Thursday, 12 February 2009

"There is a grandeur in this view of life."

Today, February 12th, someone very important is having a birthday - no, don't worry, you haven't missed my birthday, that is not until March. Besides, my tiny mind and feeble thoughts and ideas haven't changed the world and the way we view and think about nature and life on this planet. No, I am talking about Charles Darwin. Now, I could go off on one of my rants and raves about religion, creationism, intelligent (or should that be stupid?) design, but now is not the time or the place for that. Rather, I just want to celebrate Darwin the naturalist, Darwin the scientist, Darwin the man that changed the world.

I have been doing a lot of reading about Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle recently, mainly because I am supposed to be putting on a photo exhibit and saying something vaguely intelligent about the man for my university's Darwin Celebrations. And the thing that struck me the most about the man was his incredible powers of observation. Me, I see a rock and I think "oh, a rock." Or I see a some red algae floating in the water and I think "Eeeuuww, the water is all scummy." Darwin, on the other hand, would have scooped some of that water up, slapped it under a microscope and written a page of detailed notes about its size, shape, structure, colour, locomotory abilities, reproductive organs etc. etc. And he did this with everything. His breadth of interest and knowledge was astounding, ranging from botany and entomology to palaeontology and geography, from population studies and domestic livestock breeding to reptiles and volcanoes. He wrote whole books on beetles and barnacles. He was fascinated by orchids. He knew all about breeding pigeons. He was passionate about geology. Was there anything that did not interest this man?

So, Mr Darwin was incredibly observant, knowledgeable and well read. But that doesn't change the course of history, does it? So, what did he do that was so remarkable? Well, what he managed to do that no one had done before, was to take all his observations, thoughts and ideas along with many other people's, and bring them all together into one grand idea - the Theory of Natural Selection. Let's have a quick look at some of the evidence that contributed to this stunningly simple and yet all powerful theory.

  • While in the Andean mountains, he noticed that marine fossils could be found in places at an altitude of over 3000m. How on earth could that be so? This is where Darwin pulled a scientific rabbit out of the hat and suggested, God forbid, that maybe, given enough time, movement of the Earth's crust, sedimentation and other geological activities could result in this observation. This, of course, was anathema to God fearing Christians of the time (including Darwin himself), since everyone knew that the world was only a few thousand years old.

  • On fossil hunting expeditions, Darwin discovered many fossils from animals that no longer exist but appeared closely related to animals alive today. For example, the giant sloths and rheas of South America. Why would God keep changing the flora and fauna of the planet? Darwin went as far as stating that "There is no fact in the history of the world that is so startling as the wide and repeated extinctions of its inhabitants." In fact, over 90% of all living organisms that have once lived on Earth are now extinct.

  • While eating a rhea in Southern Patagonia, Darwin noted that it was smaller and slightly different from the rheas further north. Why would God put two slightly different animals right next to each other?

  • On the Galapagos, he noticed that the mockingbirds were slightly different on different island and that each island had its own unique mockingbird. No, people, it was not the finches, it was the mockingbirds! Darwin only later realised that the finches showed the same pattern. Given the difficulty of a bird arriving at such a far flung place, he concluded that a parent species arrived and that mockingbirds on different islands changed over time to better suit their habitat. He realised this was quite a radical thought, saying "If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks such facts would undermine the stability of a species." This was explosive stuff at the time. Remember, everyone took it for granted that God created the Earth and all the creatures on it in less than seven days.

  • Once Darwin arrived back home, he could witness with his own eyes how humans could bring about change in living creatures by looking at all the different domestic dog breeds, cattle, pigeons, crops etc.

  • Another key piece of information used by Darwin was the essay written by Malthus on human populations. Malthus stated that human populations would grow exponentially until resources started to run out. At that point, more babies would be born than could survive and competition would begin. The strong would survive and the weak would die. Darwin then applied this to nature, stating that if there is a struggle for existence and a competition for resources, the individuals that competed the best would survive and pass their successful traits on to their young, so increasing their chance of survival.

And so Darwin finally put it all together. Species can and do change. This is evolution. This was not a new idea, but Darwin was the first to suggest a mechanism for such change. Small variations among offspring and competition for resources. Those that were favoured passed their traits on to their offspring and those that failed did not. And the crowning glory of this idea - the notion that it could take place over a very, very long time. Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions, even billions of years. And anything is possible, given enough time. Mountains can be raised thousands of meters into the sky or eroded down to nothing, given enough time. A patch of light sensitive cells can evolve into the remarkable viewing apparatus that we call an eye, given enough time. And none of this need any intervention by God. Random mutations, leading to random changes, moulded by the selective forces of nature will do the job just fine.

