Friday, October 15, 2010

What A Nice Way To End A Long Week

I just checked my email, and saw that Adam Buchanan, a sales rep of some sort for PROBAR, sent me a message. He said that I sounded like a serious fan and that I had won a bunch of free PROBARS! It is true, I am a huge fan of these bars. I suppose this was all prompted after I sent the PROBAR people a message via their Facebook wall, after an interesting incident:

I've eaten a Pro Bar (Art's Original Blend, my favorite) every morning for almost a year now. I left to go into the field for about a week, and when I came back I noticed that a tiny green sprout had shot up, of all places, right in my bathroom sink! Perhaps it was one of the flax or other types of seeds in Pro Bars, I don't know, but I like to think that all the ingredients in Pro Bars are so minimally processed so that this could happen! (I haven't ruled out the possibility that the sprout sprang up from a seed that came from a salad or something, but, one of the ubiquitous things in Probars are the flax seeds). Anyway, I love Pro Bars (just ordered another box from Amazon). They really start my day perfectly, along with some sips of a double espresso Americano... mmm.

I've never "won" anything like this before. I remember one time in college I wrote a (hand-written, snail mail) letter to Entenmann's, a bakery company up North that makes the most amazing soft chocolate chip cookies. I asked them whether they were considering expanding their cookies to the South. They actually wrote back, in what seemed like a form letter, but I didn't win any free cookies. Not that I was hoping too. Their cookies are so good that everytime I go home I buy a box.

Anyway, the PROBAR people have it right! After 2 years of eating one of these bars pretty much every day for breakfast, I still love them. And they seem to take their fans' passion seriously!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beauty is only 30 microns thick...

Today, I shattered almost all the grains in one of my peridotite thin sections, by inadvertently polishing it slightly too hard. I'm deeply upset because this was a peridotite of which there was nothing left other than this very thin section. And the thin section was a thing to be marveled at - perfectly made, immaculately polished, frosted glass, not to mention the sample itself is exceptionally beautiful and peculiar for certain geochemical reasons. Anyway, it is not a huge deal, the sample can still be used, and we analyzed the hell out of it already. So, scientifically, I'm not that upset. If someone wanted to look at the sample and measure it for themselves, they could still do so and reproduce our results.

On the other hand, this incident struck me a bit deeply on a more personal level. In the blink of an eye, I ruined something so perfect and beautiful! That's what upset me - not the scientific part, that, thankfully, is still intact in terms of the sample (it just doesn't look as it once did). I felt like I had cracked a treasured family heirloom vase, or torn a tapestry that took months to weave... Sigh! I'm normally extremely careful with things, and do my best not to be careless. This just goes to show that accidents happen, and lessons can be learned.

On a more philosophical note, this incident made me think of sometimes how fragile, how delicate are the objects we fashion in an effort to better understand the greater world around us. Take thin sections for instance: in order to plumb the mysteries of the deep Earth, we glue 30-micron thick slivers of xenoliths onto glass slides, thin enough so that just the right amount of light can pass through them for us to identify the minerals. These xenoliths are merely the tiniest bits of the Earth's mantle, which is unfathomably bigger than we can imagine. (We've barely So yes, in the grand scheme of science, what's the shattering of one little sample?

So... all in all, it was a sad day, but, life, and research goes on, and I'm done worrying about this. Blogging about it helped. And yes, I know, this is nothing compared to some of the much worse things that can happen in the lab. This was more of a personal upset, that I had ruined something so beautiful, by accident.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Vagaries of Houston Weather, and Angiosperm Evolution

Sigh... that spell of cool, dry autumn days that descended upon Houston and lingered for a couple weeks seems to have gone. My ankles ache with the familiar old rheumatic pain, an ominous portent of coming rain. Ever since I was a kid, my ankles have ached right before a rainstorm. Sometimes if it was a snowstorm, the pain would go all the way up to my knees. Mom used to rub it with that stuff they rub on athletes' joints. I remember the bottle - it had red bullseyes at the ankles and knees. The pain isn't bad, more of a dull ache. I remember acutely one time it was particularly bad: right before a brutal snowstorm in the dead of winter. But otherwise, it was never more than a minor nuisance. Anyway, the rheumatic rain pain has been subdued, but not entirely disappeared, ever since I moved down to the South. Perhaps being in a general state of constant humid conditions suppressed it. It does, however, come back if there's a spell of dry weather preceding rain. And of course I get it when I go back home and it snows or rains. So, I think it might rain this week. At the very least, the humidity increased today.

On a completely different note, I've been trying to do a bit of "leisure" reading, mostly before bed. Although sometimes it totally backfires and I stay up way too late because I get too into a book. I have been reading To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck, which, so far, is excellent. I've also been (re) reading parts of The Evolution and Classification of Flowering Plants, by Arthur Cronquist. I've actually had this book checked out from the library for over two years now. (I remember I checked it out pretty much as soon as I got to Rice because I had wanted to read it since I took botany, which was right before coming to Rice). Apparently, no one's wanted to check out this incredible book in all my time here, which I find kind of amazing (unless they require botany students to buy it or something). Although it is a textbook, it's actually a good read. For those of you who do not know who Arthur Cronquist was, he is credited with dividing the flowering plants into the two classes Magnoliopsida (the dicots) and the Liliopsida (the monocots), which is probably familiar to anyone who took intro biology. Cronquist wasn't the first to make the distinction, but followed in the footsteps of the "phylogenists" before him (Bessey, Engler), and ultimately from Bentham, de Jussieu, and of course Linnaeus (the "taxonomists"). But after Cronquist, there were no more classical taxonomists of his sort. Botany entered the "modern era" of cladistic methods and molecular DNA data. So, all in all, Cronquist's book distills centuries of botanical thought into an integrated taxonomy scheme for plants.

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I do particularly enjoy reading the chapter on the Origin of the Angiosperms. When you think about it, angiosperm evolution is quite incredible, particularly if we believe that angiosperms evolved from cumbersome things like cycads. (Compare that to some of the incredible things flowers get animals to do in the quest for pollination, like bees and orchids). Cycads, ginkgo, and other primitive gymnosperms, as Cronquist put it, were "locked into a slow, perilous, and wasteful reproductive process." This is particularly evident in Ginkgo, wherein the entire seed, minus the embryo, is formed prior to it even being fertilized. Then it falls to the ground and hopes that some Ginkgo pollen will fly by and fertilize it. This is why male and female Ginkgos need to be near each other or else they have no hope of reproducing successfully. I also thought the theory that pollination by beetles is an ancient, primitive feature was quite interesting (think of the strobiloid flowers of Magnolia). Isn't it fascinating to think of giant magnolia-like flowers during the Cretaceous, being chewed upon and crawled over by giant black rhinocerous beetles?

Anyway, just reminiscing back on botany lab and drawing flowers of Liriodendron tulipfera (one of my favorite plants). Lots of new plants to learn, and old ones to remember.