Saturday, June 23, 2012

Evotour, part five. The Transit of Venus, or, Guillame LeGentil Finally Gets Satisfaction

On June 5, many people, including myself, watched the Transit of Venus. I saw it, using a solar filter, during the afternoon from a mountain east of San Diego, far away from coastal fog. At sunset, I was back down in La Jolla, where the fog had cleared. I watched the silhouette of Venus against the sun as it set into the Pacific waves, without a solar filter. See the photographs. I also made a video of the Transit of Venus at sunset, which I have posted on my YouTube channel.

The Transit of Venus occurs when Venus moves across the face of the sun, as seen from the Earth. This event occurs only in eight-year pairs, each pair being separated by 121.5 and 105.5 year intervals. The last transit was in 2004, eight years ago. The next pair will be in 2117 and 2125. So as the sun sank into the Pacific Ocean, from my terrestrial viewpoint, I knew that none of us alive now would ever see it again.

Why is the Transit of Venus such a big deal? The Transit of Venus was first observed by Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639. At that time, the heliocentric view of the solar system (planets revolving around the sun) was as new of an insight as evolution is today, so it must have been exciting just to see visual confirmation of it, just as people today express surprise at seeing evolution in action.

By 1761, scientists were ready to observe the transit from different parts of the world. Scientists were stationed in Siberia, Norway, Newfoundland, Madagascar, and the Cape of Good Hope in order to determine the exact times at which Venus began, and ended, its transit. It takes long enough that the entire transit cannot be observed from any one location. By using triangulation, the scientists would then be able to determine how far away the sun is, and from that they could calculate the orbits of the planets. In 1769, scientists were at Hudson Bay and Norway, and Captain Cook observed it in Tahiti at a place that is now called “point Venus.”

What does this have to do with evolution? Back in the middle ages, scholars thought that the sun, stars, and planets were on spheres that turned around the Earth. God had created these spheres as part of the perfect machinery of the cosmos. Part of this image is that the planes of revolution of all the planets would line up precisely. Were this the case, then there would be a Transit of Venus every year. But the planes of revolution of Earth and Venus are not parallel. The sun, Venus, and Earth line up only at rare intervals. This was the beginning of the end of the concept that God had perfectly designed the universe, creating what scholars at the time literally considered to be the harmony of the spheres. The theories of geology and then of evolution further undermined the Perfect Design view, a concept that has been demolished by modern genetic research.

The French scientist Guillame Le Gentil traveled to India to see the 1761 transit. When he arrived at Pondicherry, the French enclave in the subcontinent, he found that war had broken out and the ship could not land. The day of the transit was clear, but the lurching of the ship prevented him from seeing it. So he decided to stay and see the 1769 transit. He built an observatory (after the hostilities had ceased). For a month before the transit, every day was clear—until the day of the transit, which was cloudy. The disappointment drove him nearly to the brink of insanity. He went home to France, only to find that he had been declared legally dead, his property had been divided up, and his wife had remarried. Most important of all to Le Gentil, he had lost his post in the Academy of Sciences. But after the intervention of the king, Le Gentil was able to get back some of his property. He remarried and lived another 21 years. Best of all, he was reinstated in the Academy.

But Le Gentil never got to see the Transit of Venus. Until this year.

I met two scientists from the University of California at San Diego—one an orthopedic anatomist (J. R. Bachman), the other an anthropologist, both amateur astronomers—who were walking up to the top of Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in California on June 5. They were toting their telescopes, and a bunch of computer printouts. They were going to celebrate the transit by creating living art, projecting the solar disc onto portraits of astronomers. One was Guillame Le Gentil. They had cut out a hole in his eye, so that he could at last see the transit and, perhaps, rest in satisfaction.

I have to apologize because, no matter how my photographic file is oriented, Blogger insists on turning it sideways, and there appears to be no option for setting it right.

Another pair of transits occurred in 1874 and 1882. John Philip Sousa wrote a march, the Transit of Venus, for the 1882 event. And Mark Twain put it in a story, The Animals of the Forest Conduct a Scientific Expedition. Wild animals decided to investigate the human world as we investigate theirs. They encountered a train running along its tracks at night, with its headlight on, and they concluded that it must be the Transit of Venus.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Evotour, part four. The Purisima Hills

From Paso Robles (see previous entry) I headed south to Lompoc, which is known mainly as an agricultural center with vast fields of broccoli, artichokes, and flowers; and as the city closest to Vandenberg Air Force Base. My parents and I briefly lived there over thirty years ago. Every afternoon, a strong sea breeze blows in, bringing mist and fog. One time I saw it blowing a refrigerator box down the street. Not every part of coastal California is a tropical wonderland.

My main purpose was to visit the Purisima Hills, north of the city. Although just a few square kilometers in extent, perhaps the largest diatomite deposit in the world is found here. I made a Darwin video there, in which Darwin had been reading Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, and had been expecting to learn something about the hills, but instead it was just about a man and a woman in a bar. But the Purisima Hills are really white, because they consist almost entirely of the shells of dead diatoms that accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years starting about five million years ago. I have not posted the video yet.

