Posts Tagged ‘Science’

You may be familiar with an experiment involving five monkeys in a cage, a bunch of bananas on a string, and a ladder. The story has been around for many years.

Sometimes, it’s presented as a scientific study that actually happened (apparently not true). More often, it’s used as an allegory — a parable, fable, cautionary tale, or whatever — that equates the behavior of monkeys to that of people.

The point is to illustrate the absurdity and the dangers of passive thinking. Of mindlessly following the herd.

First the story, then we can discuss.


Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, suspend a bunch of bananas on a string, out of reach. Place a ladder under the bananas. Before long, one of the monkeys will try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas.

As soon as he touches the ladder, spray the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, a second monkey will make the same attempt. Again, spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

Soon, when any monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys will act together to forcefully prevent it.

At this point, stop using cold water to punish the monkeys.

Remove one monkey from the cage, and replace it with a new monkey. The newcomer will see the bananas and try to climb the ladder. To his surprise, the other monkeys will attack him.

After another attempt and another attack, he understands that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove a second of the original five monkeys, and replace it with a new one. Newcomer #2 will try to use the ladder to get the bananas and will be attacked. Note that Newcomer #1 will participate in the group attack.

Replace another of the original five monkeys with a new one. Newcomer #3 will try to get the bananas and also will be attacked.

At this point, two of the four attacking monkeys have been sprayed with cold water, but the other two have not; newcomers #1 and #2 have no idea why they aren’t permitted to climb the ladder and no idea why the group attacks Newcomer #3.

Continue this process and replace the fourth and fifth original monkeys. Now all five monkeys in the cage are newcomers and were never sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey will approach the ladder. Why not?

Because, as far as they know, things always have been done that way.


This story is especially interesting because of it’s similarity to the beliefs of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner made the controversial claim that “free will” does not exist. He said people inevitably act and react based on previous experience — based on whether a previous action had good or bad consequences.

Skinner believed this opens the door to controlling group behavior, which he called “cultural engineering.” He saw this as a good thing, a means of creating a benevolent utopian society.

Maybe so, but the concept also has ominous Big Brother and 1984 overtones.

Personally, I’m a big fan of critical thinking. Objective analysis. A rational evaluation of the facts. In short, the scientific method.

That approach works pretty well everywhere, not just in the realm of science. For example, in the Marine Corps, in addition to the official motto “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful), many units have adopted the unofficial mantra “Improvise, Adapt. Overcome.”

Excellent advice. But probably not in the lexicon of the average monkey.

Five monkeys


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Pete Gross, known to his peers as “Dirtbag” or “Dirt,” is a legendary Colorado River boatman who began his career in the 1970s rowing dories through Grand Canyon. He is now retired and living in Moab, Utah.

Karma handed Pete his nickname; he had a habit of calling everyone “dirtbag,” in the affectionate manner of addressing others as “dude” or “pal.” Eventually, the term ended up affixed to him.

In the boating world, Pete is respected for being not only a skilled professional, but also a sincere, practicing environmentalist. He is known for truly walking the walk.

To get around, Pete rides a bike or takes public transportation. To reach his energy-efficient home in a green community in Moab, you either walk or bike; no cars are allowed.

He doesn’t have a TV set or an internet connection. He goes dumpster-diving at Moab grocery stores on the principle that too much perfectly good food is thrown out. That practice evolved into a local food redistribution program run by Pete’s friends and other volunteers.

Pete lives modestly, with a goal of leaving a responsible footprint on the planet. Yet, he insists he is comfortable and content, and life is good.

In 2009, he was interviewed at length as part of a program designed to preserve the memories and stories of the old-time river guides for posterity. When I came across the transcript, I was struck by his explanation of why he feels so strongly about treading lightly on the earth. He made his case with passion and eloquence.

Here is an excerpt.


I remember the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. When I first read about that, my reaction was, “Okay, so it’s made a mess of the whole coastline, but we need the oil.”

