Field of Science

It just might happen! Or not.

Hoo boy, what a possibility!  Tom Tomorrow really scared TPP with this one, but President Cruz is a possibility, however implausible. And a guy can dream, can't he?  And this is the country where anyone can be president, and anyone was, and the country did survive, didn't it. Thank you, Darth Cheney for holding it all together. And, yes, Democrats could be that inept. So you see, this could happen.
OK it's a double header of TT today in which the future of the next two years makes you want to cancel your newspaper, rip out your TV, and live in a cave.

It must be spring - tell tale signs

After a long, cold winter, the human spirit just loves signs of spring, those little tell tales that let you know the season is changing.  Here's a mess of crocus that occupy space around and under some hydrangeas the still need pruning.  These crocus are basically volunteers that have prospered in some borrowed space, and they are so cheerful. They used to be in the lawn, but then that area was converted into  garden (grass to garden good, garden to grass never), and they were not overly disturbed in the process and unbothered by the hydrangeas. It not only looked springy, but this Monday morning had a distinct springy feel to it. But what let TPP know it was spring was the sudden appearance at our house by contractors, who have been starving all winter waiting for the weather to warm. Oh, it's just like the turkey vultures returning to Hinkley, Ohio, but that's not to say all these people who help keep our residence from falling down are vultures, they just appear suddenly.  A painter showed up at 9 am, and she was no sooner getting going than the chimney flashing/caulking contractor shows up to put up their scaffolding. Without even get a swallow of coffee in between, the carpenter who's fixing up the garage and putting in a new door appeared to get some measurements and discuss the job again since it had been quite awhile since we had gone over the details. Us old house owners understand that keeping entropy at bay has a cost and that money keeps contractors alive. In fact they all love our neighborhood!  And it was also cleaning ladies day, but they were on their own in terms to trying to find a space in the drive.  Unlike the starving contractors, our checking account that fattened up over the winter while  hibernating will now start slimming down. So, it must be spring! Of course some garden expenditures may be coming soon too, and if TPP didn't hire these wonderful people, he'd have to do these jobs and not have time to garden. Keep your priorities straight, people!   

No money for tiger chow

Is there some contest among GnOPe governors to see who will be the "REAL" fiscal conservative as determined by who can make the most drastic cuts?  Now there are cuts, and then there are cuts, but the GnOPe always takes aim at the same two things, social programs for the poor and public education. Until recently, the USA could look to public education as one of its great achievements, institutions that allowed kids like TPP from blue collar backgrounds to become college professors, of course in the process, of becoming educated and gettting ahead, it makes many of us into liberals.  Gasp! Being able to think has never been good for ideologies, so when your party's policy is to create, maintain, and reinforce a wealthy elite, to which us college professors while comfortable, are not a part. So little Bobbie Jindal who once said the GnOPe has to stop being the party of stupid, is proposing a whopping 82% cut to LSU's budget! No institution can absorb such cuts in the short term, so this is designed to be damaging to the state's premier institution of higher learning. In truth, illiterate and uneducated is different from being stupid, so clearly the LA governor is aiming for the former not the latter. Does it ever occur to these fiscal conservatives that higher education pays back for its cost in spades?

Friday Fabulous Flower - snow Trillium

Oh, this really is a fabulous flower, and it really is Friday. This is Trillium nivale, the snow trillium, the smallest trillium and earliest flowering woodland wild flower in these parts. This species is a new addition to our gardens and trying to find a place where it could be seen and yet not over whelmed was quite a challenge; too bad we don't have one.  A sloping rock garden would be just right. This plant is about 3" tall and about 3" across when the leaves are fully expanded. It flowered on March 21st when other early spring wild flowers have yet to make an appearance; Hepatica buds are just beginning to show, bloodroot hasn't appeared, and the next earliest trillium around here, T. recurvatum, just has the tips of its shoots showing. This is truly a cheerful harbinger of spring, although another plant has that common name. It was nice to find this species available in the trade. (And dang but TPP's new iphone takes decent pictures.) 

