Backyard Jewels

Golden buprestids

Golden buprestids from the collection of the Royal British Columbia Muesum

In my opinion, nature’s best visual trick is iridescence, which can transform an ordinary beetle into something extraordinary. The dried up beetle carcasses above are one of the prettiest examples of iridescence I’ve ever seen up close. The beetle is a golden buprestid (Buprestis aurulenta) which lives in my biome. As larvae they spend two to four years mining through recently dead conifer trees, whether that tree is rotting on a forest floor or part of your new coffee table, earning themselves the title of ‘pest’.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906 

Once they morph beyond the furniture-eating stage, their exoskeleton matures to an iridescent green with brass coloured fringes around the wings. Strung together, these beetles would make a necklace suitable for a fancy ball, and I’m not the first to consider an iridescent beetle fit for a resplendent occasion. Ellen Terry, perhaps the most famous actress in the Victorian era, wore a green dress decorated with iridescent beetle wings to play Lady MacBeth in 1888. The dress must have looked stunning under the stage lights (here are some pictures).

But, beetles don’t hold a monopoly on iridescence; in fact, a diverse group of animals have independently evolved with their own version of colours with variable intensity and hue depending on the angle they are viewed. Examples abound in my own yard from dragonflies, butterflies to hummingbirds and more.

 

 

 

Why be iridescent?

An obvious use of iridescence is to communicate. A flash of bright colour might scare a predator away or say “I’m poisonous, so don’t eat me”. Or an animal could produce a flashy show to attract a mate (these guys put on the best show – but unfortunately don’t live in my yard). An untested hypothesis is that iridescence may help a school of fish or a flock of birds organize themselves – another form of communication. For example, the iridescent patch on a mallard duck’s wing may be a cue to help them fly in the same direction.

A flock of mallard ducks (they thought I had food)

Counterintuitively, iridescent colours can also be used to hide, which explains why little fish like herring and sardines are so shiny – when looked at from below, their shininess blends with the shininess of the ocean surface. Or an animal can use iridescence to pretend to be something else – what looks like a drop of dew on a leaf might actually be a green leaf beetle (golden buprestids are probably too big to do this).

Interestingly, some instances of iridescence evolved before the organisms bearing iridescent structures developed the ability to see. One theory as to why iridescence evolved is that the structures that can create iridescence also create strength – so perhaps the iridescence of the golden buprestid is a side-effect of building a strong exoskeleton. We know these exoskeletons last, as fossilized beetles as old as 49 million years have been found that are still iridescent (Parker and Mckenzie, 2003).

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The above golden buprestids was found by my better half in our backyard. Since I have one in my collection, I only need to find about a thousand more to make a ballgown of my own.

References

(1) Doucet, M. and M.G. Meadows. 2009. Iridescence: a functional perspective. 

(2) Parker, A.R, and McKenzie, D.R. 2003. The cause of 50 million-year-old colourProc. R. Soc. B270S151S153. 

I originally posted this article in January 2015 – find it here.

Stumbling across my first attempt at writing fiction

Flying horses and military science fiction just don’t seem to mix.

Back when I was in high school I started mulling over a story idea. I’ve always played with story ideas in my head, but this one was the first one I started writing down. I kept working on it during the first two years of my undergrad.

The story was military science fiction – a genre I’d never read any books in at the time. At that point in my life, I don’t think I’d even read any science fiction then either beyond A Wrinkle in Time. My teenage reading was heavily dominated by Sherlock Holms, James Bond and Ken Follet novels. There just wasn’t the diversity of YA reading choices back then that there are now. Only in my late-teens/early twenties did I start reading science fiction with the Author C. Clarke Rama books.

I don’t remember the full plot of my book, just snippets of a post-apocalyptic planet, that in one iteration was Earth, space ship battles and a futuristic prison. My original idea included Pegasus style horses with wings, but couldn’t come up with any reasonable explanation of how they could possible generate enough lift to get off the ground so I edited them out.

The title was Twilight – chosen over a decade before that title was linked to vampiric romance

Back then, I stored the document on the large floppy disks that were actually floppy, which even if I have the disk stashed somewhere (a distinct possibility), I no longer have a machine that could read it. Rooting through a stack of binders last night, I found a hard copy of the story. The stack of printed pages are thick enough to be roughly 70,000 words, an okay length for a novel.

Since I found it, I’ve been debating if I should read it or not. My expectations are low, I’d expect cringe-worthy cliches and taciturn passages (but, thankfully no flying horses).

I’ve left the binder out while I decide.

