Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mitochondrion

Part 2 of the last post.
I may have posted this already.


In 6th grade, you labeled your cell diagram, not quite understanding what you were doing, but enjoying picking the colors from your box of crayons, coloring the pill-shaped organelle a Crayola cadet blue.

In 8th grade, you learned that the mitochondrion was where oxidation and the Krebs cycle took place (even though oxidation and Krebs were just sounds to memorize to please the teacher). You learned that this was the cell's power plant. You imagined a tiny engine burning gasoline.

In high school you memorized the Krebs cycle, took the Biology AP Exam, and managed to slip into a decent college. You slogged through biochemistry, and eventually became a pharmacist.
***

Mitochondria reside in our cells--they are sort of us, but not really--they carry their own DNA, and they descend from other mitochondria carried by your mother. And her mother. And her mother's mother.

Coloring them was about as exciting as mitochondria ever got.
***

Three decades ago I sat in the auditorium of the American Museum of Natural History. The teacher had primed our class, so when the serious man on stage asked what energy was, I knew the right words to say.

I raised my hand.
I started to open my mouth--I knew the words, my teacher was already smiling.

I did not say them. I stared at my feet.
"The ability to do work" caught in my craw.
The words explained nothing to me, and still do not.

My teacher's disappointment was once enough motivation for me to answer a stranger's question, even if I did not understand my own words.

At least until 6th grade.
***

Oxygen combines with fuel to release energy--light and heat. The oxygen does not contribute to the energy released--it "simply" accepts electrons, allowing bonds to break and reform.

If this happens fast, you get fire. Oxygen grabs electrons and protons, forming water. Hold your hand over a barbecue--the moisture on your palm is not just sweat. Hold a glass beaker over an open flame--water condenses on the cool glass. Try it.

Oxidation can happen slowly, too. The rusting rims of your child's bicycle left out over winter warms the frigid air as metallic iron morphs into ferric oxide. Rust releases heat. Molecules vibrate more quickly as electrons shift.

I know the words, but still do not trust them.

In 1978 I shoveled iron turnings on the docks, my feet warming up despite thick work boots. Until then I did not believe that rusting iron releases heat. Even more important, I had no reason to believe it--I no longer trusted teachers.

My favorite students are those who do not trust my words now--"show me!"
And I do.
***

The warmth and movement of your lover comes from the sun.
You twist together, heat and motion.
Mitochondria hum.
***

In the morning, the sun rises, as it has, as it will.

The apple I eat courses through my veins as sugar, sugar that feeds the mitochondria.

Heat, water, and carbon dioxide are released. I step outside into the New Year chill, and see my breath. The water vapor dissipates, to return as rain. The carbon dioxide eventually feeds the spring garden, a few molecules going back to the apple tree, where the sun's energy restores a bit of order.

Leslie and I make up our shared bed, laughing at the entropic knot of sheets and blankets.

Our body heat comes from our mitochondria, trillions of symbionts stoking our fires.

If the soul resides anywhere, it resides here in the mitochondria.
After our last agonal gasp, our corpse quickly cools. The change is startling, even to experienced hands.

I've pronounced a lot of dead people, feeling for a pulse, watching for chest movement. Either can fool you. The abrupt onset of cold, however, tells the story. The mitochondria have stopped working.

You are dead.
***

The best parts of science get buried in the details.

Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide.
Adenosine triphosphate.
Alpha-ketoglutarate pathway.

My students yawn at the details.

I try to use a 3D model. Nitrogen atoms are, alas, painted blue.
"The red balls are oxygen, the blue balls...."

My frontal lobe edits too slowly today. I have their attention now--"Blue balls, he said blue balls!"--and the room now vibrates with a different kind of heat.
***

I breathe. I eat.
I use the energy released from the food I eat today to start preparing for the spring garden.

A garden is a lovely lie--a pretense of order in the midst of organic chaos.

I teach about the Krebs cycle in a classroom without windows.
I want to stop class, run outside, show my lambs the inexplicable dance outside, where a tiny portion of sunlight happens to hit our world, and carbon dioxide and water happen to get reorganized into food, that we happen to eat, to be.

Grace. Dharma. Science.







Amygdalin

It's the end of the year--I keep thinking I'm better, and I mostly am, but after three years it's clear I'm not going to recover completely.

We're cleaning up stuff around here. I found Mary Beth's notebook. She was fierce--just ask Dow Chemical. She was loving--just ask anyone who ever met her, including folks who worked at Dow.

So I'm throwing two essays out here I
wrote over a couple of years ago. They are only peripherally involved with teaching science.

Amygdalin shares the same root as amygdala--it means walnut, and reflects the amaretto taste you sense when you chew on apple seeds.

Chewing on apple seeds may be hazardous, but so is riding motorcycles, body surfing, and just plain living.


When I eat an apple, I eat everything but the stem. Sometimes I eat that, too. I did this even before my sister fell in love with Dave Keeney, who knows apples. Like most folks who know something well, Dave knows lots of things well. Mary Beth believed she would love him until she died, and she did.

In a few years I will chew an apple core from a tree that has a tiny bit of my sister in it. Several hundred apple trees at Keeney Orchard already do. You breathe around apple trees, some of your carbon dioxide bound to get mixed up in the apple blossoms.

Life's messy that way.
***

Breathe on your hand. Feel the moist air, now carrying carbon dioxide and warm water vapor. An apple tree will take both, borrow some radiant energy from the sun, and make stuff.

It's what trees do.

Oh, they need a tiny bit of calcium and other minerals. This spring, Dave will plant a sapling next to the stone that now casts an evening shadow towards the pond. He will scatter some bits of calcium from a colorful cardboard box covered with stars, hearts, and painted macaroni he glued there himself.

Mary Beth will feed the tree, and we will water the ground with tears. Our breath and her ground bones will rise from the ground. In a few years, a child not yet born will pick an apple from the tree. And eat it.
***

We stood by her stone, now pink form the fading light. I heard an owl.

Dave asked if cremation destroys DNA.
I didn't know, and said so.
Turns out it does.
***

A hint of amaretto slides through
a chewed apple core.

(A mother tells her child to spit it out. The child grins and chews anyway.)
***


C20H27NO11 + 2H2O => 2C6H12O6 + C6H5CHO + HCN

Amygdalin + water => glucose + benzaldehyde + cyanide


Glucose, of course, is sugar--sweetness.

Benzaldehyde gives the nutty taste--turns out it may cause cancer.
Wildness at the cellular level.

Cyanide. Death.



Cyanide blocks a cell's ability to release the energy captured by plants. The energy caught by the apple tree and by algae and by grasses and ferns and moss--the energy that feeds us--cannot be released unless oxygen steals back the electrons plants stole from water.

Cyanide blocks the electrons from getting to the oxygen, deep inside your mitochondria, in the darkest recesses of your cells.

You suffocate inside out.
Before you suffocate, you may feel giddy, even euphoric.

Burning wood releases cyanide. So does burning silk.
A lot of folks who die of smoke inhalation succumb to cyanide poisoning.
I'd like to imagine they were euphoric those last few moments.
I hope I'm euphoric my last few moments.

