Field of Science

Bedazzled by alternate truth

TPP once bet a colleague that no one dumber than Ronald Reagan could ever be elected president, a bet he's lost now at least twice. Living in an intellectual bubble, which is rather hard to avoid when living in a smallish city having a university, it seemed quite impossible that such pathetic rhetoric could sway enough people to win an election. Well, so much for this pundit's ability to assess the general public. My afore mentioned colleague brought this home, "We are part of the 1% my friend, not in terms of money, but in terms of thinking." "So they'll be coming for us sooner or later."
The T-rumpkin administration, including the cabinet (in making) with the highest IQ (= net worth?) ever, is off to a sad start by using alternative facts to counter an easily verifiable claim of the largest crowd ever. Such speech displays a bedazzling audacity TPP did not think possible. No more betting on what couldn't possibly be worse. Clearly TPP is not equipped to deal with an alternate reality. Are we soon going to get a Ministry of Truth? This shows someone needs a vacation to get his head back on straight, and that's the truth. Coming soon, vaca blogging!  

Saffron - pricey condiment

While Mrs. Phactor and F1 are 2 of the estimated 250,000 women marchers in downtown Chicago. Clearly many of us feel the need to vent and everyone does it differently. TPP is cooking paella for our longtime dinner club tonight. It is a vegetarian paella, and TPP remains uncertain why someone thought this was a good idea, but hey.
At any rate, the recipe calls for 1 tsp of saffron.  Not sure if its presence will be detected among all the roasted vegetable flavors. The way this works is that everyone brings part of the menus put together by the hosts and co-hosts.  TPP knew he would be making the paella because it was obviously the most involved recipe, and if any one thing characterizes our dinner group, it's the avoidance of the perceived most difficult recipe. Everyone likes eating; cooking not so much.  You keep track of your costs, then they are added up divided by the number attending, and you pay the average, some paying, some getting money back. 
0.007 oz. of saffron cost $3.  A small amount of math will tell you that the saffron costs $6857 per pound.  Wonder why that price wasn't displayed. Saffron is the orange-red stigma of a particular crocus, and you only get one 3-parted stigma per flower, and if memory serves it takes 220,000 stigmas to make a pound of saffron. That's a lot of crocus friends. And a lot of hand labor to pick them.  No wonder this is the most expensive of spices.  Cheap crap saffron may also include the three yellow stamens, so look carefully. 
Hope there isn't too much complaining about the price of this paella! The recipe only called for half a pound.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Palm flowers



It's a gray day in late January, and for other reasons TPP is feeling a bit depressed. However, nothing cheers us up as much as flowers and it is a Friday.  Time for some tropical attitude adjustment!
When walking the forest trails in Costa Rica, every now and again you come across a snowfall, a white, snow covering you path. A palm flowered above you day/night before.  Palm flowers are small and numerous in general, in many palms a large inflorescence of many (hundreds) of flowers comes wrapped in bract. Although technically, subtending the inflorescence, in many palms the bract forms a canopy presumably shielding the flowers from the frequent rains. Palm flowers tend to be white or cream colored and they are usually fragrant with the odor often having musky overtones.  This particular palm, and without his trusty field notebook handy TPP fails to remember exactly which palm this is, fits most of the general palm flower characteristics.  Anyone recognize this palm?
Features of note: While the inside (upper surface) of the bract is smooth, the outside (under surface, up in this view) is extremely spiny and the spines are so sharp the weight of the bract is enough to inflict damage (handle with extreme care).
The primary floral visitors and presumed pollinators are stingless bees (wings folded over their backs); a few flies are also present. Usually after just a day, or a night the, perianths fall to make for the snowfall.
And don't you like the general tropical feel?  The green, the humidity, the foreign country?  Oops, bad thinking crept in a bit there at the end. 
Sorry, citizens of Earth who do not live in the USA. Today our country begins to inflict on everyone else The Donald, our would be dictator.  As for my fellow citizens we have no one to blame but ourselves. 
Now to upload an image and feel better.

The botanical world just got a bit less colorful - Hugh Iltis RIP

Hugh Iltis was one of our most colorful botanical colleagues. He was a professor at the U. Wisconsin; died about a month ago, but TPP just learned of it.  Here's the obit and some pictures; he was 91.  There are more stories about Hugh Iltis circulating in the field of botany than just about any other single person. TPP watched him challenge a colleague about one of his favorite topics, the origin of maize, by throwing an ear of field corn at him from across an auditorium and having the kernels shatter from the impact on with the wall behind.  Indeed, there was very little that interested Hugh that he was not passionate about especially the relationship between people and plants, and their conservation.  
His 1976 New Year's card is an drawing of the flowering head of perennial teosinte, a wild grass from southern Mexico that Hugh discovered. This shows five female flowers, in two rows, and the long fuzzy stigmas of the 3 flowers in one row form the looping design.  
Yes, perennial maize, and it will cross with cultivated maize, a genetic treasure trove for breeders.  For a long time botanists were puzzled about how this kind of structure flowering head, could give rise to the huge, multi-rowed "ear" of modern maize (corn here in the USA). Hugh's major contribution to this  story was to realize that the "ear" of modern maize had the structure, the organization, of the tassel of teosinte, and was a feminized inflorescence; a whole lecture could follow.  
Hugh on a rampage was a force of nature. At a big public lecture at our university, Hugh went on a 30 min verbal rampage about the evil corporations, primarily EXXON, lacking any ecological ethics, and then got back on track, lecturing for another 50 mins, and young women in the row in front of us, assigned to attend and who had no interest in botany, corn, or conservation, had tears running down their cheeks by the end.  Indeed that was Hugh. Love him or hate him, he was amazing and will be missed.  

