Monday, December 28, 2015

It's All About Birds

Environmetal & Science Education
Edward Hessler

The Messenger dove scan copy
By Nympheus2 (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

I've not seen the film The Messenger, a documentary about song bird decline.

I read a review of the film from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology which includes the official movie trailer. The photography is breathtakingly beautiful. You will meet ecologists and evolutionary biologists and bird enthusiasts featured in the film at the official site.

What prompts this post is a recent piece published on Cornell's All About Birds. It is a short list on ways to lend a helping hand to birds, these messengers about the state of the environment. The ideas were inspired by the film. One of them is about cats (Keep them indoors) which seems to have elicited the most responses--worth reading if you are interested in strongly held points-of-view.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Carol Ann Duffy at Humber Mouth 2009 (3646825708)
By walnut whippet from Hull, UK
 [CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy was the first woman to be appointed Poet Laureate of Britain in 2009.  It took a mere 400 years for this to happen.  She is a professor of poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Her poem The Bee Carol is from the first book of poems published after she became poet laureate. A review of this book, The Bees may be found here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Effigy Mounds Along the Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

It would be easy to overlook Effigy Mounds National Monument on a road trip or river journey along the Upper Mississippi. This beautiful natural and cultural history site is hidden away in the densely wooded, rugged bluffs near Harpers Ferry, Iowa. Once found, your next challenge is gaining perspective on the Monument's 200-plus earthen mounds, some of which suggest familiar animal figures.

Emerging Understandings

Lakota archaeologist Albert Lebeau, a National Park Service cultural resource manager at the monument who was my guide on a recent visit (see video), acknowledges that much mystery surrounds the site. Common understandings of the mounds' origins and significance are limited to what was learned from excavations conducted more than 30 years ago. That research has been interpreted through somewhat outdated archaeological theories of the so-called "mound builders" indigenous cultural group, "as if all they ever did was build mounds," Lebeau says.

Due to the fact that most of the mounds hold human remains, the monument's 2,526 acres are considered to be sacred ground. Curiously, however, the mounds lacking human remains are disproportionately those that resemble great bears or birds. You can't help but wonder why these mounds were built during what archaeologists call the Woodland Period (750 to 1400 CE)—before Europeans arrived in the region. Moreover, what significance do they hold today for Native Americans from numerous regional tribes who Lebeau says use the site for ceremonial purposes?

Lebeau and his colleagues have only begun to tap the living cultural knowledge about this special place. As they learn more, our experience will be that much richer as we explore the monument's 14 miles of steep hiking trails that wind among the mounds and steep blufflands to arrive at overlooks offering spectacular views of the Mississippi and Yellow Rivers far below.


Monday, December 21, 2015

It's a Small World

History of Science
Edward Hessler

The Leeunwenhoek Microscope
Leeuwenhoek simple microscope (copy), Leyden, 1901-1930 Wellcome L0057739
See page for author
[CC BY 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
One of the surprises of this century is the discovery of three more Leeuwenhoek microscopes. It was in 1674 that Leeuwenhoek introduced us to microscopical biology.  He discovered another world: microorganisms.

One of the newly found microscopes was locked away for two decades, one was found in a box of silver trinkets and one was found in the mud of a canal bottom.  The total of surviving microscopes attributed to Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) is now twelve.

Brian J. Ford author of Leeuwenhoek Legacy, discusses these newly discovered microscopes here. He describes the legacy of Leeuwenhoek, summarizes data on each of the twelve existing microscopes in a table (metal, magnification, owner, place, provenance, authenticity--whether they are thought to be genuine) and the use of SEM macrography in authentication. This was the first time this technology has been used and it has shed light on what may turn out to be a method of authentication.  It turns out that details of manufacture leave their unique marks.

Leeuwenhoek constructed some 500 microscopes during his lifetime.  Ford notes that 26 silver microscopes were bequeathed to the Royal Society but these were later removed by a Victorian surgeon, Sir Everard Home.  It is likely that these were destroyed when his house burned to the ground.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek
By Jan Verkolje (1650—1693)
[Public domain or Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Leeunwenhoek's investigation into Microscopes
Following a visit to London where Leeuwenhoek had seen a copy of Robert Hooke's magnificent Micrographia he developed his own design for a simple microscope as described by Hooke in his Preface to the book.  These are small microscopes, about the size of a postage stamp.  They are not easy to use but Leeuwenhoek was patient and persistent. This Wiki entry provides many more details about him and his long life. His profession was draper; his avocation was science.

One of the early alphabet science programs in the 1960s, ess (elementary science study) developed a teaching unit titled "Small Things," designed to introduce children to the microscopic world.  It included a facsimile microscope made mostly of wood based on Leeuwenhoek's design and used a glass bead for the lens.  It also included a reflecting mirror and a focusing mechanism.

