Category Archives: Santa Cruz

Decisions, decisions

Spending a day in the sun. Not feeling so bad about anything at the moment.

Ran into the professor who helped me get the job at the UC. As per my usual dilly-dallying I found myself in an empty classroom several hours after the end of my section. He was on his way out and, surprised that I was still hanging around, dropped in to chat a bit.

I see why friendly people are so universally admired. I do pass the occasional resolution to be more sociable, but I can’t ever keep it up. I’ve also considered resolving to be more resolute, but even just thinking about that makes me tired. One day, maybe.

So this incorrigibly friendly and helpful man asked how everything was going, about my plans for break, ideas for life after. I reported the news that I was to get parttime funding for research at Stanford. “Well that’s great!” he said.

“But, I’ve also been offered a full-time possibility here,” I added.

“Ah, but you don’t want to do this,” he laughed. “Take the research. Definitely.”

So I will.

Thanksgiving away from home and an essay

I woke up this morning with a deep sense of well-being. In my bones I felt like something had changed. Maybe it was that for the first time since October, I woke up warm, easy, and unconcerned, having gone out last night to Ross’s on River St and purchased a beige-colored faux down second comforter with my now-expendable income. I didn’t wear a sweatshirt to bed. I woke up all wrapped up in a plethora of fabric.

Maybe it was just that it reminded me of home, that when I opened my eyes I expected to see the original pale blue walls of my old room in Connecticut. It would be winter now and the heat would be on low to save on gas bills, the frost which grows on the tree branches outside would have crawled halfway up my window in the night. My nose would be cold in the dim morning but my body warm under the covers. I peek at the clock: 7:05. I peek at the dresser: 6 feet away. I pull the covers over my head instead. I may seem to be making only incremental progress but beneath my sleepy visage there raged a shifting, fierce battle in which I was slowly gaining the upper hand.

As always, a glass of chocolate milk and a peanut butter cookie greets me on the kitchen table. The spoils of war.

No one is born with a love of science. I’ve met folks who take to science like fish take to water, but even so, they weren’t born knowing it. There are formative years, when we morph like clay to any external stimulus, when we really lay the wires for the decisions to come that will motivate us to live and resolve us to our endeavors, that many will attribute to an innate love of science. But even this is untapped potential without exposure. My friend once joked that half our graduating class at MIT are here because of Bill Nye the Science Guy. I used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Magic School Bus back-to-back after school. I discovered science as something I loved about the same time I discovered chocolate cake.

There’s much distrust and fear of science. There’s much detraction and misunderstanding of its goals. Sometimes I stand up for the institution which I think is noble and good but sometimes I think they’re not entirely wrong.

My housemate once said something I found egregious. We had been talking about the events of 9/11 and I was commenting on the importance of skepticism at the time. I had asked him if he had done any fact-checking on the validity of the evidence which has convinced him of his particular views. “It’s impossible to check all the facts,” he replied. “that’s why we rely on ‘expert testimony’.” As I was thinking about how to respond to that comment, he added, “You like physics, right? Well, have you gone through and fact-checked every piece of information your professors have given you?” For a second, I was stunned, then, I was horrified. “No, but I should,” it started making sense to me. “And I will. Eventually, I have to.” Why all these people are so skeptical of “science” when “science” is just the name given to a pursuit of knowledge.

Truth. Truth with a capital T is not a matter of definition. It’s independent of the instruments which discover it, the methods by which it’s disseminated. I tried to explain. Science lives by its fact checkers. If we didn’t question established rules there would never be any progress toward the truth. We’d be as ignorant today as the day we first walked the Earth. Yes, I’m guilty of taking some unconfirmed assertions as fact, but that’s a mere coincidence of my inexperience– what you’re alluding to is the fault of a person, not the decree of a science.

But the damage has already been done. For as long as science has existed, pseudoscience has been right by its side. But something alarming is the case in this so-called scientific age. Most people perceive no difference between the two. In part, science journalism is to blame. The business of “selling science” has left the public in a doozy. First, coffee is good for you; then, coffee will give you a heart attack; coffee will make you smarter, stupider, live forever. Readers are left to hang on a few percentage points without ever being educated about the margin of error. They’re sent into a panic about the possibility of disaster without being informed of the insignificant odds. And journalists are only feeding the frenzy, overextending facts to break big interesting stories with magazine sales through the roof and intellectual honesty all but out the window.

