Thursday, March 21, 2019

Spring: Coming Soon To A Habitat Near You

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Over at MinnPost Greta Kaul tugs at our sensibilities by providing a hopeful illustrated guide to Spring.

Kaul writes about a group of naturalists, the Minnesota Phenology Network, "who record the time of seasonal flora and fauna events across the state of Minnesota. ... MinnPost analyzed the network's data set to find the average dates of a selection of signs of spring in Minnesota. Because the date things happen in a given year can vary wildly based on location, we've limited out analysis to observations in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area and to phenomena that have three or more recorded observations over time."

See Greta Kaul's lovely watercolors and notes here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When Will I Ever Use This?

Environmental & Science Education
Mathematics Education
Edward Hessler

Students sometimes ask something along the lines of "Why do I have to learn this (name subject)? When will I ever use this?"

Former member of the Minnesota House Phyllis Kahn provides a great example of when we will use something we were not keen to learn.  It is especially lovely because it involves maths where the questions above are not uncommon. Shudder! It is not one of those problems with answers (odd numbers) in the back of the book but something more important, an idea, a concept to be taken away and used throughout life no matter what we find ourselves doing.

In a recent editorial column, Peter Huthchinson who served as finance commissioner under Governor Rudy Perpich took a swing at the Star Tribune editorial board who advocated that inflation be a factor in the state's economic forecast ("Why inflation doesn't belong in spending forecasts," March 10 2019. It was eliminated under his leadership and advocacy.*)

In a letter to the Star Tribune (March 17, 2019) Kahn noted the mistake of appointing "folks without knowledge of the basic principles of mathematics to positions where this is a prerequisite." The prerequisite to which she refers is surprisingly simple but a basic. Kahn points out that "an equation is invalid when a crucial part occurs on one side and not the other." (underline added)

I once sat in on a summer program designed to certify teachers to teach physic. It was taught by Hamline University physics professor Andy Rundquist. He used a teaching technique that I thought was brilliant. He would ask students struggling with a problem about the construction of fractions and equations. They were mostly in a hurry to solve something, get an answer, and hope its right. End of story. He wanted them to slow down, forget the rush to an answer and think about the tools they were using.

About fractions which are sometimes more than half the content of a physics formula with several terms on top and bottom, Professor Rundquist asked what's on top? what's on bottom?  Why are they there? What would happen if...?  Does your answer make sense? He did the same with equations. What's on the left side? what's on the right side? What if...? What's missing and why does it make a difference? Does your solution make sense?

As we are fond of saying "this is not rocket science." Phyliss Kahn is promoting mathematics for citizenship, useful whether you are a finance commissioner or a voter.

*In another letter on the same date about the same topic former Governor Arne Carlson responded. His administration immediately followed Perpich-Hutchinson. Carlson noted the effect of that innumeracy: a $2.3 billion deficit, a down graded bond rating and the depletion of the state's reserve funds.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Abel Prize in Mathematics

Environmental & Science Education
Mathematics Education
Edward Hessler

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (Oslo) announced that Professor Karen Kesculla Uhlenbeck,  professor emerita of mathematics at the University of Texas-Austin has been awarded the Abel Prize.

The award is the most prestigious in mathematics and is regarded as the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The award includes $704,000 (U. S.).

The press release from the University of Texas describes her career and her many achievements as well as service to the mathematics community.

How soap bubbles shape themselves have inspired considerable work in physics and mathematics. The CNN report notes their contribution or how Dr. Uhlenbeck used them in her research. One of Uhlenbeck's most famous contributions was her theories of predictive mathematics inspired by soap bubbles. The thin, curved surface area of a soap bubble is an example of a "minimal surface," a surface that forms itself into a shape that takes up the least amount of area. Examining how these surfaces behave can help researchers better understand a wide amount of phenomena across a wide array of scientific studies.

Professor Uhlenbeck is the second faculty member at the University of Texas to receive the award. Emeritus Professor John Tate received the award in 2010.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Doodle by Google

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Have you ever wondered about bumpy tiles on floor and stairwell surfaces,  at street/sidewalk intersections and on railway platforms?

They are known as "tenji blocks" in Japan.

