Field of Science


Feeling really small in the Universe

Botany is a pretty mundane down-to-Earth subject compared to things studied by astronomers. These guys scare the Phactor a little bit, but still the fascination with images like the Hubble Deep Space Field, a look deep into space, remains, so if you haven't seen this enjoy. But don't think about this too much, or you begin to feel really, really, really small.
This image comes as close to making you feel like a microbe, in a tine droplet of water, about to splash into the oceans as anything not quite imaginable, and in reality there is no real way to wrap your brain around such an immensity of deep space because the human mind evolved to deal with quantities of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and many, and distances you can throw a stone or walk in a few hours. Beyond that our brain is not really very good conceptualizing really, really big or really, really small things. This image comes from an area of the sky where nearby stars in the Milky Way galaxy (which means milky) form the Big Dipper constellation, but if we imagine ourselves in a sphere, the area where this image was taken only occupies 2 parts out of a million similar sized parts it would take to occupy the whole sky. This is the same as having a field 100 meters by 100 meters, and just looking at an area 2 mm by 2 mm in the center. About 3000 objects are in this image, and all but 2 or 3 are galaxies, whirling clusters of stars as big or bigger than the Milky Way, and really, really far away, and if space is fairly uniformly filled with such things, and this is 2 millionths of the total, well, there are really, really, really a lot of galaxies out there. If you cannot or do not want to do the math, this means some 100 to 200 billion galaxies occupy the observable universe, each with 10s of millions to a trillion stars, and here we sit on “an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, orbiting a small, unregarded yellow sun at a distance of roughly 98 million miles which is located far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the [Milky Way] Galaxy, an ape-descended life form so amazingly primitive, we still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea” (from Doug Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe), and that we alone in this universe are the pinnacle of creation of an anthropomorphic god. Just like that microbe in the drop of water.

Avoiding SAD - Visit a Greenhouse

Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues, has never gotten me down, although winter simply goes on too long. But one certain remedy is to spend some time in the nearest greenhouse. All that organic material, the humidity, the smells of plants and earth, have a very salutory effect upon your brain. Maybe this is why botanists are not too prone to depression?

So while curing my SAD today this beauty caught my attention - Thunbergia mysorensis. Sorry if it has a common name, it isn't known to me (anyone?). The inflorescences hang down nearly 2 feet and the colorful flowers open bottom (which is at the top) to top, but this poses a problem for such flowers because usually their stamens and stigma are on the dorsal side of the flower. This is solved by having the flowers rotate on their stalks 180 degrees. This is not uncommon and other plants with dangly inflorescences do the same thing (e.g. Wisteria). Note also how the red calyx contributes to the overall display. You can grow this outside in warm climates.

Job training versus learning

Boys and girls, allow me a bit of personal reflection about why education is important.

My childhood educational years were spent near Rochester, New York. During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s it was a thriving city with bountiful job opportunities at such impressive companies as Kodak, Xerox, and General Motors to name the biggies. Jobs at places like these meant that people with high school educations could afford nice houses, new cars, and vacations, the pure American dream.

Many people got great paying jobs after graduating from high school, and some were openly condescending about people who wasted their time going to college. “What kind of job are you going to get studying biology?” At the time your correspondent had to admit he didn’t know the answer. Having worked at GM during summers to pay for college (yes, the pay was good enough that 3 months of work covered the bills), this type of job had no appeal. So the gamble was on learning about something interesting, intellectually engaging, and trusting that it would work out OK. Oh yes, a college draft deferment during the Vietnam war era was also important.

Well, what a difference 30 to 40 years makes. All those jobs are gone; they barely lasted one working career. That worked out mostly OK for people my age, many of whom were near retirement anyways when they lost their jobs, but all those who signed on since then are just out of work and out of luck. One of the oft advertised great career opportunities during my college years was IBM key punch operators, basically typists who entered programs and data on punch cards, which was how you interfaced with computers in those days, with great big decks of cards carrying your programs and data. That great job training opportunity didn’t even last 10 years, and that’s what really specialized training gets you, a dead end.

