Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Another World at Black Mesa: Oklahoma Academy of Science field meeting, part two.

Here is the second of three essays about the Oklahoma Academy of Science field meeting this fall

On Saturday morning, we gathered for our respective field trips at Black Mesa State Park way out in the panhandle of Oklahoma. Many students were required to take some of these field trips. One of them started at the crack of dawn, or even before: Bill Caire of UCO led an excursion to collect mammals from traps. Not to scare any of you campers, but you might as well know. Bill and students found a bear track in the mud in the camp. Black Mesa, way out in the shortgrass prairie, is not where you might expect to find this.

But the rest of us started our trips at 8:00 or 8:30. I went on a local botany hike led by Gloria Caddell of UCO. The bluffs had a lot of shortgrass prairie species, plus a few scrubby trees, mostly netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata), soapberries (Sapindus drummondii), one-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica). We had left most of Oklahoma, with its ubiquitous red cedars (Juniperus virginiana), behind. We also got help from Northeastern State botanist Suneeti Jog.

At least we thought it was going to be a botany hike. But we had not even gotten up onto the bluff before we found a snake failing to hide itself in a cholla cactus. That is, we saw more herps on this trip than did the people on the herpetology trip.

Some of us got into the trip with all of our senses. Of course, we could see the beautiful flowers. We learned that you have to look closely. To see, you have to do more than glance. Gloria identified for us no less than eight species of composites that had yellow ray or disc flowers. But we also got to feel the biota. For example, Grindelia gumweeds actually exude enough gum to make them look like goblets of cream. Of course, it felt gummy. But some of us got to feel three different kinds of pain. First, a tiny plant called Tragia has almost invisible and very nasty stinging hairs. And the beavertail cacti have big thorns—which poked some of us—and the even nastier little hairs, which got in my hand when I ate a cactus fruit, and which got in the lips and tongue of a less fortunate person. And I definitely felt the spiny tip of the yucca leaf that I accidentally and barely touched—it was like getting poked by a sword.

But we also used our senses of taste and smell. The cactus fruits tasted fresh and slightly sweet. And the buffalo gourd’s scientific name is Cucurbita foetidisssima, which means “the most foul,” which some people discovered to be truly the case. And next came a perfect example of how terminology can bias perception. Gloria wanted to know what we thought the fragrant sumac smelled like. Nobody had any really clear idea. But when she told us that one of the plant’s names was skunkbush sumac, of course we all started imagining that, yes, indeed, it smelled like a skunk.

Finally, we could hear the wind in the grass and the tree branches. There you have it—all five senses. Gloria showed us almost as many plants before we got on the nature trail as after; I wonder how many casual visitors think that nature exists only on the other side of the Nature Trail sign!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Another World at Black Mesa: Oklahoma Academy of Science field meeting, part one.

Recent announcement: I have uploaded a video about The Great Unconformity in the Black Hills, one of the best geological evidences of an old earth in North America.

Here is the first of three entries I wrote for the blog of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences.

On September 19, 2014, hundreds of people hit the road and headed out through the Panhandle of Oklahoma as if being shot through the barrel of a rifle. We came to rest right at the very tip, at Black Mesa State Park. Black Mesa is like a different world, more closely resembling New Mexico than any part of Oklahoma with which most of us are familiar. As we left most of the trees, and even many of the shrubs, behind, we knew that we were also leaving behind comfort and safety. We were exposing ourselves not only to stormy weather (which, despite predictions, did not materialize) and almost desert-like conditions, but also to biological dangers, everything from rattlesnakes to hantavirus. Hantavirus has already claimed lives in the Panhandle. Notice that “Hantavirus” is spray-painted on the board of this house.

What surprised me most about this meeting is that there were over a hundred undergraduate students. As president, I had begun to worry that perhaps OAS was becoming a coterie of old people. But the average age of the people at this meeting must have been about twenty, despite the considerable statistical leverage provided by seasoned individuals such as Craig Clifford, David Bass, and myself. I can only hope this means that science is alive and well in the next generation of Oklahomans. Of course, they will probably all find jobs in other states where the pay is better.

Once we all got settled down in our bunkhouses and tents, we had dinner provided by a caterer who was actually willing to drive all the way out to Black Mesa. I am still amazed that any caterer would be willing to do this.

Our evening program was a presentation by Dr. Anne Weil of OSU.

