Archive for December, 2012

Observation ~ By Pastor Keith Shields

Because I have studied science most of my life, some people will confide in me that they wish they had studied more science. I usually tell them that it is never too late to start. The convenient thing about science is that one can begin studying at any time. Science, at its core, starts with observation and extrapolation. We have all previously observed that if the wind is coming out of the east then a flag on a flagpole will point to the west. So, we observe a flag and can draw conclusions about which way the wind is blowing. If we notice that a flag ten feet above the ground is pointing one direction and one on top of a 250 foot building is pointing another direction, we can draw some conclusions about the movement of air currents at different altitudes.The world is wide open for this type of observation and discovery. Great scientific breakthroughs happen because someone paid attention to their world. Take a look around you and see what lines of observation might be available to you. Many of us can see the moon rise and set from where we live. Have we really observed the moon? Can you answer this simple question? When the moon is waning, that is, going from full to new moon, which side of the moon is lit up? Left? Right? Another way to ask this question is, “When the moon is waning, does it take the shape of a ‘C’ or a ‘D’?” One should be able to answer this question after just a few nights of observation. If you get good at answering this question you will be able to make predictions about whether the moon will be brighter or dimmer the next evening. It will also allow you to make predictions about tides if you happen to live close to the ocean. The movement of tidal waters is another great source of scientific study. See what you can learn by noticing the direction boats turn in the water at any given time of the day and how high the water is on the shore. What can you learn from these simple descriptions?

Another lunar observation that is available to us relates to the direction in which the moon revolves around the earth. You can do some observation over the next few days or weeks and see if you can determine whether the rotation is clockwise or anti-clockwise relative to the a view from above the earth’s north pole. Here is a hint, you will need to observe where the moon rises in the sky (east, west, north, or south) and the time of moonrise over a few days. Is the time of moonrise the same every day or does it rise later or earlier each day? This was a query posed to me by a tenth grade physics teacher which set me off on a lifetime of observation and discovery. Try not to cheat and look up the answer on the internet. This is where much of present scientific study can falter. We get lazy and do not seek the answer ourselves. Instead, we trust someone else’s answer without even seeing the data that led them to their conclusion.

There is a group of crows that collect mussels from the seashore close to my house. They have learned how to do a sort of crowish “science.” Once the birds have collected the mussels they must find ways to break open the shells to get at the life-giving meat inside. This hunger and survival by eating is the huge motivator for their scientific study. If they drop the mussels from a height onto rocky places, some will break open; but often the mussels will catch too much air and flutter to the ground without making a significant impact with the ground. These crows have observed that if they drop them on the seawall, a walking and biking path along the shores of the ocean, there is a good chance that a human will step on the mussels or run them over with their bicycles. This nicely opens the shells and allows the crows to get their breakfast or dinner of mussels. These crows have become keen observers of human behaviour. They know when the paths are busy and how to use this tool to their advantage. They have also discovered that bicycles are much more likely to break open the shells than are footsteps. Cyclists race along the path and do not even notice that they are running over mussel shells whereas pedestrians tend to step around the shells to avoid the crunching underfoot. In places where the seawall is nicely divided into a cycling path on one side and a pedestrian path on the other side, one can observe approximately ten mussel shells on the bicycle side for every one mussel shell on the pedestrian side. Crows have learned probability. Presumably, the crows that do put the odd shell on the pedestrian side also know that occasionally the tourists do not pay attention to the segregation of bicycles and pedestrians and cyclists will sometimes ride on the pedestrian path.

Vancouver has massive murders of crows that fly through the air at predictable times. Every evening, about a half hour before sunset, they fly past the windows of my home. I am not sure how long it took me to come to this conclusion but it was a natural one as I noted the murders of crows, the time of day, and the amount of light at the time. They are expert at flight and use the currents of air to their great advantage. I am sure I could learn several things about the weather and bird behaviour if I took the time to chart things like wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, temperature, speed of the birds and altitude at which they fly. Science is very egalitarian. It makes itself available to all.