Field of Science

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 Art.com 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 art.com 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.   

Landscaping challenge

One thing leads to another, and the Phactors done one thing, in this instance, removing several old declining spruces, a big old ugly yew, and a rear-view mirror-removing redbud with no other redeeming features (it grew immediately adjacent to the neighbor's driveway). This leaves a 65 foot, south-facing, bed, our eastern front garden without any trees. After so many years of seeking shade-tolerant plants, to be seeking full-sun plants is quite a different challenge. However, with several notable, specimen trees in the background, new trees are not needed, so the front garden will be converted to a flowering shrub border. So the Phactors are shopping. One very exciting find was a Japanese snowbell (an American snowbell is already in a shadier garden) of some size, but the front garden is probably too sunny and dry, but TPP cannot resist and will plant it near our patio. (More good news - the severe cold did not harm our young Pterostyrax, epaulet tree, although a new beauty berry may not have been so lucky.)  The winter also killed a small plum yew, but the locale nursery surprised TPP by having a nice size replacement.  Let's see, naturally a new magnolia will be included. Lilacs are being considered because presently only one small bush and a Korean dwarf are our only plants. TPP would love a giant dogwood, but finding good-sized nursery stock is a problem. So the hunt begins. If you know of something wonderful, do pass along the information.

Bitter greens of spring

TPP appreciates the anonymous tip to this poetic description of spring greens at Salt and Stone Poetry. Although if you considered TPP's comment in the last blog as anything other than saying dandelion greens were the best of a bad lot, then best this author brush up on his writing. You must understand the world of 2, or for most of you, 3 generations back. Over the winter food was canned or winter-stored; cabbage was as close to green and fresh that you got.  My Father would shovel snow and then move straw to dig fresh carrots, parsnips, and salsify from his garden, carefully planted where the snow would drift, more digging, but more insulation. Those were wonderful vegetables in the depth of winter, sweet and full of flavor. And in a day and age when the local grocery did not carry year around strawberries from the southern hemisphere, those first fresh greens of spring were very special and very welcome break in the winter food monotony. It was a different time and the poem's author doesn't understand that deep desire for something fresh and green, even if a bit bitter, something to make that corn cake taste other than a corn cake. This was the world of my grandparents that barely resides in my memory. 

Eat the weeds?

Generally TPP like the articles posted at Treehugger, but not this one on edible weeds so much.  The reasons are the usual ones: dubious advice.  OK here's the list of 9 weeds they recommend: dandelion, purslane, clover, lamb's quarters, plantain, chickweed, mallow, wild amaranth (pigweed), curly dock.  The best of the bunch are very young dandelion leaves, but they are better if you get the more upright growing meadow race rather than the very flat rosette lawn-mower selected race of lawns, but even then arugula and mustard greens are better.  Purslane, lamb's quarters, plantain (Plantago), chickweed, mallow, and pigweed are just sort of Ok you can eat them, but do you really want to?  Nothing much to write home about in this bunch except they are edible.  Curly dock has a lot of oxalic acid, and the article recommends changing the cooking water, and generally when that's required you are far better off getting some nice lightly wilted spinach and ditch the dock.  The picture along with the recommendation for clover shows Trifolium praetense, purple or red clover, but the article does not specify.  This is seldom a lawn weed (grows too tall); the more usual species is T. repens, and it and other species contain cyanogenic glycosides (they generate cyanide when eaten).  So this is just dubious advice without being more specific, and there are "clovers" in other genera too, e.g., Melilotus. At the end of the article, they beg off saying this isn't a field guide, but most of these have to be eaten at a juvenile stage, and most field guides focus on more mature flowering stages. Most amateurs aren't good enough to ID many plants in their juvenile stages. Here's an example from a couple of years ago - you pick out the edible wild carrot.  The images show you the problem, but hey, it might be your last mistake.  So basically TPP is never all that impressed by such advice as "eat the weeds".  Many of our leafy greens did start out as agricultural weeds, but they have been selected for better taste (less toxic) and more succulent tissues. Weeds - why bother?

Friday Fabulous Future Flowers - the blue lawn

The Phactors' blue lawn is almost upon us (which TPP has reported on before); the peak flowering of the thousands of Scilla bulbs that actually form a major component of our lawn in the spring. Dang, if we aren't going to be so busy that it'll be tough to find the time to enjoy the display. All that blue will be a minor pain in a few weeks, but right now all those blue flowers are a cheerful reminder than spring has sprung (and fortunately or unfortunately bunnies don't eat it).  It may be that so much squill exists because bunnies don't eat it. Decades ago someone turned this plant loose upon this property, and they've multiplied a bit. Way back there the yellow is Forsythia in flower. This year our the Forsythia flowers are toast (so this image is from last year) unless some survived below the snow line, but fortunately the dwarf forsythia or white (pinkish) forsythia (Abeliophyllum) is way more hardy.  If you don't have this smallish shrub anywhere in your landscaping (it is shade tolerant too), you really should consider it. And be careful where you plant your squill.

Colbert is dangerous and bad for our country?

If the big, blustering Bully O’Really thinks Stephen Colbert is dangerous for our country, then TPP is more than certain that Colbert is doing exactly the right thing.  In this case, demonstrating through satire the flawed and often simplistic thought that passes for intellectualism among today’s political conservatives. Airbags like O’Really need to be regularly deflated by punching holes in their arguments, by making fun of their pretentious proclamations, and no one is better at that than Colbert who of course bases his comic persona on O’Really, which is why Colbert really gets Bully's goat.  

What a batting average!

.280, a respectable, although not great major league baseball batting average. Oh, but this isn't about baseball, it's about accurate reporting of climate science news on PHLOX News.  Yes, that's right, good old PHLOX News is presenting inaccurate information about climate news over 70% of the time, and just like in baseball that's how many times you strike out.  So, if you're a PHLOX News fan, a regular listener who relies on the PHLOX network for information, then you probably don't know nuttin.  And that's because in the classic neocon tradition, you know your conclusion and you make up "facts" to fit it, and then you call it "news" for the neo-gullible.