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The Elk (Cervus Canadensis) is one of the world’s largest deer: adult male elk can weigh up to 331 kg (730 lb) and stands 1.5 m (4.9 ft) at the shoulder. The magnificent antlered beasts are believed to have originated in Beringia, a now vanished steppeland which connected North America and Asia during the Pleistocene. The poor Elk suffers substantial name confusion. In Europe, moose (Alces alces) are known as elk. When Europeans arrived in North America, they thought the animals were similar so they christened Cervus Canadensis as “elk”. Native Americans called the creatures wapiti. Now elk are known by the European name “Elk” in America and the American name “wapiti” in Eurasia (so that they are not confused with moose which are still called elk). Ugh!
Elk currently live in the great grasslands of northern China/Siberia and in the unpopulated western reaches of the United States and Canada (where they tend to be found in places like Wyoming and Colorado), however their range was once much more extensive. Before development and farming became universal, elk could be found in South China and in the Eastern United States. Kentucky has been experimenting with returning the great Elk herds to lands where they once last roamed wild before the Civil War. Obviously nobody wants to abandon farmlands or private forests to the ungentle hooves of a giant deer-monster, but Kentucky was extensively and abusively strip mined. The mountains were blasted down and great tracts of worthless wasteland was left. Far-sighted conservationists imported elk from out west, and the animals flourished tremendously. In less than two decades the Kentucky herds have become the largest in the nation outside of the world’s largest herd in Wyoming!
The elk have brought tourism and national interest to their new (old?) home but there have been problems too as elk refuse to jump out of the way of cars and angry drivers, refusing to yield the right-of-way, drive blithely into the immense creatures (to the benefit of neither party). The elk also damage cultivated trees and gardens. Yet issuing hunting permits in order to manage the herd has brought waves of hunters.
Additionally, the elk are beautiful–and were here before we were (well, probably… it’s a little hard to tell when humans came across Beringia, but we had to get there from Africa, whereas the elk started out there). Nearby states are also excited by the programs so Virginia, Ohio, and West Virginia may soon also have beautiful deer monsters of their own for the first time in centuries!
Peonies are a favorite flower of Chinese gardeners. The flower has been cultivated there since before the dawn of history and it bears the title “huawang”, king of flowers, (as well as the equally lofty name “fùguìhuā” flower of riches and honor). Thriving in Northern China and the Yangtze Valley, the peony is a symbol of love, affection, good fortune, beauty, and riches. The flower’s appeal is extremely broad. In China, the peony is the consummate representative of the season of spring (summer is represented by a lotus; fall by a chrysanthemum; and winter by the wild plum).
Because the peony represents such universally esteemed ideals, it is a symbol which can be found everywhere in Chinese art. As May ends, this year’s peony season is swiftly passing away, but to remember the beautiful king of flowers, here are 3 Ming dynasty platter-bowls which feature peonies which have survived unblemished for centuries. The first two are Wanli Kraaks–pieces which were made in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century–possibly for export. The final piece is older and rarer: it is a Yongle reign platter made at the turn of the 14th & 15th centuries for a domestic patron. Look at how beautiful and elegant the brushstrokes are in comparison with the more hastily produced later work.
Behold Aplysia californica–an extremely large sea slug which grazes on red algae along the California coast. The mollusk is rarely found at depths deeper than 20 meters. It grows to seventy-five cm (thirty inches) in length and weighs a whopping 7kg (15.4 lbs). Aplysia californica belongs to a family of sea slugs known as the sea hares –so called because the two rhinophores (smelling organs) atop the creatures’ heads are fancifully said to resemble a rabbit’s ears.
Although this Pacific gastropod is interesting in its own right, the slug is of greatest importance to humankind as a research animal (like the regenerating axolotl). Aplysia has only 20,000 neuron cells–as opposed to a human brain which contains between ten and a hundred billion–and the slug’s neurons are extremely large. This allows neuroscientists to easily observe and assess physiological and molecular changes which take place in the cells when the slug learns something. Aplysia research is thus at the cutting edge of neuroscience. Nearly everything we know about the molecular basis of memory and learning started out as research with the humble gastropod.
A news piece on CNN today featured Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine & Physiology for neural research (mainly on these slugs) and made immense headway on what is probably the great cellular biology mystery of our time. It is a pleasure to see a science article on CNN online but it was also somewhat dismaying to see how many comments were basically “why are we wasting money on studying slugs?” In case it is not self-evident why we are trying to discover the fundamental molecular mechanisms of memory and cognition, here is a brief and not-at-all comprehensive list.
Understanding these underlying biological processes would probably help us find therapy for neuro-degenerative disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease). It might also allow us to comprehend a number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression. At some point in the future, understanding the molecular basis of memories and thoughts might also allow for the engineering of some sort of bioimplant for the nervous system. You could learn Sanscrit by popping a chip in your head or record your nightmares via wire! Beyond such science fiction concepts, knowing about how the brain works is an end into itself—understanding the most complicated known structure in the universe is a necessary step to building structures of greater complexity.
Although perhaps the politically polemicized commenters who object to studying the sea hare actually reject the creature’s sex life–which is indeed somewhat at odds with traditional notions of romance and propriety.
