Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Classical Music and Geology

Okay, I’m going out on a limb here to create an analogy. But we need a little fun once in a while.

My favorite classical composer has, for many decades, been Antonín Dvořák. Every one of his pieces, whether symphonies or smaller works, consists of beautiful melodies, some of the best ever written. However—and I hesitate to criticize this master of music—that’s pretty much all it is. Melodies, strung together, occasionally showing up again in modified form, but not quite fitting together when they do so. The New World Symphony is a good example.

Some of  Dvořák’s pieces, however, do have structure. His tone poems (such as Wodník, or the Watersprite; The Wild Dove; The Noon Witch; and The Golden Spinning Wheel) were deliberately written around old Czech legends. And for other Dvořák pieces, such as Symphony 8 in D major, I have imagined stories. But even in these cases, the structure is episodic rather than woven together as a fabric.

My second favorite classical composer has, for many decades, been Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He wrote good melodies too, but within a much more limited range than Dvořák. Most of Mozart’s melodies were various forms of scales. For example, the final movement of his last symphony is pretty much just descending major scales, with some occasional ascending scales. They are incomparably beautiful, though, incomparable to anyone except Dvořák. But Mozart’s melodies fit together. In Dvořák’s music, you could never really guess what was coming next, but in Mozart’s music, everything seems to follow from what came before. You feel astonishment and surprise, only to realize that you should have seen it coming. I have listened a lot to his Gran Partita while following the study score. The twelve instruments fit together to form beautiful vertical chords, yet each instrument has a beautiful melody that interweaves with the others horizontally. A perfect fabric.

Mozart’s music reminds me of smooth layers of limestone, in which every layer is in place. Surprises frequently come in Mozart, as in limestone: unpredictable discolorations caused by various forms of iron, as in the photo.

Dvořák’s music, however, reminds me of conglomerate, which consists of a jumble of rocks (frequently limestone in Oklahoma) cemented together by calcium carbonate cement that has leached from the rocks. Each rock is a beautiful surprise, but the overall structure is a jumble.

Both limestone and conglomerate are beautiful, but in different ways. I will conclude by noting that some early-twentieth-century academic music (mostly listened to by music professors) reminds me of the alluvium in the bed of the Arkansas River. The rocks have been broken apart into such small pieces that they no longer have any recognizable individual beauty, and they are mixed in with bits of trash in various states of weathering. I know I am not the only person who feels this way about atonal music.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Landscape Thick with Stories

Every landscape is a palimpsest thick with stories. Where I live in Oklahoma is an example.

First, there is the story of its evolutionary past, for example when the part of Oklahoma in which I live was the bottom of a shallow sea, creating limestone filled with seashells, or when the Ice Ages caused Oklahoma to be cold and dry, a place where spruce trees and mastodons lived.

Second, there are the primordial human effects just after the most recent Ice Age. The native peoples who originally lived here were hunters and gatherers, but they deliberately manipulated the environment. They often set fires, which cleared away some of the forests and created grasslands on which game animals could graze and browse. The post oak forests were open and light because the fires did not often kill the large trees, and the oak seedlings could resprout.

Third, there are the secondary human effects caused by later immigrants, not only whites but the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles, and later by dozens of other tribes. Not only the whites but the “Five Nations” of natives displaced from the east brought agriculture and ranching.

Finally, there are the modern effects caused by the exploitative human economy: urbanization, pollution (especially from oil extraction), and global warming.

When I walk or drive through Oklahoma, I think about all of these layers of natural and human effects on the landscape. I see myself as part of that last layer (I hope a less destructive member of that layer than are many other people), and therefore as part of a complex set of stories.

In contrast, when someone drives a big truck as fast as possible, spewing black smoke from the tailpipes, they are experiencing only one story: “me, me, me, me.”

Another place that is a palimpsest of stories is central California, where I will be going to my fortieth high school class reunion tomorrow. The San Joaquin Valley was once a vast marsh teeming with wildlife, with water coming into it from snowmelt through the Kings, Kaweah, and Tule Rivers. Today nearly all of this water has been diverted into agricultural irrigation and (to a lesser extent) domestic use.

