Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lightning bug

It less than two hours until September in these parts--I may have gotten my last sunburn of the year today. Played in the ocean with my adult children, then threw plastic worms at bigmouth bass as the sun set on summer.

This is something I originally penned back in August 2005:


Dusk settled on the lake. I could hear the kiss of bluegills as they sucked down insects struggling on the surface.

A few lightning bugs flashed above the mirrored surface. Attracted by their own reflections, they swooped ever closer to the lightning bugs flashing below them.

Fish may not be smart, but they're not all get-out stupid, either. And a bluegill will jump if hungry enough. A few were hungry enough. And inside their bellies glowed a few foolish lightning bugs.


Lightning bug light is cool-literally. Luciferin combines with ATP, the energy molecule of life--the resulting compound combines with oxygen, catalyzed by luciferase, and light results. Even tiny amounts of ATP will cause luciferin to light, as long as oxygen is present.

While man has never been to Mars, bits of lightning bugs have--luciferin is an extremely sensitive detector of ATP. If it flashes, carbon-based life may be present.

The price of lightning bugs reached an all-time high this summer: $12 an ounce.

With the advent of luciferase manufactured via genetic engineering, though, the run on lightning bugs may not last much longer.


My daughter dug out a tiny mudhole for me in our backyard. At dusk, I sit and read opposite the pokeweed I am learning to like, under a stray white birch I have always liked. Lightning bugs arise from the earth, flashing their "J"'s, looking for love. Harry Potter makes sense sitting outside on a warm July evening.

I read until the dusk chases words off the page, my feet resting on a small stone wall we built together.

A flash just below my right foot.

I break from Harry Potter to anticipate the courtship. A second scurrying critter rumbles about the flash. The flashing becomes frantic, several short blips in less than a few seconds. My eyes adjust--a spider dances around its prey.

I've never seen a lightning bug flash quickly like that, but then I've never seen one eaten by a spider either. A lightning bug makes a flash by adding a tiny bit of ATP to luceferin.

In our mechanistic view of the world, not a bad worldview if you're in the business of conquering it, lightning bugs flash instinctively. They are not known to flash for defensive purposes or fear.

I cannot know why this one flashed, but I do know that lightning bugs, at least this one, had a pattern distinct from its cherchez la femme mode when struggling with a spider.

I almost did not try to "save" it--a good naturalist observes, does not interfere. The spider has as much a right to the meal as I do to mine. Death by spider is likely to be quicker than death by starvation if the critter could no longer fly.

I pulled the frenetically flashing bug out of the web--a white wisp of web stuck to its backside. I set it on a leaf of the birch with mixed feelings. It will die slowly because my imagination would not allow me to let the spider bite it.

As the critter struggled with its first pair of legs to grasp the edge of the leaf, I gently pulled back the stick. The spider silk stuck to my stick. The lightning bug scootched a few millimeters, no longer flashing, and stood still.

I watched a moment longer. The lightning bug raised its beetley shell, opened its wings, and flew away.

A moment later, a lightning bug brushed my leg at the bottom of its "J". No way to know if it was the same one. And it really doesn't matter.


Some Asian lightning bugs flash in unison. The lightning bugs in the Jersey area, at least the ones that make a "J", are not known to do this (according to the scientists). Oh, occasionally they'll accidentally flash together a few seconds after the flash of a bright light, as though they were all resetting their bellies after seeing a god, but left alone, our fireflies are supposed to be the individualistic sorts.

The local critters must be illiterate--once or twice a dusk, they amuse themselves with synchronous flashing. ("Amuse" sounds like anthropomorphizing, of course--it's an interesting word, comes from the French amuser, "to stupefy"--we're most amused when our brains are buggy.) .


One poor fellow one evening couldn't turn off his belly --he'd glow properly enough in his "J", but still fizzled a bit as he looked for a response--doubt he could see much light beyond his perpetually lit self.

I muttered "padiddle."


Lightning bugs are, obviously, alive. They have a lot of ATP. They have a lot of luciferin and luciferase. We made lightning bug earrings, lightning bug drawings, we'd smear dying and dead lightning bugs over our faces and laugh and scream like the atavistic creatures we were, mock Indian war paint.


I am a science teacher; I am not a scientist. Like the President, a lot of folks are confused about what constitutes science. We want children to be amazed. You can purchase, via PayPal, a lightning bug "collection system." You have a choice of sizes, and the handle glows in the dark. Imagine that! No doubt safer than punching holes in a half-rinsed mayonnaise jar.

