The Apostrophe: How Even English-Speakers Can't Agree on Grammar...or the Death Penalty
By Heath Shive
In 2006, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the case of Kansas v. Marsh.
The court ruled on the legal question of whether it was constitutional to execute in cases where the aggravating factors and mitigating factors were equipoise (or balanced out).
Aggravating circumstances are factors that merit a stiffer penalty. For example, spousal abuse is against the law, but if the spousal abuse is witnessed by children, then the penalty is a stiffer sentence.
Mitigating factors are factors that diminish severity. Shooting an unarmed person is against the law, but if the person was beating you mercilessly, then the severity of the sentence could be diminished.
So if mitigating factors are equal to aggravating factors, could a death penalty still be imposed?
Important legal stuff!
But let's look at the Supreme Court's grammar instead.
To the grammar!
The Supreme Court's Opinion...on the Apostrophe
Attorney Jonathan Starble reviewed Kansas v. Marsh from a grammatical point of view.
When reading the various opinions of the Justices, Starble noted that some Justices used the apostrophe in different ways.
When Justice Thomas wrote about the case, Thomas repeatedly wrote of the law as Kansas' statute. Since Kansas was a singular noun that ended with the letter s, there was not a second s following the apostrophe.
However, Justice Souter started his dissenting opinion with: "Kansas's capital sentencing statute provides..."
So Souter used the letter s after the apostrophe.
Furthermore, the (late) Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion where he also wrote of Kansas's statute. Scalia also added 's when he wrote the words Ramos's and witness's.
However, Scalia did not add an extra s in the words Stevens', Adams', and Tibbs'.
Starble noted that the other Justices followed the style of Thomas (grammatically, at least) and wrote Kansas'.
The Official Grammatical Rule
There is none (it seems)!
For example, Starble noted that in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the letter s should follow the apostrophe in all singular nouns except for Biblical or classical names (for example, Jesus' or Socrates').
But according to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, the 's should be added to singular possessive nouns, even when they end in s - for example, in James's.
For that matter, the Purdue OWL also adds the 's after plural nouns (like children's or geese's), but not when the plural noun ends with s - as in the cats' toys or the countries' laws.
On behalf of students of the English language everywhere: AGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!
So as best as I can discover, the rule is this: add 's to every possessive noun, except to plural nouns that end in s already.
Every Justice on the Supreme Court is very educated. Each of them is a legend in the field of law.
Yet even great Justices can't agree on grammatical rules.
Starble noted that the Justices were implicitly in favor 's in a 7-2 split. Incidentally, the Justices voted in favor of the death penalty in a 5-4 vote in Kansas v. Marsh.
If I were King of the English-speaking World, I would change this rule.
Wait, no! If I were King of the English-speaking World, I would first be a hedonistic tyrant who squashed all opposition.
But afterwards, my royal edict would change the grammatical rule to: add 's to all possessive nouns, singular or plural. Then at last, there would be uniformity - not only for native English-speakers, but for all the damned who are learning the English language all over the world.
And don't get me started on who versus whom.
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How the Monarch Butterfly Conquered the World: Sometimes Humans Do Good Things Too
By Heath Shive
Things look bleak for the Monarch butterfly. Or...are they?
The overwintering population of monarch butterflies is largest in Mexico - but it's not really large, only about 3 hectares (7.5 acres) in 2017. Hundreds of millions of monarchs are crowded in there - which was a bad thing in 2017 when a winter storm came through and destroyed 27% of the monarchs.
But there are other overwintering havens for the monarchs, like the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in California - where disturbing the butterflies carries a $1,000 fine.
Monarchs need specific trees to use for their "hibernation," and the Monterrey Pine (Pinus radiata) is the most important tree in Monarch Grove - which is bad news, because the pine's numbers are dwindling from climate change.
So bad news, right? The monarchs and Monterrey pines are done for, right?
They are flourishing in growing numbers....just not here in the United States!
To the science and story of how monarchs invaded the world!
According to Te Ara - the official online encyclopedia of New Zealand - the Monterrey pine was brought to New Zealand in 1850s in a forestry experiment. Today in New Zealand, 89% of New Zealand's forestry plantations (1.6 million hectares) is comprised of radiata trees!
In fact, the radiata pine is world's most successful softwood plantation tree and is grown successfully in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and elsewhere- just not in California!
