Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Wagon Brakes on Science?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Perhaps you've seen a story in the media which includes the number of times a scientific paper has been cited by other scientists, presumably to show how important that paper is. What does this mean today?

An article written by science writer Faye D. Flam on changes in how science papers are cited was re-published in the Star Tribune (January 16, 2024). "Has the march of science slowed?" is behind a subscription paywall. I haven't been able to find it published anywhere else. 

Below is a brief summary.

Flam recalls a paper in Nature which made the claim "that disruptive scientific findings have been waning---since 1945."

The authors defined "disruptive scientific findings" as those that "marked a break with the past." In other words: breakthroughs.

One of the authors Russell Funk of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management thought one reason is "related to funding agents taking too few risks." Flam quickly notes that other scientists had different ideas, one of them is "that review articles" are easier to cite (find?) than going back to the original" studies.

Flam is a CalTech graduate and one example a scientist gave her was a paper that attracted a lot of column space on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIG0). It detected gravitational waves. She wrote that because it had been predicted by Einstein it was a technique paper -- "too novel to be disruptive. There were no earlier ways of doing what it does."

Most scientists she talked with thought science would benefit from more "long-shot" research, not all of which would pan out. One scientist mentioned three he thought were transformative --all in biology, and you are likely to name at least one of them. They were "the PCR chain reaction (polymerase chain reaction which is widely used today to amplify fragments of DNA (make more of them so that they can be worked with), "programming adult skin cells to act like stem cells, and CRISPR, a technique for "precisely editing genetic information in cells."

One suggestion on why fewer so-called disruptive papers are found is due to the cumulative growth of scientific information, noting the publication of more than a million papers a year. This has the effect of narrowing scientific disciplines which equips students ``to see smaller pieces of big problems."

In 1995, journalist John Horgan wrote a book titled "The End of Science," The subtitle is worth entering: "Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age." In short -- scientists are closing in on explaining nature. 
According to Flam, a post on Horgan's website, he says that the revolutionary insights have been made, citing "the theory of evolution, the double helix, quantum mechanics, relativity and the big bang. I would include plate tectonics, too. These are big ideas, supported by evidence and it suggests that the scientific mapping of the natural world "is unlikely to undergo significant changes."

Faye closes by noting that there is "plenty of science to be done" that will certainly be profound---especially in the applied sciences. And these problems are hard, "crying out for solutions" with applications. Two she includes are "curing disease" (consider cancer, viral diseases) and "climate change" where much of the solution is to be found in another set of underlying causes: social, economic and political. 
Yes, we've enough challenging stuff to do that affects the ability of the planet to maintain life on earth, including us.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Science and Mindfulness Meditation

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

Ed Hessler

Science and mindfulness meditation (MM) is what Jonathan Jarry addresses in an Office for Science & Society (OSS) column.

Are the claims about its effectiveness in reducing stress true? Jarry points out that there has been "an exponential growth in the number of studies about ... how mindfulness might help with anxiety, depression, ADHD, sleep, and cognition, in all age groups." How do they add up?

Its history, roots, is reviewed, with Jarry noting that it is important to "point out that mindfulness is usually stripped of the spirituality and ethical philosophy within which it is practiced." It is different from formal meditation which is "to empty your mind; rather, it's about training yourself to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way." The practice is anchored on focusing on your breath - Jarry describes how this is commonly taught.

One of the difficulties in studying the practice is that while mindfulness meditation is defined, the toolkit of meditation is capacious, stretching the definition. Coloring and flower arranging are two examples. Jarry describes a problem with its study in one randomized controlled trial which is followed by a discussion of a danger in science: wanting to prove a belief v disprove a hypothesis. The latter he observes is "rarely seen in practice."

Jarry provides many examples of "how difficult it is to study the human mind," the old canard that "doing something is better than doing nothing," a research design variable (short-term studies v. length of practice), some reported negative side effects, a variable in studying effects in short, who is tested (ages of participants) and others. 
About the various problems, Jarry reminds us of "the crucial difference between efficacy and effectiveness, two words which are not synonymous in science. The efficacy of mindfulness is when the intervention is done under ideal conditions; its effectiveness is how it fares in the real world."