The landscape has been totally altered into agricultural fields and weed patches, with just a few exceptions. When I grew up there, I thought I was lucky to live out in the countryside, away from the air pollution of Los Angeles. But today, and even back then, the air quality of the Visalia-Tulare-Porterville area is one of the worst in the nation, and the environment was (is?) permeated by pesticides. The story of human alteration and pollution of the land overlies the natural environment. And part of the human story includes economic injustice: migrant farm workers barely make a living, in that pesticide-drenched land, on vast farms owned by rich corporations.

We need to be able to read the palimpsest of stories on the landscape in order to understand the Earth on which we live and which is endangered by our activities.

Friday, April 17, 2015


We can all think of people that we consider intolerable, whether on the world scene or locally, and that we wish could simply be swept out of the way. The same way with many situations that we consider intolerable. Time to get on our high horses and clean the place up, right?

But of course this is impossible. We know that. What I am saying here is that it is also not a good idea to even try. I realized this while I was reading Robert Trivers’s book The Folly of Fools, a book about deception and self-deception. Early in the book he writes about nest parasitism, in which birds such as cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other species, and the parents of the other species feed and raise the cuckoo chicks. How could natural selection have produced birds that are so stupid as to be deceived by the cuckoos, especially when the cuckoo chicks are often much bigger than the birds’ own chicks? Surely natural selection could have been able to produce birds that could count up to, say, three, and realize that there are too many eggs in the nest, or recognize the big chick as being awfully weird-looking.

Natural selection could have done this but did not. One reason that Trivers provides for this is the cost of false positives. If parent birds start ejecting chicks, they might eject some of their own. The cost of ejecting even one of their own chicks might outweigh the benefit of ejecting the parasites. Furthermore, in the absence of nest parasitism, it makes sense for the parents to feed the biggest chicks the most, since those chicks are the ones most likely to survive. The risk of a false positive—host birds ejecting their own large chick thinking it to be a grossly oversized parasite—might outweigh the benefit of ejecting the parasite.

And so when I encounter intolerable people, I will try to just sigh and think of such people as cuckoos, and when I encounter intolerable situations, I will just think of it as a dirty nest. If the problem is easy to fix, I will fix it, but otherwise I will just save myself the cortisol and forget about it. Easier said than done, but that is my goal.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring in Oklahoma: Scientists Go Outside

The Oklahoma Academy of Science had its spring field meeting this past weekend at Sequoyah State Park near Muskogee. Fortunately we missed the torrential rains that started falling today. It was gently cool, and softly overcast—which made the green of the new leaves very intense. On Saturday morning and afternoon we had field trips.We saw beautiful and interesting plants. Examples include the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum in the Berberidaceae):

And spiderwort (Tradescantia ernestiana in the Commelinaceae):

We also saw the mycotrophic orchid Corallorhiza wisteriana. It does not have chlorophyll. It gets its nutrition from decaying wood. But not directly. It is mycotrophic rather than saprophytic because mutualistic fungi absorb the nutrients from rotting wood and provide them to the orchid.

On one of our hikes we visited a nearby Boy Scout camp owned and operated by the family of Andrea Blair, a graduate student at Oklahoma State University Tulsa campus.

We saw a magnificently blooming buckeye (Aesculus glabra in the Hippocastanaceae). But it was on the other side of the creek so I had to wade across to get photos of it. This would have been a simple matter except that the rocks were just the right size to hurt my tender old feet.

Especially in the afternoon, the field trips combined forces to gain a multi-disciplinary view of nature. Liz Bergey of OU found a slime mold. And we all wished for a competent paleontologist when we found abundant fossils near the lake shore. In this photo, you can see many crinoids (a kind of echinoderm, with stalks that look like stacks of coins), corals, and bryozoans (now known as ecoprocts). The bryozoans were of the genus Archimedes and looked more like a fish backbone. That’s what I thought they were at first, but I never saw any “fish ribs” with the “backbones,” which meant I had to be wrong.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, guest speakers provided fascinating presentations. On Friday, Charles Brown of University of Tulsa told us about his over three decades of research into the costs, benefits, and evolution of colony behavior in cliff swallows. You think you’ve had bedbugs? But a single little swallow nest can have hundreds of them. On Saturday, Ron Bonett of University of Tulsa told us about salamanders in Oklahoma, and about the repeated evolution of species in which juveniles become sexually reproductive. In the photo, field meeting organizer Connie Murray (of Tulsa Community College Metro campus) talks with Charles Brown.

