Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!
My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.
But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall
or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.
“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”
To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:
“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”
OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:
“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”
We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.
In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.
In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.
“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”
Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.
“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?”
I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.
“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”
Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.
“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”
Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.
But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.
There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.
Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.
They mini Mt. Fujis were really quite arresting in their symmetry among the gentle anarchy of the forests.
A closer look at them told us that these were ant nests; there were columns of ants radiating out from them into the surrounding undergrowth and their surfaces were pullulating with ants.
A bit like the statues of John of Nepomuk that I have written about earlier, once we noticed one nest we began noticing them everywhere we went on our subsequent walks. We always came across them in wooded areas, mostly among conifers or mixed woodland. Sometimes the nests were modest mounds, at other times they were really quite large.
A little surfing of the web has taught me that these nests belong to wood ants, of which there are some 32 species distributed in the colder reaches of the northern hemisphere: 13 in the Eurasian continent, spread all the way from Japan to Ireland, and 19 in North America. My favourite of all these species has to be Formica lugubris, the lugubrious ant. I wonder what its namer had in mind when they came up with that name. This particular species seems no more lugubrious than any of the others. I throw in a close-up of another species, Formica rufa.
I must confess to putting in this close-up photo simply to gross out my wife, like I did with close-ups of crickets and dragon flies in earlier posts (so childish of me …). However, the first of these photos also allows me to point out the ants’ black and red colouring – although I must confess not to have noticed this colouring scheme when inspecting the ants milling about on top of the nests.
Coming back to Formica lugubris, I have to say if I were a wood ant I think I would feel pretty lugubrious. The great majority of the ants are – female – worker ants. They spend their whole short lives (a couple of months) looking after the queens and their babies (or grubs, to give them their more scientific name), feeding them, moving them from one good spot in the nest to another, watching over them as they finally pupate and metamorphose into adult ants, and generally fussing over everyone; marching off into the surrounding forest to collect food; building up the nest, mending its thatch (more on that in a minute) … and all this and more with hardly a moment’s rest (a power nap from time to time is all they get). No wonder they croak after a few months! As for the few males, they are of course completely feckless, doing bugger-all to maintain the nest or feed the kids (typical …). Mind you, they have even shorter lives than worker ants – a couple of weeks. They have only one role in life, which is to impregnate the queens. This they do with savage abandon, with these mating rites becoming a huge free-for-all. Once that is over, they expire – if they haven’t already become lunch for birds and other predators who hang around during the mating rites and pick them off. As for the even fewer queens, they only need to go through the mating rite once in their much longer lives (they can live up to 15 years or so); the sperm they so collect lasts them a lifetime. Thereafter, they bunk down in the nests, and spend the rest of their lives begetting children and sleeping. What a life, for all of them!
Of course, to think of ants in human terms is very silly: ants are ants, humans are humans. But this tendency of projecting human foibles onto animals has a very honourable history. Take the French poet Jean de La Fontaine, for instance. He wrote many animal-centered poems whose point was to skewer human weaknesses and stupidities. One of his best-known poems is La Cigale et la Fourmi, the Cricket and the Ant:
La Cigale, ayant chanté
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue
The point of the poem is that the cricket spent the whole summer singing the days away while the ant industriously spent it collecting food to see it through the winter.
Come autumn, the cricket comes piteously to the ant, asking it to give it some food, and the ant tells the cricket to bugger off (the moral of the tale for us humans is made clear in this old drawing, by dressing up both cricket and ant in humans’ clothes and having the ant live in a human house).
My French grandmother often quoted the poem in approving tones, making it clear to me that I should be the industrious ant and not the feckless cricket. Personally, I think the story lacks Christian charity, but perhaps in La Fontaine’s day, when most people lived very close to the edge, they simply didn’t have enough to be able to generously share with feckless idiots who had failed to lay in the necessary provisions.
But back to the wood ants.
Let me describe their nests, which are marvels of engineering. First let me insert a cut-away diagram of a nest.
The whole structure is designed to maintain optimum temperature and humidity levels for the grubs and pupae. So, the nests are somewhat flatter on their southern side, to have the sun’s rays hit the nest as directly as possible; the worker ants lay the pine needles and other debris which make up the nest’s thatch in the direction which maximizes the latter’s ability to heat up in the sun’s rays; the nests are often built around a tree stump – the heat given off by the rotting process adds to the nest’s heat; and if that is not enough, worker ants will “sunbathe” on the thatch and when they are nice and hot will go back into the nest and cool down where heat is needed. As for control of dampness, the ants carefully choose sites which are not damp in the first place. Then the same thatch will act as thatch on a human house, keeping out the rain. Since the bottom of the nest, which is in the ground, tends to be damper the worker ants will carry damp material from the lower floors to the upper floors to even out dampness differences.