Kids can study and be fascinated by all the little bugs found in the average back yard. Firefly lanterns allow children to watch the lighnting [sic] bugs light up. The bugs can be returned to nature where they were found after a day or two of enjoyment.

Plum Creek Marketing Entomology Products for Kids.

Another "experiment" suggests that kids catch lightning bugs in a jar for 5 minutes, record their observations, then let them go.

Took me 40 years to realize I learn a whole lot more doing nothing, feet up on a tiny stone wall next to my daughter's puddle.

Law of unintended consequences, again

Two bites on unintended consequences. Neither gets a whole lot of attention, but both involve devices that are easy to grasp: windmills and waterfalls.

Bats occupy a chunk of human imagination. They're spooky-looking, come out at night from spooky places, and occasionally carry a spooky disease.

When bats start dropping dead from the sky, people notice. If you want to start a collection of bats, find yourself a wind farm.

Bzzzzt. Wrong answer.
Turns out lots of bats are getting killed by wind turbines without crashing into the blades.

Recent research by Erin Baerwald and her team at the University of Calgary shows otherwise.
"Because bats can detect objects with echolocation, they seldom collide with man-made structures."

So why are they dying?
"An atmospheric-pressure drop at wind-turbine blades is an undetectable—and potentially unforeseeable—hazard for bats, thus partially explaining the large number of bat fatalities at these specific structures."

They're bleeding into their lungs. And they're dying.

Meanwhile, back in Gotham, the city joined with the Public Art Fund (a nonprofit group that exists for this kind of nonsense) to pay for four artificial waterfalls throughout the harbor.

Art projects need an artist, preferably one from Europe with a name like, say, Olafur Eliasson. Fortunately, there's a gentleman with that very same name. He happens to have a studio.

Studio Olafur Eliasson is a laboratory for spatial research that employs a team of 30 architects, engineers, craftsmen, and assistants who work together to conceptualize, test, engineer, and construct installations, sculptures, large-scale projects, and commissions.
Hard to read that with a straight face.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Supper science

I have two nieces, fraternal twins, as different as night and day, both wonderful human beings (Hi Karlyn! Hi, Claire!)

Leslie and went over to their home tonight to eat. Conversations slid from catching clams to politics to dogs to whatever.

During the rise and fall of voices, Claire punched holes in a Sprite bottle, using the prongs of a corn holder. (Anyone who uses corn holders and indoor toilets is living the good life.)

During a (very) brief lull in the chit chat, Claire jumped in:
How come the soda doesn't leak through the holes?
A teachable moment.

A grown-up muttered something about air pressure. Claire wasn't buying.
The cap's not on....
resist the content resist the content resist the content resist the content resist content resist content

The easy answer is a quick discussion on adhesion. Then the grown ups can get back to discussing whatever it is we discuss at dinner. (Are Michelle Obama and Sigourney Weaver twins separated at birth?) I reflected the question--why won't something, in general, fit through a hole?
I don't know.
I give Claire my best professional science teacher "slack face." She squirms.
Well, maybe the parts of the water are bigger than the hole.
A good start--a testable hypothesis.
And I leave it at that.

Picture from National Archives, clamming at Sandy Hook, NJ

Friday, August 29, 2008

Creationism and evolution back on the national stage

Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information....Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject -- creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.
Sara Palin, Republican Vice Presidential nominee

A few things bother me.
  1. Does Ms. Palin think we should teach Creationism in science class? (The "both" part bothers me--a lot. If you open up science class to empirically unfounded beliefs, then "both" is the wrong word. I'd start with the Sumerians (Gilgamesh) and work my way up to the Hebrew Bible version.)
  2. Science and creationism are not "both sides" of an argument--and challenging each other's beliefs is like arguing over favorite colors.
  3. We need more critical thinking, and less "information" in science class.
I am dangerously close to a rant. Ms. Palin may be a few months away from assuming the Vice Presidency of the United States, the same United States with a constitution worth the paper it's scribbled on.

The first ten words of the Bill of Rights are clear:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...."

I'd be glad to discuss in class why Creationism is not science; I hope Ms. Palin's father, a science teacher, explains this next time he takes his daughter out moose hunting.

On idleness

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, and understandably so.

(I suppose you might live on the edge by discussing if there's any empirical evidence supporting the myth that a soul weighs 21 grams, but I would save that for college sophomores in a coffee shop chat.)

So this post is not about souls.

It's about idleness.

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

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

Teaching content is easy to a docile crowd. 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 even 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, and if that spark 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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Capitalism and biology class

Last spring I was approached by a very enthusiastic history teacher about collaborating on a short essay questioning whether capitalism can be used to "save" the environment.

