Wednesday, May 01, 2002


Sheaves of Grass

Pressed flowers abound in this library of garden delights

By Alan Burdick

New York Botanical Garden

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library and the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium

A library is a conservatory of sorts, a garden for the mind. Nowhere is this so literally true as at the New York Botanical Garden's library, home to some 775,000 manuscripts and reference materials on plants—the largest collection of its type in the Western Hemisphere. In addition, the adjacent herbarium houses nearly 7 million dried specimens of algae, fungi, ferns, moss, gymnosperm, and flowering plants from around the world. Visitors who browse through both collections will find books about gardens—200-year-old books so lavishly illustrated they resemble gardens—and books (well, leaves of acid-free posterboard) with actual pieces of garden in them.

Like gardens, libraries require constant maintenance. Heat, light, and moisture levels must be kept just so; hungry insects must be fended off; ever more space must be found to accommodate new growth. During the past three years, the New York Botanical Garden has spent $60 million renovating and expanding the facilities that house its treasured plant-research collections. May 1 marks the official inauguration of the rejuvenated LuEsther T. Mertz Library and William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Although the collections have been quietly open to the public the whole time, returning visitors will find the paper gardens as engaging and revivifying as their living, breathing counterparts outdoors.

Botanists add at least 50,000 specimens each year to the Steere Herbarium's vast holdings, which include this Antigonon leptopus vine collected from Puerto Rico.
Photograph courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
Housed in a gorgeously restored Beaux Arts building, the Mertz Library contains most of the world's literature on systematic botany and much of the world's described floras. "Pull any book off the shelf," says John Reed, the library director, "and you're likely to find something fantastic." The collection of journals dates back to the 18th century; the oldest book, a formulary for identifying and preparing medicinal plants, dates to A.D. 1190. The real gems, however, are the rare, illustrated tomes and folios: a volume of botanical engravings of various plants, prepared with astonishing skill between 1810 and 1813 by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, whose patron was the Empress Josephine, herself an avid gardener; a three-volume natural history of palms; and color plates from the 1810 Vues des Cordillères, German explorer Alexander von Humboldt's 30-volume illustrated account of his expeditions in South America. In many instances, the illustrations offer the first published description of a plant species—an invaluable tool to modern scholars and scientists.

Selections from these and other volumes will be on rotating display in a new library exhibition gallery that also opens in May. The permanent stacks are accessible to the public, and the library's new reading room—large, soothingly lighted, and equipped with multiple ports for Internet access—promises to make life pleasant for all visiting bookworms.

Geared more toward research scientists, the impressive new Steere Herbarium occupies 70,000 square feet in the renovated Beaux Arts building. Each of the several million specimens is contained in its own paper folder, along with the date and location of discovery, the discoverer's name, and a sentence or two of descriptive information. The folders are stored in climate-controlled steel cabinets—five steel-reinforced floors of them. Many specimens are from South and Central America and were collected by Botanical Garden scientists. Others have more prestigious pedigrees: a sliver of moss collected by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle in 1831; the dried blossoms of a sagebrush collected by the botanist on General Custer's 1874 expedition to the Black Hills; a previously undocumented species of sesame fungus discovered by George Washington Carver in 1902. The Herbarium also contains roughly 125,000 benchmark "type" specimens, set aside when a new species is first declared for all subsequent botanists to refer to when correcting or expanding on the knowledge of that species.

Although it may sound like a bundle of twigs, the Herbarium is critical to the global study of botany and floral taxonomy. Scientists from around the world visit the collection; examining and comparing actual specimens enables them to identify new species, learn where existing ones are geographically distributed, and understand how those species evolved and are related. The specimens, says Barbara Thiers, director of the Herbarium, "are irrefutable evidence of what grew where when." The Herbarium's finest hour is still to come, she adds. One by one, the specimens are being photographed and their images placed online in the Virtual Herbarium, an electronic database accessible for free to anyone with a computer. (Several hundred thousand images are already viewable at Rendered as high-resolution, two-dimensional images, the specimens acquire an abstract beauty—with little loss of botanical information. "It doesn't completely supplant looking at the original plant," Thiers says. "But it works for basic identification. And it can save you a trip to the Herbarium."

Not that you should skip the experience. The inauguration of the Library and Herbarium represents a celebration for the eye, a critical reminder that botany is a visual science. With the rise of molecular biology and comparative genetics, the "old style" of taxonomy—the practice of visually inspecting and comparing specimens to determine their evolutionary roots—has fallen out of practice, though it remains as essential as ever. "Fewer people are being trained to go out and identify the species they see, even in North America," Thiers laments. "How important is flower color in a plant's evolution? How important is the length of the petal? Somebody who only knew gene analysis wouldn't know what questions to ask." The Botanical Garden is one of the few institutions left that encourages its scientists in the obvious art: Venture out into the world and look.



