29 Feb

Arkansas, Cheese Dip, Velveeta, and Plastic

stobys_cheese_dip_edited1A great episode from the Gravy podcast on how my home state developed a love of cheese dip.  

There’s a dish you’ll find at every kind of restaurant in Little Rock, from the pizza places to the burger joints: cheese dip. How did it become so beloved in Arkansas? And what does it reveal about the state’s past—and present? In this episode of Gravy, Dana Bialek and I investigate this story of highways, demographic changes, and a food’s shifting identity over time.

Also here is a convenient map of must visit, cheese dip spots in Arkansas. I’ve visited more of these than I care to admit.   Of course a major ingredient of many Arkansas, cheese-dip recipes is a big, oily, orange block of Velveeta.

All this brings me to the age old question of “Is Velveeta one molecule away from plastic?” You have likely heard the same “logic” applied to margarine.   Of course, this is wrong in many ways.

 Both Velveeta and margarine are composed of many different molecules so such a statement is already meaningless.  The ingredient list of Velveeta is milk, whey, skim milk, milk protein concentrate, water, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, modified food starch; contains less than 2% of: salt, calcium phosphate, dried corn syrup, canola oil, malto dextrin, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, cheese culture, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color).   Milk itself, just one of the ingredients listed, contains 12 different fatty acid molecules.  

But adding a single molecule to anything could make a big difference.  Take for example the difference between hydrogen peroxide H2O2 and water H20, which have only one atom, hydrogen, different.  

FIG 6 P13But also the one molecule away is odd because it can take much less to get a significant change.  The structure of the molecule can make a big difference without even changing the chemical composition of molecule. Lactose is made out of two simpler sugars, glucose and galactose. The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. The chemical formula for galactose is also C6H12O6. Yes, they are chemically identical. They are structured differently and that gives them different properties.  

09 Feb

How Love for an 80’s Hip-Hop Drum Machine Is Leading to New Mathematical Theory


Introduced in the 1980’s, the TR-808 was the first programmable drum machine. You’re unwittingly familiar with sound of the TR-808; it’s featured in more hit songs than Pharell.  The 808 is literally THE sound of the 80’s including those synthed beats from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock . The sounds of 808 are iconic; the deep bass, kick drum; the tinny handclaps; the ticky snare; the tishy high hat; that spacey cowbell.   Modern rap and hip-hop from the South, aka The Dirty South, continue to be influenced by the TR-808. Consider Outkast’s The Way You Move, it’s deep bass and addictive high hat are classic 808.

Speakerbox vibrate the tank, make it sound like aluminum cans in the back
But I know y’all wanted that 808 can you feel that B-A-S-S, bass

The machine’s affordability, a steal at $1195, and ease of use lead to its original popularity. However only 12,000 TR-808’s were ever made—the last in 1983. Securing a TR-808 today requires about $4,000 and hours entrenched in eBay bidding wars. Subsequently, most of those iconic 808 sounds in today’s music are recorded sounds, samples, not the actual drum machine itself. But the heroic efforts of one resolute Stanford University graduate student are giving this 80’s drum machine new life with an unlikely tool—mathematical theory.

The TR-808 was the last important analog drum machine ever made. The insides of the machine are a complicated mix of circuits with capacitors and resistors working to change the voltage, the signal that produces the sound. Some of these circuits are mundane, but others represent true innovations by Roland, the 808’s manufacturer. Other drum machines produce the sound of a kick drum with a band pass filter that cuts the high and low parts of the frequency leading to a very narrow and sharp wave oscillating at a signal frequency, with the oscillation eventually dying out. In the 808 the punch of that low kick drum is unique; produced by replicating the physical process of a real bass drum. Right after the start of the sound, the frequency of the oscillation is increased for a few milliseconds and then drops down again. The frequency is then allowed to drift and oscillate a minute producing a sighing sound. This sequence creates a very complicated trajectory during which the note evolves across a wide array of pitches. The complex kick drum sound of the TR-808 is accomplished with a complicated type of circuit, a Bridged-T, and therein lies the problem with mathematically modeling it’s sound.


