Thursday, March 19, 2015

Star Wars Taxonomy

The Han solo agnostid trilobite is called "solo" because it's the
only species in the genus Han (via). Sure. I buy that.

Since the days of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and his major works Systema Naturae (1st Edition in 1735), and in fact, to some degree beforehand, categorizing life as we know it and building the greater family tree of organisms has been a major scientific endeavour which has helped us to understand where we all come from. The taxonomists I have known, do fascinating and important work, to map who is out there and where they came from and what they are doing.

Today is Taxonomy Appreciation Day (#TaxonomyDay). So, I thought I would take the chance to appreciate not only their fundamental research contributions to categorizing the organisms of the world, but their inventiveness in naming and relating discoveries to important culture - specifically Star Wars. Because this is what serious science is all about.

Consider the one and only species in the genus Han, an agnostif trilobite (above), officially named after the Han Chinese (the fossil is from northern Hunan Province, China). As the sole Han, a monotypic taxon, it must of course be called 'solo'. The similarity of the name Han solo and Han Solo of the original Star Wars triology are purely coincidental, no doubt. (via Buzzfeed)

The 1997 "Special Edition" of Star Wars depicts Greedo
firing a shot at Han Solo shortly before Han reponds in kind.
In the original 1977 release, Han is the only one to fire. (wikipedia)

Many Star Wars fans will recall the 'Han shot first' controversy. The original 1977 version of Star Wars shows Han shooting the body hunter Greedo first; this was changed for the 1997 Special Edition.  A fairly recently-discovered species of  suckermouth armored catfish was named Peckoltia greedoi by an Auburn University trio led by Jonathan Armbruster. Because life is odd, the choice is less of a stretch than you might imagine. See for yourself:

Images: Auburn University via Flickr & Greedo picture courtesy

The trapdoor spider Aptostichus sarlacc (Bond, 2012) is named for the sarlacc sand-pit creature from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi who consumes people and animals thrown into his gaping maw. I don't actually know what type of trapdoor spider is shown below, but I think it illustrates why they might remind you of the hole in the sand from which no one returns.

The Great Pit of Carkoon with the original
sarlacc from Return of the Jedi (1983) (via wikipedia)

A trapdoor spider (via)
Scanning electron microscope image of the oribatid mite Darthvaderum apparently reminded Hunt (1996) of a certain villain's helmut.

Darthvaderum versus Darth Vader (via quazoo)

"Yoda purpurata, or "purple Yoda."The reddish-purple acorn worm was found about 1.5 miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and the large lips in either side of its head region that reminded researchers of the floppy-eared Stars Wars character Yoda." Credit: David Shale via livescience
Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back via wikipedia
Well-loved, diminuative, ancient, green jedi teacher Yoda is honoured in the names of both with an acorn worm, Yoda purpurata, and a parasitic isopod Albunione yoda, with lips and lateral flaps, respectively, which protrude from their heads and remind researchers of Yoda's long, pointy ears. Neither geography, nor shape explains the Tetramorium jedi ant, named for the Star Wars jedi knights. They do not even have any light sabers.

So here's to the taxonomers; may the force with with you.

(with thanks to Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Caroline Herschel: Scientific Cinderella to Comet Sweeper

Caroline Herschel
Caroline Herschel, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2014
Happy birthday Caroline Herschel! German-born Caroline Herschel (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848), while overshadowed by her brother William (who discovered Uranus, amongst his other astronomical accomplishments), was a real pioneer as a woman in astronomy and made her own important contributions. In fact, she became the first salaried female scientist, when King George III hired her to assist her brother, at a time when there were few professional scientists anywhere. Hers was a real life sort of Cinderella story, where rather than marrying a prince, she made a life and career for herself. Marriage was the expected role for a woman of her time, but she was deemed unmarriageable, since a childhood bout of typhus stunted her growth. Her mother thought she should train to be a servant, and purposely stood in the way of her learning French, or music, to prevent her from seeking employment as a governess. She wanted a perpetual unpaid maid. Her father sometimes managed to include her in William's lessons when their mother was absent. William had fled to England after the Seven Years War and made a life as a musician and composer in Bath. William managed to rescue his younger sister from their mother's clutches, under the pretext that she might have the voice to be a solo singer in Handel's oratorios, as she too was a natural musician. Of course, he also wanted a woman to manage his bachelor household. Meanwhile, he developed a real passion for astronomy. So, by the time she arrived, all his spare time away from music was devoted to astronomy and she found that despite her singing talent, she was roped into assisting with the construction of telescopes, rather than receiving music lessons. By 1781, William had discovered a new planet - Uranus , which he cannily dubbed the 'Georgian Star' after King George III. This had the desired effect of securing himself a pension, so that he could spend his time on astronomy (so long as he would present it to the King when asked).

