Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Saturday: 26 November 2011

Lynn Margulis  -  @ 05:32:01
Lynn Margulis suffered a hemorrhagic stroke late last week, and died on Tuesday. She was only 73 years old. I've been thinking about her this past week, since I heard about her death, and those thoughts have led me to some roughly related places.

(Note: I can't find an attribution for either image presented here. Please let me know if you know where they came from. The t-shirt, below, is sweet, but I particularly like this simple rendition of her, and would like to know who created that. )

You may not know who Lynn Margulis was, which is certainly understandable. The navel of humanity seldom admits competition with the soul killing morass of insular trivia that seems to obsess us, bless our hearts. It gets me down, sometimes. The New York Times obituary identifies her as the Distinguished Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. That may not help your recollection either, but you really should read it. She was a biologist and specialized in evolutionary biology, especially at the cellular level, in her earlier years. That still may not connect you.

You'll almost certainly connect if I tell you that she was married to Carl Sagan, for a time, when very young. Carl Sagan, a scientist in his own right, was also a successful science popularizer, and widely known among the general public for that.

And if you've taken an introductory college level biology course anytime in the last 25 or 30 years, you'll almost certainly know of her work, although introductory biology texts often aren't consistent in identifying authors.

In 1967 she introduced the notion of Endosymbiotic Theory, which explains the origins of organelles such as mitochondria in the cells of all eukaryotic organisms, and of chloroplasts in green plants (more generally of plastids in photosynthetic eukaryotes). She spent the next few years polishing the theory and working out its implications - it was not a readily accepted notion, and she had to be persistent in promoting it and convincing others.

Years earlier, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli - no slacker himself, and well known for his sharp barbs, was quoted as saying of a colleague's paper: "This isn't right. This is not even wrong." This has been rendered variously as a general putdown, e.g., "This idea is so bad, it's not even wrong." Non scientists will likely not get the joke, but to scientists it's hilarious (unless it's directed to you, of course).

It may well be things like this that separate so starkly the sensibilities of scientists from non scientists. So here's the explanation, though I know it spoils the joke:

Ideas and explanations for observed phenomena have to be subject to experiment. An experiment should seek to disprove the notion (or more commonly, provide support for it), but either way the idea has to be accessible to testing. It may be proven wrong, or it may be supported - either result is acceptable. A notion that can't be tested at least in principle isn't just a reflection of sloppy thinking; it's far worse than that.

Margulis's notion of endosymbiotic events driving evolution was a notion that could be tested. Further, it made predictions that could be confirmed. Ultimately the support for it, and the many examples of its occurrence established it as an important way of viewing phenomena in many biological disciplines: cell biology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and medical and agriculturally important applications as well. I don't think it's exaggerating to say that literally thousands of scientists have built careers that have been enhanced by and rely in large part on the realization of endosymbiotic theory and its implications.

Here's a metaphor for you: consider all of scientific endeavor to be a vast city, consisting of many grand and highly ornamented buildings, and separated into loosely connected neighborhoods. Most scientists have a room or two in one of these buildings, and spend their careers in home improvement. They know each other, of course, for they're neighbors, but you probably don't know them. Maybe if they're lucky and perceptive they might add a room or two. This is not to denigrate them - they are the salt of the scientific earth, and most of us are them.

Some scientists add whole new wings to a building, or if they're early enough to the game, constructed the foundations for a gigantic mansion. You'll know many of these architects. Before we stretch the metaphor beyond its breaking point, Margulis was one who added wings to her building, and connected it with others in the neighborhood. The foundation was firm enough so that a great many scientists were thereby able to construct more rooms than they would have otherwise. Of course at the same time they and others were ultimately forced to do a lot of redecorating, but the upside was that there appeared a lot of new knick-knacks to hang on their walls and new building materials made available. Margulis didn't just add a few tchotchkes to her rooms; she renovated and enlarged the building she lived in, and provided airy, comfortable breezeways to other buildings in the neighborhood. Property values went up!