I keep eating apple seeds.
Benzaldehyde reacts with water; a lovely taste, nuttiness sweetened by glucose, streams through me. A tinge of euphoria lightens me, reminds me I am mortal.

I loved chewing apple seeds before I knew about the cyanide.
Now they taste even better.

Photo by André Karwath via wikimedia.

New Year's resolution

It's New Year's Eve day--we just got a shredder, so we're busy going through years and years worth of paper. Some of it has been shredded, some we'll save.

*The receipt for my sister's cremation.
*A rejection letter from the Paris Review back in 1982 with the encouragement to send more words. (It was my first and only fiction submitted anywhere--an encouraging letter from a favorite literary magazine was enough.)
*An envelope with a picture of Mother Theresa and the Pope inside, with George Carlin's home number scrawled on the outside in my mom's handwriting. All four are dead now--I think I'll hold on to this.
*My old beat up code cards I used to stuff in my pocket on the way to moonlighting in an inner-city medical center, cards I used several times. More than once I regretted that they worked--severely brain-damaged children are hardly miracles.

And on and on, funeral cards and christening announcements, of little interest beyond my clan.

I had planned to post a list today--a snazzy (or at least snarky) Roll of Hubris, topped by the madness deep below the ground, the Large Hadron Collider, which remains broken.

And plowing through the paper reminds me of my own--feigning immortality despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Our students are mortal, too. We use up a lot of their time pushing them through a system that judges them by how well they test. We use up a lot of their time preparing them for an environment that requires staying on task even when the point of the task no longer matters.

So here's my New Year's resolution: recognize my students' mortality. I am taking a piece of time in their finite lives. I'd better make good use of it.

Every task I require of my students should hold value, a value I can articulate, a value beyond "to get you ready for the next year" or "to get you ready for the High School Proficiency Assessment."

If it's something of questionable value but required by the curriculum, I will not hesitate to share my doubts, and I will work to get the curriculum changed.

Yep, I know, I know, you do this anyway. I also know that we are agents of the state, and are required to teach a specific curriculum. I am not challenging that--I am free to go work in a private venture if I want to thrust some megalomaniacal value system on my charges.

I'm talking about the day to day small stuff that rewards children's persistence but not their curiosity, that rewards performance over mastery.

What are we doing here?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Look, ma, no sunspots!

In the last day or so I've stumbled upon groggy earthworms while digging up more garden, watched a few potato bugs scurry as I (finally) raked up some leaves, and got my hand covered with pond scum while unjamming the filter.

In December....

I have little doubt that the world is warming up, and that our activities have a bit to do with it. On the other hand, I frequent NASA's space weather site, and the sun has been amazingly quiescent (as far as sunspots go).

I know we are in a solar minimum. I also know we know less than we pretend to know.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy the mud on my hands and startled worms wishing me a Happy New Year. If there's any correlation between sunspots and climate, we might be skating on the Navesink River again in our lifetimes.

Yes, that's the sun--it was taken today by the folks at NASA--look, ma, no sunspots!

Happy New Year...no, wait, now!



Imbolc (Groundhog's Day in polite company) is less than 6 weeks away. The year is defined by the cyclical journey of our sun. Ptolemy makes sense if you're paying attention.

Tomorrow night, the official timekeepers will add a second to the year.

I bet some science teachers will tell their classes about it when they return, and I bet more than a few of them will get the reasons wrong.

Yes, the Earth's orbit is slowing down, but not so much that we have to add 24 seconds in 35 years. The International Earth Rotation Service has done this 23 times before since 1972.

Why?

Because we screwed up--atomic time defines a day a few milliseconds off. The Earth does indeed change its speed--in the 1990's it mysteriously sped up for a bit, so fewer leap seconds were needed.

And, yep, it will ultimately slow down--but it's not slowing down 24 seconds every 35 years.


And Imbolc? It will always fall halfway between winter solstice and the vernal equinox--you don't need an atomic watch to figure it out.


Isn't the Int'l Earth Rotation Service a fantastic name? Need your oil changed, your tires rotated? Call us!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Oysters and knowledge


Go ahead, look it up.

What is the lifespan of Crassostrea viginica, the local oyster?
What is its maximum size?

The experts will tell you it gets to 20 years old, and about 8" long.

I found the shell of one today that just misses 9 inches. Its shell tells a story about 40 years old.

"Awareness of ignorance is as devout
as knowledge of knowledge. Or more so. "
Galway Kinnell via Sean Nash.

We don't know nothing.



Photo from NOAA

Friday, December 26, 2008

Windows registry


I can't help myself. The registry has a virus. Or two. Or Thirty. I spent about 17 seconds debating whether to toss out a particular file.
A file I did not recognize.

I knew better. Really. But the Enter key called me like a Siren on estrogen.

And yes, I did.

All kinds of fun now.

I am considering reformatting the hard drive and installing linux. Why not blow the winter break on a mindless trek into the insular universe of man?

Anyone want to talk me out of it?

(If I disappear for a bit, chalk it up to the BSOD....)

The image is from Jeff Atwood's blog, the Coding Horror--I wish I checked in before I fubared my binary universe.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Life, Christmas Eve, hornworms, and fishing


Christmas Eve...time to curl up by the tree.
Even the yeast are resting--not a bubble from the carboy. (Don't think Clement Clarke Moore mentioned that, but it's true.)

Snow covers the ground--if I dig into the compost pile, I can find a few worms still going about their business, but most of the activity here has stalled until the sun returns. The only mammals still rarin' like it's July have an overrated cerebral cortex. Even the possums have more sense.

Our class spent a day or two in September discussing what "life" means--we mostly stuck to the textbook definition.

Textbooks vary on which 7 or 8 characteristics kids need to memorize, but I bet they all list reproduction as one.

Life does, indeed, reproduce. This network of complex beings busy catching sunlight, consuming each other, and banging on keyboards seamlessly moves on, cell into cells.

I keep hoping a student will ask the epistemologically obvious: I'm 15, I never reproduced, and I'm alive.

I'm ready for the question. If I ask it aloud myself, though, I look like just another addled adult in their lives. Their educational path is littered with addled adults.
***

Last August I found a tomato hornworm adorned with white cottony appendages. I pulled it off the tomatoes, then left it behind the garage with a sprig of tomato plant. I did not want it to starve.

The braconid wasp that had stung it a few weeks earlier had no such qualms--each white puff on the caterpillar's back was a wasp pupating, slowly using up the energy of my tomato plants chewed up by the hornworm. I bet the caterpillar wasn't feeling well enough to do too much damage in my garden. I probably should have left it there.

It was never going to reproduce any moths, but it did have a hand in reproducing wasps. Not sure life gets any more clearly defined (or messier) than that.
***

We divide life into organisms, but the definition of live goes beyond individuals. If it did not, sterility would be tantamount to death. (Oh, relax, my overbearing geneticist friends--life is more than just allele frequencies.)

Life does reproduce, but reproduce is too limited a word. Give life a source of energy and a way to capture it and it will squirm its way into crevices and mountaintops.

We are trained to separate "human" from the rest of life. We come up with definitions we expect our pupae to memorize, even though the words make little sense.

