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No meteors or a moon but a spectacular night sky nonetheless.

Night sky near Banff, Alberta

Every October, the Earth travels through the orbit of Halley’s comet and the debris left in the comet’s wake. Us Earthlings are treated to the Orionid meteor shower when pieces of this debris enter our atmosphere and vaporize. Meteor showers appear to originate from a point and radiate outwards. The Orionids are so-called because Orion’s club in the constellation Orion appears to spew forth meteors. The hours between midnight and dawn from October 20-22 are your best chance to catch this event.

But that’s not the only celestial event of note this weekend. The full moon closest to the September Equinox is called the Harvest moon and the one after that (this weekend’s) is known as the Hunter’s Moon. For several nights in a row, the Hunter’s moon appears to rise further and further north on the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere. Since these two events are happening over the same few days though, the Hunter’s Moon will likely deliver a death-blow for viewing the meteor shower as its brightness will render all but the most vivid meteors invisible. But next October, the Orionids will be back for revenge.

Mt. Rundle by night near Banff, Alberta

The lights of Canmore and Banff over Two Jack Lake.

Night time at Two Jack Lake, Banff, Alberta

A faint strip of morning sky widened on the eastern horizon as I pulled into the parking lot of Red Rock Coulee, 60km south-east of Medicine Hat, Alberta. I didn’t know what to expect from the terrain and realized that with an hour to go until sunrise, a headlamp would have been a nice addition to my pack. But even in dim light, huge, perfectly round boulders are hard to miss.

Red Rock Coulee 2013-6

Sunrise at Red Rock Coulee

This area sits right in the middle of the prairies with subtle features of the landscape that feel a far cry from the Rockies. The endless horizons and yellow fields mask the little gems hidden away in the gentle rise and fall of the hills – Red Rock Coulee is just one of these gems. It’s an official Natural Area in Alberta, a designation that helps protect some of the little remaining natural prairie landscape left and water erosion has carved out some badlands nearby. Situated at the dead-end of a gravel road, with a single wobbly picnic on an outcrop overlooking the area, it doesn’t give the impression of being widely visited.

Red Rock Coulee 2013-2

 

Red Rock Coulee 2013-3

The rocks are scattered across the hillsides, looking utterly out of place as if someone had tossed a handful of giant red marbles across the yellow plains. These are formations known as ‘concretions’ and are some of the largest examples anywhere in the world, measuring up to 2.5 metres across. Concretions form when minerals precipitate and harden around a central nucleus, sometimes an organic material like a fossil, shell, or leaf. Circulating water deposits more minerals that accrete, or stick to underlying layers leaving concentric ring structures like you find in the cross-section of a tree trunk. The water erodes away the surrounding softer rock and dirt so that only the spherical concretions remain.

 

Red Rock Coulee 2013-8

Concentric accretions of mineral form these rocks.

The Opportunity rover found concretions on Mars in 2004 and as the sun rose, casting a pink glow to the already red rocks, it’s an easy landscape to picture on another planet. It was a nice sunrise but not the spectacular event I’d hoped for.

 

Red Rock Coulee 2013-4

Lichen-covered rock.

I’d just packed away my camera when I spotted a herd of pronghorn antelope basking in the chilly October morning, six of them lying in the long grass with one lookout.  There is always more to the prairies than you notice at first glance and this area is certainly worth another visit, possibly in the winter for some snow-covered photos or some interesting night-time shots.

 

Red Rock Coulee 2013-1

Red Rock Coulee 2013-7

Red Rock Coulee 2013-5

 

 

Back in Synch

As a follow up to my last post on jet lag, it’s now eight days on and I feel just fine. Admittedly the first two days, I was in bed by 9pm and happily rising at 6am – far from my norm on either end of the day. But my nights became later as, predictably, did my mornings and by the fifth day, I’d returned to normal. I took none of my own advice and did nothing special to adjust faster but the bright sun and incessant parade of new sights and activities (and new beers to try) is enough to force anyone’s internal clock to synchronize with local time. And now that I’m in the land of a million Rieslings, I believe it’s time for a glass of wine.

I am about to be de-synchronized. Or at least, my internal clock soon will be when I take off this evening and cross a few time zones. Seven to be precise and then another one on Saturday- first to London and then the Netherlands. When I first arrive I’ll be too excited to be tired but soon I’ll be seeing the world through thick distorted glass and my brain will be functioning at about one percent capacity as jet lag inevitably sets in.

