2011-07-17 -- So Flagstaff!

Roadside Hip-Pocket Shots update: Some of my recent photos and Facebook posts (in reverse order) that speak volumes about life in Flagstaff.

The Highland Celtic Festival, with one of the Wicked Tinkers drummers letting some of the audience play along with him. These kids were covered in oatmeal, I think. The girl got one of her mom's shoes and joined in on the drum One of the boys had a shirt that said “I'm so cute I must be Irish.” Yes, very cute indeed!

A yellow Columbine kissing the sun during a gap in the monsoons.

The Speakeasy, with a smooth jazz band joining the piano player. Hairy Navels on special, and just send an order through the secret “bookshelf”door if you want something to eat with your fancy cocktails.

Phave-1 (Pseudo-amphibious Human-powered Assault Vehicle Experiment - 1st prototype). R&D Phase 1 - It's gonna be a surprise, but my ancestors would be proud -- or frightened. :) I'll let you know more later, if the design turns out to be feasible. This shot is me loading up on parts at Home Cheapo to experiment with. Have to do ...the whole project human-powered if I can. Gots lots of frightened looks from car drivers as I rode home with this. Appropriate. Beware, ye mundanes of Flagstaff! Something fishy is happening in Denmark! ;) (Okay, that was a big hint, especially when combined with the project name.)

Lowell ground cover springs to life with the summer monsoons!

The Monsoons started here today! Lighting and thunder... Yay! And here's a little yella fella at NAU waivin his fins in the "air" like he just don't care. :)

Death by Bark Beetle
Death by Drought
Made beautiful by a clear blue sky

Another neighbor who is happy about the approaching monsoon season. The humidity is rising, the temperature is dropping... It's only a matter of time! :)

Reaching for rain... I got a dozen or so sprinkles on my walk home from work, then it stopped. Come on, Monsoons! (C'mon-soon!) Can I get a rain dance here?

Called the best view in Flagstaff, this will be the view from the new Science Conference Center on Mars Hill if Lowell builds it as currently planned.

2011-06-27 -- Roadside Hip-Pocket Shots

Here's a few quick shots of some of my wild neighbors saying hi this morning. Glad I always keep a pocket camera on my hip!

For the past few mornings, this one has been following along with me for quite a while as I walk up the hill to work. I'm guessing it's the same one each day because of its odd behavior that the other Abert's Squirrels don't exhibit. It stays about 10 yards ahead of me, staying on the road as we follow around the curves of it together, instead of running off into the woods at the first good opportunity the way all the others do when they see me coming.

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water -- all four "elements" -- plus plants and animals in this shot.

I saw this one a few days ago and was surprised how calm she was in our heavily trafficked areas.

Okay, maybe this one isn't wild anymore and it's not exactly on the roadside, but it sure is pretty!

2011-06-24 – A Half-Century of the science of playing in the dirt

When I was two, Daddy lifted me up to have a look over the fence into our vegetable garden and gradually introduced me to the aromatic wonders of rich soil. On my third birth anniversary, I sat there looking at a hole where I had been trying to “dig to China” in an unplanted corner of the garden, wondering if I would be able to make it very deep at all. The sides of the hole kept slumping in as I dug, turning it into a crater shape rather than the straight well-hole shape I knew I needed. So like a little engineer imitating Dad and Granddad, I experimented with different tools (from the garden and from the kitchen to Mama’s dismay) to see if I could make straight walls stay put. Over the next few years, my hole experiments got bigger and deeper across the fields that I played in. Eventually my friends and I made one big enough to earn the title of “Underground Fort” since it could hold several of us at once with standing room beneath the wooden cover we laid over it. Then it rained, the hole collapsed, and that was the end of that. But it was a great start to a fun life of science, engineering, gardening, insect study (you can’t avoid them, so why not study them), and just general playing in the dirt. One of these days I’ll resume the original adventure and build an earth-sheltered house – or at least an adult-sized underground fort. (I’ve already seen China via airplane and worked for an oil-well company, so I’m done with “digging to China” for now.)

Today my life in Flagstaff is full of fun and science, all mixed together like a big mud-pie.