She teaches anatomy in medical school during the academic year, and does vertebrate paleontology research in summer. She studies dinosaurs and ancient mammals. The land that is now Oklahoma had some truly amazing dinosaurs. She handed around what appeared to be pieces of rock. But they were fossilized dinosaur bone fragments. Even after being told what they were, I could not tell that they were anything other than rocks, except for one, which clearly had fossilized bone tissue in it. She conveyed to us some of the excitement of scientific research, often punctuated with “Yay!” and “Woo!” By using microscopes and isotopes, Anne said, we can ask and answer questions that Cuvier could not even imagine.

In the next entry, I will write about a couple of the field trips in the vicinity of, and up to the top of, Black Mesa, on Saturday, September 20.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Videos about plant fossils

I just posted three videos about Fossil Bowl, the most amazing plant fossil site in the world, in Idaho.

Also, an update for the entry about Oklahoma earthquakes: This morning there was a 4.3 earthquake near Cushing, Oklahoma, where I was born.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Encouraging student activism: tobacco

A while back, I wrote about how to use extra credit to motivate students to use their power as consumers to influence those aspects of the economy that are directly harmful to people and/or the world. I believe that this is an essential “closing of the loop” in our teaching: students need to not only learn about the damage that some of our economic activities are doing, but to take action.

I started with an extra credit project in which students send letters or emails to tobacco corporations. I realize that tobacco corporations probably do not care that most people think they are evil—they have an addicted, and very sizable, minority of citizens as customers. But I refuse to totally give in to cynicism on this point. The best effects of this project may be on the students, even if the effect on the market is negligible.

I would like to post a link to updated instructions for such an assignment. Since my original posting, there have been some changes in tobacco corporations. Specifically, the big four will soon be the big three. But the biggest change is that I have added a positive activity. As most of you probably know, CVS Health has decided to stop marketing tobacco products—a decision that will cost them about two billion dollars a year in lost revenue. I would like my students to send them emails thanking them for this decision.

Here is a link to my website, on which I have posted a PDF of the instructions I posted for my students. You may alter it for your students, if you wish to do this activity.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What I will tell my evolution class next time we meet

We just finished an evolution class about sexual selection. This, as you probably know, is a really wild subject. In particular, competition among (usually) males can take some strange forms.

Males compete with one another for access to females. There are different ways of doing this, depending on the animal species. Male gorillas produce few sperm because they maintain their harems by physical force. Male chimps produce lots of sperm because they mate promiscuously. A male gorilla maximizes his paternity by fighting, a male chimp by flooding away the sperm of other males. And humans are in between. But humans and some other animal species have another mating system—monogamy—that is yet a different way of maximizing the assurance of paternity.

Males also compete for the attention of females. Obvious examples are the songs and plumage of (usually) male birds. In humans, according to Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind, it can include hunting, sports, language, music, art, religion, etc. Nearly all of the mental capacities that we think of as uniquely human may be the result of sexual, not natural, selection. For example, big-game hunting (whether by stone age tribes or by Oklahomans hunting bucks) provided and provides relatively few calories. It was and is mostly a way of males showing off. And people who can speak most elegantly, play the best music, and commune with the gods most effectively may attract the most and/or the best mates (this can apply equally to men and women).

That’s where I ended, and that’s as far as the science goes. But I feel the need to tell them something else. They may have ethical and religious reasons for believing in the moral superiority of monogamy and the reality of religious experience. I am not saying, for example, that every time a preacher gets on the radio or television, he is trying to win access to mates, although there are numerous examples of this. (For example, the notorious preacher Garner Ted Armstrong kept a list of female undergrads at Ambassador College whom he would regularly call up and pressure into having sex.) I am not saying that every time a skilled musician spends hours practicing then gives a performance, he or she is trying to get in bed with an admiring mate, although this seems to have figured prominently in the lives of some composer-performers such as Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini, as well as numerous rock stars. But I am saying that this is how sexual selection produced the human mental capacities for monogamy, religion, and music. Today, a musician today might perform for the sake of pure art, but the “mating mind” would not have a physical thrill from music were it not for thousands of years of sexual selection.

This is also an example of how both liberals and conservatives can misunderstand evolution. Conservative creationists reject sexual selection in human evolution because they reject evolution. God gave us the capacity for music and religion (as one theologian wrote, God created a “God-shaped hole” in the human spirit that makes us thirst for God) and commands us to be monogamous, and that’s that. But I would say that evolution has put these behaviors, and they are now available as part of our behavioral repertoire to use for any purpose, whether connected with sex or not. Meanwhile, liberals might think that monogamy is an artificial moral system thought up by priests to foist upon deluded followers. But monogamy is a natural part of the human mind—it is not the only mating behavior that evolution has conferred upon us, but it is one of them.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Oklahoma, the New Earthquake Capital of America?

