Friday, September 28, 2007

Earthstar: dispersal gurus

Earthstars are fungi, like the mushrooms I'd posted about before. But they are much more interesting. It's all in their way of spreading their seed. Many plants and by extension fungi I suppose have a bit of a problem. They can't move. So when they have children (seeds for plants, spores for fungi) they need to figure out how to get them far away. There are two basic reasons why they need to do this. One is if the seeds stay and germinate close to the parent, they will compete with one another for the same nutrients, sun and water. Leading to a direct conflict between parent and offspring, not a good idea for either in a direct sense.

And in an indirect sense, since they are connected genetically, whats bad for the seed is bad for the parent. The other disadvantage I alluded to arises from this indirect component. Around each parent at least with plants, there is something called a seed-shadow. This is an area where due to the competitively advantaged larger/older plant, a smaller starting out seed is unlikely to do well.

So plants and fungi try and find ways to propel their seed as far from themselves as possible. Earthstars have a picturesque way of doing it. Take a look at this explanation and this video. And then go find some of your own to poke! I had fun with this one!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The unobvious: About truth in a photograph

In Errol Morris' terminology OFF

This might well be a first and then it might well be a last. Errol Morris writes a post in his NYtimes blog about two photographs by Roger Fenton from the Crimean war. They're up at the top of the post. After you've done the find the differences search, you'll realize that there are a few extra cannonballs in a new place. Are you tempted to infer a little hanky-panky? Primed by so much of it happening just recently, I certainly was.

In Errol Morris' terminology ON
"Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious. When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious – even to them. The use of the word “obvious” indicates the absence of a logical argument – an attempt to convince the reader by asserting the truth of something by saying it a little louder."

Read the post and the comments to find out why it is not so obvious. A lovely piece of photographic sleuthing. Also neat observatiosn from participants in the discussion. The internet is wonderful thing!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fireflies: the making of a shot

The path in Jubilee park by night
When I set out to do a fireflies in the landscape shot, it was quite late in the season. The erratic rain had got the worst of the population. And this meagre shot was all I could come up with. I waited while fireflies flitted around in the frame to let them show up against the dark background. And then later in the quite long exposure, I light-painted the trees in the back hoping that I wasn't washing out any of the firefly trails. I didn't mostly and it was fine, but the method was a little hit or miss. Besides, I did not like the background at all. The tree frame did not look as good as I wanted.

By day: windblown and bent tree in the Mainlawns in the monsoon
So I switched to another place where from a previous daytime shot, I knew I would love the background, and a day and night diptych appealed to me. So I took my tripod, and headed to my favourite windblown tree in the Mainlawns. By now, much of the season was over, and there were darn few fireflies to flit about in my frame. I wanted to make sure if one did oblige, that I would not loose it in the light-painting part of the shot. With the greater number of reflecting surfaces, the grass stalks up in the front of the image, the light would have to be balanced pretty closely. I thought wouldn't it help too much that the colours of the firefly flash and the grass are similar. Cars cruising along the side of the road that turned up around the horizon were not much help either (which was why I hadn't begun on this shot here). I wasn't sure I wanted to risk it, so I took a shot without exposing for the tree, just the dark and a firefly trail in it.

And then I shot for the tree separately, this time like before, waiting till the end of the exposure to light paint (you know, just in case). As it turned out, a firefly (which is actually a beetle) made a small sortie and I got a little trail to the right and another streak in the upper left. Not enough, but some satisfaction. And anyway, I had my backup plan, the earlier trail. All I had to was sandwich the two shots to get what I was after! Fireflies blinking love signals to each other in the lush monsoon enriched Mainlawns!

By night: windblown and bent tree in the Mainlawns in the monsoon

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why the scarlet letter is important.

Most of you may not have noticed the scarlet A I added to my site recently. Here is why I think it's relevant to India where while religiosity is rife there is no direct equivalent to the creationist movement in the Indian scenario. Creationism or not, religious scientific obscurantism is no stranger to our shores. And hopefully movements like these are beginnings of everyone, everywhere shedding their belief baggage.

The Indian religious right, the Sangh Parivar, is a protean, cynical and opportunistic beast and it as often attempts to envelop science as to reject it. The success of science is evident and invoking it is a way of garnering unearned legitimacy. Witness the absurd attempt to incorporate Astrology into our universities as a science.

Off course, science being, as it is in Flaubert's words "affranchissant esprit et pesant les mondes, sans haine, sans peur, sans pitie, sans amour et sans Dieu" occasionally doesn't quite fit the Hindu right wing agenda and it doesn't in the current Sethusamudaram fiasco. Or, off course, conveniently fits its desire to provoke people at a time when things at the center are teetering anyway, depending on how you see it. Incidentally this is the Sethusamudaram corporations website which suggests that the entire exercise was revived in 2001 after a long dormancy by the BJP led NDA alliance, I quote

"After several studies, the government took a concrete step towards the execution of the project when Rs. 4.8 crore was allocated for a feasibility study of the Sethusamudram Ship channel Protect in the 2000-01 Union Budget"

I don't know if the Sethusamudaram project itself is a great idea, there has been considerable opposition to it on environmental and economical grounds. It's these ground's that we need to debate these issues on. Sentiments and feeling as we have seen are notoriously changeable and should have no place in public discourse.

I do wish, like Krish, that we had public intellectuals willing to take a stand on the issue. But as we've seen before that can be a dangerous thing and freedom of speech in India is like our peace, contingent. What might be better still would be that people gradually gave up these beliefs or at least learned to treat them as just that, beliefs. False stories we concocted, to protect ourselves from the demons without. Stories we embellished to entertain and enrich our imaginations. So much easier if you don't believe to begin with.

Update: I think the wish about having academics/intellectuals chime in has been at least partially fulfilled. Now to get the MSM to treat them seriously and the 'aam junta' to actually listen!

Two great posts from Suvrat Kher on the science that shows the Ram Sethu is a natural formation: Ram Sethu : A Dummies Guide & Adam's Bridge. These posts lead to Sujai's blog and a few basics there: ABC of Ram Sethu and a lament on the silence of the lambs.

Links from Abi on DesiPundit

Monday, September 03, 2007


No, that is not coral and it does not explain why this blog has not been updated recently. Much as I would like it, I haven't been out vacationing next to some lovely blue water, sun on my back. I spent a Sunday afternoon walking around Jubilee park, followed by a cloud of eager and seemingly never sated mosquitoes. I felt like the gnu in Animal crackers.

But what kept me there through the better part of the afternoon were these. They're fungi, mushrooms, fungi with macroscopic fruiting bodies. It's the right season for them, everything is cold wet and damp, perfect for any fungus. They crossed the water to land boundary somewhere around the Silurian, 450 million years ago, right after the plants. And yet they have not completely shaken themselves of the water habit.

Mushrooms seem to vary quite wildly, and occupy varied groups in the fungi. Their forms vary quite a bit from the first photographed mushroom which seems to belong to a group called Coral fungi to the last photograph which is a Bracket fungus. The amazing thing about these is that I found them all in the space of a single afternoon in that tiny park. I would find one more and then think 'ok, there can't be more' and there it was staring me in the face! There are more, which I did not get decent photographs of and others which I have seen elsewhere on campus. It's a little difficult for me to make an actual species count, since theres wide variation in a mushroom, in stalk length and cap size. It would need a proper mycologist.

Although I did find this intriguing site from which one might try and key these down to Order or at least family. I'll be giving it a try later and will post provisional names at some point. If you wanna give it a go, please do and let me know your results. I'll try and find a mycologist eventually to do a more definitive study of our decaying friends.

Until then enjoy the images!