Category Archives: Science

The Observatory

Just to help you imagine the visit described in the previous post, here is a short video that shows the observatory, a few of the displays, and the ball that was dropped to tell the time. Enjoy.

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Trip 4:August 5, Part 1

Cool, dazzling morning. I was up at 7 and off to see Sydney. Had a cup of tea and toast with Vegemite, and then Brian and I headed for the train station. The magpies were caroling and gum trees lined the streets. Glorious. I am wildly happy to be back.

Pleasant train ride into the city, through rambling suburbs and over the Parramatta River. Disembarked at the Wynyard Station. Even the shops in the underground station made it clear that I’m “somewhere else,” and I was nearly giddy with delight. Did I not believe I’d be able to return?

I emerged from the station to the bustling streets of downtown Sydney. Heading over to George Street, I turned toward the harbor, walking down to Circular Quay and along the shore, through the Rocks, up under the Harbour Bridge, past Dawes Point, and into to the Miller’s Point area. This stroll took me through an area that is impossibly rich in Australian history—and it was a piece of that early history that drew me on.

Australia’s history is rather anchored in stargazing. The coast was first mapped by Captain Cook on a trip that had sent him to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus. During the 1700s and 1800s, both navigation and scientific curiosity were turning eyes skyward. Australia’s first observatory was built almost immediately after the arrival of the First Fleet by Lieutenant William Dawes on the point of land that is now known as Dawes Point. A larger and more formal observatory was built in 1858—the Sydney Observatory —and it was here that I was headed.

The observatory itself is quite wonderful—a heritage building on a historic site—and the museum it contains is delightful. I browsed through the often beautiful antique orreries, clocks, models of the solar system, telescopes, and other devices used in the 1800s for studying the motion of planets. I enjoyed the displays and videos that offered detailed insights into not only how the tools helped with research but also how observations fit into everyday life.

I learned about Australian astronomer and meteorologist Henry Chamberlain Russell. He began working at the observatory when it first opened in 1858, as a calculator, back when humans did the work machines do now. By 1862, he was the working director, and in 1870, he was appointed the official government astronomer. He took some of the first photographs of the southern skies—and the images were outstanding.

Russell increased the number of meteorological stations and worked on making measurements of time more precise. These were astonishingly important things for a world bounded by water. I learned that a brass ball on top of the observatory was dropped every day at exactly 1:00 p.m., so that all the ships in the harbor could set their chronometers accurately. The observatory’s telescope (among other things) made it possible to calculate time more accurately.

On display was the Earnshaw 520 Chronomoter, made by British watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw. This was one of five chronometers used on the voyage of explorer Matthew Flinders—and is the only one still working at the end of the three-year voyage (1801–1803) that first circumnavigated Australia. Also on display was a book on longitude, published in 1808, in which Earnshaw related to the public his contributions to the development of chronometers, particularly making them more cost effective and therefore more widely available. It reminded me that things we not take for granted were once new and rare.

So much more to see and learn, but those (and a display on the transit of Venus, important to both Cook and Russell) were among the most significant early histories of the place. The rest needs to be seen.


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An Aside – Awed by Antiquity

As an aside, before continuing on with reporting on this adventure, I think it’s worth noting that this remarkable barrier reef, heaved up from the ocean floor to become the Napier Range, is not the only stunningly ancient bit of rock in this corner of Australia. It’s all mind-bogglingly old here. In fact, the Hamersley Range, a bit south and west of here, and which I visited on my first trip Down Under, is believed to be the first part of the Earth’s crust to have cooled after the planet was formed.

Here’s one of the posts I did a few years ago about my time in the Hamersley Range, after a visit to Hamersley Gorge, one of many breaks in the range, but one that is famous for showing clearly the effects of the tremendous pressure that formed and shaped some of these ancient rocks.

Then, just a few years ago, on a sheep ranch at Jack Hills, not too far from the Hamersley Range, scientists found what they believe to be the oldest chunk of rock on the planet—a zircon crystal that they estimate was formed at the planet’s dawning.

Here’s an article with more details on this ancient zircon—and a photo.

So I was traveling through a region where phenomenal antiquity is the norm. One more reason to love this remarkable place.

