Field of Science

7 billionth person born today

Population was a major topic of discussion among biologists 40-50 years ago, and then disappeared from view probably because this was when the right-to-life movement really began to get some traction and any discussion of population would suggest limiting population growth might be a good idea and that in turn would lead to birth control and a reason for continuing to allow abortions. Now the topic has returned and it's been interesting to see my students' reactions to this issue including Garrett Hardin's now classic essays on this topic. If you haven't ever read him, you should. His essays have aged well. Basically they are surprised the problem was so well understood decades ago and it generated no action at all except almost the opposite (e.g., limitations on talking about contraception in sex ed classes and in USA foreign aid). The Phactor was the 2,489,152,594th person alive at the date of my birth (you can find out your number here). Yes, that's right! In my short 6 decades Earth's human population has nearly tripled! The Phactor finds this a very scary and sobering bit of data, and no question about it in the minds of most biologists, human population is beyond the carrying capacity, which is not the same as asking how many people can the Earth support. Carrying capacity is defined in biology as the maximum population size of the species that a given environment can sustain indefinitely. The last word is the problem. Humans alter their own environment and prosper at the expense of natural communities, at the expense of other species and non-renewable resources. So the Earth can and will have to support more people but at great expense to natural communities and other species, and this is not sustainable indefinitely. However, birth rate in many places is falling, so growth is slowing, but not in countries that seem least able to sustain such growth (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa). The worst part is that it is hard to know what to do, individually, collectively, about this problem, and many people deny (it's so fashionable) there even is a problem, and you hate the thought that doing nothing might be the right thing or only thing to be done. Other than those who had only 1 sibling or none (less than 25% of my classes), none of my students planned to have a family as large as the one they grew up in. That's an action, but even that has dire consequences as so many of our social support networks were built upon the assumption of continued growth, and thus become chain letters. Not happy thoughts for a Monday! Your thoughts are welcomed.

Nor'easter brings snow & tree damage

Nor'easters are storms that track NE in the northeastern US, basically up the coast from New Jersey to Maine, and they can dump a lot of rain or snow depending on the season. This storm ran into some cold imported Canadian air and as a result some places got 10-15 inches (25-38 cm) of snow, and this early in the season means it was a heavy wet snow. That's all you need to know to predict what happened. A lot of trees, many still bearing their leaves, will break under the weight, which in turn brings down power lines and probably 500,000 residences will be without electricity. A few years ago, an early heavy snowstorm struck our area, and those trees that had stubbornly hung onto their leaves were toast. It basically was the end for Bradford pears in this area; a walking survey of the neighborhood found 9 out of every 10 broken into smithereens. The Phactor lost a very large old redbud split to the base and another 6 were badly damaged. Never much cared for Bradford pears, and we still had 12 or so redbuds undamaged, so no tragedies. At our residence in an urban heat island there has yet to be a frost so the fall colors and leaves are still hanging on. Such a snow here, now, would be a disaster too. Videos of cars sliding around will be standard fare as dopes behind the wheel make their annual discovery that snow is slippery and requires caution. Any live reports from the field?

Pumpkin carving that's out of my league

You have to see these pumpkins! Who knew you could do so much with a pumpkin or squash? These carvings are very creative, and actually sort of spooky in a strange kind of way because they have that fleshy look about them as if they could actually be animate. Another thing, you don't have to deal with the slimy, stringy placenta and seeds. Now you know why gourds took over from turnips as jack-o-lanterns, they offered more potential.

Never plant this plant #1 - plume poppy

A colleague was conducting an informal survey about the worst plant we ever planted. Now that takes some thought. As a lawn tree the Phactor really dislikes sycamore, but none of them were my fault. Quite a few plants have been disappointments by not living up to the promisary pictures in catalogs. Although it has been, and still is, a huge pain, lily of the valley is lovely if only it had not been allowed to have taken over entire portions of our garden, a gift from the former laisez-faire owners. Oh, but then it was all clear. The absolutely worst plant ever deliberately planted was a plume poppy (Macleaya cordata). It's a big herbaceous perennial with rather striking leaves and in its first year it was amusing. In its second year it was surprisingly large, dominant even. But in the third year plantlets were popping up from roots over 10 feet from the crown of the plant. Plume poppy was clearly intent on taking over the world. Fortunately the roots were fairly shallow and it seemed it was growing faster than we could dig. The Phactor would recommend never ever planting this damned plant no matter how cool it looks. Staghorn sumac is less of a problem. Nominations are now open for worst plant you ever planted. Later your list will be compared to the rest of mine.

Land mark 1000th blog!

