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Tell me why (nature) June 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, critters, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to start a new occasional series in the spirit of my hero and mentor, Dr. Franklin. Old Ben was never afraid to ask questions, and he wondered about all sorts of things. Well, so do I, and so—I’ll bet—do you. Here are some of the things I wonder about nature:

1. Why do mountains look blue from a distance? When you get closer, mountains become green (spring and summer), gold/red/orange (fall), brown (late fall), and grey-black  or white-and-black (winter). But whatever the season, whatever their actual color, from a distance, they’re all blue.  

2. Why don’t trees fall over? If you’ve ever seen a tree blown over by a storm, you know how comparatively small and shallow its root system is. It looks sturdy enough to support a big shrub, but a huge tree? No way.

3. Why are bumblebees able to fly? According to our young friend Sasha, who just studied this in school, it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly. But, of course, they do.

4. Why is true blue so rare in nature? The various shades of purple and lilac that gardening books and catalogs deceptively call blue are pretty abundant. But true blue—the color of forget-me-nots, meconopsis, blue lobelias, Virginia bluebells, blue delphiniums—is extremely rare. Why are no veggies or fruits actually blue? (Blueberries are blue-black, not true blue, so they don’t count, despite the name.)

5. Why didn’t other animals create cultures and civilizations? Whales, dolphins, apes, parrots, elephants: We know that many animals are plenty smart. But, unlike us, they’ve left nothing to show for it. I’ve read numerous hypotheses on why that should be so, from Creation accounts of how God set human beings apart from the rest of creation, to sci-fi novels where advanced alien civilizations inserted some of their superior genes into some of the more promising life-forms on Earth to create a servant class, to New Age theories that humans were somehow dropped onto Earth from the stars. The genetic record says otherwise—-that we’re more closely related to starfish than to inhabitants of the stars. But it doesn’t explain the discrepancy, the gap between us and everything else. We can see our emotions, our urges, or physiological needs echoed in life forms all around us, but our achievements echoed nowhere. Why is that?

6. Why did glowworms and lightning bugs develop phosphorescence? This is so cool, and the answer seems obvious: to help other glowworms and lightning bugs find them in the dark. But think about it. There are bazillion nocturnal species, so why aren’t they phosphorescent, too?

7. Why do oysters just make one pearl? Pearls are made of nacreous secretions that help protect the oyster’s sensitive flesh from sharp grains of sand or other detritus that inadvertently or deliberately gets into the oyster’s shell. The nacreous coatings smooth the edges of the sharp object, building up layer by layer over time to form a pearl. In the case of cultured pearls, people insert an irritating object into an oyster shell to force the oyster to create a pearl. But even in the case of natural pearls, there is almost always just one per oyster. It makes no sense to me that just a single grain of sand (or whatever) would make its way naturally into an oyster’s shell. (Just think how many pebbles, etc. manage to work their way into your sandals on a single walk!)

8. Why do grasses grow so fast? Plants in the grass family—bamboos, corn, lawn grass, and so on—seem to grow so fast you feel you can see them getting taller before your eyes. I can go somewhere for the day, then come home to see that both the corn in the fields around my little town and the grass in my lawn is way taller than it was when I left the house. Yet my other plants have not so much as put out a new leaf.

9. Why can you see the Northern Lights in the South? I confess, I’ve never seen the Northern Lights, aka the Aurora Borealis, except in photos. I’d always assumed you had to go to Alaska, the Yukon, Scandinavia, or northernmost Scotland to enjoy this amazing display of airborne pyrotechnics. But our friend Ben and Silence Dogood once saw them over Charlottesville, Virginia, while visiting their good friends Cole and Bruce on Hallowe’en. What’s up with that?

10. Why don’t people see, hear, smell, and taste the same things? You don’t have to be colorblind to perceive colors differently from everyone else. And the same is true of all sensory experience. What’s apple-green to you may be olive-green to your spouse; what tastes somewhat peachy to you may taste grapey to them. That’s one reason why taste is such an individual thing. And it’s why someone may not like a dish you love or the color of your walls or your favorite music—they really don’t experience it the way you do. But what makes up our sensory perception, anyway, that would make it so individualistic?

