TCS Daily

The Catastrophic Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

By Russell Seitz - May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

In 1883, America's foremost hydrologist feared life on the Mississippi was nearing extinction. Judging by what silt had done since the Civil War, he averred the mighty waterway must have shrunk 99.9%, losing over a million miles in the last eon alone. Mark Twain immortalized this milestone in environmental modeling by remarking "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

Twain knew the limits of his audience's patience as well as the river's banks, and steered clear of the didactic. Not the filmmakers of today. They delight in submerging facts in conjecture, and figure the $125,00,000 spent on The Day After Tomorrow is worth every grain of salt the public spirited scriptwriters earn. What would the electorate know of oceanography, let alone biotechnology, without Waterworld, Godzilla, The Hulk and The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Even Twain's Victorian powers of exaggeration would be codswalloped by postmodern environmental concerns. Can California survive until the next Ice Age? Will the rabid growth of the Calaveras jumping frog festival see Hollywood inundated by a towering inferno of seismic proportions?

Clemens wrote of California's growing mutant frog problem before the rise of steroids, nanotechnology and reality television, in that bygone era of iron men and pesticide free organic amphibians, promoters could at most feed their bullfrogs judicious doses of strychnine. Yet Rana Pipens records began to fall before sports medicine arose.

Stiff competition from Kenyan marathoners, Boer rugby backs, and Ghanaian soccer players reminded modern coaches that a continent-sized pool of green jumping talent must lay untapped. Sure enough, out of Africa came the supersized saltator of Equatorial Guinea. Instead of being knee high to a frog, Rana Goliath was knee high to a knee, and made such a splash at its Calaveras debut that Kermit threatened to retire from Sesame Street.

Seattle's software magnates recovered from Americas Cup fever long enough to pass the hat and use the few billion found in it to map the jumping frog genome. In Clemens' day, six ounces was a giant among bullfrogs, but soon sixty was considered a welterweight. Instead of flopping a few horizontal feet, even the runts were able to leap tall Segway's handlebars in a single bound and outdistance Moore's law. But as competition grew, statisticians recalled the glory days of the Tour de France, when fortune favored the team with the most frogs.

Handguns still figure prominently in social events in Calaveras County. Their owners contend that the contest should be open to all comers, including clones, and have extended the starting line from Yosemite to Yreka to accommodate them. The larger contenders, like Cal Tech's formidable mascot, the nanotube-tendoned Rana Godzilla rival that other celebrated jumping reptile, T. Rex. So much for the amateur division, the pros are beta testing the vigorous recombinant Rana Arnold.

As the power training season in Calaveras began, the ground trembled as far as Silicon Valley, where the ubergeeks set to wondering -- could a megaton megaflop be too much of a good thing? Congressman Waxman had already questioned the festivals' evasion of OSHA noise regulations, on the dubious ground of frogs not having ears, and demanded an environmental impact assessment. Computer modelers tackled the frogs' global warming potential, but were appalled to
discover them both cold blooded and addicted to sunbathing in the ozone hole.

Mr. Clemens was invited to attend the 2004 trials by his English friend and colleague Mr. H. G. Wells, who frequents such events in his time machine. However, a misreading delivered the pair to Grumman's Chinese Theatre, considerably to the south of Calaveras. Mr. Clemens, although vexed by the absence of a smoking section, accepted the theater's hospitality, and attended the festival of the films of Herr Roland Emmerich then in progress.

Mr. Clemens heartily applauded Herr Emmerich's explosion of the White House in Independence Day, but wept copiously when informed that Grover Cleveland was not in residence, and what he took for the blasted carcasses of Mugwump lobbyists were just actors playing possum.

He then viewed the trailer for The Day After Tomorrow, but sat impassively as a 100 foot tsunami carried away the Statue of Liberty, and an arctic whirlwind froze Mayor Bloomberg of New York solid in mid-sentence. Clemens said afterward he had no liking for modern French art, had seen bigger waves in the Bay of Fundy, and that whoever wanted Boss Tweeds job deserved to have his private parts frozen off. Indeed, you could see more in the line of climate change by visiting New England and waiting for five minutes.

These remarks did not sit well with the delegation from the Sierra Club that appeared bearing a petition for Clemens and Wells to sign. They declined, accepting instead the golden statuettes held out to them by the Motion Picture Academy, and departed in haste to Hawaii, to witness a ceremony involving a virgin, a volcano, and a fifty foot gorilla.

Before the report of their scandalous indifference to climate change could be exaggerated, the San Francisco Chronicle published some Stanford vulcanologists' account of specimens of Rana Arnold encountered while reconnoitering hot tub sites for the Esalen Institute. The first, seen reentering the atmosphere after a mighty leap, was initially mistaken for a wayward asteroid.

The fallout from its impact crushed their truck, but surviving seismometer readings led the Stanford men to predict that any further amphibian antics would precipitate a quake whose aftershocks alone would turn the Bohemian Grove into a giant squid sanctuary, and merge the casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. When NBC television found out, it sold its sequel to 10.5 to PBS at a handsome profit.

Stephen Hawking soon fielded a coffee table book explaining why frogs cant jump out of black holes. Linux rebranded their penguin with bigger webbed feet, and the NSA, invoking the quantum cryptography potential of cloned tadpole entanglement tried to classify the whole shooting match. McDonalds offered frogs entry level positions on its all-you can eat tempura menu, but the prospect of portion size driving their evolution even further threw the seismic reinsurance business into a tailspin.

Calaveras was smack on the San Andreas Fault, and you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to covet seafront property in Death Valley, or short shares in Purina Frog Chow, and the major film studios of LA. That did it. How, conjectured the Hollywood chapter of PETA, could anything larger than a coyote possibly land without feeling a world of hurt? Thus began the celebrated rolling credit codicil of Calaveras County, which has graced every disaster movie since The Day After Tomorrow:

'The appearance of any scientific facts, however trivial, in this motion picture is purely coincidental. We have no control over what the little men behind the screen say.'

Russell Seitz is a physicist.


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