Genetics Part 3: Canon versus Relevancy

Every discipline has canonical knowledge and skills. They’re the stories and examples experts love to hate because, while they’re often canonical for a reason, they quickly lose context and rarely tell the whole story.

The best definition I can give of “canon” comes from fanfiction. (And of course, I’ll use Harry Potter as my example.) All fanfiction is divided into two categories; canon and Alternate Universe (AU). Canon fanfiction is anything that takes all the published books to be true, while AU fics write stories answering questions like, “What would happen if Harry had grown up with Sirius Black instead of the Dursleys?”

Note that canon, especially in the Harry Potter world, is a hotly debated topic. The most extreme of canon purists only count the seven books. Other writers will include things JKR’s said in interviews or published in other places (her website Pottermore, the Hogwarts textbooks she wrote, and at one point she wrote a few Daily Prophet newsletters). Now that The Cursed Child has been released, it’s created even more controversy. Some writers, who have been writing canon for years, have defined the “Sensible Universe,” where they can classify their writing as canon without having to update tiny details they made up as JKR gives us more information.

And I haven’t even mentioned the movies. I will just quickly state that, in my opinion, the movies are not canon. In fact, they’re the most expensive and widely consumed fanfiction ever. But, as with everything else, this is debated throughout the fandom.

For a somewhat more science-y example, I can tell you that they Watson and Crick story, which usually today includes Rosalind Franklin, is canon in the molecular biology world. It was a huge turning point in science and our understanding of all of molecular biology. If you go one level farther into canon, you’ll hear of Griffith, Avery and MacLeod, and Chargaff, all of whom made important discoveries about DNA. Hopefully, you’ll also hear of the beautiful, elegant, and delightfully simple Hershey-Chase experiment. It’s my favorite molecular biology experiment ever! (Yes, I’m that nerdy. I have a favorite experiment.)

But those people don’t tell the entire story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. It doesn’t tell the story of the wrong answers (Linus Pauling, you genius chemist, I’m looking at you…) and the false starts and politics of racing to find the answer. Everyone knew whoever finally got a good model for the structure of DNA would be famous forever. And James Watson and Francis Crick will be.

There are issues with canon. There are historical perspectives that need to be considered; Rosalind Franklin’s contribution wasn’t considered for a long time because she was a woman. Other stories are incomplete or missing because the people didn’t fit the mold of a scientist; there are often equity issues woven into canon stories.

And often canon stories aren’t super relevant to my students. My favorite ecological experiment is the one where Robert Payne used a crowbar to pry starfish off rocks and chucked them back into the ocean, demonstrating top-down population control and providing support for the Green World Hypothesis. But this story relies on marine ecosystems. Hi, I’m from Colorado! We’re one of the most landlocked states in the US!

If you’d asked me before spring break what I thought about canon stories, I would admit to you that I get some joy out of learning them and telling them. But I would write you something a lot like what I just wrote you. Canon can become a box that excludes other stories and people who can’t relate.

Then I started tutoring my friend Craig in genetics. He’s taking an introductory biology class at the University of Colorado Denver. I never took this kind of course (thanks, AP credits) and I never attended the Denver campus. In some ways, it’s tricky to help him because I know more science than he probably needs to, and I have to figure out what he needs to know. Craig could definitely learn everything I could possibly teach him and more, but time is limited, after all. What examples is he likely to see on the exam? How did his professor explain that one concept?

But fancy this: all the examples and stories I learned in high school, which are in turn the examples and stories I fall back on when I teach my kids, are the same examples and stories Craig learned in his class. Sure, there might be some slight variation; in order to teach incomplete dominance, his teacher used blue and white flowers instead of red and white. But in general, it was all the same. It was awesome! It meant that Craig and I felt like we were talking about the same thing, and like we had common ground to start from. In the same way that canon can exclude, people who know the canon are very much included in that discipline. Canon can be a unifying principle among a group of people.

