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Happy Holi! Today is the festival of color and spring is close at hand (although it doesn’t feel that way in New York where the city is girding itself for a massive blizzard). We might not be in the tropical subcontinent (indeed, we might be under 3 feet of snow), but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate some vivid color—even if I can’t literally throw it in your face.
Now I love all of the glowing shades of Holi. Indeed, with typical Hindu heterogeneousness, the festival does not have one or two colors associated with it like parsimonious western holidays, but it is a festival of all color. However I think the most typical Holi color in my mind is the glowing beautiful magenta which you always see in pictures of Holi. Where did that crazy color originate?
Well, actually it seems like the beautiful purples and magentas of Holi are natural and come from boiled beetroot (or sometimes kachnar powder). This amazing glowing color comes from betacyanins–antioxidant phytonutrients which are always causing nutritionists to swoon because of anti-inflammatory benefits. You may recognize the hue from fancy boiled eggs—and apparently beetroot can also be used to dye yarn and fabric.
I would love to talk more about this exquisite magenta, but according to an earlier post, it doesn’t exist. That is a paradoxical conclusion to reach on the holiday of colors, but Holi comes from the same cosmology which gave us Kali, the goddess of destruction—and ultimate creation. Ponder the vicissitudes of color and non-color as we gear up for spring and have a happy Holi!
Have you ever read “In Praise of Folly” by the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam? It is a magisterial work of humanist values which helped frame the Protestant Reformation (although Erasmus himself always remained a dutiful Catholic priest). The essay takes the form of a classical panegyric, in which the goddess Folly sets out to praise herself and her unrivaled influence over human affairs. After a thoroughly convincing enumeration of Folly’s worldwide power (a list which particularly aims at the excesses of temporal and spiritual princes), Erasmus ends his treatise with the concept that only true Christian devotion can combat folly–a somewhat disappointing conclusion if you happen to be skeptical.
Today’s post actually has almost nothing to do with Erasmus…or does it? Ferrebeekeeper has already evinced an unhealthy interest in architectural follies, fanciful structures with no apparent purpose other than to amuse or divert the great lords who commissioned them. Today we praise the color folly, a brilliant orange-pink crimson. Folly is most famous as a fashion color and finds frequent use in lipsticks, nail polish, and lady’s apparel. The name was first applied to the color during the roaring twenties as a booming chemical industry brought all sorts of new dyes and paints to market (also the name suits the euphoric giddiness of jazz-age excess).
Folly is not just used in nail polish. The flag of Nepal (which is arguably the strangest national flag because of its double pennant shape) has a folly-colored background. The pink-crimson of the Nepalese flag is the national color—it represents the mountain rhododendron and the brave yet joyful hearts of the Nepalese people. The rhododendron is not alone, there are many beautiful roses, zinnias, and azaleas which share the hue.
Folly is actually one of my favorite colors. I am not praising it ironically. I do wonder how we named such a pretty color with such a scandalous name. Fortunately, it is probably only a devoted fashionista or a history buff who would use the name folly today (everyone else would probably say “bright rose” or “orange-pink” or some bespoke name made up by copywriters), but how did we stumble into the name in the first place? Did some clever flapper decide to pillory her era by evoking the spirit of Erasmus? Folly is great, but its name is folly.
There are all sorts of snails in my Brooklyn garden which range in color from, well, from medium brown to dark brown. I guess the local mollusks don’t make for a very exciting rainbow–so today we move to the West Indies in search of the most vibrant land snails we can find. There are numerous lovely air-breathing snails throughout (and around) the Caribbean which can be found in a variety of eye-popping colors, but two particular species outshine the others in terms of brilliant red, yellow, black and orange swirls. These are the Cuban land snail (Polymita picta) and the Candy Stripe land Snail (Liguus virgineus) of Hispaniola.
Polymita picta lives throughout Cuba where it eats the algae, mold, and lichen from subtropical trees and shrubs. The single species of snails appear in a dazzling array of spiral color patterns.
Liguus virgineus lives only on Hispaniola (the large island which includes Haiti & the Dominican Republic). Unlike the Cuban land snail, Liguus virgineus specimens are somewhat more homogenous in color and pattern. The Liguus genus however is broadly successful around the Caribbean and Gulf coast and the different species have different patterns (even though they are similar tree snails with similar habitats).
Sadly, both of these snails are at risk because of their brilliant color. The lovely bright colors have proven irresistibly attractive to the world’s most rapacious predator. Humans use the shells as jewelry or collectibles which has led to both species being over-harvested for collectors.
It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has presented a post about color. Therefore, to liven up the gray monotony of midwinter, today’s post features one of the most vivid colors out there. International orange is a brilliant deep orange which is in widespread use throughout the world. Strangely enough, this eye-popping color was created and adopted for practical reasons. International orange (a dark orange with hints of red) is the contrasting color with sky blue (pale blue with tinges of green). The military and aerospace industry use international orange to make planes and personnel distinct from their surroundings. Many famous test planes have been painted international orange including Chuck Yeager’s X-1 (above). The color is also commonly used for flight suits, rescue equipment, and high-visibility maritime equipment.
