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Songs of Science #7: Saint-Saëns

10 Sep

Camille Saint-Saëns was a French late-Romantic composer who’s probably best known for his The Carnival of the Animals suite – a lively musical journey through the natural world. Most of the suite’s 14 movements are inspired by a particular animal. “Tortoises”, for example, sees the strings play the can-can music (“Galop infernal”) infuriatingly sloooowly; “The Elephant” has a double bass playing a lumbering, comical melody; and “The cuckoo in the depths of the woods” features a clarinet mimicking the Common Cuckoo’s famous call.

One of my favourite movements is “Fossils”. I’m not sure what kind of fossils Saint-Saëns was imagining when he wrote it, but the clickety-clackety xylophone makes me think of dancing skeletons. The addictive melody still sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it must have done when it was first written in 1886. Listen out for the short snippet of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – this may have been Saint-Saëns making a joke about those musical ‘fossils’ which we always dig up generation after generation.

“The Swan” is probably the most famous movement in The Carnival of The Animals, featuring a romantic cello solo floating gracefully over a surface of tinkling pianos. It’s nice, but a little on the melodramatic side for me. I prefer one of the other aquatic movements: the magical “Aquarium”. You might recognise this one – it’s been used in several films, as well as inspiring the soundtracks of countless others. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and it whisks me off to cloud cuckoo land every time I hear it.

Watch a virtuoso performance of the Carnival of the Animals suite on YouTube here.
For more of my ‘Songs of Science’ posts click here!

Songs of Science #4: British Sea Power

20 Jan

In 2002, a huge chunk of the Larsen Ice Shelf – “Larsen B” – collapsed into the sea. In just over a month, an area the size of the US state Rhode Island vanished from the Antarctic Peninsula – the most dramatic ice shelf disintegration ever recorded.

Scientists attributed this collapse to a series of warm summers, which led to increased air temperatures and the formation of meltwater ponds on the shelf’s surface. This water flowed down through cracks in the ice, helping to lever it apart and bring about its downfall.

The Larsen B ice shelf, before (left) and after (right) its collapse in early 2002 (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The lovably eccentric band British Sea Power paid tribute to this defunct ice shelf on their 2005 album Open Season. “Oh Larsen B” features the glorious lyrics: “You’re fractured and cold but your heart is unbroken / My favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf / Oh Larsen B, oh you can fall on me / Oh Larsen B, desalinate the barren sea”.

And the music is equally glorious – one of British Sea Power’s trademark anthems, all buzzsaw guitars and breathy vocals. In fact, it’s probably the best love song to a collapsed ice shelf ever written…

Click here to read all of the previous “Songs of Science” posts.

Songs of Science #3: Bon Iver

26 Oct

“Holocene” is a song by Bon Iver (a.k.a. Justin Vernon), a man who proves that beards and falsettos aren’t incompatible. It’s a lovely, slow-burning track, built around a looped acoustic guitar and skittery percussion…the crescendo at 4:40 still gets me every time. Here’s the equally jaw-dropping video, shot in the Icelandic wilds:

The Holocene is the name of the Earth’s current geological ‘epoch’, which began around 12,000 years ago at the end of our planet’s last major glacial period. The entire history of human civilisation has been played out during the Holocene, from our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors through to today’s modern society.

Talking about the song, Justin Vernon said: “Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance…” The lyrics are about those moments when you feel humbled by the bigger picture (“And at once I knew I was not magnificent…I could see for miles, miles, miles”).

Now maybe Bon Iver should go on tour with Pleistocene and Younger Dryas…it’d be a geologist’s wet dream.

Another reason for Brits to worry about global warming…

14 Aug

…and a whole new meaning for the term ‘member state of the European Union’.

Cornelia and her Mutant Bugs

29 Jul

Reading through a recent BBC article about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I suddenly remembered a blog post that I’d started a couple months ago but never got around to finishing.

