Field of Science

Bicycle camping trailer for 2


Oh, doesn't this look like fun! It's the Wide Path camper. It cleverly unfolds (the back half, left, folds over the front) and is light enough that 2 people can carry it, and of course a bicycle can tow it! Just how cool is that? TPP has a friend who'll probably order one immediately! This definitely makes up for the dearth of bicycle news articles of late.  HT to Treehugger 

Terrible aftermath shows ugliness of USA

The recent SCOTUS decision affirming gay people's rights under the law produced an extremely ugly aftermath of reaction. Without the specifics the reactions were to tell people to be afraid, be scared, continue to be a bigot, blame the judges, blame the president, blame everyone else. Perhaps many of these reactions come from sincerely held religious beliefs, OK, it's your right, but when such people are egged on by violent rhetoric, some of them are going to act on those rants in ways that hurt someone, and that's not OK. This does illustrate what's wrong with the fundamentalist type of religion and why religion of any sort should not have a role in law-making. Those who think the opposite, and several are running for the GnOPe nomination for president should never be in a position of power, of any sort. Some of these self-proclaimed pick-mes even suggest our whole system of governance should be changed because their religious freedom to tell and control what other people do, people supposedly with the same freedoms, was ended in this one particular area. It continues unabated in others as is the "right" of the one true religion. At any rate, episodes such as this really hang the dirty laundry right out on the line for everyone to see, and it isn't very pretty and it isn't much to brag about.

Pleading the 4th

Fighting home entropy. Now enjoying holiday with negroni and BBQ ribs. Very patriotic way to spend the holiday!  OK, smart phone is not very good for blogging.

Friday fabulous flower - alotta hosta


A street side garden is about 60 feet long and 10-15 feet wide filled almost solidly with a big old hostas.  They've been there for decades and the bed has been diversified under our tutelage, but there are still a lot of hosta, all the same, some big old plain, tough variety.  They've suffered a bit after the removal of some dying spruces and white ashes exposed them to a lot more sunlight although this image doesn't show that.  But what with all the rain this June (10.75 inches total, 2.5 times average), and cool weather, the bed is doing just fine so far, and just now it displays a sea of blue flowers that is quite spectacular even when just getting going.  Nothing wrong with some massed, if not massive, plantings. 

High tech latte

How good in your barista? It doesn't really matter because a new gadget, aka Ripples, can make complex designs and even pictures in the foam on top of your latte! Using a combination of 3-D and inkjet technology, images can be uploaded via wi-fi and "printed" on top of your latte. Doncha just want to try this? Isn't it great how innovation and new technologies can produce useless gadgets like this?  Hey, big spender, be the first in your neighborhood to have one, and if this inkjet works anything like any such printer that TPP has had be sure to buy the $75/month service contract. Wonder when my coffee shoppe will spring for this?  

Anti-cancer compound found in rare rain forest tree

This news came from Australia where a compound found in the fruits of a rare rain forest tree have some promise as an anti-cancer agent. TPP took particular notice of this news item because as soon as rare, rain forest tree, and Australia were mentioned together he immediately thought of the Atherton Tableland in far northern Queensland. A lot of quite unusual plants, and animals, live there and many years ago so did the Phactors, in fact the F1 attended kindergarden in Atherton and became a right proper little Aussie for awhile. The plant in the news article was Hylandia and TPP has seen it once and then only because a field savvy colleague pointed it out. This is also of particular interest because the tree is named after Bernie Hyland, a taxonomic legend of this area and he ran the herbarium for the CSIRO's tropical forest research center in Atherton. Before people go crazy and start the "natural/herbal cure" stuff, let's be clear. This tree is a member of the Euphorb family and they are mostly toxic. Finding a compound that reduces cancer tumors in mice is a great start, but understand what this means. Researchers are looking for a toxic substance that kills cancer cells at a dosage that is still tolerable (safe?) for the organism with the cancer, and the wider the window the better. Researchers will now monkey around with the molecule to see if some derivative molecule is better than the "natural" chemical because natural is not always better. Here's an example. The bark of the white willow (Salix alba) made great poultices for say a sore elbow, but the salicyclic acid in the bark would really upset your stomach if you tried to take it orally. But then someone found out that if you acetalized it, the acetosalicyclic acid was much easier on your stomach and a great general pain-killer was born (Got it yet? aspirin!). Of course this is a great argument for rain forest conservation, and a great deal of the Atherton Tableland has been converted to agriculture already because the basaltic soils, where they occur, are fertile. Good thing this rate plant wasn't exterminated in the process of raising peanuts or potatoes. 

