February 25, 2011

In honor of the world ski championships in Oslo, I think that the scientists who recently discovered a new dinosaur in Utah should considered a new scientific name. The dinosaur is currently named Brontomerus mcintoshi and nicknamed ‘Thunder Thighs’ because it has a large thigh bone to which scientists presume massive thigh muscles were attached. According to the article, the thigh muscles may have been used  “as a weapon to kick predators, or to help travel over rough, hilly terrain.” Not only that, but the dinosaur has upper body strength as well, as indicated by the ‘unusual bumps’ on its shoulder blades. The researcher added, “It’s possible that Brontomerus mcintoshi was more athletic than most other sauropods… so perhaps Brontomerus lived in rough, hilly terrain and the powerful leg muscles were a sort of dinosaur four-wheel drive. Doesn’t that sound a bit cross country skier-ish?

Check out this ‘kick’ over rough, hilly terrain:

and these powerful forelimb and leg muscles:

and then tell me that Brontomerus mcintoshi shouldn’t from this day forth be called

Nordicus bjoergenhellneri



Crash Boom BANG

January 19, 2011

Not only is it finally winter again here in Bozeman, it was sunny today, I built snowforts all afternoon and after work I got to go on a long classic ski. Life is great.

Except something is out of whack.

During my ski I fell not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES. These weren’t simple oops-I-lost-my-balance-I-better-sit-this-one-out falls. These were yard sales, if you can have yard sales with non-ejectable bindings. These were animated-slow-motion-flying-appendages falls.

What could be out of whack?

Humans have multiple sensory and muscular systems working to keep our balance in check. The main organ for this gargantuan task: the inner ear. Two small sacs in the inner ear are filled with sensory receptors and small crystals in a gel. When we move our heads, the crystals slide from one side to the other and the receptors tell our brains the relative position of our heads. Another section of the inner ear, called the semicircular canals, helps us figure out when we rotate our heads. The canals are partially filled with fluid and are at right angles with each other. When we turn our heads, the fluid bends another gel filled sac and receptors in the sac send more messages to the brain.

Why is it so important for us to know where are heads are located? They are always connected to the neck unless we find ourselves beneath the guillotine. The reason is that we can’t see our heads to know where the all important brain protector is or what it is doing. Thats why we need the inner ear.

The other main organ for balance is the eye. Our eyes can see almost all of our bodies, beside, of course our heads so they send messages to the brain telling it where Mr. Left Thumb and Ms. Right Calf are and what they are doing. Finally, proprioreceptors in our muscles and tendons tell the brain how stretched or relaxed the various parts of our bodies are at a given time.

So what happened to my balance today?

My inner ear could have been a little clogged, my eyes a little dull or my balance muscles a little fatigued. Personally, I am going to chalk it all up to snow snakes. They must have come out in celebration of the new snow.

The eepy creepy and evil "Serpentia nieve"


November 28, 2010

On Friday afternoon I trudged through  3 feet of snow searching for animal signs with a 10 year old girl named Rabbit. No, she was not unfortunately named by her parents. I was teaching outdoor science to a bunch of 8-12 years olds at the Ski Fest in West Yellowstone and that morning we had all chosen animal names to use for the day. The theme of the day was animals in winter. Seriously, I love animals, I love winter and I love skiing so I was pretty jazzed.

As Rabbit and I (I picked the name Cougar for the day, completely forgetting the connotations that now go along with a woman named Cougar) made our way through the snow, we started talking about science and she told me:

“We haven’t done an experiment in science this year in school.”

Now my coworker told me to take this with a grain of salt because kids have selective memories of school and don’t always realize that experiments occur in the science classroom. First of all, I think that her statement both blatantly shows the universal habit of teachers to blindly defend one of their own, and is beyond the point, because if Rabbit, who was a very intelligent girl, couldn’t remember the experiment that occurred in the last 3 months then it probably wasn’t interesting and should not have been taught.

Rabbit’s statement struck me because it correlates so well with my experience in science in elementary and middle school. I had a great science teacher in 5th grade, but after that, I cannot remember much EXCEPT one time when we had to perform and present experiments in 7th grade science (positive) and many many times when we had to take of quizzes directly from the book (negative). Oh, I also remember reading in the science book that pulling is easier than pushing and the corresponding picture showed a girl pushing with all her might on a door clearly marked ‘pull’, which takes the believability of the textbook and throws it into a cesspool of muskrat droppings.

