Mr. Meteor-right


Earlier this year, a giant green fireball lit up the sky over my hometown. With a sonic boom, a meteor exploded over Coloma, California — near Sutter’s Mill, the origin of the California Gold Rush — and littered my neighbors’ yards and horse pastures with chunks of deep black space rock.

Like many meteorites, the rocks were dense, with rounded edges and a slightly iridescent coating called a fusion crust which forms as meteorites streak through the atmosphere. However, unlike the vast majority of meteorites, these contained organic material which could potentially hold scientific clues about the origin of life.

They were also extremely valuable. Soon hundreds of people had flocked to Coloma and nearby Lotus, and were walking in slow, meandering circles, looking for meteorites on the ground with their heads down. I was in Baltimore at the time, but according to my father it looked like an invasion of zombies. My old schoolmate Sarah’s parents found a large meteorite in the rain gutter on their roof. A four year-old boy found one in his neighbor’s gravel driveway worth $15,000. To the disappointment of his parents, rumor has it that the owner of the driveway wanted a fifty-percent cut.

Taking a hint from Gold Rush-era entrepreneurs, someone printed a batch of T-shirts with a Sutter’s Mill meteorite decal. One of the first people to buy a T-shirt was scientist Peter Jenniskens from the SETI institute in Palo Alto. During the first few days of the meteorite rush, Jenniskens spent hours standing in front of an old Gold Rush reenactment gun shop in the James Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, helping people distinguish between meteorites and, as he calls them, “meteor-wrongs.” He encouraged people to contribute their finds to science, and not to touch the meteorites with their bare hands and risk contaminating them. (It’s better to pick them up with a piece of clean aluminum foil.)

People quickly found most of the easily-spotted rocks and fragments, but Jenniskens continued to come back for many weekends with a shifting team of volunteers and college interns. My father offered him and his volunteers a place to stay at our family’s whitewater raft camp. He was there when I came home for a visit, so despite strong misgivings about the 100 plus-degree heat, I asked to go along on a search.

We drove up a dusty dirt road toward the Spies’ place. Mrs. Spies was my elementary-school lunch lady and I hadn’t seen her for at least fifteen years! Yet here I was invading her driveway and horse pasture with scientists from NASA and SETI and even three camera crewmembers from the Discovery Channel, who huffed and puffed in the 106-degree heat, sweating profusely as they tried to make exciting television.

The Discovery Channel team had their work cut out for them. As we stepped slowly and gingerly through the scrubby underbrush, accumulating foxtails and burrs in our socks and using sticks to push aside forests of poison oak, I saw rounded river rocks, deer droppings, and even bits of charcoal that looked like meteorites. It was tedious and roasting hot. I gave up on finding anything after the first fifteen minutes, and couldn’t imagine how the team had managed to do this for eight hours a day on nearly every weekend since April — especially after several weekends had proven fruitless.

But then, a volunteer named Bev cried out. Lying dead center on the crumbly red dirt of an exposed molehill was a small black rock. It was about the size of a corn kernel, smooth and curved on one side, broken clean off on the other. Looking closely, you could see the tell-tale iridescence that looks like the sheen on an owl feather. About twenty minutes of rejoicing followed,  as well as some hilarity as the Discovery Channel team discovered that they had unwittingly charged into a stand of poison oak in their eagerness to capture the action. “Is this poison oak?” they kept asking the locals with rising panic. “Yes,” the locals inevitably replied. “That’s poison oak.”

After the film crew got their shots and the team calmed down, I thought, great, we’re done, we can go back to an air conditioned room now, or at least get in the shade. But how wrong I was. How little I understood the fever which had gripped Jenniskens and the volunteers, bringing them back weekend after weekend to hunt for nearly invisible shards of rock in hot, rugged terrain. I began to understand the kind of fanatical patience I was dealing with: the same kind of patience that is required to comb the entire universe for clues to the origin of life.

