One with the universe

10447027_10152514467382803_4815241321848240349_nNeil deGrasse Tyson is quixotic, hypnotic and “cosmotic,” a word he coined Tuesday night in D.C., at an event in which we breathed the same air and released a mix of carbon dioxide and hors d’oeuvres vapor directly into each other’s faces.

Gasp.

To say I was “starstruck” to shake this brilliant man’s hand and get a hug is an astronomical understatement. See, he makes you want to reach beyond the ordinary, he does.

I had helped work on a Cosmos-themed USA TODAY tab, in collaboration with National Geographic, and, given that my compatriot Jon Briggs and I talk about little else but black holes at the office, I was able to ditch one night for the privilege to attend, with Briggsy, the screening of the final episode of the show that picked up where Carl Sagan left off 34 years ago.

We didn’t arrive on time, but what’s a few minutes late to an astrophysicist?

In fact, our tardiness offered us prime real estate, as The Man of the Hour was edging toward the door as we darkened the threshold. Other groupies were lined up on the other side of a table, but we stepped promptly into his sphere, the back of his tailored suit much smaller than I expected. He turned and flashed that rock-star “Hello!” And then three kids materialized to steal his attention — which was cool, because what is deGrasse Tyson if not a teacher and mentor? He chatted up these three young boys (one not too young, as he tipped back a wine glass), asking them about their interests, their running times (deGrasse Tyson ran a 4:18 mile in his day), testing their reflexes … whatever it took to connect. He obviously is, and should be, their hero.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

He gets noticeably more animated — even more than the cartoons used in the Seth MacFarlane-produced miniseries — with impressionable younguns around. Hands down, the best part of the Q&A afterward was when a young girl asked him why solar flares occur.

His answer, here, gets progressively exciting.

“Rendering it aglow …”

My own short Q&A with him rendered me aglow. For our picture together, he firmly grasped my shoulder, I wrapped my arm across his expansive back, and it was good. In fact, I was sweating when it was over, and I needed a cold beer to dab my brow and flesh with.

He wasn’t drinking beer, only wine. We chuckled about my ditching work (sincerest apologies to my co-workers). I shared that the series was “science porn” for me, as I watch it over and over — he raised both bushy eyebrows at that as I rendered him somewhat speechless. I also said I liked his dazzling tie and asked who designed it. Jerry Garcia? He gave me that curled-lip, bemused look, as if …

I overheard him discussing his interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and how whatever he said will be automatically “liberalized” — dGT loves coining words. He shies away from the icy political poles, displaying the perfect equanimity of a scientist.

Briggs was prepared to ask what was with all the SUV commercials on a show with the obvious agenda to battle climate change, but while I was busy being starstruck he was uncharacteristically struck dumb.

I managed one utterance of some substance: whether there would be more Cosmos — please? — or was it going to be like Carl Sagan’s series, kinda one and done. I think I said, “So … this is it, there won’t be any more, say it isn’t so… ” He first wanted me to clarify whether that was a statement or a question. Cute! When I phrased it properly as a question, he began, “I have never been much of a woman, but I imagine that after one gives birth that is not the best time to ask whether she’s ready to have another. Let’s just let it breathe a little and have its impact. … So this is hardly the right time to address that question.” He wasn’t stern or angry, just clear: He wasn’t out to one-up Sagan, and he never set out to be a TV star, plus the seven years it took him away from his family was exhausting.

He later rephrased that response in the general Q&A, and I wondered if I’d helped prep him or whether this was one of his “stock quotes.”

Either way, I relished staring into his knowing orbs, admiring his congenial way with each admirer and sensing how time stretches in his presence. Because this man is present.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer MitchellCannold.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer Mitchell Cannold. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Sagan’s widow, the lovely and poetic Ann Druyan, who writes the show and is its true nucleus, said: “Carl is one of those people whose absence is more powerful than most people’s presence.”

But deGrasse Tyson? HERE, HEAR. Present … and doing great work to resuscitate our curiosity about the world around us.

During the Q&A session, he revealed fun facts about the show’s production. Example: Although many of the nifty shots were filmed on location — he did tour the White Cliffs of Dover — the film crew opted not to shoot in Manhattan. So this Bronx native had to be green-screened in New York City. (Oh, and some of those Ship of the Imagination shots were green-screened, too — you read it here first.)

