Meet our Blushing Beauties!

This year in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we were taken on quite a roller coaster ride with Lois the Corpse Flower! I don’t think any of us will ever forget about that! People filled the Grand Hallway and waited in line to see the most talked about flower Houston has ever seen.

In the midst of everything, we quietly received a very special gift, which may have been overlooked. Over Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to New Orleans and was able to visit the Audubon Insectarium, which was amazing! I was very jealous of their live animal collection and in particular, their pink katydids. They had quite a few of them, but despite that, my attempts to organize some kind of trade with them to get some pink katydids here in Houston were futile.

It wasn’t long after I got back that I received a call from a family in Dayton who said that they had found a pink katydid! They were so kind to drive to HMNS and deliver it. When I saw it I was overjoyed, it was the exact same species they had in New Orleans and just as pretty and pink as any of theirs! He was a boy and we named him Don Johnson (One of my friends said his color reminded her of Miami Vice).

So, when it rains it pours; a few weeks later I got another phone call about a pink katydid, a female. Don Johnson had a girlfriend and this would hopefully lead to little pink baby katydids! I got yet another phone call from a gentleman who had found a golden katydid and an orange one before that. The orange one got away, but he brought me the golden one. So at this time I had a veritable cornucopia of colorful katydids!

What did Katy do?
Katydid in the wild
Creative Commons License photo credit: frankcheez

The pink coloration is unusual, but not quite as rare as you might think! The color comes from a genetic defect, similar to albinism, called erythrism. Some animals, such as flamingoes, become pink because of what they eat, but since katydids eat nothing but green plants with only the occasional flower, it is due to a lack or abundance of certain pigments in their bodies. Not many people actually understand the reason for this. In tropical places, it may help the katydids to camouflage themselves among pink or red flowers and plants. Here in the United States, however, it’s not much of an advantage. The only katydid native to the United States known to have this genetic defect is the oblong-winged katydid, Amblycorypha oblongifolia. The most common form of this katydid is green, less common is the pink or golden form, and the rarest is the orange form. I wish I could have gotten my hands on the orange one!

Sadly, Don Johnson passed away at the end of July, followed by Goldie, but my pink female was alive up until a couple of weeks ago, continuing to lay eggs in her enclosure. The eggs have started to hatch and we’ll soon have baby pinkies everywhere! They are fat and round with very long back legs, and their color is amazing! Don Johnson and Pinkie’s oldest son is up there on display now, soon to be joined by his brother’s and sisters.

If you haven’t had the privilege of seeing one of these hot pink katydids, stop by and take a look, they’re sure to steal your heart!

Pirates: Romance Versus Reality

When we think of pirates, many of us think of phrases like “walk the plank” or books and movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island.  Hardly ever do we think of the real people and circumstances that gave rise to such stories.  This leaves us wondering just who these fanciful pirates were in reality.  The answer may surprise you.

In order to understand what pirates mean to us today, we must first examine various portrayals of pirates and what they mean to the modern person.

The first type of pirate is the lovable rogue.  This can be seen in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series where the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow serves as a humorously dishonest ruffian who plays by his own rules, but is still an honorable compatriot for the movie’s hero and heroine.  For many, this is the most iconic and memorable view of pirates not because of its accuracy, but because it appeals to today’s sense of harmless fun and adventure that is a far cry from the dreary boardrooms and boring meetings that many of us face on a daily basis.  In our culture, the very idea of a pirate conjures up visions of a person that plays by their own rules and is not bound to the powers that be.  This is an incredibly attractive proposition for modern audiences, especially when this character is combined with exotic locations and exciting situations.

The next type of portrayal is the villainous pirate.  This character is both dastardly and devious, though not necessarily brutal.  Usually, these are the characters that serve as a foil against which a hero must strive.  These pirates will not hesitate to use cunning to get what they want, and are seen in a variety of sources like Peter Pan and Treasure Island.  In both stories, the villains use tricks to trip up the heroes until the heroes themselves use deception as a means to outwit the evil pirates.  For today’s audience, the villainous pirate is little more than a plot device to take the viewer to exotic locales and interesting situations.  In this way, pirates serve as a means of escapism that is fun for the family, not frightening or brutal in the least.

The next type of common pirate portrayal is the romantic rogue, which commonly adorns the covers of harlequin novels.  These are the tall, strapping, muscular pirates that whisk women away and expose them to the world of love and adventure that they were missing in their otherwise mundane lives.  Again, the common theme here is clearly escapism from the drudgery of real life that we all face, like doing the laundry and going to work.

While these various portrayals of pirates in their own way are interesting and worthy of an afternoon’s diversion, the real life stories of pirates far exceed any drama on the silver screen or hidden away in the pages of fiction.

