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Dr. Megan Bruck Syal ’07 on planetary defense and liberal arts

My classmate Megan Bruck Syal works on how to defend the Earth from incoming planetary debris. In this new video, she does a backyard experiment about how the porosity of the asteroid would affect the way a projectile impacts it.

I’ve set the video to start at about the 8:30 mark, where she talks about majoring in astrophysics and mathematics in college, and also emphasizes the importance of all of the other courses — literature, history philosophy — that are an essential part of a liberal arts education.


A “pat on the back” for locavore pioneer Eliot Coleman ’61

Among this year’s winners of the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards is Eliot Coleman ’61, proprietor of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, and one of the earliest popular advocates of organic, locally-grown food.

In an interview, Coleman says he is “flattered” to receive this “pat on the back.” “I’ve been fascinated by how rapidly the interest in local, quality food has grown,” Coleman added. “Back when I started this, I was talking another language. All of a sudden now, not only are there more producers, but there are more appreciators… Every time I’m out in the world, I’m just overwhelmed by how many young people there are [in organic farming].”

Wondering what an organic farmer studied at Williams fifty years ago? Well, according to this interview, “academics were a sideshow.” Mostly, Coleman focused on hiking, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, skiing and skating. Williams was the perfect place!

Coleman, pictured with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, on his website

Coleman, pictured with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, on his website

I hope he enjoys the food at the Foundation’s gala dinner in his honor, scheduled for October.


Four Williams Students Arrested

Sara Finkle ’14, Jen Rowe ’11, Sasha Macko ’11 and one other Williams student were arrested on Friday for “unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress.” See WSO for discussion. The AP reports:

Natalie Greene of Knoxville, a member of the protester party who was not arrested, said they were an unorganized group of young people concerned about the future of the environment.

One by one, they stood up in the visitors’ gallery and began singing songs such as the national anthem and “We Shall Overcome,” before they were taken out of the chamber by Capitol Police. As soon as speeches on the floor resumed, another protester would start singing.



1) Having the courage of your convictions is a good thing. Well done!

2) Do these students feel like the rubes they are for thinking that Obama/Democrats actually care about global warming. Recall:

Twenty-six students at the College joined 12,000 students from around the U.S. and globe at Powershift 2009 this past weekend, the nation’s largest-ever summit on climate and energy action.

The weekend consisted of a series of panels and workshops, keynote speakers including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other prominent figures of the environmental movement, and performances by artists such as The Roots. The conference was geared toward empowering youth with the information and tools to effect change, with the ultimate goal of “letting our elected officials know, face-to-face, that we expect them to rebuild our economy and reclaim our future with bold climate and energy policy,” according to the organizers of the summit.

To achieve this end, the weekend culminated in a lobby on Capitol Hill on Monday, at which youth demanded climate and energy legislation of their representatives. “We wanted to make sure that these issues were on the table during the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency,” said Sasha Macko ’11, who organized the Williams trip through Thursday Night Group.

That failed, as this effort is doomed to fail. Obama does not really care about global warming or the efforts to fight it. If he did, he would have made it the number one priority of his Administration. Instead, he focused on health care. Nothing wrong with that choice, of course, but one of the reasons that I voted for Obama was that I new how much fun it would be to laugh at his fervent supporters as he disappointed them so thoroughly.

3) Recommended reading for both protesters and their opponents: The Monkeywrench Gang. What would you recommend?


Ephs sleeping in public …

“A junior who should be writing his Religion paper” sends us to this site for campus views of those waiting for a kiss to wake them.


“HEY, IT’S OHNEMUS …” Himself. Live from McMurdo Sound …

Southwest Blow in McMurdo Sound
Standish Backus #50
Watercolor on paper, 1956

This comment just came in under Dan Ohnemus ’04 in Antarctica posted by Eric Soskin on 17 February.

Read this for the gritty details and frustrations of being an earth scientist! Emphasis has been retained to help convey the authors’ feelings authentically to the readers.



I’m still stuck at McMurdo, as I have been for three days, waiting for flights home (along with several hundred other grantees and seasonal civilian contractors) due to wind/weather.

Glad to hear everybody at EphBlog is talking about the tweet functions of the site, and how they didn’t work at alerting EphBlog’s readers to the posts.

