Perspective: A Walk through the Solar System

Imagine stepping from the Sun to Earth in less than a minute—that is, much faster than the speed of light. Not possible, right? In fact, it is, if you are traversing a model with a scale of 3.4 billion to 1.

Next to the Chippewa River, in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is the epicenter of the solar system: our Sun, and the beginning of Eau Claire’s Planet Walk. I went on the journey, so let me share my experience and some other thoughts on perspective and our solar system.

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The Sun
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A Look Back from Mercury
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Mercury

The Sun is a 16-inch diameter metallic sphere atop a pavilion in Phoenix Park, grand on its perch and shiny in the light of the real Sun. Mere steps away is Mercury, represented at twice its actual size due to its diminution.

 

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Venus

Venus is also a few steps, and then Earth. This little neighborhood of rocky planets is what exists between us and our home star. On one hand, it’s not much space, considering how much further the walk goes (a total distance of 1.1 miles). On the other, looking at the tiny size of the inner planets—smaller than a pencil eraser—it’s a vast amount of empty space already. But we’re just getting started.

 

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Earth and its Moon, within my Handspan

Mars is a bit further out. The last of the rocky planets, it rests comfortably within the inner solar system and still well under the Sun’s influence. I can still clearly see the star and its pavilion throne from here.

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Mars and its Oddball Moons

The space between Mars and Jupiter is the first proper walk of my experience. It is not empty but filled with flowers, blooming periwinkle and pink and yellow and white and overwhelmingly green. Such a contrast: all this life completely fills up what in reality is just pure emptiness.

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Touching Jupiter, a Ping Pong Ball

Save for the asteroid belt, of course. Near where it would be, there is, perhaps fittingly, a field of smooth gray and tan boulders.

 

Jupiter rests, stately and proud, near the bridge across the Chippewa River. The orbit lines of its moons are striking: imagine how large and looming Jupiter must be to Europa, the moon within which slumbers a cold ocean and perhaps life.

I continue across the bridge over the Chippewa River. It’s a distance at least as far as I’ve traversed so far, and I am battered by winds. I imagine the solar winds streaming from our Sun, blasting its planets with radiation and ionized particles. Jupiter, in particular, has a massively powerful (and massively enormous) magnetic field to protect it from this.

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See my starting point? That cluster of green-roofed buildings across the river?
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Saturn and its lovely disc of rings

I reach Saturn across the bridge. This is the last time I can look back and see my starting point before it’s lost from view. The Sun, itself, is hidden, but I wouldn’t be able to distinguish it anyway. The fact that our telescopes can pick up Saturn and its moons so well from Earth is astonishing with this in mind. With modern telescopes, this is minor league stuff.

 

Now for the first actual work-out of the walk. Uranus is quite a ways off, further south along the river and past a well-maintained neighborhood of what must be pricey houses.

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Uranus
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Neptune

Neptune is worse. It’s sunny and bright, and midday, so I’m feeling my body strain a little with the heat. I can’t see our starting point, or even Saturn, anymore. It’s incredible to think how far the Sun’s sphere of influence extends. Gravity, while relatively weak on close scales, has a gargantuan range. Our model Sun, 16 inches wide, is (hypothetically) keeping this marble-size planet in a stable elliptical orbit at about three-quarters of a mile out. I set out for Pluto.

 

With the huge distance yet to cover, I’ve been walking faster, lingering to observe the view less. It’s as close to empty space as I’ll come in this scaled-down solar system. Just a rhythmic tapping of my feet on concrete, eating up the 3.7 billion tiny miles between Phoenix Park and the lawn near UW Eau Claire’s Haas Fine Arts Center. New Horizons, the probe that just got those gorgeous images of our tiny dwarf planet neighbor, took nine years to travel a distance that I crossed in about half an hour. My mind sparks, working to scale up my speed and time. I am faster than light.

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Pluto and its Little Moon Family: End

Pluto is represented at four times its actual size. Like Mercury, it’s just too minuscule for this scale to capture it properly (but if the scale were any bigger, the walk would be much less neat and manageable).

I am fascinated by the last bit of information on Pluto’s plaque. On this scale, the Alpha Centauri star system would be somewhere in Hong Kong. Let’s push my brain a little again, and contemplate the scale of it. If I were able to continue at an average walking speed of 3 miles per hour, I would reach Hong Kong in about 104 days. Consider: I’ve been traveling at many times the speed of light on the scale. This recognition seems to help me grasp the fact that spacecraft cannot realistically ever reach Alpha Centauri in a reasonable amount of time (that is, measurable in human lifespans). The distance is just too great. Conventional physics and conventional engines just won’t cut it. Sobering.

Perspective is an incredible thing. I highly recommend taking “planet walks,” if one is available to you. On the subject of our solar system’s vastness, here are some other wonderful scales:

This one is a website where you have to scroll to get through our system. (It’s pretty tiring—I gave up at Mercury.)

This is a scale in the Nevada desert which includes orbits and must be driven across, and it’s a beautiful video besides.

 

To the reader: what are your thoughts on perspective, and on the enormous scale of our solar system (if not our universe)? What other similar activities or resources would you recommend?

Raising Monarchs

I wrote in an earlier post that I was volunteering at Beaver Creek Reserve’s Butterfly House Lab. This is a followup on that experience. Prepare to learn about raising monarch caterpillars!

Step 1: Locate Eggs or Caterpillars

Monarchs love milkweed! This is a very common plant and you can find it growing in patches of brush near parks, lawns, and roadsides. Collecting eggs or caterpillars should really be done in places with high disturbance where they would have a low survival rate anyway, that way you won’t disturb the local population with your collection. I didn’t carry out this part of the work at Beaver Creek, but finding milkweed is fairly easy. Locating eggs and young caterpillars requires a bit of inspection. Often they’ll be located in the upper part of the plant on the undersides of leaves.

