The Asimov That Was


Were they sideburns or mutton chops? Does it matter? (Illustration by Jay R. Thompson)

My imperfect memory tells me that the first grown-up book I read and enjoyed was “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the far more famous “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both written by Arthur C. Clarke.

I wasn’t seeking “2010” when I happened upon the book in the LaPorte High School library. Maybe I was looking for a book-report subject. I don’t know. But I ended up loving that book. Still, for some reason, 20 years or so passed and I still never read any Isaac Asimov.

Read the rest of this entry »


Chance For Sex Snaps Sick Finches Out Of Malaise

“Hey, Baby! I’m Feeling Great!” *cough cough* “Really!” 

For the first half of the above video, a sick male zebra finch sits quietly on the floor of his cage. He’s not feeling so great, trying to rest and keep quiet while his immune system is in hyperdrive. But half an hour later, shown in the second half of the video, an unfamiliar female has entered the cage. To the male bird, that changes everything. He hops around with excitement and interest as if he didn’t feel sick at all.

Behavioral biologist Patricia Lopes of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues injected this finch and others with bits of E. coli bacteria — triggering their immune systems without actually infecting them. They watched the birds as they lay sick, then compared how it behaved when a female was thrust into the picture, counting its hops and the time it spent resting. They found the male birds’ behavior changed completely, acting as if they weren’t sick in an effort to court the female.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Gift From A Steamship, or, Why We Can Still Get Good Wine From Europe

The southern Rhone Valley in 1866 France was a wine maker’s heaven. A warm Mediterranean climate offered warm winters and plenty of sunshine, with just enough rain to keep the vines happy. Heaven, that is, until death struck. 13 acres of vines mysteriously died, without leaving a suicide note or cause-of-death notice or anything. In the middle of a good weather year, the leaves shriveled up, the grapes turned into bitter raisins, and the whole vine died quickly.

Death spread quickly, extending out in all directions from the original field. The mysterious disease killed off large swaths of vinyards who had withstood pests and bad weather for hundreds of years already, only to be laid low by the newcomer. By July 1868 winemakers were so worried that a special council was appointed to determine the cause of all this death.

image“There was no rot… but suddenly under the magnifying lens of the instrument appeared an insect, a plant louse of yellowish color, tight on the wood, sucking the sap,” wrote Jules-Émile Planchon, a professor of botany and pharmacy at the nearby university in Montpellier and one of the council members. “It is not one, it is not ten, but hundreds, thousands of lice… They are everywhere.” A suspect had been found.

Read the rest of this entry »

Have You Seen the Mighty Monarch?

The once-mighty monarch butterfly migration—an extraordinary natural phenomenon that passes right through our neighborhoods and fields—has been reduced to a trickle. Where were you all summer, did you notice?

For how things used to be, here is Annie Dillard describing the event in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974:

The monarchs clattered in the air, burnished like throngs of pennies, here’s one, and here’s one, and more, and more. They flapped and floundered; they thrust, splitting the air like the keels of canoes, quickened and fleet. It looked as though the leaves of the autumn forest had taken flight, and were pouring down the valley like a waterfall, like a tidal wave, all the leaves of hardwoods from here to Hudson’s Bay.

Dillard seems to be describing a scene of almost unimaginable natural wealth. The world had such an excess of raw material that it could make monarch butterflies not by the ones and twos, but by the millions. Indeed, estimates of the number of monarchs that used to overwinter in Mexican fir and pine forests range up to a billion. In pictures, the trees seem to be literally dripping with butterflies.


An oyamel fir covered in overwintering monarchs. From wikimedia commons.

Read the rest of this entry »