How about this, then, to put things back on “topic” to things that may, possibly, have even interested me as a reader when I was an undergrad or even might interest a graduate student in climate science or chemical oceanography? I will answer my own questions with my OWN QUESTIONS, but all levels are open to response by all readers

-What role does the Ross Sea–the most predictably, large, productive area of the Southern Ocean each year–play in regulating global climate over long-term (millenial) time scales? That’s the rather broad and naive question I came here to answer as a grad student, and one I’ve rather lost sight of in even a few weeks in Antarctica.

However, here’s some

–Background knowledge:

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“Around the Americas” feature now available”

In 2009 and 2010, a crew of four sailors set out to take advantage of recent low-ice summers in the Arctic Ocean and circumnavigate the Americas. All were incredibly experienced sailors, with continental or global circumnavigations and traverses of the Northwest Passage under their belts, and they included Herb McCormick ’78, the former New York Times boating columnist and editor of Cruising World.

The trip’s purpose was scientific and educational: to gather data on oceanic conditions throughout the route, and to help inform people — especially children — about oceans as a natural resource.

Now, Seattle television station KOMO has released the above hourlong documentary feature on their trip. It’s a great look at the recent experience of one of our most adventurous Ephs.

Back in 2002, Sports Information profiled one-time football player McCormick:

The Williams football memory that McCormick has held onto the firmest is not the day he jumped into the Eph record book, but the Amherst game his senior year. McCormick logged his record tying 10 catches vs. Tufts in Medford, MA on October 23, 1976 but the Ephs lost the game so he does not consider it a highlight. “I had a lot of friends up from Rhode Island,” said McCormick. “I had a big individual game, but losing 21-7 didn’t make it seem like such a big accomplishment, so I’ve kind of pushed it out of my mind.”

The 1977 Ephs were 3-3 heading into Little Three play. “We all thought that our team was a lot better than 3-3, but as Bill Parcells always said, ‘you are what you are,’” said McCormick. “We were pretty pumped up though to end our season with a bang. Wesleyan was a very good team that year and they had already beaten Amherst so they were fired up to win their first Little Three title in a long time, but we surprised them down there. We used a two-tight-end set with a full-house backfield on offense and they could not handle it.” Williams downed the Cardinals 13-7. The Ephs returned home to play Amherst with a chance to win the Little Three title and finish 5-3.

“There is no better way to end your football career than beating Amherst at home,” said McCormick… I guess I did okay because Bob Odell gave me the game ball. I still have the ball and always will.”

Almost 24 years to the day after receiving that game ball, McCormick was back on Weston Field to cover “The Biggest Little Game in America” for The New York Times in 2001.


Pownal to Williams/town- Stay out of my kitchen!

From the Bennington Banner:

In a split vote, the Select Board decided Thursday to send a letter to the Public Service Board, asking it to deny party status to out-of-state entities such as Williamstown, Mass., regarding permitting of a proposed 29.5 megawatt biomass facility at the former Green Mountain Race Track.

Those pesky Vermonters!

(Ed note: The Green Mountain Boys Flag)

“The gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills, and you shall understand it.”
Ethan Allen Reply to the King’s attorney-general (June 1770), in a New York court case decided against him, prior to his armed resistance to claims of New York authority over Vermont.

Many arguments suggesting that Williamstown should have a voice because of impact, but I do not see anyone suggesting Pownal should be able to regulate Williamstowns plant- funny how that works!


Is this statement true?

Link to topix debate- Great stuff! Town and gown!

The Williams College heating plant particulate emissions ranking in the Commonwealth of Mass,with 0 being cleanest,and 100 being dirtiest in the state, is 90.

What exactly is the emissions data from the college power plant, how much growth in use has there been in the last decade?

Why be for biomass and other local fuel sources? It’s the war, stupid!

