Posts Tagged ‘science’

Night skies alert: Northern lights!

St. Patrick's Day Green Aurora Last night Earth experienced a geomagnetic storm and aurora were visible in the Northern U.S. states. These images of aurora were captured on March 17, 2015, around 5:30 a.m. EDT in Donnelly Creek, Alaska by Sebastian Saarloos. These aurora might have been caused by the fast solar wind streaming from two solar coronal holes. Image Courtesy of Sebastian Saarloos.

From NASA’s website:  St. Patrick’s Day Green Aurora
Last night Earth experienced a geomagnetic storm and aurora were visible in the Northern U.S. states. This image was captured last night around 5:30 am in Donnelly Creek, Alaska. These aurora might have been caused by the fast solar wind streaming from two solar coronal holes. Photo: courtesy of Sebastian Saarloos.

I’ve only seen displays of Aurora borealis (“Northern lights”) in person once, years ago, when we lived in Kars, Ontario. A thoughtful neighbor ran over to say we should come look.

Standing in our yards, the display was fairly subtle, ripples of undulating light in mild color bands. Didn’t matter. It was still breath-taking.

Would I like to see more? Absolutely! So here’s hoping that a media alert for night skies this week could pay off. CBC is talking it up “Northern lights to dazzle in skies across Canada: Aurora borealis may be visible as far south as northern California“.

A large G4 geo-magnetic solar storm was noted Tuesday morning (EST), which produces more of the energy that makes the effect in our atmosphere. Tuesday night reports and images of northern light activity were extensive and exciting. Tonight’s prospects (Wednesday) could still be good too.

The Canadian Space Agency’s website on Northern Lights includes links to a live AuroroaMAX HD camera in Yellowknife that (weather and conditions permitting) can be viewed tonight. Want to photograph what you see up there? Here are some tips for doing that.

There’s lots more at the Space Weather Prediction section of the National Oceanic and Atmospherics  (NOAA).

Did any readers already experience this Tuesday night? Sadly, this has already peaked. But let’s hope there will still be more left to see!

Emerald ash borer: Public Enemy No. 1 for Invasive Species Awareness Week

Seems odd to put National Invasive Species Awareness Week smack in the middle of winter—whose idea was that anyway? This year it’s February 22-28. Wouldn’t it be better to move it to summer when more invasive nasties are around? Of course, summer’s a busy time, and maybe all the good time slots were reserved for Hamster Appreciation Week, National Lawn Edging Week and the like.

An ash tree killed by emerald ash borers. Photo: Penn State, Creative Commons, some rights reserved. Inset: Emerald ash borer. Photo: StopTheBeetle, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

An ash tree killed by emerald ash borers. Photo: Penn State, Creative Commons, some rights reserved. Inset: Emerald ash borer. Photo: StopTheBeetle, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

One of the invasive species that deserves our attention is the emerald ash borer (EAB). Having eaten its way through the Great Lakes states and portions of the upper Midwest, the EAB is on a fast track to northern NY State. Since its discovery in 2002, the emerald ash borer has stripped cities and villages of all ash trees. Dorothy wouldn’t recognize one of these “emerald cities.” Treeless neighborhoods in places like Fort Wayne, IN, or Dayton, OH are a far cry from the emerald city of Oz.

The EAB is a very small (3/8” to ½”) bullet-shaped beetle that would be easy to overlook if not for its bright, metallic, emerald-green “paint job” with copper highlights. The beetles themselves do little harm, but their immature stage (larvae) feed on cambium tissue of ash trees, girdling and thus killing them. Aside from the relatively few ash that will be treated with insecticides through the estimated15-year duration of an EAB infestation, NYS will lose its 900 million ash trees.

With EAB closing in from the west, south and north, there’s no way to keep it from reaching northern NY. In fact, given that it’s been found in southern Ontario just across the St. Lawrence River, its arrival will be sooner rather than later. They’re quite capable of flying over the river and into our woods, and you can bet they won’t check in with the Border Patrol.

To prepare for the inevitable appearance of this insect, communities need to find how many ash trees they have in order to calculate and plan for removal costs. An ash tree survey would also identify the ash trees of good health and form to preserve. While a few towns have tree inventories, most don’t, and some of those may welcome volunteer help to survey ash trees.

