IF YOU WANT TO LEARN, TALK TO THOSE WHO SAY LITTLE


In November, I went to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for the Festival of the Cranes.  I got to see fellow volunteer crane guides and took a course in Sandhill Crane behavior, with on site examples.  I also visited the VLA, the Very Large Array of 27 large parabolic radio telescope dishes on movable tracks.

Lesser Sandhill Cranes are remarkable birds, some migrating as far as Siberia.  I now can identify juveniles, males and females by voice.  I can identify their unison calls, see the aggressive behavior they may display afterwards, and describe their dancing.  I was a decent guide last spring; I will be a far better one next year.

I stayed at a house in Socorro while the owners were temporarily living at the Refuge, volunteering.  Erv and Sandra are a remarkable couple; both well into their 60s, they are “professional volunteers,” known in the Fish and Wildlife Service as a couple who will go to a place for a few months, make a big impact, then move to another area.  In 2008, when I first met them, they “followed” the Sandhill Cranes north from their wintering spot in New Mexico, to the magnificent staging of 600,000 on the Platte, to Homer, Alaska, finally ending in Fairbanks.  While I was in New Mexico, they received an offer to go to Coldfoot, Alaska next summer.  They are either going there or to the Columbia River.  They are in demand.  Sandra can do it because she has two artificial joints.  Bravo for science, bravo for Medicare, bravo for Social Security.

My first evening, I went with both to watch the evening fly in of the cranes to a wetland.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many when I was there.  The cranes migrate south later every year, because the Arctic has warmed so much.  Indeed, the dates of the Festival will likely have to change.  One can argue about climate change, but cranes don’t argue; they sense warmth, not politics; 65% of bird species in the Christmas bird count, which I help out in, have moved significantly further north.  Erv and Sandra introduced me to several of their friends in a nearby RV park, and I was invited for dinner.  I was going to drive back to Socorro, grab a sandwich and sleep.  Fortunately, I didn’t.

That evening, I spent time with 6 other couples, all of whom older than I.  The food was good, the conversation better.  They were fascinated with my eclipse chasing and experiences.  Politics stayed out of the discussion, and mostly medical issues, too, a rarity among the elderly.   These people had worked for decades and were enjoying their retirement.  I wonder if they would be if it were not for the science so many disparage or the liberal programs of Social Security or Medicare.  I just wondered, but I kept my mouth shut.

I did open it later, however, to speak to the man who owned the RV and had been quiet most of the evening.  Quiet people often have a lot to say, if one can draw them out.  This man was no exception.  He was a physicist who worked at JPL and was surprised that I knew of it.  Are we so “educationally challenged” these days that we don’t know of the JPL, the place that allowed Americans get to the moon and do all sorts of other wonderful things?

The man was a pioneer in fiber optics.  He told me about silica (SiO2), the stretching and strength properties of the pure substance, which is the best spring we know of.  He told me that he thought it was better than satellite transmission, since it was faster and had fewer delays, so long as it was protected.  Satellites, as we all know, are far from safe, given solar radiation and space junk.  Bouncing signals off satellites leads to longer delays.  They are also more difficult to repair.  Fiber optics have revolutionized society, including medicine, although I learned fiber optics were most helpful was in transatlantic cables.

This man disparaged himself by saying that he was out of date.  But his explanation of fiber optics was by far the best I had ever heard.  Perhaps that is because he mentioned one of his teachers in quantum mechanics:  Richard Feynman, arguably the most brilliant physicist in the 20th century, and who single handedly figured out what happened to Challenger using simple science that even most Americans could understand.

I’ve come full circle.  In July, I met a young physicist from Germany, a woman who is working on an X-Ray telescope that will allow us to learn a great deal about X-Ray radiation sources in the universe.  She represents where we are going–brilliant, part of a large team, well educated, well traveled and articulate.

In November, I met an 80 year-old retired physicist who worked on fiber optic cables and studied under Feynman.  He represents the past and helped me understand how we got to where we are today.   Twice now, I’ve gone to see something and discovered far more.  In July, I went to see an eclipse; in November the Sandhill Cranes.  But my memories of both will be of two different people I met on each trip, young and old, German and American, woman and man, same field, different eras.  Both had a great deal to teach me.  All I had to do was draw them out.  For some reason I really don’t know, I did and was better for it.

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