Step 2: Newborn Caterpillars

Beaver Creek’s method for caring for very tiny, young caterpillars is simply to keep them in plastic baggies sandwiched between milkweed leaves. They’ll survive in this manner until they become large enough to not escape through a screen, at which point they can be placed in a caterpillar container.

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These caterpillars are just big enough to go into a larger container

 

Step 3: Caterpillar Stage

 

I learned a simple technique for housing caterpillars. You can use an empty ice cream pail to contain them. Cut out most of the lid (leaving the rim), and then place a square of mesh screen over the pail and close the rim of the lid over that. No more than six caterpillars should be kept in one ice cream bucket, with fewer animals in smaller containers.

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Freshly Gathered

 

Caterpillars should have fresh milkweed leaves given to them every day. Once they are very large (an inch or more in length), one caterpillar can eat three to four 3 inch leaves per day, so collecting milkweed daily is important! Every time their food is freshened, they should be switched to a fresh container as well, with all of the old leaves and caterpillar waste (frass) dumped out and the old container cleaned and disinfected. Living in close quarters, disease can spread quickly between animals, so it’s important to keep their habitat and your workspace clean.

 

 

 

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Molting Caterpillar

Cautions: If a caterpillar has moved away from the milkweed and is on the side or top of the container, do not switch it to a new container. It is probably molting and mustn’t be disturbed during this delicate process.

 

 

 

 

Step 4: Chrysalis

 

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Large Caterpillars starting to spin chrysalises

Once you’ve taken care of your caterpillars long enough and they’ve reached a large size, they’ll migrate to the top of the container (the underside of the mesh screen). There, they will hang from the mesh and curl their bodies in a characteristic “J” shape. At this stage, do not disturb them until they have finished creating their chrysalises. Then they can be moved to a larger container (Beaver Creek uses ones which are screen sides on a wooden frame) to await their transformation.

 

Step 5: Butterfly

The chrysalis begins as a seafoam green color with spots of metallic gold. When the butterfly is close to emerging, the chrysalis becomes clear and you’ll be able to see the colors of the wings within. Eventually it will crack open and the butterfly, still folded and wet, will emerge. Give it plenty of time to unfold and dry out. Once it is actively flapping its wings, perhaps even fluttering around its container a bit, it’s time to release your metamorphosed friend! Do so in a quiet location, away from busy areas, near flowers and brush. Butterflies require food, but also sunlight and areas to hide.

 

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Three butterflies are ready to go. Note the green, unready chrysalises on the far left and the dark, nearly ready ones right of those. These are being released into Beaver Creek’s Butterfly House.

 

Raising monarchs is a fantastic project to do with children, as it is quite simple to only raise one or two at a time. They don’t require much upkeep. Consider it as a science fair or other school project, or just as something to do at home.

 

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Chrysalis cages and the gorgeous mural at Beaver Creek’s Butterfly House Lab

 

 

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A Freed Butterfly

 

To the reader: feel free to share experiences or resources on raising monarchs and other kinds of caterpillars! What do you like or dislike about the methods on display here?

Book Review: Silent Spring

27333Who among us can say they wrote a book that changed the world? Certainly that title belongs to very few. Despite my own environmentalist philosophy, it’s taken me a while to get to reading Rachel Carson’s seminal work: Silent Spring. This was a book that truly launched into preeminence the environmental movement. Loose threads of concern and activism were tied together by a common core and for a common purpose. Unfortunately, Carson died less than two years after publishing her work, and so she did not see the true force of impact it had on the world—but we see.

Silent Spring, despite its age (published first in 1962, and I read the 50th-anniversary edition with a new Introduction and Afterword), is still monumental, and even revolutionary. Carson starts with a question: “What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America?” and gives this first, preliminary answer: “This book is an attempt to explain.” However, she does much more than just that. The book is a comprehensive look at what was once perhaps the gravest environmental problem facing the United States: the overuse of dangerous pesticides. Though she doesn’t spell it out in so many words, Carson explains the problem, its nature, its many faces and guises, and, remarkably, spends a great deal of time on potential solutions as well. This is something I haven’t seen much in environmental books: generally, there is a great deal of meditation on problems and very small-scale, specific solutions. Carson, however, goes to great lengths to prescribe alternative methods of controlling pests that aren’t as harmful as pesticides. I’ll get to that in more detail in a moment.

The structure of Silent Spring is impeccable. There is, first, a call to action: the hypothetical small town in America, witness to mysterious death and affliction and crisis of health. Carson then spends time going into the workings of various pesticides. There were two primary categories of pesticides in use at the time: the chlorinated hydrocarbons (including the infamous DDT) and the slightly newer organic phosphates. Each group has differing biochemical effects, which Carson takes the time to describe before then explaining how these pesticides can infiltrate groundwater, soil, and vegetation. I found myself grateful for my background in ecology during these early chapters: otherwise, I would’ve had a large amount of material to digest and process before moving on. This technical emphasis could be a deterrent to readers not as versed in scientific processes (like bioaccumulation and nutrient flow), but Carson is adept at explaining advanced concepts so that even a layperson could understand.

She continues by delving right into the heart of negative impacts on the environment: deaths and population reductions in plants, wildlife, and culminating in human effects. Two chapters at the end are devoted to how health impacts can come about in humans, specifically with the fact that some pesticides can damage cellular metabolism or replication (causing mutations and defects in chromosomes).

Silent Spring concludes powerfully: at first by demonstrating that in many cases, attempts to eradicate pests using insecticides completely fails, and then by offering a plethora of counter solutions.

