Monday, April 23, 2018

What's In A Name?

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Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

Universities and colleges have a practice of naming buildings after people. Koltoff Hall is one of the buildings serving to enclose the mall on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota. The building was designated a national chemical landmark by the American Chemical Association in 2014. Who was Koltoff?

Izaak Maurits (Piet)  Koltoff (February 11 1894 - March 4 1993) was professor of analytical chemistry at the UM-TC from 1927 - 1962. He is the father of modern analytical chemistry, transforming it from a toolbox of laboratory techniques to a major chemical branch. 
Koltoff's productivity was staggering: nearly 1000 scientific papers, 51 Ph.D. students and oversaw the production of an enormous study of analytic chemistry (28 years, 17000 pages, 30 volumes, 295 authors).  During WWII he made major contributions to the development of a techniques to produce synthetic rubber.  He was the recipient of every major chemistry award, short of the Nobel Prize. 

Paul Nelson wrote a short biography of this remarkable chemist for MNopedia, published in MINNPOST, April 4, 2018. I didn't know that he lived on the UM-TC campus from 1927 until shortly before his death. Nor did I know Kolthoff's motto which nicely summarizes scientific practice: Theory guides, experiment decides.

And if you link to the MNopedia entry there is a chronology of events in Koltoff's life.
The Wikipedia entry provides other details of this remarkable chemist and person.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day--2018

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Today is Earth Day.

The first was in 1970, 20 million celebrants. This year is # 48.

The focus of the Earth Day Network is on plastics and there you can find information about them and decide on how you can reduce your plastic footprint. They are everywhere, a remarkable invention that came with a bite.

Ron Meador's lede on Earth Day in MinnPost caught my attention, an article about products with a green theme but are not what they seem. He wrote,

It would be better to cut consumption, period.

If you are interested you can read his full comments on recent product-pitches that have come his way.

To these I add five facts from the Brookings Institution that caught their policy eye. The five are about water use, nations and ocean policies on oceans, U. S. and oil production, a surprising relationship between natural disasters on the education of adolescent girls around the globe, and wildlife extinction rates.

The good, the bad and the ugly.

Image result for votingJane Yolen has written a lovely poem in a collection of poems for the younger set about and for this day. It is a great poem to roll around and off your tongue. Here you can read about her and her work.

PS--Another way to think of Earth Day 2018 is to celebrate and take action on November 6, Election Day. And between now and then to become informed on environmental positions of candidates and include this in calculations about how to vote.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Letting the Cows Out: JOY!

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

It is spring and the cows spring along with it.

And here is another that is too good and touching not to miss.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


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Environmental & Science Education
Invasive Species
Edward Hessler

Common starlings. Aggressive. Destructive. Oddly beautiful.

The United States had not a single starling until the idea that this country should have all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays captured the imagination of Eugene Schiefflin, a wealthy New Yorker.  So European starlings were introduced in the late 1800s and as is often said, history. From a few, many. Many would argue way too many.

The 13-minute film, The Commoners, is a short story about this invasion and takeover.

There is a lesson or two here but not ones that have informed many decisions and their often unintended consequences.

The family, Sturnidae, includes roughly 120 different species of starlings worldwide.  You can view them on the Internet IBC Bird Collection. One of my favorites is the Superb Starling which is widely distributed in East Africa. What a handsome bird.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Natural Water

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Environmental & Science Education
Clean Water
Edward Hessler

You've all heard about the raw water craze (craziness), a recent fad. I'll say a few things about it.

What could possibly be wrong with untreated water? Say rain, snow (maybe not the yellow stuff but who knows?), ground water, natural springs, lakes, streams, rivers. Each of these contains a different suite of minerals, particles, bacteria, parasites, alga, viruses, etc.

Water, the raw, untreated kind is a "natural" product where natural = good (Even better, perhaps the best). According to raw water advocates, it may even contain probiotics or "healthful bacteria."

