Saturday, August 28, 2010

On cycles

Last night we heard a whistle, then a bang; our neighbor saw a flash. I figured someone had launched a bottle rocket, and today Leslie found the evidence near the compost bin, a bright yellow cardboard tube attached to a pink stick

As I was walking by the Brussels sprouts, a pair of cabbage moths flitted by--while I've no particular opinion what two adult cabbage moths do with each other, I do care about the damage done by their voracious babies.

I swatted clumsily at the moths, using the spent bottle rocket. A wing floated softly to the ground. I found the other wing still attached one of the critters, now flailing on the grass.

I do not like to kill, but if I need to kill, I prefer to do it consciously. I crushed the writhing animal quickly.

A moment later, a monarch butterfly fluttered around me, nearly landing on the same spent firework, maybe mistaking it for a flower.

The story has little point for most readers. I write it so Leslie and I will remember it next year. We do not remember things as well as we used to.


Tonight we sat down to pesto and tomato salad, both gifts from the garden. We paddled on tidal waters a good chunk of the afternoon. I watched hundreds fiddler crabs pick at the mud with their smaller claws, then bringing food to their mouths. I watched sea urchins just under the wateras I drifted along the edge of a bridge. I saw a tern crash into the water, emerging with a minnow writhing as the moth had.

The beans have gone nuts--we picked almost 4 pounds yesterday, and plenty remain on the vine. The leaves are no longer bright green as the summer light fades. The vine's faith rests in the bean pods.

When I look at last year's posts in late August, I see I talked about similar things. If we live long enough, we will do so again next year, next decade.
From the last Saturday in August 2009:
August is a silly month--we gorge on the harvest while the sun swings wildly to the south in its death dance. Few of us notice.

Tonight Leslie and I feasted on eggplants from the garden, cooked over charcoals coaxed to flames by olive oil from Italy, a country I pretend to know something about, though I've only been in its airport in Rome. The flames were fueled by sunlight almost half a world away

Leslie and I spend half our lives near the Delaware Bay, Jersey side. We can watch the sun set on the water on the beach a few blocks away. In June we look to our right--now we look slightly to our left.

Same story, a slightly different role for us as we age.

And that is the point.

I sought permission from Ms. Kelly to use her father's cartoon.
She granted it. This may be the highlight of my blogging efforts.
I still need to write a post worthy of the post--when I do, I'll let Ms. Kelly know.

Friday, August 27, 2010

NJEA needs a grammar book

We feel badly for the commissioner, that he's the latest scapegoat for this $400 million debacle.

Dawn Hiltner, a spokeswoman for the NJEA.

I pay $730 a year to be part of the NJEA. The CEO makes over half a million a year in salary, benefits, and deferred compensation.

I don't feel goodly about this.

If you're not from NJ, this probably makes little sense.
Our state education commissioner Bret Schundler was fired by the governor today.
That's not the point here--a teacher union needs to be able to put together a simple statement that's grammatically correct.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

5 reasons teachers should avoid Facebook

Teachers like Facebook. Jeff Utecht, a self-described "educator, presenter, consultant" recently evangelized about Facebook:

It's not fair to pick on Jeff--he's one of an army of teachers leading the charge to a world of awesome goodness if only those other teachers educators would get it....

I'm one of those old farts resisting Facebook in the classroom. I have my reasons, and I think they're good ones. Here are just a few:

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark is Facebook's CEO.

Here's his T-shirt:

Here's a business card:

"I'm CEO....Bitch"

I don't trust him. I don't deliver my children to someone I do not trust. Nor should you.


Facebook exists to sell your soul, or at least your "lifestyle." It is a commercial site that makes big bucks on directed advertisements. Kids don't get this.

Apparently, adults don't either.

We have no business promoting any activity that exposes children to targeted ads. None.

I once helped keep Channel One out of my school for the same reason. I was quoted in the New York Times back when I was a pediatrician and folks cared what I said.

Teachers want the same kind of respect, we need to start acting in the best interests of the kids.

Too close

Remember when you were in high school? Remember the teacher (or two) who seemed a little too chummy with the lambs?

Don't be that guy. It's creepy. The kids know this even if you don't.

Facebook is primarily a social tool, designed to deliver ads designed for you. It is not, and was never intended to be, an educational tool.

The kids don't want you hanging around with them after school. Really.

Mark "I'm CEO....Bitch" Zuckerberg keeps changing the rules on Facebook.

I'm one of the few folks on the planet that reads EUA's. They can be pretty scary. Read Facebook's for comprehension, then tell me straight-faced that you're comfortable with it.

Professional laziness

I used to be a professional. Now I am a teacher.

I love teaching, and I'm getting pretty good at it, but it takes an ungodly amount of hours to get there.

Facebook is a shortcut. You're using a third party with its own agenda to create something useful for your classroom.

You want to model good practice? Develop your own class website on a private domain. You can do it for less than the Coffee Club dues.

