Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Last night I shut off the power, locked the door, and wandered through the neighborhood, following the lead of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), who suggest a cessation of non-essential energy use from 8:30 to 9:30pm on the last Saturday of each March. I left a couple of minutes early, hoping to witness a perceptible dimming of the city at the appointed moment, but saw only a normal March evening in Salt Lake City, with the glare of streetlights, automobile headlights and well-lit parking lots brightening the pallid bellies of migrating sandpiper flocks as they passed overhead. Even the newly vacant shell of a Circuit City continued to favor its interior with perpetual illumination. From my vantage, the tall buildings downtown were hidden, but a friend tells me that only the Mormon Temple darkened in deference.

The point of Earth Hour, as the observation has been christened, is to bring about greater consciousness of our everyday energy-consumption. Begun two years ago in Australia, it is said to have caught on a bit already in certain parts of the world. This year, the Swedish power transmission authority estimated a 2.1% drop in the nation's power consumption during Earth Hour, and reports of Toronto's decrease range as high as 15.1%. For the most part, though, Earth Hour was met with a big collective yawn. The mainstream attitude was reflected in a number of snarky articles; the smartest one I saw came from the Libertarian think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute, who lampooned the idea by vaunting a simultaneous observation of their own: “Human Achievement Hour,” where we're encouraged not to change our behavior in any way. The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto made a similar, feebler effort, and Keith Lokitch, PhD, that Ayn Rand Institute stalwart best remembered for his fallacious smear campaign of Rachel Carson on her 100th birthday, had his own suggestion:

“Try spending a month shivering in the dark without heating, electricity, refrigeration; without power plants or generators; without any of the labor-saving, time-saving, and therefore life-saving products that industrial energy makes possible. an entire month without fossil fuel.”

His tone was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, but his recommendation was one that would do any of us a world of good. Before they die, Dr. Lokitch's grandchildren may well bring those very words to life, courtesy of the philosophy that Grandpa jovially celebrated.

Proud they may be of their grasp of the obvious link between porcine energy consumption and porcine standard of living, but the critics of Earth Hour miss the important points altogether. Like a secular Shabbat, last night's ritual benefited the individual, without intending a direct solution to global problems. Too few people ever spend an hour quietly reflecting on the issues raised by Lokitch, Taranto and the CEI, and too many find the very notion distasteful. During last night's peripatetic reverie, it occurred to me that a mere five minutes might be easier for the uninitiated to swallow, to eventually acquire the taste. I imagined for a mere three hundred seconds, an entire population moving with single intention, dousing their lights and their televisions, closing their storefronts and stifling their ignitions. Putting aside the concerns of ambition and commerce, stepping outdoors into the blackness and reveling, many of them for the very first time, at the simple beauty of the Milky Way.
illustration: MARKEA NEURANTHA (1997) acrylic 30" x 15"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Of all the powerful, innate drives that guide our behavior, my vote for favorite goes to that drive to understand the natural world. We've come a long way since the days of a geocentric universe composed of four elements. The universe described in Sir Isaac Newton's Principia gave us a sensible, useful model for over two centuries that only began to fray at the edges upon the closest scrutiny. During the 20th century, troublemakers like Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg and Bohr left us with two irreconcilable models, one describing physics on a grand, cosmic level and the other describing it on the most minute level. Later physicists, the perpetrators of Superstring and M-Theories, snuck through the back door, designing elaborate algorithms to mathematically reconcile the theories of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity.

Science periodically goes through awkward stages. Our recently acquired skills at genetic analysis will one day lead to a biological nomenclature that describes the relationships of living things far better than it ever did before, but for the moment it's left us with a confused taxonomy that's all but useless. Similarly, physics at the beginning of the 21st century paints an insane picture of an 11-dimensional universe where space and time are woven into a fabric that's curved into higher dimensions by matter, which on the subatomic level cannot be understood or predicted, but can be affected by simply observing it. At its very core, according to current physics, nature makes no sense.

