How one building survived the San Francisco earthquake and changed the world.

When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, most of the buildings at the time in the city were made of wood (like redwood harvested from the once vast stands of coastal redwood that grew in Northern California). This did not bode well for San Franciscans because immediately after the earthquake, a series of fires spread quickly over the city, largely razing to the ground almost every wooden structure that withstood the tremblor.

But curiously, a few structures did survive largely intact. Among them, are the Old United States Mint (also known as The Granite Lady) and a half-finished warehouse built for the Bekins Van and Storage Company at Mission and Thirteenth.

The Bekins building survived because it was made of a relatively new material that had largely been ignored (and vigorously opposed) in California. That material is reinforced concrete.

A problem with concrete is that it has great compressive strength. It can withstand high pressure without cracking. But it lacks tensile strength, meaning it cannot bend without shattering. Throughout the late 1800s, various builders tried to strengthen concrete with metal, mostly iron. With the advent of steel, which was becoming increasingly cheap to manufacture, and with a new technique based on twisting the metal to allow it to adhere better to the liquid concrete, a new era of construction was born.

In the years before the 1906 earthquake, the use of concrete was resisted by the legions of bricklayers, masons and powerful builders’ unions that saw in the material a threat to their survival. Others called the material ugly and not worthy of a great city like San Francisco.

One trade publication at the time wrote: “a city of the dull grayness of concrete would defy all laws of beauty. Concrete does not lend itself architecturally to anything that appeals to the eye. Let us pause a moment before we transform our city into such hideousness as has been suggested by concrete engineers and others interested in its introduction.”

The resistance against concrete was formidable enough that the material was not used widely in the city. Even after the earthquake, it took a while for people to grasp its value. Despite the overwhelming evidence that this new building material could dramatically help a city not only withstand an earthquake but fire as well, San Francisco building codes still forbade the use of concrete in high, load-bearing walls.

San Francisco today. Unsplash: Jared Erondu

It wasn’t until two years later, in a contentious San Francisco board of supervisors meeting, that the city changed its building codes to allow the widespread use of reinforced concrete. By 1910, the city had issued permits for 132 new reinforced concrete buildings. The science of building advanced hugely in the wake of the disaster.

Today, most every tall building in the world makes use of steel reinforced concrete. The survival of the Bekins building was transformational for not only the city of San Francisco but in many ways, it heralded a watershed moment in the history of architecture, construction, and the planet’s cities.

by Erik Olsen

Vasquez Rocks: Where Plates Collide and Captain Kirk Roamed

Photo: Erik Olsen

It’s not every day that you can drive down the highway and personally witness one of the great tectonic collisions in Earth’s history. But, if you happen to be motoring along Highway 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway, towards Palmdale near Santa Clarita, there they are:  great slabs of rock stretching skyward at steep angles out of the dirt and scrub brush, creating dramatic formations that seem otherworldly. 

This is Vasquez Rocks, one of California’s most interesting and dramatic geologic formations. 

In a way, the rocks are otherworldly. Widely used as a setting for Westerns and space dramas, they have been seen in more than 200 films and television shows. But this is no ordinary set, erected for a few months and taken down. Vasquez Rocks have taken shape over 25 million years, erected through the violent, but slow, tectonic forces of two continental plates crashing into one another. This is near the top of the San Andreas Fault, at the juncture of the North American and Pacific continental plates.

Vasquez Rocks’ tallest peak juts 150 feet above the canyon floor, offering spectacular views to those courageous (or foolhardy) enough to scramble up it’s steep and treacherous face. (I’ve done it. Many times) The fact is, though, that the rock above ground is like an iceberg. The rock below extends an extra 22,000 feet into the earth.

Credit: Erik Olsen

Over the last half-century, Vasquez Rocks have been a stage for episodes of the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” as well as the films, including “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot. They served as part of the planet Vulcan landscape, home to Spock. Abrams said that the site was chosen in homage to the site’s use in the original, including the classic episode of the original Star Trek series “Arena” which pit Kirk against an ambling, hissing, intelligent lizard creature on a foreign world. 

There’s a reason that Vasquez Rocks is so often chosen as a set. The site lies at the edge of what’s known as the Thirty Mile Zone, a region around Los Angeles and Hollywood where those in the Screen Actors Guild and technical crew can report for work without paying higher premiums which dramatically increase the costs of production.

Named for Tiburcio Vásquez, a notorious California Bandit who used the formation to elude officials in 1873-1874, the rocks have made it a favorite filming location going back to the Saturday-morning westerns of the 1920s and ’30s like “The Texas Ranger” in 1931 and “The Girl and the Bandit” in 1939. Other, non-Star Trek productions include the 1994 film version of “The Flintstones” and “The Big Bang Theory.” 

Tiburcio Vásquez

Most people are aware of the rocks’ fame in cinema, but its geological history is in many ways even more interesting. Vasquez Rocks sit astride or are near several other faults. The Elkhorn Fault, an offshoot of the San Andreas Fault, runs right through the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, administered by LA County. Other faults, such as the Pelona, Vasquez Canyon, Soledad, and San Gabriel Faults, all lie near to the formation, making it a boon for geologists hoping to better understand California’s geological and seismographic history. 

(Hikers: It should also be noted that the site also serves as a small section of The Pacific Crest Trail.) 

The rocks consist mainly of sandstone that accumulated over millions of years from the erosion of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. Rain, landslides, wind, flooding, and earthquakes, all played a role, depositing vast amounts of sand and gravel in the region.

Over time, two continental plates – the North American and the Pacific plates – crashed into one another, consuming another plate called the Farallon Plate, which has since disappeared. The process led to an uplifting of the giant slabs that now rise above the otherwise flat terrain. The same process also created California’s best-known fault: the San Andreas, which lies only miles away and slices the state California, finally heading into the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco.

