Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Biodiversity Decline

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

The threat of anthropogenic climate change has a way of narrowing attention on the planet's health to a single cause. However, this can also serve as a distractor.

A recent commentary in Nature for 11 August 2016 reported on an analysis of threat information on more than 8000 near-threatened or threatened species from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  It includes both plants and animals. The study led to a somewhat surprising finding.

The biggest driver of biodiversity decline appears not not to be anthropogenic climate change.  The main drivers familiar bad guys: overexploitation (commerce, recreation, subsistence) and agriculture (production of food, fodder or fuel). Only nineteen percent of the species studied are affected by the various effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Deforestation. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The study, summarized in the essay The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers is by  Sean L. Maxwell, Richard A. Fuller, Thomas M. Brooks and James E. M. Watson.  The disciplinary affiliations seem worth noting since these call attention to the comprehensiveness of the research, informed by the perspective and expertise of each author.

Maxwell is a graduate student in geography, planning and environmental management. Fuller is a professor of biological sciences. Brooks is head of science and knowledge at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Watson is a professor of geography, planning and environmental management.

The data are beautifully summarized in a table of circles of various sizes which show the number of species and the threat. The categories are overexploitation, agricultural activity, urban development, invasion and disease, pollution, system modification, climate change, human disturbance, transport and energy production.  Each of these is further subdivided into sub-categories.

All studies have limitations and the authors point out three.  The sample is not random. Threats are treated as discrete when in fact they are not isolate. The threats will change over time. Red List assessments are projected only over a ten-year period or three generations. This means that anthropogenic climate changes will be modest for short-lived species.  The authors remind us that climate change will become more dominant in the future.

Some solutions the authors suggest are that funding actions should give priority to the largest, current threats. They note that there are effective tools already at our disposal. These include sustainable harvesting, enforcement of regulations, maintenance of international policy agreements, protection, agricultural management that includes threatened species, pesticide/fertilizer regulation, reduction of food waste, and the certification of agricultural sustainability.

The authors close by writing that conservationists, weary of tackling herculean, long-standing problems, could be forgiven for being drawn to newer ones. Nonetheless, we appeal to all concerned with the sustainability of life on Earth to take stock of the current balance of threats--and refocus their efforts on the enemies of old.

Tradition, politics and economics are formidable obstacles to some of the changes suggested above but we are learning that there are many direct benefits for us by modifying past practices, ones which are all too easily overlooked under threat of global climate change.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for robert hass

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

This poem for Friday is by Robert Hass.

You may also hear Mr. Hass read it.

PBS Newshour's Jeffrey Brown and Mr. Hass also discuss his Pulitzer-prize winning poetry. You may listen and/or read the transcript.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Powers of Ten

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Zoom-out. Zoom-in.

Exponential powers of ten are used in a classic 1977 documentary film by Charles and Ray Eames to help us appreciate scale: small, big and between.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Lfetime, Lifespace, and Lifestyle

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

In a paper that is now more than 30 years old, Rodger Bybee, then director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, argued for a high school biology course that was based in ecology.  This was in support of what he thought was an emerging ecological society.

Such a science education would incorporate human issues.  He identified three: problems of lifetime (conception, abortion, birth control, death with dignity), lifespace (pollution, crowding, urban decay), and lifestyle (affluence, poverty, consumption, conservation).  This short list still stands up to scrutiny and as rich fodder for discussion and debate.

This post is about one of the problems of lifetime: death with dignity.

Legality of Euthanasia worldwide. From Wikipedia.

Doctor-assisted suicide for the mentally ill is legal in the Netherlands.  Legal - but contentious! A 27-year-old Dutch patient, Sanne, who suffered from severe chronic depression, insomnia and borderline personality disorder finally chose a planned death.  Sanne's father stood by and with her throughout, believing that she should be lovingly accompanied to the end of her life.

Letting You Go consists of two moving portraits.  It documents Sanne's pursuit of her planned death and of her father's support.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Voyaging: The Beagle

Biological Evolution
History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I read Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle not too long after graduating high school. Physically, it was a lovely book to look at, to hold. Clothbound, in forest green, a binding sewn with thread, type set in hot metal (I think), with endpapers. It was an Everyman's Edition (Everyman's Library No. 104).