While many signs of EAB damage manifest during summer, there are a couple of things to look for in winter time. Extensive but shallow woodpecker feeding in late winter, especially on the south and west sides of the trunk, may indicate an EAB infestation. Report all suspected cases of EAB activity to the NYSDEC or your Extension office.

Early planning and community involvement are the keys to weathering the EAB storm with as many surviving ash as possible and without breaking the bank. The first step is to become educated about EAB.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County is offering an Invasive Species First Detector training in Canton February 26 from 12:00-4:30. The training is free and open to the public and will cover emerald ash borer as well as hemlock woolly adelgid and Asian longhorn beetle. To register or get more information call (315) 379-9192 or email

“The same program will be offered at the Watertown CCE office the following morning, Friday February 27. To register or for more information in  Jefferson County, call (315) 788-8450.”

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

The Tree of Love: a natural history of chocolate

It’s impossible for a parent to choose a favorite child—or at least that’s what I tell my kids—and it’s almost as difficult for an arborist to pick a single best-liked tree. For different reasons, I have many pet species. One of the, um, apples of my eye is a species I’ve never laid eyes on, but it’s one I’ve appreciated since early childhood.

Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) with fruit. Photo: Luisovalles, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) with fruit. Photo: Luisovalles, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Native to Central America, the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao to arborists) grows almost exclusively within twenty degrees latitude either side of the equator (in other words, where most of us wish we were about now). The seeds of the cacao tree have been ground and made into a drink known by its Native American (probably Nahuatl) name, chocolate, for as many as 4,000 years.

The cacao is a small tree, about 15-20 feet tall, bearing 6- to 12-inch long seed pods. Packed around the 30-40 cacao beans in each pod is a sweet gooey pulp, which historically was also consumed. After harvest, cacao beans go through a fermentation process and are then dried and milled into powder.

In pre-contact times chocolate was a frothy, bitter drink often mixed with chilies and cornmeal. Mayans and Aztecs drank it mainly for its medicinal properties (more on that later). In the late 1500s, a Spanish Jesuit who had been to Mexico described chocolate as being “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste.” It’s understandable, then, that it was initially slow to take off in Europe.

Chocolate became wildly popular, though, after brilliant innovations such as adding sugar and omitting chili peppers. Another reason for its meteoric rise in demand is that it seemed to have pleasant effects. One of these was similar to that of tea or coffee. There isn’t much caffeine in chocolate, but it has nearly 400 known constituents, and a number of these compounds are uppers.

Chief among them is theobromine, which has no bromine—go figure. It’s a chemical sibling to caffeine, and its name supposedly derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Even if people knew it more closely translates to “stink of the gods,” it’s unlikely it would put a damper on chocolate sales.

These days chocolate is recognized as a potent antioxidant, but throughout the ages it’s had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. I assume this explains the tradition of giving chocolate to one’s lover on Valentine’s Day. Does chocolate live up to its rumored powers? Another stimulant it contains, phenylethylamine (PEA), may account for its repute.

Closely related to amphetamine, PEA facilitates the release of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in the brain’s reward center. Turns out that when you fall in love, your brain is practically dripping with dopamine. Furthermore, at least three compounds in chocolate mimic the effects of marijuana. They bind to the same receptors in our brains as THC, the active ingredient in pot, releasing more dopamine and also serotonin, another brain chemical associated with happiness.

Photo: Klaus Hopfner, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Klaus Hopfner, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Don’t be alarmed at this news; these things are quite minimal compared to what real drugs can do. Consuming chocolate has never impaired my ability to operate heavy machinery (lack of training and experience have, though).

Most people would agree that chocolate is no substitute for love, but these natural chemical effects may be why romance and chocolate are so intertwined. Well, that and marketing, I suppose.

Dogs can’t metabolize theobromine very well, and a modest amount of chocolate, especially dark, can be toxic to them. This is why you shouldn’t get your dog a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you love them. And assuming it’s spayed or neutered, your pooch won’t benefit from any of chocolate’s other potential effects anyway.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

Mudpuppies – and mudpuppy nights in Oxford Mills

Necturus maculosus maculosus - Common mudpuppy. Image: National Park Service, Creative Commons

Necturus maculosus maculosus – Common mudpuppy. Image: National Park Service, Creative Commons

The email from NCPR’s theater critic, Connie Meng, was headed: “mudpuppies”.

