Field of Science


Berry-go-Round #27 - It's Spring!

It's pretty obvious that Mary is a bit nostalgic for some temperate spring, either that or the Neotropical Savanna just got innudated by us northern temperate types. Either way, it's a spring Berry-go-Round Up (#27) of botanical blogs. Thanks for the posting.

Watching plants grow

Watching plants grow is best done with a margarita in hand while sitting on a bench. This activity is not for easily excited people. Most people would not believe how much activity there is because most people lack the patience to watch carefully enough or long enough. For those who are less patient, or less observant, some nice people at the BBC have made watching plants grow a bit easier. The narration could be more informative about what is being observed, but this video has some nice time lapse photographic sequences. For example, the guttation taking place from the tips of bamboo leaves in the opening segment. So get your cocktail, settle back, and enjoy this little video.
For the gardener who has everything, or the gadget freak, there are now weather-proof digital garden cameras to photograph your own plants growing and flowering (link provided without any implied endorsement unless of course they decide to buy me off.).

HT to GL.

ID this plant! Cindy needs to know.

The Phactor has been way too busy, and as a result poor Cindy has been ignored, and this just isn't right especially since she "appreciates my sense of humor". Many people, including Mrs. Phactor, think this sort of encouragement is unwise. Nonsense!
When the images Cindy supplied were examined, a feeling of deja vu came over me, again. And sure enough a quick search of the photo archives confirmed that a closely related plant had caught my attention on a botanical geek tour two years ago, and it remained an unknown. My fans will be glad to know that having recognized the family almost immediately, my second guess as to their identity proved correct. Cindy said her plant seemed to grow wild around San Francisco, but it has escaped from cultivation and has weedy proclivities (in fact it's a pest down under). It is a long way from home in the Madeira Islands. My plant was being cultivated at the Kew Gardens. Both can grow to 2 meters tall.

So let's see how you do. Can you get the family? How about the two species?

Olives and Ashes

The botanical mind often makes funny associations, and so this blog was written to please Ms. Mary who specifically thinks April brings to mind lilacs, and lilacs, not April, make me think of olives and ashes. The reason for this is because lilacs and ashes are part of the olive family, Oleaceae, and this spring my teaching includes plant taxonomy. Most people are quite familiar with the rather handsome spring flowering shrubs in the olive family: lilacs, Forsythia, fringe trees (Chionanthus), and less well known members like dwarf forsythia (Abeliophyllum). Fringe tree remains my personal favorite ornamental shrub that isn’t a Magnolia. Maybe you have had tea perfumed with the flowers of Osmanthus, whose name means fragrant flower, and the well known but not so prettily flowered or attractively fragrant privet. Perhaps you have not associated the famous aroma of jasmines to the more mundane, but still exquisite fragrance of lilacs, and somehow connecting these beauties to ashes and olives seems odd, but that is the way of classification. It isn't based on our impressions.

Science teaching: real and imagined problems

Teaching science is one of those things the Phactor knows more than a little about, and no question about it, science can be taught very badly or very well. Unfortunately science is more often taught badly, and this is a serious educational problem that no small number of people have been trying to fix, but it remains difficult. Yet science can be taught effectively, and relatively easily, if teachers can just learn how science is done and teach it accordingly.
No worse critic of science teaching and textbooks exists than the Phactor. Crap abounds. But here is a criticism of science teaching that is a huge load of steaming manure that only serves to demonstrate 1. that the author, Dr. Larry Dossey, presumably a physician, has never done science and has no idea how the teach science, and 2. the Huffington Post continues its love affair with alternative medicine.

