Friday, December 30, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

This Friday, a lovely poem by Gail Mazur. However, it is so close to the new year I must add another. After the clock strikes midnight on December 31 here is a poem to start the year.

New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

—Kobayashi Issa

I am likely to read it earlier in the evening well before the bewitching hour. By the way, this well known poem, one I never tire of reading, was originally called "The Century's End, 1900." And for information about the poet see here.

However, don't forget to add a leap second before you read the poem.

[Wikimedia Commons]

There is a wonderful entry in An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie who, in the year he wrote the essay was up at midnight, but in a much more indolent mood than the scientist he describes. It was the habit of this professor at the University of Gottingen to sit down at his work desk at midnight and begin work.

It is easy to read into this description and I do this regularly. The university and city were very integrated and the narrow winding streets of the city had homes, business and university lecture halls mixed together. Perhaps he walked from home to office-laboratory-atelier in light snow (my hope), alone in the dark.

The University of Gottingen was known in Europe and the United States for its many celebrated departments and professors in the first part of the last century although mathematics was the master discipline blurring the boundaries between pure mathematics, applied mathematics and the sciences. Three of those disciplines are are part of STEM education: science, mathematics and engineering.

The stance of the Issa haiku is one of humility.  Humility in the face of what we know, think we know and want to know is a good thing, I think!

Minnesotans are fond of saying interesting, a word with many meanings.  The new year promises to be very interesting but I hope it is a happy one for you.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Read All About It: Climate Change Denial

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Wisconsin DNR

One of our neighbors has made a change on its Department of Natural Resources website. It is now a statement written by climate change naysayers and doubters.

Natasha Geiling (Think Progress) writes about this and includes the old and the new language.

OLD Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources statement on climate change.

Earth's climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping ('greenhouse') gases are the main cause....

NEW Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources statement on climate change.

As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change as this particular time in the earth's long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Given Wisconsin's recent political environment this is not surprising. I hope that this is not a harbinger of future purges.

A STEM-Related Career

Image result for ecology

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

Almost 40 years have passed since Rodger Bybee wrote a paper which still resonates with me. Bybee is the former director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. (BSCS) He has had a strong hand in two standards projects, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and the Next Generation Science Standards.(NGSS)  Earlier in his career, Bybee was a faculty member at Carleton College, Northfield.

In several papers, Bybee made a case that science education  was in a period of transformation concerning its aims.  He argued for growth toward an ecological society and made suggestions for the role of science, especially biology, in what he considered an emerging ecological society.

We know, of course, that this trajectory of change did not occur. I still like the idea!

Bybee noted that science education should prepare its citizens to make responsible decisions concerning science-related personal and social issues and the National Science Education Standards included this as a major strand. He noted three areas for discussion: problems of lifetime (conception, abortion, birth control, death and dying), lifespace (pollution, crowding, urban issues), and lifestyle (affluence, poverty, consumption, conservation). 

Bybee also drew attention to another goal of science education: career awareness, noting that "the aim has never achieved major importance" in science education. He also did not feature careers in his series of papers.

The papers and others may be found in Reforming Science Education: Social Perspectives & Personal Reflections (1993).

I thought of Bybee's concerns as well as of the role of STEM education when I viewed a film I've now watched twice.  The film, 13 and a half-minutes long, is deeply moving and wrenching.

STEM education is natural territory for incorporating and making use of STEM careers in the context of learning rather than as an add-on. We sometimes think of STEM somewhat narrowly, i.e., leading to careers in medicine, science and engineering. However, the reach of STEM is wide and deep.  There are many opportunities for students in STEM-related careers.

One of these (in health care) is featured in this film. It might be called "have a valise of health care tools and will travel." It is the story of a nurse-family program in Texas.

PS— STEM was first known as SMET.  I think you'll agree that the new acronym rolls off the tongue much more pleasantly! Even invitingly. SMET puts a period after it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vera Rubin

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

No observational problem will not be solved by more data. —Vera Rubin

Groundbreaking (well sky-breaking) astrophysicist Vera Rubin died Sunday, December 25, 2016.  She was 88.
Vera Rubin.

Rubin confirmed the existence of dark matter which comprises 27% if the matter in the universe. What it is exactly remains a puzzle.

I have written about comments made by cosmologist Sabine Hossenfelder on how deserving Dr. Rubin was of the Nobel Prize.

NPR's Camila Domonoski wrote a lovely summary of her life and also a tribute yesterday. Domonoski includes a widely cited quote stating Rubin's assumptions about life and work. I think these may be from a Carnegie Institution celebration of her life and work in 2002.

1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.

Vera Rubin was a national treasure.

The commencement address Rubin delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, May 17, 1996 was chosen by NPR to be included in a list of the 100 best commencement speeches ever. It is one of those addresses that you wish you attended.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming to Understand the Earth as a Dyamic System

History of Science
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

It was Marie Tharp's painstaking work on mapping the ocean that eventually forced a reluctant scientific community to accept plate tectonics (earlier known as continental drift, an idea first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912). She did one of the hard jobs in science:the numbing work of numbers crunching, data analysis and later transformation into a map.

All this was done back in the laboratory while the data collectors were at sea. She wasn't allowed to sail along. Navy regulations, you know.

Tharp mapped the 10000 mile-long-Mid-Atlantic ridge and the "boy" (Bruce Heezen) in the saga reduced it to "girl talk."  Eventually, he came round, persuaded by evidence, way too much evidence.

Marie and Bruce [Flickr]
The Royal Institution of Great Britain has produced a very nice short animated film of her work.  The Smithsonian Magazine published a great story about Tharp's work earlier this year which includes the map that she and her colleague, and more than sometime detractor, Bruce Heezen, produced. Heezen was stuck in a paradigm, saying that the map produced looked too much like continental drift.

