Rachel Carson warned us; you thought it was just DDT?

March 21, 2018

Two hummingbirds in Europe in 2017; will these birds go extinct, soon, due to agricultural use of potent pesticides that kill the insects birds need to live? AFP image via The Nation.

Two hummingbirds in Europe in 2017; will these birds go extinct, soon, due to agricultural use of potent pesticides that kill the insects birds need to live? AFP image via The Nation.

Bird populations appear to be collapsing across France, after insect populations crashed last year.

Neonicotinoid Pesticides generally get the blame.

France? You mean where “deja vu” is the native language?

It’s a serious problem.

Bird populations across the French countryside have fallen by a third over the last decade and a half, researchers have said.

Dozens of species have seen their numbers decline, in some cases by two-thirds, the scientists said in a pair of studies – one national in scope and the other covering a large agricultural region in central France.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Benoit Fontaine, a conservation biologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History and co-author of one of the studies.

Some policy makers and scientists appear to have been caught off-guard by the dramatic decline in birds — but anyone watching to environmental news last year probably isn’t surprised. In 2017, scientists and farmers noted the crash of insect populations, the food of the birds.  ‘Where have all the insects gone?’ asked a news story from Science Magazine.

Of the scant records that do exist, many come from amateur naturalists, whether butterfly collectors or bird watchers. Now, a new set of long-term data is coming to light, this time from a dedicated group of mostly amateur entomologists who have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves in western Europe since the 1980s.

Over that time the group, the Krefeld Entomological Society, has seen the yearly insect catches fluctuate, as expected. But in 2013 they spotted something alarming. When they returned to one of their earliest trapping sites from 1989, the total mass of their catch had fallen by nearly 80%. Perhaps it was a particularly bad year, they thought, so they set up the traps again in 2014. The numbers were just as low. Through more direct comparisons, the group—which had preserved thousands of samples over 3 decades—found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites.

Insect declines were written about in Yale e360, and in news reports from Science. In 2017 scientists and others pondered causes for the decline, with research tending to point at new pesticides used in farming. Severity of the decline was alarming, but few sounded the alarms about birds last year.

Chart showing the decline of insects worldwide, from Yale e360: "According to global monitoring data for 452 species, there has been a 45 percent decline in invertebrate populations over the past 40 years. DIRZO, SCIENCE (2014)"

Chart showing the decline of insects worldwide, from Yale e360: “According to global monitoring data for 452 species, there has been a 45 percent decline in invertebrate populations over the past 40 years. DIRZO, SCIENCE (2014)”

These events are tragedies predicted by ecologists for years; it’s a replay of the “silent spring” Rachel Carson warned us of in her 1962 book — but the effects are much deeper, and moving much more quickly than almost anyone feared.

Can anyone devise a plan to stop the insect and bird decline, and get it up and operating in time to save Europe’s birds?

What if no one can?

More: 

Tip of the old scrub brush to Guardian Environment.

 


Remembering Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882, and his legacy in 2016

April 19, 2016

This is an encore post.

We shouldn’t pass April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

More:

 


Global warming changes local bird populations, matching scientists’ predictions

April 3, 2016

Phys.org caption: The American robin, a familiar species across much of continental USA, has declined in some southern states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, but increased in north-central states, such as the Dakotas. Credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Phys.org caption: The American robin, a familiar species across much of continental USA, has declined in some southern states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, but increased in north-central states, such as the Dakotas. Credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-03-strong-effects-climate-common-bird.html#jCp

Most serious birdwatchers can tell you about global warming and climate change, just from watching the birds at their feeders, and when those birds migrate.

Now comes a study to confirm with data and controlled observation what the birders have been saying all along. Phys.org reported:

Scientists have shown for the first time that common bird populations are responding to climate change in a similar pronounced way in both Europe and the USA.

An international team of researchers led by Durham University, UK, found that populations of bird species expected to do well due to climate change had substantially outperformed those expected to do badly over a 30 year period from 1980 to 2010.

