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Sat Apr 18, 2015 at 06:57 PM PDT

Betrayal!

by Desert Scientist

Some large conservation organizations have a problem.  They have to get the money needed to run their programs without being co-opted by the organizations and corporations who donate to them, but whose goals may conflict with theirs. And sometimes they fail. I have to make it clear that I support engagement with industry, ranchers, farmers, and other interested parties, because they are not inherently evil, as some more extreme environmentalists tried to portray them, and they are a part of our reality. However, it is awfully easy to slip from being an engager to becoming a tool of industry, betraying your own stated cause.

I have been a field biologist for well over 35 years, and I have a good deal of experience in looking at natural and man-influenced environments.  So I read Naomi Klein's indictment of several large environmental organizations with a good deal of interest.(See: http://www.salon.com/... and http://www.nytimes.com/....)  I have worked with one of these organizations in the past.  At the time that I worked with them as a participant on an expert panel, I thought them to be one facet of a multi-pronged effort to conserve our planet and develop a sustainable society.  Times have changed, and I see their top-down management as detrimental to the environmental movement, in part because of their embrace of corporate culture and the idea that the invisible hand of the market, combined with technology, will fix everything to their satisfaction. Also because they openly now say that some organisms must be allowed to go extinct and that the idea that biodiversity drives ecosystems is old-fashioned. It is possible that they are right, but I don't want to get on that train yet.   I don't see how you can save something by destroying it.

I have thought long and hard about this and my thinking was spurred on by a recent petition to remove David Koch from the board of directors of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, because he does not believe in the science behind global climate change.  He in fact funds "research" and public statements denying the change. I have dealt with both institutions involved at one time or another.  Again a dilemma. Institutions like natural history museums and environmental organizations need money. Billionaires, like David Koch, or corporations like British Petroleum (yes, I know they changed their name - to BP TLC! They're still the company that helped put the Shah of Iran into power and that caused untold damage to the Gulf of Mexico.  A rose by any other name ....) have that money. When I told one of these organizations that they should criticize BP (which had given them a lot of money and some land) I was told that they understood my difficulties - they had been starry-eyed environmentalists at one time as well, but they were now so much wiser.  Beside we all use petroleum and would be hypocrites and if we do not acknowledge this and accept the coming world of a different Anthropocene biota, we are delusional. They tell us that they are on the forefront of an entirely new type of environmental movement - a movement based in realism and the recognition that humans will dominate nature over the entire planet, whether we starry-eyed tree-huggers want to believe it or not (for a protagonist's take on this see: http://www.nationalreview.com/....) The new world will keep nature in its place.  Beside, they say, there is no pristine wilderness left, untouched by the hand of man. Maybe, but I don't want to live in the world they envision.  It sounds more like hell than heaven to me. Fortunately I'm old enough that I may not be forced to, but my children and grandchild will.

But this is not just a preference based on a love for the wilderness.  Unfortunately for us, the destruction of many species and the degradation of environments will have a negative effect on our teaming billions. When people in boardrooms imply that we will sail through these environmental crises, they are envisioning the kind of culture they live in, not the reality that most of the world's population faces. Environmental changes affect the poor more than the rich, at least initially.  The acidification of the oceans in general (See: http://www.latimes.com/...) and the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico (as an example - there are unfortunately many) in particular, are very likely to cause serious damage to our civilization and if we keep making such messes as in the Gulf, they will coalesce into a polluted world that even great wealth will not remedy.  

Another point that is often made is that we can put a value on ecosystem services and that this valuation will impress corporations.  There is certainly some truth to this thread, enough to possibly hang oneself.  As Ehrenfeld points out in his 1988 essay "Why put a value on biodiversity" (IN: E. O. Wilson, ed. "Biodiversity, National Academy Press, Washington, DC) economic studies show that it may actually be more advantageous in the short run to hunt whales to extinction and reinvest the profits, than to enjoy the rather nebulous long-term value of living whales in a marine ecosystem. The free market does not look very far ahead, nor does it value intangible benefits.

I am not naive.  I know that you need money to run programs and buy lands, but I  don't think that you should hire financial industry executives from Wall Street to run your organization or place the worst polluters on boards of directors. At that point I think such an organization has lost most of its credibility. This is a difficult balance, but it must be maintained.  In essence, although some of the points made by these "realists" are cogent (I really don't think that the natural world is in danger of complete destruction, for example, nor do I think that humans can actually "save" nature, although we can perhaps save certain parts of it), I have a difficult time swallowing the argument when it is made by people who have much to gain from it.  The world they envision has meant and will mean the destruction of a number of species and habitats. While nature may be able to recover from our destructive urges, the world will be a much different place, and probably it will go on without us.  We are a species vulnerable to extinction too, and an exponential population rises in nature often precede a decline and even an extinction event.

What is the answer?  I honestly don't know. It involves a very delicate balance that I'm not sure many humans are capable of keeping. But I am troubled by the concept of an environmental Anthropocene, dominated by human interests, and in which everything is valued in dollars, and this mud snail or that nearly extinct rhinoceros are let go because the bean counters can't find a value for them. That would result in a truly depauperate planet and perhaps to our eventual demise.  Environmentalism is more than saving pretty scenery and charismatic animals; it is saving us. To me the so-called New Environmentalism is an arrogant man-centered philosophy, based on greed and a much more optimistic vision of the future than the scientific data would suggest, and that is very old-fashioned!

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Thu Apr 09, 2015 at 04:54 PM PDT

The Mighty Rio Grande

by Desert Scientist

In Late February of this year as I walked down the trail along the Rio Grande at Leasburg Dam State Park in southern New Mexico, I was struck by the relative lushness of the area. A reasonably deep stream ran in the river bed and I could see the shadowy shapes of carp swimming just below the surface of the mud-brown water. I was told by the park ranger that the stream was fed only by a local hot spring, not by the runoff from the Rocky Mountains headwaters as it should be. South of Leasburg, there was no water in the bed at all at La Llarona Park and only a trickle from irrigation runoff (from wells!) at the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.  The river bed in winter is normally dryer than when the water is let down from the dams, but there always was some water. During the summer season we measured the irrigation water in acre feet; now it is measured in acre inches! The Rio Grande used to be a great river, but that distinction seems to be overstated now, at least in southern New Mexico.  As water is pumped from the bolson (basin) and the runoff from the headwaters in the Rocky Mountains has failed, the valley water crisis gets worse.

