Science

The Birds of September 11 by Brandon

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On my way to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I stopped for a slice a pizza and to clear my head. The previous week had been a somber one; every anniversary recalls the past, but some make you reflect on what's happened since, and a cloud hung over the intervening years. The nation felt like a different, far darker place than before that fateful morning.

Of course, it's easy to mythologize the past. Even the weather of 9/11, an archetypally perfect fall morning, takes on metaphorical overtones: a time of innocence and bounty, golden and pure, as yet untouched by shadow. Through the lens of memory, the United States was running a surplus, the economy was strong, things were good.

Of course they were not. A year before, the dot-com bubble burst, and with it the fantasy of economic security in an information age. A few months earlier, the Enron scandal surfaced -- a Byzantine mix of accounting fraud, rigged markets, political corruption, ill-conceived deregulation, greed and meanness and outright theft -- perpetrated by people who preached the virtues of free markets, and loaned the President their corporate jet.

Enron, we learned in years to come, wasn't an exception. It was a business model for big capitalism in the early 21st century. The same basic blueprint could be read in the financial meltdown of 2008, when investment bankers -- who rewrote laws that once restrained them, pushed high-interest mortgages at the peak of a real estate bubble, bet trillions of dollars that mortgages would be paid even when they obviously wouldn't, then tried to hide these facts -- crippled the economies of North America and western Europe, and very nearly took down the world.

The consequences were quite different for poor and middle-class people than for hedge fund managers and investment bankers. Within a few years, as unemployment soared and cities went bankrupt, the people most responsible for the crisis were even wealthier than before. And between Enron's stock plunge and Lehman's bankruptcy we'd had two disastrous wars, state-sanctioned torture and surveillance, the body politic's split into alternate partisan universes. Pervading it all was a sense of inescapability. Around and around we went, a society spiraling downward and unable to change course.

I jotted down my thoughts, finished eating and walked to Ground Zero. There I said a prayer for the departed -- I don't believe in God, but sometimes one just prays -- and continued to my evening's destination, the Tribute in Lights, which is projected above lower Manhattan each 9/11 night. You've probably seen the tribute, or pictures of it, twin electric blue beams that disappear in the heavens and can be seen from sixty miles away. It is beautiful and utterly haunting and simply immense. For one night, it turns the rest New York's fabled skyline into a row of votive candles.

The year before, I'd seen the tribute from Governor's Island, just below Manhattan in New York Bay. I'd gone there for a concert, and during the opening act people drifted to the shoreline, where they looked at the tribute in wonder and confusion. There was something unusual about the beams: Sparkling white points of light spiraled slowly inside them, hundreds if not thousands, almost like confetti, but confetti wouldn't have been visible from that distance. It also wouldn't have risen. A few people said the lights made them think of souls.

The next day I learned from a friend that the lights had been birds. New York City sits directly in the Atlantic Flyway, the easternmost of North America's four great migration routes. Each fall, millions of birds fly down the Atlantic coast, a stream of energy and life stretching from Greenland in the summer to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America, in winter. Along the way the birds funnel down the Hudson River valley, passing mostly unnoticed above the city that never sleeps.

Scientists aren't precisely sure how birds navigate their miraculous passsage, but the general mechanisms are understood. They sense Earth's geomagnetic field, which provides a frame of reference calibrated by the light of stars, sun and moon. Under certain conditions, however, such as moonless, overcast nights when the brightest lights are man-made, these biological compasses spin awry. Birds fly in circles until dropping from exhaustion onto sidewalks or stoops, or escape so drained as to die later in their journey.

September 11, 2010 had been one such night. The waxing moon was a thin, dim crescent. Clouds covered lower Manhattan. Birds had also gathered for days in wetlands north of the city, grounded by storms that blew against them, but finally the winds shifted to the south. In a tailwind flood the birds were released. The brightest light in the region came from the Tribute in Lights, projected by eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon searchlights into a dull dark sky.

When I called New York City's chapter of the Audubon society, I learned that more than 10,000 birds -- yellow warblers on their way to Central America, redstarts headed to Mexico, probably tanagers and thrushes and orioles, too -- were pulled in over night's course. Five times Audubon volunteers briefly shuttered the spotlights, giving circling birds a chance to escape.

It seemed a noble thing to do, keeping our memorial to tragically lost life from accidentally taking lives; and so, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, wanting to honor the day with more than remembrance, I volunteered, arriving just before dusk at the rooftop parking garage where the tribute's spotlights are installed.