The research, conducted in collaboration with the RSPB and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), is published in the journal Science.

It is the first real demonstration that climate is having a similar, large-scale influence on the abundance of common birds in widely separated parts of the world, the researchers said.

Among the species showing pronounced effects of climate change are common woodland and garden birds such as the wren, in Europe, and the American robin in the USA.

(Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-03-strong-effects-climate-common-bird.html#jCp)

Biologists especially work to predict effects of warming on plants and animals, both to help plan changes in activities such as farming and hunting, and to protect species that are endangered now, or are likely to become so due to changing climate factors.

This study shows scientists can predict with accuracy some of the wildlife effects.

These changes are consistent with changing climate suitability within those areas, the researchers said.

Other factors, such as the size of the birds, the habitats they live in and their migratory behaviour, all affect , but did not differ systematically between groups advantaged or disadvantaged by climate change.

Therefore, only climate change could explain the differences between average population trends in advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the researchers said.

The study’s lead authors, Dr Stephen Willis and Dr Philip Stephens, of Durham University’s School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, said the findings showed there was a large-scale, consistent response by bird populations to climate change on two continents.

The study was published in the April 1, 2016 issue of Science, “Consistent response of bird populations to climate change on two continents.

Science  01 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6281, pp. 84-87
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4858

Tip of the old scrub brush to Svein T veitdal:


Are birds smarter than Columbus?

March 8, 2016

Another great find on Twitter, for geography, biology and physics classes.

How do birds navigate, compared to, say, Columbus? Most U.S. history texts make a big deal of Columbus’s navigation, made possible by invention of the magnetic compass and the sextant.

Birds are more accurate, and they have neither. Well, they don’t have external magnetic compasses. See the cartoon.

Neuroscientist and cartoonist team up to talk about birds

Neuroscientist and cartoonist team up to talk about birds “seeing” magnetic lines of the Earth! Information from Dwayne Godwin at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, with drawings by Jorge Cham, who draws Piled Higher and Deeper.

Teachers, have someone in the drafting department make this cartoon into a poster for your classroom.

As usual, the truth is more weird and wonderful than fiction writers could hope to invent.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Columbia University’s Twitter managers.


Beauty in nature: Stingray x-ray

December 13, 2015

A stunning photograph, with much to think about.  It wandered around the internet a couple of years ago, and it’s good enough, it’s going around again.

It’s an x-ray of a stingray. Consider what Charles Darwin might have thought about such an image. It’s a species discovered only in the last decade, imaged by a means of photography not known to be possible until more than a decade after Darwin’s death. What would he make of the discovery of a species, and the ability to see inside the thing, showing the cartilaginous skeleton (compare with the rays’ cousins, the sharks), and showing the organs Darwin knew would be there if evolution was, in fact, accurate.

21st century science brings such beauty:

x-ray-of-a-stingray

Caption from TwistedSifter: “The photograph above is an x-ray of a freshwater stingray species discovered in 2011 in the Amazon rain forest. The discovery was made by the research team of Nathan Lovejoy, a biologist at the University of Toronto in Scarborough; and Marcelo Rodrigues de Carvalho of the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil. The new species is known as Heliotrygon gomesi. Besides the pancake-like appearance, the ray is big, with slits on its belly and a tiny spine on its tail.” Photo by Ken Jones.

More:


Young public school artists draw award-winning inspiration from endangered species.

May 1, 2015

Young artists inspired by #endangeredspecies:1st prize D Starovoytov,6th grade http://1.usa.gov/1Koe2RY  @EcoSchoolsUSA  From @USFWSRefuges

Young artists inspired by #endangeredspecies:1st prize D Starovoytov,6th grade http://1.usa.gov/1Koe2RY @EcoSchoolsUSA From @USFWSRefuges

Maybe someone can make that 6th grader’s day, or life, by asking to purchase that piece (watercolor?) for a few thousands of dollars, to go into a college fund.

The USFWS blog, A Talk on the Wildside, announced the winners of the agency’s 2015 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest.