This is the Phytophactor's 1000th blog! The Phytophactor began blogging in the botanical doldrums, the dead of winter, February 12, 2008, for his general amusement during the non-gardening, non-field season in an obscurity so magnificently total that Google could not find my blog. That was 1354 days ago, and to figure that out a new undocumented Excel function was discovered, DATEDIF. My 7th blog, Artichoke - fruit or vegetable? with all its longevity has generated 10 times as many page views (5000+) as the next most read page. Who knew so many people cared? Unfortunately my stats don't go back beyond June 2009 by which time the Phytophactor was getting about 2000 page views/month. By early 2011 readership had more than doubled to over 5000 page views/month. Rather than a steady trend, increases have come rather quickly, followed by a plateau. Not bad for a totally stand alone blog. The Phytophactor joined the Nature Blogs Network quite early on and now ranks 136th in traffic out of the 1748 nature blogs they track placing this blog in the top 8%. Joining the Field of Science blog collective two months ago provided another boost to readership pushing monthly page views to over 12,000, more than doubling the average of the prior 6 months. Around 85% of the blogs are botanical in one way or another, with the rest divided between blowing off steam about academic life, politics, and other aggravations in life. By its fourth anniversary the Phytophactor will have easily passed the 100,000 page view, in fact it may have already passed uncounted not knowing how many pages were read in 16 data less months. So far this is a vastly amusing enterprise. It has flummoxed my colleagues, which is always a good thing, because they have no idea how to evaluate their most widely read colleague's out reach efforts; it is one of our duties you know. My chair said who knows what blogging is worth, and the Phactor suggested he compare my readership to that of his last publication. And he said he would if he were sure of the Phytophactor's true identity, after all, maybe Shakespeare didn't write all those plays either. Touche. So to all you readers, both regular, and irregular, in which case you probably need more fiber, so some will be provided, the Phytophactor says, "Thanks". Like Lone Waite, the Phactor shall endeavor to persevere.

Book Review - Ambonese Herbal

Reading a review of the Ambonese Herbal made the Phactor realize that he is not the only person to have struggled to finish a book. 81 years from start to publication is not something to emulate, and maybe my publisher would get a bit testy about the delays. Still this is a remarkable effort. Ambon is part of modern day Indonesia, and the natural history contained in these volumes is the earliest reports from that area predating Alfred Russel Wallace's reports by over 100 years. This would be great to have, but the whole set costs $450. Sounds like a library acquisition is in order. Regarding my own efforts, the manuscript was easy enough to finish, although you feel obligated to update things as new research is published, and the longer you take the more of them accumulate, but the figures are taking forever.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Fall Color

Why do we love Japanese maples? Simply put, they are beautiful plants. The Phactors have just acquired three new maples to landscape the renovated lily pond and they promise to be spectacular. Although still small this Acer japonicum 'aconitifolium' will be fantastic when it reaches 15 feet tall some time in the middle of the century. If pyschic, please let me know. This particular variety has highly disected leaves, "fern-leafed" to some. And while this isn't a flower, it does provide some great color.

Dear Noelle, science is not for you

Noelle Nikpour just doesn't get science, so it's probably a good things she's in a field where looks go further than smarts. Here she is sounding like a complete dummy on the Daily Show where of course they do their best to help you along and she delivers the dumbth. Unfortunately for Noelle and other people who don't like science, and what science tells us, science just isn't fair or open to a popular vote. It's that tyranny of data thing, that dogged insistence that you must actually deal with what is known, so you can't just make it up as you go along to agree with your preconceived notions. How dare those scientists act like they actually know something and understand things that you don't understand! Scientists have data, evidence, and Noelle has a gut feeling it's all a scam! Well, the Phactor for one just passed his mandatory Lincolnland ethics training course, with honors! Well, perhaps given the source of the training, and our politicians' track records, you are not impressed, but it's just the wrong people taking the training. Nonetheless no one would like it better if science were just a scam because it would all be just so much easier. Where is all this scam money anyways? My lab needs some! The Phactor wants to sign up. Back to Noelle. Is she really that dumb, or is it an act, you know a scam, to make money? If so, based on her experience, scientists are acting the same way she is. You know, that's a testable hypothesis, and if true, then if someone offers Noelle enough money, she'll change her tune. It's a win-win situation except do we want Noelle on our side?

Garden Flowering Log 2011 - number of perennials that flowered

After spending more time with the garden flowering log data a final tally emerges. 282 perennials (not counting different varieties) flowered in our gardens this year, up 7 from 2010. The gains, new plants and plants coming of age and flowering out paced the loses, plant deaths or no flowering. Who knew the Phactor could count that high? Good thing he's got a spread sheet. While it seemed quite a few plants died, most of them had not yet flowered anyways (darn you mountain laurel). Next year the Phactors will discover how many new plantings were successfully nursed through the drought conditions. Maybe 2012 will push us over the 300 barrier!

Garden Flowering Log - 2011

Data collection on the 2011 flowering of perennials in the Phactors garden is complete. There were losses and additions, a few things died or failed to flower, some plants flowered for the first time, so the total is still somewhat in question and will require some more analysis as it appears a couple of flowering plants were missed in 2010. However the most interesting finding so far is that the average flowering date for 2011 was 9 days later than for 2010. Your first reaction is why were they so late? But perhaps you should ask why was 2010 so early? Two years of data does not generate a trend. 2011 did have a cold wet spring, but April flowering only differed from 2010 by an insignificant 0.75 days. While August and September were hot and dry, June and July were reasonably nice, but the late summer flowering dates averaged 11 and 12 days later than the year before. Clearly more data is needed. It gives you something to look forward to that first data point of spring!

Field Guide iPhone app - neat idea, free, but...

Here's a great freebe iPhone app for you via eNature; field guides to USA's national parks. The whole idea of having a digital field guide does have some appeal, although carrying field guides in your pack does demonstrate a certain gravitas as a devoted naturalist. And as mentioned previously, the ability to ID plants via pictures is coming of age, but here's the catch. What will work in Central Park won't work in Yellowstone. What you get to download is merely the access package, the goods, so to speak, are on a server somewhere so it requires internet access. Looks like my old field guides are not quite as out-dated as they sound unless you're carrying a satellite iPhone. Do they make those?