Any guesses as to what that is?

The name took me back to the signature desert of a restaurant where I once worked, the”mudpie“. (Which I would have liked more, had it not featured coffee ice cream.)

But apart from that decades-old memory, I hadn’t a clue.

It turns out Connie was sending me a heads-up for a local event featuring an amazing amphibian, Necturus maculosus, nicknamed waterdog, or mudpuppy.

And still I had no clue. What the heck was that?!

Internet to the rescue. To my unscientific eye, they look like small, round-cornered alligators, sort of. Definitely big enough to really notice, some are said to live as long as 30 years (!).

Here’s more from National Geographic:

Mudpuppies, also called waterdogs, are one of only a few salamanders that make noise. They get their name from the somewhat embellished notion that their squeaky vocalizations sound like a dog’s bark.

Among the largest of the salamanders, mudpuppies can exceed 16 inches (41 centimeters) in length, although the average is more like 11 inches (28 centimeters). Their range runs from southern central Canada, through the midwestern United States, east to North Carolina and south to Georgia and Mississippi.

Mudpuppies live on the bottoms of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, and never leave the water. They hide themselves in vegetation and under rocks and logs, emerging at night to feed on whatever prey they can catch, including crayfish, worms, and snails.

And? So? What makes that a local event, for the depths of February?

Well, it turns mudpuppies are mostly nocturnal and there’s an excellent spot to count and study them in Kemptville Creek, near a small dam site in Oxford Mills, Ontario. Indeed, it’s such a good “come & see” location that there’s sort of a mudpuppy party on many Friday nights – yes, in the winter, when they are reportedly more active. (Another “?!”)

For those so inclined, mudpuppy night can even include dinner at the well-known Oxford Mills destination restaurant, Brigadoon.

This Friday night the Macnamara Field Naturalists Club (based in Arnprior) is making that outing a group activity, as they’ve done in past years. Here’s a really interesting YouTube video from 2013 in which “…members visit an icy stream in mid-winter to watch Necturus maculosus (Mudpuppies) go about their business unperturbed by the cold or the watchers.” The weekly event is put on by area naturalists, Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad. (Learn more about their work at

Here’s another video of observing mudpuppies in Oxford Mills, from this CBC news item, also from 2013.

There’s no need to tell readers it’s been pretty cold this week. I haven’t decided if I am going on Friday or not. But I’m writing about it now, should others be interested. (Note: Friday night looks warmer than earlier in the week, when I am writing this post.)

Quite apart from that Oxford Mills/citizen-scientist event, what’s your experience with mudpuppies?

Do you know them well? Or, as in my case, are they a whole new discovery?

How much food do you need to feed four botanists for four weeks?

Jeff Saarela collects grasses along the Soper River, Nunavut in 2012. Photo: Canadian Museum of Nature

Jeff Saarela collects grasses along the Soper River, Nunavut in 2012. Photo: Canadian Museum of Nature

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of a small behind-the-scenes tour of the collections facility of the Canadian Museum of Nature, officially known as The Natural Heritage Campus, in Gatineau, Quebec. The invitation arose from an earlier post about that institution’s new searchable database, a valuable tool for anyone with an interest in the natural science of northern North America.

This tour had two purposes: a chance for my visiting mother to see plant specimens collected about 100 years ago by her botanist father, Harold St. John, back when he was a grad student. And it was an opportunity to gather tape and photos ahead of that facility’s next open house in the fall. (Expect to hear more about that in early October.)

Anyway, this post is prompted by a press release about a summer expedition, sponsored by the Canadian Museum of Nature, as well as the Polar Continental Shelf Project of Natural Resources Canada. From the release:

An underexplored area of mainland Nunavut is the target of a fieldwork expedition this July by botanists from the Canadian Museum of Nature. The four-member team will survey and collect hundreds of plants along a 40-km stretch of the Coppermine River in western Nunavut from June 28 to July 29.

The results of the expedition will contribute to an ambitious museum-led project to produce a current flora, or scientific reference, for an estimated 800 species of vascular plants in the Canadian Arctic and northern Alaska.

