Thursday, November 14, 2013

Armies of finger bones

I recently finished an editing assignment that had to do with the bones and musculature of the hand. The bones of the fingers (and the toes, as it turns out) are collectively called the phalanges. They're individually identified by which finger or toe they belong to and by their position. The proximal phalanx is the first one out from the center of the body (or more immediately, from the hand or the foot), the intermediate phalanx is the next one out, and the distal phalanx is the bone at the end of the finger or toe. The thumb and the big toe have only proximal and distal phalanges. I did not know that my little toes have three bones each.

Note that the singular of phalanges is phalanx. You may be familiar with this as an army formation used by the ancient Greeks in which several rows of soldiers stand close-packed side by side—just like the close-packed rows of finger bones and toe bones do, hence their name.

The word proximal is related to proximity, which both come from the Latin root proximus, meaning nearest or next. In anatomy, it's used to describe something that is closer to the center of the body or some other point of origin, such as where a muscle attaches. Distal was formed from distant plus the suffix -al to describe something that's furthest away from wherever the zero point is.

Distal was modeled after other anatomical terms: proximal, obviously, but also ventral and dorsal, among others. Your dorsal side is your back side; in Latin, dorsum means back. In the square dance step do-si-do, partners briefly dance back to back, which is what the original French term dos-à-dos means. The phrase was weathered down to do-si-do by English speakers.

Dorsal can also refer to the side of a particular organ or structure that is closer to the back, in humans and other animals. Note that in a quadruped or a fish, the dorsal side of something, or a dorsal structure, is going to be at the top, not the rear (think dorsal fin). This is why the upper surfaces of the hands and feet are called the dorsal surfaces. (I'll try to remember to use this the next time I drop something on my foot.)

Your ventral side is your front side, or the side where your belly is. The Latin word for belly is venter, which made it into French and Spanish as ventre and vientre, respectively. The Frence phrase ventre à terre is sometimes used in English. This idiom translates literally as belly to the ground, and if you're traveling ventre à terre, you're going very fast indeed.

Before Eadward Muybridge's freeze-frame snapshots of running horses, an artistic convention for indicating that a horse was galloping flat out was to show the animal with its front legs reaching out in front of it and its hind legs stretched out behind it, as if the horse was in mid-leap; this left its belly closer to the ground: ventre à terre. Muybridge, of course, showed how a horse really gallops.

It's possible that my dreams will be haunted by armies of fingers, but I'm hoping for square dancing or even galloping horses instead.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Woolly bears and northern stars

Woolly worm season is upon us. The other day I spotted one of these fuzzy caterpillars behind my car, and I moved it to avoid backing over it. Woolly worms were one of the many surprises that awaited me when I moved to Indiana. The first one I ever saw was hitching a ride on a letter I was pulling out of the mailbox; it surprised me considerably, not least because I'd never seen anything like it in the desert where I came from, and certainly not in the mailbox.

What it was doing there I'll never know, but it was probably looking for a peaceful dark place to spend the winter. The woolly worm is the larva of the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. It's also called the banded woolly bear. The second generation of each year overwinters as caterpillars, generating their own antifreeze to protect themselves from damage due to freezing, and pupates in the spring, becoming a nondescript pale orange moth.

The caterpillar, on the other hand, has a distinctive pattern of coloration, appearing a coppery orange in the middle and black at the ends. The width of the central band varies, and folk wisdom says that it indicates how severe the coming winter will be. However, this is no more than a charming folktale, autumn's counterpart to Groundhog Day. The width of the stripe varies with the age of the caterpillar and how well it has eaten.

Many of the tiger moths have fuzzy caterpillars. These moths belong to a family called Arctiidae, although some taxonomists have proposed rearranging the family tree so that they belong to the subfamily Arctiinae in the family Erebidae. Either way, the family or subfamily takes its name from the Greek word arktos, or bear, because the caterpillars are collectively known as woolly bears.

We also see this Greek root in the word arctic, which comes from arktikos, meaning of the bears. The bears here are the northern constellations that today go by the Latin names Ursa Major and Ursa Minor; they contain the Big and Little Dippers. There's also a star called Arcturus; the name can be translated as the Guardian of the Bears, and evidently was given to the star for its position in the sky not too far from the starry Ursae. It's just another example of the wide range of some Greek roots.

Learn more:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

How is a delphinium like a dolphin?

Sometimes it seems like everything is named for a resemblance to something else. This is a story of the similarity-based links among two flowers, three birds, and a cetacean. Oh, yes: and an amphibian.

I recently read a short story in which a New England matron establishes a garden club in her town because she's the local expert in delphiniums and lilies. By the magic of associative thinking, the constellation of Delphinus, the dolphin, sprang readily to my mind when I saw the word delphinium. What, I wondered, could possibly link the two? (Delphinus itself, a small constellation in the summer sky, is shaped like an elongated diamond; like most other constellations, it requires a good deal of imagination to see the thing it's named for.)

Beautiful view of a single delphinium
flower; you can see the nectary quite
clearly, although the dolphin  resemblance
does not appear to be strong for this
species. ©Tom Hilton under a Creative
Commons  Attribution License
The flower, as it turns out, is called delphinium, after the Latin word for dolphin, because the nectary (where the nectar comes from) sticks out behind the flower and is somewhat curved, resembling the sleek curvy front end of a dolphin. The back side of the flower, in other words, looks like the front side of the dolphin. Multiple flowers appear on a single stalk, each with a more or less extravagant projection behind it.

This would be the end of the story, except that the delphinium is also called the larkspur, because that nectary projecting out the back side also resembles the projecting structure called a spur on a lark's foot. (Technically, larkspur is used to refer to flowers in the genus Delphinium and also to some in the genus Consolida, We will leave Consolida for another day.)

This brings us to the other flower, the columbine (genus Aquilegia), which is named for not one but (possibly) two birds. These lovely airy blooms that dance in the spring breezes have inspired a number of imaginative comparisons. Aquilegia may come from aquila, the Latin word for eagle, because the flowers resemble the claw of an eagle. (Coincidentally, the constellation of Aquila appears not too far from Delphinus in the sky.) An alternative explanation is that Aquilegia comes from the Latin word for water bearer, because each part of the distinctive flower looks like an amphora, or water jug; amphorae typically had a pointed end that could be placed in soft earth to hold the jug upright.

The second bird this flower is named for is the dove, columba in Latin, because the flower as a whole is thought to resemble a group of doves. If the eagle story is true, this flower is named for both the warlike eagle and the peaceful dove.

At this point in my research, I became aware of a dim memory stirring in the back of my mind: Don't some churches have something called a columbarium? They do, and it's not where they keep the doves. It's a place for the proper storage of funeral urns containing the ashes of the dead. However, the urns are stored in an arrangement of compartments that is similar to that used in a dovecote.

Oh yes: the amphibian. The columbine and the delphinium are both members of the Ranunculaceae family. The family takes its name from the ranunculus, which in turn takes its name from the Latin for little frog. The resemblance here is not visual; like frogs, ranunculus like to live near water.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Midnight moths and primrose genes

Moonrise over White Sands. Image courtesy of Patrick Alexander
under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

It's easy to talk about science or science history in the abstract, especially when you're thinking about long stretches of time, and to lose sight of what it means to actually do science. So how about a video showing scientific research being done in the field?