Clare Dudman wrote a compelling page turner, a faithfully told story of the life of Alfred Wegener. It is told in Wegener's voice. Victorian prim and proper. It is a historical novel but please don't let the word novel turn you away from it. It sticks close to the science. Historical novels can be an interesting way to write about the history of science, providing readers a trustworthy account of how science was conducted during the time the scientist was working as well as how difficult, even when faced with data, it is to change one's view.

Science tends to be, with good reason, conservative when it comes to change. It takes a lot of evidence and Planck's principle. A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In 1930 Wegener disappeared beneath the Greenland ice. He was found, perfectly preserved, about six-months later.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Photo taken by Bobak Ha'Eri, on July 12, 2008.

Today's poem is by James Wright. Mr. Wright taught at the University of Minnesota with John Berryman, a major figure in American poetry during the second half of the 20th century.

It is titled "The Minneapolis Poem."

Here is an interview with Mr. Wright from the Paris Review in a series on the art of poetry. I must alert you that this interview is long (and rich, providing insights on Wright's work and his views of poetry, teaching, other poets and writing. Wright did his Ph.D. on Dickens and noted that his main subject as a teacher is the English novel.).

The unedited interview when typed was 83 pp!  The Paris Review shortened it for publication but it is still long and I add, endlessly fascinating. It also has a very funny story in it about a Jewish rabbi.

So, with the length of this recommendation in mind, here is a shorter biography from Wikipedia which notes that it is in need of work for citation verifications. Still, I urge you to at least skim the long interview. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Poems for the Winter Solstice

Environmental and Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

It is the Winter Solstice, one of the ways humans have marked time (think Neolithic) and have noted this occasion as the world turns around the sun. The arrival of winter according to the sky above—way above... deep above.
© Copyright Sian Lindsey.

What a pairing. Shortest of days. Longest of nights.

Well, not quite!

There is an interesting twist, a result which follows from geometry. It is the shortest day.  First, the year's earliest sunset is NOT on the Winter Solstice. It occurs a few days before. Second, the year's latest sunrise is NOT on the Winter Solstice. It occurs a few days after. It is because our orbit around the sun is not a circle but an ellipse.

Paul Huttner provides an explanation from (link to site above) on the Updraft Blog.

Three wintry poems here, here and here.

Ah, why not a fourth?!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for recycling

Art and Environment
Reduce Reuse Recycle
Edward Hessler

So what to do?  Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse.

To think about these choices as well as others that living on the planet reveal daily, if not hourly, read Adrienne Su's After the Dinner Party.

This poem was just published in the December issue of Poetry. Adrienne Su is chair of the Department of English at Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. Not all of the links on the page about Su function but a few linked to other poems do.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Robot Is My Name: Spring Making is My Game

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

[Wikimedia Commons]

Most of us know very little about the factory floor these days, especially about the automation that has replaced so many workers or changed their jobs.

This music video from Japan joins driving electronic dance music with a film of robotic arms bending, twisting and cutting wire for a wide variety of springs.

Fortunately the film ends; otherwise I might watch forever, completely mesmerized.

A recent piece in MinnPost describes how robotics is changing Minnesota's workforce as well as trade-offs.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hamline University Waste Audit: Our Findings

CGEE Student Voice
Campus Sustainability
by Jenni Abere

previously posted some initial observations from the three-day waste audit we conducted in Hamline's student center, the Anderson Center. Now that the numbers have been processed, I can back up some of these observations with data.

As we prepare to start organics composting on campus, the biggest finding is that compostable waste constituted a larger percentage of waste by weight than trash or recycling -- combined. Yes, that's right, compostable waste was over 50% of the waste in a building that already diverts the majority of its food waste (through a hog farm). This is a surprising finding, and proves that we need to introduce composting on campus as soon as possible.

The total weight for each category from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday combined:
Compostable: 180.06 lbs
Recycling: 57.41 lbs
Trash: 84.9 lbs
Liquid: 15.9 lbs

I wrote about why we want to avoid throwing away liquids in my first blog post. But liquids can be considered part of the compostable category.

The recycling rate may seem low, but let's remember that this is just what was in the trash. We did not sort recycling. In 2015, Hamline recycled 15% of its waste. 15% is an abysmally low recycling rate, and now we know that part of the reason for that is because so much recycling is being thrown away.

Throwing Money Away 

We pay for everything that we throw away. In Ramsey County, there is a County Environmental Charge, which is essentially a landfill tax. $65/ton. That doesn't seem too steep, but for a large institution like Hamline it adds up. In 2015, we paid over $18,000 in this tax.

With these numbers from the audit, how much could we save if we composted and recycled everything we could? Let's wildly extropolate some data, shall we?

Our baseline 2015 numbers have shown that Anderson produced 66.92 tons of trash in a year, accounting for $4,349.80 in charges. The proportion we found in the waste audit should be consistent enough to apply to a year's worth of data.

If we only threw away what cannot be composted or recycled, we would throw away 16.73 tons of waste in a year. This would cost us $1,087.45 in charges, so the savings could be as high as $3,200 per year.

What's the real proportion of waste?

The finding that 25% of Anderson waste is landfill-bound is actual an underestimate, since we're not accounting for recycling that ended up in the recycling bins. Using campus-wide numbers that we recycle 15% of our waste, we'll assume that if 66.92 tons of trash came from Anderson, 11.81 tons of recycling came from Anderson.

That 25% of waste drops to 21% when we factor in recycling. This lines up well with estimates that say 75% or more of all waste is recyclable or compostable.

Beyond Anderson 

The proportion of compostable waste may be a lot smaller in buildings that don't deal with as much food as Anderson does. However, we also assumed that Anderson's percentage of compostable waste would be much smaller. Once we introduce composting in the Anderson center, we should conduct waste audits of other buildings on campus to see where there is a need.

