It was a busy last week in Poland and I was not able to write up a blog.  A time for sorting things out and packing them up for travel back to northern Maine.  Also a time for goodbyes.  With so much to do, every evening was also some dinner and beer with Polish friends and colleagues.  There are so many people here that I have come to know.

From this sabbatical we probably have five articles in various stages of completion, with other work in the earliest stages.  I have one minor article submitted, a major article to be submitted in the next week, a second major article in the next couple of months, and two lesser articles with much of the work completed.  This is good work for a semester.

This trip back to Maine took about 28 hours, with five of them in Boston was for the one of the three daily flights into northern Maine.  Once here, it seems everywhere I go people are asking how Poland was.  It is not easy being in a place where everybody knows you.

I would not say that there was any real culture shock in going to Poland.  Things are different, sure, including the language but western societies are generally alike so nothing is really strange.  But coming back here means getting readjusted, to saying “thank you” in English and getting water served with meals.  The real differences there vs real are the changes from urban back to rural.  And driving a car again for the first time in four months.

And I am already looking forward to getting back again if I can.  Not just to learn more about Poland and its people – there is so much more that I wish I had time to do – but getting back to a schedule of 24-7 science.  There is nothing like going to work with the fair prospect on any given day of finding something new, and by that I mean absolutely new to anyone.  Scientists live for that prospect.  True, I have plenty of work before me documenting what I have learned these past few months, but already I am yearning to add to it.

12/06/12, City of Science

I am in Gottingen (pronounced Gertingen, there is an umlault on the ‘o’).  The tourist brochure that I have labels Gottingen as the “”City of Science.”  The University here is one of the oldest in Germany and has produced 40 Nobel Prize winners.  The statues in the downtown area celebrate physicists and chemists and other such riff-raff.  There is also a tradition here that those who earn a Ph.D. must climb across a water fountain and up to the bronze statue of the girl with a goose, and kiss her cheek – I have now done so.

I am here to look at 90-year=old microscope slides that Paul Schulz looked at for silicoflagellates.  I have told my students that being a scientist brings a certain measure of immortality.  Here is a case in point:  Schulyz workin in Danzig back when the Germans owned the place.  After that the world changed, the Germans left, the Russians came and destroyed  all the written records.  For Schulz, nothing remains of his world, and there is as far as we can determine no written of any kind of his life. 

Yet here I am in Gottingen because his name appeared in a scientific article of some merit.  I am here to look at some old microscope slides that he described all those years ago, to see and talk about what he saw and did.  He, in some small measure, immortalized himself by his science.  I hope that I might perhaps be able to do the same:  I hope that someone a hundred years from now will read a paper that I wrote and wonder who I was. 

That happens because in science we build upon the work of those who worked before us, and we cite their work on how it contributed to ours.  I have cited Schulz’ 1928 article in maybe ten articles of my own, because he provided some of the foundations of my work as I hope to be built on by others.  In science, each of us works to contribute out own personal brick the cathedral of science, and our bricks actually have our names on them for all to see.  Paul Schulz – and Paul Ortmann, the amateur sponge spicule enthusiast who made the slides that Schulz saw in his time and that I saw today – were both from Danzigand everything they physically knew is gone, yet their science remains, and will for an long as there are inquiring minds and libraries (physical or digital).

11/28/12, cheesburger

So, I went to the old-boy Rotary Club that meets on Wednesdays and with my third visit finally got a banner.  Walking back, since I just missed the tram, I came onto one of these very run-of-the-mill (another colloquialism for my Polish readers) food kiosks with the sign “tosty” (a simple meat sandwich) and “hotdogs.”  I figured I would go for a hot dog as it is well past dinnertime, but looking through the menu see “cheeseburger” – I will go for one of those.  Five złoty (dollar and a half), so some little sandwich that I can eat on the walk with one hand while I hold my banner in the other…

I have now had hamburgers at three places in Europe.  All have been … excellent.  I have now been twice to the “American Café” on Jagielońska Street, where the service is g…l…a…c…i…a…l but the food quite good.  The last time was with Erhan, my Turkish student colleague who pronounced his burger the “best food he had in Poland” which I consider high praise indeed.  Then last weekend in Berlin we went to “Andy’s Diner & Bar.”  The burger there was well larger than the very substantial roll and as best as I could tell was one piece of real meat.  And was served with an American flag on a stick, I kid you not!

