Thursday, November 30, 2023

A Slight Interruption In Posting

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Miscellaneous

Ed Hessler

I will be off the blog after this post, November 30, for about a day. 

I am the "nurse-in-residence" following what I expect to be a routine surgery but the patient needs someone around that first day. I'm it and glad to be of help which is mostly being there.

So the December 1, Friday poem will be delayed until about midday plus or minus. This could be longer if any complications occur which are unlikely.


What Can Be Learned From Dead Fungi aboutLife?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Global Change, Climate Change

Ed Hessler

In a recent field note from Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, CCESR (UMN), Adara Taylor reports on research by postdoctoral researcher Dr. Kathyrn Beidler.

The opening paragraph provides an abstract of what is to follow.

"Fungi are inextricably linked with death and decay. With microscopic filaments called hyphae that grow through tiny spaces in the soil, fungi are able to reach far and wide in search of nutrients, feasting on and decomposing organic debris on the way. So what happens when fungi, an agent of decay, meet their end?"

First, why is it important? "Below-ground fungal bodies...make up most of the carbon that sticks around in the soil, literally. Fungal Hyphae live and die next to soil minerals and sticking to clay minerals can physically protect fungal cells from being recycled by other microbes." My emphasis.

There are several reasons I'm pointing out this short article. It highlights species in the food chain/web that tend to get overlooked, at least their function. It is also a great illustration of how a field problem is turned into a laboratory and field problem. It also illustrates how research provides openings into other problems.
The close to Taylor's reporting includes a quote from Beidler. She said “It is all very circle of life, with living microbes recycling the carbon and nutrients contained within dead microbes. Ultimately I am interested in how necromass becomes stable soil carbon and how the traits of living and dead fungi influence this transformation.”
Wiki provides a short definition of necromass which is focused on above ground "dead stuff."

This research also emphasizes that we've much more to learn about food chains and food webs and also have the molecular tools to do this. They are not so simple.

And you can read all about it in this short informative article.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A High Altitude Plant Facing Climate Change in Tibet

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Sustainability, Global Change, Global Climate Change, Biological Evolution, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler
Context: The discussion of the following scientific paper is the story scientists are piecing together on a moss. The moss, genus Takakia has found a place in the natural world for 400 million years, roughly the geological period known as the Devonian. Evidence suggests that it is in danger of extinction Tibetan Plateau to which it has been famously adapted to what the environment has on offer: cold and harmful radiation from the sun. And that story began roughly 50 million years ago when India pushed into into Asia causing the uplift. In 2005 the two exisiting species were discovered by a survey team. The team set up study plots and since then have returned twice a year to collect environmental data. The outlook for its survival there strongly suggests that this highly specialized plant will disappear as the globe continues rapidly changing temperature increases. It may not have enough evolutionary time for further adaptations and adjustments.

A short sentence from a paper I just read (lightly) caught my attention. "Following nearly 400 million years of evolution and resilience, this species is now facing extinction."

The species is Takakia lepidozioides, a moss adapted to live in high altitudes, 4000 m plus (~13,000 feet).

The paper "Adaptive evolution of the enigmatic Takakia now facing climate change in Tibet" (PDF - Don't be put off by its length.) was published August 9, 2023 in the journal Cell. The research involved multiple specialties and authors with a key to their contributions which you can view by clicking on the authors. This is not as cumbersome as it might seem since the author key (digits) is used multiple times.

There is a list of highlights, a graphical abstract, a summary and keywords. I included the highlights so I could link to possible problematic technical vocabulary and ideas. And don't forget to use Google when in doubt of a technical word or concept.

  • Steepest temperature increase at 4 km elevation threatens highly adapted moss species
  • Sequenced genome with highest number of fast-evolving genes under positive selection. (There are two types of natural selection in biological evolution: Positive (Darwinian) selection promotes the spread of beneficial alleles, and negative (or purifying) selection hinders the spread of deleterious alleles. See here.
  • Adaptation to severe UV-B radiation and freezing likely evolved at high altitudes
  • Morphological peculiarities of Takakia plants likely evolved earlier than 165 mya
  • There are probably several points which will attract your attention. Here are 3 that caught mine.
  • 1. Takakia is a "sister to all other mosses, including Sphagnum...despite their morphological dissimilarities."
  • 2. "Takakia lacks rhizoids, ,,, Instead of rhizoids that attach plants to the soil matrix, Takakia  evolved a morphology that is not known from other mosses." (Oxford Languages Dictionary defines matrix as "an environment or material in which something develops; a surrounding medium or structure.")
  • 3. Stomata were one of the first developmental innovations of land plants, at about 400 mya (million years ago).  However, Takakia lacks stomata." 
  • From the Summary:
  • In short the authors documented "the steepest temperature increase (2010–2021) on record at altitudes of above 4,000 m, triggering a decline of the relictual and highly adapted moss Talakia." The summary is short.