These wonderful nests have attracted a number of hangers-on. Some are useful, like the worm Dendrodrilus rubidus, for instance. It gets (steals?) food in the nest but it keeps moulds and fungi in check. So it pays for its keep, as it were. Others are not, like several species of beetles, which spend their larval stage in wood ant nests. Most are just a nuisance, eating plant food they find there. Several species of beetle, though, are real little bastards. They eat the pupae, and to avoid being killed by the ants they produce chemicals which disguise their presence. Some of these little buggers go so far as to secrete a scent which the ants can’t resist. The poor ants then allow the beetle to roam freely about the nest unharmed. Little shits … In the case of other species, it’s not clear if they play a role – bad or good – in the nests. There’s the tiny shining guest ant, for instance. It has its own tiny nests and tiny broods in the wood ants’ nests. If a queen and a bunch of worker ants take off to set up a new test, a bunch of shining guest ants will go with them. But when the going gets tough – when conditions in the nest deteriorate – the shining guest ants get going: “hasta la vista, baby, been nice knowin’ ya!” And then there’s a species of woodlouse which has been cohabiting with wood ants in the dark chambers of their nests for so long that it has lost its eyes and colouring (I remember reading about the same thing happening to some species of fish which were discovered living in completely dark caverns off the coast of Mexico somewhere).
As I said, if you look at a nest you’ll see columns of ants marching off to forage – and marching back with what they’ve foraged. Wood ants play an incredibly important role in keeping in check certain species which are bad for the health of the trees – more on this in a minute. But they actually get most of their food from stroking the bums of aphids. This is an absolutely fascinating relationship, probably the only known example of farming by a species other than humans.
Aphids feed by sucking the sap from trees and shrubs. They extract what they need from the sap and excrete the rest as “honeydew” – the name gives one an idea of the taste of this stuff, which is packed with sugars, acids, salts and vitamins. Wood ants love this stuff, and it makes up the major portion of their diet. Over time, wood ants and aphids have developed a symbiotic relationship. Wood ants look after the aphids; they protect them from predators and they move them around to places with more or better sap.
In return, aphids will excrete their honeydew when gently stroked by the ants. It’s hard not to think of human beings and their cows when you read about this relationship.
The ants will fill themselves up with the honeydew, march back to the nest, disgorge it and feed it to the queens and grubs.
One reads lurid stories about ants biting and stinging people. Wood ants can certainly bite – they have the necessary mandibles – but they also have a secret chemical weapon. They keep a store of formic acid in their gaster (that bulbous end section of theirs), which they can spray at attackers or prey.
As the photo shows, they can shoot our their formic acid over quite a considerable distance, relatively speaking. If they were my size, they would be squirting formic acid over a distance of 20 metres – not half bad! As you can imagine, a concerted attack like the one in the photo would be enough to keep most predators away. But some birds have figured out how to turn this spray of formic acid to their advantage. They alight close to the nest, and use the resulting formic acid shower as a way of killing off parasites which they’ve picked up. This European Jay, for instance, is having its formic acid spray-over and seems to be quite enjoying the experience.
Of course, formic acid gets its name from the Latin name for the ant, formica. Formic acid was discovered by one John Ray, an English naturalist, in 1671. He obtained the acid by getting hold of a large number of wood ants, crushing them, and distilling off the acid from the resulting mess. Poor ants! sacrificed to the advancement of science. Here is the painting of the man about to do something awful to a foxglove.
I’m sure myrmecologists (which I have learned is what experts in ants are called) would find a thousand and one other things which are fascinating about the wood ant. But I’ll stop here. There is one final thought, though, which I want to leave with my readers because it goes close to the work I’ve been doing these last forty years.
The fate of wood ants is a great example of human beings thinking they are very clever and know everything when in fact they know very little. This is particularly true of the workings of the natural world. Thus, in the case of wood ants, people didn’t realize that they probably play a key role in the health of forests. I say “probably” because actually we don’t know all that much about the life and times of wood ants, so it’s difficult to judge their true role in forest health. Nevertheless, they certainly seem to keep down the populations of insects which would otherwise attack trees, like caterpillars of moths such as the pine looper and sawfly. Their farming of sap-sucking aphids also appears to affect tree growth. They help in distributing the seeds of plants. They of course provide food to a whole suite of animals. Yet we have thoughtlessly – and ignorantly – been destroying their habitat. As a result, wood ants are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, although thankfully at the milder end of that List. Some species are already extinct locally – the black-backed meadow ant, for instance, is extinct in the UK since 1988. Not only is it really troubling that these ants could be facing extinction (“extinction is forever”), but foresters are also finding that the health of forests has been impacted as a result of the drops in ant population. In this day and age, when we desperately need every tree we have to combat climate change, that is truly worrying. In fact, efforts are now underway to protect these ants and get them to help us protect our forests. I can only hope for the best.
