Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shells ready for data entry

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

One volunteer has been working with the Collection Manager of Mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History to get some recently-acquired shells ready to be cataloged and put away. "Recently acquired" in a museum collection typically means "in the lifetime of the current curator". The shells in the tray shown below were donated to the museum in 2014, so that is "really recent"!

The details below show that each lot has been identified, and one label has the location, date and donor information, which is the same for them all; all were collected on San Salvador Island in The Bahamas. The first detail image shows a slightly unusual item, a shell attached to a sea pen. The shell is the bivalve Chama radians (Lamarck, 1819), one of the Jewel Box Clams. They are called that because of the detailed decoration of their shells. Other items nearby include some chitins (little known 8-shelled mollusks), mussels, ark shells, various clams and some turban snails.

I took these pictures about 9:00 AM today. The volunteers arrive at 9:30, so "someone" spent this morning entering the data for these boxes of shells into the database. The blue tag in with the location and collecting information gives the Accession Number: 2014.MOL.009. This decodes to "the ninth accession of mollusks in 2014". A thank-you letter was duly sent shortly after the shells were delivered to the museum. A lot goes on between "stuff" arriving on a museum's doorstep, and its full incorporation into a research or display collection.

A reminder for potential donors to a museum: Museum research thrives on data. The donor of these shells gave us pretty good information, but it would be even more helpful to have the actual location on San Salvador Island. It is small, only 15 miles long, but has several micro-ecologies that would interest a researcher. Also, the actual date is best. These are dated "Nov 1978". In the Bahamas, not much changes during a month, but in other locations, it could make quite a difference for some species. Gee, aren't we picky!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dancing to the beat of a different accordion

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, humor, autobiographies, commentary

My father said, "Don't put yourself down. The world is full of people who will do that for you." To make this proverb universally applicable, one must add, "…unless you can make a living from it." Think of Rodney Dangerfield ("I get no respect"). Then think of Alexandra Petri as a younger, brasher Rodney Dangerfield, with a greater range.

How great is that range? One could make a useful estimate from the chapter titles of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences. After chapter 1, "How Not to be Awkward", states, in its entirety,

  1. I have no idea.
  2. Well, how about this? Don't do any of the following.

there follow 23 chapters ranging from "Flopper" (2) to "Tuesdays with Hitler" (6) to "How to Join a Cult, by Mistake, on a Tuesday, in Fifty-Seven Easy Steps" (8) and "Under the Dome" (20 - her father was a Congressman) to "Self-Defense Tips for Fairy-Tale Girls" (21). Don't consider these the extrema, as though they were the points on a starfish. NOr is it even a starfish with 23 points; it is more of a 23-dimensional space. And it implies there are a whole lot more dimensions out there!

In today's paper, the Crossword Puzzle's first and last "across" clues were (1) "Parent of 63 across" and (63) "Child of 1 across". They turned out to be "Baby Boomer" and "Millennial". That is not generally true. My wife and I happen to be Boomers, and parents of a Millennial, only because we were in our mid-40's when he was born. My wife went right out of labor into hot flashes. Most children of Boomers are members of the "X Generation", and most Millennials are their children. Ms Petri, being no more than a few months older than our son, is definitely a Millennial, and between us and her there is a double Generation Gap.

Anyone out there remember the Generation Gap? It was the one between the Boomers and our parents, who were the "Great Depression Generation" and also the "Greatest Generation". They had lived through the two most significant eras of the Twentieth Century, but to us it was all "history", as in our classic dismissal, "Oh, that's history, man!" They said, "Waste not, want not," and we said, "But I want it NOW". They said, "An apple doesn't fall far from the tree," but we were apples with legs, and ran half across the planet. They built "The Good Life" and first we trashed it, then turned anti-trashing sentiment into the Enviro-Nazi movement that drives half of Liberal politics; we soft-heartedly (and soft-headedly) tried to "Save the World" (usually from them!), and Liberal politics (the other half) turned this into the Universal Nanny State (look up "Cowboy after OSHA" to see what I mean).

So it's understandable that it took me a while to warm to Ms Petri's style of humor, and to learn to parse when she was actually being serious. I have observed among Millennials, including our son, that "to think is to do." They lack a filter. In the chapter "Internet Bitch", about the time Rush Limbaugh called her a Bitch, she muses on two collections of words: those that cause a gut reaction, such as the F-bomb and the S-bomb, and those that used to, but don't any more, such as "Zounds!", a contraction of "God's Wounds!"—it could get you burned at the stake in the 1500's. There is a coda. to listen to nearly anyone under 35 speak, the "bombs" and a half-dozen other "four letter words" don't seem to give any of them a kick in the gut, the way they seem to affect Boomers. Fortunately, while not averse to the occasional bombing run, Ms Petri is much cleaner of mouth (of pen? of keyboard?) than most of her generation.

