Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Monday, March 27, 2006

Botanical pornography

One good thing about living in the central part of the Gahduhn State is that spring arrives earlier here than in Eastern Massachusetts, and certainly well ahead of south central Wisconsin. The young maple trees lining our street have a reddish glow, a color which subtly hints that the leaves which will emerge in a few short weeks. Larger buds can be seen on the flowering crabapple trees, and a few redbud trees are fully in the pink. Early narcissus are blooming and add cheery dashes of yellow and white among patches of last fall's dead leaves. However, long before the sap begins to run up the grey overwintered trees, the sure harbingers of spring in northern cllimes arrive during the coldest frozen days of January. Those are the seed and nursery catalogs.

I have poured over these catalogs ever since I began gardening in earnest some twenty-odd years ago. When I was a grad student, my spouse had a "real job" so we were fortunate enough to own a little house with a yard. I tended perennials along its borders and a variety of vegetables, including a mess of hot Thai peppers, in a sunny patch behind the old garage. My husband built what he called "the botany bench" underneath the basement stairs. He installed growlights above the pineboard bench, and with a heating wire beneath the seed starting mixture, I grew bright green seedlings while the bitter Wisconsin winter held fast in February and March with occasional snowy incursions into April. Wayside and Park Seeds were my catalogs of choice, and although Connecticut's White Flower Farms has recently found favor now that I live in the East, the other two are old friends.

Nursery catalogs are designed to seduce. The plants and flowers pictured are lush, lusty specimens, and no less alluring to the amateur horticulturalist than a Jenna Jameson spread is to a perpetually tumescent young man. The full shots of lilies, delphiniums, gallardia, and roses draw in the winter crazed gardener, and sucker him or her into believing that those glorious blossoms could really flourish in the garden. "Yes, yes, I can cultivate those Blackmore and Langdon delphiniums," I gurgled to myself when I, a young inexperienced gardener, gazed at these catalogs full of turgid floral beauties. While in the grasp of winter, these catalogs played on my desperation, and I imagined myself as a latter day Gertrude Jekyll.

The seduction by such botanical pornography shouldn't be surprising. After all, flowers are sexual parts, and are sometimes monoecious, sometimes dioecious depending on the species. Many plant species rely on insect vectors to assist with reproduction. Plants have co-evolved in a most marvelous way with their insect pollinators, and have devised clever ways of luring bugs to their flowers. Magnolia are among the most primitive of flowering trees, and they attract the more primitive insects, like beetles. The titan arum's most appropriate scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum (see photo). It is also dubbed the corpse flower due to its fetid perfume which attracts carrion beetles. The Rosaceae, a family of plants which arose after magnolias and which include plum and apple trees, call their sweet siren song to more complex insects like honey bees. Perhaps the one of the most striking co-evolutionary relationships between bug and bloom is that of the orchid with the wasp. The orchid's innards are shaped to look like the hind end of a female wasp, and the plant emits a phermonish molecule which reels the male wasp to its petals. The horny bug attempts to copulate with the orchid, and once finished, or frustrated, he flies away to another orchid and distributes pollen which is roughly the spermatazoan (sans flagella) equivalent of the flower, The sexuality of grasses evolved beyond mere insect pollinators and relies on mechanics like wind, rain or a passing critter's fur to transport pollen.

Humans recognize the sexuality of flowers. Blooms have long been a part of courtship ritual in the Western world. Robert Mapplethorpe and Georgia O'Keefe are among artists who exploited floral sexuality. Floraphiles themselves have predilections which are near fetishitic in their focus. Two friends are avid rosarians. In spite of highly different climates (one lives in upstate New York and the other in Southern California), these ladies are dedicated to roses, particularly the more rough and ready old fashioned varieties. In spite of my living in a spot which will not readily harbor a rose, they are ever after me to plant some rose, any rose, which I see as a testament to their obsessions. I did grow a nice climber, Zephirine Drouhin (see photo) in my little yard in Cambridge, MA, but most of my gardening here in Princeton is confined to containers. Here I make do with lush leafed caladiums and fragrant lilies (see photo). I know my friends really, really wish I would plant a rose, and are convinced that I will not be complete unless I do. As an experienced, and even somewhat jaded, gardener, I can resist the rose's call. It is time, however, for me to open the pages of the flower porn catalogs and order lily and caladium bulbs as I enter my own horticulturally hedonistic rites of spring.