My pupae were bouncing off the walls this week--we, the teachers, blamed Christmas.

(I noticed the teachers were a bit bouncy themselves--I blame a culture that worships electric light more than the sun.)
***

So you want to teach biology.

Ask how many kids are tired, feel leaden, are sad, have an inexplicable craving for French fries and Doritos and bread and pasta.

Ask this during first period, 7:45 AM, less than a half hour after sunrise here.

Then ask what a mammal is.

Let them connect the dots.
***

You want to teach biology? Teach it in June standing waist deep in the local mud hole, picking off the leeches from your calf when you emerge from the cattails.

Sitting in front of a Smartboard in a class without windows will get them through the state test, but it won't get them to what matters.
***

I will be spending part of my break writing a grant application. The New Jersey DEP Division of Fish and Wildlife offers a "Physh Ed Grant Initiative" (cute, eh?).

If I can tie fishing to my curriculum, I have a shot at taking kids to the edge of a pond, hooking real fish, then slaughtering them.

Part of me finds the whole idea repulsive--what right do I have to subject a fish to the whims of a sophomore who will nervously laugh as we pull out the entrails of a creature doomed to die?

And I think of my hornworm--its back cluttered with was babies, draining its energy, still feeding on my tomatoes, taking away energy meant for the fruit.

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

D.H.Lawrence

So I will apply for the grant, and if I get it, will lead a small band of kids to the edge of a pond, where we will slaughter our food, and eat it.

I will, of course, satisfy state curriculum requirements, and I will, of course, cause the suffering of another creature.

Still, when we eat the flesh of a being whose existence depends on the sun we are reminded that life is not about individuals.

A few kids will get a better idea of what "life" means.

Why else teach?


The infected hornworm is from the Reynolds Tobacco Company slides, taken by Robert Anderson, USDA Forest Service, United States
St. Nick by Thomas Nast

Monday, December 22, 2008

NASA ducks

It's tough to find science news on Google--techie stuff, yes ("iPhone gift-giving tips" leads the list tonight), but real science rarely.

I wandered over to the BBC.

Seems that NASA has lost rubber duckies while exploring subglacial channels in Greenland (still located on Earth last time I checked). Ninety of them. No, really.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter solstice

Winter solstice occurred a few hours ago--it's an instant, a unit of Planck time, not a day.

The smallest unit of time is incomprehensible.


We capture it in a mathematical statement, gratuitously plastered above.
We've got a lot of Planck times to get through before Imbolc arrives.
***

I just finished a wonderful novel, Requiem, Mass., by John Dufresne. I won't spoil it here (couldn't if I wanted to), but while I read in the wintry darkness this morning, I stumbled across these words:
We all feel more than we can imagine. We all imagine more than we can remember. We all remember more than we can know. And we all know more than we can say.

Amen.

And then he talks of Planck time. This is a long passage, and perhaps I should ask Mr. Dufresne's permission before tossing it out here.
Any meaning is better than none. Ask any Catholic or Hutterite or Hmong. You believe in a God who, in his exquisite loneliness, created the universe and little you. Or you believe that we, in our terrifying loneliness, created God. Doesn't matter which. Ask any Vietnamese child kneeling in the mud, praying, choking on her tears, feeling the hot muzzle of an M16 at the nape of her neck, hearing the screams of her grandparents, inhaling the sting of smoke and cordite, knowing that this soldier here behind you, dear, is about to make his own meaning by firing a burst of bullets through your head. At that moment there is no arrow of time for you, there is no there, no then. There is only this singularity, this big bang. At that moment you are borrowing energy against time and shaping your brief life into a quantum of meaning.
Not sure this would make sense in June. Makes sense now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Science and The Mystery


If you package science in a box, wrap it with shiny paper, and stick a bow on top, the world becomes safer.

This is what children want. This is what the parents of children want. This is what we do in kindergarten.

I teach high school. The adult version of science takes you to places that are open and unknown. While I have no problem with teaching safe sex in high school, there is no place for safe science.

Opening up the unknown is frightening to a culture based on immortality. We have a responsibility to teach the truth, to show the limits of what we know, and what we can know.

If you teach science honestly, you will bump into limits. You will skirt the edges of nihilism.
***

My students want to know what I believe--I avoid the question. Some think I am a raving Creationist, some think I'm Jewish, many assume I'm Catholic, and a few suspect I am atheist.

(One student asked me if I was a Satanist--I use my index and pinky to signify "two", a habit picked up when I coached Little League, and he misread it as some secret signal. No, I am not a Satanist.)

What I "am" does not matter in the classroom, nor should it.
***

I start each year explaining that science is about models, stories constructed using specific rules to explain the universe.

I have faith in patterns. Whatever this thing is, it follows rules.

We have been talking about photosynthesis, and the source of oxygen on Earth. Water is split by light, releasing oxygen.
Where did the water come from? Maybe comets, maybe not. Where did that water come from? Shrug. Where did the first cell come from? Shrug. Where did the mass/energy for the Big Bang came from? Shrug. What is mass/energy? Shrug.

I shrug a lot in class. I tell the students to ask their mothers, their rabbis, their priests, their imams, their philosopher kings, the Buddha, the whatever.

I explain that I teach science, and that this is as far as it goes. A few are frightened by this (and I am heartened to see a few see the abyss).

I also tell them they can ask me outside the school if they ever see me (and they do, since I live in town).

No one ever asks. If they do, though....shrug.


The cartoon is from here xkcd and can be found here: http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/the_difference.png

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Passaic River and broken babies


The shower washes the garden mud off my feet; the reddish-brown water looks like blood as it swirls down the drain. Within a few hours, the millions of microbes washed off my feet will be killed by chlorine, and flow as sewage effluent into the Passaic River, the same river made famous by its ability to ignite. Sewage effluent, fortunately, does not burn as easily as the rest of the river.

The effluent flows as clear, odorless, nutrient-filled water (or so the sewage authorities assert). A few years ago, near the tail end of a long drought here on the East Coast, about 90% of the water in the Passaic River flowing past Newark was treated sewage.

I regularly kayak by the discharge pipe of the Livingston Sewage Authority. The pipe rests near the origin of the Passaic River, really just a stream at his point, my paddle often scraping the rocky bottom. Livingston has gobs of money. The effluent coming out of the pipe smells surprisingly fresh, not what one expects from a poop-pipe. Not odorless either.

I know the smell of chlorine. I know the smell of esters. As an erstwhile organoleptologist, I assert that the Livingston Sewage Authority contains (at least) water, chlorine, and a nose-friendly ester. Either that or the wealthy have poop that smells like perfume.

Man-made esters frighten me a bit. They should frighten you, too.

Carp thrive in this part of the river. Painted turtles reproduce, making baby turtles with the right number of body parts--one head, four legs, one tail. Deer drink from the river, and an occasional hawk soars overhead as we paddle upstream. Maybe the discharged effluent is safe.

Still, I fear the estery smell; while I do not wish to wade in buckets of bacteria, the smell of sweet volatile organic compounds makes me edgy. I imagine my plastic oar melting as I near the effluent waterfall.

