(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘natural history

“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

Working with her scientist husband, Orra Hitchcock produced illustrations on bolts of linen that manifest original knowledge about extinction, stratigraphy, and their evidentiary features in the surrounding landscape– and trained eager young students to recognize and describe geological and natural-historical phenomena…

After meeting and falling in love with Edward Hitchcock, her employer at Massachusetts’ Deerfield Academy, Orra (née White) married him in 1821, beginning a lifetime of professional collaboration while raising a family amid piles of rocks and research tomes. Highly trained, white, and wealthy, she was far from an oddity in nineteenth-century education. Like many other women of her class, Hitchcock received extensive instruction in the arts and sciences, making a name by working alongside, not beneath, a man who had easier access to academic opportunities. Variously lauded as “an anomaly” and “the most remarkable” of their era, her scientific illustrations have rarely been considered on their own terms — admired for the natural historical and religious knowledge they contain — without being made an exemplar of the broader category of “women’s work”.

Moving to Amherst when Edward was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, the couple embarked on a decades-long exploration of the Connecticut River Valley’s botany and geology. While Edward lectured to eager young students about the principles of nature, from the depths of oceans to the granite veins of the earth, Orra produced more than sixty hand-colored scientific illustrations on poster-sized linen swaths designed to be hung on classroom walls.

Ranging from extinct mammals like Megatherium (a genus of giant ground sloth [below]) through lithic strata to fossilized footprints, the collection is striking for its modern abstraction, anticipating the later works of George Maw. Although some of Hitchcock’s geological illustrations seem far from “accurate” in their specificity (or lack thereof), her devotion to clear and concise visual communication bespeaks a deep-seated understanding of complex scientific principles…

An appreciation: “Orra White Hitchcock’s Scientific Illustrations for the Classroom (1828–40),” from @PublicDomainRev.

* Edward Tufte


As we picture it, we might send sharply-observant birthday greetings to Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin; she was born on this date in 1900.  An astrophysicist and astronomer, she was the first– in her Radcliffe (Harvard) PhD thesis in 1927– to apply the laws of atomic physics to the study of the temperature and density of stellar bodies: the first to conclude that hydrogen and helium are the two most common elements in the universe and the first to suggest that the Sun is primarily (99%) composed of hydrogen.  During the 1920s, the accepted explanation of the Sun’s composition was a calculation of around 65% iron and 35% hydrogen.  Her thesis adviser, astronomer Henry Norris Russell, reached a similar conclusion via his own observations several years later, and (while he made brief mention of Payne’s work) was for a time credited with the discovery.  But in 1947, astronomer Fred Hoyle confirmed her original claim.

She spent her entire career at Harvard.  In 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

Her students included Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph AshbrookPaul W. Hodge, and Frank Drake (the creator of the Drake Equation)– all of whom made important contributions to astronomy.


“The body is our general medium for having a world”*…

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The biggest component in any human, filling 61 percent of available space, is oxygen. It may seem a touch counterintuitive that we are almost two-thirds composed of an odorless gas. The reason we are not light and bouncy like a balloon is that the oxygen is mostly bound up with hydrogen (which accounts for another 10 percent of you) to make water — and water, as you will know if you have ever tried to move a wading pool or just walked around in really wet clothes, is surprisingly heavy. It is a little ironic that two of the lightest things in nature, oxygen and hydrogen, when combined form one of the heaviest, but that’s nature for you. Oxygen and hydrogen are also two of the cheaper elements within you. All of your oxygen will set you back just $14 and your hydrogen a little over $26 (assuming you are about the size of Benedict Cumberbatch). Your nitrogen (2.6 percent of you) is a better value still at just forty cents for a body’s worth. But after that it gets pretty expensive.

You need about thirty pounds of carbon, and that will cost you $69,550, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. (They were using only the most purified forms of everything. The RSC would not make a human with cheap stuff.) Calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, though needed in much smaller amounts, would between them set you back a further $73,800. Most of the rest is even more expensive per unit of volume, but fortunately only needed in microscopic amounts.

Thorium costs over $3,000 per gram but constitutes just 0.0000001 percent of you, so you can buy a body’s worth for thirty-three cents. All the tin you require can be yours for six cents, while zirconium and niobium will cost you just three cents apiece. The 0.000000007 percent of you that is samarium isn’t apparently worth charging for at all. It’s logged in the RSC accounts as costing $0.00.

