Tuesday, June 13, 2017

An Ode to Purple

Jacarandas on Stansbury Street in LA, photo by Nurit Katz
People often joke that California, especially Southern California, has no seasons. But of course it does. There's the dry season and the less-dry season; or, if you like, smoggy and less-smoggy. My favorite, though, has always been jacaranda season.

As a child in LA, I would ask my mother to drive me to the streets that were most full of blooming jacarandas*, and I would run up and down the sidewalk, collecting freshly fallen flowers. I nested them carefully one inside another, building chains and towers of purple. Jacarandas might well be the reason purple is my favorite color.

I used to make plans for how purple my house would be when I grew up. The walls would be painted purple, obviously, inside and out. And the yard would be planted with lavender, lilies of the Nile, and jacaranda trees.

Stacking jacaranda blossoms is harder with big fat grownup fingers.
Jacaranda season came to LA last month, and a friend of mine posted her beautiful photos of the bloom along with a link to an LAist article, summarizing the city's history with this iconic tree.

I was delighted to learn than in 2010, there were one hundred and forty-eight thousand, five hundred and thirty jacaranda trees in Los Angeles. We don't have nearly as many in my current northern California neighborhood, and ours didn't flower until this month. However, it seems likely that we owe our half-dozen trees, at least indirectly, to the same horticulturalist who spread jacarandas so far and wide in the south of the state: Kate Sessions.

Though she's been likened to Johnny Appleseed and named the Mother of Balboa Park**, I don't recall ever learning about her before. She is fascinating.

Born in San Francisco to a family that had rushed there in search of gold, she sought her own enrichment through education. At the University of California, Berkeley, she wrote an essay called "The Natural Sciences as a Field for Women's Labor"--which I'm dying to read, and haven't yet been able to track down.

After graduating with a chemistry degree in 1881, Sessions moved to San Diego, where she soon owned a nursery, then a flower shop, growing fields, and more nurseries. She had a knack for finding non-native plants that would thrive in California. Among more than a hundred species she introduced and popularized are the now-ubiquitous bougainvillea (from South America) and bird of paradise (from South Africa), as well as jacaranda (also from South America***).

Kate Sessions, from the San Diego History Center
The ensuing century-plus has witnessed many changes, not least (nor hardly greatest) a shift in our attitude toward the introduction of non-natives. Having experienced the havoc of ornamentals-turned-invasives like kudzu and ice plant, we've grown leery of transplanting exotics and nostalgic for the days before weeds.

So far as I can discern, Sessions herself didn't introduce anything invasive--due perhaps to foresight, perhaps to luck. Other contemporary introductions were less benign. Eucalyptus in California, for example, has become a controversial tree if ever there was one.

During my own scholastic tenure in the natural sciences, I absorbed a good deal of biological sentiment toward the preservation and restoration of native species. When I finally found myself partial owner of a house, my first project was to sheet-mulch the entire lawn and replace it with manzanita, sage, and California lilac. (The latter two just happen to produce brilliant blue-purple flowers.)

And yet I kept the non-native lilies of the Nile that came with the house. How could I uproot them, when I'd dreamed for so long of having my own? In the end, my landscaping choices were not really so different from those of Sessions, who loved and propagated California natives along with her introductions.

Perhaps one day I'll even plant myself a jacaranda tree, and drench my native garden with a rain of purple blossoms.

The author's son, nonplussed by a neighbor's jacaranda carpet.

* Which is, in retrospect, just about the most quintessentially LA thing I can imagine.

** Balboa Park is the enormous beating green heart of San Diego. Have you heard of the San Diego Zoo? It's inside Balboa Park.

*** I've always pronounced the initial consonant of "jacaranda" voicelessly, as in Spanish. The first time I heard someone call them Jack-o-randas, it threw me into an apoplexy. Now I just pretend I didn't hear.

Monday, April 3, 2017


<I'm hungry> said Eats-Fast.

<We don't care> said Has-Ideas and Big-Suckers.

The three giant squid were swimming through the sea as quickly as their jets could carry them, which was not very quickly at all, since they were also dragging the strangest piece of equipment any squid had ever carried: a submersible.

Of course, it wasn't a submersible anymore. Has-Ideas had overhauled its structure completely. The vessel now contained water instead of air, and bore wheels instead of a propeller. If a human suffering from equal parts whimsy and pedantry had seen it, that human might have called it a surfacible.

<I'm lost> said Big-Suckers.