DeGrasse Tyson spoke eloquently about humanity’s fear of aliens, saying that if any extraterrestrials contacted us they would likely be in possession of some superior technology because they managed to traverse this great distance — something we haven’t yet figured out how to do. In every encounter between a population with better technology and one less advanced, though, as we’re well familiar, things don’t turn out as well for those with the lesser technology. We might expect to be enslaved, prodded, brains sucked out or worse.

He warned, though: Don’t project the hate that we know and apply to the unfamiliar in our own world onto them. Man’s inhumanity to man — fear of “others” — this is something we’d be advised to evolve far beyond, and fast. An advanced species, one hopes, would find our foul treatment of each other just as foreign as the most educated among us should.

This man may be the future face of education. Imagine his enthusiasm in a classroom, electrifying kids’ imaginations. We have the technology: Let’s hologram him in, if we can’t just clone him.

More clips from the Q&A (before my “lesser technology” died):

Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses failure in the educational sense.

Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to a question from the very D.C. crowd about whether he has a 2016 campaign in his future.

Neil deGrasse Tyson comments on whether his “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” has gotten him any closer to answering the age-old Q: “Why are we here?”

I think of my dad, who turns 90 next month and is legally blind. His love of stargazing taught us kids to look to the stars — not meaning celebrities — to corral our dreams, both personal and universal. Though his physical eyes can no longer harness the starlight to see, his inner light still shines. (A peek at my dad’s new blog on the universe, here.)

I’ll bet dGT is a fantastic dad, too.

Pique your curiosity. Catch the finale of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey yourself next Sunday night (June 8) on Fox or Monday night on NatGeo Channel (June 9). Watch it with a parent, a child, a sibling, friend or stranger — it’s the kind of entertainment that connects us. All 13 episodes will be available for purchase, appropriately, in time for Father’s Day.

Rape is no rite

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Despite our highly evolved brains and planetary dominance, humans sure could learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom.

On the subject of rape, for instance. Rapists are often labeled “animals,” and yet — just for the sake of discussion, leaving aside the fact that all humans are technically animals — forcible sex doesn’t exist as much among non-humans as within our so-called civilized society.

I say “as much” because scientists have seen signs of coercive sex and even gang rape in animals from ducks to dolphins. But in general, calling rapists “animals” does a disservice to animals. (UPDATE: The anti-rape design of duck vaginas notwithstanding — perhaps they are just more highly evolved and this is where we’re all headed?)

The thing about animals. They stick to pretty predictable patterns of courtship and mating. Watch Nat Geo Wild for any length of time — I personally go to great lengths to — and you’ll get quite the peep show. What appear to be extravagant dances to us are probably blasé to members of the species depicted. There’s no novelty in it for them, not for several millennia, and they seem OK with that.

For example, we observe nothing short of regal in the clownish blue-footed booby’s routine mating rite.

He whistles at her to get her attention. She doesn’t seem impressed, spewing excrement at him. If, eventually, she gets in the mood — and male boobies know they must be very, very patient — she will make a grunting sound in response to his whistling. The male booby waits for her consent. Often, consent is denied.

Then, the male knows to move on. Not to force the issue. (They also seem not to mind an audience.)

Compare the come-on of the Temminck’s tragopan, an irresistibly eager pheasant, below:

… to your garden-variety harassment by Hoboken, N.J., construction workers. (Picture it in your mind — I’m sure you’ve had the experience once or twice — or peruse this LONG, 8-minute video; they are actors, as is the woman being harassed. An interesting social experiment conducted to see how passersby might react and whether they would intervene.)

In the animal world, the males typically display and it is left for the females to decide whether any “action” ensues. That’d be a pretty awesome world to live in.

Humans, too, have courtship rituals. Yet we often feel above such predictability, exercising instead our vague notion of “free will,” which we assume other animals don’t possess. Or, we malevolently exert our wills over one another — something most other animals are simply too dignified to do.

Humans are forever reinventing the wheel, so to speak, with vast reasoning skills, striving for a unique experience in all things, including sexual conquest. Sexual culture today seems somehow infested with callous extremes. And the gang mentality — even crueler and harder to crack.

Whether or not they receive sexual education, humans come to sex in their own time, acting on urges that fit the norms of society — or not. Human drives may fit within accepted values or may veer far afield of what seems moral or right. But where a lot of bad behavior is present, you have to wonder: Is it somehow condoned?

I am at a loss to understand why any human being would rape another. How violence and sex intermingle, without analyzing any rapist’s motives or malfunctions, is beyond my ability to reason through. It is a brutal perversion. Can’t quite call it an aberration, though, because sexual harassment and assault — crimes, both — have become horrifically prevalent in modern society. We have become inoculated to news of it.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman, during his funeral in New Delhi.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman who had been trying to control the protests over last week’s gang rape, during his funeral in New Delhi.