Like all sea hares, Aplysia californica is a hermaphrodite with both male and female reproductive organs. Because of its physiology it can (and does!) use both sets of organs simultaneously during mating. Multiple Aplysia have been known to form chains of more than 20 animals (somewhat like pop beads) where each animal simultaneously acts as a male and female at the same time with its fore and aft partners. Copulation lasts for many hours (or sometimes for days). One can see how the creatures’ amorous predilections might not sit well with puritans and fundamentalists, however for providing a window into molecular neurophysiology we owe this gentle sea slug a big round of thanks.
I am sorry it has come to this. I have to write an article for Star Magazine about Elvis movies—a task which requires me to watch all 31 Elvis movies in a short amount of time. Naturally I’ll write a post about the, um, insights into celebrity, aesthetics, and the national character which the experience has afforded me. However, at the moment, I am neck deep in go-go girls, guitars, and musical routines about water skiing. Today, therefore, I am simply posting a photo of contemporary pop princess Katy Perry wearing a beautiful crown and a Byzantine-themed Dolce & Gabbana gown at the 2013 Met Gala. I am sorry to do this to you (and I am stunned that Miss Perry has somehow sneaked into my blog by putting on a crown a second time). I will shamefacedly admit that she looks very beautiful and Byzantine in her jewels and beadwork. This year’s fashion theme at the Met Gala was “punk” and anyone who regards Byzantine royalty as fitting into that criteria cannot be wholly bad (maugre the gossip evidence).
So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting. Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life. Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life. Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree. For more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.
These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu. He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death. The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces. The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back. This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope). Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.
Maria Tomasula is a contemporary artist who paints strange collections of beautiful items coalescing into miniature glowing geometric systems (usually against an empty black outer space backdrop). Dew, flowers, and fruit are the most frequent items in these compositions, but sculptures, amphibians, skulls, mollusks, weapons, and disembodied organs (among other things) also find their way into these little microcosms.
Tomasula paints the shining or dewy objects which make up her still life works with finicky photorealism, yet the abstract structure of the works takes these images towards mathematical abstraction. Her delightful little paintings give us the aesthetics of the natural world as viewed through a dark melting kaleidoscope.
Tomasula has a particular flair for teasing humankind’s magpie-like fascination with shininess and bright colors. From across the gallery, her works beguile the viewer closer and closer. Only when one is next to them does one notice the carnivorous pitcher plants and bird skulls among the velvet, petals, and jewels. However the dark imagery does not outshine the sensuous appeal of these fastidious spirals, loops, and curtains. Tomasula invites us to reach into the dark fractal pattern of beauty to grab the waxy flowers, the moist fruits, the polished gems…if we dare.
I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic. It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.
As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget. Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget. Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%. The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.
Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means. Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers. The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think. As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.
The sequester will hurt basic science research. Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.
Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government). The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.
Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing. Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness. It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about). Social security does nothing to further that objective!
The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn. And what is the point of even running a farm then? So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget. Raise taxes even. National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists. That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.
Back in 2011, as the space shuttle program wound down, Ferrebeekeeper published what seemed like an elegy to spaceplanes—mixed-use vehicles capable of operating both as spacecraft and aircraft (most notably the space shuttles). The dwindling national interest in science and exploration once seemed to indicate that the shuttle program would be the last spaceplane program for a long time. However, as the United States abandons its interest in cutting-edge Aerospace projects, other nations and private interests are picking up the slack.
Skylon is a British spaceplane concept from a private company, Reaction Engines Limited. During the eighties, Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, poured money and knowledge into the creation of a vehicle named HOTOL (an awkward acronym which stands for HOrizontal TakeOff and Landing). Although huge amounts of human energy went into HOTOL, it was canceled because of lack of funding. Reaction Engines Limited is trying to build on the extensive HOTOL designs.
Skylon certainly has a futuristic look. It has a long slender needle-like fuselage with stubby delta wings sticking out midway. Each of these wings is mounted at the end with a SABRE (Synthetic Air Breathing Engine). These next-generation engines are the real key to achieving single-stage-to-orbit spaceflight (a milestone which has long proven elusive for space engineers). Ideally the plane could take off from a runway and speed up to Mach 5.4 as it left the atmosphere and entered orbit. After deploying its payload it could then glide back down to Earth like a normal plane.
Skylon would be constructed of a carbon fiber frame with heat resistant ceramic tiling and it would employ liquid hydrogen as a fuel to loft its 82 meter long (269 ft) body into near-space (before switching to internal liquid oxygen as it left the atmosphere). Like HOTOL before it, Skylon was stuck in funding purgatory for a long time, but recently a huge chunk of funding became available to test the viability of the various systems. These tests were successfully completed in November of 2012 and Reaction is now moving forward with the building of Skylon.
Skylon is designed to be vastly cheaper than the shuttle or any current rocket programs (and it would cut down on space debris). Engineers estimate that one of the crafts could be ready to launch again in only two days after a successful landing (as opposed to the shuttle which required months of refitting). Let’s hope the technology works out. Although unmanned interplanetary craft are accomplishing great things, it has been too long since there was a flashy achievement