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Science for Parks conference, part 5

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5. Conference Keynoter E. O. Wilson

A great many people in the Wheeler Hall crowd on March 26, 2015, had the same feeling: We are in the presence of the world’s foremost living biologist, a man who has made a big difference in many fields of endeavor. We were not disappointed in his address.

Born in 1929 and raised in Alabama, Edward Osborne Wilson became the world’s leading expert on ants, but he has studied and written on numerous subjects relating to the natural world. The prizes awarded him are amazingly numerous and include the 2012 International Cosmos Prize and two Pulitzer Nonfiction prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991, with Bert Hölldobler). Berkeley Professor Steve Beissinger, who introduced Wilson, said his own favorite book by the speaker is his autobiography, The Naturalist (2006).

E. O. Wilson lord of the ants keynoter
Picture source: PBS
Dr. Wilson is now a Harvard emeritus professor and a special lecturer at Duke University, where he located his E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The goal of this foundation is to forward stewardship of the world through biodiversity and education. Another center established in his name is the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport, Florida, whose mission is “making naturalists in an outdoor extension of the science classroom.”

Wilson calls his religious position “provisional deism” and feels that religious leaders and scientists should build an alliance. But his human sociobiology ideas (the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in both animals and man) have met with opposition.

Of course, it will be impossible to sum up what E. O. Wilson said in a few paragraphs, but I will pass on some high points for readers who do not plan to listen to the entire talk (starting at 2:30 in the video).

Beginning with what scientists have learned in the field of biodiversity in the past twenty years, Wilson defined it as the “collectivity of all inherited variation in any given place.” It can be divided into three levels: ecosystems, such as ponds or forest patches; the species in an ecosystem; and the genes in each species. Only about one-fifth of all the probable species in the world have been discovered and named as yet. This census needs to be sped up; among the national parks Great Smoky National Park has so far the most complete U.S. census, and about 18,000 species are known to live there. “We live on a little-known planet,” he says.

Moving on to the subjects of species extinction and efforts to preserve species, Wilson told us that the global extinction rate is some one thousand times greater now than before the coming of humans to the planet. “Prospects for the rest of this century are grim,” and “loss of natural habitat is the primary cause of biodiversity extinction.” Can we believe, he asks, that future humans can manage life in a system devoid of all or most of the species that took three-and-one-half billion years to put together?

As of 2015 about 15% of land surfaces and 3% of oceans are protected from exploitation. Wilson believes, however, that a world population of ten billion people could live on earth if 50% of land and sea areas were protected. “We can achieve this with four unintended consequences of human behavior.” These are (in brief):
1. A dramatic drop in the fertility rate, achievable “whenever women attain a modicum of social and economic independence.”
2. More population living in cities and the land thus gained utilizing improved agricultural methods: “Present day agriculture [in much of the world] is Neolithic.”
3. Reduction of the ecological footprint, the space each person needs, becoming less as the global economy evolves, creating products using less material and less energy.
4. “Easing of demand on the natural environment inherent in the evolutionary shift from an extensive economy to an intensive economy.” Most of the National Academies of Science, he says, recommend “focusing on quality of life instead of capital and economic power as the premier measures of success.”

Dr. Wilson ended his remarks by stating that “national parks and reserves are going to be logical centers for fundamental research.” This is already true for the geosciences; soon, he predicts, it will be comparable for original studies of the living environment.

During the question and answer session, Wilson recommended that places such as national parks and reserves be connected in corridors, such as is already being set aside in the Yellowstone–to–Yukon (Y2Y) initiative. And replying to “What is the role of the U.S. national parks in all this?” he went out on a limb: “More, bigger!” he said; “take a central place in America’s strategic planning alongside defense.”

Wilson would like to see more science schools include departments of herpetology, entomology, and the like, where students can study biodiversity and “bring in the armamentarium of modern biology to enrich their studies.” His reply to a question about triage for endangered species was, “Save them all!”

