Saturday, June 24, 2017

Winston Churchill on Alien Life

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Astrophysicist Mario Livio notes that he may be the first scientist to read Winston Churchill's unpublished essay, Are We Alone in the Universe?  Written in 1939, Timothy Riley, director of the US National Churchill Museum (Fulton, Missouri), rediscovered it in in 2016 and handed it to Livio to read on a recent visit.
Churchill scientific literacy is very impressive.  I include a few highlights from a recent essay by Livio on his observations and speculations. The role of evidence, uncertainty and Churchill's reasoning is a joy to read.
--"All living things of the type we know require water." This didn't exclude the possibility of other liquids but Churchill noted that"nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption." And Livio draws our attention to the prominent role of liquid water in the search for extraterrestrial life.
--Churchill defined what is known as the Goldilocks region or habitable zone for life--not too cold nor too warm. Churchill wrote that life is possible in a narrow zone, one "between a few degrees of frost and  the boiling point of water."  The temperature of the earth was fixed by the distance from the sun. The Earth was of the right size to hold onto its atmosphere. These conditions led Churchill to conclude that Venus and Mars represent the limits due to these constraints.
--James Jeans's hypothesis on planetary formation held sway during the time Churchill was writing this essay. According to Jeans, planets were formed when a star passing close enough to another star pulled gas from it. This hypothesis loss support many years ago. Jeans's hypotheis led Churchill to note that "our sun may be indeed exceptional, possibly unique."  What he reasoned next is remarkable. "But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they can be formed why not planetary systems? I am not conceited enough to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets."
--Using the evidence at hand Churchill concluded that a large number of extrasolar planets "will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort."  Some of those planets were likely to be "at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature."

--Churchill thought that the possibility of Solar System exploration was likely. Interstellar travel and communication were not likely because of the difficulty presented by the enormity of the distances involved.
--Two comments Livio made about Churchill's view of science provide some insight into.
During the second world war he championed the use of statistical analysis in the fight against U-Boats. His Air Chief Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris complained. (So, Air Marshall Harris just what is your preferred strategy?)egy, right?) He asked "Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?" Churchill's answer was "Let's try the slide rule."

You may never have seen a slide rule but it is a calculator that looks somewhat like a wide ruler with a sliding center piece.  It was developed in the 17th century and is based on logarithms. It is a remarkable invention.
I used a slide rule as an undergraduate student at Syracuse University. Many engineering students I knew attached the slide rule case to their belt where it would dangle from their hip, slinger fashion.. I never felt that I was taking or using enough mathematics to do that!  On the other hand, it was stolen and maybe I should have. That slide rule was replaced it with a much more inexpensive plastic model, one nearly as accurate as my original, that I still have but no longer use.

In 1958, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, UK was established. While a champion of science and engineering, Churchill  wrote "We need scientists in the world but not a world of scientists." In a convocation at MIT in 1949, Churchill  put this statement in context.  "If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame."
Professor Mario Livio's essay was published in the Comment section of Nature. Livio adds much more about the essay as well as about Churchill's deep love for science and technology. He constantly interacted with  practitioners and read scientific publications, including Charles Darwin. However, perhaps nothing should surprise us about Churchill's deep intellect and voracious curiosity.

Additionally, Rachel Martin, Steve Inskeep and Mario Livio discussed the essay on NPR's Morning Edition.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by Ranier Maria Rilke.

According to a well known and often repeated story, it was Auguste Rodin who told Rilke to go to the Jardin des Plantes  in Paris where he was to choose one animal where he was to watch, study, note its various movements and moods until he knew the animal as well as he could and then, only then, write about it. Rilke chose a panther. The result is this poem.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Summer Solstice 2017

Environmental & Science Education

Summer 2017 starts today, Tuesday June 20 at 11:24 pm Central Standard Time.

Here is a lot of information about it.

I link to a classic song about summertime when the livin' is easy. Here is another, about a favorite a favorite as I can think of.

And these words by a stunning poet.

What's next? Autumn equinox, that's what.

Monday, June 19, 2017



My friend Molly sent me this link.

What an interesting question Cindy Crosby asks on Tuesdays in the Tallgrass.