As a journalist (the profession she wraps around all her escapades), she gets backstage for events most of us never hear of. She went to the National Pun contest, entered it on a lark, and did so well that the next year she returned, and won! She applied, and appeared, on Jeopardy; was ahead for a while but then lost. She can't return while Alex Trebek is alive, so she awaits his demise: only then can she return to her "tribe", the trivia-obsessed She did pretty well in a whistling contest. These and other adventures hark back to Chapter 2, "Flopper", in which she shows that, if you can become immune to the shame of being a flop, there are a lot of fun things waiting out there for you to try. You might actually be sorta good at a few of them.

Her humor style is varied, but much relies on the sly exaggeration. She could have almost learned that kind of humor from many of the great humorists of the generation before mine, from Red Skelton to Jack Benny. It would be interesting to see her do a stand-up routine à la Jack Benny. He could draw out more laughs with a slow, turning gaze than a whole monologue by Jay Leno; I bet she could come close.

But her book is about awkwardness, after all. The 23 chapters aren't really about the awkward silences themselves, but about what led up to them…a great many of them. And growing up seems to be the most awkward of all. She sums up the notion that she has become, greatly to her surprise, an adult, this way:
"Everyone sees this competent-looking thing walking around, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, while for the purposes of this metaphor under the iceberg is not more ice but instead a crowd of really nervous penguins frantically trying to hold the ice in place and feeling that they aren't quite up to the task."
So really, why else would she have shown up at the airport to pick up a friend, playing a Polka on her accordion?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Genus at a glance

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

In my work for the Delaware Museum of Natural History I have finished a side project that I began in April and returned to the inventory of the freshwater snails. I came across a genus that has very few species, and our holdings include just one lot each of the three most populous, a total of seven shells.

The genus Paramelania was originally named as a subgenus of Tiphobia by Edgar A. Smith in 1881. Although Paramelania has since been elevated to be a genus, Smith is the acknowledged author of the genus description, based on his work with the type species, Paramelania damoni (E.A. Smith, 1881). For this species the author reference is in parentheses because the genus name was changed by the elevation. Smith's original designation was Tiphobia (Paramelania) damoni. Our lot is shown on the left here, and in the following photo in a bit more detail.

A word about assigning scientific names. At the time Smith was working on African freshwater snails, the genus Tiphobia was considered a large genus with several subgenera. Smith had become familiar with exemplars of many of them. When he described the species damoni in 1881 he considered it distinct enough that he created a new subgenus for it within the genus Tiphobia. In 1898 John E. S. Moore described iridescens, and assigned it to the same subgenus. I have not determined which of two Boettger men (Caesar R. or his uncle Oskar) named Paramelania paucicostata, nor whether the elevation of Paramelania had already occurred. The author was probably C. R. Boettger, who spent time in Africa in 1914. Oskar was primarily a herpetologist, though he did describe several mollusk species.

The genus Paramelania, the genus Tiphobia from which it was extracted, and at least fifteen other genera are endemic to Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Lake Tanganyika is the largest of the African Great Lakes, being the second, by volume, in the world (Lake Baikal in Russia is the largest). At 676 km (420 mi) long and on average 50 km (31 mi) wide, and an average 570 m (1,870 ft) in depth, it is a huge lake, spanning more than five degrees of latitude. Imagine a long, very deep, skinny lake spanning the entire eastern boundary of Nevada! Lake Superior is three times as wide, only 80% as long, and not nearly as deep; its volume is less than 2/3 that of Lake Tanganyika, which hosts numerous habitats for numerous species.

This lot and the next were purchased by the museum from New Jersey shell collector Clarence L. Richardson in 1973, during the early days of the museum.

Here we can see that P. damoni has a rather heavy shell with modest ornamentation. Lake Tanganyika abounds with cichlids and other small- to medium-sized fish, and some of them eat snails. Snails that live in shallow water among the vegetation there need to be heavy-shelled to resist the bite of the fish. These two shells give only a hint of the variation found in this species. The aperture, in particular, frequently has a bit of a "wing" at the top, which we see in the next species.

