Tonight’s Read: The Queen’s Conjurer—The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I—by Benjamin Woolley, Reviews & Links…

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“John Dee is commonly regarded as England’s finest home-grown magus, our most notable exponent of the esoteric arts that promised astonishing advances in knowledge for 16th-century Europe. His name is mentioned along with those of Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno, and he is sometimes proposed as an inspiration for Dr Faustus, Prospero or Ben Jonson’s Alchemist.“

– Graham Parry, The Guardian


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John Dee, Portrait. Date unknown (Wiki commons).

‘Dr John Dee is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of historical figure – intellectual giant or shady charlatan, depending on your point of view.

Born in 1527, when England was enjoying that flowering of art and learning we call the Renaissance, he trained with the scientist and technical instrument-maker Gemma Frisius at Louvain in the Low Countries, and went on to become a mathematician of distinction.

A personal adviser and official writer of technical “position papers” on navigational and maritime policy matters to Queen Elizabeth I, his opinion was sought by the Tudor government on investment in new technologies and projects to smelt metals.

He was a consultant to Martin Frobisher’s 1576 attempt to discover the Northwest Passage (a northerly trading route by sea to the lucrative markets in Russia and beyond), and trained Frobisher’s team of adventurers in navigational techniques. Dee’s preface to the first English-language edition of the Greek mathematician Euclid’s Elementes of Geometrie (1570), edited by Sir Henry Billingsley, is regarded as a landmark piece of writing on the applications of pure mathematics in science and technology.

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The “Orion” Nebula

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A 212-Hour Exposure of “Orion” Nebula.. 
Image Credit: Stanislav Volskiy. Rollover Annotation: Judy Schmidt (apod.nasa.gov).

The constellation of Orion is much more than three stars in a row. It is a direction in space that is rich with impressive nebulas. To better appreciate this well-known swath of sky, an extremely long exposure was taken over many clear nights in 2013 and 2014. After 212 hours of camera time and an additional year of processing, the featured 1400-exposure collage spanning over 40 times the angular diameter of the Moon emerged. Of the many interesting details that have become visible, one that particularly draws the eye is Barnard’s Loop, the bright red circular filament arcing down from the middle. The Rosette Nebula is not the giant red nebula near the top of the image — that is a larger but lesser known nebula known as Lambda Orionis. The Rosette Nebula is visible, though: it is the red and white nebula on the upper left. The bright orange star just above the frame center is Betelgeuse, while the bright blue star on the lower right is Rigel. Other famous nebulas visible include the Witch Head Nebula, the Flame Nebula, the Fox Fur Nebula, and, if you know just where to look, the comparatively small Horsehead Nebula. About those famous three stars that cross the belt of Orion the Hunter — in this busy frame they can be hard to locate, but a discerning eye will find them just below and to the right of the image center.

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Another image of the “Orion” Nebula from farther away. Image Credit: Terry Hancock (apod.nasa.gov).

The “Witch Head”Nebula

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Photo Credit: Jeff Signorelli (paid.nasa.gov).

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble …. maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. A frighteningly shaped reflection nebula, this cosmic crone is approximately 800 light-years from Earth. Its malevolent visage seems to glare toward nearby bright star Rigel in Orion, just off the right edge of this frame. Formally known as IC 2118, the nebula’s interstellar cloud of dust and gas is nearly 70 light-years across—its dust grains reflecting Rigel’s light. In this composite portrait, the nebula’s color is caused not only by the star’s intense bluish light but because the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth’s daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in planet Earth’s atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen.

Tonight’s Read: Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould, 1955

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Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995) is the seventh volume of collected essays by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. The essays in this collection were culled from his monthly column “The View of Life” published in Natural History magazine, to which Gould contributed for 27 years.

The book deals with themes familiar to Gould’s writing: evolution, science biography, probabilities, and strange oddities found in nature. His essay “Poe’s Greatest Hit” analyzes the controversial conchology textbook The Conchologist’s First Book (1839), edited by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s volume on natural history sold out within two months, and was his only book republished during his lifetime. Gould’s essay “Dinomania” is a review of Michael Crichton’s novel, and Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film by the same name, Jurassic Park.

