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A Little Bird that LOVES Summer – and flies 40,000 miles a year to enjoy it 

By Shlomo Maital

Arctic tern

   So – we humans love summer, right. In normal times: vacation, hiking, Nature, beaches, ocean, sunshine…   But there is a little bird, that weighs 100 grams, that REALLY loves summer. I mean, LOVES!   And it flies 40,000 miles round trip, or more,  just to enjoy permanent year-round summer.

   But how?

   So, Arctic terns breed during the summer, in the Arctic and northern temperate regions, in May-June. Then later in July they begin their migration south– far south, 12,000 miles to Antarctica. And they arrive in time for the Antarctic summer. Before winter again returns to the Antarctic, they fly back to the Arctic, another 12,000 miles.

   25,000 miles round trip – the distance around the Earth, at the equator. All this, for a little bird that weighs 100 grams.

     And if this is not amazing enough —   baby birds do it too. Fledglings are born, and within three months, they do the long migratory flight from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back.

     But wait. We do not do it justice. Arctic terns do not fly in a straight line, North Pole to South Pole and back. Tracking devices show this:

   Eleven birds that bred in Greenland or Iceland covered 70,900 km (44,100 mi) on average in a year, with a maximum of 81,600 km (50,700 mi). The difference from previous estimates is due to the birds’ taking meandering courses rather than following a straight route as was previously assumed. The birds follow a somewhat convoluted course in order to take advantage of prevailing winds.

   And consider this:

     The average Arctic tern lives about thirty years, and will, based on …. research, travel some 2.4 million km (1.5 million mi) during its lifetime, the equivalent of a roundtrip from Earth to the Moon over 3 times.

There are so many wonders on our beautiful planet — I wish more people would support Green Planet programs — and respect the Arctic tern and other miraculous creatures that share the Earth with us.

It is not fanatical to claim that indirectly, this awful pandemic reflects our deep lack of respect for Nature, in all its facets, and our arrogant underestimation of Nature’s value and power. If a little bird that weighs one-fifth of a pound can travel a distance equal to the Moon and back over three times in its lifetime —   maybe we humans should be a tad more humble.

   By the way – we know all this, partly because experts place high-tech tags on the Arctic terns’ legs – the tag weighs only 1 gram, has a GPS chip on it, does not burden the bird and helps us understand its habits. Few people see the bird, because it always flies over water.

Roots of US Racism:   Read The Warmth of Other Suns

By Shlomo Maital

     Every story has a ‘back story’ – background that is essential for our understanding. The current Black Lives Matter protests have a very long and old back story. It is found in the wonderful book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: the epic story of America’s great migration, by African-Americans, from the South to the cities of the North.  This migration is in large part the back story of Black Lives Matter. 

    I heard about the book in a favorite NPR podcast, On Being, when Krista Tippett, podcast founder, interviewed author Isabel Wilkerson, in 2016. Here is an excerpt from this interview. It is very long. To save you time: African-Americans migrated from the South, after they were ‘liberated’, freed as slaves, to save their lives, literally, but found they were enslaved again, as sources of cheap exploitable labor, in the factories of the North, where the racism was if anything more fierce and more hypocritical.    Warning: This blog is 1200 words, double the usual length.

Wilkerson: citing a source: “He wrote, “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown… I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps — just perhaps — to bloom.”

Tippett: “You’ve said that the language of “political asylum” is absolutely apt here for what people were undertaking. And it’s just not — as much as we know a lot of these stories and a lot of the things that were wrong, that feels like a new recognition.”

Wilkerson:   “It does. I think that because it happened within the borders of our own country, we don’t think about it as — first of all, it was a kind of immigration. Although, these were — this was the only group of Americans who had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens. They were forced to seek political asylum within the borders of their own country because they were living in a caste system in the South that did not recognize their citizenship. And some of them travelled farther than current day immigrants might, but that was really not the point. The point was that the country actually was kind of two countries in one, and that’s what they had to do.

   “I often say that the book is viewed as being a book about the Great Migration, and over time, as I’ve talked about it over these years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not about migration. The Great Migration is not about migration, and really, probably no migration is about migration. It’s about freedom and how far people are willing to go to achieve it. This is the means that they feel they must take in order to find freedom wherever they can find it.

