Monday, January 30, 2017


Early Childhood
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

I had a friend who taught kindergarten. She is now retired, moved south and I lost contact. I think of her from time-to-time and about our conversations about kindergarten learning.

The two of us met at meetings about four times a year and always found some time during welcome breaks to talk about teaching young students. 

Kindergarten rooms have bathrooms. One of the habits of her kindergarten students was singing while in the bathroom. I can understand why.  In a school bathroom you are in a sound booth that is hard to resist. You are alone, enclosed and can sing, you think, full throat. The idea you have is that sound can't get out. It does, of course.

I was reminded of Deb when I read a recent essay the extraordinary environmental journal, Orion Magazine.  It is about a kindergarten visit by the editor of Portland Magazine. He went there for two reasons: to visit and for restoration of soul and mind.

Kindergarten class [Flickr]

The essay has singing—They will sing with or without the slightest provocation or solicitation—but it wasn't in bathrooms, colorful socks, head-standing, dreams, pretend, explanations, rules about the nature of things (because everyone knows that), untied shoes and the word cubby. Now there is a wonderful word and not to be what I'm in, a cubie.

There is an interesting and not often acknowledged parallel between kindergarten and graduate school. It was pointed out to me by the late Grant Wiggins who wrote thoughtfully about the role of educational accountability in learning and Deborah Meier, when she was co-director of New York City's Central Park East Secondary School. The link to Meier describes the difficult task of growing this school.

Deborah Meier wrote this about how students are assessed at Central Park East, "Many of our ideas are borrowed from two extremes—kindergarten and graduate school." So, what is it that is borrowed? I'm not going to go into the details although both links to Meier and Wiggins provide some insights and I provide another link below.

I'll call the assessments which attracted Wiggins and Meier, performance assessment. This hints at what such assessments are about: showing what you know by doing. A variety of student work is examined throughout the year with an eye to what it tells about student thinking rather than mere knowledge of facts. How well do students grasp the ideas central to the curriculum?

Think of what occurs in these two places: projects, playing with ideas and "stuff," conversation, lots of conversation, and how well ideas, arguments and products work.

For more information about performance assessment see this essay.

There is a worry I have about Kindergarten: time for student play appears to be eroding... pushed out of school. But this is another story for another day.

In the meantime visit a Kindergarten in Portland through Brian Doyle's essay, one that will warm your heart, inform your mind and make you think. The title is a dead giveaway: "Their Irrespressible Innocence."

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Abandoned Structures

Art and Environment
Environmental  and Science Education
by Edward Hessler

Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant [Wikimedia]

This short film combines the poetry of Philip Levine and film shot by filmmaker Brian Kaufman. It is an excerpt from a feature-length film of the Detroit Packard Automotive Plant.

It appears that demolition and redevelopment is still in the planning stages.

Abandonment. Decay. Forgotten people. Mega-engineering. Damaged lives. Damaged places. A bumpy graph of changing economics.

Here are some photographs of abandoned places. You decide whether they give you goosebumps.  Maybe some of them (Orpheum Theater)—at night and alone!

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Beautiful Brain at the Weisman Art Museum, UM-TC

Art and Environment
History of Science
by Edward Hessler

Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Camillo Golgi were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system."

Golgi discovered that nerve cells could be tinted with silver nitrate which provided an opening to the microscopic study of the nervous system. Cajal used Golgi's method with breathtaking results to show "that each nerve cell is an independent entity and nerve synapses transfer nerve impulses from one cell to another."

Growing up Cajal wanted to become an artist and his rebellious nature led his physician father to apprentice him as a shoemaker!  Ultimately, Cajal took a degree in medicine and then a Ph.D. in anatomy. It was as a researcher and professor of anatomy that he joined his passion and talent in art with basic research into the structure of the nervous system.

One of Cajal's drawings [Wikipedia]

From Saturday January 28 2017 to Sunday May 21 2017 the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities hosts an exhibit titled The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. The exhibit was organized by the Weisman Art Museum and leading neuroscientists, including three faculty at the University of Minnesota.  It will beome a traveling exhibit.

NPR produced a piece about the exhibit which includes some of the drawings. They are breathtaking.

Golgi and Cajal held entirely different views on the structure of the nervous system. Cajal emphasized the structural, functional and developmental singularity of the nerve cell. Golgi emphasized reticularist views, i.e., a diffuse network of continuous tissue. In the end Cajal's view prevailed. It is known as the Neuron Doctrine.

Cajal is considered the father of modern neuroscience. You may read about his life and discoveries here.

Here is the campus map for the Weisman.

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
by Edward Hessler

Denise Levertov whose biography describes her occupation as "poet and anti-war activist" is the author of today's poem.

Women's March [Wikimedia Commons]

And I add another to celebrate and honor last Saturday's women marchers (and others) nation- and worldwide—D. C., Morris, MN, St. Paul, London, Paris, Sandy Cove, N. S.