Much, if not most of the material pertinent to evolutionary biology sailed right over my head but I enjoyed the natural history and the richly described journey. I read a lot of it at sea; none of it, though, was on Darwin's route.

The Beagle. From Wikimedia Commons.
Whatever I learned in 10th grade biology about evolution was not much, if anything.  I think it was avoided. This was a transition period, perhaps better described as an intellectual and science education backwater, between texts such as Moon, Mann, Otto and Towle and the revolution in biology textbooks, notably three versions developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study--the famous blue, green and yellow texts.

I'm not at all certain why I bought the Voyage other than an interest in natural history and bioilogy or for that matter where I first heard the name Charles Darwin. I was not in college or heading there soon.  However, I didn't discard the book and carried it with me as I moved. It is now somewhat faded and worn, a result of reading it several times.

There is now another reason to read it again but in a different version. A new edition was released September 25, 2015 (Zenith Press) which I recommend if you are a first-time reader or maybe even an old friend of the book.  It is beautifully illustrated (see below for examples).

This edition is linked to passages in On the Origin of Species, thus connecting the compelling features of the journey to Darwin's findings on how the biological natural world works to produce its stunning diversity through natural selection. This feature I think (or like to) would have helped this naive reader gain some insights into Darwin's world and the grandest of all scientific theories.

In the most recent news from the National Center for Science Education, a link is provided which allows a preview of an excerpt from the book--Chapter XVII, Galapagos Archipelago.

h/t Glenn Branch, NCSE

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for happy

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Columbia University professor David Shapiro once remarked about poet Kenneth Koch, "'The pursuit of happiness' could be his anthem."

Koch died of leukemia in 2002.  He was an exuberant seventy-seven.

This poem tickles my funny-bone.

In the comment section of Poetry (January 2014) Koch-fan, Ange Mlinko notes that "(This poem is) the sort of miniature you think children might write, but they never really do."

Koch did write these kinds of poems.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


History of Science
Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by
Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the
United Kingdom.
A recent issue of ScienceEXPRESS from the National Science Teachers Association called attention to the World Digital Library (WDL), a joint project of the Library of Congress (LC) and UNESCO. At WDL you can search 14416 items about 193 countries between 8000 BCE and 2000 CE, numbers that are sure to change.

Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the LC wrote a short essay about Francis Crick's original sketch of DNA from the WDL. This sketch, a graphical model, led Francis Crick and James Watson to make a physical model of the molecule. And as is said, the rest is history.

What I particularly like about Crick's sketch is that it provides students an idea of how scientists use models to help them represent available data...summarize their thinking. I especially like this particular sketch because it shows just how "sketchy" such representations often are. I think just by seeing this first paper-and-pencil model might help students with their own  attempts, making them feel comfortable with their first models. 

Models at this stage, are not artistic renditions but renditions in transition. Such models are used as tools for thinking, as a basis for further work, for deepening conceptualizations and ultimately developing better data-based models.

The model that appeared in the now classic paper on DNA, A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid was drawn by Odile Crick, an artist as well as the wife of Francis Crick. This, though, remains a non-artistic model. It is for publication and is also based on additional evidence, the best the authors had when they submitted the paper for publication.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Critical Science Questions for Presidential Candidates

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

A group of fifty-six leading United States nonpartisan organizations, representing more than 10 million scientists and engineers, have called on U.S. Presidential candidates to address 20 major issues in science, engineering, technology, health and environment. In addition they ask journalists, the media and voters to press the candidates on these issues during the 2016 U. S. Presidential campaign.

The questions for the candidates are found here.

From Wikimedia Commons., which was involved in the development of the questions has a petition that may you may sign, provided you agree with the questions.

Such issues were once included in an approach to K-12 science education known as Science-Technology-Society (STS).  STS is alive and well in college and university curricula and courses of study which a Google search will quickly reveal.

