Thursday, July 19, 2018

What are megaticks, cripplers and plastics?

These are terms used by twitchersbird-watchers particularly interested to collect sightings of rare or showy birds. Whereas birders, in general, take notes and pictures of birds to advance ornithological knowledge, twitchers often are more event-driven. They have their own jargon words, many of them you can find listed on a Wikipedia page [1].

Twitchers are not shy of traveling long distances to add a new species to their personal or otherwise special list. In his book with the tile “The Wonder of BirdsJim Robbins frequently addresses human-bird relationships and the human perception of the world of birds. He introduces the terms megatick, crippler and plastic as follows (page 250 in [2]):

The United Kingdom, though, seems to have more obsessed bird-watchers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It's home to the “twitchers,” a particularly fanatical group who make long journeys to see rare birds and presumably go into paroxysms of delight when they see one. They have their own lingo—a megatick is a very rare bird, a crippler an especially showy rare bird (perhaps because it causes people to stop in their tracks), and plastic refers to a bird that has escaped from captivity.

Twitchers' terms are typically shorter and easier to grasp and remember than scientific terms. Did they derive as slang words in the twitcher network of  twitter-communicating birders? Tweets composed of twitchers' terms announcing bird sightings?

Keywords: twitching; grasping; jargon; lingo; slang; human-avian world.

References and more to explore

[1] Wikipedia: Twitchers' vocabulary. Link:
[2] Jim Robbins: The Wonder of Birds. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2018.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

What does “U.S. Ex. Ex.” stand for?

The term “U.S. Ex. Ex.” (or simply “Ex. Ex.”) is shorthand for “U.S. Exploring Expedition.” This 1838-1842 expedition also became known as the Wilkes Expedition—after Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), who was the commander of this great voyage that included the exploration of  the treacherous Cape Horn area, regions south of the Antarctic Convergence, the Great South Sea, the Midway Islands, the Sulu Sea, the Oregon Territory with the dangerous Columbia River Bar and many other places of marine and scientific interest. The six-vessel expedition was a detour-driven circumnavigation of the globe. The vessels were the flagship Vincennes, the schooners Sea Gull and Flying Fish, the sloop-of-war Peacock, the brig Porpoise and the storeship Relief. Not all of them completed the circumnavigation [1-4]. 

For a long time, the achievements of the Wilkes Expedition were mostly dismissed—both in the U.S. and worldwide. The expedition's reputation suffered from the human drama that happened between captain and crew as well as between crew and native islanders—such as the deadly encounters on the Fiji Islands where an armed conflict resulted in the death of dozens of natives and the expedition lost Lieutenant Joseph Underwood and Henry Wilkes (Charles Wilkes's nephew). Also, there was an ongoing dispute over who first saw what in the Antarctic Ocean and who found a new continent.

Opening a modern world atlas and scanning the map of Antarctica, you will find Wilkes Land where the South Indian Ocean meets the Earth's southernmost continent. Nathaniel Philbrick summarizes how Wilkes Land got on the map (page 362 in [4]):

With the exception of the Expedition's own charts, no British or American maps referred to Wilkes's findings throughout the 1860s. If it hadn't been for German mapmakers, who were the only ones to record the American claims and adopted the name of Wilkes Land, all trace of Wilkes's achievement might have been lost.

Retrospectively, “U.S. Ex. Ex.” stands for the exploration of watery and icy wilderness, at a time when America's frontier mainly was the sea—less than a decade before the gold rush, when the American West became the new (or yet another) frontier.

“Ex. Ex.” also stands for groundbreaking scientific research and for amassing a global collection of specimens and new species that brought the Smithsonian Institution to life.

Keywords: American history, maritime history, naval operation, sea exploration.

References and more to explore

[1] Nathaniel Philbrick: Learn More About The U.S. Exploring Expedition. Smithsonian Libraries. Link:

[2] United States South Seas Exploring Expedition (aka the Wilkes Expedition), 1838-1842. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Link:

[3] Charles Wilkes (1798-1877)south-pole. com. Link:

[4] Nathaniel Philbrick: Sea of Glory. America's Voyage of Discovery. Penguin Books, New York, 2004.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

What is a horsetail fall?

Horsetail Falls in the Sierra Nevada (June 3, 2018)

A horsetail fall is a waterfall, the water of which maintaining contact with the bedrock in most places of the water trail. The descriptive word “horsetail” is a geometric classification; other types of waterfalls are “plunge,” “fan,”  “block,”  “chute,”  “scree,”  “ribbon,” and “punchbowl,” for example [1]. The list goes on. Standing in front of your favorite waterfall, you certainly will come up with your own term for a geometric waterfall description.