At the top of a hill on the far south side of the Stanford campus sits The Knoll. Formerly home of the university’s president, the Knoll now houses the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, pronounced “karma”).   Here, a dozen faculty and a few dozen graduate students research everything from digital musical composition, to hardware and software, to psychoacoustics. The interior of the late 1800’s Spanish influenced mansion is a combination of recognizable instruments, computer workstations, and hacked-together Franken-equipment mashing the two together. On the second floor, Ph.D. student Kurt Werner is stretching a field of mathematics to reproduce the TR-808 sound. Werner, is the perfect person for the task—bachelors degrees in control systems engineering and music theory from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign; a hobby of hacking the hardware or “circuit bending” of old musical machines; an interest in experimental electronic composition; and an unrivaled need to share the TR-808 love.

Werner’s research seeks to extend the mathematical field of Wave Digital Filter Theory. The TR-808 is simply a filter in which a voltage signal is passed through and altered to produce sound. A digital filter likewise takes one sequence of numbers and produces another sequence of numbers. Wave Digital Filter Theory, developed by Alfred Fettweis in the late 1960’s, simply tries to translate the filtering done by circuits composed of inductors, capacitors, resistors, diodes, transformers, and so on into filtering done by a set of equations. Through this mathematical transformation, the beloved sounds of analog devices, like the TR-808, can be replicated to modern digital machines. Wave Digital Filter Theory is not new to the music industry. , The theory was developed in the 1970’s to produce digital filters from analog filters already being designed, developed, and prototyped.

dcx6In the late 1990’s the music industry revived Wave Digital Filter Theory for an entirely different reason—people loved, and wanted to mimic, the sound of analog devices. However, the types of circuits in musical devices are often complex and while Wave Digital Filter Theory is an elegant theory, it remained incomplete. The theory can only handle certain circuit topologies. Think the physical way in which all those circuit components are wired together, namely the classic series or parallel circuit. In a series circuit all the current through one electrical element flows through another element. In a parallel circuit the voltage across one electrical element is also the voltage across another electrical element. These assumptions of voltage or currents being equal are vital for solving equations of how the wave changes at each step in the circuit.

fXWq9qHBut the insides of TR-808 is a cornucopia of much more complex circuits. Take the Bridged-T circuit in the 808’s kick drum, none of the elements of the circuit are in series or parallel and thus no two resistors have the same current or voltage across them. Werner’s research is making strides to actually allow Wave Digital Filter Theory to model the Bridged-T circuit and more generally an infinite number of complex circuits. To solve the Bridge-T problem, Werner borrowed from another field of mathematics called Modified Nodal Analysis. As Werner states, “Conveniently, writing out Modified Nodal Analysis equations is simple, even automatic.” But the kicker, pun intended, is that this allows for any circuit configuration to be solved because the equations are generalizable.

Untitled-3However, another issue with Wave Digital Filter Theory emerges­—the theory cannot handle multiple nonlinearities in the circuit. A linear relationship is where increases or decreases in variable A always cause increases or decreases in variable B. A nonlinear relationships might be where increases in variable A causes increases in variable B but only up to certain value of variable A, after which variable B decreases. The TR-808 cymbal circuit contains 21 such nonlinearities. Werner’s research solves this problem as well. Werner discovered the combination of those nonlinearities and the circuit configuration are simply a nonlinear state space system, which has its own theory of mathematics to solve.

Much like Dr. Dre’s 1992 hit Let Me Ride samples Funky Drummer by James Brown, Mothership Connection and Swing Down, Sweet Chariot by Parliament, and Kissing My Love by Bill Withers to create more than the sum of its parts, Kurt Werner is bringing together new mathematical theories to advance the field. Perhaps the advances of Wave Digital Filter Theory do not interest you, but you have to admit those theoretical advances have reproduced that beautiful 808 punch (make sure you have some good speakers or headphones). Because as the Beasties Boys rapped in Super Disco Breakin “nothing sounds quite like an 8-0-8”.

20 Jan

The Differences in Southern Accents

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 8.20.08 AM

Not sure I agree with all Fred Armisen’s takes on regional Southern accents, but I do applaud him recognizing the linguistic diversity of the South. Of course one of the biggest differences reflects a mix of regionalism, socio-economic boundaries, and racial identity, namely R-dropping.

One of the things I am finding interesting about North Carolina accents is the three distinctive categories. From the Raleigh westward, with growing intensity toward the Appalachians, is the accent in the video below.