Yes, there's a learning curve. No, it's not free, but it's still less than a cup of coffee a day.

You have control over privacy.
Your site has no ads.
You're no one's bitch.

We have a choice. We can act like professionals, or we can continue to take the easier paths. The two are not compatible.

Our primary duty is to the children. If you use a third party to do your work, follow the money.

It's not enough to adopt a technology because everybody else is doing it. We got mobs for that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Death in a classroom

Is part of a public education reminding a child of her mortality?
And if so, would the task fall upon the biology teacher?

It's not a trivial matter. For all the posturing by folks at the national level about our record college enrollment rates, almost a third of graduating high school senior do not go. Many of those that do go are going to juice up their resumes more than their minds.

Would teaching mortality produce a more thoughtful citizenry?


All of this, whatever this this is, cannot last for any individual. The oldest known bacteria survived 250 million years, the oldest plant a mere 43,000 years. We tend to think of ourselves as special, a gift (or curse) of our consciousness.

The oldest animal? Maybe the clam--a quahog made it for 405 years. Alas, it was killed by the same scientists who marked its age.

Oldest conscious animal?

A 211 year old bowhead whale leads the list, roaming this Earth since John Adams was President, finally felled by an Inuit.

And good westerners that we are, we oooh and awwww at the record, imagining a life triple life span we have, again forgetting that we truly only live in moments.

How many Saturdays do you have left in a lifetime?

Would folks behave differently if they accepted mortality, accepted limits? Would we be braver? Would we spend hours inside manipulating artificial universes? Would we accept the culture we have?

We are all, in a sense, immortal, or at least as immortal as life on Earth. We all share ancestors. We all come from single celled organisms that continues the spark of life for billions of years, long enough for consciousness to develop.

Or maybe consciousness has been around much longer than we know. Bacteria talk to each other.

Dying, I suspect, is a big deal. It doesn't require a whole lot of practice, and just about every one of us will manage to accomplish it whether or not we have graduate degrees, but still, for each of us, it's the end of a universe (at least among the empiricists).

To be fair, I'm a bit warped. I grew up Oirish Catholic, I practiced medicine in the inner city when poor kids were doing their best to die from AIDS before the middle class even heard of it, and I've lost enough people to accept that maybe, just maybe, this death thing is permanent.


We relegate death to religion, and otherwise make it taboo. But we all face it.

Biology is literally the study of life--and life is defined by death, the ultimate limit for those of us who pretend to be conscious. A culture that recognizes limits has a chance to be sustainable.

A chance.

Just a chance. Which is more than we have now.....

The skull is from wikipedia, credited to Bernard Bill5
I've watched a lot of people die, most of them young--you will, too.

Ain't Bonnie Bassler wonderful?

On idleness

School beckons--this is a repeat from a couple of Augusts ago, a reminder to me.

Idleness is the enemy of the soul. And therefore, at fixed times, the brothers ought to be occupied in manual labor; and again, at fixed times, in sacred reading. ... there shall certainly be appointed one or two elders, who shall go round the monastery at the hours in which the brothers are engaged in reading, and see to it that no troublesome brother chance to be found who is open to idleness and trifling....

The Rule of St. Benedict, ca. 530, Medieval Sourcebook

Discussions of the soul in any context can be dicey, and discussing it as a science teacher in a public school could be grounds for dismissal, understandably so.

(I suppose could wander to the chasm's edge by asking if there's any empirical evidence supporting the myth that a soul weighs 21 grams, but I best save that for college sophomores in a coffee shop chat.)

This post is not about souls.
It's about idleness.

Science requires reflection: "free" time, wandering thoughts, curiosity.

Reflection does not, of course, always lead to science, but I'd wager that the Benedictine order recognized it could lead to bigger problems than hirsute palms and astigmatism. Free time, wandering thoughts, and curiosity can be just as disastrous in a classroom of humans metamorphosing into their adult forms.

Teaching content to a docile audience is easy. Here's the curriculum, here's the test. Do well often enough, and you will be successful.

A huge chunk of the Teaching for Dummies section at Barnes and Noble is dedicated to tips on inducing docility in students. /me waves to Mr. Wong. And I've eagerly read just about all of them.

Some of us are coarse enough to articulate the threat:

You need your diploma to get a job so you don't starve.
(Make sure you sneer contemptuously when you spit this out,
and make sure you don't add voice to its silent ending " ungrateful bastards.")

The bell rings. 48 minutes later, it will ring again. Little time for idleness.

I'm the elder in the classroom. I scan for idleness and trifling. There's not a whole lot of wiggle room.

Still, if one of my students (substitute "wackadoodle" for "troublesome brother") should happen to stumble on a spark that threatens order, a spark that has a real chance at lighting a relevant fire in the classroom, I've got a canister of propane sitting on the desk.

The picture on the bottom left is from the New York Times, which did, indeed, tackle science and the soul.

And I blame the Benedictines for a huge chunk of toaday's problems--they turned time into a commodity.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Teach truth, joy follows

So what do you do?