OK spring weather

This spring weather is not okay, but it's in OK which generally in my experience has rather poor weather. Spring does begin our storm/tornado season. TPP lives at the very northeastern end of tornado alley, a belt that runs northeast to southwest from the upper midwest down to the Texas panhandle. So here you do, rather than the first flower of spring, here's your
first tornado of spring (Tuesday March 24th) photographed by a friend of a friend in Tulsa, that weather Eden of Oklahoma. This is a bit like the fellow who was killed by a bear because he stopped to take a picture of a bear running at him rather than getting the heck out of there, and people knew this because of the pictures on the camera. Fortunately friend of a friend did get out of there. Hope the Golden Driller was unharmed.

Life in the trenches - teaching biology to non-majors

For nearly 2 decades TPP taught biology to non-majors or freshman majors (but the class was still half non-majors) in large lecture sections, and he was very good at it. Although the upper mid-west is above the Bible belt, evolution was still a controversial subject for many students. Some students were adamantly opposed to evolution and all for religious reasons, some had never been taught evolution and were curious about why it was an issue, probably because high school teachers simply wanted to avoid any problems with their students, and some who had been taught something about evolution but wanted to learn more. Here's an essay by a biologist who long has taught non-majors at the U. of Kentucky, and TPP assures you that he knows exactly where this guy is coming from. Similar things have happened to all of us who have so taught. TPP actually always felt sorry for those students whose religious beliefs prevented them from learning, and even worse for those who did learn something and then decided that their religious leaders, their parents, had been deceiving them. Here's the Botanical Society of America's statement on evolution for which TPP was the primary author.

Fruits and vegetables up close and personal

Here's some pretty neat images of young, immature, fruits and vegetables. See if  you can figure out what you're looking at. Oh, the strawberry does not show you the individual seeds, but the individual fruitlets on the fleshy receptacle, an accessory fruit that will clearly get much larger.  Warning: the images are flogging a book.

Research tidbits - AJB March 2015

The American Journal of Botany is a publication of the Botanical Society of America. Highlights of several interesting articles is a new feature of each month's volume; this is vol. 102 (3).  Mostly these are brief, non-technical descriptions of a study and they include a nice image. They give you some idea of the types of research, the diversity of scientific interests, and the kinds of questions that interest botanists these days.  You can also access the cover illustration and its legend from this link. Very much bragging rights to get the front cover.  Let TPP know if this is a feature you like or if there are any access problems.  

Lighten up people, we're just messin' with you!

Oh, those fun-loving GnOPes.  Thank Tom Tomorrow for letting us in on the joke. To think anyone ever took them seriously. Seriously.  

Corned beef tomorrow

It's just about time, no, not for St. Patrick's Day, which TPP missed, but for his annual corned beef brisket for which St. Patrick's Day is just an excuse. This year's brisket got started about 4 weeks ago when TPP happened upon a huge brisket and having determined that the necessary ingredients were on hand proceded to begin curing this brisket. It isn't really necessary to cure the brisket this long, but larger briskets do take longer, and this is not a process to be hurried. There is really no comparison between this home-cured brisket and what you buy in the stores, and the curing time is clearly one of the variables. Although it doesn't really need a lot of dressing up, a glaze is nice to finish the brisket during it's brief baking. Found a really nice sounding glaze made of orange marmalade, Irish whiskey, mustard, and nutmeg, however a field trip is necessary to get the marmalade. Also need some carrots for a veg on the side. For a nice change of pace a bottle of 2 Gingers Irish whiskey is on hand offering a considerable difference from the standard Irish whiskeys; it has a bit sweeter taste, a touch of tartness, and is somewhat lighter and smoother, and much to the liking of my Irish wife (their target market) in a not at all blind taste test. Hope Beam doesn't ruin Kilbeggan, but for now it seems OK.  Now to go and find some grasshoppers for the pie, although dessert is not TPP's responsibility.  Clearly a few friends will assist with the consumption of assorted foods and drinks.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Filberts