Blue Feathers – almost coherent scattering

A collection of Mountain Bluebirds at the local museum

This year, Stellar’s Jays have been common in my neighbourhood, it’s the only wild blue bird we get here. But, it has a secret, it’s feathers are pigmented to be black. They look blue because of an optical trick that occurs within the feather’s structure. And Stellar’s jays aren’t the only one using this trick, all the birds out there with blue feathers are doing the same thing.

In the late 1800s, naturalists used the recently discovered concept of Rayleigh scattering to explain why blue feathers were blue. Since tools to examine the nanostructure (structure in the order of a billionth of a meter) of a feather hadn’t been invented yet, naturalists assumed that a feather contained tiny transparent cells full of particles the right size to create Rayleigh scattering. Like the sky, blue light would be more efficiently scattered. As a result, to our eyes these feathers would appear blue.

Because Rayleigh scattering is incoherent, it produces the exact same colour irregardless of the observation direction. Since blue feathers in natural light don’t change colour depending on viewing direction, the assumption that their colour was formed through Rayleigh scattering seemed valid — until someone looked closer.

In the 1930’s, scientists examined a a non-iridescent blue feather under a directional light source. Colour variations were observed as the light source was moved – an iridescent characteristic that called into question the hypothesis of Rayleigh scattering making the feather blue.

By the 1940’s, a cool new gadget became available – the electron microscope. Now the internal nanostructure of blue feathers could be directly examined. On the first look, the internal feather structure appeared to contain randomly spaced objects. This meant scattered light would be incoherent resurrecting the hypothesis of Rayleigh scattering being responsible.

It took until the 1970’s for scientists to finally determined that the nanostructures were, in fact, not fully random. Instead they were a quasi-ordered matrix – not quite the perfect order of iridescence but not the full randomness required for Rayleigh scattering. Under natural light from all directions, like sunlight, these feathers appear to be the same colour from all directions. However when a directional light is shone on blue feathers the colour will change depending on the light direction.

A Blue Jay wing (I don’t have a close up of a Steller’s Jay)

Since the colour of a Steller’s Jay’s feather comes from its internal structure on a tiny scale, a damaged feather would lose its blue colour. The dark pigments in the feather, that act to help show off the blue, would make a damaged feather would look almost black. So if you are lucky enough to find a Steller’s Jay feather, take care of it to keep it blue

Thinking of Blue Skys

A blue sky behind some blue flowers

It’s rainy season on my island in the Pacific. The days are grey and not particularly inviting. We’ve been staying inside a lot, which can drive me a little bit stir crazy. So last weekend, when the sun came out we crammed in some time outdoors. With the mid-winter browns and greens that are typical around here (my island is not tropical), the blue sky was the most vibrant colour around.

Although we perceive blue blanketing the sky, in reality, the sky has no colour. Instead, the hue is created from the interaction between our atmosphere and the incoming sunlight. Our atmosphere is made up a bunch of different stuff —  nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with bits of dust, water vapour and some inert argon, among other things (some of which we’ve put there).

Water vapour and dust are the physically biggest components of the atmosphere, and are relatively large compared to the wavelengths of light. When light hits the water vapour and dust, it’s reflected in different directions, but the light remains white (an example is the clouds). So why does the sky appear blue?

Over time, all sorts of theories have surfaced to explain the blueness, which started heading the right direction with Goethe’s 1810 explanation: “If the darkness of infinite space is seen through atmospheric vapours illuminated by the daylight, the blue colour appears.” His theory said the sky’s colour comes from something within the atmosphere during the light of day — which is true, but vague.

About the same time a more scientific inquiry was being made into the nature of scattering light. John Tyndall showed in an 1869 lab experiment that the blue hues of the sky could be created when white light was scattered by tiny particles. A few years later in 1871, John William Strutt, aka Lord Rayleigh, was the first to describe the actual mechanism that makes the sky appear blue was a result of light interacting with gas molecules in the atmosphere.

These gas molecules are tiny compared to the wavelengths of light – several thousand times smaller. When light strikes one of these molecules, that molecule absorbs a specific wavelength (or colour) of the light’s energy and later re-emits the same colour in all directions; a process called Rayleigh scattering.

Most of the longer wavelengths of light pass through our atmosphere unaffected, resulting in the full spectrum of sunlight with a higher ratio of blue wavelengths from the scattering. For this extra blue light to make the sky appear a brilliant blue, a dark background is required. Fortunately, beyond our atmosphere is the blackness of outer space, which makes an ideal dark background. The combined effect of the extra blue light and the black of outer space results in a sky that appears blue.