I think before I leave here I am going to have to go to MacDonalds.  When I travel I see Mac’s, and KFCs, everywhere, spaced at about five kilometer intervals, but there is no doubt in my mind that they cannot stay in business serving the hamburger we get in the states.  I have actually stood in front of a Mac’s in the food court at the Mall and looked at the pictures before going to the fish booth nearby.  They don’t serve “quarter-pounders” of course, but judging from the picture – and I know how deceiving these promotional food pictures are – it looked like a bigger piece of meat with more veggies and real cheese.  I will have to give it a try.

…So my cheeseburger at the tosty shop comes.  I watch them make it, nothing special, the meat is nuked not grilled.  The bun is very substantial, not wonder-bread, with bigger and better seeds than sesame.  It is quite big, the filling is a sort of cole slaw (and a lot of it) with what I am guessing is real bacon bits that give it a nice crunchiness.  And real cheese – I seriously doubt if any equivalent of American-processed-cheese-food can be found anywhere in Europe.  Again, nothing really to write home about, but it is definitely OK!  Certainly not something I can eat with one hand while I walk, so I go to a bench and do my best to not get it all over myself.  I actually wind up not being able to finish it, not because it is not good but because there is more than I bargained for – when was the last time that happened to you?

11/25/12, Berlin Museum of Nature

Made the pilgrimage to Berlin to visit the Museum of Nature (Museum fur Naturkunde).  The Archeopterix is beautifully displayed.  Every few seconds the angle of the lighting changes so you can see different details.  We of course have a copy of this in our museum (still unfinished display in the south stairwell) but a copy does not show the detail.  The feathers plainly shout “bird” even while the bones are essentially dinosaur.  The specimen shows no evidence of preparation even though it is inconceivable to me that it simply broke out of the matrix this way.

And there is something else in this museum, nowhere near as well known but perhaps scientifically just as important.  The Museum of Nature also has the Ehrenburg collection.  Christian Ehrenberg (1795-1876) was one of the great scientist explorers of that early gold age of natural history where we were just beginning to figure out the diversity of the natural world.  While everyone else was chasing the animals of Africa and the insects of Brazil, Ehrenberg hunted his big game with the microscope.  For maybe twenty years he had the whole microscopic world to himself, and he made the initial descriptions of, well, anything that is small.  People from all over the world, including Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and cowboys in the American West would collect a water sample or some mud and send it to Ehrenberg.  And he would look at and describe it all.

This collection sits in wood cabinets in Berlin.  Ehrenberg mounted his specimens on pieces of muscovite, which were considered better than the glass slides of the day.  On the muscovite he spread a mounting medium (Canada balsam) and then sprinkled his sample.  The collection has 40,000 of these muscovite slides, all with his hand-written labels and with some 3000 pages of his notes and drawings.  There are perhaps thousands of type specimens here, which are still being examined.  The collection includes the frst silicoflagellates ever observed by humans.  There is also all the samples that people sent him from all over, in pickle jars and pill boxes, with the notes from whoever thought this might be of interest to Ehrenberg.

This is the third natural history museum that I am reviewing in this blog.  The museum in Berlin is one of the world class museums.  The Branchiosaurus here is the largest mounted dinosaur in the world, and is spectacular with head that must be ten meters above ground level.  But the gift shop was a disappointment.  The trend has been for science museum gift shops to go to just kid stuff.  Stuffed animals and puppets and children’s books.  I wanted gifts for friends – and a dinosaur coffee mug for myself.  No chance.  I was hardpressed to find anything with an Archeopterix on it – picked up a few postcards and refrigerator magnets.  The Smithsonian museums have pretty much gone the same way.  Maybe someone has figured that there is more profit to be made in selling toys, but it is adults who are taking the kids there and we need to have our intellects and shopping needs taken care of as well…


11/22/12, science publications

A couple of people have brought to my attention that I have not done a blog in a while.  By way of excuse, this have hectic:  I am in writing mode.  As you know if you have been following this for a while, the primary research interest this semester is silicoflagellate (“silicos”) double skeletons, which are very poorly known and understudied, by biologists and paleontologists; I will change that.  I am now at work on two papers, both on that subject but at opposite ends of the spectrum.  One is on the earliest known silicos, where I have been able to interpret the double skeletons for a couple of species. The other end of the spectrum is the modern silicos, and I am working on a paper for a BIOLOGY journal (my first!).

