Science & Nature Archive

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wichita Falls' Historic Drought Ended by Historic Flood

The drought in Wichita Falls is over. I'd mentioned the drought on this blog twice before, in 2011 and 2013. This was the worst drought on record for the region. Our reservoirs had dropped down below 25% capacity, and it had even gotten so bad that the city was recycling treated sewer water directly back into the drinking supply (more info: NPR - Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water).

But since weather here seems to always be a case of extremes, the drought went out with a bang, with the wettest month on record for the city, and 'Moderate' flooding that forced evacuations of a few neighborhoods and actually did flood a few houses. We did dodge a bullet, though. The original forecast for Saturday was another big storm that would have dumped a lot more water into our watershed, and would have probably caused a 'Major' flood, exceeding the record high we had back in 2007 (which I also blogged about). Luckily for us, that storm bypassed Wichita Falls, so our flood wasn't near as bad as it could have been.

But you could read about the flood anywhere. The thing that made me want to write this blog post was a small little event in our backyard. Since the last flood, we'd built a deck over the pond in the back. And as the water came up this time, a bunch of spiders and other creepy crawlies got trapped on the deck with nowhere to go, so I took a few photos and a short video. Here's a picture of two spiders facing off to see who gets to keep the high ground (the bigger spider to the right won the face off).

Spiders fighting for high ground during flood
Click to embiggen

And here's a video showing all the critters on the last high spot on the deck, a corner that was just a bit higher than the rest of the deck (I'm not too ashamed at my workmanship - it was only about 3/4" higher than the lowest corner).

But, me being the softy that I am, I couldn't just leave all those spiders to drown. Granted, it looked like they could swim decently, but since most spiders don't have good vision, and I saw a few heading off into deeper water, I wasn't sure how many of them would actually make it to shore. So I went and found a board long enough to make them a little bridge, and laid it across the water for them. It didn't take but a few seconds before the first spider had found the bridge and made its way over, and a lot of other spiders weren't too far behind. I only got a couple pictures of the bridge. Neither was great, and I probably could have gotten some better ones had I taken more, but right after I took those pictures is about the time it dawned on me that all those rescued spiders were now crawling around my bare feet, and I wasn't sure what type of gratitude they'd display.

Anyway, here's the first picture. You can see one spider fairly clearly on the side of the board close to shore, and a couple out of focus spiders on the board farther out in the water.

Spider bridge to rescue spiders trapped by rising flood waters
Click to embiggen

And here's the second picture, looking out towards the end of the bridge. You can see that the high spot's almost covered. There are two almost in focus spiders about halfway across, and a third out of focus just starting the crossing.

Spider bridge to rescue spiders trapped by rising flood waters
Click to embiggen

There was actually one more spot on the deck where I set up a bridge to rescue spiders, but the picture I took of that was no better than the pictures above, so there's no reason to post it. On the little actual bridge that connects the deck to the shore, there were a few weeds and grass sticking out above the water, and the spiders had a whole series of web bridges along those plants. I set up a board that just touched the plants, giving those spiders a thoroughfare to dry land.

All in all, the weekend turned out about as well as could have been hoped for, at least considering the forecast on Saturday morning. The rain filled up our nearly empty reservoirs, and the flood wasn't close to as bad as it could have been. And I managed to save a few little critters.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Belated Darwin Day 2015

Darwin's BirthdayYesterday was Darwin Day. I meant to post something yesterday, but it completely slipped my mind. But since I don't have the time to come up with something original today, I'm just going to repeat, almost word for word, the post I made last year.

To quote one of my previous Darwin Day posts, Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start." Today is the 206th anniversary of his birth.

While Darwin is well remembered for his work on evolution, one of my favorite quotes of his from The Voyage of the Beagle had nothing to do with science, but was rather a social commentary on his times.

As it was growing dark we passed under one of the massive, bare, and steep hills of granite which are so common in this country. This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves, who, by cultivating a little ground near the top, contrived to eke out a subsistence. At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

To celebrate Darwin Day, I'm going to provide links to a few of my previous entries. Since I've written too much about evolution to link to every evolution entry, I'm going to limit these links to entries specifically relevant to Darwin or written just for Darwin Day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Fastest Bird

Common SwiftA recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic caught my eye. A little boy goes up to his mother to ask her what's the fastest animal, and the comic then shows four different responses from different types of people. It's the biologist's response that grabbed my attention, "a descending peregrine falcon". That's a little factoid you see all over the place. And peregrine falcons are pretty darn fast, with a reported top speed of 242 mph in a dive. But that caveat about it being in a dive is the part that makes the record suspect. Is it really fair to call a peregrine falcon the fastest bird when it's really just falling - not generating the thrust with it's own muscle power. Heck, put me in a spandex body suit and let me jump off a high enough point, and I could briefly become the world's fastest animal. In fact, that's what the sport of speed skydiving is all about, with a record top speed of 330 mph - faster than even the falcons.

