Eating Animals

I’m reading this rather intense book. It’s called Eating Animals and is by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Maybe you’ve read it, it was published in 2009, or maybe you don’t. For the longest time I didn’t want to read it because I know a few people became vegetarian after reading it. I don’t want to be vegetarian.

I have nothing against it but I don’t think it suits me. I like food, I really like food. Almost all sorts of it and, maybe wrongly, I believe that you cannot be someone who truly likes food if you are vegetarian. I know I may be offending a few people here but, think about it, being vegetarian means you don’t eat about 70, 80, 90% (I don’t know for sure) of the dishes out there.

Vegetarian friends tell me that you forget how good meat and fish taste because you take them out of your menu. You make those 30, 20, 10% of food be all the food. And because there are less ingredients you can cook with, you are more imaginative with your cooking — use more spices, more herbs, nuts, anything to try to make vegetarian dishes as diverse as the omnivore diet. I get the point: I do that myself because I rarely eat meat at home and try to be as imaginative with my veggie recipes as possible. But isn’t that a bit like getting a kid a really colorful bird to make them forget about the puppy they can’t have? Maybe I don’t want to forget about my metaphorical puppy, and why can’t I have both the puppy and the bird?

Enters Eating Animals. A friend convinced me that I should read it (despite my ‘fears’, I’d been toying with the idea for a while) by telling me that the author did not write the book intending to convert people to vegetarianism (“I am a new father, eager to learn as much as I can about the meat industry, in an effort to make informed decisions about what to feed my son”), and that he too struggled with the idea of becoming vegetarian (he often mentions his grandmother’s signature dish, chicken with carrots, which he grew up eating). The thing is, I knew what most of it was going to be about: factory farms, animal rights and suffering, environmental issues. I know about all that and I’ve changed my food choices accordingly: I only buy organic meat in the rare occasions I do buy meat and virtually always buy organic (animal and vegetable) produce. And I do trust that organic farming in Germany means a bit more than it does in the US although, admitedly, I’ve never visit a farm in this country… (And, confession number 2, I do often eat meat when I eat out.)

What is interesting about the book, or at least the 25% I’ve read so far, is that it shows both sides of the issue.

Just this morning, I read a section where “the kind of person who finds herself on a stranger’s farm in the middle of the night” writes anonymously about how she goes into factory farms to rescue the poorly treated chickens, turkeys, hogs, you name it, and tries to show what happens inside those farms to the outside world (and it is not pretty).

The book follows with a letter from a factory farmer explaining how farms have had to adapt to the unwillingness of many consumers to pay the ‘fair’ price for their food (I’ve been known to complain about the €7 it costs to buy two drumsticks at my local organic supermarket, but maybe that price reflects how much it costs to raise a chicken in more humane conditions?). There are 7 billion people in the world and emerging economies are becoming more hungry for meat and animal products. “You hear about free-range eggs and grass-fed cattle, and all of that’s good. I think it’s a good direction. But it ain’t gonna feed the world. Never.”

I put the book down after that. The thing is, that farmer is right. I live in a country with a wealthy economy where organic farming is booming. I can afford to pay €7 every time I feel like eating chicken, and I have that choice. But I cannot picture a world where organic farming will feed China’s growing population and demand for meat. So what is the way forward?

Maybe the remaining 75% of the book will provide some sort of answer. I still strongly believe it is not vegetarianism: if you can’t convince someone like me who worries about this sort of stuff to become vegetarian, how will you even begin to convince the rest of the world that they should reduce their meat consumption?

Maybe the remaining 75% of the book will make me change my mind and become vegetarian, rendering my argument invalid.

I still really want to cook beef wellington for Easter Sunday lunch, though.

Agricultural adventures in a foreign country

This week I cooked a couple of meals with home-grown parsley and coriander. My home-grown parsley and coriander. Somehow I managed to place seeds in soil, water them and care for them enough to see them sprout and grow to full-fledged herbs. Those of you growing tomatoes, peppers or courgettes in your backyard may not be impressed with my feat. But you should be. And here’s why.

Saying I’m not a plant person is an understatement. When I turned 15 or 16 (I can’t remember the exact age), my dad gave me for my birthday a bonsai as old as I was then. That tiny tree lived happily for a decade and a half before I laid hands on it. No more than a few months were needed for the bonsai to dwindle and die on my watch despite my best attempts to care for it.

The Sedum spathulifolium, Cape Blanco (a rock plant) that my co-worker Karen placed on my desk last December is now at the threshold of death. “It needs almost no water, you won’t kill it” she said after I told her the plant would likely dry if I was left to take care of it. It did.