Episode 4 of the series Plants Are Cool, Too!, "Sundrops and Hawk Moths," features host Chris Martine of Bucknell University and Krissa Skogen of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Skogen studies native pollinators (pollinators other than honeybees, basically), and the video shows her at work at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. She's looking at the interaction between the hawk moth and some primrose species at White Sands.

It's a cool video. I'd never seen anyone unroll a moth's proboscis and collect pollen from it, and I didn't know that you could gather the scent from a single flower and compare it with the scent from other flowers. One of the interesting things about the moths is that they cover much greater distances than bees and don't have any kind of a home to return to. The most evocative line in the whole video was the one about moths spreading the genes of these plants around. Not to mention that White Sands is a magical setting. Enjoy!

Full disclosure: My son, Patrick Alexander, Postdoctoral Curator at the NMSU Department of Biology Herbarium, helped with the production of this film.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The noble genus Vitis

Grapes growing in Montmartre in Paris. Because
it was June, they were nowhere near ripe. This part
of Paris has a long history of wine-making (and
wine drinking), from a Roman temple dedicated
to Bacchus to a medieval winery where nuns
pressed the grapes, and on into the present-day
cultivation of this old neighborhood vineyard.
The wine harvest is nearing its end, so this seems like a good time to look at the different species of grapes that are used for wine. When I first began to take a serious interest in wine, the differences between varieties and species were very fuzzy to me. I'm still sorting out the varieties, most of which come with fascinating but confusing historical baggage involving different names depending on the place and time.

Species are easier. For starters, all types of wine grapes fall within the genus Vitis, named for the Latin word for grape vine. Within that genus, most wine grapes are varieties of Vitis vinifera, although grapes from this species are also eaten fresh or dried. This species first arose in central Europe, southwestern Asia, and the lands around the Mediterranean. Because yeast occurs naturally on the grape skins, they would ferment if left to themselves. It's not clear when humans first discovered and exploited the products of fermentation, but they've been playing around with grape fermentation for a very long time.

Vinifera translates roughly from Latin as wine-bearing. Note that -fer (meaning carry or bear) is all over the place in other words: transfer (carry across), refer (carry back), Lucifer and phosphor (light-bearer; both used to be names for the morning star), and metaphor (carry over, in the sense of carrying meaning).

Vitis labrusca is a North American species that contains both varieties used for wine and varieties used in juice or jam (for example, the Concord is a V. labrusca variety).  Labrusca is the Latin word for a wild grape, and these grapes are noted for a particular earthy musky flavor. The wines they make are very grape-juicy, maybe not ultra-sophisticated but very appealing in their way. Catawba and Niagara are probably the varieties you're mostly likely to see in wines.

Wines are also made from the North American grape Vitis aestivalis. Aestivales comes from the Latin word for summer, although it's not clear why that name was given to this species. The cultivar Norton is thought to be the first American grape used in commercial wine production, and it's still an important grape in Missouri and parts of the eastern US.

Vitis riparia, named from the Latin word for the riverbanks where it likes to grow, is important for wine because it is used as a root stock that provides V. vinifera grapes with genes for cold tolerance, disease resistance, and resistance to phylloxera. Another grape used as root stock is Vitis rupestris; rupestris is a botanical and zoological term that comes from Latin; it means essentially living on or near rocks and appears in other species names as well.

Phylloxera is historically one of the most notable grape pests; it swept through Europe in the late 19th century, inspiring viticulturists to use resistant root stocks and develop hybrids. In the name phylloxera, we once again encounter the Greek root phyllo (leaf), which we have seen before in chlorophyll and phyllosilicate. The -xera part of the name comes from a Greek word for dry; we also see it in xeroscaping (landscaping in dry areas with native desert plants) as well as xerography and Xerox (the company applied a "dry" process of photographic duplication that did not involve the use of a liquid developer). Phylloxera is a pest that sucks the sap from the roots and leaves of grape plants.

Of course, this simple picture is made tremendously more complex (and more rewarding) by the presence of so many varieties of wine grapes within the species V. vinifera, each suited to a particular climate and soil type, not to mention the existence of many hybrids. But getting into that would take a lifetime.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Infinitesimal calculus and renal calculus

I ran across the phrase renal calculus, another name for a kidney stone, and wondered whether it was related to the calculus you learn in a math class. It turns out that it is, and the link is limestone.

Calx is the Latin word for limestone; it comes from the Greek word khalix, or pebble. The diminutive form of calx in Latin, calculus, was originally used to refer to a pebble used for counting and simple calculations. The Latin word calculus thus forms the basis for the English word calculate

Calculus can be used in English to refer to any system of calculation using symbols, although it is used primarily for the indispensable mathematical tool developed by Leibniz and Newton in the 17th century to describe and study change. This was originally called the calculus of infinitesimals, later shortened to infinitesimal calculus; I think this is why you sometimes hear people talking about, for example, the history of the calculus instead of simply the history of calculus.

It's obviously a short step from the pebbles used to reckon your accounts to the pebbles that cause such misery in the urinary system or in the gall bladder. Calculus is now used to refer to any type of accidental accretion in the body. Now that I think about it, I have vague recollections of puzzling over the thought of calculus on the teeth, perhaps when I was the target of a dental health campaign in grade school. Dental calculus is essentially hardened plaque, perhaps the first step on the road to gum disease. I will generously share all of what I remember learning about it: Brush! Floss!

The Latin root calx also made it into English in the name of the element calcium, which is a major constituent of limestone (and coincidentally is also found in some kidney stones). Renal, by the way, comes from the Latin word for kidney, ren.

Learn more:
  • Why Do We Study Calculus? gives a brief history of calculus and its applications and explains why it's worth learning
  • Free online math courses at Open Culture
  • French composer Marin Marais wrote "A Description of the Removal of a Stone" in 1725, which is thought to depict the horrors of an operation to remove a bladder stone (the first gallstone operation didn't occur until later). This article lists the brief descriptions in the score, which are worth reading, but note that the article identifies the operation, apparently incorrectly, as a gallstone removal. 
  • [Added October 23]: A friend sent links to an analysis and a performance of the Marais piece. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Geological epochs and regrettable barbarisms

The other day I was poking around online reading about rocks and dinosaurs when I should have been working, as people do, and I discovered that what I knew as the Cretaceous–Tertiary (KT) boundary is also called the Cretaceous–Paleogene (KP) boundary. (K is used instead of C to make it easier to pronounce.) You may be familiar with this boundary as marking the extinction of the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago. Well, one thing led to another, and I learned some interesting things about the names of recent geologic periods and epochs.

Geologists originally categorized Earth's crustal rocks from oldest to most recent as Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary. Because each type was associated with a particular period in Earth's history, you could also talk about, for example, the Tertiary period. However, most of these geological time periods have since been placed into a larger framework, broken down into finer-grained subdivisions, and given generally more informative names.

As part of this process, the Tertiary (66 million to 2.6 million years ago) and the Quaternary (2.6 million years ago to the present day) were once assigned to the Cenozoic era. (Eras are longer than periods but shorter than eons.) However, as scientists learned more about the fossils of the Cenozoic, it began to make more sense to split the Tertiary itself into two periods, the Paleogene and the Neogene, on the basis of the fossils found in rocks of each period. These names were proposed in Europe and adopted only slowly by North American geologists.

