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Chinese blue and white kraak dish, Wanli (1573-1619), flying birds and flowering peonies in a rocky landscape with  border roundels of peach and misc flowers.

Chinese blue and white kraak dish, Wanli (1573-1619), flying birds and flowering peonies in a rocky landscape with border roundels of peach and misc flowers.

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).

Chinese blue and white kraak, Wanli (1573-1619), a peony emerging from rockwork

Chinese blue and white kraak, Wanli (1573-1619), a peony emerging from rockwork

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.

Charger with two Peony Blossoms Early 15th century (Yongle Reign)

Charger with two Peony Blossoms Early 15th century (Yongle Reign)

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It’s time to revisit our dear friends, the wombats.  Although this blog featured a post about the living wombats in general and a post about the extinct giant wombats which once roamed Australia, we have not concentrated individually on the extant species.  Today we will remedy that oversight by writing about the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) which is one of the world’s rarest large mammals.  The hairy-nosed wombat is the largest of the world’s three wombat species weighing up to 32 kgs (about 70 pounds).  The animal also has longer ears and softer (grayer) fur than other wombats but its behavior and general lifestyle is very similar to its relatives.

Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat  (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

Although the hairy-nosed wombat is one of the most efficient of all mammals in turns of water consumption, the continuing desertification of Australia hit its territory hard and caused the species to decline.  The animal was already rare when English settlers came to the island continent and the population dropped even further when forced to compete with European predators and farm animals and contend with habitat loss to farming and development.  Perhaps most seriously (and insidiously) the grasses which the wombats prefer to graze are being replaced by invasive species.  By the 1970s, the entire species probably only numbered around 20 or 30 individuals.

Range of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (exaggerated to be visible)

Range of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (exaggerated to be visible)

Today the hairy-nosed wombat numbers between 100 and 150 in the wild.  The creatures were long confined to a habitat about the size of Central Park (approximately 3 square kilometers) although a second wombat preserve has recently been created for them. Australians are kind people who have been trying hard to save the fetching whisker-nosed marsupial, but the fate of the species is still unclear.

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Dried Kombu

Dried Kombu

Kombu (Laminaria japonica) is a sort of edible brown algae.  This kelp grows from 2 to 5 meters long (6 to 15 feet) but in perfect conditions it can grow to be 10 meters (30 feet) in length.  Kombu is native to the coasts of Japan and it has been eaten there since the Jōmon era (a prehistoric era when Japan was inhabited by hunter-gatherers). The seaweed is famous for its rich umami flavor and it is nutritionally valuable as a source of protein, fat, fiber, and minerals.

Underwater Kombu bed (on a synthetic reef in Korea)

Underwater Kombu bed (on a synthetic reef in Korea)

During the 1920s, Kombu was exported to China where it is known as Haidai—it is particularly popular in northern China (where green vegetables are scarce in winter).  The seaweed has also been traded extensively to Korea.

Kombu (Haidai) being cultivated along the Chinese coast

Kombu (Haidai) being cultivated along the Chinese coast

Kombu was originally harvested wild from cold rich coastal ocean waters where it attaches to sub-littoral rocks but the 2 year growing season was frustrating to consumers. Today Kombu is grown in immense industrial scale on aquaculture plantations around China, Korea, and Japan. Brown algae cultivation involves sophisticated manipulation of alternation of generations (the metagenetic reproductive cycle of plants).

Converse All Star Suede shoes in “Kombu Green”

Converse All Star Suede shoes in “Kombu Green”

There is a dark chartreuse (yellow-green) color, Kombu green which takes its name from the beloved kelp.

Vishnu in glory

Vishnu in glory in Vaikuntha (with Lakshmi and Ananta-Shesha)

Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism.  He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him.  Vishnu is the past, present and future.  He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence.  The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth.  Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.

vishnu

When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe.  Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space.  In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.

Vishnu-Ananta

Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself.  Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).

vishnuWhen Kalki–the final incarnation  of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left.  The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.

Vishnu_and_Lakshmi_on_Shesha_Naga,_ca_1870

French Space Program satellite COROT

French Space Program satellite COROT

During the last several years one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy has been data from two orbiting space observatories concerning planets which lie outside our solar system.   The NASA space telescope Kepler discovers such planets by simultaneously measuring the light from thousands of stars for the faint dimming that occurs when a planet passes between the star and Kepler.  The French satellite COROT (“COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits”) finds exoplanets by tracking the slight oscillations in distant stars caused by the gravitational tug of orbiting planets.  The subtlety and elegant precision of both methods is astounding.

Sadly such astonishing engineering seems to have been near the edge of our technological abilities.  Yesterday Kepler went into safe mode (a sort of automatic shut-down triggered by a crisis).  Apparently a reaction wheel (a flywheel used to orient the spacecraft in relation to the stars) failed and Kepler can no longer be aimed properly.  The orbital observatory initially had four reaction wheels—one of which was a spare– however the spare wheel failed in July of 2012 and at least three wheels are required to operate the satellite.  If NASA cannot somehow reactivate the flywheel, then the mission is over.

Kepler Space Observatory

Kepler Space Observatory

Likewise on November 2, COROT suffered from a computer failure which made it impossible to collect data from the satellite and its status remains uncertain.  Most likely it is offline forever.  So our ability to find huge numbers of exoplanets via space observatory has temporarily been halted.

Kepler was launched in 2009 for a four year mission, however the mission was recently extended until 2016 (since it took longer to collect and make sense of the data then initially planned).   At last count Kepler had discovered 132 planets and was monitoring more than 2,700 further candidate planet. As of November 2011, COROT had found 24 new worlds and was screening around 600 additional candidates for confirmation.  Additionally two years of Kepler data has been downloaded but not yet interpreted so post-mortem discoveries may lie ahead.