So if only monarchs could find a home in New Zealand, right?
Well, monarchs are alive and well in New Zealand...and Australia. And New Guinea. And around the world!
Monarch butterflies apparently made their way into Australasia around the mid-1800s. How they did this is anyone's guess! But there were no quarantines in those days, and international trade and immigration were alive and well.
Of course, invading species cannot just survive anywhere - they need the right conditions. And monarchs need milkweed. There are native Australian and Kiwi milkweeds, but the monarchs don't like them.
Instead, the monarch colonists loved the 2 species of non-native milkweeds! The Gomphocarpus species (from Africa) and the Asclepias species from the Caribbean!
In other words, the monarch colonists succeeded in Australia and New Zealand because of 2 previous "invasive" species - and now there are also Monterrey pines by the millions in these countries for the monarch to winter on!
The Bittersweet Story of Evolution
In 2017, biologist Chris Thomas wrote a great book Inheritors of the Earth.
Thomas reminds us that humans are natural - and thus human effects on the planet are natural too.
This is the Anthropocene Era in planetary history, and humans are the dominant evolutionary driving force on earth.
This forces millions of species to adapt to us - and they do!
Birds (like pigeons) and mammals (like rodents) have adapted to thrive with urbanization. We chopped down forests for fields, but fields now support prairie and meadow bird species. Vast herds of cattle create prairie ecosystems, as the bison did before.
Many species are disappearing - but many more are adapting because their survival depends on it. And the species we call weeds (like milkweed or teasels) or invasive animals (like starlings and Asian carp) are just really good at surviving.
Monarchs are not surviving very well here in North America. Their numbers are dwindling.
But monarchs are growing, multiplying, and thriving in Australia and New Zealand!
And in Spain, New Guinea, and Morocco.
And that is why the monarch butterfly is one of the most successful butterfly species in the world!
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Berg, P., 'Radiata Pine', Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand; https://teara.govt.nz/en. Accessed 16 June 2019
"Eastern Monarch Population Numbers Drop 27%". News. The Monarch Joint Venture. 16 February 2017. Archived from the original on 5 June 2017. Retrieved 16 June 2019
Jones, Ann. "Flying Weeds: how the monarch butterfly colonised Australia". ABC News. 14 September 2015. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/offtrack/flying-weeds:-how-the-monarch-butterfly-colonised-australia/6768228. Accessed 16 June 2019
Obama, President Barack (20 June 2014). "Presidential Memorandum – Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators". Office of the Press Secretary. Washington, D.C.: The White House. Retrieved 16 June 2019
Thomas, Chris D. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. PublicAffairs, Hachette Book Group, 2017
Arlington National Cemetery: Somber Facts for Memorial Day
By Heath Shive
It’s Memorial Day. Here are some facts about America’s greatest cemetery of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.
About the Graves
For more information, visit the website of the National Arlington Cemetery at https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil.
Did Dinosaurs Invent Flowers? The Science of Paleontology and Springtime
By Heath Shive
According to the old proverb, "April showers bring May flowers.”
So April’s been getting the credit all these years.
But maybe, just maybe, dinosaurs invented flowers!
To the science of paleontology in spring!
The Dinosaur Herbivores
There are basically 2 kinds of plants: gymnosperms and angiosperms.
All flowers – including May flowers - are angiosperms, and so are grains, grasses, cereals, sedges, fruits, vegetables, palms, oaks, hickories, almost every berry, etc. Today angiosperms dominate the planet.
But during the Jurassic, gymnosperms - like conifers and ferns - were king.
Then 140 million years ago, everything started to change. During the Jurassic, all the major herbivores were long-necked, tree-browsing dinosaurs (Brontosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, etc.). In the Cretaceous, almost all of those high-tree-browsers were extinct.
By the Cretaceous, the major herbivores were low-browsing ground-feeders.
The Dino-Flower Theory
Robert T. Bakker in his famous book The Dinosaur Heresies postulated that this new dominant ground-browsing herbivore created an flower-favorable environment.
A gymnosperm-dominated woodland would provide few available niches for early flowering plants to evolve. But if a herd of hungry Triceratops mowed down the ground cover, the net effect would reset all the ground cover back to square one. Ground cover would have to grow from scratch, similar to after a forest fire.
