Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 in Review: Physics, Biology, Computing, Maths

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science, Science & Society, Models, Computing

Ed Hessler

Quanta Magazine closes 2023 by reviewing the year in physics, computer science, biology, and mathematics. 

Each entry consists of an essay and a video. Video contents are included below the link to the video. The descriptions may discourage you but before you decide that this is not for you, take a look. You might just be surprised. I include the length of the video for each.

Please, if you read anything, read the essay introductions which I found terrific.

Below are the links to both the reading and video for the discipline.

--The Year in Physics. Video length: 13 m 21 s. I can't resist a comment on the opening image. It reminded me of an owl's face..

--The Year in Biology. Video length: 11 m 53 s

--The Year in Computer Science. Video length 10 m 59 s

--The Year in Math. Video length: 19 m 12 s

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Nature Presents Its Best Science Images of 2023

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Art & Environment, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Science & Society, Nature, Wildlife, Cosmology

Ed Hessler

The British scientific journal Nature presents its best science images for 2023.

The images were selected by Nature's visuals team with the text by Emma Stoye, Nisha Gaind, Katharine Sanderson and Carissa Wong.

Here is the admission ticket to this marvelous gallery.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Friday Poem

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Climate Wins In 2023

Environmental & Science Education, STEM,Global Change, Climate Change, Sustainability, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Biodiversity, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Nature Briefing of the British science journal Nature, has a relatively new offering titled Anthropocene. On December 18 was posted a link to an essay on climate successes for 2023. The announcement said that "they inspire optimism (providing) more space to breathe."

Katarina Zimmer is the author of  "Your 2023 Climate Wins, Wrapped"in the Atmos section of Nature Briefing Anthropocene.

Zimmer begins by quickly reviewing the standard story "This year didn’t just break records. It smashed them." This accurate salvo is followed with what the article is about. "Yet what often gets overlooked is the fact that, just as climate impacts are growing, so are the actions to tackle them. 2023 has seen some remarkable progress towards reducing emissions...." continuing with "The climate story ... is not just one of worry, but also one of hope—a story about all we stand to lose but also all there is to save." This is followed by a short discussion of what is ahead.

These are the divisions

--Leaving Fossil Fuels in the Dust

Johnathan Foley of Project Drawdown told Zimmer there are signs that we are approaching "a stage when ... the alternatives to fossil fuels (will be) cheaper, better, cleaner, more secure" which will serve to move politicians to support them, displacing fossil fuels as alternatives.”

--Legislation and Litigation

This includes a review of important legislation and the increasing role of litigation in the courts.

--In Defense of Nature

Includes the adoption of nature friendly treaties, the slowing of deforestation in the Amazon, cleaning up of plastic pollution (Norway), the increase of solution-based climate change stories in the media, lower projections of temperature increases (but still dangerous in many ways to all earth systems: geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere and changes in behavior and practices we can do ( a familiar and overlooked list of items. I want to add that these will not "solve" this problem but if practiced might have an effect).

Susan Joy Hassol of Climate Change closes the article by saying to Zimmer "surely, with all of this effort, we are going to make a difference. We're not going to avoid dangerous climate change because that ship has sailed. It's already dangerous. But we can avoid catastrophe."
Let's hope and work toward making that true.

Zimmer's article can be read online. The estimated reading time is 14 minutes. Authorship in this briefing is designated with "words by". Names, organizations, etc., are linked in the essay. 
Unless I missed it COP-28, the recently concluded UN Climate Change Conference isn't mentioned so here it is. And because there has been considerable reporting and comment, positive and negative, you can look for it in a search.

Zimmer's task was formidable - no one can include all that needs to be said - but I find it useful and it led me to some thinking about climate change which I hope to check in future. However, you can judge how valuable Zimmer's summary is.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Global Change, Climate Change, Pollution

Ed Hessler

Elizabeth Kolbert opens a story in The New Yorker, October 30 with how a high-purity quartz's deposit formed from an accident of geology. This quartz deposi,t in Spruce Pine, North Carolina is used to make crucibles for the manufacture of microchips. Spruce Pine's quartz "must be tough enough" to withstand a temperature of 2700 degrees Fahrenheit while not introducing any contaminants."

You will learn that everything about Sibelco, the Belgian conglomerate that owns the mine "is a closely guarded secret. Only its purity is widely known.  And you will learn why the secrecy surrounds the company. 
Kolbert's essay is based on a review of two books.  "Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization" (Knopf) by Ed Conway is the first.  Kolbert writes that Conway estimates that "humanity mines, drains, and blasts more stuff out of the ground each year than it did in total during the roughly three hundred millennia between the birth of the species and the start of the Korean War."