Like the Gold Rush, when every new nugget sparked another wave of enthusiasm and seeking, the search for meteorites was self-perpetuating. As soon as their excitement about the fragment died down, the scientists and volunteers began to speculate that it must have hit a tree on its way down to the ground and shattered, which meant that there were other pieces nearby. Soon Jenniskens was urging his team further down the hill and deeper into the poison oak. I stayed with them until they finished looking on the Spies’ land, but didn’t drive with them to the next location. It was Father’s Day, after all.


Polly Doesn’t Want A Cracker

English: Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Scarlet Macaw...

English: Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Scarlet Macaws, Mealy Amazons, and Chestnut-fronted Macaws at the clay lick at Tambopata National Reserve, Peru. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every morning and evening in the Amazon, wild parrots gather on exposed cliffs like this one  to engage in geophagy, a fancy word for eating dirt. As the parrots scrape and lick the clay-rich soil, they socialize — loudly. “They’re all screaming their heads off,” says U.C. Davis conservation biologist James Gilardi. The smooth-textured clay, he says, acts like a water softener in the parrots’ guts, helping to neutralize the toxins the birds ingest from eating unripe and even poisonous seeds.

Gilardi studied  two parrot “clay-licks” in Peru for his Ph.D thesis, and now runs a conservation organization called the World Parrot Trust. Despite their popularity,  parrots remain mysterious in the wild. Geophagy is just one example of a behavior that has been largely overlooked. Gilardi studies wild parrots in the hopes of conserving them in their native habitats and allowing people to take better care of them as pets. This week, his team published new evidence in PLoS ONE showing that parrots seek out bitter, toxic foods other animals won’t touch.

To catch the birds snacking, Gilardi and his team spent several summers walking through Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon.  They spent up to ten hours per day watching from the ground for parrots rustling in the canopy and listening for squawking cries or the sound of falling fruit. When they found the parrots, they wrote down the kind of tree the birds were in, and noted what dropped on the ground. They also climbed the trees to collect samples, and sat in the canopy watching the birds fly and forage. They wanted to know whether the birds preferred seeds or fruits, how thoroughly they “demolished” their food, as Gilardi puts it, and whether they gobbled up ripe or unripe fruit and seeds. Parrots are messy eaters, but it was soon clear that the birds were going after unripe seeds. Many of these are protected by bitter, potentially toxic substances like alkaloids, found in substances like hemlock and strychnine.

The parrots weren’t just swallowing seeds and pooping them out intact, like many animals do. Instead, they were digesting them. This wasn’t a surprise, says Gilardi. Large macaws can destroy softball-sized seeds with their beaks, cracking shells that would take a monkey many blows with a rock to break apart. “Anyone who’s ever watched parrots in the wild knows that they are destroying seeds.” What surprised him was the toxicity of the seeds they were digesting: “A lot of the things they’re eating are pretty nasty.” Sometimes they would see a tree full of fruit which other birds or animals shunned. Then the parrots would arrive and “just plough through” it.

In addition to detoxifying their systems by eating clay, Gilardi says that parrots’ livers and other aspects of their physiology are better equipped than ours to deal with  poisonous substances. Although parrots are one of the most endangered bird species in the world, parrot conservation almost never has anything to do with food. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”

More often the threat is habitat destruction and capture. “Parrots are often threatened by something local to them,” says Gilardi. Parrot trafficking for pet sales, in addition to the clearing of tropical forests, threatens roughly more than one in four parrot species — about 95 out of 360 total.  Although the World Parrot Trust doesn’t condemn bird-keeping, it works to protect parrot habitat, eliminate illegal and unsustainable parrot trafficking, and help pet owners care for their birds correctly. “If we’re going to do this,” he says, “let’s do it right.”

People tend to feed parrots things people like to eat: cereal crops that have been heated up, cooked, and shaped into pellets. They feed them ripe fruit when a parrot might actually prefer something as astringent as an unripe persimmon. “It’s a huge problem,” says Gilardi. He hopes that people will consider that their backyards might be a better place to find parrot food than the grocery store.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons


The National Cryptologic Museum

The only people who can get near the imposing, shiny-black National Security Agency in Fort Meade, MD are wearing suits and security clearances. But if you go beyond  National Vigilance Park and the Shell station, you can enter the Agency’s “principal gateway to the public” —  the National Cryptologic Museum.