The tone of the book was fascinating: a unique juxtaposition of dark and light. On the one hand, the problem addressed by Carson is a true war on life itself. She has too many examples of death and malady to effectively process—an overwhelming array of streams without fish, roadsides barren of wildflowers, children sickening and dying after accidental contact with pesticides, flocks of birds convulsing and dead upon the ground, trees wilting—it is horrifying to think that at one point this was the norm. At one point in our history, this death was accepted as necessary. One chapter, in particular, presents a scenario of “ordinary life” that, to me, seemed like some kind of horrific dystopian science fiction novel: pesticides contaminating literally every food item (one example was brought up of an Inuit who only tested positive for DDT in his body fat after a stay at a hospital where he consumed the processed food), homeowners treating their lawns and shrubs with potentially deadly chemicals, and pesticides like dieldrin and chlordane in common use to kill insects in the home. This chapter was incredibly striking after learning of the many ravaging effects of chlordane, dieldrin, and others.

Amidst all of this death, though, is the prospect of hope. Carson takes time in most chapters, and then again in one entire chapter at the very end, to list examples of alternative solutions to pest control. She describes weaker, safer pesticides, but spends most of her text space describing biological solutions. These include the introduction of predators and parasites of invasive pest insects, management of plant ecosystems to control plant pests, the spreading of highly-specific insect pathogens, and even the release of sterile male insects (like the screw-worm) to control populations. This focus on biological solutions is related to perhaps the most revolutionary (at the time) aspect of Silent Spring.

Carson continuously uses whole-systems perspectives to explain the impacts of pesticides. She rarely focuses on one species or problem but links everything together. “In nature nothing exists alone.” Ecology was then a young science, and so the fixation that Carson has on explaining ecological processes and connections impressed me. Her holistic language cultivates a sense of connectivity and reciprocity.  Humans are not separate from our world or from nature. Her prescription of solutions keeps this ecological perspective in mind. “Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships,” she writes, speaking of ecological ones between different lifeforms, “but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.” However, “where man has been intelligent enough to observe and to emulate Nature he, too, is often rewarded with success.”

Indeed, many of the examples of biological controls she describes at the end are successes. Perhaps this involves a bit of cherry-picking (presenting the most harmful examples of chemical pest control and the most successful ones of biological pest control), but the downsides are obviously much preferable to an overt poisoning of life.

My only qualms with the book were not exactly with the book itself or its author, but with the fact that some of the information was, of course, outdated. For example, Carson spends a chapter explaining how cancer may arise in humans due to pesticides, but some of the ideas and hypotheses are basic and have much new information (we know a great deal more about cancer development now than in the 1960s). So, I will be on the lookout for books in the vein of Silent Spring that contain updates to the information or situations presented therein.

I would recommend this book to everyone. Carson manages to explain difficult concepts so that everyone may understand them, so the science should not be a barrier. Although this is a (mostly) past issue, it has many chilling echoes even to today. Pesticides are still in use, and should still require great study and care in administration. A few examples were made of insects developing resistance to certain insecticides, an issue which is the precursor in spirit to one of our most pressing modern problems: that of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Perhaps, like the researchers studying biological controls for insects, we must find clever, unprecedented methods of dealing with bacteria and pathogens. In particular, Carson notes that resistance usually develops faster in warmer climates where insects have faster generational overturn. This could perhaps become an issue again with the onset of climate change. Warmer temperatures could mean more insect generations per year, which could mean the development of resistance to modern insecticides and a higher rate of insect-borne disease spread.

Of course, biological controls are not without problem, themselves. We do know better now how to be careful when introducing predators and parasites of invasive species, but several chains of destruction have been instigated by the introduction of yet another invasive species into a new habitat (the species, which was supposed to only control the first invasive species, instead causes devastation to some native species). Therefore, in no way should Silent Spring be taken literally anymore. Its information—both problems and solutions—are past and in need of updating. Its ideas, however, are still relevant, and as long as the reader places it in proper historical context it is still worthy of reading.

I would love to see the template of Silent Spring used by more environmental books today. A focus on both problems and solutions, despair and hope, gives the reader more to focus on than just a sense of doom. I get that feeling from a lot of environmental literature today; this is understandable, given the grave threats that life on Earth currently faces, but I believe a work may become more impactful if it attains the tone and structure present in Rachel Carson’s book.

As I read the 50th Anniversary edition, I will also take a moment to state that both the Introduction by Linda Lear, which goes a bit into the biographical details of Rachel Carson, and the Afterword by E. O. Wilson, which delves into the book’s impacts and Wilson’s own experience of them, were worthy additions to Silent Spring. Having a bit more context in which to place this work was extremely helpful.

To conclude my thoughts on Silent Spring (which are many and ongoing), I do recommend this book for anyone who wants a sense of what the world has faced and continues to face. Perhaps it would give everyone the perspective needed to understand that humans have the power to change the world for the worse. Specifically, it gave me a huge appreciation for modern industry regulations. Although demonized by certain groups, regulations serve a basic purpose of keeping us safe. Without them, we would still be using deadly chemicals like those described in Silent Spring. And without Rachel Carson’s book, perhaps we would have made the connections too late to save ourselves and our world from markedly greater destruction.

 

To the reader: If you’ve read Silent Spring, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d especially love to hear what you think we can take away from it today, with our modern environmental problems.

*Note: Cover image taken from Goodreads.

*A heartwrenching, beautiful article on the nature of Rachel Carson’s writing and the end of her life

On the Nature of Butterflies

Spend a summer day watching a field. Under a blazing sun, above flower-speckled green, they dance on the air like living confetti—just as paper-thin and delicate. They, among other pollinators, maintain a crucial link in the living systems of the world. Flowering plants use their visitations to propagate themselves on into the future.

This summer I’m volunteering in a butterfly garden, as a caretaker of caterpillars. Most of the caterpillars that Beaver Creek Reserve raises are monarchs, a species of particular concern for conservation groups.

As we spent the hour-long training period exploring our work space and seeing demonstrations on the care of caterpillars and chrysalises, I was stricken by the many instances of frailty we encountered in our overview of the butterfly life cycle. Of course, butterflies are symbols of fragility: it should surprise no one that I think this way—but it’s more significant than I imagined.