And it was really cool that I could predict with a high degree of accuracy what he needed to know, how his definitions were worded, and which stories his professor had told.

I certainly don’t put this down to my excellent knowledge of biology content and/or teaching. I think this is a great example of the power of canon. And it raises some really interesting questions. How do certain stories spread through a culture? How do we make canon accessible to anyone?

Your homework: What canon is inherent to your discipline? What stories are left out? How does a shared canon strengthen a community, and how does it exclude outsiders?

Hej då,



Genetics Part 2: Creating Notation to Fit Concepts

Welcome back to learning about genetics with me! In my last post, I told a story about how I learned about the difference and interconnectedness of conceptual, notational, and procedural knowledge. In that story, I explained how one student’s struggles last year with the procedures inherent in Punnett squares led her class to a new procedure that was, for them, more deeply grounded in conceptual understanding. This year, my students taught me even more about the confusion that can arise between conceptual understanding and notation.

I’m using a new textbook this year, one that relies a lot more on students reading and applying and a lot less on me talking and giving examples. I was really quite terrified of how this was going to when we talked about sex-linked traits. Students saw one example of the notation in the book and then had to go on to solve inheritance problems. Practice is important, and I was not convinced they were going to get enough practice. However, this lesson fell on days when I was gone (on Thursday, I was out during biology for an IEP meeting and on Friday I was at the Knowles spring meeting in Philly) so I just went with what was in the book.

(1) I’m back in teaching mode: humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two of them follow the patterns we’ve already talked about. The last pair is the sex chromosomes. Females are XX, and males are XY. Females can only pass on an X chromosome; it’s all they have. That means the 50/50 probability of having a boy or a girl lies with the father; he can pass on an X, creating a daughter, or a Y, creating a son. This becomes somewhat ironic when thinking about how Henry VIII blamed his wives for a lack of a male heir…but there you are.

(2) But there are other genes on the X chromosome beyond just those that create different sexes. Color blindness is one example. Almost everyone learns the story of the Russian Imperial family, and how Tsarina Alexandria, originally an English princess, carried a recessive blood disease called hemophilia and passed it on to her only son and heir Alexei, leading to an obsession with healing him and arguably contributing to the Russian Revolution. See, I’ve linked history and genetics twice in one blog post! So talking about sex-linked traits is very important.

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.04.11 AM

(3) Ok, you’re looking at this Punnett square and thinking one of three things. Option A: Oh no, not another one! Oh yes, my friends, another one! Option B: I thought you didn’t like Punnett squares! I don’t like Punnett squares lacking conceptual understanding. I’m assuming you’re all brilliant and have the concepts nailed. And they really are handy tools for predicting combinations. Option C: This one looks really different.

(4) Ah, yes. It does. But it’s not! If you look at just the H’s, which represent you can see that the woman (on the left, XX) is heterozygous for this hemophilia gene. That means she’s carrying it, but she’s not affected by it (recessive, remember?) And you can see that the man is not affected by the trait because he has a dominant allele (big H) on his X chromosome. Do you see the similarities now?

(5) The interesting thing about sex-linked traits is that males are proportionally affected much more than females. In this particular case, boys have a 50% chance of having hemophilia. Girls, on the other hand, have a 0% chance of having hemophilia. Note that this is the cross for Tsarina Alexandria and Tsar Nikolai, which explains why none of their four daughters (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia) had issues with hemophilia, while their sone Alexei did.

(Ok, now go back to paragraphs 1-5 and see if you can find the conceptual versus notational things I taught!)

Back to the story of my students’ learning; we’d left them with a sub trying to learn sex-linked traits. After I returned, I reviewed them quickly, taught them about how incredibly complex human inheritance is, and gave them a quiz and a project as their assessments.

