Sunday, March 17, 2019

Go Fly A Kite

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

For many of us being a kid means having toys to play with, at least a few.  For many children in refugee camps this cannot be taken for granted.

This year NPR produced a segment on 10-year-old Fayes Khamal, the "kite guy," who lives in the Hakimpara Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.  Khamal makes kites from leftover scraps of the shelters people live in--bamboo and plastic sheeting/plastic bags.  He is both an avid kite designer and flyer and also equally happy giving them away for others to fly.  First flights are tested and Khamal "says he can feel through the string if it's a success or not." Non-flyers are discarded and I suspect parts that he can use are recycled.

Khamal is a close observer of kite design and flight behavior. The kite is diamond-shaped and includes an element I've not seen before. Khamal "cuts a plastic grocery bag into stips and teases the ends into frilly tassels." These are attached to "the kite to make the tail and what he calls 'arms'--strips of plastic that dangle from each side of the kite and flap wildly when it's flying in the air."

Khamal notes that "'if (the kite) didn't have arms and a tail the kite won't fly well. It would spin around in the sky. It needs these extra pieces.'"

Jason Beauboin's story is lavishly illustrated  with color photographs.

Fayes Khamal is a magic-maker but the story is unbearably sad, too. There is way, way too much suffering on this planet.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

On Monday while making my way through banked snow, ice and ponds of water, I noticed as wonderful a snowman as I've seen in a long time.

While it lacked the coal eyes, the carrot nose, arms made from thin branches, and a scarf, the sculptors had made three nicely rounded balls of snow for the body and sculpted the eyes and mouth making a smiling snowman. I thought of the two young children with their mother I'd seen the day before near the same place, shovel in hand. Maybe it was them. 

Two days earlier I had read a perfect poem about a young boy and a snowman by the late Richard Wilbur. It makes it own kind of melancholy. I thought about winters past and snowmen I made or helped to make.

The February 9 issue of the 2019 New Yorker has a cartoon with a police car, lights blinking, two officers looking and in the yard they are passing are two snowmen. The caption is "I wish you could have thought up warmer disguises."  I can't find it on the web and with a lapsed subscription I don't have access anymore.

Thursday, March 14, 2019


Image result for pi day

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Well everyday is pie day but mathematicians and other number lovers designated March 14 (3.14) as Pi Day.

Just in time for its celebration is the work of Google employee Emma Haruka Iwao who fulfilled a childhood dream by breaking the current record for its value. The new value is 31,415,926,35,897 digits long. It took four months.

Iwao is a Google cloud advocate and used 25 virtual cloud computers to achieve the new value.

Read all about it, see her and learn more about Pi Day here.

It is more than alright to have a pie for dinner and dessert on Pi Day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Childbirth: Still a Frontier

Image result for cervixEnvironmental & Science Education
Nature of Science
History of Science
Edward Hessler

When we think about faculty in an obstetrics and gynecology department we don't often, if ever, think that one of them might be a mechanical engineer. However, there is one ob/gyn department with such a faculty member. 

NPR's Alison Kodjak recently reported on the research of obstetrician Dr. Joy Sarah Vink and mechanical engineer, Dr. Kristin Myer of Columbia University. Dr. Vink is the co-founder of the Preterm Birth Prevention Center at Columbia University Medical Center. 

What brings this team together is the mechanics and physiology of the cervix and the problem of preventing premature labor. I was surprised to read the following statement by Dr. Vink. "It's mind-boggling that in this day and age, we still don't understand [even] in a normal pregnancy how women go into labor--what triggers labor."  

Kodjack notes that this focus on the cervix is that if "doctors can get the cervix to stay closed in those final crucial weeks of gestation, the baby won't be born too soon, even if the amniotic sac breaks." The article notes that "there are about 1 in 10 premature births in the U. S. each year." Vink is studying what the cervix is made of. One finding is that the cervix has been long thought to be made of collagen but it turns out it has "a lot of muscle."

Image result for pregnancyMyer is studying how the cervix works. As an undergraduate she did research on how tires respond to heat. Then as a graduate student at MIT she worked with a team "who were interested in the mechanics of pregnancy." Myers's work with Vink includes the construction of computational models and "the biomechanics of pregnancy--from how much the uterus can stretch, to how much pressure pregnancy exerts on the cervix, to how much force a baby's kick puts on the whole system." One finding is that the "stiffness (of the cervix) of pregnant tissues compared to non-pregnant tissues changes by three orders of magnitude."

"All those measurements," Kodjak writes, "go into a databank. And when women in Vink's practice get an ultrasound, the technicians spend an extra few minutes measuring the mother's anatomy, as well as the baby's.... Then the team uses their computer models to look at how the various factors--shape, stretch, pressure and tissue strength--interact as a woman moves toward labor and childbirth. Their goal is to be able to examine a pregnant woman early on, and accurately predict whether she will go into labor too soon. It's a first step, Vink hopes, toward better interventions to stop that labor."

Please read Kodjak's full article for details.

