science

Befriend the Bend

Refraction refers to the bending of a wave when it changes its medium of transmission. This bending can result in separation, compression, distortion, and differing levels of visibility. It can make small things seem bigger and far off things seem closer. It can delight the senses or confuse the mind. Even though there may be a simple scientific explanation that doesn’t mean it has to make sense.

In fact scientists are now developing simple lenses that are effectively bending light so far as to make objects seem invisible. Yet more proof that we may not always be able to see everything that is in front of us.

Posted for the DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Refraction

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The Age of Grasses

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a path at Bamboo Giant Nursery

My Story about Bamboo

So part of the reason I like bamboo so much (besides the fact that it’s awesome) is that it was the first plant that I started to propagate and sell for cash. The story goes like this.

Once upon a time my Dad went through a Japanese Garden phase, (which is probably the root of my affinity for Japanese gardens), and planted some bamboo next to the patio of the house I grew up in. It was planted in a metal partition that was intended to keep this very aggressive bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) from spreading. But after my Mom and Dad separated and my sis and I went away to college, the yard went feral. Of course the bamboo burst through the partition and started taking over the yard, sending shoots up over fifty feet away from the original planting. Every once in a while the rhizomes would even make it all the way under the house and send up shoots in the front yard.

For years I went over to help my aging mother with the yard maintenance, and I would just cut the bamboo down, and sometimes even dig up the rhizomes. Sometimes I would just grab a stalk of bamboo and start ripping up the long underground roots, like pulling frayed carpet fibers away from the carpet backing. When I was done I would just throw all the boo into the green waste. Then one day I decided to try to put the rhizomes in pots to transplant them. After some simple trial an error in methodology and substrate I achieved a success rate of about 90% with my divisions. I would mix in a lot of sand into the soil mix to help increase drainage, which is very important for almost all species of bamboo. I would go to the dollar store and buy gallon dish tubs, because the bamboo grew better in wide, shallow containers.

Soon I began selling divisions of Golden Bamboo (P. aurea) on Craig’s List, planted in dish tubs, and returned to my Mom’s house about once  a month to restock my supply. I also started selling other plants on Craig’s, but the bamboo was my biggest and most expensive plant for sale. I made almost $1000 selling bamboo in one summer. Not exactly the summer job I had in mind, but from there things started spiraling out of control, not unlike the rhizomes of bamboo tangling through the soil in my Mother’s backyard.

Now, 10 years later, I am a complete plant junkie. I still have many of the divisions of golden bamboo that I dug up. I don’t sell them anymore. Instead I planted them in large pots, and they are all bushy and 8-10 feet tall. They are waiting patiently, I feel, for a careless moment when they can escape their container and begin taking over my yard, the state of California, and eventually the entire planet. I’ve thought about planting some in the earth, but decided I was tired of  breaking shovels trying to dig bamboo out of the ground. For now at least.

Bamboo has gotten such a bad rap as being invasive and rampant, and in many cases its true. Golden Bamboo is considered an invasive weed in many areas, and seeing how it started sending a web of rhizomes out through my Mom’s yard I can understand why.

I’ve also heard it said that if bamboo is so invasive then it would have taken over the world by now. But it is important to remember that the grass family (Poaceae) is relatively new in the plant kingdom, rising to its peculiar prominence during the most recent Cenozoic era. The Cenozoic is commonly known as the ’Age of Mammals’ (with our fauna-centric view of the world), but it could just as easily be called the ’Age of Grasses’. Even though Mammalia is a Class (K-P-Class-O-Family-G-S) and Poaceae is a family (two steps lower on the taxonomic hierarchy), there are twice as many identified species of grass than species of mammals. In fact, familyPoaceae is the fifth largest plant family, and three of the four most important food crops are grasses, not to mention the forage grasses provide for domesticated livestock. Grasses have not only drastically changed the course of human evolution, but the evolution of the entire planet as well.

Bamboo may still take over the world yet. It’s just getting up to speed. All it needs is another million years.

don’t let it escape!

 

Expect the Unexpected

Carl Sagan“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
― Carl Sagan (via Goodreads)


In sixth grade science students are still learning the basics of the scientific process, which in our curriculum involves six steps: problem, hypothesis, materials, procedure, data, conclusion. We really try to hammer home all these parts in sixth grade, so that in seventh and eighth they can begin designing their own experiments with control and experimental sets and carefully measured data.

When we start any lab we alway start with the problem, which is a question that the students hope be able to answer by the end of the lab. Then comes the hypothesis, which is the prediction (educated guess) to the question they’ve asked. We ask them to write down what they think is going to happen and why.

Later on during the conclusion portion students are usually asked to reflect back on their hypothesis and decide if they were right or not. Often times they feel that if they have gotten the hypothesis wrong then they have somehow failed the experiment, but this is totally backward. It is through the observation of the unexpected that scientific knowledge is advanced. If the experiment goes exactly according to plan and the hypothesis is totally correct, then we have learned nothing. It is only by observing what we don’t expect that we learn anything at all.

