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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My silence has a reason

I Musici: if you look carefully, you can see the sails of the Opera House behind the players.

The audience.  There's a champagne tent
at the very back
I am on the trail of a story.  The outline was conceived last Sunday morning, while sitting on the Bennelong Lawn, just south of Sydney's famous Opera House, in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. It happens to be just about the oldest part of Sydney. To those who know me, yes, I was counting bird species, but mainly, I was listening to music.

It was a delight: Rossini, Donizetti, Paganini—and if you know anything about the players, you won't need to ask which extended Vivaldi lollipop they brought us, the piece that they resurrected, along with the Red Priest, half a century ago.

The lawn is named after an Aboriginal leader who was a boy when the white people first arrived here in 1788. He later travelled around Australia, some time after being seen wounding a man with a boomerang in 1804, almost within shouting distance of where I was sitting.

We were listening to an Italian group, I Musici who were mainly playing on instruments older than white settlement, and I was toying with a challenge/request laid on me by a teacher this week.  It was to produce an account of the First Fleeters that was a bit less banal than the average, that would get kids 9-10 jumping.

I soon realised that I had most of the fragments of a good story assembled, and it started to come together, but when I got home, I did some burrowing in old newspapers, the records of the Old Bailey and other stuff.  Here's what I have as the beginning, leading into the main structure:

The First Fleet was about 60% (I need to check the exact figure) convicts, and it was sent out to establish a penal colony.  It was also staking a British claim to part of a continent that they regarded as unclaimed.  (Yes, there is a degree of reservation in that statement.)  The fleet left England in mid-1787, and arrived here in early 1788.

On one day in 1787, two Elizabeths were had up at the Old Bailey. Elizabeth Hayward who, at 14 when she left England, would be the youngest female convict on the first fleet, got seven years for stealing a gown, a bonnet and a cloak from her master (she was an apprentice).  Elizabeth Beckford was 70 when they left: she was nicked for purloining a cheese worth four shillings.  They gratefully accepted their fates.  There were, incidentally, another 18 First Fleet convicts sentence to be transported that day, and something like 50 more who were sentenced to go as well, but appear not to have been on any ship.
Elizabeth Beckford died on the voyage, and was described by the surgeon as being "82 years of age", so who can tell how old she really was?  Elizabeth Hayward died in 1830, but I don't have much on her as yet.  I know she got 30 lashes for insolence, not long after landing and ended up on Norfolk Island for a while.
There's more. On the same day, D'Arcy Wentworth, a surgeon of good family (read a cad!), was arraigned for trial as a highwayman.  I already know quite a bit about D'Arcy and his descendants, so this was good.
Acquitted at the end of 1787, somebody suggested that he got off lucky this time, but next time wouldn't be so easy, so he went to Australia with the second fleet, knowing that voluntary transportation was better than the involuntary sort.  This was a disappointment, as I thought D'Arcy had gone on the first fleet, but it contrasts beautifully with the next case, of somebody who seemed to greatly fear transportation -- but all was not as it seemed.
On that same day, Samuel Burt, forger, declared once again that he would rather swing than have that commuted to a life sentence on the east coast of New South Wales, and this after the King had graciously given him a reprieve.  No thanks, Kingy, said Sam, I'd just as soon get this life stuff over and done with.  He reneged in March, and also sailed in the second fleet--and apparently helped foil a mutiny on his ship on the way out.
It appears that Burt was rejected by a young lady because he was an apprentice, with time to serve, and so was not free to marry.  He committed a forgery before surrendering himself to the police at Bow Street, hoping to be hanged (a sort of non-violent suicide-by-cop). As a sad case, he was offered the King’s pardon and he several times refused the offer, until the lady agreed to marry him and then, joy, oh rapture unconfined, he preferred to live.  Sadly, she visited him repeatedly in Newgate Prison, where she caught gaol fever, and died.
You couldn't invent this stuff, you know.

So, I already have a strong start, though there's more digging to do.  Did Samuel Burt ever marry?  Where did he end up?  I know that he thwarted a convict mutiny on his ship coming out, and that on January 31, 1794, he was unconditionally emancipated, but then the trail goes cold, aside from a land grant somewhere near the Cook's River.  I suspect that he headed back to England, as he could do with an unconditional pardon.

There will be more on this at some point, but I just wanted to point out that I haven't forgotten the fossils, but that I have been gainfully employed.  I have a third Elizabeth, Mrs MacArthur, who put in all the hard yakka while here husband was swanning around in England—but guess who took the credit for creating the Australian merino sheep!

