Thomas R. O'Donnell

The woollybear boogie: a fall trek of Lilliputian proportions

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2018 at 2:00 pm
A fuzzy forager beating multiple feet across a little-used blacktop in Van Buren County. See you hanging around my yard light next spring, little fella.

A fuzzy forager beating multiple feet across an Iowa blacktop. See you flitting around my yard light next spring, little fella.

If you drive the little-traveled county blacktops of rural Iowa, as I do, you’re sure to notice a slow (and sometimes not-so-slow) march at this time of year.

They’re easy to spot in the distance: small smudges inching across the blue-gray pavement. The contrast of dark on light and the steady movement draws the eye, making the sojourns of woollybear caterpillars hard to miss, even though they’re relatively tiny.

I saw countless fuzzy travelers on my trips through southeast Iowa one recent weekend. There seemed to be one every few yards, crossing the pavement and, with luck, avoiding the many tires that would halt their travels (and their lives).

What’s going on here?

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Just the facts, ma’am (and sir): Website offers valid science to reporters and the public

In STEM on September 3, 2018 at 8:20 am
A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Musem.

A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Museum.

If you’re looking for it, there’s good science news reporting everywhere. There’s a long list of science blogs (this is only a few), many written by researchers themselves. There also are innumerable podcasts and videos – some authoritative, some not.

But unless you’re seeking such information, you probably won’t see it. Science coverage in general-interest publications, like newspapers, is almost nonexistent. (Exceptions include the USA Today section in Gannett papers around the country, which often has a science story anchoring its cover, and the New York Times Tuesday section.) Most media can no longer afford reporters who specialize in science.

So what’s a local newspaper or television station to do when science issues burst onto the scene? How can they answer readers’ questions about whether the latest flood or wildfire is related to climate change? How can they address the latest discovery at their local university and gauge its importance?

A nascent website, financed through donations grants from foundations, offers those local reporters quick, scientifically valid and understandable explanations on these issues, free of charge. Its organizers were in Iowa recently to promote the effort and attract both reporters and the scientists who can help them.

Forget the big boar. Pin down some candidates on science at the Iowa State Fair

In Government, STEM on August 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm
Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register's political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes,The Des Moines Register

Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register’s political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register

When it comes to science, Iowa politicians are largely blank slates. Most have only made vague statements about supporting science, protecting natural resources or balancing agriculture and the environment. Few have laid out actual policies on science and issues in which knowledge and evidence play major roles.

The March for Science Iowa group, with which I volunteer, is changing that. We’ve emailed questionnaires to candidates for Congress, governor and secretaries of agriculture and state.

Yes, there are still nearly three months left before the election, but the response has been … nonexistent. A few have acknowledged receiving the email, but no one has provided answers. I’m hoping that within a few weeks we’ll get replies.

In the meantime, we each have opportunities to get answers on our own – while also enjoying a corndog or other food-on-a-stick.

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