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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Some links and an answer

I'm still flat out working on a book, but I just took the time out from the trivia of checking the accents on foreign names, italics and all the other things that make a book annoying if they aren't fixed, to look at the link to a 4-minute sequence called The Beauty of Pollination.

I don't have a context for that, but it came from, which is a source of much wonder to me, and it can be the same for you, if you allow it.  Just go to their home page, and look around.

Of course, I'm a bit of a text person, and I'm Australian, so I like to get my fix each morning of academic thought from around Australia. Some of our best and brightest minds in Australian universities provide background information on what interests them. The emphasis is often on matters to do with politics, either directly or peripherally, but I cannot recommend The Conversation enough.

OK, that's the link, now the answers.  Two posts back, at the end of the entry, I posted two puzzle images.  Here is some extra information to explain.

The first image was of a seaweed, Hormosira banksii, seen at close range with the strands laid out in parallel with the falling tide.  Here are a few more pics of the same seaweed, which is found in both Australia and New Zealand, and which was collected by Sir Joseph Banks in 1770.

To give the reader a scale, each bubble is about 7 mm or a quarter of an inch long. That's near enough for government work.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

I'm unable to come to the keyboard

Well, obviously that isn't quite true.

BUT: I'm getting into the gold book, and the first design draft of Curious Minds has come back from the editor.  This is a history for adult readers, the story of many of the naturalists and natural history painters who flourished in Australia's pre-colonial and colonial past.  It is due to be published in October, 2012,

Now one of the givens of writing is a certain amount of drudgery.  Editors get loads of it when writers get sloppy, but they are good about making writers get unsloppy.

A sensitive writer may whimper slightly at the load, but any sensible writer gets into it, because a stern editor, a demanding editor, is the writer's friend.  One of the changes that I see for the future is a sad decline in writing standards as people bundle e-books onto the market without care, caution, editing or design.  All of those are part of writing a book.

I have only ever had one editor I didn't like, and he was an idiot with no science training who tried to correct my text so that it matched his stupidity.  Luckily, I have had no idiots in the past 30 years.

So, I am whimpering a bit, but getting into the work, and not blogging for a few days.  Then I will try to drag together the threads of gold and get back into that.  Luckily, I leave myself notes in blue italics across the ms of things that need doing.

Catch you in a week or so.

Monday, 23 January 2012

A question of scale and magnification

I grew up with microscopes which were hyped in terms of the magnification they delivered.  The standard eyepiece offered a x10 magnification, the low power objective offered x10 again, giving an overall magnification of x100, while high power was x40, delivering x400, and for really advanced work, I used an oil immersion objective that was x100, giving an overall magnification of x1000.

(Using oil immersion isn't amateur stuff: it requires really thin sections or flat squash preparations, and you have to join the cover skip and the objective with a drop of oil.  It's like walking a tight-rope!  {The first time I heard women routinely swearing was in a final-year undergrad genetics class, and the cause was the same: cracking the cover-slip by driving the objective through it.  The males, let me say, were just as bad, but back then, women swearing was still a bit of a novelty.})

Anyhow, back in the 1960s, and back into the 19th century, you had to draw what you saw with pencil on paper, which was hard on lousy artists.  Even though you probably magnified or reduced what you saw through the eyepiece, you still slavishly reproduced the "magnification" as if it had some magical power.

These days, we tend to use a computer and store the images online, but while the microscope claims a certain magnification, it all depends on what size monitor you are using, along with any resizing that occurs afterwards.  I have shown my rather large monitor before, but viewing the same image on the tablet of the netbook would be very different.

The only proper way to report sizes is to have a standard measure, a calibrated scale that you can superimpose on any image.  This blog entry is about creating a set of those to match the claimed "magnifications" of your microscope.  The careful reader may remember that my little cheap glorified webcam claims to deliver x10, x60 and x200.  As I have said before, and as you will see if you scrutinise the shots here, these figures are a bit rubbery, but first, let's look at focal plane effects.