These kinds of issues have not been completely lost in science education. Since school students deal with some of the same issues in the questions suggested for presidential candidates it is not unreasonable to ask candidates to respond and suggest policy responses.

In an early iteration of standards for K-12 science education, the National Science Education Standards included specific standards in personal and social perspectives.

An overview of these standards are outlined in Chapter 6, Science Content Standards in the PDF linked above, starting on p. 103.  There are standards in personal and social perspectives for the three major grade bands: K-4, 5-8 and 9-12.

These grade band content standards are found following the introduction to content standards (Chapter 6): K-4, starting p. 121; 5-8, starting p. 143 and 9-12, starting p. 173.

The Minnesota Academic Standards, Grades K-12 (2009) organizes standards into four strands which include societal issues. The Nature of Science and Engineering includes the substrand, Interactions Among Science, Technology, Mathematics and Society; Physical Science includes the substrand Human Interactions with Physical Systems; Earth and Space Science includes the substrand, Human Interactions with Earth Systems; and Life Science includes the substrand, Human Interactions with Living Systems.

h/t: National Science Teachers Association (NSTA EXPRESS)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for nature

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by Ken Craft.  You may read it and learn more about him here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Watersheds and Human Health

Water & Watersheds
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Microbial cells overwhelm the number of human cells by about ten to one.  However they have only relatively recently received research attention.  A major project is the Human Microbiome Project.

The Human Gut Microbiome project preceded the Human Microbiome Project.  Its goal is to provide whole genome sequences for 100 species which are representative of the bacterial divisions known to reside in the distal gut (the descending colon) of humans.

Bacteria of the distal gut live in a very social network because some genes and stretches of genetic material are readily exchanged among various species.  This is often referred to as horizontal gene transfer which plays an important role in health.

Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
A short essay in the New Yorker by Wudan Wu describes some extraordinary work by Ilana Brito who has a research interest in the movement of infectious diseases.  She was present at a talk by Stacy Jupiter of the World Conservation Society on a link, one I've not thought much about, between watershed health and human health.  This led her (almost) from lecture to airport to hop a plane to Fiji.

There, Dr. Brito studied the movement of bacteria between human communities as well as the movement of genes between various bacterial communities.  It is easy to miss the scale of Brito's undertaking.  The Human Microbiome Project involves hundreds of researchers as well as some thirty institutions.  Brito worked alone although later, back in the lab, colleagues were involved.

The research design included a survey of four villages and the collection in each villages of four samples--hand swabs, stool swabs, saliva and soil--over a period of six weeks. She also had to freeze them and keep them frozen during her stay.  You can learn how she managed that in Yan's essay (see below for the link).

Once home, she, with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology genetically sequenced the samples.  Brito is now a member of the Biomedical Engineering Department at Cornell, becoming an assistant professor in July 2016.

In mid-July, Brito and 15 others published a paper in the British journal Nature on their findings.  The paper is protected by a paywall but the abstract may be read here.

Wudan Yan's lively essay notes one major finding, the role of diet on mobile genes.

Monday, August 8, 2016

River of Ice: Witnessing the 'Catastrophic Retreat' of Alaska's Columbia Glacier

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

A harrowing ride down a steep mountainside in the brutal white embrace of an avalanche introduced me some years ago to a miraculous quality of water. It can flow—no, too tame; make that rage—down-slope very much like a wild and tumbling river, even though it has taken shape as a solid. Recently I had another extraordinary experience of solid water's fluidity at the cliff-like terminus of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska's Prince William Sound. This time I was ready with a camera to record an unforgettable moment of what glaciologists call the "catastrophic" retreat of a magnificent river of ice.

A Victim of Climate Change?

In a state with more than 100,000 glaciers, the Columbia is part of a special subset. It is one of Alaska's tidewater glaciers—that is, its terminus reaches the sea; at least for the time being. As recently as 1980, the glacier's snout was parked where it was when first surveyed by British explorers in 1794, and it likely was there long before that. Some 20 km. (12 mi.) down Columbia Fjord from where the glacier ends today, it was nestled against its terminal moraine, a submerged ridge of rock and gravel stretching across the fjord that was bulldozed into place by the glacier.