The region is a hotbed of geological activity. Two major quakes have taken place in the last 50 years: the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, which killed 64 people, and the 6.7 magnitude 1994 Northridge earthquake, which killed 57 people and injured another 8,700. Most scientists believe we are due for another big earthquake in the relative near future (geologically-speaking). 

Credit: Erik Olsen

The rocks at Vaquez point at angles between 45-52 degrees, looking at times like huge ships under sail. In fact, formations of this type are known as “hogs back ridges” since they also resemble an arching backbone. Scientists believe they vary in age from 10 to 40 million years old.

Geologists estimate that the rocks sink deep into the earth, perhaps as far as 4 miles. What we see is very much the tip of the iceberg.

For hundreds of millions of years, most of California was found beneath the sea. Very few dinosaur bones have ever been found in California. One exception is the hadrosaur (which also happens to be the state dinosaur). Hadrosaurs were large herbivorous dinosaurs that lived near the end of the Cretaceous. However, marine fossils are plentiful in the region.

There are plenty of wonderful hikes around Vasquez rocks, but seeing them up close is easy, with parking directly beneath some of the most impressive formations. They are very simple to reach from LA, located just off Highway 14. So the next time you happen to be out there, take a moment to gaze and ponder the strange, lovely rocks that have played such a big role in California’s deep geological and cinematographic history.

by Erik Olsen

The little-known California scientist who may have saved millions of lives.

At Caltech, Clair Patterson’s relentless determination to understand the health impacts of atmospheric lead changed the world for the better.

It started by asking one of the biggest questions of them all: how old is the earth?

One might think that we’ve known the answer to this question for a long time, but the truth is that a definitive age for our planet was not established until 1953, and it happened right here in California.

Some of the earliest estimates of the earth’s age were derived from the Bible. Religious scholars centuries ago did some simple math, synthesizing a number of passages of Biblical scripture and calculated that the time to their present-day from the story of Genesis was around 6,000 years. That must have seemed like a really long time to people back then.

Of course, once science got involved, the estimated age changed dramatically, but even into the 18th century, people’s sense of geologic time was still on human scales, largely incapable of comprehending an age into the billions of years. In 1779, the Comte du Buffon tried to obtain a value for the age of Earth using an experiment: He created a small globe that resembled Earth in composition and then measured its rate of cooling. His conclusion: Earth was about 75,000 years old.

But in 1907, scientists developed the technique of radiometric dating, allowing scientists to compare the amount of uranium in rock with the amount of lead, the radioactive decay byproduct of uranium. If there was more lead in a rock, then there was less uranium, and thus the rock was determined to be older. Using this technique in 1913, British geologist Arthur Holmes put the Earth’s age at about 1.6 billion years, and in 1947, he pushed the age to about 3.4 billion years. Not bad. That was the (mostly) accepted figure when geochemist Clair Patterson arrived at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from the University of Chicago in 1952. (Radiometric dating remains today the predominant way geologists measure the age of rocks.)

The Canyon Diablo meteorite was used by Clair Patterson to determine the age of the earth. Credit: Geoffrey Notkin
Canyon Diablo meteorite. Credit: Geoffrey Notkin

By employing a much more precise methodology, and using samples from the Canyon Diablo meteorite, Patterson was able to place the creation of the solar system, and its planetary bodies such as the earth, at around 4.6 billion years. (It is assumed that the meteorite formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system, including Earth). Subsequent studies have confirmed this number and it remains the accepted age of our planet.

Patterson’s discovery and the techniques he developed to extract and measure lead isotopes led one Caltech colleague to call his efforts “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”

But Patterson was not done.

In the course of his work on lead isotopes, Patterson began to realize that lead was far more prevalent in the environment that people imagined. In the experiments he was doing at Caltech, lead was everywhere.

Image of Clair Patterson in his Caltech lab. Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology
Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology

“There was lead there that didn’t belong there,” Patterson recalled in a CalTech oral history. “More than there was supposed to be. Where did it come from?”

Patterson’s discovery was “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”

Barclay Kamb, California Institute of Technology

Patterson was flummoxed by the large amounts of environmental lead he was seeing in his experiments. It seemed to be everywhere: in the water, air and in people’s hair, skin and blood. Figuring out why this was the case took him the rest of his career.

He found it so hard to get reliable measurements for his earth’s age experiments that he built one of the first scientific “clean rooms”, now an indispensable part of many scientific disciplines, and a precursor to the ultra-clean semiconductor fabrication plants (so-called “fabs”) where microprocessor chips are made. In fact, at that time, Patterson’s lab was the cleanest laboratory in the world.

To better understand this puzzle, Patterson turned to the oceans, and what he found astonished him. He knew that if he compared the lead levels in shallow and deep water, he could determine how oceanic lead had changed over time. In his experiments, he discovered that in the ocean’s oldest columns of water, down deep, there was little lead, but towards the surface, where younger water circulates, lead values spiked by 20 times.

Then, going back millions of years, he analyzed microscopic plant and animal life from deep sediments and discovered that they contained 1/10 to 1/100th the amount of lead found at the time around the globe.

He decided to look in places far from industrial centers, ice caves in Greenland and Antarctica, where he would be able to see clearly how much lead was in the environment many years ago. He was able to show a dramatic increase in environmental lead beginning with the start of lead smelting in Greek and Roman times. Historians long ago documented the vast amounts of lead that were mined in Rome. Lead pipes connected Roman homes, filled up bathtubs and fountains and carried water from town to town. Many Romans knew of lead’s dangers, but little was done. Rome, we all know, collapsed. Jean David C. Boulakia, writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, said: “The uses of lead were so extensive that lead poisoning, plumbism, has sometimes been given as one of the causes of the degeneracy of Roman citizens. Perhaps, after contributing to the rise of the Empire, lead helped to precipitate its fall.”

In his Greenland work, Patterson’s data showed a “200- or 300-fold increase” in lead from the 1700s to the present day; and, most astonishing, the largest concentrations occurred only in the last three decades. Were we, like the Romans, perhaps on the brink of an environmental calamity that could hasten the end of our civilization? Not if Patterson could help it.