"Capitalism" is one of those words that evoke as much emotion as sense, and the word limit precluded us from adequately defining capitalism, but if (a huge if) you think that the sign of a healthy economy is an ever-increasing gross domestic product, and this growth is dependent on expanding use of natural resources, well, then maintaining a healthy environment is a pipe dream.

An aside: the concept of GDP was developed by Simon Kuznets in the 1930's; it was not designed to be used as a measure of economic health:
Even Mr. Kuznets, the inventor of the GDP, forewarned the U.S. Congress in the 1930s of the inherent flaws and weaknesses of GDP figures. Among other things, he stated that "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income as defined by the GDP."

My part in the paper was simply to acknowledge that the land base has a limit of sustainable extraction.

Now I happen to like Adam Smith, but what we call "free market" today represents Smith the way Gitmo represents the Constitution. When Adam Smith talked about the "invisible hand," he didn't mean dumping waste in the dead of night.

So what does this have to do with teaching science?

Ultimately anything of real va
lue to humans depends on biology, and more specifically on the land. You can't eat gold, and oil is just a delayed gratification version of photosynthesis.

Splicing genes is cool, fun, and economically lucrative, but ultimately eve
n the super-duper efficient plant produced depends on sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide.

When we wrote the piece together, I had a tiny bit of trepidation--too many people confuse an economic philosophy (capitalism) with our form of government, a republic.

Not espousing capitalism (in its practiced form here) is not tantamount to espousing communism. (A pre-1940s es
sentially agrarian economy worked in the past--call it agrarian capitalism if it makes you twitch less.)

We talk about Thomas Malthus in biology class--understanding Malthus helps us grasp Darwin. As it turns out, industrialized populations do not continue to expand in population, but our use of natural resources appears insatiable.

The result? Take a look around.

I do not want to frighten our students into numb complacency--we have Madison Avenue for that.

What do I want?

Sun + dirt + water + carbon dioxide = food.

Plants serve as the intermediaries, of course, but once you get the connections, you realize you have a vested interest in the pieces.

Global economics is all about controlling the dirt and the water.

Got to give the global capitalists credit, though--we got more carbon dioxide than we know what to do with.
(And, of course, any of us participating in the economy plays a role.)

Our school has nearly 2000 students from all walks of life, with families from all over the globe. (One of our problems with the NCLB is that no matter how fine our institution might be, a child who arrived from Greece 2 months ago is not going to ace a test written in English.)

But even a child who has just a rudimentary grasp of English is connected to the earth. At some level we all know this.

Basic science lets a child believe what he already knows in a culture that rewards people for believing otherwise.

Did I mention that this history teacher happens to have an Arabic name? It's nice when folks
at least a generation younger than me show me
how to behave.

Photos: coral reef from the NOAA, the Adam Smith drawing floating around all over the place, the Constitution, well, no one is going to bother me about that. And credit Wendell Berry for agrarianism. If you believe in prophets, and even if you don't, Wendell Berry is the closest thing to a living prophet we have in this hemisphere.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Beyond School

I've plugged him before, and I likely will again, but Clay Burrell has a post and a string of comments that gets to the heart of schooliness and education.

He blogs like Sandy Koufax pitched, which means he's going to throw quality stuff past you at high velocity.

I'll be dwelling on one--say, "On the Death of Genius for College"--and he'll throw 3 straight fastballs past me while I'm still gawking.

I start school in a week. I hope to post something to chew on once a week or so, with a few blurbs in between just so folks know I still exist.

Clay may have posted 3 new mega-ideas in the time it takes me to toss this out there. He blends education and life and God and sex and Gilgamesh together in less time than it takes to throw together a mojito.

And yeah, that's an unauthorized photo stolen from Mr. Burrell's website--it'll stay up until he threatens to sue me--he's what Ray Davies would look like in heaven, if heaven existed. And if Ray Davies was dead.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Google and science

Of the top 20 Science/Technology stories on Google at the moment, only one is about science--Neanderthals may not have been as slow as presumed.

What else do we have?
You can scan Google news again tomorrow, and you will get similar results.

Contrast this with the BBC News (which lumps science with nature, giving technology its own category):
  • Cattle may sense Earth's magnetic fields
  • A few dozen asteroids have been newly found in our solar system
  • A black hole mystery has been solved
  • Water scarcity is causing food shortages
That the American press glorifies technology is not shattering news, and hardly warrants mention in a blog.

It does make me wonder, though, what most parents and policy makers think actually happens in science classes.