This comes with  large consequences. We take for granted that the scale of this extraction doesn't matter and show little concern about the considerable ecological and social consequences. Here are the six materials: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. I guessed only three. Below are some notes on them.

--Sand: used in building land and for construction. The evidence for the latter is everywhere.

--Iron: Its use as rebar comes to mind given the example of sand above but also includes steel for the construction of factories and machines to produce stuff we buy.
--Salt: "Essential to just about every chemical process that's ever been invented."

--Oil: Conway has to include natural gas in this single category. The two "have distinctive properties that make them essential in different ways." Kolbert acquaints us with some of the important differences and their important contribution to our material way of life.

--Copper: That it is scarce is a feature of modern life. Wire thefts from power poles, copper pipe thefts from houses under construction or rehabilitation are common. I have walked past street lights which have been stripped of copper wire and wooden poles cut down to get at the copper in the wires. There is local reporting on this as well.

--Lithium: "Essential to electrification--a typical electric car battery contains nearly 20 pounds of this metal."  It is a "strategic resource" with geopolitical implications because of its global distribution. "More than three-quarters of the known resources lie in just four countries: Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Australia."

So, what to do? Conway thinks the best option is "unmanufacturing." Three of them can be recycled: "iron, copper, and lithium."  But he doesn't see it happening "anytime soon...but it is at least theoretically possible."

Colbert closes with some observations by archaeologist Chip Colwell the author of "So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything" (Chicago).  According to his classification our "association with 'stuff'" is divided into three periods.

The first period, lasting several million years, is concerned with tool production and is the result of "fashioning rocks, primarily...into implements." A breakthrough was achieved when a group of hominins "figured out how to make stone tools with two sharp edges."  The second period was the invention of art--scratches on shells, making paint, painting figures on stone walls. The first two periods didn't result in much accumulation because everything had to be carried. About 10000 ya, when farming began and settlements were established new objects were created for this technology with food surpluses leading "to new forms of human relations." Societal stratification followed with" the most powerful members expressing their status by accumulating objects of value."

Period 3 is the one most of us know best: the Industrial Revolution with one thing leading to another and another and another. Scarcity, "at least in the Global North gave way to superabundance." While writing the book his family steps "off the consumerist treadmill" and begins a "'slow buy'" experiment. The diet is rigorous: each family member agrees to purchase only 5 items, on top of the necessities, for a year. They chafe and then midway purchase a house and the "slow buy" year ends abruptly.

Colbert finishes with an observation that has been made by many. One that will be repeated. "Consumption patterns in the Global North--and South, increasingly--simply cannot be sustained." Chip Colwell defines us as "Homo stuffensis, a creature... made by our things." Colbert has the last word. "We should change our ways--we must change our ways--but this long history is against us."

A couple of weeks earlier, the October 15, 2023 issue of StarTribune published an article by Maddie Burakoff, Associated Press, on lessons from ancient builders. These structures are characterized by having a long life-span, thousands or at least 100s of years--"the soaring dome of the Pantheon to the sturdy aqueducts that still carry water today, even in harbors, where seawater has been battering structures for ages," the concrete has endured. "The concrete that makes up much of our modern  world has a lifespan of about 50 to 100 years. Material scientists are engaged in reverse engineering studies and have found, for example, the diversity of "ingredients that were mixed into old buildings--materials such as tree bark, volcanic ash, rice, beer and even urine."

Concrete made then and now has some similarities but "ancient builders mixed in different materials" which material engineers have found to have "an unusual power to repair itself." It is the mechanism of this repair that is being sought. One proposed is that the chunks in ancient concrete "could fuel the materials's 'self-healing' abilities." The pockets of unmixed lime could initiate "chemical reactions that can fill in the damaged sections.

Another mechanism proposed has to do with concrete mixed with volcanic rocks. Volcanic rock reacts with ingredients in the concrete and seal "cracks that develop."

Barakoff's review of only a few local concrete ingredients includes materials unintentionally and intentionally chosen. The latter appear engineered to local climate and soil conditions.  Of course, none of these ancient recipes could lead to modern skyscrapers which support very large loads under which they would collapse. The intentions of the material engineers working with these ancient materials are different. How can the life span of concrete  be extended "for as little as 50 to 100 years.