An article in a scientific publication has a thousand details.  Forget the text, there are figures to be drafted, plates to be made of many photographs (from the light and scanning electron microscopes), with every specimen having an age and locality that has to be documented and cross-checked, all the umlauts and accent marks in the citation list, in the proper format specific for that journal, the methods section needs paragraphs on how the samples were collected and processed, slides made,  photos taken, it goes on and on.  And then everything needs to be written in the very terse and concise manner.  I tell my students, who too often  send me assignments that were not proof-read even once, that my papers go through 20 drafts.  It is no joke.

But, the day after tomorrow I am going BIRD-WATCHING.  And I mean THE bird.  There are I think two small objects in all of Europe that are the most valuable and that everyone should see if they can get the opportunity.  One is a silly painting in Paris (the Mona Lisa), the other is the Berlin specimen of Archeopterix.  And don’t tell me that the former is worth more than the latter – if both were up for auction I think we might be surprised.  The Archeopterix is the most famous individual fossil in the world, bar none, and perhaps the most illustrated small-sized scientific object.

It was found in Solnhofen Germany, in about 1875, and was sold to the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde soon after for 20,000 Goldmarks, which was surely a lot of money even then.   There have been a number of other specimens found since – the London specimen being second most famous – but the Berlin specimen is the one that has the skull, on a neck that is folded backwards, with the wings splayed nicely to show all the feathers – you know the picture (and there is a cast on display at the Northern Maine Museum of Science).  I will be making my pilgrimage to the museum, which I understand has much else besides THE bird.  And as I have had little opportunity to buy gifts on this sabbatical I will be a tornado in the gift shop.



11/14/12, FOOTBALL

The clock is ticking and the sabbatical is slipping away – about five weeks to go.  So much to do.  I am working now on one of the major papers  – the one on silicoflagellates for biologists.  Double skeletons!

But last night I took some time off and decided to do what Europeans do.  Go the pub, buy beer, and watch FOOTBALL.  The Polish national team against Uruguay.  Poland lost, 1-3.  Maybe it is because it was a Wednesday, or because the Polish team was not expected to win, but nobody seemed to take it too seriously.  Some applause when Poland got a goal, but really big deal.  I expected a bigger deal, and am happy to find that Poland, well, more civilized about matters of sports.  I am sure that there is a hard core here as elsewhere, but the TV cameras did not devote time to people in facepaint who have lost all sense of perspective and reality. 

Anyway , it was a nice couple of beers and I got a bunch of post cards done.  A few of you are getting something in the mail!

11/4/12, restaurant service

I have already commented about the food here – excellent – and the prices, which are very inexpensive.  The downside is the service, which is SLLLOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW.  There is a local restaurant that Kate and I visited two years, but could not get in because it was crowded and we did not have a reservation.  The same thing happened again a few weeks ago, so this past week some of us made a reservation and actually got in.  I found out why it is so crowded:  a fair number of the patrons likely arrived the day before and were still waiting for someone to take their orders, and some of the others who were served yesterday were still waiting for the check.  Service is that slow.

Part of this is a different approach that the Europeans have towards meals, but it is hard on someone with American sensibilities to time.  We are used to fairly efficient use of time.  Orders are taken soon after we sit down, food is served fairly quickly, eaten and we are out the door to do what else needs to be done.  Staff is attentive, makes sure that drinks are full or take additional orders, and asks if everything is doing well.  None of that happens here.  I have twice eaten on Saturday nights at a local Chinese restaurant, where ours was the only table with patrons in the entire restaurant, which is difficult to explain as the food is excellent.  The waitress never came to check on us, which is too bad as we would certainly have ordered more drinks.  The lunch I had today at an American themed restaurant – with English-speaking waitresses and excellent burgers – took two hours.  I found during the meal that my Turkish colleague did not know what pie was, so after the meal I ordered a slice of apple pie: I could have prepared and cooked the pie in the time that it took that slice to reach our table.

