A morning with Matisse

Visited the Museum of Modern Art this morning. So much there that I knew from reproductions but had not actually seen. There are some artworks that reproduce well – Vermeer is a good example – but others have to be experienced to be properly understood. Here’s one example: Matisse, Dance (I) from 1909, a very famous and often reproduced picture.


Notice how the figure on the right is smaller than the one on the left. The label pointed out that Matisse painted this as a commission for a specific location in his client’s house: on the landing of a staircase. Viewers would, therefore, approach the picture from the bottom right and, if you are prepared to scrabble around on the floor of MoMA, you can see how , from this position, the inequalities in size disappear.


Chelsea Hotel #3

There once was a singer called Cohen
Who wanted inspiration to write a new poem
His friend Janis then said
“Go and lie on that bed,
I’ve thought of a way to stop all that moanin’ ”

OK, I know ‘Cohen’ and ‘poem’ don’t really rhyme but cut me some slack as it is 04:45 and my body clock has still not adjusted fully to NY time.

A walk along the High Line

I don’t think that I have spent so much time somewhere with so little greenery for a long time. With the exception of Central Park, Manhattan is a remorseless mix of shades of grey and brown, with few open spaces. It is a vibrant and exciting place, but there is little respite from the noise and energy that come as part of the package.  James Baldwin captured the essence of Manhattan well in his 1962 novel Another Country: “It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves”. That made today’s visit to the High Line in Chelsea all the more welcome. I’ve written before about the importance of green places in cities (see “More things we’ve forgotten to remember and “A brief diversion to South Korea“) and the High Line fits into that same category of industrial heritage reimagined and reclaimed as a “green lung” for the local community.

The High Line was, originally, an elevated railway line in lower Manhattan that has been converted into a narrow public park winding its way from the Meatpacking District through Chelsea, offering views across Manhattan and over the Hudson River towards New Jersey. Alongside the path, patches of vegetation – various shades of formal horticulture and semi-wild / feral growths – poke through the old railway lines. If I lived in lower east Manhattan this would be the place where I would head for a jog, or just to wander alone with my thoughts for an hour, away from the hustling city around me.

The High Line, looking north, May. 2014

Central Park, too, is a rather wonderful place but that is more established. The High Line shows the creativity of a new post-industrial generation, unlocking the potential of derelict and decaying infrastructure. I may have said this before, so excuse the repetition, but ecologists are often too focused on conservation of the remote and the rare whereas some of the most valuable actions we can perform is to bring some nature – not necessarily the finest or best – within the reach of everyone.

Central Park looking south towards midtown Manhattan. May 2014.

Reflecting Absence

I am, to be honest, a little tired of skyscrapers already. The older Art Deco structures have a certain charm but they seem to be crowded out by the taller, more functional modern skyscrapers. Individually they may be ugly but, when viewed together (what is the collective noun for a group of skyscrapers?), there is a grandeur. Maybe the effect it has on me simply reflects the ubiquity of the Manhattan skyline in modern culture but, viewed from the Staten Island Ferry, in particular, all those buildings crowded together on that narrow strip of land have an undeniable presence.

And an absence. There are still information boards in Brooklyn that name the various skyscrapers that you can see and which include the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Ground Zero is now the National September 11 Memorial, with two huge pools filling the footprints of each of the two towers, each 10 metres below street level and fed by water cascading down their sides. In the middle of each pool there is another cascade taking the water even deeper below the ground. New buildings loom overhead, including One World Trade Center, which has now replaced the Twin Towers as New York’s highest building, but it is these two enormous voids amidst all the skyscrapers that attracts attention.

The great achievement of the architects, however, is the personalisation of the memorial. The names of all the victims of the attacks are inscribed on the parapets that surround the pools and people – families and friends, I presume – have wedged white roses into the lettering of their loved ones’ names. It was hard enough to capture the epic scale of both the pools and the surrounding towers in a photograph with the limited range of a compact camera. It was just about possible to photograph some of these personal touches But it was almost impossible to capture both at the same time. Yet it was the juxtaposition of the grand gesture and the very highly personal that gave the Memorial its power. The last time I was so moved by modern architecture was at at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Coincidence? Probably not. The architect Daniel Libeskind was involved with both.


Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

I’m en route to New York with time to kill in London before heading out to Heathrow. I spent an hour or so in the David Bailey retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery (somewhat superficial; hard, I guess, to transcend the roll-call of famous faces and create great art), followed by a look at the rather moving show of Great War portraits, then sat in the sun in Trafalgar Square watching the world go by.

