Field of Science

Oldest known tree

I was feeling a bit meloncholy this morning and I could not exactly figure out why. Was it the end of a sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating year, or the realization that the celestial cambium has added another growth ring, and we along with it are another year older. Was it because Janice Joplin was singing Me and Bobby McGee on the radio? And then quite by chance while looking for one thing (the world's first forest) I found another.

A Norway spruce (growing in Sweden) has been identified as the oldest tree on Earth. Growing at a high latitude this is not the towering giant you might expect; it barely tops 13 feet tall. This part of the tree is not that old, and you can't find a set of growth rings you can count, but the woody root stock has been carbon dated to nearly 10,000 years old. That means this tree took root just about the time the Pleistocene glaciers were pulling back and uncovering this area.

10,000 years makes this tree the oldest living individual organism on Earth. A very impressive record, and somehow knowing this has cheered me up. Although this spruce grows in a tough area, it's primary problem is winter and winds. At this latitude and in such a sparse community, the most common environmental mishaps that threaten big, old trees (lightening, fire) are relatively rare. So by growing slow and low, it has survived millenia.

It's quite likely some clones have lived longer, much longer, but it is the clone that survives, not the individual organism. Because they reproduce asexually, while genetically the same, the members of a clone are not the origninal organism at all, but copies, so the genotype persists not the individuals. Some unicellular organisms may form clones millions of years old, but at what point have enough random changes been accumulated in different copy lineages of the originial genotype that we would judge them different organisms? I have no idea.

There are aspen and sagebrush clones that are estimated to be around 10,000 years old, but no part of the original organism persists, just the genotype. So for now a Swedish Norway spruce holds the longevity record.

Darwin Bicentennial Special Edition

In honor of the bicentennial of Darwin's Origin of Species the Botanical Society of America is publishing a special issue of the American Journal of Botany, and you can get a FREE historial article entitled "The meaning of Darwin's "abominable mystery". Everyone usually interprets this to mean the evolutionay ancestry of flowering plants was a mystery with respect to their ancestry, and other than it being clear flowering plants had a common ancestry with gymnosperms, it must be admitted that this remains an area of active hypothesis formation. But this was not Darwin's concern.

Ned Friedman clarifies that Darwin was referring to the sudden appearance of considerable flowering plant diversity in the fossil record. Darwin would have been seen this as less of a problem if the fossil record were as well known 150 years ago as it is today, but that's why we do research, to learn things. The clarification is based in part upon Darwin's own explanation of the problem in a letter Joseph Hooker written in 1879 (facsimile included).

So treat yourself to a scientific present! And maybe commit yourself to a new year's resolution to reduce your plant blindness, a common scientific affliction.

Frightfully Beautiful Destruction

This morning dawned to the frightfully beautiful destruction of an ice storm here in Lincolnland. No one can deny the beauty of a glistening, glassy, but very brittle world. It's a wonderland of light with a clacking and cracklely sound. But the destruction wrought by this beautiful sight is so very sad for us tree people. We get emotionally invested in nurturing a tree into an aesthetic component of our gardens and lawns, and the destruction of trees is a real loss not the least of all because a tree that has grown for many years cannot just be replaced. The value and beauty added by time has been lost.

While trees are nearly immortal, they are unfortunately sessile behemoths of biomass and beauty and they cannot escape any environmental ravages that engulf them. Trees have perpetually juvenile tissues, meristems, and they essentially grow a new tree each year around and on top of the old ones.

But no matter how big or how small, wood, that remarkable stuff that trees build as both a vascular and support system, is only so strong. Wood is capable of withstanding some pretty remarkable loads, but the sudden application of a half-inch of ice can stress the support system beyond the breaking point.

Although not a large tree, this quite handsome Japanese maple was shattered beyond any hope of repair. All but one limb was ripped off by the icy weight. This tree had already survived the ravages of yard rats (squirrels), who gnawed off enough bark to nearly girdle the tree. And years later it survived a very late hard freeze that killed all the new foliage and limb growth. But it didn't escape the ice. This fall was its swan song, but who knew what was to befall it.
Decorum and decency, concepts mostly absent from the web, prevent me from posting an image of this maple's dismembered body. RIP Acer japonicum.

350? And I thought the answer was 42.

42 was the answer to the ultimate question (What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything else?). But 350 turns out to be a very important answer (in parts per million) to the question of how much carbon dioxide can be put into the atmosphere before its impact on climate seriously affects human civilization? It doesn't help that human activities have already pushed the CO2 concentration to 385 ppm, so not only must we stop emissions, they must be reduced. And of course human energy demands are not likely to decrease anytime soon.

This article discusses the concept of a tipping point. Many systems will resist change such that factors that influence them seem to only make small incremental changes year by year causing some people to question what all the excitment is about. However, when you reach a certain critical level, the change suddenly accelerates. The melting of Arctic sea ice during the summer has been increasing but by very small amounts as each succeeding year became the warmest year on record. This year the ice melted a lot, and if this is a trend, then watch out baby! That land you own in central Florida may be the next coastal property.

What is even more alarming is when a long-term study of tree mortality suggests a similar tipping point may exist for tropical forests. Trees, those behemoths of biomass, are repositories of CO2. When trees die, their decomposition releases all that CO2. This also happens when humans cut and burn the forest. Tree mortality increases as the average temperature increases probably because while respiration increases as the temperature increases, photosynthesis begins to decline. When respiration exceeds photosynthesis, these woody storehouses of CO2 begin literally respire themselves to death. This is another tipping point system. And if it happens, tropical forests could begin to literally fall apart in a matter of decades releasing all that carbon dioxide which would only accelerate the temperature increase in a positive feedback loop. A grassland would replace the forest, and during occasional or seasonal droughts, grasses are subject to burning. A grassland will have a much smaller biomass than a forest.

If these tipping point scenarios have are true, and the available data certainly suggests they are possible, then the sooner we act the better. Of course those whose depend upon the status quo are actively trying to prevent such actions by arguing the non-existence of tipping points. Explaining the idea of a tipping point to people is critical to motivate people to support and seek changes.

Let's not even consider what will happen to the farm belt in Lincolnland if climate change continues along the predicted trajectory, but suffice it to say, it's ugly.

Botanical stocking stuffer

Here's a gift idea for that botanical geek in your family. A deck of cards illustrating plant families with a Linnaeus on the back. These were especially made in honor of Linnaeus' 300th anniversary by the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries so apprentices could learn to identify medicinal plants. It's only been open to the public for the last few decades. I had to buy a deck when I visited this last May.

Appropriately enough the garden is located at 66 Royal Hospital Road. It's not very big actually, but is crammed full with over 5000 species of plants all labelled. Many are arranged taxonomically; others are grouped medically. I was going to include an image, but they have gone missing.

Is is unAmerican to dislike shopping malls?

I like getting gifts for friends and family, and I don't mind spending money, but I have never liked shopping as a leisure activity. And I especially do not like malls. The reason for this is that I have nearly always been a shopper of necessity. When I need something, I go and buy it. Said and done. But the fundamental concept of malls is to prevent you from efficiently shopping for anything. Instead malls seek to force you to wander about, deal with distracting displays, and mobs of people.

The only mall stores I ever shop in have their own access to the outside. That way I never have to actually enter the mall. Generally I average about two visits to mall stores a year, an average I'm trying to improve on. Of course, I also usually do not drive on a daily basis, and all of the shopping malls are too far away (how fortunate!) for a pedestrian to visit, and most have no means for access afoot anyways surrounded as they are by a wasteland of asphalt upon which an unregulated demolition derby is being played. It would be safer to play on the railroad tracks than try to walk across such an area.

Generally I like smaller stores, especially those whose owners and employees I know. So I do most of my shopping on those rare instances when I am so moved in shops in the immediate vicinity of my place of employment.