But slowly, I came around to the notion that I was basically anti-people, anti-technology. I just chose environmentalism over economics. It was a pretty naive viewpoint, but that was the conscious choice. My attitude was, it was one versus the other.

I’d just chosen that the environment was more important to me, and people and the economy came second. It was a slow realization for me that — whether it was just my misperception, or the powers-that-be fueling the notion that it’s one or the other — it was a big epiphany for me to realize, no! Those are not two mutually exclusive options.

I think there are certain… like, the oil companies and certain powers-that-be have a vested interest in fueling a false… bifurcation? Is that the right word? You have one or the other, you can’t have both.

But really, you can’t have one without the other. Or, you can’t have a healthy economy if you’ve spoiled and ruined your foundation for that, which is the environment.

There’s a book by Amory Lovins — he and some others, Lovins was a co-author — a book called Natural Capitalism that talks about a post-industrial era. What makes the most sense, not just environmentally, but economically, is to realize that there are these natural services that are irreplaceable, yet we place no value on them.

Like our atmosphere, and the biosphere that cycles through nutrients… just the whole cycle of energy, the sun shining on the earth, plants taking the sun, converting through chlorophyll, taking CO2 and making glucose, and then enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which then makes it possible for the plants to grow that make our food, whatever.

There are all these natural services that we can’t replicate, and yet we don’t value them. And so we destroy them in the notion that we’re gonna make a buck. We’re profiting, but we’re destroying our real capital to create this income stream that isn’t sustainable.

That was when I finally had this realization, “Oh, I don’t need to choose that I’m an environmentalist, and therefore I oppose economic development.” I realized you can’t have a healthy economy without a robust, healthy environment.

You know, I look at a forest, and I don’t see board feet. I look at a river, and I don’t see kilowatt hours. But you look at a forest and realize, “Okay, yeah, there’s an economic value to the wood in that tree. Yeah, we could log that tree and mill it and sell it and stuff, and there’s a certain economic value.

But what we ignore is that that tree, standing in place there, is providing wildlife habitat and watershed. It’s helping give us a sustainable clean water source and protecting us from floods, and so on. We cut that tree down, we’re not very good at putting a price tag on how much value it has just in place.

The same thing comes up when you’re looking strictly at river issues, when you talk about dams versus irrigation and water rights.

Well, like we’ve learned with the salmon fisheries. There’s an incredible value to this food source. We have eliminated or almost decimated these salmon populations, which were natural services, provided for free. An incredible food source.

Instead, we put a lot of infrastructure in place, and a lot of irrigation and what-not, to raise cows. Takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, at the price of — we’ve decimated salmon fisheries, for which we didn’t have to do anything. They were there for the harvesting!


He had me at “bifurcation.”

Lachs / Wanderung / Kanada


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The Questions…

1. What is the fastest speed a human has ever traveled, and who set the record?

2. What common flavoring, mostly used in baking, is derived from an orchid?

3. The South American nation of Ecuador and the Central American nation of El Salvador both use the same currency? What is it?

4. The mighty Google empire was born in 1996. The first Google search engine was an array of ten 4-gig hard drives linked together in a cabinet. What did Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin use to construct the cabinet?

5. Greyhounds, the fastest dogs on earth, were brought to the United States in the mid-1800s for what specific reason?

The Answers…

1. The speed record is 24,791 miles per hour. It was set in May 1969 by astronauts Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford, and John Young when Apollo 10 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere after orbiting the Moon.

2. Vanilla. Both vanilla extract and natural vanilla flavoring come from the cured pods (incorrectly called beans) of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid native to Mexico.

3. The U.S. dollar.

4. Lego building blocks.

5. To catch jackrabbits that were eating crops and competing with livestock for food. This soon led to the sport of coursing, where greyhounds chased rabbits in an enclosed field, then later to regulated greyhound racing. Mechanical rabbits replaced the real thing in 1920.