Since 1980, the Columbia has been retreating at a break-neck pace, for a glacier; nearly faster than any other on earth. Encountering this geologic and hydrologic phenom, I initially assumed that the remarkable rate of the Columbia's retreat was caused by our rapidly changing climate. While climate change is a factor, this much-studied glacier has revealed that more is going on.

Cycles of Retreat and Advance

Alaska's tidewater glaciers follow common patterns of advance and retreat. They originate in massive ice fields that cap Alaska's coastal mountain ranges where heavy amounts of snow accumulate at elevations of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) and higher. Under this weight, the glaciers flow slowly downhill toward and into the sea at rates measured in meters per year. When they reach seawater, they will continue to advance, grinding and carving deep fjords, as long as the accumulation of snow at higher elevations outpaces the melting and calving of icebergs at sea level. Tip the balance of snowfall and calving more evenly, and a tidewater glacier will stabilize, its terminus remaining in place for hundreds of years. But when the scales tip the other way, sometimes "catastrophically" (i.e., at a tremendous rate), a glacier will retreat.

Since 1980 the Columbia has retreated at a rate that peaked in 2001 at 30 meters (98-feet) per day, on average. It has thinned as well, having lost about half of its thickness and volume. By about 2030 it will have retreated another 15 kilometers (9 mi.)—far enough to finally get its nose out of salt water. The Columbia is then expected to reverse course and start slowly advancing again, at a pace that may be influenced by the prevailing climate.

When early glaciologists encountered Alaska's tidewater glaciers, this kind of behavior didn't jibe with scientific explanations that had been developed by studying Europe's alpine glaciers, which cling to high elevations and remain distant strangers to the sea. Especially puzzling was the fact that one tidewater glacier could be advancing while its near neighbor was retreating. New theories have been developed by scientists investigating the Columbia as it has frantically shed an amazing abundance of icebergs of all shapes and sizes into Prince William Sound.

Click to enlarge. (Creative Commons)
The illustration at right helps illuminate a dynamic that accounts for the Columbia's dramatic retreat. Prior to 1980, the glacier's stable position against its terminal moraine kept sea water at bay. Possibly with a nudge from a warming climate, the terminus retreated slightly from the moraine. This diminished support for the terminus and admitted warmer sea water beneath the glacier, which initiated the hasty retreat. The pace accelerated even more as the glacier retreated through deep areas of the fjord where part of the glacier's terminus was afloat. At times, the calving has been so active that the parade of icebergs emerging from Columbia Fjord posed threats to oil tankers crossing Prince William Sound to access the Alaska pipeline in Valdez.

The video below, in addition to documenting my exploration of the Columbia's retreat aboard the research and ecotourism vessel Auklet, includes commentary by captain Dave Janka, providing further background about the forces at work in the cyclic retreat and advance of the region's extraordinary tidewater glaciers.

Columbia Glacier, Alaska, by Adam Voiland. NASA Earth Observatory
Calving Glaciers with Emphasis on Columbia Glacier, Megan Kennedy, College of Woster

Living on Borrowed Resources

Image result for earth overshoot day

Sustainable Energy & Transportation
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Today, August 8 2016 is Earth Overshoot Day.

Earth Overshoot Day, formerly known as Ecological Debt Day, marks the date when humanity's demand for ecological resources exceeds what the planet can replenish year after year.  It comes five days earlier than a year ago.

Borrowed time and borrowed resources.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by A. R. Ammons.

By Dudley Miles (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Ammons was born February 18 1926 (Whitehall, North Carolina) and died February 25 2001 (Ithaca, New York).  Among his many honors are two National Book Awards for Poetry (1973 and 1993).

I recommend this spirited and engaging interview with Ammons which was published in the Paris Review. It includes comments on some of his poems, on working as a vice-president in charge of sales in a biological glass factory, growing-up, poetry readings, about government support of the arts, and his path to Cornell University.

Ammons begins the interview by asking the interviewer whether he is going to start with what he refers to as the typical Paris Review question, "What do you write with or on?"  And this is where it starts.