It was grading these projects, and watching students complete them, that led me to think again about how conceptual and notational thinking play with and against each other. The project was to choose a genetic disorder from a list of five and write a brochure that could go in a genetics counseling office about it. Two of the disorders were sex-linked, so students who chose them (and a lot chose hemophilia because it was the example in the book) gave me insight into how well they learned about sex-linked traits.

What fascinated me was that students were using different notation than was in the book, but their thinking was conceptually correct. Rather than using the superscript letters like in the Punnett square above, they were color-coding the X’s:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.30.54 AM

or using apostrophes to mark affected X chromosomes:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.31.50 AM

(note that the mother is on the top rather than the side in this case).

Now, I pulled all these images for examples from the internet, so it’s entirely possible my kids got it from there. But I think, in part, what I saw happening was my kids creating new notation to fit their conceptual understanding. They knew there were “good X’s” and “bad X’s” and they created a way to tell them apart. I gave them full credit no matter what notation they used.

Do they really understand that the Factor VIII gene, which causes hemophilia, is a short DNA sequence along the whole chromosome and there are thousands of other genes on this chromosome too? I can’t actually tell from this particular question.

(As a side note, assessment design to really show student thinking is HARD!)

But this opens up all sorts of interesting teaching questions. Do I teach kids a notation? Can I ask them to come up with their own? How would I scaffold that process? What’s the value of their own notation versus the standard notation they’ll see as they pursue science? How do I make connections between the two?

Your homework: Have you ever created notation or shorthand for something? Have you ever been annoyed or confused by someone else’s notation or shorthand? What’s the value of notation or shorthand and when does it fall short (hehe)?

Hej då,


Genetics Part 1: How Punnett Squares Constrain Your Thinking

(1) During two weeks before spring break, I taught my kids genetics. You probably remember learning a little bit of something about genetics in school; we inherit our traits from both our parents and there’s some probability involved in which traits we get. You probably remember that some traits are called “dominant” and some are called “recessive.” You might even remember this:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 7.19.28 AM

(2) That, my friends-turned-students, is a Punnett square. This one is a classic. It’s where we’ve crossed two heterozygous parents to predict what alleles their offspring will have.

(3) Now, there was a lot of vocabulary in that last sentence. So let me pause for a moment. When we’re considering the inheritance of a particular gene, we get one version of the gene from Mom and one version of the gene from Dad. This is true for humans and cats and bugs and pea plants. Each version of the gene is called an allele. In 99% of your cells, you have two alleles for every gene. (The other 1% are your sex cells, either sperm or eggs, depending on your biology.)

(4) We can define a person depending on which alleles they have. If they have two of the same allele, we call them homozygous (homo- means same). If they have two different alleles, we call them heterozygous (hetero- means different). These same roots show up in the words homosexual and heterosexual if that helps you remember them.

(5) So in that Punnet square above, I said both the parents were heterozygous for the “R” gene (whatever protein that might code for). In classic notation, we show that by using a capital R and a lowercase r. Also in this notation, we typically use the capital letter to notate a “dominant” trait and a lowercase letter to notate a “recessive” trait. To use our notation for someone who is homozygous dominant, we would write “RR.”

(6) (I could rant for quite a time about how the ideas of “dominant” and “recessive” are constructs that don’t really reflect our newer molecular understanding of gene expression. For now, just remember that in a heterozygote, the dominant trait “overpowers” the recessive trait and all you see is the dominant trait. It’s a usable construct for our purposes and this blog post is already way too long.)

(7) In order to fill out a Punnett square, you write one parent’s alleles across the top and one parent’s alleles down the left side. It doesn’t matter which parent goes where. Then you drag the top parent’s alleles down into each box. Last, you drag the left parent’s alleles across into each box. You should end up with two letters in each box.