So, there we have it, Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. It took him over 20 years to gather his evidence and a lot of pressure from friends, relatives and fellow scientists to publish it. He knew the debate and the antagonism that it would stir up within the scientific community and with the Church. When he did finally publish "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection", he was right. Much debate, anger and arguments ensued and such debates still continue to this day. But no matter what your views are on God, Creation and Evolution, no one can argue that Darwin was one of the greatest scientists that the world has ever seen and that his theory has changed the world.

Oh dear, this was supposed to be a short post! I guess I got carried away. I shall finish with one more very famous quote:

"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" Theodosius Dobzhansky , 1973

and by saying Happy Birthday Charles! 200 years and still kicking!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

A Photo Challenge

All I did was enquire where the gorgeous Bert was, and this is what I get landed with. A photo challenge. Well, thank you very much, Englishmum. Still, it was not all that onerous a task. All I had to do was go and look at my picture files - select the fourth file and then the fourth photo within that file and publish it. Luckily for me, it was quite a nice one and it carries on with my desert theme from the previous post.

So here we are - feast your eyes on a pile of boulders in the middle of the Namibian desert, just as the sun is starting to set.

Anyone else like to take up the challenge?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Breathless in Bolivia

So, how many of you have been to see the new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace? Well, I have. I watch Bond movies because I love to watch an Aston Martin charging down some tortuous mountain road (although I have to close my eyes when it reaches its inevitable, metal crunching, tyre-screeching, oil bleeding end. I can watch any number of bad guys being tortured or killed, but a beautiful Aston going to the scrap heap in the sky, well, that just breaks my heart) and the new Bond is quite pleasing to the eye. I was particularly interested in this Bond movie, since much of it was set in the Bolivian desert. So there I was, sitting in the cinema, my eyes glued to Mr. Bond as he polished off yet another villain, when the scene changed and we were transported to the wild and hauntingly beautiful Bolivian desert. No wait; hang on a minute – that is NOT the Bolivian desert. Don’t get me wrong, it was still amazingly, stunningly, startlingly beautiful, but it was not in Bolivia. And do you want to know how I could tell? There was a road snaking through the desert. A road with tarmac and white lines and all. Now, that just does not happen in Bolivia. As far as I could tell, such roads do not exist anywhere in Bolivia, let alone in the desert. And that leads me to the start of our next little adventure – to the Salar de Uyuni.

La Paz to Uyuni is approximately 450km. In any normal country, that should be a comfortable 6 hours drive. In Bolivia, take that time, double it and add on a couple more hours for luck and there you have it – a 14 hour bus drive. I would like to say that it was the worst bus trip of my entire life, but that honour goes to the drive from the Thai border to Ream Seap and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This ride comes in at number two on my worst ever bus trips list. The bus itself was not too bad, apart from the horrendous noise it made every time the driver shifted gears and the fact that its top speed was only 40km per hour. It turns out that this was not too much of a detriment, since once we left the main road leaving Paz, the road petered out to nothing more than a few tracks in the desert sand, along with a lot of potholes, dry river beds, ditches and washboarding that managed to rearrange my internal organs into positions previously unknown to science. Still, I had managed to convince Mr. DBM that it was a Good Idea to go and visit the Bolivian desert, so I really couldn’t complain too much, could I?

The Salar de Uyuni is located in the south west of Bolivia, high on the Andean plains. It is about as different an environment as you can get from the Amazon rainforest. One day we are wallowing in our own sweat in the hot and humid jungle and the next we are having all the moisture sucked from each and every pore of our bodies. I now know what it feels like to be an apricot in a dehydrator. The jungle is lush and green, you are surrounded by rampant growth and the place vibrates with noise and life. The desert is harsh and unforgiving, life clings on by the smallest, most delicate of threads and the silence is unnerving. In the jungle, the light is muted and subdued, a soothing, tranquil light that is welcomed by the upwardly mobile plants. In the desert the light is blindingly bright, glaring from every surface it hits. It knifes down through the thin atmosphere and strikes all objects in its path with all its full and ferocious force. And there is nowhere to hide to escape its searing, intense rays.

One of the first things that we saw once we made it to the desert was the vast salt flats for which the area is famous. These are the world’s largest salt flats and are thought to contain over 10 billion tons of salt. As we drove over the flats, we were surrounded by shimmering ghosts and islands that floated on a sea of rippling air. I half expected to hear the roar of a huge twin turbofan engine and to see ThrustSSC come barreling toward me at a supersonic, sound splitting 763 mph (1,228 km/h). The other half of me could imagine a husky team pulling a sled with a hunched, fur-enshrouded explorer clinging to the back. It was just so flat, so white and blue, so featureless that you almost lost your bearings and your sanity. The first time I got out of our vehicle I had to ask Mr. DBM if he had seen my sunglasses. He just smiled, pointed and, in his best Basil Fawlty voice said “They are on your head!” Ah yes, well, it really was very, very bright. Who could tell I was already wearing them?

