Bill Nye’s Birthday Probability Problem

November 3rd, 2013

Here’s a neat video addressing the probability of two people having the same birthday in a group of 20-30 people. Cool stuff.

A Grizzled Bear – June 17, 2011

June 17th, 2011

It was the cold heart of winter in the Rocky Mountains. The merciless wind howled through Hellgate Canyon. Snow frosted my face. My feet and hands were frozen. I had no food. Death trailed me like a shadow. Lured by an enchanting distant growl, I blindly struggled forward, stumbling into a snow cave. Dim light sifted around me. I gasped. A large bear lay before me and he wasn’t sleeping. He was telling a story in sounds I could understand. What else could I do? Grateful to be alive, I sat down, felt his warmth, and listened. Deep inside the cave the wind was but a whisper.

Well . . . kind of.

But it was cold and windy last winter. And I hadn’t stuffed my face with any food for at least an hour before I stopped by the Great Bear Foundation’s office in Missoula, Montana. It wasn’t quite a bear cave I stumbled into – more like a 1920’s well-built bungalow filled with anything and everything you could ever read about bears. I did, however, have the privilege of listening to a kind, seasoned, bear-like man, tell stories.

Dr. Charles 'Chuck' Jonkel (Gracias to Nikki Mann and Jeff Wohl for use of the photograph)

Meet Dr. Charles (“Chuck”) Jonkel. Chuck is a world renowned bear biologist. While his knowledge is great with all 8 bear species of the world (polar bears and brown bears; black bears and spectacled bears; panda bears and sun bears; sloth bears and Asiatic black bears) his research over the last 50 years has  focused specifically on the three North American species: black, grizzly, and polar bears. 

“Bears are a very powerful symbol. We can learn a lot from bears.” Chuck’s voice is disarming and kind, saturated with experience and seasoned with hard-earned wisdom. “They were here first. Long before the two-legged bears arrived, the grizzly bear ruled the North American continent.” Like blue ice, his eyes sparkle.

The grizzly bear (common name for brown bear roaming interior Alaska and the lower 48 states) once inhabited land from Alaska south into the present state of Durango, Mexico, and as far east as the Great Plains. Yet today they are confined to only 2% of their original habitat, living in vast rugged mountainous areas in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Canada.

Chuck speculates that if it weren’t for humans grizzlies, “would have inhabited most of North America and probably all of South America.” Perhaps even finding the South Pole a nice home, evolving into another type of polar bear, enjoying “fat penguins and tasty seals.”

But the grizzlies didn’t make it to South America or the East Coast. Brazil nuts and acorns never filled the big bellies of grizzlies. We humans (Homo sapiens), stopped them cold by cutting a few trees, building a few homes, constructing some roads, doing a little farming, digging around for some precious metals and throwing away a little trash.

Cutting a few trees

Building a few homes

Building A Few Roads Building a few roads

Doing A Little Farming Doing a little farming

Digging For A Few Precious Metals Digging a little dirt

Wanting Lots of Stuff Throwing away a little trash

Now grizzlies are confined to a tiny sliver of their old stomping ground. Where there were once approximately 60,000 grizzlies, there are now around 1,200. “And their present habitat is unlikely to get much larger. This may be as good as it gets,” cautions Chuck.

Hhhhhmmmm . . .

One of the present challenges, explains Chuck, is how to best optimize the existing habitat. He is adamant that minimizing bear attractants is a great starting point. “Getting rid of bird feeders in the spring, dog food on the porch, and garbage left in back of the pick-up would go a long way in reducing bear and human conflicts. Just like humans, bears want easy food. If we give it to them once, they’ll be back for seconds.”

Chuck is pleased that bear awareness in grizzly country has grown over the years and recognizes that being vigilant with bear awareness education is the key to improving bear habitat. “Most people want to do the right things for bears, but it’s hard to do the right thing if people living in bear country aren’t aware of the basic practices that are likely to reduce conflicts with bears.” Fortunately for both bears and people, Chuck has been sharing his knowledge of bears with the public ever since he began studying them in the 1950’s.