(8) Now, most human traits are incredibly complicated in terms of their expression, so geneticists often use plants (or fruit flies) to talk about simpler patterns. So if I give a concrete example to the Punnett square above, I could say that we’re talking about red and white flowers, and that red is dominant to white. In that case, both of the parent flowers would be red. If we look at their offspring, each box represents a 25% chance that particular combination of alleles will be produced. So in terms of the genes, there is a 25% chance of getting an offspring with RR, a 50% chance of getting an offspring with Rr, and a 25% chance of getting an offspring with rr. This means a 75% chance of getting red flowers (remember both RR and Rr make red flowers) and a 25% chance of getting white flowers (you have to be rr to get white flowers).

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 7.31.58 AM

(9) Ok, this image used purple instead of red and P’s instead of R’s. But it’s the same heterozygote crossed with a heterozygote cross. Can you see how they’re the same concept?

Alright, I’m finally going to acknowledge that I did something truly bizarre with the format of this post. I numbered the first nine paragraphs. I know this has been bugging some of you the whole time! Here’s why. I just taught you a little bit of something about genetics, and now I want to explain how I did it and why genetics gets really complicated really fast. Being able to reference the paragraphs will make that much easier.

There are different kinds of information involved in teaching genetics. First, I gave you some conceptual underpinnings in paragraph three, when I talk about what an allele is and where we get them from. Paragraph four is also conceptual. In that paragraph, I’m telling you that it not only matters which alleles we have, but the combination of them is also important.

Concepts are super important. But we have to have a way to communicate them. So in paragraph five, I gave you a bunch of notation. This notation is really handy so we don’t have to write out huge DNA sequences to see the difference between alleles. In fact, this notation is older than our ability to sequence DNA! But one thing that’s really tricky for students is to keep concepts and notation linked. I hear students talking about big R’s and little r’s and I know they understand the notation, but I don’t necessarily know that they understand what those letters represent.

But that’s not all! In paragraph 7, I gave you procedural knowledge. I gave you steps to fill out a Punnett square. And this is typically what my students remember the best. They LOVE  to fill out Punnett squares. They remember the steps, they can get it right, and it makes them feel confident. It also drives me absolutely nuts because most of those students have NO IDEA what a Punnett Square actually represents. They’ve completely lost the conceptual underpinnings.

Last year I had a student who was on the autism spectrum; I’ll call her Anna. For whatever reason, she could not stand Punnett squares. She’d built herself a sizable mental wall over them in middle school, and just the sight of one on the board could send her straight to tears. At first, I was completely bamboozled. Anna needed to be able to do Punnett squares! She needed to understand inheritance patterns!

A key moment of learning for me was realizing this: those two things are not the same thing, and only the second statement is true. Anna’s tablemates came up with an alternate format for creating all possible combinations of alleles from parents.

Anna had great success using this alternate format, and her tablemates told me (and their answers to a couple of key test questions told me) they really understood genetics a lot better. They had to rely on a conceptual understanding of alleles and inheritance to create a new format for combinations. They taught it to the whole class, and the whole class grew from the experience.

I’d like to point out quickly that it was my students who came up with the new format. I think I’d created a classroom culture that allowed this to happen; asking questions and trying stuff out was normal, and student ideas and collaborative learning were valued. But if it had been just me, Anna would’ve been stuck in the Punnett square cycle of despair forever.

This was my first window into separating my own thinking about genetics from a conceptual, notational, and procedural standpoint, and it was hugely informative. I saw kids getting so good at a procedure that they lost the concepts. This year I taught all my classes how to NOT use Punnett squares, much to their consternation!

But my students weren’t done teaching me things yet. This year gave me even further insight into this tangle of information that is genetics. That’s for a Part 2, coming on Wednesday!

Your homework: Can you think of an example of concepts and notation that is specific to another discipline? Do people (or you) place more importance on one than the other?

Hej då,


Spring Break!

Weeeeeeeee did it!