His description of science is quite at odds with my experience, and no surprise because he quotes Jeremy Rifkin, whose dislike of science is well known, "The scientific method is at odds with virtually everything we know about our own nature and the nature of the world.” And silly me thought science was our one reliable means of learning and knowing about the nature of nature! Now what is missing is what exactly tells Rifkin and Dossey that science is so mistaken, so at odds with what it tells us? What more reliable method of knowing and learning should be substituted for science? Hmm, well, maybe it’s premonitions or prayer, both common topics in articles and books written by Dossey. In other words quesses and coincidences loom large in his magical thinking. No wonder science, based as it is on evidence, seems at odds with his world view.
Dossey employs an old rhetorial device; set up a straw man and knock him down. Provide an unflattering and inaccurate description of the scientific method and then criticize this description. In only one very tiny sense is the argument against science accurate; people do not innately think scientifically, so the application of the scientific method to learning, must be learned. The vast majority of people never learn this, and they only learn about science. Science is a process as well as a body of knowledge, so very few people understand science well enough to practice science. Most of us learned to do science by apprenticing with other scientists, and part of the science education problem, the real one, not the one Dossey had a premonition about, is that most teachers of science have never done science. And even a lot of the people who do science are not good at teaching science because they haven’t learned enough about this educational problem. So where do Rifken and Dossey get the idea that “an increasing number of scientists” have a disconnect between how they view the world and the scientific method? We clearly are not reading the same scientific literature, and here the Phactor ventures to guess that, oh, yes, clearly this is feeling true, they do not read the scientific literature at all. It just came to me. Wow! This premonition stuff is great!
Bottom line, Dr. Dossey is not a credible critic of science, and others agree, even when he sticks with medical science.

HT to Mike the Mad Biologist.

Earth Day – 1970 and 2010

Well, it’s been 40 years since my first Earth Day which I attended in my senior year in college. Unfortunately the impact of Earth Day was over shadowed by political events, the anti-war demonstrations culminating in the Kent State shootings and wide-spread student strikes at colleges and universities, including mine. As a graduating senior, I was more concerned about 1. graduating because that was a bit uncertain given the strike and crossing student picket lines to finish biology courses needed for graduate school that fall (having just been accepted), and 2. getting drafted and shipped off to Vietnam in the interim was a real possibility even though the Phactor was a “winner” in the 1st draft lottery by having a fairly high number assigned to my birthday. It had been a decade of considerable turmoil for people my age. At the height of the cold war this teenager helped friends build a bomb shelter in their basement and had my Father explain why that wouldn’t matter if the Russians dropped the big one. That was followed by involvement in social justice and integration straining race relations and landing me in the middle, quite by chance, of one of the race riots that left a city burning. Then fast forward to the Vietnam War and the loss of too many friends. For some reason a good grade in English literature (and many other subjects) just didn’t seem all that important.
And now Earth Day doesn’t seem as important any more either, and it's not because things have gotten a whole lot better, although many things have gotten worse much slower, and a few things like wild turkeys and the like are more common than they were. A lot of green-washing is going on; everyone is trying to cash in, our capitalist system at work, but the type of big changes needed do not seem to be in the offing. The average citizen, the type mesmerized by simple-minded rhetoric and easy-to-shout slogans, truly fails to recognize the types of changes and the magnitude of changes really needed to preserve our environment. It isn't plastic bags and water bottles that will make a difference, although they may be symbolic of the type of thinking needed. Most people wouldn’t think of water as our biggest resource problem, but it probably is, and we continue to waste it blightly in spite of rain barrels becoming a bit more common. And if people really understood the concept of a tipping point, climate change would scare the crap out of them because by the time to can convince the nay-sayers and politicians, it will be too late.

But mostly I'm reminded of a poster from 40 years ago that still speaks volumes. To quote Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Earth Day Poster, 1970)

Herding Cats

“Like cats, professors tend to be highly intelligent, deeply self-actualized, and fiercely independent. They need to be stroked occasionally, but only on their own terms and in their own good time.” (R. Jenkins, CHE, 4-16-10) And of course everyone at one time or another, particularly if they hang around college and university administrators, will have heard that getting faculty to do something is like “herding cats”. What I particularly like about Jenkins’ essay is his answer, “What’s wrong with that?”
Not all administrators think cats need to be herded, but my experiences with chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents (quite a number have come and gone during my decades in higher education) puts the ratio pretty close to 50:50. Rather than trying to “herd”, some actually try to “lead”, and some even have a goal in mind. And no question about it, the “I’m a cat” attitude of faculty drives those administrators who regard us as merely employees quite mad. We ask why and want data or studies that back up the positions and policies being proffered, and if you present analyses quite contrary to these, it is treated as an act of insubordination rather than an exercise in critical thinking and evaluation. You’d think they’d be pleased with my interest. The Phactor is not a contrarian, but my knack for finding a flaw in a plan has not necessarily always been greeted with enthusiasm. It took years of nominating one of these herdsmen for other jobs before some suckers took him off our hands, but others have just been more ambitious, and as they have moved on to bigger and better jobs, perhaps the Phactor has taken too much delight in seeing so many exemplify the Peter Principle. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to curl up with some research and purr.