The filberts (aka hazel-nut, Corylus americana) are in flower in the upper midwest in March this year. Most people being quite plant blind don't even notice the catkins (3 shown here), the dangling inflorescences of pollen flowers some 3-4" long. So no one at all, including botany students, ever notice the brilliantly, dark red pistillate flowers. OK, they are pretty small, but they usually come in clusters of 2-3 flowers enclosed by bud scales (2 such clusters are in this image). Actually all you really see are the stigmas, the pollen receiving parts of the fruiting flowers, which are quite red. Such colorful stigmas are quite common among wind pollinated trees. It takes some pretty good powers of observation to notice the tiny red flowers when distracted by the big, conspicuous catkins at least in terms of size. Flowers adapted for wind pollination generally lack big conspicuous perianth parts because they have no need to attract pollinators. Now that you know, keep your eyes open. TPP is quite impressed with the camera in his new cell phone; that technology has come a long way fast.   

Schocking political news here in Lincolnland

Our state’s young congressman really likes to place fast and loose with money. The public was paying for all sorts of questionable travel, and he accepted an office remodeling job, a questionable gift of questionable taste, and has been involved in all sorts of real estate deals with political supporters, some real sweetheart deals all of us would like to be in on.  He has paid back the travel and paid for the remodeling, but only because he was caught and exposed by the press.  All of this smacks at the very least of poor judgement, and quite possibly questionable ethics, and certainly a disdain for the rules.  But what do you expect?  You give a 30-something guy a lot of power and money, and you expect them to behave? Maybe when he grows up. 
Zounds! Maybe not!  Yes, while this blog was being written our Schocking congressman resigned!  Wow!  That's close to a TPP exclusive!  But not even close; amazing how fast news travels on the internet! Of course it was also amazing how quickly one alleged misconduct was followed by the next. Boys and girls, let that be a lesson to you.   

Flaunt the green!

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my readers, Irish or not. Whether you know this or not, ChiTown has a big Irish population and a correspondingly big St. Patrick's Day celebration and parade, although for most of the party animals, it's just one more excuse to start drinking early and often. One of the funnier things is that they dye the ChiTown River green for the occasion, which raises an interesting botanical question (answered previously). So here's a picture of a drum majorette from a recent ChiTown St. Patrick's Day parade, at least TPP thinks this was from ChiTown, and if not then maybe Rio?  But it sure looks Irish!  And if it's the wrong color, then just dunk it in the river for a color correction.

Pi Day - Something nerdy for you

Actually TPP missed it. Pi day was yesterday, but it's a special Pi day because it's 2015, so 3/14/15 gives you 2 more decimal places, 3.1415. This is very useful if you want to know the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. Supposedly if you celebrated at a particular time, you got even more decimal places but it really doesn't matter all that much because supposedly they go on forever. There's a lot more nerdy Pi stuff at the link. As a kid it always bothered TPP that Pi didn't come out even when it seemed like it should; it was like someone had made a mistake with the universe. To heck with the math, how does somebody get the symbol for Pi in a blog anyways?

Best new plant species of 2014

Don't know how you rank the best new species of plant for a year, any year, but for 2014 it's a Dracaena from Thailand, a damned big, rare Dracaena. There are only about 2500 of them alive.  How does science miss something as big (40 feet or 12 m tall) as this for so long? First, it's not particularly easily accessible, which is often the case for new species finds, but in this case not small and insignificant. Second, the genus is not hard to recognize, and people who saw it probably did not realize it was so distinctive, something only an expert in the group would know. At the link above you'll find the rest of the top ten new species for 2014, but this is the only plant.  Molecular data has broken up the old massive lily family, so now this genus belongs in the Asparagus family, Asparagaceae.