Rio Grande at Leasburg Dam State Park

Water from natural hot spring flows in Rio Grande bed at Leasburg Dam State Park, Radium Springs, New Mexico, late February, 2015.

Rio Grande at point where waste water disappears

The Rio Grande just south of the spot where a trickle of waste water disappears into the sand at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, NM, late March, 2015.

Rio Grande at Broad Canyon near Radium Springs

The Rio Grande in better days, May of 2011 at Broad Canyon near Radium Springs, New Mexico.

The Rio Grande at La Llorona Park in March

The Rio Grande at La Llorona Park, in Las Cruces, in March, 2015.

Pond in July

The pond at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, New Mexico, in July with some water from Elephant Butte.

The Pond in January

The same pond at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, New Mexico, in January after a brief snowstorm.

Water is all important to people and animals living in the Southwest U.S. We hope for good rains during the summer monsoons, but mostly we depend on the snow pack in the Rio Grande watershed that begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The dependence has been going on for thousands of years and is especially linked in the north of New Mexico to the acequia irrigation system of water sharing. In the south we depend on the runoff, held in a reservoir by Elephant Butte Dam and Caballo Reservoir back of the more southern Perca Dam on the river, but lately we have mostly depended on the ground water and water wells, like giant straws, suck the precious fluid to our agricultural fields, as well as to the taps in our houses.  Right now Texas is suing New Mexico to gain most if not all of the ground water because they claim that it is really stored Rio Grande water and must make up the shortfall of their percentage of the river (See: http://www.lcsun-news.com/....)

Well Irrigation, Mesilla Valley, NM

A ground water fed irrigation system in the Mesilla Valley, New Mexico.

All the pecans, alfalfa, chile peppers,onions, and other crops are irrigated (the average of about 8 to 9 inches of rain would hardly supply a pecan grove as pecans are flood plain trees) and now through much of the year that irrigation is from pumped ground water. The pond at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is increasingly dry most of the year as it depends on water from the river, also called (in Mexico) the Rio Bravo del Norte. A similar lack of water is drying up the Colorado River and threatening the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Further west in California, the preverbal doo-doo is really hitting the fan (See for example: http://www.dailykos.com/....)

Ironically we really do not know how much water is in the Mesilla Bolson, although we are pumping it daily!

Pecan orchard along Rio Grande.

A pecan orchard on the east bank of the parched Rio Grande, with the iconic Organ Mountains in the background, March, 2015.

References:

DeBuys, William. 2011. A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. Oxford University Press, New York, 369 pp.

Dimick, Dennis. 2014. If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/...

Horgan, Paul. 2012 (originally published in 1954). Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Wesleyan, 1041 pp.

Repetto, Roberto. New Mexico's Rising Economic Risks from Climate Change. http://www.demos.org/...

Rodriguez, Sylvia. 2007. Acequia: Water-sharing, Sanctity and Place. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, 216 pp.

Waterman, Jonathan.2010. Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River.National Geographic, Washington, 305 pp plus map.

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Sat Mar 28, 2015 at 11:22 AM PDT

The Elephant in the Room

by Desert Scientist

As we hear in the news every day, anthropogenic (human caused) global climate change is real, despite the efforts by some to call it a hoax. It is the most serious result of our species fouling our home planet.  It, and all other human caused pollution, can be traced back to our unchecked population expansion and "need" for more and better things. We are caught in a trap of our own making.

The problem is multifaceted, although relatively simple in concept. More people equals more demands on resources, especially arable lands, water and fisheries. More and more oil and gas, coal, metals and other minerals are being pumped or mined to meet the demand for energy or materials. Wildlife is being killed off or removed for ivory, folk medicine, trophies or exotic pets. More demand creates huge markets for such commodities as fish, leading to overfishing in a classic tragedy of the commons.  Even by-catch is becoming a commodity because salable materials, such as live sea shells, are often scrounged for processing into specimen shells for private collectors. Sometimes these are not actually by-catch, and one dealer seems to have actually bragged in a catalog several years ago that he was taking advantage of the rebellion on the south Philippines to dredge the reefs for salable shells, such as Conus glorimaris, without government scrutiny or need for permits!  This is a microcosm of a greater problem, but every destructive act leaves coral reefs and their associated biota in danger. In addition the reefs are being searched for salable marine fish for the affluent aquarist. Even worse, reefs, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef, have been suggested as dumping grounds for land waste!  The situation is equally dire on land.

Population increases and the resulting demand for land, water and other resources, especially for the affluent developed countries and the up and coming countries like China, are the cause of our problems with climate change.  The system almost requires us to use gasoline, plastics, and on and on, unless you are able to retire on a backwoods acreage with no electricity from the power company, your own water supply and a very large garden and storage barn. Even then you would probably need a car and visits to the doctor as well. Bicycles requite metals and plastics, as do solar panels and wiring. In addition, as population increases, there are more and more demands for places to dump solid wastes and much is dumped into the sea and along back roads. In essence we are trapped in a never ending capitalistic pyramid scheme that will result in our complete ruin unless we modify or replace it.

The current political push to curtail abortion and even birth control also works against our future. In many cases women in the developing world are left with few alternatives, but few right to life politicians have any sympathy. Whether that is because they have some religious bias, are misogynistic, want to promote the production of more consumers and workers to feed the system, believe in the ultimate perfectibility of the human species, or are clueless, or a combination of those reasons, is a question for debate, but the results are the same.