The science is not in the fancy "interactive" SMART Board, nor in the LED projector (with the very expensive bulb), nor in our web access. I appreciate all of them, though I'm fine with a piece of chalk and a slab of slate as well. (I think I do my best teaching in bars, on cocktail napkins, but that's not for publication.)

The science is in the elodea (a water plant) bubbling away on the windowsill when the sun hits it, the Newton's cradle clinking for the 27th time by a curious student.

The Neanderthal child was reconstructed by by a research team from Anthropological Institute, University of Z├╝rich; the picture is credited to Christoph P.E. Zollikofer. The elodea is by Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS Plants Database.

Dirty fingernails

Last year I focused on presenting science as story-telling within very specific rules. Some kids got a little unnerved when they realized much of what they learned was based on constructs, not direct observation.

We can't see electrons--why am I learning this @#*&% then?

I want to be a little more careful this year focusing on how we construct knowledge--Jacques Derrida would be proud--without losing most of my kids the first 23 minutes of the year.

A week ago Leslie and I kayaked out of the Delaware Bay into the Atlantic; while out there, two pods of dolphins passed us, close enough that we could hear them breathe. A translucent cabbage head jellyfish passed between us. Several skimmers flew by just inches above the water.

Yesterday a young dolphin surprised us, unexpectedly snorting next to us. (A dolphin snort sounds like a horse suppressing a sneeze.)

Language cannot adequately describe immersion in the outdoors. Photographs cannot capture the enormity.

Science will never completely unveil the universe. (Even attempting to “unveil the universe” belies an internal contradiction; it's like trying to imagine the Big Bang by looking at if from the “outside”--can't be done).

Scientific models can, however, create an even deeper sense of mystery of our universe than just observing without putting pieces together.

I need a way to get my students to get a sense of the limits of science without making them cynics, not easy to do in a culture that thrives on magical thinking.


Classes start a week from Wednesday. I need a hook. I'm open to suggestions.

I might give each student a small pot and ask them to find a "baby" tree--this time of year they are all over the place. Mimosas, maples, and oaks, grabbing as much sunlight as they can to survive the first New Jersey winter.

Go out, find a tree.

Where am I gonna find a tree?

Outside. Really. Look.
The only requirement is that it has to fit in a small pot.

What does this have to do with models? With electrons? With anything scientific?

It all starts with seeing what's out there.

And once a child "captures" a tree, it's theirs, for the winter. But that's not the purpose of the exercise.

Can't teach biology to someone who's never gotten dirt under their nails.

White oak tree photograph from the National Archives.
Dolphin photograph from the NOAA.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

William Blake, J. S. Bach, and science

This post is in flux. Every time I read William Blake, my whole universe is in flux.
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. He starts at 0:25. I've been pushing this video on the science staff at our high school (though not terribly successfully):

Science leads to awe.

I am nominally a Methodist, though raised a 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 an act of man.

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 few hundred yards out.

Hundreds of tide pools surrounded me, each with a different 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.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Terminal velocity of mussels

Yesterday Leslie and I paddled along the edge of Cape May Harbor, again showing our prowess with tide charts by struggling against the ebbing tide on the flip side of our voyage.

Because pushing against the tide is tiring, I edged towards the beach and just drifted for a minute.

While doing pretty much nothing, I noticed a gull dropping something.

It followed the object, picked it up, the swooped back up, higher and higher, hovered a moment, then dropped the object again.

Gulls are marvelous fliers, despite the inane way they're pictured in Jonathan Livingston Seagull--I once saw a flock of them chasing down insects, rivaling swallows in their gyrations.

After its fourth try, this time successfully nailing a small bed of rocks on the beach, the gull had its meal.

Now, I know this has been reported, and I have found smashed shells on jetties, presumably from gulls, but I had never seen it done.

A few things struck me:
  • The gull did not randomly drop the mussel--he clearly was aiming for the small pile of rocks.
  • As the gull hovered upward, he went a bit higher than gulls usually do when just hanging around--it knew enough to get some air between its meal and the rocks below
  • The gull consistently went to about the same height, and it took a bit of effort to get there.
So here are my bizarre questions of the day, which should be answerable, though I have about 37 other things I should be doing.

How far does it take a falling mussel to reach terminal velocity at sea level?
How close was that gull to that height?

I bet that gull was about as close to the answer through experience as I'm likely to calculate.

(Herring gull photo by Adrian Pingstone, 2003, via Wikipedia Commons; mussel photo by Joan Muller, Waquoot Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, 1996, via NOAA)

"You're in the money..."

I learned about anticipatory sets in education school a few years back.