  • The modern origin of protective traits in Takakia
  • Whereas Takakia evolved characteristic morphological features before 65 mya, the duplication and divergence of genes involved in stress protection occurred mainly during the uplift of the Himalayas, namely from 50 mya to the present. This period is characterized by a sharp increase in harmful UV-B radiation and a sharp drop in temperature, both caused by the uplift of the region." Whereas 
    Takakia evolved characteristic morphological features before 65 mya, the duplication and divergence of genes involved in stress protection occurred mainly during the uplift of the Himalayas, namely from 50 mya to the present. This period is characterized by a sharp increase in harmful UV-B radiation and a sharp drop in temperature, both caused by the uplift of the region. Whereas Takakia evolved characteristic morphological features before 65 mya, the duplication and divergence of genes involved in stress protection occurred mainly during the uplift of the Himalayas, namely from 50 mya to the present. This period is characterized by a sharp increase in harmful UV-B radiation and a sharp drop in temperature, both caused by the uplift of the region. The uplift of the Himalayas has caused the annual average temperature in the area of our experimental site to drop from 27°C (50 mya) to about 5°C at present, forcing Takakia  to evolve enhanced freezing tolerance."  (This sounds somewhat intentional which I doubt is the intention of the researchers. I prefer the idea of natural selection.)
  • This is a technical scientific paper but the paper's discussion, a couple of short videos and parts of the discussion are accessible and downright fascinating.  Every day we are learning more about the reach of global climate change and its effects on the large, the small, the deep, the high, the widespread and the isolated.
  • The authors conclude with a short section on the limitations of the study.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Challenging Quantum Orthodoxy: Physicist Jonathan Oppenheim

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

Ed Hessler

A challenge to the idea of a universal  theory of nature which is currently held in the sway of quantum mechanics is presented by Jonathan Oppenheim, a theoretical physicist at University College London in a story about him and his research which includes a short video (6 m 44 s) in which he explains his theory is found in Quanta Magazine, by Thomas Lewton, a free-lance writer for several publications.

Lewton sets the stage. "Most physicists expect that when we zoom in on the fabric of reality, the unintuitive weirdness of quantum mechanics persists down to the very smallest scales. But in those settings, quantum mechanics collides with classical gravity in a resolutely incompatible way.

"So for almost a century, theorists have tried to create a unified theory by quantizing gravity, or sculpting it according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They still haven’t succeeded."

Oppenheim thinks the "presumption is wrong." Lewton tells us how he began by a search for alternatives to the idea that classical physics and quantum physics might one day be joined. He thinks it possible that there is both a classical world of physics (ruling the way large things interact) and  the way the very small things interact (quantum physics).

Lewten met Oppenheim for an interview in a North London cafe. I provide the headings for the conversation, not all of them describing that part of the conversation but following from the previous part.

--Why are most theorists so sure that space-time is quantized? 

--Is gravity special in your view?

-- What sorts of problems do you run into if gravity is classical and not quantized?

-- So if gravity behaves classically, you end up knowing too much. And that means that cherished ideas from quantum mechanics, like superposition, break down?

--What is that loophole?

--So why don’t more physicists think gravity is classical?


--What are you proposing instead?

--Why did you start working on these hybrid theories?

--So the noisiness in these quantum-classical hybrid theories allows information to be lost?

--But information conservation is a key principle in quantum mechanics. Losing this can’t sit easily with many theorists.

--Will experiments ever resolve if gravity is quantized or not?

--How do you know this randomness is intrinsic to the gravitational field and not some noise from the environment? 

--On the flip side of the bet, are there any experiments that would prove that gravity is quantized?

This discussion flows well, made possible by a well-prepared and observant interviewer and the responses of Dr. Oppenheim. Throughout you will find comments about the nature of science and how theoreticians work. If you get stuck here and there you can move on or check your source of confusion on the Wiki. Some of these explanations become complex very quickly, because of the language barrier: mathematics and our common languages.

Monday, November 27, 2023

A Regional Guide to The Fifth National Climate Assessment

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

Ed Hessler

Grist is a "a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future." 

