Tag Archives: a single cell did jump and hum

The year’s midday, Part 1: Up the airy mountain

Though campsites proved impossible to find, I was determined this year (weather permitting), to at least go for a good long ride on the Summer Solstice and see some new natural places. Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area was on the list, and is under 30 miles away, so I planned to go there for sure; and if I was tired after that to just meander back home, otherwise press on to Parfrey’s Glen, just across the Wisconsin River.

The longest day of the year began in considerable fog; so much so that “dawned” doesn’t seem the correct verb. The fog shrouded everything and, given the near-absence of traffic, seemed to muffle sound, making my breath loud in my ears as I pedaled northwards out of town. What features could be seen in the near distance appeared strange and desolate:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
After a couple of hours’ riding I stopped in Lodi, where blue sky and sunshine were beginning to show themselves, for a revitalizing espresso. And then out of town again, passing Lake Wisconsin to my right:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
… and on to Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area.

The eponymous rock is an outcropping of the Lower Magnesian escarpment, which I talked about in my account of visiting Lodi Marsh last fall, rising some 200 feet above the surroundings. There is a gravel trail that leads straight up, and a path that meanders through forest for awhile before climbing sharply to the top; that was the one I took up. In the shadows there were a considerable number of ferns; on one of them I spotted this striking little membracid:

Bug (leafhopper?), Gibraltar Rock SNA
… and also, in part thanks to the recent spate of rains, there were a couple of new (to me) slime-molds! Firstly, white-coral slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa):
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
(Apologies – the picture is a little bit washed-out by the flash. The non-flash pictures just came out too blurry.) Secondly, a patch of charmingly-named dog-vomit slime (Fuligo septica):
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
If Wikipedia say true, Scandinavian folklore has it that dog-vomit slime mold is actually the vomit of troll cats, which are apparently also a thing in Scandinavian folklore. There’s a citation, for a University of Minnesota press book entitled Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. To no one’s surprise, the Stoughton Public Library has this book, so I’m ILL-ing it as we speak and will keep you posted. (ETA: more details in Part 3.)

From the shadowy forest, a sudden steep scramble up a rocky path and you are at the cliff-top, with a fine sunny view, even for those who – like me – will not go within four feet of the drop:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
Birds of prey could be seen riding the thermals, and from far below drifted up the sounds of a rooster crowing and a tractor starting up. I took the short route back down. By the trailside I spotted an old friend, the assassin bug Zelus luridus:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
There was a couple who had passed me on their way to the top coming back down when I took that picture, and wanted to know what it was of. So I explained, briefly; managing to stop myself before I could launch into the bug’s gloriously icky method of feeding, or the Canadian stamp that features it.

I was already on my bike and rolling out of the parking lot when I spotted, but could not get a close-up, of this butterfly – a red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), I’m fairly sure:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14

This was the point in my day-trip where I’d planned to decide whether to push on to Parfrey’s Glen or slope back into town. It was not quite 10AM, and it was neither too hot nor threatening rain, and so taking a poll of my energy levels I decided to head on; so, rather than rightward to retrace my path, leftward to take the road to the Merrimac Ferry.

(Part 2: Down the rushy glen)
(Part 3: Afterword)

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

Demon-haunted worlds

“No equations! It’s after dinner.”

So Jim Crutchfield promised. He was as good as his word, too: for the duration of a lecture that spanned an hour plus, there was not a single equation or table of data to be seen.

The talk was one of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation’s ongoing series of John von Neumann Public Lectures. No equations or charts, but there were plenty of interesting ideas. I scribbled like whoa to remember even a handful. Before dinner, even getting that many down would probably have been impossible.

The central part of his exposition was, puckishly, taken from a Honda commercial. If you don’t feel like watching the video, it shows a disarticulated Honda Accord, put together to form a elaborate Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson (your pick) contraption whose execution takes up the whole 2 minutes. He apologized for the product placement, and then gave his team’s back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much energy of the initial impetus to the system was remaining by the time it reached its end: a mind-boggling 10-60 of it. So, he concluded, it wasn’t energy that had moved through the system – it was information.

“But,” an audience member demurred, “energy was involved in setting up the system so that it would work.”

Which Crutchfield cheerfully agreed with. What we’d seen, he argued, was an example of what he dubs intrinsic computing – a physical system that processes input (the initial push) based on past state (the actions that had put it in its current configuration) and transduces it to an output and a final state. Again, much like a big state-machine. (Fair warning: this sketch of the idea is written by a computer science Ph.D. dropout with not much background in physics or biology, based on a one-hour lecture, so I make no guarantees for its accuracy; it’s the impression of the idea that I took away. Time permitting, I would like to dig into some of the actual publications and get a better idea of the math, but I haven’t done that yet.)

Obviously humans make such systems for our own purposes, like writing natural history blogs and playing Skyrim; but if you look at biology and even fundamental physics through this lens, intrinsic computing appears everywhere, from single cells down to turbulent flows – phenomena that don’t have brains or nervous systems. Half-facetiously Crutchfield tossed out the question of what Nature does all this for – “a big optimization problem, to maximize the glory of God?”