Now this is the funny thing. It's not the crowds of people that produce my anti-mall attitude. I love 3d world markets and can wander in them for hours. So many exotic things I'd like to have. And maybe that's the essence of it. Nearly all of the wares on so prominent display in shopping malls consist of nothing whatever I'd ever want. Rather than swooning or drooling or coveting these things, I find myself completely disinterested. I doubt that I can find any connection at all with people who cheerfully and willingly shop the malls.

'Tis the season to be jolly, so I shall not risk the mauling of my excellent post-semester attitude by doing anything foolish.

Surely my attitude must be unAmerican. But so far at least, my freedom to not shop at malls has remained inviolate. For this I greatly thank the founding fathers.

A Very Clever Political Ploy

Having spent a 30+ year career at a great public institution of higher learning I have learned the good points and the bad points about public higher education. During good times, institutes of higher learning are one of the last to gain support, and during bad times they always face cuts.

But the clever ploy initiated here in Lincolnland is a marvel to behold. A couple of decades ago, revenues from the state provided nearly two-thirds of the cost of higher education. It was important to educate your citizens. But then the political leaders of our great state figured out that if you just withheld support, the institutes of higher learning would be forced to cover the difference by raising tuition.

Now of course the increase in tuition had to cover two things, real increases in the cost of education, including new unfunded mandates from the state, and difference between the former level of support and a lower level of support. This means that tuition has gone up much faster than the cost of living because not only has the cost gone up but the state support has gone down.

Presently the state supplies less than one-fourth of the cost of attending our institution. In two decades the state has reduced their support from two-thirds to less than one-fourth. And this cost has been transferred to the citizens of this state who send their kids or pay their way to attend our colleges and universities.

Now here is the clever part. Imagine that the govenor or some other major state official came out and said, "We're going to gradually cut our support of higher education form 66% to less than 25% and transfer that cost to the students and parents." Well, you can imagine the out cry! But no one ever said such a thing, they just gradually did it. And then the same guys who make this decision with every state budget they approve have the gall to dun the institutes of higher learning for tuition increases that out pace increases in the cost of living!

Yes, the blame for increased tuition, fees, and other costs is laid on the colleges and universities. If they only could get those lazy faculty to teach more. Talk about clever. Not only do they not take responsibility, they actually actively blame someone else. We had a president who laid out the numbers for anyone who wanted them, and as you may guess, he didn't last long after he began getting people to point their fingers at the legislature.

Maybe someday people of this state will understand that the public part of their state institutes of higher learning is getting smaller year by year. For years now we have referred to ourselves as a state assisted insitution rather than a state supported institution. And now economic conditions will result in a new round of budget cuts and withheld state support, so the cycle will continue.

Plant of the week - Wild cacao

Cacao is our source of cocoa, chocolate. It's scientific name is Theobroma, drink of the gods, so called because a hot, fatty, spicy, bitter chocolate concoction was the royal beverage of the Aztecs. This may not sound good, but chocolate contains a chemical similar to caffeine, so strong chocolate is a stimulant. A local chocolate shop makes a deeply rich, semi-sweet, dark chocolate bark with ground up coffee beans in it. Just a couple of pieces can give you a buzz; it's should be illegal to sell to minors.

This rain forest tree is native to Costa Rica, and like many tropical trees its flowers appear directly out of its trunk and branches. One of the flowers is shown here and it's a little hard to figure out. It seems to have more perianth parts than usual flowers. From the top down, there are bracts, sepals with a curved, translucent base and a small heart-shaped red apex folded back upon itself, and lastly red petals. The stamens are hidden within the base of the sepals.

The fruits that later develop are rather hard, grooved, pink capsules within which a soft pulp surrounds hard seeds from which the chocolate is obtained. Such fruits are mammal dispersed. The soft pulp provides a nutritive reward and the hard seeds are discarded, or if swallowed, pass through the GI tract unharmed, and perhaps prepared for germination.

This particular species (T. siminaca) is wild and not the cacao tree of commerce (T. cacao).

A rotten apple in every faculty?

My colleagues and I just met to consider the tenure and promotion of a junior member of our faculty. She presented a well-balanced and well-documented package of accomplishments that made this one of the easiest decisions we have encountered in recent years. With virtually no discussion we voted umpteen to 1 in favor of her tenure and promotion by a secret ballot. Yes, that was umpteen to 1. One no vote. One person thinks an outstanding junior member of our department should be dismissed. Oh, they knew the vote would be overwhelming positive so this was nothing but a personal statement.

Does every faculty have to contain at least one jerk who gets their jollies out of being an a$$? Could there be any more cowardly act than to hide behind a secret vote? What sort of inadequacies prompt such actions? And what do they think it accomplishes? What did their protest vote really mean since no one has any idea whatever it is?

Well, it let us know that there is at least one person among us that you would not and should not trust with confidential information. It lets you know that at least one of us is in not fully rationale and socially mature enough to be treated as an adult. It lets you know that someone is being eaten away by an ethical and intellectual rot that cannot help but damage themselves, a skulking, nasty, venomous sort of rot that leaves your core black, a real rotten apple. And you have to watch and make certain that such apples don't spread their rot to any others. Unfortunately you just don't know which one.

This demonstrates the down side of secret ballots; it lets cowards hide. Someone without any guts dislikes our junior colleague, and maybe the whole department, and they wanted to send a message. Quite a few years ago, a now retired colleague routinely voted against virtually all tenure and promotion decisions, but at least he had the decency to say, "They don't measure up to my impossibly high, arbitrary standards." Of course setting the bar so high no one can clear it, including himself, and withholding his approval of anyone who was not a member of the national academy of science, demonstrates a certain tenuous hold on reality. But at least you knew his reason.

The actual list of potential bad apples is not as long or as extensive as one might expect. You see after my afore mentioned colleague retired this sort of thing stopped happening. In the interim we have tenured and promoted only a few people, and now a bad apple appears. I've worked with some of my colleagues over 30 years, and while all are not necessarily charming, I know of what stuff they are made. None of us liked the way many senior faculty used, abused, the tenure process to bully junior faculty. We changed the department's climate, but apparently one of my newer colleagues did not learn that lesson. How very unfortunate! It hurts to know the department made at least one mistake in deciding tenure. And without doubt such people never get better, they only get worse as the perceived slights and injuries mount up and the rot continues to grow.

I shall tell my young, newly tenured colleague to use the freedom of tenure well because it comes with responsibilities too. One of which is that you deal with your colleagues honestly and forthrightly.

Plant of the week (eon?) - Cooksonia

This picture of Cooksonia is pretty remarkable. Not so much for displaying this plant's simple beauty, not even because the picture is actually in focus, but because this plant has been extinct since the Devonian some 380 million years ago.

This fossil is looking particularly good because it is a model on display in the Darwin House at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew.

Cooksonia is significant because this is the first land plant sporophyte to show apical branching. As the axes grew, the apex divides into two equal axes, a type of branching called dichotomous. Fossils show axes of Cooksonia branching thusly 1 to 4 times. Each axis then terminating with a sporangium. This appears to be a way of getting the maximum number of dispersable offspring from a single fertilization event.

Cooksonia is also significant because at the time this was the tallest plant of its day. These axes towered some 5 centimeters (nearly 2 inches) above the substrate. It is also the earliest appearing plant to have vascular tissue, xylem, although the oldest specimens found in Silurian sediments may not have possessed true xylem.

This plant is the first step on the way to trees, and it did not really take too long for the first trees and forests to appear (near the end of the Devonian).

Will I get a new "commander-in-chief"?

A neighbor cheerfully greeted me outside our polling place this beautiful fall morning, "Well, no matter what tomorrow you'll have a new commander-in-chief". Actually I think they said "commander and chief", but that's not the issue. Tomorrow I'll have a president-elect. In fact unless you are in the military, you do not have a commander-in-chief, you have a president.

Actually too much is made of this constitutional definition, although the buck has to stop somewhere. If the president was not also the commander-in-chief, then the military would only answer to its own commanders, who would be free to act outside of any civilian rule. So the highest elected official has to have that authority.