Milan, 14 June 2020
Revised in Vienna, 20 October 2020
In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.
“These” are woodland strawberries (but see the Postscript at the end). I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.
The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.
Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.
Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?
Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.
The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.
But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry
and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.
It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.
Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.
These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.
When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.
While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.
The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!
The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.
So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.
His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:
They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.
Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!
Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.
Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.
But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.
And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.
An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).
And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.
And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.
A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.
As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …
POSTSCRIPT 20 October 2020
A sharp-eyed, and knowledgeable, reader recently informed me that I had made a fundamental mistake when I thought that the little red fruits I was seeing on those hikes with my wife were woodland strawberries. Actually, he kindly told me, they were false strawberries (or mock strawberries), Potentilla indica. The fruits look like the Real McCoy, the leaves look like the Real McCoy, but it ain’t the Real McCoy! After a moment of indignation against this plant masquerading as another, I actually felt relieved. I wrote above that the fruits which I had tasted were bland tasting. Actually, eating them was like eating paper filled with sand (the keen-eyed reader felt it was like eating styrofoam; the few times I’ve bitten into styrofoam makes me think that that taste is quite nice compared to what I was tasting). I kept on wondering how our ancestors could ever have thought they were nice to eat. Now I know that what they were eating – the Real Mccoy – probably tastes quite nice, and I look forward to coming across some in next year’s hikes.
This discovery that what I had been looking at was actually Potentilla indica led me of course to do my usual (Wikipedia-based) research. Which in turn led me to discover that this false-friend is actually native to southern and eastern Asia. Another invasive species! Any faithful reader of mine will know that this has been a topic on which I’ve written several posts over the years. If any of my readers happen to live in Minnesota, they should be aware of the fact that that State’s Department of Natural Resources invites people to report this plant (and any other invasive species) to the authorities. I’m not sure if Italy has any such reporting system, but if it does I will be sure to report any more patches of this fake strawberry which I come across to the right authorities, and will gladly help them in uprooting the little bastards.
My wife and I were in Bolzano two weeks ago. For readers who are not familiar with Italy’s geography, that’s the main city of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. This is a mainly German-speaking region of Italy in the Alps, wedged up against Austria.
Italians call it Alto Adige but many of its inhabitants call it South Tyrol, it having been part of the County of Tyrol since time immemorial; it was only prised away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and given to Italy after the former collapsed at the end of the First World War. Over the last hundred years this fateful decision has led to much agitation, repression by the Italian State, and consequent acts of terrorism, although all the brouhaha has pretty much died down by now.
Fascinating as it is, the region’s history was not what brought us to Bolzano. It was Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in a glacier high up in the Ötzal Alps (hence the mummy’s nickname) nearly thirty years ago. Ever since a museum dedicated to him opened in Bolzano in 1998, I have been hankering to visit it. Our planned hiking trip to the valley next door (which will be the subject of my next post) gave me my chance to drop by Bolzano to look over Ötzi, and my wife – although not an Ötzi fan like me – was willing to come along.
Some words of introduction. Ötzi was discovered in September 1991 by a German couple who were hiking up in the Ötzal Alps. They were crossing the Tisenjoch Pass (Giogo di Tisa in Italian), where a small glacier is located. Climate change and a particularly hot summer had led to much shrinkage in the glacier and the couple spotted a body poking out through the ice.
They reported the matter to the owners of a mountain hut close by, who in turn reported it to the authorities – the initial assumption was that it must be the body of someone who had perished on a climb or hike. The man – as he turned out to be – died very close to the Italian-Austrian border. Initially, it was thought that the body’s location was in Austria and he was therefore taken down to Innsbruck (capital of the Austrian province of [northern] Tyrol) for examination. Later, after some careful measurements were made, it was concluded that he had actually been found within Italy, some 95 metres south of the border.
Under normal circumstances, if it had just been some poor bastard who had died on a hike or climb, this problem of which country he had actually been recovered in would not have been such a big deal. But it rapidly became apparent that the mummy was actually very, very old; it has since been calculated that Ötzi is some 5,000 years old. At that point, everyone began to see the dollar (or euro) signs
and the question about which country “owned” the mummy became vitally important. Luckily for the rest of the world, the issue was resolved by people who were actually “cousins”, whatever modern borders might say. The Governors of (Italian) Alto Adige/South Tyrol and (Austrian) Tyrol sat down around a table and (in German) hammered out an agreement. The scientists at Innsbruck (who were much better equipped anyway to study such an ancient mummy) would take the lead on all the scientific studies while the authorities in Bolzano would prepare the museum to house it. And so it was. In 1998, Ötzi was solemnly brought back from Innsbruck to his new home in Bolzano.
