Category Archives: Science

Let Us Sustain This Conversation


 

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Dr. Kris Keuseman, associate professor of chemistry, speaks Nov. 19, 2018, during the final presentation in the 2018 Mount Mercy University Fall Faculty Series.

Plastics, it turns out, are a lot likes pasta. The polymers that make up plastics are long molecules, and, like spaghetti, sometimes parts of them can break off—which is one reason that plastic so permeates our environment now.

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Dr. Tracy Tunwall, associate professor of business.

The 2018 Fall Faculty Series was about the central problem of our time—a conversation on the topic of sustainability. Called “Sustainability: Human/Nature & the Future of the Earth,” the series concluded with a presentation by Dr. Tracy Tunwall, associate professor of business; and Dr. Kris Keuseman, associate professor of chemistry.

Called “Addressing Consumerism: The Life-Cycle of Stuff,” it was a sobering final presentation Nov. 19, including video clips that helped describe the issue of what happens to all of our “stuff” when it’s thrown away.

This final presentation followed one earlier this month by Rachael Murtaugh, director of sustainability, on “Iowa Lands and Waters.”

Anyway, I thought it was very interesting in the final presentation to have a business person and a scientist speaking together. Dr. Tunwall has industry experience, while Dr. Keuseman can give you the molecular view.

Dr. Keuseman made it clear he’s not anti-plastic—it’s just that plastic has become the easily used medium to create products that don’t have to be disposable and could be made with other base materials that degrade more naturally.

As for Dr. Tunwall, she used several interesting video clips to illustrate how industry does and does not deal with waste. Most eye opening was a 60-Minutes segment that showed a “recycling” effort in Denver led to a environmental hell hole in Asia where impoverished workers are put at great risk using primitive methods to extract materials from old electronics.

human-nature-logo_0The Nov. 19 presentation brought to a close our fifth fall faculty series at Mount Mercy University. There were around 70 people there, which was nice. Our sequence of series began in 2014 when we talked about the cultural legacy of World War I. In 2015, we tackled the legacy of Vietnam. In 2016, the hot topic was immigration. In 2017, we had a series of presentations on our divided politics. And now our series on sustainability joins that list.

The 2018 series was somewhat smaller than past events, which is probably a good thing. We had some series that had more than 10 events. On the other, hand, some past series included outside speakers and student performances, which would be good to see again in the future, although I am not sure that there was a student performance piece that would go with this series. Maybe art on the topic?

Whatever. The Fall Faculty Series continues to be a valuable event at MMU. What should we do next?

In a PR class, I use a fictional series that I call “Red, White and Brown: Race and the American Experience.” I’m not sure that we would ever use “American Experience” in a series title—too close to the PBS show—but examining the state of race relations would, I think, be a good topic.

But it was also a very serious, very heavy topic. I think maybe MMU should aim to have some fun with the series.

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Rachael Murtaugh, director of sustainability at MMU, described Nov. 1 how much Iowa has changed and how little native Iowa is left.

What anniversaries are important in 2019 that might provide such a theme? It’s the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo DaVinci, although what that would mean for a series, I’m not sure. It’s the 75th -anniversary of D Day, but that will be the summer before the fall. It’s 50 years since 1969—when humans put their first footprints on the moon. Maybe DaVinci and the moon suggest something—the Renaissance sparked Earth exploration, and now we’re looking towards the heavens.

Yeah, not exactly screaming “fun.” Is there a sports or music theme that would work? And 2020 would seem like a natural to look at suffrage—voting rights—100 years after the 19th Amendment.

A 2019 Woodstock series? Sex, love, and rock and roll?

Well, we have some thinking to do and plans to make. Here are images of the Nov. 1 presentation and the Nov. 19 final event. For now, it’s nice to celebrate a series just completed as we consider the next adventure. Sustainability was a good theme—a large conversation that must continue. But that’s one of the nice things about this Fall Faculty Series idea—the large conversation it can help spark.

What ideas would you suggest for a 2019 series?

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Filed under Environment, Mount Mercy, Science

Can the Earth Run a Marathon?


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Me speaking at Mount Mercy University Oct. 11 on “Hot Story: How the Media Struggles to Cover Climate Change.” Photo by Audrey Sheller.

Earlier in October, I presented a lecture during the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy University.

