Monday, March 28, 2016

Sundial Rhymes

Art and Environment
Science & Environmental Education
Edward Hessler

Mark Seeley is a member of the Minnesota Climatology and Weather Group and a professor in the Department of Soils. Water, and Climate, the University of Minnesota.

He knows more and remembers more details and facts--always right on the tip of his tongue and at his finger tip--about Minnesota weather than any person I know.  Minnesota Public Radio has a show with him at the Minnesota State Fair where he is asked questions that questioners think might stump him. Few do. 

Professor Seeley also writes a weekly blog summarizing Minnesota weather and weather events north-to-south-east-to-west for the week. For me, it is not to be missed.

On March 25, 2016 he included some sundial rhymes, a way of noticing the return of sunlight. Sundials are an ancient invention and are sometimes thought of as the beginning of time although obelisks were used much earlier--noticing time by shadow length. On a larger scale, natural cycles--the solstices and equinoxes--were noticed and used even earlier.  Regardless, their invention is a remarkable event for which see here where you can see the first known sundial,Valley of the Kings, ca. 1500 BCE.

Serene I stand among the flowers;
And only count life's sunny hours.

When the hour is bright and clear,
You'll find the time recorded here.

Set me right and use me well;
And I the time to you will tell.

Of shade and sunshine for each hour,
See here a measure made.

Then wonder not if life consists,
Of sunshine and of shade.

Anyone know of others?

If you do, you may add them as a comment his blog, Minnesota WeatherTalk for March 25, 2016. He'd welcome them and so would I... here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Robert King's poem "Geology" starts by stating, "I know the origin of rocks, settling/ out of water, hatching crystals...."

The rest of this poem  may be read here.

Robert King is an emeritus professor at the University of North Dakota.  He currently lives in Colorado and serves as the director of the Colorado Poetry Project.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Reason Why There Was No First Human

Biological Evolution
Science & Environmental Education
by Edward Hessler

Inspired by Richard Dawkins's The Magic of Reality, PBS produced a short video which explains why there was no first human. It is nicely done and includes most of the major species along the way, from way back then to the present now.

Over at "Why Evolution is True" (WEIT) — it is true, of course! — University of Chicago population biologist, professor Jerry Coyne has posted a related animation. Change, change, change over 550 million years of human evolution. It may be viewed both forward and backward.

There is also a book based on this animation, titled EVO. It displays the evolution of human generations displayed on a single 30 m long page (~98 feet; ~ 33 yards) — folded in a zig-zag pattern — that traces human history through 153 generations. Father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather...all the way to/from the beginning.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Learning Maths

Mathematics Education
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

Why learn mathematics? The arguments are well known and important.

This is about another reason, one though, that is heard infrequently. It was once expressed as one of the five criteria for selecting concepts having to do with broad goals that justify universal public education in a free society.

The authors of Science For All Americans (Oxford University Press, 1990) stated it as follows. The criterion is titled, “The Intrinsic Value of Knowledge." And the question the authors asked as they selected concepts/processes basic to scientific literacy was, "Does the proposed content present aspects of science mathematics, and technology that are so important in human history or so pervasive in our culture that a general education would be incomplete without them?”

The five questions may be found in the introduction to the book.

Sure, this is hardly a compelling argument to young students! Still, I like it and it is a powerful argument for schooling. And I think it can be used as one reason for "why do we have to learn this stuff?" Maybe the idea will stick.

In a short profile in The New Yorker, Thomas Lin wrote about the flamboyant French mathematician Cedric Villani. He is the real thing, a recipient of the Fields Medal (2010), mathematics highest honor and recognition to young mathematicians. In Lin's essay, he asked Villani about the “torture” some experience of learning complex mathematics in school. “I hate this,” Villani said. “If you only teach stuff that is useful, then what do we need to teach in school? Not much. … Languages were invented all around the world; technology was invented many times. Mathematics was developed once and collectively — your culture cannot be complete if you don’t have at least a glimpse of what is mathematical reasoning.”

This begs the question of what constitutes mathematical reasoning or what kinds of maths would lead to it but it is an idea worth discussing and considering as maths are taught K-12. And hidden from view is a fascinating question on whether mathematics was discovered or invented.

I can’t remember which I read first, Thomas Lin on Villani or Peter Woit on Villani. Woit, a mathematical physicist at Columbia University, writes a great blog on maths and physics mostly for practitioners but liberally sprinkles it with references to books and essays, many of which are accessible to the general reader.  Furthermore, he often comments on them.

In the April 15 Not Even Wrong, Professor Woit draws attention to Villani's appearance in New York City and highlights the question above by citing a question found on the website for the PBS Nova Program The Great Math Mystery. Is math a human invention or the discovery of the language of the universe? For Woit, the answer is clear. He drily asserts, "it is the latter." His reasons are found in Towards A Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics and Physics.

