The Man Who Saved the Owens Pupfish

Owens pupfish

51 years ago today a man named Edwin Philip Pister rescued an entire species from extinction.

Less than 2.5 inches in length, the Owens pupfish is a silvery-blue fish in the family Cyprinodontidae. Endemic to California’s Owens Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the fish has lived on the planet since the Pleistocene, becoming a new species when its habitat was divided by changing climatic conditions, 60,000 years ago.

For thousands of years, the Owens Valley was largely filled with water, crystal-clear snowmelt that still streams off the jagged, precipitous slab faces of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Pupfish were common, with nine species populating various lakes and streams from Death Valley to an ara just south of Mammoth Lakes. The Paiute people scooped them out of the water and dried them for the winter.

In the late 19th century, Los Angeles was a rapidly growing young metropolis, still in throes of growing pains that would last decades. While considered an ugly younger sibling to the city of San Francisco, Los Angeles had the appeal of near year-round sunshine and sandy beaches whose beauty that rivaled those of the French Riviera.

William Mulholland

But by the late 1900s, the city began outgrowing its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, and his water czar, William Mulholland, hatched a plan to build an aqueduct from Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Most Californians know the story. Through a series of shady deals, Mulholland and Eaton managed to get control of the water in the Owens Valley and, in 1913, the aqueduct was finished. It was great news for the new city, but terrible news for many of the creatures (not to mention the farmers) who depended on the water flowing into and from the Owens Lake to survive.

One of those animals is the Owens pupfish.

So named because they exhibit playful, puppy-like behavior, the Owens pupfish rapidly began to disappear. Pupfish are well-known among scientists for being able to live in extreme and isolated situations. They can tolerate high levels of salinity. Some live in water that exceeds 100° Fahrenheit, and they can even tolerate up to 113° degrees for short periods. They are also known to survive in near-freezing temperatures common in the lower desert.

But hot or cold are one thing. The disappearance of water altogether is another.

As California has developed, and as climate change has caused temperatures to rise, thus increasing evaporation, all of California’s pupfish populations have come under stress. Add to these conditions, the early 20th-century introduction by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife of exotic species like largemouth bass and rainbow trout to lakes and streams in the eastern Sierras, and you get a recipe for disaster. And disaster is exactly what happened.

The remains of the Owens River flowing through Owens Valley in California. Credit: Erik Olsen

Several species of pupfish in the state have been put on the endangered species list. Several species, including the Owens pupfish, the Death Valley Pupfish and the Devils Hole pupfish are some of the rarest species of fish on the planet. The Devils Hole pupfish recently played the lead role in a recent story about a man who accidentally killed one of the fish during a drunken spree. According to news stories, he stomped on the fish when he tried to swim in a fenced off pool in Death Valley National Park. He went to jail.

The impact on the Owens pupfish habitat was so severe that in 1948, just after it was scientifically described, it was declared extinct.

That is, until one day in 1964, when researchers discovered a remnant population of Owens pupfish in a desert marshland called Fish Slough, a few miles from Bishop, California. Wildlife officials immediately began a rescue mission to save the fish and reintroduce them into what were considered suitable habitats. Many were not, and by the late 1960s, the only remaining population of Owens pupfish, about 800 individuals, barely hung on in a “room-sized” pond near Bishop.

On August 18, 1969, a series of heavy rains caused foliage to grow and clog the inflow of water into the small pool. It happened so quickly, that when scientists learned of the problem, they realized they had just hours to save the fish from extinction.

Edwin Philip Pister
Edwin Philip Pister

Among the scientists who came to the rescue that day was a stocky, irascible 40-year old fish biologist named Phil Pister. Pister had worked for the California Department of Fish and Game (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) most of his career. An ardent acolyte of Aldo Leopold, regarded as one of the fathers of American conservation, Pister valued nature on par, or even above, human needs. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1990 obituary, “The prospect of Pister off the leash was fearsome.”

“I was born on January 15, 1929, the same day as Martin Luther King—perhaps this was a good day for rebels,” he once said.

Pister had few friends among his fellow scientists. Known for being argumentative, disagreeable, and wildly passionate about the protection of California’s abundant, but diminishing, natural resources, Pister realized that immediate action was required to prevent the permanent loss of the Owens pupfish. He rallied several of his underlings and rushed to the disappearing pool with buckets, nets, and aerators.

Within a few hours, the small team was able to capture the entire remaining population of Owens pupfish in two buckets, transporting them to a nearby wetland. However, as Pister himself recalls in an article for Natural History Magazine:

“In our haste to rescue the fish, we had unwisely placed the cages in eddies away from the influence of the main current. Reduced water velocity and accompanying low dissolved oxygen were rapidly taking their toll.”

Los Angeles Aqueduct. Credit: Erik Olsen

As noted earlier, pupfish are amazingly tolerant of extreme conditions, but like many species, they can also be fragile, and within a short amount of time, many of the pupfish Pister had rescued were dying, floating belly up in the cages. Pister realized immediate action was required, lest the species disappear from the planet forever. Working alone, he managed to net the remaining live fish into the buckets and then carefully carried them by foot across an expanse of marsh. “I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species,” he wrote.

Pister managed to get the fish into cool, moving water where the fish could breathe and move about. He says abouty half the the population survived, but that was enough.

