Thursday, August 17, 2017

An Eclipse Essay

Art and Environment
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

The Atlantic has re-published Annie Dillard's essay, Total Eclipse. It is a classic that was first published in 1982, first appearing in Teaching a Stone to Talk.  It is beautifully written and will be available "until the day after the 'Great American Eclipse' on August 21."

Thanks to The Atlantic for republishing this glorious essay and making it freely available. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sustainability in Iceland

CGEE Student Voice
Sustainability Abroad
by Jenni Abere

Iceland is a unique country that draws crowds of tourists because of its natural beauty. It's got waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, hot springs, geysers... These attractions brought my family to Iceland for a week, and while I was there, I noticed that Iceland is an interesting country from a sustainability standpoint.

Skógafoss, one of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland.

As Icelanders are known to brag about, 85% of their energy is produced domestically from renewable sources. While driving in the southwest, we glimpsed a large geothermal plant. The unique geology of Iceland meets a lot of their energy needs.

Near this plant is the town of Hveragerði, the geothermal capital of Iceland, and home to many attractions. An hour hike into the hills beyond the town will bring you to a stream fed by hot springs -- a perfect temperature for soaking! This was one of my favorite things we did in Iceland.

Hveragerði also claims two restaurants which use geothermal steam to cook their food. Geothermally-cooked rye bread is a traditional treat. Some of the food is locally produced as well. There are many greenhouses in this area that are heated with geothermal energy.

We enjoyed a lunch of soup and bread cooked at this geothermal restaurant in Hveragerði.

Tomatoes growing in a greenhouse at the geothermal park in Hveragerði.
The white pipes behind the plants carry hot water directly from the ground. This greenhouse is hot enough to grow bananas!
Electricity produced at geothermal plants provides light for the greenhouses, a necessity in a place as far north as Iceland.

Traditionally, Icelandic cuisine features little produce. Much of the cuisine is based on meat, dairy, and seafood. Animal agriculture represents a huge use of land in Iceland. There are sheep nearly everywhere you look. There are also large numbers of horses and cows. Much of the farmable land is used to grow hay to feed the livestock during the winter. These animals are hardy enough to stay outside during the long winter, when they eat from large hay bales instead of grazing.

One surprising fact about Iceland is that there is very little wildlife. Besides sea birds, you would rarely encounter a wild animal on land. In fact, the only native land mammal at the time of human settlement is the Arctic fox. Since then, small mammals like mink and rabbits have populated the island. There are also herds of reindeer, although they are not originally native. Many of the plants are not native either.

This is one unique aspect of sustainability in Iceland. There are very few wild animals for livestock to compete with. This means that animal agriculture in Iceland has a smaller footprint than in many other places around the world.

We encountered this sheep while on a hike.
Judging from the number of sheep we saw outside of fences, there may be a sizable feral sheep population in Iceland.

Of course, fishing is very prominent in Iceland. Common menu items include trout, salmon, herring, lobster, mussels, shrimp... Less common menu items include shark, whale, and puffin. Whaling is taboo in America, but Icelanders maintain that the whales they hunt are not endangered.

The water in Iceland also provides energy in the form of hydroelectricity. When we drove inland to see the Hekla volcano, we passed a large hydroelectric dam on a river. Iceland has a steady supply of rushing rivers in thanks to the many glaciers.

One river is home to the famous Gullfoss waterfall. In the early 20th century, some Icelanders wanted to dam the river to produce energy. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, known as Iceland's first environmentalist, protested the project in order to protect the natural beauty of the falls.

Gullfoss is one of Iceland's biggest tourist attractions, and part of the "golden circle." 

Although the story of Sigríður is more myth than fact, it presents an enduring conflict: Do we produce renewable energy or preserve natural beauty? Dam projects are often halted for concerns about wildlife in the river, but many of Iceland's frigid glacial rivers are fish-free.