Every spring and fall, OAS has wonderful field meetings. There are always lots of interesting things to see, and wonderful people to explore with. My thanks to everyone who made the meeting a success, including our Executive Director David Bass who had to make sure everything happened.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Measure of Manhood in Rural Oklahoma

Evolutionary fitness results from successful reproduction. When mates select one another (in animals), they (consciously or subconsciously) try to select mates that have the best genes. Of course, they cannot see these genes, so they must use indirect fitness indicators as a basis for the choice. In birds, these indicators include bright plumage and beautiful songs. These are reliable fitness indicators because a genetically inferior bird cannot produce either of them.

How about humans? Frequently, human fitness indicators in the modern world make no sense. Maybe they are the modern remnants of fitness indicators that did make sense in prehistoric times. For example, a male driving around a loud car does not indicate anything about the quality of his genes, but a male riding a horse in prehistoric times most definitely did indicate genetic quality.

Modern human fitness indicators can be very unreliable and vary wildly from culture to culture. I do not simply mean geographical cultures, but cultures within cultures as well. The fitness indicators in the academic world (number of publications, number and size of grants, number of teaching awards, etc.) are very different from those in society as a whole.

I present here an incomplete list of some of the male fitness indicators that I have seen in rural Oklahoma, for the benefit of those of you who have not been here.

  • Size of pickup truck
  • Amount of fumes coming from pickup truck. The most prestigious trucks have grossly enlarged exhaust pipes and you can smell them a block away.
  • Amount of noise from pickup truck (same comments)
  • Amount of mud on pickup truck. About half the trucks I see are nearly covered with mud. In most cases, the mud is so uniformly spread across the vehicle that I suspect it was deliberately sprayed on.
  • Size of wheels on pickup truck. Supersized wheels and tires may cause damage to the truck, but in the short term it can be impressive to some people.
  • Frequency of spitting on the ground right where people walk (tobacco spittle preferred but not essential)
  • Amount of garbage produced. Sometimes people will dispose of their garbage in your bin, or in your yard, but more frequently they will have overflowing garbage bins on pickup days. This, rather than expensive cars or suits, is the rural Oklahoma way of advertising conspicuous consumption.

Remember that true fitness is related to the number of successful offspring, not just to the number of offspring. In Oklahoma, many males leave behind a large number of offspring but only minimally support them. These children survive but are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to having a satisfying life.

Let me close by mentioning a good fitness indicator in rural Oklahoma. A lot of men are proud to be employed, even if it is only to mow lawns. One of the problems Durant, Oklahoma faces is a shortage of skilled labor. But doing a job, frequently under unpleasant conditions, and getting paid for it, is a mark of distinction, and a good one.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Update on Oklahoma Earthquakes

Oklahoma has seen a dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma. Oklahoma is on track to surpass California as the earthquake capital of America. In California it is due to the San Andreas fault, at which the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate rub against one another. But in Oklahoma it appears to be overwhelmingly due to wastewater injection, a practice associated with oil fracking. To see just how dramatic the increase is, click here.

Oklahoma has a state seismologist. Part of his job is to investigate the patterns and infer the causes of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Scientists at the Oklahoma Geological Survey know that the evidence that wastewater injection has caused the dramatic increase in earthquakes is very clear. Yet the Oklahoma State Seismologist  Austin Holland has been very hesitant to say anything about it. One reason, of course, is that the fossil fuel corporations do not want him to, and they are major employers and major sources of tax revenue in Oklahoma. As a state official, Holland is caught between the science and the politics. His hesitation to say anything about it caused one Oklahoma Geological Survey official to say in a private email that the state seismologists “couldn’t track a bunny through fresh snow.” Of course, they can, but they dare not say so.

Despite his unwillingness to speak out for the connection between wastewater injection and earthquakes, Holland has also come under criticism for not speaking out against it. The pressure for Holland to speak out against any culpability that fossil fuel corporations may have became very clear when he was called to a conference with oil company executives and with David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma. While they did not tell him he had to speak out against the scientists at the Geological Survey, but Boren made it very clear that oil companies were major donors to the University. You can read about the events in this and the preceding paragraph at this link.

Holland has admitted, in at least one interview (with the Washington Post), that the oil industry has tried to influence his conclusions (see here).

Corporations extract tremendous profits and leave the public with the consequences. The consequences of fracking in Oklahoma are now getting to be as good an example of this as coal mining in the Appalachians for years.