Night fell. The sky over New Jersey turned from blue to purple to black. The lights hummed. Audubon volunteers lay on their backs, staring into the beams and trying to count the birds. There weren't many. Previous nights had favored flight, preventing the buildup seen a year earlier. Except for a few wispy clouds, the sky was clear, and the gibbous moon would soon be full. There seemed to be more people than birds: family members still grieving, tourists posing, a British man with a burn-scarred face who'd been installing floors at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who mourned the Muslim lives lost since.

Only once, when clouds covered the moon a few hours after midnight, did birds enter the beams in significant numbers. The clouds soon blew away. The birds followed. As dawn approached, the beams were empty. Six days later, the first protesters arrived just down the block, at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street had begun.

From The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. To read more, pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books or Kobo.

Photo: Dennis Leung

A Parrot Nests in Brooklyn by Brandon

Escaped from an ornithologists' crate that fell to the tarmac at JFK, refugees from pet owners, released by a guerilla naturalist in Greenwood Cemetery: Whatever their origins, monk parrots have settled in Brooklyn, favoring utility pole transformers for building their Smart Car-sized, hive-shaped colonial nests, which are unexpectedly tolerated by Con Edison, the city's electricity company. Locals hold the birds in fond esteem, perhaps because they're loud, colorful and scratch out precarious livings on the fringes of institutional power; they are, in short, the perfect symbol for this borough of immigrants.

Photo: Brandon Keim

Alton Bog by Brandon

Alton Bog At the bottom of Alton Bog is an ancient silt seabed; atop that, ten thousand years of vegetal remains, raising the bog's center above the surrounding wetlands. The soil is acidic, infertile, hypoxic; plants receive only what nourishment falls from the sky, and trees standing a few feet tall can be hundreds of years old.

Of no interest to loggers or developers, the bog has remained largely undisturbed since the last ice age. As with all old growth, that continuity manifests itself in a sense of peace.

Images | Orono Bog Boardwalk

Alton Bog

On Waldman’s Pond by Brandon

"The water," said John Waldman, "varies between green and shockingly green."

Perched on a thin strip of grass between a road and the water's edge, he stared intently at the surface. On a postcard fall noon it was the color of fresh spinach, the algae and silt so thick that the sun was swallowed just a few inches into the murk.

"Minnows," he said, pointing to a dappling of translucent silver-pink fish several feet from sure. "It's salty, with a sky-high pH, but it's rich and full of life nonetheless." We stood at at the mouth of a short creek between two bodies of water that elsewhere would be called ponds, but in New York City they are called Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, and are faintly miraculous. Like so much of the estuary now entombed beneath the world's eleventh-largest city, it was once a tidal marsh, and still receives the tide. This explained the salinity. The pH — nine, to be exact, same as baking soda — came from coal ash, which residents piled by the creek when Queens was still country. Builders used the ash to line the lakebeds, and it prevents the water from spreading back into the silt.

Waldman, a biology professor at nearby Queens College, hoped the minnows would attract a snakehead. The voracious intruder was found this spring in Willow Lake, likely introduced by an owner exasperated with its boundless appetite, and earlier this fall, Waldman saw a juvenile — evidence that they might have spawned.

"It's still not clear whether they are highly successful," he said. As for whether the snakeheads will eat everything in sight, fulfilling the fearsome though overstated reputations — Snakehead!! — spread by toothy tabloid covers three summers ago, when the air-breathing Asian natives were discovered in Maryland, nobody knows. "Its possible they'll overshoot the food source before reaching some sort of equilibrium," said Waldman.

Overshooting the food source, of course, is a technical way of saying, eat everything in the lakes. Worse yet, a breeding population of snakeheads would threaten any other waters to which misguided bucket-carriers could haul them. The Department of Environmental Conservation has taken control of the situation, but Waldman, who worked for twenty years at the Hudson River Foundation before taking his professorship, still comes by to look. He is a fish junky, a city boy who spent his life exploring, and later chronicling the history of, the waters around New York City — waters that, he and others discovered, are full of life, a life that is surprisingly resilient, clinging to and even thriving in niches shaped by human destruction.

Waldman crossed the street to look for snakeheads on the other side, easily vaulting a concrete divider. At fifty he is still fit and trim, with sharp blue eyes, an angler's grip and a chin of stubble that matches the white of his hair. He wore a brown jacket — herringbone, appropriately — and loose slacks, somewhat resembling the Victorian gentleman who, in a framed drawing on his office wall, carries with aplomb a man-sized fish on a stick over his back.

