1,100 Delicate Drawings of Root Systems Reveals the Hidden World of Plants

We know that plants can inspire art. If you, personally, still require convincing on that point, just have a look at Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, the drawings of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, and Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft’s Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba — not to mention the paintings of Georgia O’ Keeffe — all previously featured here on Open Culture. But those works concern themselves only with plant life as it exists above ground.

What goes on down below, underneath the soil? That you can see for yourself — and without having to pull up one of our fine flowering (or non-flowering) friends to do so — at Wageningen University’s online archive of root system drawings. “The outcome of 40 years of  root system excavations in Europe,” says that site, the collection contains 1,180 diagrams of species from Abies alba (best known today as a kind of Christmas tree) to Zygophyllum xanthoxylon (a faintly scrubby-looking native of the arid and semi-arid regions of continents like Africa and Australia).

The site explains that “the drawings, their analysis and description were done by Univ. Prof. Dr. Erwin Lichtenegger (1928-2004) and Univ. Prof. Dr. Lore Kutschera (1917-2008), leader of Pflanzensoziologisches Institut, Klagenfurt, (now in Bad Goisern, Austria).”


Over the course of 40 years, writes The Washington Post‘s Erin Blakemore, Lichtenegger and Kustchera “collaborated on an enormous ‘root atlas’ that maps the underground trajectories of common European plants.” Created through “a laborious system of digging up and documenting the intricate systems,” these drawings are “also art in their own right, honoring the beauty of a part of plants most never give that much thought.”

Even the least botanically aware among us knows that plants have roots, but how many of us are aware of the scale and complexity those roots can attain? “Root systems allow plants to gather the water and minerals they use to grow,” writes Blakemore. “As the root system grows, it creates more and more pathways that allow water to get into the deep subsoil, and fostering the growth of microbes that benefit other life. Strong root systems can prevent erosion, protecting the land on which they grow. And the structures allow the soil to capture carbon.” Thus root systems, never a particular locus of coolness, have the distinction of doing their part to fight climate change. And thanks to Lichtenegger and Kustchera’s drawings, they underscore the capacity of art to reveal worlds hidden to most of us. View all of the images here.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

People in the Middle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Practice Was Rediscovered

The importance of a good night’s sleep has been featured now and again here on Open Culture. But were a medieval European to visit our time, he’d probably ask — among other questions — if we didn’t mean a good night’s sleeps, plural. The evidence suggests that the people of the Middle Ages slept not straight through the night but in two distinct stretches. This practice has come back to light in recent years thanks to the research of historian Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. “Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time,” he writes in that book, “with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest.”

But “not everyone, of course, slept according to the same timetable. The later at night that persons went to bed, the later they stirred after their initial sleep; or, if they retired past midnight, they might not awaken at all until dawn. Thus, in ‘The Squire’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, Canacee slept ‘soon after evening fell’ and subsequently awakened in the early morning following ‘her first sleep’; in turn, her companions, staying up much later, ‘lay asleep till it was fully prime’ (daylight).” Proof widespread “biphasic sleep” exists not just in Chaucer, but — for those who know where to look — all over the surviving documents from medieval Europe.


“In France, the initial sleep was the premier somme,” writes BBC.com’s Zaria Gorvett. “In Italy, it was primo sonno. In fact, Eckirch found evidence of the habit in locations as distant as Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America and the Middle East”; the earliest reference he turned up comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Whatever their era of history, biphasic sleepers seem to have made good use of their intervals of wakefulness, known in English as “the watch.” During it, peasants worked, Christians prayed, and thieves thieved, “but most of all, the watch was useful for socializing – and for sex.” After a long day’s work, “the first sleep took the edge off their exhaustion and the period afterwards was thought to be an excellent time to conceive copious numbers of children.”

