A Beluga Whale Meets a Mariachi Band

Whales are incredibly intelligent creatures, known for having individual personalities and even distinct cultures (such that there is even a serious movement to grant them an equivalent to human rights). If the following video doesn’t attest to their remarkable development, I don’t know what will.

I could never watch that video without smiling. It’s definitely something to bookmark in the event of a bad day.

The Inspiring Story of Patrick Henry Hughes

This is one of the most touching narratives I’ve seen in some time. You need to see it to believe it.

I wonder if I would turn out any better if I were in this young man’s shoes. It takes an exceptional person to make due with such difficult circumstances, let alone achieve greatness.

Hat tip to my good friend Javier for sharing this with me.

Rare Whale Ahoy!

The Australian Broadcasting Network (a pretty reputable news source) recently posted footage of an extremely rare marine animal known as theShepherd’s beaked whale, which had been spotted off the southern coast of Australia.  This is the first video ever taken of this species, our knowledge of which is limited to only six sighting and 29 beached specimens.

You can access the video in the first hyperlink, since I can’t embed it here. Its well worth the attention, as it represents a beautiful and intimate glimpse into a very mysterious creature (which appears to be joined by many other different kinds of marine life).

As to be expected, we don’t know much about this enigmatic creature, other than that it’s quite small for it a whale, and seems to be a deep-water feeder found only in the Southern Hemisphere, near Antarctica.

It’s amazing to think that with our technological intrusion into seemingly every inch of this planet, there is still so much that remains unknown. Who knows what else is waiting to be found in this great expanse of blue. We often talk of space as a frontier, but I think our own oceans will remain quite untamed for years to come.

John and Joe

This is another tear-jerker from StoryCorps, from where I previously posted an equally affecting video, Germans in the Woods. Like that one – and all the narratives the group collects – this story is brief but very emotive, as you’ll hopefully experience when you watch it below.

His closing statement had some of the truest and most beautiful words I’ve heard in a while. Ultimately, he and his sons got to exchange something many of us treat as perfunctory, if not bothersome, for the very last time. Yet as is always the case, these feelings come to have the greatest significance once the person is gone. It was a very raw deal, but I could think of no better silver lining.
Don’t hold back your expressions of love. You’ll never know if it’ll be the last time for either you or your loved ones. For that matter, don’t let petty grudges fester, as every second on this Earth is too precious and fragile to be wasted wallowing in negativity. It’s easier said than done, but its well worth the effort.
This may be a morbid thought to keep in mind, but that’s just the nature of the world we live in. All we can do is work around. All each of us have is one another and the tenuous moments we briefly share just once. Please make the most of them all. You just never know.

A Great Defense of Gay Marriage

This is probably one of the best pleas for marriage equality I’ve heard yet, and it comes from a Republican State Representative in Washington State. The video has recently gone viral, perhaps as much because it’s coming from a member of the more conservative party, than for fact her words are very compelling. Judge for yourselves.

Mrs. Walsh was one of only two Republicans to break ranks with her party and vote in favor of Washington’s marriage-equality bill, and that was her impassioned explanation. Sure enough, the state legislature passed the bill shortly after.

Despite heavy opposition, both public and political trends are moving favorably towards gay-marriage rights, if only because more people are empathizing, as this lawmaker did, with the driving force of marriage equality.

Real Time Video of Aurora Borealis

The recent spike in solar activity has produced some stunning aurorae, such as the one captured on video and posted in the Bad Astronomy column of Discover Magazine. It’s an unusually active and dazzling specimen, even by the breathtaking standards of the aurora borealis. As writer Phil Plait explains:

Aurorae video is generally done with time lapse to show the movement, which is usually slow. I’ve often wondered just how fast the movement really is; I always figured fluctuations in the solar particle density, speed, and magnetic fields would produce real-time changes in the lights, but I’d never seen anything like this! After a search of YouTube I actually found several more.

I know some people will think this is fake, and I had my skeptic hat on while watching it. Note that in most time lapse you can see the stars move; in this they don’t, indicating (unless it’s a complete fake) short periods of time during the filming. Given that, plus the existence of other video like it, I’m thinking this is real.

