Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Last Act: Death of a Young Techologist/Violinist.

Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

The film linked below is based on a touching profile in the New Yorker, titled "The Virtuoso: A tech pioneer's unexpected last act"(January 1, 2018), by James B. Stewart. 

If you don't have time to read the article, here are a few comments I extracted from Stewart's essay about Eric Sun which provides insights about Mr. Sun's short life.
--Sun started playing the violin when he was four but didn't enjoy the lessons.
--At age 13, Sun's father joined the University of Washington (Seattle) as a faculty member. Sun was placed in a high achiever's program and also started taking lessons from a violinist with the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera orchestra.
--Sun pursued computer science and economics (Stanford) after high school and took a job with Facebook in 2008.
--While graduating with honors, his grade-point average was below 3.0. One course he didn't do well in was taught by Professor Jerry Cain, a software engineer who invented Facebook's "like" feature. Sun had many job rejections and finally started working at an economics consulting firm.
--After graduation he stayed on in the Stanford orchestra where he met Karen Law. She had just completed her master's in thermal engineering.  She too was a vilinist. Stanford has an annual Viennese Ball and the waltz choreographers paired the two of them. They fell in love and later married.
--While midway through his master's in mathematical statistics, Sun applied to the summer internship at Facebook and was later hired (One of his papers, a prizewinner was how information spreads on Facebook.)
--Sun did ask, according to Stewart, "Wouldn't it be phenomenal if they (Facebook) turned out to be worth something?"
--Sun had success at Facebook and was asked to move to London to work on a large project. There he made a large purchase, a violin made by Vuillaume.
--Upon his return to California he saw a doctor about his periodic bouts of nausea. Eventually this led to an MRI which showed enough to indicate the need for a biopsy from which Sun learned that he had a brain tumor. This was followed by surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. Sun's brain cancer was an aggressive glioblastoma (VP Joe Biden's son and Senator John McCain were similarly struck.). A characteristic of glioblastoma is its resistance to any kind of treatment.
--Sun pursued several musical dreams following his diagnosis. Six weeks after the last performance of Fiddler on the Roof, he went into hospice care and, less than forty-eight hours later, died on November 23 2017, just fourteen months after his diagnosis. The piece in Fiddler was written by John Williams for Isaac Stern and is a challenging piece.
Here is the link to the video where you can also find a link to Stewart's essay.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Wildfires: California

Climate Change

Edward Hessler

Lauren Tierney has an excellent article with graphics in the Washington Post on California's wildfire season to date. There is also a chart of the largest and most destructive fires.

Stephen J. Pyne is a prolific writer about wildfires in the United States and the world. In 2015 Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America was released.  It is about management, fire policy and public perception of fire, topics he wrote about in a much earlier book.

The Thomas fire began December 4, 2017 and was declared 100% controlled on January 12, 2018

Friday, January 12, 2018

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Field Studies

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

In a beautifully written text on ecology, one that challenges students to think about this area of study while learning about it--hard to believe it was first published some 40 years ago--Paul Colinvaux comments on a distinction between being out in the field studying plants and animals and being an ecologist.  This is his description.

"It is common English usage to talk of larks; of singing like a lark, being happy as a lark, or larking about; an this usage comes from poetic musings about the habits of the North European skylark, Alauda arvensis. In the early summer skylarks trill beautifully, high in the sky over meadows and wheat fields. They start from the ground with a swiftly rising, fluttering flight, singing the while, and climbing up and up until they almost vanish against the blue, then they stop singing and plummet down to earth before repeating the whole performance. You may lie on your back in the sun for hours lulled by this pleasant serenade. Many poets have done so, and for many centuries. Some came to know the birds well, to sense on what days the larks sang, to know where to find larks, to see their nests and eggs and, in short, to be good field naturalists.  And yet, for centuries there was no attempt to look at the lark's beautiful performance with the eye of reason, to realize that here was something odd that required explanation, and to ask the question: 'Why does the skylark behave in this fetching but peculiar manner?' When that question is asked, the field study of the skylark becomes ecology. But reflect on the myriads who have watched skylarks without asking that questions; naturalists all, but ecologists none."