Exterior shot of the California Institute of Technology. Credit: Erik Olsen
California Institute of Technology. Credit: Erik Olsen

That may be far too grandiose and speculative, but there was no doubting that there was so much more lead in the modern world, and it seemed to have appeared only recently. But why? And how?

In a Eureka moment, Patterson realized that the time frame of atmospheric lead’s rise he was seeing in his samples seemed to correlate perfectly with the advent of the automobile, and, more specifically, with the advent of leaded gasoline.

Leaded gas became a thing in the 1920s. Previously, car engines were plagued by a loud knocking sound made when pockets of air and fuel prematurely exploded inside an internal combustion engine. The effect also dramatically reduced the engine’s efficiency. Automobile companies, seeking to get rid of the noise, discovered that by adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, they could stop the knocking sound, and so-called Ethyl gasoline was born. “Fill her up with Ethyl,” people used to say when pulling up to the pump.

Shot of a can of Ethyl gas. Credit: Plazak
Credit: Plazak

Despite what the Romans may have known about lead, it was still an immensely popular material. It was widely used in plumbing well into the 20th century as well as in paints and various industrial products. But there was little action taken to remove lead from our daily lives. The lead in a pipe or wall paint is one thing (hey, don’t eat it!), but pervasive lead in our air and water is something different.

After World War I, every household wanted a car and the auto sales began to explode. Cars were perhaps the most practical invention of the early 20th century. They changed everything: roads, cities, work-life and travel. And no one wanted their cars to make that infernal racket. So the lead additive industry boomed, too. By the 1960s, leaded gasoline accounted for 90% of all fuel sold worldwide.

But there signs even then that something was wrong with lead.

A New York Times story going back to 1924 documented how one man was killed and another driven insane by inhaling gases released in the production of the tetraethyl lead at the Bayway plant of the Standard Oil Company at Elizabeth, N.J. Many more cases of lead poisoning were documented in ensuing years, with studies showing that it not only leads to physical illness but also to serious mental problems and lower IQs. No one, however, was drawing the connection between all the lead being pumped into the air by automobiles and the potential health impacts. Patterson saw the connection.

Ford Model T. Credit: Harry Shipler

When Patterson published his findings in 1963, he was met with both applause and derision. The billion-dollar oil and gas industry fought his ideas vigorously, trying to impugn his methods and his character. They even tried to pay him off to study something else. But it soon became apparent that Patterson was right. Patterson and other health officials realized that If nothing was done, the result could be a global health crisis that could end up causing millions of human deaths. Perhaps the decline of civilization itself.

Patterson was called before Congress to testify on his findings, and while his arguments made little traction, they caught the attention of the nascent environmental movement in America, which had largely come into being as a result of Rachel Carson’s explosive 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the decline in bird and other wildlife as a result of the spraying of DDT for mosquito control. People were now alert to poisons in the environment, and they’d come to realize that some of the industrial giants that were the foundation of our economy were also having serious impacts on the planet’s health.

Patterson was unrelenting in making his case, but he still faced serious opposition from the Ethyl companies and from Detroit. The government took half-hearted measures to address the problem. The EPA suggested reducing lead in gasoline step by step, to 60 to 65 percent by 1977. This enraged industry, but also Patterson, who felt that wasn’t nearly enough. Industry sued and the case to the courts. Meanwhile, Patterson continued his research, collecting samples around Yosemite, which showed definitely that the large rise in atmospheric lead was new and it was coming from the cities (in this case, nearby San Francisco and Los Angeles). He analyzed human remains from Egyptian mummies and Peruvian graves and found they contained far less lead than modern bones, nearly 600 times less.

Years would pass with more hearings, more experiments, and the question of whether the EPA should regulate leaded gas more heavily went to U.S. Court of Appeals. The EPA won, 5-4. “Man’s ability to alter his environment,” the court ruled, “has developed far more rapidly than his ability to foresee with certainty the effects of his alterations.”

The Clean Air Act of 1970 initiated the development of national air-quality standards, including emission controls on cars.

Drone shot of rush-hour traffic over Los Angeles. Credit: Erik Olsen
Drone over Los Angeles. Credit: Erik Olsen

In 1976, the EPA’s new rules went into effect and the results were almost immediate: environmental lead plummeted. The numbers continued to plummet as lead was further banned as a gasoline additive and from other products like canned seafood (lead was used as a sealant). Amazingly, there was still tremendous denial within American industry.

Although the use of leaded gas declined dramatically beginning with the Clear Air Act, it wasn’t until 1986, when the EPA called for a near ban of leaded gasoline that we seemed to finally be close to ridding ourselves of the scourge of atmospheric lead. With the amendment of the Clean Air Act four years later, it became unlawful for leaded gasoline to be sold at all at service stations beginning December 31, 1995. Patterson died just three weeks earlier at the age of 73.

Clair Patterson is a name that few people know today, yet his work not only changed our understanding of the earth itself, but also likely saved millions of lives. When Patterson was finally accepted into the National Academy of Science in 1987, Barclay Kamb, a Caltech colleague, summed his career up thusly: “His thinking and imagination are so far ahead of the times that he has often gone misunderstood and unappreciated for years, until his colleagues finally caught up and realized he was right.”

Clair Patterson is one of the most unsung of the great 20th-century scientists, and his name deserves to be better known.

To learn more about Clair Patterson, read the fascinating oral history from Caltech Archives.

Parkfield, California: earthquake capital

Parkfield, California is a quiet, dusty farming town nestled among rolling hills about midway between Fresno and Monterey. It’s known as the earthquake capital of the world. This is not because there are so many earthquakes there, although there are, but because it has one of the highest densities of seismic technology anywhere. Parkfield has shaken with 6.0-magnitude quakes regularly, roughly every 22 years, and remains the heart of one of the most seismically active areas in California, if not anywhere. (And for what it’s worth, Petrolia, California has the most earthquakes).

