Last week I visited sunny Pasadena to present the five years of scientific research I have been working on, and I’m happy to say that I now have my PhD in Control and Dynamical Systems from Caltech (unofficially, that is – there’s still some administrative paperwork to be shuffled around). In brief, I studied how a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), which has a brain 1 millionth the size of the human brain, is able to use visual cues and odors to locate, and land on, food sources. The results represent a step forwards towards understanding how their brains function, and because of the similarity between nervous systems across species, they also represent a step towards understanding how our own brains function. I will write up a more detailed synopsis in the near future, illustrated by photographs of course.
To celebrate, I spent Thanksgiving week with my parents in Death Valley National Park – a family tradition that dates back to my childhood in California. By my estimates, over the course of these trips I must have spent more than 4 months within the park (some of it before Death Valley was designated as a National Park in 1994). And yet, there are still many places I have yet to visit. After spending the past 3 years in the Pacific Northwest surrounded (sometimes trapped) by enormous green trees, clouds and rain, and glaciated mountain peaks, it was incredibly relaxing to be back in infinite expanse of the desert. The warmth, freedom, comfort, silence, vastness, mystery, and subtle beauty are more therapeutic than any other environment I have experienced.
We started our trip with a visit to my favorite dunes, far from the throngs of tourists. The warm sunset light and parting clouds were a wonderful welcome back.
On these trips we always camp in the backcountry. One of the first things that struck me was the silence. Complete silence. Not a breeze, not a chirp, car, or plane. In the Northwest, even when far from the bustle of civilization, there are always streams, winds, rustling leaves, crashing waves, singing birds, etc. I had never realized quite how special that silence was until having missed it for so long.
Although with a name like Death Valley you might not expect to find much (living) wildlife, there are in fact many desert creatures that call that park their home. On our trip we saw several burros (wild donkeys), an adorable kit fox that visited out camp, and a coyote.
Hidden along the many mountain ranges surrounding Death Valley are countless canyons that carve their way through thousands of feet of ancient geological layers. Only a few of these canyons have relatively easy access, which means adventure and solitude can easily be found by picking a distant feature to explore. On this trip we visited several canyons that I had previously never been to. Though much of Death Valley is rather muted in color, there are pockets of brilliant reds and oranges if you look closely. I can’t wait to be back in the area for an extended period of time next year!