Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How old are you?

Rocks are very old.
Puppies are very new.
My atoms a few decades ago.

That's the way we see the world

To get to the heart of chemistry, though, you need to grasp that the parts of the puppy and the parts of the rock are both likely to be very old. The puppy happens to be recombining tiny bits and pieces with every puppy pant, and the rock, well, not so much, but the parts the puppy gloms from its world are very old parts.

When we observe a chemical reaction, we see a miraculous transformation of substances. We see new substances erupt from the old, and the new substance clearly is not the same as what we started with.

What we don't see, though we can figure out fairly easily these days, is that the parts we end up with are identical to the parts we had going in. Atoms are rearranged, and new substances created, but we still have exactly the same number of the specific types of atoms we started with.

Until a child grasps this, internalizes this, believes this, there is little reason to hope that she will develop some passion towards what of the grand ideas we have in science, the conservation of mass.

Most of the cells in my body are under 10 years old. My eldest skin cells are barely a few weeks old, my red blood cells gone by 4 months, my liver is barely a year old.

I am not the man I was. You're not the same mass of cells you were a few years ago, either. Still, we see ourselves as whole--it's how we function.

Imagine, though, being able to feel the passage of particles into, through, and out our bodies. Imagine you believed that the heft of mass you measured on the scale (prompting New Year's resolutions) is not the same mass of you last New Year's Eve.

The shells sit in the garden, the meat became part of me.

If you can imagine this, your view of the world changes. You feel more a part of the world around you in you, of you. You might even care a little bit more about this world.

While we eat to gain some free energy captured from the sun by the plant around us, we also eat to replace the stuff of us. We take what we eat, break it down into smaller molecules, then use the free energy we glom from breaking stuff into simpler particles to rebuild it into red blood cells, liver cells, skin cells, us cells.

My students get terribly confused about this at times--they have been told over and over again that you eat food for energy, my and (I suspect) some have told my lambs that food is turned into energy, which, of course, is wrong.

Food is stuff. Stuff is stuff, and energy is energy, and ne'er the twain shall meet, at least not in the Newtonian universe of high school biology.

The whole eating thing has been reduced to magic, as has much of what passes for science in elementary schools these days.

So next time someone asks you how old you are, ask him which organ? If he says he means the whole you, well, tell him about 7-10 years on average, but no one knows for sure yet.

If that's too confusing, then just stick to the atoms-most of those will be a few billion years old, and will be around for a few billion more.

This is not semantics--this is science.

Lay some real science on your kids then stand back!

On mitochondria

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 physician.

But you really never got it then, did you?

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.

Hey, it's my blog, I'll repost if I want to!

Happy New Year, 10 days late

The sun is, slowly, starting its swing northward again.
The darkest 3 weeks of the year ends tomorrow.

Delaware Bay sunset, early winter.

In these parts, the swing from where the sun sets today and where it will late June is just over 60 degrees, a huge chunk of the horizon. Degrees mean little to most folks now, no need anymore.

60 degrees is the chunk of a circle eaten by 10 minutes on an analog clock, but that's a dead reference now.

When was the last time you held a compass? When will you ever need to again?

The loss of the literal face of time on clocks is not much of an issue, but it does bear witness to our culture's loss of connection with the origin of hours, of minutes, of seconds.

That the sun rise, sets, then rises again is not a subtle piece of knowledge. That it slips its way along the horizon is also not subtle, if you spend anytime outside, yet many folks miss this.

Delaware Bay sunset, mid-summer
The arc of the sun's path on any given day is slightly different than it was the day before or after. In these parts, despite what my teachers taught me, the sun is never directly overhead. For most days, the sun is not at its highest point when our clocks announce noon.

We no longer tell time by the sky.
If we did, noon would be when the sun was at its highest point, and 6 P.M would mark sunset.
The hours today would be shorter than the hours in June, which would be fine with me, mammal that I am.

We're pressed for time, because somebody somewhere needs to meet some abstract deadline for (too often) an abstract idea that has nothing to do with what any of us needs.

We teach using a modern, abstract, and artificial concept of time.
Meanwhile a bored child watches the slow edge of a shadow cross the wall.