Angiosperms with their faster growth and maturity rates would recover first and dominate the newly available niches.
Flowering plants flourished. May flowers rule!
But Bakker has his critics too. For example, angiosperms first flourished close to the equator. Dinosaurs only sparsely populated this region, which would seem to diminish the effect of their appetites.
Furthermore, angiosperms didn’t dominate the plant world until the Late Cretaceous, when dinosaur numbers already were starting to dwindle. Others believe that environmental factors may have aided angiosperms more than dinosaur herbivores. The Mid-Cretaceous was a period of increased volcanism and ocean floor production.
Did increased temperature, CO2, and sea levels favor angiosperms over gymnosperms? Or did the rise of the pollinator insects (wasps, bees, and moths) during the Mid-Cretaceous give angiosperms their decisive advantage?
In any case, the world the dinosaurs left behind was angiosperm-supreme.
The graves of dinosaurs were festooned with flowers.
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Bakker, Robert T. The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and their Extinction. New York: William Morrow, 1986.
Barrett, P.M. and Willis, K.J. Did dinosaurs invent flowers? Dinosaur-angiosperm coevolution revisited. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 76 (2001), 411-447.
Willis, K.J. and McElwain, J.C. The Evolution of Plants. New York: Oxford UP, 2002
Can Women Domesticate Men? The Science of the #MeToo Movement, Anthropology, and Female Bonobos
By Heath Shive
The effect of the #MeToo Movement was immediate and powerful.
Millions of women began to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault on Twitter. From shared experience came shared encouragement, which progressed to shared empowerment.
A lot of power.
In time, evidence accumulated and the voices of women could destroy the success of very powerful men, from business leaders (Harvey Weinstein), to celebrities (Louis C. K. and Aziz Ansari), to legends (Bill Cosby), and members of Congress (Al Franken).
Accusations alone were enough to ruin some careers. Young men were banished from college campuses on hearsay alone. In time, even some women – from female Harvard academics to a conservative Secretary of Education – began to warn of the dangers of abandoning due process.
This is #MeToo in the short term.
But what could the long term effects be?
Could female empowerment change the evolution of human beings?
To the science of anthropology!
Girl Power? Thy Name Is Bonobo
Chimpanzee and bonobo primates are genetically very similar. They are so similar that bonobos weren’t considered a separate species until well into the 20th century. Before that recognition, bonobo skulls were considered to be unusually large skulls of chimpanzee juveniles.
But there are differences between the 2 species. Sexual dimorphism (the physical differences between males and females) is less pronounced in bonobos, with males barely bigger than females. Bonobo skulls are rounder. But the most pronounced difference is social. Bonobo primates are not nearly as ultraviolent as chimpanzees.
And females are in charge!
As you might have read in a previous blog article, infanticide and homicide rates among non-human primates seem almost sociopathic! Males dominate males, females dominate females. Toddlers are killed as potential threats to resources.
But not the bonobos.
So why the profound difference? Well, for starters, bonobo females dominate (or discipline, if you wish) the group. If a male becomes too pushy or aggressive, the female bonobo screams. All females in the area converge.
Female bonobos look out for each other.
The result is that aggressive males cannot breed. Aggression – at least on the male chromosome – is weeded out of the gene pool.
Bonobo “sisterhood” domesticated the species.
Dogs descended from wolves, but their differences are obvious. Dogs are more likely to have floppy ears, larger heads proportional to the body, less dramatic sexual dimorphism, and broader muzzles.
In other words, dogs look more like wolf cubs than wolves! That’s what domestication does to an animal species. Sexual dimorphism is decreased. Heads and eyes are bigger in proportion to body. There are fewer violent tendencies and a greater tendency to play.
Physically juvenile qualities were not bred into the dogs, rather these qualities “piggy-backed” on the genes that favored less reactive violence.
Richard Wrangham has a book out that is very much in vogue right now entitled The Goodness Paradox.
Wrangham – an anthropologist – noticed that human reactive violence (killing your neighbors) is very low, whereas our proactive violence (like war) is very high – the exact opposite of other species!
Wrangham also noticed that – when compared to our mid-Pleistocene (“cave man”) ancestors – sexual dimorphism is less pronounced in humans today.
In other words, Wrangham saw evidence of “domestication” in human beings.
But how? Where were the “shepherds” of humanity?
