Wildfires threaten Californian astronomical observatory


From New Scientist in the USA:

California fire threatens historic observatory

* Updated 18:05 31 August 2009 by Kelly Beatty, SkyandTelescope.com, and Maggie McKee

A rampaging fire in the Angeles National Forest in southern California is threatening a historic observatory at the summit of Mount Wilson, as well as a dense crowd of television transmitters there.

The “Station Fire” fire began on Wednesday afternoon but has spread quickly, doubling in size overnight, to an area covering more than 345 square kilometres. With tongues of flame stretching about 25 metres long, the fire is only 5 per cent contained and will likely take another week to contain completely.

By Sunday evening, it had moved to within 3.2 km of Mount Wilson Observatory. On Monday, fire officials said fire had not reached the area, but they said the area still remained highly vulnerable.

Observatory staff reported at 0750 PDT (1450 GMT) on Monday that fire fighters had been ordered to withdraw from Mount Wilson, although the staff was not clear on why the decision had been made. Fire fighters were reportedly going to remain close by, within 8 kilometres away.

Throughout the day on Sunday, crews cleared tinder-dry brush from around the observatory complex and treated wooden structures to make them less vulnerable.

Historic discoveries

Located at an altitude of 1740 metres, Mount Wilson Observatory got its start in 1904 when George Ellery Hale signed a free, 99-year lease for 40 acres at the summit to build world-class telescopes.

Then Hale erected the Snow Solar Telescope (1905), a 60-inch reflector (the world’s largest when completed in 1908), the 150-foot Solar Tower, and finally the 100-inch Hooker Telescope (1918), which Edwin Hubble used to discover that the universe is expanding.

Despite being swamped with light pollution from the 13 million residents to its immediate south and southeast, the observatory has regained much of its scientific relevance.

In recent years, Mount Wilson has served as a test-bed for adaptive-optics and interferometric imaging. It’s the main facility of Georgia State University’s Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) and the site of the University of California’s Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI).

Closed NASA site

Over the weekend, the Station Fire also kept NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory closed to all non-critical personnel. Officially, JPL is in Pasadena, California, but technically it’s in the town of La Cañada Flintridge, which has been posting hourly updates about the rapidly spreading inferno.

Building observatories on remote mountaintops places them at great risk from forest fires, especially where climates have turned dryer in the last decade or two.

This is not the first time Southern California’s notoriously frequent conflagrations have threatened a major astronomical facility. In November 2007, the Poomacha Fire came near, but did not damage, Palomar Observatory. Likewise the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory had a close call during the Aspen Fire in June 2003.

Australia‘s Mount Stromlo Observatory wasn’t so lucky – it was totally destroyed by a wildfire in 2003.

Amazing New NASA Images From Hubble Telescope (PHOTOS): here.

In May 2009, the Hubble Space Telescope received its final upgrade. The billion dollar effort bore its first fruit on September 9, when NASA released the most recent pictures from Hubble, a dazzling combination of planetary nebulae, star clusters and galaxies: here.

Orion nebula: here.

Brand new telescope captures Omega Nebula in all its glory: here.

Animals caring for each other


From WebEcoist in the USA:

Nature’s Wild Nurses: 5 Caring Animal Species

The old adage of “treating others as you would like to be treated” especially holds true for certain animals that make no bones about going out of their way and caring for others. In some instances, animal kindness is a case of a species being good parents to their young; in other situations, the generosity is truly amazing and defines stereotypes. From vampire bats sharing blood with sick mates to dogs adopting kittens, the following list of nurturing animals may surprise, leave a smile on the face or even inspire. To these animals, their noble actions are not about recognition or notoriety, but just doing what’s right — a philosophy we all could do a better job of following at times. …

With their enormous girth, giant South African bulldogs [sic; bullfrogs] may look like immobile blobs, but they are actually quite agile when it comes to protecting their young tadpoles. Male African bulldogs [sic; bullfrogs] dutifully stand guard over their young tadpoles as they wade through the water and have been documented standing up to snakes and even lions and elephants that get too close. And when the swarms of tadpoles struggle to survive as stream waters become too shallow, the male frogs spring into action by digging trenches that connect nearby streams and allow the tadpoles to survive in deeper waters. Talk about a literal lifesaver. …

Arguably one of the most altruistic animal species around, dolphins have been known to help out others in need, including possible predators and even humans. A few years ago, a bottle nosed dolphin heeded the SOS calls of two beached whales in New Zealand and led them into safe waters. Without the guidance of the dolphin, the whales would have most likely perished. Also occurring in New Zealand a couple of years back, a group of swimmers were first surprised when a group of dolphins began circling around them. However, as the circle got tighter and the dolphins began splashing in the water, the swimmers became a bit nervous by the aggressive behavior. It turns out that the dolphins were warding off a nearby shark that was moving close to the swimmers, who were certainly less apprehensive and more appreciative when reaching shore and realizing the heroism of the dolphins, which have also prevented sharks from continuing attacks on humans in other circumstances. …

When a flood overwhelmed an Amazon jungle, a family of ants adapted quickly, specifically by linking their legs together and forming a raft built on teamwork and love. As the above video amazingly captures, the ants utilize the raft to guide their Queen and babies through the water. While some ants were lost along the way to hungry fish, their sacrifices didn’t go without purpose as the ants safely reached shore and lived to see another day.