It is a challenging paper for folks like me but clearly worth scanning and gleaning from. It reminded me of a short phrase in the splendid biography of physicist Murray Gell-Mann by George Johnson. Johnson describes the universe as "crystalline mathematics." Warning! This may not be what Professor Woit has in mind!

However, as long as I’m dabbling in maths I want to circle back to the real world of students and maths learning. In mid-April, NPR had a great story on maths learning and its use in an agriculture class in Colorado. Building a large steel bale feeder is a not an easy problem conceptually and in its construction. After hearing this program I thought for these students this is going to be a memorable and warm experience, useful, too. It made use of a teachable moment and also showed how teachers can collaborate in helping students to learn.

I sent the story to a friend who has considerable experience in maths education, assessment and technical education. He responded by telling me that “this is happening across MN in school labs every day. But there are fewer and fewer programs like this each year because NCLB has narrowed the curriculum and Ag/Tech Ed/CTE courses are now on the endangered species list.” And he has the data on his computer, promising to show it to me sometime when we meet.

Students need these kinds of experiences. They are another way to the literacy in mathematics that current research and standards describe.

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
by Edward Hessler
By Tetraeder (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons

This past week, March 14, marked the occasion of Pi day. It was sometimes overlooked, sometimes celebrated and sometimes tolerated.

It has not escaped officials, it has been recognized by officials, though. In 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 224 which declared March 14 as "Pi Day" to encourage "schools and educators to observe the day with the appropriate activities that teach students about Pi and engage them about the study of mathematics."

So, while I'm a few days late, you can still enjoy this poem by Jim Culleny and also the mandala that is used to illustrate it.

And even though it's late have some pie, too.  Key lime. Sour cream. Pecan. Cherry. Apple.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Bring Back the Bees: Canada

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

By Lagonx (Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Honey Nut Cheerios Canada has launched a Bring Back the Bees campaign.  It is a very cleverly designed program, an attention getter. Buzz the Bee is absent from the redesigned cereal box. What remains of Buzz the Bee is a ghost like image, a hollow space which reminds us of the empty space an environment has without all the environmental services that bees provide.

One goal is to plant 35 million wildflowers across Canada, one for each person who lives in Canada.

Bee Lab University of Minnesota entomologist expert Maria Spivak supports this program.

An article in the Huffington Post provides more information, a video and an image of the new box.  The campaign is in both English and French and will run through July.  The HuffPost article notes that Bee Lab University of Minnesota entomologist expert Maria Spivak supports this creative and important initiative.

Meet Buzz the Bee here.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

By Caroline Culler (User:Wgreaves)
(Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

An annual event known as spring training gets some ink and space in the sports sections of newspapers this time of year. There is news from the Florida Grapefruit League and the Cactus League on the promises of the coming season as well as the warnings. "To be clear, it doesn't always work out."

I love this playful and carefully observed poem about baseball by May Swenson (1913-1989).  I like it more than I like the game although I can understand the pleasure of sitting in a stadium under a blue sky overlooking a great green patch and watching a game while admiring the skills of the players.

Gould Prize--2016

History of Science
Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

This from the National Center for Science Education (Glenn Branch), March 11, 2016.

Carl Zimmer to Receive Gould Prize

By Terry Robinson
[CC BY-SA 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons

NCSE congratulates Carl Zimmer for winning the 2016 Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution. A recipient of NCSE's Friend of Darwin award, Zimmer is a prolific science journalist whose writing on evolution includes Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (2001), the textbook The Tangled Bank (second edition, 2013), and the textbook Evolution: Making Sense of Life (second edition, 2015), coauthored with Douglas J. Emlen. Zimmer will receive the Gould Prize and present a public lecture on June 17, 2016 at the Evolution 2016 conference in Austin, Texas.

"The Stephen Jay Gould Prize is awarded annually by the SSE "to recognize individuals whose sustained and exemplary efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life in the spirit of Stephen Jay Gould." NCSE's founding executive director Eugenie C. Scott was the recipient of the first Gould Prize, in 2009, followed by Sean B. Carroll in 2010, Kenneth R. Miller in 2011, David Quammen in 2012, Judy Scotchmoor in 2013, Steve Jones in 2014, and Francisco J. Ayala, a member of NCSE's board of directors, in 2015."

About the Gould Prize with more information about Mr. Zimmer.

Mr. Zimmer joins very distinguished company. Congratulations!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

In the News of the Day

Edward Hessler

By Larry Moran (Per e-mail to PZ Myers)
(emailed from PZ Myers)
[GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
"Ludic" is the featured word for today from A.Word.A.Day.