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Science for Parks conference, part 4

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4. Sally Jewell and the Horace Albright Lecture in Conservation

Presented as a part of the Science for Parks conference, UC–Berkeley’s annual Horace Albright Lecture in Conservation, open to the public on the evening of March 26, treated us with an all-too-brief introduction to Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior since April 2013, and four other illustrious speakers. Jewell was one of the panelists discussing “America’s Two Best Ideas—Public Education and Public Lands.”

To open the event, University of California Chancellor Nicholas Dirks gave a brief address. The panel’s moderator was Michael Krasny, a familiar voice to listeners to San Francisco’s public radio station KQED as host of the station’s morning Forum program. In addition to Jewell, the other two panelists were Janet Napolitano, formerly Secretary of Homeland Security and now president of the University of California, and history professor Douglas Brinkley of Rice University, the author or co-author of some 23 books relating to American history. The entire evening’s event was videotaped and can be accessed at: parksforscience.berkeley.edu.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell
Secretary Jewell was born in London, England, but her family immigrated to Seattle, where she received a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Washington. She and her engineer husband have two children. After working in petroleum engineering and then in banking for many years, she became a board member of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) and then its chief operating officer. She’s an outdoor enthusiast herself, having climbed Mt. Rainier several times.

Listening to Ms. Jewell talk about her work at Interior, we can feel that the department is in very good hands. In fact, her co-panelist, historian Brinkley, pointed out that since the creation of her department in 1849, the work she has done there in less than two years compares well with that of Harold Ickes under President Roosevelt (Interior Secretary from 1933 to 1945) and of Stewart Udall (1961 to 1969) under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Two initiatives taking shape under Secretary Jewell are Every Kid in a Park and the Youth Initiative. Feeling that “the best classrooms are those with no walls,” she is finding a way, beginning in fall of 2015, to give every fourth grader and his or her family a free pass to a national or state park. She intends to continue this program for twelve years. This is a beginning in an effort to change the statistics Jewell quoted: The average American schoolchild spends 56 hours per week in front of a screen and 30 minutes in the outdoors; she says they have a “nature deficit disorder.”

Already in place, another program called the Youth Initiative has begun in 50 cities with the participation of YMCAs and funding from American Express. The program was launched last year “to bridge the growing discontent between young people and the great outdoors” with goals to help children play, learn, serve, and work in outdoor spaces. Jewell cited one unit of the program’s launch, where Miami children learned to dissect small fish in nearby Biscayne National Park. This program will take place in some of the more than 75 urban national parks and other refuges and on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recreational lands.

Secretary Jewell is also deeply concerned with the need to make parks more relevant to American minorities. “People need to see themselves and their stories in the national parks.”

Asked about the role of technology in the parks, she suggested that cell phones can (and in some places already do) give out local information in the voices of people who live nearby, and tech companies (or perhaps even REI!) could develop games involving plants, animals, or invasive species.

As she brought up the water fights in drought-stricken California, Jewell insisted that the parties must get together, stop talking over and around the subject, and solve the problems by finding common ground. “It’s hard to let go of the ‘from’ if you don’t know what the ‘to’ is,” she told us.

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Science for Parks conference, part 3

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3. NPS Science Advisor, Dr. Gary Machlis

The YouTube video of Gary Machlis’s talk in the final session of last week’s conference (3:10 pm, Friday) is not for the faint of heart. (For just his talk, titled “The Future of Science and the National Parks,” go to 28:24 minutes into the link provided above.)

I wrote in my notes: “This guy is brilliant”! In this instance he was talking to people, almost all of whom have a science background of some kind, but there is important and understandable take-away here for anyone willing to pay attention to what he has to say.

Gary E. Machlis has recently been appointed the first-ever science adviser to a National Park Service director. We can hope that Director Jon Jarvis will be able to take his advice to heart. Machlis is also Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University, a South Carolina public university ranked highly among science and engineering schools. And he has written and co-authored numerous books about parks, biodiversity, and related topics. His most recent is Warfare Ecology, the historical effects of violence and warfare on places such as World War I Slovenia or many parts of Africa.

