Saturday, December 9, 2017

What is a pre-Darwinian Darwinist?

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

Who was a pre-Darwinian Darwinist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and more to explore

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Named for Georg Wilhelm Steller

Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746) was an 18th-century German naturalist and explorer [1]. As a ship's doctor, he was accompanying Danish cartographer and Russian naval captain Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) on their expeditions to the north-eastern coast of Asia (eastern Siberia) and the western coast of  North America. Stellar became the first European naturalist who came ashore Alaska, where he described various animals of the North Pacific, some of which bear his name, either in the common or in the scientific name, or in both:
  • Gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), the largest of the chitons
  • Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a sirenian hunted to extinction
  • Steller's eider (Polysticta stelleri), a sea duck
  • Steller's sea eagle  (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
  • Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
  • Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
The latter two “Steller animals” are also found in regions farther south, such as California. From a San Francisco Bay perspective, Nate Seltenrich writes about Steller's sea lion [2]:

We see mostly females and pups [along California's coast]. Males rarely appear except in the breeding season at rookeries, the southernmost of which is off the Oregon coast near Portland, says Cara Field, staff veterinarian at Sausalito's Marine Mammal Center. In 42 years the rescue center has seen only 35 Stellers, 11 of them already dead and the rest mainly young pups, Field says, kept company during rehabilitation by their tourist-thrilling cousins.

And about Steller's jay Seltenrich notes [2]:

The Steller's jay's range reaches south to Nicaragua. The largest jay in North America, it is identifiable as the only western jay with a crest. Although Steller's original specimen was lost (as was his sea cow skeleton, and presumably others) when the expedition was stranded for that fate winter [when shipwrecked on Bering Island], his field notes informed the naming of the Steller's jay in 1788. So next time his namesake crashes your backyard feeder, remember Georg Steller and the Russian expedition that pioneered Alaskan natural history. 

Also, plants have been named by and for Steller. Further, the Georg Wilhelm Steller Gymnasium in Bad Windsheim (Steller's place of birth) near Nuremberg, Germany, has been named to honor the explorer [3].

Keywords: natural history, zoology, discovery, Pacific coast

References and more to explore

[1] Auf den Spuren Wilhelm Stellers. 2009 StellerJahr Bad Windsheim. Link:
[2] Nate Seltenric: Steller: The Man Behind the Name. Bay Nature, October-December 2017, page 10.
[3] Willkommen am Georg-Wilhelm-Steller Gymnasium. Link:

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fascinated by the word Kassel - and the city as well

Orangery near downtown Kassel
Kassel is a German city in northern Hesse. The geographic name “Kassel” derives from the Latin word “castellum”, which also is the source of the English word “castle”.

The history of Kassel begins with the ancient Castellum Cattorum, a castle of the Chatti [1]. The Chatti were an ancient Germanic tribe,  living in the upper Weser and Fulda river region since Roman times. In the tenth century the Franks took over the fortlet. They used the words “castella” and “cassela”. Before the current spelling “Kassel” was adopted in the late 1920s, the city name had been written in various letter combinations  including “Chassala”, “Chassela”, “Cassele” and “Cassel” [2].

Treppenstrasse in downtown Kassel

Antonia Baum recently shared her fascination with the word “Kassel” in a MERIAN essay [3]:

Kassel is a word where the K smashes into the double-S like a ladle slapping into a bowl of soup; or like careening down a hill wityh so much speed that the momentum takes you straight up to the other side. As a child, sitting in the backseat of our car while driving past Kassel on the autobahn, I always found it odd that this word existed and asked myself what on earth this Kassel was. What strange and wonderful things went on in Kassel that made it deserving of the name Kassel. I was fascinated by the word itself and would mumble “Kassel, Kassel, Kassel” to myself as I gazed out of the window.

Strange and wonderful things happen in Kassel every five years, when the documenta, the world's foremost art exhibition with avant-garde and often scandalous or grotesque displays and performances, is infiltrating the city's urban environment. Selected art objects from past documenta exhibitions keep staying in the city. Here are some snapshots of outdoor installations from documenta 14 in 2014 and from earlier exhibitions:  


Fulda river bank in Kassel with Claes Oldenborg's Pickaxe (Spitzhacke) 


[1] Kassel. Wikipedia:,_Germany.
[2]  Dieter Berger: Geographische Namen in Deutschland. Second Edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim, 1999.
[3] Antonia Baum: The little lady in the black fur. Merian, English Edition, 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Kassel's documenta 14 slogan “Being safe is scary”

The documenta 14 art exhibition, which took place from June 10 through September 17 in 2017 in the German city of  Kassel in northeast Hesse, was more political than ever [1]. The letters above the portal of the Fridericianum, arguably the world's first public museum, read “BEINGSAFEISSCARY.” Insert the missing spaces and you get: “Being safe is scary.”

