Tree of 40 Fruits

Sam Van Aken

Sam Van Aken

An abomination! A sin against nature! The Devil’s garden!

These are things you might say of the “Tree of 40 Fruits” if you were insane, which I try not to be most of time. But artist Sam Van Aken clearly had vague Biblical allusions in mind when he named his project, right?

Right, the project: It’s a cool mashup of art and horticulture. Van Aken used a technique called “chip grafting” to construct an Ur Tree that produces 40 varieties of stone fruit.

A “stone fruit” is not, as you might have guessed, a cherry-flavored igneous. Instead, it is a type of fruit with a stone inside — think peaches and cherries. Van Aken’s Frankenfruit Tree offers up nectarines, cherries, plums, almonds and etc., all grafted from an heirloom-rich orchard in New York. In spring, the tree transforms into a surreal technicolor cloud of different blossoms, which in turn birth the different kinds of fruit. Check out the picture. It’s downright Seussian.

But, right: “Tree of 40 Fruits.” That’s something that could come right out of King James. Trees and fruits, obviously, are go-to images and metaphors for the authors of the Biblical stories. And 40: From years in the desert to days-and-nights of temptations, it’s pretty Biblical. I’m guessing Van Aken sees the tree, which is saving the fruits of a bunch of heirloom trees from destruction (the orchard was set for the bulldozer), as a sort of horticultural Ark? Or a trial of survival in a trying ecological age?

Or maybe the 41st stone fruit really sucked. But I think there was something, at least subconsciously, about 40 and trees and fruit. For an artist, and for all of us, living today, encroaching ecological destruction should seem Biblical, if not larger, in magnitude.


Loss of a Universe


Damn. Well, this really brings home the loss of a universe in the loss of a human life, doesn’t it?

The Telegraph reports that, among those killed in the crashed (probably shot down) Malaysian aircraft this week were 108 of the world’s leading AIDS researchers.

I mean, are you kidding me? You hear it said that one life touches many, but J. Christ, all those lives dedicated to saving, or at least improving, the lives of millions. One positive, possibly, to take from it: stark evidence of the multiplier effect of scientific research. The awesome people who dedicate their lives to this work become huge.

I will add in the caveat that, of course, every life lost is terrible — because I’m not some kind of monster. But disaster stats on lives lost can unfortunately turn into mere numbers. This one, though: 108–108!!–people working on AIDS. What a damned loss. Just how valuable is one of those minds, any human mind? It’s the size of a universe, right?

The Telegraph focuses on Dr. Joep Lange. He had prestige, and was former president of the International AIDS Society. The paper doesn’t go much into his actual research, so I Wikipedia’d a bit. One of his major contributions was in advocating combination therapy. This strategy has proven a major weapon against HIV’s slippery ability to mutate rapidly. He found that anti-retroviral drugs can drastically reduce a baby’s chance of contracting HIV from an infected mother.

He did a lot more. As did his 107 colleagues.

From Head Count to Identity Crisis


I’ve seen this before.

Here, the Times’ Jane E. Brody writes about how we, meaning humans, are mostly bacteria. It’s a cool, little science neato factoid that’s good for at least sparking a “huh!” or getting a kid with a bit of aptitude to say “whoa!” or a first date to, in her head say, “Well, at least maybe he’s not an idiot.”

In other words, it’s good pop-science — nice on the back of a book, or in a colorful placard at a forward-thinking museum.

I don’t know if Katrina Ray, of Nature Reviews, is the original source of the observation, but that’s who Brody references —  saying there are 10 times as many bacterial cells as human in the quote-unquote ‘human’ body, that they constitute a whopping “99.9 percent of the unique genes” in our mortal coils. That is really cool, huh? But I feel like factoids like that have been circulation in the pop-science aether for a while, maybe for as long as I’ve been aware of this stuff — so, like, the ’90s?