No wonder the public backlash against science. Listen to us, we seem to be saying, we’re experts, our opinions are as good as fact. Then what of actual facts? Are our journalists are not discriminating enough to sort them out, our public too uneducated to put it together? We lie by omission. We appeal to authority. And when experts disagree with each other we’re left to conclude there must be no objective fact, the truth is our invention, what’s real and what’s imaginary is simply a matter of opinion. Presented in this form, science is no better than just another form of indoctrination. Propaganda. No wonder.

Good science teachers encourage us to see for ourselves. When I was 10 or 11 I came home one day to Bill Nye the Science Guy on my TV chattering about different wavelengths of light. It is selective absorption of light which gives things color, he announced, to great fanfare. Light carries energy. This is why black things are warmer than white things. See for yourself!

So I went around touching things. For days I did. I started noticing how much warmer black cars were than white cars, how my hair seemed to catch fire in the direct sun. I even conducted an experiment with my mom’s collection of fabrics. I cut little swatches out of each material and lined them all up under the kitchen light. I let them sit for an appropriate amount of time and then with my eyes closed tried to separate the dark ones from the light ones (this endeavor was only somewhat successful). But there really was a difference! And so I was convinced of this particular fact.

How easy it is for me to put my faith in science when I’ve felt like a participant for most of my life. Yet I was not born with a love of science. My privilege was to be included in the scientific dialog. My education consisted of progressive versions of reality. Each beloved theory a model carefully constructed, dressed up, and committed to memory only to be mercilessly toppled and replaced by the next. And so, like this, I learned that science is about not knowing. A friend and classmate used to say that the only result of his scientific education was that he was not sure of anything any more. Good scientific journalism must recognize this fact– present the evidence, explain the logic– lift the veil of invincibility and open a real line of communication with the public.

In some ways, scientists are to blame. The scientific community is a community of people, and as such is not free of human quarrels, intrigue, pride, short-sightedness. It’s not unusual for even great scientists to make it their objective to “thin the herd”. The herd is, of course, referring to interested non-professionals, prospective students of their discipline, even peers. The objective? Ostensibly an improved level of dialogue, a higher mean quality of work, and undeniably, exclusivity.

3rd year students at MIT majoring in physics take a year-long lab sequence which introduces them to some landmark physics experiments of the 20th century. “Junior Lab”, as it’s termed, is, for most students, their very first exposure to what it takes (at least from the experiment portion onwards) to conduct a truly independent investigation in science. Each of the 10 experiments culminates in a scientific paper and a 15-minute oral presentation. Most students who go on to be physicists find this experience invaluable. But there is much dread, as well. Junior Lab is high pressure, fast-paced, and generally unsympathetic. In every way a weeder course for the physics major except that it occurs way too late into our studies.

Certain professors of the course have accumulated over the years particularly frightful reputations. One professor, a pioneer in the field of quantum computing, was legendary among the student for his offensively direct, sometimes unduly harsh, criticisms. His evaluations, instead of comments on the quality of the students’ work, often strayed into an assessment of a student’s abilities. Sometimes they were humorous. On a graded paper, I once saw the following annotation, “Much better than last time, but still terrible.”

Other times, they seemed to border on malicious. He took the opportunity of the public oral oftentimes to really drive home some of his earlier critiques. The public oral (held at the end of the first semester), was an opportunity for students to practice speaking to a large audience. Students, friends, and professors are all invited to attend. There are snacks and projectors and everybody’s dressed up. It can be a nerve-wracking experience. There would be follow-up questions on the apparatus, the data gathered, the analysis, then, “You’re an awful physicist,” he would spit out, during the question-answer session following a presentation. “You’re embarrassing yourself. You should drop this class.” I’m not sure if anybody ever attempted to defend the kids at the front of the room. Even as they stood there crying.

Scientists have a reputation for heartlessness. They have a stigma for being only tenuously human, curious and stubborn creatures with a fuzzy moral code. They do little to disabuse the public of this impression. In fact, it’s not out of the question that it’s even a source of pride, this “otherness”.

There’s no doubt that we’re looking at an elite crowd. But then who can blame the public for their distrust of scientists, and in turn, suspicion toward scientific evidence and the basic tenets which guide the scientific endeavor? Exclusivity and exclusion are one in the same. But this raises several questions, does the public really deserve to be ostracized? Is this ultimately beneficial to our cause?

