World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Queen of Santa Cruz

It’s Friday night in Puerto Ayora, a town of some 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. Avenue Charles Darwin runs from the harbour, filled with tour boats, and past the public plaza where on most nights young men play pick-up games of volleyball. The north side of the street is lined with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes and souvenir shops. Tonight, the street and plaza are alive with lights, music and a throng of hundreds of Galapagueños and tourists. A parade of floats plows its way along the avenue and through the crowd like ships through the surf, toward the stage at one end of the plaza.

The floats are carrying the contestants in the Queen of Isla Santa Cruz beauty pageant, a highlight of the island’s week-long Fiestas celebration. The first is covered with balloons, as well as little Galapagueño girls who wave to the crowd. Standing at the back of the float in front of a ten-foot tall heart made of red balloons is one of the beauty queens. She is dressed in a silver and white, sequin-covered costume. The next float is commanded by a pale-skinned, disinterested, overweight Nemo, complete with trident and crown. But all the attention is on the young beauty queen hopeful, standing in a giant seashell behind him.

Silver queen_2639_1200px         As each float arrives at the end of the plaza, the girls step down and make their way onto the stage. After the final float has come and gone, there are nine young contestants smiling and waving to the crowd. Each represents a different neighbourhood of Puerto Ayora or region of Isla Santa Cruz: Miss Barrio Pelikan Bay, Miss Barrio Pampas Coloradas, and so on. Some represent local companies. There is even a Miss Charles Darwin Foundation.

The girls take their turns greeting the crowd. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what they’re saying, but my guess is they’re giving their “I want to cure world hunger” speech, which down here might sound more like: “I want to preserve Galapagos as a home for the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas”. Wow. Beautiful, and committed to conservation.

It turns out this isn’t the actual pageant ceremony. So there’s no bathing suit or talent competition, no crowning of a winner, no tiara, flowers or tears. Instead, the winner will be crowned Saturday night. But I and my companions will be leaving Puerto Ayora on a ten-day scientific field trip to another Galapagos island, Isabela, at 5:30 Sunday morning. It’s an early start, so I’ll have to wait until we return to find out the name of the new Queen of Santa Cruz.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos, Long-form non-fiction, nature

The Angel of New York

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The Intersection of Main and Church Streets is the spiritual heart of the western New York village of Palmyra. Five houses of worship huddle around the crossroads like parishioners chatting after Sunday service. There’s the First United Methodist, First Baptist, Zion Episcopal, Western Presbyterian and St. Anne’s Catholic. So unique is the corner of five churches that in 1938 it appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.

Main and Church Streets, and the medley of bells calling to parishioners on a Sunday morning, is a reflection of the spiritual heritage of the village. With a population of only 3,500 people, Palmyra’s church directory lists 15 houses of worship.

One of the 15 is unique, even for this community: the Palmyra Latter-Day Saints Temple. It occupies the crest of a low hill a few miles south of the village, surrounded by immaculately manicured lawns bordered by beds of flowers. The temple is a single-story, bright-grey stone structure. From the centre of the roof of this slab of a building rises a thirty-foot column, on top of which stands the brilliant golden figure of Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism.

It is not by chance that Palmyra is a hotbed of worship and that the Mormons are here. In the early 1800s, America was in the throes of the spiritual upheaval of the Second Great Awakening. Western New York was still a frontier in many ways, with a zeal for religious and social experimentation stoked by the commerce and immigration that the newly built Erie Canal carried to the region. The area became known as the Burned-Over District. It was so scorched by the flames of religious fervour that, in time, there were no converts left to fuel more fires; they had all become Millerites, Shakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, Spiritualists, and so on. American journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, wrote that its inhabitants “surrendered to one religious craze after another.”

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Filed under: atheism, humanism, Long-form non-fiction, religion

About me

I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at, and follow me at


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