To this end, recommend a blog,Nature Puzzles: Of Forests, Fields, Ponds and Geology. Here, a keen observer and questioner of the natural world, Bob Bystrom, describes an occurrence in the natural world that can lead us to ask the mostly "W" questions of newspaper fame. What? Where? When? How? and Why?

These puzzles can stimulate us to create our own as well as consider how we might investigate the puzzle to provide evidence--a tentative explanation, for the puzzling phenomenon. And they are fun largely because their requirement if noticing and then asking.

I plan to comment on one of them sometime because it reminded me of how two teachers engaged students in exploring small plots on their school grounds to learn about ecology and also to do original investigations.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

See Ya' Later, Gator

Image result for frozen alligators

Biological Evolution
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

I was amazed to learn this.

Alligators became iced-in at Swamp Park an alligator preserve in North Carolina. It is currently at the edge of their northern range.

Alligators can survive for about 24 hours submerged but this period was longer.The first response to cold is to slow down their metabolism (e.g., their breathing rate). However, when the surface of the ice begins to freeze the stick their noses out of the water and let ice form around them.

And after, all is well. All 10 of them survived.

Pictures and videos as welll as the story here from the Washington Post.

What a great paper.

Monday, January 8, 2018


Image result for amoeba

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

While reading The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes by Nicholas P. Money (Oxford University Press, 2014) I learned something about Charles Darwin's voyage to which I'd never paid any attention, his collection of some dust which fell on his ship.

I loved Money's book. If you want to know more about what it means to be alive read this enchanting book. Microbes are us and much else.

While the H. M. S. Beagle was at anchor in the Cape Verde Islands, Charles Darwin collected samples of dust that had settled on the ship--he noticed everything and wondered about what he saw.  He sent these samples to an Charles Darwin collected samples--he noticed everything and wondered about what he saw--and sent them to an expert on "infusoria." 

In A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World: Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H. M. S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R. N. from 1832 to 1836 (Henry Colburn, 1839) wrote about this dust event.

"Generally the atmosphere is hazy; and this is caused by the falling of impalpably fine dust, which was found to have slightly injured the astronomical instruments. The morning before we anchored at Porto Praya, I collected a little packet of this brown-coloured fine dust, which appeared to have been filtered from the wind by the gauze of the vane at the masthead. Mr. Lyell has also given me four packets of dust which fell on a vessel a few hundred miles northward of these islands. Professor Ehrenberg4 finds that this dust consists in great part of infusoria with siliceous shields, and of the siliceous tissue of plants. In five little packets which I sent him, he has ascertained no less than sixty-seven different organic forms! The infusoria, with the exception of two marine species, are all inhabitants of fresh-water. I have found no less than fifteen different accounts of dust having fallen on vessels when far out in the Atlantic. From the direction of the wind whenever it has fallen, and from its having always fallen during those months when the harmattan is known to raise clouds of dust high into the atmosphere, we may feel sure that it all comes from Africa. It is, however, a very singular fact, that, although Professor Ehrenberg knows many species of infusoria peculiar to Africa, he finds none of these in the dust which I sent him. On the other hand, he finds in it two species which hitherto he knows as living only in South America."

In addition, Money mentions air samples collected by Charles Lindberg at the request of U. S. Department of Agriculture F. C. Meier who was interested in the spread of cereal rusts. The results were published in a paper by Fred C. Meier and Charles A. Lindberg in "Collecting Micro-Organisms from the Arctic Atmosphere" published in The Scientific Monthly,  

Colonel Lindberg designed the collecting device known as the "sky hook."  The collecting surfaces were petroleum coated glass slides, twenty-six of which were ultimately exposed to the atmosphere. Mrs. Lindberg flew the ship when her husband was occupied "with manipulation of an instrument new to transatlantic airplanes."