Margulis continued to expand her work in symbiosis between and among different organisms as a major driver of evolution. In recent years she worked with James Lovelock and the idea of planetary evolution - the Gaia Hypothesis as it is more popularly known. That's another story, though.

Friday: 25 November 2011

Enhanced Fungus  -  @ 05:58:00
Stuffed mushrooms have become another tradition on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Where the cheesecake was more ingredient oriented, some actual construction and thought to materials is important with stuffed mushrooms. Aside from that, they can be stuffed with just about anything that sounds remotely good.

These are just common old Agaricus campestris or A. bisporus, although a bit bigger than average. If I'd told you they had to be chanterelles or shiitakes, you wouldn't want to do it, now, would you? But by now you know that little is sacred to me - most anything will work agreeably.

The stems need to be popped out, and if necessary a decent crater dug out with a small spoon. Sometimes the mushroom will break, and that's unfortunate. Just put it aside and we'll hold the memorial service for collateral victims later in the day. Pile up the cutout stems and mistakes, and then chop them into small pieces. Pile them onto a paper towel or two lining a collander and put another paper towel on top. Squeeze the mass dry as much as possible - I use a gallon wine bottle filled with water as a press.

Butter or oil the tops and bottoms of the mushroom cups and crowd into a baking dish.

For this round, I just pulled out whatever was available for making the stuffing. Clockwise from the chopped garlic at 6 o'clock, the pressed chopped stems, shredded ham, and chopped onions. Dry bread crumbs (actually dry turkey stuffing) have been pulverized into tiny granules. Unless there is some centerpiece of attention, ingredients should be chopped into tiny tiny pieces.

If there were a principle involved beyond simple tastes, it would be to not use anything too wet, and hence the bread crumb scaffolding. The mushroom caps themselves will express quite a bit of water as they bake.

How much of each ingredient? I've never really measured anything for this production - I'd guess we have 1.5 cups bread crumbs, not quite a cup of ham, and about half a cup of onions. Three cloves of garlic, and all that for a couple dozen moderately large mushrooms.

The garlic and onions are sauteed in olive oil for a minute or two, and then the ham added for a minute. Remove from heat and add the bread crumbs, and mix in any herbs or spices, salt or pepper, etc., that you like. Add a few large spoonfuls of liquid to moisten to a stuffing that can hold together. I just used broth, but milk or cream can be used as well.

I won't presume to suggest preferred seasoning - that would depend on what you used for your stuffing. I'd predict that cinnamon probably won't be high on the list. I've used enough basil before to almost be able to call it a pesto stuffing.

Finally, stuff the mushroom caps with the mixture. I start off with relatively small amounts to just above level with the cap, and then pile on more once everyone has a minimal dose. This is because I never know how much stuffing I've made, just that the ingredient volumes always seem to be much more than the final mixture volume.

I top off with a thin slice of mozzarella - not so much as to overwhelmeth, or runneth over.

This is one of two such pans - the second one is in the fridge until we want them, tomorrow.

Bake them uncovered 350 degF for 20-25 minutes, depending on the size of the mushrooms. I'd like having them as appetizers a couple of hours before the big meal, special treats for hardworking cooks taking a well deserved break. A nice white wine is also pleasant at this stage, or maybe you'd like to open another bottle by then. You can make your own personal decision as to whether to share with the guests.

Thursday: 24 November 2011

Not a Day for Food Wimps  -  @ 04:23:03
You have been warned - I will not tolerate the faint of heart today!

It's Thanksgiving here in the US, and I hope everyone has a good one. The internets are overflowing with suggestions - no, really! All you have to do is turn on the computer and recipes for cooking turkey begin popping right out of the screen, jostling each other to the floor, and scuttling under the furniture.

As adventuresome as we could be, let us with reluctance postpone until next year Macon Leary's sister Rose's own recipe for extremely slow cook turkey. From Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist":
But in the middle of the night, Macon woke with a start and gave serious thought to that turkey. She was cooking it till tomorrow? At an extremely low temperature? What temperature was that, exactly?