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August 24, Part 4

Well, wounded or not, I was ready at 5:30 for our sunset cruise. Glad I went, as it was brilliant. The huge, orange, fireball sun was setting behind the fringe of trees along the edge of Lake Kununurra when we arrived. The lake’s surface was patched with lily pads, and stark, dead trees stood in the water near shore, where the lake’s expanded border had drowned them. Flying foxes hung from trees near the water.
LakeKununurra-dead trees LakeKununurraSunset lighter
Our boat cut silently through the water as we glided out onto the lake. We were surrounded by birds—darters, egrets, pelicans, grebes, green-winged pygmy geese, and jicanas. The jicanas were particularly delightful, as there were so many of them, and because they were nesting, so they let us get much closer than would have been possible if they didn’t have nests to watch over. Wonderful.

Once the sun had set, the guide (a local guide, not John) turned on spotlights that were mounted on the side of the boat. The lights showed us crocodiles along the shore and among the lily pads, and even swimming under water, near the boat. We could see fish and underwater plants, too. It was fabulous.

The guide shared some interesting information about the crocodiles all around us. These crocs were the freshwater variety, so smaller than the massive saltwater crocodiles, and not as aggressive. Freshwater crocodiles (or freshies for short) need a warm day to digest a meal. If they eat, and then there’s a cold snap, they can die, as the undigested food will rot.

All crocodiles are capable of remarkable bursts of speed, but they do it anaerobically—that is, they stop breathing and stop pumping blood. That’s why they can only run for very short bursts. If they have to run for too long, the buildup of lactic acid can kill them.

Our guide then said that, while they eat fish, these crocodiles can actually do pretty well eating insects. He then tilted the spotlights upward, to demonstrate the remarkable density of insects over the water—and it was unbelievable. The air above the water was a veritable soup, but a swirling, fluttering soup.

Looking straight up was worthwhile, too, especially once the spotlights were turned back downward. With no branches or cliffs overhead, our view of the nighttime sky was completely unobstructed, and the stars were dazzling.

After our cruise, we headed back to camp, where Kate had a lovely dinner of grilled fish waiting for us. For dessert, we were offered wonderful melons, and it was explained that Kununurra is the melon capital of Australia. Yum. More lovely conversation, and then to bed, as we have an even earlier than usual start in the morning.

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The Kangaroo Mob Recovers

I couldn’t leave you with the kangaroos dying from the mosquito-borne disease. Here’s the video that follows up with the mob 10 months later, when the survivors are rebuilding their lives.


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Kangaroos and Mosquito Plague

Nature is amazing, but it is not always kind or easy. In this video, a kangaroo mob is besieged by disease-carrying mosquitoes. While the mob will recover in time, it is sad to see them suffer–and while I realize that death is often a key part of how nature keeps itself strong, it still makes me want to spray the whole place with DDT.


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Why Koalas Hug Trees

A very interesting fact about koalas just popped up in a video from SciShow — a series that offers scientific explanations for various phenomena. Someone had asked why koalas hugged trees, and researchers have now found out why. Fun stuff.

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Friday, September 13

It was a wonderfully nature- and wildlife-oriented day. I was up by 6:30 and headed off with Judy to do a few errands, but then we headed off toward Healesville Sanctuary. As we drove among the trees along the winding mountain roads, we were surrounded by the music of bellbirds and magpies–music that continued even once we reached the sanctuary, though blended with many other sounds.

We spent almost the whole day wandering amid the wonderful birds and animals at the lovely, forested sanctuary. Healesville is well known for its research into that most remarkable of animals, the duck-billed platypus, and I can now attest to the fact that the creature seems just as improbably in real life as it does when being described. Leathery bill (with electrical receptors, like the skin of a shark), soft fur, webbed claws, the males with a poisonous spur. Even without seeing them lay eggs, it was clear that these little mammals would be hard for early scientists to figure out when they were first discovered.

Echidnas, the only other egg-laying mammals (monotremes) were on hand as well, as were wallabies, lizards, possums, pademelons, koalas, dingoes, and a remarkable range of birds, from the towering emu to the tiny honeyeater, and of course many parrots.