See the previous essays about the Climate Workshop for educators sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. One of the messages that we all took away is that America and the world are too dependent on petroleum. There is plenty of money to be made in energy resources that do not contribute, or not contribute as much, to global warming. But as it turns out global warming is far from being the only danger associated with our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

According to several recent studies, Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than California, a trend beginning in 2010. And these are not all small quakes; the 2011 quake near Prague, Oklahoma, had a magnitude of 5.7.

Everyone reading blogs such as this one probably knows why California has so many earthquakes. California, despite its beauty, has its faults. The Pacific Plate and the North American Plate rub up against one another in California while they slowly move, making earthquakes inevitable. But Oklahoma is right in the middle of the North American Plate. Why, then, does Oklahoma have earthquakes?

Many millions of years ago, what is now the North American Plate was (as I understand it) separate plates, which have now crushed themselves together into a single unit. One of the focal points of the crush was what is now the Arbuckle Mountains in south central Oklahoma; another is the Mississippi River bottom in the vicinity of New Madrid, Missouri, where a huge earthquake occurred in 1811.

But this does not account for why there has been a sudden increase in earthquake activity in Oklahoma starting in 2010. A new study published in the July 25, 2014 issue of Science documents that this ongoing cluster of earthquakes has occurred just at the same time and place, and at the same depth, as the new frenzy of fracking activity, where corporations use high-pressure water (containing other chemicals as well) is used to push fossil fuel out of the sedimentary rocks. The authors could not provide proof, the reason being that corporations are unwilling to disclose the details of their fracking activity. But they used all the geological and seismological information that was available to them to associate the earthquakes with fracking. While many of the fluid injection wells appear to produce no earthquakes, there are four big fracking wells that account for about 20 percent of the earthquakes. The authors did not name the corporation that owns these wells.

Since this article was published, northern California had a big earthquake that, I presume, put it back ahead of Oklahoma in the earthquake sweepstakes.

In Oklahoma we endure wild swings of weather, including tornadoes. But at least, we think, we do not have earthquakes like California. Our patriotic fossil fuel corporations have now corrected this omission. According to Figure 1 in the article (unfortunately this figure is available only to subscribers), Oklahoma now surpasses California in the number of earthquakes per 1000 square kilometers.

There are two things we can learn from this. First, if we want to continue our frenzy of fossil fuel dependence, to continue wasting energy and producing carbon emissions that are harmful to the rest of the world, we have a steep price to pay—among many other things, earthquakes. But the second point is that fossil fuel corporations can earn enormous private profits while passing many of the expenses—which includes earthquakes—off onto everybody else at public expense. I have not heard that these corporations have donated money sufficient to clean up earthquake damage that their operations have caused. This is just one more example of how large corporations, even though they boast about being the beacons of free enterprise, earn their profits in large measure at public expense.

Religious conservatives often refer to fossil fuels as a gift from God that we ought to use as much as possible. But what they don’t say is that they believe fossil fuels are a gift from God to conservative corporate leaders, and that the other 99 percent of Americans need to pay the cost. They believe, even if they do not openly say, that God blesses only rich people.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Climate change workshop, part 6.

The Climate Change workshop for educators, sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellencein Science Education, continued this morning.

Danny Mattox, Andrea Melvin, and Monica Deming showed us online resources for climate data, starting with the Oklahoma Mesonet, which has about every kind of weather data you can imagine, instantly available in graphical format. It is publication quality and I am using some of their maps in a paper that I will publish early next year. There are no comparable data in Texas, but the Office of the State Climatologist website has a fair amount of information. The NOAA National Climatic Data Center website is not as easy to navigate but has useful national-scale information and maps.

On the second half of the Sunday morning session, our first speaker was Bob Melton, who works on science curriculum for the Putnam City public schools in Oklahoma. He is also a national officer in the National Association of Biology Teachers and is a candidate for the presidency of that organization.

Bob began by explaining that teaching about climate change is a political act. For example, major textbook publishers do not have the courage to print the scientific facts about climate science because they fear that the Texas state textbook selection committee might reject their books. Texas is an overwhelmingly huge textbook market. If you teach about global warming, you place yourself squarely in the crosshairs of the infamous statements by Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who considers global warming science to be a deliberate hoax perpetrated by scientists. We watched a television interview of Inhofe in which he said this very thing. This interview made quite a number of us a little upset as we watched it. Scientists such as Lara Souza and myself know certainly that we are not hoax perpetrators, and we feel personally libeled by Inhofe. Inhofe just made up what he called scientific facts; for example, he said that scientists were just making up stories about arctic ice melting--despite that anyone can see the satellite images of this process occurring. So teachers are kind of caught between two federal sources of information: do we believe Senator Inhofe, or do we believe the satellite images provided by the federal agency NASA?