A Bee Hive In The Garden

Image result for the hive kew
Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

I think it is fair to say that Kew Gardens is the most well known botanical site in the world.  It was founded in 1840 and houses "the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world."

A large sculpture of a beehive designed by UK artist Wolfgang Buttress was installed in 2017.
The sculpture has garnered many awards and this link shows some images as well as a film of the sculpture.
An article in the Guardian about the installation at Kew notes "With bees pollinating 70 of the most important crops that we eat, including most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, as they collect the nectar and pollen from the crops’ flowers, Buttress says he wanted to highlight the significance of pollinators to our existence. 'Bees are highly sensitive creatures and can be seen as sentinels for the health of the planet,'” he says.

"Kew’s director, Richard Deverell, said the Hive is a 'great way to tell the story about the relationship between plants and insects'. For that reason, he says the botanical gardens are the perfect new home for a structure that allows us: “to explore the urgent issues we face in relation to pollinators, their intimate relationships with plants and their vital role in helping us feed a rapidly growing population”. 

Sitting in a real bee hive nearby are vibration sensors that respond to vibrations from the activity of the bees. These vibrations "are sent in real time to The Hive." These "drive 1000 LED lights which visually represent the activity of the colony." In addition, "A soundscape composed of bee sounds and an ensemble of musicians plays alongside the ever changing lights. Signals from the real beehive trigger noise gates at particular thresholds, activating sounds from a pre-recorded library."

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Image result for letter

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I have a couple of reasons to ask you to visit and browse emeritus professor of computing Donald Knuth's (ka-NOOTH) website (Stanford University). He is highly regarded. His publications provide an idea of his range of scholarship. He is most noted for his work on the mathematical  mathematical analysis of computer algorithms.

I point out something I urge you to open and read once you are at the site. It is under Frequently Asked Questions and is titled "When Did You Stop Using Email?" I don't know why I never paid much attention to this but he recommends dropping the hyphen in e-mail, a rule I will follow, try to follow, in future.

If you poke around at his site I think you will see that he has a great sense of humor. But my real reason for asking you to take a look at this question is his explanation of why he doesn't use email.  Instead, he provides a mailing address and describes how he manages requests. The rule of thumb is "don't expect a prompt reply." He will answer eventually, providing the question is serious.

Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, uses Knuth's response to explore a question, "Is email making professors stupid?"  It makes an argument for "the long-term value of uninterrupted concentration over the short-term convenience of accessibility."  This is required for scholarship.

The essay, well written and easy to read, while long, makes an important observation about the effect of email on the profession of professing, namely that is has changed the game, making professors middle managers and administrators. Newport explores Knuth's solution.

A few years ago I talked with two research scientists regarding their research which led to two similar but slightly different responses.
Image result for email

One of them was a full-time research scientist working for a government agency. He told me that he missed the old days when he had access to a secretary to handle routine tasks. He no longer thought that he was as productive. He spent way too much time answering e-mail requests and handling other administrative tasks.

The second was a professor in a University department. I wanted to know whether he'd welcome, well consider, having a volunteer in his lab. I thought I could make a convincing case that I might be useful but recognized that I'd need some help and advice from time-to time. He took the request seriously which I appreciated but said that with his own research, publishing, attending scientific meetings, administrative duties, supervising Ph.D. and MS candidates, and keeping the lights on (writing grants) that while he was interested and at one time would have talked with me, he no longer had the time. He also mentioned the demand emails make.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Gone Fishin'

Image result for cormorant fishingEnvironmental & Science Education
Water and Watersheds
Edward Hessler

Along the scenic Lijiang River in China, brothers Huang Yuechang and Huang Mingde have been keeping up a centuries-old tradition of fishing with cormorant birds. Forgoing nets and modern fishing poles, these brothers have cultivated relationships with their birds in a way that’s found them success in cormorant fishing for more than six decades. But with no young fishermen choosing this ancient method, they may be the last ones to carry on this rare Chinese tradition.

An amazing story.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Friday Poem

Image result for women

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by Elisabeth Eybers.

This poem celebrates and acknowledges International Women's Day..

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Google Doodle: Dr. Olga Ladyzhenskaya

Image result for Olga Ladyzhenskaya

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

Today's Google Doodle celebrates the 97th birthday of mathematician Dr. Olga Ladyzhenskaya. I knew nothing about her or about her important contributions.

The Independent (U. K.) has a nice essay on four things you didn't know about her, including her practical contributions, e.g., to weather forecasting.

Hunting Behavior

Image result for wolves hunting

Environmental & Science Education
Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

Below are two videos on hunting behavior in the arctic.

The first features wolves cooperating to hunt and kill an arctic hare. It provides a glimpse of how hard wolves work to stay alive and raise a family. It yields a small meal for a group of predators. It also provides an idea of how alert arctic hares must be if they are to stay alive and raise their families. The film was produced by the BBC.

