Monthly Archives: November 2015

Climate Science Legal Defense

I thought I’d share this update from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

We have much to be grateful for at CSLDF – this year, we became an independent 501(c)(3) organization, provided legal services to 30+ researchers, and took on some of the worst groups attacking climate scientists.  Thank you for your support!  We truly couldn’t have done it without you. 
Unfortunately, assaults on climate scientists continue.  Most notably, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has launched an investigation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), claiming that NOAA “alters data to get the politically correct results they want.”  Rep. Smith has targeted a NOAA study, and the NOAA scientists behind the study, which found that recent temperature increases were greater than earlier studies indicated – contradicting Rep. Smith’s belief that global warming has “paused.”  NOAA provided Rep. Smith with much of the information he sought, but it has rightfully refused to hand over scientists’ private emails because protecting internal deliberations is essential for fostering free scientific discourse.  Rep. Smith has not responded well.  For more on this, please read our post at the Columbia Climate Law blog.
Similarly, the fossil-fuel industry funded Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a lawsuit this month, claiming that open records laws give them the right to access the personal correspondence of George Mason University professor Dr. Ed Maibach, an expert in climate change communications.  We fully expect that this lawsuit will be exposed as meritless – as have similar lawsuits before – but sadly, seeking scientists’ emails is an increasingly popular way to harass, intimidate, and attempt to discredit researchers. 
Unfortunately, legal attacks on the climate science community happen on a regular basis.  To help as many scientists as possible, we will again be offering free one-on-one consultations with an attorney at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco, from December 14 to 18.  Details available here
Please consider donating to help us protect climate scientists from legal attacks.  As always, your support is greatly appreciated.  

On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

A new paper out in the journal Judgement and Decision Making by Gordon Pennycook, James Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang. The abstract:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

Keywords: bullshit, bullshit detection, dual-process theories, analytic thinking, supernatural beliefs, religiosity, conspiratorial ideation, complementary and alternative medicine.

The paper is here.

Hat tip: Stephan Lewandowsky

Check out our new science podcast, Ikonokast.

Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser’s Misleading Guide to the Climate Debate

This post was written by Peter Sinclair and Greg Laden in response to a recent Wall Street Journal Op Ed piece by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser.

In a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, “Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate,”
Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser ask what might make world leaders concerned about the security impacts of climate change. One answer might be the US Department of Defense.

In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense review, Pentagon experts wrote:

“…climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s today’s front page news. A 2014 Defense Department document underlined the message, calling climate warming “a threat multiplier.”

Ridley and Peiser ridicule President Obama over his “careless” statement that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. Indeed, recent research indicates that the current Syrian refugee crisis is at least partly a result of climate change enhanced drought in the region.

Ridley and Peiser claim that global temperatures have risen only slowly. This is simply untrue. The upward march of global surface temperatures varies, as expected for any natural system such as this, but continues on an upward trend. Contrarian claims of an extended pause in global warming have been debunked over recent months by at least a half dozen studies. (See: this, this, this, this, and this.)

Ridley and Peiser also suggest that surface temperatures have risen less than earlier climate modeling had projected. This is simply untrue. Global surface temperatures have risen at a pace of about 0.15 degrees C per decade since 1990, which is within the range of earlier IPCC projections.

Ridley/Peiser suggest that current record smashing weather events are due to El Nino, not climate change.

Wrong for two reasons.

First, many of the record breaking events we have experienced over recent years happened when there was no El Nino.

Second, records that are set during an El Nino period are, obviously, compared to all other prior El Nino periods as well. This year’s El Nino is exceeding earlier El Nino years in heat and tropical storm activities precisely because of a continued rise in planetary heat.

Ridley and Peiser claim that it has been warmer at times during the last 10,000 years. This statement is not supportable. While scientists know that orbitally caused warming occurred some 8000 years ago, the most current research suggests that today’s surface temperature exceed those values, or will shortly under current trends.

It is incorrect to assert that there have been no changes in extreme storms, or flooding. In the past week we have seen a new annual northern hemisphere record in major hurricanes, with 30 storms category 3 and above this year, literally blowing away the old record of 23, with the season not yet over.

Every year for the last three years, careful and conservative researchers publishing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society have studied the contribution of global warming to major weather events around the world, the papers collected in an annual volume “Explaining Extreme Events … from a Climate Perspective.” Every year the number of events attributed to global warming goes up. (See these three reports.)

The US Global Change Research Program has documented the increase in extreme precipitation events across the country, and in recent weeks, the east and gulf coast of the US have been inundated by a “1000 year rain event”, as well as a new phenomenon, coastal flooding not associated with any storm, merely the regular pull of the tides, on an ocean that has risen several inches since 1950.

Miami taxpayers are currently spending 500 million dollars on pumps and other infrastructure to remedy the flooding Peiser and Ridley say does not exist.

Ridley and Peiser make the claim that tropical storms can’t be as much of a problem now as they were in the past because the number of deaths attributed to natural disasters is reduced. The irony of this statement is stunning. The reason there are fewer deaths due to weather related natural disasters is precisely because climate science and meteorology have developed methods and models to predict and warn. That very same science is telling us about the recent, ongoing, and future changes in climate due to the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Ridley and Peiser seek to confuse by conflating Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, without mentioning that the small increase in Antarctic sea ice, along with the large loss of Arctic ice, is predicted from our understanding of the global warming process, and that, globally, sea ice area is clearly in a multi-decadal decline, the very reason that our giant oil companies are lobbying so intensely for access to polar regions they know are thawing.

Similarly deceptive is the claim that “Antarctica is gaining land based ice”. Here they cite a one-off outlier study, not the other dozen studies completed since 2012 by groups from NASA, the European Space Agency and others, most using more recent data than the cited piece, and all of which show overall Antarctic land ice loss. Moreover, the author of the study cited has said that
if the sea level rise does not come from Antarctica, it obviously must be undercounted elsewhere, such as Alpine glaciers, Greenland, or thermal expansion of the oceans – since observed sea level rise is unequivocal.

That sea level rise is also the most unambiguous indicator of a warming planet. The relentless and accelerating observed rise of the seas supports the half dozen recent studies showing that global warming has not halted or paused, and continues apace.

Ridley and Peiser claim that research is increasingly showing climate sensitivity to be low. This is entirely the opposite of what has been happening. The most likely range of values of climate sensitivity (the amount of increase in surface temperature that eventually occurs as a result of the doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) was established over a century ago. Recently revealed documents show that Exxon Mobil Corporation itself studied climate science as early as the late 70’s, and its findings were in clear agreement with the National Academy of Science 1979 report, which estimated a climate sensitivity of 3°C, plus or minus 1.5° C. Tables in Exxon’s 1982 Climate Change “Primer” for executives show predictions for 2015 markedly similar to contemporary estimates by NASA, and NOAA.

Meanwhile, the solutions for climate change are at hand.

Solar and wind energy have grown faster, and costs have plummeted further, than even most fervent supporters would have predicted a few years ago. Wind and solar are now out-competing coal and nuclear everywhere, and even gas in many markets. Recent volatility in oil and gas prices make the predictable zero cost of renewables all the more attractive, as more and more major corporations are signing power purchase agreements for renewable energy, based on markets, not political correctness.

In a recent article in Scientific American, Engineers Mark Jacobsen and Mark Deluchi have shown how 139 countries can generate their total energy needs by 2050 from wind, solar, and water technologies.

Today’s average cost of large-scale solar in the U.S. is 5 cents/kWh. The installed cost of solar is down by half since 2009. The cost of wind in the U.S. is 2.5 cents per kWh, and efficiency is about the same, and sometimes below 1 cent/kWh. (See this.)

Denmark, Scotland, Spain, and Portugal are now producing more than half their electricity from renewable sources, Germany is close to a third – and the German grid is 10 times more reliable than the US grid.(See this)

In 20 US states, contractors will put solar panels on your roof for free – and in San Antonio Texas, the utility will pay you for the privilege of putting those panels on, and lowering your utility bill. (See this and this)

It’s a business model that will spread, sooner than coal barons like Matt Ridley would like you to believe.