Klas is a good place to start since it has a Subway. All bathrooms on campus would benefit from compost bins for paper towels. The dorms and apartments might be good candidates for composting as well. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Peopleing of the Planet

Edward Hessler

Gee, it was only yesterday, a mere 100,000 ybp, that humans began leaving their homelands on the vast and diverse continent that we know as Africa today.

I wonder what they considered as they moved from old, familiar territory to new and unfamiliar territory. Three things they had is found in Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go: You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go....

Consequences, intended and unintended were likely not part of their personal equation, not that we've changed that much since that yesterday. They moved, though, in search of a better life.

Wikimedia Commons

And now we are 7 billion + and growing, a number that is large enough that it challenges understanding. So how did this happen?

A data visualization from the American Museum of Natural History doesn't help too much in grasping the large number that represents our population. It does, though, show how the planet was populated based on the current evidence. And you can see how millions add up, contributing to helping us grab a very large number. I was surprised at times to see population centers of a million that I'd either not known about or forgotten.

The visualization includes some of the large, historical events that allowed this growth as well as contributed to its acceleration.

It may be seen here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for kid

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Mark Doty's "Brian Age Seven" is today's poem.

You may learn more about him here.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Environmental Studies Field Trips: Hennepin Energy Recovery Center

CGEE Student Voice
Environmental Studies Field Trip Series
Waste Diversion
by Jenni Abere

This week, my class took our final trip to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, a waste-to-energy plant and controversial incinerator, commonly called HERC. After spending some time in the zero waste and environmental justice movements this summer, I had a negative view of HERC. I had seen the higher rates of asthma and respiratory ailments in north Minneapolis, where the wind carries smoke from HERC. I had held the belief that landfilling and incinerating are equally bad, it's just a matter of whether you want to pollute your water or your air.

But, I went into the tour and the presentation ready to keep an open mind.

HERC processes roughly 365,000 tons of waste per year, most of this waste from Minneapolis, and the rest from Suburban areas in the county. In 2015, this constituted about 30% of the total waste produced in Hennepin County. Nearly half of the total waste was recycled. The county aims to increase recycling rates and its new organics composting program in order to reduce the amount of waste that is incinerated. One-third of waste produced in the county is organic waste, so composting has a lot of potential.

Waste-to-energy facilities are preferred by state law over direct landfilling, and there are some comparative benefits:

  • Burning reduces the volume of waste by 90%.
  • Ash is sent to a landfill for incinerator ash only, which reduces the harm from leachate.
  • Landfill gasification is an even less efficient way to produce energy than waste incineration. 
  • HERC has fewer air emissions than most landfills, since one-third of the facility is devoted to air quality control measures. 

Perhaps one of the better arguments for incineration, is that it's a local operation. Landfilling often requires trucking trash to other states or even countries, which obviously has a huge environmental impact. But this means that the environmental and health impacts of incineration are also local.

How HERC Operates

After the waste is dumped on the tipping floor, operators pull out large items that would be harmful if burned, such as large appliances. These are recycled if possible, but otherwise landfilled. Waste is burned to produce steam, and the steam turns turbines to produce energy, like a typical power plant. However, as we learned from talking to the operators, waste is a very unstable fuel. It can be, literally, anything -- and sometimes the material is wet, which of course doesn't burn well. Some WTE facilities grind up the waste first to create a smoother burn, but HERC doesn't do this.

A truck tipping, and the huge crane carrying waste to the chute that feeds the incinerator.

HERC produces enough energy for 25,000 homes, and contributes steam heating to Minneapolis buildings. Some excess heat goes to the adjacent lightrail station, to heat the ground so that salting and shoveling is not needed.

As was repeatedly stated during the presentation, one-third of HERC is air quality and pollution control. This includes:

  • injecting urea to control NOx
  • scrubbers
  • a magnet to remove metals from ash (*the metal is then recycled)
  • fabric filters to catch fly ash
*The metal that is captured is typically not steel cans, or other easily recyclable metals (aluminum, for instance, burns), but metal that is inside of other things, such as small electronics. Of course, recycling your electronics through a reputable recycler is the best option. 

A pie-graph revealed that HERC constitutes 0.2% of county air emissions. (I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a small amount, since none of the comparisons were single operations.)

Thoughts on Waste-to-Energy

Hennepin county certainly doesn't want to incinerate so much waste, and they have done more than a lot of places to reduce waste. Organics composting is a big step in the right direction, and their current recycling rate is quite good.

My main issue with WTE is the green-washing. This is one of the dirtiest and least efficient energy sources, but it too often gets packaged as a renewable energy source. This assumes that egregious amounts of waste have to exist. It almost incentivizes the existence of waste because, hey, we can burn it and get a little bit of energy. 

After spending three days this week digging through garbage on my campus, it's clear that most of this waste doesn't have to be waste. Much of it is recyclable or compostable. The fraction that is left could be redesigned so that it's not waste.

Recycling saves three times more energy than incineration produces, and a lot of compostable waste, such as food waste, is wet and doesn't burn that well anyway. 

Our guide at HERC was aware of this problem. They know that a lot of what they're burning could have been recycled or composted or reused. But the interesting part is that they place the responsibility completely on individuals. It was repeatedly said that for HERC to slow or stop its operations, people need to stop throwing away so much stuff.

I definitely think that individual's actions can have a big impact, but after completing this waste audit it's clear that that's only a small piece of the puzzle. Institutional changes will always have broader impacts. At our campus, we saw that people are generally pretty good at putting the right stuff in the recycling bin. But those items typically don't end up being recycled because of institutional policies and workflow problems. 

Besides, the consumer doesn't always have a choice in what trash they produce. Most packaging is not designed to be recycled or composted, and there's only so much consumers can do about that. For Hamline students, food options are limited. If you want to eat, you're going to be producing a lot of waste. 

I worry that placing the blame on individuals might be missing the point when companies produce so much more waste than an individual ever could. I realized this weekend that even though I always bring a reusable cup to Starbucks, if they don't compost their coffee grounds and recycle their milk cartons, I can't really pretend that I'm reducing waste. 