In addition to the findings, the paper contains  handwritten field notes and drawings by Lindberg and a description of the construction of the "sky hook."  This is a fascinating paper.

I loved and strongly recommend Money's book.  Our attention is mostly to macrobiota--the big things many of which are soft and fuzzy or are beautifully dressed plants. But microbiota as charismatics miss our gaze and attention.They do the biosphere's heavy lifting. If you want to know more about what it really means to be alive read this enchanting book.  You are likely to wonder what we mean by the idea of "self."  And the tree of life appears to be more like a very tangled network.      

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that each chapter begins with an epigraph from John Milton's Paradise Lost.  Did you know that Charles Darwin included this in his library on H. M. S. Beagle?  I didn't.  Dr. Money has chosen these carefully. Each is tightly bound to the content of the chapter, indeed informs it in the way of a poet.  Money notes that both Milton and Darwin stood in awe of "the wonder of life."

Reading poetry eluded Darwin following his return to England. Late in life Darwin wrote about poetry and music and a regret.  The following passage from a letter to a friend is found in Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter & in a Selected Series of his Published Letters edited by his son, Francis.

"Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure…But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry;…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Image result for national parks

National Parks
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Vintage photographs of national parks and public lands from the United States Library of Congress.

Sarah Gilbert of the Guardian writes that in the late 1800s the beauty of American public lands were first shown by means of "a photographic technique called photochrom...which allowed color to be introduced to black and white negatives. The process was used extensively by William Henry Jackson, whose early pictures of Yellowstone helped convince Congress to make it the first national park in 1875."

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

MacArthur Foundation Awards

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Early Childhood

100&Change was a competition for a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to fund a single proposal that "promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time." Proposals from any field or problem area were welcome

So who won the competition?  

The announcement was made December 20, 2017. There were four awards.

--Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee for educating children displaced by conflict and persecution ($100 million),

 --Catholic Relief Services for changing how society cares for children in orphanages ($15 million),

--Harvest Plus for eliminating hunger in Africa by fortifying crops ($15 million), and

--Rice 360^0 Institute for Global Health (Rice University) for improving newborn survival in Africa ($15 million). 

You may learn more about them here and view short films on each project. In addition you will find short descriptions of the problem, key facts, changes made to the final proposal, the solution and the project teams. The MacArthur Foundation is committed to finding additional funding for the smaller grants.

"Germs" on the ISS.

Image result for international space station

Edward Hessler

A major advance in biology--genome sequencing--has allowed scientists to census the microbial composition of many natural communities. The following sentence, in the typical language of science, from the abstract of a recent report in the journal PeerJ leads readers into a study of a new ecosystem. "Here, we report results of the characterization of the microbial ecology of a singular built environment, the International Space Station (ISS)."

Fifteen surfaces on the ISS were sampled--telephones, keyboards, controllers, footholds, air vents and a tab on a privacy panel, according to specific instructions. The sampling project was part of Project MERCURRI--microbes, spacecraft and some NFL and NBA cheerleaders. The last group is pursuing careers in STEM-related fields.  A history of the project may be found here. (Football fields have also been sampled.)

More than 12,000 distinct microbial species were found. They were more similar to surfaces found in people's homes than to people's bodies. The research team hypothesized a relatively low diversity of species but it was found that the ISS is species rich. The reason for the hypothesis was that the ISS houses only 6 crew members and only 220 individuals had been on board since 2000.

The research team provides some context for the findings by comparing them to research from Wildlife of Our Homes, a citizen science project. In this project 9 surfaces throughout 40 homes were sampled. The ISS samples were quite different. This was not surprising given that "unlike the ISS, homes on Earth are exposed to a variety of sources of microbes, including the outdoor air, tracked-in soil, plants, pets, and human inhabitants."