I also have a convict who faked a gold mine, a Mauritian called Black Caesar who was the first bushranger, a botanising, twitching surgeon who made good use of his time, the first European to become an initiated man of an Aboriginal tribe, a stalwart astronomer and more.  On the way home, we passed Ralph Clark's much-pillaged garden (which wasn't on Garden Island), and that's part of the story as well.

You definitely couldn't invent this stuff.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Don't try this at home!

A period view of Sheep Station Point, Turon River, during the rush. One of my
key themes will be the environmental damage: imagine where all the dirt went!
As I said the other day, gold is big on my horizons at the moment. In fact, I'm about half-way through writing the story of how and why Australia had a gold rush at all.

A week or so back, I was out on the Turon River, walking over one of Australia's oldest gold fields. Not one of the richest, but good enough, and the finds there educated diggers in the art of gold finding, and provided an impetus for later discoveries,

People don't realise this, but a gold rush doesn't start just because somebody found gold.  There has to be a whipping-up of excitement, and that makes for an interesting study.

The other thing people don't realise is that gold can be dissolved.  We think of it as untarnishable, unrustable, a sort of forever metal, but the truth is a bit different.  When we grandly elected to have gold-plated taps a house or so back, the plumber warned us not to use bleach around them.

As a good practical chemist, I thought he was mad, but played safe. Whoever owns that house now probably inherited nice looking taps, because we left a sticky note on the mirror over the basin, repeating the warning. But I didn't believe any of it.  Gold is highly unreactive: every fool knows that.

Nope.  Now read on.

I was trying to get my head around how the cyanide process works, and that led me to the chloride of lime process, which took me to how gold miners were affected when Europe has a cholera plague, or when Sydney had bubonic plague in 1900, or when there was an outbreak of smallpox anywhere at all, because people liked to use chloride of lime (which is bleaching powder alias calcium hypochlorite), and so the price went up.

I decided to dig more into this "chloride of lime", and came across this article in the Portland Guardian (Vic.), Friday 24 May 1895, page 1s.)

Things worth knowing.
Coarse and red hands may be whitened by using a few grains of chloride of lime added to warm soft water for washing. All rings and bracelets must be removed before this is used as the chloride of lime will tarnish them. A soap containing this ingredient may be prepared as follows:—
White powdered Castile soap, one pound; dry chloride of lime, one and a half to two ounces. Mix and beat this up in a mortar to a soft mass with a sufficient quantity of rectified spirit; divide the mass into tablets, and wrap it up in oiled silk. It may be scented by adding to the mixture a couple of drachms of oil of verbena. In using chloride of lime, it is very important to be careful to avoid getting any of the powder into the eyes, as it is exceedingly irritating, and may even cause blindness.

*  *  *  *  *  *

In reality, the chloride of lime does more than tarnish rings and bracelets: it makes them lose weight, because it dissolves them!  Then again, that stuff doesn't do a lot for the skin, either, so like it says in the heading, don't try this at home!

So if you thought life was safer, albeit a bit less hygienic back in the olden days, think again!
Things like this were often repeated, and the Euroa Advertiser had the same article in May, 1896.  For all I know, it may still be out there, appearing in local newspapers.

That's the fun thing about being a writer: you keep on learning.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Real Gold Bug?

These objects, made of plaster and fresh cement, conceal my
brand-new "fossils", as I will start to reveal next weekend.

Yes, I know I promised some stuff on fossil simulations, but I am still doing the photos for that series, because I decided the ones I had weren't good enough.

The first batch of my new  "fossils" are made, and you can see them in this shot on the left, but please be patient while the cement cures.  I have to wait for a fortnight or so, before I start cleaning away the plaster matrix.

Now here's some geochemistry I prepared earlier.

I'm doing quite a lot of heavy science at the moment, on the topic of gold, and theories about the origin of gold deposits. The usual dogma has ferociously hot (hundreds of degrees C hot) water at huge pressure, vipering up out of the earth, carrying gold in solution to higher levels, where it goes out of solution and forms veins. Later, under erosion and weathering, the gold may end up in rivers or gulleys.  There have always been those who wondered if the gold deposits may not have a biological origin.