More insect torment

The latest offering from Nicholas Gurewitch's delightfully dark-in-bright-sunny-colors comic, The Perry Bible Fellowship:

I hope that Mr. Gurewitch will forgive the transgression of my reposting this here, but it's just too appropriate to pass up.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Insect torment - the road to sociopathy?

The Revenge of the Flaming Roaches tale in my "Madcap hazmat" entry might suggest that I take great delight in tormenting insects, or at least reading or hearing about such. After all, the nasty little kid who pulls the legs from hapless flies is an archetype. But is this truly sinister? Is insect torture the gateway drug to tormenting puppies and kittens then moving on to Jeffrey Dahmeresque gorefeasts? I think not.

I grew up on a farm so I had the opportunity to observe many different kinds of bugs. I had no fear of insects, and in fact, genuinely liked most six legged critters. As a kid, I loved watching ants, beetles, and grasshoppers. Cicadas fascinated me, and I collected their discarded shells. Even better were the cicada killers, a species of wasp which hunts cicadas and paralyzes them with venom. Please check out Professor Chuck Holliday's page for detailed information on this fascinating bug. One of these formidable wasps set up a homestead, namely an earthen lair, near the foundation of our house. Putting a pragmatic distance between the wasp's home and myself, I hunkered down and watched the wasp come and go from her burrow. Finally, I saw the wasp ponderously glide in for a landing, and lug a stunned cicada into the little tunnel. I knew that down in the dark, the wasp would deposit eggs via her ovipositor into the still living cicada. The eggs would then hatch, and the larvae would devour the cicada and overwinter before bursting forth as young wasps the next season. My familiarity with this gruesome reproductive tactic may have been the reason that the movie "Alien" truly freaked me out. The concept of larvae in a host was nothing new to me, but to see it realized in such a ghastly way, if only cinematically, with human-as-cicada was horrifying.

Our farm's honey bees, which lived in an old hive in our orchard, were great: cute, industrious little champs with complex behaviors. The bees sometimes fell into the water trough for our cattle, and I rescued them. Initially, I used a stick as lifesaving device so the bee could crawl onto it. Later, when I realized that honey bees would not sting if handled gently, I used my finger to lift the bee out of the water. I liked watching ants, also captains of industry, but they were not as endearing as the honey bees.

We regarded bumblebees and yellow jackets as pests so they were fair game for insect torment. These loutish rugby-shirt striped hymenopterians tended to nest in less than desirable places, including the hay and straw mangers. This was quite unpleasant for a heifer or steer which unwittingly chomped down on some bee filled hay. In an ill advsed attempt at extermination, my brother and I often ventured into the barns, shook bumblebee nests in the straw with a pitchfork, then swatted the enraged yellow and black suckers with badminton rackets. I was stung more than once playing this game. We also engaged in a risky activity dubbed "bumblebee plipping" in which we would lurk by a patch of false dragonhead plants whose tubular flowers cover tall stalks. These attracted a somewhat smaller variety of the bulky how-can-it-fly bumblebee. Using the time honored configuration of thumb and forefinger, we flicked the bees’ backsides while their heads were immersed in the heart of the flower. The object was to stun 'em but not kill 'em. We gave the bees a fighting chance by removing our shoes for this activity. Barefooted, we danced with pain over a gravel driveway, which abutted the bed of false dragonhead, to evade the highly annoyed bees.

So, by and large, I had no problems with insects other than mosquitoes, flies, bedbugs (encountered these horrid little beasts at 4H camp), chiggers and cockroaches which became all to familiar during my years of living in the rabbit warrens of undergrad apartments and in the labs during grad school. Roaches are disgusting bugs. They grew to large proportions in the labs, and one could hear them scuttle when the lights were turned on. However, I admit I found the Madagascar hissing cockroaches to be kind of cool. A former boyfriend (now a geologist and an old fart like myself) had a pair of these which he kept in a small vivarium. He also had a seven foot boa constrictor which we tucked away in my apartment since we figured our mutual landlord, who roundly forbade him from keeping a snake, wouldn't suspect that a woman would harbor such a beast. Sexism worked to our advantage in this case.