Monarch caterpillars go through five stages of molting, or shedding of the old skin; the final instance of which is the formation of the chrysalis in preparation for becoming a butterfly. If a molting caterpillar is disturbed—too firm a nudge from a finger—the old skin will stiffen, vicelike, about the insect’s body. The caterpillar becomes trapped in its own skin. Unable to escape, it dies.

When the caterpillar is ready to become a butterfly and prepares to form its chrysalis, it will climb to a high surface and begin weaving a small node of silk by which to hang itself. If a caterpillar is removed from the surface while in the characteristic “J” position (that is, preparing to become a chrysalis), the thread of silk snaps and it is detached. Unable to form another silk node, the caterpillar dies.

The final stage of molting leads to the chrysalis. The caterpillar attaches itself to the underside of a high surface and sheds the final skin of its neonatal form. The chrysalis, though, is still delicate. A chrysalis which falls to the ground becomes dented or flattened. This is another death sentence for the insect. The caterpillar may become unable to reform into a butterfly, or the resultant butterfly may be deformed and unable to fly. It dies.

As we learned about these dangers to caterpillars, they were all in the context of how to handle the insect. We are not to disturb a molting caterpillar or a caterpillar in a “J” position. Chrysalises, which are almost always formed on the bottom of screens attached over ice cream pails (the “habitat” of the caterpillars”), are to be transferred, screen and all, to a new cage to develop in peace. If any fall, there is no point in transferring them. I took careful notes, as usual, and committed myself to an ethic of caution and sensitivity when handling our charges.

However, it does not escape me that the reality is far removed from our careful environment. Creatures which we are working so hard to care for, which we are taking such precautions not to damage, which would fill us with guilt if we killed, are routinely sentenced to the void: to the continuing cycles of nutrients and energy that is the natural trophic web. Countless numbers die while in these impossibly fragile states of being—how could they not? A tiny bump, a fall, a rough gust of wind—all spell instant death. How can creatures which require such perfect conditions to survive continue to exist in our world? It is something remarkably beautiful and precious.

Something we should continue to care for.

Monarchs are in danger. They are noteworthy for being a migratory butterfly species: and what’s more, their migrations are multigenerational. One generation makes only part of the journey. Only the last generation of the year actually migrates at all. If something goes wrong in one generation—one terrible summer storm or one eroded migratory route or one degraded overwintering ground—the species itself will suffer. Linked by thin threads of time, bound by strict anatomical rules: this is a species which seems, because it is so very fragile, barely tethered to existence. And yet, butterflies are everywhere. Until humans began wide-scale degradation of habitat and application of insecticides and herbicides, they were incredibly successful and widespread. It is up to us to keep them here in our world.

Jim, our instructor and the person in charge of Beaver Creek’s butterfly raising project, is certainly trying. He and a few other volunteers gather wild eggs for the butterfly house. “My wife and I have these milkweed patches on the roadsides where we go just before we know they’re about to mow.” And thus, monarchs are saved from death.

So what are some ways you can help butterflies?

  • Volunteer: this is something I’m doing since I have the time. Find a butterfly garden or nature center that does butterfly work.
  • Raise caterpillars: it is best not to do too many at once since this can spread disease or parasites if you’re not careful enough, but you can easily rescue some eggs from dangerous locations, raise the caterpillars, and release them. I’ll be documenting Beaver Creek’s butterfly-raising methods so you can follow along with me. Otherwise, there are plenty of sites based on the topic. Here’s a lovely one I found which covers the care of caterpillars.
  • Plant a butterfly garden: choose plants that attract butterflies, preferably ones native to your region, and plant them. This is pretty simple, but you can add more complexity (with sunning and shady spots, plants that flower at different times of the year, plants for different species, and so on). It’s a good way to help out wild butterflies, especially ones that wander into town. Again, there are many resources available to help you. Make sure to find guides for your region to learn the best plants to use and which butterfly species to expect.

 

To the reader: What are your experiences with butterflies?

Book Review: Citizen Scientist

Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction is a book that encompasses a depth of ponderings and a wealth of rich detail. It is one great emotional journey composed of myriad smaller ones, crossing history and the world. It is a work of literature as well as a science book, a memoir and a set of profiles. In short, it is an ambitious work and left me deeply satisfied.22580997

Hannibal’s broad goal with this volume is right there in the subtitle: she is on a hunt for the heroes of citizen science: those citizen scientists whose lives fulfill some aspect of the Hero’s Journey as defined by Joseph Campbell, and for hope for the future in a time when the natural world is in a state of diminishment. She notes in the Introduction, specifically in a project where Native American wisdom is being utilized to reintroduce fire to landscapes where it is needed:

“Science is sometimes blamed for separating humans from nature, but here science was helping to heal the rift. Can it be healed? Are we nearing the utter end of the world, or is there a way forward?”

Hannibal uses as an anchor her own personal interactions with citizen science. Over the course of writing, she gets involved with a number of projects (from a seashore life inventory to a migratory hawk count program) and writes about the vibrant personalities she encounters as well as the notes of history that run deep beneath the different kinds of work she does. While visiting her own experiences, she touches back frequently on the central relationship of the book: that between her and her now-deceased father. That relationship, specifically the end of it, reflects the larger story: of our relationship to a suffering natural world.

Her fascination with heroes, specifically, comes from a personal source: she attended a lecture by a then elderly Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologizer and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces. His life was intricately linked to those of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, authors of one of the founding works of citizen science: The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Campbell was influenced enough by his time with them to state that “myth is a function of biology.” Fascinated by this implication, Hannibal has linked myth, heroes, and biology all together in this work.

“What I’m trying to do in this book is what they were trying to do—put it all together, the personal, the historical, the scientific,” she writes, referencing Steinbeck and Ricketts.

