Friday, March 31, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

It was first published in New Hampshire (1923, Henry Holt), a book of poems for which he received the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.


Thursday, March 30, 2023

Night Skies

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Nature, Wildlife, Sustainability, Global Change, Climate Change, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems

Ed Hessler

Dark skies are a profoundly threatened sensescape. This dramatic photograph from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) shows why and where in the world dark skies are increasingly problematic. The brightness of an artifical night sky is the replacement.

For additional information, I recommend Ed Yong's "An Immense World" (Random House, 2022) if you are interested in this although the book is about a variety of sensescapes animals use to know and navigate their environments. Our fixation on sight as the way to know the world slowed research on how the rest of animal life knows their environment and how to behave in it. The last chapter deals specifically with threats to sound and light/dark scapes and their effects.

And see also, Adam Gopnik's review in The New Yorker (February 27, 2023) of "The Darkness Manifesto" (Scribner, 2023) by Swedish ecologist Johan Eklof. It is titled "Turn Off the Light: What's Lost When Darkness Becomes Endangered?" 

You can read it for free here unless you have run out of your limited free access for the month. That's my hand in the closing elevator door as it closes on me. it  is titled "Is Artificial Light Poisoning the Planet?"
Eklof studies bats and Gopnik begins with an observation he made about the presence/absence of bat colonies in church belfries. "Most churches had bat colonies back in the nineteen-eighties, and now most of them don't." Eklof's research points to light pollution. Gopnik quotes Eklof who noticed that "'District after district has installed modern floodlights to show the architecture it's proud of...'" Bats use more than sonar. They also have eyes and when they leave a dark belfry into bright light, they become confused. 
This is a reminder, one Yong discusses in his book that all senses available to an animal are used, often very cleverly, complicating the research into the sense world of animals.

In the APOD notes you will find a valuable link to the International Dark-Sky Association where you can find information on how bright our lighting at night can be dimmed.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Phosphorus: On the Road to Ruin?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Global Change, Sustainability, Science & Society, Culture

Ed Hessler

--Life can multiply until all the phosphorus is gone and then there is an inexorable halt which nothing can prevent.--Isaac Asimov (Quote from Dan Eagan, The Devil's Element used by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, March 6, 2023)

The world has a phosphorus problem, says Elizabeth Kolbert in reporting for The New Yorker, March 6, 2023. * It is must reading and my summary barely substitutes for her superb reporting.

The problem is that phosphorus rich rock is limited in abundance. Kolbert notes that of the world's phosphorus reserves, Morocco "possesses...about seventy per cent of the planet's known...reserves...China..holds the ...second largest--these are less than one-tenth the size of Morocco's--and Algeria the third largest." There are other reserves which are very much smaller, e.g., in Florida where mining competes with development. 

Ms. Kolbert provides a short history of the element and its use/misuse in a surprisingly short and quite frightening essay. 
Some of her points are found below as direct quotes and paraphrases.  I emphasize that all of this, excluding my mash-ups, is Ms. Kolbert's work; not mine. Consider it to be in quotes. I highlight a few quotes with quotation marks.  

--The conundrum. "Crops need nutrients to grow, but harvesting them removes the nutrients, leaving the soil unfit for future harvests. This was worked around by letting depleted fields lie fallow; spreading animal waste including their own, on the land; and planting legumes, which possess restorative properties."

--The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt returned with a sample of a highly prized material--bird manure. When it was analyzed, it was found to have large amounts of two essential plant nutrients--nitrogen and phosphorus. And thus was born an extractive industry based on guano deposited by sea birds on the Chincha Islands
--What followed is common. An apparently unlimited resource is extracted more quickly than expected, one that seemed inexhaustible. Other reserves were sought with no change in practices. Islands also seemed to be an endless supply. Inevitably, this source was consumed.--A new era of phosphorus was then exploited, this time in phosphorus mineral deposits. 
--Why is phosphorus so critical? There is this fact which can't be modified: without phosphorus there wouldn't be life, as we know it.  There is no substitute. DNA. ATP, our bones.