Mind you, the movement you’re seeing isn’t a physical motion. It’s not like solid curtains of material are flapping. The lights are caused by atoms in the upper atmosphere getting hit by subatomic particles blasted out by the Sun, caught by our Earth’s magnetic field, and funneled down into our air. These particles dump energy into the atoms, moving the electrons up in energy (called excitation). The electrons then jump back down, emitting light in the process (de-excitation). As I said in an earlier post, it’s like needing energy to jump up stairs, but releasing it as you jump down.

Different atoms have different energy levels for the electrons — think of it as more or less spacing vertically between steps in a staircase — so the energy emitted is different, resulting in differentcolors emitted. That’s why we see green, red, purple… they come mostly from oxygen and nitrogen in the air. So as the magnetic field fluctuates, the particles are sent shooting down in different places, giving the appearance of motion while the atoms themselves don’t move.

The physics is complex and interesting, but the beauty of these lights is, to use another term, magical. Not in the fantasy sense, but in the sense of the emotional response we have to them. They are simply breathtaking in these videos, and are a wonderful by-product of our tempestuous Sun.

Indeed, the inherent beauty in the natural world leads to an almost spiritual reverence for the beauty of our universe. I must see this phenomenon myself some day. Hope you enjoy.

The Birth of a Galaxy

The following video is a computer simulation that depicts the evolution of a galaxy. It’s based off our own Milky Way, and begins from the Big Bang to the the present, spanning a period of 13 billion of years (give or take a few billion, since we don’t know for sure). It comes from the science blog Starts with a Bang.


The video is credited to Fabio Governato et al, the  University of Washington, and NASA Advanced Supercomputing. The caption reads:

Mergers of galaxies are common in their evolution. This movie shows the evolution of a galaxy with similar mass to our own Milky Way, commencing shortly after the Big Bang. The simulation is in a fully cosmological setting, according to our knowledge of Big Bang cosmology. This particular galaxy has a rich merging history, including a major merger at redshift of ~1, i.e. at a time when the Universe was almost half its current age. A large disk reforms from gas left over after the merger, and from subsequent gaseous accretion.

On another note, the creator of Starts with a Bang, Ethan Siegel,  is using this video to bring attention to an interesting project, The Charity Engine; basically, you can contribute your computer’s time and processing power to help with scientific calculations like those involved in this simulation, while also giving to charities at the same time. It’s a worthy cause to look into, especially if you want more videos like this.

It’s amazing to imagine that this sort of thing is happening all over the universe, at this very moment. It’s on a scale of time, size, and power that is literally incomprehensible to our own minds and lifespans. It’s breathtaking how small we are in this universe.

Hat tip to Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution is True for raising this to my attention.

Germans in the Woods

The following video comes from StoryCorps, a brilliant non-profit that records, preserves, and shares the narratives of Americans across the country. They tend to be brief but powerful pieces, and the one below is no exception – it nearly elicited tears from my eyes, and gave me the chills.

Given my interest in war and human conflict – intertwined with any formal study of politics, history, and international relations – I’ve long wondered what it is like to involuntarily take a human life. From what I’ve seen and heard, it is one of the most haunting and psychologically devastating experiences imaginable, even in cases where you had no choice or weren’t at fault.
That said, war amplifies this horrific circumstance like nothing else. The greatest tragedy of most military conflicts is that young strangers who would otherwise have no reason to harm one another are forced to kill or be killed, as the soldier above did. It is an obvious but painful choice between losing your life and taking another’s. Its pits our natural instinct for self-preservation, perhaps the most powerful driving force imaginable, against our underrated capacity to feel empathy for one another. It’s a cruel and regrettable experience I hope never to have to witness, much less partake in.
War is awful enough in a macro analysis. But when one hears and sees individual accounts like these, it becomes daunting to imagine just how compounded the agony is. Thousands and millions of casualty figures are not just numbers – they each represent a human being, who once had dreams, experiences, interests, loved ones, a personality, and a mutual desire to live. Despite our best efforts to dehumanize the enemy, or to necessarily encapsulate war’s consequences in cold statistical data, we can’t get past the human element, the emotional and psychological toll that can’t be measured and often can’t be fixed.
Nor should we forget, given the valuable, if morbid, lesson first highlighted by American Civil War general Robert E. Lee:
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
Had there never been a war, I wonder what would have become of that Angel Soldier, or his reluctant and tortured killer? Where would the millions who perished in that conflict alone be? Private Robertson’s compassion and empathy are a bright light in an otherwise horrific and consistent example of humanity at its worst.