What do you do when major sources of information provided to children come from corrupt human sources?

What do you do when the adults around them believe whatever lights up their amygdalas the most?

What do you say when the actions of those in power, those with money, those that command the messages, no longer work in the best interests of our children, all of our children?

I work for the government. I get that.
I also work for your children, and others get that.
The two interests are becoming less and less compatible.


I overstated that.

I work for the people of Bloomfield--they pay most of my salary, and if I could remove the yoke of Arne and the Governor by rejecting the small percent of my salary covered by New Jersey and D.C., I would.

I would be a better teacher for it, I would have more class hours dedicated to sharing science with my charges, and my students would be better prepared to care for their children when the time comes.

Maybe my lambs won't act like the sheep who are training them, and will act in the best interests of their children when tough decisions are made.

Maybe they will refuse to proctor exams that ultimately harm their charges instead of just grumbling in the teacher's lounge or on Twitter.


What am I going to do?

I am going to teach science.

I trust the natural world, I trust my senses, I trust logic, and I trust the intelligence of my lambs. I let them know these things.

I do not hope (nor would want) to influence their "beliefs," whatever they may be. I do not proselytize, which would be near impossible anyway, since I know nothing. I do not take sides in many of the silly "science" either/or debates raging in the media, because there are no sides to take.

I want my children to think. I want my children to see. I want my children to trust themselves when they know "two and two is four," even when others scream it's "FIVE!"

The ones I reach, and I reach a few, will see the world differently when they leave in June. I leave them with power, they leave me with hope.


The natural world exceeds our imaginations, but our imagination exceeds its limits. Our cultural inability to grasp this leads to hubris, to dreams of infinite growth, ultimately to annihilation.

I am not going to tell children an economy dependent on ever-increasing consumption cannot be sustained for more than a few generations. I will talk about primary productivity and limits imposed by the finite sunlight that bathes the Earth.

I am not going to tell them that a lot of what they believe to be true is bunk. I will drop a huge textbook and a paper clip from the ceiling and let them see which one hits the floor first. It surprises me every time I do it.

I am not going to tell them that school is important because they're competing with the Chinese or Indians or Icelanders for the same jobs and America needs an educated work force to keep our economy strong. I will share my love of life, of the local, of the edges of knowledge we can never truly grasp. We'll study bugs and daphnia and radishes.

We occasionally have moments of joy, even in a classroom.


Here's the secret--once a child trusts her senses, trusts the joy she feels when exploring a world that is as much hers as Bill Gates' or Rupert Murdoch's or any of tens of thousands of strangers who want to shape her life, she becomes her own master.

She becomes autonomous in a world of automation.

She might even dance to her own tune in a culture of technique, a culture that worships men like those pictured above. See their smiles? Trust them?

I don't either.

The Bill Gates photo is from the UK Telegraph here;
the Rupert Murdoch photo is from What's Nextt: Innovations in Newspapers website.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

August light

We lose over two minutes of sunlight a day now. We'll have lost 17 minutes by next weekend, well over a half hour in two weeks.

We're losing a couple of hours of light a week now.

The room was chilly this morning. The gas molecules zinging around the room are a little less energetic. The yellow jackets are crankier. Fall is coming.

Except for the very young, every winter takes its toll. And for the old, death becomes tangible.

The students return to the classroom as the light fades.

They sit under the hum of fluorescent lights, studious learning about "three" states of matter as the most common state in the universe, plasma, lights the words they are reading.

Go ahead, ask your child how many states of matter exist. Ask her how a fluorescent light works. Ask her why it hums louder before it blows.

We use our godly gifts without thought, without fear.

The God of Abraham spoke: Let there be light.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר

I am not going to debate the intricacies of the Hebrew Bible here, and I am not a literalist. Still the Creation stories shed light on what mattered to the people that preceded us.

We turn on lights every day without thought, without worry.

Every. Single. Day.


Outside, the fading light has dramatic effects. Annuals toss off seeds as though there is no tomorrow. Perennials move sugars back to the roots, bunkering down for the winter.

Animals fatten up, or migrate, or lay eggs that will carry the life force long enough to last through the dark days.

And humans in these parts? We force children to break their natural rhythms, as we break ours.

It's rare when I have to sit through a whole day of classes, but even when the presentations are wonderful, my brain is rattled by the forced attention. I am exhausted by the end of the day.

And what do I do when I get home? I grab a beer and a cup of coffee.

What would happen if kids wandered outside more, went to sleep when night comes, and lived mostly under natural light?

(Yes, of course I know it's ridiculous, I'm not a complete moron--think of it as a thought experiment.)

The whole thing would fall apart, no?

The whole thing does fall apart, every year, as the life sustaining sunlight dwindles towards short, gray days.

Various organisms fall away when the dark descends, and the living slow down, waiting for the light to return.

The light will return.

But we won't notice. We cannot. We've forgotten how to see the dark.