Every hillside and valley, grassy nook and riverbed is home to some kind of instrument that measures earthquakes. Over the years, these instruments have become more sophisticated and expensive, making it necessary in many cases to fence them off with the threat of arrest.  These instruments monitor, hour by hour, or better, millisecond by millisecond, the stirrings of the earth. To geologists, it is ground zero for seismic measurement. 

The town is proud of its reputation. A water tower boasts the tourism slogan: BE HERE WHEN IT HAPPENS (see photo). There is also an iron bridge in the town that has the distinction of standing astride the San Andreas Fault. One one side of the creek that runs beneath the bridge is the North American tectonic plate. On the other is the Pacific tectonic plate. Those two plates are moving south and north respectively at a rate of about 2 inches a year. As we all know, that movement creates immense pressure as the two plates seem otherwise locked in place. That pressure will have to be released at some point. It always has. When that happens, we can expect a potentially devastating earthquake that will rock the state from top to bottom. 

The writer Simon Winchester calls the fault an “ever-evolving giant that slumbers lightly under the earth’s surface and stirs, dangerously and often, according to its own whims and its own rules.” 

Since 1985, a focused earthquake prediction experiment has been in progress in Parkfield. Known as “The Parkfield Experiment”, the project’s stated purpose is to “better understand the physics of earthquakes — what actually happens on the fault and in the surrounding region before, during and after an earthquake.”

Experts once bored a 10,000-foot-deep hole into the ground in Parkfield, into which they placed a large array of sensors to measure the earth’s movements. The goal of the $300 million project, called the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD, was to allow scientists to study how faults work and how earthquakes happen. The drilling stopped in 2007, but Parkfield remains a hot spot for geologic research.

Parkfield remains critical to better understanding seismic dangers in California. The fault zone is poorly understood at depth and so far, the predictability of earthquakes in the near term is pretty limited. But devices like these could help improve prediction, especially if there is a large quake. But that’s the rub, really. We need to experience a large earthquake to get the best data to know how to predict later ones. So it is in California.  

Those 96 million black balls in the LA reservoir, Aquarium of the Pacific opens new wing, Leafy sea dragons, Mapping California’s seafloor, Snowmelt, wildfires and earthquakes, Amazing tiny flying robots

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Week of May 24, 2019

Quick note: we are back from an epic diving and filming expedition in Indonesia. We saw an amazing number of cephalopods, including octopuses and cuttlefish. More later. 

Why we dumped 96 million black balls into the LA reservoir


Back in 2015, a video of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti dumping 96 million black plastic balls into the Los Angeles reservoir went viral. Almost all of the news reports at the time explained that the balls were meant to reduce evaporation, which made a ton of sense, given the state was in the throes of a terrible drought. But evaporation was only part of the story.

In this informative video, science vlogger Derek Muller visits the reservoir and takes a boat out, motoring through the balls as he learns the story. Turns out, the balls are also there because of bromate. Bromate is not your fraternity roomie in college, but rather a carcinogenic substance that results when bromide and chlorine interact with sunlight. Since it is cancer causing, we do not want bromate in our drinking water. Hence the balls, which prevent the sun from allowing the bromide/chlorine interaction. Incidentally, the balls do, in fact, reduce evaporation by as much as 80 percent.  


Environment / Animals

Aquarium of the Pacific opens magnificent new wing

Aquarium of the Pacific

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California opens its new wing today (May 24, 2019), showing off what $53 million can buy in the way of technology to inspire young and old alike. The Daily Beast calls the new wing “a game-changer in how aquariums operate” with 29,000-square-feet of Instagrammable interactive displays and a theater with a 130-feet curved screen. The new wing is big on reef systems and sea creatures, highlighting the dangers of global warming and hoping to inspire young minds to protect our oceans. We can’t wait to visit!  

Aquarium of the Pacific

Animals / Marine Science

Leafy sea dragons to be bred in captivity  


Speaking of aquarium exhibits, the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego just opened a new exhibit featuring a rare and amazing animal: the leafy sea dragon. Related to the seahorse, the animals have harnessed evolutionary magic to resemble floating seaweed. It’s an astonishingly convincing bit of camouflage. Leafy sea dragons are native to the shallow, seaweed-filled seas of southern Australia, and are quite rare. The animals are threatened by pollution, warming oceans and the illegal pet trade.

The aquarium has three leafy sea dragons, two males and one female, and they say they hope to begin breeding them. 

Scientists hope the creatures’ crazy and cute appearance will inspire people to think about the health of the ocean by reducing their trash, plastic and other types of pollution. 

Birch Aquarium

Marine Science

Mapping California’s seafloor


What does California look like beneath the waves? For the last decade, the California Seafloor Mapping Program (part of the US Geological Survey) has done detailed surveys of the ocean floor off the coast of California. The maps are not only beautiful, but they are some of the most detailed and useful maps of an underwater landscape ever made. They reveal active faults and submarine landslides, and provide a detailed understanding of animal habitat. The maps are helping us better understand navigational safety, coastal erosion, the health of fisheries, as well as earthquake and tsunami hazards. Perhaps more than anything, they provide a baseline for the future, so that we can better understand how the coast is changing due to climate change. 

California Seafloor Mapping Program       Wired

Geology / Environment

Wildfires, snowmelt and earthquakes

Erik Olsen

To the delight of skiers, the Sierras remain blanketed in snow after one of the wettest winters on record. It’s almost enough to make us forget about the terrible drought and the damage wrought by the 2018 wildfire season. But hold on. A new study shows that there is a connection between the two: wildfires may actually hasten snowmelt. Data from the report show that snow melted, on average, five days sooner within burn zones than in places that hadn’t burned. This has implications for cities like Los Angeles that depend on snowpack for the majority of their water supply. 