Neocon foreign policy bombs

The Phytophactor generally stays away from political topics because it's all just so depressing, however botany is a field where you get to travel a great deal, and as such you get to see the USA from many different perspectives if you take the trouble to actually talk to people in other countries by avoiding club med type resorts, packaged tours, and the usual tourist traps. Our foreign policy has not made me very proud because rather than being based on any real principles, our actions have been quite self-serving and short-sighted. Although not happy about the resulting situation, it is time for the USA's neocon adventure in Iraq to end. Rather than bring about a "friendly" democracy by the removal of a dictator under false pretenses, the presence of troops actually creates an armed resistance, a boost to the wrong factions, and an overall negative reaction from neighboring countries. So here's to the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. They have done more to undermine other dictators and repressive regimes than anything our foreign policy ever accomplished. Can you imagine what a shambles things would be if that old fuddy-duddy, but hawkish McCain had been elected? Can you imagine the size of the mess if a hawkish numbscull like Perry gets elected? Too bad our foreign policy didn't do better by the Iraqi people. Like us, maybe the Tunisians won't get the government they deserve, but it'll be the one they voted for. And it's time people in the USA remembered the neocons who started this mess and what an outmoded, self-defeating, simple-minded foreign policy they construct.

Climate science and professional science organizations

The Botanical Society of America and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, my main societies, are two of the many professional organizations that represent scientists, and one of their roles is to provide members' perspectives on scientific issues to any interested (or disinterested) party. 19 such societies jointly sent a position paper to all members of the US Congress in October 2009. Recently Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) offered remarks on climate science referencing that paper. Here's a brief excerpt.
"Their other big lie, the jury is still out on, is whether human-made carbon pollution causes dangerous climate change and oceanic change. Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change. Many of us in Congress received a letter from those institutions in October 2009. Let me quote from that letter.Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Let me repeat that last quote - Contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science." "These are highly esteemed scientific organizations. They are the real deal. They don't think the jury is still out. They recognize that, in fact, the verdict is in, and it is time to act. More than 97 percent of the climate scientists most actively publishing accept that the verdict is actually in on carbon pollution causing climate and oceanic changes--97 percent. Think of that."

How 'bout that! So Congress is not bereft of people who think science actually knows something. Now on the other hand, the GOP presidential hopefuls, well.... Don't be holding your breath.

Rattan palms

Has the Phactor ever told you about rattan palms? Probably not because they bring such painful memories to mind. Rattan palms are scandent vines which means that they climb by sort of draping themselves over other plants; they don't twine. The pain comes from the extremely spiny stems (actually spiny leaf bases sheathing the stem) and the modified inflorescences, long, thin whips constituted out of piano wire, armed with recurved fish hooks along its length (visible in the upper right of this image), a perfect structure for garroting unsuspecting botanists in the dim understory of rain forests. To move through some of my study sites required you to have a pair of pruning shears in hand constantly to clip yourself free of these restraints. Still you and your clothes got shreaded. The palms climb by grappling tree bark or other structures and the weight of the palm sets the hooks. These memories were awakened by a request to review a manuscript on the reproduction of rattan palms. So the Phactor is quite sympathetic about what the authors put up with to conduct their research. Such nostagia erupts about rattans when ever the Phactor happens to sit upon someone's patio furniture made from rattan palm stems.

Field Work - Late October

Done, done, done, done at last! Well, except for picking up a hundred poles and gathering some more seed. Actually field work never ends, but you do sort of decide that the season should be over. While the weather failed to cooperate last week providing some very cold and wet weather, this weekend was wonderful except my talents were much in demand. Mrs. Phactor wanted help with planting bulbs and fall yard work, but once you have the research tiger by the tail, you do not let go. This prompted a somewhat snide comment that even if the Phactor retired he still keep doing the same things. Well, yeah. So in the great spirit of compromise, the Phactor did both.
For this time in October, things are still looking pretty green, although the maples have dropped lots of leaves without much color, the dual result of having had no frost as yet and the lingering effects of drought. Some color is now developing, but if not for the Asian anemones, there would not be much flower color around at all.
Round one of leaf clean up begins this week. It should be great fun. The kitchen garden is done except for bokchoi and lettuce. Something already ate the spinach.
While it is the cocktail hour, our work is not yet done; time to take the cat for a walk.

Cycads aren't living fossils?

Well, shucks! Don’t you just hate it when science knocks a hole in one of your more romantic notions about things? Cycads are such fun organisms, so cool looking, and studied by such interesting people, with one rather short exception. The romantic notion the Phactor has always maintained about cycads was that they had about them an aura of the primeval, living fossils, throw backs to the era of dinosaurs. Now a recent molecular study of cycad evolution suggests that based upon a molecular clock the 300 or so modern species of cycad diversified from a common ancestor about 12 million years ago, more or less yesterday. True, cycads flourished during the Jurassic-Cretaceous some 200 to 65 million years ago, so it is an ancient lineage, but our extant cycads are not of this ancient stock. Individual cycads live so long, and grow so slowly that you can almost imagine them surviving for that long without any trouble, after all this young specimen of Encephalartos altensteinii from South Africa has been growing at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew since 1775. And then there was the time our house sitters left my pet cycads outside for the winter, treatment that greatly curtailed their potential longevity. Guess there’s always cinnamon fern. HT to Science News.

Friday Fabulous Flower - How orderly!

