A mash-up of social, natural, and visual arts faculty at Bennington applied to the NSF’s program “Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” in order to develop our curricula offerings in Environmental Studies. Fifteen months after submission of the application, we received the good news that our project “The Future of a New England Mill Town” has been fully funded. We will be working with local experts and community leaders to develop a two course sequence to investigate how Bennington’s socioeconomic environment has been shaped by its natural resource base, and how current concerns about renewable energy sources, local agriculture, and environmental contamination might shape Bennington’s future resource use. The course sequence will include internships at regional organizations during FWT for students to fully immerse themselves in their place of study. The project will begin in academic year 2013, stay tuned.
Kristina Stinson (second from right) with Bennington field bio class in 1992
Alum, Dr. Kristina Stinson, ’92 (Harvard Forest and University of Massachusetts) is featured in a youtube video posted from Harvard University. The spot features her research on how climate change is likely to interact with allergenic pollen production by ragweed in New England (it’s going to get worse!). This research has been supported by a million-dollar grant from US-EPA. Dr. Stinson is also well-known for her research on the ecological relationships of the invasive garlic mustard plant, and she was recently awarded a two-million-dollar grant from the Department of Defense to support extensions of this research. Kristina will be talking about the ragweed research in Science Workshop on 9 November.
Dr. Betsy Sherman will discuss her ongoing research on phenotypic variation among red-spotted newts. Newts are significant predators in freshwater communities and their presence affects the assemblage of organisms that also live in these communities. Newts are not yet regarded as threatened, but Sherman’s work has revealed that temperature, pH, and disease affect newt physiology, behavior, and development and may well have larger implications for amphibian conservation and diversity. Sherman will also discuss how physiological ecologists develop their research questions. Science workshop is on Friday, Nov. 2, from 1:00-2:00 pm in Dickinson 225. All are welcome.
Transferring Electrons for Work or Pleasure
In addition to his well-known books on neurology such as An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks wrote an engaging memoir of his childhood and his love of chemistry in his formative years. Not only does it describe part of his own own intellectual development, but Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Childhood offers one of the most accessible histories of chemistry ever written, providing fascinating insights into the intellectual developments of an entire field of study. Students in John Bullock’s Foundations of Physical Science used one particular chapter out of this book as an entry to the study of magnetism, electricity, and batteries. In it Sacks describes his own experiences in reproducing the metallic “trees” discovered by alchemists. For example, placing copper wire in a solution of silver nitrate, would result in “shining, almost fractal, arborescent growth” of metallic silver on the wire (see above).
These changes result from a simple oxidation-reduction (redox) reaction in which electrons are transferred from dissolved silver ions to metallic copper. Such redox reactions are the source of the electric current provided by all batteries and fuel cells (and the electron transport chain). As part of the investigation of these topics, students used readily available materials such as aluminum cans and copper wire to construct simple electrochemical cells. Pictured below, students hook two such cells together to form a battery with a potential of about 3 volts; here they are using it to power a dc motor.
Footnote: In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks explains his peculiar use of footnotes as a sort homage to Dmitri Mendeleev, the nineteenth-century Russian chemist who, being unable to resist the temptation to include seemingly endless examples of tangential materials in his texts, used them promiscuously. Sacks characteristically included the following note to provide some explanation for the names of the metallic trees he was so fond of:
“These names for metallic trees came from the alchemical notion of the correspondence between the sun, the moon, and the five (known) planets with the seven metals of antiquity. Thus gold stood for the sun, silver for the moon (and the moon goddess, Diana), mercury for Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter (Jove), and lead for Saturn.”
Join us for a discussion about the scientific study of consciousness by Dr. David Edelman, new Bennington faculty member in Biology and Neuroscience.
The Biology of Consciousness
The octopus and parrot: Defining the frontiers of consciousness.
What does it mean to be conscious? Do we have a reasonable definition of consciousness that can be applied broadly to both humans and seemingly sentient non-human animals? Is it possible to study consciousness in animals that can’t tell us what they are experiencing?
Conscious experience seems quite tangible to us. Yet, consciousness in humans has only recently become a legitimate object of scientific study. Moreover, to date, no systematic investigations of consciousness in non-human animals have been undertaken. But now, advances in functional neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and genetics offer the possibility of exploring consciousness substantively and systematically in non-human mammals, birds, and, conceivably, other species as well.