I think one part of the issue might be the approach here to tips.  I am told that a 10% tip is considered appropriate, but I think the waiters/waitresses rarely see that much.  I am not a big tipper in the US but have tried to do well here, where I know people are paid very little by American standards. On two occasions, I have left a 10 or 20-złoty note as a tip and been told by my Polish colleagues that I am leaving too much (10 zł is $3).  Since the restaurant staff does not expect much in tips there is little incentive for much in service.  There are other things different from America.  Water is not provided at the tables, and soda will come with little or no ice.  Salt and pepper is sometimes hard to find, especially as the staff will seldom check to see if anything is needed.

These are really minor complaints, as so much here is so nice, and I worry that my Polish readers, and I have several, will take this as undue criticism.  It is not intended in that way.  But I do want to provide some American perspective on what I see here.  There is much here that we should consider adopting, as the changes would be beneficial.  But there are of course some things done better in the US.

10/31/12, All Saints Day

It is a national holiday – All Saints Day – which means that everyone is gone and the three of us visitors here doing research, Catherine (from Martinique), Urhan (Turkey) and myself, have been working all day in the same office on our respective projects.  For me, I have the first draft of a paper pulled together and with some finishing here will then focus on the next.

The Polish take All Saints very seriously, much differently from our commercial excuse-for-a-party Halloween.  All Saints Day is a remembering day for our dead – not ghosts, goblins and Obama-costumes – but our deceased friends and loved ones.  Cemetaries here are well decorated with flowers and small lamps.  The Rotary Club meets that week at the cemetery for somber words.  Families do the same.  It seems a very good reason to have a holiday, and treat it for what it was intended.  How few of our holidays are actually used that way?

Yesterday, knowing that everything would be closed today, Catherine and I went to the mall and grocery store to do some shopping.  We bought some Goulash, wheat germ, bread, good cheese, yogurts, drinks, vodka for gifts (yes, I have a friend who drinks vodka!) and other items.  Each of us had a big basket of stuff.  The total price for me was 80 złoty – less than $25 dollars.  (what is probably some pretty good vodka here can be had for a very few dollars).

The Polish, and Europeans in general, take their food pretty seriously, and eat healthy.  Again and again I have watched my friends and colleagues here abstain from foods that are “unhealthy.”  This is something, like the origin of Halloween, that we in the US have forgotten.  The idea of cooking our own food, using materials that individually taste good, has been largely lost to us.  We are a fast food nation, and the most prominent displays in our stores are the aisles for chips and sodas.  We are FAT, and consider it one of our rights to be so.

Here in Poland, a slightly larger butt is hard to find, and a fairly large butt – average in the US – is rare.  I have never seen so many stylish heinies, and I will admit to looking at them.  Even the American fast-food restaurants have to keep this in mind in order to compete.  At the mall yesterday I walked past the MacDonald’s – Macs and KFCs are everywhere – and noticed that their equivalent of a quarter-pounder (obviously not called that in metric countries!) has swiss cheese and an obvious abundance of attractive green lettuce and tomato, on a substantial roll.  Our ¼ lber has, what, that amount of meet (before cooking) and two slices of cheese food (and a slice of pickle?) on a white-bread bun.

In the grand comparison of them and us, there is nothing they have better and we have worse than attitudes about food.

Their attitude on All Saint’s Day is a healthy one as well: how much time do we seriously spend remembering our dead?

10/29/12, Gone to Hel

I have just gone to Hel, and it is quite a nice place.  Hel is located on the end of a long peninsula that sticks out into the Baltic near Gydnia, and is quite the touristed place seasonally (this is not the season).  The roads are nicely bricked, with shops and restaurants on each side.  The place we ate at had fabulous salmon soup and the fried cod (dorsz) was very large and, well, real (which means you have to watch out for bones). 

We also visited an interested seal reintroduction station.  Prior to WWI there were 14,000s eals in the bay here, but these were entirely hunted out for their skins – used in waterproof shoes – and meat.  They are now raising and slowly reintroducing seals into the bay, with the current population at 15 animals.  The seals have set up a colony in the most polluted portion of the bay.

We did not find any fossil sponges in our work at the Orłowski cliffs yesterday, but prior to my oceanographic institute we looked at the collections and picked a few for sectioning and study.  More arrangements were made over beer after the talk.  I think my interest has created interest in others that may lead to some interesting science down the way.

