Field of Science

Open house etiquette

It was a busy weekend socially and the internet connection was flaky, even more than usual so no blogs. Since the Martha Stewart fairy dusted our home with decorations, some one volunteered to host a church open house. This can present several questions of etiquette. Do you serve a jar of home canned sweet pickles that were dated 1999?  OK, that's pretty easy. No, and they weren't that good even when young. Do you serve a bottle of wine that you don't like to get rid of it? Rieslings are just too sweet, but yes, you can serve it because some of you guests may like that type of wine and it wasn't 15 years old like the pickles. Is is ethical to serve a smoked salmon dip that you adore even though most of the guests might be vegetarian? As a note, all of the other snacks and dishes to share were non-meat. Well, of course it's OK, and all the more for yourself! People have to keep an open mind. Do you serve the pickled Brussel's sprouts just because your boss made them? Heck yes, but not because of the boss, but because otherwise they might be left for you. Do you have to worry about wishing people Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas? No, they're Unitarians and very accepting of holidays in general. Our dinner group is trickier because of a large contingent from the Temple not to mention Buddism, Hinduism, and Pastafarianism. Growing up in NY you kept your options open and took off all the religious holidays. Do you discuss politics or current events, or steer conversations to the football playoffs? Around here people take their football seriously so you are better off sticking to current events and politics. The concensus is that SONY was foolish to make even a stupid movie about a real head of state. Did anyone doubt who Charlie Chaplin was mocking in the Great Dictator? It would seem there were no major faux pas or other breaches of etiquette or protocol. The offending wine was consumed and enjoyed. Pickled Brussel's sprouts by comparison made the ancient pickles sound good. Actually, they were edible, but not actually in the good category, but if enough people come, they each only need make the mistake once to accomplish our goal of consuming them. Many people enjoyed the salmon, and TPP still had some left over for himself. All in all a fine open house.

Hard to know what to say about the torture report so leave it to Tom Tomorrow

The release of the summary of the torture report more or less tells us something most people already knew, so it's hard to know how to respond or comment. Only a real Pollyanna would think the USA doesn't have numerous secret closets filled with dirty-dealing skeletons. The only real surprise was that this report acknowledges as much of the dirty dealings as it does. Even still it won't make a big impression on the "USA is number 1" crowd; us cynics weren't disappointed, again. Everyone pretty much already knows that torture as a interrogation technique doesn't work, and this just reinforces that view. Everyone pretty much knows that the CIA and other spooky sets of initials lie, all the time, they can't help it, they're spooks. And if anyone had any doubt that Darth Cheney is the worst person on Earth, his responses certainly have cleared that up. Mostly TPP felt a great sadness that so many people in this country and in our government operate and promote politics and policies of fear, and that they have been so effective in messing with our national psyche. Tom Tomorrow nails it, and provides us with a grin in the process. Strange when your primary source of hope is cartoonists.

Shamanistic origin of Santa Claus?

Far out, man! In this nifty little article about Amanita muscari, the fly agaric, a spectacular mushroom, they suggest a story that TPP had never heard before. Now any botanist who knows their humanistic botany knows that this mushroom is a well known hallucinogen and toxic enough to scare the pants off this botanist. Yikes, don't try this mushroom at home folks, it could be your last trip. Siberian shamen were known to favor living in groves of birch trees, trees of life in some cultures, and the fly agaric forms symbiotic relationships with the trees' roots. Naturally the mushrooms appear there too, and supposedly shamen gave them out as seasonal gifts, perhaps the winter solstice. First, you have the Santa Claus colors, red caps flecked with white. Then up there in raindeer country, you have "flying" raindeer, perhaps a not uncommon hallucination for people who rely on them for life. And then you have gifts of magic mushrooms. Could these be the very ancient origins of Santa Claus? The Phactors do have a fly agaric tree ornament, and many early Christian churches and manuscripts have drawings of "trees" that look pretty much like this mushroom. Hey, it's a good story!  Sorry, thought there was a nice image in my files, but couldn't find one. Nice image at the link above, and here's a blog where TPP linked to other images of this mushroom just a couple of months ago. Ho, ho, ho!

Biodiversity in the maize and soybean desert

TPP has long joked about living in the maize and soybean desert of the upper midwest. Sadly this does a grave injustice to deserts because even the harshest desert has more biodiversity than our agricultural fields. 200 years ago this was tall grass prairie which has a surprising and substantial biodiversity and this same grassland community built some of the richest soil in the world. Here in Lincolnland the tall grass prairie is all but gone, less than 1% remains, and it was largely displaced by maize, and later soybeans. In a photoessay of the world's biodiversity, David Liittschwager would document all the biodiversity in a one-cubic foot volume found in a day. In a Costa Rican rain forest, 150 different species were found in his one-cubic-foot placed in the canopy of a strangler fig tree. And all over the world he found surprising biodiversity, and it's mostly surprising because humans pay very little attention to the little organisms. But in a maize field here in north central Lincolnland he got quite a different surprise. Sadly, he found nothing, nothing but maize. In our zeal, in our passion, in our desire for maize, our agricultural methods have come as close as possible to creating a complete monoculture. It's no wonder that more wildlife lives in our cities and towns than outside the city limits because out there it's a biological wasteland, except for crops.  This represents nature bent entirely to human will, and again because little attention is paid to this, it's been estimated based on measurements here and there, that half of this marvelous prairie soil is gone, and so is the community that made it. So how smart are humans anyways? Do you need a crystal ball to see what the future may bring?