Dr. Machlis provides a stellar example of how to organize a lecture of just over twenty minutes and yet plant important ideas that will take root in the minds of his audience. He begins with a mention of a 1942 book (C. C. Furnas, The Next Hundred Years), full of predictions such as that the technological limit for a wireless receiver will be a two-pound backpack. Go figure.

Machlis’s own predictions for what is “just over the horizon” in technologies that will be useful to park managers include quantum biology that will help explain how birds migrate; new ocean research platforms like the newly launched USS Neil Armstrong, designed for ocean research; “CubeSats,” tiny satellites that can gather date wherever they are; and citizen science that he foresees will involve young people up to high levels of serious participation.

Also totally new to me is the idea of “de-extinction”: cloning and re-creation of extinct species, which could involve major ethical decisions. And there was much more.

Near the end of his talk, Machlis brought out the statistic that 87% of scientists believe that human evolution took place over time, while 32% of the general public believe this. But he ended on a definitely upbeat note, showing a picture of the young girls who won awards a few days ago at the White House Science Fair.

SciFairGirls_2015-04-02 at 11.07.15 AM
Screen shot of Science Fair winners and Barack Obama.

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Science for Parks conference report, part 2

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2. Speaker Dr. Jane Lubchenco

Do you know how some people can stand up in front of a group and immediately grab everyone’s attention? You just know s/he will have something interesting and important to say. You sense that this is someone who spends time pondering big ideas.

This occurred last Thursday morning when Jane Lubchenco was introduced at the “Science for Parks, Parks for Science” centennial conference. Her forty-minute talk was titled, “Seas the Day! A Blue, Saltier Second Century of Interdependent Science, Parks, and People.”

GoldenGatePartLogo 2015-04-01 at 11.23.05 AM Part of the conference logo

Being more of a mountain person than an ocean person, I had not previously given much thought or attention to the seas—but she certainly has. Although Ms. Lubchenco was brought up and went to college closer to mountains (in Denver and Colorado Springs), she was turned on to marine biology by a summer program at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and went on to receive a master’s degree in zoology at the University of Washington and a Harvard PhD in marine ecology.

Beginning in 1977 she and her husband, Dr. Bruce Menge, shared a unique arrangement: Oregon State University (Corvallis) allowed them to split a single position into two half-time but tenure-track positions, thus giving them both time for family duties.

Dr. Lubchenco has won numerous awards for her research and teaching, served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and from 2009 to 2013 was chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She is still Distinguished Professor of Zoology at Oregon State. Her excellent lecture—scroll down to: Mission of the National Park Service and Its Relevancy Today (Part 2)—gives listeners a clear idea of how she has achieved so much.

Beginning by telling us that only 6% of U.S. territorial waters and less than 1% of international waters are protected, she explained that there are two types of protection but that only Marine Reserves (and not the so-called Marine Protected Areas) are truly effective. Scientists have determined that 20-30% of the oceans need this protection, yet there is little public awareness of the need. A glimmer of hope appeared last summer, when President Obama set aside the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Now is the time for countries to create “blue parks,” our speaker suggests, to complement the many green and brown spaces we have. Oceans are already 30% more acidic than at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A radical but valuable proposal is to close the high seas (all non-territorial ocean areas) to all fishing; she explained how this would actually benefit protected areas and fishermen.

Dr. Lubchenco ended her observations with a story illustrating another point she wanted to stress. While briefing Vice President Joe Biden as they flew together to view the devastation and talk to people after the 2010 Gulf Oil spill, she told him among other things how some fish and seafood can metabolize the chemicals in oil and some—such as oysters—cannot. Listening for a while, Biden said, “I thought you were a scientist.” “I am,” she said. “But I just understood everything you told me,” replied Biden. Scientists must learn to tell stories, concluded our speaker, to be “bilingual,” that is, to talk both in science-speak and in everyday language, in order to engage the public.