Photo by Leslie

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Your science teacher believes what?!?

I may be teaching your child soon--here are some of the things I believe:

General Jack D. Ripper had a point, fluoridating public water is a bad idea.

Not all vaccines mandatory for public school in NJ should be mandatory, and that using a healthy abortus for a common vaccine may be ethically dubious.
Tithonus and the rubella vaccine

Drinking from a public water fountain is safe and a good idea, and charter schools are neither.
Public water and charter schools

However, drinking water held in bottles made with an estrogen-like agent is dangerously stupid.
Sylvester McMonkey McBean and the FDA

Our Federal Secretary of Education is under-qualified.
I really don't like Arne

I have a bit of a religious streak, inconsistent as it may be.
Eating in a science class

But I have little tolerance for those who dismiss descent with modification with little (or no) thought. Evolution is the heart of biology.
Darwin in the classroom

Photos/illustrations as attributed at the original posts.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the "R" word

When I led teaching rounds at Children's Hospital of New Jersey, residents avoided certain words in my presence: "diabetic," "sickler," or "asthmatic" would hang in the air as I smoldered.

The residents learned quickly--they had survived medical school. I'm not sure I changed any behaviors, but language does make a difference. I did not want young doctors to see my patients as diabetics--I wanted them to see "a child with diabetes."

It's much harder to treat a child than it is to treat a disease--and I would not allow short cuts on my teams.

How we use language has profound effects on our world view.

Governor Christie signed a bill yesterday outlawing the "R" word in state rules--New Jersey will no longer use "mentally retarded" in its documents.

"Mentally retarded" will be replaced with "intellectual disability" or "developmental disability," neither of which means the same thing as mentally retarded. The law was pushed by many well-intentioned groups, including ARC, which used to stand for the Association for Retarded Citizens, but now stands for, well, "Arc."

Lots of words become poisonous because of our very human ability to dehumanize just about any human who is not "normal." "Dumb" meant simply only mute a long time ago.

"Moron" used to be a medical term, used by (you cannot make this stuff up) the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded.

"Cretin" comes from the French--it was originally used to remind folks that even developmentally delayed people are people.

[T]he original meaning of cretin was, literally, "Christian"....synonymous with "human being". Due to the lack of iodine in the medieval Alpine diet, certain regions of Switzerland were prone to severe thyroid problems, such as goiter and congenital idiocy. The local priests, moved by compassion for these poor imbeciles, encouraged the populace to treat them kindly. They deserved pity, it was said, because they were, at least, Christians (i.e. "human beings").
Melanie & Mike Take Our Word For It
Issue # 27, February 8, 1999

Today many families prefer "autistic" to "mentally retarded." The words (historically, anyway) were not synonymous, and fusing them diminishes the usefulness of either.


The "R" word is verboten in my classroom. The kids learn this in a hurry. I also will not tolerate "gay" or any version of "homosexual" used as a weapon, nor the "B" word. The "C" and "N" words get you bounced.

I have a bit more tolerance for the "A" word if used to describe mulish behavior instead of an orifice, and I barely hear the "F" word unless it's aimed at someone specific.

How we, as teachers, use words in a classroom can make a huge difference in how students see words. We have a wonderful chance to develop some asolescent meta-cognition as we dissect why some words have so much more force than others.


"We’d like New Jersey to get to a place where you can’t use the ‘R’ word with it being inflammatory.’’
Elizabeth Shea
Assistant Executive Director for The Arc
Today's Star Ledger

Read that carefully.
Sounds like Ms. Shea wants to demonize the "R" word.

I think she meant to say The Arc would like New Jersey to get to a place where "mentally retarded" is not used as an inflammatory term. Or maybe she meant what she said. Turns out words matter.

I'd be willing to bet a pound of lima beans that "autism" will face the same exorcism rites in a couple of generations, and we'll see the word the way we see "idiot" and "cretin" now.

Or maybe I'm just a dodo schmendrick human being.

My mother and uncle grew up with Georgie Carlin, literally.
My views on language may be skewed.

Dr. Robert Rapaport, a mensch, and one of the best teachers I ever had,
just about slaughtered me the first time I uttered "diabetic" in his presence.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

William Blake, scientist

This is from a couple of years ago. I liked it then, and I like it now.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake, opening of
Auguries of Innocence

I may open the school year with this. "Heaven" is one of those words that can get science teachers in trouble, though the truly religious parts are "infinity" and "eternity".

It fits the curriculum test--
Descriptive Statement: Students best learn science by doing science. Science is not merely a collection of facts and theories but a process, a way of thinking about and investigating the world in which we live. This standard addresses those skills that are used by scientists as they discover and explain the physical universe-skills that are an essential and ongoing part of learning science.

NJ Core Curriculum Standards

If get called to defend it, I'll call Richard Feynman to the bench. I love his discussions about his father (4:00 on). I've been pushing this video on the science staff at our high school (though not terribly successfully):

Science leads to awe.

