Looking Back…Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Tomorrow is the first day of 2009. So what an appropriate time to look back and see what we have accomplished in science over the past years on this day.

On New Years Day, 1801, the dwarf planet Ceres was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi. This dwarf planet is actually located inside our solar system, it is part of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomer Johann Elert Bode had suggested nearly forty years earlier that their might be large planets or land masses between Mars and Jupiter based off a theory (that is no longer used) proposed in 1766 by Johann Daniel Titus. It was this same theory that led to the discovery of Uranus in 1781. Because of the theory and the unknown location of a planet between Mars and Jupiter, 24 astronomers combined their efforts and began a methodical search for the planet. 

Hubble's Largest Galaxy Portrait Offers a new High-Def view
Creative Commons License photo credit: Venom82

On New Years day, 1925, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of galaxies outside of our own milky way. Hubble also later showed that the universe is still expanding.

On New Years Day, 1985, the Internet domain name system was created. The domain name system translates human names for sites into the numerical or binary identifiers associated with network equipment. A simple explanation is that the Internet domain name system acts as a “phone book” for the Internet by translating a human-friendly host name into an IP address.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: mackenzienicole

On New Year’s Day, 1995 the existence of freak waves was proven. The Draupner oil platform in the north sea was usually hit by large waves measuring about 39 feet in height. However, on Jan 1st of that year a freak wave that was 89 ft tall crashed down on the platform. Freak waves had been thought to exist before based off of stories of sailors, but it had never previously been recorded.




My love affair with the tropics (how and why I became a biologist)

 Our fearless leader
Dr. Larry Gilbert

My introduction to the tropics was in the summer of 1983, when I lucked into accompanying Dr. Larry Gilbert (UT Zoology) and his students on a field course to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  Not being a student at the time (I’d gotten a BA in linguistics a couple years before but was working as a secretary on the UT campus), but having some proficiency in Spanish, I was hired by Dr. Gilbert as his assistant and translator since his regular teaching assistant was off making a film in New Guinea. 

After several weeks in Patterson Hall on the UT campus, translating documents and readying equipment, we left for Costa Rica, flying into the capitol, San Jose.  Here our party (5 graduate students plus Dr. Gilbert – Larry to his students – and myself) spent a couple of days at the “Costa Rica Inn” – a rambling one-story labyrinth of a hotel near the downtown area.  San Jose is a typical Central American city, with lots of traffic and pollution, no interesting architecture to speak of…but great ice cream and plenty of activity – and in those days, very safe at all hours.  We visited the Natural History Museum and the local university, picked up some supplies (foam mattresses and rum are what I remember!), and made our flight arrangements.  We were flying in to the park in two 5-seater Cessnas; there was no other access to the remote field site location. 

View of the Corcovado canopy from the plane.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The day arrived and we boarded the tiny planes.  I was quite nervous as I had never flown in such a small plane before, and the pilot warned us that it might be a bumpy ride due to rising air currents as we crossed the mountains.  And Larry joked about the two wrecked planes that decorated the end of the airstrip in the park… 

The flight took about an hour, and it was indeed turbulent.  Finally we flew out over the Osa Peninsula and saw nothing but forest below us, and then the Pacific Ocean beyond. We suddenly turned at right angles to the coastline to land at a tiny airstrip cleared in the rainforest, ending at the beach…and there, indeed, were the two wrecks.  Welcome to Sirena Station of Corcovado National Park!

We pitched tents in the clearing/horse pasture behind the rustic park station building; this would be our home for the next six weeks.  The students included Darlyne, studying heliconius butterflies; Kirk, studying the fish communities in freshwater streams; Jamie, studying howler monkeys, and Peggy and John, new students who had not yet decided on projects.  Two senior students, Peng Chai and Sue Boinski, were already in the park.  Peng was studying bird predation on butterflies.  “Bo” as she was called, was the equivalent of a mountain man, in my somewhat awed view.  She had spent the past several years following troupes of squirrel monkeys to learn about their behavior and mating habits, sometimes staying in the park for over a year at a stretch. In the course of her wanderings she had dodged fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes, and had some (very shaky) video footage of a pair of jaguars lazily playing together, oblivious of their nervous human watcher. 