Here are three shots of a paper-clip, taken at those three magnifications.  As you can see, the camera has trouble keeping the whole of the paper-clip in focus at the higher magnifications.  The pixels may still be tiny, but the whole picture is blurry.  That's why we need thin sections, which is why you need a microtome.

I'm going to avoid further technicalities, but if you want to get really serious, you need to know about resolution, the wave-length of light and other stuff we aren't going to get into right now.  I'm sure some brave soul has explained it all well!

I just want a scale in terms of size, something that can travel with the image and always tell the truth.

So I put an ordinary millimetre ruler (that's a "rule" in some places).

Then I took shots of it at each of the three magnifications.

Remember that each of these resized pics was originally 1280 x 1024.

That means the scale you see there tells you the size of the field I was looking at.

(This, by the way, is the point where the clever reader will go "Hmmm!" and start doing sums which will reveal how rubbery those claimed magnifications were.)

I wanted to have a reference marker I could paste onto any picture that I took at each "magnification" that would give an accurate scale.

I'm old fashioned, and I used Corel Photopaint to create a white bar, 10 mm long (1), Then I put black cross-bars in at each millimetre (2).  Next, I cropped out the white box (3) and used flood-fill to blacken every second white box (4) and (5).

And here is the final product.  The labels, x10. x60 and x200 have been added, as has the coloured background, so you can see how small these items are.  Notice that I have blown them up here: it is important that the original scale bar goes on every original image, before it is resized or pasted into a blog which may do odd thins when it encounters strange displays.

Once you have your bars, all you have to do is choose the appropriate one, open it and a picture at the same "magnification" and paste it onto that picture.  Most graphics programs will let you drag the pasted image around.  Then label the bar for length, save the composite, and you can resize to your heart's content.

In the example above, I have a very small sea-urchin test, sitting on a ruler, graduated in millimetres.  That's another solution, but it isn't always possible.

This is boring.  I'm not doing any more.  Here's another puzzle for you.

What's this thing?  When I give you the answer, you will see why scale is important!

Oops!  I never did give a link to the answer.  Here it is!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Wake up and smell the Banksias!

Yesterday was Friday. It was cloudy, getting sunny later, so we took off for a walk in the bush, not too far from home. Today, the rain has been pouring down, and we feel smug, because we took our week-end on the right day. This is a Banksia, a very Australian tree in a genus found only in Australia, one of the Proteaceae, which have a largely southern distribution.

A Banksia flower head. Each of those
spikes is a single flower.
A Banksia flower which is still
developing: note the bee on the
 flower head, which tells us that
nectar is being produced.
The flowers have a sort of eerie beauty, but few Australians realise just how often the plant is to be found on the Australian map.

All over the place, there are swamps called Honeysuckle Swamp, and creeks called Honeysuckle Creek, but very few people are aware that the Banksia flower was used by Aborigines as a source of sweetness for drinks.

Unidentified robber fly, Diptera, Asilidae
They are equally unaware that the early white settlers learned this trick and used it as well, but this is why the name "Honeysuckle" turns up so often on the old maps. People cared about it back then.  Anyhow, we happened to be in an area with lots of Banksia bushes and trees, and we introduced two friends to the sweet smell of the flowers.

The bees were busy, and I managed to spot, chase and snap a robber fly that was supping on a bee which it had captured. Three times it flew to a new tree, carrying its prey with it—which is why I had to chase it.

As near as I could see, the prey was a large bee, so I guess the robber fly was getting a nice sugar hit.  I was pleased, because even though I know what they look like from drawings, this was the first time I had seen one in the wild.

Our friends were good enough to take us out on a track that ends in a cliff, and then show us a narrow foot pad that disappeared off through the trees, snaking its way down and under the cliff to the sea.

It also passed a fascinating mystery sight, which you can see here in its most mysterious form.  Let me just say that this is a really weird angle, and I only knew what it was for certain from where it fell in the sequence of my photos.