<We don't care> said Has-Ideas and Eats-Fast.

Eats-Fast was lost too, but saw no reason to admit it. She knew that Has-Ideas knew where they were going. An island, Has-Ideas had said, an island made of beautiful rocks and surrounded by cool water. An island where people would catch fish and bring them to you, more than even Eats-Fast could swallow. Her salivary glands fired up and her radula rasped the inside of her beak in anticipation.

No squids had ever crawled out of the ocean before. A few of their distant cousins the octopuses had tried it, roaming from tidepool to tidepool, never staying away from water for long. Their reports filtered down through plankton and tuna, through anglerfish and whales, until even giant squid in the depths of the sea had heard about the unbelievably friendly and accommodating creatures that lived on land.

<I'm scared> said Has-Ideas, slowing down as they reached the shallow water where sunlight illuminated every detail of the squids' color-changing skin. They weren't used to seeing each other in such bright light, so to her companions it looked like Has-Ideas had shouted as loudly as possible: <I'M SCARED>.

<WE DON'T CARE> Eats-Fast and Big-Suckers shouted back cheerfully. They continued to haul the surfacible up the rocky slope, dragging Has-Ideas along with them.

Has-Ideas couldn't help trying new things. As a paralarva, she'd used mucus to create a food-catching umbrella. As a juvenile, she'd constructed a predator deterrent out of sharp fish bones. And as a young adult, the moment she'd seen the broken submersible half-sunk in the mud of the seafloor, she knew it was her destiny to use it on land the way the bony four-armed creatures used it underwater.

But now that she and her friends were only a few feet from the air—now that they were climbing inside the surfacible and sealing the door—now that she was working the machinery to turn the wheels to clatter and splash onto land—now she was terrified. Sure, some humans loved octopuses, and built predator-free homes for them, and fed them delicacies.

Others ate them alive.


(This was all Twitter's fault. Here's how it happened:

And then Topazios absented itself from the story by the time I finished writing. Which is just as well, because no one calls it that anymore.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

That Accursed Rainbow Song

No, not that one; that one's fine. And this version's lovely, of course. I'm talking about the rainbow song that my kid sings in preschool to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star:

Red and orange, green and blue,
Shiny yellow, purple too.
All the colors that we know
Live up in the rainbow.

Let's pass over the metric stumble in the final line. Let's talk about scientific stumbles instead.

Purple is not in the rainbow. "Purple" is what happens when you mix red and blue, and that can't happen in a rainbow because red and blue are on opposite sides. When you break up white light with water or a prism, the colors are organized by wavelength, and while red is the longest wavelength of visible light, blue is on the short end.

In a rainbow, we get to see orange between red and yellow, and we get to see green between yellow and blue. And on the far side of blue, we get to see violet--the shortest wavelength human eyes can detect.

At this point (if not much earlier), some people will probably roll their eyes and state: "You say violet, I say purple; let's call the whole thing off." I'll simply answer that with links to Wikipedia and Quora, so I can go on to the other aspect of the rainbow song that drives me bananas: the colors are out of order.

Every time my daughter draws a rainbow--which is at least twice a day--she sings the song to remind herself how to do it. Thus, as a direct result of the ditty's failure to respect the facts of electromagnetic radiation, our house is full of rainbows that look like this:

Was this entire post an excuse to post my kid's artwork online? WAS IT? I really couldn't say.

Now, I am wholly in favor of free artistic expression. We've been reading Eric Carle's The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse and I would never in a million years tell my kid she drew something "wrong." Still, would there be any harm in amending the song to reflect reality? Hey, maybe I can fix the meter while I'm at it.

Red and orange, yellow and green,
Blue and violet, that we've seen,
All the colors in white light--
A rainbow's such a lovely sight.

I hereby release these lyrics into the public domain. Go ahead and use them in all the schools and playgroups. I ask no royalties, no attribution--only the dissemination of accurate knowledge about optics to our impressionable youth.

N.B. "What about indigo?" demands the righteously indignant reader. "If you're going to be pedantic about purple and violet, how dare you leave one of Newton's seven canonical colors out of your revisionist lyrics?" 

Dear Righteous Reader, at first this troubled me too, but it didn't trouble me quite as much as the nagging feeling that I've never been able to see indigo in the rainbow anyway. 