When I was much younger and first encountered wild areas I found that my sympathy for the natural world was not shared by those who believed in human "progress." That "progress" was rubbed in my face as I saw large chunks of the Sonoran Desert scraped clean to put in new housing developments and trailer parks. Later, in Southeast New Mexico I saw the results of the large scale oil development in the Permian Basin and was told that the smell of hydrogen sulfide was the smell of money. Indeed, I had an automobile, lived in a house, used electricity produced by fossil fuel, used plastics, bought and consumed meat and vegetables produced by destructive agro-business, and even the books I read were the result of either pulp wood plantations or clear cutting of forests. I could not complain as I was as guilty as anybody else.  In truth those who told me this had a point, but as I have said this is because we are enmeshed in the corporate world to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to have no negative impact. Multiply that by 7 billion people, and you can rapidly see, assuming one is not blinded by the picture of potential human riches projected by our capitalistic society, that ruin is not far away.

What is the answer for this dilemma? I wish I knew, but I do know that cutting off funding for family planning is foolish.  Two actions could help the population problem -- give women more power and financial resources apart from their husbands, fathers and brothers, and make birth control and proper health care for women more easily accessible.  Also, we desperately need to break our dependance on non-renewable energy sources.  In some ways things are getting better, but the dirty fuel industry is fighting back and has kept us from addressing the threat effectively for at least the last 20 years.  Another action that would help would be building a network of natural habitats (not necessarily pristine old growth because that is getting rarer) connected by corridors easily accessible to larger wildlife.  The main point is to save as much of the biota as possible, while also protecting natural watersheds and carbon sinks, like forests and areas of high phytoplanktonic (one-celled photosynthesizing organisms) production in the ocean and other aquatic systems.  People would just have to get used to wolves, coyotes, pumas, owls, etc. and having some areas of wild dense forest, mountains, desert, coasts, and open ocean off limits to commercial fishing. This would, of course, require a projected reduction of population, which I think could be accomplished democratically at least to a degree by the first two actions I mentioned. I am of the opinion that we simply cannot accommodate 11 or 12 billion people on this planet without dire consequences to many, if not most or all, of the people (See: http://www.theguardian.com/... http://www.kstatecollegian.com/... and http://www.utne.com/....) With 7 billion we are already seeing wars that have the potential for becoming perpetual, like those in Orwell's "1984." The Syrian civil war (caused in part by drought) is a case in point.  If this is progress, send me back to the stone age!  No, I like many of our technological advances (we do seem to "progress" in that, but certainly not as much in social issues) like modern medicine too much to give them up, but I think that we have to be smarter in how we apply these innovations. Technology should serve our grandchildren's future, not our greed.  

Still, questions about exponential growth are occasionally being raised (See: http://www.bbc.com/... for example) and there are numerous references on the Internet (See the BBC article and others above) and in print.  I would like there to be a solution, even if it means simplifying my life style considerably, but so far I don't see it happening. Once global climate change really kicks in I don't think we will have much choice in the matter and unfortunately Malthus may prove to be right and disease, war, and starvation may reduce our population without our consent! There is some hope, but it is getting very thin, especially with the attacks on family planning so beloved of conservative politicians.

Discuss

Thu Feb 19, 2015 at 04:51 PM PST

We're Number One!

by Desert Scientist

I am very disturbed by the attitude that whoever you are, or wherever you come from, or whatever sport team you root for, you or they are number one.  This  is an attitude that is common to all humans, and I am not an exception, but one that can be easily pushed to an insane level. We obviously all can't be number one, exceptional, the greatest, or whatever superlative you want to use. I would prefer to think of it as a place to aspire to, not one which is cheaply or easily attained and even less to be bragged about. One of my doctoral committee members commented on my dissertation that he was somewhat disappointed that I had not taken it further. I said that I well knew my limitations, but he quickly answered that I had no right to judge my own work one way or another, as that was up to others. I think he was right!

We are always on a journey that only ends when we die. It is fine that we strive to be the best in some activity or other, but even if we achieve it, it is very temporary and often does not give us the pleasure we thought it would. In addition "We're Number One" is often a cover for self-centered egotism and denigration of others. In "The Art Spirit," Robert Henri, the American artist, voiced his suspicion of prizes given for art work, because he said that art was not easily quantified.  I agree with Henri's opinion, as it is really hard to judge which art is the best. This is also true in theater, music, and other art forms. It is also difficult to judge the best in science and a number of very worthy scientists have never gotten a Nobel Prize. Also a few who received a prize may not have deserved it. In social and political activism one can easily point to a number of outstanding contributors to peace who never got the award.  

In professional and advanced amateur sports it is easier to quantify, but when a team beats another by a last minute goal or run does this imply that the loosing team is truly inferior? When I was younger I rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was ecstatic when they won a World Series.  But life goes on and in retrospect the Dodgers that year were good, but (as they won the title in the ninth inning of the seventh game) not really better than the New York Yankees (may I burn in hell for admitting that!)  Also, the bloom of rooting for a winning team soon wore off as I continued to deal with real life.  

In fact we are relatively short-lived creatures.  Omar Khayyam said it well:

"They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep,
And Bahrám, that great Hunter, --the wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep" Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Fame, power and riches are indeed fleeting, for as Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher/Roman emperor, reminded himself every day "Remember you must die."

The situation gets even more complicated when we talk about nations.  We like to think of our country as "exceptional", and in a way it is.  Most countries are exceptional in one way or another - some have better art, or food, or educational systems. In my view our exceptionalism comes from our (at least in the past) melting pot of numerous nationalities, including our native Americans. Yes, they have not always gotten along and slavery was an especially dark stain on our national history, as were the massacres of Native Americans, but despite that, the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are certainly exceptional (not that the latter can't be altered to more closely fit the times - that's what amendments are for!) That we have often not lived up to them is another matter.  I wince when some political speech is given including "exceptional" or "God-inspired" as I think that is awfully close to country worship. Remember the line  in "Grand Old Flag" that goes "With never a boast or brag?" Well, that sounds a lot like bragging to me. "We're number one" and "USA, USA, USA" sound more like a cheering section at a high school football game than a really patriotic modesty.