This was in the open air, more or less, not in a cave, and this is not a microscopic shot.  The photo covers an area about 4 metres by 3, and there is no faking going on.

This is really what it looks like, but here's another view that may help you believe this.

This is a closer view of the mystery object in the middle. It is hanging on the underside of a sandstone ledge, and the sandstone shows a very aptly-named form of weathering.

There are lots of theories about honeycomb weathering that put the blame on salt spray, but this was about 100 vertical metres above calm sea water, and you can see this same weathering 50 km from the ocean.

In short, I'm not buying those theories, but here is another view, and now you can see a bit of the area outside the overhang, but it's still a bit hard to work out what that dangling thing is.

Think about my theme of honeysuckle, think about the kind of weathering.

If you do that, you might just get it, but probably not,

So look at the fourth picture, where you can see a close-up of the dangling object.  Look at the patterns in it.

Do you see the hexagons?  In all of nature, those things are so distinctive that their name is even given to patterns in weathered stone that imitate the shapes.

Yup!  Honeycomb!  This is an old and by the looks of it, a long-abandoned bees' nest.

I don't know what happened to the bees, but there was a rather emaciated robber fly buzzing around, that made me wonder if I should have taken it in for questioning.

I have no idea at this stage how I will use that material in some future book, but it was definitely a day not to be missed, even if I never get to write about it at all.  Still, knowing me, it will pop up somewhere!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A close look at granite

Some rocks, like granite, contain quite large crystals that can be easy to see, once you take the rock apart.

To do this and see the bits, you will need well slides, some pieces of granite or similar coarse-grained igneous rock, cover slips, tweezers (to pick up the fragments), and a large sheet of paper to bang the rocks together over (mind your fingers!).  Where do you get granite?  Well, if you are like me, and pick up small samples of rock wherever you go, and keep them in a jar like this, you will probably have some granite in there. If not, you will have to go looking.

Here is a closer look at the granite bits:

These samples are quite probably granite: they both have lots of quartz and large crystals of other stuff, but I make no promises.  Let me just say that either of them could be taken for granite.

Still, banging the rocks together is just so Neolithic, but since we invented fire, there is a better way, but you will now need a good pair of tongs as well as the other stuff.  If you have a clean barbecue, you can heat the granite piece on that, and then lift it off with tongs and drop it into water.  That is the safest method of using heat on granite.

You can also heat granite held over the flame of a Bunsen or other burner in tongs and then drop it into a saucepan of water, but if you are a younger reader, this needs adult supervision because of the risks of fire and burns.  Have your adult stand by with a glass of water to pour on the granite if you drop it.  Sounds like a case for outside work, doesn't it?

Once the granite is cooled, lift it out of the water with tongs and put it somewhere safe, because the centre is probably still quite hot.  Think fires (unlikely), scorch marks, small children and pets.  Play safe!

Then take some of the small fragments and look at them under the microscope to see if you can identify different minerals, but it might be interesting to see if heat and mechanical action produce different results.  It might be worth looking at any effects of polarised light here, though that sort of work is best done with thin sections of uniform thickness.

Now here is a quote from the past to set you thinking about making your own thin sections.  I have never tried to do this, but that need not stop you.
.  .  .  in the field some amount of information concerning igneous rocks can be obtained by rubbing down the chip on a grindstone and using a whetstone, carborundum file, or water of Ayr stone for the final grinding.  By these and other methods .  .  .  there are obtained slices of rocks which, though thick, uneven, scratched, and all that is bad, from the point of view of the professional maker of thin sections, are nevertheless capable of yielding much information.  With a pocket lens it is possible to make out from such a 'thin' section the nature of the minerals present, the texture and the nature of the rock.
Frank Rutley, Elements of Mineralogy, 22nd edition, 1915, p.  104.
If you have access to high power magnification, why not try a few other rocks?  Can you see crystals in basalt, for example?  (The answer ought to be "no", but why take my word for it?)  What can you see in limestone and sandstone?