Polling shows again and again that large majorities of Americans across all demographics favor rapid development of renewable energy, and tough regulations for greenhouse gases.

In addition, most importantly, a large majority of Americans now believe that climate change is a moral issue that obligates government officials, and private citizens, to take action.

The tactics of confusion and distortion are losing their effectiveness, as more and more Americans experience the effects of a climate altered world first hand. It’s time to stop denying the science, and begin discussing the solutions.

Global Warming Did Not Pause

You’ve heard much about the so-called “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming.

One of the implications of a multi-year “pause” in global warming is that the science of global warming must be somehow wrong, because with CO2 rising in atmosphere, due to human activity, how can the surface not warm? However, surface temperatures have been rising, but at a somewhat slower rate than at some other times.

The truth is that there is a lot of variation in that upward trending surface temperature value, measured as an anomaly above expected temperatures. Sometimes the variation pushes the rate of warming up, sometimes it pushes the rate of warming down. This has always happened, and will always happen.

So there was something of a lowering of rate of surface warming, but at the same time, no such reduction in rate of ocean warming. Most of the heat from global warming is added to the ocean, not the surface. So, the reality is, global warming has been continuing apace.

One of the factors involved in a slowdown is probably the fact that the Pacific Ocean has been absorbing more heat, for a longer period, relatively uninterrupted by large El Ninos (which reverse that trend), for longer than usual. This year’s El Nino is returning some of that heat to the atmosphere. But even before El Nino kicked in, we were having month after month of record breaking heat (with the very rare month not being a record breaker) for a long time.

Anyway, a couple of papers have recently been published that look once more at the “pause” and I wanted to point them out. The best way to get at these papers is to read the guest commentary by tephan Lewandowsky, James Risbey, and Naomi Oreskes on Hiatus or Bye-atus?

The idea that global warming has “stopped” has long been a contrarian talking point. This framing has found entry into the scientific literature and there are now numerous articles that address a presumed recent “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming. Moreover, the “hiatus” also featured as an accepted fact in the latest IPCC report (AR5). Notwithstanding its widespread use in public and apparent acceptance in the scientific community, there are reasons to be skeptical of the existence of a “hiatus” or “pause” in global warming …. We have examined this issue in a series of three recent papers, which have converged on the conclusion that there is not now, and there never has been, a hiatus or pause in global warming.

Just go and read the post, and if you like, the links therein.

Yet Another Record Breaking Hurricane: Sandra

Sandra is a Category 4 hurricane in the Eastern Pacific. The storm will hit Mexico.

Sandra breaks several records. It is the first observed Category 4 hurricane on Thanksgiving Day. It is the latest major Western Hemisphere hurricane observed. It is the latest Category 4 storm in either the eastern Pacific of Atlantic basins. Most likely, Sandra will become the latest landfalling tropical cyclone on record for Mexico.

(Jeff Masters has details.)

Sandra will come near the southern time of the Baja late Friday, but will likely be a tropical storm at that point. The storm will come ashore overnight or Saturday morning as a tropical depression (or maybe a weak tropical storm) in Sinaloa. So, this may be a case of the rare Eastern Pacific hurricane reaching land, but as a rainstorm rather than a threatening tropical storm.

This year’s record tropical storm activity is rather astonishing and is a result of a combination of continued global surface warming (which is thought to contribute to an overall increase in the frequency and severity of major storms) and this year’s very strong El Niño.

Books On Birds And Nature

Here we look mainly at bird books, but I wanted to also mention a couple of other items on non-birds. I’ve mixed in some new books along with a few other books that have come out over the last couple of years, but that are still very current, very amazing books, and since they have been out for a while, may in some cases be picked up used or otherwise less expensively.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.46.45 PMLet’s start with the least-bird like book, one that will be a must have for anyone traveling to or studying Africa. This is The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals: Second edition. This is a newly produced edition of this now classic work, which pretty much replaces most of the other guides. However, be warned, the book is a bit big and thick. If you are going on safari, consider also getting something smaller and more pocket size such as Pocket Guide version of Kingdon or the more classic Dorst and Dandelot A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa.

Kingdon is a naturalist and an amazing artist. The guide is detailed and has more species than any other guide. The maps are excellent and detailed. The drawings are both lifelike and designed to highlight key features. The text includes a lot of background on evolution and physical variation. This is just a great book. For African mammals, this is, these days, the guide.

A book with all the African mammals is fairly large. There are just enough carnivores in the world (excluding seals and their kin) to put them all into one book. Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides) is just plain a lot of fun. It is a bit silly, perhaps, to have a field guide to all the carnivores, because where exactly are you going to travel and see all the carnivores? But it is amazing to see them all in one place, well organized, similarly treated.

51zayKv8lYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Flight has evolved many times, and only some of those evolutionary events are visible in living form today. We have to assume that flight is one of the most useful adaptations, and at the same time, difficult to emerge. David Alexander’s On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight is a careful and intriguing look at the evolution of fully powered flight in the four major groups that achieved this ability.

While birds have received the majority of attention from flight researchers, Alexander pays equal attention to all four groups of flyers-something that no other book on the subject has done before now. In a streamlined and captivating way, David Alexander demonstrates the links between the tiny 2-mm thrip and the enormous albatross with the 12 feet wingspan used to cross oceans. The book delves into the fossil record of flyers enough to satisfy the budding paleontologist, while also pleasing ornithologists and entomologists alike with its treatment of animal behavior, flapping mechanisms, and wing-origin theory. Alexander uses relatable examples to draw in readers even without a natural interest in birds, bees, and bats. He takes something that is so off-limits and unfamiliar to humans-the act of flying-and puts it in the context of experiences that many readers can relate to. Alexander guides readers through the anomalies of the flying world: hovering hummingbirds, unexpected gliders (squirrels, for instance), and the flyers that went extinct (pterosaurs). Alexander also delves into wing-origin theory and explores whether birds entered the skies from the trees down (as gliders) or from the ground up (as runners) and uses the latest fossil evidence to present readers with an answer.

The following several books are bird books that have been available for a range of time (mostly not too new, at least one quite old) but that are either really nice books, or invaluable references.

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Bird Guides

The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle is the definitive guide to warblers. It includes all the North American species, with excellent visuals and a lot of information about the birds and their songs, including sonograms designed to actually relate the visual image to the sound itself, as an aid in identification. Because, let’s face it, you are going to hear a lot more warblers than you are going to see. Which is why they are called “warblers” instead of “colorful little birds.” Perhaps unique among bird guides, this book has quizzes to make sure you are keeping up. There are piles of other information about warbler watching

All of the Crossley ID guides are fantastic. These are not pocket books, but they are car books. You put them in your car when you are out looking for birds. These guides are unique in the way the birds are depicted, giving you views of the birds as they actually look in the wild, including really far away or hiding in the bushes, or all the other things birds do. Everyone needs to have a couple of these.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.06.23 PMThe Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (The Crossley ID Guides) mirrors the typical Peterson type guide in its coverage. This is to be supplemented by the very valuable The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors for the hawks and such. There is also a The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland.

Some of the Crossley guides come in an alternative binding format

Bird Books About Birds (evolution, history, biology)

There is a handful of books that I tend to go back to again and again to learn things about bird biology, the history of bird research, or other things beyond field identification.

The first one I would recommend is The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul Elrich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.13.49 PMThis is an older book but little of the information is out of date. This is where you look up some bird you’ve been watching or wondering about and find out the real tale behind the tail. Since it is an older book you can obtain it for just a few dollars.

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie is an authoritative, rich, well written, big, giant, tome that reviews the history of research, and the researchers, over many decades of bird study. Bird biology is a major part of organismic (meaning, not inside the cell or body, but outside) biology. So, in a sense, this book is a history of our understanding of how animals in general work. Again, because it has been out for a few years, you may find a good price on a used edition.