Biphasic sleep and its attendant habits didn’t survive the 19th century. The reasons, as Ekirch explains in the interview above, have to do with the Industrial Revolution, that great disruption of traditions followed since time immemorial. Along with “the increasing prevalence of artificial illumination both within homes and outside,” he says, “bedtimes were pushed back, even though people still awakened at the same time in the morning.” Apart from introducing new technologies, the Industrial Revolution “also changed peoples’ attitudes toward work,” making humanity “increasingly time-conscious: productivity, efficiency were the hallmarks of the 19th century.” We continue to set store by them today, though we also handle the disruption of sleep in our own, distinctively 21st-century ways. Would anyone care to explain to our medieval time-traveler the practice of midnight Twitter-scrolling?

via BBC/Medievalists

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Animals Laugh Too: UCLA Study Finds Laughter in 65 Species, from Rats to Cows

Every pet owner knows that animals love to play, but laughter seems reserved for humans, a few apes, and maybe a few birds good at mimicking humans and apes. As it turns out, according to a new article published in the journal Bioacoustics, laughter has been “documented in at least 65 species,” Jessica Wolf writes at UCLA Newsroom. “That list includes a variety of primates, domestic cows and dogs, foxes, seals, and mongooses, as well as three bird species, including parakeets and Australian magpies.” This is a far cry from just a few years ago when apes and rats were the “only known animals to get the giggles,” as Liz Langley wrote at National Geographic in 2015.

Yes, rats laugh. How do scientists know this? They tickle them, of course, as you can see in the video just above. (Rat tickling, it turns out, is good for the animals’ well being.) The purpose of this experiment was to better understand human touch — and tickling, says study author Michael Brecht, “is one of the most poorly understood forms of touch.”


Laughter, on the other hand, seems somewhat better understood, even among species separated from us by tens of millions of years of evolution. In their recent article, UCLA primatologist Sasha Winkler and UCLA professor of communication Greg Bryant describe how “play vocalizations” signal non-aggression during roughhousing. As Winkler puts it:

When we laugh, we are often providing information to others that we are having fun and also inviting others to join. Some scholars have suggested that this kind of vocal behavior is shared across many animals who play, and as such, laughter is our human version of an evolutionarily old vocal play signal.

Generally, humans are unlikely to recognize animal laughter as such or even perceive it at all. “Our review indicates that vocal play signals are usually inconspicuous,” the authors write. Rats, for example, make “ultrasonic vocalizations” beyond the range of human hearing. The play vocalizations of chimpanzees, on the other hand, are much more similar to human laughter, “although there are some differences,” Winkler notes in an interview. “Like, they vocalize in both the in-breath and out breath.”

Why study animal laughter? Beyond the inherent interest of the topic — an especially joyful one for scientific researchers — there’s the serious business of understanding how “human social complexity allowed laughter to evolve from a play-specific vocalization into a sophisticated pragmatic signal,” as Winkler and Bryant write. We use laughter to signal all kinds of intentions, not all of them playful. But no matter how many uses humans find for the vocal signal, we can see in this new review article how deeply non-aggressive play is embedded throughout the animal world and in our evolutionary history. Read “Play vocalisations and human laughter: a comparative review” here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Omicron Variant Explained by Neil deGrasse Tyson & Regeneron President George Yancopoulos

What is the Omicron Variant? How do vaccines work? And what about monoclonal antibody therapy? On this episode of StarTalk, Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wide-ranging and quite informative conversation with George Yancopoulos, president of Regeneron, the company that created the monoclonal antibody therapy now being used in the fight against COVID-19. And there’s an interesting side note: During the 1970s, Tyson and Yancopoulos were high school classmates together at Bronx Science. They’ve both come a long way, and now they re-unite to explain the science behind the latest phase of the pandemic.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Discover One of the Most Prized Natural History Books of All Time (1734-1765)

In the eighteenth century, a European could know the world in great detail without ever leaving his homeland. Or he could, at least, if he got into the right industry. So it was with Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist who opened up shop in Amsterdam just as the eighteenth century began. Given the city’s prominence as a hub of international trade, which in those days was mostly conducted over water, Seba could acquire from the crew members of arriving ships all manner of plant and animal specimens from distant lands. In this manner he amassed a veritable private museum of the natural world.