Today, the Owens pupfish remains in serious danger of extinction. On several occasions over the last few decades, the Owens pupfish has suffered losses by largemouth bass that find their way into the pupfish’s refuges, likely due to illegal releases by anglers. In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that five populations totaling somewhere between 1,500 and 20,000 Owens pupfish live in various springs, marshes, and sloughs in the Owens Valley, where they are federally protected.

by Erik Olsen

Additional material:

Oral history video featuring Phil Pister recounting his career and that fateful day.

Read previous articles in the California Science Weekly.

Beautiful, but Deadly: Painting the Coronavirus

Pandemic as art.

You’ve seen it. Probably a thousand or more times by now. It’s the image of a greyish sphere, hanging in space, barbed with blood-red spikes. It looks like an undersea Navy mine… or perhaps a dog’s chew toy. The Covid-19 coronavirus illustration is one of the best known and most viewed scientific illustrations in history. Released in early February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the image has been seen on news sites, in magazines, even on SNL.

That digital illustration, created by two medical illustrators at the CDC’s Graphic Services Branch — Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins — will forever be the iconic image of the current pandemic. As a piece of digital art, it is lovely. As a piece of science, it is terrifying.

But another image of the virus was painted in watercolor by the San Diego-based scientist and biological artist David Goodsell, one of the most famous and accomplished scientific illustrators alive today. Goodsell has published several books of his illustrations, and many of his lavishly colored paintings can be found in medical school textbooks. A few have won awards. Some have even hung in museums. Goodsell’s coronavirus image is not nearly as famous, but as a work of art — and a work of science — it is just as mesmerizing. And more lovely.

Goodsell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. Most of the time, he works as a scientific illustrator (or molecular artist), a growing field in science, with numerous university programs available around the country. While the CDC image was created entirely within a computer, Goodsell’s work tends to be done in watercolor, a much older medium, but one that gives his images a vibrant beauty, making terrible pathogens like E-coli, Ebola and HIV, not to mention coronavirus, look like a psychedelic dream or a candy-colored nightmare.

Ebola virus: David Goodsell

Goodsell says that creating images like these serve a very important purpose: allowing people to picture something that otherwise would be unseeable.

“I was trying to put a face on the virus, so it’s not invisible, so we can see what we’re fighting,” Goodsell told California Science Weekly.

Because there are so many other images out there of the virus, it might seem like creating an illustration of it would be simple, but Goodsell says that there’s a tremendous amount of science involved, and that he strives to be as technically accurate as possible, showing only the known proteins in the virus and how they might be organized within the virion, the technical term for a virus particle.

David Goodsell in his home studio.

At the time that the painting was made, says Goodsell, not much was known about the virus. Its genetic structure was still being figured out. But since the virus is so similar to the SARS virome, Goodsell used a lot of the information from existing data on that virus, to create his work of art. Like most molecular artists, Goodsell draws from existing information about the proteins that make up a virus, much of which is freely available in the Protein Data Bank, a global online repository of genetic and structural data on thousands of the proteins which make up all living things.

“I want it to be something that people want to look at. I don’t particularly want it to look scary or monsterish.”

David Goodsell

The Protein Data Bank contains “some really nice structures of the spike protein on the outside of the virus.” Those spike proteins (colored a deep blood-red in the CDC image, but a bubblegum pink in Goodsell’s painting) are the means by which the virus attaches itself to our own cells before injecting them with its RNA, which will rapidly replicate inside and potentially wreak havoc in our bodies.

“If you Google coronavirus, people are using a whole range of different amounts of data, and most of the pictures are total garbage. Somebody has heard there are spikes on the virus, so they put things that look like big nails on the surface,” says Goodsell. “The CDC’s and my picture are much more tied to the data.”

Since creating the image in February, however, more information has come out about the virus’s genetic composition, and Goodsell may revisit his image, although he thinks it remains accurate. Little was known, for example, about the RNA contents of the virus, the genetic information that invades human cells. He also notes that the virus’s shape is not as uniform as depicted in most illustrations, and that any effort to create an image of it requires a significant amount of artistic license. For example, the CDC image, while accurate in terms of various proteins pictured, is likely not the neatly organized spiked ball floating in space that most people have come to know.

“I was trying to put a face on the virus, so it’s not invisible, so we can see what we’re fighting.”

David Goodsell

“It’s not a perfect sphere and it comes in a range of different sizes,” says Goodsell. “All of my reading is that the spikes are arranged randomly on the surface.”

Another quality that is entirely up to the artist is color. None of the molecules in the virus have much color, so molecular artists like Goodsell (and Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins at the CDC), choose colors that they believe will be both pleasing and informative, helping to differentiate the various structures within the virus particle. “Color is used to help improve the clarity of what the structures are. The CDC has used that bright red to show what they think is the most important part, the spike on the surface,” says Goodsell.

For Goodsell’s part, his palette is far less sinister. He favors delicate pastels and swooping forms over the stark primary colors and jagged spikes of most coronavirus images. “I want it to be something that people want to look at. I don’t particularly want it to look scary or monsterish.”

That said, Goodsell says he’s been getting a lot of comments about the painting on Twitter. “Invariably, they say it’s beautiful but deadly.”

The Magic, Wonder, and Science of Ocean Bioluminescence in Southern California

How and why so many of earth’s creatures make their own light.

Last week, a video went viral showing a small pod of dolphins swimming at night off the coast of Newport Beach. Seeing dolphins off Southern California is not particularly unusual, but this was a very special moment. In the video, the dolphins appear to be swimming through liquid light, their torpedo-shaped bodies generating an ethereal blue glow like a scene straight out of Avatar. The phenomenon that causes the blue glow has been known for centuries, but that in no way detracts from its wonder and beauty. The phenomenon is called bioluminescence, and it is one of nature’s most magical and interesting phenomena. 