I can say with certainty that my students and I were very, very ready to not be in school for a little bit. I know I was flagging! My piles of grading stared at me, I stared at them, and not a lot got graded. Take that idea and apply it to the rest of everything school-related, and that’s about how it was going. To quote the lovely Anne Shirley of Green Gables (and yes, I’m rereading them all again this spring!):

Studies palled just a wee bit then; [the students] looked wistfully out of the windows and discovered that Latin verbs and French exercises had somehow lost the tang and zest they had possessed in the crisp winter months. Even Anne and Gilbert lagged and grew indifferent. Teacher and taught were alike glad when the term was ended and the glad vacation days stretched rosily before them.

And now I’m on spring break! It’s not quite the end of the term yet, so I gave every student a very serious injunction to SLEEP over break, and to do something fun. We won’t have another day when we get back – we go straight through all the way to graduation. I wanted my students to come back refreshed and ready for the last six weeks of content.

And as for me? I’ll be refreshed too. I’m spending my break in Utah with Jonathan, going back and forth between playing, catching up on aforementioned stacks of grading, and acting like an adult.

I’ll start with the adult bit; Jonathan and I have a HOUSE. In the four days I’ve been here we’ve made two trips to Lowe’s and one to Home Depot and we’ll go back again tomorrow I’m sure. We’ve been spackling walls and painting and scrubbing and replacing handles and putting up blinds. I really like painting! And I’m good at scrubbing, which is incredibly satisfying. Of course, we’ve done a tiny fraction of the things that could be done or the things I want to do, but I really am finding myself to be very excited to work on all these projects.

I’ve also been playing a lot too. I’ve been skiing at Snowbasin, the site of the Olympic downhills in 2002. Both times it was snowing, which made it feel a little more like winter. The slush at the bottom, however, paired with all the green grass, made it feel a whole lot more like spring. Either way, it was lots of fun to explore a new hill, whether I was skiing by feel through fog or sailing through heavy crusty powder behind a gate or tooling around on the groomers.

And on Saturday, Jonathan surprised me by taking me to Salt Lake for dinner and a show. He took me to see Audra McDonald, backed by the Utah Symphony, sing her way through the history of American musical theater. It was so much fun! Audra played the wardrobe in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, as well as having played in multiple shows on Broadway. It was really different than anything we normally do, but it was great fun.

So now it’s Monday, and I am finally tackling the grading from…pretty much the entire month of March. Sorry to all my lovely wonderful students – I know feedback is better immediately! I’m excited to say that I’m finally out from underneath several major projects. My licensure application for my Utah teaching license is in the mail and my job applications are nearly finished (for the moment, of course). I successfully TD’d all of my three races, and once this stack of grading is taken care of I’ll be on the path to just finish teaching the year strong. I have to say, it’s a really exciting prospect.

In a little bit. There’s still a lot of spring break left to enjoy!

Your homework: How do you refresh?

Hej då,


February Apathy

Steamboat Springs High School has an odd spring schedule. Steamboat is a ski town, so normal spring break time is one of the high seasons. This means it’s really hard for parents to get time off, so the high school moved spring break to the last week of April, the week after the mountain closes. It’s nice because I came back and only had about a month left of school.

But the other thing SSHS did was institute blues break. This was a week off in February because it’s hard to make it from January to the end if April without something. Pretty much every year I was a student, Blues Break was my saving grace.

February is the grindiest part of both race season and school. It’s right in the middle of everything being routine, so everyone’s tired and we’re yet too far away from the end to look forward to it. All you can do in February is keep doing one day at a time, and even that is hard.

I see it in my students: the way the phones blatantly out, the number of tardies and absences, the quality of assignments and the number of missings. I see it in the bags under their eyes and the look on their faces as I walk them through protein synthesis (which admittedly is bamboozling). I see it when they ask me to postpone tests and when they whine about doing things that, in September, were no big deal.

And I see it in myself. My lessons aren’t as thoughtful. My fellowship work seems overwhelming instead of interesting. My alarm is greeted with a pillow over the head and a distinct desire to stay in bed. Every flake brings the wish of a snow day.