We used to console ourselves with the thought that if life was fleeting, along with power and acclaim, at least our species was the pinnacle of creation, but in 1859 Charles Darwin took us down off our high horse with "The Origin of Species," and really finished it off in 1871 with "The Descent of Man." To a large extent we are still speciesists, but the times  are changing.  I often think of Kipling's Bandarlogs when I see how we pride ourselves on technology that is supposed to serve us but may end our existence. With our war machines and ability to use technology to swindle others or replace them with robots, we will be lucky if we survive into the next century.

Don't get me wrong, our species has done some remarkable things.  The invention of writing, mathematics, the wheel, the inclined plane, the lever, music, literature, art, science and philosophy, are all great achievements. The human brain is a marvel and our complex societies often exhibit rich cultures.  But we are also an ecological disaster and in some part of the world in constant warfare against our fellow man. We are literally breeding ourselves into a hole and altering our environment in ways that threaten our continued existence. What we could be is a question, as I am not one to believe in human perfectibility, but we surely could be better.  

Our planet was once thought to be the center of everything, until Copernicus dethroned it. We still hold "Miss Universe" contests, but I have yet to see even a Miss Mars, let alone a Miss Orion's Belt. We have Universal Films, Universe this and universe that, cosmic this and cosmic that, and yet out planet is not even a dust speck in a universe that spans billions of light years! Despite this humble state, we are, according to some religions, just a little lower than the angels.  Even non-religious people seem to think that we are really wonderful and will eventually reach some level of human perfection.  Others believe that we should bravely stare the uncaring void of our own existence and eventual death in the face despite the tragedy of the meaninglessness of our puny lives.  This view too is still centered on the human species as a tragic figure of monumental proportions. For myself, I have come to the conclusion that our existence is only as meaningful as we make it.  Why should the universe give a damn about us? Why should we even expect it?  To quote a well-known poet on the subject:

"Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast." - W. H. Auden
Isn't it enough to live one life as a part of the whole? Is not the experience of life, with all its pain and joys, enough for us? It seems to be greedy to ask for either eternal life (the Judeo-Christian-Muslim concept), a future of human perfection, or some sort of medal of valor for facing the meaninglessness head on. I think the Existentialists are essentially correct, you have to make your own meaning through your own aspirations, your family, your friends and associates, your relationship to the natural world, and a determination to make the current world better (without the expectation of perfectibility), even if in a small way, by your efforts. These are enough for me. I don't need to be number one.

   

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Sun Dec 28, 2014 at 06:17 PM PST

Diatoms - A Reprise

by Desert Scientist

A while back I wrote a diary on microorganisms with a brief mention and several photographs of diatoms. Diatoms are major players in net primary production and sequestering of Carbon. Not least, these remarkable protists as photosynthetic organisms are huge releasers of oxygen (estimated at 20-40% of all oxygen on the planet!) and thus our ability to have breathable air (at least every fifth breath is provided by diatoms!) Other players include cyanobacteria, other "algae" and the terrestrial forests in the tropics and Siberian taiga, plus the other forests. Another bacterium is thought to be the source of the chloroplastid (which is more brownish than usual) found inside each diatom frustule (or shell), which is made of glass and water, in effect opal - SiO2+H20. Each shell has numerous pores which allow gas exchange.  The ability to make glass houses is shared by only a relatively few organisms, including radiolarians, glass sponges and silicoflagellates. Most skeletons of other organisms are made from calcium salts, cellulose or chiton.

The pore patterns and shapes of diatoms make them among the most beautiful of microorganisms. Not only do we have numerous living species, but one fossil area alone, the Oamaru Eocene-Oligocene beds in New Zealand, contains around 700 species. Other fossil diatomite is found in Russia, Ireland, California, Maryland and many other localities. The Oamaru sites are especially interesting as they were laid down during the runaway greenhouse of the Paleocene to the Oligocene, when the planet had no ice (things started to cool toward the end of the Eocene and continued to do so fairly steadily into the Pleistocene.)  One apparent occurrence during such a warm period is an increase in the rate of speciation and indeed this seems to be so in regard to these amazing photosynthetic microorganisms, few of which reach up to 500 microns, or half a millimeter.

The study of diatoms was one of the favorite natural history pastimes during the late Victorian period and there were numerous mounters of these little gems up until the mid Twentieth Century, with only a handful left in modern times, mainly in Europe. One of the great mounters of diatoms was the German Johann Diedrich Möller, who founded a slide-making company that lasted up into the mid Twentieth Century. He was famous for his type slides, some of at least 400 species mounted by hand!  He also arranged diatoms into patterns, sometimes using well over 1000 individual diatoms. Another German, Adolf Schmidt, whose Atlas der Diatomaceenkunde, is still useful today and was continued by later researchers after World War II, was prominent in the field. Many British mounters and some French are also known, and their antique slides are still on the market, some for fairly high prices. Below are a few photos of diatoms on a Möller type slide.

Moller Diatoms #12

One of a series of diatoms on a Möller type slide. This is an Aulacodiscus

Moller Diatoms #1

Two more diatoms on the same type slide.

Women took up the speciality, especially after 1900, and today there are a number of women involved and several of the major works on North American species were written or co-written by women.

Despite their small size diatoms are vital to our survival and we would do well not to ignore them. The fate of the oceans and freshwater and saltwater lakes, rivers and creeks will determine their survival, as well as our own. The number of modern species of diatoms alone is great - over 20,000 and maybe more than a million (microorganisms are very poorly known even with all the research over the last few hundred years since the invention of the light microscope.)

The following are a series of mostly fossil species which I photographed using a trinocular phase contrast microscope. Most are in the 50-200 micron range.

Diatom from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica

A large recent diatom from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

Briggera capitata (Grev.) Ross & Sims

Briggera capitata from the Eocene-Oligocene of Oamaru, New Zealand.

Biddulphia capusina Schmidt

Biddulphia capusina from the Eocene-Oligocene of Oamaru, New Zealand.

Aulacodiscus janischii Gr. & St

Aulacodiscus janischii  from the Eocene-Oligocene of Oamaru, New Zealand.

Brightwellia coronata (Brightwell) Ralfs.