During the four weeks, the team will travel, via helicopter, to three main camp sites where they will fan out to survey the diversity of plant life and collect specimens. They will cover an area that transitions from the treeline, where forest gives way to tundra-like vegetation, to the mouth of the river and the coastal community of Kugluktuk.

“The treeline zone is where you can find species from the boreal forest co-existing with some plants from the southern Arctic,” explains Dr. Jeff Saarela, a museum botanist co-leading the project with Dr. Lynn Gillespie. “We selected this area partly because we want to get a baseline record of what’s there now, since species may change distribution with a warming climate. These changes are likely to be first noticed near the treeline.”

The Museum has an interesting blog in which various staffers comment on activities. An earlier post from Roger Bull details the back-planning needed to prep the food that will sustain four (possibly six) hungry field researchers for 28 days on that Coppermine trip. (See how to turn big vats of stew into dehydrated packages at Good Food Leads to Happy Scientists.)

There’s real value in getting baseline information for areas that are experiencing change, or after they experience change. Be that from climate change, or something completely different.

Case in point: In 1925, while on the faculty of the then-named State College of Washington in Pullman, St. John lead a small group of students to the 10,000 foot level of Mt. St. Helens near Spirit Lake. As older readers will remember quite well, half the mountain blew out in spectacular fashion in 1980. (See a good retrospective of that momentous event in video, still photos and even song, in this montage by ABC/FOX Montana.)

Spirit Lake filled with debris from the eruption. October 4, 1980. USGS Photograph taken by Lyn Topinka

Mt. St. Helens’ Spirit Lake filled with debris from the eruption. October 4, 1980. USGS Photograph taken by Lyn Topinka

Well, it took him a number of decades but St. John did write up a Flora of Mt. St. Helens, Washington for a magazine The Mountaineer, in 1976. Some of that earlier work provided a better understanding of what had grown there – to which post-eruption regeneration could be compared.

Here’s a vivid description of sudden, massive change from a June 2014 interview by Kelly Clarke for the Monthly Portland: Life Goes On: Mount St. Helens’ Flora and Fauna: 

After 34 years on the volcano, ecologist Charlie Crisafulli reflects on rebirth at Mount St. Helens.

What’s your first memory of the mountain?

It was two months after the eruption. I flew in by helicopter. The forest was flattened, the streams choked with volcanic ash and pumice—seemingly lifeless as far as the eye could see. I saw the steaming, gaping crater and realized something incredibly profound had happened here. It was beyond all senses to comprehend the scale and the extent of change. It was exciting…and also chilling. I was only 22, but I knew right away this was a mecca. We have been going back to the same plots for 33 years now—watching how species come, go, and their populations change, often in very dramatic ways.

The good news – for the Mount St. Helens eruption at least – is that nature is amazingly adept at rejuvenation. Here’s how the interviewee, Charlie Crisafulli, put it:

It has to do with hope. All of us go through tragedy at some point. What is more hopeful than looking at a shattered landscape and seeing a sprig of green come up through the cold, dark ashes? Life marches on. That’s the poetry of the place.

Increasingly-apparent shifts caused by climate change lend added urgency to studies like the Coppermine River field work.  But for whatever reason, there’s merit in documenting more completely what grows in North America’s far north. All the better to understand and protect what’s there.

Jennifer Doubt, the curator of National Herbarium of Canada showing Martha St. John Martin specimens collected by Harold St. John nearly a century ago. Photo: Lucy Martin

Jennifer Doubt, the curator of National Herbarium of Canada showing Martha St. John Martin specimens collected by Harold St. John nearly a century ago. Photo: Lucy Martin

Cursive writing – better for the brain?!

How writing was once taught...did it improve content too?

How writing was once taught…did it improve content too? D’Nealian Script image: Andrew Buck, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cursive writing has come up in previous discussions.

I confessed to deteriorating penmanship and wondered if cursive will survive modern trends in education.  Brian Mann weighed in over at the In Box, saying  (paraphrasing here) “good riddance to a royal pain!” (That post generated many interesting responses too, from broad opinions to personal anecdotes.)

Reports of cursive’s demise are variously mourned or hailed. Would opinions shift if it turned out mastering cursive improved both your brain and the breadth/depth of one’s writing?