Who among my generation of scientists has not heard of Carl Sagan? In his series, “Cosmos”, Carl Sagan said, “Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. In a way, it’s the opposite of chaos. It implies a deep interconnectedness of all things. The intricate and subtle way that the universe is put together.” Ultimately, he devoted his public life to addressing just one question, “why science?” His answer was two decades long and his strategy was to have a conversation with the people. He presupposed their capacity to understand. He impressed them with his humanness. And the people responded en masse.

But ironically, Sagan was least popular with those for whom he advocated the most. In 1992 Carl Sagan came before the National Academy of Sciences as a nominee for membership in the most prestigious of science organizations in the world and was rejected despite the thumbs-up vote from the astronomy sub-community of members. His public persona was to blame. By that time he had written over 20 books, directed several movies and TV shows. (Not to mention he had also published some 600 scientific papers and made significant contributions to the study of planetary astronomy) But that was enough. As it turns out, his popularity discredited him. He was an egomaniac, they said, not a real scientist.

This is not an unfamiliar tune. When I mentioned to a professor once an interest in science journalism, his kindly response was that he thought I might be capable of a lot “more”. When I made the decision to put off graduate school until I’ve better defined my interests, I was warned against the implication this would have on my chances of being taken seriously later on. That there are precious few real ambassadors of science is no doubt a testament to the great command of the purist view point over the scientific minds of today. Our nostalgia for the past great eras of discovery and innovation have driven us to, at times, rally against our best interests. The unfortunate truth is that the business of science has superseded our love of it — what set us going from the beginning, this devotion to truth and progress, is now just an afterthought. It’s a sickness in the scientific community that goes to show just how human we really are. But while we judge and quarrel and blame and bicker, the next generation of scientists have just opened their eyes and are glimpsing our world for the first time. If science is to live on, it cannot lose its advocates.

1-Mile Buoy

I live two blocks from the ocean. On the banks of the San Lorenzo River which is a very modest river as far as rivers go. It begins in the Santa Cruz Mountains, climbs out of the redwoods, and picks up speed as it drops through an elevation of 2500 feet into the San Lorenzo Valley. On its way its slices the city of Santa Cruz into East and West, and when it’s over drains into the Monterey Bay. I live next to the delta where it becomes the sea. On the East Side. Most of the time I forget about the ocean. But once every couple nights the waves swell up and the air is still in such a way that all of Lower Ocean is filled with the sound of great volumes of water colliding. Because by the time the sound reaches Pearl St, it’s taken on this great round quality, ricocheting from house to house until it’s coming from every direction all at once, walking around on the dark street late at night, it feels close, like you can grab it and hold it against your body, like you might drown in it.

The sound of waves is always accompanied by a muffled, intermittent fog-horn in the distance. The first few nights it drove me crazy. The sound is identical to a cell phone getting a call on vibrate. It put me on edge and once I started listening for it I really couldn’t sleep. My housemate told me it was the 1-mile buoy, off the shore, to warn ships that they’re getting close to land. The mechanism is activated by waves. On days when the sea is choppy, like it is tonight, it’ll happily play all night.

My room is wood and yellow with two round windows and one long window with a pane that slides open. The ceiling is sloped in such a way to give everything the appearance of being slightly tilted. If I slid the window all the way open I can sit on the window sill and dry my feet on the asphalt roof. Before the fog came I would climb up and out of the long window, spread myself out at night on the shingles and look at stars. Chris says my room is like a yellow submarine. On the nights when the waves are heavy then I imagine I’m out at sea, and I’m going up to the deck to look at the stars. Now it’s the winter sky I don’t have any clue of what I’m even looking at but it’s still fun to look. On any given evening I’m likely to spot at least two shooting stars and a satellite. Eventually I’ll get chilly and crawl back into the warm light of my room. I’ll wrap myself in blankets and when they get to be the temperature of my body I’ll contemplate sleep. Outside, the streets will grow as still and cold as the air. But in the distance the 1-mile buoy bellows on. My heart slows way down.

North star is an airplane

Lots of people know a little about science.

During my rather disastrous commute home from Palo Alto today a man looked over, saw the book I was reading, and started talking to me about the atomic bomb. “I’m lousy at math,” he said. “but I understand physical principles well.” This was exciting to me, so I asked him what he meant. “For example, Einstein gets the credit for the atomic bomb, but it was really M—- who did most of the work. He was Einstein’s collaborator, but no one’s heard of him cause Einstein took all the credit.” This was not a physical principle. “Lots of people worked on the atomic bomb,” I said. He ignored me. I named 5 in my head.

