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St. Augustine, Thanksgiving here first En Español

22 Nov
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St. Augustine Lighthouse

Thanksgiving is coming.  A holiday enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country and perhaps my favorite secular holiday.  And yes, unlike in other places, Thanksgiving in the U.S. is secular although everyone of every faith celebrates in their own way.  A truly diverse holiday.

The first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 in Plymouth Plantation is usually what we think of when we think of the origins of the holiday, but is that true?  How Northern European centric are we being with that celebration?

A few weeks back I was in Gainesville, Florida, for a meeting and had the opportunity to go to St. Augustine with an archaeologist as a guide — at least for part of the day.  St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish crown in 1565 as a military installation, is still the oldest European-based settlement in the U.S.  When the Spanish landed, they immediately fortified an area, offloaded their ships and had a mass of thanksgiving and a feast.  The first Thanksgiving.  Probably, but not important really.  The settlement site was attacked, burned down a number of times and rebuilt, and while it moved from Spanish to English to Spanish to English hands, there were always people in the area.

What is important is that nearly everyone outside of Florida who is not an American history teacher of some kind thinks of the Plymouth colony, or Jamestown settlement.  The first European child born in what would become the U.S. was not Virginia Dare, but Martín de Argūelles, born in 1566.  St. Augustine was also an unusual place in that while it had slaves, they weren’t all from Africa and there were many African freemen as well.  Why? Because if you pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown and converted to Catholicism you could be a resident and protected.  Slavery, as ugly as it is, was of a different sort.  A Spanish slave could buy his or her freedom and many did.

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Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, FL
Macapplethorpe

Some of the early 17th century town still exists and has been conserved.  The 17th century fort, the oldest in the continental U.S., still stands on the water’s edge facing the bay.  The chapel, living areas and the “necessary” are still there.

These men and women, whether Spanish soldiers, their wives, native Americans from the Saturiwa or Africans undoubtedly spoke Spanish as their common language.  They attended church together, and while excluding other faiths, they embraced other differences.

It is only because England won the wars against Spain and France and Florida was a prize passed back and forth that St. Augustine is not what we look to at Thanksgiving.  I suppose it is a case of to the victors go not only the spoils but the place in history.

Archaeologically, we know a lot about the St. Augustine settlement and its original location in what is now Fountain of Youth Park.  A new exhibit, “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” curated by Kathleen Deagan of the University of Florida at the Florida Museum of Natural History, opened last week and we had a preview at Old Colony House in St. Augustine, where the exhibit will remain until 2016.  Eventually, this exhibit will travel across the country, bringing the Spanish origins of many of our citizens to light.

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Eternal Life on Earth and in the Universe

3 Oct

I’m pretty sure I’ll never write my autobiography and I’m almost just as sure no one will write my biography unless I’m missing something.  I’ve written thousands of stories in 38 years as a science writer so I’ll remain on the web forever.  Doesn’t bother me.

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Roland Winkler, Leibnitz Institution of Astrophysics, Potsdam

Some people, without autobiographies or biographies, still end up memorialized in books, which is what recently happened to some Penn State faculty members from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Another science writer, Lee Billings, wrote a book, “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars,” which is about looking for other living, sentient beings in the universe.  This book ended up on my desk because I get sent this type of book from time to time.  I thought wow, I wonder if Jim Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, was in the book.  Looked in the index and sure enough he was, as was his twin brother, wife and children.

Not only was he in the book, but nearly an entire chapter, “Out of Equilibrium” was about his work, very cool.

But I was actually sent the book because another faculty member, Michael Arthur, professor of geosciences, former department head and co-director of SolitudeCover2the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, was in the book.  That’s what the letter that came with the book said.  His chapter is “The Big Picture.”  I was puzzled.  Arthur is a sedimentary geologist.  He studies how rocks are formed, so I wasn’t quite sure how he fit into this book.  And the chapter talks about black shale, the Marcellus shale gas producing area and other petroleum and natural gas stuff.  In fact, another Penn State faculty member mentioned is Terry Engelder, professor of geoscience, who initially estimated how much gas was in the Marcellus.  I know, because I wrote that story.  But then I read on and realized that Arthur was using the Marcellus shale, the last shale oil/gas deposit to show no terrestrial plant inclusions — it was formed before life moved to land — as an example of the evolution of intelligent life.  And so the story moved from sea to land to animals of all kinds and finally to humans.  Intelligent life one presumes.  Although Lee refers to it as the sixth major extinction event, suggesting that humans in their agrarian onslaught homogenized the planet and wiped out myriad species.  So the history of the Earth leads to the search for intelligent life in the universe.

