Saturday, January 24, 2015


      When I was 3 years old my favorite word was “why?”.   I think it still is … I imagine it is part of the “human condition” to be curious. In many areas of life it is just plain really hard to get “for sure” answers.  (Still, the older I get the more I am quite content to live with what I can’t explain.)
Why is the sky red?
      Since the earliest time, we humans have been very good at developed explanations that took away the anxiety of 'not knowing'. 
How did we get fire? – “Crow flew to the sun gods fire and stole a burning stick in his beak – but carrying it back to man, so much smoke covered the bird that ever since his feathers have been black.”

Frogs developing from unliving mud...
Why do we have frogs each spring? “A dry lake floor can produce new frogs directly from the mud when rain fills the lake.”   (Spontaneous generation)
Why does the sun move across our sky each day? “The sun is the wheel of a great chariot that Zeus drives across the sky each day.”

Zeus in his chariot
“Breathing bad air at night causes sickness…”
Why do we see everything move around the earth? “The Earth is the center of the universe, and the sun, moon, stars travel around us…”
      We, in our culture are still guilty of buying into simple solutuons
“When my cracker falls to the floor if I pick it up in 5 seconds its OK – no ‘germs’.”
“This fellow told me about this medicine that you can buy through the mail that cured his arfthritis…” 
"Relieves pain instantly!"
Why are the ice fields of the Artic and Antarctic melting? –“Its just normal climate variation – no need for concern.”
      How do I know what I know – For example - Who do I trust to tell me if I should have my children get inoculations against measles - the entire medical community or one doctor who has since lost his license to practice?  How did you form your views on Global warming?  We tend to accept the ideas of sources we trust – some trust Fox News, I trust the views of the scientists doing careful studies in the field.  I taught my students, "when you view an article, Always ask who wrote it… check other sources…"
Franklin showing that lighting and electricity were the same thing

      In the age of Ben Franklin – ‘science’ was a gentleman’s pastime.  The early study of electricity, chemical properties, wildlife studies were conducted primarily by wealthy men with a curiosity and not much knowledge.  They often shared notes with each other – From these roots developed the idea that ideas must be tested by experimentation.  We know today that nothing in scientific studies can be proven ‘correct’ – But if by rigorous testing it cannot be disproved then the idea stands.  (Think of the structure of an atom, the sun at the center of the solar system, gravity, the germ theory… all “theories”. 
One way of viewing atoms - the 
              Any respectable scientist today knows that his or her ideas must be open to scrutiny by the scientific community.  And for that reason ‘findings’ are published through scientific journals so that others can retest and refine the results.  Take the case of scientists who claimed to have produced low temperature hydrogen fusion 1989.
Science worked as it should – The original scientists undoubtedly made an  error, they published their results, it was discovered when no one could replicate their work. Have you heard someone say “A scientist said…” Remember that ideas must be open to scrutiny by the scientific community before something is considered to be probable – one study alone lacks authentication.
Michael Faraday making a public demonstation of electricity

       Some areas of human existence are not open or suitable for scientific examination. We mold our lives around basis beliefs of morality, justice, responsibility, and caring.  Some of these ideas are cultural, some involve the choices we make.  My structure of beliefs defines me as a person and gives my life meaning.  My beliefs cannot be compared or examined by experimental testing – For example, I define my religious beliefs as a Progressive Christian, (read more) I believe that the Bible was written by many individuals; each based on their best concept of the divine; but each reflecting the culture and beliefs of their time.  Still I find truth here that is of primary importance in living my life.  My beliefs in this area of my life do not preclude me from pursuing knowledge through scientific studies.

