Field of Science

Great mid-summer flowering - bottle-brush buckeye

A native to south-eastern North America, the bottle-brush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is hard to beat for summer flowering.  The Phactors have several growing as part of a semi-shady border, and they are a great plant.  The specimen shown is from our university campus where several shrubs (possibly a clone) hides a dirt bank.  Even in closeup the flowering is quite lovely and attracts a big diversity of insects, including, unfortunately Japanese beetles, who last year really devastated the flowers. The big display this year has not been so affected. TPP gives this plant a big thumb's up. Although native to the SE rock-bottom zone 5 temperatures did not damage ours at all.  

Bad news

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry after reading or watching the news. There's the middle eastern living laboratory for demonstrating that tit-for-tat (or is it tit-for-TAT?) is always a loosing strategy.  You'd think they'd learn, but for some reason, probably a historical deafness, leaders of nations don't.  Our country doesn't seem to have learned anything about our "big stick" foreign policy since the Vietnam war because people keep listening to old, dead-wrong, but still alive policy makers like Darth Cheney and Krusty Kissenger.  Meanwhile Putin isn't going to worry about an airliner or two, or the world's reaction to their destruction, in his quest to rebuild the Russian empire. As a result of international condemnation, Putin's popularity at home is probably at an all time high. So once again, who nails the news situation? Tom Tomorrow!    

Weeds, weeds, weeds!

The Phactors don't want to talk about weeds; it's been a very bad year.  Black nightshade, poke weed, wild lettuce, lambs quarter, and Oxalis (Not sure about the species, probably O. stricta; too busy pulling it to ID it.) have been plentiful, robust, and aggressive, some growing to impressive sizes. In an effort to prevent them from producing more seeds, weeding has been a primary garden activity this year.  But even after weeding one area, you return to an earlier area, and you've got another crop on your hands.  And let's not talk about sugar maple or redbud seedlings, but it the Phactors had a nickel for everyone they've pulled, we'd have enough for a merry old time. Fortunately, the abundant rain that makes for good weed growing conditions also makes for softer ground and better weed pulling.  Perhaps we be needing an assistant, one with younger knees and a younger back.  How about $7/hr and all the weeds you can eat? 

How to kill an iZombie

Sometime back TPP commented on iPhone zombies, but a similar affliction can also occur due to ear buds and whatever they are delivering from an iPod, so the result is an iZombie. Like all zombies, you have to know the right way to kill them, but based on recent events that may not be too difficult. You turn an ordinary person, often a student around here, into an iZombie by giving them a smart phone and a set of ear buds either attached to the iphone or an ipod, either or both transform the user into an iZombie. To kill an iZombie, you simply must steer them gently into an intersection or actually any urban street at all and in no time at all the traffic will claim another iZombie. So much easier than axes or swords or shotguns. Yes, why they might even get hit by a bicycle going at a good clip. Now this concerns TPP, the bicyclist could get hurt seriously, particularly when they are a senior citizen. So it is quite lucky, although no small amount of bicycling skill was involved, that TPP was able to avoid narrowly such a collision not because of his concern for the iZombie, but who wants to get a broken bone in the process?  And who but an iZombie would walk down a driveway and into the street without a single hesitation or a glance in either direction?  But maybe it would be wise to find that old Chinese meat cleaver built rather like a heavy-duty machete and mount it on the handle bars.  Abe Lincoln would approve.

Barbarians and their enablers

You give a kid a BB gun, and sooner or later he'll shoot it at some windows. It's a given of human nature. You give rebels, terrorists, or even some other type of militia under limited central control some big boom-booms, and sooner or later they'll shoot at something they shouldn't have.  And of course giving an implement of destruction to anybody who is more likely to shoot than to think makes you partly responsible for the outcome. This means you really have to think about what kind of weapons you give to trigger happy groups.  In this case Russian-backed separatists in the Ukraine were apparently given a big boom-boom, one capable of shooting down a high-flying passenger jet, so Vlad, some of the responsibility falls upon the person who gave them the boom-boom.  And the world is quite right to be both angry and seek some redress because these irresponsible actions, both providing the weapon and hitting the launch button, allowed this local conflict to transition into an international problem in a single act of violence against non-combatants. Such acts are those of pure barbarians, those who destroy for the simple act of destroying. So what do you do with such barbarians?  That's not so easy.

Useless research done here!

