Field of Science

Remembering when gasoline was $3.59 a gallon

A combination of flu and field work, experienced separately, certainly have kept me away from the Phactor.

A funny and illuminating realization came to me yesterday while gassing up the buggy for a trip to my field site. Since the last time I had filled the tank, the prices had increased by over 50 cents a gallon. Yes, they are going up fast, but since I do not drive on a day to day basis at all, I only have to fill up the tank about once a month.

As I was beginning the fill, a fellow on the opposite side of the pump said, "Yikes, have you ever seen anything like these gas prices?" And as I looked at the $3.59, I remembered that yes, I had seen such gas prices before. The interesting and illuminating thing is that I encountered those prices nearly 23 years ago. OK maybe you are too young to have memories that old, and if such prices are setting records, what could I be talking about?

Well, here's a hint. It was called petrol and it was sold by the liter. And I was living in far northern Queensland enjoying my very first sabbatical leave. The reason that I remember the price so precisely is that to get reimbursed for my research travel from an NSF grant I had to calculate the price in dollars per gallon. At that point in time the US dollar had a very favorable exchange rate against the Australian dollar too.

So here's the point I want to make to the citizens of the USA. Welcome to the real world. Citizens of other countries have been living, successfully, with gasoline prices like those that you consider outrageous for decades. People in the USA have been living in a never-never land of cheap gasoline because after WWII our government decided to support the automobile industry and everything that goes with it: cheap fuel, interstate highways, sprawling cities, paving paradise for parking lots, no investment or support for public transportation, atrophy of legs, suburban malls and decline of city centers, and so on.

The transportation policies of the USA were very short-sighted, and now reality is finally arriving in the USA. The cost of gasoline is going to go higher still, but the cost of playing catch-up in building efficient public transport is really going to be shocking. People are going to have to rethink their decisions about where to live, and assess the real costs of country living.

Many of my colleagues protested when parking fees for reserved spots on our campus were increased over 10-fold to pay for construction of parking ramps. Rather than sign their petition, I wrote a letter to the university pleading with them to increase parking fees several times more to promote use of transportation alternatives. Since I live within walking distance of the campus, I had never purchased a parking permit. But most of my many colleagues living in the same neighborhood drive to campus. The most amusing thing is that the only tangible benefit from having been employed by this campus for more than 25 years is a free parking permit. They give me the one thing I had never used. Talk about irony.

Field work and blogging - incompatible?

April stands for so many things: spring begins, tax season ends (very significant if you're married to a CFP), the end of the semester is in sight, deadlines and events abound, and all of this pales because it is also the beginning of field season, that time of year when the natural cycle of your research organism requires that you begin spending significant amounts of time out of your office, out of your lab, and away from your university. There is a satisfying component to this work, especially if you are smart enough leave electronic communication devices turned off (or, if you are truly enlightened and have achieved oneness with creation, you do not own such things).

It is a good sign when you manage to find 107 out of 108 quadrats after your prairie has been burned. The 108th is still there, but it's location somewhat uncertain until the corner pin is found using a metal detector. And it is a good sign that the exposed bones do not belong to that graduate student who went missing last semester. It is always a surprise to see how many skeletons, both big and small (deer, beaver, fox, vole), are visible after a prairie burning. I wonder if my patch of prairie is something of an elephants' graveyard that all injured or terminally ill animals seek out.

But in spite of the fact that I am relieved of teaching and administrative duties this spring, I find it difficult to have the time to do field work and keep up with everything else. Two journals are waiting for me to review articles on floral biology. A doctoral research proposal is demanding my immediate attention. My own expansive estate is calling for attention. And I have a book manuscript and three research articles to complete.

And then there is the Phytophactor. In the middle of winter, when field work is out of sight and out of mind, starting a blog seemed like a good idea. I like the venting blogging allows. But I wonder about other bloggers, especially those in science. Apparently very few do field work. Maybe very few do science either judging by their attention to the pseudproductivity of blogging. Many seem rather young, and perhaps they have fewer responsibilities beyond their teaching and research. Or they have much smaller gardens, if any. Very few seem to be ecological or botanical. Does this say something about the temperment of botanical ecologists, or is this just a measure of how much time they have, or how little sleep they need? Dare I suggest field work and blogging may be incompatible? Nah!

Cellulose – Tough Old Stuff

Cellulose is best known as the cell wall material of land plants and algae, and some 100 billion metric tons of cellulose are synthesized each year. Good thing some fungi and bacteria have cellulases because otherwise we would soon be up to our bippies in cellulose.

Cellulose is widely known to be a very stable molecule. The herbarium I curate has 200 year old pressed, dried plant specimens that look no different from specimens collected last year. And since the primary material present is cellulose, unless these specimens get burned, flooded, eaten by insects, or discarded by some hopelessly stupid people, like the trustees of the University of Utrecht, who just closed down their famous herbarium, these specimens should last hundreds of years longer providing an invaluable scientific record.