When I was younger, I loved the smell of organic liquids. I sniffed gasoline, not to get high, but just for the smell. The varied chemicals stored in the garage got sniffed for the sheer joy of the odor.

I remember giant wafers designed to be loaded in a green, translucent cane filled with water, designed to inject a sweet-smelling herbicide directly into dandelions. Groundskeepers had a high rate of leukemia; we just did not know that yet.

The mosquito man would drive his truck through the neighborhood shooting his white, dense cloud of sweetness--we'd hop on our bicycles and get lost in the fog. VOC junkies.


Sperm counts are dropping. More and more boys are born with incompletely formed penises. No one is sure why, but phthalates have been implicated. Di-n-butyl phthalate flows with the effluent of treated sewge. It smells sweetish, like an ester.

Di-n-butyl phthalate makes plastics more pliable--it is a "plasticizer." Male reproductive organs may become more plastic as well.

While "fringe" ecologists have been screaming about endocrine disrupters for years, the plastics industry continues to maintain that there is no hard evidence linking phthalates to human hypospadias.

Still, enough evidence exists to raise the eyebrows of the Food and Drug Agency.
Everyone is exposed to small levels of DEHP [Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate] in everyday life. However, some individuals can be exposed to high levels of DEHP through certain medical procedures. DEHP can leach out of plastic medical devices into solutions that come in contact with the plastic. The amount of DEHP that will leach out depends on the temperature, the lipid content of the liquid, and the duration of contact with the plastic. Seriously ill individuals often require more than one of these procedures, thus exposing them to even higher levels of DEHP.

Exposure to DEHP has produced a range of adverse effects in laboratory animals, but of greatest concern are effects on the development of the male reproductive system and production of normal sperm in young animals. We have not received reports of these adverse events in humans, but there have been no studies to rule them out. However, in view of the available animal data, precautions should be taken to limit the exposure of the developing male to DEHP.

David W. Feigal, Jr., MD, MPH, "FDA Public Health Notification: PVC Devices Containing the Plasticizer, "FDA, July, 2002DEHP,


I discussed this with the chair of the department of pediatrics. The FDA warning interested him, but fixing it costs money.

Glass is too expensive. Glass breaks, too dangerous on a pediatric hospital floor. A shrug.

I have raised the issue with other doctors. More shrugs. People shrug a lot these days. I shrug a lot. What can we do? A shrug acknowledges a problem as unfixable. Dismissive.

Changes in the sexual morphology of fish exposed to sewage effluent have led some scientists to conjecture that humans also live in a "sea of oestrogens" and that the apparent increases in the incidence of certain reproductive conditions may be due to exposure to chemicals in the environment. The so called Sharpe-Skakkebaek hypothesis offered a possible common cause and toxicological mechanism for abnormalities in men and boys,that is, increased exposure to oestrogen in utero may interfere with the multiplication of fetal Sertoli cells, resulting in hormonally mediated developmental effects and, after puberty, reduced quality of semen. It was postulated that synthetic chemicals in the environment are the prime source of the excessive oestrogenic stimulation, with exposure through food and water being the primary route.

"Endocrine disrupters and human health," Editorial, British Medical Journal, 2001;323:1317-1318 (8 December).



Repairing a hypospadias is not difficult if the child has not yet been circumcised. The estrogen-like effects on a developing fetal brain are not known. Shrug.

Phthalates are less of a concern than shit. Poop smells like, well, poop. Phthalates smell like esters, vaguely reassuring. Refreshing.

Who is going to worry about a river that used to catch on fire anyway? Shrug.


Photo from the South Bergenite here.

December skeeters


A local donated a good-sized octagonal tank. If Π is still about 3.14, then the tank is about 90 gallons.

I filled it with tap water just before Thanksgiving, let it sit for a few days, then tossed in elodea from the puddle in my backyard. I found a stray leech in my prep room tank, so I tossed that in as well.

We have yet to put together a filter from the variety of pumps and tubes that accumulate in ancient school building, so the tiny critters that hitched a ride on the elodea are still flitting about the tank.

Today we had a hatching--a few mosquitoes clung to the glass under the aquarium cover.

Tomorrow I will show the kids--want to guess who the stars will be in the classroom tomorrow? And not one of the skeeters holds a Certificate of Eligibility with Advanced Standing.


Monday, December 15, 2008

If he's good enough for Margaret Spellings....






"I consider him a fellow reformer...."

Margaret Spellings







Please tell me I shouldn't be worried.




Photo of Arne Duncan lifted from the NYT(Photo: Charles Bennett/Associated Press)

Meet the Mad Hatter

"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.

"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know."

"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!"





Just about anyone in the United States can grab all kinds of information on just about anything. Education cannot compete with the information industry, nor should it. Our value lies in teaching how to think, how to discern, how to know what is true.

The Food and Drug Administration has been circulating a draft report within the government that argues the health benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential ill effects of mercury.
No new science here, just politics--though other sources of fish exist, the FDA threw a bone to the food industry before our regime change. The EPA quickly fired off a retort, and I doubt that the gummint's official position is likely to change. Politicians are clumsy, you can read all about it, but that's not worth a post here--this is an edublog, not the Daily Kos.


What is worth an edublog post, however, is how information is manipulated by private money.



The AP article above quotes the Center for Consumer Freedom:
The food industry is praising the FDA's shift. One organization, the Center for Consumer Freedom, called it "long overdue and a huge public-health victory" that "just might be the best Christmas present health-conscious Americans could hope for."
This is what the news media calls balanced reporting. Go to their website--it's actually big fun! You might even pick up some good information.

What you won't learn is that the "organization" is a front for Berman and Company, which lobbies for the food and alcohol industry. Its initial money ($600,000) came from the Philip Morris company, not the guy down the street, not the local farmer, nor the woman running the local bodega.

David Martosko is the "Research Director," a purty fancy hat for "a music major in college and then an AM radio talk show producer." Does he have a right to push the food industry's agenda? Sure. He's got Daddy's money.

Should the CCF get a tax break as a tax exempt non-profit educational organization? Beats me, I'm not a tax lawyer.

Should a lobbying firm be able to hide behind a front posing as a non-profit organization looking out for your interests? That's madness.

Pretending the CCF offers balance to any news story is also crazy, yet the AP continues to do it.
Maybe their mommas ate too much tuna.


[Full disclosure, Mr. Martosko: I am the brother of Mary Beth Doyle, yep, that one. She believed people are capable of rational thought, honesty, and the capacity for change.]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Synesthesia


I started reading a book this morning, a good one.

This particular book was printed in 1903, sat in our high school library for about 30 years before checked out in May, 1934, then sat on the shelves unmolested another 45 years. "L. DeMatteo" checked it out in December, 1979--read under the same dull December light that glows now.

I fetched it out of the library discard pile two years ago, then forgot about it.

It's alive again.
***

Spoken words define humans. We tell stories, create our universes, through evanescent sounds repeated again and again, never quite the same way twice.

To hear our stories, we needed to sit close. I saw your face, you saw mine. I touched pieces of you inside my nose, and you felt pieces of me. Voices rise and fall as did the light from the sun, then the fire. The dynamics of our voices mattered--adagio complemented allegro, pianissimo then forte and back again.

