Posts Tagged ‘science’

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.

Getting dirty: the worm edition

Aren't they adorable? Red worms for worm composting. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Aren’t they adorable? Red worms for worm composting. (photo: Lucy Martin)

This follows an earlier post by Ellen Rocco on NCPR-types getting down and dirty. (Yeah, we like to mix things up and dig deep!)

Worm composting is nothing new. I was sort of slow to try it out, but about two years ago a friend shared some extra worms and I’ve been keeping a bin ever since.

The good news is keeping a worm bin isn’t much trouble at all. Surprisingly, there’s no smell to speak of and the care required is minimal. Mind you, if worms, or mounds of muck, creep you out, don’t try this at home!

The bad news: I’m just not sure the end result justifies the endeavor.

While the red worms recommended for this job are said to eat about half their own weight every day, they don’t weigh that much, folks. It’s a slow process with a fairly low output. Contrast that to my July project of establishing a sourdough starter. It’s already a good culture and gives me great bread several times a week. A better return on effort.

Our household of just two generates kitchen trimmings at a far great rate than one modest worm box can handle. So we still have and use a back yard compost unit and send less readily composted material (like oily stuff) out by way of Ottawa’s Green waste collection system.

But, seriously, if you want to close the loop of converting waste to more food, consider raising chickens, rabbits or pigs. In our case, we travel too often to meet the daily care required by livestock, which is a plus for worms, I guess. They can run their own lives pretty well without constant care.

Anyway, this week it was essential that I clean out and totally renew my bin, because it had become far too wet. (Amazingly, the worms seem to chomp along just fine even in less-than-ideal conditions.) That job consisted of dumping it all out, scrubbing the main bin, separating the desired casing/humus from the worms (humus = the shredded newspapers and kitchen scraps that had been digested) ripping up new bedding and putting the worms back in with more food.

All shown here in stages:

Clean bin filled with more ripped newspaper beside mix of worms and old muck - which should not be this wet. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Clean bin filled with more ripped newspaper beside mix of worms and old muck – which should not be this wet. (photo: Lucy Martin)


Note: the ripped newspaper is supposed to be moistened until damp, but not sopping. I skipped that because the muck going back in was already plenty wet enough to do the job.

And how, pray tell, does one salvage the live worms? Well, there are different methods. I went with making cones. The worms prefer to avoid light and air, so they burrow down.

Stage one: build some cones. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Stage one: build some cones. (photo: Lucy Martin)

You can guess the rest.

Remove outer layers of each cone, and the few worms that come off too.  (photo: Lucy Martin)

Remove outer layers of each cone, and the few worms that come off too. (photo: Lucy Martin)

By the end of this process, the worms are doing a group hug that practically pushes any humus out from the compact mass. It’s kinda cool.

The poor worms are probably freaking out, but by the end of this process they are easily gathered and moved.  (photo: Lucy Martin)

The poor worms are probably freaking out, but by the end of this process they are easily gathered and moved. (photo: Lucy Martin)

This gave me half a three-gallon bucket of worm casing fertilizer. The worms went back into the fresh/clean bin.

Yes, eggs and the smallest worms are lost this way. But so it goes, they can’t all be sifted out.

I wanted to share a webpage on making a worm farm from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Maybe it’s just because humor on a government page was unexpected, but I found it laugh-out-loud funny. This excerpt also suggests easier ways to sort worms from muck:

Some folks sort the worms out of the castings and put the worms in fresh bedding. We have other things to do with our time and prefer a split harvest method. It helps if you have trained your worms ahead of time for this harvest method. To train your worms, you start feeding them at only one end of the bin. Do this for about a week. (Worms learn pretty fast.) Now take the bedding/castings out of the end of the farm where you were not feeding them and add it to your plants or garden. You will be removing about half to two thirds of the bedding/castings in this step. You will lose some worms, but those were the ones that were not very smart. Remember you trained the others. Place the remaining bedding/castings in a container while you scrub the bin and fix new bedding. Prepare this bedding the same way you did the first time, damp newspaper, crushed egg shells, and a handful of dirt. Now add the worms you trained, castings and all onto the fresh bedding. Feed and you are back in business. I have found that the worms will move out of the old bedding in a couple of days. If you want a cleaner farm, you can remove the old bedding in a few days.

So, that’s the scoop on the dirtiest chore I did this week. (Besides the cat’s litter box.)

Do you keep worms and have tips to share?

Again, I remain skeptical this is all that useful. But it’s sort of fun and makes me feel, I don’t know, semi-virtuous!

Know your fungi? Help us!


