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Posts Tagged ‘science’

East Coast people, first, let me be honest: yes, we’re all giggling about your 5.8 earthquake on this coast.  And no, it isn’t fair, but you probably laugh at our occasional funnel clouds.

Second, it’s still very important to go report what you observed if you felt the earthquake; use this USGS link:

USGS: Did You Feel It?

Why? Because it helps geologists map exact earthquake soil response for specific types of seismic waves, and it helps engineers assess actual and potential damage. I makes everyone safer in the long run.

Even with itty-bitty little quakes…  (Kidding!)

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Nothing momentous to report, just a snapshot of my students working in the lab this afternoon.  No broken glassware, no spill, no disasters (that I’m aware of, anyway.)  Hopefully the results won’t be too wacky either!

The water they are analyzing for total coliforms and fecal coliforms comes from a site near the mouth of Martin Slough in Eureka.  The results will be used by the Capstone Project class (seniors graduating in the spring, working on their final project) to design a restoration that will include a wastewater treatment system for agricultural runoff on the site.  So it’s important that the Water Quality class pass good quality results to the Capstone Project students.

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Sigh.  Although my students do the best they can with the background they have, I continue to be stunned at the low requirements of the American education system. A sizable portion of college and university classes here are basically remedial high school. I’m getting lots of people in their second or third year in a four-year engineering program who have never had any statistics at all. They will have to take one stats class before they graduate, but it’s not prerequisite to many other classes so they tend to take it late in the program. It seriously limits their tools and understanding.

Let’s compare:

Requirements to graduate from Polytechnique of Montreal:

  • Need to have enough high school math, physics and chemistry to take the 2-year Pure and Applied Sciences program at a CEGEP (junior college)
  • There, 3 physics classes, 6 math classes, 3 chemistry classes, 1 bio class, plus 4 PE classes, 4 philosophy classes, 4 French classes, and some English (60 units total).
  • Polytechnique: 120 units of solid, wall-to-wall engineering.  No relief from any GEs or electives.

Requirement to graduate here:

  • No requirements on high school classes, though math, physics and chemistry are recommended.
  • 27 units of GE
  • 106 units of sciences and engineering including the same math, physics, and chemistry I had to take in junior college.

Conclusion: Canadian engineers graduate WAY more prepared.  I cringe when I hear people talking about how difficult the program or a class is.

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Sigh.  I’m sorry, I don’t actually want to be a cynic and suspect scams everywhere, but I think last Thursday’s “Courage Night” may have been one.  Ostensibly, the event was about gathering money and attention for the fight against breast cancer; however, I have serious reservations about the tenor of the event.

Key guests were Berny Dohrmann and Susie Carder, best known (and actually not that widely) for writing about, and pushing, “The Secret”.  The central tenet of this pseudo self-help book and the movement it generated is that “positive thinking” is all it takes to change your life, to ward off the bad things and instead receive wealth, health, and happiness.

While it seems fair to say that, all else being equal, strong morale is usually beneficial and helps sustain one through challenges, this is not sufficient.  I really hate philosophies that ultimately place the blame for ill fortune on the victim: if you are not wealthy, healthy, and happy, it must be because you don’t want it badly enough, right?  Big comfort and help for someone who, after a goodly dose of The Secret, or certain New Agey versions of the concept of karma, or firm belief  in the power of prayer alone, is still wrestling with cancer, unemployment, or depression.

I’m very, very fortunate, and I have always been.  Sure, there have been times of sadness and struggle, but in the end I’ve had a wonderful family, husband, and friends, good health, a career I love, and many other interests to keep me in love with life.  However, I am acutely conscious that all of this is a result of great luck.

I also know, and we all do, much worthier people with fantastic attitudes who have suffered the outrageous slings and arrow of fortune, who can’t seem to get an even break, and who die early of disease or accident.  I do not believe that lack of a positive attitude explains that.

Let’s face it: sickness, ruptures, and reversals of fortune happen because ours is a stochastic universe — in other words, shit happens.  Not because you’re a bad person or because you had a negative attitude, but because it’s random bad stuff.

The way to act against this is to develop compassion for one another, to install social and personal safety nets, to help one another, to fund research into medicine and beneficial technologies, to pick ourselves up and try again.  Magical thinking, the idea that if we wish hard enough everything will be all right, is not only silly, it’s downright dangerous and callous.

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I am so very mortified. I just received the e-mail invitation from the American Society of Civil Engineers for the ASCE’s 139th Annual Civil Engineering Conference. And who do they proudly boast is the guest speaker for the Closing General Session Breakfast? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Yes, it’s Mister Ben “Expelled” Stein himself. Mr. Ben “science leads you to killing people” Stein. Mr. “Intelligent Design” himself, who kept a straight-face while comparing President Obama with Adolf Hitler, Juan Peron, and Evita Peron. But then, Mr. Stein likes to compare all sorts of things to Nazi depredations, he’s like Godwin’s Law walking out there outside the Internet.

Prepare yourself for a hilarious morning as he delivers advice with his unique sense of humor, while telling you what you need to know.

You know what, guys? You’re definitely along the hilarious track there as you make us a laughingstock by inviting someone who stands decidedly against science, fact-based thinking to speak at an engineering conference. This goes against everything an engineer is trained for and against our obligations toward society.

Thanks for nothing, bozos.

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Here are a few sites I want to gush about, as educational resources, as entertainment, and as serious technical and scientific resources. Not only can they be used in the classroom, or browsed for the sheer enchantment of discovery, but they are pure gold for for professionals in the environmental fields as well.

NatureServe Explorer

A huge online database of species, NatureServe Explorer is a collaboration between natural heritage programs and conservation data centers operating in all 50 U.S. states, 11 Canadian provinces and territories, and 20 member programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. The database provides information on the conservation status of species throughout the territory covered, their vulnerability, ecology and life history, etc., and provides techinal references to learn more.

Lifemapper

The visual tool Lifemapper is the work of a University of Kansas team with support from all over the world. It uses an advanced geographical database to display where species are found and documented, and to predict where we might expect to find them. This tool also allows users to create Google Earth maps with the data. Note: You need to supply the scientific (Latin) name of the species to search.

ITIS

The Integrated Taxonomic Information System, or ITIS, provides taxonomic information on plants, animals, fungi, and microbes of North America and the world. ITIS is a cooperatice project between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Hey, here is a good place to look up scientific names so you can query Lifemapper!

PLANTS Database

Created and maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the PLANTS national database contains life history, range, and taxonomic information, photos, native/non-native status, and much more. It can be searched using either common names or scientific names.

FishBase

Another product of international scientific cooperation, the FishBase information system provides images, life history, distribution, taxonomic status, and much more for over 31,000 fish species. It can be searched using either common names or scientific names.

BirdWeb

Much more subdued, regional, and low-tech, BirdWeb is nonetheless a work of love and excellence, offering carefully gathered information and on-the-ground observations. It’s the work of the Seattle branch of the Audubon Society, and the information it contains is useful for a large part of our ecoregion.

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The various stages of collapse of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in the Antarctica has been in the news over the past couple of weeks.  Now you can watch an animation of the process in Google Earth, as assembled by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

After downloading the file and opening it with Google Earth, I recommend first clicking the little clock icon to the left of the slider bar in the image, moving the animation speed slider so it is about 1/3 of the way from the left, and selecting “At end of time range, animation should stop.”  Then click “OK” and press the play button (arrow) at the right of the slider.  Repeat as needed.

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