Tag Archives: rocks

#AdlerWall 03: Look for Patterns

by Shane L. Larson

(L) John Trusler (R) William Blake

(L) John Trusler (R) William Blake

In August of 1799, the Reverend John Trusler commissioned a pair of watercolors to illustrate the concept of “malevolence.” As a philosophical construct, we often regard concepts such as malevolence as being aspects of human behaviour that are part of our free will, not as natural phenomena that are able to exist independent of our free thinking. Does malevolence exist outside of humans, in Nature itself? Philosophers may differ, and certainly artists’ interpretations may vary widely. Perhaps not surprisingly, Trusler was not happy with the first painting he received.

Blake's painting of "Malevolence." [From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]

Blake’s painting of “Malevolence.” [From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The painter commissioned by Tusler was none other than the great English artist, William Blake.  The two shared a contentious exchange in a pair of letters that month about Blake’s depiction. In a letter on August 23, Blake admonished Tusler that we all see the world differently, writing:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.

Blake’s exhortations to Trusler dance around an interesting and lovely conundrum — what is Nature and how do we separate what Nature is from what we perceieve or think of it?

Consider clouds. In your high school science class, you may have once been told that clouds are suspensions in the Earth’s atmosphere, huge agglomerations of tiny water droplets and ice crystals. Most of the familiar clouds form in the troposphere, the lowest part of the Earth’s atmosphere where weather happens. Gossamer and diaphanous, they are pushed around by the winds of the world, carrying weather and moisture to the far flung corners of our planet. Meteorologists, partnered with amateur cloud watchers, have categorized a large number of cloud types, though if you restrict your attention to the most common there are only ten or so that you encounter most often (see NOAA’s “Ten Basic Cloud Types”).

The most common types of clouds, only a few of the more than 60 types classified. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The most common types of clouds, only a few of the more than 60 types classified. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

But many of us have, at some point in our lives, wasted away an afternoon staring at clouds in the sky. Part of those lazy gazings is calling out shapes and figures we see in the clouds — bunnies, turtles, ships, books, hands.

There are clearly patterns in the clouds. Nature made the clouds, so Nature made the patterns. After many long years of staring at the sky, we have elucidated some regular, recurring shapes and forms that Nature creates over and over again, and we’ve given them names: cumulonimbus, altostratus, cirrus, and so on. By a similar token, the shapes and figures we recognize as bunnies and sailing ships are also patterns we have elucidated from staring at the sky. What’s the difference between our observations and Nature’s patterns? What’s the difference between afternoon figures and the cloud archetypes?

Some clouds seen from airplanes. What do you see? On the left I see a trilobite, a kid blowing a bubble, and cauliflower. On the right I see a poodle, and a shaking fist.

Some clouds seen from airplanes. What do you see? On the left I see a trilobite, a kid blowing a bubble, and cauliflower. On the right I see a poodle, and a shaking fist.

One of the great realizations we have made about the world is that it is predictable. The world does not evolve randomly, changing each day in unpredictable and unexpected ways. Quite the contrary — when I throw a water balloon up in the air (or, possibly, at someone) it always comes back to the ground. The Moon moves through a steady progression of phases every 29 days, always in the same order, just as it has for all of recorded history. A popsicle always melts when left on the kitchen counter. All of these happenings, and the many others that surround us in the natural world, occur according to precise sets of rules that we call the Laws of Nature. The fact that we can recognize patterns, that we can deduce and use the Laws of Nature to improve our lives, provides the impetus for one of the great endeavours of our species — science.

When we look at the clouds, there are two sets of patterns in play. One set of patterns are the recognizable shapes and forms of the basic cloud types. Each of these different forms is governed by a particular realization of the Laws of Nature. They are predicable and repeatable, appearing anytime the same physical conditions appear in the atmosphere. Consider “Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds.” They can form when layers of wind are sliding across one another, with the upper layer moving faster than the lower layer, creating turbulence at the boundary between them.

A classic example of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, created when different layers of wind slide across one another. [Image: Wikimedia commons]

A classic example of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, created when different layers of wind slide across one another. [Image: Wikimedia commons]

By contrast, the picture patterns that you can pick out staring up at the sky are unique to your own experiences and interpretations. You can certainly point them out to friends and get them to see what you see. But left to your own devices, you may see a turtle whereas your dearest friend may see a hoagie sandwich.  These are patterns made by your mind; the difference between them and the patterns made by Nature is that the patterns of the natural world are predictable and subject to rules. Our job as scientists and observers of the world is to figure out what those rules are.

wall_patternsThe #AdlerWall this week exhorts us to “Look for patterns,” and that “patterns can be man-made or found in Nature.”