The reason this place is of great interest to science educators is that it represents absolute proof that geological deposits could not have been produced by a Flood of Noah. These are not flood deposits. They formed from dead diatoms that accumulated undisturbed in a shallow sea, without the intermixture of very much sand, silt, and clay. Mineral deposits are found nearby, but the diatomite deposits are nearly pure. And they represent more diatoms than could exist at any one time in one place. There is no way a Flood could have produced this, unless God decided to filter out all the diatoms and slop them down in one place, for reasons that are unknown and certainly not found in the Bible. Of course, creationists think that God scooched all the large mammals into some places, all the dinosaurs into other places, to make it look like they lived at different times, just to play with our minds today. But diatoms? What kind of God would play with our minds by scooping billions of diatoms and slapping them down in one location, which ultimately became Lompoc, California? Diatoms float because they produce oil. The diatomite deposits also contain petroleum, which is in this case the transformed product of diatom oil. That’s why there are no side roads on which I could retreat to make my video away from highway noises: all side roads are blocked and posted with serious oil-company no-trespassing signs.

Also at this location is a small population of bishop pines (Pinus muricata). Like Torrey pines near San Diego, the bishop pines grow and produce mature cones, but the cones do not open and release seeds unless a fire burns them. Then the burned forest is immediately replaced by a solid growth of small pines. There was a fire in the Purisima hills about 1964, and another in 1995. These pines (like Torrey pines, Monterey pines, and digger pines) are not only adapted to inevitable fires but capitalize on them.

Not only is the fire cycle an interesting adaptation, but also the pines represent an example of evolutionary radiation. Different species of pines have evolved in different locations in the coastal California hills: Monterey pines south of San Francisco, bishop pines south of them, digger pines throughout the coastal hills, and Torrey pines near San Diego. In addition, the Purisima population of bishop pines are genetically distinct from the main population, which is found over a hundred kilometers north of the Purisima Hills. Speciation at work.

The Santa Ynez Valley, adjacent to the Purisima Hills, is also famous for having the world’s largest species of lichen, Ramalina menziesii. The strong winds bring moisture and minerals to these impressively long lichens that hang from the branches of the Quercus agrifolia coast live oaks. Lichens themselves are a wonderful example of symbiosis, and of symbiogenesis, which are major forces in evolution.

Note: I have posted a video on my YouTube channel that shows the Transit of Venus as the sun sets into the Pacific Ocean. I have also posted a YouTube video about my visit to the San Andreas Fault, described in the previous entry.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Evotour, part three. Parkfield Road, or, Skipping Across Crustal Plates

I spent the afternoon of my 55th birthday driving up a lonely road between expansive cattle pastures in the coastal mountains of California. There were few other vehicles. As I climbed the hill, grasslands gave way to savannas of valley oak (Quercus lobata) interspersed with digger pine (Pinus coulteri). Some of the oaks were massive. My goal was near the town of Parkfield, which is so small that you cannot be sure if you have passed through it. I was looking for a little bridge.

I found the bridge. It spanned over what looked like a little arroyo with cattails and willows (Salix lasiolepis) in the tiny bit of water at the bottom. But it was no ordinary arroyo. It was the San Andreas Fault. According to geological websites, the Parkfield bridge is the only bridge in the world that connects two continental plates. This may or may not be true; several highways, including state routes 46 and 41, must also cross this fault. And the fault has several branches. But this is the only place where a sign proclaims, “San Andreas Fault: entering North American Plate” on the west side, and “entering Pacific Plate” on the east.

This was an irresistible geological and evolutionary pilgrimage, one at which I made one of my Darwin Youtube videos, because continental drift has revolutionized our understanding of the world. Crustal plates constantly move; the Pacific Plate is moving northwest at the pace that fingernails grow. Usually it does not move at all, but as pressure builds up the plate lurches, causing an earthquake. This has not happened recently at Parkfield. Therefore it is not a deep chasm into which you can look and see hell; its recent immobility has allowed sediments to fill it in. The continents, consisting of lighter rock, are thrown around by the crustal plates. Geology has never been the same since the discovery of continental drift. Neither has evolution. We now understand one of many processes that separate an ancestral species into separate populations, allowing them to diversify into new species. The population can be divided as a crustal plate carries part of it away.

There is a story of cultural evolution going on in nearby Cholame, which is just a restaurant on Highway 46. At this location in 1955, James Dean died in a car crash. To many of us, James Dean was not that great of an actor; a friend of mine said he always had a constipated look on his face. But he became a hero in Japan. A Japanese man, Seita Ohnishi, donated money to construct a granite monument around a tree-of-heaven near the restaurant. He compared Dean’s untimely death to the death of cherry blossoms (what else?) at the prime of their beauty. Seita Ohnishi was not speaking just for himself, but for thousands of Japanese. Now, you might guess I will tie this in with evolution somehow. James Dean left a cultural legacy, more so in Japan than in America, which has far exceeded any biological fitness he might ever have had. Culture is not unique to humans, but it is a unique form of human evolutionary fitness.

I found a restaurant in Paso Robles (El Paso de los Robles, Oak Pass), Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ (bad here meaning good, like a retinal afterglow), which offered a free birthday meal. What perfect timing. All I had to do was to allow myself to be regaled by a birthday chant and have my picture taken.

I have now posted the YouTube video of Darwin walking over the San Andreas fault.

Note: Someone posted a comment on a previous entry, but when I click on it, my computer goes into an unresponsive mode. I have not read the comment but I suspect that someone has inserted a virus. Beware!  Update: The problem was apparently a computer glitch caused by Google. The comment was not a virus.