In a related story, new research has also linked snowmelt to small earthquakes in the Sierras near Mammoth Lakes (pictured). Scientists don’t know exactly what is happening, but they suspect that as larger than usual amounts of water seep into the earth, it may put an expanding pressure on fault systems, thus triggering seismic activity. For now, the earthquakes remain small and unlikely to result in damage to homes in the region.

Reno Gazette


Amazingly light flying robots

Engineers at the University of Southern California have made tiny insect-like drones weighing just 75 milligrams. Called the Bee+, the wee flying machines are capable of perching, landing, following a path, and avoiding obstacles. It’s not hard to imagine swarms of these things in the future helping explore hard to reach spaces and perform tasks like mapping or search and rescue. Here’s a video of the Bee+ in action. 

Technology Review


You have to admit NASA’s new moon video is pretty inspirational.

How the removal of the San Clemente dam is helping bring back steelhead trout. It’s a success story about the benefits of dam removal.

On the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of solving LA’s traffic problem.

Recent research suggests California’s wet winter will not save it from a harsh wildfire season. 

A new report Shows hazardous air quality in 96% of National Parks, including Yosemite and Joshua Tree.

California Bans Chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide that can affect a child’s brain development. 

How drones might play a role in the “smart” wall along the border. 

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Design by Luis Ramirez

Mountain lions could disappear by 2050, Hydraulic mining’s destructive power, an ode to Yosemite’s Lyell glacier, Descanso Gardens’ dinosaur era plants, More mosquitos, LAFD drones

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Week of April 12, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


An end to California’s magnificent mountain lions?

Credit: US National Park Service

Two mountain lion populations in Southern California face a real threat of extinction if an effort is not made to protect their environment and create so-called “wildlife corridors” through the city’s developed areas, a new study warns.

Thestudy published in the journal Ecologist Applications that examined DNA from the lion’s blood and tissue samples from the 1990s to 2016, shows that the species could soon experience “inbreeding depression”, a term used to describe when genetic diversity has declined to the point that the species’ future existence is called into question. A similar issue occurred with Florida panthers.

The greatest danger facing the magnificent cats remains being struck by a motor vehicle. Mountain lion advocates are hoping for approval for a $60 million Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing over Highway 101 connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. It’s possible construction of the corridor could begin as early as 2022.

Yale Environment 360


Hydraulic mining’s efficient destruction

Credit: Eastman Collection of the University of California, Davis

When most of us think of the California gold rush, we picture gold panners hunched over a stream, or shoveling dirt into long, wooden sluices, all in an effort to reveal so-called color, shiny pieces of malleable yellow metal that brought thousands of people to California. But in the later years of the gold rush, in the 1860s and 70s, hydraulic mining was the dominant method of extracting gold from the hills.

Hydraulic mining used high-pressure jets of water to dislodge rocky material or move sediment. The jets were so powerful that men were killed by the force of the water from 200 feet away. It was extremely efficient, but also incredibly damaging to the environment. By the time hydraulic mining was banned in 1884, according to John McPhee’s Assembling California, hydraulic mining was responsible for removing 13 billion cubic yards of the Sierras.

Climate Change

The disappearance of Yosemite’s Lyell glacier

Credit: USGS

Greg Stock is a geologist at Yosemite National Park where, for the last decade, he has documented the decline of the park’s Lyell glacier. The glacier sits on Mount Lyell, the tallest peak in Yosemite National Park (13,120 feet). An 1883 photograph (above) shows the glacier spread across 13 million square feet. Current photographs reveal mostly bedrock now, a sad tale of global warming and the rapid loss of glacial ice in California.

Daniel Duane of California Sunday Magazine visited the remains of the glacier and followed along with Stock as he continued a 135-year effort to map and understand the glacier’s decline. It’s a wonderfully well-wrought tale, but like so many stories in these warming days, it’s a depressing one.

California Sunday Magazine


Descanso Gardens’ rare collection of dinosaur-era plants

Cycad plant

In 2014, La Canada Flintridge residents Katia and Frederick Elsea called the city’s Descanso Gardens with an odd proposal: would the famous horticultural center take their collection of over 180 cycads rare cycads, a fern-like plant from the days of the dinosaurs?

The garden said yes, and now those plants are part of Descanso Gardens’ Ancient Forest. Cycads are so old, in fact, they appear in fossils from over 280 million years ago. That makes them far older than flowers. (Flowering plants first appeared in the Jurassic period about 175 million years ago.) In the Ancient Forest, there are also redwoods, tree ferns and ginkgoes, all “living fossils” from a long past era.

Descanso is also the location of North America’s largest collection of Camellias, a genus found in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan and Indonesia.  At the gardens, there are also some of the oldest oak trees in the city, dating back to Spanish colonial times, beneath which you can take a stroll or simply hang out and enjoy the shade.

If you’d like to learn more about the gardens, check out this episode of Lost LA.

Descanso Gardens Lost LA


As the planet warms, get ready for more mosquitos

Global warming promises to bring more than just sea level rise, more severe storms, and destructive wildfires. According to researchers at Stanford University, a change in the earth’s temperatures is also likely to increase the range and numbers of biting insects like mosquitos, that seek out warmer, wetter climes. California itself could be impacted, with the insects pushing north from tropical climes.

Mosquitoes transmit numerous harmful diseases including malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and West Nile virus. It’s estimated that they kill about 1 million people a year.

Stanford University


Los Angeles Fire Department employs drones

Credit: Erik Olsen

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) has begun a program to use drones to find and respond to fires. It’s potentially a very big deal, given that the 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record in California. Some 8,527 fires burned across 1,893,913 acres last year. That’s larger than the state of Delaware. It was the largest burned area ever recorded in a fire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The agency is partnering with Chinese drone-maker DJI, in what is being called one of the first partnerships between a drone company and a major fire agency. The LAFD will use drones equipped with both visual and thermal imaging cameras that will provide real-time video and data transmission to incident commanders.