The kit was published in 1964 by McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Image from

Jennifer Michael Hecht turned from history--undergraduate degree in history (Adelphi University) and a Ph.D. in the history of science (Columbia University)--to poetry. However, she taught history for about a decade, becoming a tenured associate professor at Nassau Community College.  However, she always intended to be a poet.  For a time, history was her day job.

Hecht, an outspoken secularist, describes her interests this way, "Poetry came first, then historical scholarship, then public atheism, and they probably remain in that order in my dedication to them." 
She turned her dissertation work into a book "of history and theory, The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology."  This interview includes how she arrived at her secularism.

Here, is a lovely poem on NOT stopping in a wood on a snowy evening.                                                                  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Oldest Banded Bird

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Diomedea gibsoni 2 - SE Tasmania
By JJ Harrison (
(Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
The Albatross
Most references I hear to albatrosses are about a burden one must bear. Some are tinged with a "poor me." This idea is found in Coleridge's long poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, particularly the line, "the albatross/ About my neck was hung."

Reducing this great keeper of the oceanic sky to this single idea diminishes this magnificent group of birds. While on the whaling brig Daisy, Robert Cushman Murphy (1887-1973), ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote this about his first sighting of an albatross at sea. "I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross."  I like that among the many things named in honor of Murphy is a feather louse, common to the albatross, Eurymetopus murphyi.

Wisdom: The oldest banded Bird
The Independent reports on the return of a pair of Laysan albatross to a nature reserve on Midway Atoll. So?! What is unique about this return is that the female is approximately 64 years old, the oldest banded bird. She is there to hatch and raise what is thought may be her 36th chick! It is very likely that she has hatched 30 to 35 birds.

Wisdom--how appropriate the name--was first banded in 1956 and her age was estimated at 5 years old.

Sylvia Earle and Wisdom the Albatross (6741930627)
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Here is the Laysan albatross in flight.

Dr. Seuss was right (as he was about so many things). Oh, the places she has been and may she continue to go.

Laysan albatross

There are many good books about albatrosses. I recommend one that discusses these magnificent flyers from several angles: facts, fictional accounts, legends, art, science and culture. "Albatross" is published by Reaktion Press and is one from an animal series aptly described as "a new kind of animal history."  It is wonderfully idiosyncratic and richly illustrated.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Darwin Day

Environmental & Science Education
Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

One of the services of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a weekly update on evolution and climate change education. I always look forward to seeing it on my screen. It never fails to inform and is always a masterful summary of current events by Glenn Branch who is Deputy Director of NCSE.

By J. Cameron (Unknown) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Mr. Branch summarized the status of a Darwin Day resolution in the United States Congress.  He begins by writing "House Resolution 548, introduced in the United States House of Representatives on December 3, 2015, would, if passed, express the House's support of designating February 12, 2016, as Darwin Day, and its recognition of 'Charles Darwin as a worthy a symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge.'"

The lead sponsor is Jim Hines (D-Connecticut).

As usual, Mr. Branch includes relevant links. They are House Resolution 548, the press release from the American Humanist Association, and an NCSE publication on how to support evolution education.

The usual tip-of-the hat and thanks to Glenn Branch!

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment, Poetry
Edward Hessler

By Stilfehler (Own work)
[GFDL ( or
CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Michelle Gunderson is a first-grade teacher in Chicago. She is a fan, as are her students, of poetry and describes "poetry as the natural language of childhood" and provides some evidence.

Her students read poems.They write poems. Among poets they read include Whitman, Hughes, Dickinson, and Rosetti. I love her comment about writing a poem."Writing a poem when you are six, and experience yourself as a poet is extraordinary."

Recently she included a category of poems for writing that is important to students. The following poem is one response.

Freedom for Everyone by Arinev

Free! Free! Free!
Everyone likes being free
Outside in the grass
Inside with your toys
Freedom is on the flag
Freedom is in a leaf

This poem and others as well as her thoughtful, learning-centered comments may be found at a blog entry titled "Poetry as Subversive Activity."  It is found at Living in Dialogue.

h/t Diane Ravitch's blog

Friday, December 4, 2015

Charles Darwin on the Deck of the Beagle

Environmental & Science Education

History of Science, Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

Cartoon of Darwin & Shipmates on The Beagle
Augustus Earle (presumed) - Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery (sic) or interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage
By Augustus EARLE (1793 - 1838) (Britain/Australia)
 (Details of artist on Google Art Project)
[Public domain or Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Sotheby's auction house has for sale a cartoon painting of a painting by Augustus Earle, the Beagle's official artist.  "Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery [sic] of Interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage" shows Darwin in top-hat surrounded by shipmates expressing a variety of viewpoints on the collector and the growing collection.

Hannah Furness, Arts Editor, The Telegraph provides the details.

Darwin had at least two nicknames, one is found in the painting. It is the mildly derogatory "Flycatcher." The other used much more often throughout the voyage, "Philos", short for philosopher.

The ask is L 70,000 or in cold, hard U. S. cash, $105220.50.