Obviously, the picture still lacks a piece or two.

It's possible that an important missing piece is the quantization of space-time, or, the idea that space itself is structured the same way as matter: of tiny “particles.” Hartland Snyder first proposed this idea in the 1940s, but didn't receive much attention for it. When viewed through the hindsight of M-Theory, though, Quantized Space-time creates a common-sense model of quantum mechanics that seems to explain away all of the last century's counter-intuitive observations. In this model, space is composed of particles, or quanta, one Planck length (about 1.6 x 10-35 meters) in diameter, randomly moving about in superspace, much like the gas molecules that make up our atmosphere. The 11 dimensions required by Superstring and M Theory can now be defined. The three familiar dimensions, x, y and z, can pinpoint a location no more accurately than to identify a single space quantum. To describe that quantum's place in superspace, one needs another set of x, y and z coordinates, and to describe locations within the quantum, another set of three. The final two dimensions are temporal ones, one for space and one for superspace. In this model, the gravitational curvature of space described by Einstein is nothing more than an increased density of space quanta. One can visualize the particle/wave duality of light once it is seen as a wave propagating through space quanta. The bizarre behavior of subatomic particles becomes understandable when one visualizes those particles interacting with space quanta. The Quantized Space-time model restores logic to nature.

Salt Lake whiz-kid Thad Roberts recently found himself with some extra time on his hands, and he put it to good use writing an excellent book on this topic, Einstein's Intuition. Thad's still fine-tuning his manuscript, but he's ready to share his ideas with us, and he'll be giving a free lecture at the main Salt Lake Public Library on 4th South and 2nd East, that promises to be fascinating and exciting. Thad's a skilled communicator, and he believes that everyone will walk away being able to visualize 11 dimensions and the Quantized Space-time model. The presentation will be geared to the lay person and free of obscure jargon and advanced mathematics. It's bound to be the best two and a half hours you'll spend next week.

When: Monday, March 30, 2009 6:30pm – 9:00pm
Downtown City Library; 210 E. 400 S.; Salt Lake City, Utah
Conference Room A
Seating will be limited. Please RSVP to qst AT moebiusgroupe DOT com to reserve a seat.
digital illustration by CPBvK

Monday, March 23, 2009


In 1925, three pale, unusual-looking young falcons, two males and one female, were removed by otter-hunters from an eyrie in southern Chile, near Punta Arenas. They were sold to M. Carlos Strauss, a German animal dealer living in Punta Arenas, who shipped them to the Münster Zoo. All three lived through their first moult, and their skins survive today as study specimens, two in a museum in Münster, and the remaining male in Bonn. Little is known about the lives of the Münster specimens, but the Bonn bird is known to have died at the Münster zoo in October 1932, but not before being paired with a female Austral Peregrine (Falco peregrinus cassini), who laid a clutch of eggs that he was reported to have incubated, one of the first records of attempted nesting by captive falcons. He was ultimately examined by ornithologist Otto Kleinschmidt, who at first doubted the bird's South American origin, mistaking him for a Barbary Falcon (F. pelegrinoides). In 1929, Kleinschmidt described it as a new species, F. kreyenborgi, after the falconer who had brought the bird to his attention.

It was over a decade before another one of these birds would be collected, and taxonomists argued vehemently over the status of the species. Some called it a subspecies of Peregrine (in a 1939 paper, Kleinschmidt himself referred to it as Falco peregrinus kreyenborgi) or Barbary Falcon, others thought it was allied to the Gyrfalcon-Saker-Prairie Falcon complex. Some believed the birds simply represented a single aberrant clutch. Careful measurements of the specimens revealed them to be morphologically identical to the local Patagonian Peregrines, but their plumage differed so radically that most taxonomists hesitated to lump them together.

