11-2Back in 2014, the Freakonomics podcast (which is generally about economics but really about a lot more) did a show called “Think Like a Child.” If someone said that you think like a child, would you consider that a compliment or an insult?

I suppose it depends on the context, but in general I guess I would take it as an insult.  But the host, Stephen Dubner, and his co-author on the books, Steve Levitt, say in Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, that thinking like a child can be useful.

Kids are not as biased as adults. They don’t have as many preconceptions as adults do. That can be a plus in problem solving and creativity.

In the podcast, a journalist/magician, Alex Stone, author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, points out that they are a magician’s toughest audience to fool because the way that they “pay attention” makes them more likely to notice things that adults do not notice or care about.

The Think Like a Freak book also claims that the hardest three words in the English language are “I don’t know.” Our unwillingness to admit ignorance and say “I don’t know” isn’t true for most kids. Research shows that two-thirds to three-quarters of children (5-8 years old) will answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a yes/no question that we know they don’t know the answer to. They take risks. They accept failing. Until we teach them that failing is “bad.”


On the podcast, you also hear from Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at UC-Berkeley, who wrote The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. (These authors do love the long title with a colon.)

She doesn’t view kids, as some people do, as underdeveloped adults. She recommends some “thinking like a child” for grownups.

Gopnik says we can:
“…think of the kids as being the research and development division of the human species. And we’re—adults—we’re production and marketing. So from the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R & D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas. And we poor production and marketing people, who are actually making the profits, have to subsidize these guys. But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure research actually pays off in the long run.”

Maybe we need to spend a part of each day in “blue sky research” thinking like a kid. It is the kind of research in domains where “real-world” applications are not immediately apparent.  It is research without a clear goal. It is driven by curiosity. To get some funding, you’d better call it “basic research.” Blue sky science often challenges accepted paradigms and that is something that is easier to do if you think like a child.

Annual cicada, Tibicen linnei

Annual cicada, Tibicen linnei

August is the sound of insects at night. When I am sitting outside I am assaulted by cicadas loudly announcing that it is mid-summer.

I wouldn’t call their sound a “song” and cicadas are pretty creepy looking. I came upon a dead one today when I opened the barbecue grill. (Take a look at this cicada molting for a quick sci-fi moment.) They have those large, wide apart eyes transparent, veined wings.

Cicadas are often colloquially called locusts, but they are unrelated to true locusts. In the second half of August,  you find their cast off shells around the garden.

And then there are the katydids.

You can hear some calling out “Katy did! Katy did!” in one part of the trees, and another answering “Katy didn’t, didn’t, didn’t!” from the opposite direction.   Listen to them.


Okay, I admit that I don’t really hear those words clearly in their song.  I have trouble with bird songs that are compared to human speech and seeing the “pictures” in constellations. It is a bit of a stretch, but good for the imagination.

True katydids (Pterophylla camellifolia) are relatives of grasshoppers and crickets. They grow over two inches long and are leaf-green in color. Katydids have oval-shaped wings with lots of veins which makes them look a lot like leaves. They spend most of their time at the tops of trees.

According to my nature calendar where I record buds, blooms, fruiting and other signs of seasonal change, the katydids usually show up right at the start of August. This year, the cicadas and katydids arrived a week early.

It is a folklore observation that says that autumn will arrive 90 days after the katydids start to sing.  That would make it the last week of October here in Paradelle.

You are much more likely to hear a katydid than see it.  And what are they singing about? Like many insects, they are singing for love. Or lust, I suppose, as the males are trying to attract a mate. This is their reproductive season (August through mid-October).

The males are high in the trees and females come to them. Katydids are poor flier, preferring to walk, and a male katydid may never leave the tree on which he was hatched.

Their song comes from rubbing their wings together (known scientifically as stridulating) and the other katydids are listening with tympanal membranes on their knees.

The song’s tempo is faster in hot weather and slower on a cool night. Their number diminish as we get into fall and that first hard frost will kill the remaining ones.

Katydids eat leaves of most deciduous trees and shrubs, and seem to like oaks best. But they don’t do any serious damage to the trees or shrubs, so we don’t bother spraying insecticides for them. Their enemies are the birds, bats, spiders, frogs, snakes, and other insect-eaters.

There are some folk stories about “what Katy did” but none I have read are very interesting. I prefer to think of them as a signal that summer is half over, and their song fades as summer fades.

duck moon
As I have written here before, since Full Moons occur every 29.5 days, it is possible to have two Full Moons in a month and that second one is popularly called a “Blue Moon.”

We had a Full Moon to launch this month on July 1 (in the U.S.) and now the month will close out with another Full Moon tonight (the 31st).