One of the human statues caught my eye. He has a contrivance that makes it appear that he is hovering just above the ground (the base plate, which he had covered with a blanket, must be very heavy to lug around). In the many gaps between posing with tourists he made a very lonely figure, sitting in his elaborate garb whilst people walked past either heading to the National Gallery or more interested in the the performance artists a few metres away.

Prepare for a few posts from New York over the coming days. I’m also planning to start tweeting @basil0saurus. That’s a zero not an ‘oh’ in the middle just in case you thought you could escape with the lame excuse that @basilosaurus is someone else entirely.

More about red algae

One other alga that we saw at Burn Head (the location near Whitbarrow Quarry) was tucked away in a shaded area close to where the spring bubbled out from the base of a limestone cliff. At first glance, this was barely recognisable as a plant, as it looked more like a splash of red paint on a rock. It is, however, a thin crust of red algal cells, called Hildenbrandia rivularis. This is the only freshwater representative of the genus, although other species can be found on the seashore. Under the microscope, you can see polygonal cells, though we are actually looking here at the top of a short stack of cells.

I generally associate Hildenbrandia with good ecological conditions although, as for Batrachospermum, there are exceptions, as I have seen it growing at quite high nutrient concentrations in chalk streams and, I daresay, it thrives in enriched waters elsewhere. Here it was growing in very shaded conditions, and I have also seen it growing under quite thick patches of moss, which must also have trapped much of the light. However, I often see it growing in shallow, well-lit places as well.


Hildenbrandia rivularis from Burn Head, southern Cumbria, May 2014.

So why are some red algae red and others not? The answer to this question lies in the pigments that they contain. Red algae, like Cyanobacteria, contain chlorophyll a (the common green pigment), plus two protein-based pigments, phycoerythrin (red) and phycocyanin (blue). The balance of these two pigments influences the final colour of the organism: those with more phycyoerythrin tend to be red; those with more phycocyanin have a blue-green or grey-green colour. Red-coloured algae have an advantage in deep water as it can absorb those wavelengths of light that penetrate furthest. Being able to absorb over a broader range of the light spectrum than would be possible if it just had green chlorophyll means that a plant is able to use the limited light more efficiently. Why we find some red-coloured algae in shallow, freshwater situations is a mystery. It may simply reflect the evolutionary history of the genera concerned. It may be significant that two of the reddest freshwater red algae (see also “At last … a red alga that really is red”) both come from genera that can be found in both freshwater and marine locations whereas the two olive-green genera we’ve met (Lemanea and Batrachospermum) are found exclusively in freshwaters.


Looking down on a crust of Hildenbrandia rivularis, showing the tops of the polygonal cells. Photograph: Chris Carter.

Algae … cunningly disguised as frog spawn?

A couple of kilometres from Whitbarrow Quarry there is a spring that we always visit during the “Introducing Macroalgae” course because it usually yields a range of larger algae that we like to ensure that all the students can recognise. One of these forms tufts of filaments that are very slippery to the touch. There is a slight resemblance to frog spawn in both appearance and texture: under a hand lens the filaments can be seen to have a beaded appearance and this plus the texture creates a superficial resemblance to frog spawn. It is, in fact, another red alga, Batrachospermum which, like Lemanea (see “Lemanea in the River Ehen”) has an olive-green rather than red colour. I’ll explain more about that in the next post. I have also included one of Chris Carter’s photographs to show the structrure of Batrachospermum at higher magnification: the “beads” are composed of tufts of branchlets arising from a central filament.


Left hand image: Batrachospermum sp. growing at Burn Head, near Whitbarrow in Cumbria; right-hand image: filaments of Batrachospermum in the palm of my hand. Each of the “beads” is about half a millimetre across.


Batrachospermum sp. from Bodmin, Cornwall. Photograph by Chris Carter

I usually associate Batrachospermum with healthy ecological conditions: low nutrients, clear, cool water and diverse invertebrate communities. However, when I told the group on our course this, one of the participants said that he sometimes found it in quite polluted conditions. Interestingly, the same thing happened on a presentation of the course a few years ago and both the contradictory examples were from chalk streams in southern England. I went back to the published literature to reassure myself and, sure enough, these also referred to Batrachospermum as a species associated with good ecological conditions. There must be, however, some rare combination of conditions that enables Batrachospermum to occasionally proliferate in very enriched conditions. What we have, I suspect, is a common situation in ecology: we base our inferences about preferences on statistics rather than ecophysiology. This means that we assume that an association between a genus or species and a set of environmental conditions represents the realised niche of the species, without always understanding the nuances of ecology and physiology that determine these niches.

Next time: a red alga that really is red.