The next six books cover conservation, the intersection of birds and art, or expose detailed information about a single group of birds. They are all coffee-table level quality but rich in information and in some cases just plain inspiring. They are all current, but not right out of the publishing houses, so they can be obtained at a reasonable price, in most cases.

The World’s Rarest Birds (WILDGuides). There are something over 10,000 species of birds (thus the name of the famous blog). Of these, just under 600 are in very very serious trouble, some to the extent that we are not sure if they exist, others are so rare that we know they exist but there are no good photographs of them, others are merely very likely to go extinct. There are patterns to this rarity, having to do with what threatens birds on one hand and what makes certain birds vulnerable on the other, but the range of birds that are threatened, in terms of size, shape, kind of bird, habitat, etc. represents birds pretty generally. It is not just obscure frog-like rainforest birds of Borneo that are threatened. Chance are you live in a zone where there are bird species that have gone extinct over the last century, or are about to go extinct over coming decades, including birds that you will never see unless you are very very lucky.

Rare Birds of North America is the only extensive treatment I’ve see of the so called “vagrant birds” in the US and Canada. Most, or at least many, traditional bird books have a section in the back for rare birds, occasionals or accidentals, which one might see now and then. But when you think about it, how can five or even a dozen species in a bird book really do justice to the problem of spotting birds that are normally not supposed to be spotted?

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is a beautiful coffee table style book full of information. All of the world’s species are covered (amazingly there are only 18 of them) and there are more than 400 excellent photos. The book covers penguin science (science about them, not by them). There is also quite a bit about their conservation.

The layout of the book is interesting. The last section of the book, by Julie Cornthwaite includes portraits of each species, and a compendium of interesting facts such as which is the fastest penguin, strange things about their bills, their odd moulting behavior, interesting color variants, how they “fly”, interesting mating facts, and what threatens them. Then there is a table organized taxonomically giving their status, population estimates, ranges, and main threats. Following this is a two page bird-guide type spread on each species, with a range map, photos, descriptions, information about their voice, breeding behavior, feeding behavior, etc. That is what you would expect in a book about penguins.

But the first, and largest, part(s) of the book provides its uniqueness. The first section, by Dui De Roy, covers penguins generally, or specific exemplar species or groups of species, to provide an overview of what penguin-ness is all about. The second section, edited by Mark Jones, consists of 17 essays by various experts on specific topics, such as how penguins store food, how they are tracked at sea, and penguin-human interaction. I would like to have seen more about penguin evolution (which is interesting) but the sparsity of coverage of that topic does not detract from the book’s overall quality.

Five families of birds make up the group that could be referred to as the Cotingas and Manakins, which in turn include species with such colorful names as “Pale-bellied Tyrant-Manakin,” “Bare-necked Fruitcrow,” “Peruvian Plantcutter,” and “White-browed Purpletuft.” And certainly, you’ve heard of the Andean Cock-of-theRock. These birds and their relatives are THE famous colorful amazing birds of the Neotropics, the birds people who go to the Jungles of Central and South America go to see. “… the song of the Xcreaming Piha,… the loudest bird on Earth, is used by moviemakers to epitomize jungle soudns the world over, no just in its native South America,” we are told by the authors of Cotingas and Manakins, an amazing new book that you need to either add to your collection right now or give to your favorite birder.

How are birds related to dinosaurs, crocodiles, and pterosaurs? Where do birds live, and not live? How many bird species are there, and how many actual birds, and how does this vary across the glob? What about endemics?; Where ate the most local species found? Mike Unwin’s The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation covers this and more in a richly illustrated detailed global survey of Aves.

The image at the top of the post is by Analiese Miller. Ana is a fantastic bird photographer, and you can see some of her work either by visiting my house and looking at my wall, or by visiting this web site.

Science and Coding Books For Kids

I mention a couple of kids books in my overviews on Fossil and Evolution Books and Books about Climate Change. Here are a few excellent science and computer programming (aka coding) books for kids.

Geology book for kids

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.16.16 PMThe Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic: The Adventures of Geo, Vol. 1 is a good stab at making a comic that teaches some science.

We follow the adventures of Geo and his robotic dog, Rocky as the visit the ancient supercontinent of Pangea. This journey is pursuant to Geo’s upcoming test in his geology class.

What is the center of the Earth made out of? How do volcanoes work? Why do earthquakes happen? How did scientists figure out plate tectonics?

The book is geared for kids starting whenever they can read, or a bit older. Great drawings, great science, great story.

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Physiology and the Human Body for Kids

The The Manga Guide to Physiology is one of several Manga Guides that use a cartoon approach to, in this case, physiology. It isn’t all magna, but includes sections of regular text that give the reader a breather from the whacky world of anime where all the characters breath through their eyes. I like that aspect of the book because it serves a wider range of readers.

Once again, a central theme of the story is a kid cramming for a test. Seems to be a popular theme.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.25.38 PMSurvive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 1: The Digestive System is the first in a series of anime like, but not exactly, volumes that combine a comic theme and inserts in normal rhetorical form. The Survive books are pretty detailed, and targeted for kids 8 and above.

Survive! Inside the Human Body, Volume 1 begins an epic journey through the human body with a look at the digestive system. This lively, full-color science comic explores Phoebe’s insides after she accidentally swallows a microscopic ship. The only problem? Dr. Brain (the ship’s eccentric inventor) and Phoebe’s friend Geo are on board!

Volume 2 is on The Circulatory System, and Volume 3 is on The Nervous System.

Kid of like The Incredible Journey meets the Magic School Bus meets Pokemon.

Programming Books for Kids

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.01.18 PMJavaScript for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming may be considered a form of child abuse, but that all depends on one’s view of javascript. In order to teach this Internet based programming language, the author, Nick Morgan, takes the reader through a number of examples of game building. This book is best for kids about 10 years old and up, but this will depend on how much the nearest javascript savvy adult is.

JavaScript for Kids is a lighthearted introduction that teaches programming essentials through patient, step-by-step examples paired with funny illustrations. You’ll begin with the basics, like working with strings, arrays, and loops, and then move on to more advanced topics, like building interactivity with jQuery and drawing graphics with Canvas.

Along the way, you’ll write games such as Find the Buried Treasure, Hangman, and Snake.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 1.06.41 PMThe Super Scratch Programming Adventure! (Covers Version 2): Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is now out in a second edition, covering Scratch version 2. Scratch is part of a family of very kid friendly programming languages. The book suggests it is for ages 8 and above, but in various incarnations, Scratch can work for much younger kids. This is a good start on programming for robots. The book guides the reader through development of various games, and provides guidance in getting the Scratch environment running on your computer. This is a very visual, object oriented programming language, and the book is too.

A good companion book, focusing on Scratch Junior (a version of Scratch) is The Official ScratchJr Book: Help Your Kids Learn to Code.

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The Official ScratchJr Book is the perfect companion to this free app and makes coding easy and fun for all. Kids learn to program by connecting blocks of code to make characters move, jump, dance, and sing.

Each chapter includes several activities that build on one another, culminating in a fun final project. These hands-on activities help kids develop computational-thinking, problem-solving, and design skills.

The Official ScratchJr Book is actually geared towards somewhat younger kids.

Books On Fossils and Evolution

Over the last several months, a lot of great books on fossils and evolution (as in paleontology) have come out. I’ve selected the best for your consideration. These are great gifts for your favorite science-loving nephew, life science teaching cousin, or local school library. Actually, you might like some of these yourself.

grandmother_fishLet’s start off with a kid’s book: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet.

From the blurb:

Grandmother Fish is the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers. While listening to the story, the child mimics the motions and sounds of our ancestors, such as wiggling like a fish or hooting like an ape. Like magic, evolution becomes fun, accessible, and personal. Grandmother Fish will be a full-size (10 x 8), full-color, 32-page, hardback book full of appealing animal illustrations, perfect for your bookshelf. US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.

I reviewed the book here before it first came out. This was a kickstarter project, and it may be currently unavailable commercially, but if you click through to the kickstarter project you can probably get a copy of it.

