Euphoria and next steps

Never before has one man (and his entourage) created such a boost in confidence from one day to another. I work quite a bit with Americans (in America) at the moment and the otherwise relatively ‘cold’ business conversations have turned into highly personal exclamations about the present and the future. I find it fascinating to receive emails like the ones below from people I hardly know.

From the Bay Area:

I can’t even explain to you the joy happening here! This man has created a whole new experience of America. He joined so many people together in these months. Everyone was working for Obama. The amount of community organization was beyond all expectations. It became such a bonding factor. People were out in the streets celebrating till the A.M. hours in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Even when I went to bed in the early hours of 11/5/04, I could here the music and gaiety.

I can proudly say, for the first time in so many years, that I am an American. I feel no shame, guilt or other. I am finally proud to be an American. Wow!!!

From NYC:

We are estatic, elated, thrilled, stunned and relieved! We believe that there is a huge mess to clean up but we are up for the challenge. Hoping Gore will be appointed to the EPA.

What is the reaction in London? I’m hearing everyone around the world feels as we do.

In terms of the next steps, Wired ran a feature a while back, asking various experts about their advice to the incoming president: The 2008 Smart List: 15 People The Next President Should Listen To.

My institute director (and examiner), Steve Rayner, suggests that Obama should take climate change seriously and consider it a driver of innovation:

The outgoing administration failed to come to grips with climate change out of fear that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would damage the economy. But the decision to deal with climate change doesn’t lend itself to cost-benefit analysis. It is a strategic choice, like the decision to get married. You have an opportunity to define the nation’s character and upgrade its infrastructure — and bold action would be consistent with America’s historical role as a leader in innovation.

Climate change aside, restoring America as a leading country is indeed a daunting task.

Posted in Environments, Politics No Comments »

A good book

Ice sculpture

For lack of anything better to blog about, here is a book review: “The Last kings of Thule – with the Polar Eskimos” by Jean Malaurie.

Malaurie entered the Arctic as a student of deserts. Due to lack of funding for his scientific endeavours, he had to learn the skills of hunting and surviving from his hosts. Thus, Malaurie, at that time 26 years of age, went native with the Polar Inuits and describes in detail the everyday practices of a people who is no more. Undertaking a geological expedition as part of his study, Malaurie describes, in an unsentimental manner, how he came back to find the gigantic Thule military installation under construction. Inevitably, the influx of things, practices and people changed the social and natural fabric of a fragile society from one day to another.

This is one of the most compelling ethnographic accounts ever to be written, and it comes highly commended.

Today, Prof. Malaurie must be in his mid-80s, still serving as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

Posted in Environments, Picture posts 1 Comment »

On giant trees

Root explosion

You may not consider trees the sexiest of things, but that is merely due to the fact that you have yet to familiarise yourself with the fascinating nature of redwoods and giant sequoias, the worlds largest living organisms. Here is a bit of information on why that is the case:

Redwoods or coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the world’s tallest trees, the biggest living ones measuring 360 feet, i.e. the equivalent of a 37-story building. Giant sequoias, which are closely related, have fatter and more massive trunks than the redwoods. Hence, measured by the amount of wood it contains, they are bigger but shorter. No-one knows the exact the life span of these trees, but somewhere in between 2,000-4,000 years would be a good guess.

Redwoods only grow in a narrow band of land stretching northwards from California’s Big Sur to fourteen and half miles up the Oregon coast, where they stop abruptly. Giant sequoias are also sparse and can be found only in a limited number of groves in western California.

Until relatively recently, the tallest redwoods were considered inaccessible towers, yet scientists have made it to the canopies – pioneering the techniques of ‘climbing’ by using not only rope in innovative ways but balloons and towers – and returned with some extraordinary findings. These include the discovery of breeding salamanders never visiting the ground, wild bonsai, hanging gardens with three feet of soil, and more generally, tales of a largely unknown ecosystem.

Redwoods dominate the ecosystems in which they appear; they tower above and leave other trees in the shade; they change the chemical composition of the forest floor; they take control over the water; and perhaps most interestingly, they shatter ‘competitors’ by throwing off their dead parts, a phenomenon known as ‘redwood bombing.’ Furthermore, sequoias do not care if they burn, they just grow back.

It is an unsolved mystery why they seem to hit a ceiling at around 360 feet. This has to do with a certain limit as to how far any plant can lift water. They transport the water upwards through a network of unbroken, microscopic pipes. It takes a few weeks for the water to get from the roots to the top, and a tree can do so against a pressure of two million pascals of negative pressure. There has yet to be engineered a system that can suck water under similar pressure, which means that redwoods are better at pulling water than any human technology.

The exact location of the tallest trees, called Titans, is a secret. They, the scientists and nature conservationists, do not want them to end up as attractions for adventurous and potentially damaging climbers.

Between the 1840s and now, close to 96 per cent of the virgin redwood forest was cut down, with only 90,000 acres remaining, scattered across patches of protected land.

The most meticulous article on this topic is, of course, to be found in the most meticulous magazine, the New Yorker. Unfortunately, you can only read the abstract – which is longer than most newspaper articles – if you are not a subscriber. [Update: The full 14,000-word article is available here, including the magnificent pictures.]

I stole most of the information above from said article, yet I have been fortunate enough to see and touch both redwoods and giant sequoias. You can see a couple of pictures from Mariposa Grove (giant sequoia) and Big Sur (redwoods) here.

You should go, too.

Posted in Berkeley, Environments, Picture posts 3 Comments »