David Starovoytov, a sixth-grader from California, won the Grand Prize with his art of a Kentucky arrow darter, a beautiful fish found only in eastern Kentucky. During the breeding season, the males are blue-green with scarlet spots and scarlet-orange vertical bars on their body.  The Kentucky arrow darter is a candidate for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Federal candidates warrant ESA protection but are sometimes precluded from listing by other higher priority listing actions (other species are more imperiled and take priority).  Each year, the Service publishes a list and summarizes the current status for all candidate species in its Candidate Notice of Review (CNOR). The CNOR helps landowners and natural resource managers plan conservation to address threats to candidate species. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has identified the Kentucky arrow darter as a species of greatest conservation need and has been hard at work conserving it through captive breeding and other projects.  A key threat to the Kentucky arrow darter is degradation of habitat through surface coal mining and other human activities.  Changes in water quality have a profound impact on all aquatic species, including the Kentucky arrow darter.

The darter itself has an interesting story. Cool that a California kid heard the story, and made such a nice work of art.

The rest of the press release, and other winners:

AlligatorFourteen-year-old Seungeun Yi, of California, took second place with art of an American alligator, actually one of our greatest ESA successes. As recently as the 1950s, American alligator populations were at all-time lows as market-hunting and habitat loss decimated the species. ESA protection prohibited hunting, and the alligator began to recover, and states throughout the South helped make sure the population increased. We declared the animal fully recovered in 1987, but related species are still in trouble, so the American alligator is listed as “threatened due to similarity of appearance.

San Francisco garter snake

Another Californian, Mark Deaver, 8, won the Grades k-2 Category with his art of an endangered San Francisco garter snake. The San Francisco garter snake with its turquoise body and orange, black and red-orange stripes, is often called the most beautiful snake in the United States. Because they are so beautiful, some people collect them illegally. But the more significant threat comes from habitat loss. We are working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and other partners to provide habitat for the snake.

eagle

Difei Li, 10, of New Jersey, won the Grades 3-5 Category with art of a bald eagle. Perhaps the ESA success story, the bald eagle population bottomed out in 1963 with just 417 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States. Habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting and the widespread use of DDT had sent the eagle population plummeting after World War II. Protecting habitat, banning most DDT use and a host of conservation actions by the American public helped bald eagles make a remarkable recovery. Though removed from the endangered species list in 2007 because their populations recovered sufficiently, bald eagles are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.

Northern aplomado falconClaire Noelle Kiernicki, 12, of  Illinois, won the Grades 6-8 Category with art of an endangered Northern aplomado falcon. Once widespread throughout the American Southwest, the aplomado falcon disappeared in South Texas in the 1940s and 1950s because of widespread loss of habitat.  An aggressive captive breeding and re-introduction effort has improved population numbers and the aplomado falcon is making a comeback in southern Texas.

bat

Adam Pavan, 15, of California, won the Grades 9-12 Category with art of an endangered Hawaiian hoary bat. Also known as the ‘ope‘ape‘a, populations are believed to be threatened by habitat loss, pesticides, predation, and roost disturbance. Its decline may be primarily due to the reduction of tree cover in historic times, and they may be indirectly impacted by the use of pesticides. Conservation plans guide the management and use of forests to reduce negative efforts to known bat populations and, continued support for the ‘ope‘ape‘a research cooperative.

Congratulations to all the entrants and thank you for helping spread the word about the endangered species of  the United States and its waters.


Losing the fight for biodiversity: An infographic

April 28, 2014

BusinessWorld infographic

BusinessWorld infographic

From BusinessWorld, a publication in India:

Even as India bats for biodiversity investments at a UN convention of experts from 193 countries, the planet is staring at an imminent crisis that could wipe out life as we know it.

Compiled by Yashodhara Dasgupta

Click Here To Download Infographic

Sources: International Union for Conservation of Nature,
World Wide Fund for Nature, Ministry of Environment and Forests

Graphic: Sajeev Kumarapuram

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 22-10-2012)
– See more at: http://www.businessworld.in/news/business/environment/the-losing-world/570570/page-1.html#sthash.mmSk4DDw.dpuf

This would be a good poster for geography, biology, general science and world history courses. Can your drafting class print this out for you in poster format?