Whet the appetite, get them engaged, open their minds--a shame we even need to do that, but under the circumstances (compulsory education gets them in your class, not your charm and wit), necessary.

At some point I want my kids to know how to read labels on products.

I open class by asking if anyone's heard of ball players urinating on their hands.
Ooooh...that's gross

One or two students will get real quiet, maybe even blush. Apparently some high school baseball players still do. If it's good enough for Jorge Posada and Moises Alou....

I never, ever directly question anyone about the practice, but I've had kids volunteer in class that it's done.

Once they settle down, I ask the class what's in urine. With a little guidance, they quickly get to urea.

I then ask everyone to pull out any skin products they have, an amazing thing to watch. A single child may have a half dozen tubes of age-defying elixirs.

"OK, everybody, start looking for the word 'urea' in your products."

Oh, [insert bad word], I've been slathering piss on my face!

Not sure the kids hear anything else before the lesson's done, but I do (eventually) explain that most commercial urea is manufactured in factories, not people.

Still, if a child has eczema, a quick wipe with a wet cloth diaper can help.
Urine contains the emollient substance urea, and int he past builders and particularly bricklayers would wash their hands in urine to prevent the occupational dermatitis associated with handling bricks and mortar. Similarly, mothers at one time would wipe their babies with their urine-soaked nappies as it was believed that this was good for the complexion.

from Blurtit site--I didn't say it was scientific

Of course, few students even know diapers were ever cloth, so I push it.

"It wouldn't surprise me if my Irish grandmother used it my mom's face."
Yuk, that's gross!

The bell rings, I dismiss the class (not simultaneous events). As the kids stroll out, I hear the occasional thump of very expensive urea being tossed in the garbage.

Some kids looks at labels now, and, in a small way, a few get a tiny bit more connected to the universe.

(I once put an article about the the discovery of phosphorus on a bulletin board--about two months after I did, someone actually read it..Hey, this is about piss!)

Friday, August 22, 2008


I was poking around the garden, trying to beat the bugs to the ripening treats. Bugs may not study food chemistry, but they know when something's good.

The light's a bit more oblique these days.

Late August, harvest time.

I got to thinking about what happens to decaying life, then my brain wandered to the eventual decomposition of my body.

If I allow my carcass to be pumped full of formaldehyde then buried 6 feet, not a whole lot of recycling is going to happen.

(Just burying a carcass six feet deep keeps a body fresh. Any good camper knows your cat hole shouldn't be more than 8" deep, or else it won't decompose well.)

Both my folks and my sister have been cremated. My Dad was scattered in anger over his ragged wildflower garden, my sister spread in love on a field overlooking an apple orchard. My Mom was cremated and buried 6 feet deep.

Plants need very little besides sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen to make all the stuff that they make. Plants don't need my rotting carcass to exist, though it might pep up the fading tomatoes this time of year.

I could opt for a green burial--no formaldehyde, wrapped in a shroud, tossed in the ground, but that's not where my thoughts wandered today.

What I wondered was just how useful the ashes left at cremation might be for fertilizer.

Seems like someone beat me to it:
Cremation ash as phosphorous source for soil additive or fertilizer

A composition for a soil additive and a method for promoting plant growth usin
g cremation ash from the remains of a cremated, e.g., human, which avoids the disadvantages of prior soil compositions while affording additional benefits and advantages is disclosed. The soil additive comprises cremation ash and a solubilizer combined with the ash to form a mixture....The disclosed composition and method provide a way for memorializing deceased loved ones, such as, for example, family members, friends, and pets.

Alas, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) appears to have no record of it, at least not on their website.

I could just check the two sites my kin were scattered, though I have no controls except the immediately surrounding terrain.

If the apple trees grow better I could call it love--but I bet phosphorous has a little bit to do with it, too.

Photos retrieved from the National Archives.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What's matter?

I start off my physical science class with the usual introductions, procedures and such, but before the first day is over, I tell them that by the end of the year they won't even know what "stuff" is anymore.

"Stuff" is as good a definition of matter as you are going to get at 9th grade, and it's probably as good as you're going to get for most of us without degrees in physics.

The kids look at me quizzically, I gawk back, and away we go!

"Stuff" ends up being circular. We can get fancy and call it matter, and the text will tell you that matter is anything with mass that takes up space.

Seems that just about any type of mass a 9th grader is going to run into takes up space, and just about anything that takes up space will have mass.

(OK, OK, bear with me--think about the definitions as presented to our students. Newtonian physics starts with a deceptively simple definition of matter. Teachers fall into the same trap as the students, but if we cannot get the kids curious about what we mean by "stuff", the rest of physics is just a dog and pony show.)