To recap:

- Full-time status at Lowell includes database work for the fundraising department, IT support for anyone who asks, photography and video production, training educators on using the planetarium, helping admin and video interns, assisting at public events, and any other mischief I can get myself into.

- Volunteering at the NAU bug lab includes learning and documenting procedures for the new high-tech imaging system, trying to push the limits on 3D microphotography (and macro), training biology students how to use it, and assisting at live bug shows, and any other mischief I can get myself into.

- Hanging out with biologist friends I’ve met because of the bug lab, including family camping trips, drinking and karaoke nights, movies on the square with the kids, community gardening, helping prep soil samples for analysis, and any other mischief I can get us into.

- Volunteering with one of Lowell’s volunteer educators, helping her on a NASA research project. The airborne portion of the experiment is flying with the teacher team this weekend on NASA’s “Vomit Comet” zero-G research airplane. My involvement includes training some of her fifth-grade students on collecting data with video cameras and analyzing it in Excel, and any other mischief I can get them into.

- In my spare time, I’m trying to date tree-rings and women and any other mischief I can get myself into. :)

My little corner of Lowell
(Not much dirt here.)

Forest Guerilla Farming a.k.a. Sprout Rescue Program
(I planted nine plots in the rocky soil around Lowell, trying to grow food if possible.)

Organic Weed Killer
(On a herbicidal mission at the community garden.)

The new high-tech BK Imaging System at NAU that I'm working with.
(Not much dirt here, but plenty of creatures that live in the dirt.)

Dirt-dwelling creature #1 - Collembola
(Sorry this isn't a good example of how well the system can provide sharp focus, but the bug was just too pretty to pass up.)

Dirt-dwelling creature #1 - Mite
(That little measurement scale at the bottom indicates a hundredth of a millimeter. This bug was the size of a barely visible speck of dust.)

The Soil Ecology Lab where my friend, Lorena, studies climate change affects on soil creatures.
(They've gotta have some dirt in there.)

Prepping soil samples - Phase 1
(Lots of nit-picking to get the roots out.)

Prepping soil samples - Phase 2
(Lots of grinding dirt.)

Prepping soil samples - Phase 3
(Okay, it's not what it looks like.)

2011-06-20 -- A Grand Party 2011

Now that I'm working full-time plus lots of volunteering projects, I could only afford to take a 3-day weekend to visit this year's Grand Canyon Star Party, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I got to camp with Dean and Melinda and friends, then on Saturday morning Dean discovered his van wouldn't start. AAA came to the rescue and we were back on our way to enjoying the weekend.

The star party was held in a new location this year, on a large parking lot behind the new visitor's center. This turned out to be a great venue, but I forgot to bring my camera that evening. I'll have to let others share the story of the star party, while I can share some of the extra-curricular fun we volunteers had. On Sunday morning, I took a short hike down Bright Angel Trail with volunteers Donna Tippins and Dr. Chuck Schroll.

Here's another shot of them at our resting spot before heading back up. Bright Angel Trail follows the earthquake fault line that creates a tributary canyon that crosses the main Colorado River canyon.

The line of separation (unconformity) is amazingly thin between the pale Coconino Sandstone and the red Hermit Shale below, seen near the bottom of this image. Near the center of the image you can see some outlines of the ancient sand dunes that formed the Coconino layer.

Here's a close-up showing the layers as one particular dune was built up over time. The differing widths of each layer make it look a bit like tree rings. I wonder if each layer represents one year's growth of the sand dune, just as tree rings do?

Back at Mather Campground after the hike, we had a pizza lunch party for all the volunteers.

Park Ranger Marker Marshall was presented with an astronomy sculpture as thanks for her hard work over the years in making the event thrive. (The design is little astronomers with telescopes made out of nuts and bolts.) Afterwards we had a little ceremony to spread some of Valerie Goff's ashes where her husband Bob's ashes were spread a few years earlier, then I had to rush home.

Looking forward to next year already!

2011-06-13 -- Drought - The Silent Killer

Even just a mild drought, like the kind Flagstaff has been experiencing off and on for a decades now, can have significant consequences. I call it the silent killer since the damage here is being done slowly in a way that is hard to notice most times. Today I got a more noticeable reminder when I saw how many Ponderosa Pine trees on Mars Hill are falling prey this summer to the bark beetle. The drought makes some of the trees too weak to fend off the insect invasion. In this one photo taken at Thorpe Park on my walk home, you can see 10 trees that have been recently marked for cutting down because they are infected and may spread the beetles to more trees if not cut down. (I added red X overlays so you can see the marked trees more easily. Click on the image to see a larger version.)