Toward the southern part of the state the accent shifts toward a more traditional South Carolina rural accent. This is not to be confused with the third type typically associated with Charleston, South Carolina, which depends a lot on R-dropping. I always think of this accent as amalgamation of the New England accent and Southern accent.

I would love to hear your thoughts on accents belows. Video clips of yourself or people speaking on Youtube are welcome.

22 Nov

My Love of the TR-808


My twenty-four blades glistenin’, and my 808 kickin’ T.I. – Top Back

You do not have to read many of posts at Deep-Sea News or Science of the South to realize my love of hip-hop and rap.  Especially Southern hip-hop and rap.  If you haven’t already do check out Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South.  A key to the southern sound is the TR-808.  Introduced in the 80’s the 808 was the first programmable drum machine.   The machine’s cheapness, $1195, and ease of use lead to its popularity.  As I begin to research Southern music, a common theme is the emphasis on sound produced by inexpensive or homemade instruments.  It seems this theme continues to Dirty South.  

TR-808_Groot1You know the sound of the TR-808.  It’s featured in more hit songs than any other drum machine.  It was literally the sound of the 80’s.   All those synthed beats in Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock are courtesy of the 808.


Many sounds of the 808 are just so iconic.   The deep bass, kick drum.  The tinny handclaps.  The ticky snare.  The tishy high hat.  That spacey cowbell.   The video below nicely highlights all of the 16 programmable sounds.  

One of my all-time favorite Southern hip-hop songs highlighting that deep 808 bass and addictive high hat is Outkast’s The Way You Move.

Speakerbox vibrate the tank, make it sound like aluminum cans in the back
But I know y’all wanted that 808 can you feel that B-A-S-S, bass

From Memphis, the Three 6 Mafia’s Stay Fly also greatly reflects the fast temp of the 808. So does their Poppin’ my Collar

The more recent trap hit, Higher Ground, by TNGHT also shows the TR-808 continues.

There is so many more like Shawty Lo’s Atlanta,GA, but I’ll stop.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into the science inside of the TR-808.  How exactly are is that deep lingering base produced?  In the meantime, let’s celebrate Southern music and the 808. Below is a collaborative playlist on Spotify. Add your favorite songs to that list or in the comments below.

21 Nov

The Unknown Five Scientists Who Saved Science Education in Alabama


Scott Brande

On Thursday, December 14th 1989, five Alabama scientists joined together, forming a small line of defense in a battle most of us weren’t even aware was happening. This clash was one of the most important, yet unknown, battles in a war to keep science in public classrooms. Alabama, a critical state in this conflict, reviews only one or two subjects each year. Consequently, science standards and text, once adopted, remain so for a period of six years; gaining a near permanence in Alabama classrooms.

Compared to their adversaries, the five are horribly outnumbered, underfunded, and poorly organized Outside of a few phone conversations, most of the group has never met. The five march up the steps of the daunting, white facade of the Gordon Pearson Building in Montgomery, Alabama. Scott Brande, a geologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham; John Schweinsberg, a mathematician and software engineer and David Sims, a physicist, both from Huntsville; and a pair of paleontologists, James Lamb from Birmingham’s Red Mountain Museum and Ron Lewis at Auburn University, comprise as Brande notes a loose “confederacy”. Their opposition is a nationally funded conservative movement, one of the most politically well-connected and tenacious groups of conservative women in the entirety of the South, an impressively clever and well funded Texas creationist organization, one of the best trial lawyers in Alabama, and nearly 12,000 signatures.

The Book: Of Pandas and People

514Mj1zOqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The debate centered on the introduction of Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins as a required supplemental text into Alabama biology curriculum. The 1989 book, written by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyan (both young Earth creationists and intelligent design proponents) raises several unfounded objections to the theory of evolution. The book and the movement that spawned it, intelligent design, were thinly guised attempts to introduce creationism into science curricula. As noted by the Gary Bennett, a former NASA engineer and scientist who later became a defender of science,

Science is based on finding natural explanations for why the universe works as it does. Pandas invokes a supernatural belief called “intelligent design” (which looks like nothing more than the latest manifestation of the discredited belief system known as “creationism”) to explain the origins of life and the creation of the different species of life. Since science does not deal with the supernatural, because it is beyond measurement, Pandas does not qualify as a science textbook.