--Ahead, though, is a point when extraction will exceed the phosphorus supply. The "when" is a point of dispute, say a few years to a few centuries. Use of any resource always involves waste and what has been distributed to aid and sustain crop growth is finding its way into waterways resulting in HABs, harmful algal blooms (aka red tides) and these are found world wide. Some alga thrive in them but the expense is costly to other life: suffocation. HABs include dead zones in oceans. One large one lies close to our southern shores on the northern Gulf of Mexico.

--So what are some solutions? Kolbert brought a jug of urine, a rich phosphorus source when she visited Rich Earth's Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program, Rich Earth Institute (REI), in Burlington. There urine is pasteurized and distributed to local farmer for use as a fertilizer--referred to as "peecycling". Kolbert's article points out the problem: scale.  REI processes ~ 12,000 gallons annually while New York City produces about a billion gallons; Shanghai produces three billion. But REI is a local action.

Kolbert cites suggestions discussed in a book by Dan Egan such as stripping phosphorus from sewage treatment plants - pee cycling at a larger scale and careful manure management. 

Another book by Dan Elser, an ecologist at the University of Montana and British soil scientist Phil Haygarth is more draconian in its recommendation: remaking global agriculture from the ground up and they have some suggestions.
--Kolbert's closing comments are free of bleach. Sugar free. "It is well known that short-term solutions have long-term costs but when we become aware of them, reversing course is not a possibility."  She points out that it is "in this sense, the world's phosphorus problem resembles its carbon dioxide problem, its plastics problem,  its groundwater-use problem, its soil-erosion problem , and its nitrogen problem. The path humanity is on may lead to ruin, but, as of yet, no one has found a workable way back." (my bold)
Consider such a recipe for a way back. There is another ingredient, one that dominates: socio-cultural-econo-politics on a global scale. I've not included the uncertainties, the inevitable surprises of the results of actions. Consequences with cascading effects.

*Kolbert, E. (2023, March 6). Elemental need: Phosphorus helped save our way of life and now threatens to end it. The New Yorker, 22 - 26
Print and on-line with this title. If you don't have an account and have not used your monthly quota of free articles, you can read it there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Speed of Gravity

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Astronomy, Cosmology, Maths, Mathematics Education

Ed Hessler

Here's the question: How fast is gravity?

You begin by measuring its speed and you must be able to detect gravitational waves. 

I leave it to our guide, Dr. Don Lincoln to carefully walk us through this hard process (10 m 12 s). 

About FermiLab where Dr. Lincoln works.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Nature Obituary Remembers Biochemist Paul Berg

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

An obituary in the British journal Nature notes the achievements and life of biochemist Paul Berg who received the Nobel Prize for "his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids" in 1980 along with Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger for "their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids." Berg was the first to transfer DNA from one organism to another.

Here is the last paragraph: "Berg was an extraordinary scientist, teacher, mentor and administrator, and a skilled proponent of bringing good, old-fashioned common sense to bear on contentious public-policy issues, including later the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research. He formally closed his research laboratory at the turn of the twenty-first century, but continued to advise his department and his university, and to act as a consultant to biotechnology companies. The world of academia will sorely miss this giant of the early days of molecular biology and molecular genetics."

Sunday, March 26, 2023


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Science & Society, Culture

Ed Hessler

Marc Silver, Editor of NPR's Goats and Soda observes that "When I was a kid, the topic of 'happiness' suddenly went viral thanks to a newspaper comic strip. The cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of 'Peanuts,' published a book called Happiness is a Warm Puppy.

Photographers from around the world were asked to send archived photos of happiness. Gisele Grayson, Mark Silver & Ben de la Cruz discuss and show some of the images. Each photo has its own discussion.

Their reporting is a delight.

I didn't know that there was a United Nations International Day of Happiness, celebrated on March 20.  Bhutan made the original request, the "country that actually releases is own happiness index." There is a link to the Bhutan report.

Happiness Day is in its 10th year and this year the theme was "'Be mindful. Be grateful. Be kind."

Finland topped the list for the sixth time this year. You can read the World Happiness Report 2023 which uses (six key factors to help explain variation in self-reported levels of happiness across the world: social support, income, health, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption."