I doubted it, but anything is possible, so I trawled the literature and came across a case where people found evidence in 2.65 billion-year-old Canadian gold that there had been a kind of bacterium (called an Archaean) around when the gold was laid down.  All they had was some lipids (oily stuff) that are only found in Archaeans, but it looked as though the little beasts were there at the same time, but the Archaea, or some of them, delight in swimming in scalding hot water.

So close, but NO seegar!  I trawled on.  And hit pay dirt.

I now think it quite possible that some bacteria may well play a role in forming some gold deposits. Dr Frank Reith from Australia's own CSIRO argued in 2006 that they are involved in the formation of secondary gold grains.  In brief, he found a living biofilm, a complex bacterial ecosystem, on the surface of gold grains. DNA profiling of this biofilm identified 30 bacterial species with populations unique to the gold grains when compared with the populations in the surrounding soils.

Working with samples from two gold mines, one (Tomakin Park near Ulladulla) in southern New South Wales, the other (the Hit or Miss gold mine near Cooktown) about 2000 km away in northern Queensland, Reith found one common bacterium and DNA sequence analysis of this species identified it as the bacterium Ralstonia metallidurans. He then put a culture of this bacterium in contact with dissolved gold, which as he explained,  is highly toxic to microorganisms. But instead of finding dead bacteria, he observed active gold precipitation going on.

I dug out a CSIRO press release on his work.  "A unique attribute of R. metallidurans is that it is able to survive in concentrations of gold that would kill most other micro-organisms." This research has significance for the mineral exploration industry – as current models of gold formation do not include a biological mechanism. "There may be new opportunities for the bio-processing of gold ores now that we have discovered bacteria that precipitants gold out of solution," he said.

Clearly then, at least one bacterium is capable of dealing with gold compounds and producing metallic gold. In the future, this could direct those seeking deposits in a different direction, or as he says, it might lead the way to more gentle ways of extracting gold from poor quality deposits. One interesting aspect that probably won't come to anything: we all have a biofilm in our mouths, though we call those swarming bacterial coatings "dental plaque" (there's some evidence that clogged arteries are also due to biofilms, and there's one in our bathroom basin that keeps defying me).

If we could incorporate Ralstonia metallidurans into the mix, could we get gold teeth more easily?  I think the cost of the gold mouthwash might be against it—not to mention the problems if you swallowed it.  I don't think I'll start pouring gold solutions down the drain in the hope of getting a gold-plated plughole, either.

Though, considering what the second half of his name means, calling St John Chrysostom, have you anything you'd like to tell us?

Friday, 17 February 2012

Dinky-di bonzer bandicoots and hard yacker

I've been a bit quiet this week, so far as this blog is concerned.  I have been enmeshed in the basic administrivia of writing, hunting down a really ghastly novel to see if it was as bad as I suspected (it gave its name to a gold hoax in 1898), and one bit of fun.

If you understood the heading, you probably speak passable Australian.  So do I, though Americans listening to me in this Youtube clip might be surprised.  I don't say "crikey" or sound like Paul Hogan, but I use the Australian vernacular without the twanging diphthongs that stage Australians use.

I know the language inside and out, and for a future project (hint: anachronism-free Australian historical fiction for the YA market), I am trying to pin down when the many fascinating and apparently uniquely Australian terms came into use.

In the first stage, I am using a massive online database of Australian historical newspapers. Now before anybody screams, that collection is owned by the organisation which is also one of my publishers, but that is more because we have similar aims and interests, and I don't make a brass razoo out of spruiking them.

See what I mean about the Oz language?  I'm afraid that spruik and razoo are two words I haven't covered yet, but I will get to them in the end.  Mind you, a few of my researches have shown that terms many of us regard as totally Australian, like bob for shilling, or kibosh, are not ours at all.  I'm setting all of that down in a table, so that people can see the context, the date, and a link that will take them straight to the original.  It's slow work, and I do it in bits and pieces, in between other stuff.

There are now about 150 entries, covering 60 or 70 words—I like, when I can, to offer three examples, sometimes more, of each word under study. Note added February 20: I have finished transferring over the Trove list, and there are more than 250 entries. I have no idea how many words are covered.

Finishing the whole thing will probably take me another year, because I will be following up with a trawl through many old colonial books, looking for curious and early uses of words that we in Australian call our own—like the other meaning of sheoak, not as timber, but as colonial beer (presumably because it came in barrels made of that timber).

If you want to look, the database is here.  Take a look at billy, damper and larrikin as three interesting case studies.  Meanwhile, I'm planning a series on fossils, so those seeking science should stay tuned. Here, for the obligatory pictorial element, are a few recent fossil encounters from a wave-cut platform in Permian sediments on the New South Wales south coast.