The Paleogene is the older of the two periods; the name comes roughly from the Greek phrase ancient-born. However, it's part of the Cenozoic era, which translates more or less as recent life. (The Cenozoic is preceded by the Mesozoic and Paleozoic: middle life and ancient life, respectively.) Ceno- comes from the Greek word kainos, meaning new or recent, and we also see this root in the -cene ending in the sequence of epochs running from the Paleocene to the Holocene.

Wait, Paleocene? Wouldn't that mean something like ancient recent? Indeed it would. Not only is the Paleogene (ancient-born) part of the Cenozoic (recent life), but the Paleocene epoch could be translated as something like the ancient recent epoch.

It actually makes perfect sense. Compared to the Paleozoic, which stretches from 541 million years ago to 252 million years ago, the Cenozoic is recent indeed. However, the Cenozoic itself contains older and more recent epochs. Imagine that you trade in your old car for a new one frequently; you may find yourself explaining to a confused friend that the Toyota was your old new car, and your new new car is a Honda. It's something like that with the -cene epochs, all more recent than what came before but needing to be subdivided somehow according to their relative ages.

From oldest to most recent, these epochs  are the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene. The names Paleocene and Holocene make nice bookends: the ancient recent epoch and the entirely recent epoch (holo- comes from the Greek word for whole, which we also see in holographic and holistic). The epochs in between make sense, although evidently not if you know much about Greek grammar.

Eo- comes from eos, the Greek word for dawn, and is used to describe the earliest appearance of something, in this case modern fossils. Oligo-, mio-, plio-, and pleisto- are based on Greek words ranging in meaning from few to most, and they refer to increasing numbers of modern fossils, or increasing degree of recentness. H.W. Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, took a very dim view of these coinages, or, as he called them, "regrettable barbarisms." His entry for Miocene described the word as
A typical example of the monstrosities with which scientific men in want of a label for something, and indifferent to all beyond their own province, defile the language. The elements of the word are Greek, but not the way they are put together, nor the meaning demanded of the compound.
If this seems harsh, keep in mind that in the 19th century when these names were coined, every educated person was expected to have learned Greek. Fowler made this point not because he thought the words could be changed; he knew they were too well-established for that. His hope was that scientists "may some day wake up to their duties to the language—duties much less simple than they are apt to suppose." I'm guessing that he would also find the recent coinage Anthropocene similarly wanting or perhaps even worse. However, he is not here to comment, and my more recent edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, edited by R. W. Burchfield, is far more temperate, noting that "the time has come for the hatchet to be buried. A simple irreg. suffices" to characterize these words.

The geologic time scale is a fascinating thing full of evocative names. We'll come back to it again, I'm sure.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Season of anthocyanin and carotenoids

Fall color on the Mogollon Rim, Arizona,
October 2009. Photo by Gary Garner.
Credit: U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern
Region, Coconino National Forest. Made
available under a CC License.

This is one of my very favorite times of year; on sunny days, the low-angle sunlight makes the colorful leaves on the trees glow. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," Keats wrote in his poem To Autumn, but it's also the season of some interesting chemistry. To celebrate the brilliant hues of Northern Hemisphere autumn, today we'll look at the names of the chemicals that give the leaves their color.

The green in leaves in the spring and summer comes from chlorophyll, the chemical that makes photosynthesis possible. The word chlorophyll was coined in the early 19th century. It has two Greek roots. Khloros means pale green, and phyllon means leaf. (We've seen that one before, in phyllosilicate, which describes clay minerals with thin sheets, or leaves, of silica; it also appears in phyllo dough.)

Leaves also contain carotenoids during much of their lifetimes. These pigments provide yellow, red, and orange colors in the plant world. For example, in about six months we'll be seeing the cheery yellow of a carotenoid in daffodils. As some fruits mature, we see the chlorophyll slowly disappear as the green fruit ripens to yellow, orange, or red. You may have heard of lycopenes or β-carotene, which are considered micronutrients in foods. (I talked about lycopenes and their unlikely etymological connection to wolves in an earlier post.) The words carotene and carotenoid come from carote, the Latin word for that iconic orange vegetable, the carrot.

Something similar to the ripening of fruit happens in leaves in the fall: as trees prepare for winter and shut down photosynthesis in their leaves, the chlorophyll fades away and the carotenoids that they contain become more obvious. In addition, some fruits and many trees also begin to produce another pigment, anthocyanin, in response to the shorter days of fall. It also contributes to the colors of the fall foliage as the chlorophyll disappears. Anthocyanin, like chlorophyll, comes from two Greek roots: anthos, for flower, and kuanos, for blue.

So now you know what sets the woods and tree-lined streets ablaze: the chlorophyll is disappearing, and the carotenoids and anthocyanin are shining forth. It goes by fast; enjoy!

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy Sputnik Day!

On October 4, 1957, the world launched its first satellite, Sputnik 1, into Earth orbit. Yes, it was specifically the part of the world identified at the time as the USSR, but I hope that in time it will be seen as the purely human achievement it was. In honor of this satellite launch, which began the space age and pushed the US into a ferment of frustrated pride and compensatory science education, we'll look at some spacecraft named for notable humans. (Sputnik, by the way, is simply the Russian word for satellite.)

The first name that comes to mind when you think of satellites named for humans may be the Hubble Space Telescope, named for Edwin Hubble. His achievements were many, but the high points are his discovery that the spiral nebulae are actually independent galaxies separate from our own, and that the light from these galaxies is redshifted in proportion to their distance. (He also played basketball at the University of Chicago and taught at a high school in New Albany, Indiana.)

The successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, is named for NASA's second administrator. Webb was in office from February 1961 (a few months before Alan Shepard became the first US man in space) until October 1968, shortly before Apollo 8 flew to the moon and orbited it. He left office to free Lyndon Johnson's successor to appoint his own NASA administrator. Leaving NASA in October 1968 seems like it must have been a difficult sacrifice. The JWST is planned for launch in 2018.

The Hubble Space Telescope was one of NASA's Great Observatories. The others were:
  • the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, named for Arthur Holly Compton, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for work in gamma ray physics
  • the Chandra X-ray Observatory, named for Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, another Nobel Prize winner (1983) for his work on the death throes of massive stars (Chandra also means moon in Sanskrit.)
  • the Spitzer Space Telescope, covering the other end of the spectrum in the infrared; it was named for Lyman Spitzer, Jr., an astronomer and an early proponent of space-based telescopes
You may have heard this summer about a new map of the cosmic microwave background, the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. That map came from data from Planck, a European Space Agency mission that has been examining the CMB, which is quite smooth, for irregularities that might indicate the origins of the clumpy structure of today's universe. Max Planck was a German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918 for his work in establishing quantum theory.

Some notable missions have been named for much earlier astronomers. Cassini, a NASA mission that's been orbiting Saturn and making spectacular observations since 2004, is named for Giovanni Cassini, a 17th century astronomer who discovered four of Saturn's moons and the most prominent of the gaps in Saturn's rings (now called the Cassini Division). The mission included a probe that landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The probe was named Huygens, after another 17th century scientist, Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan and made many other contributions to science.

