You can’t complain about spiders when ichneumonid wasps exist

There we were, innocently gamboling about Green River Park, looking for cute and charming little spiders, when I glance at a tree and…what is that shiny yellow&black evil-looking machine over there? It was an ichneumonid wasp with its long glistening ovipositor probing under the bark for plump grubs to parasitize with eggs.

Wicked. First one I’ve seen here.

OK, we did see one pretty little Philodromus. Cute. Not terrifying like she expects you to bow down and worship her, puny mortal.

Darwin cancelled?

Noah Carl is a notorious racist who was fired from a position at Cambridge for racism. Now he’s complaining that Darwin might get “cancelled” because he wrote racist stuff in the 19th century. Yeah, so? Would that mean we couldn’t worship Darwin as a god anymore? Because we don’t anyway.

So I had to grumble a bit.

I don’t even know what “cancelled” means yet.

Went looking for Vikings at the Rune Stone Park, only found…


There are lots of things with the “Runestone” moniker attached in my area: Runestone Telecom Association, Runestone Apartments, Runestone Mobile Home Park, etc., etc., and there’s a park called Kensington Rune Stone Park just 40 minutes away from me. I decided to take a trip out there.

That’s a rather nice building to honor a fake carved rock supposedly left by Vikings visiting Minnesota in the 14th century. It’s empty now, probably due mostly to the pandemic, but it’s not clear what they do there — it contains a big empty meeting space, perhaps for lectures about Vikings. The Olaf Ohman farmhouse is there and a big barn and some nicely maintained grassy grounds. The notorious Runestone itself is not there — it has a separate museum of its own in Alexandria, 20 minutes away. It’s all rather embarrassing.

But we didn’t care we were there for spiders. We found a few!

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The history of genetics is too often a horror story

I had already known that the number of human chromosomes had been incorrectly reported as 48 (it’s actually 46), and that observers maintained that number for decades, seeing what they expected to see. I’ve used it as an example for years to tell students to clear their heads of preconceptions when making observations, trust what you see, and report your measurements as accurately as you can, because this tendency favoring confirmation bias can corrupt science surprisingly easily. It sounds like a relatively benign example: oops, early investigator makes a mistake counting chromosomes (I’ve done some chromosome work, it’s easy to do), and the initial observation gets perpetuated through the literature until superior techniques make the correct value obvious. Ha ha, don’t do that.

Now Dan Graur digs into the details of the mistake, and it turns out to be a goddamn horror story. There are more lessons here than I thought.

The guy who made the mistake was named Theophilus Painter, and he seems to have stumbled upwards throughout his career by being a terrible person.

The first horror: the specimens he used to make those initial chromosome counts were human testicles lopped off prisoners in an asylum. They were castrated for the crime of excessive masturbation. The methods discuss some grisly details I really didn’t need to know.

“The material upon which this study is based was obtained from three inmates of the Texas State Insane Asylum through the interest and cooperation of Dr. T. E. Cook, a physician at that institution. Two of these individuals were negroes and one was a young white man. In all three cases, the cause for the removal of the testes was excessive self abuse… The operation for the removal of the testes was made, in all three cases, under local anesthesia. An hour or two prior to the operation, the patients were given hypodermic injections of morphine in order to quiet them. This was followed by local injections of Novocain in the operating room. None of the patients exhibited any interest or excitement during the operation, nor did they show any signs of pain except when the vas deferens and the accompanying nerves were cut. One of the negroes went to sleep during the operation.”

Yikes. I guess mutilation of your patients was a routine practice in 1923. No big deal, Negroes don’t feel pain.

The second horror: as you might guess from the passage above, the whole affair was soaking in racism. Painter got the same erroneous chromosome count from all 3 of his victims, but always reported the count separately for his black and white subjects. There may also have been confirmation bias in Painter’s work, because more recent examination of his slides, which still exist, reveal that his methods were a cytological mess and it’s difficult to count chromosome numbers from them at all.

The third horror: Painter later got appointed to the presidency of the University of Texas because he was a reliably negligent creature who would happily turn a blind eye to blatantly discriminatory admission policies, and would allow segregation to continue.

Read Graur for all the details. I’m just dismayed that a point I’ve always used casually as an example of a simple error with long-term consequences is now going to have to be presented as a deeper point about bad science being used for evil. Oh, well, students should know how genetics can be misused for wicked purposes, and here’s yet another case.

Looks exactly like my office

I’m still trying to work out the biology of nest building in my spiders — I’ve got some that assemble cunning little nests out of wood shavings, and some that do not. Someday I’ll have to figure out whether this is a different species from P. tepidariorum or not.

Cute, hey? I’ve been looking at spider architecture for a while, and am rather impressed with their work.

I suspect it might be P. tabulata, but I’ve got to do more experiments to be sure. I say more about it on my Patreon page.

Well now, isn’t that a depressing article

In the Washington Post: Coronavirus autopsies: A story of 38 brains, 87 lungs and 42 hearts, just the thing to read if you want to know how COVID-19 will kill you. To summarize it unjustly, it’s thousands of microclots in your lungs. But that’s not all! There are cardiac, brain, and kidney effects as well, only those don’t seem to be direct actions of the virus. Instead, it’s more tiny vascular damages, like hundreds of microstrokes in the brain. Good to know, when you’re lying there comatose with a respirator down your throat, that you’re being nibbled to death by lots of tiny clots destroying your organs.

Yet people now are not even taking minimal precautions, claiming a mask infringes on their liberties, as if a virus ripping up delicate membranes in their body doesn’t.

Hey, who all is gettin’ together with their buds for beer and loud music and fireworks this weekend? It may be your last chance before your lungs are perforated and your brain gets swiss-cheesed, so enjoy yourselves!

I’ll be coming for your neutrons, Brian

I’ve got an infrared thermometer, and I’m not afraid to use it.

Brian should be terrified.

Should we explain to him that:

  • I think he meant “neurons”, not “neutrons”. Neither are destroyed by an infrared thermometer.
  • While many infrared thermometers have a laser to identify the spot being measured, it’s low intensity and doesn’t penetrate the skin. Or the bones of the cranium. Or the brain, or “brian”.
  • They work by measuring the infrared radiation emitted by your skin. Not by zapping you.

So this is the quality of the opposition to basic health care measures? We’re doomed.

By the way, I have one for measuring the approximate temperature of spiders. I couldn’t find a regular thermometer tiny enough to shove up their bottoms. (Also, they’re not particularly accurate — I’m primarily measuring the approximate temperature of their environment.)