Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Powers ot Ten

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Zoom-out. Zoom-in.

Exponential powers of ten are used in a classic 1977 documentary film by Charles and Ray Eames to help us appreciate scale: small, big and between.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Lfetime, Lifespace, and Lifestyle

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

In a paper that is now more than 30 years old, Rodger Bybee, then director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, argued for a high school biology course that was based in ecology.  This was in support of what he thought was an emerging ecological society.

Such a science education would incorporate human issues.  He identified three: problems of lifetime (conception, abortion, birth control, death with dignity), lifespace (pollution, crowding, urban decay), and lifestyle (affluence, poverty, consumption, conservation).  This short list still stands up to scrutiny and as rich fodder for discussion and debate.

This post is about one of the problems of lifetime: death with dignity.

Doctor-assisted suicide for the mentally ill is legal in the Netherlands.  Legal but contentious! A 27-year-old Dutch patient, Sanne, who suffered from severe chronic depression, insomnia and borderline personality disorder finally chose a planned death.  Sanne's father stood by and with her throughout, believing that she should be lovingly accompanied to the end of her life.

Letting You Go consists of two moving portraits.  It documents Sanne's pursuit of her planned death and of her father's support.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Voyaging: The Beagle

Biological Evolution
History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I read Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle not too long after graduating high school. Physically, it was a lovely book to look at, to hold. Clothbound, in forest green, a binding sewn with thread, type set in hot metal (I think), with endpapers. It was an Everyman's Edition (Everyman's Library No. 104).

Much, if not most of the material pertinent to evolutionary biology sailed right over my head but I enjoyed the natural history and the richly described journey. I read a lot of it at sea; none of it, though, was on Darwin's route.

Whatever I learned in 10th grade biology about evolution was not much, if anything.  I think it was avoided. This was a transition period, perhaps better described as an intellectual and science education backwater, between texts such as Moon, Mann, Otto and Towle and the revolution in biology textbooks, notably three versions developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study--the famous blue, green and yellow texts.

I'm not at all certain why I bought the Voyage other than an interest in natural history and bioilogy or for that matter where I first heard the name Charles Darwin. I was not in college or heading there soon.  However, I didn't discard the book and carried it with me as I moved. It is now somewhat faded and worn, a result of reading it several times.

There is now another reason to read it again but in a different version. A new edition was released September 25, 2015 (Zenith Press) which I recommend if you are a first-time reader or maybe even an old friend of the book.  It is beautifully illustrated (see below for examples).

This edition is linked to passages in On the Origin of Species, thus connecting the compelling features of the journey to Darwin's findings on how the biological natural world works to produce its stunning diversity through natural selection.This feature I think (or like to) would have helped this naive reader gain some insights into Darwin's world and the grandest of all scientific theories.

In the most recent news from the National Center for Science Education, a link is provided which allows a preview of an excerpt from the book--Chapter XVII, Galapagos Archipelago.

h/t Glenn Branch, NCSE

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Columbia University professor David Shapiro once remarked about poet Kenneth Koch, "'The pursuit of happiness' could be his anthem."

Koch died of leukemia in 2002.  He was an exuberant seventy-seven.

This poem tickles my funny-bone.

In the comment section of Poetry (January 2014) Koch-fan, Ange Mlinko notes that "(This poem is) the sort of miniature you think children might write, but they never really do."

Koch did write these kinds of poems.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


History of Science
Environmental & Science Education

Edward Hessler

A recent issue of ScienceEXPRESS from the National Science Teachers Association called attention to the World Digital Library (WDL), a joint project of the Library of Congress (LC) and UNESCO. At WDL you can search 14416 items about 193 countries between 8000 BCE and 2000 CE, numbers that are sure to change.

Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the LC wrote a short essay about Francis Crick's original sketch of DNA from the WDL. This sketch, a graphical model, led Francis Crick and James Watson to make a physical model of the molecule. And as is said, the rest is history.

What I particularly like about Crick's sketch is that it provides students an idea of how scientists use models to help them represent available data...summarize their thinking. I especially like this particular sketch because it shows just how "sketchy" such representations often are. I think just by seeing this first paper-and-pencil model might help students with their own  attempts, making them feel comfortable with their first models. 