Granite crystals form slowly, as magma cools over long periods, so the crystals have time to grow quite large.  Basalt is molten rock that spills out and cools fast, before large crystals can form.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

Looking at sand under the microscope

Karekare Beach, North Island, New Zealand (polarising filter, somewhat digitally enhanced)

I have been messing around with sand for a while, and testing to see if you can easily distinguish sand from different sources.  One of my tests was to take same samples of "black sand" from Piha Beach on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island, about an easy hour from Auckland, which is on the east coast (the North Island of New Zealand is quite skinny around those parts!)

Sand from the hind dune at Piha Beach.
New Zealand is mostly volcanic, and the black sands of Piha and Karekare (mainly Karekare) feature in the film 'The Piano', so our visit was partly scenic, partly scientific.

By an odd chance, the mp3 CD in the car's player, as we left Karekare was playing Michael Nyman's main theme from 'The Piano', The Heart Asks Pleasure First.

You can see clips from the film and hear this music on Youtube, with a few shots of the beach (see the scene at 49 seconds, for example, and compare it with my picture above).
Wind-sorted sand from high on Piha
Beach, selected because it appeared
to be light in colour.

Now back to the science.  I noticed that the black sands in the dunes at the back of the beach were sorted by the wind into different colours, and in the wave zone by water, so I took small samples to see if there were any big differences.

Because I was aware of possible quarantine issues, I washed and boiled each sample before drying it for a prolonged period in a microwave. It was then sealed in a zip-lock bag for transport.

Even though the sands looked different at a macroscopic level, there was less to spot at the micro level.  I need to pursue this in a more scientific way.

Water-sorted sand from near the wave
zone, selected from the darkest patches.
I think there is a visible difference here.

Now a note about scale here.  Most of the sand shots are x60, but that means little to the reader, since shots are sized, cropped and resized and then viewed on screens of different size.  The key thing to not here is that an uncropped shot covers an area about 4 mm wide and 3 mm high.  I will go into how you measure scales in my next entry.

That gets a bit tricky in the next shot and the last one, which are both composites, with a x10 base carrying a x60 inset.  The full field in x10 is about 16 mm wide and 12 mm high (and it doesn't take too much higher maths to realise that the microscope makers have been playing a bit fast and loose with their "magnifications"!

Anyhow, now you know what you are looking at, and all of these show the full field of the original shot: there may be resizing, but there has been no cropping.
Weathering products, Triassic Hawkesbury sandstone, Sydney.
This is a sample of sand taken from a bush track running through Triassic Hawkesbury sandstone near Sydney.

I used x10 magnification then clipped a part of a x60 shot of the same sample: you can safely assume that the material in the inset appears at the same size that it would have in a full picture of the size: the inset covers an area about 2.5 mm wide and 2 mm high.  Notice how coarse these grains are.

Squeaking sands, New South Wales South Coast: Lake Tabourie and Rennies Beach.
Here are two portions of two x60 shots of "squeaking sands".

My attempts to explain why some hot, dry, Australian sands make a squeaking sound when you walk on them may have delivered a result, but I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not there is the hint of an answer in these shots, when you compare the squeaking sands with the non-squeaking Piha sands or the Triassic grains which are also non-squeaking.

Scale here: the whole frame covers an area 3 mm high.  One of these days, I will make some scale bars to drop in on these pics!

Shell grit from Coller's Beach near Mollymook, New South Wales
South Coast. A careful look at this may provoke a few new and
different investigations from those I have been undertaking.
If you look carefully, there are two views of the same thing here.
I'm going to keep going with this study, and see where it leads.  It may have a place, only a small place, but a possible place, in book project number 5 as mentioned in my last entry.  See if you can race me to an answer or five!

The key variables are probably the mineral content of the sand, its dryness, the grain size and the roundness of the grains, though I have also been looking at uniformity of grain size.

