Category Archives: Science

A Week of Tributes to History


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On Sept. 17, Constitution Day, a panel at Mount Mercy University discussed how the First Amendment is related to coverage of elections. The event was called: “If You Can Keep It: The First Amendment and the Election of 2020.”

I’m not sure we came to any great conclusion, but those who attended tell me that the panel discussion was worthwhile. Lyle Muller, retired director/editor of Iowa Watch; Zack Kucharski, executive editor of the Gazette; and Dr. Richard Barrett, assistant professor of political science joined me on the panel.

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Dr. Tim Laurent, MMU provost, at Fall Faculty Series event Sept. 19.

I reviewed a little history related to the First Amendment and talked about why it exists. The title of the event came from a famous story told of Ben Franklin, who was asked as he was leaving a meeting of the Constitutional Convention whether the new United States would be a republic or a monarchy.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” he said.

Dr. Barrett posed an interesting question: How would we write the First Amendment if we were going to write it today? In response, I think the rest of us agreed that part of the power of the amendment is it’s endurance.

By the way, I didn’t think it was that much of a surprises, but several of those who attended noted that they didn’t realize the First Amendment is first not by some grand design, but a bit by chance. In the original Bill of Rights, 12 amendments were proposed, and only the final 10 were approved by the states. What we call today the First Amendment was the Third Amendment, originally.

Never mind. Freedom of speech and of the press have been keys to our politics for more than 200 years. The media system that covers our politics keeps changing, and is in a particular state of flux now.

But, as Zack Kucharski noted, no matter if the wrapper changes, there is still a need for truth telling journalists.

Well, if that rumination on our country’s history were not enough, we got another taste on Thursday night. As part of the fall faculty series “Setting the Table: Perils and Pleasures of Food in America,” Dr. Kris Keuseman explored food rationing during World War II.

Although Dr. Keuseman did give some interesting information about what happened in this country, including showing some old family cookbooks from that era, much of his presentation covered the fascinating story of rationing in the U.K. During the war, new science on nutrition was used to plan how to allocate food—and the government dictates in that intimate area of life proved beneficial. Most measures of public health, absent all of the violent death caused by war, improved during the war years because the wartime rationed diet was actually pretty healthy.

And tonight, before writing this, I got the munchies and had a fatty plate of nachos. I need some rationing, I think.

One of the slides Dr. Keuseman showed featured some British propaganda aimed at boosting morale and enthusiasm for wartime food. A cartoon character named “Dr. Carrot” tried to make the orange root vegetable a friendly personality to children.

logoAnd carrots were even used in a disingenuous way, with a poster urging service people to eat more carrots to improve key night vision for night bomber tracking. The reality was that carrots can only improve vision if you have a vitamin deficiency, and then only raise your vision to normal—they don’t give you any super vision. The carrot poster was meant to help obscure that it was improving British RADAR technology that was seeing the German bombers, not carrot-enhances eyes.

Sorry, Dr. Carrot. You may have helped some kids but you weren’t Britain’s secret weapon, just an orange root of deception. Orange—the color of lies. Thanks goodness we don’t see any evidence of that today!

Dr. Keuseman noted that American rationing wasn’t to keep the national going, it was to retain food for export. British rationing, in contrast, was more a matter of survival.

The Sept. 19 presentation, called “Rationed: When Food Becomes a Weapon of War,” represented the end of the opening events of this series that focused on food history. Next comes more on current issues related to food. This fall series on food continues Oct. 3, when Dr. Joseph Hendryx, assistant professor of English, will speak on “Eating in the Margins: The Politics and Experience of Dumpster Diving.”

Well, Britain survived food shortages in World War II. American democracy may be ailing today, but so far, we have kept our republic, and I hope we continue to keep it. Maybe, clarity of vision could help our politics today.

Paging Dr. Carrot …

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Filed under Food, History, Mount Mercy, politics, Science

First Fall Series Presentation is a Feast for the Mind


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Dr. Anna Waterman, associate professor of biology, Mount Mercy University, talking about food.

Food changes everything. The way we live, where we live, how we live and the fact that we have “the man” to please and to defy—it all starts with food.

For the first several million years that our species walked on this planet, we foraged and hunted. We gathered the leaves and seeds and roots that we wanted to consume, and killed our fellow creatures and ate them.

It wasn’t an ideal life, but it was a life we were suited to. We already had fire—cooking predates our species and, along with the ability to make and use tools and weapons, is part of the legacy we get from our related hominid ancestors.

Then, about 12,000 years ago, starting in the fertile crescent of the Middle East but also independently developing in South America and China, humans began to fundamentally change the way we had lived.

logoThat fascinating history—how we are creatures of food and how our relationship to food changed everything about our lives—was the topic of Dr. Anna Waterman’s presentation “How the Agricultural Revolution Transformed Human Diet, Culture, and Society” that she gave Aug. 22 at Mount Mercy University. It was the first event in the 2019 Fall Faculty Series.

It is a bit weird to think that for most of the time we homo sapiens have been around, we shared this globe with other kinds of humans—literally other homo species besides ourselves. No more. Our spread worldwide happened before agriculture and “civilization,” and we either out-competed or eliminated our nearest relatives. (Dr. Waterman didn’t go into this point, but we also incorporated some of their DNA into ours—Neanderthal and Devonians, for example, didn’t all die out, some joined our clan).

People some 12,000 years ago began slowly to tend the plants that they like, and in what was wetter grasslands of the Middle East at that time, some of those grasses became selectively bred into cultivated grains. Those grains fueled dramatic changes in our diet—the invention of bread and beer as staples of what we eat and drink.

