Saturday, September 26, 2020

Flying Foxes

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Behavior, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

Australia's flying foxes (Pteropus) spp. are even more amazing than I ever imagined. I knew that they are bats, very large large bats.

They are also long-distant rovers and nomads. However, they don't travel in groups. The distance record holder--"current champion"--is a female who traveled more than12000 km (~7500 miles) in five years and visited 123 other colonies, many of which were unknown to scientists who work with these bats..

In this BBC video (2m 44 s), researcher Justin Welberger reports on their surprising mobility as well as their role in ecology, e.g., the recovery of fire-ravaged forests.

One might call them forest managers.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Another Huzzah for RGB

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Society

Ed Hessler

--- Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.--Ruth Bader Ginsberg

I've wanted to say something about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There is so much to admire about her, her life and career and it has been commented on by many who knew her, some well and some who had encountered her at formal occasions.

An accolade I hadn't thought about is the subject of a column on STAT by Steven Petrow. She was a cancer survivor where she continued her path-breaking ways.

Twenty years ago she was diagnosed with colon cancer kept it at bay. Later she experienced both pancreatic and lung cancer.

It actually wasn’t that long ago," Petrow observes, "that people diagnosed with cancer — people like Ginsburg, me, and (some 16 million Americans with cancer) were called cancer victims." We were expected to hide in shame, and too often faced discrimination in the workplace and, of course, by health insurers who viewed us as either too risky or too expensive to provide coverage.

Ginsberg was a living demonstration, Petrow continues, "to all of us what it means to be a cancer survivor," defined by "the National Cancer institute,(as) a person... from the time of diagnosis until the end of life."

Petrow relates two stories from NPR's legal correspondent Nina Totenberg on the strength of RGB's commitments, regardless.

So with respect to her achievements, Petrow reminds us, "let's not forget to add 'cancer survivor.'"

Justice Ginsberg lies in repose today in the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol. Her friend, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves accompanied by pianist Laura Ward, sang RGB's favorite version of American Anthem written by composer/songwriter Gene Scheer.  

You may listen to Graves and Ward performing this poignant and patriotic song here.


Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Good morning from St. Paul on September 25, the 269th day of the year or to put it another way, 73.50% of the year is now gone.

There will be 11h 59m 16s--first dip below 12 hours--of sunlight today with sunrise at 7:04 am and sunset at 7:05 pm. 

It is National Cooking Day.

Today's quote. "First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are."--Tara Westover, Educated, Random House 

Here is some background. When Westover was an undergraduate (Brigham Young University) she quickly found how unprepared she was for college, especially the many things she'd never heard about and to which she was drawn, these were what she regarded as not "compatible with my idea of what a woman is." Her formal education had been very spotty. So she decided to ask one of her professors. She writes "I knocked on his office door quietly, as I hoped he wouldn't answer, and soon was sitting silently across from him." She wasn't sure of her question and he took the time and had the courtesy to talk with generally. The result was a suggestion: explore and see what happens. The quote is what Ms. Westover thought he said. And ultimately she ended with a Ph.D. (Cambridge University) in history.

Today's poem is by Donald Hall.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Like Water Off a Duck's Back

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

Ed Hessler

How do ducks and geese stay warm and dry in precipitation in its several varieties and the often cold water of ponds, lakes, streams and oceans? 

We all know the "secre": feathers. But most of us don't know the details..

In this KQED science film (4m 51s) the "secret" of the weatherproof feather coat squatic birds wear is revealed. In addition, an accompanying article by Annie Roth, also explains.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Evidence for Life Elsewhere in the Solar System?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astronomy, Solar System, Earth Science, Earth Systems, Nature of Science

Edward Hessler

There is not much to say about the discovery of the molecule phosphine (PH3) in the atmosphere of Venus other than that it was a great surprise. The original observations were made at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. In the study (link at end) authored by Cardiff University professor Jane Greaves and her colleagues, the discovery is more modest, couched in the language of science: "apparent presence of phosphine." On rocky planets it is produced only, as far as is known, by living critters so explaining its presence awaits further research, data and explanation. Phosphine is referred to as a biomarker/bioindicator.

Venus is inhospitable, to put it in the most kind terms. On the surface the temperature is ~860 degrees Fahrenheit (~460 Celsius). However at the upper limit of the Venusian atmosphere it is almost shirtsleeve weather: about  85 Fahrenheit (~29 C). The atmosphere is a choker, consisting mostly of only two gases:~ 96% carbon dioxide and ~3%+ nitrogen.