"The drive for life is really intense. There's an awful lot of contamination in this world," he said, speaking for a moment of life above the water as well. "They may not produce so many eggs as in a pristine environment, or grow as well, but there's still a living to be made here."

Waldman continued up the creek. The leaves had already turned, and many of the fallen had yet to lose their color; thickets of head-high phragmites lined the water's margins with green stalks and loose flaxen heads that waved back the sun's gold. We passed beneath the interleafing of the Van Wyck Highway and the Long Island Expressway, their supporting concrete columns aged by weather and almost as wide around as some of the trees that once lived in the surrounding valleys.

The water's surface vibrated from cars passing above and was boiled by thick schools of minnows that surfaced in flight from our footsteps. A chemical skein floated with lazy iridescence beside a drainage inflow where we next stopped. Littering the water was a collection of trash straight from central staging: milk crates, tires, shopping carts.

"Shopping carts are one of the major features of urban aquatic environments. Another one is the spare tire," Waldman said. Beside one bridge, he said, it is possible to walk across the water on the trash collected beneath it. "Tumbleweed," he said, pointing to a wind-blown plastic bag.

We saw no snakeheads there, or farther along at the locks that hold the lakes in. Nor did we see any other fish, though the water teems with them — sunfish, white perch, carp, catfish, the earlier-seen minnows, which are technically named killifish, and American eels, which despite their name breed in the Sargasso Sea, not far from the West Indies. These fish have survived, even thrived, amidst some of the worst pollution in the world, but now face eradication from the latest offhand transformation.

The snakehead, of course, just a few generations removed from some brackish backwater in northern China, is an unwitting victim in the whole affair, arbitrarily moved by the fate of globalization and human nature. Singling it out as an alien in an already-altered ecological balance could seem unfair — but shaping the development of nature is a power that, for better or worse, people exercise simply by existing.

"The snakehead is a gritty fish, with great survival instincts. It's hard to dislike it," John said on the walk back to the car. "But it just doesn't belong here."

Image: A satellite photograph of Meadow and Willow Lakes.

I wrote this almost five years ago (!) in school, as part of a profile on Waldman that I never did manage to get published. Which is a shame, because John is a gracious and fascinating person, whose work on New York City's aquatic ecology deserves much attention.

If you're looking for a gift or just a fun read, check John's 100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish and Heartbeats in the Muck, his aquatic history of New York City.

Notable Mice In My Life by Brandon

The first was a gerbil named Herbie. I was about ten years old. He came with another male gerbil, who turned out not to be male; many more gerbils followed. They had names, too, but Herbie is the only one that survives in memory. Some of their great-grandchildren escaped into a hospital office building; I like to think they established a permanent colony. Mice aren’t gerbils, I know, but really. Close enough. Herbie I considered a friend. I cried when he died, and dug him a grave with a headstone.

Ralph S. Mouse, Stuart Little, Algernon and Reepicheep.

When I was a teenager my family moved to a house in a field. It didn’t take long for the field mice to move in. At first my mother considered exterminating them; I don’t think she considered it very seriously, and it didn’t help that I pressed their case as being God’s creatures, as much as any other she loved. On the whole they were good neighbors, making little mess or fuss, and ate food left over by our dog Comet. I suspect mom put a little food out for them, too.

My dad found a mouse in the cellar that seemed sick and weak, and didn’t run away from him. I put the mouse in a box with a towel and some water, and put the box on the heater. He recovered. Later my dad said a mouse would sometimes sit on his bookshelf, watching him.

In graduate school my roommate thought he saw a rat run under the stove. We sat by the stove for half an hour, drinking whiskey and listening to country music and waiting with a hockey stick and a blowtorch at hand, less out of genuine rat-killing sentiment than the spirit of the moment. Then we went to sleep. The rat turned out to be a mouse; I named him Ralph, and said we should leave him alone. One night I had nightmares about being in an old house with vermin teeming under the floorboards. The next night, as I turned my sheets to make the bed, there was Ralph, crushed flat underneath. That was disturbing.

Natalie Jeremijenko has written about the simple (and non-harmful) behavioral experiments one may conduct on mice living in our homes. Implicit in her propositions is a sensibility of the mice as being both real and independent. In an urban environment in which nature is almost entirely controlled or eliminated, mice are still living in the wild. There is something wonderful about this. I love watching them on the subway tracks.

