Beginning with GA..
GE and Beyond
GI and GO
GO and GR
GU to HA
Review-So You Think
So You Think...I
So You Think...II
So You Think...III
So You Think...IV
Seattle Bee I
Seattle Bee II
Open Worlds I
Open Worlds II
Open Worlds III
Bill Long 4/8/11
Tracking Down A Word
Bosmina was one of the words in the written round of 40 words at the March 2011 Seattle Spelling Bee. Normally I have heard of almost all the words, even if I don't know what they all mean, but I was clueless about this one when I read the summary of the Bee. Even when I learned that it is a genus of waterfleas of the Order Cladocera I was only a little further along toward understanding the word. Why bosmina? What does it mean? And, where did it come from?
My search for answers to this question illustrates the way that I think learning will be structured in the next generation--topic-driven, combining fields such as history, literature, science and languages, with learnings emerging along the way that simply are not found in any textbook and which could lead to a lifetime of exploration and learning.
Well, let's begin with the easy stuff--things that are readily available to us online. As mentioned, it is an aquatic genus in the Order of Cladocera. The Greek behind Cladocera means "branched antennae," with keras meaning "horn" or "antenna" and klados signifiying a "branch." The relatively recent word clade (coined in 1957) means "a group of organisms that have evolved from the same ancestor. Cladistics, a taxonomical term (1960) is a system of classification based on the proportion of measurable characteristics that groups of plants or animals have in common.
Well, back to our bosmina. This genus, consisting of about 50 species, has males of about .5mm long and females slightly larger, on average. Major characteristics for males are "notched antennules and modified first legs," while females "have antennules that are large and fixed to the head, curving backward parallel to each other." They reproduce by parthenogenesis (self-reproduction), and they consume algae and protozoans considerably smaller than they are. Pictures abound online (here are some), and the history of the difficulties taxonomists have had in classifying them is reading only for the intrepid.
Unlocking the Mystery
Well, where do you go to find about the meaning of the term and the story of its origin? The only clue from reading the standard and easily-accessible web pages was in the Wikipedia article, which said "Baird, 1845." Thus, we know that someone named Baird coined the term to apply to these aquatic creatures in that year. Now the fun began. I decided to type the name "Baird,"
with as much specificity as I could muster, and presto, an article came up describing the lengthy taxonomic history of our genus. But on the front page of the article was this quotation:
"Hast thou seen thy fathers, Bosmina, descending in thy dreams?"
I eagerly typed in that quotation, only to find that it appeared in one of the long poems of Ossian, a medieval chronicler and poet of the Gaelic tradition. Ossian sung of the life and battles of Fingal, a Scottish warrior. His daughter, who always seemed to be falling in and out of love, was named Bosmina. Ah, getting somewhere!
Then, I had to dive into the lengthy controversy relating to these poems, which were supposedly "discovered" and then "translated" beginning in the 1740s by James Macpherson. His major work bringing the poetry to the world was The Works of Ossian (1765). Macpherson, who was versed in these old island languages, argued that Ossian was based on an ancient Gaelic manuscript. Yet, as this description tells us, the existence of the manuscript was never established. And, to make things worse, there didn't seem to be any certain references to Ossian in medieval Scottish and Gaelic literature.
Publication of Ossian's poetry was a major event in the 18th century. Scholars, ministers, and patriots all jumped into the fray either to argue against the authenticity of the poetry (Samuel Johnson famously called Macpherson a "mountebank and fraud"), to argue for an Irish rather than a Scottish origin, or to encourage the development of a new poetic movement that would pick up on some of the romantic themes of the poetry. In fact, many 21st century scholars point to the "discovery" of Ossian and the subsequent debate regarding him as responsible for launching the romantic movement in European poetry in the late 18th/early 19th century. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who became the most famous Scottish writer of the era, popularized the works, and the whole of the Scottish aristocracy was quoting Ossian by the early 19th century. Napolean carried Ossian's poetry into battle; Goethe emphasized how important Ossian's influence on him was.
The consensus today is that the works of Ossian are an elaborate fraud, perpetrated by Macpherson. Yet, the irony in all of this is that before its fraudulent character was established, it not only inspired some of the leading thinkers of the continent but also helped spark the Romantic movement. Can a "legitimate" movement owe its origin to a massive forgery?
Now you can see how just following the trail of one word can be an exciting and illuminating task. I could have taken several turns, but I wanted to get to the namer of the genus rather than to read Ossian, to study the debate over authenticity, or to get lost in the intricacies of the Romantic movement.
The Search for Mr. Baird
I began my searching for Mr. Baird, and my most promising early lead was to a certain Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-87), one of the leading American ornithologists, ichthyologists and herpetologists of his day. Indeed, he is called the "Most representative general man of science in America" in the mid-19th century. Ah, I thought. Here is the Baird I was looking for. It was common for scientists to be generalists, and it was often the case that medical doctors and even ministers made major geological and ichthyological discoveries in the mid-19th century, so I felt I was onto something.*
[*For example, the person responsible for initiating the study of geology in Oregon was Thomas Condon who, in the 1850s, was a Congregational missionary pastor in The Dalles, Oregon. He had been informed by soldiers guarding the wagons of gold discovered in Canyon City OR beginning in 1862 that there were some fascinating fossils on the way from Canyon City to The Dalles. The next year Condon decided to check this out for himself, and he happened upon probably one of the richest fossil beds in North America--now known as the three-Unit John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. By the late 1860s Condon published an article on some of his discoveries, which stimulated OC March at Yale to plan a trip to Oregon in 1871 not only to "see for himself," but, more important to take tons of fossils back to Yale where they could be exhibited. Condon went on to become the first State Geologist (1872) and the inaugural professor of Natural History at the University of Oregon when it opened its doors in 1876. One can still visit Condon Hall on the campus; there is a rich collection of his "cabinet" to be viewed in the natural history museum. Condon lived into the 20th century, dying in 1907. His biographer, Robert Clark, was the former President of the University of Oregon, and he wrote the biography in his retirement. Dr. Clark and I had a pleasant correspondence in 1989 after I had worked through his book. I think it is a model of careful biographical scholarship which, due to its specialized and focused content, probably will only be read by a few hundred people. Its title is The Odyssey of Thomas Condon.]
But, as I studied Spencer Baird's biography (he started his teaching career at Dickinson College (PA) in 1845), I realized that he would have had to be very young to have named a species in 1845. This identification was beginning not to look promising.
The next essay continues my thoughts.