Field of Science

Sweet Briar College closing

TPP read this news item with a bit of nostalgic sadness. Sweet Briar was called one of the southern seven sisters; a women's college for young ladies of good breeding. This does not mean TPP has any direct connection to Sweet Briar, and everything about it was learned mostly in a two day period 40 years ago on what was one of a young botanist's first job interviews. After giving a presentation at a national meeting, this young PhD (26 at the time) was approached by the Chair of Biology at Sweet Briar and asked if I would like to visit for a job interview.  The application had been made a long time before, and you figure it's just a matter of time before you get the thank you very much for applying letter, but not you is our decision. Apparently they liked to get a look at the applicant first. Perhaps you may wonder about the wisdom of a newly minted, 20 something PhD thinking about taking a job at a women's college, and it was a concern, but it was a job. At any rate Sweet Briar was a handsome place although young women in riding habits on horse back was a different sort of scene. As were the pearl necklaces and white gloves of the young women who escorted this bewildered fellow around campus. While many of the students were rich, and entitled, they also had a lot of academic talent if you could get through the southern veneer and get them actively involved in science. Guess they thought the New Yorker attitude & personality might be able to do it, but TPP was a bit more ambitious so other opportunities seemed better. Still it's too bad that such a bastion of the old south, as it seemed, has found itself facing intolerable changes leaving closing up shop as the only viable option rather than fading away in a futile struggle. TPP taught for a semester at one such place, and it was truly a sad thing to witness. Times are being tough on all small, liberal arts colleges as people foolishly denigrate such degrees, and rural women's schools particularly; a lot of them won't survive.   

Very cool cargo trike

Just look at this very cool, very innovative, electric-assisted cargo tricycle.  Wow!  Who wouldn't want one of these?  Perfect for visiting your local farmer's market or running to the neighborhood bakery or wine shoppe. This one is a Raiooo, made in Portugal, and it  involves so many nifty things you would do best to go and read about over at Treehugger where there are more images too. Innovative bicycles just keep showing up making you think they are a favorite subject for creative engineers and designers. It's probably true but mostly because this trike took a lot less money to design and build than a Tesla. In particular the wooden handle bar and frame pieces are so nifty, as is the front bag. But where is the holder for your coffee cup? Come on!  Don't say it's not an option! 

Ice is nice (?) and will suffice

TPP's major achievement for today is to have gotten to the safety of his office without breaking a hip. As a nice change of pace in the winter weather, over night the area was treated to a very thin, very slick glazing of ice produced by freezing rain.  This first near fall occurred while fetching the morning newspaper from the front steps. It was treacherous out there, and TPP witnessed several sliding cars, a sliding city bus, cars unable to go up even gentle slopes, and people slipping and falling including a fellow wearing a Chi-town Blackhawk hockey jersey. This is rather ironic because TPP's ability to traverse slippery surfaces comes from a misspent youth of hockey playing upon every frozen bit of water that we could find.  And thus who is to say that it was time misspent if you develop such skills and can still smile about it with all your own teeth. 

Climate expert bought and paid for by fossil fuel companies - not really news

Fossil fuel industry caught taking a page out of the tobacco playbook (link).  That's the headline from the March 3, 2015 online version of the Guardian. This refers to people finding out that W. Soon failed to tell people where his money comes from, but this is not really news.  This was known, but obviously not widely known, at least 18 years ago.  Here’s bit of history from an article (The Wall Street Journal Blurs the Lines Between Science, Opinion, & Politics on Global Warming, 1998) published in a smallish skeptic newsletter, which demonstrates the principle that work published in obscure journals tends to remain obscure, but bigger publications (e.g., Skeptical Inquirer) said the story was “old news” and not a current event story, so they declined to publish it.  Here's the introduction from the 1998 article.

"This affair started March 1998 when I received an unsolicited reprint of a scientific article entitled "Environmental effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide," by A. B. Robinson, S. L. Balinus, W. Soon, and Z. W. Robinson. The article was accompanied by two items. The first was a photocopy of a four-column news item from The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 4, 1997, although the date did not appear on the photocopy). "Science has spoken: global warming is a myth" by A. B. and Z. W. Robinson. The second item was a petition requesting that I, as a scientist, should agree with these authors and sign the enclosed petition signifying my opposition to the Kyoto global warming accord. As a scientist, I am concerned about global warming, and while I do research in botanical evolutionary ecology, climate and the various factors affecting it, are not my expertise, so I decided to read the article with an open mind."
"What a convincing article! How could any rational person continue to harbor doubts about the fallacy of global warming after seeing all this data? Obviously environmental extremists have been misinterpreting the data to sell us their global warming agenda. Rather than worry we can look forward to a future of lush plant growth and prosperity! The citations were numerous and from credible sources. The data figures were many and all pointed to the same conclusion: recent increases in carbon dioxide had no influence on global warming, or there was no evidence for global warming anyway! Hmm, so why wasn't this article more generally known? Usually Science News, The Scientist, or Science feature important and newsworthy publications before any national newspapers. How did the WSJ scoop our best science news publications?"
Unfortunately, some scientists can be bought and paid for by corporate interests to represent themselves as having legitimate contrarian positions to the main stream science of their field. This demonstrated that the WSJ happily bought into a phony publication misrepresenting real science; so much for checking out their sources.  And least you think it too difficult to find out, it was a class of seminar students who did all the digging including attempting to call Soon (no one at Harvard seemed to know how to contact him) and quite readily finding out the deception. No wonder it wasn't published. So while Soon has been "caught", he's actually gotten away with this act for about 20 years!
 





