Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lunar Men

I just read The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, by Jenny Uglow. The subject is a group of remarkable 18th century colleagues, whose accomplishments contributed to scientific, social and technological change in their time. Seeing history from this perspective contrasts to the many literary-focused books I've read: though it mentions Blake and Coleridge it's just not about that side of the century!

In its 500 pages, the book covers a great deal of the political, commercial, and scientific history of England in that century, making it both fascinating and challenging. The Lunar Men were ahead of their time with creating new inventions and processes, they contributed to emerging explanations of natural phenomena like electricity, and they were in on the era's important discoveries about plants, human biology, and geology. They met Benjamin Franklin and the French chemist Lavoisier; they read works by Linnaeus and other scientists outside their circle.

Among the dozen or so members of the Lunar Society -- which met on evenings with a full moon so that they could safely walk home in less-than-total darkness -- I found the following men especially interesting:

  • Joseph Priestley (1733-1802), a scientist best-remembered for experiments with oxygen, who was also a social activist.
  • Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), founder of the famous pottery works but also an experimenter in chemistry and developer of industrial and crafts processes.
  • Erasmus Darwin (1730-1802), recognized for his skill as a physician as well as for his works about the natural world. Darwin's son married Wedgwood's daughter, making them co-grandfathers of Charles Darwin.
  • James Watt (1736-1819), scientist and inventor of steam engine technology.
  • Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), innovative manufacturer of consumer goods and industrial equipment. He partnered with Watt in developing steam power, and did many other things such as found a mint with new efficient coin-stamping capability.

Theirs was the era of the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. They were engaged by all three. Although there were many differences of opinion among the Lunar Men, a prevalent reaction on their part was sympathy for the working man and for the new ideas about liberty, freedom of speech, and human rights. Most agreed with many ideas of reform and especially opposed slavery, though were uneasy with violent revolution.

Ironically, the conservative English reaction, which they didn't like, actually favored their business interests. For example, though anti-slavery, Boulton and Watt sold industrial equipment to slave-owning colonies like Trinidad. About the years after the French Revolution, Uglow says: "... as the war with France dragged on, the Lunar men still looked forward. And while the poor and the landed classes suffered, the industrialists did well out of the war, the Lunar men among them. Armies had to be fed, clothed and armed. ... Furnaces and forges poured out steel and iron, and coal production soared.... Just over the horizon lay the era of smoking factory chimneys and sweated labour -- the age of the machine." (p. 465)

Even more ironically, the common men in England opposed revolution and favored the old monarchy and fundamentalist religion. The masses hated the Lunar Men, who were well known for their various accomplishments and controversial ideas. They blamed them for being "philosophers" and for their suspected sympathy with the French revolution. On one sad occasion, a mob burned Priestly's house and destroyed his library and laboratory.

Their commitment to science and rational thought characterized much of their lives. Darwin wrote that philosophy -- equal to experimental science -- had always endeavored to oppose ignorance and credulity, which had "misled and enslaved mankind." He continued "philosophers have on this account been called unbelievers: unbelievers of what? of the fictions of fancy, of witchcraft, hobgoblins, apparitions, vampires, fairies; of the influence of the stars on human actions, miracles wrought by the bones of saints, the flight of ominous birds, the predictions from the bones of dying animals ... ." (p. 482)

Darwin, two generations before his grandson, already proposed that the layers of stone and fossils he observed were millions of years old -- opposing belief in the Biblical creation story and its 6000 year age for the earth. He was one of the first to describe geological strata including prehistoric bones, and suggested an early version of evolutionary theory. Among the many fascinating themes of Uglow's book, I find great appeal in how similar are some of the issues these men fought to issues still not resolved in our own society. We should know better by now, after 200 years!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Underwater Family

Alice blows bubbles.

Miriam sits on the bottom of the pool.

Evelyn has taken up scuba again after all these years...

while Lenny is a real pro.

I am still only a snorkeler, but enthusiastic.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Perfect Beach

One more trip to the perfect beach today, one more sandcastle, and one more card game for Alice, who didn't feel like doing beach things. The hurricane disappeared totally -- and the earthquake in Peru did not cause a tsunami.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Skipped by the Hurricane

The hurricane stayed on the other side of the island -- all we saw was completely flat seas, and a spectacular sunset. Now it's dissipated into a smallish tropical storm. We don't see sunrises as they would be behind the gigantic volcano, but the morning calm was also as calm as it's been every day of the trip.

Sunset last night from our lanai:
Early morning calm this morning:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pahoehoe Lava

When lava flows, sometimes it forms a glassy surface full of wrinkles as it cools. This is pahoehoe. Pele's hair is sometimes depicted as curls of pahoehoe. On the shore last night we walked on pahoehoe lava formations in the water, and watched a fisherman out on a pahoehoe point.

