Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts about Earth Hour

My family participated in Earth Hour 2009 on Saturday night. I felt a little guilty in the hour beforehand, as we frantically ran the vacuum, brewed coffee, and checked E-mail before turning off our electricity. But then, 8:30 pm arrived and we switched off the main circuit breaker.

And lo and behold ... wait! ... the stove is still on? We learned a valuable piece of information about our new house -- the stove and central air aren't connected to the main circuit breaker!

After finally turning off the power with the aid of a second circuit breaker, we sat in the dark and talked about how quiet it was. How many electrical appliances do we really need? What can we, as a family, do to reduce our electricity usage?

Then we read stories by flashlight and candlelight. It was very quiet and peaceful. The almost four-year-old and baby fell asleep. Itinerant Cryptographer, Kerm, and I read long past Earth Hour until finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I logged onto the computer.

In all, an estimated one billion people in nearly 90 countries participated in Earth Hour 2009, according to World Wildlife Fund, the original organizer of the event. Did Earth Hour really make an impact?

Some places reported a decline in power use during the hour: a one-percent reduction for Calgary and northern Illinois. Statistically significant? Probably not.

But did people world-wide start talking about how much electricity we waste? You bet. And opening that dialogue is tremendously exciting. We have to start somewhere.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Hour 2009

It seems like I was just sitting in the dark, celebrating Earth Hour 2008, yet here we are again -- bigger and better!

This Saturday, March 27, 2009, remember to turn off your electricity for an hour from 8:30 - 9:30 pm (your local time) in honor of Earth Hour. This grassroots movement was started in Sydney, Australia in 2007, when over two million homes and businesses switched off the electricity for an hour. Last year, the movement spread across the globe, with participating cities including San Francisco and Rome. The goal this year is to have 1 billion people participate -- one billion people showing their concern for global warming and their willingness to do something about it. MSNBC reports that 2000 cities will participate in Earth Hour this year, including Las Vegas! I can't wait to see the Strip dark for an hour, can you? Imagine that ...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thoughts about environmental reporting

Have you ever noticed that when you listen to the news on a topic that you know nothing about, you assume that the reporter knows what he or she is talking about? But when you are knowledgeable about the subject, you're surprised by how many things the reporter doesn't understand or actually gets wrong? It's kind of like how, when I'm driving, I expect all of the pedestrians to get out of my way. But if I'm walking, I assume that the cars should avoid me.

Anyway, I was listening to a news report yesterday about a landfill (dump) that was contaminating nearby groundwater (water contained in rocks below the ground surface) and my ears perked up. In my former life (before kids), I used to investigate abandoned hazardous waste sites (fascinating, icky places like mine tailings, old manufacturing plants, and dumps). But the reporter never talked about hazardous wastes or even hazardous substances. She said that monitoring wells around the landfill had detected "toxic chemicals" in the groundwater.

Now, this may not be wrong, but it doesn't tell us much. The word "toxic" has a specific meaning under the law, but reporters tend to throw it around randomly. As far as "chemicals" go, most anything can be a chemical. A quick search of online definitions tells us that chemicals result from reactions that effect changes to atoms or molecules.

So, have we learned anything about what's actually been found in the groundwater? No. Even assuming that the reporter is correct and the substance meets the legal definition of a toxic chemical, we could be looking the effects of anything from arsenic (a metal) to chlorine (a gas). We don't know if the substance dissolves in water or if it floats or sinks.

The reporter went on to say that the mystery substance was detected at levels that exceeded 50 times what the environmental agencies say is safe for drinking water. That sounds really scary, doesn't it? But she never said if anyone was actually drinking the water. Monitoring wells often are very shallow and examine water that most people would never drink anyway. Don't get me wrong, it's not great if water is contaminated. But it isn't quite as bad as it sounds.

So, the next time you listen to your news and think, that doesn't sound right, trust your gut. As we've discussed before, everyone has their own bias. Even me!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Disneynature's earth

Recently, I received a promotional flyer for earth, a new movie from Disneynature that opens on Earth Day (April 22). The movie will follow the stories of three families -- polar bears, African elephants, and humpback whales -- and the scenery that goes with them.