While all this had been going on, and in fact ever since Ötzi has been back in Bolzano, scientists from a multitude of disciplines have been busily at work on Ötzi as well as on all the things he was wearing or carrying. I have to say, these scientists seem to have squeezed poor old Ötzi and the tattered remnants of his clothes and equipment like a lemon; squeezed him so hard that his pips have squeaked as they say. But they have come up with an astonishing amount of information. Let me start, though, with a scientific work of art: a statue of what scientists believe Ötzi looked like, which now stands at the very end of the museum tour.
This work is scientific in that it has used the latest technology to measure Ötzi very precisely, to rebuild his bones, to cover those bones with muscles and skin, and then cover those with reconstitutions of his leggings and his shoes; it is artistic in that its creators have made Ötzi look incredibly human. They have given him an expression of someone you might just have met on the street and who is not completely sure who you are.
A few words about what we would have noticed about Ötzi if we had met him 5,000 years ago just before he died. He was about 160 cm (5 ft 3 in) tall (small by today’s standards, perhaps big by the standards of the day). His shoe size would have been an EU 38 (I will let readers translate that into whatever shoe size system they are familiar with; they can use this site, for instance, to do this). He weighed about 50 kilos (110 lbs), nicely within his BMI. He had brown eyes. He had dark hair. He was gap-toothed. His teeth in general were not in particularly good condition, badly worn down and with cavities (probably due to a diet based on heavily processed grains). As to his age when he died: about 45 – young by today’s standards, old by the standards of his time; the makers of the statue have made him look weatherbeaten, which he probably was. And he was tattooed; in all, he carried 61 tattoos on his body! This photo of the rear of the statue shows where he had some of them on his back.
As readers can see, they are not really decorative tattoos. From where they are found on Ötzi’s body, scientists believe that they probably had a therapeutic function; they were a way for Ötzi to deal with the aches and pains in his joints, an early form of acupuncture, especially since the tattoos are located along acupuncture lines still used today. For instance, scientists can see that his knee joints were well worn; I’m sure his knees ached as a result (something I can deeply sympathize with given the current state of my knees). So he had a good number of tattoos around his knees; I generally disapprove of tattoos but maybe I should try these kinds of tattoos around my knees …
From their high-tech prodding and probing, scientists have also discovered a number of things about Ötzi which you can’t see. The poor man had been sick several times in the last six months of his life; scientists can tell this from the Beau’s lines on his three remaining nails which they found (any readers who are doctors will no doubt understand this; it’s gibberish to me). He had worms – whipworms to be precise. This would have given him frequent bouts of painful diarrhea. He also had Lyme disease, while his clothes carried fleas. He had broken several ribs and his nose some time during his lifetime. His blood group was O positive. He was lactose intolerant. By rights, we should all be; it’s the “natural” default position for us humans in adulthood. But in Europe our herding culture and its dependence on milk products led to some of us eventually becoming lactose tolerant through a genetic mutation. Talking of mutations, Ötzi carried a rare genetic trait which meant that he was missing two ribs. His DNA links him to small populations of people living in remote parts of Sardinia and Corsica: testimony to his being part of the earlier populations of Europe which were later pushed aside by later immigrants.
It’s not just the man who has been thoroughly investigated, it’s also his clothes and equipment. What mainly transpires for me was that in today’s language, Ötzi was a completely sustainable guy. He relied heavily on animal hides for all his needs; scientists have identified bear skin, deer skin, goat skin. These were used not only for his clothes but also parts of his equipment (fascinating factoid: at least one of the hides which he used was tanned with bear brains and fat; better than the human carcinogen Chromium VI which is almost universally used nowadays). Animal sinews were used to sew the pieces of hide together (I’m no expert on sewing, but for those who are interested there are sites, e.g., this one, which explain the kind of sewing that was used). Grasses of various kinds were used to both make twine and as a thermal stuffing. Here is a close-up of the reconstituted leggings and shoes on the statue of Ötzi
while this photo shows the coat he was wearing – scientists think that the dark-pale-dark look was not serendipitous; it was a statement of some sort.
I’ll skip the weapons Ötzi was carrying except for one – his axe – which I will come back to in a minute. I find more fascinating the stuff he was carrying to make himself a fire: a fungus called tinder fungus. I’ve diligently read explanations of how to light a fire with a flint and some tinder fungus. It sounds easy, but I very much doubt it is. Unfortunately, making fires without matches is something they never taught me to do in the Scouts, and I am always fascinated by the apparent magic of people making fire from nothing. In such situations, I always think of Tom Hanks in the film Cast Away when he managed to start his first fire without matches: I can empathize with his sense of triumph at having cracked this problem.