Drone DJ


Building an ancient sailboat…in Irvine

Credit: The Orthogonal project

UC Irvine professor Simon Penny and his students are building an ancient Micronesian outrigger boat called a proa to get people interested in long lost seafaring traditions and to promote indigenous science. He hopes, too, to support Pacific indigenous groups to reconnect with their historic mastery of the sea and sailing. And he’s also doing it because it’s fun. Instead of balsa, the 30-foot boat called Orthogonal will be made out of wood with a fiberglass skin. Penny told the California Science Weekly in an email that the craft could launch as early as summer 2019.


Catland: Disneyland is home to a large colony of feral cats. An Instagram account tells their story in photos.

California Underground: a fascinating podcast from the magnificent new California Magazine Alta takes you into the world of urban explorers, bold adventurers who venture into abandoned buildings and structures.

Pretty Fishes: If you feel like chilling out and having something mesmerizing to look at, put on the live Reef Lagoon Cam at the California Academy of Sciences.

One small thing: The Superbloom…by drone

Credit: Erik Olsen

Sure, you’ve seen all the lovely pictures, but have you seen the Superbloom by drone? Here at the California Science Weekly we decided to visit the Superbloom near Lancaster, but rather than simply take pictures, we busted out our drone to bring you a few images of the rare California Superbloom. Enjoy!

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Design by Luis Ramirez

CalTech’s famous fly lab, Saving California’s rare fruit, Atomic microscope, Winter snowfall earthquakes, Brain enhancement drugs, Mars copter

Week of April 5, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We will also be writing feature stories, developing a podcast and producing a video series that will take our content offerings to a whole new level. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


An homage to Cal Tech’s fly lab

Credit: Sanjay Acharya

Few critters in the history of science have been as important to our understanding of life as the humble fruit fly. The genus Drosophila melanogaster holds a particularly esteemed spot among the dozens of model organisms that provide insight into life’s inner workings. Much of the work has taken place, and is taking place now, right here in California.

CalTech Magazine has a wonderful story by Lori Dajose about the crucial role the fruit fly has played in science and why we should all revere this underappreciated insect.

The story begins in 1906 at Columbia University in the fly lab Thomas Hunt Morgan, whose work with white-eyed mutants established chromosomes as the pathway of inheritance for genes. Morgan made his way to CalTech in 1928 to found the school’s Division of Biology, and ever since then, the school has been a launching pad for ground-breaking research (and a few Nobel Prizes) using fruit flies.

Other notable names involved in fruit fly research include Ed Lewis, who helped standardize fruit fly food, but more importantly discovered how Hox genes control embryonic development (for which he won the 1995 Nobel Prize) and Seymour Benzer, a pioneer the field of neurogenetics and the subject of one of our favorite science books of all time here at the CSW: Jonathan Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. The breakthroughs made in Benzer’s Fly Rooms form the basis of much of our current understanding of genes and behavior.

The essay goes on to describe the great work that continues at CalTech with researchers like Elizabeth Hong, who is investigating how the brain orders and encodes complex odors, David Anderson, who studies emotions and behaviors, and Michael Dickinson, whose lab investigates how the tiny fruit fly brain gives rise to flight. So much to learn from one little insect and one great institution.

CalTech Magazine


Saving California’s fruit

Credit: C. Todd Kennedy

Two hours south of San Francisco, a lawyer turned horticulturalist named C. Todd Kennedy is helping preserve America’s agricultural legacy.  Todd is one of California’s premier experts on fruit. As a co-founder of the Arboreum Company, he has single-handedly saved numerous rare varieties of so-called stone fruit like peaches, plums, and apricots from possibly disappearing forever.

Atlas Obscura


UCI researchers see life’s vibrations

“Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Using a cutting edge new type of microscope, scientists at the University of California, Irvine have for the first time captured images of the way that a molecule vibrates down at the atomic level. These vibrations drive the chemistry of all matter, including the function of living cells. “From structural changes in chemistry to molecular signaling, all dynamical processes in life have to do with molecular vibrations, without which all would be frozen,” said co-author V. Ara Apkarian, a UCI Distinguished Professor of chemistry. 

The breakthrough was published in a paper in the science journal Nature. The advance could open up new ways of seeing and understanding the sub-microscopic/ atomic world. The research was conducted at UCI’s Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit, maybe the coolest name for a lab ever.


Geology and earthquakes

Could winter storms cause earthquakes?

All the snow we’ve been getting in the high Sierras may cause skiers and farmers to rejoice, but a new study from Emily Montgomery-Brown at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, suggests a connection between the heavy runoff following record snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and small earthquakes. Using historical records, Montgomery-Brown and others have determined that small earthquakes occur 37 times more often when there is high runoff from melting snowpack. One theory is that the water permeates the ground and changes pressures deep down within faults, leading to small quakes.



Are we ready for brain enhancement?

You have probably never heard of Klotho, but according to a story by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, this mysterious hormone could one day lead to a way to prevent, or even enhance, cognitive ability.

Research on mice by Dr. Dena Dubal at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that Klotho protects mice from cognitive decline, likely due to Alzheimer’s disease. The mice bred to make extra Klotho also performed better running mazes and in other cognitive tests. “Klotho didn’t just protect their brains, the researchers concluded — it enhanced them,” writes Zimmer. Further research suggests that Klotho could also extend life.

In March, Dr. Dubal released a study suggesting that Klotho may also protect people from Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association says that 5.8 million Americans are currently living with the debilitating disease.

The bigger question that the piece raises is whether Klotho pills or gene manipulation techniques like Crispr that might stimulate Klotho production, could someday be available to humans for cognitive enhancement. In other words, brain boosting. The idea raises numerous ethical questions such as who would get access and how much would it cost? What if you could pass these enhancements on to your children? “If people could raise their SAT scores by taking a pill the night before an exam,” writes Zimmer, “that might not seem fair.”