The report's Executive Summary is followed by five chapters: 

1) The Happiness Agenda: The Next 10 Years  

2) World Happiness, Trust and Social Connections in Times of Crisis 

3) Well-being and State Effectiveness 

4) Doing Good and Feeling Good: Relationships Between Altruism and Well-being for Altruists, Beneficiaries, and Observers 

5) Towards Well-Being Measurement with Social Media Across Space, Time and Cultures: Three Generations of Progress. 

I only just learned about this. Finland is offering free trips after being named world's country for six consecutive years. "Those selected for the Masterclass of Happiness will work with coaches in four areas: nature and lifestyle, health and balance, design and everyday, and food and well being." The application time is short (April 2) and you may learn more here


Saturday, March 25, 2023

Two Millenia of Violence Interpreted By A Cognitive Psychologist

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Brain, Biological Evolution, Culture, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

This "Life of the Mind" presentation with Steven Pinker discusses the evolution of violence "from the Stone Age to the present day - how it has changed, civil societal impacts on its prevalence, and he also comments on the "good and bad aspects of human nature."

The video is 11 m 14 s long

Friday, March 24, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment, Nature, Wildlife, Biodiversity

Ed Hessler

"Linnet" is by Susan Szekely. You may learn more about the poem as well as its author at the link.

The Wiki entry includes information about the Common Linnet. A YouTube video (3 m 37 s) by Maurice Baker includes examples of the term "frequency diagrams" used by the poet.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Biological Thievery

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Models

Ed Hessler

I recommend this essay written by Veronique Greenwood, a contributing writer for Quanta Magazine. It is consists of some introductory comments and then proceeds to an interview with a researcher who is given enough time and space to provide full answers for lay folks.

To give you an idea of what's ahead here are two paragraphs. I will also list the interview topics. There are links, e.g., to Dr. Moeller's laboratory and some photographs of where she works, lab and field.

The interview includes an observation about what ecology is. At first, Moeller wasn't persuaded but now she agrees.

 "Nature, red in tooth and claw, is rife with organisms that eat their neighbors to get ahead. But in the systems studied by the theoretical ecologist Holly Moeller, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the consumed become part of the consumer in surprising ways.

"Moeller primarily studies protists, a broad category of unicellular microorganisms like amoebas and paramecia that don't fit within the familiar macroscopic categories of animals, plants and fungi. What most fascinates her is the ability of some protists to co-opt parts of the cells they prey upon. Armed with these still-functioning pieces of their prey, the protists can expand into new habitats and survive where they couldn't before."

Exciting stuff.

Here are the topics covered and Dr. Moeller does a great job uncovering them.

--You’ve become well known in ecology and evolution circles for your work on “acquired metabolism.” Is that a term you came up with?

--Is what humans have with our gut bacteria acquired metabolism?

--What led you into this line of research?

--I love the idea that an organism can start out in life without a chloroplast, and then just pick one up.

--Do these species have to keep stealing chloroplasts because they eventually break down?

--Do they ever inherit chloroplasts from their parent cells? If the cells divide to reproduce, don’t the chloroplasts get passed on as well?

--How is it possible for the ciliates to get energy from someone else’s cellular machinery?

--What evolutionary question is this work helping you answer?

--Does acquired metabolism help organisms get ahead?

--So getting these cell counts and building a mathematical model of what was happening was an important part of this?

--We talked about competitive advantages that can come from acquired metabolism. But are there downsides to taking over someone else’s metabolism?

--I noticed on your Twitter that you’re doing a lot of tree-root counting. What does that have to do with this other work?

--There’s so much talk about the microbiome, but we forget that it must have been really difficult to get all those relationships with microbes going at the beginning.

--I feel like theoretical ecology is exploding lately.

















Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Extinct Or Not?: The Case Of The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Nature, Wildlife, Biodiversity, Nature of Science, Extinction, Global Change

Ed Hessler

Does the ivory-billed woodpecker still exist? This decision now hinges "on drone footage" writes Jim Williams in his column in The Star Tribune (2.22.2023). If you subscribe and missed it, the column from "On The Wing" titled "Extinct of Elusive?" is accessible.