Our limbic system, the seat of emotion and memory, worked hard--a good storyteller reminds us we are more than our cerebral cortex.
***

Written words are dangerous. They are static. They take on power far beyond the fleeting thoughts of the one who writes them down.

They are so powerful that people get paid well to tell the rest of us what a string of written words mean. Lawyers, judges, and professors earn power and prestige debating the meaning of words held fast in stone, on paper, words written yesterday, words written millennia ago.

If you cannot read you cannot participate fully in western culture. This often gets misinterpreted as meaning you are less than fully human. Reading opens doors, true, but it also closes them.

We sometimes forget this in the science classroom.

When you are reading, truly involved in a book, the only sense that's being used is your vision. Reading is a wonderful thing, of course, but we forget its limits. Words represent meaning, meaning ultimately attached to something beyond the photons bouncing of a page.

I can unleash your memories of eating an orange, but only if you've ever eaten an orange.

A lot of kids in school are reading about oranges without ever having tasted one. This is fine if a child really needs to know about them, and if there's no better way to do this.

Best way to teach a child about an orange is to give each child an orange. The only way to know the taste of an orange is to eat one. Too often we confuse "knowing about" something with "knowing." Forgetting the difference contributes to what Clay Burell school calls "schooliness."

The kids use a different phrase for the same thing: school sucks.
***

There is too much sentiment in our passion for nature. We make colored plates and poems to her. All honor to the poets ! especially to those who look carefully and see deeply, like Wordsworth and Emerson and Whitman. But what the common run of us needs, when we go a-wooing nature, is not more poetry, but a scientific course in biology...the fearful and the wonderful have a meaning and a beauty which we ought to realize.

Dallas Lore Sharp, A Watcher in the Woods


We do not need more written words in science class, we do not need more text books, we do not need more photographs. All are too static.

We need more sounds of children gasping as a hydra grabs a tiny piece of fish food while they watch under a microscope, then realizing the universe is far larger than the words in a classroom.

Until the students realize that words merely reflect something much larger than ourselves, science class will remain terminally interminable as students stare at the clock instead of the nifty Powerpoint slide you diligently crafted last night.
***

In December I trust words far more than I do in June, one more reason to hibernate. Dying light scares me, so I hide in the world our culture creates. It is not healthy.

Much of what we do in the classroom is unhealthy.

We know this and do it anyway.
***

I may invite Galway Kinnell's words into my classroom this week. I'd invite him, but I'm guessing he's busy this week.

If he should happen to wander into my class, I would ask him how much he trusts written words.

I'm guessing he'd raise those magnificent eybrows of his and say "not much."

In a brief bio of him on Poets.org
Kinnell felt what he called in one interview "a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry."
Here's a piece from one of his poems, "Under the Williamsburg Bridge," that says more successfully in 33 words what I babbled on above:


Tomorrow,
There on the Bridge,
Up in some riveted cranny in the sky,
It is true, the great and wondrous sun will be shining
On an old spider wrapping a fly in spittle-strings.



It is true.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A topologist's view of the body

Perchlorate is present in virtually all milk samples, the average concentration in breast milk is five times higher than in dairy milk. Although the number of available measurements are few at this point, for breast milk samples with a perchlorate content greater than 10 g/L, the iodide content is linearly correlated with the inverse of the perchlorate concentration with a r2 of >0.9 (n = 6). The presence of perchlorate in the milk lowers the iodide content and may impair thyroid development in infants. On the basis of limited available data, iodide levels in breast milk may be significantly lower than it was two decades ago. Recommended iodine intake by pregnant and lactating women may need to be revised upward.

Andrea B. Kirk et al., "Perchlorate and Iodide in Dairy and Breast Milk," Environ. Sci. Technol., web release date February 22, 2005


Ah, another environmental fountain of words. More sated Westerners, conquerors of the planet, seek to fight the good fight, to "protect" the environment, this soup we live in.

Maybe you're interested because your mother has breast cancer, or maybe you feel a little threatened by terpenes in your water. You're minding your own business, yet now you have to face some messy nonsense in this "environment,"

Swallow a long string. Keep feeding the string as it passes through your gullet. Eventually it will pass out your anus. You can tie the two ends, forming a nice loop. You are topologically related to a doughnut.

(Actually, given the holes in your nose leading to the pharynx, the holes in your nasolacrimal ducts leading to your nose, and the assorted other sorts of holes in your body, you are a bit more complex than a doughnut--we're closer to pretzels.)

It's easy enough to see one as a doughnut still separate from one's environment. Keep your mouth closed, your rectal tone tight, and you can maintain a sense of identity.

Indeed.

Think of a cell deep in your body. The only qualification is that it has to be alive. Let your mind meander to 3 centimeters inside your liver capsule, or maybe you prefer thinking about a kidney cell nestled deep in your back.

If it is alive, it respires--sugar combines with oxygen, heat and motion result. Life.

We think of ourselves as separate from the environment, and that is partially true, at least at the macroscopic level. Still, without joining in the global party of life, consuming bits and pieces of sunshine, you cease to be.

The surface area of your skin is about 2 square meters.

Your lungs? About 100 square meters.

Your gut? 300 square meters.

While your Western sensibilities balk at this sort of nonsense, the rest of your body wants to be exposed. 400 square meters of you wants to absorb air and sugars and proteins and water. You have giant sails of mucous membranes specialized in absorbing anything and everything around you.

Meanwhile, you spew off methane and carbon dioxide, urea and heat.

To say you live "in" the environment confuses the issue. Don't let your skin define you. Go with your gut.

The BHS Teacher Study Group, meme tags, and solipsism

Solipsism (a great word, and one I saw recently on another blog) reigns in December--the world shrinks to what I hold in my head. Since I fear the shadows, I pretend they do not surround me in December.

Still, business goes on, and I manage to pretend I have some kind of grip on reality. I can still tell time. I can still tie my tie. I can still recite a lesson.

In the meantime, I let important stuff slip by. A blog hardly replaces pen on paper (but then again, pen on paper hardly replaces a quill on parchment).

So a few notes to a few people who might be peeking here:


BHS Teacher Study Group
Melissa Mergott is a teacher at Bloomfield High School. Like most large high schools in America, teachers live in fiefdoms called departments. We rarely cross over our moats to the castles in the neighborhood, and as a result we talk about "the math woman who coaches softball" or "the shop guy who looks like Walt Whitman"--we vaguely know who we are, but we know each other's names about as well as most suburbanites know the folks who live 3 blocks away.

Melissa has started the Bloomfield High School Teacher Study Group. We meet 2 or 3 times a month. We're trying to figure out what works, what doesn't. We're going to observe each other. On Monday Melissa single-handedly got 3 more teachers onto the blogosphere.

I have no idea where we're going to go, but I find this all very exciting; teaching is a craft, a marvelous craft worth studying, a craft that mixes methods and mysticism and hard work.

I get to hang out with a few other teachers crazy enough to give up time become better teachers. It beats complaining in the lounge.

Horseshoe crabs

Jessica Pierce is a baker and artist and writer in Atlanta. Don't worry, she's not the kind of baker or artist or writer who will hand you a business card telling you she's a baker and an artist and a writer. (She might give you a robot card that looks suspiciously handmade.)