At the time the publishers Of Pandas and People, Haughton Publishing, did not have other books in print or science advisors. The Foundation of Thought and Ethics (FTE) financially supported publishing of the book through donations. FTE itself was lead by ordained minister Jon Buell with the purpose of “proclaiming, publishing, preaching [and] teaching…the Christian Gospel and understanding of the Bible and the light it sheds on the academic and social issues of the day”. Prior efforts to introduce creation “science” in the classroom relied on pro-creationists legislators passing laws, but FTE mobilized Christian conservative groups to pressure local teachers and school boards. The ingenuity of FTE throughout was impressive.

In Alabama, FTE and Haughton found allies in the state chapter of the Eagle Forum, part of a national organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly. The notoriety of Schlafly should not distract from the prominence of the Alabama chapter or their leader, Eunie Smith.   Smith, the wife of the late Albert L. Smith Jr., a one term U.S. Representative and four-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, is very well connected in Alabama politics. Behind Smith was a formidable group of strong conservative Southern women. One scientist who came face to face with the Alabama Eagle Forum described them as a Southern archetype, “dressed to the 9’s, hair perfectly coifed, so sweet [they’re] insipid.”

Over the years Haughton and the Alabama Eagle Forum have also found an ally in Norris Anderson. With a B.S. in science education and a M.S. in natural sciences, Anderson taught science at a variety of levels and served a minor role writing for the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a nonprofit center that develops curriculum and conducts research in the teaching of science. Norris Anderson has served as the executive director of the small Cornerstone Ministries Inc, a film distribution company since 1958. Norris served multiple times on the Alabama State Textbook Committee and was perhaps the strongest Panda supporter among them. The Eagle Forum of Alabama continuously promoted Anderson. He often speaks at their hosted events. Later in his career, Norris authored the now infamous Alabama disclaimer in biology textbooks.

Events Prior to the December 1989 Meeting

Haughton Publishing worked actively to prevent copies of Of Pandas and People being reviewed prior to the textbook committee meeting that would partially decide the book’s fate in Alabama. The Alabama Department of Education requires all books up for review to be on public display in 21 designated state libraries. This was supposed to occur by early July of 1989. On September 12th, Scott Brande attends a textbook committee meeting. During the meeting an Eagle Forum member speaks highly of Of Pandas and People. Brande discovers the book will be voted on after the meeting and searches for a copy at his own institution, one of the depositional libraries, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The book is noticeably absent there and at the other designated libraries.  

I could not believe I had missed such a critical text. Upon returning to Birmingham, I immediately checked with Gordon Dunkin, the UAB librarian who received the submitted texts. He confirmed that Sterne Library had never received “Pandas”. Was there a deadline for receipt and display of these texts by the designated libraries? Gordon extracted from his file a June 16 letter from Barry Buford of the State Department of Education instructing him to ensure that all submitted texts were on display by July 10. “Pandas” was now nearly 3 months late to the UAB library! Because I wanted to review this text, I called every one of the other 21 designated libraries across the state. Not one of them had a copy of “Pandas”. The absence of the book from the designated libraries raised a serious question: If a book were not on public display as required by the Alabama Department of Education, could it be voted on legitimately by either the State Textbook Committee or the State Board of Education?

Brande eventually secures a copy of the book and completes his review two weeks prior to the October 2nd meeting.   Haughton Publishing eventually sends bound copies to each library. Of Pandas and People arrives just one business day before the committee’s vote. Nonetheless, in October 1989, the Alabama State Textbook Committee votes 17-5 not to consider the book for inclusion.

Thursday, December 14th, 1989

None of the Science 5 live in Montgomery, the state capital. The furthest of them drives nearly three hours to make the 9 a.m. meeting. The closest still drives an hour. Each has taken time from their jobs to meet in the auditorium that morning. Brande must rush back quickly to teach a class that afternoon. The five arrive and scramble to their seats in an impressively packed board meeting.

Haughton Publishing, despite the decision of the textbook committee, appeals to the state board to ignore this recommendation and adopt the book. Haugton’s legal representative at the board meeting, Francis Hare, Jr. is a prominent Alabama attorney. Hare works at one of the largest law firms in Alabama, taught at several law schools, and held distinguished chairs at two law schools. His father helped found the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame. On that Thursday morning, Hare presents 11,800 signatures to the Board to adopt Of Pandas and People. A prominent Christian radio station out of Tuscaloosa urged people to sign the petition for several weeks prior. With an impressive attorney and pages of signatures, the Science 5 is miserably outgunned. Brande with a sense of wit notes, “I felt like Daniel in the lion’s den.”