Following the announcement of the Fish and Wildlife Service (NWS) on "its intent to remove the woodpecker from the endangered species list and declare it extinct," drone footage "was given, writes,  which "could be considered the best evidence of survival collected yet." This effort is the result of "2590 hours" of drone flight, "864 hours of video which after editing...produced just more than a minute of the bird in flight and perched in a Louisiana woodland, location secret."

Williams reviews some reasons why there are no known photos which include the wary behavior of the bird - "spooks very easily" - and the requirements of photography such as camera positioning and continuously keeping the proper focus. "There are many photographs...There are no focused photos...."

Williams directs our attention to the website Project Principalis, noting that the project name is from the scientific name of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis. There you can watch the footage. These are found under "New Unenhanced Crops of Drone Clips at Full Speeds." The web site is the result of considerable effort and invites exploring

When viewing the video, Williams notes one thing to look for is when viewing is its "behavior after landing...(called) hitching movement."

Sometime this spring the FWS will announce its decision.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Ig Nobel Prizes 2022

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, History of Science, Miscellaneous.

The 32nd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony was held September 15, 2022--entirely on-line.

The prizes--ten new ones--"were awarded (for research on) things that make people LAUGH, then THINK."

The ceremony is described in the sidebar and this year's elements are described below the video link, including the Nobel laureates who handed them out--chemistry, economics, physics, physiology or medicine.  A new mini-opera premiered - The Know It All Club. The 24/7 Lectures tell what three great thinkers are thinking about, first in 24 seconds, then in 7 words.

The traditional Welcome, Welcome Speech and the traditional Goodbye, Goodbye Speech can be heard.

"And other things."

These are a great deal of fun and will make you THINK. And a must if you've never heard of seen it before.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Kolbert on Climate Change

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Global Change, Climate Change, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Sustainability

Ed Hessler

I recommend an article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert on climate change. "A Vast Experiment: The Climate Crisis from A to Z" (The New Yorker November 28, 2022. While a long read, it is divided into sections of varying length which make it easy to read an entry or two, put the article aside and return. My guess is that you won't find it easy to put down.

It consists of 26 essays on climate change, one for each alphabet letter. I tried a couple of ways of summarizing and pitched them in the dustbin of cyberspace. It starts with Arrhenius who got the warming model right. For "B," there is an essay about Greta Thunberg's  statement on the value of policy statements, i.e., "blah, blah, blah."

The shortest is for "D" and it is just two short sentences about despair. There are entries on green concrete, electrical  powered flight, the Inflation Reduction Act - "the first real piece of climate legislation to make it through Congress. Kilowatt hours, math, narratives, the power grid, the quagmire of transmission of electricity, the vast geophysical experiment we have played and continue, weather-related disasters, xenophobia, the ubiquitous "you" and graound zero which the Colorado River has been called.
In the very first entry, Kolbert asks whether "deep down, we don't believe it" (climate change), a questions that hovers over what passes for debate and finding solutions to climate change. It is haunting.

These are sharp, well-phrased entries about the mess in which we find ourselves and for which we don't have much time to which to respond - I don't want to say solve because I don't think it is possible to return to what we would hope for - to influence climate change in favor of the planet and all who dwell here. 

This lovely blue dot in space.

At the link above you can listen, read or both.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Watch Doctor

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Miscellaneous, History of Science, Technology

Ed Hessler

The 21 November 2022 Nature's Where I Work feature is about Rebecca Struthers, "a watchmaker and historian at Struthers Watchmakers in Birmingham, UK." Her career path is interesting and after dropping out of high school she spent some time studying jewellery and silversmithing in art school. She found she "missed science and technology," and returned after earning two academic degrees to watchmaking as well as restoring "antique and vintage pieces." She occasionally finds herself making "a replacement (part) by hand."

And where do science and technology come in" She notes "We need to understand how things are made to restore them."

She and her husband have owned C & R Struthers Watchmakers since 2012. Here is the webpage and I recommend a visit the premises.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Feeling Cramped? In A Tight Place?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM

The following is an answer to the questions in the title but at a much different scale

"A millimeter-sized robot made from a mix of liquid metal and microscopic magnetic pieces can stretch, move or melt (even reform). Perhaps someday it will be used to fix electronics or remove objects from the body.