The water of a horsetail fall descends along a sloped surface followed by a steeper slope or edge where the water—depending on its speed—may shortly loose contact with the surface of the underlying hard rock. If you (without slipping or sliding on wet slopes) are able to get a side view of the water course of a horsetail fall, you may with a trigger of fantasy see a white water silhouette above the bedrock that resembles the shape of a horse's tail dangling down the butt. Terminology in anatomy meets waterfall classification terminology.

Often, a waterfall consists of a series of such horsetails, as is the case with Horsetail Falls (note the plural).  This waterfall is located southwest of Lake Tahoe in California [2]. It is fed by lakes such as Lake of Woods in  the Desolation Wilderness in hiking distance from the popular Echo Lakes. The bottom of the Horsetail Falls are best accessed via the Pyramid Creek Loop Trail, about 1.25 miles upslope from the Pyramid Creek Trailhead next to Highway 50.

Horsetail split within the Horsetail Falls structure

Keywords: geography, terminology, waterfall names.

Reference and more to explore

[1] Waterfalls 101: What Types Of Waterfalls Are There? World of Waterfalls. Link:

[2] Horsetail Falls, Eldorado County, California, United States. World Waterfall Database. Link:

Friday, May 25, 2018

What is the name of our sun's “mother” star?

Many of us grew up learning that a star comes and goes—ending its “life” by supernovae explosion or as a red giant turning into a white dwarf, for example. But the life story of a star has neither a sharply defined beginning nor a total ending. The death of a star can give birth to new stars by providing gas, dust and debris to built up new objects in space: solar system genealogy continues by recycling matter.

Recent research, including observations and modeling, suggests that the solar system had a parent star, which after its burst seeded the space with enough atoms of various chemical elements to make possible the formation of our solar system, and maybe even “sibling”systems [1-5]. The astrophysicists Matthieu Gounelle and Georges Meynet proposed to call the sun's “mother” star Coatlicue, after the Aztec mother of the sun [3-5].

Coatlicue (pronounced Co-at-li-cu-e) is the Aztec earth-mother goddess and patron of childbirth [6]. She also is seen as the goddess who gave birth to the moon and stars including the sun. She essentially was the “mother of everything” in Aztec mythology [7]. And from a planet Earth viewpoint, Coatlicue definitely was—unless new findings will make it necessary to redraw the galaxial family tree of star evolution within our corner of the Milky Way. What if there were multiple mothers and the picture of a star family tree needs to be replaced by a more elaborately networked star-descendency graph?

Keywords: Coatlicue; cosmochemistry; solar system formation; mythology.

References and more to explore

[1] S. Pfalzner et al.: The formation of the solar system. Physica Scripta April 2015, 90 (6). Link:
[2] R. Boyle: The Secret Life of the sun. Scientific American, June 2018, 318 (6), 26-33.
[3] M. Gounelle and G. Meynet: The solar system genealogy revealed by meteorites. Astronomy & Astrophysics August 2012, 545, article number A4. DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201219031.
[4] CNRS: Solar system genealogy revealed by meteorites. August 2012. PHYS.ORG. Link:
[5] A. Morlok: Die Galaxis ist gerade mal groß genug für uns. December 2015, EXO-PLANETAR BLOG. Link:
[6] M. Cartwright: Coatlicue. Ancient History Encyclopedia, November 2013. Link:
[7] Coatlicue mother of the Sun. astronoo, 2013. Link:

Friday, March 30, 2018

When to drop the “ad” and “ab” prefixes

The prefixes ad and ab are generally used with the meaning toward and away from, respectively. But not within every context is the meaning and distinction that clear. An interesting example comes with the terms adsorption and absorption—near homophones. The noun adsorption refers to the attraction of something toward the interface of an object, while absorption means that something has been drawn into the bulk of the object through the interface. But where does the interface end and where does the bulk begin? And what if the subject of interest is found both at the interface and inside the object?

Adsorption and absorption phenomena are studied in physical chemistry. They play a key role in many chemical engineering processes. Chemical species such as neutral molecules and ions may stick to a material surfaces and/or diffuse deeper into the substrate material. Robert Kunin, who worked in the field of ion exchange, thoughtfully elaborated on the “ad-versus-ab controversy” in the 1950s:  
If we consider adsorption processes strictly as confined to changes occurring at an interface or surface and absorption as those processes involving solids engulfing substances throughout their entire structure, then ion exchange phenomena may fall into both categories and might therefore be more safely considered as a sorption process, a term that avoids the controversy between the devotees of the ad and ab prefixes. --- [Robert Kunin, 1958].

Kunin elected to use the term adsorption within his book on ion-exchange resins, considering that “energy considerations of ion exchange are more closely related to true adsorptive processes.”

Often, your particular context will clarify whether to speak of  ad- or absorption. When in doubt or with excusable lack of commitment to detail, the unprefixed word sorption—as implied by Kunin—should be the word of choice. The expression “ad/ab-sorption” is possible, but may confuse more than help.