I’ll get back to that post in a minute. But first, a quick summary of the BBC article, which follows a team of biologists working in the 30 km exclusion zone that surrounds the abandoned nuclear planet. Their mission: to find out how the local wildlife is coping 25 years after the accident.

An abandoned elephant slide inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Credit: David McMillan

These scientists conclude that the nuclear fallout has had a negative impact on the local ecosystem. “In the highly contaminated areas, we see fewer than half as many species as there are in the cleaner parts of the zone,” says Tim Mousseau, the team leader.

But that’s just one side of the picture. After the explosion, the radioactive dust settled in a haphazard manner, leading to some areas being much more contaminated than others. This patchy dust coverage could explain why many biologists believe that the region is actually teeming with wildlife.

For example, a healthy ecosystem has been discovered in the most contaminated lake in the exclusion zone, Glubokoye. It’s thought that the disappearance of humans from the area has allowed this aquatic community to thrive.

“Whether radiation is damaging wildlife in Chernobyl is still an open question,” says radioecologist Jim Smith. “Now the people have moved out, it’s clear that everyday human occupation and activity did much more damage than the contamination left by the accident.”

This debate took me back to my abandoned blog post about an artist called Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. Cornelia’s speciality is drawing bugs. She spent most of her career as a scientific illustrator, meticulously drawing insect specimens at Zürich’s Natural History Museum. The Chernobyl catastrophe, however, sent her career in a new direction.

Two of Cornelia's illustrations...a harlequin bug and a ladybird beetle

Soon after the nuclear accident, worried by news reports about the scale of the disaster, Cornelia decided to find out how the insect world had been affected. Armed with a map of the European fallout distribution, she headed to an area of southern Sweden where high radioactivity had been recorded and, once there, began to draw the bugs that she spotted.

What she discovered shocked her. Cornelia identified a large number of insects with misshapen or malformed body parts – mutations which would barely be visible to the untrained eye. Ever since, Cornelia has devoted her spare time to studying the insects that live around nuclear power plants, at sites including Sellafield in the UK and Three Mile Island in the USA.

A scorpionfly with a twisted right wing and deformed abdomen, found near the Leibstadt nuclear plant in Switzerland, 1988

Intrigued by her paintings, I got in touch with Cornelia to ask how the scientific community had reacted to her work. “They thought my findings were ridiculous,” she said. “They were sure, as they still are, that the radiation is not dangerous. The Swiss scientists were very aggressive.” Indeed, being snubbed by scientists is a running theme in Cornelia’s biography.

Clearly, the scientific consensus is that such low-level radiation is too weak to have any visible effect on these insects. Yet Cornelia remains convinced that vulnerable bugs are susceptible to even small amounts of radiation.

A tree bug found near the Hanford plutonium plant in Washington, USA. The right feeler lacks a section

Granted, these paintings may lack scientific rigour, but they certainly provide compelling evidence of disturbed insect life near nuclear plants. Only time will tell which side wins this debate: as the BBC article revealed, there’s still a lot to understand about the ecological impacts of nuclear radiation.

The Truth, the Hole Truth…

5 Jul

In October 2009, an otherworldly cloud formation appeared over Moscow. The Sun (the newspaper, not the yellow ball in the sky) promptly announced the appearance of a ‘mystery UFO halo’ and, before too long, internet message boards were awash with rumours of alien motherships and Russian weather weapons.

But sadly, this strange phenomenon is not the work of some little green men: a new study published in Science this week explains how these ‘hole punch clouds’ are created by aeroplanes, not UFOs, zipping through the sky.

The holey cloud formation over Moscow in October 2009 (left), nothing to do with little green men (right)

How to make a holey cloud

There are two key ingredients required for a holey cloud: supercooled water and a sudden temperature drop.

Supercooled water is water that seems to defy the laws of nature by remaining liquid at sub-zero temperatures. This happens in clouds at temperatures between 0 and -40°C when the surrounding air is so pure that no ice nuclei (e.g. dust particles) are present (the water droplets cannot crystallise).