Fruits of the
Corcovado rainforest.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The Sirena station was a bustling place.  Since in those days (before the gold miner crisis of 1985) it served as the park headquarters, it was the central point in Corcovado for communications and supplies, which were all brought in by plane.  The park director was stationed here, along with about 5-6 park guards.  Other park guards travelling by horseback from the outlying stations came in to pick up their allotment of supplies, or to rotate out for a week’s holiday.  The radio crackled all day long:  “Sierra Papa Norte Dos a Sierra Papa Norte” (National Park Service station 2 to headquarters).  I learned all sorts of things in radio lingo – “Cambio” meant over, “Dos” meant good, “Dos y medio” was so-so, “Tres” meant bad, “un 22” was a telephone call, “10” was crazy, etc. 

The station in those days was rustic.  Electricity was provided by generator only at lunchtime and for a couple hours in the evening.  Running water was ingeniously piped in from a nearby stream.  Course participants and park guards all ate together in a little open-sided building:  generous portions of rice and beans, smaller portions of meat and vegetables, inventive desserts, and drinks made from fresh tropical fruits, all deliciously prepared by Maria, the feisty and attractive cook.

Buttress of a tropical giant.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The first few days Larry led his students and me on long, sometimes wild walks through the forest – up over the steep knife-edged ridges, crashing down through stream beds, slogging along the beach or sweltering through open areas.  What an amazing place!  I was in love with the forest from the moment I saw it.  So many plants – so many insects, birds, monkeys, frogs, snakes, etc.  But especially plants.  It was like being in the most amazing botanical garden.  Here things I’d only seen as houseplants grew rampantly everywhere.  Ferns were not just ferns but trees.  And trees, with their huge buttresses as big around as a house, towered into the canopy.

Squirrel Monkies are common
near Sirena

After a week or so of our introductory walks, the students settled down to their research projects.  Since I wasn’t a student and didn’t have my own project, I helped some of the others where I could.  I soon was spending most of my time with Kirk, helping him census the fish in the many small streams that cut across the peninsula – streams so clear and clean that we drank out of them.  I learned a lot about fish that summer!  At night, we all sat in the little screened porch behind the radio room, burning candles and mosquito coils while we read or wrote up our field notes, or listened to one of the students give a status report on his or her project.  Larry often regaled us with funny stories of his past students…considerably embellished over the years, I am sure!

 Tropical leaf-footed bug

All too soon the summer came to an end, and we had to leave the park and head back to Texas to begin the new semester.  We packed the tents and our supplies into coolers to keep out the mildew.  Said our goodbyes to the park guards and to Maria.  Cleaned up the area we had taken over as our evening “lab.”  While we waited for the planes to arrive I took a last walk up the Claro trail to a ridge where, sitting on the buttress root of a huge strangler fig, I could see over the forest and out to sea.  What an adventure it had been!  What a lot of amazing biology I had learned!  Nostalgia for the place swept over me – but I heard the drone of the plane and had to rush back to camp.  We boarded the Cessna, and as it rumbled down the bumpy airstrip and began to lift into the air, I thought – if the plane crashes on the way back, I will die happy.  I have just spent the most amazing summer of my life.

I ended up becoming one of Larry’s students and spending several more summers in the park and elsewhere in the tropics.  However, that first experience stays with me as one of the real highlights of my existence on this earth. 

 Ornate flower of a tropical passionvine
 Red-eyed treefrogs.