If you shift your gaze towards the horizon, the brilliant blues give way to paler colours and perhaps even white. The light reaching you from near the horizon passes through much more atmosphere, so the scattered blue light is scattered again and again, reducing its intensity. Preferential scattering of blue light by our atmosphere occurs everywhere, not just above us. For example, light reflected from your hand to your eye is affected by this scattering, but the effect is so minuscule we can’t detect it. Over a longer distance, like to a range of distant mountains, there is enough atmosphere to superimpose a blueish haze on our view of the mountains.

Since the creation of a blue sky overhead is entirely depended on the preferred wavelengths the molecules in the atmosphere absorb — in our case, molecules in Earth’s atmosphere absorb energetic light (blues) at a much greater rate than less energetic light (reds). So the blue we see above us is an Earth thing, on another planet, the sky could look dramatically different. Check out the possibilities here.

My fiction writing plans for 2018

This shot looks like an alien world to me.

Continuing on from my post from yesterday, now onto the fun writing I’m working on. I have a lot of science fiction publishing planned for this year (making stuff up is soooooo much easier than academic writing!) .

Day 115 on an Alien World will be out mid-April (I’ll be revealing the cover soon!). This will be book 1 in a four book series about a colony starting out in a new solar system. This is my debut book, and I’m really happy with how it has turned out.

Here’s my working blurb:


This morning Gary Holbrook watched his wife die.

And she wasn’t even a wife he wanted. When he signed up for a brand-new colony on a desolate planet connected to Earth by an intermittent wormhole, there was a catch – the mission was for married couples only. Without a suitable spouse, he reluctantly married a woman he’d never met: Margo Murphy, a grubby entomologist with a fondness for butterflies.

It was the crash of their colony ship that started a cascade of life-threatening problems. Accident after accident robbed them of colonists, and their desperately needed skills, while damaged and broken equipment had stalled their efforts to make a viable colony. To Gary, Margo’s death seemed like just more of the same bad luck.

That was until Gary read his late wife’s journal and her suspicions of a saboteur in their midst. Now he has to follow a trail of clues to unmask the saboteur and stop them before the colony is completely devastated. The first communications window with Earth – their only chance to ask for help – is fast approaching, and someone needs to be alive to make that call.


The follow up book, Far Side of the Moon, is written and going through editing right now. This book starts right where book 1 ends. I’m aiming for a summer release.

Here’s the working blurb:


Margo Murphy is in a borrowed body and running out of time.

Just over a week ago, the colony she calls home, an intermittent wormhole away from Earth, survived The Conglomerate’s efforts to destroy it. As it departed, The Conglomerate’s ship abandoned the mastermind behind the sabotage, Lucy Snow, and her sick son at the colony. The boy knows things that he couldn’t possibly and is hiding a secret that puts the colony at risk.

Before the colonists could catch their breath, their adopted world of endless daylight throws them a twist – extended darkness combined with frigid temperatures. At the same time, the colony’s artificial intelligence becomes compromised by a Conglomerate virus, bleeding power when they need it most. The colony is in jeopardy once again. Something needs to be done to remove the virus before the colonists freeze.

Lucy is the only one with the skills to hack into The Conglomerate’s system, forcing Margo to work with her to stop the virus.

Putting her life in the hands of an experimental technology, Margo travels to the moon, to convince a group of insurgents to help her infiltrate The Conglomerate and get the answers she needs to save the colony and the sick boy they’ve taken in.


Book 3 in this series was my NaNoWriMo project titled Abandoned Ships, Hijacked Minds and has been the funnest one for me to write so far (I’m loving working on this book). My aim is to publish this one in the fall.

Here’s the blurb:


Someone or something is trying to kill Margo Murphy.

It’s been six months of progress for Margo’s colony, a wormhole away from Earth. Things are finally looking up for the settlers – crops are coming in and new colony members are on their way.

A group of insurgents turned refugees led by Iago Ocon arrive. The Conglomerate destroyed their home in an abandoned lunar mine, leaving them looking for a safe haven. The influx of new people creates new tensions and opportunities, including Iago’s unwanted interest in Margo.

With the refugees came a space worthy ship, reopening the question of what happened to the first two colonies. Margo’s was the third colonizing mission sent to the same solar system. Repeated efforts of communicating with the other colonies only returned silence. Were others out there, and did they need help?

Margo joins an awkward combination of colonists and former insurgents lead by Iago to investigate what has become of the other colonies. While still suffering the side-effects of her last battle with the megalomaniac leader of The Conglomerate, what Margo finds changes everything.