A day of grace and anger.

The poem was written by Adrienne Rich whose poems would fill, if I'm not careful, many years of these Fridays. How I wish Ms. Rich had been here to march in pink-eared cap.

Ali Fitzgerald uses words and drawings to capture the Washington, D. C. march.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Making Paper: An 800 Year Old Tradition

Image result for making paper

Art and Environment
Environmental and Science Education
by Edward Hessler

An 800 year tradition of making paper by hand in Kurotani, Kyoto Prefecture Japan is the subject of a short documentary.

The film is ~5 minutes long and without narration but with some music.

This film seems a meditation on paper making, from harvest to the final decorated sheets.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Resource: Vaccines and Autism

Environmental and Science Education
by Edward Hessler

You may or may not be familiar with the journals published by PLOS, the Public Library of Science.

According to the Wiki entry on PLOS, it began in 2000 "with an online petition initiative...which called for all scientists to pledge that from 2001 they would discontinue submission of papers to journals that did not make the full text of their papers available to all, free and unfettered, either immediately or after a delay of not more than 6 months."  While many signed the petition, always the easy part, the follow through, the commitment to action was much smaller.  This led to the start of "non-profit publishing operation," made possible by two large grants.

The rest is history, as we say.  PLOS now publishes eight peer-reviewed journals and PLOS Blogs, all on-line and all open access. I am a somewhat regular reader—scanner is more accurate and honest way of saying this!—of PLOS Biology and PLOS One.

A few recent entries may provide a flavor of the width and breadth of the PLOS blogworld. Where does innate fear come from? Using arctic shrews (and their parasites) to understand the effects of climate change. On science blogs. The science of peer review (a podcast). A necessary retelling of the smallpox vaccine story. And the merry life of squirrels. (Huh?!)

I encourage you to read the latter for two reasons: it is about citizen science and includes a wonderful conversation between the author and his daughter, Mira, a kindergartner.  She had to write a report about squirrels. Her Dad tells her he is impressed that she remembered the word "habitat." Her response is perfect: "I know things."

The entry of interest today is the current featured PLOS blog from PLOS Medicine. It may be a useful and important resource to you as I think it will be to me.

The posting is by Peter Hotez who is the co-editor of the PLOS journal Neglected Tropical Diseases. This is his introduction to an essay on papers about why vaccines don't cause autism.

I have a unique perspective on the recent headlines surrounding vaccines and their alleged links to autism. I serve as President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to vaccines and immunization. In that role I am director of its product development partnership (PDP) based at Baylor College of Medicine – the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, which makes vaccines for neglected tropical diseases – a group of poverty-promoting parasitic and related infections – including new vaccines for schistosomiasis, Chagas disease, and leishmaniasis, among others.

But I’m also a father of four children, including my adult daughter Rachel who has autism and other mental disabilities. These two parts of my life place me at an interesting nexus in a national discussion of autism and vaccines.

h/t WEIT January 25, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

Gee-haw, Spinner, Whirlygig, Whirlijig, Whirlyjig, Whirly = Centrifuge

Environmental and Science Education
by Edward Hessler

Have you ever made a whirligig from a button and string/yarn?

If not, you should, if only to feel the surging energy as you pull it back and forth. I still play with a couple I made several years ago. One is a single button model and the other is a two button model. I also have a much more more contemporary and dot-decorated model given to me by a friend who appreciated (indulged perhaps?) my interest in spinners of various kinds.

Whirligig [Wikimedia Commons]

It takes a person with an eye for how this toy might be adapted to solve a real life need. This is where Stanford University professor of bioengineering Manu Prakash stepped in. Prakash, a recent MacArthur Fellow, specializes in what he calls "frugal science."  And his inventions are known for their cleverness as well as their real use in daily life.

I've previously posted on a simple microscope Prakash and his group of frugal scientists/engineers invented.

While on a field trip to Uganda Prakash noticed a centrifuge not on a bench but on the floor. It was being used as a doorstop. There was no electricity to operate it. However, there was a need for one, a centrifuge that could be used anywhere—in hospital, in field, at the bench. Cheap. Simple. Repairable. Easily replaceable, if necessary.

Upon his return Prakash began by investigating spinning toys. One of these was the traditional button and string whirligig which led to the development of the "Paperfuge".  It was reported on by Madeline K. Sofia for NPR.

In this Stanford University press release you may learn more about how it is used. One might say that it is informed by a new "string theory." It includes a video of Professor Prakash at the controls as does Sofia's essay.