When all of the “coal mine canaries” on Earth die out, how much longer have humans left to live on Earth?

What hope have we, with yahoos like this leading us in Congress?

ven as India bats for biodiversity investments at a UN convention of experts from 193 countries, the planet is staring at an imminent crisis that could wipe out life as we know it.Compiled by Yashodhara Dasgupta – See more at: http://www.businessworld.in/news/business/environment/the-losing-world/570570/page-1.html#sthash.mmSk4DDw.dpuf

ven as India bats for biodiversity investments at a UN convention of experts from 193 countries, the planet is staring at an imminent crisis that could wipe out life as we know it.Compiled by Yashodhara Dasgupta

Click Here To Download Infographic

 

Sources: International Union for Conservation of Nature,

World Wide Fund for Nature, Ministry of Environment and ForestsGraphic: Sajeev Kumarapuram

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 22-10-2012)

– See more at: http://www.businessworld.in/news/business/environment/the-losing-world/570570/page-1.html#sthash.mmSk4DDw.dpuf

ven as India bats for biodiversity investments at a UN convention of experts from 193 countries, the planet is staring at an imminent crisis that could wipe out life as we know it.Compiled by Yashodhara Dasgupta

Click Here To Download Infographic

 

Sources: International Union for Conservation of Nature,

World Wide Fund for Nature, Ministry of Environment and ForestsGraphic: Sajeev Kumarapuram

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 22-10-2012)

– See more at: http://www.businessworld.in/news/business/environment/the-losing-world/570570/page-1.html#sthash.mmSk4DDw.dpuf


Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882, and his legacy today

April 19, 2014

This is an encore post.

We shouldn’t pass April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

More:

 


Feynman: Last Journey of a Genius (NOVA, 1998)

May 12, 2013

Feynman and the famous C-clamp experiment -- in a glass of ice water -- at the Challenger Commission.

Feynman and the famous C-clamp experiment — in a glass of ice water — demonstrating how rubber O-rings failed in launch, at the Challenger Commission. (Why are there so few good photos of this event?)

Geography and history teachers, you should watch this on the day after Feynman Day.  Can you make use of this in your classes — say, after the state tests?

How about you physics and science teachers?

English: Green: Tuvan People's Republic

Tuvan People’s Republic, marked in green. Wikipedia image

In 1998 NOVA produced and broadcast a film that rather defies categorization.  Biography? Drama? Humor? Frustrated travelogue?

“Last Journey of a Genius” tells a lot of biography of Dick Feynman, but it focuses on his unusual drive to learn about, and travel to an obscure Central Asian country/province/area/culture called Tannu Tuva.  Feynman’s close friend Ralph Leighton plays a big role in this film, too.  This film reveals more about the character of Richard Feynman, his overwhelming curiosity and humanity, than you can get any other place, including his memoirs (which every civil human should read).

NOVA captivates me almost every week.  Good fortune found me in front of a television somewhere when this was first broadcast.  For several reasons, I’ve been unable to get a VHS, or a DVD version of the story despite many attempts over the years.

But fortune and good history smile again.  Open Culture collected the film, and it’s available for free in their documentary section.

Drumming, story telling, geography, Cold War politics, ballet, more drumming, some nuclear physics, astronomy, a lot of good humor, and a plea for orange juice.  It still makes me smile.

From Open Culture:

In 1989, PBS’ NOVA aired The Last Journey of a Genius, a television film that documents the final days of the great physicist Richard Feynman and his obsession with traveling to Tannu Tuva, a state outside of outer Mongolia, which then remained under Soviet control. For the better part of a decade, Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton schemed to make their way to Tannu Tuva, but Cold War politics always frustrated their efforts. The video runs roughly 50 minutes and features an ailing Feynman talking about his wanderlust and their maneuverings. He died two weeks later, having never made the trip, though Ralph Leighton and Feyman’s daughter Michelle later landed in their Shangri-La. Her journey was recorded by the Russian service of the BBC.