Most of us around here celebrate the New Year tomorrow, the first day of a month named after Janus, a two-faced god conceived by Romans.

Me? Mine started with the winter solstice 10 days ago, with the end of the southern slide of our sun.

Happy New Year 10 days late!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Our evolving ignorance


It gets worse, at least from a biology teacher's point of view:

Only about a third of Americans accept natural selection, the cornerstone of biology. That's like "believing in"  chemistry without accepting the concept of atoms, or physics without accepting inertia.

Forget NAEP, forget NGSS, PARCC, and CCSS--forget all of that, because whatever we're doing is not working, and will not work, so long as we continue to treat children as standardized units, as long as we treasure obedience over skepticism, as long as we continue to reward the worst of our behaviors at our highest levels of power.

In the meantime, I will continue to plant seeds in our classroom, both figuratively and literally, until the happy (but not inevitable) day when our children bark at the nonsense we feed them every day at home, in school, in malls, in just about any space where kids encounter adults.

Take a child clamming, gardening, fishing, crabbing, kite-flying, hunting, whatever it takes.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

New Year's Resolutions: a science teacher's list

These were last year's resolutions.
I liked them so much I'm going with them again.

New Year's Day is coming up, and with it, the fantasy of resolutions kept.

Only wear shoes when you absolutely have to. 
Science teachers need to wear them during lab, but unless it's snowing and a bunch below zero, my toes are collecting photons.

It also cuts way down on foot issues, and if you teach, your dawgs matter as much as your voice.
My foot and a cabbagehead jelly--and no, haven't tried eating that (yet).

Eat fresh food, as much as possible, but don't make a fetish out of it. 
You can do it for health and a whole lot of other extraneous reasons, but the best reason to do it is because fresh food tastes good, and we only have so many meals in a lifetime.

If nothing else, grow some basil in a used milk carton on a southern windowsill. Even if you never eat them, basil will cheer you up--just brush against the leaves and the smell will wrap your limbus with love.
Brussels sprouts, anyone?

Walk a couple of purposeless miles every day.
No stopwatch, no GPS, no heart rate monitor, no walking shoes, no laps. Just you and the world. If you don't know where to go, you're already halfway there!

Avoid ceilings.
Get outside as much as possible, whenever possible. No telling what you'll see.

Today I got to hold an old live horseshoe crab, and found myself within a couple of feet of two ruddy turnstones. We stumbled upon a hobbled vulture nibbling on a dead black-backed gull. I considered plucking a few oysters off the rocks, but given the recent rainfall, thought better of it. None of this is possible indoors.

Chase what gives you joy for hours a day.
For me that means strumming a stringed instrument (hardly matters which), singing, and gardening. For you, it might be skating, baking, or playing hop scotch.
The universe existed for billions of years before you came to be, and it will last billions more long after you're dead.

If I teach anything at all in biology, I hope it is this much.
You only have a lifetime to live your life.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Twittering my life away.....

I'm taking a break from Twitter.
Twitter's stock value plummets.
Not a mockingbird....

Yesterday, while walking home from school after feeding the various critters in my classroom, I spied a mockingbird perched on a low bush. The day was cold and breezy, occasionally the wind fluffed up a few feathers. The bird was in no hurry to leave if I was not a threat.

I was not a threat.

A few seconds after realizing this, the mockingbird and I had a few fine moments "conversing," or whatever verb you call this kind of inter-species communication.


Twitter has a cost--and the cost goes beyond the time you spend tweeting.

Twitter has benefits, and has been particularly good to me. I've gone to wonderful places, and met wonderful people. My practice of teaching has improved, and my students have benefited. I have chatted directly with the titans of education.

On the face of it, taking a break looks preposterous. It's been a rush.

And that is exactly the problem.

Twitter, a collection of like-minded souls spewing off tiny bits of information, lives in a linear universe. I do not.

I get that Twitter is a tool, but I also get that a good chunk of my interest stems from the dopamine loop it feeds. Call it a high. For me, that high has become destructive--it keeps me away from my old guitar and my new mandolin, from people I pass on my street, from moments with a mockingbird.