Clean water, the treated kind--filtered, treated, purified--is among public health's and sanitary engineering's greatest successes.  The United Nations General Assembly in July 2010 recognized "the human right to water and sanitation." Sufficient. Safe. Acceptable. Affordable. Physically accessible. For all. For everyone.

Image result for water treatment plantNature has its own "additives," some known as well as their health various hazards and some not yet known to science or are their potential effects. You may see some of them here. These are taken with an electron microscope which shows not only details and often paints them as lovely...beautiful.

A Google search will lead you to many articles and essays about raw water. Here is one from the site ArsTechnica.

You may want to listen to this classic by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

If you have a cat, have you ever noticed or suspected a preference for it being right-pawed or left-pawed?  Do you know which paw they lead with as the step down from a step or when they step over an object? This dullard has never paid any attention to such details.

Anthropologist and aileurophile, Barbara J. King reported on a new study published in Animal Behaviour in which researchers found that of 44 cats involved in the study a paw preference was shown. The cats consisted of  24 male and 20 spayed females, composed of mixed breeds, and between 1 and 17 years old. One of the best aspects of this study is that the moggies were tested at home, in an environment in which they are comfortable and know well. Owners collected the data "until 50 responses were reached per question."

Unlike humans, this preference for laterality does not exhibit itself at the population level. Male kittehs were much more likely to be lefties while female kittehs were more likely to be righties.

The owners were also asked whether the cats preferred to sleep on the right or left side. This position does not show right or left lateralization.

There was one other test that required an experimental apparatus in which the moggies had to reach for food through holes. King notes that this is a "forced" test rather than the spontaneous tests the owners were observing.

Image result for catBarbara King's essay may be found here and I urge you to read it. Her account is full and rich. I just borrowed some notes. She includes some of her exchanges with one of the study co-authors, Deborah Wells as well as what this research may mean and why it is important.

"For the moment," King writes, "I'm headed off to watch my cats more closely than I ever have before."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Friday Poem

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Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Well,  it is Friday. Two poems by Raymond Carver that happened to be on the same page.

Read a short bio of Raymond Carver.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Premature Babies

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

At first blush that there is a connection between slaughter houses and premature babies seems a stretch. What?

Preemies sometimes have difficulty breathing and this is where slaughterhouses enter the picture.

"Every week, foam extractors make the trip to an Ontario slaughterhouse to siphon an off-white liquid out of cow lungs. The foam is purified and shipped across the globe, where it is shot into the lungs of struggling premature infants. Their lungs, like the rest of a premature infant's body, aren't quite ready for birth and haven't started producing this foam called pulmonary surfactant themselves. Experts say arrival of surfactants in the neonatal ICU in the 1980s was a groundbreaking development. STAT's Eric Boodman visited a slaughterhouse in Canada to trace how surfactant goes from the roar of the slaughterhouse to the sterile hush of the NICU."

To read Boodman's story and also to view a very good animation on this therapy click here.

March for Science Minnesota 2018

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Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

Yesterday (April 11 2018) I had a call from Doug Allchin, a member of the local organizing committee that the MN March for Science 2018, scheduled for this Saturday, April 14 (St. Paul)  had been cancelled due to the weather. 

I loved Allchin's comment: "An ironic tribute, perhaps to the power of science to give us such clear advance warning!"  And I add, a decision based on the best available evidence!

It has not yet been rescheduled. For the official announcement see here and as the web site says, "Stay tuned for further information."
Keep those big boots handy (or walking shoes).

Monday, April 9, 2018


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Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

If you have about a minute-and-a-half, take a look at some textures, natural and man-made that are walked over, on or just passed. Many of us don't notice them. There is also some jazz to enjoy along the way.

The film was directed and animated by Yvon Lan about whom I know nothing.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Seeing is Judging

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Environmental & Science Education
Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

Darwin's Dogs is a citizen science project focused on the genetics of canine behavior.