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Science for Parks conference report

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I. Insights from the Opening Ceremony

From the evening of March 25th through the 27th, I listened to and attended lectures and brief sessions at “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: the Next Century.” This event was organized on the University of California–Berkeley campus by faculty of their conservation biology and related departments, along with directors of California parks organizations, the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society, and public television station KQED.

March of 2015 marks the centennial of two major San Francisco area events. One was the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—largely sponsored by the railroads—whose Palace of Fine Arts stands in the Marina district of San Francisco to this day. You can read more about the Pan-Pacific Exposition in Alfred Runte’s excellent article, which I linked to in my March 26 blog post.

The other March 1915 event was a national park conference, convening about 75 men at Berkeley by Stephen T. Mather, then assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Mather was soon to become the first director of the National Park Service (in 1916). An emphasis of the conference was two “best ideas” the organizers feel are related: public education and public lands.

As a long-time aficionado of national parks, I couldn’t miss this event. The organizers will produce a book about the entire conference, but I’m sure this will take at least a year. In a few pages there is no way I can sum up all that was discussed and revealed during those intense two days and more of meetings. So I’ve decided to concentrate on a few individual speakers who impressed me greatly. In the next week or two I’ll try to give the essence of what I learned from them.

I had never before connected the National Geographic Society to the national parks. But in his remarks at the opening ceremony, Chris Johns, chief content officer for National Geographic Magazine, told us that not only was the April 1916 issue of his magazine devoted to the then-existing national parks, but that the society donated eighty thousand dollars so that the National Park Service could be set up. Thus, a new division of the Department of the Interior was born.

In the very next year (1917) three scientists investigated California’s redwoods and noted their devastation. This was the beginning of the Save the Redwoods League, which now helps to protect thirteen units of big trees in our third largest state.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis appeared briefly and mentioned that Gary Machlis, Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University in South Carolina, has recently been appointed to the position of first-ever science adviser to a National Park Service Director. I’ll tell you more about Machlis in a future blog post.

It seems appropriate to close this first post about the conference by listing seven serious concerns facing the national parks—and the world. They were pointed out by steering committee chairman Steve Beissinger as having occurred in the last hundred years. They are: changing climate, storms and fires of greater severity, urban encroachment and pollution, invasions of non-native species, plant and animal extinctions, changing attitudes of a public that is more urbanized, and political pressures of narrow interest groups that have sometimes led to benign neglect of parks.

You can watch the videos of the opening ceremony and all other plenary sessions at: www.parksforscience.berkeley.edu. [NOTE: These videos are still available in the Live Stream category on this website as of September 7, 2015.]

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Science for Parks

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National Park Service arrowhead logoDid you know that about 100 years ago, a series of meetings held in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the University of California at Berkeley led to the formation of the U.S. National Park Service?

Here’s a belated notice about an interesting summit, “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century,” being held in Berkeley March 25-27. The co-presenters are UC Berkeley, the National Park Service, and National Geographic Society.

Author Janet is attending and promises to share interesting tidbits she learns afterwards. The keynote speaker was E. O. Wilson. During the summit, the sessions will stream live from this page; in a few weeks all the talks will be recorded and available on YouTube.

Historian Alfred Runte wrote a thorough article about the early talks during 1911-1915, the connections with the railroads and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and how they led to our national parks. You can read the article, called “UC Berkeley and the National Parks: A Centennial Retrospective,” on the National Parks Traveler website.

Here’s more from the conference website:

The goal of the summit is to envision and contribute to strategies for science for parks and science using parks for the coming decades by building on the historic linkage between NPS and scientists at leading universities and other organizations around the world. This collaboration will be crucial to nurture the future health of parks and protected areas worldwide and biodiversity conservation. The summit re-dedicates that partnership in a forward-looking way by examining the mission of the National Park Service and its relevancy today, scientific and management implications of this mission in a changing world, social and cultural dimensions for advancing the mission, and the future of science for parks and parks for science.