I am speaking only for me--no one wants to hear a dry drunk prattle on about sobriety.

With some luck, I have a few good years left.
With a little bit more luck, I'll spend more of my awake hours under the sky than under a roof.

If you want to chat, drop me a line.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

iPad's electric ass

"Sensuous" and "sensual" are not interchangeable. Focusing on the sensual will get a teacher fired, and rightfully so.

We're now losing the sensuous as well, and this does not bode well for science.

We can only know the world through our senses. We use our brains to put the uncountable bits of information noted by our billions of cells dedicated to sensing, creating models of what's out there.

We do this for a few good reasons--what's out there may eat us, be eaten, or be loved. What's out there may kill us or protect us. What's out there is what's in us--we are all streaming bits of matter put together temporarily using energy from our God-given sun.

Our ancestors managed to muddle their ways through the muck and mortality, long enough to reproduce over hundreds of millions of years, and here you are.

The piney smell of the tree in our home flares up memories of so many years past, a visceral response with no words needed. The touch of kin warms us up beyond the edges of our fingertips. Shared voices, shared songs sung together flood us with joy. (Tracing the joy to dopamine does not diminish irrational impulse to sing--we do not live for survival alone.)

The iPad has not changed this. Children are not wired differently. We all still live in the same world.

What has changed is how our children perceive the world--a smooth glass touchscreen is misnamed. It responds to tiny changes in electric charge. The sense of touch, as minimal as it is, is just a distraction.

Before long we will skip the touch altogether--and this will be hailed as a breakthrough.

Simply turning a doorknob involves several kinds of touch--we sense where our fingers are relative to the rest of the world, the pressure applied, the cold firmness of the ungiving metal. We use muscle memory buried deep in the cerebellum, memory developed through opening doors thousands of times before.

Or you can simply swipe a screen.

By Steve Paine, CC

Muffling one or more of our senses heightens others--Helen Keller's words explode with sensuousness. The child who so easily gives up touch gets an explosion of light and fury. She lives in a world of immortality, a world that bends to her wishes, a world that defies the limits of the natural world.

We are (mostly) visual creatures, at least publicly.
We trust (mostly) the acts we can define in words.

Still, the animal in us, the us in us, still lives in a wordless but full world of earthy smells, sounds too deep to be heard, of bitter tastes and piercing pain, a world with mortal consequences.

In that world, and only that world, forms the foundations of what we call true in science. All our models, our hypotheses and theories, our symbolic representations of our world require that we use all our senses, that they come to some kind of concordance.

Science is about grasping the frayed edges of what we think we know about what our senses tell us.

I cannot teach photosynthesis to a child who has never smelled a fresh leaf she just crumpled in her hand, only to see it slowly writhe back to some semblance of its former shape. (How can the vital aroma of a still live leaf even be describe?)

Not because shes need to know what leaves smell like, but because she needs to know that leaves exist. Not pictures of leaves, but leaves as leaves, in her hand, in her nose, in her mouth. She needs to feel the different textures, smell the different aromas, of the living and the dead leaves around her.

She needs to know that the natural world exists independent of her limited perceptions. The touchscreen makers will not tell her, because they sell them, and these days, neither will her parents, because they have forgotten (or never knew).

You want your child to learn science?
You want your child to immerse herself in the natural world?
Get your child's head out of iPad's electric ass.

It's really not that complicated.
Been reading Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses--yes, it influenced me. I nicked the Keller reference from her.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Computer "science"

 A couple of years old, but still waiting for a plausible counterargument.

A Crooke's radiometer measures sunlight intensity, which sounds all scary and scientificy, until you see one in action. It's simpler than a Talking Elmo.

The more intense the light, the faster the radiometer's vanes spin inside its glass bulb. It looks like a toy.

I keep one on the windowsill in our classroom. On sunny days in September, it spun so hard it rattled. In December's dying light, it moves like an elderly statesman--steadily, slowly, with a hint of what once was.

Sunlight is not abstract. The spinning radiometer is not abstract. Telling my lambs that the sun barely rose 25 degrees above the horizon is abstract. I can show them fancy solar data charts on the internet, teach them algorithms for interpreting the data, and get them to bark like trained seals.