Apollo 10


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One of my favorite hiking spots these days is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. The SBG, a 300-acre preserve, is pleasant, clean, safe, and close to home. About five miles of well-maintained hiking trails wind through it. It’s a terrific place.

The SBG was created in 1986 by the University of Georgia as a “living laboratory for the study and enjoyment of  plants and nature.” It includes a large tropical conservatory and a variety of formal gardens.


The gardens — native flora, annuals and perennials, azaleas, rhododendrons, groundcover, shade plants, etc. — change with the seasons. They and the conservatory are well worth a visit.



As for the trails, they’re especially notable because a few years ago, a geology professor and her students uploaded the complete trail system to Google Maps. Thus, the trails appear on your phone as if they were streets, and your location is shown as you progress. Very neat, very handy.

The trails are remote and quiet, but the central part of SBG is plenty active. The formal gardens require constant attention and maintenance. At the same time, various departments of UGA are conducting research and teaching field classes.

Between the maintenance, teaching, research, classes for the public, events for kids, etc., it’s a busy place. People are everywhere, focused on some task or other.

One morning not long ago, I drove over to SBG, parked at a convenient spot, grabbed my water bottle, and set out to walk the outer loop of trails. The day was sunny, the temp mid-70s. Perfect.

Not far from the conservatory, I arrived at the edge of a large field. According to a sign, the field is being restored to open prairie for the benefit of certain plants and wildlife.

As I stood there reading the sign, movement about 20 yards to the left caught my attention. I turned and saw a small brown bird entangled in a net, periodically struggling to escape.

The net resembled a badminton or volleyball net, but had a very fine mesh. It had been erected a few feet in front of a low patch of wild foliage and was almost invisible from a distance. Its purpose, I didn’t know.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I have no idea how to extricate a trapped bird, but I couldn’t just ignore it. Maybe I could go back to the main office and get help. I walked closer to get a better look.

As I approached the flailing bird, a female voice rang out in the distance. “Sir! Get away! Leave the bird alone!”

I looked up with a start. Striding across the field toward me was a small, youngish woman in all khaki. She was waving insistently and continued to shout instructions.

“Sir, do not touch the bird! Stay away!”

Puzzled, I stood there quietly and waited. When she reached me, I got in the first words: “What are you yelling about? What’s going on?”

“I am an ornithologist,” she said in a grave and decidedly snooty tone. “I am authorized by the State of Georgia, the University, and the Botanical Garden to handle birds.”

“Yeah, but what –”

“I am a member of (she reeled off a few names that may have been professional organizations). I am pursuing my doctorate.”

She reached over and began to examine the bird, cupping it in her hand through the net.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re an ornithologist. Good for you. Why are you fussing me out? What is this all about?”

“You don’t have the skills to handle this bird,” she snapped. “I have the training. I understand how the bones and joints function.”

“Lady, I’m just a hiker. I saw a bird stuck in a net. I walked over for a closer look. Why are you down my throat?”

“I can remove the netting without harming the bird. You can’t.”

“I didn’t touch the damn bird.”

“You would have.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it, it’s too tangled in the net. I would’ve gone for help.”

“It’s not very tangled.”

“Lady, I haven’t done a damn thing except show compassion for this poor bird. Your attitude stinks.”

She ignored me and addressed the bird. “Oh, poor little guy,” she cooed. “You’re just a thrasher, not the bird I wanted. I’ll just have to let you go.”

I finally deduced what the drama was all about. “This is your net,” I said as the bird flew away. “It’s here to catch birds.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t. All you did was yell and give me your credentials. How could I possibly know what you’re doing out here?”

“This is a [word indecipherable] net. I am involved in a research project. Do you understand now?”

“Well, put up a sign so people will know! Are you afraid the birds will read it and stay away?”

“Sir, no birds will come around as long as we’re standing here. We need to leave. I hope you have a good hike.” She turned and walked away. Briskly, of course.