Phosphine seems an unlikely candidate as an indicator of life as Nell Greenfieldboyce (NPR) explains. Here are a few of the characteristics she describes. It stinks, is very toxic and is highly flammable. It is used as a fumigant and was also employed in chemical warfare during WWI. It also interferes with oxygen metabolism but as we know there is life on Earth that doesn't rely on oxygen, finding it toxic. They produce phosphine in large quantities. However, it  breaks down quickly so how could it possibly accumulate in detectable quantities in the clouds of Venus? Continual replacement  appears to be a possibility, for now a working hypothesis. Greenfieldboyce's report may be read in full.

I just jumped way, way ahead. You could infer that life as been found in the atmosphere of Venus. Far from it. What has been found is phosphine and the question is whether it is produced by living organisms OR by an unexpected/unknown chemistry independent of life.

It seems impossible that an opportunity currently exists to learn a little more almost immediately and without launching a satellite probe although in the end an orbiting satellite with detection equipment will add more clarity to these first observations. It would be very useful to know about the abundance of phosphine over time. In an essay for Forbes, Johnathan O'Callaghan describes this happy circumstance, one though without any guarantee of success..

"BepiColombo, launched in 2018, is on its way to enter orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System. But to achieve that it plans to use two flybys of Venus to slow itself down, one on October 15, 2020, and another on August 10, 2021. What is not known is whether the instrument on this probe is sensitive enough to detect phosphine."

The observations to be made on the first flyby--at 10,000 km (6000+ miles)--are quite literally chiseled in stone and can't be changed. Since the second flyby is about a year away this gives scientists and engineers time for planning as well as to profit from what they learned from the first flyby to revise their observation schedule and possibly measurement of observations for the second flyby at only 550 km (~340 miles). 

As Jorn Helbert of the German Aerospace Center puts it "On the first flyby we have to get very, very lucky. On the second one, we only have to get very lucky. But it’s really at the limit of what we can do.”

The original paper by Greaves et al., is technical! (my emphasis) 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Use of Games in Pandemic Planning.

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Medicine, Health, Models, Society, History of Science  

Ed Hessler

You've heard of wargames, "a type of strategy game, "according to the Wiki entry, which realistically simulates warfare. A military wargame, specifically, is a wargame that is used by some military organizations to train officers in tactical and strategic decision-making, to test new tactics and strategies, or to predict trends in future conflicts."

Wargame scenarios on global pandemics have also been played by academics, government officials, and business leaders to identify the risks and gaps in the ability of governments and organizations to respond. 

Amy Masmen and Jeff Tollefson published a Nature feature about these scenarios and simulatons on their success and failures. They write  "The exercises anticipated several failures that have played out in the management of COVID-19, including leaky travel bans, medical-equipment shortages, massive disorganization, misinformation and a scramble for vaccines. But the scenarios didn’t anticipate some of the problems that have plagued the pandemic response, such as a shortfall of diagnostic tests, and world leaders who reject the advice of public-health specialists.

"Most strikingly, biosecurity researchers didn’t predict that the United States would be among the hardest-hit countries. On the contrary, last year, leaders in the field ranked the United States top in the Global Health Security Index, which graded 195 countries in terms of how well prepared they were to fight outbreaks, on the basis of more than 100 factors. President Donald Trump even held up a copy of the report during a White House briefing on 27 February, declaring: “We’re rated number one.” As he spoke, SARS-CoV-2 was already spreading undetected across the country.

"Now, as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpass 4 million, with more than 150,000 deaths, the country has proved itself to be one of the most dysfunctional. Morhard and other biosecurity specialists are asking what went wrong — why did dozens of simulations, evaluations and white papers fail to predict or defend against the colossal missteps taken in the world’s wealthiest nation? By contrast, some countries that hadn’t ranked nearly so high in evaluations, such as Vietnam, executed swift, cohesive responses."

The authors describe the history of their use , including a box with a timeline of games and some results, commenting on the difficulty of translating what was learned by policy-makers into policy--"actionables" as they are called but that are the opposite, what I would call as "inactionables" in practice.

What Maxmen and Tollman note in particular is a response focusing on the endgame--the development of an effective vaccine--rather than the important middle game: "the complex, systemic deficiencies in the public-health system" and how to strengthen it." Taiwan has held annual outbreak exercises for 17 years; in other words they "practice, practice, practice." At the date the essay was written on 6 August, Taiwan had had only seven deaths from Covid-19.

The pandemic has revealed the lack of coordination at the U. S. federal level, silencing agencies (notably the CDC), revising well prepared guidelines and I think worst (all are horrible) actively "undermined authority" of agencies and experts at nearly every turn. However it is much worse. Trump has conducted a disinformation campaign against our democratic institutions from the beginning of his administration. An attack on one agency has ripple effects. 

In his recent The New Yorker essay, Joshua Yaffa (September 14, 2020) probes and expands on such effects. He writes "Democratic institutions depend on the trust of citizens who share a factual universe." This includes the use of evidence, reasoning and a rational view of the world.