Today's Google Doodle tells us about the inventor, Seiichi Miyaki. This version which tells you about Miyaki and his smart invention has lousy elevator music in my opinion so turn your volume up or down.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Go Fly A Kite

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

For many of us being a kid means having toys to play with, at least a few.  For many children in refugee camps this cannot be taken for granted.

This year NPR produced a segment on 10-year-old Fayes Khamal, the "kite guy," who lives in the Hakimpara Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.  Khamal makes kites from leftover scraps of the shelters people live in--bamboo and plastic sheeting/plastic bags.  He is both an avid kite designer and flyer and also equally happy giving them away for others to fly.  First flights are tested and Khamal "says he can feel through the string if it's a success or not." Non-flyers are discarded and I suspect parts that he can use are recycled.

Khamal is a close observer of kite design and flight behavior. The kite is diamond-shaped and includes an element I've not seen before. Khamal "cuts a plastic grocery bag into stips and teases the ends into frilly tassels." These are attached to "the kite to make the tail and what he calls 'arms'--strips of plastic that dangle from each side of the kite and flap wildly when it's flying in the air."

Khamal notes that "'if (the kite) didn't have arms and a tail the kite won't fly well. It would spin around in the sky. It needs these extra pieces.'"

Jason Beauboin's story is lavishly illustrated  with color photographs.

Fayes Khamal is a magic-maker but the story is unbearably sad, too. There is way, way too much suffering on this planet.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

On Monday while making my way through banked snow, ice and ponds of water, I noticed as wonderful a snowman as I've seen in a long time.

While it lacked the coal eyes, the carrot nose, arms made from thin branches, and a scarf, the sculptors had made three nicely rounded balls of snow for the body and sculpted the eyes and mouth making a smiling snowman. I thought of the two young children with their mother I'd seen the day before near the same place, shovel in hand. Maybe it was them. 

Two days earlier I had read a perfect poem about a young boy and a snowman by the late Richard Wilbur. It makes it own kind of melancholy. I thought about winters past and snowmen I made or helped to make.

The February 9 issue of the 2019 New Yorker has a cartoon with a police car, lights blinking, two officers looking and in the yard they are passing are two snowmen. The caption is "I wish you could have thought up warmer disguises."  I can't find it on the web and with a lapsed subscription I don't have access anymore.

Thursday, March 14, 2019


Image result for pi day

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Well everyday is pie day but mathematicians and other number lovers designated March 14 (3.14) as Pi Day.

Just in time for its celebration is the work of Google employee Emma Haruka Iwao who fulfilled a childhood dream by breaking the current record for its value. The new value is 31,415,926,35,897 digits long. It took four months.

Iwao is a Google cloud advocate and used 25 virtual cloud computers to achieve the new value.

Read all about it, see her and learn more about Pi Day here.

It is more than alright to have a pie for dinner and dessert on Pi Day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Childbirth: Still a Frontier

Image result for cervixEnvironmental & Science Education
Nature of Science
History of Science
Edward Hessler

When we think about faculty in an obstetrics and gynecology department we don't often, if ever, think that one of them might be a mechanical engineer. However, there is one ob/gyn department with such a faculty member. 

NPR's Alison Kodjak recently reported on the research of obstetrician Dr. Joy Sarah Vink and mechanical engineer, Dr. Kristin Myer of Columbia University. Dr. Vink is the co-founder of the Preterm Birth Prevention Center at Columbia University Medical Center. 

What brings this team together is the mechanics and physiology of the cervix and the problem of preventing premature labor. I was surprised to read the following statement by Dr. Vink. "It's mind-boggling that in this day and age, we still don't understand [even] in a normal pregnancy how women go into labor--what triggers labor."  

Kodjack notes that this focus on the cervix is that if "doctors can get the cervix to stay closed in those final crucial weeks of gestation, the baby won't be born too soon, even if the amniotic sac breaks." The article notes that "there are about 1 in 10 premature births in the U. S. each year." Vink is studying what the cervix is made of. One finding is that the cervix has been long thought to be made of collagen but it turns out it has "a lot of muscle."