P. iridescens is shinier and has a higher spire, but is otherwise nearly as heavily built as P. damoni. I have not read any ecology studies of these snails, so I can only speculate that this species inhabits slightly deeper water. The ornamentation is less, but the closely-spaced ribs add strength without adding excessive weight. Even for a small snail living in water, the weight of the shell is an important matter.

These two species are the only ones considered "approved" by the author(s) of the Wikipedia article Paramelania. However, the aggregating site Discover Life lists seven species in the genus, including our third exemplar:

P. paucicostata was named by Boettger for having "small ribs". These snails are very similar to P. damoni, although about 2/3 the length and 1/3 the weight. They probably inhabit either shallower waters, or a region more southerly than P. damoni, and the two species may never come into contact.

This lot was a gift of John H. Alexander, a few years before the Richardson purchase. These two men are among the big names on the earliest collections that laid the foundation for the 240,000-lot research collection at the museum.

We have few examples of an entire genus that fits in a shoe box, though a number of genera do contain but a single species. If we were to obtain specimens of the other four species that the contributors to Discover Life list in the genus Paramelania, our holdings would still fit in a shoe box!

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Quintessential Intellectual

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collections, essays, science, society, opinion

As much Physics as I studied, and as much as I have studied and pondered Relativity, both the Special and General theories, I realized I had never read more than a few lines by Einstein himself. When I saw Ideas and Opinions, a collection of essays and letters by Albert Einstein, I just had to snatch it up. The book is based on Mein Weltbild (My Worldview), edited by Carl Seelig, with a great deal of other material Einstein wrote after that book was published in 1934. Most of the material written before 1935 was in German and appears here in translation, mostly by Sonja Bargmann.

The greatest number of portions of My Worldview are found in the first two sections, about 2/5 of the book, titled "Ideas and Opinions" and "On Politics, Government, and Pacifism". The first section shows him to be a rather typical European intellectual, viewing America from a European standpoint. For example, he observes that an American is more goal-directed but a little less rigidly individualistic than a typical European. That is something with which some Americans might take issue! In his day he might have been the most visible proponent of total intellectual freedom among scientists, only modifying this view somewhat under threat from the possibility that the Nazis might develop atomic power and atomic weapons.

But I found most fascinating his extreme pacifism. In the second section he argues, strongly and repeatedly, for total disarmament, for all nations to eschew the use of force, most particularly armed warfare, and this to be enforced by a global authority which alone would be tasked to enforce the security of all. Here we find the highly brilliant Einstein as the poster child for Ivory Tower idealism. My answer to pacifism is, "As long as there exists the possibility for evil persons to attain coercive power, at any level, all others must be sufficiently armed and have the will to effectively resist, at any level." This demolishes pacifism in all its forms. You can quote me on that, and on this: Human nature must change dramatically before pacifism is practicable.

The third section, "On the Jewish People," contains ten items from My Worldview and four that were written or delivered between 1938 and 1950. Only the last item, "The Jews of Israel", was written (and delivered by radio broadcast) after the formation of Israel in the former territory of Palestine. Better than anyone else I have read from, he makes a clear case that the Jews cannot assimilate into any nation, because they are a nation already, though they were a nation without territory from 70 AD until 1948 AD; and that this fact is the singular source of Antisemitism.

The fourth and shortest section, "On Germany", primarily consists of letters between Einstein and the scientific academies from which he resigned after 1933, but concludes with a paean, "To the Heroes of the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto." These sentences, written in 1944, make his standing clear:
"The Germans as an entire people are responsible for these mass murders and must be punished as a people if there is justice in the world and if the consciousness of collective responsibility in the nations is not to perish from the earth entirely. Behind the Nazi party stands the German people, who elected Hitler after he had in his book and in his speeches made his shameful intentions clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding."
The fifth and longest section, about 45% of the whole, is "Contributions to Science." Here he explained his work to a variety of audiences, primarily his Special and General Theories of Relativity, but also his later work toward a Unified Field Theory. Here his fundamental approach is most clearly displayed, encapsulated in the proverb (not found in this book, because it is a paraphrase), "Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Here we find Einstein as a master explainer. He shows that Newton felt compelled to introduce, almost against his will, the concepts of absolute space and absolute time, to make his mechanics and his gravitational theory work. Later physicists—Einstein mentions Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz and Mach, among others—labored to resolve inconsistencies in subtle experiments that test the limits of classical mechanics, as the Newtonian system has come to be called. Lorentz formulated a transformation based on the constancy of the speed of light, implied in the equations of Maxwell and observed by Michelson and Morley. Upon all this work did Einstein erect first Special Relativity, and a decade later, General Relativity.