Bears as Teachers

Chuck makes it clear that “bear cubs don’t have a different math teacher, science teacher, reading teacher, or soccer coach. They just have Mom. What to eat? Where to sleep? How to stay warm? Where to find food? It’s all up to the mother to instruct her cubs the ways of the world. Without Mom around, bear cubs would have it pretty tough.”

Great Gardening Tools

An important part of grizzly diets are the roots and


bulbs of plants and their magnificent claws are perfect for digging up such food. The massive claws are also ideal for digging out dens and finding bugs in dead trees.

Common Sense

It’s not rocket science. Grizzly bears are powerful beings. They are wild animals that require large space. If they feel threatened or are surprised, they will act accordingly. Just like us. Chuck has worked with bears most of his adult life and absent his professional experiences when he has interacted with bears as a biologist, he has never had an altercation with a grizzly. That’s not to say bears don’t demand respect when people enter their habitat. Of course they do. An encounter with a surprised or aggressive grizzly can be fatal. That certainly isn’t the rule of thumb rather the rare exception.

Chuck is blunt. “Grizzlies are bigger, stronger, and faster than any person on the planet, yet it is the smaller, weaker, slower humans that hold the key to the survival of the bears.”

Unrelenting demands on finite natural resources that comprise precious grizzly habitat and decision makers that may not always have the best interests of bears in mind, provide a futuristic landscape for the bears that harbors little room for poor decisions.

Thanks to Chuck and many other individuals and groups dedicated to grizzly bear ecology and conservation, grizzly populations in the lower 48 states have increased over the last sixty years. But for all practical purposes there’s simply not much more elbow room in which to expand. The planet just isn’t growing anymore land. That means the smaller, weaker, slower species shoulder the awesome responsibility of managing the remaining occupied habitat the best we can with respect to bears’ long term survival. As Chuck stated, “Bears can teach us all how to live responsibly within our own habitat. We just need the patience and wisdom to listen.”

It’s now late spring in the Rockies. The first day of summer is but an arm’s reach away. Arrowleaf balsamroot cover the hillsides. Peak flows from the Clark Fork River roar through Hellgate Canyon. Sunlight lingers deep into the night. Wobbly-kneed elk calves see their first blue birds. Grizzly cubs bask in the sun while Mom sniffs the new day. It’s a good time to be patient and listen.

The Hidden Reality, Parallel Universes, Multiverses, and Namtok Nua with Sticky Rice

January 25th, 2011

The book, The Hidden Reality, is available this week. It was written by popular Columbia University theoretical physicist and outspoken string theorist, Brian Greene. Brian also wrote The Elegant Universe (a bit of an M-Theory manifesto) in 1999, which was later made into a great documentary by PBS.

Side note: Another read about parallel universes is Warped Passages by Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall. Fun stuff.

Yesterday NPR had a nice 35 minute podcast with Brian about The Hidden Reality. As Brian articulates, the nuts and bolts of one multiverse theory is an infinite universe, with a finite manifestation of matter.

This two minute BBC clip sets the mood. 

So, imagine this:

Picture a hardwood floor that has no edge, no corners (infinity) and a box full of blocks (finite matter). You’re scratching your head, looking at the blocks and the huge expanse of hardwood floor. A skinny guy with glasses, Billy Gaitz, is watching you from afar. He has money to burn. He’s bored.

“I’ll give ya a mega-zillion dollars if you build stuff with these block for a year. You can never build the same thing twice. You must build twelve hours a day at a steady pace. No slacking. If you build the same thing twice, you lose and I get your fossil collection. If not, you’ll be loaded and can buy all the fossils you want.”

You text your folks and they give you the green light. They need a new furnace and you want more fossils. Why not?

You shake Billy’s hand, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Eleven months later, you’re a different kid. Your hair is crazy. You mumble to yourself. You like the way you stink. Your teeth feel moldy. You’ve been thinking way too much about everything.

As you finish your latest block masterpiece Billy shouts from the shadows.