The film now appears in the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.

via Metafilter

Related Content:

Richard Feynman’s Physics Lectures Online

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Hang on to this link for Feynman Day 2014 (May 11).  What’s your favorite Feynman story?

This kind of history and science is exactly the sort of stuff CSCOPE critics in Texas, and critics of the Common Core standards, worry that children will see.  Very odd, because stuff this good is not even mentioned in CSCOPE, nor in CCSS.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Kenny Darrell, who found this film and let me know about it.

More:


Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882

April 20, 2013

We shouldn’t get out of April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

More:

 


Especially on his birthday, don’t call Darwin racist — he wasn’t

February 12, 2013

Creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and several other anti-science and historical revisionist groups come unglued every February about this time — February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He was born in 1809, on the exact same day as Abraham Lincoln.

Part of creationists’ coming unglued revolves around that fact that the science behind evolution grows stronger year by year, and at this point no argument exists that creationists can make against evolution that has not been soundly, roundly and thoroughly.  This makes creationists nervous in a discussion, because even they recognize when they lose arguments.   Creationists don’t like to lose arguments about how well Darwin’s theories work, because they erroneously believe that if Darwin is right, God and Jesus are wrong.

God and Jesus cannot be wrong, in their view, but intellectually they see they are losing the argument, and they grow desperate.  In their desperation they grasp for claims that shock uneducated or unfamiliar viewers.  Since about 1970, among the more shocking arguments one can make is to claim one’s opponent is racist.

Claiming Darwin, and hence evolution, boost racism, slaps history with irony.  Creationism’s roots were in denying that Europeans and Africans are evolutionarily equal, a claim necessary to allow slave holders to enslave Africans and go to church on Sundays.  The Civil War is 150 years away, the Emancipation Proclamation 148 years old, and even die-hard creationists generally have forgotten their own history.

Creationists accuse Darwin of being a racist, they claim evolution theory is racist, and they claim, therefore, it cannot be scientifically accurate.  There are a lot of holes in that chain of logic.

This is Darwin’s birthday.  Let me deal with major wrong premise, and give creationists room to correct their views with accurate history, so we don’t have a shouting match.

Way back in 2008, nominally-liberal evangelical preacher Tony Campolo got suckered in by a conservative evangelicals claim to him that evolution and Darwin are racist.  Below is my answer to him then — I think Campolo learned his lesson — but this builds on the claims Campolo made which are really copied from creationists.

In short, Darwin is not racist, and here are some explanations why, with a few updated links and minor edits for Darwin’s birthday, and Lincoln’s birthday, in 2013:

Tony Campolo is an evangelical Christian, a sociology professor and preacher who for the past 15 years or so has been a thorn in the side of political conservatives and other evangelicals, for taking generally more liberal stands, against poverty, for tolerance in culture and politics, and so on. His trademark sermon is an upbeat call to action and one of the more plagiarized works in Christendom, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming” (listen to it here). 

Tony Campolo

Rev. Tony Campolo

Since he’s so close to the mainstream of American political thought, Campolo is marginalized by many of the more conservative evangelists in the U.S. Campolo is not a frequent guest on the Trinity Broadcast Network, on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” nor on the white, nominally-Christian, low-budget knock-off of “Sabado Gigante!,” “Praise the Lord” (with purple hair and everything).

Campolo came closest to real national fame when he counseled President Bill Clinton on moral and spiritual issues during the Lewinsky scandal.

His opposite-editorial piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2008, “The real danger in Darwin is not evolution, but racism,” is out of character for Campolo as a non-conservative evangelistic thinker — far from what most Christians expect from Campolo either from the pulpit or in the college classroom. The piece looks as though it was lifted wholesale from Jerry Falwell or D. James Kennedy, showing little familiarity with the science or history of evolution, and repeating canards that careful Christians shouldn’t repeat.