Wrangham in his book makes the point that as language evolved, so did communication.
As humans could gossip, complain, and share experiences – especially about how they hated their oppressor – they could also strategize, plan, and judge. Wrangham says that language gave birth to cooperation – principally among the other males – and the ultra-violent that “crossed the line” were executed.
Hence the beginning of social law – and the culling of the ultra-violent DNA out of the human gene pool.
Can Women Do the Same?
If women can censure aggressive men (“toxic masculinity”), than women can control which men mate, and therefore which genes continue to the next generation.
Unlike many of my friends, I think that equality of the sexes has long since arrived in the United States - certainly the tools for equality are already here. What has been lacking is self-actualization. MeToo served as a kind of oriflamme to this cause.
Hopefully it evolves from here – both in power and responsibility.
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Wrangham, Richard. The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. Pantheon Books, 2019.
Red Republicans, Blue Democrats: Political Identity and the Psychology of Colors
By Heath Shive
Part of the blessing of thinking is the curse of overthinking.
Children see pretty colors. Adults…overthink this.
We can see green in the leaves and grass. But green is symbolic too – of St Patrick’s Day, Irish Catholic politics, and of Islamic culture.
Orange can remind us of citrus fruit…or Irish Protestant politics, Halloween, and the Orange Revolution.
Somewhere along the way, Americans associated Republicans and Democrats with “red” states and “blue” states.
This relatively recent color coding has been credited to the broadcast networks' election coverage during the 1980s, but was locked in during the 2000 Presidential election campaign.
Is it that simple?
Let's overthink this.
To the science of primary colors and political identity!
Embodied cognition is a concept in psychology which asserts that not only do humans ascribe a metaphor or belief to a sensation, but sensations imprint feelings onto the human mind.
To influence a person’s sensory input is to influence their mental thinking.
In 2005, psychologist Danny Hayes studied "trait ownership" in politics and discovered that people generally ascribe “hard” qualities to Republicans and “soft” qualities to Democrats.
Do political views have a "hardness" or "softness"? And does the opposite happen, does hardness connect to a political idea?
Three psychologists – Michael Slepian, Nicholas Rule, and Nalini Abady – published a paper in 2012 that revealed the power of hard and soft sensations on thinking. In one experiment, they had the participants squeeze either a soft ball or hard ball. While squeezing the balls, the participants had to look at four male and four female faces and guess each face’s political orientation.
Those who squeezed a soft ball were more likely to guess Democrat; those who squeezed a hard ball were more likely to guess Republican.
But how does color come into play?
Red State, Blue State
In a previous blog ("Devil in a Red Dress"), I wrote about the psychological connections between the color red and the human mind.
Waitresses wearing red get tipped more. The color red can make women more attractive to men, and vice versa.
But this blog is about politics, not sex appeal.
Two researchers Anthony Little and Russell Hill experimented to see if the color red conveyed dominance even in inanimate objects. People were shown blue circles and red circles. Then they were asked which circle seemed more dominant.
The participants judged the red circle more dominant.
Circles are not famous for dominance. And no state looks red or blue from outer space. But still, we associate certain colors with certain feelings, and vice versa.
So let’s combine the thoughts of the above studies. Republicans are perceived to have more hard-line political views. Hardness communicates assertion, strength, and power.
People can be forgiven if they naturally associate the color red with Republicans.
What are the stereotypical associations with the color blue? Peace, acceptance, and higher thought. People can be forgiven if they naturally associate blue with Democrats.
The funny thing is that Republicans for most of the 20th century were associated with the color blue!
So what is different now in the psychology of the political landscape?
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D. Hayes (2005). Candidate qualities through a partisan lens: a theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science, 49 (4), 908-23.
A. C. Little and R. A. Hill (2007). Attribution to red suggests special role in dominance signaling. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5 (1-4), 161-68.
M. L. Slepian, N. O. Rule, and N. Ambady (2012). Proprioception and person perception: Politicians and professors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39 (12), 1621-28.
For more about embodied cognition, see:
Lobel, Thalma. Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence. Atria Books, 2014.
Your Greatest Threat Is From Your Own Species: The Science of Animal Murder and Disney Delusions
By Heath Shive
Spring has arrived. The birds are singing. But it isn't peaceful.
