Category Archives: Science

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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Filed under Australia, Geography, History, Science, Travel, Video

Echoes of Earth

When L. Sue Baugh announced to the writing group a few years back that she and her friend Lynn Martinelli wanted to document the oldest places on earth, there was no way for those in attendance to know how serious she was–and how glorious the results of that project would be.

Sue and Lynn sought to experience landscapes that resembled what ancient Earth might have been like long before humanity appeared. Their search led the two women into remote regions of Western Australia, Canada, Greenland, the United States–and eventually into territory not marked on any map.

The outcome of their research is Baugh’s book Echoes of Earth: Finding ourselves in the origins of the planet. The work combines science and philosophy, but it is dominated by the photographs that so gloriously capture the primitive beauty of the places explored. The book is remarkable not only in its subject matter and beauty, but also in its format. There are die cuts, half pages, and fold-outs, making the book an interactive experience.

While Baugh says she loved everywhere she visited, she said Australia was the place that most captivated her. She relates, “I don’t think my heart ever fully came back from there.” Of course, that’s a sentiment I share with her.

The book is not just getting noticed by Baugh’s associates in local writing groups. It has in a short time racked up an impressive number of awards:
• A silver medal for Photography/art from the Nautilus Book Awards
• Awards in two categories from the Benjamin Franklin Awards (Baugh is happiest with the award in the nature/environment category).
• A gold medal for science/nature/environment category from Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Not too surprisingly, the book is available on Amazon. However, if you want a signed, numbered version–with additional materials–you can go to the website for Wild Stone Arts.

Echoes-of-Earth-book-cover-web2

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Cone Snails

I do a lot of educational writing, including textbooks, but one of my favorite assignments in this line of work is the student reader. These readers are single-subject books for kids to read independently, and because they are intended to encourage reading, they need to have topics that will appeal to kids. I just finished writing one about dangerous things on the Great Barrier Reef. I included sharks and rip currents, of course, but most of the reader was taken up with things that are venomous–and the list is pretty impressive. The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world. The box jelly (aka sea wasp) is the most venomous jellyfish in the world. And the list goes on.

As an avid collector of seashells, I also included one of my favorite shells–the cone shell– which I’ve had the good fortune to only encounter in shell shops. The snail that occupies the most handsome of the many possible cone shells is also among the deadliest. It reminded me of why the rules for reef walking include wearing shoes and not picking anything up. If you want to see the cone snail in action, check out this National Geographic video. (And while the venomous harpoon system is amazing, the size of the snail’s mouth is also pretty stunning.)

So remember: NEVER pick one of these up if you’re on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Filed under Australia, Geography, Nature, Science, Travel, Video

The Finke River

Heading north, we crossed the Finke River. It is said by some geologists that this is the oldest river in the world. It is considered a major river of the Red Centre, but is also generally described as “intermittent.” That is, it’s only sometimes a river. The 400-mile-long river rises in the MacDonnell Ranges and winds down through Palm Valley on its way to South Australia. It was, in fact, along the dry bed of this very river that we drove (bounced, lurched) to reach Palm Valley, back in the winter, when I first visited the Northern Territory.

Not too surprisingly, this time when we crossed the Finke River, it was looking a lot more like a river. It is said that it really only stretches its full length after flooding, and we had certainly seen an abundance of that. Water made the ancient watercourse amazingly lovely.

FInke River

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Enjoying the Effects of the Flood

Well, the flood was certainly inconvenient and was keeping us from moving on, but for someone who loves nature and science, this was a real National Geographic-level opportunity, and I was enjoying myself immensely.

Desert frogs, which survive underground for as long as 7 years, only come out when there is flooding. They mate and lay eggs, and if they’re lucky, the eggs will hatch and the tadpoles will grow to adulthood before the water disappears. So while it was still raining, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by frogs. Then, within a week, after the rain had stopped, we found that all the ponds and pools that remained were filled with tadpoles. Having seen this previously on a TV special, I was thrilled to watch it unfold before me (though I wouldn’t be able to stick around for the full cycle and watch grown frogs bury themselves again).

As the water began to recede, the force with which the water had flowed through some places was underscored by flattened bushes and, what delighted me more, patterns in the mud that looked like patterns on the sea floor. It was fascinating—and, as with most things I find interesting, deserving of being photographed.

So here are the photos: on the left, tadpoles, and on the right, the “sea floor” patterns left by a temporary roaring river.

Tadpoles

Patterns

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Clouds Appear

While at Woomera, and in fact as we continued to move north, I was fascinated by the sky. The photo below is at Woomera, while the photo at the top of the blog is from later that same day, in the small settlement of Glendambo. The clouds, like brush strokes from a nearly dry paint brush, stood out in strong contrast to the blue sky.

I later learned that this type of cloud is known as a mare’s tail, or, more scientifically, Cirrus uncinus. In addition to not knowing their name when I first saw them, I also did not know (but would soon learn) that they presaged rain.

But during that day on the road, I was not thinking of what the clouds meant, just that they were remarkably lovely.

"Mare's Tail" clouds at Woomera

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Woomera

A woomera is an Aboriginal spear thrower—something that sends projectiles hurtling through the air. How fitting, then, that Woomera be chosen as the name for Australia’s rocket testing and space tracking station in outback South Australia. We stopped at this intriguing space-age oasis after a few hours of crossing brilliant wilderness.

Begun as a joint venture between England and Australia after the end of World War II (a war that had threatened the continued existence of Australia), Woomera has, in the ensuing decades, hosted a wide range of international space research, rocket tracking, and missile testing activities, including a fair bit of involvement with NASA in the early days of America’s space program. At more than 49,000 square miles, Woomera is the largest land-locked missile range in the world.

Reflecting the history and international nature of the test range, there is a fascinating Missile Park displaying a variety of rockets, missiles, and aircraft tested at Woomera, located near the tourist information and heritage center. While some missiles tested here were for defense, a large percentage of them were for research, including meteorology and space. Definitely worth a stop if you’re crossing this bit of Australia.

Woomera Missile Park

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