So what kinds of patterns can you find around you? There are clearly patterns that humans make, usually quite deliberately. Our brains crave the regularity and dependability of patterns. One of the most obvious places we encounter patterns is in woven textiles. There are global patterns — stripes, dots, space cats — that you can see standing next to your friend with the loud and colorful shirt. But there are smaller, more subtle patterns you can see if you look closely, notably the interwoven fibers that cross up and over one another to give the fabric its structure. The interlocking up and down, over and under pattern of individual fibers is a human invention, though who thought of it and when is now lost to history; the oldest known woven textile fibers date to about 6000 BCE.

There are many patterns to be seen in textiles, all of them made by humans. The patterns your eye can see, as well as the underlying patterns in the weave of fabric. Patterns occur on all levels. [Images: S. Larson]

There are many patterns to be seen in textiles, all of them made by humans. The patterns your eye can see, as well as the underlying patterns in the weave of fabric. Patterns occur on all levels. [Images: S. Larson]

Carpets are another great place to see human-created patterns. These grace the floors in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. I want to know whose job it is to make up these patterns!

Carpets are another great place to see human-created patterns. These grace the floors in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. I want to know whose job it is to make up these patterns!

In a similar way, there are impressive patterns visible in Nature too. On cold winter days, frost ferns can form on your windows. These beautiful displays of symmetry look almost organic in nature, but result from water molecules binding to other water molecules. As a large structure forms, the molecules are forced to remain near the cold surface of the glass, and the structure of the fern emerges. Frost ferns exhbit fractal structure — a repeating pattern that appears on many many different size scales. We see fractal structure in tree branches and clouds as well.

A classic frost fern that formed on my sliding glass door this spring. [Image: S. Larson]

A classic frost fern that formed on my sliding glass door this spring. [Image: S. Larson]

There are other patterns in Nature that you can notice. I just popped outside, and with a few quick sweeps found this rock on the gravel path next to my house. I could have picked up any old rock and found something interesting, but this one has a clear structural pattern. Look closely at the exposed, broken surface. It is comprised of a myriad of interlocking small crystal structures. I’m not a robust rockhound (I just pick up cool rocks and carry them around in my pockets), but this looks like a quartzite of some kind. Quartzite is a metamorphic rock — a rock that has formed by transformation under extreme heat. In the case of quartzite, extreme pressure and heat on sandstone variety rocks causes the glassy minerals in the sand to break down and reform in crystalline arrays, not unlike the one you see on the surface of this rock.

An everyday rock, picked up off a gravel path, shows a jumble of quartz crystals on its surface. [Image: S. Larson]

An everyday rock, picked up off a gravel path, shows a jumble of quartz crystals on its surface. [Image: S. Larson]

You can see much more robust crystal formation in a kind of rock known as a geode. Geodes are roughly spherical rocks with a hollow core, where crystals have slowly grown inside the core. Beautiful (and expensive!) specimens can be bought, but breaking open common geodes will reveal a beautiful little garden of crystals. Crystals are a special pattern of matter that arises from molecules that have regular geometric shapes that are preserved when the molecules are stacked together. The regular geometric shape of the crystal that you can see with your eye is a clue to the microscopic alignment pattern of the molecules that your eye cannot see.  Salt crystals and sugar crystals are other examples.

Geodes are known for their crystal structures. The crystals are macroscopic manifestations of the underlying molecular shapes -- large patterns building from small patterns. [Image: S. Larson]

Geodes are known for their crystal structures. The crystals are macroscopic manifestations of the underlying molecular shapes — large patterns building from small patterns. [Image: S. Larson]

Another example of patterns, where human and Nature’s patterns collide is in the layout of city streets. I grew up in the American west, on the fringes of the Great Plains of North America. There the landscape is vast and flat, and humans could have laid their streets out willy-niIly in any way they wanted.  But a quick glance on satellite shows the roads are usually in a nearly perfect grid, roads running straight north-south or straight east-west. This is not true everywhere. In central Pennsylvania, the rolling landscape of the Appalachian Mountains strikes across the state from the southwest to the northeast. If you look at a town along the rolling, folded ridges you see that the roads and streets are aligned parallel to the mountains — humans patterns have been influenced and shaped by the natural patterns of the world around them.