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism (thanks, Wikipedia!), and it is truly one of the great magical properties of nature. At its core, bioluminescence is the way animals can visually sense the world around them. It’s all built on vision, one of the most fascinating and useful senses in the animal kingdom. Seeing is impossible without light, and so it makes sense that in the absence of sunlight, some animals created a way to make their own light. 


I have been fascinated by bioluminescence since I was a child growing up near Newport Beach when the occasional nearshore red tide bloom would illuminate the waves like we are seeing now. It’s a truly magical experience. I’ve also experienced bioluminescence in various places around the world, including Thailand, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In fact, 13 years ago, I made the trip to Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island and its world-famous Mosquito Bay, for the sole purpose of seeing the bay in person and swimming and kayaking in its warm, glowing waters (there is a rental outfit there that does tours at night…it’s amazing. Trust me.)

The phenomenon of bioluminescence is surprisingly common in nature. Both terrestrial and sea animals do it, as do plants, insects (for example, fireflies), and fungi. Curiously, no mammals bioluminesce. That we know of. The ocean is definitely the place that animals and plants bioluminesce the most. Which makes sense because deep in the ocean, there is little or no light. Light is absorbed very quickly in the water, so while on land you might be able to see a single streetlight miles away, after about 800 feet, light largely disappears in the depths of the ocean. I know. I’ve been there

It’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of the animals living in the open ocean, in waters below 1,500 feet, make their own light. Why they do this is in part a mystery, but scientists are pretty sure they understand the basic reasons animals do it: to eat, to not be eaten, and to mate. In other words, to survive. And to communicate. 

Credit: NOAA

The angler fish dangles a lighted lure in front of its face to attract prey. Some squid expel bioluminescent liquid, rather than ink, to confuse their predators. A few shrimp do too. Worms and small crustaceans use bioluminescence to attract mates. When it is attacked, the Atolla jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) broadcasts a vivid, circular display of bioluminescent light, which scientists believe may be a kind of alarm system. The theory is that the light will attract a larger predator to go after whatever is attacking the jellyfish. While this is still a theory, a 2019 expedition that took the very first images of the giant squid used a fake Atolla jellyfish designed by the scientist Edith Widder to lure the squid into frame. I had the fortune of interviewing Dr. Widder, one of the world’s top experts on bioluminescence, several years ago for the New York Times.   

Edith Widder holds a vial of bioluminescent plankton. Credit: Erik Olsen

Making light is clearly beneficial. That’s why, say evolutionary biologists, it appears that bioluminescence has arisen over forty separate times in evolutionary history. The process is called convergent evolution and is the same reason that bats and birds and insects all evolved to fly independently. Clearly, flying confers a major advantage. So does making light.

While the Internet is awash in images of bioluminescent creatures, very often the term is confused with fluorescence. Even reputable science organizations sometimes do this. Bioluminescence is not the same thing as fluorescence. Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. Many animals like scorpions and coral fluoresce, meaning that they appear to glow a bright otherworldly color when blue light is shone on them. The key idea here is that the animals are not generating their own light, but rather contain cells that reflect light in fluorescence.  

Fluorescent (not bioluminescent) scorpion in Baja California, Mexico. Credit: Erik Olsen

So what about the recent explosion of bioluminescence in Southern California? The light we are seeing is made by tiny organisms, type of plankton called dinoflagellates (Lingulodinium polyedra) that occasionally “bloom” off-shore. Often, this is the result of recent storms that bring tons of nutrient-laden runoff into the ocean. The tiny plankton feed on nitrogen and other nutrients that enter the ocean from rivers and streams and city streets. A lot of the nutrients come from California’s vast farms, specifically the fertilizer used to grow California’s fruits and vegetables. With all that “food” coming into the ocean system, the algae rapidly multiply, creating red tides, or vast patches of ocean that turn dark brownish red, the color of pigment in the algae that helps protect it from sunlight. Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says that the animals use bioluminescence as a predator avoidance behavior. 

Sometimes red tides are toxic and can kill animals and make people sick who swim in the ocean. (That does not appear to be the case in California right now). At night, when they are still, the animals can’t be seen. But when the water is disturbed, which adds oxygen into the mix, a chemical reaction takes place in their bodies that causes luciferin to oxidize and becomes catalyzed to make luciferase, which emits photons or particles of light. It’s not understood exactly how or why this happens, but we do know there are many kids of luciferase. In fact, scientists know the genes that create luciferases and have implanted them into organisms like mice, silkworms, and potatoes so that they glow. They’ve made bioluminescent plants, too.

A shrimp emits a bioluminescent cloud to ward of predators. Credit: NOAA

Perhaps the most magical thing about bioluminescence is that it doesn’t create heat. Almost all the lights we are familiar with, particularly incandescent light, like that from generic light bubs, generate a tremendous amount of heat. Of course, we have learned how to make this heatless chemical light ourselves, easily experienced when you crack and shake a glow stick, mixing together several chemicals in a process similar to the one animals in the ocean use to create bioluminescent light. But the light from glow sticks is not nearly strong enough to illuminate your back yard. In the last few decades, we’ve learned how to make another kind of light that does not produce a great amount of heat: LEDs. Though the process is very different, the concept is the same: talking a molecule or a material and promoting it to an excited state. Where electricity is used, in the case of LEDs, it’s called electroluminescence, where it’s a chemical reaction it’s chemiluminescence, of which bioluminescence is one form. 

