Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Encounters with Identified Flying Objects

I am a birder.  I have never been competitive about it like the guys in the book and movie “The Big Year,” but I pay attention to birds.  Because I pay attention to them, I’ve had several odd encounters with birds over the years.  Here are a few of the oddest.

Many years ago, I worked in a house by a University.  One afternoon as I left work, I noticed that there was a Great Horned Owl in a cottonwood in front of the house.  As owls often are, it was being mobbed by a flock of crows.  I rode a bike to work at the time, so after watching the owl for a few minutes, I got on my bike and started home.   My house was about two miles distant as the crow flies, somewhat longer following the grid of streets.

As I biked home, I continued to hear the mob of crows off in the distance, even as I started getting close to my house.  When I arrived home, within a minute the Great Horned Owl landed in an Elm in front of my house, still followed by crows.  What are the odds of that happening at random?  Or was the owl following me?  I’m not sure which possibility is odder.

Another Great Horned Owl.  This one I saw flying a distance away, noticing that there was something strange about it.  It seemed misshapened.  As it got close, I saw that a Red-winged Blackbird was perched on its back like a rider on a horse.  It rode that owl for at least another half mile. And was still riding it when I lost track of them.  If I was unaware of the hostility that songbirds typically have for owls, I might have thought they had formed a fairy story alliance.

I like birds, but I like cats too, and despite birder disapproval, I let my cat outside.  It is a good hunter and it brings to my doorstep a steady stream of mice and an occasional baby Cottontail and English Sparrows.  I am not sentimental about nature -- it is filled with death.  Yet I’ve tried to tell my cat he doesn’t need to bring me his trophies, especially the ones that are still alive.

One autumn morning my cat came to the door with a bird.  I could immediately see it was not the usual sparrow.  I got the bird away from my cat after it came inside, and the bird ran and hid. Eventually I was able to find and identify the bird.  It was a Yellow Rail. 

Now I live in the middle of a city and I’m pretty sure there is no breeding population of Yellow Rails within fifty miles of where I live.  Even in the rural areas of my state the bird is not common; though not rare either, but always hard to see.  In fact, this was the first Yellow Rail I had ever seen and certainly the strangest way I ever added a bird to my life list.  So what was this rail doing in my door yard that morning?  There had been a mild storm the night before, and I can only think that the bird had been migrating and gotten grounded by the storm. 

I let the bird outside and it ran into the bushes.  It didn’t look hurt.  I’d like to think it survived, but probably it didn’t. 

Several of these odd encounters involve crows.  Crows, I have observed, are every bit as intelligent as reputed. 

I am in the habit of getting up early and having a cup of coffee on my porch.  One morning while doing this I observed three crows and a rabbit out in the street.  A crow seemed to be taunting the rabbit, and the rabbit chased the crow.  Then another crow came and taunted it and the rabbit chased that crow back across the street.  This went on through several iterations.  It seemed like an odd game.

I learned later that this crow behavior has been observed by others.  The belief is that the crows hope that by luring the rabbit back and forth across the street, it will eventually get run over by a car and become a drive through meal.  How devious!  I can’t imagine that this is genetic-based behavior, so I assume that it is learned and passed down from parent crows to children.  On that particular day, the strategy didn’t work.

Another crow.  I had learned that a Peregrine Falcon had made its nest under the I-94 bridge crossing the Mississippi. I was looking for it, when I saw a crow doing something most un-crowlike.  The crow had flown high in the sky and dived down on a starling, catching it in is “talons.”  The crow, not actually equipped with talons, was not able to hold on to the bird, and the starling dropped dazed just a few feet from me.  Eventually it recovered and flew away. 

I highly suspect that this crow had observed the Peregrine Falcon use this technique on its prey and thought it would give it a try.  I have yet to find another report of crows hunting in this falcon-like manner.

A flock of swans flying in front of a full moon is a hauntingly beautiful sight.  I have been lucky enough to witness this three different times in my life.  Perhaps even better, I have also observed a flock of cranes fly in front of a full moon.  On a full moon night during migration, who needs a better reason to take a walk than this?

So far all of these encounters occurred in the city where I live.  This one was in a wild area along Lake Superior.  I had gone out in the morning to meditate on the rocks overlooking the lake.  I was deep in meditation when a Northern Goshawk landed about ten feet from me on a rock.  We sat there together for many minutes – two well-focused beings.  It is hard to judge the quality of another’s meditation, but I’d like to think that the goshawk’s presence was a favorable judgment on mine.