Many of my fellow citizens argue that only a person with military experience should be in such a position, but I think it may be a good idea to let the military try explaining their reasons for military actions, and what might go wrong, to someone who doesn't necessarily think like them. Guns, bombs, and military might just don't solve all problems. And the big problem the military has is that it is a closed fraternity; they only talk and trust each other. They don't have enough civilian friends or confidants.

It reminds me of visiting the Naval War College many years ago while still in my long-haired days. I have never been looked at with so much disdain and disgust ever before or since. And why? Well, I wasn't one of them, clearly, so I wasn't to be trusted, or liked, or anything. I was some inferior who probably thought the war in Vietnam wasn't a very good idea (true enough!). So making the military explain itself to a civilian leader is a great example of balancing power.

Too much is made of the commander-in-chief's authority. We don't have to do a damned thing the president says unless it becomes a rule of law. Indeed, only congress can declare war, and since they haven't the USA is not fighting a war in Iraq or Afganistan. It's only a military action. And by definition you can't have a war on terrorism. And that probably should tell the president something important; you're trying to fight terroism the wrong way. You fight other states with a military.
The problem is rather simple; war is declared against another state, and usually follows a long list of "where as" statements that resulted in this state of affairs. But neither Iraq or Afganistan has done anything to the USA.
Thus I have a considerable dislike of the "hail to the chief" promp and circumstance march because it is purely militaristic. Sorry, I don't have to salute (although we once had a provost who thought we did). So let's call the winner what they are, the president-elect. Maybe we could put new words to the Family Stone song, "We are president". No, that doesn't work, too royal sounding.
Any other suggestions?

Plant of the week - October 21, 2008

Azure beauty berry
Callicarpa dichotoma (Verbena family).

Generally when it comes of fall color you think of plants whose leaves turn a nice bright color. But the beauty berry has the neatest electric blue display of fruits in September and October. This particular one holds a cluster of fruits above each leaf axil on a gracefully arched branch. What could be nicer. This particular fruit color, bright blue, is pretty rare among temperate zone plants, but more common in tropical
forests. This Chinese species has more cold hardiness than American beauty berry.

Small light purple flowers preceed the fruit, and while nice enough, are no match for the fruit display. Flowering and fruiting are on new wood, so the bush is cut back to 12-18" every spring, or you let the bunny rabbits do it for you over the winter. This low shrub grows fine in light to medium heavy shade. You might consider placing it where it could be viewed from above, so next to walkways or below windows.

Now that frugivorous birds are migrating through, the berries are beginning to disappear, so the display definitely attracts some species. This is one of the nearly 150 species growing in my personal arboretum.

Does botanical research offend the dignity of plants?

The Swiss ethics committee has declared that plant scientists are not allowed to do research that offends the dignity of plants. This initially struck me as hard to believe because I think of the Swiss as a pretty level-headed and practical people, but this is just goofy.

Maybe this was just a Swiss attempt at humor. But this is for real and my botanical colleagues must deal with this. Now I do think certain plants have a majesty, and they certainly can be violated, for example, by cutting down redwood trees to make somebody a porch deck. But is the dignity of a cabbage offended when it is converted into coleslaw? Does it regain any of its dignity when converted into sauerkraut? Are my prairie plants dignified? Does a fertilizer treatment offend them?

You really have to wonder about what kind of cuckoos are on the Swiss ethics committee because they are guilty of pure anthropomorphic thinking. Unfortunately until some level heads prevail, my botanical colleagues in Switzerland are stuck dealing with this.

What this is all about is a resistance to genetically modified crops. And we must presume that altering a plant’s genetics is an affront to its dignity. I guess a certain case can be made for that. Let’s face it, a toy poodle doesn’t have too much dignity. But humans have been altering the genetics of plants ever since their domestication began. Wonder if ethicists like seedless grapes? Have they ever had a fertile banana? Eating around all those big, hard seeds is something special. What could be a bigger offense to the biological dignity of an organism than to propagate sterile plants when their whole purpose was to reproduce?

So who will decide what offends the dignity of plants? To help out the Phytophactor will channel your research plants to determine if their dignity is offended, for a modest fee, payable in Swiss cheeses, of course.

An academic tragedy

A young former colleague of mine was found dead in his apartment a couple of weeks ago. I just found out because his apartment is a couple of thousand miles from Lincolnland in California. It's been at least a decade since he left our institution, and I know what resulted in his dismissal. I rarely saw him in recent years, and I cannot say how he was getting along in life lately. But my guess is that the villain in this tragedy is addiction to that most common and socially acceptable substance, ethanol.

It kept a bright young fellow from having a successful academic career. I cost him his drivers license and for awhile his freedom. It cost him his only tenure track academic position. It cost my profession a promising young botanist, and you have to love someone who was just cuckoo for floral polymorphisms. And now it has cost him his life.

Jeff was not yet highly accomplished as his career was just starting, but everyone who had ever worked with him was impressed by his intellect. And biologists are a pretty capable bunch of people, so it takes a really bright and creative person to impress so many. And he was a likable enough fellow. Our faculty were extremely pleased when we hired him; he seemed like a good addition. The tragedy is that Jeff could have accomplished so much but for this fatal flaw.

This serves as yet another reminder that us average fellows, whose academic success is the result of just keeping at it, have a lot to be thankful for, but still Jeff's death saddens me greatly. Bright candles burn way too quickly.

Nifty plant of the week - October 3, 2008

Too much blogging about academic life and politics was getting me down. Plants are much more fun and interesting. So to improve my outlook the Phytophactor will introduce a new plant at least once a week.

Kalanchoe - (Stone crop family) "mother of thousands"

Some disagreement exists about the pronunciation and several opinions have been offered: kal-an-COH-ee, ka-LANK-oh, ka-LAN-coh, kal-an-COH-ee, kal-an-CHOH. I was taught the 4th one, but cannot say which is most correct.

The plant bears pairs of thick, fleshy leaves that have either a waxy or fuzzy covering of hairs. Both limit water loss and this genus is native to semi-arid regions of Africa. Ornamental species are widely grown, and their tolerance of dry conditions makes them good house plants.

Several species bear plantlets along the toothed margins of their leaves. Once the plantlets develop a couple of pairs of little leaves and some roots, they easily detach and quite readily begin independent growth.

Mature plants are soon surrounded by hundreds of clonal offspring giving rise to the common name "mother of thousands".

Although usually raised for the appearance of their leaves, many species have rather attractive 4-parted bell-like flowers with pink to red petals.

Mavericks are not good leaders

I generally avoid being political, but something occurred to me and it struck me as important enough to share.

John McCain touts his status as a maverick as one of his primary qualifications for being president. Well, it occurred to me that I know a great deal about being a maverick because I have had a long career as a maverick among our faculty.

I’m very good at seeing issues from other perspectives and I often have a different view than the majority of my colleagues or the administrative main stream. At times I can broker cooperation by finding common ground, but that’s the best thing a maverick can do, other than being more or less independent of big cliques. Often I can get to the heart of an argument or issue because I don’t care all that much one way or the other, and in this instance provide a means of moving forward. So I’m an independent thinker, and that’s good, but mavericks are often a loose cannon on the deck; you are never sure which way they will shoot as the ship rolls to and fro.

Here’s something else I know about myself. I’m not a good leader; I lack those intangible qualities that make for leadership. And this is John McCain’s problem. He isn’t a good leader either. Nothing in his long and storied career suggests he is a leader. In fact being a maverick almost assures that you are not a leader because leaders behave in a very different way. Consider McCain’s military experience as a fighter pilot. These guys aren’t leaders, they’re mavericks (with apologies to the Senator for the necessarily comparing him to a 2nd rate actor). He picked Sarah Palin because she too has some credentials as a maverick, but nothing in her record of administrative experience suggests she has the qualities of a natural born leader either.