So, how fast is the fastest bird that's not cheating? With the manner in which human built airplanes so drastically outperform cars, you might think it's similar in the animal kingdom. If cheetah's can clock in at 70 mph, the fastest birds must surely be in the triple digits, right? Well, maybe not. While there are claims of a few birds being recording flying (not falling) over 100 mph (such as the needle-tailed swift), those claims aren't particularly reliable, and other researchers haven't been able to make measurements to match them. The fastest reliable claim I could find was from a BBC article from a few years ago, Supercharged swifts take flight speed record. The headline was referring to the common swift, not the needle-tailed variety. According to the article:

During the study, they clocked common swifts flying at 75km/h (20.8m/s; 47mph), with one swift registering a top speed of 111.6km/h (31m/s; 69.3mph).

That is the highest confirmed speed achieved by a bird in level flight, the researchers say.

69.3 mph - that's right around what cheetahs can do. And while it's not as blistering as the 242 mph attributed to the peregrine falcon, it's still pretty darn fast. And swifts also happen to be my favorite of all dinosaurs - not just for their high speed, but also for the fact that they spend practically their entire lives on the wing - eating, mating, and even sleeping in the air, only coming down to lay their eggs and raise their young. In fact, that means that young swifts spend their first few years completely in the air until they're old enough to mate.

So the next time someone asks you what the fastest animal is, instead of giving credit to that cheating falcon, you can give dual credit to cheetahs and swifts, while also mentioning the vagaries of determining the fastest animal when they don't exactly willingly participate in races.

More Info on the Awesomeness of Swifts:

Image Source: Wikipedia

Friday, June 27, 2014

Whiskey Blind Taste Test

I like whiskey. I don't drink it nearly as often as beer or wine, but I enjoy it when I do. And I've been slowly accumulating a small collection of different types of whiskey - 9 bottles as of right now*. These range from Evan Williams Kentucky Bourbon at the low end, to 15 year old The Macallan Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky at the top end (price-wise, not necessarily taste-wise, as you're about to read - and yes, it's The Macallan).

My Current Whiskey Collection

With my daughter and I being the nerds we are, we decided to do a blind taste test to see how they all compared. Just how good were the more expensive whiskeys? Were they worth the price and reputation? Granted, these are different varieties of whiskey, so it's not really a straight comparison, but it's still interesting (plus a good excuse to sip on some whiskey).

We weren't super scientific in our methodology, but we tried to be fair. My daughter put a little bit of each whiskey into a shot glass while I was in the other room, writing down which whiskey was in each glass, and then I came back in and tasted them all and ranked them. It was only a little per glass and only taking sips, or else by the end of 9 full shots in a few minutes, I wouldn't have cared about rankings. We repeated the same routine a few nights later for comparison.

It's pretty obvious that all the different whiskeys have their own unique flavors, but it's hard to actually rank them in order of preference (maybe I just have an underdeveloped whiskey palate). There were basically three standouts that were my favorites, one that was a standout in the other direction that I didn't particularly like, and then the rest that were all good but that I had a hard time favoring any over the others.

My top three were Ledaig, Oban, and Evan Williams, in that order. The one I didn't like much at all was Jim Beam. And then in the middle were all the others. And even though my preferences weren't huge, I did my best to rank them in order - 12 year old Glenlivet, The Macallan, Black Velvet, Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, and Jim Beam Devil's Cut. Keep in mind that The Macallan was the most expensive bottle I had, and it ended up in that middle group. And the funny thing is, up till that point I'd been touting The Macallan as so much smoother than the normal whiskeys, and the Evan Williams as rubbing alcohol. It's amazing how much of an influence labels and expectations can have on our perceptions. Though somewhat in my defense, I'd said all along that the Oban and Ledaig were my favorites, so my non-blind perceptions weren't completely off base. But Ledaig and Oban both also have very distinct peaty flavors, so I wonder if they'd still be my favorites if I found cheaper peaty whiskeys.

...

Originally, this entry was going to stop with the above paragraph, but like I said, I'm a nerd. I couldn't just leave it at that, so I decided to plot up these results and see if there were any noticeable trends. So, here are three different graphs. First is each whiskey with the price per bottle, in the order that I ranked them. The three groups are distinguished by color.

Whiskey Prices
Whiskey prices per 750 ml bottle, based on Spec's Texas Superstore - Red: My favorites, Blue: Still taste really good, but hard to rank compared to each other, Grey: Not so good

Next, I did a very simple plot of price vs. rank, and had Excel draw in a trend line.