Then there's the amount of organic matter, ranging from zero, up to 100% in the case of bands of shell-grit, like the sample above.

* * * * * * *
This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

I'm worn out!

I will have more to say about this monster a bit later, but he
(or she) is curiously relevant to item 2, Curious Minds.
I did the sums, two days ago. That was when I realised that once again, I have no less than six books in the production cycle.  This is not unusual when writing is what you so for a living.

1.  Australian Backyard Naturalist, which is at the printer, but still needs stuff for the publicity people and work on the notes for teachers who may want to use the book in the classroom.  It isn't a textbook, but there are lots of ideas that teachers can run with, if they are pointed out;

2.  Curious Minds, which is with the editor and requires no action from me right now, except that I am always finding things I can use, of which more later;

3.  The Price of our Hunger for Gold, (working title).  This is a history of the Australian gold rushes from a social and environmental perspective, and it is about a quarter written and stopped while I do some more research;

4. Another book that I am about to pitch to a publisher, about strange inventions.  I'm cleaning up the text, just in case I get lucky;

5.  Another book that I am scoping and planning at the moment, on environmental themes; and

6.  A book project that I am scoping and planning on contract.

So what do you do when you are overloaded?

If you have any sense, in an Australian summer, especially when it is a cool and rainy day, you go walking.

We headed off with friends into a bit of wilderness outside of Sydney, where I got this shot which contains some interesting details that  may prove rather relevant to item 5.

I also picked up this shot of rain drops on Eucalyptus leaves, on a ridge, some 300 metres above the sea.

I will need to look further into this: I suspected at first that it is something to do with the oils in Eucalyptus leaves, but I have never seen it before.

After thinking about it, in all probability, it is more to do with the waxy layer on the leaves, because they are technically xerophytes, plants that do well in dry conditions.

I am a botanist by original training, but there's always new stuff to discover!  Incidentally, on a 15-kilometre walk, I managed to spot no less than 50 species of wildflowers in bloom, which isn't bad.

Here's a closer shot of those leaves, which may help the non-botanist to see why I am curious about why the water is forming droplets like this and not falling off the leaves.

All I can say for now is More Research Needed.

Now back to my monster, as seen above.  I knew this beastie as soon as our two companions found it and showed it to me. I even knew its common name, though until I got home and looked it up, I didn't know its eminent place in Australian biological history.

The last time I saw one of these was in a practical examination in Zoology II in 1967, when we were asked to give as much as we could of its classification. The main point of the question was to see whether we students could spot that this strange animal was a beetle, but my answer was succinct and to the point, because at the start of the year, I had been shown dozens of specimens of this insect by a co-worker. I wrote:

"Coleoptera, Curculionidae, Chrysolopus spectabilis, alias Diamond Beetle".

That might have been the end of my tale, but  I was having a senior moment when I was writing this, I couldn't recall whether the genus was Chrysolopus (correct) or Chrysolophus (wrong), and in looking it up, I learned that the first specimen was taken by Sir Joseph Banks, one of my Curious Minds, at Botany Bay in 1770.  This is why the title I have added to the picture above is "Botany Bay Diamond Beetle or Diamond Weevil".

To be precise, this species was one of just five insects collected (the others were an ant, a butterfly and two flies), so it was one of the very first insects ever collected in Australia.

To the single-minded, everything eventually becomes grist for the mill!!

Tomorrow, it is expected to be raining again, but we will walk later in the week: rainy days make photography problematical.  When we go, I am sure to find something to write about, and I will be going prepared, because all sorts of interesting things come out when the ground is wet.  Writing should also be about having fun and enjoying new discoveries!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Wind in the Willows, anachronisms and reviewers

The symphonies of Jean Sibelius are often my companions as I work. I like them, but I also like the fact that he may once have said "Nobody ever erected a statue to a critic".  Writers also have problems sometimes with hack critics, but there are good critics as well.

I would have called E. V. Lucas one of those, but a friend mentioned a reference to "Toad of Toad Hall" in a TV series I don't watch, Downton Abbey, set in the Edwardian era.