Galileo, a similarly long-lived and successful NASA mission that explored Jupiter, is named for Galileo Galilei, one of the great figures in the history of science and the first to turn a telescope onto the night sky and write about what he saw there.

Johannes Kepler, who lived around the same time as Galileo and formulated the three laws of planetary motion that made sense of planetary motion in the solar system, also has a space-based NASA observatory named for him. The Kepler mission monitored the brightnesses of stars to look for minute periodic differences that would indicate the presence of a planet crossing the face of a star and blocking some of its light. It has found 134 confirmed exoplanets and another 3,277 candidates. Although the mission is halted at the moment due to an equipment failure, it may yet continue its search.

The last two missions I'll mention are named for scientists who lived much earlier than any of the others I've talked about. India's first satellite was named for Aryabhata, an Indian mathematician and astronomer who lived in the sixth century of the common era and had some astonishingly accurate knowledge of the solar system for his time. The satellite was used to conduct astronomical research for four days in 1975. The Greek astronomer Hipparchus lived even longer ago, in the second century before the common era. Hipparcos, an ESA mission, was named for him; the name is actually a somewhat strained acronym for High precision parallax collecting satellite. It gathered extremely precise data on the positions of well over 100,000 stars, providing a very accurate catalog to join the other astronomical data sources I wrote about in an earlier post.

Although science is not generally connected with warm human feelings or meaningful human traditions, these names illustrate the continuous thread of international human connections and memories that runs through astronomy and physics. They remind us that despite Cold War competition and other rivalries, a similar thread runs through every field of science.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How are your muscles like mice?

The word muscle comes from the Latin musculus, which means little mouse. But why? It's because the rippling movement of certain muscles under the skin was thought to resemble the movement of a mouse. My mental image—and it is not a pleasant one—is of a mouse running or moving underneath a thin rug or blanket. Although it's an unnerving image, I can see the connection.

The Greek word mŷs can also mean either mouse or muscle; this word gives us the prefix myo-, as in myalgia (muscle pain) or myocardial infarction (damage to or death of the muscular tissue of the heart due to lack of oxygen).

While we're looking at the human body, we can examine another unexpected connection, this one between the skeleton and arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Skeleton is ultimately derived from the Greek verb skellein, to dry up, via skeletos (dried up) and skeletos soma (dried-up body).

Skellein is related to skleros, meaning hard, a natural enough association with dried things. This made its way into Latin and then English as sclero, which is combined with other roots to form words. It appears in the the word scleroderma, for example, the name of a skin condition, often painful, in which the skin becomes hardened. And arteriosclerosis is any thickening and hardening of the arteries.

So there you have it: muscles like mice and a skeleton consisting of what's left after everything else has dried up and blown away. I look forward to investigating more of the poetry of anatomy.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Greek, Latin, or a little of both?

Sometimes I worry that I'll describe the origin of a word incorrectly because I get my Greek and Latin roots confused. At this distance, it's easy to see all the Greek and Roman words and deities as a combined source rather than remembering that Greek and Latin are two distinct languages representing different cultures and different times. And, in fairness to 21st century humans trying to keep things straight, Latin borrowed from Greek, and the sciences have sometimes taken words from both languages to describe the same thing.

In a post last week about chemical elements named for places, I mentioned the name tellurium, which comes from the Latin goddess of the Earth, Tellus. Actually, the Romans used two terms to refer to Earth: Tellus and Terra, or Terra Mater (mother Earth). The latter name may be an outright borrowing of the Greek religious concept of mother Earth, Gaea (or Gaia, or Ge Mater).

Both the Greek and the Roman names for mother Earth come down to us in science, in part because eventually Latin borrowed the prefix geo from Greek. Ge Mater is obviously the inspiration of geology, geography, geodesy, geometry, and geode. Terra Mater is where we get terrestrial (and terrain, and terrarium).

There's a similar split in the names for things associated with the moon. The Greek goddess of the moon, Selene, gave her name to the element selenium and to the study of the moon, selenology. However, the term lunar, derived from the name of the Roman moon goddess Luna, is much more prominent, and selenology is generally called lunar science. Mars and Martian come from the Roman god, but we also use areology, from the Greek god Ares, to describe the study of the...errr..geology of Mars.

I suspect I'm not the first one to be confused; selenium was named after the moon analogously to tellurium after Earth, but selenium is from the Greek deity and tellurium is from the Roman deity. Furthermore, the term aurora borealis gets aurora from the Roman goddess of the dawn (for its beautiful colors) and borealis from the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas.

I'll try hard to keep my roots straight, but I can't feel too bad about seeing Greek and Latin as, if not a single source, at least two deeply interconnected sources.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cucurbits, nightshades, and drupes: Part 3

Sometimes life really is a bowl of cherries.
©Emily Carlin under a CreativeCommons license.
This is the third and final post in a series on some of the most glorious plant families of the summer garden and orchard. Part 1 covered cucurbits, and part 2 discussed nightshades. Today the drupes of the Prunus family have their turn.

The genus Prunus includes plums, apricots, cherries, and peaches, among other stone fruits. This type of fruit, a fleshy mass surrounding a large pit, is called a drupe. Drupe comes from the Greek word for olive, a fine representative of the type.

The plums we eat are generally Prunus domestica. The Greeks called them prounon, and the Romans called them prunus. The Latin name worked its way into Germanic languages with an R instead of an L, giving us the word plums, at least when they're fresh. The dried ones are prunes, although I understand that this word has become so firmly associated with constipation and old age that the prune-sellers are pushing the term "dried plums." Plums gave their name to the entire Prunus genus.

The Romans called peaches malum Persicum, for Persian apple; the scientific name retains the Persian attribution: Prunus persica, or Persian plum. Although the Romans obviously thought that the peach came from Persia, its genes tell a different story: it probably came from China before making its way to Persia and thence to the Romans and eventually the rest of us. Time changed the shortened Latin name persica to pessica and then to pesca; at that point (medieval Latin), it made its way into French as peche, and then into English as peach.

The peach shares a subgenus, Amygdalus, with the almond. (If you look inside a peach pit, you'll see a little kernel that bears more than a passing resemblance to an almond. This kernel contains a compound that can decompose into hydrogen cyanide. Opinions differ on how dangerous these things are to consume, but I'm going to play it safe and advise you not to eat them, feed them to the dog, or otherwise oversee their ingestion.) I mention the Amygdalus subgenus so that I can also mention that the amygdala in your brain got its name because it's almond-shaped.

Apricots are currently Prunus armenaica (which translates as Armenian plum), but their first official botanical name was Mala armenaica (another apple!). Again, though, they actually originated in China. The English name comes from the Latin word praecoquis by a very circuitous route. The Latin word means "early ripening"; apricots were originally thought to be a type of peach that ripened earlier than the peaches people already knew about. From Latin, the word traveled into Greek, where it sprouted a variant plural form, berikókkia. Arabic borrowed that word as barqūq, and that's the name that southwestern Europe got hold of during the period of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula. The word entered English as abrecock, probably from a Spanish variant on the Arabic term. French picked it up, probably from the same source, as abricot, and that spelling likely influenced the shift in the English word to its present form in the late 16th century. Whew!