Another one of my favorite insect-torment stories came from one of my architectural design studio instructors (I had a checked undergrad career). He and his grad school classmates captured flies and sedated them by chilling them briefly in a refrigerator. Then, my instructor and his artsy classmates quickly glued little slivers of balsa wood and tissue paper to the abdomens of the sleepy bugs. When the flies regained full consciousness and flew, a vertiable squadron of fly-planes filled the air. A Google search of "fly plane" reveals that this is not a wholly original concept, but my instructor and his friends used far more intricate designs. After all, they were artists! I have to wonder if the Flypower product line is somehow connected to my instructor and his chums since there are distinct similarities between his design and the fly plane product offered on Flypower.

So, yes, some fine upstanding citizens of my acquaintance have engaged in insect torment. A truly kind animal lover is welcome to go Jain on my ass, but I never felt the temptation to willfully torment a bunny, a puppy or a kitty. And I never have entertained the thought of bringing home the bacon by way of homicidally harvested "long pig." Still, karma is karma, so I may well wind up in some circle of Dantean hell, buried up to my neck in sugary pollen and nectar, butt waving wildly in the air, only to be "plipped" by an plutonian imp.

Photograph by Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Madcap hazmat: a nostalgic reverie of lab accidents

So this morning when I walked into the corridors bisecting our labs from our offices, I was greeted by yellow "caution wet floor" signs and my staff scurrying about like industrious, yet annoyed, overeducated ants. Apparently, a major leak developed sometime late last night in a lab on the second floor. The water made its way into another group's tissue culture lab adjoining my department's facilities. Fortunately, none of our equipment was affected, and our offices were dry in spite of copious puddles of water on the tile floors of the hallways. I did not arrive early enough to witness the full comedy of the company safety personnel taking care of the problem. According to one of my staff, the safety folk began tromping about without any investigation as to what might be lurking in the standing water. You see, when water floods a laboratory, there's always the possibility that it carries contamination in the form of noxious chemicals, biohazards, or radioactivity, depending on the source of the flood. This is not to mention the possibility of electrical hazards. The lackadaisical approach to clean-up, coupled with the observation of sparks shooting out of the ceiling when something started arcing as a result of the errant H2O, calls to mind many haphazard approaches to lab accidents in my past.

Although safety in labs should be, and typically is, taken quite seriously, many scientists find amusement in exchanging tales of "safety incidents." Heck, even non-scientists have their stories as evidenced by historical recounts of mischievious chem class vandals who flushed turds of sodium metal down myriad high school boys' restroom crappers.

Some of the more memorable safety incidents of my career occurred while I was in grad school. Fortunately, I was not the instigator. These were perpetrated by my fellow students. One involved phosgene gas release. At room temperature, phosgene exists as a highly reactive gas which, when inhaled, reacts with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid. Damage by the acid causes pulmonary edema. Although phosgene raised its spectral head as a weapon (nerve gas) in World War I, it has more benign uses in chemical synthesis, and can be generated in situ from other reagents for this purpose.

That's what one of my fellow students was doing: generating phosgene for an alkylation reaction. He was supposed to chill the reaction vessel in an ice-water bath so that the phosgene would be contained. He was also supposed to perform this chemistry in a fume hood. Some source of confusion came into play as he set up his reaction. The confusion was possibly due to English as a second language. This fellow was fresh out of the People's Republic of China, and was among the wave of students and post-docs who came out of that country to US university labs in the early 1980s. He even had a Mao jacket. Rather than setting up his reaction in the fume hood and on ice, as per relatively safe procedures, this chap happily cobbled together his reaction vessel in the "cold room." Perhaps the student was unduly impressed with capitalist running dog technology and decided that the cold room, a contained insulated space whose temperature was maintained at 4 degrees Celcius or thereabouts, would offer a more sophisticated and reliable alternative to the more proletarian ice-water bath. It was the "thereabouts" temperature control which became problematic. In the summer, when the Phosgene Incident occurred, the temperatures in the cold rooms of our old building fluctuated wildly. Because the student's reaction was not on ice, it warmed up along with the ambient tempertaure of the not-so-cold room. Thus, phosgene gas was emitted from the student's reaction vessel. One of his colleagues discovered it when he walked into the cold room and smelled the characteristic new mown hay odor of the gas. He immediately bolted away, pulled the fire alarrms, and University Safety was called from a further removed locale. The student who discovered the phosgene scene was whisked off to the university hospital for observation. Not to worry, he was fine. The principal investigator was a no-nonsense, brusk fellow of Taiwanese origins, and was apoplectic over the incident. The Phosgene Kid was lucky not to be deported back to the People's Republic.