I'm glad that I got to tour this facility that I had previously only heard about in the context of #ShutItDown. I'm now leaning toward the opinion that incineration is preferable to direct landfilling. 

However, I still think that WTE represents a harmful way of thinking about waste, because it assumes its existence and it isn't nearly as resourceful as recycling and composting. Burning these materials is a huge waste of resources for a tiny return of energy. In the Twin Cities, local governments including Ramsey County have invested heavily in Waste to Energy facilities: money that may be better spent on clean renewable energy or recycling and composting efforts. 

There's no easy solution to the problem of waste (or energy for that matter), but large scale incineration is not part of a sustainable future. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hamline University Waste Audit: Initial Insights

CGEE Student Voice
Campus Sustainability
Waste Diversion
by Jenni Abere

This weekend, students and faculty at Hamline conducted a comprehensive waste audit of the Anderson Center, the student center and main building on campus.

For three days, all waste produced in the building was weighed, sorted (trash, recycling, and compost), and then weighed again. We took note of where different bags of trash were produced in the building (for example, first floor versus second floor). This data will help us as we begin to implement organics composting in Anderson.

I was hoping that the waste audit would also help us demonstrate the need for composting. The future of this project was looking a little iffy, as we realized that since the majority of food waste in the building goes to pigs, the rest of compostable waste is mainly paper towels and napkins -- things that don't weigh much, so the financial savings and environmental impact from composting here may be minimal.

However, to me composting is an opportunity to switch from plastic disposables to compostable products. It's meaningless to have Catering and Dining Services start using compostable plates and cups if we don't have composting pickup.

Here are a few insights from the waste audit, based on my observations from three days. When the data gets processed, I'll have a follow-up post with some numbers.

1. Very little from Anderson recycling bins actually gets recycled.

This is for two reasons.

One, the recycling room is a floor below the loading dock, so it seems most bags from recycling bins get thrown directly into the dumpster, headed straight to the landfill. Many bags we opened from the trash dumpster were filled entirely with recyclable items -- it was easy to figure out what had happened.

Putting recycling and trash receptacles in the same room and making them both easily accessible to workers is an important first step to solve this problem.

Two, even the bags of recycling that end up in the right place are processed incorrectly. Yes, I did say "bags of recycling." The recycling often gets tied up tightly in a plastic garbage bag, so even if it's heading to the recycling plant, nothing in there will ever get recycled.

Hamline's new head chef stopped by while we were working on this bag. He told us that it looks
like scrapings from the dish room. If you don't scrape your plate into the correct bins, some one
else has to do it. And they don't have the time to sort correctly, so everything goes to waste.

Needless to say, this was hands-down the grossest bag I sorted in all three days.

2. Half-full beverages and liquids are a real problem.

Not only is it really gross (particularly that half-full carton of Eggnog that leaked all over my shoes) and disrespectful to sanitation workers to put liquids into the trash, it actually costs us money. Liquids are the heaviest thing in the trash, and we pay for throwing things away based on weight.

Another common problem was bags of ice from athletes -- that had become, naturally, bags of water. Heavy, expensive, and unnecessary.

The other issue was that a lot of these half-full cartons and bottles should have been in the recycling bin -- after being emptied at a sink, or even, finished by the people who paid for the drinks.

3. Composting constituted the most waste by weight. 

A lot of food waste was actually escaping the food waste bins, and the theory that lightweight paper wouldn't make a difference seems to be proven wrong. The paper is often wet, so that can make a big difference in weight.

We consistently found after sorting, that compostable waste constituted the largest chunk by weight.

4. Day-old food from Starbucks and the C-Store.

This was probably the most depressing thing to find: Nearly pristine muffins, cookies, and sandwiches from Starbucks. A lot of salads and sandwiches, still wrapped up.

From the C-Store, there were cans of soup that were possibly a day or two over -- but still, in cans. There were boxes upon boxes of Hostess treats that likewise, probably never expire. Also, inexplicably, a bottle of shampoo, still sealed.

Happy Holidays! from the garbage.
Still sealed: five sandwiches, two salads, and Eggnog. 

The food shelf I used to volunteer at in high school received boxes of day-old treats from a Starbucks. Good Samaritan laws mean that we can't be sued for donating food, which is a common myth. Looking into donating the food that is still good is the best option. If something is truly expired, or, like meat, possibly no longer safe, then composting can fill the gap.

5. Back-of-house recycling is not working.

There is clearly a problem with the workflow that is making it difficult for recycling to happen back-of-house in Anderson, both at Starbucks and the Bistro. We rescued countless milk cartons from the trash over the weekend. Several trash bags from Starbucks were filled mostly with cartons, but the presence of coffee grounds alerted us that this was not a misplaced recycling bag. This needs to be sorted out before we implement composting.

As the data gets processed, I will write a follow-up post with some of the numbers.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fossil Exhibit

Image result for fossil

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

The December exhibit at St. Paul's Smallest Museum is now open for viewing from the street.

MINI DINOSAUR FOSSILS features some work of Macalester College's paleontologist Kristi Curry Rogers.

Read a little about these little fossils here and here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whatever Happened to the Skinny Teacher?

Mathematics Education
Water & Watersheds
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Students have a way of taking courses and then disappearing from our lives. In the great scheme of things this is the way it should be. Still we sometimes wonder whether there were any effects and what they were.  What happened as a result of this recipe of curriculum/instruction, the experiences provided, and the student with an added dollop of time?

Photo by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune.
Abdikadir Mohamed Aden was a CGEE Rivers Institute participant six years ago. In a recent article (see link below) he noted that this sparked his interest in the environment. Aden came to this country from Somalia with great dreams and a matching ambition.  The route here and while here has many twists and turns. He became a mathematics educator.

Aden is now blind due to diabetes but continues his work in mathematics education as a tutor. He is also known as Macalin Xiito (Skinny Teacher). His original dream changed but his ambition and persistence remain the same, appearing to me even stronger.