Nankeen night heron

Nankeen night heron

Many of the animals were free to wander among visitors, and we enjoyed interacting with them. However, we did almost lose our picnic lunch to one persistent little wallaby. He could smell food through Judy’s canvas pack, and he latched onto it and did not want to let it go. Fortunately, we were able to distract the wallaby with a sanctuary-approved treat, and he finally let go of out pack. (We weren’t really worried that we couldn’t get it back, we just wanted to do it without upsetting the adorable little creature.)

After several hours and at least a hundred photos, it was time to head home for dinner. As Judy prepared the meal, any fat scraps trimmed from the meat were set aside. While things simmered and roasted, Judy, fat scraps in hand, led me outside to a spot where kookaburras and butcherbirds had begun gathering already, having seen Judy approaching. The kookaburras picked up their treats from the ground and carried them to a branch, but the butcherbirds only catch food on the fly, so Judy was tossing their scraps high overhead, and the butcherbirds were snatching them in mid-air. What a show.

Kookaburra with fat scrap from Judy

Kookaburra with fat scrap from Judy

Another lovely dinner and companionable evening with charming, interesting people who love so many of the things I do.

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Wednesday, August 28

Another glorious sunrise, accompanied by the symphony of birds. My back, shoulders, and neck still ached from carrying a pack and camera equipment yesterday, but a few minutes of vigorous exercise loosened the muscles back up.

Again, at breakfast, the birds came to check for handouts. Most abundant were the rainbow lorikeets, followed by currawongs, plus a few crimson rosellas, and a satin bowerbird dashing in out of the brush, hoping the other birds would drop something.

James, the lodge manager (a handsome, young man with immense enthusiasm for the beauty of this place) came around to see who would be coming on the Tullawalal Circuit hike with him this morning. This is one of the “short walks” at Binna Burra, and I signed on. Then I dashed back to my cabin to finish packing and moved my gear to the lodge, since checkout was at 10 am, and I’d be on the hike then.

As we had done yesterday, we gathered at 9 am on the flower-bordered lawn behind the dining room (always behind, because the front projects over the cliff edge). It was to be only a 2-1/2 hour hike, so we didn’t need packs. It was amazing how much lighter my camera equipment seemed when it wasn’t in company with a backpack.

Everywhere, great views.

Everywhere, great views.

We headed across the clearing and past the original house built by the family that settled Binna Burra, up around the campground, and past the lovely pittosporum tree, the fragrance of which delights me beyond words. We stopped at a sign that outlined today’s hike, and then we headed into the forest.

Since this was a shorter walk, and not one of those gotta-keep-going-or-we’ll-never-get-back-by-dark marathons, James set a pace that was brisk but interrupted far more frequently. He pointed out buttress roots and strangler figs, stinging trees, forest apples, and rosellas crunching gum nuts overhead. We stopped to see the trapdoor spiders, and James pointed out a rock surrounded by cracked snail shells. This, he explained, was the work of the noisy pitta, a bird that smashes shells on rocks to open (and eat) the snails. We saw a hoop pine, one of the many popular timbers that became an early industry for the area (and which might have caused an early end to the rainforest, had not several people had the insight to protect this region). James also pointed out the Lignum Vitae, the tree with the hardest wood in the rainforest. Also known as ironwood, it’s so dense it sinks in water. It can be used for bearings and was a common material for parts of ships that would wear out if lesser woods were used. It has an oil that makes it insect resistant, and when it falls, it takes eons to decay. Cool.

In the distance, we could hear a catbird calling. Its call was sort of a cross between a cat’s meowing and a baby’s cry. Then we walked on.

As we walked, James told us a lot about the rainforest. Trees with buttress roots don’t have taproots. Everything in the understory has adapted to take maximum advantage of the limited sunlight: new growth is reddish, which processes sunlight more efficiently, and on some vines, the stems are as flat as the leaves, and are green as well, so more of the plant’s surface is exposed to the light.

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Mawson of the Antarctic

The video below is a National Geographic talk on Douglas Mawson and what the speaker labels “the best survival tale you’ve never heard.” The speaker, David Roberts, himself an adventurer and author of a book on Mawson titled Alone on the Ice, makes the interesting observation that the reason the whole world hasn’t heard the story is largely because the explorers were Australian, and back around 1900, Australia was still being pretty much ignored by the rest of the world. That’s not the only reason, but it’s definitely part of it.

It’s an incredible story, and well worth knowing about. Hard to even imagine surviving something like this.

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