Bird song is a declaration of territory, a warning to competitors, an announcement of virility, a call to feeding, a warning of danger, and a cry of anger.
Species can always threaten another species.
But in Nature, the greatest threat comes from your own species.
To the gruesome science of when animals kill their own kind.
In a Disney movie, animals talk to each other. They enjoy profound conversations. They save their friends.
Humans are bad. Humans are sinful and wicked…unless they have animal friends.
Humans have destroyed a lot of animal habitat - forests cleared for farming, rivers dammed for electricity. Humans could – and must – do this constructively.
But the greatest threat to any animal's life (including human life) comes from your own species.
Because you all eat from the same bowl, so to speak.
Red in Tooth and Claw
Researchers up to the 1960s thought that primates (except humans) were benign, social, and harmless.
But the more anthropologists were in the field, the more they witnessed how ultraviolent primates can be. Follow this link to learn more of the Gombe Chimpanzee War.
Infanticide occurs in half of all mammal species. For example, new alpha lions will kill all the cubs of the pride’s predecessor – while the mother lionesses watch.
But among primates, infanticide happens with horrific frequency. Infanticide could be as high as 37% among mountain gorillas, 44% in chacma baboons, 47% in blue monkeys, and 71% among red howler monkeys.
Baby chimps are not killed by leopards or poachers nearly as much as they killed by other chimpanzees.
Adult animals "murder" adults too. For example, a study of 155 wolf corpses in Yellowstone Park over 12 years revealed that 37% of the wolves had been killed by other wolves.
Not all species have these kind of intra-species “homicide” rates – but they are found particularly in social carnivores (packs) and primates.
Now compare these rates with humans. How often do babies die by infanticide? Is it even 1%?
What is the murder rate of human beings? Is it near the 40% mark of wolves?
The Goodness Paradox
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham wrote a remarkable book entitled The Goodness Paradox.
Wrangham points out that humans have a profound capacity for good and compassion, but how do we reconcile that with humanity’s equally profound appetite for destruction?
Wragham argues that there are 2 forms of violence: reactive violence (violence in response to an immediate threat or perceived threat) and proactive violence (planned, strategic, and intentional).
Two men fighting in a bar is reactive violence. Two nations going to war is proactive violence.
Wrangham remarks that humans are unique in the animal world – because humans are phenomenally low in reactive violence while being extremely high in proactive violence.
It’s the exact opposite in the animal world.
Wrangham’s central hypothesis in the book is this: humans evolved uniquely from other primates because we found a way to “self-domesticate.”
Put 300 chimpanzees on an airplane and when the plane lands, you’ll find dead chimps.
But humans ride airplanes all the time without incident. That explains how humans can form large groups, whereas other animal species cannot.
This is how humans can build civilization, whereas primates and wolves cannot.
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Cubaynes, Sarah,Daniel R. MacNulty, Daniel R. Stahler, Kira A. Quimby, Douglas W. Smith, and Tim Coulson. 2014. “Density-dependent intraspecific aggression regulates survival in northern Yellowstone wolves (Canis lupus).” Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 1344-56.
Infanticide data from Watt 1989; Henzi et al. 2003; Butynski 1982; Crockett and Sekulic 1984.
Butynski, T. M. 1982. “Harem-male replacement and infanticide in the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni) in the Kibale Forest, Uganda.” American Journal of Primatology 3: 1-22.
Crockett, Caroline M., and Ranka Sekulic. 1984. “Infanticide in red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus).” In Infanticide: comparative and evolutionary perspectives, edited by G. Hausfater and S. B. Hrdy, pp. 173-91. New York: Aldine.
Watts, David P. 1989. “Infanticide in mountain gorillas: new cases and a reconsideration of the evidence.” Ethology 81: 1-18.
Wrangham, Richard. The Goodness Paradox. Pantheon Books, 2019.
More than an Easter Bunny: 5 Famous Rabbits From Around the World
By Heath Shive
1) Why do we have an Easter Bunny?
The use of an Easter bunny was formerly credited to the Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. But the only surviving mention of this goddess is by the medieval historian the Venerable Bede - who doesn't associate a rabbit with her at all!
Ancient and medieval cultures around the world associated rabbits with springtime. Rabbits begin their mating season as early as February and continue to September. The rabbits would chase each other in courtship which - when combined with their large litter sizes - made rabbits a symbol of the growing fertility of the spring season.