A bit of research revealed that I'm not the only one. There's a nice 1972 paper in the American Journal of Physics called "Why Did Newton See Indigo in the Spectrum?" and the argument against indigo is summarized cogently in this 2015 article at the National Post.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Wasps: The Only Placental Invertebrate

At one point during my (extended) university years, I attended a campus screening of an insect documentary. Maybe it was Life in the Undergrowth? Probably, because, well, David Attenborough. Anyway, although the show delivered intriguing vignettes about ants, beetles, flies, and many other six-legged beasties, the audience received the overwhelming impression of a single take-home message. In the silence after the credits rolled, one commenter expressed it for all of us:

"F*ck wasps."

Now I'm not usually given to flights of colorful metaphor, but ever since that moment, every time I have learned something new about wasps, that viewer's succinct expression pops into my head.

Wasps are despicable.

Sure, some wasps sting humans, and that doesn't feel good. I know, because in first grade I got a wasp stuck behind one knee in the skirt of my uniform*, and thereby learned that these creatures sting repeatedly.

But stings, however painful, are a mere evolutionary afterthought to the real nightmare of wasps: the ovipositor. A female wasp uses her ovipositor to inject eggs into the living bodies of other animals, where her offspring incubate, hatch, and then assiduously consume their (still-living!) host from the inside out.

Say it with me: EWWWW.

Not all wasp species engage in this "parasitoid" lifestyle. In fact, any wasp that stings almost certainly does not also do the freaky egg-injection thing, because evolution has turned their ovipositors into stingers. In the grand scheme of wasp evolution, oviposition came first; stinging is a recent innovation.

Evolution came up with the sting because of the eggs, though. If Wasp Mom just dropped off her kids at the local caterpillar and flew away, the caterpillar's immune system would go ballistic on the baby wasp intruders. So evolution mixed up a cocktail of chemicals for Mom to inject along with her eggs, a sort of "baby care package" if you will.

This package can include a paralytic venom, which weakens the host so it's easier for the babies to eat. Over time, some of these venomous wasps evolved from parasitoids into simple predators, who paralyze food and carry it back to their babies instead of burying their babies directly in the food. These are the nest-building wasps, and they include the yellowjacket that employed its arsenal on my tender five-year-old popliteal fossa.

I encourage you to delve into the nearly inexhaustible and totally incredible literature about parasitoid wasps (including the "Russian doll warfare" so delightfully named by Carl Zimmer, and the news that parasitoid wasps may be the most speciose group on the planet). No matter how disturbing it gets, you've got to give them this: they know how to take care of their kids.

Despite the tender maternal care, however, these children are not helpless--ahem--parasites. Evolution has gifted Baby Wasp with some fantastically freaky survival techniques as well.

Rather like the embryos of animals that bear live young, wasp embryos develop entirely inside someone else's body. So they don't need a hard shell to protect them from the environment. Heck, they don't even need a soft shell. Nestled in the hemocoel (essentially the bloodstream) of a fellow insect, they're safe from wind and rain and surrounded by nutrition.

All they need is a placenta to absorb it.

Yup, wasps are the only non-mammals known to possess a placenta.** Of course, this doesn't indicate kinship with mammals! Evolution simply solved a similar problem in a similar way. Shortly after Mom Wasp does her business with the ovipositor, the embryo grows a membrane around itself. As Ahmed Sabri and colleagues explain in a 2011 PLoS paper, this membrane then "invades the host tissues . . . and form[s] a placenta like structure able to divert host resources and allowing nutrition and respiration of embryo."

For readers unfamiliar with the workings of the mammalian placenta, the authors draw an explicit parallel: "Such interspecific invasion, at the cellular level, recalls mammal's trophoblasts that anchors maternal uterine wall." I'm sure this could be construed as a contradiction to my "babies are not parasites" thesis (which I did not expect to be nearly as controversial as it apparently is).

As I noted four years ago, I love babies and I love parasites, so what could be more pleasing than these placenta-bearing parasitoid wasps? I'm sorry, Hymenoptera; I take it back. Wasps aren't despicable at all. They're delightful.

* I switched to public school for second grade, so this was my only year of mandatory school uniforms. The wasp incident didn't endear them to me.

** I first learned about these wasps from the unashamedly pro-insect book Planet of the Bugs by Scott Richard Shaw. I hope that I can do cephalopods half the justice that he did insects.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Peculiar Pleasure of Hating Insects

I think we can all agree that mosquitoes suck.

