Sunday, October 25, 2009

Burly Tree

By Jenna Burleigh

While on assignment for Cardinal Points, I came across an interesting story regarding the uncertain futures of two of the oldest trees on campus. Not nearly as impressive as they may have once been, the trunks of both trees wore scars from pervious battles with chain saws. But damaged and scarred as they were, the trees still held a certain character about them. They are bur oaks.

The bur oak is found extensively across The United States, stretching from Maine to Montana, and south to Texas. The spread of the oak is representative of its ability to survive in different environments.

Resistant to drought, the bur oak is a deciduous tree can live in arid as well as moist regions. It is also tolerant of different soil types, and is an efficient user of water, according to this article. Within its first growing season, a bur oak’s roots can penetrate the soil up to more than four feet. Fast root development and good water use could explain why this tree can be found in many different soil-types and climates.

The bur oak is aptly named for the shape of its acorns. They are about the size of a golf ball, growing up to two inches long, with bristly whisker-looking “burs” that wrap around the top and sides of the acorn. The bur oak can grow to be over 100 feet high or wide (the crown, not the trunk), according to this article. The acorns of this oak are the largest of all native oaks in North America.

The bur oak, or Quercus macrocarpa, begins to produce seed after 35 years, and can seed up to 400 years or older (Quercus, meaning oaks, and macrocarpa, the “macro” referring to the size of its unusually large acorns). The acorns fall, either on their own or with a little help from hungry squirrels, and can immediately begin germination or remain dormant until the next spring.

After discovering how hardy this species of tree is and how much they can survive, I was a little disheartened to learn that these trees may need to be destroyed in order to make room for more construction projects on campus. Humans appear to be one factor this natural wonder cannot endure.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Early steps to stop late blight

By Jenna Burleigh

Q: What is late blight?

A: Phytophthora infestans, a fungus-like oomycete pathogen, called late blight, is an infection that kills tomato and potato plants. An oomycete is "a simple organism similar to a fungus that feeds on rotting material or living plants by absorbing nutrients through fine threads," according to MSN Encatra. This is the same infection responsible for the severe potato famine in Ireland in the 1850s, forcing many to starve or emigrate.

Late blight can affect a plant at any time in the growing season, and if detected, should be promptly destroyed. The disease can infect the leaves, stems, fruits and tubers of tomato and potato plants, which are susceptible only when wet, according to this article. However, this includes if the plants are moist from dew, irrigation, sprinklers, and even fog.

Q: How do spores infect plants?

A: The disease can only survive on living tissues. It usually survives through the winter on potato tubers, which spread the infection when replanted as seed. Infected plants grow and develop noticeable signs of the disease. Some signs include dark-colored abrasions on the stem of the plant or on the fruit or tuber. Leaves will turn brown and decay, or fuzzy, white spots can appear on the leaves, containing spores. Spores spread by wind or splash onto new hosts with rainfall. It was once thought that late blight wouldn’t spread after harvest, but it can, according to this site.

Q: What will stop the spread of late blight?

A: There are several actions you can take to protect your crops from late blight. The best measures are preventative steps. When purchasing your seed for the new growing season, make sure it is certified healthy seed, and be sure to ask if there were any signs of late blight during the harvest of these seeds.

Inspect all of your seed carefully. If you see black or purple-colored abrasions on tubers, dispose of them properly. This does not just mean throwing the infected seed away, but either burry it two feet below the surface, feed it to livestock, freeze it, or completely till it into the soil if your previous crop was ruined by late blight.

One simple method to help reduce the risk of late blight to tomato and potato plants is to make hills around the roots of the plants. Placing as much soil as possible around the plants will help protect tubers and roots from spores that filter through the soil.

If you have discarded tubers from a previous harvest, without properly disposing of it, make sure to kill the plants if they start to grow. Late blight may have infected it, and if spores are allowed to grow, this could eventually infect your new crop, as well as surrounding plots.