Unknown mushroom #1. Photo: Conant Neville

Last weekend I headed to the Adirondacks to bag some more peaks and check them off my list. I’m hoping to become a 46er before I graduate this year. With all the nice weather, I took advantage of the weekend and spent Saturday hiking Nippletop and Dial with some friends.

We met several people along the trail, but the most interesting thing on trail for me was the abundance of mushrooms.

Although things had dried out quite a bit with the warm weather and sunshine, the trail was still sloppy. I think all the moisture has encouraged fungus growth, which explains why I ran into a lot of mushrooms along the trail. I am not much of a mycologist, but I snapped several photos of my fungal friends as I hiked and I’m hoping some of you can help me identify them–maybe some of them are even edible–but if not, they’re still pretty cool looking.

Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve any guesses, and make sure to tell us a bit about these mysterious mushrooms if you have a fungal affinity.

Unknown mushroom #2. Photo: Conant Neville

Unknown mushroom #2. Photo: Conant Neville

Unknown mushroom #3. Photo: Conant Neville

Unknown mushroom #3. Photo: Conant Neville

Unknown mushroom #4. Photo: Conant Neville

Unknown mushroom #4. Photo: Conant Neville



“Humidex” anyone?


Well, it’s been stinking hot across the entire region this week. Oppressive temperatures outdoors – which may be even worse on upper stories of un-cooled buildings. When overnight lows don’t bring much relief this can quickly feel overwhelming.

To be sure, there are different kinds of hot, including the oft-heard line: “It may be x degrees, but it’s OK because it’s a dry heat.” No such luck here, though, where humidity bogs things up even further. With high humidity the body’s air conditioning system can’t do its job: buckets of sweat produce little real relief.

Thankfully, passing thunderstorms have occasionally broken that swelter.

The effect of humidity is so noticeable that Canada invented what’s called a “humidex” (humidity index) back in 1965. In lay terms, this combines the heat of the current air temperature with the humidity of the dew point – does that help? Or would you rather just hear what it “feels like?”

Here’s a more explicit explanation/worksheet on what the humidex is and how it’s calculated.

The formula goes like this:  Humidex = T + (0.5555 * (e – 10)), where T is the temperature in Celsius and e is the vapor pressure in millibars (mb).

Of course, that needs further conversion into Fahrenheit for U.S. consumption. The U.S. prefers something called the heat index, which Wikipedia says produces a resulting ”felt air temperature” or “apparent temperature.”

Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips spoke with CBC news about the popularity of the humidex:

“It may be impure from a scientific point of view, but it is actually proven to work. There is more stress on the body in a humid situation. You can’t be as productive on a humid, moist day as you would be on a hot, dry day.”

Humidity is but one consideration when it comes to comfort. There’s also sun intensity, often measured with a UV index. The UV index runs from a low of 0 to a high of 15. In Ottawa at least, 9-10 seems to be about as high as that gets. I grew up in Hawaii where the UV index was 12 the day I wrote this, which is pretty typical.

So you’ll get a worse sunburn – faster – closer to the equator. But if you want to talk steamy, drippy, “please-let-it-end!” discomfort…Ottawa heat waves beat Hawaii – hands down.

Photo: Mr. T in DC, via creative commons

Photo: Mr. T in DC, via creative commons

Newscasts certainly seem to be devoting more time and importance to weather. Taking the cynical view, it’s a cheap way to repetitiously fill time with a safe, popular topic. (Weather is much faster to explain than the European debt crisis and more entertaining than elusive Senate reform.) On the other hand, people really DO care about weather and want lots of details.

Some are critical of “feels-like” measures such as the humidex and even the better-known wind chill factor. As with this site, where physicist Miguel Tremblay explores the topic at length, including doubts about applying science to quantify a “feeling,” the rise of sensationalism in meterology and the use of “debatable assumptions” in some of those formulas.

What do you think? Has weather coverage just gone overboard? Do we need things like a humidex? Or are you satisfied with the basics: highs and lows, wind speed and direction and likelihood of rain?

Lastly, what’s your idea of a perfect temperature? Mine is probably a high of 26 C / 78 F and an overnight low of 16 C/ 60 F. What Canadians contentedly call “good sleeping weather.”

Stay cool and take comfort in the old adage “this too shall pass.”

Horsing around with really old DNA

Chincoteague pony (aka Assateague horse), via Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Chincoteague pony (aka Assateague horse), via Wikipedia/Creative Commons

As a child I was horse-mad. For a while I actually wanted to be a horse – running around barefoot planning to end up with feet as hard as hooves. Short of that impossible notion, becoming a jockey seemed like the next best thing. Unfortunately, that wasn’t really a choice growing up when and where I did.