The Oklahoma educational standards regarding environmental science have nothing to say about global warming; the Texas standards call only for teaching about the effect of natural processes, rather than human activities, on global warming. Then Bob showed us the Next Generation Science Standards, which will soon be the national standards for science education, except in states like Oklahoma and Texas that declare that the laws of nature are different in our states than in the rest of the world. In Texas, we suppose, carbon dioxide does not absorb long-wave radiation. In Oklahoma, global warming cannot happen; we just ain't-a-gonna permit it. But most states will probably accept the new standards. Each state makes its own decision; and all politics are local; therefore if a majority of citizens in a state believe that global warming is equivalent to atheism, global warming will not be taught. Some interesting discussion followed but I missed it because I was busy trying to deal with a power interruption that temporarily wiped out my writing.

Bob also showed us a video of some federal politicians who are willing to investigate UFOs but will not even consider global warming.

We were joined by Dan Bewley of Tulsa, who has begun a blog about science in Oklahoma. He came to film and report about our meeting for his blog.

Kevin Kloesel, the director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, began our final session.

Most climatologists believe that most global warming has been caused by humans. But, Kevin said, suppose that only one percent of the warming is caused by humans. But even if there is only a one percent risk that humans are causing global climate change, then we should do something about it. After all, there is only a tiny risk that your house will burn down, but you get your house insured, don't you? Why do we insure our houses--why do banks require mortgage holders to insure their houses--against a tiny risk of fire, and not "take out Earth insurance" for a much larger risk that our activities are putting the Earth at risk? Even if the risk is much lower than what most climate scientists think it actually is. And you can replace a wrecked car or burned house, but in the case of Planet Earth, there is no chance of replacement.

He noted a mismatch between what scientists know and what policy-makers are doing. The National Academies, as authorized by Congress, have published reports based on peer-reviewed research. Scientists criticize one another's work, Kloesel noted, more severely than even the climate deniers, so these reports are reliable.

The Science Panel report shows the evidence that global climate change is real and humans are causing a lot of it. And continued data gathering is essential to improve our predictions. Kloesel urged us to ask ourselves what it would take to get us to change our minds about what we believe about climate change. Everyone comes to the table with pre-set beliefs, even scientists; scientists, at least, are aware of their bias and try to compensate for it. The community of climatologists is so small, yet is the center of a worldwide controversy. Furthermore, people do not notice carbon dioxide because it is invisible. And our minds trick us into ignoring anything that blows away to some other place. In everyday life, as in science, we seldom have certainty, but that does not prevent us from taking action to manage the risk.

The Limiting Panel report recommended prompt and sustained research efforts. Their first recommendation was to set a price on carbon. Right away, their recommendations will go nowhere in the current political climate. Every recommendation has a dark side that someone will decry, which will cause the process to go nowhere.

The Adapting panel report dealt with what we can do to adapt to whatever amount of global warming will prove to be inevitable. We already have is a warning system for tornadoes, but we have nothing like this for long-term climate events. One panel recommendation is "movement of people and facilities away from vulnerable areas." But what would people do if the government said, "You can't build your house on a floodplain"? Instead we wait until it happens then react, at seven times the cost. We know how to make contingency plans, we just aren't doing it for climate change. The report called for a new level of planetary governance--something that frightens the x out of most lawmakers, even progressive ones. Some politicians, especially from cowboy states, would rather take any chance at global catastrophe rather than to take advice from the United Nations.

The Informing panel report dealt with how to make masses of information available in a useful form.

There is no getting around the fact that rich Americans will have to reduce our carbon emissions, rather than encouraging the poor of the world to increase, in order to achieve fairness and sustainability. Right now, the carbon footprint of people in developing nations is increasing. For example, we cannot tell the people of India, "We will keep using air conditioning but you should not." Before long, the entire challenge will depend on what the developing world does.

Prospicience is the art of looking ahead, said Kloesel. We have, he said, barely begun to ask what we are on Earth to do. Why should we send missions to Mars while ignoring the monitoring of our own planet? How can we leave a good world for our grandchildren? In his book Senator Inhofe talks a lot about the world his grandchildren will live in, despite the fact that he ignores the truth about global warming which will make the world a disrupted and chaotic world for those grandchildren. What can we do when our leaders only pretend to care about their grandchildren's world?

We will see the impacts first in water, such as water conflicts among states. Even the cost of water litigation is adding to the economic burden of some states such as Oklahoma and Texas. Also, water-intensive crops have already had a massive price increase at the supermarket. Climate change is not an abstract concept.