The study of flowers at early stages of development requires nerves of steel for the delicate dissections. To really see what's going on the specimens are observed with a scanning electron microscope, and at early stages, flowers often reveal similarities and differences critical to understanding their evolutionary diversification, that is, how diversity in floral form arises from a basic plan. Here's a false color image of the androecium of a species of Anaxagorea, the basal genus of custard apple family. The early development of this flower shows a very orderly development of the androecium and gynoecium (perianth parts have been removed), 12 ranks, each rank consisting of 2-3 stamens, a staminode, and 1-2 pistils, and one pistil in the center. The numbers and orderliness tell us that within this lineage floral diversity has shifted to fewer parted and simpler flowers and to many more parted flowers of greater complexity. For comparison, here's the flower at maturity, fully open and functional. The parts you see in the SEM image are enclosed within 3 whorls of 3-parted perianth, and no, this is not a monocot, but a woody dicot in the Magnoliales. Thanks to AoB blog.

Ginkgo - coincidence of the day

So the Phactor was deep in concentration this morning working at constructing a photographic plate to illustrate ginkgo leaves and reproductive structures, and the telephone rings. It's a reporter from the student newspaper. "Can I ask you some questions about the smelly tree in front of the music building?" The ginkgo? "Yes, why does it smell?" Perhaps the tree is a non-vocal music critic. Pause. "Oh, ha ha, yes, I get it, but why do the fruits smell so bad?" They aren't fruits; they're seeds with a soft, fleshy outer seed coat. "But they're like fruits." No, they are seeds not fruits. "Everyone calls them fruits." Yes, so why not begin correcting their mistake? The problem is that the tree is not growing in its natural environment, so we really don't know how the smelly seed coat functioned. But think of this. Crap smells and so does carrion, but dung beetles and flies are attracted to these smells, so smelling bad is just a human perspective. "Do you think the smelly mess is a good enough reason to cut the tree down?" No. But wanting to cut down a 110 year old ginkgo tree because it bothers you for 2 weeks is a good argument for a making nature appreciation a required course. "Other ginkgo trees on campus aren't smelly; why is that?" Why don't men get pregnant? Some trees make pollen, some make seeds. "Why did they plant such a tree there?" At the sapling stage when trees can be transplanted is too young for them to be identified as either pollen or seed trees. "What if the cutting the tree was put to a student vote?" Where did you ever get the idea a democratic process would ever be involved in making such a decision? And you should know that the person who actually gets to have and use a chainsaw on this campus loves that tree. "Thank you for all your help, but I've got to get going now." What a coincidence.

Hello, this is the NRA

The NRA just called me on the phone. In their latest effort to scare gun owners into filling the NRA’s coffers the president of the NRA, or at least that’s who they said the whiny voice belonged to, is engaging in conspiracy theory scare-mongering. Now this just shows how desperate the NRA is because the Phactor is not someone who buys their interpretation of the 2nd amendment, although well-regulated militias are OK in my book. It’s hard to believe that the NRA is so desperate for donations that they are attempting to use the UN as their latest boogie woogie man. Is the NRA in favor of international weapons trading? Do they want Somali pirates to have the best armaments available? Actually, in all likelihood the NRA doesn’t care, but it’s their just their latest attempt to twist events to their own ends, scaring gun-owners into supporting their organization. Personally the Phactor supports hunters, and how the NRA interprets this UN treaty language to suggest this will result in the confiscation of your shotguns is puzzling. Now what really worries me is that someone dumb enough to believe this NRA fairy tale owns guns. Keep you money boys, the NRA is blowing smoke on this one.

Beach front property - Invest for the future

Our family home was on a lake shore, in the Pliestocene. The current shore of Lake Ontario was some 3 miles north. My Father explained that he never had good timing on real estate. So here's your chance. Get out a topographic map, guess how much sea level will rise due to glacier and ice cap melting, and buy land at the appropriate point above sea level. But get going on this because a large percentage of the world's population lives near the coast, and they're going to get displaced. Oh, man, the payoff on this investment could be huge! Never much liked Long Island anyways. HT Greg Laden.

Starry, starry night - more science geeky stuff

These are really pretty amazing images from Starts with a Bang. Galaxies as far as our telescopes can see. If these don't make your world view seem small and parochial, then you really don't get it. Earth is but the tiniest of insignificant motes whose carbon-based, ape-descended intelligent life forms are so utterly primitive that they think themselves the pinnacle of creation.

Cat physics

It always makes the Phactor feel good to see that other people study things of little apparent utility for the sheer joy of finding things out, like studying the physics of cats. Utility is much overrated. If only the calculus lobe of my brain had not failed to develop, physics would have been a lot of fun. And while having no doubt at all that cats obeyed, and here this term is used not in a manner to insult them, the laws of physics, it's still fun to figure out how they manage to do what they do. Of course to study the physics of cats, you first have to get them to do something physical!

Forest transition to grasslands just a tipping point away

Accumulating evidence suggests that forests, communities dominated by trees, can quickly become grasslands with only some small changes in the environment particularly temperature (higher) and rainfall (lower), which often vary together. This comes as no surprise because one of the best long-term studies with which the Phactor is familiar, the still ongoing research that has been mentioned in this blog before, the monitoring of tropical forests by David and Deborah Clark, suggests the exact same thing. Tipping points are the big problem that looms by ignoring climate change and pretending that nothing needs to be done. What this means is that nothing much will happen as the trend of temperatures rising and rainfall dropping continues, and then in very short order, a forest becomes a grassland maintained by fire ecology. For a grassland to change back into forest takes falling temperatures and a lot more rain. But for people who live in the area, everything changes, plants, animals, agriculture. And even worse all that carbon locked up in wood gets released in short order, carbon dioxide that will help exacerbate the trend that caused the change. So tipping points will catch humans with their pants down around their ankles even though they are not unexpected. Unfortunately by the time you get to say "I told you so!" to do-nothing politicians it's too late, a cheerful thought.

