Scientists are baffled by this 1 weird berry!!!!

I’ve recently done a wikipedia deep-dive into the unexpectedly complex topic of blueberries, and wanted to share with you my discoveries. That said, no scientists are actually baffled by this. But I do think you will be as surprised as I was.

One thing did see coming is that there is no one species of berry that IS blueberry. There are a bunch of different species and hybrids all called “blueberry”, or some variation thereof in the local language:

Not only that – there are also several species of bilberry which is basically also “blueberry”:

Unsurprisingly all of these species look and taste slightly differently and are prevalent in different regions. So for example Vaccinium myrtillus – bilberry or European Blueberry, which is prevalent in Europe and northern Asia – are low shrubs with single or paired small berries. They are difficult to cultivate, so are generally wild. This is why it’s rare to find bilberries in a US supermarket. On the plus side, bilberries tend to have a “fuller taste”, and “when cooked as a dessert, bilberries have a much stronger, more tart flavour and a rougher texture than blueberries”.

On the other hand we have Vaccinium corymbosum, the northern highbush blueberry, which is the specie of the blueberry most cultivated in North America. Its shrubs grow to 6-12 feet, and bear larger berries, which grow in bunches, which makes them easier to pick. This makes northern highbush blueberry and similar species much more suited to cultivation. Such cultivation, in fact, has reached indusrtial proportions, which surprised and impressed me. Such approaches would not be possible with bilberries.

Unfortunately I have grown up eating wild bilberries and I enjoy their tart and tangy taste, so I have found that it’s a rare batch of blueberries available in the US that I find truly tasty. Most of them are too sweet.

Wikipedia describes the following way of distinguishing most types of bilberries from most types of blueberries: “Bilberries are darker in color, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple. While blueberry fruit pulp is light green in color, bilberry is red or purple, heavily staining the fingers, lips, and tongue of consumers eating the raw fruit.”

So now you know – if you get a batch of blueberries that just don’t hit the spot in the same way that Old-World blueberries did, this is because they’re probably one of two dozen different species.

But we’re not done yet. It’s not a stretch to realize that in addition to “Черника” (blueberry) both “Голубика” (Vaccinium uliginosum, bog bilberry, bog blueberry) and “Красника” (Vaccinium praestans) are also a species in the Vaccinium genus. But what I never knew is that so is “Брусника” (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Lingonberry), and unexpectedly so is “Клюква” (three species of Cranberry in sub-genus Oxycoccus)

So there it is, the seedy world of blueberries. It was an eye-opener for me. But I will leave you with one interesting fact. A common name used in North America for several species of berries in the Vaccinium genus is “Huckleberry“. In fact in some localities the name Huckleberry may be applied to blueberries. Think on that as you re-read Mark Twain.

Disclaimer – most of the above information has been mined from Wikipedia, so please take it all with a grain of salt.

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Book Review: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

A couple of weeks a book found its way to me in a rather roundabout way. I was recommended this book by my father, who got it from his neighbor, and although the tastes of my dad and I differ significantly, I must admit: it was a fun read.

The book was “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore.

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Cracked Eschatology

Taken in part from an email conversation I had with a friend:

Yesterday I received an email from a friend with a link to a rather unremarkable Cracked article, entitled 7 Horrible Ways The Universe Can Destroy Us Without Warning. Done in the typical farcical style of Cracked this list sadly does not contain either the more likely ways of destruction, or the proper perspective on the paths of doom that it does list.

Here is my brief take on it:

  1. Hyper-velocity Stars – space is HUGE. Even the thousands of such stars that the article talks about don’t pose any remotely probable risk to any of the stars in the Milky Way – much less to us – in any reasonable time span. And like the text says – we’ll see any such star coming. (which puts the lie to “without warning” in the article’s title)
  2. Rogue Black Holes – the odds are even lower than those for Hyper-velocity stars.
  3. Galactic Cannibalism – the article gets several things wrong here. Andromeda strictly speaking is not the closest galaxy to us, and it also (almost certainly) has less mass than the Milky Way galaxy, none of which is remotely relevant. Galactic mergers take on the order of billions of years. Probability of this affecting you or any of your descendants for hundreds of generations is zero. Probability of this affecting any of their descendants – also as near zero as really matters, since these are non-violent events. Stars do not hit each other, and clouds of intergalactic and intra-galactic dust and gas do not affect us in any negative way, since these clouds are incredibly thin – quadrillions of times thinner than air. And once again here we have billions of years of warning.
  4. Vacuum Metastability Event – now this is as bullshit as bullshit gets. Of all these threats, this is the emptiest. They suggest that one possible interpretation of the Quantum Theory is a reason to worry? After the universe has existed without any issues for 13.75 billion years, I won’t hold my breath for it collapsing. Could it happen? Only if this interpretation is correct, and even then the universe has held up pretty well for long enough that it does not matter.
  5. Cosmic Radiation – well I suppose that this particular danger is real. For astronauts. This means that we need to develop better radiation shielding if we plan to put a base on the moon. All of us Earth-bound folks, on the other hand, have little to worry about.
  6. Gamma Ray Bursts – these guys actually might be dangerous to life on Earth* – IF they’re close enough and IF they’re pointed at us. Those are big ifs. The chances of these happening are pretty damn low, though not impossible.
  7. Magnetars are pretty noticeable, so chances are that we know about the majority of them in our galaxy, and they are far enough away to not be dangerous to us*. And if a magnetar was significantly closer? Unless one showed up on our doorstep, we would risk damage to satellites, and possible blackouts. Don’t expect it to vaporize you.