I often write about biomedical research involving mice, or even the refinement of the mice themselves into genetically diverse models of disease and drug response. I’ve never felt comfortable with this, though I understand the necessity of such research. Recently I visited a prominent breeding center. Hundreds of strains were on display in a tent, developers describing their traits, holding conversations while holding mice in the air, by their tails. I couldn’t handle it and soon went outside. I still support the research, and am fully aware of my inconsistencies.

Over the last several years I’ve seen several mice in my apartment. I assume they entered through a heating duct, and departed the same way. They’re welcome to any crumbs that find their way into the floorboards.

One night last week I was sitting on the couch when Orwell, my cat, pounced near the bed. It didn’t register until he was trotting towards me with something in his mouth; I thought it was a toy, then noticed how long the tail was. Worried that the mouse might have a disease, I took it from him. The mouse was badly wounded but still alive.

I put the mouse in a box on the balcony with some water and a stale Jewish pastry, named him Ralph Jr., and took his photograph. I envisioned nursing him back to health, and writing about him for work, and how if he recovered I might see it as a metaphor of some sort, a sign of good fortune. It would make a good series. As Ralph Jr. huddled in the box, torn and battered, I thought of what he could do for me. The next morning he was gone.

Image: Kevin Czarzasty

Notes on Science Writing by Brandon

Science writer J.R. Minkel recently asked journalists "how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning." Below is my response, originally posted in my outtakes catchment. Though I try to keep this blog separate from my work, I'm making an exception here, because the answer touches on issues that are deeply important to me.

The opinions expressed are entirely my own, not those of my employers. I've included a lot of links, partly out of vanity but also to give a sense of what my work involves. More of my stories can be found here.

***

I wake up in the morning happy to go to work — most days, at any rate — in part because I enjoy thinking and writing, and am lucky to do it for a living. And I write about science in part because I think I can contribute, in some small way, to the sum total of good in this world, whether by providing knowledge that's either immediately useful — don't expect your genome to answer all your medical questions; parse John McCain's stem cell rhetoric carefully — or adds to the richness of everyday experience: maple seeds ride tornadoes, birds see magnetic fields, evolutionary dynamics act on complex molecules as well as organisms.

At any given moment, I'm at some level advocating a principle. Even writing about the unusual physical properties of granularity reflects a belief that contemplating them is worthwhile, and that pleasure derived from watching streams of grains behaving as a liquid is an essential good. Sometimes the principle is more abstract: knowing that chromosome topography could explain some of what genetics alone cannot, that artificial intelligence might be used to tease patterns from otherwise-impenetrable networked interactions of genes and proteins,  may not lend itself to obvious practical application; but in some way I believe that individual wisdom and the public sphere's health is nourished by the spread of this knowledge. The same goes for discussions of genetic selection, cognitive overload or evolutionary theology.

Sometimes the advocacy is more overt. If researchers are right about certain cetacean species having a level of personhood comparable to our own, if industrial husbandry practices accelerated the emergence of swine flu, then there are decisions — from shipping speed policies to dietary choices — that can and should be considered. At moments when my advocacy is more pronounced — or when a topic is particularly sensitive, as with the evolution of religion — I take special care to be as thorough and responsible in my reporting as possible, and safeguard against my own biases. Obviously I try to apply these standards at all times, but some stories require them more than others.

For the most part, I'll stand by how I handle the responsibilities and pressures of my work. For the last two years, this work has mostly been writing for Wired.com — first as a traditional blogger, and then as a daily news writer with content published on a blog. Recently I went half-time in order to pursue longer-form stories and book projects, but I'm also happy to be freed from the daily grind of writing one full news story and one brief story nearly every day. This is extremely hard work, especially when one wants to be truly thorough — doing that third interview, or fourth, looking at back literature, fully understanding mechanics and context rather than waving my hands around them. I like to think I've managed this as well as possible, most of the time, given the constraints; but I know I've often fallen short.

Sometimes, of course, just one or two interviews are necessary. Making that judgment is a necessary skill, and I'll sometimes go for the easy story rather than one that will  have me working until bedtime. At other times I'll pass on a story because I know I won't be able to do it justice. Drug development is especially noteworthy in this regard; I feel more comfortable covering early-stage research — where I might be able to talk about a novel approach that's noteworthy in itself — than a Phase II or III trial which has generated reams of data that almost certainly can't be evaluated in the four-to-six hours allotted for reporting and writing a story, might be skewed, or invokes an economic or social context that can't properly be contained in a 700-word article. In short, I don't want to hurt anyone, or waste their time, and that'd be easy to do in this genre.