Much of the book consists of interweaving narratives: with Hannibal’s experiences as the jumping point for forays into the lives of so-called “heroes” both modern and historic. In some cases, she probably doesn’t spend enough time defining why her featured subjects fit Campbell’s “hero” mold, and occasionally goes on tangents concerning other people who are related to the topic but not “heroes” themselves. This made the book a bit information-heavy at times, but the general goal is still fulfilled.

Perhaps one of the more satisfying aspects of the book was its clear story arc. I haven’t often encountered a full arc (rise to a climax and then a resolution) in science books, so this was a delightful find for me as a reader (perhaps my standards aren’t high enough?).

As this book deals with extinction, threads of despair are woven throughout, but they are perhaps strongest in Chapter 8, which deals a great deal with the threatening effects of climate change. The chapter specifically mentions the loss of Bay checkerspot butterflies (a historically important species, as they were the model species for the first defining studies of coevolution) from Jasper Ridge and the total invasion of buffelgrass into the Sonoran Desert and French brome onto Mount Tam. Chapter 9, however, seems like the climactic moment. It is primarily the story of Campbell, Steinbeck, and Ricketts and the development of the seminal works used in Citizen Scientist. There is even a final note of great despair: the mentioning of the Dark Mountain Project (which was influenced by some of the same philosophers these men were), who profess that they have “stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse,” and that “writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality.” Dark, indeed. Hannibal doesn’t linger here, though. She moves back into the tale of the three central figures and their influence on citizen science.

My one major qualm with this section is that she doesn’t spend much time talking about Carol Steinbeck, John’s wife and apparently just as central to the story as the three men.

All of the references to them really made that chapter the climactic section of the book, but momentum doesn’t falter after Chapter 9. Chapter 10 details the work of Same Droege, inventor of the “bioblitz” citizen science survey. Droege’s drive and energy inspire a new injection of hope; there is no time to think about extinction or endings, only a constant forward momentum here. It’s a good resolution to the emotions of the book, which until then had been rather ambiguous about whether we should be hopeful or despairing of our natural world’s future.

Citizen Scientist is successful in its broad goals. Although Hannibal can be detail-heavy at times, her occasionally extraneous tangents didn’t detract too much from the flow of the work. The emotional arc was satisfying enough that I can forgive it for being a slow read.

There were a few other personal things I’ll mention:

My favorite “hero” of the book is Alice Eastwood. Her life story is simply fascinating and she sounds almost fantastical as a character, but she was quite real.

There are many citizen science projects mentioned in the book. Although many are local, many others are not. Therefore, anyone reading this book looking for advice can easily use it to get ideas for how to participate in citizen science. However, it is by no means a how-to manual. If you’re looking for a book purely about citizen science efforts, this will be more than you asked for. Citizen Scientist is more of a work of literary nonfiction for those of a scientific bent, with the added bonus of being helpful to anyone who wants to get more involved in scientific efforts.

I personally also loved the positive emphasis placed on citizen science. There were so many examples of the major contributions citizen science has made to the advancement of science in general. Charles Darwin, in fact, can be loosely categorized as a citizen scientist (and the voyage of the Beagle, is, in fact, written about here).

I’ll allow Hannibal the last word, here, as it is a fitting call to action:

“Citizen science is taking off as never before, and it is needed as never before.”

 

To the reader: As with my other book reviews, please let me know if you’ve read this book or similar ones and would like to discuss or compare. Do you feel that citizen science has an important place in the future of science? What about its history, after reading this book?

Storytelling and the Seasons: Connecting Kids with Nature

Reading a picture book about animals and nature, and going on a hike through the woods: two activities that can get kids thinking about ecology and the natural world that could be even more powerful if combined.

That’s the rationale of a program at the Beaver Creek Nature Center in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Posted along a quarter-mile, paved trail through a deciduous forest are ten large signs where pages from a picture book are displayed. As children and their families walk the trail, they can also read the story. The Trail has only been functioning for about a year and a half, now; it’s a newer project run partially by volunteers—including, recently, myself.

whenspringcomesMy role was a supporting one: I helped conduct one of the seasonal Storybook Hiking Trail events. A new story, relating to what the kids could see outside, is selected each season. The pages are scanned and organized to fit on the ten signs, and sometime during the season children are invited out to a group reading of the story as well as other educational activities. I helped get children from between 3 and 8 years old thinking about springtime by playing a few games and then eventually going out to read When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek, a story about the onset of spring and renewal of life after winter. It’s a very sweet, softly illustrated story that I would recommend to caretakers of young children. You can talk to your child about what they’re seeing in the story versus what they see outside, allowing them to think and learn about the natural world.

So why would reading a picture book while on a hike be beneficial to children? There are a few reasons:

  • It gets kids outside and exercising. To finish the story, they have to keep moving and walk the whole trail.bearsnoreson
  • The story is nature-themed; it helps the kids think about plants and animals and can often teach them about parts of nature. (For example, the winter story this year was Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, which was about hibernation).
  • It helps them notice real things around them. (Another example: when talking about the signs of spring in the pictures and words of When Spring Comes, the kids could relate these to what they were seeing on the trail and what they’d seen at home).
  • The seasonal changing of the story gives children a deeper connection to the cycles of nature.
  • Storytelling is a good way to engage attention—we are naturally drawn to a story structure and, because we want to find cause and effect and see an arc of progression, we naturally assign narratives to events.

So what can you do, if you want to achieve this kind of effect with your own children? Without actually visiting this particular place, you can still use storytelling to get your kids connected to nature. Conducting this activity on a smaller scale is actually very easy: just read a story to your kids outside, maybe also encouraging them to walk a little before reading them the next page.

beaver-creek-reserve-path
Trail at Beaver Creek Reserve

For the most effective results, find a natural place (nature trail or even a park near your neighborhood) and find a story that will relate to something you’ll see outside. You can find stories about animals native to your region, animal behaviors (like hibernation or migration), stories about the weather or seasons, or even stories about the plant life or habitats. Relating the story to whatever season is going on is Beaver Creek’s strategy. This is a great activity to do with young children—one you can tailor to fit whatever ages you’re working with.