You may recall that Colbert had earlier written about a chemical for which there is no replacement, a chemical we are dispersing to the oceans of the world. This is the most frightening essay I've ever read. Phosphorous and is the stuff of life -  DNA. There is an end to naturally occurring deposits in sight although when is contentious but it is coming.  I wrote an earlier post about it.

Colbert has taken on two substantive material issues and while I don't like the news, I'm glad she has written about them, especially phosphorus.


You may read both of the essays by Elizabeth Kolbert cited if you are not a subscriber and have not exceeded your monthly limit. Here is the index, the first is near the top; the second requires some scrolling down to find.

--"The Real Cost of Plundering the Planet's Resources. Our accelerating rates of extraction come with immense ecological and social consequences." The New Yorker, October 23, 2023

--"Phosphorus Saved Our Way of Life----and Now Threatens to End It. Fertilizers filled with the nutrient boosted our ability to feed the planet. Today, they're creating vast and growing dead zones in our lakes and seas." The New Yorker, February 27, 2023

The article by Maddie Barakoff, AP is on line under a different title. Of course, if you subscribe to the StarTribune you may read it there.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023


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

Ed Hessler

We non-physics mortals have a concept of time that is different from what science tells us. We talk about, now, later, the past, i.e., time passes and we divide it into past, present and future.

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder describes "what's ahead" in her video titled "Does the Past Still Exist?" About the perceived passing of time, she writes "But what physics tells us about time is very different from our perception. The person who figured this out was none other than Albert Einstein. I know. That guy again. Turns out he kind of knew it all. What did Einstein teach us about the past, the present, and the future? That’s what we’ll talk about today."

Some heady, interesting, puzzling ideas to think about. Now about that meeting at 10:00 am tomorrow.....

You may watch it here at her website BackReaction with a transcript or on her YouTube channel without the transcript. The video is 15m 06s long.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Phoenix Over Iceland

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Solar System, Astronomy, Earth Sciences, Earth Systems

Ed Hessler 

Phoenix arisen!

In this amazing photo from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) is shown an unusual and fleeting aurora over Iceland. The event lasted only a minute.

How utterly lovely.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Winning Photos of the International Photography Awards

Environmental & Science Education, Art & Environment, Miscellaneous, Society, Culture

Ed Hessler

121 Clicks shows "the outstanding winning photos of the International Photography Awards (IPA) 2023. 
The International Photography Awards™ conducts an annual competition for professional, amateur, and student photographers globally, creating one of the most ambitious and comprehensive competitions in the photography world today."

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Mind the Gap

Environmental & Science Education, Education, Teaching and Learning, Students, Society, Miscellaneous

Ed Hessler

Until recently, a gap year has been narrowly thought of as a student sabbatical -- 9 months in length copying the academic year.  There are two activity peaks, one between high school and college, the other between college and graduate training.

But gap years or periods of "gapness" now include students and non-students between jobs, careers and for a variety of other reasons. And also of varying lengths.

Washington University in St. Louis biology professor Joanne E. Strassmann, asks and comments on this question: How can you go wrong with a gap year?  "We don't get gap years in life, though we do get sabbaticals in many jobs". 
She offers some advice: "So think hard about what you want to achieve. Keep a journal. ... Have fun! But also remember there is nothing wrong with plunging right into the next step. I did, though none of my children did." 

Dr. Strassmann provides some examples of a poor use of a gap year and how to avoid it. You want to profit from a gap year: grow, know yourself a little better, otherwise "You may just be in a predictable rut." 

If you or someone you know is thinking about one, I think it has some useful advice and considerations so you can make a smart decision.


Friday, December 22, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment, Astronomy, Solar System, Earth & Space Science, Astrophysics

Ed Hessler

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849 - 1909), is the author of A Country Boy in Winter. Use the underlined link to read about her life.

This week marked the beginning of winter 2023. In Minnesota the Winter Solstice, also known as the Hibernal Solstice began at 9:27 pm, December 21. 'Tis the season of short days and long nights. Yesterday, day length was 8h 46m 00s long. Today, day length will increase by less than a second. It will be January 4 when day length increases by a minute and January 20 when it increases by two minutes.