Waiting for a Hurricane

All day we've been waiting for the hurricane that's moving slowly toward us on the Big Island of Hawaii. The schools are closed. We bought a couple of gallons of water and a lot of food. I thought we should have something non-perishable, so I bought a bag of M&Ms but we already ate quite a few of them. I cooked our chicken early in case of a power and water failure. We are now waiting for the hurricane to hit. The sky is grey.

Every few hours there's an update. This morning: no dive boat for us as the expected rain and wind time was mid-morning. We go with a really responsible dive operation -- the greedier, less concerned ones took their boats out and won their bet.

So we walked on the beach a bit, looking at the dead-calm water under sunny skies. Around noon, the clouds came in, but the sea remained dead calm -- it still is. We went up to the nearby shopping center for a Thai lunch. We went to Borders and bought some new books (for me, another book about Pele, goddess of fire, who's being upstaged by her sea-goddess sisters today). We drove down the beach. We started to get out of the car but the lifeguards' job today is keeping all people off the beaches. We went to the pool where the furniture is all indoors inside the weight room.

We are waiting for the hurricane. It is on track to hit the island, at least at the edge.

PS: We mostly didn't feel the earthquake last night. It's sure almost exciting here!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Two Fish at Keahou Bay

Snorkeling this morning was really impressive as the light was just beautiful. I was happy that Lenny got photos of two of the shallow-water fish that we often see at Keahou Bay: the humuhumunukunukuapua'a and the parrot fish. Many large red parrot fish were brousing on the coral, and we could hear them snapping it off with their very parrot-like beaks.

Tropical Botanical Garden

The setting of the Hawaaii Tropical Botanical Garden is incredible: a steep hillside with a large collection of tropical plants including orchids, bromeliads, ferns, tropical ginger, palms, and many more exotic species. The far edge overlooks several spectacular coves with waves rolling in. It was tiring: on the way up the hill Alice said "My feet are dizzy!"

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pele, Goddess of Fire

I have been reading a number of legends about Pele, the goddess who is responsible for the eerie blackened landscapes. When she's angry, she sends the pahoe-hoe lava and the a'a lava down the slopes -- you can see both kinds in this photo.

Pele destroys whole forests and often kills people or buries their houses when they have angered her. She sent this lava in around 1970. I don't know what the current Hawaiians did to deserve it. As I have mentioned, she's also been busy lately, closing one vent and opening a new source of lava far inside the park away from the roads.

Pele's sisters were often victims of her jealous rages. She particularly rivaled the sister who was goddess of the sea. Another sister had a beautiful forest on the slopes of Kilauwea. And though Pele promised to save the forest, she lost her temper in a fit of jealousy, opened a new caldera, and hot lava destroyed all the trees as well as the mortal man that both she and her sister loved.

Two Open-Air Markets in Kona

It's hard to grasp that these are real flowers that grow in here.

The dragon fruit (above) grows on a cactus. Litchis (below) are another local product.

A whole stall sells only orchids.

This morning we went to a small Saturday-only market at the nearby shopping center. Small scale farmers sell their own products here, including Kona Lisa coffee.

We've also made a couple of trips to the downtown marketplace where craftsmen, produce resellers, and various small entrepreneurs sell a wide variety of goods -- Aloha shirts made here; Indonesian hats and sarongs; artificial and genuine flower leis; local and imported fruit and vegetables; carved wood sculpture from various southeast Asian places. Also services like massage (performed with feet in sight of all passers-by) and temporary glitter tatoos.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Yesterday while Lenny and Evelyn were scuba diving, I was snorkeling off the boat, watching schools of various small and medium-sized fish. As I swam back towards the boat I saw a huge dark triangular shape in the water below me, and recognized a large manta ray. When the divers came back they were very excited because it wasn't just any ray: it was a pelagic manta ray around 18 feet across -- all black, also called a devil ray. Here is Lenny's photo of it from underneath. Obviously, I had underestimated the size and thought it was closer to me than it really was. After the second dive, the ray caught up with the boat again, and we looked down to see it in the water from the boat, while the dive guide and one of the divers went in to snorkel with it.

Today we returned to the perfect beach near the boat harbor, taking a long walk along the tide pools and through the woods to one of the ancient fish ponds that's part of the national park. I stepped on the shore of the pond and sunk into muck above my knees. Luckily I easily washed off the muck in the gently running ocean waves.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Nene Geese

The native Nene goose of Hawaii evolved un-webbed toes to help them with walking on the lava. Three geese were practically in the heavily traveled path to one of the crater-overlooks today at Hawaii Volcano National Park. Quite close by, steam vents puffed out fumes from cracks in the lava rock, and people were leaving flowers, coins, and crackers for Pele, goddess of the volcano. She's been busy lately: since spring, a new lava flow has replaced the one that has been going on for around 30 years.