 

For an added level of complexity, perhaps to engage older kids, you can even get them to make up their own story about something they see outside—with illustrations—and then read it outdoors, having them show you what they found that inspired the story.

If you’re looking for ideas, here are a few lists on Goodreads with picture books about different nature themes: Trees, Birds, Spring, Fall, Bears, and Bugs.

If you’re interested in volunteering with children in science/nature education, I’d recommend finding a nature center, science or children’s museum, educational garden, zoo, or even a state or national park (one that conducts educational programming) near you and visiting its website. Many of them rely on volunteers to help guests or to help with special events. If you enjoy working with kids and love nature or science, these kinds of opportunities are great and the help is sorely needed.

Whether you’re trying to get involved in your community or just want to spend time with your own kids, enjoy some story time in the great outdoors!

 

To the reader: do you have thoughts on how to connect picture books to actual trips to the outdoors? Do you have recommendations for specific books or places? Do you know of other locations like Beaver Creek Reserve that host programs like this? Please share!

 

*Note: Book cover images from Goodreads. Trail photo from Beaver Creek’s website.

Why Putting Shrimp on Treadmills is Good Science

Example for: What Does this Scientific Paper Mean for People?

It’s likely you’ve come to this post after seeing my related post, “What Does this Scientific Paper Mean for People?” If not, I recommend skimming it first, as it details the process I’m about to use to assess the merit of a pretty famous example of potentially wasteful science.

First, I’ll find a few pieces of journalism about the shrimp situation.

 

shrimpscreenshot
Screenshot from the video

The study originally came to media attention when a video was posted to Youtube from David Scholnick’s (one of the researchers) website. One of the early articles on the video and surrounding research was by Sara Goudarzi (it can be found on Live Science and NBC). It’s a short article, without much context. Most of the implications can be found in one paragraph at the bottom of the article.

 

“Shrimp dealing with an infection would be less active and might be limited in their ability to migrate, find food, and avoid being eaten, Scholnick said. “These studies will give us a better idea of how marine animals can perform in their native habitat when faced with increasing pathogens and immunological challenges.””

So here is a bigger biological context: disease can affect parts of the shrimp life cycle. But why should we care? And why is this relevant?

There is a later report by Mike Selizic on Today which makes much more of an effort to detail the broader implications of the study.

“Both climate change and the runoff from agriculture and human activities affect the composition of ocean water, which in turn can lead to higher levels of bacteria. If shrimp with bacterial infections have less endurance and strength, that affects their ability to survive.”

Now we know more about the relevance. Human activity may cause increased disease vectors in shrimp. But still, why should we care about shrimp survival?

“Now that Burnett and Scholnick have a handle on how disease affects shrimp, they’re applying treadmill research to other critters that most of us think about only when they show up on a menu.”

In this case, it’s obvious and assumed as obvious by the article: we eat shrimp! Therefore, we should understand how disease affects them and other creatures we eat.

 

shrimp trawler
Shrimp Trawler

 

My example is so far showing that you can’t just take one journalistic article as your entire reference for the relevance of a study. That is especially true in this case. Many later articles focused on this study as a waste of taxpayer dollars and fruitless government spending. In cases like this, where the journalism is obviously controversial or political, it’s time to look to the paper itself. I’ve selected one paper that was within the larger study the treadmill video was a part of and conducted by the same team of researchers (David Scholnick, Karen Burnett, and Louis Burnett): Impact of Exposure to Bacteria on Metabolism in the Penaeid Shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei.

First, I’ll examine the Introduction. This is a relatively short paper; the Intro jumps straight into a very specific line of research, discussing first the role of gills in the crustacean immune system (the gills may eject bacteria). Large levels of bacteria may also impede respiratory performance in crustaceans. One statement relates to a somewhat larger picture:

“…low levels of environmental oxygen can impair the rate at which bacteria are cleared from the hemolymph.”

Although the Intro doesn’t go into more detail than this. It concludes with the specific research question: the investigators want to test respiratory performance of shrimp that have been exposed to bacterial pathogens in water with normal and low levels of oxygen.

The Discussion may have some larger context as well. The researchers noticed a significant “metabolic depression” in the infected shrimp, at levels that surprised even them and are worth of further research based on discrepancies between their test and other related tests. The Discussion then reiterates how bacterial infection and low-oxygen environments may compound each other’s effects on shrimp respiration and metabolism, an observation supported by their experiment.

Based on levels of lactate produced by the infected shrimp (lactate being the byproduct of anaerobic respiration, which takes over when there isn’t enough oxygen to support the muscular system), the researchers estimated there to be a “29% reduction in overall metabolism” because of bacterial infection. This is a big number, but what does it mean?

The last statement in the paper is perhaps the broadest and most meaningful.

“Our results provide a plausible explanation for the increased susceptibility of crustaceans to infectious disease in hypoxic environments and lend support for further investigations to determine how reduced ATP production associated with exposure to bacteria may impact overall activity and performance.”

Crustaceans respond worse to infection in low-oxygen environments. Though it isn’t stated outright why we should care about their “activity and performance,” it seems fairly obvious that it is because crustaceans are important to human dietary intake. We eat shrimp in large quantities, so it matters how they perform as a species (as in, if they can survive easily).

However, there’s one statement that the researchers could’ve gone into more that would’ve related things to a bigger picture. They keep mentioning hypoxic environments, but why would this be timely? This will require some further investigation.

