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In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey. The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists. They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.
Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments. A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant. The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb. French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market. Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.
One of the most useful colors in an artist’s palette is one of the last colors anyone else would think. Only its spooky name would incline your attention towards it. Caput mortuum, which means dead head or death head, is made of haematite–iron oxide (in fact there are several extremely similar colors made of the same pigment but with slightly different hues and names–particularly mars violet and Indian red—but we will stick to talking about caput mortuum because that’s the variation I use). This unpromising rust color possesses a protean mutability–it could be red, brown, orange, or violet depending on the context. Although it can stand on its own as a focus of attention, caput mortuum is very easy to paint into a network of subtle shadows: many painters use it for shadowed flesh or as land cast in darkness (after all a person’s flesh and the red clay of a landscape both take their ruddiness from iron).
Though not a flashy color, caput mortuum has a dignity and a beauty to it. In the middle ages and Renaissance, painters used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting). Oftentimes when looking at a religious painting, a viewer will notice that Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter–resplendent in gold, white, blue, and red—are joined by an unknown pair of merchants wearing caput mortuum. These two often have the most realistic and beautifully painted faces in the painting–it is difficult to say what Jesus really looked like but even the most money grubbing burgher knows his own face!
Although there is something somber about the deep color of caput mortuum, its name does not come from an obvious association with blood and corpses. In addition to meaning “dead head” the Latin phrase also means “worthless remains” and it was used by alchemists to describe the inert residue left over from a chemical reaction. Apparently this by-product was often a rusty violet color. Alchemists used a (very) stylized skull to denote the oxidized left-overs.
However it’s more evocative to imagine the pigment being named after a death’s head. The concept lends art a much needed touch of operatic dark magic.
The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring). While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge. Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove. I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them! I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.
Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time. About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump. During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers. The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.
Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth. In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother. Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove. Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril). On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”
Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic. Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights). Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.
Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.” The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.
Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy. If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.
The Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially known as the Electorate of Hanover) was a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In the mid eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Prince Elector, Georg II. A series of religious wars and a strange quirk of fate had made the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg the heirs to the British throne. Prince Elector Georg II was therefore better known to his English subjects and to history as King George II. In 1755, George II ordered his Hanoverian Guards Regiment to England. The Hanover Military band went with the Guards. One of the oboists of the band was named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel. Friedrich was something of a musical prodigy: he also played the violin, the cello, the harpsichord and the organ. When the guards came to England, he liked the country and he left the band to move there permanently. He accepted the position as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra and later became the organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath (a chapel attached to a very fashionable spa). Throughout his career Frederick William Herschel (for he had anglicized his name) composed a great many musical works including 24 symphonies, numerous concertos, and a large canon of church music.
Frederick’s music is forgotten today, but later in his life he found his true calling. As his musical career progressed, he became more and more deeply fascinated by lenses and mathematics. At the age of 35, he met the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Herschel began making mirror telescopes for Maskelyne, personally grinding the lenses and mirrors for up to 16 hours a day. He also looked at the universe through the telescopes he had made and reported his discoveries. What he found made him one of the preeminent scientists in history (he also became extremely wealthy and was granted a knighthood).
Herschel is most famous for discovering Uranus, the first planet to be found since the depths of antiquity. His other discoveries and ideas are perhaps even more remarkable. He was first to find out that the solar system is moving through space. He coined the word “asteroid” as a name for such objects. By observing Mars he determined its axial tilt and found that the Martian ice caps fluctuate in size. His attempts to determine if there was a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate were unsuccessful (because of a lack of data), but formed the basis for successful work concerning both climatology and stellar physics. Astonishingly, Herschel discovered infrared radiation, the first non-visible electromagnetic radiation to be known. He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. He found two new moons of Saturn and two moons of Uranus. He correctly concluded that the Milky Way is a disk. He debunked the notion that double stars were optical doubles and showed that they are truly binary stars (thus demonstrating that Newton’s laws extend beyond the solar system).
In honor of his amazing career, numerous objects, devices, institutes and features around the solar system and beyond are named after Herschel (including the giant crater on Saturn’s moon Mimas). Few people have contributed so greatly to science or changed the conception of everything as much as this gifted Saxon oboist!