A cold February day, late in the afternoon.  I was birding with a small group in a bog in northern Minnesota.  Through my binoculars, I scanned the landscape hoping to find a Hawk Owl, perhaps, or better a Great Gray.  In the field of vision I saw a bird.  “What the hell!” I exclaimed -- a six foot tall bird in the Minnesota woods?  But there is was, an Emu.  In that little off-beat corner of nowhere, somebody had an Emu farm.  Who’d a thunk it?

While in college, I worked for a couple of summers as a state park naturalist.  One of the activities I provided was an early Sunday morning birding hike.  On this particular morning, I had attracted a good-sized group for the hike.  Unfortunately, the birds had apparently gone to church because during the hour long hike, there was a scanty showing of birds.  I was feeling rather bad about having gotten these good people up so early for nothing.  Then, as we were coming back to the campground, in the same tree together, one shining like a blue fire and the other like a red fire, an Indigo Bunting and a Scarlet Tanager.  The oohs and aahs of a beautiful redemption!

A few weeks later no one showed up for my Sunday hike, but I decided to go out and do it any way, just for practice.  While walking I noticed a Bald Eagle flying in the sky, and then saw another one.  They flew together and the one slipped underneath the other, and I got to witness my first dalliance of eagles.  Oh how I would have enjoyed sharing that with a group.

One evening, while I was courting the woman who was to become my wife (and still is 30-odd, so very odd, years later), we were walking beside a lake and I noticed a Starling that was flying in an erratic manner.  Getting closer, I could see why.  It had a fish hook stuck in its beak, and the hook was attached to a line that was tangled in the tree. 

I hated to see the bird suffer like that, so I climbed up the tree, which leaned out over the lake.  I got to the bird, and then felt myself falling.  The tree had crashed in the water with me in it.  I unhooked the Starling and set it free and splashed my way to shore.  I must have looked like a dripping muskrat coming out of the water, but I think I had made a pretty good impression on my lady anyway.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Thoughts on the Anthropic Principle, Part I

The Anthropic Principle, in its weak form, is a response to the realization that the parameters that comprise the Laws of Physics have to be very, very unique in order for something as complex as a star to form, much less something as complex as a human being.  By “very, very unique” we are talking something in the order of 120 magnitudes of uniqueness.  (To put this into perspective, the number of atoms in the whole universe is estimated to be a few less than 80 magnitudes.)

The fundamental parameters are things like the masses of the various fundamental particles and the strength of the fundamental forces -- for instance the mass and charge of the electron and the strength of gravity.  Physicists used to assume that a final theory of nature would explain why each parameter had the value it has, but it increasingly appears that there is no necessity for these values.  It appears that they could take on any value along a continuum of values (indeed it is contingent that they exist with any value at all).   So the question arises: Why do they exist and why do they have the values they have?

The Anthropic Principle provides a very simple answer to this question:  we are here, therefore the parameters provided the right conditions for us to be here; we should not be surprised that the parameters are those that allow us to exist, whatever the odds against them.   An analogy might be that if we win the national lottery, we might be surprised to do so, but we should not be surprised that somebody wins it.

As far as it goes, this “explanation” is true, but it doesn’t actually explain much.  A proper scientific explanation would provide a mechanism by which these parameters become determined, and the Anthropic Principle does not even attempt to provide such a mechanism. (In my experience, the only attempt to answer the question of the parameters that provides a mechanism and is falsifiable is the theory of Cosmological Natural Selection developed by Lee Smolin.)  The analogy with the lottery is not really apt, either, because there is no good reason why there has to be a winner in the cosmic lottery, unless we assume an infinite number of universes, each capable of having a different set up parameters.  It has become fashionable to assume this, but I don’t think many people think through the consequences of this assumption – indeed I feel rather certain that no human being is capable of thinking through the consequences of this assumption.  

The Anthropic Principle, in its weak form, seems to me like an intellectual curtain.  Behind the curtain is the huge mystery of our being here.  But for those who temperamentally dislike mystery or anything that the human mind is powerless to penetrate, the Anthropic Principle conveniently hides the mystery from view.  If like me, you love a good mystery, than you also would prefer to throw open the curtain and contemplate the great darkness beyond.  Somewhere in that darkness, after all, is the reason we are here.