I am a congenital Catholic. I know the awe felt when the senses are heightened by incense and music, by Communion, by a community's search for something beyond what we can describe.

(Play "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" and I'm ready to worship the sun, the earth, even a freakin' Doritos corn chip.)

My problem with "awe" in the organized religious sense is its artificiality, in the truest sense of the word--awe induced by human acts.

Not that that's such a bad thing, as long as it ends there. If I want to spend the next 17 years listening to Bach while trembling in a corner wasting away, feeling awe, that's not the worst choice I can make.

Still, it's a construct, a human construct (as is science), based strictly on culture, which science is not. If I use the awe induced by Bach to push an idea outside of man (say, um, God), well, that's hubris.

The great faith in science is that there is order, and in that sense, J.S. Bach reflects that. Science rests on empirical evidence, and try as we may, empirical evidence keeps exceeding our imagination.

The awe in science, though, goes beyond that--the order extends as far as human imagination, faithfully farther. It's why science is so frightening, no matter what kind of faith we have.

Infinity is not comprehensible, but as far as any one of us can go, the order is there.

Reductionism has its place, and no doubt my day is a bit more comfortable because of technology that owes its existence to reductionism, but science ultimately cleaves even the reductionist.

I went clamming yesterday on a tidal flat that stretched a quarter mile out

Hundreds of tide pools surrounded me, each with its own story unfolding before the tide swelled in again. I studied this one (a tiny hermit crab chasing one twice its size, perhaps after its borrowed home), I studied that one (a striped fish frantically trying to escape my grasp, burying itself completely in sand).

The stories are happening now, in the dark, a new tide arising.


God does not play dice with the universe.
Albert Einstein

Einstein's "God"was not a personal God, though there's some confusion on this issue; that's not the point here anyway.

On the tidal flats, in a puddle outside, on your own skin, these stories are happening, an incomprehensible web of life, and if you let yourself observe it, with all your senses (and not through the someone else's eye), you will be overwhelmed.

William Blake got this.
Auguries of Innocence appears paradoxical when read inside, under incandescent light, with no breeze and no sunlight.

Recite Blake outside* on a tidal mud flat in August, and the paradox dissolves. Science is religious in the lower care "r" sense--it acknowledges the mystery while trying to put things together. Not sure I can ask for a better church than the decaying mud on the Delaware bay.

*Wendell Berry uses the same point about reading the Bible--it makes a whole lot more sense reading it outside than it does inside. I'm not going to put my neck on the chopping block here taking a stance on the Bible, but Berry's right as far as he goes here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A dandelion's life

Here's a question I would love to pose to my sophomores:

Is the spark of life in humans more valuable than the spark of life in a dandelion?

I am not asking which organism is more valuable, more productive, more useful, or more sacred....though you might be surprised at how I answer those.

Is the flame of life, whatever that happens to be, identical for humans and dandelions?


Life, once gone, is gone for good. A chain that extends back more than 3 billion years, millions upon millions of millions of generations, has broken. The flame of life within you, that is you, has been lit since before the dinosaurs, before life came onto land, before oxygen filled the air.

Like fire, you can pass your life onto new creatures, who can spread the flame further and further again and again long after you have gone.

If you go back far enough, you and the dandelion sitting in your yard come from a common ancestral species. Everything alive comes from prior organisms that were alive. You and the dandelion are related. Literally.

Like fire, so long as even a small flame exists, it can spread, and remain the same fire, even as the original source of the flames is snuffed out. We deify the Olympic flame for a reason.


Witnessing the death of a human under your hands is rarely clean. Death happens in errant steps, but the final break is startling. I have seen more than my share fair of human deaths, and every one of them startled me. I have lost a few close people. Each death changes me. One nearly destroyed me.

Still, I think nothing of digging up a dandelion and tossing it in the compost bin.

Is there anything substantially different between the flame of the dandelion and the flame within me?

What's the point of the exercise, why should I use it for class?

We are studying biology, we are studying life, we are studying something that gets to the core of our existence. My lambs are at a wonderful age--young adolescents start to question pretty much everything as their bodies betray childhood.

Just about all of my students (and the rest of us as well) see life as discrete units--organisms. We grieve when we grieve because we lose organisms we love, not because the universe suddenly has a smidgeon less living mass.

The spark of life of my parents, dead as both are, still exists in me and my siblings. In me and my cousins. In me and all the descendants of those lives that first arose from the soup that existed when tides were violent and the Earth still quite warm.

The spark of life that was in my parents came from the same source that spark the dandelion.

We are all cousins.

Eye rolls:
OK, enough philosophy crap, Dr. D, what does this have to do with anything?
And will it be on the test?

We teach children that the DNA of the bacteria in their poop codes exactly the same way ours does. Indeed, human insulin today come from engineered E. coli. Yes, that E. coli.

We share many proteins with plants, coded with similar sequences of DNA, because we come from the same ancestors.