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

It is frustrating that the age of almost daily discovery of new worlds has come to a temporary end due to equipment failure, however a new generation of planet finding missions is already on the drawing board.  To quote The Guardian:

The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa’s successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.

RIP Kepler and COROT, you discovered so many planets and you will be missed, but your successors will be even greater.

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janus_1

In the Roman pantheon, Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings, limits, doors, gateways, and departure.  Unlike the other Greco-Roman deities, Janus was not imported from Greece to Rome.  How he arrived in the Roman pantheon is unclear: some scholars believe that he was originally a gatekeeping deity of the near East while others argue he was an original Latin deity who was worshipped in Italy before Rome rose to power.  Similarly there are different myths concerning his origin.  The most dramatic tale of his creation asserts that he was made by Uranus, god of the primal heavens as a love present for dark Hecate.  Janus despised being in the underworld so he escaped from Hecate by diving into the river Styx and swimming to the world above.

Janus

After fleeing the underworld, Janus acted as one of the earliest kings of Rome in the golden era when the titans ruled the world, however at the end of the titanomachy—the epic war between titans and Olympians—he made the poor decision to give shelter to Saturn, hated father of Jupiter.  Jove was furious at Janus because of this betrayal and he cursed him with immobility and with a second face.  Thereafter Janus stood at the threshold of heaven to open and close the gate as Jupiter came and went.

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Janus was a popular god for the Romans and they worshipped him whenever they started a new venture or embarked on a trip.  January is named after the god and the first day of every month is dedicated to him. The ancient temple of Janus stood in the center of Rome was open during war and closed during times of peace.  Since the Romans were a warlike people the temple was rarely closed and sometimes stood open for hundreds of years at a time.

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

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.

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

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 Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

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.

brain-storm

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.

edus826016Like 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.

"Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow."

“Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow.”

honey_bee_by_snomanda-d5cub8b

Sad news from America’s apiculturists: nearly a third of domestic bees in the United States did not survive the winter of 2012/2013.  Before 2005 the winter loss rate was between 5% and 10%, but after that year, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious affliction which caused domestic bees to fly away and never return, ravaged the poor honeybees. Losses of 30% became common.  Beekeepers were somewhat hopeful that the worst of the scourge was passing after the winter of 2011/2012 (when losses fell to 22%) however apparently that year was anomalous.  At least it seems that this winter’s losses were not the result of classic colony collapse disorder–rather than flying away to nowhere the bees stayed put in their hives. Yet the insects they were sadly weakened and diminished and the attenuated hives proved unable to start new broods in the spring and just withered away.

WHY? (No seriously--why?)

WHY? (No seriously–why?)

This is a huge and perplexing problem.  At least a third of our food supply is dependent on the hard-working yellow and black pollinators.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake—as are our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This past year a number of studies indicated that neonicotinoid insecticides were partly to blame for bee losses (along with vampiric varroa mites, a decline of wild flowering plants, greedy beekeepers who overextend their hives, and a bacterial disease horrifyingly named “European foulbrood”) but the compounds are non-toxic to other animals and immensely lucrative to big chemical companies.  In Europe the compounds were banned this year, so comparing European bee hives with American ones in coming years should at least help us understand the problem.

Some scientists have also suggested that a lack of genetic diversity in domestic bee populations is also contributing to the problem.  Maybe we need to go online and find some new life partners from around the globe for our hymenopteran friends.  The infamous Africanized killer bees seem like they have some immunity to some of the issues behind bee die-offs.  Maybe we need to come up with a better name for those guys and see what they are up to this summer.

Sigh...so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Sigh…so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Bullockornis (with human-size silhouette for comparison)

Bullockornis (with human-size silhouette for comparison)

My sincere apologies for being such a truant blogger last week!  Not only did I fail to post any new articles since Tuesday, I unpardonably left you stuck with nothing but the flimsy Ms. Perry during that time. In order to apologize, allow me to take you on a trip to the island continent of Australia…15 million years ago during the Middle Miocene. During this time one of the largest birds ever lived across Australia: a giant fowl named Bullockornis.

Bullockornis

Bullockornis

Bullockornis was a 2.5 meter tall (8 foot 2 inch) gooselike bird.  The creature weighed in at approximately 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) and scientists believe it was actually related to the modern geese and ducks.   If you have ever met a modern goose, you will realize that a goose the size of a bear would be a formidable creature indeed.  Additionally Bullockornis possessed a razor sharp beak with immensely powerful jaw muscles.  It is hard not to imagine the giant bird nipping off a he-man’s arms like corn kernels or biting through bridge cables with this monstrous beak, but the truth is scientists don’t know what the bird used it for.  The monstrous goose could have been a hunting carnivore (like certain ducks are today) or an herbivore which grazed on heavy dense plants.  Perhaps, like contemporary geese, it was an omnivore which hunted, grazed, and opportunistically scavenged whatever it could get.

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Bullockornis was discovered in 1979 but it only became well known when some PR savvy writer christened it the “Demon Duck of Doom”  (which strike me as a silly 1930s Disney-style name, but I guess whatever gets people involved in paleontology is good).  The scientific name “Bullockornis”  means “bullock-bird” but, even though the bird was the size of an ox, it is actually named for Bullock Creek (a rich fossil location in the Northern Territory).  Bullockornis was not the only giant of the Miocene in Australia.  The Bullock Creek fossil beds also contained fossils of Giant horned tortoises, marsupial “lions” (i.e. thylacoleonids) and grazing Diprotodontids—giant wombats (although nothing so large as the mighty Diprotodon which evolved in the Pleistocene).

Fossil Bullockornis Skull

Fossil Bullockornis Skull

katy-perry-met-ball-gala

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).

Katy

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