Having trick memory for dates, I knew roughly when Wind in the Willows came out, close to the end of the reign of Edward VII.  I scented a possible anachronism (or if not an actual anachronism, a sailing-close-to-the-wind).
I must now rush on quickly and issue a clean bill of health to the script writers: on enquiry and consideration, I declare the above accusation to be not proven—for now.  Apparently, "Edwardian" was only being used by my informant as a loose way of describing a style.
While checking my facts to arrive at this verdict, I read early newspapers ads in Australia and overseas.  That was how I came across the review on the right, published in the Times Literary Supplement.

It looks as though Lucas didn't like the book, not one bit.  He did like two other Kenneth Grahame works, one of which I have heard of (but not read) and another that I have never even heard of.

I also came across a delightful essay by one G. B. Stern, also previously unknown to me, but whose shade I now plan to pursue until I can access some more of Stern's works.

The essay appeared first in the London Daily Chronicle, though I found it reprinted in the Adelaide Register, January 13, 1921.

Stern loved that book, and a number of others that I hold dear.  This is the sort of critic I would happily follow, though in Lucas' case, I think maybe he had just missed the point. Critics and reviewers do that sometimes, and in the TLS that day, his next review was an enthusiastic greeting to another new book, just out, called A Room With a View.  Until further notice, Mr. Lucas remains on my reading list, but I won't be calling for tenders for a statue of him.

Now for book lovers: what books get up to at night.  This is a delightful stop-frame animation.  Go and watch it!  The message: real books are better, but this morning, I have read a number of ads from 1908 in an online version of The Times, a review in an equally online TLS, an essay in a long-defunct Adelaide paper, and after lunch, I will track down e-book forms of the other two Kenneth Grahame volumes and anything by the delightful Ms Stern, Gladys Bronwyn.

PS: linking statues and A Room With a View, Lucas wrote A Wanderer in Florence, which had quite a bit about statues.  I might see if I can dig that out as an e-book as well.  But do e-books dance at night?  I think maybe that is a magical property that real books get from being made from dead trees.

Hmmm.  There's a good plot for a book for small people there!

Monday, 9 January 2012

I'm busy

This is the flat-out writer talking. On the right, you can see what I plan to talk about when I have the time.

Sorry about the silence, but when you write, there are periods like this.  I have been revising a partly completed manuscript, then I stopped to clean up the first chapter of a completed ms so I could "pitch" it, I am now working on teachers' notes for a book due out in May, and that involves getting up-to-date with the latest jargon (the ideas are the same, but the names are changed). This is how innovation happens in education: people rename some existing thing.

For example, they change 'tennis' to 'fardarkling', scribble several articles with long bibliographies full of diatribes by obscure Dutch primitivist post-modernist philosophers who only write in Basque.  These articles have titles like The Curricular Centrality of Fardarkling, and you then say to people "I invented fardarkling" and so you get promoted—but I digress.

Back on topic, I have a new gig to work on, after a meeting today.  It's a research job, targeting ages 8+ and that's about all I plan to say about it for quite some time, as it is somebody else's intellectual property, and a very clever way to stretch young minds.

Let me just say that I will be placing my trust in Jerome S. Bruner: "Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development."

There will be feathers, and some time soon!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Tables and tablets

I have a new plaything, a Samsung Galaxy tablet.  I bought it in New Zealand and originally needed it mainly to read a large pdf file in a hurry, and also to read many, many old books about the gold rush era, that being for the next book, but I am finding all sorts of other uses for my new toy.  That said, one small part of me has been dwelling on the word tablet.

When I was eleven, the educational authorities judged me ripe to have Latin and French instilled by dull sadists with no idea of making the study interesting.  I rote-learned 'La plume de ma tante est sur la table', and 'mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa', which we were told was declining mensa, a table in Latin.