Which let him loop back to another major, historical, point – faced with a phenomenon that does apparently complex computation, such as the physics of solar systems or life on Earth, there’s a human tendency to abstract it to a mind with a personality – a “demon”. As these phenomena become understood, the demons are “exorcized” – mystery, as he put it, becomes mechanism.

I’ve given shorter shrift to another major thread of the talk, which is the idea that humans call the behaviour of a system “interesting” when it lies in between the utterly predictable and the totally chaotic – that it has both predictability and variation. And in fact that this isn’t just a human aesthetic, but a characteristic of successful life; and given that, yielded an answer to another half-facetious question:

“Why isn’t everything disorganized? In fact, what are we all doing here tonight?”

Not questions with obvious answers, but being there and not some place else turned out to be a pretty good choice. Thanks of course to James Crutchfield for an engaging talk, and to the C4 for putting it on.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lectures and Meetings

Over the Lower Magnesian

The bones of things stood out everywhere…
-Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

One of the starting points of the long process in science which led to the discovery of the Ice Ages was a very simple one: a botanist in Bavaria was looking at the moss on a rock, and it occurred to him to wonder how the rock, of a different kind from the bedrock in the area, had come to be there gathering moss. This was something a lot of people had already been wondering. Some of those people had access to Switzerland, with its glaciers, and had already realized that glaciers had considerable ability to shove rocks here and there. And some of them were starting to think that this had, at some past time, happened not just in the high mountains of central Europe, but across most of the Northern Hemisphere. Our botanist – Karl Friedrich Schimper – came to this conclusion as well. He wasn’t the first to, nor was he the one to he ultimately convince the scientific community; but he did hang a name on this episode of Earth history, not in a peer-reviewed paper, but in a poem: “The Ice Age Ode”.

Anyway, the point is: for those of us who live in places once covered by glaciation, is for the most part that a rock you see lying on the ground could have come from anywhere; most likely, a mile-high wall of moving ice scraped this off somewhere and then, roughly 20,000 years ago, dropped it in the general vicinity – in shorter terms, it’s probably a glacial erratic. It has passed through a kind of singularity, not very far back in time at all. When that rock was scraped off wherever it began existence, there were already biologically-modern human beings.

But of course, even when you can’t see them, the geological features that were there before any of the glaciers came are still down there below the erratics. Mostly you can’t reach down and pick up a piece of them, but they make their presence known. If, for example, you ride your bike north from Madison to Lodi Marsh, you find yourself, somewhere in the town of Springfield, beginning to climb up a long, shallow slope, near the intersection of Fellows Road and County Road V attaining a height with a fine view towards the Wisconsin River:
Fellows Road, on the way to Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13
and from there there is a downhill run, much steeper than the climb you just made; the enjoyment of coasting down it only a little tainted by the knowledge that, later on, you are going to have to get back up that steep slope. This formation, with one shallow and one steep face, is a cuesta – in this case, the Prairie du Chien Cuesta. (A little confusingly, following the cuesta westwards won’t take you to Prairie du Chien; it’s made of some of the same rock that’s found near Prairie du Chien, but that is not part of the cuesta. It’s also been called the Lower Magnesian, due to the presence of magnesium-bearing limestone; the only reference to an Upper Magnesian is in a WPA publication from the 1930s, but that also seems to refer to the Prairie du Chien Cuesta, so the puzzle persists.) Down under all the erratics, this is made of satisfyingly-ancient Ordovician rock over 400 million years old, of an age with trilobites and ammonites.

Down at the bottom of the steep face is Lodi Marsh State Natural Area. In fact it lies particularly low, because it is in a tunnel-channel, carved by water running under the glacier. Lodi Marsh has the highest documented moth biodiversity in Wisconsin, and, this presentation suggests, possibly in North America. That’s pretty cool! A sunny October day is probably not the best time to observe this. Of the hundred-odd kinds of moth found there, I saw exactly one, though in considerable numbers: woollybear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella). They were at various stages of development, from little ones chewing on grass with the laser-beam focus of an ultramarathoner:
Woolybear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13
to larger ones zipping around
Woolybear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13
presumably looking for a good place to pump themselves full of natural antifreeze and pupate. Woollybears are charismatic enough that several towns have festivals honouring them; the largest in Vermilion-on-the-Lake, Ohio – which coincidentally is where I got married – where they race caterpillars and crown a Woollybear King and Queen.

Anyway, so much for moths. If the mosquitoes aren’t too bad next summer, I’ll go up again some July evening with a lantern.