Because it has been so much in the news you will recall that MM has had a quick adoption rate which Jarry finds "unsettling...[I]t displaces societal problems onto the individual. The message often conveyed is that if people are stressed out or depressed or anxious about the world around them, it’s because they’re not meditating enough. We already see this with pollution and climate change: how easily corporations will put the onus on consumers to stop littering and to recycle." 

Jarry is not against MM but is against " its promotion as a coping tool by organizations that refuse to change and against its proselytizing as a revolution-in-the-making, when the mountains of scientific evidence so far show that, in the short term at least, its benefits are no different than those of similar stress-relieving activities."

He closes with this comment "If you want to give mindfulness a try, simply focus on your breath and keep your expectations low," followed by his standard list of take-home messages.

Here is the essay which I urge you to read. My summary is frugal. 

Monday, January 29, 2024

Travel Photographer of the Year Awards

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Society, Culture, Nature, Wildlife, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

From the BBC: Travel Photographer of the Year awards.

"Amateur and professional photographers from more than 150 countries submitted more than 20,000 images in TPOTY 2023.

"The winning images go on display at The Photography & Video Show at the NEC, Birmingham, UK, from 16-19 March and will also be showcased at Xposure in the UAE."

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Mountain and Moon: Shadows

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

Ed Hessler

The photograph of two shadows - mountain and moon -required considerable attention to planning and many details, as well as superb photographic skills. Timing  and locations were everything.

The photograph may be found here, Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). If you don't know what a quarter moon is, it is explained.

I was reminded of this meditation by Li Po.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

In Memory of Arnold Penzias

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

Ed Hessler

Nokia Bell Labs announced the death of Arnold Penzias on January 21, 2024. He, with Robert Wilson, discovered the cosmic background radiation (CMB). It still remains the strongest evidence in support of the Big Bang origin of the universe.

Penzias and Wilson were awarded one-half of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. The other half was awarded to Pyotr Kaptisa for his work in low temperature phycics.

The Nokia Bell Labs announcement of Penzias's death may be read here.

And here is NPR's Scott Neuman's story about Arno Penzias.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Friday Poem


Thursday, January 25, 2024

Still 90 Seconds to Go

Wednesday, January 24, 2024


Environmental & Science Education, Society, Culture 

Ed Hessler

There was a time before there were envelopes for letters. "Hundreds of years ago," writes the BBC's Richard Fisher, "people developed ingenious methods to secure their letters from prying eyes--and they did it with only paper, adhesive and folds." 

Fisher begins his essay with a letter of Mary Queen of Scots, who in prison, February 8, 1857, wrote her last letter to her brother-in-law. When finished, to keep others from snooping, she "sealed" the letter by making a spiral lock.  The lock was made from a thin strip of paper cut from the margin. She poked the knife through the small rectangle she had made from the letter and then fed the strip through it, looping and tightening it a few times. Her brother-in-law would know whether the letter had been read before he received it if the strip had been ripped. Envelopes were not in use because paper was scarce and expensive. 

Fisher's essay includes a video on how Mary Queen of Scots locked her letter from prying eyes.

Her letterlocking technique was among many techniques developed. Their discovery "began when the conservator Jana Dambroglio was leafing through a cache of documents in the Vatican Secret Archives in Italy" where she was on assignment. She noticed a variety of cuts, creases and folds in many of the papers and took methodical notes and made models of a few. When she returned to the United States  she took her notes and models with her she and with a colleague sought more. One of the finds is a "trunk full of 2600 letters from 17th-Century Europe which had gone undelivered--577 of which were unopened.

She and a colleague have found "at least 18 different formats," noted various attributes (slits or tucks) and rated the security of the various locks.