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Terrorists and Supervolcanoes

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Generally, I prefer to steer clear of the media flurry every time there’s a large swarm of earthquakes or something else in the news that again brings up the subject of the Yellowstone supervolcano. But I can’t resist passing on this reaction to the recent news about a terrorist in Canada thinking that triggering the magma under Yellowstone would be a great idea.

At least the article about this that I just found ends with a sensible paragraph:

“Fortunately, the USGS agrees the likelihood of a Yellowstone volcano eruption is unlikely at this time. The volcano alert level is currently green, and seismographs detected only 178 earthquakes in the region, with the largest registering at a magnitude 1.9 on January 20, 2015. The USGS also calculates the odds against a Yellowstone eruption as 730,000 to one on an annual basis. As a comparison, the odds of a royal flush in poker is 1 in 649,740, so perhaps that’s not too comforting.”

For the best current information on the subject see this USGS page, or take a look at our own nugget about it.

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Knowing that lots of people would like to learn how geysers work, I’ll take a stab at explaining the requirements and the mechanism as simply as possible.

What is required to create a geyser and what’s happening when it erupts? All geysers have four requirements: water, heat, the right kind of rock, and a system of conduits and reservoirs (plumbing) that includes one or more constrictions to keep water and steam from flowing freely to the surface. The water pooled above such constrictions acts like a lid to maintain pressure on water below. Such constrictions differentiate geysers from the much more common hot springs. Although no one has yet been able to see exactly what this plumbing looks like, it must be something like this diagramGeyser Mechanism Figure drawn by my husband Bruno Giletti for Yellowstone Treasures. The countless different shapes the underground plumbing may take must account for the great variety in the patterns and timing of Yellowstone’s geyser eruptions—what I call their personalities.

Whether the water comes from the vent in the distinctive cone of Beehive Geyser2004_BeehiveG. or from the beautiful geyserite-ringed pool of Great Fountain Geyser, 2008_GreatFtnG the mechanism is the same.

Deep below the geyser’s vent or pool seen at the surface is a kind of rock that is rich in silica. In Yellowstone this rock, called rhyolite, was deposited in huge amounts when the caldera erupted. Silica is the primary element in the hydrous silicon dioxide (technical name for geyserite) that is deposited both along the conduits of the geyser’s water passages and all around its surface vent.

Also deep below a geyser are (1) a source of heat—in Yellowstone it is the still extremely hot volcanic rocks more than two miles below the surface—and (2) the water that has seeped into the earth from snowmelt and rain (meteoric water), and voila!—the geyser erupts.

As water gradually fills the reservoirs and is heated from below, it becomes superheated and forms steam bubbles, and the water pressure increases. Eventually, the steam pushes some water out of the vent, and steam—which requires something like a thousand times more space than water—is also released. When the pressure is thus sufficiently reduced, the steam in the conduit can blow the water column out of the vent. In many geysers, when the water supply is exhausted, the remaining steam continues for the steam phase of the eruption.

I have gleaned some ideas for this post from the sidebar my husband Bruno Giletti, a geochemist, wrote in Yellowstone Treasures (pages 88 and 89) and from T. Scott Bryan, a former ranger and also a geologist and author of books about geysers, including his Geysers: What They Are and How They Work. But as early as the mid 19th century, German scientist Eberhard von Bunsen and others already had it pretty well figured out. You can find out more about the study of the geyser mechanisms here in my September 2013 post.

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Connecting a Hot Spring Microbe and a Criminal Trial

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Thinking my blog followers might like to learn about the interesting connection between a microorganism found in Yellowstone Park and a notorious criminal trial twenty years ago—recent enough that some of you will have followed that trial—I’ll repeat here something I wrote last spring for another website.
– – – – –
One thing leads to another. So let’s play Connect Initials and Years. Specifically, let’s examine how a microbe found in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) related to evidence from a sample of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the most famous criminal trial of the late twentieth century.