Models at this stage, are not artistic renditions but renditions in transition. Such models are used as tools for thinking, as a basis for further work, for deepening conceptualizations and ultimately developing better data-based models.

The model that appeared in the now classic paper on DNA, A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid was drawn by Odile Crick, an artist as well as the wife of Francis Crick. This. though remains a non-artistic model. It is for publication and is also based on additional evidence, the best the authors had when they submitted the paper for publication.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Critical Science Questions for Presidential Candidates

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

A group of fifty-six leading United States nonpartisan organizations, representing more than 10 million scientists and engineers, have called on U. S. Presidential candidates to address 20 major issues in science, engineering, technology, health and environment. In addition they ask journalists, the media and voters to press the candidates on these issues during the 2016 U. S. Presidential campaign.

The questions for the candidates are found here., which was involved in the development of the questions has a petition that may you may sign, provided you agree with the questions.

Such issues were once included in an approach to K-12 science education known as Science-Technology-Society (STS).  STS is alive and well in college and university curricula and courses of study which a Google search will quickly reveal.

These kinds of issues have not been completely lost in science education. Since school students deal with some of the same issues in the questions suggested for presidential candidates it is not unreasonable to ask candidates to respond and suggest policy responses.

In an early iteration of standards for K-12 science education, the National Science Education Standards included specific standards in personal and social perspectives.

An overview of these standards are outlined in Chapter 6, Science Content Standards in the PDF linked above, starting on p. 103.  There are standards in personal and social perspectives for the three major grade bands: K-4, 5-8 and 9-12.

These grade band content standards are found following the introduction to content standards (Chapter 6): K-4, starting p. 121; 5-8, starting p. 143 and 9-12, starting p. 173.

The Minnesota Academic Standards, Grades K-12 (2009) organizes standards into four strands which include societal issues. The Nature of Science and Engineering includes the substrand, Interactions Among Science, Technology, Mathematics and Society; Physical Science includes the substrand Human Interactions with Physical Systems; Earth and Space Science includes the substrand, Human Interactions with Earth Systems; and Life Science includes the substrand, Human Interactions with Living Systems.

h/t: National Science Teachers Association (NSTA EXPRESS)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by Ken Craft.  You may read it and learn more about him here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Watersheds and Human Health

Water & Watersheds
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Microbial cells overwhelm the number of human cells by about ten to one.  However they have only relatively recently received research attention.  A major project is the Human Microbiome Project.

The Human Gut Microbiome project preceded the Human Microbiome Project.  Its goal is to provide whole genome sequences for 100 species which are representative of the bacterial divisions known to reside in the distal gut (the descending colon) of humans.

Bacteria of the distal gut live in a very social network because some genes and stretches of genetic material are readily exchanged among various species.  This is often referred to as horizontal gene transfer which plays an important role in health.

A short essay in the New Yorker by Wudan Wu describes some extraordinary work by Ilana Brito who has a research interest in the movement of infectious diseases.  She was present at a talk by Stacy Jupiter of the World Conservation Society on a link, one I've not thought much about, between watershed health and human health.  This led her (almost) from lecture to airport to hop a plane to Fiji.

There, Dr. Brito studied the movement of bacteria between human communities as well as the movement of genes between various bacterial communities.  It is easy to miss the scale of Brito's undertaking.  The Human Microbiome Project involves hundreds of researchers as well as some thirty institutions.  Brito worked alone although later, back in the lab, colleagues were involved.

The research design included a survey of four villages and the collection in each villagesof four samples--hand swabs, stool swabs, saliva and soil--over a period of six weeks. She also had to freeze them and keep them frozen during her stay.  You can learn how she managed that in Yan's essay (see below for the link).

Once home, she, with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology genetically sequenced the samples.  Brito is now a member of the Biomedical Engineering Department at Cornell, becoming an assistant professor in July 2016.

In mid-July, Brito and 15 others published a paper in the British journal Nature on their findings.  The paper is protected by a paywall but the abstract may be read here.

Wudan Yan's lively essay notes one major finding, the role of diet on mobile genes.