Fisher decided to try it in a workshop and there is a video demonstration you can use to try to make the lock triangle. He also includes diagrams of two others the team has identified. One of these is, in Fisher's words, "a true folding challenge" and is known as the "dagger trap." There is a video walk through that may help if you try it. This fold "was essentially boobytrapped," i.e., it "appeared to be a simple pleated letter from the outside" but inside there was "a hidden strip of paper inside that 'trips' when opened, revealing it had been unlocked."

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

How Moggies Purr: A New Mechanism

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Wildlife, Nature, Nature of Science, History of Science, Biodiversity

Your moggie appears to purr without continuing neural input according to a new paper in Current Biology.

The journal Science News has a short article about the research by Phie Jacobs. The title is very consistent with science. No sensational claims just what scientists can report based on the evidence of a study.

Jacobs begins with an observation experienced by many cat owners and cat lovers. One of the most delightful sounds to a cat lover is their feline friend’s rumbling noise when they get a little scratch behind the ears. Yet how cats produce their contented purrs has long been a mystery.

A new study may finally have the answer. Domestic cats possess “pads” embedded within their vocal cords, which add an extra layer of fatty tissue that allows them to vibrate at low frequencies, scientists report today in Current Biology. What’s more, the larynx of these animals doesn’t appear to need any input from the brain to produce such purring.

Jacobs includes is a short review of low frequency vocalizations (elephants and others), the dominant hypothesis until this study, what the authors examined closely (larynx pads), some concerns from a researcher who suggests it might be more complex. There is quieting sound of the purr. Because Jacobs's reporting includes the original paper you can also view the larynx work and read parts of  interest. A PDF appears available but I didn't try.

Here is the link to original paper.  Once there set your cookie preferences and the haze will disappear. The scientific paper includes almost all of the reporting but not the criticism or the purring segment. But you can see the larynx in action.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Milk Sickness

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

Doctor Anna - Anna Pierce - is an important and generally unknown figure in the history of science and medicine. 

She is the subject of a profile by Will McCarthy, "The Frontier Midwife" in Smithsonian, July - August 2023. Through her careful observations she found the cause of a disease "known initially as "the slows," "the staggers," "the trembles" and eventually "milk sickness." It was often a killer, the most notable death was that of Abraham Lincoln's mother.

McCarthy notes Anna Pierce's drive, e.g., to find things out and become a better practitioner, even going from Rock Creek Illinois "to Philadelphia to study nursing, midwifery and dentistry." Pierce's "pioneering research into the plant's (Ageratina altisima) toxic properties contribution was not noted the report published (by) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1927) on "a chemical analysis on toxic substances in white snakeroot." The plant was eaten by cows, a link she made through meticulous research, when cows were mostly free ranging. 
To be generous, even this was a step forward for the plant was low on the list of possibilities (arsenic) and "milk sickness was rarely mentioned even in later 19th-centrury American medical textbooks. (Such books often neglected frontier medicine.)"

McCarthy's essay may be read free by first signing in.

Khaqa Ayen's You Tube entry "Mysterious Chronicles: Anna Bixby's Pursuit of Clues in the Unexplained Plagues of the 19th Century" ( 9 m 21 s) tells us the story of this largely unknown nurse and scientist.

A short history of milk sickness may be read at Wiki.

Both the video and the Smithsonian essay describe the leaves as "disc-shaped."  To me they aren't (see the Wiki entry on the plant, common field guides and this photograph and description of white snakeroot from Illinois wildflowers. Cordate, used to in the description means heart-shaped.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

"Songs" From the Earth's Interior

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Design Principles: Polar Bear Paws

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

Ed Hessler

You may have wondered how polar bears avoid slipping and sliding when they are on the ice. It had never occurred to me, even when I watched them swimming in our local zoo. My attention was always on the size of their paw pads.

Well, it turns out I was wrong about the size of their paw pads. They are smaller when compared to other species.