I note that he gives rather short shrift to Quantum Theory. Indeed, it is well known that his view was quite at odds with that of Niels Bohr and what is now called the Copenhagen Interpretation. Now, since Einstein's death, three of the four known fundamental forces—Electromagnetism, Strong, and Weak—have been unified into one quantum-based theory, but Gravitation remains stubbornly on its own. Theories abound aimed at reconciling Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity, so far to no avail. The situation is analogous, but more confused, than the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between Newton and Lorentz, but so far no super-Einstein has arisen to resolve it.

It takes a lot of study and deep thinking to become comfortable with the fact that light is both a wave and a particle stream. I became used to working with photon streams long ago. (Here is my favorite illustration: In whichever way light arrives at your eye, it is refracted in the cornea and lens as a wave, but stimulates the cells in the retina as a particle stream.) Photons mediate the electromagnetic field and electromagnetic forces. So is there a Graviton that mediates gravity? Will physics students one day labor to become comfortable with both gravitational waves that obey General Relativity, and gravity as streams of gravitons according to a highly amped-up Quantum Theory?

To those working on this conundrum, I ask these things, for they truly puzzle me:
If gravity is mediated by gravitons, what emits them and where are they absorbed? Specifically, if black holes are real, from what are the gravitons that "reach out" to surrounding bodies emitted? Do gravitons indeed travel at the same speed as light, which implies that they have no "rest mass"? Or are they massive, and if so, how much "slower" than light do they travel (we know that neutrinos with their tiny masses seldom travel slower than about 0.999c)? And if gravitons are massive and thus sub-c, is there a possible violation of conservation of energy or of momentum in orbital motions, particularly on gravitational (or larger) scales? Could this account for the "cosmological constant" that is currently attributed to "dark energy"?
Back to Einstein. Reading his writings about science, one feels one can almost follow in his footsteps. Yet his subtlety and extreme power as a scientific thinker are shown when, upon looking away from the page, we find that we must take many, many tiny steps just to cross from one of his footprints to the next.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Presenting CWWN v07 - The Christian (5)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume 7 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee is subtitled The Christian (5). This final volume of the 1925-1927 issues of The Christian contains all the smaller items needed to round out the contents of a magazine.

The first section, of one chapter, is titled "Stories"; the anecdotes are either instructive items or short gospel stories suitable to be reprinted as tracts. The third of these, titled "The Body of Christ", is a brief recounting of the story of miss M.E. Barber (shown here with her younger coworker ML Ballord), a spiritual mentor to Watchman Nee in his younger years. Its message powerfully illustrates the need for, and value of, fully trusting the Lord Jesus to properly care for His own body (the believers).

The second section, titled "The Signs of the Times", contains in ten chapters the column he wrote titled "Current Events in the Light of the Scriptures". Looking back, some items may seem over-enthusiastic, but they are rather subdued compared to the excited and even extreme predictions made by those today who seem prone to twist every major event into a sign of the end and many a world figure into a the Beast of Revelation (typically, and wrongly, titled "The Antichrist"). Nee was indeed enthusiastic for the return of Christ, but measured and thoughtful in his analysis. Of course, now that some ninety years have passed, we wonder if any of the "signs" bore fruit. He frequently reported on developments among the Jews of Europe and America, and their work toward attaining a homeland in Palestine: It is now nearly seventy years since the nation of Israel was restored, and almost fifty years since they regained control of Jerusalem. Times that seem long to us are short to God.

Ten of the issues contained "The Question and Answer Box", which forms the third section. Here he answered, sometimes very briefly and sometimes more at length, questions sent in by subscribers. The last names of most questioners, and their location, are included, and thus I recognized three or four questions sent in by his future co-worker (and my mentor) Witness Lee. I found it interesting that one of the longest answers concerns the "Two Swords" mentioned in Luke 22:36-38. Nee's answer takes up four pages, whereas most items take up half a page or less. To make his brief exposition even more brief: Nee points out that literal swords were meant, by comparison with other items the apostles ought to purchase; these were not for fighting, but along with the purse and bag, were ordinary needs for travel along robber-infested highways; in their earlier travels Jesus had told them to take nothing extra and this is because they were protected by His authority, but this authority would vanish upon his arrest (He starts the passage with the words, "But now"); Jesus elsewhere said that "those who take up the sword will perish by the sword," so he was not condoning the idea of "Christ-soldiers"; He said, "It is enough" to indicate he was done talking because they weren't understanding Him…as usual.