Human patterns [streets] often follow Nature's patterns [terrain]. (L) Fort Morgan, Colorado is in the Great Plains and streets run N-S and E-W, oriented to the cardinal directions defined by the spin of the Earth. (C) In central Pennsylvania the Appalachians form long ridgelines and valleys. (R) Cities like State College, PA have street grids aligned parallel to the terrain of the mountains in the area. [Images: Google Maps]

Human patterns [streets] often follow Nature’s patterns [terrain]. (L) Fort Morgan, Colorado is in the Great Plains and streets run N-S and E-W, oriented to the cardinal directions defined by the spin of the Earth. (C) In central Pennsylvania the Appalachians form long ridgelines and valleys. (R) Cities like State College, PA have street grids aligned parallel to the terrain of the mountains in the area. Click to enlarge. [Images: Google Maps]

But seeking patterns in everything is a dangerous proposition — while we certainly believe that the laws of Nature govern everything, recognizing repeating and organized patterns is not always so easy. One of the classic examples of this is the tale of wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell, whose imagination was captured in 1877 by the announcement of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli that he had observed canali (Italian, “channel” or “groove”) on Mars. Many people’s inexperience with the Italian language caused them to map the word onto the English word “canal” which has a definite connotation of being an artificial and constructed edifice. (This erroneous mapping of words between one another is a failure to correctly match patterns!).

Lowell was entranced by the idea of canals on Mars, and spent a not inconsiderable amount of money constructing what is now known as the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He himself spent many long hours at the eyepiece, staring at Mars and sketching what he saw. Looking at his sketches and records we find Lowell saw what he wanted to see — canals. Lots and lots of canals. Looking at Lowell’s exquisite maps of Mars a century later, after our robotic spacecraft have returned tens of thousands of pictures of Mars, we see none of it. The interwoven pattern of canals which Lowell saw appear to be a dramatic case of scotomathe mind sees what it wants to see.

(L) Percival Lowell observing on the 24-inch Clark Refractor at Lowell Obseratory. (R) Lowell's map of the canals he thought he was seeing on Mars, now a classic example of seeing patterns that are, in fact, not there at all. [Images: Wikimedia commons]

(L) Percival Lowell observing on the 24-inch Clark Refractor at Lowell Obseratory. (R) Lowell’s map of the canals he thought he was seeing on Mars, now a classic example of seeing patterns that are, in fact, not there at all. [Images: Wikimedia commons]

Which carries us back to the tale of Blake and Trusler. We all see the world through our own eyes. The goal of collecting knowledge and one of the purposes of doing science is to capture the world as it really is, and to use that knowledge to improve our lives. No single one of us can do it all on our own; it requires all minds on deck. No single one of us ever gets it right on first glance; we have to look at the world, examine what we have seen, ponder its meaning, and, if necessary, let go of what we once thought in favor of a more real picture of what Nature has laid out before us.

So head out and look for the subtle patterns in the Cosmos; it’s all there for you to see.  See you out in the world — I’m the guy trying to take a picture of the repeating tile pattern on the cafeteria floor! 🙂

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.

#AdlerWall02: See What’s Hidden Under Rocks

by Shane L. Larson

Our senses — our sight, our touch, our smell, our hearing, and our taste — are the detectors we use to interface with the world. They are a biological sensor network of billions of cells, responsible for probing the world, gathering information, and delivering that information continuously to the brain.

The flow of information to your brain is tremendous, and you have adapted to ignoring most of it. Consider your sense of touch. Do you notice exactly how tight your shoes are right now? Did you think carefully about which direction you moved your leg a moment ago to make yourself more comfortable where you are sitting? How does your bracelet or watch feel on your wrist?

Consider your sense of hearing. Where ever you are, close your eyes for 20 seconds and see what you can hear. Do you hear the fans in your computer? Traffic passing by outside? Maybe sound from a TV or radio in another room or your office mate’s headphones?

All of this sensory data is constantly flooding into your neural network, but you are very adept at ignoring it. Scientists call this filtering — taking a huge amount of data, and separating and keeping just the bits you are interested in. In everyday life that means only listening to the person across the table from you, and not the cacophony of sounds that fills our world. It means looking only at the book or ereader in front of you and ignoring all the interesting things happening in your peripheral vision.

Our filtering is a habit, and given the constant demands on our attention from modern life, it is a completely necessary habit for coping with our overly busy and crowded lives. But it’s a habit we freely indulge in, so much so that we never lift the filter and notice all the wonder in the world around us.

Consider the following picture, taken of the trees outside my back door. What do you notice? Look out your window and jot down what you notice about the trees around you (hopefully you can see some trees — if not what else do you see? Just your quick impressions.).

A typical scene you encounter everyday. A yard with "yardy" things -- trees, grass, gardens, bushes. You filter this and, very often, never even consciously register what you are seeing.