Hunt them varmints & vermin

Well, good old Bobcat Bill got his bobcat hunting bill (HB4226) through both houses of the Lincolnland legislature without even considering or allowing biological or ecological testimony. Here's a little background on this purely stupid action. Bobcat hunting was banned in Illinois in 1972 after the species became threatened.  Bobcat populations have recovered in several counties - a recent SIU study found significant recovery in 17 counties in Southern Lincolnland, but there is no data to suggest at what level the population can sustain hunting. What is it that motivates some people to want to shoot (or trap) anything they see?  Bobcats are important apex predators (and certainly not unwanted or undesirable as the definition of varmints and vermin suggests) that live on a diet of rodents and small mammals and contribute to an overall healthy ecosystem, and they are not responsible for the loss of quail or turkey as some proponents of this bill suggested. The bill that passed has significant problematic issues.  First, the bill does not limit the areas or set bobcat population standards for counties to restrict hunting; hunting can be allowed in any county in the state. There may be a bobcat in our area, and if so then probably a young male, and this bill would allow our population of 1 to be hunted, and then there would be none. Second, the proposed hunting season overlaps portions of the bobcat breeding season, putting both bobcats with kittens and pregnant bobcats at risk. This is generally at odds with any good hunting practices. Finally, there is no emergency or automatic procedure to close the season if the species becomes threatened again. There has been significant citizen opposition on this bill and it helped to almost defeat the bill in the Senate (passed by one vote). There are other ways to enjoy wildlife than killing it, and it hunting is allowed where the bobcat is more populous, then the species will certainly not recover in other areas of the state. Ask the Governor to veto this bill by going to this link to sign a petition. Probably best to refrain if you're not a resident of this great nearly sterile state (more on this later). Do pass this blog on to other interested parties.

Dirt vs. soil, disease vs. disorder

OK, let's get some things clear, by definition if necessary. So a lot of plant experiments, especially those done in glass houses in pots require a growth medium for the plants. While mixing up a batch for some 240 pots, a security person on rounds came by and said, "So are you mixing up some dirt?"  Our stock answer followed, "No, dirt is something you find under your finger nails and in certain types of books and movies."  "We're mixing up some soil." This does mean that mixing soil can result in dirt under your finger nails. Similarly and widely misused are the terms disease and disorder. A disease is an illness that has a causative organism, a disease organism. A disorder is has a genetic or nutritional basis, but no causative organism is involved. Unfortunately the two terms are thrown around willy-nilly and used as basically interchangeable. So let's be a little more precise out there, people.

Tree tunnel in N. Ireland

Tree tunnels are pretty cool things. TPP pointed you to a photo essay about them once before, and this particular tree tunnel, the Dark Hedges, was included, but only one image. The link provided here will show you several more images of this beech tree tunnel that grows in Northern Ireland. The light gray color of the bark of beech trees is one of the things that makes them so spectacular, but when planted in two long rows, the effect of the trunks and their interlocking crowns is quite impressive, quite handsome.

Bad arboriculture - This isn't going to turn out well

Sadly the first time TPP saw a picture like this was on a bulletin board in a school of forestry and the caption attached said, "Here's what happens when you chain your bike to a tree and come back 10 years later." Of course, trees don't grow that way, and ironically that very week the faculty were debating about reducing the amount of botany forestry students should be required to take. At any rate, this isn't going to turn out well. Straps, chains, cables, or the like simply will not under almost all circumstances help a tree that is prone to splitting. They just aren't strong enough to hold a split trunk in place, and see what is happening? The secondary growth of the tree is in the process of engulfing the chain, incrementally, year by year. This will produce a weak zone in the wood damaging both trunks. Trying to remove the chain may well now rip the bark and cambium producing quite an injury. Why do people do these things? Actually these are pretty vertically oriented trunks and no particular problem was evident that the chain was meant to alleviate. In all likelihood, this preventative measure will cause more real damage and help shorten the longevity of this tree. There are worse things you can do, but this isn't a good practice. And in case you didn't understand, this chain is at exactly the same height off the ground as it was when it was first placed there. 

Birth of a lichen


Lichens are symbiotic organisms consisting of a highly organized fungal mycelium enclosing algal cells. What's strange about lichens is that without the algae, the fungus just looks like a fungus. Without the fungus, the algae is just algae. They only take on the form recognized as a lichen when the two organisms are in that symbiotic association, and of course, the term itself means "living together". This presents some interesting aspects of reproduction. This illustration is from the November 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany.  The sexual reproduction of the lichen is fungal in nature, so to form a new lichen, the fungus must capture a compatible algal cell anew.  This illustration shows this very early stage where fungal hyphae (filaments) have found and encircled an algae cell. The proliferation of the hyphae and the division of the algal cell is a demonstration that the symbiotic interaction, the lichenization, has begun. The accompanying article by William Sanders provides illustrated diagrams of the sexual and asexual reproductive cycles of lichens, all very nicely done.

Christmas present for a cat

All cat people know that the only thing to get a cat for a present is a catnip toy. Here's another of those terribly clever animations of Simon's cat.  It perfectly captures the usual reaction of a cat to a new catnip toy. The animation is a present to us from the cartoonist. Enjoy.