Butterflies, nature, and star dust

by Rob Tiller

Me and my little butterfly friend

I love butterflies, and they love me!  At least, one of them really really liked me.  Last Sunday, a swallowtail landed on my right thigh near the pocket and stayed there for well over an hour.  Eventually I got him to rest on my hand, and put him on my chest, from whence he climbed onto the top of my head.  Then, after a few more minutes, he flew away.  

Meanwhile, I took pictures of his fellows at the Butterfly House of the Durham Museum of Life and Sciences with other members of  the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  I shot with my Nikkor 105 mm lens on  my Nikon D7100, hand-held, setting the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually.  Working the various dials and buttons quickly enough to capture these lively creatures was challenging, and there were many whiffs.  But these I liked.  I learned that the average lifespan of butterflies is just one month.

Does nature matter?  Yes, much more than we usually realize, according to Geoffrey Heal, in an interview  in the current newsletter of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  He describes the vital connections between humans and the rest of nature in a way I hadn’t quite thought of before, and which seemed worth pondering.

Heal observed,

The natural world provides everything we depend on. We get our food from the natural world, we get our drinking water and our oxygen from the natural world, and we evolved as part of it. We simply can’t live without it. Plants create food, and they need pollination from insects and they need rain and they need soil. We can’t synthesize these things. So we really are totally dependent on the natural world in the end.

Heal notes that we must make changes in the way we organize our economic systems, or face “catastrophic economic change in our lifetimes.”  But he believes that it’s still possible we can make a course correction to address the threats to our environment and our prosperity. He advocates a version of capitalism that includes accounting for and taking responsibility for externalities — that is, environmental damage caused by commercial activity and imposed on the public.  This sounds entirely sensible, and I’m thinking of reading his new book, Endangered Economies.

Along this line, it’s worth reading the really fine NY Times story from last week on the massive coral die off in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  The subject is huge — the largest coral reef on the planet, visible from space — and the reporting is highly readable and credible. As a diver, I’m particularly conscious of the beauty and intensity of life on coral reefs, and their enormous significance in the ocean ecosystem.  The rapidity with which this iconic reef is collapsing underscores that climate change is not just a problem for future generations, but for us, right now.  

On a more cheerful note, in case you missed it, the Science Times had a charming and fascinating story last week on a Norwegian jazz guitarist who discovered how to find star dust.  Did you know that ten tons of tiny dust flakes from space hits the earth every day?  Some of it comes from stars that exploded very long ago and far away.  It’s very  hard to see, but it turns out that it’s everywhere — on our roofs, our cars, and our food.

Guitarist and amateur astrogeologist Jon Larsen figured out how to distinguish stuff from space from ordinary debris.  Larsen and his team made some lovely photographs of the alien dust using microscopes.  It makes you wonder what else is all around us that we haven’t yet seen, but might if we knew how to look.