It was about how the media struggle to cover climate change, and it was an odd week to do the presentation because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released a report that made headlines—stating, in effect, that the severe impacts of climate change are closer than we thought.

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For most of us, we don’t need to combat climate change to save the Earth for future generations. Even at age 60, it’s likely I’m in the generation that will experience rising seas, droughts, storms and other Mother Nature induced “fun.”

Anyway, even if the nations of the Earth agree on the urgency of the problem and work hard to reduce carbon emissions, there will still be plenty of human-caused climate change with it attendant problems.

I used a line from a tweet by 538, the Nate Silver site: “So This Is It. We’re All Going to Die.” That dire tweet was on a link to a blog entry that wasn’t quite that dark—it basically stated that it’s possible to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, but the number analyst and poll wonks at 538 think it’s unlikely that we will do that.

We don’t want the short-term pain for the long-term gain. We’ll take the short-term easy path, and deal with the tragedies of the future in the future. Considering how we’re dealing with the tragedies of today today, I’m thinking this is a bad idea.

In my presentation, I think there were two humans noted whose names ought to be more recognized:

In 1896, Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrheius wrote a paper that earned him the Nobel Prize. He proposed that human burning of fossil fuels would release carbon dioxide that would eventually cause the Earth to warm. That’s right, global warming has only been a valid scientific concept for 122 years—no wonder so many still doubt.

In 1988, James Edward Hansen, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, testified before a Senate committee. He was brave to speak out on the topic—and in the ensuring years, the NASA funding for the institute became more of an issue as Republican administrations made it a deliberate strategy to deny global warming and question the science.

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Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrheius.

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James Edward Hansen, who was head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. His 1988 Senate testimony established global warning as a bit news story.

I noted lots of reasons why journalists struggle to cover this story—it’s a slow, big trend that doesn’t’ cause daily headlines, and daily headlines are what the media tune into. If a person is great at math and science, journalism may not be their first choice for a major. And even when journalists do cover global warming, there is an increasing anti-science cultural thread that can dominate our political debate.

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Side on why it’s such a hard news story to cover well.

Think of President Trump and his boneheaded response to the IPCC report: Scientists have a “political agenda” and he would have to see who “drew” the report. Well, saving Earth is a political point of view, I suppose, and science is political—but scientific consensus is built over time with careful, rational observation. Clearly President Trump’s head for science is a lot like his head for counting inaugural crowds—largely imaginary.

Here is a link to a playist I used of songs that made me think of my topic. And here is a link to some more images from my presentation on a Facebook gallery.

So, in effect, the IPCC reports, it makes headlines for a day, and now we’re off worried about migrants in Central America who honestly pose almost no threat to our welfare rather than thinking about how we could save our own butts and the butts of our children and grandchildren from the very real catastrophe of human-caused climate change.

My children and grandchildren’s butts may not be their best features, but they are still worth saving. As Sam Gamgee said in Lord of the Rings, “there’s still some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” In full disclosure, I didn’t bother to Google that quote, so it’s a loose paraphrase, but I still agree with the point.

So, is there hope?

Sure.

Think of what your life was like when your baby was 4-weeks old. I’m sure they were a bundle of joy, but you were a bundle of jangled nerves, living on 4 hours or less of sleep at night, praying that junior would please, please, please just stop crying and take a friggin’ nap.

And yet, you survived and fought through. And it changed. It got better. President Trump and I agree on one thing, climate change is not a constant. Of course, I put some faith in science, and personally I don’t see the huge conflict between science and God, but that’s another post. And I believe we need to act, and need to elect politicians who will act.

Maybe we will. Sometimes, people surprise you in a good way.

On Sunday, I went to Des Moines Iowa with my wife and two young grandsons. Their mother was busy becoming something I don’t think anybody in my family had done up to this point—she is a marathoner. She ran 26.2 miles (she says her favorite sign she saw along the way said “26.2, because 26.3 would be ridiculous”).

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She did it? Could I? Probably not, but it’s nice to see what’s possible.

Wow. I was watching people cross the finish line hours after they had started, and I couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of how cool that would be.

Run more than 26 miles? I’m 60, I am overweight and have arthritis in my knees. I gave up running years ago, and bike for my exercise because it’s easier on the joints. But, is it possible? Could I?