She sends me bunnies. My students know her bunnies will help them through tests. Even 14 year old boys who weigh over 200 pounds. My bunnies are multiplying. Thousands of young adults in Bloomfield know about her bunnies.

I collected a few horseshoe crab shells--not horseshoe crabs, that's illegal here, but molts. I planned to paint them gold and send a few out. I haven't done it yet.

At first I thought it was sheer laziness, but now I realize it's because I am not convinced humans have come up with any pigment that can improve upon what they look like now.

So I'm going to send just plain ol' horseshoe crabs. Once I find a box....

Meme tags

I'm not sure what a meme is, and Wordle is new to me, but I have been tagged twice this week by bloggers I admire, Clay Burrell and Lucy Chili.

I told them both I will do the wordle thing and post it here, and I will.

As soon as I have a few moments to play with it.

I had a few moments:




To the Heath Family


A great man died this week. Brilliant, accomplished, a star to those who keep track by measurable accomplishments. And that's all pretty cool.

Still, I wanted you to know what I heard most. He was kind. "The kindest man I ever knew."

I'm not likely to ever be President or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a movie star or even a local hero. But even if I were, I cannot imagine anything I'd want to hear more at my own wake than those words.

Solstice approaches


The sun is just starting to settle down a tad later today than it did yesterday. The solstice is still over a week away, but the evening light is creeping back. (Really creeping--the sunset today is only a few seconds later than yesterday, but I'll take it.)

The days are still getting shorter, true, and will for a few more days. If we used a sundial, our earliest sunset would indeed fall on the winter solstice.

Unfortunately, we use clocks. Blame the Benedictine monks.

So here's a little brain exercise for your science class. Mention to your students that the sun is starting to set a little later each day. With any luck, the smart aleck in the back will say in his best wise guy voice--"You got it wrong--the shortest day of the year is still over a week away."

Might make for a nice discussion on time.
***

Another fun mini-lesson to present in class....correlation does not mean causation.

The Science Times last week reported that Scorpios are more likely to develop asthma than those under any other zodiac sign.

Stars at work?

Well, maybe the sun--children born in the fall are at a critical age during the winter months. At 4 months or so, their maternal antibodies are waning, and respiratory viruses are rampant.

(If you really want to annoy the astrology folk, point out that the zodiac signs are based on the position of stars over 2000 years ago. Pisces now rules when the vernal equinox arrives.)



The Stonehenge photo is at winter solstice in 2004, found here. There may well be copyright issues, but I figure since my ancestors helped build it, sharing a few photons is karma.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Clams and corpses

Last night we met an old friend. His dead brother lay in an open casket just a few feet away. He was a brilliant, and more important, a kind man.

I had an observation today--I was not in my best shape, wakes rattle me a bit (as they should), but the kids, perhaps not as brilliant, were every bit as kind, and we muddled through.

Kindness won't make you wealthy, and it won't make you powerful.



I've never heard a teacher say "Get good grades, or else you won't be as kind!"
I have heard teachers say get good grades or you won't be rich.

I never heard a teacher say "Go grab a rake and harvest some clams. The seas will provide."
I have heard teachers use clammers as examples of what happens to bad students.
I misinterpreted their advice, and worked hard to be a good student.
***

I like to clam. The more I learn about these critters, the closer I become to them, and each clam I pull from the mud now tells me a story.

Slaughtering critters with stories to tell is hard, but I do it anyway. They might even taste better now that I hear their stories.

I count their rings.
This one is four, that one forty. The tide rises, the tide falls.

I search for their scars.
Anything alive for a decade or more will have scars, scars I never saw just a year ago.

I stare at the impossibly purple marking inside their shells, a rich purple deeper than the thickness of the shell, swirling patterns of beauty never meant to be seen.

If we learned about clams at all, it was measured in tons of imports or exports, noted in dull grey tables found in old social studies textbooks measuring the wealth of a nation by how quickly it can convert its resources into trinkets.

Manhattan was bought for $24 from a people who used wampum to barter, the shells of quahogs, and we were young children, so we believed we earned the land because we were smart and educated and not Indian. We used paper, not shells.

The inside of a quahog shell is mesmerizing in its beauty; the flesh is high in protein, iron, and calcium. Fresh clams taste as sweet as June honeysuckle.

Knowing that, though, won't make you more employable. It might even make you less.
***

What is the purpose of public education? How does the happiness of a reasonably successful clammer compare to the wealth of a Wall Street trader?

Accumulating wealth matters to the immortal. Last night, again face to face with death, a gray corpse tried to tell me something. I can pretend I did not hear what he had to say.

I have 48 minutes a day to spend with each child, in a classroom filled with other children.
I have 48 minutes a day to make a difference.

If I knew I only had a few weeks left with my students, what would I teach them about the clam?

(He said you are not special, you will die too.)











Monday, December 8, 2008

The Life of an Antarctica Archipelago redux

The universe of the New York Times is a narrow one. It might not be quite as narrow as Cosmopolitan or the Bloomfield Life, but it's not "all that" either.

In 1920, the Times made history by bashing Robert Goddard's concept of rocketry, arguing that a rocket could not operate in space, having nothing to push against.
That Professor Goddard, with his "chair" in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
The Times, of course, was spectacularly wrong, and almost 50 years later printed a retraction shortly after a couple of men landed on the moon.
***

Last Thursday, the Times pulled a Goddard:
Life on this planet always surprises us. Animals turn out to be smarter than humans expect. Biological interrelationships turn out to be more intricate and more finely tuned than we had predicted.
If by "us" the Times means highly educated western Europeans, well, enough said. The next sentence, however, suggests that the Times thinks it speaks for all humans.

Once you step out of a mechanized view of the universe, a view that requires more faith than I have, "biological interrelationships" transcend predictions. To believe otherwise is hubris.

I'd like to send the editorial staff a drop of pond water and a decent microscope. I'd like one of the staff to sit on the beach in July, watching the hole of a ghost crab. I'd like one to follow a garden slug at midnight.

We have too narrow a view of the universe. If we did not, we would not be half as destructive as we are.
***

Leslie wondered (reasonably) whether yesterday's post had wandered beyond the, um, jurisdiction of science teacher talk. She is the sane one in the clan, the one who remembers we are accountable for our actions, and who remembers we have a mortgage to pay.

She is famous here for her response to "I didn't mean to do it."

You have to mean not to do it!

She knows I'm prone to tickling sleeping dogs, but I did have my reasons.

We live in a culture that believes in magic, and magical thinking. We believe technology can fix things. We believe we know what we are doing.

It was not my intent to demean Christianity, at least not the sort found in the Gospels (yes, I read them).

It was my intent, however, to counter magical thinking, to encourage critical reading (even of sources like the Bible, which endures critical reading unless consistency is your bag), and to help untangle faith from dogma.

Still, if any Bill Rogers' fan wants to take me on, I like tickling sleeping dogs, too.


I just came home from a wake. I'm feeling feisty, which is how I usually feel after a wake.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Christmas crank

I stumbled on WGMD 92.7 on the radio this weekend.

