Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Friday Poem (on a Wednesday)

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

I'm away from all things electronic for a few days so this is early.

By Dcordero7965 at English Wikipedia
(Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.)
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Ta-Nehisi Coates--author of the National Book Award-winning memoir Between The World and Me and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship last year--talks about the influence that poetry has had on him and his writing. They are considerable. One of the lines that stood out: "It's always a good time to talk about poetry."

It reminds me of University of Wisconsin hockey coach, "Badger Bob" Johnson. No matter the day of the year, he was always known to say, "It's a great day for hockey."

Any day is a good day to read poetry, talk about poetry and/or a great day for poetry.

Today's poem, The Heron, is by Hayden Carruth.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

By Paolo Neo [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Lucille Clifton was a prolific poet and also the author of children's books. If her work is new to you this biography will give you an idea of the range and power of her poetry. Reading her biography and her poems always make me glad that she was so prolific. She shed light on so many aspects of what it means to be human.

Here is one of her poems in celebration of Friday Poem, February 19.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Chirp

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

By Seanmcarroll (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Discovering Gravitational Waves

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology wrote a great post about the confirmation of gravitational waves, a staggering, indeed magnificent STEM achievement. His entry includes a short animation on what gravitational waves are, links to the material in red below, a photograph of a note on a bet made in 1978 by theoretician Kip Thorne that gravitational waves would be discovered before 1988, a bet he obviously lost. It still hangs outside Thorne's office and also says something about him. Carroll describes the magnitude of this discovery in a way that few others have.
Carroll ends nicely by placing this new finding in the decade of discoveries/to be discovered in the 2010s. So far, the record is 2 out of 5! Here are some of his comments about LIGO.
"We’ve become a bit blasé about such things: physics makes a prediction, it comes true, yay. But we shouldn’t take it for granted; successes like this reveal something profound about the core nature of reality.
By MOBle at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"Some guy scribbles down some symbols in an esoteric mixture of Latin, Greek, and mathematical notation. Scribbles originating in his tiny, squishy human brain. (Here are what some of those those scribbles look like, in my own incredibly sloppy handwriting.) Other people (notably Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, and Kip Thorne), on the basis of taking those scribbles extremely seriously, launch a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of decades. They concoct an audacious scheme to shoot laser beams at mirrors to look for modulated displacements of less than a millionth of a billionth of a centimeter — smaller than the diameter of an atomic nucleus. Meanwhile other people looked at the sky and tried to figure out what kind of signals they might be able to see, for example from the death spiral of black holes a billion light-years away You know, black holes: universal regions of death where, again according to elaborate theoretical calculations, the curvature of spacetime has become so pronounced that anything entering can never possibly escape. And still other people built the lasers and the mirrors and the kilometers-long evacuated tubes and the interferometers and the electronics and the hydraulic actuators and so much more, all because they believed in those equations. And then they ran LIGO (and other related observatories) for several years, then took it apart and upgraded to Advanced LIGO, finally reaching a sensitivity where you would expect to see real gravitational waves if all that fancy theorizing was on the right track."

Presentations on the LIGO findings

Press conferences may not be your cup-of-tea but the one held at the National Science Foundation on the discovery a delight to me. It informed, captured Feynman's "pleasure of finding things out", was collegial and even funny. When Ranier Weiss said something about experimental physicists and theoretical physicists I wondered whether he was going to escape this inevitable comparison. He did and theoretician Kip Thorne had something to do with this.
Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
The demonstrations and animations, discussion of the meaning of the LIGO graphs and the demonstrations on two requirements of the "gadget" that measured the waves as well as how possible perturbations in the mirrors are managed were well done and informative. Each of the three presentations by major players were perfectly timed and presented. These were physicists who wanted to make their work as clear as possible. They talked to an interested audience; not down. The questions from the press gathered are interesting and shed some light on other aspects of the finding. I recommend this video, beginning to end, strongly.
Questions have been raised about whether the LIGO finding will tell physicists something about quantum gravity. Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder, a quantum gravitational researcher at the Franklin Institute (Germany), writes a great blog for Forbes. Her short answer is "Don't get your hopes up too high."
Einstein and his remarkable equations: Right again!!!