On November 15, 2023 Grist published its summary - The Fifth National Climate Assessment - of "a congressionally mandated interagency effort that provides the scientific foundation to support informed decision-making across the United States."

Grist provides "a region-by-region guide" on what it judges are the most important takeaways for the 10 regions included.

Thanks to MinnPost.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Scientific Literacy: Short Version

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

Ed Hessler

Jacob Mazurek who is described as a biology professor in the column below has been an adjunct biology professor at Bethel University, tells how he turned a waitress's observation into a teachable moment. He told the story in a letter to the Star Tribune (July 7, 2023).

While dining out, a dragonfly tattoo on his arm caught the eye of his waitress. She said  "I keep seeing dragonflies everywhere," saying she thought that "the universe is trying to tell me something," asking if she could take a picture.

As she was taking the image, Mazurek  asked whether he could tell her "what I think it means" and of course she agreed. His answer left her both "dumbfounded and offended." (It left me happy.) He didn't indulge "her mysticism." Mazurek's simple statement was "I think all it means is that dragonflies exist, and therefore sometimes you might see them."

After leaving the restaurant he "thought about our species' predilection to assign meaning and purpose to that which can be adequately explained by coincidence...our collective tendency to reject what is most rational to what is most satisfying...the hostility with which those tendencies are met and the implications for society." 

The remainder of his column is scientific literacy nutrition for it is about what it means to be literate in science, to think rationally, the use of facts and evidence in supporting claims, the "reliable and repeatable methodology" used in science to advance understanding and solve problems, and the importance of such thinking in a future that requires this.

It was a terrific letter, one of the shortest courses in scientific literacy I've read, an aim of science educators.  I'm delighted that it is available on-line so you can find that out for yourselves. The title the editors chose is above the picture of the dragonfly.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Story Behind An Unusual Poop

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

Many of you either have field guides to animal tracks  (and thier poops) or have used one. 

Mine is old, almost as old as preserved fossil prints and/or fossilized poops. It is "A Field Guide to Animal Tracks " by Olaus J. Murie (Houghton Miflin,The Peterson Field Guide Series). It includes their poops, too, aka scats. Fossil scats are known as coproliths or coprolites.

I like Murie's field guide. The illustrations were drawn by him, most of them while in the field. So it is also a work of art which I still thumb through for pleasure and sometimes to check a scat I've seen. Murie was a native son who was born in Moorhead, Minnesota.

There is a You Tube video on wombat scats which are unique among animals. A real signature.

Here it is (6m 35s) which tells how wombats make such unique poops - a scoop on their poops and other aspects of their biology.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment 

Ed Hessler

Notes On The Art of Poetry is by Dylan Thomas.

Sean Bean reads it (54 s) for National Poetry Day accompanied by a film made by Kathleen Herbert.

The poem is in "The Poems of Dylan Thomas," 2017, New Directions.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

What Hubble Saw On Your Birthday

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Solar System, Miscellaneous

Ed Hessler

The Hubble Space Telescope has provided photographs that can be used to tell what it saw on one's birthday.

I thought you might be interested in trying it for today's date, November 23 as well as your own.
The image is also perfect to celebrate the birth of a British nurse. 

The image from Hubble notes that what it took acts as a "magnifier." I think you'll agree after reading Mary Jane Seacole's Wiki entry that she was also an extraordinary "magnifier." 

I include another short film (60s). It is an event that occurs on earth. Unusual. Mary Jane Seacole shared that quality for she was also unusual.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023


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

Ed Hessler

This essay written by Christopher Labos for the Montreal Gazette caught my attention because a simple addition to a drug to protect the patient's gut cannot be taken for granted not to have an effect. It, too, must be carefully tested to see what effects it has, if any.

It also merits attention because it is about decision making in medical practice. Clinicians must also take other data into account. It introduced me to some aspects of Aspirin of which I was unaware and was also a short review of the history of Aspirin.

The drug in question is coated v. uncoated Aspirin. Labos put it this way. "In theory, coated Aspirin is supposed to protect your stomach. But the theory could in theory slow its absorption and hinder its effectiveness." 

That these are hypotheses is not of importance to me. Scientists and clinicians are often "guilty" of not making this distinction and you have to get used to it when you hear them speak or write for the general public.