Donald+Prothero+Story+of+Life+in+25+FossilsThe most recent book to come across my desk is Don Prothero’s The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution. I’ve got a review of Prothero’s book in my draft file, so look for that post coming out over the next few days.

One might ask, “how do you choose 25 fossils, among so many choices, to represent evolution?” Well, Don cheated a little by mentioning more than 25 fossils. Also, you really can’t do this. Don selected fossils using several criteria, but one basis for his choice was the availability of rich historical information about a fossil’s discovery, interpretation, and effect on our thinking about evolution. And, he covers all of that.

Don is one of those rare authors who is both an expert scientist and a great writer, with a proven ability to explain things in a way that is not watered down yet totally accessible.

Here’s a selection of the many other books written by Prothero:

EvolutionTheWholeStoryParker41N2zRnkbuL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Evolution: The Whole Story is an astonishing book that needs to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in evolution. The work is edied by Steve Parker, but authored by nearly a dozen experts in various subfields of fossils and evolution, so it is authoritative and scholarly. At the same time, it is very accessible and enjoyable. This is not a book you read from cover to cover, though you could. Feel free to skip around, and you;ll find yourself looking stuff up all the time.

The book is divided into major sections, and each section has a series of short pieces on this or that fossil, group of fossils, type of life system, method for studying fossils, etc. There is a running sidebar on the bottom of many pages giving “key events” in evolutionary history of the group of life forms under consideration The book is VERY richly illustrated, with detailed keys to the illustrations. Many of the illustrations are broken down into “focal points” that expand significantly on the illustrations’ details. There are countless additional inserts with more information. The book itself is beautiful, intriguingly organized, and it is full of … well, everything. The book is very well indexed and sourced, and has helpful, up to date, phylogenies and chronological graphics.

TheBiologyBookGeraldThe Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (Sterling Milestones) by Michael Gerald and Gloria Gerald is a compendium of biological topics and key moments in the history of biological science, organized in a sort of chronological framework. Major groups (the insects, the amphibians), major ideas (Pliny’s Natural History, Ongogeny and Phylogeny), key physiological and developmental concepts (meiosis, mitosis, many topics in endocrinology), key fossils (like the Coelocanth) and so on are discussed, very nicely illustrated. This is almost like having a gazillian short articles from Natural History Magazine (or similar) all in one book. There are 250 biological “milestones” in all. The charming part of the book is that a milestone can be an evolutionary event, an extinction episode, the emergence of a great idea, or a particular discover. And, as noted, these are ordered across time, as well as one can, from the beginning of life to a selection of the most recent discovery. The book effectively combines history of biology (and related sciences) and the biological history itself.

lifes_gretest_secret_dna_cobb511J4iZIbrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by the well respected scientist and historian Matthew Cobb is a carefully and clearly written history of the discovery of the nature of DNA, covering a lot more than, and since, Watson and Crick. It is extremely well sourced, indexed, and supported, and very readable.

This is the detailed and authoritative work on all the elements that came together to understand the genetic code. Don’t talk about the discovery and understanding of DNA any more until you’ve read this book. From the publisher:

Life’s Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters—mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists—who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or “junk DNA” was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobb’s telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone who’d like to explore those questions for themselves.

EldridgeEvolutionExtinctionExtinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life is a an updated version of a classic book about evolution and extinction written by one of the scientists who developed our modern way of thinking about evolution and extinction (especially the extinction part).

Eldredge’s groundbreaking work is now accepted as the definitive statement of how life as we know it evolved on Earth. This book chronicles how Eldredge made his discoveries and traces the history of life through the lenses of paleontology, geology, ecology, anthropology, biology, genetics, zoology, mammalogy, herpetology, entomology and botany. While rigorously accurate, the text is accessible, engaging and free of jargon.

Honorable Mentions: Older books that are great and may now be avaialable for much reduced prices.

I really liked The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy as an expose of a particular time period and major event in geological history. Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet by Prothero is a classic, again, looking at a fairly narrowly defined moment in prehistory. You can get it used for about five bucks.

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution by Dean Falk is a great book focusing on one key human fossil. This is a personal story as well as a scientific one. Again, available used for a song.

Have you read Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body yet? I’m sure you’ve heard about it. It is still a great read, and you can get it used cheap.

The only book I would recommend that uses the “paleolithic” to advise you on diet and exercise is The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living.

Books on Climate Change

It is time to update the list of recommended books on climate change and global warming. I assume that with the holidays coming, you will want to give some people some science books, and climate change related books should be near the top of the list for you. I’m doing a separate post on evolution related books, and another on bird and nature books, as well.

I’m going to keep this short and focus on a small number of books. To get on this list the book has to be good and current, with two notable exceptions (see below).

Global Warming Books For Kids

PleaseDontPaintPlanetPinkPlease Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!: A Story for Children and their Adults is newish, and excellent. The idea is simple. Imagine if you could see CO2? In the book, it is imagined to be pink. The imagining takes the form of a quirky father, one imagines him to be an inventor of some sort, coming up with the idea of making goggles that would allow you to see CO2 as a pink gas. This is all described by the man’s patient but clearly all suffering son, who eventually dons the prototype goggles and sees for himself.

I read this to Huxley, age 5, and he loved it. He kept asking questions, and saying things like, “Is that true? Really?” I knew he would enjoy the book for its witty chatter and excellent illustrations, but frankly I did not expect him to be enthralled. He is fairly laid back when it comes to matters of science, nature, and for that matter, mathematics. He tends to absorb, then, later makes up song about it or comes up with difficult questions. His reaction was unique.

Bill McKibben’s reaction was pretty strong too. He is quoted as saying, “I’ve often wondered what would happen if CO2 were visible. Now I know!” … except he already knew. There would be pink everywhere. At the density of about 400ppm. More than the 350 value that gives his organization its name!

ClimateChangeSneidemanTwamleyBookNew on the market is Climate Change: Discover How It Impacts Spaceship Earth (Build It Yourself). This book covers many concepts in earth science, from paleontology to climate systems to how to make a battery out of apple (how can a kid’s science activity not include the apple battery!). This book represents an interesting concept, because it involves kids in mostly easy to do at home projects, covers numerous scientific concepts, and takes the importance of global climate change as a given. There is a good amount of history of research, though the book does not cover a lot of the most current scientists and their key work (I’d have liked to see a chapter specifically on the Hockey Stick and the paleo record, thought these concepts are included along with the other material).

One of the coolest things about the book is the material on what an individual can do to address energy and climate related problems, including (but not limited to) advice on activism, such as writing letters to government officials. I reviewed it here.

Climate Change Books For The Passionate Activist

Romm_Climate_Change_Book9780190250171Joe Romm, author of the 2008 book Hell and High Water: The Global Warming Solution, has a new book, just out, which is a must read. Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is an up to date and complete overview of the climate change crisis, with an added twist. Romm’s new book has very specific advice for how to address climate change in your own life — how to adapt. Romm also suggests how to take personal action to lessen the crisis overall, of course. I reviewed the book here.

Also brand new is Wen Stephenson’s book, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice. I’ve not reviewed the book yet, but I’ve looked through it, and I know Wes. Bill McKibben notes that Wes’s book “captures [the climate change movement] with grace and power.”

Wen Stephenson is a journalist, who one day realized the urgency of climate change, and took it to heart. He left his career and became a full time activist. In case you were wondering if you could do that, apparently you can. The book is referred to as “An urgent, on-the-ground look at some of the “new American radicals” who have laid everything on the line to build a stronger climate justice movement.”


In What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, Stephenson tells his own story and offers an up-close, on-the-ground look at some of the remarkable and courageous people—those he calls “new American radicals”—who have laid everything on the line to build and inspire this fast-growing movement: old-school environmentalists and young climate-justice organizers, frontline community leaders and Texas tar-sands blockaders, Quakers and college students, evangelicals and Occupiers. Most important, Stephenson pushes beyond easy labels to understand who these people really are, what drives them, and what they’re ultimately fighting for. He argues that the movement is less like environmentalism as we know it and more like the great human-rights and social-justice struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from abolitionism to civil rights. It’s a movement for human solidarity.