SCOTUS to decide case: Partisan Hackery vs. Obvious Intent

Once again Tom Tomorrow depicts the USA's real exceptionalism, which isn't partisan politics above the best interests of citizens, but is actually the cartoon itself. The only thing that keeps TPP from despair is that cartoons like this are still allowed. Of course, stupidly, some of us thought the GnOPe can stoop no lower in its irrational partisan behavior toward the Obama administration. But nooo! The Iran letter from GnOPe senators intended to undercut nuclear negotiations lowers the bar so bloody far that it is only too obvious this political party cannot lead, cannot rule, cannot be trusted to have the best interests of the USA in mind. And our junior senator from Lincolnland is one of those fools.  So take notice Senator Kirk before you continue on where no one has gone before; you don't represent this citizen in any way, shape, or form. You put partisan politics ahead of the best interests of the USA. 

The thought crime of global warming

"Florida Minitrue is taking doubleplusuncold for crimethinking words "climate change,” "global warming”, "sea-level rise" or "sutainability." The Governor, Rick Scott, says he "was not a scientist" which is plustrue. Is a doubleplusgood example of Doublethink, described in 1984 by Winston Smith." Who can argue with that?  How else should policy be constructed? How else do you decide on appropriate action? The GOP strategy for dealing with climate change is to define it out of existence. Goodbye Florida, glug, glug.

Color of spring

Several of these witch-hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' (probably)) greeted TPP this morning by the gate to my university's quad.  The bright yellow flowers look quite cheerful against the gray wall and among the gray stems.  What a harbinger of spring! Red-orange flowered witch-hazels (probably a variety called 'Diane') were nearby, but they are less showy generally. In this part of the world these are often the first plants to flower in the spring.  And they are tough and have good fall color. What's not to like? 


Yes, TPP declares spring is officially here in the upper midwest.  No, it's not because of daylight savings time, which for goofy reasons is controversial this year here in Lincolnland. Apparently a one hour change in the lives of today's average citizen is an intolerable adjustment. No flying to the west coast for you guys!  Personally the Phactors like having more daylight later in the day, but then again we're gardeners. No, it's not because the only thing on TV is basketball; spring can't wait until basketball is over. By then it's nearly the 4th of July. Partly it's because it a downright balmy 50 F outside, and in comparison to the quite cold February, this is downright springy weather. It's because the first flowers are blooming!  Yes, a witchhazel wins this years 2st to flower award. Early crocus and snowdrops are not far behind, and the buds of the silver maples are swelling. Our witchhazels are in shady spots, so they are still not ready to flower, but while out on a walk around the hood, some shrubs on the SW corner of a brick wall were in flower. Being a nice guy, TPP stopped by the local garden shoppe and purchased some pansies for some early color. It's always surprising how tough pansies are, and of course, these were forced in a glasshouse, but they are still cheerful. At least 8 fox squirrels are outside busily cleaning up all the birdseed that got buried in the snow, and while well fed, they are looking a bit scruffy, another sign of spring.

Seed germination

Some seed germinate easily; some are hard or tricky to get to germinate because of their dormancy. So why is it that all the species TPP works on are in the 2nd category? Seeds do this for a variety of reasons. If all a plant's seeds germinate readily and something happens to the entire crop, like a late freeze, a generation has been lost. Not so bad for a perennial. However having some seeds that are reluctant to germinate produces a seed bank where not all the seeds produced each season germinate so some remain for the next season. So even if pollination and seed production are terrible, some seedlings may appear from last year's seed. Seeds here in the temperate zone often need a cold period to promote germination, a process called vernalization. Some need alternating cold then warm periods. Some need to have their seed coats etched or softened by a trip through a digestive tract. But then some need to be begged and pleaded with, and still they fail to germinate or germinate a such a low rate as to be useless. What an annoyance! And you often try to imitate natural conditions figuring something out there worked, but there are a lot of variables and it takes considerable time and a lot of fiddling. Part of you wants to solve this problem, this riddle, but so much time has been invested already you just don't want to invest that much more. BTW, seedlings from the field don't like being transplanted either. No wonder so many people work on a stupid little mustard. 