I was on my way to the beach, about to go fishing barefoot on the edge of the Atlantic. Nothing, I thought, could ruffle me

I was wrong. There is a DJ named Bill Rogers who leads a chorus of confused "Christian" callers. It's nearing Christmas. It's time for the annual rant of intolerance against those godless schools who dare keep Christ out of school in this great Christian nation of ours, threatening the very existence of true believers.

Heck, though I've been accused of being Christian, a few things need straightening out:





The Christ was not born in the winter.

The wise men were not at the manger. Air Iraq did not exist yet--traveling then took time,.

The current version of Christianity is not in danger of extinction. It has the strength of the United States military behind it. Just ask Mr. Bush.

The Christ did not tell Constantine to put the cross on the shields of his soldiers before his battle against Maxentius. Constantine may have believed this, but it is our shame that we accept a myth utterly contrary to His words.

We move with energy from the sun, our mass built from the breath of the life before us. Carbon dioxide and water and sunlight play with a few strands of DNA. We are special, but no more special than the yeast that taught Jesus how to make wine.

Christian privilege is real. Try greeting a TSA agent with "Assalaamu Alaikum".

These are the shortest days of the year in this neck of the woods. Life needs sunlight, and the light is dying. The longest night of the year looms.

The sun will return. Some folks got together a long, long time ago to celebrate when this happens. Some still do.



'Tis the season!






The painting is Raphael'sThe Battle of the Milvian Bridge--or at least designedby him; Giulio Romano gets credit for the actual painting. The woodcut is found at various sites--not sure where the original is from.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Poverty hurts


Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult. We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.


In the predictable media storm that passes for rational discourse, one side will argue that it's about genes or laziness or lack of values, and has little to do with environment, and the other will counter that the children have been damaged by preventable practices imposed by a culture largely indifferent to the underclass.

A third contingent will nod their heads sagely, note that correlation does not mean causation, then fade away with smirks on their faces, a bit too pleased with their ability to avoid any discussion with substance. Dante has a special place for them.

Monday morning thousands of classrooms will be filled with children who lack something critical inside their craniums, just as they did last week, and just as they will next.

Jokes will be made in faculty lounges--"I knew they were brain damaged"--and the cynicism will make a tough job even tougher.

Still, this is big news.

Neuroscientists have found through EEG readings that children from lower economic classes have changes in their prefrontal cortex. Bad changes. This is the part of the brain that helps plan things, the control center that coordinates what you think with what you do; this is where the brain says "Whoa, cowboy, think twice before you throw a chair at the teacher." This is where you pick up on social cues.

In short, we now have organic findings for what teachers have known ever since there was a wrong side of the tracks. Kids from wealthier zip codes have, on average, a better toolbag than those from less glamorous neighborhoods.


(The logo looks like the wall of a bloody crime scene, a child's last clutches as she collapsed against a wall. Maybe my frontal lobe needs polishing, too.)


Does this mean anything at the individual student level? No.

Does this mean we are to expect less from any particular child? No.

Does this mean a school district in 90002 (Watts) may have more difficulty than 90210 (Beverly Hills) jumping over the NCLB hurdle? Emphatically yes.

Educating children did not get any easier knowing this. But educating a few adults in Washington just might, provided, of course, that their prefrontal lobes work.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rambling in December

We drove down to Cape May tonight. It's likely to be too cold to go clamming tomorrow, and the tides refuse to cooperate with the brief daylight we have now anyway, so I might catch up with schoolwork.

Not sure this is universal, but here in Bloomfield the first week of December tends to be a long week. Thanksgiving is done, yule is coming. It's the time of year that keys get lost, kids act out, aging parents die, and most of us are a little off kilter. We pretend otherwise, but we're bucking two or three billion years of evolution here.

We need more light.
***

After a skip down the Garden State Parkway I grab a Ballantine Ale. In June I can drink a bottle of ale without a whole lot of thought--the world is jumping with life, and introspection just seems silly. No need to question life when its spilling out of the earth, the air, the water. June is noisy and bright and fresh and we're blessed with more energy that we know what to do with--so we dance.

December, however, requires a reason to move. Despite modern amenities, our bodies still believe (and what our bodies believe matters more than we care to admit) that any expenditure of energy requires a real good reason. Our ancestors who refused to believe this died before the next summer solstice.

Most of what we do in a day does not have a good reason, but we do it anyway.

In June, I would not even think about the bottle cap, the bottle, the label, the mucilage that holds the label. I would drink my ale, a gift, and toss the bottle back into recycling, participating in the cultural magical belief that recycling makes waste OK.
***

Aluminum is a relatively recent discovery--it wasn't until the 19th century that a method was developed to grab the metal out of bauxite, and it was more expensive than gold.

Napoleon used aluminum plates to impress his guests. Today we use it to cap our beer, then nonchalantly toss it in the garbage.

The cap is lined with polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE, made from ethylene glycol, which is made from ethylene and ultimately tied to the products of photosynthesis millions of years ago. Without oil, the plastics industry could not exist.

The bottle itself is made of glass, a combination of silica, lime, and aluminum oxide. The bottle in my hand was recently over 1500°C. It's a nice 3°C before my hand warms it up.

I could tell my students all this, but all they're going to hear is that the teacher drinks beer.
***

The human part of beer packaging is truly amazing, but the stuff inside defies our knowledge.

Yeast need to eat, just like we do. And like us, when oxygen's around their mitochondria are busy busting up sugars, releasing the energy captured by a plant. (No doubt the plant had not planned on giving up its work to some foreign organism, but humans are not much better at planning what to do with their organic compound once they're done using them either.)

Unlike us, however, yeast can survive when the oxygen's scarce. While we rely on oxygen to take up electrons once we've drained all the excitement out of them, yeast have an alternative way to absorb the electrons from the sugars they break if oxygen's not around: fermentation.

Strangle a yeast cell and it will reward you with ethanol.

Next week we will make ethanol in class to highlight fermentation. I will yammer on about ethanol and anaerobic conditons and electron transfer (yawn) and we will brew a big batch of hooch using nothing more than water, yeast, sucrose, and a smattering of yeast nutrient.

I won't call it hooch, and most of them will not notice we made booze in class.
***



What do students see today? What do any of us see?

When they were born, planes already flew, the internet already hummed, and their parents' faces were already lit by monitors. Their world is ensconced in a sound track.

They buy water in PET bottles, listen to music from iPods, and define government by slogans. Even their dreams are molded by the corporate media surrounding them.

None of this is their fault, but I think the older crew does not realize the extent of the artifical world surrounding our children.

I'm spoiled. I am eating an apple tonight from an orchard of a friend, a farm that holds what phyiscally remains of my sister. It is possible a few of her molecules bumped into mine tonight.

I am listening to a CD by Jeff and Vida, a couple who knew my sister. I can play along with a guitar or a harmonica, and if the power goes out tonight, the music will not stop.
***

This week a child in my class was disgusted by the idea that I swim in pondwater. I had brought some to class for a lab. I asked her to smell it. She did, and to her credit she realized she like the smell, "it smells like summer." The pondwater became less alien.