Campolo’s piece is inaccurate in several places, and grossly misleading where it’s not just wrong. He pulls out several old creationist hoaxes, cites junk science as if it were golden, and generally gets the issue exactly wrong.

Evolution science is a block to racism. It has always stood against racism, in the science that undergirds the theory and in its applications by those scientists and policy makers who were not racists prior to their discovery of evolution theory. Darwin himself was anti-racist. One of the chief reasons the theory has been so despised throughout the American south is its scientific basis for saying whites and blacks are so closely related. This history should not be ignored, or distorted.

Shame on you, Tony Campolo.

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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at 50: Catalog of tributes

December 11, 2012

Over the year so many tributes, commentaries, and wild-hare critiques keep pushing Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring back into our memories, and relevance.  Too many to list and comment on, but I’ll make a list of those I found most informative or useful, and of a couple I found most repugnant.

I’ll update this list from time to time.  I’m using this as a file for my writing as well, but some of this stuff needs to be shared more broadly — and of course, I appreciate corrections and pointers to other good sources.

English: An image of the main entrance of Rach...

Main entrance of Rachel Carson Middle School, Falls Church Public Schools, Herndon, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A collection:

Good stuff on Carson and Silent Spring:

Informative:

People who don’t get it, are blinded by bias, or never had their mouths washed out with soap:

General news:

More, not categorized:


Creationism vs. Christianity (a reprise)

October 30, 2012

This is an encore post, a repeat post from about four years ago, back in 2008.  For some reason the post got a couple hundred hits one day this past week, probably from a reference at another blog that I could not track.  I reread it — still true, still good stuff.  In this campaign year of 2012, I am dismayed at how anti-science and the denial of reality haunts election discussions, especially on-line, but also in the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, in diners and drugstore fountains, in churches and PTA meetings.  Denial of reality may or may not be a genuine ailment to humans.  When it becomes a core belief of a significant number of people, denial can cripple our nation, our states, cities and towns. We need to ask deep questions.  We need to have real answers, not fantasies nor dangerous delusions.

PhotonQ-Charles Darwin 's Office

Charles Darwin’s study, where he conducted experiments and made many of the observations he wrote about. Photo: National Endowment for the Humanities

Denying reality plagues us as an actual political response to several problems.  Denialists wander so far down paths of disreality, they argue that we should ignore serious problems, and that the problems will then go away.

Should we teach the science of evolution to our children, or should we pretend fairy tales will substitute?  This has deep meaning to those who understand that Charles Darwin’s greatest contribution to science probably was his strict methodology, which required observation of things in nature before writing about them as if authoritative. 

Early in his life Darwin recognized that the natural world he saw, in Brazil, in the Galapagos Islands, in Australia and Tasmania, in South Africa, bore little resemblance to the world portrayed as authoritative by the great William Paley in his Natural Theology.  Throughout his science career Darwin observed real things in real time.  For his monograph on coral atolls, Darwin extensively observed the volcanic island phenomena throughout the South Pacific.  To write about barnacles, Darwin raised them in tanks in his study.  Looking at the mystery of exactly how the ivy twines, Darwin put a plant before him, and watched it, unraveling the secrets of how tendrils “knew” what to latch onto for support of the vine.  To write about leaf moulds, Darwin observed worms at work, in his lab and in his gardens.  To show the variation existing in what we now call the genome of a species, Darwin made extensive interviews and correspondence with animal husbanders of pigs, sheep and cattle, and he raised pigeons for generations himself, demonstrating how variations can be expressed that drive populations of one species to split into two through natural, everyday processes familiar to anyone who observed nature, and accessible by anyone who made methodical notes.

This familiarity with reality made Darwin a great scientist.  The methodology proved extendable into other areas when he carefully observed the mediums to whom his brother had cast great credence.  Charles revealed to Erasmus that spirit knocking on the tables at the séances did not occur so long as they held the hands of the mediums, who were then unable to feign the knocking. 