You can watch - on an endless loop while you are on the page, a robot made of the material, shift its shape "liquefy itself and reform, allowing it to escape its cage-like cell" in a clip from an article in the January 25, 2023 New Scientist by Karmela Padavic-Callaghan. (Free registration is required which took me longer than the robot escaping the cell but worth it.)

Padavic-Callaghan tells us how it is made, describe what causes it to behave this way, and shows two uses which are always on, of  soldering in a simulated manufacturing process and an experiment in an experimental stomach "approach an object, melt over it and drag it out." The latter requires additional methods to ensure patient safety before it can be used in a clinic or physician's office. About that shape-shifting robot escape - the robot can return to its original, solid shape when it is allowed to dribble and spill into a mold

Finally, its use for an emergency-fix is described, e.g., to "replace a lost screw on a spacecraft by flowing into its place and then solidifying.

In the event you have trouble registering with New Scientist, here is a 1 m clip from the UK's The Telegraph. There is also a brief explanation below the video.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

Two short poems.

As If Hearing Heavy Furniture Moved on the Floor Above Us is by Jane Hirshfield.

Deer's Skull is by Robert Hull. You can read and/or listen to the poem and learn more about the poet.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Enlightenment: Steven Pinker

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science and Society, History of Science

In this last episode of Steven Pinker's series, Pinker discusses the enlightenment's three pillars: humanism, reason, and science. These have he argues "historically fuelled enormous advancement in virtually every facet of life and are our best hope for sustaining it in the future."

 Enlightenment Now (9 m 20 s). And about Harvard's Dr. Pinker see here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The NFL's Big Data Bowl

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Models, Maths, Mathematics Education

Ed Hessler

I never knew until this year that the NFL sponsors a Big Data Bowl. According to the site, this year there were "nearly 300 submissions from more than 400 participants, a record for out analytics competition.

"The 2023 Big Data Bowl (culminated)," the statement on the website reads, "with an in-person event at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on March 1. Each of the finalists will compete for an additional $20,000 in prize money, and the completion will feature a keynote discussion on sports analytics from Dr. Katherine Evans, Vice President of Research and Information Systems with Monumental Sports/Washington Wizards."

There were three tracks: coaching, undergrad, metric and honorable mention for a total of 8 finalists total and 3 honorable mention.

The website has considerable information for each with full descriptions of what they did, the models they developed and their conclusions.

And about the models I'm not going to say/can't say a thing - they work at several paygrades above me - except to shout "What a group of talented modelers."

And the winner of the big do$h? Three University of Toronto (UT) students who left with $20,000 US. A story by Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports was reported about the winning team on the CBC. Their model is about "getting pressure on an opposing team's quarterback." measured today by "stats like sacks, hits or hurries." These occur at the end of the play. The UT team developed a model on how pressure evolves over time, providing a continuous record of what is going on "frame by frame" of film.

I thought there might be interest in knowing about the event, the modelers, the models as well as what they look like. 

Even if you don't operate at this level of mathematics, there is quite a bit here for those of us who don't.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Kohl: Beginning of Wet Chemistry

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Culture, History of Science, Nature of Science, Archeology, Health, Medicine

Ed Hessler

There are eye liners and there is eyeliner, one that is unique among them: Kohl, also known as mesdemet, which was invented and marketed by the Egyptians. It was a "mineral powder (made) to render the eye expressive." Its history - it dates from ca 2000 BCE) and what has been learned about its use is the first in a new feature of Aramco World  for January / February 2023: Ingenuity Innovation (link below).

Lee Lawrence's story includes a small album of photographs from museum collections--a gilded sarcophagus, busts, painting, a make-up kit, kohl pots, portable kohl tubes, jars, a frieze showing the way the eye was depicted in Egypt, a wooden coffin box with the protective, kohl-lined eyes of the god Horus or as it is put in the article, "emanations of the god's eyes.

And the story reveals how residue left in kohl jars was used by Philippe Walter, founder and director of Sorbonne University's Laboratoire d'Archeologie Moleculaire et Structural. To Lawrence's opening question, "Could one of the oldest and most popular eyeliners have precipitated a world-changing innovation in chemistry," Walter answers yes. And when did this happen? Almost 4000 ybp.

