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Sound smarter at virtual holiday gatherings – and, eventually, parties

December 8, 2020 By Käri Knutson

Holiday get-togethers are going to look a lot different this year. Parties will go virtual as we still try to celebrate being together even when we can’t do it in person.

Whether in the same room, virtually or physically, conversation can still be a challenge. But we can help! Here are some truly interesting ice breakers that will give you something to talk about besides the weather.

A year ago, we shared ideas from new faculty on “how to sound smarter at parties.” The responses were part of New Faculty Focus, a Q & A in which newly hired faculty share a bit about themselves and their areas of expertise. This year, they shared fascinating info once again, with the idea pivoting to “how to sound smarter during video chats” — and eventually, parties.

This year has been dominated by talk of COVID-19 and a seemingly endless election. Perhaps those are topics you’d like a break from. So get your ugliest holiday sweater ready and read some of our favorite responses. Yes, we’re tired of not being able to see the people we care about up close and personal, but 2020 is almost over and that alone is reason to celebrate — even if we can only do so virtually.

A moo point

“Cows spend several hours a day ruminating (chewing). The most interesting thing about this process is that ruminants’ brain waves resemble humans’ brain waves while sleeping.”

Luiz Ferraretto, assistant professor, dairy science; extension ruminant nutrition specialist, Division of Extension

The dirt on dirt

“Soil is alive! It’s estimated that 20,000 pounds of living matter exists in the top six inches of an acre of soil. Also, one tablespoon of soil harbors more organisms than there are people on earth.”

Zac Freedman, assistant professor, soil science

You might as well bungee jump

“In the extreme sport of bungee jumping, … the bungee cord, like a rubber band or spring, is stretched from a relaxed position to generate passive force to absorb the energy from the descent. Thus, the elastic bungee cord saves the jumper a lot of internal damage and psychological trauma. Amazingly, nature also employs elasticity to dampen biological forces or generate passive stiffness at the molecular level, such as muscle stretching during exercise. The molecular bungee cord that serves this purpose in the human or animal muscle fiber is a protein named ‘titin,’ which is the largest protein identified so far in vertebrate animals.”

Wei Guo, assistant professor, animal sciences

How do you like them cranberries?

“Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the U.S.! Cranberries do not grow in water, despite that popular belief. They grow in sandy marshes and when they are ready for harvest the marshes are flooded and the cranberries float to the top.”

Leslie Holland, assistant professor, plant pathology; fruit crop pathology extension specialist, Division of Extension

Just the facts

“Leveraging one’s credibility to convince can be futile; instead, one should talk about facts in a way that is relatable to others’ values and beliefs, then she will be deemed credible.”

Nan Li, assistant professor, life sciences communication

Smarter — and kinder

“Minoritized folks have developed a whole universe of unique care practices to address the ways that we experience harm in everyday life. … If you’re at a party with these kinds of folks and you want to sound smarter (which is also to say, kinder) it’s important to master these care practices yourself. Easy, obvious things like using a gender nonconforming person’s correct pronouns and meeting a disabled person’s access needs are good places to start.”

James McMaster, assistant professor, gender and women’s studies and Asian American studies

Beauty of language

“Ojibwe, like perhaps all of Wisconsin’s native languages, is extraordinarily complex and beautiful. Imagine any given verb having several thousand unique forms and expressions. Indigenous languages are also incredibly adaptive. Not only do they give brilliant explanation to the many place names on Wisconsin maps and roads, they can quite exactly describe and name anything in the modern world.

Brian McInnes, associate professor, civil society and community studies

Historic view

“In nighttime photographs of Berlin from the International Space Station, the city’s Cold War partition is still visible. West Berlin uses environmentally friendly fluorescent streetlights that give off a white glow, while East Berlin uses older, sodium-vapor lamps that glow orange. It’s a striking reminder of how thirty years after the end of the Cold War, legacies of that division continue to impact life in the city — and in Germany and Europe more broadly.”

Brandon Bloch, assistant professor, history

Combating climate change

“The idea of carbon footprints — a process for estimating a person’s individual contribution to climate change — was popularized by the fossil fuel company BP. The problem is that it focuses attention on individual rather than structural change.”

Morgan Edwards, assistant professor, La Follette School of Public Affairs

Sharing with siblings

Siblings share on average half of their genes, but the exact amount in any given case is a result of chance. This means some pairs of siblings share more than half of their genes while others share less than half. So, genetically speaking, if you have two siblings, you’re likely actually more “related” to one than the other.

Sam Trejo, assistant professor, public affairs and sociology

Capitol cause

“I always love to tell people about the Capitol Crawl, which was an important moment in disability history. Over 1,000 people marched to the steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest for disability rights and the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The youngest was an 8-year-old girl, Jennifer Keelan, who got out of her wheelchair and pulled herself up the Capitol steps. You can learn more about it in the movie Crip Camp, which is available on Netflix.”

Carlyn Mueller, assistant professor, rehabilitation psychology and special education

Reading (and writing early) is fundamental

“Usually, individuals consider that youngsters start to be taught to learn and write in early elementary school. However, younger youngsters interact with literacy from their very first weeks and months on this planet! We are able to see emergent literacy practices in (their) first turns of the pages of a board book, their first phrases, and their — deeply significant — first scribbles on a page.”

Emily Machado, assistant professor, early childhood education

Dreaming of ‘Yesterday’

“Paul McCartney wrote the music to the song ‘Yesterday’ after hearing it in a dream. With the melody in his head, he arose and went to the piano to work out the harmony. As he often did, he wrote ‘dummy lyrics’ to occupy the space where the final words would eventually go. The dummy lyrics for ‘Yesterday’ began: Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs. … ‘Yesterday’ is often cited as the most covered song in history with over 3,000 recorded versions. Pretty good for a song that started off as ‘Scrambled Eggs.’”

Brandon Quarles, associate lecturer of classical saxophone

Tags: faculty, holidays