Book 4, The Alien Artifact, is still in the outlining stages, I hope to get into writing the first draft later this spring. Likely this one will be out early 2019. For now, I’m going to keep the details on this one to myself.

I’m working on a couple of short stories and a novella set in this world, which I’ll send out when they are ready.

Finally, I have a request. Is anyone interested in getting an advance copy of Day 115 on an Alien World in an exchange for an honest review? If you are, just drop my a line at jeannette.m.bedard{at}gmail.com (changing the {at} to a @) and I’ll send you a copy when it’s ready (likely late March).

A whole lot of Greek and my big goal for 2018

I took this years ago at the Monterey Bay Aquarium – it’s fishy like my dissertation

Something I haven’t blogged about much recently is my progress towards completing my PhD, also known as my never ending project. Even in person, I avoid talking about it because I’m sick of the whole affair.

To start, an update. Weirdly, about two months before the end of my funding, I got the job I started my PhD to get (yay!). Since then the dissertation has progressed at a snails pace. Plus, I have a superpower for proving things don’t work, which is valuable knowledge, at least that’s what I keep telling myself–want to know 50 ways to not get the right answer, I have a list! Exercising my superpower is time consuming and often frustrating.

To make matters worse, dissertation writing is hard because I keep holding on to a general feeling that I don’t know anything—even when presented with evidence that I know plenty. Never-the-less, I’m still plugging away.

This leads me to my biggest goal for 2018 – get my damn dissertation done

Overall, I find academic writing painful to read. It amazes me that fascinating stuff can be made to sound so dull and tedious. But, it is the expected style, so even my own academic writing has fallen down the boring rabbit hole of passive voice. Early on, I tried to be more interesting with my writing and was edited back to dullness which inspired me to start this blog—a place I could write about what ever I wanted in my own voice.

Today, I’m taking an academic paper I wrote in Word (and has since been published) and converting it to LaTex – a fiddly, but necessary task I’ve been putting off. LaTex is a software package commonly used for academic scientific writing, especially when there is a lot of math (my work has a lot of math, but is not the mathiest work out there). Using it isn’t as straight-forward as a normal word processor—it leans more towards programming. Once I get over the initial hurdles of figuring it out (because I use it infrequently) it frustrates me less than Word and its clones—especially for symbols, formula and figures. And (this is the best part), it will automatically create a bibliography for me.

In the end, this paper will form at least two chapters for my dissertation, and I have at least one more chapter already written and in LaTex. It all counts as progress.

My next post will be about my fiction goals for 2018, which is much more fun to write and hopefully read.

The NaNo experiment

Some of my favourite writing advice, but I still screw this kind of thing up.*

For November I ran a writing experiment (most everything is an experiment for me, a side effect of being a scientist in my day job), I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. The goal was to write 50,000 words over the month. A whole horde of people do this, including a large group on my Pacific Island, there was even a steady stream of writing get togethers (I went to one).

The book I chose to write was book 3 of my Settler Chronicles series titled Abandoned Ships, Hijacked Minds, which can as simply summed up as space horror. By the end of the month, I successfully completed a first draft. Considering it’s a ‘shitty first draft’ I’m very happy with it – especially the ending. I’m itching to share it, but I need to finish polishing the first two books first.

So here’s what worked for me (and this is all common advice):

  1. I started with a moderately detailed outline, so I knew where I was going. Whenever I’ve tried working without an outline, I’ve always reached a point where I have to stop and write one. To write a book in a month (while working full time and not totally ignoring my family), I knew I wouldn’t have time to stop and worry about story structure.
  2. I found a writing buddy for support and we regularly got together to write. Find her here.
  3. I wrote every day, which went better than expected. My daily word count ranged between 200-2700. A migraine struck on one of the weekends (why do migraines always strike on weekends?), but I managed to do a bit of writing reaching the low end of my word count range.

With an outline to work from, I decided to start in the middle. Since I typically follow a three act structure, my starting point was the beginning of the second act (yeah, I started in that ‘muddy middle’). I came back to the beginning scenes at the end of the month. The reason I did that is my middle was full of action, which I prefer writing, while the beginning was focused on character development, which I find much harder to write.

I thought I’d be done with two days to spare. But, when I inputted my wordcount onto the official site, my total came to 49,999 words. I was a single word short! What was the probability, I’d get that close? I since added another few lines of dialogue, which put my comfortably over the required number.

I found NaNoWriMo a great way to get a draft novel done and I think I’ll do it again next year (assuming my writing buddy is willing).