A few particulars about the paperfuge:

—Cost: 20 cents (American)
—rotational speeds of up to 125,000 rpm
—30,000 Gs
—1.5 minutes to separate blood into its components

If you are interested in the physics of rotation, this book published by Scientific American (SA) is wonderful. It consists of columns from the Everyday Scientist series published by SA.  Alas, there is nothing on the whirligig which I suspect has some interesting physics. It also shows the kinds of things that scientists become interested in, e.g., the one on tops is by a mathematical scientist.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Inaugural Poems

Art and Environment
by Edward Hessler

Most presidential inaugurations have not included the reading of a poem until relatively recently.

My preference would be to have a poem as part of the ceremony even though I've not been a fan of several of the poems written for the occasion. I think "poems on demand/command" are terribly difficult to write. Writing poems for occasions is a terrific challenge.

[Wikimedia Commons]

This is a bit of trivia I can't resist. Poet Miller Williams was chosen to write a poem and read it at one of President Bill Clinton's inaugurations.  Rock, folk, blues, country songwriter and musician Lucinda Williams is his daughter. She is a favorite.

Don't know what to make of this but since President John F. Kennedy, every Democratic president except Lyndon B. Johnson has included an inaugural poet although I think President Jimmy Carter's choice read at the gala event following. On the other hand, not a single Republican president has asked a poet to read.

Here are two poems for this year's occasion. One was chosen by NPR's Scott Simon.

The other is one you may have heard on CNN, a poem of protest.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

I like moggies. Each year for quite a few years now, I've been given a sponsorship of a kitteh at Feline Rescue (Kneading Paws Needing Homes)—an annual Christmas present.  

Feline Rescue is a no-kill shelter and does an incredible number of placements for such a small shelter. Last year I think the number approached a 1000. They also did many hundreds of neutering surgeries.

Some of these cats are adoptable and others aren't for many sad and all too often cruel reasons. Many of these stretch the bounds of imagination. I've sponsored a couple who were so wary of humans that they wouldn't allow anyone to touch them. They would put up with me sitting with them. Once in a great while, a very great while, one would sidle up and drag his side against my leg. He had had a hard life and looked like it.
Shelter cat [Wikimedia]

This year, I've had the gift of two moggies, both adoptable. I'd no sooner been notified that I was a  sponsor of Memphis (blotched, tiger striped) than she was adopted. I did get two chances to visit her. She was at the shelter for two weeks before moving to her new home. Memphis had a very pleasant, soft and ready-to-run motor.  She was so trusting that she would roll over and let me stroke her tummy..

Holiday (a calico) became her replacement and when I went to see her last week her digs were being cleaned and there was no room for me but I did touch her through the cage. She is a sweetie and prefers to be alone, she says. So one condition of adoption, important consideration, is that she is the lone four-legged critter in the house. While I was standing with her, there were two people who were expressing a great interest in her. I was there to check in on her earlier this week and she has a new home.

Here is a lovely poem about the dying of a much-loved and regarded cat. And here is some information about the poet, Robin Chapman, a neighbor to the east (Wisconsin).

Thursday, January 19, 2017


History of Science
by Edward Hessler

The previous post about blackboards leads to another.

Several readers responded to Professor Peter Woit's comments on the blackboards found in Columbia University's mathematics department.

Whiteboard [Pexels]
Some of the comments are on the merits of blackboards v whiteboards, blackboards, whiteboards but highlight two others here.

—Blackboards in toilets can be found in the Newton Institute, Cambridge University.

—I'd never heard about Einstein's blackboard known as the "Oxford blackboard." Einstein used that blackboard during a lecture at Oxford in May 1931.  It contains a numerical error, "an error that casts useful light on a puzzling mistake in a cosmology (Einstein) published later that year." I leave it to others to find the error.

Here is the Wiki entry about the blackboard (actually there are two but because one was wiped clean it is not on display) and the mistake.

And here is a short video  by a curator of the Oxford Museum of the History of Science.  He uses a lovely phrase for describing the use of a chalkboard. It is "chalked on." I was interested to learn that no attempt was ever made to "preserve" it, say with a varnish. The possibility of chalk deterioration is discussed. So far, it has not been observed.

And if you are interested in reading comments made by readers about chalkboards, here is the link to that entry in Not Even Wrong. You will find them interspersed with other comments about topics Dr. Woit described in his entry, "Various and Sundry."

People have strong opinions about chalkboards and whiteboards. There is a discussion of pollutants from both, too.

Thanks to Peter Woit, again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

4 Tips to Stop Your Home from Making You Sick

Sustainability & Human Health
Guest Blogger: Charlotte Meier

The home is an essential part of the human environment, but is sometimes overlooked when discussing environmental issues. However, the EPA has found that indoor air tends to be far more polluted than outdoor air. Sustainable and healthy building practices go hand in hand.

Here are four easy tips for keeping your home healthy from guest blogger Charlotte Meier. Charlotte enjoys collecting resources and educational materials to share with people who wish to keep their homes safe. This is what inspired her to start her website, HomeSafetyHub.