Xiito is also working with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization as a community educator for Somalis on clean water. In addition he has a made a YouTube video on water protection.

Faiza Mahumed of the Star Tribune wrote a lovely profile of this keeper of mathematics, water and life. Read it and give thanks for him and his work.

h/t Sara Robertson, CGEE

Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler
Major Jackson.
Photo credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien.

This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service.

In today's poem, Major Jackson, University of Vermont, marks and celebrates this birthday.

Read the poem and about him here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nobel Medals and $

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

I noticed several announcements that the 1994 medal for the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel awarded to John F. Nash, Jr. was to be auctioned at Sotheby's in New York, October 17. This includes the original red Morocco case. Its estimate is valued at $1.5 to $4 million. Nash received the honor for contributions to non-cooperative game theory made while he was a graduate student at Princeton University.
John F. Nash, Jr. [Wikimedia Commons]

Nash shared the economics award with John C. Harsangi and Reinhard Selton. The press release from the Nobel Foundation provides information about the three honorees and their contributions. Nash's work turned upside down 150 years of Adam Smith's ideas of me-first, self-interest in decision making.

Auction results may be seen here. There you will find photographs, full details about the medal, a film clip, a thorough catalog description of Nash's life and contributions, and personal remembrances.

Nash's life is told in Sylvia Nasar's beautifully told and carefully researched biography, A Beautiful Mind. His career was interrupted for some thirty years by schizophrenia from which he recovered, returned to work and later received his Nobel prize. The book was later made into a film to very mixed reviews.

This made me wonder about the fate of Nobel Prize medals. I had known that some were auctioned but not many of the details. An article at for October 3, 2015 provides some details and a few of these are found below...

— 889 medals have been awarded in the past 114 years (to 2015). The awards are for what is regarded pioneering, breakthrough work in these areas: chemistry, literature, medicine, peace, physics and since 1969, economics

— The price range has been $13,650 (at today's rate) to $4.76 million. The former is for the Nobel Peace prize medal awarded to French Prime Minister Aristide Briand in 1924. The latter is for James Watson's 1962 medal in physiology or medicine in 1962. The award was for elucidating the structure of DNA and shared with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Crick's medal was auctioned for about half the amount of Watson's.

— Watson's medal auction deserves a little more detail. His medal was auctioned while he was still alive (December 2014) which is somewhat unusual. The Russian billionaire, Alisher Usmanov purchased the medal and then returned it to Watson in gratitude for his work. Watson sold the medal because he "needed the money." The reason was for some very James Watson-like behavior for which see here.

There is one other Nobel awardee whose medal was sold while still living — Leon Lederman, physics, age 93, May 2016. It was sold in an on-line auction ($765,000) with the proceeds used for treatment and care of his dementia.
Nobel Prize Medal [Wikipedia]

According to an Associated Press release May 25, 2016, 19 Nobel prize medals have gone to auction.

An entry from the Nobel Foundation on the medals describes their design and fascinating details including how they are inscribed. There you will find a film on how they are manufactured. What about the gold which all of us are interested in? The website notes that Up to 1980 the "Swedish" medals, each weighing approximately 200 g and with a diameter of 66 mm, were made of 23 carat gold. Since then they have been made of 18 carat recycled gold. The weight is set to 175 g for all medals, except for the Medal for the Prize in Economic Sciences. Its weight is set to 185 g.

One of the most remarkable stories about the medals involves the Hungarian physical chemist Georg Karl von Hevesy. von Hevesy was working in the laboratory of Niels Bohr when the Germans invaded Denmark in World War II. The German government prohibited German nominees/recipients from accepting or keeping the prizes. Furthermore, they forbade any gold leaving Germany. They wanted the gold.

Two medalists had sent their medals to Denmark for safe-keeping where, while the German army was approaching, von Hevesy dissolved the Nobel Prize medals of Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) in aqua regia. von Hevesy placed the resulting orange solution on a high laboratory shelf where it remained ignored (and safe) until after the war! von Hevesy then precipitated the gold from the acid solution and the gold was returned to the Nobel Foundation. There, the Nobel medals were re-cast and then re-presented to Laue and Franck.

Aqua regia also known as "royal water" and "kings water," is a potent mixture of two acids, hydrochloric and nitric. Its name calls attention to the property that it can dissolve the noble medals, gold and platinum.
Aqua regia, dissolving gold. [Wikimedia Commons]

NPR's Robert Krulwich did a wonderful program on this story which also includes a link to a video showing the dissolution in action. It is not a fast reaction. The re-casting of the medals and their presentation to the original laureates is sweet in and of itself. It is even sweeter. von Hevesy was awared a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1943. Niels Bohr who was the director of the institute where von Hevesy worked had sold his medal to raise money for the Finnish Relief effort. An anonymous buyer (Krulwich refers to him as Mr. Anonymous) purchased AND later returned the medal to the Danish Historical Museum of Fredrikborg where it still resides.

Bohr was one of the giants of theoretical physics in the early to middle part of the last century. He did truly foundational work in atomic structure and in quantum physics, a well-founded description of nature that says at its fundamental levels, it is probabilistic. In addition, Bohr's fingerprints on physics are everywhere. He profoundly influenced and was a mentor to many, if not all the most brilliant physicists of that fertile era in theoretical physics.  Bohr received the Nobel prize in physics in 1922.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Five Minutes of Physics

Envionmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll (California Institute of Technology) has collaborated with Henry Reich (Minute Physics) in producing five one-minute videos on big ideas in physics.

Why Doesn't Time Flow Backwards?
Do Cause and Effect Really Exist?
Where Does Complexity Come From?
How Entropy Powers the Earth?
What is the Purpose of Life?

Each film is based on sections of Carroll's recent book, The Big Picture.  The thread that connects these everyday ideas is the arrow of time and entropy.