Now they would like to know whether citizen scientists can identify the top three breeds that make up a given dog.  The research team at Darwin's Dogs will compare the visual assessments made by citizen scientist's with the mutt's genetic profile.

There is a purpose to this project. We have preconceptions about dogs. Some are thought to be brave or good with kids or have imperial complexes, German shepherds, Golden retrievers, and Jack Russell terriers respectively.  The idea is to begin teasing out how much of a dog's behavior is innate and how much is driven by treatment and training.

On April 16, Darwin's Dogs will launch MuttMix to collect data and do do this they are are inviting citizen scientists to participate in a survey.

This is a joint project of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in conjunction with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).

For information and to sign up see MuttMix.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Friday Poem

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Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poems are by Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207 - 1273).

I was looking for Wean Yourself  but could only find it with three other Rumi poems.

What a deal!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Two Experiments on Prehistory Agriculture

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science 
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler
Image result for wild cereals

A few weeks ago I finished Steven Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 - 5,000 BC.  Mithen is professor of early prehistory in the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Reading, England.

Mithen helped me see the people who lived then as human beings who were skilled and thoughtful--complex. There are stones and bones throughout the book (and seeds, beetles, fabrics, pottery) of course but Mithen helps readers go beyond typical reporting while sticking closely to the available data. The following phrase about  making flint blades is one such reminder. "To call such work 'flint knapping' or 'tool production' seems derisive." These were made by highly skilled and thoughtful craftsmen.

The brackets Mithen chose to contain this history, 20,000 BC - 5,000 BC, represents the peak of the last ice age or last glacial maximum (LGM) and the time when many people throughout the world lived by some form of farming.

Some research on whether there was a transition from brittle wild cereals to domesticated wild cereals during the Natufian in the area of the Levant aught my eye. The difference in brittleness is important to agriculturalists. Brittle wild strains "spontaneously fall apart when ripe, scattering their seed on the ground while the domestic strains remain intact, 'waiting for the harvester'."  

The research was remarkably clever (labor intensive, too!). It shows how scientists make use of empirical methods in order to study events which happened so long ago.

The research resulted from studies of "plant genetics, ancient gathering techniques-much of it acquired by experimentation and computer simulations," in an effort to estimate the amount of time required to "change from wild to domestic strains."  
Romana Unger-Hamilton, a graduate student at the Institute of Archaeology in London decided to replicate "the Natufian style of harvesting wild grains." Her research design included the use of bone-handled sickles and flint blades (as identical as she could make them to the original Natufian tools). Then she went to fields of wild grains "on the slopes of Mount Carmel around the Sea of Galilee and in southern Turkey" where "she cut stands of wild wheat and barley." Finally, she "microscopically examined" the sickle blades for signs of "sickle gloss" (wear). This varies depending on cereal types and stages of ripeness.

Unger-Hamilton found a match between the "sickle-gloss" on the blades she used to harvest unripened cereals and those on Natufian blades. This means that the Natufian farmers were harvesting "non-brittle variants" and further that "even if the Natufian people were sowing seed to generate new stands of wild cereals, non-brittle variants were unable to become dominant." (my emphasis). The harvesting of unripe grains then made sense.

Another researcher, "Patricia Anderson, of the Jales Resarch Institute in Paris," replicated Unger-Hamilton's research, confirming her results. In addition, Anderson also paid attention to grain that falls to the ground when it is harvested while still green or unripe. She found that enough grain fell to the ground to reseed, providing "for the next year's crop."

This means that if the Natufians "would only have to sow if they were beginning a brand-new" cereal plot. However, the Natufians were sedentary, never making new grain plots. They "remained as cultivators of wild cereals within the wild gardens of the Mediterranean woodland."

Image result for grain fields

Mithen points out one obvious weakness in this research: "very few botanical remains have been recovered from their settlements."

Still, two lovely and interesting papers.