Give This Global Warming Book To Your Uncle Bob

Climatology_Versus_Pseudoscience_By_Dana_Nuccitelli_Book_CoverI feel sorry for anyone who’s name is actually “Bob” and who is actually someone’s uncle. First, there is that expression, “And Bob’s your uncle.” But also, “Uncle Bob” has become the name of that man you meet at Thanksgiving who doesn’t believe in science (evolution, climate change, whatever) and likes to annoy you, a science-oriented person, with his denialism because he thinks it is funny, or somehow, his duty.

The book I’m suggesting in this category is not really for Uncle Bob. It is for you. Then you go talk to Uncle Bob. Dana Nuccitelli had this great idea of doing a survey of all the crap science deniers have said about the climate, including some marginal scientists, predicting cooling, saying the models are wrong, etc. etc., then comparing this to the actual science. In other words, Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics by Dana Nuccitelli, is quite literally the comparison between actual science and fake science.

Dana is along term contributor to the site, which is your go-to source to prepare for, or come back from, that conversation with Uncle Bob. This is a really good book, which I reviewed here, and needs to be part of your arsenal. This is also one of those books your school library MUST have. Call them, make sure they do.

Everyperson’s Guide To The IPCC, Best Single Book On Climate Change Science

Dire_Predictions_Mann_KumpDire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change gets its own category because it is the only book in that category, plus, if you are going to get one book on climate change this year, this is the one you should get. This is the second edition, updated to reflect the most recent IPCC findings.

The IPCC report itself is of course a great read, if you have lot of time and take a couple of courses in earth system science first. But if you want to get all the information the IPCC report on the scientific basis for climate change, along with some of the policy stuff, this is the book. If you are teaching a class on climate change at the middle or upper High School or intro College level, or if climate change is part of a larger class on earth systems, this is your textbook. It is, as the title suggests, at visual guide, basically pictures and captions, which is the only part of most scientific stuff you read anyway. So just get this book, get two or three and give them away as presents.

My review of the book, which is here, includes an interview with one of the authors, climate scientist Michael Mann.

The Best Book About The Climate Change Science Wars

HockeyStick9780231152549I see this again and again. A science denier writes a comment on a blog post or on Facebook referring to the Hacked Emails of Climategate, or to the Debunking of the Hockey Stick, or this or that shenanigans by climate scientists. A pro-science person responds, but their response is weak, lacks some important information or perspective, or otherwise falls short. And in my head, I scream, “OMG FFS have you not read Michael Mann’s book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, which totally covers this in detail and tells you exactly what happens??????”

The ongoing assault on climate science in the United States has never been more aggressive, more blatant, or more widely publicized than in the case of the Hockey Stick graph — a clear and compelling visual presentation of scientific data, put together by MichaelE. Mann and his colleagues, demonstrating that global temperatures have risen in conjunction with the increase in industrialization and the use of fossil fuels. Here was an easy-to-understand graph that, in a glance, posed a threat to major corporate energy interests and those who do their political bidding. The stakes were simply too high to ignore the Hockey Stick — and so began a relentless attack on a body of science and on the investigators whose work formed its scientific basis.

The Hockey Stick achieved prominence in a 2001 UN report on climate change and quickly became a central icon in the “climate wars.” The real issue has never been the graph’s data but rather its implied threat to those who oppose governmental regulation and other restraints to protect the environment and planet. Mann, lead author of the original paper in which the Hockey Stick first appeared, shares the story of the science and politics behind this controversy. He reveals key figures in the oil and energy industries and the media frontgroups who do their bidding in sometimes slick, sometimes bare-knuckled ways. Mann concludes with the real story of the 2009 “Climategate” scandal, in which climate scientists’ emails were hacked. This is essential reading for all who care about our planet’s health and our own well-being.

Mann’s book is not newly published, but it is newly out in paperback, and since it is an expose of a particular period in Climate Wars history, it is very much not out of date. If this is not on your climate change bookshelf then you don’t really have a climate change bookshelf.

Best Deal

ClimateCrisisThe Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change is rich, scholarly, and expensive as many academic books are. But it has been out for a while now. But the book has been out long enough that you may be able to obtain a very inexpensive copy of it, so I’m mentioning it here. Yes, it will be somewhat out of date but not that much, and you can combine it with Dire Predictions or other sources to fill in that gap. When I check Amazon for it, I see it for dirt cheap. Now is your chance.

WMO: 2011-2015 is the warmest five year period on record

The World Meteorological Organization has announced that they expect 2015 to be the warmest year on record, and that we are in the warmest five year period on record. We are speaking here of global surface temperatures, though similar descriptions probably apply to the upper 2000 meters or so of the ocean as well.

The global average surface temperature in 2015 is likely to be the warmest on record and to reach the symbolic and significant milestone of 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial era. This is due to a combination of a strong El Niño and human-induced global warming, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The years 2011-2015 have been the warmest five-year period on record, with many extreme weather events – especially heatwaves – influenced by climate change, according to a WMO five-year analysis.

“The state of the global climate in 2015 will make history as for a number of reasons,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached new highs and in the Northern hemisphere spring 2015 the three-month global average concentration of CO2 crossed the 400 parts per million barrier for the first time. 2015 is likely to be the hottest year on record, with ocean surface temperatures at the highest level since measurements began. It is probable that the 1°C Celsius threshold will be crossed,” said Mr Jarraud. “This is all bad news for the planet.”

Greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing climate change, can be controlled. We have the knowledge and the tools to act. We have a choice. Future generations will not.”

They have some nice graphics:

Global annual average temperatures anomalies (relative to 1961-1990) based on an average of three global temperature data sets (HadCRUT., GISTEMP and NOAAGlobalTemp) from 1950 to 2014. The 2015 average is based on data from January to October. Bars are coloured according to whether the year was classified as an El Niño year (red), a La Niña year (blue) or an ENSO-neutral year (grey).Note uncertainty ranges are not shown, but are around 0.1°C.
Global annual average temperatures anomalies (relative to 1961-1990) based on an average of three global temperature data sets (HadCRUT., GISTEMP and NOAAGlobalTemp) from 1950 to 2014. The 2015 average is based on data from January to October. Bars are coloured according to whether the year was classified as an El Niño year (red), a La Niña year (blue) or an ENSO-neutral year (grey).Note uncertainty ranges are not shown, but are around 0.1°C.
Ocean heat content down to a depth  2000m. Three-month (red), annual (black) and 5-year (blue) averages are shown. Source: NOAA NCEI
Ocean heat content down to a depth 2000m. Three-month (red), annual (black) and 5-year (blue) averages are shown. Source: NOAA NCEI

Caption for the graphic at the top of the post:

Global annual average near-surface temperature anomalies from HadCRUT4.4.0.0 (Black line and grey area indicating the 95% uncertainty range), GISTEMP (blue) and NOAAGlobalTemp (orange). The average for 2015 is a provisional figure based on the months January to October 2015. Source: Met Office Hadley Centre.

Important Thanksgiving Information

First and foremost, depending on when you are reading this, TAKE THE TURKEY OUT OF THE FREEZER.

But seriously, Thanksgiving is, to me, one of the more interesting holidays. It is a “feast.” You knew that already, but what you may not have known is that “feasting” is a human activity found world wide and often studied by anthropologists. Feasting is not exactly a human universal, as it is rare in foraging societies. But whenever certain conditions arise, feasting seems to emerge as a part of normative culture.

As a human, you may automatically think of feasting as a pleasantry, a fun thing to do, one of the perks of having extra food and a social system that brings friends and relatives together. You probably also think of gift giving as fun, a perk, a positive feature of human sociality.

Both, however, are acts of violence. Or, at least, part of an overall social system held together by uneasy alliance and often bloody warrefare, or something close to warrefare. (Yes, I spelled it like Hobbes would. On purpose.)