We like to think of our homes as our sanctuaries — the places we go to feel comfortable, spend time with our loved ones, and relax. Unfortunately, studies show that our homes have the potential to make us very ill, and in some cases have made people extremely ill. Health issues such as headaches, coughing, sneezing, and wheezing can indicate that your home in making you sick. If you suspect that your home is behind your family's health issues, follow our tips to prevent it from continuing to happen.

1. Have your air ducts cleaned

Many people have HVAC in their homes, and while you enjoy the perks of central air conditioning, there are health hazards that lurk in your air ducts. As your cooling system cools your home, water often is left in the ducts; these traces of water become an ideal spot for bacteria and mold growth. Microbial growth in your air ducts can lead to asthma, allergies, coughing and headaches.

Air Vent [Pixabay]

To prevent illnesses caused by your air ducts, you should enlist the help of professionals every other year or so to thoroughly clean them. These professionals also should service your heating system to help it operate more efficiently. In-between professional air duct cleanings, you should replace the filters in your HVA system to prevents dust mites and other irritants from being blown about your home.

2. Be aware of lead exposure

If your home was built after 1978, you don't have much of a risk of exposure to lead because of lead paint. But, if you have an older home with peeling or flaking paint and you have young children, you should have your lead paint texted to know your risk. If your child has any symptoms of lead poisoning, including developmental delay, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness, fatigue, or seizures, you should contact his physician and have his blood tested for lead levels immediately. It's also a good idea to schedule an appointment with a home inspector who can identify health and safety hazards both inside and outside your home.

One modern cause of lead poisoning is burning scented candles in your home. some candle manufacturers continue to use lead wicks or wicks that have lead cores, and the candles release lead particles into the air of your home when you burn them. The dangers of burning scented candles exist for everyone in your home, but they especially are harmful to infants, small children, and pregnant women.

3. Check the humidity levels of your home

While we enjoy using essential oil diffusers and have the option of using a humidifying system with our heating system during winter to add moisture to our homes' air, adding too much humidity to your home poses risks. High humidity levels can enable the growth of mold in your home. At high humidity levels — anything above 45% — drywall can become a breeding ground for mold and enable it to grow behind your walls. The result is a hidden danger to your family that can lead to chronic sinus issues and nervous system damage. High humidity also creates ideal conditions for dust mites that cause allergic reactions, stomach problems, and sleep issues.

To lower the humidity in your home, first purchase a humidity monitor so you are aware of your humidity levels and know which actions you need to take. Always turn on vents when showering, bathing, and cooking, and allow them to run for at least 10 minutes after you finish. Open your windows during dry weather. And, stop using humidifiers and purchase dehumidifiers if you have high levels of humidity in your home.

4. Stop using dryer sheets

If your family continues to have skin irritations, respiratory problems, anxiety attacks, or irritability after you address other causes in your home including changing your cleaning supplies, your dryer sheets may be to blame. The chemicals used in dryer sheets, including toxic chemicals such as benzyl acetate, A-terpineol, camphor, ethyl acetate, and formaldehyde, lead to the short-term reactions we've already mentioned, but they can also have long-term effects on the liver, pancreas, and GI tract.

Wool dryer balls. [Vimeo]

Alternatives to dryer sheets are plentiful. Some of the best include using reusable, chemical-free dryer sheets that are made of fabrics to help prevent static, wearing natural fibers that are not prone to static cling, and using dryer balls. Dryer balls may be made of rubber, wool, or aluminum foil. People also use tennis balls as dryer balls. Dryer balls also help you reduce the amount of energy you use to run your dryer because they allow for more air to flow through the clothes and reduce the amount of drying time needed.

If you find that you have more health concerns when you are home than when you are in another locations, there is a good chance that your home is making you sick. Prevent further illnesses and health issues by having your air ducts cleaned, being aware of lead exposure, reducing your home's humidity level, and using alternatives to dryer sheets.


History of Science
Mathematics Education
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

Blackboards, I love 'em and so do many mathematicians and scientists, especially it seems to me, physicists.

I grew up with chalk dust, erasers, of smacking them together to free them of dust, the rat-a-tat-click-click-click sound of chalk (and sometimes the hair-raising sound of fingernails dragging across their surfaces), of vying for the privilege of washing them clean and the odor of freshly washed blackboards. It was only later, in graduate school, that I was introduced to chalk holders, a marvelous invention.

[Wikimedia Commons]

Here is a recent piece from New Hampshire Public Radio covering this important pedagogical technology. They are still alive and well in some places.

Peter Woit, who writes the physics blog, Not Even Wrong made a few observations, January 13, 2017, about blackboards in the mathematics department at Columbia. When he arrived, the blackboard in the common room of the mathematics department had been replaced by a whiteboard. It was universally hated but it took several years for it to be replaced. That whiteboard was replaced last year by "a floor-to-ceiling blackboard." Now that's progress!