Each entry includes a thought for the day. Today it is from our own PZ Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. And that thought complements ludic while going beyond it.

PZ writes a splendid daily blog, one that covers a great deal of territory and which is wonderfully opinionated. Occasionally, he takes time to analyze and synthesize an important scientific paper.  These are great gifts to general readers for he is a great explainer.

His blog, Pharyngula, was listed by Nature as the "people's choice" in 2006, the top-ranked blog written by a scientist.

Homo Ludens is the title of a book by the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga.  It was on the importance of play in culture and society.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Small is Beautiful

Art and Environment
by Edward Hessler

By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions],
via Wikimedia Commons

The imaginative exhibit, "Vegetative Taxidermy: A Collection of Previously Undiscovered Flora and Fauna Inhabiting the Fields, Forests and Lakes of Minnesota," is now open at The Smallest Museum in St. Paul. It may be viewed 24/7 during March. There is a small spot-light for night viewing.

The museum space is a converted and rehabbed (mostly just painted) vintage fire hose box, approximately 61 cm by 89 cm (24" by 35"), recessed into the exterior wall of the entrance to the Workhorse Coffee Bar.

Each "species" is made of vegetation. Each has a common name and an Linnean binomial.

The exhibit also includes a puzzle. The question is about a poppy seed head at the end of a shepherd crook shaped stem. Is this a "sessile filter feeding coelenterate or...? There are several choices, including a blank space for one of your own.

A few examples of some of the discoveries new to Minnesota's flora and fauna.

Nano owlet, Nocturna whoosits

Minnesota silky-tailed bunny, Lagomorpha gossamercaudata

Minnesota pygmy vulture, Carrionis minima var. raptor du Nord

Evening maplefly, Acerrapterous rosa

Great Lake Superior Rotifer, Rotoraria gitche-gumeii

Woody antlered butterfly, Lignus cellulosa

Quacking aspen, Popolus duckphilia

North Country Kraken, Decapoda boroalis

The exhibit artist and curator is Dick Wenkel. The whimsical exhibit is just plain fun.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

By Ben Franske (Own work)
[GFDL ( or
CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
via Wikimedia Commons

This poem, months before the day it is about, is just too good not to post now. Besides I'm likely to forget. Read it now and read it in November.

Marjorie Saiser begins with these three lines: "The adults we call our children will not be arriving/ with their children in tow for Thanksgiving./ We must make our feast ourselves,"

The rest of the poem may be read here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Water Sustainabiliy: Minnesota

Water and Watersheds
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Earth Journal (MinnPost) held a program at Hell's Kitchen on January 22, 2016 featuring the UM's Emeritus Professor Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, a widely acknowledged authority on water in Minnesota. Her presentation was titled "Land of 10,000 Lakes: Can We Achieve Water Sustainability?"

Challenges Minnesota faces with Water Sustainability

In an Earth Journal column following the event, Ron Meador drew attention to why this is such an important question in Minnesota. After all, we are blessed (or have been) with plenty of water, both above and below ground, of seemingly good quality and quantity.

Yet, Meador notes, "this state is experiencing significant problems with this most fundamental of natural resources, and can look to even larger challenges on the not-so-distant horizon — including fundamental scarcity.

By Mykl Roventine from West Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States
(Elbow Lake Uploaded by Gary Dee)
[CC BY 2.0 (],

"Some of the better known problems concern degradation of surface waters by agricultural runoff and other polluting inputs. Less well known are issues of groundwater supply, as consequences of usage and management practices that have treated this out-of-sight, out-of-mind source as limitless."

In a word, Dr. Swackhamer's career has been notable. She held dual appointments at the University of Minnesota in the School of Public Health and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. For more than a decade preceding her retirement in summer 2015 she was the head of the Water Resources Center. Her feet were firmly planted in two worlds: science (e. g.,water chemistry and toxicology) and public affairs (e.g., Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework), the latter with an emphasis on how science can and must inform public policy.

Swackhamer's Talk & Presentation slides

In Meador's first column, Swackhamer's comments on water quality and water quantity are discussed. This column also includes some embedded videos from the talk. In the second column, the focus was on how well Minnesota is doing (or not) in planning for the management and stewardship of a resource that tends to be taken for granted. This column includes a link to the full video of Swackhamer's talk (30 minutes) with a longer question-and-answer (45 minutes). Meador refers to the two of them as a "double feature." And it is. In addition, there is a link to the slides used to illustrate and inform the talk.

Thanks to MinnPost for hosting this event as well as a thank you to Earth Journal columnist for his thoughtful summaries and to Dr. Swackhamer for her permission to Mr. Meador to include links to the talk and slides.