And so we come to the great mystery of Ötzi’s death, the first murder that we know of. For it was murder: scientists discovered that an arrow had penetrated Ötzi just below his left shoulder. Someone shot him from behind. The arrowhead sliced through his subclavian artery, so medics have concluded that he would have bled out quite quickly. We can surmise that he dropped face down on his left arm (which was the position the mummy was found in) and died. From the depth of penetration, scientists estimate that the arrow was shot from 30 m (or 100 ft) away. That sounds to me like a pretty lucky shot. But then I’ve never tried killing anyone with a bow and arrow; maybe 30 m is no big deal for someone who is adept at using a bow and arrow. The fatal arrowhead is still in the mummy, but there was no sign of the arrow shaft, from which the scientists conclude that Ötzi’s killer pulled it out.
And now to the big question: Why? Why was Ötzi killed? Towards the end of the museum tour, visitors are invited to write down and submit their own theory about the reasons surrounding Ötzi’s death. My wife and I have been watching a lot of episodes from the British TV show Inspector Morse recently, whom we see here with his faithful sidekick Sergeant Lewis.
So I decided that this was an excellent opportunity to Think like Morse. Having sieved through the available facts, I have come up with the following story line:
A day or so before his death, Ötzi was involved in a vicious fracas with someone. We know this because scientists discovered a very deep cut between his thumb and forefinger as well as other cuts on his hands. These are typical of someone trying to protect themselves during a close-in fight involving weapons with a cutting edge, a knife attack for instance. I surmise that he successfully defended himself and in the process killed his assailant.
What was this deadly fracas about? “Cherchez la femme”, that’s what I say! As I already mentioned, Ötzi’s knee joints were well worn, indicating a lifestyle that required a lot of walking. This has led some scientists to suggest that he was a shepherd and so spent much of his time moving his flocks around the area’s Alpine pastures. I’m not convinced. The reason for that is his axe. The axe has a copper head; at the time of his death, this would have been a very rare, and therefore very valuable, item: until it was found it was thought that the Age of Metals had not yet started in Italy. So I conclude that he must have been a VIP of some sort. That in itself is not important to his murder, I believe. What is important is that his position required a lot of time away from home walking the mountains. My guess is that he returned home unexpectedly to find his wife canoodling with another man – or maybe his daughter. He got into a fight with the man and killed him. In the language of our time, it was an honour killing.
What next? There has been speculation that Ötzi was escaping when he was killed. That certainly could fit my story; it is not unusual in cases of honour killing for the murderer to quickly go into hiding until passions have subsided. But Ötzi doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry on his last journey. Scientists can tell that Ötzi’s deep cut to his hand occurred a day or so before his death, so he clearly hung around for a while before leaving. They also have figured out that he had quite a heavy meal about an hour before he died: not the behaviour one would expect from a man on the run. So I surmise that after putting his house in order Ötzi headed out again calmly, without a sense that his life was in danger. How wrong he was!
In my scenario, the family of the man he killed vowed revenge. I also posit that they didn’t live in the same village as Ötzi, so it took a while for the news to reach them, which explains why there wasn’t an immediate reaction. I also think that they couldn’t be too open about wanting revenge because of Ötzi’s VIP position. So they hurried over in secret, discovered that he had already left, and hurried after him. They caught up with him at the Pass. Maybe he saw them coming, realized what was happening, and started running, which would explain the decision to take a long bow shot before he disappeared over the horizon. After checking he was dead and pulling out the arrow shaft from where it was buried below his left shoulder, Ötzi’s killers then hurried back to their village, leaving him where he fell. If Ötzi was always traveling, it could have been a while before his family realized something was wrong, by which time early summer snows had already covered the body and hidden it from view – and started the long, slow process of mummification (by the way, scientists know it was early summer when he died because of the types of pollen that he swallowed with his last meal: such clever fellows, these scientists …).
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, my theory on Ötzi’s untimely death! If you are not convinced, I suggest you find time one day to visit his museum in Bolzano to come up with your own theories. Or you can just read the wealth of stuff on the net about it all – Ötzi has created a veritable cottage industry around his life and death.
Whatever you do, though, spare a thought for poor old Ötzi, who is now hardly visible anymore in his own museum, lying as he is in a specially-created cold cell recreating the conditions he lay in for 5,000 years in the Tisenjoch Glacier, visible only through a small window.
Like most children who have spent holidays on a beach somewhere, both my wife and I have memories of playing in sand dunes, I in Norfolk
she along Italy’s Adriatic coast.
Then, after we met and started traveling the world we visited a number of large-scale sand dune systems, far away from any sea. The first we saw, at the start of our lives together, were the sand dunes of Death Valley.
On a business trip a few years ago, I visited the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia which are remorselessly engulfing farmland; I commented on these in an earlier post.
