Category Archives: Science

Coming back from the Mullin Show, thinking about evolution

Mullin-2135The sweet spot of any drive up the California Coast, south of San Francisco, is the section between Morro Rock and Big Sur. Of course, that is if the purpose of the drive is the drive, if the purpose of the drive is to get north as quickly as possible, stay off of this section of road. Here the highway turns into a two lane road that follows the contours of the land. As much as anything else, driving this section of road in Michele’s car, with the top down, was the reason we had made the trip south in the first place. (BTW, all the shots from in the car are Michele’s as is the lovely bridge/surf picture near the end.

The two lane section starts after Morro Bay, goes inland for awhile, then gets serious. Mullin-2078
Mullin-2136But, before the road got serious, we passed the Elephant Seal rookery near the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Neither one of us even knew that the Elephant Seals had moved in south of Ano Nuevo , so we decided to stop for ten minutes. It was more than an hour later before we left and our visit to the Elephant Seals was the surprise highlight of the drive home.Mullin-2133

It seems that a couple of Elephant Seals moved into the area in 1990, first to an offshore island and then to the beach right next to the highway, both north and south of the lighthouse. Now there are about 17,000 animals in the general area.  To back up, Northern Elephant Seals were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th Century but they are now protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and they have bounced back. With a vengeance. It is estimated that there are well over 150,000 animals breeding from Baja to Point Reyes and they take up alot of beach space.Mullin-2088

Elephant Seals really are Seals. They are distant cousins to Raccoons, even more distant cousins to Bears, and they probably evolved from Otters. Their ancestors were land animals and the Seal side of the family, for some unfathomable reason, wandered back into the ocean sometime around 25 million years ago.

To me, that is pretty amazing and it took some drastic changes to make it happen. Not just giving up legs and feet for flippers, the problem of no fresh water in the ocean also had to be solved, and to make the changes even more improbable, the Elephant Seals have chosen a life that requires being able to stay underwater for as long as thirty minutes. They are mammals, carnivores, able to dive as deep as 5,000 feet to get food and unable to move – move for lack of a better word, they sort of half flop, half inchworm along, their body jiggling like jelly – more than a couple of hundred feet from their real home, the ocean.



At Piedras Blanca, we stand on a wooden deck just above the beach, captivated by the hundreds of huge animals just below us. As they go about their daily lives, it is hard to watch them without wondering how they can even exist.

One theory is that  God made the Elephant Seal, along with all the other creatures that live in the water, on the fifth day of Creation (or, maybe, the sixth day because Elephant Seals were land animals that returned to the water, but let’s not quibble over a day). I find that hard to believe; it goes against all the evidence except the Bible (and it is pretty easy to argue against the Bible with its dubious origins, translations of translations, and its assembly by committee three hundred  years after the fact).

Darwinian Evolution says that it is only a result of random change over 25 million years. I like this theory better, but I found it less satisfying than I had hoped when I went on an Evolution binge about 30 or 40 years ago. The time line is fact, or at least fits all the evidence. And the same with change; what I find hard to embrace is random. The Universe clearly has a direction, from Chaos to Order, from stray particles to atoms, from atoms to molecules. About 3,600,000,000 years ago – somehow – life came along and some molecules became cells. About 600,000,000 years ago, some of those cells became simple animals. Those simple animals became increasingly complex, filling empty econiches. Somehow those stray particles became armadillos and kale. They became sowbugs and flamingos. They became elephant seals and us, wondering how we got here.

To me, this direction, even progression, seems important. I don’t believe in a personal God and I certainly don’t believe in a God that cares how I worship or have sex. But I do believe that the Universe is Connected and Alive, a Self-organizing System rather than a machine.

As an aside, I have long wondered why Fundamentalist Christians – mostly Christians, but also Fundamentalist Jews and Muslims – resist the billion year timeline, insisting on a literal six day Creation. After all, without that time line, Creation and Evolution are not really competing theories. God could have made the Universe over billions of years just as easily as six days (maybe God’s days are longer).  The problem, it turns out is not time, it is change. Because evolutionary change requires destruction of everything that came before, it is hard to square with a just, fair, and caring father. How could this just, fair, and caring God destroy millions – maybe billions – of Bambis and Thumpers, how could a merciful God  wipe out the dinosaurs to get to chickens? End aside.

One of the things that makes Piedras so much fun and what made it so surprising is that you get very close to the animals. And up close and personal, a nursing mother facing off a horny bull becomes high drama and a two and one half ton animal becomes an individual. Mullin-2104



We finally tore ourselves away from the Elephant Seals, hoping to get to Nepenthe at Big Sur by sunset.

Mullin-2137  The road was as good as I remembered, but it was much busier making it hard to pass without going into full traffic jamming mode and I am getting too old for that.