‘Tis the Season…

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The world’s largest
shell, an object from
the HMNS collection that
is currently on display.
Creative Commons License photo credit: etee

This is the time of year when we’re all thinking about what we’re giving to friends and family. Especially this year, when most of us are being more thoughtful about what it is we’re giving. Since my job duties entail the registration and processing of donations to the museum’s collections, I encounter gift giving all year long. But especially at the end of the year and this month has kept me busy! Currently, I’m plowing through recent donations of things as varied as Amazonian spears to a swan specimen to Native American pueblo pottery. All of these donations will enhance our collections and all of us in the Collections Department are most appreciative of our generous donors.

However, these are the most recent acquisitions. The Houston Museum of Natural Science wouldn’t be where it is today without nearly a century of far-sighted people who generously and intelligently gave entire collections of natural specimens and cultural artifacts. They entrusted things they had collected with passion and zeal to a museum that was just beginning to grow so that Houstonians could learn about the natural world around them. In the coming year of 2009, as the museum celebrates its centennial, you’ll hear more about the names of Attwater, Westheimer, Milsaps, McDannald but their generosity was the foundation of the museum’s collections.

A spectacular mineral specimen in the
HMNS collection.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lori Greig

And that’s what it takes – generosity. I wonder what our past donors would think of today’s natural history auction market? Fossils and minerals can fetch exorbitant prices, far more than most museums can ever pay. Would those long ago donors who thought so highly of museums as institutions for the public approve of specimens and artifacts staying in the private hands of the highest bidder? After all, these early naturalists, amateur and professional, were often wealthy and acute businessmen themselves. But they did give and the museum has been fortunate that that kind of generosity has prevailed for a century. Indeed, it continues today and our collections continue to grow.

So, I’ll continue to measure and count amazing artifacts and specimens and make sure each donor is properly acknowledged. It’s just my small part in witnessing how the thoughtful generosity of our donors makes the museum a better place for us all.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

The more things change, the more they stay the same… Recently I read an interesting book, entitled “Are We Rome?” The author remarks how in some regards the Roman Empire and the current United States resemble each other very much. Take, for example, the issue of border crossings.

Claudius Glyptotek Copenhagen
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Geranio

For those who remember reading about Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, the Roman Empire went through long periods of expansion, followed by consolidation, and eventual collapse as a political entity. As the Empire was expanding, there was a famous foray across the Rhine into what is now Germany. It did not work out well for the Romans, as they lost several legions, allegedly causing the first Emperor, Augustus, to cry out loud that he “wanted his legions back,” while also decreeing that the river Rhine would become the frontier. In 1987, the exact location of that battle was established. For about a century this notion held: the Rhine and the Danube formed the frontier between the so-called civilized world and the barbarians. Then Dacia (current day Romania) was conquered and the Romans found themselves on the other side of the river again. In 272 AD, they abandoned this province in return for a brief period of peace and tranquility.

For a long time, it was thought that the incursion in 9 AD represented the first and last military operation into Germany. Not so any more, apparently. Recent reports out of Germany indicate that some time between A.D. 180-260, there was a major battle fought between Roman troops and Germanic tribes. The newly uncovered battlefield near Kalefeld-Oldenrode, is located south of Hanover. Coins, weapons and other military gear were retrieved from an area one mile long and a third of a mile wide. Interestingly, among the artifacts encountered was a Roman horse sandal, or hipposandal in technical lingo. You read this right: a horse sandal, not a horse shoe.

Boundary - Boulder
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

In all of this I see parallels to our current situation related to the border between the US and Mexico. What now constitutes the border area, was first inhabited by American Indian peoples, later incorporated into Mexico and ultimately made part of the US, either by force of arms, or by purchase. Along large stretches of this border, a fence is going up. One of the goals is to control who crosses the border and to safeguard life and property on this side of the fence.

All of this echoes sentiments expressed almost two millennia ago.With regards to the Roman situation we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how that story ended. With regards to the current situation, who knows? Future historians will have the privilege of assessing that scenario. Of one thing I am certain: future archaeologists will not be finding any horse sandals along the Rio Grande.