Pandemic games and their players make assumptions about government, particularly administrations, e.g., that during a pandemic the response would make use of existing plans and consult with experts as well as to use evidence-based data to make decisions. It is unlikely that a game would include this "what if" and/or that players would consider it likely, "but," as Maxmen and Tollman point out, "none explored the consequences of a White House sidelining its own public health agency. Perhaps they should have...."

There will be more games, simulations, scenarios but the question lingers. Will policy makers act? To give you an idea of how seriously we should consider this is noted in a scenario called Event 201, played in Geneva Switzerland last year. Ryan Morhard, a biosecurity specialist who devised the game, the name recognizes that "we're seeing up to 200 epidemic events per year...eventually one would cause a pandemic.

The report by Maxmen and Tollefson is four pages and in my view worth the time.



Monday, September 21, 2020

History of the Universe as Read by Radio Astronomers

 Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astronomy

Ed Hessler

A Nature film (4m 07s) reveals how 13 billion years of history can be captured in a single moment. 

 Radio astronomers construct the history of the universe by separating layers of time and space--ancient signals from the dawn of time and light from our nearest neighbors.

I didn't read all 56 comments but most viewers raved about it--video was perfect, positively wonderful, a gorgeous telling, enchanting....

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Some Members of Ecosystems are Becomng Younger and Shorter

Environmental & Science Education
Climate Change
Edward Hessler

A perennial complaint of anglers in Minnesota is that walleye are getting smaller. A report on walleye management from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources notes several reasons noting finally that " The problem apparently stems from fishing pressure.

"Not only are more anglers spending more time at their sport, they also are better educated in their fishing techniques and better outfitted. This intense fishing pressure is like a mower blade, chopping off the seed and blossom and leaving the stubble - in this case the small walleye that proliferate to fill the void left by the larger fish. As the average size of the fish drops, anglers are willing to keep smaller and smaller fish, and the problem of fishing pressure is compounded.
"While our lakes produce as many pounds of fish as ever, anglers have noticed that each is catching fewer fish (because they're sharing the yield with other anglers) and that these fish are smaller."
Some wildlife specialists refer to this in evolutionary terms, i.e., "unnatural selection."
I thought of this when I read National Public Radio reporter Nathan Rott's short essay on two effects of rising temperatures, deforestation, development and climate-induced disasters on forest structure around the world.
The planet's trees are becoming younger and shorter. Forests, like the fish, just can't keep up and can no longer deal with what in the "olden days" we used to refer to as natural disasters. Now it is this double whammy of natural and unnatural disasters that is changing the components of yet other ecosystems.
I'll let you consider some of the obvious effects such as changes/loss in biological diversity, long-term storage of carbon dioxide, the possibility of recovery in the long-terms, shifts in species composition.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Big Meg

Environmentlal & Science Education, STEM, Earth Science, Paleontology, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Nature of Science

An extinct giant shark Otodus megalodon (aka Meg) was indeed big--dorsal fin 1.6 m (~5'), the height of its tail almost 4 m (~13') and its total length 16 m (~52').

How these measurements were made when what has been found of this shark so far is isolataed teeth, is the subject of a column in The Guardian. It is also a story about the excitement of one of the scientists involved, Jack Cooper, who, when he was a boy was "mad about sharks" with sharks and who hoped to study them. Cooper "described the study aas his 'dream project'." I also like that the column describes how scientists work and use data and reason, every bit that they can get their hands on.

It is a short read, too. There is a link to the original paper--hard-nosed science--where you can learn more and I include a link to a figure from the scientific report of silhouette models visualizine body dimensions of "Meg" with a human diver and, of course, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), that denizen of sea and imagination. Click here.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Friday Poem

 Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment, Children, Early Childhood

Ed Hessler

Greetings from St. Paul. It is September 18, the 262nd day of the year. The year-to-date is 6288 hours older and 71.58% of 2020 is gone. The sun rises at 6:55 am and sets at 7:16 pm giving us a welcome 12h 21m 3s of delicious sunlight.

It is National Rice Crispies Treat Day, unofficial, of course, but still worth celebrating this treat year around.

Today's quote is from Charles Darwin. "If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry...."--The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published by John Murray, 1887, London.

The Friday poem is by Tess Gallagher

I thought of the lovely children's book, Ming Lo Moves the Mountain (Arnold Lobel, also illustrator) which tells the tale of Ming Lo and his wife who found to their dismay that the mountain towering over their house not only blocks the sun but rains rocks on the house. They seek the counsel of a a wise man who proposes a solution which they follow that is different but has some similarities to Ms. Gallagher's solution. Both pay attention to nature, one knowingly, the other unknowingly.