1966: Indiana University professor Thomas D. Brock (TDB) and undergraduate assistant Hudson Freeze collect a tiny organism from 73ºC Mushroom Pool in YNP. The bacterium, named Thermus aquaticus (TAQ), is subsequently found to thrive in the laboratory even in boiling water and is deposited with the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC).
Brock_MushroomPl [Photo of Brock at Mushroom Pool by Janet Chapple, 1996]

1975 and 1977: Doctor Frederick Sanger of Cambridge University and colleagues publish two papers that made DNA sequencing in the lab much less laborious than it had been previously—and for which he won his second Nobel Prize (in 1980).

1983–84: Researcher Kary Mullis and team at Cetus Corporation, Emeryville, CA, buy a sample of TAQ for thirty-five dollars from the ATCC. From this they purify an enzyme known as Taq polymerase. It proves to be so stable, even when repeatedly heated and cooled, that it can be used to conduct repeated reactions and produce a large amount of DNA from a minuscule example, a technique called a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).

For demonstrating this improved PCR technique, Mullis shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Cetus and later their successor company Hoffmann–LaRoche made hundreds of millions of dollars in patent rights and licenses.
Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 7.58.31 PM [Computer-rendered view of a random DNA double-helix by Geoff Hutchison
From Creative Commons.Freely shared with attribution; no derivatives.
from Creative Commons
]

1986–96: DNA sequencing becomes more and more important in several fields of endeavor, among them archaeological research, proof of paternity, prenatal health, the origins of species—and forensics. DNA evidence was used for the first time in a U.S. criminal court in 1987. However, note here that not until 1996 did the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) announce the reliability of DNA evidence.

1994: A National Institutes of Health (NIH) website points out that “The DNA Identification Act of 1994 authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to expand a pilot project into a national DNA database, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), as a tool for solving violent crimes.” Thus, this national database had just been authorized in 1994 and was not fully functioning until 1998.

1994–95: Football star O. J. Simpson (OJS) Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 5.04.52 PM [from Wikipedia Commons, 1990]
is the defendant in a widely televised eleven-month-long trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her companion Ronald Lyle Goldman. The prosecution presented DNA evidence to the jury. However, (quoting the Crime Museum website): “A major hurdle that the prosecution team failed to overcome was the lack of knowledge and understanding regarding forensic science, specifically DNA.” And, “This inability to understand key evidence made the evidence essentially useless; even some seasoned lawyers found the scientific testimonies to be incomprehensible. It is reported that the DNA evidence showed that the chance that some of the blood found near the bodies came from anyone but Simpson was one in 170 million. The chance that blood found on Simpson’s sock could be from someone other than Nicole Brown was one in 21 billion.”
The trial verdict was Not Guilty.
At the time of this high-profile trial even such responsible entities as the NAS and the FBI were unsure or did not yet fully appreciate the implications of DNA evidence. Thus, a murderer was not convicted.

Early 2000s: Taq polymerase becomes only one among a number of DNA polymerases that are used in sequencing reactions.

2014: Twenty years after the OJS trial, would a jury decide differently?

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“There goes another one!” Joan pointed out, as we lay on our flat porch roof in Billings, Montana, watching the August meteor shower. It was 1947, and in our small town we could see millions of stars and pick out several constellations. Sometimes we could even see the Milky Way.

Now it’s 2014, and even in Yellowstone this past summer, I could barely find the Big Dipper. Was it that our entire atmosphere is polluted, or was there now too much ambient light even at Old Faithful and Mammoth Villages to enjoy the stars?

Listening to a National Public Radio broadcast the other day, I became absorbed in the story of what has happened to the night skies in America in the past few decades. NPR was interviewing author Paul Bogard about his book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Use “Look Inside” for Chapter 9 on the Amazon website for light pollution images, a sample of what’s in the book.

I’m going to have to read this book, since I fully agree with the reviewer Bill McKibben, who wrote on Amazon: “The most precious things in the modern world are probably silence, solitude, and darkness–and of these three rarities, true darkness may be the rarest of all. Many thanks to Paul Bogard for searching out the dark spots and reminding us to celebrate them!”

Take a look at our nugget that includes what the author of a classic Western novel wrote about
experiencing the night.

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