Category Archives: Musings & News

Reimagined Maps as Art

U.S. watershed map by Robert Szucs at Grasshopper Geography (image from press kit)

24 January 2023

About ten years into his career as a digital cartographer Robert Szucs decided to experiment with data visualization and learned how to create strikingly beautiful, digitally accurate maps. He calls them “Maps Reimagined” and explains,

While my maps are always scientifically accurate, I think of them first and foremost as works of art.

Robert Szucs, Grasshopper Geography Press Kit

His watershed maps became an Internet sensation a few years ago through digital sales on Etsy and news outlets including the Washington Post and Smithsonian Magazine.

The U.S. watershed map above is so detailed that you can pinpoint Pittsburgh in the Mississippi watershed at the conjunction of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.

Grasshopper Geography U.S. watershed map, cropped to highlight Pittsburgh at the conjuction of three rivers

Szucs has also produced collections of elevation, forest and human population maps.

There came a point when I said I can’t look at another green-brown-white elevation map again. I needed some fun. I needed colours. And for not the first or last time, I needed to create the maps I wanted to see.

Robert Szucs, Grasshopper Geography Press Kit

This one dramatically illustrates that even the plateaus in the U.S. West are much higher than anything in the East.

U.S. elevation map by Robert Szucs at Grasshopper Geography (image from press kit)

See more maps and learn more about them at

(All images from press kit)

Why Does Roman Concrete Last Forever?

Concrete in the Roman ruins of Tróia, Portugal (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 January 2023

Cement cracks. Rocks erode. Why does ancient Roman concrete last for thousands of years while ours falls apart in only 50?

The 2,000 year old concrete at the Roman ruins of Tróia, above, is in good shape while a 1960’s concrete wall below is so degraded that its rebar supports were already rusting by 2012.

Degradation of concrete from the 1960s (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Germany, 2012)

The difference is how we mix our cement that binds the concrete together. This is a story of recipes and chemistry. (Concrete = cement + sand, gravel, rocks.)

  • Modern day Portland cement is made by baking limestone and clay minerals at 600oF, then grinding the result and adding gypsum.
  • The Romans made cement from slaked lime (quicklime+water), volcanic ash and water.

Scientists discovered in 2017 that volcanic ash + seawater were the secret ingredients that made Roman concrete strong. Those two components were conveniently available in ancient Italy but not economically feasible today. Recently a team of scientists, headed by Admir Masic of MIT, discovered an inexpensive Roman ingredient that helps concrete heal itself.

Cement, when exposed to water, can heal very small cracks in concrete by minutely dissolving and recrystallizing. However the cracks must be very tiny in Portland cement-based concrete in order for this to happen — smaller than 0.2 to 0.3 millimeters across (0.0078 to 0.0118 inches).

During the study, the team made Roman-inspired concrete using slaked lime and found that it can heal cracks up to 0.6 millimeters across (0.0236 inches), twice the tolerance of Portland cement.

If our cement used this Roman innovation it would save a lot of damage control.

Find out more in Science Magazine at: Scientists may have found magic ingredient behind ancient Rome’s self-healing concrete

p.s. Slaked lime = quicklime + water. Quicklime is made by baking lime or seashells in a kiln to split the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) into plain calcium oxide (CaO) + CO2. Quicklime is unstable and will spontaneously react with CO2 unless it is slaked with water to set as lime plaster or mortar. — parapharased from Wikipedia

Calcium oxide powder a.k.a. quicklime (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last Bird, First Bird, Best Bird

Mourning doves in January (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 January 2023

Think about the birds you saw last weekend. What species was your Last Bird of 2022?  What was your First Bird of 2023? Did you have a Best Bird?

Perhaps your Last and First birds were at your feeders. Mourning doves are often last of the day because they wait until near darkness to race to their roost.

First Bird may have been a northern cardinal that’s not afraid to come out in the half light of dawn.

Northern cardinal eating sunflower seeds (photo by Chuck Tague)

My own sightings were larger species.

Last Bird of 2022: American crows seen while counting 20,000 of them flying to the roost.

American crows flying to the roost, Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

First Bird of 2023: A red-tailed hawk flying above Fifth Avenue while I drove out to go birding in Lawrence County. I saw six more red-tails on my journey north.

Red-tailed hawk in flight, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Best Bird was a surprise. As our birding group paused on Plain Grove Road in Lawrence County a flock of 55 tundra swans flew over in a perfect V. (Steve Gosser photographed these in 2012.)

Tundra swans in flight, 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Last Bird? First Bird? Best Bird? Tell me what you saw.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Chuck Tague, Cris Hamilton, Kate St. John and Steve Gosser)

Wild Turkeys Introduced

Two tom turkeys introduce themselves to the ladies (photo by Cris Hamilton)

30 December 2022

Wild turkeys introduce themselves to each other on a personal basis but when it comes to where they live humans get involved.

Last summer eBird revised their species maps to show “introduced” versus “native” ranges of all the birds. For North American species that have been introduced elsewhere in the U.S. the results were bi-colored orange and purple maps. See maps for introduced house finches and bobwhites at Common Birds, Exotic Ranges.

Apparently wild turkeys were introduced, too. So how do the native turkeys stay neatly on their own side of the Washington-Idaho border? Don’t they introduce themselves to the other guys?

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

How Do You Pronounce …?

Poinsettia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 December 2022

How do you pronounce the name of this plant? Do you say the second “i”?

What? There are two “i”s ?

screenshot of Google search for poinsetta

Being from Pittsburgh, home of the vowel poor dialect called “Pittsburghese,” it’s no surprise that I’m missing a vowel here.