Cherry has a much simpler story: from Greek kerasós to Latin ceresia or cerasia and on into Old French as cherise (and thence to today's French word for this fruit, cerise). The English word lost the s at the end because it was misconstrued as indicating the plural. Something similar happened to pease, which was originally a collective (non-count) noun, like interference, that could be used as a singular noun if you needed to refer to a single pea. However, because people took it for a plural word, the singular word pea was formed from it. Anyway, the cherries we eat are generally either Prunus avium (the sweet kind) or Prunus cerasus (the sour kind). Prunus avium can be translated as bird cherry, which will make a lot of sense to anyone who has had to share a cherry tree with the birds.

One last note, and a brief foray into another genus. The genus Prunus is in the family Rosaceae, which contains not just roses but apples and pears, and also the genus Rubus, which contains raspberries and blackberries. This is one of my very favorite groups of summer fruits. Not only are raspberries among the most luscious and luxurious of summer edibles, they're representatives of a type of fruit with a cool name: drupelets. They're called that because they consist of many small drupes.

It's a little late for any of these drupes at the Farmer's Market in my part of the country; I saw peaches and plums and even raspberries a couple of weeks ago, but they're probably about finished. If you're lucky enough that these summer yummies are still around, enjoy them in all their fresh local splendor.

Learn more:
  •  Determined gardeners might like to see the list of all the plants in the genus Prunus at Dave's Garden.
  • If you are hoping to find your own local cucurbits, nightshades, and drupes, you might be interested in Local Harvest, which will help you find Farmer's Markets, CSAs, and more, in your area.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Elemental places

A surprising number of chemical elements are named for places. (Well, it surprised me, anyway.)

Many of the elements that have been identified since the late 18th century are named for their places of discovery. Would you have guessed that more of these elements are named for Scandinavia or Scandinavian cities than for any other geographical location? One town, Ytterby, accounts for no fewer than four of the names: erbium, terbium, ytterbium, and yttrium. There is also hafnium (from Hafnia, the Latin name for Copenhagen), holmium (from Holmia, or Stockholm), scandium (from Scandia, or Scandinavia), and thulium (from another ancient name for Scandinavia, or the far north: Thule).

Here are the other "modern" elements named for places:

  • The continent of Europe has its namesake, Europium.
  • Francium and gallium (from the Latin Gallia) are named for France, although the latter may also a pun on the middle name of its discoverer, Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran; le coq, French for rooster, is gallus (chicken) in Latin. Lutetium comes from Lutetia, the Latin name for what would become Paris. 
  • Germanium, of course, is named for Germany, and Hassium comes from the Latin name for Hesse in Germany. Rhenium is named for a river, the Rhine (Rhenus in Latin), and Darmstadtium is named for the city of its discovery, Darmstadt.
  • Polonium is named for Poland, the homeland of its discoverer, Marie Curie.
  • Strontium is named for the small town of Strontian, Scotland, where the first specimen known to contain it was found in a lead mine.
  • Ruthenium comes from the Latin name for Russia, Ruthenia. Dubnium is named for the Russian research institute where it was discovered. 
  • Four elements are named for locales in the US. The series of names Berkelium, Californium, and Americium reads like a peculiar rendering of an address. Berkelium is joined by Livermorium, named only last year for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

A couple of the element names have a longer history:

  • Copper takes its name from Cyprus (Kupros to the Greeks), which was a huge source of copper in ancient times. (It's possible, however, that the island took its name from the metal.) The Latin Cyprium aes (metal from Cyprus) was shortened to cuprum (which accounts for the Cu on the periodic table).
  • As I noted in an earlier post, The Magnetes legacy, magnesium and manganese both take their names from an area in ancient Greece called Magnesia.

This may seem a bit of a stretch, but astronomical objects can be considered places too. (Just ask any astronaut who's been to the moon.) The following elements are named for places in the solar system:

  • Helium was first identified from its lines in the solar spectrum, and its name comes from the Greek name for the sun, helios.
  • Tellurium comes from the Latin tellus, or Earth. Selenium resembles tellurium and is named, by analogy, for the moon, although selene is the Greek word for the moon, not the Latin word.
  • Cerium and palladium are named for the first and second asteroids ever discovered, Ceres and Pallas, which were each discovered a couple of years before their respective elements.
  • Uranium, neptunium, and plutonium are named for the planets Uranus and Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto. The celestial objects in turn take their names from the Greek god of the sky, the Roman god of the sea, and the Greek god of the underworld. (Mercury the planet and Mercury the element were both named for the Roman god Mercury, so Mercury the element is not named for the planet.)

And finally, how about a place named for an element? Argentina got its name from the Latin word for silver, argentum.

Learn more:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cucurbits, nightshades, and drupes: Part 2

Sweet ted peppers, a variety of Capsicum
. I think these are waiting to be roasted
and marinated.
Welcome to part 2 in a series of posts about the late summer garden harvest. (Part 1, on the cucurbits, is here; part 3, on the drupes, is here.) Today we're going to look at the Solanaceae, or nightshades.

Solanaceae is a large family that includes edible species such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes, along with a great many other things (petunias, the hallucinogenic datura, and the poisonous deadly nightshade, for example). The origin of the name Solanaceae is unclear, but it may rest on an association of certain plants in the family with either the sun or with a soothing effect produced by ingesting them.

Sweet peppers, chili peppers, and tomatoes are New World plants. Those lovely things on the left are red peppers, fine specimens of the species Capsicum annuum, which is the most common of the cultivated Capsicum species.

Columbus brought back some variety of Capsicum annuum to Europe, and it was given the common name pepper because it was spicy, like the unrelated black pepper that Europeans were already familiar with, although it packed more of a punch. It's not clear where the genus name Capsicum came from, although it may be derived from the Latin capsa, or box, presumably for the blocky hollow shape of many varieties. Capsaicin, the name of the compound that gives chili peppers their heat, is derived from capsicum.

Call them love-apples or wolf peaches or
Gardener's Delight cherry tomatoes; by any
name, them's good eating. Photo by Andrew
Fogg (ndrwfgg on, available
under a Creative Commons attribution license.
The tomato, quintessential summer harvest and beloved of gardeners today, was once considered poisonous in Europe and North America. Columbus introduced it to Europe after his first voyage to the New World (it probably first appeared in Peru or Mexico). The plant's resemblance to deadly nightshade made it an object of suspicion, although it also made it possible for Linnaeus to correctly classify it as belonging to the same family, the Solanaceae.

An early common name in Europe was the German wolfpirisch, or wolf peach. The peach part was for its physical appearance, and the wolf part comes from a belief that the tomato, like nightshade, could be used to conjure werewolves. (Definitely an unsavory plant, then, in this early view.)

The scientific name is Solanum lycopersicum, and the species name lycopersicum is essentially the Latin version of wolf peach. As we saw in an earlier post, lyco comes from the Greek word for wolf; malum persicum, or Persian apple, is what the Romans called peaches. (We'll learn more about peaches later in the week when we talk about the drupes in the genus Prunus.) The wolfish connection lingers, linguistically anyway, in the name lycopene, which refers to an antioxidant compound found in tomatoes (and also red peppers, incidentally). The English common name, tomato, comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl.