For example, compared to the romance novel’s tall, handsome pirate, real pirates were often in their early to mid-20s.  So far so good.  However, they were usually malnourished due to the terrible nature of their diets, which made for a number of pirates with missing teeth.  Additionally, though estimates vary, their average height was considered to be about 5 foot, 5 inches.   Rarely did these rangy young men come from the upper echelons of society.  Instead, they were usually ex-sailors that had either fallen into a thuggish lifestyle of hard living or they were captured by pirates and forced to help man the ship.  In short, pirates were the inner city gangsters of their day.

Creative Commons License photo credit:

As mentioned previously, we commonly think of pirates forcing people to “walk the plank.” However, they rarely indulged in such ceremonious ways of killing someone.  Instead, if an example had to be made, pirates simply made it in the most brutally effective way possible.  Perhaps the best example of this was written by a Miss Lucretia Parker, who was briefly captured in 1825.  She described the event in a letter to her brother George, who lived in New York:

“Having first divested them of every article of clothing but their shirt and trousers… they fell on the unfortunate crew… with the ferocity of cannibals!… In vain did poor Capt. S. attempt to touch their feelings and to move them to pity by representing to them the situation of his innocent family-that he had a wife and three small children at home… but alas, the poor man entreated in vain!  His appeal was to monsters possessing hearts callous to the feelings of humanity!  Having received a heavy blow from one with an axe, he snapped the cords with which he was bound, and attempted to escape by flight, but was met by another of the ruffians, who plunged a knife or dirk to his heart!  I stood near to him… and was covered with his blood.”

Luckily, Miss Parker was saved when a British warship appeared on the horizon and the pirates fled.  However, the story illustrates a brutality of piracy that is never shown to modern audiences. 

It is also interesting to note that life onboard ships during the age of piracy was far from glamorous.  It was crowded, dirty and yes, many times monotonous.  The food and scenery rarely changed, and the work was very difficult.  For example, one of the jobs that pirates had to perform was scraping barnacles off of the boat when the pirate ship was in a safe harbor.  Another common job was keeping the decks clean by rubbing the wooden decks down with a heavy abrasive stone.

In the end, while it may be fun to escape into the world of adventure and excitement that pirates represent to us, it is important to remember that in many ways conditions today are vastly preferable to those commonly endured on pirate ships of the past.

If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous posts, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

Also be sure to check out the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open!

Solar Energy in Texas

“Surely some wiseacre is on record observing that there are two things Texas has plenty of: hot air and hot sun.” (Ronnie Crocker, Houston Chronicle, November 6)

Creative Commons License photo credit: nosha

Texas has led the nation in electricity from wind production for the past 4 years. Now we have another bright idea. Duke Energy’s Blue Wing Solar Array has started turning the sun’s radiation into electricity for residents of San Antonio. The new solar power generator is rated at 14.4 megawatts (14,400 kilowatts).

There are more solar power generation stations in store for Texas. RRE Austin Solar has plans for one outside of Pflugerville.

Currently California leads the nation in solar electricity production, but with the new Blue Wing plant Texas might have been propelled into the top ten solar electricity producing states. As a proud Texan, I have little doubt that in the years to come, we will slowly overtake California and become number one in solar.

With all that bright sun deep in the heart of Texas, why hasn’t Texas taken advantage of solar yet?

Well, there are a couple reasons, mostly economic.

Port of San Diego's Green Port Program
Creative Commons License photo credit: Port of San Diego

Electricity generated from solar power costs far more then the same electricity generated by any of the fossil fuels. Making a solar cell is highly dependent on refined silicon. Refined silicon is used to make semiconductors and therefore it is in high demand in a number of industries, which include solar cells and computers. There are tax incentives, both federal and state, that can bring the price down, but it has to bring it down enough so it can compete with fossil and nuclear fuels.

There are concerns that an attempt to bring in solar generated electricity would cause the amount you pay for electricity to rise.

“We have concerns with energy projects that are based on government mandates and are ultimately funded by captive ratepayers,” executive director Luke Bellsnyder said in a statement. “Projects that are only financially possible because the costs will be passed on to customers — through above-market rates – are not a good deal for consumers and businesses.” (Crocker)

Even with the all the new Texas solar projects coming online, the state will still be mostly dependent on fuels such as coal. Texas uses 84,000 megawatts of electricity. All the new solar projects would bring the amount of solar produced electricity to 194 megawatts, or .2%. In contrast, wind generates 9,300 megawatts of electricity for Texas (11%).

California has 724 megawatts of solar generated electricity already installed. California has received a large amount of money from the federal government to help build a new solar plant that would be capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

So what should we do?

In this case we can afford to wait. Every year the cost of the solar panels decreases, the efficiency of those same panels increases, and more and more people want their electricity to be generated from solar power.