Of the fifty-nine elements found within us, twenty-four are traditionally known as essential elements, because we really cannot do without them. The rest are something of a mixed bag. Some are clearly beneficial, some may be beneficial but we are not sure in what ways yet, others are neither harmful nor beneficial but are just along for the ride as it were, and a few are just bad news altogether. Cadmium, for instance, is the twenty-third most common element in the body, constituting 0.1 percent of your bulk, but it is seriously toxic. We have it in us not because our body craves it but because it gets into plants from the soil and then into us when we eat the plants. If you are from North America, you probably ingest about eighty micrograms of cadmium a day, and no part of it does you any good at all.

A surprising amount of what goes on at this elemental level is still being worked out. Pluck almost any cell from your body, and it will have a million or more selenium atoms in it, yet until recently nobody had any idea what they were there for. We now know that selenium makes two vital enzymes, deficiency in which has been linked to hypertension, arthritis, anemia, some cancers, and even, possibly, reduced sperm counts. So, clearly it is a good idea to get some selenium inside you (it is found particularly in nuts, whole wheat bread, and fish), but at the same time if you take in too much you can irremediably poison your liver. As with so much in life, getting the balances right is a delicate business.

Altogether, according to the RSC, the full cost of building a new human being, using the obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.46. … That said, in 2012 Nova, the long-running science program on PBS, did an exactly equivalent analysis for an episode called ‘Hunting the Elements’ and came up with a figure of $168 for the value of the fundamental components within the human body…

An excerpt from Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com: “How much, in materials, would it cost to build a human body?

* Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception


As we take our vitamins, we might we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History


“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly”*…



The first Pelican title


It was a university course for the price of a packet of cigarettes: Pelican Books! Maybe the blend wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying the addictive nature of the range!

Pulp Librarian looks back at the autodidact’s library of choice: “Pelican Books.”

* Sir Francis Bacon


As we double-down on democratization, we might send chronically-correct birthday greetings to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he was born on this date in 1707.  A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life.  It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals.  As Ernst Mayr remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”



Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”*…


fossil record

In one fell swoop, Robert DePalma may have filled in the gap in the fossil record


On August 5, 2013, I received an e-mail from a graduate student named Robert DePalma. I had never met DePalma, but we had corresponded on paleontological matters for years, ever since he had read a novel I’d written that centered on the discovery of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex killed by the KT impact. “I have made an incredible and unprecedented discovery,” he wrote me, from a truck stop in Bowman, North Dakota. “It is extremely confidential and only three others know of it at the moment, all of them close colleagues.” He went on, “It is far more unique and far rarer than any simple dinosaur discovery. I would prefer not outlining the details via e-mail, if possible.” He gave me his cell-phone number and a time to call.

I called, and he told me that he had discovered a site like the one I’d imagined in my novel, which contained, among other things, direct victims of the catastrophe. At first, I was skeptical. DePalma was a scientific nobody, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, and he said that he had found the site with no institutional backing and no collaborators. I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people.) But I was intrigued enough to get on a plane to North Dakota to see for myself…

Douglas Preston recounts what he found: the young paleontologist looks increasingly likely (as other scientists assess his work) to have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth, the missing fossil evidence that recounts the almost-instant extinction of most life on the planet: “The Day the Dinosaurs Died.”

See a second-by-second visualization of the event here.

And for more on the threat that asteroids still present, and how we can protect the Earth from a repeat of that mass extinction, visit the B-612 Foundation.

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience


As we extricate heads from the sand, we might spare a thought for a scientific forebearer of DePalma’s, Edward Drinker Cope; he died on this date in 1897. A paleontologist and comparative anatomist (as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist), Cope led many natural history surveys in the American West for the precursors of the U.S. Geological Survey, making important finds on his trips, including dinosaur discoveries.

220px-Cope_Edward_Drinker_1840-1897 source



Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”*…



The Treeographer [is] a collection of the true histories of significant or symbolic trees from around the world. The stories cover a wide variety of topics, including culture, history, science, religion, and more… All of the stories to date are organized geographically in the Archive. If you aren’t sure where to start, try Ogawa’s Sacred Cedar – A 780 Million Yen Rescue Mission

Nick Rowan shares his passion: The Treeographer.

* Chinese proverb


As we take the shade, we might spare a thought for Gerald “Gerry” Malcolm Durrell; he died on this date in 1995.  A British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter, most of his work was rooted in his life as an animal collector and enthusiast… though he is probably most widely known for his autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals and its successors, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods... which have been made into television and radio mini-series many times, most recently as ITV’s/PBS’s The Durrells.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

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