The position of the sun during the day yesterday is an important part of the formula for understanding the length of daylight at the beginning of the Solstice Winter season. Sunrise: 123 degrees ESE; Meridian (noon) 180 degrees S; and Sunset 237 degrees WSW. I enjoy looking at a compass to see that range.*
Poet John Donne (1572 - 1631) captured Winter Solstice perfectly in the first line of "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day." 'Tis the year's midnight. What a lovely way to think about it.
* An addition: Today's APOD (December 22) shows this visually in "a single 183 day exposure" called a solargraph.  The recording is from solstice to solstice, June 21, 2022 (Summer Solstice) to December 21, 2022 (Winter Solstice). It is really striking.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Beijing Ancient Observatory

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth & Space Science, Astronomy, Solar System, Culture, Science & Society

Ed Hessler

Two images of the Beijing Ancient Observatory, one taken in September 2023, the other taken in 1895 from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

This page from NASA has quite a few photographs, many showing the detail found on the instruments which are replicas. Their use is explained. There are busts of famous Chinese astronomers and of the observatory itself.  

The Beijing Planetarium's webpage includes a link to the Beijing Ancient Observatory includes introductory comments, what the exhibition includes, history of the observatory, astronomical instruments (each with a photograph), and common activities on popular astronomy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

New Species, 2023

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

Ed Hessler

Tet Zoo is short for the Tetrapod Zoology Blog

Tet Zoo is "devoted to discussion, research, discovery and speculation regarding THE TETRAPODS: the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and all of their extinct relatives. No fish, never fish. Ok, I also do fish now." (from 4th iteration)

A definition of tetrapods from "Understanding Evolution," University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley.

Two "whistle-stop tours of those tetrapod species new to science as of 2023. As ever, remember that new to science is not synonymous with new to humanity...."

Part I.

Part II.

Darren Naish writes this blog.

h/t Mark Sturtevant and Jerry Coyne WEIT. Coyne posted Sturtevant's entry on his website's Readers' Wildlife Photos for November 18, 2023.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Emojis & Biodiversity

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Nature of Science, Miscellaneous

Ed Hessler

Flora Graham, editor of Nature Briefing which is a brief summary of selected papers, reports, news articles, from the British scientific journal Nature, wrote on December 13 that she just learned "that the true rulers of the planet as determined by sheer numbers -- unicellular life forms -- are represented by just a single emoji."  Vertebrates rule the emoji world.

In a paper titled "Biodiversity communication in the digital era through the Emoji tree of life" (iScience), three researchers created a delightful Emoji tree of life. And you can read the full paper in two versions.

Below are the highlights:

"Currently available emojis encompass a broad range of animal species

--Plants, fungi, and microorganisms are underrepresented in the current emoji set
--Within animals, vertebrates are overrepresented and arthropods are underrepresented
--Recent additions allow a better representation of animal phylogenetic diversity

In addition to the highlights there is a summary and a graphical abstract (the latter is better viewed in the free PDF option). It includes some examples of nature related Emojis, described species and representativeness, and temporal changes for 2015 and 2022 with an arrow pointing to better representation of biodiversity.

From the introduction. "emojis permeate modern communication. Many people routinely use thumbs-up icons to express agreement, touch a sad-smile face to lament an unclean public toilet, and incorporate multiple rows of fire emoji in text messages to convey excitement for an upcoming event. What makes emojis so successful is their unique semantic and emotional connotation, which allows for direct, simple, and ultimately powerful communication. Indeed, as our world becomes increasingly digitized and interconnected, the significance of emojis is becoming universally appreciated, extending to domains as diverse as marketing, forensics, education, and health care."

"Parallel to this communication revolution, humanity is facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis."

There is a figure in the paper you should look at showing an "example use of nature-related emojis in communication about biodiversity and its conservation." Below it is a discussion of methods, results with another useful figure (Frequency of available emojis, compared to the actual number of described species), and another figure of phylogenetic trees of emojis available in 2025, 2019, and 2022, a thorough discussion, and a section on limitations of the study.

I like this comment from the paper: "While the biodiversity crisis may seem distant from the online world, in our increasingly digitized society, we should not underestimate the potential of emojis to raise awareness and foster appreciation for the diversity of life on Earth."

As you toggle between the paper and the PDF of the paper you will find some differences in positioning of figures and illustrations as well as clarity of the figures and illustrations.

It is fun to read and serious (how nicely the two go together) and I think important.

Here is the link to the paper.

Monday, December 18, 2023


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

Ed Hessler

In his annual Thanksgiving Day post, theoretician Sean Carroll, who has given thanks for a variety of physical phenomena for a number of Thanksgivings, e.g., the standard model, conservation of momentum, the moons of Jupiter, certain mathematics, space, electromagnetism, etc.. gave "thanks for a feature of nature that is frequently misunderstood: quanta". All of the previous thanksgiving day posts are linked, if you are interested.