Keywords: terminology, prefix use, physicochemical vocabulary.



Robert Kunin: Ion Exchange Resins. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1958 (Second Edition); page 5.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

What is the wood-wide web?

The expression wood-wide web is a play on the term world-wide web. Both terms refer to communication networks. But in the case of the wood-wide web, communication is non-digital: it is chemical. Trees and other plants are able to send signals and communicate via airborne substances including hormones. In addition to wireless communication, forest trees share information and resources through wired underground root systems in cooperation with networks of mycorrhizal fungi.

Richard Grant recently wrote about the complex life of trees in a Smithsonian article [1].  He met with Peter Wohlleben—a German logger-turned-forest-conservationist, who is known for his book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Therein, Wohlleben describes the wood-wide web in non-technical prose backed up with scientific research results and related literature. Grant recalls in his article how Wohlleben talked about trees forming alliances among themselves and with other species [1]:

“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web,’ ” says Wohlleben in German-accented English. “All the trees here, and in  every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

Other great writings that explain the world-wide web—plus examples of involved species—can be found in journals and blog posts [2-5].

What is the main difference between the wood-wide web and the world-wide web?
The latter is man-made, while, what is called the wood-wide web, is a complex biological system understood as a result of natural selection. World-wide webs—yes, we need to use the plural form since we don't talk about a global structure but locally confined worlds—may be around since the first time when trees and forests began struggling or thriving on earth's landscape.
Keywords: forest ecology, plant science, terminology, communication, signaling, networking.

Forest around Tahoe Meadows above Lake Tahoe: How connected is it?


References and more to explore

[1] Richard Grant: The Whispering of the Trees. Smithsonian, March 2018, 48 (10), pp. 48-57.
[2] Robert Macfarlane: The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web. The New Yorker, August 7, 2016. Link:
[3] Emily Stone: The Wood Wide Web. Featured by William Graham. Link:
[4] How Plants Work: The Wood-Wide-Web: Are Plants Inter-Connected by a Subterranean Fungal Network? Link:
[5] Z. T. Evans: Introduction ot the Wood-wide Web. Tellurian Studies, December 2, 2015. Link:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

What is a pre-Darwinian Darwinist?

The term “A pre-Darwinian Darwinist” refers to a researcher or scientist who foretook evolutionary ideas in his (or her) writings before Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his book On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Who was a pre-Darwinian Darwinist?

Pre-Darwinism took place in the Darwin family itself. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles' grandfather, foreshadowed  the theory of evolution in his scientific work Zoonomia, in which he discussed topics such as inheritance of acquired characteristics and also presented his thoughts on how one species could involve into another [1,2]. The Scottish journalist Robert Chambers (1802-1871) included ideas of evolution and transmutation of species in his work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1884), anonymously published in 1844 [3,4]. Many other preeminent scientists and keen observers of the natural world in pre-Darwinian times advocated evolutionary— rather than creationist—explanations of species origin and biological diversity. Evolutionary theory was evolving.

Alexander von Humboldt as a word-barraging pre-Darwinian Darwinist

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an explorer, naturalist and polymath. Darwin had Humboldt's Personal Narrative—the account of the Latin American expedition of Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland—next to his hammock on board of the Beagle (see page 257 in [5]). Humboldt and Darwin met in January 1842, while Humboldt accompanied his benefactor Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to England for the christening of the Prince of Wales. With the help of geologist Roderick Murchison, he managed to meet the then thirty-two-year-old Darwin. The gathering turned out to be a lecture with Humboldt talking endlessly and Darwin not having the chance of starting a meaningful discussion. In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf writes [5]:

If the two men had talked properly that day, perhaps Humboldt would have discussed his ideas of a world governed not by balance and stability but by dynamic change—thoughts that he would soon introduce in the first volume of Cosmos. A species was a part of the whole, linked both to the past and future, Humboldt would write, more mutable than 'fixed'. In Cosmos he would also discuss the missing link and the 'intermediate steps' that could be found in the fossil records. He would write about 'cyclical change', transitions and constant renewal. In short, Humboldt's nature was in flux. All these ideas were precursors to Darwin's evolutionary theory. Humboldt was, as scientists later said, a 'pre-Darwinian Darwinist'.

Humboldt started the publication of his five volumes of Cosmos (Kosmos, in German) in 1845, fourteen years before Darwin published his Origin.

Keywords: biology, natural history, evolutionary theory, history of emerging ideas.

References and more to explore

[1] Erasmus Darwin: Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life []; for example, see chapter XXIX. Of Generation.
[2] Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) [].
[3]  John van Wyhe about Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation [].
[4] See footnote on page 288 in [5].
[5] Andrea Wulf: The Invention of Nature. First Vintage Books Edition, Vintage Books, New York, 2016