Does that mean we should do nothing while we wait? May it never be! The very first thing to do is to educate ourselves about solar energy. I recommend reading the wonderful blogs on this site that are about solar energy. They have a plethora of profitable links. The next thing is to check your local library for information and your city for local projects. You might also want to take a drive out on I37 and take a look at the new Blue Wing array near San Antonio.

After that, have some fun experimenting with solar. I built a small 1 ft squared solar car using a motor, 4 wheels, plywood, and a solar cell. What can you do?

How Far are the Stars? (part 1)

Under the Milky Way
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

During a recent planetarium show, I discussed the stars of the Summer Triangle (up all night long in summer, they are still high in the west at dusk in autumn). I mentioned that Deneb, apparently dimmer than the Triangle’s other two stars Vega and Altair, is actually much larger and gives off much more light. It just seems dimmer because it’s about 100 times farther away. This prompted the question, “How can we tell how far away the stars are?”

This is a very perceptive question.  We obviously cannot directly measure the distance to a star like you might measure the height of a wall.  Neither can we use an odometer like you have in your car, since no one has been to the stars.  By doing a little trigonometry, however, we can get reliable distances to the stars nearest to us.

This animation is an example of
parallax – as the viewpoint moves
side to side, the objects closer to
the camera appear to move faster,
while the objects in the distance
appear to move slower.
Image by natejunk2004
Can’t see the Image? Click here.

This geometric way to measure distance is called parallax and you can illustrate it for yourself quite simply.  Hold your finger in front of your face.  Now close your left eye, leaving the right eye open.  Then close the right eye and open the left.  Repeat this sort of blinking several times and watch how you finger moves back and forth compared to things in the background.  Bring your finger close to your face, and repeat the experiment.  Now hold your finger at arm’s length, and repeat.  Notice how your finger seems to move farther when it is close to your face.  In fact, if you could measure how far your finger moves against the background objects, you could calculate how far it is from your face.

We can do the same thing with nearby stars. If we observe a star at a particular time of year (for example, in January) and then again six months later (in this case, in July), we can define an isosceles triangle where the base is the diameter of Earth’s orbit and the sides are the distance to the star.  The vertex angle of this triangle equals the apparent change in the star’s position due to the Earth’s yearly motion.  One half of this isosceles triangle is a right triangle where one leg is the known Earth-Sun distance (one AU, or astronomical unit), and the hypotenuse is the distance to the star. The angle opposite the one AU leg, which is one half the star’s apparent motion, is the parallax angle p.  Basic trigonometry then yields

sin p = 1 AU/ d,

where d is the distance to the star in question.  Since p is tiny for all stars, the small angle approximation sin p =p is valid.  We can define a standard distance by asking how far away a star would be if it had a parallax of one arcsecond (1/3600 degree).  Plugging d= 1 arcsecond into the equation gives us

d= 206265 AU,

where 206265 represents the conversion factor between radians and arcseconds, given that the approximation sin p =p holds only if the angle is in radians.  We have now defined the parsec, the distance at which a star has a parallax angle of one arcsecond.  It now becomes easy to determine stellar distances compared to this standard distance.  First, measure the parallax of a star in arcseconds.  Then take one over that value, and you have the distance to that star in parsecs.  By the way, although the general public prefers to think of distances to stars in light years, modern astronomers never quote them that way.  The parsec, directly related to a measurable quantity, is a much more preferable unit.  (One parsec is about 3.26 light years.)

This way of measuring distance has a limitation: most stars are too far away to have measurable parallaxes.  An imaginary sphere with a radius of one parsec centered on our Sun would contain precisely one star–the Sun.  The nearest star system to ours, that of Alpha Centauri, is 1.34 parsecs away, and therefore has a parallax of only about 0.75 arcseconds.  More distant stars have much smaller parallaxes, too small for most Earth based equipment to detect.

This began to change in 1989, however, when the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite, or Hipparcos.  The name was chosen in honor of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who put together the first star catalog of the western world.  The first space experiment devoted to astrometry, Hipparcos catalogued 118,218 stars between 1989 and 1993.  The Hipparcos Catalogue was published in 1997.  Among its many scientific results, Hipparcos helped astronomers determine accurate proper motions (a star’s true motion through the galaxy) and was able to measure good parallaxes for stars up to about 1,000 parsecs away.

But, you may wonder, “What about stars more than a few thousand parsecs away from us? ”  Keep in mind that our Galaxy is about 100,000 light years, or just over 30,000 parcsecs across.  Most stars, to say nothing of distant galaxies, are so distant that not even Hipparcos can measure their infinitesimal parallaxes.  Fortunately, there are objects known as “standard candles”–celestial objects with a known intrinsic brightness.  Comparing their intrinsic brightness with their apparent brightness in our skies lets us figure out the distances to them.  In a later post, I’ll discuss how we identify and use “standard candles” to determine distances to much more distant stars and even to other galaxies.