I didn’t reply, and what I muttered to myself wasn’t nice.

Even on my way home after the hike, I was still steamed. That evening, I Googled the subject of using nets to trap birds. The nets, I learned, are “mist nets.” This is from Wikipedia:

Mist nets are used by ornithologists and bat biologists to capture wild birds and bats for banding or other research projects. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net.

When properly deployed in the correct habitat, the nets are virtually invisible. Mist nets have shelves created by horizontally strung lines that create a loose, baggy pocket. When a bird or bat hits the net, it falls into this pocket, where it becomes tangled. The purchase and use of mist nets requires permits, which vary according to a country or state’s wildlife regulations.

Mist net handling requires skill to optimally place the nets, avoid entangling nets in vegetation, and properly store nets. Bird and bat handling requires extensive training to avoid injury to the captured animals.

Okay, fine. Clear and concise. Now I know what I didn’t know when Miss Charm blindsided me.

Do us all a favor, lady. Put up a sign.




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Useless Facts

Another batch of useless facts for inquiring minds.


— Ants comprise 15 percent of the animal biomass (volume of living matter) on the planet. In tropical areas such as the Amazon rainforest, ants account for 25 percent of the biomass. Ants exist everywhere except Iceland, Antarctica, and Greenland.

— The average life of an American one dollar bill is 18 months.

— Those $15 HDMI cables from the dollar store work exactly the same as the $200 premium HDMI cables you splurged on.

— The Atacama Desert in Peru lies in a valley between the Andes Mountains and the Chilean Coastal Range. With mountains blocking both sides, the valley rarely gets rain or fog. Some riverbeds in the Atacama have been dry for 120,000 years. Some Atacama weather stations have never recorded rain.

B0032P 0083

— People, dogs, mice, and other critters can survive just fine aboard a spaceship, and have. But birds cannot. Birds would starve during a spaceflight, because they have evolved to depend on gravity to swallow.

— In Russian, “brat” means “brother.”

— During a typical growing season, a large oak tree will expel 28,000 gallons of water into the atmosphere. The moisture is released in the form of water vapor through pores in the leaves.

— Domestic cats, those fearsome predators of suburbia, lack the genes that allow them to taste sweets. Sweetness signals the presence of carbohydrates, and cats, being exclusively carnivorous, have no use for carbs.


— The “YKK” on your zipper stands for “Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikigaisha” (Yoshida Industries Limited). Founded in 1934, YKK manufactures 90 percent of the world’s zippers. The YKK factory in Macon, Georgia, makes 7 million zippers per day.

— Buckingham Palace has over 600 rooms.

— The average person will grow 590 miles of hair during his or her lifetime. The average person sheds about 200 head hairs per day.

— According to studies, children laugh an average of 300 times per day, and adults laugh an average of 17 times per day. Adults, lighten up, okay?

Children laughing


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Useless Facts

Okay, class, cut the chatter and listen up. It’s time for “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

Feel free to take notes. We may have a pop quiz later.


— No words in English rhyme with purple, orange, silver, or month.

— The ingredients of Excedrin Extra Strength, Excedrin Migraine, and Excedrin Menstrual Complete are exactly the same — 250mg acetaminophen, 250mg aspirin, 65mg caffeine. Ah, marketing.

— Children don’t have kneecaps. Those strong, bony kneecaps of yours didn’t fully form until your late teens or early 20s. Infant kneecaps (patellas) are made of soft, pliable cartilage to accommodate the years of growth ahead. At about age four, the cartilage slowly begins turning to bone.

— A flea can jump 160-200 times its own length. That’s like you jumping over the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower

— The eyeball of an ostrich is about the size of a billiard ball. Its brain is about the size of a ping-pong ball. The ostrich is no deep thinker, but it can see a long way.

— Elvis Aaron Presley had a twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, who died at birth.