Whether you are a religious person or not (I’m not) it’s no coincidence that one of the first things God said was, “Let there be light!” Light and light energy give us plants and animals to eat, and allows us to see. It heats our world, it fuels our cars (oil is really just dead organic material compressed over time, and that organic material would not have existed without sunlight). While some animals deep in the ocean can live without light, most of us cannot. And it’s a rather astounding feat of nature than when there is no light, many of the earth’s creatures have evolved to produce it themselves. If you don’t believe me, just go down to the Southern California shore tonight, and leave your flashlight at home. You won’t need it.

Best Science Books of 2019 and a Best of Best of List

2019 was a big year for science books. Climate change, the anniversary of Apollo 11, the genomics revolution and a whole lot more captivated some of the best science writing minds in the world. Here’s a list of our favorite science books from 2019 along with a best of list of the best science science books from esteemed outlets around the Internet. 

Here we are about to bid good-bye to another decade. It’s crazy how time flies. We still remember the Y2K scare from 1999 and how all our computer systems were supposed to crash, leading to widespread havoc and (according to some overblown accounts) the end of the world. 

Oh well. There’s no armageddon this time around, which is a good thing because, well, aren’t we all just a little bit stressed out by climate change and all the other stuff going on? To keep ourselves sane, we here at California Science Weekly try to focus on science, particularly science in the great state of California. That said, we are always excited by end of year lists featuring science books, and decided to gather some of the best Best Science Books of 2019 lists for your reading pleasure. There’s a ton of overlap here, with several books occupying spots on nearly all the lists. That said, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity here, too, depending on your particular interests. Biology and the genomic revolution make a big splash, but so do books about unsung women scientists, like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and The Women of the Moon: Tales of Science, Love, Sorrow, and Courage by Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J. Ballesteros. There are also some fine adventure tales, like Alex Deghan’s The Snow Leopard Project: And Other Adventures in Warzone Conservation and Sam Kean’s The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb. The latter is at the top of our current wish list.

Here are the top five books recommended by us, California Science Weekly. Only a few of them have a direct California connection (notably Nick Neely’s wonderful Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State, but that’s ok. We immensely enjoyed them and thought 2019 was a superb year for science writing across the board, from books to Web sites and blogs. So, in addition to our own favorites below, we also offer a Best of Best of list of the other top recommendations from venerable publications around the internets.  

California Science Weekly top five books of 2019: 

  1. The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
  2. One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman
  3. Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives by Mark Miodownik
  4. Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State by Nick Neely
  5. Underland by Robert Macfarlane


Five BooksBarbara Kiser is the Books & Arts Editor at the respected science journal Nature. She lists her favorite five books for 2019 on London-based Five Books, commenting that, while 2018 was a banner year for science books, “We are back in embarrassment-of-riches territory in 2019.” 

Here are her choices: 

Science Friday The ever enjoyable and informative Science Friday radio show, hosted by Ira Flatow, offers up some reader favorites along with recommendations from Flatow and respected science writer Deborah Blum and Valerie Thompson. 

Ira Flatow

  1. The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean
  2. Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World by David Owen
  3. The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe
  4. Because Internet: Understanding The New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
  5. Moths: A Complete Guide to Biology and Behavior by David Lees and Alberto Zilli
  6. Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again by Eric Topol

Deborah Blum

  1. Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban
  2. Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  3. Midnight at Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
  4. The Ice at the End of the World by Jon Gertner
  5. The Optimist’s Telescope by Bina Venkataraman

Valerie Thompson

  1. Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman
  2. Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak
  3. Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves by George Estreich
  4. The Women of the Moon: Tales of Science, Love, Sorrow and Courage by Daniel Altschuler and Fernando Ballesteros
  5. Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table by Kit Chapman
  6. The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media by Kate Eichhorn

The Guardian: Best Science, Nature and Ideas Books of 2019

  1. Choked by Beth Gardiner
  2. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
  3. Underland by Robert Macfarlane
  4. Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  5. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff


Amazon: Best science books of 2019

BBC Science FocusThe 10 best science books of 2019

Science News: Here are Science News’ Favorite Science Books of 2019

The Planets: 50 of The Best Science Books – 2019

Smithsonian: The Ten Best Science Books of 2019

Word Economic Forum: Are These the 6 Best Science Books of 2019?

Scientific American: Recommended Books, December 2019

Library Journal: Best Science & Technology Books 2019

That’s it! Time to get busy reading and preparing for what should be another blockbuster year of amazing science journalism in 2020.

The genius of Luther Burbank, father of the most famous potato in the world

luther burbank - Library of Congress

Luther Burbank created some of the world’s most commercially successful fruits and vegetables, all from his Santa Rosa, California farm.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a review of fast-food french fries that caused a stir because the writer placed fries made at California’s beloved In-N-Out burger somewhere near the bottom. This infuriated the state’s rabid fan base for what is arguably one of the best burger joints in America. But one fact that was lost in the whole debate is this: if it were not for the work of one Californian farmer, we would likely not have french fries at all, or at least not as we know them today. 

Russet Burbank potato. Credit Wikipedia
Russet Burbank potato. Credit Wikipedia

That is because most french fries today are made with a particular strain of potato –  the Russet Burbank – that exists largely because of one man: Luther Burbank. Burbank is a little-known Californian (part of an ongoing series) whose contributions to science, in particular botany, have had an outsized impact on much of the fresh produce we consume today. 