A typical scene you encounter every day. A yard with “yardy” things — trees, grass, gardens, bushes. You filter this and, very often, never even consciously register what you are seeing.

My quick list might go like this: big and small trees; no leaves; grey bark; spring, but barely. All that can be gathered from a quick glance and without much thought or consideration, though at any given moment you may only register “trees,” if you even registered that at all. But what happens if I look closely at one? Take that large one in the center.

You know what trees are all about from past experience, and recognize the bark on the trunk. But what is it really like?

You know what trees are all about from past experience, and recognize the bark on the trunk. But what is it really like?

It’s bark is rough, and more or less aligned up and down the trunk. It is clearly ridged or grooved, and very rough to the touch. But careful inspection yields some odd color variations which, when viewed up close, are not bark at all!

If you didn’t look closely, you may never have noticed the off-color grey-green is a wavy sheet-like lifeform known as a lichen. This particular lichen is of the foliose (“leafy”) variety.  Lichens are a symbiotic amalgam of a fungus and an algae existing together to each others mutual benefit. The algae contributes its photosynthetic powers to harvest sunlight and generate carbohydrates that are used by the alga and the fungus both. The fungus provides a matrix around the algae that protects it and collects water. Lichens have existed on Earth for at least 400 million years (the age of the oldest fossil that we are certain is of a lichen). They are extremely robust organisms, thriving in nearly every climate on the planet.

A foiliose ("leafy") lichen, growing on the bark of this very tree. If you look at the tree picture, this lichen is there, but you filtered it! To notice new things, we must concentrate on overcoming our filtering.

A foiliose (“leafy”) lichen, growing on the bark of this very tree. If you look at the tree picture, this lichen is there, but you filtered it! To notice new things, we must concentrate on overcoming our filtering.

If I look around the tree bark a bit more, I encounter another lichen. This one is not grey-green at all, but orange. It is small, and hard to notice unless you are looking carefully. When I first saw it, I thought this particular lichen was of the crustose (“crusty”) variety. But if I look at the picture, it looks like it might still be foliose, just smaller and a different color. There’s nothing wrong with that — scientific knowledge evolves with consideration and reflection, and is driven by the collection of new and better data (in my case, a picture that showed me this lichen up close, way better than my eye could see in the bright afternoon sunlight!).

Another, smaller lichen I noticed when I was up close. I originally thought it was a crustose lichen, but after looking at the picture I think it must be foliose. Careful examination of data makes our thinking evolve -- that is what the process of science is about.

Another, smaller lichen I noticed when I was up close. I originally thought it was a crustose lichen, but after looking at the picture I think it must be foliose. Careful examination of data makes our thinking evolve — that is what the process of science is about.

Lichens are common throughout the world, and you may or may not have encountered them in one of their many forms. But interestingly, lichens are a delicate probe of the environment in which they live — they are one of many types of organisms that are referred to as bio-indicators. Many species of lichen are sensitive to levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2). In the solar system, we find plentiful amounts of sulfur dioxide. On the moons of Jupiter it is found in the ice and frost of Io, as well as mixed in the crust and mantles of the other Galilean satellites, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. On Venus, sulfur dioxide is one of the most abundant gases in the atmosphere, playing a role in the cloud and “rain” cycle and contributing to the runaway greenhouse effect. On Earth, it is generated naturally from volcanic activity, but vast quantities are created from industrial processes, particularly the burning of coal. Sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is a precursor step to the production of acid rain which has dramatic impact on lichens as well as other plant communities.

Covering the base of the trunk of our tree is a colony of moss.

Covering the base of the trunk of our tree is a colony of moss.

Farther down the tree, on the shady side of the trunk, we find another organism that is not the tree. Dark green, with feathered spiny leaves but no real branches. This is a moss, a plant that belongs to a larger group of planets called “bryophytes” — plants that do not have branchy structures with a system to move water and nutrients around. Lacking a transport system, these plants stay small and close to the ground. Mosses do not flower; they instead release spores from tall stalks, and looking closely, I can spot a small forest of stalks, getting ready to spread more moss about my yard.

A mosquito, trying to stay warm on the bed of moss. The iridescent colors are amazing!

A mosquito, trying to stay warm on the bed of moss. The iridescent colors are amazing!