We need the abstract. I get that. Focusing on the imaginary before children grasp the real, however, has created a generation of idiot savants.

Our children live in an abstract world. They bop along life with personalized song sets, immerse themselves in virtual worlds with personal avatars.

We used to worry when kids held on to imaginary friends a bit too long. A toddler talking to a giant imaginary squid is cute; a 13 year old doing the same thing is disturbing.

Constructing the abstract is a special kind of imaginary thinking. If I describe my Christmas tree, a lovely balsam fir afflicted with minor scoliosis now covered with ornaments, some made by my children's hands years ago, I am talking about something real.

If I tell you that the average balsam fir sold in Bloomfield this year is 2.11 meters tall, weighs 20.3 kg, and has 533.7 branches, you might be able to imagine it in your head, but it does not exist. Anywhere.

When we teach science in high school today, we focus on the abstract--at the exclusion of looking at the bent-over balsam fir sitting in the room.

Using an iPad to help a child grasp the abstract concept of "Christmas tree" passes for education now. Not even an Apple screen lets a child know the real thing.

It might even be detrimental.

There is a huge push to use "technology" in classrooms. By technology, I am assuming most folks mean the digitized high-tech expensive stuff, or else the discussion is just silly. All of us use some sort of technology in class--the ballpoint pen is a technological wonder.

Science requires contact with the physical, with the real--grasping the natural world is the whole point. Until children know the ground under their feet, they cannot hope to grasp models.

I use plenty of technology in class: our Crooke's radiometer, our Drinky Bird, our Newton's Cradle, our classroom garden (hey, we even use fluorescent lights!),  our aquarium pumps...and on and on.

Tech doesn't make us illiterate. Embedding digital technology into science too early, before our children get a decent handle on the physical world, does make our children scientifically illiterate.

It's why my class has an analog clock. It's why I threaten to smash calculators in class.

Do I use a computer? Yep. Sometimes I sip a good Oirish whiskey as I do so. Neither belongs in the hands of a child.

Radiometer pic by Nevit Dilmen, used under CC.

The cost of one laptop buys a lot of tangible science gadgets.
Bet a young student learns more science from a bag of magnets than from a computer. .

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My children's backyard

I can see the now brown hops flowers hanging off the bine just outside the window. Just past that are the remnants horseradish leaves that stood like peacock feathers just  a couple of months ago in a garden bordered by a pond dug by my daughter. Just beyond that, at the edge of the yard, stands a pine pirate ship, the deck now covered with a velvet green carpet of moss.

The long shadows of the Christmas sun cast a dreamlike spell over the backyard where children laughed, pulled radishes from the ground, bled, launched rockets, ran through a tiny plot of cornstalks. They lived here once.

View from my window, this morning.

No one else can see this at this moment, not without sitting in this spot, not without knowing this spot's history.

For all the hype of shared lives and common culture, we all live in separate universes. How we choose to live and share in this universe matters, but it is ours so long as we choose to live in it, until, of course, we die.

Words and myths allow us to share common themes, a vital piece of who we are, but words and myths are pointless if we do not know (and trust) our own universes.

I can tell you where basil grows best, where the bodies of past pets rest, where the random crocus will erupt through the ground in 6 weeks, where the brown snakes hibernate, where Orion will rise tonight.

This fella guards the pond dug by my daughter.

There is some comfort in science, in that the stories of the natural world it tells in my universe will be predictably true in yours. There is some comfort in great fiction, where the characters created in the minds of others mirror the hopes and fears I feel in mine.

Delaware Bay, Jersey side

We all share the great mystery, this edge of knowing life, the abyss of facing death, and our shared thoughts keep us comfortable so long as we do not wander too far from the crowd, too far from the shared abstract ideas that make the mystery bearable.

I teach. It pays reasonably well, I enjoy it, and it turns out I'm reasonably good at it, together sufficient reasons to keep doing it.

But that's not why I teach--I teach because I want every child to know the universe that belongs to her, the one that surrounds her at this moment, wherever she happens to be. I want him to touch the mud, smell the earthy air after a spring storm, know that what he sees, at that moment, matters as much as the abstract ideas pontificated by the adults who hope to mold him.