The second features a Canada lynx hunting a snowshoe hare. The film title is "Canadian Lynx," which isn't correct. Reminds me of the late Curt Gowdy, the longtime "voice" of the Boston Red Sox who was fond of talking about Canadian geese/honkers.  Nope, Canada geese.

I dislike pointing out things that you can see and hear for yourself so I won't. I don't want to intrude  into your own observations and discoveries. I hope you notice things I didn't.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Night Time in Antarctica

Image result for night sky antarcticaEnvironmental & Science Education
Solar System
Edward Hessler

The photographer of Night Sky in Antarctica is astrophysicist Robert Schwarz, the CMB-Observatory (Cosmic Microwave Background) operator at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station--with post-production help, of course.

The very brief notes below the video note that "the Aurora Australis can be seen together with the core of the Milky Way only here in Antarctica. Temperatures below -70°C/-95°F during the polar night are not uncommon. Together with strong winds and exceptional aridity this is one of the hardest places to shoot time-lapse in. Special equipment has been constructed and modified to keep the cameras running."

The music and video are very nicely matched.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Children Strike for Climate Change

Image result for alexandria villasenor
Environmental & Science Education
Climate Change
Edward Hessler

The late science educator Mary Budd Rowe, whom I have referred to in past posts, gave some remarkable advice to science educators in the final chapter of an also remarkable science methods text (Teaching Science as Continuous Inquiry). 

She used a heuristic device to help us think about what we want school science programs to aim for as opposed to merely thinking about a particular program. She set up symposium in which proponents of various kinds of science education programs described and made a pitch for their "unique" program.

At the end, the chair of the symposium made some comments in which significant program similarities were noted, e.g., the programs urged teachers to give their students "the time they need to become actively involved in conducting their own investigations. They expect plenty of mistakes--indeed they accord the student the right to be wrong, to learn from mistakes by retracing one's steps or by reorganizing one's procedures." 

I have always been very fond of the recommendations that followed--good habits of mind. What if "students learned to ask the following questions routinely--" 

On Evidence:
What do I know?
Why do I believe it?
What is the evidence? Do I have it all?
Where did the evidence come from? How good is it?

On Inference:
What do I make of it?
What are all the possible interpretations?

On Action:
What must I do with what I know?
What possible actions should I take?
Do I know how to take action?

On Evaluation:
What does it all mean?
Do I value some outcomes more than others?

In subsequent publications, Rowe (and others) refined these, e.g., What must I do with what I know? What are the options? Do I know what would happen if...? Do I care?  Does anyone care? Who cares? and so on. You get the idea.

Image result for rosie smart knight
I think about these questions as I follow news on the school strikes for science movement, aka Fridays for Future, Youth for Climate or Youth Strike 4 Climate. 

In its history of these movements, the Wikl entry states that "On  20 August 2018, Greta Thunberg,  then in ninth grade, decided to not attend school until the 2018 Sweden general election
 on 9 September after  heat waves and wildfires in Sweden. She asserts that this move was inspired by the teen activists at Parkland Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who organised the March for our lives. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions as per the Paris Agreement, and she protested by sitting outside the Riksdag every day during school hours with the sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate). On 7 September, just before the general elections, she announced that she would continue to strike every Friday until Sweden aligns with the Paris Agreement. She coined the slogan FridaysForFuture, which gained worldwide attention. She inspired school students across the globe to take part in student strikes." (see the Wiki entry for links) 

The video clips and news reports I've seen about this event feature students who have thoughtfully answered the kinds of questions Rowe asked. Here are two among several.

One is print, an article written for The Guardian with photos and links by 17-year-old student leader Rosie Smart Knight about the strike held in England on February 15 2019.  

There will be a strike in the United States on March 15 2019. Here is an article and interview by CBS reporters Jeff Berardelli and Haley Ott with 13-year-old student leader Alexandria Villasenor, the lead organizer of the US Youth Climate Strike. They note a Minnesota connection. "In New York, Villasenor is working to influence change with the help of two other teens -- 15-year-old Isra Hirsi who is the daughter of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, and 12-year-old activist Haven Coleman."

I highly recommend a long article about Villasenor written by science reporter Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post.

Image result for greta thunbergSomoni Sengupta of the New York Times wrote a article about Greta Thunberg entitled "From an 'Invisible Girl' to an Outspoken Climate Crusader." If you are interested in who she is and how she became the public Greta (it in the beginning) please read it. Sungupta characterizes Thunberg as "Wry. Blunt. Sometimes sarcastic. The opposite of sweet," to wit the following. 

"When Prime Minister Theresa May's office dismissed school walkouts in Britain as distraction that 'wastes lesson time.' Greta swiftly struck  back on Twitter: ' But then again, political leaders have wasted thirty years of inactions. And that is slightly worse.'"

“It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh you children, you young people are the hope. You will save the world’” she said, after several grown-ups had told her just that. “I think it would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit.” 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Friday Poem

Image result for mountains

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by Marge Piercy.

She is a fine novelist, too.

Maybe I should just say she is one heck of a writer.