“You’re done kid. You lose. Gimme your fossils!”

He’s the first person you’ve heard in eleven months. “Huh?” Your voice is dry like old barn paint in Tucson.

“You built the same thing 9 months ago. You’re out of designs. I win!” Billy appears from the shadows, his penny loafers scuffing the floor.

You look long and hard at your blocks. Billy’s right! I’m out of new designs!

You text your folks. They aren’t mad. They purchased a furnace two month ago. They’ll order Thai.

On your subway ride home you snicker out loud, your shoulders hunched. The guy in the tie glares at you over his Android. You smell like a dump but don’t care.

The implications of an infinite universe and finite matter hits you like a ton of fossils. You scratch your damp arm pit. Assuming the universe is infinite, and is filled with finite matter, that means there is an infinite number of me riding the subway at this precise moment snickering out loud, shoulders hunched. Simple math. Yikes!

You waltz into your kitchen. It seems smaller. “Hey,  Mom!”

She’s unpacking take-out at the table. “It’s okay about losing the bet. You tried. Go shower before you eat.” She gives you a wide berth, suspicious of your every move.

“Right.” You bounce up stairs, past the bathroom, and straight to your room, firing up the dusty MacBook. You forget about the shower, thinking only about infinity and finite matter. If the assumptions are correct, you snicker like a genuine lunatic, how can I meet me?

The smell of warm Thai Namtok Nua with Stickey Rice drifts into your room . . .


Cheesy Plug for the day: In The Lux Proofs, the mysterious crate that arrives at Wild Wind Farm is from Lux . . . a parallel universe of course. And Clerk can’t get enough of parallel universes.

UDFy-38135539 – 13 Billion Light-Years Away

January 17th, 2011

Folks who study stars for their weekly paycheck recently measured the most distant galaxy EVER seen at 13 billion light-years away! They estimated the distance by measuring the redshift of light emitted from UDFy-38135539. That’s what astronomers call the newly discovered galaxy, UDFy-38135539. Go figure. Let’s call it Todd 7 because it’s easier to remember and it’s unlikely anyone on Earth is named Todd 7.

So you jump into your favorite space-time wormhole (like the one in this 4 minute video)

and visit Todd 7. Wwwwwhhhiiissssssshhhh . . . you zoom across the universe. You slam into a kid named Nexxil 376 Buttercup from another distant, cozy, blue watery planet. The kid reeks like a sewer and looks like a walking, greasy zit. Nexxil speaks in burps with an eerie Aussie (they’re everywhere) accent. His burps smell worse than Clerk’s. Luckily Nexxil is having a great day and is all about peace. He offers you something that resembles a plate of jellyfish for a tasty snack.

You gotta play it cool and return the favor . . . so what are you going to give Nexxil? A can of SPAM, a pine cone, a frisbee, tickets to the Superbowl? Do tell, and it better be good.

Check out this 5 minute video about Todd 7 (UDFy-38135539).

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! If you’re not in the mood to wait until May 3, 2011, take a look at Chapter 44 – Twins, from The Lux Proofs. Yep. The red weird stuff outside the subway is redshift in a Luxian, quirky kind of way. And for the record Chapter 35 is called Blue Shift. Redshift . . . Blue Shift . . . Redshift . . . Blue Shift . . . hmmmmmmm, what’s up with that subway?

And yes, in case you’re wondering, redshift is one word and blue shift is two words.

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870)

January 16th, 2011

This very cool watercolor and pencil drawing of Charles Dickens was created by Joel Isaacson.

As you likely know, Charles Dickens wrote a zillion books. If you have a Kindle, here’s a link to his classics. They’re all free downloads. And the University of Adelaide in Australia provides free epub downloads for most other ereaders (Nook, Sony, Kobe, etc.) as well as their own ebooks!  Thanks University of Adelaide!

So you ask . . . is there a connection between Oliver Twist and the blue-haired math whiz, Olive Twister in The Lux Proofs? Go figure.

© 2010 Laird Foster. To contact Laird, click here.
Art & Site Design by Matthew Batchelder.