The Cosmologist and the Coffee Cup
A physicist gives the universe a personal touch

By Corey S. Powell

How the Universe Got Its Spots
By Janna Levin
University Press

Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein grew increasingly troubled by the gap between quantum physics, in which events seemingly become real only when observed, and everyday reality, where what you see is what you get. During one philosophical heart-to-heart, physicist Abraham Pais recalled, "Einstein suddenly stopped, turned to me, and asked whether I really believed that the moon exists only when I look at it." In her new book, Janna Levin confronts head-on the problem of reconciling theoretical abstractions with the tangible world of human experience. She talks about her chosen field of study—topology, the shape and form of the cosmos—with the same personal directness that she uses when talking about her maddeningly disruptive academic travels or the gradual deterioration of her relationship with her boyfriend, Warren.

The result is a cosmology book that instantly deflates the pretentiousness that often seems innate to the topic. How the Universe Got Its Spots is written as a series of diary entries, ostensibly derived from a series of unsent letters the author wrote to her mother. And so we see science as it is lived: Levin feeling lost and disoriented at a conference held in a run-down Moscow sanatorium, battling 2 a.m. insomnia at Cambridge as she doubts the relevance of her research, or debating the limits of science with friends over a bowl of curry at a London restaurant. By investigating the topology of the cosmos, Levin hopes to understand her place in the world. She sums up the goal of her research—which draws on some of the most complicated ideas in mathematics and physics—with one blunt, common-sense query: "Is the universe infinite or just really big?"

This is a question most astronomers would never even think to ask; they largely accept that the visible universe is finite and leave it at that. For the Hubble Space Telescope and its ilk, the cosmos has a clear boundary, approximately 14 billion light-years away. At that distance we are looking back to the era of the Big Bang, so there is no possibility of deeper observation. Levin and other topologists want to go beyond what we can see. They hope to discover if the total universe is finite and, if so, to learn its overall size and form. Amazingly, there are ways to find out. The universe's hellishly hot beginnings left behind an omnidirectional glow of microwaves. Embedded within that background radiation are tiny ripples, the "spots" of the book's title. In a finite universe, microwaves from one location in the early universe could have looped around to appear in multiple places in the sky. Two space-based telescopes may soon be able to connect the spots and reveal the true shape of space.

These cosmic speculations, Levin explains, draw on mathematical principles that apply equally to the human scale. She starts by analyzing the two-dimensional surfaces of familiar objects. "The topologist would not know the difference between a doughnut and a coffee mug," she writes. Move up to three dimensions, and the universe might likewise have a finite form that curves in on itself. If so, using a sufficiently powerful telescope, we could see all the way around the cosmos and look back in on ourselves. In the extreme case, we could even peer into the past and watch the assassination of JFK.

The science behind such possibilities is mind-boggling, but Levin remains a down-to-earth tour guide throughout. She interrupts one thorny discussion of the structure of space-time to joke about M-theory, a theory of subatomic reality so complicated that its inventors have forgotten what the M stands for. At another point, she addresses the issue of sexism in science in a playful way, tweaking the insecurity of male physicists who invented "a lexicon replete with terms like 'sterile', 'impotent', 'the bulge' and 'barrier penetration.'" And she frankly acknowledges how her obsessive dedication to academic pursuits takes its emotional toll on Warren, a bluegrass musician who travels in a totally different orbit.

Levin, in other words, refuses to vanish into the life of the mind. Her book is a gift to those people who want to think big but came to a screeching halt about two dozen pages into Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.


A Look inside...

Two short excerpts from
How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space
By Janna Levin

3 May 2000 . . . I know, of course, that the universe is bigger than my workshop, since I can travel around London without ending up where I started. I know the universe is bigger than London, since the train I take to Manchester gets me there and doesn't deposit me back in London, barring crashes, cancellations, and other recent fiascos. The universe is bigger than the earth, since I can get into a plane, fly in a reasonably straight line and get out in Paris. But if I flew in a rocket out into space in a straight line, never turning or stopping, would I go forever or would I follow the wrapping of space to see the galaxy I left receding behind me approach in front of me?

19 September 2000 . . . Imagine millions of conscious little blood cells trying belligerently to understand the body they float through. Here we are, little and futile, trying to understand things that very well could be beyond us. But we are tenacious. Satellites are pending and some of us will stop and dig through the data to see if we can find patterns and circles in the sky. We are not guaranteed success with any of our approaches. Statistics have their shortcomings. Patterns may get distorted with imperfections in how the universe functions as a geometric lens. We might just miss the images in the grainy imperfections of the data. Or the universe may just be really really big, too big to ever see the topology. But the beauty is in the trying and hoping and striving, even if that's a poor consolation prize having sacrificed our personal welfare.

Still despite our incredible physical limitations, from this restricted predicament, bound to our puny solar system, we may well see the entire shape of space. From the earth's shores, the light from the big bang washes over us encrypted with geometric patterns, like coded messages in a giant bottle.

Used by permission of Princeton University Press © 2002.