Aspirin has been used for a long time, certainly centuries. You will recall that early humans  chewed on willow bark, a source of natural Aspirin. But Aspirin only began to be prescribed in cases of cardiovascular disease in 1988. Labos discusses its general use in high doses and the risk it posed, one of the reasons that other drugs were developed without the risk Aspirin posed to the lining of the stomach.

It was learned that at lower doses, "it can inhibit the platelets that form clots in the blood and (it became) the cornerstone of treating heart attacks and strokes." Labos unravels this complicated scientific and medical history. A medical trial that appeared to support the bleeding hypothesis even with coated Aspirin was reanalyzed. The patients involved were separated into two groups: one receiving uncoated Aspirin and the other coated Aspirin.

This reanalysis is a recent study that allowed "researchers (to) see whether the enteric coating, at either dose, had any effect in terms of reducing cardiovascular end points (like heart attack, stroke or death) or bleeding end points (hospitalization requiring a transfusion or a bleed in the brain)."

"In short, the coated Aspirin offered little advantage or disadvantage. The cardiovascular end points were largely the same."  In other words it "may not really matter at all.

In closing, Labos includes a great discussion on the nature of bleeding and what drives it, closing with "the "important point Aspirin highlights in medicine. Basic biology and laboratory results inform clinical practice but they are not a substitute for clinical end points. The adage of treat the patient, not the number still holds true." 

This is a study in the nature and history of science, one that shows the questioning nature of scientists. Do we have all the data? What does it "say"?  Do we trust the data? Are there other hypotheses? How might these be tested?

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Requirement of Scientific Literacy

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

Ed Hessler

Scientists find traditional Chinese medicine is based on a complex network of proteins – 3,000 years before modern science.” -- South China Morning Post *

This reporting for the OSS Weekly November10, 2023, by Jonathan Jerry dives into a recent report on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Science Advances. "It’s one of those impenetrable bits of data wrangling that can easily be dismissed as nonsense by the TCM skeptic or blindly embraced as confirmatory by the TCM believer."  So it needs some analysis. 

The sole focus is on herbalism and doesn't mention the variety of other TCM interventions. This is a mapping study based on purported associations, not on any herbal used "in a clinical trial or even in the laboratory".  Computers do the work of going through the massive lists pf data: symptoms, genes and their corresponding proteins, herbs.

Jerry's description of how the thinking goes which because you can read it doesn't need more comments by me. I reduce (he explains) this to a few words. In large data sets finding associations is all but inevitable but one-to-one correspondences are difficult; they are nearly impossible, because so many variables are involved and the herbs are complex mistures of "unknown amounts of various chemicals," with no plant-to-plant consistency. 
There is a good discussion about these, including sample sizes which reveals just how thin the conclusion reached by the authors is. We can add into the mix that when "practitioners using scientifically effective herbs could not (have) known the scientific reasons when they first started using them thousands of years ago". Jerry provides an analysis of the methods used in this investigation which do not include standard biomedical practices.

I was interested to learn that TCM " is not particularly old. It is a modern reinvention spearheaded by Chairman Mao Zedong in the middle of the 20th century." This history is important, a situation in which the Chairman must have thought "I must do something to provide some form of medical care." Interestingly, TCM does not have a "concept of disease; the focus is on symptoms."

While "proponents of TCM are quick to point to the Nobel-Prize-winning malaria treatment artemisinin as a TCM success story," it "represents a triumph of modern scientific refinement, but artemisinin represents a triumph of modern scientific refinement. It was a pharmaceutical company, Novartis, which mixed an artemisinin derivative, artemether, and lumefantrine into a beneficial medication for malaria. Pills are good not because the pharmaceutical industry benefits from them, but because they deliver a consistent dose of a well-studied molecule as opposed to the chemical chaos of whole herbs."

Now don't knock plants or am I. Jerry reminds us that "Effective drugs are developed from plants all the time. It's just that plants are the beginning of the process, not the end."

Jerry closes with a summary of the three take-home messages which are embedded above and thoroughly discussed in his reporting.

- Researchers behind a new study claim to have revealed the scientific foundation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) 

- Using large data sets, they looked for connections between symptoms, proteins, and herbs used in TCM and found some associations that were likelier than would be expected by chance 

- This theoretical exercise needs to be balanced against the implausibility of TCM: its herbs are variable mixtures of chemicals and its practices are incongruous and were repackaged by Mao Zedong in the middle of the 20th century to provide some kind of healthcare in the countryside even though he did not personally believe in their validity 

* Epigraph from Jonathan Jerry.
A great story on how science is equipped to understand.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Cells That Never Grow Old

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Medicine

Ed Hessler

A TED talk by Nobel laureate (2009) Elizabeth Blackburn on "The Science of Cells That Never Grow Old" (18 m 36 s).