Carroll and Reich co-authored the scripts with Carroll reading and Reich illustrating them on a white board.

One useful feature is their shortness so if you find an idea in a film confusing, you can view the entire film again to place the confusing section in context. Of course, you can always move the small ball on the time bar back and see that section again (and over again). A lot is said and drawn in a small amount of time!

Professor Carroll posted them on his blog.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for november

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Introspection is a mark of Lisel Mueller's work. Here is a poem about this month — November — that lays, in this part of the world, between fall and winter.

And here is some information about her, an interview with Jim Lehrerer, PBS on the occasion of her receiving the Pultizer Prize for Poetry.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

It's About Relationships

Environmental and Science Education
Mathematics Education
by Edward Hessler

It seems that everyday we see a new headline suggesting a relationship between some X and some Y as though it was causal.

The political season is rich in such reports, e.g., relating one's politics/political leanings-Republican, Independent, Green Party, Democrat, liberal, conservative, with personality.

Maria Konnikova's wrote a short piece in The New Yorker on the so-called relationship between politics and personality. She reviewed research done by Brad Verhulst, Virginia Commonwealth University and also talked with him about it. This may be one of the reasons that the subheading for her essay reads "most of what you read is malarkey." There may be relationships but they are all too often stated much too strongly.

In this essay Konnikova mentioned Tyler Vygen's website, Spurious Correlations. This is the main purpose of this post: to point you to his web site.

Vygen, a Harvard law student, has a love for numbers and science. He is not a math/stats person. About the charts on his website he writes that they "aren't meant to imply causation nor are they meant to create a distrust for research or correlation data. Rather, I hope the project fosters interest in statistics and numerical research." (emphasis added)

Vygen's graphs are free for the taking. Anything he posts is "released under a Creative Commons Attribution License." Such a deal!

Konnikova's essay is a lesson on how one comes to trust research by first asking some questions about the data.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Report on the Status of Non-Human Vertebrates

Biological Diversity
Sustainability Energy & Transportation
Edward Hessler

World Wildlife Federation

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) has released its 2016 Living Planet Report.

The findings are summarized in a less than encouraging graph, referred to as the Living Planet Index (LPI). It is a measure of the state of the world's biological vertebrate diversity found in terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats. The graph is based on population trends from 18290 populations of 3669 vertebrate species.

The LPI has been adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to indicate progress towards the 2011-2020 target to "take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity."

The LPI shows a decline of 58 per cent for all vertebrates between 1970 and 2012. This means that should current trends continue the decline could be as high as two-thirds of all vertebrates by the 2020 target.

Freshwater habitats are the most threatened

Here is the breakdown by habitats for the period of 1970 to 2012:

Terrestrial. The vertebrate LPI shows a population decline of thirty-eight percent.

Freshwater. The vertebrate LPI shows a population decline of eighty-one percent.

Marine. The vertebrate LPI shows a population decline of thirty-six percent.  

The major threats are habitat loss and degradation, species over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species and disease and climate change.  And what is the major threat to declining populations?  As you probably know it is loss and degradation of habitat. In other words we are and continue to overdraw our account.

The major actions that we can take to progress toward the goal of halting the loss of vertebrate diversity are found in two sectors, reform of food and energy systems.

Changes to the Earth's systems in the Anthropocene age

The report places the planet in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, a term coined by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen who, with Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland received the award for 1995.  The award for chemistry recognized "their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and destruction of ozone."

The Anthropocene follows the Holocene which we've been living in for the last ~ 12,000 years. The Anthropocene is not a formally defined geological unit but is a popular term used widely by scientists and non-scientists to acknowledge human influence on the dynamics and future of the Earth system. According to the Anthropocene working group it is "widely agreed that the Earth is currently in this state."

The Living Planet findings are viewed in an Earth system perspective. The framework, Planetary Boundaries, calls attention to nine human-produced alterations to the functioning of the Earth system. "They are:

1) biosphere integrity (or destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity),
2) climate change, and
3) its twin problem ocean acidification,
4) land-system change,
5) unsustainable freshwater use,
6) perturbation of biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere),
7) alteration of atmospheric aerosols,
8) pollution by novel entities,
9) stratospheric ozone depletion."

Ocean acidification leads to coral "bleaching.

These alterations cannot be navigated and managed in isolation of one another. It is important, an imperative, to pay considerable attention to each subsystem as decisions are made about a particular subsystem. Subsystems will be affected to a greater or lesser extent by any change focusing only on one subsystem.

The report includes Ecological Footprint data for four decades. These data show that reductions in the total global Ecological Footprint do not correspond to intentional policies that limit or change our impact on the natural world. Instead, they have been reactive polices or actions dictated by major economic crises such as the 1973 oil crisis, the deep economic recession in the USA and many of the OECD countries during 1980-1982 and the 2008-2009 global economic recession.  The reductions in Ecological Footprint were only temporary and quickly followed by a rapid climb.

A map showing the world's ecological footprint of consumption on a per capita basis shows that nations with the largest footprints are those that have the highest fossil fuel consumption and energy-intensive goods (from cradle to grave). Those nations include the United States, of course. The United States is among those nations which use six times more than the available per capita share of global biocapacity. 

Four level of thinking

To accomplish the maintenance of nature and equitable living conditions for all humans will require systems thinking as well as acting as a result of such thinking. A common tool used in systems thinking, the “four levels of thinking model," is presented.

— the first level of thinking — events — is about the "tip of the iceberg" in a system and is often the place where most problem-solving, interventions and policy discussion occurs. The result is that this it is about treating symptoms rather than the sources of the problem.

— the second level of thinking — patterns — concerns the patterns that emerge when a set of events leads to recognizable behaviors or outomes.

— the third level of thinking — systemic structures — reveals the political, social, biophysical or economic structures that constrain the way different elements in the system can behave and interact. .