However, a sudden drop in cloud temperature may help to kick-start ice formation. An aircraft can provide this cooling when it flies through a cloud, via air expansion behind the propeller tips or airflow over the wings.

A couple of hole punch clouds, observed over Antarctica (top) and Alabama (bottom). Credit: Eric Zrubek and Michael Carmody / Alan Sealls

The introduction of ice into a supercooled cloud triggers a domino effect of rapid ice formation, known in the meteorology world as the Bergeron-Findeisen process. When the ice becomes too heavy to remain in the cloud, it falls to the ground as snow, leaving behind a void. Et voilà…a holey cloud.

A hole new world

In their Science study, Andrew Heymsfield and colleagues from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR in Colorado, USA) investigated satellite images of a holey cloud layer over Texas.

In total, 92 holes were spotted, produced by a wide variety of aircraft, including large passenger jets, military jets and turboprop aeroplanes. A typical hole grew for an hour after it was first detected, up to a maximum length of over 100 km in some cases (larger than the distance between London and Brighton). Several holes remained in the sky for more than four hours.

Unlike Heymsfield et al., Totoro and friends failed to notice the whopping great hole punch clouds floating around them (disclaimer: this image may have been photoshopped)

The scientists then used a computer model, configured to match the weather conditions in the Texas satellite observations, to show that there is more to holey clouds than previously thought.

They found that adding ice particles to the simulated cloud released latent heat, a form of energy associated with water changing state (e.g. from liquid to solid). This created updrafts near the hole centre that suspended the ice, allowing the hole to grow. Meanwhile, compensating downdrafts on the outer edges of the hole accelerated the evaporation of liquid water, causing the hole to widen rapidly.

Snow, glorious snow

And because cloud holes are often associated with snow, they can spell bad news for travellers, air traffic controllers, and people with an irrational fear of snowmen. Heymsfield and colleagues estimate that there is as much as a 6% probability of aircraft triggering ice formation near major airports.

If this happened during wintertime months, it could lead to rerouted flights, frantic de-icing, and grumpy passengers. Still, cloud spotters would argue that cranky holidaymakers are a small price to pay for these celestial beauties.

Based on an article written for Cosmos magazine.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgHeymsfield, A., Thompson, G., Morrison, H., Bansemer, A., Rasmussen, R., Minnis, P., Wang, Z., & Zhang, D. (2011). Formation and Spread of Aircraft-Induced Holes in Clouds Science, 333 (6038), 77-81 DOI: 10.1126/science.1202851

Extinction Poems

2 May

The Feral Theatre blog recently published a selection of poems on the topic of extinction, written by students at the South Camden Community School. Here’s a couple of my favourites, about the Steller’s sea cow and the thylacine (animals I hadn’t even heard of before, let alone know that they were extinct!).

Steller’s Sea Cow Speaks

Illustration of Steller's sea cows by F. John, 1902

Nature made me
But I feel as if I’ve lost protection

Nature made me
Yet I feel as if nature itself
doesn’t know who I am

Nature made me
But I’m under constant threat
from those superior to me

Nature made me
Somehow I had this natural feeling
that you too would care enough for me

Nature made me
So I thought you would love me
as your fellow companion

Nature made me
And for my fate there was zero creation
because now it ends.

By Fama, Y10

Eulogy to the Great Thylacine

Thylacine digital collage, by The Contextual Villains

O the great Thylacine
Your stripes are outstanding and worth looking at
Those mighty jaws of yours are very
So much that no-one would dare to look away.

You are your own animal
Nothing can match your unique looks.
You are the mighty king of all animals!
You will always be remembered.

The last Thylacine was killed by a human.
Please don’t take revenge on humans.

By Mahid Sulley and Yasmin Ahmed

Read all of the extinction-themed poems here, with, refreshingly, not a dodo in sight!

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