Why blue? One might think that it goes back to some early person recording a second Full Moon in a month and that particular Moon appeared blue. Particles of dust of a particular size or smoke from large fire or volcanic eruption can cause a moon to look blue in color, but it is certainly not something that is predictable by date and this next Full Moon will probably appear no more blue than the one earlier this month. Moonlight does have more of a blue color (more so for a camera than our eyes) than the reddish light of sunrise and sunset. You often see that in films as a way to indicate night or even film “day for night.”

Actually, the use of the Blue Moon name seems to be quite modern. The March 1946 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine ran an article that defined the term as a second one in a month.

It is an unusual but not very rare occurrence and we can have two Blue Moons in a single calendar year. That happened in 1999 with two Full Moons in January and March and no full moon in February. We will have the next year of double Blue Moons in 2018.

We get a Blue Moon in the month of July every 19 years. This is the Metonic cycle and so in 2034 we’ll again have two full moons in July 2034 and another Blue Moon on July 31, 2034. Mark your electronic calendar.

Why is this? There are 235 full moons yet only 228 calendar months in the 19-year Metonic cycle. Because the number of full moons outnumber the number of calendar months, it means at least 7 of these 228 months will have two full moons. The math is simple enough for even me to understand: 235 – 228 = 7 extra full moons.

To add some complexity to our desire to wrap up our attempts to control the universe and time by making clocks and calendars, take this situation: If a February within this 19-year period has no full moon at all – as is the case in February 2018 – that means this extra full moon must fall within the boundaries of another month, too. In 2018 we will have two Blue Moons.

Anyway, enjoy this July 31st “blue” Full Moon.

farm full moonFor farmers, this was often called the Hay Moon. For Druids and some southern American Indian tribes, this late July Full Moon was a time when the harvest is celebrated.

I used a Cree tribe name for this late July Full Moon – the Moon When Ducks Begin to Molt. The Cree are one of the largest groups of Native Canadians/Native Americans in North America. There are over 200,000 members in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta the Northwest Territories and Quebec. In the United States, this Algonquian-speaking people historically lived from Lake Superior westward, but today, they live mostly in Montana, where they share a reservation with the Ojibwe (Chippewa).

Like most birds, ducks shed, or molt,their feathers. They do this twice each year, with the first molt in early summer. New feathers grow in and push out the old ones. Ducks molt very quickly and in a few weeks, they lose all their feathers and grow a whole new plumage. During molting, they need to find a safe place to stay, because this is a dangerous time because they can’t fly. Molting ducks spend most of their time hiding in tall grass or floating out in deeper waters.

Ducks lose all their feathers during the first molt of the year and then have their summer feathers for a few months. Around September, they molt again, but only the body feathers fall out.

At this midpoint of summer, I like to have some early morning views of the Atlantic Ocean so that I can see “the ghost of the shimmering summer dawn.”

Orion the Hunter arrives at the crack of dawn in late summer. Like most of use, he rises on his side, with his three Belt stars – Mintaka, Alnitak and Alnilam – being vertical.

As we move into hunting season and winter, this well-known constellation moves across the south during the evening hours. He is standing then and ready to hunt and those 3 belt stars in a horizontal line make it one of the easiest constellations to spot in the sky.

I was reminded this week of Orion by the EarthSky.org website which is one of my startup pages on this computer. It is a good way to be reminded to look up at the sky and a way to know what I might find there tonight.

I am also reminded that people write those daily posts. One of those people is  Deborah Byrd who created the EarthSky radio series back in 1991 and founded the site in 1994. She has won lots of awards for science and broadcasting and getting science to the masses. I think it is quite cool that she has an asteroid – 3505 Byrd – named in her honor.

milky way

Dr. Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and the author, most recently, of the memoir On the Move: A Life.

I wrote earlier here about the announcement that Sacks is dying and how he is dealing with it. Mostly, he is living. He is reading, probably writing, traveling when he can.

This morning I read a piece by Oliver Sacks in The New York Times titled “My Periodic Table.” He writes about what he has been doing in the past few months – treatments, visits, his reading and thinking. What caught me the most was this passage about simply looking up at the stars – something I do too much, if you really can ever spend “too much” time staring in wonder at the universe.

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

Joseph Campbell described the stars as “Eternity shining through the lattice-work of time.”

Annie Dillard described looking up one night as seeing “The tree with the lights in it”

After reading Dr. Sacks’ article, my next click brought me to The Writer’s Almanac, a daily online stop for me.  With the Sacks’ words in my mind, I read that it was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). This was a symphony written in the final years of Mozart’s life. It was a sad period of his life. His infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier. He was living in a cheaper apartment, and begging friends for loans.