“I’m in school, too, you know.” He said.
“I’m not in school.”

“Have you heard of Tesla?”

Did I know that he invented a laser, that it could shoot through the earth and turn ions negative in the atmosphere so that they changed the earth’s gravity because the magnetic field of the earth goes around like this and the ions go around like this… Now environmentalists were worried about the effect so they confiscated his invention because it was capable of making the surface of the water rise into the air did you know this and then you’d have black rain, have you heard of black rain? which is iron, it would levitate things, and fish and frogs would fall out of the sky too, isn’t that wild?

I thought about that for a second. “Like in a tornado?” He continued on. The more he talked, the more excited he got, he began stuttering and saying things that were logically disconnected. Between the noise of the bus pulling itself up highway 17 and this guy’s lack of coherence, I stopped caring and returned to my book. I was just starting a chapter on standard candles and getting excited about the Cepheid variables that had made such a buzz in cosmology. I tried to remember what Feynman had said about them,

Two different populations of stars… Cepheid variables of one type… but there’s another type… universe must be twice, or three times, or even four times older than we thought!

Meanwhile, bus guy does not stop talking. “Have you heard of frictional force?” he asks. I just look at him.

He explains. Bring together 5 people… I did this with my friends. When we all rubbed our hands together we generated enough frictional energy to levitate off the ground… just our hands… He showed me his hands. And rubbed them together to demonstrate what it looked like when you rubbed your hands together. I didn’t like that very much. I wasn’t trying to ignore him, but I was pretty bored. “Cepheid variables are named after the star delta Cephei,” I read from my book. Energy force, man… I swear to god I’m not lying… highly luminous supergiant stars… I swear to god this is the truth… pulsationally unstable… periods between 1.5 and 60 days… 400 pounds, a box… I just lifted it with my bare hands…. relationship between period and flux… would have never happened if I hadn’t rubbed my hands together… you know how it feels warm when you do that?… rare stars… hey… nearest Cepheid is Polaris… difficulty is calibrating luminosity… hey… north star is a variable star. North star is a variable star. I thought there was something profound in that.

… hey! Are you listening??

Can you hear me??

“Ok look,” I hadn’t said anything in about 20 minutes. “You think I can read my book?”

He looked unhappy and I was a little sorry for it. Poor guy didn’t know anything about physical principles. He’d absorbed a couple of keywords here and there, heard about some concepts, and pieced them together into a random narrative that didn’t make a bit of sense. This guy was a little busted but it’s something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately. The assumption is that knowing the names of things is the same as knowing the things. It’s an equivalence of the scientific endeavor which is vast and noble with its by-products, and connected with the idea that the thing science should not be encouraged because of what humans do with the knowledge gained. I glanced at an open book on the dining room table today (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) which accused science of being “reductionist”:

To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry… The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters.

This criticism of the scientific method, for instance, is no criticism of the scientific method at all. It’s a criticism of human beings with limited capacity for complexity and ambiguity. If a thing can be described by a finite set of parameters, and they each have an effect on the whole, then they, by definition, can be measured (in principle, at least). Science attempts to determine some of these parameters in order to understand better a more fundamental mechanism. If we were to stop at simply describing the properties of the thing itself, then the knowledge gained is narrow and more or less useless (“stamp collecting,” as Rutherford called it), so scientists tend to move on from a particular subject after some time in search of the answers to a more interesting question. They provide documentation of their research so that others may focus on another aspect of the same topic and extend their investigation in perhaps another, also interesting, direction. This gets somehow interpreted as reduction. The actual reduction is not occurring at the level of the science, but at the level of those who are applying some small bit of knowledge gained to public policy, who are careless or pragmatic or what-else. I just can’t justify the defensiveness of the general populace when it comes to scientific principles. I can only imagine it is a reaction to the exclusivity maintained by the scientific community. The average person feels like an absolute outsider, informed by loose threads of dubious journalism which twist the truth this way and that in order to suit a certain personal world view. Then they get scared and think science is trying to take away their individuality. Lately I’ve noticed mainly two kinds of reactions to any general scientific discussion: a complete refusal to participate (“that stuff’s never made any sense to me”) and a thorough and immediate recall of every bit of scientific trivia related to the matter at hand. A general fear of the conversation.

