Field of Science

Systematic fiscal abuse of public universities

Higher education especially the USA's systems of public state universities has been one area where our country truly excelled, and now this educational success story is being denigrated and gradually being killed by a thousand little cuts.
Those of us who have worked in higher education over the past 40 years know this so very well. A recent essay expresses TPP's understanding of the situation quite well.  "Emerging evidence from the Delta Cost Project (as well as other studies) has shown that the exploding costs of higher education are not primarily caused by a heavily tenured faculty and their “big” salaries. Indeed, over the past decade or two, as the faculty had been reconfigured, total institutional expenditures for instruction have declined — offset by increased expenditures for administration, student support, and auxiliary enterprises. American higher education has not put itself on a diet. Rather it is being starved by state governments."
Over TPP's entire academic career his salary has increased just a tad over 400%, which sounds pretty good until you realize how low his salary was way back then and that inflation went up 254% over the same period.  In particular raises have been little or none over the past 12 years. Of course, this is not by way of complaint, but just to illustrate that increases in costs have not been to support the lavish life styles of us faculty.  When TPP started his career here in Lincolnland some 40 years ago, the state was paying something over 60% of the cost of higher education, and it was quite a bargain. Now state support is about 17% of the cost of higher education, a decrease put into effect by simply gradually withholding support, year by year, and no legislative action was needed to do it either in the sense of having to pass an "increasing the cost of higher education" bill. (And the most brilliant part of this politically, is that then these very politicians put the blame for rising costs on the universities!) Lately science is being denigrated as just one more "opinion" or "bought and paid for results" because otherwise politicians might actually have to pay attention to science in forming policy. A lot of the products of higher education are being appreciated a lot less. And now, having priced higher education out of the reach of many, having transferred the cost to the students, those very politicians are arguing that well maybe higher education just isn't worth the cost and you're better off without it any who. How's that as a way of dealing with rising costs of higher education? Convince people they just don't need it!  None of this bodes well for our future and people had better begin to get pissed at such blatant disregard for education.  

Eeek! Dozer blight!

Wow, these developments outside of Las Vegas are so remarkably vile. This is some of the worst dozer blight TPP has ever witnessed. This is what happens when you have government by development speculators, where everything is available for transformation into someone's profit. Of course, no one is going to pay for the environmental cost. You can quite imagine that part of the argument for doing this was "nothing is out there, just desert."  Hard to believe, but Las Vegas just seems to get more and more artificial as time goes on. Well, there's always the nuclear option. "Sorry, man, we were aiming for Yucca Flats." 

Fall color finally arrives

Fall has been rather slow developing this year probably because of the ample rain and mild temperatures. Today really felt like fall, a bit cold with a possible frost tonight, and finally fall color is beginning to develop in our gardens. This is a favorite Japanese maple positioned at the north end of the lily pond in a clear line of sight from our breakfast nook. Not only does this tree develop some great fall color, but then it gets reflected in the lily pond when the light is just right. The sumacs, bottlebrush buckeyes, black gum, sassafras, and dogwoods are all turning color and by next week things should be quite colorful. 

Friday Fabulous Fungus - Oyster mushroom

It's been a wet, cool fall, a great season for fungi, and this is just the right time of year to spot oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus. And you urban dwellers don't need to miss out, a walk around almost any well-treed neighborhood should result in success. Oyster mushrooms grow on wood and they are pretty easy to identify, especially given the season, and they are very tasty, very choice, highly recommended by many. The caps are asymmetrical and around here sort of a pale silvery gray color on top, white gills beneath, firmly fleshy. There were enough growing on the side of just this one maple tree to feed a lot of people. 

Nothing to fear but the daily news keeps trying

Our morning newspaper led off with a headline "Ebola crisis in USA continues". Yes, the number of cases of ebola in the USA doubled, a 100% increase; now there are two. Now in west Africa there is a crisis, but here in the USA?  Not so much. To put this in some perspective, you have a better chance of getting bubonic plague than ebola at present, especially if you go camping in the western USA.  Yet you don't hear alarmist headlines, "Black death still alive".  If this is naught but a sales gimmick, then it's pretty unethical to scare the crap out of people to boost sales. And if it's just a journalist's alarmist take on the situation, then it's poor journalism. And if people begin staying cooped up in their houses as a result, and demanding cities or countries be quarantined, then it's pretty poor thinking. This is a sad and desperate feature of our culture these days, and at this time of year, it goes beyond sales as fear mongering is being used as a political ploy as well. Pathetic all the way around. 