Whiskey Price Trends

Third, I broke it down by groupd described above, averaged the price per group, and had Excel draw a trend line for that. Group 1 were my 3 favorites. Group 2 included the whiskeys that I liked but didn't have too strong of a preference of any over the others, and Group 3 was really only one whiskey, not a group, the Jim Beam that I didn't particularly like.

Whiskey Prices

So, there does appear to be a trend where I do like more expensive whiskey better than less expensive whiskey on average, but there's a lot of scatter in that plot. In fact, my third favorite whiskey, in my standout group (Group 1), was the second cheapest. Those rankings are also very subjective. I wouldn't be surprised if I did this test on another day and came out with slightly different results. Plus, it's not like a sample size of 9 is particularly big.

Like I said, I like whiskey, but I don't drink it a lot, so take these results for what they are. Still, I found it interesting that even if there was some correlation between cost and my personal preferences, how much variation there was around that trend.

---

*I always say that it's not people with large alcohol collections that you have to worry about, but rather the ones who drink it too fast to build up a collection.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Science and Engineering Indicators 2014

NSB LogoThe NSF has just released their latest Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2014. It's a great report on the state of science and engineering in this country. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, & 2012), I've made a habit of posting an entry looking at one particular aspect - public understanding of science, as determined by how many people can correctly answer basic science questions. To that end, I am going to reproduce two sets of data from the report - a history of how Americans have fared on those questions over the years, and a comparison of the U.S. to other countries.

Here's the first set of data. The numbers in the table list the percentage of Americans that answered the questions correctly. The questions included in this year's report for this table are slightly different than in years past, but very similar. (This data came from Appendix Table 7-9.)

Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Appendix Table 7-9, Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences: 1988-2012

To make it easier to visualize the trends, here is that data plotted by year.

Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences: 1988-2012

This is not much of a surprise. Given how steady most of these numbers have been since the NSF started doing this report, I didn't expect the numbers to change much this time around. And they haven't. The only question that's shown a big change over the years is understanding that antibiotics only work against bacteria, but that improvement appears to have leveled off. If I was in an optimistic mood, I might interpret the evolution, big bang, and plate tectonics questions (i.e. the ones contradicting young earth creationism) as showing a trend towards increasing correct answers. But the change would have to be bigger and last a few more years before I thought it was real and not just noise in the data.

The second set of data compares the U.S. to other countries/regions. The data for these other countries is a bit older than for the U.S., but still relatively recent. A couple countries have been updated since the last NSF report - China (2010 vs. 2007) and Japan (2011 vs. 2001). Both countries show slight improvements over the older data. (This table comes from Chapter 7 of the report, about halfway through on page 7-23.)

Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences, by country/region: Most recent year

I couldn't find a good, compact way to graph all of that information. If you really want to see it, here is a link to bar graphs for every question.

Bar Graphs of Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences, by country/region: Most recent year

But, I figured a decent comparison would be to plot up averages. The graphs below are almost back of the envelope averages, just taking an average for each country, but ignoring the fact that not every country answered every question, so there will be some skewing because of that. I also re-ordered the countries/regions from the table in the NSF report, putting them in order of highest to lowest overall average. Note that some countries tied, such as the U.S. & South Korea, and China & India.

Comparison of Average Percent of Correct Answers

The U.S. fares pretty well compared to other countries/regions. Only the EU did better overall, and that was only a slight difference - not enough to worry about given my simplistic approach and the noise in the data.

I thought it would be interesting to do the same graph as above, but ignoring questions that were in contradiction to young earth creationism (evolution, big bang, and plate tectonics). Here's that version.

Comparison of Average Percent of Correct Answers, Ignoring Questions that Contradict Young Earth Creationism

Looking at it that way, the U.S. does a little better - enough that it leads the other countries/regions, but still not by enough of a difference to mean much given my simplistic approach. However, I think it does illustrate how young earth creationism hurts Americans acceptance of scientific findings.

Given the similarity of results this time around to years past, I'm simply going to quote my conclusion from years past since it's still relevant. "Just look at those results - around a quarter of Americans think that the Sun goes around the Earth, half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms, and half don't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun! Keep that in mind whenever you hear people citing public opinion polls on the validity of concepts like global warming or evolution.

"It's always a bit depressing to see those numbers. It's hard to believe that the people of our nation are so ignorant. If there's one lesson to take away from these results, it's that we need to vastly improve our education system." I would add that this is the same lesson for other countries, as well, since they do about the same or worse.

Anyway, I recommend going to look at the NSF report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, and at least skimming through it. There's a lot more information there than just the little bit I focused on here.

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