Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Emperor Chicks and a Petrel or Prey and Predator

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

On their walk to the sea, emperor penquin chicks are attacked by a formidable enemy, a petrel. They know how to deal with it although the defense is problematic. And then....

This is an amazing glimpse into the natural world about which there is to much yet to learn. The film is from BBC Earth.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Chalk Race

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Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

I've written about the preference that many physicists and mathematicians have for an important tool in their somewhat limited armamentarium: chalk.

Here is a lovely video about a chalk that is regarded as the best in the world: Hagoromo. It is made in Japan. You will hear mathematicians referring to it as the "Rolls Royce of chalk" and as "made from the tears of angels."  You will learn that it has become scarce and some mathematicians decided to hoard it and sell it at cost, I think (!), to colleagues.

Watching the video reminded me of writers who prefer pen and a paper pad or a notebook for their first drafts. It is about the feel of instrument/tool on the medium.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Potential Model Organism

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Environmental & Science Education
Biological Evolution
Nature of Science
History of Science
Edward Hessler

In its useful entry on the use of model organisms in science, Wikipedia begins with a definition: model organism is a non-human species that is extensively studied to understand particular biological phenomena, with the expectation that discoveries made in the model organism will provide insight into the workings of other organisms.  

The reason for using model organisms is based in evolutionary history. All organisms "share some degree of relatedness and genetic similarity."

Or to put it as Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote an essay first published in American Biology Teacher (1973) with this title: Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

There is a new potential model organism on the block--the world's smallest primate. The critter is the mouse lemur (Madagascar).  A first step in the process is developing a genetic library, using non-invasive techniques. Mouse leumurs have some obvious advantages. They are more closely related to us than another famous model animal, the mouse and like the mouse is small, reproduces rapidly and produces relatively large litters.

This short Nature video is an introduction to mouse lemurs and to the research. The critters are terminally cute. 

Nature published an essay about the mouse lemur as a potential research organism by Leslie Roberts. Here are a few reasons on why you should consider reading it.

Image result for mouse lemur--You will learn how Stanford's Mark Krasnow found this critter. His daughter and friends, high school students,  had been pestering him to work in his Stanford lab.  He didn't relent easily but when he gave in (2009), Krasnow gave three of them an assignment, a real job: find "a new genetic model organism that was a closer mirror of human biology than a mouse."  Among the animals they looked at, the mouse lemur stood out in terms of characteristics such as "time to sexual maturity, litter size and conservation status."  In 2011, a "first-ever mouse lemur conference was held." Participants were enthusiastic but there was a research divide between field biologist and laboratory biologists regarding genetic modification. As Roberts notes, "a scientific strategy emerged that aimed to use powerful genetic tools in a minimally invasive way."

--It is never the case that if you've seen on organism in nature you've seen them all. The article has a gallery of "mouse lemur mugshots" that "reflect the animals' unique personalities." Think the large V, variation. This is also reflected in "the names the researchers have given them." Feisty. Murderface. Blinky. Stoic.

--A new animal model is not a shoo-in. There have to be evidence-based reasons for a researcher to make the switch for it represents a significant change in ongoing research programs. According to Roberts, one researcher "doesn't see researchers switching from macaques or baboons, the most widely used primate models, or marmosets, which are coming up fast, because so much is already known about them."

--Krasnow has an interest in school biology education (citizen science) in Madagasgar. He would like "students to explore what he calls the 'living laboratory' right outside." Students can learn how to screen "mouse lemurs in their own backyards and then sequence their genomes, greatly expanding the databases."

--Research techniques and design, e.g., how to measure a mouse lemur's strength (there is a wonderful picture showing a strength test), analysis of their gait, and how mouse lemurs are collected and released.

--Nature of science or how scientists go about their day-to-day work.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

# 480: Otis the Brown Bear

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Environmental & Science Education
National Parks

# 480 (Otis) is the oldest bear using the Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

We meet him and learn about how he as adapted to growing old--he is a patient bear--in this short feature video from Katmai.

Regular watchers of BearCam were concerned this spring, as usual, about him when he failed to show up  but then he is known for lingering in bed. There was a collective sigh of relief when he was reported.

It was great to know that he is back for another season of fishing.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Rene Favaloro Honored With a Google Doodle

Image result for Rene FavaloroEnvironmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Today's Google Doodle celebrates the achievements of Argentinian cardiac surgeon Rene Favaloro who would have been 96 today.

Like me you may wonder who he is and why his birthday is the subject of a Google Doodle.

Forbes has an article about the Doodle as well as Favaloro. Forbes contributor Bruce Lee tells us why when he says, "When you think of Favaloro, think of CABGs, which is pronounced cabbages but has little to do with the vegetable. CABG is short for coronary artery bypass graft. While you may think that all your heart needs is some love, what it really needs is oxygen to function and survive. 

Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that provide blood and thus oxygen to your heart." The surgery is the most common heart surgery in the world.