 Brightwellia coronata, a very rare species, from the Eocene-Oligocene of Oamaru, New Zealand.

Triceratium favus var. quadrata Grunow.

Triceratium favus var. quadrata from the Eocene-Oligocene of Oamaru, New Zealand.

Fossil centric diatom from Japan  

Fossil centric diatom from Japan.

A few references:

Mann, David G. Diatoms http://tolweb.org/...

Plankton Chronicles: Diatoms http://www.planktonchronicles.org/...

Schmidt, A. and others 1874 - Atlas der Diatomaceenkunde. Example https://archive.org/...

What are Diatoms? http://westerndiatoms.colorado.edu/...

Discuss

Wed Dec 17, 2014 at 12:58 PM PST

Predators

by Desert Scientist

I am not by nature a person who marches or demonstrates, but even my introverted personality can be inspired occasionally to take action.  So I found myself twice taking part in demonstrations supporting the Mexican wolf and its expanded reintroduction to the arid Southwest. At the public comment session organized by the Fish and Wildlife Service in New Mexico I found myself among the first to speak. Most of the speakers supported the Mexican wolf and I, like them, testified to the importance of expanding the program so that the wolves would have more territory. Then I listened as several people got up and stated flatly that even the few wolves that now exist in the Upper Gila are a danger to both livestock and human children. One man implied that the very idea of wolves had terrified the younger set along the Gila so much that they were afraid to wait for a school bus and that one town had erected cages so that the children could wait inside and be safe until the bus came. They had heard of Red Riding Hood and did not want to be eaten. This despite there being no records that anyone could point to of a non-rabid Mexican wolf ever attacking a human!  On the stock predation they were on more solid ground, but then one rancher spoke in favor of the expanded introduction, saying that she could manage her stock to minimize losses.

As demonstrated by some of these rancher's comments, in at least a few circles predators are intensely disliked. The very term is a perjurative used to describe every despicable human activity from predatory banking to sexual predators. However, whatever we may think about predators in the natural world, they have an important role to play in the economy of nature and should never be lightly dismissed. It was Aldo Leopold who articulated this best in his writings and the principles of wildlife management he laid down are still valid. If we eliminated all predators our environments would be truly depauperate and the wild would be altered in ways that we certainly would not like, as when deer breed uncontrollably in suburban settings and either starve or eat our planted vegetation.  I have, myself, seen white-tailed deer completely strip a soybean field near Tallahassee, Florida, so I can bear witness to their potential for destruction.    

Coral Snake - Gainesville, Florida

An Eastern Coral Snake on pine needles, Gainesville, Florida.

In a recent book I read last month, a herpetologist talks about this issue of predation. Harry W. Greene in his "Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art" notes the problem of attitudes toward predators, including himself when he goes on deer and later feral hog hunts. He notes that the ornithologist Alexander Skutch hated raptors and snakes, an odd situation indeed!  From my own reading I can say that this was also partly true of John Burroughs, who would kill black snakes who might raid the birds nests he was watching. Another writer I skimmed suggested that tigers could be genetically engineered to eat grass.  At the end of the book I wanted to yell "But then they would not be tigers!"  While predation can be a bit unnerving to some of us, we should not complain about wolves and hawks when we sit down to a large turkey dinner at Thanksgiving. Even vegetarians and vegans are not so innocent as many insects and birds are disposed of to protect field crops. And certainly we entomologists cannot claim innocence as we routinely kill insects to make into specimens and so act as their predators.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk defeathering a mockingbird

A juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk defeathering a mockingbird that it had just killed, Mesilla Park, new Mexico.

Many predators are on endangered species lists, including the various subspecies of the tiger and other big, middle-sized and small wild felids, as well as several large and small canids.  Some hawks, eagles and owls fall into this category as well.  So-called "chicken hawks" (Sharp-shinned, Coopers and Goshawks) were shot even after other hawks were protected on the basis of their killing of domestic fowl.  The photo I took above shows a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk eating a mockingbird it had just killed. The efficiency of these birds as they seem to glide effortlessly and silently through the trees to pick off perched birds is remarkable. I once saw a female Cooper's defeathering a white-winged dove in the tree just east of our fence line.  Unfortunately I had no camera at the time!

Great-horned Owl - Mesilla, NM

Great-horned Owl, Mesilla, New Mexico.

Owls, those mysterious creatures of the night, are also fierce predators.  In the area where I took the above photo a pair of great-horned owls raise several broods of owlets (sometimes called hoolets).  I once found a row of owlets on a stone wall near the nest tree.  Such baby predators may look fuzzy and cute, but will attack fiercely if cornered, as I found out when I tried to move a baby western screech owl out of the road near where this photo was taken!

Mother Gray Fox keeping an eye on her kits

Mother gray fox nervously watching her curious kits, Mesilla Park, New Mexico.

Wild canids, such as foxes, coyotes and wolves are also not liked much in certain quarters.  In my neighborhood we have occasional sightings of gray foxes, the most recent of which allowed me to get some closeup photos of both the mother and her kits. I have always liked the old folksong "The Fox," which starts out "The Fox went out on the chilly night. Prayed for the moon to give him light...."  It seems to embody the spirit of the wild.

Diamondback Rattlesnake - Rincon Mountains

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake in "crater," foothills of the Rincon Mountains, Pima County, Arizona.

Pigmy Rattlesnake - Gainesville, Florida

Pigmy Rattlesnake, Gainesville, Florida.

My earlier photo of a coral snake near Gainesville, Florida, is of a specialized predator.  Coral snakes eat primarily other snakes.  Above is a photo of a mammal and occasional bird predator, the western diamondback rattlesnake, as well as one of a hunter of lesser game, the pigmy rattlesnake.  The pits below the eyes and toward the nostrils are heat sensors which allow the snake, often lying in wait, to sense the body heat of a rabbit or rat and strike at it.  Many people hate snakes, especially venomous ones, but I always count it a red letter day when I encounter one of these magnificent animals.  Rattlesnakes and many species of harmless snakes keep the rodent and rabbit populations down, as many a good farmer can tell you.