I realize teachers are pressured to teach curriculum based on testing standards. I also think it is clear that elementary science in the classroom could be made a hell of a lot more interesting by basing it on observing, hypothesizing and testing. In other words, teaching children science instead of only reading comprehension (which is also obviously, but not singly, important) during science class. All the scientific knowledge we as a species now have has been derived from a series of experiments. Doesn’t it make sense that personal knowledge could also form from a series of experiments?

I know there is a lot of pressure on teachers to teach their kids to perform well on tests, that things such as behavioral issues can get in the way of experimental science (which is part of why my middle school science education was less than thrilling) and that teachers teach their strongest subjects best.

I also know that there are good science teachers out there. I hope that Rabbit gets one some day soon so that the only experiment she does this year is not Fur, Fat and Feathers during lunch on the Friday of Thanksgiving vacation.

Today it was sunny for the first time since I got back to Bozeman. Sun is nice. Sun is one of my favorite things. If I were a mole and had to live underground, I would be very sad. If I was a wharf rat in a rainy place, I would be very sad. In fact, I moved to Bozeman because it is generally sunny here.

The problem was that it was very warm as well. It got into the 50’s.

The temperature and wind combined to make the snow a little slushy and a little non-existent at the beginning of the trail, but thank goodness for the temperature-elevation gradient, it was much improved, although a little sticky, as I climbed up Sourdough.

Sunlight generally means warmer temperatures, but in far northern and southern latitudes the sun in winter is at an oblique angle and instead of soaking into the ground, it bounces back into the hinterlands of the atmosphere forgetting to leave its warmth behind (especially when there is snow, which has a high albedo or reflection rate, not to be confused with libido, or sexual desire). However, judging by my inability to wake up before 7:00 am and my need to go to sleep at 5:00 pm, there is not a lot of sunlight blessing Bozeman these days. Why was it so warm today?

Okay, there are a lot of reasons why it was warm, but I want to investigate why it is warmer in November than in January when there is the same amount of sunlight. We are 32 days away from the solstice. The average temperature in Bozeman on November 18 is a high of 39 and a low of 16 (it was obviously warmer today, but this is just a nasty mean). The average temperature 32 days after the solstice on January 21 is a high of 30 and a low of 8, which is not as different as I thought it would be, but still below the all important 32 degrees.

Seasons lag behind solstices and equinoxes (Two of my favorite words, by the way. Say them three or four times and you will know why) because the earth and more importantly the oceans store heat energy. Water has a high latent heat, or amount of energy needed to change states. A lot of energy, in this case sunlight, needs to injected into the oceans to cause temperature change enough to affect global weather patterns. The same is true when less energy is heating the water. It takes a while for the energy (heat) in the water to be released.

So January is colder than December and July is warmer than June. We knew that already. But this lag time is important in understanding the global climate, which we all know is changing due to our greedy consumption of fossil fuels, which are far less tasty than Ben and Jerry’s Fossil Fuel ice cream. More carbon dioxide molecules in the hinterlands of the atmosphere are reflecting sunlight back toward the earth and this time it will leave a little more heat near the ground. Because of the lag time, we may not know when the oceans are too warm for the earth to continue on its seasonal cycle until there is no chance of reversing the trend.

Then January might be like November and November like September and there won’t be nearly enough time to ski…let alone survive.

The weather today made me remember how gorgeous Bozeman is. Check out the wind on top of Baldy. You can click the photo to make it larger.

Here comes a biggie

November 17, 2010

Today I went for another ski – praise the snow gods – this time at Bohart. I made it up to Lookout, which was no easy feat with my lack of early season conditioning, and started toward Bracket Creek and in front of me I saw a coyote! As usual with coyotes, especially in the west, I didn’t precisely see the coyote, but the tail end of the coyote and this was one nice bushy tail end. Immediately I thought, “there is something to write about.”

Because it turns out coyotes are one of my obsessions.

I am going to leave it at that and go on with a story from this past summer to illustrate my point. I was at a bar, okay, the bar, in Winnett, Montana. How I got to this bar in Winnett, a town with the motto “You can blink twice, but we are still here” pasted on its welcome sign is for later.