The paper is somewhat short, and shorter papers are often so either because of space requirements (they can’t afford to give a lot of words over to explaining background and context) or because the background and context are assumed based on the expected readers of the paper. In this case, I’d go with the latter, at least partially. As someone with a background in marine science, I can already tell you why considering hypoxic environments and their effects on food animals like shrimp is important and relevant.

To delve more into hypoxia, I followed some citations. Boyd and Burnett’s Reactive Oxygen Intermediate Production by Oyster Hemocytes Exposed to Hypoxia led to a few more papers on hypoxic environments in general which mentioned how they are often seasonal, can cover large areas, and can have large effects on organisms living there and are associated with mortality events.

algae
Algae blooms like this one can soak up oxygen

Simply googling hypoxia at this point would easily lead to a more obvious relevance to humans: our actions, specifically the overproduction of certain nutrients mostly due to agriculture and industry, are fueling algal blooms in estuaries and gulfs. When the algae die and start to decay, the process consumes oxygen in the water and leads to a hypoxic event. Therefore, we are directly causing a drastic change in certain environments—understanding that change on different levels is in our best interest.

 

More information can be found in the other methods I mentioned at the end of my original post. To expand our viewpoints, we can find opinion pieces about the study. Betsy Hammond wrote a piece for The Oregonian allowing David Scholnick, the researcher who originally posted the shrimp treadmill video, to defend his work. There is one paragraph which sums up the defense pretty well:

“His decision to put shrimp on treadmills was a very tiny part of a much larger study by two College of Charleston professors, looking at how shrimps’ immune systems react when ocean warming or pollution makes it hard for them to breathe. The National Science Foundation paid $426,000 for that study, which was designed to help promote food safety and the health of commercial shrimp fisheries.”

So there’s an obvious meaningfulness to the work. Scholnick even published his own post about the entire incident; it’s a good way to get everything from his viewpoint and really see how everything played out.

There’s one last avenue of investigation we can follow, here. The NSF grant information for the larger study that the paper and video were a part of is available to view online. The entire Abstract for the project is one long justification for its existence: detailing the rise of hypoxic conditions, commercially important crustacean populations that may live in vulnerable environments, and what environmental and physiological variables may react to low oxygen conditions. It is very clear that more research into specific, physiological-level effects are needed to understand effects on entire populations of crustaceans.

So what have we learned from all this?

First, sometimes it takes a lot of research to figure out the big picture context of a single scientific study.

Second, good journalism is important in relating between science and society when the links are not obvious or too broad in scope to be in the original paper.

Third, putting shrimp on a treadmill was worthy science.

 

To the reader: are there any scientific studies that you’ve had difficulty relating to larger contexts, or that you can see the relevance of but others seem not to be able to? Also, I can repeat this procedure for papers you give me if you want more examples! Feel free to make requests.

Tips: What Does this Scientific Paper Mean for People?

Shrimp on a treadmill? A few years ago, you may have noticed a small uproar develop over research involving placing shrimp on underwater treadmills. The largest outcry involved claims of wasteful government spending, resulting in scrutiny for many researchers and research grants. The NPR has a great report on the situation if you’re interested in reading more.

So if you heard about that or got caught up in it in some way, which side is to be believed? Were the shrimp-on-treadmill studies wasteful or worth it? Here I’ll offer up some tips on checking for yourself what scientific studies mean for people and the world.

As an example for readers, I’ll use one of the papers published by the researchers who did the treadmill-shrimp study so we can look together to see if something presented as ridiculous might have bigger implications for society. I’ll put my example in a separate post.

Start with what you encounter first: journalism. Most journalistic pieces on science will relate whatever research is being talked about to the world at large. A news piece will usually have interviews with the researchers involved and one or more researchers in the field who were not involved that will discuss impacts of the study. This can range from obvious things like new technology and health benefits to studies that will advance the field (testing new methods or techniques, for example).

Journalism should not be the last step if you have further questions, though—especially if the benefits or implications of a study still aren’t obvious outside of one specific field. You have to move on to the paper itself (the following tips all assume you can access the full paper—in some cases, you will not be able to).

The two most important sections of the paper to read for broader implications are the Introduction and Discussion (or Conclusions).

The Introduction will start with broad context, explaining what field is being studied, questions and progress within that field, and often the relation of that field of science to society. It will usually narrow down in scope until it addresses the specific research questions of the study. In longer papers, you’ll get a much longer, more involved background while in short ones it may feel rushed and not include as much context, but don’t worry about that for now.

The Discussion will talk about the findings of the paper and what they mean in the context of the field and for science. Usually, the Discussion will take an opposite, mirrored effect to the Intro: broadening in scope until it finally addresses larger societal implications.

Most of your questions, therefore, will probably be answered by the researchers themselves in the Intro and Discussion. But what if you still don’t feel like it has much impact on society? You may have to dig into the background research.

Start with the list of references at the end of the paper. Go through the Intro and Discussion again, and wherever you see a citation (usually an author’s name and date or sometimes just a number) for a piece of information that seems like it could be part of the big picture, find it in the list of references and try to find that paper. With some background (detailing why the field was explored in the first place) or side studies (which link the research to something more relevant to society), you should find broader implications very quickly.

Sometimes this process may result in detective work where you continually find new papers to skim to try and broaden your scope, but by this point, you may be wondering if that original paper really means that much if you have to get so far removed to see the impacts.

The answer to this musing, of course, is perhaps it doesn’t. If a paper doesn’t seem to advance a field (by clearing up a definition, testing new methodologies, or investigating important hypotheses), perhaps it’s not particularly important. But this will rarely be the case. It shouldn’t take too much searching to find links between the paper and important, relevant topics (important and relevant to some sector of society, anyway).

A lot of what we view as important science is very subjective. Take space exploration, for example. Many people see it as crucially important to the existence of humanity and imperative to fulfilling our species’ drive for discovery. However, some see it as a waste. This stance seems impossible to me, but the views of people are as varied and diverse as the people themselves.