So, I’ve heard this before. And what interests me about the factoid now is not the  ”Huh!” weirdness of it the first time you hear about it, but rather, the interesting little pathway to get there.

You need all the biological science that went into defining an organism as a collection of units called cells. Then, the drudge work of characterizing and counting. Then the insight to take a look at the percentages, and realize that the bare numbers might necessitate a shift in how you were looking at things, the black background becoming the foreground. Shadow is now subject. The add-on bacterial cells actually outnumber what you thought was the point of the whole deal: the human cells.

So, now, wait–what?–what is this thing we’re dealing with? A human being with bacteria in it, or a bacterial ecostystem with some human bits trapped inside. Now, from the microscope, to basic algebra, you’ve arrived at philosophy: it’s a pretty deep question of identity.

So, simple head counts turn into identity crisis. That’s way more than a number.

Jimmy Buffett Flying on the Moon


First off, this is exciting: to see someone talking so matter-of-factly about terraforming the moon.

It’s just a three-day trip, writes science-fiction great Gregory Benford. He’s concerned about the Russians targeting the cold south pole of the moon, because it will be so cold. (Maybe they like it cold, Gregory — it’s cold in Russia. That’s one of the  main things about Russia.)

Then he proceeds through the necessary steps: First, you must simply nudge the moon into a different orbit. Just try things over here, instead, Ms. Moon, ok? You give it an atmosphere via ice comets. The comets also position the satellite in a more interesting, and life-friendly, axial tilt.

I suppose when you make a living imagining brilliant sci-fi worlds, terraforming the moon becomes just a simple engineering problem. But it’s awesome that not just Benford, but also sober folks at space agencies like the Russians are working out the specifics. I could actually, theoretically, live to see people living, dying and polluting on the moon! It is with our garbage patches, after all, that we will mark the solar system, and then the universe.

Also, speaking of trash, Benford says, “The deep air will covet heat, making the moon much like a cloudy Florida.” Also, we will be able to fly. So, look out for Parrotheads leaking processed margarita from the skies.

Mike Jobs


I took a job. Like, a real-life, adult, full-time job. I haven’t had one of these things in seven years. What do you do, are you supposed to, like, wear a tie? Do I need to say “synergy” to people now?

I’ll still be working remotely, so the office romance might be more difficult to arrange. I may have to develop a crush on a barista. Or, work on some heavy-duty narcissism. But, like, narcissism that can tragically never be fulfilled. Like, I’m too shy to ask myself out. I just amuse myself by making jokes to myself about the other people in the office (also myself), while being the only one to really support my own artistic ambitions. Then, the whole thing will go on for eight more seasons, gradually declining in quality.

The downside, the worst downside, of this job, a copyediting position, is that I will be contractually obligated to not write for competing science news publications — including Scientific American and Discover, where I had made contacts in the last six months or so. I’ve learned not to promise regular blogging, because I’ve yet to keep that promise, but the loss of that outlet might just make it a necessity. I can write about science here. I’m pretty sure nobody considers EpicDarwin a competitor.

The upside, the best upside, of this job is that I can stop hustling and maybe even confidently sign a lease. Time to live without roommates? Might be nice. But, then again, living on my own while working remotely could be (even more) isolating, so — another reason to blog? Because, let’s face it, Facebook is a gaping maw of empty diversion.

Ok, so, see you at EpicDarwin.


…but the smallest insect

“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, the universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by a special act.”

–Charls Darwin

The Florida Museum of Natural History dedicates one corner to a great collection of quotes on evolution, from ancient Greek ideas, to E.O. Wilson. They’re all set in these attractive, glowing fonts. Here’s one from the man himself:


YouTube as Newton’s Apple


“I’m not going to show you the cat part,” he said, a bit disdainfully.

Clive Wynne is a dog person, clearly. The psychology professor spoke at the ScienceWriters2013 conference in Gainseville, Fla., yesterday, where he gave an entertaining talk on dog evolution. Long evolutionary story short, he thinks most of the theories out there (that early humans snagged wolf pups to train as hunters’ assistants, that dogs have uncommon skill in reading humans) are bunk.