What does the Phytophactor study?

Hmm, a curious reader has sent this query to the Phytophactor's mail bag. This is an easy question in the general, but it gets harder in the specific. Most generally, the Phactor's academic alter ego is a student of botany and science education whose publication record extends back into the mid-1970s. Mostly the research has concerned floral form and function, especially tropical flowers that employee beetles as pollinators. Floral development has also been a research area. Both have largely been done when time and money allow. In a lateral transfer of interest, one study of floral development led into a study of hemiparasitic plants (They're both green and parasites, which sort of makes you wonder, right?) in a prairie community, which is tricky because these plants interact on two different levels, and so far have proven far from cooperative. Things are complicated out their in the real world, and you have to wonder if neat little pot studies, using easy to grow weeds, so nice, so controlled, are actually telling us anything real. Without critters tearing or eating up your treatments, your data is probably too clean, too neat, too significant, and the real world sniffs at your error bars, and knows real science is done in the field. Beyond this general level the ideas, the hypotheses being tested, require a quite bit more in the way of explanation. Some studies deal with phylogenetic questions (lineages of common ancestry), some deal with adaptations and reproduction, and some deal with ecological ideas, so all are fundamentally evolutionary.

Naked, miserable, and hungry

A student has asked the Phytophactor's academic alter ego, “Why should I study botany?” To answer a question with a question, “What is it that makes you think plants are uninteresting and unimportant?” Let us take the most obvious point first. Without plants, specifically flowering plants, you would be naked, miserable, and hungry. The vast majority of our material needs are supplied by plants (pause for a sip of coffee), so isn’t it a good idea that people in general, and biology students in particular, should know something about plants?
Plants are not just a static background, a green scenery upon which animal players perform. Plants do all the things animals do except they do not bite or defecate (Some plants can sting.). They sense without sensory organs, they move without muscles, they react without nerves, and with a few rare exceptions, not a single animal anywhere can live without plants providing either directly or indirectly some of the solar energy they have captured and locked into chemical bonds to provide for their own growth and reproduction. Look at that sugar bowl on the table; those crystals are a molecular form of sunlight made by sugar cane (or a beet); no wonder a little candy can light up your day. Fortunately plants err on the conservative side, capturing more light energy than they actually need, so the rest of the biosphere can survive on their excess. Knowing how they do all these things is a very worthwhile endeavor, and something that will change your perspective; it will help cure your plant blindness.
Unfortunately as animals many of us have a strong bias against plants, or a strong preference for things more like ourselves. Actually our society is so removed from its "roots" that knowledge and interest in plants has diminished in recent decades, and some glimmers from interest in sustainability and sources of food give some hope. Biology in the USA reflects this bias and the human-biomedicine tail wags the biological dog (Browse through "science" blogs and look for a botanical one; good luck.). A very few people overcome this bias transforming themselves into botanists, a higher calling, and those few thousand of us spend our lives and careers in the worthwhile pursuit of these fascinating organisms. Curiously, more than any other group of plants, flowering plants have employed animals to do their bidding, bribing, and sometimes fooling animals into dispersing their spores. But they can’t get humans to get more interested in botany, and strangely enough this includes many gardeners who want to grow plants and look at plants, but not learn too much about them. And for this reason the Phytophactor dons his cape and dispenses botany in carefully controlled doses in the guise of gardening. But surely you knew this.

So heed this call to action. Go to your local institution of higher learning and demand more classes, more opportunities, and more facilities to study plants. Adopt a botanist. Why just $10,000 a year would keep my local field research clicking along, and most of the money would be used to hire deserving students who have an interest in plants.

A crime against nature! Poodled shrubs!

Plants are sessile, rooted in place, so they have to stand there and take what nature delivers. However, they are not without a response; plants (excepting annuals) are both indeterminate growers and phenotypically plastic. Plants are basically modular and since they have perpetually juvenile tissues, meristems, they continue to grow throughout their lives producing new modules. Phenotypic plasticity refers to their ability to alter their form to best suit the environment they are growing in, so if resources are limited, they may reduce the size of new modules, shorter stems, smaller leaves, and so on. Humans have long been aware of this ability and we have exerted control over plant form for many reasons: to limit size, alter shape, or produce more fruit. Just as strong seaside breezes can gnarl and dwarf trees that would grow straight and tall inland, we turn trees into hedge shrubs. In the most extreme cases full sized trees are dwarfed into aesthetically pleasing miniatures, bonsai trees.
However, many plants have pleasing growth forms, and when humans alter them into highly constrained shapes the result can vary from whimsy in the form of topiary to just plain out ugly. Indeed, the pruning done by your basic gardening dolt produces what can only be termed a crime against nature – poodled trees and shrubs. These are an abomination! Here are two neighbors of mine who have a different takes on Forsythia. The poor poodled shrub isn’t even whimsical unless maybe a number one appears on the side and 14 more such shrubs, of appropriately different colors, are spread around a completely flat and rectangular lawn, and even then you might say, clever, but tasteless.