This is what got Galileo into so much trouble - he had the audacity to say that the Earth was not the center of our solar system  - but the Sun!
       It is troubling today to see that many Americans mistrust scientific results.  When we are sick most of us are quite willing to take scientific knowledge regarding treatment and cure of our maladies.  When it comes to  technology in our computers and cars, the benefits of satellites and electronic networks we happily accept it… But some questions are ‘red flags’ for many… “How old is the earth?”  “How did humans originate?” “Evolution of life on earth?” “the existence of DNA as the vehicle for genetic instructions in almost all life forms on earth”.
The "conceptual image" of the atom has beef refined from the idea that man y learned in school - now we think of  it as a whole complex of particles existing in a series of energy fields around a common nucleus - even this model will continue to be refined as research continues
       I suspect that Frank Oppenheimer  was correct when he spoke of his concern ov er the growing "knowledge gap"… Oppenheimer.  As science becomes more technical, requiring more knowledge, mathematics,  and education to understand the current science; a gap has grown between the work of the scientists and the ability of the public to understand and willingness  to support the work.  In fact the ‘unknowable’ quality of science has become scary and intimidating to many. 
Massive amounts of CO2 have been released from our burning of fossil fuels - CO2 is a known source of global warming
At the same time many in America find the global problems of today frightening – and there is a desire in many to seek to retreat to a time when life was simpler and when we as a nation faced easier problems than today.  There are many groups and churches today that seek to provide just that message.  For me, I value my belief system to provide a structure to my life… and I value new knowledge that is available to us through scientific studies.

Galileo standing up for his beliefs about the nature of the universe - speaking against the dogma of the Church.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The truth about Kansas!

Many of my "out west" friends have a very incomplete idea about Kansas... formed I suppose from movies such as the  “Wizard of Oz” and old westerns… Kansas doesn't get the respect it deserves.   Granted I don't agree with the current direction of that state government, but growing up in Kansas was a joy.  My family lived on a small wheat and corn farm just a mile south of Delia Kansas, Population 100. 

Corn - one of our staple crops
The season of harvest - I loved to ride in the combine when I was small!
As a small boy the sources of my early adventures were the two creeks that flowed through our farm – “the big creek” had steep banks and was considered not safe for a small boy to visit alone.  (Plus there was the very rare chance that there might be snapping turtles and cotton-mouth snakes ).   I have many happy memories of walking along its banks with my Father.  From him I learned about the plants and animals – we freed animals from illegal traps that people has set up without our knowledge, I got to see beaver dams being built,  and we picked red sweet wild plums  and wild growing mulberries in the summer.  The whole area was our favorite place to look for Indian arrowheads…, which were made of grey flint and showed fine craftsmanship. Every season had new discoveries to explore.

Not all of Kansas is dry and flat... we had gentle rolling hills, and fertile soil
The "little creek" was a small meandering stream that flowed through a deciduous forest.  It was a place of fantasy and discovery to me. As a young boy I read about the Native Americans who had lived there… and was drawn to be like them.  (I always choose to be an Indian and not a cowboy when we had games with the ‘town kids”).  But this is also where I got my love of discovery learning about living things.  I was so exciting to discover great fat deep purple Polk berries that could stain anything – skin for sure, and in clothing it was darn near permanent.  

Kansas hills in the fall
There were fine little garter snakes slithering through the grass, box turtles basking in the sun along the stream, even fresh water clams could be found if we dug into the creek side mud, frogs and toads galore.   I discovered huge summer grasshoppers, katydids, and woolly caterpillars.  Here there were dozens of plant varieties to learn about.   Whenever "Bossie" our milk cow enjoyed a nice clump of wild onion, the milk tasted very much of onion for a few days... Ugh.

Meadow flowers in the early summer - (I still hear the sound of cicadas )
The fourth of July came right in the middle of wheat harvest season – but the night of the 4th was a time of joyful firework. There were Roman Candles, incredible fountains of fire, sparklers.  And firecrackers… not the little foolish ones but the big silver kind with the fuse coming out the side!  Early on I learned to wrap a big firecracker in a ball of mud, light the fuse, and then drop it into a ditch filled with rainwater.  The ball sank and then exploded in a most satisfactory way… throwing up great amounts of water and smoke into the air… such fun! I also learned to find one tin car that  would fit inside another can… drop a lit firecracker in the can, then over it with the smaller can – and "Kapawie…" the inside can went high into the sky!  I feel sorry for poor city kids that never get a chance to 'experiment' in this way.