— the fourth and deepest level — mental models — reflects the beliefs, values and assumptions of individuals and organizations. Mental models vary across cultures and interestingly have are rarely taken into account in decision making. Mental models influence design of system structures, our behaviors as well as cultural guidelines and incentives, events that together make up the flow of daily life in society.

The capital value of natural ecosystems

Natural capital assets of ecosystems are easily overlooked or taken for granted. These assets have been assumed as enduring, regardless of how they are used.  The report calls attention to four assets.

Provisioning. Products such as raw materials, medical resources, fresh water, food.

Regulating. These include the processes that regulate ecosystems such air, water, erosion, climate.

Supporting. These are services necessary for maintaining healthy ecosystems such as nutrient cycles, photosynthesis, soil formation.

Culture.  These are the non-material benefits ecosystems provide such as aesthetic, emotional/physical health, recreation/ecotourism.

The rainforests, the "lungs" of the earth.
The challenge of this century is profound: to maintain nature in all its forms most glorious and to live on the resources of a finite planet in a way that is equitable for all. According to the report this requires a "One Planet Perspective."

It is based on the idea of ecosystem resilience, i.e., preserving the ability of natural ecosystems to recover from perturbations or adapt to them. This will require considerable research and then using those results, even when they are in-motion, to make policy decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

The One Planet Perspective includes the preservation of natural capital, production methods that promote sustainable and sustain ecosystems, and wise consumption practices (reducing ecological footprints personally and nationally).  We must, in other words, govern resources in ways that are equitable as well as redirect financial flows in ways that value nature.

An immediate threat

By all accounts we are at a place in history where the rate of transition is increasingly visible and the Earth's meters and dials increasingly announce changes we've not experienced. The report is clear about the danger to animals with backbones. One can infer others as well since vertebrates do not exist in communities alone.  They live with plants, predators, insects, decomposers, microbes and invertebrates.

Does the majority of the Earth's population value nature and recognize its needs AND the close link between humans and nature?  If not, what is the path to this kind of shared understanding?  Is it even possible at the scale that is required? In the end are we capable of considering these kinds of ideas, the actions they require and then making them, living as though the full planet matters? Or, will this be just another report with politics and business-as-usual interests continuing?

However, there are some facts that we disregard at great peril. Numbers. The basic arithmetic of change as well as of its scale. Washington Post writer, Chris Mooney writes about one of these: holding the world's warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is a harsh dose of reality and is where the maths kick- in.

The emissions gap for the 1.5 degree Celsius target according to Mooney's article ranges between 15 and 17 gigatons per year. Not only do they sound like big numbers; they are. So, what do they mean in daily life?  Mooney quotes Jacqueline McGlade, the chief scientist of the United Nations Environmental Program: When you think that one gigaton is the equivalent of taking all European vehicles off the road for one year, and he gap is beween 12 and 14 gigatons, you see what the scale of the problem is. See Mooney's excellent piece for the details.

A vibrant summary of the WWF report with pictures, diagrams, graphs and tables is included.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Poetry
by Edward Hessler

Max Ritvo, from Divedapper.
Today's poem is by Max Ritvo.
Ritvo was diagnosed with terminal cancer (Ewing's sarcoma) when he was sixteen. He was a chronicler about his cancer, writing with great candor and sometimes humor. He graduated from Yale and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. This boundlessly talented poet died August 23, 2016 at age 25.
Here is an interview in which he talks about himself and his first book, Four Incarnations which was published posthumously.
Today's poem was one of several of Ritvo's poems published in The New Yorker magazine.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Scientists React to the Election

Image result for donald trump

Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

Nature, a widely-circulated British international scientific journal has an article about the reaction of scientists to the election of Donald J. Trump, an election which the head-line notes, "stuns scientists."
The essay may be read on-line.

Environmental Studies Field Trips: Wastewater Treatment Plant

CGEE Student Voice
by Jenni Abere

This week, Hamline Environmental Studies students got a special "Metro After Dark" tour of the Wastewater Treatment Plant. This plant covers a lot of land: I guess I expected it to be much more compact. This plant is also very old, so many of the buildings are no longer used. As we travelled from building to building, following the path of wastewater, the sun set and it was dark when we reached the final stage. At this point, the water was heading back into the Mississippi. It smelled like river water, and it looked black in the darkness.

This old-fashioned gauge was at one point the only way they could monitor flow.
Although it is still hooked up to monitors today, it's mostly decorative. 

The process

This plant treats an average of 160 million gallons of wastewater per day. The total used to be much higher when storm-water was also treated, but these two water streams have been separated. Storm water goes directly into the river without treatment.

Wastewater will also return to the river once treated, and much cleaner than typical river water.

1. Removing grit

Sand, rocks, and "grit" is first removed to prevent damage to the machinery.

2. Settling and skimming

This is done to remove solids, both things that float, by skimming the surface, and things that sink, by allowing them to settle to the bottom.

"Screen and Grit" building

3. Micro-organisms

A variety of bacteria, affectionately called "bugs," perform their natural process, only much faster. Different bugs consume organic matter, phosphorous, and other pollutants. Some tanks are aerated and others are not, depending on the type of bacteria. 

4. Disinfection with bleach (seasonal)

During the warmer months when the river is used recreationally, the final stage is disinfection with bleach. Bleach is applied and then removed. This costly process is only required by the EPA six months of the year.

5. Solids 

Once solid waste has been removed, gravity and centrifuges are utilized to remove as much water as possible. This makes incineration more efficient. The solids are incinerated at incredibly high temperatures. The plant captures the heat (enough to heat the plant all winter long) and has steam turbines as well, providing 20% of the plant's energy needs.

The fine ash produced is then landfilled. They would prefer to find a use for this product. It used to be made into cement, until concerns about heavy metals ended this.