The New York Times


NASA’s JPL tests new Mars copter

It’s mind-boggling enough that we’ve been able to explore Mars using rovers big and small. But what if the next step is navigating the red planet with a vehicle that can lift off and soar above the dusty surface?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is testing a new helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft weighing about four pounds, that will travel with the Mars 2020 rover, one of JPL’s most ambitious projects ever. The 2020 rover is currently scheduled to launch in July 2020 and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. The vehicle has been in development since August 2013 at JPL’s testing facility in La Canada Flintridge, California.

Flying a copter on Mars is a lot more challenging than doing so on earth. The thin atmosphere means that the copter’s blades will have to spin at almost 3,000 rpm, about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. Then there is the Martian climate with dust storms and temperatures that can fall as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

The copter project is only one small part of the larger Mars 2020 mission, and is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it fails, it won’t impact the mission’s larger goals, including answering key questions about the potential for life on Mars.

Last year, JPL released this informative video about the project.


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Design by Luis Ramirez

The Big One, Einstein in LA, Soundwalls, Owls saving wine, Upside-down sea mirrors, The deadliest fungus

Week of March 29, 2019

Geology and Earthquakes

When is the Big One coming? It will, you know

Creative Commons: John Wiley

Lucy Jones is a seismologist, perhaps best known in and around California as the Earthquake Lady, or perhaps Dr. Earthquake. Jones’ 2018 book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) examines how humankind has dealt with various earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes that have pummeled our civilization over the millennia. It’s an informative (and depressing) read.

In this essay, she takes a look at earthquake history in Southern California, essentially telling us that we are due for a “Big One” soon…although defining soon has always been a struggle for geologists. She points out, however, that its been 330 years since the southern part of the San Andreas fault (near LA) has had a sizeable earthquake, “about twice the average time between its previous earthquakes.” According to Jones, that means about twenty-six feet of relative motion has been built up in the fault, held in place by friction, and “waiting to be released in one great jolt”. Yikes.


History of Science

Einstein in LA

Albert Einstein giving a talk at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena in 1931.

The great 20th-century physicist Albert Einstein visited California in 1931 (and ’32, ’33), staying mostly in Pasadena. He spent time at Caltech and visited the Mt. Wilson observatory. He also caught the Rose Parade and visited The Huntington Library in San Marino. For part of the time, he lived at this house in Pasadena.

CalTech has been extensively involved in the Einstein papers collection, helping make them available online and on paper. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein covers Einstein’s life and work up to his 48th birthday. There are 484 Einstein writings and 3,450 letters written by and to him. It is said to be one of the most ambitious scholarly publishing ventures undertaken in the history of science. In 2004, the LA Times did a story about the visit back that has some other interesting facts.

LA Times


The somewhat odd history of California’s freeway soundwalls

Credit: Robert Petersen for LAist

The tall, mostly beige walls that seem to stretch forever along California freeways have a name: soundwalls. We’ve always thought of them as a kind of urban horse blinder, keeping all the incredibly diverse neighborhoods of LA out of your line of sight as you make your morning commute. Turns out they were built not to prevent you from taking in the splendors of Hawaiian Gardens, but to reduce the noise of traffic. More interestingly, as Robert Peterson writes in LAist, they originated with concert-goers complaints about highway noise while watching a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. They really exploded after the passage of the Noise Control Act of 1972, which established a nationwide program to reduce freeway noise and provided federal funding to build soundwalls. There are many more interesting facts about soundwalls in the story, assuring you’ll not see them as big, dumb walls ever again.


Flora and Fauna

Barn owls to save your wine

Credit: Great Big Story

CNN’s boutique video unit Great Big Story has got a wonderful piece about how barn owls are used in Napa Valley to control the rodent population. Apparently, without the owls, the vineyards would likely be ravaged by various grapevine-loving rodents, and/or the vineyards themselves would have to employ all manner of environmentally damaging poisons. They (the owls) seem to be doing a fine job protecting precious Pinots, but they are also incredibly cute.

Great Big Story

Marine Science

Schmidt Ocean Institute on Instagram

Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Hats off to the amazing work being done under the sea in the Gulf of California by Schmidt Ocean Institute, an ocean-focussed science non-profit run by Eric Schmidt of Sun Microsystems and Google fame and his wife. They have been posting regularly on Instagram, showcasing some amazing images of the undersea world, including blood red Riftia worms, bizarre invertebrates and colorful (purple!) microbes…and then there’s the upside-down mirror pools, all this kind of crazy stuff 2000m deep. You can also watch some of their highlights on YouTube.

Instagram YouTube

Flora and Fauna

Amphibian killing fungus devastates, but there’s hope in California

Credit: Roland Knapp

Interesting piece in the Atlantic on the terrifying fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), that has wiped out amphibians. “Never in recorded history has a single disease burned down so much of the tree of life,” writes Ed Yong. In California, numerous species have also been affected.

For example, in some places, the mountain yellow-legged frog is nearly extinct. Yet, scientists at UCSB’s Briggs Lab show that near Yosemite, small infected populations of the yellow-legged frog are surviving. Could they hold clues to helping other species?

UCSB Briggs Lab

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Design by Luis Ramirez

Oil rigs’ future, turning rigs into reefs, Lake Death Valley, Charles Darwin in California, Huge fossil discovery in LA

Marine Policy

What to do with California’s dying oil rigs?

Credit: Los Angeles Times

A magnificent multimedia story by the Los Angeles Times looks at the fate of the Holly oil platform off the coast of Southern California. Oil rigs have long been a source of controversy in California, especially following the January 28, 1969 oil spill near Santa Barbara, which gushed 80,000 barrels of oil into the ocean. The spill led California, and then Congress, to enact numerous measures to stop the development of new platforms in local and federal waters. A 2015 spill at Holly essentially shut the platform down, and now the state must wrestle with what to do with it. Pull it out? Turn it into an artificial reef? Interestingly, the platform is said to have inspired the Doors’ Jim Morrison to write “The Crystal Ship.”