It was a cool spring day when I was looking at this tree — definitely not into the hot and humid part of the summer; it was pleasant in the sunshine and a bit chilly in the shade. As a result, much of the animal life is still hunkered down trying to keep warm.  When I was peering close to this moss, I noticed one such denizen of my yard — a mosquito. Mosquitoes have been on Earth far longer than humans — almost 100 million years. There are more than 3500 different species known, though only a hundred or so actually use humans as a food source. Like most insects, they are cold-blooded, and prefer the temperature to be well above what we were experiencing this day. If this one saw me, it ignored the proximity of my phone as I snapped this picture.

seeUnderRocks

All of this is right there in front of us, all the time. I just picked a single tree in my front yard. I could pick any other tree and would have discovered similar interesting things, and probably a handful of other different and interesting organisms.  But let’s return to the #AdlerWall, which exhorts us to “see what’s hidden under rocks.

I picked a rock at random. This one is roughly the size of my fist. I don't carry a ruler with me, but I did have my pocket knife so I put it here for size reference. Improvising with what you have is a perfectly acceptable way to explore the world.

I picked a rock at random. This one is roughly the size of my fist. I don’t carry a ruler with me, but I did have my pocket knife so I put it here for size reference. Improvising with what you have is a perfectly acceptable way to explore the world.

A few paces from our tree, I found this rock. You’ll see it is covered with our old friends, lichens. This rock is partially buried in the dirt near my house and has likely been undisturbed for the entire time the house has been there (almost 30 years) — plenty of time for slow growing lichens and mosses to creep across the face of the rock, undisturbed as they push their frontiers quietly outward.

I’m definitely going to look under this rock, but one of the basic tenets of observing in science is there are two kinds of experiments — passive ones that leave the object of your attention in the state you found it, and active (possibly destructive) ones that manipulate the object for the purpose of study. This dichotomy is most dramatic at the extremes of physics — in quantum mechanics, the act of observing changes the nature of a system instantly and irrevocably (the point in the famous gedanken experiment known as “Schroedinger’s Cat”), and in astronomy we can’t do anything except watch passively (astronomy is a “spectator sport”).

Before I move the rock at all, I look around to see what I can see, in case my investigations destroy something interesting. This isa tiny sprout, pushing up under one edge of the rock.

Before I move the rock at all, I look around to see what I can see, in case my investigations destroy something interesting. This is a tiny sprout, pushing up under one edge of the rock.

Lifting up this rock is going to change it — I fully plan on putting it back, but there will be subtle changes none-the-less, so I carefully look around it before I move it at all, looking to see what I can notice. First, I don’t have a ruler that I can use for reference in pictures, so I use what I have at hand — my trusty pen-knife. By placing it in a picture, I can later know “how big is that rock?”  During my initial inspection, the most significant thing that caught my eye was this little leafy plant, creeping up the edge of the rock. What’s it doing there? Did it try to grow straight up and just encounter the edge of the rock? Has there been a dormant seed under the rock for 30 years, or did the seed luckily fall directly next to the rock?

[L] Moving the rock revealed a long root behind the little sprout. [R] I almost didn't notice the earthworm -- I thought it was another root! Our filters are powerful and can hide the world from us!

[L] Moving the rock revealed a long root behind the little sprout. [R] I almost didn’t notice the earthworm — I thought it was another root! Our filters are powerful and can hide the world from us!

Lifting the rock up, I find the truth — the leafy sprout is on the end of a very long root of some kind. Many plants grow new copies of themselves using propagative roots — roots that strike out under the ground, and then at some point sprout from buds on the roots and produce a new shoot growing above the ground. It looks like this might be of that variety — why else would this tiny sprout have made a gigantic root that threads its way under a rock that has been buried in this spot for almost 3 decades? I should find me a botanist and ask!

If you look closely, you’ll also notice an earthworm (an annelid) bunched up against the side of the root, probably more than a little disturbed that I had lifted the rock up. Worms play an important role in the processing of all the soil beneath your feet — their tunneling provides passageways for air and water to permeate the soil; their ingestion of dirt and organic matter breaks it down into deposits rich in the chemicals needed by plants (nitrogen, phosphates, potassium).

After my inspection, I dutifully put the rock back where I found it, replacing it in the divot in the ground I had lifted it from, covering once again the running root of our early spring sprout and returning our earthworm friend to darkness. There are many interesting things to be found around you. The challenge, always, is to notice. Don’t let the efficient habits of filtering prevent you from seeing what’s hidden under rocks. No interesting rocks around you? Look under sticks and logs. Look for interesting splashes of light or clouds you’ve never seen before. Look under leaves, and look under piles of leaves — what’s different?  Snap pictures of what you see, jot some notes down, and share what you find online so we can see it too!

See you out in the world — I’m the guy on the side of the sidewalk, trying to take a picture of what I can see inside the big crack on the curb.  Wanna take a look? 🙂

coolThings

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.