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