Austin M. Garner (Syracuse University) and two others recently published a paper - it is technical but I'm going to refer you to some illustrations - in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on how polar bear design principles help improve traction. I probably would never have been able to get close enough to the paws when it was pressing against the plate glass to make a turn to notice the papillae on the footpads, an event which happened very quickly.

The papillae are taller than than on other species - up to 1.5 times. This gives the bears advantages--grip and traction. In an SU press release by Dan Bernardi ** about research on polar bear design principles by Austin Garner, he begins by calling attention to the larger purpose of such science.

"Using the solutions observed in nature to address global challenges in health, medicine and materials innovation is at the heart of research by Bioinspired Syracuse *.  Austin Garner* is a member of Bioinspired who specializes in functional morphology—studying the form and function of animals and then applying it to bio-inspired designs in a wide range of applications." His interests are in how animals attach to surfaces in variable environments. * (Linked in press release).

Austin then introduces us to the team, how they did their research and its possible uses. You may be tempted as I was to think of this as an adaptation. Garner explains. “This is exciting interdisciplinary work that studied a long-held belief that the micro-structures on polar bear paw pads were an adaptation to increase traction on ice and snow. Our work shows that the papillae themselves are not an adaptation for this because other bears have them, but the unique dimensions of polar bear papillae do confer an advantage in traction.” "May be an adaptation" is as close as the authors are willing to get based on the evidence.

There is a link to the fully available technical report. I point out a few sections that may be of interest: the abstract, introduction, summary and conclusion. Throughout you will find photographs and graphs which help immensely. 
Please read the Ethics section at the end. "No animals were harmed or euthanized for the purposes of this study." This is followed by an explanation of the provenance of the paw materials used.

I was interested that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company provided fellowship support. This company has a natural interest in improving their products.  And there is also a section on the author's contributions.

** I also acknowledge that I used some material from a short article from Syracuse University Arts & Science, Fall 2023. Thanks.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

The Gift is by Robert Markey.

It is from his beautifully illustrated book,  -- I say this having seen only the cover and his art --  Poems from Brazil.

Here is Markey's home page with his resume. His education may surprise you as it did me. There is an article in the Greenfield Recorder by Trish Crapo about some of his work. Markey's wife, Julie Orfirer is a Nurse Practitoner.

h/t to Jim Culleny, 3QD.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

What (Do) The Data Say?

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

Ed Hessler

Nature News drew attention to an as yet unpublished paper by 246 ecologists who "analyzed the same data sets and got widely divergent results." Made me think of the frequently used phrase, "let's see what the data says."

In this case none of the answers are wrong: according to Hannah Fraser --"the spread of results reflects factors such as participants' training and how they set sample sizes." The paper is about a basic idea - reproducibility -, one included in teaching beginning students how science works.  Fraser is one of the lead authors...

Anit Oza wrote a news comment about this finding from which I'm going to quote more liberally than I like - I want you to read the news report - because I'm less confident than I have been on the durability of the link to the news item This, after having links denied after a short period of time with the note that it is only available to subscribers.

--demonstrates how much results in the field can vary, not because of differences in the environment, but because of scientists’ analytical choices.

--this kind of research was pioneered in psychology and the social sciences when results couldn't be reproduced in another laboratory.

--could lead to improvements in reproducibility of results

-- the method - many analyst -  is one in whch researchers gave scientist-participants one of two data sets and an accompanying research question: either 'To what extent is the growth of nestling blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) influenced by competition with siblings?' or 'How does grass cover influence Eucalyptus spp. seedling recruitment?'”

--of course, the researchers had to simulate the peer-review process so the authors found another group of scientists to review the participants’ results. "The peer reviewers gave poor ratings to the most extreme results in the Eucalyptus analysis but not in the blue tit one. Even after the authors excluded the analyses rated poorly by peer reviewers, the collective results still showed vast variation, says Elliot Gould, an ecological modeller at the University of Melbourne and a co-author of the study."