And the bonus:

11. Why does people’s hair lose pigment as they age, and why do some people retain their hair pigment? This seems really bizarre to me. How hard could it be for the body to retain hair pigment? What purpose, if any, is served by its disappearance? One good friend’s maternal great-grandfather’s hair turned snow-white at age 16, while his father’s hair remained jet-black into his 80s. What’s the deal?!!

If you know the answers (I’ll bet Doctor Franklin had a few answers up his sleeve), or have nature questions of your own, please let us hear all about ’em!          



1. Christopher - June 29, 2008

Bill Bryson’s book about the history of everything asks many similar questions, some get answered others doe not.
Nature truly is a wonder to behold I never tire of reading nature writers like Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez.

Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez are longtime favorites here, too, Christopher!

2. mr_subjunctive - June 29, 2008

1. Atmospheric perspective. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_perspective) Basically the same reason the sky is blue, but on smaller scales.

3. Bumblebees are able to fly, despite being aerodynamically “unable” to fly, because the normal assumptions of aerodynamics (fixed wings that don’t flap around, like an airplane’s, propellers or engines that remain stationary relative to the body of the plane) don’t apply in that case. Insects are more aerodynamically sophisticated than humans, which isn’t surprising, since they’ve been flying longer. (http://www.theness.com/articles.asp?id=41; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bumblebee#Flight)

5. Define “culture” and we’ll talk.

6. A lot of them are, actually. There’s nothing all that special about it. You could just as easily ask why all species can’t echolocate like bats or shed their skin like snakes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioluminescence#Organisms_that_bioluminesce)

7. I don’t think it’s that common of a thing, actually. It used to be the case, before artificial pearl-farming, that you’d have to open hundreds of oysters or mussels in order to find one pearl. If the odds are 1 in 500 of finding one pearl in an oyster, then the odds of finding two would be 1 in (500)^2, or 1 in 250,000. Which is a lot of shells to open up just to find two instead of one.

And *that’s* assuming that the two grains of sand didn’t wind up together at some point, in which case the oyster would simply start covering them both, leading to a two-lobed pearl, or a round pearl with two grains of sand at its core.

9. The aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun (mostly electrons, but some protons &c. too) hitting the Earth’s atmosphere and being drawn toward it by the Earth’s magnetic field. When there are strong storms on the sun, as happens around the peak of its 11-year sunspot cycle, you get more charged particles, and therefore brighter and wider displays. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora_borealis)

Thanks, Mr. S! Hugely helpful as usual!

3. sjones71 - June 29, 2008

Excellent questions in the spirit of Ben F! #4 is one of my favorites.

As for #3, it’s actually not true. Repeated frequently as a way to blast science often by presidential candidates who are young earthers or things like that. (Huckabee!!!)

The bumblebee’s wing is not fixed. The riddle of how it flies lies in that – the mechanics and not the aerodynamics. Relative to its body, the wing of a bee is small. A plane built like that wouldn’t have the lift to fly, but the wing of a bee works basically like a rotary wing like on a helicopter.

Truth is that the way the bumblebee flies is very thoroughly understood and it all makes sense!

Now, if we can only figure out how I can live more like a Starfish since I’m more related to one. I’d love to just float and regenerate all day!

Ha! I like the image of bumblebee as helicopter. And if we could only learn to regenerate like starfish…

4. Cinj - June 30, 2008

Hmm, maybe #5 I’d say they’re smarter than humans and don’t want to start a war so they tend not to congregate as people do. The anwer may seem a bit flip, but it’s so easy for people to become upset with others isn’t it?

Good point, Cinj! That’s one reason we like living out in the middle of nowhere rather than being crammed in with bazillion others in a city. It’s inconvenient—*everything’s* a drive—but worth it!

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