The pagan symbolism of the rabbit was vouchsafed by the early Christian church.
But, the use of a rabbit who hides colored eggs for Easter is generally credited to the German Lutherans. Early Protestants - unlike old-school Catholics - didn't abstain from eating eggs during Lent.
Eggs were colored as apropos for the season. But while many ancient cultures decorated their eggs, it was the Germans who created the Osterhase, or what we call the Easter Bunny, a rabbit who brings colored eggs for children. The tradition was brought to America by German immigrants.
Sounds crazy? But rabbits are often thought of as crazy - which is why the British have an expression...
2) ...Mad as a March hare. Rabbits have an infamous fecundity - producing large litters after relatively short gestation periods. This hyperactive fertility can cause males to act strangely - running in circles and hopping vertically. Males can get too aggressive in the their courtship - which is why females often fight to protect themselves. A lawn full of fighting fertile rabbits? Rabbits would look crazy, hence "mad as a March hare."
The most famous March Hare is the character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Many cultures didn't just think a rabbit was "mad," but instead was...
3) ...a masterful trickster.
The rabbit trickster is very common in Northern Native cultures, but he has a different name wherever you go. The rabbit trickster was called Glosscap by Eastern Native nations and Wisakedjak by the Cree farther west.
Nanabozho was a trickster spirit, a primordial deity born at the beginning of time. He was also a lying, stealing, and manipulative con-man too. Nanabozho could take many forms, but was a rabbit most frequently.
But the trickster rabbit was also famous in western and southern African cultures! The people of Senegal called him Leuk.
4) But we know him better as Br'er Rabbit, or Brother Rabbit.
Br'er Rabbit is the star of many of the Uncle Remus stories of the Old South. He outwits kings and peasants and every predator in the woods with his wits alone. Br'er Rabbit - like all tricksters - is morally ambiguous. He can be larcenous or heroic. But he always proves that even the physically small and weak can win - provided they have the wits.
Br'er Rabbit has fallen into disfavor in the current political climate, but...
5)...the trickster rabbit survives today as Bugs Bunny!
Bugs Bunny is the premier character of the Warner Brothers cartoon classics. Bugs is flippant, insouciant, and confident. Bugs is shown to be able to outsmart any of his antagonists - all of whom are trying to do Bugs harm. But while talking with a Brooklyn accent, and starting his repartee with a "What's up, doc?", Bugs always proves his nonchalant superiority and becomes the very model of cartoon "cool."
According to Guinness World Records, Bugs Bunny is the 9th most portrayed film personality in the world! Bugs even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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The First Cherry Blossoms of Washington D.C...Were Burned to Protect America from Foreign Invasion?
By Heath Shive
The famous cherry trees of Washington, D.C., will begin blooming on March 20, peaking on April 4th.
The trees are beautiful, iconic, and worthy of an American's bucket list.
And the first batch was destroyed to protect America from foreign invaders.
To the history!
The Food Explorer David Fairchild
In the later 1800s, the U.S. adopted a largely unregulated gold standard which – when combined with mass production – created what economists called “the Long Depression.”
Between 1870 and 1895, the price for a bushel of corn dropped from 43 cents to 30 cents. A bushel of wheat worth $1.06 in 1870 had lost almost 40 percent of its value by 1900.
Realizing that American farmers needed more variety than just corn and wheat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out "food explorer" David Fairchild to gather seeds and plantings from around the world.
Fairchild is credited with introducing nectarines, avocadoes, mangoes, soybeans, and kale to the U.S.
But Fairchild’s wife Marian loved Japanese flowering cherry trees, and when the Fairchilds finally bought their first home outside D.C. in 1906, Marian ordered over 100 flowering cherry trees.
The Fairchild’s lawn become famous in the capital.
Then-president William Howard Taft had also been to Japan and had loved their flowering cherry trees. But here’s the thing: mainstream America was xenophobic just then. There had been a general ban on all Asian immigrants – especially Chinese – for decades. By 1907, Japanese and Korean immigrants in California were forced into segregated neighborhoods.
And it wasn’t good to make Japan mad. Japan was a rising world power. From 1895 to 1905, Japan had successfully won wars against China and Russia.
Planting beautiful Japanese flowering cherry trees in America's capital carried political importance.