And leadership is something that no one seems to talk about amidst all the bickering and sniping that substitutes for political discourse these days. The McCain-Palin ticket offers nothing in terms of leadership. Neither candidate has the bearing, the attitude, the stature, the it’s-hard-to-describe-what-it-is but you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality. They feign the fictional macho leadership as it is so often parodied on TV and in movies. Both McCain and Palin have been emphasizing their tough decisiveness as if that were the end all and be all of leadership.

A real leader surrounds themselves with competent people, then demands and gets the best performance from everyone. For that you need three qualities: restraint, generosity, and empathy, which are a lot less macho stuff. Both McCain and Palin clearly lack restraint. They portray themselves as people of action, yet good leaders have the restraint to avoid snap decisions or undue action until the true nature of the situation is clear. This also takes an intellectual approach as opposed to the unthinking certainty of ideological thought that has been the hallmark of the current occupant. And of course a true leader does not work to obfuscate the situation for political ends either. To work with other people you have to have empathy for their position, to deeply understand their position, and so far this ticket has not gotten beyond campaign rhetoric. None of this suggests any empathy or understanding for others, and indeed, both seem quite proud of intractable, absolutist positions. Good leaders must be generous in their using their time, their treatment, and their recognition of others to accomplish their goals. Mavericks like doing things on their own, and sometimes have a hard time recognizing, listening to, and making use of the contributions of others.

In fact if McCain were a natural born leader, it would not have taken him so many years to have acquired his party’s nomination. His natural leadership talents would have been recognized long ago. So whether you agree with his positions on issues or not is almost a moot point, McCain will make a lousy leader of this country to say nothing of the free world. He’ll be a poor leader for different reasons than why the current occupant is a poor leader, but that doesn’t matter. This is why foreign leaders who certainly know McCain have not endorsed his candidacy or expressed any support; they recognize that he lacks the qualities of leadership.

Our country has been floundering for some time now on basic issues of freedom, democracy, and good citizenship, and what we as a country should stand for, and it’s because the current occupant is such a poor leader. He simply lacks the smarts and ability to communicate to be a leader. In fact his lack of leadership ability, and his departure from his own best instincts, turned him into a follower of Darth Cheney rather than a leader of the free world. And no one is better off because of it. We need leadership and it isn't going to be found on this ticket.

New Provost charging forward into the past.

Yes folks, our great institution of higher learning located here in the maize and soybean desert of Lincoln land has hired itself a new provost. Well, actually no provost is actually new, virtually all are used, administrators who occupied slightly subordinate positions at bigger institutions, or who occupied the same position at a smaller institution, both looking to move up, but in different ways. Each promises to bring new and better ideas, modes of operation, and innovative practices to your institution, retreads of ideas somebody else had at their former institutions. And for some strange genetic reason, these administrators are compelled by the Peter Principle to seek ever higher positions until their true level of incompetence is reached. So I welcome our new provost with no great enthusiasm, which is not personal at all, but a general cynicism born of experience.

Provost Plodder has introduced a “new” policy that will return us to the teacher’s college mentality we have for so long attempted to out grow. Faculty positions are one of the largest resources the provost has to dole out. Provost Plodder has announced that staffing decisions will be based upon number of majors, credit hour generation, student demand, and job demand in Lincoln land. Wow, such innovation really takes your breath away. Of course bean counting in Lincoln land is common enough, but usually it’s done in bushels.

This means Provost Plodder takes our primary charge as a state-supported institution seriously. Our venerable institution is supposed to train workers for the employers of Lincoln land. Yes, that’s right, train, not educate. Sit. Roll over. Fetch. And just for Lincoln land too; it’s no good providing an education to a tax paying citizen if they move to Iowa or Ohio. Next the 60% of our alumni who live out of state will probably be asked to retroactively pay out of state tuition. And it’s our fault entirely because we educated them and instead of training them. Maybe I didn’t mention the Provost’s first name, Parochial.

Yes, folks Provost Parochial Plodder made no mention of scholarship, makes no exceptions for departments with graduate programs versus those without, and takes no qualitative aspects into account. Why what if some bright, creative student, a native of Lincoln land, wants to study botany? Well, those students who have an interest in low enrollment, low demand, no jobs in Lincoln land programs are just crap out of luck. And besides they should seek job training, not an education. There’s always a demand for de-tasselers and bean walkers, if properly trained.

Years ago the state of Ohio applied Provost PP’s system to state liquor stores after they found out that 20% of their stock made up 85% of their sales. Bud Light and Seagram’s 7 drinkers didn’t even notice the change. PPP will bolster those programs that currently have the most people, fill the most seats, are most popular, those pandering purveyors of the ordinary, and of course, that’s only what's popular in Lincoln land. If you like something a bit unpopular like maybe philosophy or religion, or a nice chianti with faba beans, well, too bad. And you might even wonder how your kids would grow up if you let them decide what to eat the way our provost decides what to support. Letting student preferences determine academic programming makes just as much sense.

Now I do not argue that numbers are unimportant, but scholarly programs that engage students in scholarship and do so with the aid of graduate programs are without question quality programs where students can become so educated that they can seek careers anywhere. Such programs are high quality, but they are not going to be the biggest producers of credit hours or the most popular. Provost PP’s policy ends up robbing peter to pay paul, removing quality to bolster quantity. And this is why the bad old days may return. It reminds me of President Doofus all those years ago when I was hired. “We’re a teachers college so you should teach, and teachers are in demand. It’s that simple.” And so was he. Our institution was the K-mart of education under his guidance. And guess which college had a flashing blue light on top?

The faculty finally got tired of this go nowhere, do nothing administration, and we responded to his state of the university address in detail, in full harmony. And to our amazement he resigned. Dang! If we knew he'd fold like a cheap suitcase, we'd have gone after him sooner. But in recent years our institution has voiced a new image, one quite antithetic to Provost Plodder’s policy. Quality does count, and not just in teaching.

Provost Plodder is threatening 15 years of academic progress by demoting the most important decisions a university can make to an exercise in bean counting. Oh, did I mention PPP’s academic background was in education? Did I have to? Where else do such innovations come from? So these will not be happy days for programs that have labored to provide our institution with something of a scholarly reputation, quality academic programs, and highly qualified students. Now we’ll be staffing those high volume, popular, we-can-train-you-for-a-job programs, and our university will be little more than a glorified community college. Maybe we can install a drive-up window. But the best and brightest students of Lincoln land would do well to consider universities in neighboring states, unless they too have recently hired a provost from Kneebitska. The next state is not too far to drive for a really good education or bottle of wine. You won’t be getting one around here.

Moments of educational gratification

There are times when I wonder why I am in the business of education. These mostly occur when dealing with the bureaucracy, including the silly and wasteful efforts of my employer to make certain that I am not unethical and am working my full 37.5 hrs a week, the utterly absurd curricular process, and most people from our college of education. I certainly am not in this business for the money because even after 3 decades and considerable academic success my salary is laughably low. A member of our foundation board asked if my salary was under $100K. I told him you could almost hire a new faculty member with the difference, and at least he was shocked.

What keeps me going are those occasions when you have one of those breakthrough moments. One of those times that you finally realize something really important or fascinatingly interesting about your research or when you finally see students catch the spark and get really interested in the subject or gain some fundamentally new insight.

Yesterday in a very mundane laboratory on cereal grains was one of those times. The planets must have been in a very special alignment because several students figured out some very fundamental concepts about some very common things. Mostly these labs are about connecting the commonplace to the science of botany. Realizing that there is perhaps a scientific and botanical basis for many of the things people do. And it is these little moments when you know you are actually succeeding as a teacher, as an educator, as a mentor, that keep me going.

Of course, students can bring you down quickly. People who think 30 is ancient cannot even begin to understand what you can know and remember when twice that age, especially when those additional 30 years have been spent as a professional student. So they will have to figure out why Quaker puffed oats were "the cereal that's shot from guns." That marketing phrase was introduced in 1904, way before my time, but line was still being used in ads when I was a kid. This will be real ancient history to people who have never used a typewriter, a rotary dial telephone, or gotten up to change a TV channel. Each of these moments gives me another gray hair.