Other early common names indicate more favorable views of the tomato. The Italian pomodoro, or golden apple,  suggests the relative speed with which Italian cooks (and eaters) adopted the tomato, first as decoration for the table and then as edible and even tasty. The French pomme d'amour or love-apple reflects the belief that it was an aphrodisiac.

In England and North America, it took longer to persuade people that tomatoes were harmless. I've read of people growing what they called love-apples as ornamental potted plants in 1850s America, believing they were poisonous to eat but appealing to the eye. There are competing stories for what finally moved tomatoes from poisonous to palatable in the public mind in the US, and the truth is shrouded in mystery. Suffice it to say that when Campbell's condensed tomato soup was introduced in 1897, the tomato was in the kitchen, and the garden, to stay.

We'll look at one more nightshade, this one from India rather than the Americas. The eggplant probably reached Europe some time in the early  Middle Ages. The English common name is traced back to yellow or white varieties grown in the 17th century that looked something like goose eggs or hen's eggs. The scientific name, Solanum melongena, has a more complicated history. Byzantine Greek borrowed and adapted the Arabic name, which in turn came from a Dravidian word. The Greek version, melitzána, then made it into medieval Latin, there to be picked up by botanists when it came time to assign an official name. Another Arabic word eventually morphed into the French aubergine and similar words in other languages.

Later in the week, we'll close this series with part 3, which will look at the drupes of the genus Prunus.

Learn more:

Friday, September 20, 2013


Sand dunes ripple within an impact crater
in Noachis Terra on Mars.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Given that the Mars rover Curiosity is in the news (it did not find methane in the planet's atmosphere, contrary to earlier reports), this seems like a good time to pass along something I learned this week about the geological periods on Mars.

Mars is currently not a very happening place, geologically speaking—at least in terms of big events like volcanic eruptions and such. Its geological history is divided into three major periods, the latest of which has lasted for three billion years and counting. (The Earth has four periods, most of which are subdivided fairly finely.) Each period is named for a place on the Martian surface where features typical of that time period appear. The interesting thing to me, as a word geek, is that an alternative naming system has been proposed based on the geochemical events that were going on during each period. First, the current names:

Noachian: This period is named for Noachis Terra, a plain in the southern hemisphere that  features some of the oldest landscapes on Mars, including large eroded craters. There may have been water: drainage networks formed by flowing water, and possibly even bodies of surface water. There were definitely impacts. This period lasted until about 3.7 billion years ago.

Hesperian: Hesperia Planum, also in the southern hemisphere, is a large lava plain. In Greek and Roman times, Hesperia was used to refer to the western regions. (For the Greeks, this was Italy; for the Romans, it was Spain.) Hesperus was the name given to Venus when it was visible in the evening, and the Hesperides were the nymphs who lived in a beautiful garden at the far western edge of the world. During the period named for this landform, there were lava flows and there was massive flooding that created outflow channels. It lasted until about three billion years ago (give or take; the boundary is fuzzy).

Amazonian: Amazonis Planitia, named after the mythical women warriors the Amazons, is a relatively young, smooth plain in the northern hemisphere, west of Olympus Mons. This period covers the last three billion years; there were lava flows (but not recently), glacial and other ice-related activity, and a whole lot of surface weathering.

The new names are:

Phyllocian: This runs through the early  Noachian, about four billion years ago, and is named for the clay (phyllosilicate) minerals that formed during this period. The phyllo in phyllosilicate is the same root as in phyllo dough, and it goes back to a Greek word for leaf. Phyllosilicate minerals consist of parallel sheets, or leaves, of silicate tetrahedra.

Theiikian: During this period, volcanoes provided sulfur dioxide, which combined with water to form sulfuric acid, ultimately leading to the formation of silicate minerals. Thion, the Classical Greek word for sulfur, was adapted for the name of this period, which lasted until about three and a half billion years ago.

Siderikan: Think rust. After the volcanoes went quiet and liquid water all but disappeared, the rocks on the surface sat and oxidized, as they do to this day. This period is named for the iron oxides that give Mars its orange-red color. In Classical Greek, the word for iron is sidéros.

So there you have it. Enjoy your weekend, and if you get the chance, look for Hesperus, aka Venus, in the west just after sunset.

Learn more:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Humors and temperaments, blood and phlegm

My last post was about the link between the words melancholy and choler, which are based on the Greek word for bile. Melancholy and choler were associated with black bile and yellow bile, respectively, which were two of the four humors in a system of ancient and medieval medicine. The humors were different fluids in the human body, and diseases were believed to arise from imbalances among them.

The English word humor in this sense came from French, which got it from Latin, specifically umor, or body fluid, which is related to the verb umere, or to be moist. The word humor in this sense is related to humid, which also has to do with dampness or moisture. Although the concept of four humors is a thing of the past, we still talk about the vitreous humor (literally glassy fluid), the gel-like substance that fills the eyeball between the lens and the retina.

The system of four humors was embedded in a complex web of associations. Each humor had its season and its organ in the body, and was thought to have attributes described by various permutations of the characteristics hot, cold, wet, and dry. For example, yellow bile, or choler, was thought to be hot, dry, and associated with summer and the spleen. (I haven't been able to find out what it means for a fluid to be dry; perhaps this is some sort of figurative use, as in dry wine, but I don't know.) 

This system was intended to provide guidelines for treating illness. It was eventually extended to personality types, or temperaments. Each temperament was seen as a particular blending of the four humors; the word comes from the Latin temperare, meaning to mix. Galen, who devised this system, identified nine temperaments; the four that are the most familiar today are the ones that he called choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic, each associated with one of the humors.

Sanguine comes from the Latin word for blood, sanguis, because the sanguine temperament was believed to result from an excess of blood. A sanguine person is an upbeat happy sort. We still use this word to mean optimistic or cheerful, although we no longer think it has anything to do with a healthy ruddy complexion. You also see this Latin root in sanguinary, which means involving bloodshed or bloodthirsty. I was puzzled by the similarity between these words until I learned how they're connected.

Phlegm is pretty much the phlegm we know, the only one of the humors to have made it down to today under the same name. Oddly enough, phlegm was thought to be cold and moist and associated with winter, but the Greek root from which it originally sprang, phlégma, has to do with inflammation and heat, which I suppose makes sense in the context of upper respiratory illnesses in which fever and phlegm coincide. The phlegmatic temperament was believed to be calm, even stolid or sluggish. The word is still used to describe calm, unemotional people.

In fact, although the humoral system of medicine and the concept of four temperaments have long since been overtaken by more sophisticated approaches1, the names of all four temperaments linger on as adjectives that describe people or attitudes. What is most interesting to me is that although we don't think of optimism in terms of blood any more, or depression or calmness in terms of black bile or phlegm, the link connecting the bitter fluid bile with irritability or anger remains strong. You can talk about the bilious rant you had to listen to, read a comments thread on some news article and marvel at the bile-filled invective, or vent your spleen. (Just don't vent it here, please.)

1 Well, more or less. The idea of four temperaments lives on, in mutated form, in some current personality systems, although psychology has pretty much settled on five aspects of personality known as the Big Five personality traits.