I don't know what the long-term trend is for the entire Ponderosa population in Arizona, but in just one year I have already noticed the number of standing trees in Thorpe Park is dwindling because there are many infected trees being cut. When new young saplings are often cut to limit undergrowth for fire safety, it appears that there will be few new ones to grow to maturity to replace the ones lost to the beetles. Maybe a re-planting program could be started if the drought ends, but who knows the prognosis on that?

2011-05-14 -- Billions, Bubbles, and Bugs

You can tell it's getting to be summer time in Flagstaff because there's too much fun going on to choose from.

On Wednesday I got to treat some Navajo kids to "Views of Billions" through a telescope at Anderson Mesa (Lowell's dark-sky research site) as part of our Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach Program. The energy of the middle-schoolers is infectious, and all the Lowell staff involved had a blast.

On Friday I gave hands-on training to five of Kaci's 5th-graders, teaching them how to use the video software and Excel to measure and record data from their bubble experiments. I was amazed how fast they all caught on. It was impossible to keep up with them! I'm sure some of these kids will go on to excel in college someday. (Pun intended.)

Tomorrow the Bike-To-Work-Week festivities begin. I may have to miss the bike parade because "Brunch with the Putnams" at Lowell has been scheduled for that same time slot.

Today I chose to miss the Kite Festival and other events around town in order to volunteer at Willow Bend Environmental Education Center's "Amazing Arthropods" show that the NAU bug lab gave. I shot lots of photos and video (and we got permission from the parents to use the photos of the kids).

Indoors were the live bug shows and specimen trays. Jacob taught the kids how to handle Rosie, our oldest and most kid-experienced tarantula.

He also introduced them to some local Arizona species as well as some exotic specimens from around the world.

Another crowd pleaser is to show how scorpions glow green when you shine an Ultra-Violet light on them, because of the phosphorous in their exoskeletons.
Outdoors in the perfect weather, the kids scooped up water from the pond into trays to look at the teaming variety of life as Kim answered all their eager questions.

They could also look through microscopes to see even closer in the mid-day sun.

Before heading home, I just had to take a panorama view of Flagstaff and The Peaks from Willow Bend.

2011-05-08 -- Kids Love Bubbles

A couple months ago I was invited by Kaci Heins (a fabulous local school teacher that I had trained on the planetarium at Lowell) to help with a NASA project proposal for her 5th-grade classroom. Her kids had decided to design an experiment with soap bubbles to submit for NASA's Teaching from Space Flight Week program. If the proposal would be accepted, the kids would do classroom experiments to help refine and augment the airborne experiment that would be operated by Kaci and other teachers aboard NASA's "Vomit Comet" -- an airplane that takes researchers and their experiments on a roller coaster ride to experience near-zero gravity at free-fall periods during the flight.

I'm excited to report that the proposal was accepted by NASA! I visited Kaci's classroom on Friday to introduce the kids to some concepts about recording data and analyzing it with Excel. The kids refined their bubble-making and videoing techniques then we looked at the videos on a big "smart-screen" and recorded some sample data in Excel. In the following few weeks I'll make more visits to the class to continue the progress, and to give hands-on training to five students who will help with the data reduction and analysis after the airborne experiment flies this summer.

There was a newspaper article about this in our local paper which you can read online at:

Here's the header and sample data row of the spreadsheet (broken into 3 segments) to give you a taste of what we will be recording and analyzing.

If you'd like a copy of my procedures document and Excel template (which are still a work-in-progress at the moment), let me know and I'll be happy to email them to you. The full results of the project will be published later in the summer. For me, this is an experiment in teaching and mentoring techniques to help me discover ways to introduce real science projects to kids of different ages. I'd love to hear what you think of these ideas and any similar examples you might have tried.