Oh, you're curious about puffed rice and guns. Well, look it up. Here's a hint. The cereal was introduced at the World's Fair.

Does the candle burn too brightly?

This morning brought the news that David Foster Wallace had died at the age of 46 by his own hand. Wallace was a member of our faculty for 8 years, and it was clear to almost everyone that he was an exceptional talent. The author of Infinite Jest and the winner of a McArthur genius fellowship, his efforts had won him critical literary acclaim and he would seem to be the very picture of success. And yet dead at 46.

Now that I am in the September of my academic career, I can look back on my earlier years with a bit more perspective. Years ago I was a bride's maid for three different jobs and in each case the person hired was "brilliant", "an up and coming talent", "a future super star", and while I have certain talents and abilities in good measure, no one has ever called me brilliant or a potential super star. And no question about it, I had a bit of academic envy for the abilities of the two I knew best. I ended up taking a much tougher route to where I am, and so it has been with some measure of interest that I have tracked the careers of my talented contemporaries. All three self-destructed in one way or another, and as modest as it has been, my academic career and record has easily eclipsed theirs.

It makes me wonder if for some of these exceptionallly talented people the candle burns too brightly. It's too bad that they did not achieve what they might have. As tragic as these people are, some of us merely above average pluggers achieve a measure of success in the long run with a decent work ethic, a bit of curiosity and drive, and a dedication to our professions. It does take a bit of fire in the belly to be successful in this business, and it can not come from wanting to best someone else, it must emanate from your own desire to pursue your profession.

I don't expect McArthur to come knocking on my door, but I have achieved something that David Foster Wallace did not. I have been pretty happy with my life and career, and clearly he was not. Sad. Very sad. So very sad, for him.

What's with microbiologists and ecology?

As a member of a biological sciences faculty, I regularly get to interact with colleagues with very different expertises. What a joy! Among this biological diversity, no greater rift in understanding and mutual appreciation exists than between microbiologists and organimal biologists. Even worse is that it's a very one-sided bigotry born of a narrow, biomedical, reductionist approach to the study of bacteria.

Twenty years ago our microbiologists complained about biological diversity and evolution as required courses. Apparently systematics and evolution where not subjects with any apparent importance to microbiology. The same was said about educating pre-medical students who had no need to understand the basic concepts of biology.

Well, thanks to Carl Woese enough progress has been made in the study of prokaryote phylogeny that these objections became pretty ridiculous. Now they object to the inclusion of ecology in the core curriculum of biology. Wow! Another subject without any relevance to microorganisms.

However, more than anything this simply demonstrates the remarkably narrow perspective of my microbial colleagues who cannot see beyond their reductionist approach to biomedicine. This is particularly amusing, or dismaying, because the worst offender studies resistance to antibiotics. What does he think is happening when antibiotics are used? Apparently he thinks antibiotics do not exert a selective force on bacteria and that the community structure of microorganisms is unaffected. More and more studies are finding that interactions among bacteria form communities that can be disturbed and cause severe health problems. My own daughter was given the wrong antibiotic for a C-diff infection (test gave a false negative) and it made matters much worse! C-diff is a natural part of our gut's bacterial flora and is held in check by interactions with other members of this community.

Fortunately not all members of this field are so narrow in their perspective. Microbiologists exist who have discovered evolution and ecology, and their relevance to research, even biomedicine. A google search on "bacterial ecology" generated 2,600,000 hits, and a great many of these were journal articles. A similar result was obtained by googling "microbial ecology" (3,480,000 hits), and of course there are journals that specialize in these fields.

Such ignorance would be quite amusing except that the education of our students suffers from these narrow-minded views.

The real meaning of Baccalaureate

As part of a totally bizarre rant about masonic conspiracy and the control of higher education by the occult elite, David Flynn demonstrates a level of scholarship and understanding that makes the rest of his conclusions more understandable. In other words he’s so wrong about these simple things that you can readily understand how he made a hash out of more complex issues.

This accomplishment [completion of a bachelor’s degree] earns the student a Bacchus laurel, for this is really what “bachelor” means. Bacchus is the Roman version of Dionysus, Greek god of wine revelry and facades, lies, and drunkenness.”

Correcting this in reverse order the baccalaureate degree was nicknamed the “bachelor’s degree” because at that time virtually all university students were unmarried men, bachelors, and of course, many people still think the B in B.A. or B.S. stands for bachelor’s, but of course, b stands for baccalaureate, the fruit of the laurel. Some college catalogues even make this mistake, all the more shameful for a scholarly institution. It was the custom in ancient Greece to crown champions with wreaths of laurel leaves, the noble laurel, Laurus nobilis, which is also found in your cupboard as bay leaves. And this custom gave rise to titles such as poet laureate. So you receive a degree as the fruits of your academic labors, and the fruit of the laurel, unlike the fruit of the grape, has no connection Dionysus. But then this author was intent on taking something traditional and noble and casting it as tawdry, but in the process Flynn reveals himself to be either a poor scholar and/or one who deliberately misleads. Me, a member of the occult educational elite, I’m betting on the combination of the two.

Letting foxes run the hen house - the Republican war on science and the environment continues

On Monday last the AP reported on new draft rules being proposed by the Bush administration to gut the Endangered Species Act. This would be the biggest change to the groundbreaking legislation since 1988, and would not require the approval of Congress. Currently, federal agencies are required to consult with an independent agency — the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service — to determine whether a project would harm an endangered species. The AP reports that under the new rules, agencies would simply be able to “decide for themselves”.

Wow! Let's not drag any inconvenient scientific data into the discussion, let's just let government agencies, run by political appointees acting under super, double secret orders to make sure everything conforms to official ideological policy. More than any previous administration, the Bush administration has tried to create their own reality. And woe be to anything that stands in their way. If you don't like the results of studies by government sciences, well, just edit the final report to reflect your wishes.

The way the Bush administration has operated in other arenas, I'm surprised they didn't just define species out of existence. All of this shows the contempt this adminstration has for the American public, a majority of which actually support environmental protections. Congress won't pass such legislation, then find a way to change things such that congressinal approval is not needed.

Until Sen. McCain condems the Bush approach to governing this country, he doesn't stand of chance of getting my vote.

Do you teach here at the university?

It's that time of year when lots of strangers, all very conspicuous, are appearing around the campus here in Lincolnland. They mostly readily identify me as a campus native probably because I'm usually reading a book, manuscript, or paper, which isn't seen that often off campus, and they often want to ask some questions. Also I always offer to assist anyone who looks like they are a bit lost. In either instance, they often ask "Do you teach here at the university?"

I usually answer, "Yes, teaching is among the many duties of my job as a professor." I do not find teaching demeaning, but I do get annoyed by how many people fail to understand that university faculty are far more than teachers. We're experts and scholars, learned intellectuals, authors and researchers; we're more student (in a professional sense) than teacher.

I try to tell myself that many of our students are still first generation college students, but many of the people who ask are clearly college graduates if not alumni. The problem is that many of these people, as well as current students, attend and graduate from college without ever doing anything scholarly themselves. Their only interaction with faculty was the usual classroom student-teacher dichotomy. If they weren't worried about an exam or pissed at a grade, they never sought out a faculty member.

Since we (the university, which is us) allow this to happen, in a way, I am responsible for creating the very situation that annoys me. As best I can judge, we in the sciences do a fairly good job of engaging and involving our students in our scholarly enterprises, but then we work in our offices and laboratories so we are accessible. Many of my colleagues in the humanities are only in their offices for office hours; they work at home. I understand the problem of interruptions, but at home they are inaccessible to students. So I wonder about the level of interaction on a day to day basis. Maybe science just has more low level things for students to do that provide them with regular contact with faculty.

So I'm not a teacher like your high school teachers. I'm the guy who teaches the high school teachers, and writes their textbooks, and does the research they should occasionally teach about.

Bad line karma

I'm not an overly impatient person. I'm not pushy, impolite, or discourteous when waiting in lines. I don't cut in, jump ahead, cut off, or act to someone else's disadvantage. So where did my bad line karma come from?