The Crew members of The Beagle

By Conrad Martens (1834), engraved (1838)
by Thomas Landseer and published in the year by H. Colburn in
The Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of
HMS Adventure and Beagle [Public domain or Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Jerry Coyne, on his web-site Why Evolution is True, identifies crew members and provides a transcription of what each had to say in the painting's balloons, not all complimentary.  Furness draws attention to the sometimes fractious relationships on board.  You might expect this (and it is not news: see) on a small ship and one whose crew had various agendas: Darwin, "naturalizing," Captain FitzRoy (coastal surveying), officers (attached to the routine of sailing and its traditional rules and mores), and crew (following orders and executing routine duties).  Recall that they were on the Beagle for five years.

Furness includes a beautiful drawing of of the Beagle at sea, stern-on and in full sail.

h/t Why Evolution is True

Friday Poem

Poetry, Art and Environment

by Edward Hessler

Whooping cranes (4530701077)
By LaggedOnUser
(Whooping cranes  Uploaded by Magnus Manske)
 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commo
In this part of the world the season of cranes is past and we are in a period of waiting their return several months from now. A poem about cranes can be read any time of year, perhaps especially in the off-season. This poem is a long time favorite.

The poem was written by Anne Barbara Ridler, July 30 1912 to October 15 2001. She was a British poet and librettist.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Importance of Paris

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability

by Edward Hessler

2009 Summit on Climate Change (4345809406) / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name)
 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Justin Gillis has written a short and useful piece for the New York Times titled Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.

*Photo depicting the 2009 United Nations summit on Climate Change

Monday, November 30, 2015

Meet John Ruskey: Artist-Explorer of the Lower Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

by John Shepard

The Lower Mississippi River I thought I knew was an unappealing, levee-bound, commercial highway. It was so heavily trafficked by barge tows linked together in configurations that covered acres of murky, polluted water that even big recreational cruisers traveling between the Upper Mississippi and the Gulf Coast feared to tread. Instead, they opted for the more benign Tennessee-Tombigbee route through Alabama. It certainly sounded to me like a sub-optimal place for canoes.

Then I met John Ruskey at his rambling studio/storefront/canoe factory/expedition warehouse complex in the sleepy town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

Sharing the River's Riches

Ruskey's first experience on the Lower Mississippi—in winter, on a raft, as a young man—led him to an epiphany while stranded and hypothermic, raft destroyed, on a wind-swept island. The experience somehow deepened a connection with the river that began earlier with his fascination of its meandering lines on highway maps.

The Colorado native settled in Clarksdale, not far from the Mississippi in western Mississippi, and a focal point for the Delta Blues. Here he learned to play the blues and built a life that revolves around the Mississippi and the Delta culture that has grown up beside the big river. Today he creates luminous maps, makes beautiful wooden canoes, leads expeditions himself and through a network of Quapaw Canoe Company guides stationed at several regional outposts. He prioritizes trips on the waterway for school groups and youth at risk, though anyone can sign on to one of his outings.

And, by embellishing his maps with essential information for paddlers and publishing them in his Rivergator guidebooks, he documents a river the world has largely forgotten and that he may know better than anyone.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Poem

Art and Environment, Poetry

by Edward Hessler

Joy Harjo
By Joy Harjo (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

This lovely poem is by Joy Harjo, about whom you may read here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Birthday to General Relativity

History of Science, Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

A Mathematical Breakthrough
It was on this day, November 25, 1915 that Albert Einstein presented his famous General Relativity field equations at a lecture at one of the hotbeds of European physics, the University of Gottingen. Just a few years later, Gottingen was one of three centers for the study of physics and quantum mechanics.

*Video By Jubobroff (Own work)
 [CC BY 3.0 (], 
via Wikimedia Commons

It is easy to forget how mathematical this breakthrough was.  Einstein worked and corresponded with some of the best mathematicians on the continent for several years.  It was not born overnight in  a flash of inspiration.The geometrical ideas were deep and difficult, not at all intuitive. At times Einstein struggled with them.

Marcelo Gleiser on Einstein's Theory
Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Dartmouth College who also writes for 13.7 at NPR wrote about this anniversary today.  I was so glad he couldn't resist writing the equation down and even happier when he asked us to look at it. What's on the right side; what's on the left side. This not only draws attention to the equation but is a way of asking us to think about it.

I've a friend who teaches college physics.  He uses this strategy of asking students this kind of question fairly often, at least in classes I've observed because most students want to "plug and chug," especially under the heat of a test but also when dealing with problem sets. They want to get it over and move on.  But mathematics is more than computing.  It is used in formulas and equations to summarize--organize data--as well as reveal relationships. 

To do this requires, especially when you are stuck, to ask "What will happen if..?" kinds of questions.  Suppose you move something from one side of an equation to the other or in a formula using fractional components, move something from top to bottom or vice versa?  Change the value of a quantity?  Sometimes I've seen my friend simply ask "what's on top; what's on bottom?" (what it means) and to describe what a change in a quantity or a reversal of a quantity does to the mathematical representation or simply to ask what the symbols stand for.  The idea is not only to understand the tool but also the concept(s).