I am not declaring a defeat yet, there are still some green leaves in there!

It gets worse. It was not my first attempt to grow parsley and coriander.

In January, with herb seeds and vases in hand, I went to the nearby garden store here in Munich to buy soil. I came home and I carefully planted the seeds as I had been instructed. For weeks, I watered them and waited for them to grow. Nothing.

Thinking February’s cold snap had killed the seeds (or the fact that I forgot to water them several times), I tried to plant again in the Spring. It was only then, on removing the old soil from the vases, that I realized I was moving not earth, but fertilizer! Words cannot describe the putrid smell emanating from those vases. Imagine fertilizer chemicals (or decaying animal and plant matter — I’m not sure if I bought organic or inorganic fertilizer) brewing in water for weeks under a dry top layer concealing the smell. It was foul!

In my defense, I did not know the German word for soil. Only at the second attempt did I plant my seeds in Erde. And this time they did germinate (!) — possibly because of the small amounts of fertilizer still in the vases — and grew into delicate herbs with a delicious smell.

So yes, I victoriously ate my home-grown parsley and coriander this week. And I’m pleased to say I did not get food poisoning.

photo (1).JPG

My herb garden!

What the Portuguese do to codfish

One of my favourite things about Christmas in Portugal is the food. Not only are the desserts rich and tasty (that’s another post) but so is the traditional main course. The quintessential Portuguese dish is codfish, which can be cooked in a 1001 ways according to a popular saying and is present in almost every household on Christmas eve. And it is good!

Portuguese codfish has little resemblance with the cod eaten in other countries, such as that used for Fish & Chips in many English-speaking nations. Unlike with other fish, we do not consume codfish fresh: we salt and dry it. In fact, the Portuguese word for codfish — bacalhau — is used internationally (sometimes with a slightly different spelling, bacalao) precisely to describe dried and salted codfish.

The Portuguese started fishing and producing cod in this way over 500 years ago. The reason to salt it and dry it was that of preservation: before refrigerators were available, other techniques had to be used to make sure the fish was edible when fishermen returned to land. The process turned out to add flavour to the fish, and is used to this day.

Today, the online version of Público, a renowned Portuguese newspaper, features an excellent visualisation that explains what is exactly that Portuguese do to codfish, from when fishermen catch it to when it’s ready to eat, describing how they process it on fishing trawlers and then on land. The infographic has text in Portuguese but you should be able to get the gist of it from the images only. If you’d like to know more, I provide the original transcript and a rough translation at the end of the post. Click on the screenshot below to see the infographic on Público’s website (I can’t seem to embed it on the blog):

Screen shot 2011-12-24 at 3.59.29 PM.png

Infographic A Viagem do Bacalhau, by Ana Rute Martins, Cátia Mendonça, Joaquim Guerreiro and José Alves (Source: Público, requires Adobe Flash Player.)

Original transcript (in Portuguese): Do mar ao prato, a viagem do bacalhau

Nadam em cardume da Terra Nova ao Mar da Noruega. Com 2 anos têm 40 cm; 7 anos 70/80 cm — atingem a idade de procriar; 10 anos 1.5 m. Uma fêmea pode por entre 4 a 9 milhões de ovos em bancos de areia e temperatura entre 4 a 8º.

(Depois de pescado) O troteiro degola o peixe e abre a barriga. As vísceras e as guelras são retiradas, assim como parte da espinha. Sai (do escalador) com o seu formato conhecido e é lavado. Desce para o porão, é coberto de sal. Viaja para a doca: Lisboa, Setúbal, Sines.

Chega à fábrica. É curado em paletes durante um mês e meio a 1 ano a 4 graus. É lavado e seco entre 48 a 120 horas à temperatura máxima de 23ºC. Terá de humidade 47% e 1/3 do peso após ser pescado. Está pronto a consumir!

Translation: From sea to plate, the journey of cod

They swim in shoals from Newfoundland to the Norwegian Sea. At 2 years old they are 40cm; at 7 years 70/80 cm — reach reproductive age; at 10 years 1.5 m. A female can lay between 4 to 9 million eggs in sandbars and temperature from 4 to 8 degrees C.

(After being fished) The fisherman decapitates the fish and opens its belly. Viscera and gills are removed, as so is part of the spine. It comes out (of the fish scaler) with its familiar format and is washed. It goes down to the hold and is covered with salt. Travels to the dock: Lisbon, Setúbal, Sines.

