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I saw some jonquils getting ready to bloom and it made me happy and excited. I am ready for spring. Winter was mild until the end but it has really been lingering around and we need spring flowers. Jonquils are domesticated ornamental flowers descended from are a specific sort of daffodil: “Narcissus jonquil.” They have dark green, tube-shaped leaves (compared to other types of daffodils which have flat leaves). They tend to be smaller and their central tube is flared and flattened like a little saucer or cup. There are so many sorts and I hope to see them all within a few weeks!
In most Romance languages, the word for the pale red color pink comes from the same word as rose (the flower). In English, however, the most common word for this pale red color is now “pink”—which was originally the common name of a little garden flower with a frilled edge–the dianthus. The usage of the word “pink” to describe the pale reddish color became standard in the late eighteenth century, but before that the word described the flower–and occasionally idiomatic expressions which involved the flower. Coincidentally English borrowed the name of the flower from Dutch, since, even in the middle ages, the Dutch were apparently the flower merchants of northern Europe.
To further complicate this story, in the 17th century, “pinke” was a name for stil de grain yellow–a pigment which was traditionally manufactured from unripe buckthorn berries. This yellow pigment was also known as yellow madder and it was mixed with natural blue substances to make murky greens.
So not only is it possible that pink does not exist as a color (or, at any rate, bright bluish pinks like magenta do not seem to exist naturally but are a trick of the brain) it also seems that the name for pink has fundamentally changed nature over the course of time.
It is a confusing color with a confusing nomenclatural history, but it is still very beautiful.
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!
What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets? Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible. The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun. It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy). Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement. These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us! The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky! It is a pretty compelling picture! Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.
I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years. Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).
Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics). However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.
Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp). Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh! I know where I want to escape to next February!
Apparently May is “Ride Your Bike to Work” month, but it has been so gray and wet and cold every day so far that today was the first day I peddled from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It was still gray and cold…but there was a delightful treat on the ride! Here is Brooklyn the flowering dogwoods are in full bloom and they were so beautiful…particularly the pink ones.
I have always thought that I was allergic to flowering dogwood (Cornus floridus) but there is one in my backyard, and it doesn’t seem to be doing me particular harm. Maybe I need to speak out more enthusiastically about these magnificent trees.
I was hoping to tell a myth of the dogwood in the underworld or a stirring anecdote about its taxonomic relationship to an unexpected plant, but there is less to go on than I might have hoped. When I was growing up, there was a myth that it was the tree Christ was crucified on and that is why it has white cross shaped flowers with red dots on the end, but this seems to be an American myth from the early 20th century. Wikipedia helpfully notes that “The hard, dense wood [of the dogwood] has been used for products such as golf club heads, mallets, wooden rake teeth, tool handles, jeweler’s boxes and butcher’s blocks.” I guess golf clubs are ok but they are hardly a new race of human beings.
Maybe we need to work on some myths which are as beautiful as the lovely dogwood. I am not allergic to it. It didn’t kill Christ and, in our debased mass-market world nobody cares about what mallets and rake teeth are made of. Does anybody out there have anything better for this beautiful tree? I guess we could always make something up.
After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.
Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!
The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).
Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.
Happy news from the ocean depths: marine biologists have discovered an endearingly cute deep sea octopus in the cold deep ocean waters off the continental shelf of California. The newfound octopus is about the size of a fist and looks a lot like the ghosts from Pac-man. The creatures’ default color seems to be a rich orange-pink. It has big soulful black eyes and little fins atop its head which look like cartoon cat ears.
Stephanie Bush, an octopus scientist (!!!) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has spent nearly a year studying the new octopus which she classifies as belonging to the “flapjack” octopuses (a family of animals which sound like they merit additional attention from Ferrebeekeeper). The genus of the octopus is thus pre-established as “Opisthoteuthis” but she is toying with “adorabilis” as a species name (which sounds like a wise choice in the internet era).