So as a summary, is there anything to worry about? Well, ask yourself when was the last time you’ve heard of anyone dying from a Gamma Ray Burst? What we should be a lot more worried about is asteroids. Those are hundreds, even thousands of times more likely to get us, and a couple have already caused mass extinctions on Earth in the past.

All in all this is a scare piece, and should not be taken seriously. The list even skips the one class of astronomical events most likely to affect humans in any meaningful way – solar flares*, which do happen regularly. For a more comprehensive list of things to worry about I would read “Death From the Skies” by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer (in fact I really would gladly read this book which I haven’t yet gotten around to purchasing – expect a review when I do).

I’ll leave you with this awesome summary of things as they stand, courtesy of Phil Plait and George Hrab:

Good night, and don’t let the black holes bite.

* Some of these do pose danger to man-made infrastructure – mostly to satellites, power grids, and in extreme cases sensitive electronics. Health-wise though there’s little to worry about, and the article after all did promise horrible destruction.

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The Damnably Bright Sky

Last night I took part in the survey on light pollution, conducted by Globe at Night. I will not rehash here the facts on light pollution which you can read directly on the above website (and in many other places), but taking part in the survey got me thinking about my experiences looking at the stars over the course of my life.

I lived my entire life in two large cities – first Moscow and then New York City. Of course the state of Moscow skies was as bad as it is here in New York, but back in Russia I had the opportunity to get out of the city for a few weeks in the summer, and during these trips I got glimpses of the night sky that I did not get in my urban existence. Back then I was not able to recognize any constellations beyond the Big and the Little Dipper, but I did know about the Milky Way, and getting to see it was a real treat.

Flash forward to the United States. Living in the city you cannot get out of the glare of the street lights. The rooftops are mostly off-limits, and even if you can get to the roof, there’s enough ambient light to drown out all but the brightest stars. When our high school astronomy teacher recommended to us to observe the Leonids – a November meteor shower, a few friends and I grabbed blankets and went to the darkest open place that we could think of in our neighborhood – Manhattan Beach in south Brooklyn. We lay on the freezing sand, huddling in the piercing wind, trying to see the the meteors, but the glow of the city and the bright street lights on the adjacent boardwalk washed out what was supposed to be a spectacular event.

I the only time I saw the Milky Way in all of my years living in the States was on a recent canoeing trip on Delaware. We camped on the bank in the river valley, and there, away from civilization, shielded by the high valley slopes I got to see our gorgeous galaxy spilling across the sky. You do forget how incredible that view is.

Of course I realize that my experience is not typical, however with more and more people moving into cities it is likely that fewer and fewer kids will have grown up having ever seen the full night sky. And having never seen it they will never miss one of the most awe-inspiring views that nature offers to us – a view that was available to every single person some one hundred years ago.

So when is the last time you have seen the Milky Way? If you have an opportunity – take a trip to a dark location outdoors and do some stargazing. If you don’t have an opportunity – make one. Unless you’re bed-ridden there is no excuse, and you should get out and enjoy the spectacular sky that you can still find if you try hard enough. And while you’re at it – go participate in the Globe at Night survey. Maybe once we all see what we’re missing, we’ll have the interest in doing something about it.*

* Note: Taking measures to reduce light pollution doesn’t just make sense from an ecological standpoint, but it’s also practical – a good way to save money both for yourself and your municipality.

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The Flemish Philosopher

I found this interesting engraving at the Met.

The engraving is by Robert Benard, the original artwork by David Teniers The Younger. The verse below the engraving reads:

To the philosopher admiring all the charms

For new systems far away to render arms

I declare war against all passion,

Simplicity is my only ambition.

Poor but virtuous I look in silence

A sweet, voluptuous daughter of innocence

Content in my state and pipe in hand

At leisure I laugh at all mankind.

We are all philosophers in the privacy of our own heads, even if we don’t think of ourselves like that. All of us contemplate life from that place of darkness behind the eyes. What more is there to say?

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