-some suggestions for improving the process  asking a paper’s authors to lay out the analytical decisions that they made for the reader to examine with the potential caveats of those choices as well as the use of powerful "'robustness tests'  which are common in economics, require researchers to analyse their data in several ways and assess the amount of variation in the results.

Oza ends with an important observation about two disciplines that are observational. She writes that "ecology faces a special problem when it comes to analytical variation because of a complication baked into their discipline. Nicole Nelson, an ethnographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was given the last word. “The foundations of this field are observational. It’s about sitting back and watching what the natural world throws at you — which is a lot of variation.” (take a look at the paper about the complication).

Here is Oza's reporting and here is a link to the paper from EcoEvoRxiv, a preprint server. 

At least take a look at the paper, especially the authors, colleges, affiliations, etc.. I like this paper because it demonstrates that scientists want to provide an analysis that has some basis and also for their willingness to invest their time in improving research methods in ecology and evolution. Science welcomes such close examination and what it reveals.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Lourinha, Portugal: Land of the Dinosaurs

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Paleontology, Geology, Earth & Space Science, Archeology, Nature of Science, History of Science.

Ed Hessler

From the introduction slightly modified:

The town of Lourinha in Central Portugal is often described as a real world "Jurassic Park", a paradise of palaeontology like no other in the world. The spot was put on the map in the 1990s after the discovery of dinosaur eggs containing embryos on a local beach. With a staggering 150 million years of age, these are by far the oldest eggs of a carnivore dinosaur ever found in the world. Now more than two decades later, more nests have been discovered in the area. The small town is known as the "land of the dinosaurs".

The Wiki entry is available in 24 languages so in case it appears in Portuguese you can choose from quite a few languages.

The video is 5m 01s long and the finds it shows is a world of great wonder and promise for our understanding of ancient life.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

A Flicker of Hope For an Endangered Flycatcher *

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Science of Pleasure

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Brain, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

Include me among those who want to know about the science of pleasure. 

Stanford University professor of Biology, Neurology, Neurological Sciences and Neurosurgery, Robert Sapolsky explains what is known in this YouTube video 4 m 59 s. He makes very effective use of some simple charts which help in understanding what is going on.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Growing Pains: Did You Know?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Science & Society

Ed Hessler

The McGill Office for Science and Society (OSS) posted a short article - first published in the Skeptical Inquirer - about a common phrase: growing pains.

Author Ada McVean writes After writing that "They just don’t have anything to do with growing,"  Ada McVean writes about fear it causes in children and the accompanying anxiety in parents, offers a definition, their frequency in children, the knowns and unknowns, concluding with some comments on their treatment.
The Mayo Clinic offers similar advice on treatment in an information sheet about growing pains, although it says nothing about "lots of chocolate and snuggles". The sheet includes an overview, followed by symptoms, when to see a health care provider (important section), causes, and risk factors.

I'm not an MD or a Nurse Practitioner or is the author and was on the verge of not sending a link to the original article but am more comfortable in posting it after reading the Mayo Clinic Information Sheet which includes almost identical recommendations but expands them to other symptoms to look for. McVean offered one I appreciated, about chocolate and snuggles.


Saturday, January 13, 2024

Iridescent Clouds in Moonlight

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

Ed Hessler

Two reasons I like Astronomy Pictures of the Day (APOD): images are shown that I've never seen (or imagined) and would be unlikely to see and for the "short courses" APOD provides in the explainers below the image of the day.

You may already know the explanation which only adds to the lovely image

I'm grateful for the skywatchers and shooters who take these images and share them with us.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment, Medicine, Science & Society

Ed Hessler

Pandora is by Kelley Jean White who is a practicing pediatrician in New Hampshire.

Publication information may be found in this short review at the New York University Langone School of Medicine. 
In addition to comments on the book, it describes how the book is organized. I include it because both Kelley Jean White and Garrison Keillor (The Writer's Almanac - source of the poem) are mentioned. 
Editors Neeta Jain, Dagan Coppock and Stephanie Brown Clark are MDs. Clark also holds a Ph.D..