The essay could easily have been aimed at me but I'm not a very important target. My long-standing impression is that ''reality is somehow pixelized --- made up of the smallest possible units --- rather than being ultimately smooth and continuous." Those "discrete chunks of something-or-other are the "quanta''. Carroll throws me a lifeline when he notes that "the lumpiness of "quanta" is just apparent, although it's a very important appearance."

Carroll takes on the task of explaining this - the essay is short - and like all things quantum mechanical it requires, at least it did for me, some effort. There is no attempt at translation of mathematics into everyday language or should there be (my view).
I send this partly because I have always liked this form of thanks at Thanksgiving. Now you have access to all of them.

I readily admit to not understanding everything but I'm glad I gave it a go. This sentence about the study of nature is a reminder that we are pattern seekers. This has consequences for science (as well as almost every other aspect of our lives). "It’s always tempting to take what we see to be the underlying truth of nature, but quantum mechanics warns us not to give in."

You may remember the saying WYSISYG -What You See Is What You Get. In this case, a wrong (based on current understanding, evidence, theory, models, etc.), confused view of the workings of the world which slows and/or deflects progress. Flip Wilson as Geraldine Jones introduced it to popular vernacula, but it has its roots in computing.

Carroll also includes a link to a recent paper published in The Physics ArXiv in which he proposes a "judicious compromise." This is written in the linqua franca of cosmology. One of the purposes of these prepublications in physics is for authors to get feedback. I'm also betting that some heads in the physics world are wagging a "no" to these ideas.
By the way, he refers readers to two of his books written for a general audience, one of which is published and the other of which is in press. The latter is about quanta and fields.


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Preening in Birds

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

Ed Hessler

What an enjoyable and informative read Val Cunningham ("On the Wing") provides in his article, Birds work to keep clean as a whistle (Star Tribune, November 18, 2022). It is protected by a paywall so you must be a subscriber to read it.

Here are some bits that you may not know or ever thought about.

--Birds are as clean as cats, spending almost as much time grooming themselves as our feline companions do.

--This grooming is known as preening and it is largely unnoticed since it occurs "away from public view." As an aside, I think it takes many encounters and much patience to observe this behavior.

--Cunningham reported on observations made by photographer Phyllis Terchanik of an adult bald eagle who "spent 52 minutes the first day and 57 the next time I watched."   

--Investing time in taking care of their feathers would seem to be important in birds because they "perform so  many functions...(working) best when they're in top form. They "remove dirt that might interfere with their feathers' ability to warm or cool their body", waterproof feathers by "spreading oil from their preen gland, keep parasites in check, and "keeps a bird attractive to other birds."     

--Cunningham notes that all of us have seen birds in birdbaths. "But I have to admit I've never observed he aftermath, when a bird oils is feathers, spreading around the special liquid from a glad under the tail (called the uropygial gland."

--Like our hair "keeping feathers in place requires work." Some of them can be "zipped back into place. This is the job that takes up the most time in a grooming session.

--Just how many feathers are we talking about? Here are three examples: bald eagle (~7000), trumpeter swan (~25,000), and a hummingbird (~1,000).

I hope you read it or, if not, can find it. A great story.   

A very short video (55s) from All About Birds shows a stork-billed kingfisher preening. It is one of the most beautiful of the kingfishers I've ever seen. 

Thanks to Val Cunningham.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Daytime Astronomy

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Astronomy, Solar System, Cosmology, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Astrophysics, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

This Earth Science Picture of the Day (EPOD) comes with a bonus but first to the entry. 

Astrophotographer Paolo Palma features "a collage of daylight photos of Venus as observed from the shade of important Italian Monuments." There is an explanation below the collage.

The bonus is a link to his website "A leap Into the sky! Things of infinite amazement".  First, if you are not tired of Venus, scroll down the column at the left to Observations and Photographic Shots of Venus by DAY!  after asking Google to translate the page from Italian to English. 

When I first used the link, "Click here," a notification told me the site was unreachable. I waited and it appeared--it is possible that I also pressed the spacebar. I've tried it several times since and the site appears without fail. In addition to photographs there are videos. Mr. Palma is in love with the sky and the wealth of the site is the result. 

The "things" he points his camera at are of "infinite amazement!"
The photographs are lovely and quite a few entries include drawings by Mr. Palma.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

December by Antonella Anedda.

The link includes publishing information as well as a very short biography.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Little Dorrit and Goody Two-Shoes