Stamps: Sun Science

These are gorgeous and science-y and geeky all at the same time.

The US Postal Service has released images of the sun in different wavelengths of light, which you can buy online or at your local post office. They are SUPERB.

(You were expecting me to write about the Star Wars Droid stamps, but I won’t indulge you. Ha!)

Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
published by Crown; audiobook published by Penguin Random House
2010

OH MY GOODNESS, THIS BOOK. This book is several books in one. At least.

This is a book about the dawn of cell culture, and the scientific beginnings of being able to keep human cells alive outside the body. This ties directly to the biotechnology industry I work in, and provides a history of early techniques and advances that I didn’t know I needed to know!

This is a book about the lives of American Blacks in or from the 1950s American South, the struggles of people too poor to leave the lands on which their ancestors were slaves, the burdens on women who lived with older male cousins who molested them, and the social hierarchies that followed those who left to the north, where no one questioned doctors. (I have never been more grateful that my Black ancestors fled to the midwest… Thank you, grandma!)

(Please note that I am bi-racial, and my family uses Black more than African-American in our self-descriptions; you’ll see me switch between these terms, and sometimes switch cases (Black or black) in my writing.)

This is also a book about remarkable scientific advances that occurred in during an ethically horrific era, in which studies were performed on people, especially African-Americans and institutionalized people, without their consent.

And of a highly ethical, profoundly curious, deeply committed biologist who wanted to know where HeLa cells REALLY came from, and worked for years with the family of Henrietta Lacks to learn the human story behind the cells.

This book is an emotional roller coaster! From scientific research challenges, to scientists sharing technology freely, to religious Lacks family members who feared their relative was being cloned and that her soul would never rest, to disabled children suffering through medical experiments their families didn’t consent to, to temperamental collaborators, this isn’t the story I was expecting, but it was a remarkable tale, and the audio books was produced to be an amazing ‘listen.’

I recommend this book highly for anyone interested in cell culture, biotechnology, genetic rights, the horrors of mental institutions for the poor, informed consent, being black in the 1950s in the US, and science sleuthing! Sloot does an amazing job of telling the story of writing the book within the book, which is a true adventure. What an author! What a researcher!

News: Johns Hopkins Vaccine News Hub

There is now enough good vaccine news that Johns Hopkins has a page devoted to these developments.

Here in the U.S., the vaccines I’m reading about daily and which give me encouragement are made by: (a) Pfizer and BioNTech, (b) Moderna, and (c) AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Vaccines in Russia and China are also ‘in play,’ which is hugely beneficial for the world, since as many nations as possible need to contribute solutions and ensure they are available globally.

Internet Rabbit Hole: Caffeine toxicology… in frogs

Long story, short: someone was assaulted with a hot cup of coffee yesterday, and I wound up discussing the impacts of caffeine on the skin.

Caffeine CAN be absorbed through the skin (which was a running joke in the Sylvia comic strip by Nicole Hollander, in which the protagonist started developing elaborate wardrobes for her cats after using caffeinated soap, and the cats begged her to stop), and is a fashionable item in cosmetics (it constricts blood vessels, and so can reduce some types of swelling).

But somehow, I wound up reading that caffeine is also a highly effective pesticide against invasive species of frogs in Hawaii. This makes some sense to me, based on my limited understanding of amphibians and their sensitive, not-especially-protective skin.

Art/Science: Citrus Botanical Illustrations

This is a reminder that many citrus fruit used to have insanely thick peels, the way some pomelos do:

An early-modern ode to citrus fruit – in pictures

Johann Christoph Volkamer was a 17th -century Nuremberg silk merchant with passion for gardening that defined his life. He was obsessed with citrus fruit at a time when the genus was largely unknown in northern Europe. In 1708, he commissioned 256 plates of 170 varieties of the fruit – images collected in a new book by Prof Iris Lauterbach called JC Volkamer.

Art/Science: Marianne North’s botanical paintings

Details from the Kew Gardens postcard box collection of Marianne North’s work. I’m delighted to have come across this, and know I’ll need to keep some of these for myself, though my pen friends will enjoy all the others!

If you’ve read any of my prior blogs, you know I love scientific illustrations, both by hand and with photographs, especially for botany. I’m delighted to now have a Kew Gardens (UK) postcard box dedicated to Marianne North’s botanical oil paintings.

Kew has a collection of more than 800 of her oil paintings, which were not only attractive, but also novel for her time: they were painted in oil paints, when the convention was watercolor; and they were painted with details of their native environment, not just on a white background. North had been impressed by Kew’s plant collection, and wanted to go to where those plants came from, to study them in the field. Though her father had died and she was unmarried, she was wealthy enough to ignore conventions requiring her to travel under a male relative’s supervision, and set off at age 40 to explore 15 countries over 14 years.

I love that she painted a pitcher plant that had not previously been documented by Europeans, which excited the botanists, who worked her name into the formal species name. (I always have an issue with Europeans naming things outside of Europe after themselves, rather than getting input from local people IN that region, but in this instance I’m consoled that they at least named it after a female artist who called their attention to it.)

Marianne North Gallery

More than 800 remarkable paintings cover the walls of the Marianne North Gallery. A vivid collection of 19th century botanical art, the gallery is a treat for both art lovers and adventurous minds. As a woman who defied convention, North travelled the world solo to record the tropical and exotic plants that captivated her.