Tippett:   “Yeah. And this book is such a — it embodies this paradox that writers know, that storytellers know, that radio actually knows, that the more particular you can get with your story, the more universally it can be received, that others can join their life and their imagination with what you have to share. And there were these moments for me in the book that were just so human, that were so relatable, that made all these other horrors come home.

And so one of them for me was George Swanson Starling. You asked him what he hoped for in leaving, and he said, “I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way” — I’m getting chills — “without the fear of getting lynched at night.” And even the way it comes across — he didn’t say it — it doesn’t sound like he said it with a lot of bitterness or drama. It was just matter of fact.

Wilkerson:   “Not even that much emotion because it was — these were the facts of their lives. And at that time when they were growing up — and this time period was a very long time. I mean, it was the end of Reconstruction until the 1970s. It encompassed someone who was born in the 1880s and passed away in the ‘60s would’ve known nothing other than this. And so, these were the facts of their lives.

   “And he didn’t — he was not emotional. He wasn’t bitter. It was just a matter-of-fact statement of what it was that he was up against and why he felt he had no choice but to go. I ran into a lot of people who said they don’t think they would’ve lived if they had stayed. There was actually a tremendous amount of fear that a lot of parents in the South had for their children if they were extroverted and opinionated.

Tippett:   “If their children were?”

Wilkerson:   “Yeah, if they were spirited and expressive, there was a need to reign that in. I mean, in other words, childhood itself had to be controlled and repressed because it could mean their very lives. And so he grew up under that. And his father said, “If you’re going to continue doing this work, the things you’re doing, it’s best that you go.”

   “And one of the things that happened in this Great Migration is that it spread people all over this country. I mean, people — these places that they went, there had not been a significant African American population. So you look at the African American population of all of the cities in the North, Midwest, and West are a result of this. We’re seeing the manifestation of that, Seattle or Oakland or Los Angeles.

Tippett:   Detroit wasn’t Detroit.

Wilkerson:   “No, it wasn’t. None of these places were what they were at the time. And a lot of them are filled by people who felt they had no choice and that they would not have lived if they hadn’t gotten out.”

Tippett: “Something else, something that was disturbing about the dynamic is that, on the one hand, African Americans were being lured by the North as cheap labor. And the South, for the same reasons, was keeping people in. That’s shocking to me. I don’t know. I shouldn’t be shocked, but just …”

Wilkerson:   “Well, I think that a lot of this actually is not — it’s out there, but it’s not commonly known. And one of the things I hear most often when I go out talking about this book — or people write to me constantly, and it’s the same phrase over and over again, “I had no idea.” I hear it over and over again from people who actually were alive at the time that some of these things were going on. Part of it, is that a lot of the people just didn’t talk about it.

   “If you think about it on both sides of this caste system or this divide, there was not much incentive for anyone to talk about it. I mean, on the one side, people don’t want to really think about the awful things going on around them. And then those who were suffering from it and had escaped — they didn’t want to burden their children with it. It was like post-traumatic stress. They didn’t want to deal with it.”

The Miracle of a Butterfly’s Wings

 By Shlomo Maital  

  Butterflies in general are small miracles; evolution has created them, most lovely of creatures, from ugly caterpillars.

     But on Ira Flatow’s wonderful Science Friday podcast, latest edition, we learned about the butterfly’s miraculous wings, based on new research.

     The color? It’s not from pigment. It is created by tiny “nanoscales”, tiny structures, that reflect light of various wave lengths. Some of these nanoscales reflected near-infrared light, to keep the delicate butterfly’s wings cool – built-in air conditioning. Some of the nanoscales create the amazing coloring of the butterfly’s wings.  (Turns out, blue eyes in humans also get their color from nanostructure, not from pigment!)

     Other structures in the wing generate pheromones, for males, which attract females.   But most amazing is the tiny ‘heart’ – beating small heart cells in the wings, that pump blood and keep the wing alive and healthy, in addition to a regular heart in the thorax (body) of the butterly.

     One of Nature’s most amazing migrations is that of the Monarch butterfly. According to Wikipedia: “The eastern North American monarch population is notable for its annual southward late-summer/autumn migration from the northern and central United States and southern Canada to Florida and Mexico. During the fall migration, monarchs cover thousands of miles, with a corresponding multi-generational return north.

     Thousands of miles?   Those delicate feather-light butterflies? How in the world? Apparently, the butterflies use southward air currents to help them. Monarchs need milkweed – their caterpillars eat only milkweed and Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed as a result. Milkweed in Mexico is disappearing, threatening these amazing creatures.