I ask this after 1 hour of waiting at the Canadian-USA border. The official border is right there, I can almost touch it, but the customs booth is still a couple of hundred yard, and probably close to another hour ahead. Across the expanse of carefully groomed grass and gardens in the median, the backup for entering Canada is barely 10 minutes. Five days ago the line to enter Canada stretched back a kilometer or more and I was an hour and 10 minutes in line, and of the two lanes, the slowest one (right) to boot. So today I decided to stay in the left lane, and the right lane is outpacing the left by a factor of about 1.5 even with merging cars from the duty free shop.

If I pick a grocery store checkout lane, no matter how short it looks, it will immediately bog down. That one little lady buying a single can of food for her little dog will take forever looking for two loose pennies in the bottom of her handbag to make exact change. And then the register will run out of paper tape and have to be replaced before printing her receipt, and then a new checkout person will come with their drawer before it is my turn.

Over and over this happens. If a hell exists, something I think remarkably unlikely, but if mind you it does, it will consist of endless lines, a cue from hell so to speak, an exquisite form of torment.

Even worse I can think of no way to improve my karma. The guy in front of me just changed lanes by cutting off another car that was a tad slow to inch forward. And now he is already 3 cars ahead. My wife says that if I'm so annoyed to do the same thing, but that would require rapt attention and quick reflexes, so I stay resigned to my fate. I hope they strip search the bastard.

Green side up

Language is a funny thing, especially English as it is a linguistic conglomerate which makes for lots of potential fun. And for botanists and horticulturalists, nothing is more fun that when someone tries to make sense out of soil versus dirt.

Here I will pass along neither dictionary nor professorial opinion, but the New England yankee wisdom dispensed by my Father, the gardener. If anyone referred to the material in his garden as dirt, he'd reply, "It's soil." "Dirt is something you find under your finger nails and in certain kinds of books and movies." No one ever has been accused of using soily language, so this distinction always made a certain sense to me.

Of course as a biologist I know that soil is a complex substance, part inorganic and part organic. A cubic centimeter of soil, a volume about the size of a sugar cube for those of you somewhat metrically challenged, could harbor some 8-20 million organisms. Even the smell of soil, that earthy odor, comes from the metabolic activities of certain bacteria.

So something might start out as dirt, but if composted correctly, it can become soil. And in this I note that for years I have used two layers of newspaper covered with straw to mulch my kitchen garden. Although the data is not publishable, I'm quite certain that the opinion pages of our local newspaper compost the most quickly and thoroughly.

Dealing with ecological rejection

I firmly believe in sabbatical leaves, and it is my great good fortune to have been allowed to take four of them. The academic world of science is difficult and it takes a concerted effort to try or explore new things, to learn new areas of science, and while taking a break from the week to week routine. As this is being written my fourth and last sabbatical leave is winding to a close. I'm taking a week to visit friends, a week to attend national scientific meetings, and that leaves two weeks to prepare for classes. Already I have people clamoring for a laboratory guide.

As part of this leave's exploration into new topics, I collaborated with an old friend and colleague. I dragged him to the rain forest to study insects that consume flowers, but aren't involved in pollination (my usual tropical topic). These insects had never been studied before, and in fact no one even knew these flowers were their brood substrate, or that they had two broods, a smaller one that produced bigger adults, and a larger one that produced smaller adults, or that they had a female biased population, and a number of other things. And we had fun doing it.

Oh, but science isn't science until its published, and our manuscript was just rejected. And the reason was it was too much natural history and not enough ecology. This means we didn't conduct an experiment aimed at determining some ecological principle, but just figured out a previously unknown biology. In the eyes of ecological snobs, ecological studies trump natural history. But ecological study is impossible until you know enough about the system to manipulate it.

Ecology is coming of age. It's getting snobby. Long treated as an inferior, less than demanding, descriptive field of science, barely divorced from Victorian natural history, ecology is now asserting itself by dumping on the very field that gave rise to ecology. This is because biology is done by people, and many people have need of a pecking order and having someone lower down to peck at to feel good about themselves. And this is nothing but someone inforcing their personal belief that ecology, as they define it, is better, more important, higher quality science than natural history.

Fortunately I know how to deal with such rejection. My lapsed membership in the organization will now be on permanent hold. Another publishing venue will be found, and our natural history will become part of biological knowledge, and then some stinking ecologist will use our study to do some "real science" that can get published in a top ranked journal, well, top ranked for ecology.

A rose, is a rose, so how does I knows?

Our woody plant horticulturalist stopped by yesterday with a piece of leafy twig. "What do you think this is?" he asked. Hmm, after assessing the specimen, I said, "Well, it's in the rose family." He already had guessed that, but beyond that it wasn't obvious. Now this particular specimen turned out to be a bit unusual, a species I had never seen before, and if that were not the case, he wouldn't have needed my input at all. This particular specimen proved to be a tree quite uncommon in this area (Sorbus aria, whitebeam). After visiting several references, several possibilities were eliminated, and it wasn't until I tried an old woody plant identification key, one that includes ornamental species, that things began to make sense. This species has a simple leaf and most species of Sorbus have pinnately compound leaves, a single axis with two rows of leaflets. Well and good, between the two of us, we nailed the ID and felt pretty good about ourselves.

But here's the thing. Neither one of us ever considered any other possibility after initially deciding this plant was a member of the rose family, instead of one of the other 700 or so families. Now the rose family is a pretty big group of plants, 100-120 genera and 3000 to 3500 species. What made us decide rose family?

It's strange but I don't actually know. Of course I can recite a list of characters, but most of them were not present because there were no flowers or fruit. Yet this twig, with its dozen and a half leaves and buds somehow just looked "rosy". My first thought was a pear, but this specimen's leaves had a double saw toothed margin (pear's are mostly smooth edged), wooly white hairs on the back side of the leaves (never seen a pear like that), and rounded buds (pears are usually more pointy). OK so not pear, more cherry like, but the bark was very un-Prunus, no horizontal lenticels and shiny buds. And finally by a process of elimination I ended up at Sorbus, even though the leaf seemed all wrong (simple leaf rather than pinnately compound). Once this hurdle was cleared, the details fell into place. Score one for the botanist.

This is the hard thing about plant identification. At a certain point, you have enough experience, that you can simply use a gestalt. Some sort of search image is triggered that shoves you in the right direction. And even though I have been teaching such courses for years, I just don't know how to teach this. You simply must work at identifying plants long enough and if you are good, this sense comes to you.

I play a dirty trick on students learning plant ID by giving them two very closely related plants sequentially, sometimes the same species, but just with different colored flowers or leaves. Some few look upon the 2nd specimen with a puzzled look, and then ask, didn't we just do this? Some are even more certain, and toss it aside as knowing I tried a lame trick. Others without an iota of recognition labor through another step by step slog through an identification key, and act surprised when the same species comes up again. Interestingly this exercise has proven to be a great predictor of their over all performance in the course. And I wonder if this skill, this perception, is tied to the ability to conceptualize, to go past the details and grasp the essential underlying idea. Because that's how this works with plant ID. The species ID is in the details, but the broader classification, in particular the family level taxonomic grouping is in the conceptualizing of the commonalities.

That's one good thing about experience. You do get better in doing some things with age. And you can't hold a specimen up to your computer monitor and get any closer to an ID. Technology isn't making any serious inroads into such skills at all. You can scan it, or digitally photograph it, and put it on the internet, but sooner or later, it's someone like me who tells you what it is.

A long time colleague of mine once expressed his concern and apparent inability to teach such skill. "Maybe we can just rip their heads off and pour it in," he said. Sounds like fun.

2008's Botanical Geek Tour

The question was how best to stimulate the economy with those tax rebates provided by the USA? Well, our idea was to organize a 2nd botanical geek tour whose purpose is to visit botanical gardens and other places of botanical interest, and along the way to eat and drink well. So we stimulated the economy by travelling to London for a long weekend in late May to visit the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, the Chelsea Flower Show, and the Chelsea Physic Garden. You might argue that this did little to stimulate the USA's economy, but this is an international form of the trickle down effect, so I'm sure the USA understands if the impact is a bit indirect.