Iceland has several large glaciers, noted by the Icelandic word jökull. On our trip, we saw Eyjafjallajökull (the notorious glacier-topped volcano), Snæfellsjökull, and Myrdalsjökull. We got the closest to a tongue of Myrdalsjökull called Sólheimajökull. This long outlet is a canary in the coal mine for climate change, and has shrunk rapidly over the last several years.

Sólheimajökull is one of the most easily accessible glaciers, and therefore a popular site for guided glacier walks.
For a quick stop, you can park and follow a path to get a good view of the glacier. 

The natural landscape in Iceland has been conserved thanks to several factors including: the climate and geology that makes much of the land useless for industry or agriculture; the small population of only 300,000; and the efforts of the government to establish parks and reserves.

Tourism provides another incentive to preserve Iceland's wilderness, its biggest attraction. But it also provides a conflict, since tourists can triple the population of the small country in the busy summer months. This is a burden on Iceland's resources, requiring more energy, food, and living spaces. Not to mention, all tourists have to take an airplane to the remote island, and then drive once they're there, producing greenhouse gases. 

Iceland is currently one of the most sustainable nations. Hopefully as tourism continues to boom, this won't change. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

The 4th R

Edward Hessler

Recess, of course!

Dr. Michael Hynes is the superintendent of the Patchoque-Medford schools on Long Island. He has been a long-time proponent of essentially making recess an official part of the school day.

Here is a short video for which I thank Diane Ravitch who posted about it today on her blog. Ravitch's aim is to have an ongoing discussion of better education for all students. Dr. Ravitch  also includes a letter from Superintendent Hynes to the NYS Superintendent of Schools and the NYS Board of Education to "strongly consider and discuss a mandate" for recess.

I let the tape run after I watched it while I attended to other things and noticed that it is followed by a TEDx talk by Dr. Hynes. Didn't pay much attention but caught a few words about his visit to his former school to see his transcript so I suspect it has something to do with recess and other ideas he has interest in, one of which is meditation, a practice that is being used in some schools with success for dealing with and understanding the tensions of daily life.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Human Gnomen

Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

There are three Internet sites that I seldom miss checking. Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) is one.

On August 12, 2017, APOD featured a short video of a human sundial, well almost completely human. 

The Liverpool Museum has a nice step-by-step link on how sundials work. You can check it out here.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Three Portraits from A Corner of Japan


Edward Hessler

Japan's population is mostly urban, about 94% according to data cited in the introduction to a video made by Eiji Iwakawa.

In this film he shows three portraits of villagers who live in Yadorigi, a small village in southern Japan. Their lives may surprise you given the overwhelming urbanization of Japan. Each of them is likely to warm your heart.  Their lives are fascinating and their views often thoughtful. Who wouldn't want to know them?

It is long (30 minutes) but I hope you can find time to watch at least one segment. I liked them all (choosing to watch them in segments) but if you think you have time for only one my suggestion is pick one right out of the blue and let it serve as a place holder for the other two. 

Who knows you may return later.

Three cheers!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Keeping the Water in Iraq

Water and Watersheds
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

For more than seven years, Nabil Musa, an Iraqi water keeper has been traveling his country to promote the importance of clean water.

Ensia just published a short article and video about him and his work.

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is about a morning coffee in Italy.

A coffee in a white porcelain cup. Not bad; only a saucer missing.

It is by Billy Collins.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Water & Watersheds
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

"It has become a rite of summer," writes NPR's Dan Charles. "Every year, a 'dead zone' appears in the Gulf of Mexico. It's an area where water doesn't have enough oxygen for fish to survive. And every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration commissions scientists to venture out into the Gulf to measure it.

"This week, NOAA announced that this year's dead zone is the biggest one ever measured. It covers 8,776 square miles (2,272,974 ha)— an area the size of New Jersey."

You may read Charles's essay (or listen to it) here. The written piece includes a striking photograph and an equally striking diagram as well as link or two.

h/t NPR, Dan Charles

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Five Day Forecast

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

xkcd has a great take on the nature of the 5-day forecast.