In that sad summer of 1788, he wrote his last three symphonies: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony #40 in G Minor, and the Symphony #41 (often called the Jupiter symphony).

We have no evidence that Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.

I thought that I should listen to Symphony Number 40 and reread the article by Dr. Sacks. Might I hear something in the music that echoes in the words? Or perhaps, it is Symphony Number 41’s (Jupiter) finale that we might expect to be sad and slow, but instead shows power, that I hear it. Do not go gently.

Oliver Sacks has had a lifelong love of the periodic table of elements. He has collected examples of them and has associated the numbers with years of his life.

Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having “83” around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.

I almost certainly will not see my polonium (84th) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table — my periodic table — I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas


Pluto received a lot of attention this past week as we received all the new data from the New Horizons probe. It won’t be reclassified as a planet, but it is the largest dwarf planet we know, and one it is half of the first binary planet system.

I like Pluto and its moons but I was more interested that NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Telescope has spotted the first roughly Earth-sized world orbiting in the “Goldilocks zone” of another star. The Goldilocks zone is a habitable zone that is, as you might expect, not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life elsewhere in the universe.


Artist’s concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter. Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

That planet, Kepler 452b, is about 1,400 light years from us in the constellation Cygnus. It has a 385-day year, with an orbit just a bit farther away from its star than our Earth is from our star.

It is far too far away to photograph, the data we have has told us a lot about this “New Earth.” For example, it has been the perfect distance from its star for many billions of years, which means it is possible that it hosts life on its surface, or at least could have at some point in its history.

Kepler 452b is also the right temperature to allow liquid water to exist on the surface. Unless there is more we don’t know about “life,” this is essential for supporting it.

No one is planning to head there and start a colony yet. The new planet is slightly larger than Earth, and is estimated to have twice the gravitational pull of our own planet. That doesn’t mean it can’t have life and humans could adpat to that and new generations would evolve that were “stockier” and better suited to the gravity.

Dr Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Kepler 452b receives the same kind of spectrum and intensity of light as we do on Earth. This means plants from our planet could grow there if it were rocky and had an atmosphere. You could even get a healthy tan like here on holiday.”

Kepler 452b is 1,400 lightyears away. A lightyear is the distance that a beam of light can travel in a year. Light travels at over 670 million miles per hour. Light from our Sun takes around eight minutes to reach Earth. A trip to Kepler 452b would take an incredibly long time. Think about that New Horizon probe. It left Earth’s orbit faster than any other spacecraft before it, at around 36,373 mph. If we had a spacecraft carrying humans that could travel at this speed towards Kepler 452b, it would take them around 25.8 million years to get there. That might be a trip that Christopher Nolan could conceive of (see see: Interstellar), but no one will be selling tickets to anything but movies for a trip to 452b for a long while.

But it’s nice to know it’s out there. Now, if we can only get NASA to come up with better names for these celestial observations and discoveries. Gaiia (two i’s) might be a good one to hang on 452b.

There seem to be new stories every day in the news about rape.  Today, while reading a post OnBeing.org about the Buddha, this story from 2600 years ago seemed like something that belonged on the evening news.

The Buddha challenged the commonly held view in India that sexual desire arising in a man’s mind was a woman’s fault. Desire, and by extension rape, was the result of the female’s temptation of the male.

Americans are often viewed as being the worst in this regard and are often criticized by other countries and cultures not only for the temptations but for the inappropriate actions based on those temptations. But we know that this outdated view on desire, especially sexual desire, is not relegated to America, and that it is accepted on a wider scale in other countries.

I remember when I started teaching in 1975 in a public middle school that when the weather was hot we would always have girls who were sent to the office for “immodest dress.”  I admit that at that time it made sense to me that what I didn’t need in my classroom half-filled with 13-year-old boys was a “provocatively” dressed 13-year-old girl. Now, it makes less logical sense to me, and yet the 13-year-old boy still living inside me isn’t entirely sure about right action.

As that blog post reminds us, “the Buddha may have issued the challenge, but far from all Buddhists heed it.”

Deflecting responsibility for our desires and our actions based on those desires means we do not have control over our own lives.

In the Buddha’s time, India’s caste system did not view morals as being the same for all castes or genders.

Buddha’s radical ethics are still radical.

The moral quality of an action is held in the intention that gives rise to the action. “Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast,” the Buddha said, “but by deeds.” This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all. By pointing out to us the crucial importance of our own intentions, the Buddha was making clear that each of us is responsible for our own minds, and therefore for our own freedom.

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