Before the movie opens, you can download the free earth Educator's Guide and earth Activity Guide by choosing the "for educators" button from the earth page. You can also play an online game or download new wallpaper. [Please note: all of these pages are extremely graphic-intensive.]

I have mixed feelings about Disney with regard to the environment. Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park, for example, attempts to show you "wild" nature through a highly manipulated and controlled environmental setting. On one hand, what you see is too sanitized and pretty (no blood-stained carcasses of dead prey on display, for example); on the other hand, it's too nature-intense (like using heated rocks to lure animals to certain locations so that visitors will be sure to see them). Don't get me wrong, I like Disney theme parks. But this one blurs the line between reality and fantasy in a way that rubs me wrong.

I also think Disney is missing the mark here -- and some of their target audience -- by not presenting low-bandwidth movie information.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic that earth will live up to its hype. The Disneynature website claims that if you buy a ticket to see earth during opening week, Disney will plant a tree in your honor. And their mailer was printed on recycled paper. :)

Photo credits: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Friday, March 20, 2009

Website of the Week: Science Metropolis

This week's website is especially for my friends in Boston, MA. Joseph Caputo's Science Metropolis is a clearinghouse of science information aimed at "science hobbyists in the Boston and Cambridge area." Science Metropolis is designed to be the "...first stop for Bostonians to learn about science-related events and news in their community."

With a calendar of local science-themed events, science opportunities just for families, profiles of local scientists (from schools like MIT and Harvard!), and local screenings of science-based movies, Science Metropolis has something for Boston-based science lovers of all ages. I only wish there were a Science Metropolis for every major city across the U.S.!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The importance of perspective

I once watched a professor give an interview on writing. He recounted writing exercises that had helped his students to think creatively. One of his favorite assignments went something like this:
Imagine describing your school's cafeteria lunch. You might write about the gloppy goo served by surly workers, the boys flipping pats of butter so they stick to the ceiling (kids really did that at my high school!), or the limp and wilted salad bar. You've painted quite a picture, haven't you?

Now, imagine the same cafeteria scene with one change: You are desperately hungry. You haven't eaten a decent meal in weeks. How does this affect what you see?
Perspective plays an important role when studying scientific subjects, too. Here are two very different examples:

--Perspective & attitude

How many times have you heard someone say, "I'll never get that. I'm just not good at science." Or, maybe they've said that science is too hard or science is boring. Maybe you've said the same thing. Changing the way that you approach at the material can help you to enjoy science. Try to have a positive perspective with regard to new material. Tell yourself instead, "Yes, this is a challenging subject, but if I work hard I'll learn something new." Or even, "I'm good at science!" I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at what a difference it makes!

--Perspective & observational bias

Perspective also makes a difference when you are writing up observations during an experiment. I remember one time when I was looking at slides of stream water under a microscope. The light of the microscope was so hot that some of the teeny tiny critters would swim away from the center of the slide! If I was slow with my observations, I would have fewer creatures to describe in my field journal. The very act of studying the stream water affected what I saw. This effect is known as observational bias. Scientists work hard to reduce observational bias whenever possible.

Here's a picture of a tree taken from the trunk looking up. How different would this tree look if you changed perspective and looked at it from the leaves down?

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

Friday, March 13, 2009

Thoughts on Pollution

My guest blogger today is Kerm, a 7-year-old who likes "bubble gum" and "organizing things." Kerm wants to share his thoughts on pollution with you. Kerm says:
"... Pollution is cool to try to help but sad. [It is sad because] you don't want the whole world getting polluted."
(Mama Joules adds: Pollution occurs when air, water, or soil gets contaminated [or dirty]. Too much man-made noise and light are kinds of pollution, too. Pollution makes it hard to enjoy the earth. If you've seen trash floating down a river or had trouble breathing when the sky is covered in brown smog, you've experienced the negative effects of pollution.)

Kerm has several tips to help stop pollution that you can try.
"Stop using so much electricity ... When you leave your house, turn off the lights."