About the Author & Links

Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1996, Gould was hired as the Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University, where he divided his time teaching there and at Harvard.

Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. The theory proposes that most evolution is characterized by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is infrequently punctuated by swift periods of branching speciation. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.

Most of Gould’s empirical research was based on the land snail  genera Poecilozonites  and Cerion. He also made important contributions to evolutionary developmental biology, receiving professional recognition for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields (or “non-overlapping magisteria”) whose authorities do not overlap.

Gould was known by the general public mainly for his 300 popular essays in Natural History magazine, and his numerous books written for both the specialist and non-specialist. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend”.

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould

http://www.stephenjaygould.org/

About the Book/Some Reviews:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinosaur_in_a_Haystack

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/15/dinosaur-haystack-stephen-jay-gould-review

https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/11/09/home/gould-haystack.html

Buy this book, here:

https://www.amazon.com/Dinosaur-Haystack-Reflections-Natural-History/dp/0517888246

Author’s Obit:

 

“Restoration” by Barry H. Lopez—a story about fixing old books, history & our place in the natural world…

Above, left: newer trade paperback edition cover; right: illustration for “Restoration” from the first edition of Winter Count.

Restoration

Barry H. Lopez

From Winter Count, 1981.

Just over the Montana border in North Dakota, north of the small town of Killdeer, there is a French mansion. It is part of a frontier estate built in 1863 for a titled family called de Crenir, from Bordeaux. When the last of the de Crenirs died in France in 1904, the two-story Victorian house, its contents, and the surrounding acres were bequeathed to the nearby town. Looking incongruous still in the vast landscape of brown hills, it has since stood as a tourist attraction.

There are various explanations for why the house was built in such a desolate place, after the fur trade had passed on but before the Indian wars were over and settlement had come. In time, the Great Northern Railroad reached it, but the first de Crenirs had to come up by boat seven hundred miles from St. Louis and finish the journey by horse. According to a pamphlet given to tourists, the family had had thoughts of establishing a cattle empire, but their visits were irregular and short. In spite of the rich furnishings freighted in and installed and the considerable expense and trouble involved in construction, only one, René de Crenir, ever overwintered there. His visits began in the spring of 1883 and he arrived each spring thereafter, departing each fall until he took up permanent residence in 1887. Seven years later, in the summer of 1894, he left abruptly, and no de Crenir ever came again. This young de Crenir, too, the pamphlet goes on to say, was the only one of the family to visit regularly with people in town, or who rode more than a day’s journey into the surrounding country.

The gray and white house gives the impression now of being a military outpost on the edge of an empire of silence and space, the domain, at the time it was built, of buffalo, bear, antelope, wolves, Hunkpapa Sioux, Crows off to the west, and others. Today there is little of value left beyond the house itself and a few pieces of period furniture except a collection of extraordinary books.

In the summer of 1974, this collection was in the process of being restored by a man named Edward Seraut. I was driving east and saw a highway advertisement outside Killdeer—HISTORIC FRENCH CHATEAU • 12 MILES • ICE CREAM • COOL DRINKS • SOUVENIRS—and had stopped and toured the mansion with other people on vacation. Afterward, with a guard’s permission and anticipating a conversation, I went back to the library on the second floor and introduced myself, somewhat hesitantly, to Seraut.

I had been struck right away by the sight of him, sitting still and jacketless in a straight chair with a broken book in his lap, as though bereaved. He was perhaps in his sixties. He seemed gratified by my interest, though I startled him when I came up. He showed me, still with a slightly quizzical look, a few of the books he had been working on—an oversized folio of colored prints of North American mammals by Karl Bodmer, and a copy, I recognized, of La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine. He described a technique he was just then using to remove a stain called foxing from a flyleaf. I was drawn to him. When I asked if I might take him to dinner, he said he would be glad—delighted.

“I’ve been here for months,” he said, “and I’ve hardly looked out the windows.”

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“On Tenderness”—A Beautiful Essay on Gregor Mendel & His Pea Plants, & Some Other Things…

On Tenderness


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“On Tenderness” is the Introduction to the Beat American Science and Nature Writing, 2013).