I like her work; I like her convictions about including the natural settings, which themselves convey a great deal of information; and I am impressed that she could do so much in oil paint, which I think of as requiring more time (to dry especially) and requiring much heavier supplies (and solvents!). I like that Julia Margaret Cameron photographed her in Sri Lanka. (I hadn’t known that JMC even WENT to Sri Lanka…)

Kew’s collection isn’t an accident: North not only gave it to them, she paid for, designed, and staged the building her collection resides in. She could afford to share her work and love of plants on a rather grand scale, and she did.

I’m enjoying her work (I love many of the plants she loved), and love the quality of the postcard collection, which will allow me to ply my friends with her art.

Book: Earth: Bernhard Edmaier Colors of the Earth

Gorgeous cover of the gorgeous through and through book by Bernhard Edmaier

Earth: Bernhard Edmaier Colors of the Earth
by Bernhard Edmaier
published by Phaidon
2013

Edmaier’s aerial photography work is justifiably famous; Phaidon is my favorite photography book publisher; this oversized photography book combining what I appreciate about each is a fantastic work, especially for those of you who enjoy geology.

This book is FULL of geology. Geology which is composed beautifully and makes me think of the abstract paintings I am so fond of.

This isn’t JUST a book of beautiful photography which happens to be organized by color: it is also filled with scientific explanations for the colors and forms in the images. I hereby give a special shout out to iron oxide, for all the magic it does around the world!

Before you ask: OF COURSE there are images of volcanoes, volcanic cones, and LAVA. And oceans, and coral reefs, and icebergs that have just turned over and are glassy and clear, and glowing blue pools of meltwater, and…

One of countless remarkable images of the natural world, so skillfully captured by Edmaier.

You’ll learn something new about how crystals or mountains formed; you’ll want to fly to remote islands and volcanoes to see their remarkable textures; you’ll have a new appreciation for all the colors a glacier can feature. My tiny, low-resolution teaser images won’t do this heavy, beautifully produced book justice, but I can say that I recommend it with great zeal.

You likely could have guessed this, but Bernhard Edmaier has a fantastic website, which reveals that he did study geology, and which features other books of his, some of which I don’t yet own. (Oh-oh.)

Enjoy the beauty of the natural world, and especially its geology, through the work of this talented photographer.

Science: Local COVID-19 Research

As scientific and medical teams around the world race to find preventions, treatments, and cures for SARS-CoV-2, I did get excited by this extremely novel research that is being done at my own local university / hospital, UCSF. It needs to be tested, of course, but it’s exciting to read about such a different approach.

‘AeroNabs’ Promise Powerful, Inhalable Protection Against COVID-19

As the world awaits vaccines to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, UC San Francisco scientists have devised a novel approach to halting the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Led by UCSF graduate student Michael Schoof, a team of researchers engineered a completely synthetic, production-ready molecule that straitjackets the crucial SARS-CoV-2 machinery that allows the virus to infect our cells.

The idea that llamas, camels, and other animals have completely different ways of managing their immune systems reminds me of my past concerns about the idea of engineering animals to produce medicines in their bodies for us to extract. That always felt entirely too risky, because we lack a deep understanding of their diseases. When you think of big pandemics, you’ll see why I say this: bird flu! swine flu! chicken pox! See the pattern? Zoonotic diseases, including our current global pandemic, are a serious global human health concern, so playing around with animal tissues without understanding that has always seemed unwise.

It seems like the research highlighted in this article can improve our understanding of animal immune systems in addition to potentially understanding zoonotic diseases, which should be beneficial. The new treatment also wouldn’t require needles, as any new vaccine may have supply chain problems for delivery into the patient, based on current information. Yaay, pursuit of knowledge!

Science: Research Rabbit Hole: Geology of Bermuda

I can’t even remember how it happened (perhaps it was triggered by sending a postcard to the French Overseas Department Réunion, which is an island off the coast of Madagascar, two days ago?), but I suddenly, very much needed to know how Bermuda, which lies in very isolated waters off the eastern coast of the United States, came to exist.

Answer: it is volcanic.

Bermuda Pedestal

The Bermuda Pedestal is an oval geological feature in the northern Atlantic Ocean containing the topographic highs of the Bermuda Platform, the Plantagenet (Argus) Bank, and the Challenger Bank. The pedestal is 50 km (31 mi) long and 25 km (16 mi) wide at the 100 fathom line (-185 m), while the base measures 130 km by 80 km at -4200 m.

I don’t think of the east coast of the US as volcanic generally, and while it is quite a distance from shore, it still feels like a surprise. A theory of a Bermuda Hotspot is uncertain.

I know our Pacific Ring of Fire isn’t the only site of tectonic plate volcanism, but outside of Iceland (which is quite wildly and unmistakably and actively volcanic), “Atlantic” and “volcanic” aren’t ideas that go together for me.

If Réunion did plant the conceptual seed of this need to know, it is likely because (yes) it is also volcanic, and the island has not one but TWO volcanoes: one dormant and the other quite active.

Piton de la Fournaise

Piton de la Fournaise ( French for “Peak of the Furnace”) is a shield volcano on the eastern side of Réunion island (a French department) in the Indian Ocean. It is currently one of the most active volcanoes in the world, along with Kīlauea in the Hawaiian Islands, Stromboli and Etna in Italy and Mount Erebus in Antarctica.

(Until sending this Réunion bound mail off, my prior association with Réunion was that a confirmed piece of missing flight plane MH-370 washed up there. )