And then there were the sand dunes of Namibia, which we visited one Christmas some ten years ago with our children.
The most awesome of these dunes were a dull red, with the biggest towering over us.
But the blindingly white dunes of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which we visited last week with our daughter and her boyfriend, are in a class of their own. The eerie beauty of these dunes has led better photographers than I to surpass themselves, and I have shamelessly pinched some of the best of their photos to insert here.
We walked in a big circle, from dune crest to dune crest, marveling at the vistas before us of undulating whiteness, all the way, so it seemed, to the surrounding mountain ranges.
I’ve been careful not to refer to these dunes as sand dunes, because they are not sand as we normally understand that term, that is to say silicate. These are dunes of gypsum (calcium sulphate to the chemically inclined of my readers).
In the morning, we had visited Lake Lucero, which lies to the southwest of the dunes. It is an evanescent lake; it appears during the rainy season in late summer and is gone by the time the windy season in the spring rolls around. When we visited it, there was no sign of any water.
Here we could see how the gypsum “sand” had been created. It all started 24,000 years ago, when a new ice age started and the climate in this corner of New Mexico began to be much wetter than it is today. For nigh on 14,000 years frequent rains lashed the nearby San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges. The rainwater nibbled away at strata of gypsum which had been exposed by the mountains’ uplifting, and streams carried the dissolved gypsum into a lake at the foot of the mountains. This lake has been named Lake Otero. The lake had no exit, so it grew in size until the water evaporating balanced the stream water entering. But the gypsum (and other salts) carried into the lake remained and slowly concentrated. Then, some 10,000 years ago, the ice age came to an end, and the climate here became dryer. Less rainwater fell on the mountains, streams got smaller or disappeared, and Lake Otero began to shrink. As it shrunk, the dissolved gypsum became ever more concentrated until finally the lake water was saturated. The gypsum started precipitating out of the lake water, forming huge crystals of selenite in the process, which then settled onto the lake’s bed. This picture shows a very pure crystal of selenite, which is colourless.
But during our ramble along the shores of Lake Lucero we saw selenite crystals in their more natural state, jutting out of the ground. They were various shades of brown; other substances that were present in the lake water have colored the crystals.
And still Lake Otero kept shrinking, until nothing but Lake Lucero – sometimes there, often not – was left.
With the climate change of 10,000 years ago came strong winds. For the last 10,000 years they have been scouring the alkaline flats left bare when Lake Otero disappeared. They first carried away the thin crust of clay and fine particles, which exposed the selenite. Freezing and thawing cycles went to work on the crystals, breaking them along their weakest plane. The process continues to this day. We saw these crystals of selenite down at Lake Lucero being slowly split open.
The shores of Lake Lucero are littered with fragments of selenite crystals, broken up by wind, frost and heat.
On and on went the work of breaking down the crystals until they had become flakes light enough to be carried along by the prevailing southwesterly winds. As the flakes bowled along over the alkaline flats, tumbling over and over, they cracked and crumbled further until only small sand-like grains were left.
The winds have pushed the grains up into the dunes that we see today. And all that tumbling has so scratched and scarred and pitted the surface of the grains that they reflect back sunlight in all its wavelengths so that we see them as intensely white.
Unbeknownst to us, my wife and I have been living with selenite around us in the apartment in Milan, although in this case in the form of desert roses.
My mother-in-law picked them up in Algeria, where she visited some of the oases south of the Atlas Mountains and walked the dunes of the Saharan desert, like these at the Biskra oasis.
Another dune system for my wife and I to visit – once Isis no longer roams the Sahara desert, kidnapping and beheading hapless tourists.
There was a time, not that long ago it seems to me, when we did not have all these electronic gizmos lying around the house. Now we suffocate in them. Between the two of us, my wife and I have two phones, one smart and one not smart at all, two tablets, one portable computer, one thingy that gives my wife her wifi (I use my phone’s hot spot), one power pack, one flat-screen TV, and one radio-cum-CD player. I’ll also throw in our two electric toothbrushes. I’m sure we are quite modest in our e-outlay. For instance, neither of us has ever had an iPod or equivalent blasting music in our ears through those tiny ear phones which are squeezed into your ears and guaranteed to make them ache after five minutes (mine certainly do). Nor have we ever had a game console with which to pulverize, mutilate, and generally annihilate the human race. Nevertheless, even with this very modest e-inventory, we suffer from a terrible problems: wires.
The biggest problem with all these e-products is that their batteries need recharging. So our living room floor is festooned with electric wires snaking this way and that, plugged into every available socket. In fact, since we don’t have that many sockets, we have to use several power strips, which add more wires to the confusion. And the worst of is that, since all these damned products seem to need recharging all the damned time, we drag a handful of wires and one or two power strips behind us when we move from the table to the couch.