Los Angeles Times

Marine Science

Turning oil rigs into reefs

On a related note, it turns out that many of the oil rigs off the California coast harbor an unusual diversity and abundance of biological life. Milton Love, a marine biologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, has done several studies of the rigs off the coast and published several papers documenting their extremely high productivity.

A current California law allows oil companies to turn rigs into reefs, but no company has so far taken the steps to do so, largely because the rigs are still producing oil. Maybe, this will hasten the movement to do so.



The (temporary) Lake of Death Valley

Credit: Petapixel

The recent rains across the state have not only helped refill water-starved reservoirs, but they also have led to a few astonishing sights: like a 10-mile wide lake in Death Valley. Petapixel published a series of incredible photos of this rare event. They were taken by fine art landscape and seascape photographer Elliot McGucken.


History of Science

Charles Darwin in California

Credit: Huntington Library

Although he never paid a visit to the Golden State, Charles Darwin is very much present right here in Southern California. Many people are probably unaware that the Huntington Library houses an impressive collection of Darwin artifacts, including what is likely the last known portrait of the Father of Evolution. The Mohr Darwin Collection holds nearly 1,700 publications by and about Charles Darwin and his circle. The collection continues to grow, in fact. In February 2018, the library acquired 19 original prints, offering a fascinating glimpse into the intimate Darwin family circle.

Huntington Library


LA’s Pleistocene revealed in recent discovery

Credit: Courthouse News

An astonishingly rich trove of fossils has been discovered by crews tunneling a new branch of the Los Angeles subway. The discovery includes more than 500 fossils of Ice Age animals, including saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths and huge mammoths. The fossils show up at around 15 feet, according to paleontologist Cassidy Sharp. The fossils were found at stations along the Metro’s Purple Line around La Brea Avenue, Fairfax Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard.

Courthouse News

Tubeworms, Deadly Mushrooms, 50,000 Underwater Golf Balls, Bye-bye Botts Dots, End of Recycling

Private science goes deep

Fascinating work being done right now in the Gulf of California by Schmidt Ocean Institute. This is a private non-profit started by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, (Eric of Sun Microsystems and Google fame) and headquartered in Palo Alto, California. They are doing pioneering work in undersea exploration. Their current expedition takes them to the Gulf of California where they have been filming riftia, blood-red tubeworms that gained fame in 1977 on an expedition to the Galápagos Rift. The worms live off of a chemical symbiosis with bacteria, a process called chemosynthesis rather than by directly using sunlight (photosynthesis). The discovery of the Riftia symbiosis with bacteria is considered one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

Beware the death cap mushroom

The recent deluge of rain from the atmospheric river has brought much-needed relief to the California water system, doing a lot to refill reservoirs. However, the rain has also raised concern over the rapid growth of amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap mushroom. The death cap accounts for nearly 50 percent of all deaths caused by mushrooms.

The mushrooms have been a big problem in rainy years in California. In 2017, there were 14 cases of death-cap mushroom poisonings documented in Northern California. The deadly mushrooms grow in moist earth, and while they may look delicious, they should be avoided. It is estimated that just half a mushroom contains enough poison to kill a human adult. The mushroom’s toxin attacks the liver, and those who are affected develop severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Death can come as quickly as a few days.

Interestingly, death caps are not native to the United States, but likely came from Europe, attached to the roots of other plants. So, if you like to pick and eat wild mushrooms, how do you know what to avoid? Unfortunately, the greenish-beige death cap closely resembles several edible species. We looked around and found several places that warn foragers from eating anything with gills, which harbor the toxin. PBS’s wonderful Deep Look also has a nice video on the subject.

Mercury News Deep Look

Credit: Alex Weber

Underwater toxic golf ball bonanza

Alex Weber is a student at Carmel High School in California who also happen to enjoy diving. One day while swimming in the waters near Pebble Beach golf course, site of the 2019 U.S. Open Championship, she discovered huge mounds of golf balls, hit there by duffer golfers.

The enterprising teen got in touch with scientist Matthew Savoca at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University who studies the effects of plastic in the ocean. Together, the two of them collected over 50,000 golf balls, some 2.5 tons worth, often diving while new golf balls plopped into the water around them. It turns out, says Savoca, that golf balls are made with materials that can be hazardous to marine life, especially once they break down over time in the ocean water. The enterprising Weber has since started a campaign to get more of the polluting dimpled spheres out of the ocean. A recent paper documents the effort and discusses the nature of pollutants left behind by golf balls.

YALE360 The Plastic Pick up Marine Pollution Bulletin

The demise of the Bot Dot

Botts dots. Credit: Caltrans

You are driving down the highway and you drift slightly to the center. Suddenly, you hear a familiar recurrent thumping sound as your tires roll over perfectly spaced tiny lumps glued to the road. What you are hearing are so-called Botts Dots, ceramic bumps invented by Caltrans engineer Elbert Dysart Botts.

The bumps are meant to alert drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic or veering off the road. Since they were first installed in 1966, they have proven tremendously effective at waking dozing drivers.

Today, California roads and highways are studded with more than 25 million Botts’ dots. However, starting two years ago, Caltrans decided to stop using Botts dots, and so they have fallen out of use and are no longer being installed, according to Caltrans.

So what’s replacing the beloved Botts dots? In some cases, they are being replaced by more reflective markers, the angular ones that are generally orange or yellow. In other cases, thermoplastic striping, a kind of raised paint, is used. But increasingly common, especially on the highway shoulder are so-called Sonic Nap Alert Patterns (SNAPs), first used in Pennsylvania, which are grooves cut into the roadside to alert drivers that their vehicles are veering out of bounds.

Sac Bee

The End of Recycling?

Credit: The Atlantic

The headline may a bit overstated, but recycling is in a serious crisis. It used to be that China would buy and ship millions of tons of our recycling to help fuel its own rapid growth. No longer.

The Atlantic takes a look at the problems plaguing the US recycling industry with a particular focus on liberal, green San Francisco, where state of the art sorting machines are struggling to separate garbage from recycling.

The AtlanticT