Arrives at the factory. It’s cured in pallets for a month and a half to one year at 4 degrees C. It is washed and dried between 48 to 120 hours at a maximum temperature of 23 degrees C. It will have a moisture content of 47% and 1/3 of the weight when caught. It is ready to eat!

Why are jet streams not good wind energy sources?

Cross post from GeoLog, the EGU Blog.

Commercial airlines know jet streams well. Planes often hitch a ride on these strong, high-altitude atmospheric winds, which blow from west to east, to fly faster, and they are the reason why long-haul easterly flights (such as those between the US and Europe) are quicker than the corresponding westerly journeys.

Scientists are also familiar with these fierce and persistent winds, which occur at altitudes of 7 to 16 kilometres and have velocities from 90 to several hundred kilometres per hour. Some have even suggested we could harvest wind power from jet streams by developing appropriate airborne technology such as large kite-like wind-power generators. A group of researchers from the US and Australia estimated in 2007 that this potential renewable energy source could provide roughly 100 times the global demand of energy.

But research published this week in Earth System Dynamics, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, challenges this assumption. Lee Miller and collaborators from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, calculated the maximum extractable energy from these streams to be about 200 times less than previously reported. They also warned that extracting wind power in this way can result in significant climate impacts.


Airborne wind-power generators: to remain science fiction? (Source: AlphaGalileo)

The scientists pointed out that the high velocities of jet streams are not the result of a strong power source but are consequence of the near absence of friction high up in the atmosphere, as it is well-known in meteorology. The group shows in their calculations that, in fact, it takes very little power to accelerate and sustain these winds.

“It is this low energy generation rate that ultimately limits the potential use of jet streams as a renewable energy resource,” said Axel Kleidon, the study’s leader, in a press release.

A maximum of 7.5 terawatts (7.5 trillion watts), less than half of the 2010 global energy demand of 17 terawatts, can be extracted from jet streams, they determined. Previous studies arrived at much higher values because they used the wind velocity to estimate wind power, a method the Max-Planck researchers claim is flawed.

As with other weather systems, jet streams are in part caused by the fact that equatorial regions are warmer than the poles, which are less strongly heated by the sun. The differences in temperature and air pressure between these regions drive the atmosphere into motion creating the strong winds. These differences, rather than wind speeds, are what controls how much of the generated wind can be used as an energy resource.

The authors also estimated the climate impacts of extracting energy from jet streams. Wind turbines build up resistance when harvesting energy, which alters the flow of the wind. This disruption can slow down the entire climate system of our planet when substantial amounts of energy are extracted.

If 7.5 terawatts of energy were extracted from jet streams “the atmosphere would generate 40 times less wind energy than what we would gain from the wind turbines,” said Miller in a press release.

“This results in drastic changes in temperature and weather.”

Aurora? That’s space weather for you

It occurred to me I posted a video featuring auroras without writing about the science associated to them. Here’s a recycled post from the old Dinner Party Science that provides a short explanation about northern lights and the events behind them, which start some 150 million kilometres away from the Earth, in the Sun.

An earlier version of this post was published at Dinner Party Science on Blogspot on 15 September 2010.

You’ve probably heard of auroras or northern lights, or are even lucky enough to have seen one of these events. They are proof positive of the existence of some sort of weather in space. The term space weather refers to changes in the near-Earth space environment which are driven by the Sun. On a calm day, only a breeze of radiation and energetic particles — the solar wind — flows from our star. Sometimes particles from this wind stream into the Earth and interact with the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. These interactions release particles of light causing auroras.


A solar storm, aurora from space, and aurora on Earth. Credit: NASA/STEREO

But not all days are calm and the northern lights are by far the least threatening effect of space weather. Trouble starts when our very active star decides to rebel and begins to emit large amounts of energy, not to mention electrically charged material into space. That’s when you get the space weather equivalent of hurricanes.

The Sun is made out of a material called plasma. Plasma is the fourth state of matter: a solid can be heated up to become liquid, a steaming liquid becomes a gas, and a hot enough gas transforms into plasma. This happens because the atoms that form the gas are separated into their constituents, electrons and nuclei. It is of this, electrically charged, material that the Sun is composed of.

In the solar interior, plasma is in constant motion. If you recall your physics lessons from high school you may remember that moving electric charges generate magnetic fields. In fact, the Sun is a ball of plasma with tangled magnetic field lines breaching through its surface. One of the interesting things about magnetic fields is that they can store a lot of energy. Every now and then the tangled lines of the magnetic field break and the energy they store bursts into space. These explosions are what solar physicists call “solar flares” — the storms of space weather.

