Sunday, May 22, 2022

The W-Boson Findings

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Scientists, particularly those with a theoretical orientation, spend considerable time and effort searching for flaws in theories although practicing scientists do the same with their hypotheses as they seek evidence that support and don't support them. This includes using multiple lines of evidence.

Recently, dramatic headlines have appeared indicating that theoretical physicists are concerned about a new measurement, an anomaly, that challenges a well-established theory, known as the Standard Model, that  explains the behavior of all the universe's particles. Words and phrases such as "worried," "shocking," "re-writing textbooks," "everything we know about the universe is wrong," etc., are used to bait the reader to read on. For two examples from the popular science press see here and here.

Theoreticians and experimentalists not so much. Their concern is with the evidence. How good...trustworthy is it and does it meet the standard of firm evidence or is the measurement flawed?

BackReaction's Sabine Hossenfelder asks "How seriously should you take this?" In a new talk she explains. It is worth taking a look for she includes some history, related ideas, comments on the data as well as what one of the large tools of particle physics research can and cannot do and also her reason for leaving particle physics research.

The quote above are the words of the healthy skepticism scientists bring to their work, including their own. Maybe. Maybe not. It's all about the evidence. Hossenfelder's closing sentence is folksy. "It’s possible of course that one of those is the real thing, but to borrow a German idiom, don’t eat the headlines as hot as they’re cooked."

The BackReaction site includes a transcript and a link to the video on YouTube which doesn't. The latter likely includes some graphic information the transcript doesn't, e.g., graphs, etc.

If you would like to know about or more about the Standard Model--the most successful scientific theory ever-- this 16m 24s video from Quanta  received many good comments on its clarity.  This stuff is not easy peasey.

Saturday, May 21, 2022


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Nature, Agriculture

Ed Hessler

Where, oh where, is pretty little Suzie?/ Where, oh where, is pretty little Suzie?/ Where, oh where, is pretty little Suzie?/  Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch." -- Traditional American Folk Song

Have you ever eaten an eastern North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba)  or had pawpaw in any form? I haven't although I've heard of them. This BBC Travel feature by Jonathan Shipley brought me up-to-date on the fruit and its many delights, including beauty. After reading it, I think it has to be one of America's better food secrets. 

Pawpaws have a wide geographic distribution in the United States--"found in 26 states such as Texas, Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Michigan and all the way up to Ontario, Canada." There may be some reasons for our ignorance of this fruit, including that they are not grown on a large scale, they require wet, low growing conditions and have a short after-harvest "shelf life" of only a few days.

Shipley's reporting includes a link to pawpaw enthusiast, Michael Judd who has written a book on growing and caring for them, "from seed to table." In late summer, Judd will be "hosting his seventh annual pawpaw festival...on his farm in Frederick, Maryland, which includes tastings, jam making, pawpaw ice cream, music lectures and more." The Judd site has a variety of fascinating videos and information about the event - really worth the visit.

These festivals, it turns out, are not unusual and Shipley reports that one in Ohio had almost "'10,000 visitors last year' according to Christ Chmiel, "co-owner of a farm which grows pawpaws, ships pawpaw products and helps organize the Albany annual festival." The festival includes, said Chmiel, '"a pawpaw cook-off, best pawpaw competition and (of course) a pawpaw eating competition. The pawpaw beer has been a huge success for the festival." A TEDx Talk given by Chmiel in 2018 is linked.

Shipley describes fossil evidence, evidence for the role of  Indians in its dispersal based on the research Choctaw Nation professor Dr. Devon Mihesuah (linked), some history (de Soto, Washington, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark), as well as hypotheses on the role of magafauna (e.g., mammoths, giant beavers, sloths) in their northward dispersal.

Chefs and brewers are busy raising awareness and there are pawpaw research programs at Iowa State University and Kentucky State University

"It's an enthusiastic collection," reports Shipley, "of hard - working individuals eager to put the pawpaw on a bigger stage. George Washington would be pleased." 