Don't do this at home - Corpse plant flowers

Here's a video of the corpse plant flowering (Amorphophallus titanum). Yes, this video shows "flowering" but you don't see the flowers. This is basically one damned big jack-in-the-pulpit and a member of the aroid family, so there is a spike with flowers at its base and a big sterile apex ("jack" - the spadix) subtended by a modified leaf, a bract called the spathe (the pulpit). What's unusual about the titan arum is that the whole thing is so damned big and smells of incredibly bad, unless you like the odor of carrion.  What you see here is the sterile top of the spadix extending beyond the spathe which is what opens giving access to the many unisexual flowers at the base of the spadix.  Many of aroids flower using food and water stored in a big fleshy underground stem, a corm, and they do this in a season when their vegetative growth is dormant. In another season a big single leaf grows and the process of storing food for reproduction continues. The flowering of a corm is a big deal because it can take a number of years for a corm to get big enough to flower. TPP was given a tennis-ball-sized corm of a smaller species of Amorphophallus (Can you figure out the genus name?), and each year the corm was dug in the fall and stored in the basement in a pot of sand.  Each year it grew the corm got bigger and in 5 years it was the size of a volleyball or small basketball, and then while being stored a shoot emerged in February. So being curious TPP brought the pot upstairs and a 4 foot tall inflorescence appeared just like the titan arum, just much smaller, but hoo boy, it did smell.  Mrs. Phactor's curiosity quickly waned and demanded its removal. My colleagues being good biologists enjoyed showing the item to students all day long and explaining about pollination attractants and pollinators, floral placement, and pollination.  Great stuff.  Here's a diagram of the life cycle although it labels the corm as a tuber. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - green, fringed orchid

Just recently TPP posted the image of a rather small and inconspicuous orchid, the purple twayblade,  and here's another orchid in the same category and the same place, the green, fringed orchid (Platanthera (formerly Habenaria) lacera).  Jones' Flora of Illinois said this species was rare and limited to the northern-most counties, but our vegetational surveys in central Illinois have found this species surprisingly common such that you begin to think that such comments just mean people weren't looking enough or very hard or very closely. This plant was almost 0.5 m tall, but even then it was buried in meter tall vegetation such that if you weren't moving the taller plants aside for a look, you never ever would see it. This probably explains why so few specimens exist in our herbarium collection.

Someone had a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad week

Someone had a horrible, terrible, no-good very bad week, and it wasn't TPP. Oh, this was a depressing, disappointing week what with the unrelenting crappy weather and all, and bad weather can make you a bit crabby.  But, wow, talk about crabby! TPP's favorite SCOTUS justice, Tony Scalia, is in an extremely bad mood!  Just read his blistering, but poorly reasoned, dissents on the ACA and same-sex marriage! You may search a long time before you find two better-written temper tantrums than these. You really get the sense that Scalia thinks he is actually smarter than anyone else and that his opinions should therefore be respected and deferred to. When you find such an attitude in a colleague (and TPP speaks here from experience), you find them insufferable and generally irritating. How can anyone not recognize and appreciate such an intellect? You cannot have a rationale interaction with someone like that. For our general entertainment a contest of bombastic egotism needs to be arranged so that Scalia can square off against someone who is really in his league: Bill O'Really!  This idea and the SCOTUS decisions in general have really cheered TPP up!

Retirement update

Quite a few people have been asking TPP how his retirement is going.  In answer: It's going well. You see everyone's big worries are money and boredom, having nothing to do and having nothing to do it with. Neither of these is a problem at all. Disciplined saving, investment, and Mrs. Phactor's watchful fiscal eye have paid off. Saw today that 29% of people in the USA have no savings at all, and this is actually impossible for TPP to imagine. Scary. Even as grad students the Phactors had some money socked away. Boredom just isn't an issue. Fortunately a big dividing line between what TPP did for his salary and what he did because he liked doing it never existed. So this was a retirement from being a professor, but not retirement from being a botanist. Why would you retire from botany? The young fellow in the next door office just turned 85 and he now has been an active retired biologist for longer than he was an active professor, a very difficult feat. Without the distractions of teaching, faculty meetings, and the like, he has published more research articles in the retirement portion of his career. So, yes, TPP still has some active research projects. He is helping master naturalists organize some "citizen science" projects. He is an emeritus curator of the university's herbarium. And of course his historic house and expansive gardens all scream for his attentions. Finding things to do is not the problem. TPP doesn't miss the stress of dealing with deadlines and fixed schedules. Going with the flow and not feeling like you're always rushing towards a deadline is quite relaxing.  As Douglas Adams once said, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as the rush by."  So, on the whole, the retirement thing is going quite well. Thank you for asking.