The sorrowful story in India this week has now ended in death for the 23-year-old medical student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, with her boyfriend present, also a victim of the barbarous attack. In a way, I feel it’s a relief she died — spared from having to relive the hell that would have become the rest of her life. The news galvanized that nation, with both women and men blaming the government and police for doing too little to protect women from vile and violent acts. But the protesters were also beaten back by powers that be — and even a police constable was killed in the melee. Violence heaped upon violence, making any one of us feel utterly powerless.

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The grim statistics, from CNN.com:

“Reported rape cases in India — where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime — have increased drastically over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone had 572 rapes reported last year and more than 600 in 2012.”

India is no island. There are merely a lot more people. Things are just as bad in our hemisphere. I was groped twice by strangers in public — once in Montreal at the Expo 67 World’s Fair when I was 6, and once in Puerto Rico, by a mere child, a boy younger than my 12 years, who was encouraged to do it by his father, and was praised afterward for it. I’m not sure how scarred I was — but I was scared and will never forget either experience, nor my shock, my indignation and suppressed rage.

india-rape-protest-afp-670As feminist Andrea Dworkin said, in a 1975 speech: “Rape is no excess, no aberration, no accident, no mistake — it embodies sexuality as the culture defines it. As long as these definitions remain intact — that is, as long as men are defined as sexual aggressors and women are defined as passive receptors lacking integrity — men who are exemplars of the norm will rape women.”

I have learned far too much about rape this year — from my daughter, who is a rape survivor and now a shining advocate for women’s rights. I am unsure how any one of us might change the ferocity of this world, but I know if anyone could, she can.

Still, I pine for a quiet, peaceful life, perhaps on an actual island, like the Galapagos, where I might watch majestic giant tortoises — once driven nearly to extinction by humans’ uncontrolled desire for their meat — do a slow, predictable, respectful mating dance, kinda like old people. And there I’d contemplate where we as humans fit in, in the grand scheme of things.

There will always be sex. And there likely will always be violence.

And perhaps always, not animals, but beasts — monsters — who would co-mangle the two.

Best story yet of hope and change (metamorphosis)

SUCH JOY! Photo courtesy of Maraleen Manos-Jones via Albany Times-Union

Had to share this uplifting story of a dilly-dallying butterfly and her guardian angel.

Emerging from its cocoon too late for the migration south, a New York monarch got an assist today from a commercial airline and a one-in-a-million escort, Maraleen Manos-Jones — wonder whether she’ll be collecting butterfly frequent-flier miles.

According to the story by Albany Times-Union reporter Kristen V. Brown:

One late-blooming monarch butterfly will get the royal treatment on Monday, when Southwest Airlines airlifts the lone arthropod from Albany to San Antonio …

‘I knew if I just let her go, she’d die,’ Manos-Jones said. ‘But she’s so fabulous she deserves to be in Mexico with all of her millions of brothers and sisters.’ …

Said Brooks Thomas, a Southwest spokesman, citing the airline’s concerns for climate change: ‘Even one butterfly makes a difference.’ ”

Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Southwest-Airlines-offers-butterfly-a-lift-4006307.php#ixzz2BP7l54Jq

Those baffling squirrels

Squirrel

“I’ll be back,” threatens the squirrel. (Photo credit: Rich Jacques)

Who was it who first said: “Necessity is the mother of invention”? Was it a squirrel?

Shoulda known by the look the clerk gave me at the Wild Bird Center when I bought this bird feeder, declaring, “It really looks squirrel-proof!” She knew. Nothing is squirrel-proof.

My industrial-strength, copper-clad, widget-filled tube feeder looked askew this morning, so I went out to inspect. The squirrels had previously figured out how to lift the locked lid, chewing a spout into the plastic tube, and with just a small shift in weight, apparently had been gulping the seed like jujubes at the movies. But I duct-taped that problem.

This time. Unbelievable. They musta been working on this for weeks, like Tim Robbins’ character’s escape hatch in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Three of the four lug nuts holding together the bottom of the feeder were missing — I later found them buried in the ground. The feeder was hanging on by just one lug nut, which had gotten lodged in the corner of the wire mesh. In frustration, I imagine, the squirrels had rammed the tube to one side of the cage, where it got stuck. NUTS!!

I think they had outside help. Must be working with the crows.