Yesterday I sent an email that said:

subject line: I AM A WALL



I did it. I took away phones and turned in administrative paperwork and made answer keys and bothered kids who were off task and answered questions and badgered for missing assignments and I think one of two of them might have even learned something.

And then I went home and cried from the sheer exhaustion of being the only one in the room with aforementioned high expectations.

Here’s what I told my kids, and here’s what I’m trying to live by. All I can ask them for is their best at that moment. My best today isn’t the same as my best in September; it’s just not. And their best today might only be 5% of what I know they can do on a really good day. But I can ask for, and I demand, both of them and of myself, that 5%.

For the rest, we can work together. And we’ll get there.

Your homework: What do you do when you’re at 50% of your best? How do you support someone who’s at 50% of theirs?

Hej då,


In Defense of Wikipedia

I’m about to infuriate many of my academic friends. Or really, I already have, simply from my title. But readers, today I embark on an argument for a website (or series of sites, really) that every teacher loves to hate.


For those of you who have somehow missed it, Wikipedia is a free online “encyclopedia” that is written and edited by, well, anyone. Since its beginning, it has expanded to a number of other “Wiki” apps, all with the aim of providing free content to people who wish to learn stuff. There are articles on Taylor Swift, Fourier transform mathematics, scones, Franz Ferdinand (both the Austrian arch-duke and the band), and Mount Everest. For the most part, anyone can start an article and anyone can edit them. (Some of the more controversial articles, like the one on Taylor Swift, get locked so they can’t be edited any longer). The articles can be flagged if they don’t have enough citations or include opinions stated as facts

I’ve even edited a Wikipedia article. It was something about history, I think, and I was in the middle of doing research for an AP US History project, and there was an alternative point of view that was missing. So I added several sentences and a new source.

The interesting thing about that is I felt like apologizing to Mrs. Boyd (my AP US History teacher) as I wrote that.

Teachers love to hate Wikipedia. We specifically, by name, tell students not to use it. We don’t count citations of Wikipedia pages. We rant on about academic integrity and valid sources and peer review. And at some level, I agree. It is 100% possible for some goober to write a bunch of total nonsense and post it on Wikipedia as truth. There is no overseeing body, no one to trust at the top, no one to catch errors. In that sense, Wikipedia is not an academic source of information.

I use Wikipedia probably twice a week. Today I looked up the lifespan of eubacteria, the scientific name for female plant reproductive organs, and the first time the winter and summer Olympics were held on different years. When I was doing research for my oceanography class, I always started with Wikipedia. If nothing else, Wikipedia pages generally give a good overview (which higher-level sources can be missing) and a reference section of other sources I can check out. The vast majority of my sources for my oceanography projects were hyperlinks in a Wikipedia reference section (or from NOAA, because NOAA is awesome.)

And as I studied for the earth science and chemistry PRAXIS tests, I used Wikipedia to look up the definitions of clastic sedimentary rock and the difference between regional and contact metamorphic. (Clastic sedimentary rock forms because of deposition of weathered rock (clasts). Contact metamorphic underwent metamorphosis because of direct contact with magma, while regional metamorphosis tends to be over a much larger area and is due to great pressure or heat. Just in case you were curious.) I’ve also read about dew point and the difference between relative humidity and absolute humidity, and how to do titration endpoint calculations.

Though I used Wikipedia throughout high school, it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I found an academic who approved of it. I was taking a course about how to visualize proteins (which is really a lot of light physics and complicated math like Fourier transforms) and we had several take-home tests. Our professor actively encouraged us to use Wikipedia. His rationale was that any paper about protein visualization was going to be too specific to convey any solid conceptual understanding. And that the only people who were going to bother with that article were the people who really cared about that topic.

I could also make a philosophical argument about knowledge belonging to everyone. Wikipedia is free, doesn’t have ads, and accepts contributions from anyone. It is, in beautiful ways, an incredible collection of human knowledge. All it takes is for one person to be interested in a topic for the knowledge to be recorded there.