We have also had opportunity to visit the old town area of Gdansk.  Gdansk is commonly called the second prettiest city in Poland, after Kraków, which Kate and I visited on our trip here two years ago.  The city center is a lot smaller and more compact, but there are many tall onion-domed turrets, and the tall four-five story buildings with ornate trimmings especially on the tops that seem typical of northern Europe. 

Every time you look up a narrow alleyway there seems some prominent steeple positioned precisely to be aligned with your view down that alleyway.  There seems to be a randomness about the designs of these old medieval cities, but on close inspection things are not random but designed to maximize the effect of the beauty of something that people spent a century to build.  City planning then was done over a time of centuries, and things were built to last that long and fit into the context of an environment built over a long interval of time.

10/27/12, Paul Schulz

In my last blog, submitted only a day ago, I said that there were three things that have long been on my list of places to visit in Poland.  I am on my way to the third of these this weekend.  But as always, there is a backstory.

Von Paul Schulz was a high school science teacher in what was then the independent half German-half Polish free city of Danzig, in between the wars.  He was also a scientist.  There are some who would call him an amateur, since he was not employed as a scientist, but in my book anyone who does good science and publishes the results to add more to our common knowledge of nature is by definition a scientist.  Schulz, like Gregor Mendel fifty years before him, was one who was driven by curiosity to learn new things.  Schulz studied diatoms, and published maybe a half-dozen articles in the scientific journals.

He also developed an interest in silicoflagellates.  Schulz acquired diatomites from many of the known deposits of the time, from California, New Zealand, Denmark, Russia, the Caribbean, Japan – all over.  And in 1928 he published a very substantial – arguably the first substantial – article on silicoflagellates.  Schulz was also a very responsible scientist.  He had great knowledge that he had worked hard to get and he could have described new species willy-nilly, as many amateurs – including some employed as scientists – have done, but he restrained himself.  He knew that this field was in its infancy and that describing too much too soon would only muddy the waters, and so he worked within the established taxonomy.  At that time to his knowledge there were only two silicoflagellate genera.  But Schulz did find something that was truly new and unusual, and he had the knowledge to know that it was unusual, so he described the new genus Cornua, which he illustrated with three simple line drawings.

Many other silicoflagellate genera have been described since then, including three genera that were described by another scientist in 1928, in each of which there are now many species.  Much was learned about silicoflagellates in general, except Cornua.  The genus was also observed in the Urals of Russia in the 1950s and a second species was described, also illustrated by simple line drawings, but otherwise Cornua was, to use another person’s phrase, a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

I came into silicoflagellates in 1982.  I was interested in the simple geometries and found the field to be wide open.  I could make contributions to science here, and dedicated my life to that goal.  Even before I finished graduate school I was the one being asked to write the silicoflagellate chapters for short course notes and text books.  I reviewed the silicoflagellate literature and the work of the people who contributed to it.  I learned a great deal about everything related to silicoflagellates, except Cornua.  I myself wondered if they might just be freak specimens.  Four years ago my friend and colleague Dave Harwood sent me a picture of Cornua that a graduate student of his had found in sediments from the Arctic.  A genuine photograph of the beast!  This is what launched me on the research that has taken to Poland.

The place on my list of things to do is the site where Cornua was originally found.  The specimens that Schulz observed came from within the bodies of preserved Cretaceous sponges that were later deposited in glacial till along the southern shore of the Baltic, near what is now called Gdansk, in what is now Poland.  Schulz correctly determined the age of these fossils, not an easy thing to do of something unknown and found in a glacial till, as from the middle of the Late Cretaceous.  They were the oldest known silicoflagellates until Dave Harwood and myself found older ones, from the Early Cretaceous, sixty years later.

We leave today to go to those shoreline deposits to see if we might find fossil sponges of our own and rediscover the flora that Schulz saw.  In another couple of weeks we plan to go to Germany to see what may be the microscope slides that Schulz used.


I myself have always been interested in history, in both the rock and human records, and I hope with the help of colleagues here to learn enough of Paul Schulz to perhaps write something about the man himself, in addition to the silicoflagellates and diatoms that he observed.  I have always had a weak spot in my heart for the people who were driven to do good science on their own time and money.  Von Paul Schulz deserves to be remembered.