Ultimately it provided some despair to Darwin, too:  In the face of criticism from William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, that the Earth was not old enough to allow for evolution as Darwin suggested it must have occurred, Darwin had no answer.  Lord Kelvin calculated the ages of the Earth and Sun to be no more than 200 million years.  This was shown by the present temperatures and color of the Earth and the Sun, and calculated by Lord Kelvin from how long it would take the Earth, known to be composed of much iron and nickel, to cool from white hot to current temperatures.  Lord Kelvin ventured deep into coal mines to measure the temperatures of the Earth deep underground, to confirm his calculations.  At his death, though he defended his own observations of fossils and breeding of live animals, Darwin had no response for those arguments.  Darwin thought there must be other forces at play.  Only some years later did Ernest Rutherford find the secret of the Earth’s heat:  Radioactive decay in the mantle and core of the planet keeps it warm.  Measures of heat loss for such a large body had not accounted for continuous heating from within.  A short while later astronomers and physicists discovered problems with Lord Kelvin’s calculations of the age of the Sun:  The Sun is not composed of iron, cooling from white hot temperatures, but instead is hydrogen, fusing into helium, and making its own heat.

Darwin’s calculations of the age of the Earth were more accurate than Lord Kelvin’s, based on Darwin’s crude calculations of how long it might take animals and plants to have evolved from much more primitive forms.  History demonstrated by easily observable things provided greater accuracy than history devised without benefit of grounding in reality.

In what other realms might grounding in reality produce answers different from what some expect, even producing better questions that many ask?  Should we consider the migratory pattern changes of birds, fish and mammals, as indicators of a warming climate, over rebuttals provided by untested claims that measuring stations might not be placed correctly?  Can we actually “cool” atoms with lasers, and use individual atoms to store information, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound?  Can it be true that teaching people about contraception, and about sex, actually prompts teenagers (and others) to reduce sexual activity and look for love, rather than just sex?  Does extending medical coverage to an entire population actually decrease total health care costs as observed in all other nations where that solution has been tried, or will it increase costs because the only way to reduce medical costs is to ration it, either with a bureaucracy, or by cutting off access by backdoor, death panel means testing (no money, no health care)?  Is there any place Arthur Laffer‘s “curve” of increasing tax revenues by cutting tax rates, actually does not work — or any place it actually works?  Has any society in history ever gotten rich by showering riches on the rich, and ignoring the poor, the merchants, and the working class?

In short, how does reality we know, inform us about reality yet to be?  Which is the more potent predictor, observed reality, or hoped-for results to the contrary?

Our future hangs on how we answer the question, probably more than what the answer actually is.

I believe Christians, the largest faith group in the U.S., have a duty to stand for reality, and truth discovered by observation.  That was the issue in 2008, too.

Here is my post of four years ago.  I noticed a few of the links no longer work; I’ll replace them with working links as I can.  If you find a bad link, please note it in comments; and if you have a better link, note that, too.

Several weeks ago [in 2008] I responded to a lengthy thread at Unreasonable FaithThe original post was Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon of the guy in a doctor’s office, just diagnosed with an infection.  The physician asks the guy if he’s a creationist, explaining that if he is, the doc will treat him with old antibiotics in honor of his belief that evolution of bacteria doesn’t occur.

Charles Darwin's Study, Down House. Photo by and copyright held by Bob Radlinski. Radlinski's description: Darwin regularly spent about 5 hours a day here for 40 years and kept a chamber pot behind the partition so that he wouldn't have to trek to the toilet. But he still had time for an active family life with his wife Emma and their 10 children. The low stool with casters was used to spin himself from one desk where he dissected in front of the window to another where he took notes or wrote up labels—the stool the children were allowed to use for their games, punting themselves around the living room with long poles. The sitting room at the back of the house has large windows that go to the floor so that on nice days, the children (and dogs) could roam back and forth from house to garden at will.