The war on science continues

Molly Ivins once said, "Let me say for the umpteenth time, George W. is not a stupid man. The IQ of his gut, however, is open to debate. In Texas, his gut led him to believe the death penalty has a deterrent effect, even though he acknowledged there was no evidence to support his gut's feeling. When his gut, or something, causes him to announce that he does not believe in global warming -- as though it were a theological proposition -- we once again find his gut ruling that evidence is irrelevant." Well, there can be no question that Rick Perry is cut from the same bolt of cloth. A scientific report on the state of Galveston Bay was so heavily redacted by political officials of Texas, all of the scientist-authors protested and had their names removed from the report. Even basic facts were removed when inconvenient like the level of the bay is rising. Oh, that nasty sciency thing of using data rather than just acting upon your gut instincts, and the terrible burden of having to fit reality into your political Procrustean bed. So this pretty much tells you how Perry will act as president, policies will be based on the ideology of his gut; facts be darned. So this is how it goes in political circles these day because facts are bloody hard things to argue with; so much easier to deny we know anything than to explain a lack of policy. As a nation don't we deserve better? HT to PZ. Good job Mother Jones.

Food for thought #bad11

Food is taken for granted by way too many people in our society. People neither know nor apparently care what their food is or where it comes from, a symptom of plenty. For the human race in general let the Phactor tell you what food is: endosperm. Probably not a word you are familiar with, but there you have it. The vast majority of human calories for the entire human population consist of endoperm, a starchy tissue that forms inside of seeds as the result of a 2nd fertilization. In particular endosperm forms the bulk of cereal grains, those one-seeded fruits of the grass family so central to human nutrition for these past 10,000 years. In the form of rice, wheat, and maize grains, endosperm feeds people. That's what stands between us and starvation, and the single biggest challenge over the next few decages will be to figure out how to grow enough endosperm to feed 8 billion people, without destroying the Earth and its biodiversity along with it. People who blightly predict such a population can be accomodated do not include the environmental cost into their accounting. The predictions of increased food production do not take into account any problems from climate change. Frankly as a botanist, it scares me. Getting enough food will allow people, and governments, to make all kinds of rationalizations for doing lots of things because who can argue for conservation, or neighborly relations, when people are hungry? And most likely the problems will surface first and most acutely in Africa. Back 40 years ago when a student, population was a serious topic, but it disappeared from discussion for a number of reasons mostly because it invariably raised discusion of birth control and family planning, a political non-starter of an issue. So it is most interesting for population and food to once again be a topic of public discussion, about time, but no different than before, just more cronic, and just as difficult to deal with. And this is what all comes to mind when someone asks this blogger to think about food. Too bad the Phactor cannot be more optimistic, but we live in an age when policy makers find it convenient to ignore simple scientific truths and difficult to enact long-term policies. One thing to be certain about, botanists will try to increase our food supplies, and they will indeed do so, but the real worry comes from the lack of leadership and political infastructure around the globe.

Bacon improves everything, but not this time

The Phactor was doing some cooking today, a succotash salad for our monthly dinner group, a regular happening now for the past 32 years and counting. Seems like a nice recipe; basically succotash brightened up with lots of basil and arugula. But the recipe called for crispy bits of turkey bacon for a garnish. Now the reason for this is simple; many of our dinner group friends are of the Jewish faith. In fact at this particular gathering, it would appear the Phactor is the token gentile. Fair enough. No problem, after all hotdogs are made from lots of animals and their parts, and they all taste about the same, sort of a mediocre non-descriptness. Let's face it real sausage wins out everytime. But the reality of turkey bacon was much worse. Yikes! Beggin' Strips dog treats look better and more like real bacon than turkey bacon. OK, don't leap to premature judgements, so let's cook some, make a BLT for lunch and see what we think, but to judge things fairly, let's put real bacon on one half and turkey bacon on the other. There was no contest. Turkey bacon is as if a turkey went to a Halloween party in a soybean bacon bits costume! Now this brings up a metaphysical question. Remember the Parkay margarine-Mother Nature commercials? It's not nice to fool Mother Nature. So what does Yahweh think of phoney turkey bacon? He is after all a rather vengeful diety, so maybe it's not nice to fool him! Ah, now the Phactor gets it! The dodge aound the pork taboo is it's own punishment! That's just so Jewish.

O'Really bugs me, again.

There are few people that the Phactor disagrees with more often than Bill O'Really. So it was rather ironic that the day after blogging about how to get kids of all ages interested in plants, his column "Kids fear bugs; how will they fight Chinese?" (sorry, you'll have to look it up yourself) arrives in our daily rag. The title was such a disconnect; what could one have to do with the other? But his lament was well-meant, right up to the last part, and he has touched upon part of the problem of getting people familiar with and appreciative of nature. O'Really was right; you can barely get today's youth out of the house let alone getting them to spend any time in nature. They are as he observes machine-heads. You take kids out to the greatest place ever and they sit down and try to access their text mail or some game or the internet, just as if they were in an airline terminal. Wow! O'Really and the Phactor agree about something! People who are raised this way are never going to by sympathetic to conservation efforts let alone be expected to make any sacrifices to protect nature. No surprise here, O'Really didn't make this connection. Instead he worries about how they would fare in a war against the Chinese! It takes a pretty twisted mind to make that connection, but that's the O'Really we all love to mock as the dumbest smart guy around.

What makes plants interesting to students?