There are two videos linked in Lee's essay. The first is to a short (~5 minutes) Cleveland Clinic video about CABGs, "the surgery," Lee reminds us, "and not the vegetable." The second video is from The Independent (< 1 minute).  I appreciated Lee's warning and you might, too. The video has "a tremendous amount of bass in the background music."

As usual please read Lee's article. He ended his essay by writing, " Thus, if you have a heart, you may want to say Happy Birthday to the late Dr. Favaloro."

Happy Birthday!

Friday Poem

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Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem includes a bio of its author, Steve Kowit.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Minnesota River Primer

Image result for minnesota river
Environmental & Science Education
Water & Watersheds
Earth Science
Edward Hessler

What do you know about Minnesota's namesake river, the Minnesota River? If you know all about it stop here, no need to read further.

However, if you don't know much about the river and/or are uneasy about what you think you know, I strongly recommend the relatively short primer, A Run-Down River Runs Through It Star Tribune (May 5 2019), by Ron Way.

It includes Minnesota's settlement history, glacial history, drainage of the prairie potholes, Minnesota's connection to the Gulf of Mexico, various attempts to make the river clean, the roar and fury when the last glacial ice melted, and along the way shark's teeth and a note that this river is also home to some of the oldest pre-Cambrian gneiss anywhere. In the end you realized that it is quite a river.

Some quotes:

"The Minnesota was central in the region's settlement history, a highway to the interior of of a territory that as a state would take the river's name. River sediments together with rich glacial till produced remarkable soil that still yields a cornucopia of sustenance."

"By any reasoned reckoning, the Minnesota River is deserving of superstar status. For several thousand years it rumbled and roiled, its miles-wide valley filled to the brim with melt-water from glacial Lake Agassiz, a monster that dwarfed today's five Great Lakes combined."

"Today, tens of thousands of miles of ditches and drain tiles ... carry excess fertilizer into the Minnesota River, where chemical-induced algae devour oxygen. The stew remains active down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, where nutrients from Midwest farms have created an ever-expanding, oxygen-free dead zone."

"The Minnesota basin is a lamentable mess, with intractable political forces preventing common-sense solutions. At the same time, there are many places around New Ulm and Granite Falls where canoeists can experience amazing scenery of heavily-wooded banks and steep cliffs." 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Fifth Extinction

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Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

Last year The Atlantic published The Nastiest Feud in Science, a title sure to grab one's attention. It is a long and thorough essay about Princeton paleontologist and geologist Gerta Keller who has long argued that the famous fifth extinction--the Chicxulub impact, 65 mya (dinosaurs)--was not caused solely by an asteroid impact but was a result of the environmental impacts of massive volcanic flows in India.  The asteroid impact was a secondary aspect and may have been an exacerbating factor in the extinction event.

These flows are known as the Deccan Traps.  The current area is considerably smaller than the original which covered about half of the size of modern India, and now covers about 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles). It is also very thick--2000 meters (6500 feet).

The Atlantic has a short animated summary of this disputed territory in paleontology.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

New Moves: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Ten years ago--it doesn't seem that long--a new dancer appeared on the scene, Snowball the cockatoo, bobbing and weaving to the Back Street Boys.

A just published paper about Snowball's dancing titled "Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human" reports on his repertoire (to date) and the biology of dancing. From the summary:

Previous research has shown that parrots can bob their heads or lift their feet in synchrony with a musical beat, but humans move to music using a wide variety of movements and body parts. Is this also true of parrots? .... Here we report that a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora) responds to music with remarkably diverse spontaneous movements employing a variety of body parts, and suggest why parrots share this response with humans. (Bibliography references have been removed.)

For the current study, Snowball was filmed moving to two pop songs, "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." A table of the 14 dance movements with descriptions and two films, one an excerpt of dance moves and the other, a compilation of all 14 of the dance moves are included in the paper.

The authors, one of whom is the owner of Snowball and occasional dance partner, conclude:

Snowball does not dance for food or in order to mate; instead, his dancing appears to be a social behavior used to interact with human caregivers (his surrogate flock).
Building on previously published research, we suggest that spontaneous and diverse movement to music arises when five traits converge: A) complex vocal learning, B) the capacity for nonverbal movement imitation, C) a tendency to form long-term social bonds, D) the ability to learn complex sequences of actions, and E) attentiveness to communicative movements. Parrots are unusual in sharing all of these traits with humans, which could explain why (to date) only humans and parrots show spontaneous and diverse dancing to music. (Bibliography references have been removed.)

I was pleased that one of pop songs to which Snowball moves was by Queen. Brian May, the lead guitarist for Queen ("Another One Bites the Dust") has a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Budding Philosophers

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Environmental & Science Education
Early Childhood
Edward Hessler

A film from Aeon's collection on how we, in particular children around age seven, think about several of life's big questions.

The film was made in 2009 and consists of children answering several of the big questions. Their comments are accompanied with animations. The video includes, of course, answers about the how this all began--what one calls the "Bing Bang" and human origins--with another child describing a theory called the "exploding monkey theory."