Chris Helzer has written about restoration issues in his wonderful blog, The Prairie Ecologist, on prairies. He noted noted in a 2011 entry (February 8) that the goal is not replication. I think there are too many variables at work including chance events. He raised some broad questions to help him think about restoration in comparison to a remnant prairie (one untouched by us).  I include them below.

"Does the restored prairie increase the population size of species formerly constrained by the small remnant prairie?  Does the combination of the restored and remnant prairies provide suitable habitat for species that don’t occur in prairies the size of the remnant alone?  Does the restored prairie add to the overall resilience or ecological function of the remnant prairie?  Any questions about similarities or differences in the abundance of individual plant species need to be framed within the context of these kinds of broader questions – and tied to the specific objectives for the restoration project. Comparisons outside of that context are relatively meaningless."

Emily Dickinson provided an answer to Crosby's question in one of her koan-like poems. Dickinson as you'll see is a minimalist.

Poem # 1755

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Like Molly I'm an erratic visitor (only very much more so) to this lovely blog than she is. 

Thanks Molly for the kick in the britches.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Silence, please

Environmental & Science Education

Edward Hessler

What country would think to make a commodity of silence...make it a reason to visit?


And you may learn a little more about how they arrived at this idea in this short post on The Heretical GG.

The Finish Tourist Board's campaign "Silence, Please" has gone "mysteriously" missing so I offer this instead.

Silence. What an interesting idea.

Over at Nautilus, Daniel A. Gross has a great article on the science of brains in silence, how and why researchers began to think about how silence was once regarded as the control in experiments.  Silence, it turns out, may play some role in neurogenesis (growth of new functioning brain cells) although the results are preliminary.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is about a side of maths often overlooked in problems students are asked to solve.

Yehuda Amichai (1924 - 2000) remains Israel's most celebrated poet. James Woods, The New Yorker wrote this essay about him and his poems.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017



The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a gallery of images (18) to celebrate Father's Day in two worlds, human and birdies.

And here is a link to their live cams.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Hidden Female Faces in Science

History of Science
Nature of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

In "The quest to reveal science's hidden female faces," Nature magazine's Dalmeet Singh Chawia, writes about Hilda Bastian, who upon noticing the difficulty of finding photographs of women scientists a few years ago set a task for herself: locating copyright-free photographs of African American women scientists.

These will be added to their respective Wikipedia pages.

Chawia's article includes some lovely photographs as well as links to articles with some pictures.

Bravo and thanks for Hilda Bastian's effort!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday Poem

Art and Environment

June 2017 is a special centennial month.

Gwendolyn Brooks would have 100 years old. She was born June 7, 1917 Topeka KS. She died on the south side of Chicago, IL December 3, 2000.

Ms. Brooks is one of my favorite poets, very favorites. Today's poem is a short one she wrote about another poet, Robert Frost. He, too, is a favorite of mine.

It has occurred to me that there are too many poets I like to declare an absolute favorite. This may be viewed as laziness on my part but there are a passel of very fine poets.

Harriett Blog will be writing about her this month and here is the first entry about this gifted and hard-working poet. There will be a total of 8 contributors.

Happy Birthday Gwendolyn Brooks and thank you for your many presents to us. It is a treat to re-open them again and again.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Field Work

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Field Naturalists and Ecologists

In a beautifully written textbook on ecology, one that ​placed ecological concepts in a historical context — hard to believe it was first published some 40 years ago​, the late Paul Colinvaux commented on a distinction between being out in the field studying plants and animals as a naturalist and being out in the field as an ecologist.

"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."

Problem Posing

Colinvaux's comment on the difference between ecologist and naturalist leads me to recommend a blog, Nature Puzzles: Of Forests, Fields, Ponds and Geology. Here, a keen observer of the natural world, Bob Bystrom, describes an occurrence in the natural world that challenge us to consider the mostly "W" questions. What? Where? When? How? and Why?

These puzzles can stimulate us to create our own explanations as well as consider how we might investigate the puzzle to provide evidence — a tentative explanation, for the phenomenon.