Freeze and thaw

The high today was nearly 50 F and it felt like a heat wave. The snow cover melted from most exposed areas revealing an awful lot of lawn and garden work to do. Just picking up the limbs and twigs will take a couple of hours. With daily highs predicted to be above freezing for a week or more, the shift toward spring will being rather suddenly. Better get the cold frame repaired, but finding the right double-walled polycarbonate was not easy. The original material fell apart rather quickly & one explanation was that the polycarbonate for outside use was put in upside down with the UV filter coated side down (it is one-sided). The material used in the cold frame is thinner than what you can find in the big-box home stores, but our nifty local specialty glass place could get TPP an 4 x 8 foot sheet. 
On the other hand, the chest freezer needed some repacking and so TPP found himself delving deep into the freezer. You find some surprises, good ones and bad ones. Today the finds were good including nearly a kilo of Costa Rican coffee beans. Yea!  Tonight's dinner will be an attempt to finally get rid of the last of a large roast ham that had been lurking in the frozen depths for too long. Someplace there are guidelines for how long things can be kept frozen, but generally, if it can't crawl out of the freezer on its own its probably still safe to eat. Also found some nice Spanish chorizo to use with some of afore mentioned ham to make a paella thereby killing two ancient freezer items in one dish!  At times my efficiency boggles the mind. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - tropical springiness

It's been awhile since there's been a FFF posted. Tropical plants do something sort of strange each year.  A lot of them flower in late February or March in the glasshouse, yet most of them are thought to be day-neutral for flowering.  This means that they don't need long nights to stimulate flowering, yet that's just how they act. Of course the glasshouse is also warming up a little and getting a lot sunnier.  At any rate here's a member of the Bignoniaceae, a family of largely tropical trees, shrubs, and lianas, a family with fairly large, pretty colorful flowers. The trees and shrubs also tend flower in a big-bang of blooms making for some pretty spectacular displays. This shrub is called the Cape Honeysuckle (terrible name that points to the wrong family), Tecomaria capensis, a fairly common ornamental, in fact probably in the category of UTF, ubiquitous tropical flora. But it's just so cheerful, so bright, such a welcome relief from the bitter cold and bleakness outside. You should be able to guess that such flowers are adapted for bird pollination based on the color, the lack of odor (scratch & sniff), and the exserted stamens and stigma.  Enjoy!

Sweet Briar College closing

TPP read this news item with a bit of nostalgic sadness. Sweet Briar was called one of the southern seven sisters; a women's college for young ladies of good breeding. This does not mean TPP has any direct connection to Sweet Briar, and everything about it was learned mostly in a two day period 40 years ago on what was one of a young botanist's first job interviews. After giving a presentation at a national meeting, this young PhD (26 at the time) was approached by the Chair of Biology at Sweet Briar and asked if I would like to visit for a job interview.  The application had been made a long time before, and you figure it's just a matter of time before you get the thank you very much for applying letter, but not you is our decision. Apparently they liked to get a look at the applicant first. Perhaps you may wonder about the wisdom of a newly minted, 20 something PhD thinking about taking a job at a women's college, and it was a concern, but it was a job. At any rate Sweet Briar was a handsome place although young women in riding habits on horse back was a different sort of scene. As were the pearl necklaces and white gloves of the young women who escorted this bewildered fellow around campus. While many of the students were rich, and entitled, they also had a lot of academic talent if you could get through the southern veneer and get them actively involved in science. Guess they thought the New Yorker attitude & personality might be able to do it, but TPP was a bit more ambitious so other opportunities seemed better. Still it's too bad that such a bastion of the old south, as it seemed, has found itself facing intolerable changes leaving closing up shop as the only viable option rather than fading away in a futile struggle. TPP taught for a semester at one such place, and it was truly a sad thing to witness. Times are being tough on all small, liberal arts colleges as people foolishly denigrate such degrees, and rural women's schools particularly; a lot of them won't survive.   

