the ecologically invaluable island of New Guinea, in Asia's densest rainforest. Watch the short video above and you'll be amazed.
Notebook Holiday Schedule The Naturalist's Notebook will be open for two days of holiday shopping and interacting: Nov. 23 (otherwise know as Black Friday) and Nov. 24 (otherwise known as Small Business Saturday). We'll be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on each day and will offer 15% off on all purchases and discounts of up to 40% on several items. Come on over to Seal Harbor—you'll get a sneak peek at how we're already beginning to transform the Notebook for 2013.
How Many Seeds in the Owl? All season long, Notebook visitors guessed how many sunflower seeds there were in the large glass owl that sat on our checkout desk. The estimates ranged from 651 to 45 trillion to a googol (1 with 100 zeroes). Some people took measurements of the owl and went through elaborate calculations. Others plucked a number from the air. The most common guesses were 25,000 and 1 million.So what's the correct answer?
It is...131,487 seeds. Virginia painstakingly went through all the entries and determined that the person with the closest guess was Jake Weisberg, who guessed 128,001 (very impressive!). He will receive a $25 Notebook gift certificate, and we will try to figure out something else to put in the owl next year.
Five Things Learned on the Trip to Sochi 1) Russia covers one-eighth of the land on Earth. I knew it was huge, just not that huge. It's 60 percent bigger than the world's second-largest country (Canada) and nearly twice as big as the U.S. More significant to the future of our planet is the fact that 63 percent of Russia is covered with permafrost. That permanently frozen ground, which, as you probably know, is already thawing at an alarming rate because of climate change, contains great quantities of methane, a major greenhouse gas that could dramatically accelerate that change in the decades ahead.
2) The Caucasus Mountains, in which many of the Sochi Olympic venues are located, are so rich with unique plant and animal life that they are recognized as one of the world's bio-diversity hotspots—that is, spots especially worth protecting. I actually knew this before I went to Sochi because at The Naturalist's Notebook we have an installation that shows all 34 global bio-diversity hotspots. Reading about the diversity of life in the Caucasus while in Russia made me happy that we give it attention at our little shop-exploratorium in Maine.
3) The Black Sea (which is within 200 yards of one of the main Olympic venue complexes) has some strange features. It has virtually no tides, for example, and is much less salty on the surface than most other seas and oceans. The latter is true because the sea takes in more fresh water from rain and rivers (including the Danube) than it loses through evaporation. Also, the surface water and the (much saltier) deep water in the Black Sea are two separate layers that, for complex reasons, do not mix. The deeper water has very little oxygen and very little life, a situation compounded by a huge influx of industrial and agricultural pollution that started around 1960.
The broader topic of ocean saltiness is itself fascinating. I remember reading once that ocean water has the same salinity as human tears—a poetic notion indeed—but in fact typical ocean water is about four times saltier than tears. In any case, salinity levels can vary significantly by latitude and depth even within the same ocean. Ocean surface water tends to be less salty near the Equator because so much rain falls at that latitude, and also near the poles because less water evaporates from the ocean in cold weather.
4) People from the Caucasus Mountains are, logically enough, called Caucasians, and the story behind the use and misuse of that term as a racial identifier is an intriguing and sometimes horrifying tale of 18th-century anthropological theories and measurements of skull shape: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_race.
5) Though we saw relatively few birds during our six days in Russia, the country is an important staging and wintering area for 678 bird species, 29 of which are globally threatened. Someone sent me a link to a fun video about a gifted young Russian girl who makes bird calls not by whistling, but with her vocal chords. I don't think the girl normally dresses in the doll-like ceremonial costume she's wearing in the Russian news video below.
Late Election Note I I was in Russia on U.S. election day, so I missed this news item until now. Those of you in Georgia (the state, not the country adjacent to Russia) know about it already. I will quote from the Huffington Post:
"Fictional write-in candidate Charles Darwin was promoted around Georgia's 10th congressional district to provide a symbolic challenge to Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), the outspoken congressman who created a stir earlier this year when video emerged of him calling evolution and the big bang theory 'lies from the pit of hell.'
"Broun had been running unopposed until Jim Leebens-Mack, a plant biologist at the University of Georgia, started a Facebook page floating the idea of running Darwin to challenge the ultraconservative congressman over his anti-science views.
"While there was no chance of actual victory for Darwin (the naturalist died in 1882), his supporters hoped to draw attention to the fact that Broun currently sits on the House Science Committee, despite his apparent disdain for the basic principles upheld by science itself."
The good news is that Darwin received an impressive 4,000 votes despite having been dead for the last 130 years. The bad news is that Broun—who, as you might expect, also calls climate change a hoax—won re-election and will continue to shape congressional science policy.
Election Note II By coincidence, just as newly elected members of the politically polarized U.S. government were debating whether to compromise and work with each other in the best interests of the country, Discover magazine ran a story called "Cooperation Instinct." The piece, based on the research of Martin Nowak, a biologist and mathematician who oversees Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, explained how and why humans evolved a willingness to cooperate with each other and how that crucially important trait has helped our species survive. Something to put on the Congressional reading list?
Answer to the Last Puzzler The Russian world bolshoi means large or grand.