Field of Science


Global Warming and Wine

First off, I disagree with the premise that wine is an unnecessary luxury. Wine is a basic food group 0f the civilized person and must be included in at least one meal a day.

Now in case you happen to be completely ignorant about crops and climates, wine grapes is a crop associated with Mediterranean climates, which range from cool to hot, but basically they have cool, relatively mild, wet winters and relatively hot, dry summers. Different grape varieties do better at various points along that climatic gradient. In a bit of climatic irony, the Mediterranean area does not have a monopoly on Mediterranean climates, which are also found on the west coast of North America, in California, Oregon, and to some extent in Washington, in South Africa, in Australia, and in Argentina and Chile, just look at the latitudes on a globe. So it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out where all that wine comes from.

Global warming is certainly a concern, but by affecting wine, it’s getting serious. Climatic change associated with global warming may ruin Australia’s interior wine growing regions by increasing aridity, more and greater drought. Now granted this region does not provide the most distinguished wine, and elsewhere climatic shifts may have given some of France’s wine producing regions warmer, wetter summers and a fabulous 2005 vintage, but day to day, many of us don’t drink vintage year French wines. So this is getting serious.

Yes, without a little Long Flat Red to sip as you tend the Barbie (grill, not girl), you begin to wonder if life is worth living.

But similar shifts in climate are what will not just damage, but wholesale ruin many agricultural areas. And the Land of Lincoln is not immune from this. The maize and soybean desert will become more of a desert, a drier region, one that is too dry for its two main crops. Presently the USA produces about 70% of the world’s soybeans in a narrow latitudinal band. If soybeans are raised any further south, they do not get long enough nights to trigger flowering; and if try to raise them further north, then the growing season is too short for the fruits and seeds to mature after flowering takes place in late summer (longer nights). No need to mention that soybeans are the USA’s #1 agricultural export and their value is huge. And indeed, this commodity threatened by climate change, yet the scientific dummies running things still act as if this isn’t a serious problem.

Why it’s enough to make a guy drink. Pass the Hermitage Côtes du Rhône 2005 please. No time to waste on cheap wine.

RIP Carolina Silverbell

Halesia tetraptera, the Carolina silverbell, is a quite elegant ornamental tree. The center of the maize and soybean desert is quite a bit north of its native range, but a rather large specimen was growing on the east side of Williams Hall when I arrived on this campus some 30 years ago.

I am officially in mourning for this tree, and it died needlessly. This area was turned into a pedestrian mall several years ago, an attractive alternative to a city street that used to cut through campus. However, a 2-foot tall wall was built around this area, and then soil was added to raise the level of the bed. You wouldn't think it would matter, but for many trees, burying the roots is a sure means of killing the tree. Even before the soil was added I pointed out that burying the roots would kill the silverbell tree, but it was too expensive to seek a solution. Boy, you hate to say "I told you so", but I did.

Now you may take the attitude that it's only a tree, but this one was at least 60 years old, of substantial size for its species, and it's an unusal and very ornamental species to boot. Not only that but this campus is an official arboretum, which is supposed to show some interest in the tree collection. For this species of tree of this size, in an arboretum, the value calculated to be $25,500, not to mention the cost of cutting it down. For a fraction of that cost, a reverse wall could have been built, and the raised bed reduced in size, re-engineered for the sake of the silverbell. But "it cost too much" then. Well, what's the cost now? And how long will it take to get something as nice and as big to look at? Trees like that can not be bought, they can only be grown, and that takes time. We need to show some respect for our woody elders.

Wonder if I can get the campus to fly the flags at half-mast?

Behavioral Conditioning: Unlearning the Learned

A typical street scene in Zurich, nothing touristy at all, but there are a couple of things to notice. Of course there are the tram tracks running down the middle of the street, and they have lattice bricks around them so some grass grows where mostly you expect concrete or ashphalt. These are a nice example of green construction. Why not do your driveway?

But the insidiously deadly part of this scene is the yellow striped pedestrian crossing in the lower left. Set foot in one of these zones, pause in front of one, even glance at one while walking along the sidewalk, and all the traffic stops for you! Yes, pedestrians have the right of way, a common concept in the USA, but one seldom seen in practice.

Here's the problem. The natives never even look, they stride into the street in full confidence of their right of way. And now I'm beginning to do it. A life time of conditioning has been changed by just a few weeks in Zurich, and this could get me killed when I get back to the USA. When I was young and learning to cross streets, my Father pulled me back to safety once, and said in reference to pedestrian right-of-way, "Do you want to be right, or alive?" OK, let me think. Well, that isn't much of a choice, and that says it all in the USA. Our car culture even affects how we view the nearly universal law that pedestrians have the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way, unless a car is present.

Oh, watch out for the bicycles. Even in Zurich the pedestrian law doesn't apply to them.

Country-western kitsch in Zurich

Like it or not, our country’s culture has had a tremendous impact around the world. This is not to say our culture is a total wasteland, but a continuum exists from tasteless garbage (reality TV, most fast food) to the truly excellent. So why is it that only the least common denominator of our culture seems to get exported to other countries? And indeed, why does this appeal to other people?

Here in Switzerland the red and white wave, the symbol of Coca-Cola, is so common it competes with another red and white symbol, the Swiss national flag. And so I always find it a bit disheartening to see how and in what ways our culture is affecting others.