Normally your body’s internal clock runs in synchrony with the 24 hour daytime cycle. When these become de-synchronized, you feel jet lagged. This happens with travel, of course, but also with shift work. Our intrinsic cycle tends to be a bit longer than 24 hours when it’s allowed to run independently of outside influences like daylight but since most of us have windows or step outside once in a while, light cues help entrain our internal cycle to the external one. It’s when our internal rhythm runs out of sync with the sun that you start to see the world as one giant pillow beckoning you to sleep during the day but rendering you incapable of closing your eyes at night.

Flying east is a more difficult adjustment to make than flying west. Your internal clock has to be advanced to account for the shift forward in time zones and this only happens at the rate of about 1 – 1.5 hours per day per time zone crossed. So eight time zones means I’ll feel sickeningly tired for a third of the time I’m gone. In theory, at least. I’ve never found the psychological effects to last that long but our internal rhythms involve more than just the sleep-wake cycle. Body temperature and plenty of hormones also cycle through 24 hours and since those are the factors being measured in a lab setting, they may well take a week to normalize; I’ve never checked.

Since light is the main guiding cue for our internal clocks, then exposure to light when I reach my destination is the key for me adjusting. But not just any exposure – correctly timed exposure. Previously my theory has always been to try to immediately slide into life in whatever time zone in which I find myself. I land in London in the morning so I’ll stay up as long as I can until it’s a normal bed time, London-time. Turns out this may not be a wise choice.

A recently published review about dealing with jet lag suggests a more prudent approach is to “strategically regulate my light exposure” to realign my circadian rhythm with the sun as quickly as possible in a drug-free manner. Studies recommend that I should in fact avoid sunlight when I arrive, even going so far as to wear dark sunglasses until I get to my hotel, close the hotel blinds and not emerge for a number of hours. Instead of going for a walk after a long flight, I should time my stroll in the West End until it better coincides with my fluctuating body temperature. Perhaps a wise option but not awfully tempting.

Alternatively, had this trip not been last minute, I could have planned to take a melatonin supplement for at least three days before leaving (and ten days after arrival) or prescription sleeping pills. In two studies that compared the effectiveness of melatonin with hypnotic sleeping pills (zolpidem/ambien), they were equally useful at improving sleep quality. And using both products together for an additive effect was no better than using one alone.Furthermore, in at least one study, zolpidem caused nausea, confusion, and vomiting with enough severity as to have 10% of the participants withdraw from the study. Since gastrointestinal distress and general malaise are also primary symptoms of jet lag, increasing their likelihood with drugs is not an attractive option to me.

The most readily available and delicious treatment is caffeine. I may feel more awake during daylight hours but I’ll have even more trouble falling asleep at night than is already normal with jet lag. Sounds like a worthwhile draw to me. And since I arrive in the morning, coffee is a guarantee, sitting in the first outdoor cafe I can find.

Since I can’t be enticed by drugs or a dark hotel room on a beautiful day, I’ll resort to my original plan – embrace the exhaustion and keep right on going. Besides, I have a stop at the historic Eagle Pub in Cambridge scheduled for the afternoon – a regular meeting place for Watson and Crick of DNA fame. Surely Watson and Crick are worth a little de-synchrony.

With a whole thirteen blog entries under my belt, it’s time to start bolstering the next component to the site. Aside from writing, teaching, marking, gritting my teeth through meetings, playing soccer, drinking coffee, listening to music, daydreaming, and reading, every spare second I spend outdoors with my camera. A beautiful new Nikon D7000. I’m a beginner and can’t pretend otherwise. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have some expert guidance from National Geographic as well as some fantastic local photographers. At this point, taking photos is mostly practice and figuring out the various features on my camera and when to use them. The biggest sticking point for me has been in processing. I have Lightroom 3 and only the vaguest idea how to use it. Lacking ample time to learn each feature, I’m limited to squeezing in snippets of on-line tutorials or reading a page or two of my Lightroom book – both of which have proven invaluable. It’s still amounted to a huge hold up in posting photos but Belize, Triangle Island, the Rockies, Montana, monkeys, spiders, falcons, puffins, trees, skies – they’re on their way.

Fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals – I just finished teaching my students about the digestive system.  Each year, I preface this unit by saying that it’s an easy system to learn because everyone has a sense for how it works. I say this optimistically. And I’m met with skeptical stares by those who’ve looked ahead and looks of relief by those so far behind that they haven’t a clue what they’re in for. But most people do have a sense for how digestion works, don’t they?