For now, imagine me sitting at a country bar in eastern Montana with Zane the old guy on one side and a construction worker from Billings on the other. This was the night of the last NBA final game and Billings guy had been there for a while. I had three drinks waiting in the form of upside-down dixie cups in front of me bought by Billings guy and his friends and it was 11:00. I was about 2 hours past my social limit.

And then Billings guy brought up coyotes.

Apparently for a drunk guy from Billings,  the best way to flirt (even my faulty flirt-dar was blaring warning signals in my head) with a girl who has already admitted to the blasphemy of working for the University of Montana, home of the hated Griz, and to liking plants and animals and sciencey things is to brag about how he lures coyotes close to him by staking out his dogs and proceeds to shoot them. Seriously? Now, I know how alcohol works and I have some idea how stupid men work, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised and I shouldn’t have been that indignant either.

But, unfortunately I could feel the hair on my ruff rising and a bit of a snarl forming on my lips.

People hate coyotes. People hate coyotes enough to risk their dogs and spend hours waiting for the coyotes to come in. People love bragging about how many coyotes they’ve killed. I talked to a guy last summer who kills coyotes for the federal government in Wyoming and he averages 70-80 per day. The government puts canid-specific poison, which of course can easily kill domestic dogs, out on public lands and fails to put adequate signs to warn people. I saw a sign warning of poison literally 200 meters from a campground in a National Forest in Wyoming.

Coyotes are predators. Coyotes kill small defenseless things like lambs and mule deer fawns that people would like the right to kill later. People blame them, along with wolves if wolves are around, for lack of success during deer season. However, I have not found any studies that show that coyotes cause population level decreases in mule deer populations. Moreover, studies by state wildlife agencies, which are not known for being coyote friendly, in Montana, Colorado and Utah, found that coyote removal does not lower fawn mortality even though coyotes are one of the main predators for fawns.

How can this be? This shows one of the limits of this type of science. Fawn mortality is generally deduced by examining fawn carcasses. It is very difficult to tell whether a fawn died of starvation and the carcass was eaten by a coyote or whether the coyote killed it. Even more importantly, the fawn might have been weakened by starvation and would have died  even if the coyote hadn’t killed it.

Science is based on testing assumptions and then testing the assumptions that created the assumptions.

People are based on assumptions.

So I told Billings guy he was stupid because I couldn’t help it. Then I turned to Zane the old guy and happily conversed about canoeing the Missouri in the 1980’s.

After I spent the morning reading science papers and watching for the non-existent 100% chance of snow to start falling in town, I headed to Sourdough with rock skis and snow dog in tow. I scouted the trail yesterday and was delighted to find more than enough snow to reduce the traction on my running shoes and make me itchy for some glide. Today, despite the disappointingly faulty forecast for Bozeman, the snow and the temperature fell as I drove south to the canyon. In the parking lot, after managing to lure Raven away from some tasty elk leg by running and screaming zombie-style, I clicked into my bindings and


I started up the trail and found the rhythm I miss so much during the summer. Soon,  my body heated up and after managing to lure Raven away from the massive, and once again tasty, pile of horse droppings, I worked up the beginning of the hill (the trail is pretty much all one large hill up the canyon and a blazing fury of a descent back down). I could feeling happiness coursing through my veins. It was


Also known as endorphins. During exercise, sex and apparently the consumption of spicy food, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in our brains release gleeful little peptides called endorphins that work like opiates to make us feel as though the world is in order and happiness fairies are sprinkling us with their magical dust. Who needs a boyfriend? I can ski! A study in Europe measured endorphin levels in skiers after a long-distance race and found elevated levels in all of the skiers, but especially in those that were more experienced and better-trained. Apparently, all the years I spent skiing (even the period around age 8 when would cry when I had to skate up a hill) have trained my body to give me an even better high.


Or magic? Science is the logical investigation of observations that leads to more questions, to more curiosity. Scientific thought is the lens through which I choose to read the never-ending mystery novel of life on earth. I find it enchanting.

Enchanting enough to write a blog about it.

The groomer was on the way up while we were on the way down, which made for a fun descent.