Poodling may result from the misplaced desire to control and constrain nature, to place everything under our dominion. After all a poodle looks less like a wolf than just about any dog, so we sleep around the campfire a bit easier with such pets. Oh, and one more thing, poodling is never ending futility and work! But some people just cannot let go, cannot allow nature to be nature, or kids to be kids, so one imagines a strong connection between poodling and nagging, both manifestations of exerting control, but the results of both can be equally ugly, but here the Phactor's thoughts begin to stray into more controversial areas and spring is too nice a season, replete as it is with fresh asparagus, to antagonize too many people, and being chased out of town by a mob wielding hedge pruners and torches is truly a scene to be avoided, but it is true that viturally all of these crimes against nature are committed by using hedge pruners, especially those that are powered, and in the hands of the incompetent, they result in butchery. The plant police should take hedge pruners away from such people least they generate more offense to the aesthetically sensitive. Ah, but there are even worse gardening criminals, and shortly we shall expound upon those who remove every thing except grass or pave over gardens.

Garden flowering log: Report for March 2010

Mar 1: witchhazel “Diane”
Mar 9: witchhazel “Arnold’s Promise”, early crocus, snowdrops
Mar 14: late crocus, filbert
Mar 18: hellebores (hybrids & H. niger)
Mar 22: squill (thousands and thousands of them)
Mar 23: early daffodils, dwarf & standard; lungwort
Mar 28: Japanese pachysandra, spicebush
Mar 29: cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)
Mar 30: dwarf forsythia (Abeliophyllum)
Mar 31: Forsythia, periwinkle, tulip ‘kaufmanniana”
Not too bad for March, but the first 5 days of April have already equaled the total for all of March, so perhaps keeping a flowering log could get a bit out of hand, but you have to wander around your garden with a cocktail anyways, so you might as well take note of what’s in flower. So stay posted and in just 25 more days, we'll see what flowered in the Phactor's garden during April.

Book Reports - Pre-Columbian Americas & the Spice Trade

Finished two books out of the tall stack of partially read ones, and both were pretty interesting. This in and of itself speaks well of them because the Phactor is easily bored and easily distracted, and that when combined with a long list of his own writing projects at various stages of incompletion means books are seldom finished.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by C. C. Mann (2006) presents a new synthesis of anthropology of the Americas prior to European contact and the emerging picture is one of much larger populations of native Americans, more complex cultures, larger cities, and very little pristine wilderness, but instead “sustainably managed nature”. Lots of interesting factoids like Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was larger than any contemporary European city. What happened is complex, but the hypothesis is that old world human diseases decimated the populations causing cultures to collapse.
The Taste of Conquest: the Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice by M. Krondl (2007) is a nifty history of the spice trade as it moved from Venice to Lisbon to Amsterdam. The Phactor has always had an inordinate love of spice plants wherein he claims some minor botanical expertise. This book came to my attention shortly after a trip to Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, which included a visit to the famous spice market in operation there since the 1500s. Although any attempt to explain history from the perspective of a single variable is ridiculous, the importance and impact of the spice trade on economics and exploration cannot be lightly dismissed. As a student of New York State history, I already knew how New Amsterdam came to be New York; the Dutch traded Manhattan to the British in return for a much more valuable spice island, Palau Run (Treaty of Breda). Try finding that on a map. All good stuff for my economic botany lectures.

No fooling! Berry-go-Round #26

Berry-go-Round #26, last month's gathering of botanical blogs, is up over at Gravity's Rainbow, and it couldn't be more nicely done. My particular favorite is the algal balls, but they appear to be declining as climate warms, and if that wasn't enough, your morning coffee might be in jeopardy due to global warming. If that doesn't incite some action, nothing much will. Most people fail to grasp the magnitude of the impact of global warming could have on agriculture, and how much that will affect everyone.