Friday Fabulous Flowers - Olfactory edition

TPP walked into the glasshouse and immediately knew that the taro (Coleocasia esculenta) was in bloom. Generally most people don't notice the distinctive fragrance nor the actual "flower" which hides among the large leaves. This is an aroid, Jack-in-the-pulpit being the best known member of the family here abouts. So, what you really have here is a spike of flowers, an inflorescence known at the spadix,
surrounded by a modified leaf, a bract, known as a spathe. In the case of taro only half the spike is visible; the lower half is pretty tightly enclosed by the spathe. After flowering the upper part of the spike and the upper part of the spathe dry up and fall off. In this particular aroid, the flowers on the base of the spike are "female" and will produce fruits. The upper flowers are pollen producing "male" flowers. You can see the accumulation of pollen around the spike at the "waist" of the spathe. Sterile flowers separate the two and cover the top of the spike. The latter make a lot of fragrance, which is some aroids is a carrion odor. Taro isn't, but the fragrance is hard to describe, sort of a musky, heavy floral odor, not altogether pleasing but not revolting either. Several people noticed the odor today, but hadn't located the source, and it surprised them.  

Your Birthday Song

This link is little bit of fun.  Enter your birthday and it returns the number one song on the American top 40 for that date.  Found out the F1's song was Call me by Blondie, which is sort of appropriate. TPP's is from a totally different era, or is that eon?  The 12th Street Rag (by Pee Wee Hunt and his Orchestra), and yes, TPP likes ragtime; always have. 

Music for cats

Just when you think you've seen, or heard, it all, along comes something completely different. Some cats are pretty quiet.  Some cats are quite talky, yacky, and chatty. Some cats seem to chirp. Some seem a bit whiny and pleading, especially in the morning before breakfast. Slow old humans.  But never thought of any of our cats as being musical.  So here it is, music for cats.  Now that I think of it, one of ours hums Cosmo's air frequently.

Wind chill and plant cold hardiness

A reader asks an interesting question.  How does wind chill affect plants?  If a plant is cold hardy to say 10 F [22 degrees F below freezing for those of you who use rational C units], and the wind chill is -20 degrees, will the additional cold hurt or kill my plant?  OK, the short answer, no. The wind chill doesn't affect plants, only the absolute temperature. The wind chill factor is how much colder the temperature seems to us warm-blooded animals because of the wind, but it is still the same temperature.  Remember the wind chill factor is the number of degrees that is subtracted from the actual temperature; it is often reported so that you don't know if it is the apparent temperature that is -20 degrees or if you must subtract 20 degrees from the actual temperature.  But to the plant it is simply 10 F; not being warm-blooded plants don't get colder because of the wind.  Here's a couple of refreshers on cold hardiness from TPP's archives:
Why don't trees freeze? and It's the extremes. This winter, '14-'15, with the jet stream positioned where it is, our snow is coming from fronts moving up from the south west, and then the cold air pushes back south and a blast of frigid air follows.  So this winter has seen several nights where the temperature has reached 32-39 degrees F below freezing. Zone 5 plants will be fine, but any plant not fully hardy in that zone may get damaged or killed. So TPP has a bad feeling about the Helianthemum replacements. They were under a good snow cover for the first couple of cold blasts, but the last blast caught them bare, naked of snow. Ah, well. What kind of gardener are you if you don't push the envelope a little says the man with an Ashe Magnolia to plant come spring. 

News, infotainment, comings and goings

These days it's hard to draw a line between news and entertainment. Although TPP doesn't rely upon these types of TV shows for news, apparently many people do. John Stewart's annoucement about leaving the Daily Show left TPP quite sad; he did a great job of putting things and people into perspective, and giving you a grin or two during grim times. The revelations about Brian Williams generated a feeling of who cares? Never watched the guy and wasn't impressed. Watching Bill O'Really getting his notoriously thin skin poked has been amusing as is his totally predictable response. He seems to think that if you bully someone into submission, your point of view wins. Cannot for the life of me understand the popularity of this second rate thinker. Less than impressed so far with the Nightly Show, although Larry has had his moments. Even John Stewart took awhile to hit his stride, find his rhythm. That and he's on a bit too late for us senior citizens.

How to run a university - who are the low cost employees?

A cheerful memo arrived just the other day.  It informed faculty that the Building Service Workers (aka custodians) would no longer empty broken glass containers in labs and classrooms. The memo then went on to inform us where the containers should be placed when full, and that new containers could be purchased at the stock room for some lordly sum (about the same as a good latte).  Now there are two things about this.  First, there is the assumption that yours truly will be emptying broken glass containers. This suggests that the administration thinks it too expensive to have BSWs doing this, so let's let faculty do it.  Well, that never was in my job description, although the rule is that if you break it, you clean it up. And if the administration thinks TPP is going to buy containers for classrooms, well, let's just wait and see if it ever happens. My budget line for broken glass containers is zero. Now of course this is aimed at people who have grants and even they will not spend their grant money on classrooms.  Isn't that what tuition is supposed to pay for?  Second, why do we have broken glass containers anyways?  Why it was too dangerous for BSWs to empty the trash bins if they contained broken glass, and if it did they wouldn't empty it. Will that be the next task dumped onto faculty? Now this is the rather ludicrous part of this whole thing. To save a little money, or make BSWs a little bit more happy, they take a task and transfer it to faculty.  And how is this a savings? Who gets paid the most for 20 minutes of labor? A time study a few years back showed that faculty active in scholarship spent over 50 hours a week with teaching, scholarship, and service, and faculty don't get overtime pay for those 12.5 hours worked above the official 37.5 hour week. TPP doubts the philosophy or English or history faculty have this problem. But rather than have BSWs who accommodate the crap that actually happens when people do science, the science faculty get more custodial duties. Yeah, that's how to run a university.