Gossamer Wings
Novel kite designs make it easy to catch the wind

By Lauren Gravitz

Go Fly A Kite
The Nova, Starlet, Triangulation II, Duster, Wright Flyer, $18-$60

Award-winning kite designer Joel K. Sholz created the Wright Flyer, above, and the Triangulation II. Both kites feature plenty of horizontal surfaces that give them ample lift.
Photographs courtesy of Go Fly a Kite
It's bright and breezy in the Bronx, New York, with a bit of wintry crispness still lingering in the air—a perfect day for testing the latest aerodynamic marvels from the venerable Connecticut-based company Go Fly a Kite ( Two of Go Fly a Kite's offerings, the Nova ($25) and the Starlet ($18), redefine the classic box kite— typically a hollow, square column—with shapes that look as if they've fallen from the fingers of an origami master. A third model, called the Triangulation II ($35), is a three-tiered variation of the more traditional trapezoidal kite.

First, some kite basics, courtesy of NASA aerospace engineer Tom Benson: When a breeze passes beneath the kite's horizontal surfaces, or sails, they deflect the wind downward, creating lift that pushes the kite upward. The more surfaces a kite has parallel to the earth, the more lift. The Nova kite's shape—a three-dimensional diamond three feet wide, with its center subdivided into prisms and elongated hexagons—gives it plenty of additional surface area and therefore additional stability. True to form, the Nova proves to be sturdy enough for even a novice to coax easily off the ground. By contrast, the Starlet, which resembles a three-dimensional asterisk set inside a hexagonal frame two feet across, has less surface area, and its star-burst shape creates two perpendicular surfaces that don't provide any lift at all. "It's cute," says Benson, "but it definitely trades performance for looks."

Unlike the steadier Nova, the Starlet dances and dives through the sky—a lovely spectacle attributable to the kite's sharper angles and a phenomenon called wing stall. As wind flows over the kite's sail, explains Benson, air molecules stick to its surface and build up a thin boundary layer, effectively changing its shape. But if the wind hits the surface at too sharp an angle, it can cause the boundary layer to break away, and the kite loses a large portion of its lift.

The design of the Triangulation II makes it steadier and allows it to fly higher than either the Nova or Starlet: It has the sturdy shape of the box kite, and its three parallel trapezoidal sails give it abundant lift.

For enthusiasts who prefer more aeronautical shapes, Go Fly a Kite also offers a couple of stunning biplanes: the Duster ($22.50) and the Wright Flyer ($60), beautifully designed to resemble the Wright brothers' first airplane. The Duster has a three-foot wingspan and features intense fluorescent colors and a real propeller. However, its round fuselage and weighty fiberglass frame require a hefty wind to keep it aloft. The Wright Flyer is a larger kite, with a six-foot wingspan, and is relatively complicated to assemble. But its square body and abundance of horizontal surface area help keep it airborne. Needless to say, the Wright brothers knew a thing or two about aerodynamics and how to while away the hours on a bright, breezy day.



Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden
By Diane Ackerman
HarperCollins, $25

In this extended essay, Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love, turns her keen poetic eye on a world of passion just outside her door. Cultivating Delight chronicles one year of her garden's life—its regeneration, flowering, ripening, and dormancy. Ackerman's lyrical musings on the heady sensuality of roses and the playful jousting of rabbits are like nectar for her bee-readers: We sip and enjoy, unaware that we've picked up fertile grains of natural science like so much pollen. Her far-reaching, encyclopedic references leap from the starting point of the garden and touch variously on the shapes of snowflakes and raindrops, the uses and properties of bark, and the exotic provenance of now-familiar plants. A rumination on the delicate nakedness of unleaving trees leads to a description of the chemical processes by which leaves change color, detach, and tumble to the ground. Her observation of gray squirrels scurrying about the garden launches speculation on squirrel intelligence and commentary on claws, fur, and eyes.

Venturing beyond her garden and its fauna populace for brief interludes in the book, Ackerman introduces "guests in the garden"— historical figures who have affected our understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Musings about Thomas Jefferson and naturalist John Muir, among others, gently expose the quirky singularities that lie behind those whose influence we experience in both carefully tended gardens and ancient forests.

Linking Ackerman's disparate observations, and ultimately driving her narrative, is time. Time shapes gardens, lives, and mountains, and the forms they assume are determined, Ackerman writes, by "what resists and what falls away." In our attempt to master—or resist—this process, we inevitably distance ourselves from nature. Ackerman's finely tuned senses and prose help close the distance. 
Margaret Foley


Science Best-sellers

1. The Universe in a Nutshell
By Stephen Hawking,
2. The Future of Life
By E. O. Wilson,
3. The Skeptical Environmentalist
By Bjørn Lomborg,
Cambridge University Press
4. The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes
By Peter Matthiessen,
North Point Press
5. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are
By Joseph Ledoux,
6. Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections
By Madeline Drexler,
Joseph Henry Press
7. Uncle Tungsten
By Oliver Sacks,
8. Six Easy pieces & Six Not So Easy Pieces
By Richard Feynman,
9. The Map That Changed The World
By Simon Winchester,
10. The Essential John Nash
By John F. Nash,
Edited by Sylvia Nasar and Harold Kuhn,
Princeton University Press
* Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

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