This week a child in my class was surprised to learn that the sun gets lower in the winter. To his credit he was brave enough to ask if it will rise again. I assured him it would, but had I told the truth (as in what I believe, not what I know) I would have had to admit that I had my doubts.

This week in class a child realized that the Big Bang theory has the same flaw the Cell Theory does--it cannot explain origins. They are both good theories, and they both explain a good chunk of the world as we know it. To his credit he started to distinguish between what we can know, and what we cannot, and did not dismiss either theory because of its limits.

This week in class students planted again--and next week we will all be amazed when radishes and beans and wheat and oat arise from dank peat moss.
***

I think it's time to make bread in class. I can bring in some wheat, then grind it up. We can throw in some yeast. We can watch it rise. I've avoided this in the past because it is impossible to make decent bread if you let it rise too long.

I can talk about yeast for 17 hours, draw fancy equations on the Smartboard, show a United Streaming clip about wheat, and show a slide show on the commercial manufacturing of bread.

I can then test it--one or two students will ace the test, most will fall somewhere in the high C, low B range, and a few will randomly fill in bubbles on the scantron.

Or we can make bread.

Which will they remember when June rolls round again?





The bread is by Jessica Pierce, the iPods from the Apple site, the Ballantine from the Ballantine site

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gamma Andromedae

The scope was out, it was a lovely evening. Leslie pointed to a star, a hop and a skip to the left of the Great Square of Pegasus.

"I want to see that."

I sighed, I hope not too loudly. I was still an extremely amateur astronomer, not too sure of what I was doing.

My sighs precede my pontifications. We both know this. We've been together most of our lives.
"Well," I wanted to say, knowing all too well she already knew this, "a star is a point of light. It looks the same in the scope—a point of light."

But I didn't; I swung the scope towards the star, not expecting to see much.

I looked into the eyepiece, and gasped.

***

Almach, Gamma Andromedae, marks the end of the handle of the Autumn Dipper, visible high in the autumn night sky. Naked eye, it looks like, well, a star, a shimmery point of light, lovely as any other star, but not unusual in a dark moonless sky.

In a telescope, the star splits into two, one deep blue, one gold, as pretty a double star as can be seen in our hemisphere.

The light traveled about 355 years before bouncing off the mirror of the scope, exciting my retina, then my cortex. 17th century light. Photons dancing through nothingness since about the time King Charles I lost his head.

The gold star shines like 2000 suns. Both stars seen in the scope are themselves doubles, and the blue double is itself a double--Gamma Andromedae is at least 5 stars!.

Or say so the experts. Looking through the scope, I could not tell you how far they are. I could tell you there are at least two stars, and that their fiery golden and azure glow defy imagination. On any clear autumn night, you are welcome to come look.

And why did Leslie choose that star? She doesn't know. Just a feeling.

Reflection without constant scrutiny and deconstruction is as close to pure observation as it gets. Or as she said--just a feeling.

Albireo is the more famous lovely double in our hemisphere. Somehow I feel Almach is a gift from my wife, mine to share. And in a way, it is.

The Gamma Andromedae photo is by Jack Schidling, found here. The Pegasus asterism is from Nova Online.

Podcasting to a Luddite


I am going to a conference Thursday to learn more about blogging and podcasting.

I get blogging, but the allure of podcasting eludes me.

How is it different than using magnetic tape?
How do you use it in your classroom?

Seasonal affective disorder

Every year the Earth orbits around the sun, and every year, the shadows lengthen as the days shorten. While this may be news to those living in a linear world, a few of us still revel in the cycles of life.

Several orbits ago, while folks at the more extreme latitudes again fell into their annual funk, a few shrinks noted a pattern. Enough people became distressed by the coming winter that they bought an entry into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition, and now had a diagnosis--seasonal affective disorder--justifying the use of expensive psychotropic agents to make them "happy."

Winter time blues is now a psychiatric disorder.


As more and more of us become naturalized citizens of Prozac nation, a few cranky souls remain prescription-drug1 free, titrating the available OTC medicines with caffeine, alcohol, and herbs, surviving yet another winter.

What symptoms make the diagnosis of SAD?

(1) increased rather than decreased sleep;
(2) increased rather than decreased appetite and food intake with carbohydrate craving;
(3) marked increase in weight;
(4) irritability;
(5) interpersonal difficulties (especially rejection sensitivity), and
(6) leaden paralysis (a heavy, leaden feeling in the arms or legs).

Surveys estimate that 4 to 6 percent of the general population experience winter depression, and another 10 to 20 percent have subsyndromal features.2


To summarize, about a quarter of otherwise normal human beings sleep more, eat more, gain weight, and get irritable in the winter, just like any other self-respecting mammal that wandered too far from the Equator since the last Ice Age.

Let me review the annual cataclysmic events that should shake anybody's sense of complacency in this wonderful and truly terrifying world of ours:

1) Every winter, most plants either die or go into suspended animation. The vast majority of our crops die here. In my garden, half ripe eggplants hang like bruised egos in the dying light of December. My tomato vines are black, gnarled skeletons. The basil plants are but a memory.

If the crops fail in the spring, we could starve. Instead of worrying all winter, a few of us choose to stuff our bellies as full as we can with last year's surplus, then sleep.

2) The air becomes so dry that mild patches of eczema and psoriasis turn into vast swaths of reptilian skin, repulsing friends and family, who are all just as irritable as you.

Now I'm flaky, fat, and fearful, living under forced solitude--feeling happy just upsets the natural order of things.

3) In New Jersey, the sun rose at 5:26 AM on June 21, 2008, and set at 8:32 PM., over 15 hours of sweet, summer rays. On December 21, the sun will rise at 7:18 AM, barely peek over the horizon, then plunge back down at 4:32 PM--just over 9 hours of dull winter light. That depresses me. If you are paying any attention, it will depress you, too.

4) Look at those bills! Paying for the juice of long dead ferns to keep my home heated condemns me to long hours at work. I know air-conditioning is expensive, too, but AC is a luxury. Heat keeps you alive. You have no choice.

Sleeping late under a cozy comforter lets me keep the heat turned down longer, and saves money.

5) The local roads freeze, and the December demolition derby begins; debt-ridden SUV owners try to justify their monstrous credit-eating over-sized sedans by driving like crazed maniacs in icy conditions.

I can hardly blame them--if I plunked 35 grand after watching commercials in which the SUV climbed perpendicularly up a snow-covered mountain, I'd expect my car to handle a level road. They do go nicely perpendicular into ditches, though.


What is a rational person to do? Seems like crawling into the bed under a comforter with a huge bag of Doritos while others careen to work on icy highways makes perfect sense.

Feeling down? Little wonder. I just don't think that it is a disorder. Nor do I think my annual spring fever is a problem. Watching the Earth spring back to life deserves some manic dancing. Come April, I'll look at this post and wonder how I could ever have been so grumpy. Until then, I am going to bed.

1This is not a diatribe against drugs, just a cranky diatribe in general. Proper use of the appropriate drugs can be quite beneficial.
2S. Atezaz Saeed, M.D., and Timothy J. Bruce, Ph.D., American Family Physician, March 15, 1998.