Eventually (months later) we will get to inertia, an operational definition of mass (and again a bit circular), but on the first day of class, the kids are pretty smug about what they know.
OK, Mister Dr. D, matter is "stuff"--we got that, everyone knows what "stuff" is.
So that's it? that's all we gotta know today?
Before I go any further, I tell them that if I do my job, by the end of the year they won't even know what "stuff" is anymore. And more important, they'll know they don't know.

Ah, grasshopper!

"So what's mass?"

I'm not looking for a post-doctoral account here, but I don't want to cheat the kids, either.

So I push the issue, even on the first day of class.

If you want someone to learn science, you must first shake them off the ledge of certainty, or rather, convince them they want to jump.
OK, so what is it, Mister Dr. D?
I shrug, palms up....Kids don't like it when teachers feign ignorance. They hate it when they realize the teacher isn't faking. A few get mad.
Why we gotta learn this stuff if you don't even know what you're talking about?

I was surprised the first time I saw the anger--I welcome it now.

Before the end of the period, I'll review what they know about atoms, or rather, review their misconceptions.

This year I'll show them this model, then take then out to the hall with a grain of sand representing the nucleus of an atom. How far would the electrons roam?

I'll let them walk around. Then tell them to walk farther still.
I must have been in a summer daydream--yes, we'll do the walk-through, but not on day one.

I then tell them that if the nucleus was the size of a grain of sand, then the atom would be the size of a football stadium.

(OK, I haven't done the calculations myself yet, not to mention that I have no clue what the standard football stadium size is. A high school stadium? Giants Stadium? OK, so I need to go back to the chalkboard.)


OK, we got two minutes left now, and I need closure. Shoot, I forgot to hand out the texts. Closure...closure...closure.

This is when I need to keep my mouth shut. A good lesson in general.

Now the children are really squirming. The teacher is an idiot, and now he's standing up there speechless. They can't take the pressure.
Uh, that means stuff is mostly space, right?
I smile. And it's nowhere near winter break yet.


Doug Johnson pointed the way to the American Library Association's "READ" mini-poster generator.

I was temporarily confused by his post, which he amended for those of us still using training wheels.

Your turn!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What's life?

We open the year talking about what science means, then roll into the definition of life.

This is my third year, which means I'm up for tenure, so advertising this might not be in my best interests, but I am not sure what the words "science" or "life" mean.

High school texts will list 6 or 7 characteristics of anything alive:
  • composed of one or more cells (highly organized)
  • can reproduce
  • change over time (evolve)
  • respond to stimuli (boo!)
  • maintain homeostasis (well, try to anyway--we all die eventually)
  • need energy/metabolism (gobble gobble)
  • growth and development
I am the only one in the department that thinks viruses should be considered alive, but they do fail the "composed of one or more cells" part. If you want to go by high school textbooks, well, I have no argument.

Tells you a thing about high school texts.

Using that kind of thinking, though, millions of Americans are not alive since they are infertile.

I think most people would consider sperm or eggs alive, though each without the other cannot reproduce either.

I'm sure it unnerves a few kids to start the year unclear what even constitutes life, but a big part of science is recognizing its limits.

If you accept that sperm and eggs are alive, then life does not start at conception. It just is.

If you accept the cell theory, then life, for whatever reason, started happening, and all life since then goes back to some primordial event leading to the first cell.

(Seems to me if the conditions were right for life to start at some arbitrary "here", then little reason to suppose it didn't start at some arbitrary "there" as well.)

These kinds of discussion in the classroom can be dangerous to one's teaching career, but if you're truly interested in defining life, sooner or later a wise child is going to ask the impertinent question.

Until a wise child does, I do not know how I will answer it. I hope I do not just punt.

Last year I spent a few moments in class discussing alive, dead, and non-living (in the sense of never alive). I facetiously argued that something is alive if it can eventually be dead, but it was 1st period (which starts at 7:45 AM), and tangents like this are (relatively) safe when most of the adolescent world is still fighting off the delta waves of sleep.

I could have brought it up in 4th period, but my frontal lobe kicked in, and I like my job. So I didn't.

This year I will.

Fire has a lot of characteristics of life. It doesn't have cells, true, and development is arguable, but I had fun when I asked the class to convince me fire is not alive.

The danger in these kinds of discussions is that someone goes home and complains that their idiot science teacher thinks fire is alive. (I like to play with fire.)

Still, any discussion at home about science that presents the discipline as something more than a recitation of facts makes me smile.