Paradess were always fun - this was the Tall Corn parade in Rossville

In the spring and fall there were Indian dances held at the near-by Potawatomie reservation –The drums were so big it took at least 4 men to beat them to produce the deep low resonant sound that you felt as much as heard… the singers sing with a high keening harmony that was strange and wonderful.  I lived in fear as a small boy that I would be made to eat the boiled dog meat that I was told was cooking in the great iron kettles cooking in the center of the dance.  I suspect that this may have been somebody pulling my leg…I never found out for sure.

I grew up with a great awareness of the Indian history in this land...
When we wanted a chicken for dinner - my dad selected one of the chickens roaming our farm yard, chopped off its head, my mother poured boiling water over the feathers and plucked it, then took out the pin feathers, and cleaned the bird (removing unusable innards).  These were my first lessons in dissection and anatomy and I still retain fascinating images of organs and body parts... then the chicken had to be cut up and prepared in a dish...But oh such fresh good flavor. These chickens were free to eat bugs and seeds as well as corn.  Really free range! As I grew older my chores changed -  I had to collect fuel for the kitchen cast iron stove,  weed the garden, help fill the cow water tank by means of a crank pump, carry water from pump near our house into the kitchen, and special seasonal work like picking fruit, collecting ears of dried pop corn to be sold, and whatever else came along... this work was never oppressive.

The gravel road to my Uncle Joe's farm...
 My school had two classrooms – one for the big kids (grades 5-8) and one for the little kids (grades 1-4).  Mrs. Rezac (A good Czech lady) was my teacher.  If I got there early she let me make copies on the hectograph I liked school and I liked learning to read and do arithmetic.  I can still smell the crayons and the glue we used for craft projects.  We sometimes used corn kernals picked from the near-by field for math activities. I remember the two unpainted wooden outhouses (boys and girls) and a water pump out front for our drinking water.

Delia grade school open here for the 100 year town celebration

         Each season had its magic and surprises – The sounds of walking through thick fallen cottonwood  leaves ( they have their own special smell) , interesting milkweed pods gone to fluff, cockleburs, cattails, and large yellow ears of corn (almost a foot long) missed by the harvesters in the big fields    There would be a day, each winter when my father announced that the big creek was frozen solid and we could skate on it.  The ice was so crystalline that it was transparent!  

Winter - not bad when the road is cleared like this! ( Laverne Zlatnik photo )
This was the season when the sound and crunch of ice and snow, snow forts, snowballs offered a different kind of play.  (Funny thing about snow forts - they took so long to make - and then no one ever came to attack up...)  As a little kid I remember walking home from school and stepping into a snow filled ditch and the snow came up to my arms.  There was never a thought of taking me to school – everyone knew I knew how to get there... snow or not.  I loved walking all bundled up in the snow.  I just learned the term today that I would now be considered a 'free range child' - something frowned on by over-protective parents... I would hate to have missed the experience!  I still remember that wonderful morning when I was in the first grade when the big kids told me how good it felt to stick my tongue onto the cast iron pump handle at school – bad idea!

Winter on my cousins farm  ( Laverne Zlatnik photo )

      It was  special to got into the car and go  into town to Weiners Grocery Store,  Frisby's drug store, or the Matiak Garage or Olnic's Hardware... each store had its own particular smell that I remember to this day!  We produced a lot of our own food , but it  was often convenient now and then  to buy a pound of hamburger, half a pound of baloney, a few onions...they even had  fish in for the Catholics to enjoy on Friday (packed in ice) - they were Whiting brought in from the first regular fish...
My home town - Delia Kansas
When we went to the Topeka library - I walked by this larger than life mural of John  Brown painted on the wall
Further afield - since there was no local library available - we went once every other week in to Topeka to the capital building where there was a state schools library - and it was possible for farm families to check books out... My window to a wider world ... My mother was the guiding effort in making this happen - and I give her special thanks.  We were a close family and shared a lot of time together.  I was read to when I was small, my sister and I played together, she often played classical music on the piano...

I had no organized sports, no scheduled 'play dates', no special enrichment classes, no Sesame Street, no playground supervision... and look I turned out alright...

Kansas sunset...   (Add the sound of more cricket than you can imagine)

I always wondered about this