“That’s the standard line,” he said. “I’m here to tell you, none of it is right.”

If that sounds a bit puckish, it should. Wynne stalked the stage and used his British accent to full effect. He was there to provoke and entertain. I got the feeling he was auditioning for a TED Talk. And why not?

His contrary theory posits a transformative mutation that produced a scavenging wolf that was highly sociable with humans — but maybe a bit too weird for other wolves to want to hang around with. Most interestingly, this flight of speculation was inspired by…a YouTube clip. This one, to be precise.

If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a (pretty spot-on) illustration of the social differences between cats and dogs. Less stiffly stated, a couple of dudes act like asshole cats or disturbingly friendly dogs. Seeing a human do it, it’s pretty hilarious. Watch the “cat” stalk over its owner’s lap. Witness the “dog’s” pure joy at the mere sight of its human’s face.

I’ve seen this video before. And when I watched it, I thought: “Haha. Cats. Haha. Dogs.” Wynne saw it, and linked up dog evolution to a rare human genetic condition known as Williams Syndrome. This is why he gets to give talks, and I don’t. The syndrome, among other things, imparts what Wynne called a “cocktail personality.” That is, children with the condition LOVE meeting new people and hearing all about them; they show great empathy for others.

Wynne then showed a clip of some kids with the syndrome, culled from a TV report on the condition, and…well, it did resemble the stupid dude-as-a-friendly-dog YouTube clip quite a bit.

I appreciate that at this informal science talk, Wynne felt comfortable sharing this odd spark for his insight/speculation. He could, of course, have just been playing up the YouTube part to maximize the entertainment value for us writers, so easily roped into a good story. But I prefer to believe it was an honest comment about the wide range of places scientific insight can originate.

Maybe the dude-as-a-dog actor can wrangle co-author credit on the paper.


How to Tell If Bees Will Make You Die


Note: Not an author photo. (via

Last week, some jerkwad bee just up and stung (stang?) me for no reason. It was slightly less than awesome.

I plead my case before the gods of bees and justice that I had done nothing to this bee. And yet, I incurred his wrath. I had attempted to steal no honey. I had not even had any honey in months, because I use honey to sweeten hot tea, and it hadn’t been cold. But I comfort my bruised sense of justice and still-kind-of-itchy forearm with the thought that this is insect karma: I’ve used ant traps. Swatted mosquitoes. Told spiders I’d prefer if they left.

I also told myself that at least now I know I am not allergic to bee stings. Because, despite getting stanged, I did not at all die. Like, not at all!

But I’m told that I need at least one more bee to stick it in me before I can be sure about this. That the first one’s just practice (really, just to sensitize you.) So, NEXT TIME, I might die. This sounded like possible BS from Big Bee, meant to sell us more bee stings we don’t really need. So I decided to investigate:

I went out and picked a fight with a beehive.

Just kidding, I Googled it. Most of the major medical sites don’t talk about needing a first sting, but this article that is overrun with pop-up ads has an MD quote that does: “Most people must be stung at least once before having an allergic reaction the second time around. You have to have that initial exposure that sensitizes you to the venom.”

So, it’s possible I’ve simply been set up for my eventual face-balooning death.

Reputable website tells me, however, that only 3 percent of people who suffer insect stings will experience the severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

And this is not to say that everyone must necessarily experience an uneventful first stinging before succumbing to bee-ish wrath the second time. Again, from Mayo, “People who have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting have a 30 to 60 percent chance of anaphylaxis the next time they’re stung.” So my lack of a severe reaction the first time out at least means I’m less likely to go down come round two.