I doubt it and I’m not making any commitment here. But I also wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Lots of things are possible.

Well, congratulations, daughter. You may not have thought of yourself that way, but I think of the smile you had on your face as you crossed that finish line, and I am not only unbearably proud as your father, but also inspired and filled with another reaction.

There is hope. It’s possible work for a long, long time on a future goal that involves pain today. That’s what she had to do. I doubt I could do it, but I am happy that running a marathon seems like something a human can accomplish.

Maybe the species can save the Earth from the species. I hope so. Let’s lace up our sustainability sneakers and start training.

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Living in Harmony, Recognizing Dignity


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Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of religious studies at Mount Mercy University, speaks Sept. 18, 2018.

At the end of a sometimes discouraging presentation that had multiple examples of the damage humans have done to the Earth and ways in which people take advantage of each other, Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of religious studies, offered a brighter view.

“If we think it’s too late, it will definitely be too late,” he said. “You have to do what you can. And I still have hope.”

Cross, a professor at Mount Mercy University, spoke during the Fall Faculty Series called “Sustanability: Human/Nature and the Future of the Earth.” His Sept. 18 forum, the second in the series, also happened during Mercy Week at MMU, when the university celebrates its Sisters of Mercy heritage—and the week this year is dedicated to concern for the Earth. The presentation was called “Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí: Harmony with the Natural Order and the Dignity of Creatures.”

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Shadow of Dr. Bryan Cross.

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Dr. Bryan Cross explains a slide.

The presentation, using ideas from a book written by Pope Francis, began with some religious perspective on why it’s important to care for our planet. Partly, it’s recognition that nature has intrinsic value. And it’s also showing respect to other humans, too, including those who will come after us.

“I am my future generation’s keeper,” Cross said. Exploitation of other humans, viewing them only as utility, is part of the mindset that allows exploitation of other living things and the Earth itself—so the antidote is a recognition of dignity of others—other people, but other parts and pieces of this reality, too.

About 60 people attended, which is a pretty good turnout. The audience seemed caught up in the presentation, and there was lots of good discussion at the end. I thought I spoke a bit too much—a bad habit I tend to have—but it was still an enjoyable evening, if a little discomforting, too.

And I also felt that it set the bar pretty high for me. I speak next in the series, on Oct. 11 I will give a presentation called: “Hot Story: How the Media Struggles to Cover Climate Change.” Hope to see you there!

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Peonies, Roses and Daddy Longlegs


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Earlier this month, Daddy Longlegs on flower in side garden.

The odd, ever changing summer in Iowa continues.

On Tuesday, dodging rain, my wife and I had gone shopping, and we picked up a few of the season’s last plants on clearance. We got two small rose bushes and two pink peonies.

My plan was to plant them under a birch tree in our front yard. I think my back yard is just getting too shady for these kinds of flowers.

Anyway, when I went out to garden Wednesday, I started by taking my good camera and making a few images of the fine morning. It had rained Tuesday and was very damp, but fine and nice on Wednesday—usually this summer, we’ve been either very humid and warm or downright wet, so Wednesday was one of the precious in-between days. No rain and no extreme heat—it was just Iowa pleasant.

I was impressed by the number and variety of Daddy Longlegs I found this morning, crawling at the edge of plants, on patrol for food to scavenge. I learned via a PBS article and a DNR web site that these non-spider arachnids basically don’t hunt—they are walking around looking for dead insects or decaying leaf to eat.

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Pair of Daddy Longlegs on Hosta. They shed legs as a defense, and according to a PBS article, if a male wants to mate and the female is not in the mood, she may rip one of his legs off.

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On Milkweed.

And, if attacked, they shed a leg and move on. More than half of Daddy Longlegs will lose at least one leg in escaping a predator (or potential mate) during their life.

Well. It was not the only interesting nature note of the morning.

As I planted my roses and peonies, a bit of a disturbance broke out in a nearby ash tree. A small bird was being chased about by a tiny bird—a hummingbird was swooping at another bird, which was complaining about the harassment.

I’ve seen hummingbirds several times this summer, but never caught an image of one. I pointed the good camera up in the ash tree, hoping to be lucky. And I was, because it appeared the hummingbird actually roosted, waiting for its next opportunity to be macho or birdo or dino—whatever we should call it.