The really important thing about education is learning how to learn. The Phactor is still doing botany in his 4th decade at the institution of my employment because it’s the only thing he does half well, but being an active biologist forces you to stay a student, to continue learning, and to do new things. Once you learn how to learn and get a job where that is important, you have a job that isn’t going to go away, even if your institution becomes private after state support totally evaporates (In 1970 the tuition $$ to state support ratio was 1:4.6, now it’s 1:0.6.). Learning to learn lets you adapt as new developments dictate. Carburetors and film have just about gone extinct, my dissertation typewriter is a museum piece, and no one could have ever foreseen such changes from the perspective of the 1960s.

This is why a real education is important, and very, very different from training. But a lot of people do not get it. Officially, my job at a great public institution of higher learning in the Land of Lincoln is to “train students for the work force of Lincolnland”. The Phactor has steadfastly ignored this dictate and done his best to educate students anyways. The work force can do its own key-punch training.

In biological terms, education that leads to life-long learning is the adaptive response. Training only leads to short term success at best. One last thing to mention least someone think the Phactor is on too high a horse about college educations. My point is not actually about the importance of college; it’s about the importance of learning to learn. It’s just that you don’t get very much of that in high school, and at times, precious little enough in college. Skilled tradesmen (and women) are well educated in the skills of their particular field, and they must continue to learn because tools and technology change. Adapt or go extinct, but who knew how fast things would evolve?

What was Prototaxites?

Prototaxites has been a classic enigmatic fossil, which means no one knew what it was other than it appeared to be really big when nothing else really was. Prototaxites appeared to be some type of cylindrical axis , which when stood upright would have looked like telephone poles on a landscape of plants standing little taller than your living room carpet. That’s because Prototaxites existed during the Late Silurian and Devonian, a period of time when vascular plants were just getting their rhizomes under themselves. Prototaxites fossils display a strange spiral inner organization and a filamentous composition.

Not too long ago, the filamentous organization of Prototaxites led to its identification as a fungus, the “humongous fungus” and this is the actual cover of the journal this research was published in.

But a team of my ever creative colleagues lead by Dr. Graham (no, not the one of cracker fame) have just published their reinterpretation of these fossils by actually recreating plant remains that have the same appearance as Prototaxites. Dr. Graham is well known for torturing liverworts to see if any of the degraded remains bear similarities to enigmatic fossils of early land plants. The evidence they present suggests Prototaxites formed a helical cylinder when a large mat of liverworts was rolled up probably by the winds that would have howled across a treeless landscape. This further reinforces the hypothesis that plants with a bryophyte level of organization (mosses and liverworts) were pioneers on land long before vascular plants appeared. The Phactor hopes that PATL (People Against the Torture of Liverworts) doesn’t begin picketing her lab.

Ash Wednesday 2010

The kitchen calendar tells me it's Ash Wednesday. To celebrate allow the Phactor to suggest you consider adding flowering ash (Fraxinus ornus) to your plant collection. Generally we tend to think of ash trees as stately, if not somewhat boring, shade trees, or baseball bats, or fodder for emerald ash borers, and certainly not an ornametal tree when in flower. But flowering ash is quite handsome in flower, quite similar in some respects to the slightly better known fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus or C. retusus). Flowering ash is slow growing, but can reach 50 feet or so, and like some other members of the olive family, the flowers are quite fragrant. The only thing preventing me from planting this tree is it's zone 6 hardiness (and we're a hard zone 5 here in central Lincolnland). This species long cultivated in Europe is still relatively unknown in North America, and one can only hope that the emerald ash borer finds this species unappealing.
Link to image source.

