On the cultural significance of a plant: mate.

This video explores sustainability and the significant role a single plant can play in augmenting or defining a culture.  It’s going into rotation with my botany students.  Check it out here.

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what a scientist looks like.

“Why is everyone wearing glasses?”

I’m standing with my six-year-old daughter outside of the entrance to the Science Night hosted by her elementary school.  Families of children at the school were invited to delve into the world of discovery at an array of demo and workstations and of course to eat greasy pizza and have sugary drinks.  (I swear, my kids learned all their bad eating habits at school…).  Students were told in advance that there would be some sort of door prize if they showed up looking like a scientist.

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Biophilia, Dolphins and Smiling Faces, or Let’s go Whale Watching!

Perhaps the most charismatic dolphin I have ever seen!

Perhaps the most charismatic dolphin I have ever seen!

Each spring, I take my environmental science field course students out on a charter to track the annual grey whale migration along the west coast.  We don’t always see whales, but this was a good year.  As soon as we were out of the harbor we spotted one grey and then quickly fell in to tracking a separate grey whale pair.

My students often ask if we always see whales, and I reply that there is no guarantee but that we usually see loads of dolphins and that they are a better show anyway.  Of course, the students are programmed to want to see a whale and there is nothing I can do about that.  Sadly though, the whales are just not quite as charismatic as some of the other marine mammals.  Especially, when you are on a large tour boat with a hundred or so passengers.  When you are on a small boat, say in the Baja Peninsula and can get up close and personal, things can be very different.

Tracking the whales was a great experience for the students.  Later on in the trip though, the good people at Newport Whales, the tour company I always use for this adventure, invariably try to track down a rambunctious group of dolphins to make sure that the customers have all gotten their money’s worth.  It’s a cool trick too.  Seeing the dolphins frolic is a value-added spectacle.  No one really pays to go dolphin watching – that’s for whales.  But in the end, seeing a whale from a distance, while magical, may fall short of expectations.

I always advocate for more dolphin interaction.  And I share this with my students.  ‘The point of today’s excursion is to witness the grey whale migration, but what you may find more fascinating are the other marine mammals who find it entertaining to play around the boat.’  Can you imagine?  A wild animal swimming freely in the ocean that finds us entertaining?

The concept of biophilia always comes to the surface when I am on this trip.  EO Wilson expounded on this concept to explain the innate sense of connection that people feel with nature.  I don’t know of any better place to really witness this than in the presence of another species that is playing; enjoying itself in a parallel world; connecting with us so directly.  I see this every year when I am out on the water, as I witness the spontaneous smiles that brighten the faces of all of my students.  It’s brilliant and wonderful.

If you are interested in getting out on the water to see some of the local or the migratory marine mammal action in southern California, consider Newport Whales.  They have always been a wonderful tour operator to work with.

Grey whale surfacing near the coast of California.

Grey whale surfacing near the coast of California.

Another grey, with the cottages of Crystal Cove State Park in the background.

Another grey, with the cottages of Crystal Cove State Park in the background.

A dolphin riding in the waves next to our boat.

A dolphin riding in the waves next to our boat.

On a collision course...

On a collision course…

Alongside the boat.

Alongside the boat.

Playing in the water.

Playing in the water.

Climate Change?

I was lecturing in an environmental science course this week, having students calculate the amount of carbon dioxide generated from burning gasoline in an average car driven an average number of miles per year.  The amount is fairly astonishing.

We then began to build upon that, multiplying that number by the number of people in the lecture hall, the number of people in their town, the number of people in California, the US, and so on.  I find that empowering students with the math and then allowing them to make calculations to see how overall impact grows in magnitude when a few million little-old-me’s are all doing the same things is very powerful.

Students are always kind of blown away by what they find.

Then one student asked, innocently, ‘but how is it that carbon dioxide is related to global warming?’

Sometimes, as a professor, I have to step back and get my bearings.  You think you have a basis to begin with, a good point of departure, and then you realize that as deeply mired as our society has  gotten in the highly politicized ’debate’ about climate change, what we are still lacking is a strong foundation in the science, which is all that should really matter.

Lecture was over.  Hold that question, I said, it’s a good one.

Next lecture, we talked greenhouse gasses.  And I shared this short video that explains the concept quite nicely.  It’s useful and entertaining.