Charles Darwin’s Study, Down House, where Darwin wrote all of his publications after his marriage. Photo by and copyright held by Bob Radlinski. Radlinski’s description: Darwin regularly spent about 5 hours a day here for 40 years and kept a chamber pot behind the partition so that he wouldn’t have to trek to the toilet. But he still had time for an active family life with his wife Emma and their 10 children. The low stool with casters was used to spin himself from one desk where he dissected in front of the window to another where he took notes or wrote up labels—the stool the children were allowed to use for their games, punting themselves around the living room with long poles. The sitting room at the back of the house has large windows that go to the floor so that on nice days, the children (and dogs) could roam back and forth from house to garden at will.

Point being, of course, that evolution occurs in the real world.  Creationists rarely exhibit the faith of their claims when their life, or just nagging pain, is on the line.  They’ll choose the evolution-based medical treatment almost every time.  There are no creationists in the cancer or infectious disease wards.

At one point I responded to a comment loaded with typical creationist error.  It was a long post.  It covered some ground that I’ve not written about on this blog.  And partly because it took some time to assemble, I’m reposting my comments here.  Of course, without the Trudeau cartoon, it won’t get nearly the comments here.

I’ll add links here when I get a chance, which I lacked the time to do earlier.  See my post, below the fold.

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One more time: Intelligent design is a pig that still doesn’t fly

July 26, 2012

Gee, I think I first posted this more than a year before the Pennsylvania decision.  In any case, the subject has come up once again in another forum:  Why don’t we teach intelligent design as an “alternative” idea in public school science classes?  The answer is, simply, ID is not science.  It’s not an alternative hypothesis, it’s a chunk of minority cult religious dogma.
Most bad science claims recirculate year after year, until they are simply educated out of existence in the public mind.  We can hope intelligent design falls into that category.  But we might worry that modern creationism, begun as a backlash to the anti-Soviet, National Defense Education Act‘s effects on beefing up science teaching in American schools, survives.
Picture from Flying Pig Brewery, Seattle, Washington
Image: Flying Pig Brewing Co., Everett, Washington

[From 2006 and 2007]:

We’re talking past each other now over at Right Reason, on a thread that started out lamenting Baylor’s initial decision to deny Dr. Francis Beckwith tenure last year, but quickly changed once news got out that Beckwith’s appeal of the decision was successful.

I noted that Beckwith’s getting tenure denies ID advocates of an argument that Beckwith is being persecuted for his ID views (wholly apart from the fact that there is zero indication his views on this issue had anything to do with his tenure discussions). Of course, I was wrong there — ID advocates have since continued to claim persecution where none exists. Never let the facts get in the way of a creationism rant, is the first rule of creationism.

Discussion has since turned to the legality of teaching intelligent design in a public school science class. This is well settled law — it’s not legal, not so long as there remains no undisproven science to back ID or any other form of creationism.

Background: The Supreme Court affirmed the law in a 1987 case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578), affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment against a state law requiring schools to teach creationism whenever evolution was covered in the curriculum. Summary judgment was issued by the district court because the issues were not materially different from those in an earlier case in Arkansas, McLean vs. Arkansas (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 (ED Ark. 1982)). There the court held, after trial, that there is no science in creationism that would allow it to be discussed as science in a classroom, and further that creationism is based in scripture and the advocates of creationism have religious reasons only to make such laws. (During depositions, each creationism advocate was asked, under oath, whether they knew of research that supports creationism; each answered “no.” Then they were asked where creationism comes from, and each answered that it comes from scripture. It is often noted how the testimony changes from creationists, when under oath.)

Especially after the Arkansas trial, it was clear that in order to get creationism into the textbooks, creationists would have to hit the laboratories and the field to do some science to back their claims. Oddly, they have staunchly avoided doing any such work, instead claiming victimhood, usually on religious grounds. To the extent ID differs from all other forms of creationism, the applicability of the law to ID was affirmed late last year in the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Please go read that case!)

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Michael Pollan at TEDS: What do potatoes think of us?

December 29, 2011

Pollan asks a provocative question:  Do we force plants to do our bidding when we breed them, or are we being manipulated by them?

Pollan is the author of Botany of Desire, a great book.  There is a PBS production based on the book.


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