William and Caroline worked together at Slough, observing the night sky with a variety of telescopes. William built some very large telescopes and had Caroline take notes of what he observed, while she used smaller 'sweeper' telescopes to sweep the skies for interesting object. She discovered 11 nebulae (2 of which turned out to be galaxies) which were previously unknown! She also found 8 or 9 comets, as well as making and sharing observations of comets discovered by others. The portrait is based on a miniature of Caroline, as well as her own notes and diagrams from 1 August 1786, when she discovered her first comet, now known as Comet C/1786 P1 (Herschel). On the left, her sketches of the object "like a star out of focus" which she correctly identified as a comet, is at the centre of the three circular diagrams labelled I, II and III. On the right, her Fig I and Fig II show her observations the following night, noting the position of the comet relative to the constellations of Ursa Major and Coma Berenices.

She also independently re-discovered Comet Encke in 1795, first recorded by Pierre Méchain in 1786. Later, in 1819, her observations help Johann Franz Encke recognize it was a periodic comet, like Halley's comet. Encke was able to calculate its orbit, partially due to her observations. The comet shown behind Caroline is based on a recent photo of Comet Encke, which returns every 3 years.

In order to calculate orbits of newly discovered comets, it was important to let other astronomers know as soon as possible. The letter post was often not fast enough, if the weather turned cloudy. She discovered her 8th comet while her brother was away. So, she took matters into her own hands. After an hour's sleep, she saddled a horse, and road the roughly twenty-six miles to the Greenwich Observatory of the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, much to his astonishment.

One of her important impacts on astronomy was that her early success showed her brother how even an amateur using a small telescope could find previously unobserved nebulae, and hence that there was real value in making systematic sweeps of the night sky. Partnering together, with William sweeping the sky with his 20 foot telescope and Caroline taking notes by lamplight just inside the window, they went on to discover 2507 nebulae and clusters over two decades of work. Further, she acted as 'computer', doing the mathematical grunt work for her brother's observations. William's study completely revolutionized astronomy, and it couldn't have happened without Caroline's help.

They worked side by side nightly until 1788, when William married (at age 49). Caroline was no longer needed to run his household, and he offered her money as compensation. She, however, convinced him to request her own salary from the King, which she received. She moved to a cottage in the garden. She did a lot of her own observing for the next nine years (while William was otherwise occupied at nights), and gained more fame in her own right.

In 1797 the standard star catalogue used by astronomers was published by John Flamsteed. It was tough to use since it appeared in two volumes, with discrepancies. William suggested that a proper cross-reference would be a great help and a project for Caroline. She produced the resulting Catalogue of Stars, published by the Royal Society in 1798. It contained a index of all of Flamsteed's observed stars, all of the errors in his volumes and a further 560 additional stars.

When William died in 1822, she returned to Hanover, where she was born, but she continued her cataloguing and confirming of William's observations. Her catalogue of nebulae aided her nephew John Herschel in his astronomical work. The Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal in 1828 for this catalogue. She was the first woman to receive the honour (and remained the only woman until Vera Rubin in 1996).

She and Mary Sommerville were the first women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, when they were elected Honorary Members in 1835. In 1838 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. In 1846, at age 96 she also received a Gold Medal from the King of Prussia, for her astronomical work (presented by none other than Alexander von Humboldt). An asteroid and moon crater have been named in her honour.

You can find more in the great article  on Caroline Herschel by Micheal Hoskin AAS Comittee on the Status of Women site (to which this blog post is indebted), Caroline Herschel's wikipedia entry,  and the ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY entry on her notes.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pi Art for Pi Day

If you like numbers, you cannot help but like one as famous as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, π. Likewise, what's not to like about π day? I confess, I like to write the date in the metric fashion (day, month, year), but if you represent it numerically the way we say it in English, March 14, '15 looks like the first several digits of this famed irrational: 3.1415 (and this post is scheduled for 9:26 to continue with the fun).
path connecting segments traces out the digits
of π. Here the transition for the 6 digits is
is shown. Concept by Cristian Ilies Vasile.
Created with Circos.
Martin Krzywinski, bioinformatics researcher and artist, has created a number of artistic representations of π (and other mathematical concepts) at that place where scientific visualizations meet art. He created Circos, a software package for visualizing data and information in a circular layout; he writes, "Cristian Ilies Vasile had the idea of representing the digits of π as a path traced by links between successive digits".

He found that they could weave  a mandala by continuing this process. Then he proceeded to add more employing concentric circles of dots to indicate the number of transitions between any two figures. The colour of the dot indicates which figure (0 through 9) was visited next and the size is proportional to frequency of a given transition.

Check out his other lovely and fascinating projects (including how he mapped π on an Archimedean spiral, as above) on his site.

Martin Krzywinski, Progression and transition for the first 1,000 digits of π. Created with Circos. (PNG, BUY ARTWORK)


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