I wrote an essay a while back, revised a few times, that talks about feasting and Thanksgiving, putting each in the context of the other. Check it out: The Feast (A Thanksgiving Day Story).

By knowing what is actually happening at your own Thanksgiving, you may have stand a better chance of surviving it.

(This all relates, of course, to the controversial anthropology discussed here and here.)

And now back to more practical matters.

Here is some advice on how to make stock, how to make gravy, and how to cook a turkey.

What really happened on the first Thanksgiving? This!

Find out about the domestic turkey and the first thanksgiving.

Two podcasts, featuring in part, moi, on the Turkey and its history:

A partial history of the turkey: Where and when were they domesticated

Another helping of turkey: More than there ever were

Since we are talking about cooking and history, remember that cooking itself has a history.

An entertaining and informative video from the American Chemical Society. Without chemistry, Thanksgiving itself would be impossible!

A Thanksgiving Day Classic:

A Thanksgiving Joke, from here:

An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough.”

“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams.

“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and he hangs up.

Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. “Like hell they’re getting divorced,” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this.” She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at the old man, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hangs up.

The old man hangs up his phone, too, and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “they’re coming for Thanksgiving. Now what do we tell them for Christmas?”

Finally, on the origin of the term “Black Friday.”

STEM Kids Holiday Presents Ideas

I know a lot of you are looking for ideas for science-related children’s presents for Christmas or whatever holiday you like to celebrate this time of year. I have a couple of ideas, and hopefully you will add some of your ideas below. Not everything that helps encourage the skills of scientific tinkering is found in a science kit, and I’ll provide a few ideas for toys that do this. Also, some of the best science experiments are found by using things that don’t come in kits, but by following the advice in books. So I’ll suggest a few books as well. Purely science kits or tools are of course an important addition to the tool box, but not everything has to be an actual science kit. A toy that is simply a toy, but that has a pro-science theme, is also a good idea, and I’ve got some suggestions there as well.

Science Experiments for Kids

There are many items out there that are explicitly science kits, such as biology kits or chemistry kits, and I’m not comfortable making specific recommendations for that sort of thing. There are many options, across a wide range of qualities, and many turn out to be fairly disappointing. I do recommend going for kits that are very specific in what they do, and not very expensive. These kits seem to serve the purpose well enough, and not a lot of investment is made in case they are not quite up to snuff.

61HAQTA55SL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_For many, the best option may be a book that outlines science experiments you can do with common (or sometimes less common) household items.

Vicki Cobb’s “See for Yourself!: More Than 100 Amazing Experiments for Science Fairs and School Projects,” which covers a wide range of physics, chemistry, and biology. You can extract DNA, build a charge or current detector, experiment with sound waves, and experiment with sensory processing. Many of the experiments are, as the title suggests, suitable for use in a science fair, and many of the projects are adaptable so your junior scientist can include their own creative ideas (which might include combining two or more experiments). Most of the experiments include useful context and additional notes on how to alter or elaborate on the project. It is hard to pin down an age range for this book, but with adult involvement, there are experiments that will be fun for pretty little kids, and on their own, kids from middle school through high school will find it useful.

(Also by Vicki Cobb: Science Experiments You Can Eat)

bio-coverAt a somewhat higher level are the DIY lab books. Robert Bruce Thompson has produced these:

I have read and worked with the Biology and Chemistry books, and they are excellent. These books are actually designed to meet the requirements of a typical chemistry or biology course that might be taught in high school, and for most labs, require getting some higher end gear (all of which can be ordered or acquired, with information in the books on how to do this). So these are pretty serious books.

Toys That Teach: Logic, engineering skills, experimental thinking

Especially for younger kids (pre-K), some of the skills we wish to develop in support of science learning are probably best acquired with non science toys. For example, the basic wooden train tracks (originally invented, I think, by Brio, but now in many forms including Thomas the Tank Engine, Chuddington, Imaginarium, etc.) require the development of the critical skills of patience, planning and forethought, and some basic engineering and design skills. An inexpensive way of getting started on this is to buy a set that includes massive numbers of wooden train tracks in an expansion pack . You can get at a somewhat pricy price train engines that will run, battery powered, on the tracks such as Fisher-Price Thomas the Train Wooden Railway James Engine. Designing tracks that will allow these engines to run without falling over requires more care and planning, which adds an element of learning.

350-944993-847__1There are numerous toys/games that are not explicitly science, but like the train tracks are expandable and rebuild-able, requiring the development of similar skills, using marbles and tubes and shoots etc. For his birthday, Huxley got one such toy that we were very impressed with. Rated for kids 8 and above, the Techno Gears Marble Mania Glow In The Dark Galatic Adventure Play Set can be assembled by adults for younger kids to play with. While assembly (several hours) is a part of the learning experience for older kids, younger kids still learn process, causality, sequencing, as well as fine tuning (you have to mess around with the chutes and tubes to make them all work, but in ways that teach about dynamics) even without assembling them. Uses lots of batteries.

LEGO Science

Part of nudging the offspring in a scientific direction is just about making science part of the fun they are already having. LEGO is a classic toy, and has a lot of science oriented sets, even if sometimes the science is a bit odd. For example, Lego has the LEGO City Arctic Base Camp set, which is a bit pricy (because it is big) and has many sub-components such as smaller ATVs, a research camp, and a drilling truck and helicopter. All of these components (I’m pretty sure) can be obtained as separate smaller and more affordable kits, so one can pick and chose and spread it out over a few holidays. The fact that the toy is all about scientists collecting paleoclimate data and studying melting glaciers is the reason to get this kit. Having said that, the science itself is, frankly, very funny since the mini-fig-scientists seem to specialize in extracting giant ice-enclosed crystals more likely to be found in the dilithium power sources of a Star Ship.

5702015119283-2The Arctic research kit is part of the City series, which matters if you are keeping track of realistic scales.

A rare LEGO item that looks interesting but that I’ve not seen is the LEGO Cuusoo 21110 Research Institute. This is one of the many LEGO science kits designed by LEGO fans and then produced by LEGO because other LEGO fans liked it enough.

Microscopes for kids

If you are going to get one science related toy for kids, and the kid does not have a microscope, then you should probably get a microscope. I’m going to recommend two types, but there are many options out there.

qx5_microscopeFirst is a USB microscope. There are many kinds out there, and which one you get may depend on age, how many different individuals will use it, and if you already have one. We have the Digital Blue Computer Microscope Digital Camera – QX7, which is simple to use, hooks up easily, is not expensive, and seems pretty sturdy. This is entry level. One thing to note: Software that comes with this sort of microscope is generally useless, may not work, and is more troubler than it is worth. Just hook up the microscope as though it was an external camcorder and use it that way. You’ll be able to use your system’s (or installed) cam software to take stills or movies.

The other kind of microscope I recommend, and you should have both kinds, is some sort of simple hand held pocket microscope. We have the Carson 60X-100X MicroMax LED Lighted Pocket Microscope (MM-200), and it is fantastic. Give it to a bunch of kids and they will run around everywhere taking turns looking at things up close. Whatever pocket microcope you get should have a light in it. (I think they all do, but check).

Go back to the Illustrated Guide to biology experiments noted above, or other references, to find out what higher-end microscope (and related equipment) you want to go beyond these entry level items. Our higher-end microscope is actually a late 19th century design using reflected light. And, now and then, Amanda brings Huxley into the lab to show him the big fancy scopes. When he is a bit older, we’ll get some real optics, such as a medium level binocular scope with a camera.


Getting back to the basic idea that learning patience, planning, forethought, and integrating these skills with something creative and productive, as a way to start out in science, I suggest one or more electronic project kits. People of a certain age will remember the old fashioned kits, using telegraph board style wires to hook up components fixed to a large board in different ways to produce various circuits. These days, this approach is replaced with something that reflect the process of building more accurately. I suggest a Snap Circuit kit. There are many levels, and as far as I can tell, one can upgrade from a given level to several different higher levels, with upgrade kits. The total cost is less if you go for the higher level kit right away, but that is pricy, and the difference in cost between serial upgrades and getting the biggest kit at the start is not very large.