Kew Gardens were not disappointing, although I have visited other more attractive gardens, but few with such grand vistas. Here is the largest, oldest Victorian glasshouse still in use, and the collection it houses is quite impressive. One of the cycads inside is probably the oldest potted plant in the world. The plant in the foreground is Gunnera, which is a basal lineage of the true dicots, and it's sort of strange seeing it so far from its Central and South American rainforest home.

The Chelsea flower show was quite amazing, the displays quite often provoking the question, "how did they do that?" However, although the daily attendance is capped, the crowds were equally amazing. Still all other garden/flower shows pale by comparison. My favorite was a small garden where everything, roof, walls, table, etc. were covered in moss.

The Chelsea physic garden is rather small and tucked away in a corner, but they have over 4000 labelled species arranged both medically and taxonomically in its 4 acres. The garden has been around for over 350 years, but has only been open to the public in recent decades.

Now you can get a bit foot-sore and tired with so much tramping about in the name of botanical edification, and the remedy for that is to sit yourself down at a local pub for a bit of refreshment. The Coach & Horses is right outside the main gate to Kew Gardens and it came recommended by a British colleague. A fine pub but this is as close to botany as he ever got. I wish I knew why pubs in Britain have so much more atmosphere than most bars in the USA, which seem fixated on the number of TVs screens they can cram in.
The next botanical geek tour may take us to Sweden, the home of Linnaeus. But it will have to wait until the next stimulus check appears, or when Lincolnland comes across with a decent pay raise, or hell freezes over.

Most successful plant in the world

People call universities to find things out that aren't easily looked up, and for many years all the weird plant related questions have been forwarded to me. I'd like to think it was because of my success at answering such questions, as opposed my being weird. So it was not a surprise when my phone rang recently and someone wanted to know, for an article they were writing, what was the most successful plant in the world?

Now that's an interesting question because it can be answered from several different perspectives depending upon how you define success.

My first idea was that the most successful plant in the world was one of the domesticated grasses, a cereal grain. From its beginning as a wild middle eastern grass wheat has become the most commonly cultivated plant in the world. But rice provides the majority of calories to the majority of the world's people. And altogether cereal grains occupy something like 70% of all tillable land.
Now such plants are successful because they were useful and important to humans. Cereal grains have moved with us and native plant communities removed for the culture of these cereals, and in a manner of speaking cereal grains have become immensely successful. But without human intervention, they would not long persist in such vast areas.

And of course there are weeds. Weeds are adapted to disturbance, so they grow rapidly reproduce quickly, in great numbers, and then disperse widely. You probably didn't need to be told that, but now you know why. Nature produces disturbances, so weeds occur naturally to take advantage of these sites. But the thing that humans do best, and most frequently and thoroughly, is create disturbance, so weeds have greatly benefited by human activities. Agriculture can be defined as a systematic disturbance of natural communities for the purpose of growing domesticated plants and animals. So weeds have greatly prospered and gained great success as a result of human activities too, but they have done it on their own. No wonder such successful plants are so hard to eradicate.

Another concept of successful is longevity. Some aspen or sagebrush clones appear to be 10,000 years old, and that's a long time for one individual to exist. Some bristlecone pines are known to be over 7,000 years old. Such long-lived organisms are certainly successful. Osmunda cinnamomea, the cinnamon fern, certainly is a longevity contender too. 70 million year old fossils of this fern have been found that are virtually identical to the living species. This makes this fern the oldest known species, period, plant or otherwise. I have a fossil fern stem from the Carboniferous era over 300 million years ago that is anatomically identical with modern Osmunda ferns. So the group has been around for a long, long time. Selaginella, a clubmoss, is another genus with a very long history dating to the early Carboniferous, and that makes it the oldest living genus.

If you take a broad definition of plant, then perhaps a particular cyanobacterium (sometimes called blue-green algae), like this one pictured here on the right, might be considered the most successful and influential plant in the entire of Earth history. Sometime 2 to 2.5 or so billion years ago this cyanobacterium became a chloroplast giving rise to all of the other green organisms. When you look outside your window you see green because this incredibly tiny green cell, now functioning as a cellular component in all plants, has been duplicated in countless numbers. Cyanobacteria, including chloroplasts, are the only organisms that use water in photosynthesis for a hydrogen source, which leaves oxygen as a by-product. All of the oxygen that makes up 20% of Earth's atmosphere (and its ozone layer) is a by-product of photosynthesis. Talk about influential! This changed Earth history completely. Aerobic organisms such as ourselves were not possible until there was oxygen in the atmosphere. So in terms of sheer number, ubiquity, and influence, the cyanobacterium that became a chloroplast is probably the most successful green organism in the entire of Earth history. But we are probably wrong to call it a plant.

So there you have it. Depending upon the type of success you were looking for, those are the most successful plants.

The trouble with trying to get religious students to think

The American Center for Law and Justice recently claimed to have championed the rights of a religious student who was being persecuted by professor.

But the Center for Inquiry has another version of the story. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has recently boasted of a "victory" in protecting a college student's rights to religious freedom. In postings on its website and in a radio broadcast on June 4, 2008, the ACLJ has trumpeted the claim that a demand letter one of its staff attorneys sent to Suffolk County Community College prevented a Christian student from receiving a failing grade from a professor who wanted to penalize her because of her religious beliefs.

The CfI says nothing could be further from the truth. "The ACLJ's spurious claim of a legal 'victory' is just slightly less outrageous than its brazen attempt to intimidate a philosophy professor from doing his job—which is to get students to think critically," commented Ronald A. Lindsay, Executive Director of the Council of Secular Humanism, who has talked to the allegedly biased professor. "As far as I can tell," observed Lindsay, "the ACLJ's letter accomplished nothing other than providing an excuse for soliciting donations."

The scholar that the ACLJ falsely accused of bias is a longtime philosophy professor who has taught more than 13,000 students over a period of thirty-six years. He has a well-deserved reputation for fairness, and has served as President of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers and as an officer in many other organizations. Although the ACLJ's radio broadcast alleged that the professor "hates" the very idea of Christians, this professor has taught students of many different faiths, and no faith, over the years, all without incident until the ACLJ's campaign of vilification. Indeed, after the ACLJ made its baseless accusations, students in this professor's philosophy class, including religious students, defended him, stating that he does not pass judgment on students because of their beliefs, but simply challenges them to examine all beliefs critically, including their own. His students have stated that they cannot identify the professor's own views based either on the course materials or the textbook authored for the class by the professor, and he does not pressure them to adopt any particular position.
"I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor," explained the professor, "if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs— not my beliefs or anyone else's beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one's own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion 'well, this is what I believe'."
The professor will not discuss in detail his interaction with the student who complained to the ACLJ about him, because he does not believe it is appropriate to share the details of a student's coursework with the outside world. However, he does have a right to defend himself against false accusations. The core of the ACLJ's claim is that the student was in danger of failing the class because of the professor's religious bias before the ACLJ intervened. "That claim is preposterous," according to Pecorino. "At no time did I tell her she was in danger of failing. When I had to project a grade for her earlier in the semester, I projected a 'C' and that was when she was most resistant to providing any reasoning to support her assertions. She was not open to examining her own beliefs or to entering into the dialectical process of inquiry in community because, according to her, she already had all the answers." And what of the ACLJ's claim that the student had a failing grade average of 54 prior to the ACLJ's intervention? "That is a misleading use of information. I use a cumulative point system in grading," explained the professor. "In other words, as students progress during the semester, they earn points for each assignment, with a possible total of 100 points by the end of the semester. She at one point probably did have 54 points, but that in no way indicates she was in danger of failing. She had 54 points, not a failing grade average of 54. All students start the semester with 0 points, so by the ACLJ's logic, all students are in danger of failing."