If you can’t see why a paper is important, before disdaining it try to have an open mind. Perhaps there is a perspective from which a study or bit of research is very important. Perhaps for some people, it is life or death, or will affect their livelihoods, or will save endangered species (another occasionally divisive topic which for some people is extremely important and worthy). If you want to practice at this, try looking for opinion pieces about the scientific field or find the webpages of the scientists involved in the study to get a better feel for how it affects their lives. Expanding your horizons before casting doubt and shame is always the best option in my experience.

There is a side note to this process as well: funding. In the case of the shrimp-on-treadmills study, most of the outrage seemed to stem from the fact that there was government funding involved. When it is a case of whether public funds are being put to good use, try researching the funding agencies. The primary federal scientific funding agency is the National Science Foundation. The NSF receives thousands of project proposals every year, selecting only about a quarter of them to which to allot funding. It has strict merit review criteria as part of its reviewing process. Specifically, from Chapter 4, Section A of the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide:

“When evaluating NSF proposals, reviewers will be asked to consider what the proposers want to do, why they want to do it, how they plan to do it, how they will know if they succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project is successful. These issues apply both to the technical aspects of the proposal and the way in which the project may make broader contributions. To that end, reviewers will be asked to evaluate all proposals against two criteria:

  • Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and
  • Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:

1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:

a. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and

b. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?

2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?”

The NSF already evaluates what it gives funding to based on broader impacts to society, so your tax dollars (at least on the federal level) are most likely not going to waste.

I hope my tips have helped you and will continue to help you in evaluations of the merit of research. It can be hard, at first, to see why a hyper-specific scientific study might be important—science is usually incremental and diverse. But if you really want to know, the answers are likely already there.

 

To the reader: do you have tips or advice of your own for assessing how important a given study is to society? Are there any fields of science you think are wasteful or not worth publicly funding? Or the reverse: any fields (or specific studies) usually seen as obscure and pointless that you can relate to a bigger scale?

The Science Olympiad: Volunteering for Science Education

You stare ahead, waiting restlessly, and shift your weight back and forth in the seat that you can’t quite seem to make comfortable. Your arms rest on the table, pencil hovering precipitously over the packet of paper that is alone save for your ever-at-the-ready calculator. When will it begin? Your heart races, palms sweating as you run everything over and over again through your mind, wondering if you’ve studied enough.

Suddenly, the word is out: it’s time. You have fifty minutes. You flip from the first page, where you wrote your name and the name of your school, to the start of the test.

But this isn’t a normal test. You’re not here for the grade.

You’re here for the glory.

You volunteered for this. You have several other events today, some of them written tests like this and some not. You imagine the weight of the medal hanging around your neck, heart swelling with pride.

And you are filled with joy: that of a mind expanded as you’ve taken the time to learn more about the wonders of science.

This was me as a nerdy high schooler, and it will be the countless students this spring who participate in the Science Olympiad.

It was also the few dozen students who sat in front of me recently.

I took a day out of my schedule to volunteer at one of the regional Science Olympiad competitions in my home state. I helped supervise the competitors and score their tests. During my thoughtful moments, it was fascinating to note the stark contrast between then and now. I felt at ease, surrounded by obviously nervous teenagers whose thoughts were probably filled with the material of a few different subjects all crammed into one day—teenagers in the place I once occupied.

The Science Olympiad is a competition which allots to the science crowd the pageantry, drama, excitement, and yes, even glory, usually relegated to sports. If you’ve never participated, there are a few dozen events to choose from in different areas of science and technology. Some events are hands-on (including chemical lab work and construction of machines), some are written tests, and some combine elements of both. Students, usually in pairs, can participate in only a handful of them and are broken up by school. At the end of the day, the highest placing teams receive medals and the schools that received the highest overall scores win trophies. Schools that do well enough in sectional competitions move on to the state competition, and from there can move on to a national event.

For the curious, here is the Science Olympiad’s website. There are individual websites for each state as well. You’ll probably notice pretty quickly the high-profile list of funders—in the science world, this is big.

I feel as though the comparison with sports is especially apt given the effects of the competition upon its participants. Students who usually don’t have much reason to celebrate their accomplishments before a cheering crowd get that opportunity, and it’s a huge encouragement for someone going into science. It’s also a message: science deserves celebration and excitement as much as any sporting event does.

It’s a way to learn about careers, too. The tests often involve topics that aren’t covered in as much depth during classes. The supervisor for the event I helped with was a professional working in the field that the test covered, and I got to see her talk to an excited boy who wanted to do the same thing. He got to meet someone who made it happen and see a potential future for himself, all through this competition as a connecting point.

If you want to get involved and volunteer for a Science Olympiad competition, here are some things I picked up:

Competition coordinators usually look for people with experience in a specific field (professionals or teachers), many of whom participated in the Science Olympiad, to write the tests. So if you fit this profile, you have a chance to get very heavily involved!

That isn’t the option for most people, though. If you want to get involved (but not that much) then I encourage you to do what I did. Contact a coordinator for a regional, sectional, or state event and offer to assist with one of the events. Assistants will mostly just supervise students while they compete and then help score their tests afterward.

If you’ve participated in the Science Olympiad in middle or high school, then I definitely encourage you to get involved. It’s a great way to reciprocate what you were given and doesn’t require much effort on your part—only time. I did this opportunistically, as a regional competition was held very close to where I live.

Check out the website for your state’s Science Olympiad. It will have the list of sectional and regional competition locations and will also list coordinators for each one (the person you will want to get in contact with). It will also have the list of events (if you have a preference). As an example, here’s the site of the state where I participated.

This is a great way to get involved in science education, and for me was a very positive experience.

 

To the reader: have you participated in the Science Olympiad as a competitor, coach, or volunteer? How was your experience? What do you think of the value of science competitions like this to society?