Monday, February 15, 2016

James B. Eads: Master of the Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

They don't make 'em like James B. Eads anymore. His introduction to the Mississippi River occurred in 1833 at age 13, as he arrived with his family in St. Louis and was nearly blown to pieces by an explosion from their steamboat's faulty boiler.  He escaped another steamboat wreck a few years later while working his first river job. These early calamities somehow awakened in him a lifetime of diverse career possibilities that ultimately established his legacy as a true Renaissance engineer and early Master of the Mississippi.

Salvation Through Salvage

In Eads' day, Steamboat wrecks were epidemic on the Mississippi (567 were lost between 1811 and 1899), and in this the young man saw great opportunity. He developed a St. Louis salvage operation, created a special boat for retrieving lost cargo, and fashioned his own diving bell, quickly earning himself a fortune. The many, many hours he spent beneath his bell, walking the river bottom while breathing air from a tube that ran to the surface, acquainted him intimately with the dynamics and flow of the mighty river's currents—knowledge that he put to use in several subsequent exploits.

Civil War Ironclads 

During the Civil War, Eads helped spur the Union Army to victory by populating its brown-water navy with more than 30 innovative ironclads. His steel-armored gun ships had paddlewheels placed mid-ships for protection from enemy fire and shallow drafts that allowed for wide-ranging river navigation. The ships proved critical to General Grant's successful siege of Vicksburg and other key naval battles on the Western Front.

A Legacy Bridge that Still Stands Strong

The Eads Bridge was the first to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis upon its completion in 1874, and the only one built by the completely self-taught engineer. His understanding of the power of the river's currents informed his use of caissons to excavate through the the river's shifting sediments in order to anchor the pilings in bedrock deep below. The bridge's three graceful arches, which were built using pioneering cantilevered construction strategies, together formed what was then the longest arch bridge in the world. It still stands strong today, hosting east-west rail and vehicle traffic.  Rumor has it that Eads anchored the west end of the bridge at the very location where his family was brought dripping to shore years from their ill-fated steamboat.

Jetties at the Mississippi's Mouth and a Locomotive Portage for Panama

After completing his bridge, Eads used his understanding of the river's powerful currents once again in the aid of a southern city—New Orleans—by inventing a means of keeping open the mouth of the Mississippi Delta for international ship traffic.  Shifting sand bars and debris deposited by annual floods at the river's mouth had long made the transition from river to Gulf very difficult. His successful idea, which he pitched to the government with an ironclad, 100-percent money-back guarantee, was to narrow the available passage for the river currents by building jetties, thus allowing the river to dredge and maintain its own path to the sea.

This string of successful enterprises culminated with one grand scheme that didn't fly. Ead's solution to the challenge of enabling ocean-going ships to cross the Isthmus of Panama was to haul the ships overland via a pair of railroads.

All considered, Eads remarkable life was shaped by a gifted imagination and a willingness to take calculated risks. His extraordinary career is difficult to imagine in today's highly specialized world. And, it was built on a foundation of intimate familiarity with the hidden powers of America's greatest river.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

By Brett Weinstein
(Flickr: Nikki Giovanni)
 [CC BY-SA 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
The Laws of Motion
(for Harlem Magic)

The laws of science teach us a pound of gold weighs as

much as a pound of flour though if dropped from any

undetermined height in their natural state one would

reach bottom and one would fly away

(the rest of the poem)
You may learn about the author, prominent poet Nikki Giovanni, here.