Goldfinches, painted ladies, and thistles


This video from England says about itself:

I put this video together because I used to find it difficult to identify a gadwall amongst a flock of female mallards.

Both the male and female gadwall have a white patch at the base of the hind wing. The female mallard has a blue patch in the same place. This is the easiest way to tell them apart particularly at a distance.

Video was taken at Slimbridge WWT in March 2008.

Today, again to where the Baillon’s crakes’ nest used to be.

If, as I hope, the young have survived, by now they are the same size as their parents, able to fly, and preparing their September migration to Africa. So, it is not surprising that I did not see Baillon’s crakes today.

Three great cormorants sitting on the windmill’s sails. One of them spreading its wings in order to dry them.

A little grebe flying just above the water, with its feet hanging behind it. It lands in the water.

Gadwall ducks.

No waders here at the moment. Maybe because there has been a lot of rain, making the water surface rise and making the mudflats surface smaller.

Today it is mostly sunny, with rain for a few seconds while the sun keeps shining.

Many barn swallows flying.

At the bridge where one can often see spoonbils, no spoonbills today. There are great cormorants. And, not far from the bridge, in the grass, a dead mole (see also here).

Two shoveler ducks.

A bit further, along the footpath, domestic geese plus two Canada geese.

On a mudflat, lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls. And a snipe looking for food.

A female tufted duck. Three lapwings.

A painted lady butterfly on a thistle flower. The Dutch name of this species is “distelvlinder”, thistle butterfly. A bit further, thistles where the flowers have already changed to thistledown. This attracts scores of “distelvinken”, literally: thistle finches; goldfinches in English.

An adult great crested grebe with a juvenile. Two adult mute swans with six greyish youngsters.

I arrive back at the bridge. The mole, which was lying in the grass an hour ago, lies on the footpath now. Probably a magpie flying away, which may haven been eating from it, is the cause of this.

How Moles Survive Subterranean Life: A special blood adaptation lets them inhale the same air they exhale: here.

Silver thistle photos: here.

Honduran congresswoman speaks about the dictatorship


By Belén Fernández, Special to The Narco News Bulletin:

AUGUST 30, 2009, SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS: Congresswoman Silvia Ayala of the anti-coup Unificación Democrática (UD) Party had just returned from Mexico and was en route to the Dominican Republic, part of a trajectory aimed at strengthening international condemnation of the June 28 coup d’etat against President Mel Zelaya. She made time to speak with me at a cafeteria in the northwestern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula and arrived with her husband and two children, who alternately contributed anecdotes to the discussion, answered Ayala’s cell phone, and—in the case of her young son—drew pictures in a notebook.

A lawyer herself, Ayala announced that about 200 Honduran attorneys had actively joined the coup resistance despite the general alliance between Honduran law school faculties and the political right. The Spanish description of the alliance exploits the homophonic similarity between derecho—law—and derecha, right, with additional Spanish homophony made possible by the arrival that day of Judge Baltasar Garzón of Spain to investigate coup regime violations of derechos humanos, human rights.

Such derechos had been one focus of Ayala’s recent appearance at the Foro de Sao Paulo in Mexico City, attended by over 500 mainly Latin American delegates.

At the cafeteria in San Pedro Sula, Ayala listed what she considered to be some of the primary violations currently occurring in Honduras, including instances of assassination and torture and a general persecution of Nicaraguan nationals innocently going about their business. As for curtailment of other liberties, Ayala informed me that she had learned from a hotel television set in June that Roberto Micheletti had been unanimously voted in as coup President, a unanimity that was apparently easier to maintain when certain members of Congress [including Ms Ayala herself] were not permitted to vote and were instead reduced to watching congressional proceedings on television.

US role in Colombia and Honduras sparks Latin American criticism: here.

Honduran Military Coup Reverses Women’s Gains in Human Rights: here.

US trade unionists have called on Washington to “take all necessary steps” to facilitate the restoration of democracy in Honduras and prevent the coup regime from “brutalising” Honduran women: here.

Joseph Shansky was part of a Global Exchange delegation of activists to Honduras who went to witness the daily protests, monitor human rights violations and report back to the international community on conditions since the June 28 military coup: here.

MANAGUA, Nov 5, 2010 (IPS) – Nicaragua has made some progress promoting gender equity and the empowerment of women, but it will have to step up efforts and overcome a number of hurdles if it is to eliminate inequalities between the sexes at all levels by 2015: here.