A long time colleague used to say that it takes a certain mental and emotional maturity and sophistication to appreciate something as subtly interesting as plants. He actually said this to explain the behavior of some of his zoological colleagues, but the Phactor is certain that most of you agree! Here's a link to a nice science education article that attempted to answer the question posed above. Mostly this study found what those of us who have long labored in botanical education have known for a long while; the more like an animal the plant is, the more interest it will generate among the other little animals. For many people ordinary plants just don't register with their perceptions at all; they're plant blind. And as attention spans get shorter, it's getting more difficult to get even college-age students to study plants because even great stuff like tropisms "take too long"! To develop and maintain an interest in plants kids have to be exposed to them, grow them, watch them, have things pointed out to them, all along, not just for a week long science unit once a year. The Phactor had the advantage of having had gardeners for parents and having lived in a sufficiently rural area that exposed you to real nature. You learned early on what to avoid (leaves of three, Mr. Throckmorton's orchards and melons, etc.) and what fruits and nuts were edible. Do your children have pets? Do they have plants? And so our efforts to make plants interesting will continue, although as my colleague suggested, not everyone matures enough to like plants, and they will probably retain their plant blindness forever.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Blue Ginger

In a shady tropical grotto of our greenhouse, a number of tropical plants thrive, and one of most handsome is the blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora), which while quite blue (leaning toward purple) this is not a ginger (Zingiberaceae) at all but a member of the spiderwort family (Commelinaceae). It has a rhizome, aerial stems that reach 4-6 feet, and a helical arrangement of simple leaves, and that describes a large number of tropical monocots. This particular plant just started flowering (only one flower is open), so the display is quite large and fairly dramatic. While easily grown, and therefore fairly common, in glasshouses, blue ginger is too big and likes too much humidity to be an easy house plant.

It's not nice to mess with Mother Nature

The great mid-west dust bowl has been gently wet down overnight with some much needed rain. There is no need to thank the Phactor, but clearly this was the result of our planning essential field work with only have certain windows of opportunity to do it. It's as if Mother Nature was displeased with our research designed to figure out how she works. In this particularly dry year, the precipitation is most welcome, but the necessity of harvesting some plants that will provide our data is pressing with both seasonal limitations and hunting season looming. No smart botanist does field work in a tallgrass prairie during hunting season; that's when you must send your students. So please Mom, only one more nice afternoon is needed on a day without a laboratory or lecture, and before they turn the Bambi blasters loose.

An example of commensalism - Spanish moss

Students learning to become teachers often come to the Phactor for assistance. They want examples, specimens, things they can take to classes and show younger students to help make a point or stimulate some thought and questions. And of course we have a greenhouse full of such examples, and for the right price. But this time they wanted an example of commensalism, an interaction between two organisms where one gains a benefit and the other is unaffected. That's what the textbooks say, but does commensalism really exist? Can one organism intimately associated with another organism gain a benefit while really having no affect at all? Perhaps it should say a negligible affect, a positive or negative affect, but so small it probably matters not at all, like that penny your dropped that rolled under the counter and you just decide to heck with it. A negligible sum not worth the effort of squating down and crawling around to find retrieve it. At what sum you would go to the effort says a great deal about you and your circumstances. At any rate the plant provided was Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides - a bromeliad, a member of the pineapple family), which is neither Spanish nor moss, but a rootless epiphyte that grows by draping itself upon the branches of trees, thus "stealing stature" to no great detriment to the tree unless it becomes too heavy or shades out too many tree leaves. Lincolnland is too far north for Spanish moss to survive the winter, but botanical friends used to go south each spring break to eat some Cajun food and pick up big bags of Spanish moss to hang from the spreading branches of the big oak in the front lawn of their big old house back up here in the north, thus affecting a sort of southern gentility while they sat on the veranda sipping julips along with their dog Beauregard, so the 3-way interaction now becomes a mutualism because their epiphyte decorated tree improved their attitude.

How a university works - The Business Office

Universities are not business, and anyone who thinks they should be run like a business doesn't know enough about education to be put in the position to make such a decision. However, that being said, things need to be bought, money needs to change hands, and it's good to keep track of things. For these reasons the business office exists. Now here's where the problem arises. Prof. Phactor for why did you buy these items? As it states on the reimbursement form, they were lab supplies. But you were buying fruits and vegetables? Correct, those are my lab supplies. But they can be used as food. Correct again, and that's why they are lab supplies; food is the subject of study. Are you feeding the students with this food? Why should it matter if things are consumed as part of their study? We are not certain these are appropriate purchases. Well, fortunately deciding what is and is not appropriate for my teaching is not your job to determine. It says here you purchased malt; isn't it used to make beer. Correct, malt is one of the ingredients of beer, but how it is used is not your concern. Again we question the appropriateness of this purchase. Why did you wait so long to ask for reimbursement on some of these purchases? Well, it's been a busy semester, and we all have a lot less paper work if the receipts are accumulated for awhile and combined in one reimbursement request. Do you spend so much time on every reimbursement? Do you have so much time, so little to do that you think a weekly filing for reimbursement is better than one filing per month? Check. And so it goes. People who have no idea at all about education nonetheless get to question what we do. And that's good business?

Are you allergic to haploid males?

Smarting, itching, watery eyes? Well, you could be allergic to males, not human males, who are more likely to just be annoying, but those endosporic haploid males wafting about and hoping to land upon a receptive stigma but end up in your nasal passages instead, those plant male gametophytes better known as pollen. Aided and abetted by the warm, dry weather, this fall’s allergy season is in full gear. Ragweed pollen is at an all time high in the upper Midwest this year, and then you get to add in harvest dust with all its mold spores for an allergy aggravating cocktail. It's a wonder the Phactor can breath at all.