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

History of Science
Biological Evolution
by Edward Hessler
Elliott & Fry [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Celebrating Darwin Day
On February 12, 207 years ago was born Charles Darwin.
Last week Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) reported that State Senator Andrew Sherwood (Arizona) introduced SR 1001 proclaiming February 12, 2016 as International Darwin Day in Arizona. In 2015, Sherwood co-sponsored a similar resolution in the House that did not survive committee.
About Darwin's discovery of natural selection, resolution 1001 notes that it "continues to serve as the foundation for ongoing advances in science, health, philosophy, art, education and many other areas of modern life." And about Darwin, the resolution makes clear the nature of his achievement: "...he belongs among the most influential scientific minds in history, including Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton."
Darwin Day is an international celebration with many events.

A few Darwin quotes:
By Internet Archive Book Images
[No restrictions],
via Wikimedia Commons
But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.  It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow.  I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one, in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I pooped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth.  Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one. —Autobiography by Charles and Francis Darwin
A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone. —Letter to T. H. Huxley
A surprising number [of novels] have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily--against which a law ought to be passed. —Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin.

Abraham Lincoln born the same day
Mathew Brady [Public domain]. via Wikimedia Commons
It is also a happy coincidence that on this same day in 1809 was born Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was no stranger to science. At the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed into law a bill that brought the National Academy of Sciences into being.
Mental Floss lists six things Darwin and Lincoln had in common and one difference. One was a dog lover and one was a cat lover. Take a stab. I'm not at all sure of this distinction on which an article in Forbes sheds some light.

A few quotes from Abraham Lincoln:
Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure. —Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society.
Nowhere in the world is presented a government of so much liberty and equality. To the humblest and poorest amongst us are held out the highest privileges and positions. The present moment finds me at the White House, yet, there is as good a chance for your children as there was for my father's. —Speech to 148th Ohio Regiment
Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. —First Political Announcement

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Update on Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

John Klavitter/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier I told the story of Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross who is the oldest living banded bird (65).

She had laid what could be her 40th egg and was incubating it. Well, the chick hatched. It was first seen exiting its shell February 1 while Wisdom was out stoking up calories.

NPR has a story today, February 10, about this amazing Mom and the chick that the two parents incubated to hatching, a period of about 7 months.

Wisdom was banded on Midway Atoll in 1956.  She has logged many kilometers since then. The estimate is about 4,828,032 km (3,000,000 miles).

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Selfish Gene at 40 Years Old

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

By Cstreet
(Christopher G. Street),
Bransgore, Dorset, England, UK. (Own work.)
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Matt Ridley has written a lovely retrospective as well as a reassessment of an unusual book, one that On The Origin of Species
changed our view of the workings of the biological world nearly as much as did Charles Darwin's

What makes this book unusual is that it was written, as was Darwin's book, for two audiences: general and scientific. It worked. This is remarkable: a book that explained the science and changed it too.

The book is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Ridley's perceptive comments were published in Nature 28 January 2016.  In this book, Dawkins made a compelling case for a gene-centered view of evolution.
Image from
Ridley notes that early on Dawkins was advised to title the book "The Immortal Gene" and now wishes he had. The original title has led to many comments and criticisms, e.g., are genes conscious?  Long before Dawkins wrote this book he was asked by his adviser, Niko Tinbergen, to give some lectures to a class Tinbergen was teaching. Interestingly, in his notes for these lectures, Dawkins had written "Genes are in a sense immortal" and "Genes are selfish."

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

By H. Zell (Own work)
 [GFDL (
or CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
As promised last week, a second poem by Catherine Abbey Hodges.

An Algebra of Fifty

Out back between the marvelous
weeds and the volunteer tomatoes,

It is also Black History Month. Over at The Poetry Foundation is a long list of poems, articles and podcasts, all accessible with the click of a mouse.  Each day, the poem of the day is by an African American. No fanfare, just good poems. I appreciate that The Poetry Foundation continues this practice.

While there take a look at the site if you are not familiar with it--loaded with poems, biographies of the poets, essays and access to each month's edition of Poetry, cover to cover.