Dr. Woit also noted that the "newly renovated Theory Center was unveiled here in the Physics department: floor-to-ceiling wall blackboards. That's the future, the whiteboard is the past" [emphasis added].

So, find a piece of chalk and go find a real blackboard. You may have to go to a restaurant, though, to find one. I hope the owners will let you give it a try.

Whattaya' think!

A Seussian h/t to Peter Woit

Monday, January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King, Jr. and New National Monuments

Edward Hessler

Today is commemorated the life and life changing contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the lead up to MLK, Jr. Day, on January 12, President Barack Obama designated three new national monuments to preserve important places in civil rights history. They are the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, the Freedom Riders National Monument, and the Reconstruction Era National Monument.

Here is Newsy on the designations with additional photographs.

MLK, Jr [Wikimedia Commons]

President Obama has talked more than once about the importance of confronting such "uncomfortable moments" if we are to grow as a people and as a nation.

In his extraordinary Letter from Birmingham Jail, there is found this penetrating ecological insight. The idea is interwoven throughout the letter. He was in Birmingham he wrote, in his typical straight forward way, "because injustice is here."

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.

In a compelling essay, Jelani Cobb calls attention to a speech that King delivered in 1967, in Atlanta. King "condemned the Vietnam War and warned against what he called 'the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.'" And I deeply agree with Mr. Cobb that "King's insights into our society have never been more critical."

How far have we come?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fake or Real?

Environmental & Science Literacy
Edward Hessler

Detective Sergeant Joseph "Joe" Friday was the star of Dragnet, a radio program which was later adapted for television. The catchphrase "Just the facts, ma'am" is associated with Friday.

On-line fake news, misleading stories, clickbait, hashtags, inferring news from tweets, spreading false content, etc. all are a current plague to news readers especially for those who read on the fly and find short news reports easier to read. We have moved far beyond facts and sometimes are content with this. Wynne Davis of NPR did a program, December 5, 2016 on this problem as well as how to be a self-checker of the news we consume  from these many sources.

[Image from Pixabay]

In other words, "Just the facts..." However, this short phrase is a misattribution something that is also included in the plague of fact or real. This was first said by the comedian Stan Freberg in a parody of the program as the Wiki entry linked above on Friday notes.

The program includes best practices based on suggestions by Alexios Mantzarlis who leads the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter and Professor Melissa Simdars who teaches communications and media at Merrimack College.

Davis linked a guide Simdars developed for use with her students on how to be a consumer of on-line news which also includes a bane, websites. Check it out.

I was both interested and not surprised to find a source I use frequently, always cautiously, I hope. I use it to take me to other sources and to further explore what I'm reported. I also use it to point me to cat videos and other features on animals, most of which do not seem to need fact-checking!

About HuffPo/PoHuff as I refer to The Huffington Post (and other sources) she writes, "Some sources not yet included in this list (although their practices at times may qualify them for addition), such as The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Fox News, vacillate between providing important, legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources(Emphasis mine.)

It is Simdars phrase "at times" that makes these sources very problematic and also potentially dangerous because you never know which times to be cautious.

NPR's Steve Inskeep looks at this problem from another angle, noting that we've always had a problem with separating facts from non-facts. He presents a finder's guide to facts.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
by Edward Hessler

Rumi [Wikipedia]

Today's poems—two for a change—are by Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Rumi, aka Jalal ad Din Muhammed Balkhi, Maulana/Mevlana, Mevlevi/Mawlawi, Jalaluddim Rumi but more commonly known as Rumi (September 30, 1207 to December 17, 1273). I've missed a few accents!

I've wanted to post a poem by Rumi for quite I while. The reason I haven't may be for a reason that makes little sense. I don't like how celebrity and New Age culture has seized him, turning him, in my view, into something he wasn't but into something they want. Rumi was a scholar whose often mystical poetry is deeply rooted in Islam.

A recent essay about Rumi by Rozina Ali notes that Rumi "is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim."  It was Ali's essay who provided the nudge to post a poem or two.

The following poems are from this site.

I Died from Minnerality and Became Vegetable

I died from minerality and became vegetable;
And From vegetativeness I died and became animal.
I died from animality and became man.
Then why fear disappearance through death?
Next time I shall die
Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;
After that, soaring higher than angels -
What you cannot imagine,
I shall be that.

A Star Without a Name

When a baby is taken from the wet nurse,
it easily forgets her
and starts eating solid food.

Seeds feed awhile on ground,
then lift up into the sun.

So you should taste the filtered light
and work your way toward wisdom
with no personal covering.

That's how you came here, like a star
without a name. Move across the night sky
with those anonymous lights.