Each of the five delivers their two-minute remarks.

After discussion, one board member moved to approve the book as supplementary text. In response to the inquiry by another board member, the Department of Education lawyer stated the board lacked such authority. The board voted instead to return the book back to the textbook committee for review.

In a bizarre turn of events at that textbook committee meeting, Hare announces that Haughton is withdrawing Of Pandas and People for consideration. Haughton recognizes the proceedings are not faring well and cannot afford the precedent that an Alabama ruling would set. Three days later the Alabama State Board of Education notes the withdrawal and the book never makes it into the Alabama classroom as an approved textbook.

As the battle continued to wage in Alabama, Brand continued to fight. In 1995 a review of state science standards begins again. The Alabama Eagle Forum is at the frontlines. Eunie Smith in a letter to Alabama school teachers states the proposed standards of “scientific literacy is part of the national agenda to use science for social change.” The governor, in his role as the ex officio chair of the Alabama State Board of Education, forces the board to give Eagle Forum a stage. Scott Brande sends a 19-page, his second of the year, point-by-point rebuttal of the Eagle Forum to the State Board. In the end, things do not fare well. On March 9th, 1995 the state board adopts, with the blessing of the Eagle Forum, a curriculum full of loopholes and the now infamous disclaimer in biology textbooks stating evolution should be considered just a “theory” without substantial evidence.

The curriculum is so bad that by 2000 the Fordham Foundation ranks the treatment of evolution in Alabama with its lowest score, F. In 1995, the State Board also decides to include a disclaimer in biology textbooks.


Alabama Textbook Disclaimer

Brande drafts an alternative disclaimer that is scientifically defensible which he sends along to the state education board. Brande’s alternative is not adopted.

Monday, August 17th 2015

I’m sitting in a Birmingham breakfast joint sharing coffee with Scott Brande. He’s humble when talking about his role in these events. He mentions that scientists can commit their careers to research, teaching, and public service. “I might not have developed the research career I wanted but I dedicated myself to teaching and public service. Many freshman I teach have taken biology in the state of Alabama two years before. This affects me personally because these are my students.” For every page other scientists write towards a grant or scientific paper, Brande writes two pages reviewing Alabama science standards and textbooks.

Without his contribution things might be much different in Alabama, in this country. Alabama and Idaho were the first and only fights for a full statewide adoption of Of Pandas and People. A win in Alabama for the book would have made it easier to adopt in subsequent states. That never happened and later battles concentrated on local school districts, like Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a U.S. District Court ruled that intelligent design was not science and essentially religious in nature, and inclusion of Of Pandas and People in the public classroom violated the First Amendment. No doubt the efforts of Brande and others in Alabama laid part of the groundwork for that case.

P5270188Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The influence of Alabama Eagle Forum on Alabama education continues today; a member of the Eagle Forum, Stephanie Belle, holds a seat on the State Board of Education. In January of this year, Brande once again sent multiple pages of comments on the new science standards. Brande noted the preface still contains, “the old language of anti-evolution rhetoric and factual errors inherited from previous editions should have gone extinct long ago.”

In the last few months the State Board adopted new science standards. Surprisingly, the teaching of evolution is mandated. Today I spoke with Brande online. He knows the new science standards are released but with his university responsibilities has not had time to review them. I read him the preface

Scientific theories are developed from observations and evidence to explain the nature of phenomena, to predict future outcomes, and to make inferences about the past. Scientific laws are supported by replicable experiments from within a controlled environment. Both theories and laws have equivalent utility and are open for revision in light of new evidence. The theory of evolution has a role in explaining unity and diversity of life on earth. This theory is substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence. Therefore, this course of study requires our students to understand the principles of the theory of evolution from the perspective of established scientific knowledge. The committee recognizes and appreciates the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution.

He is speechless at first as the preface text represents a massive leap forward. He eventually responses, “I’m elated. The vestiges of creationism are finally removed after a three-decade fight. We finally a board that puts greater value of science education than it did for the last 3 decades.” Again, Brande is humble, “It’s not just me but multiple forces pressing on the agency.” Brande is right multiple people throughout Alabama have fought for this moment including the other members of the Science Five, members of the Alabama Science Teacher’s Association, Alabama Citizens for Science Education, and the Alabama Academy of Science. But throughout it all Brande was common fixture.