These examples tend to jump out at you most suddenly. While waiting for the #2 tram, I turned around and looked at a window fashion display, and there was one of the worst examples of country-western kitsch that I have seen in some time. This might get you kicked out of the grand ole opry for flagrant tastelessness. Yes, jeans cut to look like chaps emblazoned with western iconography that you might have found on a lunch pail when I was a kid. Yee Hah! And they are a steal at only about $150. But don’t forget the boots, vest, and scarf. Maybe they’ll throw in a six-gun and holster set to complete the look.

I don't think I'm in Lincoln Land any more.

The Land of Lincoln has many things but topography isn’t one of them. From its lowest point to its highest point, it only differs by 282 m, and since the lowest point is only 85 m above sea level at Karo, the highest point is hardly a hill. Perhaps so many tall buildings were constructed in our largest city as a means of compensating for this topographic inadequacy.

Having lived in these flat lands for some 30 years I have gotten used to the terrain. But I now take extra special pleasure in visiting places with some real topography. Only two hours from Zurich is the alpine tourist village of Braunwald, which is accessible only by a steeply inclined funicular rail from the valley below. While I am certain the walk up would be nice, if not a bit taxing on the legs, it would be worth it for the view. You simply cannot come this far to do research, and not take the time to see the Alps. The domed peak to the right is Piz Russein at 3614 m. So if you stack up 10 of the highest point in LoL on top of each other, the entire stack would just barely exceed this peak.

Of course botanist are always conflicted in such places. We love the scenery, but we keep looking down to spot the alpine flowers that have started to bloom, including the native Crocus albiflorus, which in spite of its name comes in two color morphs.

Now I’m certain that I’m not in LoL anymore.

Teaching High School Science Requires Professional Degrees - In Switzerland

1. I think a high school science teacher is one of the toughest jobs in the world, especially biology.

2. I think that we do not provide adequate education or training, and then we still expect them to do an excellent job.

Let me explain. First of all, the bratwurst is to indicate that I am in Switzerland collaborating on botanical research. And while comparing notes with a colleague, I found out about the 250 hr internship student teachers are doing at the University of Zurich's botanical garden where the institute for systematic botany is located. Their job is to learn about the research being conducted here and then communicate it to their students and the general public in a meaningful way via some type of program.

Fair enough, but here in Switzerland, to become a high school biology teacher requires not just an undergraduate degree, but a master's degree, and not just one, but two, one in biology and one in education. Yes, the Swiss treat teaching as a profession, with real graduate education and real professional status as well.

Only a fool would think that we can prune an already over subscribed undergraduate biology major down to make room for the education courses and student teaching, and still have a viable degree, one that confers competence in both teaching and biology. Several years ago I was asked to serve on a committee to suggest ways we could upgrade degrees in science education. I was the youngest person on the committee, but because no other tangible suggestions were being discussed, I suggested that our prestigious university eliminate undergraduate degrees in teacher education. In their stead, a student would major in biological sciences, as all biology majors, and then get a master's degree in education. Well, you cannot imagine the reaction, the gnashing of teeth, and out rage. "We [the university] wouldn't be competitive, and enrollment would drop." Me, "But we would graduate a better product that could out compete graduates of other institutions." Blather, blather, but no other substantive issues were raised. No one would even address the issue of whether they thought this would be a better thing to do or not.

I understand the committee continued to meet, and to no obvious tangible conclusions, but I was never invited back. This suggestion still remains an anathma even after almost 30 years. Imagine if I had suggested that teacher certification require in biology required two master's degrees!

And given the sorry state of science education, I cannot help but believe that teachers better versed in biology, in science, in research, and indeed, in education, would make a difference. And maybe if we educated them as professionals and paid them what professionals deserve for salaries, then more might be eager to get such an education. Of course, it would be nice if some of us at the university level were paid more than high school teachers too. Is that asking too much?

Lastly, it's just amazing, and a testiment to the dedication of our inadequately educated and poorly trained high school teachers, that education is as good as it is in the USA. It certainly isn't because we are doing the best job we can.

Botany Matters Abroad But Not in USA

Since my last entry I have traveled to Zurich and started working on a research project at the University of Zurich's botanical garden and Institute for Systematic Botany. It is quite refreshing to be working for a few weeks at a place where everyone understands plants.

This is a picture of Helleborus foetidus, the stinking hellebore. You don't plant it because it smells good, but because it makes such a nice early flowering display. This clump is along the walk up the hill to the insitute in the botanical garden.

But what stinks in the USA is that botany has been neglected and pushed aside by a human-centered, biomedical approach to studying biology. It's not that this isn't important, but biomedicine is the tail wagging the biological dog.

So, it's refreshing to go to other countries, virtually any other country than the USA, to find that botany remains a full-fledged component of the biological sciences.

Research money funneled through the NIH does support a considerable amount of very basic biological research. No problem there. And of course the NSF supports basic research, if you are doing something that fits their particular program descriptions. But the problem for plant science is that the money dispersed by the USDA does not support broad enough basic research in the plant sciences. In other words the USDA is more applied than the NIH. So it leaves a lot a plant related research out.

Botany in the USA ends up like poor Oliver asking forlornly for some more. I wonder if botanists in the USA will ever discover that we are the long lost grandchild of rich benefactor who will decide to boost the standing of botany in the USA, or build my university a botanical garden and research institute. Bill? Warren? At least Lady Bird Johnson and actress Helen Hayes showed good sense when they founded the Wildflower Research Institute.