Back on the bus, friction man was disgruntled. Mumbled something about being in the army and a gunshot to the head then stared straight ahead. I didn’t ask him to elaborate.

I did start wishing, though, that I had my pepper spray on me, pepper spray that wasn’t shaped like a toy gun (dad…). Even though that would be a pretty lame thing to do on a bus. I couldn’t read any more for having to watch him out of the side of my eyes. He fidgeted a whole bunch. 5 minutes pass. Finally, he picked up his backpack, and with the dignity worthy of a king, walked up to the only other empty seat on the bus, and sat down, 3 rows up.

I breathed a sigh of relief and read some more about standard candles.

We ended up being on that bus for 3 hours. I realized today (sitting on that bus) that Highway 17 is really the mechanism that preserves this certain “unique”-ness that folks like to attribute to Santa Cruz. In an excruciating way but mindful, discouraging newness like geography and a poorly designed transit systems only could, through its sheer stubbornness and difficulty. When the only artery in and out of a city is a winding, 2 lane “highway” through the mountains for 25 miles with a speed limit of 45, which comes to a frequent and complete halt in the case of any traffic incident or volume (google “highway 17 accidents”), a place can feel pretty isolated. Santa Cruz is less than 30 miles from the heart of the Silicon Valley. Yet it has no living industry besides tourism. It has none of the hustle-bustle intensity of its neighbors, none of the mass-produced mass-consumed mass culture, none of the ambition and restlessness. It’s idyllic– like a beautiful accident. But it’s no accident. Many people are grateful of the state of the place without knowing what they’re grateful toward. It seems to me that Santa Cruz is more a place where people come to settle down. It’s the town of Spectre in the movie Big Fish. This is where young people come to experiment with doing nothing, wind up growing old and living forever.

Jammed up end to a pseudo-science day

We were all thinking the same thing. We had a lot of time. We were 40 people sitting in silence, making private, furious plans to one day move closer to where we work. I made a flow chart.

I didn’t seem to have too many options.

We had waited at the bus stop for the 7:45 until 8:15. And now, finally on the road, the bus hadn’t moved a meter in 45 minutes. When I got sick of reading, I entertained myself by contemplating the nature of traffic jams. How, in a bottleneck-free situation, jams propagate like longitudinal waves through a medium. The cars ahead of the jam dissipate as cars behind pile on, and as long as a constant flow of cars is maintained with a flux which is high enough per unit of time for a car to get from one end of the jam to the other, the jam moves through the cars like a constant amplitude, constant velocity density wave. Much like the spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy. Regions of high density, which are the result of small velocity and density fluctuations in the interstellar gas, are not made of the same stars and planets and particles always, instead, stars and gases pass through these regions, like we pass through traffic jams. Eventually.

Some have even proposed that the passing of the Solar System through the spiral arms of the Milky Way could be the cause for the temperature and climate fluctuations on Earth. Much like being stuck in a traffic jam could have effects on the temperament and blood pressure of its constituents, the solar system, bathed in the cosmic rays of these more active regions, may experience noticeable changes as well. However, researchers claim to have debunked this theory using more precise mappings of the galaxy. I remember doing this lab in 8.14 (Experimental Physics) using a radio telescope to measure the abundance and redshift of hydrogen gas in the Milky Way. It was not an easy lab. Our errors were pretty huge. This was the best we could do for the location of the spiral arms.

On the other hand, if there is a bottleneck in the road, and vehicles are forced to move bumper-to-bumper, I imagine traffic could be approximated quite well by an incompressible flow with smooth boundary conditions. That’s just a flow with a constant density, or particles per unit volume, everywhere, that runs into no sudden stops or sharp corners. The key concept here in the steady state solution is then conservation of mass. We place the restriction that the rate of mass entering any imaginary volume you draw within the flow must equal the rate of mass leaving (otherwise the density within this volume would change and it would no longer be considered incompressible). If, in particular, you align your volume so that it has an area A perpendicular to the direction of flow and length x that is parallel, you can write

The above holds for all locations in the flow. This implies for any two sites

Applied to our idealized traffic situation, an expression can be found for the average speed of a vehicle stuck in the traffic queue as a function of the speed of traffic currently passing through the bottleneck and the lane reduction.

