Posts Tagged ‘natural history’
(Roughly) Daily is headed into a brief hiatus, as your correspondent is hitting the highways of his humid homeland. Regular service should resume on April 26. Meantime…
Britain split from mainland Europe to become an island thanks to catastrophe — that might sound political, but in fact it’s geographic. Thousands of years before the UK opted to leave the European Union, a process called Brexit, a different separation occurred. Unlike the political one, it was relatively simple, and probably composed of just two stages.
First, a review of geography: England is separated from the rest of Europe by a body of water called the English Channel; the bit of water where England is closest to France is called the Dover Strait. But the strait wasn’t always there — it was likely created by two major erosion events, according to a study published today in Nature Communications. The first one likely happened around 450,000 years ago, around the same time Neanderthals first appeared in Europe. That’s when huge amounts of water spilled over from a large lake sitting at the edge of a massive ice sheet that stretched from Britain to Scandinavia. The second one may have occurred 160,000 years ago, when catastrophic flooding opened the Dover Strait. When the ice age ended and sea levels rose, water flowed into that gap. Just like that, Britain became an island…
* Jeanette Winterson,
As we cope with separation anxiety, we might spare a thought for Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he died on this date in 1788. 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 Max Ernst remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”
In South Florida, cane toads are so numerous that they seem to be dropping from the sky. They’re overtaking parking lots and backyards, can weigh almost six pounds, and pack enough poison to kill pets. Why the surge?…
Find out at “Frogpocalypse Now.”
* God, giving Moses a message for the Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2)
As we hop out of the way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1513 that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore and claimed “La Florida” [the “land of flowers”] for Spain. While it has long been accepted that de Leon landed with his three caravels near St. Augustine and became the first European of record to see the peninsula, scholars have recently challenged details of that historical account, suggesting that he actually beached near Melbourne.
Several years ago we considered the “Antikythera mechanism” (“A Connecticut Yankee in King Agamemnon’s Court?…” and again in “Leggo My Lego…”), an ancient Greek device considered then to be 1,500 years ahead of its time.
In June of 2016, an international team of experts revealed new information derived from tiny inscriptions on the devices parts in ancient Greek that had been too tiny to read—some of its characters are just 1/20th of an inch wide—until cutting-edge imaging technology allowed it to be more clearly seen. They’ve now read about 35,00 characters explaining the device…
The full story at “An Ancient Device Too Advanced to Be Real Gives Up Its Secrets at Last.”
* Ken Kesey
As we re-gauge our sense of history, we might spare a thought for Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily; he died on this date in 1250. Frederick considered himself a direct successor to the Roman Emperors; he battled with the papacy, but otherwise practiced religious tolerance, and interacted with learned Jews, Muslims, and Christians.)
A multilingual man of learning, he corresponded with and patronized scholars. His interests spanned the sciences, but were especially acute in natural history. He kept a menagerie which at various times had not only monkeys and camels, but also a giraffe and an elephant. His notable contribution to scientific ornithology was with a six-volume work, De arte venandi cum avibus (c.1244-48). In addition to some treatment of falconry, he presented his own observations (rather than perpetuating accepted hearsay knowledge) with remarks on hundreds of kinds of birds, with generalizations on their behavior, anatomy and physiology.
This summer, millions of Americans will flock to the beach, taking advantage of long days, warm weather and the end of classes. From Coney Island and Venice Beach to the shores of Lake Michigan and the Gulf Coast, bags will be packed, coolers dragged, sunscreen slathered, and sandcastles built. Similar scenes will be repeated around the world. In Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Barcelona, and Beirut, children will be splashing in the waves while sunbathers doze on the sand. A day at the beach is a cultural ritual.
But it hasn’t always been this way. From antiquity up through the 18th century, the beach stirred fear and anxiety in the popular imagination. The coastal landscape was synonymous with dangerous wilderness; it was where shipwrecks and natural disasters occurred. Where a biblical flood engulfed the world. In classical mythology, the wrath of the ocean is a major theme; the beach a bearer of misfortune. Tears flow on Homer’s shores while monsters lurk in the surf: Scylla surrounded by her barking dogs and Charybdis swallowing the sea only to spit it out again in a boiling whirlpool. “With few exceptions,” writes Alain Corbin, professor emeritus of modern history at Paris’s Sorbonne University and author of The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, “the classical period knew nothing of the attraction of seaside beaches, the emotion of a bather plunging into the waves, or the pleasures of a stay at the seaside.”
The specter of Leviathan or Kraken gave the beach its threatening aura, but so did real hazards that arrived on the shore: pirates and bandits, crusaders and colonizers, the Black Death and smallpox. No wonder Dante’s third circle of hell is lined with sand. On the beach, terror strikes Robinson Crusoe, the first of many castaways to confront destiny on the sand. In Western literature, the shoreline has served as a boundary; the beach the symbolic edge of the unknown.
How was the beach transformed from perilous place to preferred vacation destination — its white sand and rolling waves becoming the ultimate landscape of leisure? The modern embrace of the beach for the purposes of health and hedonism, recreation and retreat, came with the rise of urban, industrial society. The European “discovery” of the beach is a reminder that human ideas about nature have changed over time — with real consequences for the environment and the world…
The story in all it’s white-sand wonder at “Inventing the Beach: The Unnatural History of a Natural Place.”