Very cool cargo trike

Just look at this very cool, very innovative, electric-assisted cargo tricycle.  Wow!  Who wouldn't want one of these?  Perfect for visiting your local farmer's market or running to the neighborhood bakery or wine shoppe. This one is a Raiooo, made in Portugal, and it  involves so many nifty things you would do best to go and read about over at Treehugger where there are more images too. Innovative bicycles just keep showing up making you think they are a favorite subject for creative engineers and designers. It's probably true but mostly because this trike took a lot less money to design and build than a Tesla. In particular the wooden handle bar and frame pieces are so nifty, as is the front bag. But where is the holder for your coffee cup? Come on!  Don't say it's not an option! 

Ice is nice (?) and will suffice

TPP's major achievement for today is to have gotten to the safety of his office without breaking a hip. As a nice change of pace in the winter weather, over night the area was treated to a very thin, very slick glazing of ice produced by freezing rain.  This first near fall occurred while fetching the morning newspaper from the front steps. It was treacherous out there, and TPP witnessed several sliding cars, a sliding city bus, cars unable to go up even gentle slopes, and people slipping and falling including a fellow wearing a Chi-town Blackhawk hockey jersey. This is rather ironic because TPP's ability to traverse slippery surfaces comes from a misspent youth of hockey playing upon every frozen bit of water that we could find.  And thus who is to say that it was time misspent if you develop such skills and can still smile about it with all your own teeth. 

Climate expert bought and paid for by fossil fuel companies - not really news

Fossil fuel industry caught taking a page out of the tobacco playbook (link).  That's the headline from the March 3, 2015 online version of the Guardian. This refers to people finding out that W. Soon failed to tell people where his money comes from, but this is not really news.  This was known, but obviously not widely known, at least 18 years ago.  Here’s bit of history from an article (The Wall Street Journal Blurs the Lines Between Science, Opinion, & Politics on Global Warming, 1998) published in a smallish skeptic newsletter, which demonstrates the principle that work published in obscure journals tends to remain obscure, but bigger publications (e.g., Skeptical Inquirer) said the story was “old news” and not a current event story, so they declined to publish it.  Here's the introduction from the 1998 article.

"This affair started March 1998 when I received an unsolicited reprint of a scientific article entitled "Environmental effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide," by A. B. Robinson, S. L. Balinus, W. Soon, and Z. W. Robinson. The article was accompanied by two items. The first was a photocopy of a four-column news item from The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 4, 1997, although the date did not appear on the photocopy). "Science has spoken: global warming is a myth" by A. B. and Z. W. Robinson. The second item was a petition requesting that I, as a scientist, should agree with these authors and sign the enclosed petition signifying my opposition to the Kyoto global warming accord. As a scientist, I am concerned about global warming, and while I do research in botanical evolutionary ecology, climate and the various factors affecting it, are not my expertise, so I decided to read the article with an open mind."
"What a convincing article! How could any rational person continue to harbor doubts about the fallacy of global warming after seeing all this data? Obviously environmental extremists have been misinterpreting the data to sell us their global warming agenda. Rather than worry we can look forward to a future of lush plant growth and prosperity! The citations were numerous and from credible sources. The data figures were many and all pointed to the same conclusion: recent increases in carbon dioxide had no influence on global warming, or there was no evidence for global warming anyway! Hmm, so why wasn't this article more generally known? Usually Science News, The Scientist, or Science feature important and newsworthy publications before any national newspapers. How did the WSJ scoop our best science news publications?"
Unfortunately, some scientists can be bought and paid for by corporate interests to represent themselves as having legitimate contrarian positions to the main stream science of their field. This demonstrated that the WSJ happily bought into a phony publication misrepresenting real science; so much for checking out their sources.  And least you think it too difficult to find out, it was a class of seminar students who did all the digging including attempting to call Soon (no one at Harvard seemed to know how to contact him) and quite readily finding out the deception. No wonder it wasn't published. So while Soon has been "caught", he's actually gotten away with this act for about 20 years!