12 Nov

There Is More Than One Way to Start a Tornado

Of the 2011 Southern tornado outbreak,  April 27th particularly stands out. A total of 199 tornadoes occurred in a 24-hour period leading to 316 fatalities.  That not a misprint.  199 tornadoes.  What makes the event meteorologically interesting is that tornadoes came from  three rounds of weather, each with unique characteristics. Any good, Southern, armchair meteorologist knows the basics of a supercell leading to a tornado. But tornadoes can originate also from quasi-linear convective systems, a only partially understood and complex process. The early morning and midday tornadoes of April 27th arose from just such systems.

From Knup et al. 2014

From Knup et al. 2014.  QLCS vs. supercells in Alabama on April 27th, 2011

When thunderstorms become organized and active at larger scale, the overall complex is referred to as a mesocscale convective system (MCS). When these MCSs approximate something near linear, typically at the leading edge of a cold front, they are referred to as a quasi-linear convective system (QLCS). You may know this better as a squall line. As many a Southerner knows, the squall line contains heavy rains, hail, frequent lighting, and strong winds. Basically your typical Southern spring day.


QLCS over Arkansas

A QLCS can also produce a tornado.  The whole process is very complex and only partially understood.  The cold front lifts the warm air ahead of it forcibly forming the rain line. The rain cools the air causing the air to sink, called a cold pool, which produces strong winds. These winds rushing out causing the squall line to bow.

Ahead of the storm the cold and dense winds force the warmer air to loft. As these winds “empty” the space behind the bow, a low-pressure area is created.  This low-pressure area is filled in by drier air above the storm. This movement continues to accelerates the whole process.  A rear-inflow jet (RIJ) forms caused by the  elevated area of low pressure caused by a tilted updraft over top of the cold  pool.



The bookend circulation at the tips of the bow echo is caused by differences air density due to temperature and pressure, i.e. cold dense air sinks and warm light air rises.  This vertical air movement causes horizontal rotation. Imagine taking a pool noodle, turn it on its axis, and bend it into an arch.



The circulation occurring at the northern part of the bow is amplified due to Coriolis effects.  Interestingly despite the significant rotation,  not all QLCS tornadoes are produced in bookend vortices.  In fact, most  form in smaller-scale vortices at the leading edge of a QLCS.  

bowfujitIn the South a significant number of tornadoes can develop from QLCSs. In one study nearly 55% of the tornadoes in Mississippi and Tennessee over a 5-year period developed from QLCSs.  QLCS tornadoes are unlike supercell tornadoes.  They both form and dissipate quickly and initiate below the radar detection heights. This combinations of factors make it difficult to warn people of a QLCS tornado. Typically by the time the warning is issued… the tornado is already gone. The fact that more QLCS tornadoes occur during the late night/early morning hours make this lack of warning even more concerning.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 6.03.30 PMLuckily, QLCSs do not often form larger tornadoes. Rarely, however, QLCS spun tornadoes can reach EF2-3. This is exactly what happened on the April 27, 2011 (see figure above from Knupp et al 2014). The first 76 tornadoes of the day developed from a strong MCS that developed in Arkansas, grew stronger in Mississippi, and evolved into a QLCS in Alabama in the early morning. In the mid-day a second QLCS developed, producing 7 weak tornadoes. The earlier QLCS tornadoes caused multiple local power outages across Alabama. This reduced the possibility of warnings, as electricity is needed for sirens, radio, and television. The afternoon saw the development of supercells that spawned the largest tornadoes of the April 27th outbreak. Many people never received the warning.



11 Nov

A visit to SWIRLL

Sign outside the tornado shelter or break room depending on the day.

I’m am very late writing this post.  The struggles of being an academic who is working on a book are real.  I was very lucky to be hosted by tornado scientists Anthony Lyza (@tlyzawx), Kevin Knupp, and Ryan Wade (@ryanwadewx) at the University of Alabama, Huntsville back in August.   The new Severe Weather Institute and Radar & Lightning Laboratory, brilliantly named SWIRLL, is fantastic and beautiful facility.  Tony, whose work I’ve discussed previously, took time to show me around SWIRLL.  The three scientists then were amazingly patient explaining meteorological concepts to this neophyte. Overall an amazing day discussing QLCS produced tornadoes (post coming soon), why Southern tornadoes are different, and how topography and vegetation affect tornadoes.  