Real tough guys - lichens

Having dodged the worst parts of an ice storm, a few days of warmer weather are predicted where the daytime temps will be above freezing. Along with this comes rain, but with the ground still frozen, a lot of runoff is expected.  Here and there a few sprouts of early bulbs are peeking out.  However if you want to see some happily green organisms, start looking at tree bark and branches.  Without the crown of leaves, more sunlight will fall on tree trunks than you might expect, and lichens take advantage of this. These are really tough organisms. Tree bark, stones, cement, these are really hard substrates; organisms growing there are highly exposed, subject to desiccation and temperature extremes, and yet in places the lichens are almost luxuriant.  Locally common lichens grow as a crust and so don't look as lush as the larger, more branched or leafier types (fruticose or foliose).  Although TPP is not adept at identifying lichens, he loves the Lichens of North America; a wonderfully illustrated atlas of lichens (just the ID keys and other field guides are also available).  Should you decide to give it a go, you'll run into a bit of a terminological learning curve and the need of come magnification.  Maybe a kind reader will offer some suggestions about the lichens shown here.
If you don't already know this, lichens are symbiotic organisms, basically a fungal body housing symbiotic algae. The algae can still be free-living, and so to the fungus, but neither one alone looks like the lichen.


Friday Fabulous Flower - Tropical fruit version

Spent an hour this morning cleaning off a large book shelf, a well built book shelf, ca. 1976.  Deciding what to discard, keep, and give away was a challenge such that the thought of drastically downsizing into a retirement flat is a horror nearly beyond comprehension. But you do find good things too, like pictures from long ago.  Here's a nice basket of tropical fruit, a gift on a trip to Thailand some 30 years ago and we still have the basket.  See if you can identify all five of the fruit.  And tell us how many you've actually eaten. Note in one case the seeds are eaten and the fruit discarded.


Pseudoscience invades the pet store

This is probably old news, but new for TPP. Had to restock the pantry for the kitty-girls, and while in the cat section of the local pet store, TPP chanced to look at the physical care section to see if there was a topical remedy for dry skin, a common complaint for cats that sit on heat vents. Much to TPP's surprise almost every category of remedy had a prominent display of one or more homeopathic remedies. Helpful clerk appears, and asks if there is anything in particular you need? These are homeophathic, TPP comments. Yes, says helpful clerk, they are all natural. Very true, says TPP, water is very natural. They don't work except for the placebo effect, and not sure that will work given cat psychology. What?, says helpful clerk.  Look up homeopathy, it's pseudoscience; these are quack remedies, based on extreme dilutions and the "memory" of water. Helpful clerk says, people like them because they are pretty economical. True again, water doesn't cost much, so the profit margin is still pretty good. Do you think an ethical pet store should sell remedies that don't work except in the imagination of pet owners?  Sorry I couldn't help you, says helpful clerk. 
You plant a seed, maybe it germinates.

Nice ornamental conifer but rare

Isn't that a really nice conifer?  Many of you have probably never seen one of these growing; it's likely that none of you have ever seen one in its native habitat because it only grows in a pretty remote area in the Blue Mountains and only a hundred or so trees grow there.  Cultivation is making it relatively more common in many botanical and personal gardens in appropriate climates and habitats (it's really a tropical tree).  Do you recognize it?  Wollemia nobilis, the Wollemi pine, is not a real pine but a relative of Araucaria. TPP is quite jealous of people who have one growing in their garden, and then you've got a friend rubbing it in, and toasting the occasion to boot.  This species is a real living fossil known from its fossil record going back to the early Cretaceous before anyone knew it was still alive albeit barely so. TPP does have one growing in the university's glasshouse, but it's not the same as having one outside in the garden.  Oh yes, the garden shown is in Australia.  You can purchase seeds.

Making America Great Again - ACA version

For the past 8 years, the GnOPe has had no coherent goals beyond oppose Obama, and figuring they would be opposing Clinton, didn't work at formulating any platform other than those that have failed so miserably at the state level (Thanks Kansas for being a fiscal crash test dummy.).  So no surprise that other than creating a horrible mess of things (check the analysis at that link), they got no plans. You know in many other countries, if you get sick, you can just go to a clinic and get treated so bad their socialized medicine is. Getting rid of ACA, itself based on a GnOPe governor's plan, will waste millions of dollars and leave millions of people without health insurance.  Great isn't it? Sad.  
Advice - start yelling at your representatives.  

Jackfruit - the inside story

Strange fruit just demands that you cut one up to find out what's inside, except sometimes you can be asked to leave when you decide to investigate new things in the lobby of a hotel (and no it was not a durian or here!).  So how fortunate for us that the local grocery had cut one of the jackfruit in half, perhaps because someone only wanted half or to see how ripe it was.  It actually looked pretty much as TPP would have expected in SE Asia. 
Jackfruit is a multiple fruit, many flowers whose fruits fuse during development into one fruit (usual example is the pineapple).  Here are two units of the mature fruit. the central core is at the bottom.  Two seeds each surrounded by their yellowish aril, a fleshy layer that is sweet and the part consumed.  The sort of fibrous bits to the right in this image are undeveloped floral parts, the knobby rind is across the top. 
Sorry about the reflections off the plastic wrap.