Preferring to do my grocery shopping in the last half hour before close, I made a late run to the store last night. I grabbed milk, half a dozen eggs and some coffee and was on my way to the cashier down the cereal aisle when I witnessed an age-old struggle –  a woman frowning, holding two boxes of granola. I watched. She compared labels for ages. Do the carbohydrates and protein in one offset the fats, saturated or not, in the other? What about sodium and potassium? I almost asked her if she knew what any of those components that she so carefully examined are and why your body needs them. Do you know?

I asked my students this question at the beginning of this unit and the only answer on which they all came to consensus is that we need food for energy. It’s likely the same answer they’d have given as children. But by university, after countless high school science classes, I’m surprised there’s no deeper understanding of something as fundamental as how we use the food we eat.

Energy is part of it but not the whole story. We are made of billions of cells – an unfathomably large number and our cells use each component of our food for different purposes. Each cell is an extraordinarily complex factory, performing countless chemical reactions every second, building some structures and breaking others down. And yes, some of these reactions make energy to power other reactions. For these reactions to continue, our cells need a steady supply of reactants. Our food supplies these reactants. The carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that we eat are mostly large molecules composed of individual units, like Lego pieces attached together. Since the molecules are too large for our cells to use as is, a variety of enzymes in the stomach and small intestine break these molecules down into their individual units or Lego pieces. These units are transferred to the bloodstream which then delivers them to every cell in the body. And so our cells receive their reactants.

For example, the protein in the milk and eggs that I bought last night are complex structures whose constituent units are called amino acids. When I put the milk on my cereal or eat a scrambled egg (an all too common breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me), the proteins are broken down. Specialized transporter proteins transport the individual amino acids from my small intestine into my blood where they’re then delivered to my cells. My cells then use these amino acids to build proteins of their own. And cells make thousands of different proteins, each integral to the proper functioning of the cell and hence the proper functioning of the body. In fact, your DNA is really just a recipe book for proteins, they’re responsible for virtually everything your cells do.

And that’s just the proteins. The fats, carbohydrates, sodium, potassium, etc each have their own functions. And all are essential to your cells’ vitality. Maybe it’s a physiologist’s bias but surely grade school science classes should cover something as basic as why we eat. We all have bodies yet are taught very little about how they work. For my students, after coming to terms with the convoluted names of enzymes, I saw flickers of dawning realization that each component is used for different processes, that they have even learned some of these processes, and finally, that ‘energy’ is a cop-out of an answer.  As for the grocery store lady, judging by her look of consternation, she might still be standing holding her two boxes of granola, locked in indecision. Then again, decision-making is another process altogether and a story for another day.

On Friday I attended a seminar about digital tools for writers. Turns out I either have and/or use most of the tools that were suggested. Certainly Dropbox has proved the most useful tool for me, not just for writing but for my university work as well. I am a naturally disorganized, scattered person so I love to have somewhere to keep everything together and that somewhere is available anywhere wifi is. And I can’t lose it. I have a gift for losing things. Evernote is another application that I have across all my platforms. It’s easy and satisfying to use, allowing you to upload (or take) photos, audio clips, web links, and of course, write all into a single note. Each note can be categorized and searched for by key words. All of my notes from Belize and from my latest trip this past summer to Triangle Island were taken using Evernote.

So why, if I use the ‘right’ tools for the writer, do I not write more frequently? I keep fooling myself into thinking that the conditions need be perfect. Or if only I was a more naturally effusive writer, with more warmth to my story-telling, pieces would roll off the fingertips. Yet other, more pressing tasks always intercede, lectures to make, exams to mark, meetings, meetings, meetings. Leaving me with scattered shards of stories everywhere. Good ideas that are forgotten and not brought to fruition. My consolation is that the bits and pieces aren’t lost. Hence the beauty of saving to the cloud- whatever the drawbacks some suggest. I can always return to them someday. And the passage of time gives me a fresh perspective when I go back to re-read. I’m even slightly less self-critical after time passes and see glimpses of beauty in some of my writing. Maybe I need to accept that this is part of my process. I need to work this way – a little scattered, multiple ideas on the go, moving incrementally along. But the key, I suppose, is that they are in progress. I can’t force an idea, I need to let it come to me over however long it takes, thinking sideways about it, glancing at it out of the corner of my mind’s eye before clarity of the way forward unveils itself. That’s how it feels, a sudden rush of understanding of what I need to do. Followed usually by a frantic period of work that’s more productive for me than the previous days or weeks. That sort of “Ah ha!” moment that can preface a major discovery –  science delights in documenting some of these moments. Maybe that’s another story that I’ll write someday. Or at least, I’ll write a fragment of it.