What I do in the classroom only matters as far as what the child does outside of it for her self. Not for me, not for her family, not for her town or country or even the WTO.

Not "for herself" in the selfish sense--our consumer culture will push her hard to do just that. I mean for her self, the only person who knows what she knows, and only she can know how best to live her life.

I have faith that all of us want the same things when we pay attention to who we are.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter solstice: Transubstantiation in a public school classroom

From last year

The sun stands still for an instant just a few hours from now, and will start its trip back north. We are all children of the light.

I ate a basil leaf in class today, grown from a flower fertilized by bee that stole a sip of nectar back in August. A child in class separated the seed from the dried flower head in October, and planted it.

The past two months the basil germinated, grew a pair of leaves, then another, then yet another, weaving together the carbon dioxide molecules floating around the room, pieces of this child's breakfast or that child's heart.

Transubstantiation, the miraculous changing of the Host into the flesh of God, has all the fancy accoutrements one would expect for theses kinds of things, but after all the noise, the Host still tastes like, well, a wafer.

Through several Sundays of Masses, the tiny basil seed grew, taking in the carbon dioxide of the breath of my lambs in class, an odorless gas, and weaved it with broken water molecules, creating the stuff of life, a basil plant, and today we took Communion.

No one believes this, of course, because it is simply too much to belief--but it's true and requires not a lick of faith.

The plants in our room are, literally, from the breath of those who live here--and at least a few of the carbon dioxide molecules captured were released when someone's brain in class tried to grasp the concept of photosynthesis.

And it was good.

And you're allowed to gnaw on basil....

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Jesus, PARRC, and the Roman coin

I grew up Oirish Catholic, no surprise there, then sort of became Methodist, because my kids were, but if push comes to shove, I'd sit my fanny in waiting worship at the local Quaker meeting house and watch the shadows slowly across the wooden pew in front of me as I think, rethink, then settle into somewhere that matters.

By ahc, via Wikipedia

The reason science matters to many of us is because the world is interesting and has interesting patterns, and science helps us to see the natural world.

The reason science matters to many others, though, is because science bestows power upon those who use it to manipulate the natural world. A lot of power.

The thrust to teach science in public schools comes from the need of the powerful to become more powerful. Our Education Caesar Arne Duncan believes science has a "vital role...stimulating innovation and economic growth." I doubt  science would otherwise matter to him.

Jesus had a thing for truth. He also had a handle on how power works.

When asked about what to do about paying taxes to the Roman authorities--he took a Roman coin, pointed out the picture of Caesar on it, and simply said ""Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

Change Caesar to Arne, change God to "natural world," and you have the compromise many of us in the trenches are now living. Arne Duncan, Eli Broad, Bill Gates and all their monied sheep dictate we follow the the Core Curriculum. Our compliance will be measured by how our students do on tests developed by their monied sheep.

That our schools are funded mostly by local townsfolk seems not to matter to Arne, and truth be told, we need the few extra dollars we got when New Jersey's governor kissed the emperor's ring.

Still, power is a funny thing--much of its strength lies in imagined fears.

I know my kids; Arne does not. Neither does Governor Christie, nor his buddy Chris Cerf. So I will continue to teach science, as science, at whatever level my kids are at, because they deserve to know natural world that belongs as much to them as it does to emperors.

The kids will take PARRC, and I will use the results to help hone my craft. I will not internalize the numbers, because the numbers have little value beyond helping me grasp what my lambs know, and any decent teacher already knows that.

If and when the PARRC includes a check box that asks which of my students have been hungry, have been thirtsy, have been cold, have been fearful in the week preceding the test, I will take it more seriously.

If and when the PARRC icludes a check box that asks which of my students has been sick recently, or has a parent incarcerated, I will take it more seriously.

If and when the PARRC compares and controls for the average cortisol levels of kids (a marker for chronic stress), I will take it more seriously.

Until then, I will imagine the face of Arne on every government test booklet and answer sheet I hand out, and pray that my hypocritical attempt to rationalize a bad situation does not harm my kids.