We did make it in time for sunset, or as the case was today, in time for the sun to go down behind a cloud layer. So, instead of a sunset, we rewarded ourselves with their Famous Ambrosiaburgera, a couple of glasses of a very nice red wine, and a side order of brussel sprouts.

Back into the hospital

I am back in Sequoia Hospital – three days and three nights – for an Atrial Fibrillation ablation. Ablation means the removal or melting away of an unwanted structure or tissue (and I can’t help but think of that scene in India Jones where the the Nazis’ faces melt off). With the caveat that I really don’t know the details of what is going on inside my body, I think what is happening is that my heart was making extra – weaker and erratic – heartbeats. Usually, our heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat pumping blood through the lungs to aerate it and then through our bodies. To quote an American Heart Association webpage, In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly (quiver) instead of beating effectively to move blood into the ventricles. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia.

Normally, the sinus node fires an electrical charge to start the heartbeat and – because the cells in the heart muscle transmit that electrical charge – the upper chambers contract, pumping the blood. The heart can develops additional beats from the other nodes that are caused by the thickening of the heart walls (in my case by the heart working harder before I had my aorta valve replaced with a cow valve).

The ablation disables the troublesome extra node activity by fishing a tube up through a vain from my groin to my heart and burning them with radio frequency energy (with the heart full of blood, and not, at first so obvious to me, in the dark). Among other semi-miracles, they find the troublesome areas by mounting plates on my chest and back that guide the inserted probes with a sort-of personal GPS.

This was all done on Friday and I have been in the hospital – feeling much better and a little bored –  ever since to  monitor the results. I am looking forward to getting out on Monday and – hopefully – will be more active than I have been in the last year.




Dinosaur extinction and Thomas Kuhn

A couple of days ago – maybe a couple of weeks by the time I get this posted because I keep getting interrupted by going to Tahoe and Pussy Riot – The Guardian had an interesting article on Thomas Kuhn, or, more accurately, his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I have never heard of Kuhn, but I think he has been a major shaper of my world outlook.

To quote directly from the article, But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn’s account of the process of paradigm change…. imply(s) that scientific revolutions must be based – at least in part – on irrational grounds? In which case, are not the paradigm shifts that we celebrate as great intellectual breakthroughs merely the result of outbreaks of mob psychology?

YES!  That is exactly the case. We in the West, at least my generation, have been brought up to believe in the Scientific Method (not as an ideal, but as a reality). We have been taught that part of what made The West great was coming up with a theory, testing that theory with experiments and observations -facts – and then, and only then, accepting the Theory. We are told that it is the difference between Evolutionists and Creationists. It may still be the ideal but it is not reality. In reality, scientists use the facts to justify their position even if they have to twist the facts a little.

It is only when the crowd’s idea of reality changes, when society as a whole changes, when the paradigm shifts, that the Theory changes. In most cases, the facts are known to not fit the Theory for a long time before the Theory changes. When I was in college, we had a required two year course in the physical sciences including Geology. At the end of the Geology section, the teacher presented the theory of continental drift  by Alfred Wegener. They presented all the facts that teachers now use – continents fitting together, biological dispersion, blah, blah – and it all seemed so logical to me, but the teachers dismissed it as This wild theory by some crazy German who thinks the continents are floating around. Ha ha.

As an aside, I now know that I am a sucker for almost any new theory (or almost any new thing that comes down the pike for that matter). My experience is that I am almost always right because today’s hair-brained theory is soon conventional wisdom and the new thing coming down the pike is the future. But I am old enough to know that I am not always right: right when I feel in love with Ferraris when Cadillacs were the gold standard, right when I got a BMW and people were asking me in gas stations if it was Japanese, wrong when I thought  Peugeot was the next BMW, but right when I thought Continental Drift just seemed right. End aside.

About 30, maybe 40, years ago, I started noticing bumper-stickers that said Shit Happens. About the same time, scientists first started proposing the Asteroid Impact Theory as the reason the dinosaur extinction came so quickly. Scientists knew the facts but didn’t come up with the theory until the concept of Shit Happens became the dominant paradigm. Until then, scientists thought dinosaurs had died off because they were stupid.

To circle back, I would postulate that good science only works because of mob psychology.

The transit of Venus

Michele and I went up Russian Ridge to watch the transit of Venus. I have read about the transit of Venus across the sun several times in the last couple of days, but Michele has been talking about it for a month. Since it was going to be at sunset, I suggested that we go up where we could see the sun sink into the ocean with Venus in transit. It turned out to be colder than we both thought it would be – in the mid 40’s when we got back to the car after standing outside for an hour – but the light was golden and then sun sank right on cue.

As it sank, Michele got the picture she wanted: Venus visible against the setting sun on the lower right hand side right where she knew it would be.

I got what I didn’t expect, the wonder of seeing Venus as a round object – not just a bright star – twenty three and a half million miles from us….crossing in front of the sun.