* Stephen Wright
As we prepare in plunge in, we might spare a thought for King C. Gillette; he died on this date in 1932. An American businessman popularly known as the inventor of the safety razor (although several models were in existence prior to his design), Gillette’s true invention was an inexpensive, high margin stamped steel disposable blade– and the business model that later became known as Freebie Marketing: “give away the razor, sell the blades.”
Pranks are meant to be discovered—what’s the point in fooling someone if they never notice they’ve been fooled? But one 19th century prank, sprung by John James Audubon on another naturalist, was so extensive and so well executed that its full scope is only now coming to light.
The prank began when the French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque sought on Audubon on a journey down the Ohio River in 1818. Audubon was years away from publishing Birds in America, but even then he was known among colleagues for his ornithological drawings. Rafinesque was on the hunt for new species—plants in particular—and he imagined that Audubon might have unwittingly included some unnamed specimens in his sketches.
Rafinesque was an extremely enthusiastic namer of species: during his career as a naturalist, he named 2,700 plant genera and 6,700 species, approximately. He was self-taught, and the letter of introduction he handed to Audubon described him as “an odd fish.” When they met, Audubon noted, Rafinesque was wearing a “long loose coat…stained all over with the juice of plants,” a waistcoat “with enormous pockets” and a very long beard. Rafinesque was not known for his social graces; as John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, Audubon is the “only person on record” as actually liking him.
During their visit, though, Audubon fed Rafinesque descriptions of American creatures, including 11 species of fish that never really existed. Rafinesque duly jotted them down in his notebook and later proffered those descriptions as evidence of new species. For 50 or so years, those 11 fish remained in the scientific record as real species, despite their very unusual features, including bulletproof (!) scales.
By the 1870s, the truth about the fish had been discovered. But the fish were only part of Audubon’s prank…
* Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), “Bills Corpse,” Trout Mask Replica
As we tease each other with taxonomy, we might recall that it was on this date in 2009 that a man riding his horse across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin to San Francisco was stopped by the California Highway Patrol. The CHP, which judged the horse a danger to pedestrians and bicyclists who use the walkway and a distraction to drivers– who did indeed slow to a crawl– had the rider dismount and walk his mount back to the Marin side.
The post-Enlightenment scientific world has a closed model of perception: the subject’s sense organs receive information, which is passed to the brain where it is interpreted. In the medieval world, perception was a more open process, where much might pass not only between perceived and perceiver, but also the other way round, from the perceiver to the object or individual who was the focus of perception. This was a two-way process, at the very least. Sitting at my desk today, I can feel that it is hard and smooth; it might also be warm or cold to my touch. If I had sat here 600 years ago, my senses might have transmitted to the desk physical, moral and spiritual qualities, and it might have passed others to me: if this was a place that had been used by a holy or evil person, those qualities might reside in the desk. This was not the one-way transmission of ‘information’ that one anticipates today, but something much broader, and, in the highly moral world of the Middle Ages, the transfer of these broader qualities was of immense significance…
* Immanuel Kant
As we tentatively try transception, we might send cosmic birthday greetings to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; he was born on this date in 1881. A Jesuit theologian, philosopher, geologist, and paleontologist, he conceived the idea of the Omega Point (a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving) and developed Vladimir Vernadsky‘s concept of noosphere. Teilhard took part in the discovery of Peking Man, and wrote on the reconciliation of faith and evolutionary theory. His thinking on both these fronts was censored during his lifetime by the Catholic Church (in particular for its implications for “original sin”); but in 2009, it lifted its ban.
Or, then again, maybe it can be…
Lori Nix has created a series of photos that show the mayhem behind the scenes at an imaginary natural history museum. Many of the scenes reveal back-room deceit, like the a T. rex skeleton built from a do-it-yourself kit (above), the half-made papier-mâché mastodon (below), and a family of beavers emerging from a crate marked “Product of Mexico.” There is plenty of dark humor, like a bucket of fried chicken left in an avian storage room, and a pack of tigers and lions prowling around the remains of an unlucky custodian. Ms. Nix, who assembled the foam-and-cardboard scenes in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment, was inspired by visits to the American Museum of Natural History. “I come from the Midwest, the land of hunting and fishing, where there is a culture of stuffing your prize game,” she said. As for her favorite exhibits, like the bison and the Alaskan brown bear: “I hope they never update them.”
Read more, and learn where to see her work here. And then visit the extraordinary Museum of Jurassic Technology… or if L.A. isn’t handy, read Lawrence Weschler’s extraordinary Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.)
* David Attenborough
As we look for our own inspiration, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the American Museum of Natural history was incorporated. Its founding had been urged in a letter, dated December 30, 1868, and sent to Andrew H. Green, Comptroller of Central Park, New York, signed by 19 persons, including Theodore Roosevelt, A.G. Phelps Dodge, and J. Pierpont Morgan. They wrote: “A number of gentlemen having long desired that a great Museum of Natural History should be established in Central Park, and having now the opportunity of securing a rare and very valuable collection as a nucleus of such Museum, the undersigned wish to enquire if you are disposed to provide for its reception and development.” Their suggestion was accepted by Park officials; the collections were purchased– and thus the great museum began. It opened April 27, 1871.