Great Balls of Fire

Early Monday morning, a fireball lit up the night sky over Wisconsin. For a just a second, dark became light. And then there was an explosion followed by a terrifying sonic boom.

Loretta Brockmeier, a resident of Random Lake, Wisconsin, a town about 40 minutes north of Milwaukee, got up to use the bathroom and happened to catch a glimpse of the blaze, “a bright green flash that lit up the outside like the sun,” she wrote on Facebook. Brockmeier went to the window to see if she could puzzle out the cause, but nothing seemed amiss. A minute later, she heard a thunderous blast followed by rumbling. It sounded “like a boulder hitting the roof and rolling down the side,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, I was fast asleep. But I heard the news the next morning on Wisconsin Public Radio. And it was the term “fireball” that gave me pause. Fireball sounds like the kind of thing that might precede the apocalypse. But the reporter offered no explanation. No definition. As if fireballs are commonplace. Continue reading

Conversation: Mike Lemonick & the Perpetual Now

I’ve known Mike Lemonick for several thousand years, ever since he assigned me to write a news story.  And I was then, as I still am, congenitally unable to write news stories.  All I remember is that I blew the news story and Mike had to completely rewrite it. I don’t remember the story, I don’t remember the magazine, I’m not even entirely sure it was Mike. Obviously, this post is going to be on memory, about which Mike has written a new book.

Ann:  Here’s how Mike begins his book:  he’s walking down a street in his home town, Princeton, and he runs into a woman he’s known since the time they both played in middle school orchestra.  He remembers, instantly and almost uncontrollably, playing the bugle call on his trumpet every morning before assembly, screwing it up every time, and how the other kids in his class got on his case about it, also about his clothes and haircut.  He’s reminding us what we know: how memory normally works.

The woman, whose name is Aline, asks him if he knows about what happened to her sister, who’s a few years older than Mike and Aline.  Aline tells Mike that several years ago, her sister, Lonni Sue, got a brain infection that more or less wiped out her memory.  That is, Lonni Sue remembers almost nothing of her past and the present for only a few minutes and then that’s gone too.  Mike goes to visit Lonni Sue, says, “Hi, I’m Mike.”  And she’s delighted to see him and they talk for a minute about her drawings, then she says, “Hi, my name’s Lonni Sue.  What’s yours?”  The title of Mike’s book is The Perpetual Now. And I have questions.

Mike: Before you ask those questions, the magazine was Science Digest, which was (mercifully) put out of its misery in 1986. The story had something to do with quantum uncertainty; you used the analogy of a pitcher throwing a baseball—I no longer remember why. But I do remember that you didn’t “blow” the story in any sense, and that I was intimidated to be editing you. OK, on to your questions.

Ann:  Was the story about macroscopic quantum effects, like the pitcher threw the baseball at the wall and the baseball couldn’t go through the wall but appeared on the other side anyway?  Maybe I remember that — we’re talking 30 years ago.  But I did blow the story, and thank you anyway.  

The first question which comes up the minute the reader understands what’s going on with Lonni Sue, that she has no memory of the past and no sense of the future — wait, I don’t remember, does Lonni Sue have a sense of the future? Continue reading

No Rings, Pops, or Bells

I don’t know what to do with my phone. It makes noises that I don’t understand. Sometimes it sounds like a jackpot machine and I want to throw it as far as I can.

The last few days I found myself out of range while driving across southern Utah, trying to call my boys to say goodnight, arranging pickup and drop off times down the road, contacting people to be interviewed, banks, congress people, the usual. Instead, there was silence. I hate to say it, but I missed the damn thing. I could feel its emptiness, palpating around the negative space of zero bars and finding nothing. It was like a ghost limb, something familiar defined by absence.

I am used to silence in the backcountry. I love weeks of being unaccountable. But not in my car or kicking around a pull out, waiting for my gas tank to fill at the station in Hanksville, tapping the screen to see what’s up with the world. This was my magic space box, and it said nilContinue reading

The Last Word

January 27 – February 3, 2017

Helen, who also sings and writes, set out on a mission to draw every day in hopes that she’d get better.  After a year of this, she reports on the state of her art.  I personally think she should leave a couple things for the rest of us to do.

Cameron, who’s never been to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, takes us to the ocean-bound Norwegian island and deep under a mountain, where she’s certain we’ll find warmth, comfort, and safety, bar the polar bears.

