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November 10th, 2010 | Meera
A few weeks ago I climbed into a metal dome perched on the roof of the University of Chicago’s Ryerson Physical Laboratory building, straightened my spine and stood up slightly on my toes to reach the tilted eyepiece of a stately and enormous refractor telescope, placed one wide-open eye against a small, bright window of glass, and believed in the moon for the first time.
It was the night before the full moon, and the planet’s most faithful companion was big and bold and beautiful, waxing so gibbous it seemed to strain against its own edges. At that particular point in the moon’s orbit, solar light was shining almost directly at that portion of its countenance that faces the earth, making the whole of its central surface appear perfectly illuminated and unwrinkled—as flawless and white as the petal of a Madonna lily, if a Madonna lily happened to be lit by the burning light of a star. But at the moon’s outermost contours, where it curved away the most from the sun’s rays, light struck its surface at oblique angles—creating sharp shadows and throwing the topography of the moon into high relief. Here it was ragged with dark tears and cavities, war-wounds from billions of years of asteroid and comet collisions: an old fool wearing his heart on his sleeve.
I put one hand out to the wall of the dome, steadying myself against the physically destabilizing force of true awe, and stared. It was astonishing how clearly I could pick out along the edges of the moon the very same craters and mountains that are visible on photographs of the lunar surface. After some time, the earth had drifted far enough along its own orbit (taking the telescope and me with it) that all that was left in the eyepiece was the blackness of space. And the hard, rocky, three-dimensional physicality of the moon—which had until a minute ago been something frankly close to myth in my mind, though I hadn’t realized it—was newly real.
I was reminded, as I thought about the gap between accepting the perfect, scientific truth of a phenomenon, and actually collecting it into the space of one’s personal convictions, of the wisdom of a certain very big, very friendly giant:
“But because of these jumpsquiffling ears of mine,” the BFG said, “I is not only able to hear the music that dreams is making but I is understanding it also.”
“What do you mean understanding it?” Sophie said.
“I can read it,” the BFG said. “It talks to me. It is like a langwitch.”
“I find that just a little hard to believe,” Sophie said.
“I’ll bet you is also finding it hard to believe in quogwinkles,” the BFG said, “and how they is visiting us from the stars.”
“Of course I don’t believe that,” Sophie said.
The BFG regarded her gravely with those huge eyes of his. “I hope you will forgive me,” he said, “if I tell you that human beans is thinking they is very clever, but they is not. They is nearly all of them notmuchers and squeakpips.”
“I beg your pardon,” Sophie said.
“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”
Roald Dahl, The BFG
Well. This notmucher, this squeakpip, this human bean who does, still, have a hard time believing in anything unless I is actually seeing it right in front of my own schnozzle, is writing tonight as a rather shy new member of the Ryerson Astronomical Society—which was kind enough to welcome me into its fold despite the fact that I’m not only a notmucher but a notstudent.
I haven’t written about astronomy very often here, but I’m making this post partly as a promise that that will start to change. Not least because I expect that as I go along, getting to know that lovely, somewhat finicky telescope I’m lucky enough to have ten minutes away from my home, I shall very soon find myself in believing in a great many more things than that one crazy, beautiful satellite we call our own.
Thanks for the incredible photo above go to the talented Philip Chee.
November 4th, 2010 | Meera
On April 17, 1822, while traveling in the prairie lands of southeastern Arkansas, John James Audubon discovered a small, rather drab little bird about the size of a sparrow. It had a crown and back of dark olive, two white bands across its wings, a pale gray throat and upper breast, and light yellow underparts. Though in appearance it was very nearly identical to several other birds already known to science, Audubon knew he had never before heard this distinctive two-note call, a high and rasping buzz which the creature let out repeatedly in flight. He identified it as a new denizen of a large family of tree-dwelling passerines known for swooping from branch to branch, deftly capturing insects on the wing. It was this skill that gave them their name: Flycatchers.
When, six years later, Audubon formally described his new avian find in an early edition of Birds of America, he named it “Traill’s Flycatcher.” This was a nod to the Scottish physician and amateur naturalist Thomas Stewart Traill, someone who had helped Audubon exhibit his drawings to an audience across the water in the years before the budding artist had become quite as famous as he was going to be.
The name was a thoughtful gesture—but one that did not last very long. In the years since Audubon made his discovery, ornithologists have separated Traill’s Flycatcher into two distinct species: Alder and Willow Flycatchers. The two are virtual twins, but have different voices. (That is, according to the books. I can tell I still need more practice as a birder, because they actually sound very similar to me—although the Alder has a call that more resembles a zipper being swiftly tugged, and the Willow one that is more like a sharp sneeze.)
Neither, in any case, has hung on to a common name that recalls Traill. Researchers agree that the bird Audubon saw that day was what we would now call a Willow Flycatcher. Only its scientific name, Empidonax trailli, retains a Latinized trace of the good-hearted man Audubon meant to honor. (Such is the caprice of species; for more on the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of classification, I urge you to read this post by the talented DeLene Beeland.)
Despite what some consider its unremarkable appearance, the Willow Flycatcher does have several notable qualities. A few, for instance, are capable of defending themselves against the brood parasitism of the Brown-headed Cowbird—which shares the cuckoo’s disagreeable habit of laying its own eggs in other birds’ nests and abandoning them to the care of unsuspecting adoptive parents. According to a number of observers, Willow Flycatchers that find cowbird eggs in their nests have been known to bury the unwanted artifacts. They do this by pushing the alien eggs into the bottoms of their nests and adding more material on top—effectively entombing them within a new layer of nest lining. It’s not clear whether the flycatchers do this strategically with cowbird eggs, or as a simple response to any foreign material within their homes; either way, it’s a pretty delightful response to a base attempt at moochery.
And unlike songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds, each of which must learn their vocalizations from adult teachers, flycatchers—Willows included—emerge from the egg knowing the song dialects particular to their species. Even when young flycatchers are deliberately tutored with the songs of similar but unrelated species, what comes out of their beaks when they begin to call is emphatically the sound of their own kind. Confuse me not with your zipping pip, you Alder, for I am a sneezing Willow! They are examples, in other words, of birds whose mother tongues are somehow encoded in their genes. (I cannot tell you how much I envy them. I myself, lover of all discourse and code, know only about three words of Punjabi and about a dozen of Cantonese, the languages my parents’ families speak.)
I tell you all this, of course, because I prepared a Willow Flycatcher today in the bird lab, and was enchanted by the soft lemon-sorbet plumage it carries on its belly and the inside of its tail.
P.S. As Diana reminds us, Willow Flycatchers are fairly common birds. But the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—one of the ten or so subspecies that populate the United States—has been on the decline for many years now, mostly as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation. It’s been classified as endangered since 1995. The story of its struggle to survive has taken some fascinating turns lately.