Field of Science

Spring field work

Well, it's been a late spring, and our field work has finally begun. This sort of sounds silly, but the first job is to actually find our study plots. Yes, they are marked, and yes, we've been using these plots, a long-term study, since 2006, but the markers must be able to survive prairie burnings, so they are metal and not too big. Our numbered tags got well scorched, dirty, and buried in ash, again. At times you can be standing just inches from a tag and not be able to see it. So, the prairie was burned last week, and today we started looking for them.  Burned prairies are dirty, dusty places, but already the green shoots are appearing through the black ash. It's fun to see what else lurked on the prairie that ends up being exposed after a burn.  Hmm, we found the charred "bones" of a meter stick, and the two brass ends were still exactly 1 meter apart.  Hate to think how many of these high tech instruments we've damaged over the years.  The partially melted remains of a fairly nice compass was found still in the middle of one study plot. A couple of small snakes that did not slither fast enough were roasted, so were the eggs of a ground-nesting bird, a big one, goose or duck? Quite a few bones here and there, nice and brightly white. Fortunately a couple of students lent us their young eyes, and we set a  new record in finding all the plots. Wow! What a huge help! It's a good start to the season, but man, TPP was just about black from the elbows to hands, and from the knees down.  

Earth Day 2014

Wow, has it been that long?  Yes, the 1st Earth Day was 44 years ago, a whole academic career ago, and at times you wonder what was accomplished?  What the frack is happening to the Clean Water Act of 1972?  Well, Walt Kelly's Pogo had it right all along. Too many papers, too much field work, and other semester debris piling up too quickly to write much more.  Too depressing to think about many of our pressing issues. 

What's on a cat's mind?

No one really knows, especially what's on this one's mind. Mind? This is an interesting article about people who study animal intelligence, and they say cats are just really, really difficult to work with.  People like to think that dogs are smarter than cats, but in TPP's opinion this is largely because humans and dogs understand each other better.  Communicating with a cat is more like trying to figure out an alien life form. Humans just don't think like cats. Naturally as solitary predators, cats are very self-centered even those that are very friendly and very well socialized. You just get them many of the things they like: warm place to sleep, kibble, etc. Cats are very good at figuring out how to get into and out of tricky places, and this takes some problem solving and evaluation of what you physically can and cannot do. When presented with a problem (how to get out of my yard), they find solutions. Go up onto the back steps, jump to the hand rail and walk along it. Jump to the top beam of the gate and walk across.  Then jump up onto the garage roof.  Jump across the narrow alley between our garage and the neighbor's garage.  From here access the back neighbors fence, and so on.  Retreat and retrace those umpteen steps when caught by startled owner.  Yes, this was a real adventure of the F1's mighty cat, a 26 lb. Maine coon cat. A lot of cat behavior seems very hard-wired, but cats are very careful and aware of their environment and they notice everything, when a piece of furniture is moved, they get upset because this is something that might affect their choice of a nap location.  Dogs don't seem to notice except to avoid bumping into it. Cats are very curious and investigative of their environment, and they find lots of things, for example, lost toys and things they consider to be toys, and they remember where little things were for quite some time, and they remember their "tricks" for quite some time, and both things would make them successful hunters. So this is a very different type of intelligence and humans haven't been smart enough to figure out how to test cats, but doggy tests won't work, and it ain't because they're smarter.

Dehydrated Jack Daniels?

One of my colleagues always used to kid around about having packed dehydrated Jack Daniels for field work. And now someone has invented a powdered alcoholic beverage?  OK, based on what TPP knows about chemistry, you can separate the water and alcohol, but then you still have to carry the same weight to rehydrate it later, and alcohol doesn't dry out; gas, liquid, solid, but not a dry powder. Something doesn't make sense. This powdered alcohol is called Palcohol, and when first this made the news TPP figured the Onion was at it again. Crazy! Can someone explain this and direct us to the dry margaritas?

Gardening the hole day

TPP is bushed, tired, not politically inept. Yes, hole not whole, because that's what he did today; TPP dug holes. That's the bloody trouble with new shrubs, they need holes.  And when you take down 5 or 6 old spruce you end up with an empty space that's at least 65' x 20' to re-landscape, and that's what we be doing.  Let's see a Japanese snowbell, a fancy purple lilac, a Korean pine, a Korean azalea (hmm, is there a trend here?), a June berry, a double-file viburnum, a couple of Korean spicebush viburnums (yes, definitely a trend!), and something, something else?  Oh, a fancy dwarf conifer for the Japanese garden, but that's out back, and a quite nice plum yew was planted there too (Cephalotaxus - look it up!).  Of course lot's of old standard hostas were moved to make room for the new stuff; in our gardens, it's never an easy planting because things must be removed to plant something new.  Anchoring this new front garden is a large Japanese maple, a Crimson Prince who is at least 8' tall with a 3-4" trunk, a fairly big fellow, so the Phactors wisely paid younger, stronger backs to plant that one, and it already looks terrific. This is high impact gardening, a hobby, a life-style, with a built-in exercise program.  Watch for our exercise video out soon.

Walt Disney at Dawson Lake

This poem was written by James McGowan and read at a memorial service in celebration of this life.  In a real coincidence, Mrs. Phactor called the poem to my attention today, the day that the second stanza was observed for real by my taxonomy class out in the field (finally).  Enjoy it. Jim did.

He's grab his sketch book
              go in April, May
              for the Spring flowers--
to make them characters,
his little men and women, boys and girls.
He'll do a film
              where they all sing and dance around--
but he must catch them first:

There's Hepatica,
she's trying on dresses,
              white to pink to blue, deep purple.
O that giddy girl look good in every one.