Gleiser's essay may be found here.

NASA: Beyond Einstein Program
Image from
Today, the National Academy of Sciences asks us to "embrace the gravity of the moment" and lists an unfinished symphony on space-time, a book on a defiant Einstein (He was never able to come to terms with quantum mechanics), NASA's beyond Einstein program, a relativity wrist-watch, an Einstein finger puppet and Einstein sticky notes.  Remember the books can be downloaded as a free PDF.

Happy Birthday General Relativity!

PS#1--This just in.  The NAS Press "messed-up" which means that the PDFs are not free as previously advertised.  NAS Press makes the offer free until November 30, 2015.

PS#2. Each Thanksgiving, Sean Carroll, a theoretician at CalTech posts about an equation (Riemann geometry this year) to be thankful for.  Carroll includes a link to a video, "E=MC^2...How Einstein's Theory of Relativity Changed Everything," in which he and Jeffrey Bennett are interviewed by Mat Kaplan. Carroll and Bennett focus on general relativity in their research in physics.

PS#3. And speaking of "mess-ups."  Einstein delivered his talk on general relativity in Berlin at the Prussian Academy, not Gottingen as I shouted from the roof-top!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Women's Adventures in Science


by Edward Hessler

Argonne lab education
By Argonne National Laboratory
(Science Careers in Search of Women 2009)
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Women's Adventures in Science consists of 10-books published by the National Academies Press.

The professions of these scientists include physics, planetary geology, robot design, sociology, biomechanics, wildlife biology, neuropsychology, climate science, forensic anthropology, and planetary astronomy.

The books in this series may be purchased as a set (with a discount) or individually, in hardcover or paperback. The books may be viewed and read on-line.

There is a companion web site to these books,, which offers another way to "meet" these women scientists. It is an interactive site which builds on the content of the books and includes games, comic strips, videos, activities, and a timeline featuring 25 women in science.

I have had no success in accessing the web-site. I haven't checked to see whether it is available to those who read from an on-line book. Here is some information from The Scout Report, University of Wisconsin.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Poem

Poetry, Art and Environment

by Edward Hessler

Image from

Today's poet, Tom Hennen, is a Minnesotan. He was born in Morris, Minnesota in 1942, grew up on a farm and spent much of his adult life working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To learn more about Mr. Hennen as well as his poetry, I recommend a review by Dana Jennings of  "Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems" in the New York Times.

You may take a look at this book here which allows a deep look inside.  I was surprised and pleased by the amount of access to these glorious poems.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fruitfly Embryonic Development in 3-D

Biological Evolution

by Edward Hessler

Physicist and Nobel Prize Awardee Erwin Schrodinger's book What is Life?

The 1933 Nobel awardee in physics, Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics turned his curiosity to a question of biology: "how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?" (Wiki)
Erwin Schrodinger at U Vienna
Daderot at the English language Wikipedia
or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
His book, here in a PDF, What is Life? was "based on lectures delivered under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in February 1943."
The lectures were delivered for a lay audience but it is interesting that right from the outset he noted "that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized (see Wiki entry above)!"

Fruitfly Larva Models Triumph of life over Entropy

Adam Frank, writing for NPR's Cosmos & Culture (November 10) notes that the triumph of life is not without its difficulties in understanding. He writes that hearing ideas related to thermodynamics "is one thing; seeing its reality is another." And he links us to a lovely example. It is a video from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) showing the development of a fruitfly larva from an undifferentiated condition to an organized larva (in about 20 hours).
Urophora stylata (Fruitfly sp.), Arnhem, the Netherlands
By Bj.schoenmakers (Own work) [CC0],
via Wikimedia Commons
More may be learned about filming life in the fast lane at EMBL
What I found more interesting than thermodynamics in this film is Schrodinger's discussion of "the hereditary code-script" or, in his best understanding, the chromosomes. He wrote, "It is these chromosomes, or probably only an axial skeleton fibre of what we actually see under the microscope as the chromosome, that contain in some kind of code-script the entire pattern of the individual's future development and of its functioning in the mature state." It is this development that is shown in the EMBL film.

Effects of Schrodinger's book on others and scientific research

Historians of science and scientists differ about the importance and influence of Schrodinger's book on career trajectories, biological research and our understanding of the natural world. Matthew Cobb, University of Manchester wrote a wonderfully informed history on "What Is Life" in a column for the Observer.
He discusses its influence in drawing young scientists to significant research careers in biology as well as Schrodinger's notion of a code-script on what was known earlier and following. Cobb is the author of a recent book on the genetic code which provides further details.
There is no robbery that is a result of this film. Mystery, beauty and wonder remain. Deeper, too. Richard Feynman once said " knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and awe of the natural world. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."
Nor do I.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday Poem

Poetry, Art and Environment

by Edward Hessler

Image from
Today's poem, a long-time favorite, is by a poet who has a Minnesota connection. Marilyn Nelson did her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  She is the daughter of one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Here, is a short biography.

