6 degrees


After experiencing my coldest Edmonton morning a few weeks ago (-27 with a windchill of -42o C), I’m quite happy to see a predicted temperature of 6 degrees this week!

Reminds me of the six degrees game – the idea that you can discover connections to any other person within six relationships (Facebook users can attest to this with social proof that ‘it’s a small world after all’).

Kevin Bacon took the concept that pop culture attached to his name and has created sixdegrees.org – a social charity fundraising website built on the idea that ‘it’s a small world and you can make a difference.’ On the website, you can see Kevin Bacon’s TED talk (both funny and touching) about how six degrees came to be.

While on the website, I noticed his twitter feed with a post about Valentine’s Day – which then sent me on my own ‘6 degrees’ train of thought (…the kind where I sometimes fail to let the other person in on how one idea in a conversation ended up connected to another…).

So I thought I’d share my inner ramblings how I went from the topic of Valentine’s Day to …bats (?)

In thinking of Valentine’s Day, I thought, “why not post a love story.”

In the jungles of Guatemala, in Tikal, stands a temple called Tikal Temple I. It was built by the grandest Sun King, of the grandest city state, of the grandest civilization of the Americas, the Mayas. His name was Jasaw Chan K’awiil. He stood over six feet tall. He lived into his 80’s, and he was buried beneath this monument in 720 AD. Mayan inscriptions proclaim that he was deeply in love with his wife. So, he built a temple in her honor, facing his. And every spring and autumn, exactly at the equinox, the sun rises behind his temple, and perfectly bathes her temple with his shadow. And as the sun sets behind her temple in the afternoon, it perfectly bathes his temple with her shadow. After 1,300 years, these two lovers still touch and kiss from their tomb. – as shared on a blog by Eric Bowley – where you can also view a photo of the temple.

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, also used this story when introducing her research on “the brain in love.”

Based on her research, Dr. Fisher considers romantic love as one of the most powerful sensations and has located love-related activity “near the base of the brain [in the ventral tegmental area]…a part of the brain’s reward system. It’s way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s below your emotions… associated with motivation…”

Speaking of love, I do love travelling with Frank 🙂

Last month I posted (from Mexico!) while anticipating a tour of the Mayan ruins of Chichén-Itzá. It was an incredible day. As in the Maya love story set in the Guatemala jungle, we travelled into a jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula (Cancun).

Our tour bus travelled through 4 existing Mayan villages:

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We had lunch in a restored colonial town called Valladolid:

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Stopped at a cenote – an underground cave/sinkhole
(…where the Maya used to offer sacrifices):


But one of the most memorable parts of the Chichén-Itzá tour was seeing and learning about the famous pyramid:
“El Castillo” also known as the temple of Kukulcan
– and recently named as one of the seven wonders of the world.


We stood in front of the great pyramid, clapped our hands…which caused an ‘echo’ to return…that sounded nothing like our applause!

We learned that the chirp-sounding echo mimics the sound of a Quetzal bird – a bird that was considered a sacred Mayan messenger – and that the chirping echo was discovered not to long ago (~1998)! We were told an elaborate tale by the tour guide; complete with fascinating connections to the pyramid design, the shadows that shift with the seasons, and the culture. Archaeologists and acoustic specialists still debate whether the pyramid was intentionally designed to “chirp” (I even found a related research article online)1.

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An echo – I thought – was just a repetition of sound, so to hear something very different and unexpected was quite a surprise. Now… I’m not an acoustical researcher …and although Frank is an acoustical guitarist 😉 …we don’t have any plans on investigating this phenomenon any further. We are quite content appreciating it for what it is – a mystery. Just like we were amazed by all the astronomical and mathematical details of the structures.

…as I continued on my six-degrees train of thought…

1. The echoing pyramid reminded me of the temple in the Mayan love story, which brings me back to…

2. Valentine’s Day, which leads me to…

3. The symbol of a heart, which then connects to…

4. February as Heart Month (for the Heart and Stroke Foundation), which then makes me think of…

5. An echocardiogram, which reminds me of…

6. …bats’ ability to echolocate…(?)

One bat in particular comes to mind:

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Stellaluna” – such a wonderful story of a friendship between birds and a bat.

I really enjoyed teaching a unit on bats to 6- and 7-year olds – particularly the part about a bat’s ability to use “echolocation” to navigate through their environment.
(It’s no surprise a superhero is based on this incredible creature!)

And so I wonder…when a bat flies around El Castillo,
making his clicking sounds to decipher the best flight path…
does he hear the Quetzal bird talking back to him…?

Out of curiosity, I looked for any human echolocation research (a bit of a stretch for me…but interesting nonetheless) and actually found out that “echolocation is a trainable skill that can potentially offer powerful and liberating opportunities [such as hiking and mountain biking] for blind and vision-impaired people.” Echolocation is considered a ‘super-sense’ – a real Batman-like superpower!

Although I have already mentioned two TED talks in this post, I found another one to share: a 2012 talk on the bat genome – especially for my superhero of a friend: ‘genetic’ Jane 🙂

Zoologist Emma Teeling highlights how her research with bats can help us better understand how our genome functions (e.g., by looking at inherited diseases) – and even believes bats hold the secret to “everlasting youth...”

I appreciate how she rose to the challenge: to try and change a negative perception (e.g., creepy creatures of the night) by emphasizing the positive. She mentions the vital role bats play in many ecosystems. She even highlighted how the survival of tequila plants in Mexico depend on bats – and so…my mind goes back to the Maya, and the field of tequila plants we saw from the tour bus:

tequila plants

What I like most is her overall message of perception – and not just of sensory perception.

Her talk is such a great example of how it is possible to change a perception (or at least gain a new appreciation) through education.

El Castillo helps confirm the importance of listening, 
and that when I listen carefully, I may be surprised by the unexpected
– and although what I hear may not fit into my perceived expectation,
it may be just what I need to navigate through obstacles – like a bat 🙂

(In case you are interested, I have posted 2 bat video clips below
…not of Batman, or vampires Twilight):

A bat hunting in ‘stealth’ mode:

A cute baby bat named Lil’ Drac:

1Declercq, N. F., Degrieck, J., Briers, R., & Leroy, O. (2004). A theoretical study of special acoustic effects caused by the staircase of the El Castillo pyramid at the Maya ruins of Chichen-Itza in Mexico. Journal of Acoustical Society of America, 116(6), 3328-3335. doi: 10.1121/1.1764833

2Thaler L., Arnott S.R., Goodale, M.A. (2011). Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Experts. PLoS ONE 6(5): e20162. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020162. This study was also highlighted in Discover Magazine: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/05/25/the-brain-on-sonar-–-how-blind-people-find-their-way-around-with-echoes#.URcSyqWjLww

2 responses

  1. Hmmm. All very interesting. Might explain why my 5 and 7 year old children think running around yelling, “Echolocation!” is funny!! Must look for that book!!

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