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 10.29.29 AMFor this reason I recommend starting with the Snap Circuits SC-300 Electronics Discovery Kit, not the lowest end, but not very expensive. From there you can easily upgrade to a higher level kit, or, get a second specialized kit, such as the Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Green.

A few words of advice on Snap Circuits. When working with Huxley, staring at late age 3, I insisted that about every other time we played with them, we followed the instructions exactly to demonstrate this or that feature of electronics. The other times, he was free to do whatever he wanted as long as he did not make a short circuit with the battery pack, and always installed a switch in the off position while working with the circuits. In truth, there was no real danger in breaking anything (probably) or getting shocked or anything else untoward, but this helped him learn that circuits needed to be handled a certain way for effectiveness and safety. Eventually, Huxley started to design his own circuits to demonstrate complex switching, parallel vs. serial setups, etc.

Also, after observing this for a while, I realized the whole thing would be more fun with a few additional switches, so I separately ordered some of them. Then, a student of Amanda’s, hearing of Huxley’s interest, gave us his old set, so we suddenly had two of almost everything. Huxley really has learned quite a bit about how electricity works, mainly by working with the power supplies (battery packs), various switches, and, mostly, the small electric motor.

I’d love to see your suggestions, or commentary about your experiences, in the comments section!

Aging: Even Opie. An evolutionary perspective

I’m not going to say that Ron Howard is old or anything, but he isn’t Opie any more. (And, in fact, it has been fascinating and inspiring to watch his career, by the way.) Anyway, Howard produced a new documentary with National Geographic called “Breakthrough: The Age of Aging, which premieres Sunday, November 29 at 9 pm et on National Geographic Channel. And, pursuant to this, National Geographic’s web site is sponsoring a Roundtable on the topic. The roundtable addresses the question, “By treating aging as a disease are we just prolonging the inevitable or can we change the course of our lives?”

The short answer to this is, I’m not really sure, but I think it is helpful to put aging, and changes in human patterns of aging, in a broader anthropological and evolutionary perspective.

LOS ANGELES - Priya Balasubramanian studies the science of aging.??(photo credit:  Asylum Entertainment)
LOS ANGELES – Priya Balasubramanian studies the science of aging.??(photo credit: Asylum Entertainment)
People have long lived long, even hunter gatherers in the Stone Age, as to modern hunter gatherers. In fact, hunter gatherers may have had longer and healthier lives than some of their errand cousins who went and invented agriculture and animal husbandry. In some cases we know from archaeology that populations engaged in early experiments with agriculture experienced dramatic decreases in overall health, and presumably, life span. This may have been a combination of larger groups sharing more diseases, unsanitary conditions developing in a more settled lifestyle, and a diet based on a smaller range of foods one ends up when casting off the foraging way of life. Eventually, in regions where this has been observed, things got better, either as a result of cultural adaptation or genetic changes.

When we look into the past, it is too easy to compress our ancestry into a caricature of primitive humanity, and based that conception on the wrong model. For example, it is said that “people were shorter back then.” Often, that is true, but the shorter people were actually poor urban dwellers in late medieval European settlements where diet was poor and disease demanded more energy of the immune system than average, so growth was sacrificed. If we look at pre-agricultural foraging populations, we often see relatively tall people. This is a bit enigmatic because so many modern forager groups are short statured. The explanation for that is probably that forager groups who are still around today, or have been extant over the last century or so, eek out their existence in relatively marginal habitats, the better parts of the landscape taken over by farmers and herders.

See: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

So, we should expect that prehistoric lifespan varied across time and space, and as I noted, there were probably always elderly people, but just not too many of them, compared to today. It has become axiomatic to note in modern day conversations that many of our diseases, in the West, are “diseases of civilization.” This is a combination of health effects, but one of the most important is the lack of disease of the past because they have been addressed, at least for now, at least for a subset of the human population. Antibiotics alone probably allow a much larger proportion of the human population to survive long enough to experience age-related disease.

A good part of Howard’s documentary is about the science of aging. We want our scientists to figure out how to beat aging, or at least, slow it down. But this is not easy. Humans are primates, and primates are mammals. The very earliest mammals probably evolved to die young. That seems counterintuitive but it really isn’t. Life History Theory predicts that organisms will be selected to produce some sort of balance (or bias, imbalance) of three major energy shunting systems: growth, maintenance (including the immune system), and reproduction. Humans reproduce slowly, producing one (or two) offspring at a time, and putting a lot of effort into each one. This goes along with a long lifespan, because in order to produce a small number of high-quality offspring one must take some time. This, however, places additional demands on the immune system. In order to keep up with evolving microbes and the overall ravages of time, we need to spend a fair amount of effort on keeping from being too sick. And, we happen to be large, for a primate. That probably relates to predator pressure and a few other factors. So while we are selected to live a long time compared to the average primate (and certainly, the average mammal) we can only go just so far.

But perhaps more importantly, we (humans, and to a somewhat lesser extent, primates in general) are modified versions of mammals, and there are indications that mammals were never originally designed (by natural selection) to live long lives. Early mammals were probably small, and small goes along with a short lifespan in the mammalian world. Remember, those early mammals were living along side dinosaurs! (There were large early mammals but modern mammals, including all the more recent large one, probably evolved from a subset of them that were on the small side.) In a world where the smallest dinosaurs were larger than the largest mammals (or close to that) mammals were probably more often prey than predator. The best strategy if the most likely cause of death is being scarfed up by something larger is to live fast, have one or two litters of offspring, and do the whole “circle of life” thing really fast.

See: How Long Is A Human Generation?

One strong piece of evidence that a live fast and die young strategy applied to early mammals is the fact that mammal females are born already containing all the egg cells they will ever produce. This is the primary determinant of reproductive lifespan for human females. Organisms that are born ready to reproduce tend to have that strategy of rapid early reproduction followed by an early death. One of the more extreme examples of this is aphids. Aphids have two modes of reproduction, but in one of them, female aphids are born gravid. While human females are not born pregnant, they are born with the eggs ready to go.

Not only have humans (following the primate lead) extended their lifespan and slowed down their reproduction, but they ave added, apparently, another phase of life: Post reproductive. Human females in foraging societies around the world are productive members of their families after they have stopped being fertile. This seems to not make sense from a Darwinian perspective. Why not just keep reproducing until you die? Probably for two reasons. First, they can’t, because human lifespans are already extended to the limit of our phyolgeneticaly constrained abilities. Second, that post-reproductive period probably enhances Darwinian fitness. Studies have shown that elder women in foraging societies contribute significantly to the health and wellbeing of their own children’s offspring. Grandmothers are an adaptation!

Antarctic Ice Sheet Deterioration Study Left Out Important Factors

A few days ago a team of climate scientists (Catherine Ritz, Tamsin Edwards, Gaël Durand, Antony Payne, Vincent Peyaud, and Richard Hindmarsh) published a study of “Potential sea-level rise from Antarctic ice-sheet instability constrained by observations.”

The study asked how much Antarctic ice sheets might contribute to global sea level by 2100 and 2200 AD. The results contradicted some earlier estimates which are on the high end, but conformed very closely to the current IPCC estimate, raising that number by a negligible amount.

The authors note that rising seas due to global warming is a significant problem. In other words, this research could be good news on one way, in that the highest estimates were not supported. But it is bad news in another way, in that the Antarctic ice sheet will contribute enough that when added to other sources of sea level rise, coastal regions will be seriously affected.

One of the study’s authors, Tamsin Edwards, wrote a summary of the paper in The Guardian. That essay provides a useful summary of the history of Antarctic ice-sheet research, and places the new research in perspective. In particular, Edwards notes,

We’re not the first to predict the consequences of Antarctic instability. So what’s new? We are the first to use all three elements I think are essential for climate predictions: physics, observations, and statistics.