(Mathnawi III, 1284-1288)

"Say I Am You" Coleman Barks Maypop, 1994

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Snowflake Bentley's Snowflakes Re-visited

Environmental and Science Education
Art and Environment
by Edward Hessler

Of all the forms of water the tiny six-pointed crystals of ice called snow are incomparably the most beautiful and varied. —Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley

[Wikimedia Commons]

Noticing snowflakes on my mittens and coat sleeves these past few days made me think about the assumed perfection of snowflakes. Are they? Aren't they?

Most of the ones I found as I walked through wonderful swirls of snow—the kind of snow that make you stick out your tongue to taste one or two—were not at all symmetrical or could I even fit them into any of the various "basic" shape classifications.

As you know, Wilson Bentley (February 9 1865 to December 23 1931) aka Snowflake Bentley was one of the first to photograph snowflakes. The images have been a source of joy, delight and wonder since their publication.  The photographs of individual snowflakes are wonderfully symmetrical. Perfect as the heavens were once imagined.

A National Science Foundation video demonstrates the use of a new technology that can capture images of free-falling snowflakes, an impressive achievement. This fascinating video interweaves the work of Bentley, a farmer, his fiercely critical European competitor, atmospheric scientist Gustav Halmann and two University of Utah scientists, engineer Cale Fallgatter and atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett who designed a new instrument for filming snowflakes in flight.

To round out this story I include several links.

The first is to a link to a short film about Bentley. His engineering achievement was remarkable no matter how one considers it.

The second is to photographer Alexey Kljatov's images which show snowflakes in all their glory and crystalline beauty.

CalTech physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht  studies the physics of ice crystals, particularly snowflakes. He has written several popular books on snowflakes. One of them is aimed at children, aged 6 to 12 (and wannabes) on the art and science of snowflakes. Another is The Little Book of Snowflakes. Good science and good art.

And finally Snowflake Bentley by Jacquelin Briggs Martin with illustrations by Mary Azarian.  If snowflakes aren't perfect Mary Azarian's art is as are the words of Ms. Martin.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

3 Sustainable Start-Ups to Watch

CGEE Student Voice
by Jenni Abere

Here are three innovative start-ups that I've been keeping my eye on for their work in waste reduction.

Imperfect Produce

Imperfect Produce is a Bay Area, California-based company with a simple business model. It buys "ugly" fruits and vegetables directly from the farmers, and sells them to consumers who subscribe to regular deliveries of boxes.

It seems like a true win-win. The farmers get paid for the perfectly edible ugly produce that would otherwise go to waste since grocery stores won't buy it. The consumers get much cheaper prices for food that is fresh, local, and healthy. The delivery model could also help in urban food deserts where people may not always have access to fresh food.

Small companies like this could have a huge impact in reducing food waste.

Imperfect began in San Francisco, and has just expanded to L.A.

Rozalia Project's microfiber catcher

Plastic microfiber pollution is one of the biggest threats to oceans today. Clothes with synthetic fibers (probably most of the clothes you own) get worn down in washing machines and these little bits of plastic wash down the drain and get into waterways.

Wastewater treatment plants do not have a way of dealing with microfibers at the moment, and plastic doesn't break down. In fact, it's far more harmful to marine life when it's tiny: small organisms eat the fibers, mistaking them for algae or plankton. Then it bioaccumulates in larger organisms, including fish that human eat.

It's a dire situation, without an easy solution since it's unlikely we'll stop making clothes out of plastic.

[Rozalia Project's website]

However, Rozalia Project is working on an invention that could prevent some plastic fibers from going down the drain. It's a microfiber catcher that you put in your home washing machine. It catches the plastic fibers, and then you can empty it into the trash. The plastic is far less harmful in a landfill than in the ocean.

The microfiber catcher should be available to purchase sometime this year!

Community Tool Libraries

Tool libraries exist all over the country, including one in Northeast Minneapolis and soon to be in St. Paul. They promote the motto "Access over ownership."

It works like this: You pay an annual membership fee (For NE Minneapolis, it's $55 per year) and you get access to tools that you can rent, workshop space, classes, and events. You can rent simple tools such as pliers and drills, to more advanced stuff like chain saws and woodchippers.

These tools come in handy every once in a while, but they aren't things that every person needs to own. The waste-reduction aspect is only one piece of the puzzle: The real value of tool libraries is that it empowers people to do projects on their own (and teaches them how with classes) without a huge upfront cost.


Image result for physics

Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

The ABC's of Particle Physics is a new board book published by Symmetry Magazine. "F is for forces, making particles swerve.

You can sample a few pages.

And if you are inclined, you can purchase a copy to read to someone.

Physics Cookie Decoratons

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Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

These holiday cookie decorations come to you after the traditional holiday season but they just arrived today. Nothing wrong with an after party.

Still, the presentations are beautiful and physics playful. You'll also find some physics, too.

Hot chocolate comes to mind with marshmallows.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Happy Birthday

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
by Ed Hessler

Today the British theoretical physicist Steven Hawking turned 75—300 years after the death of Galileo.

