Need to jump start your day? Click on the YouTube video link below to see and hear, in just over a minute, a performance of the catchiest nature song ever written, Flight of the Bumblebee. Sunday is the 167th birthday of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian who composed Flight as an interlude for one of his operas. The song has since been used in everything from The Green Hornet to Kill Bill to the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. Musicians have competed to set world records for playing it fastest on particular instruments. The high-speed YouTube performance is by Croatian pianist Maksim Mrvica, dressed, obviously, in Rimsky-Korsakov-era musical garb.
An Ice Age Old Question
Standing gingerly atop the mile-thick ice that blanketed this area 15,000 years ago, a primitive Mainer might have stared down at the dangerously slick expanse, pondered it for moment, then looked over at his friend and said, Ayuh. Whatcha gonna use, sand or salt?
That dilemma has only grown more complicated for those of us who currently have Ice Age-like sheets covering our Maine driveways. I hate using harsh salts and chemicals (which can harm plants and wildlife and pollute groundwater) and we don't have any sand, but after the postwoman slipped and fell and the UPS woman started donning ice cleats and dragging packages two-tenths of a mile to our doorstep on a plastic sled rather than driving her truck in, I knew I had to do something.
And then, a few days ago, while walking out of a store with a supply of rock salt, I saw a display for something called Clean Melt. Described on the label as an an "eco-friendly ice melt," it is "blended with magnesium chloride and infused with Ice Ban." It cost twice as much as the rock salt and came in green bags, so of course I bought 150 pounds.
But what the heck had I gotten?
I had gotten into a murky realm, that's what. The Clean Melt crystals are a highly unnatural color, and they stained the ice a weird blue-green when I sprinkled some on the rutted disaster on which we drive.
My attempts to research the relative merits and dangers of ice-melts led me deep into the worlds of chemistry and marketing. There are dog-friendly ice melts and high-speed ice melts and ice melts that work especially well in extreme cold. Magnesium chloride may be a better choice than either sodium chloride (regular salt) or potassium chloride (a versatile compound that is also used in fertilizers, sodium-free salt substitutes and lethal injections). It may not be as potent as Prestone's Driveway Heat (calcium chloride), but I try to keep my plants and animals away from anything made by Prestone. Clean Melt claims that it is less damaging to plants than rock salt is, and its key ingredient, Ice Ban, is a byproduct of the brewing industry that is so safe that it is actually fed to animals.
I hope I'm being green. I will be experimenting (sparingly) with Clean Melt in the days ahead (spreading it with my bare hands, as the label says I can safely do), and will monitor the plant life around the driveway come spring.
In the meantime, don't you think the term "eco-friendly ice melt" would be good for a refreshing summer drink?
How to Grow Car Parts From Mushrooms
The use of corn to make ethanol fuel is turning out to be less than eco-friendly, but wheat and fungi (sometimes mixed together) are proving to be environmentally smart replacements for plastic in car parts made by Ford. Here's a really interesting short clip from a new Nova special on that subject:
Perhaps someday, instead of hearing Ricardo Montalban cooing about the seats of "soft Corinthian leather" available on a 1975 Chrysler Cordoba, we'll hear Mario Batalli cooing about the seats of "soft porcini mushroom" available on a 2016 Ford Vegan.
Lessons from a Crossword Puzzle
I love crossword puzzles, but sometimes I don't know the answer to a clue even when I see the answer. The other day, for example, the nine-letter solution to a clue that included the word "hard" was MOHS SCALE. My ignorance of the Mohs Scale may simply prove that I don't have rocks in my head: That scale, created by German geologist Friedrich Mohs in 1812, measures the relative hardness of minerals by assessing which ones will scratch other ones. Diamond tops the list, with a perfect 10 rating. Talc—the mineral from which we get baby-soft talcum powder and which is the main component of soapstone—ranks at the bottom, with a score of 1. Thank you, Will Shortz.
Now, does anyone know "Where Attila was defeated, 451"? Seven letters.
Are You Interested in Nature Apps?
I got an e-mail the other day from a tech company called Appweavers. It was announcing the release of its iPad and iPhone applications for the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and encouraging me to share that news with friends of The Naturalist's Notebook. I have an iPad (we create a version of Sports Illustrated for it every week, so I more or less have to), and I have downloaded the iPad Peterson Guide, but I'm just wondering: How many of you care about nature "apps" for electronic devices? Would you like me to do some comparison testing? I've already started doing some, but I'm just curious.
Having said that, I will add that, while reading a magazine in the doctor's office this week, I rather enjoyed a comment from actor Liam Neeson on why he doesn't own an electronic-reading device: "I like the tactileness of books."
Answer to Last Puzzler:
How many coastal states are there in the U.S.? A total of 23: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.
Continuing the geography theme, here's a pair of tougher questions:
1) Europe has 50 countries or independent states. How many can you name? (Helpful hints: Great Britain counts as one country, but so does Vatican City. Remember that a lot of countries have splintered into smaller ones over the last two decades.)
2) What European country has the most miles of coastline? (Helpful hint: It's not Russia, because much of Russia's coastline lies in Asia.)
Michelangelo, the Italian painter, sculptor and architect and true Renaissance man, would have been 536 years old tomorrow. Take any one of his greatest works—his statue of David, his sculpture of the Pieta, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to name just three candidates—and that alone would be enough to put him in the artistic pantheon. He was self-critical (and did not tolerate fools), but his drive to create was remarkable. We have one of his famous quotations hanging in The Naturalist's Notebook. Quoth the genius: "I am still learning."
Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian who was first woman in space, turns 74 on Sunday. Chosen to be a cosmonaut in part because she was a model member of the proletariat (a factory worker) and an amateur parachutist, she piloted Vostok 6 in 1963 and was in space for three days. For those of you still caught up in the Cold War rivalry, the first American woman in space was Sally Ride, who didn't go up until 1983.
William Oughtred, the English mathematician who invented the slide rule, would have been 437 today. Oughtred's device—two side-by-side, strategically numbered rulers that slid past each other, enabling him to multiply and divide—became a common tool in math, science and engineering, and wasn't his only significant innovation. He also introduced X as a symbol for multiplication.
John van der Heyden, the Dutch painter who invented the fire extinguisher—talk about a Renaissance man!—would have turned 374 today. His Dutch compatriot Aert Schouman, a far superior painter who contributed nothing to the world of firefighting but was one of the earliest natural history artists, would have been 292. Schouman was able to paint from a zoological cabinet and menagerie of animals collected by his patron, the prince Willem V.