The museum is housed in this converted motor hotel. When I first saw it, its 70s-era orange and brown accents reminded me of my old public school. Sure enough,  it also smelled like my old public school: that unmistakable musty government smell.  As it turns out, the National Cryptologic is less a gateway to the NSA than, well, perhaps a kiosk?

According to a recent article in Wired, NSA is  spending $2 billion on what the author of the article calls “The Country’s Biggest Spy Center” — a center that will have unprecedented abilities to do God-knows-what. Public education is not an Agency priority — its job is is not to broadcast, but to receive information. So the museum’s curator, Patrick Weadon, does what he can with donations and fund raising from events like the annual Eagle Alliance golf tournament.

Weadon is tall and  ingratiating.  He seems to love his job and the Museum. Some might prefer the National Spy Museum in DC, he says, with its Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not glitz, $20 plus price tag, and interactive gimmicks. But compared with the Spy Museum, he says, the National Crypotologic Museum is “like NPR.” The museum has three goals, says Weadon: the first is to recognize the heroes of cryptology, who often by the nature of their work go unacknowledged. Another goal is to make the public appreciate government codemaking and codebreaking. The third —  this inspires Weadon’s personal passion and many sports metaphors — is to show how cleverness  can make or break a nation.  From a Jeffersonian cipher wheel to the first Cray supercomputer, the museum demonstrates how math, science and technology can defeat one’s adversaries and “win the game.”

To me, a large part of the appeal of the National Cryptologic Museum is that it is actually hiding something. When you walk into converted-motel lobby, the first image at eye-level is a bold sign warning NSA visitors and employees not to talk about anything CLASSIFIED. Only former NSA employees are allowed to work there, Weadon told me — not just because they are knowledgable, but because they know what they can and can’t say. The exhibits are arranged loosely by war: Civil War, WWI and WWII, Korean and Vietnam War, Cold War. The most current exhibit dates to 1993.  Most recent technologies are, you guessed it. Classified. He said he “couldn’t comment” on the spy center mentioned in Wired.

What counts as “code” in the museum is a loosely defined, including everything from symbolic patchwork quilts thought to have guided slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, to the signals hobos once used to mark welcoming homes.  There’s a soiled silk scarf, covered in minute writing, which ostensibly helped a soldier receive or send messages in enemy territory, and a deck of playing cards that’s been converted to a cipher. I liked the eclectic collection, because it helped me relate simple examples of encryption to the vastly more complicated computerized encryption they later inspired. As I walked through the maze of rooms, however, the amount of information and objects became dizzying.  The informational placards beside the displays, with their tiny font, were almost like encrypted messages themselves. The whole place felt outdated, particularly the lonely VCR machines running documentary films as a gesture toward something “interactive.” And although the one-sided presentation of controversial topics like biometrics and domestic spying wasn’t surprising, it was mind-numbing.

The saving grace of my visit was the museum docent. Proper in her silk blouse and pearls, her explanations tied the exhibits together conceptually. She introduced the concept of the “key” with the simplest kind of encryption, a cipher wheel, and slowly built on that  idea with more sophisticated ways of hiding messages in code.

The highlight of her tour was the original  Enigma encryption device that the Nazis used during WWII to communicate maneuvers and strategy. The museum has an assortment of them, two of which you can actually use. It looks like a typewriter, but its keys are wired to a series of discs arranged along a spindle.  When you press a key, a signal passes through the rotors and back. At every step, the rotors move, and the original letter is substituted for another letter, then another, and another…. In one of the Enigma’s advanced iterations, the number of ways that pairs of letters could be interchanged was 150 trillion.

Of all the displays, I thought the Enigma did the best job of accomplishing the Museum’s goals: celebrating heroes, generating enthusiasm (rather than, ahem, suspicion) about government spying, and inspiring young people to learn about math and science for national defense. A panel about Alan Turing, the British mathematician considered by many to be the father of the modern computer, explained how he helped break Enigma’s code and win the war. Not-so-subtly, it linked fighting Nazis to the U.S. government’s current quest to build omniscient supercomputers. And it was surely educational. As  my group approached the machines, a tow-headed little boy wearing camouflage pants was sitting on the floor and struggling to encode, then decode, his name using the machine. The docent stepped in to explain and help. Slowly, he worked it out, revealing MATTHEW. A spy enthusiast was born.