Threats to water quality

1. Anti-bacterial soap and hand-sanitizer 

I've always avoided anti-bacterial soap and hand-sanitizer because it can produce anti-biotic-immune bacteria. However, I had never considered the impact on water treatment. Bacteria are vital to water treatment, so we don't want things going down the drain that will kill bacteria.

Use alcohol-based hand-sanitizers instead because these break down. 

2. Micro-plastics

Minnesota recently banned the used of plastic micro-beads in personal care products such as soaps and toothpaste. However, this hasn't solved the problem entirely. Tons of micro-plastics enter the water stream through washing machines: synthetic fibers come off clothing with every wash and go down the drain. 

There is currently no way to remove these in water treatment. 

The Rozalia Project is currently working on a filter that people can use at their home washing machines to collect the plastic fibers before they go down the drain. Landfilling these plastic fibers is not nearly as harmful. However, the best solution (if an impractical one) is to buy clothing with no synthetic fibers. 

3. Pharmaceuticals 

Pharmaceuticals should be disposed of through Household Hazardous Waste programs, so they can be incinerated. Do not flush medicine! Endocrine disruptors, such as from birth control, are especially harmful to amphibians. 

To learn more about this wastewater treatment plant, watch the Metropolitan Council's video below:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Science: The Early Years of Minnesota's History

History of Science
Edward Hessler

I recently discovered an article on the history of the Minnesota Academy of Natural Sciences (MANS) by Martha C. Bray.

From the Minnesota Academy of Science website.

A few gleanings:

  • The Minnesota Historical Society was created in 1849.
  • The MANS was formed by 11 citizens on January 6, 1873.  The founders had previously considered a narrower and more ponderous name, "Geological, Paleontological, and Archaeological Society of Minnesota". The founders included six medical doctors, a businessman, a mathematics instructor, a dentist, a superintendent of schools, and a scientist.
  • The lone scientist was Newton H. Winchell, director of the geological and natural history survey authorized a year earlier by the state legislature.
  • It's purpose "to observe and investigate natural phenomena; to make collections of specimens illustrating the various departments of science; to name, classify, and preserve same; also, to discuss such questions as shall come within the province of the Academy."
  • The annual fee was five-dollars (not a small sum in those days) and this practice was continued for two decades.
  • At the end of 1873, the membership of the MANS was thirty-two.
  • I love the statement of an earlier contributor who sent fossils to the society. He described his contribution as "geological, bugological, fishological or illogical, I don't know which, but not being an ologist of any kind, I am unable to give the society any information. If Darwin is true, these are the ancestors of the present miners."
  • In 1891, the MANS asked school principals and college professors to comment on the state of science education in Minnesota. The correspondence is in the Academy Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society.
  • In the 1880s membership included a few women, e.g., a skilled mounter of bird skins, a corresponding secretary and a teacher at North Side High School. The total membership at that time was sixty-one.
  • In 1890 the academy provided some support to the University of Michigan for a two-year collecting trip to the Philippine Islands, a collection that came to be known as the Menage Collection. It was a long struggle, especially the financing. In 1894, "Letter from the Menage Scientific Expedition" was published in the Bulletins of the academy.  Another paper "Preliminary Notes on the Birds and Mammals Collected by the Menage Scientific Expedition to the Philippine Islands" followed in the first, and only, Occasional Papers.
  • Specimens from the Menage expedition were exhibited in the Minneapolis public library.  Admission was ten cents for adults and five cents for children.  It was well attended in the first nine weeks. The amount collected was $358.85, sufficient  enough to to hire and pay a curator.
  • A membership decline occurred during the period of the Menage expedition and the membership fee was reduced to three dollars. However, even with this a letter written in 1897 noted that "people are not falling over each other in their zeal to identify themselves with the organization."
  • In 1899 the American Association for the Advancement of Science made local group affiliation possible.  This did not attract the notice of the academy.
  • In 1904, the annual dues were again reduced, this time from three dollars to one dollar in an effort to renew interest in the organization. However, by 1910 the organization was essentially moribund.
  • The organization was officially dissolved in 1928.
  • In 1932 the current Minnesota Academy of Sciences (MAS) was organized, an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  MAS never had an link with Minnesota's first academy.

The complete essay may be read on-line.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election 2016: Science and the Office of President

Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

The 21 October 2016 issue of Science, the most widely circulated science journal in the world, had an article "Science lessons for the next president." I just found it but that doesn't mean it is too late.

This election campaign was less than light on science but issues associated with and informed by science are very much a part of governing. They are bound to come up.

Sea level predictions [Source]
The list in Science did not aim at comprehensiveness but covered a range of important issues and suggests how pervasive science is in modern life. The issues discussed with great clarity are:

  • Evolution. The race between pathogens and defenses against them and our overuse of drugs.
  • Genome Editing (CRISPR).  This is not the drawer in refrigerators but an astonishing tool that allows genes to be edited therefore raising deep ethical issues as well as opening immense health-related possibilities.
  • Sea Rise. This is already happening even here on our shores and that rise is noticeable and increasingly alarming.
  • Brain Health. Alzheimer's is one of several brain-related diseases.  As our population ages they become more prevalent which is part of growing old.  They incur immense costs, social and financial.
  • Artificial Intelligence. This is a transforming technology and one with implications for the workplace and for work in general.
  • Risk.  If there is one thing we are not very good at it is judging risks of public policy proposals as well as assessing risks, e.g., those associated with new medicines.

Each is discussed in terms of what the science says, why it is important and pending policy issues.

These lessons are not just for the president. They are lessons for all. There is the body of government known as the United States Congress that will have a say on any for which policy is considered.  And then there is us -- citizens. We need to be informed enough to let legislators know our thoughts and the reasons (evidence) for them rather than just our opinions or beliefs.

This listing indicates one of the reasons that learning science, learning about it, and understanding how it works is essential to citizenship and to stewarding resources. Learning science provides us with skills and knowledge that can be used to help is be better consumers of information.

The essay may be read here.