The difference: these are real, and what I will be discussing is how to make (or to be honest, fake) your own fossils.  Maybe I should say simulate fossilisation.  These are real, though.


Monday, 13 February 2012

Ant lions and the angle of rest

An ant lion, shot with a very shallow
depth of field

I like ant lions, and I have a fair amount about them in my upcoming Australian Backyard Naturalist, but one of the things I wanted to do was, we decided, a bit too complex for younger readers. It also has a small element of danger about it, but with common sense, there is no risk.

The book has a lot of information about managing ant lions and I will be in trouble with the publishers if I give away too much of that here, but I will add some brief hints at the end to help home experimenters. This is mainly about slopes on sand.

Ant lion pit
Ant lions make really neat pits in sand, by burrowing into trhe sand and then throwing sand out until a conical pit forms.  The sand on this slope is barely stable.

When an ant (or any other sort of insect) goes over the edge, it slides down. If it begins to scramble out, the ant lion is alerted and starts throwing sand out from the bottom. This makes the side start to slide down as it is undermined, and some of the sand tumbles down.

Edge of the Sahara, near Merzouga, Morocco: dune face,
about 1.5 metres high showing the angle of rest.
Once the victim is in reach, the ant lion seizes it and sucks out all its juices, before tossing the empty husk out.

Wheat, gravel or sugar, all sorts of matter will develop a maximum slope. The angle depends on local gravity, the attractive forces between the particles, their shapes, friction, and maybe a few other things.

Sand dunes and sand banks are also shaped by this angle.  It is called the angle of rest, or sometimes, the angle of repose.

You can also see this effect sometimes in sand banks at the surf or in a creek that is silting up, but it is more convenient to study it on a table top.  To do this, you need a cylindrical glass jar, some clean dry sand and a device for measuring angles.

When I did this to take photos, I was in a hurry, so I used a microwave oven to dry some beach sand that I had washed in lots of fresh water to get rid of the salt.

That was when I discovered that wet sand behaves a bit like volcanic mud when it is really wet—and heated. Bubbles of steam blew up through the wet sand and sand blasted out of the 'Vegemite' jar, onto the 'roof' of the microwave.

So don't try this at home! Solar drying is safer. Spread your wet sand out on a shallow tray in the sun and keep turning it. In my case, the only adult who got annoyed was me, but it was messy. Once your sand is dry, half-fill a cylindrical jar, put a lid on, and you are ready to measure the angle of rest in your sample of sand.

Incidentally, the jar also got extremely hot in the microwave, and I came close to burning myself—and if you look carefully at the first photo of my apparatus, you may be able to see where the glass jar cracked at the base.

(And here is a behind-the-scenes shot of how a bit of coloured cardboard can tidy up a messy work bench for photography.)

Once you have dry sand in a jar, you are ready to start. Lay the jar on its side, with the sand surface level. Mark the point where the jar touches the paper, and roll the jar until the sand tumbles down to the angle of rest. Continue rolling, very gently until there is a second avalanche and mark the paper again. Then do a third, a fourth and so on, marking the paper each time. The distances between the marks along the paper will then tell their own story.
Current bedding in Hawkesbury sandstone,
near Sydney, Australia

So does measuring the two angles.

Most undisturbed sand dunes lie at this angle, because sand is blown over the top of the dune. If the slope is less than the angle of rest, the sand grain stays at the top, if not, it rolls down the slope until it comes to rest.

A slope like this is unstable. If you dig a small hole in the side of a dune, or walk up it, a whole load of sand comes sliding down at you. The same thing happens in inland Australia when you dig a well in a dry, sandy riverbed.

Hickson Steps, central Sydney, an old and weathered
sandstone surface, showing current bedding.
Sand in water has a different angle of rest from dry sand in air. Sandstone formations often show current bedding, where a sand bank has been built up by sand pushing out over a front, and tumbling down into deeper water.

Current bedding has little to do with ant lions or even backyards, but it has everything to do with angle of rest, and it shows how what we learn in one part of science can be relevant to something quite different.

The angle of rest stuff sounds a bit like a science project, collecting sand from various places, and measuring the angles of initial yield and rest for each sand. Technically (you can ignore this if you like), the difference between these is called the angle of dilatation. Typical published values for this are around 8 to 13 degrees. You would probably need to relate this to the shape of the sand grains, and maybe the amount of salt, organic matter or shell grit in the sand. It's your project, not mine!