The poem is Dusting and may give you some new ways to think about dust or revisit some old ways you've thought about dust.It is a delight.

We live in a dusty universe and Hannah Holmes wrote a fascinating guide about dust.

A haiku by Basho.

Dewdrops -
how better wash away
world's dust?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday Poem

Art and Environment, Poetry
Edward Hessler

By Slowking4 (Own work)
[GFDL 1.2 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Poet Rita Dove is a wonderful poet and has had an impressive career. She currently serves as the Commonwealth Professor of English, University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Ms. Dove is the youngest poet to have been appointed U. S. Poet Laureate (1993) and the first African American to hold that post after the title was changed from consultant in poetry in 1986. Gwendolyn Brooks, another stunning poet, was the first African American poet to hold the latter position (1985).

This poem by Ms. Dove is a lovely way to begin November even if you are not a beginner to November.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Weather Music

Image result for weather

Environmental & Science Education, Equity

by Edward Hessler

We are surely blessed to have Orion Magazine.  At the top of the page we read, "America's finest environmental magazine."  No argument here.

Lovely essays, deep reporting, multimedia, poetry, beautifully produced.

The September-October issue has an article by Leath Tonino about a New Orleans artist who created a musical instrument that is played by the weather--wind, rain, the ups and downs of temperature.  Weather for the blind.

You may listen here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Letter from Academics to World Leaders About Global Warming

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability

by Edward Hessler

Earth On Stove
By Lesserland (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
If you are an academic there is still time to sign a letter to world leaders on global warming.

It is the idea of two philosophers, an American, Lawrence Torcello and an Australian, Keith Horton.

So far, more than 1500 signatures have been added to the letter.

Signatures are being collected until November 30 when the United Nations Climate Conference begins.

h/t to Greg Laden

The Particle Physics Personality Quiz

Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

1011252 11-A4-at-144-dpi
By Pcharito (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

So you're thinking about becoming a particle physicist.

To help you decide which topic to study Symmetry Magazine has a short particle physics personality quiz.  It is fun and requires no mathematics.

I took it and am headed for string theory.   However, without the maths I am sure that this means simply collecting string to see how large a ball I can grow.

While I took it once, I may take it again (and again) changing my answers each time to learn a little about the various fields of particle physics research.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Goose Bumps Explained

Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

Goosebumps. Halloween is one of the times we think about them but they are not at all uncommon.  Scary movies anytime but not for everyone.

So, what does science have to say about them?

Under the category "Your Health," NPR's Adam Cole posted a great film "The Hair-Raising Science of Goose Bumps."

As usual, a day late and a dollar short!

By Imperpay at English Wikipedia [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Goose bumps
By EverJean (Flickr)
 [CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Poem

Art & Environment

by Edward Hessler

Image from

A poem for Halloween by Louise Gluck.

And here, a biography of one of this nation's finest lyrical poets.  I include a review of her most recent collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night.

Happy Halloween 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Evolutionary Biology for Children

Biological Evolution, Science & Environmental Education

by Edward Hessler

Image from

You must read/listen to Barbara J. King on a new book for children on biological evolution.  King is a regular contributor to NPR's Cosmos & Culture: Commentary on Science and Society.  The commentary is titled When Should You Introduce A Child to Evolution?

Grandmother Fish is for 3- to 7-year olds and was written by Jonathan Tweet and illustrated by Karen Lewis. And King describes the book as "a feast for the senses." Tweet places technical material and terms in an appendix for parents/adults while writing honestly about evolution in a way that engages a child's sense of wonder. King notes that above all "The book is very good on the science."

Now, an even nicer fact about the book is that it is free as a PDF (its development was paid for by crowd-sourcing).

Monday, October 26, 2015

A month along the Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

An obscure sanctuary harboring some of the world's oldest and grandest cypress trees. An intimate interview with a 78-year-old Mississippi Delta blues legend. Glimpses into the world occupied by ancient Mississippi valley mound builders. A giant (348'-long) painted panorama of the Mississippi River—the only surviving example of an art form that was popular in the mid-1800s that is now on display at the St. Louis Art Museum.

My just-completed month-long documentary journey from the Headwaters to the Delta and back left some powerful impressions of the great river and its lands and peoples. By way of a preview of the many stories from the trip that will populate much of CGEE's upcoming Mississippi Multimedia Gallery project, here is a highlights reel:

A Mississippi River Journey—Headwaters to Delta—in Five Minutes

Serendipity led me to John Ruskey—a river explorer and artist who builds his own canoes; paints intricate, colorful navigational maps; and, through his Quapaw Canoe Company, leads paddle excursions on the lower Mississippi, with its surprisingly wild reaches and many massive barge tows. Bluesman YZ Easley opened his home for a personal talk about the music that has flowed through the life of his family and community. Albert LeBeau, a Lakota who works as a Cultural Resource Manager at Effigy Mounds National Monument, shared perspectives on how native people continue to thrive and have left intriguing legacies among blufflands—a region that was managed in prehistoric times as oak savanah, not as the densely forested landscape found today.

