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Physical Comics, What's in a Name?, Blame the Bacteria

by Rachel Sheremeta Pepling
December 13, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 50



Physical comics

Joe Chaback of Tulsa submits a counterexample to Ashley D. Nevers' example of society's science illiteracy (C&EN, Sept. 20, page 88). Nevers cited an example from a noted newspaper where a free radical was mistakenly dubbed a molecule. Chaback, on the other hand, cites the comics as assuming "a high level of science literacy."

As Chaback points out, in order to fully appreciate the humor of the comic strip, "one needs to understand the concept of the electromagnetic spectrum and the correlation between energy, frequency, and perceived color." Chaback admits that although he is a chemical engineer by training, he doesn't think he would have completely understood the comic strip until he was in sophomore physics.

What's in a name?

A rose by any other name might be called Rosa woodsii--at least in Linnaean terms. But according to the Sept. 11 issue of New Scientist (page 12), "a band of renegade biologists" is proposing an alternative naming convention.

The Linnaean naming system, developed by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is based on hierarchy. Living things are first grouped into kingdoms, which are then divided into phyla. Phyla are divided into classes, then into orders, families, genera, and finally, species.

The proposed naming system is called the PhyloCode. Advocates of the PhyloCode argue that the Linnaean system does not represent how organisms are related in evolutionary terms. The PhyloCode, however, would abolish all rankings above species and instead would be based on clades, groups of an ancestral species and all its descendants.

Philip D. Cantino, a botanist at Ohio University, Athens, and Kevin de Queiroz, lizard expert at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., have drafted a set of rules outlining PhyloCode names. The rules can be viewed at

PhyloCode's official debut is still a few years off, planned for the completion of a book stemming from the International Society for Phylogenetic Nomenclature meeting in Paris this past July.

Blame the bacteria

Mystery has surrounded the deaths of the many animals whose fossils are preserved excellently at the Messel volcanic crater lake near Darmstadt, Germany. The deaths occurred nearly 47 million years ago. Until recently, researchers suspected that volcanic gases collecting over the lake caused suffocation of animals in the area. However, researchers also believe that such clouds of gas probably dispersed rapidly, making them unlikely culprits.

Wighart von Koenigswald and other paleontologists from the University of Bonn, in Germany, propose a new theory in the November issue of Paläontologische Zeitschrift [78, 417 (2004)]. They believe the animals were instead poisoned by microcystine, a cyclic heptapeptide toxin produced by cyanobacteria.

Andreas Braun, von Koenigswald's colleague, noticed lime deposits in the sedimentary structures of Messel. Similar structures occurred in deposits from another lake sampled by von Koenigswald's doctoral student Thekla Pfeiffer. Those deposits contained traces of microcystine, leading the researchers to believe that the Messel structures were also microcystine.

Examination of the fossils revealed that the deaths at Messel probably occurred at the same time of year but in different years, consistent with the seasonal blooming nature of cyanobacteria. The researchers face one big challenge in confirming their theory. Providing direct evidence of toxic agents after 47 million years may prove difficult.

This week's column was written by Rachel Pepling . Please send comments and suggestions to


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