Further data on Kleinschmidt's Falcon were slow in coming. On April 7, 1940, the eminent Swedish-Argentine ornithologist C. C. Olrog collected specimen number four, followed by a fifth, a juvenile, by Károly Kovaks in August 1961. On March 10, 1979, David Ellis and R. L. Glinski took the first known photograph of a Kleinschmidt's Falcon, and in December of the same year, my homeboy Terry Roundy took the first known movie footage. From 1979 through 1981, the field work in Santa Cruz province, Argentina, of Ellis, Glinski and Roundy, along with C. M. Anderson and Cesar Peres Garat provided a solution to the mystery. Observations of nine eyries revealed mixed pairs of typical Peregrines with Kleinschmidt's as well as normal Peregrine pairs yielding phenotypical Kleinshmidt's. F. kreyenborgi was not a valid species after all, but instead just an alternate color phase in the only known case of polymorphism in the Peregrine, and evidently a recessive trait with a high level of heterozygosity in the population.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that this should have been the case, but it was common knowledge at the time that Peregrines were a monomorphic species, and such dogma can effectively block one's vision. The names “Kleinschmidt's Falcon” and Falco kreyenborgi have been relegated to the history books; the preferred name for the color phase is “pallid falcon,” but those old monikers still serve as effective reminders to always give the obvious the consideration it deserves.
Pallid Falcon photograph taken last year in southern Argentina by Steven R. Chindgren

Friday, March 20, 2009


Two years ago today, I saw a small falcon spring from atop a power pole to pursue unseen prey. It was nearly dusk, and I saw the bird for but a few seconds, but its flight was far too powerful to have belonged to a Kestrel (Falco sparverius), the common little falcon of this area. Illuminated by the setting sun, it appeared quite ruddy, and I suspected it may have been an escaped Hobby (F. subbuteo) or other exotic falcon. The next dawn found me back in the neighborhood, where I soon saw the bird again, which I was able to identify as a Merlin (F. columbarius). I devoted the next couple of days to watching her, on the off chance that she might establish breeding quarters there. I managed to snap a few poor photos of her (below), but after the third day I never saw her again. I put up a post about her and she began to fade from memory.Last night I rode up the same street just before dusk and saw a small, athletic raptor fly overhead for a few yards, then wing-over and stoop, chasing another bird out of sight. It was another Merlin (or, more likely, the same one).

This morning I talked to a friend who has been telemetering wintering Merlins in southern Idaho. He tells me that they normally leave for their breeding grounds the last week of March, and that they are exceptionally regular in their routine from year to year. I had assumed they left their Utah wintering digs a month earlier than that, but his observations seem to agree with what I've seen with this bird, which appears to spend a few days in this residential neighborhood in Salt Lake City before heading north each year.
upper: WORKING THE FLOCK--MERLIN & STARLINGS (1989) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: Merlin photo taken March 22, 2007 by CPBvK

Monday, March 02, 2009


I was hoping to draw yesterday's contest out for a day or two, but Clare of The House correctly identified the subject as a Long-tailed Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca), a mere two hours after my posting it. John Carlson requested and received points for giving the common name of the bush, Calafate, though for all I know, it was a big bluff. Clare will receive a pencil drawing of a Gyrfalcon, and John, Ashok and the rest of you will have another opportunity down the road.

On a completely self-serving note, Gallery One in Mentor, Ohio will kick off their big annual miniatures show, Masterworks in Miniature, on Friday, March 6th with a reception from 7 to 9pm. Intents-to-purchase can be filed at the gallery or on line, and the public drawing for purchase rights will take place on March 21 at 5pm. Two-hundred original paintings are on offer, including my Golden Pheasant painting (above) .

While I'm in self-promotion mode, permit me to brag a bit about being named a "Master Member" of the Society of Animal Artists. There are 12 of us: Charles Allmond, Chris Bacon, Gerald Balciar, Robert Bateman, Carl Brenders, Carel Brest van Kempen, Guy Coheleach, Bob Kuhn, Walter Matia, Leo Osborne, Mort Solberg and Kent Ullberg. This designation was established last April, but I just got the nice surprise a couple of weeks ago.