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Frank Lewecke

Kasting is known for his work on figuring out where, in the orbits around suns, habitable planets can exist.  These planets must be at a distance from their suns so that throughout the time it takes for life to evolve to intelligent beings, water remains liquid — at least most of the time.  So no totally frozen planets and no planets too hot for liquid water.  This becomes complicated because suns change their power through times.  Kasting also does work on the “faint young sun” paradox, which explains that the sun was weaker when young and grew stronger.  This moves the habitable zone further out as a sun ages.

So Kasting and Arthur are memorialized in this book. One, for looking far into the universe and future, and one for looking far into the past and beneath the earth.  Both trying to understand how we got where we are and how some other intelligent being might get there too.

There’s Fame, and then There’s Fame

17 Sep

The goal of most university faculty is to publish their research in a peer reviewed journal. This brings notice among their peers, sometimes fame and sometimes just a nod. Rarely, in the complex science, technology and engineering world of today, does a journal paper elicit much notice outside of the specific academic discipline.

Michael MannEven when I write a news story about a published paper, fame is usually very brief, no more than three to five days and the researcher goes back to the lab and ongoing work. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is usually spot on.

But sometimes, for good or bad, a paper has a more sizeable impact. No one knows this more than Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and director, Earth System Science Center here at Penn State. Long, long ago, on April 23, 1998, Mann and Raymond S. Bradley, University ofMassachusetts, Amherst, and Malcolm Hughes, Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, University ofArizona, published “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” in Nature, the foremost British science journal. I’m sure none of these men thought it was that unusual a paper. But it was.

Out of that paper came more than a decade of discussion, anti-global warming warfare and personal attacks as well as the certainly recognizable “hockey stick graph.”

Hockey_StickThe hijacking of e-mails written by Mann and others in the climate field by still unknown hackers, heated up attacks and brought the general public, advocacy groups on both sides and anti-global warming anti-science groups out in force.

Lofty bodies as diverse as the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Senate and Penn State among others investigated Mann, his research and in every case agreed that the research was solid. Not that this served to end the attacks.  Because Mann once worked at a Virginia university, Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, began a witch hunt against climate scientists and specifically against Mann.

The travails of anti-climate science attacks are chronicled in Mann’s book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the front lines,” (Columbia University Press, 2012).

So, Michael Mann became famous, gave testimony before Congress, interviews to myriad print publications and appeared on TV. He also had YouTube video animations that made fun of him and was called every name in the book. Through all this, he continued to do research on global warming and climate change, publishing papers in Nature, Nature Geoscience and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for example. In 2013, the University named him a Distinguished Professor.

This month, Bloomberg News announced it’s top 50 most influential people. They divide the 50 into Bankers, Money Managers, Policy Makers, Power Brokers and Thinkers. Bloomberg is a business oriented new organization so it is no surprise these are the categories or that 48 of the 50 are either business people, economists or money managers of some kind. The 49th is a U.S. Attorney suing people for insider trading.

Even in the Thinker category, while many are academics, all but one are economists. Only Michael Mann does not fit this description, but he is one of the ten Thinkers, and cited for responding “to climate change deniers on his RealClimate blog.”

So, there’s fame, and then there is fame. Not all publicity is good publicity, but if one is willing to slog through the stinking marshes, maybe, just maybe you can come out the other side smelling like a rose.

Not the Heat but the Humidity

12 Jul
Cloudy sky

Cloudy sky over Penn State University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Today it is overcast, but not raining.  At least not yet.  It’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts time, and in my experience it is either blisteringly hot or we experience torrential downpours during this week in summer, but the weather forecast for the weekend looks good.

Not so the past three weeks.  We’ve been hit with rain nearly every day.  One day it hailed.  The ground is saturated and people who have never had water in their basements do now.  On some days I’ve been soaked from head to foot up to three times.  And it hasn’t been just the rain.  Even when it is not raining the temperatures have been on the high side for State College and the humidity has been very high, sometimes in the 80 and 90 percent range without rain.  It’s not unusual to start down a road only to find it closed due to temporary flooding.

July is usually one of our rainiest months, but this year has been unusual.  The normal range of jokes is circulating.  Checking for webbing between ones feet and mold just about everywhere.  But clothes dry; unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, humans don’t melt in the rain; and better weather is on the way.  No harm no foul, right?