Fascinating report with some superb photographs.   

h/t Shipley included the verses in the epigraph, a song I did know with no idea of what a pawpaw patch was.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Potential Energy*

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability

Ed Hessler 

The other side of a renewable energy future is renewable storage to smooth out the bumps and ruts when the wind dies down or when it is cloudy/rainy (for days) and when international supplies to needed raw materials are interrupted or when the social and environmental costs of raw materials for lithium (Li-ion) batteries (cobalt) are taken into account. 

Energy storage is a looming hurdle. Acording to Matthew Hutson who notes in an article on energy storage technologies for The New Yorker (April 25 & May 2, 2022) where he is a contributing writer, that "by one estimate, we'll require at least a hundred times more storage by 2040 if we want to shift largely to renewables and avoid climate catastrophe."

Hutson refers to two of those interrupts (solar and wind) as the "'dark doldrums'" noted the largest energy storage capacity in the world (90%) is found in reservoirs -  known as pumped-storage hydropower. A more diversified portfolio is needed and he discusses the start-ups, driven by non-risk averse entrepreneurs who are on the hunt "for new approaches to energy storage."

I don't recall much press attention when then "President Donald Trump signed into law the Energy Act of 2020, which included the bipartisan (imagine) Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act, authorizing a billion dollars to be spent over five years on the 'research, development, and demonstration' of new energy storage technology." Hutson also mentions policies that have followed, e.g.,  states setting energy storage-capacity targets and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) order "which integrates stored energy into the wholesale electricity market."

And then Hutson reminds us of a "vast distance separates an engineer's whiteboard from reality. Many renewable-storage technologies receiving funding will turn out to be too impractical, expensive, or inefficient for widespread adoption." Storing energy is expensive no matter how you come at it. 

It has been pointed out by many that fossil fuels meet requirements we like. They are "predictable, convenient, and dense packing  lots of power into small space" and readily scale-up.This is the challenge for those seeking energy storage capacity solutions.

Politics will no doubt play a role and "may become a partisan issue if it begins clearly helping renewable energy to threaten fossil fuels."  There will be those who benefit and those who lose, "even if as a society---and a planet---we come out ahead." In closing, Hutson observes that "Nature can help us generate power. Maybe it can help us hold on to it, too."

The article is on line here. I hope you will read it. I found it thorough, often surprising and that it is "possible to envision a future in which some of the technology works out, and the globe is reshaped by a combination of renewable energy and renewable storage." Hutson provides a thumb-nail sketch of what such a world might look like. It is an ideal of course.

*h/t The title which I admired is from print edition of The New Yorker article (April 25 & May 2, 2022) by Matthew Hutson. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Bake The Moon

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth & Space Science, Solar System, Astronomy

Ed Hessler

"Just when I thought I couldn’t love banana bread more, " writes Flora Graham, Senior Editor, Nature Briefing, "the European Space Agency (ESA) publishes a recipe that contains the main chemical elements found on the Moon."

This link includes the details, including how to participate. A contest kicked-off 17 May, 2022,  World Baking Day.



Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Egg Laying: Evolutionary Biology and Behavior

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Nature, Wildlife, Biological Evolution, behavior

Ed Hessler

One (of many) reasons I find to read Jim Williams's Minneapolis Star Tribune columns on birds is because they often include comments on biological evolution and behavior.

A recent example is a column about tree swallows in which reported on nesting and reproductive behavior of a pair, which nested in an egg box Williams maintains, followed by comments on the timing and sequence of egg laying.

First he notes that "monogamy -- one paired mate -- is a fact of life for most bird species." Still, birds sometimes do "mate outside the pair in a nesting season." He noted one likely attempt when a male "flew close to the (nest) box" and was immediately "attacked by the resident male" in "brief but serious combat."

This behavior is all about genes and getting them into the next generation with each male vying for to do this and each female making a choice on the best mate based on features such as defense of territory. As Williams wrote about the incident he witnessed, the resident male "wanted maximum return on investment. The intruder was looking for return with minimum investment."

Songbirds, in general, are early morning egg layers, and "in the next hour "the next egg in sequence is fertilized." Here are some possible reasons for this sequence based on research hypotheses: "eggs are most vulnerable to harm just before they are to be laid" and night provides "the critical hours for completion of the egg," which is the time "the bird is less likely to be active." Tree swallows "feed on the wing" which frees the female from carrying a fully developed egg. Robins, on the other hand, lay eggs midmorning and because they are ground feeders finding sufficient food, rich in protein, eggs are not likely to suffer damage until laid by "holding an egg," while the egg is completing final development.