But cellulose can last much, much longer. Cellulose fibrils recovered from ancient salt deposits have been aged to 253 million years old, the oldest known intact biological macromolecule (Griffith, Willcox, Powers, Nelson, and Baxter, 2008, Astrobiology). I’m not sure this is true because spores are older, and spore walls are made of sporopollenin. Nothing decomposes this macromolecule; it is forever.

Still cellulose is tough stuff. What’s funny about cellulose though is that it’s just a polymer of glucose, a plain old 6-carbon sugar, long chains of honey. Your primary source of calories is starch, amylose, and it too is just a polymer of glucose. So in basic terms both cellulose and amylose are pure glucose, but you can digest one not the other. You have an amylase, but not a cellulase. The difference between chewing on a cracker and a woody twig is largely based on the two different ways glucose monomers can be linked into a polymer.

Tough Choice

I was presented with a tough choice today: start field work or go to a faculty meeting. After a nanosecond or two, I decide to go out into the field and try to find a hundred quadrats now that the prairie has been burned, even though it was a bit rainy. This assures that I accomplished a little something whereas accomplishing something in a faculty meeting is actually a rare event. Especially today when the topic was a banal proposal to change the name of our academic unit from department to school. That's it, except some of my colleagues think this an academic panacea rather than a mere cosmetic change. And of course with the stakes so low, the discussion is certain to be acrimonious.

This reminds me of a fellow I met many years ago from our English Dept. If you looked up curmudgeon in the dictionary, there was his picture. He always wore a string tie with a slide, and one day he accosted me going across the campus. "I'm on my way to fawculty meeting", he said, "and I always wear this tie." "Do you know what this is?" indicating his tie slide.

"Well, it looks like a slice of some kind of fossil, but without detail I can't tell what."

"It's a coprolite", he said, "do you know what that is?"

"Yes, a coprolite is fossilized feces."

"And that is why I wear it", he said, "in honor of all those fossilized old shits in my department!"

No question about it, field work was the right choice. Besides, I didn't have the correct attire for faculty meeting.

Curtain Call for an Old Friend

This magnificent tree is called the curtain fig; it’s huge and may be several hundred years old. Curtain fig is not the common name of the species (Ficus virens), but the name of this specific tree. It’s a strangler fig, a type of fig that starts growing in the canopy of another tree. Its roots grow down and around the host tree, and its canopy grows upward, and ultimately the fig can engulf, kill, and take the place of its host. In Central America strangler figs are called matapalo, tree-killer. This fig apparently grew vertically killing its original host tree, and then fell against a neighboring tree, subsequently taking it over as well. Roots dropping from the diagonal trunk produced this curtain of roots that rises about 18 m from the forest floor, and from this emerges an immense crown of branches above the rainforest canopy.

Curtain Fig lives in a patch of rainforest near Yungaburra on the Atherton Tableland in northern Queensland Australia. I first saw this tree over 25 years ago, and shortly there after I met the fellow in the funny red felt hat at the lower right. And he in his own right is a magnificent fellow. I am thinking about this because I just learned this funny-hat-wearing fellow, my friend and colleague Tony, is dying of lung cancer, a rather ironic fate for a confirmed non-smoker.

Tony and I teamed up twice to conduct field research on the reproductive biology and beetle pollination of rain forest trees, and I spent months, some of the best times of my life, at this side working in the rain forest. I, even with the PhD, was the rain forest student, and Tony my learned mentor. Tony is simply one of the best field biologists ever. His keen eye for observation, and his equally keen intellect made him a largely self-schooled guru of field biology and rain forest natural history. And his attitude was even better than his knowledge. Tony approached his life and work with simple joy; he did biology just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, so it was just a bonus that the Australian CSIRO paid his salary.
He has a sly sense of humor. His almost child-like air of innocence and his often feigned naivety allowed his wit to prey upon those who thought themselves sophisticates or his educational betters, but , it was never mean humor. In fact there was nothing mean about Tony. Oh, and did I mention his singing voice or his rain forest tucker? No, and with good reasons, but I was often serenaded exuberantly and fed anyways. And who else would drive an hour out of the rain forest, at night, to the nearest civilization just to satisfy a sudden urge for ice cream? Only a wonderfully crazy fellow in a floppy, red felt hat, would think such a pilgrimage for an ice cream bar perfectly reasonable.

Tony played hard and worked hard, and his physical life took a toll upon his body; parts just wore out. That together with Parkinson’s has brought this great bear of a man to a near halt. The cancer will merely deliver the coup de grace. His life used up the rest, but it was used very well. My life is richer for having Tony as a friend and colleague, and it is with immense sadness that I write this reflection.

Curtain fig lives on, but for Tony, it’s just curtains.