So I devoured every horse book I could find in the libraries on Maui and fruitlessly begged my parents for a Welsh pony. Or a Morgan. Maybe an Appaloosa. I swore I would get some horse of my very own as soon as I could manage that. Ironically, that’s quite easily done where I live now. Except that obsession faded into mere memory.

Looking back, I think horses represented avenues I hungered for as a child: freedom, adventure and companionship. Qualities I’ve been able to satisfy in the human realm as an adult. But horse-related news still resonates for me, which is why this DNA item caught my eye.

As published in the Journal Nature, and reported by many news outlets, a really old horse from modern-day Yukon Territory has ended up providing a significant scientific breakthrough.

Here is how Wired Magazine framed the accomplishment of a multinational team lead by Ludovic Orlando and Eske Willerslev:

By piecing together the genetic information locked inside a frozen, fossilized bone, scientists have deciphered the complete genome of an extinct prehistoric horse that roamed the Yukon more than 700,000 years ago. The work rewrites the evolutionary history of the horse and smashes the previous record for the oldest complete genome ever sequenced. In doing so, it redefines how far back in time scientists can travel using DNA sequences as their guide.

According to Wired the previous age milestone “…was an 80,000-year-old ancient cousin of humans whose genome was sequenced from a single finger bone found in Siberia.”

Przewalski's horse. Photo via Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Przewalski’s horse. Photo via Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

By the way, the new information allowed researchers to confirm that Przewalski’s horse (an existing but endangered subspecies from the steppes of Mongolia) is the last truly wild horse.

The New York Time’s coverage states this advance means:

…DNA should be recoverable from animals that lived one million years ago. This would greatly extend biologists’ ability to understand the evolutionary past.

Science News spends a good chunk of its article on ways this expands understanding of the evolution of horses, then and now.

CBC has more about the regional aspects of this Canadian fossil find:

Duane Froese, an earth sciences professor at the University of Alberta, found the metapodial bone from the horse’s leg, equivalent to bones found in the palm of a human hand, about a decade ago in the Thistle Creek gold mine, about 100 kilometres south of Dawson City.

Froese has been at this sort of collecting for a while, including findings on ancient bacterial resistance to antibiotics that could be valuable information today, with concerns about the viability of antibiotic medicine.

And what was it like to be a horse in the Yukon 700,000 years ago? Again from CBC coverage:

The DNA analysis also showed that horse populations fluctuated with the climate over the ages.

“Basically, when it’s fairly cold, it’s good to be a horse. When it’s warm, it’s pretty bad,” said Eske Willerslev, another co-author of the report, at the press briefing.

To put this in perspective, maybe it’s useful to revisit the timeline of horse evolution (If you like going to that level of detail).

And what about distribution? After all, if modern horses were brought to America by Spanish explorers, when did those earliest horses disappear from this continent?

Canadian Geographic covered that here:

North American horses disappeared around 8,000 – 10,000 years ago. Multiple factors including hunting by early Natives, climate change, and disease are thought to have helped contribute to their demise. They disappeared around the same time as other large mammals like Wooly Mammoths.

Then the Conquistadors showed up and on it went from there. Up to and including a little girl in Hawaii, avidly reading about Misty of Chincoteague and dreaming of taming Mustangs.

Cover from Anna Sewell's 1877 horse classic, Black Beauty. Photo: Wikipedia

Cover from Anna Sewell’s 1877 horse classic, Black Beauty. Photo: Wikipedia

Fellow horse lovers of a certain age will know these authors very well: Walter Farley  who wrote the Black Stallion series. Marguerite Henry and the illustrations of Wesley Dennis - lots of wonderful titles there. Henry V. Larom and ”Ride like an Indian”. More classic horse-themed authors included  C. W. Anderson, (“Heads up, Heels Down”, “Flip” and “Billy and Blaze” series), Anna Sewell (“Black Beauty”), Mary O’Hara (“My Friend Flicka”) and Will James (“Smokey”). And I’ve just discovered James was born a Canadian Francophone in Quebec – who knew?

As an adult I made sure to read everything by real-life champion steeplechase jockey and best-selling mystery writer Dick Francis. Side note: Francis seldom bothered to pen well-rounded female characters. Maybe that came from the prevalent culture of the early 1960′s – when he started churning titles out like clockwork. But his male protagonists always had something interesting to solve – as champions of self-determined, honest character. It would have been nice if the female characters were more than devices to prove the hero was heterosexual!

Who else loves horses and horse-themed books, or did at one time?

And – getting back to the science of this thread – what do you suppose being able to extract and sequence really old DND from all sorts of animals may lead to?