By the way, the male resident tree swallow, "given the chance...could well have been" a rival to another pair. The ideas discussed fall under the evolutionary concept of fitness --" reproductive success " and "reflects how well an organism is adapted to its environment." (see here)

Mr. Williams wrote the column titled "Birds pair off and get down to business" for the April 20, 2022 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The week following (April 27, 2022) another column was on genetics and evolutionary biology. Birds have an inactive gene have for teeth which is now used to make feathers. But some times a mutation will start the tooth forming process although the birds do not survive. Then he continues with a discussion of the formation of the bill, "the avian equivalent of the Swiss Army knife." Another terrific article, one that includes indirect observations on the need for suitable habitat. "Where can you find birds? Where their tools are best suited for use." And when you begin to spend some time observing birds in their habitats you will find that they further partition the habitat. Warblers provide an example, especially on their journey north. Some choose bushes near the ground, while others choose their tops; others distribute themselves in trees.

Both articles and the entire previous 229 he has written to date are found hereStar Tribune articles are behind a subscription paywall as you would expect.  If you are interested in birds, in science, in nature and how the feathery side of the world works, Mr. Williams is a reliable, knowledgeable and friendly guide.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Nature's Hotheads

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Biodiversity, Biological Evolutio, History of Sciencen

Ed Hessler

By the time I post this,  the leaves of the small populations of  resident Minnesota eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) will have passed their peak. I hope you saw them in the snow.

Twin Cities Dr. Craig Bowron is an internist who wrote an essay for MinnPost that tells us all about these fascinating but stinky plants. Minnesota is at the northern and western range of the eastern skunk cabbage which "Grows only in moist swampy lowlands, the kind of places where the coldest and densest air of the night settles out and intensifies its chill."

The plant looks out of place and remind me of exotic places like the tropics of imagination. They were plants I looked for when I was a kid on rambles in the wetlands "up the hill".  This colorful and strange appearing plant was  reminder of how close spring was.

Bowron's essay describes their ecology, life cycle and reminds us that this plant's spring behavior is about genes. The only goal is to get pollinated and they co-opt some insects to do the cross-pollination work. While doing this work there is a pay-off for some of the insects, too. Bowron includes a link to a readable essay in the magazine Natural History by Robert Knutson who was the first to study their heating and respiration patterns. 

Knutson describes the skunk cabbage's ecology (including the surface anatomy of their stem and root), evolutionary relationships, insect and spider visitors, how he did his research/findings, the likely earliest description, and how its seeds germinate and grow.

Another splendid essay by Craig Holdredge of The Nature Institute published in Context #4 (Fall, 2000) includes additional information and useful drawings of and about the root system, fruit heads, and skunk cabbage development. To be able to read Knutson's description of the digging up of a skunk cabbage root system and to see the drawing by Holdredge is one of the pleasures of reading the essays.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Inner Rings of A Familiar Galaxy

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astrophysics, History of Science 

I'd never seen an image of a spiral galaxy that looked like this and was immediately captured by its beauty. I could not even come close to explaining the shape. The only feature I recognized was the familiar central bar. But the second ring? Zounds.

All is explained and I learned that some spiral galaxies have a third ring even further out. 

An old expression came to mind, one from the 60s: Far out!


Saturday, May 14, 2022

A Grin From Far, Far Away

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astrophysics, Universe, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Whaddaya' know, gravity smiles from the aptly named Cheshire Cat galaxy group, in the constellation Ursa Major.

It is due to gravitational lensing, predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity and when scientists and engineers devised the technology to observe it another confirming piece of evidence. The link lists and discusses all the tests of this powerful theory. The number might surprise you and also is a demonstration of the relentlessness of scientists to stress test theories.

Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) features and discusses "Gravity's Grin."

Friday, May 13, 2022

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler 

Today's poem is by Laurie-Anne Bosselaar.