“Mendel was, first and foremost, a gardener; his science began with tending. His genius was certainly not fueled by deep knowledge of the conventions of biology (thankfully, he failed that exam). Rather, it was his instinctual knowledge of the garden, coupled with an incisive power of observation, that brought him to question the nature of inheritance and thereby discover genes.”

In the Summer of 2012, I traveled to Brno, in the Czech Republic, to visit the monastery of Gregor Mendel. I knew the barest details of Mendel’s life—enough to generate an anatomical sketch but not much more. Originally from a farming family in Moravia, he had joined the Augustinian monastery in Brno in the 1830s. In 1864, working with peas in the garden of his monastery, he stumbled on arguably the most seminal discovery of modern biology: that hereditary information is transmitted from one generation to the next in the form of discrete particles of information—“genes.”

The evening train from Vienna to Brno sliced its way through a spectacular landscape of farmlands and vineyards—one scintilla of green blending into another. Brno was a small town with an outsize train station. Formerly a major center of commerce, as the guidebook reminded me, protesting feebly, it had by now largely resigned itself to its fate as a way station between Vienna and Prague. In the lobby of the hotel, the concierge looked at me quizzically when I asked him about Mendel. Most of the other residents of the hotel were Russians attending a conference on oil manufacturing.

The next morning, I walked about a mile downhill from the hotel to the monastery. The building—St. Thomas’s Abbey—is a plaster-and-concrete structure attached to the southern edge of an imposing church. It is as cold as a meat locker and as sparse as a prison. A faded poster of Mendel smiling mysteriously, like a rotund Mona Lisa, hangs on the edge of the boundary walls.

The walled garden in front of the abbey was overgrown and empty. The glass hothouse, where Mendel had artificially pollinated flowers with tiny forceps and a paintbrush, had been dismantled several years earlier. The rectangular plot of land next to the building—a 12-by-6-foot mini-garden where Mendel had grown his peas for his famous experiment—was now planted, incongruously, with rows of red and white gardenias.

An auburn-haired woman was at the front desk.

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Reblog: Resurrecting the Bones of the Past—the LONG Past…Will We See Huge Hairy Beasts Roaming the Earth Once Again? And, If So, Why?

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Photo by Scott Atwood (Flickr).

Let’s Bring the Wooly Mammoth Back from the Dead…?

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they never stopped to consider whether or not they should.” 

– Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) from the film Jurassic Park

Scientists say creating hybrids of the extinct beasts could fix the Arctic tundra and stop greenhouse gas emissions

If you managed to time travel back to Ice-Age Europe, you might be forgiven for thinking you had instead crash landed in some desolate part of the African savannah. But the chilly temperatures and the presence of six-ton shaggy beasts with extremely long tusks would confirm you really were in the Pleistocene epoch, otherwise known as the Ice Age. You’d be visiting the mammoth steppe, an environment that stretched from Spain across Eurasia and the Bering Strait to Canada. It was covered in grass, largely devoid of trees and populated by bison, reindeer, tigers and the eponymous “woolly” mammoth.

Unfortunately, both mammoth and most of the mammoth steppe ecosystem today have long but disappeared. But a group of geneticists from Harvard are hoping to change this by cloning living elephant cells that contain a small component of synthesised mammoth DNA. They claim that reintroducing such mammoth-like creatures to Arctic tundra environments could help stop the release of greenhouse gases from the ground and reduce future emissions as temperatures rise due to climate change. While this might sound like a far-fetched idea, scientists have actually been experimenting with something similar for over 20 years.

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Photo by Gabriel Casamasso.

Arctic lands are covered by areas of ground known as permafrost that have been frozen since the Pleistocene. Permafrost contains vast amounts of carbon from dead plant life that is locked away by the extremely cold temperatures. The amount of carbon in these frozen stores is estimated to be about twice as much as that currently in the atmosphere. If it thaws out, microbes will break down soil organic material to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

As a result, permafrost and the associated carbon pools have been likened to “sleeping giants” in our climate system. If they wake up, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions would raise global temperatures even further than currently projected, causing even greater global climate change (a process known as positive feedback).

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