Durian - Love it or leave it

Unless you have traveled and delved into the culture of SE Asia, you probably don't know a thing about durian. Durian is often called the stinkiest fruit in the world and my Thai friends tell me durian "tastes like heaven, but smells like hell".  Here's what TPP knows based on his experiences with durian. It is true the fruit has an odor that can best be described as similar to the smells wafting out of a sewer, a not uncommon smell in SE Asia. The fruit is a big spiny capsule about the size and shape of a smallish rugby ball, and this isn't the part you eat. The largish seeds are surrounded by a thick, creamy yellow-colored fleshy aril, the reward for seed dispersers, presumably primates and other arboreal mammals. Not sure who among our family tree finds the odor attractive? Apart from the fruit, the fleshy aril is not all that unpleasant to eat; it has a firm custardy texture with a sort of mild cheesy flavor, but rather insipid. It is not as horrible or as disgusting tasting as many people have made it out to be, but it is not on TPP's list of preferred tropical fruits either. TPP has seen durian for sale just once in the great Midwest, frozen (and no idea how it holds up to that) at the famous Jungle Jim's grocery north of Cincinnati. So TPP thinks that durian isn't as divisive as people make it out to be, although my Thai friends truly relish it and were happy to eat my share.   
 Image courtesy of Yun Huang Yong, Wikimedia Creative Commons. 

You're all wet

There's a lot of stuff out there that TPP doesn't think about very much if at all. But every now and again something gives you pause, and so it's a very good question to ask, "Why does wet feel wet?"  You would think a long time rain forest biologist would have thought about this, but no. TPP can say that you just don't know wet until you've done rain forest work, but just the other morning, as the Phactors were leaving their house, the exceptional dampness from a night of rain and lingering misty fog, combined with a warmish temperature, particularly for October, together with the smell of wet vegetation and decaying leaves, gave us both the same sensation; it smelled and felt like early morning in a Costa Rican rain forest. At any rate, here's something thoughtful from Discovery magazine on why wet things feel wet. Next week they'll explains why wet dogs smell like wet dogs.

Food delivery by solar tricycle

Amsterdam - is there anything they won't try first? Here in the great Midwest new ideas are the things people in Seattle now yawn about. Foodlogica is using solar-powered cargo tricycles are providing an off-the-grid, green solution to local produce distribution replacing diesel powered delivery trucks. Yes, it's flat in the Netherlands, but it's flat here too. HT to Treehugger

Improving science education in grade school

Research has shown that many kids begin to think science is dull, or just for smart kids, which means those who can memorize lots of stuff, or just for boys, way back in grade school. TPP remembers that his own F1 had the worst science/biology teacher in junior high, one who had the audacity to tell TPP that "plants just aren't very interesting"! And of course the "plants aren't interesting" meme is another huge problem in science education too. For all of these reasons, TPP is flogging the crowd funding of PlantingScience, a proven winner in science education that uses social media to connect kids to botanists. Now if all of you who read last week's appeal had just given $5 each, you'd have contributed well over $500 by now and wouldn't be reading this. For those couple of people who generously contributed much more than $5, TPP gives you enormous thanks.

That's a lot of stars; That's a lot of galaxies

Unless you've had a chance to get away from civilization, way away from civilization, you don't really know what the night time sky looks like because of light pollution. Years ago TPP found himself in the outback of northern Queensland at a quaint place called the 40-mile Scrub. So no lights, no clouds, no humidity, and it was amazing what you could see of this unfamiliar night sky. The scope of our galaxy and the universe it occupies is quite mind-boggling, the more so that this is a Monday morning when the mind is more easily boggled. At any rate here's a link to a photo essay about how many stars compose the Milky Way Galaxy (which BTW means milky). Personally, you should check the accuracy of this report because 200 billion sounds a bit off. And if that isn't enough, then here's a computer generated image of our local galactic super cluster, called Laniakea, and the tiny little dots aren't stars now but galaxies. The bright lines show more densely clustered galaxies, and remember the nearest similar galaxy, Andromeda, is 250 million light years away (and yes, that's not counting the 20 or so smaller galaxy like clusters of stars that are satellites of the Milky Way, e.g., Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds). See the nice little comforting "you are here" dot? My Garmin just melted down.