Blog Action Day - Food October 16

Well, here's an interesting idea. The topic for this year's (! they done this before?) blog action day, coming up on October 16th, is food. Food is a good thing, unless you have too little of it, and it's a topic about which everyone knows something, so it should make for some interesting blogging. To register your blog for participation go here.

Plants that acoustically interact with bats

Nectar-feeding bats are great pollinators, but locating flowers at night can be difficult. While not having the high pitched, highly tuned sonar of insectivorous bats, nectar feeding bats get some help from plants that have parabolic reflectors that bounce their acoustic signals right back at them as they approach flowers. While several flowers, like the standard petals of these neotropical legumes (Mucuna), have acoustic reflectors, new research has found a plant that grows leaves with a parabolic shape right above their inflorescences to guide bats to their flowers.

Mini-summer in October

A week of 80 degree highs in October is a rare event, and the Phactor wonders if this is the beginning of a new pattern with such weather becoming common? The weather in mid-October is often warm, and dry, not as parched dry as this year, but dry, and the 2nd or 3d week in October is reliably some of the best weather of the year and when the Missouri Botanical Garden looks its best. When deciding when to host a weekend systematics symposium, the ever pragmatic and empirical former director, Peter Raven, had his staff do a century of weather research and match that with peak display times at the garden, and mid-October was the solution. The estate is looking fairly colorful, but the display will be both less vivid, and short-lived because of the dryness. Lots of leaves are parched at their margins, and even our great big sugar maple will be not so orange as usual. This weekend we attempted to apple up, no not in honor the late Steve Jobs, but to stock up on apples for the winter, especially to seek some Northern Spies, our favorite. Our local source didn't have any, so another great old variety, the Red Pippin, was purchased instead. Then a lovely friend arrived back from a quickie trip to Michigan for football something or other, and delivered us a bag of spies. Oh, that is the measure of a friend. Unfortunately this is a bit early for spies in Michigan and indeed they are a bit underripe and their full complex flavor has not yet developed. In the usual domino effect, the pond renovation has drawn attention to a long neglected hedgerow and Mrs. Phactor declared death sentences upon the old, over-grown shrubs and left yours truly to carry out the sentences. Basal pruning is the usual method of execution, although some ancient forsythias and an old flowering crab were given reprieves on the condition that they grow back attractively. The new Japanese maples were planted and now the area can be sized up for additional landscaping. Then, as if on command, a large box of bulbs arrived via UPS indicating that this was not going to be a watch football weekend, and the joggers pranced by while real exercise was accomplishing something. Stop by if you want and drag some shrub corpses to the street. It's great exercise!

Not so serious stuff - watermelon carving

A brain! An abby normal brain! Is it seedless? When fully assembled the rest of the botanical creature should be wonderful.

Serious Stuff from Plant Scientists

Some time back quite a number of plant scientists around the world were asked about what they thought were the most important questions facing plant science. The responses were distilled down to one hundred important questions facing plant science research. As you might guess some of these questions are pretty heavy duty. Here's a sample. Q2. Which crops must be grown and which sacrificed to feed the billions? Here's a snippet of the answer: "we may be forced to choose between production of staple food crops to feed the world population and the production of luxury crops, such as tea, coffee, cocoa ..." Aaaaaaah! Who could face that without coffee? And this would be in addition to improving crop productivity and using more previously forested land for food production. This isn't a future you're going to want to see, but our children's children may well see it. At times it's hard not to be pessimistic. Some of you may want to comment about some of the other questions or the answers as we presently see them. HT to Botanical Garden and Conservation International.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Star flower

The shorter days of fall stimulate quite a number of our greenhouse plants to flower especially if combined with a fall heat wave, and here in the upper midwest the highs all week have been in the 80s. A couple of species of star flower (Stapelia) were in full bloom, and it was obvious even from 20-30 feet away. Lots of people, including my students, think these plants are cacti; they're not. They are a stem succulent, but that is in no way any indication of a taxonomic affinity. Star flowers are members of the milkweed family. The flowers do sort of look like a star (fish). This one has that nice dried blood reddish brown color accompanied by the lovely fragrance of carrion, rotting flesh. These flowers function by deceiving flies who are seeking a brood substrate for their little babies (maggots), and in the process of searching for carrion, pollen gets moved from flower to flower. This is a cruel deception because the flies sometimes oviposite on the flower, but no reward in the form of carrion is provided. This is a special scratch-your-computer-monitor and sniff image, the absolute latest imaging technology (accomplished by using the food mode setting on my new camera).

Berry-go-round #44 - September 2011

Well! Somehow my move to FoS has knocked the Phactor off the Berry-Go-Round notification list, but no matter, here's the link to the latest round up of plant-related blogs over at A DC Birding Blog. This month's round up is rather modest, and that's not a criticism of our fine feathered blogger, but all you plant blogging people that read this should drop off a nice plant-related blog link once a month to give yourself a bit of credit, and to help out the blogger in charge of the round-up carnival.