Image result for pregnancyMyer is studying how the cervix works. As an undergraduate she did research on how tires respond to heat. Then as a graduate student at MIT she worked with a team "who were interested in the mechanics of pregnancy." Myers's work with Vink includes the construction of computational models and "the biomechanics of pregnancy--from how much the uterus can stretch, to how much pressure pregnancy exerts on the cervix, to how much force a baby's kick puts on the whole system." One finding is that the "stiffness (of the cervix) of pregnant tissues compared to non-pregnant tissues changes by three orders of magnitude."

"All those measurements," Kodjak writes, "go into a databank. And when women in Vink's practice get an ultrasound, the technicians spend an extra few minutes measuring the mother's anatomy, as well as the baby's.... Then the team uses their computer models to look at how the various factors--shape, stretch, pressure and tissue strength--interact as a woman moves toward labor and childbirth. Their goal is to be able to examine a pregnant woman early on, and accurately predict whether she will go into labor too soon. It's a first step, Vink hopes, toward better interventions to stop that labor."

Please read Kodjak's full article for details.

A Bee Hive In The Garden

Image result for the hive kew
Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

I think it is fair to say that Kew Gardens is the most well known botanical site in the world.  It was founded in 1840 and houses "the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world."

A large sculpture of a beehive designed by UK artist Wolfgang Buttress was installed in 2017.
The sculpture has garnered many awards and this link shows some images as well as a film of the sculpture.
An article in the Guardian about the installation at Kew notes "With bees pollinating 70 of the most important crops that we eat, including most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, as they collect the nectar and pollen from the crops’ flowers, Buttress says he wanted to highlight the significance of pollinators to our existence. 'Bees are highly sensitive creatures and can be seen as sentinels for the health of the planet,'” he says.

"Kew’s director, Richard Deverell, said the Hive is a 'great way to tell the story about the relationship between plants and insects'. For that reason, he says the botanical gardens are the perfect new home for a structure that allows us: “to explore the urgent issues we face in relation to pollinators, their intimate relationships with plants and their vital role in helping us feed a rapidly growing population”. 

Sitting in a real bee hive nearby are vibration sensors that respond to vibrations from the activity of the bees. These vibrations "are sent in real time to The Hive." These "drive 1000 LED lights which visually represent the activity of the colony." In addition, "A soundscape composed of bee sounds and an ensemble of musicians plays alongside the ever changing lights. Signals from the real beehive trigger noise gates at particular thresholds, activating sounds from a pre-recorded library."

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Image result for letter

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I have a couple of reasons to ask you to visit and browse emeritus professor of computing Donald Knuth's (ka-NOOTH) website (Stanford University). He is highly regarded. His publications provide an idea of his range of scholarship. He is most noted for his work on the mathematical  mathematical analysis of computer algorithms.

I point out something I urge you to open and read once you are at the site. It is under Frequently Asked Questions and is titled "When Did You Stop Using Email?" I don't know why I never paid much attention to this but he recommends dropping the hyphen in e-mail, a rule I will follow, try to follow, in future.

If you poke around at his site I think you will see that he has a great sense of humor. But my real reason for asking you to take a look at this question is his explanation of why he doesn't use email.  Instead, he provides a mailing address and describes how he manages requests. The rule of thumb is "don't expect a prompt reply." He will answer eventually, providing the question is serious.

Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, uses Knuth's response to explore a question, "Is email making professors stupid?"  It makes an argument for "the long-term value of uninterrupted concentration over the short-term convenience of accessibility."  This is required for scholarship.

The essay, well written and easy to read, while long, makes an important observation about the effect of email on the profession of professing, namely that is has changed the game, making professors middle managers and administrators. Newport explores Knuth's solution.

A few years ago I talked with two research scientists regarding their research which led to two similar but slightly different responses.
Image result for email

One of them was a full-time research scientist working for a government agency. He told me that he missed the old days when he had access to a secretary to handle routine tasks. He no longer thought that he was as productive. He spent way too much time answering e-mail requests and handling other administrative tasks.

The second was a professor in a University department. I wanted to know whether he'd welcome, well consider, having a volunteer in his lab. I thought I could make a convincing case that I might be useful but recognized that I'd need some help and advice from time-to time. He took the request seriously which I appreciated but said that with his own research, publishing, attending scientific meetings, administrative duties, supervising Ph.D. and MS candidates, and keeping the lights on (writing grants) that while he was interested and at one time would have talked with me, he no longer had the time. He also mentioned the demand emails make.