2011-05-05 -- Kids Love Bugs

Last week I was invited to help out with a "live bug show" that the NAU bug lab often does for local schools. This time was at a Montessori school and I was blown away by the experience -- by how much the kids love bugs, and by how much I loved the way the teachers worked with the kids. This was my first time to see a Montessori classroom in action and the results were astounding, which I attribute to the gentle, respectful, and curiosity-encouraging approach from the teachers. Many of the kids were amazingly bright for their age (ranging from 3 to 6 years old), absolutely all of them were well behaved (even the most restless older boy kept himself in check), and all of them were curious and attentive the entire 80 minutes of the show (an amazing feat for the short-attention-span of such young ones). My favorite moment was when everyone in the room became absolutely silent with eyes open wide when the other "bug man" showed the huge fangs on a giant tarantula he was holding up. (And yes, the spider was very alive and very unhappy.) I loved them all and look forward to a chance to do that kind of volunteering again soon.

I couldn't take pictures of the kids with the bugs, but I did take one of a terrific Indian poster hanging in the hallway. The text reads:

The Ten Indian Commandments
Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.
Remain close to the Great Spirit.
Show great respect for your fellow beings.
Work together for the benefit of all Mankind.
Give assistance and kindness wherever needed.
Do what you know to be right.
Look after the well-being of mind and body.
Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.
Be truthful and honest at all times.
Take full responsibility for your actions.

Here's more about Montessori if you're curious:

Tomorrow I begin the first of my sessions with a 5th-grade classroom to train them on how to record and analyze data for a NASA experiment that will fly in June. More on that in my next post.

2011-04-26 -- Comparing low-tech techniques

The two examples below aren't perfect examples for comparison since they are of two different bees, one nicely shampooed and blown-dry, the other being sticky wet from the alcohol it was preserved in. Ignoring those differences, tell me if you have a preference on which type of shot provides the best detail for identifying the species. Both shots use the same ultra-low-cost lighting.

The shot below was taken with an expensive camera. I have not yet figured out how to adjust the white-balance on this one since it's so complicated. It's also a lot harder on my back to take shots with this one, because I have to mount it on a tripod (being so heavy) which then causes me to have to lean over constantly to adjust the manual focus through the view finder. Note that it has less depth of field than the next shot.

This shot was taken with a cheap point-and-shoot camera. It is light enough to hold for hours without hurting my back. The lighting is the same as in the previous shot, but on this one I am able to set the white-balance correctly. The depth-of-field is deeper, but harder to control where the automatic focus will be set. There is also a limit to how close I can zoom in without making a shadow on the subject.

In less than two months, all these techniques will be put aside as I focus on implementing a new state-of-the-art imaging system. The difference in the results will blow you away!

2011-04-06 -- Silly Science Question About Trees

There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but I sure seem to have a lot of silly ones. Here's an example that I have asked ever since I was a kid but have only gotten strange looks when I ask it… Do trees increase the erosion rate of mountains on average over millennia? It’s obvious they help slow the erosion of topsoil. But do they have a net effect of eroding a mountain because of the roots helping to break up the bedrock which helps turn it into new topsoil to be slowly eroded away? If two different mountains of the same size both have the same average rainfall per year and other weather patterns, where one is covered in trees and the other is bare rock, which will erode faster over time? It seems this could be determined by measuring how fast temperature changes and other weather processes break apart bedrock versus how fast tree roots break apart bedrock, rather than focusing on the topsoil erosion rate. The perception of trees slowing erosion seems to be limited to short-term erosion events after trees have been removed. Wouldn't it be true that such fast erosion is a byproduct of the fact that the tree roots had built up the topsoil and held an excess quantity in stasis where erosion proceeds at some average pace equivalent to how fast the tree roots are creating new topsoil? As I imagine it, when the trees are removed (or as each tree dies and decays, leaving its immediate surroundings vulnerable to erosion), that excess topsoil gets quickly eroded away until a new stasis level is reached for the unprotected rock strata. Once bare, erosion then proceeds at a slower pace again. My question is regarding the comparison of erosion rates for these two different stasis levels -- bare mountain versus tree-covered mountain. The quick topsoil erosion that happens after trees are removed seems to me irrelevant to this question of the erosion rate of the whole mountain over millennia. Have any studies or theories been published on this? What's a good way to find out? Just curious. :)