Monday, August 8, 2016

River of Ice: Witnessing the 'Catastrophic Retreat' of Alaska's Columbia Glacier

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

A harrowing ride down a steep mountainside in the brutal white embrace of an avalanche introduced me some years ago to a miraculous quality of water. It can flow—no, too tame; make that rage—down-slope very much like a wild and tumbling river, even though it has taken shape as a solid. Recently I had another extraordinary experience of solid water's fluidity at the cliff-like terminus of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska's Prince William Sound. This time I was ready with a camera to record an unforgettable moment of what glaciologists call the "catastrophic" retreat of a magnificent river of ice.

A Victim of Climate Change?

In a state with more than 100,000 glaciers, the Columbia is part of a special subset. It is one of Alaska's tidewater glaciers—that is, its terminus reaches the sea; at least for the time being. As recently as 1980, the glacier's snout was parked where it was when first surveyed by British explorers in 1794, and it likely was there long before that. Some 20 km. (12 mi.) down Columbia Fjord from where the glacier ends today, it was nestled against its terminal moraine, a submerged ridge of rock and gravel stretching across the fjord that was bulldozed into place by the glacier.

Since 1980, the Columbia has been retreating at a break-neck pace, for a glacier; nearly faster than any other on earth. Encountering this geologic and hydrologic phenom, I initially assumed that the remarkable rate of the Columbia's retreat was caused by our rapidly changing climate. While climate change is a factor, this much-studied glacier has revealed that more is going on.

Cycles of Retreat and Advance

Alaska's tidewater glaciers follow common patterns of advance and retreat. They originate in massive ice fields that cap Alaska's coastal mountain ranges where heavy amounts of snow accumulate at elevations of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) and higher. Under this weight, the glaciers flow slowly downhill toward and into the sea at rates measured in meters per year. When they reach seawater, they will continue to advance, grinding and carving deep fjords, as long as the accumulation of snow at higher elevations outpaces the melting and calving of icebergs at sea level. Tip the balance of snowfall and calving more evenly, and a tidewater glacier will stabilize, its terminus remaining in place for hundreds of years. But when the scales tip the other way, sometimes "catastrophically" (i.e., at a tremendous rate), a glacier will retreat.

Since 1980 the Columbia has retreated at a rate that peaked in 2001 at 30 meters (98-feet) per day, on average. It has thinned as well, having lost about half of its thickness and volume. By about 2030 it will have retreated another 15 kilometers (9 mi.)—far enough to finally get its nose out of salt water. The Columbia is then expected to reverse course and start slowly advancing again, at a pace that may be influenced by the prevailing climate.

When early glaciologists encountered Alaska's tidewater glaciers, this kind of behavior didn't jibe with scientific explanations that had been developed by studying Europe's alpine glaciers, which cling to high elevations and remain distant strangers to the sea. Especially puzzling was the fact that one tidewater glacier could be advancing while its near neighbor was retreating. New theories have been developed by scientists investigating the Columbia as it has frantically shed an amazing abundance of icebergs of all shapes and sizes into Prince William Sound.

Click to enlarge. (Creative Commons)
The illustration at right helps illuminate a dynamic that accounts for the Columbia's dramatic retreat. Prior to 1980, the glacier's stable position against its terminal moraine kept sea water at bay. Possibly with a nudge from a warming climate, the terminus retreated slightly from the moraine. This diminished support for the terminus and admitted warmer sea water beneath the glacier, which initiated the hasty retreat. The pace accelerated even more as the glacier retreated through deep areas of the fjord where part of the glacier's terminus was afloat. At times, the calving has been so active that the parade of icebergs emerging from Columbia Fjord posed threats to oil tankers crossing Prince William Sound to access the Alaska pipeline in Valdez.

The video below, in addition to documenting my exploration of the Columbia's retreat aboard the research and ecotourism vessel Auklet, includes commentary by captain Dave Janka, providing further background about the forces at work in the cyclic retreat and advance of the region's extraordinary tidewater glaciers.

Columbia Glacier, Alaska, by Adam Voiland. NASA Earth Observatory
Calving Glaciers with Emphasis on Columbia Glacier, Megan Kennedy, College of Woster

Living on Borrowed Resources

Sustainable Energy & Transportation
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Today, August 8 2016 is Earth Overshoot Day.

Earth Overshoot Day, formerly known as Ecological Debt Day, marks the date when humanity's demand for ecological resources exceeds what the planet can replenish year after year.  It comes five days earlier than a year ago.

Borrowed time and borrowed resources.