Big Thumbs Up for Jungle Jim's

The Phytophactor escaped from Lincolnland for a couple of days to present a research seminar at at Miami University in Ohio. In an academic sense that was quite profitable, but from a recreational perspective, the big event was spending an afternoon at Jungle Jim's market located on Dixie Hwy. just north of Cincinati. As a botanist who teaches about economically important plants and spends a lot of time in the tropics, markets are fascinating places. Unfortunately here in North America, most of our markets have become sanitized, prepackaged, fabrications of true markets. Jungle Jim's is not a true market in the sense of having numerous vendors hawking their wares in a sensory pleasing jumble of activity, but you have the Phactor's word that you have never, ever set foot in a North American market like this one. It's sheer size is awe inpiring, and it seems to have more of everything than any other market anywhere (image of part of the hot sauce aisle). On this particular Saturday, all 34 checkout lines were in business. The produce section, my favorite part, had rambutan, dragon's head, mangosteen, white and black sapote, durian (although frozen), Thai eggplant, lotus root, and fresh galangal for sale, which is only appropriate for a place that started out as a roadside fruit stand. Now the Phactor has had all of these before, but it's great to see them for sale in a market in middle America. Mrs. Phactor got to stock up on her favorite passion fruit concentrate. People have died from exhaustion after getting lost in the wine section and being unable to find their way out, or maybe that was after too much tasting. And for you food wimps out there, Jungle Jim's even has a section for, yes, American food, wonderbread and cheese whiz. So, if you're in the Cincinati area, set aside about 3 hours, and have yourselves a ball.

Does the world need another plastic tomato?

Does the world really need another bad tomato? Researchers in India have engineered a tomato so that they may go up to 45 days after picking without rotting. But how is that possible? Well, it happens if the tomato never gets ripe.
Granted, ripe tomatoes are delicate things, easily prone to damage and they quickly go past their prime, so having a tomato with a long shelf life seems an improvement. But let’s face it, while they may look pretty for 45 days or so, they’ll taste just blah. Now of course in India, produce spoilage is without a doubt a greater problem, but you never see a fresh tomato in India anyways. They get cooked to a pulp in sambhars and curries, so it may not matter so much that they don’t taste good fresh. But here in the USA we already have plastic tomatoes in our markets, beautiful, pristine, long-lasting, perfectly- colored, blemish-free, and utterly awful. They regularly use a slice of these “never-ripen” tomatoes on fast food sandwiches and both the iceberg lettuce and wrapping paper have more taste. And what is a tomato anyways if not taste? Lots of interesting things happen at this stage in a flower’s life, and that’s what a fruit is, a flower at the stage of seed dispersal. Fleshy fruits develop color, odor, sweetness and flavor, a softer texture, all to signal to animals that this baby is a succulent reward. And by eating it we do the plant's bidding by dispersing the seeds. The researchers go to great length to point out that unlike some genetic engineering, no genes from a plastic ketchup bottle were inserted into tomato plants, but some of the tomato's own ripening genes were silenced. Somehow though a no-taste tomato with a 45-day shelf life seems to defeat the purpose of a tomato and maybe such research should be considered a crime against nature and BLTs anyways.

HT to the Scientific Indian.

More botanical confusion - Lotus

Undaunted by having lost this post to an electrical failure earlier, the Phactor will endeavor to X-plain another confusing botanical subject - the lotus. Lotus, as a flower of myth and legend, is tied to so many stories in so many traditions, naturally things are going to get mixed up a bit. Leaving the automobile out of it, what plants are actually called lotus?

The Blue Nile lotus is actually a waterlily (Nymphaea) as illustrated in the wonderful old botanical painting. And when Homer wrote of "land of the lotus eaters" this was the plant he was most likely to have been thinking of.

The sacred lotus of India and SE Asia is Nelumbo nucifera, which is not a waterlily at all, however its similarity to waterlilies caused it to be misidentified as one for a long time. And both can be easily mistaken for one another in artistic and figurative representations. These medallions are ceiling paintings from a temple in southern India. The one on the left could be the golden lotus (below) and the one on the right either a waterlily or a sacred lotus.

As if that wasn't enough, the golden lotus, a much revered plant itself, is actually a many bracted, many flowered infloresence in the banana family (Musella lasiocarpa). And this sort explains these cases of mistaken identity. The flowers of waterlily and the sacred lotus are both pretty large and have lots of overlapping petals. And in first appearances, the golden lotus looks likewise, although it isn't just one flower at all.
And to further add to the confusion the genus Lotus (called bird's foot lotus) belongs in the bean family, and why this bean came to share this name is unknown to me.