Thanks to the high contrast of the color against the background, crews were more able to track the progress of test craft against the sky. Additionally, if something went wrong, rescue and recovery became easier if the craft stood out against the sky, ocean, and land.
Aside from its use in spacecraft and supersonic test planes, international orange also makes tall structures stand out against the skyline (and therefore protects against accidental collision). A darker “architectural” version of the color is instantly recognizable as the orange of the golden gate bridge. The Tokyo Tower was painted in international orange and white in order to comply with safety regulations of the time. The bright orange of both structures has become an integral part of their recognizability and appeal.
Although it is not branded as such, the natural world also has a use for international orange and a surprising number of poisonous creatures can be found in similar shades. Bright orange makes the creatures visible and advertises their toxicity to potential predators. It is funny to think that tiny frogs and huge towers share the same color.
During the 1950’s, astronomers using the first radio telescopes started discovering a mysterious class of heavenly objects. Certain discreet points in the sky blazed brightly with low-frequency electromagnetic radiation–yet when the scientists looked at the spots through conventional optic telescopes, it was impossible to discover a source for this energy. Some of these radio flares came from incredibly faint smudges and some issued from what seemed like empty space. Astronomers called the mystery flares “quasi-stellar radio sources” (QUASAR) because they believed such discreetly focused energy must come from stellar-like objects. Further study revealed that the photons issuing from quasars were red-shifted, which meant that the quasars were rushing away from the solar system at high velocities.
Only in the 60’s did optical telescopes become powerful enough to associate certain quasars with the cores of extremely distant galaxies. The reason no luminous objects were initially associated with quasars was because quasars turned out to be profoundly distant—the closest were billions of light years away. They were visible to early radio telescopes only because of their immense energy output and their beam-like focus.
Scientific consensus concerning these massive energy flares did not fully coalesce until the 1980s. Today astronomers believe that quasars are powered by accretion of material into super-massive black holes which lie at the center of dynamic young galaxies. Such phenomena are called “active galactic nuclei” (AGN). As radio telescopes and time-space modeling grew more sophisticated it became obvious that quasars (which produce low-frequency radiation) were not the only energy flares associated with AGN. Giant beams of different spectrums of electromagnetic radiation are possible depending on the galaxy. Quasars and their ilk produce incomprehensible amounts of energy—the most luminous active galactic nuclei radiate exotic energy at a rate that can exceed the output of an average galaxy by a thousand times (equivalent to the energy from two trillion suns). To produce such energy the brightest known quasars consume roughly 1000 solar masses of matter within an earth year (which is equivalent to swallowing/burning 600 Earths per minute).
Galaxies change as they age. Today the Milky Way Galaxy is a mostly responsible middle aged galaxy (which only occasionally cuts lose with something crazy like the luminous blue hypergiant Eta Carinae) however there are reasons to think that in the past the Milky Way was a deeply troubled teen-aged galaxy ablaze with self-destructive fury just like the AGN galaxies we see at the far edges of space. Assuming they exist, alien astronomers in galaxies billions of light years away probably see our galaxy as a blazing quasar–because they are looking at its distant violent past.
Of course galaxies are not always quiescent. Some astrophysicists theorize that in 3 to 5 billion years, when the Andromeda Galaxy collides with the Milky Way, the black holes in the center of one or both galaxies could begin swallowing up matter (or could merge) reigniting a super bright fountain of high energy particles again visible throughout the universe.
Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn. These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong: octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception. The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species. Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent). Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs. They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey. However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.
Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration. The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings. If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it. The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things. Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.
The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane. This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration. This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim. Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe. If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).
Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers. The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat). When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year. Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.
Nudibranchs are among my favorite animals to look at. These tropical marine mollusks feature extraordinary colors and fantastical shapes which would make the most flamboyant nineteen eighties rock star weep with envy. One of the largest and most powerful nudibranchs is also one of the most beautiful. Hexabranchus sanguineus lives thoughout the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean and can be found from the Red Sea to Hawaii. The creature’s common English name is the Spanish Dancer because, when it swims free, it undulates its bright red paradodia in the manner of a flamenco dancer.
Although the Spanish Dancer is surprisingly quick and agile when it uses this means of locomotion, it has an auxiliary method for getting around and can also be found crawling in a much more traditional slug-like manner. The creature grows to be 40 centimeters or larger and has several distinctive color patterns ranging from bright red to bright yellow to pale pink (or sometimes various combinations of these colors).
The Spanish dancer can afford to be extravagantly colorful because it contains toxic chemicals inside its body (again one is drawn to comparisons with 1980’s musical entertainers). Predators therefore avoid the creature as it proceeds about the reef feeding on various sponges and bryozoans. Spanish Dancers are hermaphrodites. Although each Spanish dancer possesses the reproductive organs of both genders, it is very rare for an individual to fertilize itself. When they do mate, the parent carefully deposits a large pink rosette of eggs which is almost as distinctive and lovely as the adult.
The Spanish dancer is sometimes inhabited by one or more Emperor Shrimps. These little arthropods do not help their mollusk host, but neither do they harm it (a commensal relationship). Chameleon-like the little shrimp can adapt to the extraordinary coloring of their vivid hosts.