Problem Solving by 8th Grade Ecologists

One of Bystrom's posts reminded me of an assignment two teachers gave to their 8th students. It was a study about correlations between biological and physical variables in the environment. Their intent was to provide an experience that was close to the way scientist's work as well as to shift instruction from a teacher- to a student-centered course.

The studies from which I've extracted information had a larger educational research purpose than I discuss. It was to better understand the learning of students in their classrooms. The citations are provided below

The unit I focus on was ten weeks in length (late March to beginning of June). The class met three times a week but there were interruptions because of school assemblies and long week-ends/field trips scheduled by other teachers of other subjects.

During these ten weeks students classified the school's 50-acre campus and studied the ecological relationships within a small area which they referred to as an ecozone. Resources made available to students included equipment quite likely to be found in a general science classroom, field guides and a resource file with articles on methodological suggestions and general background information.

The intent was to have students develop a basic understanding of the complexity of biological systems and how they change, the interrelationships between the biotic/abiotic parts of an ecosystem, to formulate and investigate their own research problems, and to analyze and report on their findings to the teachers and to their peers. In addition, there was an emphasis on quantifying the work, e.g., tables, graphs, averages.

During a typical 60-minute period, each student team would discuss their focus question with the teacher, sign-out equipment, collect data, sign-in equipment and upon return to discuss what they had done with the teacher(s). While in the field, the teacher visited each group to discuss data recording/analysis, ask questions. The student's questions, data, background notes and new terms, results and claims were recorded in a field notebook.

Ample feedback was given throughout in both the classroom and when outdoors. It is important to note that these activities occurred over time, e.g., data gathering regarding a question might be given two full periods and so on. Periods were scheduled for student teams to share their findings with others. Four formal field reports were required.

At the end of each field investigation, the analysis and interpretation of the data let students to generate explanations, hypotheses and new questions. From these, the students selected a focus question for their next field experiment.

Here is an example. Two students noticed that moisture levels were less at the top of the slope and higher at the bottom. They also found an area that was particularly moist not at the bottom of the slope. They noted it had more ground cover and they thought that evaporated water might condense on leaves and stems later falling back to the ground. The students speculated about other causes such as soil, exposure to wind, etc. The students hypothesized a dependence of moisture level on ground cover, soil composition, and evaporation rates.

From this beginning these kinds of focus questions followed:

—Is there a relation on our slope between soil moisture and the air temprature?
—What relation is there between soil porosity, texture, compounds, and color in our area and the soil moisture?
—What is the relation between percent soil moisture and organic content in three different parts of our area?

What is visible as one reads the studies is the development of a generative research program that becomes more and more focused. The studies varied from group-to-group, e.g., investigation of growth (over time, as a function of location, effect of soil and weather variables), plant life cycles, living conditions, growth patterns, etcetera. There was an emphasis throughout on the role of persuasion in science, e.g., convincing arguments supported by evidence such as maps, lists, tables, totals, means, graphs and when possible, equations.

How is this kind of learning assessed? A problem students were posed at the end of the unit as part of the overall assessment provides an idea.

You are in a forest ecozone with square boundaries which has a cut grass field along one edge. Discuss the methodology you would follow to determine the relationship between soil moisture, number of species of insects, insect population density, and average dandelion height as they might possibly be affected by nearness to the field. Use diagrams if that will help. Make sure that all sampling is done correctly and that all equipment and techniques are properly named and explained. Demonstrate HOW you would illustrate numeric relationships you find (e.g., insect density & nearness to field).

The work of the students show a way into the problem found in Bystrom's blog. However, because it was limited to a relatively short period of time no conclusions were (or could be) reached. A sentence from a discussion with two students, one of whom argued for a favorite trend line and another who preferred multiple hypotheses (three trend lines), summarizes the complexity of what first appears as a simple field situation. "And from this amount of data, you really can't conclude about what's going on."

Data! Many times in science more data are is needed, more than one first thinks necessary. And collecting takes time as well as an ambitious research program.

Thanks to:

Roth, W-M & Roychoudhury. (1993). The development of science process skills in authentic contexts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 30(2), 127-152.

Roth, W-M & Bowen, G. M. (1994) Mathematization of experience in a grade 8 open-inquiry environment: An introduction to the representational practices of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 31(3), 293-318.