It took me, a human with a mostly evolved brain, a half-hour to figure out how to put the thing back together. I realized too late I should have taken a picture to amuse you.

Next time, squirrels, next time!!!!

Simply baffling. And here’s video of the most ingenious squirrel baffle I’ve seen. But does it work?

The magic of mushrooms: Wouldn’t eat that if I were you

Before you complain about this rainy streak ruining our leaf-peeping season, look down at the mind-blowing peep show on the ground. Such colors and variety of fungi have sprouted! Even The New York Times noted the new urbanscape diversity, in a Page One story today, here.

Grouchy Georgetown University doctors pooh-pooh my ‘shroom-hunting hobby since two local men became seriously ill going wild with salad and stir-fry. Sigh. I’ll settle for photographing the neighborhood crop; perhaps an expert out there can tell me whether they’re tasty or toxic. (You know what they say: All mushrooms are edible — once.) These were all found within a half-mile from home.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=22icUqQT404

Goodbye, Mr. Chipmunk: Pick the best rodent flick

King Chipmunk surveys all he owns — so far, not the indoors. Photo by Terry Byrne

I am an animal lover. Truly. But our home is under siege by chipmunks.

Oh, you think they’re cute? I’m so over that stage.

Check out the photo of one of the leaders, at left. That’s him, giving a speech, plotting their race’s next land grab.

Things went downhill with me and the rodents soon after eye surgery, when I could no longer distinguish the birdies visiting my squirrel-proof bird feeder.

There I was, two pairs of spectacles, opera glasses, camera zoom lens, trying to identify this new bird with the interesting stripe-pattern that would feast all day on premium crack seed. Finally I snapped a photo, analyzed it on the jumbo monitor: a bloody chipmunk!

NOT FOR YOU! Photo by Terry Byrne

Well, not bloody yet. Just let me at ‘im.

Kudos to the designers of these feeders — indeed, they are squirrel-proof — but NO ONE SAID A THING ABOUT CHIPMUNKS.

So I engineered a plan, endorsed by neighbor and friend Walt Wallmark (his actual name), to cover the rascal’s burrow with a brick. The chipmunk’s, not Walt’s. Within hours, our yard had been relandscaped like something out of Caddyshack, with multiple mounds and egresses.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating all manner of evil schemes — which I doubt even Walt would endorse — such as dropping poison pellets down their chutes. Buying a BB gun. Or donning camo and taking cues from this guy, a real-life Bill Murray-esque character:

Instead of resorting to such madness, though, I’ve decided to consider the rodent in context of the universe — even as art form. After all, according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals, at least half of all species of mammals belong to the order Rodentia — rodents — including gopher, beaver, groundhog, chinchilla, lemming, gerbil, guinea pig, hamster, squirrel and chipmunk. They go way beyond mice and rats, and there’s just no escaping them.

And because I just discovered the “polling” feature in WordPress, and must test it, I am asking my readers to choose their favorite movie starring rodents. You can choose among Caddyshack or any of nine other timeless titles, thus directing my proper response to these pests. Feel free to add any great titles I have missed in the comments section.

(Poll moved to top of blog — vote for as many as you like. If you need a refresher, descriptions and clips follow.)

1. Caddyshack (1980). Already covered. It’s WAR.

2. Willard (1871) & Ben (1972). If you can’t beat them, join them. In these classic rat tales, a loner befriends an army of rats, harnessing their power.

3. Ice Age (2002). This prehistoric squirrel, a Scrat, technically, makes me almost appreciate a rodent’s drive to survive at all costs. What he doesn’t know: He’s doomed. Gotta love his vulnerability. (This is not a clip from the movie; instead it’s his own spinoff short.)

4. Groundhog Day (1993). A superstitious approach to human-rodent co-existence. My take: Beware to those mocking the forces of nature. (Déjà vu, hasn’t Bill Murray already been on this list?)

5. Ratatouille (2002). Eat them? No, actually, if you watch the movie, it’s more like hire them as your butler. This is on the list because my adult daughter Miki would cry if she couldn’t vote for it.

6. Rats: Night of Terror (1984). Oh, the horror. I must credit my work pal Jon Briggs for this contribution. He also wanted me to include Food of the Gods (1976), but that seemed redundant. After watching this trailer, my chipmunks really don’t look so bad.

7. The Princess Bride (1987). Remember Rodents Of Unusual Size? A sweet reimnder to persevere. If these beasts can be licked, my problem should be a piece of cake.