Burbank is a towering figure in horticulture, credited with creating the science of modern plant breeding. For decades in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, his experimental farm in Santa Rosa, California, was famous throughout the world for the stunning variety of new fruit and vegetable varieties that emerged from the farm’s fertile soil. 

Luther Burbank - Library of Congress
Luther Burbank. Credit: Library of Congress

Born in 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank came to California in 1875, buying a four-acre plot of land to start a nursery and garden in order to breed edible crops. While not a trained scientist, Burbank had a preternatural knack for identifying desirable characteristics in plants, which he selected for through an arduous, time-consuming, and oftentimes brilliantly intuitive series of techniques that led to the creation of some of our most cherished strains of fruits and vegetables. 

Over the course of his 55-year career, Burbank developed more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants, including flowers, grains, grasses, vegetables, cacti, and fruits. These include 113 varieties of plums, 20 of which remain commercially valuable, especially in California and South Africa. He also developed 10 commercial varieties of berries (including the oxymoronically-named white blackberry) as well as more than 50 varieties of lilies

Amazingly, Burbank was able to achieve all this without direct knowledge of plant genetics, pioneered by the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel in what is now the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s (and whose papers were brought to light in 1901, long after his death in 1884). Burbank’s lack of precise record-keeping and somewhat unorthodox — some would say sloppy — record-keeping, has led some modern scientists to criticize his credentials. Purdue University professor Jules Janick, wrote that “Burbank cannot be considered a scientist in the academic sense.” 

Luther Burbank with spineless cactus that he developed.
Luther Burbank with spineless cactus that he developed. Credit: Library of Congress

That said, Burbank’s innovations in Santa Rosa were revolutionary and garnered him worldwide attention, as well as financial support from benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who supported Burbank because he believed the work was of great potential benefit to humanity. 

Burbank perfected techniques in common use today such as grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding. At the time, his efforts resulted in large yield increases for numerous edible species in the United States in the early 20th century. 

But perhaps Burbank’s most lasting achievement was the Russet Burbank potato, which first came on the scene around 1902. Burbank bred the new stain from an unusual “seedball” he found on his farm, which came from a strain called Early Rose. Burbank planted the seeds, chose the most select fruits and further hybridized those. Soon, he had a wonderfully robust and hearty potato that he could sell.  

This large, brown-skinned, fleshy-white tuber is now the world’s predominant potato in food processing. The Russet Burbank is ideal for baking, mashing, and french fries. It is now grown predominantly in Idaho, the top potato-growing state in the US, where the variety makes up more than 55% of the state’s potato production. 

Burbank came up with the Russet Burbank potato to help with the devastating situation in Ireland following the Irish potato famine. His aim was to help “revive the country’s leading crop” due to the fact that it is “Late blight-resistant”. Late blight disease destroyed potato crops across Europe and led to a devastating famine in Ireland because the country was so dependent on potatoes as a common foodstuff. Unfortunately, Burbank did not patent the Russet Burbank because plant tubers, of which the potato is one, were not granted patents in the United States. 

But the Russet Burbank was such a hearty strain, and so nutritious and flavorful (though some disagree), that it became the potato of choice for many grocery stores and restaurants. This did not happen automatically, but took about two decades to catch on. In fact, in 1930, the Russet Burbank accounted for just 4% of potatoes in the US. But things would quickly change with the advent of frozen french fries in the 1940s and the subsequent emergence of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s in the 1950s. The Russet Burbank was perfectly suited for french fries and remains the world’s most popular potato by a long shot.  

Unfortunately, Luther Burbank had a dark side, especially by modern mores. He believed in eugenics, the idea that human beings should be selectively bred like produce. He was a member of a national eugenicist group, which promoted anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, involuntary sterilization, and other discrimination by race.

Luther Burbank home in Santa Rosa, California. Credit: Library of Congress

Luther Burbank died after a heart attack and gastrointestinal illness in 1926. His name is known in certain regions of California, in and around Santa Rosa, although if you asked the average person who he was, few would be able to say. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, in downtown Santa Rosa, are designated as a National Historic Landmark.

— by Erik Olsen

This article is part of a series about little-known, but highly-influential California scientists. See other articles here.

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.

How Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 trip to California gave birth to modern conservation

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite. Credit: National Park Service
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite. Credit: National Park Service

Theodore Roosevelt is our hero. 

The 26th President of the United States was a soldier, a historian, an amateur scientist, a best-selling writer, an avid outdoorsman and much much more. He has been called the “father of conservation,” because, as president, he authorized the creation of 150 national forests, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 4 national game preserves, and 51 federal bird reservations. We think he deserves the moniker. 

But many people may be unaware that TR has a very important California connection. 116 years ago, in 1903, just two years after becoming our nation’s youngest president at the age of forty-two, following the assassination of President William McKinley, Roosevelt embarked on one of the most important Presidential trips in the history of America. 

The impact of his trip to California is still being felt today. 

The trip, taken by railroad, took Roosevelt across the American continent. The 14,000-mile journey began in April, took TR through twenty-five states, and lasted nine weeks. He traveled through the American West, stopped at Yellowstone National Park for a hiking and camping trip with naturalist and essayist John Burroughs. He continued on and ended touring a large swath of the state of California, including Yosemite, which had been declared a national park in 1890. 