Fungicides are available that will help prevent late blight. Once the disease has infected a crop, it is difficult to save it unless it is treated with a fungicide with systemic activity (meaning they penetrate the plant tissue), within 24 hours of infection. Even then, it may be too late to save the plant. Warm, dry weather, both day and night, would naturally stop the infection, at least temporarily. However, the plant should be destroyed before the infection spreads to other plants. Fungicides are most effective when applied regularly.When storing potatoes, growers should keep them in a cool, dry place. Keeping them put of moist areas ensures that late blight cannot infect the tubers, because it needs moisture.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cosmos Conundrum

What is in a black hole? Some could say everything, since it apparently sucks in everything that gets too close. However, others could argue there’s nothing in it, as scientists speculate that they eventually disappear, turning into nothing.

Steven Hawking has devoted his career to questions like this. He has come up with some theories that would undermine the very principles of quantum mechanics, upon which rests much of our understanding of the cosmos, matter, and, well, pretty much everything.

But regardless of how “out there” his theories may be, it might be worth mentioning that they are just that: theories.

Even Hawking mentions that there is probably a one percent chance any of his theories about black holes could be tested, let alone proven true. On this note, one almost has to ask “what’s the point?”

It seems a bit senseless to squabble over theories of things we obviously don’t understand, considering we may never be able to prove what is, or is not, true. I’ll be the first to admit I know absolutely nothing about black holes or quantum mechanics, but I also have never devoted my life to trying to understand something I will probably never be able to understand, hypothesizing things I can never test.

This, however, is the nature of science, the challenge to understand the unknown. Not to say that science is a waste of time, do not misunderstand my intentions. I believe science is a very admirable field of study, and much of the information we learn from science has helped to improve nearly every aspect of our lives.

But it almost seems that humans, as a species, need to know everything, even about things that will never affect us. We want to know what Pluto is made of, what a black hole is all about, if there is life out there somewhere… is it impossible to accept that we are here and let that be enough?

I have a feeling someday science will disprove the theories behind every religion and probably show that everything we feel, think, and act upon is part of some grand scheme that can be calculated. I’m afraid something like that would take away all the color in life, the mystery, the romance. We can’t just appreciate something simple like the changing of the leaves in the fall, or the way the waves of the ocean leap at our feet. Everything has to be defined, even things we can’t see.

Personally, I prefer my world to be colorful and mysterious. I like to ponder things great and small. I give all the power in the world to people like Hawking, I hope he proves once and for all what is and is not inside a black hole. Just don’t expect me to be the first one to read that article.

As for the Discover article, I believe I would give it a solid 87. I liked the lede, though the first sentence could have been more intriguing. The content was very informative, written coherently. The transitions were clear and affective. I believe there were a few things that could have been explained better, but all and all I think it was good.

Grade breakdown:
Lede: 17
Content: 18
Organization: 17
Quality: 18
Clarity: 17

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Is Pluto a planet?

Photo by Mathias Pedersen

Jenna Burleigh

I remember my science teacher once telling us an acronym to remember the names of the planets in the solar system: my very energetic mother just served us nine pizzas. The first letter of each word was meant to signify Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. However, she may end up serving us “nothing” because the fate of the “pizzas” doesn’t look so good.
Q: Is Pluto a planet?

A: Discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh, Pluto became the 9th planet in our solar system. However, a later discovery in 2005 came in the form of an object in the Kuiper belt, and it was even larger than Pluto. Discovery of this object and several others that rivaled the size of Pluto caused the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to determine what exactly a “planet” is.

Prior to these discoveries, no official definition for “planet” existed. In order to be considered a “planet,” the object in question must meet three criteria, as set by the IAU.

One: it must orbit the sun.
Two: it must have the gravity to be able to pull itself into a spherical shape
Three: it must be able to consume or clear other objects in its orbit

The third criterion is where Pluto falls short, since it is smaller than Eris (another object in what is called the Kuiper belt), and not massive enough to clear other objects in its orbit. According to this article, Pluto has been demoted to a “dwarf planet,” as if it were some kind of consolation prize.

It might take some time for those used to “Planet Pluto” to adjust to the fact that Pluto is no longer a planet, but at least there’s finally a clear definition of what a “planet” actually is. As for children, they are going to have to get used to the fact that their very energetic mothers are going to serve them nothing.