Of course the sad part is most people only see what they want to see, which is what they expect to see. When you expect the unexpected you may actually learn something new, so search for the unexpected, not only in the science lab, but in all aspects of life. Expect the unexpected.

Science experiments can be truly amazing! (by George Thomas on Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Golden Ratio

Euphorbia

Euphorbia

There are lots of cool things about nature geometry, but one of my favorite patterns is the spiral. The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence have been used to try to describe this natural pattern that most people consider very pleasing to the eye. The Golden ratio is represented by the symbol Phi (φ), which is roughly equal to 1.618033988… Phi is considered an irrational number because it cannot be expressed as a simple fraction, and its precise calculation requires an infinite number of decimal places and has no repeating pattern of numbers. Irrational numbers are not unusual in nature math. Phi’s better known cousin Pi (π = 3.14159…) is also irrational, and is used to calculate the various intricacies of arches and perfect circles. The natural logarithm is another irrational number used to explain many natural phenomena —
e = 2.71828182845904523536028747135266249775724709369995… I don’t know enough about mathematics to try to explain how these numbers are calculated. I just know that I’ve always found them confusing whenever I tried to wrap my brain around them in math class. 

These irrational numbers are responsible for explaining the shapes and patterns taken by the natural world around us. I find it completely appropriate that those things we find most pleasing to the eye seem to defy a neat mathematical explanation. If all the patterns found in nature can only be explained through the use of irrational numbers, it leaves me wondering. Is it the world around us that is naturally irrational, or Homo sapiens quest to define every little phenomenon with a neat mathematical equation?

Some things may beyond the realm of the rational brain. Some things are just irrational. Some things we should just take a step back from and appreciate without trying to explain.

Spirals are twists of nature. Photos of plants twisting.

DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Twist

Give Me Leaves or Give Me Death

plant orgy in progress

When most people think of spring and plants they immediately think of flowers. How disgusting.  Did you know that a flower is the sexual organ of a plant? Most 7th graders don’t know this, and you should see the look on their faces when they find out. Priceless. I tell them that every time they sniff a flower the plant is using them to perform its sexual biddings. I tell them there are unmentionable things happening between the plants and their little “friends” the birds and bees. I make sure to use air quotes when I say “friends.” Really it’s a depraved nature orgy. And people like to cut the flowers off and display these colorful and pungent reproductive sculptures in their homes. How sick are we?

Personally when I think of spring I think of young, green leaves filling in on the trees and other plants. The leaves are the true workhorse of the plant, creating sugar money in their little chloroplast factories. Sure, they get some help from the stem and the roots as they help collect resources and deliver them, but really the true magic happens in the leaves. They are turning sunlight into food, storing the sun’s energy in their bodies until those calories can trickle down the food chain to all us hungry heterotrophs downstream. Keep your filthy flowers. Give me leaves, and I will know the world will be fed for at least one more trip around the sun.

Compiled for the DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

and, DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Student, Teacher


* disclaimer #1 – this is meant to be humorous and sarcastic. I do not tell my students that sex is disgusting and depraved. I tell them it is wonderful and life affirming and they should all go home after school and engage in it immediately.

Classroom Graffiti

It should be a recipe for disaster. The classroom left wide open during 7th grade lunch by a naive substitute. Seventh graders are notorious for shenanigans and poor decision making. Their favorite activities seem to be deliberately destroying things on accident and inventing new ways to bully each other. Low and behold a gaggle of 7th graders had snuck in to my classroom at some point and left graffiti splayed all across the whiteboard for me to find upon my return at the end of the day. It gave me strong feelings so I snapped a couple photos with my phone and then forgot all about it. I rediscovered the photos recently as I was going through and organizing older and older photos, trying to piece together the forgotten days of my past.

This was my white board on the day before the last day of school 4 years ago, which was coincidentally the last year I taught 7th grade science.

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This is the type of thing that makes me really love being a teacher. If only every day could end like this.

Posted for the DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Letters

 

Letters to an Angry Beast

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I took these photos at the Cal Academy of Sciences a few years back when they had a Climate Change exhibit. The above quote is from climate scientist Dr. Wallace S. Broecker. Here is a fuller quote:

The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks,” said Dr. Wallace S. Broecker of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who was one of the first to raise the alarm about abrupt climate change. ”We don’t know whether it’s going to pay attention to the pokes. But if it does, it might rise up and do something we don’t like.” -via NY Times Archives

Screen shot 2014-04-26 at 6.01.22 AM In another part of the exhibit visitors were invited to write a small note, to share some idea that could possibly help slow down changes to our atmosphere and help to save the natural environment of our planet.

My personal favorite: Cut down on Homework. Homework kills trees. Probably written by one of my students. I also like Don’t waste paper by using these. 

I love the thought that some small idea from a fresh perspective can save us all. I always tell my students that they are our only hope. The nearsighted practices of the past have gotten us into this mess, and now it’s up to you. What will you do to help save the world?

DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Letters