It was a tenuous time for the American environment. Millions of buffalo had been slaughtered across the plains, often for sport, their carcasses left to rot in the sun. The passenger pigeon, a bird that once filled the skies by the billions, had been exterminated. But America was also in the midst of a nature renaissance, and Roosevelt one of its pivotal figures. The impact of his trip to California is still being felt today. 

Perhaps the most important moment of the journey was his meeting with John Muir on May 15th, 1903. The meeting took place on a train in the dusty town of Raymond, California, the closest station to Yosemite.  From there, the men traveled 40 miles (about 8 hours) by stagecoach, which gave them the opportunity to get acquainted.  They stopped in Mariposa Grove, where TR saw his first sequoia and had his picture taken driving through the “Tunnel Tree,” which no longer stands.  

That first night, President Roosevelt dismissed his aides and the press, which was unusual for him because he was a publicity hound. In the wilds of Yosemite, he and Muir spent three days “roughing it,” camping beneath the stars and enjoying conversation around a campfire. It was during those conversations that Muir made the case for the preservation of forests and other natural resources. Likely, these talks created the impetus for Roosevelt’s support for the 1906 Antiquities Act, arguably one of the most important pieces of conservation law in the United States.  With the power to proclaim lands as monuments in the public interest, Roosevelt in 1908 set aside some 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument. Congress later gave it a national park status.

Arguably, no other President has had such a singular impact on protecting American lands, and it’s fair to say, we think, that his visit to California had a lot to do with it. 

Towing an iceberg from Antarctica isn’t a new idea.

It was proposed 70 years ago by a maverick California scientist at Scripps.

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Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A year ago, Cape Town, South Africa was suffering one of the worst droughts in its history. The city of 4 million made headlines by being one of the first major cities on the planet to run out of municipal water, and entering a so-called Zero-Day status that seemed a harbinger of things to come for many other cities (Los Angeles included) facing dire water shortages.

Cape Town averted disaster by orchestrating a series of conservation and water diversion measures that helped in the short term. However, the water supply situation is still tenuous, and many people believe that similar Zero-Day scenarios could become a part of the new normal, an era when drastic, some might say crazy solutions enter the realm of the possible.

Enter the Antarctic iceberg idea. Bloomberg has a wonderful story this week about Nicholas Sloane, a 56-year-old South African marine-salvage expert who is developing a plan to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to the South African city, where it would be moored off-shore and hacked and “mined” for fresh water.

One problem with the idea is that to make any dent in a large city’s water supply, the iceberg will have to be big. Very big.

“To make it economically feasible,” Sloane tells Bloomberg. the iceberg would measure about 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) long, 500 meters wide, and 250 meters deep, and weigh 125 million tons. “That would supply about 20% of Cape Town’s water needs for a year.”

As outlandish as the idea seems, some scientists think it’s possible, or at least worth a try. Sloane’s company Iceberg Towing International has hired some of the most reputable names in iceberg transport (not a long list), and feasibility studies are underway.

But one interesting footnote to all of this is that the idea of towing icebergs is not new. In fact, one of the early proponents of towing icebergs was an iconoclastic ocean scientist from the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego. In the late 1940s, John Isaacs proposed transporting an 8 billion-ton iceberg to San Diego to relieve California droughts.

The idea was to capture “an eight-billion ton iceberg, 20 miles long, 3000 feet wide, and 1000 feet deep in the Antarctic and towing it up to San Clemente Island off San Diego in a matter of 200 days.” That’s thinking outside the box.

Speaking of a box, one of the interesting details of the story is how much better Antarctic icebergs are for this kind of thing than those in the Arctic. Arctic icebergs are the pinnacled, mountainous type that we are most familiar with from photos, and the kind that likely sunk the Titanic. Antarctic icebergs are “tabular”, big and flat, not soaring blue spires like those from Greenland. This makes them far easier to transport and less likely to fall to pieces while being pulled across vast ocean distances.

Credit: Erik Olsen

By most accounts, Isaacs was an odd, but brilliant character. He was also a well-known polymath who became a world-renowned scientist, engineer, teacher, naturalist, fisherman, author, inventor, and Scripps professor. His colleagues called him a “giant of science” and an “idea man”, willing to take on most any problem that interested him with implacable energy and often unorthodox solutions. Over the course of his career, he was elected to the American Geophysical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

After he died, the iceberg towing idea came up several additional times, including a wonderful 1973 Rand study titled “Antarctic Icebergs as a Global Fresh Water Source” that proposed creating an “iceberg train”, essentially a series of icebergs tied together like boxcars. In the paper, RAND gave a nod to Isaacs idea and tried to flesh out the details of how such a scheme would actually work.

As recent as 1978, California’s legislature endorsed the idea of towing two icebergs to southern California for drought relief. 

Isaacs died in 1980. Needless to say, in the age of climate change, it would be nice to have a man like him around again. However, his legacy does live on: Through the California Sea Grant program Scripps awards six Undergraduate Research Assistantships each summer.

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Lithium in Death Valley, Frogs making comeback, JPL’s Climate Elvis, Science of traffic jams, Mono Lake’s gulls, Amazing scallop eyes, Cow burps, Bee thieves

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Week of May 10, 2019

Editor’s note: We’re heading to Indonesia next week on an assignment, so we’ll miss an issue of California Science Weekly. But keep an eye on our Twitter feed for posts.