This is a big deal if you take time to think about it. We rarely take the time, because, well, the state test is coming, we still have to cover a few dozen more standards.

Still, if I can get the kids to see, really see, life as a messy web with all kinds of tentacles emerging from some common events a long time ago, then maybe, just maybe, I can get them to see plants as alive us we are.

If they get that, then evolution becomes interesting.

If a student passes the state exam without knowing that, then the state exam isn't worth the student's time.

OK, a few things:

Yes, I am aware that the Hadean period may have been a
lot cooler than earlier believed, the sun's output lower, etc.--
here's a nice summary of recent thinking on that from the New York Times.

No, we do not share 50% of our DNA with bananas--another topic for another day.

The dandelion is from Wikimedia, by Loyna

Vats of human insulin lifted from Scott's Web Log: January 2008. Credit attached.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The burning tears of St. Lawrence

The stock market tumbled a bit today.

If I were paying attention, I might release some more stress hormones worrying about retirement. But the plants in my garden grew just the same.

The Federal Reserve is buying more Treasury's, and the sky may be falling.

No matter--tonight the sky is falling, as it has each August, as it will--the Perseids peak. Get outside, look up, and watch pieces of a comet fry as they hit our atmosphere.

Oh, you can look at the purty pictures by National Geographic, and you can blather on about radiants and ZHRs and all kinds of nonsense, but none of that will take you back a few thousand generations as a brilliant bolide breaking across a sky we rarely even notice anymore.

You can feel the oxytocin wash over you as the night's cool air reminds you that we are, after all, part of this world, the real one, the one that will exist long after the words "Dow Jones" fall from our vocabulary.

The Perseid photo is from National Geographic here.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Nagasaki, 1945

On August 9, 1945, just over 2 1/2 pounds of plutonium was converted to energy 1650 feet over Nagasaki.

Two and a half pounds--about the weight of a 28 week premature newborn baby.



Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.

The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium,

Yes, this is a repeat, and will be repeated every year that I maintain the blog.
We must never forget what we are capable of doing. Never.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On ignorance

The sun slips toward the water. The breeze brings with it the thump-thump-thump of a karaoke box from Harpoon Henry's, a shore joint just over the dune. We barely here it over the waves, but we hear it.

I wandered into the muddy bay, up to my waist. The water is a little chilly, but my toes, buried in the sand, are warm, leftover heat from the sun hitting the beach before the tide rose.

A jelly comb drifts by, its edges marked by iridescent waves. A small crab scurries over my foot.

I am alive, as alive as I can be, and so is the jelly comb.

Tonight we're eating basil and cucumbers from the garden; yesterday we ate the tomatoes, and before that, the beans.

The tide rises, the tide falls, an incomprehensible volume of water moving twice a day a stone's throw from here.
Why? The moon, the sun, gravity....

Why? Well, the moon and the sun pull...

Why? Good Lord, child, no one knows why, no one....


The standardized tests allegedly test what we know. I want a test that tests what we don't know.

If our culture collapses in the next generation or two (and there are signs it may do just that), it will not collapse because of what we think we know.

It will collapse because of our stubborn refusal to acknowledge what we cannot know, or what we pretend to know.

If you watch a comb jelly even for a few moments on a late afternoon in August, really watch, allowing yourself to be washed by the beauty of a creature as foreign as Jupiter, you will (if only for a moment) grasp that we know nothing at all about anything beyond our human conceits.

And if you see the same creature glow at night, you might even worship it.


What would a test like that look like? How do you test for true ignorance?

Ignorance is easy to feign--some kids are motivated enough to study arcane ideas for hours in order to do well on tests that will get them ahead in life.

A child can be coerced into memorizing the equation for photosynthesis. Few kids grasp the significance, and why should they in a world dominated by lust and image and inopportune zits? It cannot be taught in a day, a week, a unit.

I could spend weeks on the sun alone, a magnificent star, a sphere of plasma. I could create plasma in the classroom, get my lambs excited about energy and matter as the boundaries between the two dissolve. Nothing here happens before the sun's existence.

But we do not worship the sun anymore.

We worship our words, our buildings, our cleverness.

So how would you assess ignorance, the awareness of how little we really know?
And should teachers spend more time showing what we don't know, instead of what we do?

The photo of Ra is from Falgun Angadia.
The sun photo gets credited to NASA--one massive solar flare hurled towards Earth, and it's lights out.

My two beefs with Alfie Kohn

I spent quality time with Alfie this morning, sitting in the bath tub with The Schools Our Children Deserve--it's a fine book, well worth reading. In August, I can dream about idyllic classrooms with children clamoring to learn.

He's been discussed in Time magazine, sat with "Oprah" twice, and he wanders around lecturing a lot. He's been published by The Atlantic and The New York Times. He's his own cottage industry. Nice gig if you can get it.

I will use some of his ideas in class, and toss more around with our faculty.

The two beefs?