First, Lawrence reviews old meanings and practices, for beauty, how it is applied - a small applicator is placed along the inside the lower eyelid or water line, the eye is then squeezed shut and the applicator is pulled out towrd the temple to spread it, cosmetic containers which appear to promote their use and also describe their ingredients, colors and hues, seasonal uses of different kohl, what certain containers suggest about daily life, and the likely economy developed.

It wasn't until the late 1800's that the most common metal found during analysis was lead. This doesn't sound like a good thing given what we know about the health effects of lead. Walter's group, using modern techniques, analyzed some 50 samples and found two minerals common to the samples, minerals "that formed under very particular geological conditions...very rarely occurring naturally, laurionite and phosgenite. This led to the conclusion that they were manufactured.

While no Egyptian descriptions of the process have been found, two first century CE authors, Pliny the Elder and Dioscoridis described a description of the process leading to laurionite. Phosgenite was made with natron, "a powdery sodium carbonate used in mummification."

And the Walter team concluded "We have now shown that wet chemistry was used as long ago as 2000 BCE. Wet chemistry is using water to "induce reactions" rather than heat from fire.

Of course we want to know what led to this breakthrough and Lawrence "points to the environment and kohl's medicinal use" for supporting evidence. The annual flooding of the Nile Valley and also into saline lakes resulted in "natural chemical interactions between the saline water and the lakebed's limestone(which) offered opportunity to observe and imitate nature." Egypt was known for "treating eye ailments, and multiple studies have shown that kohl was a part of Egyptians' medical kit".

Reading this article is likely to make you think of our remarkable curiosity which leads to understanding about how the natural world works and innovations derived from such research. This story of kohl smacks of the practices of science or, at least, the practices of proto-science.

A PDF may be read here. The first image that greets you will dazzle you.

Lawrence's reporting is at the top and I highly recommend you have her guide you rather than me through the world of kohl. I wanted to provide some reasons to read it.


Monday, March 13, 2023

Trophic Cascades and Keystone Species

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

In the spring of 1957, while teaching a class on the natural history of freshwater invertebrates at the University of Michigan, Professor Fred Smith made a substantial departure from the course material when he asked his class to consider a question about a tree outside the classroom window. "Why is that tree green?"

Obvious, no? No!

Smith was not interested in the obvious answers from biochemistry. His aim was a much more general question, one having to do with food chains. Smith later became the middle author of a now classic paper in vegetation ecology--the "green world," aka HSS (Nelson Hairston, Frederick Smith and Lawrence Slobodkin, 1960*).

It provoked considerable controversy and led to two general explanations: Top-down control or predators of herbivores. Bottom-up control or plants themselves limiting the effects of herbivores. In a well designed research investigation by a team of Duke University researchers and published in 2006 found that predators keep the world green.  However, the question has not been resolved and as Wilkiinson and Sherratt (2016**) note, the "dichotomy is probably too simple for understanding a complex system--such as vegetation at a site."

The video (19 m 29s) "Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others: Keystone Species And Trophic Cascades" from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI) series includes a re-enactment of that classroom. The film is narrated by Robert Paine who was a student in Smith's class when he asked this famous question. Paine describes the influence this question had on his subsequent career.

The film is about keystone species and trophic cascades which are two basic and important ecological concepts. The film tells the story of how these powerful concepts were first established through pioneering experiments of Robert Paine and James Estes. Trophic cascades occur when changes at the top of a food change result in changes do the rest of the chain. The keystone species is at the top of this kind of chain.

Paine's moving obituary about Frederick Smith was published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.

*Hairston, N. G., F. E. Smith, and L. B. Slobodkin. 1960. Community structure, population control and competition. American Naturalist 94:421–425.

** The Wilkinson Sherratt review may be found here. The authors note that after "having pointed out ... complexities and ...multiple processes involved in a full explanations, it appears to us that bottom-up processes are probably the most widely applicable explanations for why herbivores do not destroy all vegetation and so they provide an important part of the answer to the green world question."

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seed Planting: Imitating Nature

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Agriculture, Science & Society, Sustainability, Global Change

Ed Hessler

In a short video (2 m 30 s) from the journal Nature, a wooden "robot" drills a seed into the ground, a device that might possibly be useful in future in using seed carriers dropped by aircraft in remote areas for land regeneration. 

