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Happy Birthday, Chuck!

Today is, of course, the two hundred and second anniversary of the birth of a very important historical figure.  No, not Lincoln.  Well, yes, Lincoln too, but that’s not who I’m talking about.  I’m talking about Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s life story is as interesting, in its way, as his scientific accomplishments.  As a young man, he drifted indifferently through his college studies (first in medicine, then in religion).  By the time he’d finished his degree, he’d decided that he didn’t want to be a doctor or a member of the clergy, and over his father’s objections signed up to join the two-year voyage of the HMS Beagle as a naturalist.  He got this job partly because the uncle of the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, had gone mad and slit his own throat some years before, and FitzRoy was worried that if he didn’t have a proper gentleman aboard as a companion during the two long years he might succumb to the family craziness himself.  FitzRoy almost rejected Darwin for the position because he didn’t like the shape of Darwin’s nose.  Seriously.

The voyage of the Beagle is mostly associated with the Galapagos Islands, but they actually spent most of their time along the coasts of South America, where Darwin’s adventures included experiencing an earthquake and riding with South American cowboys, all the while making observations on the geology and natural history of the regions he passed through.  They also visited New Zealand and Australia before returning to England in October of 1836.  Darwin would never leave his home country again, and it was over twenty years before his observations during his time on the Beagle came to fruition with On the Origin of Species, which he finally prompted to publish when he found out that another man, Alfred Russel Wallace, had arrived at the idea of natural selection independently from Darwin and was about to publish it himself.  (Poor Wallace, he never gets any credit.)

So, happy Darwin Day, and birthday to Charles – to the man who was, arguably, the father of all modern natural history studies.

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Kids with Good Questions

I was on the trail with campers yesterday and we found some neon yellow mushrooms.  I didn’t know what they were, but one of the kids speculated they might be poisonous, and I said that yeah, sometimes bright colors are an adaptation to warn about something being dangerous.

A couple minutes later one kid, an eleven-year-old boy, said, “Rebecca, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.  What is it?”

“It’s about adaptations.  How do they happen?  I mean, I don’t think a bird just thinks, ‘hey, it would be great to have webbed feet,’ and a while later they appear.”

“Nope, that’s not how it happens.  It’s called natural selection.”  I thought for a minute about what would make a good example.  “Do you know why vultures don’t have feathers on their heads?”

“Why?”

“Because if they did, bacteria from the dead stuff they eat would get caught in the feathers and make them sick.  But imagine that a long time ago there was a normal bird, one with feathers on its head, that liked to eat dead stuff.  It had a bunch of babies, and some of them had a lot of feathers on their heads and some of them didn’t, just randomly, like how we have different hair colors.  And the babies grew up eating dead stuff like their parents did–”

“Oh!  And the ones without feathers wouldn’t get sick!”

“Yeah, exactly, the ones with fewer feathers on their heads wouldn’t get sick as much, so they’d live longer and have more babies, and pass that trait onto them.  And eventually you’d get bald vultures.  Make sense?”

I know this is going to sound so corny, but he got it, and he thought that was really cool, and he thanked me genuinely for explaining it to him.  And then the same kid came up to me this morning with more good questions, like how speciation happens.  This is why I like my job.  Whenever I get stressed about something work-related (not that that’s been happening lately – this has been a great week), all I have to do is remind myself of moments like this.

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the tree of life

Coworker Hannah recently passed along an amazing link: a browsable list of all (or, well, almost all) of the known species of life on earth, organized taxanomically.  The home page shows an innocent alphabetical list of the eight currently recognized kingdoms into which all living things are divided (Animalia, Archaea, Bacteria, Chromista, Fungi, Plantae, Protozoa, and Viruses – and I’ll be the first to admit that despite having a degree in biology I couldn’t really tell you what Chromista are).

Seems simple enough.  But man, click on one of those headings and you’re going down the rabbit hole.  Ever-deeping drop-down menus of each phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.  Latin name after exotic-sounding Latin name.  If you’re a biology nerd you could easily spend hours exploring this site.  Some things about the organization I don’t understand (for example, under birds it jumps directly to families, ignoring the orders I so painstakingly memorized in my college ornithology class – why?), but that doesn’t make the concept any less absorbing.  Just a warning, though, you’ll want to have Wikipedia open in another tab for when you inevitably find yourself wondering “just what the heck is a Gnathostomulid, anyway?”

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Science Poetry

Recently the subject of poetry, particularly poetry about science, came up in a conversation with one of my coworkers.  Two of my favorite poems I’ve read are science-related, and today I tried to find both of them again online.  One of them, about the Archaeopteryx, I couldn’t turn up, but here is the other for anyone who’s interested.

Jazzman’s Nature
by Richard Fein

In the grand composition from amoeba to man,
Mother Nature is not one for revising,
no crumpled sheet music surrounds her feet.
Mother Nature improvises like a jazzman playing his riff,
not thinking of the coda, not wanting one,
wanting only to flow with the unfolding notes,
swinging with the rhythm, moving with the theme,
blowing a horn, fingering a keyboard, strumming on strings,
composing on the fly, not needing rehearsal.
Jazzman and Nature in a forever present tense,
recalling only enough past to continue the current theme,
and without wondering where the melody leads them.