...One hundred and forty degrees, the oven dial read. "Certain death," he told Edward, who had tagged along behind him.

Rather than completely conform to the usual bland Thanksgiving fare that would seem to deter any inclination to give thanks, we make our own substitutions. Cheesecake, or "cream cheese pie for bio-chemists," as the Calbiochem newsletter read, from thirty years ago, has been an almost annual presentation at our table.

This is what you need. Be careful not to mix up the recipe with what's on the other side: "more biochemical detergents." Not that the actual ingredients could be any less toxic, of course, but this is only once or twice a year so listen to your Aunt Julia when she tells you:
"Everything in moderation... including moderation."

From the Calbiochem recipe:
Create the body by blending 1 pound of cream cheese [I use 1.5 pounds - throw caution to the wind!], 2/3 cup of sucrose, half a teaspoon of sodium chloride, and the contents of three chicken eggs [the sour cream makes its appearance later]. If all components are at room temperature, the emulsification is a lot easier [I love the food processor, which accomplishes the homogenization in thirty seconds instead of a grueling half hour with a fork]. The egg yolks supply phosphatides and cholesteryl esters which stabilize the emulsion of cream cheese triglycerides and egg proteins. Later when you heat the emulsion, the protein will denature and harden the filling to a soft gel.

After adding your choice of flavor, pour or spoon the thick emulsion into the cooked or chilled crust.

You can use whatever flavoring you want - I added a little lemon juice to the body. Hmm, it seems to have turned out a bit stiffer than usual.

No matter, probably, it spreads out quite nicely. By the way, yes, I did use prepared 8" graham cracker crusts. The Calbiochem recipe does include this preparation, but having done it once years ago I no longer need to.

Bake for about 30 minutes at 375 degF (175 degC). As the protein denatures and air entrapped during blending responds to Boyle's law, the mixture will expand upward beginning at the circumference. When no pronounced crater remains in the center, thermochemistry is complete. Cool to room temperature and cosmetize as follows.

The heating process leaves a thin brown carbonized surface on the filling. Repair this by dusting the surface with cinnamon. Pie anatomists will attribute the color to the spice.

Next you cover the pie with a sort of creamy frosting made by mixing 1.5 cups of store bought sour cream, 3 tablespoons of sucrose, one teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 0.25 teaspoon of sodium chloride. Stir these ingredients well and pour over the cream cheese filling. Put your artwork back in the oven at 425 degF (220 degC) for 5 minutes. This seals the new surface and minimizes subsequent dehydration.

I did a rough calorie count - each pie is about 3000 calories, of which the 200g fat constitutes about 2/3 of the total, so NOT recommended. This is not everyday fare, but then today is not every day! I suppose you could bring that down somewhat, by using Neufchatel instead of real cream cheese, and low fat sour cream, and in fact I have done that with satisfactory results.

Even Julia Child was fine with making substitutions:
"If you're afraid of butter, use cream."

Friday: 11 November 2011

Happy 111111  -  @ 07:11:11
No more binary dates for another 88 years.

I have actually set this to post at 11:11:11 11/11/11, UT, so that makes it even more ridiculous!

Saturday: 5 November 2011

The Month of October  -  @ 06:09:35
It's The Month of October, Number 69 in a series. For the second month in a row, we had uneventful weather, albeit a bit cold for October.

Here are the usual temperature anomalies products, at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. The high and low temperature anomalies can be had on a new page by clicking on the image below.

Compared to September, unusually warm temperatures spread eastward from the Pacific and Mountain states, although most of these still stayed several degF warmer than usual. At the same time the cold of September moved south and east, covering most of the eastern US south of the Great Lakes. New England continued hotter in October.

We find the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's precipitation plots here.

September's dry weather west of the Mississippi gave way to either normal or greater than normal precipitation, at least from the Great Plains west. Much of the tier south of the Great Lakes continued abnormally dry, especially in IA, MO, AS, LA, MS, and AL. Florida and the northeast received normal or greater than normal rainfall, along with much cooler temperatures.