Indeed, simply living a “feeling safe” life would be ignorant of the current state of our globe. The world around us was and, with growing frequency again, is stirred up by tensions and human rights violations. “When We Were Exhaling Images,” an installation by the Kurdish-Iraqi artist Hiwa K, was reminding us of refugee conditions at a Greek harbor. The Friedrichsplatz, the huge plaza in front of the Fridericianum, was dominated by Marta Minujín's “The Parthenon of Books,”protesting censorship of free speech.

Fridericianum on a documenta-14 day in 2017
The phrase “Being safe is scary” is a tribute by the Turkish artist Banu Cennetoǧlu to the Kurdish journalist Gurbetelli Ersöz, who died during Kurdish guerilla operations in 1977 when a Turkish-operated Leopard Tank blew off both of her legs [2]. Sadly and ironically, this tank may have manufactured in the documenta city Kassel.

When Arnold Bode established the documenta exhibition in Kaseel in 1955—ten years after the end of World War II—he was eager to showcase Nazi-censored art, Degenerate Art [2]: documenta was designed to grind the Nazi interlude with its bashing of modern art into dust. Therefore, the slogan that replaced the museum's name Fridericianum above the six entrance columns links Bode's animosity toward Kassel's Nazi past to Cennetoǧlu's tribute to his fellow citizen.

References and more to explore

[1] Stefan Dege: Documenta art exhibition more politacal than ever. June 9, 2017. Link:
[2] Vijay Prashad: Being safe is scary: At Germany's documenta 14, chilling reminders that history repeats itself., August 17, 2017. Link:

Saturday, July 8, 2017

What is a shoe dog?

A shoe dog is a footwear expert. The term usually refers to a person dedicated to designing and fabricating shoes—and selling them.

Should we ask instead: Who is a shoe dog?
Then, the most likely answer is: Phil Knight, the creator of NIKE, who recently published his memoir in a book with the title “Shoe Dog” [1]. This book is a great introduction to the making and trading of running shoes. Within the context of the memoir, the phrase “shoe dog” resonates with the term “underdog.” The shoe-dog story is a side-tracked marathon over many hurdles—including supply difficulties involving the Japanese shoe industry, competition with Germany's Adidas and endless struggles with financial institutions and a bureau-kraken in the U.S.Customs Service—toward the eventual foundation and success of NIKE.

Here is how Phil Knight introduces the phrase “shoe dog” [1]:
I'd heard this phrase a few times. Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes. Lifers used the phrase cheerfully to describe other lifers, men and women who had toiled so long and hard in the shoe trade, they thought and talked about nothing else. It was an all-consuming mania, a recognizable psychological disorder, to care so much about insoles and outsoles, linings and welts, rivets and vamps. But I understood. The average person takes seventy-five hundred steps a day, 274 million steps over the course of a long life, the equivalent of six times around the globe—shoe dogs, it seemed to me, simply wanted to be part of that journey. Shoes were their way of connecting with humanity. What better way of connecting, shoe dogs thought, than by refining the hinge that joins each person to the world's surface?

If humanism and a view beyond just cashing in on products is your driving force, you can be certain your running track has not yet been leveled for you. Your daily seventy-five hundred steps may not always be forward steps.

Bill Gates praises the Shoe Dog as an honest tale of entrepreneurial business and also highlights the “underdog theme” [2]:

Shoe Dog, Phil Knight's memoir about creating Nike, is a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like. It's a messy, perilous, and chaotic journey riddled with mistakes, endless struggles, and sacrifice.

In summary, the phrase “shoe dog” denotes a profession, but also refers to an innovative entrepreneurial player.

Keywords: sports footwear; shoe innovation; shoe expertise; entrepreneurship.

References and more to explore

[1] Phil Knight: Shoe Dog. Scribner, New York, 2016 . See page 186 for the quoted text.
[2] Bill Gates: An Honest Tale of What It Takes to Succeed in Business. December 5, 2016 [].

Friday, June 2, 2017

2-D material terms deliberately rhyming with graphene: Xenes and MXenes

How thin can a material get? Answer: As thin as a single atomic layer is thick. That is a thickness (thinness) in the ångström or low-nanometer range. Ultrathin!

There is a lot of excitement about materials with their third dimension falling into this range, since by tailoring materials layer by layer and stacking layers of different elemental composition, chemists can engineer functional interfaces and the nanodevices for the future—in principle, and with proof of concept for certain chemical elements and element combinations.

The successful epitaxial growth of layers of the carbon allotrope graphene—an atomic-scale,  hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms—in the 1970s triggered studies of other ultrathin material layers.