Many of us know the Hawking name because of a slim book he wrote titled A Brief History of Time, Hawking's very popular foray into public communication about theoretical physics.

Stephen Hawking [Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder wrote an informative essay about Hawking and his contributions to physics.  She describes "what to celebrate."

It is worth reading if you want to know about the place of one of the most well known physicists of our time in physics.

You may know Hawking as the physicist in a wheelchair to which he has been confined for most of his professional life. Hawking was diagnosed with ALS when he was 21. Hawking has beaten the odds of this debilitating and often fatal disease. Here is what is known about how he has done this.

I heard him speak at the University of Minnesota when he spoke at Northrup Auditorium. The placed was packed. I remember, dimly, some wise guy asking him a question about the use of imaginary numbers (complex numbers)—an attempt to discredit physics and put down Hawking. Hawking patiently tapped out a response on his computer which showed the ignorance of the question and made most of us laugh. I don't remember exactly what he said so I'll make no attempt to recapture the response.

Here, are some responses (The Guardian, UK) from physicists to the question about what complex numbers are and how they are used.

Hawking has a remarkable sense of humor—in full view when he spoke at the University of Minnesota and a great spirit of adventure which is not captured here. He has flown in the so-called vomit comet

Happy birthday.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Sokal Hoax Twenty Years Out

History of Science
by Edward Hessler

Have you ever heard of a paper with the tongue-curling title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"?

It was published some twenty years ago in a left-leaning, heavily cultural studies freighted journal. Social Text is an academic journal that was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for Literature "for eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless and which claimed that reality does not exist." The link to the Wikipedia entry (Social Text above) describes its subsequent publishing history and interests.

You may view the 1996 Ig Nobel ceremony here. Winners have "done something that makes people LAUGH and then makes them THINK."

Alan Sokal [Wikimedia]
The paper was written by a real scientist, a physicist at New York University by the name of Alan Sokal.  He larded the paper with all the jargon he could find from the opaque literature of the cultural studies crowd, indeed came close to going overboard that he wondered whether it would be published. Social Text loved it.

Shortly after Sokal revealed to the world that it was all a hoax which created quite a stir in some circles of the academy. Science remained and last I looked still thrives.

The Science Wars and Science Denial

Jennifer Ruark wrote a relatively short oral history, Bait and Switch, for The Chronicle of Higher Education which tells the story of how it (the Science Wars) all happened, the aftermath and whether it had any long lasting effect.  Most of the major players are quoted. Ruark chose a style of presentation that is very effective and easy to read while not getting lost or becoming frustrated by the jargon common in Social Text publications.

In this era of post-truth, truthiness, etc. one wonders about lasting effects or whether similar effects are on the rise. Science bashing is not uncommon (think climate science and global climate change).

 As usual, I strongly recommend you read the comments following Ruark's essay.

With respect to scientific facts, as one of the commenters on Ruark's essay notes "it is a bad thing to fall from a very high place."  He was not writing about science but about pre-scientific cultures learning this from experience. No science was necessary. What he neglects to mention is that with the development of science, this force now has some basis in understanding based on investigation using empirical data.

Gravity is far from being understood and integrated with the other forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force are described in a language different from gravity (these three are described in the maths of quantum physics; gravity in the maths of a continuous classical physics). A viable theory of quantum gravity would mean that all four forces could be united under a common theoretical frame work, a goal of theoretical physics.

It is not known whether nature has the same goal but it seems fair to say it is likely. I'm way, way, way out of any depth or width here.

The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote a definition for facts in science and mathematics that I think is a very useful way of thinking about them.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. ... In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Friday, January 6, 2017

10 Sustainability Documentaries

CGEE Student Voice
by Jenni Abere

I watch a lot of documentaries. Here, I've compiled 10 of my favorite documentaries that are about the topic of sustainability in some way. I've subdivided these into three categories: Food and Diet, Climate Change, and Social Justice. There is a lot of overlap between these topics, however, since you can't separate them from each other.

Food and Diet


This documentary has received a lot of attention, and for good reason. It's one of the most persuasive documentaries I've ever seen. Case in point: While I was watching it, I was eating a slice of leftover pepperoni pizza, but I've been a vegetarian ever since.

This documentary covers all the major arguments against large scale animal agriculture: climate change, land use, water pollution, animal cruelty, poverty and hunger, worker conditions, human health. The unique spin of this documentary is that the director, Kip Anderson, is slowly uncovering a vast "cowspiracy" where even environmental advocacy groups are unwilling to name animal agriculture as one of the leading causes of environmental degradation.

A Place at the Table

This documentary is a personal and emotional look at food insecurity in America. It covers both urban and rural "food deserts" and particularly the impact on children.