However, contrary to the image of bee-sting vulnerability you may have from “My Girl,” adults face a greater risk than children, even those representing the innocence of long-lost days in coming-of-age stories. From Mayo: “Adults tend to have more-severe reactions than children and are more likely to die of anaphylaxis than are children. ”

So, in conclusion, my chances of death at the hands (or abdomens) of bees will only increase. I’ll be sure to let you know if I die. But winter is coming, so the little striped marauders will soon freeze. That gives me another good 6-8 months to live. Let’s make it count. I’m buying a sled.

Suns Down, Puns Out


I like puns. This used to be a mild source of embarrassment, something you wouldn’t readily admit, like possessing a rock collection past age 10 or knowing too much of the X-Men backstory.

I think puns have attracted at least a slim leather-jacket covering of cool, recently, though. This may be a consequence of where I’ve lived the last few years — hipster-nerdy Brooklyn and college town-nerdy Madison — but there’s also Twitter as evidence. Goddamn, do people like to tweet puns. And I’ve seen the raucous crowds at “Punderdome 3000″ in Park Slope (which I’ve covered — repeatedly – here).

So, it perhaps surprised me less than it might have surprised others that Madison’s first amateur pun competition, this week’s “Pundamonium,” drew a sizable crowd. Nerd Nite, a celebration of geekery, does well here (at the same venue, to boot, High Noon Saloon). Pundamonium’s host, Art Allen, seemed pleasantly surprised so many Madisonians decided to proudly fly their Dad Joke flags. Art brought the show, to test it out, from Minneapolis, where he hosts it regularly. He hopes to make it regular in Madison, too. Here’s my review, with some unsolicited and probably annoying advice on how to make that happen:

* The Good: Pundamonium works similarly to a poetry slam: punners pun their puns, and judges selected from the audience judge the contestants via whiteboards held aloft. The contestants go through several elimination rounds, whittling things down to the punniest of them all. Each round, punners get a prompt, and must play violently with the language from that springboard.

Pundamonium keeps things fresh each round, though, by mixing up the format. First round, punnists get their prompt while in the audience and have some time to mull it over. Second round, they receive a prompt on stage and get a mere half-minute to prime the punp (get it?). Final rounds, two contestants share a mic and a prompt — it’s open season and each one can jump up to the mic when they have an idea. This, for the best punners, turns into the Dozens, but with puns. Some attitude-laden insults spice up the dork humor nicely.

Also, each round had its own flavor and rhythm, unlike other pun shows (ok, THE other pun show) I’ve seen, in which the rounds got repetitive.

Some folks had some good runs of puns (or pruns, if you will, which you probably won’t). My fave: a punndanista got islands as a prompt and showed an impressive knowledge of world geography, basing all his puns on actual island names. (“If you get a drink, don’t worry, they can make it a Virgin…Hey man, you look sick. UK?”).

* The Bad: This is an amateur contest, and the shorter time periods made some of the contestants go blank. It’s no coincidence the two finalists were members of the same Madison-area improv comedy team. To make this thing sustainable, it needs to offer a chance to more than just semi-pro comedians — particularly in a city as (relatively) small as Madison. That 30-second round should go at least a minute to give those less accustomed to the stage more time to think and not freeze up. If I just want to see some improvers do their thing, I’ll go to an improv show.

But I hope it comes back. Nerdy Madisonians, tell someone you liked the show. Tell Pundamonium. Tell High Noon. Tell Scott Walker. Yeah. That sounds right. Tell Scott Walker.





Tonight, I went to “Pundamonium” in Madison. And, no, Pundamonium is not some new wonder drug for constipation. It is, in fact, a pun-slam competition.

And Pundamonium and Epic Darwin, the blog, are going to break their cherries together.

Because: this was the Minneapolis-born Pundamonium’s first show in Madison.

And this will be the first major post of Epic Darwin: a review of said nerdery.

Stay tuned. I met Pundamonium’s fearless, beardful leader — Art — and he will tell me all about why puns must rule your damn brain. Review coming tomorrow .

–Mike “Epic” Dharwin