And of course no one is likely to forget for awhile the Halloween snowstorm that fell in the northeast, just about where the green and white cover.

For the Athens, GA area:

Here is a plot of our temperature swings in October, along with precipitation amounts as experienced in Wolfskin:

Another damped harmonic oscillator, and even prettier and more extensive than September's! You can practically see the fronts breaking up periods of high pressure, with rainfall punctuating the intervals.

This time around we'll look at a plot of the low temperatures, for the month of October in Athens. As usual, the black dots are for the years 1990-2009 (black dots), 2011 (green line), and 2010 (red line).

Temperature averages were quite even for October, with the high average just a degree or so below normal. The latter half of the month, though, became quite cool, and that brought the average low down to 47.5F, 4 degF below normal.

For the first time since last winter we actually had more nights greater than one standard deviation below average lows: 10 such nights, where 5.4 is the average. And we only had 2 days a standard deviation above average highs, compared to a normal 4.6 days. Mild days and cold nights for us!

The figure below shows the Athens precipitation data which are official for our area. As usual the green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 20 years, the vast river of peach shows the standard deviation.

Also, for the first time in quite a few months, we exceeded the average October rainfall of 3.6 inches (we don't have a "dry season" but if we did it would center around October). Athens got around 4.4" rain, and out here we got 4.17". These came neatly, in three waves. But things dried out quickly between rains, and high pressure low humidity gave us many fire weather days.

What is the neat prognosticator telling us? About the same as it did last month: at least a month continued warmer than usual weather, and deepening drought over the next three months. So consider our rainfall a kind of a fluke, unless the Arctic Oscillation kicks in to circumvent the drying conditions of the current La Niña).

ENSO stuff:

The ENSO PDF update at this page tell us that La Niña conditions are present again, and likely to remain so through the northern hemisphere winter. But that was also true last winter, and we got quite a bit of snow because an extremely and unusually negative Arctic Oscillation. It's hard to predict that, but it's been trending that way for the last two winters.

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for September has been considerably augmented, and is worth a read for your region. October should be appearing soon.

Thursday: 3 November 2011

Signs of Autumn  -  @ 08:42:37
Glenn wrote up a nice summary of last Saturday's EVO course - that's emergency vehicle operation. It's essentially the driver course you ran when you first got your license, but it's for fire trucks, and it's a good deal harder. I'll link to it here, at the Wolfskin blog, and scroll down past the headers. It wasn't easy, and the hardest part was not going forward down the 200-foot "alley", with three inches on either side, but backing back up the 200-foot alley. It was fun.

Our autumn has been as pleasant and comfortable as our summer was cruelly brutal. I'm sure I must say that every year, but if so then let it be said again.

Of all the autumny sorts of things around, I found two special cases, in the same area, upstream of SBS Creek at the southernmost point of our property. First up, Blackgum, or Black Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica. While the tree is not uncommon, we find it here only in a few places. This location has several individuals. I know of two small trees far away closer to the house.

Blackgum is in the Cornaceae family, and therefore related to dogwood, of all things. Like dogwood, the leaves turn red, but the red blackgum leaves are much more spectacular to me, than most of the dogwoods I see. Like dogwood, this tree makes fleshy fruits, not nuts. It's a good time to be locating them, because they're quiet trees that don't otherwise make a fuss.

Acorns. White oak acorns. It's not just that I've never seen so many, it's more that I seldom see any, and this area is littered with them. I think that usually the squirrels keep up with the drop rate, and so I seldom see acorns, but this autumn the number seems to have overwhelmed the squirrels' ability to sequester them.

This photograph hardly begins to catalog the abundance. I promise I did not gather any of these to make a false cornucopia.

After I noticed the unusual acorn drop, I independently heard from two deer hunting sources that they too had noticed the large number of acorns. They're interested because deer love acorns and areas rich in acorns are a big draw.

They do look delicious. If only they were.

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