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 That research has been interpreted through somewhat outdated archaeological theories of the so-called "mound builders" indigenous cultural group, "as if all they ever did was build mounds," Lebeau says.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