The “cabinets of curiosities” Seba put together — as collectors of wonders did in those days — ranked among the largest on the continent. But when he died in 1736, his magnificent collection did not survive him. He’d already sold much of it twenty years earlier to Peter the Great, who used it as the basis for Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg.


What remained had to be auctioned off in order to fund one of Seba’s own projects: the Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, or “Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects,” pages of which you can view at the Public Domain Review and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This four-volume set of books constituted an attempt to catalog the variety of living things on Earth, a formidable endeavor that Seba was nevertheless well-placed to undertake, rendering each one in engravings made lifelike by their depth of color and detail. The lavish production of the Thesaurus (more recently replicated in the condensed form of Taschen’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities) presented a host of challenges both physical and economic. But there was also the intellectual problem of how, exactly, to organize all its textual and visual information. As originally published, it groups its specimens by physical similarities, in a manner vaguely similar to the much more influential system published by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in 1735.

Linnaeus, as it happens, twice visited Seba to examine the latter’s famous collection. It surely had an influence on his thinking on how to name everything in the biological realm: not just the likes of trees, owls, snakes, and jellyfish, but also the “paraxoda,” creatures whose existence was suspected but not confirmed. These included not only the hydra and the phoenix, but also the rhinoceros and the pelican.

Eighteenth-century Europeans possessed much more information about the world than did their ancestors, but facts were still more than occasionally intermixed with fantasy. Given the strangeness of what had recently been documented, no one dared put limits on the strangeness of what hadn’t.

Note: A number of the vibrant images on this page come from the Taschen edition.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When the Colosseum in Rome Became the Home of Hundreds of Exotic Plant Species

The Colosseum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, and thus one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Europe. But the nature of its appeal to its many visitors has changed over the centuries. In the Atlantic, novelist and podcaster Paul Cooper notes that, “the belief that Christian martyrs had once been fed to the lions in the arena,” for example, once made it a renowned site of religious pilgrimage. (This “despite little evidence that Christians were ever actually killed in the arena.”) But in that same era, the Colosseum was also a site of botanic pilgrimage: amid its ruins grew “420 species of plant,” including some rare examples “found nowhere else in Europe.”

Notable tourists who took note of the Colosseum’s rich plant life include Charles Dickens, who beheld its “walls and arches overgrown with green,” and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote of how “the copsewood overshadows you as you wander through its labyrinths, and the wild weeds of this climate of flowers bloom under your feet.”


Cooper quotes from these writings in his Atlantic piece, and in an associated Twitter thread also includes plenty of renderings of the Colosseum as it then looked during the 18th and 19th centuries. He even selected images from Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, or, Illustrations and descriptions of four hundred and twenty plants growing spontaneously upon the ruins of the Colosseum of Rome (readable free online at the Internet Archive), the 1855 work of a less well-known Englishman named Richard Deakin.

A botanist, Deakin did the hard work of cataloging those hundreds of plant species growing in the Colosseum back in the 1850s. The intervening 170 or so years have taken their toll on this biodiversity: as Nature reported it, only 242 of these species were still present in the early 2000s, due in part to “a shift towards species that prefer a warmer, drier climate” and the growth of the surrounding city. In its heyday in the first centuries of the last millennium, the arena lay on the outskirts of Rome, whereas it feels central today. Pay it a visit, and you both will and will not see the Colosseum that Dickens and Shelley did; but then, they never knew it as, say, Titus or Domitian did. In recent years there have been moves to restore and even improve ancient features like the retractable floor; why not double down on the exotic flora while we’re at it?

via The Atlantic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Human Brain: A Free Online Course from MIT

From MIT comes The Human Brain, a series of 18 lectures presented by Professor Nancy Kanwisher. They’re from a course that “surveys the core perceptual and cognitive abilities of the human mind and asks how they are implemented in the brain. Key themes include the representations, development, and degree of functional specificity of these components of mind and brain. The course will take students straight to the cutting edge of the field, empowering them to understand and critically evaluate empirical articles in the current literature.”