I was ferreting out journal articles at a campus library when this happened and returned to find faculty, staff and students milling around outside the building, alarm claxons blaring, while campus and city fire trucks careened onto the street. Firemen with air tanks strapped to their backs and respirators on their faces prepared to enter the building. But wait! Who's this? An official looking guy in trim pants and a dress shirt, and not a lick of any kind of protective equipment led the bemasked firemen into the building. I quipped to my fellow students and post-docs: "He must be the canary."

That wasn't the last of many incidents in the old lab building. This was in the days when smoking was still allowed in many academic labs. A chain-puffing post-doc tossed a smouldering cigarette butt into a trash can which also contained an empty container of ethyl ether. Well, it was nominally "empty" since ether fumes lingered in the trash can, Flames subsequently shot to the ceiling and singed off the postdoc's goatee and eyebrows. A year or so later in the same lab, a tank of hydrochloric acid gas sprang a leak and caused another evacuation. Again, there was a "canary," in this case the stoner departmental safety officer who ambled toward the affected lab while waving about a litmus paper strip as his sole source of protective equipment. It was a slow day at the local TV stations, so the local telejournalists covered the story as a "hazardous chemical spill on campus," and interviewed a couple of my classmates from the lab. Their principal investigator had been away at a conference, and upon returning to town, learned of the "spill" in his lab via the local news. He was less than pleased by the sudden notoriety.

One of the more bizarre safety incidents was described to me by one of my former bosses. He was a grad student in organic chemistry back in the 1960's. He and his labmates amused themselves late in the evenings by shooting acetone from squirt bottles onto the many ubiquitous and large cockroaches which ventured forth at night. Once the roach was doused with acetone, the students tossed a lit match onto the roach. Poof! Cockroach flambé! Yes, it was a cruel and unusual fate for the bug. However, the roaches had their revenge when one of the burning six-legged buggers scuttled beneath a cabinet full of flammable solvents and set the whole lab ablaze. After the incident, the principal investigator advised his students that roach flaming would no longer be tolerated.

Addendum, March 9, 2006: Check out In the Pipeline's "How Not to Do It: Liquid Nitrogen Tanks" for an account of a pretty impressive "safety incident."

Friday, March 03, 2006

In memoriam: Hope Machedon

Kevin Beck published "Never Give Up Hope" last year and offers a reprise of this eloquent tribute to an incredible and memorable woman.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Morpheus' little cousins

I have a bugger of a cough. I didn't notice impending signs of infection, that is, the interferon-tinged achiness and fever which often precede garden variety upper respiratory tract viral invasions. It was just a dry cough a couple of days ago then blossomed into a real hack-a-thon, particularly in the evening.

Thank goodness for morphine's relative, hydrocodone, a semisynthetic derivative of codeine, which is perhaps the best thing short of brown heroin for a cough. Well, that contention might be disputed since hydrocodone is not effective as an antitussive for all people, but based on empirical evidence, my μ-opioid receptors must have some modicum of affinity for the stuff. I hoarded a stash of an acetaminophen-hydrocodone tabs which were left over from past dental work. I figured I'd need them for future antitussive purposes. I am grateful for my pharmacologically thrifty foresight.

In other news, Doc Bushwell's Funhouse o' Science is no more. Kilgore's Endorphin Cult was summarily executed by the Free Forums for the crime of "inappropriate material." Who knew that BlackLight Power was profane? However, Kilgore resurrected the Endorphin Cult in yet another incarnation. How's that for mixing theological allusions? I have updated the link in the left column. Enter at your own risk.

In my real funhouse, I have the opportunity to "do science" again, which is quite a pleasure after almost two years as a manager of scientists, a job which entails herding brilliant but prone-to-egotistical-hissy-fit cats. It is said that theatre people are the most temperamental of all employees. Au contraire! Deal with a senior scientist whose colleagues have not acknowledged him or her properly in a seminar (this typically requires ritualized genuflection) or whose name has not appeared in an authors' list. Then get back to me on termperamental theatre types. Anyway... I will still play the cat herder, but the addition of staff allows me to get back into the lab albeit in a piecemeal fashsion. The project involves an enzyme with a very complex reaction mechanism; it is a potential target for cancer. Well, aren't they all? But it is not another freakin' kinase! The target has another major therapeutic indication, but I'd have to kill you if I told you what that was.

Now I'm off to dig up my little tab of hydrocodone and quell the evening hackery, i.e., the cough and my writing!