*sadly I don’t know who originally made the zombie image

Abandoned Ships; Hijacked Minds

In perhaps a moment of foolishness, I’ve officially signed up to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year – which is where I’ve set a goal (along with many, many others) to write a novel in a month. More specifically, 50,000 words. My books so far have been just over 70,000 words – so, assuming I succeed and hit that 50,000 word mark, what I write will be a good first draft. Or, another way to look at it, the clay to mould a book out of.

What I’ll be writing is: Abandoned Ships; Hijacked Minds, the third instalment in my Settler Chronicles series (this is book 1, book 2 has a couple more drafts to go).

Currently (and I reserve the right to change things as I go) Abandoned Ships; Hijacked Minds is a horror/romance mash-up with plenty of action planned with references to Alice in Wonderland.

This morning I started (my outline was pre-written), and now I’m almost 2000 words in. I’m curious how my productivity will go and how my planned story will morph.

And, I’ve signed up with an author friend (you can find her stuff here)

Sadly, words written for my blog don’t count.

the green butterfly

jungle

rain forest in Costa Rica

I have a thing for butterflies – or more specifically for their erratic flight patterns and metallic shades. Even the cabbage white butterflies living in my backyard (and letting their young eat my cabbage), have this hint of iridescence giving the white of their wings a hint of shine. Sadly, my temperate climate doesn’t offer the full spectrum of butterfly bling that’s out there (but does save me from spiders with jaws strong enough to break my skin (mostly)).

A recent post I read about fear and spiders in Costa Rica, got me thinking about my own trip to the country years ago. Jungles are exotic – at least to me since I’ve always lived at mid-latitudes. They’re both fascinating and frightening, I certainly wouldn’t want to be out there alone at night. This trip was one of the few opportunities I’ve had to wander through jungles (and I didn’t get eaten!).

Out hiking, I spotted an iridescent green butterfly just off the trail. The green was colour of a granny smith apple and glittered with every flap the butterfly took. After getting my camera ready, I followed the insect through the undergrowth (mildly foolish, I know). I got lucky and it let me get close.

butterfly

The best shot I got of the green butterfly. If anyone can identify it, please let me know.

The iridescence in a butterfly’s wing (or dragonfly’s body, or a rooster’s tail, or even an oil slick on water), isn’t from a pigment. Instead an optical trick is required. In the butterflies case, the surface of the wing are covered in scales with a depth of one quarter the wavelength of blue (or green) light. Then the light reflected off the surface is augmented by the light reflected off the back surface giving the insect that fabulous iridescent effect.

I’ve written more on the physics behind iridescence here and here.

A tale of a potentially irregular newsletter and some other stuff

I love the juxtaposition between a low-tech tool (the plastic circle template) and a high-tech tool (a fancy tablet) – and that happens to be early stages of my cover for Day 115 on an Alien World
(Photo by Ian Rooke-Hanke)

I’ve decided to start an irregular newsletter.

On that note, I’ve taken the widget for subscribing to this blog down and will replace it with a widget for my newsletter sign up. This shouldn’t change anything for those of you who’ve already subscribed to my blog, you’ll still get posts sent to your inbox as I put them up and you won’t get my newsletter unless you subscribe to it (but please subscribe as I’ve got a lot of good things planned).

I’ve been researching how indie authors market their books and the best tool appears to be writing a newsletter. On mine I’ll be including a summary of what I’ve been putting up on my blog (and I will continue to blog about things that interest me), other interesting stuff I stumble upon (like space ships deliberately crashed into Saturn), updates on my fiction including potentially some short stories and other fiction-related giveaways, and some suggestions for other indie fiction (I won’t suggest anything I haven’t read).

If you’re interested please sign up!


On to some news.

I’ve had the opportunity to release Day 115 on an Alien World up on Radish Fiction. If you haven’t heard of Radish, it’s a mobile device app for serialized fiction. Since my smartphone is only a small step from a clay tablet, I had to ask a friend to download the app so I could check it out. Three are a lot of stories to read, especially if you are on the go and don’t have an ereader – the stories on Radish do lean towards romance. My book is listed under science fiction and 10 chapters are already up, with new chapters coming out three times a week.

I’ve also started putting my story up on Wattpad (another place for serialized fiction and it’s all free).

In other writing news, working with a friend, I have another novel approaching completion – Deep Trouble; A Cal and Emma Adventure. We’re planning on putting it out as an ebook in the coming months. I’d do a whole post on it soon. Just as a teaser, Deep Trouble is a fun action adventure tale where an oceanographer and engineer save the world.