It struck me as curious that French and English had the same word for table, while the Romans had a different word.  That led me to wonder about times tables, and so began my career as a marcher to the beat of a different drummer (or sometimes several different drummers at once).  My musings were more interesting than the rote learning that was foisted upon us—not in itself, praise for my musings, save as a contrast to the drear that was foisted upon us.  I upheld my end of the struggle, and remained true to my curiosities, which is why I came of my tablet with a slightly different set of thoughts to others.

You see, by then, I knew a thing or two about that curious word "table" and its diminutive form "tablet", because I had been gathering data in the highways now and then, but mainly in the byways.  Among other things, I found that the Romans also had a similar word, tabula, meaning a board or plank, but by then the juggernaut of my curiosity was moving, so I kept pursuing the meanings of 'table'.

I learned that in the mid-1200s, Alfonso X, Alfonso the Wise of Castile, caused a set of astronomical tables that we now call the Alfonsine Tables, to be published in Toledo, which is why they were sometimes also called 'Toledan tables'.  In 1620, a Swiss watchmaker, Joost B├╝rgi, published his Arithmetische und geometrische Progress-Tabulen, a set of logarithmic tables, and in 1627, Johann Kepler published a set of logarithms in the Tabulae Rudolphinae, which commemorated his patron Rudolph II, Emperor of Austria, and King of Bohemia.

Those examples aside, most tables in Europe up until the 1600s, and even for quite a long while after it, were tables that you could eat at, or turn on an opponent — or you could drink people under them, but these were all tables with legs, and unless those sitting at them were bent on a bit of graffiti work with their daggers, there would be precious little recorded on those tables.

Yet at some point, the flat slab sort of table became, at least for mathematicians, first and foremost a collection of figures, displayed in a regular grid.  Later, we came to have contents tables, mathematical tables, data tables and tabulation, and even the tab key on our computers, which had been used in setting up tables on the typewriters that gave us our computer keyboard.  This then, is an exploration of tables and how they came to have their modern meanings.

In the Middle Ages and before, the table was more than just a place to eat: it was a place of great social occasion.  Chaucer tells us that the squire in the Canterbury Tales was a fine young man:
Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,
And carf biforn his fader at the table.
Here, Chaucer reflects on the way that a table you sat at for eating, and where you sat at it in the Middle Ages, was also a sign of rank, a bit of a league table, you might say.  The fact that the squire sat at the same table as his father, the knight of the Tales, and carved for him, defines him as holding high rank.  This follows a comment about the knight himself, earlier in the General Prologue:
Ful often tyme he had the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruce
In other words, the knight sat at the head of the table, or board, in Prussia, where knights of many nations gathered to help the Teutonic Knights war against their heathen neighbours in Lithuania.  So in Chaucer's time, there was no real distinction between a board and a table, but there was a distinction about where you sat at the table.  This distinction is still preserved today in places where honoured guests are seated at the High Table, while other common folk are allocated positions below the salt.

In the Summoner's Tale, we hear of a friar who would beg for food:
A peyre of tables al of yvory,
And a poyntel polysshed fetisly,
And wroot the names alwey, as he stood,
Of alle folk that yaf him any good.
But once he was out of their sight,
He planed away the names everichon
That he biforn had written in his tables
The dirty dog!

While these tables that the friar used were associated with food in a way, they were small enough to carry around.  In fact, they were wax-coated ivory tablets, on which he scribed with a carefully pointed stylus (the poyntel), but then as soon as he was out of sight, with a quick wipe, he flattened the surface, ready to start a new sucker list on what the Romans would have called a tabula rasa, a clean table (in the sense of a plank or board).  The Romans were rather keen on using tables to display things, and these were often slabs of marble, on which important things were carved.  Their Twelve Tables enshrined the basis of Roman law, and when Cicero was a boy, he was required to learn these by heart.  Moses is usually depicted as coming off Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone.