I’m not sure if this is the first study to use data, physics, and statistics, but if it is, wow. However, there may be one very important thing missing from Ritz and Edwards Et Al: A full consideration of the factors involved in ice sheets turning into ocean because of global warming.

The study involved developing a computer model simulating the behavior of the ice sheet. This model was refined by comparing results of different runs, each using slightly different values for the relevant variables, with observations, in order to weight the model variants to get a more plausible set of results. Several thousand runs of the model were evaluated in this way.

My impression of the study, which I partially wrote up here, was that there were two possible problems. One derives from those earlier higher-end estimates that the new study contradicts. Some of those estimates are based on paleo data, which attempt to link either CO2 levels or global temperatures with known sea levels contemporary with those values. Looking at sea level from a paleo perspective, one could argue that current levels of atmospheric CO2 should be associated with much higher sea levels than we have today. Since added CO2 takes decades to be realized as surface warming, and surface warming takes, we assume, considerable time to be manifest as polar ice sheet melting or deterioration, the timing of sea level rise is very much an open question. In other words, a paleo-based estimate of many feet of sea level rise does not necessarily conflict with the results of this paper, which predict “that the Antarctic ice sheet will contribute up to 30 cm sea-level equivalent by 2100 and 72 cm by 2200.” Both could be right, because it may simply take several hundred years for sea levels to reach an equilibrium consistent with between 400 and 500 or so parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The second problem concerned me a bit more. This is the idea embodied in the “Ice swan analogy” I outlined in my post. The transformation of a continental ice sheet (and its nearby sea-situated parts) into ocean water could be somewhat over simply characterized as having two parts. One is simply the melt of ice being greater than the replacement of ice from precipitation and cold conditions. The other is the physical collapse of parts of the glaciers, causing large amounts of ice to slough off into the sea where they will quickly melt and contribute to sea level rise. It is likely that the latter would affect the former, so melting would increase because of changes to the structure and position of ice after physical collapse of large parts of it. Removing the distal part of a glacier’s tongue may unplug upstream sources of meltwater, and cause further rapid deterioration by destabilizing the ice sheet’s structure.

If the catastrophic deterioration of parts of the ice sheet (catastrophic in the sense that nothing happens, then more of nothing, then still more, then suddenly a threshold is reached huge chunks fall of for a time, then back to nothing again) is not accounted for, or insufficiently accounted for, in a model, then the model may be underestimating total ice sheet contribution to sea level rise, and the rate at which that may happen.

The possibility that large scale or at least rapid deterioration of parts of the ice sheet could happen has potentially important consequences. First, if such a thing does occur in large scale, the rate of sea level rise could be very rapid for a period of years. A sea level that goes up a few millimeters a year is potentially different, as a problem to which we must adapt, than one that rises in fits and starts. Second, the total contribution of Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise may be both larger, and less predictable.

Richard Alley is a climate scientist at Penn State who studies ice, glaciers, sea level change, and abrupt climate change. I asked him for his opinion on the Ritz, Edwards, et al. paper. I am happy-sad to say that many of his remarks mirrored my own thoughts. Happy because it is always nice to have one’s ideas about complex science confirmed by an expert to not be completely wrong. Sad, because the Ritz, Edwards et al paper does look like it may be underestimating the total amount and rate of Antarctic ice sheet contribution to sea level rise.

Alley is concerned about the lack of attention in the Ritz, Edwards et al study to important relevant mechanisms.

Alley told me that among the many factors that contribute to sea level rise (melting of mountain glaciers transferring water from the land to the ocean, expansion of ocean water as it warms, possibly from mining of groundwater exceeding water trapping from dams and other human activities) that “the largest uncertainties are attached to the ice sheets. For the 20 years leading up to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, the Shepherd et al. IMBIE assessment (Science, 2012) found an accelerating contribution to sea-level rise from the ice sheets, but with an average of only ~0.6 mm/yr out of the ~3 mm/yr total. At that rate, loss of all the ice sheets would require just over 100,000 years; the rate of loss of 0.001%/yr is equivalent to me as a professor losing 1/3 of one potato chip per year on a diet. Both I and the ice sheets could lose weight more rapidly; we generally would consider my weight loss to be good and that of the ice sheets to be bad.”

Alley notes that the projections made by the IPCC are a good starting point for understanding sea level rise, but that work done since the IPCC projections were solidified for the most recent report tend to indicate slightly higher rates. As with other features of climate change such as climate sensitivity, the distribution of possible sea level rise rates has a long tail at the high end. This means that rates below the average estimate are highly unlikely, but higher rates are not as unlikely, and there is a small possibility of much higher rates. The tail at the high end of the distribution is lengthened primarily by uncertainty with what will happen in Antarctica. This problem is central to current research on the contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise.

Alley notes, “Because the ongoing changes are relatively slow in their contribution to global sea-level rise, and based on other research showing how some of the processes involved in ice-sheet shrinkage cannot accelerate hugely, there has been some optimism that the long tail won’t be realized. However, a small but growing body of scientific literature has looked at the possibility that fracturing could greatly speed shrinkage; meltwater can wedge open crevasses on ice shelves or non-floating ice near the coast, thinning beyond some threshold tends to lead to complete ice-shelf loss, giant icebergs calving off the resulting ice cliffs can move the grounding line back rapidly especially if aided by meltwater wedging, and theoretically estimated limits on cliff heights suggest that much faster iceberg loss and cliff retreat are possible.”

Alley was co-author of a review here that addresses this topic. Here’s the abstract from that paper:

Ocean-ice interactions have exerted primary control on the Antarctic Ice Sheet and parts of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and will continue to do so in the near future, especially through melting of ice shelves and calving cliffs. Retreat in response to increasing marine melting typically exhibits threshold behavior, with little change for forcing below the threshold but a rapid, possibly delayed shift to a reduced state once the threshold is exceeded. For Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica, the threshold may already have been exceeded, although rapid change may be delayed by centuries, and the reduced state will likely involve loss of most of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, causing >3 m of sea-level rise. Because of shortcomings in physical understanding and available data, uncertainty persists about this threshold and the subsequent rate of change. Although sea-level histories and physical understanding allow the possibility that ice-sheet response could be quite fast, no strong constraints are yet available on the worst-case scenario. Recent work also suggests that the Greenland and East Antarctic Ice Sheets share some of the same vulnerabilities to shrinkage from marine influence.

Alley lauds the Ritz, Edwards, et al paper as representing “a great amount of careful work, and provid[ing] a particularly broad exploration of some of the poorly known parameters that control the ice sheet.” However, he finds that the study did not address some important mechanisms.

…the model does not allow loss of any ice shelves, does not allow grounding-line retreat from calving of icebergs following ice-shelf loss, and does not allow faster retreat from breakage of cliffs higher than those observed today, especially if aided by meltwater wedging in crevasses. The model restricts grounding-line retreat to the rate given by thinning of ice during viscous flow of an unbuttressed but still-present ice shelf, with a specified upper limit enforced on the rate of that retreat. The model also does not allow retreat up a sloping bed under forcing, something that is widely observed. The Supplementary Information includes discussion of checks that the authors did to assess the importance of these assumptions, which the authors argue justify omitting the mechanisms. However, it remains that with the model not allowing very rapid retreat, not allowing ice-cliff crumbling after ice-shelf loss, and not allowing retreat up sloping beds, the model cannot exhibit some possible behaviors that could cause rapid ice-sheet shrinkage.

So, I view this as an important step forward for the scientific community, but the qualification in the last sentence of the paper leads to additional information showing that we cannot yet confidently place quantitatively reliable limits on the possible sea-level rise from the Antarctic ice sheet. I personally hope that the new paper is right, but I will continue research on this topic in the hope of providing improved estimates. Until such work is successful, I do not believe we can exclude the possibility of faster sea-level rise than suggested in the new paper.

I did ask Edwards questions about these missing elements, but have not heard back yet. If I do, I’ll either post her response as a separate item or add them here, as seems appropriate.