Because spacecraft and cargo are rigorously decontaminated before launch, it was hypothesized that the microbial communities found on the ISS "might be more similar to human-associated microbial communities" It was found that ISS samples were "significantly different from homes on Earth and the Human Microbiome Project (but that) the microbial community composition on the ISS was more similar to home surfaces than to the human microbiome samples."

What is the importance of this study? As you know, NASA has targeted the 2030s for a manned spaceflight to Mars and eventually the establishment of a colony of people living and working there.
According to the authors, "We know know that the microbial communities found in our terrestrial built environments play an important role in human health. ... Learning more about the microbial inhabitants of the “buildings” in which we travel through space will take on increasing importance, as plans for human exploration continue, with the possibility of colonization of other planets and moons.  This study is one small step in that direction."

Hand Washing

Image result for hand washing

Edward Hessler

If I studied  or did any science in grade school, memory of it escapes me. I think we read about science once in a while, e.g., the Weekly Reader but not an issue devoted to science.

However, I still remember the great fourth grade experiment. A classmate (aka RG), perhaps after returning from the playground, was told to wash his hands before he got back to classroom work. One thing led to another and he made a strong claim from which he would not retreat: there was no difference between washing one's hands in warm water or cold water. Soap was not mentioned.

The reaction was immediate. Everyone disagreed and RG was isolated and only dug his heels in deeper. Our teacher decided to use this opportunity as a test of an idea and a second pair of hands was soiled. RG used cold water; a classmate used warm water. Warm won the day and class moved on. There was no discussion. I don't know whether RG's mind was changed.

No controls. No replicates. No experimental procedures were discussed or what was meant by "dirty." (His hands were mildly coated in playground dirt.) No discussion on the nature of the evidence, i.e., what would be measured and how.

I thought of this when I read an essay by Michelle Sconce Massaquoi, a doctoral candidate in microbiology at the University of Oregon. She started by noting that in fourth grade she did a science fair project in which she "tested different soaps to see which ones were the most effective at keeping my hands clean."  Now that she knows a lot more about microbiology she realizes just how amateur her investigation was, e.g., no control groups and she did not have a focused question.

Massaquoi's essay was written to tell us that we are washing our hands wrong. We tend to use two main strategies. One strategy is to "decrease the amount of bacteria, viruses and other types of microorganisms." To do this we lather our hands with soap and rinse them with water. The second strategy is to kill the bacteria which is where antibacterial products, including some soaps, enter the picture.

Antibacterials are not without genuine problems. Resistant strains of bacteria often remain rendering antibacterials ineffective over time. One of the antibacterials, triclosan, was banned by the Food and Drug Administration for used "in soaps, toothpastes and deodorant." It was found to alter the way hormones function.

Massaquoi recommends these best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

--wet hands with clean water
--apply soap and lather/scrub every nook and cranny of your hands for 20 - 30 seconds (or singing Happy Birthday twice)
--rinse well with clean running water
--dry hands with a clean paper towel or air-dry

Massaquoi notes that more than 90 percent of "2800 survey respondents did not wash their hands after coughing or sneezing."  And in a study of a college town, the average hand-washing time for 3749 people was ~6 seconds.

Full confession. I violate the scrub/wash time almost every time I wash my hands. I'm not known either for getting up from my desk to wash my hands after a sneeze but I do cough into my upper arm.

You can read her essay which is aimed at holiday travelers here and learn more about microbes, not all of which are germs.

The CDC has a page on handwashing which focuses on the steps: Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry (W, L, S, R, D). There you will find more about the science behind the recommendations and an instructional video. The CDC emphasizes the importance of handwashing by describing the process as a "Do-It-Yourself Vaccine." I'd never thought about it this way.

Now what about warm water v. cool/cold water? (RG just might have been right!). Here is a report from the New York Times. Cool water does save some energy! Warm water, as you know from experience, is more effective at removing oils which could harbor bacteria.

The science of this simple act is complicated!

Happy hand washing to all and don't forget to sing along!