Antidepressants soothe anxious minnows

If you were the most common bait fish, you would be anxious too.
You would hide in dark crannies, avoiding predators. That’s what fathead minnows normally do. But a new study from Baylor University, published 7 March in Environmental Science and Technology, shows that when the rosy-silver fish get a dose of Zoloft, they develop a false sense of security. Instead of ducking for cover when it’s light, they linger in the open, unconcerned.
Drugs like Zoloft and Prozac get into rivers, lakes and streams every time people who take them flush their toilets. The drugs can have bizarre effects on fish behavior. This is not big news: as my classmate Nina Bai reported in 2008, scientists have been documenting how antidepressants impact fish for a while. Other organisms, like shrimp and mussels, are also affected. But each new study is a step toward understanding how different species tolerate different chemicals, and in what concentrations.
For the minnows, it took 3 micrograms per liter of Zoloft to dim their evasive instincts.  The concentration of SSRIs in the wastewater described in the study was 3.2 micrograms per liter. Once the drugs have made it into the water, most wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to filter them out.
Image credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, BK

My Wunderkammer

The American River Ganges

Image via Wikipedia

Every summer in my hometown of Coloma, Calif., hundreds of river  guides arrive to work on the American River, hauling dusty gear and stories from all over the world. There are stories of crocodile attacks on the White Nile in Uganda; near-fatal swims in Chile’s Futalafu; grizzly bears and glacier-fed rapids in Alaska. These tales are such a important part of river guiding culture that they have their own genre — the No Shit Story. “So there I was, dude,” the stories begin.  “No shit — there I was.”

My family runs a rafting company, so one of my favorite No Shit stories naturally comes from my father. As a young man, he fell out of his raft while guiding on the Merced River. He was swept into a hole: a hydraulic drop in a river which recirculates water upstream, washing machine-style. It was what we call a “keeper hole,” the kind that drowns people. As he spun round and round, he realized that the flotation of his life jacket was trapping him in the cycle. In a last-ditch effort to escape, he took off his life jacket, dived to the bottom of the river, and resurfaced 150 yards downstream.

That story is true. But it is also a time-honored tradition among river guides to exaggerate, brag, lie, and talk nonsense when telling stories — especially when talking to rafting customers. “How deep is the river?,” a curious guest might ask. “At least 1000 feet,” or, “chest high on a duck,” his guide will slyly answer.  Based on the lies of river guides,  I grew up half-believing that the white quartz veins in the river canyon’s granite boulders were actually fossilized pterodactyl poop. It took me years to stop making a fool of myself with wide-eyed questions — “Really?” — and start making up stories too.

You might be thinking that this is not a promising start for a science journalist. But I am writing a journalism master’s thesis — all true — about rivers in California. How did that happen?

Lately — probably because I’m taking a course in the history of science — I’ve been thinking a lot about 16th and 17th-century European Wunderkammer, or “wonder-rooms.” These cabinets of curiosities contained both natural and man-made objects: stuffed polar bears and armadillos; assorted corals; various instruments, religious carvings, and works of art. Next to a carefully labeled collection of tropical beetles, you could see a mythical “basilisk” stitched together from bat wings and a lizard. Next to a shrunken human head, you might see a narwhal horn, mislabeled as a unicorn’s. As the collections became more organized, their curators started weeding out fake things from real things, and trying to figure out the relationships between various specimens. Some argue that this was an important step in the development of modern scientific thinking.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the American River, embroidered with facts and stories, was my Wunderkammer.  Now, as I research the river’s real aquatic organisms, I pay homage to the mythical Prout: a hybrid of piranhas and native trout that can devour flesh down to the bone in seconds, and may also be a distant cousin of the North American freshwater river shark.

What was your cabinet of curiosities?