For land-based travelers, the river is often frustratingly out of view behind levee walls and the wooded floodplain. I was able to achieve an aerial perspective in many places, however, due to an amazing new flying camera (the 3DR Solo), and a helicopter flight used to capture images of New Orleans' post-Katrina flood-control system and the heavy shipping traffic on the Big River.

Between the two, the drone revealed the most unexpected surprises: the Mississippi's vastness where it has received the waters of the Missouri. Seeing the upper river valley as an eagle would, soaring beside 400-foot bluffs.  And at the top of two huge trees discovering naked, weathered branches that were pointing skyward like gnarled fingers above the lush canopy. One tree is Minnesota's biggest white pine at Lake Itasca. The other is a cypress more than 1,000 years old and 2,000 miles downstream in rural Mississippi.

Flight of the Whoopers

Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

This morning a short newspaper article caught my attention, an announcement of a recommendation by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that the use of ultralights in guiding whooping cranes south from Wisconsin may end.

Whooping Cranes Flights
Whooping crane pair
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
(Flickr: whooping crane pair)
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Lee Bergquist, an environmental reporter for the Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI) has written a great piece which discusses the decision as well as provides context and information about whooping cranes.

If you are interested in learning more about these flights, Jon Mooallem devotes a chapter in "Wild Ones" to this practice. It provides the science, history, cultural influences, and personal narratives about those involved.  The other two chapters focus on an icon of conservation, the polar bear and a much less well-known species, the Lange's metalmark butterfly.

Mooallem began this exploration when he started to notice the number of imaginary animals which surround out children--on pajamas, animal-themed rooms, toothbrush handles. This made him wonder whether we see (can see?) wild animals or something else. This review may help you decide whether you want to read it.

I found it a powerful book about our relationship with the natural world.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sustainable Farming as Told by Lentils

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability

by Edward Hessler

Recently I left the new books section of the campus library with Liz Carlisle's Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America tucked under my arm. The Amazon link provides a peek inside.

Lentil Underground
Lens culirnaris
By Rainer Zenz at German Wikipedia (Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto.))
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"Lentil Undergound" is about Timeless Seeds, a Montana organic lentil and heritage grain business founded in 1987 by four farmers, one of whom, Dave Oien, "seeded the first organic lentil in his county."  And Carlisle notes just how radical an act this was in a state where farmers responded to nearly all problems by following the forceful instruction of former U. S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. Butz is remembered for recommending planting "fencerow to fencerow" and "get big or get out."

Why lentils?  The basic reason Carlisle writes is "Instead of mining the soil for nutrients to fuel an impressive harvest, this Robin Hood of the dryland prairie gathers the abundant fertility of the aboveground world--of the air, in fact--and shares it freely beneath the earth's surface. Inside the plant's nodules, bacteria surreptitiously convert atmospheric nitrogen into a community nutrient supply.  If wheat is the symbol of rugged individualism, then lentils embody that other agrarian hallmark too often overlooked in the western mythos: community."

Farming & Risk-taking in Lentil Underground

Image from

The book is an engaging story about the farmers and their families, farming methods, risk-taking,  hard times, legumes (Black Medic, a relative of alfalfa, and the lentil varieties, French Green and Black Beluga), research, cash flow, groceries and a restaurant, ecological logic, governmental organizations/regulations, agricultural policy issues, eating food that is grown responsibly, marketing, and events which shaped Timeless Seeds.

The map of farms and towns mentioned in Lentil Underground is an immense help while reading.   There is also a useful glossary of terms, e.g., agroecology, base acres, cover crop cocktail, inoculants, kamut, Natural Products Expo West, pulse crops, undersowing, triple bottom line.

An epilogue describes where things stand with Timeless Seeds and the farmers when the book went to press.

The farmers are not who you think they might be either.  They are diverse educationally, politically as well as in their beliefs, backgrounds and experiences. You might remember Robert McCloskey's children's book Lentil (nothing to do with lentils, it is about a harmonica playing boy).  It is a story about determination and perseverance, core characteristics of this group of Montana lentil farmers.

Land Sharing as a way to fix the food system
On the dust cover of Lentil Underground, author Bill McKibben wrote, "Who knew?"  I certainly didn't. Now, I can say that I know, well I need to be honest...sort of...I'm aware. This kind of farming is seasonal work with one season informing the next in one iteration after another. Nor do I have the long experience of farming that these farmers have or of paying attention to what must be noticed.  They are also capable of modifying or fixing machinery. And then there is the sweat and hard work, notably absent in my case.