8. Stuart Little (1999). Sorry for going heavy on the kids’ fare, but, really — it’s insane how many movies meant for children are actually TEACHING them that mice and rats are cute and cuddly, from Mickey Mouse to The Rescuers. This movie encourages nurturing of pests. (Couldn’t resist sharing this clip, which features heartthrob Hugh Laurie of “House” singing and playing his heart and soul out with another heartthrob Geena Davis.)

9. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). If you are confused why this title is on this list, let me say: Perhaps you have no business reading my blog. But, no! don’t stop now; you’re almost done!

10. G-Force (2009). Today’s guinea pig heroes are p.c. and can actually be purchased for use in the home (no pieces included in a Happy Meal, one hopes). This is the effect of marketing on children’s imaginations. I haven’t seen this movie, but the trailer looks halfway decent, for a formulaic kids’ movie, and I wanted some diversity on this list.

Notice that Alvin and the Chipmunksis missing. Spare me. I can’t deal. And when I went searching for “beaver” movies, I got undesirable – or desirable, depending on your view — results.


NOW, VOTE!

This bug says: We don’t need no stinkin’ borders!

An adult brown marmorated stink bug, aka Halyomorpha halys, tries hard to blend in. (Photo courtesy of Steven Jacobs, Penn State University Entomology Department)

Little something to get your minds off the Dow dungheap: stink bugs.

Until recently, I had only an idle interest in these curious creatures, the latest in a line of media-borne plagues (killer bees, Lyme-bearing ticks, fire ants, bed bugs, etc.).

I’d seen evidence of their eastern Pennsylvania invasion last October riding the Bolt bus from D.C. to New York. Each time the bus paused in traffic, an army of wee brown-shielded insects glommed onto its sides, like frat boys at a car wash. The bus would sputter and shake, and they’d disband. How cute, I thought. Besides, who’s a-skeered of a little odious odor?

The occasional specimen has since penetrated our personal perimeter, but a half-can of Raid usually took care of it, effectively chasing any unsavory scent (not counting Raid).

Then, last weekend on my power walk, armed only with cellphone, iPod, Power-Shot and Bushnell  binoculars, I encountered not one but two stink bugs (that’s an increase of 100%, a veritable swarm)  hitchhiking, not on a silly ol’ bus, but on MY ACTUAL UPPER BODY NEAR MY NECK.

After the paramedics left, I got to thinking: You know, these guitar-pick pests aren’t so harmless. They made front-page news in today’s Washington Post because government entomologists perceive the goal of this “invasive species” is, ultimately, to climb into our beds at night, steal our human warmth and eat all of our peaches!

I’m trying not to panic. Always been a fan of nature. For millennia, living creatures have explored, expanded their vistas, seized new niches, sought better living arrangements, capitalized on food and mating supplies … I feel it’s not up to us to quell any organism’s drive to propagate, not even the funkiest among us.

I ask you, is it the creature’s fault it was brought here from Asia? Probably came over as larvae and spent its entire life here. The little rascal knows no other home. Bugs know no borders.

At what point does an invasive species cease being “invasive”?

Copyright © 2011 Mansueto Ventures LLC. All rights reserved. Fast Company, 7 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007-2195

After it has conquered its corner of the ecosystem and the “Us” and “Them” tables are turned, I suppose.

You know, those same mad scientists who f-f-f-f-ear the lowly stink bug are now thinking about rallying yet another invasive species, a parasitic Asian wasp, to control this pestilence — a move that, as I see it, would only compound the problem, further throwing off the balance of nature and scales of justice. Even stink bugs know their territorial rights.

We humans bandy about the term “pesticide”  loosely, but when you think of it, those who would engage in pest control are performing a form of genocide — OK, insecticide — but, still, trying to wipe out a gene pool on the basis of looks and perceived motives of malice, greed and lechery alone. Fear. Plain, unadulterated, marmorated fear. Goodness, we don’t even speak the Halyomorpha halys‘ language.

And why isolate this boogey-bug du jour, when, last I checked, this country is overrun with invasive species. Indeed, this country was founded by invasive species. The only native Americans are, well, Native Americans and the like, and you don’t see us trying to eradicate other people.

Oh, wait.

So. Rather than make rash judgments about the next stink bug I see, I think I’m gonna go up to it, smile, try to find common ground and maybe suggest it move to a place it can raise a big stink and get all the warmth it needs: Arizona.

After a few generations, maybe the brown marmorated stink bug will be so addicted to our fruit trees, it’ll catch diabetes and die out.