So far very little is known about these cute mollusks which live in coastal Pacific waters at depths between 200 and 600 meters. Every one of the dozen specimens thus far found has been female. According to Bush, “They spend most of their time on the bottom, sitting on the sediment, but they need to move around to find food, [&] mates.” I am curious what the male octopuses are like. I presume they are pink and adorable as well, but sexual dimorphism is not unknown among cephalopods. Also, how widespread are these animals? Do they live beyond the California coast?
We need to know so much more. Dr. Bush needs to get back to work, and we are definitely going to need more pictures!
June is the season when the roses bloom—both the everblooming modern roses which bloom all season long and the classical garden roses which have a beautiful inflorescence once a year—in June (that sentence turned out to be quite circular). Here are three small watercolor paintings of my garden this week. We were tragically short of roses, till my goodhearted roommate purchased one (it’s a cerise and cream hybrid tea rose from the seventies known as “Double Delight”). She purchased it, but I lugged it home from the distant nursery by brute force and planted it—so I guess it’s a mutual project.
I am going to try to feature more small paintings like this—daily impressions of pretty things and outlandish doodles–particularly as I transition back to running the rat race every day. Let me know what you think!
It’s cherry blossom season again! Every year for a magical week, the ornamental cherry tree in the back yard garden blooms and the world is filled with happiness, joy, and beauty. In past years I have already explained the historical roots of the Japanese hinami festival (which celebrates the beauty of the cherry blossoms) and rhapsodized about “Mono No aware” the awareness of transient beauty. This year maybe we don’t need to read a philosophical post to appreciate the beauty of the blossoms. We can skip straight to the garden pictures.
In case you are wondering, the big strange mummy/fish/monster thing at the bottom of the 2nd picture is a sculpture project which I am working on. It is the subject of my next post (but I need to put some glitter and fluorescent paint on it first, so that it doesn’t look like it crawled out of a forgotten tomb). In the meantime, savor the pink blossoms. It’s all so fleeting and exquisite…
In geometry class back in secondary school, there was one happy day, at least—the day we talked about the rhombus. The rhombus is a parallelogram in which the angles of the opposite sides are equal: diagonals drawn through the center of these angles will intersect each other at right angles in the center of the rhombus (see fig. 1). It is a beautiful shape with a stylish name that everyone started saying in amused wonder. Meanwhile, off the coast of Cuba or Tenerife or Okinawa, divers sometimes chance upon a mysterious human-sized blob of diaphanous pink gelatin composed of delicate loops of exquisite pink spheres. What is the connection between these disparate stories?
The pink alien blobs floating in the tropical and semi tropical seas of the world are the work of Thysanoteuthis rhombus, a.k.a. the diamond squid (which completely sounds like a crime boss name). The species is actually quite large for an invertebrate and some individuals can grow up to a meter (3 feet) in length and mass up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds). Thysanoteuthis rhombus is named for its huge fins which run along the entirety of its mantle and give it the appearance of a rhombus. If you draw diagonals through the center of its angles they would probably intersect at right angles too (although you shouldn’t do this in the real world since T. rhombus is a tremendous swimmer with ten strong tentacle arms–including two extra-long club arms covered with extra-rows of tentacles for grabbing prey or fighting).
Diamondback squid jet through the warm parts of the oceans in pairs and tiny schools hunting for swift and intelligent fish. They in turn are hunted by some of nature’s most fearsome predators: cetaceans, sharks, and the Japanese.
The squid hunt near the surface at night, and retreat to middle depths during the day. Somewhat uncharacteristically, they have no bioluminescence. The large enigmatic pink blobs I mentioned are their eggs. Once the female is fertilized, she lays a vast helix of eggs which are embedded in a stickly translucent line. These egg clusters look like salps or siphonophores (or extraterrestrials) but they are actually thousands of diamond squid eggs. When they hatch, they become adorable larval squid which head off into the phytoplankton to hunt.