TPP must make a confession: in his long scientific career he has never studied a damned thing that was “useful” meaning studies that had immediately useful results for human problems. TPP's research was never designed to be useful or answer useful questions from the perspective of a politician, and the scientific funding that does exist already has a hugely human bio-medical bias. Mostly TPP wanted to figure out how flowers worked, and indeed, some of his work should be very useful to nutmeg growers if only they would pay attention to botanical research, but even then, would this be of value to citizens of our state or country?  Also, please understand that a very, very  small number of research studies yield immediately useful results.  You can't just say "I'm going to cure cancer" because so many other biological questions have to be answered first.  According to some members of Congress grant funds for "useless research" wastes taxpayer money.  So they have proposed the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST)  bill that requires written justification for proposed grants.  This is nothing new of course. TPP is old enough to remember Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards where he’d present a grant proposal’s title out of context and then declare it a funding boondoggle.  A Lincolnland legislator was visiting our campus and wanted to visit our greenhouse, a plant fancier of sorts, and upon finding out that TPP was a tropical botanist, they asked, “What good does studying rainforest do for the people of LIncolnland?”  This is the same type of question really, the idea being that that portion of my job that requires scholarship is being wasted by studying something in the tropics.  My initial response was to ask in return, “What relevance is the arbitrary political boundary of this state to the world's biology?”  TPP studies the flowering and reproduction of tropical trees because it’s very interesting, and science doesn’t know or understand how most tropical organisms operate and interact to produce something as complex as a rain forest, something that may be very important to know on a warming planet. No one study will tell you how a rainforest operates or sequesters carbon dioxide, so many parts must be studied to assemble an understanding.  TPP does scholarship firstly because he likes doing science and secondly because one of my primary jobs is to apprentice students in the process of science.  Most politicians simply think we teach about the knowledge accumulated by science.  So in one sense it doesn’t matter what TPP studies so long as it asks biologically interesting and valid questions because all such studies allow him to interact with students who want to learn how do science (active learning), a pretty useful skill that. TPP has "wasted" very little grant money in his career, meaning mostly that his science was done on the cheap, without many grants, but that’s a shame because it also means fewer students have been involved than could have been involved if TPP could have kept them fed. The idea that all science must be immediately “useful” is a very ignorant perspective of limited value. It's an attitude born of the idea that unfettered science tells us things we don't like so let's rein in those liberal elitists who tell us things we don't want to hear. The history of science is littered with useless research that proved very useful either unexpectedly or at a later point in time.  Political dumb asses will certainly not be able to guess what will or will not be useful. But even still, there is a cultural value to asking, “Why does that happen?” or “How does it do that?” or “Huh?”  Often in the course of doing useful research you find unexpected results that are more interesting than the question you sought to answer. Cultivating a healthy scientific curiosity about the world would seem to be a perfectly useful thing to do, but if dumbos like Rep. Bucshon and Rep. Smith (does TPP have to say they’re GnOPe?) have their way, there will be no public funding for just plain innovating and interesting research for the sake of learning.  Science will be one more area where the USA used to be a leader and now its stature will be diminish all because of political ignorance and bad attitudes about science, a pretty un-American course of action.  TPP feels very sorry for his younger colleagues.   

Unique bird pollination adaptation - poofty anthers

Here's a link to a newly published study describing and documenting a very unique bird pollination adaptation. The anthers have a "spongy" bulb of tissue and they are attractive to birds.  When a bird grasps the "bulb" to pluck it from the flower, the tissue collapses and blows a puff of pollen onto the face/head of the bird, thus placing the pollen in a location to be transferred to another flower's stigma. This is a totally unique anther adaptation. The common ornamental called the "wishbone" flower (Torenia) has levers on its anthers that when pushed squeeze out pollen like toothpaste from a tube, but that's still quite different.  In the bird pollination paper the flowers are part of the Melastome family, a group of plants that tend to have large, gaudy stamens (for example), but TPP has never seen anything like this.  Cool. 

Join the HMS Beagle book club!

This is just great!  The mapping voyage of the HMS Beagle was to last at least a year. This was the voyage of discovery that launched Charles Darwin's career in case you have never read about the voyage in Darwin's first major publications.  Here's the ship's library recreated online so you can read what Darwin was reading!.  It'll take you some time to get through it all because it totals almost 200,000 pages, and a lot of the books were in French. And he had Smith's Grammar of Botany, a real oldie but goodie. 

Lotus flowering on Chinese time

Never stopped to think about it before, but the Phactors' lotus always starts flowering in July too, and apparently this is when they flower in China, and why not?  While halfway around the world, it's still the northern temperate zone. Here's a really pretty photo essay which shows exactly why people revere the lotus.  It is a very photogenic flower and terribly lovely flower, and it not only graces the lead graphic for this blog, but it's been the Friday Fabulous Flower more than once (here).  It is a lovely plant, and it does overwinter in our lily pond (used a big livestock tank as a pot to keep the loveliness from taking over).

Quiet fountain in a hosta bed


Here's another very charming feature in Mrs. Phactor's gardens. In a shady copse under a couple of huge sugar maple trees Mrs. Phactor has a large bed of big old hostas that surround a small fountain water feature that just dribbles water out of a blue and white glass bowl. So when the hostas are in flower, as they are right now in early July, the hosta-fountain combination makes for a lovely color-water-sound garden feature especially when a spot light of sun shines through a hole in the canopy. And of course there's the quiet music of dribbling water. It all has a very calming effect just beyond the patio area behind the house, a perfect place for early evening cocktail.