This New York Times article by Maria Konnikova (6/2) asked “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” According to some research, there’s something about the effort that goes into cursive writing that produces quantitatively different brain activity. And it may extend to compositional content as well.

It’s a detailed article, but here’s one part that makes me sit up and take notice:

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

How do you react to that? I imagine many don’t care at all, and that’s perfectly understandable.

For myself, I have to stop and wonder. My handwriting is bad. So is my spelling. I adore what computers have made possible in terms of taking the grunt work out of writing. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) I’m not giving that up, period. But what might I, might we, be losing along the way? (If anything.)

Maybe it’s all a tiny tempest in a teacup. People still write. Most of us use keyboards now. Big deal. Nothing’s changed except the activity got easier. But now I’m also curious. I want to know what All In readers can add to this, if they notice any differences.

There are still some authors who do their work in longhand. I always put that down to individual preference. (Sometimes those claims sound like egotistical affectation.) But maybe that actually does produces better writing, for those writers, at least.

It’s easy to make too much of studies. After all, I suppose when writing consisted of imprinting clay tablets with cuneiform that lit up different parts of the brain too. But this sort of adds to the topic of handwriting as a matter of both form and content. Which I for one, find slightly more interesting than mastering good penmanship just because polite people are supposed to have a neat hand.

Did you write differently before computers? Do you write differently now, if you use paper and pen instead of a keyboard? Do tell.

Clarkson visit: what the heck is a 3-D printer?

The 3-D printer in Clarkson's engineering lab. The spools hold the plastic-like coil that is fed into and melted by the "printer" before being squirted onto the turquoise building surface. Photo: Ellen Rocco

The 3-D printer in Clarkson’s engineering lab. The spools hold the plastic-like coil that is fed into and melted by the “printer” before being squirted onto the turquoise building surface. The rounded white hanger-like objects were produced by this printer. (Historic note: the printer is quite new, acquired in the last year. The computer controlling it is a Z-100, the first computer purchased by Clarkson for its students, back in the ’80s, and later donated in large numbers to area non-profits, including NCPR, when the Z-100 was replaced by more modern models. The Z-100 was the first computer I ever used.) Photo: Ellen Rocco

Every time I hear some report about 3-D printers my brain gets snagged on the concept. What does that mean? How can you “print” three dimensions? My 20th century DNA just can’t compute “3-D printer.”

So there I was earlier today on a visit to Clarkson’s engineering building, the Center for Advanced Materials Processing (known as CAMP), and Dr. Paul McGrath was gracious enough to show us a portion of his lab allocated for experimentation…and playing around with new ideas.

It’s a modest room. I pointed out that it looked more like the labs I remember from my college years (decades ago, back in the previous century) than like something you see in those high-tech 21st century movies with wall-size computer screens, lights flashing, processors processing, and scientists flinging around numbers and tech terms that no sub-genius human could possibly understand.

Canton College Engineering Dean Emeritus Dave Wells, Clarkson Engineering Professor Paul McGrath, Pierre Nzuah, Canton College Engineering student, and Dan Galy, Clarkson graduate student in electrical engineering. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Canton College Engineering Dean Emeritus Dave Wells, Clarkson Engineering Professor Paul McGrath, Pierre Nzuah, Canton College engineering student, and Dan Galy, Clarkson graduate student in electrical engineering. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Here’s the thing: I loved McGrath’s lab. When I asked about the 3-D printer sitting just inside the entrance, he immediately launched into an explanation of how it works and what it’s used for that (even) I could understand. In the case of the Clarkson 3-D printer, students use it to produce prototypes as they work out solutions to specific problems. Prototypes are tested and once the best idea is identified it can be reproduced in quantity–probably using more traditional technology because 3-D printing is a relatively slow process.

Rather than relying on my very unscientific reporting to explain exactly how 3-D printers work (Dr. McGrath did a great job but I don’t think I can accurately reproduce his mini-overview), do check out the description at more reliable sites. But Dr. McGrath helped me picture the process by comparing it to the old jet printers that squirted ink onto paper. Coils of plastic or an organic plastic-like substance are fed into the printer, melted, and then squirted onto the “building” surface. The computer program directs the placement of the plastic material, creating the architecture of the object.

Oh boy. Let me rest my brain for a minute.

