Field of Science


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?