Fair trade Lincolnland coffee

For a number of years our teaching greenhouse had a very nice coffee tree that produced several handfulls of coffee beans each year, then some moron decided to break in and steal the plant, in the winter with temperatures well below freezing, in the process killing the poor tree and leaving a trail of leaves and berries even our campus cops could follow. The replacements were really small cuttings and it has taken several years to get coffee production going again, so it was very pleasant to see that this year our coffee trees were bearing a modest crop, and suffice it to say that if you have never seen coffee in fruit, the red berries among the glossy green foliage, it's pretty! The crop will be harvested and processed by my very own non-immigrant labor force, students, because it does them good to know where the stuff you put in your mush comes from, and too few people know and appreciate such things. In a class of 24, even here in Lincolnland, a couple of them would have no idea what kind of plant a tomato grows on never having seen one grown! So the Phactor gets some very exclusive coffee and the students learn something at the same time. That's a fair trade!

Sweet! What a sensation!

Not all sugars are sweet, and everything that’s sweet aren’t sugars. The sensation of sweet is the interaction between your taste sensors and a particular molecular shape. So generally that sweet sensation in your brain means a particular kind of soluble carbohydrate is in your mouth, and our instincts have been shaped to “like” this taste, a nice genetic inheritance from ancient arboreal primate ancestors. But because of their shapes, not all sugars have the same sweetness; fructose is very sweet, lactose barely sweet at all. Artificial sweeteners and other non-sugar but natural sweet molecules mimic the shape of sugar molecules, thus tasting sweet.
Thus the glycoside in Stevia rebaudiana tastes really, really sweet because of its shape, but since the carbs we associate with sweetness aren’t there, you get a low-calorie sweet treat.
Enter the “miracle fruit” (Richadella dulcifica, sometimes called Synsepalum dulcificum, a taxonomic synonym, Sapotaceae) (This is sort of good to know because actually there are 3 unrelated species with this common name.). You eat this fruit and everything you eat afterwards tastes remarkably sweet. This happens because a protein not only mimics sugars’ shape, but it continues to stimulate your sweet sensors as you eat new foods. It’s effectiveness is pH mediated, so stronger when interacting with sour tastes, but at higher pH (near neutral) the protein changes shape and just blocks your sweet sensors without stimulating them so even naturally sweet foods taste bland. Weird. You can read the whole study
So why does a fruit have such a protein? Fleshy fruits are most often a reward for seed dispersers, and the amount of reward is judged in part by size and in part by taste, so a really sweet fruit says it’s packed with sugar. But in this case by making a sweet-tasting protein, the cost of lots of sugar is avoided by fooling the disperser by making only a little protein that tastes like lots of sugar. Bad plant! It’s not nice to fool your seed dispersers! Other sweet tasting proteins are also known, like talin. But since proteins denature in heat sweet-tasting proteins have limited application as sugar substitutes in anything cooked.

An Engraved Email Invitation to the Oxford Round Table!

Memo to: The Phytophactor's alter ego
From: Canon Brian Mountford, Vicar of the historic University Church of St. Mary the Virgin of the University of Oxford and Fellow of St. Hilda’s College in the University of Oxford
(Don't laugh, we go way back!)
RE: Your invitation to participate in the 16th Oxford Round Table Session on Religion, Modernity, and Human Rights. (A favorite topic of botanists!)
All the rest of the falderal, fancy titles, impressive sounding what-nots leaves no doubt what an honor this invitation is, and all for a registration fee of merely $1865 not including travel, room, and board. Hard to know what Hawaiian shirt would be best worn to dinner at Oxford College? So, I say, old chap, sad how the academic high and mighty have fallen upon such hard times that they must stoop to proffering, at no small price, some tiny vestige of their prestige to the likes of the Phactor, my personage being a so well known thinker on religion, modernity, and human rights. This is rather like the people who like seeing their own self-nominated name in the Who's Who of people who think that counts for something. However, this was a class act come-on. The memo was addressed to my real first name, even though we are not actually that well acquainted, and Professor would have been a more appropriate form of address don't you think, even if delivered by email? So you are left wondering how many others were so honored with this invitation? Oh, 35 others? Nice touch to make it sound exclusive don't you think? This deserves a fancy font.

Road trip to Japan

Mrs. Phactor organized a road trip yesterday to find a purveyor of Japanese maples that was a bit closer and more convenient than Japan, barely, and a significant proportion of Lincolnland's Japanese maples are growing in this fellow's nursery. Now the name and location isn't mentioned because if these people don't even put out a sign to indicate their business location, the Phactor shall not overly burden them with business. Actually, they do very little business first hand, operating mostly online. David-san is a bit of a weird dude, and the Phactor might suggest the 60s were a bit hard on him, except they were hard on all of us, but he has channeled all his energy into Japanese maples and he has 100 or 200 or300 or so varieties, maybe more, quite likely more, and a few thousand Japanese maple trees in his 5 acres or so of yard/nursery, and after a tough summer, he decided to move some stock with a fall sale that ended Friday (sorry, didn't know). It was a very impressive collection especially when compared to paltry selections offered by most nurseries, and as for big boxes, forget about 'em. Now all of this is part of the rule of 10 which states that no matter what wonderful thing the Phactor does for his wife, it will end up costing at least 10 times more, although actually this time it will probably be the rule of 1/10th because after having renovated our lily pond by filling it with money, the landscaping cannot possibly cost anywhere near as much, can it?? At any rate among the many larger varieties of Japanese maples, the specific purpose of this road trip, were nishiki gawa, pine-barked Japanese maples where the usually smooth, greenish, young-tree bark, turns into very corky, old-tree bark at quite a young age. Wow, It turns out they are cheaper by the dozen. So now who's going to dig all those big holes? Do you have to ask? So, grade exams or dig holes? Groan.