I have to say, when I’m dragging my wires and their attached e-products around I feel like Marley’s ghost when he comes to frighten the bejeezus out of Scrooge on Christmas Eve.
“The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar. … The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door. … “It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.” His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. … The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; … The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Well, as you might imagine, I am not the only one to be irritated by this bloody nuisance of wires. Some of my readers may well feel the same wire-induced irritation. And of course the private sector, ever alert to new markets, has moved in. Companies have designed wireless chargers, which use induction coils to produce an electromagnetic field, which in turn can charge batteries. Don’t ask me anything more; I never understood electro stuff. Luckily, these new products can look pretty cool
although I do note that while there may be no wire between charger and e-product, there must be a wire between charger and wall socket – otherwise, how does it get the electricity which it so generously passes to the mobile, tablet, or what have you?
So other companies have come up with the idea of inserting the wireless charger into products which already have wires. Clever, no? For instance, take my favourite furniture shop, IKEA. “Our range of wireless chargers blend in beautifully with your home” their catalogue proclaims, “and can be placed where you need them the most. All without having to chase after outlets or hide messy cables.” Words after my heart! See, for instance, this clever lamp, which has a charger built into its base. And which has won some design award to boot.
IKEA has various other lamps as well as what I take to be bedside tables with these built-in chargers.
In case my readers suspect me of having shares in IKEA, I hastily add that there are many other furniture companies out there offering similar solutions. My crystal ball tells me that this is the future.
But then there is one thing that’s worrying me. Aren’t all these wireless chargers using the same technology as microwave ovens? Like I said, I don’t understand all this electro stuff, but it seems to me to be more or less the same. In which case, a houseful of wireless chargers will slowly be cooking us. My phone is already cooking my brain.
My wife and I have just seen the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity”. For those of my readers who are not up on the latest offerings from Hollywood, this is a film about two real-life mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant, self-taught, Indian mathematician from Tamil Nadu, and G.H. Hardy, a great English mathematician, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. I will not bore readers with a summary of the plot or my analysis of the story. My point is, it’s a story about mathematicians who love mathematics. The film is full of allusions to the beauty of mathematics, and indeed Hardy is known to the general public (if known at all) for a book he wrote on the beauty of mathematics, A Mathematician’s Apology.
The beauty of mathematics …
Neither my wife nor I are good at maths. In fact, we stink. And as can be readily imagined, we both have bad memories of maths at school. My wife still talks with dread about her last maths teacher, Mrs. Poggi. She was, according to my wife’s recounting, old, single, small, and very, very mean. She had an uncanny ability to know when my wife didn’t understand what was going on, and with a loud voice would command her to stand up and explain.
For my part, the name of my maths nemesis is now mercifully expunged from my memory. All I remember is having been moved up two classes in primary school, and finding myself going from arithmetic to geometry. There I was, staring helplessly at a triangle while my nemesis was flaying me verbally in front of the whole class, saying it was obvious that a squared plus b squared equaled c squared.
(There was also, later, the ex-colonel, who used to fling pieces of chalk at those who, like me, failed to comprehend the mathematical complexities on the board quickly enough. His name I remember: Colonel Yule)
My wife never recovered from her run-ins with maths. Even now, she begins to get nervous whenever even simple arithmetic operations are required – although she has a much better grasp of numbers in the real world than I do; she instinctively knows what the price of anything should be, whereas I have no idea: 1 euro, 10 euros for a bag of tomatoes? don’t know. For my part, I was partially salvaged in secondary school by the kindly Fr. George (my secondary school was a religious school). Fr. George took the class of the maths duds, the maths brain-dead. His job was to get us to pass Maths O-level – minimum pass was all that was required. His method was simple: to do exercises again and again, until the fear of the mathematical operation in question had passed. (he also gave very sensible advice like write your name on the answer sheet before starting, to calm your nerves, remember to turn over the exam paper to see all the questions before you start, and don’t do the questions in order – start with the questions you know you can answer). His recipe worked for me; I passed with minimum grade. (I thought I was done with maths at that point; alas not! I wanted to do science, and maths comes with science. So I struggled on with maths all the way to first year in University).
With this baggage, it’s not surprising that neither my wife nor I see any beauty in mathematics. I suppose towards the last years of my interactions with maths I faintly saw the possibilities of beauty, when the complexities which started at the top of the blackboard would resolve themselves neatly, and indeed beautifully, by the bottom of the board, but that was as near as I ever got.
I suppose, like Moses before the Promised Land, we are told that there lies before us a land flowing with milk and honey but we know we will never enter it. That will be left to the likes of Ramanujan and Hardy to enjoy.
Well, you can’t have everything in life.
