(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘natural history

“I don’t think academic writing ever was wonderful”*…

Academic writing is famously abstruse. But, Stefan Washietl, founder of Paperpile, reminds us, it isn’t always so. As Rob Beschizza observes

Stefan Washietl collected the shortest scientific papers. Some are unvarnished mathematical proofs, some are humor to amusing or incisive ends, others are clever-dickery that shoves the conclusion into the abstract. All are wonderful!…

Accessible academia: treat yourself to “The Shortest Papers Ever Published,” from @washietl and @paperpile via @Beschizza in @BoingBoing.

* Stephen Jay Gould


As we go for the gist, we might send voluminous birthday greetings to Constantine Samuel Rafinesque; he was born on this date in 1783. An autodidact naturalist, traveler, and writer who, in spite of work of variable reliability, substantially expanded knowledge via his extensive travels, collecting, cataloging, and naming huge numbers of plants and some animals. Among these are many new species he is credited with being the first to describe.

Years ahead of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Rafinesque conceived his own ideas. He thought that species had, even within the timeframe of a century, a continuing tendency for varieties to appear that would diverge in their characteristics to the point of forming new species. Accordingly, he was over-enthusiastic at distinguishing what he called new species.

Rafinesque wrote prolifically, and often self-published. His work varied from brilliant insightfulness to carelessness, and raised the eyebrows– and sometimes the ire– of his scientific contemporaries. Indeed, he so incensed John James Audubon with his belief that Audubon has included unnamed species in his sketches of birds, that Audubon pranked him, feeding him sketches of imaginary fish… which Rafinesque believed and included in his writings, where (for 50 years or so) they remained as part of the scientific record.


“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.”*…

Your correspondent has to be away for a few days, so (Roughly) Daily will, for a time, be more roughly than daily… Regular service should resume on or around Thursday, August 10. Meantime, a little reminder of the extraordinary pageant that is life…

Amar Guriro on a community with a unique lifestyle…

… This is the mound of snake charmers, Jogi Daro, which was once situated about one-and-a-half kilometres away from Umerkot city [in Pakistan]. With Umerkot’s population swelling and new housing schemes having popped up to meet demand, Jogi Daro now finds itself part of the city proper.

Each house owns at least one black Indian cobra, but most actually own several snakes, including cobras, kraits and vipers, locally known as Lundi Bala. None of the serpents are defanged but children play with them as if they were toys. [Ustad Misri, snake charmer and chieftain of his tribe] says this is because a certain contract exists between the jogis and the serpents living with them.

“A snake cannot bite a jogi child, and even if it does, it will not harm our child since we administer a drop of snake venom as suti (first food) to our newborns. This establishes immunity against snake poison for their entire life,” claims Ustad Misri.

Jogis or snake charmers are a gypsy community in Sindh. They mostly wander around the entire year from one place to another, either in search of a livelihood or a snake…

The way of the snake: “Rule of the jogi,” from @amarguriro in @Dawn_News.

See also: “How did snakes lose their limbs? Mass genome effort provides clues,” from @ScienceMagazine.

* W. C. Fields


As we ponder partnerships, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the Portolá expedition, a group of Spanish explorers led by Gaspar de Portolá, made the first written record of the tar pits in 1769. Father Juan Crespí wrote:

While crossing the basin, the scouts reported having seen some geysers of tar issuing from the ground like springs; it boils up molten, and the water runs to one side and the tar to the other. The scouts reported that they had come across many of these springs and had seen large swamps of them, enough, they said, to caulk many vessels. We were not so lucky ourselves as to see these tar geysers, much though we wished it; as it was some distance out of the way we were to take, the Governor [Portolá] did not want us to go past them. We christened them Los Volcanes de Brea [the Tar Volcanoes].

(The English name of the site is redundant, as “La Brea” comes from the Spanish word for “tar.”)

While evidence suggests that prehistoric native Americans used and traded the asphalt, the site is now noted for the fossils found there (first by Professor William Denton in 1875). Among the prehistoric Pleistocene species associated with the La Brea Tar Pits are Columbian mammoths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, American lions, ground sloths (predominantly Paramylodon harlani, with much rarer Megalonyx jeffersonii and Nothrotheriops shastensis), coyotes, ancient bison, and the state fossil of California, the saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis)– largely dating from the last glacial period.

La Brea Tar Pits fauna as depicted by Charles R. Knight (source)

“Trees are sanctuaries”*…

John Lewis-Stempel recounts a day in the life of an oak and the creatures that call it home…

Our friends the trees have an unremarkable life, or so it seems to us. They come into leaf, their fruit drops, or is gorged on by birds and the winds of autumn strip them of their dressing to leave them as the cold, bare sentinels of winter.

However, if we were to stand, tree-like ourselves, in a British copse and watch a single oak tree for an entire 24 hours — say when spring hatches out of winter — what would we see?…

Among their deceptively inert branches, trees shelter feathered Pavarottis, scuttling beetles, opportunistic fungi and fierce owls. A quick– and delightful– course in woodland ecology: “A day in the life of an oak tree, from mistle thrush in the morning to mice at midnight,” from @JLewisStempel in @Countrylifemag.

* Herman Hesse


As we deliberate on the deciduous, we might send fertile birthday greetings to John Bartram; he was born on this date in 1699. An American botanist, horticulturist, and explorer, based in Philadelphia for most of his career, he was judged by Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus to be the “greatest natural botanist in the world.”

He started what is known as Bartram’s Garden in 1728 at his farm in Kingsessing (now part of Philadelphia)– considered the first botanic garden in the United States. His sons and descendants operated it until 1850; it still operates under a partnership between the city of Philadelphia and a non-profit foundation, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Drawing of Bartram by Howard Pyle (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 23, 2023 at 1:00 am

“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


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