The robot has a basis and inspiration in biology - self-burying seeds - a case of technology imitating nature.


Saturday, March 11, 2023

A Daily Companion

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Biological Evolution, Wildlife, Nature

Ed Hessler

When Mohammad Arif who lives in Uttar Pradesh state, India, nursed an injured Sarus crane (Antigone antigone) back to health, he thought it would return to the wild. 

The crane didn't and now Arif has a daily companion.  Sarus cranes are the world's tallest flying birds. They are large billed with a red area on the neck and head that is free of feathers. Elegant birds that are easily identified.

Here is the BBC video (1 m 20 s).

This is an example of a bonding relationship between a human and a wild animal one that is often the result from a rescue or health care scenario according to Katie Moore of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Friday, March 10, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

Let's Get Married (in English and Spanish) is by Jose Olivarez.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Those Masks Again

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

A column with the audacious title, "The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?" (New York Times, February 28, 2023" is attractive enough - clicky baity - that it could do without the typical bold, large font size column headings.

I was going to write about it but others have and well so here is a short reading/viewing list.

The author is New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. It was published as a commentary in the StarTribune with a different but clever title, "Truth Unmasked, at Last" that I thought hyperbolic. (subscription required to view).
This short list is by no means comprehensive:

--The original published scientific study, Physical Interventions to Interrupt the Spread of Respiratory Viruses. It is from The Cochrane Library, an organization that describes itself as having an international reputation "as the benchmark for high-quality information about the effectiveness of health care." The article may be read in full at the link and it has some reader aids.
--The StarTribune editorial page column regarding the Stephens's column. It is completely accessible; no walls. 
--The StarTribune editorial (linked above) referred readers to a podcast with UMN epidemiologist Michael Osterholm who is interviewed by Chris Dall. You may listen and/or read it. The section on the Cochrane study is well done and has a thorough discussion of flaws in the study (and of Cochrane Library as an impartial research organization). This section begins at 38 m 52 s and ends following the discussion at 45 m 59 s (times also noted in the transcript).

--An interview with journalist Maryanne Demasi and the lead author of the Cochrane study, from which Stephens quotes. Demasi is an investigative medical journalist with the credentials for an informed interview. 
--"Masks Revisited" from Science-Based Medicine. Includes comments on the CochraneLibrary study.

My short list emphasizes a point I was going to make as emphatically as I could about the Stephen's column that this is a population or community study. It too easily leads to the conclusion that individual masking-does-not work. Well, as many studies have shown, masking works and is effective in protecting the wearer and others IF worn properly (not under one's chin or held at by the ear strings) and is of high quality. The IF is really important and the mask needs to fit, gap free around the nose and the lower face and jaw.

The other point is that about half of the column is on what Stephens calls "the mindless adherence" by policy makers and institutions especially the CDC who supported the mask mandates" and their reliance on the "chance that mask mandates in the United States would get anywhere close enough to the compliance level necessary to reduce transmission in a way that could be measured" (this is not a direct quote but comes from Stephens essay). He rails against the idea of "doing something" early on and making it public policy. This, he reminds us, is not science. 

The interview with Maryanne Demasi also provides you glimpses on how science works. You may also be reminded that as the late science educator Mary Budd Rowe observed (paraphrase): Science is a social enterprise but not always sociable.
Finally, I return to the original Cochrane review. The sentence beginning the conclusions reads.  "The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low adherence with the interventions during the studies hampers drawing firm conclusions." (my bold)
And yet the lead author is very forceful when interviewed  about what the study showed. Stephens didn't include it in his reporting. It seems important to me. Furthermore, the lead author finds no ambiguity at all. Truth?  Science at any level study - a single one in the laboratory or field or at the much more complicated level of the community level - draws conclusions that are tentative and based on the evidence. Some hint of tentativeness in the conclusion would have been welcome.

We have seen and will see more studies claiming that decisions made during the peak of the Covid pandemic were wrong. It reminds me that policy making under conditions of lack of knowledge and uncertainty are difficult. There are too many unknowns at the time decisions must be made. And not enough time to do the research to provide helpful leads to decision makers.