— When you cough, the cough leaves your mouth at 50-60 miles per hour. When you sneeze, the air is expelled at up to 100 mph.

— You are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a marauding shark.


— When the city of Los Angeles was established in 1781, its formal name was El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles. Translation: The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels. In those days, Spanish settlements were either pueblos (civilian), presidios (military), or missions (religious).

— 111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

— In 1859, a rich guy in Australia released 24 rabbits onto his property for hunting purposes. Six years later, the rabbit population of Australia was two million. By 1950, it was 600 million. A virus designed to kill rabbits was released in the 1990s, and it lowered the rabbit population to roughly 300 million, but the critters soon developed an immunity to the virus, so…

— Botanically, a strawberry isn’t a berry. It’s an “aggregate accessory fruit” (!!?) and a member of the rose family. Bananas, on the other hand, are officially classified as berries. Go figure.

Strawberry & banana


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The Speedy Thief

If any species of bird illustrates the fact that our feathered friends are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, it’s the roadrunner.


Based on our popular image of dinosaurs, the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) certainly looks the part: upright stance, powerful legs, beak designed to mess you up, a murderous glint in the eye.

In the Warner brothers cartoons, the roadrunner was depicted as genial and benign. His live-and-let-live attitude was interrupted only when he had to deal with his hopelessly incompetent nemesis, Wile E. Coyote.


But in reality, roadrunners are serious predators. They are fairly large, about 18-22 inches tall, and can run at up to 20 miles per hour. And they will eat virtually anything. Their diet includes grasshoppers, beetles, snails, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, lizards, mice, small birds, and snakes.

Roadrunner are so quick and lethal that they will hunt and kill rattlesnakes. Not many animals are tough enough to do that.

Roadrunners can fly, but being so well adapted to running, they usually take flight only to escape predators.

They often become habituated to the presence of people. I guess they ain’t skeered of nothin’.

Which brings me to the reason for this post: to describe an incident involving a roadrunner that I witnessed some years ago. It happened fast and almost literally underfoot — but I have photos.

In December 2005, I spent three fascinating days at Death Valley National Park. On the first day, after checking into the Furnace Creek Inn, I walked over to the visitor center to get oriented.

When I came out a while later, I noticed a large number of birds in the parking lot — small, brown, finch-looking things, 50 or more of them in close proximity, hopping and chirping around the pavement.

Suddenly, something flashed into my field of vision from the right.

Simultaneously, the birds, all of them, went nuts. Amid a din of frantic squawking and flapping, they took flight in every direction. All except one unfortunate fellow.

Owing to dumb luck, I had my camera at the ready. I turned and got this photo.


Note how the image captured the speeding roadrunner poised several inches in the air above his shadow on the pavement.

The roadrunner sprinted across the road and into the desert at full speed. I captured this final photo before he disappeared around a dune. Again, the roadrunner was zipping along so fast, the camera shows him suspended above the ground.


The entire episode lasted about five seconds.

Ages ago, a creature that operated in a similar manner was the Velociraptor.

I don’t mean the malevolent beasts you remember from the movie “Jurassic Park.” Those creatures were not Velociraptors. They were based on Deinonychus, a cousin of Velociraptor that was six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Spielberg appropriated the name Velociraptor because it sounds better.

Real Velociraptors (Velociraptor mongoliensis) are thought to have been tough and aggressive, but so small — 30 pounds, the size of a chicken —  that most prey animals were out of their league.

They probably had feathers. Evidence suggests that they hunted alone, not in packs.


Educated guesses of the appearance of the real Velociraptor, a native of Mongolia.

But they were fierce predators, and in their day, the small critters of the world probably feared them greatly. Very much like the roadrunner today.

The name Velociraptor is derived from the Latin words velox (swift) and raptor (robber, plunderer). “Speedy thief” is the usual translation.

Today’s “speedy thief,” the roadrunner, is indeed a worthy successor.

Rattlesnakes, beware.


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