"To hate all but the right folks
is an old established rule!"
- Tom Lehrer, "National Brotherhood Week"

Venerable though it may be, outgroup hate has become unfashionable in progressive circles. We have laws against hate speech, and we have a nasty word for people who hate: bigots. Actually, we have a whole taxonomy of unpleasant names, from racists and misogynists to antisemites and homophobes.

We're more accepting of hatred toward really despicable individuals, like mass murderers, domestic abusers, or people who talk at the theater. Still, even this kind of hatred has its moral critics and troubling ramifications, as evidenced by the reams of legal and psychological literature with titles like "Can/Should We Purge Evil Through Capital Punishment?" (Criminal Law and Philosophy, 2015); "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Feminist Responses to Violent Injustice" (New England Law Review, 1998); "Through the Looking Glass, Darkly: Perceptions of Hate in Interpersonal Relationships" (Journal of Relationships Research, 2015).

My favorite of all the papers I ran across in my hasty academic research on this topic is: "Hating Criminals: How Can Something That Feels So Good Be Wrong?" (Michigan Law Review, 1990). Unfortunately I couldn't find the full paper*, but the title is all I need to propose that hatred is a pure guilty pleasure if ever, oh ever, a one there was. As the Witches of Oz sang in the musical Wicked:

"There's a strange exhilaration
in such total detestation."
- Elphaba and Galinda, "What Is This Feeling?"

This is where insects come in. Forget the pollination of bees; forget the beauty of butterflies or the cheap, abundant protein of grasshoppers. The greatest service insects render to humans is as a guilt-free target for hatred.

I realized this while reading a recent post on the science blog The Last Word On Nothing. A group of thoughtful, educated science writers produced a thoughtful, educated discussion about the raphidophorids (cousins to grasshoppers) titled "Kill the Sprickets, Kill Them All."

"I would like to drop them one by one into an active volcano. Their collective screams would bring me peace. . . ." 
"The best thing about camel crickets is that they’re easy to kill. . . ." 
"I loathe and despise sprickets, I hate everything about them, I need to kill them. [But even in the grip of pure rage, she reaches for science--] Psychology calls this entomophobia . . . "
According to a book I've just learned about through the magic of Wikipedia, "at least 6 percent of Americans suffer from entomophobia." I should read this book, called The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects; perhaps the author has already presented and/or dismissed this concept of bugs** as a hate magnet. I don't have time.

Instead, I'll just put on my captain's hat and point out the obvious benefit of hating bugs: you can act on it with no fear of retribution or judgement. You can kill bugs as quickly or as slowly as you like, by means physical, chemical, or biological, and no one will haul you to court on charges of mistreatment or murder.

In fact, the extreme prejudice with which we exterminate certain insects leads me to question the very roots of the word "entomophobia." The sentiments described above toward sprickets--the same that many people feel toward spiders, centipedes, mosquitoes, bees, or all of the above--are well beyond fearful. Arachnophobia and entomophobia should perhaps be more accurately named misarachny and misentomy. [Stop putting red squiggles under my perfectly good English inventions, text editor!]

And once we've linked fear and hate, we're not far from the inexorable anadiplosis of the big screen's Zen master:

"Fear leads to anger. 
Anger leads to hate. 
Hate leads to suffering."

That misentomists suffer is indisputable, as anyone who has ever discovered an earwig in an unwanted location (any location) can attest. So perhaps the target insects offer for our hatred is not such a kindness after all. Perhaps we need to stand firm and resist the seemingly innocuous temptation of hexapodan loathing.

That said, I think my next blog post will be about the utterly despicable nature of wasps.

* As I'm deep in the thickets of research for the squid evolution book, all of my paper-tracking-down skill and energy are going towards titles like "A phylogeny of fossil and living neocoleoid cephalopods" and "The gladiuses in coleoid cephalopods: homology, parallelism, or convergence?" These esoteric concepts will be available as riveting prose soon! (haha jk not till the end of 2017)

** This usage of "bug" is of course colloquial and unscientific. True bugs comprise but a single order of insects, the Hemiptera. For a while I was super pedantic about the word "bug" but eventually that stance struck me as kind of silly.


Mosquito: JJ Harrison, via Wikimedia Commons
Yoda: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Diastasis Recti or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Belly

You don't appreciate the structural integrity of your belly button until you lose it.

That's not a juvenile sarlacc or a terminally grumpy cat; it's what I have now instead of a traditional belly button.

This condition, called diastasis recti, is actually a pretty common side effect of pregnancy, but good luck ever hearing about it until you've got one yourself. For some reason, although everyone knows that growing a new human can cause morning (or not-so-morning) sickness, few are aware that it can also cause your abdominal muscles to flee each other's company, leaving only connective tissue and skin to contain your organs.