What is the angle of rest of rice grains? Wheat? Macaroni of assorted shapes?

Remember Rule 1 of being a naturalist: the most interesting questions are your own questions!

If your questions were more about ant lions, here is the basic kit that I use. The small bucket in a tub full of water is useful to stop the ants, intended as food, from escaping.

NOTE: I don't use the pooter to pick up ants, I only use it on small ant lions. Large ant lions would be injured, and ants would injure my throat by releasing formic acid.

* * * * * * *
This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A slap in the face with a dead fish

I have been off around some of the goldfields, but I would like to turn to a book of mine that will be out in October 2012, from the National Library of Australia. It is called Curious Minds, and it is about some of the naturalists and natural history painters who feature in the natural history of Australia in a period running from one century before to one century after the arrival at Botany Bay of the First Fleet.

The name Curious Minds is deliberately ambiguous, but never more so than in the case of the unusual Wilhelm von Blandowski.

Blandowski was responsible for the images of fish which I have reproduced here. I don't believe that I am in breach of copyright by showing them here, but I would certainly like to acknowledge the source, a book called Australia: William Blandowski's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010, ISBN 9780855757137 (pbk) or 9780855757175 (hbk).  It was edited by Harry Allen, and is definitely a keeper on my shelves.

The simple fact of the matter: Blandowski found himself driven to distraction by a number of people, and found a way, through the fish, of striking back at those he considered had injured him. That, at least, is my interpretation of the case.

When a biologist has a new species to name, it is common to give it the name of somebody that the namer would like to honour.  It is a requirement that the species be sufficiently described to allow another biologist, examining another example of the same species, to realise that they are the same.

The problem, in this case, was that Blandowski over-stepped the mark when he named the fish after members of the council of the Philosophical Society.  That, by itself, would have raised little fuss, but have a look at the illustrations, and see if you can see any hint that there might be a bit of the caricaturist's pen there.

The evidence was largely destroyed, but one of the descriptions is believed to have read "slimy,
slippery fish. Lives in mud". Another fish, named for a Mr. Eades was described as "easily recognised by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine".  Mr. Eades may have lacked a sharp spine, but the belly and forehead apparently fitted him well.  I suspect that the first example might be the fish named for Mr. Eades.

In the book, I go into a lot more of the background and some of the personalities who were involved, but as one who has had, from time to time, to be polite to pompous asses, I'm afraid my sympathies lie more with Mr. Blandowski.

The council destroyed the offending pages, rejected the names, and hoped they had got all of the illustrations, but happily, Blandowski kept the plates, and later reproduced them.

I have researched him fairly extensively in the public press of the 1850s, and you can read more if you go to The National Library's Trove collection and search on the phrase "William Blandowski".

This is why I like writing: I get to meet interesting dead people.

P. S. If you like really dead fish, I visited some in early March.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Camera or microscope: comparisons on a small cicada

I picked up a small cicada this morning.  I'm still flat out, but with live material, you need to deal with it quickly and let it go again.

I decided to try something I have been toying with for a while, to compare shots taken with the el cheapo microscope and the macro setting on my Canon Powershot G12, a good all-purpose field tool.

(I also own a G11 that has just come back from the repairs that field equipment needs, and a G2 that is more or less pensioned-off. I have the fittings to attach macro lenses and telephoto lenses (and also a polarising filter, but this is just with the camera itself.)

The top shot shows it sitting in a Petri dish under the microscope, using x10 magnification.  If you refer to my recent blog on scale and magnification, that means this picture covers an area about 17mm x 13mm.

Not that hot, is it?

The next shot is a crop from a x60 shot of the left eye.  As I said, I'm busy, so work out the scale for yourself, sorry.  I really am busy.

The eye is more satisfactory, but I decided I could clean it up a bit, using Corel Photopaint to adjust the brightness, contrast and intensity.

I'm not especially fond of that package, but I inherited an earlier version to teach, years ago, and got used to it.

Anyhow, you be the judge!

And now for four different stops on the camera from 0 to +1, using the macro lens, zoomed out a bit. These are cropped, but that's it.  Once again, you be the judge!

These are large-format and high-res.  You may wish to click on them.

Well, I know what I would choose, unless I wanted eye structures.  I think, though, that next weekend, I will get out the proper microscopes and try again, with whatever I can catch in the garden.