There are many other predators, including many of the birds who prey on insects, or in the case of roadrunners, other bird's eggs, snakes and lizards. All have a role in the dynamics of ecosystems.  We meddle with this at our own peril, as we did with the predators of deer in the Kaibab in Arizona or wolves in Yellowstone. Here are a few more predator portraits over the fold, all taken by me.

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Mon Oct 06, 2014 at 09:36 PM PDT

Pestilence

by Desert Scientist

When I attended the University of Arizona I took an excellent course taught by Albert Mead called Parasitology. We used a text book called "Manual of Tropical Medicine" by Hunter, Frye, and Swartzwelder, and were fortunate in that Dr. Mead had an excellent collection of microscope slides from his work in Africa.  We got to see all four then known species of Plasmodium (malarial parasites) known to infect humans, plus a host of parasitic amoebae, flagellates, and worms.  It was so fascinating that I followed it up with courses on Medical Entomology and Mosquitoes at the University of Florida. However I was warned against altering my career by a researcher at a laboratory in south Florida.  He said that there was just too many epidemiologists for the job opportunities. However,  I really got to appreciate the need to understand tropical parasites and diseases in this age of rapid transport from distant lands, and to believe that every hospital and clinic should have at least a few doctors with training in these fields.  This was driven home recently by the appearance of ebola at a Dallas ER and the bungling of the disease identification and treatment of the patient.

I grew up when mumps, measles, chicken pox, diphtheria, scarlet fever and whooping cough periodically swept through the community, as well as polio.  We also had several years when rabies went through the dog, coyote, fox and skunk populations and every stray dog was suspect.  I contracted measles and chicken pox in childhood, followed by mumps as an adult, as well as flu periodically. I later had shingles as a result of the latent chicken pox virus. My father's first wife died of tuberculosis and my grandmother's first husband died of rabies after he refused the Pasteur treatments. Our Methodist minister's wife died of polio. My wife had at least three and probably more uncles and aunts die of childhood diseases.  Both my wife and I were vaccinated for small pox. My wife's father had hepatitis (probably type A) and may have had malaria, and one of my associates at the university had dengue. Thus I have both first and second hand experience with the period pre-vaccination (except for small pox and later polio) and with other diseases that lack vaccinations to the present day.  It was not so wonderful in the 1950s, when epidemics swept through communities regularly.

Epidemic disease has always been with us and at one point that we know of, the Black Death of the mid-1300s, such a disease actually lowered the earth's population for a while. The 1918 flu may have killed more people, but the human species was breeding so fast at that point that it did not significantly alter the steady and ever steeper rise in human numbers. However, despite all our medical technology about a million or so people die each year from malaria alone and tropical epidemic diseases like ebola are certain to emerge and spread.  We are just lucky that at this point ebola is not air-borne!  

When I visited the American tropics 15 years ago I had no doubts - I was vaccinated for everything recommended by the CDC.  It was worth it!  One of our daughters added a rabies vaccination to that when she went to Africa to study the vectors of two arboviruses, dengue and chikungunya, before they hit the U.S. ChikV (as they call it) is now in Florida and dengue is probably not far behind.  We have the vectors in place in the southern tier of states. Tonight when I leave my front door I know that I will be followed by a small cloud of one of these, Aedes aegypti, the yellow fever mosquito.

Aedes aegypti

Aedes aegypti on my blue jeans in 2002.

Fortunately these mosquitoes do not transmit West Nile virus, which is established in the populations of several species of Culex, and we have so far avoided dengue, yellow-fever and ChikV. It helps to know your vectors - not all mosquitoes are equal. The yellow fever mosquito (only one individual) was first collected in traps in 2000 in Mesilla Park, New Mexico.  Prior to that we did not have it!  The Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus another vector of dengue and ChikV, is expected shortly. I have the odd distinction of being the first person recorded to have been attacked by yellow fever mosquitoes in southern New Mexico!

For a short time I was involved in a study on the vectors of West Nile virus, mainly in the writing of a grant proposal. However, my career had already diverged into biocontrol of pest insects and weeds, so I did not continue (we did get the grant!). While a threat, West Nile is not a major cause of death (although it can devastate some bird populations, especially corvids). It is one of many emergent and potentially emergent diseases with which we will have to deal as environments change and global warming continues.  The huge population of humans is certainly a factor, though by no means the only one. Concentrations of populations in slums and barrios around the world are time bombs, waiting to go off, just as the slums in medieval cities proved to be wonderful incubators for the Black Death.  If they do, like has already happened with ebola in West Africa, they will eventually swamp our health care system as it now stands. Cutting money from the CDC, the WHO, and the NIH, is not a good idea (see: http://www.motherjones.com/....)  I well know that there is waste and sometimes corruption in these organizations, however the majority of people involved in health care and research are honest and hard working. We have been fools not to give them the resources that they need.  

In essence the increase of humans to over 10 billion, as recently predicted, will present disease organisms, both well-known like pertussis and emergent like ebola, with great opportunities for expansion.  Global warming will also expand the range of vectors.  Multiply medieval slums by a factor of 30 or more in a warming world and you can see the problem. Unless we alter this, humans will find their civilization overwhelmed by famine, war, pestilence and death, as it was for a time in the 14th Century. We may already be seeing the future in ISIL and ebola.

On this note I am thinking of ending my diaries with this, my 101st diary.  People who have read them have probably gathered whatever wisdom or knowledge, if any, that I can impart.  The Buddha is said to have remarked that “But those who grasped after marks and philosophical views, they wander about in the world annoying people.”  I would avoid this by ceasing further commentary, and by not repeating myself, as I most certainly may do. If I have annoyed anyone, I hope not too seriously. I have, however, enjoyed this opportunity to clarify my own thoughts and to learn from others comments, which I assuredly have done.  Thank you all!!