It was a very warm day; I started out with several layers, which over the ride up piece by piece went into my saddlebag until it was back to T-shirt and shorts. Despite that there was no mistaking it for summer; the leaves were turning and falling, of course, and instead of the loud hum of cicadas there was the rustling of the wind in the trees. The wind was pleasant, but strong enough to make sixty-foot-high birch trees oscillate from bottom to top, and there was a note in it which could definitely turn into a howl.
Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

Despite the name, the stretch of Ice Age Trail that runs through Lodi Marsh Natural Area doesn’t actually take in too much marsh. It’s cut in two by the Lodi-Springfield Road; just to the west is a steep, stepped trail that leads down to the edge of Spring Creek, beyond which you can see the marsh proper:
Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

and farther along you enter a swathe of dry-mesic prairie. “Dry-mesic” – I finally take the trouble to learn, after blowing past it and similar verbiage in any number of DNR natural-area writeups – is descriptive of the moisture and drainage of a prairie, which varies along a continuum from dry to mesic to wet, with dry-mesic being intermediate between the first two. Dry-mesic prairies are not in equilibrium without fire, so to keep them in existence there have to be controlled burns. The going hypothesis around the moth diversity (according, again, to the presentation linked above; if I’m reading the slide right, it’s citing “personal communication”, so I can’t chase down any further references, plus I’m not an entomologist or ecologist anyway, so, take with grain of salt) is that the unusual transition from marsh to dry-mesic prairie – plus the nearby oak savannah – is particularly good for moths.

Even in October the prairie was full of grasshoppers and crickets, scattering with every step I took:
Field cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus), Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

On the east side of the road the trail climbs up a hillside and plunges into some deeper woods; first oak, then birch, and then more oak. At that point the path meets a ravine and splits to left and right. The Ice Age Trail proper continues to the left. To the right, though, the trail rapidly becomes completely surrounded by ferns, both uphill and downhill, and shortly after that the ferns completely occupy the trail itself. And then there is no more trail! Just ferns. If you go left, after a ways the trail finishes up in the town of Lodi itself. To conserve energy for the ride home I didn’t walk the entire way.

The woods on the eastern leg of the trail, besides ferns, also boasted plenty of mushrooms, such as this bright yellow Pholiota on a birch log:
Pholiota sp., Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

Pholiota sp., Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

and also more aethalia of wolf’s-milk slime mold:
Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

Near the marsh was also something that I think may be red raspberry slime mold (Tubifera ferruginosa), although quite a small specimen compared to most of the available images if so:
Lodi Marsh State Natural Area, 10/13/13

The ride back up the steep face of the Prairie du Chien Cuesta was no more fun than I anticipated. In fact, after reaching the intersection about halfway up, I just walked my bike the rest of the way. But then it was a long coast down the shallow face, back to the trail.

(Apart from Wikipedia and what’s directly linked, this post drew from Landscapes of Dane County, by D.M. Mickelson, published by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and viewable for free online; and from Wisconsin’s Foundations: A Review of the State’s Geology and Its Influence on Geography and Human Activity , by Gwen Schultz – the second edition published 2004 by UW Press.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

Mycelia and aethalia

A cool, rainy autumn Saturday followed by a warm, sunny Sunday means lots and lots of fungi in the woods at the Lakeshore Preserve. Well, before you rush in and correct me, of course I mean lots of fungal fruiting bodies. The mycelia were there in the soil and leaf-litter all along, quietly decapitating nematodes, or shuttling nutrients about, or computing large Mersenne primes, or whatever else it is, exactly, they’re doing down there. But cool temperature and moisture are, it seems, the best conditions to produce a spectacular display – seemingly out of nowhere – and blow the minds of plodding metazoans.

Right in the path were gem-studded puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum):
Gem-studded Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13

On fallen logs there was a vast abundance of forms, ranging from these tiny yellow fairy-cups (Bisporella citrina):
Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
to these (I think) clustered bonnets (Mycena inclinata):
Clustered bonnet (Mycena inclinata), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13

and these lapidary little mushrooms I haven’t managed to place yet:
Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13

And lots more. Not only that, but there were also – and this was a personal first, so it made my day, I don’t mind saying – slime molds. The first I saw was this wolf’s-milk slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum):
Wolf's-milk slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
I include this shot as the first one, though blurry, because I want to point at that red blob on the left. That, my friend – unless I miss my guess – is a single cell. Lycogala is a plasmodial slime mold (there are also cellular slime molds, about which more in a future installment), which means its active form is a single very big cell with lots of nuclei: a plasmodium. It moves (though very slowly on the human time-scale), and engulfs and eats things, much like an amoeba – which basically is what it is, taxonomically speaking. The big brown blobs are fruiting bodies, lots of spores surrounded by a crust. They are called aethalia, from Greek αιθάλη (aithale), soot; I’m told that’s what the spores bursting out look like. Here is a better picture of just the aethalia:
Wolf's-milk slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum), Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
The orange ones are newer and the brown ones older.

There were also aethalia of false puffball, Reticularia lycoperdon:
Lakeshore Preserve, UW-Madison, 10/6/13
Wikipedia, and a number of other sources, inform me that in Veracruz, Mexico, the aethalia are called “caca de luna” – moon-crap – and fried like eggs. There’s one citation for this, a book I haven’t been able to lay my hands on yet, but I am very curious and Googling has really only brought out references to the Wikipedia article, so, stay tuned.

Leave a comment

Filed under Observations