It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.
As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.
The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).
All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:
Powder blue surgeonfish Rainbow parrotfish
The wonderfully named Moorish idol
Melon butterfly fish
Blue lined grouper
We saw other denizens of the reefs too:
A powder-blue starfish
The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish
Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath
And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating
those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.
I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.
But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record. But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.
One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.
After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”
One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.
One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.
We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?
I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.
Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, 1066 And All That: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.
Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse
while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.
The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.
In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!
But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.
This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.
The price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.
The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.
Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.
But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.
Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.
Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.
It must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.
In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.
Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.
At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).
But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.
Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.
So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.
Who hasn’t heard of the theory of relativity? I mean, everyone has, right? Apart maybe from some Amazonian tribes who’ve only just been discovered.
And of course everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, who came up with the theory in the first place.
OK, this photo may suggest that Einstein was not a very serious fellow, so let’s throw in a more solemn photo of him, taken a year before he published the special theory of relativity in 1905.
(as we all undoubtedly know, this is the first of two theories of relativity; Albert published the general theory of relativity in 1916).
1905, by the way, was Einstein’s annus mirabilis. His paper on the special theory of relativity was one of four seminal papers he published that year in the highly respected Annalen der Physik; the other three were on the photoelectric effect, on Brownian motion, and on mass-energy equivalence (you know, E=mc2, that one). He was one hell of clever guy, no doubt about it. No wonder he got the Nobel prize! Should have got two, if you ask me.
Anyhoo, the special theory of relativity, known as STR to conoscenti like me, has two very interesting predictions: the faster you go, the smaller you get and the slower time passes. So you get squeezed tighter and tighter slower and slower. And the amazing thing is, you wouldn’t notice you’re getting all squished and that your Rolex is running slower! To you, everything looks completely normal. Like I said, Einstein was a pretty amazing guy.
Well, of course science fiction writers latched onto the second of these predictions – so-called time dilation to conoscenti like me – like that leach latched onto my leg many decades ago. For instance, they have imagined some poor married astronaut going off on an interstellar journey, travelling at near the speed of light for a couple of years and then coming back, also at near the speed of light, TO FIND HIS WIFE AN OLD CRONE! At his super speed, he has only aged a few years, but his wife, traveling at the Earth’s much slower pace, has aged decades. Amazing thought, no? This plot line was the basis of the original “Planet of the Apes” movie of 1968 (no doubt only old fuddy-duddies like me even remember that there was such a movie). The astronaut hero, Charlton Heston, has been on super-fast intergalactic travel and crashes onto a planet, which he discovers is run by apes.
Only at the end of the movie, after many super exciting adventures, does he realize that the planet is actually Earth, hundreds of years after he had left it.
In the real world, it took a while for clever scientists to design experiments to test Einstein’s predictions. Time dilation was only proved for the first time in 1938, by two fellows at Harvard. To be honest, their experiment was so clever that I don’t understand it. I understand much better an experiment carried out down the road, at MIT, in 1963, which involved measuring the number of muons whizzing by at the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and the amount whizzing into MIT’s campus. You see, as muons rain down from the outer layers of the atmosphere, where they are created, they decay, like uranium atoms, and clever scientists know the speed with which they decay.
So if you measure the muon whizz-by rate at the top of the mountain as well as the number of muons so whizzing, and if you know the muon decay rate as well as the difference in height between Mt. Washington and the MIT campus, then you can calculate how many muons should have decayed away before reaching said campus, and you can compare that to the actual number you measure whizzing into your lab on campus. And you would find many more arriving than you calculated! BUT, if you now went back to the blackboard
(or whiteboard in this day and age) and factored in Einstein’s time dilation effects, then the difference between what you calculated and what you measured would pretty much disappear. Because, you see, while you, the clever scientist in your MIT lab, was saying “well, it should take one millisecond for a muon to go from the height of Mt. Washington to the height of my lab”, the muon, speeding along at something near the speed of light, would glance at its Rolex and say “hang on a millisec, it only took me one microsecond to get here, so I ain’t decayed yet.” Clever, no?
Of course, all these experiments cost a lot of money. I have just discovered a much cheaper experiment proving the time dilation effect, although admittedly it takes a good deal longer to carry out. It came to me in a flash a few days ago. I saw a shop, which proudly proclaimed that it had been established in 1975. “Pah!”, I said “that’s just yesterday”. But then I thought, “Hang on. If in 1975 I had seen a shop proclaiming that it had been established in 1935, I would have said, ‘Wow, that’s a long time ago!'”. Which proves time dilation incontrovertibly: as each of us moves faster and faster through life towards the grave, time past seems to go by slower and slower. QED, as Einstein would have said in his heavy German accent.
I wonder if I can get this proof published in Nature?