Our next stop was Isla del Pescado. We sped across the salt, mile after mile of blinding white. Out of the shimmering, rippling haze an island emerged, floating on a sea of white. This island was covered by a forest of cacti growing on a bed of ancient coral, the remnant of a long gone ocean. These cacti have been raising their arms up to the deep blue sky, worshipping their bright harsh God for centuries. Many are as much as ten metres tall and over 1000 years old. Growth is not easy in such an arid, unforgiving environment and it can take a long time to attain such stately grandeur as these cacti achieve.

Eventually, the blazing sun dipped below the far horizon and we spent our first night in the desert snuggled deeply in our sleeping bags, resembling two fat and content caterpillars. Oh yes, we were snug as bugs in rugs and also very smug, since we had four season sleeping bags and lots of fleece and thermal underwear to keep us warm. Night in the desert at over 4000m is bone chillingly cold. The sky is crystal clear and the stars shine like a million jewels on a black velvet cloth. When you normally live in a heavily populated area, you forget just what the night sky can look like if you can just get away from all the light pollution spilling from the metropolis. I have always wanted to get a good photo of stars orbiting the night sky and this was a perfect opportunity, except for the fact that it was exceedingly cold out there, and I was very snug, very warm and very unwilling to drag my lazy bones out of my warm cocoon and so ..........well ........ perhaps another time........

The desert here in Bolivia is one of the most astonishing and surprising places that I have ever been. You start the morning feeling like an icicle, enshrouded by every piece of clothing that you can lay your hands on. You long for the warmth of the sun on your face. As the day progresses and the sun marches across the sky, you start to thaw and peel off layers of insulation. By mid afternoon, you are cursing the bright white ball of fire in the sky that is now scorching your skin and searing your retinas as the parched air sucks all the moisture out of your body. But these climatic extremes seem almost normal compared to the bizarre scenery that greets your eyes as you travel across the desert. The whole region is, geologically speaking, very active. You can see smoke and steam rising from the sleeping volcanoes that line either side of the valley. Who knows when they will awaken? You then see clouds of steam rising from the ground and as you get closer, you hear the growling and hissing of hot water escaping through holes and fissures in the earth. Your sense of smell then kicks in as the sulphurous air creeps into your nostrils and you take childish delight in watching thick mud bubbling, burping and belching noxious gases into the air. And the best part of all this – the warm, moist steam that engulfs you finally takes the chill away from your frozen bones.

When you resume your journey, the weird and wonderful scenery continues to unfold before your very eyes. The rocks rise up out of the barren wasteland, Dali-esque in their bizarre shapes and colours. You reach the apex of a high pass and the view that stretches before your eyes leaves you breathless (or is this actually due to the fact that you are now at an altitude of 5000m (16, 400ft)?). I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes, but there, in the valley below me, was a bright red lake, surrounded by white flats and dotted with thousands of vivid pink flamingos. Yes, flamingos, all the way up here in this cold, hot, dry desert. I love this place!

The lake is a salt lake and the red colour is due to the billions of archaic bacteria and salt-loving red algae that inhabit its briny waters. These microorganisms contain high levels of certain pigments, such as β-carotene, to protect them against the intense radiation. The white colour of the flats is not due to salt, but rather borax. As for the pink colour of the flamingos, well this is also due to β-carotene. This pigment is found in the brine shrimp and other small micro-organisms found in the water and the mud of the lake. The unique beak of the flamingo is specially adapted to filter their food from the mud and silt and only works when the head is upside down. While a flamingo can be perfectly healthy without large quantities of β-carotene in its diet, its sex life may suffer, since the more anaemic a flamingo looks, the less successful it will be in finding a mate.

Could anything possibly compare with the wondrous Laguna Colorado? Perhaps not, but the Laguna Verde did its best. This is another high altitude salt lake, but this one is vibrant turquoise, adding another colour to all the colours of the desert that seen so far. This lake is not inhabited by a myriad of micro-organisms, brine shrimp or flamingos. That is because this one is laced with high concentrations arsenic, lead, copper and other heavy metals. This gives the lake its beautiful blue green colour, but I would not encourage taking a quick dip here!

My time in the Bolivian desert was quite the experience. At varying times I thought that my spleen might explode, that my body might crumble into a pile of dust and become one with the desert, that I might never feel warm again and that the image of the glaring desert might forever be burnt onto my retinas. Still, I can think of worse images to be stuck with. The desert is a sublime place. The colours are hard, bright and vivid, everything glitters and sparkles like a beautifully cut diamond and yet the whole place seems brittle and fragile and you feel as though it could shatter into a million tiny shards with only the slightest amount of pressure. This region contains half of the world’s lithium reserves and a wealth of other mineral deposits. Let’s just hope that the Bolivian people realise the true worth of this radiant gem and protect every last grain of sand.