(Ed Note: Picture of the 1934 Cramm and Ferguson gem added Sun 16Jan’11 at 11:11 PST)


Eliot Coleman ’61, Jeffersonian Farmer

Photo copyright Four Season Farm

The Atlantic this week ran a fascinating feature on Eliot Coleman ’61, “Maine’s Organic Gardening Guru” and the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest and the Winter Harvest Handbook. Coleman is a true liberal-arts success story:

[He] started out at Williams College as a geology major, ending up with a master’s in Spanish literature, with absolutely no background in agriculture. Apart from having a sense of adventure, and paying attention to the systems already present in nature (a skill that he learned while hiking and mountain-climbing), Coleman got started in agriculture by reading old gardening books from the 1800s, to learn how people grew crops before pesticides and fertilizer. “I’m a Jeffersonian farmer,” Coleman said, “I read things.”

With his wife, Barbara Damrosch (weekly gardening columnist for the Washington Post), Coleman operates Four Season Farm, a year-round paradise for sustainable agriculture advocates and locavores in Harborside, Maine, on the east side of Penobscot Bay. A favorite of Martha Stewart and Michael Pollan, Coleman is a true believer in small-scale, organic agriculture, challenging conventional wisdom with the claim that “[o]f course organic farming can feed the world.”

The Atlantic writer, Yalie Chloe Rossetti, would leave the reader with the impression that by “Jeffersonian,” Coleman means merely “well-read,” or maybe “student of Monticello agriculture.” But a Williams alum might recognize that “Jeffersonian” is a word usually followed by “democracy.”  And Coleman indeed appears to be a Jeffersonian democrat. Earlier this year, he penned an article in the online environmental journal Grist, in which he extolls the benefits of small farming not just for the quality of the food it produces, but the freedom to which it contributes:

[T]he small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet.  Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power.  Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it.

Coleman expresses the same sentiment to Ben Hewitt in Hewitt’s book The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, observing that “When we feed ourselves, we become unconquerable.” And Rossetti does note his concern about the power of government, particularly married to the interests of large corporations:

One of the final questions centered around Senate bill 510, which recently became law and, according to some, makes it illegal to grow, share, trade, or sell homegrown food. Coleman said the bill does not distinguish between large processors and small farms, and stressed that once something like this becomes law, it becomes easy to tweak and tweak it to put smaller growers out of business.

I’d love to know whether Coleman is putting any of Jefferson’s lessons to use on his farm the way he does in his philosophy. Probably worth taking a gander at his books to find out more.


Pownal Biomass Update

(By request, expanding on my SpeakUp! post)

A "similar" Livermore Falls, ME biomass plant

Here’s more on the controversy raging over the proposed Pownal biomass facility about which David previously posted.

Developer Beaverwood Energy describes their proposal (and a similar facility in Fair Haven, VT) here (complete with renderings and Google satellite views — worth looking at the Bing bird’s eye view as well:

The plants will be 29 megawatt, baseload plants. Unlike wind and solar, which provide intermittent power, these facilities run all the time, significantly improving the stability of the power system and reducing the cost for transmission by utilizing the existing power lines rather than creating the need for new transmission lines.

Beaver Wood’s projects will create approximately 50 renewable energy jobs at each facility and produce 100,000 tons of the highest quality pellets for commercial and home use.

The plants will also provide an estimated 1,000 indirect jobs including construction and many for loggers and forestland owners. The projects will use carefully harvested waste wood, helping Vermont nurture it’s forest economy.

Opposition is being led by a group called the Bennington Berkshire Citizens Coalition. From their website:

We are banding together to demand that we are given the respect we deserve as citizens and taxpayers to have a time to complete a full review of the proposal as serious concerns have arisen related to air pollution, water use, public health and safety, traffic, aesthetics, natural environment, and historic preservation as well as the direct impact on abutting residential homes and neighbors, real estate values, and the local agriculture/farming community.

Among their concerns:

  • Burning wood to generate electricity emits carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ash, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds.
  • The facility will need up to 400 gallons of water/minute from the Hoosic River or from an underground aquifer supplying water to the Pownal Water District.
  • It has been estimated by the developer that the biomass facility would require the arrival of 96 trucks per day, back and forth, down Rt 7, Rt 346 and Rt 2.
  • Biomass facilities are notorious for creating noise, light, and smell pollution during operation. In a 24/7 operation as proposed for Pownal, VT, they can be constant and

Williams hosted a panel discussion on biomass energy back on October 28, featuring Professors Hank Art and David Dethier and two industry panelists. Here’s the writeup from

Area residents packed into Griffin Hall at Williams College on Thursday night in hopes of getting some answers to how a biomass plant proposed for Pownal, Vt., would effect the region.