Sarah takes us to another magic place, the Tongass National Forest — so rich and diverse and seemingly endless, it’ll never go away.  Which is typical idiot human thinking for, why protect abundance when you can protect the places you’ve almost killed off?

The toughest, strongest, bad-ass hard-core macho guy Erik knows isn’t a climber or hiker or mountaineer or cage fighter, it’s this skinny jungle-bugs entomologist.

Some time ago I fell in love with the Capital Weather Gang and took them for my personal meteorological saviors.  Do we go ahead with the block party with a forecast of rain? I mount my pulpit; I read the moving fronts, the CAPE, the probabilities, the certainty; we go ahead and it doesn’t rain.


Drawing by Sarah G.


Redux: Love Song for the Capital Weather Gang

imrsThat’s a screen shot of the Capital Weather Gang’s excited tweet. I’d just finished explaining to our own Erik Vance what a derecho was — he said it meant “straight ahead” and was a dumb name for a weather phenomenon — and that the mid-Atlantic, which he was then visiting, wouldn’t be getting the derecho the Midwest was having.  I referred him to the Gang’s thorough and authoritative post on the subject, when the Gang itself tweeted that it had just that minute finished installing its own weather station on the Washington Post’s roof.  Taking its own data! analyzing that data its own self! combining data and models to make a prediction! along with a confidence level!  I’m so happy for them I can’t write any more and will just have to send you back to the original: Love Song for the Capital Weather Gang.

Redux: So Hard Core

When I first met Brian Fisher, I was still a young science writer cutting my teeth in the Bay Area. I desperately wanted to write a feature about him but could never sell the story. So, finally, I wrote about him here on LWON and again in a sequel, here. Sigh. I could have done ten more like this, he’s so cool.

shutterstock_187066352Many years ago, before I was a science writer, but after I tried being a scientist, I spent some time in the outdoor industry. It’s a weird phrase, I know, but it covers anything related to activities like skiing, backpacking, kayaking and generally avoiding getting a real job.

We did a lot of guiding and working at summer camps while selling outdoor gear to make rent. And all the while, planning our next adventure into the wilderness and parts unknown. Occasionally, very rarely, one of us would be sponsored to have a truly epic adventure in Antarctica or an African rainforest. But those were only the seriously hardcore.

If you work in this field long enough, you find there is a certain kind of bravado that goes along with the outdoor industry – a sort of one-upmanship about who is the most outdoorsy.

Hardman one: “Yeah, so last year when I was trekking in Nepal with a community of Sherpas, I just couldn’t handle all the tourists.”

Hardman two: “Oh yeah, when I was walking the Inca trail with nothing but my sandals and leatherman tool I had the same problem.”

Hardwoman: “Oh, I never have that problem. Because where I go, there aren’t any tourists.”

Continue reading

The trouble with abundance

A rotting stump in old growth forest on Prince of Wales Island

There are several things you’re likely to notice if you fly over Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago on a clear day. If you’re an alpine junky like me, the first will be the snowcapped mountains that stretch seemingly without end from near the coast to the eastern horizon somewhere in Canada, their white-and-gray-tongued glaciers pouring all the way to the sea. The second is the serene sea itself, scattered with more than 1,000 islands that jut down from the state along the coast like a shattered thumb. The third thing, the thing that Southeast Alaska and British Columbia have in greater abundance than just about everywhere else on Earth, is drippy, sponge-floored old-growth temperate rainforest.

It furs the near-coast foothills, the lower toes of peaks and all those islands for miles—dark, silvered at the edges with hanging lichens and mosses, youthful with saplings, wise with centuries-old giants, boney with standing snags. It looks like the hide of something Maurice Sendak would have drawn, or of one of Jim Henson’s fantastical creatures, or of something you can’t quite imagine at all. It looks wild in the truest sense of the word. Continue reading

Wish We Were Here

This is a travel story about a place I’ve never been. Maybe it’s a strange destination—a single, cold room. It’s thousands of miles from where I am, though, which makes it seem fascinating based on distance alone. But even better: inside it, you’d find pieces of the whole world. More than 500 million tiny pieces. Seeds.

There are seeds of all kinds: eggplants from South America, the maize from Italy used to make the best polenta you’ve ever had. Melon from Taiwan, luffa from Burundi. Quinoa and barley and millet and rye. There are even seeds from wheat and barley collected on the Heard and McDonald Islands, which are very close to Antarctica, and very, very far away from where we are, in this room, deep in a mountain on an island 800 miles from the North Pole.

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