We saw hundreds of tourists from giant bus tours all over the park today. We suspect that we were unlucky enough to arrive there at the same time as the tour bus from one of the many cruise ships that we can see from our lanai. A different ship seems to head for the harbor each morning and leave just as the sun is setting. The boats improve the view -- but the tour bus convoy in the park was very annoying.

Monday, August 06, 2007

You can make a lei

Miriam and Alice made leis and flower bracelets from plumeria blossoms that they gathered this morning. None of us had known that you could make a lei yourself. They were visiting a coffe plantation, the National Historic Park at Hononaunau, and a macadamia-candy making shop while we were on the dive boat: a lady in one shop told them how to gather the flowers and make the leis. They bought a very long needle and thread so that they could string all the blossoms together.


Here is Len getting ready to dive from the boat.

Earl, our dive guide

Today Lenny went scuba diving with his favorite dive operation. Here's Earl, the dive guide, with an octopus. While the divers were down, I snorkeled on the surface. I was all alone in the middle of the water when I thought another diver was coming up next to me. It wasn't a diver: it was a turtle, who seemed to want to check me out. He swam past my shoulder and then circled me at about arms length (that's my arm's length). His shiny brown eye on the near side of his head seemed to focus right on my face. He swam away, but came back later -- it was the first time I have seen a turtle heading straight at me, rather than swimming away. I guess he went back to his turtle home and told them about the interesting human he saw.

Most perfect beach

This morning we sat under the native-style beach hut at the most beautiful beach I know of. It belongs to the National Historic Park, but is adjacent to the boat harbor. Miriam and Alice built a sand castle and enjoyed the calm water.

At this beach many turtles are always basking. Maybe it's because there are so few people there -- at least I've never seen very many of them. We saw several turtles in the water and one on the shore.

The other highlight of our day was that we found a big store selling Crocs. I had promised Miriam and Alice each a pair of Crocs, and the choice was so wide that they were able to get Crocs in two different shades of pink. The store was in downtown Kona, where we also ate a sushi lunch.

A turtle hiding in the bushes near the boat harbor

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Looking for Turtles

Alice, Miriam, Tom, and Evelyn arrived in Kona last night. They all walked out into the bay looking for turtles this morning. They saw one turtle on their walk, but later, three turtles came right in to shore and they saw them up close in the very shallow water. They were almost close enough to touch them.

Friday, August 03, 2007


This morning we snorkeled right near the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. The fish and coral were super, and the sunlight was slanting dramatically through the water. We saw all kinds of fish against a background of beautiful multi-colored coral. One turtle swam past us on his way into shallow water. Many more were going into the historical park to bask in the sun on the little beach there. While drying off, we watched a pod of spinner dolphins spinning and playing out in the bay.

From the historical park, I took a photo of the snorkel beach as seen by one of the tiki gods that surround the (reconstructed) ancient temple. The water was very calm as the photo shows.

Finally: here's what I look like when I surface in the water. The palm trees behind me are in the historical park.


Ancient Hawaiians walked long distances between important ceremonial and population centers. They slept in half-open caves in the lava rock, especially at one particular location that was a natural stopping place north of Kona, where the last king had a palace. In the flat lava rock, these travelers carved dots, circles, human stick-figures, animals, and other geometric and naturalistic images. No knowledge about how to interpret the images has been preserved.

Alas, respect for this important cultural emplacement has been lacking. On each visit over the last 15 years or so, we have seen increasing numbers of modern additions: people's initials and other unfortunate defacements to the original. Worse yet, the golf course that surrounds the petroglphs and the various rental apartments all around are increasing in size and more and more seem to dwarf the ancient monument -- in the last photo, you can see both golf course and the rocky petroglyph field.

I can only imagine the despair of a people who see their heritage treated this way.

Incidentally, the site of the royal palace in Kona is now a hotel, named for the king -- admittedly, he made the decision to disestablish the native religion and order his subjects to convert to Christianity. The foundation of his royal temple on the hotel grounds now hosts the nightly luau put on for the tourists.

In the National Historical Monuments, one to the south and one to the north of Kona, one finds better treatment of native traces. And we learned today that in building the new condominium complex where we are staying, measures seem to have been taken to respect and preserve the traces of ancient houses and shelters that were mainly on an adjacent preserve, which we see from our windows.

Kahaluu Beach

No underwater photos today, but while we were taking off our snorkeling gear, a little yellow bird volunteered to pose for a photo. The water was really calm and clear.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Kona Hawaii

Yes, we came back from Sicily and rapidly got on another airplane (or 3), flew another 18 hours or so, and another 6 time zones. We have already been snorkeling at the fabulous Kahaluu beach, where a turtle heading for shallower water bumped his rather sharp shell into my shin -- no damage. The fish and coral were vividly colorful, and visibility was great when we got there a bit before 7 AM. By 10:30 we left: the parking lot was almost full and people were beginning to kick up the sand underwater. Jet lag: it can be your friend.