The man has not taught in a classroom since 1985. He confesses that "it wasn’t until years later that I began to realize just how little I understood about teaching." Why is it that only people removed from their own classrooms can see the evils of our ways?

OK, that was a cheap shot--he's spent his life observing others, teachers who have been far more successful than he, and he acknowledges as much with charming self-effacement. But it's not nearly as cheap a shot at what's about to follow....


The man looks like the poster boy for the "San Francisco Flower Child Rescue League." He's preaching solid reform, he's got hard-hitting wonderful ideas, and he looks all of 19 years old. ("Alfie" doesn't help....makes "Arne" sound like a stud.)

We need a face with battle scars, maybe a biker beard. We need tough!

We're getting our butts kicked by Arne Duncan, of all people. So, Alfie, here's my gift to your our cause:

The original image is from Pay Fairly, which got it from Wikipedia,
which says it's a self-portrait used with permission. I hope Mr. Kohn has a good sense of humor.

(And, Mr. Kohn, if you should ever wander to this very tiny piece of this electron universe, and find this piece offensive, I'll remove it.)

Biology essential question: Were humans inevitable?

The essential question of the year is already up on the board:

Were humans inevitable?

But now I'm thinking (and thinking) that it's not personal enough, so I may change it to this:

Were you inevitable?

(Sophomores love chatting about themselves, and they love big questions. Not necessarily because they're budding philosophers, but rather because the Big Question discussions spool away a lot of class time that would otherwise be used doing boring school stuff.)

At first blush, textbook science says no, you were not inevitable, you're a happenstance--a particular sperm got to a particular egg because of some random thunderstorm occurred 20 years ago and your parents accidentally met up in a phone booth seeking shelter from the rain.

And the discussion ends.

That's why I like asking whether humans were inevitable--it avoids a class full of sophomores imagining their parents having sex, which usually destroys any thinking about anything else....

Still, it's an interesting question, and the answer is not a dismissive "No, humans were not inevitable."


If you have not advanced beyond Newtonian physics and a mechanistic view of the universe, well, then, everything indeed may have acted in predetermined fashion since the Big Bang's inception.

(I hate the term "Big Bang"--the model does not allow for a bang and it was hardly big--a point is a point, really no space at all. The model proposes something extraordinarily powerful happened, but "big" is a misnomer"....and the model has so many holes in it to be nearly useless, but it does help hold things together, and science is all about making models.)

Quantum physics came along--the universe did not change, merely our view of it, a hugely important concept for students to grasp, and with it, predetermination. Well, this subatomic event may have gone this way, maybe that way--independent of other events around it.

Ha, now we have chance! Maybe God does play with dice!

*Whew* Pretty lucky thing we're here, eh?

Well, maybe the universe will ultimately stop expanding and start collapsing on itself again then expand when it reaches a certain concentration--the Big Bounce.

And maybe this happens over and over again.

And if it happens over and over again and has for infinity, then any combination of matter/energy that is possible will at some point happen (and happens an infinite number of times....)

If you get this far in the discussion, and it must be a discussion, you cannot force kids through this kind of nonsense, a few of them will be so dazed they may walk into walls.

But you have them.

Because you know as little as they do, and you just showed them that science is alive.

And the answer to our essential question is unanswerable.

Skulls are from the BBC Radio 4 website, "In Our Time,"
which, by the way, proclaims
"there was nothing inevitable about the course of human evolution."

Friday, August 6, 2010



Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.

It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."

New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?


This morning I saw a wasp dragging paralyzed cricket along the edge of the driveway. The wasp was not much bigger than the cricket, and the wasp struggled. At one point she let go, stepped back a few inches, stroked her head a few times (much like a human facing a big task), and eventually dragged it down a hole by the driveway garden. The cricket was still alive, but paralyzed.

I did not intervene.

The wasp will lay her eggs in the cricket, and they will hatch in the cricket, still alive, and the cricket will, of course, suffer.

I did not intervene.

The larva wasp will use the the cricket, still alive, for food.

And still, I did not intervene.

Photo by Bruce Holderbaum


We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Ken Allan is a blogger on the other side of the Earth. ( Kia ora e Ken.) He's quirky, bright, thoughtful, and well worth reading.

He sent me the this video:

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

(Yes, this is from older posts, timeless ones.)
The photo is by Bruce Holderbaum and can be found here--used with permission.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Courage, NJ biology teachers!

I saw Willa Spicer, the Deputy Commissioner of the N. J. Department of Education, at an AP conference Tuesday. She made the opening remarks, with platitudes on the courage of teachers.

It doesn't take a whole lot of courage to not be laid off, so I was a bit confused (a common state for me), but the coffee was good, the company even better, so I checked it off as one of those things you do at a conference before the real stuff starts.

Today the state announced the biology end of course pass rate, perhaps better called the fail rate.

Courage, Doyle, courage!

Some of my kids are still wrestling with English.
Many of my kids come in believing fire is alive and plants are not.
Don't even get me started with evolution....