I'm getting too old to keep lying to myself.

4:30 P.M.

All news worth knowing is local, unless you make a special effort to change something outside your village. Most of us don't.

We can blame the raucous behavior of kids, of shoppers, of drivers, and of whatever labeled group you love to hate these days on the coming holidays, on commercialism, on too much candy with too little discipline, on the holiday party booze.

Look closely at your skin. Hairs.
Look at the front of your chest. Nipples.
Feel the back of your hand with the other. Warmth.

We are mammals.
We depend on the sun for life.
The sun has disappeared earlier and earlier every day for months now.

Sun sets at 4:39 in North Cape May today.

Yesterday it set at 4:29 P.M in these parts.
Today it sets at 4:30.

Natalis solis invicti.
A pretty good a reason for the season.

Yes, I know the days are still getting shorter...but the later sunsets now is cause for joy.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Price of hypocrisy is life

The sun will set a few seconds later today than it did yesterday, at least in these parts.
The days are still getting shorter, of course, and will for a couple more weeks, but the sunset is now tracking back to its June glory, when it sets over 3 hours later than it does today.

North Cape May, winter sun

A gentle snow is falling.

Last night we ate clams from the flats, harvested in August, and Brussels sprouts from the backyard, planted last spring.

In the past day I stood at the edge of the Atlantic, watching the wind whip the waves into a frenzy. I saw stars at midnight, Jupiter framing Castor and Pollux. I saw a junco parrying in a cedar tree on a sand dune bordering the edge of ocean.

I also got into a spitting contest with Randi Weingarten on Twitter (because I believe money has influence), fretted away an hour pondering how to fix my doomed SGO (because I still dither over data), and made my ESPN Pick'Ems (I got the Bills upsetting the Bucs). None of these would matter if I were mortal.

The price of hypocrisy is life itself.

Good thing the sun's starting to straighten itself out again,,,,

Sunday, December 1, 2013

NGSS: The catechism of electrons

It's December again.
Last year's post revisited.

Ferry jetty two days ago....

Our culture depends on the myth that everyone can be everywhere, and that your everywhere is the same as mine.

Still, even with our phones and iPods and televisions, everyone of us lives in a tiny, real  piece of the universe, knowable only to us individually, knowable only by the electrons around us.

All electrons that affect us are local--they have to be. They don't travel well, most don't travel particularly far, and our only hope of recognizing something "outside" is if our electrons get dinged, one way or another.

All sensations, all thoughts, all consciousness is ridiculously local.
How do we sense anything?
Electrons get pushed, electrons get pulled.
Most of us remain blisffully unaware of this, and it is killing us.


Electrons in a wire move slowly. Very slowly. If you mark a particular electron and follow it, it will bounce and jiggle and vibrate, but its average velocity flowing through your power cable will be less than a snail's pace. Literally.

The hectic "real" world that scurries us through life does not exist.  It is our creation, and it is hubris to call it real.
A robin's egg, in my garden.
It reflects light with wavelengths of ~500 nanometers.
The ancients said we're living souls, made of dust, made alive by Yahweh's breath.
The moderns say we're organic material, made of atoms, essentially empty space defined by electrons jostling against each other, balls of energy.

Neither story is fully comprehensible, nor complete. Both stories matter. They may even be the same story.

Who has time for stories anymore?
We need facts and truths and certainty and standards, or so those who believe in a global economy tell us. It is easy to believe in the stories of others when you have lost your own.

The Next Generation Science Standards came out last January. The full name of the document is Next Generation Science Standards for Today’s Students and Tomorrow’s Workforce.

Look at its references to electrons, and it's clear that "tomorrow's workforce" has different priorities than tomorrow's physicists or storytellers or musicians or citizens.

The concept of electron has been stripped to words devoid of stories. No mention of J.J. Thomson and his cathode ray tube, no sense of an electron's place in the herenow, not even a pretense of mystery.

"Tomorrow's workforce" (which used to be called children) is fed today's catechism.

Electrons have a story to tell--Princeton University know this! From Ali Yazdani's work.

We need our myths to stay grounded.
We need our myths to remain true.