These cautions apply to many health and medicine stories, though there are some that I've been able to  cover consistently over time — the death during a gene therapy trial of Jolee Mohr; the development of sirtuin-targeting "anti-aging" drugs. And there are some types of stories — one is exemplifed by a group of studies being published Wednesday in Nature — that I've consistently ignored as a matter of principle, because knowing when something is not news is a pressure unto itself.

Finally, I don't report from press releases.

Image: Marc Smith

Swallows by Brandon

For the last several months I've had on my tongue's tip a quote about the importance of preserving mystery, and the poverty of its absence. To wit: on a summer evening, when swallows pluck insects from a pond's surface, their downwards trajectories display minimalist exactitudes that might have been calculated by a missile interception system. As they rise, however, they put on shows of aerial whimsy, tumbling and cavorting in mid-air like kids in a pickup game of hockey.

It's impossible to watch this and not imagine that the swallows are, quite simply, having fun. And to translate their aerial curlicues into some slight reproductive benefit somehow cheapens this graceful, beautiful display; so does the attempt to define any fun experienced by the swallows as a subjectivity produced to magnify that reproductive benefit, or some accidental side effect thereof, rather than a property intrinsic to leaping and spinning and dancing.

Of course, such utilitarian explanations to the mystery of evening swallow flights may well be true. But I would prefer to neither know the answer nor press the question with techniques suited for a laboratory rather than a raft. This is, I suppose, a form of ignorance; but mystery is not merely the absence of an answer, but the possibility of many.

Image: Steve Brace

Here Be Tygers by Brandon

I had one of those odd I-live-in-NYC experiences today, when after covering a press conference at the Explorer’s Club I spent the day working from their board room, accompanied by, among other things, a stuffed emperor penguin and the mounted tusks of an elephant shot by Theodore Roosevelt. (A friend once gave me a tour of the Museum of Natural History’s back scenes; on the roof is a rusty iron room containing the floor-to-ceiling remains of Roosevelt’s hunts.) In the fireplace were statues of a lion and an elephant, on the bathroom walls were 19th century drawings of English boar hunts, in the foyer a stuffed polar bear. It was alive, however sleepily, with the magic of storybook tales of grizzled men drinking cognac and planning to illustrate the blank spots on their maps. And that provided an interesting contrast to the morning’s events -- the announcement by Space Adventures, a private space travel company, that Google co-founder Sergey Brin reserved a seat on the next ride to the International Space Station.

Brin’s reservation cost $5 million, with another $30 million or so to come later. The company’s CEO told us that his company didn’t provide space tourism, but space exploration -- a piece of branding that didn’t sit quite right with me, though I’m not sure why. Resentment, perhaps, because I realize that I’ll almost certainly never fulfill the dream of Earth from above and the stars in their perfection, and such realizations remind one of other dreams not likely to be attained.

That aside, though, the age of exploration whose scent still lingered in the Explorer’s Club seemed to celebrate something else, something nobler and relatively more egalitarian. Some explorers, such as Charles Wilkes and Roald Amundson and Meriweather Lewis, were well heeled. But others were not. George Comer was the orphaned son of immigrants, first visiting the Arctic as a 17-year-old deck hand. Hiram Bingham was the son of a missionary and discovered Macchu Picchu during his travels as a history professor. Edmund Hillary worked as a beekeeper so he could climb in the winter. Robert Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, was an immigrant and a journalist.

None could now afford to explore space, such as it's actually exploration. And that's another issue: explorers didn't simply transfer funds and go for a ride, staying out of the pilot's way and maybe conducting a few experiments that a trained chimpanzee could run. They went to little-known places; they found new species, met new races, filled in the blanks; they survived and discovered. They possessed a certain vision, discipline and élan. Of course they were often abhorrent as human beings; but their mythology is admirable, and depicts a life to which one could conceivably have aspired.

But except for Earth's 1,100 billionaires, who can hope to explore space? Space Adventures' CEO insists that Dennis Tito, their first customer, financial consultant to "an international clientèle representing assets of $12.5 trillion," showed the world that to be an astronaut one didn't have to be superman. Instead you need courage, free time and $35 million in disposable income. I'm not sure this is progress.

After the conference, though, I heard another company official describing the company’s place within a larger pattern: the expansion of humanity's economic sphere to include the solar system, mining near-infinite quantities of raw materials. He compared it to the Wild West, and his own projects to the building of railroads; and of that expansion, myths will no doubt be born, and hopefully they will again be lived by teachers and traders and, if we still have honeybees, beekeepers.

And, with any luck, by journalists.

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