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Puce flea on pale puce background

Puce flea on pale puce background

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce.  The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown.  Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).

A Puce Sari

A Puce Sari

The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin.  The French word for a flea is “une puce”.  Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas:  so puce has its origin in bloodstains.  I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”.  Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity.  Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it).  The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.

French puce suede oxfords (from "Pointer" if you must have them)

French puce suede oxfords (from “Pointer” if you must have them)

The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science.  His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller.  In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope.  Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy.  Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells.  By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.  In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses).  This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.

A page from the Huntington Library's copy of Micrographia (photo by lemurdillo)

Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen.  Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community.  Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized.  Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out.  Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.

A fold-out engraving of a flea from Micrographia

I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post).  The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one.  Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word.   In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.

A visitor regards a reproduction of Hooke's microspcope next to the Huntington's copy of Micrographia (From "Case Study of an Exhibition" by Karina White)

Flea Close Up (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

By showing how strange familiar things really are, the electron scanning microscope provides an uncanny window into a hidden realm.  To demonstrate this, here are some remarkable portrait photographs of humble fleas taken by various gifted microscopists.  In order to obtain these images, the photographers required not only large expensive electron microscopes (and the training to use them), but they also had to kill the fleas, dehydrate the bodies, and then coat the tiny corpses with microscopically thin gold plating!  Additionally it is necessary to place such specimens in a vacuum, since air molecules interferes with the electron beam.  But all of that preparation was worth it–look at the amazingly expressive flea faces!  Each of these characters could be a rapacious nineteenth century huckster, or a wimpy impresario bent on one last gasp of glory.  Among all of the insect world, I believe fleas might have the most interesting faces:

Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis (photo credit "Last Refuge")

Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Flea (photo by RBirtles)

Flea (Image by David Scharf)
What was this book about?

Of course even before the electron microscope, artists and illustrators have appreciated fleas’ distinctive personalities.  The image above is an illustration from a German children’s book from the nineteen forties which merits inclusion in this portrait gallery because of the detailed face of the tiny flea and because of the strangeness of the image.

Water Flea (photo by Jan Michels)

The final portrait here (above) is actually a water flea, Daphneia, which came up in my browser as an accident.  The water flea is unrelated to the insect fleas portrayed above except in the most cursory way: they are both arthropods.  The image was, however, too good to pass up–so I suppose this blog post celebrates intriguing portraits of things called fleas.  The water flea scan makes an interesting point about epigenetics–water fleas do not have a crested helmet (like the one in the photo) except when they live in the same ecosystem as tadpole shrimp.  Tadpole shrimp can pray on water fleas but find the shrimp with helmet shaped heads frightening or unappetizing.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2020