Cosmologist Sean Carroll (CalTech) couldn't resist adding another row at the bottom, making it much more long term.  The differential of temperature change is interesting when you try to consider all that time.
This is a physics blog so there are some interesting takes and comments from physicists and bound to be more. Not to be missed.
h/t Sean Carroll

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

You've probably seen a video of a starling murmuration.  These murmurations are mesmerizing.  The birds appear to be in communication as they turn and fly in perfect synchrony without colliding.  It is as though there is a "super-mind" regulating this dance in the sky.

Here is a video of one.

So, what is known about this phenomenon? Andrea Alfano writing in The Living Bird, a publication of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes current knowledge as well as what is not known. Such flocks are leaderless and this challenges our minds and imaginations.  A smart swarm, so to speak.

Alfano provides a link to Grainger Hunt, a scientist with the Peregrine Fund. He makes this observation about a murmuration resulting from an encounter by a large flock of starlings with a hungry peregrine falcon. "Here is a peregrine, intent upon a meal, and the focus of each desperate starling is avoidance. The wondrous cloud is thus secondary—an extraneous property, emerging from independent attempts by each individual, within the multitude of self-interested starlings, to escape the falcon— and how better than by getting in the middle of the flock and staying there until the peregrine leaves? At each point during a peregrine attack, there are safe places to be, and there are unsafe ones, and so each starling strives to place others between itself and the falcon." 

This is a common-sense analysis based on ideas we have about adaptation. Alfano reports on a recent computer analysis (see link in her article) that begins to provide needed details on the mechanics of the behavior..  The researchers found that starlings co-ordinate "their movements with their seven nearest neighbors."  However, this doesn't explain such movements.  There is still much to be learned on how the birds do this.

In a more recent paper published in PlosOne, the authors call attention to a basic difficulty of studying this behavior. Empirical analysis is very difficult.  In this situation, computer models become useful.  The model the researchers used was based on the idea of self-organization. Among the findings was that group size influences the variability of the shape of the murmuration. A bonus of the study is that it led to several hypotheses that can be tested empirically. The authors made the following comment on the limitations of their study, notably shortcomings of the model.  It also points out the complexity of murmurations and some of the variables that might be involved.

"Despite its usefulness, our model has shortcomings. First, of such complex animals as birds, it concerns merely their movement behaviour in relation to the position and heading of others and of the roost, while using a simple model of flying behaviour, ignoring e.g. flapping flight. It ignores any behaviour related to other motivations, such as nutritional, reproductive or motivations to avoid a predator. It also ignores environmental disturbances, e.g. by physical forces, such as wind. Thus, in nature, there will definitively be additional reasons that cause flock shape to be variable beyond those that we consider in this paper. Indeed, in the model the variability of shape of, for instance, small flocks of 200 birds is below that observed in real flocks in nature.
The use of models is beginning to play a much more important role in K-12 science education.  They are used widely by scientists in all disciplines. Here is a summary table on developing and using models as described in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Choosing a School

Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

Another slice from the Onion, an article to help us help kids make the right school choice--the best fit of school and kid.

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Louis Menand's "The Defense of Poetry: Can a poem change your life?", (The New Yorker, July31, 2017) called my attention to August 4 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany.

He also wrote that "on August 5th, the first war poem appeared in the London Times--"The Vigil," by Henry Newbolt. I was very surprised by the quick response of a poet. This means, of course, that there is only one choice for today's poem.

For information about Sir Henry Newbolt see here.

There is a short bio of Professor Menand, a regular contributor to The New Yorker and also to the article mentioned above here.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Women in Science
E. Hessler

Science Friday has a first-rate series, Breakthrough, Portraits of Women in Science.

The featured scientist for the June 30 program, was Dr. Karyn Rode who as a United States Geological Survey (USGS) biologist studies the polar bears of the Chukchi Sea. She focuses on their health, mostly what they eat and then how quickly they metabolize their food.

View it here.

Rode describes how she became a polar bear biologist at this site.  Scroll down to her biographical video. Graduate students and post-docs often take a winding path to their ultimate career in which serendipity plays a big role.