Here's an idea--test them the day they come in, then again in May. Did I make a difference?

I went to a state conference in March to learn more about the state EOC exam.
  • I learned that writing the questions is very expensive.
  • I learned that teachers are not allowed to see the questions, even (or maybe especially) when proctoring the exam.
  • I learned that even though the state curriculum has changed, not all of the question will reflect the changes because, well, it's really expensive to make new questions, and they have some they've already paid for.

Ms. Spicer once chaired the NJ Performance Assessment Alliance, the crew that developed the open-ended test questions the last few years. We were allowed to see the NJPAA performance assessment questions.

Imagine a question developed by a committee of "parents, educators, and the business community." Toss in horseshoe crabs, a creature as foreign to my kids as escargots bourguignons. Add language that befuddled even the proctors.

I have no idea how the tests were scored.


45% of New Jersey's students failed the end of course biology exam this past May. Even more depressing, the passing score was 53%.

105,000 students took the test. If it counted, then nearly 50,000 diplomas would be at risk.

I have an idea--let's give the test to every teacher in the state, everybody in the department of education, every administrator drawing a public salary. What passing score would be needed to guarantee that even half would pass?

I want my kids to pass. But I won't teach to the test.

I can't--I don't know what the test tests....

The photo of Ms. Spicer comes from "School Board Notes."

The cartoon figure of the thylakoid comes from here.
Biology's not the cute froggie course it was a generation ago.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"An infinite number of biological factoids"

Because biology is a dynamic field with an ever-expanding knowledge base, focusing students more on how to interpret and understand new data as they become available will be much more important than having students memorize an infinite number of biological factoids.

That's what it says. Yes, it's a draft, yes, it's meant to be revised--but that's what it says. If my grasp of English is correct, the "infinite number of biological factoids" refers to the current system.

The College Board is a multimillion dollar operation. It spent over $300,000 last year for lobbyists. The CEO makes well over half a million dollars a year.

So what are my kids supposed to do in the meantime? Pay their $86 to show how well they memorized an infinite number of factoids?

I went bat hunting tonight--it sounds a lot more strenuous than it is. Get a lounge chair, wait for dusk, lie down with your eyes looking up, and wait.

I eventually found a bat, and watched it sweep the sky, munching on a variety of other flying critters. There aren't so many bats now as there were a few years ago.

We won't be talking much about that in AP biology class--too little time. Nor will we talk much about the decreasing phytoplankton in our seas. Nor the great mass extinction going on right now as we delude ourselves with these light machines.


I participate in the madness.
I am part of the madness.
I am the madness.


The AP Biology curriculum will not be revised before the 2012 school year, possibly later. In the meantime, I teach to the curriculum, as I am required to do.

Which is, of course, madness.

I am open to suggestions....

Yes, of course, it's Edvard Munch's painting The Scream

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lammas again

Yep, same as last year--I like the rhythm of the year.

The sunlight diminishes perceptibly now. The plants know.

The past week we've eaten deep purple eggplants and bright pink brandywine tomatoes, yellow summer squash and green-and-red striped beans. Today we will pick basil for pesto, some for tonight, some for February. A bowl full of ripe blueberries waits for us, sunlight incarnate.

But the sunlight is dying, and the plants know.

We do not speak of religion in class, at least not formally, though students will occasionally ask religious questions, and I will deflect them. I explain that some things cannot be known through science, and that what I believe beyond the limits of science falls outside the province of class.

In class we talk of light and hormones, photoperiods and abscisic acids, to explain how plants know. We talk under the hum of fluorescent lights, time marked by defined blocks of time. In class, September light is exactly the same as February light, and class is always 48 minutes long, no matter where the sun sits.

Sunset today marks the start of Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day--joy for the harvests that are coming and regret for waning sunlight. Lammas used to be celebrated--the first wheat berries of the year were ground into flour and baked into bread offered in thanks, some used for Communion, some for the feast that followed.

We thank God (or Tailtiu or Lugh or some other forgotten gods)--harvest time reflects death and grace, whatever the culture. Death and grace feel foreign in the classroom, indeed foreign in our culture. We pretend, at our peril, that life is linear.

Lammas falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The days are shortening, winter is coming. Until you feel the seasons in your bones, until you follow a grain of wheat from the ground to plant to bread to you then back to the ground again, the modern myths may be enough.

Science can explain why plants produce fruit when they do, and I can teach the steps. We can test whether a student learns what I present, and the students that do this best have access to all our culture offers.

You can become very powerful, very rich, without knowing grace. You can go far in life if blessed with intelligence and beauty, degrees and citations, without ever knowing what a wheat berry looks like, without ever kneading a lump of flour and water and yeast into glistening dough.

In the end, we don't know much, and may never know much. We can, however, recognize grace. We might not grasp it rationally, but we we can grasp it--a good reason to celebrate Lammas.

The Skeleton of Death dances every hour in Prague--photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock by Sandy Smith found on VirtualTourist.