A war is brewing over lithium mining near Death Valley

Lithium. It is one of the world’s most valuable elements, allowing batteries to be more powerful and longer-lasting than ever before. Right now, most lithium is mined in the high deserts of South America, but a new battle is being waged between battery companies and environmentalists over whether to mine lithium in Panamint Valley in California, right on the edge of Death Valley. There are strong arguments to be made that having a large domestic source of lithium is key to a carbon-free future, but some are saying that mining would potentially despoil one of California’s most treasured natural areas.

The LA Times has a story on how Australia-based firm Battery Mineral Resources Ltd. is seeking permission to drill four exploratory wells beneath the valley floor to see if enough lithium is there to make a mine economically viable. 

Environment / Animals

The comeback of Mark Twain’s frogs

Red-Legged Frog Release.

The California red-legged frog is said to be the species featured in Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

They began to disappear decades ago due to disease and habitat destruction, but a recent program to reintroduce them back in Yosemite Valley is seeing some progress. The program reintroduced about 4,000 California red-legged frog eggs and tadpoles and 500 adult frogs, into Yosemite and near the Merced River. For the first time, biologists have found eggs from the reintroduced frogs. That’s great news, given the rapidly declining state of frogs around the globe. The recent IPBES UN report says that more than 40 percent of amphibian species around the world are threatened with extinction.


Space / Climate Change

Climate Elvis at JPL

Josh Willis works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, California. He’s a scientist studying the change in ocean temperatures and how they impact Greenland’s melting glaciers. He’s also an Elvis impersonator and a comedian, who hopes to make people aware of the perils we face if we don’t change our behavior towards the changing climate, but getting a laugh along the way. Laughter is, after all, the best medicine. That said, we won’t be laughing much if climate change gets as bad as many scientists say. See the UN report referenced above.  



Science of traffic jams

Credit: Erik Olsen

Traffic jams. They are the bane of California drivers. But what causes them, and is there any way to lessen their severity? Mathematicians have developed all sorts of models to better understand how traffic forms, and some of them has been helpful to improve flow. For example, extra-long freeway entry lanes (take a drive on Highway 110, the old Route 66, which has very short entry lanes, to see what I’m talking about.) An interesting story in Nautilus examines how fluid models are being used to better predict and reduce traffic jams. It’s complicated, but you will learn about the jamiton. And we’re not holding our breath that things will improve in places like LA anytime soon. 



Gulls of Mono Lake

Kristie Nelson studies seagulls at Mono Lake, home to massive colonies of gulls. Her Mono Lake Gull Project examines how gulls serve as an indicator of ecosystem health. The gulls spend most of their time at the coast, but during breeding season they make fly to saline places like Mono Lake where the population can reach up to 65,000 birds. 

A video at Science Friday looks at her work and has some great scenes of the voracious birds going after the lake’s insanely numerous Alkali Flies, moving across the bazillions of them, beaks open, like a lawnmower.

Science Friday

Marine science / Animals

Scallop eyes surprise scientists


Many people know that scallops have eyes, blue ones, in fact. But their eyes function a bit differently than our own. As light enters into the scallop eye, it goes through the pupil and then a lens. Interestingly, the scallop has two retinas, and when the light hits them it strikes a crystal mirror made of guanine at the back of the eye. 

A study in Current Biology looks at two species: the bay scallop Argopecten irradians and the sea scallop Placopecten magellanicus, and reveals that scallops have a novel way of focusing light. They have no irises like ours and so they use their pupils to dilate and contract, and this, along with changes to the curvature of the cornea, improves resolution and forms crisper images. Vision is such an amazingly complex ability, yet it has likely evolved 50 times among animals, a process called convergent evolution. There are several scallop species in California, and the next time you are diving and see one, remember that it probably sees you right back.

Current Biology Smithsonian

Climate Change

Reducing cow burps with seaweed

UC Davis

You’ve seen Harris Ranch on I5? Did you know that California is a major producer of beef and dairy. Cows produce prodigious amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. In fact, methane is 30 times worse than CO2. Meanwhile, more than half of all methane emissions in California come from the burps, farts, and exhalations of livestock. And belches are the worst, accounting for roughly 95% of the methane released into the environment. Worldwide, livestock accounts for 16% of our greenhouse gas emissions. A fascinating new approach at Scripps Institution of Oceanography proposes using seaweed as cow feed. Scripps notes that “just a small amount of Asparagopsis seaweed to cattle feed can dramatically reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by more than 50 percent”.


Bee thieves in California

National Geographic

It’s no longer cattle rustling and horse stealing. Bee thieves are threatening almond growers in California. A lucrative bee rental industry has surged.


Scientists have identified 67 marine species in California moving north from their commonly known habitat due to severe marine heatwaves from 2014-2016.

The Keeling Curve has been called one of the most important scientific works of the 20th century. Developed by Charles Keeling at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California, it is a measurement of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa since 1958. Here’s why it’s so important.   

Thanks to the rains the areas where the Woolsey burned outdoor areas, scorched an Old West film set and Jewish summer camps in the Santa Monica Mountains, there is lush green and wildflowers.

Once a Gold Rush boomtown, Bodie, California, is now an isolated ghost town. Meet one of the five people who still live there in the winter.

Lovely pictures of a sunrise. On Mars.

HUGE Basking sharks are swimming around and feeding right off the coast of California.

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Strange new sea life in California, Magnificent murres, Eagle cam at Big Bear, Going to prison for killing a fish, Oral history of the Keck observatory

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Week of April 19, 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.