It gets worse. Sometimes the magnetic field lines break so violently that they drag along some of the solar plasma. In this case, a coronal mass ejection (CME), the equivalent of a hurricane, occurs. CMEs cause the most damage when they are directed towards the Earth. When they hit, the electrically charged material and energetic particles of the solar wind and solar plasma surge into the Earth’s atmosphere and surface. While this can cause brighter auroras, the more beautiful northern lights come at a price. The radiation associated with CMEs can be harmful to astronauts, and even to airline crews and passengers. CMEs can also affect satellites, interfere with communications and cause power blackouts.

Fortunately, these situations are rare — most days are calm when it comes to space weather. Terrestrial storms and hurricanes are much more likely to cause damage than solar flares and CMEs.

But the weather can always affect you. Even if it’s in space.

Iceland spar, or how Vikings used sunstones to navigate

Cross post from the EGU Blog.

Nowadays, we can rely on GPS receivers or magnetic compasses to tell us how to reach our destination. Some 1000 years ago, Vikings had none of these advanced navigation tools. Yet, they successfully sailed from Scandinavia to America in near-polar regions where it can be hard to use the Sun and the stars as a compass. Clouds or fog and the long twilights characteristic of polar summers complicate direct observations of these celestial bodies. So how did they find their bearings? A new study published in Proceeding of Royal Society A shows that they probably used Iceland spar, a “sunstone”.

Centuries-old Viking legends tell of glowing sunstones that navigators used to find the position of the Sun and set the ship’s course even on cloudy days. In 1967, a Danish archaeologist named Thorkild Ramskou speculated that the Viking sunstone could have been Iceland spar, a clear variety of calcite common in Iceland and parts of Scandinavia.

This crystal has an interesting property called birefringence: a light ray falling on calcite will be divided in two, forming a double image on its far side. (This double image is easily seen by placing transparent calcite on printed text.) Further, the Iceland spar is a polarising crystal, meaning the two images will have different brightnesses depending on the polarisation of light.

<img src=“; alt="" title=“800px-3310.calcite_(Iceland_Spar)_birefringence” width=“300” height=“199” class=“mt-image-center” style=“text-align: center; display: block; margin: 0 auto 20px; /><div style=” text-align:="" center;“=”" />Birefringence of Iceland Spar seen by placing it upon a paper with written text. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Light is made up of electromagnetic waves with component electric and magnetic fields. If these components have a specific orientation, the light is said to be polarised, while in unpolarised light the orientation of these fields has no preferred direction. Calcite can appear dark or light depending on the polarisation of light that falls upon it.

Sunlight becomes polarised as it crosses the Earth’s atmosphere, and the sky forms a pattern of rings of polarised light centred on the Sun. Changing the orientation of calcite as light passes through it will change the relative brightness of the projections of the split beams, even when the Sun is hiding behind clouds or just below the horizon. The beams are equally bright when the crystal is aligned to the Sun.

It can be hard to determine when exactly these split beams have equal brightness. But the new study, led by Guy Ropars at the University of Rennes 1 in France, suggests Vikings could have built a simple device to better use the sunstone.

The technique consists in covering the Iceland spar with an opaque screen with a small hole in its centre and a pointer. As light passes through the hole onto the crystal, a dark surface below it receives the projection of the double image for comparison.

<img src=“; alt="" title=“device” width=“300” height=“220” class=“mt-image-center” style=“text-align: center; display: block; margin: 0 auto 20px; /><div style=” text-align:="" center;“=”" /> The authors of the Proceedings of the Royal Society study believe Vikings could have used a device like this to navigate. The crystal is inside, and the projection of a double image is seen below it. Credit: Guy Ropars. Source: ScienceNOW.

By rotating the apparatus and determining the direction at which the two images were equal in brightness, the team managed to pinpoint the Sun’s position on a cloudy day with an accuracy of one degree on either side. Researchers also conducted tests when the Sun was largely below the horizon. “We have verified that the human eye can reliably guess clearly the Sun direction in dark twilights, even until the stars become observable,” Ropars’ team writes in the paper.

Although archaeologists have not yet found Iceland spar among Viking shipwrecks, the new study adds credence to the idea that Viking seafarers used the crystal in their travels.

Further, the recent finding of a calcite crystal on a sixteenth century Elizabethan ship shows that navigators could have used Iceland spar even after the appearance of the magnetic compass. Cannons on ships could perturb a magnetic compass orientation by 90 degrees, so a crystal serving as an optical compass could be crucial in avoiding navigational errors and get sailors to a safe port.