 

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Tue Sep 30, 2014 at 11:09 AM PDT

Women in Science: Final Notes

by Desert Scientist

With this diary I am ending my series of discussions of female scientists and mathematicians. Even though I limited it to those who died before 2000 I believe that I could turn up at least a hundred. If I included more modern researchers who died after 2000 it might easily reach several times that. I have spotlighted fifty over the last several years.  In this diary I will mention briefly eight female scientists that I could have written in more depth on, but decided that I had finally reached my limit.

Why spotlight female scientists especially? Because women who made important contributions to science and mathematics were not fully recognized and often discouraged from the pursuit of such knowledge, usually because of the totally ludicrous idea that they somehow were unable to think about such subjects (despite ample evidence to the contrary), or that it would ruin them for their real purpose, becoming mothers. Of course, women were also denigrated in the arts and writing, although some  made names for themselves despite the prejudice that prevented them from reaching their full potential. As a male I find such ideas an embarrassment to my sex.  I have never believed women to be inferior to men, even before I became the father of two girls and the foster father to another, as well as a mentor to several graduate and undergraduate students who happened to be female (I also had a number of male graduate and undergraduate students). It just never made sense to me. Both our daughters and our foster daughter followed careers in the sciences and all three now hold positions working in applied science in some fashion or other, primarily in medical science or related fields.

As I have said in an earlier diary, I have also collaborated with several female scientists over the years and have found them to be excellent colleagues, as good as any of the male colleagues that I have had. It often leaves me with a sense of exasperation over this maltreatment that occurs even today (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/....)  It is often worse in developing countries, in some of which the birth of a daughter is met with lamentations. It takes real bravery, as shown by Malala Yousafzai, to fight this system, but it can be done.  I have served as major professor for an Egyptian woman, who was a devout Muslim, and as an external advisor for a Pakistani women who was working for her doctorate in agricultural science. Both were bright students who needed a chance to prove themselves. In the case of the Egyptian women I saw first hand the difficulties placed on her by even her fellow students while she was struggling to finish her master's in entomology despite serious health problems. The male Egyptian students were the worst. But it is not just in Islamic countries that such prejudice occurs and I don't mean to pick on them especially (although tribal traditions in such countries are often oppressive to women and I cannot deny that reality!) I have worked with or had professional contact with female scientists in Argentina, Mexico, New Zealand, and Israel, and to a much lesser extent Poland. Although they never talked to me about this issue, I don't doubt, based on stories I have gotten from other sources, that they have often suffered from such preconceptions.  

As I noted above, I will close with capsule biographic vignettes of eight more women of whom I have not published full diaries. However, they all deserve their own and it is with some regret that I do not plan to write them. I urge all my readers, both men and women, to acquaint themselves with all of these and to search out others. I hope to encourage women to take up science and math, with the confidence that they can achieve great things and that they are only limited by their own imaginations. Do not let the sexism that still rears its ugly head completely discourage you! We need all the minds we have to solve the problems that our species faces, especially the great environmental changes that we are foisting upon ourselves. As for myself I can only say, welcome to the great journey that is science! I guess that means that I am a feminist and I would hope that more of my sex will be in the future. We all gain in the end if the sexes are treated with equality of opportunity.  

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Determination of sex in humans was a puzzle until a woman who was a cytological researcher uncovered the reason. Nettie Stevens was born in Vermont on July 7, 1861, just as the Civil War started to get serious (by the end of the month the Union would taste its first defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run.) Her father was a carpenter, but did well enough that he was able to send his children to college. Nettie was a prodigy and finished four years of school at Westfield Normal School in two. In a time when women were not considered bright enough to compete with men in art, science or literature, she stood out as a competent teacher and researcher.  

She finished her B.A. at Stanford in 1899, after a stint of teaching, and followed that  with an M.A. in 1900! She continued her studies in cytology at Bryn Mawr College. She also studied marine biology abroad at the Naples Biological Station and Helgoland. She worked for a time at Theodor Boveri's lab at the Zoological Institute at Würzburg, Germany. She was much influenced by Thomas Hunt Morgan, the head of the Biology Department at Bryn Mawr College, as well as his predecessor Edmund Beecher Wilson. In 1903 she finished her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr. In her studies at Bryn Mawr she discovered that in some animals the sexes had slightly different chromosomes. Her studies were based on mealworms, which have x and y chromosomes and she concluded that the male thus determined the sex of the progeny as males were xy and females xx. This led to the discovery of the chromosomal differences between the sexes in humans; in essence she discovered one of the functions of the y and x chromosomes in many organisms, including man.  We now know that sex determination can vary within the animal kingdom, with some animals having zw in females and zz in males (birds) and in others (notably many of the Hymenoptera) the female is diploid and the male is haploid and thus lack sex chromosomes.

She died of breast cancer at the age of 50 in 1912. Morgan, who had praised her to the skies as the very best graduate student he had ever encountered, wrote a somewhat denigrating obituary implying that she was only a technician and not a real scientist.

Internet References:

Nettie Maria Stevens http://www.dnaftb.org/...

Nettie Stevens: A Discoverer of Sex Chromosomes http://www.nature.com/...

Nettie Stevens http://en.wikipedia.org/...

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There was another woman, besides Rosalind Franklin, who engaged in X-ray chrystallography who actually won a Nobel Prize. Her name was Dorothy Hodgkin. Her work was with proteins, not DNA, and she was awarded the prize in chemistry in 1964, only two years after Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the prize for the structure of the DNA molecule. Rosalind Franklin did not get the prize because by that time she was dead.

Dorothy Hodgkin was born in Cairo, Egypt, in May of 1910, as Dorothy Mary Crowfoot. She was the daughter of the British Archeologist John Winter Crowfoot and Grace Mary Hood, also a British archeologist. Separated from her parents during World War I, she remained in England and was only reunited with her mother for a year at the end of the war.  Four of her uncles (her mother's brothers) died in the war. Her parents, however, finally moved to Khartoum, Sudan, and Dorothy began her studies in England at Sir John Leman High School in Beccles, North Suffolk in 1921.  