So this type of table was often a tablet, more like the 'table book' that Shakespeare has Nathaniel use in Love's Labours Lost than any item of furniture (or medication).  We still call a notepad (the non-computer sort) a 'writing tablet' today, occasionally, but a table is more commonly a flat slab with legs, used for sitting at, or perhaps it is used for a governing council of some sort, though we still speak always of a board of directors, even if they sit at a 'board table'.  Documents drawn to the attention of those present are tabled, meaning they are placed on an item of furniture.

Shakespeare uses both 'board' and 'table', in roughly equal proportions to indicate an eating place, but he refers in his sonnets and elsewhere to the tables of the heart, apparently meaning something like loving memory, something that could be written on like a writing tablet, but this leaves open the question of how we came to have other sorts of tables.

The original table was a flat slab or board, that might be thrown across trestles to make the furniture sort of table, but they could also be used to inscribe rules, laws and commandments, and both these meanings apply to the Old English tabule, but the mathematical use appears to come from astronomy.  In the Franklin's Tale, Chaucer writes of Aurelius bringing forth his "tables Tolletanes", his Toledan astronomical tables, and Chaucer notes that they were "ful wel corrected", so the tables were written on something correctable.

Could it be that astrologers and such carried these tables around on slabs, or maybe even on wax-coated ivory tablets like those of the Summoner? This was before the start of printing, and so it is at least possible.  After all, astronomers, long after that time, recorded their results on planks of timber, which were sometimes, in some contexts, referred to as tables, at least in a figurative sense.  In 1390, John Gower wrote "He broghte him sauf upon a table, Which to the lond him hath upbore", describing somebody coming ashore from a shipwreck, clinging to a plank.

The other piece of evidence for this speculation that a plank was used in place of paper comes from Urbain Leverrier, the French astronomer, and his encounter in 1859 with an amateur called Lescarbault.  This man, who turned out just to be a poor observer who was mistaken, had apparently detected a planet near the sun, the hypothetical planet Vulcan, and Leverrier was keen to get Lescarbault's data, and define the orbit of the planet, but to do that, he needed enough data to calculate the orbit, and that meant getting all of the observations of black dots that Lescarbault had recorded.

This was at a time when paper was still quite expensive, and sadly for Leverrier, the man's figures were all kept on a board, for lack of paper, and he planed all the old figures off when he had no further use for them.  By then, 'tables of contents' were common, so perhaps we got the new use from something like the 'times table' that might be displayed on a board in a school room, though Charles Babbage published a Table of Logarithms in 1827.

There was also an 1826 paper that Babbage read to the Royal Society about an engine "for the purpose of calculating tables and impressing the results on plates of copper" — perhaps those copper plates were tables? The term certainly dates back as far as 1805, so far as life expectancies were concerned, because in that year, Joseph Banks urged the famous Captain Bligh to become Governor of New South Wales, observing in passing that Bligh's life was not yet over: 'I apprehend that you are about 55 years old — if so you have by the tables an expectation of 15 years' life'.

It probably matters little, for all those tables, logarithm, trigonometric and even probability, have all been replaced by a calculator, just as surely as the 'log tables' once replaced Napier's bones.  If we did not still have the periodic table and timetables to explain, we could probably let the matter rest.  Then again, maybe those are exactly the sort of tables that can be displayed on a board.

To go off at a tangent for a moment, because my next post will be on the microscopy of feathers, the albatross has a name that comes to us from Portuguese, where it is alcatras, and while the vowel change to alcatros would be understandable, the changing of the third letter is most unusual.  Most probably, somebody decided that the albatross, being a white bird, should be given a name containing alba, the Latin word for 'white'.

I use my tablet to add pictures to albums that are out there in the cloud, and the same Latin word that gives us the first part of albatross also appears in an album, which was once a blank tablet with nothing yet written on it, and so gave its name to the sort of blank book we use to stick in photographs or stamps (incidentally, many stamp collectors who care about their craft specialise in collecting forgeries, since imitation is the sincerest form of philately, but I digress).

See?  Nothing changes!  Now, where's that different drummer got to?