And with cultivated grains came larger populations, villages, hierarchies—eventually, nation states. Bosses. Work. Specialization. Organized religion. And, as formerly nomadic, now fixed peoples, we started to find that tending animals was more convenient than hunting them—chickens, pigs, cows, goats were bred from wild animals into the domestic creatures we care for and consume today.

Suddenly land wasn’t something you moved over and foraged on, it was property that was owned by some rich people. The concept of “stuff” was invented as we had fixed residences to store valued objects in.

In the blink of an eye, in the grand scheme of things, the globe was transformed. Today, there are still nomadic hunter gatherers in our human family, but they are rare, located in isolated pockets of land that typically are not that good for raising crops.

Where we can farm, we farm. Thus Iowa is carpeted with corn and soybeans from river to river, a dramatic change in the landscape from what it was 200 years ago. Our immigrant ancestors conquered the New World because residents already here did not have immunity to European diseases—caused, partly, by Europeans living in such proximity to their domesticated animal sources of protein.

Family size was dramatically changed. Nomads carry what they can, and usually can’t have more than one “carry” child at a time, so their norm was to breastfeed for three or four years, which was a form of birth control. With grain, you can make soft food that an 18-month-old can slurp down, so you can wean her and make another baby sooner. And if you’re farming, you tend to want more babies because those kids are farm labor.

The vast, varied ways that agriculture has shifted our environment, our social structures and our ways of life were interesting to hear Dr. Waterman speak about. The changes have had plusses and minuses. I’m not against having a computer to type this blog post on, nor being able to microwave my lunch.

But Dr. Waterman played an interesting game. “How many of you,” she noted, “could go out into your back yard and find stuff to eat?”

There are edible plants there, probably. If we were hunter-gatherers, we would know which roots to dig and which leaves to pluck. Today, our lives are divorced from our sources of food.

Not that I want to trade places with my great, great, great nomadic ancestor. They had cookies with this presentation Thursday night—something those ancestors never saw.

And afterwards, pizza with some brews. Beer and bread, man. They changed everything.

There are eight presentations in the fall series this year, come on down. The next presentation on Sept. 4, by Dr. Normal Linda Mattingly, will cover the history of school lunch programs.

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Do God and Science Play the Same Game?


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Dr. Brad Gregory speaks in the Chapel of Mercy.

If you’re looking for Him, people of faith say He is around. Everywhere, in fact.

But science hasn’t found Him—and it won’t, according to one Catholic thinker.

Dr. Brad Gregory, professor of history at Notre Dame University, spoke Feb. 21 at the Chapel of Mercy, giving a talk he called “Religion vs. Science? Don’t Believe It.” It’s part of spring series called “Faith/Reason: Friends or Foes?” going on at Mount Mercy University.

The next event is March 7, when Dr. Bryan Cross, MMU assistant professor of philosophy, will lead a faculty panel discussion on Faith and Science, at 3:30 p.m. in Flaherty Community Room.

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A student takes notes.

Back to Thursday night. I’m not sure I can do Dr. Gregory justice, because I was late. In my defense, I was attending a granddaughter’s fifth grade rock and roll revue show, and my blue suede shoes weren’t available. But I also messed up—going to the wrong venue on campus before I checked on the location and learned the speech was to be in the chapel. Also, I took some notes (on the fifth-grade concert program) and accidentally left those notes in the chapel, so I’ll be flying blind in this blog post.

Like a scientist looking for God, I suppose.

A business professor was setting behind me, and at the end of the speech, I turned to him and asked about the highlights of what I had missed in the first 20 minutes.

“I think you got the gist of it,” he said.

I hope so. It was a mind-bending lecture—an English professor who was there the next day told me that if felt like a brain workout. Dr. Gregory said that Catholic thinking is consistent with some other major religions—Islam and Judaism—in believing in a transcendent God who is present but is not constrained by the same space and time as we experience life in.

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Dr. Brad Gregory speaks.

He noted that, in the past, some thinkers attempted to find God in nature. And he did say that, for a Catholic, science is a way of understanding the universe and that understanding the universe is a way to understand God, but he also said that science and theology are disciplines that grapple with different questions using different methods—and while many scientists are led to skepticism about God because He’s not “there” in the scientific sense of being observable, that’s partly due to the way science frames questions. Science rests on the discovery of truth through what is observable.

But, Gregory said, a modern thinking person of faith doesn’t expect to find God in a microscope. Nature and God aren’t the same thing. Here is where it gets a bit sketchy for me, and I wish I had been there for the whole speech and took more notes. It was an interesting argument, one that I’m very much giving a Reader’s Digest version of, which is unfair to the presentation.

I have long felt that a religion that asks you to not believe in what you can observe and rationally prove is fatally flawed—Dr. Gregory is suggesting that expecting God to be pinned down by what you can observe is also fatally flawed. Hmmm. My brain pan, I’m afraid, may have started to overheat.

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Dr. Mary Ducey of MMU calls a break before questions.

At least it’s nice to know the Roman Catholic Church learned some lessons from what Dr. Gregory called “the Galileo affair,” which is why the church itself did not take a position against evolution. Many Catholics and Catholic thinkers over the years may have, but not the church itself.

Dr. Gregory was even critical of the modern idea of “intelligent design.” Asked what he thought about that, he quipped that he “wished it would go away.” But then he said he was being flippant and gave a longer answer. He sees it as resting in the dark corners of what is not understood about evolution—but science may fill in those gaps, and resting one’s faith on the gaps means planting a foundation in sand.

Anyway, I don’t think his goal was to win over anybody to Catholicism, but rather to give an understanding of the basis of thinkers who don’t see a conflict between religion and science.

It was an interesting talk. I’m glad MMU is putting on this spring series, which seems an echo of the fall faculty series that I helped bring about.

More brain workouts to come!

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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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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Science, Weather