For instance, an accident causes a 3 to 1 lane reduction. This necessarily results in backed-up traffic moving at about 1/3 the speed of traffic currently passing the site of the accident. Now imagine that this is a really spectacular accident and there is a lot to see. The folks passing by the commotion want to get a good view so they’re driving 15 mph. This limits the speed of the poor blokes in the vehicles farther back to an average of about 5 mph. This is the effect of “rubbernecking”. It’s unlikely that it will end though, who doesn’t want to reap the rewards of hours of boring waiting?

(Of course there are limitations to this highly simplified model. For instance, the assumption of an incompressible flow is unrealistic when vehicle velocities are high, as safe driving practices do not dictate driving bumper-to-bumper at 45 mph. When incompressibility breaks down enter the density waves discussed earlier. In addition, since lane closures do not constitute a smooth transition but rather an abrupt change in boundary conditions, there’s a feedback mechanism which limits the speed of cars in the bottleneck according to how smoothly they can merge and how quickly they can accelerate, which then goes on to affect cars farther back in the queue.)

Anyhow, 2 1/2 hours of crawling later we got our moment. Faces went immediately to the windows.

There were 10 cop cars and 3 tow trucks at the site of the accident and one slow-moving lane of traffic. And though I rubbernecked as hard as I could, I could see no wreck in the darkness. Just 15 or so cops standing on the side of the road with their hands in their pockets. Like they were bored. Like nothing had happened at all.

Mystery Plant mystery solved…almost

Every once in a while I get a whiff of something in the air here that smells like sweet tea. It greeted me two years ago when I first came to California, with my bags, early in the summer, as I stepped off the plane and took in my first big breath of Californian air. I was here only temporarily, then. So I didn’t investigate. But I smelled it a lot, even far away from SFO, in Los Altos, where I lived, at Moffett Field, where I worked, so I deduced it must be growing everywhere. I didn’t tell anybody then, but I pretty much decided that that was the smell of California. And it was a smell that I loved.

So I came back.

Of course, you get used to these things, so most of the time, that tinge is gone from the air, but at some places it’s more concentrated. And then, I’m happy, and I look for it. I told someone once about this Mystery Plant and they told me it was probably the eucalyptus tree, so I went around smelling eucalyptus trees and came to the conclusion that it was definitely something else, not a eucalyptus tree, not a tree at all– a shrub.

I bike 11 miles to work in Aptos. It takes me an hour along the coast, through Live Oak, Capitola Village, Soquel, and a good bit of Aptos. I stayed for 5 hours today. 4 students. That was the most I’ve worked continuously since I got here. Anyways, on my way over to Aptos I pass by some pretty scenic locales, and I listen to my ipod. So I came up with the idea that I would record the trip on my helmet cam and set it to the music on my playlist. I haven’t decided if I actually want to make it an hour long yet. Probably not if anyone else is going to have to see it besides me. And I don’t own a helmet cam, so this is still a long ways away. About 2/3 of the way to Aptos I find myself oftentimes drifting through a patch of this sweet-smelling air. I stop and look around; I poke my nose in some shrubs. But I’m on the side of the road and I’ve got to move on and there’s lots of smells so I’ve never located the source there.

2 weekends ago I went with Chris on a hike in Henry Cowell. When you come out of the redwood groves and curve away from the river, the trail starts climbing with some vigor and pretty soon you find yourself above the tree line and walking in almost ankle deep white sand. Henry Cowell State Park occupies an area in the Santa Cruz Mountains which had once been a part of the ancient sea bed. Apparently the soil in this region is 90% sand and not highly nutritious. The sides of the trail are lined with hardy, sand-covered shrubs. It was a very strange sight. Of course, among these shrubs was our very own Mystery Plant. With Chris’s help, and in a serene environment, where I was able to focus, this time, I nailed it. This was a pretty big moment for me, not in the least dampened by the dinkiness of the actual plant’s appearance with its pointy leaves and its tiny white flower buds. I took a sprig of it home to aid in identification.

Despite my usual success with Google, for some reason, my searches have come up empty. I’ve looked into all the variations of “sweet smelling californian plant” and “scented shrub with tiny flowers and pointy leaves” I could think of, but nothing that looks like my plant so far has surfaced. If anyone out there knows the name of this little plant, leave me a comment. I’d like to plant it in my garden eventually, but for now, I’ve got this sprig. It’s all dried up, and its leaves are falling off, but it still fits perfectly in the palm of my hand, and it still smells like California.