The relevant papers.

P. Anderson. (1991). Harvesting of wild cereals during the Natufian as seen from experimental cultivation and harves of wild einkorn wheat and microwear analysis of stone tools. In The Natufian Culture in the Levant (eds. O. Bar-Yosef & F. R. Valla), pp. 521-526. International Monographs in Preshistory. MI: Ann Arbor.

R. Unger-Hamilton. (1991). Natufian plant husbandry in the southern Levant and comparison with that of the Neolithic periods: The lithic perspective. In The Natufian Culture in the Levant (eds. O. Bar-Yosef & F. R. Valla), pp. 483-520. International Monographs in Prehistory. MI: Ann Arbor.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Swim With A Greenland Shark

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Greenland sharks have the potential to live a long life, the longest of all living vertebrates.

This short video is about an encounter with one. If you've not seen this shark before it may surprise you. It is not a fast predator and appears sluggish.

However, beware of age claims in press reports. You will notice that the shark being filmed is reported to be 512 years old. Tain't necessarily so.

In a study of 28 female Greenland sharks, scientists reported an age probability range, from at least 272 years old to "could probably be 512 years old." The video was embedded in a fuller story by M. R. O'Conner in the New Yorker. Read it if you want to know more about the details of the study as well as the behavior of the shark.

One phrase I don't like in O'Conner's essay is "In theory...". Theories are much richer and more complex than this simple statement. I'd much have preferred mention of evidence but that would have added a few more words to the story.

Image result for greenland sharkThe glossary of Understanding Evolution, a website at the University of California-Berkeley defines theory as "A broad explanation for a wide range of phenomena. Theories are concise, coherent, systematic, predictive, and broadly applicable. They usually integrate many individual hypotheses. A scientific theory must be testable with evidence from the natural world. If a theory can't be tested with experimental results, observation, or some other means, then it is not a scientific theory."

Still this is a lovely film about a critter that is hard to study, seldom seen and which has a life history that remains very incomplete.

Monday, April 2, 2018

A Starling Flock

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Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

The 2017 overall winner of the Swiss Ornithological Institute photography contest is of starlings gathering at dusk.

Looks like a birdie to me.

For information about the institute see here.

This flock behavior in starlings is commonly called a murmuration and is the subject of scientific research by computational biologists.. And also the subject of wonder.

h/t WEIT

Sunday, April 1, 2018

National Tree of Chile

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Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

Botany Photo of the Day (BPOD) is a site I look at almost daily even though the images don't change that frequently.  It always includes more than the photo. There is a description by someone knowledgeable about the plant. In addition, the comments in response to the photograph are often informative.

Here is a photo, a close-up of the shoot apex of the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana). This tree has a narrow range (Chile and Argentina) and it is also in a steady decline due to none other than, you guessed it, us--fire, overgrazing, logging and habitat degradation. These are known as anthropogenic factors. Logging in natural habitat is now strictly prohibited.

It was interesting to learn how this tree was introduced to western cultivation. According to Daniel Mosquin who wrote the notes for this entry it was in 1795 "when botanist Archibald Menzies was served seeds of Araucaria araucana while dining in Chile with their governor, he hid some of these away. (Botanists are always botanizing!). The seeds were then transported to England, where five resulting plants survived and grew. The reverse of the saying 'earth to table,'  monkey puzzle trees made their way from that dining table to become popular ornamentals on wealthy estates in the UK (and subsequently throughout the world)." I added the material in the first parens.

It is a lovely, lovely tree with beautiful foliage.

May it live its natural span on Earth.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Earth Overshoot Day

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I missed posting an important date, August 2, 2017. It is known as Earth Overshoot Day and even though I'm several months late I must say something about it.
Earth Overshoot Day marks the time of year humanity uses "more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through overfishing, overharvesting, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester."

Earth Overshoot Day fell earlier in 2017 than ever before. In 2016, it was August 8.

