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Posts Tagged ‘scientist’

Maria Popova at the blog Brain Pickings is an endless source of inspiration. Whether she is posting about art, nature, philosophy, or children’s books, she’s a treasure. 

Today I want to dip into her report on an out-of-print book featuring an artistic rendering of the wonders of the Great Barrier reef. Considering how fast the optimal conditions for the reef are being lost to global warming and the ocean’s higher carbon levels, it might be a good idea to think about how it looked in 1893.

Popova begins, “While the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel was salving his fathomless personal tragedy with the transcendent beauty of jellyfish, having enraptured Darwin with his drawings, his English colleague William Saville-Kent (July 10, 1845–October 11, 1908) was transcending his own darkness on the other side of the globe with the vibrant, irrepressible aliveness of the Great Barrier Reef and its astonishing creatures. 

“By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven.”

Suzanne’s Mom pauses here to let you read what else was “unsurvivable,” including murder most foul.

“William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.

“Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels. …

“As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined. 

“Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors.” More at Brain Pickings, here.

One thing I love about Brain Pickings is the way Maria Popova’s own brain makes such interesting connections. At the end of almost every post she links to other posts on topics that may seem unrelated on the surface but play off each other in an interesting way. Her approach is a bit like suggesting an unusual cheese to go with your wine.

Illustration from William Saville-Kent’s book Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Maria Popova at Brain Pickings makes it available as a print and as a face mask!)

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Photo: Catherine Smart for The Boston Globe
Steelhead trout from the University of New Hampshire aquaculture program.

As the tension between traditional fishing and the sustainability of the marine environment increases, so do hopes that some fishermen will get interested in the new approaches to aquaculture.

One new approach is being tested at the University of New Hampshire in collaboration with a New England chef.

Catherine Smart writes at the Boston Globe, “About a year ago, Jeremy Sewall — chef and partner of Row 34 and Island Creek Oyster Bar restaurants, and the recently opened Les Sablons — was scrolling through his Instagram feed when he spotted a glistening, speckled Steelhead trout from Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. in Brooklyn. The caption read that it was raised through the aquaculture program at the University of New Hampshire.

“As Sewall tells it, ‘I screenshot that picture and send it to my purchaser Phil and say, “Find me this fish, I own a restaurant in New Hampshire and I need to find this fish.” ‘

“The rainbow trout in question was raised by Michael Chambers, a research scientist at UNH’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering.

It was grown in an offshore pen that bears little resemblance to the stagnant, antibiotic-filled fish ponds people might associate with aquaculture.

“Many phone calls to the marine biology department later, purchaser Phil found Chambers and set up a meeting with Sewall. The scientist and the chef sat down to lunch. ‘Come to find out, that was kind of the end of the project. They had raised the fish [he saw on social media] and they weren’t sure what they were going to do next year, and I was like, “We have to do this, it’s incredible,” ‘ says Sewall.”

So they partnered.

Smart describes meeting Chambers and Sewall at the Judd Gregg Marine Science Complex and heading out with them to feed the fish.

Chambers said, “ ‘As a biologist, you want to see your chicken, your cows, every day — so you can see if they are healthy. If something is up, you can catch it right away.’  …

” ‘What’s unique about this is that we have a floating system that’s designed to hold fish at the center. And we have these,” he says, pulling up tubes of nylon netting, filled with mussels and seaweed growing on rope. ‘These act as biological filters, or a biological curtain, which are now taking nutrients that the fish give off and are absorbing them, taking that nitrogen out of the system.’  This Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture system, known as IMTA, is a big part of what sets Chambers’s project apart. …

“As a restaurateur, Sewall sees a major business opportunity, likening Chambers’s method of fish farming to the small organic farms that chefs patronize to get the best meat and produce. He is willing to wait for the fish to grow and is eager to create new dishes to showcase the end product.”

More at the Globe, here.

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I’ve put off writing about sprites because I’m not sure I can explain what they are  — powerful upward lightning flashes that send electricity around the earth and were originally going to be photographed by an astronaut on the ill-fated Columbia.

A team of scientists and a few daredevil pilots flew repeatedly into storms to prove the visions were real. The television show Nova covered the quest.

“NARRATOR: On a stormy night, in Denver, a team of scientists takes to the air to investigate a mystery.

“RONALD WILLIAMS (United States Air Force): I reported it, and nobody believed me.

“NARRATOR: They’re trying to catch a burst of energy so fleeting and hard to see that scientists call it by the ethereal name of ‘sprite.’

“EARLE WILLIAMS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The bolts that cause sprites are superbolts, the kind of lightning that’ll blow your T.V. sky high. …

“KERRI CAHOY (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): You can see airglow that’s more diffuse and just in layers than the curtain-like aurora.

“NARRATOR: NOVA takes to the air, on a quest to record these elusive events.

“GEOFF MCHARG (United States Air Force Academy): Sprite!

“NARRATOR: And the effort also continues above, from the vantage point of space, where the work had it’s beginning during the ill-fated Columbia mission, with Israeli astronaut Ilon Ramon.

“YOAV YAIR (The Open University of Israel): I asked him, ‘Please bring me one sprite image.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a couple.’

“NARRATOR: Ramon’s colleagues now continue where he left off.

“SATOSHI FURUKAWA (Japanese Astronaut): We must take over their work. I thought that was the survivors’ duty.

“NARRATOR: Their dramatic discoveries are revealing that we live on an electrified planet, surrounded by a global circuit that rings the earth. And like a planetary heartbeat, we can now detect it.”

More here.

 Image: Nova

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When you take pretty much the same walk every day, camera in hand, you may have trouble finding new things to photograph. You may look in vain for something different, puzzling, or mysterious.

But there is something to be said for combing the same territory over and over, as scientists are finding from studying the detailed record keeping of Henry David Thoreau.

“ ‘As far as I know, there is more information about the effect of climate change in Concord than any other place in the United States,’ said Richard Primack, a Boston University biologist who calls Concord a living lab for his research. …

Primack, writes Kathleen Burge at the Boston Globe, “has researched how climate change has affected the flowering times of plants, comparing modern data with the information Thoreau collected between 1852 and 1860. Primack and his lab found that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in mean spring temperature, plants bloom about three days earlier. …

“Primack came to his work about a decade ago, when he decided to change the direction of his research. He had been studying the effects of climate change on plants and animals in southeast Asia and decided, instead, to focus on his home state.

“But when he began searching for older records of plant flowering times in the United States, he came up short. Finally, after six months, someone told him about Thoreau’s journals.

“This was kind of a gold mine of data,” Primack said. “As soon as we saw it, we knew it was amazing.” More from the Globe.

Keep an eye open for the upcoming Thoreau exhibit at the Concord Museum April 12 to September 15, described here.

cross over the bridge

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