Spring Beauty laughs; she's everywhere
she owns the uplands, sings soprano
             she'll be the chorus
(alto Blue Bell answers from the creek,
             Wild Ginger, red-faced, croaks the bass).

Jack-in-the-Pulpit needs to loosen up.
Walt's going to match him with
that ditzy blond, the Bellwort.
There with the druggy Toothwort
             they'll cavort.

Some extras: White Trout Lily as a pious bride,
her yellow sis a freckled tomboy farmer's daughter.
Blue-eyed Mary is a peppy prep,
             cheer-leader through and through.
That Dutchman's breeches is a bumpkin oaf,
             comic relief,
Squirrel Corn his steadier brother (lots of heart).

A plot?  Who knows. Old Walt will work it out--
a new Fantasia of Spring
Set in that wholesome heartland,


So here's Hepatica acutiloba in one of her rarer dresses; around here the dress color is usually white to very pale pink. And this year it's too early for any of the other "characters" to have flowered.

Spot the human artifact - on Mars!

Human artifacts are just so easy to distinguish from natural objects.  But still this is kind of cool.  See if you can spot the human artifact in this image of Mars' surface before you enlargen the image. It's just a human thing to do; leave a mark.

Much ado about very little: office art

Our local newspaper sounded the outrage about a relatively minor government official who bought “over $1000 of art” for their office.  Now there are several things wrong here, so let’s look at them in no particular order.  “Over $1000 of art” is obviously meant to enrage the taxpayer that so much of their money was spent on art.  The amount was actually something like $1027, yes, over $1000, but $1000? That’s not a lot of art. The Phactors have several pieces in their living room (well, at least 4) that cost more than $1000 each.  So what are we talking here?  Oh, 5 or 6 framed prints or something like that for just over $1000, so just about nothing. Now the real outrage should be that tax money was spent on cheap-ass, knock-off  pseudo-art that was probably bought to match their sofa.  But that isn’t the most troubling part.  What kind of cultural Philistine thinks art in a public work place is some kind of outrageous waste of tax money even if it is stuff?  This is a university city, so starving artists abound, and buying one nice piece of art from a local artist would be a better expenditure; local economy, quality of life, support the arts, and all that. Apparently if your workplace is a public one, then you should just live with the blank, institutional-pastel walls and be content in your bleak, soul-sucking, gray cubicle.  

Iowan proclaimation calls for prayer and humble repentance

Dear Pastor Grandstand (Branstad or something like that),

Thank you for your invitation to join in thoughtful prayer and humble repentance, but for what exactly?  Yes, your proclamation was for Iowa, but surely it would still count just across the river, or is the God you mention a small one?  Is repentance necessary because Iowa has been wicked? But no, you say our nation has “fallen from her intended purpose”?  Hmm, TPP didn’t even know our nation was female let alone that it had an intended purpose?  What a revelation! And where did this information about our nation come from, pray tell.  Granted, TPP is not a great historical scholar, especially concerning our nation, but somehow there was this idea that our nation’s founding had a great deal to do with religious freedom.  Now this means everyone has the freedom to believe, as long as that belief doesn’t infringe upon the freedoms of others (a concept that gets frequently over looked, and this is only mentioned because, Pastor Grandstand, you seem unaware of this).  You quote some Corinthians thing to support your declaration, but what is this?  Didn't it involve sacrifice of a lot of animals?  It sounds very Biblical, but since many of us are not of the Biblical persuasion, you cannot possibly be proclaiming in direct opposition to one of the basic tenets of our nation.  You must be  concerned that Christians who have no understanding of religious freedoms are trying to stomp all over the religious freedoms of others, a noble cause, but you sure have a daffy way of expressing it, especially as a political leader sworn to uphold our constitution.  So is that the problem?  Our nation’s intended purpose is to follow our constitution, but you call for prayer and Christian repentance because Christians are not giving others their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of religion?  This is very confusing, but no more confusing than having a governor act as though he were the high priest of Iowa.  So, no thanks your Immanence, and we give thanks for the governor we have on this side of the river, who is not a great savior, but at least he understands that part of the constitution.  Next time read it, not 2nd Corinthians.  Sincerely, TPP

Ferns have it made in the shade

Here's a great bit of research just reported by my colleague Emily over at the No seeds, no fruits, no flowers: no problem blog.  Everyone knows that ferns grow well in the deep forest shade, but this is no easy trick because that leaf canopy overhead captures most of the sunlight, especially at the blue end of the spectrum. Ferns have a neochrome pigment that allows them to use both red and blue light more efficiently.  This isn't news in and of itself, but the real news is that the gene for this pigment comes from a hornwort (image by Jason Hollinger, Wikimedia Creative Commons), a little bryophyte that may represent the basal lineage of living land
plants. Ferns are not a direct ancestor of hornworts, and the two lineages would have diverged over 400 million years ago, and the molecular clock would put the date at which ferns acquired these genes at less than 200 million years ago.  How did they do that?  The unsatisfying answer is that we don't know. This transfer of whole genes seems to happen way more commonly than biologists thought and the hypothesized mechanism is called horizontal gene transfer, basically nature's own GMOs.  But no one knows how it happens!  Maybe a virus does it?  This genetic event really allowed ferns to adapt to the understory of gymnosperms and then angiosperms, so it's a big event in fern evolutionary history.  Here's a nice news account of this research from the Economist (link also provided by Emily)((TPP only gets the Economist to read after his wife is done with it at her office, so he's behind.)).  Go ahead compare this science article to whatever news periodical you read.