We use the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston text Modern Biology in CP science here in Bloomfield. It's nice and thick with lovely pictures, and it's not bad.

On page 13 (oooh, unlucky number), it talks about science as a process. In two paragraphs.

Two freakin' paragraphs.

Oh, it goes on to spend a few pages about the scientific method (and more on that in a future post), but science as process warrants just two paragraphs. About 150 words.

In those "about 150 words" it covers two major principles of faith in science. It also manages to throw in a Greek myth about Zeus and lightning.

The textbook is over 1100 pages long.

It spends about 2 inches of space on the faith in science.

Faith is a funny word--it can get you kilt in public education.

Kudos to Holt for at least mentioning the faith in science. The editors did not, of course, use the word "faith"--you need to sell these books in Texas, after all.

Here are the lines:
When trying to solve a puzzle from nature, all scientists...accept that there is a natural cause to solve that puzzle.

A second principle of science is uniformity. Uniformity is the idea that the fundamental laws of nature operate the same way at all places at all times.
"Natural" is a two dollar word. Really. We need to spend time I class talking about what it means.

Uniformity requires faith. Not belief--if we ever find that it's not true, scientists will drop the concept like a hot potato. But it's truly unprovable.

Science is a philosophy. Even "hard" science.

Some kids will scribble in their notebooks: "" with no more thought than I gave the mosquito that tried to suck my blood today, before I severely reduced its chances of reproduction.

Others will text their friends, electronically rolling their eyes at a madman ranting about life.

But one or two (or maybe more) will perk up. They have in the past.

I have faith in uniformity. I know a few will perk up this September as well.

All the pictures are from the National Archives--EXCEPT the sperm and egg (Wikipedia Commons) and the lightning (C. Clark, NOAA'S National Severe Storms Laboratory)--I'd be much obliged if some techo-savvy reader could show me how to get captions under photos without disrupting the text flow.

"Good teachers are the magic in the classroom."

Good teachers are the magic in the classroom.

Personal computers aren't magic, they are just a tool. What you need to make the educational process work is a good teacher who is knowledgeable in the subject and can get kids excited.

National Archives, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793 - 1989

When the Chairman of the Board of Intel Craig Barrett, Mr. Chips himself, speaks about science education, policymakers listen.

Know your stuff. Get kids excited. Magic happens.

Eduwonks might cringe at the word "magic"--magic is a tough thing to measure in our reductionist universe of norm-referenced assessments--but he gets the point across.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gagging on Google

Yesterday I saw a Google certified teacher emblem on an edublog. My gut stirred. I want one.

Today there's an article in our local paper, raving about a teacher who has the new credential "Google Certification," earned by "teachers who gave up part of their summer vacation...picking up tips on ways to work technology into their lessons."

Now she gets to sport the Google logo; I haven't felt this kind of jealousy since I coveted the Chuck Taylor athletic fetishware back in junior high.

And now one of my favorite bloggers Clay Burrell is singing praises for a creative use for Google Maps in a wonderful idea inspired by John Larkin. (Amazing how the more commonly creative we get, the more attributions I stumble over. Ahem. )

Perhaps all a lucky coincidence, more likely some orchestrated convergence in which all of us get to play bit parts. So today a few thoughts on Google and the classroom.

Air Force k-19B aerial camera, National Archives, 1951

Google is a wealthy corporation. A very wealthy corporation.

Google has over 12 billion American dollars in cash.

True, they have a kick-butt search engine, and lots of folks bought of piece of their action in their Dutch auction IPO a few years ago.

Still, you don't get that wealthy just on search engines alone. Now excuse me while I go get my tinfoil hat.

I love Google. I fear Google. Having a whole class of students type in information from various sites is powerful data.

Google’s not getting rich just because of a fancy pants search engine. A good chunk of their “value” comes from big investors who get the data thing.

How confused am I? I want to be a Google certified teacher. I use Google in the classroom, and not just the search engine. I get lost for hours playing with a variety of their tools.

Google knows more about me than my mother did.

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

And from their terms of service (which I may have inadvertently broken when I temporarily put their Google Teacher certification logo on this post a minute ago):
By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.
OK, so that language makes you itch a little, but hey, everybody's doing it.

Wait, there's more--here's where I here the opening cash register in Pink Floyd's "Money":

You agree that this licence includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.


I have no idea why they use the British version of of "license" here when they use the American version elsewhere--I have enough tinfoil hat issues to distract me as it is--but this is what it says in the Google Terms of Service.

And I'm a little nutty about privacy (but not so nutty as not to enjoy all kinds of "fr
ee" services from this gentle giant).