And when, on the computer, I looked at the image, I realized the tiny bird was not sitting on the branch—it has a tiny nest in the ash tree.

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Hummingbird on guard in nest.

The city is cutting out ashes, and this is a city tree, so at some point it will be removed. I hope it’s after the fall migration.

And I hope to see some pretty pink peonies next spring!

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Wanting Something to Rot in the Ground


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Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco.

I saw a cool product today. and I wish it was readily available each spring.

Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco, a company in Stillwater, Minnesota, gave the annual Barbara A. Knapp lecture at Mount Mercy University. In his speech, he told about how his company makes two product lines: plastic eating utensils and plastic plant pots. The hook is that both product lines are produced mostly from corn stalks and roots—they are plant-based, biodegradable plastics.

And the pots, which rot away in the ground, also have fertilizer embedded into their structure.

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SelfEco seed-starting pots. Danny Mishek gave them to me. Now I have to figure out what seeds I want to start next year ….

I want them. I want all the plants I buy for my garden next spring to come in them. May the idea grow and spread. Mishek said 4.2 billion garden pots are sold annually, with only 2 percent recycled. His pots don’t need to be either tossed or recycled—you simply plant the plant, which feasts on the fertilizer at its roots as the pot decomposes.

“If something is going into a landfill, it’s a missed opportunity,” Mishek said.

He showed pictures of forks, plates and champagne flutes his company also produces, with the idea that these are again put in a compost pile rather than tossed or recycled.

It was, to me, a pretty inspiring speech. Of course, as a gardener, the idea of not having to de-pot my flowers immediately appealed to me, but Mishek’s company is doing something important that can help solve a big environmental problem.

I enjoyed the presentation, even if it included a rather famously debunked quote that is often attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you WIN!”

I’m not sure what made me google for a source, but those words just didn’t sound like Gandhi, to me. In fact, they did not come from him. PolitiFact and Snopes.com have both dealt with the quote—PolitiFact checked into it when Donald Trump tweeted that quote during the campaign last year.

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Dr. Tracy Tunwall, fauclty chair, introduces the speaker.

As usual, you can’t trust a Trump tweet. Then again, Polifact notes that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton referenced the same words and falsely attributed them to Gahndi. And, although not really from Gandhi at all, the words reflect a nice thought that did fit the speech well.

Anyway, that’s all an aside. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mishek speak, and thought he peppered his remarks with good advice for students. For instance, he noted to students that they would all be judged—it’s inevitable. That should motivate you to do good things so that “they will judge you for being awesome.”

He also noted that making choices is a key in life. “You only have so much energy. You can’t put 25 hours into a day,” he said.

Nice words. You can’t put 25 hours into a day. Probably, as it nears midnight, that means it’s time for me to go to bed. I won’t try to put more hours into this day. But after the speech, when I thanked Mr. Mishak for his interesting words, he gave me a sample package of pots.

I may not put more hours into a day—but I’m looking forward next spring for finding reasons to put these pots in the ground!

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Where is the Care in Healthcare?


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Dr. Danielle Rudd, assistant professor of biology, speaks Oct. 5.

I think you’d have to have a heart of ice not to be a bit riled up Thursday night.

Dr. Danielle Rudd, assistant professor of biology at Mount Mercy University, spoke on “Putting the Care in Healthcare” during the 2017 Fall Faculty Series. It was another standing-room-only event, attended this time by many MMU students as well as faculty and community members.

She was speaking about Americans who live with rare diseases—but she noted that it’s only the individual diseases that are rare. In total, about 30 million American, close to 1 in 10, are dealing with a “rare” health condition.

And she powerfully introduced the audience to three people who we’ve surely seen before—the current president of MMU’s Student Government Association, the daughter of a religious studies professor and the son of a prominent local alumnus. All have conditions that have forced their families into becoming advocates and exports in our dysfunctional health system.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

The evening was personal, enlightening, entertaining—and frustrating. Republicans have tried, and failed, to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now, the Trump administration is doing everything it can to ensure the law’s failure, which they will surely blame on the law itself rather than their own governing incompetence. That’s when I got riled up. No, Congress, no GOP–we don’t want the ACA repealed. When you get a leak under the sink, you don’t decide sinks are a bad idea and ban indoor plumbing.