The answer: No one really knows. At least not this early in the permitting process.

Meanwhile, the Record carried an op-ed from Paul Harsch ’69 arguing against the plant:

Do not allow the promoters, lawyers and executives (none of whom will live in the vicinity of this plant) to sell you on a pipe dream of clean air and lots of jobs without first insisting on hard economic data and objective scientific proof from totally independent sources not on the company payroll. The science is there about the negative health effects and the history is there of prior failed economic prosperity and growth.

I wonder if Selim Zilkha ’46, namesake of the College’s Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, has a different take from his position as co-owner of Zilkha Biomass Energy?

In the most recent development, the Williamstown Selectmen made clear they wish to be heard in the permitting process:

The proposed site in Pownal is approximately one mile from downtown Williamstown, Massachusetts. Whatever occurs in Pownal will be felt in Williamstown, Mass., and vice versa.

Biomass power plants have faced opposition in cities and towns across America, not only in Pownal, including in Florida, TexasOregon, Wisconsin, and Indiana.


We’re Number, er, 60!?

Well, at least according to the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” rankings of America’s greenest campuses. They sent out 900 surveys but only 162 responded, so 60 is fairly middling, though I suppose those responding were a self-selecting lot probably more committed than most to environmental sustainability.


Sustainability Blog

The Sustainability Blog at Williams continues to provide interesting content. Kudos to Stephanie Boyd, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. Although the blog does not make post authorship clear (as it should), I believe that Stephanie deserves credit for most of the content.

Love the slogan: “Green is the new Purple”

UPDATE: Links fixed. Thanks to Kirsten for the correction.


Can-Do Attitude

An Earth Day flashback:

William Moomaw received an unusual request on the morning of April 22, 1970.

The dean’s office at Williams College rang the young assistant professor to ask if it could send a junior dean to observe his students. During a time of frequent college campus protests, the administration wanted to make sure the first Earth Day was a day of peaceful rallies, lectures and debates.

“I think they were a little nervous about what we were doing,” he said of his environmental science class. “It was high emotional content. People were really upset to learn about the bad things that were happening to the environment then.”

After the 75 students finished class, which dealt with the dangers of pesticides, they joined other students at a rally on the Williamstown, Massachusetts, campus.

About half the 2,000 students at the small private school participated in the rally. Thousands of other colleges, high schools and elementary schools across the United States also took part.

“People were pretty upbeat [that day]. Finally we were tackling another unaddressed issue,” he said. “There was a real can-do attitude and a real sense that individual and public engagement could change things. A very different attitude than one sees today.”

You really think that the attitudes of Williams students are that different today from what they were in 1970? I doubt it.

Moomaw added that not only are companies now involved in Earth Day, but they are also much more involved in environmental protection.

“There are certainly many, many more corporations that are not only willingly complying with environmental laws but many are going beyond them,” he said. “It’s an impressive group of companies that are doing those things and they’re making a real difference. I don’t think anybody believed that would happen in 1970.”

Companies, like people, respond to incentives. If (naive) customers start buying from company X instead of company Y because company X claims (truthfully or not) to be green friendly, then company Y is going to start to (claim to) be green friendly too.


Okay, now retrofit the cross-country team

This is kinda neat.


Do it in the dark!

From March 5 to March 12, dorms will compete with one another to see who can reduce their energy use the most. Small dorms and large dorms will compete separately, and the winner in each category will receive free snack bar points.

On each day of the competition, all dorms will be rated by how much they have reduced their energy use from a baseline calculated during the previous week. All dorms have electricity metered, and many dorms have heat and hot water metered, so think beyond turning off lights. Total points in the competition are determined by the daily rankings, and the dorm with the most points at the end of the competition wins.

What’s really cool is all the data that is being gathered, for example:

where we can see our current energy usage. After the break are the daily and overall rankings. A current WSO post is currently discussing just how the heck Milham house cut its energy usage by 60.7%!

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Locally-Grown Food at Williams

I want to share with everyone an article I wrote featuring Williams students’ work on local food, published in College News Magazine’s 2009 Winter Break Issue (article is on pages 16-17). It’s really encouraging that college students are taking the lead on transforming our food system.