"Never litter. Littering is bad for the environment. If everyone littered, the whole world would be piled in trash. Who wants to have garbage in their face?"

"Stop buying stuff. If you read this blog post now, then in one year, check your closets. If there's anything that still has tags on it or that you don't remember buying, get rid of it. Give it to someone who actually needs it."

"Remember to recycle old paper and boxes. Throwing out stuff that you can recycle like glass ... is just a waste. Remember to reduce, reuse, and recycle!"

"If everybody tried a little harder, the world would be a lot better."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Life lessons of a once-young scientist

What makes for a good science learning experience? I was thinking about this today and realized that, in my experience, fun isn't a requirement. In fact, some wonderful learning experiences aren't fun at all. When I really understood a scientific concept for the first time, there was usually some pain involved. Here's two examples:

When I was around four, my family went for an easy hike through the redwood forests of California. I saw something yellow against the carpet of pine needles and, thinking that it was a piece of banana, reached down to pick it up and eat it (hey, I was only four). But the banana moved! It wasn't a banana at all, but a banana slug! I was so startled that I probably dropped the poor thing and started to cry. I will never forget the shock of realizing that I nearly ate a slug!

Then in second grade, I got into a fight with a boy in my class. But he wasn't just any boy. He was smart and cute and I really wanted to make a good impression on him. We were talking about the weather (one of my favorite topics) and I said that when it rained, the sun wasn't in the sky. Obviously. There are only clouds up there, duh! And he said, no, you're wrong, the sun is up there, you just can't see it. Well, we argued about this for some time and -- I've blocked this part out of my memory -- somehow, we determined that I was wrong. I will never forget how embarrassed I was. (I told this story to second-grader Kerm recently and, upon learning that the boy won the argument, he just nodded and smiled.)

There are other experiences -- how I never understood my college chemistry labs until I banged my head upon every concept for the entire three hours, the way that identifying flowers in a field guide always meant more after I'd hiked up a mountain to see them, or how I spent my 21st birthday with friends, gorging on cake and cramming for a final exam in ecology class.

For some reason, the hardship involved cemented these memories -- and the concepts that went with them -- into my brain. I learned something new. And now that I'm older, I appreciate those memories for what they were -- good science learning lessons.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Website of the Week: Earth Shots is a photo of the day contest that "[celebrates] the beauty and diversity of our planet." According to the terms and conditions, anyone can enter and you retain the rights to your photography. The webmasters are looking for images that are "interesting and striking." The archive contains some amazing images -- urban graffiti, rainbows, caves, frogs and more. Enjoy!

Earth Shots Photo Contest

--If you like this post, you might also like:
*Astronomy Picture of the Day,
*Earth Science Picture of the Day, and
*NOAA Photo Library

Monday, March 2, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dr. Suess!

"I am the Lorax ... I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues ..." from The Lorax by Dr. Suess

Today would have been Dr. Suess' 105th birthday. As a child, I loved hearing my father read Suess' rhyming tales. My favorite book was Horton Hears a Who with its now-famous refrain: "A person's a person, no matter how small."

But as an adult, I'm partial to The Lorax, Suess' "shortish ... oldish ... brownish ... and mossy" environmentalist. He speaks for the trees and the birds and fish under his care. The Lorax does his best to convince the Once-ler to think about how his manufacturing plant is harming the environment before it's too late.

At the time Suess published The Lorax in 1971, the environmental movement was in its infancy in the United States. People were just beginning to think about saving the planet on a global level. The first Earth Day was held in 1970; the Environmental Protection Agency was formed that same year.

Today, almost 40 years later, the Lorax has many friends standing behind him. On Earth Day 2008, Conservation International, Dr. Suess Enterprises, and Random House started The Lorax Project™ to raise environmental awareness. Visit the website to take a pledge to help the Lorax (to do things like recycling). Read about 20 ways that you can help reduce your environmental impact and learn what students across the world are doing to save the planet. You can also read about endangered species like Golden Lion Tamarins, Red Pandas, and Lemurs.