Earth Overshoot Day is an average. There is a revealing graphic of Country Overshoot Days showing where EOD would land if the world's population lived liked (choose a nation).

What these dates mean is that humanity survives and lives on credit until the 31st of the year. The fact that it occurs earlier and earlier each year should be deeply troubling as should be the inequities between countries.

So, where do you think it will fall in 2018?

Friday, March 30, 2018

Friday Poem

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Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is about us. The note at the bottom is worth reading.

The poem was written by the late British poet, Adrian Mitchell.

Here are two more short poems by A. A. Milne.

Milne wrote an essay about daffodils. A few lines from it have been turned into a poem.

A house without daffodils in it
is a house lit up,
whether or not
the sun be shining outside.
Daffodils in a green bowl--
and let it snow if it will.
 --A. A. Milne

And "Daffodowndilly" (another name for daffodils).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Wolves in the Scottish Highlands?

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Matthew Cobb, Zoology Department at the University of Manchester, UK, and also a frequent contributor to the website, Why Evolution is True, posted a request today.

"It used to be standard practice," he writes, "for final year science students to do a lab-based research project. The University of Manchester broadened project possibilities to include science media projects.

Kirsty Wells, one of Cobb's students, has produced a 20-minute video on "rewilding" (here the introduction of wolves into the Scottish Highlands, a vigorously discussed topic in the UK). She and Cobb ask for viewer feedback.

You may learn more about the request here where you will find the video and the questionnaire. For more information about Professor Cobb see here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Fishy Life Imagined

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Environmental & Science Eduction
Edward Hessler

What is it like to be a fish?

In another video from 1Minute Nature, Teun, a boy of 10 imagines what a fishy life is like.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Two Summer 2018 Institutes for Teacher Grades 4 to 8

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Environmental & Science Education
Water & Watersheds
Edward Hessler

In another century (1981), Leonard Charles, Jim Doyle, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley wrote a famous quiz published in Covevolution Quarterly (32:1): Where You At? A Bioregional Quiz.

Bioregions generally are large but all encompass two terrains, one of geography and the other of consciousness. In short, they are places that are naturally-bounded which means that the idea is flexible. It all depends on your purpose. Their idea is to help us protect, maintain and restore local environments.  So I add a question to the bioregional quiz. It is for extra-credit. What watershed do you live in?  

We live in watersheds but most of us don't think about these natural divisions of the surface of the planet and their implications for their stewardship. Many years ago John Wesley Powell did and his ideas seem much less restricted to a particular US geography and also seem to be even more relevant now.

On August 26, 2003, National Public Radio's Howard Berkes reported on the vision of John Wesley Powell. Berkes noted that "In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region..... Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed."

Minnesota has 80 major watersheds defined by rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands. you can easily find which one you live in here.

Fourth to eighth grade teachers can attend a Center for Global Environmental Education institute in the context of a watershed. There are two this summer and both are free.

St. Croix River Institute, June 25-27, 2018. 

Mississippi River Institute, July 23-25, 2018.

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For complete information about the 2018 Rivers Institutes featuring Waters to the Sea click here

As A.A. Milne wrote in Winnie-the-Pooh, When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mad Mike Hughes

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I wrote about Mad Mike quite a while ago, expecting that he'd rocket into space the following day or two. Here is an update.

It took longer than first announced but Mad Mike finally did it!

He blasted off from the planet in a self-designed and constructed steam-powered rocket he designed and went from a couple of meters from the ground to ~ 570 meters (~1870 feet) altitude. His estimated maximum speed was 350 mph (~563 kmh).

The landing was not soft and Mr. Hughes said that his back aches. "I'll feel it in the morning. I won't be able to get out of bed. At least I can go home and have dinner and see my cats tonight." He apparently didn't say anything about the earth's shape (round or frisbee shaped). He now plans to apply to run for governor of California.

Text and a video or two here.