Forks Over Knives

This documentary focuses mostly on the health aspects of diet. Cowspiracy followed by Forks Over Knives is sort of a one-two punch to becoming vegetarian or vegan. This documentary led to my parents re-thinking the standard American diet, and cutting back on animal products.

A lot of convincing studies are discussed, including the China Study, one of the most in-depth studies of human nutrition ever.

Climate Change

Chasing Ice

This is one of the most famous documentaries of recent years. The cinematography is incredible and it includes some convincing evidence of climate change that you can see with your own eyes, bringing distant phenomena close to home.

When I went to see a showing of this in theaters, it was during an insane blizzard, which is nice irony.

Last Call at the Oasis

This is a comprehensive look at issues of water quality and quantity. It doesn't delve too deeply into any one issue, but it's a good refresher.


This documentary begins with a young man wondering if he should allow a company to frack for natural gas on his property. He quickly goes down a rabbit hole of the devastating impacts of the energy industry on the environment and people.

It's a bit of downer, of course. I watched this with some co-workers in Hamline's Sustainability Office. At the end of the film, my boss said that she used to work for energy sustainability, but it was too depressing, so she started working with the food movement instead.

Social Justice

Poverty, INC 

This documentary challenged a lot of my preconceived notions and led me to think about charity work in a more nuanced and complex way. People who live in developing countries are given a voice in this documentary, and their message basically is: "Why do you assume we need all of this free stuff? Have you ever actually been to this country?"

Indeed, all the free stuff prevents the growth of business and wealth. The local suppliers are put out of business, people grow dependent: only for people to lose interest in a particular charity and leave them high and dry.

This is definitely an uncomfortable subject matter, since people who give to charities and work for charities have nothing but good intentions. The main thesis of this documentary is: Global aid is necessary in times of crisis, but when it becomes a way of life for developing countries, it hurts their ability to grow.

This documentary will help you decide which charitable causes will actually help more than they hurt in the long run.

Trouble the Water

This documentary uses first-hand footage from Hurricane Katrina to paint a disturbing image: People completely abandoned when the storm came. One woman's family is impacted in so many ways. Her grandmother was in a hospital, and was left behind to die in the storm. Her brother was in prison, and all the guards left, without telling them what was happening.

It's important to confront this failure of America to take care of its own people.

The House I Live In

This documentary, about the war on drugs, is one of the most eye-opening I have ever seen. It has both tragic anecdotal stories, and decades of evidence.

One of the most interesting (well, maybe, horrifying) points is that since the war on drugs began, there have been fewer arrests for murders, rapes and robberies. A journalist, the creator of The Wire, said that the war on drugs doesn't reward good police work, and has created police departments that can't solve crimes.

Nixon was the president to begin the war on drugs, but he had a surprisingly progressive approach. He said that drug use was only a symptom of pain and suffering in society, and that people needed help, not jail time. However, this "soft on crime" approach has never been very popular, so publicly he spouted the same old "lock 'em up" rhetoric.

Food Chains 

This documentary deals with migrant farm laborers, so yes it's depressing. But there's light at the end of the tunnel! We follow activists in their work to pressure large purchasers such as Walmart, Taco Bell, and Publix to support humane pay and conditions.

Publix never gave in, but Taco Bell and Walmart were among the first to agree to only purchase tomatoes approved by this workers' rights organization.

I think a lot of people are unaware of the ubiquity of human labor in farm work. Some assume that there are machines that pick apples and other produce. This documentary is a good wake up call, and gives you the resources you need to make the best purchasing decisions.

Friday Poem

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Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by David Wagoner.

Wagoner, born in 1926, is a poet, novelist and playwright. He is recognized as the leading poet of the Pacific Northwest.

Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press is a leading literary publisher, including poetry. In this video executive editor Jeff Shotts talks about rejection, the name of the poetry writing and publishing game.  Rejections are nearly around 99% of all manuscripts received which are in the thousands.

Graywolf Press was founded in Port Arthur, Washington in 1974.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mantis Shrimp

Biological Evolution
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

By now the evidence is pretty clear.

I'm a fan of the short films on science from KQED Science and PBS Digital Studies. And I won't resist sharing them even if asked to desist!

Today's treat is on vision in mantis shrimp. So what's the big deal? Biological diversity. Putative adaptations. Life on this planet and what some of it does.

Mantis Shrimp [Wikimedia Commons]
Three "pupils" to our one. Receptors for twelve colors (a world's record) to our three and the ability to detect light polarisation. Humans can barely detect it. The film "How the Mantis Shrimp's Six-Pupiled eyes put 20/20 Vision to Shame" is, as is usual, beautifully photographed.  It is 4 minutes long.

Polarisation (polarization in the U. S.) is defined on that wonderful encyclopedia of science, the Wiki. There is also a Wiki entry which deals with the physics and maths of the phenomenon as waves. The Physics Classroom has a tutorial on polarization.

h/t Aeon