Learn more:
  • The History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (part of the NIH) has an overview of ancient Greek medicine (from the gods to Galen, what more could you ask?).
  • has a nice Four Humors page.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Choler and melancholy

You don't see the string chol in too many words except for fairly specialized terms in biochemistry or medicine, so I had to wonder whether there's some connection between the words choleric, melancholy, and cholesterol. There is, and you can throw the word cholera into the mix too.

Choler entered English around the 14th century as a borrowing from French, which got it from Latin. It meant either bile or a digestive complaint. The latter meaning ultimately came from the Greek word cholericós, or bilious, and in that sense, it's the ancestor of cholera, which originally probably referred to a serious gastrointestinal disorder in general and not just to what we today identify as cholera.

Bile was once associated with irritability and bad temper. Choler, of course, appears in choleric, which is still used today to describe an individual who is behaving irascibly. It was once considered essentially a personality type or tendency resulting from a preponderance of yellow bile (more on the four humors and their personality types on Wednesday).

Bile is synthesized in the liver and sent on to the gall bladder and thence to the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine1), where it plays an important role in the digestion of fats. Cholesterol is a waxy white crystalline substance that is also made in the liver. It was first found in gallstones (gall is another word for bile), and was originally called cholesterin. The name was derived from two Greek roots, cholé, or bile, and stereós, or solid; the word cholesterol came into use in 1894.

So what about melancholy? It was originally thought of as a morose outlook associated with a preponderance of black bile. Black bile was one of the four humors, or fluids, in ancient and medieval medicine, and was thought to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen. The Greek roots are mélanos, or black, and cholé. Mélanos also contributed to melanin, the name of a black pigment in human hair, skin, and eyes, and melanoma, the name of a dark-colored malignant skin tumor.

Melancholy also entered English around the 14th century via French and, ultimately, Latin. It was originally spelled melancolie or malancolie. The latter spelling arose because of a false association with the French word mal, or sickness (from the Latin malum, meaning misfortune or harm).

So there you have it, a somewhat unlikely set of companion words. Wednesday's post will cover the other two humors and their personality types.

1 The name duodenum is a shorter form of intestinum duodenum digitorum, which describes it as the intestine that is about as long as twelve finger-widths.

Learn more:

  • Although cholesterol is demonized today, it actually plays a vital role in your body. This Cholesterol Overview from How Stuff Works gives a fairly balanced picture.
  • Many, many words have been written on depression and melancholy. The Ode on Melancholy by John Keats is not a bad place to start.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The last Renaissance man?

September 14 marks the 244th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt's birth. He's probably not as well known as he should be; he was a fascinating person: an adventuresome traveler, a careful observer, a prolific writer, and a polymath who contributed to a wide range of scientific fields.

Humboldt was born in Berlin, and even as a child, he collected and labeled plants and bugs. In 1790, the year he turned 21, he published work on the mineralogy of basalts along the Rhine Rhiver, and this was followed by a flora of Freiburg in 1793 and an experimental work on muscles and nerve fibers in 1797. He was evidently insatiably curious and eager to prepare himself for life as a scientific explorer.

1814 self-portrait of Humboldt.
His first big trip, from 1799 to 1804, took him to South America. On this Latin American journey, he visited Venezuela (including a trip up the Orinoco River), Cuba, Colombia, and Ecuador. Before returning to Europe, he visited the US and was a guest of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote of Humboldt: "The treasures of information which he possesses are inestimable ... ." Back in Europe, it took him more than 20 years to write up all the material he brought back. After many years of writing in Paris (an enviable fate right there), Humboldt traveled to Russia later in his life.

This brief description can't begin to do justice to Humboldt's energy and curiosity and his many achievements. He carried the best scientific instruments of the time and measured everything he could, taking copious notes on the natural history and people of the places he visited. This reflects his belief that the complex relationships we see in the natural world could be understood through careful observation and data-taking without recourse to the supernatural. He conducted mineralogical surveys, collected flora and fauna, and gathered massive amounts of social and economic data about Cuba in particular.

Humboldt made major contributions to a formidable array of disciplines: examining the Earth's magnetic field and coining the term magnetic storm; introducing Europe to the use of guano as a fertilizer; examining the volcanoes and volcanic rocks of the New World and gathering data that weeded out incorrect geological hypotheses. He is perhaps best known for establishing the field of biogeography, which investigates the combined influences of climate, geology, and biology on animal and plant life in an area.

Photograph of Humboldt's lily
Humboldt's lily.
©First Light under CC Attrib license.

This desire to synthesize various fields of scientific knowledge is the guiding principle behind his crowning work, the Cosmos, which aimed "to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces." This mighty effort has a realistically humble subtitle, A sketch of a physical description of the universe. Four volumes were published late in his life (he lived to be nearly 90), and a fifth, incomplete, volume was published after his death in 1859. A journal describing his 1799–1804 travels, Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America, during the years 1799-1804, may be his most-read book today, and it inspired Charles Darwin among others, but the list of his written works extends well beyond these two classics.

Humboldt has an astonishing number of things named after him, including species of penguin, squid, lily, orchid, and dolphin, and two tree species. I read somewhere that he has more geographical features named after him than anyone else. I don't know how you'd go about verifying that, but his name certainly is all over the map. In the US, at least 10 states, as best I can tell, have towns named Humboldt, and 3 have counties named for him. There's Humboldt State University in California, plus a university in Berlin named for him and his brother and a university in Venezuela named for him.

Geological features bearing his name include Humboldt Glacier in Greenland, Humboldt River in Nevada, and mountains in North America, South America, and New Zealand. The cold current that runs up the western coast of South America is called the Humboldt Current, and in 2011 the name Humboldt Seamount Chain was accepted for an underwater mountain range off the southwest coast of Chile. There's even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon, extending to the far side, a place I'm guessing Humboldt might have wanted to visit, given the chance.

In addition to his scientific brilliance, Humboldt also expressed some admirable human sentiments. I'll leave you with this quote from volume 2 of the Cosmos:
While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, but none in themselves nobler than others. All are, in like degree, designed for freedom.

Learn more:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cucurbits, nightshades, and drupes: Part 1

©Jeremy Seitz under a CC Atribution license.
This is perhaps the best time of year to visit the Farmers Market, with the tables and baskets full of tomatoes, red peppers, and colorful squash gleaming in the sunshine. Many mid- to late summer favorites belong to three groups: the family Cucurbitaceae, the family Solanaceae (or the nightshades), and the genus Prunus, which is in the family Rosaceae. This is the first in a series of three posts that will appear this month on the names of these delicious edibles.

We'll start with the Curcubitaceae because really, who doesn't appreciate a good cucurbit? (It's pronounced cue-CUR-bit, by the way.) They take their name from the Latin word for gourd and include the cucumber, summer squash (zucchini and yellow squash), winter squash, cantaloupe, watermelon, and pumpkin.

Squash, summer and winter, including pumpkins, are New World fruits that belong to the species Cucurbita pepo. Botanically speaking, they're fruits, not vegetables, because they are essentially the ripened ovaries that develop from the plant's flowers. Vegetables, on the other hand, are edible parts of plants that do not include the ovaries. In fact, botanists use the name pepo for a particular type of fruit, a berry with a thick rind and fleshy center, because it's characteristic of this species.