And did the ACLJ's letter influence the professor, either directly or indirectly through pressure from college administrators? "Absolutely not," the professor states. "I received no pressure form my college administrators, only support, and although I was a bit bothered by all the hate emails and other communications that resulted from the ACLJ's campaign against me, I did not let that affect my grading of this student. I take my responsibilities as an educator too seriously for that to happen. The student received a 'B' because she earned a 'B,' no more and no less."
The ACLJ's campaign against this professor cannot be dismissed as insignificant. As the professor observes, "Essentially, the ACLJ is claiming a religious exemption from the obligation of students in public colleges to engage in critical thinking, and this claim strikes at the core of higher education. If permitted to go unchallenged, this claim will weaken our democratic and pluralistic society." Lindsay agrees, adding, "For a democracy to succeed, we need citizens who can provide reasons to support their beliefs. We cannot reason together if all we have are groups of individuals who adamantly insist they have all the answers because of some supernatural revelation and who are unwilling to consider opposing viewpoints. The ACLJ is a very slick, very well-funded organization, and its animosity toward critical thinking is even more troubling than its willingness to distort the facts."

We’ve all had students like this. Only a couple of years ago I had a student in a senior seminar class, a “capstone experience” for biology majors who refused to discuss or even justify their positions or opinions. I had “no right to pass judgment”. Of course I wasn’t passing judgment, I was trying to get students to think and support their positions in a manner scientific. Now that was the catch. It just doesn’t cut much mustard to tell me that human life begins at the moment of conception because the Bible says so (and it doesn’t). Their complaint about my bias against their religious perspective went no further than a dean of undergraduate studies who decided is was perfectly OK that a professor of science would ask science majors to justify positions in a scientific manner. Even then I was not requiring anyone to argue for any particular positions, but interestingly enough, all of the biology majors changed their initial ideas about the beginning of human life, not all in the same way, as they learned more, thought more, and gained more knowledge. Only one student dogmatically stuck to their initial position no matter what; they remained unfazed by new information and new ideas. And if such people are actually model citizens, then demoncracy is indeed in trouble should they ever gain a majority.

And it again brings up the idea that I have blogged about before that religious thinking interferes with learning. I was greatly relieved to learn that this student was not a biology major, but had gotten into the class via some strange non-major major. After this experience I investigated this non-major major and ultimately was instrumental in killing this academic monster.

Of course in this specific instance the Catholic Church jumped on the idea of conception as the beginning of human life because of they wanted a fixed point at which to say an individual with a soul existed. The logical inconsistencies that have arisen as science has moved on are causing all manner of problems unless the faithful just continue to believe. Religion and science may coexist, but dogmatism and science can never coexist.

Field work - snapshots in ecological time

Only other field biologists can appreciate and sympathize with this problem. Studies done in the field cannot control for all the variations in nature, in particular normal variations in weather patterns, and so each study is actually a snapshot in ecological time. The trouble is that we try to extrapolate from these snapshots, and sometimes that doesn't work. And even worse you worry that the effects of weather can overwhelm your treatments.

The effort involved in field work makes the situation even worse. The steadfast effort involved in maintaining long term field studies is beyond most of us. For this reason I really admire Deborah and David Clark whose quarter century survey of tropical forest tree growth in Costa Rica is laudable just for its longevity, its contribution to understanding changes that may accompany global warming notwithstanding (Tropical rain forest tree growth and atmospheric
carbon dynamics linked to interannual temperature variation during 1984–2000. D. A. Clark, S. C. Piper, C. D. Keeling, and D. B. Clark. 2003. PNAS 100:5852-5857
.). If you haven't read this paper and want to see good evidence of changes that accompany increases in carbon dioxide and temperature, I recommend it.

In just the 3d year of our field study on the effects of hemiparasitic plants on the prairie community, and already the year to year variation seems destined to swamp any treatment effects. Last year our plots had so many hemiparasite seedlings that we wondered if eradication was a feasible treatment. They just kept sprouting, and we just kept weeding. Those seeds were the product of the 2006 season. The spring of 2008 was very different. It was cold and wet, and this affected the number and/or activities of bumblebees because seeds of our hemiparasite are scarce even though it flowered like crazy. Last year I could collect seeds in huge numbers, nearly 250,000 in about 20 mins. But this year a similar investment in collecting produced a very small volume in comparison. Guess we won't have so many seedlings to remove next year.

But that's not all. Last year produced a bumper crop of seeds, but so far they have not been germinating like last year at all. In 2007 we could find hundreds per square meter, and this year when we decide to monitor seedling mortality, seedlings are hard to find. It makes for easier eradication, but is messing with out demographic study.

That's just how field work goes. And it's why those rare long term studies are so valuable. If we monitored pollination, and seed production, and seed germination for 25 or so years, we would probably understand many of the variables. But when something gives you a significant result, well, dang, you just know it's important and real because everything was working against you getting any results at all.

Biological significance of political boundaries

About a dozen years ago after returning from a couple of months of tropical field work I though wouldn't it be a really great idea to get some of our students out of the familiar agro-urban environments of Lincolnland and teach them about tropical rain forest first hand. This has been a most successful endeavor, although not without having been a gigantic pain at times in terms of logistics, red tape, and other non-educational factors.

Although things had gone along well enough, it was long since past time to have this highly successful education endeavor recognized as a formal course offering. Now any good academic knows what a huge amount of hassle is involved with proposing a new course, even one that has been taught annually, successfully, via a loophole. But still the arguments were strong, and the track record good. So you can imagine my surprise to receive the following question posed by a curriculum committee whose collective intelligence is now exposed as a inconceiveably low.

"How can you justify to the tax payers of Lincolnland your use of limited resources to take students on a tour of tropical rain forest in some Central American country?"

Wow! Such a sheer naked exposition of ignorance has a way of taking my breath away. But the chair of the committee assured me this was a serious question and approval could hang in the balance depending upon the eloquence of my response.

I did my best. I cannot for the life of me think of one single way in which the arbitrary political boundaries of our particular tribe have any bearing upon the biology of organisms, the interrelated web of life, the truly global knowledge that is biology. True, political boundaries do play a great role in making the study of biology and the travel of biologists and their students a trying and more difficult task, what with all their rules and regulations. You see there just isn't a Lincolnland biology, or a 'Mercan" biology, either. There is one biology. The effects of tropical deforestation will not have to apply for a visa or seek papers from the Lincolnland bureaucracy.

I cannot help but wonder what the questioners might think are justifiable topics to teach students in our particular kingdom? Do members of this committee who have approved all manner of "tours" and study abroad courses think rain forest biology less relevant to biology majors than European history or foreign language is to humanities majors? Can well-educated academics actually be so ignorant, so scientifically illiterate? So I am dealing with people who only know human cultural artifacts as matters of significance. Imagine what this committee demands of astronomers! What do you mean our state isn't the exact center of the Universe?

And we take our students on a field trip, during which I am an instructor, an educator. There is a single destination, the class goes there and learns tropical biology through instruction and investigation. I'm not a tour guide and the class is not on a tour. While I know this type of superficial travel is the norm in the humanities, it isn't how we do business in biology. Of course, some institutions do take their biology students on tours, and some have stopped by the particular field station where our field trip takes place. They come, they go, and still my class investigates, studies, and learns. And while the "tour guides" rush around with all the logistics, us instructors, provide direction, send our troops out to learn, while we sit on the veranda drinking excellent coffee and watch the tours pack their gear. The difference between a field trip and a tour are very profound. Want to bet which participants learn more?

Of course our official purpose is to "train people for the work force of Lincolnland". So just by educating students, I'm failing to fulfill my duty to the taxpayers "train". Sit up! Speak! What's one more transgression?

Then there is the truly amazing fact that the students themselves pay for this educational experience in the tropics. The taxpayers aren't supporting this in any direct, substantive means at all. I'd better get a junior colleague to write the response because I'm not sure I can do it without tearing their heads off!