Her comment at the beginning that she was fortunate to grow up in a society that valued curiosity. It is a wish I have for all children--the nurturing of their curiosity.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Changes In Great Slave Lake, NWT

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

Ed Hessler

Writing for EOS, Cheryl Katz discusses a recently published paper on changes in Great Slave Lake, NWT.

It is large, "spanning an area the size of Belgium" and deep, "of up to 614 meters (~2000 feet)... the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world and North America's deepest." So far it has been afforded the protection of "its huge mass of cold water...from the climate impacts that have upended the ecosystems of shallower lakes in high northern latitudes."

"But no longer."

Katz continues, "spurred by accelerating Arctic warming, the microscopic algae" which are the basis "of this massive lake’s food web have made a radical regime shift since the turn of the century.... the hefty, chain-forming diatoms that had long ruled Great Slave Lake have now been supplanted by tiny, pancake-shaped counterparts." This could affect the lake’s productivity and carbon dynamics...."

She goes on to describe possible "cascading consequences" of such a "profound change, the correspondence with changes in arctic temperatures, declining temperatures and slowing winds."

Katz concludes by noting that the researchers are now turning their attention to the Northwest Territories’ Great Bear Lake which is farther north, colder, and even bigger than Great Slave Lake. Preliminary data on this lake, the eighth largest in the world, suggest a similar upheaval is underway there too.

Katz let's John Smol," a co-author of the study have the last word. “We think of the Arctic as the miners’ canaries of the planet, and the lakes are recording it. And within the lake, the canaries are probably the algae.” (His website deserves a look.

You should read her reporting which includes relevant links, a striking aerial photograph of the lake and important details on this research, two photographs of the algae in question as well as the significance of the study. The data show that this began in the mid-1990s. And there is also a link to the original paper.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Thinking About Peak Humanity Following A Prediction Dud

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Global Change, Population, Health, Science & Society, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

In the Minneapolis Tribune for October 5, 2023 was published an essay by science writer F. D. Flam that is important reading for while it is about human population growth, it is also a splendid essay on uncertainty. The title is "Population bomb was a dud. What follows 'peak humanity'?"  It is behind a subscription paywall.  At the end I link to it from another outlet. Thank you, Google! 
Here are a few points.

--Projections on when "peak humanity" will be reached coalesce around the 21st century.
--And as usual this decline and leveling leads to a new alarm: slower economic growth and less of the innovation to which we are used to.

--Enter the "B" word: But.... Demographers to whom Flam has spoken "say this concern is based more on speculation than science.  This reminded me of two words to describe such speculations: "doomsters" and "gloomsters". 

--And in another entry is found the "U" word: uncertainty *** as part of the measurement prediction. It may be at least 2% and this "adds up to about 160 million people."

--Pessimistic thinking about population growth began with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Malthus, who assumed a "doubling in the population every 25 years."  This  was made more popular by the Ehrlich's in their book, The Population Bomb" The end was a global catastrophe by starvation.

--Flam discusses changes in two population models used today. The UN model's peak is about 11 billion by 2100 which has a way of feeling "in only a few years." The other was published in the British journal , The Lancet of less high peak: 9.7 billion by 2024.

--We all know that Malthus and others didn't and couldn't account for innovations in agriculture but, there is always a but this has led to massive environmental problems. We have greatl expanded our physical niche and therefore our impact on the planet. Paul Ehrlich is among the co-authors of a 2021 paper mentioned in Flam's essay about our "ghastly future," a phrase used by Flam. It is described in a UCLA press release.

--Some of the problems accompanying innovation included pesticide pollution, a rapid and large increase in carbon dioxide leading to deep concerns about climate change and again populations worldwide.

--Flam wrote a great line about those who look to increasing population sizes with the idea that there will be more innovation (more = more?). She says that there is a better, more immediate solution: "Taking better care of the (babies) we have." "While it won't solve all our environmental and economic problems, it's a start.

The full article may be read at the St. Louis Dispatch, October 2, 2023 but thanks to the Star Tribune for publishing it and to the Dispatch for making it fully accessible.

*** I chose this link and am not completely satisfied which I think you will note if you extend the search using "uncertainty demographic models" which leads to more papers, books, popular articles than one could hope for. However, scanning the list will at least demonstrate its importance and use, e.g., social security projections.