We were on campus for Canton College engineering student Pierre to talk with faculty about applying for Clarkson’s graduate program in engineering. Dr. McGrath and Dr. Tom Ortmeyer were kind enough to show us some of the labs where graduate research and exploration takes place…including on 3-D printers.


Let there be light–24/7

Photo: NASA

21st century world at night. Photo: NASA

Aside from the occasional power outage when we drag out the candles, oil lamps and flashlights, we take the light between dusk and dawn for granted.

On “All Things Considered” Friday, the Planet Money team interviewed Jane Brox, the author of “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.” Brox cites research done by Yale economist Bill Nordhaus who researched the cost of artificial light through the centuries.

I had a driveway moment listening to the story. Do check out the full interview (and I plan to find the book). Here’s a tantalizing takeaway: back about 4,000 years ago in Babylonia, a day’s labor could buy maybe 10 minutes of artificial light. Through the millenniums, making light remained expensive and labor-intensive, and the light produced was not very effective.

Earth at night. Photo: NASA

Earth at night. Photo: NASA

Until about 1800, not a whole lot of substantive progress.  For example, whale oil was one of the best sources of lamp fuel. Not a particularly attractive solution: smoky, fuzzy and there’d be no whales left today if we kept that up.

In the mid-1800s, a big breakthrough: kerosene produced from coal or oil providing reasonably high-quality light for humans to keep busy long after dark. A day’s labor now buys about five hours of post-dusk light.

Once the power generation and distribution challenges were worked out, the use of electricity, of course, revolutionized everything. But think about it: it took thousands of years to come up with a source of artificial light that really works. Ten minutes of light for a day’s labor back in the old days–not even enough light to read the directions on your microwavable frozen dinner.

So, how much light can you buy with an average day’s labor now? Well, in the developed world, 20,000 hours.


Photo: Open source via Wikipedia

Of course, none of this deals with the environmental impact of all that electricity. That’s for another article. But this photo can serve as a place-holder on the issue.

Meanwhile, back on my farm, where the power goes out fairly regularly, including a brief outage about an hour after I heard the ATC story, my hens decide when to lay eggs based on the amount of sunlight. It’s magic. If you leave the ladies to their own thing, some time in March when we’re all noticing that it’s starting to get light a little earlier and stay light a little later, egg production gears up. Right now, it’s peak production time. As the days lengthen in the approach to the solstice, every hen lays an egg a day. After the solstice, as we move into high summer, production drops off as the daylight hours start to decrease.  If you have a light on in the chicken coop for a few hours at the end or beginning of the day–artificially extending the hours of light experienced by the hens–egg production will remain robust through the winter. There’s economic impact for you.

Again, check out the Planet Money story.

Nature Talks: Outreach that works

When it comes to delivering content, sometimes presentation is crucial.

We’ve seen this firsthand. Already-good food tastes even better when presented with visual flair. The right teacher, lit up with knowledge and passion, makes practically any subject come alive.

Dynamic delivery has always enhanced the message, however it’s distributed. For a good modern example, just take TED talks. Their tag line is “Ideas worth spreading”. The mission is to deploy “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world” – a goal that would almost certainly fall flat without the “riveting” part.

Visiting different museums I am often struck by which ones are doing “it” well and which ones are not – namely, getting people to care about what’s being presented. A difficult task. Money is always a problem – and then there’s the whole issue of audience.

Should museums dumb things down? Presenting content as entertainment sells more tickets, hopefully. Alternatively, institutions can go high-brow and cultivate support from well-heeled elites. That seems to work fairly well for things like art. It used to work well for classical music, only most symphonies are hurting now too. But history and science seem less able to tap into the patron scene that historically boosted high culture.

High-brow, low-brow or academic, most institutions stand in need of public engagement and what gets called “community”.

It’s a huge challenge and an important one. I worry that catering to indifferent masses is a path to irrelevance. After all, entertainment is a fickle, movable feast. Meanwhile, museums that “go Disneyland” run the risk of alienating their true supporters. Worst of all, some organizations fail both camps by becoming unentertaining and irrelevant.

Disneyland is just a metaphor here – there’s a valid place for making money by providing entertainment. Only making money is not the core mission of real museums. Experts often say differentiation is essential: identify a need, or a niche, and serve the heck out of it. But what if the mission strikes many as…boring?

