Wait 24 Hours - Or Much More
In his Week in Review column on this Web site, Brian Trumbore
often cites his rule – wait 24 hours. In science, things may have
to percolate longer than 24 hours before coming to fruition. For
example, last week I mentioned that skeptics were about to
submit a paper criticizing another paper in which the authors
claimed to have found an ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be
extinct. Yesterday, in an AP report by Kelly Kissel posted on
AOL News, it was stated that the doubters have retracted their
skepticism after hearing tapes of sounds in the Arkansas woods.
It seems that the Cornell researchers who were part of the team
identifying the ivory-billed had made many thousands of hours
of recordings of the sounds in the wildlife refuge. Buried in
these hours of tape was a “double-rap” sound in the distance,
followed by another double-rap nearby. I have no idea what a
double-rap sounds like but, apparently, it was just what was
needed to convince the skeptics that the ivory-billed does indeed
still exist. And the answering double-rap indicates that at least
two of them are hanging out in the Arkansas woods.
Back in 2003, astronomers photographed something pretty bright
that was billions of miles away. They were intrigued enough to
follow the object and last week they announced that we now
have 10 planets in our solar system. Here we’ve been talking in
these columns about planets orbiting stars in other solar systems
and now we’ve found another one in our own backyard. This
new, as yet unnamed planet is some 9 billion miles from Earth
and seems to be about one and a half times bigger than Pluto.
We’ll have to wait another few months before enough data are
available to calculate the actual size.
It was a hundred years ago, in 1905, that Percival Lowell
“discovered” Pluto and we learned that our Sun had nine planets
orbiting around it. In truth, Lowell never saw Pluto; he analyzed
the orbits of Neptune and Uranus and found that some odd
motions could only be explained by the presence of another
planet. He waited 10 years before he announced his results and it
was another 15 years before William Tombaugh found Pluto
using a telescope in the Lowell Observatory. In recent years,
we’ve seen some astronomers trying to strip Pluto of its
planetary status. Personally, I think that if they let the new
planet into the planetary club, they should not throw out Pluto,
especially after all the hard work that went into finding it.
A couple of months ago, it was a plant, not a planet that made the
news. The plant is the Judean date palm, which may well be the
first tree cultivated by man. My trusty 1962 World Book
Encyclopedia tells of 5000-year-old sun-dried bricks from
Mesopotamia that record directions for growing the date palm.
Biblical references to the palm abound. In “the land of milk and
honey”, the “honey” came from the date palm. The tree can
grow as high as a hundred feet tall and the clusters of dates may
contain as many as 200 dates in a cluster.
The Judean date palm has been extinct since the Middle Ages.
However, as with the ivory-billed woodpecker, this year saw the
sighting of a living Judean date palm. You may have seen this
date palm on Sunday’s CBS evening news program but I first
read about the palm in an article by Steven Erlanger of the New
York Times posted June 12 on AOL News. The CBS program
featured botanist Elaine Solowey, the heroine of our story.
One of the most famous sites in Israel is Mount Masada, where
over 900 Jewish zealots, not willing to accept defeat at the hands
of the Romans, committed mass suicide. This happened in 73
AD. In the 1970s, excavations were in progress at the Masada
site and some date seeds were found in one of the storerooms.
It’s presumed that the seeds were from dates eaten by the
defenders sometime before the disaster. Radiocarbon dating
places the age of the seeds at between 1940 and 2040 years, in
agreement with the postulated historical scenario.
Enter Elaine Solowey, a native of California who decided to
move to Israel and work on plants that can thrive in the arid
conditions prevalent in the Middle East. She’s developed a
reputation for being able to grow rare and near-extinct plants.
The 2000-year-old seeds from Masada had been sitting in a
drawer in the Bar-Ilan University in Israel since their discovery.
Solowey managed to get a few of the seeds and decided to take a
shot at planting them, not really expecting any joy.
Talk about a green thumb! Solowey put them in warm water to
soften their shells, treated them with stuff to stimulate
germination, and planted them in soil enriched with hormones
and various nutrients. She planted them this past January and, by
golly, one of those suckers sprouted and she now has a Judean
date palm over a foot tall! Sollowey can well be proud of her
baby and let’s all hope its gender does not match the name she
gave it – “Methuselah”. We’re hoping it’s a girl. Only female
date palms produce dates!
Sollowey brought to life a 2000-year-old seed that sat in a drawer
since the 1970s, when a bunch of dinosaur eggs were also found.
The eggs in question were found in 1978 in the Golden Gate
Highlands National Park in South Africa. Many dinosaur eggs
have been found and it must not have been considered a big deal.
As with the seeds, the eggs jut laid around somewhere until
about three years ago, when Robert Reisz of the University of
Toronto and colleagues from South Africa and the Smithsonian
started looking at them more carefully. They published their
results last week in the July 29 issue of Science.
What they found in the eggs were the oldest dino embryos
known to date. Of the six eggs collected they have now
examined two and have assigned the embryos as being embryos
of Massosponodylus, a critter that grew to a length of between 15
and 20 feet and lived some 190 million years ago.
A sizeable number of skeletons of Massos of varying ages have
been found. With the discovery of the embryos, scientists can
now trace the growth pattern of this dino from within the egg
through its youth and adulthood. The embryos were curled up in
the egg and one seemed about to hatch. Already, a couple of
things stand out. It seems as though the embryo, upon hatching,
was destined to walk on four feet. It had relatively long
forelimbs and an oversize head that would have been difficult to
support walking on two feet. However, the adult Massos had
short forelimbs and did walk on two feet. Comparing the
skeletons of different age Massos, the neck grew longer but the
forelimbs and the skull grew slowly. The adult Masso ended up
with short forelimbs, a supportable head and walked on those
two hind feet. At least that’s what Reisz and his team think.
It occurs to me that we follow the same pattern, don’t we? We
start out crawling on four limbs and as we grow older, end up
walking on two of those. OK, that’s a stretch and our forelimbs
don’t end up being very short. But we may share something else
with Masso. The dino embryos were about to enter the world
without any teeth, or perhaps a lone tooth or so. With a lack of
teeth the baby dino would have required parental care of some
sort if they were to survive.
Well, this has been a potpourri of examples of things that have
sort of percolated for more than 24 hours with generally
worthwhile results. As a date lover, I regret that I won’t be
around to sample any produce from Methuselah, should he
survive for decades and turn out to be a she.
Allen F. Bortrum