Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

05 AUGUST, 2014

Parrots Over Puerto Rico: An Illustrated Children’s Book Celebrating the Spirit of Conservation

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The heartening story of one of Earth’s most beautiful bird species, an underdog of geopolitics and evolution.

Most children’s books are full of animals — as protagonists, as pets, as age-old standbys in fairy tales and alphabet primers alike. But, as Jon Mooallem poignantly observed in his bittersweet love letter to wildlife, by the time each generation of children grows up, countless species of animals that roamed Earth during their childhood have gone extinct — today, scientists estimate that one species ceases to exist every twenty minutes. Perhaps whatever chance we have of reversing this tragedy lies in translating our children’s inherent love of animal characters into a tangible grown-up love of animal species, the kind of love that protects them from growing extinct, preserves their natural habitat, and honors the complex dynamics of ecosystems.

That’s precisely what writer Cindy Trumbore and illustrator Susan L. Roth set out to do in Parrots Over Puerto Rico (public library) — a magnificent children’s book that embodies Jane Goodall’s plea for our human responsibility and tells the story of Puerto Rico’s once-abundant iguaca parrots (Amazona vittata), their brush with extinction in the 1960s under the strain of geopolitical and ecological pressures, and their inspiring recovery in the hands of tireless conservation scientists.

Roth’s captivating collage illustrations bring these singular creatures to life with extraordinary vibrancy, the three-dimensional aesthetic imbuing the whimsical realism of Trumbore’s narrative with tactile affection.

Iguaca! Iguaca! the parrots called as they looked for deep nesting holes under the tall trees.

Down below, waves from the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean washed the island’s white-sand beaches. Delicate orchids and wide-spreading ferns, tiny tree frogs, kapok trees bursting with seedpods, and big, scary iguanas covered the land.

These striking birds, about a foot in length and clad in bright green-and-blue plumage, are the only parrot species native to the United States and its territories. Named after their distinctive bugle in flight — Iguaca! Iguaca! — they dwindled from an estimated population of nearly one million at the time Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico to one of the ten most endangered species in the world today.

The Spanish settlers brought with them black rats, which descended from the ships and spread over the island like a plague, climbing the trees, invading the parrots’ nests, and eating their eggs. When the United States declared war on Spain and fighting broke out across Puerto Rico, the parrots’ precious habitat was threatened further.

In the 1950s, aggressive birds appropriately called pearly-eyed thrashers moved into the rainforest and tried to take over the parrots’ nesting holes. The flock shrank further still, to only 200 birds by 1954.

The iguacas became a true underdog of evolution and geopolitics.

But this is the kind of story where the underdog perseveres: In 1968, the Puerto Rico Parrot Recovery Program — chirpily abbreviated PRPRP — was founded. In the decades since, conservation scientists have labored to undo the iguacas’ dismal destiny by fostering three self-sufficient parrot populations in different parts of the island, thus steadily increasing their chances of survival.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico comes from Lee & Low Books, an independent children’s book publisher celebrating diversity. Complement it with You Are Stardust, a picture-book teaching kids about science and the interconnectedness of the universe in illustrated dioramas.

Images courtesy of Lee & Low

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24 JULY, 2014

Astronomer Jill Tarter on the Ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Life and How She Inspired Carl Sagan’s Novel-Turned-Film Contact

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The importance of playing the long game in life, be it extraterrestrial or earthly.

Astronomer Jill Tarter grew up taking apart and reassembling her father’s radios. She is the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research — California’s institute of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — and the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the iconic 1997 film Contact, adapted from Carl Sagan’s novel of the same title. The recipient of two public service medals from NASA and the TED Prize, among ample other accolades, Tarter has spent nearly forty years searching the cosmos for alien life and advocating for the importance of that inquiry.

In this short video from NOVA, Tarter recounts how Sagan and Ann Druyan contacted her about the novel and explores the broader question of why the search for extraterrestrial life matters — and matters enormously:

In the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating read on why emotional recall is the secret to better memory — Tarter speaks to the importance of playing the long game in the search for extraterrestrial life:

I don’t get out of bed every morning thinking, “Will I find extraterrestrial intelligence today?” But I do think every day, “How can I improve the search?” Fifty years of silence doesn’t mean SETI is a failure; it means we’re just getting started. We may not succeed tomorrow or next year or next decade or even next century, but a critical part of our job is passing on what we’ve learned to the future generations of cosmic scientists.

What a wonderful disposition toward life, extraterrestrial or earthly — to think how much more we could achieve and with what greater ease we could live if we only applied this to our everyday lives, from the search for love to the conquest of a project.

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22 JULY, 2014

The Science of Dust, Picasso’s Favorite Phenomenon

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“With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future…”

It takes more than three centuries for a one-foot layer of dust to accumulate. The entirety of the Roman Empire is buried nine feet underground — that is, under nine feet of tightly compacted dust. This household nuisance is indeed one of nature’s most humbling phenomena and Earth’s most steadfast preserver. Picasso was fascinated by it. In a passage from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s 1964 gem Conversations with Picasso (public library) — which also gave us the iconic artist on success and not compromising and intuition and where ideas come from — Picasso marvels the news of an excavation in which archeologists preserved a cross-section more than ten feet high, containing multiple layers built over the millennia. When Brassaï notes how moving it is that “in a glance, you can take in thousands of years of history,” Picasso responds enthusiastically:

And you know what’s responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue La Boétie, in some of my rooms … my things were already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always counted on the protection of dust. It’s my ally. I always let it settle where it likes. It’s like a layer of protection. When there’s dust missing here or there, it’s because someone has touched my things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it’s because I live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.

Portrait of Picasso, in one of his gray dust-proof suits, by Brassaï

So what is dust, really? And what makes it so special? Count on Joe Hanson to put some science behind the legendary artist’s muse:

We’re constantly moving dust from one place to another, only to have it replaced by more dust — entropy always wins.

[...]

A piece of space-dust falls on your head once every day… With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future, the smells and stories of the world around us, even the seeds of life.

Lest we forget, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, we are but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science videos, see the science of why we kiss, why there was no first human, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, the universe in a glass of wine, and why sci-fi writers are so good at predicting the future.

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