The ghosts on the edge of the dark sea may be connected to something, but it's not the real world.
We owe it to our children to show them what they will miss if they let other humans far far away control what they ought to "see."

I have yet to meet a child more fascinated by a phone than a frog. Really.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rescuing daphnia at midnight

Science, as far as it is useful, is counter-intuitive.

Our intuition is based on survival--we don't see things as they are, we see them the way that most likely allows our survival. Intuition is powerful, it's real, but it does not have a cozy relationship with reality.

The natural world gives no credence for our humanness, no more than it gives a squirrel for its squirreliness. We live, we sometimes reproduce, we die.

Last night, just past midnight, woken up by the howling northwest breeze that announced winter's arrival, I remembered that I had left a tub of pond water out back. (Every year I drag in about 8 gallons of pond water, ostensibly to save elodea for next spring, but more because dancing daphnoa help get me through late winter.)

I pulled on a sweatshirt, didn't bother with shoes, and dragged my bucket full of elodea and daphnia and countless other organisms, down into the basement. I could pretend that imagining the slow freezing of thousands of creatures that bring me joy each time I peek at a drop of water under my microscope had nothing to do with it.

The race of sharply outlined clouds against the unexpectedly bright half moon hanging up in the east. There are times I become, briefly, comfortably feral.

The pond is freezing over now, and winter is settling in. I got kids to teach, but before I teach them how they relate to the world, I need to teach them that they are of this world. Of this clay. Of this light. Of this whatever it is that started nearly 14 billion years ago.

We're losing our sense of what matters.

Monday, November 18, 2013


We were in Asbury Park Friday night, and drove past the Silver Ball Museum.
Reason enough to re-post....

A long, long time ago, before most of you were even born (ca. 1976), pinball machines were still electromechanical, tied to the Newtonian universe. Real bells clanged, real thwack sounds when a game was won. Adolescent reflexes allowed mastering a game well enough to dominate a machine (and sell the accumulated games for more than the quarter it cost to play).


We played at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Jersey shore. We fell in love with each other, ourselves, and the ocean. Play the silver ball, sell a few games, wander waist deep into the creamy night waves, kissing whoever wandered in with you.

Now and again, you entered the zone. Thwack, thwack, thwack! The game counter grew, the crowd swelled, and you were oblivious, except for the occasional glance at the woman you loved, and would eventually marry. (No matter what I do now--succor the afflicted, sit on the Supreme Court, take a bullet for humanity--I cannot glean the same gaze from the love of my life.)

We knew we were at some kind of cusp. In 1972, Prozac, the compact disc, and Pong were developed, harbingers of the digital revolution. Amidst this rising ugliness, Ted Zale (designer) and Dave Christensen (artist) created Fireball, the masterpiece of the electromechanical pinball. Bally praised its "lightning storm of scoring action," while Playboy hailed it as "the perfect pin."

 As the Human Torch threw bolts of lightning from the backglass, Odin and Wotan captured balls, allowing for multiball play. The bumpers kicked hard enough to keep play on the razor edge of control when in the zone. These features alone made this pin worth the two bits for 5 balls.

This was the 70's; we lost a war, our Federal government lost credibility, and we feared a nuclear winter. Oil was in short supply. We needed more than a good pin. Ted Zale knew this.

If you played well, a magical transformation took place. The lower flippers ("zipper flippers") came together, closing the gaping mouth at the bottom of the machine. A left side kicker grooved on, kicking back any errant ball slipping through the left gutter. For a moment you believed you had complete control.

Just as your shoulders started to relax, when you allowed yourself the myth that you were the master of Fireball, the whole center of the board started to spin rapidly; chaos reigned in the middle of your silver universe. You could just hold on and enjoy the ride as the ball clacked off the bumpers, got caught in the swirling center, and was hurled back at the bumpers. Like Job, you stood in awe of the chaos could not understand, much less control.

In a moment, the machine stopped playing with your helplessness. The wheel stopped spinning, the zipper flippers parted open, your ball was again at your mercy. Still, you knew better. Life could not be contained within the glass box.

No matter how glorious the box.....