Two students with backpacks from the back with umbrellas walking together in the rain

Two students walk in the rain on the University Park campus of Penn State. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Not true. Certainly farmers are complaining because they can’t get into their fields and home owners have soggy lawns to mow with weeds that grow a mile a minute.  However, other aspects of the humid, hot weather are not always considered.

I was interviewing a researcher the other day about a materials formation process.  A method that will make perfectly spherical micron sized balls.  During the interview I asked lots of questions about the material, its uses and production.  We were just about finished with the interview when the researcher said, “Well, you know, with this weather, my graduate students have not been able to produce any material in the past two weeks.”

Even in a brand new, fully air-conditioned building, the systems could not keep up with the humidity.  This particular method needs dry air in order to produce the uniformly sized spheres.  During this past rainy period, the humidity was just too high to produce them.  Inside, in a laboratory, the weather was retarding the progress of  research.

This certainly isn’t the only research being done on campus suffering from the extremely high moisture content in our air.  A vast majority of things won’t dry in this humidity, even inside.  Some chemical reactions are affected.  Anything that is supposed to be anhydrous — without water — is going to have too much moisture and anything that is hydroscopic — water loving or water attracting — is also going to have too much moisture.

However, not only is science and technology research impaired by the humidity, but other areas of scholarship also suffered.  Paint won’t dry, ceramics retain water and paper becomes damp and unusable.  Baking a cake or doing anything with sugar or honey becomes difficult because sugar and honey are hydroscopic and draw more moisture into the food than required.  So, at least some food science research must be put on hold.

Two to three weeks does not seem like a very long time, but if you are a graduate student trying to finish research to defend your dissertation by a certain date, those three weeks could mean the difference between graduating in August or graduating in December.

Besides, while everyone is uncomfortable in the weather we have just had, the researchers suffering from too much moisture in the air have the additional inconvenience of not being able to do what they do best — move the frontier of science and technology just that much further along.

Aloha Mahalo

7 Apr

Yes, I’m in Hawaii.  No I’m not really on vacation.  I’m attending a Society for American Archaeology meeting.  Penn State is well represented at this meeting by faculty, students and former students who are now faculty at other universities.

Each year, sometime during the meeting, there is a Penn State gathering.  There’s usually a theme.  The year after Bill Sanders died, film footage of him in Mexico and Central America formed the backdrop of the party.

This year is another occasion, or rather two. Dean Snow, professor of anthropology and former head of the department is really retiring after teaching part time for a while.  In conjunction with his retirement, he and his wife are setting up the Snow Award in Archaeology to honor and recognize outstanding academic achievement by an undergraduate student whose studies are focused in archaeological science in the College of the Liberal Arts.  They have put aside $10,000 to be matched by donations from others.  Twenty thousand dollars are needed to establish a fund for student support.

I received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the department and Dean Snow was on my dissertation committee.  I’ll undoubtedly donate in his honor.  But I was thinking, he isn’t the first faculty member to donate money to his department on retirement.  Apparently many of our faculty think enough of our students and the university to donate upon retirement or at some other time.

The Penn State Anthropology party at this meeting is always fun.  I get to see people I went to school with and to catch up a little.  I found out one of my classmates made tenure.  Another moved to South Carolina.  Many people who are usually here did not come because of the cost, and those that do come are obviously well employed in the field, so it isn’t a perfect indicator of how the department is doing.  However, I’m always impressed by what these former students are doing now and how Penn State influenced their research and their choice of jobs.

This year I also spent part of the party time interviewing a professor because just that morning I’d received a notice that he was publishing a paper in 5 days.  I sent him an e-mail only to find out he was at the conference.  So I took the time to do the interview.

I don’t usually do interviews in the middle of a party, but we sat down at the dining room table and began to chat.  I do always have a reporter’s notebook in my purse.  He is an environmental archaeologist and doing some really interesting things.

Douglas Kennett was at the University of Oregon before he joined Penn State a short while ago.  During that time he was looking into dates of Maya sites and made arrangements with the University of Pennsylvania to sample a door lintel they had in their museum.  Then he moved here as a full professor and is now publishing on that work out of the Pennsylvania State University.  So as he told me, it is a Pennsylvania story.

But it is really about the Maya city of Tikal, sapodilla trees, radiocarbon 14 dating and linking the Long Count calendar to the European calendar.

Ambitious, but truly fascinating and likely to provide hints not only of what the Maya faced climate wise, but what we may face in the future.

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