I have long had four little volumes titled "Twelve Baskets Full", published in the early 1970's in English. The fourth section of this book has about one-third of those items (the rest were gathered from later works of his), that made up a column he wrote for five issues of The Christian.

Four issues contained a column, "Notes from My Bible", brief insights he received from specific passages. These are the fifth section.

The sixth section, of one chapter titled "Fillers", contains small items, usually a sentence or two, that were inserted between other material in seven of the issues.

Fourteen of the twenty-four issues contained "Editorials" and "Announcements", and they make up the seventh section.

Six issues contained one or more "Book Reviews". Whenever he could, Nee would bring out the value of a book, but he didn't hesitate to pan, in a specific way, significant errors or to rebuke heretical works. These comprise section eight.

The last part of the volume is "A List of the Table of Contents for The Christian". This is useful for determining how each item in the five volumes fits in among the rest.

The Christian was revived in later years, and those portions written by brother Nee are included in later volumes of CWWN.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Nicobar Spindle

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

The Spindle shells are lovely examples of marine snails that have very tall spires and extended apertures. This gives them a shape reminiscent of a spindle from a spinning wheel.

I came across these specimens when researching a geographic conundrum, which I will discuss shortly. These are of the species Marmarofusus nicobaricus (Röding, 1798), the Nicobar Spindle. This lot of three was given to the Delaware Museum of Natural History by John Dyas Parker in 1979, but it is unknown from whom he obtained them.

The Nicobar Islands are a small archipelago in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 170 km northwest of the tip of Sumatra Island. This is where this species was first collected, but it is known from around the Indian Ocean and a little beyond.

I have been producing correlation and translation tables between the geographic entity lists that are included in the new database, called Specify, that the museum has recently begun to use. Among the "country" names in our existing database I found the name Hirama Island. Google and other search engines are ignorant of such a place, so I went looking for the specimen. Let's take a closer look at the original label:

The lovely handwriting indicates that the original collector was educated before 1940, and most likely before 1900. Today, nobody writes like this except calligraphers, a nearly dying breed! The collector knew this as Fusus nicobaricus, and I interpret the second line, Chemitz, as referring to an author, who would have been Johann Hieronymus Chemnitz.

J.H. Chemnitz described a great many new species in the 8 volumes he contributed to the monumental late-18th-Century work Neues systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet, or New Systematic Cabinet of Conches, to which he contributed until 1795. However, the description of this species is attributed to Röding in 1798. Apparently, this was not known to whoever wrote this label.

The number 3480 on the label is J.D. Parker's catalog number, and written by him. But the line of greatest interest to me for the present investigation is the third. I can see how an the person who cataloged this thought it said "Hirama Island", but the abbreviation "Is" means "Islands", or an archipelago; the abbreviation for "Island" is "Id". And the first word is much more likely Itirama. Except…Neither Itirama or Hirama exists in any gazetteer that I have located!

 For the present, this is the "official" label for this lot, until we get a new label printed with the current designation. During a reorganization of the family Fasciolariidae in the 1970's, many species in the genus Fusus were reclassified to the genus Fusinis. "Fusus" is from fusum, meaning "spindle" in Latin. "Fusinis" is the same word in a different grammatical case.

Quite recently, the Nicobar Spindle, owing mostly to its markings, was reclassified again, into the new genus Marmarofusus, meaning "mottled spindle". However, as I looked through the entire cabinet, containing specimens of the genera Fusus and Fusinis, I could see that the mottling on this species is not unique in this family, though it seems to be strongest and most definite in this species. I anticipate a certain possibility that the species nicobaricus might be returned to either Fusus or Fusinis by a future systematist.

The islands in and around the Indian Ocean are typically remote. Thus this spindle shell is seldom collected. This tray contains all of the 26 lots of this species in the DMNH collection (The existing database lists 25 of these; when we get to this family in the slow, ongoing inventory, we'll catalog the 26th lot).

This lot, #174594, is at left center in this photo. I am fascinated that the coloration of these is so variable. Two shells are nearly unmarked, and a few have more "fidgety" markings than the ones I have so far focused upon.

Perhaps I'll return to this tray to see if coloration correlates with location. These are mostly from the eastern Indian Ocean and far western Pacific, from New Caledonia to the Philippines and Japan, but a few are from farther west. Some were also collected from the eastern Pacific, presumably as invasive or transplanted species.

That's what is fun about a museum. There is no end of interesting things to take up one's time! Meantime, I'll just have to include a note in the new database that the Itirama Islands have yet to be located, though it is probably safe to use Asia as the relevant continent.