That vexing dilemma is why it’s interesting to observe who is doing what regarding public engagement, including this venture out of Ottawa.

place holder

Dr. Jordan Mallon was the first speaker in “Nature Talks” – he blogs about the experience here. Image courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature

The Canadian Museum of Nature is trying out a series of TED-style “Nature Talks”. They are free, though reservations are required. The first one “sold out” – and not everyone who is interested can be there in any case. So the talks are being video taped and provided online, with French subtitles.

Here’s the first talk, from January 15th on “De-extinction: re-thinking forever

Imagine a world where T. rex steak is on the menu and Passenger Pigeons darken the skies once again. Movies such as Jurassic Parkplanted the idea of resurrecting extinct species in the popular imagination, but can we? And if we can, should we?

Palaeontologist Jordan Mallon will guide us through what science is able to achieve in this field, and under what circumstances.

“Rethinking” is the theme. Upcoming talks include: Species Hybridization: Rethinking ExtinctionPlant Intelligence: Rethinking Thinking and Parasites: Rethinking Healthy.

My husband said while I’m on the subject of talks I should give a shoutout to Canada’s Massey Lectures, a long-standing Toronto event that is packaged up into thoughtful late-night radio on CBC. But I’m not sure that falls into what I’m talking about here: ways to spice up museums and such like.

We are told interactive events are essential to attract modern/young audiences. So what would that look like, without “selling out” the mission of knowledge as its own pursuit? Of course, enhancing mission without compromise is something all sorts of organizations grapple with. (Ellen Rocco knows this and is fond of saying the station never rests on its laurels.)

From museums, to local libraries, to public radio, what’s your take on this topic? What’s worth trying to keep old things relevant – or help good things come across even better?

Is the local growing season changing?

Chart of frost dates in various NY locations. Photo: Lucy Martin

Chart of frost dates in various NY locations. Photo: Lucy Martin

Like many All In readers, I like to garden and I’m fond of books.

One of the more useful books I collected shortly after moving to this region was something called “Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening.” This was the 1948 edition, by Norman Taylor (1883-1967). Checking on line I discovered it’s still being produced, with a different editor, naturally.

It’s a great book, just stuffed with useful information, including small maps and charts showing the average frost-free growing season by state or province.

After 14 years of puttering around in this growing climate, here’s what I’ve noticed: it seems like every year’s been different. Cold and rainy. Hot and dry. Late spring, early spring. Once or twice it felt like we got just the right amount of sun and rain. But who can guess what to expect? Old timers, you tell me: is so much variability normal around here?

It also feels like the growing season has been getting longer. September is often a full growing month. Oh, there may be a light frost that can be dodged with sheets and blankets. But I’ve come to expect no killing frost until early Oct. Sometimes mid-October. One time it didn’t come until late October!

Here’s an article from USA Today about crops “moving” north, thanks to warmer/longer growing seasons. And something closer to home about growing-season shifts near Rochester, NY. The USDA updated their benchmark plant hardiness zone map in 2012. This New York Times article cites at least one researcher who thinks it is already outdated.

Map of typical growing seasons for Vermont, circa 1948 from Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening. Photo: Lucy Martin

Map of typical growing seasons for Vermont, circa 1948 from Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening. Photo: Lucy Martin

It’s hard to complain about gaining September as a bonus round of growing and eating. But “they say” winters are getting shorter and/or warmer, with less snow than was previously considered normal. It turns out I quite like winter. The possibility of losing that season’s many pleasures is worrisome.

Old, but useful. The 1948 edition. Photo: Lucy Martin

Old, but useful. The 1948 edition. Photo: Lucy Martin

Do you have a favorite reference for gardening Qs?

By now I have about 5 linear feet of books about gardening in this part of the world. For modern tips and inspiration I admire some of the books by Elliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. I still turn to my trusty Taylor’s, of course! In these modern times there’s also tons of stuff on line, including Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

There’s no profound point here. It’s just been another lovely, gorgeous week of warm fall weather. It made me want to ask long-time area residents about any changes in the growing season they may have noticed, good or bad.


Oct 24 postscript: A light frost returned to my back-yard garden Oct 23, followed by a hard frost the next day. We had annuals in steady bloom and could harvest green pole beans right up until those dates.