11 Oct

The 2011 Southern Tornado Outbreak In Numbers

The tornado of April 27, 2011 hit Smithville, Mississippi, where it killed at least 14 people, and moved northeast nearly 3 miles toward the Alabama border. This NASA MODIS image shows the path of exposed ground left in the tornado’s wake. The trail left by the EF5 tornado in Mississippi is much shorter than a similar trail that cuts across northwestern Alabama. Credit: NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team, Jeff Schmaltz

The tornado of April 27, 2011 hit Smithville, Mississippi, where it killed at least 14 people, and moved northeast nearly 3 miles toward the Alabama border. This NASA MODIS image shows the path of exposed ground left in the tornado’s wake. The trail left by the EF5 tornado in Mississippi is much shorter than a similar trail that cuts across northwestern Alabama. Credit: NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team, Jeff Schmaltz

I’m driving along the two-lane highway 40 in Northeast Alabama. A few of hours earlier Tony Lyza and Ryan Wade, tornado researchers at the University Alabama, Huntsville, are giving me directions. I had asked him if you could still see the tracks from 2011 tornadoes. He then begins to give me directions through rural Alabama including a warning about the area known as Meth Mountain. The directions end with statement about watching out for the meatpacking sign.   Sure enough, I see the sign advertising meatpacking services on my right as I am driving along the small highway through Alabama forest. The forest stops and I see nothing but cleared lands with cattle and farms. I say to my wife, “I though this was where it was supposed to be.” All I see is the typical agriculture that dots the Southern landscape. As I look closer the houses are all newer than just a mile back and the few trees both smaller and scragglier. Then it hits me, I am in the damage swath of EF5 tornado. Four and half years later the landscape still bears the witness of the 2011 tornado super outbreak.

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29 Sep

Remembrances of George Washington Carver

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the university’s president, invited George Washington Carver to head its Agricultural Department.  He spent 47 years at Tuskegee developing numerous inventions and agricultural practices.  He was likely one of the first scientists to initiate extension programs and actively train farmers.  The same farmers would often be recruited into Carver’s research in an early form of citizen science.

I have always found Carver a compelling figure.  Born into slavery, Carver rose to become one of the most important and influential scientists of his time. Carver was a true renaissance man; he taught piano at the University and loved to crochet. Carver also represents yet another dichotomy of science in the South. In the early 1900’s when Carver began his career, very few university educated African-Americans existed. To this date, the representation of African American in science is appalling low. However, Carver revolutionized agriculture from cotton to peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, crops now inseparable from Southern culture. No scientist has had such a profound influence on the South.

Equally intriguing is that Carver’s dedication to science was only matched by his dedication to Christianity.  Carver carried a bible every day and taught a bible class on campus.  He developed walnut dies and stained the pews from a local church.  Carver’s evangelism led to disapproval by many in the scientific establishment.  In contrast, the local Alabama and university loved him.

In August, I had the privilege of visiting Tuskegee University.  Dana Chandler, chief archivist for Tuskegee University, showed me items belonging to Carver.  I am indebted to Dana, himself a man of science and religion and scholar of Carver, for discussing Carver’s life and legacy with me. 

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A farmer once brought a 202 lb meteorite by wagon into Tuskegee University for Carver to examine. I am holding 22 lb section of that meteorite.

Alabama_Aug132015_0626 copy

Carver’s typewriter and a glass cover for his Zeiss microscope.

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A very old photograph of Carver’s laboratory. In the foreground you can see the glass cover for his microscope.

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One of Carver’s exhibits for farmers demonstrating uses for Wisteria, a common nuisance vine throughout the South.


Carver’s field case.

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27 Jul

How Did People Survive Before Air Conditioning?

Nice write up at Apartment Therapy about how air conditioning changed our houses, culture, and habits

Probably everyone has had this thought at least once a summer, while sweating through their clothes on a subway platform or in a parking lot, desperate to locate their car: how did people survive before air conditioning? Although we may not be able to imagine summer without it, prior to its invention in 1902, people did still manage to live and go about their business … even in cities like Savannah and New Orleans. Here’s how they did it.

Source: How Did People Survive Before Air Conditioning? | Apartment Therapy