During this discussion, Dr. Edelman will provide a broadly applicable working definition for consciousness. Then, he’ll describe the known properties and correlates of conscious experience as they have been identified in human subjects and provide a plausible evolutionary scenario for the appearance of consciousness in a variety of phyla. Finally, he’ll discuss his recent work with the octopus and offer an experimental framework for the investigation of consciousness in both vertebrates and some invertebrates.
This past long weekend, some students and I took a field trip to the MIT Swapfest flea market. It was a fun trip and a great way to see all sorts of strange and interesting computer and electronic equipment, as well as get some great deals.
I hadn’t been to the MIT flea market in about 12 years, but it was still going strong, with hundreds of vendors selling their wares. The crowd generally tends to be quite friendly, and loves sharing stories and lore about the very rich and colorful world of computer science and engineering that has developed over the past 60 years or so in the greater Massachusetts area.
Vendors had everything from old tools, computers and computer parts of every type and variety, gigantic capacitors and other electronic components, 8-bit Nintendo cartridges, lab and test equipment, and even a model schooner made entirely out of beer can fragments. There was also one vendor who had a bunch of old cryptographic equipment from WWII (primarily different variations on the German Enigma machine).
Some of the more notable hauls by faculty and students were:
-1 power supply
-1 guitar EFX pedal
-1 Sun SparcStation IPC
-1 Sun SparcStation 5
-1 bar code scanner
If you missed the trip this time around, don’t worry. The Swapfest starts up again on Sunday, April 21 2013, and I suspect we’ll make another trip in the Spring.
Did you know that there are caves in the hills around Bennington?
Tim Schroeder‘s The Geology of the Bennington Region class explored one such cave on the north side of Mount Anthony on a recent class field trip. The caves are present in the Ordovician marble deposits that have been quarried in this region for centuries. The rocks were originally deposited as limestone in a reef-like setting when Bennington was on the margin of North America 500 million years ago. The rocks were metamorphosed to become marble during the tectonic events that built the Appalachian Mountains. The caves form now because the mineral calcite, which composes the marble, is slightly soluble in acidic rain water, and it slowly dissolves openings as the rainwater infiltrates into fractures in the marble. This particular cave is located very near one of the major faults that formed the Taconic range, which we also mapped on this field trip.
Students gather at the entrance to the cave they will explore at Mount Anthony, Bennington, VT.
October in Vermont. When the mountains are ablaze with vibrant colors, there’s a chill in the air, and leaves crunch underfoot.
In Dickinson Hall, there’s another seasonal pleasure. Every year at this time, students in Betsy Sherman‘s Comparative Animal Physiology class dissect cats to explore firsthand the connection between form and function of physiological systems. This week students focused on the circulatory system, considering how the function of the heart and blood vessels can be inferred by close inspection of their structure. Prior to this, students examined the digestive and musculoskeletal systems, and will soon turn their attention to the nervous system.
As the term progresses students will design and execute their own research projects. In previous years students pursued topics such as the relationship between hatching asynchrony, development and temperature in moths, does mass affect exertion and time to exhaust in salamanders, the effect of temperature on hemolymph coagulation in crayfish, and the effect of nicotine on regeneration in planaria. This year students will present their results at a poster session on December 7 in Science Workshop.
Evolution of neural circuits for vocal behavior in Xenopus: How my frogs got their simple calls
Dr. Elizabeth Leininger (Columbia University) will discuss how African clawed frogs (Xenopus) coordinate social interactions via species-specific underwater calls. She addressed this question in species of Xenopus that make slow, simplified advertisement (male fertility) calls. These simple calls are also the rarest type in the genus, and evolved more than once from a more complex call type. How did this occur? Using recordings from the brain and larynx, she found that two of these species (X. borealis and X. boumbaensis) make their simple calls via different modifications of the vocal circuit. She will also discuss how features of the muscle within the Xenopus vocal organ can promote differences in call rapidity across the sexes and species.
Please join us in Dickinson 225, Friday at 1:00. As always, delicious finger foods will be served.