So 300 flowering cherry trees were shipped from Tokyo to Washington, D.C.
There was just one problem. Or rather, thousands of tiny problems.
The Fruit Man vs. the Bug Man
Charles Marlatt was the USDA’s chief entomologist. When California’s crops were being destroyed by the San Jose scale (an invasive insect), it was Marlatt who had saved the day by bringing back the scale’s natural predator - ladybugs.
Yes, Charles Marlatt was the man who introduced ladybugs to the United States! But during the trip to Asia, Marlatt's wife contracted disease and died.
Foreign crops were Fairchild's fame, but Marlatt's pain.
Marlatt inspected the imported cherry trees and found them rife with pestilence: root gall, 2 kinds of scale bugs, a new species of borer, and 6 more dangerous insect species.
Taft had no choice but to burn the entire lot of trees, which newspapers made into a public spectacle.
Taft and the diplomatic corps were afraid of Japan’s reaction, but Japan expressed only shame – shame that they had given so inferior a gift.
New trees were sent, and these trees passed even Marlatt’s scrutiny.
And on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft planted the first tree and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the second tree.
A century later, the trees still bloom, and national news networks use the blossoming as a kind of harbinger of spring.
In fact, Americans love the trees so much, that no one cares that these trees don’t make cherries.
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Stone, Daniel. The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. Dutton, 2018.
The Pee That Set the World on Fire: Phosphorus and the “Last Alchemist”
By Heath Shive
A lot of science has its origins with weird people doing weird things!
The mother mold of all modern penicillin was discovered on a rotten melon by a woman named Mary (“Moldy Mary,” as she was called by her jerk co-workers).
The so-called “last of the alchemists” Hennig Brand discovered the element phosphorus in his urine – a whole lot of urine – in 1669 in Hamburg.
And if “truth is stranger than fiction,” then no wonder science can be pretty weird.
To the science of the pee that set the world on fire!
The Elixir of Life…and Other Stuff
Not much is known of Hennig Brand’s early life, except that he married very well – with a substantial dowry – and then pursued his chemistry research full-time.
Water fascinated alchemists; it is after all the universal solvent. And humans created water in the form of urine. Urine happens to have a golden color, and gold just so happened to fascinate alchemists too.
Brand boiled and condensed thousands of liters of urine. God only knows what his house must have smelled like. Brand noticed a vapor from boiling urine that had a ghostly glow, and that the vapor could be condensed into a waxy white substance that also glowed.
“Phosphorus” means “bringer of light.
Brand showed off his new prize to the courts and scholars of Europe, but he kept the secret of its making to himself. After Brand’s death, it was a generation later before other chemists repeated his success.
The famous scientist Robert Hooke recreated Brand’s work and wrote a recipe – which can be found in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ book Periodic Tales.
The recipe goes something like this: Take a quantity of Urine (not less for one Experiment than 50 or 60 Pails full); let it lie steeping…till it putrify (sic)…in 14 or 15 days. Then…set some to boil…till at last the whole Quantity be reduced to Paste…add thereto some fair Water…boil them together for ¼ of an Hour…strain…boil’d till it come to a Salt…
Incidentally, in Periodic Tales, the author does try to create phosphorus from his own pee.
Don’t judge. After all, some people play golf.
A century later, two Swedes named Carl Scheel and Johan Gahn showed that bones were actually a much better source for phosphorus. About 20 percent of the human skeleton is calcium phosphate. Industrial phosphorus today comes from phosphate rocks, like apatite.
Phosphorus doesn’t just glow with an “inner fire,” it violently combusts on contact with oxygen – which is why phosphorus is usually stored under water.
In July 1943, during World War Two, Brand’s hometown of Hamburg was bombed with 1,900 tonnes of white phosphorus incendiary bombs. On the third night of bombing, a firestorm was created that “melted between forty thousand and fifty thousand people.”
Since then, phosphorus has been a military staple used to create illumination at night or smokescreens. But dropping phosphorus bombs (on civilian targets) has never happened since.
Phosphorus may burn with an inner fire, but so do human beings. Sometimes we burn with eccentric curiosity, like Brand. Sometimes we burn with a violence, like war.
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Aldersey-Williams, Hugh. Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc. Viking, 2011.
Stwertka, Albert. A Guide to the Elements. 3rd ed. Oxford, 2012.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.