I learned about the second “i” 10 years ago but I haven’t changed my ways. Nor has Pittsburgh. So tell me, How do you say…?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from Google; click on the captions to see the originals)

Seeing or Hearing Birds Makes Us Happier

Canada warbler, 2011 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

14 December 2022

Just one week away from the winter solstice birds are not abundant in Pittsburgh and are certainly not singing, but it’s still good for us to seek them out. A new study says that the sight or sound of birds makes us happier.

Published in October in Scientific Reports, the study enlisted 1,200+ participants in the UK, EU and US. Using a phone app called Urban Mind, participants were asked three times a day whether they could see or hear birds plus questions about their mental well-being. The data showed that being near birds improved the mental health of people both with and without depression. The good mood lasts 8 hours.

It certainly works for me. I was recently upset by sad news of a friend and could not stop thinking about it. Hours later, still mourning, I went out for a walk. While my brain was busy with sadness a noisy crow flew over and drew my attention, “Hey!” I stopped to look at the crow and my brain shifted gears. Already I felt happier. Thank you, crows.

American crows (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Despite gray December days, take the time to get outdoors or watch your bird feeders for a splash of happiness.

Northern cardinal in winter, Jan 2019 (photo by Steve Gosser)

In the meantime get happy with the sound of a northern cardinal in May.

Read more about the study at Being Around Birds Boosts Our Mental Well-Being Even 8 Hours After Hearing Them.

(photos by Cris Hamilton, Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser)

In Which Kites Become Planes and Birds

Box kite at International Kite Festival, India, 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

25 November 2022

Kites sometimes fly with the birds. A distant raptor soars at center-bottom of the photo above. Kite + Bird.

In 1914 this kite was becoming a plane. Kite = Plane.

Colonel Granville Ryrie and a box kite, Australia, 1914 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some kites are birds. More than two dozen species of raptors are named “kite” including the Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) of North America and the red kite (Milvus milvus) in Europe. Kite = Bird.

Red kite in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Putting them all together, Chris Darbey (@chrisddarbey) photographed a red kite with a jet contrail. Kite=Bird + Plane.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from @ChrisDDarby)

8 Billion Of Us!

15 November 2022

Today the global human population has reached 8 billion. Lest we think our current growth rate is normal, this graph shows that human population since 10,000 BCE (the start of agriculture) has had a rapid and unnatural growth spurt in the last 70 years.

World population 100,000 BCE to 2021 from Our World in Data

There are so many humans now that we have changed the surface of the Earth, its atmosphere, and its climate just to supply our own needs.

Satellite image of Amazon basin in Bolivia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Smog over Mexico City (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This rate of growth is unsustainable and somehow our species naturally knows it. Population growth will continue but is slowing to a rate of only 1% by the end of this century. Unfortunately there will be 10.9 billion of us by then!

World population growth from Our World in Data

Asia will lead the world in slowing the rate while North America remains relatively stable. (Note: The dip in 2020 is COVID deaths outperforming births.)

Annual population growth by region from Our World in Data

How will we feed 8 to 10.9 billion people? Where will we live when the sea rises and the deserts expand?

It’s a good thing for humans and the planet that our species will stop reproducing quite so fast.

Read more about the slowing growth rate here at Our World in Data.

(photo/ graph links are in the captions. Slideshow photos from Wikimedia Commons in order: Rush hour in Russia, Beach in the Netherlands, Inauguration Day 2009, Crowded exhibit in India, Crowded street, Sao Paulo station, train surfing in Indonesia, crowded Faire in UK, train in Ecuador)

Come Closer. Listen.

Spanish red deer stag, Cervus elaphus hispanicus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 November 2022

Spanish cellist Diana Gomez plays music outdoors in many venues. Here’s what happened when she took her cello into a forest and played Bach’s Suite No.1.

Come closer. Listen.

The stags that approached her are red deer (Cervus elaphus), native to Europe and one of the largest deer species. Spanish red deer (Cervus elaphus hispanicus) are not as red as other members of the species.

To hear more from Diana Gomez check out her YouTube channel at Chelodiana or follow her on Instagram at Chelodiana. Her video Ocean includes cameo appearances of egrets and flamingo.

p.s. Two years ago Roger Day played Bach on his tuba in Frick Park and, in his words, “got only cicadas” to respond. Check out his video here.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from Chelodiana)

Preserving an Iconic Animal

Scimitar-Horned Oryx, (Oryx dammah) in Marwell Zoo, Hampshire, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 November 2022

The scimitar-horned oryx or scimitar oryx (Oryx dammah) is extinct in the wild but not extinct on Earth. These iconic animals still exist because their beauty prompted us to preserve them.

Scimitar-horned oryx are desert antelopes that can survive without water for months or years by absorbing water from the plants they eat. Native to the Sahel (pink on map below), there may have been 1 million of them at the height of their population in the early Holocene (9500–4500 BPE) but they declined over the centuries due to climate change and hunting.

Map of the Sahel from

However they were already iconic. Ancient Egyptians domesticated them, Ancient Romans bred them. They were prized for their horns and meat.

Scimitar oryx at Chester Zoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately the wild population of scimitar oryx dropped to less than 200 by the early 1980’s and within 10 years the last ever seen was in Chad. Declared extinct in the wild in 2000, they still existed in captivity.

Soon captive breeding programs looked for suitable locations in the Sahel for the antelope’s reintroduction and began breeding them in zoos and in herds to succeed in the wild. In the U.S., ranches in Texas breed them for reintroduction and for hunting.

To get an idea of what the animals look like, see this video from the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

Thanks to captive breeding, the first scimitar-horned oryx were released in Chad in 2016, as shown in this video.

Many endangered species go extinct before we know they exist. That didn’t happen to this iconic animal.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, map from researchgate; click on the captions to see the originals)