Hodgkin became interested in chemistry at an early age and eventually entered the University of Oxford at the age of 18, with a chemistry major. She received her doctorate from the University of Cambridge.  She was awarded a fellowship to Somerville College in 1933 and in 1934 moved back to Oxford.  She became its first fellow and tutor in chemistry in 1936, eventually having Margaret Roberts, who became prime minister of the UK as Margaret Thatcher, as one of her students during the 1940s. Oddly, despite their total disagreement over politics (Hodgkin was a communist,) they remained friends.  In 1953, Hodgkin and her associates, including Leslie Orgel, traveled to Cambridge to see the model of DNA constructed by Watson and Crick. In 1960 she was appointed Wolfson Research Professor by the Royal Society, a post she held until 1970.

She and her colleagues are credited with a number of important discoveries, including the dimensional structures of biomolecules, and the structure of penicillin and steroids, as well as vitamin b12, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize. Some of her greatest work was on the structure of insulin, which undoubtedly saved many lives. In 1945 she became the first person to use a computer for work on a biochemical problem.

She married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin in 1937 and eventually became embroiled in her husband's political activities to the point that she was banned from travel to the United States in 1953.  Thomas Hodgkin was an off and on again member of the Communist Party and at one point an adviser to Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana.  After working for the Colonial Office of the UK he devoted his major efforts to African history and he published several books on the subject. Interestingly, his wife published under her maiden name of Crowfoot until 1949 and afterword as Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.  

She received many honors, in addition to the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and was even elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  The one great blot on her career was when she published a forward praising the chemical accomplishments of Elena Ceaușescu, the wife of the dictator of Romania.  It was discovered later that Elena Ceaușescu had no real training and had obtained her doctorate because of her husband and a team of real chemists. Elena Ceaușescu and her husband Nicolae were executed by firing squad after a summery trial when the army overthrew the Communist government of Romania following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

Internet References:

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin http://www.chemheritage.org/...

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin http://www.csupomona.edu/...

Dorothy Hodgkin http://www.nobelprize.org/...

Dorothy Hodgkin http://en.wikipedia.org/...

Thatcher and Hodgkin: How Chemistry Overcame Politics http://www.bbc.com/...

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As I have noted in earlier diaries, women were much more involved in scientific exploration than is commonly thought. This was especially so in the botanical sciences and one such woman was Ynes Mexia. Mexia lived a very troubled life, from which botanical exploration offered a productive respite and gave her purpose.  In essence she escaped into the world of tropical plants and in the process produced an archive of new records and species, which is still being studied today.

Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia was born in Georgetown, Washington, DC.  He father was a Mexican diplomat and her mother American.  The marriage broke up in 1873, when Ynes was three, and her father went back to Mexico City. Her mother took the children, including Ynes and six she had from a previous marriage, and moved to Limestone County, Texas.  After her early education at St. Joseph's Academy in Maryland, she followed her father to Mexico City and was with him him until his death in the late 1890s (at least two dates are given for his death.) Her mother died in 1896. Initially she planed to become a nun, but her father's will stipulated that if she did she would be cut out of the inheritance she shared with a stepsister. She and her stepsister still wound up having to fight for the money with her father's mistress and a stepbrother, but they finally won.  She then married twice in a row, much to everybody's surprise, but her first husband died after a long illness in 1904 and her second husband mismanaged the poultry business she had started at her father's hacienda in Mexico City, and she divorced him in 1908.  

She became interested in botany and, after a stint as a social worker in San Francisco and following an association with the Sierra Club, entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1921. She never graduated.  Her real botanical career began in 1925, with the mentoring of Roxanna Ferris, a Stanford botanist.  She explored western Mexico, unfortunately being injured after falling off a cliff.  Nevertheless she collected 500 specimens on that trip and after she recovered she collected in Latin America, including extensive expeditions to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, as well as Mexico,  and Alaska, discovering a number of new species and a new genus. Unlike many female botanists she enjoyed having plants named after her. She died of lung cancer at Berkeley in 1938, having amassed at least 150,000 specimens of vascular plants, most of which were deposited in the California Academy of Sciences, although duplicates were deposited in several other herbaria, including several in European institutions. Her collections are still being analyzed and the final total of species and genera she discovered is apparently still not known, but it may be as many as fifty new species and two new genera. One genus, Mexianthus, was named after her.

She was a member of the California Academy and an honorary member of the Departamento Forestal y de Casa y Pesca de Mexico, as well as several other organizations.

Literature References:

Bonta, Marcia Myers. 1991.  Women in the Field: America's Pioneer Naturalists. Texas A & M University Press.

Internet References:

Ynes Mexia http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/...

Ynes Mexia http://en.wikipedia.org/...

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The usual common belief that women are bad at mathematics meets its match in Hypatia and several other lesser known female mathematicians.  One of these was recognized in her lifetime as the second Hypatia.  She was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, eldest child of a mathematics professor at the University of Bologna, Pietro Agnesi.  She was from early on recognized as a child genius, learning seven languages by the age of 11. She studied ballistics and geometry at the age of 14, eventually devoting herself full time to calculus and wrote the first book discussing both differential and integral equations. She was, unfortunately, prone to ill health and developed seizures which were ascribed to too much study.

Her most important publication was the two-volume Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth) (1748) which served as an important textbook on Euler's calculus.  In the book she discusses a particular curve called by Grandi versoria or "versiera" in Italian, an apparent pun for "witch." For some reason the curve, which was analyzed by Agnesi, became "Agnesi's Witch." She was elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences, based on this work.

Even in the male-dominated academic society of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, she was included in the highest intellectual circles of Bologna and was appointed a professor of mathematics, natural philosophy and physics at the University of Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV.  She, unfortunately, never served, having taken up the religious life in support of the poor and elderly. She apparently worked on mathematics only to please her father and considered it just a hobby. One wonders what she would have accomplished if she had continued her studies after her father's death!

She died in the poor house she worked in and was buried in a mass grave.

Internet References:

Maria Gaetana Agnesi http://www.agnesscott.edu/...

Maria Gaetana Agnesi http://www.britannica.com/...

Maria Gaetana Agnesi http://www.math.wichita.edu/...

Maria Gaetana Agnesi http://en.wikipedia.org/...

 

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