Plenty of helpful blog posts have addressed the postpartum challenge of closing a diastasis with abdominal splints, physical therapy, tailored workouts, &c. What I'm going to address here is the partum challenge presented by diastasis recti--which turns out to have a straightforward engineering solution.

To be clear, I'm talking about a major separation here. Plenty of women may have and heal a minor diastasis of a few centimeters without ever being aware of it. However, if you are short (like me) and have big babies (like me) and maybe some other contributing factors no one is sure of, you may find yourself with a whopping great diastasis of 30+ centimeters.

There are certain advantages to this massive muscular gap, first among which is physical comedy. My protuberant belly would operate the touch-sensitive oven controls if I so much as tried to put the kettle on.

It's also an ideal "teaching belly," as one doctor charmingly put it, since there's no pesky muscle layer between hands and baby. At one of my prenatal visits, a midwife in training tried to ascertain the baby's position, and her eyes lit up. "I can feel everything!" she exclaimed.

Despite the situation's value for humor and education, though, it can really throw a wrench into labor and delivery.

I was in early labor with my first baby for most of a day, relaxing at home with my husband and doula until I started to throw up. When we got to the hospital, my cervix was seven centimeters dilated. That's up from zero and aiming at ten--a pretty good number, often just a couple hours from delivery.

Instead, some excruciating amount of time later, my normally-cheery British midwife bustled in to explain that I hadn't progressed much further. "Let's talk about the angle of dangle," she said. Somehow, between contractions, she got me to understand that this is what it's supposed to look like in a normal belly:

But this is what it looked like inside my belly (drawing babies in utero is hard, okay?):

Because my split abdominal muscles weren't holding the baby in, she was flopped out far in front of me, and her head wasn't exerting enough pressure to convince my cervix to keep opening. At this point, a lot of folks would have packed me off to the OR for a C-section, but the midwife just fetched a bedsheet.

She stretched the sheet under my belly and hauled it up from behind, while the doula pushed on my belly from the front. This made my already rather intense contractions overwhelmingly stronger, which they kept telling me was a good thing.

It was, of course, because with the help of those gnarly contractions we eventually managed to get the baby out through the traditional orifice. Even so, at the back of my cervix where the baby's head never fully pressed down, the tissue never completely thinned out, so when she came through it ripped. This cervical tear--and the stitching thereof--stand out in my memory even against the backdrop of general labor pains.

Anyway, then there was my daughter, with much joy, happiness, &c.

Still, you can imagine I was determined not to repeat that labor experience. So when I got pregnant with baby the second, I kitted myself out with a heavy-duty maternity belt, which acted as a nice shelf for my growing belly.

But for labor I knew I'd need more than a shelf. In the ninth month, I improvised a sling from a long piece of cloth that I had used to carry my daughter (ex utero). With three layers of wrapping, I hauled my torpedo belly up and in until it looked about the size and shape of an ordinary pregnancy.

When I went into labor this time, the midwife didn't need to deploy her sheet, and she stayed cheery. And the doula had to spend all her timing convincing me that it was going better than last time and seriously just stop thinking about last time already.

After a much shorter (but still excruciating) amount of time, without me having to throw up or tear anything, there was my son, with much joy, happiness, &c.

Now I'm in the postpartum healing game. Abdominal splints, physical therapy, and tailored workouts are all well and good, but even more helpful is my daughter's earnest three-year-old perspective.

"I love your belly," she says, kissing it. "It's soft like sand that's wet with water."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Soul of an Octopus-Lover

"An aquarium without an octopus is like a plum pudding without plums," as the author quotes a Victorian naturalist. And I fully agree.

The Soul of an Octopus is a lovely chronicle, ranging from Seattle to Mo'orea but always returning to the New England Aquarium. The thoroughly researched text includes references from Tennyson to John Denver, but the voice is wholly the author's--intimate, personal.

Her story is uncannily familiar to me. We both fell in love with octopuses at a public aquarium, began planning to keep our own (the globe-trotting Montgomery concluded "as great as a personal home octopus might be, it would be too risky for both the octopus and my marriage" while I, unwed and stationary at the age of 10, went on to keep several suckered pets during my school years), and eventually learned to scuba dive for the sole purpose of meeting octopuses in the wild.

And now I want very much to visit the octopus church in Papetoai.