Chemists like to express chemical similarity by using a class-specific suffix and make chemical class names rhyme. In the terms “Xene” and “MXene” the suffix is “-ene,” rhyming with graphene. The letter X symbolizes elements of the boron, carbon and nitrogen group from the p-block of the periodic table. The letter M stands for transition metal elements.

The term “Xene” refers to a monoatomic sheet, buckled or with the center of all layer atoms in one plane. With X referring to carbon, boron, silicon, phosphorous, germanium or tin (Latin: stannum), the corresponding 2-D materials are named graphene, borophene, silicene, phosphorene, germanene and stanene, respectively. With the exception of graphene, which has a flat-sheet structure, the Xenes have a buckled or corrugated shape [1].

A typical MXene (pronounced “maxene”) is a 2-D transition metal carbide, transition metal nitride or transition metal carbonitride. The graphenelike sheet of Ti3C2 is an example. Most MXenes have been synthesized by selecting titanium, zirconium, hafnium, vanadium, niobium, tantalum, chromium and/or molybdenum as the transition metal [2-4].

Keywords: chemistry, chemical nomenclature, materials science, nanoscience, ultrathin films, interfaces.

Selected literature and more to explore

[1] Mitch Jacoby: 2-D materials go beyond graphene. Chem & Eng News 2017, 95 (22), 36-40 [].

[2] Babak Anasori et al.: Two-Dimensional, Ordered, Double Transition Metals Carbides (MXenes). ACS Nano 2015, 9 (10), pp. 9507-9516 [].

[3] Joseph Halim et al.: X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy of select multi-layered transition metal carbides (MXenes). Appl. Surf. Sci. 2016, 362, pp. 406-417 [].

[4] Patrick Urbankowski et al:. Synthesis of two-dimensional titanium nitride Ti4N3 (MXene). Nanoscale 2016, 8 (22), pp. 11385-11391 [!divAbstract].

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mare Mortuum, the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest place on the non-oceanic face of the earth: a hypersaline lake today bordered by Israel, Jordan and Palestine. The Dead Sea is mentioned in various books of the Bible; but never under its current designation referring to a dead body of water or a lake of lifelessness and death. The Hebrew texts of the Bible mention Yam Ha-Melah (or Yam Hamelah), with “yam” meaning sea and “melah” meaning salt [1]. The Bible also contains names for the Dead Sea meaning Primordial Sea, Sea of the Plain and Eastern Sea [2,3].

There are many more names for the Dead Sea, related to the Dead Sea's geography, nature as well as human and religious history. I value Barbara Kreiger's introduction to the Dead Sea and her summary of name origins [4]:
Given the long history that has been enacted on its shores by many nations, it is not surprising that the Dead Sea has had various names. Its oldes is Yam Ha-Melah, the Salt Sea, that name first appearing in the Bible in the books of Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, where it usually serves as a geographical landmark. To the Greeks it was Lake Asphaltites because of the lumps of asphalt that were periodically thrown up from its depths, and that name persisted in the texts of medieval writers. Christians of the Middle Ages also knew it as the Devil's Sea, and their Arab contemporaries referred occasionally to the Stinking Lake, presumably because of the smell of sulphur emitted from several places along the shore. But the names that appear most frequently in Arab texts are commemorative of the cataclysm that engulfed Sodom and Gomorrah. They called it simply The Overwhelmed, “from the cities of Lot that were overwhelmed in its depths,” or the Sea of Zughar (i.e., Zoar), after the town that had escaped destruction and fluorished in the Middle Ages. Likewise the Jews, who sometimes referred to it as the East Sea, to distinguish it from the Mediterranean, or the Sea of the Aravah, referring to the valley in which it lies, but more often called it the Sea of Sodom. Except for the little used Arab name Al Buhairah al Miyyatah, the Dead Lake, the notion of lifelessness is not reflected in Arab and Jewish names, though Mare Mortuum, the Dead Sea, had appeared in early Roman texts. (In Tacitus' History we also find it called the Jewish Sea.) Today the Arabs call it Bahr el-Lut, the Sea of Lot. To Jews it is still Yam Ha-Melah.

In the term Al Buhairah al Miyyatah, also Al-bahr Al-mayyit, “al Miyyatah” refers to the deceased in Islam. Germans call the Dead Sea “Totes Meer” and most modern languages now use terms associated with the dead-sea meaning—whether in relation to human mortality or natural, supposedly life-threatening phenomena experienced around the lake.

Keywords: geographic names, etymology, notion of lifelessness, culture, religion, human history.

References and more to explore

[1] Abarim Publications: The name Yam-hamelah in the Bible [].
[2] The Dead Sea in the Bible [].
[3] Bible Study Tools: Dead Sea, The [].
[4] Barbara Kreiger: The Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2016.