A week in my life, from April 1995

I was tidying out some old files at the weekend and came across some articles I wrote for various newspapers and magazines between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. One that particularly brought a smile to my face was a column for the Don’s Diary feature of the Times Higher Education Supplement in April 1995, describing my last week as an employee of Durham University before launching into life as a freelance scientist. At the time I thought that self-employment would be a relatively short-term episode in my life but here I am, nineteen years later, still going. Click  THES_dons_diary_Apr95. if you want to read the whole piece.

Nosing around for blue-green algae …

One of the ironies of teaching a course on algal identification in the Lake District is that we actually take the students out of the Lake District on the first field trip in order to introduce them to the enormous variety of Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).   This is because the southern part of the Lake District, where the FBA is located, is situated on the Silurian Slates, which means that the streams, lakes and tarns have fairly soft water.   Cyanobacteria, on the other hand, tend to be most abundant and diverse in hard water, so we drive about 40 minutes south and east from Windermere to a limestone escarpment called Whitbarrow, where there are a number of calcareous flushes and springs that are ideal for our purposes.

We always visit the floor of an abandoned quarry in this area which has several such flushes. The quarry owners had systematically removed the limestone until they had reached the Silurian Slate underneath. This, in turn, formed an impermeable layer that intercepted any water that had percolated through the limestone. The quarry floor was, typically, slippery with calcium-rich water that had seeped out from the surrounding limestone, as well as the mucilage that the algae produced.   There were also, dotted around, several unprepossessing brown objects that, to the untrained eye, could easily be mistaken for the droppings of a small animal or bird (a Peregrine falcon was circling overhead during our visit). Once the students have the courage to pick these up, they see that they are composed of a firm jelly-like substance that is, we persuade them, actually an alga and should, therefore, be dropped into one of their specimen tubes to take back for closer investigation.Nostoc_Whitbarrow_May2014

Animal, vegetable or mineral?   Colonies of Nostoc commune on the floor of Whitbarrow Quarry, May 2014.

Once back in the FBA’s laboratory (complete with panoramic views of Windermere), we can dissect out small pieces of the jelly-like material and squash it onto a microscope slide.   What they see when they peer down their microscopes is a plethora of chains of bead-like cells of a Cyanobacterium called Nostoc commune.   Most of the cells have contents that have a granular appearance, with a background of bluish-green photosynthetic pigments.   A few of the cells, however, are rounder and clearer: these are the “heterocysts”, cells that are especially adapted to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen and so help the organism survive in nutrient-poor habitats.   The jelly-like matrix slows the rate at which water evaporates from the colonies, with the outer layers drying to form a tough, leathery skin around the colony.


Nostoc commune from Whitbarrow Quarry under the microscope.   The cells are approximately 5 micrometres (1/200th of a millimetre) across.<br

There is a fascinating short paper by Malcolm Potts on the origin of the name “Nostoc”.   Because Nostoc colonies often appeared very quickly following heavy rain (because the dried colonies absorb water quickly and swell in size), there was a belief in Medieval times that Nostoc fell from the sky.   A German mystic and alchemist, Parselus, was the first to use the name “Nostoc”, claiming that it was “…excrement blown from the nostrils of some rheumatick planet.   The name, indeed, is strongly suggestive of both the Old English word Nosthryl and the German term nasenloch both, as Potts politely explains, “…that part of the human anatomy intimately associated with extracellular polysaccharide.”


Potts, M. (1997). “Etymology of the Genus Name Nostoc (Cyanobacteria)” (pdf). International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology 47 (2): 584. doi:10.1099/00207713-47-2-584

Heatwave? What heatwave?

I’m in the Lake District to teach a two-day course on algae for the Freshwater Biological Association. The weather forecast on the Breakfast News announced a heatwave but this seems to apply everywhere but here as you can see in the picture below. My co-tutor on this course is Allan Pentecost (see “Discovering a liking for lichens …”) and the picture below shows him introducing the participants to tufa in a small calcareous spring flowing off Whitbarrow. Notice how we all had blithely ignored the weather forecaster’s advice to pack sun cream


Allan Pentecost introducing participants on the FBA’s “Introduction to freshwater macroalgae” course to a calcareous stream at Whitbarrow.

The weather did steadily improve during the day, with the sun breaking through just as we all headed into the laboratory for an afternoon of microscopy. C’est la vie. It did mean that I had a long, warm evening to anticipate once the day had finished, and I took the opportunity to walk from my hotel in Near Sawrey to Hawkshead and back, with some spectacular views of the Cumbrian fells as a reward.


The view across West Een Tarn towards the Cumbrian Fells. The two peaks of the Langdales are on the right.