What does it say that too many of our national leaders don’t understand that adequate health care is vital to us all? And who could hear the stories we heard last night and want to go back to a time when too many would be denied insurance or care? What do you have that makes you think that way?

Hearts of ice.

Post script: After I wrote and posted this, I recalled that there had been at least 4 personal stories shared–and I felt a little bad, as if I were ignoring someone’s life. Anyway, I wrote this straight from memory without notes, which is why it is short of details and has no direct quotes. If I messed up details while thinking about the event a day later sans memory aids, I apologize, and, well, that’s just a sign of how an old brain works (or doesn’t).

Eden Wales Freedman, assistant professor of English, listens Oct. 5. She will speak Oct. 12 in a presentation called “From the Suffragettes to the Women’s March: Feminism for Everyone.”

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Marching Bigly for Mother Earth


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Iowa City March for Science April 22–my wife and two granddaughters and I took part.

The March for Science, planned this Earth Day, April 22, 2017, was not overtly political. After all, science is supposed to transcend politics—the chemicals of your body don’t care whether you voted for Hillary or Donald.

But, I was there, joining the nearest event in Iowa City, mostly due to politics. It feels as if both political parties ignore science, to our peril. Some liberals fuss about GMOs or vaccinations—or wonder why we spend money on NASA. But, pained as I am by irrationality on the looney left, let us give the right wing its due—it’s irrationality is much more widespread and, due to who is in power now, more dangerous.

Never in my lifetime have we elected a president so abysmally ignorant of everything—history, politics, and, yes, science. Never has one political party—the GOP—worked so hard against biology (yes, evolution is a thing), chemistry (if you burn that carbon it will go somewhere with some effect), Earth science (yes, the globe naturally warms and cools, but no, this particular extinction event is not natural), etc.

So I was in Iowa City to March. And it felt right, somehow, that I was there with two young grandchildren. Their lives have been shaped for the good by science—they live at a time when many humans, especially in northern North America, are well fed, comfortable and safe form most physical harms thanks to science.It wasn’t just the idea of democracy that made America great. It was the idea of ideas.So here is how I spent Earth Day 2017:

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Cool Iowa spring morning–planting pollinator friendly flowers on Earth Day with the help of two granddaughters.

First, we planted. I don’t even know who sent me some pollinator-friendly seeds at work, but thank you, benefactor. Those and other seeds (I’ve received bee-friendly packs from various sources) went into the ground this morning. Some of the seeds will be dormant until 2018—milkweed, for instance, must overwinter before germinating. But, where there is Iowa dirt, there is hope, and I hope this morning’s plantings will eventually aid both bees and butterflies.

Second, we marched. One daughter, with her young son, headed to Des Moines to march with our mathematician son who lives in Ames. My wife and I took two granddaughters to Iowa City. The girls made signs, petted dogs and gamely walked the whole March route. I am sure they didn’t understand what was going on, but I deeply felt that what we were doing was for their sake. The currently irrational political storm that is raging threatens science at many levels, and attacks on basic research are very shortsighted. Plus, we are delaying action that will be necessary to come to grips with global warming, and my grandchildren may suffer more than I do from our current shortsightedness. So, we march.

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One of many signs at Iowa City March for Science.

I am not naïve enough to think that today made a whole lot of difference. The miserly small-minded mindset of governments in both Des Moines and Washington wasn’t changed by my few small steps. But I was trying to make America great again.

Once, we were a courageous country that put footprints on the Lunar surface. We saved the Bald Eagle from extinction, and cleaned up much of the smog that chocked our great cities. We changed our habits so that rivers in Ohio would not remain flammable.

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Granddaughter during march.

Yet, today, we can’t even agree that Iowa water is dirty, that the planet is warming, that space is worth exploring or that science matters.

It does. I won’t be silent as my once great country falls into a deep intellectual malaise.

It’s time to speak, act, march and make some noise. We had the drive, brains and courage in our past to do great things. We still have them. We must overcome the bigly sad shrill voices of ignorance that dominate our discourse today.

Mother Earth, on behalf of Iowa and our nation, I apologize. I don’t know, somehow we got drunk in November 2016 and are living in an extended nightmarish hangover.

I don’t want us to do that again, and I vow to do what I can to do better.

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