In the interview Ammons was asked how he works. His response follows.
"John Ashbery says that he would never begin to write a poem under the force of inspiration or with an idea already given. He prefers to wait until he has absolutely nothing to say, and then begins to find words and to sort them out and to associate with them. He likes to have the poem occur on the occasion of its occurrence rather than to be the result of some inspiration or imposition from the outside. Now I think that’s a brilliant point of view. That’s not the way I work. I’ve always been highly energized and have written poems in spurts. From the god-given first line right through the poem. And I don’t write two or three lines and then come back the next day and write two or three more; I write the whole poem at one sitting and then come back to it from time to time over the months or years and rework it."

Aren’t you going to start with the typical Paris Review interview question, such as, “What do you write with or on?”
All right. [Pause.] What do you write with or on?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Standard Model (Physics)

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

When you hear the phrase "the standard model of particle physics" what comes to mind?

By AffectioNet (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
James Joyce...names of scientists who contributed to it...a table...the particle zoo...accelerators...forces...Nobel prizes in physics...theoretical physics...experimental physics...large teams of scientists...fields...large hadron accelerator...the Copenhagen Interpretation...does not include gravity...mass...charge...spin...predictions...models...a theory of almost everything...?

Did you include equations or a big, a really big equation? I thought about equations but not the gargantuan equation of the standard model. I'd never even thought to look at it.

Thomas D. Gutierriz of California Polytechnic University has transcribed the Standard Model Lagrangian (more about this below) for the web. It is found in Symmetry (July 28, 2016). He calls attention to a sign error he made while writing it, i.e., he knows it is there (somewhere). I'll leave the finding of this error to others since I don't understand a single thing in this handsome equation.

The article's author, Rashmi Shivni writes that "the Lagrangian is a fancy way of writing an equation to determine the state of a changing system and explain the maximum possible energy the system can maintain." There are other ways to express these equations.

Shivni's essay first shows the entire equation and then separates it into five sections. For each of the sections, Shivni briefly describes what is represented by the symbols. A prediction of the standard model is that neutrinos are mass less and Shivni draws our attention to this. Neutrino oscillations (1998) defied this prediction.

For several Thanksgivings, CalTech's Sean Carroll has given thanks for an equation. On November 23, 2006 he gave thanks for the Lagrangian of the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Sky Ecosystems

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

This short film Life in the Clouds describes the complexity of ecosystems that most of us have never thought much about: those above us, far above us.

By Brocken Inaglory (Own work)
 [GFDL (,
CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or
CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0
via Wikimedia Commons


Image result for map

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Maps are endlessly fascinating.  I don't "waste" nearly enough time with them.  You may recall Ira Glass's This American Life episode, "Mapping."  What a celebration of curious maps and of their makers!

Each of Glass's five acts featured maps on one of the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. I include this link to the radio archive which provides some details about each act.

I especially remember the map of the locations of all lighted Halloween pumpkins in Boylan Heights, Raleigh, NC made by Denis Woods.  This map and others, e.g., squirrel highways, were published in a book titled Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas.  It is currently out-of-print but a note at the site tells us that digital version is in preparation.  You will find some of Mr. Woods's maps at DIY cartography.

The introduction to Glass's program on maps introduces mapping through the work of some half-dozen sidewalk mappers.  Each year, this small group has mapped the sidewalks of all five boroughs of New York City, noting their bumps, hollows, craters, cracks!

A piece by Ana Swanson in the Washington Post really reminded me again of the wonders they provoke, questions they raise, thoughts they bring to mind, and alternatives to traditional ways of thinking about the world or parts of it they offer.

Parag Khanna has a new book Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. You can take a peek inside here. Mr. Khanna is described as a global strategist.  I'm not exactly sure what that means but one thing I am very glad of is that this one is a talented and stimulating cartographer.

This essay includes a discussion with Parag Khanna as well as six stunning maps: the world's megacities, the United City-States of America (there I find Minnesota at the edge of the Great Plains), a map showing the increasing integration of the North American continent, the world 4 degrees C warmer (~ 7 degrees F warmer), Arctic shipping lanes, and Eurasia's "new Silk Roads."