Carlisle closes this story by noting that Timeless Seeds is a demonstration of the possibilities. "(Timeless Seeds) can't fix the food system alone (they contract with only about 20 farmers).  That's a job for all of us." A way to think about this fix is as land sharing which the book's glossary defines as "An approach to conservation ecology in which agricultural production and biodiversity conservation are integrated."

And what changes will be required if/when these are taken to scale. The changes will be far from the same since agroecosystems and outcomes are characterized by particulars and many twists and turns. The land sharing concept also includes many other things that humans do. While some of the harms can't be undone the future requires that we learn to live in harmony with nature rather than defying it.

2 Farmers: Jerry and Kathy Sikorski
Jerry and Kathy Sikorski are two of the farmers in Carlisle's book who provide an interesting example of living more harmoniously within harmony with nature. It is a small example of adaptation. They live in eastern Montana which has a climate suitable for corn.  Corn is included in their grain rotation, "but they pay attention to rainfall totals and reduce their seeding density accordingly."  Jerry Sikorski says that "It means less grain, but it also means fewer plants to use the available moisture."

A story about dental claims reminded me of a local bank teller I once knew. He was from Pakistan and the bank was small enough for occasional small talk as we made transactions.  I remember a conversation that included agriculture and lentils. Once in search of lentils to fill a very large order, Dave Oien thought that "precleaned" lentils he had purchased meant they were stone free.  However, he was soon to learn that grade one lentils meant fewer that 0.1 percent stones (or 10/pound).

As you can guess someone eventually broke a tooth on a stone.  From that time forward, Oien never sold lentils that Timeless hadn't cleaned. My bank teller-friend mentioned that one of the many things he liked about living in the U. S., was having fewer chipped/broken teeth from eating lentils that hadn't been cleaned of small stones.
In what seems great timing, I just discovered that the United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of the Pulses. Lentils are a member of this ancient family of crops.

And finally this post would be incomplete without some recipes for lentils.

A Free Science Book for the Younger Set (and the Older Set, Too)

Biological Evolution, Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers calls attention to a free children's book for those who like Charles Darwin and Dr. Seuss. To me, this means the audience also includes adults.

Great Adaptations: A Fantastical Collection of Science Poems is by Tiffany Taylor in collaboration with DS Wilson and Robert KadarTaylor is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Reading, UK.  The book consists of 10 illustrated poems about "remarkable adaptations".

All the necessary information on how to download the book may be found here.

What a deal!
Image from

Image result for people in nature

Environmenal & Science Education
Sustainable Energy & Transportation
Edward Hessler

Several months ago on November 30, 2015, world leaders met in Paris, France for the United Nations conference on climate change.

I call one document to your attention released by the Vatican before the meeting.

Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home). This encyclical seems to me a must read. The message that we need nature and each other resonates with me. I very much like its ecological and cultural tone. Reading it reminds me of a phrase in Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail where he stated that “we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality,” one that we still barely recognize. And it reminds me of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.

Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote a great review for the New York Review of Books (here). And, of course, the encyclical is available, on-line. (here)

Real Climate, a technical blog written by climate scientists/modelers has a review that will add insight into any analysis/consideration of the document. (here)

Is it the answer to all things climate? No, of course not. The Pope & the Market by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus is a thoughtful, market-based perspective that adds to a thoughtful discussion and consideration of Laudato Si.

It has, of course, received some negative commentary, mostly on blogs, but you can search those out, read them and use them in thinking about the document. Some of it has to do with the religious nature of the document. But, hey, as is said, "Is the Pope Catholic?" What else would one expect?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Stone Fruit

Art and Environment, Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

A stone fruit tree, possibly a plum (Prunus species); Wellcome V0043705
See page for author
 [CC BY 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Art Professor Creates Live Tree Sculptures
Art professor Sam Van Aken creates live tree sculptures of forty different fruits through grafting, one branch at a time. He is a faculty member in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University.

A full-blown Tree of Forty Fruit is comprised exclusively of stone fruits--fruits with pits. The pecan may be a bit of a surprise but not in the botanical world.  Van Aken grew up on a farm and had seen grafting done as a child.  An article by Geoff Herbert provides the details of the project including the serendipitous event that led him to his present preoccupation with grafted fruit trees.

About this event Herbert writes "The project began in 2008 when Van Aken discovered an orchard at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva that had more than 200 varieties of plums and apricots. When he learned it was to be abandoned, he picked up the lease and began...." 

Video on Van Aken's Grafting process

Apple tree grafting 2
By Karelj (Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
In a National Geographic video Van Aken talks about his work, provides a tour of his nursery, demonstrates the grafting technique and shows pages from his meticulously kept notebooks.  Each page is a visualization of the grafting design for a particular tree. The resulting diagrams are lovely and provide a glimpse of how this artist keeps a working record of his work.