Something’s happening here. Sea life around California is changing.

Hakai Magazine

This time of year, it is normal to see whales – grays and humpbacks among them – migrating north to cooler climes and nutrient-rich waters in Alaska. But it’s not normal for them to hang around for a long time, nor is it normal to see them frolicking together in San Francisco Bay.

“This was like opening a door temporarily for southern species to move northward,” Eric Sanford, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California at Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory told the Washington Post.

Welcome to the new normal. The new hotter normal. As climate change brings floods, higher sea levels, drought and more severe storms, it is also leading to strange behavior in the animal world. Species that once lived much further south around Mexico are now finding their way into California waters, surprising and also concerning scientists who say that these migrations are a sign of bad things to come.

The whales are likely hanging around, say scientists, because they are hungry, meaning that something is happening to their food supplies.

But we’ve also witnessed other species on the coast that are rarely or never before seen. A yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on Newport Beach. A very rare olive Ridley sea turtle was seen near Capistrano Beach. And who can forget the huge hoodwinker sunfish that made headlines last month.

It is likely just the beginning of a massive change in our local ecosystems, and the consequences could be especially severe for the species that already live here, whose habitats are changing. Case in point, the massive die off of starfish caused by an infectious wasting disease that reduces these beautiful creatures to mush. A new report published in the journal Science Advances lays much of the blame on the changing climate. Check out the video by Hakai Magazine.

Science Advances Hakai Magazine

Animals / History of Science

Behold the magnificent murre

Creative Commons: Didier Descouens

During the California gold rush, the rocky volcanic Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco became a kind of war zone, as groups of men battled over a precious resource: birds eggs. In particular, the eggs of the common murre, a sharp-beaked black and white bird whose eggs are curiously conical. Scientists speculate the reason for the rather odd shape is that evolution designed them to roll in circles, instead of tumbling into the sea.

The marine science magazine Hakai has a great piece on the common murre and the work being done to better understand their biology and evolutionary history. One recently discovered fact is that common murre females lay eggs with different colors and reflectance, allowing the parent murres to specifically identify it as their own offspring. Wow! Johnny, that IS you!

But back to the so-called eggs wars of the late 1850s. Smithsonian magazine has a wonderful story by Paige Blankenbuehler about the conflict, which arose because so many people had come to California in search of gold, and of course they had to eat. Food production, in some cases, could not keep up with demand. Certain foods, in particular, chicken eggs, became so scarce that enterprising poachers went to the Farallones to collect the eggs for sale to hungry 49ers. The competition to collect them became so fierce that “brawls broke out constantly between rival gangs, ranging in brutality from threats and shell-throwing to stabbings and shootouts.”

Yikes. All over some colorful, conical eggs.

Smithsonian Magazine Hakai Magazine


Big Bear Lake’s adorable new Eaglets

Eagle cam Friends of Big Bear Valley

Though indigenous to California, bald eagles are not often seen around the state, at least near our big cities. It used to be common to see them, but in the early 1970s, after the bald eagle numbers declined dramatically due to impacts from insecticides, the bird was listed as an endangered species. In fact, in the 80s, there were fewer than 30 nesting pairs in the state. Today, they’ve recovered somewhat and can occasionally be seen at lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and some rangelands and coastal wetlands. 

But now, you can see two baby bald eagles that just hatched at Big Bear Lake. A live cam put up by Friends of Big Bear Valley allows you to ogle them live from the comfort of your computer screen or device.

Eagle Cam


Going to prison for killing a rare fish

Death Valley National Park

In April 2016, three drunk men broke into a fenced-in limestone cavern at Death Valley National Park, home of the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, one of the rarest fish in the world. The fish has evolved in extreme desert conditions and has been isolated for tens of thousands of years, and this is one of the only places they live. Thinking it was a nice night for a swim, one of the men plunged into the warm pool where, it so happened, the pupfish were breeding. One of the fish died.

The men were caught (an excellent tale told by High Country News), and Trenton Sargent, the guy who jumped into the pool, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act, destruction of federal property, and possessing a firearm while a felon. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

Folks, leave endangered species alone. And don’t trespass on or destroy federal property.

High Country News

Space / History of Science

An oral history of the Keck Observatory

Credit: California Institute of Technology

One of the amazing lesser-known repositories of the history of science is the vast oral history project at the California Institute of Technology.

Since 1978, the esteemed scientific school has been collecting the stories of some of its most distinguished names, many of them Nobel Prize winners. Others, hardly known at all, have made huge contributions to human health and they deserve greater attention.

A recent oral history from the archive is actually an edited compendium of interviews that tells the story of the Keck Observatory. The Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea Hawaii consists of two telescopes peering into the heavens from 13,600 ft. above sea level. A major advance of the telescope (and some of the details of how are covered in the oral history) was the ability to operate using 36 hexagonal segments as a single, contiguous mirror. Each telescope weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. Scientists using the Keck have made major discoveries about exoplanets, star formation, and dark matter.

There’s a ton of great information about the telescope and the discoveries being made at the Keck site.

Cal Tech


Keep Fluffy indoors! Growing urban coyote populations are feasting on pets, especially in LA County.

The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist is a bee keeper. Go, Flea, go!

Sand artist makes amazing art. Then it washes away.

Beautiful posters of the Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State. California? The Point Arena Mountain Beaver.

The magnificent BLDGBLOG looks at the San Andreas Fault.

More on the Lassen County raptor poacher.

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