Watch all of the lectures above, and find them added to our list of Free Biology Courses, a subset of our collection 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

How Mushroom Time-Lapses Are Filmed: A Glimpse Into the Pioneering Time-Lapse Cinematography Behind the Netflix Documentary Fantastic Fungi

Mushrooms are having a moment, thanks in part to pioneering time-lapse cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi.

Now streaming on Netflix, the film has given rise to a bumper crop of funghi fantatics, who sprang up like, well, mushrooms, to join the existing ranks of citizen scientistsculinary fansweekend foragersamateur growers, and spiritual seekers.


Schwartzberg, who earlier visualized pollination from the flower’s point of view in the Meryl Streep-narrated Wings of Life, is a true believer in the power of mushrooms, citing funghi’s role in soil creation and health, and their potential for remedying a number of pressing global problems, as well as a host of human ailments.

Fantastic Funghi focuses on seven pillars of benefits brought to the table by the fungal kingdom and its Internet-like underground network of mycelium:

  1. Biodiversity

A number of projects are exploring the ways in which the mycelium world can pull us back from the bring of  desertization, water shortage, food shortage, bee colony collapsetoxic contaminants, nuclear disasters, oil spills, plastic pollution, and global warming.

  1. Innovation

Mushroom-related industries are eager to press funghi into service as environmentally sustainable faux leatherbuilding materials, packaging, and meat alternatives.

  1. Food

From fine dining to foraging off-the-grid, mushrooms are prized for their culinary and nutritional benefits.

  1. Physical Health and Wellness

Will the humble mushroom prove mighty enough to do an end run around powerful drug companies as a source of integrative medicine to help combat diabetes, liver disease, inflammation, insomnia and cognitive decline?

  1. Mental Health

Researchers at Johns HopkinsUCLA, and NYU are running clinical trials on the benefits of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms as a tool for treating addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation.

  1. Spirituality

Of course, there’s also a rich tradition of religions and individual seekers deploying mind altering psychoactive mushrooms as a form of sacrament or a tool for plumbing the mysteries of life.

  1. The Arts

Director Schwartzberg understandably views mushrooms as muse, a fitting subject for photography, music, film, poetry, art and other creative endeavors.

 

With regard to this final pillar, many viewers may be surprised to learn how much of the 15 years Schwartzberg dedicated to capturing the exquisite cycle of fungal regeneration and decomposition took place indoors.

As he explains in the Wired video above, his precision equipment excels at capturing development that’s invisible to the human eye, but is no match for such natural world disruptions as insects and wind.

Instead, he and his team built controlled growing environments, where highly sensitive time lapse cameras, dollies, timed grow lights, and more cinematic lighting instruments could be left in place.

Set dressings of moss and logs, coupled with a very short depth of field helped to bring the Great Outdoors onscreen, with occasional chromakeyed panoramas of the natural world filling in the gaps.

Even in such lab-like conditions, certain elements were necessarily left to chance. Mushrooms grow notoriously quickly, and even with constant monitoring and calculations, there was plenty of potential for one of his stars to miss their mark, shooting out of frame.

Just one of the ways that mushrooms and humans operate on radically different timelines. The director bowed to the shrooms, returning to square one on the frequent occasions when a sequence got away from him.

Providing viewers an immersive experience of the underground mycelium network required high powered microscopes, a solid cement floor, and a bit of movie magic to finesse. What you see in the final cut is the work of CGI animators, who used Schwartzberg’s footage as their blueprint.

Netflix subscribers can stream Fantastic Fungi for free.

From October 15 – 17, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is hosting a free, virtual Fantastic Fungi Global Summit. Register here.

You can also browse his collection of community mushroom recipes and submit your own, download Fantastic Fungi’s Stoned Ape poster, or have a ramble through a trove of related videos and articles in the Mush Room.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Brood X Cicadas are her mushrooms. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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