Cucurbita pepo was one of the first plants domesticated in the Americas, upwards of 10,000 years ago. The English word squash derives from a Narragansett word, askutasquash. (The 17th century seems like yesterday when you put it in the context of 10,000 years of agriculture.) At a conservative estimate, there are a bezillion varieties within this species, so I'll mention only one of my favorites. The zucchini was developed in Italy long after the species was introduced from the Americas; its name is the diminutive of zucca, for pumpkin or squash.1 In France, the UK, and Ireland, it's called a courgette, which is the diminutive of the French word for squash, courge.

Unlike the squash, the cucumbers and melons are Old World fruits. If you start to research the history of cucumbers, one of the first things you're likely to learn is that the Roman emperor Tiberius was so enamored of Cucumis sativus, the cucumber that graces our tables today, that portable raised beds were used to make them available year-round. These contraptions were wheeled about to catch the sunshine and covered to protect the plants in cold weather. (Sativus, which means cultivated, describes plants that have been domesticated; we'll see it in other names as well.)

This seems like a lot of work just to have cucumbers all year.2 Tomatoes, yes, or basil, or raspberries, but cucumbers? Well, evidently yes, but probably not Cucumis sativus. A 2008 paper suggests that for centuries the word cucumis (and other terms in Greek and Hebrew) were erroneously translated or misunderstood. The evidence from written works and images of the time indicates that people living around the Mediterranean were actually eating what we would today call Armenian cucumbers (aka snake melon, snake cucumber, or "those big long ones you see sometimes at the grocery store").

The Armenian cucumber is a variety within the genus Cucumis melo, which is mostly muskmelons. (Technically, it is a muskmelon, but it's hardly a representative one.) The muskmelons, like the squash, come in a dizzying array of varieties, from the musky-smelling cantaloupe to the less fragrant honeydew (a member of the cultivar group Cucumis melo Inodorus). The species name melo ultimately comes from the Greek word melopepon, which combines the word for apple (melon) and gourd (pepon). (The name pumpkin also came indirectly from pepon.)

Watermelons, which differ markedly from the muskmelons, are another species entirely, Citrullus lanatus, which originated in Africa. Because the average watermelon contains more than 90% water, the source of the common name is obvious. Citrullus is probably derived from a Latin name for a type of cucumber (maybe we're starting to chase our tails here). Lanatus, the Latin word for woolly, describes the hairy leaves and stems of the plant.

Next week we'll continue our trip through the Farmer's Market by looking at the nightshades. Bon appétit.

See Part 2: Nightshades and Part 3: Drupes.

1 The Italian words are actually zucchina (singular) and zucchine (plural); these words are feminine in gender. However, the masculine form (zucchino, zucchini) is also used in Italy. This information may be useful to those people who like to talk about having one spaghetto.

2 I like cucumbers, but I can live without them in the winter. In 1917, Good Housekeeping responded to a reader's question about whether cucumbers are safe to eat with even fainter praise: "There is not enough nutriment in cucumbers to make any fuss about, but they are a condimental substance and are perfectly wholesome when properly masticated." (Vol. 65, July-December 1917) I think they're not quite as nutritiously null as Good Housekeeping thought back then.

Learn more:

  • The Squash Glossary from The Nibble runs to three pages.
  • The Melons page from the Cook's Thesaurus lists a respectable number of melons.
  • The entire 2008 paper on cucurbits in the Roman Empire is available.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Hurlecane season

Here in the middle of this bafflingly quiet Atlantic hurricane season, I thought I'd look at the words hurricane and typhoon. Both words refer to the same thing, a large tropical cyclone (that is, an organized low pressure system over warm tropical or subtropical water). Which name is used depends on where they occur (hurricanes in the Atlantic and parts of the eastern Pacific, typhoons in the western Pacific).

Hurricane is ultimately a New World word that has a fairly straightforward lineage, although it went through many different spellings (the Oxford English Dictionary lists 39) before finally settling down. When the Spanish encountered the native peoples of the Caribbean (specifically, the Taino of Puerto Rico and also the Arawak and Carib Indians) in the 16th century, they learned about the god of disorder who was thought to control the weather. Juracán was the Spanish spelling for the name of this god. This morphed into the Spanish word huracán. The word entered English with many variant spellings, such as harrycain and hurlecane, and eventually became hurricane.

Typhoon, on the other hand, is a very well-traveled word with a long pedigree. In Greek mythology, Typhon (whirlwind) was the name of a giant who was known as the father of the winds. The Arabic word tufan for a large storm may have been based on the Greek word typhon. At any rate, the word traveled east with Arabic-speaking invaders to India in the 11th century. Toofan is still used to refer to a large storm in India. Early European explorers may have gotten the word from Arab pilots; it entered the English language as tufan or touffon in the 16th century and was recorded as tuffoon in 1699. The Chinese had a similar-sounding phrase tai fung, for great wind. The further evolution of tuffoon into the current spelling, typhoon, may have been influenced by both the Chinese word and the Greek root.

This post was originally published under the title "Hurricane season."

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Friday, September 6, 2013

MilliCrabs and petrichor

In my work as a science editor, I run across unfamiliar terminology. Sometimes it's baffling, and sometimes it's charming. Here are some recent examples of the charming kind.

Magnetic local time: OK, this one requires a bit of an intro. Universal Time (UT) is a timekeeping system in which the day arbitrarily begins when it's midnight in Greenwich, England (at longitude 0°). Each location has its own local time (UT plus or minus so many hours) based on the difference between its longitude and that of Greenwich. The longitude lines used in this kind of timekeeping are part of a latitude–longitude grid that converges at Earth's physical north pole. Similarly, you can make a grid of lines that converge on Earth's magnetic north pole. Then the magnetic local time is midnight when your line of longitude faces away from the sun and noon when it faces the sun.

Petrichor: This lovely word describes the scent of rain on dry earth, which is an absolutely heavenly thing if you live in a dry climate. Certain plant oils (notably those of the creosote bush) are absorbed by the soil and stone of the desert floor and released into the air when it rains, along with another compound from the wet soil, producing the heady aroma. The word is derived from the Greek word for stone (petros) and the Greek word ichor, which was what the gods of Greek mythology supposedly had instead of blood. (The words petroleum and petrify can also be traced back to petros.) This scent lies behind the title of a beautiful book that Gary Paul Nabhan wrote about the Sonoran desert and the Tohono O'Odham people who live there: The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O'odham Country (public library).

Crab and milliCrab: The Crab is a measure of the X-ray output of an astronomical source at a particular wavelength, pegged to that of the Crab nebula, a supernova remnant in the constellation of Taurus. Because the Crab nebula is a powerful X-ray source, milliCrabs (thousandths of a Crab) are often used.
Auroral chorus and dawn chorus: These are both radio waves that are naturally produced when energetic electrons are injected into in Earth's magnetosphere; they can be converted into somewhat eerie singing sounds (chirps, hoots, whistles). The dawn chorus is most likely to occur around sunrise, and the auroral chorus is associated with aurorae. Curiously, both names can be traced back to Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. The northern and southern lights (aurora borealis and aurora australis) were named for their beautiful subtle colors, which resemble those of sunrise.

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