To be fair, Google maintains you hold the copyrights for your own material, but when one of the largest media companies on the planet has already claimed it can do what it will with your material, well, what's the point?

Oh, by the way, if you use Google for anything, you've accepted their terms.

I very much want to use Google in my classroom, but I won't purposefully compromise the privacy of my students, even if they do not know what the fuss is all about.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Bloomfield menagerie: praying mantis

(This is a continuation of the Bloomfield menagerie series, describing various beasties living right here within our borders, easily seen if you pay attention. It's to remind me and my students that nature isn't just something that happens somewhere else. )

I heard a small commotion next to the old whiskey barrel holding basil and tarragon. I crept over, expecting to find a small mammal, maybe a vole. As I knelt to get a closer look, I saw a large praying mantis hanging upside down, an unusual position, at least for the mantises that live in my garden.

I followed the mantis' gaze down through the forest of mint that grew near the barrel. In the aromatic shadows, a brown snake lay poised to strike. The snake lunged, the mantis struck back, Jackie Chan against the giant serpent. The snake fell back, but did not leave. Again it set to strike, and the mantis cocked its head with the steady grace of an aging dancer. Another flash of movement, again the snake quickly repelled.

The snake started to rise again, and then slowly, as though accepting defeat, lowered its head and slowly slithered away.

Praying mantises can scoot, and if particularly perturbed, can even take flight. This one held her ground. Maybe its a praying mantis trait, taking umbrage at hungry brown snakes. Maybe it was peculiar to the mantis in my garden that day. No way to know.

When the snake had gone, the mantis straightened herself back to her usual position, head up, legs folded in front; she regarded me for a moment, her head slowly moving through an impossible angle, then apparently dismissed me as harmless as she went about her business.

In my days in my backyard I have seen a dragonfly merge from its nymph shell, only to die an hour or so later next to its casing. I have seen a lightning bug successfully woo her mate as the two exchanged brilliant flashes, she half-hidden on a brandywine tomato vine, he drawing out a "J" in flight with each flash (perhaps her name was Juliet?). My children regard me as a little odd, "But it's OK, Dad, you're odd in a good way...."

On warm, sunny days, my adult daughter sometimes spends hours staring at the life on the edge of a pond, just for the sheer joy of it. It is one of the few times I allow myself to believe I was a competent parent.

All of this in Bloomfield, an old town bordering on Newark.

Two jetty stories

The Cape May Canal empties into the Delaware Bay about a mile from our place, the mouth lined by a rock jetty, courtesy of the Arm Corps of Engineers. The ferry to Delaware has a terminal here. There's a lovely park here, named after Patrolman David C. Douglass Sr., an officer killed in the line of duty in 1994.

Two stories, both witnessed on the jett


First story:

A young man with standard issue surfer trunks, the obligatory tattoo, and a young woman at his side, lifted a rock with two hands, held it over his head, then hurled it at his feet.
"Got it!"
I wasn't sure what he "got" at first, but no denyin
g his pride. His girlfriend smiled, but not all that impressed.

Turns out he was smashing "roaches," or so he thought. People share the jetty with isopods, crustaceans related to the roly-poly's you can find under a rock. (Some folks call roly poly's pill bugs, other call them potato bugs.)

The jetty isopods (
Ligia exotica) have the misfortune to be known colloquially as wharf roaches. A lot of people don't like them.
Wharf roaches scattered at every footstep. These terrestrial isopods are fast and gruesome; a hundred of the filthy vermin skitter in your path, while another hundred shoot for cover in the crevices and cracks.
James Card, freelance writer, quoted at his website
So people kill them.

Second story:

Horseshoe crab, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A Hispanic man was fishing with his children at his side, way at the end of the jetty, surrounded by water. He had hooked a horseshoe crab, and he was having difficulty trying to unhook it.

He did not know what it was. He was frightened, yet was gentle with the creature.

I came over to help. The horseshoe crab had swallowed the hook--the mouth was surrounded by lots of frantically waving legs with their tiny claws. Sky blue blood oozed from its wound.

Horseshoe crabs are harmless--I was able to untangle the line and remove the hook from the mortally injured critter.

The fisherman showed his children, then gently placed the crab back in the water.

His kindness towards something he feared reflected a sense of responsibility toward life I don't often see on the jetty.


I love to teach people about horseshoe crabs and sea slaters. Young children are more trusting than their elders, and it is often only after the youngest has held a horseshoe crab that older siblings will touch it.

I hope that my students are more likely to act like the 2nd man. I hope what I teach helps get them there.