In this web page are found photographs of Van Aken's work. The full grafting process takes from five to ten years.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Chemistry at the University of Virginia at the Time of Jefferson


by Edward Hessler

Rotunda UVa from the south east
By terren in Virginia (flickr)
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
A press release from the University of Virginia describes a chemistry hearth from the time of Thomas Jefferson found in the rotunda during its renovation.

There was a news story and an article with more pictures on NPR.

Cool is way overused. Not here!

The 1895 8th Grade Test from Kansas

Environmental & Science Education, Literacy, Mathematics Education

by Edward Hessler

You have probably seen the famous test given in Kansas in 1895.  It has been subject to a lot of ink and debate. But who took it? Is it authentic?  What does it say about general literacy today?

Valerie Strauss has written an essay about the test which answers these kinds of questions and provides some important background.  In addition, she includes a copy of the test just in case you want to take it again or share it with someone else.

Politicians use test questions
Bhs int classroom ss
By Bhs_itrt (talk) (Uploads)
 (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.)
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Several questions from this test have been used by conservative politicians, including one candidate for president, as a talking point on the state of education then and now. Guess when things were better. You are right. Not now.

However, the politicians and commentators who use this as "evidence" to make a point for a personal belief, miss a few things such as the source of the questions, the pass rate then (25%) as well as the percentage of actual school age kids who took it and the source of the quote itself.  The Tocqueville citation does not exist.  However, it has been traced to the original source. You may read all about it here.

Did Dorothy say it best when she stated "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore"?!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Teaching the Truth About Climate Change

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability, Sustainable Energy & Transportation

by Edward Hessler

Video by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An editorial in the October 10 New York Times is a strong endorsement of teaching the facts — the truth — about climate change in schools.

The editorial notes that the Next Generation Science Standards provide a scientific, researched-based framework for teaching this concept in a way that helps students understand the science. The authors call attention to their adoption by fifteen states and also about 40 school districts. The editorial also describes the adoption landscape.

The editors point out that "Children today stand to inherit a climate severely changed by the actions of previous generations. They need to understand how those changes came about, how to mitigate them and how to prevent more damage to the planet. Schools can start by adopting science standards that deal extensively with human-caused climate change and that accurately reflect the scientific consensus."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Workshop on Wind Energy at Campus Sostenible

by Steven Beardsley

Making our windmills at the workshop

While I was abroad in Spain, I went to a workshop at Espinardo, one of the two major campuses of la Universidad de Murcia, on Wind Energy. The presenter showed us a video on windmills that detailed the various kinds of windmills such as horizontal ones versus vertical ones.

We also got the chance to see various diagrams that highlighted different parts of the windmill. For instance, there are safety mechanisms within the windmills that are designed to stop the windmill if it gets too windy in order to prevent damage to the windmill. I’ve also noticed that in Spain it can get pretty windy, which surprised me since it’s typically warm and sunny most of the time.

Presentation on Wind Energy

Length of a blade of a windmill
In addition to the video, the presenter showed us various mini-windmills with little circuits where spinning the windmill lights up the light along the corners. He mentioned how this is inefficient since one has to either continually spin the windmill and the spin has to be consistently strong. This led to a discussion on the various types of renewable energy.

For instance, solar energy is highly valued in Spain since Spain receives the most sunlight out of most countries in Europe and is usually used in conjunction with wind energy. Additionally, the presenter mentioned the difficulties of accumulating energy through windmills in addition to talking about the size of one of the many blades. I was surprised to find out that the blade of a windmill is actually the length of two highways as depicted in this image:

Making our Own Windmills
He also talked more about the differences between windmills that are used to take water out of the ground versus windmills that are used for accumulating energy. He also gave a general explanation of the use of wind from early navigation on boats to modern day constructions of windmills. After answering questions and talking more about the mechanisms of the windmill, we also got the chance to make our own windmills.

We first constructed a mast like that of a boat in order to see which direction the wind was coming from. We were able to color our mast and cut different designs into it. After that, we made the windmill itself and put it into place with a plastic cylinder that slid tightly onto one end of our mast. Luckily, it was windy the day of the workshop, so we got the chance to see our windmills spin and move in the direction of the wind. 

Overall, I found the experience to be very fun with a great mix of theory and practice. I now know that windmills are very impressive and great sources of energy accumulation. It was also interesting to hear about the various strides that Spain is making in renewable energy.

Me with my Spanish friends and our windmills

Grading a Watershed

Environmental & Science Eduction, Water & Watersheds, Rivers, Sustainability
by Edward Hessler

By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Mississippi river basin has been assigned a grade of D+ by America's Watershed Initiative. Well, it is better than a D!

250 rivers plus flow into the mighty Miss and these include many hundreds of watersheds.  We are always in one but it takes a lot of noticing and thinking for that to register.

At America's Watershed Initiative you can explore the report card for each of the Mississippi's sub-basins and see the grades assigned for recreation, economy, ecosystems, water supply, transportation and flood control/risk reduction.