Sleep outside

An interesting proposition from the Williams Green Scene blog:

Come sleep out on Paresky Lawn again this Thursday, Dec 3rd to support clean electricity!
By refusing to sleep in your dirty-electricity powered dorm you will be joining a statewide campaign to push the government of Massachusetts to repower the state with clean electricity over the next 10 years.

This is an especially important week to show your support, for Governor Patrick has just responded to students’ weekly sleep-outs and is negotiating with youth leaders of the campaign over the details of clean-electricity legislation.

Join us Thursday night to learn more about this campaign, show your commitment to clean electricity, and raise awareness around campus.

Again, we will supply the tents, but be sure to bring a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and lots of warm layers! The WOC Equipment room is open during lunch time if you need to rent a sleeping bag or sleeping pad.

We will be checking in Thursday night at 11:00 PM on Paresky lawn. Hope to see you there!

Email sm8 if you have questions or if you are interested in sleeping out in Boston this Sunday December 6th.

Sounds like fun. Though it can’t be as much fun as a slumber party in Sawyer basement.


Ladybug horror

On WSO, there is a lengthy discussion on the infestation of ladybugs (and GERMAN COCKROACHES?) inside student dorms. This seems to be a regional national infestation. The Wesleying blog reports a swarm at Wesleyan University (with photos). In addition to Williamstown, MA and Middletown, CT, a look at Google News shows reports of ladybug swarms from New Jersey, Indiana, Middlesex County, MA, Urbana-Champaign, IL, NH and RI, Williamsport, PA, and Andover, MA

Parent ’12 asks: “Are these complaints familiar? And, any suggestions about how to get the problem remedied.”

I have not seen a ladybug infestation at Williams, but recent alumni will recall the caterpillar infestation that hit campus in spring-summer 2006. As the 2009 class history recalls: “It was the attack of the caterpillars in Billsville. You probably could have crossed the entire campus without setting foot on pavement or grass – that’s how thick the blanket of caterpillars was that spring.”

So, to current students: at least you don’t have strings of caterpillars dangling from trees, ending up on your face and clothes whenever you walk underneath a tree. They basically destroyed every green leaf on campus.

This is all probably the fault of global warming. Or secret government experiments.

Since Parent ’12 asks for remedies: I seem to recall that one enterprising student set fire to the caterpillars using a lighter and a can of either hairspray or WD-40. Something to consider, though the fact that the infestation this time appears to be indoors may complicate things.

Gross pictures of the caterpillar infestation here, here, and here.

Request to students currently on campus: Please post pics of the ladybug infestation!

UPDATE: They’ve hit Swarthmore. Is nothing sacred? (thanks to hwc!)


Fly Me To Boca

Chilly day in Williamstown, with a low of 19 degrees. Much better to be in Boca Raton, Florida, sunny and 74 degrees. And, as luck would have it, Boca is just where the Executive Committee (EC) of the Society of Alumni is meeting this week-end.

Perhaps hypocrisy’s name is Boca, not Gulfstream.

I have few problems with folks, like the Williams administration and trustees, who make a big deal of global warming, carbon emissions and sustainability. Their holy trinities are for them to choose.

I have few problems with folks whose carbon emissions are not influenced by green shibboleths. If you want to fly all around the country or build a factory in China, then that’s your business. Although I could imagine scenarios in which externalities start to become important, the science seems too weak and the political possibilities too limited to worry about that just now. And, if it will make my friends at TNG happy, I am more than ready for massive carbon taxes as long as similarly-sized cuts are made elsewhere, thereby keeping federal revenue/spending at current levels.

My problem is with folks who do both, folks like the Williams administration. If you really believe that carbon emissions are a huge problem, then you should not be scheduling meetings in Boca that could just as easily take place in Williamstown. The hypocrisy is pathetic.

The arguments against this claim are like fish in my barrel. See below for the shooting.
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Why Jets?

Below I try to explain why my friends at TNG (or ar least a sub-group of five or ten who find the topic interesting) should focus on the alleged use of private jets for trustee meetings. I provide this advice, not because I worry about global warming and/or think private jets are bad, but because I think that such a project would help TNG achieve its own goals.

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