Your homework: Where is your favorite source of knowledge? How do you interact with the human bank of learning?

Hej då,


Oceanography Class

As part of my adventure in moving to Utah, one of the things I’ve been doing is working on getting my Utah teaching license. Education is a state power, so every state licenses differently. And oh boy, do they do it differently.

In Colorado, I hold a secondary science teaching license. This means, according to the state of Colorado, that I am qualified to teach any science class from grade 7 to grade 12. Colorado had a series of requirements I needed in order to get this license; I needed to have a bachelor’s in a science, six credits plus a lab class in the other two core sciences (since my bachelor’s was in biology, the other two core sciences for me were chemistry and physics), an earth science class, an astronomy class, and a certain number of credits. I needed a passing score on the general science Praxis exam, and a certain number of education credits along with student teaching.

Utah, on the other hand, licenses by discipline. When I receive a secondary science license, I must also apply for endorsements for each type of science. For example, I am working on getting my biology, chemistry, environmental, and earth science endorsements. Utah has a list of college classes required for each endorsement, and each endorsement also requires its own specific Praxis test. Amusingly, the only endorsement I actually had all the classes for was chemistry! Because my major was in molecular biology, I was missing several crucial “big bio” classes.

In order to remedy all of these missing pieces, I’ve been diving into AP bio study sessions with Mom to prepare for the biology Praxis (she was highly successful in preparing me!) and taking several online courses. The first of these courses was Oceanography.

To be totally honest, it’s been awesome to go back to being a student again! There’s something very satisfying about having a reading assignment (this week was FIVE chapters, which was a bit much…) and a three page paper to write. I will admit to having the same problem with word limits that I’ve always had – I write three to four times more than I have space for and then have to cut things out.

And I’ve been learning interesting things! My favorite so far has been learning about global wind patterns; I now know what the trade winds are and why they go the direction they do, and why sailors warn against westerlies. These winds drive many of the ocean currents; I can now explain why Uppsala, Sweden has a climate similar to Colorado (but wetter) even though it’s so much farther north. (It’s because the Gulf Stream moves masses of warm air that direction.) And I’ve learned that if you ever need to explain why air or water is moving in a circular or spiraling motion on a global scale, or just explain why anything isn’t behaving as linearly as you thought, the answer is the Coriolis effect.

If you think about the Earth, the most solar radiation happens at the equator. That means that air gets warm and rises. Then it pushes out towards the poles, drops a lot of precipitation, and falls back down as cool dry air. If you look at the Earth, you can see the hot wet equator is bounded on either side by deserts; the deserts are where the cold dry air falls back down.

However, the Earth is spinning. This is the basis of the Coriolis effect. Imagine if you launched a rocket from Quito, Ecuador (at the equator). Even if you launched it straight north, the Earth would spin underneath it while it was flying. The rocket would land northwest of Quito. There’s all sorts of math you can do to figure out exactly how far west, but I haven’t gotten that in-depth.

The Coriolis effect means that the warm air rising from the equator falls back down to the west of where it started, either northwest or southwest. These are the trade winds. The next convection cell away from the equator, either north or south, blows to the east (these are the westerlies!). And now when I read novels, I actually know what these things mean!

(The lead image explains it nicely, too, if you like images better than words.)

I still have oceanography homework due today, so I’ll leave this one here and give you your homework! What’s the best new thing you’ve learned lately? You can define “best” however you like.

Actually, a post script. The first new thing I learned this year was “awkward salmon.” Remember awkward turtle? You put your hands on top of each other and circled your thumbs in awkward situations when no one knew what to say. It was an awkward turtle because it only had two legs. This spawned all sorts of awkward animals and plants…all the way to awkward palm tree. But when my brother put his hand between my arm and my rib cage and flapped it back and forth, that was a new one to me. That’s awkward salmon. Cheers, Jeff, for teaching me that on our New Year’s hike.

Hej då!