     The underlying miracle of the butterfly wing is evolution. Classical evolution has long ago halted in humans, because we now know fortunately how to keep alive the weak, the ill, the disabled…. But we humans can still use this incredible model for human progress.

     Like the evolution of butterfly wings: Try things. Most will fail. Don’t worry about it. A few will succeed. When they do – go with it! And be patient. It took millions of years for butterfly wings to evolve as they are. We humans don’t have hillions of years. But we do need some patience, to try things, to fail, fail, fail…and ultimately succeed,   without giving up at the second or third failure.


Global Economy: Clouds Gather

By Shlomo Maital

Caption: In the EU, the current state of the economy, and expectations for the near-term future, have both turned down sharply since the beginning of 2018.


   I regularly respond to a questionnaire from Ifo – Institute for Economic Research, based in Munich. Ifo regularly surveys economists and business leaders around the world, to put a hand on the pulse of the global economy.

   Ifo’s latest report is worrisome. Here are some excerpts from their latest report:

   “Sentiment in the euro area continued to weaken this quarter. The ifo Economic Climate for the euro area fell significantly from 19.6 points to 6.6 points, plunging to its lowest level since mid-2016. Experts downwardly revised their assessments of both the current economic situation and their expectations significantly. The euro area’s economy is moving into rough waters.”

   There are major problems in Italy and Spain. Italy’s new right-wing government is quarreling with the European Commission. Spain is showing signs of instability.   In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she will not run again for the leadership of her party, and may possibly resign as Chancellor by year’s end. Hungary is muzzling the press and its judiciary.

   The Ifo report continues: “Experts scaled back their export expectations for the euro area, reflecting beliefs that barriers to trade have grown higher. At the same time, a larger number of experts now believe that short and long-term interest rates will rise over the next six months; and that the US dollar will continue to strengthen.”

     China’s economic growth is slowing, and the renminbi (yuan) is touching 7 to the dollar. In tomorrow’s election, the US may find itself with a split Congress – Democratic House, Republican Senate.  The US stock markets had their worst month in years.

   The world is now paying for neglecting countries, and wage-earners, who were left out of global growth and wealth creation. Migration has destabilized Europe, the Mideast and to some extent, the US.   If wealth does not come to a country, and if it is not distributed well, many people in that country will flee toward the wealth.   And when they do, the resulting instability will put a deep dent in wealthy economies.

How a Tiny Butterly Does the Impossible…So Can You!

By Shlomo  Maital    

     Monarch 1  Monarch 2                       


   Consider the amazing Monarch butterly, shown above.  They weigh only 0.4 grams  each, on average. This is a bit more than one one-hundredth of an ounce!  Yet they are able to engage in an annual migration of some 8,000 kms. (4,800 miles!).  The trip north to coastal California and Washington from Mexico each spring requires three to four generations, as eggs are laid on the way in spots where milkweed grows, caterpillars emerge, spin chrysalises, and become butterflies. 

   How in the world do light-as-air butterflies manage to fly so far, even through three or four generations?  They are very clever at using updrafts of warm air and air currents.  How do they avoid being eaten, as they fly in large butterly clouds?  Simple.  They eat milkweed.    Milkweed contains a toxic poison. So birds avoid Monarch butterflies, easily identifiable by the coloration, because eating them gives them a stomach ache, which birds learn the hard way.   The toxic poison is called cardiac glycosides, steroids that act like digitalis and stop the heart.  Not only do Monarchs have poison, they concentrate the poison in their wings, where birds tend to attack.  Monarchs have also evolved to mimic the viceroy butterly, in coloration, which is even more poisonous.

   Monarch butterflies live only for about 30 days.  But what a 30 days!  They are the only butterfly to do a north-south migration, flying north in the spring and south toward winter.   They migrate in huge clouds of millions of butterflies, an amazing sight.

     Monarch butterflies evolved through evolution, and are   proof of how wonderfully Nature does experiments that generate incredible creatures.  There are endless miracles like Monarch butterflies.  They should all, together, make us far more respectful of the wondrous planet in which we live,  which alas we seem intent on polluting and ruining.   How much we can all learn from a tiny fragile creature that weighs nothing yet has learned to survive by making an impossibly long journey every year. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital